An update for the best readers/reviewers on FFN!

Disclaimer: Don't own it, didn't originate with me, but all characters are mine and freely intended for a mature-minded reader who can handle the messy facts 'o human life on an alien spaceship. Read, Review, and Enjoy!

"So you're telling me that despite the fact that I've been starved for weeks, this kid is still growing?" Anya growled, and Vlieg'r, despite having steeled himself in advance of her examination, determined not to let her get to him for once, bowed his head. She was building toward another outburst and he felt it coming, but he was fortunate to have L'tor in attendance for this exam. The Elite growled quietly, drawing her attention.

"News flash: I'm not impressed," Anya snapped, in response to his gentle attempt to calm and admonish her.

L'tor let out a quietly rumbling breath through his teeth, not reacting to her words nor her attitude. To do so would be pointless and would only incite her temper even more. There was nothing to be gained for him or for her by attempting to enforce discipline; her restlessness was constant now, and she never slept more than an hour at a time. It wasn't pain that caused her irritability, only discomfort. She was glowing with health and the pup was still safely within the safe percentile for healthy development, though at the threshold for gestation. Fully developed, L'tor's offspring was now engaged in growing, rapidly reaching the limits of his current environment.

Were she yautja, Anya would carry it inside her awhile longer before birthing it, but as she was only one-third a female yautja's size, her time was up. The goal was for the human females to gestate at least until the pup was viable enough to survive outside her, with lungs well-developed enough to breathe and the ability to suckle. She had successfully passed that point, and Vlieg'r was carefully monitoring her and the pup, waiting until it was no longer safe or wise for her to continue carrying it. Depending on the size and weight of the pup and the ability and experience of the bearer, some were birthed earlier and some were able to be gestated a bit longer.

"She might not be accepting of it," Vlieg'r murmured to L'tor, continuing their earlier conversation and not daring to have it in Anya's language. "Her temper has been-"

L'tor's chuff cut him off, but he said nothing. This was new territory for him and Anya both, and while he was confident in her ability to properly care for his pup, he was harboring his own insecurities. He'd never seen this endlessly irritable side of her, after all, and the Healer was right; her temper had been getting worse. Unable to mate with her though desiring very much to do just that, L'tor had left the clan ship for a short period to go hunt. A'ni-de had proven himself capable of caring for her, and remarkably immune to her fits of temper...though it hadn't passed L'tor's notice that she seemed to keep a better rein on it for his brother's sake. She reserved the worst of her irritability for L'tor as the cause of her discomfort, and he had given himself permission to remove himself from her temper for a bit, half in the hopes of his absence calming her down, half in the need to give himself a reprieve. It had helped him tremendously, allowing him now to stand resolute and unreacting to his mate's foul mood.

"I advise you to choose a surrogate now, before the birth," Vlieg'r tried again, "in case she refuses."

L'tor studied Anya, who was glaring at them but staying quiet, though no doubt well aware of their discussion about her in front of her. He'd come back from his hunt and attended a necessary teaching hosted by Vlieg'r, a crash course on the next steps: his pup's birth, what was expected of its Bearer, and what his options were in case of either's failure. At this point the possibility of the loss of the pup was a non-issue; Anya had done an excellent job of gestating it until it was ready to be birthed. The only thing that remained was her ability to actually birth it naturally, then her behavior toward it afterward.

Vlieg'r had told his share of horror stories of females refusing to care for their pups, and L'tor hadn't missed the close eye he was keeping on one female in particular: the Firstborn's mate. If a Bearer refused to suckle or nurture a pup, the clan had a stable of unattached ooman females who could be called upon to step in and care for the infant. They had been obtained from a multitude of sources: some unclaimed former mates of yautja males who had been killed, some who had willingly volunteered for the task in exchange for their care and keeping, and some intercepted enroute to another clan's ship after they'd been poached from within this clan's territory. Not all were lactating, and that would limit L'tor's choices; if he did require a surrogate she would need to be capable of attending to the needs of a newborn pup.

The idea of such a thing was beyond distasteful and actually repellent to L'tor, and he shifted his stance uneasily. The needs of the pup came first, before his personal preferences, he reminded himself. This wasn't a matter of pride, and Vlieg'r had been encouraging him to arrange for a surrogate for some time now, insisting that it was a matter of course, that such a thing was set up for every birthing in case the Bearer refused.

