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Pasha stood between two males with her wrists bound behind her back. She had been kidnapped, drugged, sold and now she was here, inside a large cave that smelled like wet earth.
The one who bought her stood expressionless, but she felt his anxiety and irritation.
“There’s a lot of people here. I thought you said it would be empty?” Hanoff said as he sent a small surge of electricity through the bands that clasped her wrists together.
On her left was Hanoff’s guest, a malicious male that hated Hanoff but pretended they were friends.
The guest, whatever his name was, told Hanoff, “I said the cave would be empty. Not the trek to it.”
“If this cave is full of so much treasure why aren’t these people trying to get it too?” Hanoff asked yanking her to her knees so he could step closer to his guest.
“Because no one wants to pay the price to open the chest. Plus, most of these families use this passage to get into the city on the other side. They know not to stop and look around because most people who go looking, end up finding more than they bargained for.”
Hanoff curled his upper lip. “Good thing you know the way.”
“Yes, a good thing.” The guest looked down at her as if he was seeing an object, not a living breathing person. “But even my map would be worthless if you didn’t have an equal sacrifice
Pasha walked into the cave barely winded, immediately noting another presence. It was barely there but she was sure whoever it was, was overcome with emptiness.
The other two had sweat dripping down their face. Once inside Hanoff stopped, rested a hand on the wall, and sucked in air. The guest didn’t stop, but he was breathing heavily as he walked up to a large rectangle box surrounded with chains.
“That’s not a chest,” Hanoff said getting control over his breathing. “That’s a casket.”
“Regardless it’s still full of gold.” Holding out his hand he pointed to the old iron chains. “Alright, from what the legend says, the person who frees the curse inside will receive the treasure. But only if he has an equal value sacrifice. If the curse is satisfied, he or it will let you take what’s inside. I’m stepping out of the cave so the curse does not think I’m a sacrifice too.”
Hanoff pulled out a welding knife. “You better be right about this. If it’s empty, I’ll find you and cut off your head.”
The other male held up his hands. “I guarantee it’s not empty. And remember what we agreed on. Fifty-fifty split.”
“Yeah, we agreed to that, but if this is a trick, I’ll kill you and whatever is lurking inside then I’ll take all of the gold for myself.”
Pasha felt the change in the desolate presence. It went through a series of confusion, hunger, urgency, and hope. Whatever was inside, was wide awake and anxious to get out. Just then the casket rocked and Hanoff hopped back with a yelp.
Hanoff turned back to the guest, but the guest was gone. Worried eyes turned evil when they settled on her. “You’re the prettiest slave I’ve ever seen. If it wasn’t for this chest of gold, I would have kept you, chained you, and used you as you were meant to be used.”
Pasha could feel the person inside getting angrier by the second. As a Hetten she was taught and trained never to use her ability to affect others, but in this, she refused to let a scum-sucking rat bastard like Hanoff get mounds of gold, while she was killed and probably eaten by the thing inside. His hunger was building, and Pasha used her ability to fuel it on to being practically consuming.
The chains rattled as the casket shook.
Hanoff held up his welding knife, closed his eyes, and cut through the chains, suffering little resistance. The iron clanked as they fell on top of each other. The box still shook and Hanoff moved to the hinges and sliced through those.
The presence seeped out in a cloud or shadow encircling Hanoff. Pasha could feel the hunger and the anger radiating off the darkness. She watched, stunned that such a thing was real. She had never in her short twenty-eight years heard of such a creature.
Suddenly, Hanoff’s neck twisted back and his head was faced the wrong way.
Pasha’s knees buckled. She hit the ground just as wet splatter echoed in the cave. Watching helplessly she watched as the thing fed off Hanoff’s body.
Pasha felt the shadow’s hunger start to dissipate. She stayed on the ground seeping calm into the air. Not directly at the beast, but around him so that he wouldn’t feel her Hetten ability. Not knowing the creature, she didn’t know how he would react to sudden emotional stresses.
Hanoff’s body was a mangled mess, blood seeped down the slope of stone to her right. It smelled foul, a mix of iron and raw meat that had sat out in the heat too long.
Her stomach flip-flopped. Closing her eyes she breathed in through her nose and exhaled louder than she intended.
The beast’s eyes snapped to hers as if he just realized he wasn’t alone. Red eyes held her captive as the shadow fully solidified into a dark grey person.
He was tall with wide naked shoulders. Long black hair draped over his face making him look sinister in the dark. His mouth covered in blood.
Pasha felt the moment being cut into her soul as the most terrifying times of her life. More terrifying than being sold to a stranger. She pushed more calm energy between them, hoping he didn’t see her as his next meal.
The male narrowed his eyes and then scanned the room as if he could see something she couldn’t. He sniffed in the air and then shook his head. It was very animal-like and that worried Pasha even more.
Animals couldn’t be reasoned with.
His chest rumbled, but it didn’t sound like a growl but more of an acknowledgment.
The male crawled over the body, hands, and feet working perfectly together like a four-legged animal. Red eyes keeping a hold on her as he moved closer and closer. Pasha could feel his curiosity growing with every step.
Sliding a foot forward, he was less than a foot away, smelling like a horrid bouquet of rot, blood, raw meat and wet dirt. There was another rumble in his chest. His hand reached up and took a chunk of hair, examining it like he’d never seen blonde before.
May he hadn’t.
There was no more hunger, anger, or malice emanating from the male, but Pasha couldn’t shake the strong desire to run. Probably because the creature had not yet made up his mind what to do with her.
A crunch of rocks behind drew her attention…and the beasts. The male exposed his sharp teeth and hissed.
“Whoa, guy, it’s alright. I’m not here to hurt you, I’m just making sure you got what you needed. Food and someone to breed with. That’s what your kind does right?”
That’s what his kind did?
The guest had tricked Hanoff for sure. And now the jerk was trying to get the gold they talked about.
Pasha was disgusted and angry. So much so she might have purposefully sent a sliver of anger towards the male crouched in front of her.
The scary bloody beast gnashed his teeth and screamed a high pitch scream right before turning into a shadow. Anger radiated out from the guest and the beast. The guest tried to fight but his head was turned the wrong direction moment later.
The beast made that high-pitched scream again and ran out of the cave.
Pasha felt the presence less and less. Enough that she didn’t think the beast would return. Pushing off her knees she rushed forward, careful not to step in the blood and gristle. Taking the welding knife, she sliced through her binds and freed her wrists. Then she tucked the knife in her pocket and took off.
It took her no time at all to feel the presence of the walking people. Finding the path, she rushed forward, driven by the need to be safe.
Outside it was cold and dark, but she was breathing free air.
A small huddle of houses was lit with smoke filling the air. As she rushed forward she could smell fresh bread and stew. Her stomach rumbled for food after days without.
She stopped at the first Inn.
The old woman behind the desk had grey hair pulled back in a bun. She looked Pasha over with a frown before asking, “Do you need a room?”
“I need a transport off this planet and any food you have to offer.”
“Transport only comes in the morning. You’ll have to wait outside if you don’t have any keleps.”
“I have keleps and I would rather stay in here.”
The old woman handed over a thumbprint reader, an old technology of transferring funds. Pasha depressed her thumb, unsure if she had any funds. Her kidnappers could have emptied her accounts.
The reader blinked green and the old woman smiled.
“Welcome to Synnogum Inn. I’ll show you to your room and have dinner brought up to you.”
Inside the room it was warm. A small heater blew gentle radiating heat into the room and Pasha almost started crying right then. But she held back so she didn’t affect the old woman. But as soon as the door was closed and Pasha knew she was alone, she let herself feel her terror, her sadness, and her painful relief that she was free.
Tears flowed freely until they were done and she felt better. Then she wiped her eyes, composed herself and sat down on the chair nearest to the heater, and waited for dinner.
Pasha had eaten every single crumb of bread and every last spoonful of stew. She was full and sleepy. Taking the blanket from the bed, she snuffled on the large chair and let the heat lull her to sleep.
It was working too until she felt his presence.
Her blood chilled and she didn’t move as he crept from behind her. His rumbles sounded more threatening this time. Like he was still angry.
The shadow solidified in front of her. His upper lip curled.
Pasha pushed out a hint of calm and the beast hissed and moved out of the way as if he could see it. Sucking back in the calm she sat up not sure how to proceed.
Nem watched the trickster as blue ribbons floated in the air towards him. The last time he let the ribbons touch him, he lost control and killed a male who looked like his master. He wasn’t going to let them touch him so he accidentally hurt her.
Nem knew he was going to be punished for killing the red-skinned male. His master would take the female for killing without permission. The master always took the females away when he was bad.
But the master had not come yet, and he was determined to mate this female before she was taken away. Every part of his body was honed to her. He was not fully ripe for the mating, but he would be as soon as he touched her, as soon as he removed her clothing.
“Hi,” the female said.
He looked away. He wasn’t allowed to talk to anyone but the master. She should have been told not to talk to him. They were always told to keep quiet.
The master was going to punish her. He hissed again, hoping she remembered to keep quiet.
He liked that name. But she needed to be quiet.
Moving to the door he listened closely for the special gait that he knew so well. So far, they were safe.
“I didn’t mean to upset you when I influenced your moods.”
He growled. She had to stop talking.
“I won’t do it again.”
She wasn’t stopping so he cut his eyes to her and said, “Shhhhhhh.” It sounded more like a hiss, but he saw how she tilted her head like she understood him.
“Does it bother you if I talk?”
Clenching his long nails into the flesh of his palms he was angry at the female, and yet he was more worried for her. The master would kill her. He’d seen it before.
Nem didn’t look at her, he kept his eyes on the door because he was sure at any minute they would be caged and punished.
“What if I whisper,” she said lowering her voice to only something he could hear.
He swung his head to her and very slowly shook his head. Talking was out of the question.
The female patted her mouth but didn’t say anything.
Good, she figured it out.
Maybe she would also quickly get undressed so he could breed her real quick. He had waited his whole life for it. His father had shown him before he was captured, that their only reason for living was to find a female to breed with.
After that life didn’t matter because he did his job.
“One quick question,” she whispered leaning towards him. “What’s your name?”
That was it. He had to silence her himself. Walking around her ribbons he headed straight for her. More blue ribbons surrounded her. He didn’t care. He needed to stop her.
Reaching over he covered her mouth with a hand, feeling his blood warm and his worries dissipate. He wasn’t terrified about being punished or locked back up. He would be fine….
He wouldn’t be fine. He never wanted to be locked up again.
Growling he pressed his hand harder forcing his mind to fight the ribbons. In her ear, he said, “He’ll kill you. Stop. Talking.”
Leaning back he didn’t take his hand away until she nodded. Then he stepped back and watched her whisper, “You talk?”
He threw up his hands and growled. The woman was crazy.
What just happened?
The beast gave her a you’re irritating me look, turned back into a shadow, and walked out. He left the door open and there was a part of Pasha that wanted to get up and follow him. But she also didn’t trust the male who switched between lust, fear, and irritation.
In that order.
Not to mention, the warning about another male who would kill her.
Shaking her head she decided it was much better that he left. Yeah, it was better this way. Except, she didn’t stay sitting down. Leaving her chair she silently moved to the door that was darkened by the unlit hallway.
Biting her bottom lip she moved forward, knowing deep down that this was probably the dumbest thing she had ever done. Why she was leaving the safety of her room, only Seth of Stars could answer that.
The wood under her feet creaked as she left the hall for the stairs. Pasha could feel his presence but it didn’t stop until she was at the bottom of the stairs. Then she felt him next to her even though she couldn’t see him.
Again, there was lust, then fear followed by irritation.
“What are we doing down here?” she whispered.
She rolled her eyes. The beast didn’t have much of a vocabulary. Then she felt something touch the side of her face and a deep voice saying, “Stay here.”
The shadow was quick as it drew away, but it was back less than a minute later. He grabbed her hand and pulled her forward towards the door.
She was not spending the night in the icy cold.
Pasha yanked back her hand, but the hold was tight.
Digging her heels into the wood floors did nothing, so she hissed. “I’m not going out there. You could be a killer.”
He stopped and solidified to the massive wall of muscle that he was. “I am a killer.”
Stupidly she said, “Yeah I know. That’s why I don’t want to go.”
His head tilted. “We need to leave before the master comes.”
She shook her head. “I don’t have a master.”
“You do. He’s the one who gave you to me.”
Her mind paused.
What in the hell did he just say?
“I was kidnapped from my planet and sold to the man you ate. Trust me if there was a master, you killed him.”
The beast shook his head and pulled her forward again, this time getting her closer to the door. Pasha grabbed hold of his wrist and wishing she had the touch ability to inflict pain. So instead she pushed out as much calming emotions she could between them, letting it soak into his skin.
“Please stop. You have me mixed up with someone else. I am not your gift.”
The male didn’t stop.
How he was able to shake off her effects were beyond her understanding. No one, to her knowledge, could do that.
Cold air struck her skin and she instantly shivered. She hated the cold and she hated losing her freedom again. Worse, this time, she walked right into it.
“LET ME GO!”
Growling the beast picked her up and threw her over his shoulder. The wind blew hard, making it hard to see through her hair. The jerk was running and her stomach was taking a beating.
Holding herself up, she continued to push calm into the male’s exposed skin. Not that it helped, but it was all she could do, and she refused to do nothing.
Nem was fighting the fake calm that the female was torturing him with. Did she not understand how dangerous it was and he needed to keep his senses alert? The crazy female never stopped talking, so it was stupid to assume she would understand.
Stalking down the empty streets through the back passes, watching and listening for the master’s guards. He couldn’t let them find him and take her. He also didn’t want to end back up in that box.
The air coming out of his mouth made it look like he was breathing smoke.
Nem knew that was bad. He needed a cloth or something to cover his mouth. But he was also too afraid to stop. He would find something soon.
Running from one house to the next he made his way as far away from the female’s place as he could get.
There at the end of the street was a perfect broken-down house. He took a step and heard a clink, click followed by a rumbled of an engine. Nem sucked in his breath and backed further into the shadow of a pile of logs.
The female he was holding tried to stand up, but he didn’t let her. She needed to stay still. But she didn’t and she didn’t stay quiet either.
“HELP,” she screamed, pushing against his chest. “Someone help me.”
Nem pulled her down and slid her legs between his. Then he grabbed her flapping hands and trapped her wrists with one hand. With the other hand, he covered her mouth and then lowered himself on top and turned to his shadow form, making it near impossible to see her through his shadow.
She struggled in vain underneath him. Her hands spinning more false emotions of fear, anger, and confusion.
Nem shook the fear and the confusion away. Anger was harder to pull away from. Because he was angry. Deep down he had been angry for longer than he was trapped in the box.
But she was his now, and he wasn’t going to hurt her.
In shadow form it was easier to keep his control. He didn’t have to breathe or control his heart. In his shadow, he was in ultimate control.
Finally, the female stopped struggling. In fact, he was sure that she was no longer stiff either. Almost as if she was relaxed.
He found her ear and whispered, “The master will kill you if he finds us. I’m trying to save us. Stop your noise.”
“I don’t know any master.”
“I think you have the wrong person. Please just let me go.”
“Master hurts females. He likes it. He is not going to hurt you. I’m keeping you. Don’t fight me.”
“Please. I don’t want to be your slave or breeder or whatever. I just want to go home.”
She had a home? His kind didn’t have homes unless they were mated. His heart sunk. “You have mate? Or did master kill him?”
“I don’t have a mate. I was kidnapped.”
But she said she had a home. “Home is where you mate. If you have a home, you have a mate.”
“Not on my planet. I live alone.”
“You produce brumms by yourself? How?”
“They come out of the woman after breeding.”
“Are you talking about…your male juice? That’s gross.”
“Not drink. Small brumm grows into big male or female.”
“…ah. You mean baby. Uh, no. I’m not a – whatever they call those things.”
“I don’t understand your words,” Nem said solidifying because he was sure there was no one around. As soon as he was whole the female looked up at him, not fighting him or sending her ribbons into his skin.
“I can’t produce brumms myself.” Then she made a face at him. “I won’t scream again, but you have to let me go so I can help find a place to stay. It’s cold and I feel like my blood is turning to ice.”
She was cold and if he went into the broken-down house she would be very cold. Nem searched the street looking for something warmer. There across the street was a floating vehicle.
His master used to make him sleep in them when the master went inside to talk to other people. The floating thing was perfectly warm. And he just so happened to figure out how to drive it.
It was on accident the first time, but after that, he liked to travel knowing his master never knew.
Picking up his female he stood her up and then grabbed a hand and pulled her to the vehicle. The female hissed at him but he glared at her and she went silent fast.
She was learning.
Once inside he programmed it to go. Then his female touched the screen and it started heading to a place called landing dock.
Pasha’s bones were shivering. The cold leaving her body was not as pleasant as she hoped it would be. Leaning forward she increased the flow for the heater and cupped her hands over the vent.
That was soooo much better.
Warmth rushed under her skin, she knew she was putting out low levels of good emotions. She was no longer a slave, she was no longer cold and she was headed home. Everything was going to be okay.
“Stop making the blue ribbons. They will not trick me again.”
Pasha lowered her lids partially and faced the beast. “They aren’t for you, they are for me.”
“Stop making them.”
“No.” Pasha sat back so she could straighten her back. “I can’t stop making them. It’s like breathing. I’m a Hettan, surely you know what that means.” She doubted he knew what that meant.
“I don’t know what a Hetten is. But if it is that is your race of tricksters, I don’t like them.”
Her entire race was reduced to a bunch of emotional tricksters.
She could feel his emotions and recognized the mixture of fear and anger. Two of the worst combinations. Before that moment, Pasha might have dug deep and argued until the idiot understood it was natural and shouldn’t be subdued, but this guy….didn’t seem the type to listen to reason.
So she said, “I won’t push any emotions – I mean ribbons – at you. I promise.”
“You said that before. You didn’t keep your word.” The beast didn’t feel or show any marks of betrayal. It was like he was used to being lied to.
“You’re right I said that and then you pulled me into the freezing cold talking about a crazy master. So in my defense, I was just protecting myself.”
“I protect you. You will not fight me anymore. You are mine to keep safe.” He said those words with such assurance.
Pasha took in a breath trying to think of a way to explain that they weren’t mates because that was how he was talking. But the Navigation screen blinked alerting them they were approaching the landing docks.
In the distance, she could see ships coming and taking off. The beast’s eyes narrowed and he leaned into the visual screen. A growl erupted from his chest.
Pasha felt his fear spike.
His growl sounded sinister, no, it was more threatening. Not to her of course, but to the ships. He reminded her of a rabid animal.
Thinking fast she needed to calm him down – without her ability.
“You never told me your name. Do you have one?”
His fear plateaued when he looked over at her. “My name is Nem.”
“What is your planet like?”
He shook his head swaying his long black hair. “That was a long time ago.”
