written and illustrated by Greta Cabrel
For most of her life, Li-Chen has enjoyed being a science teacher in fact as well as theory. She has a knack for communicating how things work, especially to kids, and it’s a thrill to coax the ones who start out thinking they’re stupid into slaying the silly standardized tests they collectively have to surmount. It’s likewise profoundly satisfying when she converts a punk from the too-cool-for-school crowd into a passionate programmer or nerd for nebulae.
But her colleagues across the country are bailing out of the profession in droves and, weeks like this, Li-Chen is dangerously close to jumping ship herself. Her allocation from the administration for supplies was already pitiful; that it’s being slashed further is practically an insult and a dare. She can practically hear her least-favorite legislator sneering, let’s see what you can teach when we don’t give you anything for you to wander out of the box with. Never mind that the puny budget didn’t cover the bare basics to begin with. Never mind that her outré ideas wouldn’t even rank as advanced concepts in any intro course at a research university. Li-Chen was raised by rule-followers, but her principal’s a weasel who’s distinctly failing to cover her back when helicopter parents or hateful politicians take potshots at her. Salvaging what she can of her lesson plans from their latest schemes has her feeling both furious and fatigued as fuck, and Robin, her long-time girlfriend, has been away the past fortnight.
That isn’t a big deal, in itself—Robin’s a professional musician, and her income from out-of-town festivals and clinics helps pay for things like replacing old mattresses and pans. They aren’t in each other’s pockets even when they’re both at home: Li-Chen habitually tunes out Robin’s practicing two rooms over while she grades assignments and drafts letters of recommendation. But she also longs to be held at length after being pushed to pander to people who don’t give a rat’s ass about scientific rigor or reproducibility, and sympathetic side-glances from allies can’t quite provide the right kind of comfort. Moreover, when Robin’s around, it’s easier to snap herself out of stewing over stupid stuff before it goes septic in her: when Li-Chen deliberately listens to Robin’s oboe, she finds it impossible to dwell on soul-draining squabbles. No matter what Robin happens to be playing, the notes transport Li-Chen into good summer memories, of meandering around the Malvern Hills on a hazy day, or drifting into dreams under old quilts in a cool cabin after hiking the Shantou Mountain trail.
When Li-Chen enters their living room and sees Robin on the windowseat, she bursts into tears.
Robin is immediately by her side, hissing, “Who hurt you? I’ll kill them.”
“No.” Li-Chen swipes at her eyes furiously. “You cannot assassinate the administration and the PTA vice president and nine-tenths of the state legislature.”
“They’re making you cry. You never cry. People give you shit because you don’t cry when they think you’re supposed to. You didn’t cry when your dad died, or your first field research director, or your eighteen-year-old cat. . . .”
No. Because Li-Chen’s body is a hyper-rationalist desert that doesn’t let her express emotions through tears. It doesn’t see the point of leaking saltwater when she has claims to file or casseroles to coordinate, or when she was able to give her best feline friend the easiest possible ending to its long, mostly frisky life. When a situation makes sense, Li-Chen’s body doesn’t dissolve into sobs, no matter how sad she’s feeling. As an adult, she’s only been known to cry when she lets Robin tie her up and lovingly take her apart. It’s one hundred percent visceral, how her body happily responds to Robin bestowing bruises from neck to ankle by letting go of its lock on her tear ducts.
“I’m the only person allowed to make you cry,” Robin snarls. “Don’t tell me I don’t get to ice those idiots.”
“You don’t get to ice those idiots,” Li-Chen sighs. “Your knives are too good for them.”
“They made you cry,” Robin states. “You cannot expect me to be okay with that.”
“I don’t, but you know you’re not supposed to go after anyone without backup. And, nasty as these people are, they’re small cogs compared to the big wheels your handlers send you to immobilize. Plus, Maestro Wieck is relying on you for the new oratorio series, and you’re going to be less than reliable if you have too many extracurricular crimes to commit.”
“They made you cry,” Robin repeats. “They can’t be allowed to get away with that.”
“They won’t, dearest,” Li-Chen assures her. “You know I don’t normally feel this helpless. I think it’s like needing reading glasses or a cane—my body has a tier of tired it used to handle better.” Li-Chen plants a kiss against a corner of Robin’s tightly compressed lips. “And now that you’re here, you can remind it of good things that are too much.”
Robin’s lips almost imperceptibly twitch up. “With pleasure.”
“Li-Chen, Li-Chen, Li-Chen. Beautiful. Babe. Wake up. Wake up.”
By the time Li-Chen’s nightmare gives way to Robin’s voice, Robin’s hands hard on her shoulders, she’s a clammy, sweat-soaked mess. Even within the middle-of-the-night murk of their bedroom, Li-Chen can tell that Robin is clearly wide-awake, which in turn tells her that it had taken more than a few shakes to free her from the nightmare’s clutches.
With one hand half-shielding Li-Chen’s eyes, Robin flips the light switch on. She looks simultaneously concerned and murderous.