But he was not every other yautja, and his female was not every other ooman. He had chosen her to not only be his companion but to bear and nurture his pups. Instead of authorizing Vlieg'r to secure a surrogate on the chance that Anya would not cooperate, he did what no other yautja had ever done: he decided that this would be decided with his mate, and not outside her awareness.

With a low growl, he turned from Vlieg'r and regarded Anya, who was staring broodily across the clinic. She was absently rubbing the swell of her abdomen as she sat on the exam table, leaning back on her other hand. Momentarily and blessedly still, not restlessly pacing in discomfort or chafing with agitation.

"An'eya," he rumbled, and she switched her attention to him, annoyed heat in her gaze.

"Oh, how nice. You finally remembered I was here?" she inquired, her tone hard. L'tor could understand why the Healer was so cowed by her, so sharp and bold, behaving disrespectfully while willingly engaged in performing a function that commanded the highest respect from everyone around her. He lifted an upper tusk and growled in amusement through his teeth, unable to help but be pleased – now that he was back refreshed from his hunt – with her aggressiveness.

"Pup is ready to be born," he told her, watching the shifting play of emotional reaction flit across her face, unable to confidently know what she was thinking and feeling as he was bombarded with a riot of mixed scents and subtle expressions. "Are you ready?" he trilled.

Her gaze dropped and she frowned. "I think so," she decided, looking at him again, her tone gentler.

"Pup will need to be held by you," he continued, watching her closely, "fed and warmed by your body. You are willing?"

She blinked, then again, and L'tor braced himself even as he thrilled at the understanding heat that crept into her eyes as she narrowed her gaze dangerously on him. That alone answered his questions and brought him a wash of relief that left him cheerfully withstanding the tirade that erupted out of her.

"Are you fucking kidding me right now?" she demanded hotly. "Are you planning to just rip it out and take it away from me? After all my hard work in getting it this far? Don't even tell me you're just thinking to knock me up right away without a break! This little sonuvabitch has been playing soccer with my kidneys for at least a month and you damn well better believe I am not letting you -"

He cut her off by abruptly leaning down and pressing his crest to her forehead with an ardent purr. Most of what she'd said had gone over his head but the message was clear: Anya was the proud, protective, defiant Bearer he'd hoped she'd be. Vicious in the defense of his pup and demanding her right to nurture it. He shivered slightly in pleasure, reveling in her temper, wanting very much to take advantage of it in the best way he knew how.

She let out a quiet breath and leaned her head against him, then she snorted. He felt her relax, the tension easing out of her. "So that was just another one of your fucking tests?" she asked, quietly. "If I could stand up without tipping forward I'd kick your ass for this."

L'tor trilled in amusement. "Not a test," he assured her. "Making sure."

Anya considered his answer a moment. "So freaking out and screaming bloody murder at you was the right answer, then?"

"Sei-i." He eased back and stood tall, regarding her for a moment, watching her heightened spots of color fade in tandem with the acrid warning of anxiety and anger in her scent. "My female will fight if you try to take her pup from her," he said proudly in yautja to the Healer. "I do not need to choose a surrogate."

Vlieg'r nodded deferentially, believing it. "I will prepare the room," he said, his tone subdued, then he turned and headed to a doorway on the far side of the clinic. Anya watched him go, unconcerned.

"I think I freak him out lately," she observed idly, and L'tor bristled in surprise at her statement, then chortled. Amused, she rubbed her belly, leaning back on her other hand again, and looked at her yautja. "I feel bad about it sometimes, but lately he just pisses me off," she admitted. L'tor settled into a warm, reassuring purr, pleased with her while she thought it over. It finally occurred to her that Vlieg'r was the most anxious yautja, outside the eta, she'd ever met. The good thing about that was that his constant preparations for the worst possible outcomes kept her from getting too anxious herself, like it had the weird side effect of steeling her resolve and making her more determined that his dire predictions never materialized for her. "So...what now?" she asked L'tor, satisfied with her analysis. His purring stopped short and he regarded her with a curious cock of his head.

"Now?" he trilled. "You give birth."

