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Le Monocle

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March 1921

I always ended up in Paris. Even during the war, I traveled there first, bitter cocktails punctuating days of training. I learned to drink a Manhattan in Paris – that's ironic. Were you there, perhaps, in 1919? The city was half drunkards and half soldiers – or maybe all of us were both.

Mac had written when she left for Europe in the AANS, but with the globe ablaze the letter took its time to reach me, forwarded finally from my parents to a chic hotel. I tracked her down in Montmartre and cried buckets when she hugged me – dearest Mac. I hadn't seen her since our childhood, and we most certainly were girls no more.

My wealth was new, uneasy, stained with blood, and Mac still knew me well enough to sense it. She let me rent us both a splendid flat, and providing for her made the money lighter in my hands. The real benevolence was hers, though, reassembling me – the pair of us like the two twin beds we pushed together, piling them with an indecent nest of pillows.

What glittering nights we had, after sleeping half the daylight hours intertwined like maenads. The neighborhood, with its shameless, seedy edge, sprung to life at dusk. We spent half the time at cabarets and half with prostitutes outside, dispensing salves and prophylactics. And Mac said, every week, "Bugger nursing – when I move back to Melbourne, it's medical school for me." It was 1920, and the world was new. If she kissed me, now and then, it was no more strange than every wild vibration thrilling through me. She bought a tailored suit, and she looked so very dashing. We danced, and ladies watched us, and Mac took them home.

She went out, usually, if I was with a man, but in the reverse case I preferred to stay. I sat with sketchbook and pencils on the chaise, following the curves and undulations of their bodies. And when the amours departed, exchanging a kiss for a drawing, Mac knelt between my legs and finished me. An apt turn of phrase, I'd say, for that sweet and wet oblivion – la petite mort.

And yet, even amidst the bawdy exuberance of Montmartre, the war lingered underfoot like a carpet of ash. We tried spiritedly to outrun it – to leave behind the memories of mass slaughter – all the way to Le Monocle the month it opened, where pretty girls vied merrily for a seat on Lulu's knee. But in dark corners you'd glimpse the shades still creeping, the ghosts of horrors past – or horrors future. For is there really any after to a war like that? Shadows of women in queer full dresses, laughing but with haunted eyes.

I'd let myself float at the surface of this desire, till then, and I swim in and out of it since. But something about the eerie femininity of those figures plunged me into it, that night, and I wanted to leave dry land behind.

March 1941

Putting the kettle on. There are precious few moments that feel normal, as if the Nazis hadn't wrenched the beating heart from her city, and Aurora lingers over these bare gestures. Late at night, still alive, tea brewing for Peggy next to her cafetière, they could almost be everyday sexual inverts rather than the geopolitical variety. As she pours the hot water and lights a cigarette, she wonders which Hitler would find more objectionable.

Peggy's thoughts are on a different path, apparently. "Do you have a necktie?" she asks.

The kitchenette is so small that when Aurora turns from the range she's practically in Peggy's lap already. She straddles the chair and her skirt falls to both sides of Peggy's knees.

Aurora untucks her own blouse. "You never complained before, but if this outfit isn't to your liking I could be persuaded to take it off." She lets Peggy sit her down and kiss her, spreads her legs and leans into Peggy's curves.

"Not for me," Peggy says, smudging lipstick down Aurora's neck around the edges of her teeth, "for Le Monocle."

Aurora just laughs and taps ash into a saucer. "Are you mad? What if it's raided?"

"Well, exactly – this occupation may be the end of it. Haven't you ever wanted to go?" Peggy steals the cigarette and takes a drag. "Wait, have you ever been?"

"Before the war, it didn't seem important." Aurora traces the neckline of Peggy's dress to the lush hint of her breast. "Anyway, I didn't do this often."

"Before the war." Peggy's eyes are more precise and dangerous, sometimes, than her fists.

Aurora does have a tie – and jodhpurs, jacket and waistcoat, boots – and an hour later she's so attired in the now rather shabby surrounds of Paris's most storied lesbian nightclub.

She hands Peggy a glass with a wink for the bartender. "This establishment may be past its prime, but the cocktails, at least, are excellent."

Peggy smiles at her, lips tilted off-center by a flash of unguarded happiness – that's a rare one. "Look closer."

