“Friends and Benefits”

“You think Chief would let me have his love-pump?”

She’d been just sitting on the open-air stoop of the garage complex, sipping at her kaffe during a break between jobs, when Gaffey’s plain, sudden question made Anan stop and stare.

“What?”

Gaffey looked at her, both guileless and curious. “For my shelf.”

“Your shelf?”

“Yeah. You know, as a friendly comfort on cold nights when I can’t sleep. Or after I’ve watched a lot of porn. Or if I’m bored.”

Anan set down her kaffe with a more relaxed understanding. “Oh. You want a dildo.”

Gaffey shook her head. “I don’t want just anybody’s. I want to know who I’m getting.”

Anan narrowed her eyes at the tiny woman. “What about your boyfriend? He takes his clothes off for a living.”

“He doesn’t take them all off,” Gaffey corrected, though Anan had seen Wild Wes’s Raunchy Rodeo show, and even if it wasn’t every article of clothing that the young stripper had thrown to the side, it was most of them. Still, Gaffey remained firm. “Besides, he’s really spiritual. I don’t want to ask him to do anything that’ll make him uncomfortable.”

Compromise – especially for the sake of love – sounded reasonable to Anan, but she decided not to press it. “Why Axton?”

“He’s always been nice to me,” Gaffey said with a little smile, and Anan smiled, too. Axton was nice to most women, for reasons of his own, though that didn’t stop the sentiment from being appreciated.

“Who’s this?”

Ellie stepped out from the garage, her mug clutched in one hand and a half-finished pastry in the other.

“Chief,” Gaffey said.

Anan snickered over her shoulder in explanation. “Gaffey wants a cast of his piece. The one between his legs.”

“Really.” Ellie eased down beside them, sounding only mildly interested.

“Do you think he’d say yes?” Gaffey asked, and Ellie snorted.

“You know Axton: he’ll show it to anybody.” She took a bite of pastry, demolishing another half of the half, and chewed, somewhat thoughtfully. “Though, you might want to clear it with Hell, first. You know how he gets.”

Anan did, but she also didn’t completely trust Gaffey to approach the subject with subtlety. So after finishing her kaffe, she headed out from the garage alone, leaving Vail and Eve behind even though a ship would have been faster. Instead, she commandeered one of the new Outrunners, on the pretense of field testing the upgraded biturbo engine. She decided not to mention to anyone else that part of that field test would include a detour up to Praxis Peak, the old Buzzard pilot training grounds that both Hell and Axton called home.

Her personal history with Hell allowed for candor, but even he gave a double-take when she laid out Gaffey’s interests over a gift of fresh apple tartlets bought from Maggie Mae’s bakery in Lynchwood just that morning.

“She wants what?” Hell asked around his first bite, dribbling floury flakes from his mouth.

Anan bit back her smile. “She wants a replica of your partner’s penis for her personal pleasure.”

Hell sucked the crumbs from his lower lip and knotted his brows. “I don’t think—”

“I’ll do it,” Axton said, his own pastry still untouched in his hand.

Anan looked at him with some surprise. “You will?”

“The little lady obviously knows quality when she sees it.” Axton shrugged with overstated confidence. “Who am I to deny her the best?”

Hell swung his disapproving glower for Axton into a sneer he directed at Anan. “As if he weren’t already an egomaniac.”

“I heard that,” Axton mumbled around his pastry.

“Gaffey will love you for it,” Anan told Hell, knowing full well that would soften his disdain.

He eased into a resigned smile. “If the narcissist is fine with it, so am I.”

“All right!” Axton grabbed his belt, flicking the end free. “Let’s get started.”

“Whoa, cowboy!” Hell scolded. “Do you even know how to do this?”

“No. But there’s a first time for everything.”

Anan raised both palms and waved them both down. “I’ll take care of the research.” She smiled at Hell. “You keep the original safe.”

Hell snickered, while Axton secured his belt back into place, picked up another pastry, and gave another shrug.

“Just say the word, nerds.”

While Hell made a half-hearted offer to help track down supplies, Anan gave him a pass. This was a gift for Gaffey, and Anan didn’t want this project shuffled to the bottom of Hell’s deck just because he thought it was stupid and beneath him. A lot of things fell into that category for Hell, but she’d make sure this wasn’t one of them.

A quick jump into the topic on the local ECHONet revealed that Sir Hammerlock possessed Pandora’s largest private assemblage of phallic and fertility objets d’art, as well as the best proven materials for creating a collection of erotic sculptures of one’s own. Upon hearing of her needs, the old game hunter immediately invited her to his Sophisticates’ Lodge in Aegrus, for an enthusiastic tour of what he charmingly referred to as his Menagerie.

