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Shir tugged at her freshly cleaned clothes, which clung to her skin, still slightly moist after what had to be the hottest shower she had ever taken.

Dezoris was cold. She had heard of it, of course, but it had still left her unprepared for the real thing. It was a cold far beyond anything she had ever considered "cold" before, a chill that seemed to pierce straight through her clothes, skin and flesh and invade her very bones.

She had not been the only one to underestimate the white planet. They had all been in pretty bad condition by the time they finally found the town they'd been looking for. The trek through Skure spaceport had been bad enough - broken-down and snowed-in passages, parts of it used as nests by ferocious Dezo wildlife, and through it all, every mech still connected to Mother Brain's network had orders to consider them hostile and attack on sight. It was a wonder they'd made it through at all.

And then there had been outside. Just thinking about it made her shiver and long for the heat of the shower again. Outside Skure's protective walls, they had faced the full force of a blizzard, winds the likes of which had never been seen on Mota since the climate control system started up. They had all brought the warmest clothes they could find for the trip, but even double or triple layers of Motavian wool had proven woefully insufficient.

She shuddered again, hugging herself and rubbing her arms. At least it had made it hard for the mechs to track their movements... and by the looks of things, that would not be changing anytime soon. Dezo's weather was such that she wondered how anyone had ever managed to stay long enough to find out there were valuable minerals there, much less start extracting them.

They had been half dead from the cold by the time they stumbled into town to the obvious surprise and fascination of the tall, green-skinned natives. While the rest of them huddled next to a building, trying to stay out of the wind, Rolf had negotiated and secured them a house to stay at, though Shir wasn't sure how he'd done it - he probably couldn't get away with writing it off as expenses at this point. Still, she was grateful. At that point, a hot shower had been right at the top of her wish list.

The house was old, one of the buildings left by the Palman immigrants. It did not seem to have been used in a long time, perhaps even since the exodus ten years ago, but everything inside still worked, kept in check by the self-maintenance systems. It must have been detached from any larger networks - otherwise she had no doubt even the household appliances would be trying to kill them.

It was a nice house, but not built for such a large group. They had drawn lots to determine access to the one available shower, after unanimously allowing Rolf the first go. Then, they had prepared sleeping areas as best they could. There were only two beds, in separate rooms. Rolf had not complained when they told him to take one of them; he picked the one closest to the entrance. Kain, who seemed to have taken the cold harder than the rest, got the second, though Amy - who had weathered the storm surprisingly well, Shir thought - said there was nothing wrong with him.

The rest of them were less fortunate. Rudo had claimed a chair in the kitchen and seemed to fall asleep sitting up, a blanket tied around his shoulders, rifle across his lap. Anna had pulled the pillows from a couch in the living room and turned them into a makeshift mattress on the floor, where she lay on her back, arms folded under her head, staring up at the ceiling. Hugh lay sprawled across the pillowless couch with his nose in a book. Neither option looked entirely comfortable; Shir wasn't sure who had drawn the shorter straw. And she herself shared a small side room with Amy, who had been foolish enough to let her "roomie" take the first pick between the one spare mattress they had found and a bundle of blankets and would therefore be sleeping on the latter.

Throwing herself on that mattress and getting some sleep would probably have been the smartest thing to do right now, but Shir felt tired in her body, not in her head. As long as the trip had seemed, it was still not late, and she knew that even if she did fall asleep now, she'd be waking up in the middle of the night feeling rested, but be ready to keel over by noon the next day.

She had poked around the house for a bit instead. There was an attic, where they had found the mattress and some of the blankets, but few personal belongings. Whoever lived here had left common utility items but no personal artefacts whatsoever, save a few books - old print-on-paper ones, mostly sciency stuff she had little interest in. She hadn't brought anything with her, either, and the house was cut off from the outside, if there even was an active network on Dezo. She would have loved to take a closer look at the town outside, but she couldn't take any more of that cold after that blizzard, so she ended up roaming about the building, glaring at random cupboards and drawers as if that would make them contain something interesting the next time she looked in them.

It didn't work, and by the third time she passed the living room both Hugh and Anna were giving her looks clearly telling her to settle down.

She paced in the hallway instead, just inside the entrance, walking back and forth past Rolf's room.

After several trips up and down the corridor, she finally stopped in front of that door and, after some consideration, knocked.

