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Sugar Vladdy

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Fic based on this post.

His hands shook as he hovered over the link.

Vlad had told himself he wouldn’t actually go through with this, promised himself he’d stop it before things got out of hand. But like most things in Vlad’s life, the point of no return had somehow managed to sneak up on him and had brought with it the razor-sharp focal point of clarity that showed just how dangerously close to the edge he was teetering.

It had seemed so innocuous at first. Small things, little things. Things as simple and mundane as college books, ramen noodles and gift cards that resulted in pictures of drinks taken in Starbucks that looked like the most non-coffee-whipped-cream-frappe-disasters to ever happen to coffee he’d ever seen. The caption had read, “had coffee today! Thank you, Mister V for the SBucks card!!!” in neon rainbow font with several heart emojis after it. It had made Vlad smile, an unexpected heat coming to his face at knowing that somewhere out there, someone was having a good day. Because of him.

He’d very nearly spent himself the first time they’d posted pictures wearing the t-shirts he’d sent them; paralyzed by a bright, searing-hot gratification that was both satiating and arousing all at once. It was like scratching an itch that was just out of reach, maddeningly addictive in its elusiveness.

God, it was positively euphoric.

But Vlad had tangled with addiction for most of his adult life, longer even if he was honest, and he knew all the signs and symptoms of becoming reliant on something for a fix. And while he was technically sober right now, it was only because he’d swapped chasing one high for another. His sponsor at AA thought he was doing wonderfully, but Vlad’s Amazon purchase history told a different story.

Yet he’d still found ways to continue justifying doing it. After all, it wasn’t like he was buying these things for himself. Surely that had to be better, right? Better than hoarding things he didn’t need—not like his father’s second (third, fourth, who knew anymore) wife who had filled the Blutstein manor with collectable trinkets the next wife had swept into the trash with as much afterthought as emptying an ashtray. He was helping people; it was selfless… kind of. And it wasn’t as though the money was an issue, in fact he could quite probably keep up that level of spending indefinitely and never make a dent in his inheritance. God alone knew, what he spent on them in a month Elizabeth could burn through in an hour…

And then they’d sent him that damned invitation, and the whole illusion had come shattering down around him and he’d been forced to concede to reality. It had been a nice little distraction while it had lasted, but he couldn’t allow it to go on any longer. All good things had to come to and end at some point.

Most good things in his life had.

And he’d been so resolved, so sure of himself, sitting there in the light of day in his office with the sounds of city life and normalcy echoing up through the glass walls of the high-rise tower. He’d even started to type out a reply on the app—until his PA had buzzed him, reminding him of the meeting down on the thirteenth floor and he’d been forced to abandon it, telling himself he’d do it later.

Except later had turned into evening, and he’d forgotten that Elizabeth would be home that night. And after another spat were civil pleasantries had been discharged like shrapnel…

Well, here he was.

“Fuck it,” he muttered to himself in the darkness, an innocuous blank page popping up in his browser and prompting him for a name and password. He already knew the password, gift card—unless they’d meant the last book he’d sent them, in which case he had his browsing history open. But he wasn’t sure what to do about his name. He couldn’t put his real one, it was far too rare and well known for them not to find him with a simple search, and simply shortening it to V sounded impersonal, ominous even in its singularity.

Vlad glanced toward his phone, activating the screen out of reflex. He was greeted with the photo of that ridiculous coffee with the even more ridiculous yet endearing moniker they’d given him. Mister V. Yes, that’d do.

Gathering himself, Vlad finished typing in the details, and then, because he was a coward, closed his eyes, and hit enter.

 

* * *

 

“He’s not coming,” Ursula pouted, sounding petulant at the prospect of being stood up by their mysterious benefactor.

Nathan glanced reflexively over at the alarm clock on the bedside table, the neon numbers ticking over in the dim light of their apartment bedroom as he rubbed soothing circles over her shoulders. “It’s only five minutes past. Give him time, love.”

“How much time?”

“I don’t know,” Nathan laughed, attempting to pull her away from the screen long enough to plant a kiss on her forehead. “Ten more minutes. He might have stuff to do. Or be stuck in traffic with no Wi-Fi. For all we know he’s Batman.”

“Bruce Wayne does have a lot of money…” she agreed, chewing agitatedly on her thumb before reaching out to hit refresh on the page for the umpteenth time in the last ten minutes. Just in case. “I just… don’t want him to not show…”

“I know,” Nathan soothed, drawing her back to lean against his chest and forcing her to relinquish her hold on the laptop. “He’s been very nice to you…”

“Us,” Ursula corrected him instantly, squirming to look round at him over her brown freckled shoulder. “We’re a package deal, remember?”

“To us,” Nathan amended, remembering belatedly that he was wearing one of the t-shirts Mister V had sent them from their wish list. He didn’t quite get the same thrill from this sort of thing as Ursula did, but he’d be lying if he said there wasn’t a little forbidden zing of something that flashed up his spine at knowing this. “That’s what I mean. But he might not want anything more from this, y’know? He might just be in it for the thrill and not actually want anything except to spend money…”

“Yeah…” Ursula said, sounding more and more dejected by the minute. Which was ludicrous, because wasn’t this the dream? Wasn’t this what most people hoped for when they signed up to be Sugar Babies; to be given things and never actually have to give anything back? Nathan had certainly thought so. But then again, Nathan had also thought he was straight up until college. So what the hell did he know?

“Hey, c’mon,” he said, sliding his hand under her t-shirt (technically his t-shirt, another one from Mister V, that slid endearingly from her shoulders to hang mercilessly on her frame, and made him weak at the knees whenever she ran around the apartment wearing just that and nothing else but a smile) and stroking his hands over her belly, letting them travel over the soft roundness of her body. “No now doesn’t mean no forever. I’m sure he’s just busy. He’s probably got rich man shit to do.”

“Yeah,” Ursula agreed, sighing huffily but leaning receptively into his touch, arching her back as one hand came to cup the swell of her breast, his fingers tweaking over the sensitive peak of her nipple as his other hand moved enticingly lower. “You’re probably right. Which is a shame,” she smiled upside down at him, arching just far enough to tilt her head back to look at him, her smile teasing. “I did my hair and everything…”

Forgotten on the bed, the laptop pinged, and they both froze, their eyes swiveling down in unison toward the screen which was just about to go black from inactivity.

Mister V said : And very pretty it looks too.

Mister V said : Oh dear, please don’t stop on my account…

Chapter Text

Vlad sat frozen in his chair, watching the delectable tableau unfold in front of him.

He was going to Hell. He’d always known this—he’d done far too many questionable things in his life to ever make it to the other place. But somehow, it’d never been more apparent than in this moment, a low strangled sound escaping the back of his throat as he watched a large hand slide up under an over-sized t-shirt to reveal the supple skin underneath.

The sound of their voices was another kind of exquisite torture. His a deep, rumbling brogue that murmured low and soft like thunder, and hers, a breathy, lilting tinkle—a little deeper than he’d imagined—but no less syrupy and sweet. He could listen to them talk for hours.

And as if that wasn’t enough to hold his undivided attention, they move suddenly, shifting just enough to provide him with a clear upshot of her underwear and Vlad nearly choked on his desire, slinking lower in his chair and angling the screen down with a guilty little glance toward his bedroom door. There was no one home to interrupt him, he’d even locked the door, the key tucked firmly away in his back pocket just in case. But he still wouldn’t put it past the Universe to somehow try to put an end to this moment.

And then suddenly he saw her hand move toward the camera, as though getting ready to close the laptop, and Vlad found himself startled into action, his hands moving of their own accord to type the first thing that came to mind. It was laughably cringeworthy, and he flinched when they froze, feeling a hot guilty flush rise over him at intruding on their moment. Like the voyeuristic interloper he was.

The camera angle tilted abruptly however, and Vlad found himself quite suddenly looking into the face of happiness personified.

“You’re here!” she beamed at him over the camera, and Vlad felt it ignite in his chest like sunlight. No one had ever smiled at him like that before, let alone a stranger. “Hold on, let me put you somewhere safe. There,” she said, giving the edge of the laptop an adorable little pat, “how’s that?”

And suddenly Vlad couldn’t remember how to form words again.

Very safe, he typed back, feeling like a moron. Thank you.

Contrary to all other experiences of his life she laughed as though he’d said something genuinely funny, her eyes creasing up pleasantly at the corners.

A small part of him, or rather, the large, cynical part of him that controlled most of his brain, was aware that it was likely just an act. They were supposed to laugh at his jokes. They were supposed to smile and make him feel special. He’d read through enough forums in the last few months to know this. But even knowing this, he couldn’t seem to bring himself to care. So what if they only laughed and smiled because of his money? So what? His own wife had told him often enough the only reason she’d married him and hadn’t slit his throat yet was for his money, so how was this any different or worse?

And if Vlad was being completely honest with himself, he rather liked that part of it too. He liked giving them things, he liked showering them in gifts and making their lives a little better. He even daydreamed about it, fantasizing about bigger, grander things, got hard and high just from thinking about it. It made the blood in his veins zing. Just like the zing of heat that shot through him when he caught a glimpse of “N” sitting behind her. He was wearing one of the t-shirts Vlad had bought for him, and the sight of it made something hot and dark to bubble over in Vlad’s chest, shockingly possessive in its intensity and enough to take his breath away.

“Well first things first,” she smiled at him again, her cheeks dimpling adorably, “my name’s Ursula, and this is Nathan. Nate or Sue also works.”

It’s a pleasure to finally meet you, Vlad typed back, stalling on what to say next because the idea of saying “I’m Mister V” felt entirely too ridiculous. Fortunately, he was saved by Ursula, who apparently didn’t think so.

“And we know who you are, Mister V.” And somehow it didn’t sound awful when she said it. If anything, it sounded… affectionate. “I’m glad you could make it…”

She was still talking, but Vlad was already losing himself in her smile again. Everything about her was beautiful, from her wild mane of hair to the intricate body art he could see on her copper skin, right down to the scar under her left eye that had been incorporated into her makeup rather than hidden. She was a living, breathing work of art. And Vlad could very much appreciate that.

Nathan was just as equally stunning, with piercing blue eyes and a mop of shaggy brown curls that fell boyishly into his face. He was also built like a brick house, the t-shirt pulled obscenely tight over his chest and biceps. He looked like he belonged on the cover of some fitness magazine, the kind Vlad had smuggled into his bedroom as a teenager and kept hidden beside his other contraband, hoping like hell his parents would never find out.

But while Ursula seemed perfectly at ease, Nathan seemed… Shy wasn’t the right word, but it came close. He gave Vlad a lazy little wave and a smile when prompted but otherwise avoided looking directly into the camera.

Which was fine, because Ursula was demanding all his attention anyway, her tawny-colored eyes staring directly down the lens and into his soul over the grainy webcam feed.

He should buy them a better webcam…

Vlad blinked, realizing she’d been talking to him this whole time, and he’d spaced out, distracted by just how overwhelmingly beautiful he found the pair of them.

“—didn’t think you were gonna show,” Ursula laughed, her mouth lifting in a soft curl of a smile that was both mischievous and coy at once. “We’d have waited otherwise.”

It took him a moment to comprehend that he was being flirted with, and Vlad couldn’t help but laugh quietly at how out of his depth he was. He spent most of his professional life walking the fine, precarious line between flattery and manipulation, and while he was a mere shadow of his father’s beguiling charm, he was actually pretty good at it. But he was never sincere about it.

Ursula was though.

He could see it in the nervous flutter of her eyelashes and the hesitant way her smile dropped then lifted, waiting for him to respond. She wanted him to flirt back, Vlad realized, and Vlad didn’t know what to do with that. Elizabeth didn’t even smile at him anymore unless she was about to tell him something awful—and even then they still ended up fucking.

Elizabeth, who Vlad suddenly realized, was out having a good time, expecting to come home and find him waiting in her rooms; contrite and apologetic, desperate for some sort of touch. Even if it was hateful.

He wondered briefly what it would feel like for her to come home and not find him there.

I apologize for that, he typed back, taking a sip from his mug of tea and allowing himself to relax and enjoy the moment in front of him. After all, it wasn’t as though this was ever likely to happen again. This was just a one-off thing. Just like everything else. I had some things to attend to.

“What things?” Ursula asked, perking up curiously, and Vlad couldn’t help the little smirk that pulled at his lips.

Rich man shit.

Chapter Text

Despite the way the conversation started, nothing else happened that night.

They’d talked into the wee small hours of the early morning, conversing about everything until Vlad had become aware of Ursula beginning to flag, her smile turning hazy with exhaustion.

They’d agreed to do it again soon though, like old friends agreeing to meet for a coffee; instead of strangers sitting in their underwear sharing witty banter under the blue-tinged light of their computer screens. So, there was that, he supposed.

Nathan, Vlad had learned, was a Socio-Economics major with an interest in going into Sports Therapy, and Sue was who all the mythology books were for.

She appeared to accrue degrees in the same way other people did bad habits, and Vlad had been suitably impressed at the list of qualifications she’d ticked off on her fingers, if somewhat despairing on behalf of their finances. Two liberal arts students under the same roof with more than two degrees between them. It was little wonder they were broke.

Broke, and beautiful, and his.

He knew that last part wasn’t true, but he let the warmth of the fantasy linger in his veins a little longer.

It had been a surprisingly satisfying encounter, for all that it was, and Vlad had gone to bed with a smile on his face. He’d woken briefly when Elizabeth had come home, the sound of her door opening across the hall and the ominous silence before it slammed shut echoing through the sleeping house. But Vlad had found it hard to care and had promptly rolled over and gone back to sleep. He’d come home often enough to an empty house over the years. She’d get over it. Probably just as soon as she’d taken his credit card to Tiffany’s.

Waking up for work should have been tortuous on such little sleep, yet somehow Vlad had managed it. He’d even made it into the office on time and caught himself whistling as he sipped his morning coffee. It was quite frankly ridiculous how good he was feeling. But try as he might, he couldn’t shake the image of them sitting together from his head—their lingering little glances and the gentle humor of their very much genuine affection evident in their every little touch. And they had invited him to be a part of it. It felt like a privilege, and he clutched it close to his chest all through the morning until eventually taking a break for lunch.

It was sheer reflex that prompted him to open their wish list on his phone and scroll through the meager contents. Disappointingly, it hadn’t been updated in over a week. He flipped through the remaining items anyway, groceries, books, books, more groceries…

The thought of setting up a grocery service for them that consisted of more than just rice and ramen noodles floated through his mind, and Vlad wondered just how he’d go about that. Perhaps it would be better to set up a charge card they could use instead, that way they could get whatever they wanted without needing to wait for it to arrive.

He was halfway to opening his appointments to discuss this with his accountant when he realized what he was doing.

He was behaving like his father.

The thought made him physically ill, and he recoiled in his seat hard enough to send him rolling backward toward the expanse of glass at his back where the depths of the city waited below. He didn’t want to reconcile himself with the thought, but no matter how far he pushed back, there was no avoiding what he was doing. Vlad was assuming a position of control in their lives without being asked, inserting himself as a source of means and support. Of dependency.

 He leaned over in his chair, placing his head between his knees and tried to breathe through the surge of wild panic rising in his chest. After a moment he reached up and removed his necktie, flinging it blindly away.

His childhood hadn’t been a particularly happy one. None of his life was, if he was being brutally honest. But after his mother’s death, it had gotten even worse; his childhood turning into an interchangeable merry-go-round of would-be mother figures and Stepford Wife hopefuls, all willing to become the next Madam Blutstein—if only for the divorce settlement. It had left somewhat of an impression on him. As had his father’s treatment of them. And while his situation with Ursula and Nathan was somewhat different, there was no denying the parallels beginning to emerge. And it was unacceptable. It made him feel filthy. Predatory even, in ways that not even trawling through the Sugar Daddy forums had. And he couldn’t live with that.

But he also couldn’t just cut ties and ghost them for their own good, could he? Wouldn’t that be acting even more like his father; cutting and running as soon as the situation got too out of hand for his own taste? Was he really like that? Was he really like his father after all?

Vlad glanced up at his desk, his gaze alighting on the silver gilded frames that passed for the full extent of the Blutstein family photos.

There was one of himself and Elizabeth on their wedding day; impossibly young and smiling a little too rigid to be entirely natural. But not filled with poison for each other just yet either. Beside it, a faded photo of his mother stared out at him, her eyes soft and sad even then. And lastly, there was the most recent family portrait, a frozen facsimile of happy family life captured in a flash.

Vlad wheeled his way back over toward his desk and picked it up. He noted not for the first time the ever-present scowl on his father’s face, barely hidden behind the insincerity of his smile. His stepmother, Lady M, sat rigidly beside him, her expression pleasant but vacant. Both he and Elizabeth were turned toward the camera, smiling, but sat on opposite sides of the frame—as far apart from each other as was physically possible. And there on the floor, smack bang in the middle and smiling out at the camera like a ray of sunshine, Riya’s happy face beamed up at him.

He smiled fondly, swiping a thumb affectionately over her dark features. He still remembered that trip fondly. It had been one of the last few times his adopted sister had joined them at the lake before leaving for college. They were still close though, even despite their significant age gap and the way their lives had turned out.

Vlad stared at the photo for a moment longer, then reached for his personal cell phone, the one which only had five numbers in it, and seldom rang. He was surprised when it only rang twice before it was picked up on the other end.

“Vladdy?!”

“Hello Kitty,” he said, cringing at her use of that particular epithet. Vlad was very fond of his sister’s long-term girlfriend, but she did so insist on trying to wind him up. “Is my sister there?”

“Hang on she’s in the bath, I’ll take you to her.”

Vlad glanced at his wristwatch and did the time zone calculations. “It’s four in the afternoon over there,” he said with good-natured disbelief. “Don’t tell me you’ve just woke up?”

“Oh no, I’ve been positively up for hours,” Kitty enthused around a yawn. “But you know what it’s like, late hours, busy nights. Hang on, here you go. Riya, oh she’s under the water, Riya! It’s Vladdy. No, I don’t think anyone is dead. No, I didn’t ask. Vlad? Hang on she’s putting a towel on her hair. Okay, I’m handing you over now. Come see us sometime, okayloveyoubye.”

“Vlad?”

“Riya, darling,” Vlad greeted his sister, the sound of her voice alone soothing his fraught nerves. “How are you?”

“What’s wrong?”

“Why do you assume anything is wrong?” Vlad asked, managing to sound somewhat convincingly offended as he reached for a cigarette and used the desk lighter to light it one-handed. Exhaling in a cloud of smoke he carried on. “Can’t your big brother call you up just to chat?”

Her silence on the other end of the line was deafening, and Vlad caved immediately.

“Riya… did I turn into our father?”

“Oh God, what did he say now?” Riya asked, sounding ready to fight the world if she had to. “You know you can’t listen to anything he says. He’s toxic and uses you to project his own internalized self-loathing. I do wish you’d see that therapist I recommended…”

“No, no it’s not him,” Vlad said, wishing it were something as simple as that. “Well, not entirely. It’s something else… uh...”

“All right, what did she say?” Riya asked, refusing to even mention Elizabeth by name.

