Harper watched her this morning. Instead of his usual post-shower bustle, her ears picked up only the soft whisper of life support and the barely audible buzz of Andromeda’s systems. She stretched her arms above her and tried to ignore the weight of his gaze now she was aware of it and how the hairs on the back of her neck rose as if in anticipation of touch. Deep breath, clear the mind again. Fall into herself once more and focus.
Before her, on a low table, sat her bonsai. Harper had wrapped tiny Christmas lights around its boughs and, to humor him, she’d hung tiny star-shaped crystals on them. They’d slid small gifts beneath it in shining paper. A makeshift Christmas tree. Better this tiny tree than one of those awful synthetic ones like the one Beka set up in the Maru’s berth every year. The crystals caught the lights and sparkled. When she let her eyes fall out of focus they broke into beautiful rainbow prisms. She let those prisms fill her gaze and concentrated on the places where the colors bled together. The inimitable perfection of light. The most powerful force in the Universe. Next to love, at least. Both contained the power to change a universe. Or a single life.
Deep breath. Keep focused. She pressed her palms together and then let her arms fall until parallel to the ground. The steam from Harper’s shower hung in the air and the scent of his soap and shampoo lingered. She took another deep breath of it. Earthy and sweet. A hint of spice. It changed on his skin as it mixed with the oil and metal he worked with to create something uniquely Harper.
Behind her, he moved and pulled his gaze away. Though it had to be imagination, the air chilled as if he’d been beside her the whole time. Goosebumps formed on her arms. She stretched her arms up above her head again, reaching higher, as if reaching beyond the bulkheads to gather energy from the stars themselves. Her muscles, stiff from sleep but warmed from her own shower, stretched out. She let out a sigh and leaned into the stretch, curving her back.
That gaze was back again and a small smile tugged at her lips as she added a bit more curve to her back. No response, yet she thought the energy changed. Heated up. She allowed her arms to fall again. Palms down, then up. Then to a prayer position where she let her chin fall to her chest and gave herself a moment to thank the Universe for the joys of the life she still lived against all expectation. This life was a gift. It was important to be grateful on a day meant for gifting. She gave up on meditation and let her hands drop into her lap and turned to catch him staring. There were other ways to focus the mind and relax the body.
She winked. “Enjoying the view?”
“I, uh, well—yeah.” He sat on the couch, legs splayed with hands folded between. He’d thrown on a pair of wide-legged cargo pants and a tight white undershirt that showed the outline of his muscles but had left off the heavy tool belt he carried with him everything. A sign he planned to stay in this morning, at least for a while. Despite the sheepish smile that brought out the almost boyish dimples in his cheeks, his eyes sparkled. Unabashed. He found her attractive and had never hesitated to let her know.
In one smooth motion, she rose and crossed the room to him, her eyes on his. His hands unfurled as she approached and found their way to her waist as she stepped into the space between his legs. Before him, she crouched until their gazes leveled. Goosebumps prickled her arms again as his hands slid up from her waist, brushed her sides, pressed into the muscles of her neck and finally rested at the base of her skull, hair wrapped around his calloused fingers. Pressure pulled her forward until their lips met. A chill danced along her spine and her heart forgot to beat as it dipped down and rose back up again. A quick breath stolen from the spiced air between them and the kiss continued. Arms around him, his heart beating against hers through the thin fabric of her camisole. Flashes of Christmas lights, like the flicker of a candle, in the moments her eyes fluttered open.
It was a wonder of organic life that the Universe could shrink and freeze into a single moment. How billions of lives could condense into two. His and hers.
“Sorry to interrupt your meditation, this morning,” he whispered. Voice hoarse. Eyes clouded.
Another kiss, less intense. Sweeter, with fingers tracing a lazy path around her shoulder blades and up and down the spine. Shivers and goosebumps. Heat in her stomach and cheeks. In the small of her back, he lingered as he pulled away again, much to her disappointment. The clothes were disappointing, too. That they’d both dressed already. It was a poor choice in retrospect, though not one difficult to remedy if only her arms weren’t trapped between them, fingers brushing his waistband.
“Maybe.” And there was that smile. The one she treasured and kept tucked away in her memory. The one that took years from his face and gave lie to the hardships he’d faced. It was the smile of a man who’d found a type of peace. One who knew the true depth and meaning of the word joy. A smile for her alone, and though she didn’t guard most things jealously, this she did not share.
A whiff of chocolate and flour reminded her that breakfast had arrived while he showered. A special breakfast for Christmas morning, and one they’d looked forward to all week. According to Harper, you only got your first Christmas together once.
“Mmm, breakfast is here,” she said, then kissed again, “and I thought you wanted to unwrap your presents.”
Hunger in those eyes. But not for breakfast. “I think I’d rather unwrap something else right now.”