She wasn't really sure what she'd say to him. There had been tension between them from the beginning. Not sexual - she wished it had been sexual! - but the kind of clash of ideologies you'd expect between a thief and a glorified thief-catcher. Still, he had been... approachable, she supposed. They had talked openly and acknowledged their differences. It wasn't friendship, exactly, but a mutual acceptance and some degree of respect.

Now, however, she found it increasingly difficult to approach him at all. There was nothing she could say, nothing she could do. And that in itself bothered her almost as much as the events leading up to it.

"It's open," came a quiet, calm voice, muffled by the door. She drew a deep breath, held it for a couple of heartbeats, and slid the door open.

Rolf was sitting on the bed, still wearing his blue agent's uniform even after all that had happened. It looked a bit strange without the usual armour on top, the silver breaking up the blue; it was lying on a table next to the bed - cleaned, polished, and ready to strap back on. She was sure his weapons were close by as well. He seemed to have reached for the table when she knocked, and was just pulling his hand back by the time she opened; she noticed it was bare, without his usual black gloves.

"Hey," she said, and regretted her decision already. He nodded, saying nothing. The door clicked shut behind her, cutting off her escape route. She leaned back against it, the metal feeling cold against her shoulders even through her clothes.

"You... doing okay?"

It sounded so lame. Like something Amy would say, Shir thought - but no, even Amy showed more character than that when it came to someone's health.

Rolf looked at her, stared at her like she wasn't there. There was no emotion in that look, no anything. She chewed her tongue, suddenly uncomfortable for a completely different reason.

It didn't last as long as it felt, before he looked away again. "I think so," he said.

I think so.

She didn't get it. Didn't know how he could see what he had seen, feel what he had felt and still think he was doing okay. He was not doing okay, none of them was doing okay, Algo was not doing okay. Nothing was doing okay. Palma was gone. A population in the billions, all dead. She still couldn't wrap her head around it. Only a few days ago, it had been a thrill ride. Now they were caught up in something incredibly big, incredibly fucked up, and there was no getting out even if she wanted to. They had all been marked for death. Even here, she felt it was only a matter of time.

But Rolf didn't even seem to pause. After Gaira, he had just pressed on like a robot, as emotionless as one of those machines Mother Brain had sent after them, caring only for the mission. Suddenly she wanted to punch him. Anything, just to knock him out of that blankness.

And then, suddenly, just as she was thinking that, he smiled. Just long enough, just strong enough that she was certain she had seen it, and said:


"What?" Despite everything, that came out feeling more like... herself, she supposed. "I didn't do anything."

He tilted his head back, looked up at the ceiling. Pensive, this time, not emotionless. Looked at her again, and this time it didn't bother her. There was life in there, now. Hurt and tired, but life, more like what she had seen when they first met.

"It's been a long time since someone asked me that. So it got me thinking." He paused, and she waited.

"I'd be lying if I said I don't have any doubts. This is bigger than anything I could have imagined. But I couldn't walk away from everything we've seen. Someone is behind all this. I'll never be satisfied unless I can find out who it is... and why."

His eyes narrowed, sharp and angry. But then he shook his head, and his expression turned calm.

"It's for my own sake as much as anyone else's. Until I have my answer, I can't give up. Not on Algo, not on us, not on myself." He looked down at his hands; nodded, as if to confirm what he just said. Then he looked up again, met her gaze, and asked the question she had begun to dread.

"How about you?"

Shir gave a noise she couldn't be sure if it felt more like a little breathless laugh or a sob.


I'm fine. I told you I don't care about peace or justice.

Except it wasn't peace or justice, now. She didn't know what it was, but it was something beyond just human words and concepts. Destroying a world wasn't injustice. It wasn't even an atrocity. There wasn't a word strong enough for it. But she knew that just thinking about it made her stomach turn and her chest ache and her eyes burn and she did care. And when she opened her mouth, the quick, easy lie simply... crumbled.

"I... I visited Palma once," she said, her voice sounding faint and hollow. "I was six." She hung her head, staring at her hazy reflection in the smooth metal floor. It had been an adventure back then. "It was green. Old green. There were forests that had stood for hundreds of years. My..."

She combed her fingers through her hair, let it brush feather-light across her cheeks. Green fluttered in her peripheral vision. She remembered lush branches swaying, light filtering through.

My father said I fit right in.

She choked on the words. Shook her head. He didn't need to know that.

