Partners

She wasn't sure when her bedroom had been relocated to the heart of the tropical rainforest, but as soon as she found the responsible party, Astra was going to shoot him. Fat beads of sweat rolled down the length of her spine and gathered at the already-damp waistband of her pajama bottoms. Her hair felt heavy with perspiration and her tank top was soaked. She yawned wide enough to crack her jaw, winced when a drop of sweat rolled into her mouth.

The weight anchoring her left arm to the bed shifted. Strands of hair tickled her bare shoulder. Astra forced open her eyelids. Sarah was curled up in a tight ball against her side. Astra tried to move her right arm so she could check Sarah's pulse, but her fingers were held in a vice.

"You were supposed to sleep for six hours," Gunnar said. His breath ruffled the hair plastered to her temple. The vice released her hand. Warm, blunt fingertips trailed up her right arm.

"H' lon' was I out?" Astra licked dry lips with a gummy tongue. At that moment she was prepared to trade four or five decades of her life for a glass of cool, crisp water.

"Four hours and twenty-seven minutes." The mattress dipped as Gunnar shifted to retrieve something off the nightstand. He held a bottle of bluish-green water and placed the top of a straw against Astra's lips. "It is Guskoy extract. You are perspiring because your body has not yet integrated the regenerated kidney."

"Healed kidney," she corrected automatically. Her lips closed around the straw. The liquid was cool and tart and absolutely perfect. She greedily gulped until the glass was empty.

"There is no need for subterfuge, Astra. Young Sarah is sleeping."

Gunnar set the glass back on the nightstand. Astra allowed herself to roll with the shifting mattress. Gunnar's thigh was warm and solid against her cheek. She gave in to the demon in the back of her sleepy head and nuzzled the side of his leg. He smelled of the vastness of space, the complexity of time, and green apple dishwashing liquid.

"She is remarkably good as faking when it is in her interest." Astra pointed her toes and stretched her cramped calves. Being sandwiched between her two favorite people in the universe provided a feeling of security and belonging that she hadn't felt in years. Unfortunately, her bed wasn't wide enough for three people, especially when one of them was Gunnar.

"She was experiencing minor pain in the vicinity of her head wound. I gave her the prescribed dosage of medication for a human of her age and weight. She fell asleep shortly afterwards. She has been sleeping for a few seconds over ninety-seven minutes."

Astra craned her neck to glare up at him suspiciously. "Which medication?

"Ibuprofen." Gunnar's snort was rich with disgust. "I fail to understand why you chose such a primitive era in which to raise the child. Had you gone ahead two centuries, there would have been no need for a trip to the infirmary."

"It is unlikely that anyone looking for Sarah or me will believe that I willingly chose this planet and this century," Astra said, with the patience of one who has had the same argument time and again. She settled back against the pillows. "We ran the numbers, Gunnar. This is the best scenario."

"I do not like it."

"Your disapproval has been noted."

She shivered as cool air brushed across her shoulders. The evaporating sweat would lower her feverish temperature, but would intensify the chills that always followed tissue regeneration. Strong, gentle hands lifted her off the bed and held her in midair while Gunnar moved closer to the center of the bed. Once he was in position, he arranged her so that her back was against his chest and her legs were stretched out along his.

She glanced down to where her bare feet brushed his calves and smothered a giddy grin. He'd taken off his boots. His white socks stood out against her midnight blue sheets. It was the most disrobed he'd been in her presence since she'd taken Sarah on as her ward. It was thrilling, in a somewhat pathetic way.

"What did you and Sarah do before she fell asleep?" She hoped Sarah had not been too hard on Gunnar and vice versa. Sarah was a good kid but was unpredictable when faced with new people or situations. Gunnar wouldn't harm a hair on Sarah's head, not when she was so vitally important to Astra, but he wasn't good with children. Especially not human children he'd once strenuously advocated killing.

"We attempted to watch an episode of The Moments of Our Existence, but your charge does not speak Borgin. She then attempted to prove that Earth television is superior to Charisian television, but American reality shows are pitiful."

