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Excerpt for Mercenary (Star Minds Lone Wolves) by , available in its entirety at Smashwords



Star Minds Lone Wolves

MERCENARY

Barbara G. Tarn


***

Barbara G.Tarn copyright © 2018

electronic edition by Unicorn Productions

Cover Art composite by UPB

Blood Angel © Ravven/Depositphoto

City futuristic landscape © innovari/Depositphoto

September 2018

***

PART ONE: The past


CHAPTER ONE

M'est'aera, Galactic Year 5215. The winged girls hopped off the stage and headed backstage, accompanied by the thunderous applause of parents and other relatives. Their mothers were waiting for them in the dressing room.

"Come here, Cherry Pie." Mom helped her out of the frilly dress she had worn for the pageant and into her normal, tight-fitting clothes with no back to allow her black feathered wings movement.

Mom was proud of her as usual, even though this time she didn't win. She'd been winning beauty pageants since she was four. She'd been a child model for even longer, with the pseudonym Cherub that apparently matched her golden curly tops.

She had seen images of cherubs, but they usually had white wings and were naked. She was never naked. They also seemed to be male, and she was definitely a girl.

Of course among Humanoids like Mom it was an easy win. Not so with Carians like Dad, obviously.

Mom put the tiara on the vanity she had been assigned in the backstage of the beauty pageant and then pulled her closer. Sitting, Mom was shorter than she was, but even Dad said she was tall for her nine years.

Mom took both her hands and seemed to hesitate. Cherry had inherited her golden mane, blue eyes and fair skin, but the wings were all Dad's. She was half-blood, of two worlds, with mixed Carian and Humanoid chromosomes, a miracle with wings that many Humanoids considered divine.

She felt lucky, until she saw Mom's face go all serious.

"Honey, Mom and Dad need a break. You're going to fly with him one last time, then we're leaving."

"For good?" she asked, shocked.

"For a job that will keep me away for a long time," Mom said, but she wasn't looking her in the eyes. Humanoids couldn't look you in the eyes when they lied, that much she knew. "Possibly years."

"You're breaking up? I knew it!" her voice went up a notch, a high pitch that almost sounded like a Carian scream. "Is it my fault?"

"No, no, no, Cherry Pie, it's not your fault! We both love you very much, but we need to be apart for some time, you understand? I miss completely Humanoid planets, I've been living with Carians for too long..."

She frowned. She had noticed her parents were fighting more often lately. Maybe they really only needed a break. Maybe her wingless mother would be happier on a Humanoid planet.

It was her turn to look away.

"Fine," she muttered. "Can I go, now?"

"Sure, honey." Her mother caressed her hair with a weak smile. Her eyes were still sad. "I'll see you tonight."

She ran out of the dressing room and the building to where Dad was waiting for her. For Mom's sake he had shifted shape and looked like a slender, gorgeous man with raven shoulder-length curls and feathered wings, wearing pants and a back-less shirt.

She ran to him and he took her in his arms, letting her stamp a wet kiss on his smooth cheek. He laughed as he took her away from the building and the other people present. As soon as they were away from prying eyes, he grew an eagle's beak, and his human features vanished from his eagle's head.

He put her down as he completed the transformation and soon they were airborne, a pure-blooded Carian and his half-blood daughter flying in the blue sky of a barren planet orbiting a hyperactive white star.

The home to a silicon-age civilization who had already developed cybernetic technology, it was her father's home world. She had been born on D'est'ic, where half-bloods like her abounded, but she'd been visiting her father's relatives when the pageant had taken place.

She couldn't shift shape and take Carian form, hence she hadn't won first prize like in the Humanoid pageants, but she didn't care. She happily flapped her wings, following her father's movements in the sky, until they perched on the top of a rock arch to rest.

The aerial architecture of the Carian town could still be seen in the desert mist, but the rock arch was a quiet place. Only the wind whispered in their ears. Around them rock formations took strange shapes, from caves to monoliths to strange faces of red stone.

