Her hand terminal was chiming, soft and insistent. Octavia contemplated the last few bites of tank-grown salmon sashimi on her plate and pointedly ignored the sound. It was her birthday, she was treating herself in one of the fancier neighborhoods of Ceres, and she was not dealing with Miller’s shit tonight.
She had just worked a double shift wrapping up paperwork for a big case that actually came up solved. She just wanted to be alone and savor the moment.
There had been a big birthday party already, full of friends she never had enough time for and the few family members she actually liked. Now she just wanted to relax. It was time to think about where she’d been in the past year, and more importantly where she was going.
Which was away from Joe Miller.
She looked down at the flashing screen. It helpfully informed her that Detective Miller had attempted to call her four times, the currently-incoming connection request making five. No messages had been left. Of course.
She did not want to hear him say “Happy Birthday.” She didn’t even want him to have remembered, because that would suggest that he was a man that was capable of caring about her. And she didn’t want to believe that anymore.
He was her past, and she was thinking about the future tonight.
She picked up the terminal, brushed her thumb across “accept” and held it up at eye level in a tight shot on her face. “What do you want, Miller?”
“Muss,” he said, eyes sliding on and off the screen. He was holding his terminal from a low angle, and from the way the dreary tunnels of Ceres were shifting along the background of the image, he was walking somewhere. “I need a favor.”
Octavia felt a flare of anger. It was worse than she feared; this call wasn’t even about her and her special day. She should just terminate the connection.
Miller flashed her his charming smile, the one that he used on small children and gullible women. “Don’t hang up, please. I’m in a bind here.” Octavia didn’t know if he had read the tiny crease of her brow, or if he just knew their dance steps all too well by now.
She took a deep breath. “What is it?”
“Well, you know the environmental controls have always been shit in my unit-”
“-those idzhifobek air recyclers crapped out again. If I sleep at my place tonight, I’ll drown in my own carbon dioxide.”
She could just hear the implication: “You don’t want me to die, do you Tavi?” When they were dating, he had spent days straight at her place for this very reason. He could afford to move out of that shithole, sure, but he never seemed to get around to it. Too busy drinking himself into a stupor whenever he was off the clock.
“I’m sure you can find a bar to pass out in until they fix them,” she said. She didn’t even bother to ask him why he was calling her for this; she knew he had no one else left that could stand him.
Miller twisted one cheek in a wry grin. He had stopped walking, was holding the terminal up to better frame his face now. “Yeah, I’ve already started working on that option,” he said, screwing up his face and scratching the back of his head like he did when he was feeling self-conscious. “Since you haven’t been answering me. What are you up to, anyway?”
“Nothing,” she said reflexively. If he didn’t remember it was her birthday, she was not going to bring it up.
“Well great, then. Can I come over?”
Say no say no say no...
“Okay,” she said. His eyes lit up; she sighed. “I’ll make up the couch for you.” His smile faded around the edges. “I’m not at home now, though. Come up at 2200?” And you better go right to sleep, she added mentally.
“Thanks Muss, you’re a real pal,” he said, and closed the connection.
Octavia put the last piece of expensive, fatty red salmon in her mouth, but she couldn’t taste it anymore.
Octavia barely remembered the Tube ride back to her apartment. She was so angry with herself. She didn’t even realize she was home until she heard the door slam shut. Why had she agreed to let Miller spend the night? She jerked her spare sheet violently over the couch cushions. She should have just let him slump over a bottle in a dirty corner somewhere. Or face the mild humiliation of having slept at the Star Helix station. He was a joke around there already. But her heart ached imagining him like that. She knew why she had told him to come over. She threw down an extra pillow, and took a seat on the armchair next to the couch.
