#Sunday-Romance Serial: “A New Life Together”

Photo by Andrew Ridley on Unsplash
  • Continuing with: Mila and Belken
  • Setting: Gritty fantasy, it’s getting less generic as I world-build but I still don’t have anything like place names
  • Length: 1,499 words
  • Key Tropes: established relationship, moving in together, horny because it’s been too long
  • Content Warnings: brief allusion to Belken’s earlier torture, depiction of his healing injuries
  • Explicit?: Yes

Belken was home when Mila returned after a morning of training, which surprised her. Despite the unspoken sense they were starting a new life together, as near to married as they might be without the ceremony, he had spent most of his waking time away from their new home. She told herself not to be angry, because he must have piles of work waiting for him, but she could admit to herself a certain disappointment. After they had been kept separate for so long after the rescue, she had hoped to spend more time together.

Even her disappointment was tempered by reality, though, for she had little time to spare herself. Petralla hadn’t been jesting when she promised to work Mila harder than ever before. They were only waiting for information, for a clue to tell them where and when to strike, before going after the Bone Traders.

She set that out of her mind as she stood in the doorway and watched Belken sleep. His pose looked as though he’d been sitting up, but gradually relaxed into slumber as he waited. He was not dressed for work, in one of his fine embroidered tunics, but for a day at home, in a simple shirt and soft trousers, with bare feet.

She wondered if she should wake him, because he must still be exhausted after his ordeal, and trying so hard to make up for it since. She didn’t know enough particulars of his business to properly imagine the disarray he fought against now, but she could see the toll it was taking on him. She sighed and went to the hearth to start a pot of tea brewing. While it steeped, she fetched a blanket and lay it over him.

That was enough–he opened his eyes. “Mila,” he whispered. “I didn’t mean to fall asleep, I’m sorry.”

“For what?” she asked lightly. “Taking a nap while I was training? No harm done.”

“No, I meant to make you lunch,” he explained as he rose. “I don’t mean to be gone so much. Not when we’re getting the chance to start again. Only–“

She stepped forward to embrace him, and his words cut off when his arms enfolded her. “I know, Bel. You still have your responsibilities, and I have mine. Neither of us expected this was how things would go, and if you weren’t ready to … to live with me,” she faltered.

He squeezed her hard, her ribs flexing under the pressure. “I am. Or at least, I want to be. This will need some adjustment, I know. But I’ve been sleeping so well, having you beside me every night. I didn’t realize what a difference it would make, knowing it was our bed, instead of yours or mine.” He relaxed his grip as he chuckled. “And it’s just a fine bed itself. I wouldn’t have expected that. Aren’t you all so hardy and fierce that sleeping in a soft bed is too much pampering?”

Mila laughed. “We’re not monks, Bel, we don’t thrive on hardship. It’s much wiser, don’t you think, to be well rested when we work? Whether that’s guard duty or treasure hunting or actual battle.”

His hands began to roam her back, his fingertips pressing the texture of the loose-woven cloth into her skin. “It’s wise to be well rested for play, too. I think I’m finally caught up on my sleep.”

“We can go out for lunch,”  she offered. “Later. Just let me strain the tea–I can keep it warm on the hearth, but I can’t save it if it oversteeps.”

That simple practicality could have been a mood killer for some, but Bel let her go without fretting.  When she was done, she found him in the bedroom, turning back the bed covers. The expression on his face when she caught his eye was open and devastating. “It’s been too long since I loved you,” he said.

“Yes, it has,” she replied. “Let’s fix that, shall we?”

They undressed each other slowly. Belken marveled over her skin, pressing his face to her, inhaling her scent. “Sometime you should come home dirty and sweaty from training,” he murmured. “I like that, too, you know.”

“Sometime,” she said, not quite a promise. They did have their own little bathing room, but the communal steam baths were such a lovely way to relax after hours of weapons practice or endurance training. “Remember, though, we’d have to change the sheets, too. You have no idea how muddy I can get.”

He allowed her to lift his shirt off, only wincing slightly at the movement. All laughter fled at the shadow of bruises on his ribs, where they must have kicked him hard and often. She sketched her fingers lightly around their edges, faint and fading but still visible. “We can wait,” she said.

He caught her hand and pressed it to his heart. “No, I can’t.”  After studying her expression, which must have betrayed her worry, his face softened, some of the intensity draining from it. “So be gentle with me.”

“How gentle?” She flexed her trapped fingers, scratching lightly at his chest with her nails.

He let out a long, shuddering breath. “So much that I think I’ll die from wanting more of you.”

He meant it lightly, if not jokingly, but a shiver passed through her anyway.  “I can do that,” she breathed, just before claiming his mouth in a kiss she strained to keep soft, in control, not as wild as she felt herself to be inside. He responded with a muted groan, almost a rumble, deep in his chest. When she pulled away, they finished undressing each other, and Mila’s heart cracked open a little further when she saw the ghosts of bruises on the outer flanks of his legs, as well. Very little of him had escaped hurt during his ordeal. Again, she wanted to draw back, to wait until he was more healed, but his member was hard, jutting tall from his body, and already leaking from excitement.

Bel needed this of her, and to be honest, she needed him, too. So she would be gentle, as he had asked. She nudged him toward the bed and he went, laying himself down carefully. She straddled him, arranging herself to glide along his length freely without taking him into her. He closed his eyes, pushed his head back into the pillow, and moaned.

It wasn’t long before he couldn’t stand to be only passive, though. When she didn’t change her speed or motion, he reached for her, hands smoothing over her shoulders, her breasts, her neck. “Is your plan to drive me mad a little first?”

She smiled down at him. “Yes. Is it working?”

“Yes. Can’t you feel it?”

“Well, I’d hate to make you spill all over yourself before I get what I want,” she teased, as she raised herself higher. With one hand she repositioned him so that she could sink slowly onto him, keeping her promise to be gentle even when she wanted to slam their bodies together like swords clashing in the training yard, fast and sharp. The slow slide of their bodies was sweet torment to her.

“What do you want?” he asked, his voice rough.

“I want to see stars, and feel like the only thing in the world touching me is you.”

He let out a sharp cry when she was seated fully on him, and she shifted at once, thinking she had put too much weight on him. “Bel?”

“No, don’t stop,” he panted. “It’s only, I want so badly to roll you over and take you hard, it’s maddening.”

“I know, love, I know.” She wanted the same thing, or even just to ride him hard like this, to feel him straining up into her. She started a slow grind against him. “I don’t think we’ll have to endure this long, though.”

“You’re close? Already?” Even mostly breathless, he sounded smug.

“Can’t you feel it?” she threw his words back at him.

“Oh, I can, and that’s maddening too.” He sat up awkwardly, propping himself on one hand as he wrapped the other arm around her waist, urging her to move faster. “Come apart on me, Mila. I’m the only one touching you, I’m the one filling you up, I’m the one whose name you’re going to scream when you break into pieces.”

He was thrusting now in time with his words, taking some of the control from her, defying his own edict to be gentle. She took him by the shoulders and pressed him back onto the bed, hiking up her knees and changing her angle until she felt pierced more fully, filled more completely. He was right–she did scream his name, while he only shouted roughly, wordlessly.

A loud, rhythmic pounding on the far wall of the bedroom startled them both. “Oh, hell,” Mila muttered. “I didn’t know we had neighbors.”