So Aurora does: behind the low voices and languid dancing there's a fierceness, a piercing riot of sensuality, battle lines of pleasure drawn and defended. The bodies that launched them toward this moment hover at the periphery of her vision, flowing against each other like the friction of time itself. She hears laughter echoing, and the room seems to tip sideways into a coat of polish. Peggy takes her by the hips and whispers, "Let it happen."

Mac watched Phryne laughing: the marble column of her throat, the painted archway of her mouth, the beguiling sound fizzing like champagne. She'd never been less than comfortable in Mac's underworld, drinking and dancing alongside women of all vices as if hungry for every savory bite of Paris. Hardly different from the urchin Mac remembered, running roughshod over Collingwood, but for a new veneer of scintillating glamour. Even in this nightclub, humming with the fresh audacity of a taboo, Phryne was perfectly at ease – she fluttered through the cornucopia of female shapes, receiving flattery and suggestive touches with aplomb.

Not for the first time, Mac thought – she's the ideal bit of bait. She'd have felt guilty letting Phryne attract women to them, flame-like, if the tactic (and its outcomes) weren't so satisfactory to all parties.

Phryne would flirt forever, though, with the ferocious laziness of one who can afford to wait to be kissed. Mac had waited thirty years in skirts and damned if she was going to waste this fine pair of trousers. Phryne's sensuality was as pliable as her dancing, virtually overflowing the outlines of her body, and she allowed Mac to point her like a pistol at the most alluring prospects. They were irresistible together, with Phryne's stunning dresses swirling around her suit, and Mac didn't really want to ponder why she held Phryne so close.

It was a surprise when Phryne turned of her own accord toward a shimmering shadow at the corner of the bar – a couple with a buoyant, accidental beauty that seemed to set them floating toward the rafters. When she took Mac by the lapels, kissed her jaw, and whispered, "Them."

Mac raised an eyebrow, pulling back from the embrace just enough to study her expression. "This isn't your style, Phryne." In more ways than one.

Phryne's lips curled like toasted pastry. "For this nightclub, I'm getting into costume."

By the time she glided up to the bar between the two, faced the blonde to accept a glass of whiskey, Phryne already had their attention. She reached out to grasp the woman's necktie between her thumb and fingers, gently straightening the knot.

"Fetching," Phryne said. "Is it for her?"

She smiled at her companion, quick and searching, but didn't miss a beat. "For you, I think," she answered.

Mac met the eyes of the brunette, whose plush mystique lapped against Phryne's birdlike quality. She moved Mac between her and the bar and handed her a half-filled glass with a bow of lipstick on the rim. Mac took a sip, and let the chemical bouquet of syrup, alcohol, and wax slide over her palate. "Women and their sweet cocktails," Mac said, licking her lips, and the lady chuckled. "You look like you would know."

Still holding her new friend by the tie, Phryne smirked and said, "Oh, she has tasted a few."

Mac had the sense that something blue arced between the couple through the thick air of the club, a waver of electric sadness that was different from the raucous insecurity of this crowd of inverties – as different as the strange cut of their clothes. But when the one in the dress said, "Take us home, then," Mac wasn't about to stand on fashion. Phryne pushed some francs across the bar and nabbed the bottle, skipping ahead of them like a nymph.

Underneath her fly, underneath the swank silk knickers hidden there, a hot throbbing blossomed in Mac's core as she imagined Phryne watching them – the three of them. As always, the thrill far outstripped the niggling wish that Phryne would join in, would do more in their depravities than let Mac make her come.

Peggy hasn't seen a Paris flat with such fin de siècle splendor – the brocade wallpaper and confection of crown moulding are like an inside-out wedding cake. It has the large, indiscriminate rooms and antiquated fixtures that once graced the artist's studios of this neighborhood, and she's surprised to find one so intact. Until she remembers not to be surprised, to accept the gift of an impossible moment when she can. She knows it's not stratagem or subterfuge, that it will be over as unpredictably as it began, and when she needs to forget for an evening that's enough for her.

There are other means of forgetting besides sex, of course, but none so quick to come by.

The grey pall slung over the city seems to lift, here, as if the gilt and satin close armor-like around them. Of course, it might be the enticing company that scatters it easily as smoke, their motions supple as they light the lamps (the redhead) and snag four tumblers from a shelf (the femme). Peggy holds Aurora's hand as they follow toward the bedroom – Aurora, she suspects, is glad of the snug sitting area where their hosts are pouring drinks. Peggy is more tempted by a clawfoot tub that rivals the enormous bed for sheer decadence.

