WARNING: If you haven't read the Baltin Trilogy yet, MAJOR spoilers if you continue reading.
I will die a thousand times or burn a thousand worlds if it means my family stays safe, stays alive.
Firelight plays over Tilly’s sleeping face, highlighting the sharp angles of her upturned nose, throwing shadows under her cheekbones, revealing freckles scattered across her skin.
Pops and hisses from the campfire bounce around the cave’s interior. Moisture from an earlier spring thunderstorm ladens the air with humidity.
Tenderly, I run my index finger along her jaw and wirelessly connect to the nanobots circulating in her blood, requesting an update on her vitals.
Body temperature 98.8
White blood cell count 5.2
SpO2 at 99%
More information flows seamlessly. I mentally store it in a digital file for later extraction and comparison to the fifty other stats I’ve taken since yesterday.
She shifts her spine against my chest and lets out a quiet sigh, her eyelids fluttering.
Has it only been two days since we’ve been reunited?
Those six weeks after I died had felt like six years. I’d waded through bogs, trudged through deserts, and skirted around dilapidated cities with only two goals: evasion and reunion. To reach the only person in the world who mattered more to me than the entire universe, I’d had to escape notice from Rhys and his Henokan henchmen, evade detection by lingering rebel Baltins, and keep out of sight of humans. If I’d been caught by Henokans, they’d have ripped me apart piece by piece.
My own people, the Baltins, wouldn’t have been much better. They’d have tried to ensnare me into their never-ending circus of political quagmires.
Humans were no challenge against my body’s tech. One shot of a pulse ray from my hand and they’d burst out of existence.
But I’m not that man anymore. Or cyborg. Whatever.
Sparky sacrificed himself so I could live, and the journey back to Tilly gave me a lot to process. A lot to appreciate. I won’t waste his gift. Sometimes, in the dead of night, when all is quiet and I drift toward sleep, I can almost imagine him somewhere deep inside my head, lingering in the circuitry, or—
“Jareth?” Tilly whispers. “Everything okay?”
“Shh, Red.” I lean my mouth next to her earlobe. “Everything’s fine. Go back to sleep.”
She yawns. “Okay.” Her breathing slows and after a minute, she relaxes.
KJ, the puppy I took from Kodiak and Zaria’s litter, lies snuggled against Tilly’s chest, his tiny paws twitching against the covers as he sleeps.
I curve a hand over her swelling stomach, cradling our unborn child. Fierce protection washes over me. Everything I could ever want or ever love rests next to me tonight.
Placing a kiss on her temple, I rest my cheek on the mattress and hug her warm, sleeping form closer. Her soft, coppery hair tickles my nose, and I breathe in citrus, freshly washed skin, and home.
My home. My love. My salvation.
Before dawn, I quietly extricate myself from the covers to stoke the fire, keeping the interior warm for Tilly and KJ. Once the new log on the pile begins to catch, I run a quick scan on the surrounding forest outside.
My sensor range is a thousand meters, so I probe in all directions, ensuring no others linger in the area. A ruthless scavenger could pose a threat to my family, and I’ll not hesitate to kill before they ever have a chance to reach the safety of our cave.
Several foraging raccoons and a family of opossums register on the internal readouts, but other than native wildlife, all is quiet and safe.
With a gentle push, I prop open the screen door Tilly finds so comical to slip outside into the pre-dawn silence.
When I locate a flat boulder off to the side of the entrance, I sit on the cool stone and let my gaze rove over the oak trees, which stand tall and proud like sentinels. The splendor of Earth’s natural beauty floods my senses. I’ve always enjoyed the solitude of being in nature and away from the trappings of royal duties, political deceit, and the technological wonders my people love so much.
I never want to go back to that existence.
Baltins might enjoy the artificiality of our advancements, but after experiencing those painful costs firsthand, I relish the simplicity of natural things.
Nearby oak and mesquite trees sprout green leaves from their brown branches. Farther off, as the sun’s first rays shoot orange and pink bursts into the sky, a chorus of cooing doves sing and break the morning’s quiet.
