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She couldn't explain why riding the slider felt so exhilarating. She'd been able to fly on her own since she was four, never having to rely on any mechanical means to get from one place to another until she had joined the Guardians. And that had become a necessity since she wasn't capable of hyper light speed. But for some reason, sitting on the low-slung, upholstered cushion with her arms around her husband's waist and her cheek resting on his back as he guided the long, lightning-fast craft through the skies was even better than going solo.
A sudden dip made her tighten her grip. It was an automatic response even though she had no fear of falling off. Even if she did manage to lose her hold and go tumbling off the seat, she wouldn't fall.
"Sorry," Hunter threw back at her, and Star smiled. Inching closer to him, her thighs bracing his, she cuddled, pressing her breasts into his muscular back. A small tremor went through him, one which she could feel beneath her fingers. She smiled again and this time let one hand trail provocatively down the front of his pants, finding the waistband and dipping the tips of her fingers between the material and the solid, suede-like abdomen. As she expected, he turned his head toward her again and gave her a warning glance. "What do you think you're trying to do?" he demanded in an almost playful tone of voice, audible despite the loud purr of the engines.
Lifting her mouth close to his ear, Star replied, "I'm not trying to do anything. In fact, I think I'm doing it quite well."
Star laughed, throwing her head back as Hunter dropped the slider into a slow downward spin. Overhead,Abernath's fierce white sun burned bright and merciless. The planet sat too close to the giant star, but the small orb circling it maintained an even rotation on its perfectly vertical axis. As a result, the uppermost and lowest landmasses closest to its southern and northern poles remained at a constant semitropical temperature, allowing for the world to nurture several vast cities.
Plo Corra gave StarLight strength. It was something Hunter knew she needed after her brush with death after defeating the Ombitra mothership. He knew she had lost every ounce of reserves when she had pulsed the gigantic vessel, sending it careening out of control and bringing about its downfall. Star needed to soak up as much energy and magnetic force as she could, siphoning off vast amounts as quickly as she could, in order to get back her own strength. The massive sun of Hunter's homeworld would give Star that part of her life back, and already, after only two days here, she could tell the difference.
She could tell in the way her hair was regaining its luster, the long, thick, black locks gleaming like a starry night. She could tell by the color returning to her face, giving back to her skin its alabaster glow. She could tell in the way she moved and walked, refreshed and more energetic.
She could tell in the way she made love to her husband.
Two days. They'd hardly left his parents' home, the home where he had grown up, since their arrival right after the wedding ceremony. His choice had surprised her at first, until he'd taken her outside to feel the pulsing rays bathing the city. Since then Star had spent at least three to four hours outside every day, lying beneath the heat and light, her body unclothed and open to the sun. The backyard was protected by a privacy bubble, keeping them from prying eyes that might accidentally discover two Guardians were honeymooning under their very noses.
Star grinned. Oh, yeah, they were definitely honeymooning. Hunter had been right when he'd told her that making love in the middle of the day without the restriction of walls and beneath the very sun that bathed their skin in white heat was an experience the likes of which she'd never imagined. But if the little love games they played during the day weren't enough, their frenzied passion was nothing if not hotter and more intense at night. He had shown her exquisite fire in the most unexpected places, at the most unexpected times. She giggled and wondered what his parents would think if they knew where they had coupled like insatiable animals. And that was just in their first two days.
Her hand dipped further down the front of his pants. She loved the soft curls trailing down past his navel, hair as soft and sable dark as the short curls on his head. His abdomen tensed again but he didn't admonish her or try to take her hand away. She'd quickly learned her husband was a demanding but patient lover, eager to show her things she'd never dreamed about. He was intent on teaching her what her body was capable of. And the love between them only made those experiences more exhilarating.
A calming warmth spread through her. The HandFast. It all had started with their names being called to be HandFasted, a barbaric custom and responsibility enacted by her adopted homeworld, but a custom created by the necessity to ensure the survival of its inhabitants. Because she was a Guardian, that world was now her home, and that meant she was considered among the eligible.
Of course, when she and Hunter had heard their names called out, their first reaction had been denial and fear. Their second reaction had been trepidation. They were co-workers. They were friends. Now they would have to become lovers--and, as soon as possible, parents, giving up the child they created to a family unable to bear children. A family among the other sixty-odd percent of the population.
Only ... after their first forced night together, something happened between them. Something impossible and unexpected. It had been a delicate awakening. A discovery. Something which grew and flourished with each passing hour, until they had come to realize they were falling in love. Deeply and passionately in love, defying HandFast tradition.