She usually liked to sit on that rock arch and look around at the desert landscape under the blue sky, but today she wasn't enjoying it.

"Mom says we're leaving without you," she said, putting her head against his arm. He had taken human form again to allow her to nestle against him. "That she has had enough of Carians."

"She can't fly and she's growing restless." He sighed. "I'm sorry, qu-mao, I tried to make it work, but she's determined to take you away from me."

"Can I still call you?" she asked, pouting.

"Of course, whenever you want. And when you want to see me, you only have to ask. But be aware that on Humanoid planets, Carians are often stared at. You're half-blood, so you'll be fine."

"I don't want to model anymore, then," she said. "And enough beauty pageants!"

"I hope it's not because you didn't win this one."

"No, I'm just sick of the attention and being paraded around."

"You'll have to talk to your mother about that," he said, caressing her wings.

"Can I stay with you?"

"No, qu-mao. It would break your mother's heart."

She wasn't happy at all. "Where will we go? Do you know where Mom will take me?"

"Back to Gweltaz, probably, at least at first. Then who knows. You know we diplomats never stay long anywhere. How many planets have you visited so far?"

She didn't remember them all, but she knew she'd seen Ypsilanti and M'est'aera. Her parents had gotten married here, on her father's home world and then on Gweltaz, where her mother had been born, when she was already five. And now, four years later, they were breaking up. It was unfair.

"I want you two to stay together. Can you at least be on the same planet?" she asked.

"I will try," he promised.

"You have more freedom of movement, you can choose where you want to go," she said. "I know because I asked qu-lei."

Qu-mao was Carian for "my baby" and qu-lei for "my granny" – she had asked many questions of her father's mother that summer. She had seen it coming and she wanted to be informed of her options whenever her parents decided to tell her they were giving up their relationship.

"Aren't we smart, qu-mao?" He ruffled her hair and smiled. "I promise I'll do my best to be on hand when you need me." He turned serious again. "I will not let your mother take you away from me and bind you to the ground because she doesn't have wings. But promise me you will be good to her because she can't live without you."

"Yes, Dad," she said morosely. "I'll miss this world."

"It's barren and boring for Humanoids…" he said, amused.

"I like it. Maybe we could go back to D'est'ic with Mom? I don't remember it at all…"

***

The good thing about Ulba'wis was that since most of the population was dark-skinned, both she and Mom looked like white flies and couldn't blend in even if they tried really hard. She was happy to discover that, since it would mean their stay would be short.

In the meantime she must enjoy what she had – namely a friendly neighbor in the condo her mother had rented at the Ulba'wissian capital's diplomatic enclave. D'ash'im was ten, with a short build, golden-brown skin, a striking scar and close-cropped curly dark red hair.

One of his hobbies was eavesdropping and he was very curious about other races. His favorite sin was gluttony and he was close to getting fat if he weren't also a hyperactive child. He was graceful and not very fast.

They were sitting by the common pool in the courtyard under a scorching summer sun. The other children were all in the water, but she didn't like getting her wings wet. After a couple of dives, D'ash'im sat next to her and looked at her with his big brown eyes.

"What's your name, winged girl?" he asked her about a month after she had settled in the condo.

"My name is Cer'iss'es O'ryniss, but my Humanoid relatives call me Cherry," she answered. "My father, U'o'oni O'ryniss, is from M'est'aera and my mother, Christel-Isis Bodyfelt, is from Gweltaz. I was born on D'est'ic, but I don't remember it because we travel a lot and change house every year or so."

"Yeah, my parents move around a lot too." D'ash'im sighed. "This Star Nations business is weird, don't you think?"

"I don't know, I wasn't born when the emperor was alive."

"Me neither, but I hear stories from adults around me." He shot her an impish smile.

"Where did your parents meet?" she asked.

"On Marc'harid. That's where I was born. They both worked for the Sire. They came back here after the emperor died since the Council of Five didn't need them anymore. Much less security needed on the former Imperial Planet these days." He chuckled and she smiled. "What about yours?"

