I look up, pushing my hair back off my face, and, as expected, my eyes immediately find Melchior. It's like they can't help but go to him whenever he's around. It’s been that way ever since he came from the Tribe’s caves to help.
The muted light in the makeshift lab we've put together reflects from his bronze-colored scales, the slight shimmer to them eye-catching on its own. It highlights his handsome face, with that strong jaw and broad forehead. It shines off his thick, dark hair and gilds the arc of his wings and his powerful tail.
I can't see the bright emerald of his eyes from this far away, just the dark fans of his lashes, but I know how mesmerizing they are against his tan skin and dark hair. That face doesn't take away from his impressive musculature either, accentuating the curve of his biceps, his pecs, those abs...
Feeling a flutter of reaction, I look away before he can catch me mooning over him like a schoolgirl. I try my best to refocus on the meteorite glass, which is what I'm supposed to be working on despite my wandering eyes.
Focus on the glass, not the hot dragon man, Addison.
It's easier said than done, but I need to finish the work. There have been some snags with the ancient technology shields that protect the city, and we need to figure out how to fix them.
I work for maybe ten minutes before my eyes wander over to Melchior again, watching as he frowns, focused on his own task. Why do I find that so adorable? He's proven himself to be a quick study, and the clear indication of his intelligence makes him even more intriguing. Damn it. I rip my eyes away and look down determinedly once more. I don't want to screw this up and make a mistake because I'm staring at Melchior.
I worked in the lab on the ship, and that knowledge has proven to be extremely valuable while we try to figure out this tech here on Tajss. And I have to say, I really like feeling like I'm important here in some way, like I'm needed. Maybe that sounds lame, but I'm not afraid of facing how I feel, even when I know exactly why I feel that way. It isn't a mystery.
I haven't felt important and needed very often in my life, not counting the brief time when I was a small child who was the apple of her father's eye. Right up until he left, of course.
My hands tighten at that thought, gripping the glass too firmly. Dangerously tight. I force myself to loosen my hold, shaking my head at myself. There's no point in focusing on past hurts. It does no good.
At least the painful memory succeeds in wiping away thoughts of Melchior just long enough that I fall back into the problem in front of me.
The meteorite glass has been working in the old Zmaj technology still here in the city, which is great. The problem is that we soon figured out it can't hold a charge for a longer duration. Which means if we use it as-is, the shields could very well fail at the worst time.
With the threat of the alien invaders always looming . . . yeah. We need to fix the issue ASAP.
When my hands cramp from using the small tools I need for the job, I straighten up again, shaking them out.
And, as I could have predicted, my eyes take the opportunity to seek out Melchior once more. He's still working diligently, his focus quite impressive. I wonder if he focuses on other things just as well...
I jerk guiltily, turning towards Errol. I know I'm blushing, but there's no way I can control that.
"Yes?" I ask, hoping he doesn't realize I was staring at Melchior. Daydreaming. At least he isn't privy to some of my more X-rated thoughts.
"Any progress?" he asks, looking up from his own work. Good—he wasn't looking at me.
"No," I report glumly. "It still won't hold a longer charge."
"I have not made much progress either," he admits. "Perhaps it is better that we stop for the day and return tomorrow. Hopefully with a clear mind and a fresh perspective. We might be missing something because we have just spent too long staring at the problem."
I nod. That makes a lot of sense. Brain fatigue on something like this is definitely a thing.
"Okay." I look over at Melchior, feeling that familiar awareness, but hoping it isn't as obvious as it feels. "Melchior and I are on collection duty today anyway."
Melchior nods, setting down his tools as well. "Indeed. We shall go collect more meteorite glass and think on this."
We leave the lab together. It's a little frustrating that my stomach still fills with butterflies when he's nearby, even though we've worked in close proximity quite a bit at this point. But my body doesn't seem to care, doesn't seem to ever get used to him.
I look over at him discreetly before shifting my attention away. At least there's more to look at out here. The city itself is quite an impressive sight. I remember just how stunned I was when we first arrived, saw the technology the Zmaj had clearly been capable of building in the past, despite their much more primitive lifestyle now. The Devastation set their civilization back generations. Even now, I take the time to admire the city while passing through it, despite the fact that I live here.
