Melikk tapped his comm, pulling up the last image of Kaja. Her dark blue eyes shone with love. He hated that her image was fading in his memory and that he needed to look at his comm to remember the way her wavy hair hung loosely over shapely shoulders and how her smile deepened when she looked at him. Her belly, swollen with their youngling, made her eyes dance.
Had made her eyes dance.
Six years had passed since she’d been killed in the war.
He’d never get to hold her again. Never got to meet his unborn youngling.
“Are you okay back there?” Ruby said, riding up ahead on her frish with Torin.
Melikk had slowed his frish, letting Torin and Ruby lead the way to Makov’s farm. Being an agricultural planet, Affinia didn’t invest much in modern technology. Or infrastructure. At least the frish were sure-footed on the uneven dirt road that looked like it had been carved out by hand, using ancient tools, not a laser scraper or even a large load digger.
“Melikk?” Torin asked now, twisting to look behind him.
Melikk hadn’t answered Ruby. He didn’t feel like talking, but if he didn’t say something, Torin would slow his frish to ride alongside him, and Melikk preferred to sulk in peace.
“I’m fine,” he finally answered.
“You got really quiet all of a sudden,” Ruby said.
Torin whispered something in her ear and she stopped asking questions. Melikk’s commander knew that he’d been falling into a depression lately. Affinia made remembering the past that much worse. Perhaps because the planet was mostly farms and ranches, similar to the valley where he and Kaja had settled on Zyan. That valley that had been leveled in the war.
“How long before repairs are made?” Torin asked, no doubt trying to refocus him on work. That usually drew him out of that dark hole he sank into when he thought of his lovely mate and unborn youngling.
“Three days. Two if I go back to assist the port’s repair crew.”
“Nonsense. You deserve a home-cooked meal,” Ruby added.
For as much as Melikk loved being with Torin, Ruby, Mak, and Emily, he felt as if he was intruding. He wasn’t part of their family, a family that seemed to be growing every time The Relentless landed on Affinia.
Even Havok, their weapons expert who swore he’d never have a mate, now had one. Ruby’s sister Jade, who already had a youngling. Instant family. And Jade was now pregnant with Havok’s offspring.
Two younglings for Havok. Makov would be a father soon as well. Each warrior had a youngling to look forward to.
Melikk would not begrudge them the joy he never knew. Would never know.
As they rounded the bend, Makov’s house came into view. An old wooden house with five steps leading to an enormous porch in front, several windows on each side of the door, and a second story with a sloped roof above.
The house looked clean and more vibrant than the last time Melikk had been here. Perhaps it was the three smiling human females who stood by the steps talking that gave the old house such life.
And one youngling. A smiling little female whose face lit when she looked up at her mother. Jade balanced her daughter Clem on her hip. He smiled at the youngling. It was impossible not to.
“Jade!” Ruby shouted as she jumped off her frish and ran to the steps.
Jade and Ruby hugged and squealed in high-pitched, elated voices. Melikk dismounted and remained by his frish, watching the sisters hug and fuss over one another. The usual twinge of jealousy as Torin joined his mate in greeting her sister and youngling didn’t surface. Melikk merely felt numb.
He took the reins to Torin’s frish along with his own and headed toward the barn as two more females joined the welcoming party. Mak’s wife, Emily, and a female who sat on the steps of Makov and Emily’s home. From the description Havok had given, the female with short dark hair and dark eyes had to be McKenna, the human who helped Remmikov defeat the Grud who had invaded Goji Base on Zyan.
How long had it been since Melikk had stepped on Goji or anywhere on Zyan, for that matter? Eighteen months? Two years? It no longer mattered. There was no family to return to, no pregnant female waiting in the kitchen, cooking his favorite meal of spicy kirkas. He’d never had the chance to tell her that it wasn’t the kirkas he enjoyed tasting, but her lips each time he entered their home.
A home that no longer stood.
Only charred timber, chunks of scarred and twisted metal, and a grave in the back, beneath the tozi tree she so loved. The tozi tree had survived, unlike his sweet Kaja and their unborn youngling.
“Melikk!” Emily shouted to him from the porch. “I have food for you!”
