Let Me Count the Ways

by Kass

Contains the tiniest of spoilers for S2 x 01, "Pure as the Driven." Title borrowed from Elizabeth Barrett Browning's sonnet 43, Sonnets from the Portuguese.

Once the adrenaline of the fight with Blush Pang's brother wears off, Bennet feels his injuries keenly. Of course there's work to be done -- when is that not the case? -- so he tips back one gulp of the medicinal whiskey Jackson keeps "for emergencies," and then ignores his discomfort and pain until nightfall when Reid gives him leave to depart. The night is chill; by the time he arrives home, his very bones ache.

He lets himself into the flat quietly. It's late; Bella might be sleeping. But she isn't. She's reading in his usual chair, feet tucked beneath her and skirts spilling over the edge. As soon as he enters the room she looks up, expectant. Her initial smile shifts immediately to concern. Both her gladness to see him, and the chagrin with which it is so visibly replaced, tug at his heart.

"What's happened," she says immediately, rising to greet him.

"It's nothing. Bit of a tussle at the docks this afternoon, is all."

"You're walking stiffly; you're hurt," she chides, and moves to help him with his coat. "Here, let me."

A weariness comes over him. Perhaps this is what it's like to be an old man: handily defeated, limping home to nurse his bruises. Despite his best intentions, he winces as his ribcage shifts, and Bella inhales quickly -- surprised, worried, he isn't sure. She drapes the overcoat on his chair. In shirtsleeves he sits on the bed and lets his shoulders slump, just for an instant. Home: though he's loath for his wife to see him in this state, at least he can let down his guard.

"How many assailants did you take on?" The bed dips as Bella sits beside him.

"Only one man," Bennet admits. "He all but bested Reid and me both, and would have--" Would have had my head, if Reid hadn't found the right thing to say. Better, maybe, not to mention that. "He was a Chinaman," he adds hastily, looking down at his aching knuckles -- no longer bloodied, but roughened all the same. "The way he fought -- I'd never seen the like." Nor felt it, for that matter. The punch to the chest had felt like being kicked at point-blank range by a full-grown ox.

"Look at me?" Bella asks, and he complies. "Oh, Bennet --" She reaches a hand out, as though to touch his face, and then pulls back gingerly.

He knows it's probably because she doesn't want to further injure his newly-rebroken nose, but he can't help also experiencing it as unwillingness to touch. It feels as though she has recoiled from him. Old hurts lie heavy on his heart, but he tamps them down with the ease of long practice. "Makes my visage even less lovely than before," he says lightly.

"Your visage," Bella matches his tone, "is beautiful."

Is she mocking him? She couldn't be. Not Bella: she wouldn't do that. She's trying to soothe his ego, then. A kinder intention, but hurtful all the same, treading as it does on old sorrows.

Heartache flares like the pain still radiating from his bruised sternum. Bennet lies down, though still clothed, and closes his eyes. "Don't," he says quietly.

"Don't what?"

He thinks of Rose, flirting with him as though he'd ever had a chance of being anything more than a customer to her. He knows that Bella is grateful for the life they share, but his throat closes with yearning and sorrow. When words come, they are as plain as Bennet himself. "Don't lie to me."

"I wouldn't," Bella retorts immediately.

Bennet opens his eyes and looks up at her. Her hair is gathered atop her head, though one stray curl has escaped and trails down her elegant neck. He wants to follow its path with a finger, but he can't. In this moment her youth and beauty just make him feel more scarred.

"I've looked in a mirror most every day of my life. I know I'm a good man," he says quickly, forestalling her objection, "or I try to be; but I know what good-looking is, and I know I ain't it. Especially not today." He smiles humorlessly.

There is a long pause. "You know many things," Bella acknowledges, "but don't you dare presume you know what I see when I look at you." The steel in her voice surprises him.

The reply comes from his mouth unbidden. "And what is that." He hadn't meant to call her bluff. He waits for her to change the subject, or to stop the conversation with a kiss because she can't offer an adequate answer to the question. And he'll let her do it, because God help him, he craves her touch, even if it comes on the heels of a lie. Without volition his cock twitches, anticipating that bittersweet distraction.

"I see a strong profile, noble and fierce." Bella's voice is quiet but firm. "A determined jaw. High cheekbones. Eyes that speak volumes."

Bennet feels frozen, as if paralyzed. He hadn't expected her to begin to answer. What are his eyes saying now, he wonders -- can she read his history of rejection in their depths?