I could live here forever. And I would, except one tiny thing bothers me.
Though I retain a plethora of Baltin knowledge in my head, plus everything humans shared online before my arrival, it doesn’t replace the miracles of Baltin medical technology and the expertise of our doctors.
Deep worry churns in my heart at the thought of something going wrong while she carries our son.
A human has never given birth to a Baltin child. How do I know there won’t be complications down the road? But if I reveal to my people I’m still very much alive by subjecting Tilly to a medical exam, it puts a fresh target on us.
Not just because I’m their king who disbanded the guiding council and exiled my mother for disobedience and ultimately killing her, but because Tilly’s their lawful queen…and human. Plenty of people, including my mother, hated the idea of Baltins mingling their blood and lineage with a lesser race.
Technically, though, Tilly carries remnants of our ancient ancestor’s genes, making her a long-lost cousin of our race.
“Boo.” Her warm arms slip around my neck and she props her chin on my shoulder. “Did I scare you?”
I chuckle. “No, I heard you.”
“What?” She kisses my cheek and slides in next to me. “How?”
“How do you think?” I wrap an arm around her shoulders and draw her into my side.
Daylight chases away the darkness, and golden light spills across the tops of the trees and through the gaps between the branches, bathing her face in softness.
“Oh, those fancy f*ckin’ abilities you got, huh?” Snuggling into me, she laces her hand with mine and snickers. “Well, just so you know, you woke me up and you know how much I hate getting up before the sun.”
“Then I guess I have no choice but to make it up to you, milady.” I let go of her hand and slip an arm under her legs, support her back with my other, and lift her onto my lap.
Giggling, she loops her fingers at the nape of my neck and stares up at me with those bright, emerald eyes, increasing my heart rate. “Oh, that sounds fun.”
“Let’s play a game.” Already imagining her little body naked and squirming beneath mine, I enjoy the thrill of heat coursing through my blood.
“You and your damn games, Jareth.” Even though her words admonish, her tone is breathless, and I detect an acceleration in her pulse and a one-degree rise in body temperature.
Oh yeah, she wants to act like she’s not intrigued, but she’s not fooling me.
I stand and carry her the three meters to the door, wedge it open with a foot, and step inside.
KJ, now burrowed under the blankets with only his nose peeking out, still sleeps. A puppy his age, eight weeks old, needs a lot of rest.
“This game doesn’t have a winner or loser.” I stride through the anterior chamber, giving a cursory glance at the fire, ensuring it remains contained in its firepit.
“Then what’s the point?” Tilly’s fingers work at the top two buttons of my flannel shirt, recovered from a clothing stash from when I’d been here before.
Back when I ran from the nightmare I’d helped unleash on humanity.
“The point, my little hellcat—” I wind my way through a half dozen tunnels, careful not to jostle or scrape her body against the rough, narrow passages. “—is to have fun.”
“And here I thought you always played to win, no matter the cost.” She places her mouth at the hollow of my throat and nips the skin gently.
I grip her tighter. “If you don’t stop that, I’m going to strip you naked, hold you down, and torture you, starting with your mouth and not stopping until I reach your toes, paying special attention to my favorite parts in-between.”
Even in the dark, my enhanced vision picks up the heat flushing her cheeks as she pulls her mouth away, a shy grin curving her pink, tempting lips. “Is…is that supposed to be a threat?” she whispers.
“Oh, Red. It’s a promise.” Increasing the pace, I reach my destination and carefully lower her feet to the smooth stone. “No more lies and no more threats, but plenty of sweet, sweet promises.” I slide a hand under her T-shirt, skimming up the smooth flesh of her waist until I reach her bare breasts and tweak the sensitive skin, grinding myself against her hips.
She gasps, then lets out a soft moan as my fingers stroke and tease.
“Now,” I breathe into her ear, kissing at her neck. “This game is called let’s see who can get naked the fastest.”
A shaky laugh escapes and she pulls back to gaze at my face. “I’ve missed you so much.” Her fist bunches the front of my shirt in a tight grip. “Promise you’ll never leave me again, even if you think it’s the right thing to do.”
