Part One - The Secret of Life
The Eagle, where Chick and Watson had discovered the DNA, was a noisy, traditional and popular pub, dark panelled with dark wood flooring too. The clatter of tables and chairs, and happy mid-week summer drinkers filled her ears as she pulled the heavy door open at just a few minutes past six. The weather outside was beautiful again, and the pavements were as dry as though they’d never been rained on at all.
Wearing a pretty summer dress with small, cobalt blue flowers on a white background, hair half hitched up on one side, the rest tumbling down her back, Sam felt self-consciously girly. The gladiator sandals kept her firmly grounded and betrayed her comfort-over-fashion sensibilities. A few heads did turn when she walked up the small step into the buzzing atmosphere of the pub from the bright street outside, and she blushed, eyes darting around in the comparative darkness, seeking the safety of finding Alex's face among the crowd.
She let her eyes flit around over the strangers' faces, and she looked briefly into the eyes of a young man who stood about six foot tall, who had dark hair like Alex’s, before carrying on and looking for someone sitting down, hoping to glimpse perhaps the sparkle of light on the rims of a wheelchair to help her out. It was only as she thought about that face for a moment that she realised he was Alex.
Leaning against the dark bar, Alex was waiting for her as she crossed the room, and she saw the grin on his handsome face. “Didn’t expect to see me standing today, did you?” He joked as she reached her arms up to loop them around his neck in a hug of greeting. His black crutches had blended into the dark wood of the bar so that she could barely see them.
“Honestly, no,” she said sheepishly, letting him go and falling gently back down from tip toes. “I’d pictured you sitting after yesterday.”
His hand steadied her at the elbow and his grin widened as he seemed to have a private joke with himself for a second before he said, “What can I get you?”
She ran her eye along the list of beers and ales on the bar top, and pursed her lips thoughtfully. “Hmmm, half a pint of Golden Hen?”
He made a little face and she quizzed him with a frown. “Not my first choice, but not bad,” he said by way of explanation.
“What would you recommend then?” she asked curiously.
“I’m going to have this one,” he said, pointing at one of the labels. “It’s a local one; quite bitter and hoppy, but I like my beers like that, so...”
“Well,” she said slowly, feeling a smile blossoming on her lips, “If I tell you that my absolute favourites are Adnams Ghostship, Broadside and Lighthouse, does that give you an idea of what I like...?”
Clearly catching her meaning, he said, “Ok, yes it does. I’ll pick something I think you might like...” It felt unnervingly new to let him be in control, even over something as trivial as a glass of beer, but she allowed herself the luxury and made herself relax. He turned around and caught the barman’s eye. “Half a Hobson’s Choice,” he said pointing to the local one, “And half a Parker’s Porter.” He grinned down at Sam and said, “Try saying that one when you’ve had a few too many...!”
She barked a laugh and said, “I’ve never heard of it.”
Alex handed the cash over to the barman, gripping the top with his left hand, and said, “No, not many people have. They tend to stick with the big ones like IPA...” He relinquished his steel-grip on the bar, and she half expected to see little claw-marks in it as he slid his wrists through the cuffs of his forearm crutches and closed his fingers around the grips. “Are you ok to get those?” he asked, nodding at the glasses.
“Making the lady carry the drinks,” the barman remarked rudely, not seeing the crutches.
Alex held up one arm and said simply, “Crutches.”
“Ah mate, what happened?" he was suddenly all blokish sympathy. He took in Alex's size and ventured, "Rugby?”
“Car accident,” he said flatly, swinging away towards a table that was as far from the bar as it was physically possible to get.
Sam waited for him to get settled before putting the drinks down and sliding into the bench seat in the corner. He’d clearly chosen the chair over the bench for the relative ease of getting in and out, but it left nowhere to rest his crutches but up against the round table. After two attempts to keep them from sliding off, he looked at the space next to Sam and said, “Mind if I put these next to you? They won’t stay here, and if I put them on the floor, I’ll probably end up, ironically, putting someone in the hospital when they trip over them.”
“No problem,” she said, reaching round to take the first one as he passed it to her. As she took it from him, she noticed how artfully they were designed. The closest she’d ever come to a pair of crutches was when she’d sprained her ankle so badly at school the nurse had put her on them. His, by comparison with the nasty, aluminium sticks, had ergonomic, sculpted grips made out of some kind of black cork-like substance, and a patch of rubber on the palm to stop them slipping, and they were cast in one, with no ugly holes to adjust the height.
“Pretty swish, aren’t they?” he said as she evidently let her eyes linger on them too long.
She blushed. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to stare. But yes, they are.”
He gave her a reassuring grin. “Custom made.”
“Sweet.” It gave her a sudden and strange thrill to hold the object that gave him power and allowed him to stand and walk. It was comparable to the pleasure of a lover digging her fingers into the tense thigh muscle of her partner and feeling the power and sensuality flowing across the connection between their two bodies. Savouring this rare and unusual closeness to him, she placed each crutch down casually but carefully next to her, hoping he wasn’t aware of what she was actually feeling in that moment.
When she was done, she looked back at him, and caught the strangest expression on his tender face. He smiled once, then his lips parted and he took a snatched breath in as though about to speak, but he shook his head with another smile and said, “What do you think of that beer then?”
He no longer seemed shy of his scar with her. As he sat opposite her, watching her sip, the half-pint glass cold in her small hand, he looked straight at her instead of turning his head ever so slightly away as he had done up til then. She felt the smooth, ruby-dark beer trickle over her tongue, and she was hit with a blast of different tastes, from hoppy and light to smooth, velvety and fruity. “Wow, that’s lovely,” she said when all the flavours had played their solos in the little concert hall of her mouth.
