by Cowboy Rider
The tongue plundering Samson’s mouth was making it hard to think. Being here was moronic. All of it was, really: Agreeing to help Elroy sneak his way into a high-class society ball to meet his prospective mate, as Elroy might technically belong here, heir to his influential pack’s head council seat, but Samson was a nobody. The son of moderately successful tomekeepers, yes, and powerful in his own right, also yes, but only in a way that was impressive to other magical practitioners. But Elroy was persuasive and Samson had been trying to prove – both to Elroy and himself – that he was totally definitely over whatever fling they’d had last summer. He had to be, Elroy was engaged for God’s sake. So he’d caved to Elroy’s pleading, and now Elroy was standing in a corner making more-or-less literal puppy dog eyes at his betrothed. But Samson’s idiocy hadn’t stopped there. No. Then he’d followed, on some flimsy excuse, the host of the ball into his private study to take a look at some genealogical texts he’d heard rumors about, and now he was certainly going to be the subject of much much worse rumors because everyone downstairs undoubtedly had a very particular idea about what exactly it was they were doing, and if things continued on the course they were on, they would not even be wrong.
And yet, none of it was enough to make him pull away from the firm body or put a stop to the insatiable kisses.
Through the haze of desire, another thought occurred to him. It was enough to make him tear his mouth away and gasp out, “How old are you?”
The sensuous mouth was unperturbed by the loss, instead trailing down Samson’s neck to lick and suck at his hammering pulse as a chuckle rumbled through the bracketing body. He made his way back up leisurely, despite how Samson’s breath came out in desperate pants. “Centuries,” he murmured, punctuating the statement with another open-mouthed kiss. “Millenia.” Another kiss. “From the time before the elder gods abandoned us.” His mouth descended on Samson’s again, claiming.
By the time Samson had the presence of mind to draw back again, he had nearly lost the thread of the conversation. “Oh,” he breathed. The man ran his hot tongue along the sensitive shell of his outer ear. “Fuck.” He swallowed hard, trying to think. “Fuck,” he repeated more harshly. “That is—” he broke off with a gasp as he felt the hint of teeth on his sensitive earlobe. “That is definitely over the age outlined in the elder care statutes.” He could not, at this precise moment, recall whether it was eighty or eighty-five, but that was fairly inconsequential. Was this compulsion? It was rumored that truly ancient vampires could compel not only humans but also mages and weres. What if this desire wasn’t his own? His heart pounded harder as he stared.
Another dark chuckle. Samson could feel the hard line of the man’s cock through the folds of his robe and just barely restrained himself from grinding forward into it. “Do you think,” the man asked, slowly unbuttoning the front of Samson’s robe and christening each bit of exposed flesh with an open mouthed kiss, “that trivialities like the law are among my concerns?” He knelt between Samson’s splayed knees, intoxicatingly confident as he unfastened the closures on Samson’s robe, baring his briefs to the chilly evening air.
No, Samson thought, desire and frustration a potent cocktail in his gut as he stared down at the alluring man. No, I clearly don’t think. I’m an entire goddamn idiot and I’m going to let this man lead me wherever he likes. Still, he thought he ought to offer up some sort of rebuttal. Laws might be trivial to god-like vampires, but Samson was a mere mortal witch. “Still, though…” he offered weakly. They could both hear the lack of heat in it as he leaned heavily against the door and watched the man bury his face against his cloth-covered hip and breathe him in.
The man stood gracefully and pressed himself back against the now partially bare skin of Samson’s torso. He took Samson’s mouth in another rationality-stealing kiss before bending his head to murmur in his ear. “I could force you.” It might’ve been a threat or it might’ve been an offer. Either way, a shudder ran through Samson’s body and arousal slicked his underwear. Strong fingers caught Samson’s wrists in a firm grip and hauled them over his head, effortlessly pinning him against the solid wood. A knee wedged between Samson’s newly bared thighs and he instinctively ground forward onto it.
“Desmir,” he whispered, his voice rasping in his throat. The soft satin of the man’s trousers tantalized the sensitive skin of his inner thighs.
Desmir hummed, pleased, as the fingers of his free hand skated up Samson’s side and Samson shivered at the too-much not-enough contact.
“Please,” Samson said. He tried to shift in Desmir’s hold, get more of that delicious friction, but was held in place, Desmir’s body and grip unforgiving.
There was a cocky smile in Desmir’s voice. “Would you like that? For me to hold you down and have my way with you? Do all I desire until you’re a screaming, sobbing wreck, and then keep going?” He drew back and wound a lock of Samson’s golden hair around his finger, surveying it with bemused appreciation. “I would do that for you,” he said softly, “little sun.”
Samson knew he should be scared. Desmir was powerful and held no qualms about using that power to get what he wanted. And the evidence of what he wanted was hard and insistent against Samson’s thigh. Samson was at his mercy. Perhaps if he used magic, drained himself to nearly empty, he might stand a chance of getting away. But for what? Did he even want to?
Desmir pressed a clean-shaven cheek against Samson’s stubbly one. “Tell me no,” he commanded, barely audible above the sound of Samson’s uneven breathing.
“No.” There was no choice as the word flew from Samson’s mouth. There was only action, only obedience, and he was struck by the understanding that this, this was compulsion. Which meant that every other wanton, foolhardy action he’d taken tonight had been solely his own. He squirmed and let out a low whine, tugging at his still-held wrists.
“Go on then,” Desmir goaded, arrogant and amused. “Test me, little sun. Your magic too, if you like. I’m strong enough. You can struggle as hard as you like and be sure you will stay exactly where you want to be.”
Samson hadn’t really been trying to escape, but he was now, pulling hard at his wrists and bucking with all he was worth. “And where,” he gasped out, trying to distract him long enough for a stun spell to charge in his palm, “is that?”
With a smirk and a flick of his fingers, Desmir dispelled the building magic and held Samson’s gaze. “Underneath me, split open on my cock.”
Samson’s resolve strengthened even as his arousal rose in equal measure. It was a point of pride now. He drew in a shuddering breath and pushed power into letting it out, the force magnifying to knock Desmir back several feet. Samson took only a heartbeat to relish the look of surprise on Desmir’s face and bolted away, unsure where he was going, but knowing he had to try.
