The bed was empty when she woke. Her hands reached for him, patting a still warm mattress to seek him out. Emma cracked one eye open. His side of the bed was still rumpled, but he wasn’t there. Rolling over, Emma’s eyes wandered around the room looking for him. That was weird. Jaal had never woken up before her on the Tempest. And she had never woken up feeling so rested before. Emma stretched, reaching her arms above her head until she heard a satisfying pop. Morning sunlight filtered into the room through his small window. It was warm and inviting. It was so strange to wake up and want to get up instead of burrowing back under the covers and sleeping more.
A door off to the side opened. Steam wafted from the other room. It must be a bathroom. Jaal walked through wearing his usual armor. His skin still looked damp. He showered. And she had missed it. Damn.
Emma sat up, using her arms to pull her up into a sitting position, and leaned against the wall. He offered her a smile.
“Good morning Emma,” he greeted her while walking back to the bed. He perched on the edge right by her feet.
“Morning,” she slurred, still walking up.
They lapsed into silence as Jaal reached for his bottle of lotion. She watched him rub it into his cowl and “flaps” as Peebee had called them. It always smelled so nice. He always smelled nice. And now that she was on Havarl, she could recognize some of the scents from the flowers that bloomed all over the place. It wasn’t just something to make him smell nice or to keep him from drying out. It was a comfort. He could always have the smell of home on his skin. It took her a moment to notice that his gloves were off. She tried to recall if she had seen his hands at all before, but she didn’t think she had. The back of his hands matched the rest of him, but his palm was a paler pink. She half-expected to see little pads on his fingers like a cat’s. It would be fitting. But his fingers were smooth. He had her complete attention as his fingers moved to work the lotion into his arms.
Jesus, she was getting worked up over his hands. And based on the small smirk on his face, he noticed that she had just been staring for the last five minutes. When she looked up she met his gaze head-on. That all too familiar heat blazed across her face.
She huffed. “You’re doing that on purpose,” she accused.
“Perhaps,” he teased.
Emma slumped backward and pulled the blanket over her face. He was just trying to kill her. After 27 years it was finally going to happen. Her thirst was going to be the end of her. The bed shook with Jaal’s silent laughter. He got way too much enjoyment out of flustering her. But she did make it easy for him. Emma kicked the covers off and swung her legs to the floor. There was that heat again when his eyes roamed over her bare legs. Emma got up from the bed. She needed to put a bit of distance between her and Jaal before there was a repeat of yesterday.
Emma kneeled down to go through her duffel bag. The dress she had worn was cute, but she was feeling her usual wear today. Her fingers brushed against an unfamiliar fabric. Maybe it was that surprise thing Scott had shoved into the bag. Brimming with curiosity, she pulled it out. It was…
“A bathing suit,” she said, startled.
“What is that?” Jaal asked.
She held it up. Well, she held the top up. The bottoms were still in her bag. “You swim in it.” She looked up at him. “This was the surprise?”
He nodded. “There is a place not far from here. I was going to take everyone tomorrow.”
Excitement thrummed through her. “Really?”
Emma was giddy. Tomorrow couldn’t come fast enough. She couldn’t remember the last time she had gone swimming. They didn’t get the chance on Aya. No thanks to her. But something good had come of that trip. She had learned that she did indeed like Jaal. And it was okay that she did.
“I can’t wait.” Emma tossed the top back into her back and grabbed shorts and another tank top to change into. Emma looked between her boots and her sneakers.
“I would pick the boots.”
“I’m taking you somewhere. There is some climbing involved,” he answered.
“Boots it is.” She pulled them out and set them aside while she searched for her toothbrush and toothpaste tabs.
Emma stood with everything she needed clutched to her chest. “I’ll be back.” She walked through the bathroom door and waited until it closed behind her. It was still warm from Jaal’s shower. The mirror in front of her was steamed. Emma swiped her hand over the middle to see herself. She didn’t look so tired this morning. Her hair however, was a mess. Most of it had come out of her ponytail and was hanging around her face. Her baby hairs were sticking straight up. She looked ridiculous. Emma pulled out the hair tie and just let it all loose.
She let out a breath before shucking off her pajamas. If she was going to go out and work up a sweat, there was no reason to shower now. Emma changed into her clothes for the day. Right as she finished changing the door opened, but not the door she came through. Apparently, Jaal shared the bathroom with someone else. Teviint was standing in the doorway, just staring at Emma.