She tried to relax and watch the news feed, but her eyes just kept rolling over to that makeshift bed. It was like Miller was already there, just the promise of his presence infecting the room. The couch wasn’t long enough for him to stretch all the way out, she knew that already. Tough luck, she told herself, got up and poured a glass of Ganymede pinot. She sat back down with the wine, pulled the elastic out of her hair, and switched to an entertainment channel. The clock in the corner of the display said 21:36. She had told Miller to come so late to avoid the need to sit around making small talk before they turned in. Now she found the anticipation was killing her evening, anyway. Might as well have someone to talk to. She picked up her hand terminal, shot him a quick message. I’m home.
She stared at the screen, immediately wishing she could take it back. It was the kind of easy, familiar message they used to send to each other when they were together. Her heart fluttered nostalgically, then she groaned, considered the merits of cutting the traitorous thing right out of her chest.
Her terminal flashed at her. Be right up. Octavia’s stomach jumped. This was a mistake. She didn’t want any more of these warm and longing feelings; they were already gnawing away at the edges of her resolve to be done with Miller. She gulped her wine and tried to focus on the wall screen.
A soft knock came at her door, maybe fifteen minutes later. Octavia smoothed her hair absently as she went up to open it. Joe Miller stood framed in the doorway like he was posing, jacket flung over one shoulder, a takeout bag in the other hand. His smile was too big. “Hey, Muss,” he said, then stepped past her into her home, not waiting for an invitation. He tossed his hat and jacket on the back of her armchair, set the cellulose-paper bag down in the kitchen. He pulled his duty weapon from under his shoulder, checked the safety, and put it in the drawer where he always used to. He left the empty holster on.
“I still can’t believe you bring that thing with you when you’re drinking,” Octavia said. Her own service pistol, the only firearm she owned, was properly locked up whenever she wasn’t on duty.
“You do the cop thing long enough, you accumulate a lot of enemies,” he quipped back, his answer every time she brought this up. “Never know when I’m going to be wishing I had it.” He closed the drawer and turned, pulled two plates out of a cabinet. There was a subtle bravado to his movements, like he was showing off how comfortable he was in her space. Octavia tried to ignore the way her heart flooded with warmth seeing his tall frame move around her kitchen. Whatever he was trying, it wasn’t going to work. “I was down by Tien Di Square, so I picked up some youtiao for us.” Those fried doughnuts were her favorite.
“I just ate,” she said, trying to sound cold. But she watched his long fingers dust just the right amount of extra sugar over hers, and she knew that she would devour it.
Miller carried their plates over to the coffee table, a humorless smile ghosting over his face when he saw the sheets and extra pillow on the couch. “Thanks for letting me sleep here, Muss. It’s nice to know there’s still a little room left for me in your heart… or at least on your sofa.”
He was actually less drunk than she expected, but she could see this was just going to get more maudlin if she let him keep going. “Speaking of sleep, I’m real tired, Miller. After we eat I’m going to call it a night.”
His mouth twisted and he waved toward her wine glass, like he was flicking away her comment. “Pour me one of those?”
“Sure you haven’t had enough?” she asked.
“Helps me sleep,” he said with a wink.
Octavia sighed and got out another glass. She came around with both glasses full and sat down on the armchair. Miller reached over to take one from her, then gestured over the plate he had placed in front of her chair. “Happy Birthday, Tavi,” he said. And sat back and grinned. The asshole did remember what day it was.
Octavia felt a warm flush creep up her body in spite of the outraged thoughts her rational mind was shouting at her. If she hadn’t already seen it reported in the news feed, she would have been convinced by this play that he had invented the entire faulty-air-recycler evacuation story. The timing was just too perfect.
Miller threw one long arm over the back of the couch, causing his shirt to gape and expose the patch of hair on his chest she used to love running her fingers through. It would be so easy to hop over next to him, fit right back into the space under his arm that used to be hers. Instead she picked up the fried pastry and took a deliberate bite. He may be fucking up her night, but at least he came bearing tribute. “Thanks, Miller,” she said. “These are my favorite.”