He darted around a bookcase, the open sides of his robe fluttering behind him as he ran. His dress shoes were not intended for sprinting. They pounded on the thick rug lining the floor as he dashed through the maze of tall book cases. He needed a plan. He could see the moonlight coming through the nearby window. If he could make it and break through, a levitation spell might—
Desmir dropped in front of him, arms wrapping around his waist and lifting his feet from the ground. Samson could feel the chuckle vibrating through him as he instinctively wrapped his arms around Desmir’s neck.
“Clever, little sun,” Desmir praised into the crook of Samson’s neck. “Yet even with all of your cleverness, I will always catch you.”
Samson squirmed, knowing he’d lost but liking the feel of Desmir’s arms tightening around him. Desmir shifted his grip, one large hand trailing down to support Samson’s ass, the bulge in his trousers pressing hotly against Samson’s aching dick. Samson wrapped his legs around the man’s waist in answer, bucking his hips in search of more friction.
“Shall I take you to bed, then? Are you ready to submit to my attentions?”
Samson shuddered. He should go back to the party, he knew. He should straighten his clothes and find Elroy and go home and pretend none of this ever happened. But he felt the sting of sharp teeth on his neck and he knew he wasn’t going to do any of that. He answered: “Yes.”
It was a commonly held misconception that vampires had to take blood while they fucked. However, it was generally true, Samson knew, that they usually did as a matter of convenience and eroticism. After all, one did not bed a vampire via happenstance, and potential lovers knew what they were in for. Samson was not unique in this regard.
As Desmir laid him out on luxurious sheets, he spoke into the damp skin of Samson’s neck over his pulse. “May I taste you?”
Samson couldn’t help his shiver. He nodded. Too enthusiastic, perhaps, for the game they’d been playing, but he could do nothing else. He’d never given blood like this. At drives, sure, and in a ritual or two during his schooling, but vampire bites were said to be something else entirely. Painful, yes, as sharp teeth penetrated sensitive flesh, but also intensely pleasurable. And Samson was no stranger to pain as its own kind of pleasure.
Desmir did not chuckle again, his breaths coming faster now as he intensified his efforts on Samson’s neck. One of his hands wandered down to cup Samson’s manhood. He squirmed at the dual sensation and sense of anticipation. Desmir fit his hand into the waistband of Samson’s briefs.
Samson stiffened and gasped out, “Wait.”
Desmir lifted his head, his face somewhere between concerned and bemused, an eyebrow raised in question.
Samson could feel the flush rising to his cheeks as he shook his head and grasped the wrist of the hand currently teasing over sensitive pubic hair. “I need–” he broke off, knowing it was easier to simply demonstrate. He brought the hand up, then, holding Desmir’s gaze, wrapped his lips around the first two fingers.
Desmir’s eyes darkened even more and a nearly feral sounding growl echoed in his chest. “Little sun…” he warned.
Samson was uncowed. He swirled his tongue around the fingers as he would a cock, bobbing his head just to watch the muscle in Desmir’s jaw jump again. Then, when it seemed Desmir was mere moments away from smothering his face into the bed and taking him dry, he relented and allowed his power to pool and transmute the spit into lube as he pulled the fingers from his mouth. Desmir’s intense stare didn’t leave his face for several long moments afterwards, frozen with an intensity that Samson couldn’t quite decipher. Desmir finally glanced at his fingers and noticed the magic Samson had done. In some ways it was not showy, just a transmutation spell that any first year practitioner could pull off to a greater or lesser degree, but his method was far from conventional, with no incantation spoken, or ritual performed. Just pure power and will.
Desmir’s smile was bordering on dumbfounded. “Clever,” he said again. He put a hand to Samson’s briefs. “Take these off.”
Samson obeyed, face flushed at the praise and his own easy submission. But for the robe still clinging to his shoulders and splayed out underneath him, he was entirely bared to Desmir, who was still fully dressed and hungrily surveying his body. Samson’s cock, small, hard, aching, pulsed as the gaze like a physical caress swept over it. Desmir covered Samson’s body with his own, warmth and breadth and weight bearing down on him, his mouth returning again to that spot on Samson’s neck where his pulse pounded hard and the newly slicked fingers trailing between Samson’s legs to his front entrance. His mouth continued to lick and suck at his neck but the hand conspicuously paused. Samson wound a hand into Desmir’s hair, finally ruffling the perfect coif with his twining fingers.
“Yes,” Samson breathed. He’d been fucked in the ass before and found it pleasurable enough, but he’d done exactly no prep for this encounter, and he liked being fucked there better, besides.
Desmir didn’t plunge the fingers in immediately, instead teasing the sensitive flesh around the entrance with barely-there touches until Samson was panting again with want, all thoughts of his nakedness abandoned. A hard suck on his neck made Samson draw in a shuddering breath and tense – despite knowing better – in preparation for the bite he just knew was coming. But it didn’t, instead holding steady pressure until Samson was sure it would leave a rather spectacular bruise. That was when Desmir’s fingers entered him. Samson cried out as Desmir’s fingers unerringly found and stroked that spot within him as the heel of his hand put delicious pressure on his dick.
“Desmir,” he gasped, “I’m going to–”
“Yes,” Desmir answered, his mouth finally releasing Samson’s sore flesh to look up at him, “you are. Come for me, little sun.” Then his mouth was back on Samson’s neck and his fingers redoubled their efforts.
Permission given, Samson tipped over the edge in little time, crying out his pleasure as the climax rolled through his body. At the peak, another sensation joined in, both impossibly more pleasure and a sharp stab of pain. Samson keened at the feeling, drowned out only by Desmir’s rumbling moan. After several long pulls, Samson’s body shook as his orgasm flowed into another or continued past what he’d ever thought it capable of. Desmir pulled back again to look at him, Samson still twitching with pleasure, and the look in his eyes was… wild. Feral. A man pushed to his brink.
“On your stomach,” he commanded with a raw edge to his voice. “I need to be inside you. Now.”
Samson moved to obey, shedding his robe and lifting his hips to allow Desmir better access. By the time he was situated, Desmir had completely shed his fine clothing and was poised between Samson’s spread thighs, his cock jutting out proudly, red and wet tipped. Samson reached behind himself and grasped it, his hand wrapping around the firm length. He stroked it once, provoking a threatening growl from Desmir. His heart thundered at the sound and he focused on doing what he’d intended, calling more lube to his palm and slicking Desmir’s cock as he stroked only once more. It wasn’t the easiest magic – conjuration was always harder than transmutation – but he was desperate and in the mood to show off for the gorgeous man about to fuck him. A small, vain part of himself hoped Desmir appreciated the effort, that he recognized that it wasn’t simply the same trick twice. As he glanced at the look in Desmir’s eyes he thought perhaps he did.