“Good,” he said, holding his own up to his scarred lips. “That and this one are two of my favourites. I think it’s good to support local breweries -”
“-especially if their beers taste so good,” she interrupted.
“Exactly.” He drew deeply on his half-pint and gazed at her with a broad smile back on his face. “I think I said this before, but it’s not very often you find a girl who likes beer like you do.”
She nearly snorted into her drink, but mercifully managed to stop it coming out of her nose and she said, “I think there are plenty of girls who drink beer...”
“But that’s not quite what I said, is it?” he returned playfully, sounding more like a lawyer in a cheesy court drama than the scientist he was. “I said there aren’t many girls who like beer, not that there aren’t any girls who drink it...”
She frowned slightly.
Alex laughed and clarified as if she were a bit slow, “What I mean is that I’m sure there are plenty of nasty girls who drink nasty cheap beer for the sake of it. You are evidently not a nasty girl, and you have excellent taste.”
“I like you,” she flirted impulsively, “So I must have.”
Alex actually blushed like a school girl at that, the lawyer-cool cracking. After taking a moment or two of recovery, he said graciously, “I’m glad.”
After another sip of her dark nectar, she asked, “Did you have much work to do today?”
He looked pensive and rubbed his chin as he set his glass down on a beer mat. “I had quite a lot of code to write, which was quite faffy, but I eventually sorted it all out and I got some nice figures plotted. I also wrote another chunk to run overnight. But that must sound very boring to someone who has absolutely no work to do whatsoever at the moment!”
She pursed her lips guiltily and said, “It doesn’t sound boring, but I have to say I’d prefer to have done what I did, which was to go for a walk through the fields out towards Godmanchester and Huntingdon, finishing with an ice cream by the river...” She elected not to mention that she’d gone with Dan; somehow it felt like bragging, though she couldn’t have said exactly why.
"Ah," he sighed, leaning back against the wooden chair. "That does sound good. You recovered from all your taekwondo stiffness?"
She rolled her shoulders and pulled a face. "Not completely. The hot bath definitely helped. And snuggling up last night with a chapter or two of Game of Thrones..."
"Ah, Game of Thrones. A cure for anything. Favourite character? Wait, don't tell me. I want to guess." He leaned forward attractively onto his elbows and considered her carefully.
She smirked. "Ok."
"It's either Tyrion Lannister, or John Snow..."
Her laugh was bright and loud as she nodded, "Spot on. You?"
"Can't you guess?"
"I couldn't actually. Ned Stark maybe?"
"Ahh, duty and honour... Two ideals I'd love to say I can uphold above anything else, but no. Not my favourite. One last guess?"
"Girl or boy?"
"Danerys or Arya then."
"Arya. She's so canny and has to think on her feet all the time and she gets a direwolf..."
He nodded, grinning. "It was her or The Hound because he's scarred."
"He's missing half a face," she said pointedly, "Significantly more than you are..."
"True." His fingers wandered vaguely along the line where it sliced through his eyebrow and over his blind eye. Suddenly he turned back to their previous conversation and said, "You know, I was thinking that maybe if the weather holds, we could do something similar to what you did today. I know you've got graduation coming up, so we could wait til after that, but I did have an idea for another outdoor adventure..."
"That sounds great, where are we going this time?"
That mischievous, lopsided grin lurched across his lips and he said, "It's going to be another surprise I think."
It was hard to be frustrated with him when he was wearing that expression, but her patience for surprises was wearing towards the threadbare side of thin. She tried only moderately hard to keep that from her voice as she said, "Ok..."
"I can tell you if you'd like," he added quickly, lifting his six foot frame up with a rapid, nervous pump of his biceps so he was sitting more comfortably. The table began to shudder slightly as she rested her wrists on its smooth surface, and she guessed his leg was jumping beneath it. "I haven't really thought this one through though, so I didn't want to tell you before I'd looked into it..."
She smiled and sipped her beer again. "You know, you don't have to do a research project on each place we go to," she said. Suddenly it occurred to her that he probably did have to do a research project for each place to assess its accessibility, so she added, "I mean, last time was incredible, but you don't have to come up with something like that every time we want to go out somewhere..."
He huffed an easy laugh and said, "I'm glad you're so relaxed. I always thought this whole dating game was supposed to be full of pitfalls and traps..."
She barked a laugh in return and said, "I've never seen dating as a game, or an assault course. Not that I have all that much experience with dating."
Alex's dark eyes widened in genuine surprise. "I still find that hard to believe."
Does he think I'm lying?
Perhaps sensing her unease, he sighed and said, "I'm not saying I don't believe you - how could I after what you told me when we were sitting on that bench at Anglesey Abbey? - I'm... I'm... What I'm trying to say is that it doesn't seem surprising that someone like me hasn't been with anyone for years, but you... I can't believe you've not had any offers..."
She drew deeply on the last mouthfuls of beer and said, her voice even, "I didn't say that I'd had no offers."
"So why pick me?" he blurted. "What changed?" He couldn't help but wonder bitterly if his disability made her feel safe. She'd been hurt - her coldly given words, "I've taken some shit from guys" and her not being used to "strong but gentle" hands were enough of a giveaway. Did she think that because he wasn't whole that she would be safe? Alex was suddenly angry with this beautiful girl, and he thought of the guy he'd knocked out a few months ago with a single blow to the temple in a bar because he'd made one too many gimp references - beneath her kind, calmly accepting exterior, could she really think he was that vulnerable?
