What if you saw a ghost of your lover in the crowd you entertained?
Bone-weary, I trudged down the corridor toward my cabin, rubbing the bridge of my nose, barely noticing my neighbors as they passed with nods or greetings. The overhead lights flickered as I walked, informing everyone on board that the show was all out and over, the last customer having departed back to the space station where we’d been docked for the last three days. Now the maintenance crew would spend the night cleaning and resetting the carnival while the rest of us slept. In a few hours, we’d undock and travel to our next destination.
Tonight there’d been a woman, someone I’d briefly seen in the crowd. I couldn’t get my mind off her. She reminded me of a person I’d known, a woman I’d lost long ago. More than a reminder, she’d been almost an exact duplicate. I’d only caught a glimpse of her before she’d melted away into the mob of station rubes, but that moment had been enough to throw my entire night out the airlock. There would be nightmares tonight.
As I rounded the corner, I pulled up short, swallowing hard. The woman in my thoughts, the one in my memories leaned tentatively against my cabin door. I stared as her dark eyes regarded me. Her hair flowed from a natural widow’s peak to frame her triangular face. She wore a maintenance jumpsuit, not one of ours, her slender form radiating a strange energy, her countenance swathed in a shroud of sorrowful expectation. It can’t be her.
Someone jostled me in the narrow corridor, and I shuffled to one side with a muttered apology. Another passed us both, giving the woman a curious look before raising an inquisitive eyebrow at me. I mentally swore. News of her presence would be all over the ship in a modular hour. Heat burned my cheeks as I strode forward and keyed the lock. I didn’t speak, simply gestured, and she nodded. Words had never been necessary between us. Following her inside, I paused long enough to glance out into the corridor, seeing three others grinning at me. I scowled before closing the door.
Turning, I stared at the woman, a morass of emotions threatening to overwhelm me. A part of me yearned to touch her, to burrow my head into her breasts and let her soothe my sorrow and regret. I wanted to slap her, to make her physically hurt for all the years I’d felt the ache of her absence. The urge to kiss her was so strong that I already tasted her on my lips, warm and wet. Trembling, I was afraid to move at all for fear she would disappear. It can’t be her.
She finally spoke. “I’ve missed you.”
A sharp spike of confusion disrupted my emotional turmoil. My knees shivered as I recognized her soft voice. It can’t be her! “How is that possible? You’re—”
Fear sparked in her eyes, and she rushed to close the distance between us, a warm finger placed firm against my mouth. “Shhh.”
She was real, not an illusion. Of course, idiot. The others saw her in the corridor. I inhaled, and her scent filled me. Achingly familiar with a hint of something else, something I couldn’t name. My body defied me, and I wrapped her in a tight embrace. Regardless of my doubts, my body remembered her aroma, her touch, the sound of her. She was shorter than me by a few centimeters, and I bent my stiff neck to bury my face in her sweet-smelling hair at the crook of her shoulder. My throat and eyes burned as I struggled to contain my grief, my loss.
She caressed my cheek, her hand sliding to my neck, cradling my head. “Shhh,” she repeated, relaxing into my hold, her other arm slipping around my waist.
Her tender ministrations were all it took for the tears to take over. I wept onto her shoulder, like I’d done so many times in the past. She was my rock, my protector, the only person who’d accepted my weaknesses and shored them up with her quiet strength and acceptance. As I sobbed, she murmured into my ear, soothing words, words I barely heard, words that I didn’t comprehend.
Eventually the great racking sobs faded. She’d stopped speaking at some point, but I couldn’t remember when. I held her close, eyes closed, remembering how flawlessly we’d meshed together, realizing that our physical perfection hadn’t changed despite the years. The years. Sniffling, I straightened, wiping at my face and nose. “I’m sorry.”
“It’s all right.” A concerned smile crossed her lips as she brushed my damp cheeks.
