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“Phil, what on earth are you wearing?” Lt. Commander Caitlin Barry, Chief Engineer, U.S.S. Yorktown, asked, the incredulity plain in her tone.

“We’re not on earth,” Dr. Philip J. Boyce, CMO, same ship, said. “A tuxedo.” He twitched his cuffs into place and smoothed his hands over the coat’s pocket slits. “I’m sure you’ve seen one before.” He looked at the chrono on the wall—ten more minutes before they were expected to beam down to the planet’s surface. Its leadership didn’t like overt reminders of militarization, so the senior staff had been ordered into civilian formalwear rather than dress uniforms.

“Yeah, but . . .” Cait leaned back to look behind him and closed her mouth with a pop. “You know what? I’m going to stop complaining.”

Phil craned his head around. Nothing behind him, nothing stuck to his back as far as he could tell. “Should I even ask?”

“You’re wearing a tux with tails.” She sighed theatrically.

Cait was a flirt, he knew that; he’d watched her flirt with half the ship. That included Chris (that is, Captain Christopher R. Pike, same ship), who would shake his head and smile, and Number One (Commander Number One, First Officer, also of the Yorktown), who would tell Cait to knock it off on a regular basis. She flirted with him as much as anyone else, which was why he took exactly none of it seriously.

“You’re wearing a strapless blue gown,” he said, as neutrally as he could.

She grinned. “I am.” She twirled slowly, letting the matching wrap slide down her shoulders. It was a medium shade, close to Sciences blue, and highlighted the red in her hair and the faint blue tracery of veins under her skin. She started to ask something, probably entirely improper, but Chris and One appeared, the former wearing a tuxedo as well, and the latter wearing a black dress, similar enough to Cait’s that Phil suspected the XO had borrowed it.

The four of them beamed down to the reception, and after greeting the appropriate entities, Phil headed for the bar at one end of the dance floor. “A martini,” he said. “Gin, please. And stirred, not shaken.”

The bartender stared at him blankly, wide orange eyes unblinking.

Great, he thought. Well, the planet had only been in the Federation for a generation or so. Apparently they hadn’t gotten around to certain kinds of cultural exchange. “Something savory, then. With—” He spotted what looked surprisingly like olives in a small glass. “Are those salty?”

“They’re frthai,” the bartender said with a shrug, as if that explained everything. “Of course.”

“Well, if you have a local specialty with the frthai,” Phil said, “I’ll have one of those.”

The bartender nodded and started mixing together a couple types of clear liquids. If all else failed, it certainly looked like a martini.

“Drinking already?”

He turned to find Cait standing just behind him. One auburn curl had fallen loose from her hairdo already, resting against a bare shoulder, and he ignored it by sheer force of will. “Open bar.”

“Best kind,” she said, and after the bartender handed Phil something that looked and smelled like a martini, gave her own order. “Something sweet and chocolatey, if you have it.” At the bartender’s blank look, she said, “Well, then, sweet and rich.”

Phil stared at the not-quite-olives in his drink and wondered how awful it would be to fish one out; they looked like they were stuffed with something other than a not-quite-pimiento. Fishing an olive out of a martini was not something one did in a tuxedo, though, so he resisted, and tried the drink. If it wasn’t a martini, it was damned close. Satisfied, he turned to watch the dance floor.

Chris was awkwardly dancing with one of the ambassadors; the local inhabitants mostly looked human other than coloration and patterning, but somehow their joints didn’t work quite the same. Or perhaps it was just Chris. Number One seemed to be doing fine. Phil snorted quietly.

Cait followed his gaze. “Oh, man,” she said. “That’s just funny.”

“Yeah,” he said. Turning slightly, he leaned on the edge of the bar and watched Cait retrieve her drink. It was . . . violently purple.

She looked at it suspiciously for a moment, then met his eyes, shrugged, and took a careful sip. Her eyes closed and her lips parted in a soundless gasp, and Phil swallowed. “Oh, Phil, you have to try this.”

“What does it taste like?”

“Like a strawberry-dark-chocolate mudslide.”

He shuddered. “No thanks.”

“You don’t like strawberries, dark chocolate, or mudslides?” Her lips curved in a smile.

“Mudslides, no. Strawberries and dark chocolate . . .” He grinned at her. “They have their place.”

Cait snorted, bumped his shoulder with hers, and turned back to the dance floor.

Of course, now that meant that her arm rested against his. He thought he could feel a line of heat from her skin, but clearly he couldn’t. Clearly. It was all in his head.