“And this one,” Sir Hammerlock said with a sigh in his voice, as he lifted a generously-sized and stirringly ample piece with a mushroom cap that had been rubbed to a mirror gloss. “From a captivating young seminarian by the name of Sidney. He studied beneath me, briefly, on Artemis, before taking his ascendant vows in the missionary. Though, I daresay, missionary was not where his talents were put to best use.” He set the statuette back into place among the others with affectionate reverence, muttering, “Sweet, scholarly Sidney. The name means wide island, you know. Which was particularly fitting, in his case.” He cast her a sideways bow of his head. “He was quite the strapping lad.”

“Obviously,” Anan agreed, blinking her eyes wide at the impressive reproduction. She smiled for the gallant aging hunter. “Do you keep in touch?”

Sir Hammerlock stroked the tall, curving shaft with a gloved finger. “Only thusly.” He pulled his hand away, and his eyes snapped their focus back to the present. “My apologies. I must be boring you, with my talk of acquaintances and assignations?”

“Not at all! I wish I had the time to hear more.” She pressed her lips together. “But, I am on something of a schedule…?”

“Yes, of course. The alginate.” He headed out from the viewing room into the main area of the lodge. “I assume you’ll require a casting sleeve, as well?”

She followed at a five-pace. “Yes, please.”

Sir Hammerlock half-turned back. “And, may I ask whom this is for?”

“My friend Gaffey. She’s the little one, who works the armor?”

He paused at the bar. “No, my dear. The gent. For the sleeve size, you see.”

“Oh! Chief- ah, Axton,” Anan corrected herself, shaking her head for the old title.

“Axton.” Sir Hammerlock pondered that a moment before reaching under the bar. He rose again with an empty cylinder not much larger than a fuel injector, contained in a transparent box. “You should be fine with a medium.” He turned around and rooted about in the shelves beneath the display of liquor bottles. When he turned back again, he held between two of his mechanical fingers a delicate plastic tube holding a fall of coarse white powder on one side of a separating membrane, and a sloshing clear liquid on the other. “And, your alginate mixture.”

Anan tilted the tube back and forth in her hand, making the water drift quickly to the top and the powder slightly less so. “How does it work?”

“I’ll write you some directions,” he said obligingly, and whipped out an attractive antiquated pen and stationery pad, onto which in flourishing script he laid out the details of the process. Just before he finished, he lifted his head, to offer a piece of advice:

“It’s best if there’s two of you. One to prepare the alginate, and another to prepare the subject. The mold will set quite quickly.”

“I see.” She tucked the instructions and supplies into her satchel and smiled at him. “Thank you.”

“You’re very welcome, my dear. Knowledge is meant to be shared.” From behind the lenses of his round-frame glasses, a twinkle flared in his eyes. “As are results, if you perceive my meaning.”

Anan felt a blush burn in her cheeks. “I’ll be sure to ask,” she said, to which Sir Hammerlock tipped her his hat.

She took the Fast Travel network back to the Peak, materializing in the yard, where Hell had said he’d meet her when she’d ECHOd. He was in the middle of playing tug-of-war with one of their three wolfish hounds, a big, black-and-red-furred beast that came to the middle of Hell’s chest even when down on all fours. Anan knew the hounds were trained, but she still kept her distance from the massive jaws slavering over their chew-toy.

Hell let the big one have its prize, which it continued to shake in a wild display of exuberance, and waved to Anan, leading her over to one of the round-topped metal hangars. “How’d it go? Not too much trouble, I hope?”

“Sir Hammerlock was as accommodating, as always. He even showed me his collection.”

He flashed her a gape as they came to the open hangar door. “He didn’t!”

“He did.”

Hell shook his head. “The old bird’s losing his shame by the day…!” he muttered, and ushered her over the threshold.

“Who’re you talkin’ about?” Axton said, and Anan stopped mid-step; she hadn’t prepared herself for the sight of him posing in front of the wall-length mirrors in a skimpy towel that barely completed its low-slung wrap around his hips.

“Alistair,” Hell said, ignoring Axton’s exhibition. “Anan says he showed her the Menagerie!”

Axton walked over, the edges of his towel shifting provocatively over his well-muscled thigh. Anan pulled her eyes from it, to meet his sly, cocksure smile as he guessed, “Sidney?”

“He was so proud of it.” She nodded toward his towel, being careful not to let her gaze linger below. “He also said he wouldn’t mind adding your piece to the collection.”

“Naturally,” Axton said with strutting confidence. He puffed for the mirrors, running his hand over his faintly-whiskered cheek even though the reproduction process wouldn’t require his face. “We can make an extra for you, too, if you want.” He glanced her way, and that wily, predatory smile showed itself again. “Unless you’d rather have the real thing?”

