“It’ll put hair on my chest.” Lips still curved, he settled into his seat, draping his arm along the back of hers. “So”—his thigh pressing against her own as he pushed into her space in a very male way—“what are you two discussing?”
“Whether emotion makes us stronger or weaker,” Adria said before Judd could mention mating, her heart twisting at the idea of stealing the smile from Riaz’s eyes. “What do you think?”
Taking a gulp of his no-doubt scalding coffee, Riaz said, “I’d say it’s what makes us human in the wider sense. Without it, we might as well be machines.”
“Regardless of their problems,” Judd disagreed at once, “the Psy in the Net aren’t inhuman.”
“Because in some deep part of themselves,” Riaz argued, “they do feel.”
“Yes.” It was an unexpected response from a man Adria guessed had gone through the most stringent conditioning in the Net. “Silence was never as watertight as the Council’s propaganda machine would’ve led us to believe.” He nodded toward a mother and child walking down the concourse, the child’s hand held tightly in the adult’s.
It was clear by the cool lack of expression on their faces, the subtle stiffness of the woman’s walk, that they were Psy. “A Councilor would say she holds the girl’s hand because it’s a practical method to ensure her genetic legacy is not lost or harmed.”
At that very second, Adria saw the woman shift to block a suitcase from banging into the child, taking the bump herself. “Perhaps it’s even what she believes,” Adria murmured, “but there’s more there.” A protectiveness that had the woman tucking the child closer to her body, her hand cupping the back of the small blonde head.
“Not for all Psy.” Judd stared at a luggage cart about to roll away from an elderly woman, and it came to a gentle, seemingly natural stop. “It’s too late for some, the damage done by the conditioning too deep.”
“Airjet Express BD21 to San Francisco now boarding.”
Finishing off her hot chocolate, Adria gathered up the rest of their garbage and took it to the recycle slot. Riaz and Judd were up and waiting for her when she returned, with Riaz having slung her duffel over his shoulder, along with his own. She had no problem with that. But when the two of them went to fall in on either side of her, she halted. “I do not need bodyguards.”
A confused look from both.
Her wolf flashed its canines. “I knew it wouldn’t compute.”
RIAZ SEPARATED FROM Adria when they reached the den late afternoon San Francisco time. Showering, he pulled on his most well-worn jeans, the fabric soft from repeated washing, and a T-shirt, then made his way to her door. Her scent was damp and warm when she opened it, her hair sleek and shiny from her own shower, her body covered in soft gray pajama pants and a faded purple tee bearing the picture of a depressed cartoon donkey.
A raised eyebrow. “Yes?”
His wolf narrowed its eyes at her continued irritability. Neither he nor Judd had been able to figure out what had put her back up before they boarded the airjet. He’d let her stew in silence during the trip, but now stepped into her space and nipped sharply at her lower lip. “Why are you acting snippy?” He kicked the door shut with his foot.
Glaring at him, she rubbed at the lip he’d bitten. “I just am. Get over it.” She walked over to flop down on her back on the bed. “And go away so I can sulk in peace.”
He fought his smile. Letting it out would be suicidal with a dominant female in this mood. “I have something for you.” He held up the small bag he’d carried over.
A startled light in the brilliant hue of her eyes. “You got me a present?” She scrambled up onto her knees, holding out her hands. “Give!”
He walked across to sit on the bed. “I don’t know if I should give it to someone so bad tempered.” Playful as a pup, his wolf grinned.
Bracing her hands on his shoulders from behind, she closed her teeth gently over the tip of his ear. “I bite, so be careful.”
“So do I.” He snapped his teeth at her.
A delighted laugh, her claws kneading his shoulders. When she shifted around to sit cross-legged beside him, he put the bag in her lap. The wonder on her face as she took out and opened the velvet-lined box was worth all the trickery it had taken to buy, then hide the gift from her. He owed Pierce one.
“Oh.” She balanced the glass figurine on her palm—of a wolf with its eyes closed, its tail curled around itself. “The detail…” Gesturing for him to hold it, she retrieved the three other figurines with gentle fingers. They were even smaller—pups frolicking around the sleeping guardian: one growling at a wildflower, another eye to eye with a crow, the third crouched down in a sneaking position.
Closing the box, she arranged all four on the lid, placing the sneaking pup behind the adult wolf. As if the pup was planning to pounce on the guardian’s tail. He chuckled. “I remember trying to do that to Dad.”
Adria didn’t answer, simply looked at the tableau, stroking a finger over one of the figurines once in a while. “This isn’t fair.” It was a whisper, her eyes gone huge and damp.
He’d bought the mischievous set for her because he’d thought it would make her smile … and he loved the way Adria smiled when she was deeply happy. He’d glimpsed that smile only once, when she’d first looked up from the sheets the morning after they’d danced on the balcony, had come to realize he wanted to see it again and again. But instead of joy, his gift had put tears in her eyes.