“It’s not her either. Not exactly.” Vlad pinched the bridge of his nose. He shouldn’t have called her. This was something his baby sister shouldn’t have to deal with, no matter how tolerating and accepting she was of his disastrous life choices. “Riya,” he began again, lowering his voice, “if… if you were me, and you met someone else…”

There was a pause on the other end of the line, followed by the creak of furniture as though she’d just sat down heavily. “Vlad,” she began, lowering her voice to a whisper, “are you… are you cheating on Elizabeth?”

Vlad felt the wave of nausea return. “I don’t… I don’t know. It’s nothing physical, and it never will be,” he hastened to add. “It’s just, okay, so I met these people and—”

People?” Riya interrupted.

“A couple,” Vlad admitted. He took another drag from his cigarette. It did little to steady his nerves. “A younger couple. In an open relationship.”

“Where did you meet them, at work?”

“Ha. No.”

“Well, where then? At the club?”

Vlad laughed again. The idea of Ursula and Nathan being members of the country club their family attended was so far out of this universe it might as well have been in a parallel dimension.

“No,” he said, reaching up to cover his eyes as though trying to shield himself from what he knew he was about to say, his voice rising into a strangled apology as the words left his mouth. “Have you heard of a website called SugarDaddy dot com?”

There was another beat of silence, and then Vlad jerked his phone away from his ear in surprise at the sound of Riya’s unexpected cackle of explosive laughter on the other end of the line.

“Oh my God,” she breathed out between laughter, “oh my God. You’re a sugar daddy? Vlad! Oh, oh can I tell Kitty? I have to tell Kitty.”

“No don’t—” Vlad began, cut it was already too late. He could hear Kitty’s squeal of laughter in the background as she excitedly proclaimed, “a sugar VLADDY!” and the two of them collapsed into hysterics.

“Well it’s been nice talking to you,” Vlad said conversationally over their laughter, “but I have to go drown myself now. See you at New Year?”

“No, oh no Vlad, I’m sorry,” Riya recovered. She sounded as though she was wiping tears away from her eyes. “Don’t hang up yet. I’m sorry, really, I just, that is not what I was expecting. And I know you wouldn’t come to me about it if it wasn’t important.” She gave another choked gurgle of laughter then cleared her throat. “How long has this been going on?”

“It’s all right,” Vlad sighed, leaning back in his chair at a languid slouch as he flicked the ash away from the end of his cigarette. “And just under two months. They’re college students, graduates actually. Little older than you two… Not that it makes it any better…”

“Oh, pfffft,” said the disembodied voice of Kitty on the other end, and Vlad couldn’t help but smile. He should have known she would still be listening. He was probably on speakerphone by now. “Please,” she said dismissively, “you’re not that old. My first boyfriend was older than you are now. Are they cute?”

“And that’s horrifying,” Vlad said mildly, though not unkindly. “I never wanted to be that kind of old man. And yes, they are very cute. Especially together.” He sighed, leaning forward over his desk to rest his head on the smooth, cool surface of the wood. “I know it’s ridiculous. I don’t even know how it happened. No, actually, that’s a lie. I did it to spite Lizzy for something she said. And it’s turned into something… more.”

“You like them, don’t you?” Riya asked softly. “You really, really like them?”

“I do,” he admitted, feeling something vaguely like relief flutter in his chest at finally being able to say it. “I like them so much and I want… I want to take care of them. And I can do that! I have the means to just remove a large chunk of their hardship and help make them happy. Is that… is that wrong?”

“If you’re asking me if it’s wrong to want to help people, then no, obviously not,” Riya said diplomatically. “If you’re asking me if I think it’s exploitative and creepy… well, are you being exploitative and creepy?”

“No! God no,” Vlad sat up straight, then thought about it. “At least… I hope not.”

“Well, what sort of arrangement do you have? Like what are you expecting them to do for you?”

“Do for me?” Vlad frowned, watching his cigarette burn down between his fingertips and deciding to stub it out. “I don’t… know.”

“Well what kind of things have you done so far?”

“So far I just send them things off their wish list. Food mostly, school books, clothes…”

“Sexy clothes?”

Vlad thought about it, remembering the sight of Nathan in that overstretched t-shirt. “Not particularly. Though I suppose that’s subjective.”

“And what have they done in return?”

Vlad thought about that too. “Nothing. They just sort of exist and occasionally post a picture of the item on their blog.”

“That’s it?” Riya pressed. “That’s all they do?”

“Yes, well…” he cleared his throat nervously. “They did invite me to… to a chatroom last night. With a webcam. But nothing happened,” he added quickly. “We just talked for a couple of hours.”

“What did you talk about?”

“Literary theory mostly. And what they were doing for Pride next year. And that new Mad Max film.” Which was technically no longer new, but Vlad hadn’t seen yet, but now at Ursula’s insistence he had queued up on his watch list at home and was intending to watch over the weekend.

The silence on the other end of the line went on so long Vlad pulled the phone away from his ear to make sure the call hadn’t accidentally disconnected. When Riya spoke again her voice was cautiously neutral.

“Vlad, are you honestly telling me that you’re getting nothing out of this but the joy of spending our father’s misbegotten fortune on a pair of queer, broke college students who want nothing more than clothes, books and food? Is that what I’m hearing?”

“Uh, yes?”

“Yeah, no, you’re good. You are in fact too good. You are the wet dream of every college student to have ever existed. They’re probably terrified you’re a hallucination. You are the moral shining beacon of what sugar daddy’s ought to be in this cruel, hard world.”

“I don’t know about that,” Vlad protested with a laugh. “It’s still… it is what it is. And I’m still married.”

“Vlad,” Riya said flatly, “that thing you’ve been afflicted with for the last twenty years isn’t a marriage. It’s an open wound. You deserve better. And while I’d never condone cheating, allow me to state for the record that I am glad, no, I am downright fucking ecstatic that you’ve found something that makes you happy again. You are happy, aren’t you?”

“I’m… I’m happier,” Vlad said, realizing with some shock that it was true. “Making them happy makes me happy.”

“And therein lies the exact reason you’ll never be like our father. He doesn’t do things to make people happy, he does it to make them unhappy. That’s his power kick. If your kink is genuinely making people happier—” Vlad choked on the use of that particular word, the tips of his ears burning red hot at the implications behind it. Riya, however, carried on, oblivious to the new dilemma she’d created. “—and you’re all clear about what’s going on and no one is getting hurt, well… it’s a little unconventional, sure. But you’re not like him. Not ever. You’re a good man.”

Despite his embarrassment, Vlad had to swallow around the sudden emotional lump in this throat. Somehow, she always knew what to say. He missed her. She was also right, he should probably look up that therapist she’d recommended.

“Thank you,” he said quietly, wishing she was near enough to hug.

“You’re welcome.” She smiled, Vlad could hear it in her voice. “Now, is that everything? Or can I go back to sleeping off this hangover?”

Vlad laughed, clearing his throat. “Yes, go and languish. You’ve been wonderful as usual. Thank you.”

“I know darling.”

“I miss you…”

“I miss you too. Call me anytime and remember to talk to them. Open communication is the key to any happy relationship. Love you.”

“Love you too. Bye Kitty.”

“Bye, bye Vladdy! Lots of love and kisses! Mwah!”

The line went dead, and Vlad set his phone back down on the desk. He felt both simultaneously exhausted and relieved. She was right, of course. He needed to talk to them about this. Set out appropriate boundaries and expectations. And give them a clear get-out clause if they ever wanted it.

And fortunately for them, Vlad was exceptionally good at writing get-out clauses.

He pulled up his desktop screen and cleared the next few appointments from his calendar, throwing them down the chain of command with a swipe. Liddle could handle them, and besides, it wasn’t as though he’d be able to focus on anything else until he got this done. This was the responsible thing to do.

Grinning to himself, Vlad opened another document, and began to type.

Chapter Text

“What,” Nathan began around a mouthful of cereal, “and I cannot stress this enough, the fuck is this? Come here, look at this.”

“What is it?” Ursula asked, watching his reflection in the hallway mirror as she replaced one of her many hooped earrings for studs.

One of the other aerialists at the club had canceled their early segment, and now Ursula was scrambling to get ready in time to fill their slot, her makeup and clothes scattered around the room like the aftermath of a sparkly tornado.

“It’s a God damned contract,” Nathan replied, scrolling through what appeared to be a rather lengthy document on his beat up, old laptop, the power cord held precariously in place with electrical tape. “Upon agreement of…” he muttered as he read, continuing to scroll until he got to the part that had caught his eye. “Whereby the beneficiaries may choose to end the engagement of services at any time, without expectation or any further obligation to their benefactor.” He looked up at her again. “Is this normal?”

Ursula shrugged, leaning in to apply her eyeliner with a steady hand. “It’s not unheard of. It’s a little formal perhaps, but I suppose that answers our question about what Mister V does for a living. He’s a lawyer.”

“Not a very good one if this is anything to go by,” Nathan muttered, scanning the rest of the document. “He’s practically giving us free rein to annihilate his credit rating.”

Ursula shrugged again, turning to face him and holding up two cosmetic tubes. “Maybe that’s his thing. Red or pink lipstick?”

Nathan ran a distracted eye over her ensemble. “Red. I mean… look, please I know you’re busy but please just come over here and read this. I think I’m hallucinating.”

With a sigh, Ursula turned back again and flopped over his shoulder to read the screen. A moment later she pushed her way into his lap, ignoring his grunt of protest as she pulled the laptop closer to her and read the last paragraph again. “What?!”

“See!” Nathan said around another mouthful of cereal, still managing to feed himself despite Ursula being in the way. “I am reading that right, aren’t I? He’s offering us a monthly spending allowance with zero obligation to quote, ‘perform’, unquote, or do anything we don’t want to do. There’s even something further down about several months advance pay if we decide to quit. This cannot be normal.”

“No,” Ursula replied, worrying at her bottom lip and ignoring the mess it made of her lipstick. “It’s not. It’s… incredibly generous. Like, really, generous. I’ve heard of this happening maybe once before.”

“And?”

“And she ended up married to the dude. Oh.”

“What?”

“There’s a phone number at the bottom.”

It took a moment for the words to filter through Nathan’s sleep deprived brain, but by the time he started to reach for his phone she’d already swiped it out from under his grasp and was out of his lap, dancing out of reach across the room as a manic grin spread over her face.

“Hey!” he protested.

“Shh!” she scolded as his phone began to ring, the sound obnoxiously loud on his tinny speakerphone.

“He’s not going to pick up,” Nathan said reasonably, “it’s the middle of the workday for people with real jobs. He’ll be too bus—”

The trill cut out on the fourth ring, and an expectant silence filled the room.

“Hello?” Ursula tried, looking hesitantly from the phone in her hand to Nathan and then back again.

“You know,” replied a disembodied voice slowly, the tone deep and rich with amusement, “I had rather thought it would take you a little while longer to call me.”

It was a little embarrassing, the loud clatter Nathan’s spoon made when he dropped it into his bowl, but his fingers no longer seemed to be working. He turned wide, horrified eyes up to Ursula, who was looking at him with a smug, knowing grin because oh no, he sounded hot. Really, really, hot.

“I’ve never been very good at being patient,” Ursula informed him, and Nathan had just about managed to regain control of his higher functioning motor skills when the other man laughed; a short low chuckle that managed to convey both patience and indulgence in a single breathy exhale, and nope, nope he’s gone again. Good bye world.

He caught Ursula’s eye and flipped her off as she continued to grin at him. She knew all his weaknesses, had even discovered quite a few of them herself. And certain types of voices were most definitely one of them.

There weren’t a lot of things Nathan wouldn’t do for someone with a voice like that.

“Besides,” she carried on, managing to keep her own tone level even as she practically danced on the spot, “you wouldn’t have left your number there if you didn’t want us to call it.”

Another huff of laughter broke over the line, and Nathan could all but imagine him rolling his eyes and shaking his head at her playful banter.

“Incorrigible,” he chided, and Nathan felt his face flush at the authoritative note behind it. “I take it Nathan is with you too?”

Nathan felt himself turn even redder at the sound of his name coming from that voice. It wasn’t quite a British accent, there was an odd tinge Nathan couldn’t identify. But it was smooth, autocratic even in its perfect enunciation and carefully measured tone. Like someone used to giving orders and having them obeyed. It made Nathan run hot and cold all at once in ways he’d only experienced in his own lurid fantasies. And from the way Ursula was looking at him, it was blatantly obvious on his face.

“Yes, he is,” she said, traitorously holding the phone out toward him. “Say hello Nathan.”

The smart thing to do, would have been to reply with ‘Hello Nathan’, but instead all he could manage was a choked out ‘Hi’ that broke apart in his throat, forcing him to try again. “Hi.”

“He’s shy,” Ursula explained, and Nathan shot her a murderous look. She blew a silent kiss at him in return.

“Ah,” Mister V said, still sounding amused. “That makes two of us then.”

“Really?” Ursula asked, tilting her head to the side. “You don’t sound nervous.”

“I’m very good at hiding it.”

“Hmm. So, is that why you don’t want to see us naked?”

Nathan, midway through a sip of tea to calm his nerves, choked. It was a sound mimicked on the other end of the line, and Nathan had the sudden mental image of a rich business man being forced to swipe water away from the front of his expensive suit and tie. It was a bonding moment for both of them, and oddly comforting to know he wasn’t the only one at the mercy of Ursula’s forthright candor.

“I, err,” the voice on the other end said, and Nathan could hear the nervousness now. It made him sound a little younger, and he mentally adjusted his image of him by a few years. There was a creak on the other end of the line, like someone leaning back in their office chair, and the subtle telltale shink-shink of a lighter being lit. “Not exactly.”

“So, you do want to see us naked?” Ursula pursued, and Nathan could just make out the shaky exhale on the other end of the line, likely accompanied by a cloud of smoke.

Nathan wasn’t a fan of smoking from a health standpoint, but he’d always found the visual aesthetic of it conflictingly appealing. Nathan was quite suddenly struck with the desire to know what Mister V looked like so he could pair the voice with the fantasy figure his mind was rapidly forming.

He wondered if Ursula felt the same.

“It’s not so simple as that,” their faceless benefactor said, sounding suddenly very, very tired. “It’s a question of… well, let’s call it a personal moral conflict.”

Ursula paused then nodded. “Ah, I see. You’re in a position of power,” she said, seemingly able to read his thoughts as though they were written out in front of her like an open book, “and you’re concerned about abusing it. So much so that you’re drastically overcompensating with kindness. Does that sound about right, Mister V?”

“How did—” There was a pause, followed by another burst of breathy laughter. “Very astute. I should have known your psychology books weren’t simply for window decoration.”

“Oh, it’s not that,” Ursula said, her voice dropping into the sweet, coy tone she often employed at the club with a very particular kind of guest.

“Then what is it?” Mister V asked, seemingly content to indulge her further, which Nathan knew from personal experience was never a good idea but was helpless to stop him.

“Simple, you’re not my first daddy, Daddy.”

The word dropped into the air like a bomb going off.

Nathan found himself frozen, feeling a throb of heat pulse through him at the use of that loaded word. It wasn’t something he was comfortable using either for himself or to someone else. But the taboo nature of it, combined with the complete unashamed bravado with which Ursula said it was inexplicably arousing. And from the drawn-out silence on the other end of the line, Mister V was also apparently coming to terms with that himself.

“Right,” the other man coughed, his voice cracking like a man suddenly trapped at work with a raging erection he hadn’t been expecting to deal with. “That’s… right. Yes. Fine. Good.” He cleared his throat and managed to regain some of his cadence. “Well, I’m glad one of us knows what the hell they’re doing.” He laughed, a genuine sound of sharp amusement that made both Nathan and Ursula grin. “One thing though, er, if… if we’re doing this?”

“Yes?”

“That word…”

“What word would that be?” Ursula asked sweetly.

“You know what word,” Mister V said sternly, still managing to sound fondly exasperated, and proving that he was exactly Ursula’s type as well.

Ursula preferred to play switch, but she also wore the title of Brat like a medal of honor. Nathan had seen her emotionally kneecap several hardcore Doms at the club with a well-aimed pout more than once. It was surprisingly satisfying to watch.

“Daddy?”

“Yes. That word.”

“What about it?”

“I’m not… I’m not sure I’m entirely comfortable with it, if… if that’s all right?”

Ursula’s mannerism shifted immediately. “Of course it is,” she said, switching her tone to something more affirmative and reassuring. The sigh of relief on the other end of the line was palpable. “Is there a particular form of address you’d prefer? Or should we just keep calling you Mister V?”

“That works,” Mister V said, starting to sound more like the charming stranger who had picked up the phone at the start of the conversation. And then he added, “Or, Sir would work, I suppose.”

And Nathan felt the pit of his stomach drop pleasantly away, like going over the crest of a rollercoaster, as a helpless sound of distressed arousal worked its way out of his throat.

“Yeah,” Ursula agreed, eyeing Nathan with near malevolent glee, “that’ll work nicely.”

Chapter Text

“You’ve been unusually cheerful recently,” Elizabeth said, eyeing Vlad over the breakfast table with wary suspicion, “who died?”

Reaching round to claim his coffee from behind the shield of his newspaper, Vlad took a careful sip and carried on reading. “No one, dear. But there’s still hope for the day yet.”

She didn’t laugh, and Vlad hadn’t expected her to, but to his surprise, she kept talking to him. “I saw the Carlisles at the club on Thursday. They want to know if we can do brunch soon.”

Vlad, trained by many years of marital discourse, kept his tone and face perfectly neutral, betraying nothing of his dislike for the other couple. “That was nice of them.”

“I said we would. Next Sunday.”

“Whatever works best for you, dear.”

Unable to find fault with his cordial reply, Elizabeth returned her attention to her plate, carefully slicing apart her grapefruit.

It had been quite some time since Vlad had come out here to enjoy the morning paper over a pot of coffee. It had been even longer since Elizabeth had sought to join him. There was something familiarly reassuring about it, yet somehow also inherently wrong; as though everything else that was going on between them didn’t exist out here under the awning of the patio, the sunlight filtering in through the canopy of the trees and the sound of the wind chimes tinkling brightly in the morning air. Even if he could see the mouth-shaped bruise on her neck hidden under the expensive Channel scarf.

On the table, his phone chimed gently.

“Who’s that?” Elizabeth asked, peering over the table before Vlad had even reached for it. “No one ever texts you.”

Moving slowly, Vlad lifted the phone from the table and gave the phone only the merest of glances before silencing it and turning it face down. “Riya,” he lied, reaching for his coffee cup again.

Across the table, Elizabeth pulled a face. It was hard to tell if it was from the grapefruit or the mention of his sister’s name. “It’s a little early for her to be up and about, isn’t it?”

Vlad shrugged. “Miracles are known to happen. I dare say she’s asleep again.”

Elizabeth merely hummed in response, tapping her long nails irritably against the side of her coffee cup. Usually, Vlad would have felt obliged to fill the silence at this point, but instead, he let it hang, allowing the moment to stretch on without end. After what seemed like a small eternity she stood, tossing her napkin down on her half-eaten breakfast. She hadn’t even touched the poached eggs she’d asked Mrs. Roane for.

“I’m going shopping,” she informed him, a definite ring of a challenge to her tone that said she was looking for an argument. Vlad merely looked up at her and smiled.

“Have fun, dear.”

He froze midway toward taking a sip from his coffee when she reached for him, gently turning his face up with a soft touch under his chin.

