DISCLAIMER: Wire in the Blood and its characters are the property of Val McDermid. No infringement intended.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: Many thanks to ralst for reading over this to make sure the traces of Americanism were removed.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
Objectification, or the Male Gaze
He should be working.
Tony knew that. He could feel the case file resting on his chest with a metaphorical weight that was much heavier than its actual one, but even as it was slowly slipping to the side, pages fluttering delicately to the floor, he was drifting into the first stages of sleep.
Eyes open, he commanded himself sharply, but already the world had gone hazy around the edges. He knew he wasn't technically awake, but he wasn't technically asleep either. Instead, he was trapped in that place where things felt real but made no sense. His mind wanted to work but couldn't, caught instead in the sticky cobwebs that seemed to line the passageway through the stages of sleep. But there was a case, and he needed to be awake, not slowly drifting his way toward REM. He needed to be rational. He needed to be working.
Sleep deprivation makes you see things that aren't there, he chided himself, the words echoing in his mind as he drifted even deeper. Make connections that don't exist. Believe in the unreal no matter the evidence to the contrary. It makes you say things you know aren't true. It's how they get false confessions out of people. Keep someone awake long enough, and they'll begin to trust in their own gibberish.
He had no time for trusting in gibberish, even if that was what most people thought he spoke even when he was at his most lucid, and so, apparently, sleep it was.
Unless, of course, someone decided to interrupt him.
"Alex?" he asked groggily, feeling the case file finish its slow trek off of his person and onto the floor. "Did you need something?"
There was nothing but silence for a moment, and he began to think he'd hallucinated her voice. "Yes, I need something," she replied finally, sounding almost angry with him.
He struggled to sit up, sleep still clinging to him like a shroud. "You know I'm here for you, no matter what it is."
There was a throaty chuckle, and finally Alex appeared, striding calmly through the doorway. One brow was arched and her arms were crossed over her chest, and the set of her jaw insinuated mocking disbelief. "Oh, I doubt that."
The tenor of her voice struck him as odd. It was mocking, almost, and he searched his mind, trying to find what it was that he could have done to earn this kind of treatment this time.
"I need you to be a man, Tony, but we both know you can't."
The words hit him like a blow to the gut. He was immobilized by them. His hands were wrapped tightly around the edge of the sofa cushions and he was leaning forward, poised to rise, but he couldn't. Not with that accusation catching him, literally, below the belt.
"Alex " he began, then fell silent, his Adam's apple bobbing as he worked through the implications.
"Did you think you could keep it a secret?" Alex chided, striding closer. There was a hint of pity mixed into her gaze, and she shook her head slowly, like he was an errant child caught out in a lie. "Did you really think I wouldn't know?"
"I wasn't trying to hide anything from you." His words were both pleading and defensive. "And that's not everything, Alex. It's just "
"Just what?" she asked, filling the space that formed when he sputtered into silence. "Just a small thing? Inconsequential?"
Her hand was in his hair, smoothing back from his forehead to the nape of his neck so that her palm was hot against the back of his head, and Tony grew silent again. "What's in here is enough to satisfy, is it?"
When he didn't answer, she answered for him.
"It's never been enough to satisfy before, has it?" she questioned cruelly, and he felt her weight settle down onto the sofa beside him. "Certainly you're smart enough to know that."
He was. He'd always known it.
He jumped when he felt her hand settle high on the inside of his thigh. It moved quickly upward, and his breathing grew short and fast, the sound of it harsh in the relative quiet of his sitting room.
"How did you think you were going to overcome that kind of failure?"
Tony nearly whimpered as her hand cupped the flaccid flesh at his crotch.
"I'm sorry," he said quietly, somberly. "I've tried. I don't know what to do. It's not you."
"I know that," Alex said quickly, giving him a gentle, reassuring pat. "It's you."
The next words came from the doorway. They were cool and sharp, and Tony jumped with surprise again. "It is rather pathetic, isn't it?"
There was a moment of confusion, and the three of them froze in place like points in a misshapen triangle, but then Alex rose smoothly, taking a step forward to meet the newcomer with her trademark confidence.
"Carol, isn't it?"
"Carol?" Tony echoed, eyes squinting as if trying to make out a shape in the distance. Not that he needed to there she was, back straight and shoulders squared, her hair pushed behind her ears and a scowl on her face. "But you're gone. You're not here. You left me."
Carol scowled. "Of course I left you, Tony. Did you honestly expect me to stay? For you?"
"Did I expect you to stay for me?" he asked faintly, incredulously. "I certainly didn't expect you to leave."
