He sees her for the first time in the narrow hallway at Jeremy Keeler's birthday party, pressing inside the flat with a group of people loudly chatting about a talk they've just come from at the LSE, in that theatre by Lincoln's Inn that he can never manage to find without his mobile. The flat seems about ten times larger than his own, but Jeremy's circle of friends is apparently vast and wide-ranging, and there are people crammed in to every bit of the space. He's backed against one of the passageway's stark white walls, trying not to spill his Guinness – "here's one especially for Tom, the wandering Irishman!" – or knock down one of the framed pictures from the wall. It's her hair – all dark, long, messy curls, half-tamed by some sort of clip but threatening to break free entirely – that he sees first, and then, when she turns around, her mouth is pink and beautiful and he feels as if his head has suddenly been thrust underwater.

He doesn't remember how he actually ends up speaking to her. She's balancing a glass of red wine and a book that's been handed to her by a woman he vaguely recognizes from Westminster. He recalls feeling tongue-tied when she asks him about growing up in Belfast and about his job, the alcohol making him somehow both hyper-aware of his general incompetence with women and incredibly slow. Her name is Sybil. He says something totally inane about Disraeli and oracles, and her nose crinkles up when she smiles. She works for UNICEF, which he didn't know anyone actually did, but soon she's planning to do graduate work in international health policy. He mumbles a little around "Leeds" when she asks him where he went to university.

She laughs at his ridiculous jokes, and she smiles at him in a way that makes him think maybe – just maybe – she fancies him as much as he finds himself fancying her. This ultimately seems unlikely, so he just continues on talking, figuring that eventually she'll tire of him and wander off into some other, more scintillating conversation, but she doesn't. She stays, and she looks at him through dark long eyelashes, and when a lock of curly hair slips out of place and tumbles into her face, she gives him a look that makes him hot all over as he reaches out a bit bashfully and brushes it behind her ear. His mouth goes dry.

Before he knows it, the crowd inside the flat is thinning, and he starts desperately trying to plan a suave way to ask her to keep talking. She's smart, and she's gorgeous, and he hasn't so much as been interested in a woman since Laura split up with him eight months before, and he doesn't want her to go. Her friends start to leave, to make the gentle inquiries about whether she wants to stay longer or share a taxi. She looks at him shyly – he thinks it's shyly – and carefully brushes them off, and it's decided.

He fetches her coat and claps Jeremy on the back before guiding her out of the building with one hand tentatively placed on the small of her back. He shuffles his feet a bit as she hails the taxi, fidgets with the knees of his trousers as they slide in to the back of the cab, feels the softness of her skin as she slips her hand into his while he gives the driver his address.

It's thrilling and a little illicit and strange. He doesn't bring women to his flat like this hardly ever, maybe twice since he moved in. He remembers the dirty dishes in the sink as he slips the key into the lock, but a glance at her face, the nervous, slightly impatient expression, makes him forget about them. She catches her lower lip in her teeth as he ushers her in to his little flat – shabby, but mercifully fairly clean.

Her coat is draped over the back of a chair, his is hung on the coat rack behind the door. His stomach tightens as he offers her a drink. There's a moment when he starts to feel uncertain about whether she really wanted to come back to his flat for what he thinks she wanted to come back for – he always seems to doubt that a woman wants him – but then she crosses the distance between them, rises up on her tiptoes (shoes discarded in a corner somewhere) and presses her pretty mouth to his. She tastes like wine, like warmth, and he feels himself go embarrassingly hard in a matter of seconds. It's been ages since he's had a proper snog, since a woman sifted her fingers through his hair and tangled her tongue with his.

She's unbuttoning his shirt as he steers them into the bedroom, a room so small that he has to cram the double bed into a corner so that there's any space at all for walking. Her cool hands find his bare chest as his lips explore the smooth surface of her neck, soft and pristine and pale. Everything tightens, and he's painfully sure that he's going to embarrass himself. She's too much, and he's not quite drunk enough to take his own pleasure mindlessly.

He hears the clanking sound of his belt buckle as her clever fingers release him from it; he steps out of his trousers and stands before her, all wan Irish skin and ridiculous sparse chest hair, in only his boxer briefs. He knows he must look comical, square torso and rugby shoulders and too-big feet, but she smiles just a little and turns around so that he can unzip her dress. It's green – he's just now really noticing, to be totally honest – and it slips to the floor wordlessly, like a whisper, revealing swaths of gorgeous, unmarked ivory skin. He reaches out a tentative hand and strokes down her spine, from the clasp of her bra to the waistband of her little plain-white cotton knickers (his heart leaps – she wasn't planning to go home with anyone either), and she shivers. Stepping closer, he splays his hands out on her naked belly, pulling her close to him, and buries his face in her hair, smelling flowers and sweetness in the curls.