A giggle bubbled up and escaped into the air. He lifted his eyebrows, smile tugging up more on one side.
Trace shook her head. Couldn’t help it. “That’s terrible.”
“Ah, but you laughed.”
There was no time to respond. The kisses came back to steal another giggle away. Each one stretched on until it had taken her breath completely. They added to the heat inside, made her impatient. She moved her hands up and pressed them against his chest, silently urging him to speed things up. Yet he lingered over each one. Made them last. Those arms of his circled tighter so she couldn’t dictate the pace. A kiss now on the corner of the mouth, then the cheek, then beneath the ear so that the rush of his warm breath caused the hair in the back of her neck to stand up.
His hands traveled under her shirt to get to the warm skin there. They unsnapped her bra and massaged the skin beneath. Strong fingers that knew exactly where the tight places and knots lived, the places that made her squirm. A sigh against his ear was met with the removal of her shirt and bra, and finally, freedom.
She brought her hands to his face and caressed the smooth, freshly shaved skin there, then moved to the back of his head. She ran her fingers along his scalp and wound them through hair just long enough to grab. He grunted against her mouth as she let the intensity of the heat inside bleed into her kisses.
Wasn’t fair she was the only one topless here. Yes. There was that closeness she desired. The sear of skin against skin and the rush of emotion that followed and overwhelmed. Filled her heart to overflowing. As a scholar of life and the human body she knew it was all endorphins and oxytocin. Nothing more than a flood of hormones. But they were like an ice cold glass of bubbly wine. Fresh, sweet, and intoxicating.
Cool air now. He held her back and watched her. Took in the way her chest rose and fell in ragged, uneven bursts. Took in the curves of her hips and the shape of her breasts. Like he didn’t see this body every day. Like this was new all over again. Like she was a goddess he never thought he had the ability to woo. In his eyes, she was the woman she was born to be. She was the Queen of the Universe, and in these moments she allowed herself to believe. At least here. She let herself be what he wanted her to be.
And then the heat returned. His kissed a trail down her neck and to her chest. Never one to be idle, she let her hands explore his body. Smooth skin and hard muscles. His tongue found a nipple and she dug her fingers into the muscles on his back. And now her hands moved down to his hips. Wasn’t fair he was the only one teasing. She adjusted herself on his lap until he gasped against her breast and nipped at her in a pinch of pain and pleasure. Not content to leave it alone, she kept up as she traced the shape of his waistband then ran her fingernails up his sides until he shivered and his arms, too, were covered in goosebumps.
Now he guided her onto her back, head on the arm of the couch, one leg pressed into the cushions and the other hanging off. She took the opportunity to unsnap his pants and pull both pants and boxers down to his ankles where he stepped out of them easily. He peeled off her leggings and panties. Slowly. Painfully so. As if she really were a gift to be unwrapped.
Sometimes, he was like a lithium flame that burned hot and bright for a short time before going out all at once. Lovemaking in those moments was raw and intense and left a pleasant ache behind. Other times, like now, he was like a campfire started from smoldering coals. Warm, slow, and methodical, but still hot enough to burn. It warmed her deep inside until it was almost too much. Until she thought she might burst from it.
He was always fire, though. Fire and electricity. Full of warmth and energy. Full of love. Harper would have made a good sun.
A kiss on her sternum now in the center of the star-burst on her chest. Then down the markings of red that led to her belly button. Lower still. She gasped when he reached his destination and the world lost focus. Only pleasure and air that was suddenly too thick to breathe. An arch in her back and leg muscles so tense they shook. That heat building into an inferno inside. The Christmas lights blurred together into bright white orbs between half-shut eyes. The fabric of the cushions bunched up in her hands as she held tight. Her cries grew with the inferno inside. They may have been his name. Maybe something else. It was difficult to tell.
Just before the moment of release, he stopped and her breath caught into a different sort of cry until he navigated himself between her legs and pushed inside. His body folded over hers as he moved, slow at first, then faster. He caught her lips with his and as the pace quickened. The muscles in his arms bunched up into thick cords.
She cried against his mouth when she reached her climax, leaving flashes in her vision with each thrust and waves of energy rushing through her limbs. All that existed was him and the lights. She clung to him, shuddered against him until he too found release with a shuddering sigh. He hovered over her with sweat beaded on his brow, chest heaving, and starstruck smile.
Such a beautiful man.
She adjusted to make room. He rolled off to the side and cleaned up with his tee, then pulled her against him, all scrunched up with her legs to her chest and her ear against his chest where his heart hammered in a quick and steady beat. He kissed her crown then rested his chin on top of her head while they caught their breathe. He sighed after a couple of minutes. Not sadness, but something she couldn’t read.
“What is it?” she asked. A breath. Another. Three or four more. He must be formulating an answer. It was never as easy for him to put his emotions into words as it was for her.