“Did you get a haircut?”

“No.”

She frowned down at him, not necessarily angry, more…  perplexed. Like she couldn’t figure out what was happening and perhaps if she stared at him long enough an explanation would present itself.

“You look different.”

“Do I?” Vlad asked mildly, wondering exactly where she was going with this.

“You look… younger.”

Vlad, who had never felt anything other than ancient his whole life, laughed shortly. “Thank you?”

“You’re welcome,” she said, still eyeing him strangely. “It’s your eyes, they look different.”

“I’m sleeping better,” Vlad informed her succinctly, leaning back out of her touch.

“Yes,” Elizabeth said, letting her hand drop and reaching for the leather driving gloves she’d slapped down on the table when she’d unexpectedly decided to join him this morning. “That must be it. Have you been going to your meetings?”

It was meant as a jab, a verbal slap in the face to remind him of all his personal failings—no doubt to make up for the inadvertent compliment she’d paid him. But Vlad pretended it wasn’t and smiled again. It was so much more infuriating for her that way.

“Every Tuesday and Thursday,” he said, which you’d know if you were ever home. He reached into his pocket and pulled out his latest sobriety chip. He had a collection of them in his nightstand, a veritable rainbow of successes. And failures.

Other people collected cufflinks in their top drawer. Vlad collected himself, one day at a time.

“Good,” she said, pulling on her gloves and draping her tweed coat over her arm. “We can’t have you slipping. Again.”

Vlad merely continued to smile, opting to ignore her venom. He was just preparing to go back to his reading when she leaned down, presenting her cheek to him. She was just about to get annoyed by his lack of response when he was saved by sheer muscle memory, placing a chaste kiss to the side of her cool cheek as his body responded to decades of familiarity even as his mind whirled at what was happening. It was the most intimate physical contact they’d had in weeks, possibly even months.

He didn’t miss, however, that she didn’t return the gesture.

“Don’t wait up tonight,” she said, patting him on the cheek like a dog that had performed a trick. “I’m going out with the Leslie twins.”

“Have fun,” Vlad reiterated his previous statement, realizing with some small shock he actually meant it. Even more surprising was the realization that he wasn’t angry. He didn’t care enough. Not anymore.

Elizabeth gave him one last puzzled look then turned to leave. Vlad, still pretending to read his paper, waited until he heard the sound of car tires crunching over gravel, then dove for his phone. He slid the lock screen open with an intense mix of anticipation and relief, watching as Ursula’s smiling face appeared in front of him.

He hadn’t asked for any pictures, in fact, he still hadn’t asked them for anything. But they’d started to appear in his inbox all the same; small little glimpse into their lives; walks through the park and sitting in Starbucks drinking lurid pink teas. Vlad had tried one of those earlier this week, it had been as sickeningly sweet as he’d imagined, and he’d very nearly wanted to lick a salt rock lamp afterward. But it was growing on him. And then there were the snapchats, (which, what even was Snapchat, Vlad still couldn’t figure it out) with the highly stylized filters or the silly face masks that made her look like a bunny of a dancing banana.

Though none, he couldn’t help but notice, came directly from Nathan. He put it down to Ursula’s comment about him being shy, but Vlad would have been lying if he said he wasn’t a little disappointed. He wasn’t going to say anything of course—he’d meant every word when he’d told them they were under no obligation to him for anything, and he’d stand by it. But he was only human, and the need to see more of them was killing him.

He swiped through the slideshow of pictures, smiling at the various poses and faces Ursula was willing to pull for his amusement. If Nathan was introverted, then Ursula was most definitely the extrovert. You could bottle her confidence and sell it as rocket fuel if you wanted to. Vlad found it endlessly charming. Today it seemed, was a selfie-loving day, and Vlad admired all of them with fond amusement. It wasn’t until he got to the last three that he noticed her outfit had changed, and swiped back and forth between them, realizing belatedly she was standing in a changing room.

That alone made his stomach swoop pleasantly, but it was the text under it that made him sit up and pay attention, gripping his phone in both hands as he focused all his attention on the screen.

Any preference?? It read, and Vlad realized it had only been sent in the last minute or so.

Swiping back through the pictures, he came to the only possible conclusion. You look good in all of them.

Yes, but if you had to pick *one*, her reply came back quickly, which one would you pick?

Vlad blinked, not quite understanding her dilemma. She had his charge card, didn’t she? He knew they’d been using it. (Groceries, pharmacy, groceries, and what looked to be the occasional lunch or dinner that didn’t consist of rice or ramen.) Unless… oh.

The thought made heat squirm pleasantly through him, pooling at the base of his spine. Unless, she wasn’t just asking if he had a preference, but also, for permission.

There was every real chance she wasn’t, but Vlad entertained the notion anyway, intending to savor it for later when he was left alone to his own devices. It was ridiculous really, how hot and hard the thought got him. Porn or any other kind of erotic material had never done it for him, but this was in a league of its own.

Sue, he typed back, why on earth would you only pick one? Buy all three.

But Mister Vvvvveeee, the reply came back instantly this time. I’m trying to be good :((((

Vlad couldn’t help but laugh. He could hear her exact tone of voice from the text, could even imagine her spoiled little pout that always begged to be kissed. He began typing out his reply, then stopped, clearing it away before starting again. Only to do the exact same thing again as different desires conflicted with his own introverted nature.

He still hadn’t quite recovered from when she’d called him ‘Daddy’ on the phone that first time and he still couldn’t believe he’d been bold enough to suggest they call him ‘Sir’ instead. But it was out there now, and a seemingly welcome part of their dynamic if the way Ursula used it was anything to go by. She didn’t use it consistently, seemingly preferring ‘Mister V’ instead, but she had a knack for dropping it into their texting at the most inconvenient of times.

Vlad had been unable to get up from his desk at work for a solid twenty minutes the last time she’d done it.

He began typing again, his face flushing hot in the cool morning air. He read it back again, peering through the cracks in his fingers as a peculiar giddy twist hooked into his chest, the hair at the back of his neck standing on end as his soul prepared to leave his body out of sheer mortal embarrassment.

Then why don’t you be a good girl and do what I tell you. Buy all three.

He regretted it the moment he hit send—wished to God he could take it back—and was very nearly on the verge of typing out an apology while preparing to drown himself in the pool when his phone chimed again. The reply was just three little words, but it pulled a groan deep from within his chest as it sent all the blood in his body rushing south.  

Thank you, Sir.

 

 

Chapter Text

“Is that a new dress?” Nathan asked, setting his bag down by the door and traipsing into the kitchen where Ursula stood leaning against the stove. She was simultaneously stirring a pot and reading a battered-looking paperback that had seen better days.

“Yeah…” she replied, visibly distracted by whatever she was reading, but not distracted enough to pass up the chance of hearing a compliment. “Do you like it? I thought I could wear it for a set in the club.”

Nathan tilted his head to the side giving her a lengthy appraisal. It was a short, black, crushed velvet affair with wide flowing sleeves and a synched bodice that made it look more suited for a renfaire than the local queer club on kink nights. But he supposed it would be somebody’s fantasy. It was certainly doing it for him. Especially the way it inched up the back of her thighs to reveal the shapely swell of her behind when she leaned over the stove to reach for some spices.

“Very nice,” he said, allowing his gaze to linger appreciatively as he tucked himself neatly into her personal space with familiar ease. “Did Mister V buy it for you?”

“He did!” Ursula exclaimed, switching her focus to him as she fished her cell phone out of her cleavage and handed it to him. “He bought me three actually, and you should see the message he sent me.”

Nathan slid open the cracked screen of her phone and read the last few lines in their conversation thread. “Jesus,” he breathed out, feeling the color start to rise in his cheeks.

“Right?” she enthused, a viciously triumphant look on her face. “I told you I got repressed-dom vibes from him. He just needs a little helpful nudging.”

“Smug,” Nathan admonished, giving her a playful tap on her upturned nose and continuing to scroll through the message thread.

It was remarkably tame, considering some of the sexting Nathan knew her to be capable of. There was the odd flirtatious bit of banter here and there, but for the most part, it read like two people getting to know each other. It made something sharp and ugly turn over in Nathan’s chest; envy he realized. It had been a long time since he’d felt anything like that.

“You could have that too you know,” Ursula said, giving him a meaningful side-eye as though she’d read his thoughts. “If you’d engage with him.”

“I know,” Nathan said sullenly, scrolling through a few more messages and nursing the feeling of unrequited longing turning over in his stomach. It wasn’t that he resented their attachment if anything he was happy that Ursula was happy. What bothered him was not being a part of it. And he had no one to blame but himself for that. Mister V had made it abundantly clear from the start that he’d allow Ursula and Nathan to be the ones to initiate contact, and while Ursula had jumped on that opportunity, Nathan had found himself uncharacteristically tongue-tied. He sighed. “I just… I dunno. It’s a little more overwhelming than I thought it would be…”

“Oh?” Ursula asked lightly, setting aside her book and lowering the heat on her bubbling concoction to turn the full measure of her attention on him. “Do you want to talk about it?”

“No,” Nathan muttered, tapping out of the messaging app to find that the background on her phone had been changed to another mutual selfie, his own grin glaring mockingly back at him from the cracked screen. “I’ll just let it fester some more till it turns into bitter resentment and I die an angry old man.”

“Well, that’s your choice dear,” Ursula informed him levelly, picking up the spoon again and stirring the pot some more.

“I dunno,” Nathan said again with increasing frustration, crossing his arms defensively over his chest, and then forcing himself to undo the gesture. He opted to grip the kitchen countertop instead, wishing fleetingly that he was still small enough to hop up and sit there like he’d done as a child. Or that their current living situation hadn’t been designed with hobbits in mind. “It’s just we’ve never actually shared a partner before. It’s always been someone else the other might know, but it was never a mutual thing before. And I know we do the, the sex thing.” He gestured vaguely, trying to encompass their online exhibitionism with a wave of his hand. “But it’s never been this involved before, y’know? Like, I almost feel like if it were just sex, I’d feel more comfortable with it. Is that weird? And I get that maybe that’s not his thing,” Nathan carried on, not waiting for her to reply, “maybe it’s just an emotional thing for him but it’s… So, like today, I’m at the grocery store buying lunch and I didn’t have any cash on me. All I had was a swipe card that didn’t bounce because it’s being funded by a stranger who gets off on buying us things and hhhhngl.” He trailed off, covering his face with his hands and scrubbing his fingers through his hair. “I just keep waiting for the other shoe to drop and I’m worried it’s going to be a piano. Or one of those acme safes with a stick of dynamite inside. But at the same time, Mister V seems really nice and I want to believe that he is. And I want to be involved and get to know him, I want to take part, I just… I feel like I don’t know what I’m doing. And that’s scary.”

The silence that followed was heavy, and Nathan found himself glancing up at Ursula apprehensively. Her lips were set into a mulish line, the corners of her mouth turned down as she frowned. But her eyes were shining and bright with remorse. Setting aside the spoon again, she moved toward him, burying her face against his front as she hugged him tightly.

“I’m sorry,” she said mournfully, her voice muffled by his chest. “I didn’t mean to pull you into something you didn’t want.”

“Aha, none of that,” Nathan said, pulling back from the hug to look her meaningfully in the eye. “I didn’t say I didn’t want it, in fact, I said the opposite. I just… I guess I need more help to process it than I thought I would. Fantasy vs reality, and all that…”

“I know, and I didn’t notice.”

“No, I didn’t let you,” Nathan corrected, smiling gently at her upturned pout. It always looked so kissable.

“But—”

“Lets just both agree there was a failure to communicate properly and move on from there,” he suggested, pulling her back in for another hug and taking comfort in her presence.

“Okay,” she murmured against his chest, returning the squeeze hard enough to push the air from his lungs with a grunt. “So, what can I do to help?”

“I’m not sure.” Nathan sighed, resting his chin gently atop her head as he thought. “This helps.”

“Does it?” she asked, and Nathan nodded, closing his eyes and shutting the world out till all he could feel was her reassuring weight in his arms. Allowing his hands to drift he became aware of the soft warmth of the velvet dress under his palms. It really was a nice dress, he thought to himself, though he couldn’t help but feel it would look even better on their bedroom floor. But perhaps now was not the best time to voice that opinion.

They stood intertwined for a while longer, listening to the sounds of apartment life going on around them; a slammed door on the floor below, muffled voices through the walls, the sound of a stereo turned up too high, followed by the muffled thud of someone banging for it to stop. It wasn’t much, but it was the sound of home, at least, where home was for now. And there was a certain kind of comfort in that. After a little while longer, Ursula began to shift restlessly in his arms, and Nathan let his hold slacken and she slid free.

“I love you,” she said, standing up on tip-toe to place a chaste but sincere kiss to his mouth. “Very, very much.”

“I love you too,” Nathan replied, returning the kiss.

“But we still need to figure this out,” Ursula informed him sternly, picking up the spoon again and stirring the pot vigorously. “And you need to promise to tell me in future if you feel this way again, understand?” she asked, waving the spoon under his nose for emphasis.

She looked so deadly serious Nathan couldn’t help but laugh. “I know, I know, I’m sorry,” he said, holding his hands up when she looked fit to smack him with it. “I’m not laughing at you or the situation I swear. You just looked so fierce with the spoon.”

“Spoons are a valuable and formidable tool,” she informed him solemnly, smiling softly to herself when he laughed again. “Oh,” she turned back to face him, suddenly serious again. “Did you get the batteries I left out for you this morning?”

“Yes,” Nathan said, reaching up to touch his hearing aid out of habit. “Thank you. You were right, changing them out did help. I’ll probably need to spring for a new one soon though. The batteries shouldn’t be running out that quick.”

“Hmm,” Ursula made an unhappy sound of sympathy, and then her expression lifted. “Oh, I just thought of something.”

“What?” Nathan asked, wary of the tone in her voice. He knew that tone, it was the kind that lead to bungee jumping and waking up after a weekend at Burning Man with a new tattoo you didn’t remember getting.

“So, this thing with Mister V… are you shy because he knows both of us, or is it something else? Like, is it the intimacy of it? The power dynamic?”

Nathan reached up to rub the back of his neck. “The power dynamic is part of it. I mean, I like that part of it too, it’s just… complicated. But I think it’s more… so like sex is one thing, but this somehow feels like it’s more? And it’s meant to be both of us, and I just don’t know where to begin.”

“Okay, so,” Ursula said, pushing her hair out of her face as she thought, “what if I’m the vee? What if you engage through me?”

“Aren’t I already?” Nathan asked, puzzled.

“You’re engaging passively,” Ursula corrected, evidently warming to the idea, “what if you were engaging with him the way I do?”

“How?”

“So, instead of me taking selfies to send to him, you could take pictures of me, and send them from your phone.”

Nathan frowned. “I dunno…”

“Why not? It would let you open a dialogue. Give you something in common to talk about. You could even film me,” Ursula said, her smile taking on a knowing edge that cut directly to the heart of his voyeuristic little soul, making him squirm guiltily from foot to foot at being so intimately known and called out in the breath of a single sentence. “You’ve both got that proclivity in common.”

“Do we?” Nathan asked, unable to help himself from being drawn into the idea as she slid back into his arms. Her smile took on a positively vicious gleam as she rubbed up against him and felt the evidence of his firm interest in the idea. “What else do we have in common?”

“Hmm, lots of things.” Ursula shrugged coyly, looking up at him from under dark lashes. “Similar taste in books, films… repressed dom tendencies and a weakness for spoiling bratty little sluts.”

Nathan huffed silently with laughter. “Is that a fact?” he asked, a spike of heat lancing through him from top to toe as Ursula bit her lip and nodded shyly, casting him a timid sidelong glance that was absolutely feigned for his benefit.

“Mhm,” she hummed, gently walking her fingertips up the front of his shirt and playing with the buttons. “It could be a bonding experience for both of you.”

“Is that the only bonding on offer?” Nathan asked, reaching down to hike her up to his height with a firm squeeze of her ass. Ursula shrieked gleefully in response, wrapping her legs tightly around his waist with a giddy sounding little giggle that made his toes curl.

She always liked it when Nathan used his greater height and size to manhandle her about, and Nathan was always more than happy to oblige. Within reason of course.

“Doesn’t have to be,” she murmured, laughing softly against his mouth. Their lips were close enough to kiss, but Ursula leaned back, holding herself deliberately just out of reach.

“This really is a lovely dress,” Nathan said, playing the game and diverting his attention to the tantalizing amount of cleavage on display.

Ursula preened under his attention. “Well, you can thank Mister V for it yourself later.”

“Later,” Nathan promised, shifting his hands to under her ample thighs and hiking her up higher as he began to move down the hall toward their bedroom.

“Wait!”

And then abruptly back out into the kitchen again, still holding Ursula firmly in his arms as she bent backward in his grasp to twist about with all the agility of her profession, and turned the heat off on the stove.

“Okay,” she said, pulling herself upright and securing her grip firmly around his neck. “Now let’s go.”

Chapter Text

The room was in darkness when they stumbled clumsily over the threshold, kissing and giggling as they went. For once, Ursula was glad she’d gone to the trouble of making the bed that morning; there was just something so much more deliciously satisfying about landing amidst a pile of plumped up pillows and smooth satin sheets.

Even if the bed did creak alarmingly at her none too gentle landing when Nathan unceremoniously dropped her on the mattress.

“Hey!” she scolded, wriggling upright to lean against the headboard and feeling around for the switch that would light the fairy lights wrapped around the headboard. “Be careful.”

“Oh please,” Nathan scoffed, taking his time to undo the buttons of his shirt under the dim, twinkling lights. “Like you don’t love it.”

“I do,” Ursula said, her mouth turning dry as she watched him cast his shirt aside, the muscles in his chest visible under the clinging white t-shirt underneath. “It’s the bed I’m worried about.”

Nathan gave her an arch look and reached down to wrap strong fingers around her ankle. She squealed when he pulled her down the mattress with a firm but gentle little yank, causing the skirt of her dress to bunch up around her hips as he began prowling up the length of the bed toward her, a gleam of hunger visible in his darkening eyes.

“Maybe if you ask Mister V nicely, he’ll buy us a new one.”

Ursula, her heart pounding and a steady tingle of heat beginning to build in her core, raised a curious eyebrow at him. They rarely talked about other partners when they were fooling around, preferring to focus on each other and be present in the moment instead. But if this was his way of trying to be more comfortable having someone like Mister V in their lives, Ursula was willing to run with it. Hell, she’d sprint.

“Maybe,” she said, her words muffled by the kiss he pressed to her lips, “or maybe you should.”

“Maybe I will,” Nathan conceded with an easy shrug, shifting his attention to kiss and nibble at her neck. She squealed again when his teeth found the sensitive shell of her ear, squirming under him as his breath came heavy and hot against her skin. “What’s your safe-word?”

“Red,” Ursula replied reaching for the headboard where another switch resided. She flicked it on and off, and a string of red lights wrapped around the top bar of the headboard flickered briefly. It was an impossible visual to miss, even if Nathan didn’t manage to hear her.

“Good girl,” he breathed out, the sound rumbling low and deep in his chest, and Ursula couldn’t suppress the shiver that ran down her spine. Suddenly simply kissing wasn’t enough.