"Hands that know hard work." She lifts one of his hands in hers, curls it shut, and gently presses a kiss to his abused fingers. The touch of her lips sends a frisson up his spine. "Capable hands. Hands that can send a man to his death," she muses, "but have never touched me with anything short of tenderness."

Bennet feels transfixed by her gaze like a moth pinned to velvet. Shame wars with yearning in his chest. Shame that he should require such affirmation, that even scarred as he is he should crave the possibility of being desired. Yearning, hope against hope, that what she's saying could be true.

Bella has relinquished his hand and it rests on her lap. He shifts his arm to turn it palm-down, to feel her thigh beneath her skirts. He knows how to bring her pleasure with his hands; even if he is unlovely, he has been an eager student of what moves her. He feels the sudden wild urge to set his hands and mouth to silencing her in the sweetest way he knows, to escape this searing sensation of being seen.

Without breaking eye contact she slides her hand along his forearm, past the elbow, to skim gently over his bicep before trailing up his neck to cup his jaw. She holds that caress for a long moment before pulling away. Everywhere her hand has been, he feels the burn of desire.

"Strong arms and shoulders," she murmurs. The admiration in her tone is so clear that even he can hear it. "To see you in your shirtsleeves, in motion, would make any woman yearn to touch." Her smile is private and self-satisfied. In a flash he remembers having seen that same expression on the day she moved out of Long Susan's, when he had hefted her trunk onto his shoulder and lofted it to the top of a carriage. Was she admiring him, then, as a man might admire the play of muscles in a strong racing horse? Surely no one else had thought the same. Had they?

"And your back," Bella adds, "broad enough to try to carry the safety of this entire city. Would that my hands could dislodge your worries."

Mention of her hands on his back sends flame to his cheeks. He can feel the schoolboy blush rising. He is gripped by the visceral memory of her hands caressing the small of his back when he is atop her, inside her. Of a sudden his trousers are uncomfortably snug, trapping his hard cock against his belly.

"Hear me, husband." The epithet is obviously chosen to remind him of their vows, as though for an instant he could have forgotten his impossible good fortune. "Every part of you is well-formed and beautiful to my eye."

Bella says the words with such intensity, her gaze so clear, that he cannot believe it an untruth. As implausible as it seems, especially today when he feels broken and bruised, she finds beauty in him -- not only in the kindness he has extended, not only in his helpless heart, but in him.

And he has no idea how to respond. His army commander used to say that Drake was strong as an elephant and loyal as a hunting hound, and he has made his peace with both of those things -- but being called beautiful has laid him bare. He feels stripped to the core. All he can say is her name. "Bella." His voice emerges already cracked from his throat. "Bella, I --" Words fail him.

"Where else did he hurt you?" The abrupt change of subject throws him off-balance.

"A punch to the sternum." He remembers the mark on Maurice's chest, seen from above in the operating theatre. "I'll sport a bruise for some days to come."

"And?" Her tone suggests she won't let him elide his injuries.

"One hip is sore," he admits. "Ribs ache a bit. And the nose. That's the extent of it."

"Let me see?" Her hands are already unfastening his waistcoat, unknotting his tie, opening his shirt buttons. As she leans over him her thighs shift and part beneath his hand. If only her voluminous skirts were elsewhere, draped over the back of the chair! But this momentary train of thought is derailed when Bella hisses a gasp through her teeth upon witnessing his chest. The bruise is already florid, then.

Even if it can be true that she genuinely finds his body appealing, surely the evidence of this damage will cool whatever ardor she harbors, at least for a time. But giving the lie to his assumptions she bends to press a kiss to one nipple, just the barest hint of warm tongue, and Bennet inhales hard, taken aback by a flash of pleasure. Her eyes crinkle in a smile as she moves to pay the same attention to his other nipple, twin jolts of desire making the ache of the bruise between them recede.

"Don't let me hurt you," she instructs him, and then she stands. His momentary pang at losing contact with her lap disappears as her hands make short work of his trousers. She tugs at the waistband and he lifts his hips to let her pull everything off, giddy with desire.

An un-subtle message, this, and he is more than happy to oblige. He sits up, intending to stand and catch her up in a kiss, to do his part in disrobing her and then to spread her like a feast across their bed. But she raises her hands to halt him and he complies.