“My clever little sun,” Desmir praised as he lined his cock up to Samson’s entrance. “I’m going to fuck you now.”
“Yes,” Samson said, his face already buried in the soft sheets underneath him.
Desmir pushed in with one long, firm thrust, not quite abrupt, but swift and incontrovertible. Even with the preparation, the sudden stretch burned and Samson whined as he tried quickly to adjust. He reached down to palm his cock but Desmir grabbed his hand with another low growl and hauled his wrists over his head to pin them there. “Mine,” he snarled, pumping his hips, his cock forcing Samson’s body to open around it. Then his mouth was back on the punctures he’d made on Samson’s neck, pulling sweet pleasure with each suckle, and his hand tugged at Samson’s cock as he built up a steady rhythm.
Samson surrendered to pleasure, his hips bucking up into Desmir’s thrusts and obscene moans falling from his lips with every tug on his cock. His walls spasmed as he was overwhelmed with pleasure and he could feel Desmir’s rumbling groan echo through his bones. “Fuck. Yes,” he panted as Desmir’s pace increased.
His head swum as Desmir took another pull of his blood and pleasure threatened to overwhelm him. It was soon going to be too much, but it felt too good to stop. Still, he needed to tell Desmir that his orgasm was fast approaching. “Desmir,” he said. “Close. Please.” It was the best he could manage.
The pull on Samson’s neck stopped, and so did the stroking hand, though Desmir’s nearly brutal thrusts didn’t slow in their pace. The hand holding his wrists flexed, on the edge of bruising. Samson whined at the lack of stimulation.
“Tell me,” Desmir said, his voice sounding ragged, “where it is you want to be.”
A shudder ran through Samson, but he was far beyond pride now. “Here,” he gasped. Desmir didn’t move to drink from him or touch him again. “Right here,” he clarified. “Underneath you. Spli–” he groaned as Desmir pounded right into his g-spot. “Split open on your cock,” he finished desperately, feeling drool spill over his panting lips as he said it.
Desmir’s chuckle was more dangerous than it’d sounded before. “I knew you’d admit it eventually, little sun. Here’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to make you come, and then I’m going to fill you up. And then I’m going to keep you stuffed full of my cock until you beg me to stop. After I make you come again, I’ll let you rest, and do it all again when you wake. How does that sound?”
Samson could only moan. He was going to stay here tonight? In Desmir’s bed? He wasn’t opposed, but the intimacy was startling. He didn’t have too long to think about it though, as Desmir’s hand returned to his cock and his mouth returned to his neck. Usually he took a while to get back to the edge no matter how close he’d been, but at the first tug he was there again, crying out as he hurtled over. Desmir was not far behind. His thrusts were bruising as he pounded into Samson’s hole then stilled, the warm rush of his spend making Samson sigh in pleasure even as his body continued to twitch with release.
The two of them laid there panting for long moments. Desmir’s weight was a grounding presence at his back. Soon, however, Desmir flipped them so that Samson was spooned in his embrace, his slightly softening cock still buried in him, true to his word.
When Samson woke he was tucked into Desmir’s side, his head pillowed on Desmir’s broad, pale chest, feeling more refreshed than he’d felt in a long time. Desmir held a book and paged through it, though no nearby lights were lit. He was gloriously nude, his arousal tenting the blankets thrown over their hips, and he gave Samson a kiss on the head when he noticed his attention.
“I’m pleased you’ve rested,” he said, sliding down in the bed to wrap himself more fully around Samson. He kissed him deeply, using one large hand to hold Samson’s head right where he wanted it. He ground his erection into Samson’s thigh before pulling away with a frustrated groan. “Unfortunately, I cannot yet follow through on the promised lovemaking. I have an annoyance that must be resolved first.”
Samson stiffened as a thought occurred to him. “Elroy.”
A low growl rumbled through Desmir’s chest.
Samson quickly shook his head before any further miscommunication could arise. “No, it’s not like that. But I brought him here. I didn’t even think about him being stranded. He’ll never forgive me.”
Desmir relented by degrees. “His mate was in attendance, yes?”
“Yes. They’re technically only engaged, but Elroy certainly seemed smitten.”
Desmir hummed and pulled Samson to him more firmly. “Sebastian is a good man. I’m certain your wolf pup is just fine.”
Samson was pleased to discover that the little pang of might-have-been that had sparked in his chest any time he’d thought of Elroy and his soon-to-be mate had dissipated into nothingness. He cuddled further into Desmir’s embrace. “Still, I probably ought to check on him. And didn’t you say there was… something you needed to handle? You could’ve, you know. I don’t need you to watch over me.” Even as he said it, a part of him called himself a liar. He liked waking up in Desmir’s arms, and he might’ve panicked had he woken up in the large bed alone.
Desmir sighed, put upon. “I’ll send for a messenger while you freshen up. Feel free to shower, if you like. There’s clean linens on the counter, and by the time you’re finished your laundered clothes will be on the bed.”
“I can do that. I’m sure I smell. Can I ask where you’ll be?” He tried not to sound too needy with his last question. What were he and Desmir even? Was this a one night stand? It didn’t feel like it but how was he supposed to know?
Desmir flipped them easily, pinning Samson under his sturdy bulk. “You smell like our combined lovemaking. There is no greater scent to me. However, my annoyance involves several irate members of Society and I assumed being disheveled in their presence would upset you. You’ll note I’m making no such move.”
Samson blinked up at him, still waking up. “Oh. You want to smell like me?” He could feel his cheeks pinken at the idea, though a part of him liked it. What the hell was happening here?
Desmir rumbled and nosed at Samson’s neck. “That is only the beginning of what I want from you, my little sun. Go freshen up and I’ll accompany you downstairs.”
Samson waited for Desmir to roll off of him then walked into the double-doored bathroom in the low light of the room. It, like the rest of Desmir’s estate, was obscenely lavish. Solid marble gleamed under lights he was certain were made of genuine crystal, and hot water fell in a waterfall from the showerhead at his first touch. He tried not to linger for too long, as Desmir had indicated that they were on some sort of time crunch, but the steam wrapped him in a languid comfort and he felt himself relaxing under the relentless spray as his brain replayed the highlights of the night before. He did manage to hold himself back from anything more than a perfunctory stroke on his cock with the provided bath linen, but it was a near thing.