“You’re wearing too many clothes,” she whined, pulling in frustration at the t-shirt that still covered his upper torso. Kneeling up, Nathan looked down at her, his mouth twisting to the side in a wry smirk as he pulled the t-shirt off over his head, revealing his thick powerful frame underneath.

“Better?” he asked, “or do you want me to flex some more?”

“Yes,” Ursula said breathlessly, launching herself up at him and simultaneously trying to pull him down on top of her and wanting to climb him like a tree.

Laughing, Nathan pried her off, managing to grasp both her wrists in one massive hand and pinning them above her head. “Behave,” he warned, and Ursula stopped straining against him, falling back against the mattress with a sullen pout.

“But I want,” she said, hearing the petulant whine in her own voice and sinking into her role as easily as she sank into the pillows beneath her. Nathan merely laughed at her again, a low chuckle of indulgence deep in his chest that made her ears and cheeks burn pink at how fondly patronizing it sounded. It was perfection, and exactly what she wanted to hear right now.

“I want doesn’t get, sweetheart,” he admonished, compounding the feeling of smallness overtaking her by giving her a gentle tap on the nose. Ursula bit the offending digit in retaliation. “Hey!” Nathan warned, tapping her again. “None of that.”

“Mister V gives me what I want,” she muttered sulkily, watching as Nathan’s expression flickered briefly before the mask of calm resumed. He’d started it earlier by bringing Mister V into the game, but apparently he hadn’t expected her to turn it around on him.

“Is that a fact?” Nathan asked, his brows knitting together as she carried on her petulant pretense.

Yes.”

“Well then,” Nathan replied on, his tone affecting just the right amount of firm patience and tenderness that made her want to press her thighs together and squirm, “it’s a good thing I’m here to give you what you need then, isn’t it?”

“… yes,” Ursula murmured, suitably meek and chastened under his stern appraisal.

“And what is it you need, sweetheart?” he asked, his voice low and sweet as he leaned over her, nudging his nose against her and teasing her mouth with the ghost of a kiss. “Hmm? Why don’t you tell me?”

Ursula turned her head away, murmuring something unintelligible into her arm as a hot, embarrassed bloom flushed over her skin. She wasn’t shy by nature, but sometimes, when she was least expecting it, the feeling would creep up on her. It was a delicious sort of torment.

“What’s that?” Nathan prompted, gently turning her head back to face him, losing some of his severity as he smiled down at her, adjusting to match her mental headspace without so much as a momentary stutter. “Come on, tell me what you need, that’s a good girl.”

His words caught in her chest, a sudden swell of emotion she’d never been able to name, and Ursula let out a shaky breath. She could feel the warm glow of subspace beginning to cloud over her thoughts, suffusing her limbs with a pleasant softness that was both heavy and light.

It was funny really. As uncertain as Nathan could be about himself, he was utterly in his element in a scene. Half the doms she’d met in the club could only wish they had his kind of presence, while the other half—the shitty, ego-driven half—merely thought they did. And while some of the better ones could bring her down into the depths of subspace, no one else had ever managed it as swiftly or gently as he did. There was, she reflected in the part of her brain not overtaken by pink fog, a steady calmness to Nathan that she’d never found within herself. And it lent itself well to a genuine kind of authority that was both comforting and electrifying all at once. And he’d chosen to share it with her.

It was enough to make her soul ache.

“Hey, you okay?” Nathan nudged, and Ursula roused herself back into verbality.

“I’m fine,” she said, smiling hazily up at him and hearing the ditzy lift in her voice. Apparently, she was feeling needy and giggly tonight. Oh well. “I was just thinking…”

“Oh?” Nathan asked, his tone shifting seamlessly down once more to something even softer, matching her mood. “What were you thinking?”

“I’m thinking,” Ursula drawled out, wriggling under him for emphasis and eliciting a grunt of surprise when her thigh brushed up against the growing bulge in his jeans, “how good your cock is going to feel inside of me.”

“Is that a fact?” Nathan asked, his tone still light and playful, but affecting a stern note again that was positively toe-curling. “Who says you’re getting it?”

This time Ursula’s pout was genuine, and she allowed a pathetic sound to wheedle its way out of her chest in protest at the thought of being denied the feeling of his hard length filling her up. It didn’t necessarily matter where at this point, just so long as she got it.

“But I need it,” she insisted, trying to convey the needy maw of ache at the center of her core as plainly as possible, shifting restlessly under him and pulling at the firm hold he still had on her wrists. Just to feel her muscles burn, just to feel something. “Please, I’ll be good. I can be good!”

“Can you?” Nathan pressed, and Ursula nodded earnestly. “Reach for the headboard,” he said, releasing her hands and shifting off her so she could wiggle her way free. Clasping her hands firmly around the wooden spokes of the old-fashioned headboard, Ursula’s eyes were drawn longingly to the silk ties that hung casually from the decorative knobs, blending in seamlessly with the eclectic décor of the bedroom. “Now keep them there,” Nathan instructed, and Ursula felt a genuine jolt of trepidation run through her when she realized he wasn’t going to tie her in place. It must have been visible on her face because Nathan laughed, busying himself with collecting supplies from the trunk at the foot of the bed.

“What’s the matter, sweetheart? You can be good for me, can’t you? You don’t really need the restraints, do you?”

“Fuck you,” Ursula muttered under her breath, and Nathan gave her an arch look.

“What was that?”

“Love you,” she replied louder, knowing it wouldn’t save her ass from the paddling she’d likely get later, but trying anyway.

“Hmm, thought so,” Nathan said, not sounding convinced in the slightest as he fiddled with something out of her line of sight. “Bend your knees,” he said, giving her a none too gentle slap on the side of her thigh, and rolling his eyes when she jerked away with a squeal. “I didn’t say close them,” he admonished, prying her knees apart. “Are these new?” he asked, sliding a teasing finger over the smooth fabric of her underwear, making her twitch uncontrollably when the pad of his thumb rubbed over her clit.

They were in fact a new pair of silk tap briefs, the kind she liked to wear on stage when she was performing on retro nights. She’d picked them up the other day on a whim, drawn to the shimmer of the fabric. They were also starting to become uncomfortably wet.

“I said are these new?” Nathan asked again, and Ursula realized the only sound that had come out of her mouth was a wordless sound of need.

“Yes,” she said between breathless pants, though just why or how that detail mattered right now she had no idea.

“Did Mister V buy them for you?”

Oh, that was why. Ursula licked her lips, trying to anticipate where he was going with this. “No…”

“Did you use his card?”

“… yes?”

“Did you ask him nicely for permission?”

And didn’t that do all kinds of strange and wonderful things to the inside of her head.

“N-no,” she admitted meekly, feeling a sharp pang of guilt and fresh arousal twist through her gut when Nathan hummed disapprovingly.

She had a complicated relationship with that sound; both thrilled by what it implied was coming, but also dismayed she’d done something naughty enough to earn it. After all, she didn’t want to be naughty. Not really. She wanted to be good.

“Are you sorry?”

Until she didn’t.

“… No.”

Nathan merely chuckled. “Thought as much. Oh well, we’ll just have to make up for that, won’t we? Close your eyes.”

“Yes?” Ursula tried, doing as she was bid and letting her eyes slide shut. It felt like the right thing to say. Anything that would get him inside of her and fucking her senseless was the right thing to say, even if she was to be deprived of the sight of him moving over her.

“Good,” Nathan praised, and the word shot through Ursula’s core, making her shiver almost as much as the touch of his hand. Which he abruptly drew away.

“No—” Ursula protested, arching up and trying to rekindle the delicious friction that had been so effortlessly stoking the fire in her gut. Nathan merely shushed her, giving her a reassuring pat on the thigh and shifting up the bed to prop her legs open on either side of his knees. Knees, which she realized somewhat belatedly, that were still very much clad in jeans.

And then the buzzing started, and the familiar weight of the vibrator wand was pressed against her cleft.

Ursula arched into the sensation, gasping as the vibrations flooded over the throbbing heat of her arousal. This hadn’t been what she’d been expecting, but if Nathan wanted to get her off this quickly, then she wasn’t about to argue. But no sooner had the stimuli began than it was abruptly withdrawn.

Ursula made a noise of protest, tipping her head up to demand what the entire fuck when Nathan beat her to it. “Aha, eyes closed,” he warned, “And don’t let go of the headboard.”

She was soothed momentarily when he lifted her leg and pressed a kiss to the inside of her ankle, but whatever solace she had drawn from the touch was lost when the vibration started up again, this time pressed squarely against the sole of her foot.

“Ah! No!” she squealed, writhing as the ticklish sensation worked its way up through her foot to the rest of her leg, making her want to crawl out of her own skin to escape it. “No, no, no, no!”

“Oh, settle down,” Nathan chided, shifting the pressure of the wand to the inside arch of her foot and holding her firmly in place when she tried to kick him away. “Anyone would think you were being murdered.”

“Don’t like,” she said between gasps, laughing despite herself and gripping the headboard tighter for support. “Don’t, Nathan, please.”

“Do you want to use your safe-word?” Ursula clamped her lips shut, and Nathan let out another low rumble of laughter as he dragged the vibrating head of the wand up her calf to the back of her knee, drawing the torment out as she jerked and writhed against the ticklish touch. “Thought as much.”

When he eventually returned it to the cleft of her inner thigh, it was all Ursula could do not to weep with relief, her moans filling the room as she bucked up against the firm pressure of the wand, striving to find that one perfect spot that would tip her over the edge of release.

Which was again the exact moment Nathan drew it away again.

“Oh, fuck you.”

“Now that one I heard,” Nathan chuckled, jabbing her playfully in the side with the wand and laughing again when she shrieked and tried to shy away from it. “Just for that, I’m switching it to random.”

“Noooo,” Ursula wheedled, squirming uncontrollably when he pressed the toy against her swollen lips through the wet silk of her undergarments.

“Say sorry,” Nathan prompted, and Ursula bit down on her lower lip, forcing herself to breathe and settle even as her thighs trembled and her arms ached. The buzz of the vibrator was maddeningly unpredictable, both under and overwhelming by turns, but perhaps if she concentrated and managed to ride it out just right she’d be able to come. “No?” Nathan queried when she didn’t reply. “Oh, all right then. Maybe I’ll just switch it off altogether and leave you here then.”

“You wouldn’t dare!” Ursula’s eyes flew open, glaring daggers at him.

“Oh?” he tilted his head to the side, evidently amused by how wrecked she must look. He gave her leg a patronizing little pat as he jostled the wand up and down the length of her soaked underwear. “And what are you going to do about it?”

“I’ll… I’ll, ohhmmmm!” she trailed off, biting her lip as the vibrations ramped up again, creating a steady and relentless pulse of heat between her legs that still wasn’t enough.

“Sorry, what was that?” Nathan teased, which was when inspiration struck.

I’ll tell Mister V on you.”

It was a silly, utterly ridiculous thing to say at a time like this, but Ursula heard the hitch in his breath that told her the idea wasn’t entirely without merit. Despite his current illusion of power, Nathan was not immune to the lure of having someone else to answer to, someone else telling him what to do. Someone else other than her. And Mister V, with his quiet, soft-spoken tone of authority and his gentle, breathy laugh—even faceless as he was—had taken up that mantle in Nathan’s head. It was a fantasy he’d never allowed himself to experience fully.

At least, not yet.

“And what’s he going to do?” Nathan tried to laugh, the sound coming out shakier than it had done a moment before as he paused briefly in his torment to divest her of her underwear, leaving her wet folds bare and exposed. “Make me make you come?”

“Maybe,” Ursula breathed out, arching her back with an enticing little wiggle, fully aware of the view she was giving him. “Maybe not. Maybe he’s got a sadistic streak like you and likes to watch people squirm.” She tilted her head up, giving him her best, prettiest, most vicious grin, losing herself in the fantasy narrative she was spinning for him. “Or maybe he’d do the same to you.”

Nathan’s groan was a harsh, helpless sound, and Ursula let her head drop back down onto the pillow, her laugh a thing of pure frustration and delight that bordered on hysterics.

“That’s cheating,” Nathan complained, shuffling forward ever so slightly on his knees and momentarily dislodging the vibrator as he reached down to adjust himself, his erection now painfully evident in the line of his jeans.

“Maybe,” Ursula conceded, taking the moment of respite to catch her breath and let some of the tension ease out of her straining muscles. “But you like the idea,” she said, nudging at him playfully with her foot, jolting when the wand pressed firmly against her clitoris and the speed increased again. “You like the idea of him watching you fuck me until I can’t… can’t take it anymore. Oh my God that’s good.”

It was almost too much if she was honest. The vibrator only worked for so long before things started to go numb, but Nathan had skillfully managed to keep her on the edge, cresting on the wave of release threatening to crash over her. She’d caught the rhythm of his torment now too and was half expecting him to pull the toy away again as a punishment for wrangling control of the game they were playing away from him. But instead, she found herself arching up uncontrollably into it with a cry when the toy switched to a different setting; a low rolling throb that juddered quickly upwards, pulsing rapidly, the sharp contrast of sensations flaring through her, bright and hot as she came.

Usually, Nathan would have warned her, guided her through it with soft, crooning words about how wonderful she was—how good she was, how well she’d done—as though reaching orgasm in itself was something to be rewarded. (And as far as he was concerned, it was.) But there were no such words this time, and when Ursula pried her eyes open, she could see why. He looked just about as wrecked as she felt, his eyes dark and glittering with want, and his breath coming in short ragged pants as he watched her come down.

“What’s the matter?” she asked, her words slurred and giddy as she giggled. “Cat got your tongue?” She wriggled her hips enticingly and giggled again when Nathan’s dazed gaze snapped down to her swollen, wet sex. If it was at all possible, his eyes grew even darker, the flush of heat on his cheeks deepened.

Anyone would have thought it was him who had just had his orgasm wrung out of him.

“What do you want?” she prompted after another moment, realizing she may have tipped the game too far out of his control, and rendered them both useless and subby. It had happened more than once, but Ursula was always quicker to recover and adapt. She gave him a gentle tap on the outside of his thigh with her foot, drawing his attention back up to her face. “What do you want?” she repeated, suspecting he hadn’t heard her the first time.

“You.”

It was so sincerely succinct Ursula couldn’t help but laugh again, the sound hitching up as the twitching aftershocks continued to work their way out of her. She wasn’t done though, she could still feel the needy clench of tension between her thighs that begged to be filled, the deeper curl of arousal still coiled low in the pit of her stomach, desperate for more.

“Come get me then,” she said, letting go of the headboard to hold her arms open to him, unable to keep from laughing when he all but pounced, wrapping her up in the strength of his arms and the warmth of his embrace as his mouth sought out hers.

He fumbled with his jeans, the illusion of calm control gone and replaced by a frantic need that was somehow just as gratifying—as was the sound he made deep in the back of his throat when she reached down to help him, wrapping her hand around the hard length of his freed cock.

“That’s it,” she encouraged, speaking low and softly into his good ear as she stroked him off. “Let me hear how much you like it.”

“Oh, fuck me,” he moaned into the side of her neck, already breathing heavily.

“Well, we could do that, if you really want to,” Ursula agreed, “but I was rather hoping you’d do me first.”

Nathan swore again, pushing off from her just briefly enough to shuck out of his jeans and leaning precariously over the side of the bed to swipe the bottle of lube that stood in perpetuity on the nightstand. She was already wet enough that they likely didn’t need the added help, but she definitely wasn’t going to argue with him; not when he was pushing into her in one fluid movement.

They clung to each other, both momentarily stunned by the mutual ripple of pleasure that washed over them.

“Oh God you feel amazing,” Nathan breathed out, starting to move his hips in slow, shallow thrusts that made Ursula spasm uncontrollably, her body still overly sensitive from his teasing with the vibrator.

Hooking her ankles together behind his lower back, Ursula shifted position slightly, the new angle causing him to thrust deeper, and working a shared, guttural sounding moan from both of their throats.

“I love how you feel inside of me,” Ursula groaned, right into his ear, “I love how hot and hard you get, I love—oh!” She lost the train of her sentence on a moan as Nathan began to move faster, snapping his hips forward and grinding up against her in that maddening way he did that let her grind her clit off him at the same time.

“This?” he asked, sly and cocksure in his ability to bring her off, even if he was practically trembling from his own need.

“God yes,” she hissed out, raking her nails down the length of his muscled back, feeling him flinch then arch into the sensation, chasing the pain. “I love it when you do that!”

He repeated the move a few more times, urged on by Ursula and her tightening grip around his waist with her thighs. She could feel him getting closer. Could feel his cock pulsing inside of her as his orgasm drew nearer, the muscles in his body tensing as he fought to hold back, just for a little longer. He faltered entirely for a moment when she squeezed around him, the sound of his moan more gratifying than the clench of pleasure it sent spiking to her core, so Ursula grinned and did it again, just to feel him shudder.

“Close,” he warned, his voice cracking on another whine of pleasure as she raked her nails over his back again. “Really, really close.”

“Do you want to come inside me?” she asked, affecting the same playfully authoritative tone he had done with her earlier. As though she were offering him a privilege and not the very thing she wanted and knew she needed to come again. Nathan nodded mutely in return, all his attention focused on trying to hold himself back for her sake.

Which was no fun, Ursula decided. Sweet as it was, she very suddenly wanted to ruin him. She wanted to feel him come undone, and shake apart inside of her, and taste her name on his lips. And she suspected she knew just how to achieve it.

“Fuck me like he’s telling you to,” she murmured low and close to his ear, his movements abruptly stilling with a harsh little gasp as she unspooled the thread of fantasy he’d started weaving for them at the start of this scene. “Fuck me like he’s watching, and you’re not allowed to come until I do.”

Nathan made a strangled sound in the back of his throat, part despair, part unspeakable arousal as a shiver worked its way down his spine. And then suddenly he moved, hoisting her hips off the bed as he began to thrust into her with renewed vigor. Ursula couldn’t help the yelp of a squeal that escaped her lips, reaching out to grab onto his wrists for something to hold on to as he tilted the angle again so that he was thrusting down into her, the deep angle allowing his cock to drag over her g-spot with every stroke.

“Oh God yes go faster,” she begged, panting and gasping raggedly as Nathan complied, a sheen of sweat breaking out over his forehead. She could feel him shaking in earnest now, could feel the tension in the taut line of his trembling body as he fought to hold back the inevitable, his rhythm starting to become erratic as he began to come apart.  “I love you.”

She knew it was cheating the moment she said the words, but she said them anyway, watching through the haze of her own pleasure as his head fell forward, his mouth dropping open in a silent gasp as he thrust jerkily into her and stilled, a low, desperate groan of bliss working its way out of his deep, barrel chest as he came inside of her, the feeling of his cock pulsing deep within her core shoving Ursula over the edge of her own release as a second orgasm crashed over her with a harsh, startled cry that was very nearly blinding in its intensity.

“Fuck me gently,” Nathan managed to rasp out as he lowered her gently to the mattress, sounding just as thoroughly wrecked as he looked. He laughed shortly, shaking the sweat-damp curls of his hair out of his eyes as he looked down at her. “Are you all right?”

