(Many thanks to Jay for checking Christian for me. Thanks, Jay!--Maer)
An excerpt from Peripatetica, by M. K. Sebastien, Engr. ret.
Thursday, 28 Dec 2519
Kuiper II Class, Summer’s Gift
En Route to Boros
04:17 hrs, ship’s time
Christian was a considerate bed partner—he didn’t snore and he didn’t hog the mattress much. He didn’t have to. His bed was comfortably sized for two. He was an early riser as well. His alarm was a soft steady chime and a gradual brightening of the lights, both of which increased their intensity as they nudged a sleeper awake. I felt the sheets shift as he rose and I opened my eyes to watch him.
“Off,” he said to the general air and the alarm fell silent, the lights ceased their climb toward full. He took a deep breath and stretched in naked splendor into a yoga-like pose, then stretched twice more before shaking his hair out of his face and leaning over me.
“You’ve got another hour,” he murmured with a small smile, caressing my face and blessing my eyelids with a kiss. “Sleep and rest that shoulder.” He trailed a finger along the scar on my collarbone, spiraling delicious little frissons in its wake.
Then he quickly dressed and left.
I curled up in the sheets and tried to sleep, but his parting touch and my thoughts conspired against me. Sighing, I punched a pillow into submission and propped it against the draped bulkhead, and settled down to take stock and think.
Which comes first? Love or Lust? Does loneliness beget either?
Loneliness can make people desperate, make them stupid. Did I use Christian, even though he maneuvered me into jumping him, practically drove me to do it? Perhaps I hadn’t done anything selfish, but that didn’t erase the fact that I’d harbored a little niggling itch for him since that day we’d talked in the galley over soup and coffee. Had it influenced my decision to take Harry’s advice? Certainly Harry hadn’t advised me to hump Christian. Far from it. Nonetheless, I’d asked Christian to seduce me so I could. Why? I thought back to our conversation in the hospital, where Christian had waited for me to awaken, and though the reasoning seemed sound at the time, I had to wonder now if I hadn’t just been rationalizing from simple loneliness and the fact I hadn’t been laid in almost a year. I had to admit, I wanted to go to bed with someone, if only to prove to myself that I wasn’t using Mike as a shield, that fear wasn’t the source of my fidelity. That got answered right enough, but it only raised more questions.
I loved Mike, I didn’t love Christian, yet I’d gone to bed with both. What was more, I’d climaxed with both, though my feelings for both weren’t the same. How was that even remotely possible? How could my body respond in that fashion when my head and my heart could not?
Was I insane? Or merely human?
I quit the bed and the scented sheets and padded around the compartment, pulling on my clothes as I encountered them. Boots. Cargoes. Shirt. I stuffed my bra and skivvies in a pocket when I found them dead last behind various pieces of furniture. Rubbing my eyes, I felt the dried sweat on my skin and hit the door release to the head to wash it off.
Even in the tiny utilitarian bath, Christian had worked his magic. A veil draped the mirror over the sink, softening its hard lines and disguising the medicine cabinet behind it. The shelves I’d made and attached to the bulkheads had their rails festooned with beads, and they shone in the light from the little lamp he’d had me mount over the toilet. A few cosmetic bottles and jars graced the flat surfaces, but nowhere near the amount I knew he had to have stashed away in the shuttle. I resisted the urge to peek in the med cabinet and instead splashed some water on my face, groping for a hand towel when I was done. Scented, of course. Sandalwood and rose. I paused a moment, inhaling its fragrance as I dried off, and regarded myself in the mirror.
Small woman. Barely thirty. Dark hair, shoulder length and tousled. Brown eyes, decisive brows, both drawn in a frown. Thinking hard.
You should’ve thought harder. Ideally, before stepping aboard the shuttle.
I abruptly hung the towel on the rod and snapped off the light, quit the shuttle and took the ladder down. The corridor was empty when I stepped off the bottom rung, though I could hear Christian in the galley, and I slipped off to my quarters before anyone saw me. Once there, I stripped and dressed from the skin out in my rattiest. I was in a self-punishing mood and went straight into my workout routine. Jumping jacks, sit ups, and push ups, a hundred reps each, in alternating sets of twenty five. My shoulder gave out halfway through the second set and I finished the push ups one-handed. I plowed through and finished blowing hard. The physical activity got my blood pumping, waking me up completely just as I’d known it would. It did little to still my thoughts.
