Chapter 1: 1: Abigail Pent is Hot
The gymnasium lights shut off with a descending hum, plunging the empty space into shadow. I heaved the mats I was carrying off my shoulder and into their neat spot in the rec center closet before turning back to the almost-empty gymnasium. Whitney Houston's I Wanna Dance With Somebody echoed off the bare-steel rafters from the tinny radio plugged into one of the outlets that still worked, even after the timer clicked off. It was well past time to go home, and I'd almost finished the last of the clean-up.
The only piece of equipment left to put away was the tumble track. But Harrow was still using that.
She hadn’t reacted at all when the lights went out-- she never did. All the terrifying intensity she focused on us while she was teaching turned inward and coiled into a dizzying series of leaps, flips and turns. Her tightly-wound energy spun out from the center of her body, and the effect was absolutely breathtaking. I wanted to watch her forever. She was completely, totally, one hundred percent forbidden to me.
We were supposed to clear away the gymnastics equipment an hour after classes, and on Saturday afternoons we did so religiously, because the basketball league that met in the evening needed the space. But on Tuesday nights, when the adult gymnastics class wrapped up at ten o’clock, we stayed and shut down the gymnasium together.
Together was maybe a misnomer. She stayed late to practice, and I lingered to watch the way she moved. The first time I stayed, I told myself it was just because her technical skill fascinated me. By the fourth late Tuesday, I’d stopped lying to myself.
Honestly, I needed to get my act together. My obsession with her was unhealthy, unreasonable, and unrequited.
It had all started after I'd gotten back to work after that last concussion. I was tucked into the back room, doing inventory because the lights in the main gym still hurt my eyes but I couldn't afford to miss another shift.
My on-again off-again co-worker, Camilla Hect, had found me there in between the spin classes she taught. Her knife-cut fringe was glued to her forehead with perspiration. A droplet of sweat slid down her collarbone and disappeared into her cleavage beneath the neckline of her moisture-wicking top. "Slacking, Nav?"
I thought about how her sweat might taste if I licked it off her, but we had a strictly-friends on-again off-again thing in our personal life, too, and that was currently off. She’d gotten into this semi-serious thing with a married couple, and there was no way I could judge her for it, especially not after I'd gotten a load of the six-foot-two blonde with the fantastic rack and the tiny-but-ferocious woman with the precise box braids who'd picked Cam up from work last week. But it meant I was off the menu. "Got concussed last Friday." I told her. "Give me a little credit." My head hurt and I was feeling sorry for myself.
Her dark eyes narrowed. "Then you shouldn't be at work at all."
"Tell that to capitalism." I made a squiggle on the tablet, and it spat a warning back at me. "Sometimes I think I need to find a new sport."
"Come to gymnastics with me," Cam said, except it sounded more like a threat. She'd asked me to join her Saturday class before, and I'd turned her down every time.
"There's no way you're getting me into a leotard," I reminded her. Even if I had the teensiest bit of a crush on her, I still had some standards.
"If you go back to muay thai, you're going to end up with permanent brain damage."
I leaned my aching forehead against the cold metal rack that held the medicine balls, trying to get some relief and hating that she was right. "Tell you what," I said. "I'll go to gymnastics with you if you agree to try something else with me if I don't like it."
"No beer leagues." Cam had gotten banned from the rec kickball team we'd joined one summer for being so aggressively competitive she'd injured one of the other players. It hadn't been Cam's fault-- Marta had been blocking home base with her arm-- but she hadn't been prepared for Cam to slide right through her. Cam had only wrenched her shoulder, and Marta had needed sixteen stitches.
"No beer leagues.” Which meant I'd have to do some research. Maybe I could find a competitive softball league. Those were probably full of lesbians. If I got lucky, maybe I could meet a girl.
Cam made me wait two Saturdays, until every lingering concussion symptom was gone, before she gave me the address of the rec center where she took adult gymnastics.
"This is going to be such a disaster," I told Cam when I finally met her in the lobby. Five minutes early, so that she wouldn't give me grief about how I was always late. Around us, a gaggle of prepubescent girls in sequined tops filtered out the front door. I watched them disperse into a line of waiting minivans through a big glass window covered in handprint turkeys. The building also hosted a preschool.
Cam elbow-jabbed me in the ribs. "Picked out what we're trying next?"
"I've been busy." By which I meant that I’d finally beaten the boss I’d been stuck on for days, achieved Dish Zero and maintained it by dint of takeout, and done at least one load of the overdue laundry that had piled up while I was concussed.
“Suit yourself,” said Cam. “Come on.” She led me into a rec-center gymnasium that reminded me of grade-school phys ed, except we’d never had such a dizzying array of equipment in school. A riot of mats and beams and bars filled the space. Besequined girls older than the crew that had already left twisted, vaulted, and flipped through space. It was intimidating as fuck. I took an involuntary step backwards, toward the door.
Cam grabbed me by the arm and led me over to a woman who had layered a chunky brown cardigan over her athleisure. “Gideon, meet Abigail.”
And, look, I swear I know it’s rude to check out fitness instructors, but Abigail was worth breaching etiquette. Even when she was just standing there holding a clipboard, you could see the definition in her shoulders and the strength in her thighs. It complimented the softness around her hips, and she had the kind of breasts you could write sonnets about. (I didn’t know how to write sonnets. For Abigail Pent’s breasts, I would learn.) She’d gathered her thick brown hair into a sleek bun on top of her head.
“Hi,” I said, inadequately.
Abigail kindly ignored the way I was staring. “Gideon! Cam’s told us so much about you!”
That was news to me. “I’m here for the class.”
“I hope you enjoy it.” She smiled up at me. When she said it like that, with her warm brown eyes twinkling and fixed on mine, so did I.
The warm-up was actually okay. Okay, the stretching got a little dicey, but I’ve been doing bodyweight strength exercises since I was in the first grade, and I killed it at those. And all the jumping was fun, even if I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror and realized I had the grace of a moose who had just gorged itself on half an orchard of fermented apples.