“Did you leave because you didn’t like it?”
His face pinched. “I was taken as a young one and given to the master.”
Pasha bit her lip.
Nem was a child slave, she couldn’t imagine what he suffered at the hands of a master who would lock him in a coffin and kill women so much so that the shadow man was so terrified for her.
His brows lowered. “Your ribbons are changing to black.”
Turning away she whispered, “Do you want to go back to your planet?”
She felt his confusion and then uneasiness added to her sadness it was depressing.
He didn’t answer.
“If you could go back, would you?”
The landing dock was closer. Nem reached over and bashed the console. The screen cracked and he quickly went for the doors.
“Hey, what are you doing?” It was still dark and cold and she didn’t want to get sucked outside again.
“We can’t be seen. We can’t be here. The workers will tell the master.”
Reaching over, she half laid on him to keep the door from opening. “Nem wait, wait. What if there is no master? Because I have never met him and I don’t think there is anyone chasing us.”
Nem’s expression was firm and unyielding. If he didn’t smell like wet moldy earth she might have liked being this close, but her nose was too sensitive. She sneezed – turning away before she did so on his face.
When she finished she blinked back her watery eyes and watched his mouth move as he spoke.
“You are wrong. We have to hide and not where the guards will shoot at me for getting free.”
“What if they can’t see you? What if you’re in the shadow form and I find a Luri ship?”
He shook his head then stopped. “What is a Luri ship?”
“A Federation ship designed for people who were kidnapped and lost. It gets us home.”
He shook his head again.
“Okay, what if I find a ship and arrange a passage on it?”
He didn’t answer so she pushed. “That way we won’t be here for the Master to find, and we won’t be going back to my home where the master will find us?” After the words were out of her mouth she regretted them.
She didn’t plan to go to some random place.
She wanted to go home.
What was she thinking?
Nem watched her closely. His head tilted as he looked over her face, nose, and forehead like he was seeing something she couldn’t.
“Your ribbons are yellow now.” He lifted a hand to her face and rubbed a thumb over her cheek.
His touch was soft even though his thumbs had calluses. She didn’t expect to like it and that worried her. It wasn’t just the tenderness in the act, it was underlined by his emotions that she hadn’t felt at a distance.
In his touch, she was swallowed by dark possession and awe.
Pulling back she tried to cover her shock with a fake smile.
Pasha needed to focus on the situation. The complexities of keeping the shadow were something she would worry about later. “I’ll find a ship and get passage. Stay in the shadows so no one sees you. Then when he or she agrees, you can follow me on, okay?”
Nem dropped his hand, his face hardening, which was surprising because he already had an impassive expression.
“You will not trick me. If you scream and run…” he flared his nose as if thinking about it upset him.
Pasha knew she needed to set him straight. To tell him that they weren’t mates, but she could feel his seriousness. There was no talking him out of it.
“I promise not to scream and run.” She didn’t promise not to find him a different female though.
Internally she grinned knowing that was a great idea. And on the next planet there were going to be plenty of females for him to choose from.
Nem grunted as the Hampton Dwarf came to a stop at the docks. Once it stopped Nem opened the door, took her hand, and led her out as he turned to a shadow. She could still feel him holding her hand even though she couldn’t see him.
It was eerie.
The docks were full and Pasha held herself close as the cold seeped back into her bones. She tried to hail two other people walking from their ship. Both told her they didn’t pick up space-nubs.
The third ship she approached was large and sleek, matte black and a greenish-blue tail painted on the back. It had a saying over the part of the ship with a ramp on it: Calypso’s Dream.
The male was Terran looking but she didn’t hold her hand out in proper greeting. “Hi, I’m looking to buy passage off the planet.”
The male lifted his brows but didn’t say anything.
“I will pay for a single room to wherever you’re going.”
He smirked. “You don’t even know where we’re going.”
“Why?” she asked knowing that there wasn’t any vileness in his emotions.
“Because it could be a long trip, with a ship full of men and you’d be the only female.” He winked. “Get it?”
She snorted with a heavy dose of arrogance because Nem would probably kill him if he touched her. “Are you going to rent me a room or what?”
He shook his head. “If I was a better man…I would offer you or what, but I’m not. Three hundred keleps and you will have a place to stay.”
“Five hundred and I get my own room.”
“There is no spare room, empath.”
“Tell the other person they can sleep outside and take a portion of the rent.”
He rolled his eyes. “Like I’d give in a kelp. Nope, you want him out, you do it yourself. He goes by Blitzer, so I’m sure you know what that means.” The male pulled out a Minky pad and tapped the screen.
Then he held it out for her to use her thumbprint.
What kind of planet was she on that they used such archaic technology?
Once it dinged complete, he smiled. “Welcome aboard Ms. Smith.”
That wasn’t her name.
“Yeah, thanks.” She scanned the shadows wondering if Nem was near. She didn’t feel him, and she hoped he would follow her on, even though there was a bright light shining down on the ramp.
“The time to think about the offer is over sweets. Walk up the plank and meet the crew.”
Face forward she headed into the ship. A second later she heard a male cry out behind her. Turning she saw the Terran male dropping to the ground. The black shadow quickly followed her up the ramp.
“Did you just kill him?”
“No, do you want me to?”
“No. I just…”
“No more talking, we go inside.” Pasha felt his hands lift her up and walk her into the ship. There were several males stacking crates. Nem put her down just as three pairs of eyes turned her way.
Sticking a thumb towards the ramp she said, “I paid five hundred for a room with Blitzer.”
Blitzer, she assumed, with the blond hair and blue eyes started rubbing his hands together. “You got that right, babe. I’ll take you to my room.”
Seth of Stars these males were gross.
Faking a smile she said, “Great. The sooner the better.”
Someone whistled, another male rolled his eyes. Blitzer on the other hand walked with a bounce in his step as he led the way to the stairs.
Once inside the room, of course, Nem flung him out, shut the door, and locked it. As soon as he solidified, he frowned looking around. “I don’t like this ship.”
“We needed off the planet,” she reminded him as she saw the disgusting piles of clothes and junk. “But more importantly, I need to sanitize this room.”
Nem was usually collard when he traveled. It kept him from turning into a shadow. The master wouldn’t let him on the landing docks without it. Rubbing his neck, he felt…different. Not good and not bad.
Escaping the master, however….that didn’t feel real.
“You’re growling at the door again,” she said somewhere behind him.
Nem turned, catching Pasha drop a still sock down the ejection shoot. Her body shivered while making a face. As if touching a piece of clothing the worst thing she had ever done. Internally he shook his head at her. Clothing was not worthy of her fear.
Nem knew of real fear and he needed to remind her of it.
“He might still find us.”
“How? I don’t even know where we are?”
Nem didn’t either but that didn’t mean they were safe. Turning back to the door he waited for the male to come back. Most likely he would be with the others. If they came together, he would have to kill them all.
He wasn’t taking any chances.
“Alright, I’m done.”
Nem looked behind him to see the mostly empty room. He nodded once, commending the good job, and returned his attention to the door.
“I think I should go and get some food. But I think you should stay here to keep our room safe.”
He turned around with a frown. “I keep you safe. Not the room.”
She tilted her head, “I meant someone should stay here. Both of us can’t leave.”
“You stay. I’ll get food.”
She shook her head. “You’re not normal looking. If anyone sees you they will freak out. I need to go.”
He knew about the fear in people’s eyes when they saw him. But he didn’t have to show anyone what he looked like. Plus, it was his duty to feed his mate.
Pasha took a step to walk around him and he cut her off.
“No, you will stay here.”
“No, you are. I’ll be quick.”
He moved to block the door. “If you leave, I leave with you. There are too many males on this ship.”
“I don’t care about the other males. I just want food.”
“If all you want is food, then stay here and I will be back. You will eat either way.”
She hitched her hands on her hips glaring. Nem wasn’t sure if that was for intimidation or not, but it wasn’t working. Red-orange ribbons fluttered around her skin and he was sure it was her anger.
Pasha rolled her eyes and told him, “Fine. Go. But if you bring back crappy food, I’m going to send you right back.”
Now that upset him. Food was food. It didn’t matter what it tasted like, she was going to eat it.
Nem slipped out the door after Pasha unlocked it for him. Turning to a shadow he moved swiftly between the dark corners of the hall, looking for food.
An hour later he finally found the food cave. It was in a cold place, but he took all he could carry and moved out. The way back was slower because he had food to carry and he wanted to remain unseen.
Unfortunately, someone turned into the cave as he was leaving it. In his shadow form, he screamed a warning. A high pitch sound that hurt the ears of all who heard it. The male jumped back, yelled to himself, and raced from the cave.
Nem smirked. It was a good thing to be scary. Fighting with his arms full of food was not good.
Outside the cave, he took the hall and then moved to the stairs. That’s when he heard them rushing up, and a male sounding frantic. So instead of moving down, he moved up the stairs until he was at the next level.
Then he walked to the other side of the stairs and took those down.
Back in the room, his mate inspected his food saying nothing. He waited wondering if she would dare insult him.
When she took a bag of water he nodded at her choice. He would have chosen water too, but this food was for her. He would not eat, drink, or sleep until he was sure he and Pasha were safe.
“Did anyone see you?”
“Did you kill them?”
“No. Should I have?” Was his mate as bloodthirsty as his master?
“I was just asking. I’m glad you didn’t kill anyone.” Taking a water bag she held it out to him. “Here I think you probably need this more than me.”
Nem looked at the water. She was offering him her food? Why?
“It’s ours. Take it.”
No. This isn’t how things worked. He wasn’t supposed to touch other people’s food. But he reached out and grabbed the bag anyway. He should have said no, but he was thirsty. Ripping the top with his teeth like he did so often he guzzled the water as fast as he could before she might rethink her offer.
When he finished he saw she was holding out another bag. “Here.”
He took it damn him.
He took the third and the fourth bag too. Then she pulled back a chair and patted it. “Why don’t you sit down and eat with me. There’s no reason to eat and drink standing up.”
Why did she care?
He sat down anyway.
Once he sat down he noticed she relaxed. At that, he narrowed his eyes. Why did she feel safer with him so close to her? She was the one saying she was normal and he wasn’t. But then she was also being too nice.
There were no ribbons around her or in the air to trick him. But something was different and it didn’t make any sense.
Pasha pushed several bags of stews and pasta bags towards him. He used his teeth to rip off the top and noticed something else. His mate didn’t talk when she was eating. The silence should have eased his soul but it didn’t. Nem liked his chatty mate.
“You like the food?”
She swallowed quickly and pointed to the green pasta bags. “I don’t like bula pasta, but everything else is great.”
He liked the green kind so he took the unwanted bags and switched them out for the food she liked. His mate smiled. But more…white ribbons shimmered just over her skin as she told him, “Thanks. I appreciate it.”
He nodded once at her. Inside Nem grinned. He was pleasing his mate. Soon they would mate and he would accomplish what he was meant to.
A hard knock pounded on the door, drawing both of their attention. Nem was the first to react though. He was a shadow before Pasha’s next breath. He was in front of the door a second later.
“Open this door. This is the captain.”
He started to growl when he felt Pasha’s presence near him. He drew her back behind him, but she held on to him and whispered, “Let me talk to the captain. If we don’t, we will look like lunatics. If they do anything stupid you can kick them out, okay?”
“I said open up,” the male shouted.
Nem wrapped his shadow around her body, and transition only his mouth so he could speak in her ear. “No touching them or getting close. You do not belong to them.”
“I don’t belong to….you know what, we’ll talk about this later.”
He faded back until he was just a small slit in the corner of the room. Pasha opened the door and three males moved in and looked around. One was the male she talked to who agreed she could come on board.
One was the male who thought to touch her.
And the third was large and red-skinned. Just like his master, and Nem was sure that they just made a horrible mistake. That male had to work for his master. All the red-skinned ones did.
“What did you do with all my stuff?”
“Don’t even get me started on how disgusting this room was. I feel like I need to bleach my hands after cleaning up after you.”
The male she was talking to opened his mouth to speak but the red Demon stopped him with a hand. “I was not told about you until we took off. For that you’re lucky. I don’t like females on my ship.”
“I already paid.”
“I know, which is why I’m going to let you stay, but not here. This hall is for my men and you don’t get to kick Blitzer out. You wanted transported to the next stop, you got it, but unless you plan to share the bed with my employee, then it’s to the cargo bay with you.”
“I paid for a room.”
“No, you paid for a transport.”
He cut her off with a dark hiss, “This is not your ship. You don’t make the rules. You want off, by all means – jump out the ejection shoot or take a lifepod. But if you’re going to stay then you will remove yourself or I will.”
Nem began moving from the shadow, ready to defend their room when his mate shocked him.
“Fine. I’ll go. But let me be clear, if you or any of your men think of doing anything to me, I promise you won’t live to tell anyone.”
“Did you just threaten me?”
“No. I was just letting you know what happens if you touch me.”
The red male laughed. “You think your Hetten emotions are going to affect me? You must not have spent enough time with Demons.”
“I have,” she said boldly, “And I have to say I’m not impressed.”
The Demon curled his upper lip and Nem moved further into the room, making sure to not bring attention to himself, but also being close enough so that he could easily take out the three men.
But the male didn’t touch her, instead, he stood to the side and let her pass.
Nem almost relaxed, but the second she was between the Demon and the door, the Demon pushed her up against the wall.
Pasha had seen Nem kill before. But this was different. This was wrath. Nem’s emotions flooded the entryway, soaking her skin in his possessive rage. It felt like lava scorched her veins. It was so intense she shook with it. Tears spilled over her lids effortlessly as Nem continued to obliterate the body of the captain.
He was in shadow form, making it impossible to determine how he was doing what he was doing.
Her arms and clothes were sprayed with blood and bits. It sickened her. Shaking her head she whispered, “Stop.”
She had to stop him. She was going to throw up. Oh, holy Seth…the smell.
The other two males had eased back in the room terrified, in their own right. It was only a matter of time before Nem either turned on them, or they turned on him.
“Nem,” she said louder, and the shadow solidified into a bloody face, his mouth covered in blood as if he had been eating the male.
That was not okay.
Her stomach wriggled, she wasn’t going to make it. She pulled herself out of the room holding the door frame. She made it one step out before her other foot got stuck lodged on the body. She cried, screamed, and emptied the contents of her stomach.
The shadow wrapped around her and lifted her up. She fought as effective as a toddler being picked up. Kicking and screaming was too much effort for her as her body fought back the black emotions of a satisfied kill.
Worse she felt something she had never felt before. An echo of millions of satisfied kills.
Nem stuffed her in a small room and bent the door. At first, she thought it was because he was angry. But then he disappeared through a very narrow slit. When she tried to open the door, it wouldn’t budge because of the malfunction.
Locked in the room she tried to push as much calm out of her as possible, but nothing was affecting him.
Pasha pushed back against the wall and slid to her rear, silent and emotionally lost. Reaching out to as many people as she could she waited to feel their fear and their pain as Nem killed them.
…but after some time, she could still feel the people in the other rooms.
If Nem was killing it was far away.
Time ticked on and she didn’t hear or feel Nem. Did he leave her? Was that what this was? Was he killing people slowly? Watching them? Getting them food?
WHAT IN SETH WAS HE DOING?
Knocking back her head, she let the subtle sting feed her frustrations. She wanted to know what was going on. She needed to know.
More time eked by and she had finally moved from the floor to turn on the light. She snorted at first, then bit her lip fighting back the warmth of Nem’s actions.
Nem sealed her into a food pantry. Boxes of food and bags of water overfilled the room. She would want for nothing being locked inside this room. It was a cabin turned pantry, so there was a bed and a cleaner too.
He couldn’t have planned this.
Pasha shook her head knowing she was wrong because of all the males she had ever known, Nem would have absolutely thought of her needs first. It confused her to feel so pleased about that. The shadow male was a killer and delusional about a master that was out to get them.
She should be trying to get as far away from him as possible, but she had no desire, not even a little bit – to leave him.
Running a finger over the first set of boxes she tried to reason to herself why she felt the need to stay with Nem. Nothing, absolutely nothing screamed out in her mind. The only thing she knew for sure was that he was the scariest person she knew, and she was safest when she was near him.
At that, she frowned.
Was she using him to stay safe? A part of her thought so because she still consciously avoided any and all thoughts about the slave blocks and the feeling of dread when she was bought.
Knowing that she worried her intentions were wrong.
Pasha stopped to read the label of the boxes she was near: Water. Bleh. She was not overly thirsty and not in the mood for something so bland. Scanning the room, she didn’t know what she was looking for until she saw the cleaner.
Holding up her hands she made her decision quickly. Her feet moved so fast she could have been running. Clothes came off just as fast until she was inside the small cove.
Turning the shower on, she didn’t wait for the warm water to turn, she just got in, shivering soundly, but also feeling the stiffness of her hair lessen.
Nem stalked the halls following the males who had come with the Demon to remove his mate from their room. He watched and listened as the males recounted what happened. Two wanted to go and hunt him. Nem made sure to memorize their faces.
Several of them wanted to take lifepods off the ship.
One stepped forward and asked the two survivors to come with him to the bridge. Nem followed them up to the controls because he wanted to know what they were going to do. He assumed they were going to try and find him through their electronics, but he was wrong.
The one male went to the bridge, opened a compartment in the captain’s chair, and pulled out a bag full of something. When he showed it to the other two he said, “You know what kind of diamonds those are and you know how much they are worth.”
“How did you know he had the stash here?”
“Is the only place I couldn’t check, cap never left the bridge for me to check. So I figured they were here.”
“He said he lost them,” one male said with a curse. “So what now, we split it between all of us?”
“Nope, we split it three ways between us because we only need three people to pilot the small all-terrain tri-hopper out of the cargo bay.”
All the males were silent for a matter of moments then they all nodded and promptly walked out.
Nem followed them down to the cargo bay and watched them direct the other crew members to other parts of the ship. When they were alone, they started a small machine and then did something to open the ramp.
If Nem wasn’t snug between a very small gap in the walls he wouldn’t have been able to catch himself. He would have been sucked out into space like the many towers of boxes before him. Gritting his teeth the machine slipped out and the ramp closed by itself.
Nem solidified for a moment to catch his breath and think.
The only people left on the ship were terrified of him or wanted to hunt him down. None of those people seemed apt to fly the ship, or so it seemed to him.
Pasha was laying down on a freshly cleaned off bed, wrapped in a towel, when the banging sounded on the other side of the door.
A male shouted at her, “We know you’re in there female. And we know your shadow freak is with you. Send him out and I won’t hurt you. But if you don’t, we will kill you both.”
Darkness, similar to Nem’s floated through the door towards her. She knew the males on the other side of the room were not going to spare her. They liked death and they were hungry for it.
“Open this door right now!”
Pasha opened her eyes so she could stare at the wall and avoid the banging. Not that it was helping, but closing her eyes seemed to make it more real.