“I just never knew life could be like this. Or maybe I did, but I never thought it could happen to me. Didn’t think I was worth it.”
She pulled away and turned to look in his eyes. It was harder than she thought it would be to leave that patch of skin with his heart beating the rhythm of life into her ear.
“Love is its own gift.” She reached up and caressed his cheek. Took in the shine of his blue eyes. They always churned with feeling like the oceans that called to him. “You are more than worth it. I’m grateful every day that I have you.”
It was a little too much for him. He stood, but she wasn’t offended or upset, though she missed his body beside hers. But she understood. He always needed to move to process what was inside. She followed him with her gaze as he walked to the table and picked up a kettle and two cups. He brought them back to the coffee table and set them down without a word, then turned towards her meditation space where her bonsai had become their makeshift Christmas tree. She busied herself pouring thick dark cocoa from the kettle onto the mugs. The scent filled the room. Chocolate and real cow’s milk. Both from Rigel. Harper called the drink Hot Cocoa. He’d only had it a handful of times in his life and she’d never had it, but he insisted it was a Christmas staple for those who could afford chocolate. The tradition heralded back to when humans celebrated on Earth, though what they had celebrated specifically he could never tell her. They’d agreed it was a perfect way to commemorate their first Christmas together, regardless of the cost.
Harper returned to her side. She tugged a shimmering gray throw blanket over their laps and melted into his side. She handed him a mug. It tasted the way she thought love should taste. Warm and rich. Sweet, with just enough bitterness to make the sweetness stand out. Even the good things in life had to find balance with the bad. Out of the corner of her eye, she watched him inhale deeply and then take a sip and caught a glimpse of the boy he must have been years before she met him.
“God this is good,” he said.
“I’m glad you like it. There is enough milk left to maybe have a milkshake tonight, after dinner with the others.”
“You spoil me.”
“I’m not done yet.” She picked up a package as wide as her hand from the coffee table, wrapped in silver paper with tiny holographic snowflakes that shone blue in the lights. “This is what you get to open this morning, rest are for tonight when we do the crew exchange.”
He unwrapped the package carefully so as not to rip the paper. Inside was a small jar of board wax with a fancy label. It was his favorite, and quite expensive. His eyes shone at the gift but widened when he opened the handwritten card on top.
“You reserved a luxury beach hut with a private beach on Rigel?”
“Yes, and requested the time off. Dylan assures me that no matter what, we can go. We get there the day before the qualifiers for the Pan Galactic Competition and leave three days after. I know that if you get into the top ten there, you’ll secure a spot in the finals. I wanted you to be well rested with plenty of time to practice.”
“I… Thank you.” Funny how loud Harper was normally and how his emotions stole his words. She didn’t need any more than that. The surfing competitions meant the world to him. They were a bit of the old, a bit of stability, in an unstable world. An anchor in this stormy life. There were other gifts later when they were with the rest of the crew. Silly things practical things. Toys and clothes. The super-soft socks he loved to wear until he wore holes in the toes. A pair of new boots to replace the ones he insisted were ‘just fine’ even though the soles were thin and ready to split. He was unaccustomed to replacing necessities at regular intervals because this was the first time in his life he’d ever had enough money to do so.
A few more sips of cocoa while he composed himself, tucked each of those wonderful feelings away so he was happy-go-lucky again, then he handed her small, long box. She unwrapped the shiny navy paper and flipped the lid of the satin covered black box inside. On a bed of white satin sat a golden sun pendant, gold in the center and bronzing into reddish copper at the points of the sun’s rays. The coloring. The style of the art and the way the smile was engraved onto the sun’s face. Her breath caught and she met his eyes. Could this really be—
“It’s Vedran,” he confirmed. Not just Vedran. It was old. At least three hundred years, though she guessed much older than that.
“It’s me,” she whispered as tears pricked her eyes. Like most species, the ancient Vedrans had drawn the sun and made representations of it in art and jewelry. Had written poetry about it. Had worshiped it as a source of light and warmth and life. She held her fingers above it, just over the metal, almost afraid it would disappear if she touched it. Disintegrate into stardust.
“I searched all over for a something actually from Tarn Vedra before The Fall.”
He took it from her and pulled it out gently, then hooked it around her neck after she lifted her hair out of the way. “Now it’s perfect.” Then he kissed her. Slow and steady. A kiss full of love and gratitude.
“Thank you. It must have been so hard to find.”
“You’re worth it. Always.” Then, with a smile and a hint of playfulness in his voice if she didn’t know any better “So, what’s our plans today?”
“Nothing until later afternoon.”
Those lips found hers again. The kiss lengthened and deepened. All of his feelings in it. Her heart dipped.
“I have a few ideas on how we can pass the time.”
She raised her eyebrows. “Oh, do you?”
Yes, love was its own gift, and breakfast would keep a little longer.