A flush crept over her cheeks, but he felt only a little guilty as she mumbled, "If I tell you, will you promise you'll believe me?"
He frowned, but smiled. "Of course."
"You won't laugh, or think I'm ridiculous?"
His curiosity deepened. "I won't," he said earnestly.
"You have kind eyes," she murmured into her beer.
"I knew you'd think that silly," she began.
He held up his hand to stop her, "No, I don't. I just wasn't quite expecting that."
"Trust me," she said, raising her chin so that he saw she was biting her lower lip nervously. "I know what kind eyes look like. I..." she inhaled, seeming to fill herself up with courage from somewhere, "I know you're not going to hurt me. I knew it the moment I saw you sitting opposite me in the cafe. I also know it sounds like ridiculous hokum, but when you've been standing in front of a guy who's about to deal you a punch to the cheek, you never forget the look in his eyes."
Her words shocked him. "He hit you?" was all he could say in response to any of that. He reached slowly forward for her hand where it lay on the table top, and he noticed that she had picked a small patch on the side of her thumb raw while she'd been talking. He wrapped his hand over the top of her whole hand, his other palm cushioning the underside of hers from the cold table, and he gave her a gentle squeeze. He knew in that moment, with her enormous, Bambi eyes, wide and glassy as they looked up at his face, seeking some kind of reassurance, that she did in fact recognise his power, and she knew that he would never use it on her. It was quite possibly the most beautiful moment he had ever experienced.
Her eyes fell to their hands. "Looking back, I can't believe I let him. I was so weak then." Then a mischievous little smile flared on her lips and she said, "No one would get away with it now though." She flipped his hand over before he'd even realised it, and had him in a subtle lock, two thumbs boring into the fragile bones on the back of his right hand, fingers pressing into the palm on the other side. She didn't apply any pressure, but he knew that if she did, it would hurt like hell and he would be the puppet to her Geppetto.
"Mercy," he whimpered in a dramatic stage whisper, eyes locked onto her beautiful face.
She didn't release him. "Do you deserve my mercy?" she grinned playfully.
He sighed dramatically, and then grinned, "You leave me no choice. I was hoping I wouldn't have to use this one on you," he said, keeping his face unreadable. "But I think desperate times call of desperate measures..." Her cool facade flickered momentarily, but before she could actually worry, he widened his dark eyes and did the 'puppy' face that rarely failed to get him exactly what he wanted.
"Aww," she chuckled, letting go of his hand and then cupping it fondly in her palms. "Mercy granted, mercy granted!"
They both laughed, releasing the tension.
"I'm glad you're giving me a chance," he added quietly. "More than glad, if truth be told."
She smiled prettily. "Me too."
"You want to head back now?" he asked, nodding at their empty glasses.
In answer, she reached for his crutches, and his heart lurched unexpectedly. She was doing things like bringing his chair or his crutches so matter-of-factly, without traces of pity or fuss, but still, he couldn't help but wait nervously for her to freak out. Give it time, he thought sadly. Wait til she catches you having to cath, or sees you can't get it up for more than a minute. That'll freak her out or put her off.
With his hands grasping the grips, he levered himself to his feet with all the grace of a rising camel, and flicked them locked. The reassuring click gave him a sense of stability again, and only then did he look at Sam. She had only just stood up, having shuffled slowly along the bench - so that they could leave together?
He swung the crutches forward, making for the door, sensing rather than seeing Sam on his right hand side. The doors were heavy and awkward. On the way in he'd been lucky to enter behind another party who'd held the door for him - fumbling with two crutches on the top step with a heavy door that threatened to eject him out into the street like a bouncer ejecting a rowdy drunk was not a situation he particularly wanted to risk. Knowing there were two steep steps down on the other side, he turned to Sam, regretting having to turn so far to the right and risk over-balancing, and asked if she could get the door.
Silently she smiled and flitted in front of him, hanging out over the steps from the door handle by her hand, her dress floating ethereally downwards. Trying not to pause and pretend to adjust his crutches just so he could look at her, he lurched down the stairs and onto the pavement. Like Shakespeare's Ariel, she was somehow magically at his side in half a heartbeat. The thought made him smile until he realised that that analogy probably made him Caliban. He crutched slowly and quietly as they rounded the corner onto King's Parade, where tourists still milled about, munching ice creams and slurping smoothies in the pleasant evening warmth.
Alex felt his right leg pulse alarmingly, but it didn't cramp, so he ignored it.
"It's such a nice evening!" she breathed, letting her eyes wander over the spires and contours of the sandstone screen which kept the wanderers out of King's College and the academic atmosphere in. It was all singing a perfect harmony in stone, looking like the stage set of some classical ballet. The behemoth that was King's chapel sat imperiously, unchanging and severe, next to an enormous chestnut tree. Together, they looked like contestants in a race between man and nature to create the most spectacular structure. Neither would ever win; they were just too differently beautiful.
For the first time in years, Alex rammed his toes into the low step into their house as he tried to get through the door. It had almost certainly happened because he was far too busy staring at the nape of Sam's neck where she had absentmindedly hooked her cascade of dark hair forward over one shoulder, but whatever the reason, his clumsiness sent his right leg into quivering spasms again. His body rather than his brain had decided that he was taking the stairlift up, and he rapidly abandoned his plan to crutch heroically up the stairs. As he sat on the ugly white seat, sticks in his right hand, the spasms in his quad worsened and his leg rose at a slight angle, stretching out into the void of the stairwell below him. As his cheeks flushed and his left hand hovered awkwardly over his quivering leg, he glanced at Sam. She was looking at his face, wanting to know if he was alright. "I'm fine," he smiled. "I got distracted when I was going up the step and forgot to lift my legs high enough. They're just complaining now. They'll shut up in a minute I expect."