Her hair was mussed, the shoulder of her jumpsuit stained with my tears. I stared into her eyes, searching them, consternation filling my soul. Her smile widened, failing to conceal the secret sorrow lurking beneath her mask, one that perhaps only I had the ability to see. Had it been there before? So much time had passed, I couldn’t remember. But the grief was there, lurking behind the chocolate brown of her irises, seemingly glowing gold in their depths. I didn’t know whether this empathic connection between us had always existed or if her long absence from my life was the cause. “I have so many questions.”
Again she silenced me. “I know.” The golden glow seemed to intensify, her eyes becoming hooded as she spoke in a familiar burr. “But not now. Not tonight.” Her fingers caressed my lips in soft exploration, tracing the line of my jaw, drawing across my cheek. She brushed the hair at my temples, probably noting the gray that had developed in the intervening years.
Odd that I had become older, yet she appeared not to have aged. She looked as young as the day— A brief frown wrinkled my forehead, one that she smoothed away with the ball of her thumb. Another question, another time. “Not tonight,” I repeated, closing the minuscule distance between us. Her lips tasted just as I remembered, just as I’d often dreamed they would. My long dormant passion awoke at the touch, at the memories. We’d always been so good together. It had been so long.
Her mouth opened beneath mine — a desire, a welcome, a request I couldn’t deny. Our tongues swirled together, and she moaned at the contact. Again her hand was locked against the base of my skull, holding me close as we explored. Gods, the need! The yearning rolled over me, over us, crushing every question, every uncertainty in the darkest corners of my mind. I hungered for her, an almost bestial need that could not be eased with just a kiss. Breaking off, I blazed a trail along her jaw to her lithe neck, nipping at her earlobe, causing her to gasp into my ear. I soothed away the surprise, gently caressing the lobe with my tongue and lips. My hands stroked her back and shoulders, restlessly re-familiarizing themselves with her body, rubbing over the rumpled jumpsuit. She stretched and writhed beneath my touch, and I felt the nails of her free hand dig into my shoulder as I continued to worship her.
Our hearts seemed to pound in unison, hers so loud that I heard it, felt it as my lips suckled the pulse point at her throat. The inferno in my blood controlled me. No sweet and simple reunion this — I hungered for her beyond my ability to control. My hands found the fastenings of her jumpsuit, and I released them, tugging roughly at the material. It willingly parted before my determination, and I pulled the offending clothing over her shoulders, partially trapping her upper arms as I gazed down at her.
She was naked beneath the suit, breasts heaving with the breathlessness of arousal, nipples rounded and peaked, begging for attention. Despite the haze of passion coloring my vision, a distant part of my mind noted no scar marring the perfection of her abdomen. For a split second, her visage was superimposed with another, one that had sustained my nightmares multiple times over the years. I shook my head, pushing it away. That didn’t matter now. Nothing mattered, only this. Only us.
I drew the jumpsuit farther down, pinning her forearms reluctantly to her side as I crouched. In the past I would have teased her, kissing and licking the tender skin of her breasts, not quite touching her swollen nipples. Not tonight. Tonight I lathed her areola before drawing it into my mouth. I fed upon her, savoring the sensation of safety and warmth, of being loved and loving in return. Her body tensed against me, struggling to release herself from jumpsuit. I let go of the material, and she wriggled her arms free, hands insistently returning to my shoulders and head as she held me to my task. I transferred my attention to her other breast, receiving a groan of appreciation, my palms seeking the skin of her waist.
My hands followed the delectable curve of her, rising to her rib cage and sliding down to the flare of her hips. The jumpsuit fled from my touch, falling to pudddle at her feet. I smelled her arousal now, rising up between us, a musky aroma that sent a rush of answering wetness within me. With nothing impeding me, I caressed her hips, enjoying the smooth skin of her buttocks as I dug my fingers into the muscle, massaging as I sank to my knees. My mouth worked down her body. Again that flash of incongruent memory as my tongue traced the remembered path. Again I shoved the recollection away, forcing myself to linger on the sensitive skin of her belly, tongue delving into her navel. She laughed, an ethereal sound of sexual delight as she squirmed. I smiled against her skin. She’d always been ticklish there.
