The t-shirt and undies went in the first rash of hands, but I'd never tried to touch him when it wasn't a metaphysical necessity. I'd never just turned to Nathaniel because I wanted him. It wasn't that I didn't find him attractive. God knows I did, but I hadn't realized until those first few moments how much I'd come to rely on the ardeur. I'd thought of it as only a curse, but I appreciated for the first time that it greased the wheels for me. It got me over the embarrassment, the awkwardness, the good-girls-don't-do-this attitude. Without the ardeur, it was just me, and the inside of my head was ugly.
Nathaniel noticed, because he notices everything. He propped himself up on one elbow and looked down at me. "What's wrong?"
I wasn't sure how to say it, and that must have shown on my face, because he said, "Just say it, Anita, whatever it is."
I looked up at him and fought the urge to gaze down the length of his body. I had to close my eyes, and finally said, "Without the ardeur, it's just me. It's just me, and I'm..." I sat up. "I'm not comfortable."
I started to nod, then stopped, and said the real truth. "With myself."
He moved forward on the bed so that he rested his face against the small of my back. He was so warm. "What does that mean, exactly?"
How did I explain something to someone else, that I didn't really understand myself? "I don't know if I can explain it," I said.
The bathroom door opened, and we both looked up. Jason was there with a towel around his waist. He wasn't wet, but he was wearing a towel. I'd been around the shapeshifters long enough to think that was odd.
"I can't stand it," he said, "I just can't stand it."
"What?" I said.
"You're going to f**k this up."
I looked at him, and it wasn't a friendly look.
"Don't glare at me." He came to stand at the end of the bed, hands on hips. "I've told you that I'd give almost anything to have someone look at me the way Nathaniel looks at you."
"But nothing," he said, "I thought you were growing, changing, but what you just said blames it all on the ardeur. You didn't do any of it. Not your fault. If you f**k everything that moves while under the sway of the ardeur, you're still blameless."
I started to argue with him, but couldn't think how to do it. I finally said, "I sort of agree with what you said, what of it?"
"God, Anita, it's not about blame. You act like it's a sin."
Something must have shown on my face, because he made a sound in his throat that was part growl, and part exasperation. I had to look away from the expression in his eyes, the anger in them. "I was taught that it was a sin."
"They also taught you that Santa Claus was real, and you don't believe that anymore, do you?"
I crossed my arms across my body, which lost some of its intended sullenness, because I was naked, and it's never easy to be sullen when you're nude. "What's that supposed to mean?"
He went down on his knees by the bed. "It means, look at him."
I looked stubbornly at Jason, and not at Nathaniel.
"Turn around and look at him, or I'll turn you around."
"You'll try," I said.
"Fine, you want to wrestle, we can wrestle, but wouldn't it be less embarrassing, and less childish, if you just turned around?"
I took a deep breath, let it out slow, and turned around.
Nathaniel was lying there on his stomach, propped up on his elbows. His face was what you noticed first. Those amazing lavender eyes with the remnants of the eye makeup still there, making them look darker, larger, as if they needed any help to be amazing. His eyes held such patience, a calm surety that I'd fix this. That it would be alright. I didn't like anyone looking at me like that, because life had taught me that it usually wasn't alright. That I couldn't save everyone. That I couldn't fix anything. His lips held a slight smile. There was no anxiety in him. No fear that I'd run. He looked at me with the calm face of a saint staring into the face of God. Secure in his faith, safe in his knowledge, trusting in a way that I had lost so long ago. How could he look at me like that? Didn't he know better? He'd lived with me for four months. Didn't he know by now that I was screwed six ways to Sunday, and he shouldn't depend on me?
He ducked his head, almost a bashful movement, but it drew my gaze across the sweep of his shoulder, down the curve of his back. I'd only allowed myself to touch him below the waist once. When the ardeur was very new. I'd covered his back and bu**ocks with bites, and he'd loved it, and I had fed, and I'd never let myself touch him that much again, until the last two days. That first time had been about feeding, and I hadn't taken time to really see him, really enjoy him, because I'd looked at it as an evil necessity. Looking at him now, I felt guilty for ever thinking of him like that. He deserved better.
I'd made him put clothes on for months, at least shorts, even in bed. But he was entirely too comfortable nude for me not to have caught glimpses of him. Even last night, at the club, I hadn't really let myself look at him, not really. Because if I'd allowed myself to linger on his body, I'd have lingered on the part that seemed to fascinate me most, and, no, it wasn't what you think. His back had a slight sway to it, a curve that spilled to a lovely ass, but at the farthest line of his back, before it became not his back, were dimples. Maybe dimple wasn't the right word for them, but I had no other word to use. I stared at him now, let my eyes linger, rather than glance and look hurriedly away. I let myself see not that he was nude, but see his body.
I reached out to him and let myself do something that I'd wanted to do for months. I traced my hand down the curve of his back and came to rest just there, just at the end of his back, before the swell of his ass.
He shivered just a little under the touch of my hand, even though all I had done was lay my hand flat against his skin. Let the weight of my hand rest between those two dimples so low on his body. It was as if when the clay had been wet, God had placed his thumbs just above the swell of Nathaniel's rump, as an extra sweetness, like the idea that a dimple near the mouth is the kiss of an angel before the baby is born, so those dimples on his body were like some extra grace.
I kissed, ever so gently, each of those smooth hollows, like tiny shallow cups in his skin. Each mark was the size of my lips, as if they were meant for me to kiss them. I laid my head in the curve of his back, rested my cheek on those marks of grace, so that my face was slightly up tilted with the swell of his body, leading my eyes down the curve of his rump and his distant legs and feet, but for the moment I was content where I was.
I used his body as my pillow, and just as my mouth fit to those kissable dimples, so my head fit neatly in the curve of his body, as if I were meant to rest there. Nathaniel's breath went out in a long sigh, and his body seemed to settle into the bed, as if some tension that I hadn't even seen had run out of him and left him able to rest.
I trailed my hand across the curve of his ass, and he made a small sound for me. I trailed my fingers lower, tracing the line of his thigh. It wasn't that his legs were off-limits in the way that other areas had been, but I realized that I'd divided his body along a line at his waist, like some boundary in a war. Above the line was us, below the line was forbidden. His thigh was lush and smooth-skinned, and firm with muscle.
I brought my hand back up his leg and allowed my fingers to trace circles on his derriere. Those small movements drew small, quick, sounds from him, almost sounds of protest.
I asked, and my voice was as lazy and soft as my touch, "You're almost making pain noises, does it hurt?"
"No," he said, and his voice showed a strain that his body didn't even hint at. "It's just that I've wanted you to touch me for so long. It feels... amazing to have your head resting on me, your hands on me. God, it feels so good."
I let my hand trace, very delicately, along the crack of his ass, so that if there had been any little hairs I could have played with them, but he was smooth, utterly smooth. It made me wonder if other things were as smooth.
I brushed my fingers down the line of his ass again, tracing the separation between the cheeks, until I found that first line of warm flesh that was neither ass nor more, but a line of soft, silken skin.
I put a finger on either side of that skin, the softest of pinches, and slid my fingers up and down. Nathaniel writhed under the touch. His hands struggling against the sheets as if he wasn't sure what to do with them.