by torch, 1997
flambeau@strangeplaces.net

Disclaimer: Despite saving up an inordinate amount of coupons, I don't have my own Tom or Harry yet, so I borrowed Paramount's. This story is rated NC-17 for language and, well, a little bit of m/m sex, as it happens. It's a sequel to The wilder shores of love, and thus features Harry Kim, the playboy of the Delta quadrant, back by popular demand. Do not archive this story without permission.

The art of conversation

It figures, Harry thought to himself, that it would happen this way. You meet someone incredibly gorgeous. You lust after him in a hopeless sort of way for a couple of years. You resign yourself to being just his best friend. Then you fuck him on a beach and everything changes.

He reviewed that progression of events again, in his mind, and had to laugh a little.

Engineering was celebrating a complete systems overhaul with a barbecue on the holodeck. Everyone who'd had a hand in helping had been invited, and Harry was currently standing in warm afternoon sunshine trying to balance plate, fork, ribs, salad, napkin and beer glass without dropping anything onto the ground. He'd kicked his shoes off and now he curled his toes into the hot sand, feeling the grains warm and rough against his skin.

Maybe it was the beach scenario that had reminded him. Or maybe it was the sight of one Thomas Eugene Paris in off-duty clothes for once, testing whether the hot dogs were done yet. Or maybe he didn't need all that much reminding. It had only been two weeks since he'd woken up on that beach on Zerdea to find that Tom had gone for a swim, and since then, they hadn't touched. Not so much as a handshake.

Harry felt a wave of frustration sweep over him and tighten his shoulder muscles. He shifted his weight to compensate, dropped the fork, and concentrated on not saying anything.

Here he was, without best friend, without lover, without fork. But on the bright side, he still had his napkin, his plate, and his beer. Life was not entirely without comforts. Oh, who was he fooling? Harry sighed and wondered if there was anything salvageable here. Not the ribs, that was for sure. He didn't think he could eat right now. Leaving the fork to its fate, he sauntered through the merry crowd to where Tom was standing.

"Have this," he offered, pushing his plate into Tom's hands. "I'm not really hungry."

"Thanks," Tom said; it sounded more like an ingrained reflex than genuine gratitude. "This is a nice party, isn't it?"

"Very." Harry considered screaming, and decided against it. Back there on that other beach, Tom had said that he thought they could still be friends; that he thought they might expand on the concept of friendship. Obviously both those assumptions had been mistakes on Tom's part. These days they talked to each other like two diplomats from warring cultures meeting accidentally at a Federation garden party. Which was distinctly disorienting, considering how close they'd been.

Harry looked at Tom, trying to do it casually, despite what the warm hazy sunlight was doing to his friend's eyes, and hair, and skin. He really was beautiful. And now Harry knew what it was like to touch him, to caress him, to hear him cry out in pleasure. Impossible to forget something so wonderful. He wondered what it was that had made Tom freak, exactly. The fact that they'd had sex? The near-declaration of love? Harry wanted to know.

"I, er, I promised Lee I'd bring her a hot dog." Tom had set Harry's plate down on one of the picnic tables. Now he was moving away slowly. Harry forbore to point out that Tom had forgotten to actually grab the hot dog that the excuse demanded. It was no use making things any worse right now. Besides, he found himself slowly working up to a decision.

While Tom strolled around chatting here and there, avoiding Harry, avoiding even looking at Harry, Harry stayed where he was and kept track of Tom's movements. He was polite to everyone who approached him but made it clear he wasn't interested in conversation. Most people were feeling too pleased with themselves and with the place to do more than just float around and swap a word here and there, anyway.

As he watched he thought about what had happened. He wasn't reliving the incident itself; that was for the long, long nights when he allowed memory free rein, both a torment and a form of solace. Harry was just wondering what chain of circumstance or cosmic planning had caused that encounter between him and Tom on Zerdea. He wasn't sure what it was that had made him finally decide to make it clear to Tom how he felt, and he certainly didn't know why Tom had surrendered so enthusiastically to Harry's kisses and then refused to even acknowledge that it had happened.

It wasn't what he had expected of Tom, Harry thought. When Harry had opened his mouth to tell Tom what he wanted, he had been fully prepared for the rejection that followed, and the fact that Tom had changed his mind had been a surprise. A very welcome surprise, but a surprise nonetheless. Not as much of a surprise as the subsequent silence, though. Tom, for all his quirks, was a straightforward enough person when it came to what he wanted and did not want, and Harry knew for a fact that Tom didn't play with people.

Then again, maybe he was wrong about how well he knew Tom. All he felt certain of was that he needed to figure out what was going on. If he'd lost his best friend, if he'd lost his chance at making that best friend his lover, he at least wanted to know how it had happened.