But then the group split off into stations. I trailed behind Camilla, who was heading for the uneven bars. I had vague memories of these from one gym class, maybe, but I had no clue what I was doing, and at least with Cam I had a friend.
She got on the uneven bars and used her momentum to propel her body around the bar, driving herself from the lower bar to the higher. Then she did something fancy to dismount that I frankly did not catch.
It looked easy enough. I could just leave the fancy part off, maybe try it later. Taking a running start, I hit the springboard and I jumped at the bar. Caught it, swung, didn't make it around. But I'd already committed to the second leap. I let go and tried to grab the taller bar. My fingertips smacked against the wood. Not enough grip for me to catch my weight. I fell on my ass and rolled until my knee banged against one of the supports.
“Well, you fall well.”
I looked up toward the speaker, plastering on a fake smile.
It was Abigail, holding her hand out to help me up. My smile got a lot more real.
I could get up on my own, but I didn't want to disappoint her, not when she was looking at me with such kindness. I took her hand and let her lead me to the side of the room, near a geriatric radio that was croaking out "Footloose". Everyone around me was executing flawless feats of dance wizardry. It felt like I’d dropped into a montage in the middle of a flash mob. A scary woman, five feet tall at best, presided, directorial, over the chaos. She had visibly toned muscles, a severe bun shot through with steely gray, and an attitude that radiated beyond her physical form and shot clear to the ceiling. She pointed, and the gymnasts around her leapt to perform.
"Some people think gymnastics isn't a real sport," said Abigail, very quietly. The tone commanded my full attention, and I snapped myself out of my trance to listen. “But it takes real athleticism.”
I rubbed my hip. Bruised, almost certainly. “I got that.”
“Do you have a progression in mind? Something you want to work on?”
“Not really.” I couldn’t bring myself to tell her the truth, which was that I was here on a bet.
“Why don’t we start you off on the floor?” She took my hand again and led me gently to an expanse of gym covered in mats, the opposite direction from the uneven bars. In spite of the fact that Abigail had led warm-ups, her palm was cool and dry. Mine was sweaty.
“But--” I cast a look back over my shoulder at Cam, who was upside down with her hands on the bar and her feet pointing straight up at the ceiling.
“Don’t worry,” Abigail said soothingly. “I’ll take care of you.”
"I'm still not wearing a sparkly leotard," I told Cam an hour later, on the way out the door.
"No one ever asked you to."
Cam caught up with me at work on Wednesday. “So what are we trying next?”
“Actually,” I said, and then swallowed. “I thought we could go to gymnastics again?”
She smirked at me.
“Shut up,” I said.
And that’s how I ended up signing up for weekly friend dates with my off-again FWB, featuring kind words from hot-but-married coach Abigail Pent. And if I spent a lot of time on the Saturday evenings after gymnastics on my couch with a magazine, imagining the way Abigail had complimented the height of my jumps on replay? That was no one’s business but my own.
Chapter 2: 2: Camilla Hect is Unhelpful
Content warning for some very mild privacy stuff (full details in end notes) and also Gideon jerks off a lot thinking about women who exist in real life.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Some three months later, when I’d just about gotten used to the regular parade of sparkly leotards, I got a text from Cam. Gymnastics cancelled Sat, go Tues?
Sure, I texted back. My schedule was clear, so I didn’t think much about it. We rescheduled plans all the time. And then I put it out of my mind and forgot about it until Cam texted me a reminder half an hour before class. still on for tonight?
Shit. I hadn’t done laundry. By that point I’d picked up a tank top that fit a little more closely than the shirts I usually wore. (Off the men’s clearance rack at the gym, with my employee discount. It wasn’t a big deal.) But that Tuesday, it was smack at the bottom of my hamper, under two days’ worth of sweaty workout clothes.
There was nothing for it. I threw on an old gym shirt I’d cut off the sleeves off of, jammed my feet into my boots, and let the unlaced tongues flop loose. If I got lucky with the traffic lights, I might still make it to class on time.
I was only five minutes late. The stern woman with the grey-streaked bun, in her usual uniform of leotard over long, opaque leggings, was already running the group through warm-ups. I snuck into a spot on the side near Cam. The radio was playing “Funkytown”, but the atmosphere in the gym was deadly serious.
I knew about half the faces from Saturday mornings. None of the names. If I was serious about meeting a girl, maybe I should socialize more.
“You forgot,” hissed Cam as I joined her in a plank.
“Only a little. I’m here now.”
That was as far as conversation went, because the Tuesday night instructor went a lot harder than Abigail did. By the time the warm-up was over, the back of my shirt was soaked through, and I was mopping sweat off my face with the hem.
“I miss Abigail already," I told Cam, following her over to the uneven bars. "Who's the instructor tonight? I've seen her around, but she doesn't talk a lot."
"That's Harrow Nova." Cam was stretching out her shoulders, so I joined her. “She’s a lot stricter than Abigail is.”
Good to know. I was happy with my Saturday-class routine anyway, so I turned my attention to the bar. Abigail had given me some pointers on front hip circles last Saturday, and that was good enough for tonight. I didn’t need to get to know this new instructor.
When it was my turn, I took a few running steps before launching myself at the bar. I knew a couple of different mounts by that point. Maybe they weren’t pretty, but I wasn’t wiping out anymore, either. More to the point, it felt good to use my arms and weight like this. Doing bodyweight exercises in front of my TV at home was fine, and I still did that regularly, but this was better.
After making it one, two, three times around the bar, I tried to dismount. Fabric pulled at my ribs. I held awkwardly to the bar, hanging from my arms with my shirt pulled up over my face. It had wrapped around the bar.
Shit. I dropped off the bar. Fabric ripped, and a few seconds later the other half of my shirt fell onto the mat in front of me. Embarrassed, I picked it up and slunk away from the equipment. Well, I had a good sports bra on, right? And I hadn’t liked the shirt in the first place, so it was no big loss. I straightened my spine and crossed the floor, planning to bin the thing.
An iron hand clamped around my wrist at the edge of the mat.
Harrow Nova was glaring up at me. Her eyes sucked my attention to her like they were tiny black holes. “What are you doing?”