"All the buildings were white, so polished you could see the sky reflected in them. When the sun went down, I thought the town had caught fire-"

Images flashed unbidden in her head. Half forgotten memories. Fire, a staticky image from space.

She drew a sharp breath, raised her head and forced herself to meet that quiet, blue gaze. "So I'm fucking well not doing okay. But I'm not - not going anywhere. Even if I could. I'm with you until the end."

Rolf held her gaze for a few more moments, and nodded once, slowly.

"That means a lot. Thanks." The corner of his mouth turned up in a weird little smile that didn't quite reach his eyes.

Once upon a time, she might have told him this kind of mush made her want to puke. But that was a long time ago. (Not even a week.) Now she had the image of standing under that green canopy (Fitting right in), holding her father's large, warm hand, watching the city catch fire with the sunset. Only now it burned, fire devouring everything until nothing remained and her stomach churned, her skin crawling with gooseflesh and cold sweat.

Her father had disowned her - she had heard it on the news, before they set off for Dezo. The daughter of one of Mota's richest, most powerful families, suspected of terrorism - the gossip media had jumped at such a delicious scandal. Not even the death of a planet could change how that worked.

It hadn't come as a surprise; she had always known it might become necessary, so her actions didn't reflect too heavily on him, and all that he was responsible for. She wondered what he thought now, now that she wasn't just a petty criminal, but a terrorist. Surely he didn't believe a word of it. But still, she would have liked to see him again. To tell the truth.

She shook her head, trying to banish the thoughts and focus on the now.

"I feel... a little better," she said, but she couldn't keep looking him in the eyes and turned her head down. "Talking about it." She still felt as if she might throw up, but she also felt... stronger, she supposed. Not quite so alone. It was strange. She had never minded being alone. Enjoyed being alone. But after returning from space, she had felt lonely. As if she were the only person who was real. Talking to Rolf had made him real, too. And that, in turn, made the others seem more real as well. It was curiously comforting.

She forced herself to look up, to meet Rolf's gaze again. "I guess I should say thanks, too."

This time his smile did reach his eyes.

"Any time." He closed his eyes, smile widening, shoulders shaking briefly. But it lasted only a short while, and before she could ask what was so funny, he was looking at her again.

"Say. I know this isn't what you had in mind, and this bed is a bit small, but... Do you want to share? I think I could use some company, and distraction."

They looked at each other. It didn't surprise her that she looked away before he did.

"I guess I did say 'any time'," she said, smiling faintly as she looked down at her reflection once more.

It seemed so long ago.

"A lifetime ago," he said.

Lifetime. She didn't want to think about that word.

It had been the night before they went to Climatrol. The night before everything started turning to shit. She remembered him standing in the door to his bedroom, a shadow outlined with the fiery glow of the setting sun. Her hand on his shoulder, her fingers drawing a winding path down his arm.

"You told me not to hold my breath."

His smile seemed wistful. "Sorry."

She shook her head. He had smiled when he said it. A nice smile, just warm enough to take the edge off. It was the last time she saw him smile like that. "It was... kinda funny. Is... Is that bed warm?"


She sniffed, scrubbed at her cheeks with both hands. "Then I'm staying," she said.

He swung his legs off the bed and she pushed away from the door, closing the distance between them. As soon as she was within arm's length he reached out for her, rough fingers gliding around to the back of her knees and up to her thighs, and he pulled her closer. Her socks slid on the polished floor and then she was standing right in front of him, her legs between his, shins pressing against the side of the bed, and he buried his face against her stomach.

She ran her hands up his shoulders and neck and combed her fingers through his hair, and he ran his higher up the backs of her thighs, raising the hem of her skirt a little and she was so glad she had decided to wear her old blue dress instead of the thick wool pants she had worn earlier. And those hands... She had always thought they looked interesting, with their scars and calluses. Hands with a history. And they were just as strong, felt just as nice as she had imagined. The friction between them seemed electric, and for a few moments she wanted this just as badly as she had the first time, way back a few days ago.

She tightened her grip on his hair and he nuzzled her stomach, nose sliding across her bellybutton, lips pressing against her below and even though the touch was faint and indistinct through her clothes she felt her stomach tighten as if her body wanted to pull away from him. But there was no escaping those hands, that friction moving higher and higher. He was bunching her skirt up, raising the hem, past mid-thigh now. She would have squirmed, shifted her stance, let her thighs rub together, but that grip and sensation held her fast, even beyond just the physical.