She turns in his arms, kissing him soundly as she moves to kneel on the bed. He hesitates a moment before reaching behind her and fumbling to unclasp her bra, letting the straps fall off her shoulders. Her breasts are lovely, small and round, and he lets his thumbs graze against her soft pink nipples. She gasps against his mouth, and her kiss grows more insistent and more passionate, his hands becoming bolder in return. He looks up and catches a glimpse of them in his darkened window, his body shielded by hers, long hair tumbling down her back. The reflection makes him go all hot and prickly, but he frowns a little. Someone could see – anyone could see. He pulls away from her, buoyed by the soft, dismayed noise that comes from deep in her throat, and yanks on the curtain pull, shielding them from other eyes in the night.

"Do you have anything?" she asks softly, voice raspy and low, as he turns his attention back to her. He rummages in the drawer of his bedside table – old work ID, passport, three biros with caps missing, scribbled-on and worn legal pads, the DVD copy of the second Godfather film that he's been searching for – and finally comes up with a condom – expiration date not exceeded, thankfully. He drops it on the edge of the bed and clambers rather gracelessly over her – but she's grasping at him rather gracelessly as well, almost desperately really, and it makes him feel less a fool.

Her breasts brush against his chest as he lowers his body to hers, their hips coming together like puzzle pieces. He rocks against her, and she groans softly, seeking his mouth again. His skin feels too tight, and his whole being is screaming for him just to push inside her already. Her legs come up to wrap about his hips, and suddenly even that much pressure is too much – he has to bite the inside of his mouth to keep from coming in his shorts. Wouldn't that be a fine way to end this rather unusual evening? Tom finally pulls, and then he shoots before he can score.

Somehow he holds it together and lets her roll them over so that he's beneath her. When she's situated herself on top, wiggling in a way that makes him expel a sharp breath through his clenched teeth, he hooks his thumbs into her knickers and peels them down, helping her kick them off her legs. His breath catches when he sees her fully naked. Christ, it's been a long time, and she's like a fantasy, dark hair, blue eyes, naked above him. Entranced, he leans up and flicks the tip of his tongue against her nipple, making her cry out, drawing it more firmly between his lips. He's kissing and suckling her breasts in earnest before he realizes that she's trying to pull off his own underwear; he lifts his hips, lets her remove them, and groans so loudly when she settles her wet warmth against his bare cock that he's afraid his neighbors will start pounding against the walls.

They grind together artlessly, like teenagers, for a long moment until he can't take it anymore. He sits up more fully against the pillows and reaches for the condom, and she traces the lines of his forearms as he rips open the package. He searches her face as he rolls it on, wanting more confirmation that yes, she wants him to do this, that he isn't making her do something she'll dislike or regret. She smiles at him, but resists when he tries to move her beneath his body, reaching between them instead and sinking down on to him slowly. He groans again – relief now, but then pressure and urgency – letting his head fall back against the wall as she gives herself a moment to adjust and then begins to move on him. She's so, so, so tight. His brain rushes. Her own face has gone slack, small moans escaping her parted lips as she lifts and lowers, setting a rhythm that he knows he's not going to be able to maintain for long.

Desperate, he presses a palm against the softness of her abdomen, spreading his fingers wide and sneaking his thumb between them to stroke her. Her hands on his shoulders tighten suddenly at the sensation, fingers digging into the scar tissue that still riddles the right side of his body, and she's moving faster, harder, letting her forehead rest against his as she cries out. He feels her start to falter, feels the sudden fluttering of her muscles as she comes, and he lets himself go, arms wrapping tightly around her as he finds release.

He's shaking as he comes down, hands stroking down her back, and she's shuddering, too. Her hands come up to cup his face, and her lips are soft against his once more. He feels a sudden surge of affection for her that he can't understand – he doesn't know her, but they're connected so intimately and the gestures are so gentle, so soothing – and he hugs her even closer, pressing his face into the curve of her neck and letting her curly hair fall all around his face.

He has to move, has to get rid of the condom – definitely one of his least favorite parts of sex. For a minute, he lets himself imagine that this isn't sex with a relative stranger, that it's making love with a partner – then he wouldn't have to awkwardly disengage and roll off the condom in the loo, where the lights are too bright and his face too harsh in the mirror – then he could have come inside her, stayed tangled with her and kissed her until she fell asleep, until he fell asleep still buried in her warmth. Something inside him tugs with longing. He thinks he's probably getting too old for this.