“Throwing this out?” I transferred my ruined shirt to my free hand and held it up, a torn and sweaty truce flag.
Her fingers dug into my forearms. “That’s not what I mean.”
It felt like she’d reached a hand into my gut, grabbed a handful of organs, and twisted. My body felt bizarrely hot, and I shivered. Digging for the remains of my composure, I took aim at a joke. “What, are front hip circles banned now?”
“We’re here to do gymnastics, Nav. You show up here and screw around on Saturdays, and that’s fine, but on Tuesdays, I expect my students to put in work.” She flung her free arm out to indicate the other adults in the class, each one hard at work at whatever station they’d chosen. “Everyone else here tonight takes this seriously. I won’t let your antics disrupt my class.”
Under the storm-strong force of her fury, I folded like a cheap cardboard carton in the rain. I hung my head. “I’m sorry.”
“You could be good, you know,” she said, raking her eyes blatantly over my body from my shoulders to my calves. She wasn’t checking me out. She was judging me, and she’d found me wanting. “First, you need to improve your core stability and your flexibility. And you need to point your toes more. I don’t care what job you have, you can work ankle mobility anywhere.”
I stood there, stunned. Nothing had prepared me for a verbal evisceration by someone I could bench-press with one hand. She was seven or eight inches shorter than was and she made me want to curl up in a corner and shrivel.
“Nav?” she prompted me.
“How do you know my name?” I asked, which was not great as repartee went, but beat out everything else that had flashed through my mind, stuff like what’s your phone number and do you want to make out and then maybe step on me.
She sneered at me with the self-assured confidence of a confirmed three-time champion sneering professional. “It was on the sign-in sheet. I just had to look for the person who arrived late.”
“Look, Nav. Do you want to improve or not?” she asked, fixing me under her glare.
“Yes,” I said, trying to sound a lot more sure than I felt.
“Then I’ll see you next Tuesday.”
I snorted out a laugh on autopilot, even though she didn’t seem like the type to make that kind of joke. She dropped my hand. That was my dismissal. I still had to throw my ruined shirt away.
“And Nav?” she called before I’d gotten four steps away. I turned to face her again. “You’re not a special snowflake. Buy a leotard.”
I tossed the shirt in the garbage as she walked away to coach someone else. She’d left me feeling flayed and exposed and a few other things I didn’t want to examine too closely in public. Everything she’d said was true. I could do better if I took it seriously, the way I’d taken muay thai seriously. Tuesday nights weren’t feel-good classes with Abigail, but they’d awakened something in me all the same.
Helplessly, I buckled down and went to work on my core stability.
I woke up the next morning, sore over my whole body. My muscles sang to me that I’d used them well as I ran through range-of-motion to make sure I hadn’t ganked a joint. It had been months since I’d felt this much muscular pain after a workout, and I hadn’t realized how much I’d missed it. Moving carefully, I grabbed my laptop off the floor, searched for a flexibility routine, and followed the first one I found.
Feeling a little better, I shamelessly searched for Harrow Nova. It wasn’t hard to find her: she had a bio on the rec center page. She’d retired from competition fifteen years earlier, which was a shame, because I couldn’t find much video that old online. It would have been nice to see what she’d looked like back then.
She had posted some more recent videos. I watched them until I seared her knife-edged handsprings onto the back of my eyelids. The amount of power she packed into her wiry muscles dazzled me.
At some point, I slipped my hand into my shorts. Reflex. I was watching an athletic woman do fluid, sinuous things with her body, not creeping.
But I was working in a few hours-- the closing shift. Getting off beforehand was honestly a pretty good idea. I shut my laptop and stretched out on my bed.
I never set out to think about people I knew when I did this. That had way too much potential to make things weird in real life. There was a stack of illustrated erotic comics under my bed for when I needed help with a fantasy, but some days I used masturbation as sort of a communion with my body. Which I realize sounds hokey, but there were enough forces in the world trying to make me feel bad about my body. Anyway, it was a day like that. I tested out the zing in my hamstrings as I spread my own wetness over my labia.
Pain in the muscle, none in the joint. Pleasure as I pressed my clit against the flat of my hand. God, it all felt good.
As I started my ascent, I could hear her remembered voice echoed in my head. Improve your core stability. See the fathomless depths of her black eyes, drawing me up to the mark. Point your toes. Smell her, fresh sweat and old sneakers and chalk. You could be good. The memory of her nails in my arm brought me right to the edge, and I pushed on, fingers firm on my clit in the rhythm that always worked. I was so close, and I had no time to prolong the pleasure.
The orgasm arrived as expected, delivered as reliably as the postal worker who always dropped deliveries off at 11:27AM, whether I was home or not. But as soon as I'd signed for the package, it burst into flames. My abs contracted. Pain radiated out from them.
It wasn't bad pain, just the same delayed-onset muscle soreness I’d been enjoying all morning. But it stopped my satisfaction in its tracks and left me oversensitive and still craving release. It left only a helpless gasp of sensation behind after the ache I’d left in my muscles cut me off. Confused, I put my fingers inside myself, where my flesh was swollen and aching, tender and unsatisfied at once. Spiderweb tendrils of sensation ricocheted away from me and clung nauseatingly to my skin, so I stopped. This had never happened to me before, and I didn’t know what to do with it.
So I didn’t do anything. Instead, I showered and went to work.
At gymnastics on Sunday, I tried to focus on Abigail’s instruction, but Harrow consumed my peripheral vision. I’d glimpsed her on my way into the class, demonstrating moves to the last. But now she was working solo on the equipment, Sweat gleamed on her skin.
My eyes caught hers. She raked her eyes over my body-- over my tight-fit tank top. It was a lot more gymnastics-appropriate than what I’d worn the previous Tuesday, which didn’t stop her from glaring at me. She had given me specific instructions, and I hadn’t followed them.
In an attempt to keep my brain out of the gutter during class, I’d gotten myself off two or three times beforehand. With Harrow’s eyes on me, it became immediately clear that my efforts hadn’t worked. My body warmed under her scrutiny.
