<%@LANGUAGE="VBSCRIPT" CODEPAGE="1252"%> Endgame by Meghan O'Brien

Disclaimers: This is one of the first stories I've written that I've felt a serious need to disclaim. This story deals with the subject of rape. While the actual act is not graphically portrayed, this is a frank and (I hope) realistic look at how two characters cope with that violence and forge a relationship in its aftermath. Having said that, I want to say that the story is about far more than thatů but I didn't want anyone going in unaware. I don't really pull any punches.

This story also contains graphic consensual sex, as well as mentions of S&M.

Feedback is always welcomed, appreciated, and responded to at meghan@meghanobrien.com. My website, as always, is at http://www.meghanobrien.com. Oh, and I also have a modest little mailing list now, on which I'm putting new story previews. That's at http://groups.yahoo.com/group/meghanobrien

 

Endgame

by Meghan O'Brien

 

Women had always been a game to me. The whole thing -- the chase and the seduction and the breathless moments between the sheets -- was a much-beloved diversion, but not anything I took very seriously. It was the pursuit I loved most, with the sex a close second. After that, the game ended. When I met a woman, my goals -- the entire roadmap of our relationship -- was laid out clearly in front of me, never in question.

When I met Hannah Jordan, I saw a game. I saw a beautiful blonde woman with a shy smile and intelligent eyes; she was someone to be seduced and conquered and, inevitably, discarded when the fascination had passed.

She was standing in the corner of the room, alone for a moment. The party raged on around us; we were two silent beacons at opposite ends of the crowd, both solitary observers of our mutual friends and strangers. I didn't know her, and wondered who had invited her. Her thin green sweater hugged her like a lover, and my hands itched to feel her curves.

I approached her with a confident smile. "Hey," I said, drawing her attention from her half-empty glass up to my face. She had chocolate brown eyes that made my breath catch. "I'm really embarrassed to admit it, but I was standing over there," I pointed with my finger, "in the corner, alone, wishing I didn't feel so out of place and awkward. As much as it shames me to ask, I was wondering if you'd pretend to socialize with me for a minute or two until someone rescues you?" I gave her a sheepish, mournful look that I knew would elicit a smile.

I was right, and the smile sealed it for me. I had to have her.

"Rescue me?" she asked. She cocked her head, looking me up and down. "Are you really that bad?"

I gave her a cocky smirk. "Some think so, I'm sure."

Her lips twisted into a half-smile, and she gave me a slow nod. "I'll keep that in mind," she murmured. She transferred her wine glass to her left hand and held out the right in greeting. "I'm Hannah."

I nodded at her, taking her hand and raising it to my lips. I heard her gasp a little when my lips brushed against her fingers, and that stretched my lips into a grin. "Delaney," I said. "Whose friend are you? Bride or groom?"

Hannah laughed and pulled her hand back from mine. "Does Max know that you refer to her as the groom?"

I glanced around us with careful eyes. Leaning towards her, I stage whispered, "I won't tell her if you don't."

Hannah gave me an amused look. "Your secret is safe with me." She paused, and then added, "I went to college with Max. We roomed together our freshman and sophomore years in the dorms."

"Just friends?" I had her pegged for family, but it never hurt to ask.

She blushed -- which made me wet -- and released a nervous chuckle. "Yes," she said with a nod. "Except for one rather sordid drunken make-out session when we were freshman, after which we decided that we really didn't want to mess up our friendship."

I nodded. I could respect that. I'd never slept with a friend before, and I wasn't friendly with any of the women I fucked. "Lori and I work together sometimes. I edited her first novel. I edit for love, I mean... for money, I work in marketing."

Hannah chuckled. "I'm a corporate trainer... for money, I guess, but I do like it all right." She studied me for a moment, and then her eyes lit with sudden recognition. "Her editor, Delaney. Lori showed me some of your photographs when I visited a couple of weeks ago. They were amazing."

"Which ones were those?" I asked. Lori had copies of a number of my photographs framed in her reading room. She claimed that they inspired her when she wrote; I always suspected that she was just sucking up. That she showed them to others was a complete surprise.

"My favorites were the one with your grandmother on the bridge, and the one with the road splitting around that grove of pine trees. I also really liked Mr. Leather Cowboy. You shoot people so well," Hannah said. She gazed at me with genuine admiration.

I saw the finish line in sight, and I'd barely had to give chase. And she even liked my photographs. She spoke about them as if she actually enjoyed them, and not like she was trying hard to flirt. I liked that.

"Do you like photography?" I asked. Common ground... that always made getting a woman into bed so much easier. I was glad to have found ours so quickly.

"I love it," Hannah admitted. "I'm always toting around a 35 millimeter, myself."

"Oh, yeah?" I asked. She had piqued my interest. "Black-and-white?"

"Yes," Hannah said, and smiled up at me. "Most of the time. Sometimes I'll shoot some color, but black-and-white is my favorite."

"Black-and-white is very sexy," I agreed. I pinned her with hooded eyes, not holding back in the least. I wanted her, I decided, and tonight's game wasn't about playing hard to get. Tonight was about how fast I could get her moaning my name. "Much like yourself."

Hannah's mouth opened slightly, and she gaped at me in mild surprise. My smile never faltered. I wondered why a woman as beautiful as her would act so shocked to be hit on at a party.

A hand closed around my upper arm, and I turned to find Lori pinning me with hard eyes. "Delaney," she said. "I've been looking for you."

I gave her an irritated look. "You've found me."

"We were just talking about the pictures you showed me," Hannah volunteered in a quiet voice.

"And Hannah was just telling me that she's also a photographer," I said.

"Not a photographer," Hannah protested. "I take pictures--"

"Hannah's modest," Lori interrupted, giving the blushing blonde a kind smile. "She's very talented with a camera."

"Thank you," Hannah said, casting sheepish eyes to the floor.

"Delaney, really, though," Lori said, tugging on my arm. "I need to steal you for a minute, okay?"

I gave Hannah a plaintive look. "I guess someone just rescued you."

Hannah dissolved into a goofy smile. "For the record, I didn't think you were that bad."

"No?" I shot her a wolfish grin as Lori pulled me away. "Well, the night is still young."

Lori didn't let go of my arm until she had me alone in an upstairs bedroom. She closed the door behind us, turning to look at me with wary eyes. I granted her with a mischievous grin.

"I'm flattered, Lori, but I'm pretty sure Max can kick my ass if she catches us up here."

Lori held up her hand. Her mouth was set in a tense line, and her blue eyes were devoid of humor. "I want you to stay away from Hannah."

My grin fell from my face. "Excuse me?"

"You heard me," Lori said. "I know what you're about, Delaney, and I know what you're thinking. I'm just telling you... stop thinking it. Forget it and move on, okay?"

"Since when do you tell me who I may or may not date?"

Lori released an exasperated chuckle. "Date?" she asked. "Remember who you're talking to, okay? You don't date women. You fuck them, and then you move on."

"Fine," I acknowledged. "Since when do you tell me who I may or may not fuck?"

"Since right now," Lori hissed. Her voice was so fierce I flinched, and then scowled at her for shaking my composure. "You will not fuck Hannah. She doesn't deserve what you'll do to her."

Now I was just hurt. "Jesus, Lori. I thought we were something resembling friends at this point."

Lori closed her eyes, bringing her hand to her forehead with a sigh. "I'm sorry," she murmured after a moment. She opened her eyes and gave me an apologetic nod. "I'm really sorry, I just... you can't treat Hannah like any other woman you want to get in bed, okay?"

"Maybe it's more than that," I protested. I didn't think that it was, despite my intense interest, but I thought it was unfair that Lori just assumed that I thought of nothing more than getting laid. Maybe I just didn't like that she was right.

Lori looked more serious than I had ever seen her before. "Just please, Delaney. Please promise me you'll leave her alone."

"We were just talking--"

"Please," Lori said.

I frowned when her eyes shone with sudden emotion. "Is this because she's Max's friend?"

"It's not that," Lori answered. She stepped forward as if to leave the room. "Come on, we should really get back--"

I wasn't satisfied with our conversation, and so I stopped her with a firm hand on her chest. "Wait a fucking second," I said in a cold voice. "You're going to tell me I'm not good enough for Max's friend, but you won't do me the courtesy of telling me why? How am I ever going to improve myself if I don't know why I fall so short of acceptable?"

Lori shook her head. After a moment she stepped back and looked into my eyes. She rested her hands on the small of her back, exhaled, and then looked past me at the closed door. "Delaney, she was raped last December."

My stomach dropped. I never knew words could make me feel so sick. "What?" I whispered. "How?"

Lori shook her head again, meeting my eyes with her own. "A man broke into her apartment while she was sleeping. He had a gun."

"Jesus Christ," I breathed. I had a flash of those warm brown eyes made cold with fear and pain. My stomach churned at the thought. "Oh, no."

"Do you understand why I'm asking?" Lori asked. She stepped closer to me, resting her hand on my arm. "You know I've got no problem with how you live your life. It's not for me, and I personally think that you're missing out on the really important stuff, but at the very least you're straightforward about who you are. But Hannah isn't going to be up for that kind of casual thing. She hasn't dated since the attack."

I thought back to our easy flirting. "She seemed interested."

"If she did," Lori said, "then it's proof that she's been making incredible progress lately. And that's the best reason to not disturb that progress."

I was still offended, a little, but I knew Lori had a point. Getting Hannah in bed had always been my ultimate goal. Now I felt guilty and ashamed for thinking of her that way. Sex was no longer something she had the privilege of taking lightly, and that meant that we were in different places.

"I promise I'll leave her alone," I said. "I'm not a complete monster, you know."

Lori grabbed me in a one-armed hug. "Thank you," she said.

"We'd better get back downstairs before your woman thinks I've finally charmed you into bed," I responded.

*****

I stepped out on to the deck, shutting the sliding glass door behind me. The noise of the party quieted to a dull roar and I sighed in relief. I jammed my hands in my pockets, almost wishing I smoked. At least that would give me an excuse to be anti-social.

The truth was that I was no longer interested in trolling for a bed partner. Lori's revelation had left me sad and feeling strangely lonely. I leaned against the deck railing and stared out at Max and Lori's backyard. I spotted two women under a large oak tree in the corner of the yard, wrapped in a heated embrace.

I didn't turn around when the noise level rose, signaling that I was no longer alone in my quiet musing. The door shut with an audible click, muffling the party, and then I heard someone clearing their throat behind me.

I turned around to face Hannah's shy smile. I smiled back on reflex, and then cast awkward eyes to the ground. Now that she wasn't a potential lover, I didn't know how to interact with her.

"Still feeling awkward and out of place?" Hannah asked.

I met her eyes as she walked towards me. "Just tired," I said. "I must be getting too old for all-night wedding parties."

Hannah leaned against the railing beside me, smiling out into the night. "It was a very romantic ceremony," she said. "I'm happy for them."

I shrugged. "It was nice," I agreed. "Max does seem to make Lori very happy."

"They're a wonderful couple," Hannah said. "They're both really good friends to me."

I remembered the fire in Lori's eyes when we'd spoken upstairs. I knew I should excuse myself from the conversation and just walk away that moment. I'd only done a little harmless flirting, nothing that couldn't be undone.

Something about her brown eyes, however, kept me there. "So what brings you out into social isolation?" I asked. I gave her a careful smile. "I know you have better prospects for companionship inside."

Hannah shrugged, shooting me a playful smile. "Maybe I just feel sorry for you," she said.

I snorted. "Maybe it's all just a part of my plan, making you feel sorry for me so that I can get you to talk to me." The moment I said it, I wished I could take it back. Flirting. I was flirting again.

"I guess you're doing a really good job," Hannah replied lightly. "'Cause I feel more sorry for you every time you try out another line on me."

I stiffened at her gentle teasing. I had fed her lines, and I felt like a shit for it. I needed to extricate myself from the situation as smoothly as possible.

"I'm sorry," I answered. "I didn't mean to offend you. My... my friends always tell me I'm an unredeemable flirt."

"You didn't offend me," Hannah murmured. She crossed her arms on the deck railing and gave me a sidelong glance. "On the contrary, I'm flattered."

I cleared my throat. It killed me how easy it would be to pursue her. The hunt might take longer, under the circumstances, but the interest was undeniably there. I knew I had to stop.

"Well, I should probably get going," I mumbled. I pushed myself back from the railing, casting one last glance over to the couple under the oak tree. I could see one woman's hand working between the other woman's legs.

And me without any kind of prospect for the evening.

Hannah seemed to notice the couple for the first time at my casual glance. I watched her stare at them, her mouth falling open slightly and color rising on her cheeks, perceptible even in the low lamplight. "Oh," Hannah gasped. After a moment she blinked, and then stared up at me. "You have to leave?" she asked.

I thought I read desire on her face, but it could have been wishful thinking. "I probably should. I need to get some sleep tonight. I'm supposed to go hiking tomorrow, maybe take some pictures."

"Really?" Hannah asked with a bright smile. "Where are you hiking?"

Common ground, it seemed, even when I wasn't looking for any. "Near Pinckney," I said. "I haven't been in over a year, and it felt like it was time again."

"Have you ever been to the Ledges?" Hannah asked.

I recognized the name of the area near Grand Ledge, but I had never been. "No," I answered. "I can't say that I have."

"Oh," Hannah breathed. "It's beautiful up there. A wonderful place to take your camera."

"Yeah?" I gave Hannah a fond smile. There was something about her open nature that appealed to me. I could tell that she didn't play games, and I was surprised by how refreshing that felt. I was the biggest game-player there was, after all.

"Yeah," Hannah answered. "We should..." she paused, chewing on her lip, and then released a nervous sigh. "We should go sometime, maybe," she said. "Together, you know, and bring our cameras... and maybe some lunch..."

My throat went dry at her shy offer. I knew Lori would kick my ass if I accepted. Even if I wasn't just focusing on how to get Hannah in bed anymore, it wasn't as if I was exactly suitable dating material.

"Wow, Hannah, I don't know. Photography's usually a pretty private thing for me, you know, and..." My voice died at the look of embarrassed shame on her face. She turned away at my fumbling refusal, looking out at the yard with shining eyes. She managed a brave smile, nodding, and I found my voice once again. "But then again, I've never had a friend who really enjoyed photography before. I guess it might be fun, you know, to--"

"It's okay," Hannah protested with a weak smile. "It's all right, Delaney, I understand."

I shook my head. "No, really," I said. I couldn't take the disappointment in her eyes. Lori was just going to have to kick my ass. "I'd... I'd like to spend time with you, get to know you better..."

"You're sure?" Hannah whispered. "You're not just saying that out a misguided sense of gratitude, given that I suffered through pretending to socialize with you?"

"Nah," I said, giving her a playful smile. "That might get you a drink or a phone call, but not an entire road trip."

"No?" Hannah asked. She pinned me with cautious eyes.

"No," I said. "Road trips are reserved for new friends."

Hannah's whole face lit up, making me instantly glad to have done something so uncharacteristic as contemplate a new friendship. Even if it was a friendship with a woman to whom I was deeply and ashamedly attracted, I was glad. The smile on her face warmed me in ways I never knew another person could do.

"Cool," Hannah said. "May I have your phone number?"

I kept telling myself, as I wrote it down, that I wasn't breaking my promise to Lori. Hannah could be just a friend. I wouldn't treat her like any other woman I met. I couldn't. She looked like she needed a friend and, truth be told, there was something about her that pulled me in and refused to let me walk away.

Maybe it was common ground, and maybe it was something less tangible. I'm not sure. The point was I gave her my number and a platonic hug goodbye. I wasn't sure what I could offer her, I wasn't certain I was anything but bad for her, but when I looked at the joy in her eyes when I gave her my business card, I didn't care.

All I wanted was the chance to make her happy like that again.

*****

Hannah's hair shone amber gold in the sun.

"Turkey or bologna?" she asked, oblivious to my distraction.

I studied the blonde locks that escaped from Hannah's ponytail, whipping around in the light breeze that cooled the August afternoon. Her hair amazed me. It looked like spun silk and I longed to run my fingers through it.

"Turkey or bologna?" she asked again, holding up the sandwiches in question.

"Whatever one you don't want," I mumbled. I leaned back on the worn blanket she'd packed in the trunk of her Volkswagen, propping myself up on my elbow.

Her hair. Of all the things I knew I would remember about our trip to the Ledges, her hair was the most intense. I would remember the drive; the old, run-down barns she found along the shortcut she took, and the way we pulled over to jog around taking shots before climbing back in the car, laughing, to find the next target. I would remember listening to classic rock with her, and how surprised and impressed I'd been with her taste in music. I would remember hiking behind her, trying not to notice how good she looked in her jeans as she rambled on about anything she could think to talk about. But most of all, I would remember her hair, and how it mesmerized me like nothing I could remember before.

"I brought two of each," Hannah said, chuckling, and held up two more sandwiches with a sheepish smile.

I dragged my eyes from the neat part in her hair to her warm brown eyes. "Then I'll have turkey," I told her.

"Turkey," she murmured, nodding her head. "Right." She sounded like she was making note of my choice, which both scared and pleased me.

We were becoming friends. That much was undeniable, no matter how much I wished it weren't happening. I still found her beautiful and so appealing it made my chest hurt, after all. Even though that should have been enough to send me running, it wasn't.

I liked being with her. That surprised me; I had never made friends easily, nor wanted for friends very badly. That Hannah worked her way into my life with such negligent ease was as shocking as it was comforting. She was a contradiction; a terrifying security blanket that kept me unsettled but wanting more.

"Thanks for bringing lunch," I said, taking the sandwich she passed me. I spent a few clumsy moments squirting a generous amount of mustard on my sandwich before replacing the bread and taking a healthy bite. I was quiet as I chewed, smiling at her when I swallowed. "It's perfect."

Hannah chewed on her own sandwich, rolling her eyes as she blushed. She blushed a lot, I'd noticed, which absolutely killed me. "It's just a sandwich," she mumbled after she swallowed.

"You put a lot of thought into this afternoon," I said. I suddenly wondered if Hannah thought that this was a date, and hastened to make my intentions clear. "Obviously being your friend has its perks."

Hannah cast a shy look at the ground. She chewed on her lip as if weighing whether she should say something, and after a moment she smiled up at me. "You haven't even let me cook a proper dinner for you yet. You have no idea what perks lie ahead for you, my friend."

I grinned over at her, poking at her leg with the toe of my boot. "I'm looking forward to finding out," I said.

And I was.

*****

Lori found me in the women's bookstore four weeks after her wedding, and nearly three weeks after Hannah and I had taken our day trip with our cameras. It was the first time I'd seen her since that night at her house, and I greeted her with a cautious smile.

I didn't have to wonder whether she knew about Hannah and me for long.

"Delaney," she greeted me. "Anything new you want to tell me about?"

I groaned, putting down the book on sadomasochism that I'd been flipping through. "Hello, Lori. I take it you heard."

"That you've been spending time with Hannah even though you said you'd leave her alone?" she asked, giving me a tight smile. "Yeah... it seems that Hannah couldn't stop talking about you to Max on the phone the other night."

"Look, Lori, I--"

"I just want to know what you're doing," Lori said. She sounded tired, which felt condescending to me.

I gave her an irritated look. "We're friends, okay?"

"Pardon me for observing that you don't normally make friends," Lori said. She glanced over at a woman who walked down the aisle between us, falling silent while the stranger passed. When we were relatively alone again, she leaned over and whispered, "At least not with beautiful women. I know you're attracted to her."

I shrugged, feeling defensive. "So what if I am? I can't decide to just be friends with a woman?"

Lori released a sigh and brought her hand to her temple. "I'm sure you can, Delaney, it's just--"

"What?" I asked. I crossed my arms over my chest and gave her a pointed look. "I told you that I'm not a monster. I know what she's been through, and I do like her, and I have no interest in... I don't want to hurt her, you know?"

Lori gave me a steady look. "It's just that I'm not sure that she's thinking of you as just a friend. Or at least... she may be hoping that it turns out to be more than friendship."

My heart started thumping wildly at Lori's words. I suspected that Hannah was attracted to me, but hearing confirmation of that fact made me weak in the knees. I had never felt that way before, knowing that someone was interested in me. Usually I just felt predatory or annoyed, depending on the situation.

I felt the weight of that truth, too, and I understood the terrible responsibility of the person whom Hannah chose to protect her heart. I knew I wasn't up to the task, and I was shocked by how that saddened me. I didn't want a relationship, exactly, but I wouldn't mind being someone to make Hannah feel happy and safe.

"You and I both know that's not going to happen," I murmured.

Lori nodded. "I know. I'm just worried that she doesn't know. And I don't want to be the one to tell her... to talk to her about the way things are. I don't want you to feel like I'm bad-mouthing you--"

"I understand," I interrupted. I almost hated myself in that moment, but I understood. Perfectly. "I've been trying to be clear about the fact that we're friends."