"Do you think there is a solution that would result in the glass holding a longer charge?" Melchior asks as we walk through the city, heading for the desert outside its limits.
"I hope so," I say cautiously, sneaking a glance up at his face. The Zmaj are all over seven feet, so I have to look up quite high. When I see his eyes focused on me, I quickly face forward once more. "I don't want to stop trying yet."
We need it to work. We're outnumbered already and without the advantage of reliable shields-- yeah, not good.
"Yes," he replies as we near the border of the city. "I agree. I simply hope we will find a solution before there is another attack." He sighs. "Though perhaps we should discuss something else. I am certain Errol would chastise us for continuing to speak of it when we need to think of other things to gain the perspective he mentioned," he comments dryly.
I chuckle, nodding as I take one of the bins stacked at the edge of the city, put there specifically to collect more meteorite glass.
"You're probably right. How was the hunt you went on yesterday?"
"Ah." He grabs a bin as well. We could carry a bunch out there, but it's difficult to carry more than one back at a time. They're unwieldy and heavy to boot. "The hunt was successful, even though we were tracking only one guster and came across three in total."
"Three?" I squeak, my mind flashing back to the guster attack on our party when we first landed here on Tajss. The giant lizard-like monster creatures were no joke. They killed many people right in front of me. "You killed all of them?" I ask incredulously.
He shakes his head.
"No, only two. And I was not alone," he adds as we step onto the sand and start walking out to where a group is already hard at work collecting glass.
"Oh, you're right—two isn't impressive at all," I scoff as I trudge through the sand. "Heck, I could take one down with a hand tied behind my back!"
He laughs, his emerald eyes twinkling as he looks down at me in appreciation.
"Perhaps you could," he murmurs, the admiration clear in his eyes.
Oh . . . I feel a flash of warmth at the look. That's really sweet, while also completely preposterous. I don't know quite how to respond. Does he have feelings for me too? Or is he just being friendly? Ugh, why is this so confusing! Luckily, I don't have to scramble for a response as we reach the others and they call out greetings. I'll take the distraction, thank you very much.
Both the humans and the Zmaj are on the schedule to gather more glass, but currently there are only Zmaj out here under the blazing hot suns. Not that they feel the heat in the same way we do.
Without the epis plant that they gave us to adapt to the climate here, we wouldn't have even survived, at least not above ground and definitely not in good health. Even underground, we didn't do well without it.
Doesn't mean the heat isn't still killer though. Needless to say, I don't love being out here in the desert, but I want to pull my weight. We all need to work hard to ensure our survival. And I'm actually relieved to have a task to do around Melchior so I don't make a complete fool of myself.
Lucky for us, the meteor showers have been relatively frequent, so there is quite a bit of glass to be had. We need a lot of it both for experimentation and to run the tech in the city. Apart from its utility, the glass itself is beautiful, smooth and black, and it reflects the light in a rainbow of colors. I can see why Kate adorned her bridal gown with bits of it. When the meteorites hit the sand, they melt it, creating the resource naturally at the bottom of the craters. After we discovered it had the electromagnetic properties needed to power the Zmaj machinery, we went into collection mode full force.
I survey the pockets of it as I pull on my protective gloves. Crouching, I tug a piece up and slide it gently into the bin I set down next to me. I don't want to break the bigger pieces. We might have to anyway to get them to fit certain space restrictions in the various pieces of tech, but I want the option of keeping them large just in case.
Melchior settles his bin near mine and gets to work as well.
Yes, I watch him.
But, in my defense, I don't really have to think a whole lot for this task, so I can watch and pick up glass at the same time. What an accomplishment. I'm such a role model.
"How are you liking the city so far?" he asks as we continue to work side by side.
"It's great," I answer truthfully. "Way better than the tunnels we were in before we stumbled across Errol. And the epis is a lifesaver. Not to mention there's so much technology to play with here!"
Melchior nods, a smile tugging at his full mouth. "Yes, that is true."