“Open this door or we will make your death the longest torture in history.”
Pasha didn’t respond then or to the many other rude and inhuman remarks they battered her with. Listening and feeling them igniting excitement in each other by detailing all they planned to do to her made her sick.
Worse than when she was covered in blood.
When she heard the metal banging on the door she started to worry. Getting up from the bed she scooped up her clothes, locked herself in the cleaner, and shoved the items in the washer. If the males did bust in, she needed to be dressed.
Pasha didn’t know where Nem was, but she hoped he came back soon. Feeding people like that calm wouldn’t save her at all. They would only be less excited about what they were going to do.
Her clothes dinged ready for the dryer when she heard the sound of metal bending unnaturally. Pasha pulled out the wet clothes and shoved her limbs through them determined to be dressed, even if that meant being wet.
“Look, the bed is cleared off. We must have woken our little bed pet. Hope she’s ready for a long night strapped to it.”
“Shhh. The shadow thing could be in here. We have to kill it first.”
“Yeah, I know. I’m not an idiot.”
Pasha grit her teeth and began to push layers of confusion and fear into the small space she was in. A second ago she thought about calm, but after hearing that, she needed them off their edge.
She needed to run.
The sound of crashing boxes made her skin tingle with anxiety. She was only going to get one chance and she was going to have to be quick. Shaking her head and arms she didn’t like how her wet clothes clung to her, but she didn’t have time to dry them.
The cleaner door slammed open for the males. The emotions flooded out as she used the wall to kick herself forward, knocking into one and falling on top of him. She scrambled up just as the other male grabbed her arm.
She targeted his touch and filled him with pain, and he cried out.
Using the down male’s chest to lunge from, she quickly ran from the room and turned the corner. Voices yelled behind her – the two males from her room. She didn’t turn back, she ran as fast as she could to the stairs.
Pasha pulled open the door just as a body slammed it shut.
The male’s satisfaction and dark needs coated her in an invisible oily slim. His hand clamped around her neck, tight and unyielding. His fingers dug into her skin cutting off her air and inflicting needles of stinging.
“Now you’re going to – ”
The door opened so fast it knocked both the male and her to the ground. A dark shadow whipped in, flinging her in the air landing hard on her side, but she could breathe again. Knowing exactly who that was, she let her eyes stayed closed and focused on her happiness that Nem had come in time.
And Nem, was going to make sure that male didn’t hurt her.
It was probably wrong to feel like smiling, but she did that anyway. She had survived the males who wanted to hurt her and their punishment for wanting that, was a bigger a badder killer ripping them apart.
She knew he was there before she felt his touch on her neck. She relaxed to give him access. Opening her eyes, she saw his feet. Rolling to her back she caught his naked chest as if it was chiseled from stone. He was stunning. But it was his frown that really got her attention. “He touched you.”
“Not for long, you came just in time,” she said wondering why his emotions seemed to be capped. There was no way he was feeling so little after all that.
Nem shook his head and pulled her up. “I failed you, mate. The ship is unsafe, and I allowed another to touch you.”
He didn’t have to say it, she guessed at what he was saying. He didn’t think he was worthy of her anymore.
Pasha wasn’t his mate, but if she was, she would have told him to shut up and kiss her. No, actually she wouldn’t have.
Not until he cleaned off the blood of the nasty male.
Pasha let that line of thought go and focused on the other part he talked about. “Why is the ship unsafe?”
“No one is flying it.”
Rubbing her head she said, “Show me to the bridge, maybe I can find a manual.” Pasha wasn’t a pilot, but she had got stuck in a malfunctioning hover car once and was able to use the manual to override the issue and get herself to safety. Had she waited for the company to notice the malfunctions she would have died from starvation first.
“You can fly?”
“No, but I can read.”
Nem held her eyes as if she would say more. She didn’t. Moments later he walked her around the bodies and took her to the bridge.
Inside the bridge, she noted how Nem kept hovering back. She searched the place alone and found the manual. She flipped through the introduction and then began looking for basic directions.
All the while she noted Nem’s lack of emotions. Not that he was happy or calm, no, he was sucking them so deep she couldn’t connect into it. If she hadn’t felt his raw possessiveness before she might have thought, he didn’t care about her – but she knew better.
Staring at the pages seeing nothing she knew she had to do something. Turning to Nem she saw him hold her eyes for a second then looked away.
If he was a Hetten or any other race she would have fed him peace and hoped he talked about what was bothering him. It would open up the dialog and resolve his self-hate. Or at least she assumed it was self-hate.
But Nem was not like other people so she had to tread carefully.
Holding out her hand she said, “Can you help me?”
A flare of confusion emanated from him a second before he closed the distance between them. She moved from her seat and asked him to sit down. Then she said, “I’m going to read this out loud and if you can, find the button or whatever it says, okay?”
Doubt and confusion seeped from him before it was gone, replaced with the nothingness of his usual demeanor.
“What do I do?” he asked.
Pasha began reading the directions for the system reboot. Since she didn’t know the password the first thing she needed to do was get into the computer. As they worked together she noted he was not relaxing.
Once they got everything rebooted, she sat on the floor and read from there. Nem tried to get her to sit in the other seats but she liked the ground better. It was a bigger space to use because she ripped out the pages so she could get a full view of the consul.
Hours ticked on.
Her eyes hurt, her body was tired and she was thirsty, but she kept on because Nem needed a victory. He needed to know he didn’t mess up. Pasha was on the last section for the navigation when the map blinked and then a red dot appeared beside them and the whole room started to buzz.
The white lights turned red and an automated voice kept repeating the same words: Red Alert. Red Alert.
Nem watched as yellow ribbons circled Pasha’s body. He had seen the yellow ones before when she was worried. The alert would have instilled fear into anyone but hated it more because his mate was afraid.
Not that he wasn’t, he was. He had no idea what the alert was or why it was going off. Pasha seemed to know and he needed in on that information. Because his sole purpose was to protect and care for his mate, no matter what the threat was, he would take care of it.
Pointing at the blinking red dot on the screen he said, “What is this?”
Pasha was frantically reading the manual. She flipped back and forth between pages and clicked more switches.
“Mate, what is that?”
She didn’t answer until she hit the last switch and tossed the book on the floor. “It’s a planet and we need to get as far away as possible.”
“Why? Who’s planet is it?”
She shook her head taking the controls and pulling them back. “I don’t know. How would I know?”
“You are afraid of a planet that you don’t know anything about?”
Pasha’s eyes snapped to his. “Yes, Nem. I have no idea, but I’ve watched a lot of Discovery Universe and there are very few livable planets. I doubt our luck would land us on one.”
Nem didn’t know what Discovery Universe was, but he respected the facts she gave him. Taking the seat next to her he asked, “What can I do?”
She growled pulling harder on the consul. “Help me with this.”
Nem didn’t see room for him and her on the seat so he faded to his shadow, the tingles in his skin as it evaporated to the mist and wrapped himself around her. Taking the controls he felt the subtle vibrations and realized his mate had been pulling as hard as she could.
He was stronger and pulled as hard as he could.
“Yes, that’s it, keep doing that.”
His mate let go of the controls and touched the big blacks screen. “Keep pulling, Nem. Don’t let go. I’m going to push the engines as soon as we get the nose up in the air.”
He had no idea what that meant.
On-screen he saw the screen zoom in and the red dot became a visual image of the planet they were near. The planet was not red, it was brown with grayish red hues.
Words on the top of the screen depicted how close they were.
“Are you pulling all the way back, Nem?”
“Yes.” There was no further to pull.
“Crap,” Pasha said and more ribbons flew out of her skin affecting him. Worry and doubt made him want to scream but there were no people to warn off.
“Stop your ribbons.”
“I don’t have ribbons, Nem, they are just emotions. And I’m freaking out so I can’t control them right now. Just do what you always do and ignore them.” Pasha ran her hands through her hair. “And we are not going to be able to fly past this planet. We are being sucked in because I don’t know how to turn on the other boosters to get us out of here.”
The ship began to shake.
“Uuuugh. Please don’t be a hot gas planet. Please don’t be a hot gas planet.”
Nem continued to pull back on the handles not sure what else to do, and he needed something to do. The shaking continued for another twenty seconds before the handles jerked left and his stomach lurched as the ship felt like it was being rolled on its side.
“I hate this ship. I have no idea how to land.” Pasha started to cuss as she hit the screen. “Why can’t you just go on autopilot you stupid ship?”
Nem didn’t know if he was making the right move but he shifted the handles trying to get it straight. Then for no reason, the handles were loose. No pressure it was like it was broken. Nem pulled back and solidified. Taking the handles again, it didn’t work.
“YESSSSSSS.” Pasha started to laugh. “The ship engaged auto controls to stop us spinning. We’re not going to die.” She turned, reached out, and launched herself at his neck. His natural reaction was to lean back and swipe the air, but this was his mate. So he took the hit, not sure what to do.
Her arms wrapped around him and he felt her body snug against his. Her face in the crook of his neck was a very sensitive spot if she wanted to hurt him. But she didn’t. Not even a little bit.
“We did it,” she said and her yellow ribbons were fading.
Nem slowly rubbed his hands over her back until she was secure. He had never been held like this and it was uncomfortable in a good way.
The ship’s engine hummed loud and then everything stopped.
Pasha pulled back as if she wanted down, but he wasn’t letting her. She peered at the screen. “We landed.”
He didn’t care. His mate was in his arms and she came to him willingly. He didn’t pull her there. That had to mean she chose him back.
Pasha turned back around, her blue-grey eyes found his, and then she glanced at his mouth. He knew about kissing had seen it and done it a few times – not with great success but he had tried. This was what she must want from him now.
“Pasha. I want your mouth.”
She pulled back a hand and rubbed a finger over his lips as if she was testing something. “Does your kind kiss?”
She peered up. “Then what do you want with my mouth?”
“To kiss it.”
Her chuckled vibrated on his chest.
“If I kiss you, you will think I am your mate.”
He frowned. “You are my mate.”
She stared at him with her lips pressed against each other. “My kind does not mate like yours.”
He looked down at her breasts knowing he was made like the females of his kind. She also has the same body shape as the females he was able to breed with before. So he knew for a fact that she and him did mate the same. “You’re wrong.”
She brushed his bottom lip again. “I didn’t mean blitzing. I meant that my kind knows we’ve mated when the other person can sense our feelings. Even the ones we try to hide. You only feel what I have put out.”
Nem opened his mouth to suck her finger inside. He watched her as he did so, noticing a flush of pink ribbons floating out into the air. When she removed her soft finger, the ribbons disappeared.
“You are wrong. I see all your ribbons.”
She looked away. “I don’t understand how you can see ribbons. Emotions are just feelings. But that’s not what I’m talking about. My mate would know how I’m feeling. It wouldn’t be something he sees.”
“I’m not your kind,” he said hoping she understood that their mating would be different. Not being the same race would alter some things. But that didn’t mean it wasn’t real.
Nem watched her look at the ground and ask, “Can you put me down? I need to check to see what the outside looks like. I need to know if it’s livable or if I need to find another manual to get us out of here.”
Nem didn’t let her go. Her body against his was where she belonged. The females he had before didn’t care who he was or how he bred them. He didn’t want them a fraction as much as he wanted Pasha. So in this, he was going to give her time to understand.
In time she would see that he was her mate. But until that happened, he would make sure that she never doubted his belief. She would never doubt his conviction.
“Give me your mouth first, then I will put you down.”
More pink ribbons floated out then were pulled back in. He waited several seconds to call her name and say, “It won’t hurt.”
Facing him she smirked. No words or warning before she leaned down and pressed her lips against his. A burst of pink ribbons flooded against his skin, pleasure filled his veins and he couldn’t help leaning back against the console to steady himself.
Pasha pressed her lips harder against his before opening her mouth, slipping in her tongue. Her taste took him by surprise. Sweet and hot.
Opening up he followed her long enough to understand exactly how she liked it then he took over, flipping her around, laying her down, ignoring the sounds around him. He used his hand to push down her mouth wider, needing more.
He was full and heavy and in moments he was going to truly breed his mate. It was what they both wanted. He could feel it from her and she knew it from him.
A soft snick and the change in the air temperature changed all his plans.
Breaking the kiss, Nem stood up and turned towards the door. Five males stood wide-eyed with one stupid enough to talk. “I uh, we came to find out where we landed.”
Pasha sat up, her pink ribbons gone, small yellow ones peaked in and out of her skin fluttering then disappearing as she moved away from him. “I don’t know what planet we are on because this planet is not on the extended Federation maps. Since we are in the Outworlds there are only so much that has been mapped.”
“Meaning that no one will be able to find us?” one of the males asked.
“Communication should still be working. We can radio for help,” another of the five said.
Nem didn’t comment because he didn’t know about how ships worked and he didn’t care to communicate with anyone.
“I have not been able to get into the quantum network. It’s password protected and I need to override it first to send a message. I think the first thing we need to do is find out what the planet is like, so we know how dangerous it is.”
All five frowned.
“If it’s too acidic it can eat away at the ship and eventually kill us. If we landed near a volcano it could kill us. If we landed near a cliff we could fall and kill us. There could be monsters out there that can swallow us whole, I don’t know, but I do know that we need to find out.”
As she talked her yellow ribbons fluttered more often, but never went far. He understood what they meant and planned to let it go but she was scaring the men. He knew fear well and didn’t think it was a good idea to scare males who were already scared of him.
Leaning over he whispered in her ear. “Telling people how they could die is not smart. Scared people do stupid things.”
Pasha turned around and began tapping the screen. The five males moved closer, but at his growl, they didn’t come in too far. He knew they weren’t a threat now but given the right motivation and fear they could turn.
Minutes later Pasha let out a resigned breath and sat.
“What does it say?” a male asked taking a step forward then after Nem glared, the male stepped back. “Are we going to die?”
Pasha turned and told the others, “We landed hard in a dead forest, crushing the trees surrounding us. It’s too dense to see what’s out there on the visual scans, but it looks to have a half-decent air supply. I don’t pick up anything alive around us.”
The other crew members looked at each other except the one staring at her. “If there is nothing around that means there is nothing to eat or drink. Our supplies won’t last forever.”
That fact that he brought it up first made her think if he was willing to do something drastic to keep the supplies to himself or if he was willing to explore the planet in hopes that there was something.
She didn’t mention either of those questions. “Are you expecting me to find the solution to that problem? I’m not your captain.”
“You killed our captain, you’re responsible for the problem.”
“Your captain was a prick, had he kept his hands to himself he would still be alive,” she said almost positive they were true. “But that’s not the issue. Right now the issue is survival. So why don’t you put it out there? Tell me what you plan to do to survive.”
“What I want is to be back in space headed to Port Nicca. That’s what I want. You said communications were down, but maybe that’s because you’re not good at fixing things like that. I want to take a look at it, see what I can do.”
Another male stepped up, “I think since this is our ship, you two should step out and leave the food and water to us.”
She expected that. Their anxiety was giving off malicious undertones. Leaving the ship was a bad idea with no food or water nearby. But staying could end up being a bad choice too because no matter how sensible someone is, once they’re forced to fight for survival, people get dirty.
“We go,” Nem said after the silence had gone on for more than was comfortable.
None of the males objected and she thought that was telling as well. Pasha fully understood the situation and the emotions. But when Nem held out his hand she didn’t want to take it. Not because she didn’t want to go with him, she did. She didn’t want to leave the ship to die on a dead planet.
Nem took one step, grabbed her wrist, and pulled. Not hard, but firm enough to know he wasn’t taking no for an answer. As he led the way he kept himself between her and them.
At the door he turned back and made that Seth of Stars awful sound. The high-pitched scream felt like someone was stabbing her eardrums.
When the door shut, she asked, “We should get as much food and water as we can carry before we leave.”
“No, we leave now.”
“There is nothing out there for at least a hundred miles in each direction. We need food and water.”
Nem didn’t stop until they were by the ramp. Then he turned to shadow and began ripping at the hinge. The ram came down and cool air blew inside giving her some goosebumps. It was barely light outside.
Pasha had no idea if it was morning or dust considering the main part of the light was straight ahead.
Nem solidified, took her hand and pulled her down the ramp. Once they were down, he dropped her hand and sniffed the air. It was so animal like that Pasha wondered if the scans had it wrong.
What if there was something?
He sniffed again and stepped onto the planet. She didn’t follow right away.
Nem turned enough to notice and said, “You are my mate. We will be safe.”
She didn’t doubt the safe part. She just didn’t trust that they would survive long without nutrition. There was no reason for her to trust him because science told her that it was a lifeless area.
The air was dry and the dead trees were thick and white, but instead of growing up, they zigged and zagged like a vine. But vines didn’t grow that thick on her planet, so she assumed the same for this one.
Nem ducked under the first branch and kept looking around like he was hearing something. But she was there too and heard nothing.
Following Nem was not an ordeal, he didn’t push too fast and he constantly checked to make sure she was there. Pasha doubted she would have been as patient with anyone else, as he was with her.
Time passed and Pasha noticed a light in the distance. The star that fed this planet light was rising. As it rose though, she noticed a faint sound. Nem noticed it too, but he didn’t say anything, he just kept tilting his head left and right.
The star had cleared the horizon and Nem stopped. “Smell that?”
He sniffed again and then sliced his claws down on one of the trees. But instead of it being hollow, it leaked something into his hands. Nem smelled it again and then licked it. He smiled before holding out his palm to her.
Looking at the palm not seeing anything but a little bit of wetness.
Taking his hand, she brought it to her mouth and licked his skin with the tip of her tongue. The taste was very mineral-esk. But it didn’t sting like a poison. Thank Seth.
Nem broke a bigger portion of the tree thing and then gave her a piece and told her, “Suck on it.”
She didn’t take it. “Don’t take this the wrong way, but I don’t see the benefit of sucking on a tree.”
He shook his head. “It’s not a tree. It’s a root.”
“No, roots grow underground. Trees are the part that grows above ground.”
He shook his head again. “Not this one.”
“How would you know?”
“It looks like a tree from my home. I used to suck on these before I was taken.”
“Do you think we are on your home planet?”
He shook his head as he sucked on his portion of the tree. His mouth was wide, his teeth were sharp and he was able to chew a fat slice. Pasha noticed the way liquid was dripping from the sides of his mouth and for the first time that morning she was thirsty.
Flipping the piece in hand she asked, “How do you know it’s not? You haven’t been on your planet for a long time.”
He spit out the chunk from his mouth before he answered. “This is not my planet. The star here is white. My home has a red one.”
That made sense. Most planets orbited red stars. And with that information, she bit into the chunk of tree and was amazed at how much liquid was inside. Then she sucked on it and it was even more.
Amazed she started to laugh.
Nem tilted his head as if he didn’t understand why she was laughing which of course made her laugh harder. And then she just lost her composure because she was stranded on a strange planet with a strange male, drinking from a strange tree– that looked like roots and there was a very good chance that this was her new normal.