“Sorry.” Emma pulled the brush through her hair, so she could put it back up. “I’ll be done in just a few minutes.
Teviint watched her brush her hair, her hands twitching. Emma tried to hurry, but she also didn’t want to rip her hair out.
“Can I touch it?”
Emma stopped. Of all people to ask she didn’t expect that Teviint would be the one. But her eyes were focused on Emma’s hair.
Teviint crossed the room. Emma stayed perfectly still while Teviint gently touched a strand of hair. She rubbed it in between her gloved fingers. It was kind of adorable the way her pupils dilated while she studied a piece of hair.
“How do you get it in this shape?” she demanded.
“Oh. Some people are born with curly hair and some are born with straight hair” –Emma reached for a toothpaste tab and her toothbrush as she spoke— “some people use styling products or braid their hair before bed to get the shape when they wake up. It really just depends,” she was rambling a bit, but Teviint didn’t seem to mind.
Emma crushed the tab between her teeth and began brushing. Teviint watched her with interest. For once, Teviint was really looking at her. Her eyes lingering on Emma’s hair, then her toothbrush, and back up to Emma’s eyes. She leaned close.
“Why are your eyes that color?” she asked.
“I…don't know,” Emma spoke around her toothbrush.
Teviint pulled away enough for Emma to lean over the sink and rinse out her mouth. When Emma finished she set down her toothbrush. Eyes stayed on her as she pulled her hair back into a ponytail and secured it. Leaning down, she gathered her dirty clothes.
“All yours,” she said, turning her back to Teviint.
“This doesn’t mean anything. You may be pretty alien, but I still don’t trust you,” Teviint warned.
It reminded Emma of a child that constantly said they didn’t like something, but in reality, they did. Emma nodded. “Fair enough.” She exited the bathroom, letting the door close behind her.
Jaal was waiting for her exactly where she had left him. Emma tossed her dirty clothes in her duffel and nudged it to the side. “Ready when you are.”
Emma made the right call about the shower. Sweat dripped down her brow and rolled down her face. It was supposed to be their days off. Instead of leisure and relaxation, they were hiking. At least the path was pretty. It was behind the family compound, which was even bigger in the daylight. The trees bowed inwards to create a natural hallway. Emma didn’t know how they did it, but it was incredible. The humidity clung to her arms and legs and she wished they were swimming today.
Jaal walked slow to keep at her pace since his legs were longer and he could’ve overtaken her. When things got a little steep he was there to help her. Just goes to show, being a mutant does not equal being in tip-top shape. Wherever they were going, she hoped they were close. Her legs were starting to feel like jelly. They had eaten before they left, but it had worn off roughly ten minutes ago. Thank god going down was going to be easier than going up.
She nearly cheered when he came to a stop. There was a break in the trees just ahead. Jaal gestured for her to go first. Emma stepped through the trees and gasped. He had led her to the top of a cliff. The sun beamed overhead, but the canopy of trees offered some shade. Looking over the edge, Emma could see his home as well as other homes in the distance and what looked like a market. It was beautiful. It was worth sweating out all of the water she had consumed in the last ten years.
Jaal was behind her, his hand resting at the small of her back. “What do you think?”
“Every time I think it can’t get more beautiful, you surprise me,” she murmured.
He wrapped his arms around her waist and rested his head on the tops of hers. “I think the same of you.”
“Flatterer,” she chuckled.
“It is true.” He pressed a kiss to the top of her head.
They stood there for a few minutes while a light breeze cooled them. It was so comfortable, just being here. Emma almost didn’t want to go back to the Tempest when this was over. It wouldn’t be like this again. Not for a while. Not until the Archon was gone. Who knew how long that would take? But she was thankful for this moment. Being here with Jaal…there was nothing else like it.
He hummed behind her. “You are happy.”
“I am glad.” He cleared his throat awkwardly. “I grabbed your music player, I was hoping…”
Emma turned slightly so she could look up at him. “What?”
“You said there was a song, your parents would always listen to and dance…I was wondering if we could listen to it.”
“And dance to it?” she asked.
“Maybe. I am not sure how humans dance.”
Jaal turned and opened the bag he had slung over his body before they left. He searched through the tubes of nutrient paste and protein bars to find her music player and portable speaker and hand it to her. It didn’t take long to find the song he was talking about. Emma plugged in the speaker and set it down on a flat rock. This time it was Emma offering her hand to Jaal. She led him slightly away from the trees, so they wouldn’t trip.