Monsieur in the cravat puts a glass in Peggy's hand and lets their fingers brush. She's really very handsome. "To whom do I owe the pleasure?" Peggy says.

The woman smiles, and it's genuine through to her eyes, which crinkle at the corners. "Mac," she says, "just Mac."

Her companion tucks herself against Mac's side. "And Phryne, with a P."

Aurora sits down on the chaise, her arm outstretched along the back, and Peggy's startled once again by her artless radiance. Part of this delectation, she'll admit, is a vain desire to show Aurora off – this gorgeous, fearless woman who trusts Peggy somehow with her body and her life.

"You have all the beauty of your namesake," Aurora says to Phryne. "I wish you none of her infamy." Wise-arse would also describe her, Peggy thinks.

Phryne settles next to Aurora, with their knees touching. "I don't mind a spot of infamy, now and then." She leans in, nearly purring. "Mademoiselle?"

Aurora looks at Peggy, and she shrugs (even if it were 1941, telling their given names to two Australians would hardly be a risk). "Aurora," Peggy answers for her, "and Peggy, with a P. Please forget that in the morning."

Mac raises her glass and toasts, "à la vôtre."

It wouldn't be an orgy without this awkward silence, when nobody quite knows how to start the count for liftoff. Peggy gestures to the bathtub. "Do you mind?" She can't remember the last time she had a proper soak.

"Oh, be my guest," Mac says, and goes to run the tap. Peggy disappears behind a screen to strip, mostly to forestall any confusion over her elastic girdle and brassiere, which she kicks onto the floor. When she emerges, nude, the water is steaming and Aurora, now sandwiched between Mac and Phryne, looks well-kissed.

The two of them stop whatever they were doing to gape at Peggy. "Indeed," Aurora says, with the shadow of a smirk. She's not above showing off herself, it seems.

Peggy steps into the bath – it's a shade too hot, and she hisses as she sinks into the water. "I believe I'll join you," Phryne says brightly. She peels off her beaded dress and a drape of silken lingerie with unselfconscious, fluid movements, and before long she's dipping into the space Peggy makes behind her, warm and wet.

It was a good year to undress, 1921. I'd bought a sumptuous wardrobe with my bequest, and the new loose styles of gowns and daywear felt like nakedness already. As if they were mere ornaments put on as prelude to prancing about in lace slips and camiknickers. I wonder now if it was inconsiderate to Mac, my being always such a nudist, but she seemed a willing collaborator in that project. Her appreciation wasn't so far from something I could understand – anyone might see the allure of a woman's body in motion, don't you think? It was that aesthetic eloquence that made me a voyeur – or so I told myself. Mac was lovely in those scenes of pleasure – expressive and assured, generous with her attentions and even prone to showmanship. Her leanness resonated with her lovers' femininity, their soft contours and shapely hips.

And breasts – so gloriously singular and alien. I'd never given much thought to breasts beyond my own – not Mac's, at least – but Peggy's shimmered weightless at the surface and I couldn't help but touch them. She was sleek as a selkie in the bath, her curves dense and luscious in my hands. Peggy sighed and sunk lower in the water, sliding satiny against my chest and thighs, and tipped her head back on my shoulder. I cupped my palms and turned her nipples to the air, watching as the tiny crinkles rose up in the chill like sorcery. I tried to smooth them underwater and then pinch them hard again, the perfect yielding buds between my fingers. Peggy made a hungry little purr and pulled my head down to kiss me.

I glanced up when Mac said, "May I?" and saw her loosening Aurora's tie, unbuttoning her collar and stroking a graceful line from ears to collarbones. Aurora, facing us on the chaise, bit her lip and looked from Mac to Peggy in the tub – Peggy arching as my hand traveled over the rise of her belly. I reached the tangle of hair, held my breath when I ventured in – as if I were the first to discover this secret chasm. Her slickness was a paradox against the rippling of the water, a sheen under my fingers no matter how much I rubbed away. Peggy moaned, a briny sound, and I was gripped forcefully by the desire to be watched. To ensnare witnesses in the agile potency of my sex.