Harry waited patiently until the party finally started to break up and he saw Tom get ready to leave; then he followed. He got into the turbo lift with Tom and a couple of others, and everyone got off at deck four. It wasn't until Tom stood outside the door to his quarters that he seemed to realize Harry was still with him.

Meeting Tom's tense, uncomfortable look squarely, Harry said, "It's been a while since we talked."

"I guess so," Tom agreed, "but I'm pretty tired." He opened the door and stepped inside. Harry went with him, feeling a slight uncomfortable twinge at how rude he was being, but realizing it was probably the only way. Tom turned to find Harry at his side again. "Can't it wait?" He edged backwards.

"I don't think so." Harry looked sadly at the way Tom was shifting away from him, at the look on Tom's face. "All I want to do is talk," he said softly. "I won't lay a finger on you, if that's what you're worried about."

Tom scowled, apparently not too pleased at the implication, but then he sighed and ran a hand through his hair and looked at Harry more calmly. "You're right. We should get a few things straight. I wanted some time to think things through first, but..." He gestured towards the couch, and Harry went to sit down. Tom settled into the armchair, and having them both settled at a fixed distance from each other seemed to dispel some of his unease.

"Tell me what you're thinking, then," Harry said eventually, when Tom just sat there. "Do you want to go back to being friends?" Hell, so did he, if this was the alternative. It wasn't what he would prefer, but anything was better than this. Tom opened his mouth, drew a breath, closed his mouth again. Harry raised an eyebrow. "Yes? No?"

"I don't know. I mean, I want us to be friends, regardless. But it feels different now. I thought I knew you." Tom's smile was crooked, but genuine. "You really surprised me. I guess that's why..."

"That's why, what?" Harry asked when Tom didn't continue. He thought that Tom might be feeling much the same towards him as he felt towards Tom right now — surprised and doubtful. They had both believed that they knew each other. "That's why you're feeling so awkward now? Hey, you might get used to it."

"I don't think we should do anything like that again," Tom said. He met Harry's eyes for a moment, and there was something pure there, a decision projected with a lot of emotional power. "Really."

"Relax," Harry said into the intensity that met him. He was struggling for a way to defuse Tom's tension without understanding it or knowing where it came from. All he knew was that Tom was uncomfortable and he wanted to soothe that feeling away somehow. "Does it bother you that much? It was just sex. I thought you enjoyed it."

"That's not the point," Tom said.

Harry nodded; he was quite prepared to accept that. But not prepared to drop the issue. "What is it, then?" Harry thought about asking whether it was his proclaimed emotional involvement that had made Tom nervous; then he decided to wait a bit.

But Tom was shaking his head slowly. "No, that wasn't true. That is the point. Sort of. Look, let's just drop it. We'll be friends. And, and—" The look in Tom's eyes was really bothering Harry. "Harry, promise me you won't spring any more surprises like that on me."

Finally, a glimmer of illumination appeared in Harry's mind. "Tom, do you feel that I took advantage of you? Seduced you?"

Tom froze. Everything about him looked tense, then he forced a careless smile onto his face. "Hey, I'm a grown man—"

"I'm not making fun of you, Tom." Harry tried to put all the reassurance and love he wanted to convey into his voice; he really wanted to touch Tom, but he'd promised not to. Besides, now he was starting to feel bad about what he had done. "I mean it; if you feel your body was tricked into doing something your mind didn't really want it to..."

The slow exhalation did not bring about any lessening tension. "I did want to. That's the problem. I felt safe with you because I didn't think you'd ever do anything like that."

"Anything like what?" Harry was feeling his way slowly. "Fuck you?"

Tom smiled at that, one of the real smiles. "Well, no, I didn't think you'd do that, either. But it was the way that... It's just this whole idea of being out of control."

Harry considered this. "You don't like it?" He took in the look in Tom's eyes, the way his lips pressed together, the slight flush. And he remembered what it had been like on the beach, how exquisitely responsive Tom had been to his every touch. "You do like it."

"No," Tom said sharply. "Look, I don't want that, okay?"

"Okay," Harry said, thinking back to the way he'd more or less ordered Tom to take his clothes off, the way he'd made love to Tom, calling all the shots. It seemed he had accidentally done exactly what Tom had wanted, and at the same time not wanted, him to do. "But it doesn't have to be like that, Tom," he said. "We can—"

"We can just be friends," Tom said, and the tone of his voice told Harry that this was not the right moment to argue about it.

"Sure, we can be friends," Harry agreed. He studied the way Tom sat, the way Tom held himself. "And you can relax around me. Breathe, that kind of thing."

Tom glared at him, and then smiled faintly. "I'll try. I will. I just—"

"Hey, I said I wouldn't touch you." Harry could tell that that both reassured and further discomforted Tom; Tom needed to hear it, but he was embarrassed by that need. It made Harry hurt for him. He didn't know why the issue of control was such a hangup, but he was genuinely sorry that he had accidentally triggered this reaction by taking the initiative so forcefully.

