The Duality Paradigm: Chapter One

The Duality Paradigm by Lia Cooper

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You’ll never find a married witch. Women are just smarter about these things. Time and again you may run across a warlock trying to make a go of it, but this inevitably ends in disaster. The magically inclined tend to share a common, and disastrous, personality profile: narcissistic, self-absorbed and forgetful. And if you think they make terrible spouses, then the truth is, they make even worse mates. This is something every wolfcub knows, in his blood.

In his bones.

 #

“Halt! Stop!”

Ethan Ellison, Seattle Police Detective, mage (see magician), and all around personable guy, hurled his body through the night, his feet thudding across the pavement, arms pinwheeling and his lungs working double-time to draw in enough air to keep him going. There was less than half a dozen steps between himself and his quarry and the detective would not be shaken. His pride refused to let him slow.

The darkness enveloped them. It dampened the world, without stars or moon, a chill fog rolling in as midnight approached. They may as well have been the only two people in existence, flying through the night.

They broke through the stillness; twenty yards and they would be at the edge of dense foot traffic delineating the beginning of the market district, busy even at this time of night. Open air bars and late night shopping sprawled across the historic streets, vomiting people and light and noise. If his suspect made it to the crowd, Ethan might lose him.

“Freeze!”

There are rules governing the use and application of magic, the discharge of spells in public spaces and the use of supernatural forces in service of the government. Mostly these rules said, “Try not to,” but if you must, “be sure and file your form SPM-3×3. Promptly.”

A spark skittered across Ethan’s nervous system, just a spark, the merest hint of influence. Energy buzzed almost too faint to even count as magic and fizzed before it could coalesce in his hands. He jerked to a halt at five yards distance, ten seconds, nine seconds, eight—he breathed in raggedly and squared his shoulders, clenching and unclenching his dominant hand as he scrabbled at the tendril of magic in his veins, that one, small spark that set him apart from human.

The spell tripped out of him, crossing the dark in a jerk and a bang, hitting his suspect in the hip and sending him sprawling across the pavement.

“Good enough.” Ethan grinned and closed the distance between them, his entire left side buzzing with residual energy and going a bit numb. He pulled a pair of runically reinforced handcuffs out of his jacket pocket and slapped them onto the perp while the other man groaned.

“I’m gonna sue.”

“Yeah, yeah, you and everyone in a ten block radius,” he griped, hauling the heavier man to his feet, intensely aware of the crowd gathering around them. Magic users made up almost fifteen percent of the population and were frequently found working within the cogs of government, but people could still be weird about them; leery of practitioners and disgusted by public displays, even ones as pitiful as Ethan’s.

He pulled out his cell and put a call in to the station, reported his location and waited for one of the uniforms to show up with a squad car while he rattled off the Arrest Rites above the din. The perp made a half-hearted gesture at struggling but it was obvious that one leg had locked up underneath him, the other shaky and barely able to support his weight.

Jim Jones, badge #456, rolled down the street in a department issue Crown Vic, his flashing lights dispersed the crowd, and took the handcuffed man out of Ethan’s custody. The detective grinned brightly and slapped the taller man on his well-developed shoulders.

“Jimmy, excellent timing. I was just starting to think we’d have to walk.”

“That wouldn’t do,” he grinned down at Ellison and slammed the squad door on the crook’s disgruntled expression. “You need a ride back to the station, sir?”

“No, but I left my car parked about a mile back, mind giving me a ride?”

“Not a problem.”

Ethan buckled himself into the passenger seat. “How long have we know each other Jimmy? Almost a year now?”

Jim laughed and pulled away from the curb. “Sounds about right, since my first day in the precinct.”

“Right, so, I think that means you can call me Ethan, don’t you? It’s not like I’m your boss or something.” He quirked a sly grin across the car and directed them to the alley he’d had to ditch his non-department issued vehicle—a sleek, midnight blue Audi A5 eighteen months from being paid off. He blew out a relieved breath to see it sitting undisturbed across the alley mouth.