“Really, Emily, must you threaten my crew?” Torin asked as he lifted his niece and tossed her into the air. The youngling shrieked with glee. Havok was right. That youngling loved motion. She’d do well as a pilot.
The moment Torin waved him over, Melikk got a full view of Emily’s rounded belly.
His beautiful Kaja, large with their youngling, stood by the house, smiling, waiting for him to come to her.
The vision disappeared. In Kaja’s place stood a woman who wasn’t blue, who didn’t have horns or dark blue eyes, or that sweet smile he loved. The pain of the loss struck him like a mallet to the face.
“Melikk?” Torin called, concern in his voice. He must have noticed Melikk’s horns twisting.
“The frish,” Melikk mumbled. “They need water.” He continued leading the two frish to the barn, thankful for the excuse to escape.
He shouldn’t have come to the farm knowing he’d see a very pregnant Emily here. He’d seen pregnant women in the years since Kaja’s death and rarely did it affect him so viscerally. What had him on edge suddenly? This mission? Knowing he’d finally avenge Kaja’s death?
He had to get himself together because he couldn’t hide out in Makov’s barn for the next two days until they returned to The Relentless to proceed with the next phase of their mission. Torin would look for him soon enough, and Melikk didn’t want to return to Makov’s house with a sour expression or attitude, especially when his friends deserved every happiness.
Melikk pushed open the door to the barn, led the two frish inside, and closed the door again, shutting out all the sounds of joy and laughter back at the house. He leaned against the barn door and took a deep breath, finally able to breathe.
After a moment of losing himself in the solitude of the barn, he removed the harness from the first frish. A scraping in one of the back stalls caught his attention. He didn’t see any other animals in the barn, so he continued removing the harnesses and filling the trough for the frish.
The quills on the heads of both frish rose suddenly. With a mere thought, Melikk’s claws extended from behind his knuckles. Quietly, he stalked his way to the last stall in the barn. He threw open the stall door, instantly regretting charging into the stall like a kuvak.
A human female stood behind a worktable, her hand gripping a three-inch kitchen knife so tightly that her skin lost several shades of color even as he watched her eyes widen.
Beautiful, except for the fear in her soft blue eyes. She raised the knife, holding the handle with both hands now, while thick blonde curls fell into her eyes. Eyes that fixated on his claws. Her color dropped again, too many shades to count.
Melikk retracted his claws. “I didn’t mean to scare you, female.”
She shifted left, pushing something behind her.
“He’s a warrior,” a youngling’s voice said from behind her. “You can tell by the tattoos on his arms.”
Melikk leaned to his right, trying to see past the female. A flash of light blue skin appeared, then quickly disappeared again as she adjusted and blocked him. Eeshone.
“Come out, youngling,” Melikk ordered.
The boy stepped to her side, but the female grabbed him by his clothing and pushed him behind her once more.
“I will not harm either of you,” Melikk said in a calm voice. He found himself oddly relaxed, despite the knife she still pointed in his direction. “My name is Melikk Sertov.”
“But that’s my name. I’m Melikk,” the boy said, quickly side-stepping out of the female’s reach. The female’s eyes darted to the boy, Melikk, and then the door. That’s when Melikk realized he was blocking her exit.
Melikk moved aside, clearing a path for her, and then squatted to be on eye-level with the youngling who bravely approached. “Melikk is an uncommon name on Zyan. Did a warrior named Havok give that name to you, by any chance?”
“You know Havok?” the youngling, a bright-eyed male of roughly nine seasons, asked as he took a large step forward. His face showed no fear, unlike the female who had edged her way around the worktable to be within grabbing distance of the youngling.
Melikk made sure to keep his attention on the youngling and not to move in any way that would further startle the female.
“I work with Havok on The Relentless. He told me of a brave youngling who is a student of his mate, Jade.”
“That’s me. First Lead Yozikk said my name is 23W, but Jade said I could have any name. Warrior Havok said he knew a warrior named Melikk who liked to build and fix things.”
“Oh, do you like to build and fix things too?”
The youngling frowned. “I’m better at breaking stuff.”
Melikk chuckled. “So was I at your age. Which is how I became good at fixing things. I had to fix what I broke or my father would not let me back in the house. And I did not wish to live in the barn with the frish. They are smelly creatures.”