“You still don’t get to kill them,” Li-Chen promptly says. “Not even as a treat. Especially since you know I dream of stupid stuff that doesn’t mean squat. I conquered O-chem with flying colors three geologic eras ago, and somehow my subconscious still thinks I’m on the verge of failing it..”
“Then you and your idiot id had better go shower,” Robin grumbles, rolling onto her feet. “I’m going to change the sheets.”
“Thank you,” Li-Chen murmurs, pressing a kiss to Robin’s nape upon standing up. Draping her robe over her arm, she adds, “Do you want to play when I get back? It’s going to be a while before I want to try sleeping again.”
Robin still looks homicidal—which is ironic, actually, given the public resting calm face that makes her a fine ensemble musician and contract vigilante—but her lips had quirked up when Li-Chen said play. Li-Chen had been counting on that—it’s four oh-god-o’clock, but after her meltdown last night, they’d gone right to bed, to sleep, instead of reveling in reunion sex.
It’s time for fresh bruises and fast bourées to reset her system. Plus Robin hasn’t yet shown her what she’d picked up at the festival. Li-Chen caresses Robin’s cheek with a follow-up kiss before shuffling into the bathroom.
Li-Chen can’t stop laughing. Robin almost never looks sheepish, but the ceramic crock containing half a dozen cheap recorders is also very much not her style.
“Did you lose a bet with the other loud instruments?” Li-Chen wheezes. “Or a drinking game?”
“Not quite,” Robin replies, matter-of-factly fastening Li-Chen’s wrists to the headboard. “Call it a pity purchase. I caved in when no one else had claimed them with two minutes left in the silent auction.”
“Mm.” Li-Chen hums as Robin moves on to pinning down her left leg with velveteen-wrapped ankle weights. “I remember tooting on one of those back in fifth grade. I can’t picture your baby professionals or advanced amateurs settling for one of those, let alone six.”
Robin inclined her elegant head. “No, but some of them do teach. These may well be relics of a community education course, or one of those ‘lifelong learning’ offerings the university keeps trying to badger me into teaching.”
Li-Chen giggles again, visualizing a classroom of senior citizens tentatively trying to get through “Three Blind Mice.” She suspects that Robin can’t help hearing something similar in her own mind, given the grimace she glimpses as she fastens another band of weights above the first..
“Is that what you’ll do with them?” she asks. “Donate them in turn to someone willing to commit a semester to rough renditions of ‘Frere Jacques’ and ‘Row, Row, Row Your Boat’?”
“That would probably be the responsible thing to do,” Robin murmurs. “The music teacher at your own school might even be wishing that someone would give such a gift.”
“First, what music teacher? That got cut from the budget years ago. Second, you literally breathe responsibility, my heart. You love that everyone has to tune to you, and you wouldn’t get away with murder if you weren’t impeccable about cleaning after yourself. So, why wouldn’t you go for the tax break and give to some worthy public school—or even a charter, these days everyone’s having to scrounge. . . .”
There was that quirky smile again. “I can’t help thinking it might be rude, given where these recorders will have been by the time we’re done with them.” The smile bloomed as Li-Chen’s eyes widened.
Li-Chen’s breath is soaking the air between them, surging desire syncopated with gasps and curses. She’s wholly aroused, but Li-Chen herself isn’t wet, because bodies do lie, no matter what woo-woo exes insist on believing otherwise, thanks to too many novels and fics where to be enthralled with one’s lover inevitably engenders gallons of sublime nectar seeping out of one’s nether lips. (Li-Chen enjoys escapist romps herself, but she isn’t above feeling bitter about romantic conventions curdling certain past relationships, even though the real problem is that she dated idiots.)
Fortunately, the self-reliant cussedness that propelled Robin through conservatory and countless church and charity gigs also informs their love life: as a double-reed specialist, Robin has spent hundreds of hours coaxing the right degree of wetness into recalcitrant reeds. Compared to cane from distant fields across three continents—the supply was piecemeal and pricey even before the pandemic and climate change wrought new havoc, and God knows who will continue cultivating such a niche crop—in light of the rigmarole Robin’s chosen instrument routinely puts her through, Li-Chen’s uncooperative cunt isn’t a challenge at all.
It is the wildest torture for Li-Chen to lie as still as possible while Robin plays movement after movement after movement. Even tied up and weighed down, Li-Chen could still hurt herself or the oboe, were she to jostle something out of joint or strain too hard against her shackles. (She doesn’t have to worry about Robin. It’s fucking fantastic that she doesn’t have to worry about Robin.) Her reward for remaining complaisant is multifold: she gets to revel in these private renditions of the rhapsodies and rondeaux closest to Robin’s heart—the ones most present in her memory. She absorbs the soaring filigree of sweet sonatas and swooping fantasias while feasting on her view of Robin’s expert, experienced fingers—fingers that periodically press into her flesh, between songs, in tandem with teeth tugging on nipples while nails nick at new-bitten bruises. Robin swabs the condensation out of the oboe with silk and feathers and teases Li-Chen’s curves with them, their collection of moisture enough to tantalize, but far from sufficient for any progress into her pussy.