#Sunday-Romance Serial: “I Didn’t Mean Any of It”

Photo by Daniel von Appen on Unsplash
  • Continuing With: Mila and Belken
  • Setting: Gritty fantasy, it’s getting less generic as I world-build but I still don’t have anything like place names
  • Length: 1,470 words
  • Key Tropes: established relationship, reunion, homecoming
  • Content Warnings: for once in this story line, none that I can think of
  • Explicit?: No

It was three days before Mila was allowed to see Belken.When she woke from her long sleep after the rescue, she was starving for good food and company. She went to the mess, with faint hope Belken might be there. He wasn’t, so Mila didn’t linger, but ate quickly before asking a page where she could find him. There were several places a visitor to the compound might be housed, and where he was would tell me something about how Petralla viewed his situation, and how he was being treated.

But the boy looked puzzled. “I’m sorry, I don’t know who you mean.”

Ah. So our triumphant return was public, it had to be, but my lover’s rescue was a secret. She had a good idea where to look.

The Guild had no official jail, but in one building there was a secret. If one was high enough in the ranks, one learned the trick to open a section of paneling near the back exit and go down a hidden staircase to a small cluster of dry, dusty rooms long ago used as a smuggler’s storage, before the Guild had annexed the property during its expansion. Very few knew of it, and it was a convenient enough place to keep anyone whose presence need concealing.

Mila found Nicora there, standing outside one of the doors.

“Guard duty isn’t usually one of your tasks,” Mila observed.

Nicora’s tone was gentler than Mila expected. “I’m sympathetic to your situation, but I have orders not to allow anyone in other than Petralla, Evran, or Simmoon. I’d appreciate it if you accept that and leave.”

Drawing knives on Nicora was more trouble than Mila wanted to get into, no matter how much she wanted to see Belken. “I will, in a moment. May I ask how he is?” Because Simmoon was their best approximation of a doctor, in-Guild. They couldn’t afford the exorbitant fees to keep a properly licensed physician on staff, though they would pay for one to visit when the need was dire. The rest of the time, Simmoon patched everyone up as best she could.

“He’s not in any immediate danger,” Nicora answered. “I don’t know more detail than that, but whenever Simmoon comes to check on him, she seems at ease.”

“Thank you,” Mila said, and meant it.

She tried her best to go back to her old routines, her daily life. For three days, she slept and ate and bathed and went to the practice yard for weapons training. She repaired her armor, cleaned her gear, and replaced the small stock of items she had lost during her abduction. When she had to go into town to accomplish this, she took along an apprentice she hardly knew, someone not already known to be a friend, so that he was both her chaperone and her witness that she only did what she said she was doing.

This was her holding pattern between missions, but it chafed, knowing both that Belken was nearby, and that no missions for her were forthcoming. Not if she was a potential traitor.

On the fourth morning, she was summoned to Petralla’s office. Usually her desk was nearly bare, but the giant Guild ledger, the record of all their dealings, part diary of the commanders and part business account, lay closed in the center. Mila had never read it, not a single page.

“Sit down,” she ordered. “I’ve been over this ledger from back to front, through almost a hundred years of history, and I found two dozen specific pieces of information the Bone Traders could use to their advantage if they wanted to push us off the map,” Petralla stated. “And for the life of me, for the life of this very Guild, I can’t see how you would have known a single one of them, or why you would choose to aid our enemies. If you are a plant, you are the best I’ve ever seen. If you are a convert to their ways, a traitor, I can’t find a whisper of it. You should know that this incident will cloud the thinking of others about you for a long time, possibly to the end of your days. I can’t help that. But here, now, I want to make it unequivocally clear that I trust you. More than that, I am choosing to trust you.”

“Thank you,” Mila responded, her voice shaking.

“So you’ll go back to your regular duties. And we’ve spoken to your lover about living here, on the compound, where we can protect him. We don’t know that the Traders will seek his recapture, now that their plan is foiled, but it would be foolish to risk it. Which means we’ll need to move you out of the barracks. An apartment in Garden Hall would normally come with a promotion you haven’t earned yet, but I am making an exception for your odd circumstances, on one condition.”

Whatever it was, if it kept Belken safe, she would do it. “Which is?”

“They took you from us. They have undermined the trust I have in my people. These assaults upon us cannot go unanswered. You will be the arrow I shoot at the heart of the Bone Traders. I am going to work you harder than I have ever done. You will hunt them down, and you will kill them, until I am satisfied you have earned your new rank and privileges. I had not made you an assassin before, though I know you have killed in self-defense, and borne the cost of it well. So now I must know, can you harden your heart enough to kill in cold blood? Because this quiet war we wage on them will be the Guild’s revenge, but you must not let your own personal anger rule you. This is a hard thing to ask, but I believe it must be done.”

Mila didn’t hesitate. She rose from her seat, set her hand flat on the top of the Guild ledger and swore again the simple vow she had made upon her acceptance, as a girl barely out of childhood, so many years ago. “I pledge myself and all of strength I possess to the Guild. Whatever skills I acquire as I mature, I will offer in service.”

The lamp caught the suspicious gleam of tears in Petralla’s eyes. She nodded once. “The quartermaster will give you the keys to your new lodgings. Fetch your man and take him there.”

It was hard, but Mila managed not to sprint from the room. If there was a certain spring to her step and haste to her stride as she headed for the quartermaster’s office, no one remarked on it. She accepted the ring with two keys on it, and also the wink the older man gave her. She headed for the building above the secret underground chambers, but changed direction when a voice called out to her. She had to pass the gardens, and thus Garden Hall, to get there, but Evran stood outside the main entrance with Belken beside him. But she held her decorum and didn’t race to embrace him, as much as she wanted to. She endured the polite small talk that surrounded their meeting, even though on one level it felt more like the transfer of a prisoner. Would Belken agree to this? Would living here interfere with his business too much, could he accept the change or would he leave the Guild’s protection?

Would he leave her?

She followed him up the stairs and down a hallway as he checked each door for the number Evran had told them. When he found it, she passed him a key. “I didn’t mean any of it,” he said suddenly.


“Our last fight, before. We never quite made up from it, did we? I don’t even remember what it was about, now, so I can’t still be angry. I must not have really meant it.” He turned to face her. The bruises on his cheek, around his eye, were fading to a hideous yellow-brown. “I wanted to make sure I said that, that we go forward with a clean slate.”

Then she did embrace him, gently, because she didn’t know the extent of his injuries. “Completely clean,” she agreed, then made it more formal. “I’m choosing to trust you, and to love you.” She pulled back, grinned at him. “Once we walk through that door, no wondering, no suspicion.”

He leaned forward to rest his brow against hers. “Let’s go see what they’ve given us, shall we? I’m only sorry I’m too hurt to make love to you properly in our new bed. That may still have to wait a few days.”

Mila kissed his unmarked cheek. “I look forward to it.” 

#Sunday-Romance Serial: “Under the Blanket”

Photo by Yohann LIBOT on Unsplash
  • Continuing With: Naomi and Joanna
  • Setting: Contemporary, no specifics
  • Length: 1,318 words
  • Key Tropes: established relationship
  • Content Warnings: should I tag sex toys here? Or are we all comfortable with sex toys?
  • Explicit?: Yes

Joanna peered at Naomi in the morning dimness. “Do you mean that in a sleepy way, or a sexy one?”

“I hadn’t thought ahead that far,” Naomi admitted. “I was just being cute.”

“I do love your cuteness.” Joanna giggled. “I also love licking you like an ice cream cone.”

“Oh,” Naomi breathed softly in surprise. “If you’re offering…”

Joanna’s head disappeared under the edge of the blanket and there was a great deal of shuffling, which somehow involved tickling, and by the time Jo had Naomi’s fuzzy pajama pants pulled off, they were both shrieking with laughter.