Lori pinched the bridge of her nose, suppressing an amused smile. "And that's great, Delaney, but you've got to understand... for most people, friendship is often where relationships begin. She knows you're friends, but she doesn't realize that you can't give her anything more than that."

My head was starting to hurt. "Christ," I mumbled, leaning hard against the bookshelf next to me. "I don't want to hurt her."

"I know you don't," Lori said. Her voice was softer now that she could see the pain in my eyes. "And that's why you've got to make it clear to her now. Before she does get hurt."

I knew she could see that I genuinely cared for Hannah. I was embarrassed that she knew, but there was no way to hide it. She had affected me, already, in a way that nobody had really ever done before. I didn't know what it was, except the truest friendship I'd started in a long time.

I didn't want to lose it.

"I'll talk to her," I promised Lori. "I don't know how to bring it up... God, you know I'm not good with that sensitive shit... but I'll try to make it clear to her. How I live my life. The kind of... of relationships that I have."

"I know this is hard," Lori said. She did have genuine sympathy in her voice, and I allowed her to squeeze my arm. "I know this absolutely sucks, but you know why you need to do this. All her friends, we've had to watch her get broken and struggle to rebuild for the past months. She's come so far, and none of us want to see anything set her back." Lori paused, and then released a defeated sigh. "You know she needs something more than you have."

As much as I didn't want to admit it, that hurt. For a brief, defiant moment, I refused to believe that I couldn't be enough for someone like Hannah, but in the end I knew that what she said was true. Hurt mixed with shame to create the cold smile I gave Lori.

"Obviously," I answered, keeping my voice cool. "I could never give her what she needs." I thought of golden hair in the afternoon sunlight, and then of a faceless man with a gun. I shuddered and tightened my arms around my chest. "She's been through so much, and she's such a gentle soul."

Lori gave me a kind smile. "You know, despite everything I've said, Delaney, maybe it's good you met her."

I was skeptical. "Yeah?"

Lori nodded, squeezing my arm before releasing me. She leaned over up on her tiptoes and pressed a kiss to my forehead. "Yeah," she said. "She is a gentle soul, and one of the most amazing women I've ever met. I think she could be good for you."

I thought of Hannah's lilting laughter and guileless appreciation of our afternoon at the Ledges. If anyone could be good for me, it would likely be Hannah. I gave Lori a grateful nod. "I think so, too."

"Just remember, if you hurt her--"

I waved Lori away. I didn't need her threats. "If I hurt her," I mumbled when Lori left me, "I'll kick my own ass."

*****

Hannah loved Hitchcock.

If nothing else, I had to give the girl credit. The common ground just kept getting vaster. When she asked me to go see Dial M For Murder at the State Theater, I had to remind myself once again that there was no such thing as one perfect woman for me. I had always known that one would never be enough -- hell, sometimes one a week didn't feel like enough -- and even if Hannah happened to possess all of the most important qualities a potential partner should possess... well, that just meant that she would be a terrific friend while I continued to sample as many women as I could, sexually.

I was excited to see Hitchcock on the big screen, though, and particularly happy to be sharing the experience with Hannah. I'd found out over the phone that she was just as big a fan as me, and that she was equally enamored of those films featuring Grace Kelly. We had giggled together over how hot we thought Grace was, and it was fun to connect with her in that way. That was something a little new for me, too.

"We're sharing a popcorn," Hannah announced when she sat down next to me in the dim theater. She plopped an oversized vat of popcorn on my leg and gave me a crooked smile. "It was some kind of deal, the popcorn monstrosity and a barrel of pop," she said, holding up the giant cup with both hands, and then easing it into the drink holder in her seat. "It was gonna be, like, two hundred dollars more if I bought us two popcorns and two drinks, so I figured I'd save my retirement fund and force you to share with me."

I chuckled at her and took a handful of popcorn from the bucket in my lap. "Sounds disgusting and unhealthy to me. Let's eat up!"

Hannah nudged me with her shoulder and shot me a dirty look. "You talk a big game, but I knew the minute I brought the junk food in here, you'd be gnawing on it."

I rolled my eyes at her while I chewed. Making sure to swallow as deliberately as possible, I gave her a bored look. "I'm just trying to help you out, you know... I don't want you to eat all that popcorn by yourself. I don't want you getting sick when I'm driving you home."

"Oh, so I should be thanking you?" Hannah asked, giggling. "For partaking in this feast I brought you?"

"Yes," I answered, and took another handful of popcorn. "You should."

Hannah snorted at me, shooting a sidelong grin in my direction. "You don't have to eat my popcorn," she murmured. "If you don't want it."

The tone of her voice sent shivers down my spine, and reminded me that I really had to talk to her about the way things were soon. I hadn't yet worked up the nerve to bring it up, but it was clear that I needed to do so.

I didn't know why I dreaded it so much.

At that moment, though, my nature won out over my better instincts. I leaned close to her and whispered, "Oh, I want it." I heard her breathing hitch and my clit twitched in sympathy, before I realized what I had just done. I pulled back and gave Hannah a polite smile. "I'm pretty hungry, and I know we won't get dinner for another few hours."

Hannah blinked at me, and I could read cautious arousal in her eyes. I looked towards the screen at the front of the theater, willing myself not to react. This wasn't a game. This was my friend.

"I haven't seen this movie in years," I continued, before Hannah could say anything. I wanted to move things back to safer ground. "This is my second favorite Grace movie, and the first one I ever saw."

"I know," Hannah said, and I remembered that we had already talked about Grace Kelly. I was glad she couldn't see me blush in the slowly darkening theater. "Rear Window will always be my favorite, too."

I smiled over at Hannah. She returned my grin, unleashing a wave of gooseflesh all over my body. I was glad when the movie started, because the noise broke our gaze and wrenched me out of my confused haze. The feelings she stirred in me were scary as hell, but I was hopelessly addicted to them.

I gazed at her hands as she reached over and grabbed another mouthful of popcorn. I imagined her slim fingers touching my body, gripping my back as I pleasured her. Then I lowered my eyes, ashamed. I had a flash of delicate wrists held down against a mattress in a cruel gasp, and my blood ran cold.

I needed to talk to her. I couldn't let our friendship be destroyed by my very nature.

I munched on popcorn with a mindless intensity, trying hard to focus on the salt and butter, on Grace Kelly on the screen in front of me, on any little thing except Hannah's warm presence beside me, and the way our hands would occasionally brush on our way in and out of the popcorn bucket. I felt like an awkward teenager, so focused on two hands, ten fingers, and the intimate feeling of soft skin against my own.

I gave up on the popcorn about halfway through the movie. I couldn't take the constant tactile bliss being inflicted on me by my friend. I was starting to feel slightly miserable, wanting so badly to be with Hannah, and knowing I could be, but knowing even more deeply that it was impossible.

I kept the popcorn bucket in my lap, which provided me with the additional torture of feeling Hannah's hand moving back and forth over me throughout the movie. I wished to God she would eat her fill, and I sighed with relief when she finally moved the bucket from my lap to the floor.

My relief was dashed away moments later when tentative fingers shyly crept over to cover my own. I froze beneath her, torn between tearing my hand away and leaning over to kiss her. In the end, I simply turned my hand over and took hers gently. I didn't want to embarrass her by pulling away. I couldn't do that to her.

I would talk to her after the movie... or after dinner, at the very least. I would definitely talk to her. She deserved to know where she stood. She deserved something better than me.

*****

I picked up a blonde woman at the bar four nights after Hannah held my hand in a movie theater. I chose her because she reminded me of Hannah.

The conversation with Hannah hadn't happened. I had tried, over dinner, and then again when I took her home. Limpid brown eyes that gazed at me with undeniable affection rendered me mute. Everything about Hannah rendered me silent and useless, it seemed.

The blonde from the bar - her name was Mandy - had disappointing blue eyes. When I'd seen her across the room, I'd imagined that her eyes were brown. If I squinted, I could almost imagine that her hair was a little longer, and that she wasn't so skinny. When I walked her out of the bar, my hand on her arm, I saw her clearly.

And I wanted her. I wanted her because I couldn't have the real thing.

"I like it rough," she told me as we stumbled into her bedroom. A cat tore past our ankles, escaping into parts of the apartment unknown. I hadn't even glanced around at her place as we made our way to her room. I was too busy plundering her mouth with my tongue.

"You do, huh?" I whispered. I found her nipple with my fingers, pinching hard. "You like getting fucked?"

Mandy whimpered, grabbing my biceps. I felt a surge of arousal; I could almost smell her need in the air. It had been far too long since I'd gotten laid. Since meeting Hannah, my social calendar had been strangely empty. Friendship took a lot of time and effort, it seemed, and left me less interested than usual in casual sex.

I asked her again. "You like getting fucked, Mandy?"

"Yeah," she breathed. "God, I want you."

I stepped back from Mandy, kicking the bedroom door shut behind us. I pulled her t-shirt off without hesitation, and then hastily unbuttoned her pants. I had Mandy naked before she could say another word.

"On your knees," I told her, pushing down on her shoulders with my hands. I grinned down at her, enjoying the look of joyful submission on her face. I loved being dominant, and never more than with a willing sub. "Take my cock out of my jeans."

I'd gone to the bar packing. This had been my intention for the night. A little game to take my mind off the one woman I couldn't have.

She had a shy smile on her face as she fumbled with my zipper. I knew it was an act, the practiced timidity, and for some reason it didn't appeal to me like it normally did. I grabbed her chin in my hand and pinned her with hard eyes.

"Use your mouth," I commanded her.

She pulled the dildo out of my jeans and looked up at me with wide eyes. "Yes," she murmured, and then took the toy in her mouth.

Normally, this would have gotten me off. Normally, I wouldn't be thinking guiltily of Hannah. Watching Mandy's blonde head bob up and down as she worked my dildo with her lips and tongue, I felt a little disgusted with myself. I had chosen her because she reminded me of Hannah.

I had to talk to Hannah, and I had to do it soon. I really was an asshole.

Mandy looked up at me with hooded blue eyes, planting her hand on my hip. She released the dildo from her mouth and gave me a slow smile. "It makes me so wet, doing this."

I gripped her hair in my hand. "Want to show me how wet you are?"

Mandy nodded, still smiling. "Yes, I would."

I reached down and pulled her up by her arm. "Stand up," I said.

Her nod was a formality, as I'd already brought her to her feet. I held on to her arm for a moment, pinning her with stern eyes, and then I let her go. I ran my eyes over her naked body in cool appraisal as I pulled off my own clothing.

"Where do you want me?" she asked when I lay down on her bed.

I stretched out on my back, pulling two pillows beneath my head. The dildo that was strapped to my hips jutted out from my body, and I watched her stare at it with hungry eyes.

"On top," I told her. "I want to watch you fuck yourself on my cock."

Mandy gave me a salacious grin as she straddled my hips. Her scent hung musky in the air, and I couldn't help but reach down to press a finger against her slick center.

We both groaned at the feeling. I closed my eyes, finally feeling the numb comfort of familiar lust. I wanted to fuck her so badly it hurt.

I moved my hands to her hips, letting her position herself. "You feel ready for me," I remarked, watching her guide the dildo to her opening with an eager hand.

"I am," she moaned, and then sank down slowly on my cock.

Normally, watching a woman ride me gets me hard and swollen so fast it makes my head spin. Normally, I can't get enough of their sweat-sheened faces, their throaty gasps, or their bouncing breasts. This time, I'd glimpse blonde hair and wish for someone other than this woman, and I felt like a monster for it.

I may have been with a lot of women, and none of them seriously, but I had always been with the person in my bed. With Mandy, I was somewhere else completely.

I didn't like looking at her face. It made me burn with guilt.

I stopped Mandy's efforts with firm hands on her hips. "Wait," I said, and then guided her off my body. "I want you on your stomach. Raise your ass into the air."

Mandy moaned as if I had physically touched her. "Oh, God," she murmured. "Yes, Delaney."

Her throaty voice sounded nothing like Hannah's. "No more talking," I said. I blinked down at the mattress in shame as Mandy positioned herself below me. "I want you to be quiet while I make you come."

"May I make noise?" Mandy asked.

I smiled down at the firm flesh with which I was presented. Mandy rested on her knees and elbows, thrusting her ass into the air. I had to respect her obedience, even if I was uncharacteristically ambivalent about our encounter.

"Yes, you may," I answered. I stroked the smooth skin of her bottom, and then delivered a sharp smack where my hand had caressed. She jumped a little, and my fingertips came away wet. "No words, though."

She nodded rather than speak. I smiled. Under different circumstances, I might have had a lot of fun with her. As it was, I just wanted to get through this.

I rested on my knees behind her, grabbing her hips and pulling her back to meet me. I spread her open with my fingers, slowing guiding my dildo inside her body. She groaned and pushed back against me as I slid into her, and my eyes shut in pleasure.

With only her soft grunts and breathless moans accompanying my pounding of Mandy's body, I could almost pretend that I was enjoying myself. I could almost pretend that this was any other night, with any other anonymous woman, and that things were as they always were. I could almost pretend that I didn't feel just as guilty as anyone who had ever treated Hannah like an object to be desired and taken.

So I liked her. And, God help me, I still wanted her. It wasn't going to happen. It couldn't happen.

I wasn't going to let it happen.

*****

Hannah called me two weeks after our Hitchcock outing. I picked up the phone without checking the caller ID because I'd just run in the door with three bags of groceries in my arms. When I'm frantic and juggling heavy things, I tend to forget myself.

She had called the night before, and then I hadn't answered.

"Hey, Delaney," she whispered, and my breath caught at the plain vulnerability in her voice.

"Hi, Hannah," I answered. "How've you been?" I was desperate to sound casual. The emotions she elicited in me left me confused and exhausted. It had almost been a relief to stop talking to her; it would have been perfect, but for the gaping hole her absence had created in my heart.

"I'm okay," she said. She paused a moment, and then added, "Well, that's not entirely true. I've been better." She gave a bitter laugh, and then amended, "I've been worse, for sure, but I've been better."

I swallowed, trying hard not to think about when Hannah had been worse. "I'm sorry," I murmured. "I'm, uh... I'm sorry I missed your call last night. I was out, you know..."

It was a lie. I hadn't gone out in almost a week, since I'd had a miserable time fucking that blonde. I felt like I was in limbo, unable to enjoy anonymous sex, unable to imagine anything more. I hadn't wanted to hurt Hannah, but I knew that was exactly what I had done with my silence.

Maybe, in the end, I had wanted to hurt her. Maybe I wanted to show her that she couldn't count on me, the only way I could. I knew I talked a big game, but the truth was that I was scared shitless.

I had never felt these feelings before.

"I figured," Hannah said. "That you'd be out, I mean. I don't know why I thought you might be home, really... I mean, Friday night, someone like you..."

"Someone like me?" I asked. I wondered if Lori had ended up talking to her after all.

"Yeah," Hannah said. "You know... fun, beautiful, intelligent... I'm sure you don't spend very many Friday nights home alone."

The truth was, I never had. Last night, however, it had sounded better than going through the motions with whatever stranger I could find.

I didn't really want to answer her either way. "You'd be surprised," I said.

"Oh, come on," Hannah said, chuckling a little. "I'm sure you never lack for dates."

I smiled at the nervous courage in her voice. I could sense that she was working up to something, and it set off butterflies in my stomach. "You give me way too much credit," I told her. "I'm the one who stands in the corner alone at parties, remember?"

Hannah paused, and then murmured, "Not anymore, if I'm at the party, too. I mean... if you want, I could always promise to pretend to socialize with you." She fumbled with the comment, as if she were afraid of how it would be received.

I closed my eyes in sorrow. "Hannah, look--"

"I blew it, didn't I?" Hannah interrupted me. Her voice was soft, disappointed, and it took everything I had not to back off from what I needed to say. "When I held your hand... I totally misinterpreted things, right?"

I sighed. She hadn't misinterpreted my interest. I just hadn't hidden it well enough, and I hadn't made things clear like I'd promised Lori I would.

"You didn't misinterpret, Hannah, it's just--"

"I'm sorry if I made you uncomfortable. I guess I'm just no good at this stuff, but I never wanted to... I never wanted to--"

"You never wanted to what?" I asked. I could tell she was having a hard time with our conversation, and my heart was breaking for her.

I wanted to be what she deserved, and it scared me to death.

"I never wanted to lose your friendship. You're the... you're the first new friend I've made in a long time... a very long time." Her voice broke a little at that, and I slumped against the back of my couch. I felt like absolute and total shit. "I really enjoy spending time with you, Delaney. I'm sorry about everything, and I was wondering... do you think we could just pretend like it never happened?"

I couldn't lie to her. I knew it would be easier if I did, and if I agreed to pretend like there was nothing more between us than simple friendship, but I couldn't do it to her. I couldn't stand to hear the humiliation in her voice.

"Hannah, it's not like that," I protested. I couldn't let her think that she wasn't the most amazing woman I'd met in a long time. "I... you didn't misinterpret, I promise. I am... well, I am attracted to you."

"Oh," Hannah breathed. She was silent a moment, and then she whispered, "Oh."

I pressed my fingers to my temples; I didn't understand how I'd even gotten involved in this kind of conversation. This was the kind of angst-ridden bullshit I always tried to avoid. How had I let myself get here?

"Hannah, look," I said, and then paused while I figured out what to say. "I like you. A lot. I've honestly been feeling like you're becoming..." I thought for a moment, and then told her the truth. "You're becoming my best friend. I love spending time with you, and I'll admit it... I'm very attracted to you, even though I'm trying to be good."

"Why are you trying so hard to be good?" Hannah whispered. She sounded like she was afraid of the answer; she sounded as if she had her suspicions.

"I'm just..." I began, struggling for the words. I didn't want to tell her about the kind of person I was. It suddenly mattered to me how someone saw me. "I'm not... what you need right now. I'm not anywhere near what you deserve to have. I don't really do relationships -- I've never even tried, actually -- and I can't be casual with you."

Hannah was quiet for so long that I opened my mouth to keep talking. If she wasn't going to break that terrible, awkward silence, then I would. Before I could say a word, however, Hannah spoke.

"You know," she said.

You know. Such a simple phrase, but from Hannah's mouth there was so much to it. I heard fear, disappointment, shame, and even relief. You know. We both knew what she was talking about, and so I wasn't going to play games.

"Yes."

"How?" Hannah asked. She sounded like she might be crying.

"Lori told me," I answered. "She didn't want to, but I just... I wouldn't stop. She warned me not to treat you like any other one-night stand, and I wouldn't agree unless she gave me a reason."

Hannah sniffled into the phone. "Is that why?"

I didn't know how to answer. "Hannah--"

"I liked that you flirted with me, you know," Hannah murmured. "Nobody's really flirted with me since... since. I couldn't believe... I knew that you didn't know. I liked that you didn't know."

"I was cruising you for meaningless sex," I admitted. "There was nothing to like about it, Hannah. Lori was right to stop me; no matter the reason, you're the last person I would have wanted to treat like that."

"You were treating me like any other woman you were attracted to," Hannah said. She sighed. "I liked it."

"You are attractive," I said. I worried that I would make things worse, but I had to say it. "You're beautiful." I had to make sure that Hannah knew it.

I could almost hear her blushing over the phone. "Stop," Hannah whispered.

"No. It's the truth, Hannah. You are. Very much so."

"So are you," Hannah whispered.

I bit my lip to keep the emotion inside. My nostrils flared with the effort. I wanted to slam the phone down and run away from this conversation. I felt angry. At first I was horrified at the anger -- how could I be angry at Hannah for feeling the same things I felt, and for lacking the wisdom to run away from me as fast as she could? After a moment of silent contemplation, I realized that I was angry with myself.

"I'm not worth this, you know." I closed my eyes as I said it. I wanted to convince her almost as much as I was scared that I would. "I'm not worth this pain."

"Maybe that's my decision," Hannah said. She sounded tired, almost defeated. I hated that I had put that tone into her voice. "Maybe I think you're worth everything. I told you... you're the first friend I've made in a long time, and you're the first... you're the first woman I've felt attracted to since last winter."

"I'm sorry," I whispered. I hated how broken my voice sounded. I hated that hers sounded the same. "Hannah, look... maybe this isn't the kind of conversation we should have over the phone. May I come over, and we can talk about this?"

"No!" Hannah said, sounding almost panicked. "No, I'd rather do this on the phone."

"Please... I don't want this to ruin our friendship. I don't want you to avoid seeing me."

"I just need some time," Hannah answered. "I'm just feeling a little... exposed right now. A little raw." She released a shaky breath. "I'll be okay, I just..." She was silent for a moment, and then she asked in a tremulous voice, "So is this because you don't want to ruin our friendship, or is it because... is it because of what happened?" Her voice broke on the question.

"Hannah--"

"I can't blame you if it's scaring you away, you know. I... I know I've got some issues. I've gotten better, but it's still a lot... it'll be a lot for someone to deal with, to be with me. I don't blame you for not wanting to get involved in it." Now that Hannah was rationalizing my retreat, forgiving it, even, I could feel my stomach sinking lower and lower until I felt close to being sick.

