Love you guys! Lots going got married for the second time to a wonderful woman...boss got boss starts 2 days later with an boss is a nightmare for 2 months and now realizes we (sales staff) are not the enemy (maybe management is delusional?) faithful and beloved chicken avatar Skootch is no longer wandering my backyard and getting all up in my business, but she will always be the 'face of Stupe'...updated my resume for another friend who might have a job for me...planning a long weekend out-of-state with a friend in two weeks...put details together for the first 2 weeks of August for a cruise to Alaska with hubby and parents, adding a few days in Denali National Park...

I LOVE this story and these characters and I want to share the full story with you, my faithful REVIEWERS and readers. So here I am in the middle of chaos, taking a long-deserved time-out to re-read and catch myself up to where I was so I can fill out this chapter and keep the momentum going. So sorry for the delay; I swear life just keeps going faster and faster until I have no idea how much time has passed since my last update. But I ALWAYS receive those favorites and reviews and I THANK YOU for reminding me that this story doesn't exist in a vacuum, that there are people around the world waiting to find out what happens next. I wish you all the best and hope this update brings some joy to your lives and keeps us all connected, wherever you are and whatever is going on in your world!

xoxo, Stupe

Anya was just starting to doze off when L'tor rumbled behind her, then shifted her forward. She growled – actually growled – as he began to lift her off himself, and he went still. The sound that had come out of her had caught her offguard enough to surprise her, and she blinked, then scowled.

"Need to remove...battery," L'tor intoned, hesitating on the word but still impressing Anya that he'd remembered it from their discussion regarding her iPhone.

"You coming back to bed?" she wanted to know.

"Sei-i. That was my intention."


It wasn't until he smoothly descended the bedsteps and disappeared into the small changing room that it occurred to her that he'd reacted to her irritated growl with almost careful hesitation. She mulled it over, realizing that despite her utter lack of intention to vocalize that way, it had communicated her displeasure to him, probably more effectively than any words would.

"I growled at you," she informed him as he came back up the steps.

He paused, head cocked, and simply responded, "Sei-i."

"That's pretty fucked up," she decided, frowning. L'tor grunted. "But you liked it," she deduced, studying him and sensing his disagreement with her former pronouncement. This time he kept quiet and stayed still, as if aware that there was no right answer. This was happening way too often lately; every time she expressed discomfort with the changes occurring in herself L'tor would subtly slide into super-stealth mode, neither agreeing or disagreeing. Anya had the sense that he liked the changes but felt it would be disrespectful or hurtful to her to admit that, so instead he attempted to become part of the woodwork. If she pressed him he would suddenly remember that there was something he needed to do or somewhere he needed to be.

When she fell quiet, L'tor came the rest of the way up the steps and turned to ease himself almost delicately onto the bed beside her. "Growl is good," he said, making her blink out of her thoughts and look at him, surprised he was willing to elaborate. "Says what I need to know."

"So do words," Anya countered, unconvinced.

"Words never so clear," he disagreed. "Growl tells me how you feel and what you think. Not need translating. Not so complicated."

His simple truths always struck a nerve in her. Humans, she was being made more and more aware, made everything so complicated. Dancing around truths that they felt were too easy to be real, muddying them up with the need to prove how smart they were or to avoid a truth that might insult another. L'tor wasn't above admitting that something as basic and primitive as a reactionary growl had the ability to communicate her thoughts and emotions. More importantly, that it was something he responded to without hesitation, as if his reaction was instinctive.

"Okay, so growling is good," Anya sighed, giving in, wondering what the long-term effects of shedding the individual traits of her humanity would end up making of her. She was changing and she wasn't sure she liked that; it was outside of her control, something that was happening to her day-by-day, asserting itself in weird ways, warping her reality, changing her appearance and behaviors.

L'tor lifted a hand and slowly ran the pads of his fingertips over the bumps on her shoulder. Pointing out yet another manifestation of the changes happening to her. Another, slower caress, this one taking in the mixed texture created between old and new skin, pausing here and there to circle the larger spots of rougher, thicker hide. His touch continued down her arm to her elbow, then across to her back. The spots there were most densely clustered along her spine, curving forward in groups to her flanks along each rib. Anya shivered a bit at his touching and it paused, then smoothly continued when she remained silent and unprotesting. He burbled a bit as he explored the progress of the newest growths over her hips, and she was aware of an increasing sensitivity, along with a tingling rush of heat across the spots.

"This also good," he purred, his fingertips tracking the patterns that the spots had created. The itching had finally tapered off, and Vlieg'r told her that the new skin had fully erupted and established itself. There was a certain aesthetically pleasing symmetry to the distribution of large and small spots, and while they felt rougher than her normal skin, Anya had noticed that they were actually quite sensitive. They objected to the constant contacting rub of certain coverings, driving her to separate out her limited wardrobe into things she could and couldn't stand to wear. And she was aware that L'tor's gentle touching of the combination of old and new skin created a stimulating experience for her.

"What made this?" L'tor rumbled, his tone low and deep as he traced a cluster of scars over her hip. Anya looked down and took a moment to recall the incident that had created them.

"Snowmobile versus barbed-wire-fence," she remembered, her cadence almost dreamy as she focused on his soft, sliding contact. The fence had been a new and unexpected addition that had cut across a familiar path without anything hung on it to make it visible. The windscreen of her sled had taken the brunt of the impact, uprooting the flimsy posts on either side of the path and lashing the barbed-wire back to score her legs.

"Still there. Not changed," L'tor pointed out quietly, finding and tracing each and every line where the metal barbs had caught and torn through her jeans and skin. His hot touch slid lower, to just above her knee. "This?" he trilled.

"Crazy horse. Tried to use the corral fence to rub me off its back at a full gallop." Anya paused, then smiled. "Didn't work," she boasted, remembering.

His touch slid higher, back to her flank, still seeking out her old, healed scars. "This?"

"Skiing. Damn pine trees," she remembered. In her efforts to keep up with the boys she had pushed herself to dangerous limits over and over again, in a war between the sexes. Whatever they could do, so could she. The course had been beyond her ability at the time and she'd veered too wide on a sharp turn. Battered and bloody, she'd still finished out the day without a single complaint, laughing off her injuries later at the fireside, covering her aches and pains with copious amounts of alcohol. She wasn't fragile or whiny; she didn't need to be coddled any more than they did.

L'tor's fingertips stroked over the scars lightly, tracing the marks of injury forward and back with slow, methodical motions and a quiet, masculine rumble. Anya had the sense that he was measuring the scars and analyzing the damage. The pressure of his touch increased and traced along her ribs as if seeking evidence of breaks. She hadn't gone to a doctor or a hospital; at the time she hadn't had health insurance. She'd healed, but she'd never felt quite comfortable in a bathing suit again.