Naomi couldn’t remember ever laughing in bed with any of her previous lovers, man or woman. If you got right down to the deepest reason she had fallen in love with Joanna and married her, when no one else had ever made her think of wedding bells, it was because Jo could always make her laugh, no matter the mood, no matter the setting.

Sometimes that got them into trouble when Jo was whispering inappropriate jokes to her in public places, but in private, in bed, no one was there to judge them for their sex involving as much laughter as passion, and loud shrieking for more than one reason.

Joanna’s hands were much warmer than Naomi’s, but not warmer than her inner thighs, so there was some squirming happening when Jo tried to get started. She said something, but it was too low and muffled by the blankets for Naomi to figure out. She got the message when Jo slapped the side of her ass, and spread her legs to give her wife room.

She loved the way Jo teased her, scraping her thighs lightly, blowing a thin stream of cool air over her heated flesh, not touching her in the ways she was suddenly craving most. If this went on too long, she’d end up cursing a blue streak, or even begging for something more substantial, but at the beginning, when she was still laughing and excited, the gentle torment of waiting was just as good as the main event.

She lifted her arms and wrapped her hands around the top of the headboard, because that very first night together, which seemed simultaneously forever ago and just yesterday, she had discovered Joanna hated having her hair pulled or her head directed while she was giving oral. It went against Naomi’s instincts not to touch her, not to give her that feedback, but sometimes that made it hotter, to have to stop herself from doing something she wanted. She was only recently exploring what that penchant for denial did to her, something she hadn’t known about herself before falling into bed with Jo. But this slow, lazy morning, barricaded against the winter cold, she didn’t want to wait too long. “More,” she said, making it enough of a command that she wasn’t sure how Joanna would react. She might give Naomi what she wanted, or she might not, not yet.

The first slow lick startled another shriek out of her, but she relaxed quickly into the rhythm of the tongue and lips against her, and soon she was rocking her hips in time. She was already close when Joanna stopped, a pattern they had fallen into, because Joanna usually paused in the middle of things to check in and find out what Naomi wanted next. Seconds later, Jo swept the blankets back, gulped in a huge breath of air, and grinned at Naomi’s renewed shrieking from the wave of cold air. “So do you want to finish on a dildo or my fingers?”

The avid look in her eyes was something Naomi wanted to surrender to. “You pick.”

The grin got wider and took on a deliciously wicked tinge. “Oh, honey, you are going to come so hard.”

Naomi pulled the blankets back over her but lay still as Joanna climbed out of bed and went to their stash of toys in the closet. She returned with a slightly curved dildo with a suction cup on the base. She went to the wall on her side of the bed, which was only a few feet away. Naomi perked up–this was new. They’d only used it in the shower before. “Will it work on the wall?” she asked.

“Let’s find out.” She glanced at the height of the bed, positioned the toy, then looked again and moved it a little lower. Once she had it attached, she tugged on it a few times to test the seal. “I think so. Now get over here and fuck yourself on it for me.”

Despite the rough command, Joanna was gentle with her, helping her get positioned and slide on. When her butt and thighs touched the cold wall, she shivered. She still had her pajama shirt on, but Jo was already unbuttoning it to play with her breasts. “That’s perfect,” she purred. “Now go slow, while I get undressed. Really slow, as slow as you can.”

Naomi set her hands on the edge of the mattress and worked herself against the toy, which dragged through her swollen folds and set off a needy ache in her to go faster, to pump harder. She concentrated instead on watching her wife peel off her own pajamas, going instantly from a cozy body for cuddling to a sexy body for touching, licking, worshiping. A brief shiver ran through Joanna, but she spread herself out on the bed facing Naomi, spreading her legs. “You know what I want, honey. Keep going slow, because you don’t get to come until I do.”

If that wasn’t the hottest thing Naomi had ever heard in her life, it certainly felt like it in the moment. She pressed her face to her wife’s pussy, desire and enthusiasm briefly triumphing over skill. There was nothing she wanted more than to taste Joanna, to drive her mad, to make her cry out in ecstasy. And all while she slowly rode the toy on the wall, a constant source of distraction and pleasure. Her clit ached for direct stimulation, but if she touched it, she would come too soon.

She resisted until Joanna leaned her head back, no longer watching her. With one hand, she drove two fingers into her wife’s quivering folds, and with the other, she furiously rubbed herself, trying to make up for the maddeningly slow pace she still maintained with her own body. Trying to do so many things at once nearly broke her, and tears started to leak from the outer corners of her eyes. She moaned against Joanna’s mound, curling her fingers upward, trying to speed Jo’s release so she could have her own.

She knew she’d won when Joanna’s hands went to her own breasts. Jo loved nipple play, and since Naomi’s hands weren’t free, she had no problem doing it herself. She pinched and pulled and tweaked and twisted. “Fuck, Naomi, do it. I’m coming, I’m coming.”

And she was, a rush of moisture meeting Naomi’s tongue, coating her hand. She kept stroking her fingers inside until the squeezing muscles made it too hard to keep doing, and she withdrew. “Can I go faster now?” she asked, her voice needy, almost pitiful.

Joanna lifted her head. “No,” she said clearly.

Naomi whined. “I need something more,” she explained.

“Okay.” While Naomi was surprised by this quick agreement, Joanna untangled herself from the bedclothes and Naomi’s reaching arms, going back to the closet and reappearing with a small vibrator. “This should do.”

When she turned it on and pressed it against Naomi’s clit, the reaction was instantaneous. Naomi saw stars and felt her knees buckling, but Jo caught her before she fell too far forward.

Not before the sudden motion broke the suction holding the dildo to the wall, though. The rough, urgent sounds of her orgasm morphed into laughter, and Joanna looked bewildered, until she looked past Naomi’s butt and saw what was missing. “Oh, wow. Good thing there wasn’t a person attached to that dick, right?”

#Sunday-Romance Serial: “Rose-Colored Glasses”

Photo by Ifrah Akhter on Unsplash
  • Continuing With: Rita and Andy
  • Setting: contemporary American
  • Length: 1,315
  • Key Tropes: dating, new relationship, aggressive woman/passive man dynamic
  • Content Warnings: nothing jumps out to me in this one
  • Explicit?: No, but it’s definitely about to be in the next installment

Andy sat on Rita’s couch, admiring her apartment as she moved around the kitchen making their hot chocolate. She had a sense of style that was deeply feminine, but done in rich, dark tones instead of the bubblegum pink or neon colors he always associated with young girls. Her walls were draped with soft velvet hangings in shades of burgundy and purple, the couch he sat on was a squishy brown leather monstrosity big enough to make a comfortable bed even for someone of his formidable size, and the lampshades looked antique even if they were likely reproductions of something from a burlesque madam’s inner sanctum.

And this wasn’t even her bedroom. This was a public part of her private space.

She’d said this wasn’t a play to get him into bed, but surrounded by this kind of sensuous decor, he found himself vaguely excited again, eager to touch her.

The kettle whistled in the kitchen, and Andy smiled, because of course Rita used a real stove-top kettle instead of an electric one, something sleeker and more modern. If he went over there to inspect it, it would probably be some lovely old thrift store find with an intricate pattern enameled on it, because clearly Rita didn’t keep anything around that wasn’t gorgeous in addition to being useful.

The thought gave him an unexpected boost of confidence, because if she collected beautiful things and wanted her living space to be lovely, then she must really find him attractive. His personal style didn’t match hers in the slightest–he was a tee-shirt and jeans guy, though he’d been dressing up for their dates in button-down shirts, but his winter coat was about as plain and utilitarian as they came, a sturdy brown canvas Carhartt that would last him from two years ago when he bought it well into old age.