There was no way anyone could have known that four evil men had plotted to destroy their world and the Guardians. No way anyone could have suspected that the two HandFasted Guardians had been a crucial part of their plan. The only person who could stop the Ombitra from following through with their objective to overtake their solar system was StarLight. The men responsible had plotted for her to become pregnant and gambled she wouldn't sacrifice her child to save her adopted world.
They had gambled--and lost. Star had gambled with her life, and nearly died. Her unborn child, the child created from her and Hunter's love, was forever gone.
And in the end, the Ombitra were destroyed.
Below she could see them coming closer to the normal throughways, where the traffic was more condensed, and therefore congested. They were getting nearer to the heart of the city, although First City, as it was called, couldn't be compared to the city where Guardian Command was located. First City didn't have any of the towering, solid structures reaching into the skies. Rather, most of the buildings here were low and squat, the biggest being no more than two or three stories tall. Trees and other lush vegetation protected and sheltered the people living here. First City was green and verdant.
"Would you care for something to drink?" Hunter tossed over his shoulder. Star nodded to where he could see her, reluctantly pulling her hand from where she'd had it. He was bringing them to a simple little eatery where several speeders, a few flat single-body transports, and more sliders were parked. Easing the vehicle into an empty slot, Hunter killed the engines and slid off the seat, extending his hand to help her off.
"Let me guess. Another boyhood spot you want to show me?" she smiled.
"No," she told him breathlessly. "Never."
Hand in hand, they ambled into the casual atmosphere of the place. The place was more than half full, but a few booths were available. Nearby an older man was hunched over a table, taking an order from the two women patrons. Hunter sidled up to him and leaned over his shoulder as the man explained, "--the vergrath is probably your best bet today, if you're wanting something sweet."
"If he's pushing the vergrath, don't fall for it. It probably means he overstocked on it, and is trying to get rid of it as soon as possible," Hunter quietly told the two women.
The man turned to give Hunter an irritated but curious look, and when he suddenly realized who had spoken, his face broke into a wide, warm smile.
"Udo! Oh, my stars above! What in the worlds!" He grabbed Hunter's hand to pump it up and down. "It's been, what? At least two years!" Almost at the same time, the man's eyes grew rounder, and he gasped. "Is it true? I saw you on the vid! Did you really..."
The man's eyes darted to the woman standing slightly behind Hunter, and his knees nearly gave way. "StarLight!"
"Terrin," Hunter immediately corrected him, but others around them had already made the connection.
"Terrin Vosstien," Star said with a shy smile.
"Meet Tiro Caldoman," Hunter introduced. "Owner of this place, maker of the best folto burgers you've ever eaten, and an old friend of the family."
"What in the worlds are you doing here?" Tiro almost demanded. "Here. Here. Sit down! Oh, my stars above! The last I heard, your brother told me you'd become a Guardian. And then there was all the news about you, and about you becoming HandFasted--"
He stopped, realizing he'd said too much. Seeing the man's flustered embarrassment, Hunter laughed softly as he clapped the man on the arm. "Think you can spare a couple of cold glasses of porr juice?"
"Is that all? Certainly! Certainly! Two glasses, coming right up! Norrah! Two glasses of porr juice! And make it snappy!" he bellowed to one of the employees.
Star gave her husband an inquisitive look. "Is he always so ... agitated?"
Chuckling, Hunter leaned back in the padded seat of the booth. "He's mellow today. Trust me. When it's the lunch rush, he's like a black hole, sucking all the energy from the place."
Although he kept a smile pasted on his face, Hunter's eyes swept over the patrons in the little eatery. He'd deliberately chosen what he'd hoped was the slowest time for them to arrive, although he knew there would still be some people around having a late lunch or early dinner. But once Tiro had blurted out StarLight's name, all attention had shifted to them. He and Star may not have been wearing their Guardian uniforms, but his wife's features could not be disguised by mere civilian clothing. Her beauty was renowned.
As he checked the eatery for any potential problems, he felt her hand slip underneath his where it lay on the table between them. He turned to flash her a warm smile.
"Did you come here a lot when you were growing up?" she asked, amused. He had already shown her the schools he had attended, including the valiant field where he'd played coreball, excelling as a pretty decent cornerback.
"Almost every afternoon after practice," he told her, his eyes going to the middle-aged woman nervously approaching them. He paused to see what she wanted.
"Excuse me, please. But are you really Master Hunter and StarLight?"
