You’ll probably find this in the morning and tease me mercilessly for my theatrics, but for now, I’m going back to bed and to your arms. I intend to think up some brilliant rejoinders to the inevitable teasing as I warm myself against you. Perhaps I’ll be terrible and wake you for a kiss, though I know you’re tired, my strong, fearless Z.

I could watch you forever as you sleep, your lashes shadowing your cheekbones (it really is unfair that you have such beautiful ones you know), and your lips relaxed as they never are in life. I am definitely going to wake you.

—Your Sunny

ZIE ZEN HAD lived a long lifetime, and in that lifetime, he’d met countless people. Many of those people owed him favors. Some he’d never collect, his actions not undertaken for any personal gain, but because those actions spoke to the part of him that was and would always belong to Sunny.

Ashaya Aleine was one of the people he’d helped in Sunny’s name. The gifted neuroscientist was also a trusted friend, despite the wide difference in their ages, and so he’d spoken to her about his great-grandson. “Can you or Amara do anything about the gauntlet?” he asked her over the comm now. Ashaya’s twin was a true sociopath but for one thing—she loved Ashaya. For Ashaya alone, Amara would put her brilliant, broken mind to work on this complex problem.

Ashaya went as if to thrust a hand through her hair, then seemed to realize the electric mass was in a neat knot at the nape of her neck. She dropped the hand to her side, her forehead lined in thought and her distinctive blue-gray eyes striking against the deep brown of her skin. She’d never been so expressive when he’d known her in the Net.

“We’ve done a detailed first pass through the data you sent us last night,” she said. “The technology is highly experimental.” Folding her arms across a cardigan of pale gray, she shook her head. “It’s a stunning construct on one level but lethal on another—even Amara admits we’ll certainly kill Vasic if we attempt to remove it, and you know the razor-thin safety margins within which she operates.”

Zie Zen heard pained frustration in her tone. “Every fragment of data will assist,” he told this woman who had no genetic connection to him, but who he trusted more than any of his blood aside from Vasic. “Send through any and all information or theories you collect as you continue to explore possibilities.”

Ashaya didn’t argue with his request. “You’re worried you’ll need to move in an emergency situation.”

“It’s a ticking time bomb.” Fused to the body of a son who should’ve had a century more of life to live.

“I’ll forward you everything we have to this point and set up an automatic forward for any new material,” Ashaya said, open compassion in her gaze. “I’m sorry. I never realized how much he meant to you.”

“I did not allow anyone to realize. It was better that way.” Permitting them both to work in the shadows with no one aware that they were two sides of the same coin, one older, one younger. “And you, Ashaya? Are you well?”

“Oh, yes.” A deep poignancy to her expression, she said, “I sometimes feel as if I’ve been given too many gifts.”

“You’ve earned every one.” She’d saved the Psy race from the slavery of a hive mind, helped the humans develop a covert technology that appeared to protect them against psychic coercion, but most important of all, she’d fought for a child’s right to live.

Ashaya went to respond when there was a sound offscreen, and she turned, her face wreathed in a smile so vibrant, it held purest joy. “Keenan, come here. Grandpa Zen is on the comm.” Reaching down, she lifted her son into her arms, the boy’s eyes the same distinctive blue-gray as Ashaya’s, his skin the color of aged gold.

Keenan leaned forward excitedly. “Hi, Grandpa Zen!”

Zie Zen was listed as Keenan’s father on this extraordinary child’s birth certificate, but that was a fiction meant to preserve Keenan’s life. Now, the boy had a real father in the leopard changeling who’d mated with Ashaya. Zie Zen had kept an eye on the family unit from afar, seen photographs of the changeling playing with Keenan—the dominant male, who was a gifted sniper, treated Keenan with the same discipline and affection as if the boy was his own natural cub.

Keenan’s open smile, his hand pressed to the screen of the comm, was another reassurance that he was in good hands. Zie Zen caught not even a hint of the strained pain and fear that had so often been in his eyes at the start of his life. “Hello, Grandson,” he said. “What are your plans for this day?”

“We’re going to study the alphabet!” he cried, before lowering his voice. “I already know it, but some of my friends don’t, so I help them.”

“That is a good thing, Keenan.” The boy, Zie Zen thought, was showing every sign that he’d one day become a strong, honorable man. And unlike another child Zie Zen had once known, he was being given the chance to grow into himself in an environment where that honor and strength would be nurtured rather than abused.

Zie Zen had often wondered what would’ve happened had he simply stepped in and removed Vasic from the Arrow training program. At the time, he hadn’t done so because even he hadn’t been immune to the deadly power of the Council, and to show his hand in such a way would have jeopardized a thousand other lives. So he’d made the ruthless decision to sacrifice one small boy for the good of many.

Vasic did not blame Zie Zen for his choice, but then, Vasic did not expect anything from anyone, even from the one person he accepted as family. The matter of the gauntlet was the only time he had ever asked for Zie Zen’s help, even as he laid his own skills at Zie Zen’s disposal. Copyright 2016 - 2024