His hand slid to her opposite side, seeking and finding other scars, working his way methodically along, higher and lower from one to the next. He no longer asked so she didn't bother to explain, though each time he paused and hovered, she remembered. The small scar on her jawline was from when she'd tried to swing so high she went up and over the swingset, resulting in a spectacular crash down onto its support bar. The rounded one on her upper left arm was a tell-tale classic from her childhood MMR vaccination: measles, mumps and rubella. Right arm: stupid three-wheeled ATV rollover. Damn thing had been a death machine and had injured everyone who'd attempted to mess around on it.

At some point she became aware of L'tor's steady, warm purring. His scent was strong in her nose and she knew what it meant. She was also subconsciously aware of his increasing caution as he handled her, as if he was expecting her to back him off at some point. It wasn't overly obvious and there was no apparent reason for it, but some new instinct gave her the sense that he was just waiting for her to object to his interest.

She didn't want to. Finally, she had his full attention all to herself, and she wasn't about to do or say anything to discourage that.

He shifted beside her, his movements careful and slow as he repositioned himself a bit closer. Something about his wary caution and delicate approach gave her a thrill, made her feel like she was the powerful and dangerous one here, not him. He had never before been hesitant with her, not even the first time. As if emboldened by her failure to object, his purring intensified as he eased closer and huffed quietly over her, taking in her scent, still exhibiting a certain deliberateness that she read as invitation to put a stop to his obvious investigation of her condition.

"This?" he rumbled, then ran the pads of his thick fingers across the top of her shoulder again, purring at her reactive shudder and hiss. "Not changed," he intoned, pleased.

Anya blinked, then regarded him with heat in her gaze. "You thought it did?" she demanded, aghast. "So is that why you're never around? Because you'd figured I wasn't interested in sex now that you've knocked me up?" If she was capable of bristling, she would have been in a full, outraged flare.

"H'ko," L'tor barked with authority, flaring himself as she settled for trying to kill him with her eyes. "Needed to establish position, An'eya." He struggled internally, aggravated as he mentally sifted to find the words he needed in her language so he could properly explain, but coming up short. How to tell her that he needed to prove himself? That doing so would ensure lives of privilege for them both on the clan ship, that gaining Etah-dte's favor and trust would convey a measure of protection to him as an advisor and to her as his mate. Their spacious quarters were a gift, but he wanted to prove he was worthy of it. And his rank and value to the clan would determine the rations allotted to him and Anya. Whatever they didn't eat would go to feed A'ni-de, so he had to be sure he was entitled to enough, that he wouldn't be forced to have to leave the ship and hunt for them himself.

Spending so much time among his own kind and speaking his native tongue had caused him to lose some of his recently developed quickness with her language. That fact, added to her mesmerizing scent of desire, an exotic mix of ooman female and yautja, made his ability to find the right words nearly impossible. And now her temper only added spice to her fragrance, reminding him of how it manifested during mating.

"H'ko, An'eya," he said, less forcefully. "On clan leader's council now. Needed to find my place on clan ship. Needed to make allies and determine threats." He studied her eyes, sensing he was swaying her. "Needed to give you time with other ooman females so you could do the same."

It was then that Anya finally relented. L'tor was always truthful, and his halting explanation made perfect sense, especially knowing him as she did. He would be calculating and methodical in his approach to settling here, taking his time to scout around, paying attention and observing before taking whatever steps he felt necessary to establish his position. It was typical of him, and her temper cooled as she realized she'd allowed her insecurity to step in and judge his actions and behaviors.

"I have heard from Firstborn Chulonte how you have established yourself here," L'tor continued. "His mate is not pleased with you." His trill let her know that not only wasn't he angry; he actually found this fact amusing. Anya flushed, the reaction carrying through to her spots and her tattoo as she ducked her head to hide her grin, not only relieved but pleased by L'tor's statement.

"Maybe if he spent a little time with her, she wouldn't be taking her aggravation out on me," she said delicately, unwilling to badmouth a fellow female. God only knew what L'tor's reaction would be if she complained about Silla's behavior to him, and the last thing she wanted was to force a confrontation between him and another yautja because of a personal issue with another woman.

"Vlieg'r made the same suggestion," L'tor informed her, still amused. "He assures me that your behavior is..." he hesitated, hunting for the word, then finished with: "...exemplary. He tells me that this means very good."

At that Anya laughed aloud, her color heightening and becoming more pronounced with a full-body flush. The Elder Healer was on her side, apparently, and she appreciated that fact immensely. Common sense told her he had the potential to be a powerful ally for her among both yautja and female humans, and she was pleased to hear that her growing like for - and trust in - him hadn't been misplaced.

"So I did good?" she asked tentatively.

"Sei-i," he rumbled, and lowered his head to nuzzle at her shoulder. "Very good. My female honors me."

Those words meant more to her than she could say, so she responded by reaching out to link her arms around him, pulling herself against him. His praise had touched on an unrealized fear, that she was unworthy of him, that one-on-one he was under a spell that would be broken when she was joined to the group and brought to the awareness of others.

L'tor eased her down onto the bed, back to being so careful and tentative and ready to retreat if she objected. His mouth moved from her shoulder to her neck, then dipped down to her breasts, huffing as he tested her scent and reassured himself that she wanted him. He was delicate as if afraid he would hurt her or the pup, barely brushing her with his weight, taking his time as he eased himself inside her, moving so tentatively and slowly that she shuddered and came long before he was ready. When he attempted to retreat, Anya pulled him back and arched beneath him, encouraging him and ready for another round, one more aggressive that this time met his needs after fulfilling hers. She was almost desperate and demanding, reacting with teeth and nails when he didn't respond in the way she expected him to. Her efforts paid off; aware that she was pregnant he was exercising caution and unsure if breeding her would be detrimental to his pup, but eventually he was incapable of holding himself back any longer.

Mating with his pet ooman was one thing; bonding her as a mate and breeding her was another. Now he was discovering that mating with his pregnant ooman mate was something else entirely, something that tied them closer to together, that was essential to both their well-beings. It cemented their pairbond like a re-affirmation of a pledge, one that L'tor was painfully aware had been thrust upon Anya without her permission. In spite of that, she was doing better than he could have imagined, rising to the challenges she daily faced. He had, he decided, neglected her too long.

Going forward, he made it a point to spend his evenings with Anya, devoting more of his time and attention to her. It necessitated a careful balancing of duties and responsibilities but he was spending more time with her, more attuned to not only the physical but the psychological changes in her that were brought about by the change in their environment and her pregnancy. She was restless at night, he was learning, irritable in the mornings, and oftentimes insatiable in the evenings. Her moods swung without warning as if there was more than one of her sharing her body, and the Anya he would wake up with would not be the Anya he collected from the common room. She was, however, his sole reason for being on the clan ship. The aspirations of his youth had resulted in her, as well as his plans for the future. As volatile and exasperating as she could be, he was devoted to her and could not imagine his life without her.