He dressed quickly, only pausing to towel-dry his hair before he stepped back out into the bedroom on bare feet. He felt his toes sink into the plush carpet while his eyes scanned the room for his shoes and Desmir. It was illuminated now, and Desmir, at least, was easy enough to find in the light. His shoes were found with a tilt of Desmir’s head towards the foot of the bed, considerately lined up and waiting.
Desmir took his hand and led him from the room, but as they walked through opulent hallways, he didn’t drop it. Samson blushed, feeling ridiculous. In the light of everything they’d done last night, this was the intimacy that had him flustered? His skin was still flushed and sensitive from the hot water, and Desmir soothed a thumb over the back in a rhythmic motion. This did not feel like being shown the door after a one night stand. He knew the grown up thing to do would be to talk to Desmir, but he didn’t want to pop the cozy bubble around them.
When he glanced at a window, the industrial strength blinds were slowly raising as the last tendrils of dusk sunk below the horizon. He blinked. Had it really been so long? It was just as well, he supposed, as most of the guests were vampiric in nature and wouldn’t be able to leave until now anyway.
Desmir led them down a grand staircase into the ornate ballroom Samson had only glimpsed the night before. It had been filled with finely-dressed socialites and orchestral music accompanied by tinkling laughter then. Now, it held only a half dozen people, most of whom Samson didn’t immediately recognize. One, however, he did. Elroy sat on a low bench, his suit jacket folded on his lap, his shirt rolled up to his elbows, drooped against the wall with exhaustion, an impossibly larger man standing protectively over him. Upon further inspection that other man was his betrothed, and Samson breathed a sigh of relief. It seemed that Desmir had been correct.
The people below surveyed their descent with various degrees of interest, but all of them made Samson keenly aware he hadn’t yet let go of Desmir’s hand. As their steps echoed on the marble floor and they started towards the group – the rest of the people in the room, not counting Elroy and his mate and the maid that’d just scurried in – the idle chatter stopped entirely. A tall, regal woman in a red cocktail dress turned towards them. She studied Desmir for a moment and stumbled back a step in surprise. Samson could feel Desmir’s hand twitch in his before he finally let go and stepped protectively in front of Samson.
“Desmir?” the woman asked, already haughtily composed from her moment of shock.
“Amelia,” Desmir replied evenly.
“You fed from him?” Amelia asked as if she already knew the answer.
One of the men in her entourage scoffed and remarked, “Just like his brother.”
Samson could see the shift of Desmir’s tensing muscles under his finely tailored suit only because he was nearly pressed against the man’s back.
“Yes,” Desmir answered, his voice giving none of the coiling emotion away.
She began to stalk determinedly towards the pair of them. “I will end you.” She looked it, too, the fire in her eyes promising death to any that stood in her way.
Samson stepped around Desmir. “No,” he said and spread his hands in front of him, creating a shield that bisected the room, “you won’t.”
Desmir had let out a displeased growl at Samson leaving the protection of his body, but now only wrapped an arm smugly around Samson’s waist and nuzzled his hair. “Clever, little sun,” he murmured. To Amelia, now looking impossibly more furious on the other side of Samson’s barrier, he said, “Would you truly deny me my heartsblood, Amelia?”
“The Council—” she began.
“Rescinded that restriction in the little hours of the morning,” Desmir finished smoothly. “You have my sincerest apologies that I could not be in attendance. I was” –he smirked– “indisposed.”
Samson felt his face heat. He didn’t know exactly what time it had been when he had followed Desmir into his study, nor when he’d fallen asleep. He was also unsure what exactly the problem was. It was common for vampires to feed from their bedmates, and while Samson didn’t exactly relish publicly airing their sex life, they were consenting adults. It wasn’t anyone else’s concern.
Elroy touched Samson’s shoulder. “You all right?”
Samson’s arms were beginning to tremble with the strength of his exertion. Every few seconds one of the vampires on the other side tried to force their way through. Still, Samson nodded.
Elroy looked pointedly at the arm wrapped around Samson’s waist, then stared down Desmir, who met his gaze steadily. “Heartsblood, huh?” he said, his voice holding an edge of menace to it. Samson was having trouble following what with the repeated prodding of his barrier, but Elroy had been studying under his mother for years in preparation of taking her Council seat. He must’ve understood something Samson had missed.
Desmir didn’t flinch. “Yes.”
Samson had bigger concerns than whatever weird message passed between them. He wasn’t sure how long he could keep the barrier up. It wasn’t intended to be as big as he’d made it, but with the speed vampires moved, any other size would’ve been pointless.
Elroy settled his hand back on Samson’s shoulder. “It’s okay,” he said quietly. “You can drop it.” He looked at Amelia with a hardened expression. “She’s not going to harm anyone.”
Amelia began sputtering. “You listen here, you little—”
“I am the heir to Alpha Grayson’s council seat,” Elroy said with finality, “and my friend and his mate are under my protection.”
Elroy’s mate stepped up and put a supporting hand on his shoulder as well. “And the junior Grayson is under my protection.”
Now Samson was well and truly confused. The dwindling remains of his power were certainly not helping matters. Mate? What did—?
“You’ve lost, Amelia,” Desmir said quietly. He nosed at Samson’s temple. “Drop the shield, little sun.”
Samson released the spell with an exhalation of breath and tried not to lean too heavily into Desmir’s side.
“Go home to Dorothy and be happy,” Elroy’s mate commanded.
The woman clearly weighed her options for a tense moment, then turned on her heel and strode towards the door. The rest of her group trailed behind her.
As they exited, one man hung back and looked back over at Desmir. “Keep him safe,” he said, nodding his head at Samson. Bizarrely, Samson even thought he meant it.
Desmir’s arm tightened around Samson’s waist. “I will.”
The tension of their formation broke as the door closed behind the group.
Elroy’s mate – Sebastian – turned. “You’ll not want to be separated from him so soon.” It was directed at Desmir and not a question.
Desmir nodded stiffly.
Sebastian turned to Elroy. “If you’re satisfied with your friend’s safety, then, I will take you home.”
Samson winced. “Your moms. Were they upset?”
Elroy looked more tired than Samson had seen him in a long time. He rubbed the back of his neck. “They’re, ah, not pleased. But don’t worry about it. I’ll handle it. You’re okay with staying here?”