He liked her style, though, soft and luxurious and richly colored. He also liked the sight of her walking out with a steaming mug of hot chocolate in each hand, the hem of her dress swishing around her legs in their dark tights. She handed him one of the mugs and sat toward the end of the couch, a few feet away. He thought at first that it was her keeping her promises about not seducing him, until she reached beyond the arm of the couch and produced a thick fleece blanket from a basket on the floor. It was a deep blue with a snowflake pattern on it in white and lighter shades of blue. She turned and swung her legs up over his lap, then draped the blanket over them both. Whatever his expression betrayed at that, she only smiled. “Borrowing some of your body heat isn’t against the rules, is it?”

“No,” he said softly before taking a sip of his hot chocolate. Something about it tasted good, but unusual. “What’s in this?”

She laughed. “I’m not drugging you!”

“No, I meant–it tastes different than I remember. I don’t think I’ve had it in years, but it wasn’t this good.”

“Oh! That’s probably the cinnamon.”

“Cinnamon. Okay.” He took another sip. “I like your place.”

Her face was still too red, recovering from the cold, to tell if she blushed. But her smile changed form, slightly, and she glanced around. “You do?”

“Not enough to redo my place like this, or anything, but…it suits you. Though it would be a heck of a surprise next time my parents dropped by, if I suddenly had velvet wall hangings.”

“Would you be pleasing their inner hippies, do you think?” Rita giggled, then laid her free hand on his arm. “But we’re a generation too late for that, aren’t we? If you have hippies in your family, it would be your grandparents.”

“They weren’t,” Andy explained, “they were very uptight religious folk. My parents rebelled against that, and lived together for something like seven years before they finally got married. My older brother was born before that, and Mom’s parents actually weren’t speaking to her for a while because of it, a couple years. They’d softened up by the time I was born, but I remember they were always fussing over us, about how we were being raised.” He paused at the shock in Rita’s eyes. “Oh, okay, I don’t really know why I said all that. Maybe you did drug my hot chocolate with truth serum. This isn’t really family confessional time, is it?”

“I just didn’t mean to dredge up bad memories.” The hand on his arm stroked him lightly. “You said were. Are they still around?”

Andy shook his head. “Not on my mom’s side, they passed on while I was in high school. And my dad’s parents divorced a long time ago, I don’t really know my grandfather, I only met him once. But Grandma’s doing fine, we visit every Christmas, and she still makes all the same pies and cookies.”

“That’s wonderful.” She sipped from her mug, seeming somehow to be stalling. “I hope you don’t mind if I don’t dig into my family right now. It’s complicated, and not generally pleasant, and I’ll end up telling you about it if we keep seeing each other, but I’ve been having such a good time, I don’t want to drag all that out.”

His curiosity clamored at this dire hint of her apparently troubled past, but she was right. He hadn’t meant to open up uninvited about his family, when they hadn’t actually gotten too personal yet on their dates. They’d talked plenty about themselves in the present tense, but very little about their histories. “That’s fine. It’s not like I planned to grill you about it.”

“And I didn’t plan to have you here at all,” she confessed. “At least I didn’t leave my place a mess.”

Andy chuckled. “So why did you want to go back to my place?”

She gestured loosely at the room. “This is a bit much, isn’t it? I kind of like to ease people into it, like by gradually letting out my inner goth-hippie chick in my wardrobe until I’m dressing full-on like Stevie Nicks. If somebody can handle that, then I consider bringing them home.”

He looked straight into her eyes. “Why did you make an exception for me?”

She stared straight back. “Hadn’t you already showed me a vulnerability of yours?”

He set his mug down on the low table in front of them, then plucked hers from her hands and set that down too. “Yeah,” he said, “I guess I did.” Then he pulled her onto his lap fully and kissed her.

Their hands started wandering immediately, both his body and hers trying to pick up where they’d left off in the alley. It was some minutes before Rita seemed to come up for air and come to her senses. “Andy,” she breathed. “I said I wasn’t going to–”

“You didn’t,” he interrupted her.

“I’d feel awful if I took you to bed now and you regretted it.” She tucked her face into his neck, breathing hard, her hands clutching his shoulders like she was afraid to move them.

“So ride me on this couch.”

Some deep part of him was shocked he’d phrased it like a command, that he had enough desire and will not to make it a question. It had been a long time since he’d gotten his rose-colored glasses knocked off, and intimacy had become a struggle for him. But he wanted Rita, and he wasn’t conflicted about that.

She pulled back, looking at him almost shyly. “That’s an interesting bit of semantics to let me get out of my promise. Are you sure?”

He couldn’t help his gaze dropping to her parted lips, couldn’t help wanting to kiss them in answer. But that wasn’t clear enough. “I’m sure. You’re not coercing me, Rita. I want this. I want you.”

After taking one deep breath and letting it out slowly, she nodded. “Okay. But I keep my condoms in the bedroom, so you stay right there, I’ll be back.”

#Sunday-Romance Serial: “Hell or High Water”

Photo by Igor Lepilin on Unsplash
  • Continuing With: Mila and Belken
  • Setting: Gritty fantasy, it’s getting less generic as I world-build but I still don’t have anything like place names
  • Length: 1,500 words
  • Key Tropes: reunion, and still maybe betrayal, we’re not sure?
  • Content Warnings: death, torture mention, imprisonment, weapons, brief violence
  • Explicit?: No

After half an hour of careful, quiet searching, their luck gave out. Mila turned a corne, ill-lit by smoky torches, and came face-to-face with a Bone Trader in full ritual gear, their mask a horrifying caricature of a human skull, their robes a deep red splotched with deeper stains. A foul smell came from him–Mila now knew the rumors were true, that the robes were never washed, that whatever bodily fluids came from their victims was considered a sacrament.

How wretched was a person’s soul, that they could believe trafficking and torture was holy?

Evran had given her one of his knives, as her own gear had been taken. The blade found a home in the Trader’s gut without thought, and before the man could react. If she had been thinking clearly, she would have aimed higher–belly wounds were generally fatal, but not instantly so. Still, this man’s eyes rolled upwards as he slid backwards off the weapon with only the faintest sigh.

If he had been alone, it would have ended there, a silent death deep in his own compound. But two others stood behind him, and their shock didn’t last long.

Evran’s shadows flowed through the darkness, one for each Trader. Mila didn’t see the blow that felled the first, but Evran had time to snap, “Don’t kill the other.”

The larger companion, a burly man with walnut-brown skin and black eyes above his mask, pivoted and dug the point of his knife into the slim neck of the now-captive Trader.

“Excellent,” Evran said. “Show us the way to your prisoner.”

The commander had realized instantly what it took Mila a precious few seconds to work out–these were likely Belken’s torturers on their way to fetch him. This was good news, if true; it meant they hadn’t already started. It meant no general alarm had been sounded because of the guild’s infiltration and Mila’s own rescue.

And, on a more personal level, it meant Belken was probably telling the truth.

The Bone Trader held up her empty hands. Mila was sure it was a woman; the build was skinny, tall, and the robes they wore were shapeless enough to hide any obvious attributes. But they were also relatively unstained, and the outstretched hands were soft and slim and pale. A woman, a young and rich one at that. A new initiate? Would she be more likely to give in than one of her dead counterparts?

Her shoulders sagged. “This way.”

She led, with the others keeping her corralled, one to each side, one behind. Mila fell into position as rear guard, watching their backs as the woman took them down unexplored ways. As they passed new doors, Mila’s tension spiked, waiting for new assailants to spill from them at some unknown signal.