Seth of Stars she was not really prepared for all of this.
It was midday and Pasha’s legs and back were tired from bending and crawling over the trees as they distanced themselves further and further from the ship. As she crossed over the second to the last branch she noticed it was lighter than normal. That’s when she noticed that there was no more beyond the branch. Nem noticed the same thing. Slowly they made their way to the opening and saw a large crack in the earth. The crack was dark as if someone took black foliage and covered the three-foot opening.
“Stay here,” Nem said.
“I don’t know if it’s safe for you to go down there.”
He turned towards her and made a sexy smirk. “One day, you will trust that I am number one predator.”
“I actually believe that,” she said smiling back and feeling a little tingle in her blood.
Nem faded to a shadow and moved closer to her. Then she felt something press against her lips.
She smiled even bigger and whispered, “Come back soon.”
Nem’s shadow form left her for the crack, and she settled back and rested against the root, scanning the area for anything that might pop up and attack her. Being on a new planet she wasn’t taking any chances.
Nem didn’t come back for a long time. Long enough that she was worried he died. She thought about going back to the ship, but no one would help her find Nem. She thought about going down, but if he was dead, she had no hope.
So she stayed hoping that Seth was being merciful.
When a dark shadow floated up from the crack she quickly stood up. “Nem?”
He solidified with a grin.
“Is it safe?”
“It is good.”
Before she could ask what that meant he took her face and pulled her into a kiss. Considering her unease, she pushed at his naked chest but less than ten seconds in she stopped pushing. Slipping a hand around his neck she opened her mouth, taking as much of his mouth into hers.
He picked her up and she felt her back hit a tree root. Nem didn’t stop and the flurries in her lady parts were more than happy about that.
But then he pulled back and said, “Your home is safe and good. I made sure to check the area. Nothing will hurt you. There are lots of crawlies to eat too.”
“Crawlies? As in bugs?”
He nodded. “Good food.”
“No,” she shook her head. “Not good. I don’t eat bugs.”
“You didn’t eat root until today. You try crawlies too.”
“No,” she pouted.
He gave her a pointed look. “Are you rejecting the home I made you?”
Not good. She didn’t want to live a life of bugs and root juice. She wanted a home with food that she could order and a Minky screen to watch her favorite videos. This was not what she wanted.
But it was this or fight for a spot on the ship. This far away she had no idea how to get back, not that she would try it without Nem.
Damn, this was not what she wanted.
“Come on, I will take you to your home.”
“You mean our home,” she said letting him lead her to the crack.
“I made a home for my mate. And if she likes it,” he turned and held her eyes when he added, “she will let me breed her.”
It was pitch dark.
Her home could be patched together with worm guts and she wouldn’t know. It was cooler in the darkness and she didn’t like that much. Nem took his time to walk her through every part of the home, but she didn’t get far before saying, “I can’t see anything.”
“It’s not that dark.”
“Yes, it is. I can’t see anything. I could be walking on bugs and no know it.”
“You would feel it and smell it.”
“No, I wouldn’t. I’m not like you,” she said getting more upset because she honestly didn’t like being in the dark room. “What if there are killer worms or dirt spiders in here.”
She felt him take her face and wrap his arms around her. His warmth and pressure felt good and she found herself wrapping her arms around his waist and holding him close. They held each other for several minutes before he said, “I will find more light for you.”
Nem moved her to a corner and then had her stay there. Then she heard several grunts and scrapes and the feel of dust fill her nose.
When it was all done, she saw a glimmer of light. It was on the other side of the room she was in and it didn’t glow from the ceiling, it was from the side.
She sensed rather than saw Nem near her. “Better?”
“Yes, thank you.”
“Do you want to stay in the room with light? Or do you want to walk the other rooms?”
“I want to stay here.”
“Okay,” he said, and she felt him sit next to her. A part of her wondered if he was going to try and kiss her again, to breed her, but he never did. He just sat with her.
It was uncomfortable at first. Mostly because she thought he was waiting for her to say or do something regarding the breeding. After a while he relaxed back, curled around her back, and used an arm to cover her lap as if he was locking himself to keep her safe.
She listened as his breathing slowed then after a time slightly rumbled.
Nem was sleeping.
For some crazy reason that actually pleased her. Her scary male, that had killed, feed her, and made an underground home was doing something so domesticated. It took her longer to get tired. Longer to get him to lose his hold. Once she laid next to him, their bodies fit together perfectly.
His warmth was more than enough for the chilly air, and even though the light had gone out, she didn’t worry. Especially when Nem moved her between him and the wall.
Always keeping her safe.
Always digging further into her heart.
Pasha wasn’t in the right mindset to think about matehood, but she also couldn’t imagine trusting anyone as much as she trusted Nem. He was not like the males on her planet.
He didn’t care about her job, her income, her family line, or how advanced her abilities were. Nem didn’t care that her hair was a little darker than others, nor did he have a long list of expectations for if they mated.
No, all Nem wanted was to keep her safe, provide for her wellbeing, make sure she was satisfied, and then when she was ready… blitz.
Pasha didn’t have an answer for why she had not mated him, but in the morning, she planned to think about that.
Nem however, didn’t wait for morning. His thumb skimmed back and forth against her stomach. She pushed out her chest and let her rear press against him. He groaned as if a pressure valve that was just opened. In one quick yank her clothes were gone, and he moved between her legs. It was a little early for that, but when he didn’t just push in she wondered what he was waiting for.
Nem began moving his mouth over her collar. It wasn’t exactly warming but then he moved down the v- of her chest and stopped to move to both of her breasts licking both but not sucking them into his mouth with his very sharp teeth. She could feel the humm of lust tingling over her skin and she soaked it in.
Nem rocked back to his knees, removed his clothes and then moved back between her legs. His hardness was impossible to miss. At her entrance, she exhaled as he began to push in. She was still far from ready but the fullness of him was a welcome feeling.
As he moved deeper she was amazed at how her entrace felt like it was getting even larger. She hissed when she thought she felt pain. He stopped and miraculously the pain ended as if he was no longer as full.
When he didn’t move she thought he was done or maybe he didn’t know what to do so she rocked her hips and used her legs to urge him on.
“Can you take more, my Pasha?”
She didn’t exactly know what more was until he was fully set inside and billowing inside her. It got to the point of pain again and she had to stop him. Just like last time he reduced his size. And again like last time she had to urge him to continue.
He pulled out and pushed back inside, and there was an unnatural rumble from his chest. If she wasn’t a Hetten she would have thought he was angry, but his pleasure was saturating the air along with his lust.
He moved slow until she urged him faster.
When faster wasn’t enough she urged him to harder.
Her pleasure began to twist in the way it did, her need for completion was getting bigger and wider and she was almost there. “Bigger. Fill me Nem. I want to feel all of you.”
He growled and inside she felt the change. It wasn’t painful, it was perfect. He was hitting right where he needed to be. She was there.
“NEM. YESSSSSssssssss.” Seth of Stars yes!
She wrapped her arms around his neck and pulled him down to kiss her.
Their kiss was chaotic but she didn’t care because the crest of her orgasm was breaking gall over her and she pushed that pleasure into him. Nem roared as he slammed home one more time and heat flooded her womb from his seed. His pleasure feed back into her and she held on to it, wanting the perfect circle.
Nem exhaled and put his head between her breast. He was breathing hard and she was too. That was a mating. No doubt about it.
She brushed his hair and then leaned up and kissed his head, pleased to have him, pleased that out of the hell she went through, Nem was her peace, her home, her unusual mate.
(Read what happens to Nem and Pasha in Captain of the Maw – Unusual Pirates Book 1)
Rannn was sitting on a bench outside Admiral Orin’s office. Back on Yunkin, it was suffocating with all the politics, the questions, and requests to visit family. He couldn’t wait until he was back on his ship.
But first, he had to talk to his cousin, Orin to get authorization to claim a doctor from the academy. A doctor that would graduate with high honors in a few hours. Time was ticking and he had things to do. It was taking a great deal of energy to keep from barging into the office and tell, whoever Orin was talking to – to get out.
Orin’s office door opened and out walked a green-scaled Bolark. Admiral Armsono’s eyes leveled on him. “Captain Rannn, I didn’t see your name on any court sessions today.”
“I’m not on trial today,” Rannn responded.
The Admiral gave him a small side glance before walking away. Once he was out of earshot, Rannn looked at his cousin., “we need to talk.”
Orin swatted the air, gesturing for Rannn to follow him back into his office.
“When you say we I expect to have a say in the topic, but I have a feeling you mean, you have to talk.”
Rannn took a seat in front of the large desk with a single Minky screen. On the other side of the desk was a medley of pictures of his family, vacations to the ice lakes, and a few of his children holding up fish they caught.
“It’s your lucky day because today you get to voice your opinion.”
Orin snorted, “What do you want?”
To the point, Rannn liked that about Orin. “I want the Numan.”
Orin’s eyes widened for a split second, then threw his head back and laughed deeply in his chest. Two seconds later he abruptly stopped and said, “You can’t have him.” The academy is hiring him as an instructor. They need him to teach what he knows and he will be re-writing the books, procedures – everything.”
“Who says he can’t update the procedures from a ship’s medical position?”
Orin sat forward putting a finger on the table, pressing down until the knuckles turned light grey. “The Numan has not only challenged our procedures, he’s created devices that heal. It’s so advanced we lost the first container., as in someone smuggled the healing tank straight out of the academy’s lab! It’s insane. He is not going to be allowed to leave the planet – not with all the valuable information he has in his head.”
“Exactly, he’s highly valued and he will be treated like a lab rat for the rest of his life. You know that and I know that.”
Orin sat up straighter. “He won’t…”
Rannn cut him off with a raise of an eyebrow. “He will and you know it.”
“We’re Yunkins, we wouldn’t treat anyone like that.”
Rannn shook his head. “I have it on good authority the Admirals over at the academy are keeping a close eye on everything the Numan does, where he goes, and who he can talk to.”
Orin frowned. “I’m sure that’s for everyone’s safety. He’s still a Numan. They are still a dangerous race.”
Orin was right it was for everyone’s safety – at first. But after years of being in the academy, they still were treating him like a hostile. Or at least, that was how Rannn’s mother described it. She was the one who asked him to rescue the doctor.
Orin shook his head, his eyes averted. “The Numan wouldn’t have the resources on your battleship, as he has here. We need him.”
Guarding the border between the Federation controlled space and the Outworlds was not for the weak-hearted. His ship had survived hundreds of ship-to-ship attacks. The ship was midsized and keeping good crewmembers was hard. If the Numan was dangerous they would be far enough away from any real civilization that he couldn’t hurt anyone. If the doctor was what Rannn’s mother said he was, being on an active ship was essential. The Numan would get first-hand experience with a diverse crew and impromptu dangers. Field experience was the best kind of knowledge.
But Rannn didn’t have time to explain it. He needed to get the Numan’s orders changed and he needed them done before the beginning of the Academy’s graduation. “My mother contacted me and asked me to help the Numan.” Lowering his head, but not his eyes, Rannn added, “She also said that she asked you the same thing.”
Orin ran a hand over his right brow and rubbed. “Admiral Armsono has already asked for the Numan to work on a project he’s overseeing., By the time your mother sent me the message I already said yes to him.”
Rannn snorted. “Don’t tell me you’re too afraid to contact Armsono and let him know things have changed.”
Orin kept his face neutral, but Rannn suspected he was right.
Rannn stood and used his knuckles to tap the desk. “What did your mom always say?”
Orin glared up at him.
“A petty officer is the heart of the Federation. A commanding officer is their support. A captain is their protector. Character and skills are improved when a person is challenged and valued, not when they are belittled and ignored.” Rannn knocked once. “My ship needs of a medical officer. The ones I had are gone.”
“How convenient,” Orin shot back.
Rannn flashed back on the last medical officers he had. Just thinking about them made his fists tighten. “The last medical officers were mistaken that a Krant’s lethargic and agitated symptoms were a space cold. You know what it ended up being?”
Orin made a noise in the back of his throat. One that suggested, regretfully he could guess.
When Rannn had found out about the mix-up, he broke his office desk by beating his fists on it. Rehearsing the situation brought back all those memories. “You and I know that Krants who work in the Federation are supposed to wear a hormone inhibiter at all times to keep them from digressing into their heat-season. His inhibitor was expired, no one checked. He was missing for two weeks, and his lead didn’t question it because they thought he was staying in his room recovering from his cold. For TWO WEEKS he held a female officer in his room, unable to leave, unable to contact anyone for help – and no one noticed.”
Orin cleared his throat. “I’m sorry. I didn’t know.”
“The Krant was a good crew member and I had to dishonorably discharge him because the medical staff didn’t do their job. I had to demote two leads for not checking on their crewmate and I had to transfer a female officer off of the ship to a medical trauma facility to deal with what happened.” Rannn took in a deep breath as he steeled his emotions. “If my mother is correct, and the Numan is well versed in all races, and their sickness, then I want him on my ship.”
His cousin took in a shaky breath before rubbing his temples. “I am sorry for what you had to go through, but that was an honest mistake.”
Lowering his voice, Rannn said, “You don’t get to say things like that to me. You didn’t see the female’s swollen red eyes because she had been crying nonstop for days. You didn’t see the crushed look on the Krants face and how he couldn’t lift his eyes from the ground. YOU DIDN’T get the report that the Krant committed suicide as he was being transported back to his planet.”
Orin’s head fell forward, “damn.”
Rannn had said more than damn when he found out. “Transfer the Numan to my ship. I’m attending the graduation with my mother. I will escort the new doctor to my ship that is orbit docked and waiting for me.”
Without looking Rannn in the eyes, Orin grabbed his Minky pad.
Rannn read the name of the Numan and took a good look at the student’s picture. The male looked young, thin with wavy brown hair. Next to his picture was the name, Ansel.
The stone graduation building was cold and the entry was wet from all the attendees as they stomped the snow from their boots. The halls usually were illuminated with modern lights, but during graduation, the Admirals liked to burn the heavy torches. The orange and red firelight gave the walkways a sense of wonder.
It was a tribute to their ancestors that sailed the icy oceans and traveled the bitter cold, conquering the planet, and bringing all Yunkins under one authority.
Rannn could feel his mother’s hand wrapped around his forearm as he escorted her to the second row – reserved for the teachers of the academy. As her personal guest, he sat next to her, watching the several hundred guests take their seats quietly in the auditorium.
“Were you able to get what I asked for?” his mother whispered out of the side of her mouth, but not turning her head.
“Of course, I did.”
“Good, good. He will be much better with you.”
Rannn wasn’t a hundred percent confident of that, mainly because he’d like to get his own impression of the Numan.
The Admiral that directed the school stood up and gave a speech about expectations and honor. After that, another Yunkin stood next to a large translucent Minky screen that showed a picture of the students, their name, and their duty station.
The class had hundreds of students like most years. But there was something missing from each student’s graduation sheet. Student ranking; a number based on academic achievement and grades.
“When did they stop ranking students?” he asked his mother.
“This would be the first year. We had a meeting the last week and the Admiral thought it was impossible to account for a proper ranking since not all students studied the same information.”
Or the Admiral didn’t want a Numan with the highest ranking since the academy had started.
Ansel’s name was called and all the small hushed conversations stopped. The Numan walked with his head lowered. When the announcer read off Ansel’s duty station, the male stopped mid-stride and regarded the screen, shocked.
The announcer cleared his throat and then muttered something about, that not being right, but glossed over it, handed Ansel his graduation coin, and waved him to the other side of the stage.
“Mother,” Rannn began, but she cut him off.
“I know, you need to go, but use the back exit,” she warned.
His mother knew him well. And if she was paying attention to Admiral Armsono who was sitting on stage, tapping his heel as if he couldn’t stand to be on stage for one more minute, she knew how important it was to get a head start.
Slowly slipping down the row he exited the back way, trotting down the side of the narrow hall in an effort to catch Ansel.
By the time he was in the great hall’s conference room, his breaths were coming in quick pants. Ansel was surrounded by three academy security guards, not letting him out.
Rannn slowed to a walk, held up his arm, and called, “Ansel.”
All four males turned.
“My name is Captain Rannn.”
When Ansel or the others didn’t seem to understand that importance, he elaborated, “I am the captain of Lowlett battleship.” AKA, your duty station. The guards were the first to move, keeping Ansel behind them.
Ansel remained still but his eyes darted between the three guards.
Rannn understood why the males were taking a defensive posture. They had not been given permission to allow the Numan out of their sight. With the quick change of the duty station, they were going to be even more suspicious.
When he stopped directly in front of them he pulled out his Minky pad, showed proof of his identity. He flipped the screen to the transfer orders signed by Admiral Orin. The orders had an addendum added, which Rannn pulled up after that.
“Now that you’ve been updated, I am taking responsibility for the Numan.”
The guards stepped back.
Ansel had not moved, and if Rannn was reading him correctly, the Numan didn’t trust him.
“I was told I would be staying on Yunkin. Why was my duty station changed?”
Rannn knew the three guards were curious too. It was impossible to lie, but explaining everything would break the confidence of his mother. So, he answered, “Because you’re the best, and my ship deserves it. I guard the border to the Outworlds, and we take a lot of hits. I need someone who can think on their feet, and keep my crew alive. Does that sound like something you want to sign up for?”
“You make it sound like I have a choice.”
The mild way Ansel spoke almost made it sound as if he wasn’t upset about the situation, but Rannn heard the words, even if the tone was casual. “You have a choice. You want to stay here and rot in a lab. I’ll get your orders changed. It may take a lot of explaining, but I can get it done.”
The Numan looked towards the exit and then at Rannn. “How securely will I be watched on your ship?”
Rannn understood why the doctor asked the question. And in a way, Rannn wanted to keep an eye on the male until he could be trusted, but that wasn’t how he ran his ship. “I have many personal rules for my crew. One of the important rules is that I have to be able to trust them to do their job – as they trust me to protect them.”
“That did not answer my question.”
Rannn reached down and pulled out a knife from his boot, turning the handle so the blade flicked in the firelight. “You see this, I will cut your heart out if you end up experimenting or hurting my crew. If you are what you say you are, then the next time you see this blade will be when I’m using it to defend you from an attacker. In other words, if you’re loyal to me, I’ll be loyal to you.”
Ansel looked at the blade then at Rannn. “You’re a… strange Yunkin, and I think, despite your threats, that I’d like to work for you.”
Pushing the blade back in his boot, Rannn said, “Good, because I didn’t want to have to explain to Orin that I made a mistake.” Using his chin, he jerked it toward the exit., “time to get your stuff and get the hell off this planet.”
Ansel snorted but didn’t make another sound as they left the stone building.
Rannn’s body swayed as the Whisk Traverse crawled down the mountain. Rannn was in the driver’s seat even though he was merely watching the navigation screen instead of actual driving.
