The Anti-Mortality Incentive

For Porn Battle XII

Prompts: MM/WW, first time, partner, impulse, tired.

Middleman HQ

Three weeks after the end of the world

1:45 am

The Middleman didn't belong in the control room in the middle of the night, but it made more sense than staring at the ceiling of his bedroom. He hadn't really slept well since the supernatural power of Chac-Mol saved the world at the cost of changing reality.

He'd found a prototype electric handgun in a corner of the archive room. Cleaning it with machine oil and Q-tips was something productive, a tiny step toward making the world better. Ida, as a robot, was awake at all times anyway. The Middleman glanced over at her, keyed in a command on the control panel himself.

Wendy had left headquarters at the regular time. She'd talked about a special date night with Tyler before he left on his music tour. By now she was undoubtedly snug in bed somewhere, with a code 86 locking headquarters out of her video watch. But a simple locator ping wouldn't disturb her. If some mission came up tonight, knowing where to go get her might save precious time.

The readout made him blink. Wendy wasn't at home, hers or Tyler's. She was less than a hundred feet from him, on another floor at headquarters. A quick look at her watch telemetry showed no code 86, and darkness. "Ida. Wendy is here."

The robot barely looked up from her online mahjong. "Oh, yeah," she said carelessly. "Drama queen came in the back door about ten. You were in the gym at the time. She's in the building someplace."

His fists clenched. "Ida, why..."

The robot made a derisive noise. "She didn't ask for you. You didn't need her for anything. She's authorized to be here. Why bring up the whole sordid subject." Ida paused, consulting data files. "One of the witness protection suites, level four. She went straight there, hasn't come out."

"Is she all right?" Drama queen. "Did she seem upset?"

"Am I my stoner's keeper? If she's flaked out, it's not my problem. Also I'm not surprised."

The Middleman made himself breathe deeply. Taking a swing at the robot would be pointless, ineffective, and possibly dangerous. "For future reference," he said through gritted teeth, "If Dubbie is upset or behaving out of pattern, it is mission-critical. Because she is. Once she's in command she'll have every right – and capability – to flush your memory back to its default state. I'll make a point of telling her that. If you indulge in this kind of petty vindictiveness again, I might do it myself." He headed for the stairs.

[*]

The on-site suites were secure but as comfortless as cheap motel rooms. Sensei Ping had used the Grip of Extreme Agony on the then-Middleman the one time they'd asked him to stay in one. The current Middleman was mildly surprised his trainee knew they existed. She must have been reading operational manuals. Only one room on the fourth floor had the green in-use light on above the door. He knocked quietly. "Dubbie?" Nothing. He overrode the lock.

The light from the hallway showed her in bed, curled under the covers so tightly that she looked child-sized. But her eyes were wide open, in the dark. She hadn't been sleeping, even a troubled sleep. Very softly, "Dubbie." She flinched, hands balled into fists. "It's just me."

Her eyes were glassy, unfocused. "I'm going to turn on a light." The bedside lamp. "You're at HQ. Try some deep breaths." He closed the door behind him.

Wendy shivered and looked at him with recognition. "Sorry, boss. I just wanted somewhere quiet."

She wore civilian clothes under the bedcovers, a satiny pale dress he'd never seen before. One side was crumpled up over her hips in a way that shouldn't be so distracting. Wendy noticed that he kept watching her, put her own interpretation on the attention. "I'm fine."

You're nowhere near fine. And I didn't see it. Wendy had been quiet the last few weeks, especially about her life outside work. Like a self-centered fool, he'd assumed she didn't want to upset him by discussing Lacey. He sat down on the edge of the bed, not too close to her. "You nearly died," the Middleman said. "You saw people you love dead or dying, the near-destruction of the human race. Anyone who's been in combat pays a price. But usually everyone else knows they've seen combat. Knows there's been a war in the first place. You and I don't have that advantage."

She nodded. "It's like the palindrome universe again," Wendy said. "But the old world is gone, no going back. Lacey, Tyler … I know it all never happened for them, but I can't feel that. I just blew up at them. I want … I want my real friends, and I know that's never going to happen."