Visibly she breathed a small, smiling sigh of relief and walked beside him in silence as he inched up the stairwell. As he'd prayed, it was only a reactionary spasm, and they quietened a little as she padded quietly up the stairs beside him. At the top Alex wondered how cooperative his crotchety legs were going to be once he stood, but they seemed to want to get inside as much as he did, and permitted him to lock the braces again and swing to open the door.
The flat was still and peaceful in the evening light, the last rays of the sun gilding the bookshelves behind the sofa with an intensely golden glow. As Sam crossed into the beams of light pouring in through the enormous sash windows, her eyes seemed to ignite and the sight of it knocked the breath straight from his lungs.
"What is it?" she asked as he froze in place in the middle of the Persian rug.
"You're eyes in the sun, that's all," he mumbled, suddenly bustling off to the kitchen area. "You hungry yet? When do you want to eat?"
She tucked a strand of hair behind her ear, modestly accepting his muttered compliment. "I don't know how long it'll take to cook whatever it is you're doing..."
"In total, probably about half an hour," he said, leaning his backside against the countertop and easing his hands out of the cuffs while they spoke.
She sank onto the sofa and looked around. "Is Will here tonight?"
Alex snorted a laugh and said, "No, he's actually gone out for dinner with someone. I'm hoping something will come of it - it's been ages since he's had a girlfriend, but knowing him he'll probably be back by about eleven anyway." He rubbed the smooth contour of his freshly-shaven jaw between his finger and thumb, his thumb snagging as ever on the scar as it tapered to its dramatic finale on his lower lip, and said, "Will has never really been much of a night owl..."
"Except when it comes to playing Borderlands..."
"Do you need a hand with anything - I'm not the best cook in the world, but I'm a first class chopper-upper and kitchen elf..."
Another laugh came bubbling up out of Alex's lungs and he thanked her. "I think I should be ok though. It's not a particularly intricate meal - Japanese kare. I should have asked you though," he added nervously, "Are you ok with spice?"
"Depends how hot," she said warily. "I'm not exactly brilliant with really spicy stuff... Love the taste, but can't take the heat..."
"Only badly cooked chilli just tastes hot," he said sullenly. "I won't make this hot, I promise."
She grinned in relief and sat back against the sofa cushion. "Then I'm in your hands, and I look forward to it."
"I think I'll get going now then," he said, swivelling on the spot without his crutches to wash his hands in the sink behind him.
"Just shout if you need an elf."
"Always need an elf," he called above the rushing water. "But tonight is elf's treat."
Hearing her bright laughter made him smile inside and out. He began to bustle about the kitchen on his crutches, hanging things off the grips or holding packets between his teeth, only half wishing he was in his chair as he stooped unsteadily to extract the onions from the bottom cupboard. It was good for him to cook standing up and stretch his legs out. It was fairly low-strain to stand still, and anything that meant he wasn't sitting on his arse in that chair all day letting his vertebrae sink and compress down into his butt had to be a good thing.
While he chopped and diced onions and garlic he kept his back to her as his eyes began, as ever, to stream. Blinking the tears from his vision, he used the countertop for support and lifted and swung himself easily along to the gas hob, lighting it and setting the flames roaring. Knowing his eyes were probably pinker than a piglet's bottom, he tried to keep from turning right round to face her, even when the stinging had stopped.
Sam was evidently watching him, as she said, "We have a gas hob at home. Dan's parents have an induction hob, which I find unnerving... I imagine it'd be perfectly at home on the Starship Enterprise or something. Not sure my security clearance is really high enough to use it."
He smiled, turning to look at her out of his left eye. She had taken her shoes off and was perched cross-legged on the sofa. Feeling his heart skip a beat, he returned his attention to the heating oil, and said, "I may be a scientist, and a bit of a geek, but you cannot beat old-fashioned flames for cooking..."
"You're quite the chef then," she called.
He made a side to side movement of his head. "I love cooking and working with flavours, always have. I wouldn't say I was quite a 'chef', but I don't think I'm too bad a cook..."
She trilled another laugh. "I'm in awe of anyone who actively enjoys cooking. I always feel so inadequate for taking no pleasure in it."
"I'll have to do all the cooking then," he joked, tossing his comment at her as casually as he tossed the onions into the pan. When he didn't get a response from her, he looked over and saw she looked suddenly sad. "I didn't mean it in a martyr kind of way! I love cooking..."
An uncertain smile flashed briefly on her face and she let her eyes wander out of the window again. "You know," she said after a pause, "It's kind of hot that you can cook..."
His eyes darted to her face, to find she'd undergone a complete transformation from shy to undeniably sexy. She had risen and was quietly padding barefoot over the hardwood floor towards him. Her hand rested on his back as she stood beside him and she pressed her hip against his like a sideways nesting doll.
"Yeah?" he asked quietly, pushing back against her slightly with his weak hips, bracing himself on the counter and pushing with his free right hand.
"Yeah." She ran her hand right up his spine to between his shoulder blades, and then let it slide back down. Right the way down. As he felt the pressure lighten and begin to fade, he knew she had passed over his break. He dropped his head by a couple of degrees, feeling a sudden weight of sadness, and he turned his face towards her as the sensation suddenly returned. Sam's hand had risen from the misty areas and had worked its way back up to his shoulder, gently squeezing the muscles below the fabric of his t-shirt. And then, with a final squeeze of the tight band of muscle at the top of his arm, she was gone, padding back over the floor towards the sofa.