* * *

Sometime later, Phil found himself dancing with one of the ambassadors and had to hand it to Chris; it was more difficult than it looked to dance with someone multi-jointed. The predominant dance resembled an Earth waltz, only with five beats per measure, and had lopsided accents that added to the awkwardness. He did his best, though, and the ambassador—her name was Xassat—was gracious enough to pretend that nothing was wrong.

“You are a doctor?” she asked him, a few figures into the dance.

“I am,” he said. “Twenty-five years, now.”

“Your family must be so proud.”

Phil shrugged. “I don’t have much family back on Terra.” A sister he never talked to and a few former in-laws who probably never thought of him.

“Ah. So your . . . shipmates, they are your family?”

He caught sight of Chris handing a drink to One out of the corner of his eye, the captain’s hopeful smile obvious to everyone except perhaps One herself. Behind them, Cait laughed at something that someone else said, and shook her head no. Another long auburn curl popped out of her hairdo and landed on her shoulder, and she brushed it back absently.

“Yeah,” he said. “They’re family. Do you have family nearby?”

Xassat answered, and the conversation turned elsewhere.

* * *

Somewhere in the middle of the second or third drink (Phil’s second; he wasn’t sure about Cait), they watched as a pair of the locals disappeared onto the balcony as a different pair returned, disheveled and happy.

“So I’m guessing that casual romantic encounters are common here,” Phil said, gesturing.

Cait sighed. “Lucky them. I haven’t gotten laid in seven months.”

“Eight and a half for me.” He wasn’t sure why he answered, especially with the truth, but he did.

He saw her tilt her head speculatively. “You know, we could probably fix that,” she said.

“Well, that’s certainly the most romantic proposition I’ve ever gotten,” Phil said a beat later, shaking his glass to get the last not-olive out. It was an effort to keep his face straight, and he concentrated on the salt flooding his mouth as he bit into the frthai.

Cait made a face. “Oh, please. You’re the one eating bleu-cheese stuffed olives by the dozen. Do you think I’m going to let you kiss me after that?”

“It’s not quite bleu cheese,” he said, trying for nonchalance but failing as he felt a hint of warmth over his cheekbones. He met her eyes, though, green-flecked hazel to his blue, and raised his eyebrows. “And who says I want to kiss you?”

She raised a single eyebrow back and looked at him over the rim of her glass, still streaked with purple. “Are you going to tell me that you don’t?”

He shrugged. “It probably wouldn’t kill me.”

Cait stared at him for a moment, eyes widening, and then let out a peal of laughter. “Come on,” she said, setting her drink down and taking his out of his hands. “Let’s dance.”

He set his hand to her waist, finding the curve above her hip, and guided her onto the dance floor. They fell into the rhythm easily, his fingers just below her shoulder blade and his other hand in hers. Her heels put her at within a couple inches of his height, and she leaned into him, her breasts not quite touching his lapels.

“You smell good,” she murmured, mere inches from his ear.

“So do you,” he replied, paying more attention to where the drink had stained her lips purple than his words.

“So you do want to kiss me,” she said.

“I think gingerbread smells good, too, but I don’t want to kiss it,” he retorted.

“Touche,” Cait said, laughing, and damnit, he really did want to kiss her, right then and there.

He didn’t, though.

After the song ended, he led her to a small standing-height table at the edge of the dance floor and bowed, grinning at her as he stood. He watched her pupils dilate; she licked her lips before she grinned back at him and said, “Such a gentleman. You’d think you’d be more than willing to help a lady in distress.”

He shook his head, half-smiling, and leaned his elbows on the table. “Seven months isn’t distress.”

“And how do you know that?”

“Eight and a half months, remember?” he said.

“So eight and a half months is distress, but seven isn’t?”

“Maybe,” he said, one side of his mouth quirking upward.

“Well, clearly, if eight and a half months is distress, I should be a good friend and help you out,” she said, ending with a quick, self-satisfied flash of a smile.

“Oh, well, clearly,” he said. “You wouldn’t be a good friend if you didn’t offer.”

“Exactly,” Cait said, and gifted him with a real smile, the irresistible, all-encompassing kind that he couldn’t help but return.

However . . . “You’ve offered,” he said. “Now go on. I think there are some ambassadors you haven’t danced with yet.”

Cait’s face changed abruptly, and she frowned. “Oh. You don’t think I’m serious.”

Uh-oh. This was dangerous turf. “It’s the game, isn’t it? You flirt with me, you flirt with Chris; you flirt with Lrrr occasionally.”

“That head nurse of yours is hot,” Cait said, “if you like seven-foot tall scaly reptilian sorts.” They both laughed. “But seriously, Phil, don’t you know if you so much as said maybe, I’d be there in a heartbeat?”

