The rainy season was almost here. At least that was what Risk and his brothers said. They talked about the scent of rain on the wind and the chill in the air, then looked puzzled when none of the women knew what they were talking about.
As far as she was concerned, the air was just as balmy as always. In fact, it was so mild that Joy and the others wore simple wraps that were loose and comfortable. They all had at least one pair of heavy pants and footwear for the days they went into the woods, but that didn’t happen often. Too many things in the forest were eager to find out if humans were edible. Between the Black Fangs, the tusk hoppers, and the local version of serpents, Joy was quite content to stay in the safer areas.
At the moment she was paddling her feet in the cool depths of the river, watching as a light rain made it look like a thousand fairies danced across the surface of the slow-moving water. She’d fallen in love with this spot the moment Risk had brought her here the first time. She’d envisioned a tiny pool she could splash around in, but this was so much better.
Boulders smoothed by decades, or maybe even centuries, of flowing water lined the deep pool. They provided comfortable spots to sunbathe, swim, or just sit and think as the music of the river melded with the sounds of the forest. It was a place of peace of and happiness for her and Risk both.
Today wasn’t a day for swimming, though. Risk had gone hunting this morning with his brothers, and she’d taken this quiet time to think about something Bysshe had mentioned to her the night before while they attended the monthly gathering.
The android might be a machine, but he had more compassion than many biological beings she’d met. He was worried about his adopted clan—the fa’rel.
“They need to learn how to get along with each other without coming to blows,” he’d said after a brawl between two of the still unmated males. It took four more of the clan to separate the combatants. Risk had explained the tension that always arose when they were in each other’s company. She’d seen it for herself more than once, but this was the first time it resulted in a physical fight. Risk had leaped in to break it up and earned himself a black eye for his trouble.
They’d left after that, which resulted in a little first aid and a lot of naughty nurse teasing that resulted in a long, sleepless night for both of them.
She grinned at the memory. Risk made her happier than she ever imagined possible. But not all his brothers had found mates among the remaining survivors of the Bountiful Harvest, and some of them now struggled with the changes to their clan and their brothers’ devotion to their mates. Bysshe was right. Something had to be done… and Bysshe thought she was the one to do it. But how?
Risk roared in greeting sometime later, pulling her out of her reverie. She whistled back, a sound none of the fa’rel could make because of their fangs. He appeared at the river’s edge seconds later, grinning broadly. He’d already stripped out of what little armor he wore while hunting, though he still had blades lashed to both biceps.
He plunged into the water, throwing up spray in all directions. Joy laughed and let it drench her. She didn’t care. She was already wet from the rain anyway.
He surfaced in a surge of foam, still grinning, and she hopped off the rock and into his arms. “Did you miss me?” she asked between kisses.
“Every second I was gone,” he spun her around and started back toward their home. “And now I am going to do to you all the things I thought about while we were apart.”
“Is there a list? Can I hear it?” she teased.
“Oh yes, there is a list. It is quite long and detailed.” He leered at her and waggled his brows in a way that made her laugh even harder.
That’s when it struck her. When she met Risk, he hadn’t been playful like this. It had developed as they’d gotten to know each other.
“Risk, I hate to do this, but I need to ask a serious question.”
He stopped, still thigh deep in the river, and growled at her. “Now? Why?”
He huffed and bared his teeth. “What is your question?”
“Did any of you play when you were young?”
He blinked at her. “We played war games.”
“That’s not what I meant. Did you actually play? You know, have fun? Chase each other. Play games?”
“Sometimes.” His expression softened and she caught a glimmer of sadness in his golden eyes. “Rarely. And never once we reached what Bysshe called puberty. We fought too much to be allowed to be together in the same room after that.”
And there it was. Her beautiful mate had never been a child. Not in any meaningful way. None of them knew how to interact because the verexi abused their creations from an early age. It saddened and sickened her every time she thought about it.
“I’m sorry, love. I wish I could go back and fix things so you never had to live that way.”
He cocked his head to one side, then bent his head to kiss her again. “I don’t regret it, little moon. My past led me here, to this place, and to you. Was it an easy path? No. But it was worth it.”
Her heart, already full of love for him, overflowed. “I love you too, Risk. And now, I think I know how to help your brothers.”
He scowled. “I already don’t like this idea. Why are you helping them? They have their own females.”
She touched his cheek just below the last traces of swelling from last night’s black eye. “Not all of them do. And those are the ones I’m worried about. The fighting is getting worse.”
He nuzzled her fingers and sighed. “It is. But I still don’t like it. You should not be worried about anyone but me.”
“I am worried about them because they are your family. Your brothers.” She kissed him softly. “And I know how to help them.”
“This better not involve pudding,” he muttered.
“Definitely not. They need to learn to have fun. To play and have fun. Maybe we need to set up some sports teams. Oh! And games nights. You all need to learn how to get on with each other without brawling.” Her mind raced and her mouth just kept moving to keep up. “The other women can help. It will be fun! I need to tell Bysshe all about this idea. He must know all sorts of games. That’s part of his base programming.”
“Later.” Risk stalked back to shore. “You can talk about all this later. Now, you and I are going to play our own games… and no one else is invited.”
She laughed and hugged him. “I love you. And there’s no one else in the galaxy I’d play with but my pudding.”