"It's not..." I protested, but then stopped. It was part of it, at least, but not the most important part. I was scared. Not wanting to hurt Hannah was a convenient excuse not to face that fear. "I've never been in a relationship before. All I've ever known has been casual sex. I'm not the right person for you... I can't give you what you need."

"What do I need?" Hannah asked. Her voice was quiet and, it seemed, a little dangerous.

"Patience," I answered. "Understanding. Love."

"What about what I want?"

I opened my mouth to answer, but could only release a tired sigh. I didn't know how to answer that question.

"I'd only end up hurting you," I told her. I made my voice hard. "You've had enough hurt in your life... I couldn't bear to add to it."

Hannah released a quiet snort. I blinked at the sound, but didn't say anything. I waited for her to say what she needed to say. After long moments, she whispered, "I thought it was finally over."

I closed my eyes. "It is," I murmured.

"It's not," she answered. I could hear the tears now, and every quiet sob tore at my soul. "I'm not sure it'll ever be over. Everyone treats me like I'm going to shatter if they breathe on me wrong. I'm strong, goddamn it, and I want to get better, but it's like it's never over. I can feel so strong one day, and then the next... something happens and it's like I'll never get away from this."

"You will," I promised her. "I'll help you any way I can, I promise."

"Then don't pull away from me," Hannah said. "Don't think that I don't deserve you in my life."

"But Hannah--"

"Please," Hannah interrupted. "Please, Delaney. If you don't do relationships, I can understand that. You've told me, I get it, and now we can move forward. Just please don't try and do things for my own good, okay? Let me make my own decisions... and mistakes."

It almost sounded like she didn't want to give up on me. I didn't know whether to be happy or frustrated at that. I didn't want to hurt her, but I thanked God that she wasn't going to simply walk away.

"Okay," I agreed. "I'm sorry for... for trying to protect you... for pulling away. It wasn't right, I know that."

"You should have talked to me," Hannah said.

"I know." Between Hannah and my own self-recriminations, I felt thoroughly chastised. "I'm sorry. I just--"

"You thought you knew what was best for me," Hannah finished.

"Yes," I admitted.

"So did Lori," Hannah said. She sniffled, and I imagined that she was wiping her face clean of tears. "So does Max... so does everyone who knows me. I know everyone just cares about me, everyone wants to protect me."

"We do," I said. I still didn't understand how our friendship had happened, but it was never in doubt. "I do care for you, deeply."

"I guess I'm just tired of feeling like the girl who was raped. That's what I feel like now, you know... not Hannah, but the girl who was raped." She cleared her throat, and when she spoke again, her voice wavered. "Every time I think I'm getting better, whenever I start feeling like Hannah again, something happens and I'm just that girl again... the girl who was raped."

She said the word. Raped. My breathing hitched, and I rolled over on to my side. I curled into a ball, squeezing my eyes closed. I didn't know what to say next.

"I didn't mean to make you feel that way," I finally mumbled. "That's not how I see you. That's not all you are to me."

"Then prove it," Hannah said. "Be my friend. Let me have my own feelings, and let me deal with the consequences of those feelings."

I wanted to hug her. I wanted to run away, because I knew she had no idea how much I could hurt her. I wanted to become a new person, so I could just be with her. I wanted to watch her become Hannah again.

"Okay," I said. "Okay, I promise."

"Thank you," Hannah replied. She inhaled, and then released a relieved sigh. "I've missed you."

I could only tell her the truth. "I've missed you, too."

We shared a couple of moments of silence, and then she said, "Rear Window is at the State Theater tonight."

I smiled. How could I feel so happy to have her back, when being with her made me feel so scared and weak? "May I take you?"

Hannah giggled, a sound that warmed me completely. "I'm good with non-subtle hints, aren't I?"

"The best," I said. "I... thank you for calling me, Hannah. Thank you for being the brave one."

Hannah was quiet for a long time before answering. "You're welcome, Delaney. Thank you... for trusting me."

It wasn't her that I didn't trust.

*****

"I love that movie," Hannah said, leaning back against the arm of her couch with a dreamy sigh. "I remember wishing I were Grace Kelly the first time I saw it. She's just so... elegant. Beautiful."

You're beautiful. I looked at Hannah as I thought the words, managing to keep from saying them aloud. It felt so good to be with her again, but I was right back to trying hard to suppress my urge to touch her. It was torturous, and it left me momentarily tongue-tied.

True to my nature, I decided to fall back on humor. "I'd do her."

Hannah laughed, raising one eyebrow at me. "Of course you would. I thought you weren't discriminating?" she asked.

Her voice was casual, but the comment struck a nerve. I blinked down at the couch as my cheeks flushed red with embarrassment.

"I'm sorry," she breathed before I could answer. "Oh, God, Delaney, I'm sorry. That was... that wasn't fair."

I shrugged. "It's true enough," I said.

"No, I'm sure it's not," Hannah said. I looked up at her; she dropped her head into her hands, shaking it back and forth. "God, that was rude."

"I deserved it."

"No, you didn't," Hannah said. She was sitting cross-legged across from me, and she reached over to put her hand on my leg. "You didn't, I'm sorry. I guess I'm just a little... disappointed."

I had wondered when we would talk about this. Despite our phone call, it was still the elephant in the parlor. I stared at her hand on my leg; hesitating only a moment, I reached down to take it in my own. Her hand was so delicate it took my breath away.

"I'm sorry," I said. "I really am." She had no idea how much.

Hannah shrugged, refusing to meet my eyes. "It isn't your fault. This is my issue, you know?" She pulled her hand away, crossing her arms across her chest. I tried not to look at her breasts pressing against them. "I'll deal with it, I promise. You'll just... you'll have to forgive any verbal lapses, in the meantime." She looked up at me, giving me a weak smile.

"Hannah--"

Hannah shook her head, getting to her feet so quickly that I flinched a little in surprise. "How about I get us something to drink?" she asked. She swiped at her eyes with the back of her hand, sniffling and turning towards the kitchen. "I'm thirsty, I think. Do you want something?"

I reached out and grabbed her arm, stopping her retreat. "Hannah, please sit down."

Hannah stood stock still for a moment, and then she dropped her shoulders with a defeated sigh. Without a word, she sat back down beside me. I turned to face her, mirroring her earlier pose and crossing my legs. After a moment of silent hesitation, she faced me and did the same.

I stared at her, and then I stared at my hand that reached out without thought to caress her blond hair. "I don't know what to say to make this better," I admitted. I allowed a lock of her hair to slip through my fingers, marveling at the silky softness of it. "I don't know what to do. I don't even know what I'm feeling."

Hannah shook her head. "It's unfair of me to put you in this position," she murmured. She stared down at where our knees nearly touched, a half-smile tugging on her lips. "You told me what you're about. I understand that this isn't something you want... and I understand that you don't want to go into something casual, knowing that it would ruin our friendship. I don't want to ruin our friendship, either."

"You mean too much to me now," I said. "I'd rather walk away from you, no matter how much it would hurt, than do anything to cause you pain. And I would, Hannah. I really would, if you gave me the chance."

Hannah glanced up at me with shining eyes. "Why are you so hard on yourself?" she asked. "I can understand if you don't want to be serious with anyone, but to say that you would hurt me..."

"I'm not a nice person," I told her. Suddenly I needed her to know; I needed her to understand why Lori had been so quick to protect her from me. "I've done things... the way I've treated women..." Glorious moments from the past flashed through my mind, now a pathetic litany affirming my unworthiness of any place in Hannah's life.

"Roll over," I commanded. The girl -- Natalie -- remained on her back beneath me, staring up at me with hooded eyes.

"Just fuck me," Natalie begged. She spread her legs wide, arching her back so that her pelvis strained for the hand that hovered just above her.

I pulled back slightly, waving my finger and giving her a cocky grin. "I'll fuck you," I growled. "First your ass. Roll over."

Natalie bit her lip, staring up at me nervously. "Delaney, I don't know--"

I leaned back, grasping her hips in my hands. I forced her to roll over on to her stomach, chuckling at the startled squeak she released at the maneuver. I reached over to the nightstand and picked up the bottle of lube that sat there. I was generous with it; there was no such thing as too much.

"Remember," I said to her, circling her anus with one slick fingertip. "You do have a safe word."

"I remember," Natalie said, and her voice shook.

More than anything, I had loved the power and control.

I stalked into the bar, surveying the room with hooded eyes. I wasn't in the mood for a lengthy pursuit tonight; I was looking for something fast and easy.

After long moments of searching, I found her.

The redhead had cruised me the last three times I'd come to the bar, and now she was gazing at me across the crowd of mostly leather-clad people. She sat at a table with two friends -- both brunettes -- and she averted her eyes when I met them with a confident smile.

I strode over to the table, focused on my goal. She smiled shyly at her friends, whispering to them while she avoided looking at me. The brunettes met my approach with interested grins.

I came up behind the redhead, leaning over until my mouth was next to her ear. "You were watching me, weren't you?" I asked.

I felt her tremble beneath me, and I closed my eyes and inhaled, smiling. I could smell her nervous arousal.

"Yes," she murmured.

I opened my eyes and smiled up at her friends, who watched us from across the table. I knew they couldn't hear my soft words over the loud music from the dance floor. "I'm going to take you home and fuck you."

The redhead gasped, and I watched one of the brunettes blink in interest. She swiveled her head to look at the other brunette, who stared at me with a barely perceptible smile.

"Aren't I?" I asked the redhead when she didn't respond. I traced the tip of my tongue around her ear lobe, and then slid my hand around to palm her breast through her tank top. "Going to fuck you?"

"Yes," she gasped.

"Tell your friends you'll see them later."

I suddenly realized that I was talking. I told her bits and pieces of things I remembered doing and saying. I told her the things that ashamed me. I told her the things I regretted. I looked at my knees and recited the cold, hard facts in a blank voice. I managed to meet her eyes only once or twice, and then it was fast, too fast to gauge her reaction. I darted my gaze away immediately, not wanting to know.

Hannah sat. She listened. At one point, she took my hand in both of hers. Not long after, she began stroking my knuckles with her thumb. When the self-hatred reached a boiling point, she would squeeze my hand to calm me down. When I pulled away from her in shame, she held on.

"Do you regret these things?" Hannah whispered when I stopped talking. She squeezed my fingers, reaching out with her free hand to take my chin and stop me from turning away. "You sound like you do... but you know, Delaney... those women chose to be with you that way. When you were aggressive... dominant..." Hannah blushed, casting shy eyes at the wall beside us. "It was because they got off on it just like you did. They knew what they were getting with you, right?"

"They knew," I admitted. "But I didn't always treat them like I should have. It was always such a challenge to me, a fucking game..."

"You feel bad about it," Hannah said.

"Yes."

"You don't want to do it anymore?"

For a moment it sounded a little too much like a promise. Then I thought about it. I really thought. Would I want to walk into a bar right now, looking for another anonymous encounter?

"No," I whispered. I looked at Hannah with frightened eyes. "Hannah, I don't. I just don't... I don't know how--"

"Shh," Hannah murmured, squeezing my hand. "Don't worry about that right now."

She was too good for me. I could only hurt her.

I shut the apartment door, one arm wrapped tightly around the slim body slumping against my own. I scowled as I half-carried the compact brunette through the apartment, searching for her bedroom.

"Come on," I said as I laid her down on her mattress. I hovered above her, licking at parted lips in an effort to reinitiate the kisses that had been so passionate just minutes before in the taxi. "Come on, wake up."

I couldn't remember her name, or I would have used it. Instead, I slid my hand under her skirt and found her heated center with my fingertips. Her panties were wet, and I grinned as I pushed them inside to enter her with one finger.

She woke up moaning, and then clumsily returned my kiss.

"I slept with a drunk girl," I blurted out. This was the one confession that hadn't yet left my mouth. I hadn't been sure I could say it. "We were going back to her place, and we were making out, and then she passed out right before we could go inside. I... I carried her in, took her to bed, and started kissing her again. She... she woke up when I went inside of her."

Hannah flinched, just like I knew she would. She couldn't meet my eyes, just like I knew she wouldn't. She kept holding my hand, but she reached down and picked at her sock with her unoccupied fingers.

"Did she ask you to stop?" Hannah whispered. Her voice was trembling; I could see she was struggling with my confession.

I wanted her to know the truth, but it broke my heart to see the emotions flashing in her eyes. I swallowed and looked away.

"No," I answered. "No, she... after a minute or so, she asked me to keep going. She... told me not to stop."

Hannah nodded, still silent. After a moment she looked up and met my eyes with her own. "You're not like him, you know. You won't hurt me like that."

I swallowed and closed my eyes. You're not like him. It was my biggest fear. "How do you know?" I asked.

"Because you won't," Hannah said. She slid her hand up my arm, and I shivered beneath her touch. "Because I'm your friend."

"But what if that's not enough?" I whispered. I was so scared my hands were shaking.

"Because I trust you," Hannah murmured. "And that's going to have to be enough... I trust you. I know you won't hurt me like that."

"I might," I said. I pinned her with intense eyes. "Don't you see that, Hannah? I don't know how I feel. I don't know how to do this. I don't know what to give you, and I've never made love with a woman before." I exhaled, glancing away. "I fuck women, and I don't want to just fuck you."

"You won't hurt me," Hannah insisted. She picked up my hand and placed it over her heart. The t-shirt material was warm beneath my palm, and I felt the steady thrumming within her chest. "You're not gonna hurt me. You said that you would trust me, remember? You said you would let me deal with my own emotions."

"How do you know that?" I gasped. My fingers twitched where they lay on her chest; I could just barely feel the swell of a small, firm breast, and it triggered my arousal at just the wrong time. I tried to pull my hand away, but she held firm. "How do you know I won't?"

"Because I won't let you," she said, and then she leaned forward and grabbed me in a tender hug. Her lips tickled my ear, and her breath raised gooseflesh on my neck. "I won't let you."

*****

I didn't know what had woken me up.

Hannah's house at night was an unfamiliar place. A clock ticked mechanically somewhere near my head, and the bulky shadow of the couch where I rested was cast against the bookcase that sat in front of my eyes. I listened to the night-sounds for long, silent moments, trying to discern what had pulled me out of sleep.

I didn't know how long it had been since I'd released Hannah from the embrace that had lasted an hour, and which had only ended because she'd fallen asleep in my arms. She'd awoken when I carried her to the bedroom, given me an embarrassed smile and an affectionate parting hug at the doorway, and I'd crashed on her couch rather than drive home exhausted.

Our conversation had worn me out.

A quiet sound broke the stillness of the night, and I propped myself up on my elbows to listen. The noise wasn't right; I had to pay attention. I cocked my head and listened to the house.

After a moment, the sound came again. I had a sick feeling in my stomach, and I rose to my feet.

When I was younger and would stay at my grandmother's house, I made a sport of sneaking out of bed after she would fall asleep. Grandma's house had been intolerably boring and so there was never anything to do when I escaped the guest bedroom, but the fun was in simply creeping stealthily through the hallways.

I felt a bit like the kid I once was as I moved through Hannah's house, except that I wasn't having fun. I held my breath as I walked, listening for the source of the muffled noises I heard. I was terrified that I would scare Hannah if she saw me, but I couldn't ignore the feeling in my gut.

I found her partially open bedroom door by following the faint noises coming from behind it. Hannah was dreaming. She was mumbling in her sleep, whimpering. My breath caught; she was having a nightmare.

I didn't know what to do. If I went in, I could scare the hell out of her. If I didn't, then I was leaving her alone with the demons that terrorized her in the night.

A muffled half-sob decided it for me. With a deep, steadying breath, I pushed her bedroom door open and crept inside.

The first thing I noticed was a nightlight. It was big and bright, and it illuminated her entire room nicely. Hannah's bedroom was relatively small and the decorations were sparse. A large wooden dresser sat against one wall, and a bed and nightstand dominated the center of the room. A television sat next to the closet, at the foot of the bed. A stack of DVDs rested haphazardly on top of it.

Hannah was tangled in her blankets, lying on her side in the center of the bed. She was curled up with her legs pulled close to her stomach, and her hands were fisted around the material of the sheet that covered her. I could see the sheen of a light sweat across her forehead, and she shifted restlessly on the mattress.

I sank down to my knees beside the bed. The last thing I wanted was for her to wake up with me looming over her. I watched her sleep. She was beautiful, and I rarely had a chance to study her so blatantly. Her brow was furrowed, though, and her face was twisted into an expression of discomfort.

"No," she whimpered. She released a low, keening moan, drawing her legs even more tightly into her body.

I couldn't listen anymore. "Hannah," I whispered. I hesitated to reach out and touch her. I wanted her to wake up, but I didn't want her emergence into consciousness to be as frightening as her nightmare. "Hannah, wake up. You're okay."

I watched her body stiffen, shrinking away from the sound of my voice. She began to cry in her sleep. I could feel my heart beating in my throat; I couldn't take seeing her in pain.

"Hannah, wake up." I reached out and touched her arm. "Please wake up. You're okay. You're safe."

Hannah woke up with a shuddering gasp, and she drew back from me with a soft cry. She stared at me, unseeing, with terror-filled eyes.

I pulled my hand back as if it had been burned. "Hannah, baby, it's okay. It's me... it's Delaney."

For a few moments longer Hannah stared at me without speaking. The only sound in the room was that of her harsh breathing. I was beginning to seriously question the wisdom of waking her up when she blinked once, twice, and then focused on me with red-rimmed eyes.

"Delaney?" she asked.

I nodded, chewing on my lip. I remained on my knees beside the bed, almost afraid to move. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to scare you. I... I heard you dreaming. It sounded like you were having a nightmare."

Hannah's eyes slipped shut and she released a long, racking breath. "I was."

I stayed still, uncertain of what to do now that I'd woken her up. "Are you okay?" I whispered.

Hannah opened her eyes, nodding her head. She reached up and swiped at the tears that were rolling down her cheeks with the back of her hand. "I am now, thank you. Thank you for waking me up."

I nodded. "I was afraid I would scare you more by waking you."

Hannah gave me a humorless smile. "Not more, no. It was very... vivid."

"Can I... can I get you a drink or something? Do you need something?"

Hannah hesitated a moment, and then reached out to me with her hand. "Will you stay with me?" she asked. "Just for a little while, until I fall back asleep?"

The nervous feeling in my stomach, which had calmed considerably after Hannah woke up, churned up once again. My throat felt dry, and I cleared it quietly. "Okay," I whispered.

I crawled into bed beside her. My arms and legs felt clumsy, and I tried hard to keep a safe distance. I'd never been in bed with a woman except as the prelude to or aftermath of sex.

"Can you... can you give me a hug?"

Her soft plea made me forget all about feeling awkward. I reached over and wrapped my arms around Hannah, pulling her close to me in a warm hug. She felt just as good as she had earlier in the evening, and I sighed in contentment when she settled her head onto my shoulder.

"This feels really good," Hannah murmured. She brought her leg up and over my own, nestling her thigh between mine. She exhaled, burrowing deeper into my embrace.

"I think so, too." I traced my fingers up and down the length of her back. Her skin was warm and supple beneath the t-shirt she wore. I stopped and rested my hand in the small of her back, holding her close to me, and dropped a tender kiss on her forehead. "Are you really okay?" I whispered.

She was silent for so long that I began to wonder if she'd fallen back asleep. I continued to hold her close, closing my eyes and enjoying the steady thrumming of her heartbeat against me.

Finally, she spoke. "Delaney?"

"Yeah?" I answered.

"Do you... really think I'm pretty?"

The question surprised me. So did the vulnerability in her voice. Something about her made me forget my fears for a moment, and the truth came without hesitation.

"I think you're incredible," I answered. "I think you're the most beautiful woman I've ever held."

Hannah's shoulders shook with sudden, quiet sobs. I went still, keeping her body close to mine. She pressed her face into my neck, and I shivered at the feeling of her hot tears on my skin.

"Don't you know that, sweetheart?" I whispered. I tightened my arms around her, feeling my own eyes burn in sympathy at her distress. "Maybe I need to vocalize what I'm always thinking, then, because not a day goes by that I don't notice how amazing you are."

Hannah was still for a moment, and then her body jerked with her crying. I could tell that she was trying hard to get under control, and I brought my lips to her ear and gave her a soft kiss.

"It's okay, baby," I murmured. It occurred to me that I had never used such terms of endearment before, and I was only mildly surprised at how easily they came to my lips. "Everything is going to be okay."

Eventually Hannah's sobs quieted. Her body remained tense in my arms, and I waited for her to find her voice. As much as it terrified me, I sensed that she was going to want to talk.

"He was upset, you know," she finally said.

He. I was afraid of this conversation. It didn't matter, though. Hannah had chosen me, and all I could do was go along.

"Upset about what?" I whispered.