I whispered in Peggy's ear – "Shall I take you to bed?" – and stood to take a towel from the hook next to the tub. Peggy turned to face me and I wrapped us both, her breasts even nicer with their weight falling full on mine. We paused a moment to observe – Aurora and Mac were kissing with more fervor, well on the way to stripping each other of their suits.

Then Peggy leaned in and caught a drop of water on her tongue, licking up my neck along its trail, and I shivered. "I thought you'd never ask."

Aurora closes her eyes and concentrates on the whiskey flavor of Mac's mouth, on the fingers running down her sternum between the open plackets of her shirt. Training her senses has become a habit – and it's true that the enigmatic noises (Peggy's greedy whimpers and the dewy hum that Phryne's making with her kisses) are almost more arousing without a visual decryption. She leans back against Mac's chest, fully enfolded by the confidence of her arms and hands. Hands that are sliding up her ribs to leave her bare, grazing the lower crescent of her breasts and traversing her belly button, hesitating only at the zipper of her pants. Aurora covers them with her own, undoes the fastenings and guides one under her culottes. Mac shows no doubt about what's called for then, squeezing Aurora with her whole palm and finding her wetness with a fingertip.

When Aurora opens her eyes, Phryne's hair is a dark river between Peggy's thighs. The two bodies on the bed are flung perpendicular to the chaise, and Peggy's head is turned to watch her – her above all, Aurora thinks – taking in the rapid rise and fall of her breasts (Mac's fingers skirting one nipple) and Mac's decisive movements (hidden inside her pants), even as she moans for Phryne. Peggy bends one knee (the far one) and catches Phryne's hair up in her fist, a gesture that reveals her face in profile: mouth buried in the thatch of curls and cheeks hollowing as she sucks. Behind Aurora, Mac hisses and tightens her arms. It is a sight – Phryne's slender back bowed and her eyelashes fluttering up to Peggy; Peggy's muscles taut and her nipples tracing patterns in the air.

Aurora wonders about Mac and Phryne – if they do this often, if they too share the bath, if they're in love. She and Peggy are nothing to each other, really, except comrades in arms. Except a series of moments like this one, lit up with burning tenderness like the devastating flash of a bomb. Aurora tilts her head back and feels Mac's teeth and tongue on her throat, the open collar of her shirt (cravat discarded) and the fine brocade of her waistcoat. She grabs a handful of Mac's thigh and pushes down onto her fingers. Tonight's suits and ties are costumes to Aurora, like any other she might wear by day – she has too much practice being the person that's required at any given juncture. But enveloped in this wool and poplin, in this haze of unequivocal pleasure, she circles closer to some marrow of herself.

Observing, Aurora takes a certain satisfaction in the fact that, when she does this to Peggy, Peggy's sounds don't have that strangled quality and her grip doesn't clench as it does in Phryne's hair, pulling her to just where Peggy wants her. She meets Phryne's eyes and whispers, "There," and Aurora watches Phryne stare, riveted, as she licks faster. Mac is watching too, her breath warm on Aurora's neck and her fingers moving in time with Phryne's tongue.

Peggy comes, her cries loud and uninhibited, her hand clutching her own breast, her legs closing around Phryne's head. She always comes easily, as if her cunt has a generous instinct for flattery. Phryne climbs back up her body and Peggy flips them over, pinning Phryne with her thigh. When they kiss, Phryne whimpers and marks Peggy with her nails.

Meanwhile, Mac's touch is sure and sweet, finding the little knots of tension ringing Aurora's clit and her opening. When she stops teasing, holds firm with the heel of her hand and pushes all the way in, her knuckles stretch Aurora from the back and her fingertips swirl between two delicious swells.

Mac's lips brush Aurora's ear. "Which one would you rather be," she murmurs, "your friend with that beauty underneath her, or mine about to melt around her hand."

Aurora looks at them and considers. Peggy is indeed shifting to fuck Phryne, rolling onto one hip and spreading Phryne open with her fingers. Aurora turns her head to kiss Mac – that's an apology. She can't come like this, not at this angle – only two knuckles deep and blunt weight bearing on her clit – not while Peggy is such a vision hovering over Phryne, concentrating as she maps her folds.

"Neither," Aurora says. "I'd rather be an addition than a substitution." She disentangles herself, not unkindly, from Mac's embrace.