After yet another in the endless stream of insistent, mutating dreams that seemed to be meaningfully distorted reminders of her past, Anya lay on her back in the bed staring sightlessly into the darkness, momentarily unsure of where she was after the intensity of her dreams, and feeling agitated beyond belief. When something stirred in the bedding beside her and issued a baritone growl, she reacted in startled fear, yowling and thrashing away from it. When she unexpectedly reached the edge of the bed as she fought free of the clinging furs she tumbled off of it, hit each and every step on the way down, and ended up on the hard metal planking of the floor, stunned to stillness. Sometime during her tumble there had been a harsh, startled bark, and suddenly something hot and hard was crouched over her, touching her and growling. L'tor, she realized in a wash of awareness, then she batted him away irritably as her mind reset from her disquieting dreams and her reality slowly reshaped.

She collected herself and groaned in pain; the side of her leg and hip were aching. And as she stood, a new and unwelcome sensation made itself known: she was going to be sick. L'tor was speaking but in her disorientation and sudden alarm she couldn't make heads or tails of whether he was using his language or hers, much less whatever he was saying. His strong scent, usually warm and comforting to her, was filling her nose and adding to her nausea. She shoved him back as he helped her rise, then she pelted for the washroom as her nausea grew.

The second she stepped into the lavatory the obnoxiously bright lights came on, blinding her. Cursing and covering her face, she stumbled to the lower toilet just in time to go to her knees and start heaving violently, and sometime during the process she started crying. The dreams flickered behind her eyelids, quick flashes of memory: Benny's Tavern. Playing pool with Mickey. Laughing in her basement as TJ mapped out the details of their next paintball war. Riding Stretch in the woods, in and out of the dappled sunlight that filtered through the leaves as she enjoyed the quiet and the leathery creak of the tack in time to the horse's hoofsteps. Her father, standing in the kitchen of her house where he'd never been, a cup of steaming coffee in his hand, grinning proudly with tears bright in his eyes as she, for some reason, showed off the new appliances she'd just bought.

When the violent clenching of her stomach finally quit, she was quietly weeping. Her head came up at the sound of L'tor's gruff voice calling her name from the other side of the door and she winced at the ridiculous brightness of the bathroom, then lurched to her feet. Morning sickness, she thought distantly, shading her eyes with one hand after wiping them free of tears with both. Then she remembered the piece of bread she'd left on the table in the sitting room, a thing she'd recently taken to doing - just in case - on the advice of a few of the other girls.

Plan in mind, she quickly moved to the washroom's door and barreled past L'tor, one hand over her eyes and her mind wholly focused on getting to the bread as she limped. He followed her and she cursed again as the soothing darkness of the sitting room was bathed in what seemed like klieg-bright lights the second she entered it. Only to find there was no bread on the table.

"Where is it?" she croaked, her voice rough as she stood staring stupidly at the table. "Where's the bread?" Nausea welled again and she felt light-headed and faint and completely alarmed. Nothing was as it should be. Everything was conspiring to disorient her and make her feel more agitated than her dreams already had. And now L'tor had successfully caught her, issuing a low growl as he looped a massive arm around her middle and crouched behind her to run a hot hand over her aching hip and thigh. She sensed, on some distant level, that her agitation was making him agitated, but right about now she was finding it hard to give a damn, especially since his hold made her feel trapped and his touch made her pain worse. He ignored her questions to examine the damage her tumble from the bed had caused and his possessive protectiveness made her feel suffocated.

"Where's the bread?" she demanded again, unshielding her eyes to use both hands and wrestle herself free. He released her with a low chatter, then met her eyes, his gaze hot.

"Trash," he answered finally. "No food in room."

"You threw it out?" Her belly clenched and suddenly his scent was overwhelming. Horrified, she slapped a hand over her mouth and bolted, still favoring her left leg as it slowed her stride. Once she was safely inside the washroom she waited to vomit but it never happened, though the nausea lingered. It took awhile for the feeling to subside though she was aware that it wouldn't take much to bring it back. She needed to eat something. Something bland and light, just a little something to help either settle her stomach or give her body something to throw up for the next round. She also was in desperate need for it to be about half as bright in here than it currently was; the intense lighting was like needles in her eyes.

Unsettled and unaware of what time of day it was, she ran the shower to get some water and rinsed her mouth, then her face, wetting her unruly hair and combing her fingers through it. And when she exited the washroom L'tor was standing right on the other side of the door again, bristling with agitation at her behavior. Seeing him and remembering the effect his strong scent had on her, she held up a hand to ward him off and barked at him to move. He stood his ground and chuffed at her, clearly annoyed. Damned yautja. Everything perceived as a challenge to be met and defied.

"I swear to god, yautja," Anya said, her voice low with annoyance and warning, "if you don't clear a path and get the hell out of my way so help me I will throw up on you...violently."

His mild bristle became more accentuated, then he let out a low shuddery breath like a horse clearing its nostrils and backed away from the doorway. She met his eyes as he reluctantly gave ground, then she moved past him, out into his quarters and through the bedroom into the small dressing room. He began a low, rolling growl as she wordlessly dressed herself, and when she was covered she paused long enough to shoot him a look. The growl faded out but he was still glaring at her with plenty of heat.

"I wasn't kidding about being this close to puking," she warned, holding her thumb and forefinger a few centimeters apart. "This kid of yours is sucking the life out of me, and if you know what's good for you, you'll back offa me."

Without a sound this time, he eased aside and let her pass. He was bristling and tense but Anya didn't give a damn, sure that for once her temper would outshine his. She squinted on her way through his brightly lit quarters, part of her wondering what time of day it was and feeling like it was the wee hours of the morning.

She'd made it only a little ways down the corridor when she heard the door she'd just come through slide open, and she turned to see L'tor exiting their quarters and following her. He'd taken a moment to wrap a fresh cloth around his hips before setting off in pursuit, at least. Anya waited, studying him as he approached and came to a stop ten feet from her. Respecting her mood, but for some reason – or maybe because of her mood - unwilling to let her out of his sight.

He followed her to the common room, halting in the doorway while she entered, went straight to the nearest food cart, and poured herself a cup of juice. She gulped it down, her eyes wandering until they fell on a plate of blandly flavored cracker-things.

"Everything okay?" one of the three girls in the room asked her. One was curled up asleep on a pillowy armchair and the other two were quietly chatting; it was one of them who'd asked, her eyes darting cautiously to L'tor then back to her.

"Pukin'," Anya grunted as she poured more juice, in no mood for conversation.

"Ah," said the other girl, nodding in sympathetic understanding. When she saw Anya picking up two crackers and turning away she said, "Oh hell, girl, just take the whole plate with you."