Phil snapped his mouth shut. Did he know that? Of course he knew that. It was Cait, which was, of course, the problem. A moment later, he said, “Yeah. Yeah, Cait, I do know that.”

Cait nodded. “Okay.” She shivered briefly, and Phil shrugged out of his coat and draped it over her before she could shake again. “Thanks,” she said, and he nodded.

“I’m a fan of one-night stands,” he said conversationally as he smoothed the fine wool over her shoulders. “Just generally not with people I have to face over a conference table the next morning, and twice a week for the foreseeable future.”

“Really? That’s the excuse you’re using?”

He held out one hand, the other resting at the small of her back. “We’ve got three more years on the Yorktown before the end of the current mission, and I’m with Chris as long as he’s on a ship. I don’t want to do anything to jeopardize any of that.”

“You’re a fan of one-night stands, you said.”

He nodded.

“Me too,” Cait said. “I’ve had . . . a few, let’s say. Don’t you think that means we’re both mature enough to handle any possible fallout and still be coworkers?”

Coworkers. He snorted. “Not friends?”

“Oh, friends, of course,” she said, waving one hand in the air. “You’re the one who brought up work.”

“It’s important to me,” he said. The image of Cait as she appeared on his table only a couple months ago, as he raced to repair her heart before she died appeared on the inside of his eyelids, and he swallowed. She’s fine, he reminded himself. “I like being able to do my job to the best of my ability.”

She turned to him, one reddish-brown eyebrow raised; his hand ended up on her hip. “Really? You think you’ll somehow lose your ability to be CMO if you sleep with me tonight? Wow. I must be magical.”


“Phil.” She sounded as exasperated as he felt. “Look. I’ll lay my cards on the table. You’re gorgeous, you’re brilliant, you’re nice, usually at least; you’re one of my closest friends on the ship. I like sleeping with gorgeous, brilliant, nice men, and I really like sleeping with friends because the sex is pretty much always better. And before you suggest it, no, I’m not going to sleep with Chris or One instead, because it would break the other’s heart.” She paused, but not long enough for him to come up with a reply. “I suspect you’d be interested because, well, for one thing, you can’t keep your hands off of me.” She looked pointedly at his hand on her hip, but he did not drop it. “For another, sometimes you look at me as if, I don’t know. As if I’m a bleu-cheese stuffed olive, maybe.”

He smiled at that.

“You also flirt with me like it’s a final for Interspecies Comm.”

“We’re both Terran human,” he said, feeling compelled to point out the obvious.

“Okay, but forgive me for getting the idea that you just might be interested.” Cait took a step back and his hand fell to his side. She pulled off his coat, handed it back to him, and strode across the floor, asking a green-haired diplomat to dance. He obviously said yes, and Phil was left holding his coat as he watched her on the floor with someone else.

Well. There were multiple balconies; he looked through windows until he found one unoccupied and stood outside, letting the cooler air clear his head. What a mess this evening was turning into. If only Cait would drop it, he thought, and sighed. One of the things he lo—liked best about Cait was that she was persistent; it made her an excellent engineer and a good friend, especially to Number One. Shoving his hands in his pockets, he paced the length of the balcony, coat trapped between his arm and his side.

He wondered briefly how Chris and One were doing and had almost turned to check when he heard the door to the balcony open.

“I figured it out,” Cait said, and he felt her come up behind him and pull the coat out from under his arm.

Turning, he rested his back against the railing and watched her drape the coat over her shoulders. “Oh?”

“Yeah,” she said, and bumped her shoulder against his until he let her tuck herself under his arm. “You’re attracted to me; you’d rather you weren’t. Instead of taking that as an insult to myself—” He could hear her grin. “—I’ll assume there’s something you aren’t telling me. And,” she said, shrugging, “of course, that’s your right, but it would really be a lot more fun for both of us if whatever it is you’re holding back was something I could fix so we could get naked and sweaty.”

“Can’t fix this, Cait,” he said, after he realized she was waiting for a response.


“No.” Well, all right, even if they were just friends (whatever that meant), she deserved a little more than that. “You and Chris and One—you’re family.”

“And you don’t sleep with family? Good thing you’ve never been married.”

She meant it as a joke, obviously, but he stiffened involuntarily.

“Or you have. Or you are. No, were. And she—he? She. Divorce? No. She died. Oh.”

That she could read him so easily without any conscious effort to answer her on his part was a little disturbing, but he nodded anyway, staticky white noise filling his head, left thumb rubbing the base of the finger where he hadn’t worn a ring for almost twenty years.

He felt her suck in a breath and let it out slowly, but when she spoke, her tone was normal. “When?”