"The one and only!" Tiro announced loudly and proudly, swooping in to place two chilled glasses in front of them. "How about a plate of jorsters? I just took them out of the baker! On the house!"
Seeing his wife's raised eyebrow, Hunter nodded. "Sure, Tiro. Terrin's never had jorsters before, have you?"
"Never had the pleasure," she replied dryly.
Giving them another wide grin, Tiro left to fetch a plate. The woman continued to stand in front of their table, obviously unsure of herself. It was Star who broke the uncomfortable silence.
"Can we help you with anything?" she inquired gently, wondering if the woman needed them in their Guardian capacity. Although they were officially off the clock, being protectors and defenders of a section of the universe was a full-time, lifetime job. To her relief, the woman managed a shaky smile and tossed her head.
"I was wondering if I could get your autographs. For my husband. He's ... he's a huge fan of the Guardians. In fact, we were hoping to take the tour of Guardian Command on our next anniversary."
Behind him, Hunter could hear the telltale purr of a hand comm taking their picture. Public recognition was part of the job he didn't particularly enjoy, but knew it was a necessity. After all, they were there for the public, and they could pretty much take care of themselves in the event things got a bit out of hand. But it was Star's health he worried about. It would be another week or maybe two before she was back in full command of her powers, to the point where Doctor Perlakian would release her back to active duty.
He watched as Star graciously signed the woman's comm link before handing it to him to sign. As he gave the hand computer back to the patron, Tiro hustled back to their table to plop a plate of freshly baked jorsters in front of them. Seeing Star eyeing the unfamiliar food, Hunter grinned and grabbed one, popping it into his mouth. She took his cue and did likewise.
She wrinkled her nose at him. "Definitely not nose-holding food."
A hearty laugh erupted from him, and he reached back over the table to squeeze her free hand.
"Hey, Udo! You really did it? I mean, I watched the ceremony on the vid, but I just couldn't get over the fact that you got married. What are you doing back here?" Tiro questioned, taking an empty chair from a nearby table and parking himself beside their booth.
"Taking some much needed time off," Hunter admitted. "These past few weeks have been worse than torture."
A patron from the next table over joined into the conversation. "Yeah. We all heard about how StarLight defeated that Ombitra mothership. It was a bloody miracle you survived," he directly addressed her.
Star reached for another strip of jorsters, but one of the edible thorns hadn't softened enough. She drew back a punctured finger, shaking it then sucking on the tip. Tiro quickly apologized.
"Damn! Sorry about that, but sometimes that happens, especially when they're freshly picked. Here, let me get you some utensils."
Giving him a small smile, Star declined. "I can do it," she said, lifting her hand. With little effort, two metal prongs lifted from the counter on the other side of the eatery, and flew through the air, slapping into her hand with a soft sound. She offered one to her husband before diving back into the delicacy.
Tiro gave a low whistle. "Damn!" Watching the woman using her power in person was a lot more exciting than seeing her do it on the vidscreen. "How have you been feeling lately?" he asked her.
"Better. Thank you."
"I knew Plo Corra would give her much of her strength back," Hunter added. "That's why we came here."
"You gonna be here long?" someone from the back inquired.
"Can't tell." He shrugged. "We're taking it one day at a time. Terrin's listed as inactive until she gets a clean bill of health. But I'm still on active duty. If an emergency comes up that requires my powers, Deceiver won't hesitate to call us back."
Someone repeated Deceiver's name in a hushed tone of voice, bringing another smile to Hunter's lips. It was rare a Guardian ventured out among the everyday masses, much less two. And in this case, the very two people who had been creating history for the past month.
"Vall and Cara aren't back yet, are they?" Tiro inquired of Hunter's parents, pointing also to their glasses. "Refills?"
Seeing the man get up, Hunter answered, "Right now they're getting the grand tour of Guardian Command. Of course, the place got pretty well trashed in the attack. It's going to take a while before we can get it rebuilt."
The thread of weariness in the single word alerted him to the fact that they were beginning to overstay their visit. When Tiro brought over their refills, Hunter had to hold up a hand to decline. "Sorry, old friend, but we need to go. Thanks, though, for the hospitality. I'll tell Dad you said hello." He got to his feet as he helped Star out of the booth, preparing to leave.
Tiro shrugged. "You know you're welcome any time, Udo. Star? I mean, Terrin. It was a delight to meet you in person. You are ... quite an astonishing woman."