In an effort to fight the pull, I tensed my core until my abs and obliques screamed. This turned out to be counterproductive. My body trembled in the pose, and it reminded me of other ways in which my body had trembled. I gritted my teeth and tried harder. Maybe I was showing off, hoping that she would notice me.
But every time I risked a glance in her direction, she was scowling at someone else.
At home, I ordered a leotard online. Something cut square, with absolutely nothing sparkly on it at all. And then I expedited the shipping.
And if, later that evening, alone in my bed, I learned I'd pushed too hard again? It didn't matter. I was improving. I’d show Harrow Nova I could work just as hard as she could.
I made it two more Tuesdays, feeling pretty smug with my plan to quietly start going to a second day of gymnastics. Cam joined me on Saturdays. No one had to know what absurd lengths I was going to in order to impress a girl who hadn't even spoken to me since The Incident of the Ripped Shirt at Rec Gymnastics.
And then Cam slid in the side door on the third Tuesday, perfectly on time with three minutes before warm-ups started. She saw me. Raised her eyebrows minutely. Took her place on the mat and let me sweat even before the warm-up started.
She was beside me, stretching beautifully with a glint in her eye, and I realized that I wasn’t looking at her. I was looking at Harrow.
“Nice leotard,” she whispered as the warm-up wound down.
I shoulder-checked her in protest, and then we split up. I had floor work, and I needed to focus on it.
Admittedly, Saturday to Thursday became orgasm dead zones. I knew I didn't need to push as hard as I was pushing, and that I might even get better results if I eased off. My low-grade Tuesday crankiness felt like her hands on my body. I knew it wasn’t real, but she didn’t have to know about it.
I started making notes on my phone. It was mostly to keep track of all the things I was still doing wrong. If I thumbed my notes app open on Fridays and laid the text I’d written on top of one of my magazines? It was just a transient crush, and Harrow was the best instructor I’d ever had. I just needed to get it out of my system.
It paid off, because Harrow started to notice me. She was more patient with me on Tuesdays, taking me through skill progressions alone or in small groups. On Saturdays, even though she wasn’t technically instructing the adult class, she might pass by me and offer me a correction.
It got to the point where she could touch my hip or my shoulder, and I would know what part of my body to straighten or tuck.
“Silence your phone at gymnastics, Nav,” she told me one Saturday. “No one needs to hear your ringtone.”
The radio was playing “You Spin Me Right Round Baby,” which in my opinion was hardly better. Cam’s best friend Palamedes had shown me something called “meatspin” in the interest of “internet history”, and the images would never leave my brain. A spark of mischief eclipsed the curl of shame in my belly. “It’s a cultural phenomenon, Nova, I’m just spreading the good word of Cardi B’s wet a--”
Harrow held up a warning hand. “Don’t you dare.” She pressed my phone into my hands. “Silence it, now.”
I hadn’t bothered setting a lock on it, because it was a pain to try to type it in when my thumbs got sweaty, which was often, but Harrow probably didn’t know that. It was easy enough to turn it off. “Done,” I said.
She didn’t reply. Her cheekbones were sharp as ever, but there was a faint hint of softness around her mouth. Something about the divot in her philtrum, maybe.
Cam jabbed me in the side. “Nav, you’re staring.”
I stuffed my silenced phone guiltily into my sneaker.
I should have been suspicious the moment Cam asked me to go for ice cream. Usually I was the one who suggested post-workout junk food. But Cam had been even busier than usual, and I was lonely, so I agreed without thinking about it too much.
I swung into our usual picnic table with a truly obscene sundae-- my favorite kind. It was laden with nuts and rainbow sprinkles, whipped cream and hot fudge and three kinds of thick syrups. Somewhere under there were three scoops of triple-chocolate chunk ice cream. Hey, it had cherries on it-- that was fruit. And a banana, for potassium.
Cam was waiting for me with a small cup of vanilla soft-serve.
“Looking for company tonight?” My abs twinged in protest, but the soreness was still mild. It might work. For Cam, I was willing to try. Worst case scenario, I’d ruin another orgasm. I was getting used to that, anyway.
Ignoring my offer, Cam drew her leg up to her chest, so that the bolted-down picnic table pressed into her shin. “You’re working with Harrow now.”
“And you have a crush on her.”
“I do not.” This denial was about as convincing as the “strawberry” part of the strawberry syrup they’d poured over my ice cream.
Accordingly, Cam was not impressed. “You should ask her out,” she suggested, and then, to cut off my instinctive protest, “Don’t mess around, Gideon. I know what you’re like when you’re making a fool of yourself over a girl. Do you remember Cytherea?”
“I try not to.” I’d carried groceries for my hot older neighbor for months until I found out that she was my mom’s partner’s ex. Not that I was close to my mom, but that was a little too weird for me. I still carried her groceries, because the stairs in our apartment complex were steep , but I’d stopped pining about it. “Anyway, that was a disaster.”
Cam scooped up a spoonful of ice cream and then pushed her cup to the side so it wouldn’t get in the way of her interrogation of my love life. “The point is, with Nova you stand a chance.”
There was no possible way Harrow Nova thought of me the way I thought of her. She was so hot and so assertive, she could have girls lined up around the block for her. If she even swung that way! There was no guarantee she liked women, or that she even liked sex. Making a pass would definitely change our relationship, and there were so many ways it could go wrong. It was way too risky to risk what we had.
To change the subject, I pointed at Cam’s abandoned soft serve. “Are you going to eat that?”
The very corner of Cam’s mouth twitched up. “Actually, I have to go. Corona and Judith are waiting for me at their place.”
“Sweet.” I dumped the vanilla into my sundae bowl, so I could use it as a vehicle for the all toppings that had fallen off my own ice cream. It had halfway melted, but that was the best part of soft serve. “Hey, thanks for checking in on me.”
Cam swung her leg over the edge of the bench and stood to go. “Don’t be a stranger, Nav. Against all odds, I like you.”
“I’m very charming,” I told her, pulling out my phone. I wanted to annotate my gymnastics notes while the corrections Harrow had given me were still fresh in my mind. And then, so Cam would know I cared, I yelled across the parking lot: “Enjoy your threesome!”