She had said it to create distance, to try and pretend he didn’t already know every little thing about her. Like how she tapped her foot when she was angry, or that she never wanted to go to sleep this early. Fuck, he could probably tell exactly when she thought about touching his chest a moment ago.
“I miss seeing your hair down,” he said softly.
Octavia fought the urge to pull the elastic from her wrist and bind her hair up on top of her head again, right that second. “We’re not doing this,” she said, standing up abruptly.
‘Okay, okay,” Miller said quickly, splaying his hands out. “I’ll be good.” She started to walk away. “Hey, I heard you scored a win today with that big case you been working on.”
Octavia gave him one last warning scowl, then sat back down. “I did, actually.” This, she did want to talk about. “One of our nakangepensa suspects had a very striking tattoo on his temple. Our witness to the robbery gave a real good description. I was on my beat today, and wouldn’t you know, that dzhemang walked right past me in the Medina. We set up a tail, and by this afternoon he led us right to a warehouse. All the stolen imports were still there.”
Miller gave a low whistle. “You always did have a good eye, Muss. Remember that time you spotted that perp getting on the Tube ahead of us, just because you recognized the way he walked from the surveillance footage?”
Octavia smiled humbly. “He had a limp.”
“Barely.” There was love in his smile, and Octavia almost forgot to harden herself against it again. Miller must have seen her face shut down, because he dropped the subject there. She wasn’t the only perceptive one in the room. “So, tied up that case with a nice little bow, eh?”
Octavia nodded. “Even better, this guy turned out to be a known Loca Griega affiliate, and Shaddid thinks the bust will help us build a bigger case against them down the line.”
Miller grimaced. “Down the line. Like we’re ever going to dislodge organized crime from Ceres.” He took a hefty swallow from his glass.
There was her beaten-down, pessimistic ex-partner. She had been wondering how long he was going to allow either of them to stay on a happy topic. Octavia popped the last piece of doughnut in her mouth, figured she had better just call it a night before he started to spiral. She had spent months trying to improve the way he looked at life, and she was completely, entirely over it. “Well, you’re welcome to stay up out here as long as you want, but I am going to turn in.”
Miller looked at her like he was considering trying to change her mind. Then he dropped his gaze to their empty plates. “Go ahead, Sunshine. I’ll clean up.” He only called her that when she was trying to get him off a dark topic. Funny how they didn’t even have to say half the words anymore. There was no escaping their patterns.
Octavia retreated to the bathroom and washed her face quickly, feeling awkward about going through her bedtime routine with Miller just on the other side of the door. It was a simple intimacy that somehow made her feel as exposed as if she were undressing in front of him. As she brushed her teeth, she wondered idly if she had ever bothered to clean out the drawer here where he had kept his toiletries. She forced herself not to check. When she stepped out of the bathroom, his back was to her. He was watching the wall screen as he worked the buttons on his shirt, drawing his arms from the sleeves and slipping it off before Octavia remembered to avert her eyes and scurry over to her bedroom.
She shut the door behind her and opened a dresser drawer. She told herself she was choosing the silk nightgown trimmed with soft lace only because it was the most comfortable one that was clean right now. There was no way Miller might be seeing her in it tonight. She changed swiftly and crawled into bed.
This was usually one of Octavia’s favorite moments of the day. A big, springy, enveloping bed was one of the luxuries of her affluent upbringing that she never let herself do without. She had gone into debt for six months to afford this top-of-the-line nanofoam mattress on a cop’s salary, and the pima cotton sheets imported from Earth’s surface had set her back another year. But it was all worth it, to sink into her own personal cloud every night and enjoy a restful sanctuary from the stresses of her life.
But tonight, there was no rest, no sanctuary. She was exceptionally aware of Miller’s presence in the next room. She couldn’t see him, couldn’t hear him, but it was like every cell in her body that was facing the door could feel him lying on her couch out there. The more she thought about it, the more she felt pulled in his direction, pictured herself standing up, going to him. Maybe just to get a drink of water. Maybe to tell him she couldn’t sleep, wanted to watch a show to settle down. Maybe to put her hand over his heart, push him down and climb on top of him. Her toes curled at that image. She flipped to her stomach, pulled the sheets in tight around herself, and willed sleep to come.