Samson glanced at Desmir, who’d yet to let go of his waist. “Er, yes? I probably ought to go though—”
“No.” Desmir turned him in his arms and brought his hand up to brush a gentle kiss over his knuckles. “I want you here. Please.” That voice was not made for begging, Samson thought, though he did an admirable job of bending it to the task.
“I don’t—” Samson began, confused.
“Desmir,” Sebastian interrupted. “Walk with me to my car and assist me in begging forgiveness from Alpha Grayson?”
Desmir glanced between Samson and Elroy before reluctantly nodding and following the other man.
“I don’t understand,” Samson said again. “You called him my mate.” For werewolves, it was a term not taken lightly. When Samson and Elroy had had their fling last summer, Elroy had been assiduous in keeping the term away from their relationship. “Mating”, too, was a highly sacred term that meant so much more than making love. Had Elroy made an exception to diffuse tension?
“Yes,” Elroy responded steadily, no hint of conflict in his eyes. “He called you his heartsblood.” At Samson’s blank look, he elaborated. “A vampire’s heartsblood is said to be the other half of their soul that leaves them when they gain their curse. It’s extremely rare that they’re found. So rare that Amelia, the woman who just left, was the last one to find her heartsblood in the last three centuries.”
“You’re talking about soulmates,” Samson whispered.
Elroy nodded and watched him with a cautious expression.
“He thinks I’m his soulmate?” Samson refused to let his voice crack, just like he refused to let himself hope. He’d wanted, for so long, to have a place he belonged. His parents were always on the road, and while their little traveling library was comforting, it was also changing and chaotic. He’d thought for a while that perhaps he could belong with Elroy, but that hadn’t been right either. For one thing, he loved Elroy like a friend more than like a lover, and for another he’d always be a mage amongst wolves. And here Elroy dangled everything he’d ever wanted in front of him: a place and a man who was uniquely his.
“Not think,” Elroy corrected as he looped his arm through Samson’s and steered them towards the door, “knows. Vampires can see auras, remember? Their heartsblood is said to beat in time with their own.”
“Elroy,” Samson said, his voice low and steady, “if this is a joke I’m going to disembowel you. You will not like how inventive I can be.”
Elroy chuckled as he led the two of them into the entryway and towards the front door. “I’m glad being mated hasn’t softened you. Look.” He pulled Samson to a stop in front of an ornate gilt-framed mirror. He gestured at the stark curving lines emanating from Desmir’s bite at the collar of Samson’s robe. “Do you see that? I don’t have anything to do with that. That’s the mark of the heartsblood.”
Samson could only stare. His hand came up to touch the mark, but nothing felt out of the ordinary, aside from a slight soreness where Desmir had bitten him. He looked at Elroy desperately.
Elroy got them moving back on the path to the door. “I think you need a while to talk this all over with him, but you know that if you call I’ll always answer.”
Samson nodded, tears pricking his eyes. He did not normally act like this, but then again, this situation was particularly abnormal.
He and Elroy hugged for a long moment before Elroy opened the outside door and jogged down the stairs to the waiting sportscar. Desmir exited the vehicle smoothly and headed up the steps, but paused near the bottom, looking up at him.
Samson tried not to fidget. He wasn’t sure what it was Desmir could see, backlit by the light of the still open door, but what he could was certainly not appealing. His hair was surely a mess, and his eyes must telegraph the exhaustion of a man who’d just undertaken an impossible magical task and woken not thirty minutes prior. So he really, really tried not to fidget. And failed. Desmir’s eyes caught on the motion of Samson rubbing the fabric of his robe between his fingers, and it spurred him into action. He bounded up the rest of the way and took Samson in his arms, moving him easily and ushering him into the house.
The stool situated at the bar in the large kitchen was more comfortable than Samson had been expecting. Desmir slid a plate filled with some of the hors d’oeuvres Samson had enjoyed at the party before they’d abandoned it. “Eat,” he instructed before turning to the large gas stove and switching it on.
Samson took a bite obediently and watched Desmir curiously. Vampires didn’t, as a rule, eat. It wouldn’t kill them, but after a couple of centuries their body stopped producing the enzymes that made most food digestible which made for a…rather unpleasant experience akin to lactose intolerance. He supposed Desmir could be cooking for him, but he’d already given him more food than he could even think to consume in one sitting. Still, it was as good as it’d been last night. He took another bite.
“So,” he said once it was clear Desmir wasn’t going to say anything, “heartsblood?”
“Ah,” Desmir said. If Samson didn’t know better he’d swear the older man was blushing. “Your Elroy told you?”
“I was there when you said it,” Samson pointed out. He paused. Raised an eyebrow. “Was he not supposed to?”
Desmir glanced at him as he tossed the contents of his pan in oil. “I held no intention of hiding it from you, little sun. I’d only wished for more time to woo you first.”
Samson smiled more widely than he knew he ought, unable to meet Desmir’s eyes. “Oh.” He hopped off his stool, swiping one of his snacks, then walked over to Desmir, standing closer than strictly necessary and surveying the pan’s contents. “By making me fried bananas?”
Desmir paused with his knife partially through the fruit’s flesh. “Initially.” He continued cutting after Samson laid his head on his mostly still shoulder and took a bite of his food.
Samson was transfixed by the motion of Desmir’s hands as he cooked. It wasn’t magic, but it might’ve been.
“Heartsblood,” Desmir said into the sizzling quiet.
Samson nodded, still leaning against him.
“What did your wolf pup tell you?”
“It’s the vampire version of soulmates. And it’s rare. Not based on sentiment but by some quality of my aura?”
Desmir hummed in agreement. “What he could not tell you is how settled my soul feels in your presence. How you are, to me, the focal point of every room. How I’d tear apart the world if it were to separate us.”
Samson’s breath caught. In a corner of his mind he could feel the burning intensity of Desmir’s statement, the truth he felt in it. “Oh.” He took a moment to allow it to settle into his bones. Could he even truly say he felt differently? He’d slept better last night than he had since he was a child. Once he’d arrived at the party he’d not been able to tear his eyes away from Desmir and devised a way to speak to him. And that moment of utter certainty he’d felt when he’d cast that shield couldn’t be faked. Though it made him wonder. “That woman,” he said, his eyes still on Desmir’s hands as he worked, “Amelia. Why was she so angry? Was she jealous she isn’t the only vampire with her heartsblood now?”
