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A Lesson in Manners

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Percy’s safeword had been established early on in these games of theirs, but when Percy suggested to Vex—in a mild tone that didn’t disguise his intentions in the least—that she might let him know hers as well, she had to stop and think about it.

Truthfully, it wasn’t a decision she’d ever had to make before. Vex wasn’t the sort to just hand over control to anyone else, and she’d always been determined not to be taken advantage of. Percy hadn’t balked at any of that. He’d seemed more than willing to indulge her, in fact. Yet now here he was getting his own ideas, and she found she wanted to indulge him in turn. It was an unfamiliar, oddly thrilling feeling.

She still came at her reply coyly, though, because as much as she wanted to give him an answer, she also wanted a good read of what exactly was on his mind.

“Safewords, hmm?” She nudged him. “Getting ideas about a little tit for tat?”

She’d chosen the phrase advisedly, and rolled her shoulders back at just the right moment. Sure enough, Percy’s gaze dropped downward at the appropriate word. They were in private, tucked into a comfortable window seat in Vex’s bedroom, and they were wearing only what they’d slept in—which was to say, nothing but a lightweight shirt on his part (she’d been wearing him down on that bit by bit), and nothing to speak of on hers. As far as she was concerned, he could look all he liked. But even in the middle of a conversation like this, he could flush at being caught out. It was adorable.

“I was thinking a little…tête-à-tête of sorts…might be enjoyable, yes,” he said at last, still trying to regain his composure. “And educational.”

“How studious of you.”

“It’s you I want to study,” he said, his voice dropping into a deliciously low register. Vex couldn’t help it; she took a moment to preen. “And…I do want to know it feels like. Where my own boundaries are.”

There was something a little conflicted beneath those words. Vex watched a host of expressions flicker and change across his face. After a minute they resolved into a lopsided smile. “I also had a notion or two about Manners. If you’d be willing to try that out.”

The suggestion sparked off an idea in Vex’s mind: one of coiling metal bands cinching tight around her body, holding her in just the position Percy wanted. Something dangerously warm uncurled within her. “I very well might be.”

“Well, that's…that's good.” There was that complicated look again, before he shook his head and said, “Still, anything we agree on, we should have a way out just in case. I don’t want to overstep my bounds. If you have no certain answer, I’ll withdraw.”

“Oh, no. I think it’s a very intriguing proposition.” Vex leaned closer, letting herself brush against Percy’s arm. “I just need to think of exactly the right word.”

Percy’s breath picked up at the contact. Still, he managed to keep his voice dry. “What, like mine? Jenga? The one I blurted out for lack of anything resembling a sensible idea?“

“I like it when you’re not sensible.” Vex grinned at him. “And really, there’s no reason for me to pick anything complicated. I could go for something just as simple.”

“Like what?”

“Trinket,” she said.

Percy, nonplussed, came to a stop. “I—you’d use your bear’s name as a safeword?”

“Of course,” she said flippantly. “Horribly unsexy. It’ll break the mood straight off. Besides, if I call it at exactly the right tone, he’ll come running in and bite you, and I guarantee that whatever you were doing, you would stop.”

“That…is pretty much unassailable fact.”

“Then that’s settled,” Vex told him. Just as decisively, she repositioned herself. After all, it was a relatively narrow window seat, and there seemed to be much better ways to make use of the space. “In the meantime…”

Percy breathed in tightly, but didn’t protest at all, when she swung herself over to straddle his lap.

“How about one more good round the old-fashioned way, before we get on to more complicated things? Just to take the edge off.”

Percy’s arms found their way around her. She could feel him sigh with pleasure as she wriggled into place. The pressure of his body against hers was as intoxicating as ever.

“I think that sounds perfect,” he said.

Vex rolled her hips, smiling as she kissed him, and the low, needy moan he made in response sounded even better.

They didn’t get around to fully resolving the matter until much later that day. Both Vex and Percy had things to do, annoyingly enough, and both of them needed time to refresh themselves. But throughout the rest of the afternoon, in between meetings and mundane outings about town, Vex caught Percy looking at her thoughtfully, or making notes to himself, and then he’d disappear to fuss with an undescribed side project. Clearly he was up to something.

For once, though, it wasn’t her place to know. Not yet. She merely held her tongue, maintained what patience she could, and waited.