But just as he approached the top of her thighs, that grip faltered. Friction fizzled, and finally he sat still and silent, shoulders slumping.

She bit her tongue, half annoyed at the hesitation, half starting to question her decision to stay because it really wasn't what she had in mind, but it was still better than watching Palma burn in her head and waiting for sleep to claim her, dreading that it never would. Had to be better.

She fisted both hands in his hair and pushed his head back; his expression seemed pained - perhaps just from the grip on his hair, though she suspected not - but swiftly turned neutral as he met her gaze. She bent over him and forced a smile, hoping it looked less fake than it felt.

"Let me," she said, voice barely above a whisper; let go and slid her hands down to his shoulder. He didn't resist when she pushed him back, down onto the bed. It was barely wide enough, left his head propped up against the wall at an uncomfortable-looking angle. For a moment she worried that he would just remain there, unresponsive, but then he turned to the side, pulling his legs up onto the bed. She followed, coming to a halt on all fours over him, and he grabbed her by the hips, pulling her down on top of him.

"Sorry," he said, and she felt his lips move against her hair. "I'm..."

She shifted her position, nuzzled his neck, letting her lips brush him when she replied. "The wrong kind of distracted?"

Her entire body shook as his chest rumbled underneath her in brief, silent laughter. "Yeah. Sorry."

She raised her head, looked down and met his gaze. "Stop." A brief pause. "Don't." And again. "Just keep going until it works."

Again he laughed, a warm sound and a rumble in his chest that once more shook her where she lay.

"I will," he said, and his hands slipped from her hips and up to her back, firmly pressing her against him. He felt warm, even through their clothes. She closed her eyes and burrowed her face in against his neck and shoulder, pulling a hand in underneath herself, seeking the zipper on his uniform. His skin smelled faintly of soap, and the uniform of detergent. Simple and clean. She nipped at his neck with dry lips and he tightened his grip on her, left arm gripping her tightly around the waist, right hand beginning to stroke her back and shoulders.

She found the zipper slider and pulled it down, as quickly as she could with her hand trapped between them. In response he raised a leg, thigh straining against her skirt as his knee pushed in between hers. She squirmed a little, hoping she could shift the garment higher up her thighs and allow them to part, but the skirt barely budged.

Before she could make any larger movements, the hands on her back slid down, pausing for a moment to squeeze her buttocks through the fabric; then he hooked his fingers around the hem of the skirt and pulled it up, gathering it around her hips. His knee rose again and she let her thighs part; drew a quick, hissing breath through her teeth when a thick, strong muscle flexed against her, clamping her legs tightly around his. He moved his hands down to her ass again and pressed her harder against his thigh.

For a moment she felt light-headed, but she shook it off and arched up, quickly tore his jacket open and slipped her hands in under the thin black tee he wore underneath. He tensed up at the touch, flat hard muscles rippling under her splayed fingers and she grinned, licked her lips. It seemed so easy, now, to let herself become distracted.

Rolf tightened his grip on her and she pushed back against him, against his hands, against his thigh. Her hands slid higher, and his shirt followed, bunching over her wrists and forearms. His chest felt nice, too, and his nipples were hard under her palms. She circled them with her thumbs, and he rocked her against his thigh. She gave him a pinch and that big muscle pressed up between her legs jumped, and she jumped as well, eyes wide.

He used the moment of distraction to take her by the arms and push her back, until she was sitting up straight. She frowned down at him, but he wasn't paying attention, struggling to shrug out of his jacket and pull the shirt over his head without having to get up. She helped, after a few moments, grabbing the hem of the tee and yanking it up, and he flowed easily with the motion, arching his back, then raising his shoulders so she could pull it off.

He looked just as good as he felt, but then again she had known that from the start. She ran her hands over his bare chest and stomach. He didn't have as many scars as she had expected. But she was missing some, too. They had all been injured during the escape from Gaira, woken up in tanks in a medical facility, all patched up with fresh new cloned tissue. She hadn't asked how bad it had been; didn't even want to think about it. Smooth, unblemished skin, like a rookie just picking up a weapon for the first time -

She shivered and pulled back, shaking her head. "Help me get this off."