"They met at the High Council," she answered. "He was the son of a Carian counselor, she worked with the Gweltazian delegation. They told me it was a fiery passion but they didn't get married until I was five. And now they're getting a divorce."

She frowned and he patted her shoulder with a sympathetic look on his face. Before he could ask or comment, she burst out, "How did you get that scar?"

"I was in an accident with the Celestial Sovereign," he said, absentmindedly touching the scar that disfigured his round face. "I can't do anything about this until I finish growing up, though. Is it ugly?"

"It's… striking, like my wings," she answered. "What's the Celestial Sovereign? A starship?"

"A passenger shuttle. It crashed on Xi-kong three years ago. I was lucky to make it out alive."

She was really impressed now. She knew he had siblings and both his parents, and she really hoped he'd be her friend for the time she would spend on Ulba'wis. And since his parents were also diplomats, maybe they could see each other again on some other planet.

CHAPTER TWO

Gweltaz, Galactic Year 5220. Cherry liked Mom's family house. Her grandparents were gone, but it was still lived in by her aunt, uncle and cousins, and they had reserved a room for her and Mom. Well, originally a room for Mom, Dad and her when she was a child, but now Dad was no longer welcome so she slept in the big double bed with Mom.

Although it was becoming awkward. She was now a little woman, Mom had done her talk and she was almost certain that as soon as she visited her father on M'est'aera a Carian aunt would do the same, but it was one more reason to have her own room, dammit. It was time her divorced parents gave her some privacy, especially since now she could choose who she wanted to stay with.

As soon as she had turned fourteen she had decided to spend one month with each, and then she would decide with whom she'd spend the remaining years until she could be considered adult. She had started with Gweltaz, where Maison Bodyfelt had welcomed her at the end of spring.

The trees in the orchard were covered in flowers and the garden was colorful and perfumed, so she spent a lot of time outside. It was more private than the crowded house: Mom, Uncle Nicolas Antoine Bodyfelt, Aunt Caterina Deramus and the cousins, Xavier, seventeen, Axelle, fifteen and Alexandra, twelve. That was a lot of people to deal with for an only child like her with no real friends.

Nobody was exactly her age, but she went out with Axelle and her friends who seemed to like her wings, especially Done Colly. Done had black hair and hazel eyes. He sought to prove himself to his peers and decided Axelle's pretty winged cousin would be a wonderful girlfriend to show around.

Cherry wasn't sure she liked him, though. He was awkward and obviously not used to courting girls. Not that she had that much experience in her wandering life. She was home-schooled and didn't have much interaction with other young people unless she visited her cousins – both Carian and Humanoid.

So she asked Axelle for advice.

"He wants to take me out. I think it's a date, and it would be my first. Should I go out with him or not?"

Axelle shrugged. She had close-cropped platinum blond hair and a small tic. She loved wild animals of any sort, rainy days, and the 'bad boy' look.

"He's not bad, but I don't like him. I mean I don't find him attractive enough to kiss him, you know?"

Cherry understood. She had seen kisses on holo-movies and web-series, and she was both curious and scared about them. Kisses were a Humanoid thing, but since she had a Humanoid mouth, she might as well try them.

"Tell you what, come with me next time I go out with his best friend," Axelle said after a moment. "Lucas has been after me for some time now. Why don't we give them a chance?"

"Where will we go?" Cherry asked, a little worried.

"We can ask them to take us wherever we want to go. They can drive, we can't… where would you like to visit?"

"I'd like to see that ancient building they talk so much about… is it far?"

"Taichoe Fortress? Yeah, it's a little out of reach. But we can ask them to take us to some creepy sites around here."

Cherry nodded, unconvinced. Creepy places with boys? Axelle wanted a reason to hug her boyfriend? Might be worth a try, though.

She prepared for the double date wearing one of her outfits for Humanoids, a dress made from dark purple fabric. It had a short narrow skirt that flared at the bottom with an empire waist and flower-like sleeves. It was accented with lace and had an open back for her wings. She always wore pants with Carians, but Humanoids couldn't fly, so she was able to wear gowns every now and then.