The door she indicated was locked, but Evran had taken a key from one of her dead brethren. His guards nodded at each other from either side before the smaller of them opened it and the larger jumped through. Inside lay complete darkness. Mila waited, not sure what she was waiting for, until a soft voice said, “Clear.” Evran motioned at Mila to take a nearby torch from its holder, and they all went in.

Belken lay on his side on a dirty pile of rags and straw that might have been a mattress, once. He curled protectively around his stomach in a way that made Mila think he was already injured–someone had kicked him repeatedly, or punched him hard enough to vomit, then left him to await a worse fate. Though it might not be his vomit she smelled, because the air was so laced with vile odors it would be impossible to tell.

She handed the torch to Evran while the shadows secured their captive with manacles attached to the wall. “I don’t know where the keys even are for these,” the woman hissed. Mila lost the thread of any further protests she made when she knelt beside her lover and touched his shoulder.

He startled, shifting away with a low cry. The torchlight showed tear tracks and blooming bruises on his face. “Hey,” Mila said softly. “It’s me.”

After a few heartbeats of shock, Belken sat upright and seized her roughly in his arms. “Oh, gods, Mila. You’re here. You’re free.”

“Not quite yet,” she corrected, “but almost. Can you move? How badly did they beat you?”

He grunted as he tried to rise. Mila shifted to a crouch and helped him to his feet. “Worse than I’ve ever gotten in a bar brawl. But I’ll live, which I wasn’t sure about five minutes ago.” He glanced at the Bone Trader, who hung limply, her feet barely brushing the stone floor. “They were coming for me.”

If this was all still an act, a farce for her benefit, neither Belken nor the Trader showed any hint of it. “But my people came for me, and now we’re here for you.”

Evran cleared his throat behind them. “Hell or high water, Mila,” he said gravely. “We don’t leave our own to rot.”

Belken stared at him for a moment, then turned to Mila. “So you believe me?”

She wished she could give him an unconditional answer. “As much as I can.” She leaned in to plant a soft kiss on his cheek. “Come on, we need to get moving before an alarm’s raised.”

Belken didn’t move, though. “What about my sister?”

“We’re already stretching our mission, fetching you,” Evran answered. “Do you know if she’s being held here, and not somewhere else? Because as far as we’re concerned, you have equal odds on being a civilian we’re rescuing or a traitor we’re capturing. Unless you can produce concrete information on this captured sister, I’m afraid there’s nothing I can do.”

Belken’s throat bobbed visibly as he gulped. “I can’t,” he whispered. “They showed me a necklace, a locket with a miniature of our parents in it. I never saw her.”

Evran stroked his mask meditatively. “So they have her, or they stole it to convince you they did.” Or you’re still lying, Mila thought as Evran paused. “Either way, there’s nothing we can do. If by some astronomical stroke of luck, we stumble into her on our way out, we’ll take her with us. That’s the best I can promise you.”

“I understand,” Belken answered, his eyes cast downward. “Thank you for even bothering with me.”

They were about to leave when the woman on the wall began to laugh. “How touching,” she said, her voice cruel, and her cultured tone and accent confirming Mila’s earlier suspicions. A Bone Trader from the nobility. “As if any of you will make it out alive.”

The smaller shadow took two steps toward the woman and belted her solidly on the chin. Her head snapped against the hard stone wall, and she fell instantly silent, slumping farther in her bonds. The shadow shook out their hand. “Ouch.” Their voice was ambiguous, deep for a woman’s or light for a man’s. “Should’ve taken off the damn mask first. I caught my knuckles on one of those bony bits.”

“Did it puncture your armor?” their companion said, his voice low, booming. Mila almost felt dizzy with surprise to hear them speak; another rumor about Evran’s shadows–and Petralla’s, too, for that matter–was they had taken vows of silence, or worse, had their tongues cut out. No one truly believed the latter, but still, in Mila’s five years of service, she had never heard a single whisper from any shadow.

Evran only smiled indulgently. “They’re fine, I’m sure. Let’s get moving.”

Mila wedged her shoulder into Belken’s side to support him as he took his first limping steps. “Do me one favor, love,” she whispered to him, hoping the others wouldn’t hear. “If I’m wrong, and you’re a Bone Trader after all, show me the mercy of killing me quickly in my sleep some night, so that I never have to know I was wrong about you.”

Belken returned her kiss on the cheek with one of his own. “I swear, Mila. You’ll die of old age, running the Guild someday, rich beyond your wildest dreams, and I’ll be by your side. If your death comes any other way, it will not be by my hand, in your sleep or otherwise.”

Her heart glowed at that, as they carefully backtracked through the compound. By the time they rejoined the others, who were no worse for their expedition, Belken’s limp had eased and he was walking mostly under his own power.

It wasn’t until much later, after her debrief with Petralla, when she tumbled into one of the bunks in the common barracks to sleep off her misadventures, that she realized Belken had quite beautifully dodged every aspect of her request, leaving her no more sure of his loyalty than she had been when he showed up unexpectedly in her cell.

#Sunday-Romance Serial: “Don’t Ever Doubt Us”

Photo by David Tomaseti on Unsplash
  • Continuing With: Mila and Belken
  • Setting: Generic gritty fantasy
  • Length: 1,253 words
  • Key Tropes: betrayal
  • Content Warnings: imprisonment, torture mention, dead body, wounded enemies
  • Explicit?: No

Mila expected, when the three hours were up, to see Belken pushed back into her cell by their captors. For the torture to be effective, she had to see it. She waited, and steeled herself against the horror she expected to witness, trying not to imagine what techniques would be used. She knew of many, but also knew a devious, sadistic mind could always find new ways to torment the human body. Belken might be tortured in ways she could not possibly imagine on her own.

She waited longer. Surely it had been three hours, at least, even with her skewed sense of time. Belken hadn’t blown out the candle nor replaced her blindfold when he left, and she studied what she could of the room by its light. She learned nothing that her other senses had not already told her–stone walls, damp and cold, a single door. The only true use of the candle was to gauge time passing by the wax it lost as it burned.

When the screams started, she couldn’t tell how far away they were. For any sound to reach her, it had to be loud and close, funneled to her by the hallway she expected lay beyond the door of her cell. But it didn’t sound nearby, by the quality of the echoes. These screams were faint, distant, and strangely enough, scattered and surprised.

If they were torturing Belken close enough for her to hear, to wear her down, why not do it in the room with her?

Because then they couldn’t fake it. That would explain why something sounded off to her about the cries of pain. She had seen a woman tortured, once. This didn’t compare.

The noise ceased abruptly, replaced by something else, fainter. At first Mila couldn’t tell what it was, and she leaned forward in her chair as far as her bonds allowed, closing her eyes and straining to hear more clearly, to make sense of the new sounds.

Footsteps on the stone. Fast. Heavy. People running. She couldn’t guess how many, only that it was more than one person.

The thudding slowed and stopped, but not at her door. There was a scrape of something along the stone, another door being opened. “Empty,” a deep voice said.

She had learned something new–there were other rooms here, other cells. And Belken wasn’t in the one next to hers.

Another door opening, closer. Across the hall. “Empty,” another, lighter voice said.

Those screams she’d heard had been Belken’s torture, real or faked. They’d been the cries of battle, of a quick, surprise attack. Her guild had come for her. She was being rescued.

She straightened and opened her eyes as her door swung open. When she saw the familiar gray leather armor, the black masks covering the lower halves of their faces, the soft black hoods, she sagged in relief. “Hey,” she said weakly.

The largest of her three guild mates crossed the room to kneel at her back, his fingers making quick work of the ropes. Their newest recruit six months ago, Peres was already proving himself a capable, silent asset. “Mila,” he greeted her briefly.

