"What are you thinking?" Anya asked perceptively, staring at Ivy who was fixated on the giant skulls around her front door. Ivy shook her head, then tore her attention off them to look at her for a moment.

"I guess there's no harm in telling you," she sighed, seeming to come to a decision. Motioning at the skulls, she said, "I've never seen anything like that before. I mean, normally they place what they consider their greatest trophies outside the dwelling of a female to impress her. It also indicates their strength, their experience and their level of skill to other males, sort of putting them on notice. This, though..." she let out another breath.

"It's a fucking Tyrannosaurus Rex," Anya snapped.

Ivy nodded. "Or something similar. And a Queen xenomorph. This yautja is like nothing I've ever come across before. He's gotta really be something."

"You want I should put them outside your front door?" Anya asked snarkily, detecting a hint of longing admiration in the other woman's voice and behavior.

She looked affronted. "He'd just bring them back," she said, as if she'd already thought about that. "And probably kill me for the perceived transgression."

"Well I can't leave them there. There's kids in this neighborhood, damnit. I can't let them see this shit." She huffed and put her hands on her hips. "Fuckin' homeowners' association is gonna go apeshit when they get a load of this."

Ivy nodded sympathetically. "I'll tell you this much, Anya: this yautja is definitely a very high rank. I'd assume he's no youngster, either, based on these skulls. Since he took the trophies after the kills it means he'd personally done the deed. It's not like he found them dead on the side of the highway." She drew herself up. "This is why I sent the cops away. If your yautja shows up and sees your house surrounded by armed men, no telling how he'll react. Being that I suspect he's an older male I assume also that he has a lot less personal contact and tolerance with human males."

The news startled Anya. Seriously? she thought. "What about you?"

Ivy shrugged and twisted her lips into a tentative smile. "I'm female. Provided he decides I'm no threat, he should be okay with me being here."

"Should be," Anya repeated flatly, stunned.

"I'm not armed and I plan on keeping my distance from you in case he's watching. Do me a favor and don't try to touch me."

"This," Anya huffed, "is a fuckin' nightmare. How do I politely decline?"

"Decline?" Ivy echoed, then actually laughed. "Oh honey, there's no declining. This is a signal of his intention to court you. Where it goes from there is anybody's guess." She crossed her arms and went back to studying the skulls again. "You did something to attract his attention and his interest. Any idea what?"

"How the hell should I know?"

"Surprising. The younger males usually initiate some sort of contact prior to courtship to test acceptance. If nothing comes to mind it might mean he's made the decision to pursue based on pure observation. It's another thing that makes me think we're not dealing with a Newblood or a Youngblood here."

Newblood: a relatively-speaking young male who'd successfully completed whatever level of expertise that awarded him the recognition to be marked with the sigil of a Master-level yautja. The details were vague since they didn't tend to share their knowledge or their customs with the humans they dominated. Presumably the only ones who could answer those questions were the females they took as their own, but since they were removed from human society those questions continued to be unanswered.

And youngBlood: they'd been at the business for awhile but were still considered novices by the older, experienced males of their kind. Still absolutely nothing to mess with; even an unBlooded yautja was capable of killing a human quite handily.

Anya knew this because, like everyone else for the past sixty years, she'd been required to complete an annual course on the subject of the hunting monsters that passively ruled them. Passively, because humanity was permitted to proceed as before. Yautja made no demands other than tolerance of their presence and the right to pursue females. It was understood that they had none of their own, and it was assumed that once it was discovered that human females were capable of gestating their young they'd staked a claim on the planet.

Ivy's walkie-talkie crackled with a man's voice, and she lifted it so she and Anya could hear a man telling her that a three-block canvas was complete and that now the local PD would be leafletting out as far as a mile from Anya's house. They, Anya knew with horror, were telling the neighbors of the situation, answering questions, and requesting that they steer clear of her and her house. Great, she was now a pariah.

Lifting the walkie-talkie to her mouth, Ivy said, "I would recommend a one mile canvas with this one, lieutenant. And another mile out for the leaflets."

There was a hesitation before the man replied, "Copy that. Might take a few days."

"I advise you to make it a priority," Ivy said briskly.