“Twenty years ago,” he said. Long enough that he didn’t think about Alicia more than once or twice a day.

“So, twenty years of one-night stands?”

“Pretty much.”

“Never took a chance?”

“Not that kind.” No one had ever been worth it. And when had Cait switched from trying to talk him into a one-night stand to trying to talk him into something more?

“You know,” she said, “if this were a bad romance holo, I’d say something along the lines of, ‘you fixed my heart, now let me fix yours,’ but I’m not going to.” She pushed a little more firmly into his side, one of the curls piled on her head tickling his ear. “For one thing, it’s a terrible line. For another, I don’t know if I can. But believe me when I say that I can guarantee that I feel as strongly about you as you do about me.”

He turned his head, pressed his lips to her temple briefly, and said, “I know.”

A moment passed, and then, “Naked and sweaty, huh?”

“Oh, please, Phil, I’ve wanted to peel that tuxedo off of you from the second you appeared in the transporter room. As if you didn’t know that.” She sighed. “Look, I can’t guarantee that I’m not going to die, or that you’re not going to die, because I’m pretty sure we are, but I’d like to think I have a little better sense of self-preservation than some of the other lovely people who run this ship. How many times have you had to patch me up in the last two years? Don’t count minor plasma burns or null-G ball injuries.”

Just the once, but it had been a doozy. “Cait,” he said, and stopped when he realized he didn’t know what he wanted to say.

“Yeah,” she said. “I get it. You need a moment. I’m going to go dance with One and then make her dance with Chris. I’ll be back, or you can find me.”

He nodded, and she left, handing him his coat, which was starting to smell like her perfume. He did not sniff it.

The balcony overlooked some kind of garden with a fair amount of night-blooming flowers. Phil watched a couple meander down one of the garden paths absently, and didn’t notice Chris joining him at the railing until the captain spoke. “Pretty, isn’t it.”


Chris had his hands in his pockets and his coat under one arm as well. It wasn’t that warm, either outside or in, so he suspected Chris had offered his coat to One, as Phil had to Cait. How very . . . high-school-ish, of all of them. He snorted.

Chris looked over at him, but didn’t comment. “My chief engineer is in there dancing with my XO.”

“Bet they look great together.”

“Yeah, they do,” Chris said, and looked over at the window. “Cait told me I have to dance with One next.”

“You probably should,” Phil said. Or Cait and I will have to lock you and One in a turbolift together until you figure it out, he added mentally.

“Well, I will, if you dance with Cait.” Chris gave him an expectant look.

Oh, Phil thought. Oh. It wasn’t the same thing, but Chris thought he was being stupid about Cait, and knew that Phil thought he was being stupid about One, and . . . well, one of them had to be the smart one, right? “I danced with her already, but yeah, of course I’ll dance with her again.”

“Okay.” Chris smiled. “I need more alcohol. You?”

Phil shook his head. “Not right now, but I’ll follow you in.”

He did, and they only stood at the bar for a couple minutes before the song ended and the next one started. Somehow he managed not to laugh when Chris put on his Captain’s Voice to ask Number One to dance, although it was a close call. For his own sake, he only had to smile at Cait before she came over and said, “If you’re not going to ask me to dance, I’ll just drag you onto the dance floor anyway.”

“I was going to,” Phil said. “I was just waiting until I could without laughing at Chris and One.”

Cait chuckled. “Well, at least they’re dancing now.”

“They are.” He set his coat on top of Chris’s on one of the small tables, and held his hand out. “Shall we?”

“That doesn’t count as asking me to dance, you know,” she said as she came into his arms.

“I know,” he said. They joined the counter-clockwise circling, and before long, Cait started snickering. “Chris looks like he’s got a poker up his backside. Only he could be dancing with the hottest person in the room—present company excepted, of course—and not know what to do.”

“Oh, don’t worry,” Phil said. “I’m well aware that both One and Chris are prettier than I am.”

“I wasn’t talking about you,” Cait said. “I meant me.” They both laughed.

It occurred to him, rather startlingly in the middle of the second lap, listening to Cait’s pointed comments about Chris and One, that the damage was already done. The feel of her ribcage through the satiny fabric, the smell of her hair and skin, the way she fit into his arms, and the fact that he was thinking about how blasted attractive she was when she was doing a bad impression of his best friend—was it really going to get any worse if he went ahead and slept with her?

He couldn’t delude himself well enough to say that it would.

At the end of the song, he retrieved his coat and said to Cait, “Come with me?”