Ursula, lying in the wreckage of her own carnal delight, couldn’t help but giggle, the sound coming out breathless and giddy as she basked in the afterglow of a thoroughly good fucking. He was still inside of her, his cock twitching as weakening aftershocks rippled through both of them. She’d have to unhook her legs from around his waist and let him go eventually, but it didn’t have to be just yet. “I’m perfect darling. How are you?”

Despite her tone, it was a genuine question, and Nathan treated it as such. He frowned slightly, struggling to piece together his thoughts in the hazy exhaustion clearly starting to roll over him. He lowered himself down further, coming to rest on his elbows above her, close enough that they were touching from top to toe, but not crushing her under his weight either. She could feel his heart hammering against his chest, the rapid beat mirroring her own.

He nodded slowly, blinking down at her like he was having trouble keeping her in focus. “I think I lost some brain cells,” he joked at last, and Ursula snorted softly, reaching up to soothe her fingers through his hair, sweeping the shaggy chestnut brown curls out of his face again.

“Is that good or bad?”

“Good,” Nathan said emphatically, letting his head drop down onto her chest as his limbs finally gave out. He was heavy, but she didn’t mind. “Very… very good.”

Another shiver rippled over him, and Ursula ran soothing hands over his back. They’d likely need to talk some things through later, but not now. After a while, she became aware of him nuzzling against her chest, and Ursula raised an eyebrow at him. “You’re not normally this into my tits,” she said, and Nathan looked up, giving her a boyishly, sheepish grin that made her heart flutter.

“Sorry, it’s… soft,” he said, a fresh flush of color rising to his cheeks.

“Yes dear, tits normally are.”

“No, I mean the dress,” he said, extracting himself from her hold and rolling off to cuddle up against her side, liberating her from his weight. “The velvet feels nice.”

“Yes, it does,” she agreed, looking down at herself and surveying the crumpled velvet. It was a good thing it was supposed to look crushed, though she’d have to get it dry cleaned before wearing it again. “Well, I suppose I should get up.” Ursula rolled over onto her front, crouching up on her knees to lean in and press a kiss to Nathan’s expectant, upturned mouth.

“I love you too, by the way,” he said between kisses, and Ursula beamed at him, tapping him playfully on the end of his nose.

“I know. Right,” she said, standing up on the bed and making the mattress bounce obnoxiously. “Time to pee, then shower. Why don’t you order take out and maybe we can watch someth—excuse you.” She glanced down to where Nathan’s hand had wrapped around her leg again, his thumb swiping affectionately over her ankle bone, but very definitely keeping her from jumping off the end of the bed. “I have things to do.”

“Wait a minute.” Eyeing her shrewdly, Ursula watched as Nathan reached down onto the floor where his jeans had fallen and fished his phone out of his pocket, thumbing it open with a one-handed swipe and aiming it up at her.

“What are you doing?” she asked, and Nathan’s smile took on a sly, crooked edge, the sound of the camera’s artificial shutter obscenely loud in the quiet of the room as he motioned for her to twirl around.

“Saying thank you.”

 

Halfway across the illuminated city, Vlad sat propped up against the headboard of his bed, lazily scrolling through the Internet. He was just about to close the lid of his laptop and turn in for the night when his phone chimed gently beside him. He picked it up without looking, thumbing open the screen, and frowning in confusion when he realized his text thread from Ursula hadn’t updated. Instead, he swiped backward, his heart doing a funny little skittering beat in his chest when he saw Nathan’s name at the top of his inbox. Opening it up he was greeted by several loading images, all of them of Ursula, and… A video…

Vlad clicked on it, wondering just what exactly they’d sent him, and feeling the heat rush to his face when he realized.

Ursula stood on what appeared to be the foot of a bed, her hair wild and disheveled as she bounced impishly up and down on the creaking mattress. She looked, for want of better phrasing, completely and utterly fucked.

“No,” Nathan’s low, husky voice said over the audio, softly but sternly, causing Vlad’s heart to hitch in his chest, and Ursula to aim a pout in the general direction of the camera.

“Come on, let’s see it,” Nathan’s disembodied voice demanded, and Vlad didn’t even bother to suppress the wounded groan of desire that escaped the back of his throat as he watched Ursula look directly into the camera, her expression turning coy and coquettish as she bit her lip and twirled on the spot with a giddy little giggle, causing the skirt of the dress to flare just enough for Vlad to realize she likely wasn’t wearing anything under it.

“What do you say?” Nathan’s voice prompted, and Ursula replied in a sweet, sing-song voice that belied the wicked, knowing look of her smile that sent all the blood in his body rushing south, and his free hand guiltily following after.

“Thank you, Mister Vee.”

Chapter Text

Vlad pulled up in front of the gates that barred his old family home, reaching out through the open driver window to press the call button. He had his own fob key to get in, but he’d left it at work and had no inclination to go into the office this morning.

The speaker came to life with a burst of static, tinny and hollow as the person on the other end of the line spoke. “Who is it?”

Vlad leaned toward the camera he knew was pointed at him, tipping his sunglasses up. There was a loud obnoxious buzz, followed by the scrape and grind of the wrought-iron gates swinging open to let him pass through. He drove up the winding driveway with a vague feeling of dread and nausea the closer he drew to the house.

The outside of the building was a cross somewhere between the Addams’ family home merged with the hideous proportions of the late 90s McMansions. The original gothic charm of the late 19th century home had been marred by the addition of several new wings, an inordinate amount of marble pillars, and an amalgam of different features that didn’t so much clash as meld into one horrendous architectural faux pas held together by the sin of too much money, and a hunchbacked roof.

The inside wasn’t much better, but at least Lady Margarete was consistent in her taste. Which was more than could be said for his father’s previous wives.

“Vlad, darling!” his stepmother trilled as he let himself inside, her heels clacking obnoxiously loud on the marble staircase as she descended toward him in a flurry of leopard print and pastel cashmere. She was followed by an army of small dogs, all of them yapping loudly at her heels as she swept forward to press a faux kiss to either side of his face. “Mwah, mwah! How are you, sweetheart? Can I get you anything? Some coffee, iced tea?” It was still early in the morning, but she was holding a martini glass with three olives in it.

“No thank you,” Vlad said.

“I’ll get you some iced tea,” she said, and Vlad tried not to roll his eyes as she tottered away from him, heading towards the kitchen.

“Have you eaten yet?” she called, spinning around in the cavernous space of the kitchen. “I can make you some eggs? What about some bacon? Toast?”

“If I say no will it make any difference?” Vlad asked, coming to sit at the slab of marble that served as the kitchen island and accepting the iced tea she shoved into his hands. It was sickeningly sweet, but then Vlad had developed a taste for more saccharine things over the last few months.

“I’ll make you some toast,” she said, ignoring him, and this time Vlad did roll his eyes. But there was no real derision behind it.

She was a scant few years older than him, having married his father when Vlad had turned seventeen. But out of all the stepmothers he’d had, she had lasted the longest and was the least annoying. Even if she had insisted on calling him ‘dear’ in front of his friends and showing up to parent-teacher conferences.

“How is he?” Vlad asked, sipping from his tea and reaching down distractedly to pick up one of the Pomeranians desperately trying to garner his attention by jumping up against his leg.

“Which one are you?” he asked it, attempting to read the tags attached to the rhinestone-encrusted collar. “Mitzy, of course it is. All right Mitzy, we’re going to sit here quietly,” he told it, situating the little dog on his lap and petting it distractedly as it vibrated with the nervous anxiety of a dog with just enough brain to be aware of their own place in the universal food chain. Which was somewhere near the bottom next to the canapes.

“Did you say something dear?” Lady M asked, bustling back into view, armed with a frying pan.

“I said, how is he?” Vlad repeated himself, watching as she reached down into one of the drawer fridges and pulled out a cart of eggs, and began cracking them into a bowl.

“Oh, you know how your father is,” she replied cheerfully, her painted red lips affecting an elaborate pout as she turned her face down in a comical frown. Or as far down as the Botox would allow. “He’s a grumpy old sourpuss before his morning coffee.”

“That’s one way of putting it,” Vlad muttered into his tea.

“Don’t worry,” his stepmother replied, reaching for the milk and salt and whisking them into the eggs. “I put a little something in his coffee this morning.”

“Cyanide?” Vlad asked hopefully, and Lady M tittered with laughter.

“No dear. I gave him one of my Xanax. Pass the butter, there’s a love.”

Vlad wasn’t sure whether to be horrified or grateful and settled for somewhere in between. His father’s temper had always been cantankerous at the best of times, and it had gotten indomitably worse with old age. Vlad had always been the moving target of his ire. Ever since he’d grown into the slender proportions of his mother, his gray eyes clear and bright like hers.

The copious drug habit he’d picked up at boarding school hadn’t helped matters much either. Nor had the string of arrests and stints in rehab that had followed. But considering his family history, Vlad felt it was mildly impressive he hadn’t turned out worse.

“I think if we’re at the stages of drugging him against his will to make him civil, it might be time to reconsider the assisted living program,” Vlad said, watching as Lady M, cut a huge slice into an artisanal loaf of bread and dipped it in the egg batter. “Or possibly the funeral home. I’m fine with either.”

Lady M gave him a stern look over the top of her cat-eye glasses. “Vlad dear, I know your humor tends toward the dark, but sometimes I do wonder. And besides, they’re prescription,” she said, as though that made any difference whatsoever. “How’s Elizabeth?” she asked cheerfully, dropping the battered bread into the skillet.

“Oh, fine. The last time I saw her.”

She tisked under her breath in a matronly fashion, nudging the contents of the pan with a spatula. “I really wish you two could try harder to get along. It’s such a shame to watch you argue all the time. A marriage takes work you know.”

“Yes,” Vlad said, matching her cheerful tone with a manic brittle one of his own. “I know. We’ve been married nearly the same amount of time as you and father have. Look, sorry, can we not talk about her right now?”

“Is it really that bad between you two?” she asked, flipping the French toast over.

“I…” Vlad opened his mouth then trailed off, thinking about it as he leaned back and let the Pomeranian escape his lap onto the empty stool beside him. Things weren’t actually that bad, but only because they’d seen so little of each other it made it impossible to argue. “I don’t know… She’s hardly home anymore, and honestly? I’m fine with it.”

“You don’t mean that, surely,” Lady M said, her mouth turning down in earnest as she looked at him over the sizzling steam rising from the pan.

She looked genuinely concerned for him, and Vlad forced himself not to snap at her over not letting the subject drop like he’d asked. As fucked up as their family dynamic was, she’d always looked out for him. Lady M who had shown up to pay his bail and drive him home in the aftermath of another catastrophic argument between father and son that had been the spark for a chaotic spiral into self-destructive oblivion. It had been Lady M that got him into rehab. They were… allies, if not quite friends, the two of them bearing the brunt of Vlad’s father’s wrath for all those years so that Riya didn’t have to. Though why she’d felt the need to stick around and do so, Vlad had never been able to fathom.

None of the other wives had.

He sighed. “I don’t know anymore,” he replied, fiddling with the fork and knife she set down in front of him, suddenly feeling guilty over the relief he’d felt at the general absence of his wife’s presence in his life. “Whatever she’s doing, it’s making her happier than I ever could, so who am I to stop her?”

Lady M reached out to put her hand over his. “You’ll figure it out,” she said with well-meaning optimism, “you always do. Now, eat,” she said, shoving a plate of French toast he hadn’t wanted nor asked for under his nose. “You’ll feel better with something in you other than just coffee and cigarettes. You’re not twenty anymore you know.”

“Don’t I know it,” Vlad said, picking up his fork and eyeing the fried bread skeptically. His phone vibrated in his pocket, and Vlad self-consciously clamped his hand over it. He could tell by the pattern it made against his leg that it had come from either Sue or Nathan, the rapid little beats sending a conditioned shockwave of anticipation up his spine.

It had been just a few days since Nathan had sent Vlad that initial wave of contact, the younger man slowly but surely opening a line of dialogue between them. It wasn’t as easy flowing as the conversations with Ursula were, but there was an endearing sort of charm to his shyness. It made Vlad feel better about his own stilted awkwardness. Though he was getting better at it. He’d even used an emoji the other day. Ursula had told him she was proud. Somehow, he felt she was being sincere.

“What do you want to do for your birthday?” Lady M intruded upon his thoughts, waggling her painted eyebrows at him as she reached over the kitchen counter with fork in hand and stole a piece of his breakfast. Vlad had been anticipating this and had divided his meal up into bite-sized proportions accordingly. “The big 4-0.”

“Ugh, don’t remind me,” Vlad said, stabbing at his plate with his own fork and forcing the morsel down. “Nothing, I don’t want to do anything.”

“You have to do something,” Lady M countered, “it’s not every day you turn forty.”

Vlad thought about it. It was usually Elizabeth who organized his birthday celebrations; expensive parties which he hated, surrounded by people he barely tolerated, and copious amounts of booze he couldn’t, shouldn’t drink. He’d fallen off the wagon rather spectacularly the year before, mercifully only on booze and nothing stronger. But he’d spent the ensuing months attempting to get back on it again, bitter and resentful the whole time. It was almost like she wanted him to fail…

“You’re right,” he said, “it’s my birthday and I’ll do what I want.”

“That’s the spirit!”

“And I want to do nothing.”

She tisked at him, rolling her eyes, but wisely let the subject drop.

 

The study was stiflingly hot when Vlad knocked on the hardwood door and stepped inside. The thick drapes were drawn to block out the morning light, but a roaring fire had been lit in the hearth, seemingly in defiance of the blazing sun outside.

“Father?”

The Count jerked in his chair beside the fire, twisting round to look at his son with dark, beady eyes that narrowed shrewdly at the sight of him. “Who’s there? Is that you Uladzimir?”

“Hello father,” Vlad replied, gritting his teeth at the use of his hated given name. He’d been named for his grandfather, a man—if possible—more vile and wretched than Vlad’s father. He’d always hated the name, but it was tradition, and unfortunately, he’d had to live with it. “How are you today?”

His father made a disgruntled sound, settling back down into his chair. “What do you make of this then?” he asked, gesturing to the newspaper on the coffee table, where a sensationalist headline was taking up most of the front page. “Another war. Senseless.”

“Yes,” Vlad agreed, taking the empty seat opposite his father. “It’s certainly going to be a waste of lives if it goes ahead.”

His father made an abrupt sound of amusement, arching an eyebrow at his son. “I meant the location. There can’t be any more than fifty years’ worth of oil left in the region. They’d be far better hitting further out West.”

“I’m sure,” Vlad replied tersely, just trying to get through this meeting without having an aneurism.

“Well come on then,” his father said, holding out an expectant hand, “let's see what mess you’ve made of my empire then.”

Vlad handed the iPad over, the relevant information already pulled up.

“Hmph,” his father grunted after a long while, finding nothing to pick at. “Well then… How did the meeting on Wednesday, the one with uh…” he faltered uncharacteristically, and Vlad couldn’t tell if it was the Xanax Lady M had slipped him or just the natural progression of his illness.

“With Ingleton,” Vlad supplied, and his father snapped his fingers as though it had just been on the tip of his tongue. “It went well, the merger is going ahead in late November…”

He droned on, recounting his week in detail as his father listened, nodding at intervals, and interrupting him at others to ask further details. Eventually, when Vlad had run out of things to say, his father hummed thoughtfully, nodding his head. “Well, that all sounds adequate,” he said. He seemed to drift out for a moment, then asked, “Is Elizabeth not with you?”

“No,” Vlad said, lying through his teeth. “She had some errands to run, but she sends her love.”

“Somehow I doubt that,” his father cackled, his gaze fixing suddenly on Vlad with a laser-sharp, focal clarity that made the hair on the back of his neck stand on end. “Did she find out about your little business expenses already then?”

“I don’t…” Vlad blinked, feeling as though someone had dumped a bucket of cold water over him. “I don’t know what you’re referring to.”

“Oh, so you thought I wouldn’t notice the money you’re moving around? I might be growing old and senile, boy, but don’t take me for a fool just yet. What’s her name?”

“I really have no idea what you mean,” Vlad said standing up and making to leave, suddenly regretting accepting the food Lady M had given him as it threatened to come up in reverse. “I should go, I don’t want you to overexert yourself.”

“Fine, be that way,” his father snorted, fixing Vlad with a sideways look that was perversely very nearly proud. “But I always said the apple never falls far from the tree. Say hello to your wife for me,” he called after Vlad’s rapidly retreating back, letting out a low, coughing cackle. “Whenever you see her.”

 

 “But I thought we were doing brunch tomorrow,” Vlad said, drumming his fingertips agitatedly against the steering wheel of his car, and cursing when the lights turned red again with not a single car having managed to make it through the junction. “For fuck’s sake.”

“Excuse me?” Elizabeth’s chilly voice dropped several degrees toward glacial over the Bluetooth speaker of his car.

“Not you, the traffic.”

“Oh.” He heard the clink of ice on glass in the background and the telltale glug of a bottle pouring out. Vlad gritted his teeth even harder until his jaw ached. “Well, the Carlisle’s called, and asked to do dinner tonight instead. I said yes.”

“But I…” Vlad trailed off, aware of what he was about to say.

I have plans.

Plans to sit at home in front of my laptop watching two people who aren’t us be hopelessly in love with each other…

How had his father known? Had Vlad left a paper trail somewhere, or was it just a lucky guess? Probably a guess. He’d probably just seen him moving more things around than he normally did and assumed the worst.

Which just also so happened to be the truth. Fuck.

“But you what?” She prompted, carrying on before he could reply. “You said you’d come.”

“I said I’d do brunch tomorrow,” Vlad retorted, already pulling his phone out to check his emails, figuring he was going to be at this stoplight for the rest of eternity anyway; trapped between where he wanted to be, and where his life was taking him, his own personal form of purgatory.

“Well, fine, if you don’t want to go…” she said, actually managing to sound hurt, which was laughable. It wasn’t as though she couldn’t go without him and still have a good time. “I just, thought it would be nice to spend some time together with friends…”

Vlad sighed, leaning his head against the steering wheel. “Where are we meeting them?”

“Nowhere fancy, just the country club.”

Vlad looked down at what he was wearing. It was probably a little too casual for his family’s country club, but honestly, who fucking cared? He certainly didn’t. “Take a cab there and I’ll drive us both home?”

“Fine.”

The line went dead, and Vlad went back to staring at the traffic in front of him in morose silence. Forgotten in his lap, his phone chimed, and Vlad picked it up on impulse, the lights having once more turned green, but no one moving forward.

It was Ursula, checking to see if he was still going to be around for the night.

What was he doing with his life?

He sighed again, tapping out a response and throwing his phone down onto the empty seat next to him. The lights would have to give at some point.

 

“Vlad, darling,” Emily Carlisle drawled as she stood up to greet him, leaning in to press a chaste kiss to the side of his cheek. “We were just about to send out a search party.”

“Sorry,” Vlad forced himself to smile, returning the gesture. “Traffic was a nightmare trying to get off at 6th. Jeremy,” he said, taking her husband’s hand and giving it a firm shake.

Vlad had nothing personal against the man, as far as his wife’s friend’s husbands went, but he was, to put it bluntly, a bit of a Chad. He was tall, handsome, in a rather bland, generic sort of way, and tended to wear cashmere sweaters draped over his pastel-colored polo shirts regardless of the season. In short, he was the type of person who Vlad fully suspected used to push people into lockers in high school. People like Vlad.