On the other hand, what had happened between them had been painfully good. An experience he didn't think he would ever be able to forget; just about the best sex he'd ever had. And Tom had enjoyed it, too, there was not the slightest doubt in Harry's mind about that.

Then again, if it made Tom uncomfortable, perhaps it didn't really matter whether he liked it.

Tom fell back in the chair, leaning against the backrest for the first time, and closed his eyes. Harry felt relieved to see that; it seemed to indicate that Tom was feeling better about having him around. "If anyone asked me," Tom said unexpectedly, "I would have said I trust you as much as I've ever trusted anyone in this universe. It's not that."

"Well, trust me a bit more, then," Harry said. He felt bad about all this and he wanted to make Tom feel better, and one solution sprang immediately to mind. "Lean your head back. Breathe. In. Out. You look like a guy whose back is killing him."

"Yeah," Tom admitted. "Look, I'm sorry I avoided you, Harry. I felt..." He laughed suddenly. "Like one of the constants of the universe had suddenly changed."

Smiling to himself, Harry decided he felt mostly flattered by that comparison. When he looked at Tom's face he felt an uprushing of irrational and irresistible tenderness that brought a lump to his throat. How often did Tom let his guard down this far, even with friends? Talk about having to stay in control all the time. There was something there, but this wasn't the right moment to ask about it.

Instead Harry drew a deep breath and said carefully, "Try to relax. It helps if you imagine the tension running off your body like water. Pouring slowly across your scalp, down your neck, all along your back, through your legs. You're just a conduit for it."

"As opposed to a battery?" But Tom spoke more slowly now as he really leaned against the chair, letting it embrace him.

"Yes," Harry replied seriously. "That's it exactly. Imagine fingers running through your hair, rubbing your scalp, draining the pain away. Just very very slowly soothing it all away." Tom sighed. "Kneading the back of your neck until the muscles stop fighting and roll with the touch. Then your shoulders. All the tension washes away, slips away, your body can't hold on to it any longer."

He went on for a while in the same soft tone of voice until he could see from the way Tom held himself that it was working, that things were better now. Then he let the stream of words die out, and they sat in comfortable silence for a while. Tom slowly opened his eyes and managed a small, completely relaxed smile.

"Thanks."

Harry smiled back. "My mother used to do that to me. She'd call me up when I was at the Academy, make sure I wasn't driving myself too hard." He looked at Tom and wished he could just walk over and kiss him. Instead he said, "I think I'd better get back to my quarters, it's getting late."

"Yeah," Tom agreed, sounding as though he was about to fall asleep where he sat. Relaxed, like this, he possessed the same casual grace that had so enchanted Harry after they'd made love on the beach. The memory didn't bring the same twinge to his heart now. Perhaps Tom wasn't the only one who'd had his tension soothed away. "See you tomorrow." A small flash of serious feeling in the blue eyes. "I'm glad we talked."

"So am I," Harry said.

As he let himself out and went back to his own rooms, he considered what Tom had just told him. There had to be a story behind this. Harry wanted to know what it was, but he was wary of asking Tom about it too abruptly — that would be a sure-fire way to disrupt the level of trust that had been established, or re-established, between them now. Still, he really wanted to know what it was. Tom was his friend, he wanted to help.

Right, Harry told himself wryly. You want to know so you can work around it and get in his pants again.

He shook his head, walking into his quarters and calling for lights. Yes, he wanted that, too. He wanted Tom badly; it had been one thing to dream hopelessly about fucking him, but to know what it was like and not be allowed to do it again brought a new level to the concept of frustration. But his primary concern really, truly was for Tom himself. I love him, annoying hotshot pilot that he is. I want him to be happy.

Of course he would rather like to be happy himself, too. He just needed to figure out a way to make all his wishes come true.

* * *

Things were a lot better between them after that. They went back to having most of their meals together, went back to hanging out together in whatever communal program was running on the holodeck, reviewing the day's events or gossiping idly about their fellow crewmembers. Almost no one seemed to have noticed that there had been a brief interruption in cordial relations.

Harry noticed that as the days went by and nothing out of the ordinary happened, Tom was certainly relaxing more, but he also appeared to be thoroughly determined to put the whole issue out of his mind. That did not fit in with what Harry wanted. He thought Tom had to face up to what was bothering him sooner or later.Then again, what right did he have to inflict some kind of home-grown therapy on Tom, just on the off-chance that it would help in getting him into bed again?