“Thanks Jim, see you back down at the station.”

Pioneer Square was quiet for late on a Friday night as he crossed south into his home turf. The Seattle South Precinct worked out of an old, worn down red brick building fronted by large windows that let in too many stares during summer and too much cold air during winter. Ethan parked haphazardly out front and sauntered inside. The night crew hunched over their desks and barely blinked at his entrance but he wasn’t deterred, he was going to enjoy the strut in his stride as long as it lasted. The front desk sergeant snorted at him and jabbed a pen at the holding cells.

“Jones brought your guy in and processed him already, got him bunking in the drunk tank seeing as how someone saw fit to hit him with an unauthorized use of force.”

“If by ‘unauthorized use of force’ you mean ‘totally authorized use of magic,’ then great,” Ethan bared his teeth, a challenge. Members of the general public weren’t the only ones chronically critical of magic. He felt his good mood evaporating almost as quickly as it had come.

He jerked a few forms free from behind Reception and slipped quietly into the winding rabbit warren. Vice and Major Crimes got their own floors, course, while everyone else was crammed in together on the ground level, different units separated from each other by towering, antique file cabinets, coat racks and bookcases overflowing with papers and yellowing reference texts. Ethan’s desk was wedged in a dark corner, as far away from light and fresh air as it could get and surrounded by a small sea of empty space.

He barely even registered on the official North American thaumaturgical scale as a warlock but his family had the (un)fortunate honor of being widely…known. The other detectives were mostly good fellas, hardworking, nose to the grindstone, more or less friendly and even helpful if it didn’t cost them too much. They weren’t afraid of him, per se, they weren’t even especially concerned by working with the paranormal most of the time; the guys who worked with you out in the field, in the thick of it, rarely were. It was just that, like and unlike his family, Ethan had a reputation.

By all rights, he should have been a powerful mage. Should have been able to tap into unheard of magical resources. His blood said he should have been a natural. He’d attended a well-respected wizarding school in the Great Northern, studied spells and runes and theory craft, only to return home a disappointment, barely able to cobble together enough power to trip up his enemies in the heat of the moment or create the merest ball of artificial luminescence. To be honest, and he was occasionally honest, Ethan was more prone to accidents—the odd, magical misfire—than anything else and the guys on the floor knew it.

“Heard you got that lingerie sniffer down around near Pike Place. How’d you figure it out? Was it the panties falling out of his back pocket?” Grayson from forensics perched on the edge of his desk with a comical leer. “Got something nice for me to process?”

“Don’t be disgusting.” Ethan didn’t bother looking up, just rolled the first report page into his half-rusted typewriter and aligned the type guide with the blank space for his badge number.

Grayson winced and laughed a little. “Boxers then? A nice pair of compression shorts?”

“Seriously, not helping. Would you believe it was the result of careful observation and dedicated police work?”

“Do I look like the Post-Intelligencer?”

“Well, I’ll have you know that’s the truth.” Ethan sneered a little and typed with an overabundance of focus. “Now piss off, I want to get out of here before the night’s totally wasted.”

SPM, what did you do? Hex the guy?”

Ethan grimaced to himself. He really wasn’t a fan of Grayson, who was a busybody and too snide by half, all of it hidden under a thin veneer of joviality. “I did my job. Why don’t you go do yours.”

Across the street, the clock tower began ticking out the hour: midnight. Ethan sat frozen, breathless. Midnight was a powerful moment, all sorts of strange things could happen. It also marked the true beginning of the night shift, when all the really loony shit started rolling in. He shot a significant look at Grayson who rolled his eyes—“Fine, fine, be that way” —but also smarmed his way off of Ethan’s desk and back into the maze. He could hear a distant phone start ringing, but that was all, a lone phone.