"He had trouble... you know. I mean, he was ready, but I... I was so scared and... dry. He told me he wished my breasts, you know... that they were bigger." She pressed her lips to my collarbone, mumbling against my skin. "Do you think--"

"I think you're perfect, Hannah," I managed. I wanted to throw up. "I also think... I know... that it wasn't your fault. Any of it."

"I know it wasn't," Hannah said. "My therapist has been telling me that for months, and I really do know it. It's just... his voice, you know? I used to hear his voice in my dreams all the time."

"Do you have very many nightmares?" I asked. My voice caught; it was a struggle not to choke on what she was telling me. I didn't know how it could hurt so bad to witness another's pain.

"I used to have them almost every night, for a few months afterward. This was the first one in almost two months," Hannah said. "His voice, mostly. Sometimes I can hear his voice, but I can't see anything. Like I'm... lying on my stomach. Other times I can see his face right in mine. It was so dark, but I'll never forget his face."

I wasn't sure if I should say anything when she stopped talking. I wasn't sure I wanted to hear anything more. But she was talking, and even I knew how important that was.

"I'm listening, Hannah."

Hannah nodded against my shoulder, sniffling quietly. After a moment, there was more. "I get so scared sometimes," she whispered. "I can't sleep without light; I can't sleep naked anymore. I was...I was naked when he woke me up. He thanked me for making it so easy for him. He kept calling me a slut."

"You're not."

"I don't usually talk about this, you know," Hannah said, and she pulled away and sat up on the bed. She pulled up her legs and leaned forward, crossing her arms over her stomach.

I sat up beside her, and reached over a careful hand to touch the dip at the small of her back. It was my favorite place on her body. "I know you don't," I said. "I can't imagine how hard--"

"I never could have imagined it, either. I used to think I was so strong, right? I think the hardest thing has been learning how weak I really am."

"You're not weak," I insisted. Because she hadn't pulled away, I snaked my arm even further around her waist and scooted closer to her. "Do you know how brave I think you are?"

"I wasn't brave, though. I told myself when he started that I'd just turn my head and close my eyes and not give him the satisfaction of crying out, but I... I just kept crying, Delaney. He kept hitting me and I kept crying."

Hannah began to cry again. I hugged her to me, shushing her and kissing her blonde hair. "Of course you cried, baby. Of course you did. I would have cried, too."

Hannah shook her head. She sniffled, giving me a humorless giggle, and looked up at me with a bittersweet smile. "I don't believe that. I don't believe anyone could do that to you."

"I'm just human," I said. More than you know. "I'm only human."

"You make me feel so safe," Hannah said. I watched her eyes searching my face in the dark. "Being with you, I always feel so incredibly safe."

I swallowed, almost choking as the full weight of this responsibility occurred to me. "I wish I deserved that kind of trust."

"Hush," Hannah whispered. She half-turned towards me, reaching out to return my hug with one arm. "We already talked about this."

"I'm scared, Hannah."

"I know," Hannah said. "I wish you weren't. I understand that you are."

"It's not you, I swear," I said. "It's not...what happened--"

"The rape," Hannah said, and I flinched.

"Yes," I said. I hated the word. "The rape. That's not why I'm scared."

"Isn't it?" Hannah asked. "If it wasn't an issue... if it wasn't who I am... would you be so afraid to just let things happen as they may?" She stared into my eyes for a moment, and then inhaled sharply and looked down. "Or maybe you wouldn't be thinking that way at all, about letting things happen. Maybe you wouldn't be feeling sorry for me, and you could just--"

I couldn't let her continue that thought. "Maybe I am more afraid of hurting you, because of that. Is that such a... does that make me a bad person?"

Hannah shook her head, reaching out and touching the side of my face. "No," she whispered. "No, of course not. I'm just..." she sighed, biting her lip, and looked into my eyes. "I'm just so tired of all of this. I just want it to be over. I want to be Hannah again."

I wanted it, too. Suddenly I wanted it more than anything. And I wanted her. "I'm tired of being afraid, too," I murmured. My fingers twitched on my lap, and then I raised my hands to cradle her face. "May I kiss you, Hannah?"

Hannah gasped at the question, and blinked, and stared at me with slightly parted lips. I looked at her mouth, briefly allowing myself to experience my attraction to her full-force. I knew I could stop if she didn't want it, but I needed her to see the truth of my feelings. She was Hannah to me. Just Hannah, who I wanted more than I had ever wanted anyone or anything.

"I want so badly for you to know how I feel," I whispered. "I don't want to scare you, but I need you to know... you're whole, baby. You have your whole life ahead of you, so much that he couldn't take away from you. I want to kiss you... I want you to see how beautiful I think you are. I want to tell you--"

"Kiss me," Hannah said, nodding. "Please, I've wanted that so much."

"You're my best friend, Hannah," I said. It wasn't I love you, because there was no way I could say that, but it was the truth. And it suddenly meant so very much to me.

"You're mine," Hannah whispered when my lips met hers.

It was the most patient kiss I'd ever given. It was the sweetest I'd ever received. With most women kissing was just another game of dominance; I plundered, stroked, invaded. I took possession. With Hannah, it was like nothing I'd ever done before.

I traced my tongue along her bottom lip. I dropped tiny kisses at the corners of her mouth. I whimpered when she parted her lips and I felt the tip of her tongue tentatively caress my own. I kept my hands still on her face, not wanting to startle her.

Where kissing had always led to something more in the past, now it felt like all I needed. Where I would have once torn off a shirt to get to bare breasts, now I closed my eyes and concentrated on the softness of her tongue in my mouth. Where I used to think of exerting my control even in this simple gesture, now I surrendered to Hannah's will. I let her lead our dance, moaning quietly at the sheer intimate bliss of it all.

We pulled apart only because we needed to breathe. I gasped for air, and I could hear Hannah panting and feel her warm exhalations against my face. Our foreheads were pressed together, and Hannah slid her hand around to the back of my neck. I kept my own hands on her face, unsure of where I could safely put them.

"That was--"

"It was the best kiss I've ever had," I interrupted her. I wanted her to realize. "I never even knew kissing could feel like that."

"It was everything I've been dreaming it would be," Hannah said.

Dreaming. Just the word made me shudder now.

"I don't know what I'm doing anymore, you know," I murmured. "I don't know what this is."

"Does it have to be anything?" Hannah said. "I don't want you to be afraid to see where this goes because the label or the rules scare you."

"What label?" I asked.

Hannah shook her head, pulling back to look into my eyes. "There is none. If you want there to be at some point, I'm very okay with that. For right now, we're best friends. Nothing more in title... or in role."

"What do you mean?"

Hannah reached up and patted my cheek, giving me a brave smile. "You don't have any rules other than what applies to your best friend. We're not exclusive. I understand that you don't want to be tied down, and I respect that. I can deal with that."

I opened my mouth. I wasn't sure I wanted to see anyone else. I hadn't in months, why would I start now?

"Delaney, I just... I don't want to force you to make any promises you won't be able to keep. You are my best friend, and I don't want anything to happen to that," Hannah said.

I frowned. She made it sound so easy, but emotions are messy. I knew that when I imagined Hannah dating someone else. I didn't think I could watch that.

But I also didn't want to make promises I couldn't keep. Hannah was giving me the opportunity to take a step forward without committing, and I figured I should take it.

"Okay, baby," I said. "But we may need to talk about this again at some point in the future."

"But for now?" Hannah asked. "We'll just see where things go?"

I squeezed the back of my neck, giving Hannah a worshipful smile. "Yes," I said. "I'm so scared I could throw up, but yes. I can't deny how I'm feeling about you."

Hannah hiccupped out a little noise of surprise, bringing her hand up to cover her mouth a moment later. "Thank you," she whispered, and then yawned.

"No," I said. "Thank you." I reached out and took her in my arms, pulling her down to lie against me. "Come on, baby. You need to get back to sleep."

"Stay with me?" Hannah murmured. She entangled her arms and legs with mine so quickly, so thoroughly, that I knew the request was a mere formality.

"Of course," I answered. I gave her a gentle squeeze. "Sleep now. I promise I won't leave."

"Don't leave," Hannah mumbled. She yawned, curling into my body. "Don't ever leave me again, Delaney."

I thought of the weeks I'd spent avoiding her. I doubted I could ever do that again. "I promise," I said.

And I meant it.

*****

If I didn't already know what Hannah meant to me, the fact that she could talk me into shopping would have clued me in. I hated shopping, and especially at malls. When Hannah asked me to come with her on her quest for the perfect leather jacket, I didn't see it as shopping. It was just an opportunity to be with Hannah, and so I said yes.

Hannah had her favorite stores, and she made me go into every one. She walked around each store clockwise, circling the racks and displays with a relaxed smile. I suspected this was something she did alone quite often; she had a quiet routine she was following, and she seemed very pleased to share it with me.

Hannah liked shopping, but she didn't like trying things on. We passed a number of leather jackets, and while nothing jumped out at me, Hannah stopped and inspected two or three of them.

"Try it on," I urged her the second time she stopped to examine a jacket.

She blinked up at me, blushed, and then darted her eyes around where we stood. The store was crowded, but we were relatively secluded in our corner. Hannah fingered the sleeve of the jacket and shook her head. She dropped the sleeve and gave me a shy smile.

"No, it's okay," she said. "I'm not sure if it's exactly what I'm looking for, anyway."

"How are you going to know unless you try it on?" I asked.

Hannah gave me a smile that made me melt where I stood. Her nose crinkled with the effort. "I'll know," she said.

"Hmmph."

It was late afternoon when I spotted a jacket I knew would look beautiful on Hannah. She had spent the day mostly admiring black jackets, and this one was a deep, rich brown, but I knew it was the one the moment I laid eyes on it.

I stopped Hannah's progress with a hand on her arm. "Hannah, wait."

She took a step backwards, turning around to give me an amused smile. "Yeah?"

"This one," I said, and gestured at the jacket that hung on the rack. "Please try this one on."

Hannah looked down at the jacket, up at me, and then blushed. "Really?"

I nodded, pinning her with the pleading gaze I knew would do her in. "Please?" I looked up and caught a salesgirl's eye, waving her over to where we stood. She nodded at me, walking to us with a wide smile. I looked back down at Hannah, whose face was red. "It'll look great on you."

Hannah looked at the jacket, reaching out to touch the sleeve with timid fingers. "You think so?"

"Yeah," I said, and then smiled to greet the salesgirl. "My friend would like to try on this jacket," I told her, pointing to the rack.

The girl smiled at Hannah. "What size?"

"Medium," Hannah said, and gave me a sheepish smile. "Probably."

I reached out and touched Hannah's shoulder, grinning down at her. She rolled her eyes a little, poking me in the side.

Hannah was silent until the salesgirl left us with an unchained jacket. There was a mirror near us, and I led Hannah over to it.

"Try it on," I encouraged. I held out the jacket to her.

Hannah turned away from the mirror and faced me. She shrugged out of her corduroy coat, handing it over with a smirk. I took it, suddenly feeling very much the dutiful husband, and gave her a pleased smile.

Hannah slipped on the leather jacket, tugged it closed, and held out her arms to me. Her lips curled into a shy grin. "I tried it on."

I would have answered her if I hadn't been so busy admiring her body. The jacket was just as perfect as I'd known it would be. The cut was flattering and the color complemented her creamy skin. I dropped my eyes to her feet, appraising her from her ankles to her flushed face.

The way she smiled at me made me forget every other woman I had ever seen.

"You're beautiful," I told her. She dropped her eyes like it was the first time I'd said the words, and I blushed a little in spite of myself. I looked back down at the jacket, stepping forward to take it in my hands. "Let me see this zipped."

I stepped back, shivering from the intimacy of tugging her zipper closed. I blinked at her, gazing up and down her body once again. I couldn't suppress a slow smile at the sight.

"You're buying this," I told her, and stepped forward to turn her around to face the mirror. "Look."

Hannah laughed at my command, looking up at the mirror to observe herself with a critical eye. I watched her look herself up and down. She stepped back, turning from side to side.

"Come on," I said, raising a skeptical eyebrow at her in the mirror. "You know you look amazing in that jacket."

Hannah met my eyes in our reflection. "It's pretty nice, yeah."

"Pretty nice?" I asked, incredulous. Sometimes her shy modesty was infuriating. "Pretty nice?"

Hannah gave me a helpless laugh. "I like it!" she protested.

I turned around, surveying our fellow shoppers. I had to grin broadly when I saw who was walking past us. I gave the stocky dark-haired woman a wide grin. She ran a hand over her buzzed haircut, giving me a friendly nod.

"Excuse me," I said to the woman. There was no way she wasn't family. "May I ask your opinion about something?"

The butch stopped walking, blinking in surprise. After a moment of hesitation, she ambled over to us.

"Delaney!" I heard Hannah hiss. I kept grinning at the approaching woman as Hannah slapped at my arm with what I assumed was horrified amusement.

"Hey there," the butch said, peeking around my body and giving Hannah a friendly smile. She looked up and met my eyes with a knowing smirk. "What would you like to know?"

I stepped to Hannah's side, pulling her to stand slightly in front of me. I kept a possessive arm around her waist, staying close, and nodded to the woman. "Don't you think my friend looks absolutely gorgeous in this jacket?"

The butch met my eyes, and I watched her mouth twitch into a fond smile. After a moment, she moved her eyes down to appraise Hannah. I felt Hannah squirm a little in my embrace, and I gave her an indulgent hug. The butch's smile widened into a grin and she looked back up into Hannah's eyes.

"You look beautiful," she told Hannah. Hannah leaned back into my chest, grabbing my hand and giving it a hard squeeze. The butch looked up at me and winked. "And you're lucky."

Technically, I wasn't anything more than Hannah's best friend. Hell, we hadn't even kissed since that night weeks ago. Neither of us was pushing, seemingly content to let things unfold naturally. None of my uncertainty really mattered, though. I knew the truth of her statement.

I gave the woman a grateful nod, chuckling as she turned away. "I know I am," I told her. I released Hannah, turning her around to face me. "So you're going to buy this jacket?" I asked her.

Hannah twisted her lips in pleasure. "I suppose I have to, right?"

I turned us both back towards the mirror, placing my hand on the small of her back. "Only if you really like it," I told her.

I watched her study her image in the mirror, biting her lip. I could see her brown eyes sparkling with pleasure. I knew she loved the jacket, and I was prepared to badger her if she feigned uncertainty.

"I like it," Hannah said, meeting my gaze in the mirror and beaming at me. "I trust your opinion."

"And Alex's?" I asked with a mischievous smile. I took the jacket from Hannah, handing back her coat.

Hannah shrugged on her corduroy coat, following me to the front of the store. "Alex?" she asked. She jogged a couple steps to walk beside me, frowning up at me in question. "Who the hell is Alex?" she asked.

I gave her an innocent grin, gesturing back in the direction from which we'd come. "Aren't most dykes named Alex?"

Hannah threw her head back and laughed. "In fiction, at least." She shook her head, giving me an amused snort. "It's as good a guess as any."

"I thought so," I said.

"I trust Alex's opinion, too," Hannah said as we stepped up to the counter. The clerk smiled at us, his gaze lingering on Hannah just long enough to raise my hackles. He started to ring up her purchase, and Hannah rose up on her tiptoes to whisper in my ear. "Yours is the only one I care about, though."

Sixteen years old. She made me feel awkward and clumsy like a love-struck teenage boy. And I loved it.

*****

Hannah and I were strolling down the street arm-in-arm, on our way to my car after an early dinner, when we ran into Lori and Max approaching us from the other direction. Immediately I saw Lori's eyes focus on our linked arms as we slowed to a stop a few feet in front of them. Max gave me a cool stare before lowering her eyes to grin down on Hannah.

"Baby girl!" Max exclaimed.

Hannah broke away from me, squealing in pleasure, and stepped into Max's bear hug. The powerful butch outweighed her by at least sixty pounds and towered over her a good five inches, and I had to smile a little at the way Max's arms engulfed her.

"Hey, Max!" Hannah murmured. She was wearing the leather jacket we'd found only a week before, already a cherished favorite. I had never been Max's biggest fan -- or vice versa -- but I had to appreciate how much Hannah loved her.

"Delaney."

I smiled over at Lori, following her as she stepped away from Max and Hannah's happy reunion. "What's up, Lori?"

"Not much," she said, and then shot Hannah a sidelong glance. Hannah was laughing with Max, blushing at something the larger woman had said. Lori turned back to look at me with raised eyebrows. "What's up with you?" she asked.

I sighed, shooting her a sheepish grin. I hadn't talked to Lori very much lately. I hadn't been sure what to tell her about what was happening with Hannah. Everything about the situation confused me except the one indelible fact of it: I had to see it through. For better or worse, Hannah was in my life for as long as she would have me.

"I've been spending time with Hannah," I said. I wished I didn't sound so defensive, but Lori's concern was obvious. "We've become really close friends, Lori."

Lori nodded, staring hard into my eyes. After a moment, her face softened and she gave me an almost tender smile. "Wow," she said.

I looked down at my feet, grumbling a little. "Wow," I acknowledged in a mutter, trying hard not to blush.

Lori poked my arm, and I looked up at her with a careful eyes. "You really care about her?" she whispered. She darted her eyes over to watch Max and Hannah, and I did the same.

I couldn't help but smile at the sight of the woman who was quickly becoming the center of my world. "We’re not dating or anything," I murmured.

"So what are you doing?" Lori asked in a quiet voice. She stepped closer to me, keeping our conversation between the two of us.

I shrugged, giving Lori a nervous smile. "Honestly, I don't know." I chanced another quick look over to Hannah; seeing her still engaged, I leaned forward to whisper to Lori. "I kissed her, Lori."

"What?" Lori exclaimed. She was so loud that Max and Hannah stopped talking for a moment to look over at us; Lori waved her hand dismissively, and the two of them returned to their conversation. Once they were talking again, Lori turned to me with fiery eyes. "What?" she whispered.

I stepped closer to Lori, pulling her another step away from Max and Hannah. "I kissed her," I repeated in a quiet voice. "A few weeks ago, I spent the night at her apartment. She had a nightmare, and we talked, and... and I kissed her."

"Oh, Delaney," Lori murmured. She sounded torn between being heartbroken and elated; I would have laughed at her had I not been so unnerved by the confession. "Oh, no, Delaney."

"I'm not leading her on," I told Lori. "I've talked to her...she, uh... she knows about me."

"But Delaney--"

"She's asked me to trust her," I whispered to Lori. I looked at her with imploring eyes, begging her to just believe in me. It was so hard to believe I was worthy of Hannah's trust when she was the only one who thought I deserved it. "She wants to see what happens. And I do, too."

"For real?" Lori asked. She sounded skeptical.

I nodded. "Lori, I haven't slept with anyone else in months."

Lori's jaw dropped. It would have been comical had it not made me feel like such an ass. "Are you serious?" she screeched.

Again, Max and Hannah's conversation stopped. Hannah glanced over at us, raising her eyebrow in interest. She gave me an amused smile. "Something I should know about?"

I blushed. Hard. "No," I said. "Shop talk. Nothing to see here."

Hannah continued to stare at me, brow raised, for another few moments. Finally, she turned around to continue regaling Max with whatever anecdote she had been relating before Lori's interruption.

I turned back to Lori with a scowl. "Jesus!" I hissed. "Broadcast our whispered conversation much?"

Lori gave me an apologetic smile. "God, I'm sorry. But that's amazing! I mean... that's really... something."

I rolled my eyes. "Uncharacteristic, I know."

"Hannah doesn't know?" Lori whispered. She looked confused by that thought, and she gave me a curious stare as she awaited an answer.

"I haven't mentioned it, no."

"Why not?" Lori asked. "I mean... you obviously like her... you more than like her, really. You've already stopped seeing other women. Why not up the ante?" She leaned in close to me, giving me a tender pat on the side. "Why aren't you dating her?" she whispered.

"I'm just not... ready to make that kind of commitment yet," I answered. It was starting to sound weak even to my own ears.

"Commitment?" Lori laughed. She dropped her voice to a whisper, leaning into me. "It's dating, not marriage. Don't get ahead of yourself. It sounds like you're spending all your free time with her, anyway. Why not make her a respectable woman already?"

I shrugged. "I'm working up to it, okay?" I said.

"Okay," Lori sighed, giving me a sympathetic pat on the arm. "Please try, okay? I think it'd make everyone feel better."

I grunted, scuffing my foot on the ground. "Well, as long as everyone feels better," I muttered.

"Ready to go, baby?"

I looked up at Max's question. She stared at Lori with doting eyes. I glanced over at Hannah, startled to realize that she was looking at me in much the same way.

"I'm ready," Lori chirped.

Hannah looked over at me with a cautious smile. I smiled back, reaching out on instinct to stroke her blonde hair. "I'm ready, too," I said.