It was one of the stranger moral dilemmas he'd ever faced and he was as far from solving it as ever when he spent another evening at Sandrine's, watching Tom shoot pool with the captain. Harry propped his chin on his hands and stared at the wall, smiling a little at his own perversity. Only a couple of weeks ago he had been prepared to swear that he'd forget about any kind of pursuit of Tom, just as long as they could go back to being friends. Now they had gone back to being friends, and all Harry could think about was how to take the relationship one step further again.

The table rocked slightly as Jenny Delaney sat down opposite him, smiling cheerfully. "What's up with you, Harry?" She tapped his nose with her index finger. "Are you being thoughtful or just constipated?"

"Soulful," Harry said, smiling right back. "Soulful and meditative. Is everything all right with you and Megan?"

"Sure. We're just fine." She tucked a few stray red-gold hairs behind her ear, and settled in more comfortably with her elbows on the table. "A bit bored, of course, now that our favorite senior officers have stopped asking us out."

"Poor you," Harry commiserated sweetly, hiding his interest in the fact that Tom wasn't going out with Megan any longer. He and Jenny had decided quite some time ago that they weren't going to be anything other than friends, and he wasn't the least bit taken in by her wide-eyed pout. Nor, to be fair, did she expect him to be. "What are you going to do now, then?"

"Ah, we thought about Geron," Jenny said with a teasing smile.

Harry felt concerned. "Jenny, he's practically a child. Promise me you'll be gentle with him, all right? Ow!" Jenny's boots were the same regulation Starfleet issue as everyone else's, so how was it that she always managed to kick him so damn hard?

"Harry." She patted his hand. "Look, Harry, you and Tom have to stop talking about Megan and me as though we're the man-eating monsters of the Delta quadrant. We never did anything with you that you didn't like, you were just a bit shy of admitting it in the beginning."

He looked at her. She was laughing at him, quite definitely laughing. "Jenny, don't try to appear reasonable. I know you're an evil woman." That cracked her up and she laughed out loud. "I'll tie a red ribbon round Geron's neck and leave him outside your quarters, how's that?"

"That would be perfect," she purred. Their eyes met and they both smiled. "And who should I leave outside your quarters?" Jenny held his gaze a moment longer, then let her eyes drift to where Tom was leaning over the pool table, assessing the situation. "Hmmm?"

"I think I'll have to manage on my own," Harry said. "But thanks for offering." To avoid any further interrogation, he artfully made a comment about a new star chart that Stellar Cartography had successfully bartered for on Zerdea, and the rest of their conversation was devoted to speculating about the next part of their journey.

When Jenny went off to join her sister at another table, Harry went back to watching Tom. That was always a pleasure. Harry admired Tom's ability to light up a room with his presence, to draw everyone's eyes. Tom did not know how to be unobtrusive. Something about him demanded attention, and got it. Not for the first time, Harry wondered whether it was a built-in ability or a learned skill.

But although he enjoyed studying Tom in action, as it were, Harry liked Tom even better in a more private setting. The more private the better, he thought with a wry smile. He pushed his chair back, rose and walked over to the pool table. Tom wasn't playing any more, he was offering advice to Dalby in a tone of voice that made Harry think it was probably a good idea to get Tom out of there before a pool cue was forcefully applied to a sensitive portion of his anatomy.

"Harry, do you want to play when Dalby and Henley are finished with their game?" Tom was smiling at him, and Harry felt the old compulsion tug at him; that smile usually made him go along with whatever Tom suggested, even when he knew he was going to regret it.

This time, though, he was going to resist. "No, I think I'll go back to my quarters. I want to play through a couple of new pieces, and I thought I'd do it while Bateheart is here so he can't complain about it."

Tom glanced over to where Bateheart was deep in discussion with two other crewmen, and nodded. Harry had shifted, starting to move very slowly towards the door, and he noticed that Tom was following him. "Yeah, makes sense. I guess you want privacy for that kind of thing."

"I don't mind an audience, as long as that audience isn't thumping the wall," Harry said. They were almost at the door now. "It's nice to have company." They were through the door. So, Tom was coming along, although he hadn't actually said so.

When they got to Harry's quarters Tom settled down on the couch with an air of familiarity, and Harry almost heaved an audible sigh of contentment. It felt so good to have him there. So right. Harry got his clarinet out and ran through a few scales. He played a fast fingering exercise that he liked because of the long melodic run at the end, and then the most recent piece he'd been learning. There was nothing new about it, though: it was a 15th century pavane, a slow and stately melody that he'd discovered in the library's musical selections.

On the couch, Tom was leaning back and listening, responding to the slightly mournful mood; his eyes were serious. Harry didn't even think about what he was going to play next, his fingers just moved automatically into another old, old piece. He could probably have played Pachebel's canon in his sleep, but it never failed to soothe him. The regular progression of notes was so simple and yet so satisfying, it felt like meditation, both to listen to and to play.