After maybe ten minutes the silence of the room was broken when she heard her door slide open. Say something. Tell him to get lost. She felt herself already getting wet. He crossed the room, to the side of the bed that had always been his. He sat down heavily, flopped her sheets over himself and slid in next to her. “Couch is too lumpy,” he said. He waited a beat. “Don’t worry Muss, I’ll stay on my side.”
Octavia had thought she couldn’t sleep before, when there was a nice safe wall and closed door between her and Miller. Now here he was, weight pulling a second valley down into the landscape of her mattress, his every little movement tugging at the sheets atop her. She lay on her side facing away from him, but his scent filled the room, smoky and bright. She hated that he was still her favorite smell. She wanted to smother herself in it, and taste the skin of his neck again.
She felt her lust like a physical thing, creeping up her windpipe and crowding out the air. Any second now, her throat would catch on it and her next breath would come out as a groan. She lay perfectly still; it felt like if she even began to move, she wouldn’t stop until she had slid over and rolled him on top of her. Heavily sensory memories flooded her, of all the times he had ground her into this mattress and covered her with his scent. Why wasn’t she kicking him out? Right now she wasn’t doing any better than those vics that showed up at the station, bailing out their partners twelve hours after they called to have them locked up. She flailed herself with the comparison, but it had no effect on the rising tide of desire.
She dared to roll to her other side, facing him. Miller’s eyes were open. “What are you looking at?” she said.
“To, gufovedi,” he said softly. He reached his long fingers toward her face, then stopped himself midair and gave her that sad smile. “Staying on my side,” he said as he withdrew his hand.
Octavia couldn’t take much more of this torture.
It must have shown on her face, because Miller’s eyes lit up in victory, then grew mischievous. “Just for the record, where exactly does ‘my side’ end?”
She tried not to smile, tried to cling to her last vestiges of anger, but they were fading, turning into just an affectionately irritated mist. She played along, casting about for a reference point. “The edge of your pillow.”
Miller grinned and deliberately pushed his pillow in, until it pressed up against hers and would move no further. He laid his head right behind the border, with a look in his eyes that gave her chills. He made his intentions plain with his gaze, but he respected her line and didn’t move toward her.
He lifted the sheets, looked down underneath. “You’re on my side,” he informed her.
Octavia didn’t move, refused to back down. “I am not.”
Miller was still looking down the line of her body, her bent legs stacked comfortably as she lay on her side. “Your knee.” His hand snaked down, caressed the offending body part lightly. His gaze returned to her face. “I get to do whatever I want, on my side.” His fingers continued moving in slow circles on her knee.
Octavia closed her eyes. It was too much, to look at him, and feel his hand sliding over her skin at the same time. She couldn’t think. She should be telling him to leave. The words wouldn’t come. She had never thought such an innocent touch could feel so erotic. She straightened her knee under his hand, extending her leg further into his space, foot making contact with his warm body.
Miller didn’t speak, and she refused to open her eyes, but he ran his palm up and down her calf, fingers wrapping around the limb and exploring her curves like he had never touched her there before. Octavia told herself it was just a leg, no big deal. But he made it feel so sensual, so intimate; he might as well be making love to her already. His fingertips ghosted above her knee, but he didn’t push past his imaginary line.
Octavia’s breaths were coming too fast. She withdrew her leg to her own side, rolled onto her back. She was still in control. She waited, but Miller did nothing, said nothing. I don’t have to do this, she told herself. I can stop now. Eyes still closed, she freed her arm from under the covers and slowly stretched it out to the side, over Miller’s chest. His hands caught her, one at the elbow, one under her upturned palm. He ran his fingertips over the inside of her wrist, then guided her hand up to his mouth. He laid two of her fingers on his lips, in parody of the Belter sign. Mi du amalof to. Then his tongue swirled out and he sucked them deep into his mouth. The unexpectedly dirty maneuver sent a shockwave down Octavia’s whole body. He released her fingers slowly, then laid a kiss into her palm.