Hannah gave me a crooked grin, and then stepped between Lori and me to wrap Lori in a hug. "I need to at least give you a quick hello before you guys take off," Hannah said.

Lori grinned over Hannah's shoulder. "Yes, I insist."

I watched my two friends with a fond smile, and then blinked when a large hand came to rest on my arm. I looked up at Max, who stared at me with cool blue eyes. The tall butch tugged me closer to her, and I came willingly.

"Hey, Max," I greeted her.

"Delaney," Max responded. She gave Hannah and Lori a surreptitious glance, and then focused her gaze on me. She stepped forward, giving me a firm pat on the back. "If you hurt her," she murmured, "I'll kick your ass. I'm dead serious."

I tamped down my first instinct, which was to react with anger. I knew she had every reason to be worried; in truth, I was happy to know that Hannah had such a devoted friend. I met Max's eyes steadily, giving her a serious nod.

"If I hurt her," I answered, "I'd welcome it."

"So you understand me?" Max asked. She looked down at me, crossing muscular arms over her chest.

"Perfectly," I said. I stared at her bulk, imagined being the target of her wrath, and gave her a grateful smile. "Thank you for being her friend, Max."

Max's lip twitched, and she gave me a solemn nod. "She's too good for you, you know."

"I know," I admitted. I looked over at Hannah, meeting her eyes for a quick moment, and felt my world righted again. I gave Max a wry grin. "That's why I'm trying to be better."

*****

I never felt so much at home during the holidays as I did when spending Christmas with Hannah that year. I'd been doing Christmas alone for three years at that point, after my mother died, and Hannah had made a Thanksgiving trip to Oregon to see her family the month before because they would be vacationing in December. That left both of us alone; or rather, it left both of us very together.

I managed to hold out until Christmas Eve before giving Hannah her present. I was never very good at waiting, and especially when I wanted to make Hannah smile.

"You're opening your present now," I told Hannah. She was lying with her back against my chest, and her hips fit between my spread legs. I kissed her hair, whispering into her ear. "I can't possibly wait until tomorrow morning."

Hannah chuckled, leaning her head back to smile at me. "But you've been so good."

The first time I'd tried to give her the gift had been at the beginning of December. She had flatly refused then, but from the indulgent grin she wore now, I thought she might accept it tonight.

"And that's going against my nature," I said. I leaned forward and kissed her nose, tightening my arms around her stomach. I could feel her breasts pressing against my forearm, and I reined in my arousal. "I deserve something for that, at least."

Hannah sat up, leaving me cold with her absence. She twisted her upper body, giving me a sweet look. "How about your present?" she said.

I practically fell off the couch in my haste to get her gift from my messenger bag. I could hear Hannah giggling as she went into the other room. I was back on the couch, her gift on my lap, for long moments before she returned.

"Hurry up!" I scolded, waving her over to me. "Stop teasing me!"

Hannah shot a wide grin down to the large wrapped box she held in her arms. "God, I hope you like it."

I pulled Hannah down next to me, eagerly handing over the smaller box I had for her. "I'll love it," I assured her. "I know I will. And besides," I told her, nodding at my present in her hands, "as much as I like to receive, giving is my favorite part."

Hannah blushed, handing over the large present she'd set at her feet. "I've heard that about you," she said. She pinned me with a mischievous little smile.

I opened my mouth in playful shock. "Why, Hannah," I said. "I didn't know you cared." I winked at her, nudging her with my shoulder.

"Oh, I care," Hannah replied. She gave me a brief sidelong glance, raising a lascivious eyebrow in my direction. "I definitely care."

Hannah's easy flirting was the best gift I could ever hope to get. I gave her a goofy grin, reaching over and tugging lightly on a sock-covered toe. "How'd you get so cute?" I asked. I played with Hannah gently; as much as I was driven to do so, I wasn't going to escalate things too quickly.

"Born that way," Hannah said, shrugging.

I stuck my tongue out at her. "So are you going to open your present now?" I asked.

Hannah wrinkled her nose in my direction. "We can't do it here," she told me. She stood up, offering me her hand. I took it and let her pull me to my feet. "We've got to sit under the Christmas tree."

I gave her a skeptical look. "We do?"

Hannah nodded as she led us over to her very tall -- and very fake -- Christmas tree. She dropped to the ground, sitting cross-legged, and settled my gift on her lap. "We do," she said. "It's the only way to properly open a Christmas present."

"Oh, really?" I sank to the floor, sitting across from her. "Well, who am I to argue with tradition?" I set the present she had given me on the floor. "You open your gift first."

"You sure?" Hannah said. She gave me a crooked smile, lifting the box to her ear. "Am I allowed to shake it, or do you recommend I skip that particular step?"

I winced, shaking my head. "Why don't you skip it this time?"

Hannah laughed. "Fair enough." She made short work of the wrapping paper, tearing into her gift with an excited smile. When she turned the box she held so that she could read it, I saw her eyes grow wide. "Delaney!"

"Do you like it?" I asked. I hated sounding so eager, but I couldn't resist. "I... I hope you can use it."

"Delaney," Hannah whispered. She opened the box she held, pulling an impressive camera lens from inside. "I've always wanted a zoom lens for my thirty-five millimeter."

"I figured maybe we could take a road trip this weekend and try it out," I said. I suddenly felt shy, and I picked at my jeans with my fingers. "If you feel like it, I mean."

"Of course I do!" Hannah exclaimed. She crawled over to me on her knees, throwing her arms around my neck.

I hugged her back, holding her close to me. "I love being close to you," I whispered, at first unaware that I was talking out loud. I pressed my nose into her neck when I realized, trying hard not to cringe at myself. I was completely and utterly whipped, even if I hadn't admitted it to her yet.

"I love... I love it, too," Hannah answered. She gave me a hard squeeze, and then sat back with her legs folded beneath her. "Now it's your turn."

"Okay," I agreed. I grinned as I tore open my gift, shooting Hannah a curious look when I uncovered a nondescript white clothing box. "What is it?" I asked.

Hannah rolled her eyes. "You're the worst."

I poked my lip out in a petulant frown. "That's not what you usually tell me."

Hannah was quick to give me a hug, which made me smile. "Oh, fine," she said. "You're wonderful. Just stop asking questions and open your fucking present."

I guffawed out loud at her uncharacteristically rough language. Hannah leaned back and grinned, gesturing to the box in my lap. I gave her an obedient nod and sliced through the tape holding it together with a blunt fingernail. I opened the box, peering inside with a nervous smile.

It was a leather jacket... a black leather jacket. It was gorgeous, and I was certain that she had spent entirely too much money on me.

"Oh, Hannah," I whispered. I pulled the jacket out of the box, fingering the supple leather in reverence. "It's beautiful."

"Try it on," Hannah encouraged. Her face glowed with pleasure.

I stood, pulling on the jacket with a grin. Hannah remained on the floor, leaning back on her hands to pin me with an approving stare. I turned to the side, posing, and then twirled around to display the fit.

"I love it," I stated. It was a comfortable jacket, and from the way Hannah looked up at me, I imagined it looked pretty good, as well.

"You're hot," Hannah murmured. She reached up and grabbed my hand. One gentle tug and I was sinking to the floor beside her. "Sit with me for a few minutes."

"Thank you for the jacket," I said. I leaned over and wrapped my arms around her. I swear I had never hugged anyone as much as I did Hannah, and it still wasn't getting old. "I absolutely love it. You didn't need to do this much."

"I wanted to," Hannah said. She pulled back for a moment, kissing my nose, and then she crawled up to straddle my lap where I sat.

I blinked at the sudden change in position. My hands went to her hips on instinct, and I gazed up at her with cautious eyes. "Is this okay?" I asked, flexing my fingers on her hips.

Hannah rocked a little on my lap, drawing an unconscious gasp from my lips. "More than okay," she murmured.

"Hannah--"

"Shh," Hannah murmured. She brought her mouth to mine. "I want to kiss you again."

I nodded wordlessly, and moaned when she traced my lips with her tongue. "God, baby..." I tightened my fingers on her hips, trying hard not to pull her against me. I returned her kiss enthusiastically, though I let her set the pace.

It was so difficult not to push her to the ground and make love to her.

I was surprised when we continued kissing for more than just a couple minutes. My breathing grew labored, and I could feel myself getting unbelievably wet. I hadn't had sex in months, and masturbation wasn't enough to keep my libido suppressed.

In a moment of breathless shock, I realized that Hannah was pushing the leather jacket off my shoulders. I released my grip on her hips, allowing her to maneuver it down my arms and on to the floor.

I pulled back from our kiss, panting. "Hannah--"

"Just a little more," Hannah murmured. She took my lower lip between her teeth, tugging gently. "I'm sorry, Delaney, just a little more."

She kissed me again, and I surrendered to it. I was willing to endure the torture of unsated desire as long as I could continue to taste her mouth. With some amazement, I realized that I could probably live on Hannah's kisses alone.

I moaned out loud when a careful hand found my breast through my t-shirt, giving me a timid squeeze. My uncharacteristic abstinence made me dizzy, and the sensation that poured through my body felt like nothing I could ever remember feeling before.

Finally, Hannah pulled away. She wrapped her arms around my shoulders, leaning forward and resting her cheek on my shoulder. "I'm sorry, Delaney," she said again. "I just couldn't help it. You're just... you're the best thing that's happened to me in the past year. More than the past year, I mean... it's just--"

"Don't be sorry," I interrupted. "Don't ever be sorry for that. It felt wonderful."

"I'm sorry I'm a tease," Hannah murmured. She pressed her face harder into my shoulder; I could feel the heat from her flushed cheeks. "I don't mean to be, I just--"

"I love kissing you, Hannah." I reached up and stroked Hannah's back, drawing a contented sigh from her. "There's nothing wrong with just making out."

"Are you sure?" Hannah asked.

Hell, yeah! I pulled back and gave Hannah a tender smile. "More than sure," I said. "Try me if you don't believe me."

Hannah shot me a shy grin. "I think I will," she murmured. She settled back down on my shoulder, turning her head to stare at the Christmas tree. She was silent for a long time; I just listened to the sound of her breathing. After a hesitation, she released a soft sigh. "You know, I wasn't sure I would even get a tree this year."

I turned my head to join in her study of the tree, resting my cheek on her hair. "It's beautiful," I said. I gave her a gentle squeeze. "Why weren't you sure?"

Hannah was quiet for a long time. Then, "Three days after Christmas last year, I was in a hospital bed for four days. When I got out, I couldn't bring myself to go back to my apartment for almost two weeks. I stayed with Max and Lori. When I finally did go home, the first thing I saw when I walked in the door was my Christmas tree, still up and decorated." She sniffed, raising her head to gaze at me with bright eyes. "I looked at it, and I couldn't imagine ever being happy again."

"Oh, Hannah," I said. I felt the tears fall from my eyes, and I lowered my face in shame.

"Hey," Hannah cooed. She stroked my cheek. "Hey. I didn't tell you that to make you sad, Delaney. I told you..."

I bit my lip, forcing my emotion back. I met Hannah's eyes. "You can tell me anything," I said. "I want you to know that you can talk to me about anything. I just... I can't promise that I won't feel your pain."

Hannah's mouth twisted into a crooked smile. "I know that," she said. "I know. I told you because I am happy. I'm so happy right now I can't even believe it was only a year ago."

I pulled Hannah into a gentle hug. "I'm glad we could spend Christmas together," I breathed into her hair. "And I'm very, very glad that you're happy." I pulled back, tweaking her nose with my fingers. "Did my present have anything to do with it?"

Hannah chuckled, giving me a little grin. "Delaney, you have everything to do with it."

At that, I was lost. I blushed, opening my mouth and gawping at her like an awkward teenager. She had just uttered the nicest thing anyone had ever said to me, and she was staring at me like it was nothing at all.

"I..." I finally managed, stammering and red-faced. "I... thank you, Hannah. You're the best thing that's happened to me, too." Ever.

We stared at one another for a moment, and then I broke our gaze to look past her at the sparkling tree. I had something on my mind, something I wondered about a lot, and I debated bringing it up. I never brought up the rape -- I always waited for her to do so -- and she seemed willing to talk about it tonight. I glanced at her face, and then I took a chance.

"Hannah?"

She turned to me, already smiling. "Yeah?"

Hannah looked so relaxed and peaceful that I was immediately sorry I said anything. I shook my head, giving her an apologetic smile. "No, nothing," I said. "Never mind."

Hannah cocked her head, furrowing her brow in concern. "No, what?" she asked. "What did you want to say?"

I shook my head again. "Just forget it," I said. I reached out, pulling her to me. "Let's just enjoy the tree--"

"Delaney," she interrupted me. Hannah didn't pull away from me, but she stopped her approach and pinned me with serious eyes. "You need to know that you can talk to me, too. About anything." She ducked her head to keep my gaze. "Even if you think it'll upset me. You've got to trust me, just like I trust you."

I chewed on my lip, considering her words. I knew we wouldn't get anywhere if I didn't treat Hannah like the survivor she was. I gave her a timid nod. "Did he... did they ever catch him?"

Hannah blinked, keeping her face still. I could see in her stormy brown eyes that she wasn't used to talking about this, but I could also see her determination.

"No," she told me. "They didn't." Her lower lip quivered almost imperceptibly until she stilled it with her teeth. "It was difficult because, uh... well, because he wore a condom. It was such a relief when I found that out, but it meant that they didn't have much in the way of physical evidence."

"Did they even arrest anybody?"

Hannah shook her head, looking down at her knee. "No," she said. "They had me look through books of photos, but I never..." She looked up at me with haunted eyes. "If I saw him again, I'd recognize him." She shuddered. "Even though it was dark, I know I would."

I nodded, staring at the green carpet next to us. "I'm sorry," I said. "I wish--"

"So do I," Hannah murmured. She laid her hand on my wrist. "But it's over now. I can't think about all the things I wish would have happened differently."

I knew she felt weak sometimes, but Hannah seemed like the strongest person in the world to me. I reached out again, pulling her to me. She came silently, leaning into my body and letting me hold her.

I looked up at the lights behind Hannah again. "It's a beautiful tree," I murmured.

Hannah sighed. "Yeah," she said. "It is."

*****

It felt like a new year to me. Everything that had once been seemed to fade away after Christmas, and I settled into the rhythm of a different life. I spent almost all my time with Hannah. I never really went out without her anymore; I didn't even particularly miss it in any way. Where I had once been unable to imagine being with one person for long periods of time, now I felt incomplete whenever she wasn't with me.

The newest thing was the birth of a more physical relationship with Hannah. We had been close for months already, but Christmas had only been our second serious kiss. As January passed, we began to look less like best friends and more like lovers.

Yet we still never gave it a name. And I had yet to tell Hannah that she was the only one I wanted in my life. I don't know what held me back.

One evening near the end of January, my phone rang as I worked on editing Lori's new manuscript and wishing that I were with Hannah. I grinned when I answered it; only one person called me on a regular basis, and I was feeling lucky.

"Delaney's House of Debauchery," I said in greeting. "Delaney speaking."

"Hey, Delaney. I'd like one order of hedonistic delight, please, with extra pineapple."

I laughed out loud. "Hey, sweet girl."

"Hey, stud. So, speaking of debauchery, you'll never guess what I found on DVD," Hannah said. I could hear her smile.

My lip twitched, triggered by a wave of deep affection that crashed over me at the sound of her excitement. "I'm not sure, but it must be good," I said. "You haven't sounded this pumped since you found Dial M For Murder for five dollars at that garage sale."

"The Thin Man!" Hannah crowed. "Nick and Nora Charles, masters of self-indulgent excess!"

I closed my laptop, pulling off my reading glasses with a chuckle. "Your place or mine?"

"How about yours?" Hannah asked. "I'll bring dinner, too."

"Remind me what I did to deserve you?" I shook my head, grinning at the wall. "That sounds perfect."

"Pizza or Chinese?"

"Your choice," I said. "You're doing all the work."

"Pizza, then. I'll be over in about a half hour," Hannah said. "Why don't you warm up my spot on the couch?"

"Can do."

Hannah made it to my apartment in twenty-five minutes. I was waiting at the door after she buzzed in, standing on my tiptoes every few moments to peer out the peephole. Honestly, I would die if she knew how eager I always was to see her.

"Half pepperoni?" I asked as I let her in the door. She carried a pizza box balanced on one hand, and her messenger bag was slung over one shoulder.

"And half pineapple," Hannah said, grinning. "Don't worry, I know the routine."

"You," I told Hannah, "are the perfect woman." I took the pizza box from her, carrying it over to the coffee table near my couch. The television was already on, and Hannah's favorite down throw was waiting for her at her end of the couch.

Hannah snorted, setting down her bag and heading for the kitchen. "You want a bottle of water?" she asked. "I'll grab some plates. Why don't you get the DVD out of my bag and put it in?"

She was obviously at home in my apartment. I really, really liked that. "Water's great," I called out.

I crouched down next to her bag, opening it with careful hands. I found the movie without a problem, and grinned at the cover. I loved Hannah's taste in movies. I pulled the DVD out of the bag, uncovering a silky green nightgown. I had never seen Hannah wear anything like that except in my fantasies. I blinked in surprise at the discovery.

"Got it?"

I looked up at Hannah with startled eyes. I gave her a vigorous nod, holding the box aloft. "Got it."

Hannah smirked at me, balancing two bottles of water and two plates in her hands. "Good," she said. "Put it in and get over here next to me." She dropped on to the couch, setting out our plates, and cracked open the pizza box.

"As you wish," I murmured.

"Ooh!" Hannah exclaimed. She pulled a steaming slice of pizza out of the box, depositing it on my plate. "One of these days we'll have to watch The Princess Bride, too."

My cheeks burned at her recognition of the reference. Rather than answer, I turned around and worked on setting up the movie.

Two hours later, we were lounging on the couch staring at a sitcom rerun on the TV. Hannah had eased into my arms sometime during the movie, and I was loath to move us. I was paying more attention to Hannah's blonde hair and delicate earlobe than I was to whatever show we were watching.

Hannah sighed, burrowing deeper into my embrace. "May I spend the night?" she asked.

I swallowed, closing my eyes against my still-instinctive response to her words. It didn't matter that I'd never even seen her naked; I couldn't help but feel deep arousal at the idea of sleeping next to her.

"Sure," I answered. Rolling my eyes, I admitted, "I was kind of hoping you'd ask."

Hannah squirmed in my arms, pressing me back on the couch and shifting until she lay on top of me. I grinned up at her and settled my hands on her back. Hannah smirked down at me, pushing dark hair off of my face.

"What?" I asked. I could feel my face getting warm.

"You're so sweet," Hannah murmured.

I squeezed Hannah's sides, drawing a startled giggle. "Shut up," I told her.

"No, you are," Hannah insisted. She bent down and kissed my nose. "You know you can ask me to stay the night, right? If you want me to stay, I mean."

"I know," I lied.

"You always wait for me to ask," Hannah said. "If I hadn't asked, would you have just let me go home and been disappointed?"

I shrugged beneath her, moving one hand to play with a lock of her hair. "I don't know," I muttered. "No."

"You would have, wouldn't you?"

I shrugged again, and then cracked a reluctant smile. "Maybe."

"You know I like spending nights with you, right?" Hannah asked. She traced her fingertip down the side of my face, and then along the line of my jaw.

"I do now," I said. Remember to trust her. Stop trying to protect her.

"So..."

I took the hint, and gave Hannah a sweet smile. "Will you spend the night with me tonight?"

"Yes," Hannah said, clearly pleased. "I'd love to." She bit her lip, hesitating for a moment, and then she closed the distance between us to capture my mouth in a heated kiss.

Our physical relationship had steadily escalated since Christmas -- apparently Hannah had believed me when I told her there was nothing wrong with just making out -- but this set my heart pounding in shock. This wasn't the tentative, gentle exploration I was used to from Hannah. This was full-blown seduction.

I groaned into her mouth, sliding my hands down to rest lightly on her hips. I could feel myself trembling as hot lust swept through my body. I kissed her back as if my life depended on it.

After some time, I became aware that Hannah was rocking against me. I sucked her lower lip into my mouth, and then bent my knee so that I just barely pressed between her thighs. I was scared to push too fast, but her eagerness was making it hard to hold back.

Hannah pulled back from our kiss, exhaling shakily. "I want you so bad," she whimpered. Her breath was hot on my neck.

I gasped at the words, and then arched my back when her mouth latched on to my neck. I felt dizzy at the unexpectedness of it all. I knew we were building towards the inevitable, but Hannah had never indicated that she'd wanted to go much further than some heated kissing and tentative caressing of my breasts. I had never even let my own hands explore her body.

Hannah slipped her thigh between my legs, smiling down at me when I hissed in pleasure. She pressed forward, increasing the pressure on my center. I moaned out loud, and then gripped her hips to stop her wanton movement.

"Hannah," I gasped. "Are you... is this okay?"

Hannah swiped her tongue across my lower lip, and then moved her mouth down to my neck. "I'm the one who started it, right?"