“Thanks for coming for me,” she said to all of them, studying the shapes of the other two, unable to recognize the small bits of their faces visible in the poor light. Neither was small enough to be the guild leader–Petralla wasn’t here. One she was certain was Nicora, a veteran she had seen around but rarely worked with or spoke to. The other was almost certainly Girard, who had joined up within a year of her and never seemed to like her.

Three people who don’t know me well and have no personal loyalty to me. Either this is a test Petralla set for them, or caution, in case I’ve been compromised and need to be put down. She suspected none of them would flinch at it, especially as no one had responded to her thanks.

Girard was hanging back, watching the corridor. The distant clang of battle song, blades against blades and bodies striking other bodies, filtered into the cell, coming from the other direction, not the way they’d come. When it stopped, Girard stuck his head out and whistled sharply, imitating a bird call. The answering whistle came instantly. “Let’s go,” he said.

Mila stood, and opened her mouth to tell them about Belken. But behind her, Peres grabbed her shoulders and propelled her forward, nearly tripping her in his haste. She wouldn’t make much headway, appealing to them to go after him–they clearly had one assignment, to secure her and her alone.

They brought her to a crossing of two corridors, where three more guild mates stood amid scattered bodies. Only one was obviously dead, his neck twisted at an impossible angle, while the others might only be incapacitated. Mila shrugged free of Peres’ grip, drew herself to her full height, and addressed the guild’s second in command. “Evran.”

“Mila, glad to see you in one piece. Now, report.”

Evran was always like that with her–a moment’s kindness before business, but serious as soon as that switch was flipped. She filled him in on what she knew as quickly as possible, constantly aware that they were not in a particularly defensible position.

“Hmm.” Evran stroked the mask over his chin, as if he were touching the beard underneath. “Peres, assessment.”

On her left, Peres snapped from scanning the empty hallway behind them to focusing on their commander. “If this Belken was coerced, as he said, we have a responsibility to protect him. He was targeted because of us.”

Mila held in surprise that their rawest member supported a secondary rescue. She drew breath to speak, but a look in Evran’s eyes warned her not to.


“If he’s betrayed Mila, we still need him. Whether the threat of torture was a bluff or not, I’d rather we be the one to punish him. And we might get information in the process.”


“I agree with them both, but if you’re asking for a contrary opinion, commander, I’ll play. Petralla was clear in her instructions to get in, get Mila, and get out. We’re not here to start a war with the Bone Traders, not until we know it’s necessary. If they want our guild ledger, they’re up to something, and that war is probably coming soon. But that’s the leader’s call, not ours.”

Evran didn’t ask his aides, the two shadows who attended him everywhere, bodyguards, assistants, and sometimes, speculation said, lovers as well. They were guild mates, but their loyalty was to him–Mila didn’t even know their names, and had never heard either of them speak. “Mila,” Evran said.

She made herself say the right thing. “I don’t believe my opinion should be considered, commander. Whether he’s complicit or not, I can’t set aside my feelings.” Even if he had betrayed her, her heart burned at the thought of leaving him behind. Would their enemies punish him for his failure, for her escape?

Evran nodded. “Fan out and find him. Stealth when possible, fight when necessary. Mila, describe him for us, then you’re with me.”

After that was done and the others left, Mila followed Evran and his shadows down one of the hallways, the four of them moving slowly on silent feet. She leaned close to  the commander. “Thank you,” she breathed.

His eyes crinkled, evidence of a smile beneath his mask. “You love him–he’s family. We protect our own, and we punish them, too. You believed we’d come for you, right?” She nodded. “Don’t ever doubt us,” he added. “We all know the price of loyalty and love.”

#Sunday-Romance Serial: “Are We Really Doing This?”

Photo by Camila Cordeiro on Unsplash
  • Continuing With: Meredith and Lily
  • Setting: Contemporary; unnamed/generic American town
  • Length: 1,417 words
  • Key Tropes: best friends to lovers, Big Scary Feelings, bisexual and pansexual MCs
  • Content Warnings: alcohol, swearing
  • Explicit?: not very

One slice of pizza remained in the box, and the bottle of wine was half empty. Meredith lifted the remote and turned off the TV.

Lily downed the rest of her glass and reached to refill it, sighing. “I wish this didn’t feel like doom,” she muttered. “I hate when you’re angry with me.”

Meredith leaned back against the arm of the couch. Her feet were inches from Lily’s leg, and she resisted the urge to unfold herself, to rest her legs across Lily’s lap. She wouldn’t like that yet. “Yeah, well, so do I.”

“I’d be handling this better if I had any idea what to say.”

“Okay, then, I’ll go first.” Meredith set her empty glass aside. “I’m completely on board with the idea of trying to make this best-friendship romantic. And sexual, when we both feel comfortable with that, though I admit that’s probably going to take some time for me, because I’m so used to trying not to think of you that way. It’s going to be an adjustment.”

Pointedly staring at the blank TV instead of looking at her, Lily sighed again. “How did I not know you were into me? This felt like a much bigger risk before I did it.”

“How was I supposed to know you had any feelings for me when half the time we go out together you end up going home with someone else?” Lily looked over at her sharply, but Meredith held up her hands in defense. “I am not shaming you for your one-night stands, you know that. But what was I supposed to think when you’re bouncing through three or four different lovers every few months? I thought you didn’t want anything serious, but I do. And you know I do, you know I’ve been looking for something stable, long-term. So why would I think you wanted to date me?”

Something in Lily’s expression softened. “You’re right. Of course you’re right. And because you would never shame me for my endless one-night stands–though some of my partners did last longer than that, I’ll have you know–you never realized that I was only having them because I thought I couldn’t have the person I really wanted.” She laughed darkly and looked away. “I’m so fucking trite, it’s pathetic.”

Meredith chucked a pillow at her, aiming for the arm not holding the wine glass. “So you’ve been pining for me, huh?”

“Go ahead, make fun of me.” She sipped her wine.

“Not now, when I’d only be indulging your self-loathing.”

That made Lily laugh again, more brightly. “I hate feeling this stupid.”

“You’re not stupid,” Meredith insisted, shifting so she sat by Lily’s side and could wrap an arm around her back. Comforting friend-level hugs were familiar territory. “Come on, how often do either of us get a new relationship right on the first try? We’re not exactly smooth talkers. You charm people into bed by being direct, then don’t end up keeping them. I mostly fail to get them into bed in the first place. Why would we be any different with each other?”

“That’s just it,” Lily whispered. “I want to be different with you. I want to be better. I know I’m picky about your partners and I never think they’re good enough for you. I can admit that, yeah, some of that might have been denial and spite, but at the end of the day, I was trying to look out for you. Just like with Jessie. If somebody gives me a bad vibe, I want you to know.” She laid her head on Meredith’s shoulder. “But since we’re being ruthlessly honest about everything tonight…I’m not good enough for you, either. As your best friend, I would tell you not to date me. I’m a mess.”

Meredith’s throat tightened with the first signs of tears forming. She leaned over a few inches to kiss Lily’s temple. “You’re my mess, though. After everything we’ve been through, after all the times we’ve put each other back together after breakups and job setbacks and family drama, don’t you trust me to have a little more patience with you than with some random guy I picked up at a bar, or a blind date a coworker set me up on?”

Lily’s arms came around her waist and squeezed, which put the sloshing wine glass dangerously close to her sweater. Meredith plucked it from her hand and set it on the coffee table. “Are we really doing this?”

“I am,” Meredith said simply. “You can still say no, and I’ll back off, and we’ll…we’ll figure it out from there.”