"Yeah?" Anya asked, seriously considering it. At the other girl's gesture, she gave in and took the entire plate, then carried it with her full cup to the doorway. Once again L'tor stepped aside for her, then followed her back to his quarters while she inhaled two crackers and half the juice, then she placed the plate and cup down on the large, low table by the couch.

"You see this?" Anya demanded, pointing. "That's mine. I put it there for a reason. That means I want it there." L'tor stood and silently regarded her. "If whatever shit I leave is not here next time I wake up, I'm moving out and sleeping in the common room like that other girl. Swear to god." She raised a hand like she was making one of her Girl Scout pledges as she said the last part, hoping to convey her seriousness on this matter. As far as she was concerned, moving out was already a definite possibility, if his scent continued to trigger the sudden urge to puke. Already she could feel her nausea subsiding now that she had something in her stomach, and if he insisted on throwing out the food she'd cached to help her deal with the morning sickness because he had some objection to her eating in his quarters, she was gone. This whole pregnancy thing was bad enough already without him imposing his imperial rules and order on her in spite of it.

When she next woke it was after a deep, restful sleep that was disturbed by no dreams. Anya slept soundly and was honestly relieved to wake up alone. Her nose detected L'tor's beery heat scent but she immediately left the bedroom where it was strongest before it could set her off again.

The cracker-things were still on the low table by the couch, but she stilled as she took in the new addition to the sitting room: a covered conveyance and the scent of food. She went to explore, taking a small piece of cracker and nibbling it as she uncovered the cart and saw the covered bowl of oatmeal-like stuff, still warm, the bits of cut fruit, the dark bread, and more crackers. What L'tor would consider side dishes to the ten or so pounds of meat that constituted his more infrequent meals, but all perfect and non-offensive to his pregnant mate.

Pleased, she settled beside the cart and eased into the bland but filling oatmeal, eating methodically and slowly as her nausea subsided. When she had her fill of that she moved on to the fruits, holding them on her tongue to taste them before biting. This refreshed and rehydrated her and she finished all of them, setting the dish of crackers aside on the table and recovering the cart, hoping L'tor would let her keep the cracker-things in his quarters at all times.

Later, after a trip to the common room and her subsequent return to L'tor's quarters, she saw that the dish of crackers had disappeared, but the cart hadn't. When she checked it, it was stocked with fresh food and small pitchers of juice and water, including a simple side plate of fresh bread and crackers. Some of her agitation decreased with the reassuring presence of food nearby for her to pick at, since she had no desire to eat large meals. The constant snacking helped keep the nausea at bay, since it seemed to most often come when her stomach was empty and her blood sugar was low. Though she could barely feel it most of the time, apparently the presence of L'tor's pup was making a huge impact on her body, siphoning every ounce of nutrition out of her.

She was spending a fair amount of time alone in L'tor's quarters, retreating to its quiet privacy whenever she needed a reprieve from the common room. Thanks to her obsessive hovering near the food cart and her new habit of napping on the couch, she learned that the cart was regularly checked and changed out by A'ni-de. New items were added to her menu but she was still very particular and picky about anything she ate, in some cases because she didn't know what it was, and in others because she feared it wouldn't agree with her. The cast-iron stomach she used to be able to depend on had become wildly unpredictable, which only increased her anxiety. Besides, she had a sneaking suspicion that A'ni-de was entitled to her leftovers as a side benefit of the job, and that the copious amounts of meat he was adding to the selection were more for him than for her.

As she always had, and still much to L'tor's annoyance, she greeted A'ni-de with a tired 'hello', waiting for him to meet her eyes and give her a mute nod. He'd come with another cart and he exchanged it for the one that had been sitting in the room, then went about his business in L'tor's quarters doing servant-stuff. She had noticed that his posture had started to subtly change in her presence when he entered L'tor's quarters, that he straightened his hunch a bit and tried to minimize the pronounced dragging of his left leg. It made her think that he felt more confident and comfortable with her than anyone else, that her insistence on acknowledging him made him feel respected and non-invisible for the first time in a long time.

Over time he had become bolder, but only when they were alone together. He'd taken to inspecting the old cart when he brought a fresh one, and more than once he would meet her eyes and make a derisive sound if he felt she hadn't eaten enough. ''What?'' she asked, the third time he did it. When he motioned at the untouched meat she scowled and protested, ''Not in the mood for that."

"Pup is," he said, his voice surprisingly deep and robust and masculine. Anya blinked. He uncovered the fresh cart then gestured at the small plate of cut meat pointedly.

"Really?" she asked. She'd been off meat for some time; the mere thought repelled her for some reason. But maybe he had a point; yautja were carnivores, and if she wasn't eating meat the growing pup had to get its protein from her some other way. She considered it, then rose from her seat and edged closer, waiting for the scent of meat and yautja to hit her and unsure of what her physical reaction to either would be.

"Yautja females ate raw," Limpy informed her as she dubiously picked up a small piece. Her eyes snapped to him and she held up a hand to silence him.


He started a reactive chuff and lopsided challenging flare that he immediately remembered to cut off, subsiding as he lowered his head and shuffled back.

"Hey, wait," Anya said, immediately feeling bad as she realized she'd reprimanded him. "I haven't been able to keep meat down for almost a week," she said, her tone lower as he stopped his retreat but kept his head and eyes submissively lowered. "I'm afraid I'll puke again, and the thought of raw meat doesn't sit well, okay?" He grunted softly. Steeling herself, she nibbled at the meat. It was fresh and still warm from being cooked, and it had been lightly rubbed with a bold seasoning. Once the taste filled her mouth, her hunger roared to life with surprising vigor and she dared a larger bite. Her tentative chewing picked up speed and when she reached for another piece the pup in her womb gave her a hard kick that startled her. "Damn," she said wonderingly, and looked at Limpy as she laid a hand over her belly. "You're right." His head lifted slightly, just enough for him to flick his surprisingly green eyes up enough to look her in the face. "But I'm still not eating it raw."

He grunted quietly in acknowledgement, but Anya sensed that their momentary comfortableness with each other was over, that her snappy rebuke had served to put him firmly back in his place. Damn. She hadn't meant for that to happen, only for him to not extoll her on the virtues of eating raw meat. "You knew yautja females?" she asked after settling on the couch, acutely aware that she was reclined like a diva with her legs off to the side while a several hundred pound yautja stood there like a beaten dog, apparently awaiting either punishment or dismissal, her choice.


Her chewing paused a moment, then she swallowed the piece and reached for another. "Really." She looked him over consideringly and burned with curiosity, but wondered if pursuing the topic would be painful to him. "What were they like?" she asked tentatively.

He shifted slightly on his feet and dared to raise his bowed head a bit more, his large tusks shifting in front of his mouth. "Fierce."