He let out the breath he hadn't realised he'd been holding.
"Is this yours?" she asked.
He peered across the room at her to see her holding his iPad up.
He nodded. "Feel free to use it..." he said. "Just don't send any emails to my supervisor telling him how fed up I am with him or my PhD right now..."
"I think that's a fair ask, given you're cooking dinner for me and all..." she smiled, big, dark eyes still fixed on his face. "What's the matter with the PhD?"
"Urgh," he snorted, "I'm just cross that nothing seems to be working properly - that code I wrote this morning was an attempt to get things going again, but I've got to leave it to run overnight, so I won't know until tomorrow whether it's all worked. It's been crashing and timing out on the cluster at work, which is so frustrating." He ran a hand through his thick hair, tugging it slightly to feel the pull and release. "And Bob said he'd be in the office today, but he neglected to tell us that he was in fact going to Birmingham for a conference, so three of us had gone in to see him and he wasn't even there."
"Sounds like a bit of a nightmare," she ventured.
"Fingers crossed that it'll all have worked and you can get going again tomorrow. Do you know when your supervisor will be back in?"
"I won't send any emails tonight and scare him off then! You mind if I check Facebook? It's been yonks since I've actually been on there, and sometimes interesting things do actually happen." He caught her eye, and she added, "It's rare, I know..."
He loved how this girl always got him laughing. "Sure - it's not as if I've set up a ban on Facebook on the network here!"
She returned the laugh and looked down at the screen of the iPad as she pressed the home button. "Pass code?" she asked, standing up and bringing it over to him.
Not that he didn't trust her with it, but he was so grateful for that silent show of respect towards his privacy. His fingers traced the pattern over the keys with familiar rapidity, and he handed it back to her with a smile. "There."
A lively, "Cheers," was all she offered in response.
A little while later a sharp bark of laughter called his attention over to her, and he asked, "What's up?"
Her eyes were dark and distant when they met his, and she said sourly, "Oh just this guy Doyle who keeps inviting me to stuff I don't want to go to with people I don't really like... You know, the Pitt Club types..."
"What's not to love about a bunch of Hooray-Henrys in tweed pretending they're God's gift to womenkind?" Alex sneered, something like acrid annoyance flaring briefly his stomach.
"So just ignore him..."
"Probably the worst thing you could do to a peacock like him..." she smiled. "So that's exactly what I'm going to do."
A thought occurred to Alex. He pushed the onions around the deep saucepan and asked, "Is he one of the ones you said you'd had offers from?"
Her wry smile told him her answer before her lips formed the words. "How did you guess? He asked me out four times last year, and twice this year. Apparently he doesn't like to hear the words 'no'. He's a university rower. The guy's ego is so big I'm surprised the rest of the crew can squeeze into that boat around it..."
Alex's big deep laugh boomed out and filled the entire apartment, replacing the summer evening sunlight with an even warmer and richer tone. "Brilliant," he grinned, murmuring into the flames from the stove. "Just brilliant."
Sam, sitting on the sofa, flicking through BBC news, having got rapidly bored with Facebook after Doyle's four messages, countless photos of himself, and fourteen event invites, heard Alex's voice rise above the sizzling from the deep frying pan. "You want a glass of wine?"
She looked up to where he was gripping the counter with his right hand, stirring the onions with his left. Damn, she thought, watching the way his jeans hung around the braces, and how his lower back caved inwards maybe a little more than the spine of someone without an SCI would. She felt herself beginning to get worked up again as she let her eyes wander freely over every beautiful inch of him. "Are you left handed?" she asked, suddenly noticing how he chopped and stirred with his left hand.
He seemed surprised at her question and looked down at his hand as it held the wooden spatula. "Yeah, why?"
"Just curious." She grinned, deciding to voice her thoughts, "I've always found something hot about lefties..."
Alex snorted but seemed pleased.
Even though she'd only just sat down, she felt something drawing her back to him, to that beautiful body of his. Setting his iPad down, she stalked up behind him, silent as a cat, and looped her arms slowly around his captive torso, letting her hands explore his form a little. He gave a soft moan, tilting his head back slightly. He had closed his eyes. She heard him say her name, whispering it, his voice rasping and throaty. She pressed herself against him again, inadvertently knocking him forwards, slightly off balance, into the counter. "Sam," he said again, more urgently this time.
"Yes?" she quizzed, making a tiny figure of eight with her hips against his jeans.
"Mmmmm," he moaned, clearly trying to concentrate on keeping the cooking going. "How am I supposed to impress you if I burn this because I couldn't concentrate?" he scolded playfully.
She chuckled. "I couldn't focus either if it's any consolation..."
"Sam," he said, pretending to get stern. As she lowered her hands down to the belt of his jeans, he turned his gaze over his left shoulder and said, "You know, I can't really feel that."
She bit her lower lip and rose onto her tiptoes, whispering so that her lips brushed seductively against his earlobe, “I can..."
Alex was certain that even if he hadn’t been paralysed, he’d have needed those braces to hold him up. His mental knees certainly did buckle. She was so close he could barely even see the deep pan in front of him, let alone concentrate on what needed to go in next. Oh fuck, Sam, he thought as he caught the scent of her hair which was falling around his shoulder too now. He felt himself becoming unsteady, tipping forwards and then rocking backwards slightly. She was right there though; a barrier between him and oblivion. Trusting his unstable weight to her tiny frame happened instinctively in a leap of courage he didn't know he was capable of making until he'd done it. She pushed her god-damned-sexy hips against him and he felt the edge of the counter pressing against his front as he became steady again.