Most of the time, when they play like this, it’s enough for Robin to eventually straddle Li-Chen, grinding down until Li-Chen’s g-spot gives in to the wonderfulness of the weight rocking against its outside. Li-Chen used to feel like a hopeless freak, over how quirky her way of coming was—hated that, alone, she could only come from humping her hand while flat on her stomach. Hated how she wasn’t believed when confessing that clit-rubbing and cocks did nothing for her. With Robin, she’s learned that she can come in other configurations—when her tits are teased for an eternity and then magnificently mouthed, or when Robin straps her to a St. Andrew’s cross and flogs her until the knots in residence from shoulders to calves unravel enough to let her float.
Li-Chen’s never needed penetration for sex to be good, but she doesn’t mind when Robin tries out toys in her now and then. It’s always in the spirit of adding spice rather than insisting that she’s missing out on a full meal—the plugs and phalluses don’t feel terrible, but neither do they do all that much for her. Certainly not what they do for Robin, whether they’re inside Robin or Li-Chen. Li-Chen does like how lust flares in Robin’s eyes when a well-angled dildo or fingers forked just so help turn up the volume on what she’s feeling. Robin likes hearing her whimper and wail, when it’s genuine, and Li-Chen wants to give that to her.
She’s not surprised when Robin finally sets the oboe aside and contemplates the crock of cheap recorders. She pulls the foot joint off a plastic specimen and pushes it between Li-Chen’s lips—a joke of a gag, but strange enough to add a bit of sizzle to the proceedings.
She peels all the ankle weights off so that she can roll up Li-Chen’s lower half, rimming her for what feels like a deliciously outrageous length of time before reaching for the thinnest instrument in the bundle, one with a tapered end instead of a bell. She twists it into Li-Chen’s hole with exquisite care, crooning soft, soothing compliments as Li-Chen, breath hitching, helplessly cringes away from the invasion even as her ass-cheeks clamp around it. Fat teardrops are falling from her eyes when the recorder bottoms out, Robin tenderly smirking as she ever-so-slowly stirs it within Li-Chen like a spoon suspended in kneadable dough.
Li-Chen is thrusting up, her pussy dry but her whole body begging for relief. Robin retrieves a bottle of lube and liberally applies it first to Li-Chen’s vagina, and then to the lower body of another recorder. Li-Chen moans around the section in her mouth as Robin slides the oiled tube into her, body taut within the trifecta of possession.
She can’t slam her body down, given the recorder in her ass. She doesn’t dare arch up, lest she snap the recorder in her cunt, what with Robin gripping the part protruding from her. She can’t lie still, with these literally moving parts masturbating her. It’s horrible. It’s heavenly. She’s no longer thinking of anything except the hunger of her body—how every single inch of it is clamoring for more, more, more.
Robin cheerfully one-handedly plays the first few notes of a carol on the recorder protruding from Li-Chen’s pussy, and god damn if it doesn’t sound as clear and true as something out of a cathedral. Li-Chen can’t help cackling, even as she’s crying from her body being one giant craving—and, there it is. The laughter shakes her free from the last claws the day job and nightmare had sunk into her. Her climax rips through her like laughter amplified into a shower of lightning strikes.
Much later in the day—after extended post-orgasmic cuddling, followed by a full night’s worth of dreamless sleep—Li-Chen steps into the living room, where Robin is back on the windowseat, reviewing Handel’s Israel in Egypt. Li-Chen is familiar with the aria she’s playing—Robin played it earlier, in fact, just before scraping her teeth up Li-Chen’s inner thighs:
Thou didst blow with the wind,
the sea covered them;
they sank as lead
in the mighty waters.
As Robin serenely sends cascades of sixteenth-notes curling into the early autumn air, Li-Chen thinks of a long-ago card from a friend, with The world is a narrow bridge, but the important thing is not to make ourselves afraid emblazoned across the front. Inside, the friend had scribbled, I don’t think Rabbi Nachman meant, “Be not afraid at all.” I think he was saying, “Don’t add more fear to what you’re already bearing across the bridge.”
Listening to Robin, Li-Chen reminds herself that the bridge may well hold up, its thousand tiny cracks spackled and shored up with their efforts to keep it intact. The notes of the oboe are like sunshine scattering itself into rapier points across the surface of a river. Li-Chen thinks of where Robin’s knives have been—convincing reeds to sing true, cleaning fish near a campfire, cutting into the artery of a trafficker—and the preternaturally composed, competent woman who wields those knives and then worships her with cool fervor.
Li-Chen can’t help feeling that the proverbial narrow bridge is being scoured ever thinner and more fragile every day, by heavy feet and harsh elements and blows delivered in bad faith. But the brightness of the day and the burnished legato of the oboe lines are making her breathless with their combined intensity, her body aflame with possibility. When Robin flicks a glance at her—the glance shifting into a stare, at Li-Chen’s flushed face, the clench of a fist against her jeans—their eyes lock as if they were literally leaning into each other. Then Robin plays on, and Li-Chen keeps listening.