Mac welcomed Aurora's weight against her, the eager writhing of Aurora's back, the pulse of life beneath her bare skin. It helped tamp down a dismal feeling – not jealousy, per se, but something nameless, wistful and forlorn – brought on by watching Phryne play the active party. She seemed to have attacked the role with sudden zeal, clutching Peggy's hips to keep them tight against her mouth. But Phryne was far off on the bed while Aurora breathed in Mac's arms, under her hands, and Mac would never neglect to give that fact her full attention.

So when Aurora went to join Peggy between Phryne's legs, Mac found herself at a loss – not because it was any hardship to sit witness to three women's entertainment. Not because she'd expected anything from Phryne or begrudged her any pleasure. Not because Phryne looked resplendent with her head thrown back, letting the others urge her to the edge of the mattress so they could kneel below her on the floor. Because – well, it must have been an echo of an old emotion, that twinge of grief. A sorrow that could hardly belong to this scene of plenitude, buoyed on this wanton Parisian froth. Mac shook it off and unclasped her trousers – far more fitting to simply do by her own hand.

It certainly wasn't new to Phryne, having lovers rapt before her cunt like supplicants. She hooked a knee over each woman's shoulder, and Aurora rubbed her cheek along Phryne's inner thigh. Then Peggy kissed her, and Phryne rose up on her elbows to gaze at them, whispering something that made them break off in a laugh. Phryne's giggle ended in a moan as Peggy's arm moved toward the apex of the triangle they framed.

Whatever that arm was doing seemed straightaway more interesting than the familiar course of Mac's own fingers on her clit. She got up from the chaise and walked around the bed, leaned against the wall where she could see them – Aurora pulling Peggy close with a possessive reach around her ribs, even as they both teased Phryne mercilessly with their outer hand. Mac watched them tug Phryne's labia to split her wide, play meticulous games of chase from her prepuce to her perineum. Watched them take turns penetrating Phryne as she collapsed on the duvet with a curse, knuckles white around fistfuls of the sheets.

"More," Phryne cried. Mac chuckled – she was never in the habit of saying please. Aurora scissored two fingers open to make room for Peggy to slide in beside her. Mac swore she'd never seen such a tender moment as Peggy and Aurora holding hands inside of Phryne's cunt.

And then Phryne said her name. And again – "Mac, get undressed." Mac refocused on her face: flushed, wild, needy. She kicked off her shoes and trousers and climbed over the bed to take Phryne's outstretched hand.

Mac just kissed her, first, but Phryne wouldn't be still, twisting toward the fingers fucking her and tearing at Mac's shirt and smalls till she was naked. "Come here," Phryne said, and Mac shifted awkwardly in response to her gestures until – oh – she actually wanted Mac straddling her head. There was no hesitation in Phryne's tongue as it parted her, one firm flat swipe that left Mac gasping in surprise.

Aurora smiled to see Mac arch her back, eyes taking in the taut lines of her bliss. Peggy smiled too, more lewdly, and said, "Bon appetite." Mac was holding herself gingerly above Phryne, mindful of drowning her in unfamiliar smells and textures. But Phryne wrapped her arms around Mac's thighs and pulled her down – hummed her satisfaction and let her restless body calm when her face was nestled in Mac's folds. Only Phryne's hips kept moving, falling into a steady tempo with the dance of the others' hands. Upright, Mac had a perfect view of their technique: their alternating slide into Phryne's flesh, slow and searching; Aurora's fingers curling as Peggy thrust hers in and out; pressing their palms together, finally, to fuck Phryne hard, thumbs slotted at either side of her clit. Peggy tipped her head to kiss Aurora with a growl, a mess of tongues that kept pace with their interlaced fist.

Phryne moaned into Mac's cunt with abandon, the tones creating space to resonate inside. She seemed swept away, her mouth devouring Mac without finesse – Phryne's mouth, though. Phryne's form spread out under her, Phryne shaking as her orgasm drew closer. Phryne's cheeks slicked with Mac's arousal and Phryne's lips sucking on her clit with a vigor at the knife-edge of pain. When Phryne came, she screamed, and clutched Mac tight to smother it – the full press of her tongue and teeth and voice sent Mac barreling into a savage disaster of a climax. She couldn't have said whether she screamed herself, but it left her flat on top of Phryne, nuzzling in coarse curls to bathe herself in Phryne's scent. Phryne breathed a little whimper on Mac's thigh when Peggy pulled her fingers out to rest them on Mac's head, brushing back locks that had escaped their pins.