“Yes. I don’t like the barn.”
“Then why are you here?”
“Because Chloe likes it here.” The youngling pointed to the female. “I protect her.”
“That is very admirable of you, ah. . . Melikk. This might become quite confusing if we have the same name.”
“You can call me 23W,” the youngling said, his horns twisting in distress.
“Most definitely not. You will not change your name for anyone, even me.” He tousled the youngling’s hair, which was as white as Havok’s. “We will think of something. Perhaps youngling for you and warrior for me.”
“There are eight younglings here, including Clementine. But she’s a female and doesn’t have horns, so no one will confuse her with me.”
“I’d say not!” Melikk glanced up at the female who had been watching them. She’d lowered her knife, though she still held it tightly in her right hand.
“Youngling, I’d like to speak with Chloe alone. Is that okay?”
The youngling looked at her. “He won’t hurt you, Chloe. He’s a warrior, like Havok. Do you want me to stay?”
She shook her head no, curly blonde hair the color of Affinia’s suns tumbling into her face as she smiled for the youngling. That smile took Melikk’s breath away. So carefree and sweet and meant to comfort the youngling she’d tried to protect.
“I’ll tell Emily you’re here,” the youngling said as he shot past Melikk.
“Youngling,” Melikk called him back. “Please ask Emily to pack up some food for Chloe and me to eat out here where it’s quiet. There are too many people in the house for me right now. And I suspect Chloe would prefer the quiet here as well.”
“I thought you said you’ve been here before, Warrior,” the youngling said, sounding suspicious.
“And you’ve eaten Emily’s cooking?”
“I have indeed, but a warrior does not turn down food or insult a female.”
“That’s not what Makov says. He says a warrior must think in terms of survival, which means being careful about eating Emily’s cooking.”
“Emily is his mate. I think Makov is teasing her.”
The youngling’s horns twisted again. “I will bring you food, Warrior.”
As the boy disappeared, laughter, sweeter than anything he’d heard in six years, reached Melikk’s ears. He lifted his eyes to see the beautiful female had put her knife down on the worktable, though her hand remained near. And she was laughing while trying to hide behind that hand.
“Pick up the knife, Chloe,” he said, trying to keep his voice stern but soft. As much as he wanted to hear more of her sweet laughter, he needed to earn her trust.
“If you are going to wield a knife, then you should learn how to do so properly.” Melikk withdrew a throwing knife from his boot and then sat on the ground, to appear less threatening as he started to explain the best way to hold a knife for defense.
Chloe tilted her head, delicate brows pinching together as she watched him. Not his knife, but him. His face, his eyes, and finally his horns. He’d never been so aware of his every move as he was at that moment.
The last thing he wanted was to scare her. He didn’t know much of her past, other than she’d been aboard a slave ship that was captured by the ZDC, Zyanthan Defense Command, and then she was mistreated by zyanthans on Goji Base.
Clearly, the female had been traumatized. But there was so much more to her than a female who had been wronged.
A light behind those soft blue eyes sparkled. Something within Melikk roared to life. A sense of place and purpose that he thought had died with Kaja and their unborn youngling. He didn’t know what that meant precisely, but he planned to find out.
The zyanthan stood as large as any she’d seen on Goji Base, and yet he didn’t scare her, not really. There was a sadness in his eyes that pulled at her. And the way he spoke to Little Melikk warmed her heart.
That boy desperately needed to be loved. And he was, so very much, but she didn’t think he knew it. The moment he’d latched onto her on the ship leaving Zyan, declaring himself her protector, he’d stolen her heart. But he needed a male to look up to, a male from his world, to reassure him that he had worth.
Like all the boys that Havok had brought on the ship with them, Little Melikk lacked confidence, though one would never know it from how he carried himself. But Lucy noticed it. She’d watched him approach Makov, the male who owned this farm, on more than one occasion only to shy away when one of the older boys pushed his way forward with a question or other excuse to get Mak’s attention. The children looked up to the warrior, as they should. Mak had patience, a sense of humor, and a strong sense of right and wrong.
