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“What is it?”

“Gorram extract,” he said, scooping out a dollop with his long fingers. “Hold still, this will not take long.”

“What won’t?”

He ignored the question and began applying the substance to her tattoos, first the tender lines on her hips, tracing his way up her flanks and in along her interwoven back designs. The relief was almost instant and the Gorram extract was greedily absorbed by her healing skin.

“Interesting,” he muttered.


“You are taking it in much faster than I have ever seen. Normally, this merely sooths the itch, providing a healing, moisturizing coating to the decorated flesh. But in your case, it is almost instantly drawn in.”

“What does that mean?”

“It is nothing to cause concern. Gorram is used by the pigment as an alternate food and energy source while it is completing its bonding with your own body. Part of that process is what you feel in your skin.”

“The moving feeling?”


“That bit’s weird, I have to admit.”

“The shifting of the pigment to form and reinforce the runes that are most in tune with your own physiology is unique to every individual. Normally, it moves very slowly. In your case, however, the pigment is quite active. You are already forming power runes in your designs, and not just the weak trace beginnings.”

“So, that’s good, right?”

“Yes. It just normally takes much longer.”

“I’ve always been a fast learner.”

“Apparently so. It is no wonder your skin is sensitive,” he said, applying more of the Gorram extract, tracing the lines with his fingertips.

Whether or not he knew just what his touch was doing to her she couldn’t tell, his face was neutral even as he gently rubbed the substance into her skin. He finished with her back, switching to her flanks and frontal hip bones, then working up, following the different colored lines and designs as they traced her musculature, curving under her breasts and up to her collars and shoulders again.

Darla’s body felt absolutely electrically charged and for just a moment she wanted nothing more than for his hands to grab her breasts and pull her close, giving her nipples a delicious squeeze as her bliss crested like a tidal wave.

Heydar, however, merely continued the process, tracing back down between her breasts, over her breastbone and finally stopping just below her bellybutton.

“Your body is exceptional,” he said.

“Why, thank you,” she replied, a fine sweat on her brow. “I guess you could say—”

“Or a freak of nature,” he cut her off. “Time will tell.” He sealed the tin and placed it in her hand. “I will leave the application on your legs to you when we stop next. The sensation will lessen as your pigment settles, but for the time being it will continue to itch. Use the Gorram sparingly though. That is a normal supply for the entire healing process, but it appears your pigment would take it all in one sitting if given the opportunity.”

Darla was still tingling with arousal, and apparently the Gorram was fueling it further. But it was also reducing the itch, so it was an acceptable trade off, even if the gorgeous man in front of her was ignorant to her primed body.

“Thanks. I’ll be okay for now,” she said.

“I am pleased to hear it. Now, let it heal, and do not scratch.”

“I’ve got it.”

“Very well,” he said, shouldering his pack once more.

Darla picked up hers as well, the straps far less uncomfortable now. She felt his stare and turned to meet his curious gaze. He held it for a long moment, and she could have sworn there was maybe at least a hint of interest there. But with an alien, who could tell? In any case, a moment later he turned and continued their trek.

What is up with this guy? Darla wondered, falling in behind him. And what’s going to happen to me?



Heydar had left Darla to herself after dealing with her itchy tattoos. More than that, he was true to his word as the morning went on, focused on making up time and trekking ahead with long strides across the often-uneven ground, leaving her scrambling to just keep him in sight at one point.

He did stop on occasion, however, and it was during those little pit stops that Darla managed to catch up, finding him bent over a bush. There was something new. A small furry animal that looked a bit like a mutant rabbit with very muscular legs was now dangling from a strap on his hip. Apparently, he had found time to hunt while he waited for her.

And now he was gathering deep purple berries from a low shrub, plucking them with lightly stained fingertips as he put them in a rigid-bottomed pouch.

The top could expand to hold a large amount, she could see, but the bottom was designed to keep the contents from compressing into mush. A clever design, actually, and one that allowed him to collect an ample amount of the little berries.

“These any good?” she asked, plucking one from the bush and popping it in her mouth. She immediately spat it out, her eyes watering and her tongue not in the least bit happy with the astringent berry’s properties she’d so rudely discovered.

Heydar shook his head. “Caution, woman. You must learn patience. This is not your world. I do not know if you would just blindly eat anything you came across on your planet, but here you must practice care.”

“Then why are you gathering them if they’re bad for us?”

“They are not bad for us. They must simply be soaked in cool water for an hour at the minimum before eating. The coating on them is meant to drive away land animals, but birds have different tasting apparatus. And birds can transport the seeds much farther than a terrestrial beast.”

Darla had to admit, it was kind of impressive. “So, this plant evolved to only be tasty to the things that can help it propagate across a greater area. Clever.”

“Indeed. But with a good soaking, these will be sweet and flavorful once the protective layer has dissolved and washed away.”

It was sort of akin to acorns back on Earth, she mused. Though she’d never eaten any herself, Darla had heard that you were supposed to soak them for several hours before using them to remove the harsh tannins that would upset your stomach.

“Well, now I know,” Darla said, picking a few more and adding them to his pouch. “I thought you packed up food from the village. Why stop for this?”

“Because it is always best to conserve your resources, especially foodstuffs. If we can feed ourselves off the land and save what we carried with us for a time of true need, all the better.”

“Do you foresee that happening? A time of true need, as you called it?”

“Hopefully not, but I learned long ago that prudence is the wisest path.”

Darla couldn’t argue with the logic. “All right, then. Let me help.”

“You would hunt?” Heydar asked, his violet-gold eyes crinkling slightly with amusement. “Very well. Let us see what you can manage.”

He drew one of the twin blades the Oraku had provided him for their trek.

“What? No, I’m not going to go killing Bambi. Or Thumper. Or whatever those things are. I mean give me a bag. I can fill up on berries as we go. And with two of us working together we can stop less. Make better time, you know?”

He cocked his head and pondered her offer a long moment then sheathed his knives. “Very well,” he said, handing her an empty pouch. “Gather what you can, but do not fall far behind. I will not slow for you.”

“Yeah, yeah, you’ve made that abundantly clear.”

He stared at her a moment longer with his unreadable gaze, then turned and headed off once more. Darla followed, keeping him in sight, but not close by any definition of the word. Their path was fairly straightforward, though there wasn’t an actual trail where they were heading. But the space between the trees and rocks was more than ample to make for a fairly easy passage.