“Human dance in different ways, but Alec and Evelyn always just sort…swayed.” She placed one of his hands on her hip and kept ahold of his other one.
“This is easier than I thought it would be,” he chuckled.
“I think it was just about being together again. We were always there, but it was their moment to reconnect and be close.”
Jaal squeezed the hand he was holding and pulled it to his chest. Her fingers rested on his armor. Jaal leaned down to press his cheek against hers. It was so quiet here. Emma closed her eyes and leaned into him. So peaceful. If she could bottle this feeling, she would. The song ended, but they didn’t stop. There was another song and they kept swaying together. Neither of them wanted this to end. If Emma squeezed her eyes shut hard enough, she could pretend it wouldn’t. Jaal pulled away first. His lips ghosted over her forehead and her eyes fluttered open.
Never in a million years did Emma think that someone would ever look at her the way Jaal was. Like she was the single best thing he had ever seen in the universe. There was just openness, affection, raw vulnerability staring her in the face right now. Emma let go of his hand to reach up. Her fingers traced the freckles on his cheek. The piercings in his mantle caught her eye. Her hand moved with her gaze to gently touch them.
“Are these common?” she asked.
“Do your people get piercings?” he asked, not answering her question.
“Yes. When I was 16 I wanted my belly button pierced. Alec said no.” She frowned.
He looked amused. “Your belly button?”
Emma leaned back and pulled her shirt up to point it out. His eyes lingered way longer than necessary before they moved back up to her face. There was a hungry glint in his eyes now. Emma dropped her shirt, blushing furiously for the second time today.
“You could always get it done now,” he suggested.
She smirked. “True. Why did you get yours?”
“For the people I’ve lost. My father, my brother…Allia,” he whispered the last name.
“You haven’t told me about her.”
Jaal was quiet for a moment before nodding. “I met her during my first Vesaal on Aya. I thought she was beautiful and funny and when she kissed me I was…hers.” Jaal dropped his gaze and her hand. “Then my brother came to visit. The moment she saw him I knew they were meant to be together. And they were. She was accepted as one of the mothers and gave my brother several children.”
“That must’ve been hard.” Emma couldn’t imagine.
“It was harder when they were taken by the kett. I should have treasured my time with them more. But I spent so much time feeling rejected. Like I just wasn’t good enough. And then they were gone.”
Emma cupped his cheeks, her thumbs brushing away tears. This is something she loved about Jaal. He felt so deeply, and he was never ashamed of it.
“I’ve never met anyone like you,” she murmured, staring into his eyes. “You are kind and smart and compassionate.” A smile crossed her face. “You can sew and write poetry—”
“Emma…” he groaned.
“And you’re amazing,” she finished.
He brushed a stray piece of hair behind her ear. “So are you.”
They stayed there for another hour. Just the two of them, listening to music and talking. Emma ate a few protein bars and polished off a bottle of water in that hour. It was necessary for the trip back. They walked back down the trail, their entwined hands swinging back and forth. Every moment felt perfect. It worried Emma. When things were going well it meant there was always something shitty around the corner. She hoped it wasn’t true this time.
It didn’t take long to make it back to the compound. Most of his family was outside now. She could see his sister, Koana, bent over a garden. Some of the elders were sitting on the benches watching the younger Angara bask in the sun. And then there were the children. Some of the mothers, including Sahuna, were sitting clustered together while tiny baby Angara ran around them playing. They were adorable. And they looked so…carefree and happy. This is what childhood should be like. Full of love and fun, not growing up in a cell, isolated from everyone. Or being shocked unconscious. Or trying to live through your body rejecting the first round of nanites and then the second. Them trying and trying until it took, not caring about the pain it caused her. Living with the gaps in her memory. Never knowing why? Why did they take her?
Emma hadn’t realized she had stopped in her tracks until Jaal touched her arm. She blinked up at him. “What?” But he wasn’t the only one looking at her with mild concern. There were many eyes on her. She must have been broadcasting. Oops. Emma opened her mouth to stammer out an apology or an explanation, she wasn’t sure which yet.
“Emma!” Sahuna called her from where she as sitting. “Come sit with me.”