The waiting lasted as far as dinner. Both of them barely ate. Conversation was frequently interrupted and restarted, both of them distracted, and almost nothing of consequence was spoken until Percy finally conceded the point and rose from his seat. He bent close to Vex’s ear. “Come along when you’re ready,” he whispered, his breath warm against her skin.

Vex sat very still, trying not to give away just how potently she’d reacted to that. Such a lascivious expression crossed her face regardless that even the most inured of her house staff blushed before they scurried away with the plates and made themselves as scarce as possible.

Vex made her own departure afterward with as measured a step as she could muster. Before she went to Percy, though, she strolled out back and saw to Trinket.

The air was cool and crisp outside, a welcome shock against her overheated cheeks. For a moment she just breathed it in, and Trinket, upon hearing her, raised his head. “Darling,” she said, crouching down to scratch his ears. He’d obviously been snuffling around the garden in search of treats before she arrived. “Having a nice time?”

He made an affirmative noise. Vex smiled, then glanced up toward her bedroom window, one floor up above. She glimpsed Percy’s silhouette moving past it, outlined in warm golden light.

“Just so you know,” she said, still looking upward, “Mommy’s going to be a bit…occupied…upstairs with Percy tonight. And it might be best if we’re not interrupted.”

Trinket eyed her. She hadn’t cast the spell to understand his speech, but that expression was perfectly clear.

“Yes, I know you know what we’re up to, more or less, but we’re trying something a little different. So some privacy might be nice. Is that all right?”

Trinket’s response this time sounded a touch begrudging. Vex made a sympathetic hum and scratched more enthusiastically. “Don’t worry, you can keep yourself busy in this lovely garden, or come in if you like, as long as you stay out of the bedroom.” She paused. “Or the kitchen. I still need to hire a replacement for the maid who ran off screaming last time.”

Trinket huffed in disdain. Vex smiled.

“Anyway. Not to worry, We shouldn’t be too long.” She ignored his obvious look of disbelief at that. “And if I call for you…”

She paused briefly at that, thinking of what she’d told Percy earlier that morning. She’d been mostly joking, of course, about calling for Trinket if she needed to bring things to a halt, but…

Safewords, she thought again. Giving over control.

She glanced up at the window again, seeing Percy’s silhouette there again. He’d paused right by the window, waiting. For her. A flicker of anticipation ran up her spine.

“Let’s not worry about that,” she said at last, still watching Percy. “Let’s just see how this goes.”

She stood, kissing the crown of Trinket’s head, and patted him gently before walking away. If Trinket had any reply, it went entirely unheard.

As Vex swept back inside and through the halls of her house, she began inhabiting the increasingly intense feeling of what she was about to do. I am the lady of this house, she thought, ascending the stairs at a steady pace, the master of all of my affairs, and I am going to have an exciting, deeply sensual night with my lord husband…

Her outstretched fingers reached the end of the bannister, and she rounded the corner, coming up to the door and setting her hand to the latch.

And I am going to let him have his wicked way with me, she thought. In whatever way he chooses.

A startling flash of arousal stole over her. So did the whisper of another thought, one that teasingly answered the first: I can still make him work for it, though.

Vex found herself smiling as she opened the door and stepped inside.

There, over the sound of the door shutting behind her, Percy said her name.

Vex focused in on him. The image was one of Percy looking poised and put together. He’d shed a couple of his customary layers, but the overall effect was even crisper for it: a plain white shirt, dark trousers, leather boots. His glasses were perched precisely on his nose, in part because he’d just adjusted them into optimal alignment, his thumb and forefinger still gripping the frame.

He was also, Vex noted, wearing gloves.

“Percy,” she said, taking it all in, then glancing around the room. Everything seemed ordinary enough, except perhaps for what was atop the small writing desk on the far wall. She looked at that, then at him, and quirked an eyebrow. He extended a hand toward it.

“Take a look if you like,” he said. “That’s what I was preparing.”