Her best friend Lacey had been in love with the Middleman, until changing reality to undo the apocalypse made Lacey forget she ever knew him. Tyler had fought alongside them to save the world but hadn't saved himself. "Their essential natures haven't changed, only a few memories," the Middleman said. "If Tyler became involved in one of our missions again, he'd comport himself just as bravely. And Lacey is still the same girl she always was."

Wendy shook all over. "You can't prove it by me."

"Is this about Lacey?"

She nodded again, too fast. "Mostly. Partly... I just lost it. One too many stories about Perfect Warren being perfect. I guess I was thinking, if I even was thinking, that if I reminded her about you there'd be a chance. I said more and more stuff about you and she just didn't track. Like most of what I said faded out as soon as she heard it. And I realized, that was the ultimate sacrifice. We both thought you'd die, but instead you lost Lacey." A moment of clarity. "You weren't afraid enough of death for death to be ultimate. Because you'd be with her again, in the afterlife." Raveena had been with them at the end, among the ghosts of a thousand other Middlemen. She'd made a powerful impression on her student's student.

"I … wouldn't be surprised if you were right, Dubbie. Good insight." He'd drowned himself in his work when Raveena died, renouncing all emotional outlets but seeing her again. Between afterlife with her or mortal life with Lacey, he'd achieved neither.

Wendy sat up straighter in bed, trying to achieve some kind of composure. "So to Lacey, I've gone crazy. I'm telling her she said and did all this stuff she doesn't remember. We're both getting irritated, and I couldn't figure out how we could stop the argument. And then it hit me, what if it worked? What if she loved you again, would that ... put things back? Suddenly what's ultimate changes, so she knows you but you're dead. That thought... I lost it. Tyler turned up and I lost it at him, too." A sound of pain just short of explosive weeping. Wendy reached out, clung to him as if trying to be a human shield.

The Middleman guided her head to his shoulder and let her stay. The soft, scented warmth against him opened floodgates inappropriate for a teacher and mentor. He stayed very still, tried to allow her touch without reacting. "I should have talked this out with you long ago," he said. More hastily, "The curse of Chac-Mol, I mean. I'm not going to die from it, not at this late date. I know that much." He'd been somewhere else between the old and new universes, in a place of marble hallways and mist. Standing before beings awe-inspiring to the point of terror. He couldn't remember the words they'd said – if they used words – but the meaning was etched deeply in his brain. "Causality is stable again, Dubbie. The path of least resistance is … well, you saw. I'm not on Lacey's emotional map. I never will be, not if we met every day for ten years. But we're both alive, and I'm glad she's happy. I'll manage."

"Is the ultimate sacrifice just Lacey, or is it everyone? If nobody's ever going to love you again …" Wendy's voice cut off.

He shrugged. "Either way, two chances at true love are more than most people get."

Wendy chewed her lower lip. "You're right, we have to talk about this. Did you do it on purpose? The whatcha-ma-goober was supposed to give the user godlike powers. When you changed the world, did you decide to drive Lacey away from you? Or was it just the only way things could happen?"

"The polyditetrahexamonotrioctalon. It's hard to explain." He had understood it all, for one godlike moment, but that moment was long past. "A little of both. The universe has its own momentum. Changes that flow with that momentum are – were – easy, others might be almost impossible. Maybe Lacey and I could have been together. But she always would have been in danger, that close to me. The reasons for not dating her are as strong as they ever were. The change in universes just made it possible to implement that decision without causing pain."

"No pain for Lacey, you mean." He didn't answer. Wendy looked away from him. "I have another question. Tyler's music career."

Stalled to nothing in the old universe, rocketing to great success in the new one. "That was … a bit of a push. Not much of one; he has the talent and the drive. And he died trying to save the world. Even though he doesn't know it any more. That deserves some kind of reward."

"You were going to die, too," Wendy said. "What reward did you get?"

The Middleman looked blank. "Question three," Wendy went on. "Am I ready to be a Middleperson? Middlewoman. Am I ready to be you?"

He thought she'd understood that much, at least, when they stood before the ghosts of all the world's Middlemen and said goodbye. Warmly, "Of course you are."

Wendy moved suddenly, twisting in his arms. He let go, confused, but she wasn't pulling away. Instead she was all but climbing his body, chest to chest. He overbalanced and fell back on the bed. Wendy pounced with a force that he recognized as desperation, pressing their lips together too hard and off center. He told himself firmly that this wasn't an attack, whatever it was. He fought off a dozen combat reflexes that could have hurt her. Wendy shifted on top of him...

