"Yeah… I guess I am." I was thoroughly uncomfortable. Several pairs of colorful eyes were locked on me.
The only time I had ever seen this many Nokki together was at mealtimes and morning assembly. Heck, for all I knew, the entire population of Stellapolis was here.
This, coupled with the fact that they were dead silent, made me more anxious. I began to hyperventilate – had I done something wrong?
Then, unanimously, the Nokki surrounding us erupted into cheers.
"Sakaya!" Svese cried, hugging me. "I thought you'd never come back!"
Before I could respond, a figure made his way through the crowd. They parted readily for him, and I realized that he was an Elder.
When he was close enough that I could see his face, I realized, with a jolt of shock, that I knew him.
Sokio Wiston had been the laughingstock of our school. The poor boy had been found with his head stuck in the trash zappers multiple times. Everyone believed him to being extraordinarily clumsy. Svese and I, however, suspected that Allon was the one stuffing Sokio's head down the trash zappers.
But now, Sokio was an Elder. (He was only an Eighteen!) And the other Nokki treated him respectfully. It made my heart swell with happiness to see that one of Allon's victims had risen to the top.
"Sakaya Kikaira," he said, smiling warmly. "Welcome home."
"Thank you, Elder Sokio."
"We are indebted to you. At great personal sacrifice, you saved the citizens of Stellapolis from starving to death."
I could feel my face heating up. "Uh, really, it was –"
Before I could finish that sentence, Sokio did something that completely astounded me.
I was shocked. Here was an Elder, a member of the most driving political force in Stellapolis. And he was bowing to me. Me.
The other Nokki quickly followed his example. Even Zanatos bowed.
Now I felt more flustered than ever. I wasn't the hero my race clearly believed me to be. True, I had loathed Allon for starving the residents of Stellapolis. But the reason I'd eliminated him wasn't to save the Nokki. Okay, it kind of was. But the main reason, the driving force behind me risking my life and passing out for a year, was to save Zanatos.
Yet here they were, giving me the star treatment. I didn't deserve it.
"Um, um…" I had no idea what to say next.
Thankfully, they all straightened up at that moment.
Sokio dropped a small object into my hand. When I looked at it, a lump formed in my throat.
It was the keys to my residence center. The one I'd inhabited with Aunt Kiara until the horrible night Allon seized the city.
"Welcome home, Sakaya Kikaira!" Sokio said again. He raised his voice so that the crowd could hear it.
And they cheered again.
Just when I thought I might melt through the cloud with embarrassment, the warriors of Stellapolis quickly broke up the mass. "Move along, people! Nothing to see here."
Sokio followed after them, leaving me standing on the transport cloud with Zanatos.
"C'mon." I stepped over to the next cloud, beckoning for Zanatos to follow.
The walk to the residence centers was long.
I should have been happy. Here I was, back in my beloved home. I was completely safe from humans trying to kill me. And Zanatos was here with me, making him safe, too.
But the other Nokki were looking at me as if I was some sort of god. Which I wasn't. True, I had elemental powers, but that didn't make me invulnerable. I was still completely suspect to other Nokki abilities – including Allon's stupid mind control.
And what about Kairu? The whole reason I had come back was to find a clue as to his whereabouts.
Finally, Zanatos broke the silence. "Sakaya, what's wrong? You look upset."
He knew me all too well.
"I'm fine. It's just the…the way they treated me. Like I was some kind of hero. I'm not a hero, Zanatos."
Zanatos was quiet for half a second.
Then he reached over and took my hand.
"Yes," he said with certainty. "Yes, you are."
"Of course you'd say that," I protested. "You're my boyfr –" I paused. Was Zanatos my boyfriend?
Our connection was much, much deeper than the word boyfriend could go. We had fought together, eaten together, laughed together. I had given him my blood to save his life. And when he thought I was dying, he had held me and cried.
So boyfriend and girlfriend were constraining words in our complex relationship. We were something much, much deeper.
Zanatos didn't notice my reverie. "Sakaya, it doesn't matter what your motives were, whether you intended to save me or the entire Nokki race. The point is that you did it. You were willing to give up everything to save them. To save me."
I was solemn for a minute, and we once again slipped into silence.
Finally, I said, "Zanatos, if every human was like you, we wouldn't be in hiding from them. You are the most amazing person ever."
Zanatos snorted. "Right," he said sarcastically. "I'm amazing. After I let some sicko carve an insult in your arm. After I let Crakyow drag you into Stellapolis, lock you up, and slap you. After I got the crap beat out of me by him and almost killed you when you healed my injuries. And after I got pinned down by guards, forcing you to practically kill yourself to save me."
"Zanatos, that's not… Wait a minute. How did you know Allon slapped me?" I hadn't told Zanatos. I hadn't told anyone, because I was embarrassed that I had let Allon do that to me.