A flush of pink colored her cheeks. For most of her life, Star had heard many people cite such words of praise about her looks, and for the most part she had brushed them aside. She found no overt beauty in her waist-length black hair, or in her large, violet-colored eyes. But if people wanted to make those kinds of comments, she saw no reason to argue with them. After all, it was their opinion, and they were entitled to it. The only person whose opinion mattered to her was the man keeping a possessive hand against the small of her back.
Yet, it was clear Hunter's friend was sincere in his praise, and he gave her the impression he didn't freely compliment just anyone. She thanked him again as her husband led her back outside. Behind them, the people crowded closer to the door to watch their departure.
As they neared the slider, it appeared the sight of the antique had caught the eyes of a few admirers. One of them, a man Hunter noticed to be wearing a costly vest, seemed especially interested in seeing how the dual engines had been converted.
"She's using Birisium cells," the man commented almost casually.
Hunter tried to appear equally nonchalant. "Yep. Four units each. Just enough to give her extra power, but not enough to shake her apart."
The man nodded, and his two companions smiled. "How much you want for her?"
Hunter returned the smile. Behind him he could sense Star's apprehension and unspoken question. He slowly raised a hand to let her know he had the situation under control. "She's not for sale," he said with finality. Subconsciously, he reached out with his powers to get a feel for the man's intent. What he got in response, he didn't particularly care for.
"Everything has its price," the man smiled. "I have a nice little collection of Torosian sliders, but not the Forward Slant model. And this one is in prime condition. I can see you've put a lot of work into restoring her."
"My father put in the work," Hunter emphasized. "And he's not willing to sell her, either, no matter what your price." Looking back at where Star stood silently watching, he held out a hand to assist her back on the seat.
"I don't think you heard me."
The voice set off alarm bells in his head, and Hunter froze momentarily. Likewise, Star paused, one knee on the cushion. Her eyes narrowed at the man.
"Go ahead, Terrin. Get on."
"Doesn't matter," the man shrugged. "You can let me have her now, or you can let me have her later. In the end, she'll be a part of my collection."
"And what makes you believe we'll relent and let you have her?" Star calmly asked, caution easing into her voice. The sound of it brought a spark of happiness to him. It had been too long since Hunter had heard the old StarLight emerge.
The stranger finally took notice of the woman half on, half off the vehicle. Hunter watched as his eyes raked over his wife's features, resting a bit too long on her full breasts and long legs. "Everyone has their price, Missy."
The remark rankled. Star immediately shifted into Guardian mode, although Hunter was certain she wasn't aware of it.
"In this case, I'm afraid you're wrong," he told the man as he threw a leg over the shiny upholstery and reached for the ignition.
"I'm never wrong." The man was so damned cock sure of himself. Hunter watched in amusement as he withdrew a comm unit from one of the vest's pockets. "What's the name of the owner again?"
"Sorry," Hunter breathed softly. He thumbed the ignition panel, which accepted his ID, and the engines roared to life.
Now it was the two apparent bodyguards who approached them with the obvious intent on keeping him grounded until properly dismissed. Hunter let his masterful powers flow through him just enough to allow him to turn obsidian black eyes at the nearest man. "Better think twice about it," he warned softly, making the man halt in shock.
The second bodyguard, however, had managed to approach from the rear. Hunter almost smiled, knowing what would happen if the man tried to lay a hand on Star.
He tried. And she did.
Hunter may not have been in uniform, but that didn't prevent him from enacting Guardian Law when and if he needed. Glancing up at the screaming man now suspended nearly thirty feet above them, he looked back at the astonished collector as he gunned the engines.
"Bullying is a poor way to obtain the things you want. So is intimidation. Promise to be a good boy, and I'll tell my wife to let your friend down easily. Continue to be an asshole about it, and the both of you will join him. And, believe me when I say this, she's not feeling quite up to par, so there's a fair chance she might not be able to sustain all of you up there very long."
The man was incensed. "I'll bring you up on charges of flagrant abuse of power, whoever the hell you think you are."
This time Hunter didn't try to hide his amusement. The man had played the card he'd been waiting for. "My name is Master Hunter, and I have the right to enact Guardian Law. That's who I am." He gunned the engines again. "Swear you will not try such tactics again, and StarLight will release your man. You have five seconds."
The man took two to come to a decision. "You have my word ... but how do I know for truth you're Master Hunter?"
Star let out a lighthearted giggle as the man's bodyguard landed with a thud on the grassy turf. "Guess you'll just have to take our word for it!" She smiled, and gave him a little goodbye wave as Hunter sent the slider into a nearly vertical climb into the sky.