At that, my body took over. Months of celibacy flared up and exploded, and all of my pent-up desire for Hannah erased any hesitation. I had wanted her for so long, and if she thought she was ready for more, I wasn't going to stop her.

Hannah sucked at my throat, scraping at the skin with her teeth. I squeezed her hips, pulling her into my body. She straddled my thigh, and she surged against me in a breathless rhythm. I struggled to keep my eyes open so that I could watch her passionate movements.

Seeing unmistakable desire flashing in brown eyes pushed me to the very brink of my control. I had always loved sex, but the idea of making love with someone I genuinely cared about was blowing my mind.

"Does that feel good?" I whispered, pulling her body against mine. I could feel the heat of her center against my thigh, could almost feel her throbbing against me.

Hannah nodded, dropping her forehead against my shoulder. I whimpered as she continued to thrust against me. "It feels amazing," she moaned. "Delaney... God..."

I hesitated only a moment before sliding my hands down to grasp her buttocks. I squeezed gently, drawing a low groan from Hannah. Encouraged, I squeezed again, and Hannah responded by hungrily kissing and sucking at my neck.

"You're so beautiful, baby," I whispered to her. I helped her move against my thigh, breathing hard into her hair. I could hear her panting on my neck. God, I wanted to make her come. I wanted to watch her face as I gave her pleasure. "You feel so good against me."

I felt her gain confidence, and she moved against me with increasing urgency. Hannah pulled her head back and gazed at me with hooded eyes. "I'm... God, I'm so wet."

I was lost. I gripped her buttocks even tighter, pulling her into me over and over again. Suddenly, hearing Hannah's release was the most important thing in the world to me.

I felt Hannah's hands at the hem of my t-shirt only moments before she pulled back from me to slide it up over my stomach. I was in awe of the focused determination in her eyes as she pushed my shirt up to expose my bra-clad breasts.

I still felt some obligation to protest. "Hannah--"

Hannah shook her head, bringing a hand to the catch in front. "May I..."

"Yes," I answered. I couldn't deny Hannah anything.

She unhooked my bra without a problem, pulling it apart to reveal my bare breasts. It was the first time she had ever seen me, and I felt shyer than I could ever remember feeling with another woman. I watched her eyes as she studied me. Hannah licked her lips, unleashing a flood of wetness between my legs.

"Oh, Delaney," Hannah breathed. She stared at my breasts like they could unlock the secrets of the universe. My nipples tightened under her rapt attention. "You're..." She lowered her mouth to my breast, sucking an erect nipple between her lips.

I moaned out loud at the familiar but nearly forgotten sensation. My hands were on her sides now, and I slid them down until I found the bottom of her t-shirt. I felt soft skin beneath my fingertips, and I tickled her with feather-light touches.

"Yes," Hannah hissed around my breast. She suckled my nipple hard, and then bit at me with gentle teeth.

I needed to kiss her. That second. I brought my hands up and cradled Hannah's face. "Baby," I begged. I slid my hands back and twined them in her hair, tugging gently until she came up and pressed her lips to mine. "You're driving me crazy," I murmured into her mouth.

Hannah kissed me back, still moving against my thigh. I met her thrusts steadily, delighting in the feeling of her body pressed to mine. I tightened my hands in her hair, keeping her close to me.

I bit her lower lip with gentle teeth, sucking it into my mouth. Hannah flinched a little, releasing a soft whimper.

I kept my hands twined in her hair, delighting in the feeling of the silky strands between my fingers.

I didn't even realize anything was wrong until Hannah pulled back with a choked gasp, pressing against my shoulders with frantic hands. "Wait, stop," she whimpered.

I stopped. I came back to myself immediately, feeling as if ice-cold water had been poured over my head. I stared up at Hannah in shock. She was trembling, her eyes wide with fear. I pulled my hands out of her hair like they'd been burned, and raised my arms above my head to show her that I wouldn't continue to touch her.

"I’m sorry," I whispered. I felt hot shame flood my face, and I could barely meet her gaze.

Hannah blinked, and I watched her eyes get teary and red. For a moment she just stared at me, mouth moving almost imperceptibly, and then she pulled away to sit up. I pulled my legs out from under her, letting her scoot to the end of the couch. Away from me.

I squeezed my eyes shut, wishing I could I crawl into a hole and die. Just as I'd predicted, given the chance, I'd hurt her. I would have rather never kissed her again than cause the kind of fear I had seen in her gaze.

I opened my eyes and exhaled. I needed to make sure that Hannah was okay. I fastened my bra closed with shaking hands, and then pulled my t-shirt down over my stomach. I sat up quietly, moving down to the opposite end of the couch.

For a few uncomfortable moments, we both sat staring away from one another. Finally, Hannah cleared her throat.

"I... I'm so embarrassed," she whispered.

I looked over to her. She was curled against the arm of the couch, her legs drawn up beneath her. I looked at her and wanted to pull her into a hug and erase all her pain. Instead, I folded my arms across my stomach and squeezed my hands into fists.

"I'm sorry," I murmured again. "I'm so, so sorry. Did I... did I hurt you?" I asked. I bit my lip, terrified of her answer. Self-hatred made my face burn hot beneath her sorrowful gaze.

"No," Hannah said, reaching out and touching my foot. Her eyebrows rose in concern, and she moved slightly closer to where I sat. "No, I just... I just..."

I remained still, frozen at her tone. She sounded upset, but not with me. I thought she might be upset with herself. "Did I do something?" I asked. "What did I do wrong?"

Hannah shook her head, pulling her hand back and averting her eyes. "No, you didn't..." she sighed. "It's nothing," she murmured. "It's nothing, I just got... scared for a moment."

I furrowed my brow, desperately trying to recall everything that had happened. What had I done? What thing had thrown her into panic? I felt sick to my stomach when I thought of the way I had let my lust take over.

"Hannah, please, tell me," I begged. "Please. I... I need to know what I did, so I don't--" I stopped abruptly. I didn't even know if there would be a next time. I dropped my eyes to my lap, exhaling shakily.

"My hair," Hannah whispered. "When you put your hands in my hair, I just..." She wrapped her arms around herself, shuddering. "It reminded me of... he pulled my hair while he..."

Hannah began to cry quietly, and I dropped my head into my hands with a pained gasp. I could feel myself getting angry; without warning, I was full of rage. The emotion was unfocused, and I struggled hard to rein it in so I wouldn't frighten Hannah.

"Why didn't you tell me?" I asked in a hoarse voice. I lifted my face and pinned her with intense eyes. "Why didn't you warn me so I wouldn't... I didn't want..."

"I didn't..." Hannah shook her head, and I winced at the tears that fell down her cheeks. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to..."

Each quiet sob was like a knife in my heart. "What else... you need to tell me what not to do," I accused her. I had caused these tears, and I hadn't even known what I was doing. I could hear my voice growing louder, and I hated myself for it. "I need to know what can trigger this for you, goddamn it! I'm trying so hard, but I can't... you can't..."

Hannah flinched at my inarticulate anger. Her eyes flashed, and she shot me a wounded look. "Beyond not holding a gun to my throat and telling me to lie still so you can fuck me--"

"Hannah," I interrupted, my voice broken and pleading. "Please..." I felt my own eyes fill with tears, and I choked on the horror that welled up inside of me. "Please, I just don't want to make you cry. I just... I don't want to hurt you."

Hannah's face crumpled. "I'm sorry," she whispered. She curled in tighter upon herself, wiping at her eyes with her hand. "I'm sorry, I didn't know..."

Of course she didn't know. I was the first person she had trusted enough to try this. I felt the weight of responsibility crash down upon me once again, and for the first time I seriously questioned whether I could handle it.

"I’m sorry, Hannah," I murmured, reaching up to squeeze at the back of my neck. "I'm not upset with you, baby, I'm just... well, I'm scared. I just got a little scared."

"I'm sorry..." Hannah whispered again.

I turned to her, shaking my head. "No, Hannah, please, you have nothing to apologize about," I said. I went to reach out for her and then stopped, letting my hand hover some distance from her. "Can I... may I... may I give you a hug?" I whispered. I was afraid to touch her, almost, but I needed it. If I didn't need all of this, I wouldn't be sitting here dealing with something that felt like it was swallowing me whole.

Hannah nodded, biting her lip so hard I expected to see her draw blood. "I'd like that," she whispered. She leaned forward slowly, and then crawled over into my outstretched arms.

The hug calmed me, helping me regain my focus. I needed to push past my anger and fear, because it wasn't about me. It was about Hannah, and she didn't deserve either of those emotions.

"It's okay, baby," I whispered. I stroked Hannah's back with both hands, feeling her relax against me. "You have nothing to be sorry about, it's okay. We both just got a little out of control. It's no big deal, okay?"

Hannah nodded, sighed, and then shook her head. She dropped her forehead on to my shoulder. "But it's not... I didn't, I mean. I didn't get out of control, I was... I knew exactly what I was doing."

Hannah had wanted to sleep with me. It was crystal clear to me, and I tightened my arms around her in sympathy. She had wanted to sleep with me, and now she was blaming herself for failing. I pulled back and held Hannah by the shoulders, looking her in the eye.

"You know you don't need--"

"I know," Hannah interrupted me. "I know, but I wanted it."

We had never really talked about sex. My tongue felt big and clumsy in my mouth, and I prayed that I could say the right things. "You did?"

Hannah nodded. Her cheeks were flushed a deep pink, and she rubbed at her temple with nervous fingers. "I do," she whispered.

I gave her a serious look. "Are you sure you're ready, baby?"

Hannah blinked hard, casting her eyes to the ground. "I thought I was," she whispered. "I didn't know... I didn't realize what..." She shook her head, and then looked up at me again. "But I do want it," she said. "I think about it... about you... all the time. I've been talking to my therapist, and she..." Hannah stopped speaking, blushing even harder. She raised a shaky hand to her face, swiping her thumb across her eye. "I'm sorry."

"No, stop," I begged, reaching out to touch her cheek. I couldn't stand to hear her apologize anymore. "Your therapist... you've been talking to your therapist about this?"

Hannah nodded. "I've, uh... I thought I'd been working on this, you know? On feeling those things again, wanting..."

"May I ask," I said, hesitating a moment, "when was the last time for you? I mean... with--"

Hannah gave me a nervous smile. "Last winter," she said. "I was dating someone when... when it happened, but it wasn't very serious. We'd only slept together once or twice."

I frowned. I hadn't realized that.

Hannah looked embarrassed. "She, uh... it was a lot to deal with, you know, and especially in a new relationship."

I nodded. After a moment, I asked, "Do you feel like I've been pushing you?"

Hannah's eyes opened wide with alarm. "No!" she said. "No, you..." She looked away from me. "You've been so patient with me."

"It's not a race, you know," I said. I blew out a frustrated breath, running my hand through my hair. "There's not... we're not on a schedule or something. I never wanted to make you feel like--"

"You didn't," Hannah said. "You don't. I told you, I wanted it. I want you. I want... I have all these feelings again, and I want..."

"I know," I told her. We wanted the same thing. I reached out to stroke her hair, hesitated, and then squeezed her shoulder instead. "Just give yourself time," I said. "We've got all the time in the world."

Hannah shrugged, sniffing softly. "I don't expect you to wait for me, Delaney," she whispered. "I know that you're used to... well, I know I'm not..."

I stopped Hannah's words with another hug. "Hannah, I'm not expecting anything from you. I just..." I left the thought unfinished. I wanted to tell her everything, but my lingering fear stopped me. She didn't have to worry about not being enough for me. She was already enough, whether or not we made love. What stopped me from saying it, though, was that I wasn't sure I was enough for her. "We're fine, baby, okay? We're just fine."

Hannah tightened her arms around me. I could feel her nodding against my neck. "Okay," she said.

I released a shaky breath, dropping a kiss on to her forehead. I repeated my reassurances in my head for a moment, trying to convince myself. We're fine. We're just fine.

Finally, I pulled back and looked Hannah in the eyes. "We need waffles," I said.

Hannah stared back at me with a watery gaze, releasing a surprised giggle. "Waffles?"

I nodded. "I'm going to make you waffles," I told her. It was her favorite, and I knew it. "I think we could both use some waffles for dessert, right?"

Hannah shot me a crooked grin. "You're perfect," she said. "Making me waffles and everything."

I was relieved to see her smile. "You're the perfect one, sweetheart," I said. "I'm just the waffle-maker."

"The sexy waffle-maker," Hannah suggested, giving me a timid smirk.

I reached over and tugged on her toe. She was trying to reintroduce levity into our evening, and I was going to help her as much as I could. "Just keep on sucking up," I joked. "And you might even get blueberries in them."

Hannah laughed as I stood up beside her. "May I help?" she asked.

I offered her my hand to help her to her feet. She immediately stepped close, wrapping her arms around my shoulders.

"Thank you," she whispered.

I closed my eyes. She had no reason to thank me; there was even less reason to thank me than to apologize. I thought of something else to say. "Will you still spend the night here?" I asked.

Hannah inhaled, tightened her arms, and let out a soft cry. "Yes," she whispered. "Yes."

*****

I was in an unfamiliar apartment, standing in the open doorway looking inside. The front room was dark with shadows, and I squinted in an effort to make out my surroundings. I was afraid to walk forward, but I didn't know why.

From behind me shone bright lighting, casting my shadow long across the carpeted floor in front of me. I turned my head and regarded the hallway to my back. It would be easy to simply step backwards into the safety of the light.

Instead, I walked inside.

The door was closed. I didn't hear it shut behind me, nor did I turn back to look. It's just that once I was inside, I knew I wouldn't be able to leave through that door. For a moment I just stood, trying to let my eyes adjust to the darkened room around me.

What compelled me forward was my sudden awareness of noise coming from somewhere ahead of me. I imagined it was another room; the soft voices and cries were muffled as if contained behind yet another door. I was terrified to seek the source of the noises, but I couldn't stop myself from taking another step closer to it.

I walked with my hands outstretched, certain I was going to bump into something. I managed to avoid walking into the wall, though, and soon I found myself outside a closed door at the far end of the apartment. I could hear something coming from within, but I put my ear to it just to make sure.

I didn't want to open the door, but I watched my hand reach out without my control. I turned the knob and pushed it open; hesitating only a moment, I stepped into a bedroom.

I stopped, horrified, when I saw what was happening in front of me. There was a large bed in the center of the room, and I could see the whole length of it where I stood.

It was Hannah's bed, and Hannah was in it. She was beneath a large man who wore dark clothing. His face was cast in shadows, and I couldn't make out his features. He was moving on top of her, muttering to her in a low voice.

Hannah was crying.

I was paralyzed. I couldn't move my feet; I couldn't force myself forward to pull him away from her. All I could do was stand and watch. After a time I became aware of the sound of sobbing; it took me a moment to realize that it was me who was wailing.

Hannah never looked over at me. She stared at the ceiling with tears running down her face. A couple of times as I watched, she would try and squeeze her eyes closed, only to be slapped until she opened them again.

He was hurting her, and I was just watching him do it.

It lasted a torturously long time. My feet were planted to the ground, my eyes locked on the assault. I could feel my heart rending in two, but still I couldn't do anything about it. I was overcome by self-hatred at my own impotence.

And then it was over. The man let out a hoarse cry and his body jerked, and then he went still on top of her. The only sounds in the room were that of Hannah and my sobbing.

The man pulled back away from her, and then delivered a resounding slap to her face. It hurt her; I could see how much he was hurting her.

The man turned and regarded me with dark eyes. Still, I couldn't make out the details of his face. He gave me a soulless grin. "Your turn," he said.

I woke up crying out, and bathed in cold sweat. I sat up in bed, feeling my stomach roil as the nightmare images still flashed through my head.

I was alone. Hannah was on a three-day business trip to Atlanta, and tonight was night two. It was almost the middle of February and I couldn't stand to be away from her for even a day anymore.

My stomach churned again as I recalled the last part of my dream. Your turn. I threw back my comforter and jumped out of bed, stumbling into the bathroom on weak legs. I dropped to the floor in front of the toilet, pulling open the cover with a desperate hand, and emptied my stomach in painful heaves.

It's my turn to hurt her.

I gasped for breath, sitting back and resting my forehead against the wall next to the toilet. It was cool to the touch, and I let my mouth hang open in relief at the sensation. I panted hard, wincing at the foul taste of sickness.

It had been such a vivid dream. I had never had a dream like that before, and I prayed that I would never have another. I closed my eyes and immediately saw Hannah's tear-stained face again. I heard her cries, and I saw that man's cold smile directed at me.

I surged upwards and leaned over the toilet, vomiting once more. After a moment, I raised a shaky hand to my forehead to wipe the sweat from my skin. I closed my eyes, gathering myself, and then I reached up and flushed.

I stared in the mirror as I brushed my teeth. I hadn't bothered to turn the bathroom light on, and so I studied my face cast in the moonlight that came in through the window. I tried to see what Hannah saw when she looked at me.

I felt old. For the first time in my life, I felt old and alone. I stopped the motion of my toothbrush, staring hard at my reflection. I gazed into my own eyes. At once I couldn't understand myself. It was like I was looking at a stranger.

Why would I let Hannah continue to believe that I wasn't hers totally? I blinked, pulling my toothbrush out of my mouth. I had been devoted to her for months now, yet I refused to speak voice to what was so plainly there.

I leaned over the sink and spit, splashing water into my mouth and rinsing. It was utterly unfamiliar, but I suddenly wished I had a friend. I wished I had someone I could call when my entire world tilted and I wasn't sure which end was up. As I set my toothbrush down on the sink, I made a quick decision.

Maybe Lori could be that kind of friend, if I let her.

I hurried out of the bathroom and into the front room where I'd left my cell phone. I didn't bother to turn on the lights as I went. My mind was already in turmoil, and illuminating my surroundings would just be visual overload. I preferred the shadows when I felt so turned inside out.

I grabbed my cell phone from the table with a trembling hand, flipping open the lid and then dropping it on to the floor. "Shit!" I hissed into the darkness, bending over to pick it up.

I couldn't remember ever feeling so out of control before, and I didn't like it. I didn't like it at all.

I found Lori's name in my phone book and, after only a momentary hesitation, initiated the call. I put the phone to my ear with a nervous clearing of my throat, listening as it began to ring. I swiped at my forehead with trembling fingers, trying hard to calm the beating of my heart.

I was just beginning to think nobody was going to answer when a barely conscious Lori picked up. "Hello?" she mumbled.

I opened my eyes wide in shock, for the first time aware that it was the middle of the night. After one o'clock, according to the glowing display on my DVD player.

"Lori, hi, it's..." I released a nervous breath, allowing a mad rush of humiliation to overwhelm me. "Oh, God, I'm so sorry... I wasn't even thinking of the time. I woke you up, right?"

"Delaney?" Lori asked. She sounded slightly more awake now, but confused.

"Yeah, Lori, I'm--"

"Is Hannah okay?" I could hear Max in the background, her voice suddenly loud and urgent. "Lori, is Hannah okay?"

"Delaney," Lori said, now awake. "Is--"

"I'm sure she's fine," I said quickly, hoping to calm Max's obvious panic. "She's still in Atlanta. I'm not calling with bad news or anything."

"She's fine," I heard Lori telling Max. I could imagine her wrapping a slim arm around one of Max's shoulders, as I had seen her do a hundred times. She soothed Max in a way I longed to do for Hannah. "This is about something else."

"Look, Lori, I'm really sorry. I just... I'm... I'm having a really bad night, and I've been thinking, and I guess I just needed to talk--"

Lori interrupted me, speaking to me in a gentle voice. "It's okay, Delaney. It's okay. Just hold on a minute and let me take-- Hey!"

Max came on the phone, her voice gruff. "You'd better have a good goddamn reason to be dragging my very warm and very naked wife out of bed."

I tried very hard to avoid the visual Max's complaint gave me. No matter how hard I tried, though, I'm only human. I gave a weak laugh, resting my forehead against one hand.

"I'm desperately in love with Hannah and I don't know what to do," I told her.

There was silence at the other end for a moment, and then I heard Max say, "It's all yours."

A moment later, Lori was back. "Delaney? What's wrong?"

I sighed, and then said it again. "I'm desperately in love with Hannah and I don't know what to do."

I heard Lori's breath catch, and then she released a surprised chuckle. "So what else is new?" she asked.

I laughed with her, a manic and strangled sound. "Lori, I'm so undone I can't even summon the will to protest that."

"So you're ready to admit that you love her," Lori said. I knew she was smiling, and I scowled a little because of it. "Christ, Delaney, you've basically been in a relationship with her for months. Why should this scare you?"

"Because knowing I love her doesn't mean knowing what to do to make this... to make it real. Official. It doesn't mean knowing how to make it work. And it doesn't mean knowing how not to hurt her." I remembered my nightmare again -- your turn -- and shivered. "I'm so afraid of hurting her, Lori, sometimes I feel scared to move."