Mak was strict with the children, but he respected them. Lucy sensed they hadn’t had much of that in their life, except from Jade, their guardian and teacher. They loved her, but these boys desperately needed the presence of a male role model in their life. As giving as Makov was, there was only one of him and seven boys. And he had a farm to run, which included more than tending to his crops.
Although Little Melikk couldn’t push his way through the older boys, he had the heart of a zyanthan warrior. She’d seen that from the moment he’d offered her his seat on the ship and declared himself her protector.
This warrior here—the one with the tattoos on his biceps and a face that ended in a strong chin—he hadn’t dismissed Little Melikk but had spoken to him with respect. And the boy’s eyes lit up.
She wanted to tell this warrior, Melikk, that he’d done more for that child’s self-esteem in a few minutes than she had in weeks. Telling Little Melikk he deserved whatever name he chose, instead of some degrading number, was wonderful.
But each time she opened her mouth, nothing came out.
Her ability to talk had left her five months ago when the slavers had killed Rachel, the only one who had ever looked out for her. Rachel had watched over Lucy every leg of their journey from Earth. She’d been the sister Lucy never had.
“And if you hold the knife clasped along the hilt in this manner,” the warrior continued, demonstrating how to wield a knife. “You can apply more force. But for a female, I recommend slicing fast and deep, for shock, enough to buy you time to run.”
He tilted his head, his horns folding back slightly as if he was puzzled. “Are you listening?”
She nodded and mimicked the motions he’d shown her, using her knife. McKenna had given her a knife to make her feel safer. Nothing would ever do that, but she enjoyed having a knife again. Back home, she’d always had a blade in her pocket. It was practical on a ranch.
Melikk rose, and she startled.
Stupid, stupid, stupid, Lucy. Get ahold of yourself. The male only stood up to stretch his legs. He’s a big guy. Probably not used to squatting in the hay so long.
Melikk held out his hand, fingers splayed, palm outward.
Inwardly, she smiled. She liked this warrior, his patience and easy-going manner. He didn’t try to force her to accept his presence or treat her like she wasn’t worthy of his time.
Her eyes flicked from his hands to his eyes. Kind eyes, deep blue like the color of his skin. She wasn’t quite sure why she trusted him, considering she really didn’t know him, but she did. Likely, it was nothing more than her brain acknowledging that the warrior wouldn’t be on Makov’s farm unless he’d been invited. Their pet skoth would have ripped him to shreds otherwise.
“I got some food!” Little Melikk called out.
She released a breath she hadn’t realized she’d been holding as Little Melikk sped past the warrior and flung himself against her legs, wrapping his little arms around her in a tight hold like he never wanted to let go. She often wondered if those hugs she loved so much were for her benefit or his. Either way, she treasured every one of them.
Lucy bent down and squeezed the child, hoping he understood how she felt about him. Jade made a point of hugging all the children. Emily and McKenna too, but the kids all looked at Little Melikk with envy when she hugged him. Maybe one day she’d regain her voice so she could ask Jade why.
Jade was their teacher back on Zyan, and in a way, she’d become their unofficial adoptive mother since they had no parents. These children, with their light blue skin, light eyes and horns, and white hair, were looked down on by other zyanthans. It was a shame, especially considering how smart and loving they were.
“Let’s see what delectables you brought us, Melikk,” the warrior said.
“Torin says only one of us should have the name Melikk.”
Her eyes flew to the warrior, concerned that he would agree. She didn’t want the child giving up a name in which he held such pride.
The warrior gently squeezed Little Melikk’s shoulder. “That’s only because Torin gets confused easily. One too many knocks on the head. We will continue to call you Melikk.”
“Torin said Melikk was a good name for me. He said you should change your name.”
“And I suspect Torin had a suggestion for what my new name should be, didn’t he?” the warrior asked, his eyes fill with mirth.
“I’m afraid to ask. Go ahead, what is it?” Melikk took a deep, overdramatic breath like he feared what the child would say.
Little Melikk puffed out his chest and his horns straightened. “Teacup.”
“What is Teacup?” the warrior asked, his horns rising.
Little Melikk shrugged. “He didn’t say.”
Lucy slapped her hand over her mouth, but it failed to hide her laugh. Both zyanthans looked at her, and the corners of the Warrior’s mouth kicked up in a smile. A deliciously warm smile that made her knees wobble and her insides flutter.