“Did you take 66 all the way down?” the other man asked, his pearly white teeth dazzlingly bright against the tan color of his skin. They’d just been to Bermuda, Vlad remembered. He was likely going to have to sit through all their vacation snaps.

“Yes.”

“I swear, that whole highway is a nightmare,” Elizabeth drawled, leaning over toward Vlad who similarly found himself leaning in, their lips touching briefly in the merest of kisses. It was polite, cold, and completely impersonal. “How was your father?”

Vlad started slightly at the question, then recovered. “Oh, you know…” he waved a hand vaguely in the air. “Doddering a little. He completely forgot the name of the Ingleton firm this morning.”

“Oh dear.” Elizabeth made a sound of concern, reaching over the table to clasp his other hand in a wifely display of sympathy. Vlad could almost believe it was real. Almost. “Well, I’m sure Lady M is taking good care of him.”

I’m not, Vlad thought, reaching for the glass goblet of water in front of him and taking a sip so he wouldn’t have to perjure himself any further by talking. Mercifully, they had already ordered food, and Vlad was able to let Elizabeth carry the conversation for their side of the table between courses. Occasionally she would reach out, her hand resting on his arm, or turning toward him to laugh and smile, her eyes bright and shining.

And Vlad… felt nothing. Not a damn thing. So he smiled politely, made the appropriate sounds of amusement when necessary, all the while feeling like he was someone else. Like he was outside of his body, watching the table from above, cataloguing the expressions of everyone around him; the shrillness of their amusement and the insincerity of their smiles. Especially his own.

This isn’t my life, a thought said.

Yes it is, he reminded himself, this is my life, this is the one I chose…

But it didn’t have to be.

He blinked at that, taken aback by the certainty of the feeling washing over him, teetering somewhere on the verge of absolute panic and complete and utter serenity. It was a choice, he realized, and he could decide to fall either way…

“Right! What are we drinking?” Jeremy asked, clapping his hands together and making Vlad jump. He gestured a server over, leaning back in his chair. “Lizzy, what’ll it be?”

Lizzy, Vlad scrunched his nose up, watching in amusement as her smile twitched faintly in displeasure at the use of the diminutive.

“I’ll take a gin and tonic.”

“Same for me,” Emily said, following her lead.

“Old fashioned for me,” Jeremy said, turning expectantly toward Vlad who looked up at the server, offering her a slight, tight smile.

“Lemonade, please. Thank you.”

“What?” Jeremy said, reaching over the short space between them to give Vlad a brief shove on the shoulder; further compounding Vlad’s locker-shoving suspicions. “Really? You’re really not going to drink with us?”

“I’m driving.”

“So? You can have one, surely…”

“Lemonade, please,” Vlad reiterated to the server, who turned tail and vanished.

“Don’t tell me you’re turning over some new leaf,” Jeremy asked, and Vlad decided to rename him Chadley in his head.

“Something like that,” Vlad agreed, aware that his palms were starting to sweat as the drinks were set down on the table. He wanted to reach for the sobriety chip in his pocket like a talisman, his fingers twitching with the urge. No one knew that was the problem. Oh, they knew all the funny stories, knew that he got a little wild-eyed around about the seventh, eighth, ninth drink. But none of them knew what it cost him. The price of his hard-won sobriety. Only Elizabeth knew.

Elizabeth, who was leaning in to drape her arm around his shoulders, her expression mocking and vicious as she smiled, her voice dripping with malice likely only he could hear as she took a sip from her drink. “You’ll have to excuse him, I’m afraid Vlad’s just no fun anymore.”

And Vlad smiled, and laughed, and silently screamed.

 

One drink turned into two, and then two into three. By the fourth Vlad was starting to go out of his mind. They’d moved down to the waterfront at least, so he was able to smoke here, the smoke filling his lungs and burning through him almost as hotly as the desperation rising up in the pit of his stomach. But it wasn’t enough. It wasn’t enough. And he was fairly certain he was going to do something stupid soon.

Excusing himself, he made a beeline back up to the clubhouse, his steps faltering at the bar. And then rapidly speeding up as he made his way out the front door heading toward the carpark. He was halfway across the grassy knoll when he felt his legs start to give out, the panic setting in and turning his limbs to jelly, forcing him to sit down on the freshly mown grass.

Fumbling for his phone, he dialed the only person he could talk to.

It rang several times, going to voicemail, and Vlad swore viciously. He dialed again, the shaking of his hands now so bad he could barely bring his cigarette to his mouth. “Come on, come on, pick up…”

“Hello?”

“Allen? It’s…”

“Vlad! How are you?” his sponsor said, sounding genuinely pleased to hear from him. And all Vlad suddenly wanted to do was cry.

“Not good,” he said, laughing brokenly to keep himself from sobbing. “Sorry, is this a bad time…”

“No! No, of course not.” Allen assured him hurriedly. “Let me just put something down first. Are you all right? Where are you?”

Vlad drew in a great gulping breath. He felt weak, pitiful. Which he was. He was a terrible human being. But he was trying. He was trying so damn hard. “Uh, the county club. At the bar, well. Not at the bar. I walked past the bar and now I’m sitting outside on the front lawn talking to you.”

“That’s good,” Allen said, and Vlad let out a hysterical little giggle because it certainly didn’t feel like it. His face may or may not have been wet, but he honestly couldn’t tell. “Well done… now, why don’t you talk me through what’s going on…”

“I don’t think I can do this anymore.”

“Do what?”

“Any of it,” he said, aware that he had chosen a side to fall on, and starting to laugh a little manically when he did.

 

He sat there long enough for the stars to start coming out, burning through a whole pack of cigarettes as he stared into the deepening twilight long after the phone call with Allen had ended.

He was still sitting there when Elizabeth came to find him, her slingback heels dangling from her fingertips as she glared down at him. After a while, she simply said, “Take me home.”

Vlad stared up at her for a moment, his eyes flickering over the familiar features of the stranger he’d spent the last twenty years of his life with. And nodded. “Okay.”

Chapter Text

“Have you spoken to Mister V lately?” Ursula asked, frowning as she walked into the kitchen, her attention fixed on the phone in her hand.

Nathan looked up from his laptop where he was working, aware that she had spoken, but not having caught all of it. “What was that?”

“I said…”

“Can you look up please?”

She glanced up at him, her expression lifting apologetically as she sat down beside him. “Sorry. I was just wondering if you’d heard from Mister V yet this week.”

“Not yet,” Nathan said, picking up his own phone and opening the message thread. “But he doesn’t text me that often unless I text him first.”

“He hasn’t been replying to me,” Ursula said, her frown deepening as she looked down at her phone again. “He always replies, sorry.” She looked up again, making sure he could read her lips. “He always replies to me, not always right away of course, but he usually replies...”

Nathan shrugged mildly. “Perhaps he’s busy with work. I know I texted him in the middle of a meeting last week.” He grinned crookedly, handing his phone over so she could see it.

N: Good morning

N: image.jpg

Mr. V: I can’t decide whether you have the best or worst timing.

N: Busy day?

Mr. V: Trapped in a bored room.

Mr. V: *board room.

Mr. V: Although bored might be more accurate.

Mr. V: And now thoroughly distracted, so thank you for that.

N: Ur welcome ;)

The picture was, of course, of Ursula. She’d been sitting in front of her crowded vanity table getting ready, the sunlight streaming in through the window behind the desk and casting the room around her into shadow while her hair caught and glowed like a halo in the early morning light. It was a highly artistic shot for someone of Nathan’s limited skills.

The fact that she’d been naked from the waist up, a towel draped over the swell of her hips and the sinuous arch of her muscled back on display also hadn’t hurt.

He’d taken the photo in the moment, intending to save it for himself. But then, after a few thoughtful minutes, had decided to share it with Mister V as well. Ursula had already agreed that nothing was off-limits on her end, and although Mister V didn’t seem quite comfortable with the thought of them sending outright nudes, the photo had been artistic enough that Nathan thought he might appreciate it. He’d been right, the other man texting him back some few hours later, probably when he’d finally escaped his boring board meeting, and commenting that Ursula looked like a mermaid sat atop a rock.

N: ready to sink ships and ruin lives?

Mr. V: That too.

But after that brief interlude towards the end of the week, nothing… He’d been silent over the weekend, save to text Ursula back and let her know he’d have to miss their skype call. He hadn’t said why, but Nathan figured he didn’t have to.

“Are you worried?” he asked, as Ursula handed back his phone.

“I don’t know. It just seems… odd. Like something is off.”

“Have you tried calling him?”

“Once. It went straight to voicemail and I didn’t want to try again because I don’t want to be that person.” She sighed emphatically. “Except I am that person and ugh.” She leaned forward on the table burying her head in her arms while Nathan reached over to pet her hair.

When he thought a suitable amount of time had passed to let her sulk, he tapped her lightly on the head. “Hey, it’s okay.”

“I know,” she said, scooting her chair closer so she could lean against him. “It’s just…”

“Yeah,” Nathan soothed, pressing a kiss to the top of her forehead and wrapping an arm around her slumped shoulders. “I know.”

For all her outward confidence and the persona she projected at times, Nathan knew every ounce of it was hard-won. And that her ex had a lot to answer for. Preferably in Hell.

“Want me to try calling him?” he asked, and Ursula shook her head. “Do you want a cuddle?” Ursula shook her head again, then nodded, pushing into his lap and settling against his chest while Nathan wrapped his arms around her, holding her close. “He’s fine,” he said, pressing his lips to the top of her forehead as she nestled closer to him. “I’m sure he’s just got more important stuff going on.”

More important than us, which was an ugly thing to say Nathan knew, because it painted starkly the reality of their relationship to him. This whole affair had started out as a transaction, the fact that Mister V seemed nice and both he and Ursula had caught feelings for him was irrelevant. The truth was, they didn’t know him, not really. And Mister V could opt out of this arrangement at any time—regardless of the contract he’d written. There was literally nothing from stopping him. And if he was bored or if it was getting too serious, he had every right to do just that.

And Nathan was fine with that. Tried, to be fine with that.

But that didn’t stop him from logging into their PayPal account later on that evening, noting that the monthly stipend Mister V paid out had still manifested, the same as it did every first day of the month. Nathan had even gone out of the way to make sure their charge card was working. Then felt a horrible swell of guilt when it had for doubting the other man. He’d wound up buying a stupid amount of candy to compensate and taken it with him to work, planning to share it out around the break room. But he had to admit that Ursula’s anxiety over the possibility of being ghosted was catching; despite all evidence to the contrary.

All evidence, except that was, for his total lack of communication. Which was a fairly glaring red flag for someone who, as far as Nathan knew, had been talking to his girlfriend nearly every day for the last couple of months.

Sitting alone in the breakroom and chewing despondently on a Twizzler stick, Nathan pulled out his phone again, eyeing the conversation thread. He could try calling Mister V, he supposed, though that too added to the knot of anxiety starting to build in the pit of his stomach. Nathan hated phone calls, he’d hated them even before he’d started to lose his hearing. Now they were just another form of pure anxiety-inducing torment. He could try adding to the text messages Ursula had sent, but if Mister V was dealing with some shit, then Nathan also didn’t want to add to that burden.

He sighed, scrubbing a hand over his face. Why, how and when had this gotten even more complicated than it already was before? Why did he care? Well, the straightforward answer to that was: Ursula cared. The less straightforward answer was…

Nathan cared.

Ridiculous as it seemed, he cared about a relative stranger, who despite never seeing his face or getting to know his real name, had proved to be not only generous but congenial company. At least, for a given value of “company”. Mister V had been polite, courteous, painfully respectful of their boundaries, and had demanded virtually nothing from them in return. Just a fraction of their time, and to be allowed to send them things. But even that had tapered off recently.

Nathan blinked and switched the app on his phone to their wish list. They hadn’t updated it in weeks, largely because they didn’t need anything. Their metaphorical crops were watered, their pantry full, and Ursula had every single book required for the rest of her semester. Mister V had taken care of that.

In fact, whenever they had put anything on the list, he’d bought it almost immediately, almost as though he were signed up to receive notifications for when they added anything…

Nathan bit his lip, thinking furiously. It was unlikely Mister V was sulking at the lack of things to buy them, not when he was still contributing to their income. And plus, he just didn’t seem the type. But it occurred to Nathan that he might be able to use the wish list to send a message.

After all, wasn’t that how all this had started?

He thought about it for a while longer, his phone screen going blank several times as he pondered the best course of action. “To heck with it,” he muttered and began to type in the search bar. When he’d found what he was looking for, he pinned it to the top of their wish list, attaching a short, but hopefully friendly note.

And if that failed, well, he’d just have to think of something else.

 

It was well after midnight when Vlad eventually set his work aside, eyes burning and raw from too much time spent staring at his computer screen. At some point, someone had brought him coffee, and he hadn’t even noticed. It was stone cold now, but his throat was so dry it didn’t even matter.

As awful as his previous week had ended, this one, he was fairly certain, was absolutely trying to kill him.

He’d spent the entire last three days in shareholder meetings, or on the phone talking to several of their international clients, the looming threat of another global conflict making everyone jumpy, wanting to make sure their money was safe with VampTech. Vlad’s father had thrived on this sort of thing in his heyday, had made his bones profiting on the panic and greed of others. It was quite frankly, deplorable, and Vlad just wasn’t cut out for it. But he’d made all the right noises, said all the right things, smiled wide and reassuringly when everyone could see him. And put his head in his hands and groaned when they couldn’t.

There had been one perk to the whole fiasco though. It had kept Vlad from going home to the stupendous argument that no doubt awaited him the moment he stepped over the threshold.

The car ride home that night had been eerily quiet, the two of them sitting in isolated silence together as the city lights faded out in the rearview mirror, the dim twilight of suburbia swallowing them whole as they returned to their too big home, with their too-big rooms, and their too big emotions left unsaid. Vlad almost felt it would have been better if they’d shouted at each other, or if they’d made a scene or stormed away from each other like they used to do. But it seemed they were beyond that now. Vlad had never been beyond someone shouting at him before. It was as terrifying as it was liberating.

He was still quietly furious about the whole ordeal himself but in a cold and detached sort of way. Mostly he just felt tired, a sentiment he had expressed to Allen when they’d met up this week for coffee to discuss Vlad’s near-relapse.

“That’s common, with emotional burnout,” the other man had told him, shoveling far too much sugar into one of the coffees and passing it over to Vlad. “Also low blood sugar, when was the last time you ate?”

They’d spent the afternoon hiding in a quiet nook of a nearby Barnes and Noble café, taking stock of Vlad’s emotional state and trying to gauge how likely he was to a total meltdown. When it had been determined that an immediate stint in rehab wasn’t required, the mood had relaxed a little, and Vlad had felt some of the terrible dread he’d been carrying around stoppered in his chest start to ease. It was a relief to know that someone else thought he was handling things well, even when it didn’t feel like it.

Allen had also given him (another) book about mindfulness. Vlad supposed he ought to try and actually read this time rather than ignore it. He’d also pushed Vlad to consider outside therapy, away from AA, which Vlad had tentatively looked into when he’d gotten back to the office.

He hadn’t missed, however, that the therapist Allen had recommended also specialized in domestic abuse as well as addiction, and had subsequently spent the remainder of the evening ricocheting between annoyance, denial, and gradually, a horrible sense of recognition and acceptance.

He sighed, resting his head in his hands and rubbing at his eyes until he saw purple splotches across the back of his eyelids. He supposed he really should go home sometime this week for more than a quick shower and a fresh change of clothes. As surprisingly comfortable as his office couch had turned out to be, he needed to sleep in a real bed, preferably for several weeks. Even if it did mean possibly having to face Elizabeth. Not that she’d be home at this hour. She’d probably still be out with whoever it was who kept leaving those mouth shaped bruises on her neck. Perhaps if he was lucky he’d manage to go the whole weekend without seeing her and be back at work on Monday before she had a chance to tear into him.

Forgotten on his desk, his personal cell phone vibrated, and he felt a vague twinge of panic at the sight of all those unread messages. With everything that had been going on this week, he’d barely had a chance to look at it, and then the guilt had twisted up into anxiety and he’d found himself making up excuses not to look at it. Eventually, the battery had died, and he’d left it that way. Until his PA, Liddle,  had found it and plugged it in for him.

Reaching over and lifting it from the charging station, Vlad hesitated, then thumbed open the screen. He winced when he saw the missed call from Ursula, her texts eventually tapering off into forlorn silence. The one good thing that he’d been enjoying about his life, and he’d killed it through neglect. He sighed again, scrolling absently through the screeds of messages, smiling sadly at the bright, colorful pictures and string of emojis that intersected their dialogue every few lines.

It was probably for the best. Ursula and Nathan didn’t need someone like him in their lives, not when they were so bright and vibrant with promising futures ahead. What did they need with a remorseful old drunk like him? Other than his money, of course, but Vlad could never begrudge them that. Not when he’d enjoyed it as intensely as he had, not when it had made him so undeservingly happy

He was just about to turn the phone off again when he noticed the email icon at the bottom. It was the one that he’d set up expressly for keeping track of… all of this… and it had been a while since it had lit up. It was probably them invoking the cessation part of the contract he’d written for them, informing him their little flirtation was over. Well, it wasn’t as though his week could get any worse, he decided, closing his eyes and tapping on the icon, bracing himself for the wave of crushing rejection that was about to wash over him anyway. When he opened his eyes, however, there was no formal email, no official ending. Just an automated message, letting him know their wish list had updated. Vlad clicked on it, his phone screen flipping to the app and pulling up the familiar sight of their feed and the singular item that had been added.

It was a mug. One of those mass-produced ones with a witty slogan splashed across the front in what looked like MS Paint. It read, ‘I survived another meeting that ought to have been a fucking email,’ but it was the note pinned next to it that made Vlad’s smile falter and his heart stutter in his chest.

No need to buy this one, it read, just thought you’d find it funny. Take care and let us know you’re alive. We’ll be here when you’re done. (And if you don’t want us to be, that’s fine too, just let us know. Please.) N x

Vlad stared at it for a long while, telling himself it was just the tiredness making his eyes burn. When he could see past his exhaustion again, he flipped his phone back to the messaging app and tapped out a short, apologetic message to both of them.

Apologies for the radio silence. No excuses, just overwhelmed at work…’ he backspaced, typing out several variations of the sentence and eventually settling on, ‘with life, and bad at communicating. Promise I’m still alive. Hope you both are well. Thank you for the mug ~ Mr.V.

And then because Nathan had done it, he added a singular kiss at the end. Things in his head were still bleak, but suddenly he didn’t feel quite so alone.

Chapter Text

Vlad sat on the floor of his home art studio with his back to the wall, breathing in the familiar scents of dried paint and turpentine under a thick layer of dust. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d been up here, let alone the last time he’d held a paintbrush. He plucked absently at his violin, attempting to re-tune it after years of neglect. Miraculously, his bow had survived, and Vlad thanked his past self for having the forethought to loosen the hairs before relegating every facet of his life that had brought him some modicum of joy into the attic. He wasn’t even sure why he’d come up here, not when the whole house was as silent and still as the grave.

Elizabeth had left a note on the refrigerator door; something about spending the weekend up at the yacht club with the Carlisle’s. The relief had nearly floored him, and as far as Vlad was concerned, she could stay away forever.