It seemed to be working on Tom, too. There was a small smile on his face now. When Harry finally finished playing, and sank down on the other half of the couch, they sat together in peaceful silence for a while until Tom said, "That was almost as good as those relaxing exercises of your mother's."

"Mm," Harry agreed, swung his feet up on the couch and leaned back against the armrest. "You liked that? I was worried you wouldn't."

"How can anyone not like music like that?"

"Lots of people don't," Harry grinned, "but that wasn't what I meant, I meant that relaxation technique." He waited until he saw Tom nod before going on, "You said that you didn't like giving up control, but that's really the only way to make that work."

Tom shrugged. "Yeah, but that was different. I trusted you to stick to your stated purpose. Keep your word."

Harry nodded slowly. "I'm sorry what we did back on Zerdea upset you, Tom." He waited a moment longer before asking, "Want to tell me why?"

"No. Not really." Tom sighed, and put his legs up on the table. It seemed to be a sign that he was going to stay put, but he'd tensed up again. "I guess I might as well, or you're going to imagine all kinds of things." That comment was so accurate, Harry was grateful Tom wasn't looking at him right then but studying his boot tips instead.

"You don't have to tell me, Tom," he said.

But Tom seemed to have made up his mind and put the words together already; he went on as if Harry hadn't spoken. "Harry, I've decided that no one else is going to be in charge of my life again. It used to be it was all mapped out for me — by my father — I swear he had little computer simulations of me, of what my career was going to be like. And then when everything went wrong."

"Yes?" Harry said softly, encouragingly. He wanted to say a lot of things in response, already, but he thought it would be better to wait until Tom had talked it all out and put it all together.

"I was a mess after Caldik Prime," Tom went on. His voice was tight and controlled. "A real mess. I could barely tell if my feet were on the ground or not. It was like falling constantly. I mean, my father had had this very clear idea of who I was and where I was going. And I'd been annoyed by it and gone along with it and rebelled against it, and I never did anything that was not, one way or another, a reaction to that idea. After I was out of Starfleet, I was off the map, Harry. I didn't know who I was or what I was doing."

Tom paused and ran his hands through his hair. He looked at Harry very briefly, and Harry said, "Go on."

"That's when I got into some wild stuff for a while." Tom actually looked embarrassed. "I don't know what to say... it just felt good not to have to think. To have someone else be in charge. And I didn't care who that someone was. As long as it didn't have to be me thinking, making decisions." Harry couldn't stop the images that rose up in his mind at those words, of dark places where Tom gave himself up to strangers, without trust; without really caring. He shivered. "And things just went spiralling out of control and I didn't care about anything. And then I found myself in the Maquis."

"I always wondered what made you join," Harry said, unwilling to break Tom's narrative, but aware that this might be his only chance to find out.

The smile on Tom's face wasn't nice. "That's the stupid part. It just happened. I tried, Harry, I tried to believe in their cause, but half the time I could barely remember my own name, I was so out of it. They deserved better. I made a shitty outlaw. It wasn't until I got caught that I started to think again. In prison, because there sure as hell wasn't much else to do there."

"And what did you think, Tom?"

"That I'd made a mess of everything," Tom said. He sighed. "That it's no use trying to lose yourself, that's no way to deal with your life. I'm not going back there again, Harry."

"Of course you're not," Harry said immediately, even though he did not know whether Tom meant the Maquis, or prison, or his state of mind back then. He thought the latter. And he understood a lot better now. "My sister always eats chocolate when she's depressed," he said.

"Oh?" Tom looked a bit thrown. "Are we swapping family anecdotes now?"

"Once when she broke up with her boyfriend she did hardly anything besides cry and eat chocolate for a couple of months. Then one morning I caught her standing on the bathroom scales saying that chocolate was evil and she was never going to touch it again."

"Harry," Tom said, his voice sharpening, "are you trying to make some kind of weird analogy here?"

"Yes," Harry admitted cheerfully.

"There is a certain difference between chocolate and kinky sex."

Harry laughed, and after a moment, Tom laughed too. "Yes, you don't put on weight when you're having sex. Besides, I wouldn't say what we did was kinky." He met Tom's eyes and saw that the smile still lingered there. "Just enough to remind you, right?"

Tom nodded. Then he said, "Still, too much chocolate wasn't good for your sister, and what I did then wasn't good for me. I was a mess."

"You said that." Harry kept the light, cheerful tone as he went on, "But that's the point. You were depressed, so was my sister. Chocolate isn't inherently evil—" he saw Tom break into another involuntary smile at that— "and being sexually submissive from time to time isn't necessarily bad." Tom flinched slightly, and Harry wished he could have thought of another way to put it. "Tom, you're not depressed now, right? And I'm not a stranger. I care about you. I would never try to hurt you, in any way, and I think you know that. I think you know that you can trust me."