She slammed her car door to cover up her laughter, but I heard it anyway.
Gideon Googles public information about Harrow Nova without her knowledge, and Harrow shushes an alarm on Gideon’s unlocked phone without permission.
Chapter 3: 3: Harrow Nova is Intense
Content warnings for reference to past self-harm and the privacy stuff from last chapter coming home to roost.
Honestly, I should have known Harrow would notice my obsession eventually. Her attention was as keenly honed as her transitions, and the way I lingered on Tuesdays really wasn’t subtle. She wrapped up her sequence and came to preternatural stillness as Whitney Houston’s voice faded away and the late-night radio transitioned to the synthetic bounce of “Don’t You Want Me Baby.”
A beam of moonlight slanted in from the row of narrow windows set near the ceiling, illuminating her face. My breath caught in my chest, because she was looking down at me. I was standing on the naked waxed floor of the gym, and the tumble track reversed our height difference. Her nose cast a sharp shadow across her cheek.
“Do you have any allergies?” she demanded.
The response slid out of my mouth on autopilot. “Penicillin.”
Bewildered, I shook my head in the negative.
“Good. Come home with me.” She nodded once, brisk, as if it was a foregone conclusion.
I mean, she wasn’t wrong. I would go home with her in a heartbeat. Clearly, I had slipped out of reality into Gideon Nav Dream Land. The radio got all the way to the end of the chorus before I could articulate a response.
“What?” I said.
She gave me an aggrieved sigh. “I am offering you sex, Nav.” It was the same tone she used when I’d arched my back instead of maintaining a hollow body for the third time in a row.
My brain whited out. This did not compute.
The constant parade of 80’s hits in the background was normal. Harrow rolling her eyes at me happened at least twice a week. But she had never before said "Come here" in quite that tone of voice.
"What?" There was only one syllable, and my voice cracked on it.
"If you're going to be standing there well after hours, we might as well do something useful. Come here. Work on your back handspring. I’ll spot you.”
My shoes were still against the wall by the door, so I could just climb right up. My throat felt tight. The surface gave under my bare feet as she stepped to the side and positioned me in front of her.
“Backbend first, Nav.” Her hands brushed the back of my body, one in the small of my back and the other on my thigh, just above the hollow of my knee. She’d spotted me like this before, but we’d never been alone in a shadowed after-hours rec center with her hands on me.
Even though I’d been working on my flexibility for months now, it still felt weird to move into shapes like this. Weirder still to have her undivided attention focused on what I was doing. But I bent where she directed me to bend.
“You’re really something when you put the work in,” she murmured, tracing her fingertips lightly over where the Lycra of my leotard stretched over my abdomen.
My arms wobbled and gave out, even though I now held backbends for three times as long on the regular. I flopped onto my back and bounced a little.
This did not impress her. She stood over my prone body with her hands on her hips. “You can do better than that.”
“Fuck, Nova,” I protested, dazzled by her and honest with it. “I can’t think when you do that.”
She stepped over my hips and crouched over me. “Can I kiss you?”
“No tongue,” I said, numb with anticipation. It couldn’t be real. I’d imagined this so often, made notes in my app about how the space between us grew charged when her face came this close to mine.
But then it was real. Her knees hitting the tumble track made my hips bounce as she straddled my waist to bend over me. The corded muscles of her thighs dug into my belly as she bent over and sucked my lower lip between her teeth.
She kissed like she coached: unrelenting harshness that made any kindness all the more precious and intense. As she moved away from my mouth to scrape her teeth over my jaw and down my throat, I grasped for purchase along the compact column of her body. Any anchor point might ground me, but she was slippery with sweat and Spandex. After several long moments of scrabbling where my hands skated over her back, I found what I was looking for in the thick textured mass of her hair. I drove my fingers into it, dislodging bobby pins and snagging on the elastic. In retaliation, she bit into the side of my neck.
“You can pull,” she said. At first I didn’t understand her, because she had her face buried into my shoulder.
“What? Really?” This wasn’t how I’d imagined this, all those Fridays I’d tried to very carefully imagine nothing.
Harrow picked her head up, taking my palms along with it. Her nose brushed over the side of my chin, and she sneered down at me. “Don’t you think I can take it?”
All right then. Tentatively, I fisted my hands at the base of her skull, and she snarled against my skin. Her fingernails dug into the meat of my shoulders. Letting my eyes fall shut, I pressed my head back onto the springy surface of the tumble track and gave her access to all the skin of my throat. My brain sloshed around in my skull. Figuratively, as I hadn’t had a serious injury since I’d quit muay thai.
Even with my hands twisted in her hair, she was ferocious above me. The fabric of the leotard wasn’t thick, and she bit at my chest through it. I reached for the shoulder strap to pull it aside and give her access-- I would give this fantasy made flesh so much, if only she would let me--
She let go of me, pried my fingers out of her hair, and settled her weight across my pelvis.
It took me a long moment for me to blink my eyes open. She was rearing up over me, finger-combing her hair free. It tumbled down over her shoulders and halfway down her back. The gray streaks framed her face.
“Holy shit,” I said, reaching out for it. “How do you get that into a bun?”
She rocked onto the balls of her feet and stood up, out of my reach. “With effort,” she said. “But they always made me shave it for competitions, and I swore I’d never cut it short again. Do you want to come home with me?”
I was still reeling-- the kiss, the revelation of her hair-- but my own self interest wasn’t entirely dead, and I wasn’t about to make her ask me if I wanted to fuck her a third time. “Yes,” I said, intelligently.
“Put your shoes on,” she ordered me. And I followed her. Well, what else could I do?
The parking lot was deserted, except for two cars: hers and mine. We waded through pools of flickering yellow light and shadow until we reached her car: the nearer, as I’d arrived during the minivan-mom rush. “Do you want me to follow you?” I asked, pointing across the lot to where I’d parked.
“It’s street parking,” she said. “If you don’t want to deal with it, I have to come here first thing tomorrow anyway, and I can drop you back here.”
