He pushed himself slowly up to hover above me, flexing his hips and making me shake with a flutter of hot aftershocks.
"I rushed the first time," he said, jaw flexing as he shifted inside of me again, testing both our responses. "I want this time to last. I want you slick with sweat and begging for rest. And I deserve to wait for my own release."
I licked my lips, half-tempted to prove how easy it would be to take him down with me. But there was no cue to meet, no audience waiting for the climax of our scene. And Nireas was right—he owed me.
"Pay your penance then, Nireas," I said.
He nodded, brow furrowed around his top eye, and started a slow, steady rhythm that made my toes curl in the sheets.
* * *
Much later,after we were both slick with effort and release and I'd pleaded for rest—a few tears tucked carefully into Nireas's shoulder—our bodies went still and languid. He was warm enough to curl up with on top of the covers, his arms covering much of my back and ass and thighs.
"I don't want to leave the theater," I said slowly, before exhaustion and limp satisfaction could pull me to sleep. "Not yet. And if I am with Hunter, or Jude, or you, or by myself, it won't have anything to do with that decision."
Nireas was still, frozen, holding his breath.
"I haven't been happy here until…quite recently, but that's to do with me, not you or Reddy or anyone else," I continued.
"I hurt you," Nireas said.
"You did. You were hurting. I'm not forgiving you for how you handled your feelings, but…eight years was brief for you and long for me. You weren't the only man to disappoint me in all that time. And I've been living with someone else's rules in my head."
I snorted, although maybe that was almost true. "No. My father's. He wasn't a happy man. I don't think he wanted me happy either. But I would like to be."
"I want you happy."
And even if Nireas and I weren't solved, I was grateful to him for saying that. I kissed his throat and he sighed, one hand aimlessly stroking the back of my head and my shoulders.
"We'll see you happy," Nireas said softly.
I hummed, not sure if he meant me and him, or him and the others. It could wait until morning. I was tired now, and Nireas was warm and had worn me out. Peace had to be stolen lately, and I was all too eager to take some for myself now.
* * *
I dreamtI had wings of shadow, spread out under the bright stage lights. I dreamt of claws on my fingertips and the flesh of men scratching themselves on my touch. I dreamt I had a bright set of fangs and tough scales and a long, playful tail.
I dreamt I was a monster, and when I woke, I found one of Nireas's pillows soaked with my own tears.
Nireas and Ronan said they wanted to see me happy. Hunter loved that I'd accepted every part of him. I wanted that too. And I knew it wasn't my lovers who were holding me back from having all of that and more.
Nireas protested as I tried to rise from the bed, his top eye blinking open. "Don't go," he whispered.
As far as Nireas knew, we were running out of time together. I would age like his human lover, we would grow apart, and I would die. How much time did he think he had left with me?
"I'll come back," I said, ducking down and kissing the top of his forehead above his third eye.
He huffed a sleepy breath but didn't untangle his arms, and it took me a few minutes of gently maneuvering him and untwisting his tail from around my right leg before I was free. There was sunlight bouncing off the warehouse wall outside the window, enough to assure me it was late morning.
My stockings were torn—probably from Nireas's tail—and the room was far too chilly for just my robe, so I stole one of Nireas's shirts and tied the extra arms around my body to fashion something like a short, fitted dress. I found a pair of massive wool socks under a chair, then slipped out of the room and into the rib cage of the theater, a narrow spiral staircase leading my way around the organ pipes and back down into the wings.
The underbelly of the theater was already thrumming with life, the canteen full of chatter with everyone more or less living together in the building. Mr. Reddy's office door was cracked open, and I approached it with shuffling steps, pausing outside just long enough to hear murmurs of a gentle conversation.
I knocked, and Reddy called me in. Myra was sitting on his lap, their arms twined around one another, her head on his shoulder. There was a bittersweet contentment between them, a familiar gentle pain in the air as I entered, and Myra slid off Reddy's lap with his arms dropping reluctantly to his side.
"I've told him already," Myra said, shooting a sullen glare at me out of the corner of her eyes.
The money she'd been collecting, I recalled. It'd only been days, and yet it felt like ages since we'd spoken.
"That's not why I'm here," I said. Reddy didn't look angry, and I refused to feel sorry for Myra.
"Get something to eat, Missy," Reddy said, patting Myra's bottom, a heavy sigh shifting his broad frame.
Myra and I passed without another word, and I landed heavily in the spare chair in front of Mr. Reddy.
"What is it then?" he asked, not unkindly, but with all the weight of a man who had too much on his plate and was afraid of another helping.
"You can fire me if you want, but I'm sick of keeping my mother a secret," I blurted out. The door was still hanging open, and I had a jittery thrill at the idea of someone overhearing us.
"Your mother," Reddy repeated, blank confusion washing over his face.
I flushed. We'd had the single conversation almost a decade ago regarding my heritage. Had he forgotten?
"That I'm…" Say it! Just say it!
"Oh!" he recalled with a shake of his head. He frowned at me, and I braced myself for the fight. "I'm not firing you, Nix. I'm not even sure what we're going to do when you leave."
"If I leave," I said.
Mr. Reddy blinked at me, tensed in his seat, and the keen, beady look he got when he thought of money and business and asses in seats took him over. "'If,' you say?"
You've been a fool, I thought to myself. Eight years ago, I was a novice at sex, new to the theater, and I'd needed my job more than Reddy needed me. How long had it been since the opposite became true? I was the girl who could take a centaur. A giant. Who could be tortured with pain and pleasure and walk away with a smile on her face. The Company of Fiends needed me.
"I haven't made my mind up yet."
"You don't like the orc?"
"Hunter is wonderful and I plan on staying with him as long as he wants me to, but he doesn't mind my work here at the theater. Most of the time, I don't either. But there are people I care about here and I'm sick of lying to them. Or feeling as though half of me is meant to be a dirty little secret," I said, gripping the arms of the chair I sat in.
Mr. Reddy's lips pursed. "You're not an attainable goal for our entire audience when you're something so rare."
It was almost flattering, but he hadn't meant it to be and I scowled back at him. "I'm not asking you to put it on the marquee. I'm telling you that I'm going to talk to Ronan and Nireas and—"
"You haven't yet?" Mr. Reddy asked, eyes wide.