There was a puddle of water under his boots and he was sure the seat under his thick layer of pants was damp as well. The Whisk’s heaters were on full blast. Anything less would let the subzero temperatures creep in.
The academy dorm rooms were at the base of the mountain. Pulling off the main road he asked, “Which section are you in?”
“350,” he repeated thinking about his time in the academy. Those students who lived in 350 when he went to school were the Kirca Demons that the Yunkins didn’t fully trust.
Taking the road to the back of the building he stopped and let the Whisk continue to run. Rannn got out with Ansel and followed him to the first room. As he stepped inside the automatic lights activated and Rannn stood in the cleanest student room he ever saw. The bed was made, the corners tightly folded. The floor was clean and polished. Nothing on the walls, or on the counter.
Ansel walked straight to the closet, pulled up a black duffle bag, and moved it to the floor, opened it up, and inside was folded academy uniforms, socks, undergarments, and undershirts all folded neatly in the case.
“You never unpacked?”
Ansel pulled up two shirts and set them aside before answering, “I didn’t see anywhere to unpack.”
Rannn scanned the room and realized the Numan was right. There was no nightstand, no desk, and no dresser. They gutted it leaving a bed, a chipped table, and a single chair that didn’t match.
Ansel reached under the bed and something clicked. Then he pulled out a disk the size of the graduation coin, but it was round and smooth. The top part was lighter than the bottom black part.
The Numan’s hiding place? “What’s that?”
Ansel stuffed the object in his case and put the shirts back on top. “A prototype.”
Ansel stood up and tilted the case so the wheels activated. “I call it a medscope. I made another one before, much bigger, but somehow it broke and had to go out for repairs. Not that anyone told me about it until after it was gone. It never showed back up. I was told someone stole it. I’m more careful with who knows about my designs now.”
Rannn didn’t like how the Numan kept secrets from the school; not that he didn’t understand – he did. Orin said something about one of the Numan’s projects disappearing.
But something bothered Rannn, and he needed to know the answer before taking Ansel on his ship. “Do you regret applying to the Federation academy?”
Ansel’s eyes turned away. “I’ve wanted to quit every day from the beginning.”
Not reassuring. “What made you stay?”
Ansel raked a hand through his hair. “Don’t take this the wrong way, but… your mom. She was my consulting doctor.”
“How would you know who my mother is?”
Ansel made face, “Because she has your picture all over her office, and whenever I picked something up quickly she always said, you’re smart – like my son, Rannn, he’s a captain now.”
It was almost amusing to hear his mother talk about him that way. His mother tended to talk to him like a boy, rather than an adult. At least behind his back, she spoke thoughtfully of him.
“I assume she is the reason I have been transferred to your ship.”
“She is,” he confirmed and then turned to the door.
Rannn led the way back to the Whisk and got in. Ansel pressed his hands on his thighs and announced, “I should warn you, there is a good chance your medical staff won’t like working with me.”
Rannn punched in the new destination into the navigations screen and pressed, confirmed. “I doubt it.”
“I’m not. Trust me, the second I step on your ship, the medical crew will try to get me to do things their way, which will be the wrong way, and we will argue and trust me when I say it will get ugly. I’ve fought with almost every teacher I had, and many failed me. The only reason I passed was because of a clause in the academy contract that states if a student fails, we can state our case to the governing Admiral. Each time I failed, I was able to prove my point and he overrode the grade – pissing off the students and the teacher. I’m telling you this to warn you of what will happen.”
Rannn didn’t know about that clause, probably because he didn’t need to use it. He wondered if it had always been there, or if they rewrote the academy contracts. Either way, he had to clear up Ansel’s misconception. “Currently you are the only medical staff my ship has.”
Because they had the time, Rannn rehearsed what happened between the Krant and the female officer. It wasn’t any easier to talk about, but he imagined that this was the last time he would ever tell this story. As he finished he added, the crew may have misgivings, but they will learn to adjust, especially when they see what you can do. And once we get them settled, we will hire support staff for you. Not transfer someone in that is above you.”
“I don’t work well with anyone who follows Federation medical standards. You will probably be uncomfortable where my science comes from and all the medical tools I will create. However, I vow I won’t do anything to hurt anyone. My Numan specialty is in healing.”
“Numan specialty? I’m not sure I understand what you’re saying.”
“Not all Numan’s are alike. Can we at least agree on that, right now?”
Rannn didn’t realize he held an entire race in that stereotype. Until right then he figured all Numans had the same medical interests and that they all worked in labs and experimented on people for sadistic purposes.
“I’ll agree to that,” he said at last.
“Thank you. But I’d like to explain what that means.”
Rannn pointed to the screen, where it read the estimated arrival time. “We have time.”
“Numan’s are higher functioning beings. We are like artistic geniuses. Except we don’t all have the same style of art or to better put it, the same interests.”
“And your interest is in healing people?” Rannn asked.
At Ansel’s nod, Rannn followed up his first question with, and how long have you been healing people before you showed up to the academy?”
“From the beginning, and before you ask who I was healing I will be honest with you. My mother was one of those Numans that you hear about. I also need you to know, I never talk about it. So don’t ask. But just know that I have an undeniable need to keep people from suffering.”
Rannn took a long breath to steady himself. The Numan next to him was raised by the sadistic bastards that tortured people. Knowing that didn’t leave a good feeling in his gut. Did Ansel take part in that torture? Was he the Numan who healed the being after his mother ripped them apart? Thinking of the latter, Rannn wondered if that left the Numan more than emotionally stunted. What if the male was also mentally unstable?
Of course, anyone could look sane for a while, but Rannn was going to have to keep an eye out for any eventuality.
“You told me, you had to trust your crew to do their job,” Ansel said as he turned, leveling his light brown eyes at him. “Can I trust you, to not interfere with me doing my job?”
Using his words against him, Clever Numan.
“I doubt you trust me, and you know I have a good reason not to trust you. If this is going to work, we are going to have to blindly trust right now.”
“You know what I find interesting? Is that you speak of blind trust instead of hammering in the concept that if we both act honorably, then we won’t have any issues.”
Rannn lifted a lip, “My father was an Admiral and my mother is a medical officer. One thing I learned growing up is, honor is interpreted differently from person to person.”
Ansel nodded, “I agree. Although I will be honest, I didn’t think any Yunkin realized that.”
Tilting his head, Rannn said, “Not all Yunkins are the same.”
And just like that, the Numan’s stoic expression cracked. His smile was genuine enough that it reached his eyes.
“I think, I’m going to like working for you.”
Admiral Armsono was waiting for him inside his ship. Rannn and Ansel had just crossed from the ramp to the cargo bay when the green-scaled male stood with his feet apart, and arms crossed, on either side of him stood two Yunkin security guards.
Behind them stood Yon, a sour, indomitable, and insufferable pilot, that took his job and his title too seriously. Rannn believed it was because the Yunkin had been exiled after divorcing his wife.
The pilot kept his position in the Federation, but it was made clear he would never advance any further.
The council admirals thought Yon’s actions were dishonorable. That divorcing was a heathen practice. Rannn, who was married, believed otherwise. He’d never say the words out loud, but he wished he had the audacity to do the same to his wife. A wife who didn’t care about him at all. A wife who only married him to gain recognition of being a captain’s wife. And of course, she liked to make comments about being an admiral’s wife one day.
Rannn left those thoughts to the past when he noticed Ansel slowed. Not stopping, but drawing out the space between them.
As captain, he couldn’t afford to look weak. “Admiral Armsono, my ship is locking down and preparing to return to the border. I know you want the Numan, but the transfer has been approved.”
“He belongs in a lab,” the Bolark snapped. “His science needs to be tested, his methods have yet to be proven viable. You take him out to the far reaches of the universe and you can be sure, that male will experiment on your crew. Every professor has said the same thing about him–that he does not follow the rules. Every medical student must learn the rules before they can conduct proper studies to advance the science community.”
“I respectfully disagree.”
Armsono’s green face lightened with anger. “What is wrong with you? I just explained how dangerous he is? As a captain, you are honor-bound to protect each person on this ship. To allow the Numan aboard is a mistake. Do the right thing and reject the transfer.”
Rannn kept his eyes on the Bolark, but he saw a flash of red in his periphery. Without having to look, he knew it was the Red Demon, Pax.
His Minky pad pinged in his pocket and he knew without checking it was his second in command, checking to see where he was.
It was time to shut this down and get the admiral off his ship. Without picking him up and tossing him out which, he wanted to do.
“Admiral, I’m not going to reject the transfer, and I will not change my mind. The Numan and I have an understanding, if he hurts the crew, I hurt him. It’s simple. Now, please leave my ship, I’m already past my assigned take-off time.”
Armsono took a step forward. “I’m not leaving without the Numan.”
Rannn closed the gap and whispered, “Unless he’s under arrest, you can’t take him. And he’s done nothing wrong in the past hour from his graduation, so I’d say… you are leaving without him.”
“I don’t know what’s motivating you to do this, but I know it’s not honor. And the moment that psychopath hurts your crew it won’t just be him who gets discharged. I will make sure everyone knows I warned you about this, and you rejected my wisdom.”
Rannn bit back his response about Armsono being wise. Instead, he lifted his head and announced, “Time to go. Pax, escort our guests off the ship.”
Pax was at the admiral’s side, hand held toward the ramp, waiting for the Bolark to follow. When the admiral didn’t move, Rannn gave him a warning glare.
With reluctance, he left.
Rannn pulled out his Minky and called his second in command. “As soon as the ramp is up, take off.”
Slipping the Minky back in his pocket he called over to Yon who hadn’t left. Rannn intended to ask Yon if he had something he wanted to say when Ansel made a noise in his throat.
“Huh… a half breed.”
Yon’s confident expression evaporated as his eyes darted to Ansel. “What did you say to me?”
Rannn was looking down at the doctor too. “Half breed?”
Ansel looked at Yon and then at Rannn as if he was looking at children. “He’s got Red Demon traits in his bone structure. What other Yunkin have you meet that has that curl in his shoulders and height. And his nose is flatter. Really, you didn’t know?”
Yon’s hand struck out and grabbed the Numan’s uniform jacket. Pulling him off the ground. “Shut your mouth.”
Rannn thrust his hand between the two. “Let him go.” And when the pilot didn’t, Rannn yanked the doctor out of the grip and stood face to face–mostly, Yon did have a few inches on him. “Calm down.”
Yon’s jaw clenched.
Rannn was still processing what he heard. After all this time, he had no idea the male was part Red Demon. How he kept it a secret was beyond Rannn’s thought process at the moment. What he understood was how other Yunkins would view it.
A half breed.
Mixed blood was not something anyone should care about, but many would. Yon must have figured that out and made it so no one knew. Or if they did, Yon found a way to silence them.
As captain, he wasn’t supposed to have biases… and for the most part, he didn’t.
Yon, should have known that, maybe he needed a reminder. “You kept it a secret for a reason. I’ll make sure it stays that way.”
Yon’s voice was harsh when he rumbled. “Make sure.”
Ansel cleared his throat. “I’m sorry.”
“Alright, what did I miss?” Pax said stopping next to the Numan. “Yon… you look more pissed off than usual? I need to know what happened so I can duplicate it.”
Rannn stepped back and looked at the Red Demon and saw the curved shoulders and flattened nose that Ansel was talking about. It was plain to see, now that he knew what he was looking at. Odd no one else noticed.
Grabbing Ansel by the shoulder he announced, “This is our new doctor. His name is Ansel.”
“And he’s a Numan, who according to a nasty green-scaled Bolark, is going to experiment and kill us,” remarked Pax.
“Hurt me or my crew and I’ll rip your head off,” Yon threatened, then amended his threat, “but feel free to poison the Red Demon. I won’t tell anyone.”
Pax grabbed his chest, “Ouch.”
“Shut up both of you,” Rannn pushed Ansel’s shoulder forward. “I’m taking him to Medical. You two get back to work.”
“My work is to guard the crew so I’ll escort you, captain,” Pax said with a sly smile.
Yon mumbled something about being a nip before walking off.
In the medical bay, Rannn and Pax stayed by the door as the Numan familiarized himself with the setup.
“Once we get settled, you can talk to logistics about hiring support staff.”
“I don’t need support staff,” said the Numan as he browsed through a drawer.
“Ships run three shifts that total thirty-six hours. You can’t be on call, all the time. So you’ll get staff.”
Ansel stopped and glanced at him. “I’m aware of Federation shifts. But you don’t understand, I’m not like you. I am a Numan, we don’t get brain fatigue. I work all shifts. I will live here, I will turn one of the operating rooms into my personal room where I can change clothes and shower, but other than that, I don’t need hours to rest.”
“No one could sustain that schedule,” Pax said standing next to him.
Ansel went back to searching the drawer when he said, “The professors at the academy couldn’t trust my logic because they had seen proof that their science was sound. It wasn’t until I could prove that my way also was true that they started to gang up against me. Because no one wants to be wrong, and even more, no one wants to have their truths shattered.” The Numan glanced up, this is the first truth I will shatter for you. It’s up to you to decide how you take it.”
Rannn on the other hand had to confront the candidness of the Numans words. Rannn was a thousand percent sure no one could work all three shifts. But if he put his foot down, he would be acting like the professors. And his mother trusted that he would protect Ansel and let him thrive.
“Fine,” he said reluctantly. “But if you crash out, I’m leaving you where you fall.”
Ansel’s lip twitched.
Then something else crossed Rannn’s consciousness. “The first time you misdiagnose a crew member, I’ll consider that a sign of fatigue.”
Ansel shut the drawer and took on a tone of contempt. “Fatigue is a disruption of proper systematic execution of conscious decisions. Symptoms include reduced mental and mechanical executions. For example, Terrans suffer headaches, dizziness, weakness, a reduced immune system, blurry vision, poor concentration, and extreme hallucinations. Yunkins, suffer reduced empathy, appetite loss, bellows of rage, and increased aggression and sexual desires.”
Rannn had suffered those when he pushed himself during battles. Mostly his appetite disappeared and aggression with people that were acting stupid.
Ansel continued, “Numans have superior mental abilities because our bodies can withstand longer intense activity with shorter rest periods. Your circadian rhythm is thirty-six hours. Mine is one hundred and four hours. And even then, I only need thirty-minutes of rest. So I will agree to your terms because I don’t misdiagnose.”
Rannn didn’t have a response so he kept silent.
“You forgot to mention how Demon’s look when fatigued,” Pax said.
Ansel’s lip twitched again. “You mean Kircas.”
“We like the term Demon. It sounds scarier.”
Ansel lifted his head and lowered it slowly as if he was willing to concede the name. “Demons will become reclusive when stressed.”
“Hate to burst your all-knowing bubble, but that’s not true. I’ve been stressed and I never found a corner to hide in.”
Ansel tilted his head. “Demons for the lack of a better word are thick-headed. Your culture is harsh, which makes full-grown Demons mentally, physically, and emotionally daunting. I doubt you’ve ever been fatigued.”
Pax looked over at him and grinned. “What he means is that I’m pretty much a perfect specimen.”
Rannn rolled his eyes but also thought the assessment was on point. Out of all his crew members, he could depend on the Demons to not freak out during an attack. Interesting, it took the Numan to point out something so obvious.
“I like him. Especially knowing he pissed off Yon in a matter of seconds. You gotta tell me what he said.”
“No,” Rannn said to Pax and then peered over at Ansel. “Let me know if you need anything.”
Ansel nodded, but Rannn doubted he would ever need anything. Rannn was going to give him a week to settle in then he would come down and check in on the doctor. And he would continue to do so because Rannn cared about his crew. He doubted anyone was going to befriend the male. And everyone – regardless of race, needed someone to care about them.
Below is an interview, written in second person to give the interview an intimate feel.
You’ve read about him in the Federation archives. At a hundred and twenty years old, he’s the youngest most distinguished Yunkin, with a promising career. You looked at his picture more times than necessary. Piercing blue eyes, pale white skin with icy white hair. His Federation photo had not been updated to show his scar, but even if it did, it wouldn’t take away how striking he was. Something about his picture, no, his eyes kept bringing you back. Something that implied, he’s not what he appears to be. Of course that’s why you suggested the interview, but you never thought you’d be right here, with him.
He stays seated and greets you with a silver mug filled with dark coffee. This is the first interview of your career where a backup audio technician didn’t come. Trying to smile, but feeling nervous you take the mug with two hands so you don’t do something embarrassing like drop it.
You sit adjacent and try to pull your thoughts together. This is your job, you know how to do this. Taking a sip you taste the bitter drink and swallow it down. Black. No sugar or creamer. Nasty.
“Thank you,” you say.
Rannn takes another drink. “You don’t like it?”
“Black’s not my favorite, but it’s not as bitter as coffee usually is, did you brew this or get it made?”
“I made it,” he said without elaboration on what planet he bought it from.
“How do you take your coffee?” you asked stretching your neck to see inside his cup.
“The same way I made yours.”
Nodding you try and think of something casual to talk about. Something to get him talking freely without short and clipped answers. “Can you cook? If so, what is your best dish?”
He looks away and shrugs. “I’ve been with the Federation for over fifty years. I don’t cook, but I can warm up a bag of food like the best of them.”
“Over fifty years,” you repeat respectfully, “You must like being a part of the Federation. What’s your favorite part of the job?”
Rannn sets the mug on his knee. “Doing what needs to be done.”
That’s it? You’re a little disappointed in that answer. Probing forward you ask, “What’s your favorite time on the ship?”
“Any of them.”
His eyes wander for a moment before answering, “I don’t think I’ve had a favorite time on any of my ships because there is always a mission, there’s always someone in trouble, or dying. But for a few hours after a mission, I drink with my W&T Commander. He’s good company, and he usually supplies the drinks.”
You knew about his crew. Enough that you were sure who he was talking about. “You drink with Pax after your missions.”
He looked over and gave a nod.
“What made you pick this path out of all the others?”
Rannn looked away, and you thought you saw a slight eye roll. “It’s what Yunkins do. We join the Federation, we get married, we have a family, and the process starts all over again.”
There was enough sarcasm in his tone to make you wonder if being in the Federation wasn’t his dream. But you decided not to press that topic. Instead, you wanted to address marriage. Rannn was married, but now he was a widow.
No one knew why he hadn’t taken another wife, and there were plenty of females interested, but as far as you had found out – Rannn never responded to any message that asked about getting married again.
Pushing a little out of your comfort zone you asked boldly, “How would you describe your type of woman? Or better yet, what attracts you the most?”
“Bloody Seth…” he said shaking his head. He didn’t answer right away. In fact, he scratched his brow and even grunted. “I won’t be accepting any wedding offers if that’s where this is going.”
“Nope,” you cut in quickly. “I’m just curious.”