There was, Anya realized as he met and held her gaze, a certain defiant and indefatigable pride in the eyes of most yautja. The young were brimming over with it but it tended to be undeserved for most of them; they hadn't been through the fire yet, so to speak. They were proud to be yautja and excited by the imagined glory to come, but there was a tempering process that had yet to refine them, to smash that starry-eyed anticipation to bits and replace it with a more mature reality and deserved, steady confidence. The older ones, conversely, held a patient and sage wisdom in their steady stares, a certain calmness, but god help you if you got them stirred up. And those of L'tor's particular age and rank held a fiercer, brighter gleam to their eyes, his half brother included. As if the energy and ferocity and vitality that defined their species was much closer to the surface. However long he'd been damaged and in servitude, he hadn't lost that piercing eagle's stare, clear of any cobwebs of uncertainty and self-doubt, proud of what he'd done, where he'd been and what he'd seen, devoid of self-pity for his current circumstances. His eyes burned with backlit intensity, still and fixed to her face. The eyes of a hunter who knew patience, who was no stranger to physical pain, who feared nothing and no one despite his crippling physical limitations. This was not a species that could ever be tamed or broken; it would fight to its last surviving member before ever accepting captivity or subjugation.

"You are wicked scary," Anya said softly, and Limpy blinked, then lowered his head and put his gaze back on the floor, though the tell-tale lifting of his undamaged tresses, slight as it was, somehow communicated to her that her words pleased him. He could kill her easily, crippled and scarred as he was, and they both knew it. Hell, drop him on earth in nothing but the loincloth he was wearing and she suspected he could take care of himself quite handily, finding shelter and living off the land with relative ease. It was this instinctive awareness since the day L'tor had dismissively introduced him to her that made her incapable of treating him with the same indifference the able-bodied yautja treated him. He was deserving of her respect regardless of his status.

"You don't have to do that," she said, her voice still soft. "I'm not the boss of you, and I'm not trying to start any trouble."

His eyes flicked up from under his heavy, spiny brow. "Hims not like me scare you," he rumbled.

Hims, of course, being L'tor. Anya snorted softly. "You're not scaring me," she assured him. "And obviously hims isn't paying proper attention to what I'm eating and not eating. You are." His head lifted slightly, and she recognized that she was tentatively winning him back after her unintentional slap-down. To prove her point, she reached for another piece of meat, actually hungry for more. The pup was swimming laps or doing restless somersaults and she absently rubbed her belly to soothe it. "How well did you know yautja females?" she asked.

His head lifted fully. "Have full-blood pups," he informed her.

"Full-blood?" she echoed, then blinked. The second the words had popped out of her mouth, she got it. It hadn't occurred to her before that a distinction was made between yautja born from two yautja parents, and yautja born from a yautja/human pairing, but it made sense. She blinked again, then smiled. "So, very well, is what you're saying?"

He finally blinked and lifted his lower tusks a bit, pleased and getting her gentle teasing. "Sei-i."

"How many sons do you have?" she wanted to know next. His gleaming eyes slid sideways before settling back on hers and he chuffed softly. She waited a moment, then set the piece of meat on the tray and held up both her hands, her fingers outstretched. "This many?"

He regarded her a moment, then moved carefully closer and stretched his arm enough to reach her hands. "This," he said, pointing to her right hand, "this," to her left, "this," back to her right, "and this." He tapped two fingers of her left hand, then moved back to the opposite side of the carts.

"Seventeen?" she realized, shocked. "No wonder you know what pregnant females should be eating. You're an expert." Now, though, she was wondering if L'tor had any full-blood pups running around. Oh hell, she decided. "Does L'tor have any pups?"

"H'ko." He considered, studying her a moment. "Was few season too late."

Anya nodded, surprisingly saddened by this information. No doubt she was biased, but she considered L'tor to be a prime example of his species. He should be busy making babies with his own kind and passing on his genes for the betterment of yautja kind, not reduced to dealing with her. And she should be home right now, or working, or hanging out in Benny's, doing her thing with no awareness that his kind even existed.

Troubled by these thoughts she subsided, aware when Limpy started moving around L'tor's quarters. He'd taken her subdued mulling for dismissal.

Reduced, she mused. Despite a high opinion of herself and her species in general, she'd actually thought that word without shame when it came to L'tor. The other girls who shared this section of the vast clan ship with her had a very black-and-white view of their situation: they'd been kidnapped and raped and they were being held prisoner and forced to produce and nurture the young of another species. By definition all true, and she would be a strident and angry member of their pity-party if not for one crucial thing: L'tor.

Certainly she would rather be at home, living her life. But conversely, she didn't share the trapped prisoner feeling that many of the other girls felt. Part of it was because she was allowed much more freedom of movement than they were; unlike them, she was permitted to move between the clinic, the common areas and L'tor's quarters. Their yautja hadn't procured a servant to help keep an eye on them, to bring them food, to attend multiple times a day to whatever needed to be done in their quarters, like providing fresh food and bedding and drying cloths.

Neither did she fear or resent her yautja like they did theirs. On a certain level she was attuned to him in ways she hadn't consciously realized until she had the opportunity to observe the other girls' interactions with their yautja. When L'tor came into the common areas to find her, she looked to him with attentive anticipation, rising immediately and going to him when he held out a hand. The other girls would stiffen and withdraw, forcing their yautja to come to them and physically haul them from their seats. It wasn't done roughly or aggressively, with any rancor or intent to cause pain or to punish. It was, best as she could tell, just the way it was. The girls played the role of submissive captive and the yautja held the position of dominant captor.

The lights suddenly dimmed and Anya lifted her head and glanced over at A'ni-de, standing by the exit door with the panel beside it hanging open. He was staring at her expectantly, and when she furrowed her brows the lighting went dimmer, then too dark, casting shadows through the nearby window from the lights along the outer section of the clan ship into the room.

"What're you doing?" Anya asked.

"Hims said. N'got?" he trilled.

She blinked. Hims said. L'tor had remembered her earlier discomfort and told him to dim the lights in his quarters to suit her. "Too dark," she said, her tone lower. He slowly raised the intensity of the lighting until she said, "Nagot."

He turned away and reset the panel in the wall, leaving the lights at a much more comfortable level, one that no longer made her feel like she was in an interrogation room or an operating theatre. The constant, dully aching throb behind her eyes eased immediately and she let out a quiet breath and relaxed a bit more on the couch. The panel back in place, Limpy turned and headed for the washroom next.

And yet another reason she didn't feel like a helpless captive, she realized. She had some say. Her yautja made an effort to ensure her comfort, to adapt himself and their environment to her needs or preferences. This particular change had no effect on him, since he could see in what would be total darkness to her, but it showed that he was paying attention and making an effort to please her. And despite the fact that they'd antagonistically parted company earlier, L'tor was obviously still mulling over her behavior and her complaints wherever he was, coming up with solutions to ease her discomfort.

Anya got up and went to the washroom where A'ni-de had another panel open and was lowering the lights. "Little brighter in here," she requested when he looked at her. He watched her face as he reversed course from matching the lighting level in the sitting room, until she said, "Nagot," again.