I don’t love her; I don’t want this anymore, what do I do, what do I do, what do I do…. The thoughts swirled round and round his head, like murky dishwater circling the drain. Vlad had never really allowed himself to consider divorce before. It had always felt too much like admitting defeat—too much like being his father. And Vlad would have done anything to avoid that; kidding himself that a miserable marriage was better than a failed one.

But what was a miserable marriage if not a failed one?

He sighed, thudding his head back against the wall. He’d spent the previous day sitting in a therapist’s office, answering open-ended questions, haltingly at first, but once he’d started talking it had been impossible to stop. He’d felt better at the time, but now it all just felt so overwhelming. Like pulling off a band-aid, expecting to find a scar but finding a whole bloody mess underneath.

He’d talked about everything and nothing, from his mother’s death, his father’s affairs, to his first kiss. Which also happened to be his first time he’d gotten drunk.

“So, you associate intimacy with your self-destructive tendencies?” she’d asked, and Vlad had felt speared in place, exposed down to his core in a single sentence.

He’d expected some sort of judgment from her when he’d mentioned his involvement with Nathan and Ursula, but Dr. Lestrange’s face hadn’t betrayed a single flicker of emotion.

“Are you drawn to that kind of relationship?” she’d asked, and Vlad had asked what she’d meant. “You mentioned earlier with your wife; you said you didn’t mind that she was seeing other people, only that she lied about it.”

Which was true. Vlad had always known he’d never be enough for anyone to love; he’d just been grateful that someone had ever loved him at all. So, when he’d found out about Elizabeth’s affairs, it had felt like an inevitability he’d already accepted. He’d even told her once if that was what she needed, he’d find peace with it. More than that, he’d be happy for her. All he asked was that she tell him.

“And what did she say to that?” Dr. Lestrange had asked, her pen hovering over the notepad she’d been frantically scribbling into for nearly an hour straight.

And Vlad had laughed, his head dropping between his shoulders in defeat as he leaned forward to retrieve his cup of water from the coffee table, taking a sip to wash the taste of bile and sorrow back down his throat. “She asked what the point in that would be.”

His phone chimed in his lap, pulling him out of his musings, and Vlad set down his violin to look at it. Ursula’s icon lit up, responding to something Nathan had said in the group thread Vlad had started when he’d messaged them both to apologize for vanishing. He smiled at the ease of their banter, the familiarity of it more comfortable than anything he’d ever known. He still felt like an intruder on these moments; like someone who had walked in on a kiss. But he’d gotten better at making his presence known in the thread; the occasional ‘lol’ to show he was present and the odd witty (he hoped) comment to add to the conversation.

His phone chimed again, and this time an image popped up.

The two of them were sitting side by side on a too-small couch, with Ursula squashing Nathan into the corner. She was as direct as ever with her gaze toward the camera, her freckled face grinning impishly out at him. Nathan looked thoroughly resigned, his expression caught somewhere between a scowl and a smile as she leaned on him to take the selfie. It made Vlad’s heart do a funny little flip.

I want this… said a small, tremulous thought, and for the first time, Vlad didn’t shy away from it. He did want this. Specifically, he wanted them. But he also knew that wasn’t realistic, nor fair. He couldn’t ask anyone to love him, not the way he was now, not while his life was a mass of shit and shrapnel waiting to implode. But perhaps, maybe one day, he’d be in a place to have what they had.

He hoped so.

Vlad also knew he’d need to be honest with them about all this, sooner rather than later. But it also didn’t have to be right this very second. Not when they were smiling and having fun…

Are you two texting while sitting next to each other? His phoned blipped twice again with dual answers of agreement, and he rolled his eyes fondly. What are you up to?

Ursula’s name popped up on the screen, a series of ellipses denoting that she was typing. We thought we might stay in and watch a movie. What about you?

Vlad hesitated, then replied honestly. Sitting alone in my attic having an existential crisis.

The silence went on for so long that Vlad thought he’d made a mistake somehow. But after a heart-pounding thirty seconds, her reply popped up. You’re not helping dissuade us from the idea that you’re actually Batman.

Lol.

Do you want to watch something with us?

Vlad blinked at the offer. How would that work?

Have you got your laptop?

Vlad did not, but he decided it was likely time he climbed down from the attic, anyway. I can get it.

Downstairs, Nathan tried to talk him through the screen sharing website. “Click the link I’m sending you.”

Vlad, leaning against the kitchen counter, squinting at the link that popped up in his Skype chat. “My this looks very legal and above board,” he said dryly, and Nathan laughed, the younger man’s voice echoing pleasantly in the empty kitchen.

“This is when we find out you work for Viacom or some shit, isn’t it?” he asked, and Vlad smirked in response.

“I can confirm I do not work for that particular multinational conglomeration.”

“Oh good, so we can scratch that one off the list.” There was a muffled sound in the background, and Nathan’s attention shifted. “Not that one…”

“But I’m hungry,” came Ursula’s pouty reply, her tone of voice sending an illicit little shiver down Vlad’s spine.

It was the same petulant tone she used whenever she wanted something, and Vlad was horrendously weak for it. It appealed to something deep down in his core that wanted any multitude of depraved things—things he’d only just recently had the courage to Google and was now fairly certain if you cut him down the middle you’d find some variation of the definition of “service kink” written across his soul. Mostly he just wanted to give her whatever she wanted. There wasn’t anything he wouldn’t do for that wheedling tone.

Nathan, it seemed, was made of sterner stuff. “Well, unless you want to set the smoke alarm off at 10 pm again…”

“Something wrong?” Vlad asked, navigating his way around the screen and following the instructions that popped up.

“I was going to make pizza,” Ursula replied, her voice coming more clearly over the audio feed as though she’d moved closer to him. “But our oven is a piece of crap, and last time we couldn’t get the fire alarm to shut off and had to call the super at midnight.”

“I bet that made you popular with everyone else in the building.”

“Yeah, no kidding,” Nathan replied gruffly.

“What about take out?” Vlad suggested, realizing belatedly that he’d also neglected to feed himself for most of the day, and that he was in fact, fucking ravenous. “My treat.”

Thirty minutes later, he was sitting on the low couch in the deserted family room, munching his way through a slice of hot, greasy pizza. It was the kind of food he tried to avoid these days, ever since his doctor had started using phrases like “men of your age”, but given all his other bad habits, he doubted it made much difference in the long run.

“Did they ever make a sequel to this?” he asked as the opening credits of What We Do in The Shadows scrolled over his screen. He winced a second later, reaching to plug his headphones in to stop the echo of the audio that was beginning to happen over the speakers.

“Yep,” Sue replied shortly, “it’s a tv series now.”

“We should watch that too,” Nathan said, also sounding like he was talking around a mouthful of food. “Some other night.”

“We should,” Vlad agreed, reaching for the sugary soda pop he’d ordered with his food, and feeling oddly like he was somehow on a date.

 

“That was fun,” Ursula’s voice murmured low in his ear, startling Vlad out of the haze he’d slipped into as the end credits scrolled over his screen. He was fairly certain he’d been asleep with his eyes open.

“Yes,” he agreed, jaw cracking around a yawn as he stretched. The display at the bottom of his screen denoted that the time was well after midnight, and after the week he’d had, Vlad felt every minute of it in his bones. He was so glad he didn’t have to go into work tomorrow.

“Though I’m afraid it was a little too much late-night excitement for some of us.” She giggled softly.

“Oh?”

The Skype app flickered orange, and Vlad realized she was inviting him to view their camera. His fingers hovered over the accept button, and for one brief electric moment of insanity, he very nearly considered answering with his own webcam. Self-preservation prevailed, however, and he answered with audio only.

Ursula was lying on her side, her wild mane of hair tamed into a braid and not a scrap of makeup visible on her freckled face. Nathan was curled up at her back, his solid arm wrapped firmly around her torso, and his face buried against her neck, his chest rising and falling in the steady rhythm of sleep.

“Nathan fell asleep,” she murmured quietly, a small smile tugging at her lips.

This, this, I want this, said Vlad’s thoughts, the thud of longing in his bones as deep and steady as a heartbeat. “I can see that,” Vlad said instead, mirroring her low, soft tone and feeling some of the hardened and jagged edges of his world begin to soften and smooth as he watched them. “You know, you really are quite remarkably adorable.”

She giggled again, her tawny eyes creasing sweetly as she smiled. “Thank you. So are you.”

“Me?” Vlad snorted quietly. “You don’t even know what I look like.”

She shrugged, causing her nightgown to slip from her shoulder. She didn’t bother to pull it back up. “There’s more than one way to be adorable.”

She yawned suddenly, covering her mouth with the back of her hand, and Vlad felt a stab of guilt at keeping her awake. “I should let you sleep. Thank you for tonight…”

“No don’t go,” Ursula protested, still yawning, but forcing herself to focus on the camera. “Not yet.”

Vlad smiled. “You can barely keep your eyes open.”

“Don’t need them to listen to you.” She smiled hazily at him again. “I like your voice. It’s soothing.”

Vlad snorted, shaking his head but unable to keep a ridiculous smile from spreading across his face. He’d been described as many things over the years, but soothing had never been one of them. “What about Nathan, won’t talking wake him up?”

“Unlikely,” Ursula yawned again, and Vlad found it was catching, forced to stifle another jaw cracking yawn as he stood up and began carrying his laptop up the stairs towards the room that had become his own. “He’s dead to the world once he’s out.”

“Lucky him,” Vlad commented dryly, using his hip to bump the door open. The room beyond was in shadow, caught between darkness and the silver luminescence of the moon which shone through the window, impossibly large and close.

He set the laptop and his headset down on the nightstand. “You wait there,” he said, smiling fondly as he remembered how she’d propped him up on the end of her bed the first night they’d done this. “I’ll be right back.” He dipped out into the en suite bathroom, doing the bare minimum of his nightly routine as quickly as was humanly possible, and all but diving across the mattress to reclaim his laptop when he was done. He was certain she’d already be asleep. “Back.”

“Welcome back,” Ursula replied hazily, her eyes only half-open. “Missed you.”

“I wasn’t aware I was gone that long,” Vlad replied, his voice muffled as he pulled his t-shirt off over his head and crawled under the covers, dragging his laptop with him.

“You were gone so long I thought you were never coming back,” she replied, attempting to affect her usual teasing tone. But there was a ragged note of uncertain truth behind it, and Vlad suspected they were no longer talking about the time it had taken him to brush his teeth.

“I’m not going anywhere.” It was a lie, a pretty, pretty lie. But he’d live it for as long as they’d allow him to. “Not when I have crossed oceans of time to find you.”

“S’wrong vampire movie,” she mumbled.

“On the contrary, Dracula is never the wrong vampire movie.”

She huffed softly, scrunching her nose up at him. “See, you’re a dork.”

“I thought I was adorable?”

“Both. You’re… adorkable.” Vlad huffed in response, and an amused and comfortable silence was allowed descend before Ursula added: “Y’know, I’ve never actually read that book.”

“Well, we can’t be having that then…” He reached for his phone on the nightstand, flipping the e-reader app open and scrolling until he found what he was looking for.

“What’re you doing?” Ursula asked, her words slurring drowsily together, though she was still fighting valiantly to stay awake.

“Well, seeing as how someone refuses to go to sleep… and I have such a soothing voice.” He cleared his throat and began to read. “Chapter One, the journal of Jonathan Harker. May 3rd Bistritz. Left Munich at 8:35 PM., on May 1st, arriving at Vienna early next morning; should have arrived at 6:46, but train was an hour late. Buda-Pesth seems a wonderful place…”

She was asleep before they even reached the castle.

Chapter Text

It was late afternoon when Ursula’s phone chimed. Hanging upside down from her aerial hoop, she reached pitifully, straining toward the pile of discarded clothing where she’d left it. “So close, yet, so far…”

Sitting on the stage floor scrolling through their own phone, Devon rolled their eyes. “You can get down from the hoop, you know.”

“I could,” Ursula agreed, continuing to wiggle her fingers imploringly, and grinning hugely when Devon sighed.

“Here, catch.”

Ursula caught the phone and swung herself upright in one fluid motion, bracing herself on the inside of the hoop with her thighs. She made a soft, happy noise when she saw who it was, and immediately flipped open the camera to take a disheveled selfie.

“Nathan?” Devon guessed.

“Nope.” Ursula smiled as the camera shutter sounded. Her hair was falling out of its top knot, and she was a sweaty mess, but she didn’t worry about it. Mister V didn’t ever seem to notice whether she was pristine or a mess; he was always appreciatively adoring. He was odd, like that.

Well, odd in her experience of Sugar Daddies.

“Oh, him,” Devon muttered sourly, and Ursula frowned at the tone.

“Yes, him,” Ursula replied, a smile tugging at her mouth at Mister V’s immediate reply and the single heart emoji that accompanied it.

“Finally showed up again?”

“He was busy.”

“I’m sure having a wife and kids on the side really takes time out of his day.”

Ursula looked away from her phone and glowered down at her friend. “You don’t know that about him.”

“No, and neither do you,” Devon countered, being annoyingly reasonable about it.

And there wasn’t much Ursula could say to dispute that, because it was true. She didn’t know much about Mister V beyond what he had told her. She suspected things, of course, she did. You didn’t do this kind of thing for as long as Ursula had without getting a feel for when someone was hiding things. But there was something about Mister V that kept pulling her in. Most of the men she encountered doing this sort of thing were married. Some were serial divorcees looking to feel powerful and burn money, while others enjoyed the thrill of doing something illicit. Some even got their wives involved, which Ursula didn’t mind, provided they didn’t turn out to be unicorn hunters. Which inevitably and regrettably, a large portion of them did. But such were the trials of being bi and poly; you just had to hope like hell everyone else was being as open and honest as you were.

Doing it online was easier. It was easier to avoid personal drama if you didn’t get personal with them, and that was precisely what they’d been planned on when she’d talked Nathan into giving online sugaring a chance. After all, they already did cam shows for fun, why not pay off some bills while they were at it? And then Mister V had fallen into the world, with his shy, overwhelming kindness and his refusal to take anything from them in return.

He wanted things, Ursula could feel it. But he seemed to be deliberately holding himself back, though whether out of respect for them or some sort of abject self-denial, she wasn’t sure. She did pride herself on the progress she’d managed to make with him so far, prying him out of his shell one text or phone call at a time. But the moment their flirting turned remotely serious, he’d skitter away; his messages and mannerisms turning stiff and formal like an Austenian gentleman.

Or a rabbit caught in the headlights.

And then he had vanished for a week, and Ursula had been forced to admit this wasn’t just about the gifts or the thrill of being adored. There was just something about him, something that pushed all of her buttons in all the right ways that made her want to get to know him more. In fact, she hadn’t felt this drawn to someone since—

“Nathan!” Ursula beamed as he pushed through the club doors, weaving his way through the staff, setting up the chairs for the show tomorrow night. He was wearing his “formal” gym clothes—the kind he wore to work, his kitbag slung low over his shoulder. “What are you doing here?”

“Got out early,” Nathan replied, grinning up at her and greeting Devon with a friendly nod. “I thought we could walk home together. Are you almost done?”

“Almost.”

“Really? Cause it looks to me like you’re just hanging around.”

Ursula rolled her eyes at the awful dad-joke and flipped herself down through the loop of the hoop to land lightly on her feet. “I was texting Mister V.”

“Same,” Nathan replied, and Ursula noted his phone was in hand. “Apparently, there is a package waiting for us at home.”

“Oh?” Ursula squinted down at her phone. Mister V hadn’t said anything to her about a package. “Did he say what it was.”

“Nope.”

“All right well, let me just get down, and we can—Nathan!” she squealed in protest when he reached out and scooped her off the stage with a firm arm under her thighs, shouldering her weight easily as he spun her to the ground. Sometimes he really did just like to show off how strong he was, but it was hard to mind when she knew how hard-won his recovery had been…

“You are an absolute unit,” she told him quite seriously, purposefully sliding down his front.

“You say the sweetest things.” He grinned down at her, leaning in to place a kiss on her upturned mouth.

“Ugh, can you two go please flirt somewhere else?” Devon grumbled, and Ursula pulled away, hurrying to shove her clothes into her backpack. She couldn’t be bothered to get changed out of her dance gear, not when her raincoat would cover it.

Outside, the sky was overcast and grey; cold for this time of year, but not unpleasant.

“Penny for them?” Nathan said after a while, and Ursula realized they’d walked hand in hand most of the way home in silence.

“I’m not sure my thoughts are worth a penny,” Ursula replied, skipping over a puddle and swinging Nathan’s arm wide as he stepped around it.

“All right, half a pack of gummy bears and a twizzle stick.”

She wrinkled her nose at him. “Just exactly how much guilt candy did you buy?”

“A lot,” Nathan said emphatically, and Ursula shook her head.

“Devon doesn’t like Mister V,” she said, and Nathan cocked his head thoughtfully to the side.

“Devon doesn’t know him.”

“Neither do we.”

“We know his credit card number,” Nathan replied, and Ursula gnawed on her bottom lip.

“Yea…”

Nathan remained silent for a few moments longer, continuing to swing her hand as they stood still at the crosswalk and waited for the lights to change. After a while, he said. “I know it’s already too late, but I thought we agreed this whole sugaring thing wouldn’t get emotional.”

And they had. But somewhere along the line, somehow, Ursula had caught feelings, and now she was drowning in the enormity of them.

“Hey, it’s okay,” Nathan squeezed her hand.

“Is it?” she asked, laughing a little with despair. “Cause it doesn’t feel like it.”

“Well then, we’ll just have to make it okay,” Nathan said, tugging her had as the lights changed and curving his arm protectively around her when a car failed to heed the lights and turned sharply in front of them. “Asshole.”

“And how do we do that?” Ursula asked, shaking out her sleeve where water had splashed up and caught her.

“I dunno,” Nathan shrugged. “You’re always the one going on about communication. Maybe we should just talk to him.”

“And what if he’s married?” she asked, and Nathan turned sky-blue eyes down toward her.

“If you’re asking me if I mind if he has a partner? No, of course not. If you’re asking if I mind being used to cheat. Obviously, but…”

“But?”

Nathan shrugged. “None of this was supposed to be personal. And we didn’t ask, so while it would be supremely shitty of him to be using us to cheat… I dunno. It’s complicated.”

“Would you want to keep talking to him?”

Nathan shrugged. “I don’t know. Probably not.” And Ursula saw the same flash of emotion curdling up inside her stomach flicker over his face. Because things were complicated, and one way or another, they weren’t going to get better like this.

She sighed. “I’m sorry. I feel like I’ve made this so much more difficult than it was meant to be.”

“Nah,” Nathan replied, giving her hand another squeeze. “I mean yes, obviously, but you didn’t make me have feelings for him. He did that, whether he meant to or not.”

“Do you think he feels the same?” Ursula asked, and it was almost painful how hopeful she sounded to her own ears.

“I dunno,” Nathan replied, reaching up absently to scratch at his ear, adjusting the fit of his hearing aid. “Maybe? He seems to like us…”

“Yeah,” Ursula said softly, remembering the gentle sound of Mister V’s voice lulling her to sleep. She’d demanded he do it again multiple times over the last week, and he’d indulged her, even though he surely had to work in the mornings, and kept a much, much different schedule than they did.