He flushes the toilet and readies himself for the awkward negotiations about cab fare and mobile numbers, but when he steps back into the dimly-lit bedroom, she's snuggled under the duvet, fast asleep. He smiles in spite of himself, sliding between the covers and flicking off the lamp. Against his better judgment, he lets himself move close to her, one arm across her middle, his face against her hair.

The blinking numbers on his alarm clock tell him that it's half past three when he opens his eyes again, not really waking but no longer pulled under by sleep. The warmth of her body still radiates from beside him. She shifts in her slumber, the duvet pulls away from her breasts, and almost as quickly he's hard again. He wonders for a moment, drifting somewhere between dreams and reality.

Her neck tastes sweet, a little salty, and the skin behind her ear is so delicate and soft. The mattress squeaks a bit as he rises over her. Her eyes stay shut as he peels back the duvet and kisses a line between her breasts, down to her belly button. He thinks for a moment that he wants to taste her, but his swollen cock is insistent, so instead he settles between her legs and presses soft kisses to her face until her eyes flutter and her hips answer back to the pressure of his own.

He knows he doesn't have another condom in the drawer, but he's never met a girl in their social circle who isn't on birth control. Head hazy from sleep and booze, he thinks maybe he can chance it, but that's not right, so he murmurs, "Is it okay like this?"

She responds by reaching down and pulling the discarded covers over their heads, diffusing the dim light even more. She wraps her legs about his hips and uses the leverage to press his body against hers – he slides in easily, and the heat and the grip are almost overwhelming. But he's not as desperate before – he feels dream-like and loose. He likes sleepy sex, likes the slow rock of hips and gentle pull of lips. So he goes slowly, kisses softly, and her reaction is unexpected – he doesn't know how to read her, and the dark closeness isn't helping. She doesn't try to urge him to go faster, though, just lets her limbs twine around him, holding him close to her, stroking his shoulders and the nape of his neck with soft, gentle fingers.

He doesn't know why he's doing what he's doing, why he's making love to a woman he's only just met, except that he wants to so badly, and his heart swells strangely, painfully. He feels like he does right before he rips off a plaster – that comfortable moment of anticipation before the searing, sudden pain – and he already knows that he's so stupid, choosing to be vulnerable in a situation where vulnerability only means disappointment and shame. She's not his partner, she's not his lover, she's just a girl from a birthday party. There's something, though – there's something. He nips softly at her bottom lip and thrusts in and out slowly, feeling her body move quietly with his, and the answering sounds from her almost make him believe that she's caught up in a similar fantasy of her own. This is what he wanted.

He pulls back the duvet just far enough that he can see her face, see the pink rising on her cheeks and the sweep of her lashes as she closes her eyes. As she opens them again, she traces his lips with the tips of her small fingers and watches his face with something that looks almost like wonderment. He turns his face into her hand, kisses her palm, and closes his eyes. He feels it gathering at the base of his spine, and he knows that he's going to come – he thinks for a second that he should pull out, spill himself on the sheets or on her taut abdomen, but the thought makes him want to recoil – too much like pornography, not like whatever it is that they're doing in his bed. So he says her name softly, presses his lips to her cheek, and comes quietly inside of her, swallowing hard.

Her eyes are drooping again as he brushes her hair back from her face and kisses her cheek once more, feeling himself soften and slip from her body as they roll to their sides. His mind is in a million places, his heart beats fast, and he doesn't know what to do – he thinks probably she should tell him off for what he's just done, for what he's just pretended they are, but she doesn't. She rests her head against his chest, and slides back into sleep. He doesn't manage to slow down his mind enough to drift off until just before the sun peeks over the horizon.

He wakes up alone. He can still smell her scent lingering on his skin, on the bed, but she's nowhere to be found. Dress, shoes, coat – the few items she'd brought along with her are missing, too. He finds a note on the kitchen counter, embarrassingly close to the pile of dishes in the sink. She's got an early work meeting, she had a good night, she hopes she'll see him again some time. Right, then. No number. No last name.

He shakes his head, sighs, and pads off to the shower in his bare feet. He has work commitments, too, needs to meet Corin and John at lunch to go over a speech for the upcoming party conference, needs to finish a draft of remarks on proposed education cuts. Plaster successfully ripped off, then, but far more slowly than could ever be humane.