"Copy that," he agreed, but didn't sound happy about it.

"Ground Zero," Anya muttered under her breath, glaring at the skulls on either side of the three steps up to her front door. How the hunter had managed to get them here without a forklift and a flatbed or anyone noticing was beyond her ability to imagine. The T-Rex thing was at least five feet long, with a jaw full of one-foot dagger like teeth. And the xenomorph Queen with her ornate, arching comb was at least as big. They had to weigh a ton. So much for her azaleas.

"I just don't want anyone trying to confront him or interfere," Ivy said briskly, clipping the walkie-talkie back to the waistband of her pants suit. It ruined the line of her jacket. "Got a bad feeling about this one, I have to admit."

"So...what now?" Anya asked, her tone dejected.

"Take me inside?" Ivy requested.

"Sure. Just follow me past the giant skull lawn ornaments." She led Ivy up her walkway and climbed the steps. "Some people have gnomes, some people have pink flamingoes, but oh no, not me..."

She opened her door and led Ivy inside her living room, flipping on lights as she went. When she got to the kitchen she heard the other woman's soft gasp and turned around, wondering, What now?

"He left your weapons," Ivy said, hands on her hips as she stood in front of Anya's stocked gun cabinet. It was framed by a collection of antique guns that were displayed on the wall around it.


"So," Ivy said, lowering her hands and turning to face her, "I can only think it means one of two things." She shook her head, unsure. "Or maybe both, I don't know. This one is doing everything outside the norm."

"Great. That's reassuring to hear," Anya snarked. "They usually take guns or something?"

"Oh, yes. We know of incidents where they were shot in the process of courting. Removing the weapons removes the temptation. I've walked into situations where they'd even removed the knives from the kitchen."

"You know...I need a drink. Can I get you something?" Anya decided abruptly, turning back for her kitchen.

"Sure. I'll take a beer if you've got one."

It surprised Anya; wasn't Ivy 'on duty' or something? Then again, she decided she didn't give a shit. She went to her fridge and retrieved a bottle, then pulled a shot glass from an overhead cabinet and the whisky from her liquor cabinet. No beers for her tonight. She needed something with a little more oomph.

"Glass or bottle?" she asked Ivy.

"Bottle's fine," the other woman assured her, moving slowly through the living room and taking everything in.

"Here, then. I'm sticking by the whisky till the bottle's empty," she announced, some defiance in her tone. If life as she knew it was officially over she damn well intended to be drunk. Ivy stopped perusing to cross the living room and meet her on the opposite side of the breakfast bar that separated the two rooms, and lifted the bottle to her lips. Anya filled the shot glass to the rim and tossed it down. "So, the guns. Is this a good sign or a bad sign?" she prompted, picking up where they'd left off.

"Hard to say," Ivy admitted. "Obviously he's not afraid of the possibility of you shooting him. Whether it's because you don't shoot or you're a bad shot...?" she trailed off and looked at Anya.

"I do shoot and I'm ridiculously good at it," Anya advised her. "I hunt for one, I like to do range work with the pistols, and I target practice at least weekly with the rifles. I know my way around a gun."

"Okay, then that's not it," Ivy sighed, turning to look at the loaded gun cabinet again and think it over.

"You're not...like, totally flying by the seat of your pants here, are you?" Anya realized, feeling horrified again.

"With this guy? Kinda," Ivy admitted. "So then he's confident that either you won't attempt to shoot him or that if you do, you won't be able to hit him," she said, right on top of her admission. "Whichever, he's not intimidated by the fact that you're well armed and a good shot, that's for sure." She lifted her bottle and had a few pulls. "Again, leads me to believe we're dealing with a very accomplished yautja here. Probably a Master level."

"Which means I'm gonna get my ass kicked, right?"

Ivy turned to face her, her expression somewhat sympathetic. "Not necessarily, Anya. He's not interested in fighting you."

"He left my guns," Anya pointed out dryly.

"But he's given you gifts to let you know his intentions. That's not indicative of a challenge." Suddenly straightening, her expression changed. "Maybe he feels you're in some kind of danger. Or that you might be in danger. He's left you the ability to defend yourself."