She stepped closer, oddly aware of the sweeping sounds of her skirts, and went to have a look. As she’d suspected, Manners was sitting there, nestled into a strategically crumpled bit of cloth to keep it from rolling away. From the looks of it—Vex’s mouth twitched—it was one of Percy’s cravats. Beside it was a slender sheaf of papers, and she bent closer to study one of those. Percy had been making notes. The top sheet had a detailed drawing of the interconnected rings of the ball, marking out how they expanded and what the default formations were. Vex looked it over, then slid it aside to see the page beneath. This one contained a sketch of a humanoid silhouette, showing what Manners looked like when it had been deployed for capture. This one was carefully annotated, with notes about what parts could be individually manipulated, like the lock over the mouth—Vex caught her breath, thinking that through—and a few bands that Percy seemed interested in disabling, or possibly rearranging.

Vex studied that for a moment before she noticed the corner of one more sheet of paper sticking out from beneath. She put two fingers to the diagram and pushed it aside, too.

What she found was another sketch, this time of what Manners might look like if deployed in the fashion Percy intended. It was less constricting in some ways, but still strategically binding. And the figure he’d drawn in this illustration…

He’d taken much more care with this sketch, and the woman in the drawing looked unmistakably like her.

She’d just begun to take in the level of detail—her turned head and parted lips, the fall of her hair, the intriguing criss-cross of metal around her body, the gently shaded curves between that surely hadn’t required such attention in a diagram of a magical artifact—when Percy stepped up behind her and pushed the pages back into a neat stack, hiding her figure once again.

“Erotic portraiture,” Vex said lightly. She could feel his warmth at her back, and the gentle pressure of his hand when it settled on her forearm. “That’s what you were up to while I was having meetings about forest management.”

“Some days, one must bear the tedium of nobility,” he said, with a touch of irony. “But the leisure activities it affords…well, those can have a certain merit.” She could nearly hear the way a smirk had crossed his lips. “And hopefully practical applications.”

“Hopefully,” Vex repeated, still picturing that drawing of his, and feeling warm all over.

“Are you willing to try this, then? Testing a few theories?”

Her eyes fluttered shut, but what she said was, “Yes.”

“In that case”—she couldn’t help but notice that he’d gone hoarse—“I believe we need to start here.”

His hands moved to the fastenings of her dress. Vex, feeling the tremble in his fingers but also the decisive force of the first tug, smiled. When she reached up to help with the disrobing, though, he caught her hands and stopped her.

“Easy,” he murmured. “Let’s go at my pace this time.”

“Oh, shall we?” Vex wriggled anyway, until the dress slid partway down her shoulders. Some habits were hard to break. “Is that part of your experiment?”

He gripped her wrists tighter, enough to make her catch her breath. “It’s part of the deal,” he said, and oh, that tone was new.

Vex tugged against his grip, really just to see what he would do. She heard him take a deep, sudden breath, but he didn’t say anything, only held her fast and waited until she subsided. One hand finally let her go, reaching around to press one gloved finger to her lips. Ssh.

Vex thought of another rejoinder or two—biting that finger, for example—but he was right about one thing: this was the agreement. And she wanted to see how it would play out. Wanted to know how it would feel. With a conscious act of will, she let the tension go out of her shoulders. The dress, already loosened, slipped even lower.

Percy made a low hum of approval, and dropped his hand to the buckled neckline of her bodice.

Vex wished she could see Percy’s face right now, but he was still out of sight, studying her from behind as he gently tugged her dress down over her breasts and hips. His touch was careful and precise, and there was nothing deliberately sensual about it, but the little glances of contact, the heat beneath the soft leather, made Vex whimper in frustration and wriggle for more pressure. She thought she heard another pleased—or smug—murmur from Percy at that, but the heavy sound of fabric crumpling to the floor covered that up before she could be certain.

Percy’s hands rested on her hips, which were still covered by sheer silk undergarments, but only just. He held her in place for a moment, perhaps collecting himself, too, before he told her, “Go get onto the bed.”

Vex turned her head, eyeing Percy over one shoulder. She could see his pupils blown wide, the expression in them dark and intense. Vex breathed in deep, both from the electric tension and because she knew exactly what it would do for her tits, then stepped out of the pile of discarded clothes. Percy, still watching closely, let her go.

When she got into place near the foot of the bed, she couldn’t resist a bit of flourish.