Tom shot him a quick, bright glance. "You mean you want—" It seemed Tom didn't want to finish the sentence.

"I want you to stop being nervous of this," Harry said. "You need to relax, Tom. You need to relax and ease up on that control of yours. I'm not asking you to be a different person. That would be too much of a shock," he allowed himself a smile. "Just to let go from time to time, when there's someone there to catch you. If sex is a good way for you to do that, then don't be afraid of it."

"Who died and made you counselor?" But Tom didn't sound quite as negative as Harry had feared he would. "So you're saying I should face my fears." Harry nodded. "With you."

"With someone you trust, someone you want." Harry smiled. "I'd sure as hell like it to be me."

"I don't know, Harry," Tom said slowly. "I think if you tried to tie me up now I'd probably freak out completely."

"Then I won't," Harry said promptly, ignoring the way his body was reacting to the absolutely irresistible vision those words had conjured up. But he found himself getting a very interesting idea. He dropped his voice to a soothing murmur. "I won't even touch you. For now."

Tom looked bewildered and at the same time relieved. "You mean this can all wait?"

"I mean if you relax and trust me, I'll try something that could be really, really good for you. A different kind of sensual experience. I won't touch you, I won't try to hold you down, nothing like that. Will you trust me enough to try?" Tom was still looking confused, but then he slowly nodded. "You can call it off any time you want, Tom. Okay?"

Tom nodded. "Yeah. But I don't see what you think you're going to—"

"We'll just start with making you more comfortable. Then if you feel okay about it, I'll go on, but if there's something you don't like, just say so." Again, Tom nodded; the constant reassurance seemed almost to amuse him, although he was clearly nervous at the same time. "Lean back and close your eyes, and concentrate on your breathing. Let the tension drain away." Harry went on and on, talking Tom through the same stress relief as last time, taking it slowly and going into detail to make sure that Tom truly was relaxing. He watched Tom visibly decide to trust him, go along with it, and gradually slip into that warm, comfortable, near-hypnotized state. "That's right," Harry finally whispered, "you're so relaxed now, you're fluid, made of one single substance, warm and smooth."

A slow smile drifted across Tom's face. "Your mother is a wonderful woman," he said sleepily.

"Yes," Harry agreed before going on to the next stage. "Now we're going to put you back together again. Start with your skeleton. Think about it. Feel it. All the bones inside you, how they're linked together, how nice and solid they are at the core of you. Then the muscles, all the flesh that gives you shape. Don't try to use them, just be aware of them, the way they define the shape of your body."

He watched carefully and was relieved to see that Tom wasn't tensing up, he was just sitting there and the expression on his face could best be described as relaxed concentration. "Now I'm all here," he commented, still sounding rather dreamy.

"Now feel the blood all through your body, with every beat of your heart," Harry said. "The way it tells you you're alive. And with every breath you take you fuel your body and keep it working so smoothly, perfectly." He paused again and gave Tom time to take in all the separate sensations. "Finally your skin, the border that encloses you, keeps you apart from the rest of the physical universe. You're very aware of it. You can feel every touch, every separate sensation."

Tom was nodding slowly, unconsciously. Harry licked his lips, and for the first time, deliberately departed from his mother's teachings. "You can feel every place on your body where it is being touched by something, the different type of cloth in your clothes, every wrinkle. You can feel the air against your neck and face. It feels good. You can feel your heart beat, pumping blood out to every part of your body. It's a nice strong rhythm. Now roll your shoulders back. Like that. Feel how the shirt moves against your skin? Like a caress. Do it again, concentrate on the sensation, and keep your eyes closed."

There was a faint flush on Tom's face. "It feels good," he said. His head was leaning back, neck and shoulders beautifully exposed.

"Do it again," Harry whispered, and Tom did. "It's a nice soft touch, but the way the air breathes against the skin on your neck is even softer. Doesn't it make you shiver?" He watched the faint tremor that ran through Tom's body. "Lift your hands now, slowly, and open the top button of your shirt, let the air in. That's right. And another one, let the air in, let it breathe on you. Touch you."

Tom still seemed perfectly relaxed, and he did not protest or open his eyes as Harry talked him slowly through every single shirt button. He sat there with his shirt hanging open, looking as though the air was making love to him. "Now put your fingertips against your neck, right beneath your jaw," Harry suggested softly. "A light touch, like the way the air touches you. Draw them down slowly along your throat. Across your chest. Let your thumbs brush across your nipples." That made Tom tense up ever so slightly, but he also gave a small gasp, and Harry figured that was a good sign. "Go on, all the way down to the waistband of your pants."