"Let me, I want to -- here, lie down?" she asks, and he reclines again, heart thudding in his chest. He feels curiously naked with his shirt and vest opened, trousers and drawers gone, while Bella remains fully clothed. She climbs onto the bed, kneeling between his legs, and places her hands on his calves. Her thumbs stroke the muscle there and then slide up to his inner thighs, framing his erect prick. She licks her lips, looking down at him, and he shudders with wanting. This is an act he never asks for, too fearful that the request will remind her of her former life. The first time she had used her mouth on him he had lost control almost immediately; he still suffers a hot blend of mortification and ecstasy when he remembers it.

But now she climbs over him, skirts rustling against his skin, and her real intention becomes plain. All thoughts of her mouth have fled, replaced by new anticipation. The realization that she is not wearing drawers enflames him further. Had she been reading demurely all evening with the intention of welcoming him home in this way? The thought is too scintillating to be borne.

He sees her hand disappearing beneath her dress; can gauge from the motion of her arm that she has thrust fingers inside herself. It is all he can do to hold back his pleas. He feels swollen, exposed to her view.

There is pleasure scribed across her features but her eyes remain fixed on his. And then he feels her wet hand angling him up, holding him steady so that she can glide down. Bennet can't help his needy groan.

Even in their marriage bed there is something illicit about this position. About how he relishes being pinned beneath her, subject to the rhythm she sets. Were she an assailant he could fling her off with a moment's effort, but instead he surges up and she grinds back down, gasping as she works herself against him, bodies joined in this most intimate kiss.

Bennet slides his hands beneath her skirts to cup her hips and draw her closer. Being held so seems to add to her frenzy, which fills him with fierce exultation. He raises his knees and plants his feet, changing the angle, and she falls forward, gasping. She braces herself with hands on either side of his head, clearly reluctant to lay her weight across his bruises, but her lace-clad breasts brush tantalizing against his skin with every motion.

This afternoon he felt himself a beaten cur, but now he feels in himself the power and vitality of a lion. He drives into her, seeking to stoke the fire which heats her face -- pale complexion and ginger hair make her flush of pleasure irresistibly visible -- until she clenches around him, shuddering in climax. Scant moments after, when she bends to kiss his neck where it is exposed by his open shirt, he succumbs. Her lips find the pulse there and he spills, overcome by her tenderness.

They remain joined as she lowers herself gently onto his chest, tucking her head in the crook of his neck. Slowly his thundering heart returns to its usual pace. He breathes in the scent of her hair.

After a long moment she shifts, climbs off of him, and unfastens her dress. Hr hair is mussed; she pulls out the pins and it tumbles free over her face and breasts, both of which are still pink with exertion and pleasure. He has never seen anything so alluring in all his life. As she extinguishes the lights he sits up, shrugs out of his remaining clothes, and tosses them to the side. As a bachelor he took pride in the care he gave to his few items of clothing, smoothing and folding them as neatly as a uniform, but he'll be damned if he's going to get up and fold his clothes when his wife is already returning to bed.

He draws the covers up over them both. Bella curls on her side, arse pressed delightfully against his hip. He shifts to embrace her from behind and she makes a soft sound of contentment, pressing a kiss to his tattooed forearm where it wraps around her. Another manifestation of his rough and ugly past which she accepts without judgement.

He should let it be, he knows, but some imp of the perverse draws the words forth. "You really meant all of that," he murmurs into her hair, unable to conceal his wonderment.

"All of that and more," Bella says readily. "I didn't begin to sing the praises of your backside. Or your ankles. Or your shoulderblades."

He can hear the smile in her voice. He tightens his arms around her, unable to resist the temptation to embrace. "Now you're having me on." To his surprise, being teased in this manner doesn't hurt. Not now.

"I'm really not. Just wait until I pen an ode of appreciation to your cock."

"Oi!" He's grinning now too. He wiggles the fingers pressed nearest to the places where he knows she's ticklish. "Watch it, you."

"Wait, stop!" Bella gasps, already laughing. "Bennet!" She squirms in his arms, thrashing helplessly as his fingers coax her wild laughter free. "I don't want to hurt you," she pleads, and he relents. She shifts in his arms so that they are lying face-to-face, heads sharing one pillow.

"You truly are the most beautiful man I have ever known," she murmurs.

How is it possible to feel such yearning and to feel so fulfilled, all at once? He blinks away whatever dust has entered his eyes. "I shall have to take your word for it."

"So you shall," she agrees serenely.

His injuries will probably ache tenfold in the morning, but as Bennet gives himself over to sleep, he is feeling no pain.

The End