She chuckled. “Let’s just concentrate on the job at hand.”

“Fair enough. Hey, darlin’,” he called to Hell. “Get us some beers before we start?”

“Sure,” Hell said, as relaxed in this situation as his partner; it was like they were talking about any other project. “You want one, too?” he asked Anan.

She smiled as she pulled out the sleeve and alginate tube and laid them on the weight bench. “Only if you’re joining us.”

Hell nodded his agreement and strode out the door, presumably to their shared quarters on the other side of the quad. As soon as he was gone, Axton sidled close and indicated the supplies with a shallow inclination of his head.

“So, uh, how long do I need to stay hard in that stuff?”

Anan consulted the page of instructions. “It says the mixture should take about five minutes to set.”

Axton grunted. “I can do that,” he said, but he didn’t move off again, instead staying in murmuring proximity. He cringed one of those big shoulders and showed his back teeth in a smile that from anyone else she would have called coy. “But, seeing as how I’m doing somethin’ for you, maybe you could do somethin’ for me?”

He shifted closer on his bare feet, making his towel shift, too. Again, she consciously kept her focus away from the bulge beneath as Axton bowed his head.

“My partner gets pretty stirred up when he goes down, and I was thinking….” He grinned. “Why waste the moment? Since you’re here and all.”

She scoffed a scold at him. “I’m not having sex with the two of you!”

“Not sex,” Axton shushed her. “Just…you know.” He wound his fingers in the air, as if to coax something to come from the excited molecules. “Keep the good feelings going.”

Anan blinked, and Axton clarified in a flatly explanatory tone:

“Make out with him.” He grinned again. “It’s on my list.”

She squinted at him. “Excuse me?”

“The first time we were together, it wasn’t really him and me. See, there was this woman, and—” He stopped and pulled up. “Have you heard this story?”

“No, but go on,” she said, because this was getting interesting.

“Anyway, just watching him, with her…!” His eyes went faraway for a heartbeat before he blinked away any more reverie. “For a while, I thought maybe Gaige, or Ellie, but…!” He shook his head and snorted, like clearing a clot of snot from one nostril. “Look, I know how he feels about you. And if he’s into it, I’ll be into it.” He scanned her up and down, and that confident, toothy smile made its way to his lips again. “What do you say? You willing to join the party?”

An unexpected tingling had made its way into her belly, and Anan said, “And, Hell’s all right with that?”

Axton snorted again. “Are you kidding? It was his idea!”

Before she could get more details about that, Hell returned, with three open bottles clinking in his hands. He passed one to Axton, pausing at his side to bow his head and mutter:

“Did you ask her?”

“We’re copacetic.” Axton snapped a wink at Anan before raising his bottle. “Right, sugar-lips?”

Anan ignored Axton’s derogatory chauvinism for the tentative flicker in the blue of Hell’s eyes. “Anything to help,” she said, accepting his offer of another bottle.

Hell pulled a tight, timid smile at her agreement. “Great! Uh, what do you need me to do?”

Anan figured he was asking about instruction, but she just flicked her gaze to Axton glugging his beer. “Him.”

As if to squelch any more conversation, Axton swung down his bottle and stifled a belch out the side of his mouth. “All right!” A snap of his left wrist sent the bottle flinging one way, and a flick of his right sent his towel the other. “Reporting for duty.”

Anan smothered her sudden cough of laughter into her chest, while Hell tapped the necks of their bottles together in a toast.

“The things we do for love,” he said, and took a hearty swig.

Behind them, Axton slapped his hands on his thighs. “Come on, come on! Let’s do this!”

Hell set down his beer, drawling, “Oh, shut up,” as he swayed over to Axton again. They exchanged some mumbling words Anan couldn’t hear – macho taunts more likely than tender endearments, based on the aggressive bumping of their chests – before Hell hooked his hand behind Axton’s head and silenced them both with a kiss. Their mouths came apart with a sucking smack that foreshadowed things to come…which came sooner than Anan expected.

Hell slipped into a squat on his heels and moved his face between Axton’s legs. She couldn’t see what he was doing, but Axton rolled his head back and let out a wheezing sigh that had the same reverberation as an idling engine.

Anan put her lips around the top of her bottle. She didn’t drink, only stroking them over the tasty wetness around the rim while she watched the two men in their pleasure.

Axton rubbed his fingers in Hell’s hair, half-holding and half-massaging as Hell started to move his head back and forth in a slow, even bob. Axton didn’t look at her, but Anan studied his face, recognizing the signs of his delight: the twitch of his brow, the part of his lips, the flick of his tongue.

“Oh,” Axton said, as Hell wound an arm around him in a hug, and moved his other hand between them. An expression of eager anticipation bloomed on Axton’s face, and his knuckles tensed white in Hell’s blond strands.