Warmth. It was a kiss now, unmistakably, welding them together like lightning. His arms went around Wendy. Her curves pressed down on him. Everything he'd ever denied himself. His tongue was deep in her mouth when he remembered he wasn't here for this. He tried to end the kiss but she kept pressing forward, clinging to him. He turned his head. "Dubbie. We can't."

"Stay with me." She sank her teeth possessively into his neck above the shirt collar. "Anything you want. Just don't leave." The rising almost-wail on the last word meant something far more catastrophic than leaving the room.

"Dubbie. Wendy." She wasn't listening, and her training had left her far stronger than an outsider would suspect. He had to hold her at arm's length by main force to sit up. She wormed out of his grip and came forward again; he retreated to his feet. "Wendy. Please."

She knelt upright on the bed, dress more disarrayed than ever, her dark eyes huge. "Sorry." A tear slid down her right cheek. She ignored it.

He'd never been any good with crying women. Tenderness and worry and frustrated lust pulled him in different directions. He held up both hands. "Dubbie. Can we … can we just talk a minute? I don't understand."

"Stupid." She clearly meant herself; the venom in the word made him cringe. "I just ..." A loud, undignified sniffle. Wendy wiped across her face with the back of one hand. "You live for the job. Only for the job. You told me, you swore to give everything else up in her honor." Raveena. His mentor, his Middleman, the woman he'd once loved like the moon and stars. "And when I saw you together, when you went to your death happy … because you could be with her again. There wasn't anything to keep you here, keep you alive. Not Lacey, certainly not me. And I realized the only thing you stayed for was … the job, of course. You couldn't leave the job until I was ready.

"But now I am. You don't have to wait any more. You can find another chance to sacrifice yourself for the world, some mission. Like that's going to be hard to do."

"You're trying to keep me alive." That tore at his heart. He didn't know what was stronger in reaction, fondness or frustration.

"Uh-huh." Rapid, uncoordinated nodding. "It's mean and it's selfish and I'm not going to stop."

"Even if you have to offer yourself." He was touched.

Wendy looked up wildly, a lopsided smile on her face. "Have to?"

Her eyes were locked on him and he couldn't look away. His back brain dryly cataloged all the kinds of fool he'd been. He could barely hear it over the roaring in his ears. Because the rest of him was remembering that frantic, fumbling kiss. Which didn't have to be the only one, or the full extent of what he could have...

His mouth came open and said something. Playing back short-term memory, it appeared to have been "Tyler."

Wendy sighed. "Tyler's gone. For good. It was that kind of blowup."

"I'm sorry." Most of him, the part that had been her friend and confidante for a year, meant it. The younger man really was good enough for Dubbie, or almost.

"We were never going to last. Not in the new universe." Wendy wasn't looking at him. "We didn't want the same things. Besides," then her dark eyes did focus on him, palpable as a touch, "I saw him die. I thought I saw you die, too. That really clarifies who's most important."

She shook herself, and looked away, and awkwardly re-settled her clothing. "But stomping all over your boundaries isn't going to make anything better. I'm sorry. Not that I tried to keep you alive, I still want that. Sorry I screwed it up so phenomenally."

"I … didn't realize you were afraid for me." That she'd seen what his subconscious was driving toward, maybe more clearly than he'd seen himself. "It would be unconscionable to leave you that kind of burden. You're right about that. I suppose..." He owed her so much. "I'll do my very best to stay alive." Subject to the requirements of the service, but she knew that.

Dubbie looked into his eyes and relaxed. That tore at his heart too, seeing how much she trusted him. She stifled a yawn. "Thanks."

At least he'd gotten an hour or two of rest at the beginning of the night. She'd apparently had none. "You should sleep."

She settled herself under the covers. "Can you stay?" Her expression tightened. "I mean. Boss. If you don't mind sitting with me a little while." She glanced over at an armless chair, on the far side of the nightstand.

"I can do better than that." Wendy had taken the side of the bed closest to the wall. He lay down beside her on top of the covers, loosened his tie. "I'll feel better too, if I know you're all right."