Her dress was still bunched around her hips and straining over her thighs, just barely low enough to cover what she had underneath. Sitting up didn't make it shift much - the hem just dug into her legs - but it did move the pressure between her thighs further back, made it less distracting. She couldn't have told him if it was the right or wrong kind of distraction, before she got out of her clothes, so she just tilted her head back, baring her neck. "Button," she said, "in front." Not actually a button, a snap fastener - just a single one, hidden under the collar, but it was really all the same.

A finger brushed skin when he eased it in underneath the cloth, and she bit her tongue, trying not to shiver. If he noticed, he didn't show it; just fiddled with the button - the snap - until he figured it out; then gave it a tug. It held fast; he tugged harder and it came loose with a barely audible snap. By the time it was open, she had already unbuckled her belt and let it drop off the bed.

It was a simple dress, and the opening was just big enough to fit over her head. Not really enough to show off anything interesting when he eased it open, folding the cloth into what might have passed for a v-neck, as if it mattered. She placed her hands over his, steered them to her shoulders. "Pull," she said, and he gathered the fabric in his hands, pulling as well as he could.

She helped out, just a little, and the dress slid over her head, somewhat awkwardly, making her wince as it caught on her hair, but it was fine.

The room was warm, but baring so much skin so quickly still made her feel cold, and she shivered as Rolf folded the dress and tossed it on the table, next to his armour. She wore dark green underneath, nothing fancy - not what she'd have worn if she had set out to seduce him, certainly! - but all her underclothes were high quality silk, so it was nothing embarrassing either.

He gave a faint smile at the sight, brushed the back of a finger up the bra strap over her right shoulder.

"Looks good on you."

"I know," she said, because it did. And then, as he began to ease the strap off her, in a quieter tone, she added:


He shook his head, fingers slowly and gently brushing her skin. Warm. Said nothing, and didn't need to. She arched her back, pushing her chest towards him and put her hands on his chest, letting her fingers roam. She wasn't looking at him, just staring at the wall over his head, not paying attention. The strap fell from her shoulder. Her fingers drew slow circles on his skin. She concentrated on the sensations, tried to go to a place in her mind where she could tune out all the rest. The fear, the anger, the anxiety. The screen with a frozen fireball where a planet had been. It didn't go away, she didn't think it would ever go away, but if she focused on those sensation, those touches, she might just be able to pretend that it would.

He let his hand remain on her shoulder and let the other draw a path up her left arm. She leaned a little harder on his chest, closed her eyes and let him take his time.

The other strap fell not long after.

She breathed in until her chest hurt and opened her eyes. Sank down on his chest as she let the air out, burying her face against his shoulder.

"You think you can handle the clasp?" she asked, lips moving deliberately over the collarbone. His chest rumbled briefly, a silent chuckle, a quick exhalation of breath across the top of her head.

"I'll try," he said, and slid his hands down her back. She squeezed her eyes shut again, let the sensation fill her mind. She wouldn't say anything like how she felt safe being held by him, or that their bodies fit perfectly together. It wasn't like that; never had been and never would be. But it felt good.

He pulled at the clasp, turning it up so he could look down at it over her shoulder, and opened it on the first try. The silk straps slithered off her bare back, left the front of the garment stuck between them. She moved to grasp at it, pull it off and remove the last barrier, but he tightened his grasp on her and she knew it would be impossible.

Before she could do more than idly wonder what he had in mind, he sat up, lifting her as if she weighed nothing at all; raised them off the bed and turned around, laying her down on her back. Cool air wafted in between them, but the bed was warm underneath her, and somehow it felt like it balanced out.

Before she could do anything, he snatched the bra from her chest, pulled it down and off her arms and tossed it on top of her dress. Pointedly didn't look down, just met her gaze, and she took his hand and steered it down to her chest, cupped it around her right breast. Warm, rough, and not entirely dry, skin clinging to skin.

Don't hesitate, she wanted to say. Be decisive. I don't like when you hesitate. Or perhaps if she were completely honest: I need you to be decisive. Not just here and now, but moving forward.

But she didn't want things to get more dumb and awkward, really didn't want to tell him the last part. So she just arched her back a little, pressing her body up against his.

There was no more hesitation. He sank down, hand tightening on her chest, pressing his lips to her neck, nipping and sucking at her skin. She took her hand off his - didn't need it there any more - and put it on his head, combing into his hair, clean and soft between her fingers. Her other hand on his shoulder, palm pressing against hard muscle, feeling his body ripple as he moved.