Axelle kept her tomboy looks with an outfit done in colors reminiscent of the inside of a seashell. She wore a wrap shirt with flower-like sleeves and a pair of leggings, as well as a pair of lace-up shoes and a medium-length jacket. Her accessories included a pair of bracelets and an elaborate circlet.

The boys had t-shirts and pants and hair gel and were clean-shaven. Lucas had pale skin, very long wavy red hair and deep blue eyes. He was a sucker for spicy food and lost causes. One of his hobbies was studying geography. He was competent and very trusting. He hated winter and strict regulations. He was wearing a leather jacket because he knew Axelle loved it.

They formed a strange couple, he with his long mane, she with her close-cropped hair, but Cherry thought they might become steady soon – if Lucas didn't do anything stupid during that date. Axelle was glad for Cherry's presence that gave her confidence.

"So, where do you want to go?" Lucas asked, since it was his father's car they were going to use.

"Softfade Heights!" Axelle suggested. "It's an old sawmill located out in the shrubland. It's been there for as long as anyone can remember. It's said that mysterious people perform strange rituals there. A scientist who went to visit it recently vanished without a trace. But we have Cherry who can fly and look for help!"

"Ah, so you're up for creepy places?" Done grinned. "Then I suggest Cardkiss Woods. It's a grove located out in the hills. Rumor has it that a body was hidden somewhere around the place. A woman was killed there recently."

"No, please, no places where murder happened," Cherry said, wrinkling her nose. Not really her idea of a romantic day out.

"Callfog Ruins," Axelle said. "It's a burned-out house located out in the shrubland. It was one of the filming locations for a well-known paranormal investigation movie. A man who went to visit it a long time ago vanished without a trace."

"How about Ladring Castle?" Done suggested, noticing Cherry's distraught face. "It looks very old-fashioned and is in poor condition, but we should be fine. The interior is done in faded colors. The yard is small and looks very formal."

"Also, it's rumored to be built over an old burial ground," Axelle teased. "But we're not staying the night, are we?"

"I doubt your parents would forgive me if I brought you back later than expected," Lucas said with a sigh. They had to be back by sunset and it was already almost lunch time. No time to waste.

"Let's just go to town," Done said. "There's plenty to do at the mall. Food, movies, shopping…"

"I like it!" Cherry brightened. Having company was already unfamiliar territory for her, she might as well go to a place she knew.

"I thought you wanted to visit the surroundings," Axelle complained.

"Then we should start earlier in the morning and maybe organize a trip to the Taichoe Fortress," she replied.

"She's right," Lucas said. "Let's just go to town."

***

Cherry hugged her pillow with a sigh. The bed sheets were cool on her belly, much like the air outside. Cherry folded her wings and waited for her mother to finish undressing and slide in bed next to her.

Mom slept on her back, but Cherry favored her belly, although sometimes she rolled on her side. When she had started sleeping with her mother, she had learned to be still so that her wings wouldn't get in her mother's face.

"How was your day, honey?" Mom asked, before switching off the light.

"It was all right," she muttered with a shrug.

Axelle and Lucas had kissed and kissed, but she had barely allowed Done to brush her lips. She didn't want to taste him at all. Which made him brood all the way back to the house. Hopefully he wouldn't come back and ask her out ever again.

"Do you like Done?"

"Not really. But I think Axelle likes Lucas a lot."

Mom sighed. "You are mostly Humanoid, Cherry Pie, you should try to interact with them more."

"Is that why I'm here? To learn sex with Humanoids?" she snapped, glaring at her mother. "I'm not ready, all right? I don't like when they get too close!"

"I know, Carians need more personal space than Humanoids. It took me some time to get closer to your father… when I was younger and crazy in love. Whenever you'll fall in love, you'll do it, with a Carian, a Humanoid or a Caroid. I'm not pressing you, honey, but I'm glad you're experimenting."