“Do you want your hand back?” he asked. He massaged it idly as he waited for her answer.
“No.” At least he had asked for her consent in such a way that she didn’t have to hear herself say ‘yes’ to him.
A moment later his hands closed in a firm grip on her arm, and then he pulled her bodily over to his side of the bed. She got one gasping breath in before he rolled on top of her and smothered her with his mouth. She ran her hands over his shoulders, pulling him in closer. His fingers were tracing lines down her cheeks. How long had it been since they had done this, since she had last caved in to him? He kissed her like he was starving.
Octavia kissed him back with just as much passion, rolling her body under his and moaning. It felt so good to give up and indulge. She could still hear her rational mind planning to cut this off soon and send him back to the couch. Then she felt his erection pressing against her thigh, and even that voice shut up. The need to have him inside her felt almost frantic. She wrapped her legs around him, started pushing down the waistband of his shorts.
“Hey, hey,” he chided. “We’re on my side here. We do it my way. Slow down.”
He pulled her hands away, then settled down a little lower and brushed his mouth across the peaks of her breasts, over the silky fabric of her nightie. Her nipples hardened almost immediately between his lips. His hands followed, lifting, squeezing, teasing, until she was bucking her hips against him in need. “Miller…” she heard herself say. She still wouldn’t succumb to the intimacy and call him Joe. But using the name she called him at work just made the whole situation feel even dirtier. Just two ex-partners, using each other to get off. She tried to push his head down, attempting to get her satisfaction another way.
Miller resisted. “Hey, you wanna call the shots, take me over to your side of the bed,” he said. She considered it, thought about flipping him over and riding him until she came. Then she felt his fingers sliding between her thighs, and she stopped making plans.
“Ah, Tavi, you're soaking wet for me,” he said. She felt a flush of embarrassment at the filthy words, but they only turned her on more. “You decided we’re no good together, but this pussy is still mine, isn't it.” Two fingers swirled into her, found that perfect spot. She couldn’t form the words to argue with his claim. He knew just how she liked to be touched. She was panting into his ear, hands gripped tight around the back of his neck as she surrendered to wave after wave of pleasure. Usually he would take her to this point and then enter her, so he could feel her orgasm crushing all around him. But this time his body remained still, as his fingers kept her maddeningly on the brink without offering any release.
Octavia opened her eyes, gave him a desperate, quizzical look. Miller kissed her again, fingers still playing, then leaned his mouth over her ear. “I need to hear you beg me,” he said, voice low and tight with emotion. “I need to hear how much you want me.”
Octavia screamed and thrashed. She didn’t want to give him that satisfaction. His body held her pinned to the bed, fingers continuing their merciless seduction. She held out as long as she could. “Please,” she finally breathed.
“What was that?” he asked, rising over her and grinning, sliding his underwear down. He paused, hair falling into his face, as he held himself positioned right at her opening.
She let her pride go, watched as it was whisked away along the heavy current of her desire. “Please, I need you inside me. Right now.”
“Who,” he asked through gritted teeth. “Who do you need?”
She looked him straight in the eyes. If they were doing this, they were doing this. “You, Joe. I need you.”
He closed his eyes and sank into her, sighing like all was finally right with the world. Her body welcomed him with bitter joy, and they clung together as he rocked his hips into hers. Her world narrowed down; this was the only thing she wanted. Forever and ever and ever. He reached down, fingers finding her clit and resuming their magic so she could come for him. Only for him. Stars burst behind her eyes as her whole lower body seized up around him.
After they were finished, she lay in the circle of his arms and finally felt like she could sleep. “You belong here,” her traitor heart tried to say to him. But she refused to open her mouth and let the words come out.