I nuzzled the crisp curls at the apex of her thighs, taking deep breaths. If this was a dream of exhaustion, I wanted to imprint as much of her upon my memory as I could. Melancholy threatened to sublimate my desire, a sharp sorrow breaching my passion as reality threatened to impinge upon me. Her hand caressed my cheek, her fingers under my chin, lifting my head. I stared up that glorious body, seeing the golden glow of her sensuality, the longing in her eyes. Those eyes reignited my craving, reminded me of my earlier vow. Not now. Not tonight. Even if there wasn’t a tomorrow, I’d be a fool to waste tonight, not after so long.
She grasped the collar of my shirt, tugging me back to my feet. Faint alarm made me tremble. But she didn’t halt our activity. As her fingers worked diligently on the buttons of my shirt, she kissed me. My attentions had increased her ardor, her tongue adamant as it took possession of my mouth. The sound of ripping cloth hardly startled me as she expressed her impatience. A sense of satisfaction filtered through the haze of my desire; I’d always had to replace my clothes when we’d been together. Her hands gripped my breasts, and I forgot everything but the sensation of her rough touch. She kneaded my breasts, thumbs and forefingers rolling my nipples. I groaned, arching toward her.
“You are so vibrant,” she whispered. “So strong.”
The odd words threatened to disrupt my arousal, but she radiated lust as she gazed at me, infecting me with it, driving away the disruptive thoughts. She caressed me with one hand, the other gliding to the small of my back and sharply tugging me as close as possible. Her hand eased down the small of my back, sliding beneath the waistband of my trousers, pressing my hips forward. My thigh slipped between hers, and I felt the welcome pressure of hers against me.
I staggered forward, walking her backward until her calves hit the edge of my mattress, kicking her clothes out of the way as I stumbled. Slowly lowering her, my knee on the bed between her legs, I broke away from her ravenous lips. She growled, partially in frustration as she attempted to capture them again, partially in response to the pressure of my thigh grinding against her clit. Damp heat soaked my leg as I moved, and I reveled in the feel of her writhing against me, demanding in her desire, her hands clutching me closer. We settled into the age-old rhythmic motion of lust as I showered her delicate throat with kisses and bites. Propping my weight on one elbow, I explored her body — pinching her nipples, tickling her abdomen, gripping her hip for better access.
She hooked her leg around my waist, opening herself to me. It was a gift I refused to ignore. Within moments my fingers found her, wet and willing. My strokes were slow and firm, and she responded with provocative music, languid exhalations and sharp gasps, imploring breathless words punctuated with moans as she heaved beneath me.
Every movement of her face, every expression of passion and adoration that crossed her countenance was both a revelation and a homecoming. How could I have forgotten this? She was everything to me, had always had been. The intervening years of her absence had stolen this moment from me as surely as she herself had been. I watched as I entered her, three fingers tight within her vagina, knowing I mirrored the pleasurable pain reflected in her face.
I thrust inside of her, building up her excitement with the rhythm, vicariously experiencing her arousal as we panted in unison. I recognized the point of the precipice, that precious second before she tipped over the edge and experienced the cascade of her orgasm. Imprinting that one moment upon my memory, I guided her beyond it, accepting her release as the gift it truly was.
I awoke, sprawled alone across my bed. A distant rumble informed me that the ship was already under way. I’d overslept. Why hadn’t somebody come to wake me? Even in space there were tasks to perform, rehearsals to be had, crises to handle before the next landfall. I felt lethargic, relaxed in ways I hadn’t experienced in years. Mind fuzzy, I tried to remember what had happened. Rubbing the sleep from my eyes, I felt the tight skin of my cheeks, recognized the aftereffects of a weeping jag. I had cried? I couldn’t recall. Rolling over, I plumped a pillow. Even that took up too much energy. I lie there, staring at the rumpled sheets, the hollow in the other pillow that indicated I hadn’t been alone last night. There’d been a woman, right? When was the last time I’d been with a woman?