Mac let Aurora kiss her, serenely – and Peggy, rather more demanding. Then she turned round to kiss Phryne, both of them still dizzy from that cataclysm. Their mouths moved together, deep and quiet, heavy with all that had passed between them since the war. Mac felt gratitude billowing from her – not for the orgasm, for her taste on Phryne's lips, but for the more elemental ways Phryne had already taken her apart and put her back together.

"Thank you," Mac said, and it was this graver thanks she meant. But she followed it with a wink.

Phryne leaned up to give Mac's nose a lick. "Most fun I ever had without breathing."

Mac snorted and pinched Phryne's nipple sharply, just to hear her yelp. "If you've had a chance to catch your breath, perhaps you'd like to go another round?"

Phryne's hands were in Mac's hair, petting her earlobes and her neck. "Fuck me, Mac," she said. "I want your fingers too."

Peggy thinks of the Blitz on the most inopportune occasions – like now, crouching at Aurora's feet to unlace her boots. Friends in London, sheltering nightly from the bombs, taking comfort in their freedom (and, perhaps, in dalliances like this). Paris is comparatively tranquil, but the threat looming over them is more insidious. Peggy didn't think twice about traveling to France. There's nothing she can do against planes, but against men – against the all too human Nazis and collaborators – she can wage war.

Aurora didn't choose to live in this invaded country, but she chose to be a fighter and a spy. Peggy tugs off the second boot and skims her palms up Aurora's legs. "Always the last to be caught with your pants down," she teases. Aurora lifts her hips so Peggy can strip off jodhpurs, socks, and knickers in one go. "Remember?" Aurora says, with a cheeky smile. The first time Peggy saw Aurora mostly nude, they were changing out of uniforms (easy enough to pass for Germans in the dark), scrambling to get back into street clothes in a cellar before the real SS came looking. Peggy was already partly dressed, and she turned to help Aurora kick the heavy pants off as she buttoned up a blouse. It was a moment of pure exigency, danger outpacing anything erotic, but later Peggy thought she'd like to touch Aurora's skin like that at leisure, reach inside Aurora's waistband to find soft parts, and learn if she moves with that economy even when she comes.

She does – Aurora's always focused and precise in the way she holds her body. She's the opposite of Phryne, who seems to sway continuously in her own private waltz. Just now, she's reaching out beside them almost blindly to grip Aurora's thigh, saying "Mmm" at the firm flesh and at Mac's exploratory gestures between her legs. Phryne has an innate flair for performing her pleasure, but that suave sensual luster is starting to fray around the edges, giving way to something rougher and more revealing.

Even after they became lovers (Peggy styles herself as the seductress, though she suspects Aurora would demand due credit) their stolen space together, outside the urgent necessity of a mission, was never this languid or debauched. The bed alone, a sea of silk and down, is the nicest place she's had Aurora naked, and Peggy thinks (not for the first time tonight) that she herself has some theatrical tendencies. She kisses Aurora's knee, her hip, her navel, and her breast, kneeling up to whisper in her ear. "Would you like to come?"

Aurora's mouth turns up at the corner. She doesn't answer, but flips over onto knees and elbows, thighs parted and back arched to hang her arse in front of Peggy like a peach. She has placed herself at a diagonal to Phryne on the bed, angled for a view of Mac's work at Phryne's cunt. Peggy smooths her face along the supple swell, sighing at the velvet texture of Aurora's skin. She tucks her nose in the cleft for a breath before she stands, hooking her thumbs between the hemispheres and peeling Aurora open to expose the slick meat of the fruit.

Aurora hums in anticipation, and Mac meets her eyes across Phryne's body. "How much can you take?" Mac says, and it's not clear which of them she's asking. But it's Phryne who answers, "Everything" – her hips rise off the bed to bear down on Mac's hand – "Make me stretch until it hurts a little. Please." The last word is an onomatopoetic sob as Mac introduces a fourth finger and sinks in past the knuckles. Phryne grasps Aurora by the hair and maneuvers her head over for a kiss, a chaotic blur that muffles Phryne's moans. Aurora isn't vocal in her need, but Peggy knows the way she kisses when she's worked up to a fever. So Peggy enters her – just one dexterous digit, finding the coiled webwork that guides her on, as far as she can reach.