The hour ticked past without any howling or nearby explosions and Ethan sank back in his chair. The standard police form Supernatural-Paranormal-Magic, or SPM, jammed between the platen and the paper feeder and he cursed, feeding it off the machine, running an irritated hand across the wrinkles and threading it again, resuming where he’d left off. Thirty minutes later he grabbed his personal effects, locking his gun in his desk drawer—there wouldn’t be time to run home before he hit the Friday night club scene—and slipped out the back entrance where the desk Sarge couldn’t catch him and glare distastefully.

Ethan hummed to himself all the way to his car, pleased and more than a little self-satisfied.

He’d been tracking this particular lingerie klepto all week, and he wasn’t about to admit that Grayson was right to his face, but he had noticed the guy thanks to a distinctive bit of Agent Provocateur lace spilling out of his jacket pocket. The garment, worth upwards of five hundred dollars, had been lifted off a boutique downtown on Wednesday, the latest in a string of hits that began back in January. It had taken the stores involved almost five months to notice that this was something more than just your average shoplifting. Ethan had lucked out when the perp struck the same week they’d called him in to investigate and his luck had held when he’d literally found himself flirting with the guy early on Friday night at an outdoor Bar & Grill.

Feeling full of hubris and satisfied with a week tied up cleanly, Ethan was fully prepared to enjoy his Friday night before it completely disappeared. Club Barlow, named for its owner, a former hockey player with a ridiculous attachment to Euro pop, would do just the trick. The clientele never failed to offer up a mix of overgrown working professionals looking to loosen up on the dance floor with the latest dubstep.

Ethan wasn’t much of a dancer these days. He hadn’t been much of one when he was younger either, but a string of flings in his early twenties had left him with a few moves. Tonight, he found a free seat at the bar and ordered two fingers of top shelf Johnny Walker to start.

“And what are we celebrating?” The man leaning close had a nice enough smile and a well-fitted suit. Ethan glanced from his blond, neatly groomed hair, all the way to his pristine red converse and grinned a little.

“Who said anything about celebrating? Maybe I just like whiskey.”

“My mistake?”

He sipped his drink, rolling the taste of earth and smoke across his tongue and angled his body towards the stranger, “Maybe not, why don’t you stick around for a bit and we’ll see.”

Ethan had a good feeling this guy was just what he needed to unwind: a year or two younger than Ethan’s twenty-eight, maybe a little vanilla, but comfortable and biddable. He ran a finger across the lip of his glass where his mouth had left stray droplets of liquor and purposefully sucked them off his skin. He felt a gratified twitch in his cock when the man’s eyes followed the movement.

“Clay.” The blond tipped his drink in a salute and gestured for the bartender.

“A pleasure, I hope.” Ethan grinned back.

#

Pat grimaced at the thick scent of blood hanging in the air, slicking the dirty side street and the narrow walls on either side. His wolf twisted restlessly in his chest, uneasy with the close quarters and the tangible feeling of death surrounding them. He pushed down the feeling, intent on not allowing it to distract him from doing his fucking job.

A girl lay there in the darkness before him, torn to shreds and splattered across the scene, her guts a disquieting shade of pink under florescent lights.

“My god, Clanahan, it’s not even the full moon.”

Pat twitched and turned his dark gaze on the lead patrolman. “You assume this was a wolf.”

The human snorted, “You think it wasn’t? In this neighborhood?” He gestured broadly at the mess of flesh and blood and hair, “You ever see a person kill like that? ‘Cause I sure haven’t.”

“Maybe you should get out more,” Pat murmured under his breath.

Pat was well aware of his reputation throughout the South precinct, the berth other officers gave him. It wasn’t that they walked around on eggshells and they’d never been outright unfriendly, at least not most of them. It was instinct more than anything, giving the apex predator his space, keeping your head down just enough that you didn’t antagonize the other creature in the room who could legitimately tear out your throat on a bad day. Or a good one. They were good instincts; the kind he could appreciate, even if he was the only one aware of them on a conscious level. Humans were weird animals by his standards, so far removed from their own nature he honestly didn’t know how they managed to feed and clothe themselves most days.