"What about you?" I prod, wiping at the sweat already accumulating on my upper lip. It's basically impossible to stay looking cute in this heat. And when did I start worrying about stuff like that? "Do you like visiting the City? I know your Tribe lives a day or so way from here in caves."
I'm really curious about that. Before we crash-landed on Tajss, the Zmaj were living much more of a hunter-gatherer lifestyle. None of them really stayed together much because of the bijass, their word for the male aggression instinct they find hard to control around each other. But somehow the members of what they call the Tribe made it work.
He looks toward the city, silhouetted against the red Tajss sky. It's an impressive sight.
"I suppose," he admits, still staring. "Familiarity with it is growing, the oddity of it fades the more time we spend here." He shrugs, going back to gathering glass. "With the threat of the invaders, the many humans who live here need the protection it can provide."
That's true, the majority of the surviving human population lives here. There are two other settlements with people who chose not to live in the city with us. The Tribe, where Melchior is from, was established way before humans even got here, so I understand their desire to continue to live separately.
But I really don't get the mining settlement. Those people know they need our help, need Zmaj help, but their own xenophobia made them pull away. The one good thing that has come from the invader attacks is that the disparate factions have realized just how vulnerable they are and have come to the table to work together, even if it is in a small capacity only involving the Zmaj as guards.
That inroad could lead to more of an alliance later, which is something at least. It's more than Rosalind was apparently able to get for a while.
"I wonder if—"
"What do you think you are doing?"
The loud, threatening voice cuts our conversation short. I turn towards it. Melchior is already taking a step forward next to me.
"What's going on?" I ask him in a low voice.
Ryuth and Astarot are snarling at each other now, starting to circle.
Shit. This can't be good.
"The bijass. They are having trouble controlling it," Melchior explains grimly. "Stay back."
I nod, having no intention of getting any closer to the potential fight.
The bijass. That primal part that lives in all the Zmaj. I don’t really understand it, but it’s territorial and jealous and it makes them so aggressive they’ll fight without being able to stop.
Melchior starts to walk towards them, his eyes sharp, his body tense as he nears, but Ryuth jumps Astarot before he can reach them.
I wince as they roll on the ground, the sound of blows and grunts of effort loud in the silence. At least neither of them has his lochaber in hand. That would have really upped the chance of one of them getting seriously hurt. Metal-tipped spear injuries are no joke.
My heart rises in my throat as Melchior approaches, no hesitation in his step when he grabs Ryuth and yanks him away from his opponent.
Ryuth shrugs him off and turns with a snarl.
"Together we are stronger!" Melchior admonishes sharply. His voice is deep and commanding, the order in them clear.
I hold my breath, watching the two combatants. Will he be able to get through to them?
The tension rises while we wait to see.
Then Ryuth growls, “survival of the group matters,” before spinning away from Melchior and stalking off. I don't know where he's going. But some distance does seem like a good idea.
I let out the breath I was holding.
Astarot takes a few deep breaths, lying on the sand.
Melchior walks over, holding out a helping hand that the other Zmaj takes after only a brief hesitation. He pulls Astarot to his feet, and then the two look at each other.
Melchior's control, his tight focus, is clear even from this far away. He is powerful in his own right, but his ability to keep that tight lid on himself is one of the reasons the other dragons respect him so much.
Astarot is no exception. After a few seconds, he nods to Melchior, turning to get back to work.
Crisis averted, at least for now. I feel my own respect and admiration for Melchior rise. There aren't a whole lot of people who could have broken up that fight with as little fuss as he did. And as he stands there, framed by the sun behind him, his muscled body straight and tall, his eyes watchful as he scans the area...
I wonder what it would be like to be with someone like that. Someone so strong, so completely in charge of himself. What would it be like to actually date a dragon? I find myself thinking about it more and more.
Movement in the corner of my eye signals someone approaching—Visidion, crests a nearby dune. He must have gone out further to harvest the glass that isn't so near to the city and heard the scuffle. He slides down the dune in a controlled movement that I could never hope to emulate, his gaze going to Melchior.