“So where do you want me?” she asked, a little breathlessly. She adjusted her position where she’d knelt, making a point of rolling her shoulders back. Percy gathered a couple things off the desk and walked to the foot of the bed to watch her. The position was making it almost impossible for her not to focus on the heat building between her legs, but she did her best not to show that yet. “Any particular pose? I mean, that drawing did suggest a few things…”

Percy’s eyebrow lifted, but he held his tongue. He also was holding his papers at such an angle that she couldn’t see if this was physically affecting him, too. Vex pouted briefly at that, but she also reached up to her hair, beginning the work of undoing it.

“And I suppose you’ll want me all the way naked,” she went on, even as she shook her head, letting her hair cascade down over her shoulders. She left her hands up in midair as it fell, almost like a teasing hint at surrender, but then her fingers lowered to the straps of her undergarments. “Shall I?”

“Vex,” he said. She kept going, holding his gaze in challenge while she began tugging the straps down over her shoulders.

Percy’s eyes lit at that, and he stalked closer. Vex let go again, as if to say “I didn’t do anything.” She held back a smirk.

“You really aren’t one for letting anyone else take the lead, are you?” he said.

“Not so much, I’m afraid.”

He set down his notes. “We might have to have a talk about that.”

Given the opportunity, Vex’s gaze flicked pointedly downward. What she saw made her smirk wider and say, “Is talking really what you have in mind?”

Percy reached out. This time he did touch her, although the contact was still feather-light over the fabric. His fingers slid delicately over her peaked nipples, making her thigh muscles clench against a little rush of warmth. Then he pulled the breastband free, quickly and deftly but also with enough of a tug to prove a certain point.

“No,” he answered her.

Vex replied in turn by surging up into a kiss.

He returned it without hesitation, his mouth hot against hers even if the hands that held her were frustratingly covered. Vex arched into it, pressing against him, moaning softly as his tongue slid past her lips. And oh, gods, the way it felt when he moaned too—

But then something happened, another sound from his throat that wasn’t quite a word, and a surge of strange energy followed. Vex drew back on a gasp, feeling so off balance that she might have fallen if he weren’t still holding on. The world went weirdly gray. Then the worst of it faded, although the awareness of strangeness remained. Vex blinked hard to get things back into focus. All she could really see, though, was Percy.

And his eyes had gone so dilated they looked almost black. So did the wisp of smoke that escaped his lips on a sigh.

Despite her shock, a deliciously dark feeling of her own pulsed somewhere deep, deep down.

“Mother fuck,” she whispered. “Did you just—did you just hex me?”

A hint of a smile curved his lips.

“You’re a charmer, Vex,” he said. “And you know exactly how to push me. But you’re not going to get every advantage. Not this time.”

While she kept staring, Percy let her go and stood back. He went on watching carefully. Vex just took a shaky breath and waited for him to speak. Which was, she distantly thought, probably the entire point of that little maneuver.

“Take the rest of it off,” he said, and reached again for his papers and his quill.

Without a word, but with a lingering sense of amazement, Vex did as he said. He hadn’t been kidding about any of this. He’d found something to support the pages enough for him to write, and he was making notes.

Trembling from a heady mix of indignation and excitement, Vex slipped her thumbs under the last bit of silk she was wearing and tugged it down over her hips. It was difficult to get it completely off without a little awkward wriggling, but she did her best. She at least felt some satisfaction in the way Percy’s scribbling hesitated when the fabric stopped clinging wetly to her skin and slid free.

“As requested,” she said, a bit breathlessly, once she got back to her knees. “So…what’s next?”

Percy, who’d taken an involuntary moment to look over her naked body, didn’t immediately respond. Vex took the chance to tease him one more time. After spinning the panties once around her finger, she sent them flying toward Percy’s writing board, where they landed dead center on top of his notes.

She might have giggled, too. Briefly. Just once.

It was probably the giggle that did it, in retrospect.

Percy gave her wayward underthings a long, hooded look before he plucked them up with one gloved hand and released them to the floor. Then, so swiftly Vex couldn’t even react, he reached for that little metal ball instead. She had just an instant to brace herself before Percy said in a low, heated voice, “Manners.

With a quick flick of his fingers, he sent the ball flying.

She’d known this was coming one way or other. In the moment, though, it was still stunning. The near-chime of metallic rings expanding, clanking against each other, reshaping—the shimmer of reflected light in a dozen directions—and then the whirl all around her, coiling almost lovingly before cinching tight and locking into place. Her body was encased, her arms bound, her mouth and eyes covered. All at once, she was trapped. Reflex made her thrash, however uselessly, against her bindings. Instinct subjected her to a sudden flash of panic.