“Right,” he said mockingly. “I’m not sure what you want me to say. I like all kinds of females. Tall, short, thin, or thick, they can be anything so long as they are levelheaded. Since I have no interest in getting married, I don’t care much about looks, I just want to make sure that if I blitz them, they won’t try to pull me into a love trap.”
“How do you maintain the distance between being a friend to some crew members and being the captain of the ship?”
Rannn’s snort turned into a chuckle. “I don’t know if I do. I’d like to think I treat everyone the same.”
“Are you happy being the captain on Garna or would you exchange it for a small ship -with a small crew that you know and can depend on- to go out and explore new worlds?”
Rannn looked over and this time you noticed he was really looking. Not in a sexual way, but in a way that said, how clever are you?
“In the Federation, I get told where I go. There’s no point in fantasizing about another crew or ship.”
A polite answer, but not one that said what he wanted to say. Interesting.
“If you could be any other race, what would you be?”
He frowned. “I’ll always be Yunkin. Even if a Numan took me and stuck my brain in a Grach’s body. I’d still be who I am.”
A man with Honor, you said to yourself. And in the last few minutes, you heartedly agreed.
“What do you do for entertainment, other than drinking?”
Rannn picked up his coffee and took a sip. His voice was low and you almost didn’t hear it when he said, “I read.”
“What do you read?”
He nodded his head one way then the other. “Whatever looks good.”
Good Seth of Stars, he was the worst interviewer. “Okay, then what weapon do you prefer in close combat, or do you rather fight with your fists?”
“In a fight, you don’t worry about your preference. You use whatever it takes to stay alive.” His tone was dark and omniscient. You knew he had a blank spot in his record for about seven months. During that time, he had been a fighting slave on the Angny planet. It was a brutal time where most of his crew died.
Letting that topic die, you ask, “What is it you’d like to do, but can’t in your current position as a captain?”
“If you are asking if I want to be an Admiral one day, the answer is no.”
That wasn’t what you were asking but understood what he was saying. Captain Rannn wasn’t ever going to take another position. Or at least not anytime soon.
Checking the time you had about three minutes left. You set the coffee down on the large wooden stump. “Well, my time’s about up, so I guess my last question is, what is your goal in life? What do you expect to do to get there?”
He let out a long breath and peered over at the icy river. One moment passed and then another. Rannn set his empty mug down on the stump and stood up.
You followed wondering if he wasn’t going to answer you. Then just before you were about to say goodbye, he said, “My goal is to die an old father. And I have no idea how I’m going to get there.”
Amee checked the time on her Minky watch as the androids continued to unload the shipment from her ship. Small rolling bodies with long pincher arms moved faster than the usual dock workers.
The hotel must have got an upgrade.
Her dark bronzed tug swayed hard against the dock as a baby wave hit at the right moment. Her stomach didn’t lurch or even notice the jerk. She was a Dirth – a descendant of the native people.
Her small feet and ankles adjusted easily to the constant sway of the ocean. It was normal and comforting to be in motion. The two times she ventured to land to meet with potential buyers, made her sick. The ground was hard and unyielding and she decided she didn’t really need the wobblers money after all.
When the androids finished removing the fresh fish and ocean fruit, they sent a transmission to her Minky alerting her that the order was complete.
Amee hit the hatch button and the top cover slid over the ship, sealing her in. She took the stairs to the lower levels heading for the bridge. There she used the electronic screen to depressurize. The ship sank further under the waterline. Welcoming her home with ease.
As soon as she was deep enough Amee took the hand controls and directed the rig to her next destination.
It was a free-floating platform that was a mile in diameter. The Dirths that lived on the platform lived in small spheres underneath. The tents they erected every morning were colorful and usually adorned with strings of pearls, coral and shiny stones. They vendors sold ocean fruit, fish medicine, and all the oceanic items a water living person would need.
Amee was late to the market, and the underwater dock was full. She found a spot on the top deck near the landing pads.
Just as she opened her hatch she heard the high pitch whine of a flying ship. Peering over her shoulder the long-nosed craft settled on a landing pad nearby. She rolled her eyes, not understanding why anyone would want to live in the air. It made no sense.
Stepping from her tug, on to the dock, she secured it with two-inch thick rope and then headed for the main walkway. At the intersection between the ship docks and landing pads she neared, two males. They came from the air ship.
Both males were tall, but one caught her eye. Not because he was a friend but because something about him was… different in a way she couldn’t understand visually, but her instincts told her so.
He looked like the kind of guy who would sink faster than an anchor. Dense with wide shoulders and thick muscled extremities. There was also a strange scent in the air and without knowing, she knew it was him.
Even more curious was the fact he had stopped to stare at her.
It took a moment to realize she had stopped first, and he was responding to Amee’s unusual reaction.
Shaking her head, she turned her attention back to the market, and sped up to make sure she drew out the distance between the stranger. Amee should have been embarrassed, he was probably a wobbler, or worse, someone from another planet. She didn’t associate with others unless it was for business.
But there was something about him.
Amee used the first tent to stop and glance back without being too noticeable. The male wasn’t light on his feet, and she caught the uneasy steps of being on moving ground.
Snorting at his absent sea legs, she turned back to the owner of the tent who was giving her a tilted glance. “What’s caught you eye, Amee?”
“It amuses me to see wobblers walk on the planks. They look so uncomfortable.” It was a non-answer, but true enough.
The woman, Hesel, nodded like a patient old parent that knew her child was trying to hide something. Hesel’s withered fingers wriggled in the air, slowly descending to a newly made batch of necklaces. One finger pointed, to a black pearl and coral necklace. “This one, is calling for you.”
Amee looked over the long string of abnormal shaped dark pearls and chunks of coral. It was a pretty but it wasn’t calling to her. She would have felt the pull.
The stranger and his companion stepped up beside her. She could feel the weight of him from the give of the planks under their feet. Her insides sparked in delight at his nearness. She inhaled slowly, filling her lungs, taking in the surrounding scent of him. It was a mixture of morning after a rainstorm and bokah wood.
She had no idea how a wobbler would smell so good, but she wasn’t going to complain.
“Hello wobbler. How can I help you?” said Hesel with a warm sun-tanned face. “Something special caught your eye? Or are you looking to give a special someone a rare gift?”
Amee tried to keep her expression still but she couldn’t help the small smirk. She should have walked away, to give him privacy with his purchase. But she couldn’t, not yet, Amee wondered if Hesel could find out what drew the man here.
Hesel was old, older than she looked and she had an annoying habit of knowing things that would happen, before they did. Or at least, that’s what Amee was told.
“Wobbler?” the stranger asked.
“It’s what we call those who wobble when they walk on water,” explained the woman.
“And what do you call those who aren’t wobblers?”
The woman cut her eyes to Amee before answering. “There are some wobblers that leave the land to sing with the sea. We call them harpins.”
“Are you a harpin?” he asked casually, but Amee was sure there was something underneath the question.
The woman touched her delicate handmade jewelry, tapping the tops as if she was thinking about the answer. “I’ve known the sea a long time, if I ever was, I have forgotten.”
The male moved his stance as a medium sized wave lifted them up several inches. When the planks were even he said, “Memories are a fragile thing. I understand.”
He turned to leave, and the woman called out, “Wait, before you leave. I wonder, if you can tell me which necklace would look best on my friend?”
Amee made a sound at the back of her throat warning the female Dirth. Giving gifts was a dangerous thing. It wasn’t done, because once you gave a gift, the person who received would have to repay. No matter what.
Hesel smiled at the male, ignoring her warning. Amee wasn’t the type to let things go, so she decided to put a stop to it. Looking into the male’s eyes that were peering down at her she said sternly, “Don’t.”
His eyebrows pulled together. “Is there…
Hesel cut him off. “She’s stubborn. Forget what I asked. Are there any you like most? I will give you a good deal for it.”
He scanned the items, reached down and picked up the black pearl and coral necklace. “This one.” Pulling out a few coins he dropped them on the table. More than what the necklace was worth, Amee was sure. Then he said took her hand and dropped the necklace in her palm. Leaving the gift in her possession.
“This one will look best on you,” his voice was choppy, as if he was uncomfortable and yet determined.
Her heart sunk or maybe it was her jaw.
The horrible sneaky woman sucked in a breath, but Amee caught the smile.
“You don’t like it?” he asked letting go of her hand.
Closing her fingers over the gift she looked up to the male, dreading the responsibility in having to explain the consequences of his actions. But there was something in his eyes…a knowing.
Wait… did the know what he did? The twitch of his lips said so.
“What do you want?”
His expression never changed, but Amee was sure she saw his eyes lighten with victory.
Amee shoved her necklace in her pocket already possessive of the dark and beautiful thing. It was long enough to fit around her neck twice just like her old necklace she wore for two years. The string thinned and during a dive she lost it.
Foolishly she had wanted to replace it with something identical to it. But the black necklace would be better because it wasn’t a replacement, it was new. It was going to look great against her bronzed skin and she couldn’t wait to wear it.
Unfortunately, she didn’t want them to know she liked it so it would stay in her pocket.
The gift was good and she would repay as best she could. “A map to where?”
“I’ll explain on my ship.”
Amee hoped the stranger wasn’t going to ask her for a map to the underwater cities. There were five that she knew of, on this side of the sea. “Even if I drew you a map of the Dirth cities, you wouldn’t be able to make it. Let alone get in. Pick something else wobbler.”
“It’s Calo,” he said firmly, “And I didn’t say I wanted you to draw me a map of the Dirth cities.”
So just one? She guessed.
“Don’t ask my Amee for a gift, she can’t give,” said Hesel watching them with a predatory gaze.
Calo, didn’t respond to the old woman, he kept his eyes on her. “Amee?” He spoke her name as if he was testing to see if he liked it. Or maybe it was her, who was deciding if she liked her name in his mouth. “I won’t ask, what you can’t give. But you need to come back to my ship and I’ll explain.”
Why was he being so secretive? And how did he know she could give him the map he wanted?
And why was she staring at his mouth when he talked?
Looking away she looked over the vastness and centered her thoughts. “All my maps are in my navigation system. Going to your ship would be a waste of time.”
“Fine, we can talk on your boat.”
Amee looked back at him nodded in her agreement then said, “But first I have something I need. I will meet you back here in a bit.”
Turning from Hesel’s tent she walked down the planks of the floating market. From the sway of the boards she knew Calo was following her. Maybe he was afraid she wouldn’t honor the gift she owed him. It was rude of him to think so.
Amee stopped at a tent with a small pile of tools. She scanned the items looking for the specific instrument she needed.
“What are you looking for?” he asked.
“What kind of tool?”
Looking up at him she saw the underlining impatience. “It’s a tool that we use underwater, not in the air. So, I doubt you’d know it.”
An eyebrow rose. “Try me.”
The owner, of the tent looked between the two rubbing his hands. “Wobbler, hello, hello. Looking for something in particular?”
Calo broke their connection to answer the man, and Amee used that as an exit.
Amee stopped minutes later, when she thought she spotted one, but at a second glance it wasn’t.
She found a stinger in a scavenger tent. She made a sound of interest to alert the owner. Sometimes Dirth’s made noises rather than used words. The owner she knew was not from her side of the ocean, so his return noise was higher pitched than her low one.
Grabbing the stinger she inspected it, looking to see if it would still work. She couldn’t ask outright because it would be rude. A person bought item as is, not to make sure it was in perfect working order.
Deciding to keep it she caught the male’s eyes and gave one huff.
He held up three fingers.
Amee didn’t move and didn’t give back the item. Her silence would let him know she didn’t like the offer.
Frowning he held up two fingers.
Amee reached in her pocket to get the two coins when Calo leaned over and laid down three coins.
The old Dirth looked up with a toothy smile. “Very good, wobby.” The male picked up the coins and backed up, as if he was afraid Calo would realize he paid too much.
Her skin tightened with anger. “What is wrong with you? You already have a gift. Demanding gifts, will give you bad luck.”
“I know what that stinger is worth, and I think the man deserved more than two gold keleps.”
Amee didn’t know if he was being truthful or not. But she did know that she had to put a stop to the gifts.
Dirth’s didn’t go around telling of their culture secrets, but there were some who knew about it. What she was certain Calo didn’t know was that giving three gifts in one day was a sign of intention.
A sign that you wanted to mate. If the female accepted the gifts, then she showed that she accepted the matehood.
Pointing at his chest she said, “Turn around. We’ll go back to my ship and talk. But no more gifts, wobbler.”
The male didn’t turn, he lowered his voice when he said, “It’s Calo.”
“Calo,” she said back letting him know she understood he didn’t want to be called a wobbler.
Calo’s tone didn’t soften as he said, “It’s going to be a long talk, we have two gifts to go over. We’ll talk in my ship and then you can show me the maps on yours.”
“I’m not getting in a flying ship.”
He tilted his head held up thee more coins, silently threatening more gifts.
She grabbed his hand to cover the coins, “No more gifts, Calo.” To her surprise she didn’t take her hand from his. Holding him she watched and waited for him to agree to her terms. To agree that he wouldn’t buy her anything else.
There were on a Dirth market, and if they witnessed his actions she would be expected to accept him. Even if he wasn’t giving gifts to mate, but to get her favors.
Calo was the first to move and return the coins to his black utility vest. “We’ll talk on your boat, but if we need to go to mine. We do that.”
“If I get on your ship, I’ll throw up. I can’t handle flying ship.”
Calo’s eyes flashed for a second before saying, “You get sick being in spaceships?”
“They are unnaturally still.”
The side of his lips twisted up. He was laughing at her.
Amee refused to let a wobbler laugh at her. Her condition was natural or at least she knew her mother had suffered from the same thing.
When the next wave rolled them high, she decided to teach Calo, a lesson. She leaned into the fall knowing he would wobble. If she timed it right, he would fall overboard.
On cue she stomped the wood boards as they swayed back down.
Calo raised his arms, jerked once and then proceeded to fall. She watched and then the other male cursed and proceeded to take off his boots.
She was about to ask what he was doing when she realized Calo was not swimming. He was sinking.
Bad luck to let someone drown. If he died, she would carry his ghost as a curse.
Amee dove in, eyes wide as she kicked her powerful legs. Calo was sinking fast, not even trying to swim, he was messing with his stupid vest.
When she got closer he looked up and stopped moving all together.
Pushing her legs, she kicked faster to catch up.
She grabbed the vest and pulled. Kicking her legs she thought she was swimming up, but she wasn’t. The water was still getting darker.
He was too heavy.
Turning back she looked him over and then wrapped her legs around his waist to keep them connected while she check out his bulky looking vest. There was something inside… coins. Way too many coins.
She reached to her boot and pulled out her diving knife and cut the thing off. They stopped sinking, but checking the light from the surface she knew he was too far from the surface.
Amee touched her mouth with her fingers twice and then tapped his. She hoped he wasn’t too dumb to understand that she would give him her extra air.
He shook his head and pointed to the surface.
He didn’t want her air? Did he want to suffer?
Unwrapping her legs she started to kick again. Pulling him with all her might. As Dirth she was a natural swimmer. She also had bigger lungs. Transferring oxygen wasn’t uncommon and she knew he had to know that.
By the time they were almost to the top Calo struggled to swim next to her.
She could see the pain in his eyes. He needed air.
Without asking, she covered his mouth and gave him what he needed. He grabbed her arms and squeezed. She could have sworn he was going to push her way, but another moment later he pulled her close and took her gift.
When her lungs were empty she pulled back and then pointed up. He didn’t look happy, but he was going to have to get over it.
They broke the surface a moment later and Amee took a deep breath with a smile. The dive invigorated her senses. She almost felt light leaning back and spending the day floating. But then it hit her – she gave him air.
Oh, he wasn’t going to like that. Amee smiled bigger as Calo swam over hand to the plank.
“You okay, Calo?” his pale friend asked reaching out.
Calo turned right then and she saw his disappointment. He knew she gave him a gift.
Shrugging she said, “Opps.”
His face hardened, as he reached back, grabbed her upper arm and pulled her to the planks. “Opps? You think it’s funny?”
“My gift cancels out one of yours.”
The friend pulled her as Calo pushed her and she had never felt so helpless and amused in her life. She was a Dirth. She had been getting in and out of the ocean – by herself – for years.
But it didn’t hurt to let them. When she was sitting she told the friend, “Thanks.”
Calo pulled himself up… expertly. Which was strange considering he wasn’t swimming when he fell in.
Wait…something wasn’t right.
“You were down there for a while,” the friend said.
Calo reached down, pulled her up and then kept his hand on her upper arm. “The vest was heavier than I thought it was. Amee cut it off and then kissed me to give me air…the idiot.”
Narrowing her eyes, she said, “Excuse me? I saved your life and I’m the idiot?”
“I’m a Grach, you can’t kiss me.”
“I did not kiss you. I gave you air.”
“Same thing,” he snapped back.
“No, it’s not, you ungrateful…” and she let the word wobbler stay unsaid.
Calo’s nostrils flared and she could tell he was holding back words. When he did speak again it was soft, but the stiffness in his body made the words colder. “You don’t get it. You didn’t save me. You doomed yourself to an addiction that will never go away.”
Amee didn’t believe him. A lifetime addiction? Not likely.
Calo scanned her eyes. “Yeah, your pupils are dilated. Not too bad though.” He looked down at her hand and then told his friend something too low for her to hear. A moment later the friend left and Calo turned back to her saying, “I have some pills that will help with the withdrawal, but you have a nasty week ahead of you.”
She wanted to roll her eyes, but he spoke sincerely. It would be rude to say he was crazy. “Okay, thanks for telling me.”
“You don’t believe me, but you will.”
She nodded, albeit a little patronizing.
“Wobbler?” called Hesel rushing down the way, “What happened?” The old woman was tinkling as she walked. Beads hung from her neck, wrist and even on her clothes. Amee grumbled to herself at how worried Hesel was acting. It wasn’t like Amee would drown.
“You fell in?”
Amee was so stunned she couldn’t speak. Did the old woman really ask if she fell in? As if she was a child?
“I fell,” Calo said. “She came in after me…” he stopped talking when Hesel moved in closer, eyeing Amee with a frown.
Amee wanted to slap the woman’s hand from touching her face, as if she was looking for signs of distress.
“I’m fine,” Amee said a little grumpier than she intended.
Hesel looked up to Calo. “What happened to her? She’s never like this.”
Who was Hesel to say that? She didn’t know her.
“My vest was too heavy and took us down pretty far. On the way up she,” Calo pointed to his mouth, “gave me air. The thing is, I’m a Grach, which means my skin, my mouth – everything is addictive. She got a little of my gramones. Not enough to last, hence the reasons she’s getting cranky. Soon she will feel the full effects of the withdrawals.”
Hesel looked him over and then at his hand on her upper arm. “If your touch is addictive, why are you holding her arm?”
Calo looked at his hand as if he too wondered why he was holding her. “It’s best if I walk her back to the ship.”
“My ship,” she said.