Emma’s mouth closed, and she ambled over to the bench Sahuna was sitting on. Sahuna patted a space beside her. Emma sat down without much thought. Jaal still looked concerned, but if Sahuna was, she was great at hiding it. With a wave of her hand, the other Angara returned to what they were doing. It must be confusing to them. To meet someone like her that could capture their attention with her bioelectricity while also having no damn control over it. She should probably ask Jaal to help her with that.
Sahuna gestured to the other mothers. “You’ve met Vaasana and Feladyr.” The two nodded at her. “And this is Arril and Sihvi.” She introduced the other two.
“Hello,” Emma spoke, thankful there was slightly less attention on her now.
They returned her greeting cheerfully. Well, it was good she hadn’t put them off. Her past was one of the last things she wanted to dwell on during this trip. Jaal sat on the ground next to her since there wasn’t enough room on the bench for the three of them. He rested his shoulder against her knee. A simple touch just reminding her that he was there. He was so good at knowing what she needed.
The children just kept playing. It didn’t seem to bother them. Emma didn’t think any of them had noticed her yet. The six of them just watched them play in silence. A silence that wasn’t broken until one of the children turned, her blue eyes landing on Emma. They grew wide. But there was no fear. Just blatant curiosity. She stood, her legs wobbly, she was so small. Emma couldn’t describe her walk as anything other than a waddle. For such a little thing, she came at Emma with such determination. Nobody moved as her tiny little hands gripped Emma’s knees. Tiny, ungloved hands that sparked with frustration as she tried to climb onto Emma’s lap. Jaal’s silent laughter made her legs shake, making it more difficult.
She turned her big blue eyes up at Emma. “Up!” she hollered.
“Ahvfi!” Sahuna scolded, barely containing her own laughter.
Emma leaned down, offering her hands to Ahvfi who took them without hesitation. Tiny legs dug into her calves as Ahvfi used the leverage to climb into Emma’s lap. Little fingers pressed into Emma’s cheeks. Ahvfi was a little rough as she pinched Emma’s face, but Emma didn’t complain. Staying perfectly still she let Ahvfi get close enough for their noses to touch. Ahvfi grunted as she tried to stay upright, her fingers grabbing for Emma’s hair now. It made Emma wince slightly. For such a small thing she had a good grip. It almost distracted Emma from the feeling of other hands using her knees to climb up into her lap and crowd her. Sahuna had to slide back to accommodate the children that were piling onto the bench.
This had never happened before. So many little hands touching her face and her hair. Tiny coos and giggles as they overtook her. She didn’t mind. There was a feeling she couldn’t describe. It made her feel light. Loved. Ahvfi settled in her lap, her head leaned back onto Emma’s stomach. It didn’t take long for the other children to follow suit. They pressed against her wherever they could. She was snuggled from all sides. Emma looked up at Sahuna who was already looking at her with a small smile on her face. It was a rather smug smile. Almost like she had planned this. But there was no way to plan the children’s reaction to her. Was there?
Either way, Emma relaxed against the tiny bodies. They were so cute. It was another moment she would treasure.
Emma stood in the empty bathroom, piling her hair on her head in a messy bun and securing it with a hair tie. The toothbrush rested in between her lips until she finished. Despite the early start and early exercise, the rest of the day had been relaxing, yet she was still exhausted. Maybe it was the overabundance of people she had been around. Or that a group of children had taken a nap on her and then begged her to play with them. And she did of course. How could she say no? Ahvfi was glued to her until bedtime. Even then she wanted Emma to go with her. Emma hadn’t done anything special to earn having a small child like her, but she appreciated it all the same.
She leaned down to rinse the toothpaste out of her mouth. There was only one more day. She thought for sure when this was over she would be overwhelmed and ready to go back to the Tempest. But now she wasn’t so sure. Being surrounded by Jaal’s family and their warmth and comfort…she didn’t want to leave. She didn’t understand how Jaal could. It must be hard for him.
Emma pulled at the pink cotton nightdress she was wearing. It skimmed the tops of her thighs. Not particularly scandalous, but Emma wondered if it was too much. It was just for sleeping after all. And Jaal had seen her in less clothes than this. It was stupid to agonize over this. They were just clothes. Nothing special. Emma turned and left the bathroom.