Then a voice from outside it all whispered, “Ssh.” With a click, the lock over her mouth disengaged, and Vex gasped.

“Steady,” Percy said, and she slowly, slowly began settling back down. He touched her hair, the underside of her chin, and then asked, “Are you still with me?”

After a second to collect her wits, Vex tried to nod. Of course, she couldn’t, not really. Words didn't come to her either, not a confirmation or a denial, or any particular chosen signal. Percy touched a couple of the metal bands, tracing the lines, fussing with something, and then she felt the rings move. The band blocking her vision retracted, and a couple of the larger ones around her torso adjusted. She took a deeper breath. Every one of her nerves tingled with the rush of it.

“That’s more like it,” Percy said, before meeting her eyes again. “Vex?”

She held Percy’s gaze. Calm began returning with it. “I’m with you.”

Percy kissed her again, softly, before looking her over again. He stepped around the bed to see her from all angles, making a few more light touches here and there, murmuring something to himself. She heard the scratch of him making one more notation on his diagrams. Then he came close again, and paused. Vex trembled a little. Her legs were still unbound, and she was still kneeling more or less in place, balanced back on her heels. It meant the junction of her thighs was entirely exposed. Vex, feeling the intensity of his stare as it drifted there, whispered, “I’d be even more with you if you’d take the gloves off.”

Percy almost smiled. Still, dark traces of smoke escaped from beneath those gloves as his fingers flexed. “Incorrigible,” he said under his breath.

Then he put down the writing board.

Something about his expression just then made Vex hold her tongue. Percy pushed to this sort of a mood was…arresting. For all that he’d been trying to stay detached and observant, color had risen in his cheeks, his breaths were coming more rapidly, and oh, yes, he was definitely hard beneath his trousers. She wanted badly to reach for him, but all she could do was wait while he ran one gloved finger over the exposed skin of her shoulder, then the curve of her breast. Her skin tingled in its wake, and her neglected cunt absolutely ached.

Then he drew back enough to begin tugging the soft leather loose. Vex breathed in deep, tasting the faintest trace of smoke in the air. Somehow, that was what made this undeniably real. She made a low little moan, tension rippling through her, and without being asked, she closed her eyes.

And she tipped her head back as best she could, her lips parted in open invitation.

She didn’t have to wait long.

When Percy surged forward, he kissed her soundly, his bare hands quickly finding skin. The feel of it now was so heated and human and real, she couldn’t get enough of it. Vex’s body strained against her bindings, trying to push closer to him, risking the pain of the edges cutting in for a little more contact. But it was a thrill, too, wondering what would happen next. What he’d do. If he would get just a little…bit…lower.

“Percy,” she moaned, the instant she had enough space to breathe. He wasn’t giving her much. ”Percy, please…”

He didn’t reply, exactly. His hands had dropped to her exposed breasts, and his mouth followed, kissing one while he fondled the other. Vex rocked involuntarily closer. She did have some range of movement—and she knew what kind of thrust she could get with her legs, so that was no small thing—but she didn’t want to go off balance and fall. And when her eyes snapped open, she saw the room unnaturally darkened, but Percy still there, still clear—and fairly worshipping every bit of her body he could reach, no matter who was supposed to be dominant or subservient here. Falling was a very, very near thing.

Percy,”  she pleaded, staring down at his tousled white hair and his bare shoulders, for he’d pulled off his shirt when she wasn’t looking. His trousers were unfastened, too, and he’d reached down with his other hand. A surge of heat went through her when she realized what he was doing. She could hear the rasp of his breath while he stroked himself, his shoulder muscles working rhythmically, and her own voice rose up to a desperate pitch. “Percy. I—I need…”

He stilled, but when he raised his head…gods, that look in his eyes. His voice had gone low and smoky, too, and so intense. “Tell me.”

“Your…your fingers. Your cock. Anything. Just…inside me. Please.”

He shuddered all over. “You need to be careful what you wish for,” he said thickly.

“I trust you.”

The words slipped out on instinct, true no matter the circumstances: her bindings, the dark magic still holding her, the smoke coiling shadows around them both. The way his voice broke before he could get a reply out made her heart skip oddly. Tenderness might have been a strange emotion to feel in that moment, but if she could have touched his face, she would have.