Lily lifted her head, gazing first at Meredith’s eyes, then her lips. “I don’t want you to back off. Can I kiss you?”

Meredith wanted to laugh at her remembering to ask first, but there was no laughter in her when Lily looked at her like that. “Yes, please.”

Lily’s mouth was soft, and the lingering taste of wine seemed different than what Meredith had drunk herself, the result of some alchemy as it combined with Lily’s own taste. Meredith yielded to the steady pressure of the kiss and let Lily bear her down to the couch and stretch over her, slotting their legs together, bringing them chest to chest. The scrape of Lily’s body against hers hardened her nipples, making them ache for a more direct touch.

Maybe she wouldn’t need much time to adjust, after all.

Too soon, though, Lily broke the kiss, pressing up on her hands, braced above Meredith. “Too much?”

“No,” Meredith breathed. “But we probably shouldn’t rush.”

“No, we shouldn’t,” Lily agreed as she sat up. Meredith pulled back as well, making space on the couch for her. “I meant what I said, Mere. I want to be better with you, and you know sex is easier for me than relationships. So I don’t want to take the easy way out, because that’s probably going to mess us up, and I don’t want to lose you.” She pushed an unsteady hand through her hair. “That’s what’s so terrifying about this. If we try this, and it goes badly–you’ll be an ex instead of my best friend. I don’t think you can be both of those things at once. So the only way this works is if it’s forever, and–” She broke off.

“And forever is pretty scary all on its own, at the beginning of a relationship,” Meredith finished for her. “I know. I think we’re still in a window, where we can step back and say, this isn’t a good idea, we’re making a mistake. Where we can still be best friends, even if it’s a little awkward for a while because we both thought about more. But Lils, I don’t think that window’s open much longer. If we really start dating, and definitely if we sleep together, I won’t be able to step back anymore. I know sex can be casual for you, but it never is for me. So if you’re still not sure you want to take this risk, I think you’d better decide now. Or at least, very, very soon. Like, before our first date, soon.”

“Okay.” Lily scrubbed the heel of her hand over her eyes, though Meredith hadn’t seen any tears falling. “Okay, that’s fair. I don’t–I wouldn’t want to hurt you, like that. So I will call you tomorrow, and I will either ask you on a date, or I will tell you I’m calling this off before it really starts. Because–because I’m too wrung out to make a decision that big tonight, tipsy on half a bottle of wine and one extremely good kiss.” She glanced at Meredith and smiled weakly. “I promise, this time, no ghosting. But I need to sleep on this and think about it more clearly tomorrow. Is that okay?”

Meredith’s heart squeezed painfully, and she hated that she couldn’t completely banish her doubt. But she smiled back, and stood, and lightly kissed the top of Lily’s head. “Get some rest. And I’ll leave you the rest of the pie, so have some for breakfast and think of me, okay? I’ll let myself out.”

“No, Mere, you don’t have to go yet–” Lily began as she reached out.

“Yeah, I do. If you want to be better with me, then I’ll be a good best friend for now and remove your temptation to be bad. No more kisses until we know where we stand.” At Lily’s pout, she grinned. “Can you honestly say you weren’t hoping we’d make out more?”

Lily sighed. “Okay, fine, go home.”

Meredith grabbed her purse and blew a kiss from the doorway.

#Sunday-Romance Serial: “Your Hands Are Cold as Ice”

Photo by Kinga Cichewicz on Unsplash
  • Introducing: Naomi and Joanna
  • Setting: Contemporary, no specifics
  • Length: 568 words
  • Key Tropes: established relationship, nightmare comfort
  • Content Warnings: none
  • Explicit?: No

Naomi rolled over and tried to get comfortable again, unsure what woke her. No light leaked from the edge of the curtains, so she didn’t check her phone for the time.

A weak whimper came from the heap of blankets on the other side of the bed.

“Jo?” she asked softly. “You okay over there?”

No answer. It had taken Naomi a while to get used to Joanna’s odd sleeping habits–the rain sounds she used to help her fall asleep, the multiple layers of thick blankets even in mild weather, the occasional kick if she was starfishing. It meant more nights of broken sleep than Naomi preferred, but she’d adjusted over the last year, and they were a small price to pay for near-constant daytime happiness. Joanna was the best part of her life, even if she wasn’t the easiest bed mate.

Naomi thought she might have nearly been asleep again when she heard a squeak, one that sounded remarkably like the word “help.” She scooted ungracefully across the bed, digging her way into the tomb of blankets, until she found body parts–a hip, a hand. “Joanna,” she said softly, settling herself beside her wife, whose body was tense, limbs contorted wildly. “You’re having a nightmare, Jo. Wake up.”

If it were that easy, Naomi would get more sleep. But Jo’s nightmares were strange, vivid things that held her prisoner sometimes in a state that edged on wakefulness, where she could talk but wouldn’t remember any of it later. Naomi’s only solution was to keep her talking until she made enough sense to prove she was fully awake. “Wake up, Jo,” she tried again.

“The Muppets,” Joanna mumbled.

As far as Naomi knew, Joanna loved the Muppets, so if they were in her nightmare, this was going to be a truly weird one to hear about. “What are they doing?”

“I have to find Kermit, he’s supposed to take me to dinner.”

That was more familiar ground. The nightmares almost always involved searching for something. She had a bunch of semi-logical questions to follow that up with, and she chose one at random. “Where are you going to dinner?”

“The Oscars.” She sniffled. “But I lost my dress, too.”

“That’s okay.” Naomi soothed her sudden tears with a hand smoothed over her hair. “I’m sure you’ll still look great.”

“I still have my sword. He told me to bring my sword.”

Naomi considered that and chose her next question. “What kind of sword is it?” Not that she would recognize the name of any exotic weapons, but Joanna was a fantasy nerd, so she could probably name half a hundred types, between this video game or that book series or her role-playing experience.

“It’s a sword,” Joanna explained patiently. “And I need to it get into the Oscars. Like a ticket.”

A world where every celebrity came to an awards show armed. That truly was a nightmare. “Have you found Kermit yet?”

Joanna groaned. “Kermit?”

“Small, green, neurotic but sweet frog? You were looking for him.”

“Jesus, Naomi,” Joanna said in an entirely different tone of voice. “Your hands are cold as ice.” She shivered once, violently, then pulled Naomi closer and wrapped her in a tangle of limbs, which melted, softened, completely unlike the vibrating tension of the nightmare. “I don’t understand how you can sleep when you’re half-freezing.”

Naomi pulled one hand free to arrange the edges of the blanket pile more snugly around them. “Good excuse for you to warm me up.”

#Sunday-Romance Serial: “I Can’t Believe You Did This”

Photo by Niki Sanders on Unsplash
  • Continuing With: Rita and Andy
  • Setting: Contemporary; unnamed/generic American city on a river
  • Length: 709 words
  • Key Tropes: dating, new relationship, public displays of affection, aggressive woman/passive man dynamic
  • Content Warnings: internalized toxic masculinity
  • Explicit?: Yes

Andy’s head swam with pleasure, with surprise, with an unexpectedly fierce desire. He usually had to work himself up to this point, to coach himself into being excited to get physical.

Rita swept all that to the side by pushing him into an alley.

“I can’t believe you did this,” he whispered. She was biting his earlobe at the time.

“I almost can’t believe you’re into it,” she whispered back. “A lot of men don’t like how aggressive I can be.”

“I like it.”

She chuckled. “I can tell.”

“Is this–are we–” He broke off as she slid one hand around his waist, reaching under his belt, into his pants, to squeeze his ass.