"You should have."
"Why have you come back?" Tony asked, but it was as if his voice disappeared into a vacuum. Carol had turned her full attention to Alex. She ran her eyes over the other woman slowly, her appraisal obvious.
His mind raced. Carol, back from wherever she'd disappeared and acting as if nothing had happened, standing here in his sitting room and staring down Alex as if the two of them were seconds away from unsheathing their claws and determining pack dominance.
He made to rise, but it was as if his feet were encased in cement. Looking down in confusion, all he could see was a rather blurry haze, a swirling blackness where his calves should be and then nothing. He began to panic, to thrash against the phantom weight keeping him paralyzed, when suddenly it hit him.
Of course, he murmured to himself, relieved. You're still sleeping. It's just a dream.
Turning his attention back to the other figures in the room, the ones who continued to exist even though he knew thankfully that they weren't real, he heard Alex say, "I thought you'd be prettier."
"I thought you'd be taller."
"For him to pine after you the way he has," Alex continued, her lips curling up in the slightest hint of a smile. "I thought you'd be some gorgeous enchantress, but you're just a bit above ordinary."
Carol's sharp smile matched Alex's. "Yes, but it's the bit that counts."
Alex's surprised laugh was throaty and dark.
"Ladies," Tony said aloud, feeling somewhat foolish about trying to converse with dream apparitions but well aware it was probably not even close to the strangest thing he'd ever done, "there's no need for animosity."
"There's no animosity," Carol said smoothly, though the words, as well as her calm, almost hypnotic, stare seemed to be directed only at Alex.
"Excellent," Tony said brightly, laying his dream self back down on the sofa, one arm propped behind his head, "because I'm in dire need of sleep. So if the two of you don't mind "
"You're welcome to leave," Alex replied, her drawl slow and lazy. "I'm beginning to think that Carol and I have a lot to discuss."
There was something about the way they were staring at one another, the intensity of the act almost thick enough to be palpable, that pushed at Tony like a living thing.
"It's my house," he pointed out sensibly. "My dream. If anyone should excuse themselves, it should be you."
"Actually," Carol murmured, her smile once again turning sharp, "I think she's right."
The flurry of action was almost violent. They stepped forward at virtually the same time, meeting in the middle with a clash of lips and the furious grip of frantic fingers. Alex was tugging hard at the buttons on Carol's shirt, practically ripping them from their moorings, even as Carol dug her fingers into the cloth of Alex's jumper and pulled urgently. Alex managed to get half of them undone before abandoning the task completely, her fingers instead slipping into Carol's hair and tugging hard, snapping the other woman's neck back and baring the smooth skin of her throat.
"Oh, for God's sake," Tony muttered, the part of himself that had been half conscious melding into his dream self so that the two voices became one. That voice was filled with irritation, the words directed at both his subconscious and the two dream features practically mauling each other a few feet away from him. "Are you honestly going to do this?"
Alex bit down hard on Carol's shoulder, and Carol answered with a low moan. Her hands flew to the waistband of Alex's trousers, fumbling desperately with the button even as one of her feet slid between the other woman's.
"You know what this is about, don't you?" Tony asked them, his voice rising in volume as they continued to ignore him. "It's basic psychology. It's beneath me, really. It's beneath you."
Carol's shirt was half open. The material was gaping, thin cotton spread in a wide vee and anchored by the waistband of her tight jeans. He could see the curve of her breast like a shadow against the whiteness of the cloth.
"Yes, they're nice, aren't they?" Alex questioned smugly, pulling her head back so that she was staring straight into Carol's eyes. Her hands slid slowly down the blonde's neck and over her shoulders, one disappearing into the opening she'd made. The other cupped Carol's other breast from over the cloth, squeezing slightly. Carol moaned and swayed into her, and Alex's grin deepened into a satisfied smirk. "Firm, yet soft," she continued, her eyes never leaving Carol's though her words were clearly directed at Tony. "I can feel her nipples against my palm. They're hard, Tony."
"No," Tony said firmly. "No. I won't allow it."
"Won't allow what?" Alex taunted, leaning forward to run her tongue along the side of Carol's neck.
"These are women I respect. I won't allow you to treat them as if they're some sort of object acting out a fantasy for my pleasure."
"Them, Tony?" Carol questioned, tilting her head back as Alex's lips continued down until they were fastened around Carol's nipple, the cotton of her shirt rough against the other woman's lips. Tony could see Alex's teeth, sharp and glinting, and could tell the second they bit down by the way Carol wavered. "There is no them, just an us. And what makes you think this is for your pleasure?"