“Nothing quite that simple, little sun.” He deftly fished the browned disks from the pan and deposited them on a waiting plate. “Her heartsblood has been… ill, for some time now. Feeding extends the lifespan of our hosts and eliminates most diseases.”
Samson nodded and took another bite, chewing thoughtfully. The benefits of hosting to a vampire were well-advertised in supernatural circles. “Her bite couldn’t cure her heartsblood?”
“No,” Desmir said. “It can. But until last night, feeding from a heartsblood was punishable by death. An immediate stake to the heart.”
Samson pulled away from him to gape more properly. “You didn’t know the rule had changed when you fed from me.”
Desmir shrugged nonchalantly. “I was reasonably certain.” At Samson’s dumbfounded expression, he elaborated, “Amelia and her Dorothy are well-liked. It seemed unlikely the Council would consign them to death.”
Samson shook his head and put the topic of Desmir’s possible death wish to the side for now. “That doesn’t explain why she was so pissed at you.”
“Ah, well.” He flipped a banana piece over. “I didn’t support her appeal to the Council.”
“What? Why not?”
A smile threatened at the corner of Desmir’s mouth. “Ah, little sun, you truly are the better part of me. I had no compelling reason at the time. I didn’t oppose her. This was before I knew of your existence.”
Samson leaned away to study Desmir for a long moment. He didn’t think it was a lie, not exactly, but there was something… off about the way Desmir was holding himself. Something about the set of his shoulders or the tone of his voice or the way something felt not quite right in the corner of his mind. At length, he said, “Tell me about your brother.”
Desmir jolted as if struck, then consciously loosened his stance with a rueful chuckle. “I’d once held illusions that finding my heartsblood would bear the bulk of the difficulty.” He smiled crookedly at Samson before turning his attention back to the pan. “More fool me for believing the other half of my soul would be demure and trusting.”
Samson could feel his face heat. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to pry.”
Desmir grinned knowingly. “You did. It’s all right, little sun. Someone would tell you eventually. It ought to be me.” He sighed and flipped the banana pieces with his spatula. “My kind are only made, never born. Families of relation are uncommon. But my brother and I, with the folly of youth, went against our mother’s wishes and attended a festival held out in the desert. This was long before the Council, you understand, and my kind were less restrained than you see them today. The festival was one of the flesh, and all manner of pleasures abounded there. The sordid details aren’t important now, but by the time my brother and I woke in a cave, days later, our mother had already mourned at our funeral pyre.
“We were inseparable, then. We traveled the world. We fought in wars. We sunk ships. We explored the seas and became rich off our loot. We seduced kings and queens and had pleasure beyond dreams. For centuries we did this. By then we’d connected with some of our brethren and had learned of the heartsblood, but we wrote it off as the romanticisms of decrepit minds.” His lips twitched in a humorless smile. “Luca met Sati at a Diwali festival. I’ll never forget the look of reverence in his eyes when he first saw her. She was a dragonkin, and already well on in her years, but he gazed at her as if she were the most beautiful of maidens.” Desmir fell silent, lost in memories.
Samson wrapped an arm around his waist in the best attempt to comfort he could make at the moment. He thought he knew how the story ended, and he thought even more that Desmir dreaded telling it. “You don’t have to tell me,” he said softly.
Desmir startled slightly at the contact. He returned the hug for a moment and pressed a kiss into Samson’s hair before turning back to the stove. “It’s all right, little sun. The pain is not a new one. It is only that I now hold a new understanding of him.” He added a few more banana pieces to the pan. “Luca and Sati were deeply in love from the first. She was a lovely woman, and she smoothed out all of Luca’s rough edges. He fed from her, of course, and he told me it was like nothing he’d ever experienced.” He reached forward and lowered the heat and Samson released him from his hold. “I spent much of the time away from them. I told them, and myself, that I was giving them space, giving them time, but in truth I was sulking. I regret nothing more than the centuries I spent avoiding them, unable to bear their happiness.
“Sati had already lived well past her kind, but our bites do not provide invulnerability. One of her descendants got in a fight and she stepped in front of the blade intended for him. There was nothing anyone could do. She died in Luca’s arms.” He transferred more slices onto the plate. “After her death Luca lost his head. He murdered the man who’d killed her and his family, and after he could no longer find relatives, anyone unlucky enough to stumble across his path. The Council had just been formed, and they ordered his death.” He turned off the heat and slid the last few morsels onto the plate. “I was the one who executed it.”
Samson gasped and felt tears prick his eyes again. He wanted to hug Desmir. After a moment’s contemplation, he did.
Desmir returned the embrace, tucking his head to press next to Samson’s. “It was a blessing, in a way. I could truly see for myself that he was beyond saving. He was mad with grief, and he refused to feed from any other, so he would have wasted away eventually. It was a kindness. At my best, I believe that.”
Samson pressed tighter into him, devoid of anything else to do. He didn’t know Luca or Sati, but he hurt for them, and hurt for the pain Desmir bore now.
“The Council blamed his actions on the fact that he fed from her. At the time it was considered anathema, as feeding was an act of subjugation and one should not subjugate their own soul. They said her blood must have driven him to madness. So they banned the practice as a preventative measure, and only reversed the decision last night.”
“I’m sorry,” Samson whispered, knowing it was a pale sentiment but needing to speak it regardless.
Desmir kissed his cheek and drew away. “You needn’t be, little sun. Your presence is a delight that drives out such dark thoughts.”
Samson ate his treat in a comfortable silence. He was full of questions about what it would mean for him to be here, to be Desmir’s heartsblood, but the look in Desmir’s eyes made all of those questions fall into obscurity. They could wait. Once the last of the morsels disappeared from the plate, Samson put a hand on Desmir’s arm. “Take me to bed?”
The bed had been made. Samson had a moment to wonder about the logistics of managing such an expansive household staff before Desmir’s lips were on his. An idea was forming in his mind, a spell he’d read once but not known he’d have need for. The idea was somewhat stunted by Desmir’s hands trailing over his body. Still, as he returned the kiss, he fought valiantly for the presence of mind to develop it.
Sex magic was not taught in academia. It was impossible to get a review board to green light any research into it, and practitioners tended to shy away from things like authority and comprehensibility. What he’d done the night before had not been sex magic. It’d merely been magic done during sex. Sex magic was something else entirely. All magic fed on the essence of its surroundings. And during sex, essence abounded. It could be a powerful component if one let it.