He touched her instead, sliding two fingers between her legs and slowly inside.

Vex let out a helpless little cry, half in mingled pleasure and relief, half to urge him on. He began stroking her gently, but it quickly became more heated. Percy had her number on this, Vex had to admit, and his long, deft fingers felt so good. When his thumb found her clit and started to rub, even while his fingers plunged in deeper, Vex keened. Sweat was beading on her forehead, dripping down beneath one of the metal rings, and she couldn’t keep her hips still. She rocked against his hand for more pressure, tightening her muscles to ratchet up the tension, and oh, fuck, she could feel it coming, rising in her like a wave—

Percy thrust in hard, and Vex shouted out a wordless cry, coming hard around him. He kept working her even while her muscles clenched in helpless little shudders, until she finally started going lax again, coming down from the heights. She was dangerously hazy from pleasure, and oh, hell, she realized distantly, she really was going to fall…

Percy must have seen that, too. “Manners,” he said quickly. All at once, the rings released her.

Vex gasped as the air lit with wildly reflected light again. The spinning bands resolved above her into a sphere, one that Percy snatched out of the air with his free hand. The other had let her go. She tipped over backwards, landing lengthwise on the bed. Her arms splayed out, freed at last, and for a few seconds she just lay there catching her breath. Almost laughing. Feeling everything—every strain, every bruise, every last little aftershock, even the last threads of the hex fading away. Then she saw Percy, disheveled and half-undone, still standing above her.

She raised one hand to beckon him closer.

“Come here,” she whispered.

Percy swayed, saying something she couldn’t hear. Then he tossed Manners aside. After kicking his shoes off and shoving his trousers the rest of the way down, he crawled onto the bed above her. Heedless of the last, lingering shadows still coiling around him, Vex reached up to tug him into place. She was oversensitive and aching still, and she didn’t even care. She just wrapped her legs around his hips and said against his mouth, “Your turn.”

If he’d noticed she was also taking her turn to tell him what to do, he didn’t say a word about it. He just groaned helplessly and moved, taking every hint she gave.

The resulting surge left Vex absolutely breathless, but she just rode it out, not quite ready to come again but probably all the more attentive for it: the way he felt inside her, his stamina and drive, the quality of that last overwhelmed groan when he finally hit his limit and started coming undone. Vex stared, oddly captivated. The way his beautiful voice broke before fading into a long, sensual sigh, the way he’d gone so unguarded...

Vex reached up to cup his cheek in her palm, watching the last few wisps of smoke around him vanish.

“Darling,” she whispered, and one more time: “Come here.”

Slowly, he bent to kiss her. For all his force just moments before, this was soft and careful and thorough. After, he gingerly slid free and lay down beside her on the bed.

Vex privately took a moment to take stock of herself before she rolled onto her side to face him. She was so conscious of every little physical sensation now that it took some time. Percy watched the expressions play across her face, and reached out to touch her shoulder. “Vex.”

“Yes?”

“That was…” A quiet little shudder went through him, one that spoke of lingering pleasure, but he was clearly trying to marshal his thoughts. “Gods, that was…that was something.”

A smile flickered to life. “Yes, it was.”

“Are you all right, after all that? I hope that was all right.”

“Oh, Percy. I would have let you know if anything wasn’t. We talked about that.”

“Well…yes. Safewords and vengeful bears and all that. But in the moment…”

Vex’s smile went soft. “The kiss didn’t convince you?” She watched his cheeks flush, and she touched his chest, making her point in tactile fashion again in case the words didn’t get through. “I told you I trust you. I meant it. And this was worth it.” She winked. “I think I like it when you take charge.”

Percy laughed low in his throat. ”Is that what that was?”

“Well. More or less.”

“In that case…as a first attempt, we’ll call it a qualified success.”

That brought her up short. Her hand withdrew. “Qualified?”

“Only in the sense that it requires further experimentation,” Percy told her. He was starting to sound like his methodical self again, but with a touch of sly humor beneath it. “Exploration of different variables, improving on designs, comparing outcomes. It’s the only way to be certain of the results.”

“Ah,” Vex said, relaxing. “So it’s this…scientific method you’ve talked about.”