Anya tossed down another healthy shot of whisky. "Wow," she said, wincing at the burn. "You don't have a fuckin' clue, do you? I mean really, we could sit here all night tossing out theories."

Ivy looked miffed. "I'm trying to help you, Anya. My theories are based on ten years of experience. If you don't want or need my help you're welcome to ask me to leave at any time."

"No offense, but I'm debating it," Anya admitted. "You're successfully freaking me out worse than I was when I came home to the giant fucking skulls on my front steps."

Ivy made a face and turned away, and Anya couldn't help but feel the other woman was desperate not to be asked to leave. She was fascinated. Excited, even.

"Do you have male friends?" Ivy asked.

Anya grunted. "Mostly. Why?"

"I suggest you advise them to keep their distance. This one might be old enough to have incredible discipline, but when they go on the rut they're extremely aggressive, especially to other males."

"On the rut? Jesus Christ..." Anya muttered, and promptly poured herself a third.

"He might not be," Ivy said hastily, turning back. "It's my belief they don't go into the rut unless they're confident of a successful pairing. He'll be aggressive in his courtship, jealous of the presence of any other male, though. He'll perceive them as interfering in his courtship. Or worse, as a threat to you."

Thinking it over, Anya tossed the third shot down. "This is a definite problem," she admitted. "I mean, my house is Times Square on New Year's Eve every day. There's a bar in my basement for chrissake. Sometimes I'll come home to a party already in full swing."

Ivy blinked. "I'm assuming he's already aware of that. But the fact of the matter is, there's a giant notice outside your front door, and his sigil carved into the door itself. It quite frankly advises other males that trespass is unwelcome and if they choose to ignore the warning, it's at their own risk. Maybe this one will be tolerant of it, but my gut tells me no way."

The doorbell rang, jarring Anya's nerves. Shooting Ivy a look, she made her way around her kitchen counter and went to open it, wondering what the hell she'd find on her front steps now.

"Annie...dude..." Mickey said stupidly. Behind him were Jones and Carter, who were both standing well back. "You see this shit out here?"

She debated slamming the door shut on the three musketeers, and stood there in indecision for a moment. Rallying, she said, "I'm not that drunk yet."

"I'm not coming in!" Jones hollered from the walkway. Apparently he remembered his lessons from school, too. They'd separated the boys from the girls for some of the classes to explain how the yautja perceived and treated males and females differently. Males were barely tolerated on a good day and he knew it.

"Is this like some kinda joke?" Mickey asked tentatively.

"Don't touch that!" Ivy barked from behind Anya as Carter reached toward the Queen's crown. He snatched his hand back hastily and gave her a look.

"Who the hell's that?" he demanded, looking at Anya.

"Cop. I suggest you listen," Anya said indifferently.

"So it's not a joke?" Mickey decided, still unsure.

"I told you! I'm outta here!" Jones yelled, then turned and stormed toward the street.

"How the hell did this happen?" Carter asked.

"Damned if I know. Just got home an hour ago. Apparently I had a visitor while I was out," Anya said wryly. God bless whisky; she was starting to feel remarkably calm about all of this.

Until Mickey and Carter just settled into a long, hard stare with her, their expressions sad. Like she was dying and they knew they didn't have much time left with her.

"Oh, fuck you both," she snapped, annoyed.

"Dude," Mickey said again, then quieter: "Dude."

"Oh for crap's sake I'm not terminal!" she barked.

"They're gonna take you, Annie," Carter said, the usual joviality gone from his tone. "I mean, you're not terminal but you're gone, man."

"She'll be around for awhile," Ivy informed them. "Who knows? Maybe the courtship will be unsuccessful and he'll move on. Then things will go back to normal."

"Now you're talkin'," Anya said, suddenly buoyed. "Why the hell didn't you say this in the first place?"

"He's out here!" Jones hollered from the curb. It made them all flinch and look at him.

"There's an excellent possibility he's right," Ivy said quietly, her eyes on the dark trees. "I suggest you boys get going. Don't touch anything, don't do anything. Just leave." She shocked Anya by stepping outside in front of her and shoving Mickey and Carter on their way. "They know me," she said quietly to Anya. "It's better if he sees me here."

"Better? Better than what?"