"She's right," Alex said, the burr in her voice thick. There was a wet spot on Carol's shirt where her mouth had been, and through it Tony could see the pink hue of her flesh. "It's not always about you, Tony."
"The logical conclusion," Carol said, pulling Alex's jumper off as she spoke, "is that this is for our pleasure."
"It's my dream," Tony reiterated, "and so everything that happens here happens for me. There are a number of theories about the purpose of dreams, you know. Some people hypothesize that dreams help us work through subconscious feelings and desires. Others think they help us organize the jumble of everyday life so that we can store it into memory. There are even people who believe that they help guide us in some way, that they contain hidden or encrypted messages a universal language filled with symbols that we as a species recognize on a primal level because of our shared history. What they are not is a playground for the sexual escapades of others."
Carol calmly unbuttoned the rest of the buttons on her shirt and let it fall to the ground. For a moment, Tony was distracted by the sight of the two of them. Carol was long and lean. He could see the edges of her ribs and the strong line of her collarbone. Alex was softer, her skin dark in comparison to Carol's. Her breasts were full; the cleavage created by her sturdy bra was deep, and he watched raptly as Carol freed the snap.
"So clearly," he continued, stuttering slightly, his eyes locked on Alex's chest, "the two of you are here because of me. It may be my own unresolved emotions over your departure, Carol, and the unfinished nature of our relationship. It could be guilt over the relationship that I'm building with Alex. It could be my fear of becoming involved in Alex's life, or my persistent inability failure really to begin and maintain a healthy romantic relationship. And then, of course, there's always the matter of my own personal demons, though there's really no need for me to list them given that a psychoanalysis of myself to myself really doesn't need to be verbalized."
"I'd forgotten how much he talks," Carol said, a hint of exasperation in her tone.
"Just ignore him," Alex advised distractedly, focusing all of her attention on pushing Carol's jeans down over her hips. The thin black straps of her underwear were just visible above the line of denim when she murmured, "That's all he is. Talk. But you you're a woman of action."
"Is that your idea of a pick-up line?" Carol murmured, amused.
Alex smirked, the expression made almost devilish by the downward cant of her chin. "More of a hint that there's better ways to spend time than to blather on about feelings. For starters, we could find the bedroom in this place."
"No," Tony said quickly, his voice as definitive as he could make it. "Absolutely not. I won't have this already damning indictment of my masculinity plow the obvious road."
"But that's the way they always describe it, isn't it Alex?" Carol asked, her voice a purr. "He came home to find her in bed with someone else."
Tony frowned. "It's a cheap psychological ploy. And besides, neither of you has ever been in my bed, so any metaphorical notions you might have about violating that place of trust and sanctity, of quite literally betraying me in the physical place that represents our bodily expression of love toward one another "
Taking a step toward the rear of the house, Alex called back over her shoulder, "I think it's through here."
"Come along, Tony," Carol chided, following her. "You're allowed to watch."
"No. You will not simplify me that way. My voyeurism in your service is only to save lives. You think I do it for enjoyment. You suspect I do it because I'm sick sick like the people we chase, but that's not true. I have to know them. I have to understand them, but I'm not like them. I am not them."
His feet ignored his protestations about continuing to participate in this charade, and the part of himself that seemed to be no longer controlling his vocalizations cringed as the fears he tried to ignore were laid bare.
When he reached the bedroom, they were naked.
"How does it feel to follow in my footsteps?"
Carol ran her hand up the smooth length of Alex's calf. She was perched above the other woman, her hips insinuated into the spread of Alex's thighs, with Alex's legs bracketing her own. Her other arm was curled under Alex's neck, her forearm braced against the mattress, leaving no space at all between their torsos. They were staring at one another as if each was determined to impose her will, though the quick rasp of their breathing belied the effect they were having on each other.
"I wouldn't know," Alex said arrogantly, her hands gripping the curve of Carol's buttocks with a roughness that was almost violent.
The move earned an amused chuckle from the other woman along with a slow, deliberate grind of their bodies together. "You spurn Tony's help, then you seek it out. You tolerate him at first, then you come to depend on him more and more. You work your way into his personal life, and he works his way into yours," Carol recounted dryly, then leaned down to press her lips against the curve of Alex's jaw. Her kisses continued up until her teeth were pulling gently at the other woman's earlobe and the warmth of her breath against the shell of Alex's ear was sending shivers down the brunette's back. "Tell me what about that is different from your experience."