Jaal was sitting on the bed where she had left him. He was leaning against the wall; his eyes were closed and he breathed deeply. Her lips twitched into a smile. Today must have worn him out as well. Quietly, Emma crossed the room and sat on the bed facing him with one of her legs still on the floor. He looked so peaceful as he slept. The scar on his cheek had twisted the skin around it, but otherwise, it had healed well. She was still so mad at herself for that. Careful not to wake him, she reached up and brushed her fingers against it. Jaal didn’t stir.
Emma laughed under her breath. “I can’t believe you fell asleep before I did.”
“Who said I did,” he grumbled.
Emma started, leaning back as quickly as she could. “That’s not funny Jaal!” she hissed, trying not to wake his family.
“It was a little funny,” he chuckled.
Shaking her head, Emma sat back up and climbed on his lip. With a knee on either side of him, she leaned forward and poked him in the chest. Well right in between his chest protrusions to be exact. The soft fabric of his nightshirt allowed her to. His eyes opened, and his gaze locked her in place. Maybe she had crossed a line now. She was awfully close. But that wasn’t what his eyes said. He drew his gaze down, excruciatingly slow like he was drinking in every inch of her. If he kept it up she was going to match the color of this dress. Emma shifted to move off of his lap, but his hands pressed into her hips to keep her still. His thumb pressed into the crease of her hip.
She should move. Get off of him, but she couldn’t make herself move. She didn’t want to. Her eyes moved between his eyes and his mouth and he noticed. But the way he was looking at her made her shiver. He was looking at her like he wanted to devour her. It was a look that made her wish she could clench her thighs together, but she couldn’t.
Jaal’s hands moved from her hips to her thighs and then to her knees. Emma shuddered at the feeling of his gloves brushing against her skin. Using his strength, he pulled her forward until her stomach was flush against his. Emma’s heart pounded in her chest and in her ears.
Jaal looked at her mouth, her parted lips. “May I kiss you, Emma?”
She didn’t answer out loud. Surging forward she cupped his face and pressed her lips against his. It wasn’t a surprise. He was ready for her. It wasn’t the soft kisses she had been used to. They kissed with ferocity. Fire surged through her as his mouth moved against hers. Every time his fingers dug into her to keep her in place it sent a bolt of electricity straight to her core. More. Emma tilted her head, her tongue pressing against his mouth. He allowed her to deepen the kiss. The mint on her breath mingled with the fruit on his. Jaal moved his hands upward, underneath the fabric of the dress. He pushed the material out of the way while his hands explored her hips and then the planes of her stomach. His thumb ran over her belly button. More. Emma moved her hands from his face to explore. They traced his frill, moving up to his mantle. She noted the way he groaned low in his chest. Her fingers darted over his piercings before moving to the back of his head. He had the dress underneath her breasts now, his hands rubbing up her spine. More. Every touch, every groan, made moisture pool in between her legs. Would he even know what to do beyond this? Did she care? She could show him. It didn’t matter. She just wanted…. she wanted….
Their lips met again, and a sharp shock of electricity made them both recoil. Emma reached up to press her fingers to her mouth. Fuck! They just stared at each other, both of them breathing heavily, their eyes locked together. Jaal started laughing first. But Emma was mortified. Of course, it was her. She wasn’t sure if she was blushing because she was absolutely willing to have sex with Jaal with no preamble, or because she couldn’t control her bioelectricity and she shocked the fuck out of them both.
“I am so sorry,” she mumbled against her fingers.
Jaal reached up to pull her hand from her mouth. He pressed a kiss to her fingers. “It happens. I am alright.”
She sighed. “It would be nice if I could control at least one thing about myself.”
“I can show you how to better control it.” He pulled her dress back down and smoothed his hands over her waist again. “Don’t be embarrassed.”
Emma pulled herself off of his lap and flopped down beside him. “Too late.”
He laid down beside her and kissed her cheek. Despite her embarrassment, she leaned into the kiss. Rolling over she looked him in the eyes. “You’ll teach me?”
He nodded. “Of course.”
That would have to do. And maybe one day she could heavily make out with him without shocking him. She supposed it was a good thing. Was she even really ready to have sex with Jaal? Probably not. She should have that dreaded talk with Lexi beforehand. Something she was really not looking forward to.
Jaal reached down to pull the covers over them both. He pulled them to her chin, just the way she liked. Before turning off the lights he kissed her on the forehead. It was so incredibly sweet. He was always so sweet with her. She was lucky. Under the cover of darkness, she snuggled close to him. So damn lucky.
Day two: success.