"Better than him deciding you're standing on your front step, drunk and entertaining males who are too stupid to heed his thousand pounds of warning on either side of it," Ivy said flatly.

"I'm not drunk yet. I'm buzzed. I'll be drunk in about ten minutes," she said morosely, watching Carter and Mickey make their way down her walk to Jones, who was now standing in the street by the car.

Before he got into the car Mickey looked across its roof at her and raised his hand. "Dude!" he called.

Anya smiled and raised her hand, calling back, "Dude!"

He nodded then slipped into the car.

"Not smart," Ivy said. Anya looked at her. "He'll be watched closely now. You should have ignored him, or yelled at him to go." She motioned at Anya to go back inside as the car started, then she shut the door behind them before it moved off.

"It's Mickey," Anya protested, going right back to the bottle of whisky. "He's like, my third cousin twice removed or something."

"Oh, a relation? That's good. Better, I mean," Ivy said, sounding relieved. "Don't kid yourself, though. Male relatives have been known to object to courtships and the yautja know it."

Anya shook her head. "What were you saying before? About the courtship being unsuccessful?"

Ivy looked at her, then pulled out one of the stools on the opposite side of the breakfast bar from her and sat down. "The courtship is simply their way of assessing your suitability. He's putting you and everyone else on notice that during this time you're under his scrutiny. It's as if you're mates. He will protect you and provide for you, somewhat. He wants to learn more about you and give you the opportunity to learn more about him."

"I don't hear anything about how to make sure it's unsuccessful," Anya hinted.

"You can't make it unsuccessful, Anya," Ivy said. "It just is or it isn't. He can decide for any reason at any time that you're not suitable."

"So I gotta make myself unsuitable," Anya surmised simply.

"And how do you plan on doing that?" Ivy asked archly, plainly skeptical.

"I dunno. By being the biggest pain in the ass on the planet, maybe?" she thought aloud. "All else fails, I can put some double-odd buckshot in his ass."

"Anya, look at me," Ivy said sternly. "No shooting, got it? Do not shoot him."

She shrugged. "Accidents happen."

"You'll just piss him off," Ivy warned her. "There isn't a gun in that cabinet or on that wall that's capable of doing anymore than that."

Anya arched her brows, impressed. So Ivy knew guns, huh? "I got a forty five cal on the rack downstairs," she said. "And five hundred grain soft points for hunting moose." The bullets blossomed on impact and created a hell of a hole, especially on their way through and out. She loved shooting the thing: the hard kick to her shoulder, the bark of the discharge, then the crack of the bullet as it broke the sound barrier on its way out of the muzzle, all within the same second she pulled the trigger. Kick, p-too, ka-rack. Fuckin awesome.

"I'm not kidding," Ivy said flatly. "You're not dealing with a moose, Anya. None of them would take being shot at lightly; they tend to respond with lethal force. This one, there's no telling what he'll do. He didn't just earn that sigil yesterday and I'd be willing to bet he's had some experience with being shot at."

Anya heaved a sigh and poured another shot. "So where is big and bad and nasty, then?" she wanted to know.

Ivy shrugged, visibly relieved as Anya decided to drop the subject of using the weapons the yautja had left with her against him. "He might be here, he might not. He might be waiting for me to leave before showing himself." She got up, went around the counter, and opened the fridge to help herself to another beer. "They don't follow set patterns; I can only generalize their behaviors to help you know what to expect. How he chooses to go about this courtship is entirely up to him. So is the length of time it takes, whether or not he decides it's successful and if he goes into the rut. Once that happens you'll be taken and I can't help you anymore."

"So...what are you helping, anyway?" Anya asked, narrowing her eyes. "Seems to me you're helping him more than me here. Advising me to act appropriately, not fight back, not do anything to piss him off. Ask me, your being here right now is more benefit to him than it is to me." She swallowed the shot down, then wiped her lips with the back of her hand. "If you hadn't shown up I'd already be hiring a flatbed to get rid of those damned things outside and cleaning my guns."

Ivy studied her for a moment, meeting her stare without flinching. "You're right," she said flatly, suddenly, then reached for the bottle opener on the counter and popped the top off her beer. Without saying any more she lifted the bottle and drank.