Another knot of tension that she hadn't been aware of eased. Mission accomplished, A'ni-de reset the panel, then headed into the sleeping room. The lights in there were already much dimmer than anyplace else, and when she followed him and stood in the doorway to see what he meant to do, he went to the sleeping pallet.

Like L'tor when he went on any offship excursion, A'ni-de was wearing a wide, heavy-looking belt. He moved to the side of the bed, climbing the graduated steps of the platform it sat on, and took some tool off the belt. While she watched, he crouched and set the tool on the bed's adjustable frame, then paused to look at her.

"You sleep now?" he trilled.

"Now? Hukko."

He nodded and grunted, then went to work. It took her awhile of observation, as he disassembled the pallet and lugged it aside, then went to work on disassembling the various pieces of the platform, to realize just what he was doing. She retreated for some time to leave him alone and eat some more, feeling another pleased tug at her insides as she settled in the more cozy comfortableness of the more dimly lit sitting room. The meat was still warm and she surprised herself by eating all of it and actually thinking she could eat even more, then she moved on to the asparagus-like things that were crunchy, earthy and slightly bitter, finishing her meal off with the sugary-sweet fruit. She left the oatmealy, porridgey stuff for later; knowing it was surprisingly it was good after it cooled off, too.

Stuffed and slightly sleepy, she returned to the sleeping quarters to check on progress, and her suspicions were confirmed: the ridiculous high platform had been disassembled and A'ni-de was in the process of putting the bed back together on the floor, where it damned well belonged. It still stood on a piston-like stand that allowed it to be raised or lowered to preference, but at least it was no longer situated at the top of a Mayan pyramid that, when she misjudged climbing out of it, she tumbled down each step to hit the floor. Painfully. Absently, Anya rubbed her hip.

The pieces of the platform had been separated into metal panels that A'ni-de had stacked off to the side, and when he finished putting things to rights he gathered several of the panels and rose to stand. He didn't move otherwise, quietly regarding her blocking his exit by leaning in the doorway.

"Thank you," Anya said, and crossed her right arm over her chest, thumping the flat of her fist lightly against her opposite shoulder and dipping her chin. A'ni-de's eyes went wide, then he blinked.

"Hims said."

"Sigh-ee," she nodded, having figured that out already. Would have been almighty stupid of him to disassemble L'tor's bed without his permission, and she doubted he was stupid...or that he had a deathwish. Not after noticing that uniquely yautja gleam in his eyes. "I'll thank hims later. But you did the work, so I thank you, too."

He chuffed quietly, no doubt unsure of how to respond. "Was high honor for hims," he rumbled. Now Anya was unsure of how to respond. "Higher rank on clan ship, higher sleep," he said. "Clan leader show hims respect," he explained, lifting the panels in his arms.

For a second, Anya felt a wash of horror, a tinge of shame, a sensation of guilt. Then she remembered why L'tor had told A'ni-de to take it apart and lower it, and she giggled as she flushed. "I fell off of it," she admitted, though there was no requirement for her to explain to him why L'tor had ordered him to do such a bizarre task, removing a symbol of status. "Like ten times."

He stared at her and she heard a low buzzing sound that rose into a tentative, subdued trilling laughter. When she grinned and giggled more, his amusement cut off abruptly. It was the baring of the teeth thing, she realized, covering her grin. The yautja who spent time with humans were no longer put off or offended by it, but most of the others, especially the older, still saw it as a challenge, L'tor had warned her.

He shifted the panels in his arms; no doubt they were heavy. "Was not unwise," he rumbled. "For pup."

"Sigh-ee." That was part of it, sure. But the other uncoiling tension in her knew otherwise. L'tor had sacrificed a status symbol because it made her miserable and uncomfortable. This last tumble was the only one she'd taken since being pregnant; the first bunch had been in quick succession shortly after him settling her here. Used to a bed that sat on the floor, she was in the habit of getting up and walking, not getting up and going down steps. After the first few falls she'd taken to clinging to the bed and feeling her way to the edge of each step in the dim lighting of the sleeping room, then jumping down. But even her occasional goofing off and teasingly riling him by playing hard-to-get in the bedroom had resulted in a few unintended and painful trips down the stairs. Sure as hell ruined the mood.

Yautja instinct was to sleep high. The only time they might possibly sleep on the ground was when they were already at a comfortable altitude, like on a cliff. During hunting excursions they rested in the treetops, or if none were available, on the highest hill or a mountain crevice. Anya supposed that even here, in the prefab order of the clan ship, the traditional rules still applied: those with the highest ranks slept in the highest beds. The Clan's leader probably slept on the equivalent of Mount Everest.

Yautja also had the ability to sleep deeply and comfortably on precarious, narrow perches, with no fear that at any time they might roll over and fall. They kept some kind of subconscious awareness of their surroundings, even while they slept. And unless they were sick or badly injured, they didn't share the human mugginess of mind upon awaking; they simply snapped back to consciousness with sharpened and refreshed awareness.

Thus, the bed had been a sore spot between them since L'tor had settled her here to stay. She hadn't known that his clan was honoring him with the Mayan pyramid of steps beneath it, of course, but it hadn't taken a rocket scientist to figure out that the bed was where it was because he preferred it that way.

She backed out of the doorway to let A'ni-de by, then she stepped into the sleeping quarters as he passed with his burden, her eyes fixed to the bed. Concessions. No doubt they were easier to come by here, on the clan's ship, where human females were expected and somewhat accommodated, with proper sized seating and furniture and utensils. Even so, he was willingly sacrificing things that pleased him, in order to please her. The realization definitely softened her from her earlier anger and frustration with him. It helped, too, that she physically was feeling much better. A'ni-de, pointing out the obvious, that she needed to eat the meat she was given. The dimming of the ridiculously bright lights to a level that didn't threaten to make her bleed from the eyes. The throbbing of her head had eased and her lingering nausea had subsided.

And the food, she remembered. Can't forget the food. After tossing her meager piece of emergency bread with an admonition that he didn't want any food in their quarters, he'd reversed course and provided her with several-times-a-day carts loaded with food in response to her demand that she be permitted a lousy plate of crackers. Was it just because she was pregnant, and the concessions were for the welfare of the pup, like A'ni-de had implied? Or maybe a reaction to quell the hormonal insanity that had driven her to threaten to throw up on him if she didn't get her way?

Neither, Anya decided as A'ni-de gathered the last pieces of the platform, hoisted them to his shoulder with a low grunt, then carried them out. If she were any other female and L'tor any other yautja, those concessions would never had been made, pup or not, and she knew it. Status was everything to yautja, and she didn't doubt that the number who would willingly give up any sign or symbol of it were few and far between. That and the damnable yautja dominance and stubbornness that made changing their minds a near impossibility, like trying to steer the Titanic. Confronting them about their rules or beliefs, no matter how insignificant or minor, was harder than repeatedly slamming your forehead into a brick wall. In their own environment, this was the way it was, period. In another environment they would move mountains and reverse the orders of heaven and hell to put things to 'rights', the way they wanted things to be.