My sluggish mind fully woke, flooding me with the memories of last night. The woman who’d shown up at my door, an incongruent reminder of my past, a walking, talking contradiction that defied reality. My skin tingled at the remembered activities, my blood warming at the memories of her touch, her taste, her smell. If I closed my eyes, I could see her writhing against me in this cabin, this bed, could hear her cries of ecstasy as I took her again and again, could hear my own as she returned the favor.
I sat upright, panic welling up to squelch the burgeoning arousal. Frantic, I scanned my cabin, expecting to see room empty save for myself. My heart tripped as I found her, seated at my desk, a cup of coffee cradled in her hands as she watched me. She’d donned her jumpsuit, but her feet remained bare. The desire to sob in relief crawled up my throat, but I shoved it down. I heard her words in my mind, “Not now. Not tonight.” “I have questions.”
The sadness had returned to her. She gave me a slow nod, gold seeming to glow from her dark eyes.
It felt odd to have this conversation nude, so I climbed from the bed, abandoned the warmth of sleep and pleasure to pull on clothes, weak textile armor to protect me from the answers I sought. I debated retrieving a cup of coffee for myself but decided against it. As much as I wanted to distract myself from the dreaded interrogation, I knew I had to remain focused. I sat on the corner of the bed, elbows on my knees as I studied her. “Who are you?”
“Who do you think I am?”
I scowled at the non-answer. “Is this how it’s going to go? I deserve to know what’s going on here.”
She placed her cup on the desk, her attention solely upon me. “Yes, you do. But I need an answer, as well. Who do you think I am?”
Confused, I cocked my head. “You don’t know?”
She slowly shook her head no. “I’m here because of you. Your strength, your vibrancy…it takes my breath away.” Her eyes closed as she drew a deep breath, as if she was gathering something ethereal into her. She reopened her eyes, staring at me. “Who am I?”
“I don’t know.” I almost chuckled at the cross expression flickering in her eyes. “You seem to be someone I once knew. But you’re not her.”
A faint smile touched her lips. “I’m exactly like her.”
Heartache welled up within me. “No, you’re alive. You’re not like her at all.”
Her mouth opened, either in shock or as a knee-jerk reaction to my bald statement. The ever-present sadness crept back into her face. She came to me then, knelt before me and took my hands in hers. Real skin against mine, her body warmth seeping into the chill of my bones, soft lips caressing my knuckles. “I’m so sorry, baby. So very sorry.”
Despite my best efforts, the tears began anew. She shifted, rose to sit beside me, gathered me into her arms. I welcomed the comfort, knowing it to be false but unable to help feeling relief at having her presence within my life again. “There was an accident. We were mining ore on an asteroid in the Zeta Lyman sector. One of the drills blew up.”
She grunted, one hand going to her abdomen, pressing against the jumpsuit where the shrapnel had mortally wounded her all those years ago. Pulling back, she peered down at her torso, complexion pale. “I remember.”
Startled, I peered at her abdomen. “Are you okay?”
Shaky, she favored me with a wan smile. “I’ll be fine.”
I wiped at my tears, uncertainty crowding my sadness. “You say I’m strong. Strong how?”
The change of topic seemed to ease her discomfort. Her color improved as she considered her next words. “Your emotions, your love, your memories. They’re all so strong, all focused on me. I couldn’t help but be drawn to you.” She caressed my cheek with the knuckles of one hand. “Not many have such mental power.”
It was my turn to stare with my mouth open. I’m asking the wrong questions. Tentatively, I caught her hand, holding it to my chest. I needed the physical contact, an anchor to my past even if that bygone time was counterfeit. “What are you?”
A joyful smile brightened the room, the golden flow behind her eyes seeming to close the distance between us. “I’m your future.”