The aroma of coffee tantalized as I left to clean up. I craved the caffeine but couldn’t face Christian. Not yet. Instead, I hit the crew head to wash up. Getting clean took only a few minutes. Coming clean with my conscience, however, would take longer and it dogged my heels as I retreated to my quarters to suit up for the day. I zipped into my coveralls, trying not to remember how Harry had described them—armor, she’d said—and checked my pockets for my tools. Everything was where it should be.
Everything but my peace of mind.
The engine room was dim when I entered it, running under night mode, and I powered things up from my console. The hum from the ship changed pitch and for a brief moment I felt her wake up and let her carry me beyond my doubts and misgivings. She sang, I listened, and when she steadied, I came back down, my boots firmly planted on the deck. The rush dissipated, reminding me of the fleeting ecstasy I’d found in Christian’s bed and there was no way I could ignore the one thing that bothered me most.
Worst case scenario, my inner demons whispered. The news you never want to hear.
Mike and I kept in touch when separated, leaving word via anonymous drop boxes, digital info-caches we’d hacked in the Cortex. Nothing much or often, just enough to let each know we were still alive. Mike had left no word and by the time I’d gone to bed with Christian, it had been over a year since I’d news from him. That Mike might be dead was something I refused to acknowledge, but after all this time, I had to admit it could be a possibility.
Unless I tackled my issues with men and intimacy, any chance I’d have for a normal life if Mike were well and truly dead would die with him. I would end up twisted and bitter, and that was an outcome I knew he didn’t want for me. After a decade, I finally realized it and took steps to rectify it. And now the game was changing. The rules I ran my life by were in disarray and damned if I knew how to make them tidy again.
I started the diagnostic running and got out my never-ending work list, prioritized by severity. I grabbed the tools I needed and pulled up the deck plates underfoot. With luck, I could get through the first five jobs on the list before hunger drove me out to kill it. Perhaps by then, I’d have managed to figure out the answers to the questions plaguing me.
I dropped into the crawlspace, rolled up my sleeves and got to work.
07:30 hrs, ship's time
I was stalled on the third item on my list when Christian came aft to find me. I had my hand on the valve for the fire suppression line and I couldn’t quite manage to shut the damned thing off. Given its placement relative to mine and the lock on the valve, I had to reach past my head and push in as I turned it, and my left shoulder wasn’t up to the task. Switching hands wasn’t an option—human anatomy wasn’t built to bend at the necessary angle to get the job done and there was no room for a reversed position. It was the left arm or nothing.
Figures. I should have stopped at two sets of push ups.
“Viernityeh vas!” Screw you, I swore, trying that damned valve again. My shoulder made me pay for it and I gasped at the stab it gave me.
“If you insist, but do we have time?”
That brought my head off the deck. I squinted past my toes to see Christian peering into the crawlspace.
“Nyimnoga.” Christian raised an elegant brow at me. “Companions are well versed in talking dirty in at least a dozen languages.”
“This I gotta hear.”
“Crawl out of there and I’ll whisper something salacious while you eat.”
“Tolka minuta.” I grabbed my biggest pipe wrench, thinking to use it as a brace to push that valve in.
“Dammit!” I slammed the wrench down. “Then you get your butt in here and close this frikkin’ valve.”
Christian was in faded jeans and a pristine white tee shirt and the crawlspace could use a thorough cleaning, but he came right on down. Space was coffin tight, but he managed to squeeze in. I pointed out the valve, tucked on the far side of an elbow pipe, and I tried not to wince as my shoulder stabbed me again. I really should have stopped at two sets, I thought and then my brain stopped working altogether as he rolled me on top of him, swapping our positions to reach left-handed for the valve. As for his right hand, Christian slipped it past my coveralls and roamed in broad smooth strokes over my ribs and down my back.
“You talk dirty and you fight dirty, too.”
“Only when it matters.”
His chest muscles bunched under me as he struggled to turn the valve off.
“Push it in,” I said.
“Kohnyeshna,” he agreed. “But don’t you think I should take your pants off first?”
His fingers plucked my skivvies, snapping them. I cuffed him, but space was too tight to put much force behind it, and his hand pressed me closer.
“Must everything have a sexual connotation with you?” I growled.
“Depends.” His hand moved lower.
“On the company,” he grinned and gently squeezed.
It was too funny. I put my face to his chest and started to laugh. Here I was, head to toe filthy, getting groped by a Registered Companion and trading innuendoes in two different languages. The pressure of my misgivings eased back a notch and I snugged down and hugged him.
“Thanks,” I breathed. “I needed that.”
Christian gently raised my chin and kissed me.
“Ni za’shto,” he said. Don’t mention it. And then he pinched me on the ass. “Come on. Your breakfast’s getting cold.”
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