L'tor was all that and more, the archetypal, quintessential yautja. You had a better chance at beating him to death with a two-by-four than convincing him to change a damned thing. And it was. Proof that there was something that he valued more than status symbols and getting his own way.

A'ni-de issued a raspy, trilling purr, and Anya realized that she was crying quietly, both parts scared and touched. "Is good," he rumbled from behind her.

"What is?" she whispered.

He chuffed. "That hers understand."

She blinked and stared at the bed on the floor, no longer so regally placed and elevated as the focal point of the room, now just an ordinary bed. Behind her, she heard him move away, then the faint hiss of the exit door sliding open as he left.

When L'tor returned to his quarters hours later, Anya turned her head to look at him from her seat near the window. He grunted a greeting and paused by the exit door to remove his bracers as if nothing had changed, as if it was just another day. When he set down the second one and slid off the soft hides he wore beneath them, she rose from her seat and went to him, watching him turn to face her as he rubbed his forearms. Without a word she pressed herself close against him and raised herself on her tiptoes, letting out a soft breath at the contact of their bodies as she raised her hands and tried to slide them behind his neck. He was tense and she could feel it in the hold of his body, his rigid posture, the way he stiffened further at her unusual greeting. Then she felt his hands settle lightly on her hips, hot and huge and almost unsure of whether or not to touch her, careful not to trap and hold. Her response was to press closer against him, sliding herself up a bit more. His heat against her skin made her prickle, the roughness of his hide, his heat and hops scent, the bulging muscle against her front. Death on two legs, still thinking about being pissed off at her for her earlier behavior, probably smarting from feeling compelled to give in to it in an attempt to appease her.

He rumbled quietly and she could feel it to her toes as the sound resonated in her bones. The powerful hands that bracketed her waist tightened and he lowered his head to touch his mandibles to her crown, his molten breath spilling over her as he huffed quietly to draw in her scent. "Thank you," she whispered, her cheek pressed against one massive pectoral muscle and the dull thudding of the huge hearts beneath it. "You honor and please me. You make me feel safe and comfortable and cared for."

He rumbled again and the sound was stronger this time, almost a growl. Across her lower back, the spread of his fingers widened as he shifted his grip and settled it more securely and possessively on her body, pulling her a bit more tightly against himself. "Walk or carry?" he trilled, his tone low. Anya opened her eyes and blinked, then giggled freely.

"Carry," she requested, then lowered her arms and took a step back from him. He bent over her and scooped her up with ease, issuing another rumbling growl as she closed her hand in his tresses and lightly squeezed then tugged. His fierce gaze was locked on hers as he moved through his quarters and carried her to the bed, but he hesitated in the doorway and lifted his eyes, then let out a quiet sigh at the sight of his bed. "Trust me," she said quietly as he stared, taking it in. "I'll make it up to you."

He returned his attention to her and shifted his upper mandibles but otherwise didn't move. "Will take a lot," he warned, lowering his brow ominously.

"Sigh-ee," she agreed. "It meant a lot. To both of us."

His menacing, hooded expression eased and she felt him deflate the rest of the way, his tension fading back at her simple statement. Without another glance at the bed he carried her forward and eased her onto the furs, then covered her delicately. Despite being wrapped in a battle-scarred hide that was dense and tough, he was acutely aware of her body beneath his and every place they touched, shifting to accommodate her every move and careful not to put too much of his weight anywhere on her. Their movements were almost choreographed and practiced as she squirmed to get comfortable, arching a bit to tilt her head back as he rumbled and nipped along her jawline, then framed the column of her throat with his tusks and drew her scent in deep while he undid the ties to her clothes. Beneath him she slowly dragged her nails down his back from shoulderblades to waist, then untied his loincloth. When he shifted over her to bring his mouth to her breast, he tugged off her upper covering, rumbling against her body as she squeezed and tugged at his dreadlocks.

They moved together in a slow cadence, backed by the mutual confidence of the other's affection despite monumental differences. Anya gasped and arched as L'tor's ardent suckling became fierce against her sensitive breasts, and he used the opportunity to lift his body off hers and unclothe them both below the waist, then gently eased himself back down to cover her. Eyes closed, head back, her hands wandered, finding the dip of his backbone and following it upward with a light touch, leaving it to take in the bulge of the muscle behind his shoulder, amplified by his elbow planted in the furs and propping up the weight of his upper body. Then down along his flank, following the flare of the broadest muscle in his back, the lat, then the oblique muscle above his hip. Her opposite hand stroked slowly over his other arm, from shoulder to triceps, its touch likewise light enough to take in his heat and the curious texture of his skin, including the scars that peppered it.

L'tor rumbled and switched to her opposite breast, shifting his lower body and hunching his back to bring his sex in contact with her thighs before he subsided back over her. She responded by opening her legs and letting him settle between, then she continued her stroking and her movements beneath him, her slow flexing and squirming in response to his mouth on her breast.

When he satisfied himself at her breast, he shifted higher on her body, pausing to rumble against her throat while she tilted her head back and bared it willingly to him. He nipped at her soft skin, his sharp, dangerous teeth pinching and dragging as his rumble roughened to a growl, aggression rising in tandem with lust, a necessary breeding response in a male normally faced with a female much larger and stronger, a holdover that might never be bred out of his species, and one that used to scare her. Now, however, it thrilled her. She'd learned to give in to that side of herself that felt titillated female excitement in response to male aggression and dominance. His teeth closed on her throat, his lower mandibles framing her neck, holding her like that, shifting over her a bit, repositioning for the next crucial step closer to claiming her.

Feeling that, Anya bent her right leg and slid the inside of her thigh over the outside of his. He stilled, his growl dropping into a lower register, his breath hot and moist against her throat. Slowly, she brought her knee to rest on the outside of his hip, and when he shifted to better position himself, her leg moved with him. Abruptly he released her neck and paused to look into her heavy-lidded eyes, his gaze piercing and ferocious and riding a dangerous line between violence and aggression. She'd seen it before and knew better than to take it as a personal threat or feel fear in response. Arouse a yautja and this was what you were going to get, plain and simple. And the reason she no longer felt the fear she used to was because she knew him and trusted him. She'd pushed back before. Tried to fight her way clear, tried to elude and deny and refuse. And aggressive as he'd gotten, she hadn't ended up anymore hurt for it. He could get pissy all he wanted, but there was no true aggression in him toward her. That realization had brought her a level of confidence that she never would have thought would be possible in the face of L'tor's temper and dominance.