"I don't think I can stand a pure-blood," Cherry muttered. "I'm different. And they don't know how I feel."

"You can always try a Sire telepath," Mom said sourly, switching off the light.

Darkness hid her frown and Cherry sighed. Her mother was envious of her again. Because she was younger, prettier and winged. Maybe it was time she went to live with her father. She was certain her mother wouldn't die of heartbreak, although she'd pretend to. Cherry knew her well enough by now to know they could live without each other for the time being.

***

Since it was the time for experiments, Cherry decided to try a Carian as well. Qoria had red feathers and wings. His more human shape had red hair and emerald green eyes with pale skin, and his wings remained red.

Flying with him was fun, but she still didn't feel the need to mate. He was nicer than Done, but he didn't last much longer. When Cherry left M'est'aera with Dad, she knew she wouldn't miss him. At least Qoria wasn't trying to impress his peers by taking her out for a flight.

"Are you sure you want to stay with me?" Dad asked as they settled on the Galaxy Express. "I'm retiring from active service and would like to settle on D'est'ic, what do you think?"

She squealed in delight and hugged him. "Love you, Dad! Yes, that's exactly where I want to be for the next few years!"

"You need to stay put for some time, huh?" he asked with a smile. "Make friends and find a boyfriend…"

"Yes! And I don't think I like pure-blood boys, so I want to try other Caroids. Is it asking too much to be in the same place for a number of years?"

"No, it's not. But your mother will fight us."

"I can decide where I want to be, right?" She frowned, worried.

"Yes, you are old enough to decide, but you can't live on your own yet."

"So if you take me back to D'est'ic, Mom has no chance to keep me!"

She smiled, satisfied. If the judge asked her, she'd say that for her well-being she needed an environment where there were other Caroids. She needed to bond with her peers, to make friends, to stay in the same place for a number of years. If only her father could grant her that, she'd live with him, and that was final.

She wasn't completely surprised when her mother gave up on her. But she was bummed when Mom disowned her. Just because she had chosen her father over her.

"That's why I left you with her for five years," Dad said soothingly. "I knew she couldn't take it. Mammalians are too attached to their babies – or at least Humanoids are."

"I'm not a baby anymore!" she protested.

"I know, but for Christel you'll always be her baby. A baby who grew up and has become more beautiful than her."

Sounded like a bad fable. Her mother, not her stepmother, was jealous of her? Cherry sighed. Definitely time to start living without Mom.

CHAPTER THREE

Mega Arena, Galactic Year 5225. Cherry was excited to be in the crowd of Stardust Kay-low's first show. She had already seen him at Zaphadin's Last Show, the King of Music Farewell Performance, and had enjoyed his voice. He might not be as good a dancer as Zaphadin yet, but he showed promise.

Hence Cherry had taken the Galaxy Express with her best friend Ch'Shani Irol'o and they had reached the space station in orbit in Marc'harid's system, close to the former imperial planet that was also Kay-low's birthplace.

Both Caroids had done some modeling to gather the money for the trip and they were very excited to be there. For that first night Stardust Kay-low was alone on stage with his background dancers, but during the tour he'd be with the latest holographic stars who would sing and dance with him.

Except both Cherry and Ch'Shani preferred real people to holographic stars, hence they had done their best to be here tonight at the rising star's first solo show. The space station almost as big as a planet was the perfect place to enjoy a live show and they had already booked a hotel for the aftermath and a passenger shuttle for leaving, since the Galaxy Express wasn't coming back before the following week.

Stardust Kay-low was a handsome twenty-year-old Sire with long blond hair and tattooed arms. He had a crooning voice and could definitely hold an audience. Cherry and Ch'Shani screamed and clapped their hands till the end and almost flew to the stage to give him a hug.

But their own personal space would be shattered if they did so, thus they just stayed perched on the light turrets or fluttering above the audience where nobody would touch their wings and they could see and hear everything.

The show over, they waited for the arena to empty before heading for the exit. No flying out from open-air arenas, they'd have to wait until the crowds flowed out of the many gates.