“Precisely.”

“As applied to sex.”

“Whyever not?”

Vex noted the mischievous glint in his eye, and smirked. Whyever not, indeed. Percy smiled right back, then tilted his head to give her another good, long study. This one felt more clinical, like he was still making certain she was all right. When he drifted his fingertips over a faint but precisely edged bruise, she told him, “I’m fine, Percy, really.”

His fingers touched her thigh next, and she squirmed, still sensitive. He made a concerned sound, but when she frowned at him, he made an obvious effort to let it go. “Nevertheless. I drew a bath before we began. If the enchantment on the heating stones works as advertised, it should still be warm. We could clean you up a bit. See to these. Relax.”

Vex sighed. “That…sounds lovely, actually.”

“Here, then.”

He reached out a hand to help her up, although Vex noticed he was still quivery after that rush. Yes, a nice hot bath would be just the thing for them both. And maybe, she thought, they could test a few more of those ideas while they were at it…

She wobbled her way to her feet, and laughed at herself. All right. Bit overly ambitious this time. Just a bath, to start.

She let herself lean against Percy, and looked up to see him smile.

And she glanced aside just once, seeing Manners cast aside on the bedroom floor. It had rolled almost into the pile of her discarded clothes, leaving her with a fleeting impression of iron and copper and crumpled silk, and the glint of waiting magic.

“Good morning, Lady Baroness!”

Vex, descending the stairs with careful steps, yawned luxuriously in response to the greeting. It was still morning, at least on a technicality; she and Percy had both slept very late. Still, although the sun had already crept dangerously close to its zenith, breakfast awaited. Vex nodded to the young woman who’d indicated this. She still wasn’t quite used to having a house staff, and she was far too comfortably tired to adhere to much protocol, so she let friendly but careless gestures do most of the work. “Just one of those titles at a time will do,” she said, waving a hand. “Actually, just Vex is fine. Hello. Oh, hello!”

The second, more enthusiastic greeting was to Trinket, who’d bounded up from somewhere and sent the young woman scurrying backwards and away. Vex smiled and bent down to scratch his ears.

“Oh, buddy. So good to see you. I hope you slept well.”

His reply contained the faintest hint of a grumble. Vex, guessing from the looks of her nearest sofa where he’d been doing the sleeping, smiled. “Don’t worry, darling. I’ll set you up tonight with your very nicest cushions. I promise.”

“Just bear in mind,” she heard Percy say, “we may still be getting up to a few things tonight, too.”

Vex glanced over her shoulder. Percy, looking formal, proper, and elaborately layered once again, was descending the stairs behind her. He seemed entirely on the level about what he’d just said. Still…

“Bear in mind?” Vex said, arching an eyebrow. “Did you mean for that to be a pun?”

Percy came to a stop beside her. “Possibly.”

“Incorrigible,” she replied, entirely deliberately, and she watched his eyes flash before she rose to kiss him on the cheek. Trinket, watching all of this, made an unimpressed sniff.

“I feel,” Percy murmured into her ear after she settled down. “as though your bear is growing inordinately opinionated about our relationship.”

“Oh, psh. He’s fine with it. Aren’t you, darling? Still, we did inconvenience him somewhat last night. So it’s understandable if he’s a bit put out.”

“As much noise as we were making, we likely inconvenienced the entire household. Or possibly the neighborhood.”

“Yes,” Vex said, with an exaggerated sigh. “Such terrible manners.”

At that, Percy laughed outright. Vex gave him an affectionate little smile before turning back to Trinket, who’d spent most of that conversation looking rather long-suffering. She leaned down, hands braced against her thighs, to meet his level.

“I think breakfast might help make up for the inconvenience to you at least, won’t it?” she asked. “Go take a look, darling. I asked them to prepare some salmon for you.”

Trinket perked up straightaway at that. Vex, grinning, gave him one more good scratch before she shooed him on to get his meal. As for Percy, she turned and murmured, “As it happens, I might have a treat for you later, too.”

“And what sort would that be?”

“You’ll see,” she said coyly. “But just so you know, you weren’t the only one making note last night of things to try next.”

Percy gave a pleased little hum. “In that case, we’d better both go build up our strength.”

“My thoughts exactly,” Vex said, and winked before she led him to the table hand in hand.