Mac had seated herself boldly on a stool to see to Phryne – with her knees apart, arms braced, bicep flexing with a rhythmic motion she gleams with masculinity again. More so than when she was riding Phryne's mouth, all delicate curves and noises. It's a protean quality that Peggy wants to touch up close. She spreads her legs, braces her hand on her hip, and lets Aurora rock back onto it, curls her finger to meet Aurora's own pressure on her clit. Phryne's writhing on the bed, lost in a primal impulse to get nearer or deeper or further, and Mac says, "Hold her down." When Aurora raises up to pin Phryne's shoulders with her hands, Peggy bends over her (breasts soft on Aurora's graceful back, teeth sharp at her nape), and they watch as Mac folds her thumb and pushes, hard, until Phryne's cunt swallows her to the wrist.

Peggy uses her thumb, outside, rubbing the whole ridge of Aurora's core between her fingertips, and Aurora comes. She goes rigid, rights her hips like a compass needle, hides her face in Phryne's neck and cries out, once. That one sound, Peggy thinks, is a counterweight to all the soldiers' words that pass between them, and to all the howls of war.

Was it these enigmatic women, their skin glowing otherworldly in the yellow incandescent light? Was it how the radiator hissed, telling the chill damp of Paris winter to give way to spring? Was it Mac, just Mac – her taste, her hands, her eyes with fresh lines fanning from the corners?

I still can't explain my cunt's capricious moods, but that specific climax left me pliable and vast. It seemed for the first time since the war that I might fill the maw it left inside me – fill it right up with Mac's fist. Held between her arm and Aurora's, Mac barely had to move for me to feel like she was squeezed tight to my heart. There are so many ways to be fucked, so many secret nooks and knolls of rapture – and Mac's hand was hard along them all at once. It spoke with me in a primeval language: the merest rotation, the quiver of her knuckles, the suction as she pulled against the ring of muscle (surely she'd have to stay inside forever). And Aurora's mews of pleasure whispered in my ear.

I forged an axis in those years (perhaps largely in that night) that is the pivot of my character, the two faces of a coin: massacre, murder, trauma; adventure, hedonism, sex. I couldn't have expressed it, then – how I set the scales of this world at an equilibrium between these poles – but I found the center where our bodies touched. Aurora and I fell in rhythm, joined in a V where she pinned me down and kissed me, and I balanced between violence and ecstasy.

Mac put her other hand on me – heel against my clit and fingers pressed into my belly. An agony that was so tender, so consuming, so sublime. I've never asked Mac if she was in love with me, back then. Perhaps she's never asked herself. I don't think I was in love with her, not really – but in that suspended moment I adored her fiercely as I've ever felt. Aurora stiffened, climaxed, bit down on my shoulder, and Mac said, "Yes" – and reverently, "Phryne." Everything turned to fire.

After I came, I laughed – not the laugh of a delighted mind, but one that welled up molten from my chest. The contractions of my stomach freed Mac's fist, and she laughed too, flexing her fingers and wincing as she rubbed a cramp. I was utterly lax, but Aurora managed to roll me toward the headboard, arranging a cradle of pillows to lean on and propping me up between her legs. I sighed, and snuggled closer, and rested my cheek against hers. "Oui," Aurora said, "parfaitement."

Peggy sat down facing Mac. "How are you with the other hand?"

Mac looked her over – tousled, flushed, luminous – and grinned. "Would you like to find out?" Peggy tugged her off the seat and kissed her, looping her foot around Mac's thigh as much to test the muscle as to coax her closer. Mac stood and pulled Peggy into an embrace. "Come with me – we should wash our hands." Already I could see the doctor in her.

When they returned from their toilette, Aurora and I watched them for some time. Eventually all four of us fell asleep, heaped across the bed like milk-drunk kittens. When I woke, Peggy and Aurora were gone without a trace.

Mac and I made love more freely after that, and we went back to Le Monocle, and we had other assignations. But never with quite the blazing intimacy of that bacchanal, shared with two women who phased in and out of focus. They could hardly have been real – and yet. I've always wondered if I might meet them again one day – in another nightclub, or in another war.