They weren't the only ones who waited for the crowd to leave. There were a few Sire who seemed to have personal transport to the planet and a few more Caroids and Carians. And even a group of Felines who had enjoyed the show.

Cherry and Ch'Shani took the shuttle to their hotel with a Caroid and a Sire who had booked the same. The two young men seemed very interested in talking the girls into sharing their rooms. Cherry and Ch'Shani giggled but refused. They needed rest.

The Sire was called Kan-sim and he seemed smitten by Ch'Shani's red curls and dark brown eagle wings. He mentioned he had seen them at the annual reception at the former imperial palace that they had attended the previous year after the end of secondary school and he was glad to meet them again.

The Caroid was his cousin, Y'ormo Or'ory, who had come from D'est'ic to see the show. Neither of them had connections to Stardust Kay-low or they'd have shared their backstage passes with the girls.

"But we don't have backstage passes," Y'ormo said with a dazzling smile. He had dark skin and long black hair. His white feathered wings were the most beautiful sight Cherry had ever seen. Actually Y'ormo was the most handsome man she had ever seen.

Ch'Shani noticed him too. When they retired to their room, promising the young men they'd see them in the morning, Ch'Shani couldn't hide her admiration for Y'ormo. Cherry sighed. Ch'Shani was more extrovert than she was, she'd get the man.

They went to sleep and Cherry dreamed of Stardust Kay-low and Y'ormo.

The next morning they met the cousins in the breakfast room. Kan-sim was going back to Marc'harid but Y'ormo was leaving for D'est'ic with the same passenger line Cherry and Ch'Shani had booked. Kan-sim was obviously unhappy to hear it, but he hoped his cousin would get their contact information.

The Lady of Onuld had an ellipsoid hull and a rebuilt FTL drive which visibly distorted space when activated. It was equipped with sixteen first class staterooms and a hundred and fifty passenger cabins plus a landing shuttle.

The Caroids had booked the passenger cabins, Cherry sharing with Ch'Shani, Y'ormo paying extra for the single occupancy, but he didn't want to have a stranger share his sleeping space. As the starship took off from the Mega Arena, Cherry thought she would probably be the one who slept alone on this trip.

***

D'est'ic had six major landmasses, the largest of which was centered around the equatorial region. Its average temperature of about 60°F had been fairly stable over the last several hundred years, and it experienced low levels of geological activity in a few hotspots.

Being a mostly Carian/Caroid planet, it had aerial towns that looked like trees of glass and metal with balconies everywhere. The buildings either had very high ceilings or no ceilings at all – lots of terraces and bridges as if the inhabitants didn't care about the weather.

And they didn't except for protection of their furniture, computers and other devices, hence there were some roofs and multi-storied buildings. Public transport was mostly long distance flights that took people around. Since most inhabitants had wings, even rental cars and cabs had no roofs so they could sit comfortably in them with room for their folded wings.

Humanoids and other non-flying races crowded the lower grounds of the buildings while Draconians (the only Reptilian sub-race with wings), Carians and Caroids used the highest floors for living and working.

Cherry loved the aerial towns of D'est'ic. Now that she could choose where she wanted to live, she had decided to stay on her planet of birth. Her mother never visited, she had really disowned her. Cherry didn't care anymore. She had rebuilt her life on the planet of half-bloods and she was happy.

She could mingle with her peers or the pure-bloods, and her cousins on both sides found excuses to visit her. Axelle had a crush on her Carian cousin in human form, but Hia wasn't interested. He had just graduated from the space academy and was ready to become a starship pilot. In his Carian shape, Hia had four pairs of feathered wings and clawed hands and feet, but Axelle only saw him as a handsome dark-skinned, winged man.

Much like Y'ormo, except Y'ormo couldn't shift shape. Cherry hoped Axelle would never see him, since Ch'Shani was enough competition. On the Lady of Onuld he had kept to himself and Ch'Shani's attempts had led to nothing. But upon saying good-bye at the main D'est'ic spaceport, he had flashed a smile at Cherry that seemed to show a will to be in touch.