Taking that as a prompt to be ready, Anan pulled her gaze away and followed Sir Hammerlock’s directions for the setting mixture, quietly squeezing the tube of powder and water so she wouldn’t interrupt the men’s concentration.

“Oh,” she heard Axton say again, and looked up to see him pushing at his partner. “Not that, darlin’.”

Hell’s boots scraped the floor in a rise. “Sorry.”

“That’s okay,” Axton assured him, and beckoned for Anan. “Give me that?”

Hell took the sleeve from her outstretched hand, followed by the squishy tube. She got just a glimpse of Axton’s sprung-hard anatomy before he eased himself into the sleeve – to spite his notorious promiscuity and flaunting, she’d never seen him in a state of naked stimulation – but even that glimpse touched off a twinge of desire.

She watched with hungry eyes as Hell administered the mixture, bathing that spit-slick cock in a syrupy drip of white liquid. Soon, Axton’s member had disappeared behind the thickening veil. Rather than stepping back, though, Anan came forward and touched Hell with the tips of her fingers. He turned her way and they moved into kissing distance, when Axton snickered gamely.

“Remember, now,” he said, looking at Anan. “You’re just borrowin’ him for a bit. He’s still—”

“Yours,” she finished as she swung against Hell, hips-to-hips and hands behind his neck. “I know.”

Hell didn’t feel like he belonged to Axton, though, not when he chuckled and wound his arms around her, and not when they came together for a sweetly soft and clutching kiss. It wasn’t just his lips that pulled her in, either. His hands rubbed and squeezed, from the curve of her spine to the round of her buttock, which she clenched under his fingers as she moaned into his mouth. He sighed into her the same, pushing his tongue deep in a way that seemed to say not so much “I want you,” but “I remember you.”

She remembered him, too. That memory spurred her to grab him with the same fierceness that had, at one time, turned their flesh sweaty and flushed between them. She hooked a leg over his, and he bent her in a sharp-angled, dipping embrace that nearly took her other foot off the floor.

A deep groan of desire floated around them, followed by a gasping entreaty:

“Whoa. Whoa! Keep that up, and I’ll make a bigger mess in this thing.”

Hell pulled up easily, as if they’d been sharing a dance lesson. He steadied Anan back on both feet before swinging round to Axton. “All set?”

“Feels that way,” Axton muttered, as they fiddled with extraction.

This time, Anan returned to her beer to offer them a little bit of privacy. A swish and gulp washed down the mixed taste of both of them, and that became just a memory, too.

A squishy pop sounded, and Axton chuckled.

“Next time, you be stuck in the jar while I make out with the hot chick.”

Hell let out his familiar snorty snicker. “Dream on, darling.”

“Just as well,” Axton said with carefree nonchalance. “Wouldn’t want yet another woman on this planet fallin’ hopelessly in love with me.”

Something nudged Anan in the arm, and she turned her head into Axton’s cavalier grin.

“Am I right, angel-face?” he said, and passed her the sleeve cast. He left himself dangling, no doubt for her benefit, and sauntered out to the yard before she could correct him.

She did spend a moment watching him as he went, though.

Hell came to her side to watch the same as her, with the open smile of a lovestruck fool. She smiled, too, and needled him for it:

“How do you put up with him?”

“He’s not all cock and swagger.” Hell faced her with a grin similar to his man’s. “Mostly, but not all.”

They laughed together, and Hell offered to walk her to the car she’d arrived in just that morning. Axton must have gone somewhere to clean up, and the hounds were lying in the sun, yawning and ignoring them, so Anan figured it safe to pause at the side of the Outrunner and ask:

“So, the kiss. Was that really your idea?”

Hell crossed his arms, bunching his wide shoulders. “He’s had this long-standing thing about watching me with a woman. But, all the women he knows…!” He shook his head. “I told him, if that’s what he wanted, it had to be you.”

She swallowed against the dryness in her throat. “He said something,” she murmured, trying not to show too much concern in her face. “About… the way you feel about me?”

“He knows we were intimate.” Hell pulled a tiny half-smile at her silence. “He also knows it was something I needed then, but that your friendship today is worth far more to me than any physical relationship we may have had in the past.”

A comforting warmth bloomed in her chest, and Anan smiled back. “Tell him I feel the same.” A more mischievous grin tickled as she added, “Though, that was fun, back there.”

“Yeah.” He blushed bright under a toothy beam. “It was.”

She waggled the sleeve with the mold of Axton’s anatomy inside, feeling once more easy beside him. “How about I come back with another one of these? Make it a pair?”

“Why would Gaffey need that?”

Anan snickered. “I didn’t mean for Gaffey.”

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