His eyes then go to Ryuth, whose back is turned to us while he walks off his anger, before they shift over to Astarot, who is digging up meteor glass with much more fervor than is strictly required.
Visidion's shoulders relax as he turns to walk over to Melchior, the situation apparently under control.
Then Ryuth turns around, rage still clear on his face as he stalks back towards us.
I'm not the only one who sees it.
Before Visidion can reach Melchior, he turns back around and takes a few steps to reach me.
"Addison, I think it's best you go back into the city. We will carry the bins that have been filled."
He's talking to me, but his eyes are on Ryuth, as are Melchior's. I'm no idiot. There's no reason for me to stay if it's dangerous. And they have this. They don't need me to help. They'll just worry that I'll be hurt in any fight that might happen, which could only distract them.
"Okay," I agree readily, hoping it doesn't come to a physical altercation before the two of them can get things back under control. "Thanks."
I make my way back to the city. We're still close enough that I don't feel vulnerable going back by myself. Once past the city limits, I nod at people, some I recognize, many more I don’t.
I sigh as I reach my apartment and open the door to go inside, ready to clean myself up. I guess it isn't really that much of a mystery why I want Melchior. I admire his intelligence, how much in control he is in every situation, how he can hold a conversation. I guess it really is less about the package and more about who he is as a person. Not that the pretty package isn't also intriguing.
In any case, I go about the rest of my evening, cleaning up, eating at the communal dining hall, and then I come back to my place to go to bed. And I'm still thinking about Melchior as I close my eyes.
I sigh, turning over to my side. This is pretty damn pathetic. I'm embarrassed for myself.
Eventually, sleep does take over, despite my thoughts.
When I wake up the next morning, I'm determined to put Melchior out of my mind and focus on something productive. I have some spare time, so I decide to work on the alien writs that we captured from the invaders' ship near the mining settlement. I grab a quick breakfast and then head over to the area that I have set up just outside the lab.
The writs aren't our first priority, so I've been working on them sporadically, here and there when I have the time. The puzzle they represent is both fascinating and frustrating. The only references I have to work with are the old scraps of pre-Devastation Zmaj texts we found around the city.
The problem is, while the writing in the book looks like it's perhaps closely related to the Zmaj text, it doesn't quite match. And, even apart from the trouble I'm facing decrypting the writings, it's also puzzling how close the language seems to be to the salvaged Zmaj writing we've found.
Why are they similar at all?
The invaders' technology is so different from the low-functioning tech we’ve found inside the city.
Why would the language have anything in common, let alone be close enough that I could even consider using it as a reference?
It really is a mystery.
But I've always been up for a challenge. Particularly a difficult one. So I continue to beat my head against it, flipping through the book, going line by line, word by word. I don't make a heck of a lot of progress, but I knew going in that it would likely be a slow process, made even slower because I can't devote the bulk of my time and energy to it.
I have my chin braced on my hand as I stare down at the open book in front of me when Melchior arrives.
"Have you been able to decipher anything?" he asks.
I immediately straighten, smoothing down my hair.
"Not really," I admit as he steps closer. He stops right next to me, where I can feel the presence of his body as he looks down at the alien book.
As usual, I feel that prickle of awareness across my skin at his proximity. I want to close that couple inches of distance left between us. But I'd rather not make a fool of myself, so I don't.
"I can see why," he murmurs. "I haven't seen anything like these writs before." His attention turns to me. He's so close that I can see that special glimmer in his emerald eyes that never fades away. Maybe it's fanciful thinking, but I feel like it's just the force of his personality shining out. "Please let me know if there is anything I can do to help."
I nod enthusiastically, feeling a little bit like a dummy.
"Thank you," I say, my voice coming out a little squeaky.
I mentally slap myself. With a slight smile and a nod, he turns to leave, perhaps going back to the lab. I slump over again, watching his back as he leaves. Fine. Maybe I'm watching his ass as he leaves. Sue me!
I sigh once he's out of sight and try to get back into the zone I need to be in to work on the book. It takes me a while.
I don't know what it is about him, but he calls to the woman that I've kept tightly caged inside me. And I don't seem to have much control over her.