Usually, this sort of thing was the other way around.

Reaching the steps of their apartment building, Ursula slipped the fob key from her pocket, the door buzzing obnoxiously as it opened. The hallway was slick with water, but thankfully someone had placed the packages on top of the mailbox to keep them from getting wet.

Ursula strained upward, trying to reach, hopping up and down while Nathan casually riffled through them at eye-height. “Hmm nope, nope, not seeing any Amazon boxes… Oh.”

“What?”

“It’s… not Amazon.”

He lowered the box down to her height, and Ursula peered at it. Not only was it not from Amazon, but the label was handwritten. The two shared a look, then promptly bolted for the stairs.

“I wonder what it is…” Ursula looked down at it, waiting for Nathan to fumble the door open and resisting the urge to shake it in case she broke something.

“It feels heavy,” Nathan said, eventually managing to get his key into the janky lock and pushing the door open. It scraped along the floor as it moved—just one of the main things the landlord kept promising to fix.

They took their time to strip out of their wet clothing because they were adults, and neither of them particularly wanted to mop the floor. With that in mind, Nathan took their coats and hung them up over the shower rail in the bathroom to drip rhythmically into the tub. When he returned, he was carrying her bathrobe, and Ursula snuggled under it on the couch; the fluffy fabric toasty warm from being draped over the one working radiator in their bedroom.

“Do you want to open it?” she offered, and Nathan gave her an amused look.

“Not nearly as much as you do. Go on, before the suspense kills both of us.”

With more care than she usually did, Ursula pulled out a sharp butterfly knife from the inside of her robe (hey, you never knew when you might need one) and neatly sliced the packing tape open. Inside, was a single rectangular parcel wrapped in black paper, and a card held in place by a glittering piece of ribbon tying it all together. It was handwritten just like the package; their names scrawled in neat and fluid cursive. She opened it carefully, sliding the card out without seeing the design on the front. The inside read:

To the light of all lights.

To remedy the absence in your collection.

~V x

Ursula stared at it. Mostly she stared at the singular kiss at the bottom, brushing her thumb over the mark. Wordlessly she handed it over her shoulder to Nathan, who read it. “To the light of all lights?”

“I have no idea…” She turned her attention to the parcel, sliding the ribbon free to add to her collection later, and tearing apart the paper to reveal…

“Dracula…” She held the book up to the light, her eyes shining at how pretty it was. It was one of the limited edition prints, the kind Barnes and Noble did every few years, imitating the old leather-bound and gilded volumes of days gone by. But rather than shiny and new, this one was old, the spine lined with cracks and signs of well-loved use. Some of the pages were even turned down. But it was the gilded font across the front that finally caught her attention, the floral scrawl denoting that it was a special edition printed for the 100th anniversary.

In 1997.

Leaning over the back of the couch, Nathan’s chest caught on a gasp, and Ursula knew he’d just realized the same thing she had. “You don’t think…”

Ursula opened the book, allowing it to fall open where it wanted. A note near the bottom caught her eye, and she read the passage:

“There are darknesses in life, and there are lights. You are one of the lights.”

Her eyes skipped to the handwritten note in the margins, three simple words scrawled in the same handwriting as the note; the ink faded into the dog eared page as though it had been written a long time ago.

Find the light.

Oh,” Ursula breathed out, not sure whether she wanted to laugh or cry, and settling for both.

He’d given them his favorite book.

Chapter Text

Thank you for the gift… The text flashed across Vlad’s screen, and he smiled down at it, his work entirely forgotten. Truthfully, he’d been scared about sending them the book. His heart had hammered in his chest the whole time he’d been doing it, right up until the mail courier came and took it away. But Vlad’s therapist had told him to do something nice and meaningful for himself, and Vlad had realized with staggering clarity that he had no idea how to do that.

So he’d done something nice for them instead.

It was a work in progress.

You’re welcome. Vlad texted back. I hope you like it.

We love it, the reply came back instantly, this time from Nathan with a picture attached of Ursula curled up on a sagging couch, her nose buried between the pages and a soft smile fixed to her beautiful face. It made Vlad’s heart clench in his chest.

It’s too special, Ursula’s text flashed up next. You shouldn’t have sent us this.

If you don’t want it, I’ll gladly take it back, Vlad replied, adding a winking smiley face to show that he was kidding. He was rewarded by another picture, this time of Ursula hugging the book close to her chest, attempting to hide it under the lapel of her fluffy bathrobe.

You may have to come and take it lol, Nathan replied, and Vlad’s fingers tapped out a response before his brain had a chance to filter it.

Well then, maybe I will.

It wasn’t until several hours later when he was getting into the elevator to head home that he realized what he’d said and his soul left his body.

 

“Oh, you’re home.”

Vlad looked up from his phone to find Elizabeth watching him from the kitchen doorway, her stance poised with surprise as she set her keys and purse down on the counter. He felt caught under her stare, like an intruder who didn’t belong, but he pushed the feeling down.

He quirked a curious eyebrow at her. “Should I not be?”

“Of course,” Elizabeth said, gliding past him, retrieving a bottle of sparkling mineral water from the refrigerator. It hissed loudly when she cracked the seal, and Vlad was suddenly put in mind of a fuse being lit. “Honestly, I’ve just hardly seen you these past few weeks. You’ve been so busy with work. I was starting to think you’d moved out.”

Thought about it, Vlad mused silently, his attention already back on his phone, which was vibrating non-stop. He’d finally replied to Riya after several weeks of ghosting, and she was filling his inbox with demands to know where the hell he’d been. Ursula, on the other hand, wanted to see if he had Netflix (of course he did) and whether he’d like to watch something with them again this weekend.

He replied to both of them, tapping out words of apology and agreement in rapid-fire succession.

“I said—” Elizabeth began again when he didn’t respond, and Vlad replied without looking up.

“I heard you.”

“Well,” Elizabeth rallied, ignoring the shortness of his tone. “No matter, you’re here now, that’s the main thing. I’ve wanted to talk to you, actually…” She glanced at the phone, which was still vibrating in his hand. “But Lidle said you were too busy to take any of my calls.”

“What about?” Vlad asked, suddenly very much aware of the pulse point at the base of his throat. Panic was a conditioned response to being told someone needed to talk to him; it never ended well.

“Why, about your party, silly,” Elizabeth said, as though it should have been obvious, and the only thing they needed to talk about. “Now, I know you told Lady Margarete you didn’t want to do anything, but I’ve shopped around, and I think I’ve found the perfect venue…”

“No.”

She blinked, unused to being interrupted. “What?”

“I said, no,” Vlad repeated firmly, willing himself to look her calmly in the eye.

“You’re really going to be stubborn about this, aren’t you? All right, no party.” Elizabeth held her hands up. “We’ll just stock up the pool bar and have some friends round. Now, about the cake—"

“What part of ‘no’ are you not understanding?” Vlad asked, setting his phone aside and giving her the full measure of his attention. “I do not want a party, Elizabeth. I do not want to invite people round for drinks, or cake, or anything. I can, in fact, think of nothing I want less than to spend time with any of the people we have the misfortune in common to call friends.

Vlad swiped his phone up again, more for something to do with his hands than anything else. He couldn’t make sense of any of the words in front of him, but he knew they’d be there waiting for him later.

Elizabeth watched him in stony silence, her lips pursing together as she rocked back and forth on her heels. It was almost as though she’d never seen him before. Eventually, she clucked her tongue, rolling her eyes up to the ceiling. “Look, if this is about that night at the club…”

Vlad scoffed, looking up at her incredulously.

She threw her hands out wide. “It was just one night!”

“No, Elizabeth, it’s not. It’s never just one night. Not with you.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?!”

“I think you know fine well what it means,” Vlad fired back, and Elizabeth had the grace to flush under his stare. “There will be no party,” he reiterated. “No party, no people, no cake, and no drinks. Is that clear?”

Elizabeth stared at him; her nostrils flared, and her eyes hard as flint. “So, is this it?” she demanded, gesturing to the empty void of space between them. “Is this how things are going to be from now on?”

“No,” Vlad replied, walking past her on his way out the door and allowing himself a chilly smile. “But it’s a start.”

He was halfway up the stairs when Elizabeth caught up with him. “Who is she?” she demanded, a wild, frantic note in her voice he’d never heard before.

“Who?”

“Don’t give me that shit,” she spat. “The person you keep texting. What’s her name, do I know her?”

Vlad regarded Elizabeth quietly. He was suddenly very aware of just how tired he was of all this. “No, you don’t know them.”

“Oh them,” Elizabeth veered back, swallowing his admission of infidelity whole and using it to find ammunition to spit back at him. “We’re playing the pronoun game, are we? All right, what’s his name?”

“None of your business,” Vlad replied curtly, turning to leave and snatching his arm away when she tried to pull him back.

“Wait, you’re serious…” Elizabeth laughed incredulously, a hand going to her mouth before moving to plant both of them on her hips. “Well, color me surprised. I didn’t know you still had it in you. I am curious, though, aren’t you a little old for that sort of thing?”

Vlad narrowed his eyes. “What sort of thing?”

“Going down on your knees like that,” Elizabeth retorted, a malicious grin spreading over her face. It froze a moment later when Vlad began to laugh.

“Oh, Lizzy.” He gave her a pitying look. “What bothers you more? The idea that you’re not the only one in this marriage blowing another man? Or the idea that I might be better at it than you?”

Elizabeth spluttered, and Vlad allowed himself another hollow, brittle laugh.

“Ah, I thought so. Good night Lizzy.”

“Where the hell do you think you’re going?” she yelled after him. “I’m not done talking to you!”

“That’s too bad, cause I’m done talking to you,” Vlad replied without looking back. It was only when his bedroom door was firmly shut that he allowed his knees to buckle, a manic, shaky laugh escaping his chest as he leaned back against the door and stared unseeing up at the ceiling.

He wasn’t entirely sure, but he was reasonably certain he’d just torpedoed his marriage.

 

“I spoke to Elizabeth the other day,” Lady M said hesitantly, hovering nervously over the breakfast table while Vlad sat drinking coffee next to his father.

It was another beautiful Saturday morning, and the French doors were open, allowing a cool breeze to circulate around the room. Apparently, his father was supposed to get more sunshine, and this was about as far as he was willing to go.

“Oh?” Vlad asked lightly.

“Yes, I called, wanting to talk to her about your party… You didn’t mention she’d gone to see her sister.”

“Oh, is that where she is?” Vlad reached across the table for a sugar donut, breaking it up into bitesize pieces on his plate.

He’d woken the morning after their fight to find Elizabeth’s bedroom door open, and the suitcases above her wardrobe gone. He’d stared at it for a moment, knowing that she’d staged the scene deliberately so it’d be the first thing he saw when he woke up. Vlad was sure it was supposed to prompt him into frantic phone calls and texting, but all he’d felt was relief. That had been Wednesday; he hadn’t even bothered to try calling her.  

“Yes, she um, she sounded a bit peeved, to be honest.”

Vlad snorted. “I’m sure she did.”

“I’m sure whatever is going on, it’s not too late to fix. Try calling her, bring her home,” Lady M urged, and Vlad raised a quizzical eyebrow at her.

“Now why the hell would I want to go and do a thing like that?”

“Bring who home?” Vlad’s father asked, moving painfully slow as he ate.

“Elizabeth,” Lady M replied, reaching over to cut up the slice of toast he was struggling with.

There was a weird disconnect going on in Vlad’s head, between the father he’d known growing up, and the one in front of him now, who gummed his way through a bowl of applesauce and struggled to hold a knife. It was hard to reconcile the two. Harder than Vlad ever thought it would be.

“Is she not back from Paris yet?” The Count asked, looking up at Vlad with eyes that were a little too bright to be focused on reality. “I thought she was home for the semester?”

Vlad hesitated, his eyes circling round to Lady Margarete, who shook her head discretely. Apparently, it was one of those days.

“She is,” Vlad replied carefully. “But we’re not talking at the moment.”

“Aha,” his father laughed shortly, giving Vlad a shrewd look. “Fallen out again, have you? No matter, she’ll come around. Women always do. Your mother and I used to fight all the time, you know.”

“Yes.” Vlad took a diplomatic sip from his coffee. “I remember.”

“Her and her Jefferson Airplane.”

Vlad frowned. “What?”

“Hmm?” His father looked up. “What’s what?”

“Oh, speaking of which, Vlad dear, I was clearing out the attic, and I found some things you might want.” Lady M disappeared from the kitchen, reappearing moments later carrying a heavy box. “There’s more in the hallway, but here look.”

Vlad stood up, peering into the cardboard box with interest. “Records?”

“They were your mothers,” his father said, his mind briefly touching down again into the present. “Damn things. She’d spend hours listening to them…”

Vlad reached down into the box, picking up one of the albums at random and pulling the vinyl disc from its sleeve. A rectangular card fluttered out when he did, and Vlad stooped down to retrieve it. His heart stoppered in his chest when he realized it was a polaroid, sun-damaged, and faded, but Vlad would have known that smile anywhere. He’d spent nearly three decades missing it.

“I thought all these were destroyed,” he said softly, staring down at the picture of his mother.

“There’s more, like that,” Lady M said, sounding apologetic. “A lot of the boxes were open and under one of the sunroofs, but I kept them… just in case. There’s an old record player too. I think it works. I thought… well, I just thought.”

Vlad turned to face her, his mouth opening and closing uselessly as he tried to find the words for the devastating wave of gratitude that had just rolled over him. “Thank you.”

“Oh, it’s nothing dear,” Lady M waved him off. “As I said, I was just clearing things out—oh!” She laughed, hugging him back and giving him an affectionate pat on the head he’d have never tolerated in his youth. But then again, he never would have embraced her then either. “There now, don’t be silly,” she fussed him away, turning her face up to the ceiling as she dabbed under her eyes. “You’ll make my mascara run. Oh!” She looked around suddenly, her face transforming into an expression of alarm. “My tarts!”

Left alone together, Vlad resumed his seat next to his father, distantly listening to the sound of Lady M fussing in the kitchen as he peered more closely at the photo. Turning it over, he read the date: ‘Spring of ’76’. She’d been so damn young…

Slight and pale with gray eyes, Vlad’s mother always had an ethereal look about her, as though she didn’t quite fully belong in this world. Changeling, his father had called her. Vlad, too when it had become apparent he would grow into her slim proportions, the same angular features, and gray eyes. Same smile.

Same melancholic nature too.

“She was beautiful,” his father said, and Vlad started, looking up to find his father also looking at it. He reached for the photo, and Vlad handed it over reluctantly, fearful of that spark of temper he knew always lingered under the calm of his father’s façade. But the old man just looked sad, trailing his bony fingers over the faded image. “I always wondered what I did to make that smile go away…”

“It wasn’t your fault,” Vlad said, purely out of reflex.

“Oh, I’m sure I did plenty.” His father chuckled darkly as he handed the photo back to Vlad, his milky-blue eyes fixing on him and mapping Vlad’s features with sudden unspeakable sorrow. “You’re just like her…”

“I know.”

“I hate it.”

“I know.”

The silence hung between them, a lifetime of pain, and mutual resentment cradled within it. After a while, his father said, “She found out then, Elizabeth…” and Vlad sighed. There was no point denying anything. Not now.

“Yes.”

“Get a lawyer,” his father said brusquely, pragmatic as ever, even when his mind was wandering. “You’ll need one.”

“Yes, the thought had occurred to me.”

His father grunted in response, eyeing Vlad out the corner of his eye. “Is she worth it?”

“Who?”

“The girl you’re throwing everything away on.”

Vlad sighed. “I’m not getting a divorce for someone else.”

“Oh?” His father asked, sounding skeptical.

“No. I’m doing it for me. I’m tired of the way things are between us. And Christ knows I’ve tried to make things work.” And he had, Vlad thought, he really, really had. Flawed as he was, he really had tried. “But it’s like she enjoys how broken things are, and I’m just…” He sighed again, slumping wearily in his seat. “I’m so tired.”

His father said nothing for several moments, then reached across with shaking hands to pour Vlad another cup of coffee. It was quite possibly the nicest thing he’d ever done for him.

 

“And how does all of this make you feel?” Dr. Lestrange asked, her pen held poised over the notepad in her lap.

“Tired,” Vlad replied succinctly, wishing not for the first time that it was still legal to smoke in public places. She’s taken pity on him though and had kindly offered him a pen to fidget with. Vlad had resented the implication that he couldn’t sit still for their sixty-minute appointment, but the relief of having something to do with his hands was almost more than he could bear.

He wondered what that said about him.

“I’m… relieved too. But mostly, I just feel… Like I haven’t slept in years.”

Dr. Lestrange quirked an eyebrow at him. “Have you?”

And he had. In fact, Vlad had slept better in these last few months than he’d done in years. Ever since, he’d start Skyping with Ursula and Nathan…

“You mean since you stopped engaging in nightly arguments with your wife and found other means of socialization?”

“You make it sound so simple when you say it like that.”

Dr. Lestrange shrugged. “It is. But simple doesn’t always mean easy. Especially when it sounds like she went to great lengths to keep you isolated.”

“I…” Vlad opened his mouth, frowning. “I’m not sure that’s accurate.”

“Isn’t it?” She glanced down at her notes. “We talked briefly about your sister, but it sounds like your wife did everything to discourage you two from talking after she moved.”

“Did I say that?”

“You said you only call her while at work because you knew it annoyed your wife to do it from home. You said over the years, your friends have mostly drifted away, and the only people you see are her friends and the people you see at AA meetings. Your family is…” She leafed through another notepad on her lap, and Vlad cringed at how full it was. “Your family is its own trauma…”

And that was another word Vlad was struggling to reconcile himself with. Trauma. Trauma.

That was the sort of thing that happened to brave people. He’d said as much and had very nearly crawled out of his skin at the compassionate look Dr. Lestrange had given him. Apparently, things had been a lot more fucked than Vlad had realized, which brought them to the night before when Vlad had sat on the living room floor with oil on his hands, and his mother’s old record player belting out the powerful vocals of Grace Slick’s unapologetic demands.

“Don’t you want somebody to love? Don't you need somebody to love? Wouldn't you love somebody to love? You better find somebody to love…”

He’d always rather liked Jefferson Airplane. He had fond memories of listening to the albums in his mother’s art studio, back when she’d still been well enough to paint. It had seemed at times, that she was a person possessed, dancing in vibrant swirls of colorful emotion that the paintbrush never seemed able to catch. He’d smoked his first joint in that attic, the sound of Jefferson Airplane hammering out the beat of his heart as Grace Slick’s voice dipped and rose over the thud of the drum and the snarl of the guitars while his mother sat across from him, staring up at stars only she could see. He’d been twelve.

Christ, was it any wonder he was such a mess.

“I actually think you’re doing fairly well,” Dr. Lestrange countered.

“Am I?” Vlad asked, incredulous.

“You’re here, aren’t you? You’re sober. You’re making steps toward leaving your abusive partner. It all adds up.”

“I just want it all to be over.” Vlad lamented, and Dr. Lestrange gave him another one of those spearing looks she was so good at.

“Recovery never ends. You know that. But eventually, it changes shape. And sometimes that can feel like the same thing. Now,” she smiled at him, a slow patient smile. “About getting you to try and do something nice for yourself again…”