But whatever respectful, halting camaraderie he might have had with the other guys in the South sputtered and died the day he lost his partner Adam Sloan: human, surprisingly academic for a guy who willingly investigated the most violent crimes in the city, friendly and well liked, and dead because he’d been too friendly with the wrong kind of wolf in the wrong part of town one night. He died the day before the full moon, when the pull rushed through their veins like silver, burning.

Pat wasn’t proud of his reaction, but he wasn’t exactly ashamed either. To him, Adam had been pack.

The disco-ball lights of another squad car lit the scene in swaths of pink and blue, refracting, and announced the arrival of his captain. Pat greeted her with a dispassionate nod and led the way back behind the police tape.

“This is going to be ugly.” Jordan Augustus was a twenty year veteran of the Seattle Police Department, barely thirty-nine years old, tall and fit. Her pale hazel eyes and white teeth flashed from out of a sun-burnished complexion—tan all year round even in Washington thanks to her First Nations heritage.

He hummed in agreement and watched the forensics guys bag body parts.

“I mean, really—shit.” She glanced around them, sharp eyes sweeping the buildings, noting the street names, all of it, taking a breath and pinning him again where he stood with a look. “This is disputed territory isn’t it?” she snorted before he could answer and gestured for him to follow. He did.

Jordan Augustus was not wolf but it couldn’t have mattered less, she was exactly the kind of alpha every cell in his body strained to follow. If he had just a little less pride, he’d be all but yapping at the heels of her sensible leather boots, begging for praise and attention. As it was, he flanked her silently, just behind and to her left, vibrating with energy screaming this is where I belong with every loaded step.

They pulled back to a distance where the blood and gore wouldn’t be quite so pungent to a human nose and Jordan turned back to survey the scene. The crush of humanity trying to look busy when they were all just there to gawk. The flashbulbs of newsmen lit the night from behind the tape, desperate to get a glimpse of the body.

“We won’t be able to keep this completely clear of the papers but I’m going to do my damnedest anyways.”

He nodded mutely.

“This is going to be a firestorm without the human populations stoking the flames.”

A snort; she glanced at him and smirked, closer to a grimace.

“I need you lead on the investigation.”

“I know.”

“You ready for it?”

He very carefully didn’t fidget under her calculating gaze. “Not like we have a whole lot of other options. All the other brethren are on SWAT.” He flicked a dark gaze up to meet her eyes. “It’s the same game it always has been.”

“Yeah,” she sighed and slid back into her squad car, “we both know that’s a lie.”

Pat winced a bit at the dismissal, watching her tail lights slip through the crowd, honking pointedly at the crush of press and disappearing into the night.

“Detective? Hey, hey detective, uh—”

“What?” he snarled unchecked, at the forensic tech trying to get his attention. The other man narrowed his eyes, his mouth twisted up in a disgusted moue before he schooled his expression into careful neutrality.

“Medical Examiner is done with her pre-lim. We’re getting ready to transport the body back to city, if there’s anything else you need, better get it now, eh?” His eyes were cool and dismissive.

“Everything’s been photographed?”

“Finished before we let anyone start traipsing through. It’s SOP.”

“Then I’m good.” A beat, then he jerked out a hand to catch the other man’s attention again. “Keep it away from the press, don’t let them see anything and make sure none of your people say anything.”

“This isn’t my first rodeo, Detective. Don’t have to tell me how to do my job, eh?”

“Sure,” Pat mumbled to himself, “and the first leak we’ll see on tomorrow’s front page is going to be—”

He tensed as the scent finally permeated the stench of death, another wolf, fresh—current. Every sense went on alert, the hair on his arms standing on edge beneath the wrinkled cotton of his dress shirt and blazer. Pat swept his eyes across the darkness, letting the wolf stalk closer to the surface, sharpening his senses, washing out the color and sharpening his night vision until he could register and catalog every flicker of movement.