She nodded, and he led her out to the same balcony, still fortunately unoccupied. “I like you in shirtsleeves,” she remarked as he held the coat out to her. She stepped into it and backed up against him, so he could wrap her in his arms.

“Brings out the white in my hair?” he said, only half-joking.

She reached up and ruffled his hair. “Oh, hush. You’re a total silver fox and you know it.”

“Why, thank you,” he said gravely. “I suppose here I should have some quip about you being a redheaded siren, but in the light out here, your hair looks more purple than anything.”

Laughing again, she tucked her arm back inside the coat.

“I wanted to ask,” he said, “what are you doing after this shindig?”

He felt her tense against him slightly, but she replied in the same light tone she’d been using. “Well, there’s this guy. I was hoping he’d invite me back to his room for a drink, but I’m not sure if he will.”

“Mmm,” Phil said. “Is he hot?”


“Think he’d be good in bed?”

“Oh, yeah. He’s a surgeon, you see.”

“I see. And have you slept with a lot of surgeons?”

“Oh, a few,” she said, “but I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about sleeping with this one particular surgeon.” She turned in his arms to face him. “Phil—”

He touched a finger to her lips. “Two things first.” She nodded. “One: this is not just for tonight.”

“I think we took that off the table last time we were out here,” Cait said. “At least, that’s what I meant to do.”

“Good,” he said. “Two: we don’t have to be exclusive, but I’d like to be primary.”

“Of course,” she said. “We’ll revisit the exclusivity thing later, all right?”

“Sure,” he said. He didn’t particularly want her agreeing to be exclusive because there weren’t any other opportunities at the time and then regretting it later, but that wasn’t a discussion for right now.

“You think we can skip out early?” she asked.

He could tell by the wistful note in her voice that she knew that they couldn’t—after all, it was just the four of them who had been invited. “Nah, but I’m sure they won’t come looking for us for a few minutes.”

“Oh, good,” she said, and pushed up on her toes to kiss him.

It wasn’t lightning and flashes of brilliance, kissing Cait, but it was spreading warmth and an odd feeling of relief. He tightened one arm around her and raised the opposite hand to the back of her neck, brushing the fallen curls aside. When the kiss ended, he looked down at Cait, her eyes still closed, lips parted and shiny—and still purple from her earlier drink—and smiled before leaning in for a second kiss.

She slid her hands up his chest and wrapped her arms around his neck; only his arms around her kept his coat from sliding to the ground, but he barely noticed because he had Cait Barry pressed against him from lips to knees, and damn. He really, really wanted to reach down and cup her rear end; maybe lift her up so she could wrap her legs around him, but not in that dress and not in public. Later, definitely. Maybe he could talk her into visiting him in his office while wearing the skirt uniform . . . And what was he doing thinking about future encounters when she was here, right now?

He dug his fingers into her hip, just slightly, and she laughed. “You can grab my ass as much as you want later,” she said. “As long as I get to do the same.”

“Hell, yes,” he said, and she laughed again. She’s good, he thought. “When can we get out of here?”

“When our Fearless Leader says we can,” she said. “Think we can go back in there and pretend that we’re not thinking about ripping each other’s clothes off?”

“It’ll be difficult,” he said.

“You’re good for my ego,” she said, and went back for one more hard, brief kiss.

“You’re good for mine,” he said. “Young, gorgeous woman chafing at the bit to get me into bed?”

“Stop that,” she said, and punched him in the arm, grinning the whole time.

They went back into the reception hall, Cait still wearing his coat; he knew what they’d been doing on the balcony was written all over his face, but he couldn’t find it in him to care.

Besides, despite all evidence to the contrary, this wasn’t a high school dance, and there were no chaperones to disapprove.

Two long, painful hours later, in which the best entertainment was listening to Cait complain about how much she regretted promising that she wouldn’t interfere with Chris and One’s complicated dance around each other, the aforementioned captain and XO came to collect them to say goodbye to their hosts.

Phil shook Xassat’s hand and smiled at her warmly. He wanted to thank her and all the rest of their hosts for actually being exactly what they said they were: nice people, if a bit overly pacifist, who just wanted to have a party with the people who came visiting on a spaceship. Obviously there were still a few things that could go wrong, but he watched Chris and One smile and shake hands with others and almost heard the relief underscoring all their gestures.

Definitely time to go back to the ship and relax.

Once they got back to the transporter platform on the Yorktown, all four of them breathed an audible sigh of relief. “That was strange,” Chris said.

“I could use some more diplomatic encounters like that,” One said.

“Couldn’t we all,” Cait said, and faked a huge yawn. “Well, I’m going to get out of these heels. One, you can return the dress and shoes tomorrow.”