He gave her a look that said, yes, I know.
“I’ve never heard of a person having this ability,” Hesel said. “But I know that she’s repaid her debt to you by giving you the sacred gift of air.”
“He bought me a stinger,” she said.
Hesel’s eyes widened. “A second gift.”
“Not a third gift though, I told him no more gifts,” Amee said to make sure the old woman knew that it wouldn’t go that far.
Hesel nodded understanding.
Amee pointed to the docks and the direction of her tug. “Let’s go get this over with.”
Hesel was blocking the way. The old woman turned and led the way back to the entrance. Every few steps she would turn back and look at Calo and his grip on Amee’s arm.
The walk didn’t take long. They reached the intersection and Calo stopped as his friend walked up. “Thank you, Sem,” he told his friend taking a box. Then he pushed it in her hands. “An extra stinger for the one you lost coming to save me.”
“Oh,” she said taking the box and then saw Hesel’s face fall forward with a loud exhale.
Wait… “No!” Amee yelled violently dropping the box as if it burned her.
“Three gifts, Amee,” Hesel said solemnly.
“No!” Amee said, grabbing Calo’s shirt. “Take them back or we…
Hesel cut her off, “It’s too late. You took the box.”
Amee pulled out of his hold, angry that he put her in this situation. The wobbler didn’t understand their ways. She shouldn’t have to honor a tradition that he didn’t understand.
“Take it back. Or we become mates.”
“Mate?” he said like it was a foul word.
“Mate,” Hesel confirmed. “Giving three gifts in one day is an act of intention. If the Dirth accepts them, the matehood is confirmed.”
Calo looked between the two of them as if she was crazy. Lifting his chin he declared, “My kind does not mate that way.”
He reached down and grabbed the box but he didn’t give it back to her.
“How do you mate, then?” Hesel asked coyly. “Do you share your addictive gift with your chosen mate?”
Calo hesitated then sharply said, “Yes. But this was an accident. She didn’t know.”
Hesel pointed to Amee’s arm. “Amee would say the same about you. You didn’t know. But here’s what I see… you continued to give her your addictive gift; from the beginning, you touched her hand to give her the necklace. And since she has emerged from the water, you didn’t let her go. As if, her skin calls to you.”
Calo leveled his gaze. “You can’t force me to mate.”
“I am not forcing it,” Hesel said as she dug her hands into the long flowing skirt. The old woman snatched Amee’s hand, pressing her old withered thumb on the top. Quickly she did the same to Calo.
Calo looked at the black mark with a scowl. “What is this?”
When the old woman stepped back Amee let her hand drop without looking. The sudden itching was the Dirth’s mating mark and would be there forever.
“Why is it burning?” Calo asked next to her.
Amee didn’t look at her or Hesel’s retreating body. Instead, she lifted her hand so he could see the identical mark. “She mated us. The symbol is the time of our union and the day. The light wavy line is the water. There are no clouds or storm, just a breezeless day. The dark dot is the moon, and it’s under the waterline. The small circle above the line is the sun.”
Calo was silent for a moment. “We can’t be mated. I don’t want to live under the sea. And I didn’t know about the three gifts would equal this.”
“I know. We don’t tell outsiders about our mating traditions.”
“And look how well that turned out,” he said sarcastically.
Amee huffed. He was right. And Hesel would spread the word. Which meant she didn’t have a choice.
Calo was her mate.
It didn’t feel right to be mated accidently. She doubted he would even honor the union. Which would be irritating, but not too different from her isolated life now. Although up to now, Amee thought she would find her mate one day.
With that thought she ignored the mating label and figure out what kind of map he needed. Stick to business. She could focus on the one thing she was good at.
But first, she took the box with her stinger. “This is mine. And we have to talk about your map.” Tilting her head to the tug. “This way.”
Amee sat in her captain’s chair powering on the navigation screen. Calo’s scent was filling up the bridge. She thought she liked it before, but being saturated in it, she knew that she loved it. If his scent was on a pillow, she would rub her face in it.
Thankfully, he was not a pillow, and she had the self control to keep her feelings to herself. Clearing her throat, she asked, “What map do you want?”
He was standing next to her looking over her equipment, as if he was not use to being in any other seat but the main one.
“I need details on the Trough Islands.”
That made her peer up. “Near Point Baeo?”
He nodded. “There’s a race. Usually a Dirth’s only kind of race, but this year they opened it up to us,” he said the word us but she knew he meant wobblers. “The thing is, those islands have been sanctioned off, and no one knows what’s out there. Getting the map from you will even the odds.”
“Okay,” she said. But she wasn’t sure he was correct. Even if he got the details, it wouldn’t ensure a win. He would have to drive a boat better than a Dirth – who would have spent their entire life on water.
Turning back to her screen she tapped the map she used for those islands.
Trough Islands was a section of beach with several medium to small mounds and rocks. It wasn’t enough to see the land from on top. You had to know the bottom too. Had to know what was too shallow, what rocks hid just under the waterline and if the coral had closed off a path.
“I haven’t been to Trough in a long time. The sea life will differ from what I remember. But this is the basic layout.”
He tilted his head one way and then the other. “This looks like you used a finger painting application from a Minky pad.”
Amee was proud of her map. By Calo’s tone, he seemed to think otherwise. She wasn’t a person prone to insecurities, but in that moment, she wondered if he saw her as less capable. She didn’t have a lot of technology. Mostly because she never had that kind of money, but also because the tug couldn’t support newer technology.
“I used what I had. There was a free painting option on the Minky screen. I used that to recreate the area.”
Calo held her eyes. “It’s fine. I can work with it.”
Amee felt a rush in her blood. His nearness, his size, his scent was hitting her. She looked away when she felt a blush creep up her cheeks. “Um, I was able to make it bigger,” she said hitting the tab that turned it from 2D to 3D. The image was not perfect, but it was the best she could do with what limited knowledge she had.
“I’ll be damned. Paint had a 3D filter?”
She watched him closely as his lips curled at the ends. Amee liked that she impressed him. Living alone, she forgot how good it felt to have her work admired. It was odd that she’d forget about something like that, and yet seeing it again, it was like that knowledge never left.
Calo reached up to touch the screen, but paused. “Do you mind?”
His fingers moved around the screen expertly. She had no idea what he was doing, but she was enthralled. The simplistic image that she had made turned into something with sharp edges, true colors and real shape.
It was… amazing. There was no other word for what he did.
When Calo moved back he asked, “It’s a rough remodeling. But it will show the depths better. Is there anything you see that needs changed? Corrected?”
Amee didn’t think it needed…. Wait. Looking closely, she pointed, and updated the few parts that were incorrect.
Calo fixed the image as she explained.
When they finished he updated her system and sent the file to himself. There was a moment of silence then. As if the tug or the air was holding its breath, waiting to see what would happen.
Was this it? Would Calo take the map and leave? She didn’t want him to leave. Not when she knew he could be so useful. And spending time with him felt right.
“Thank you for the map,” he said breaking the silence.
Amee’s sunk in her seat hearing the goodbye in his tone. Reluctantly she tried to smile. “Anytime.” Then she started the tug and let the engine rumble. It was her way of letting him know that she understood he was leaving.
But, he didn’t leave. He looked, pained. Or maybe confused. “What is …. That’s a diesel engine, right?”
He pointed to the power button. “Turn it off. I need to check something.”
Amee turned it off and watched Calo take the stairs to the engine room. She didn’t know if he’d appreciate her following him around, so she remained seated.
While she waited, Amee grabbed a bottle chilled water in her cooler. She took a long drink, because she had been thirsty, but it wasn’t enough. Amee finished off the bottle still thirsty.
Holding the empty bottle she wondered if she was dreaming. It was only in her dreams that she couldn’t quench her thirst or hunger.
Calo, thankfully came back in, taking her from her internal musing. Not only was Calo real in touch, and voice. But she could smell him. Amee didn’t think she ever had a dream where she remembered someone’s scent.
He looked at the bottle and frowned.
Was he thirsty too? Holding up a new bottle she asked, “Would you like a drink?”
“No, thank you. I wanted to ask if you can start to engine again.”
She put the drinks away before walking back to the consul and hitting the start button. The engine clicked and then roared to life. She didn’t know what to say because it sounded the same.
Calo, on the other hand smiled. “Better.”
Amee smiled back, but she had no idea what was better.
He must have noticed because he said, “Take her out, and see how she runs.”
She sat down, tapping button to close the hatch. It was routine, that she had perfected. When the ship was low enough underwater she grabbed the throttle and powered it forward.
Calo moved to the seat next to hers, covered her hand and pushed the throttle down to full power. The engine roared louder. She tried to slow it down but Calo wouldn’t let her.
“You’re going to bust my engine. Why do you think I needed a stinger in the first place?”
“You’re engine’s fine,” he said calmly.
“You don’t know my ship,” she snapped back.
“Listen to her, does she sound clunky anymore?”
She listened and no it didn’t. “What did you do?”
“Fixed her. I’m pretty good with boats.”
She paused and really listened. “It’s sounds brand new.”
Calo shrugged as if it wasn’t a deal. He left his hand on hers. She didn’t know if he forgot about it, or if he liked her touch. Either way she wasn’t going to make a big deal about it.
The big deal was that she had to admit her engine never sounded better. Whatever he did, he fixed her ship better than she could have.
A gift a hundred times the value of her necklace, which she liked. Better than the stinger she needed. This was something she couldn’t repay. Feeling that gratitude, she was going to do whatever she could to help him in that race.
“When is the race?”
A loud rumble sounded from Calo’s pocket. He removed his hand from hers, to pull out a Minky pad. “Hey, Sem.”
“Alarm is going off at the warehouse.”
Calo exhaled loudly before saying, “I’ll meet you there.” When he ended the call he turned to her, “Can you take me to my place in Point Baeo?”
Of course she could take him there. She planned to go there anyways. She needed to help him win the race. “Yes.”
She nodded and then noticed him rubbing the top of his hand. He caught her looking. “I tried to wash it off earlier. It’s permanent, isn’t it?”
Amee didn’t know how he thought about the mating, but she wouldn’t lie. “It’s permeant.”
He was quiet for a moment then, “Why do Dirths brand each other?”
“It’s a symbol to remember that you have a family that lives in your heart. That no matter how far you are, you are never alone. Dirths mate for life.”
He was silent, and she kept her eyes a head of her.
“Aside from you, I’ve never meet a Dirth I didn’t want to punch in the face. You all think you’re so smart, and yet not one of you has decent mechanical skills.”
She felt his words burrow into her skin. He did think she wasn’t capable. He was never going to accept her as a mate. A subtle coldness settled into her stomach.
Calo didn’t stop there. He continued, “I grew up in Point Bao. I know exactly how much Dirths hate everyone else. I know you think we’re wobbly legged idiots, but I also know that groups of Dirths helped or let kids drown. I was dragged under water to see how long I could hold my breath. They held me down until I drowned. My friend Sem was pushed into the deep water when he was too young and hadn’t learn to swim. They pumped our chests and brought us back, but no one ever forgets drowning.”
His voice took on a dark edge. One she wanted to shrink away from. She purposely put him in the water today. “I’m sorry for digging the plank to make you go in. I didn’t know you couldn’t swim. Had I known I would have never done that.”
Calo turning in her direction he leaned. “I can swim and hold my breath for a long time. And I knew the vest would take me down. I was about to take it off when I saw you jump in after me. That’s when I stopped swimming to see what you’d do. I thought you’d let me drown and then save me. When you cut the vest and then offered me air, I didn’t expect that.”
“But you didn’t let me give you air.”
He scoffed sitting back. “For good reason. I’m a Grach.”
“I have no idea what that means.”
Tilting his head back he whispered, “Yes, you do.”
“Are you thirsty?”
“What?” she asked not sure if he was changing the topics.
“Are you wishing you could drink a bottle of water?”
Yes. “What does that have to do with anything?”
Tilting his head back down he said, “The need to drink is from me. A withdrawal symptom. Graches all have addictive properties. The thing that makes us different is our unique withdrawal symptoms. No that everyone has a different one, but more or less that there is no set symptom. Until your body gets over the addiction, you will be constantly thirty.”
That explained a lot. And she was grateful for the explanation. But he was wrong about one thing. “If what I feel is the worst part of giving you air, I would do it again. In a heartbeat.”
“You say that now. Give it time,” his voice was grave and she could see that it bothered him that he affected her.
She let the topic die. He wasn’t going to believe her when she said it wasn’t that bad. She had suffered worse. She knew what real thirst was. Thirst that was only minimally quenched when she caught food with the rustic items she had. Or when it rained.
That was thirst.
Knowing that water was always chilled and plentiful would keep her mind right.
The silence wasn’t comfortable so Amee asked, “How did you learn to fix ships?”
Calo took in a breath. “My dad was a diesel mechanic. But he cranked on large trucks. Taught me to help. When I got older, I left to build engines for speed boats. I make the engines and Sem makes the bodies. We have a good business. Top of the line.”
“How long have you been in business?”
She nodded letting him know she heard him. The bridge got quiet, for a moment and then he asked, “Do you live in an underground city?”
“Nope. I left when I was sixteen.” She could see him watching her out of her periphery.
“Is that normal?”
She shrugged. “At sixteen we’re given a choice to live in the community or leave. If you leave, you can’t come back.”
“Why did you leave?”
She peered over, “Because it’s crowded and everyone knows your business. And it stinks.”
Cautious amusement passed over his face.
She smiled for him before focusing back on her objective.
“You left the underwater city because it was too crowded? Do you belong to another community?”
“I’ve never heard of someone not belonging to a community.”
She shrugged one shoulder. “Most surface communities are harpins. A few true Dirths that were born from the water.”
“You sound like harpins aren’t good enough. Are Dirth’s prejudice against harpins?”
“I assume some are, but that is because of the person. Not a Dirth thing. I don’t have a problem with harpins.” She looked over at him, “And all of my business are with wobblers. So I don’t have a problem with anyone.”
Calo looked her over and then asked, “What do you do?”
“Deliveries. Fresh foods, whatever they need. I deliver to the floating hotels.”
He gave her a slow nod. She didn’t know if that was because he thought it was stupid or not. She tried not herself feel inadequate. At sixteen she had to first survive the weeks at sea until she hit land. And then she had to find a way to live on the surface. So many things she didn’t understand or know.
Calo was probably a million times craftier, but she was not helpless.
“Do you like it?”
She shrugged. “It’s good pay.”
“That always helps,” he said with an understanding smirk.
Inside Calo’s garage he handed her a motion sickness tab. She took it but her eyes kept going back to all the bright-colored ships. The sharp lines, and sleek sides. Or at least that’s what they were supposed to look like. Several of them had been battered. Many with broken windows.
When she did nothing with the tab, Calo took it back, removed the thin plastic and reached behind her to lift up her hair. He pressed the sticky thing against her neck and said, “It works best near the spine. Let me know if you still feel sick, though. I keep these things for people with motion-sickness, not stillness-sickness.”
He let down her hair and then said, “If you take the walkway up the hill, it leads you to my house. Feel free to whatever you like.”
“I’m fine,” she said not wanting to leave his side. Not yet. Not in a place she didn’t know.
Calo used his head to point to the damage. “I need to check the boats, and make sure the one I’m using in tomorrow’s race is good to go.”
“I can help,” she said earnestly.
He hesitated for a moment. “Okay.”
Amee felt that hesitation. He probably thought she was useless, but she wasn’t. And she would prove to him that not only was she a fast learner, but she could work all night if needed.
Sem was working on a red boat with black and blue details. Calo pointed and said, “This is the one I’m racing tomorrow.”
Sem peered up to Calo and then looked at her. Sem’s expression went from blank to curious. As if he didn’t understand what she was doing there.
If Calo saw the look, he didn’t comment on it. Instead, he climbed up and began asking questions and then giving orders. He reminded her of the Dirth leader in her old community. Confident and able.
Amee didn’t want to admit it, but she admired him. Respected him. And that assessment had nothing to do with how good he smelled, or how she wanted to reach over and touch his skin.
It was late; the moon was on its downward journey. Calo’s racing ship had been fixed – at times by taking items from the others. She learned a lot about ships in those hours. Her mind was a little foggy with the need to drink, but she kept an eye on how much she consumed. Knowing she could easily over drink.
Calo watched her too. She could see his wince every time she took a sip.
He wasn’t to blame, and she didn’t know how to get him to understand that. Since she couldn’t think of anything, she decided to wait until the next day.
They were walking back to her tug, to get her things. Calo didn’t argue so much as he told her, she had to sleep in the house. He didn’t give excuses or reasons. Just laid out what she would do.
Amee finally agreed but said she had to get her things. Calo, left with her, telling her it wasn’t’ safe to be alone near the water at night.
That was the reason behind his argument she thought. And at the time she thought he was being paranoid. She lived in the water. It was the safest place.
As they neared the boat she slowed because she was sure she saw something moving in the dark. Her arm came out to stop Calo.
“There’s someone on my boat.”
Calo lifted her up and moved her aside as he rushed forward. Amee followed close and the intruders on her ship yelled out, “he’s coming,” and then four dark figures jumped from the boat.
Calo went right towards her ship. She jerked left and dove off the platform.
The water was dark, but her hearing was good. The intruders were swimming towards her right, so she followed.
The one she was following was slow. Amee caught up, grabbed his leg and wrapped him up like an octopus. He kicked and punched but she was able to regather the male’s limbs. As they floated towards the surface, she took in a lung full of air and let him, then dunked him back down as she used her one free arm to move towards the dock.
The swim would have taken longer if Calo didn’t come looking for her. He threw a floating contraption at her and used it to pull her in. He pulled up the intruder and held him down with a knee to the other male’s neck. Then he leaned over and pulled her up.
Once she was on the dock he said, “If you were trying to impress me, you’ve succeeded.”
Calo carried the intruder to her tug at her insistence. On the ship she noticed several boxes were gone from the top deck. On the way to the bridge she scanned the area and noticed her cooler was open and nothing was inside.
Some Dirths became that way because it was easier to steal than to hunt for their own food and water. She had only come across them once. Interestingly enough it was around the Trough Islands.
She wondered if that meant the whole community were scavengers.
Amee had Calo put the male down in her cargo room. At first the intruder tried to fight his way out, but Calo was there to stop it.
Amee waited in silence watching the male, taking in his small size, his light skin – not bronze skin that was expected with a surface Dirth.
“You can’t keep me here. Beme will come for me. And he will kill all the landwalkers,” the male said to the floor.
She turned to Calo, “Do you know who Beme is?”
He nodded. “He leads the Dirth community right off the Trough Islands.”
Amee could see in his expression and tone that he didn’t like Beme. No, that was too nice a word. Calo looked as if Beme was a nuisance, the digging consistent kind.
“You do not speak the names of a Dirth!” the male said with venom.