His nose strained to filter out the scents of cops and humanity, blood and gore, and narrow in on that one… ah, there it was. He moved through the scene like a shark whose smelled blood.

“You shouldn’t be here,” he grumbled low, the sound reverberating through his chest and coming out of his human form throat as an almost inhuman growl.

“Why is that, officer?”

“You tell me what happens when one of the Maccabees finally shows their tail?”

“This is disputed—”

“Don’t give me the party line, the whole block reeks of them. You may not agree but just at the moment they own this strip of hell so I’d suggest you shove off.” Pat edged closer to the strange wolf and inhaled as deeply and unobtrusively as he could manage, memorizing the man’s scent and cataloging it in his mind, square in the growing file opened for this case. You couldn’t really make an ID off just a person’s scent but a little in-depth snooping, he could probably pinpoint the wolf’s home territory, his pack, and he’d sure as hell recognize it if he ever came across it again.

The wolf glared across the distance between them and sniffed. “You think you know anything? Go back to playing pet dog,” he spun on his heel.

Pat scrubbed both hands through the short, dark strands of his hair making it stand on end and blew out a harsh breath. His nose stung.

“God damn it.”

He’d appreciated it four years ago when Jordan, then deputy lieutenant in charge of tactical operations, went to bat for his place in Major Crimes. She’d beat off three other departments, including SWAT, with just about everything except a stick to keep his ass under her command. He’s enjoyed the recognition that came from being able to outperform eighty percent of the other officers in his division. But he’d been too young and inexperienced then to see the burden that came hand in hand with being homicide’s pet wolf.

It seemed like all he did after that first year or two was put out supernatural fires across the South precinct, the sort of messy violent crimes everyone else was too afraid of touching and too proud of admitting. It was a responsibility easier to bear with Adam watching his back. Now, all Pat could feel was the weight of eyes, the expectation. Half of the department waiting for him to snap and the rest waiting for him to fuck up.

Pat could smell the rain gathering close in smog heavy clouds. He turned to make sure the evidence was processed and on its way back to the station before the weather could wash away anything important.

#

“Nice place,” Ethan mumbled into Clay’s mouth.

“Yeah?” he breathed between kisses, stopping to pull away as if he was going to look around. “Thanks, I—”

“Busy here.” Ethan wrapped an insistent hand around the back of his head and pulled him back in close. The man bent his taller frame to accommodate Ethan’s demanding kisses, thick warm tongue smoothing between his eager lips to trace the roof of his mouth. Ethan groaned into the kiss and held on tighter, murmuring encouragement when broad hands gripped him by the hips and slammed him back into the front door.

“Yes,” he hissed as the other man trailed kisses down the pale column of his throat. Ethan arched back against the unyielding door and the hard, warm body of the other man. He nipped at a nicely shaped ear, licking to soothe the sting, nails digging in hard. “Got a bed in this place?”

Clay pressed in tighter against him, one thigh grinding up hard against Ethan’s prick through two pairs of slacks.

“God, oh—” Ethan gasped a little and smiled.

Clay moved back up to his mouth and kissed him, tongue thrusting rhythmically between his lips. Ethan moaned at their loss a second later.

“Come on.” Clay took him by the hand, voice a little breathless and lips already bruised looking, and led the way through the comfortably modern flat.

Ethan wasn’t really paying attention but the detective in him couldn’t help cataloging the presence of unframed art on the walls—all of it bright, abstract and a little unfinished, possibly by an acquaintance—nice furniture, worn, but a step up from university graduate, an untouched kitchen. His dick may have been straining the zipper tab of his work pants, but it was almost impossible to turn off his brain.

Nosy, rude, too observant: these were not the sort of characteristics people looked for in their one night stands—or their life partners, if we’re being honest—but it made him good at his job and that was all that mattered.