I didn’t have to get to my job until noon the following day, so that suited me. “You asking me to spend the night, Nova?”
She raked her eyes over me, this time with palpable intention. “I don’t intend to leave you in a state where you can safely operate a motor vehicle.”
Swallowing hard, I acquiesced. “You can drive.”
Her car was aging but carefully-maintained, with an avalanche of books and binders spread out over the back seat. She shoveled a gym bag and two empty water bottles off the passenger seat and threw it all into the back. As her car radio fuzzed to life, I balanced my own gym bag across my knees and buckled my seatbelt.
As Harrow pulled out of her parking spot, Rick Astley informed me that he was no stranger to love.
“Harrow,” I asked with mounting delight, “did you just rickroll me?”
“Shut up, Nav,” she said, signaling a right out of the lot and jabbing a button on the center console. “I will leave you here.” Thankfully, Madonna took over for Rick with “Like a Prayer.”
I waited until she’d merged into traffic. “So you’re the reason the radio is stuck in the ‘80s.”
“It’s familiar.” She hit the accelerator to sail through a yellow light, cutting off a Subaru. “Comforting.”
“Hey, no judgment here.” I flipped down the sun visor to see what gnarly marks she’d left on my neck.
If a streetlight caught it just right, I could see a faint reddened patch on my collarbone, but other than that there was nothing there but smooth, unblemished skin.
“Please,” she said, braking at a red light and glancing over at what I was doing. “I have some finesse.”
“You don’t have to.” I prodded the reddened patch to see if it was tender. It wasn’t, and I probably shouldn’t have been so disappointed about that. “I mean, you can leave marks. Especially if I can cover them up with a t-shirt.”
“Ah,” she said, turning onto a side street. “Is there anything else you want?”
I wanted so many things from her, I didn’t know where to begin. You didn’t go home with a girl and show your weird kinky hand of cards on the first date. Unless this was a one-time thing, and this was my only chance to hear her criticize my naked body? The words stuck in my throat.
She began the hunt for a parking spot, letting me stew in silence until she had finished parallel parking and shut off the car. Then she unclipped her seatbelt and twisted to face me.
“Nothing, Nav? Not even for me to strip you bare and tell you what I really think of your form?”
My sharp intake of breath filled the quiet car. I’d written something like that, nearly verbatim, next to some notes I’d taken based on her feedback about my handstand. “How did you know that?”
She had the grace to look abashed. “Remember that day you didn’t silence your phone? And you left your notes app open?”
“You saw that?”
“Your ringtone is absolutely terrible, and you don’t lock your phone.” She reached over and hit the button on my seatbelt for me. It slithered away over my arm. “Yes, I saw that.”
“And you didn’t kick me out of class?”
“I will admit that it didn’t hurt my feelings to find out that the local slab of beef was having bedroom thoughts about me.” She rummaged her gym bag out of the back seat. “Besides, you’re improving. Slowly.”
“Okay.” I was squirming, trying and failing to avoid pressing myself against her upholstery. She was watching me so closely. There was no way she hadn’t seen.
She just opened her car door. “I won’t be nice.”
“If I wanted nice, I wouldn’t be here with you.” I followed her out of the car and up the stoop.
Harrow’s apartment was a lot messier than I expected, with laundry spilling over the edges of a bin onto the hallway floor. But the furniture was real wood, not particleboard, and there was a mirrored wall with a barre in her living room. My impulse was to drink in the surroundings, to try to comb specks of information about her out of her home. She didn’t give me long to look.
“If you want me to stop,” she said, pushing me up against the wall and applying her teeth directly to my bicep, “tell me to stop.”
“No safeword?” It was meant to be a joke, but she was running her hand down my front and it came out breathy.
“Stop should work for tonight.” She kept licking over my arm, and I was suddenly conscious of the fact that neither of us had showered after our workout. “If you do well enough, perhaps we can move on to things that require a real safeword.”
If I did well enough. The thought made me buck under her, that this-- tonight-- was a test. Fuck, I wanted to pass. I could barely think as her mouth rounded the apex of my shoulder and her hand slid down my hip. Her fingers were bony and deft, unraveling the tapestry of my self-control and leaving me hot under her.
My verbal filter broke. “I should never have gotten a leotard.” She was palming me through the fabric.
“Then take it off,” she snarled, slamming my back against her wall to push me away instead of stepping back herself.
And yeah, I could work with that. I toed out of my sneakers, peeled stale Lycra off my body. The sweat had mostly dried, but it was still a relief to get out of it all.
It wasn’t until I’d folded the leotard into a neat packet that I realized I’d left myself standing naked in Harrow Nova’s mirrored living room. I was so much bigger than her, and my muscles looked obscene next to her perfectly trim limbs. The exertion had ruined my hair, which was the only pop of garish color in the entire moonlit room. I felt--
“Start with a backbend,” Harrow said, interrupting my panic. “And this time, do it right.”
Fuck. It felt different to do this bare before her, especially now that I knew her intentions. My breasts shifted differently without a bra on, exposing the tender underside. But I obeyed her.
The mirror here was so big and so close. I twisted to see what Harrow was seeing.
“Stop messing around, Nav,” Harrow scolded me. “You don’t need the mirror. I will tell you if you need to fix something.”
“Okay.” I dropped my head back and focused on the arch of my spine. This wasn’t a new skill; I’d been practicing. It wasn’t difficult, not anymore. I could do this.
I should have been prepared for her hands on the bare skin of my belly. It was the same place she’d touched me back in the gym, and it still made my muscles jump.
“Hold still,” she scolded me. “You’re strong enough to take this.” And then she pushed lightly on my hip.
My breath hissed out from between my clenched teeth, but I held.
“Not bad,” she said. And then her hands were on my body-- on the outsides of my thighs, sometimes skimming and sometimes shoving, across the curved shape of my torso, until my core clenched and quivered. It couldn’t have been long-- my muscles had barely started to burn-- but time slowed to a cold-honey drizzle, my consciousness eaten up by the form and Harrow’s presence. Every time her arms brushed my breasts, it renewed my sense of sheer vulnerability: she had stripped and shaped my body, made me hers to command.