"So what's the alternative, huh?" Lori asked. She spoke in a low voice, and I pictured her sitting in a similarly dark room. "Let her keep thinking she doesn't have one-hundred percent of your attention? Or just walking out on her altogether?"

I squeezed my forehead with my fingers, grimacing when I pinched the skin. "I don't know," I murmured. "I don't know."

"You're so scared of hurting her, honey," Lori said. "Don't you realize that it's your fear that's her hurting her the most? Hurting both of you?"

I exhaled shakily, feeling my stomach threaten to rebel again. "How do I stop feeling afraid?"

Lori gave me a sad little laugh. "You don't ever really stop feeling afraid," she told me. "Fear is just a part of love. Fear that you'll hurt her, fear that she'll hurt you, fear at needing another person like you need air. But you live with the fear. You don't run away from it. You live with the fear because most of the time it's just joy. It's right, and it makes all of the fear in the world worthwhile."

I could feel tears leaking from my eyes at Lori's words. She had tapped into so much of what plagued me with just a few words, and then with another few she rendered all of it insignificant. Despite my fear, I understood the truth of her words.

"Do you think I can do it?"

"Oh, Delaney," Lori said, and chuckled again. "You're already so close, the rest is just stepping up to the plate. You can, and you will, because you love her."

*****

I stood on Hannah's doorstep with a bouquet of roses clenched in one white-knuckled fist. I wasn't sure if I had ever been so nervous in my life. I hadn't seen Hannah since her return from Atlanta the night before, but I had been counting the minutes from the moment I knew her plane had landed.

When I hung up with Lori the second night Hannah was away, I knew it was time. I was through hurting her, hurting both of us, with my fear and silence. I was scared shitless, but I was determined.

I knocked on Hannah's door before I could lose my nerve. I clutched the roses tightly, wishing she would answer and dreading the moment the door would open at the same time.

Hannah threw open the door with a wide smile. "Delaney, I wondered when you'd--" Her greeting died on her lips as she stared at the flowers I held. She gaped at them, and then at me. "For me?" she whispered.

It was the first time I'd given her flowers. I wanted to kick myself at the realization, especially when I saw how it made her eyes dance with pleasure and her lips curl into a sweet smile. I held the bouquet out to her, giving her a nervous grin.

"For you," I told her. "I missed you."

Hannah beamed at me, and it melted me where I stood. She took the flowers with one hand, and then stepped forward and pulled me into a hug with the other. "I missed you, too," she whispered.

"Hannah, we need to talk," I murmured into her ear. Hannah tensed in my arms, and I realized belatedly how that must have sounded. I pulled back and gave her a gentle smile. "It's nothing bad, baby. I'm just... a little nervous."

Hannah cocked her head at me, stepping back and gesturing me inside. "Okay," she said. I could hear the question in her voice. I had to smile at her effortless beauty; I hadn't seen her in four days, and I felt like I was being reborn just looking at her. "What's up?"

I followed Hannah inside, shutting the door behind us. I rested my hand on the small of her back and walked her into the living room. "Can we sit down?" I asked.

"Sure," Hannah smiled. She stepped away from me as I moved towards the couch, lifting the roses into the air. "Let me just put these in water first. Do you want something to drink?"

I tried to work up some moisture in my mouth and failed miserably. "Water's great," I said.

"Coming right up." Hannah disappeared into the kitchen with a smile, and I watched her go with rapt attention.

I was subtly checking beneath one arm for evidence of my nervous sweat when Hannah returned to the living room. I dropped my hand into my lap with a flustered blush, nodding at Hannah as she sat down next to me and handed me a bottle of water.

"Thanks," I said. I opened the bottle and took a long drink. Then I took another drink, because the only other option was to talk.

"Delaney," Hannah said, reaching out and taking my hand. "I know you said it's nothing bad, but you're really freaking me out."

I laughed out loud at her typical straightforwardness. God, I loved her. I squeezed her hand, giving her a sheepish smile. "I'm sorry, I'm just... I'm freaking out a little, too."

"What happened?" Hannah asked. I could see mild fear in her eyes, as if she expected me to pull the rug out from under her at any moment. "Are you okay?"

I frowned at the uncertainty in her voice. I was an asshole for making her feel so unsure about her place in my life. I was sick of being an asshole.

I squeezed Hannah's hand again, and then reached out to capture the other one. I held both of her hands in mine, stroking her fingers with my thumbs. "Hannah, I love you."

All the heartfelt declarations and impassioned speeches I'd practiced vanished, and it came out just that simple. I suppose it was just that simple, though, and so maybe it was okay.

Hannah's cheeks flushed and her mouth dropped open a bit. It looked like that was the last thing she'd expected me to say. Her eyes shone with unshed tears, and she met my gaze in breathless shock.

"I love you, too," Hannah whispered.

I shook my head. I knew she didn't understand yet. "No, Hannah, I mean... I love you. I want... I want to be with you. Nobody else. For as long as you'll have me."

Hannah stared at me like she didn't recognize me. "Delaney..."

"I don't know why it's taken me so long to say it," I said. "I've felt this way for so long. You've been the only one... for so long." Now that I'd started, I couldn't stop the words.

"Wait, Delaney," Hannah whispered. She pressed her hand to her forehead; I could see her fingers trembling. "Wait a second."

I stopped talking. I hesitated a moment and then scooted forward on the couch. I moved slowly, not wanting to startle Hannah. She looked overwhelmed by me. I was aware that this was the most I'd ever said -- really said -- to her, and I was aware that I was delivering it all in a breathless rush.

"Sorry," I murmured. I gave Hannah a sheepish smile. "I told you I was a little freaked out."

Hannah gazed at me with intense eyes. "I... I'm afraid I can't be what you want," she said.

I tangled her fingers in my own, moving slightly closer. "What are you talking about?" I asked. "That's what I'm saying, baby. You are what I want. You're who I want. You're... what I need"

"I just mean..." Hannah paused, and then sighed. "I don't expect you to make any kind of commitment to me, and especially..." she averted her eyes, blushing. "Especially when I don't know when I'll be okay with... sex. I don't even... I don't even know if I'll ever be okay with certain things, and I know that you're used to--"

"Hannah?" I interrupted her. She opened her mouth as if to continue talking, and I held up a hand to forestall her. "Baby?"

Hannah exhaled, looking up at me with a tremulous smile. "Yeah?"

"Shut up," I whispered, and smiled at her. She smiled back, encouraging me to reach over and capture her face with shaking hands. I leaned forward and pressed my lips to hers in a gentle show of tender reverence. I pulled back mere inches, and whispered again, "I love you."

"I love you, too," Hannah choked. I stopped her mouth with another kiss, pressing my tongue inside and tasting her for the first time as my lover. The only one.

As much as I wanted to never stop kissing her, I realized that we were in the middle of a conversation. I pulled away, grasping her shoulders with my hands.

"Baby, don't worry about sex," I said. "Don't worry about... that's not the important part."

Hannah raised an eyebrow at me.

"It's important, but it's not the most important part," I insisted.

"What's the most important part?" Hannah whispered.

"I can't stand being without you," I said. "I'm a better person for being with you." I took a deep breath, dropping my hands from her shoulders. "Hannah, I haven't been with anyone else in almost six months. Trust me... the sex doesn't matter. You're the only one I want, and I want to finally say it out loud. I want you to know."

"You haven't been with..." Hannah stopped, looking at me in confusion. "Six months?"

"I'm sorry I let you think otherwise," I said. "Now that you're in my life... it would just leave me feeling empty. It's not what I want anymore."

Hannah put a hand on her stomach, releasing an unsteady sigh. She gave me a dazed smile. "I never expected all of this when I saw you at the door."

"I know," I said. I ducked my head, giving her a crooked grin. "I hope it's okay?"

Hannah put her hand to her mouth, muffling a quiet cry, and then flew into my arms to wrap me in a tight hug. "It's more than okay," she whispered. "I've wanted... I've wanted this for so long, Delaney, so long..."

"So have I," I murmured. I stroked her back with my hands. "I'm sorry it took me until now to gather the courage. I'm sorry I ever made you feel like you weren't the only one... like I might run out of patience... God, I'm lucky you didn't run out of patience with me."

"Never," Hannah said. I felt her smile against my neck. "I like challenges."

I laughed, kissing her neck, and then nipping at it when she began to giggle. "Good," I teased. "I'm very lucky that you do."

*****

I lay in bed staring up at the ceiling. I could feel a throbbing between my legs, and when I shifted slightly, I could feel slick wetness painting my inner thighs. I was powerfully, undeniably turned on.

Hannah slept on her side next to me, facing the wall and presenting me with a tantalizing view of the back of her neck. Her skin was creamy and smooth where neck met shoulder, and I recalled nibbling on that spot just an hour earlier. I stared at the pale skin that was revealed by the tank top she wore; beneath the covers, the memory of firm buttocks in boy brief panties tormented me.

As much as I loved that I was spending nearly all my time, and almost every night, with Hannah, it was making certain things very difficult. Most noticeably, it was rare that I had the opportunity to spend a lot of time alone. Specifically, I was having a hard time finding enough privacy to bring myself release.

I needed it, too. Hannah and my bedtime make-out sessions were growing progressively more heated, but we always stopped short of any kind of satisfying resolution. I thought I was successful at hiding my frustration from Hannah, but it was becoming harder and harder to not be able to touch myself to relieve the tension.

I looked over at Hannah with careful eyes. Her body rose and fell with her deep, even breathing. She was asleep, I was sure of it. I lay still for a moment, and then I slid my hand over my stomach.

It would be so easy to take care of the ache between my legs. Just a few minutes while Hannah slept, and if I was careful she would never have to know. I felt guilty about the very idea, but I was dying. I mean, I felt like I was literally dying.

I moved my hand down over my tank top, pushing it up over my stomach. I rubbed my fingers over my bare skin, closing my eyes and enjoying the sensation. After a brief hesitation, I continued to move my hand downward until I slipped under the waistband of my panties.

I was wet and swollen, and I bit my lip to suppress my groan at the feeling of pressure where I needed it most. I couldn't even remember the last time I had come. It had been a week, at least. To me, a week without even self-induced pleasure felt like a lifetime.

I began to stroke myself in earnest. I closed my eyes, recalling how Hannah had felt against me earlier in the evening. I allowed a slight smile to capture my lips at the memory of her breasts soft against mine, and at the damp cotton of Hannah's panties pressed against my thigh.

I opened my mouth in a soundless groan, hearing the soft cries Hannah made when she was aroused in my head. I circled my clit with two fingers, growing bolder in my movements.

Hannah shifted in bed, and I instinctively stilled my hand between my legs. I felt my heart start to pound, and I kept my eyes closed.

"You don't have to stop," Hannah whispered beside me.

I felt my cheeks burn red, and I licked my lips without opening my eyes. Barely breathing, I extracted my hand from my panties as slowly as I could. I willed myself to sound calm. "What are you talking about?" I whispered, and then turned my head to look over at Hannah.

She lay on her side only inches from me, a slight smile on her face. "Delaney, I... I know you get worked up, and honestly... I don't expect you not to want to finish."

I felt humiliated. I gave her a blank look, and then rolled over away from her. "I'm fine," I muttered. "Let's just get to sleep."

Hannah put her hand on my shoulder. "Are you embarrassed or something?"

I didn't answer. Of course I was embarrassed. Here she was, trying to ease back into a comfort with sex, and I couldn't control my libido for even one night. "I'm fine, I said."

Hannah eased her arm around my stomach, pressing her hand against my abdomen. "Please, don't be embarrassed. Do you think I don't..."

I glanced over my shoulder when she trailed off, suddenly very interested despite my shame at being caught. "You do?"

"Yeah," Hannah said. "I always used to... touch myself. My therapist suggested... well, it took me almost six months before I could think about doing it again, but now..." She tightened her arm around my middle, giving me a sheepish grin. "I told you that I'm interested, remember? Very interested. Painfully so, at times."

I turned within Hannah's embrace. "I'm just a little embarrassed that you... well, I thought you were asleep."

Hannah grinned, leaning forward to kiss my nose. "Couldn't sleep," she said. "Too horny."

I chuckled in sympathy. "I know the feeling." I relaxed on my back, reaching out to pull her over so her head rested on my shoulder. Her arm settled across my stomach, and her fingers played beneath my tank top on the soft skin of my side.

We were silent for a while. Then, "Delaney, may I help you?"

I blinked, not certain what she was asking. "What?"

"May I... may I touch you?"

I forgot how to breathe. Hannah had never offered something like that before. I felt wrong accepting, though, so I shook my head. "It's okay," I said. I felt sheepish about my weakness. "I promise, baby, I'm okay. It's not a big deal."

"You don't want me to touch you?" Hannah asked.

I winced at the barely concealed hurt in her voice, giving her a gentle squeeze. "Of course I do," I told her. "I just... we should wait until I can touch you back."

Hannah was silent for a long time. At last she murmured, "Please don't do that to me."

I frowned. I had thought I was doing the right thing. "What do you mean?"

"I mean... please don't martyr yourself for an ideal that..." she sighed, shaking her head. "Please don't make me responsible for this," Hannah said. "Making love with you isn't going to be any less special, and our relationship isn't going to be any less valid, if you allow me to bring you pleasure even if I'm not ready to receive it yet."

"But--" I protested.

She rested her hand on my stomach, pushing her way beneath my tank top. She tickled my belly with her fingers, tracing lazy patterns across my skin. "I want to touch you. I want to... I want to make you feel good. That's something I want, and it's something I can give you right now. It'll be satisfying for me, believe me."

I bit my lip. "I don't know," I admitted. "I'm not... used to that."

"Being made love to?" Hannah asked in a soft voice.

"I've never really made love before, period," I said. "And when I would... be with women, I was usually the more... dominant partner."

"You're more often the doer, and not the done," Hannah said.

I could hear the light humor in her voice, and tried hard not to roll away in embarrassment. I would have never imagined feeling so shy talking about sex. "Right," I said.

"Is that how you want it to be with us?" Hannah asked. Her voice was soft, and she reached her hand up to stroke my hair.

"I want to make you feel good," I answered. I craned my neck to plant a kiss on the top of her head, inhaling her heady scent.

"And I want to make you feel good, too," Hannah said. "Because I love you." She slid her hand over my stomach, coming to rest on my pubic bone. "Because making you feel good would make me feel good." She lifted her head, grinning up at me with twinkling eyes. "You want me to feel good, right?"

I bit back a groan as she pushed downwards slightly with her fingers, sending gentle pressure to my center. She kept her touch light, sliding her hand slightly lower until the tips of her fingers were poised somewhere above my clit.

"I know you must be wet, baby," Hannah whispered. "I could feel it on my thigh earlier. God, it drives me crazy to feel how hot you get when we're messing around." She leaned up to bring her mouth to my ear, licking at the lobe. "Please let me really feel you. I want to touch you."

I squeezed my eyes closed. Hannah was very persuasive, and I was trembling with arousal. I felt firm breasts press against my arm, and I released a weak sigh.

"Are you trying to kill me?" I gave her a weak laugh, turning to gaze at her with hooded eyes.

"I just love you, Delaney," Hannah said. She leaned down and explored my mouth with her tongue; I remained still, moaning at the kiss. When Hannah pulled back, she smiled at me and pressed her finger against my panties to rest on my labia. "I just want to make love to you. Please don't hold us back on my account."

"Kiss me again," I whispered. I let my legs fall open, hissing when she palmed my center and squeezed gently. My head was spinning from the feeling of her touching me in such an intimate way. "Hannah, I don't know--"

Hannah kissed me and shut me up. My heart started pounding at her sudden confidence. That it was Hannah who leaned over me to plunder my mouth and trace her fingers over my wet panties shocked and amazed me, loosing a throaty moan from deep inside my body.

Hannah pulled back from our kiss and stared down into my eyes. She pulled her fingers from their exploration of my wetness, laying her hand over the fabric of my underwear. "I don't want to do anything that makes you uncomfortable," she said. "But I'd really love it if you'd let me show you how much I love you."

I closed my eyes. How could I refuse that? "Yes," I whispered. I opened my eyes and stared into her tender gaze. "I love you. I want to feel you touch me so badly it hurts."

Hannah gave me a serious look. "You're sure?" she asked.

"I... this probably won't take much. I have a feeling I may come the minute you touch me," I admitted. "I feel like a teenager, I’m so turned on."

Hannah chuckled, tracing her finger along the elastic of my panties at the juncture of my thighs. "You flatter me." She tugged on the cotton there. "Can we take these off?"

"Just telling you how I feel," I hissed through my teeth. "Yes." I lifted my hips from the bed, helping Hannah remove my underwear. I could feel my face grow warm as she sat up with them in her hand, smiling at me before tossing them on to the floor.

"I never expected you to be this shy," Hannah murmured. "It's very sexy."

I shrugged, watching Hannah pull the comforter off my body to stare down at the dark curls between my legs. "I never expected you to be this brave. It's scary... making love for the first time."

Hannah traced the soft skin where my hip and thigh met, giving me a wry smile. "You never seemed scared before. Earlier tonight... you didn't seem scared."

"That's because I was leading," I said.

Hannah's fingers traced small circles on my skin, moving closer to my center until she encountered slick wetness. We both felt it at the same time, and we shared a gasp at the discovery.

"You trust me, right?" Hannah whispered. "You know how much this means to me?"

"Yes, baby," I said. I felt myself relaxing as she stroked me lightly, and I struggled not to try and take control of the situation. I didn't want to do that to our first time, and so I resolved that I would put myself completely in her hands. "You feel so good. Your hand is so soft."

Hannah chuckled, leaning her forehead on my shoulder. She dipped into me, and then up to circle my clit with two fingers. "It's amazing to touch you like this."

We stopped speaking for a few minutes, and the only sounds in the room were my soft moans and her excited whimpering. She propped herself up on one elbow, leaning over me. She occasionally dipped her head down to kiss my lips, and I snaked one arm around her back as her hand worked between my legs.

My hips moved to meet Hannah's strokes. I opened my mouth, my need inarticulate and overwhelming.

"Do you want me inside?" Hannah whispered. She slid her fingers down the length of me, teasing me with light touches.

I nodded. "Please."

She pressed a finger into me slowly, and I cried out in relief at the fullness I felt. It had been so long, and I had wanted her so much. I clutched at her back, gasping when she found my clit with her thumb and slipped another finger inside. I hadn't lied. It wouldn't take long.

"I love you," Hannah whispered into my ear. "Baby, I love you so much."

I whimpered at her words, feeling myself tighten a bit around her fingers. No woman had ever said those words to me and meant them like she did. "Say it again," I said. "I'm so close, Hannah."

"Love you, baby," Hannah panted into my ear. She increased the motion of her hand until I lifted my hips from the bed, arching my back and moaning my release.

My legs trembled as I came, and they continued trembling weakly after I fell silent and still on the bed. Hannah wrapped me in her arms, cooing into my ear while I tried to catch my breath. I had no words in the aftermath of such an experience, so I simply let myself be cradled in her arms.

"Thank you," Hannah murmured some time later. "That was beautiful. It felt very... safe." A quiet joy permeated her words, and I had to smile in response.

"I should be thanking you," I said.

Hannah hummed in pleasure, squeezing me to her. "That was for both of us," she said. "I don't think you should thank me for something that felt so good to do." She put her hand against my shoulder, giving me a gentle push. "Now roll over and let me cuddle you."

I snorted, doing as she said. Hannah moved close behind me, wrapping her arm around my stomach and tugging me backwards until my naked ass pressed against the softness of her panties.

"This is nice," I murmured. I laid my hand on top of hers, pulling it into my stomach with a contented sigh. "I never knew this could all be so nice."

Hannah kissed the back of my neck, and then nuzzled her nose into my skin. "It's only this nice with the right person," she said.

I thought about that. "Has it ever been this nice for you before?"

Hannah hugged me closer. "No," she whispered. "Never this nice. I never thought I would find something this nice."

I was silent for a moment, and then snorted in amusement. "Boy, have I got you brainwashed," I said. I chuckled when Hannah poked me in the ribs, and then pressed back against her with a happy hum.

"Totally bamboozled," Hannah agreed.

And then she gave me a final kiss on the shoulder blade, and held me as I fell asleep.

*****

I resisted the urge to duck behind Hannah when Max threw open the front door to their house with a wide grin. "Baby girl!" she cried. She ignored me standing by Hannah's side, stepping forward to take my lover in a gentle hug.

"Happy birthday, Max," Hannah said, and giggled as she was squeezed by muscular arms. "How does it feel to be an old lady?"

Max pulled back and scowled at Hannah, tugging her into the house. I followed them inside, shutting the door behind me.

"Listen, squirt," Max said. "You'll be thirty next year. You can tell me then." She gave Hannah a teasing poke in the stomach, and then turned to me with a polite smile. "Hello, Delaney."