It was only once he was obviously stable that she rose onto her tiptoes again, and kissed him on the nape of his neck, sending wild tingles all down him. His whole spine thrummed like the rigging of tall ship in a force-ten, and he wanted nothing more than to spin around and pin her to the counter, grab her hair and kiss her so hard she saw stars. That thought led to what might follow, involving her sitting on the counter, her jeans and pants abandoned on the kitchen floor, him sitting below her in his chair, his teeth and tongue on her thighs, working his way up to... "Oh god." The thought became air and left his mouth before he had time to contain it.
"Oh god, what?" she asked provocatively, doing that thing again where she ran her hand slowly and repeatedly up and down his back from an area of normal feeling to a foggy area, occasionally and unknowingly passing over a place with hyper-sensitivity.
His knuckles bleached white as he gripped the counter, trying to stay upright without her help this time. "I can't," he found himself whispering. "Not now. Please."
With a simple kiss between his shoulder blades, and a lingering squeeze of the tight muscles on either side, another excruciatingly delicate kiss on the side of his neck, she was gone. The scent of her hair lingered behind her for a split second before it was masked by the rising smell from the hob, and he half-turned to make sure he hadn't just fanaticised the whole thing. She tossed her hair back as she turned her raw, unmasked and fiercely sexual gaze on him for an instant, before retuning to the sofa, planting herself right at the furthest end of it, crossing her legs, and apparently absorbing herself in whatever she was reading on his iPad again. "You…" he marvelled aloud. Her eyes flashed briefly, darting up from the screen and looking at him from under her gorgeously thick lashes, before shutting him out again.
"Concentrate," she smiled a second later, without looking up at him. "This had better be one damned good meal now that I’m restraining myself," she added playfully.
"No pressure then," he commented good-naturedly.
"Look," her tone was combative and deliciously flirtatious, "If I can exercise some self control here, you'd better deliver too."
How on earth could this wonderful creature be so into him? He pondered this as he added the garam masala and ginger, stirring in various other spices which he remembered from the last time he'd made it. The diced chicken slithered into the deep pan with a hiss and the coconut milk was waiting patiently on the side until that lot was all browned off. After a while, he turned the heat down, leaving it all to sizzle softly while he shuffled round on the spot to get a better look at Sam. Her hair was falling over one shoulder, and she seemed to have 'calmed down' considerably. In fact, she was looking perfectly at ease; the complete antithesis to what was going on inside him right at that moment.
Eventually after five long minutes or so, she 'deigned' to look up at him, raising her eyes slowly to greet his face. She arched an eyebrow and he felt his heart rate quicken. "Oh now you want me over there," she said, still playful, and evidently not quite as 'calm' as he'd gauged.
I always want you, he nearly said, but that felt disrespectful at this stage. Trying his hardest to give her a sort of smouldering look which, he was certain, would probably come off as 'dirty old man', he turned his eyes on her.
It seemed to work alright.
She rose slowly, setting the iPad down deliberately. Oh god, oh god. Her hips swayed slowly from side to side as she walked quietly over to him. He was near enough to the other counter which jutted out into the room at ninety degrees from where the hob was, and he had an idea. He shuffled himself right along, on the pretence of getting further from the bubbling pan, and waited for her to get closer. She stopped right in front of him. He was leaning his weight against the counter, legs angled out in front of him, dead straight in the braces without which he couldn't have stood, and certainly couldn't have done what he did next.
She ran her hands over the soft fabric of the t-shirt at his chest, clearly savouring what she felt beneath, and then looped her arms around his neck. The way she was forced to go up onto points like a ballerina to kiss him turned him on like almost nothing else. Finally, there was something that she found difficult to do to him, and it tipped the power balance in his favour, if only for a brief instant. Taking advantage of the fact that it would be much easier when she was on tip toes, he clamped his strong hands around her hips and hoisted her up onto the section of counter to his right. Her squeak was initially nervous, but by the end of the short sound, it had become delight. Her fingers where she had grabbed him loosened their grip and tenderly stroked his arms for an instant.
Alex used the counter tops like he would his crutches, and swung his feet up off the ground, landing right at the base of the cupboards beneath her bit of counter. She was exquisitely close to him, and, in a movement that felt entirely instinctive, she wrapped those gloriously strong thighs around his hips, pulling him in towards her and holding him upright at the same time.
In that moment, with her lips crushing against his, her legs around his pelvis, her hands working slowly through his hair, he forgot his injury, his scars, his braces, his crutches, his chair, everything except her perfect form and his pounding heart.
The bubbling of the kare brought him back to his senses a few minutes later. "Mmm, Sam," he said breaking off and trying to look over his right shoulder at the hob. "Damn it," he cursed under his breath, twisting further between her legs, but still failing to see far enough.
"It's fine," she said, and he turned back to see that she was monitoring the pan from her crow's-nest vantage point. She relinquished her hold on him and he grabbed the counter top suddenly for support.
His crutches were standing, rather pathetically, against the hob and way out of reach, as though was trying to cook in his absence without having a clue where to start. As he used the counter top in their place, he heard the soft sound of her slithering to the floor. He awkwardly shuffled his reluctant, and now somewhat weaker, legs along the metre or so of counter towards the hob, hoping she wasn't watching him too closely. He gave the kare a stir, added some boiling water from the kettle along with some red curry paste, and felt her standing behind him again, her arms around his waist in a heartbeat. "I reckon that's got another fifteen minutes or so," he said, sliding his arms into the cuffs of his crutches, trying not to let her distract him too much or he might stumble and fall. She released him, but he could still sense her standing nearby. Knowing that if he turned and looked at her, he'd forget all about dinner and maybe even how to walk, so he crutched across the room and parked himself on the sofa. His legs gave a rapid-fire pulse as he flopped down amongst the cushions, his right quad once more pulling his leg up almost straight before letting it shudder back down to the ground.