One nodded, and Cait gave a whimsical salute before heading for the turbolift.

Phil turned to Chris, shrugged, and followed Cait.

“Deck three,” she said, and he turned to her, frowning. His quarters were on deck three; hers were on deck eighteen. “What? Your quarters are bigger.”

They were, but . . . “I thought you’d want to go, I don’t know. Something. In your quarters.”

She shook her head. “Nah. I want to get out of these clothes, sure, but I’m guessing you’d be more than willing to help.”

“Oh, definitely,” he said, and reached for her, but the turbolift doors opened and she escaped into the hallway.

He did not chase her, because frankly, he liked to keep his private life private and walking down the hallway in most of a tuxedo with Cait wearing his coat was pushing it, but watching her rear end as she strode to his quarters was definitely worth it.

He keyed his way into his quarters, locked the door behind them, and ordered the lights to fifty percent. “Anything I need to know?” he asked, as he turned to her.

Cait shook her head. “Anything I need to know, since I don’t have access to your medical records?”

“Nope,” he said. “You won’t get pregnant; I have no diseases. I’ve got condoms in the top drawer on the right side of the bed.”

Her mouth twisted to one side. “We’re already double-covered and disease-free, if I read you correctly. I’m thinking we don’t have to bother with condoms.”

“Okay,” he said, unsurprised. “Had to offer.”

“I know,” she said, and set his coat on his desk chair before closing the short distance between them, her hands going to his bowtie and tugging it until it lay open under his collar. Flipping the collar points up, she undid the button at the hollow of his throat after setting the bowtie on his desk.

He rested his hands lightly on her waist as she unhooked his cummerbund, laying it on top of the jacket, and carefully removed all the studs from his placket, setting them in a pile on the desk. Next she attacked his wrists, removing the cufflinks—tiny Starfleet deltas, a long-ago Christmas present—and setting them next to the studs. “I think this is the one time when you’ll be wearing more complicated clothing than me,” she said, pulling his shirt-tails out of his waistband and pushing the shirt over his shoulders.

He was wearing a white undershirt, and she wasted no time in draping the tuxedo shirt over the growing pile of clothing on the chair and yanking the knit shirt over his head. “Oh, finally,” she said. “I was thinking I’d pull this shirt off and find your uniform or something.”

He laughed, and reached up to flatten his hair, sticking up after her precipitous undershirt removal. “Nope.” He knew he was still in decent shape. Starfleet didn’t care if you were a security officer or the CMO in terms of its fitness requirements, but he still had a completely irrational moment of self-doubt. It lasted less than the length of time it took him to recognize it, though. The look on Cait’s face as she stroked his shoulders was—well, it was really flattering.

“You jerk,” she said, and grinned at his frown. “Hiding all this under those damn uniforms, and under baggy t-shirts and sweatpants when you work out. What a waste.”

“Oh, you think so?” he said. “Let’s talk about you.” He unwound the wrap from her upper arms and set it on his chair. “Sure, you’re letting me see your arms and shoulders, but what about this?” He tapped a couple of pins in her hair until he found the one at the bottom holding the whole thing up, and pulled it out, releasing the whole mass of auburn waves and curls down past her shoulders. “You keep it in a knot or a ponytail all day, and no one gets to see it like this. And by ‘no one’ I mean I didn’t get to see it.”

He helped her pick a few remaining pins out of her hair and set them on the table, and then he dropped to his knees at her feet. He heard her suck in a breath—yeah, that trick almost never failed to work, but truth be told, he wanted to be here, and it wasn’t a trick this time. Pushing the skirt up a couple inches, he unbuckled her shoes—a handful of straps and a stiletto heel—and helped her step out of them. “And these legs,” he said into her skirt as his hands found their way up to her knees. “Every day you don’t wear the skirt uniform is a wasted day. At least, for me.”

“I knew you were staring at my legs,” she said under her breath as she hauled him up by one shoulder. “Sit.” She pointed to the couch.

He sat, and she bunched up the skirt and straddled his lap. The satin and whatever the underskirt was, crinoline or something, pooled blue and crinkly between them. She was a little too tall to put them eye to eye, but he leaned against the backrest and she curled over him and their lips met as he searched under the fabric to find her skin again.

She gasped when he did, and again when he ran his nails lightly up her thighs to her hips. Her bare hips. “Didn’t wear any underwear?” he said.

“Nope,” she said.

“I wish I weren’t,” he said and groaned. The only thing between him and a naked Cait was a giant formal dress, and damn, did he want it to disappear. Getting rid of his own clothing would be a bonus.