She had started her college course, studying the history and languages of the Star Nations. She wasn't too keen on following in her parents' footsteps, even though she was fluent in a few languages, so she might settle as a teacher which was something she could do from anywhere, even remotely.

She herself had studied remotely when her parents were busy hopping around the Milky Way. And teaching remotely meant nobody would intrude on her personal space that was becoming more and more important as she grew up.

Her Humanoid cousins had learned not to touch her wings without her permission, but other Humanoids weren't as discreet, hence she avoided fully Humanoid planets like her mother's.

She lived with her father and his second wife, Qaolou, a Carian technician with broad wings and a raptor-like beak. She usually wore military uniform and carried a laser cutter/welder. Qaolou was generous and quick-witted, and she was the best stepmother Cherry could wish for.

Cherry went to Qaolou to ask for advice about Y'ormo. She wasn't sure it was all right if she tried to contact him. Ch'Shani had moved on with her intense social life, but Cherry still thought about the handsome Caroid she had met at the Mega Arena a month ago.

If the Caroid lived on D'est'ic, she could see him again. Alone. She didn't need Ch'Shani's presence to go on a date. At nineteen she'd had her fair share of experiences with Carians, Humanoids and Caroids but hadn't found someone she wanted to spend her life with. But she kept dreaming about Y'ormo and didn't seem able to forget him.

"Would I be too forthcoming if I contacted him? I'm sure I can find him online…"

Qaolou pondered before answering. "I admit I'm older, so in my times I would have waited for him to call me," she said at last. "But things have changed a lot, so I'm not the best person to ask. What would Ch'Shani do?"

"If she hadn't already forgotten him, she'd call him." Cherry rolled her eyes.

"Well, then, call him." Qaolou preened her wing and then winked. "I'm sure from his reaction you'll know if it was the right move or not."

Cherry hated cold-calling people. Even with friends she had trouble. Even with her mother, who always seemed too busy to chat with her. She decided to write him a message instead. Let him initiate the call if he was interested.

She spent an afternoon perched on her stool, looking for him on the meganet. He didn't have a big online presence, but he was in a few groups. Cherry considered joining some of those groups and seeing how he reacted, but she really wasn't interested in sports and the Fans of Stardust Kay-low group was too big.

She had noticed she had trouble interacting in online groups with more than a thousand people, even though most of the group members weren't active. In the end, she did join the Fans of Stardust Kay-low and while she was still trying to come up with a nice message, he pinged her with a friendship request.

Cherry yelped as she accepted and they immediately started messaging. He admitted he wasn't too keen on being on the meganet, but some groups were useful to organize things. He preferred interacting in person, though.

He remembered her. He was still thinking about her. He hoped to see her again.

That night Cherry went to bed overjoyed. She hugged the pillow hoping she'd soon be hugging Y'ormo's chest instead. Before falling asleep she tried to imagine meeting him again. He'd be sweet and she'd be awed, and she imagined how they could be together as a couple.

At the same time, she was anxious about their possible date, since he was still a stranger. Although they had obviously liked each other immediately and she really hoped it would soon turn into something more.

She drifted off to sleep and dreamed of him, she was on D'est'ic and was looking for him everywhere, then a dark shadow hugged her and it was him and she was so happy to nestle against his chest. Then they had to run away because he was wanted for something but she knew only death could part them.

She awoke hoping at least some of her dream would come true, but she didn't have an actual date to look forward to. Yet.

***

Y'ormo called her while she was studying for an upcoming exam. Her room was hot, so she was fanning herself with the slow motion of her raven wings. Her long golden mane was tied in a bun and she had a sleeveless top that showed off some cleavage when his face smiled at her from the computer screen.

"When is your next session?" he asked upon hearing that she was preparing for an exam.

"Next month. What about you?"

"I got my degree. The trip to Marc'harid and the Mega Arena was to celebrate."