"What am I right about?"

"Everything. All of it." She drained half the bottle then set it on the counter. "As a race we have certain responsibilities, certain obligations to meet. Keeping the yautja happy is one of them. If they're unsuccessful obtaining females here there's a possibility they'll either go back to considering us nothing more than prey, or worse. Those in positions higher than you or me have decided that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. And they have been assured that any female taken is well treated and taken care of."

"So what you're doing is helping the process along. Smoothing the way," Anya realized.

"That is a side effect of my work, yes. My primary interest is to keep things to a dull roar. Having a Blooded hunter hanging around suburbia is usually monumental news. People get crazy, get paranoid, when in truth they're usually safer at that time than at any other time in their lives. I, and others like me, work with local law enforcement to prevent a holocaust from happening. Yautja will, if they feel threatened, or if they feel the female they're courting is unsafe, react with a high level of hostility and aggression. Organizing a neighborhood lynch mob is a really good way to get a rise out of them. We've had towns decimated in the past."

Anya snorted. "How far past?"

Ivy lowered her head. "Last one was four months ago," she admitted, her voice quiet. Anya blinked, stunned.

"I don't envy you," she admitted.

Ivy raised her head and looked her in the eye. "I envy you," she said.

Anya blinked again. "Yeah? Maybe we could work something out. I take off in your car and you stay here. He won't know the difference."

The other woman burst out laughing. "Oh, you think?" she asked, deflating Anya as she mentally warmed up to the idea. "He didn't just mark the house, Anya, he marked you as the person living in the house."

She let out a huff of breath, her mind still working. "So then does that mean if I move on, he'll follow?"

"Ah. We come to the next step," Ivy said, smiling. "The part where I make the recommendation that you relocate to a less populated area in order to protect yourself and your neighbors. And, it so happens, I have the ideal place." She raised her beer and drained the bottle before continuing. "We'd like to move you to a new location that's all ready and waiting for you."

"Who's we?" Anya asked, suspicious.

"My team. All female, of course. We'll help you pack up whatever you want to take and bring you to a place that's more suitable."

"And where's that? Siberia?"

"Close. You're a hunter, right? So you like the woods?"

"You're kidding...right?"

"No. I think it'll be perfect for you," Ivy said with false cheer.

"And what about my house?"

"You have time to make that decision. In the case that the courtship is unsuccessful, of course you'll move back here. But we recommend you take the time to decide what you want done with your personal effects and property."

"I'm not moving."

"You'll love the place. Small cabin, cozy. Wait till you see the view."

"I'm not leaving."

"Lots of game. Of course you'll have the necessities: hot and cold running water, electricity, satellite tv..."

"Are you deaf? I'm staying right here. This is my house. This, this bloody Blooded yautja is not chasing me out of it."

Ivy looked skeptical. "Wow. You are difficult," she mused. "Your neighbors are gonna love this."

"My neighbors love me," Anya said defiantly. "They got nothing to complain about."

There was a hard thud on the roof and they both looked up at the same time. Ivy was the first to look away, standing from the stool and pulling out a wallet with business cards in it. She tugged one loose and put it on the counter.

"Here's how to reach me if you have any questions," she said. "Or if you change your mind, which I highly recommend you do."

"Is...is he on my fuckin roof?" Anya demanded as it suddenly occurred to her.

"You'll find they're very three-dimensional," Ivy said. "They don't see obstacles the way we do. Why run around the house when it's faster and more direct to just go over it?" she asked rhetorically. "You don't mind if I hang around another minute, do you? I'd really like to see him."

Anya looked at her in disbelief. "See him? Why don't you put him in your trunk and take him?"

"Would if I could. Doubt he'd fit, though. Or take it very well." Anya scowled and looked up at the ceiling again. "They're not very patient with doorknobs. Might want to open one for him," Ivy advised. "Else he'll find another way in by creating one."

"Oh, you decide to tell me this now? Jesus, I have a brand new skylight in my-"

There was a tearing sound from by the stairs and some stuff rained down on the landing where the steps turned as they went up.

"Correction. You had a brand new skylight," Ivy said needlessly. "Very three-dimensional, see? He probably saw it as an access hatch or something."