“Soon enough,” she said, and leaned down to nibble at the side of his neck. He retaliated by sliding his thumb up the inside of her thigh to ghost over her curls—red, he knew, although he wished he’d have discovered that a few minutes from now. She bit him, not hard, probably not even enough to leave a mark—oh, he’d have to watch for that, though. Fair-skinned redhead meant she’d probably bruise and burn easily. He probably had a portable dermal regen somewhere in the room—

“Stop that,” Cait said. “I can hear your brain rattling. Yes, I mark easily. No, I don’t care. Do your worst.”

“Can you read my mind, or am I just predictable?” Phil asked, and stayed her response by pressing a little deeper between her legs and finding her clit. She was definitely wet already, which was gratifying if not entirely surprising, and he stroked, finding a rhythm she apparently liked, until she was gasping into his mouth and shaking above him.

“God, Phil, just a little more,” she said, sounding pleasantly desperate, and he sped up just enough to push her over the edge, calling his name.

She panted against his shoulder for a moment before sitting up and touching her forehead to his, a silly, expressive grin on her face. “One down,” she said, her voice breathy, and laughed.

“Is that a challenge?”

“Sure,” she said, and the grin turned a little sharper.

“Well, I know I’ll hit three,” he said. “How many do you want?”

“Three’s a good place to start,” she said, and wriggled against him. “I think I can stand now. Maybe.”

He held out his hands and she pushed up off of him, wobbling only a bit. The dress looked like it was hopelessly crushed, but she shook it out and it magically flattened into perfect lines again. “Nice,” he said. “So I can just drop it on the floor?”

“If you want,” she said, turning around and letting him unfasten the back of the dress. She held it against her breasts until she’d turned back around to him, and then dropped her arms to her sides, letting the blue fabric slide off her body.

“Ohh,” he breathed as he finally saw her fully nude. “Cait, you are so beautiful.”

“Thank you,” she said, and stepped out of the dress. “You, now.”

His hands flew to the waistband of his pants, and he hesitated until she gestured for him to continue. Apparently she didn’t want to help with this part, and that was fine with him. He stripped out of his pants and underwear in record time, pushing off his shoes without untying them, and accidentally flung a sock across the room in his haste.

He dropped the pants over the back of the couch, as it was closer than the chair, and stepped forward to take her in his arms, savoring the contact of bare skin on skin, especially the hollow of her hip against his erection and her breasts against his chest. Stroking his hands down her back, he found her rear end, taut and curved and lush under his fingers. “Up,” he said, and she jumped a couple inches in the air, wrapping her legs around him just as he’d imagined.

He was reasonably strong, but she was above average height, and he had to lay her down on his bunk before he wanted to let her go. She helped him move the blankets out of the way, and he lay down beside her, sliding a leg between hers and pulling her thigh over his hip. “Well, now I can’t grope your ass,” she grumbled, but apparently contented herself with rubbing the pad of her thumb over his nipple and leaving a series of tiny bite marks over his collarbone.

He pushed her hips forward gently until she got the picture and started grinding herself against him. “Mmm,” she said after only a few thrusts, and pulled her leg down, pushing him onto his back. “My turn. Or, more accurately, your turn.”

Three kisses over his abdomen and she was swallowing his cock all the way down to the root. “Fuck, Cait,” he gasped, and grabbed at the mattress. About the only advantage of not being thirty anymore that he’d found was that although it took him longer to wind up, it also took him a lot longer to wind down—but Cait and her mouth threatened to undo all of that if he wasn’t careful. He let her continue for a few more moments, but pushed a hand through her hair gently and pulled her off before it got to be too much.

Still, his chest was heaving and she looked smug as he patted the mattress next to him. She lay down, and he moved over her, his knees between hers, his elbows on the mattress and hands under her shoulders. As much as he wanted to dive between her legs and not come up for air until she was screaming for him, he had a few stops to make first.

Her breasts, for example. He’d been so busy not staring at them in the blue dress that he felt he ought to repay them for his lack of attention. Kissing first one and then the other, he carefully tried a few things until he discovered that what she wanted most was suction and just a hint of teeth. “God, yes,” she hissed through her teeth, and clenched her fingers in his hair.

When he thought she’d probably had enough, based on the way her curses had gone to incoherent pleas, he released her nipple, absently noticed the reddening of her skin, and took well more than three kisses to work his way down her abdomen. She was gasping again by the time he licked his way into her folds, and he caught a broken, “Oh, don’t stop!” before her legs locked around his neck and he caught her clit between his lips.

She begged, she pleaded; she dug her nails into his shoulders and his scalp; and finally she fell apart, sobbing and gasping for breath. “Oh, God, Phil, God.”