He did nothing to acknowledge her touch, merely moved down her body, slowly trailing a path with his lips, sometimes tongue, while his hand kneaded her breast, teased the stiff peak of the nipple with the pad of his thumb. He had a scar there, a white ridge going right across the finger and she felt - or thought she could feel - it rubbing across with each pass. Something seemed to thrum in response inside her, something connected to the pit of her stomach, where an odd tension seemed to settle. She felt her skin heat, imagined a flush spreading across her cheeks, down her chest, but she had closed her eyes and didn't want to open them and find out. Wanted nothing to distract her from the sensations, wanted to let them fill her up and drown out everything else.

Rolf kissed down the upper slope of the same breast he cradled in his hand, took that hand off her and slid it in underneath her back, pulling her up towards his lips and tongue. Limp in his grasp, she let her head tilt back and felt his other hand on her left breast just as his lips closed around the nipple his thumb had been stroking. The same thumb was behind her now, underneath, stroking her back instead, though it had less freedom there.

She curled her toes lazily, hands still now, just resting on his body; made a soft noise she hadn't meant to make. Her skin seemed hotter. The sensation of being stroked and suckled made the pressure in her belly stronger, and she tightened her muscles inwards, tried to push back against it. It was nice, but at the same time she felt a sting of strange fear, an irrational fear of her body's reactions, of it being manipulated by someone else. She bit back a groan as the tension in her stomach lurched, seeming to turn spiny for a moment. It would fade; it always did, once she got used to it.

Unaware of her thoughts, Rolf merely continued what he was doing, plying her supple flesh with lips, tongue and fingers, plucking at the string that was her body, making it resonate. The resonance seemed to build and... drip further down, down between her thighs. It shouldn't work that way, she tried to convince herself - she was lying down, not upright, so anything dripping should fall towards the bed - but her body was not listening and the sensation of tension dripping into her slickening cunt would not disappear. She curled her fingers in Rolf's hair, arched the fingers back on the other hand, pushing and pulling. She meant nothing by it, and all she got in return was a tightening of his lips, maybe in a quick smile.

Her breath had grown short and shallow by the time he moved on, and she did not know how long had passed. She rolled her head from side to side, eyes still closed. The discomfort had passed, but the air seemed colder against sweat-damp skin that seemed to have grown more sensitive than usual. And even away from her breasts, moving down her ribs to her belly, her body still seemed to thrum at his touch.

He took his time as he reached her stomach. Her body was not statuesque, not toned and sculpted the way Anna's was, but she was stronger than she looked and thought perhaps he found the hidden hardness surprising... or if she let herself dream, perhaps even arousing. She tensed her muscles down there, felt lips and tongue dance over them, and realized that she was smiling, thoughts lost in haze.

In the end, she still used her hands to push him down. That close, the way the tension inside her built soon became unbearable, and it remained unbearable, blossoming into maddening arousal but never into the dizzying, rising pleasure that preceded a crescendo.

He smiled against her, lips just above her navel, and sank lower, lips gliding on her skin until they met cloth.

She remembered to raise her hips, to let him get the last scrap of silk off her, and it clung to her there as he pulled it away, dark and wet. Without a word, he slipped his hand out from underneath her, raised her legs and pulled the garment off her, along with her socks.

She opened her eyes then, looked down at him kneeling there, her legs up over his shoulder, and pulled them out of his grasp, parted them, and set her feet down on the bed on either side of him.

He looked up to meet her gaze, and she beckoned with both hands.

"It's cold," she said, her voice raw, and he nodded before turning his head and pressing his lips to her right inner thigh. She watched him kiss his way up with some impatience, but he was not out to tease, and his path was quick and straight.

The moment he reached his destination, she squeezed her eyes tightly shut and fisted both hands in his hair, determined not to let him go before she came undone.

It would not be long. Her insides tingled, her skin burned. The lips caressing her, the tongue darting between her thighs, made her head feel light and her body heavy. The tense feeling in her belly slithered south, oily and wet, and coiled where his tongue worked. Like a spring being wound tighter and tighter, until something had to break and the spring uncoiled all at once.

And the break came.

It lasted only moments before it faded, a disappointing flicker of sensation after the all the heavy tension she had felt build inside her, a brief starburst flaring in her head, but at least this light didn't remind her of a planet burning.

She opened her eyes and rose, half-sitting propped up by her elbows, feeling little satisfaction, feeling none of the hot, heavy laziness that usually came over her afterwards. But it was not his fault, and she smiled down, as warmly as she could.