It was the right decision. She stopped fighting her exhaustion. He could feel through the mattress how tense she'd been, how much she needed comfort. "I won't try anything," Wendy said sleepily, eyes closed. They laid their heads on adjoining pillows.

[*]

He woke gradually and naturally, without even an alarm clock. He couldn't remember the last time he'd had that luxury. A strange bed, his feet were hanging over the end a little. The stiff stale feeling of having slept in his clothes. But comfort on a far deeper level. Softness and warmth. He slid up past a few more layers of sleep and identified the sensation as a woman lying in his arms. Dubbie.

The covers still separated them, but she'd snuggled in close. Head on his shoulder, silky hair against his cheek. She smelled wonderful. His body responded with a raging erection that took him back to his teenage years. They were spooned together, lying on their sides, and he worried that the insistent pressure against her lower back would wake her up. He moved backward a little. Dubbie mumbled and shifted, closing the distance again.

It's probably time I stopped lying to myself. Nearly a year of camaraderie, of frequently – suspiciously frequently – talking about Wendy like a sister or a daughter. All shattered by one impudent physical fact. He wanted her, and she wanted him. Was that good news or a disaster in the making? At this moment, body to body, it was shamefully hard to care about the difference. That one passionate, doomed kiss with Lacey had been all that happened to him in … he knew the exact number of days, curse having an eidetic memory, but he preferred not to think about it.

Too much navel gazing, too little action had never been one of his character flaws. They had to settle this. Waiting wouldn't improve it. He let go of Wendy, got out of bed. Warmth and consolation gone, she felt blindly over the mattress for him before opening her eyes. "Boss." She came awake faster than he had. She looked around, noted his fully clothed state. "I guess we didn't."

"We didn't. And I think we shouldn't." Wendy looked disappointed; worse, worried. He hastened to add, "At least not like this. I think... you may have an overly idealized image of me."

One corner of her mouth quirked up, as if he'd woken her sense of the ridiculous. "Of the Middleman, who made the ultimate sacrifice to save the world."

"That doesn't make me a good lover," he said bluntly. "Perhaps the opposite. I'm selfish, when I give myself free rein. Almost jealous sometimes. I don't share worth a … anything, and I'm not interested in learning. So anything we have, short or long, I'd need it to be exclusive."

Wendy nodded, acknowledged the point. "I know you. And you know me."

He knew her habit of serial monogamy, of course. It was in her dossier. But he didn't dare offer her less than complete clarity at a moment this important.

He felt like a fool, standing over her while she was in bed. He sat down on the edge. Wendy swung her feet to the floor and sat up beside him. "If you think I'm bullheaded when a mission is at stake, you should see me when I feel needy," he said. "I've probably gotten worse about that, whether it's age or spending this much time alone."

Wendy moved a little closer. "The cure for needy is getting your needs met. You don't have to be alone."

The Middleman looked away. Brutally, "One of us will be, sooner or later. That's an absolute certainty in this job. I promised you I won't try to die, and I'll hold to that. But if there's a moment of choice, you or me … I can't do that again. Instead I'll make you carry the weight of survival."

Wendy smiled tightly. "Like that's a change. You were never going to let me die."

The woman was impossible. "You're also assuming that we're sexually compatible. We might not be." He closed his mind firmly on the memory of that kiss.

Wendy's smile grew warmer, broader. "That sounds really scary. Whatever shall I do?"

"On top of everything else, I'll be da... I have no idea what we're going to do together apart from missions and sex. Because that's nearly all we have in common."

"We might have to grow as people or something."

"Dubbie. This could be a fiasco."

"I only see two things in favor of the idea. Who you are, and who I am." Dubbie laid a hand on his shoulder. "Anyway, you don't have to give long explanations if you don't want me. You just have to say no, and it's no. If I keep on wanting you after that, it's my problem."

They stayed frozen for a second. "You know I can't," he said hoarsely, and pulled her in.

Wendy was strong and supple against him, her slender body hiding wiry combat-trained muscle. But the points of her hipbones were too prominent; he resolved to take better care of her. His hands moved over her back and hips. Her mouth felt warm, tasted sweet. It let him in at the first touch of a tongue-tip.