“I didn’t know you were so religious,” he said, wiggling his jaw from side to side carefully as he crawled back up the bed to kiss her.

It was a testament to how well he’d done that she only managed a breathy, “Hah,” in response. A moment or two of lazy kissing later, and she said, “So why aren’t you inside me?”

His stomach muscles jumped at her words, but he said, “I was waiting for you to recover.”

“I’m recovered,” she said, her words only slurring a bit around the edges.

“You sure about that?” he said.

“Yes,” she said, and pushed a hand between them to grab at his cock. “Please?”

Well. He could barely resist her when she was fully-dressed and acting professional; how was he supposed to hold back when she said “Please” in that tone, while looking blissfully post-orgasmic? “All right,” he said, and re-angled himself until he was lined up properly. “Ready?”

She nodded, and he pushed in slowly, not wanting to miss a moment of the tight wet heat of her. When he was almost all the way in, he pushed a bit farther, experimentally, and her eyes closed, her mouth opening in a silent ‘o.’ “Is that okay?” he asked.

“Oh, yes,” she said, opening her eyes again. “I love men who are big enough to do that.”

He couldn’t help a self-satisfied grin at that—some women hated it, but apparently Cait was one of the lucky ones, and lucky him for it—and she laughed at him. “Now move.”

“I’ll get there,” he said, withdrawing slowly and re-entering at the same speed. “I know what I’m doing.”

“I know,” she said. “Now prove it.”

He laughed, and leaned down to kiss her, keeping the same slow rhythm with his hips as he chased her tongue with his. Before long, though, she’d wrapped her legs around him, and he’d pushed up a little higher to get the angle—that—yes. “Oh, God, Phil, yes, right there, holy shit, how long can you keep this up?”

“I’ve never—timed it,” he said, and she laughed, causing her body to clench around him. His rhythm faltered for a moment, and he sucked in a breath before starting again, but a little harder, a little deeper, a little more insistent.

He watched her face and she watched his until apparently she couldn’t anymore; her body fluttered around his, her eyes squeezed shut, and she dragged her nails over his shoulder blades, not that he could feel it with all the other sensations. “Almost,” she gasped. “Almost almost almost.”

“Do you need—”

“No, no no no,” she said. “Just—don’t—stop—”

He didn’t, not until she cried out his name again and shook beneath him, and even then he just slowed down so he didn’t hurt her. “Okay?” he asked, when she opened her eyes.

She nodded quickly. “Yes. You can—”

“Good,” he said, and buried his face in the side of her neck, licking the sweat off of her skin, combined both hers and his where he’d dripped on her. He found his rhythm again and concentrated on—well, everything. How she smelled and how she felt and the tingling he felt at the base of his spine that would, very shortly, turn into—oh, there it was—

“Cait,” he groaned, and snapped his hips once, twice more, before pouring himself out inside her.

A few moments later, he recovered enough to feel Cait’s fingers in his hair, stroking just behind his ear. “Sorry,” he said, his voice ragged. “Can you breathe?”

She chuckled. “I’m fine. How are you?”

He pushed up far enough to see her face. “Best I’ve been in twenty years,” he said.

“Yeah?” she said.

“Yeah,” he said. Rolling to the side, he pulled her into his arms, and she ran a thumb over his cheekbone before kissing him.

“I’m going to fall asleep soon,” she said, and yawned.

“Me too,” he said, although he wasn’t sure it was true. “Stay. I’ve got an alarm set for 0600.”

“0600? Ew. And, for your information,” Cait said, turning around so he spooned her, “I was absolutely not going to move anywhere.”

“Good,” he murmured into her hair.

* * *

Sometime after she fell asleep, he edged out from behind her and went to stand by his desk, absently picking up his cufflinks and twisting them between his fingers as he stared at the starfield out his window. After a moment, he looked at them in the palm of his hand, found the box they went in, and shut it in his desk drawer.

When he’d curled himself back around Cait, she stirred and said, “Hey.”

“Go back to sleep, Cait.”

“I will if you will,” she said, sleepily defiant.

“I’m working on it,” he said.

“Work harder,” she said, and pulled his hand up between her breasts. “I need my beauty sleep.”

Phil chuckled against her hair. “I think you’re doing fine.”

“Yeah, yeah. I’m already in your bed.” She twisted around and kissed him. “Stop thinking. It’s after midnight. And no more symbolism; it’s making my head hurt.”

He laughed harder. “That wasn’t symbolism. The cufflinks were from my parents.”

“Oh,” she said. “Tomorrow, tell me about her?”

“Maybe I will,” he said, and pulled Cait more tightly against him.