The faint flush on Tom's face was deepening, and spreading to his neck. Harry swallowed, hard. "You are aware of every part of yourself, of your body. Of your heartbeat. Every light touch. Allow your palms to curve, let your hands rest flat against your stomach. Then slowly, slowly move your hands back up again, stroking your skin all the way, up to your shoulders." Tom shivered visibly again as he caressed himself. "Feels good, doesn't it?"

"Yes," Tom said softly. "It does." Harry asked him to do it again, and then again, trailing light fingertips down his torso and then stroking with the whole hand on the way up. He thought he could see Tom's skin warm and change color under that careful touch.

"You have to be careful now," Harry said. "I want you to use your fingertips and brush very, very lightly across your nipples. Just the lightest and most careful touch you can manage. Like being stroked with a feather." Tom's hands moved with exquisite care, and he drew in a slow shuddering breath that made Harry feel that his own clothes were much too tight. He bit his lip and concentrated; this wasn't about him. "Keep doing it. Softly, Tom."

"Mmmm." Harry didn't know if that was in response to what he'd just said, or just an expression of what Tom was feeling. God, but he looked good.

"Bring your right hand to your mouth and lick your thumb and index finger. Yes. Just the fingertips; suck them a little." Harry didn't know how the hell he kept his voice steady, watching Tom's mouth, his tongue. "Now use those fingers to pinch your right nipple." Tom's head fell back, and he moaned. "Very good. And now," Harry knew his voice was growing husky, "do the same thing with your left hand. That's right. And your left nipple."

He could almost see the waves of pleasure that were running through Tom's body, so clearly and openly did Tom respond to his own touch. "Lift your hands," Harry went on, "put your fingertips at your throat again. Use your nails now very very carefully, draw them down along your throat, across your chest, down to your waist."

There could be no doubting that Tom was excited. He was flushed, he was breathing much faster now, and although his pants were discreetly black and made of heavy cloth, Harry could see the telltale bulge there. "You would be a lot more comfortable if you unbuttoned those pants," he said and watched as Tom's fingers made for the top button, then hovered, and stopped. God, he really was unbelievable. "Do it, Tom. That's right, just like that. Doesn't that feel better?"

Tom's response might have been a soft 'mmm' or just a relieved sigh. His eyes were still closed, his lips slightly parted. "But it would feel even better," Harry went on, "if you eased your pants down a bit, and your briefs too. Just hook your thumbs in the waistband — mm hm — and push them down a bit. Easily, carefully... yes. That's enough." Tom's cock sprang free from the confining material, beautifully erect, a few drops of moisture beading at the rosy tip. Harry ran his nails into his palms. God, what a sight: Tom sprawled here on the couch, on display, beauty and desire alike. "You look wonderful," Harry breathed.

Then he remembered that he had something to do besides stare. He cleared his throat as quietly as he could. "You're still relaxed," he reminded Tom, "you're like water, but there's an undertow. And the air is breathing on your skin right where it's most sensitive." The shiver that ran through Tom was like a ripple in a stream. "Cup one hand around your balls, let them rest against your palm. Feel the warmth. Then use your fingertips to stroke the skin."

Harry found that his imagination was stretching, flexing its muscles, offering him all kinds of extremely interesting suggestions. There were some things he wanted to ask Tom to do that would probably short-circuit both their brains. But he thought he'd better keep things very, very simple. Tom had chosen to trust him, and he'd promised relaxation and pleasure, no complicated detours.

The feelings of exhilaration and strange satisfaction that Harry was experiencing were something of a surprise to him. When the impulse had first come to him, he'd thought that for him personally it would probably be little more than an exercise in frustration, but worth it to get Tom to feel better. Now he came to realize that the possessive tenderness this made him feel for Tom was an intense pleasure in its own right.

"Run the tip of your index finger from the base of your cock up to the tip, and back down again," he said gently. Tom was shivering continuously now, small shivers that had nothing to do with the air temperature. "One more time. Oh, that's good. Now wrap your hand around your cock and stroke it very slowly. Slower, Tom. Yeah. Keep doing it like that until I tell you something different."

Harry had to pause, to shift on the couch; he was so hard it was getting painful, but he didn't want to take the time to undress himself, didn't want Tom to have to wait, or listen to anything else but the sound of Harry's voice. "You can speed up a little, Tom. A little."

Tom's hand moved faster, and he was arching up slightly now, back and thighs taut with the intensity of lust. Just looking at him made Harry feel a dizzy pressure behind his eyes, in the pit of his stomach, rising up along his legs. He had to distract himself from it.

"You can feel it building up now, can't you," he whispered. "Like being drunk. You're getting closer. Faster." Tom moaned. The sound made Harry shudder so hard he thought he wouldn't be able to get his voice under control again. "That's perfect, Tom, nearly there now..." Harry thought about asking Tom to slow down, but that would be too cruel right now, and besides, he wasn't sure he could take it himself. Instead he said, "A little faster, Tom. Just let it take you. You're right there. You're going to come. Let yourself fall. Now."