There was no fight in her now, however. What he'd done for her had flayed her heart open and left her desperate for the physical contact that was coming. Not horny or lustful, but more needing and wanting. Paying close attention and aware like never before, of every touch of clawed hands, terrifying tusks, sharp teeth, smothering weight, and feeling none of it, not even accidentally. He nipped at her chin, his growl easing as she willingly submitted and conveyed to him without words that she didn't have any dispute to his right to her body. Then he shifted higher, her leg lifting as she kept her knee at his hip, feeling him ease between her legs, a dip and a nudge to find her entrance, then the slow press to her core. She held her breath then let it out as he paused, took another as he eased back, then held it as he surged forward again.

There were different kinds of taking, and while this wasn't his most aggressive, it wasn't his gentlest method, either. He accepted her submission but still felt a need to reestablish his dominance, piercing her without force but with demand. She groaned and arched beneath him, not in pain but in response, feeling him press down more weight on her pinned left leg as he pressed forward again, holding her lower body still while he pushed deeper. His efforts quickened, came closer together with less pause between, a demanding press, a slight easing back, then another press. And soon Anya was aware that he was riding her steadily but gently, rocking over her, hilting and withdrawing in smooth, steady strokes that had her huffing in time. The sensation made her come alive, the sound of her own blood rushing in her ears, the sucking of her lungs for air, the sharp sensation of it in her throat, her nails digging into tough, hard and pebbly hide and hanging on as he plunged in and out of her in steady cadence, pressing her into the furs, the tips of his dreadlocks tickling her enflamed skin. He was growling, the sound ebbing and rising, the need to purr to reassure her a thing of the past. His chest brushed over hers, his head lifted and tilted back, one forearm tucked beneath her head, the other hand planted in the furs at her eye level, the muscles of his powerful arm bulging, the usually subtle reddish chevrons now livid and plainly displayed.

Gradually, slowly, he was increasing force and picking up the pace until her blood was singing as her body started an unconscious and slow-motion flex in response to the building sensation and friction. Where she had been moving in tandem with him before she now went rigid, holding herself open and braced against the onslaught, climbing ever higher, her nerve endings becoming taxed by input. Smooth, silky furs that tickled, the sliding of rough, sweaty skin against smooth, the steady grunts timed to each thrust. And inside, the place where he pierced her over and over, forcing his body into hers, a building fire of pleasure as sensitive skin was rubbed raw, as pleasure and pain intermingled and fed off each other, so closely related and narrowly divided that she couldn't tell one from the other.

Anya keened, a building, primal sound as she shuddered and clenched more tightly to the rocking body over her, flexing from the inside out as the climax overtook her with full-body force. She actually felt it zip up her spine, explode in her brain, and travel outward to her extremities, then the shivering aftermath as L'tor continued without a hitch in his stride, keeping it going. It lingered, leaving her locked in its tingling embrace and unable to escape, to catch her breath, to reset herself for the possibility of a new one, a fresh one. Trapped, she continued to hitch and gasp like a fish out of water, her body almost seizing spastically in response to each thrust into her core. And just when she started to panic at her complete loss of control over every part of her body, L'tor shuddered massively over her and drove into her with renewed authority and demand before hilting and pressing himself deep. She, too, shuddered uncontrollably, feeling a sensation like electrical shocks that popped and sizzled over her body as the friction abruptly ceased and she started to come down from her intense high. He trembled and shuddered impressively for a good few seconds before slumping over her, careful not to give her too much of his weight. And in the aftermath, her ears filled with his ragged, hoarse breathing, she stroked her hands over his body with honest affection, soothing him even as she flinched with each twitch of his sex organ inside her.

When he lifted his head and gave it a minute, quick shake, then followed suit from the shoulders down, Anya knew he'd sloughed off the last of his irritation with her. In her limited relationship experience to date, small matters became big ones, one issue building upon the next until, before she knew it, the relationship was more trouble than it was worth, leaving her wondering how and where it had all gone so wrong. Somehow L'tor had broken that pattern. He had changed everything, all her beliefs and expectations of the course of her life, snatching her from a death sentence in exchange and giving her the opportunity to be something she'd never allowed herself to think about: a mother.

Granted, her babies wouldn't be human and she wouldn't follow the paths of her girlfriends, getting involved in playgroups and joining the PTA. But somehow, defective as she and her genetics were, something powerful and strong had chosen her above all people to bear his young, calling it an honor and not a mistake. Repairing the damage she'd inherited, making her sound and strong and enjoying better health than she'd had.

She shifted beneath his bulk and he lifted immediately with a guttural grunt, as always responsive and aware. She pushed at him and he obligingly rolled, taking her with him. The orgasm he'd given her had re-energized instead of exhausting her, and though he was subsiding, his breathing sedate and measured, her body was urging her for a rematch.

"Sleepy?" she purred, propping herself up enough to look at L'tor's closed eyes. He rumbled quietly in response. "You wore yourself out being all pissy at me all day, didja?" she mused. "I don't think so." At that, his eyes snapped open and he growled, the sound so baritone it was pure muscle vibration and zero air. "But I'm not done thanking you yet," she mewled, her tone little-girlish and petulant, and the growl cut off with an almost curious, questioning sound as he twitched inside her, his fierce eyes blinking as if he was surprised. It threw her off and made her second-guess herself.

"I don't know how to be what you want me to be," she admitted suddenly, deflating. It was his reaction at her desire to go again, and the discussions of the other females that suddenly filled her head and made her unsure. Her behavior, she knew, wasn't typical. Wasn't normal. Her affection for this yautja was considered an oddity to the others, who thought her to be in the grip of some sort of Stockholm Syndrome. And then just when she was thinking to sit upright and straddle him, the new life inside her reminded her it was there, fluttering in her belly as if their love-making had woken it.

L'tor grunted, and smoothly rolled himself over her again as his organ pulled her more tightly against him. "What I want you to be?" he rumbled, his heavy brow lowering ominously and hooding his eyes, making his expression menacing even as he trapped her.

It occurred to her that she was being hormonal. That was the same reason for the vivid dreams, the severe mood swings, the visceral and vehement reactions to outside stimuli like smell and taste and light. It was all wrapped up in her uncertainty in herself and what she was doing, in her fear of failing L'tor after all the effort he'd put forth, and was still putting forth, on her behalf. It was like when she'd gone to V'liegr to ask if all the bumping and grinding was a risk to L'tor's pup, and the healer had bellowed, "Mating? You're still mating?" then chortled and muttered "Good for him," before turning away and busying himself elsewhere. She'd burned red with embarrassment and stalked out of there, even more certain that she was doing everything wrong, behaving so completely unnaturally that none of them were quite sure what to do about her.

"Female," L'tor rumbled now, his tone flat, "until the day you die you are what I want you to be."

"And on the day I die?" she asked, almost timidly.

"Then I will be very angry with you because you will be behaving in a way I don't want you to," he said simply.