“Not here. And not if you’re not ready to. But I am, so if you want to take me to your place, let’s go.”

How far from his place were they, actually? Would it be quicker to walk there, or go back to the restaurant for his car? But if he left it there overnight, he might get towed. The reality of logistics cooled his blood, weighting it with disappointment at falling out of the moment. “I don’t know. I mean, I want to, but–“

Rita pressed a finger to his lips to halt his backpedaling. “But nothing,” she said soothingly. “If you’re not sure, that’s fine. I’m alright making out like this until we get too cold and have to call it off.”

The brick wall against his back was a giant heat sink. “Okay.” He reached for her, filled his hands with her, slipping inside her coat.

“Yes,” she moaned when he palmed her breast. “Play with my nipples.”

She kissed him as he did, tweaking them lightly through her shirt at first, harder when she groaned and bit his lower lip. He thought his brain might short circuit when she started to grind her body against his, rocking her hips in time with the movement of her lips, a push and pull that had him rutting against her in desperation.

He was desperate, insanely turned on by this woman who somehow knew what he needed from her, knew to step up and get things started because he had a stupid, stubborn block about being the first to ask for intimacy. He was a minute away from coming in his pants from no more than a frantic alley make-out session.

Andy may have been working through some of the feelings of shame he felt at not being the perfect alpha male so many women seemed to want, but he certainly wasn’t going to embarrass himself like that, especially in public where he couldn’t deal with the uncomfortable reality of messy underwear right away. Rita might be cool with it–she might even be wickedly pleased she’d managed to get him off without actively trying–but she might also walk away from his neediness, his anxieties. He couldn’t risk it. “Stop.”

She pulled back, licked her swollen lips. “Okay.” Slowly, she unwound herself from him, and he was actually surprised where her hands had ended up in his distraction, how rumpled their clothing had gotten. “I have a new plan, if you’d like to hear it.”

He wanted to hear literally anything she might say in that tone of voice. Gossip about her best friends, Hamlet’s soliloquy, her grocery list for the week. “Sure.”

“I hate to admit defeat to the elements, but my feet are freezing. How about you take me home, and I make us some hot chocolate?” When he didn’t answer, she grinned. “No funny business, I swear this isn’t a euphemism for anything or a play to take things farther. I pushed you into an alley, but I won’t push you through the door to my bedroom.”

It sounded wonderful, almost too good to be true. But he wasn’t in a mood to question good fortune. And he was cold, too. “I’d like that.”

They helped each other straighten their clothing. Andy felt a stupid little grin on his face that probably matched the one on Rita’s. Their touches were far less personal and one hundred percent non-arousing, but the warm glow between them persisted. “There,” she said, patting his chest gently. “All better.”

He buttoned the collar of her coat for her, tucking her scarf into place. “You’re presentable again, too.”

She grinned and took his hand. “Let’s go.”

#Sunday-Romance Serial: “You’re Driving Me Crazy”

Photo by Robert V. Ruggiero on Unsplash
  • Introducing: Rita and Andy
  • Setting: Contemporary; unnamed/generic American city on a river
  • Length: 943 words
  • Key Tropes: dating, new relationship, public displays of affection, aggressive woman/passive man dynamic
  • Content Warnings: none
  • Explicit?: Most of the internal monologue is about sex, but no one is actually having it in the scene

Rita wasn’t a subscriber to the three-date rule before sex, but she could usually spot it when her dates were. Sometimes she was wrong, of course–sometimes a man she was seeing genuinely was that respectful on a first date and beyond, instead of sliding quickly down the ladder towards bedroom eyes halfway through a third trip to a fancy restaurant.

But she had no idea what was going on in Andy’s head, or his body, as they strolled along the riverfront under an intermittently starry sky. Fifth date. The first had been drinks at a pretty casual bar, courtesy of her cousin’s coworker mentioning his brother having bad luck with dating apps. Second was ice-skating, of all things, which she had originally thought was an excuse to be slightly handsy in public–god knows that’s how rom-coms usually played it–but actually, they’d both been confident on the ice, and Andy had spent most of his time with his hands in his coat pockets, skating backwards in front of her so they could talk without shouting. She had rented figure skates, he had chosen hockey skates, so she suspected he’d played as a teenager. He didn’t have the overly muscled body to suggest he still played now, or that he’d ever been serious about it.

The third date had been a properly fancy dinner, and she had gone into it ready for the invitation back to his place at the end. She didn’t receive one, but their conversation had flowed so naturally that she almost hadn’t noticed until he was driving her home. He had kissed her, at least, their first.

So she knew then she was with someone who wanted to take things slow. Fine. She didn’t have a rule. She had hopped into bed after first dates, after thirds, after a two hours of hot dancing in a club with someone whose last name she never got. One-night stands weren’t her preference, but she didn’t turn her nose up at them.

She couldn’t recall ever having to wait so long before, but she liked Andy, with his solemn eyes and his slightly shaggy hair and the way his laugh got higher at the end as he ran out of breath. She liked how comfortable she felt with him, right away, from the moment he’d found her at the bar that first time.

She was starting not to like how much she wanted to touch him, without knowing if she had permission. If he was interested in being touched. The kiss had been fine, not spectacular, and it hadn’t been repeated.

Her mind had drifted to thoughts of kissing, and she’d lost the thread of what Andy was saying. She tried to focus. Really, she did. But as the river twisted, the sidewalk slanted off to follow it behind some buildings, their fronts marked with bright signage, an ice cream shop already closed for the night, a brewpub still open, a clothing boutique. The gap between two of them beckoned to her, and she reached for Andy’s hand. His words faltered with his surprise.

Rita had never pushed a man against the wall of an alley before, and she found out quickly how much she liked the feeling.

In her heeled boots, she was nearly as tall as him. She leaned into the wall with one hand and gripped the collar of his coat with the other. “Sorry to interrupt,” she said brightly, “but you’re driving me crazy, you know that? One kiss, two dates ago?”

Andy’s mouth gaped open, nothing coming out of it.

“If this is a pose to prove you’re nice and get me to sleep with you, mission accomplished, let’s find a bed and get to it already.” Rita paused as his eyes widened. “But if I’m wrong, and you really are this sweet, is it okay if I take control for a while? Because I want to touch you.”

He licked his lips. “Yeah, okay. Touch me.”

Rita wasn’t sure how much he wanted yet, and her one experience with sex in public hadn’t been the thrill she’d hoped it would be. She intended to keep their clothes on, especially in this cold. She started with a kiss, the type she wanted, slow and fierce and hot, instead of the polite peck she’d gotten from him before.

He responded beautifully, leaning into her as she pressed forward, his hands sliding up her back. She nibbled lightly on her lower lip, and he groaned, pulling her closer.

“Not a pose,” he whispered when she dragged her mouth free of his, across the sweep of his jaw. He must have shaved right before meeting her–no stubble. “I’m just–not great–” He broke off with a deep sigh as she found the right spot, apparently, halfway down his throat.

“At what?” Rita whispered in his ear

“At initiating.” He backed away from her as much as he could, flattening himself against the bricks. “I’ve noticed women like me because I’m friendly, not because I’m smooth.”

“You are friendly,” she agreed, stepping closer to him. Even in the crisp early winter air, he smelled delicious, like musk and pine. And warmth radiated from his body to the point where Rita wanted to rub herself all over him, not only from desire, but for comfort and coziness. “But you’re also hot enough I want to lick you from head to toe. I don’t mind making the first move, if you don’t mind that I have to.”

His head inched forward, asking for another kiss even if he didn’t realize he was doing it. “No, I don’t mind at all.”