Zanatos' expression turned dark. "When I came to rescue you… there was a bruise covering your entire cheek. That bastard hurt you, and I wasn't there to stop him. Another one of my many epic failures."
I tentatively felt both my cheeks. Nothing.
"Hey, you're only human," I told him. "And all the bad things that happened to me? I would never hold them against you. Ever."
But I was too caught up in my little rant. "We all make mistakes, Zanatos. I let my aunt die, remember? And Kairu – whether he's alive or not, I broke my promise to him. So don't beat yourself up about what happened. It's in the past now, 'kay?"
"But Sakaya –"
He took one look at me, saw my opinion wasn't going to be swayed, and sighed.
We had arrived in Stellapolis pretty late. By the time we reached my residence center, the artificial sky was already beginning to darken.
I pulled out the keys and headed over to the door.
"That's the keys?" Zanatos choked. "How can that open the door? The keyhole's shaped normally, but that thing's looks like a flat circle –"
"Watch and learn," I told him, and placed my thumb on top of it.
The key instantly analyzed my fingerprint. I held my breath; did it still remember me?
Finally, a green light flashed, and the glowing key for my residence center jutted out.
"Whoa," Zanatos breathed. "You have laser keys?! That's so awesome!"
I smiled wryly at him as I inserted the key into the door. "Most of our technology is awesome. The laser keys are really just a small part of what we have."
The door flipped open.
Zanatos stood aside gallantly. "You first, Elder Sakaya," he said.
"Don't call me that!" I giggled as I stepped into my former home.
Everything was exactly as Aunt Kiara and I had left it on that horrible night we'd been forced to flee. The residence center had been automatically tidied, as usual. The fingerprint drawings I'd done as child were still tacked to the walls. (Now that I think about it, they might have actually been Kairu's.)
Suddenly, I was overcome with the need to see my aunt's room. Maybe some small part of her presence remained there.
I had never been allowed in Aunt Kiara's room when she was alive. Nevertheless, I proceeded to step on the Porter. When I was upstairs, I opened the door to her room.
Like the rest of the house, it was perfectly neat. The only exception was a tablet lying on the bedside table. Curiously, I picked it up, settled into Aunt Kiara's comfy reading chair, and turned it on.
The words Kikaira Family flashed across the screen. Oh. So this was our family album. Aunt Kiara had always offered to let me read it, but I would refuse. I guess I was worried that seeing the pictures of my parents would make me feel sad about losing them.
I flipped to the first picture.
It was my parents on their wedding day.
I stared at them. My mother looked so beautiful, beaming straight at the camera. My father's arms were around her, and he was grinning, his eyes filled with joy.
They looked so happy. And why wouldn't they be? They'd had no idea that three years later, their lives would end. That they would be struck out of the sky by lightening.
I hadn't realized I'd been crying until I felt Zanatos wiping a tear off my cheek. Since I hadn't known he was there, I jumped.
"Sorry," Zanatos murmured. "I didn't mean to intrude. If you want, I can leave…"
"No, stay," I pleaded. Having Zanatos with me made the pain a little easier to bear.
He looked over my shoulder at the tablet. "Are those your parents?" he asked gently.
"Yes," I answered absently. Then my gaze returned to the two Nokki that, all my life, I had wished I'd known.
Zanatos seemed confused. I mean, I shared my parents' facial structure. I had my mother's wide, childlike eyes and heart shaped face, and my father's nose and lips. But neither Kairu nor I shared either of their eye or hair colors. My mother had violet hair and electric blue eyes, and my father's hair was light blue with green highlights. His eyes had been orange.
"Nokki genetics aren't like human genetics," I explained to Zanatos. "Just like you, we inherit facial characteristics from our parents. But our hair and eye and wing colors – they're all chosen randomly. We don't inherit those traits."
I flipped to the next photo. This one was of my father's coronation as the head Elder. His face was humble, but his posture was poised and confident. By his side, my mother wept tears of happiness.
The following photo was my parents in the Stellapolis hospital. My mother was exhausted, but her weary eyes were full of euphoria as she stared at the baby in her arms. My father was bending over us, smiling.
The baby was me.
The photo after my birth was my first birthday. I was smashing my slice of cake into my high chair. My parents were laughing good naturedly, my mother wiping the chunks of cake off my face. Following that was a photo of my father teaching me to fly. He held me above his head, grinning, as I flapped my little wings for the first time.
The last one was a family photo. It was clear that it hadn't been viewed in a long, long time.
I was walking on a cloud between my parents, swinging my plump legs happily. It looked like I was getting close to becoming a Two, but not quite there yet. My parents radiated bliss like stars.
But it was my mother that caught my eyes. She, like my father, was holding one of my hands. But her other hand was cradling her stomach, which looked significantly bigger.
I was hit with equal measures of triumph and sorrow.
She'd had another pregnancy after I was born. Which meant that the dream I'd had wasn't just a crazy notion dreamt up by my subconscious mind. Oh no.
Kairu had existed.