The bedroom was dimly lit by city light through balcony windows, the drapes left carelessly parted, but Ethan made out the shape of a plush queen before Clay turned them and dropped him back into the sheets. He rolled with it, catching a hand in the other man’s suiting and pulling him down with the movement.

Clay huffed out a startled breath, smelling a little of scotch and soda. They weren’t really drunk, just relaxed. Ethan licked across Clay’s lips and laughed when the other man grimaced and sat back on his heels.

“Jesus.” He wiped off his mouth and shrugged out of his suit coat, working at his cufflinks while Ethan reached up and attacked the buttons on his shirt. He rolled off the bed to lay everything out more or less flat on the only chair in the room and gave Ethan a significant look.

Without losing his cocky grin Ethan wiggled out of his pants, toeing off his shoes and losing his shirt with a casual flick of the wrist. All of it ended up in a tangle on the floor. Clay shook his head but crawled back up over him, scattering kisses across his ribs and chest, licking across his collarbone and settling at his mouth once again. Ethan tangled his hands in thick blond hair, winding the soft strands around his fingers and holding on tight.

Their cocks slid together, a delicious drag of friction and heat, nowhere near slick enough.

Ethan pulled Clay off his mouth, panting into the space between them, “You should definitely fuck me.”

He blinked, “Yeah?”

“Yeah, you got stuff?”

The offer seemed to have short circuited a few brain cells. Clay blinking at him for a minute before nodding, his voice strained, “Yeah, shit, hold on.” He rummaged through the sleek glass and stainless steel bedside table, coming up eagerly with lube and a condom.

Ethan pulled him back down into a lingering kiss before he pulled away with an expectant look. He squeezed the other man’s hip, ran an appreciative hand over his side before pushing him back, opening enough space between them to roll over onto his stomach.

Clay’s hands stroked down the planes of his back, tracing muscle and pale skin all the way to his waist. The hands disappeared and Ethan heard him opening the lube, the wet sound as he squeezed some out onto his fingers. He sank into the comfortable give of the bed, pushing a pillow away from his head, losing it in the dim light, and burying his head in his folded arms. He shivered with the first cool touch at his ass, breathing out softly when Clay spread him open and gently eased a finger into him.

He considered himself a pretty honest switch, preferring to neither bottom or top exclusively and he certainly didn’t always bottom for his one night stands but it had been a busy a week and Ethan felt like lying back and letting someone else drive tonight. He liked to think he was a pretty good judge of character, he had to be for work, and it translated well with his hookups. Clay gave off a good vibe, the sort of professional guy responsible enough Ethan felt comfortable taking it from him and just arrogant enough that he’d make it good.

The second finger took a little more effort, stretching him open patiently. Clay crooked his fingers, stroking firmly into his ass a few times before he found that spot that lit all of Ethan’s nerve endings on fire. He gasped softly, eyes slipping shut so he could just bask in the feeling.

“There?” Clay asked, his voice thick with arousal.

“Right there, give me more.”

Clay pulled out his fingers, dribbled a little more lube into the crack of Ethan’s ass and pushed back in with three fingers this time, twisting them up to the second knuckle and rubbing against his prostate.

His whole body convulsed and he couldn’t keep from thrusting helplessly into the bed, cock jerking and leaking with pre-come into the bedspread.

“Fuck, yes, that’s good. That’s good, I’m good, fuck me.”

Clay paused, breath coming out in soft, warm puffs against his shoulder, fingers buried deep in ass. He leaned down and pressed a wet kiss against the back of Ethan’s neck before he pulled out and settled back on his knees. The condom wrapper opening was loud against the backdrop of their breathing and the distant sound of cars driving by on the street below. Then impatient hands were gripping his thighs, drawing them apart, pulling him down the bed. Clay thrust against him, rubbing his dick through the slick between his ass cheeks before taking himself in hand, the other gripping Ethan firmly by the hip, and entering him in one long, smooth slide, nothing hesitant about it.