I nodded to her. "Max," I said. "Happy birthday." I offered her the gift I carried. Hannah had picked it out, but both of our names were on the card. I had never been to one of Max's birthday parties before, and I wouldn't have had the first clue what to get her. "I hope it's been a good one so far."

Max gave me a careful smile, tucking the package under her arm. "It has, thanks. Lori surprised me this morning with reservations up north at the cabin for next month."

Hannah bounced up and down a little where she stood, squealing in excitement. "That's awesome, Max! That'll be so much fun." She cocked her head, giving Max a teasing smirk. "Cold, but fun."

Max raised an eyebrow at Hannah, giving her a conspiratorial smile. "That's what fireplaces are for," she said. "And warm wives."

I reminded myself to pay attention to whatever heat Lori might emanate the next time I was near her. This was the second time Max had referred to Lori's warmth.

"You two will have so much fun," Hannah gushed. She looked up at me, eyes sparkling, and gave me a happy grin. "Isn't that great?"

I couldn't help but smile down at her. "Yeah," I said. "It's great." If she was this happy about Max and Lori going away for a weekend, I wondered how she would react if I took her to a cabin. That was definitely something to investigate.

"So anyway," Max said, gesturing behind her. "Everyone's just kind of hanging out. We've got food in the kitchen, a keg..."

"Do you know where Lori is?" I asked. I hadn't seen her in far too long, not since before her sage phone call. "I, uh... I need to thank her for something."

Max nodded to the hallway behind her. "Last I saw her, she was in the kitchen. I'd try there first."

"Thanks," I said. I smiled down on Hannah, reaching out to touch her back. "I'll find you in a few minutes, okay?"

"Okay," Hannah agreed. "I'll just pester Max until you do."

Only slightly sheepish, I leaned down and gave Hannah a soft kiss. "Good idea," I said. "Make sure you let her know how old she is. Tease her about needing a walker soon."

"Yes, baby," Hannah murmured against my lips. "Whatever you say."

Max snorted, drawing our attention back to her. She stood with her arms crossed over her chest, and she looked at us with wary eyes. "Brilliant," she said. "Someone to encourage Hannah. Just what I needed."

Hannah gave Max a smile that would melt even the coldest bastard in the world. "Just what I needed," she said.

Max relaxed into a pleased smile, turning to study me with cautious eyes. I blushed under the sudden scrutiny, taking a step towards the kitchen.

"I'll be back," I muttered, now thoroughly embarrassed. "I, uh... Lori..."

"Go on," Hannah said, waving me away. "Get me a beer?"

I nodded, grateful for the added incentive to leave the conversation. "No problem."

I found Lori in the kitchen, as promised. She was juggling a couple of trays of food, and she looked like she'd gotten an early start on the alcohol. While not heavily intoxicated, her cheeks were flushed and her lips were curled into an easy smile.

"Delaney!" she called as I walked into the kitchen. A couple of the women who stood around her looked up at me, inspecting, and then they returned to their individual conversations.

"Lori," I greeted, giving her a smile. I walked up to the counter where she stood. "Need any help?"

"Thanks," Lori said. She handed me a tray, which I took with a solicitous bow. "Just help me carry these in to the living room."

I followed Lori out into the other room, unconsciously scanning the loose groups of people for a glimpse of Hannah. I spotted her standing next to Max, laughing with a man and two women I didn't recognize. Max's arm was draped loosely around Hannah's shoulders, and I smiled at the way she leaned into her imposing friend.

"There's your girl," Lori murmured beside me.

I glanced over at her, embarrassed to have been caught staring. I put my tray down on the table at the side of the room, giving Lori a crooked smile. "And yours," I said.

"You know, I think Max is warming up to you," Lori commented.

I looked at the butch woman, and at the way she and Hannah leaned in to one another. I had to admit, I was warming up to Max, as well. Hannah adored her, and I trusted Hannah's judgment.

"She knows I'd rather die than hurt Hannah, right?" I murmured.

"She knows that Hannah's never been happier," Lori said. She shot a look over to where Max and Hannah stood, grinning at Max just as Hannah poked her, drawing Max's attention back down to the little blonde. "Even before, you know."

I caught Hannah's eye and returned a beaming smile, and then turned to Lori with a sheepish nod. "I hope so."

Lori's lip twitched into a half-grin, and she took my hand to tug me behind her. "Come on, let's go talk somewhere for a minute."

I nodded, glancing over again at Hannah, who was watching us leave the room with a silly look on her face. When I saw her watching me, I opened my eyes wide, nodded towards Lori and my joined hands, and then waggled my eyebrows at Hannah.

Hannah rolled her eyes at me, and Max, having noticed my gesturing, gave me a dismissive wave. I wore a grin all the way to the bedroom where Lori led me.

"So how are things going?" Lori said after she closed the door behind us. "Really? How are you adjusting to the wonderful world of being part of a couple?" She crossed her arms over her chest, leaning back on the door. "I know Hannah's called Max a few times to gush about things, but I haven't heard from you yet."

I gave Lori a sheepish smile. "Sorry," I said. "I'm still getting used to this close friendship stuff."

Lori giggled a little, which confirmed to me that she had imbibed. "I forgive you," she said. "You've got enough change happening in your life, I would imagine. I don't expect you to remember little things like filling me in on occasion... yet."

"It's wonderful," I told Lori. I sat at the foot of the bed, leaning back on my hands. "Everything about being with her... is wonderful. I never thought I'd want to spend all my time with a person, but she's my best friend."

Lori's hand went to her chest, and she released a low whistle. "Why, Delaney, I think you've found it."

"I have." I had to avert my eyes from Lori's, because I knew the emotions that still overwhelmed me were reflected clearly in my gaze. "We're talking about living together. She... asked me to move into her house."

Lori raised an eyebrow, taking a step forward. "Living together? This is exactly the kind of catching up I wanted to do."

"Yeah," I said. I tried to ignore the way I could feel my blush creeping up the back of my neck. "We figured she bought her house less than a year ago, so there's really no reason to get a new place or have her move in with me."

"And you're comfortable with that?" Lori asked. "Getting rid of your own place and living with her?"

"Scared," I admitted, giving her a crooked smile. "Out of my mind. And I can't wait. I'm to the point where I go crazy if I can't sleep next to her at night."

"Trust me," Lori said. "I know the feeling."

"It's hard," I admitted.

"But worth it," Lori said.

I nodded, humming in agreement. "I'm even happier than Hannah is, I think."

"I'm really happy for you, Delaney," Lori said. "Both of you." She was quiet a minute, studying me, and then she gave me a careful smile. "So how are... other things?"

"Other things?"

Lori hesitated a moment, and then sighed. "Things that are very important to you, and maybe a little difficult for Hannah?"

I scowled when I realized what she was asking. "That's a very private thing, isn't it?"

Lori chuckled. "My, you have changed, haven't you?"

I continued to scowl. I chewed on my lip, and then I looked up at Lori. "We have a physical relationship. It hasn't... progressed as far as I hope it will, but it's very satisfying. For both of us."

Lori regarded me with an easy smile. "You know, I'm proud of you. I know it can't be an easy thing to deal with, for either of you, and I'm thrilled that you're the one to help her through this. Despite whatever I may have said in the past, I know you've got a good heart."

"I'm not just helping her," I told Lori. "She's helping me, just as much."

Lori offered me her hand, and when I took it she pulled me to my feet. Without letting go of my hand, she immediately tugged me into a hug. I was surprised, but I managed to reciprocate by wrapping my arms around Lori and giving her a gentle squeeze. Being with Hannah had forced me to be more comfortable with casual intimacy.

"That's the best part," Lori whispered into my ear.

*****

When it happened, it was without fanfare, and seemed less an event than a natural progression of things.

"I don't want to stop," she murmured, just as I was ceasing my tender worship of her body.

I was resting on my side next to Hannah, one hand on her t-shirt covered belly and the other gently stroking her face. I was kissing her -- slow, leisurely kisses -- on her mouth, on her chin, on her neck. That night I had also covered the expanse of her slim arms and even her legs, making sure to still my lips as they approached her thighs.

I pulled back to gaze down at her, smiling at the passion in her hooded brown eyes. "Tell me what you want," I said. "I'll do it."

Hannah reached up and twined her fingers in my hair, pulling me down for a searing kiss. "I don't want you to stop," she whispered against my lips. "I don't want to stop tonight."

"Are you sure?" I asked. I stroked her stomach through her t-shirt, and then pushed it up to expose the creamy skin of her belly. Her nipples were hard points straining against the cotton of her shirt, and I could smell the heady scent of her arousal through the panties she wore. I was naked, as I often was during our lovemaking.

"Yes," Hannah said. Her voice shook almost imperceptibly, and I knew she was feeling some of the same hesitation I was.

I hadn't tried to pleasure her since that night we ended up on the couch after watching The Thin Man. I think we'd both been afraid to take the next step with the memory of that evening -- and of the fear we'd both felt at Hannah's flashback -- but I would be lying if I said I wasn't anxious to try again.

I nodded down at her, pushing blonde hair out of her eyes. Her cheeks were flushed, and she was breathing heavily. "Just keep talking to me, okay, and I'll keep talking to you."

Hannah gave me a silent nod. Part of our new relationship had been building a growing comfort with talking about the rape and sex. It was something Hannah often needed to express herself about, and it didn't help for me to be uneasy with it.

"No problem, stud," Hannah murmured. She curled her hand around the back of my neck, pulling me into another kiss. She smiled against my lips when we broke for air. "Now get your mouth on me again."

I started on her neck, as I always did. Her throat and collarbones had already seen a lot of my attention tonight, but I was happy to revisit them. Her skin was silky soft and warm against my lips. When I felt her breathing grow ragged, and then I felt her begin to squirm beneath me, I pulled my lips from her body and brought my hand to the hem of her t-shirt.

"Is this okay?" I asked. I tugged on her shirt, pulling it up just slightly to uncover her belly button. I had never seen Hannah without her shirt, and even if we didn't manage to go further tonight, I longed to kiss her breasts.

Hannah nodded, sitting up. She raised her hands over her head. "Help me take it off."

I knew she was nervous, even if she didn't say it. I also knew I would think she was perfect.

I pulled off her t-shirt, giggling with her when it tousled her hair so that it stuck up at crazy angles. I joined her in smoothing down the blonde locks with my hand, finally stopping so I could look her in the eye. Her giggles quieted and she stared back at me, giving me a nervous smile.

"I love you," I told her.

"I love you, too," she whispered. She dropped her eyes to her breasts, and then raised them back to me. "I hope..."

My hand moved to her face, and I stroked her cheek with my thumb. I gave her a reassuring smile before dropping my eyes to gaze at her breasts.

I was right. To my eyes, she was perfect. "You're beautiful," I told her. I was in awe of the creamy skin and the pink, erect nipples, and I watched as my hand sought out her flesh. I cupped her breast in my hand, rubbing my thumb over the tip. "You have gorgeous breasts."

Hannah released a shaky breath, giving me an embarrassed smile. "Thank you," she said. She held my gaze as she eased herself back against the pillows, lying down with my hand still caressing her skin.

"May I taste them?" I asked. "If you'd rather I didn't, I understand, I just..." I wished I could tamp down my own desires completely, but seeing Hannah like this totally inflamed me. "Maybe I could just kiss them a little..."

Hannah put a hand on my arm, pulling me into her. "Kiss them," she said. "I've wanted to feel your mouth on me for so long."

I stretched out beside her, and then immediately bent my head to kiss the side of one breast. She was supple beneath my lips, and I groaned in pleasure at the sight of an erect pink nipple, just inches from my eyes. I slid my mouth over to kiss her aureole, and then poked out my tongue to take a careful swipe at the very tip of her breast.

"Oh, God," Hannah groaned. She writhed next to me, her warm hip occasionally bumping against my naked skin. I took a quick look down her body, nostrils flaring as I studied the curve of her belly above her panties. "Suck on them," Hannah panted. "Please."

She didn't have to ask twice. I swirled my tongue around her nipple, and then pulled it into my mouth. I whimpered at the taste of her. My other hand settled on her stomach and I lifted my head from her breast for a moment. "I'm just going to put my hand here," I murmured. "I won't touch you until you tell me, okay?"

Hannah nodded, bringing her hand to the back of my head. "Okay," she said. "Just keep using your mouth."

I grinned before lowering my head to suck at her nipple again. I licked and sucked at her for long minutes, using my other hand to keep up a soothing stroking of her stomach. I could feel her muscles tense and twitch beneath my fingers; I could feel her getting more and more aroused from my caresses.

I swiped my tongue across the soft underside of one breast, and then the other. I nuzzled them with my nose and my lips, humming into her skin at the dizzying bliss of being able to touch her like that. I had never devoted such avid care to a woman's breasts before, but then I had never loved anyone like I loved Hannah.

I decided I should tell her again. "I love you so much, baby," I murmured against the slope of one breast.

"Love you," Hannah whimpered. "It feels so good, Delaney... don't stop."

At her encouragement, I laid a trail of kisses down the center of one breast. I only hesitated a moment, and then I continued my path of worship down to where my hand had rested on her belly. I slid down on the bed as I kissed her, finding her hand with my own to maintain some connection after I left her side.

"You've got the most beautiful little belly," I murmured, kissing the body part in question. Her stomach was gently rounded, womanly, and it drove me crazy. "You don't know what it does to me when you wear that one t-shirt... you know, the one that hugs your stomach just right..."

"The Kermit the Frog one?" she questioned.

I snorted my laughter against her skin, dropping a kiss on her sensitive belly button. She gasped when I did, arching her back slightly. "Yeah," I answered. "That's the one."

"I thought it was a little too tight," Hannah said quietly.

I shook my head, using the hand that didn't hold Hannah's to stroke her stomach with reverent fingers. "No, it's perfect." I looked up, flashing her a rakish smile. "I love your body. I'll never object to seeing as much of it as possible."

Hannah met my gaze, and after a few minutes I could see her acceptance of my words telegraphed in brown eyes. "I don't want to stop," Hannah whispered again.

I nodded and, without moving my eyes from hers, I brought both hands to the waistband of her panties. "Keep going?" I asked.

Hannah didn't even hesitate before nodding. "Yes."

I inhaled deeply as I eased her panties down her thighs. I could see slick wetness painting her inner thighs, and my nostrils flared at the evidence of her arousal. I became conscious of my tongue wetting my lips only when Hannah released a nervous giggle.

"You look delicious," I whispered. My eyes were locked on the curls between her legs, on the swollen, rosy flesh I had never before seen. With some struggle, I looked up to meet Hannah's gaze. "Hannah, you're the most beautiful woman I've ever seen."

Hannah blinked, reaching out to me with a trembling hand. I took it without prompting, understanding what she needed. "I'm so turned on," she whispered.

"Are you okay?"

Hannah nodded at me, smiling. "I'm good," she said.

I wanted her to control the action. I put my hands on her ankles, sliding them up to her knees. "Where do you want me to kiss you?" My voice came out low and rumbling, full of the deep desire I felt when I looked at her.

Hannah's eyes were hooded, and her lips twitched into a smile. She hesitated a moment before giving me a lazy grin. "My ankle?"

It was as good a place as any to start. I waggled my eyebrows at Hannah, sliding down until I lay with my head near her feet. I brought my lips to her ankle, pressing a delicate kiss to the skin there. I traced my tongue over her anklebone, drawing a giggle from somewhere above me.

I pulled back, smiling up the length of her body. "Where next?" I asked.

Hannah cocked her head, apparently giving the question serious thought. "My knee," she finally decided.

I wrapped one hand around her calf, kissing my way up her leg until I reached her knee. I made sure to pay close attention to every inch of skin I found there, even lavishing soft kisses around to the back of her knee.

When I had covered every possible square inch, I looked up at her again.

"My thighs," Hannah whispered.

I wasted no time kissing my way up one thigh, then down the other. I gradually settled between her legs, giving her a grateful smile when she opened her legs to accommodate me.

"Keep kissing me," Hannah gasped when I pulled away once more. She brought a hand between her legs, rubbing her fingers through her wetness. I watched with rapt eyes. "Right here."

I captured Hannah's wrist with my hand, pulling her glistening fingers to my face. I looked up at her as I took her fingers into my mouth. I hummed in pleasure, laving her digits with my tongue. She was sweeter than I could have ever imagined.

I released her fingers with a contented groan, and then I looked up at her with a serious gaze. "I'm not going to go inside unless you ask me," I told her. I wanted her to be able to relax.

Hannah gave me a grateful nod. "Thank you."

"I'm going to taste you now," I told her.

"Please," she whispered. She spread her legs further, inviting me to her. "Use your mouth."

We both moaned when I kissed between her legs, and when I began a gentle licking of her labia. My eyes slipped shut as I lapped at her, overcome by the intimacy of the moment. I had wanted her in this way for so long. More importantly, I had wanted to hear the noises of pleasure that now fell from her lips.

I tugged her leg over my shoulder, settling into a lazy rhythm with my tongue. Hannah's hips moved to meet my strokes, and I reached up to take her hand in mine. She squeezed my fingers, crying out a little as I sucked her clit between my lips.

I held her hand until she came in my mouth, at which point she let go to press my face close between her legs with a hand on the back of my head. I delighted in the noises she made as the orgasm overtook her, and in the way my face grew slick with her juices. I nuzzled her with my nose, lips, and chin, licking at her until she pushed me away with a weak hand.

"Come up here," Hannah gasped. "Come up here and kiss me."

I moved up the length of her body, settling very carefully on top of her. It was the first time I had ever lain atop her, and we both whimpered at the feeling of skin on skin. I kissed her softly, smiling when I felt her tongue running along my lips to sample the wetness that still coated them.

We broke the kiss and I whispered against Hannah's mouth, "I love you. I love you." I kissed her again, finally tasting the tears that mingled with the flavor of Hannah on my lips. I pulled back and gazed into shining brown eyes, rubbing my thumb over her damp cheek.

Hannah opened her mouth as if to speak, and instead released a shaky breath. She was panting. She brought a shaky hand to my face, mimicking my caresses to her cheeks.

I understood the tears and nodded, unafraid. "It's okay, baby," I whispered. I rolled to the side, pulling her into a warm embrace. Hannah settled her head on my shoulder, and tilted her face up so she could look into my eyes. "It's okay," I said again. "Do you feel good?"

Hannah nodded, nuzzling her face into my neck. "More than good," she murmured. "I feel... whole again. Or maybe for the first time."

I pulled Hannah closer to me, delighting in the feeling of her naked skin. I let my eyes slip shut, smiling at the rightness of Hannah and me. We were going to make it. I knew, without a doubt, that we would make it.

"I know what you mean," I said, dropping a kiss to her forehead. I traced my fingers over her back, grinning hard at the contented murmur it drew from her. "I know exactly what you mean."

*****

It was two weeks after Max and Lori helped us move me into Hannah's house, and six days before Hannah and I would leave for our first weekend trip up north, that we spent a lazy Sunday morning curled up together on the couch. Hannah lay with her head on my chest; her hips were nestled between my thighs, and she was engrossed in an issue of Wired magazine I'd brought over from my apartment. I held a paperback book just above her head, stroking her hair while I read.

Every few minutes I would tear my eyes away from the story to stare down at the top of Hannah's head. A few wisps of blonde hair tickled my chin, carrying the delicious, fresh scent of my love to my nose.

"Hey, Delaney?"

I finished the sentence I had been reading, and then dropped both my eyes and the book to gaze down at Hannah. Warm brown eyes peered back up at me.

"Yeah, baby?" I smiled down at her, bending a little to kiss her forehead.

"Did you read this issue?" she asked, holding the magazine up so that I could see the cover.

I shook my head. "I don't think so," I admitted. I reached down, cradling Hannah's belly with my hand. I gave her a gentle squeeze, eliciting a giggle. "I guess I've been too busy playing with my girl to keep up on my magazines."

"You should read it," Hannah said. She stretched, covering my hand with hers. I slid my fingers down until I found the hem of her t-shirt, and then underneath to caress the soft skin of her stomach. "There's a really interesting article about how they can produce multi-carat, gem-quality synthetic diamonds now, a couple of different ways. It's the desire for diamond-based semiconductors that's driving the technology, but De Beers is pissed. They're predicting the downfall of the industry."

I chuckled, tickling Hannah's sides. She squirmed on top of me, gripping my wrist with strong fingers. "Are you saying I shouldn't get you a diamond ring, then?"

Hannah grinned, shaking her head on my chest. "I prefer rubies, anyway."

I gazed into her eyes, aware of the way we were talking, and dimly aware that once upon a time, it would have scared the hell out of me. Today, with Hannah in my arms, a good book in my hand, and an almost eerie calm in my heart, I was able to keep the fear at bay. It was there, but it was okay.

The light in Hannah's eyes nearly banished it altogether.

"You're right," I murmured, pulling Hannah close to me and kissing her temple. "You would look beautiful with a ruby on your finger."

END

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