Desmir nibbled on his earlobe as deft fingers unfastened the closure of his robe.
“How do you feel about tattoos?’ Samson gasped out.
Desmir paused and pulled back to quirk an eyebrow at him. “On you, they’re incredibly sexy. Surely you know that our skin does not heal the way a living body does.”
Samson rolled his eyes. “Sure. But humor me. Tattoos. If you could have them, would you? Would it fuck with your upper crust schtick you’ve got going?”
Desmir nosed at his temple with an amused huff. “What are you brewing in that clever mind of yours, little sun?”
“This,” Samson said, touching the edge of the mark that bloomed on his collarbone, unable to help the warm glow that started in the vicinity of his heart, “marks me as yours, under your protection. But what about you? My bite wouldn’t have the same effect, would it?”
Desmir shook his head. “Not unless you mages are hiding some secrets.”
Samson flashed him a smile. “No. But I think I know a spell. It would mark you, and I could embed some magic in it. Theoretically it could do whatever you wanted it to, but I was thinking of the simple version of that shield spell, in case that woman is not the last one to be upset that you fed from me.” The idea of being able to protect Desmir was an appealing one. He was sure Desmir could protect himself, and yet he shouldn’t have to.
Desmir’s eyes flashed darker. “I will take any mark you wish to place on me, little sun. Should I be concerned that it’s only our second lovemaking and already you are diverted by thoughts of spellcraft?”
Samson’s cheeks flushed. He wasn’t diverted from thoughts of making love to him. Quite the opposite, in fact. “Ah, no. What do you know of sex magic?”
Desmir’s eyebrows climbed towards his hairline. “I’d been led to believe it was solely the realm of bad pornography. Was I mistaken?”
Samson ducked his head and rested his forehead against Desmir’s shoulder. “Mostly not. But the casting should match the intent of the working, and I know the spell we’d use has solid fundamentals. It doesn’t have to be tonight, of course. I’m sure you’ll want to think about it. Or not, if you’re not interested.”
Desmir used a crooked finger under Samson’s chin to tilt his head up and look him in the eye. “I’ve already told you, little sun. I want any and all marks you’re willing to give me. By now, I should know better than to doubt the extent of your cleverness. I’m sure you could draw power from the very air if you chose. I will take your spellwork, simply tell me what you need. I am yours to command.”
Samson felt his cheeks pinken at the absolute sincerity in Desmir’s voice. “Promises, promises,” he said lightly, walking over to the bed.
Desmir raised an eyebrow. “You don’t believe me?”
“You,” Samson said, lounging on the bed and gazing at him under hooded lashes, “my darling vampire, have never submitted to anyone in your life.” His stance was sprawled and confident and he didn’t know where this part of himself was coming from, but he thought he liked it.
Desmir slowly made his way to the side of the bed with the languid grace he always possessed. “I have never found anyone I wanted to submit to before,” he murmured as he dropped to his knees next to Samson’s hip, “Sir.”
Samson’s heart stuttered at the sight. Desmir clasped his arms behind his back and his posture was perfect, but where another man might’ve lowered his gaze to the floor, Desmir’s met Samson’s with a hungry eagerness. Samson reached over and ran a hand through Desmir’s dark locks, dishevelling them further. He sat there for a moment, just idly petting Desmir’s head, unsure what he wanted to do next. Desmir seemed not to mind, pushing his head into the contact after a shy look confirming Samson was not upset at the gesture.
“Look at you,” Samson whispered nearly to himself. “So good. You were just waiting for someone you could be sweet for, weren’t you?” Desmir was definitely blushing now, the skin of his cheeks pink, but he didn’t draw away from Samson’s touch. After Samson continued to stroke his hair, he sighed contentedly and leaned in more fully.
Samson had an idea forming in his mind, and he knew that even with the plush rugs, there was a limit for how long kneeling like that could be comfortable. As the plan took shape, he swung his legs off the side of the bed. Desmir didn’t flinch, kneeling between Samson’s spread knees.
“Undress me,” he instructed and stood.
Desmir looked up at him in question.
“You may stand to do so.”
Desmir stood gracefully and began carefully unbuttoning the front of Samson’s robe. Soon his hands started to wander slightly, the backs of his hands skimming against Samson’s bared flesh unnecessarily.
Samson wound fingers into Desmir’s hair and yanked. Not hard enough to hurt yet, but hard enough to get his attention.
Desmir looked up at him with wide, slightly dreamy eyes.
“You wanted me to notice, darling,” he said, adding an edge of menace to his tone, “so I did. If you can’t undress me without taking liberties, you’ll lose the privilege.”
Desmir nodded as best he could with his hair still gripped in Samson’s firm hand. He continued undressing Samson until the robe was tossed to the side and he stood only in his briefs. Desmir hesitated with his hands hovering over Samson’s hips where the fabric clung tightly.
“It’s okay,” Samson soothed. “My briefs too.”
Desmir nodded and hooked his fingers in the waistband. He knelt to draw the garment off of Samson’s legs, and Samson used the hand on his head to hold him in place as he sat.
“So good.” Samson noticed the painful looking tent in Desmir’s trousers. “Unzip your pants and expose your prick for me. I want to see you.”
He did, too, the evidence of Desmir’s arousal a heady thing as he sat naked on the man’s bed. Desmir did as he was bid, a relieved sigh falling from his lips as he opened the front closure and pushed down his undergarments. Samson cupped his cheek in a tender gesture and bent down to give him a gentle kiss, thrilling at the change in angle.
“Now,” Samson said, straightening, “you’re going to suck my cock like you wanted to last night. You’re not to touch yourself as you do so. Is that clear?”
Desmir nodded and eyed Samson’s cock hungrily. Samson returned the hand to his hair and guided his head down to his straining cock. Desmir obeyed, pliant in his hands, and he looked up with sweetly submissive eyes as he wrapped his lips around the head of Samson’s small cock.
Samson had to close his eyes against the sight as he moaned. He carded his fingers through Desmir’s dark hair as he sucked expertly. He looked down at the intoxicating sight and noticed Desmir’s hand had inched a bit closer to his cock on his thigh.
He tugged at Desmir’s hair, dislodging him and loathe to do so. “Give me your hands,” he ordered.
Desmir lifted his hands, palm up, to where Samson could see them. Pink stained his cheeks.