"I'd like to think it was that you both finally recognized my professional value," Tony interjected dryly, shifting awkwardly on his feet as sounds of pleasure began to emanate from both of the women on the bed. "This isn't necessary," he added, trying to remain calm. "I'm well aware of my internal conflict regarding the both of you."
"I thought we'd already gone over the fact that this isn't about him."
"We did. He seems resistant to the idea."
"He's impotent, you know," Carol continued blithely.
"I know. We were discussing it before you arrived," Alex answered, just as dispassionately. "The part about the personal demons was probably a bit of that too."
"Even now," Carol observed, and the two of them turned as one to focus on him. "Even seeing us together like this."
Tony blushed deeply but continued to stand tall, forcing his hands to remain at his sides.
The hand that had been tracing along the curve of Alex's thigh disappeared between the women's bodies. Seconds later Alex gasped. Her back arched slightly and her head fell back against the pillow, and Carol grinned fiercely. "I'm not."
"No," Alex agreed, tilting her hips up to meet the rhythmic thrust of Carol's fingers as they pressed into her. "You're not."
The words stopped then, as Carol's head dropped and Alex's rose. They kissed just as passionately as they had in the sitting room, when the force of their initial attraction pulled them together, only this time the move was accompanied by the seductive dance of their bodies. They seemed to writhe, to twine around one another like snakes, sinuous and lean and strangely cold, and Tony brought his hands to his eyes to try and block the sight, but it was as if they'd become translucent. He couldn't force the women from his vision, couldn't turn away or shield himself from the picture the two of them made, fucking there among the rumpled bed sheets. He willed himself to wake up, or at least to cycle out of the dream and into the reassuring blackness of deep sleep, but neither option came to his rescue.
"What is it you're trying to tell me?" The words came as a hoarse shout, the limits of his fortitude finally breached. "That I'm not worthy of either of you? I know that."
They continued as if he hadn't spoken. Alex's nails were digging into Carol's back, leaving crimson half-circles that came just shy of breaking the skin. They were both covered in sweat, and at some point Carol had moved so that she was straddling one of Alex's thighs. He could see more clearly now, could see the way her arm moved, muscles clenching and tightening with each thrust, and could see the way she disappeared into Alex's body. There was a desperation to their movements, an almost frantic kinetic intensity that conveyed a sense of impending finality. Tony found that his breathing had sped up to match theirs, his lungs and throat burning as hot, dry air rushed into and out of them more quickly than they could process it.
"Is this to keep me in my place?" he asked, his words now ragged. "Is that what this demonstration is about? I've been overstepping my bounds. Is that it?"
Again, he received no answer.
Growing almost petulant, he cried, "This isn't the only thing."
The words were drowned out by the low, keening wail of Alex's orgasm. It trailed off just as Carol's began, the sound seeming to stretch on into infinity. His hands, again useless, did nothing to block the sound. And then there was silence, blessed silence, and his breath slowly returned to normal.
The sound of bodies stirring pulled his attention back to the bed. Carol and Alex were lying side by side, both with eyes closed, their bodies the sort of boneless that had only one origin.
"Just what else do you think there is?" Carol asked tiredly, pity twining around the words. Their hands found each other amidst the sheets, and something about the way their fingers twined together made the whole situation infinitely worse.
"I know there's more," he replied brokenly, unable to look away from their joined hands.
"That more wasn't enough for me. You couldn't keep me with you."
The words rang in his ears, echoing, growing shriller by the second.
The sharp knock jerked him from sleep with the suddenness of a man being plucked from the sea. He jerked upright, nearly toppling off of the sofa, his eyes scanning the room frantically as he tried to reorient himself. There was no one there, no Carol, no Alex, and a quick test of his hands and feet showed them to be in working order. He pushed unsteadily to his feet, running a hand down his shirtfront to straighten it, flinching slightly as he registered the lack of response the dream had wrought.
"Coming," he said, but his voice cracked in the middle and the pounding continued. He cleared his throat then said more strongly, "I said I'm coming."
The door cracked open to reveal Alex standing on his porch.
"I tried calling but you're not answering your mobile," she said accusingly, pushing past him and into his foyer. "We've had a break in the case."
"I was sleeping," he offered, consciously pushing back ghost images of dream Alex, naked on his bed with Carol stretched atop her.
"Well, nap time's over. I need you at the station."
"To help question the suspect."
Alex turned, looking at him as if he'd gone daft. "Of course. Why else would I be here banging on your door?"
Tony smiled ruefully and snagged his jacket off of the back of a nearby chair. "Of course," he echoed, his voice dryly amused. "Why else?"
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