"My turn," she said, and reached down to wipe the slick from his chin.

He nodded, but did not meet her gaze. She didn't think much of it as she relieved him of his belt, then yanked his pants down to his ankles, both outer and underwear.

His legs looked nice, too. Long and strong. She couldn't help but run her fingers up them as she let go of his pants, first on the outside, slowly circling in to the front.

He was not hard yet, and she was a little surprised, but that had its advantages, too. Licking her lips, she shuffled further down the bed and patted the spot where she had been lying - it was wet, but there was no space to avoid it.

Without comment, he lay down, as she had been lying, looking up at the ceiling, arms at his sides.

She rose on hands and knees, crawled up over him and stuck her head in his field of vision. Wiped her thumb across his still-wet lips, lowered her hand to his chest, slick finger circling a stiffening nipple.

He nodded, a small, barely noticeable gesture, and she sank down, much as he had done to her earlier, kissing a path down his chest. He smelled more like skin now, not so much of soap, and she thought, somewhere in the back of her head, that it was an improvement.

His broad, strong chest rose and fell, and she rested her head on it, letting her body move with his as she sucked at the nipple she had teased, tasting herself on his skin. Explored with her hands, tracing the forms of arms and shoulders, chest and stomach. Felt his heart beat, quick and strong, felt small, involuntary movements as she tickled and teased.

Slowly she made her way down, and he did nothing to hurry her. In the end, she sat straddling his knees, watching him as she crawled her fingers down from his hips.

Still, he was semi-hard at best. Fingers converging, she wrapped both hands around his cock and stroked resolutely, expecting a quick reaction. But even that had little effect. Frowning, she bent low and gave him a lick, from root to tip; opened up and sucked the soft tip between her lips, hollowing her cheeks as she sucked at him, slickened him with her tongue.

He let her continue just long enough to realize that something was wrong before he sat up, taking her by the shoulders and pushing her off, soft cock falling against his thigh.

"It's okay. You don't have to keep going."

She sat up, hands on his upper thighs, to meet his gaze.


He shook his head.

"I guess I'm not as easily distracted as I was hoping."

He sounded resigned. Accepting. A pang of anger flashed in her chest. Partly at herself - was she not good enough? But mostly at that resignation. Don't do that, she wanted to plead. It's the last thing I want to hear. Last thing I need to hear. I don't even care if we fuck, just don't do that to me.

But instead she shook her head, hair whipping around her cheeks. "Remember what I said."

"Just keep going until it works?"

She nodded, stroked his length with her fingertips, lightly, teasing, encouraging. To no avail. He sighed.

"I tried." He took his right hand off her shoulder, rubbed his brows with thumb and forefinger, palm hiding his eyes. "I just... can't put it out of my mind." His hand dropped and he gave her a tired look.

"I'm sorry. Really. I shouldn't have asked."

I wish you hadn't. The words formed unbidden in her head. Her eyes burned. She didn't want any of this. Didn't want to see him as weak and vulnerable. Hated herself for thinking he was weak and vulnerable. Not because he couldn't get it up, but because he accepted it. He wasn't supposed to accept. She had clung to that image of him, the one who didn't just accept. The one who fought, who pressed on. It wasn't fair, she knew it wasn't fair, but that didn't make things easier.


Her voice came out feeling thick.

"I'm sorry, too."

His left hand, still on her shoulder, squeezed her reassuringly. "It's fine."

She met his gaze. He nodded, thumb stroking her collarbone.

"It happens. All we can do is move on." His smile was small, but felt genuine. "I'm grateful. That you came, and that you stayed. Even if it didn't work, I'm glad we talked."

She let out a sob and hoped it sounded like laughter. "Yeah," she said, and managed to keep her voice steady. He nodded again, and put both hands on her shoulders.

"We should rest. We have a lot to do tomorrow."

She nodded, let her head stay down, and he slid his hands off her shoulders, down her arms; squeezed her hands before letting go.

Leaving her naked and alone. She shivered, the air suddenly seeming much colder.

"Should I leave?"

She didn't look up. He sat in silence for several moments.

"You should."

After what felt like a long time, she raised her arms, wrapped them around his neck and pushed until he lay down again.

Silence fell once more, broken only by the sound of their breathing. Then, after several long seconds, he pulled the blanket over them and wrapped his arms around her underneath it.

She lay awake for hours, even after he fell into fitful sleep.