“Never again.” My desire cools and I move my hands to cup her cheeks, tilting her head upward.
“Promise, Jareth.” Desperation clouds her eyes. “Say the words. Please.”
“Red”—I place my forehead against hers and look her straight in the eye—“I will never, ever leave you again. Period.”
“Good.” Unshed moisture glimmers along the base of her lashes. A faint line mars the skin between her eyebrows. “I can’t ever go through that pain again. It was even worse than losing my parents and friends.” She grimaces, then buries her face into my chest and clings. Terrible, desperate sobs wrack her body and echo in the darkened room.
“It’s okay,” I murmur, stroking her hair then pulling her tight against my body. “Things are going to be better—for both of us.” Reaching out to a table against the wall, I snag a disposable lighter and flick the wheel, setting the flame to a fat candle, lighting the room so Tilly can see.
“I’m sorry. I don’t mean to be such a big fucking crybaby. I’m happy, I truly am, it’s just being held by you again after seeing you burned and broken, then watching your body go into a grave feels like a dream, like any moment someone’s going to grab me by the shoulders and shake me awake, crashing me back to my old life.”
A quick scan reveals her progesterone and estrogen levels have risen over the past few hours.
“You’re not a crybaby, Red. It’s just the pregnancy hormones. But…” With my lips, I brush the tracks of her tears, the saltiness mingling with the sweet taste that’s hers alone. “I will never”—a tiny kiss on her temple—“ever leave you or our son again. I swear it with my whole heart. You will not be alone. You will not be unloved. You will not be sad. Never again.”
She nods, then sniffs and wipes her nose, looking around. “I love you.”
“I love you, too. So damn much.”
She points to the cenote that takes up most of this chamber. From a small hole high in the cave roof, faint morning sunshine slants downward, shining on the calm surface of the water. “We going for a swim?” A mischievous grin tips a corner of her mouth, the sadness in her eyes morphing to slyness.
“More specifically a skinny dip.” I grab the hem of her shirt and lift, exposing the cute little belly just beginning to show.
“Do you love me enough to let me pick a game?”
I return my attention to her face, cock my head, and pull her hips closer. “Hmm. Is it going to be a kinky kind of game?”
Her laughter rings throughout the steamy cavern. “You’re so bad.” With a coy glance through her lashes, she places her fingers on the band of my jeans and unsnaps the metal button. “First rule—” She pushes my arms to my sides. “—hands to yourself.”
“Red, come on. How can I have any fun if I can’t touch you?”
She pulls my zipper down, the sound of the rasping metal teeth broken by an occasional drip of water into the pool. Lifting onto her tippy toes, she yanks me down to her level. “Lose your pants and briefs. Now, pretty boy.”
In a nanosecond, I tear the denim jeans and cotton underwear from my body. The material resembles torn rags with the force of destruction. I toss them behind my shoulders.
Her eyes widen and her mouth drops open. “Sometimes, I forget how strong you are.” She shakes her head, smiles, then perches on a rocky edge of the pool, her back to the water. Sliding her gaze over my body, she twirls a finger. “Let me see those tattoos on your spine, too.”
“You do realize what’s wrong with your game, right?” Obliging her, I turn to give her my back for five seconds then face forward again. Even though I’m standing before her without a stitch of clothing on, it doesn’t bother me. I lost any sense of modesty years ago when the medical teams restructured my body starting at the molecular level.
Plus, the way her stare roves my naked skin tells me she’s enjoying the show. If there’s one thing I love more than games, it’s pleasing my little hellion of a wife.
I straighten my shoulders and widen my stance, giving her a fully unobstructed view.
She bites her bottom lip, then swipes it with her tongue, cheeks reddening. “You’re absolute perfection.”
“I’m built to please, my queen.” I throw her a lazy grin. “And you’d better get naked before I decide to cheat and have my way with you.”
“This is my game. Don’t you dare.”
“Oh, I dare, Red, I dare.” With a slow, measured gait, I stalk in her direction.
Shrieking, she jumps to her feet but I’m on her before she can bolt.