“Enough,” she said at last. “Up.”
I rose unsteadily and stood before her, silent, waiting for her direction. There were words somewhere, but I didn’t need them. Harrow would tell me what to do.
She looked me over for a long moment, from where her hardwood floor was cool on the soles of my feet, up my body to where my sweat-crusted hair stuck to my forehead. “Handstand,” she said.
This was a skill I’d had before I’d started gymnastics, something I’d done to build strength, but doing it to be seen doing it felt different. Something low in my gut squirmed under the beam of her dark, implacable gaze. But she’d asked me to do it, so I put my hands on the floor and kicked up for her.
Harrow reached up to trace my calf, and I couldn’t afford to shiver. I focused on drawing my shoulder blades into place instead of on the fingers she trailed down the seam between my pressed-together legs.
“Close your eyes,” she told me, and I obeyed. I could hear the scratch and rustle of fabric as she made her way around me. She was half my size and yet managed to be everywhere at once, testing my balance, pushing and touching in unequal turns. I felt liquid under her, like the swelling tide of my desire threatened to pour out of my body and all over her floor if I gave up my control over my body for even one second.
She tweaked my nipple, and I yelped. My eyes flew open-- fuck, she was crouching right in front of me, all her lean power poised as if to spring--
“Partial credit,” she said coolly. “Plank next.”
I didn’t scramble. She’d taught me how to gracefully exit the handstand, and I only fumbled it a little, which I thought was pretty good, considering. Slick had collected between my legs, and I was wet on my inner thighs.
Muscle memory saved me in the plank. If I gathered up all the minutes I’d spent in this pose and put them in a basket, it would hold hours, or maybe days.
Maybe Harrow knew that. Maybe that was how she knew I could take her teeth. She put her knee on the shelf of my ass, made me take most of her weight, and then bit into the underside of my shoulder blade.
From the corner of my eye, I could tell she was bracing herself with one foot on the floor, but it felt like she’d put all of herself on me. It wasn’t just the physical exertion, her weight on my already-tired body. It was the heat of her, the sharpness of her incisors in my flesh.
“Not bad,” she said, and then dug her fingernails into my back. Pinpricks of pain like bursting stars, long drags of her nails down my spine like meteors, space debris orbiting every place she had bitten. She had transported me to another planet. A ragged noise welled up from the back of my throat with every exhale as she chased the sting with the heat of her tongue.
I was shaking by the time she slid off me. Arousal and exertion combined in the shell of my skin in a heady emulsion. I started lower myself down to the floor, and remembered just in time Harrow hadn’t given me permission to rest.
“Side plank,” she snapped.
Digging for my reserves, I moved my hands and shifted my body. This shouldn’t be hard, either, but my pulse beat hard in my chest and between my legs. It was more than a little distracting.
I expected her hands this time, and it still shocked me when she brushed the inside of my knee.
“Lift your leg,” she told me, and I choked on a sob. Following her order meant revealing the glistening mess she had made of me. I did it anyway, offering myself up to her, hoping that whatever it was she saw pleased her.
She was very quiet, trailing her fingertips along my thighs, drawing trails of wetness down my legs. I tried to focus on the position of my hips and the alignment of my arms instead of the way I was making shuddery gasps in lieu of taking proper breaths. She offered neither encouragement nor criticism, but she must have known how affected I was. I could hide nothing from her.
And then she withdrew her hand. “Other side,” she instructed me.
I moved at her command. Maybe, maybe, if I was good enough, she would tell me I’d done well. The thought of praise-- from stern Harrow Nova!-- propelled my aching body through the poses, helped me lift my leg to hitherto-undiscovered heights.
She hummed. It wasn’t the compliment I craved, but it was acknowledgement. She saw me. We were here in her mirrored living room together. Facing this direction, I could see her crouched behind me in our reflection.
Her fingers slid higher up my legs this time, close enough to dampen her knuckles with the hair between my legs. I thought she was teasing, dangling the thing I’d fantasized for weeks just out of my reach. Even so, I couldn’t look away.
Except she wasn’t teasing at all. While I watched, she parted me, and she found my cunt slick and yielding against her hand.
Meeting the eyes of my reflection, she slid a single finger inside me. The angle was awful and there was barely any friction, but that wasn’t the point. She had claimed me, and all I could do was watch and whimper.
“Enough.” She took her hand from me, drawing a trail of moisture from me in her wake that stretched taut until it finally snapped to smear against my thigh. “Get up.”
I got up and stood there before her. There was a droplet of slick sliding down my thigh, over flesh made sensitive, toward the hollow of my knee.
“Adequate,” she pronounced at last. And then-- thrillingly-- “You’ve earned a reward.”
Her fingers locked around my wrist, and she led me past the overflowing laundry hamper, through a door, and into a room dominated by an unmade bed. Impatiently, she flung the crumpled bedclothes-- unrelieved black-- off the mattress. “On your back.”
Trying not to squirm, I climbed up and lay back. Spreading myself out over her sheets sounded really good to me, but that wasn’t what she’d told me to do.
She followed me up. Her weight settled onto the mattress beside me and-- she hesitated. “Do you want me to fuck you?”
“Fuck, Harrow, yes.” I wanted to press my thighs all firmly together and writhe like a wanton, anything for some pressure on my aching clit, but I wanted to please her more.
“Then let me in,” she said, tapping on my hip crease.
Oh. I could do that for her. This order I could obey without struggling. I parted my legs, and she hummed, a little musical sound of approval. No mirror in here, but I could imagine my skin against the tight black weave of her sheets, as gleamingly attractive as her dark cherrywood dresser. I was her prize as much as she was mine.
She went straight to my cunt, and I was grateful. I didn’t know if I could take any more teasing, but she fucked me with all the confident rhythm and precision of her backflips. Closing my eyes, I saw her leading me up an infinity of uneven bars, swinging on each level of arousal until we had the momentum to leap to the next. The heights were dizzying, and she moved so confidently. I wanted to follow her without fear, but I knew my own body and my own limits too well.