Ethan groaned and jerked into the sensation, telling his body to relax, made his muscles loosen against the intrusion and shivering into it. Clay pulled him up on his knees until his head hung low between his braced elbows. It hurt a little until his body adjusted.

“You okay?” Clay’s voice sounded strained but Ethan appreciated the care he was taking, not just thrusting but holding still buried to the root.

He pushed himself up a bit and twisted his neck, “Kiss me.”

Clay groaned and complied. The angle was awkward but Ethan twisted deeper, pushing his ass back flush to Clay’s hips and pushing his tongue into the other man’s mouth. They broke apart and Ethan collapsed back, arching his back and his shoulder blades and clenching down hard on the cock inside him.

“Move, I’m good.”

The words were barely out of his mouth before Clay was pulling almost all the way out and thrusting forward, bottoming out again with a heartfelt groan. He set up a steady rhythm, both hands gripped tight to Ethan’s hips, one slipping up and against his back, pressing into his spine until he arched into the thrusts, the angle shifting until they found his prostate again. Ethan gasped and clenched, Clay groaning and jerking into him.

“Shit!” It was possible he’d come out of this with a beautiful set of fingerprints on his right hip and Ethan planned on enjoying them. Clay’s thrusts picked up speed, hitting that spot over and over until Ethan was practically sobbing into the bedding. He threw a hand out to brace against the headboard.

“Oh, Jesus, you feel fantastic.” Clay scraped his nails down his back and leaned forward, he wrapped an arm around Ethan’s chest, thumbing a nipple. Ethan whined at the sensation.

Every thrust sparked a line of fire from his ass to his balls but it wasn’t enough. He pushed his back into Clay’s chest until it moved and he could sit up on his heels, Clay in close behind him, still thrusting.

“What—?”

Clay sounded wrecked in Ethan’s ear but he couldn’t care less at this point, lost in the feel of strong thighs spreading him wide. He let his head fall back onto the other man’s shoulder, one arm still braced to hold him up as he reached for his straining prick. Clay kept up the quick rhythm, jerking up short and hard into his body. His breath ruffled the curling hairs at the nape of his neck and Ethan shivered when the other man mouthed sloppy at his earlobe.

A second hand snaked around his side and rubbed gently across Ethan’s slick belly, which trembled, muscles contracting. Ethan pressed his eyes shut and stripped his cock, slicking the pre-come at the head down across the shaft.

“Tell me you’re close. You are, aren’t you?” Clay breathed into his ear.

“Yes. So fucking—” his words got lost in a shout when warm fingers tangled in his own, squeezing almost too tight and he came, body clenching and shivering, come painting his chest and the bedspread. Strong arms, like iron bands, helped hold him up as Clay thrust raggedly into his ass, finally losing his rhythm and coming with a low guttural sound.

Ethan slid forward into the bed, too fucked out to care about the impressive wet spot he’d made. Clay stayed braced above him, rolling his shoulders and finally grabbing his cock, pulling out and getting up to dispose of the condom.

“You staying?” he called out from the bathroom.

Ethan flicked open his eyes from where he’d buried his face in the sheets, feeling pleasantly floaty and relaxed.

“Do you mind?”

Clay emerged with a damp hand towel and shrugged. “It’s fine, but let me clean up first a little, I hate dried come on the sheets.”

He snorted and rolled over. Efficient hands wiped down his soft cock, squeezing his balls lightly so that he gasped. Clay disposed of the towel like he seemed to do everything else—carefully in its place, in the hamper—and pulled the blankets out from under Ethan’s limp body. He arranged them both beneath the warm covers. Ethan tangled their legs up and propped his chin against Clay’s smooth chest.

Clay ran his hand back through Ethan’s hair, sweeping the sweaty strands out of his eyes, his gaze unreadable. Ethan leaned up and kissed him, then he lay back and rolled over, digging himself into the extra pillow and the blankets, enjoying the warmth radiating out along his back. He fell asleep with the other man’s chest brushing his skin lightly with every breath, not quite cuddling.

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