His aching erection pressed against her belly, wired for seconds not minutes. But there was a solution to that problem. When Wendy curled up beside him he pulled on her, guided her until she was straddling his lap. He groaned at the pressure through two sets of clothes but kept control, for now. He dragged himself away from her mouth, ran a line of kisses down the side of her neck to the collarbone. Fumbled with the shoulder straps of the silky little dress. No bra between him and the small, high breasts. She yelped when his mouth closed over one nipple. He cupped the other, felt it harden against his palm. He couldn't decide which was more sensitive, sucking on one after the other. Wendy was moaning, not his name but boss; her voice only made him harder.

He shifted suddenly, rucked the bottom half of the dress up around her waist to meet the top. A wisp of panties, little more than a thong, easy to work around. He felt an instant's fear of hurting her, but slid fingers inside. She was wet and hot, wide open to him. She squeezed around his hand and made a raw, wild sound. When he found the hard little knot of her G-spot the noise started again. He held her firmly in place, his other hand against her lower back, and kept pleasuring her. Wendy clawed at his back and shoulders, sank her teeth in the side of his neck to muffle her screams. His ears were ringing. He couldn't care less.

"Fuck," Wendy demanded in his ear, a low growl. "Please, God. I've been waiting all my life for you to fuck me."

He lifted her and deposited her on her back on the bed. Her hands went to her mound, keeping things warm. Climbed awkwardly to his feet. Every part of the uniform – tie, cufflinks, buttons, belt – was a separate puzzle. He'd fumbled himself naked when he remembered something else. "I don't have a condom."

"The Pill," Wendy gasped. "I'm good." She wrapped both hands around his naked cock, and he lost all will to refuse her.

He knelt between her legs and was inside her, flesh to flesh. Wendy made a sharp sound. She wrapped her arms and legs around him. He tried to move slowly; she grabbed his buttocks and pulled forward. "Come for me," she said against his skin. "Fast and hard. We've got time for gentle after we take the edge off."

He thrust down into her; she pumped up to meet him. Pure frenzy. He couldn't count the strokes, his brain had shut down, but in another moment he was exploding. Wendy clung to him, shuddered with one more orgasm of her own.

His pounding blood slowed; the room was quiet. Under him, Wendy made a squashed noise. He moved to one side. "Sorry."

"Now that is not a description I'd use." Her voice was low and lazy, contented. They were both sweaty, but she snuggled close to his side. "Thank you."

"I should be thanking you." He barely had the energy to look around. When he did, he felt mild surprise the walls were still standing.

Silences between them had never been awkward. This one stretched out. Embarrassment led to something perilously like panic. He said, "Dubbie, we didn't say..." just as she said "Boss, you don't..."

"After you," the Middleman said. That don't was ominous.

"Just that, I know about you and responsibilities," Wendy said. "You're the old-fashioned guy, you serve and protect. I want you to know, this doesn't mean you owe me. Not a relationship, not a ring, not even a rematch. If this feels like one and done, for you, I can deal. I can deal, and I can go on being your partner."

"Is that what you want?" A primitive part of his brain was howling in possessiveness and fear. He did his best to stifle it.

"God." Wendy looked away. "Do you not own a mirror? You're, you're gorgeous. And you just gave me a string of orgasms that practically knocked my teeth loose. And you're Boss, wonderful and weird and crazy-making. It's all good stuff, but I don't know how to line it up in my head. I don't know if this is the smartest thing I ever did, or the biggest mistake of my life." She offered a wilted smile. "Definitely one of those. I love you. I do, I always have. But I don't know if it's true love. Vampire-transforming, back-from-the-dead, all-out in love true love. I do know that's what you deserve."

She was staying in his arms, that was a good sign. He held her and thought. "It helps, what you said about the partnership. Being who I am, that's always going to come first. I can't change that about myself." Couldn't even try. "As for one and done, good heavens no. You can have as much sex as you want. With me, I mean. No strings attached, unless and until you want otherwise." She had to know she was free, in preparation for the moment when she came to her senses. It would surely come. His arms tightened around her at the thought. He forced them to relax.

Wendy squeezed closer to him. "I have two suggestions. Partner."

He'd agree to practically anything. "Of course."

"Showers. And breakfast." She kissed him thoughtfully on the cheek. "Anything else can wait."

[*]