Experimentally, I tensed my abs, and then I knew for sure. I was going to fall.
Opening my eyes, I saw her terrifying focus. Her eyes were half-lidded, dark always but now fastened on the helpless jerk of my hips. Pleasure was building, right up to the point of ruin.
“Wait,” I said, right before we got there. “Stop.”
She stopped moving her hand and studied my face so intently I couldn’t tell how much I was giving away. “You don’t want to come?” After a moment, she tilted her head in a movement I wouldn’t have noticed if I hadn’t been transfixed by her attention. “Or you can’t?”
I felt hot all the way to my nipples. “Please, Harrow, I-- this feels so good, and I--”
“You’d rather squirm for me in pleasure than take your release in pain?”
Groaning, I nodded. It didn’t cover all the ways I felt about it, but it was close enough. Maybe we could talk about it sometime lust didn’t lay over my brain like a thick layer of jam and cream on a blueberry scone.
“All right,” she said, withdrawing her hand.
I still whimpered at the loss. I couldn’t help myself. “Thank you,” I said, so that she would understand that my choices were more than my body’s demands.
“What now?” she asked.
“Okay, so I can’t.” I rolled over, feeling my slick thighs slide together. The pulse was hot and intense, the heat banked and glowing gorgeously in my abdomen. “But you can.”
“I was planning on it.” Harrow slid off the mattress and began pulling off her leotard. “You don’t need anything else?”
She had visible abs, defined like she was dehydrated, nothing like the soft layer of fat that blanketed mine. The tips of her nipples showed through the fabric of her thin, barely-necessary sports bra, and then she shucked that off and I caught myself staring at her tiny, perfect breasts. Her nipples had tiny, perfect barbells in them, because apparently Harrow Nova existed on the planet to torment me and me specifically.
“Don’t say anything,” she said, her thumbs hooked into the elastic waist of her leggings. “It’s fine unless I have to talk about it.”
This made no sense until she was dragging them down her thighs, revealing defined quads thickly crisscrossed with scar tissue. Self-harm scars, old.
“Start with lube.” She handed me a square box of coconut oil, the contents solid in the chill of her apartment.
“You didn’t like--?” I cut myself off, not sure how to describe everything we’d just done together.
“Oh, I liked it.” Her voice was perfumed smoke, thick in my lungs. “But I don’t get as wet as you do anymore, and I like to be comfortable. So. Lube.”
Inside the box there was a plastic spoon, half the handle cut off. I used it to scoop out a little as she climbed back onto the bed.
“Half that amount. It doesn’t take a lot.” She supervised as I scraped some off the spoon as directed, and gave me a nod when I’d gotten it right. “Let it melt, and then put it on me.”
“I can touch you?” It came out in tones of shocked wonder.
Her mouth made a wry line. “Do you know another way to put lube on a woman?”
“No, I just--” In belated self-preservation, I shut up and covered my fingers in coconut oil. She was on her knees with her thighs spread, and it was easy to reach between them, where I found her wetness hidden at her entrance, barely slick but still there. That evidence she’d found this hot, that she too felt desire? It made electricity sizzle from my fingertips, up my arm and down my spine. “This is why you wanted to know if I had allergies.”
“If you’ve suddenly remembered a coconut allergy, we can stop.” Bitter sarcasm, like something like that had happened to her before.
“No, coconut’s fine, it’s just--” I had her clit between my fingers, mixing her arousal with the oil and spreading it over her folds-- “you’re so goddamn hot.”
“I want to sit on your face.”
That stunned me into stillness. I’d imagined that a few times-- I wanted it enough that I had tried to stop imagining it--
“Problem?” she said. “We can do something else.”
“No, that’s great. That’s really, really good.” I flopped back on her bed and beckoned. “Ride me, baby.”
“Shut up, Nav.” And then she was climbing over me and giving me something much, much better to do with my mouth. There was salt on her thighs and coconut between them, the scent thick as I ran my hands up her legs, spread my palms over her hips, and dragged her down onto my face.
I knew I’d smeared coconut oil up her thigh, but I couldn’t bring myself to care. It was a moisturizer. We both needed to shower anyway.
She was bossy here, too, directing me where to lick and how much pressure she wanted. Following her directions worked for me here, too, as I got to look up over the chiseled plane of her belly to the curve of her tits and the tipped-back angle of her chin. Sometimes she would arch back so hard that her glorious mass of hair brushed my wrists.
And then, eventually, she was grinding down on my tongue and I couldn’t really breathe and there was coconut all the way to the back of my throat, and I held my breath as the tremors of her orgasm radiated out through my outspread fingers and I caught the evidence of her pleasure in my palms. I didn’t stop until she wrenched away from me, swinging her leg over my face again so she could collapse at my side.
“Fuck,” she said, and I couldn’t argue.
I had her fluids mingled with coconut oil spread over my face, and the combination would probably make me break out later. It was so fucking worth it to have Harrow Nova sprawled out bonelessly on the bed next to me.
“Get the sheet,” she ordered me, after a few minutes, when the sweat began to cool.
It took some work to untangle her sheet from her blanket, but I managed to drag the sheet over us. I put the blanket in grabbing distance, in case she got cold later. “Too fucked out to move?”
She cracked open an eye. “Don’t let it go to your head.”
“Shower?” I suggested.
“Help yourself. I’m not moving until tomorrow.” She pointed to a door-- an en suite, then, not a closet-- and then rolled over so that her back faced me.
She was so still and so quiet, I thought she must have fallen asleep. I rolled the opposite way, entertaining some thoughts of seeing Harrow Nova in the shower in the morning as I started to drowse.
I didn’t know how late it was or if I’d actually fallen asleep, but at the sound of Harrow’s voice, I came to full alertness.
“Nav?” she asked. It was so quiet in her bedroom, no noise from the traffic from the streets or movement from the apartments around hers. She didn’t have to be loud. Her back was bony against mine.
I didn’t turn to face her. That would be snuggling, and I didn’t think either of us were ready for that. “Yeah, Nova?”
“Next time, I want to make you come. Learn some restraint.”
Next time. Yeah, I could work with that.