He suddenly discovered that Sam was laughing softly, and he wondered why, feeling suddenly sick with unease, which seemed to fuel her laughter further.
"What?" he demanded, perhaps slightly sharper than he'd intended.
Her laugh petered out, but the smile remained on her lips as she said, "You did offer me a glass of wine, you know..."
"So I did!" He laughed, relief and amusement racing each other through his brain, "You want me to get it? It's just the white in the fridge..." He really couldn't face getting up again immediately; she'd left him somewhat drained to say the least.
"Glasses?" she quizzed.
He pointed at the cupboard below where they had only recently been sharing their passionate little moment, and he smiled as she laid her hand very deliberately on the empty space where her perfect ass had landed. As she bent, he couldn't help thinking she was poking it out just a little bit more than necessary for his benefit. He grinned. "That's it," he said as she drew the glasses out, straightening slowly. "Perfect."
"You smooth talker," she retorted with a grin as she uncorked the wine and poured a little of the crisp, pale liquid into the airy glasses.
He knew his own grin was woefully lopsided because of his scar, but he seemed to recall his undergrad lab partner telling him it was sexy, and he hoped Sam saw it that at way too now. No use trying to shield it from her eyes now anyway. She brought their wine over, setting the glasses down on the table and leaning over to kiss him on the cheek. The right cheek. "Now who's the charmer?" he asked, reaching forward to retrieve the glass. Taking a mouthful of the dry, white wine, Alex sighed and found that he was looking at her so closely it was almost staring. "You'll forgive me for sounding like such a goofball, but I'm having so much fun."
She sat down and laughed, sipping her own wine, and said, "Me too."
He set his glass down on the coffee table, feeling his right leg pulse again. Too long on his feet? He didn't think it had been, but then again, he did have an added distraction that evening.
While the kare simmered, Sam remarked again how beautiful the apartment was. It was true: the sitting room was large and bright, with enormous, Georgian sash-windows which in a way had their own braces, in the form of tiny, iron-railed balconies, the only difference being that these were too small to be functional. The brickwork outside was a warm, golden brown, and in the evening sunlight it looked like amber and filled the room with a stunning glow. He noticed how her eyes scanned the corners of the room, taking in the objects, revealing her seemingly endless curiosity. As they fell on the Persian rug, she shuffled her foot over it and said, "This is gorgeous."
"Mmm," he agreed quietly, still looking at her where she sat next to him. "Mum loved it. I managed to convince Will to keep it."
When Sam frowned, he noted, she even frowned delicately. He returned his gaze to the patterns in front of him.
"It's really hard to push a chair over carpet. Wrecks your shoulders if you do it every day. This one is so huge - it's not like a little door mat that you push over in one stroke - and I have been known to have the odd incident involving this carpet and tangled crutches... It's a bit of a health and safety hazard, but I just refuse to get rid of it." He raised his eyes to her face again. "You know," he added, "I learned to walk on it."
He chuckled. "I first stood up on my own as a toddler by gripping onto the edge of this coffee table, and standing on this rug."
"No wonder you don't want to get rid of it," she smiled. "It's got your memories almost literally woven into its fabric."
"Exactly," he sighed, reaching forward again for his glass. Condensation had fogged the outside of the glass while they had been talking and it was slippery in his hand. As he tipped back to rest his weight into the high sofa cushions, his right leg shivered into a cramp, his hamstring contracting and this time drawing the leg inwards at a forty-five degree angle, pushing his heel into the sofa below him. "Whoop, bugger," he swore, as the cramp caught him by surprise. As his right hand flew to grip the underside of his leg, he instinctively held the glass out in his left to be taken from him, as he would if it were Will sitting next to him, not Sam. Like a nurse to a surgeon, Sam quietly and naturally took the glass from him, raising it up and out of harm's way, putting it silently down on the table while he ground his fingers into the insubordinate muscle.
"Do they hurt you?" he heard her ask after a minute.
Truth be told, this one was a cramp, and it hurt like a bitch, but she didn't need to know that. "Not always," he muttered. "But their timing is always spectacular... I'm sorry. It's hardly attractive, I know."
Quoting Game of Thrones, she said, donning Ygritte's northern accent, "You know nothing, John Snow."
Is she saying what I think she is? he asked himself. His hand was still on his thigh as the cramp passed almost as swiftly as it had come, and the muscle relaxed into very soft and rhythmical pulses which rippled up to his hips and made him sway a little where he sat, but as the pain evaporated to leave only the heat of embarrassment, he locked his eyes on her face, wildly searching every millimetre of her features for a sign of pity, or jest. He found only sincerity in her eyes, and perhaps even lust on her full lips. "I... You..." He stammered. "You mean...?"
"Uh-huh," she breathed. From her seat next to him on the sofa, she lifted her leg and swung her whole body over so that she was sitting in his lap, facing him. At the sudden addition of her weight, his leg began its shuddering spasms again for a moment. Fighting the urge to shove her off him in utter embarrassment, he felt his whole body tensing up nervously. "You know," she said, sitting back slightly, and giving him a little space, her weight actually easing the juddering it had sparked by stretching his hip out and coaxing the muscle to relax, even to enjoy her presence. "The only thing that has ever made me uncomfortable about being around you was not knowing the etiquette, but now I'm learning. There's nothing that puts me off, and in fact, if I'm honest, the are some very particular things about you that really turn me on." She rolled her hips for extra emphasis. His right thigh gave one last momentary quiver beneath her before it shuddered into mute submission at last.