Astra skimmed a hand across Sarah's hair. The girl's face was pale, but sleep had eased the strain of pain from around her eyes. "Not all singing competitions result in the removal of the loser's vocal chords."

"Perhaps they should take it in to consideration." Gunnar's arms wound around her waist. His chin was a heavy, but comfortable, weight on her shoulder. The silence that stretched between them was thick and familiar.

Were it not for the stillness that came from being confined to a planet and the girl snoring beside her, it would have been easy to pretend that they were basking in the afterglow of a successful mission. Gunnar held all the formal medical training and, due to her superior biology and impulsiveness, Astra was the one who regularly needed tending. How often had they decompressed in their shared bunk as they drifted in Neutral Voidspace?

"Tell me about your latest assignment," she implored. The Powell Institute was the most advanced alien-related organization on the planet, but it was a far cry from her former employer.

"I assisted the Medical Corps of Virax II during the Civil War of 6535 RE." His arms tightened momentarily. "I miscalculated how difficult it would be to operate while covertly using the scanner."

She chuckled, rested her head against his shoulder. "I always said that you loved me for my CPS."

"That is incorrect," he argued, voice firm, leaving no room for debate. "There is technology that can sufficiently sense causality paradoxes. It is inconvenient and prone to failure, but it is a useable substitute for a living, breathing partner. As I have stated on numerous occasions, my affection for you is based on more than your ability to sense time."

She twisted in his embrace so that they were face to face. She cupped his cheek with a cool hand and fastened her lips to his. After a moment, the tense line of his jaw relaxed and his lips softened. When she pulled back, his eyes had gone silver with emotion. "It was a joke, Gunnar."

"I do not like Earth humor."

"Noted."

"I have missed you, Astra."

"You could visit more."

"It is… difficult."

She nodded, though her heart ached at his admission. She kissed him to ease the pain she knew they both felt before turning back around. "I can't believe the Agency sent you to Virax II in 6535. That is a tricky, tricky time."

Gunnar was quiet for a beat. "It was not an Agency assignment. It was a personal mission. I am a healer, something the people of Virax II sorely lacked during the final months of the war."

Astra swallowed back the chastisement hovering on the tip of her tongue. "Then tell me about your last assignment."

"Earth proper. 7217 Relative Era."

She blinked. Opened her mouth. Shut it. Blinked again. "That was our last assignment."

"Yes."

"But it's been fifteen Earth years."

"Yes."

"Gunnar," she growled, frustrated by one-word answered.

"When one partner has put in a leave-of-absence, protocol dictates that the remaining partner be assigned a temporary replacement or take the time off at his or her own expense."

"I didn't put in a leave-of-absence. I quit."

"Not according to the paperwork filed with the Agency's Sentient Resource department."

She twined her fingers with his in an attempt to ground herself. Filling out the paperwork requesting to be released from her contract with the Agency had been one of the most difficult things she'd ever done. She'd walked away from one of the most important parts of her life, knowing that agents were never welcomed back. To think that she could return to active duty whenever she wished...

"How long is my leave-of-absence supposed to last?"

Gunnar's eyes flickered down to Sarah. "Until your current assignment is over."

"That could be another eighty-nine Earth years."

"I have a packet of documents from SR for you. You have accumulated paid leave equivalent to one hundred and twelve Earth years. I will use all of my seventy-seven years of leave."

"That's ridiculous, Gunnar. You can't waste all your leave on me."

"I do not consider a waste." He kissed her temple. "Marion in SR agreed that we deserved the time off. You will spend the remainder of Sarah's life watching over her and then, once you have had time to mourn her passing, we can continue with the Agency."

"You've thought this out, haven't you?"

"I have had fifteen years."

She didn't want to think about Sarah's death. Not when the girl was so alive and young next to her. Sensing they'd had their fill of serious discussions for the day, she reached for the remote. "I record The Moments of Our Existence. You won't believe what Pollga did two days ago."

When Sarah awoke hours later, it was to the sound of alien chatter on the television, and her aunt's soft laughter accompanied by a masculine chuckle. Cocooned in warmth and surrounded by light, easy adoration, she drowsily wondered if the overwhelming of completion was what family felt like.