Calo’s lips pursed, and she watched as his irritation rose a notch. And in that moment, something clicked inside her. Something dark, vindictive and possessive.
This male, whatever his name was, vexed her mate. Intruded into his home and destroyed the things he created. This act was not random, nor was it the first time.
Without Calo saying a word about it, she knew, deep within her bones that he suffered the theft, the damage and everything else for years. And this race, would be one of the few times he could dig back at them.
As his mate, she liked his motivation. But as a Dirth, she had a message to send to the community.
Standing next to Calo she said, “Would you mind getting me a drink of water?”
His eyebrows furrowed at her.
“Please,” she said with a sweet voice that belayed her true intentions.
Calo looked at the male, “I’m not leaving you here alone.”
She mocked a frown, “I caught him, remember. I’m sure I can take care of anything he tries while you’re gone.”
Calo hesitated, so she pushed him gently on the arm and he left. When he did she shut the door and slowly began to unfasten her wet shirt.
The male had seen her in his periphery when she first began. Now that she had his full attention she pulled off the top and let it land in a wet plop.
The male’s eyes widened. “You’re a…
“Yes, I am.” Her chest, belly and upper arms were covered in black marks. If the harpin knew what the marks meant, they he knew that she was a whale killer. Something that was practically impossible to do on your own, but she accomplished it at fifteen.
“You’re a Dirth, like me,” he almost smiled as he got up. She could see the look in his eyes. He didn’t think she meant him harm. He expected to be let go.
Amee wrapped a foot around his ankle and pushed him back down. “You’re not a Dirth. Your chum.”
The male struck out. She took his hand twisted it as she slammed his face down on the floor. She heard the sound of cartilage breaking. Blood sprayed on the white paint.
The male rounded back she let him, so he could see her calm face. “Dirths don’t take things that aren’t theirs.”
She watched to see if he showed any remorse. He didn’t. “Dirths don’t destroy what another made.” Again, she waited to see remorse or guilt. All she saw was hatred.
Good. Because she wasn’t done yet. “You don’t respect the sea. And you don’t respect yourself. You’re old enough to be mated, but you’re not, which means you have no talents to keep a family. You’re worthless.”
When she said the last word, the male roared as he lunged at her. She was not in a good position at first. She took the hit, and then rolled, jerking up her hip to roll him over. He was heavy, and it didn’t work on her first try.
He scrambled out of her old when she flipped him. Amee moved to her feet and watched her prey.
“Calo is our enemy, he took our piece of ocean. Got the land people to declare Trough Islands no longer belong to us. That we have to allow landwalkers to touch out land. Our water. They disrespect the sea – and you’re fighting for them. When Beme finds out a Dirth has sided against him, he will kill you.” The male spit blood on the floor. His nose was twisted, already dark blue and swelling.
“The sea cannot be claimed by you or anyone else. The sea owns itself and we are its family, invited to live inside her. If you want to live alone, you live in the cities. The surface waters are for those, who want to be alone. Who answer to the sea – not to a leader. Not to anyone.”
“You may have left your city. But I was born into mine, and I will not leave it. We will fight for what belongs to us.”
Amee turned when the door opened and Calo walked back in with a frosted bottled of water. He looked at her with a frown. When he looked at the male his frowned turned into something else.
Amee took the bottle, removed the lid and took a deep gulp before capping it and setting it down. Then she recapped what the male said regarding the islands.
Calo nodded. “He’s right. I did get it reversed because you had multiple deaths every year for the past six years. Surfers who got too close to your area were pulled under and drowned. I know a guy who works on the force and he told me the few that lived all said they were pulled under by Dirths and held down until they died.”
Amee’s heart went out to the men who were taken and killed. It was a tactic that Dirth’s used by those who got too close to the underwater cities. She didn’t like it then; she didn’t like it now.
“They trespassed on our ocean.”
Calo tightened his wrists at his side. She could understand that reaction, in fact she felt the same way, but killing this man would accomplish nothing. They had to go after the whale. They had to take down Beme.
Amee crouched down and picked up her shirt. “I’ve told you before, the sea is not yours. But you’re not the brains of your community, so it’s pointless to waste my time explaining it.” Standing up she said, “I expect you to return everything you took by tomorrow morning. If you don’t, I’ll help Calo get all of your homes relocated.”
When the male didn’t move she jerked her chin to the door. “You’re not welcome on my ship. Get out.”
When the male left, and she was alone with Calo he looked over her body. “You have a lot of marks.”
Amee twisted her shirt in her hands to get the water out. She did so because she felt a deep blush. “I accomplished a lot growing up. My father liked to push me to see how capable I was.”
He lifted a finger, but didn’t touch her skin. “What is that?”
He pointed to the last mark she achieved. The one that made her superior to most of the citizens in the underwater city. No one but her and her father had that particular mark.
“It’s the mark of a whale killer.”
At first he just looked at it then he his mouth dropped. “An actual whale?”
She nodded. “My myself with a very long and sharp spear.”
He made a sound and backed up. “Are you serious? A whale? There are no small whales.”
She nodded and then pointed to the mark next to the whale killer. “This means I can hold my breath for fifteen minutes.”
“What?” Calo rubbed his head. His eyes still wide.
She pointed to the second symbol fighting a grin at his astonishment. He sounded impressed and she really liked it when he was. “This means I brought more than twenty pounds of food in one hunt.” When his eyebrows furrowed she explained, “It’s a lot. And it feed a lot of families.”
He nodded, but she knew he would never truly understand.
She pointed the first symbol and said, “This is a symbol of my family. Family lines have unique symbols.”
“It has a trident,” he said lifting a finger. “I’ve never seen anyone with that before. Most of the Dirth’s I see only have one or two of these circle looking things.”
She bit her lip not if she should tell him about her family. “You won’t see another person with a trident. My family runs the five underwater cities in this ocean. My father ran mine.”
Calo waited, but didn’t push. She could see the curiosity though, and she appreciated that he let her decide if she was going to speak or not.
“I have a brother. He’s younger and he would be a better leader. But because I was born first, I would end up leading the community. I chose to leave – against my father’s decision to make me stay.”
She swallowed and faked a smile. “So… I’m just going to grab my stuff and put on some dry clothes.”
Amee took a step to walk past Calo when he stopped her by grabbing her hand. The one with her mating mark. He raised it up and inspected it again. Then said, “So what you’re telling me is… I’m mated to a water princess?”
His tone broke the emotions she was keeping down. She laughed so hard she cried.
Just before sunrise Amee woke up, thirsty and feeling sick. She also noticed a hand around her stomach. It took her a few moments to remember where she was and who was holding her. Slowly moving out from under Calo’s hand was easy. Until he grabbed her and pulled her back.
“Calo,” she said pulled at his hand that was holding her tighter than before. “I’m going to throw up. I need to go.”
He groaned rubbed his forehead against her neck and then stopped. “Sick?”
“Yes,” she said making quick breaths, so she didn’t upchuck.
Calo let her go. They both got out of bed. She went for the bathroom that was connected to the room. Calo walked to the bedroom door saying, “I’ll get you another tab.”
Amee splashed water on her face and then followed him silently. He didn’t know she was there until she walked into the garage behind him.
Just like the time before he put the tab on her neck. But this time when he let down her hair, he kissed it.
She turned to him in surprise.
He opened his mouth and then shut it. then made a noise as if he was saying, I don’t know why I did it either.
She would have laughed at him, but she was still unsettled. Her thirst was intense and she was hungry as well.
When they walked out of the building a man was standing at the end of the bridge. He wasn’t too tall. He had bronze skin, and long light sun weathered hair. He moved with the waves expertly.
“Do you know him?” she asked.
Reaching down she took his hand in hers and they walked casually, as if they didn’t care there was a stranger standing shirtless with a clear dagger on a homemade rope on his waist.
As they got closer, she saw the males marks. Apparently so did Calo. “He has for marks too. One looks like yours.”
“From right to left, the first as you know is family, the second is a great hunt, third is he can hold his breath for ten minutes and the last is … he killed a shark.”
Calo snickered. “Probably a pygmy shark. It grows about ten inches, they are all over the islands.”
Amee tried not to smile, but failed.
As they neared she told Calo, “Let me speak to him.”
He didn’t look pleased, but then said, “You’re the princess.”
She was not a princess. She as Amee. No longer an heir to the underwater cities.
When they stopped a respectable distance, she made a Dirth sound. It meant, who are you?
“I’m Beme. And I was told you threatened the community. And that you’re a Dirth who’s sided with the landwalkers.” He pointed at their clasped hands and said, “And now I realize why. You mated the enemy.”
Amee held his eyes as she said, “I’m sure you didn’t come here to tell me what I know.” Her tone was slow and insulting.
“I came to demand you explain yourself. No Dirth’s are allowed in my community without first getting approval.”
Amee never blinked or looked away as he talked. And neither did Beme. It was what leaders did when they first meet. The first to look away had to relent to the laws of the winner. She was doing that now. Showing her authority.
Beme had no idea what or who she was, and his frustration showed.
“I answer to no one but the sea.”
“You’re in my territory,” he growled.
Her tone dulled as the fight to not look away intensified. “Your community is not recognized by the leading family. Surface dwellers are just that. If you commune together so be it, but you have no authority.”
His lips pressed together. His eyes dark with furry. “You’re from the underwater cities. You don’t know that the surface Dirths have their own authority.”
Her eyes hurt and almost started watering. She needed to end this conversation. “Chum doesn’t have authority.”
Beme lunged at her, drawing his knife. She was thrown back by Calo in a swift move as he intercepted the attacker.
The fight was quick. Calo had Beme’s arms behind his back. The Dirth looked full of fear and rage, as his own knife was held steady at his neck.
Amee got up in one fluid motion. Leaning into his face she said, “You’re no leader. You’re a poor excuse for one. You probably killed a dwarf shark just to get your last mark.”
“It was a white!”
She looked unimpressed.
It was then she had an idea. On impulse she said, “I challenge you, for the rule of your people.”
“Never,” he ground out.
“What?” Calo mouthed with a look of displeasure.
But she knew what she was doing. She said again, “You can’t back down from a challenge. You have to accept or I will make sure very one knows you feared me.”
“I fear no one,” Beme hissed.
“Then you accept. The winner of the challenge rules your community.”
Beme’s nostrils flared. “Fine. The winner of today’s race rules the community.”
“She can’t join the race,” Calo said, “she would have had to sign up and pay the fee.”
Beme’s smile was full of mirth. “As her mate, you will take her place.”
Calo let the male go, but didn’t return the knife. “You’re saying if I win, that I rule the community?”
“No,” Beme scoffed. “If you win, she rules the community. You’re not Dirth. You can’t rule.”
Calo looked at her in question. She told him, “As the challenger, I can’t name the fight. He chose racing. And you will have to race for me. Will you do that?”
Her mate’s chest rose and fell. Multiple times before he said, “Yes. I’ll do that.”
Beme chuckled. “A landwalker won’t win the race.” To her, he said, “And when I win, I will make it clear to my people that you are not welcome here. That if you step foot in or on the water, your fair game.”
She gave him a long look and said, “And that is why I’ve challenged you. You’re chum and you’re not a worthy leader.”
The Dirth didn’t like her words she could tell. But he didn’t speak. He turned and dove off the end of the bridge and swam in the chilled morning water.
Calo took her hand and pulled her back toward the house. “Come on, before you start a fight with the mayor.”
Amee was standing on the dock next to Sem. The sun was high in the sky; the air was sticking to her skin. It was not a hot day, but her thirst made her feel like it was scorching.
She was able to keep focused on Calo until he left her on the dock. As soon as he drove off, she remembered her thirst. The need to drink was strong and demanding.
Taking a breath she tried to push it out of her mind, but it didn’t work.
Amee clenched her teeth and hoped she could power through it.
There were seven boats lined up. Calo’s red stood out to her, but many of the boats were bright and slim.
The countdown clock ticked backwards. Ten…nine…eight…
She swallowed hard, but her mouth still felt dry. So much was riding on this race and she was fighting a stupid thirst.
Sem held up his hand and started to yell.
She had missed the start. Damn. Amee eyes scanned the water and found his boat. He was not in the front, but he wasn’t far behind. The lead boat was white and took the corner hard, the riff made another boat fly into the air.
And that was the beginning to the carnage.
The longer the race went on, the more boats flipped and crashed. Some did so when there was no reason for it. Amee worried that the Dirth’s had traps in the water.
Calo’s red boat was on a straight away and then suddenly the ship wobbled.
Amee’s hand reached out and grabbed Sem’s shirt, terrified that Calo would crash like the others.
When he righted it he was behind, but not by far. She noticed something was wrong; he wasn’t going as fast as before, and that worried her.
“Come on, Calo,” Sem said to himself. Or maybe to her.
The white boat was still in front but Calo gained on him as they took two corners. Then they were on the last long straight away. The white ship was fast. Calo’s paced not gaining not losing.
Her stomach was in knots. “Oh, please, mother of the sea, smooth his path.”
They were almost there.
Calo’s engine was loud, and it got louder. The boat jumped as if it had extra energy and jumped ahead of the white boat right before the finish line.
Amee screamed, feeling the adrenalin rush hit her stomach. He won! Her feet started moving to the end of the dock. Her screams were long and loud, a warrior’s cry.
Calo pulled up to the dock, spotted her running. His mouth pulled up to a victory grin. She jumped off the dock, and he was there to catch her.
His mouth came down on hers, hard and passionate. She wrapped her arms around his neck and kissed him back.
Calo came to his senses before her. His eyes looking over her mouth. “The addiction.”
He looked worried, and it insulted her. “Kiss your mate, and stop worrying about everything else.”
To her surprise, he kissed her again, this time slower, taking his time to learn her mouth and draw it out, making her want to find a place on the boat where they could do more than kiss.
A male’s yell caused them to stop. Turning toward the noise, but not letting her mate go she saw Beme getting out of his white boat. His face flushed with anger.
“This doesn’t count. He used an illegal engine. The Dirth judges will verify it.”
Calo’s face hardened. “You want them to inspect my engine, that’s fine. But then they inspect yours too.”
That stopped him for a moment. “The winner has to prove he didn’t cheat.”
“Oh, I can prove it. Can you though? I think an inspection is in order.”
Sem who she didn’t notice called, out, “I’ll get them.” The pale-haired man pulled out a Minky pad and tapped it a few times then explained.
Amee had watched as a handful of Dirths gathered around during the inspection. There was a point in which the Dirths and the wobbler judges argued. As if the Dirths were looking for any reason to disqualify Calo.
After two hours, the judges finally admitted Calo didn’t have an illegal engine. He was the verified winner.
No one cheered for him. But she gave him another kiss.
When she finished, she held the angry eyes of the Dirths that belonged to Beme. The theif from last night spit in her direction. “I won’t follow a Dirth that mates the enemy.”
She nodded, “I expected that of you, chum. You don’t honor the Dirth ways, or the Dirth challenges. I would be happy to exile you to the loan waters. I will drop you off myself.”
He looked confused. “What are you talking about? Drop me off?”
“When a Dirth leaves their community, they are stripped of everything except their knife. And they are placed in a small dink deep in the horizon. The sea will take you to your new home – if you survive, of course.”
“We don’t do that here,” he spat.
“It’s a Dirth custom, and as leader I say we follow all of the rules.”
He looked around as if he expected someone to stand up for him. No one did. The one female there cleared her throat and said, “Will we still told who we will marry?”
Amee felt that question in her gut. “That is not the Dirth way. A woman will only be married if she accepts three gifts from one male under the same sun.”
The female’s eyes widened. “Truly.”
“That is the law,” said Amee.
Another female pointed to her hand. “Did your landwalker mate give you three gifts? Or did he kidnap you like Beme said?”
Beme’s eyes cut to the woman, and he kicked her off the dock.
Sem was closest. But Calo launched himself up the dock at the same time. Beme ran, or at least he tried to. Many wobblers, captured him and held him down. Sem looked over at her. “What do you do with people like him?”
She wanted so badly to say, death. But her father was never bloodthirsty. He was firm and strict and so she followed his example.
“He will be left in the horizon.”
Sem’s face pinched. “I’ll do you the honor of dropping him off.”
She nodded wondering if he planned to kill him anyways.
Another Dirth asked her about more and more rules. She spent the rest of the afternoon she discussed the rules.
Calo stayed by her side, and she appreciated it.
When it was late she told them, she would visit the community in the morning. The Dirth nearest to her frowned. “You won’t be living in the community?”
“No, I prefer to live in my mate’s home.”
Amee had been holding Calo’s hand. After she said those words, he squeezed her hand. She hoped that meant he was pleased.
Calo had made dinner in silence. In fact, he had been quiet after the judges validation. Sitting across from her, she said, “Do you think I should grab a few motion tabs before we go to bed?”
He shook his head. “I grabbed a handful.”
Amee moved a carrot back and forth as she asked, “Are you upset over something?”
Again, he shook his head. But he said, “Are you supposed to live in the community? Is that a law?”
“I think it’s expected for those who live in the underwater cities. The surface communities are spread out more. Or at least that’s what I gathered.”
He stabbed a slice of meat and asked, “Do you want to live there?”
“No. Not even a little bit.”
Calo finally looked at her, surprised. “What?”
So that’s what he was worried about. With all the passion she could express she said, “I left the community because I don’t want to rule. I don’t want to be accountable to others or have to watch over others. I don’t want to rule these people. I fully intend on passing it down as soon as I find a worthy person.”
“Are you serious?”
“Very,” she said firmly.
Calo went through a series of emotions. So many she couldn’t follow. Then abruptly he dropped his fork, leaned over and wrapped his hand around her neck and kissed her. A kiss that burrowed deep, needy and explosive.
She kicked out of her chair, climbed over the table to get closer. Calo brushed the plates to the floor, laid her back on the table and covered her mouth again. She bowed her back pressing her chest into his needing his touch.
Calo pulled back, lifted her up and carried her to the couch that was wide and deep set. She pulled off her own shirt and unlatched her bra. Her mate’s eyes darkened, and he removed his shirt and then covered her skin with his body. Heavy and dense and all hers.
He kissed her again and took his time loving every inch of her body.
Hours later when they were both limp and tired she couldn’t stop touching him. Leaving feather light kisses along his jaw.
“I’m mated to a princess,” he said in a voice that was tired and amused.
“And I’m mated to the best boat racer on this side of the ocean, if not the planet.”
She saw his smile move up this face and crinkled his eyes. “Amee, anything you ever want, know that I will do anything to get it for you. Anything. You name it.”
She kissed his jaw and said, “I have way more than I ever wanted. Just don’t be surprised if I kiss you a lot.”
“My addiction, I know.”
She shook her head. “Your addiction I can handle. It’s your touch that I’m truly addicted to.”
His head tilted. “Really?”
“From the start.”
His eyes crinkled as he smiled. And then he pulled her up, took her to his bed and made love to her again.