“You do want to be good for me, don’t you Desmir?” He asked rhetorically as he took one hand and then the other to grip his thighs. “You just want to make sure that I see you, that I’m paying attention. And I do, of course I do.”
Desmir’s hands flexed slightly against Samson’s hairy thighs as he tried to nod.
Samson allowed Desmir to see a hint of a smile before he guided his mouth back to his leaking cock. This time, when Desmir’s lips wrapped around the sensitive head, Samson’s moan was eclipsed by Desmir’s. He held onto Samson’s thighs in a tight grip as he threw himself into pleasuring Samson. Samson’s thighs began to tremble at the overwhelming pleasure. He shifted forward until his feet were planted firmly on the floor, and slipped them between Desmir’s knees, nudging them apart so he felt the strain, just a little.
Desmir whimpered and buried his nose in the pubic hair at Samson’s base. It wasn’t enough for him to gag on, but Samson could feel him trembling under his hand as he held himself there and took in shaky breaths.
“That’s so good,” he whispered, voice ragged, as Desmir pulled back and circled the tip with his tongue, adding suction. “Fuck, you’re good at that.”
He experimented with pumping his hips and Desmir moaned around his length. He was close.
“You’re so good, darling. So sweet. I’m going to come in that pretty mouth, okay?”
Desmir moaned again and suckled more intently, nearly to the point of pain, but what sent Samson over the edge was spotting the puddle of precum that had pooled on Desmir’s expensive trousers.
Samson came with a low groan, pumping into Desmir’s mouth and grinding his nose into his pelvis. Desmir bore all of it with his own moan, suckling sweetly through the aftershocks of Samson’s orgasm.
Oversensitive, Samson nudged Desmir off of him. “Come up here, darling.”
Desmir rose with uncharacteristic gangliness. Samson took his arm and led him to lay on the bed, his body still trembling slightly. Samson stripped him with easy efficiency until he was completely bare, laying on his back, his cock straining up into the empty air.
Samson knelt between Desmir’s thighs, not allowing for any contact with his cock, not yet. Desmir’s eyes were blown wide as he watched, his chest rising and falling with each breath.
Samson’s tongue was an imperfect drawing implement, but at least he didn’t need to use blood for this, and he’d worked in worse conditions. He started at the corner of Desmir’s pec, bending down to run his tongue along the warm, salty skin. It was difficult to stick to his task and not get caught up in sensation, but he held to his purpose resolutely. The first loop of the sigil came out slightly lopsided, but he’d compensate on the other side. As he drew up towards Desmir’s neck, he let out a soft whimper.
Samson cupped his cheek for a moment, running his thumb over the sharp cheekbone. “You’re being so good. Stay still for me just like that.”
Desmir nodded, his eyes trusting.
Samson withdrew his hand, going back to his task. He intentionally limited the contact he had with the rest of Desmir’s body, so he strained upward into his tongue as he drew swirling lines on his skin. Some were part of the spellwork and some were purely decorative. It was Samson’s mark, after all. He wouldn’t allow it to be pedestrian.
He covered most of Desmir’s pec before he made his way to the pebbled nipple. He gave it a little flick which made Desmir’s body jerk into tension, and then he covered the sensitive bud with his mouth, sucking hard. Desmir cried out, an inarticulate plea, but fisted his hands in the sheets to keep them in place. Samson hummed his pleasure at his obedience and his taste, looking up at him with a knowing smirk. He sucked again, harder, and was rewarded by a spurt of precum on his stomach.
He released Desmir with a pop and grinned up at him. With each act of submission he could feel the power building under his skin, sparkling like starlight. It was exhilarating. He funneled that power into the spell, which only seemed to empower him further. He made his way over Desmir’s shoulder, then down his bicep, savoring his taste as he went. The power started to ebb and he knew what he needed.
He held his wrist to Desmir’s mouth. “Drink,” he ordered before returning back to his task. Desmir bit in swiftly. Samson jolted slightly at the abruptness, but soon moaned as the pleasure of Desmir’s bite threatened to drive him to distraction even as the shimmer under his skin redoubled. His mark at Desmir’s wrist was delicate work, done with barely-there kitten licks that had Desmir panting.
“Samson, please,” Desmir said, voice breaking.
Samson finished the final mark and wrapped a firm hand around Desmir’s cock. “Yes,” he said, giving him a firm stroke.
Desmir’s strangled cry as he came and the warm spurt of his come was the last thing Samson registered before the world went white.
Samson awoke with the sense that it was some time later. He was tucked into Desmir’s side once more, and the whole evening could’ve been one massive fever dream, except that, as he surveyed the room, he noted that all of the furniture and paintings had been pushed out of place. Desmir idly traced his fingers up and down Samson’s bare back.
Samson breathed a sigh of relief. “You’re okay.”
Desmir chuckled. “Rather more than simply okay, little sun. Though we will need to discuss what transpired soon. The Council is rather on edge, given recent developments, and our little light show has several of them up in arms.”
Samson blinked. “Oh.” He rubbed his forehead as he thought. “I don’t know that I have much more information than you do about it. Like I said, sex magic isn’t really—” He broke off as a thought occurred to him. “Fuck!” He covered his eyes with his hand and groaned at his idiocy.
“Approximately how concerned should I be?” Desmir asked mildly.
“About the consequences of the spell? None. But that you’re stuck with a fucking idiot? Quite a bit.”
Desmir chuckled and turned him in his arms to nose at his neck. “There’s no one I’d rather be stuck with. Tell me?”
Samson hid his face in Desmir’s chest. “The spellbook I got the base spell from assumes a human partner. We’re lucky I didn’t blow up the building.” He glanced around and at the blast radius. “Any more than I did, that is.”
Desmir chuckled. “Does that mean there’s no more explosive sex in our future?”
Samson shook his head, grinning. “Oh no, with a few adjustments I think we could make it work, but” –he trailed a teasing finger down to Desmir’s navel– “it might take several tries to get it right.”
“I’ll leave that bit out of my report to the Council, shall I?” Desmir asked dryly.
Samson sobered. “Was… was that okay? I know my aftercare left something to be desired.”
Desmir smiled, a genuine, unguarded expression. “It was wonderful. It’s not what I’m used to, and I do love having my way with you, but if you need to power a spell or simply wish to every now and then… yes.”
Samson grinned. “Good. And in the future, I’ll try to keep the pyrotechnics to a minimum.”
“I don’t know,” Desmir drawled as he pulled Samson into him, “I quite enjoyed it.”