“If Chloe likes it, then it can’t be that bad,” the warrior said.
“Torin said you wouldn’t like the name. Why would he give you a name you don’t like?”
“To irritate me.” The warrior put a hand on Little Melikk’s shoulder and squeezed gently. “Do not worry about my commander. He is a fair male. Most of the time. But there is no reason we cannot both have the name Melikk.”
“Really?” Little Melikk said, his eyes lighting up once again.
Oh, how she loved this warrior’s patience and understanding. He didn’t see Little Melikk as eeshone, but as a youngling who mattered.
Lucy’s eyes wandered down the warrior. The leather vest he wore was open in front, leaving his tattoos on display, customary among zyanthan warriors.
Melikk’s tattoos were similar to Mak’s. The series of swirls and lines started at Melikk’s right shoulder and crossed over an impressive chest to his opposite hip. Bands of tattoos curled around his biceps. She wished she could ask him what they meant, why only warriors had tattoos on Zyan.
So many questions flooded her brain and she could ask none of them. Or write them out. Her dad had been too afraid to teach her how to read. He’d been too afraid to do anything that would gain the attention of the Brotherhood or their alien rulers.
“Are you ill, Chloe?” the warrior asked, genuine concern in his voice.
He was worried about her. That warmed her.
“Perhaps you’d prefer we return to the house to eat the evening meal.”
She shook her head. He’d guessed right before. With so many people already living here plus the arrival of Torin and Ruby, all the excitement and noise would be overwhelming. She preferred the calm and quiet of the barn.
The frish smelled no worse than the horses back home. Granted, the frish were ugly beasts, with their green and yellow stripes, and quills on their face and running down their necks, but she’d come to love their gentle nature.
“Then we shall feast here,” Melikk said as he took the tray from Little Melikk and set it on the table.
“There are work stools in the frish stall,” Little Melikk offered.
“Then bring three over.”
“Three? You want me here?” the boy asked.
“If you would like. Though I understand if you prefer to be inside the house where it doesn’t smell of frish. I’m rather used to the smell. I grew up on a farm similar to this.”
Lucy smiled, watching the two. She wished she could thank the warrior for including Little Melikk. The boy’s horns straightened with pride and he puffed out his chest. He’d make a fine warrior someday, if he would only believe he could be a warrior.
On the flight to Affinia, all the eeshone children had looked at Havok in awe, constantly questioning him about how an eeshone had become a warrior. No matter how often Jade told them they could be anything they wanted, they didn’t believe her.
Lucy had been told the same from the time she was a child. Girls aren’t allowed to read. Girls don’t go to school. Girls don’t question men.
Maybe if she’d questioned more, learned to fight back, she could have prevented her uncle from putting her on that ship for mail order brides. He said it was for her own good, to tame her wild streak.
And Rachel wouldn’t be dead as a result.
A hand touched Lucy’s cheek, causing her to jump and trip over a stool that hadn’t been there a moment ago. Strong hands caught her.
“My apologies, Chloe. You seemed lost in thought,” Melikk said, “I called your name but you didn’t respond.”
No, he called her Chloe. Not her name. But she couldn’t tell him that, just like she couldn’t explain how she zoned out every time she thought about that damned ship. And Rachel.
Melikk nodded toward the stool she’d tripped over as he righted it. “The youngling, I mean Melikk. That feels so odd to say, but I like sharing my name with such a bright and brave youngling. Anyway, he brought the stools and then left. He said it was his turn to help set the table tonight, and he didn’t want Jade to get mad at him for missing his duty.”
Jade wouldn’t get mad. Little Melikk was one of the most obedient of the children because he feared being sent back to Zyan, away from the other children, away from her.
Lucy wished she could tell him that wouldn’t happen. Or tell Jade what Melikk feared so she could set him straight. Damn voice just wouldn’t work.
The warrior’s fingers hovered near her cheek where he’d caressed her, to gain her attention. His touch had been gentle, and God help her, she wanted to feel his touch again.
Melikk eased away slowly. Already, she felt the loss of his warmth, his compassion. She wanted to lose herself and her memories in this male for just a few moments more.