And Tom pumped his hips, and cried out, and came in long, hot spurts that glistened on his rosy skin. He moaned again, a slow sound, as though he was being wrung out completely, and slowly relaxed into a sated sprawl. Harry looked at him and had to remind himself to breathe. He licked his lips, then remembered, no touching. Why the hell had he ever said that?

To distract himself, Harry rose quietly and went to the bathroom and got one damp and one dry towel. Tom was still lying there in exactly the same position when he came back, and Harry went to sit next to him. When the couch dipped under Harry's weight Tom made a lazy, interrogative noise, and Harry began to wipe his chest and stomach with the moist towel. "You okay?" he asked softly.

Tom drew in a slow breath, then let it out again, before saying, "Yeah." Two more breaths, while Harry patted him dry again. Then he opened his eyes. "You weren't kidding. That was, well, it wasn't like anything else." A smile tugged at his lips. "I feel like someone's boiled my brain."

That made Harry chuckle. "Was that a compliment?" he teased. Then he considered Tom's slow regular breathing, the way his eyelids were slipping shut again. "You're about to fall asleep on my couch, Tom."

"I know. I'm sorry." Tom yawned. "It's all your fault. I'm not sure I can move." He laughed a little. Then he sobered. "You know, I think I would have done anything. Anything you asked. Thanks for, well—"

"I just wanted to make you feel better," Harry said honestly. "Thanks for trusting me that much." It was just because I love you, okay? He cleared his throat. "Now, I guess I can get you awake enough to drag you over to your own quarters. Or..." He swallowed. "Or you can stay here if you like."

"It's not a bad couch," Tom said indistinctly, trying to smother another yawn against the backrest. "I don't know, though."

"The bed is better," Harry said, trying to sound neutral. That made Tom look up at him again; their glances met and hooked into each other for a long moment. "To sleep in, Tom."

"Mm. All right." Tom kicked his boots off, and started to wriggle out of his pants. Harry was about to suggest that he move to the bed first but then he realized that Tom would probably fall over if he tried to walk all tangled up in his clothes. He got to his feet and so did Tom, wearing only the unbuttoned shirt. Seeing Tom walk around like that reminded Harry of just how turned on he was. And he'd just asked Tom to sleep in his bed?

Brilliant. He chuckled to himself as Tom fell onto the bed and tried to wrap himself in the covers, then sat up and removed the shirt, and went back to nesting. Harry undressed and put his clothes aside neatly, and looked up to find Tom watching him from inside a cocoon of bedclothes. "Computer, dim the lights."

"I've already seen everything you've got," Tom commented as Harry tugged at the covers, wondering how Tom had managed to claim the entire bed. "Although there are a few things that really stick out." Suddenly Harry found himself engulfed by that cocoon, too, wrapped up in covers and a warm embrace. And Tom was whispering in his ear, hot breath making him shiver. "But I think I can fix that."

"Mm?" Harry said intelligently, and then even that tiny train of thought was derailed as warm wet kisses moved down his chest and stomach, and then a hot mouth descended on his cock. Harry found himself saying something that seemed mostly to consist of exclamation marks, and his IQ rapidly fell to below room temperature; he'd been so hard for so long that it was almost painful to be stimulated further and at the same time, the white flashes that shot through his mind were exquisitely pleasurable.

There was nothing subtle or teasing here. Tom had to know just how badly he needed it. Harry held himself back, with a whimper, from thrusting; he just lay there and allowed his nervous system to be assaulted, and finally conquered. The moment when the orgasm was ripped from him was so intense, his cry of release was half protest, half delirious satisfaction.

He stayed where he was, eyes closed, the room revolving languidly around him. After a few moments he was all wrapped up in Tom's arms and the bedcovers again. Tom's breath was warm against his throat. "You okay?" It had to be a deliberate echo of Harry's question from before.

"A lot better than okay," he said, tried to open his eyes, then gave it up and turned his head and searched for Tom's lips with his own. The kiss was very gentle, and the tenderness of it made Harry feel dizzier than any wild passion. "We have to do this again some time."

Then he wondered if he'd pushed too much, too soon, when Tom didn't answer at once. Harry would have worried more if Tom hadn't snuggled down against his shoulder. Finally Tom just said, "Okay."

"Okay?" Harry repeated.

"Yeah." There was laughter in Tom's voice now. "I trust you, Harry. Now let's sleep."

Harry told the computer to turn the lights off, and lay there quietly in the warm darkness. It had been a very interesting evening. And he had never realized that 'I trust you' could be just as wonderful to hear as 'I love you.'

But if he's gone when I wake up tomorrow, Harry told himself, I'm going to regret not cuffing him to the bed.

* * *

The name of the game

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