So he was slightly older than her. There wasn't much online, so she could only guess. She nodded.

"Listen, I need to go to Tai'ran for a job interview, but then I was thinking I could come over to Wor'ton later next month. When you're done with your exams, so you have time for me."

"That would be lovely. What if they hire you in Tai'ran?"

He chuckled. "I doubt it. I sent them my CV at my parents' insistence, but I don't like what they're offering. I'm going more out of duty than anything."

"Alone?"

"No, well, it's complicated. I'm with someone but I'm not happy, so I'm thinking of dumping them and…"

It wasn't what she wanted to know, but she took in the news. He had someone. Of course. He was handsome. That might be the reason he had ignored Ch'Shani. But now he was calling her.

"It's fine, I was just wondering."

"When you still live with your parents at twenty-three you have to follow the house rules."

"Tell me about it! Although my dad and my stepmother are darlings."

"What happened to your mother?"

"Divorced. She's Humanoid, couldn't stand the competition with a beautiful winged daughter."

He rolled his eyes. "I know exactly what you mean. Humanoid father who is too proud to leave and makes our lives miserable! That's why I don't want to end up with someone I'm not truly in love with."

"So this person you're with now is…?"

"We grew up together. But I guess we're now taking different paths. How about you, do you have anyone?"

"My parents were diplomats, so I don't really have childhood friends. Besides Ch'Shani and a group of other people I hang out with in Wor'ton, I don't have many friends."

His smile dazzled her. "We'll see to that," he promised.

***

Such a weird sensation meeting each other after three weeks of daily calls... Cherry was really in love now. Y'ormo was so sweet... a real gentleman! They cuddled and preened each other but didn't have sex yet. She wasn't feeling too good and he seemed to understand.

It felt like the start of a fairy tale even though they both trod carefully. They had to get to know each other and learn to share their personal space. She liked the way he caressed her wings and her hair, and she liked to touch his brown skin and white wings in return.

They flew together in the D'est'ic sky and nestled together on a terrace, talking of sweet nothings and making lazy plans for a common future. He called her by her full Carian name, Cer'iss'es, and the way he said it made it sound like a song...

A song of love that would last forever.

CHAPTER FOUR

D'est'ic, Galactic Year 5230. The fairy tale had turned into family life. Cherry had married Y'ormo a year after meeting him, but they had decided she should finish university before breeding.

Y'ormo had started working for a Carian company and his boss, E'Krakiee, was a Carian female with a degree in engineering. E'Krakiee had yellow feathers and clawed hands and feet. She was annoyed by members of the same sex and fancy parties. One of her hobbies was fighting. She was pessimistic and timid, but always allowed Y'ormo to take time off with his family when needed.

And there were now four of them in the small house perched on the outskirts of Wor'ton. Cherry worked from home and had more time to look after the twins. Ny'del was a little boy with red curls and fair skin like his mother and white wings like his father. Aw'eyra was a little girl with her father's raven hair and bronze skin and brownish feathered wings.

Y'ormo and Cherry invited every relative to the twin's second birthday, but Cherry's mother didn't show up, as usual. Her father's eyes filled with tears and he said that even though the colors were different, the twins reminded him of Cherry when she was a child.

Cherry wasn't sure how the conversation moved to her modeling years. Y'ormo wasn't aware of her being a former child model, but as soon as her father mentioned it, everybody wanted to know more and they gushed over the photos of Cherub, the little half-blood with curly tops and dark wings.

"We could do the same with the twins," Y'ormo suggested, brightening. "They're even cuter than you were."

"Daddy's pride," she teased. "If they don't mind… but as soon as they ask to stop, they stop."

"Why, your mother didn't let you stop when you asked?" he asked, surprised.

"I kept doing it – modeling and beauty pageants – because I thought that was what kept my parents together, but as soon as they announced they were parting ways, I decided I'd had enough of being paraded around."

"Yes, those were your exact words," her father said with a sigh. "You should have said something earlier… your mother was so happy to show you off!"


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