He couldn't believe his ears, and instead of trying to formulate an answer, he simply raised his hands to her body and drew her into him. He kissed her, cupping the back of her head in his hand. When he eventually drew back, she was laughing softly, the melody of it as soothing as strong fingers on his sore shoulders.
She looked at him sincerely for a moment, and kissed him lightly on the forehead. After ten seconds or so, she grinned and said, "How's that kare coming on? I'm starving."
This girl had an infuriating way of taking him really, almost excruciatingly, high, and then innocently stepping back and leaving him there. He shook his head, smiling. "You're nothing short of a miracle, you know that?"
She slipped quietly from his lap and said, "Well, I'm short at any rate."
He decided to lock the left brace again but to keep the right one unlocked in case that cramp returned. It was only a short crutch to the kitchen from the sofa, and he knew he could do that with nothing but arms for strength and one leg for balance.
Grimly holding the counter for support with his right hand, he managed to serve up the kare into wide, shallow, white bowls, and, without his having to ask, she picked them up and took them to the table, returning to collect the wine glasses from the coffee table. As he made his way slowly over to join her, taking really tiny crutching 'steps', thigh muscle still feeling odd, he said, "Thank you," as earnestly as he possibly could. It carried so much emotion that his voice even cracked a little.
Realising that he was thanking her for more than just carrying the plates, she smiled and broke the tension with a dorky comment. "You cook, I gofer."
"Me Tarzan, you Jane?" he returned as he sat down gingerly in his place at the table, lowering his crutches to the floor out of sight and, hopefully, out of mind for the meal as she set the glasses down and found her own seat.
"Wow," she exclaimed, taking her first mouthful, "This is amazing!"
Her little happy face was so delighted that he had to chuckle. "I'm glad you like it, it's one of my specialities."
"One of your specialities? I’d better come round more often then if you’ve got more like this up your sleeve," she joked, taking a sip of her wine.
Watching her eat; watching her lift her fork delicately to her parted lips; take tiny mouthfuls of her wine; the way her eyes flitted from her plate to his face... it had been a long while since he’d shared this kind of non-sexual intimacy with a woman and he was transfixed.
By the end of the meal, they had talked themselves nearly hoarse about everything from Firefly and Castle to archaeology and ancient Greek democracy in Athens, and as Sam loaded the last of the plates into the dishwasher she straightened up, turned to him with those sparkling eyes and said, one hand on her stomach, "Oh, I'm so full!"
It was only when he attempted to lever himself upright from the table that he realised both how full he was and how the alcohol had affected his bladder routine. He became aware of the feeling of pressure in his lower body, and recognised it as one of the (rare) signs that he needed to cath. The jumping in his leg under the table was an indicator too. "Same here," he said. "Excuse me a minute will you?"
He tried again to get to his feet, but his right leg was spasming just a fraction too vigorously, and he knew that if he tried to force his brace into locking so he crutch quickly across and out of the room, the force of the spasm would probably wobble him off balance. If he fell, not only would he be horrendously ashamed, but he could even risk damaging the brace itself, or releasing the precarious dam... Fuck.
"Can I pass you anything?" she asked, standing in the kitchen area, her face quietly concerned.
Damn it, he thought, and then, relinquishing any pride in favour of practicality, he said "I...um... My chair is..." oh fuck it, "I think my chair is in my room. If... if you could bring it, I'd be really grateful..."
He could feel the stinging blush rising in his cheeks. "Nice way to ruin a great evening," he growled to himself once she was out of earshot, but when he saw her pushing his chair towards him, her small hands hidden behind the low, black back of the snug chair, he underwent a seismic shift in the way he felt. He'd noticed a kind of tremor earlier when she'd reached to pass him his crutches, but now, as she brought his only means of mobility towards him, giving him something more than just a chair to sit in, he felt the kind of fire kindle inside him that he'd not felt for a long time. And the thought of her facilitating his independence gave him a new kind of mental erection.
The chair could not have been put in a better position if he'd done it himself - down to the last centimetre she had placed and lined it up to perfection. He looked up at her, knowing how wide his eyes were, how blatantly his lips were parted, how obviously he was staring, but he couldn't move.
"What? Did I do something wrong? Alex?"
"What? No, not at all," he finally said with a bit of a laugh as she took a nervous step backwards. "Quite the opposite, actually. You... you just must have been paying attention when I transfer," he nodded at the chair and added, "That's perfect. Thank you."
She blushed, her shoulders dropped, and she mumbled, "I just want to get it right..."
"You do," he reassured her, reaching first for her hand, giving it a tight but brief squeeze, and then for the chair so he could swing across. Praying that his left leg was not about to join his right in some kind of humiliating jitterbug, and also that he'd caught the need to cath in time and wouldn’t unleash the floodgates when he landed, as was always a risk, he transferred deftly, grabbing hold of his right leg with firm hands for a minute to lift it onto the footplate and hold it there for a heartbeat, before wheeling away from her towards the bathroom. As he rounded the corner from the living room, turning left out of the doorway, he glanced back and saw that Sam was still standing by the table, but she was looking after him with a gentle smile across her beautiful face, her hair falling softly around her cheeks. If she wasn't the most beautiful woman on the planet in that moment, then he wasn't an L1 paraplegic.