"Wait, what?" Anya demanded, suddenly sitting up straight. She cringed at the sharp pain in her side and sucked in a breath. Those had been happening regularly lately, and getting sharper. After she had discussed them with Vlieg'r during his examination, L'tor had been summoned to the clinic. The pains hadn't alarmed her because when she'd discussed them with the more experienced girls she'd already been informed that they were early contractions, and that they signaled that she was close to ending the discomfort of pregnancy. "Now?" she demanded, after the pain subsided.

"Now, An'eya," L'tor rumbled smoothly, not reacting to her alarm. He touched his palm to her cheek and began to purr again. "Already my pup is strong. He is ready to take his place. You did that."

She scowled. "He better be ready to fold himself up like a tamale and go easy on me," she muttered, feeling a little anxious now at the thought of the labor to come. From what she'd been told it wasn't an ordeal, but the unknown and unexperienced was still unnerving and made her apprehensive. The yautja had good drugs and they weren't stingy about using them to cause the least amount of damage and trauma to their ooman female Bearers as possible. It was in their best interests to make the entire ordeal as quick, pain-free and non-traumatic as their science and ability could, to keep their Bearers as happy and healthy as possible, the better for them to produce more and stronger, healthier offspring for the clan.

"Vlieg'r tells me you will go quick," L'tor assured her, telling her exactly what she wanted and needed to hear: that the unknown would be over soon and with minimum fuss for her. "Pup is properly positioned. Your body has already been preparing to birth him." Amber eyes shining as he stared at her, he rumbled and leaned down to press his crest against her forehead again. "I will wait."

"Damn straight you will," she muttered, and felt his hesitation before he growled in rough yautja amusement.

More injections, these with finer needles that didn't make her eyes pop out of her head when she saw them coming, though she still braced herself and looked away. Pain-blockers, used exclusively on ooman females to ease their discomfort; yautja were expected to tolerate pain stoically and without assistance. Vlieg'r and L'tor, each speaking in a relaxed, easy manner, traded turns as both spoke to her throughout the process, and she maintained enough wits to ask questions, intrigued by what they were telling her even as she fretted internally at what was happening and what was to come.

"H'ko," L'tor rumbled, his tone smooth when she asked if they used the same painkillers. "Use none. If yautja stupid enough to get injured, he must endure the pain."

"Even the repairing and healing," Vlieg'r chimed in through his mask, palpating her abdomen, checking the positioning and condition of the pup and monitoring her contractions. "Healing and repairing should hurt. Makes sure warrior learns to be more diligent and careful in the future."

L'tor rumbled in amusement, regarding the Elder Healer with an almost hawkish, challenging stare. "Healers use pain-blocker?" he trilled, a direct and barbed question that clearly communicated his doubt that they put themselves through what they put the warriors who suffered their healing through.

Vlieg'r paused in his monitoring to stare back at him across Anya's body. "H'ko. Cannot dull pain when I have to heal myself," he shot back.

Their banter successfully distracted Anya from her worry and the increasing pressure and discomfort she was feeling. She was in labor but nothing was rushed, the process being encouraged with injections of the right hormones and attended to diligently, allowed to take its course and build naturally. It left her with a detached sensation of what was happening, outside of an awareness that her body was now invested in birthing but mentally feeling like an observer in the process. For now she lay prone on the examination table between L'tor and Vlieg'r, her head turning side to side to observe as they batted back and forth.

"Heal yourself?" L'tor chuffed dismissively. "From ooman bites?"

Anya giggled, which kicked off a volley of contractions that left her breathless but still feeling oddly distant without pain or sensation.

Vlieg'r attended to her, and when the contractions passed he turned to show his back and lifted the back hem of his long overshirt. "This," he hissed, looking at L'tor over his shoulder, "was not ooman bite." It was evidence of a long, deep cut that rose from the hem of his loincloth to his lower ribs. L'tor bristled appreciatively at the sight. "Kainde amedha," the Elder Healer informed him, turning to Anya again. "Was hard place to treat myself."

L'tor burbled, amused. "Chiva long time ago," he challenged.

"Was not my chiva," Vlieg'r grunted. "Was called upon to assist securing a Queen," he said, then lifted his attention from Anya to glare at L'tor. "Her eggs were used for your chiva, youngster."

This time L'tor's tresses did a slow climb, evidence of dawning realization. "She was bad catch," he said, his tone lower. He had heard the bloody tale of the capture of the clan's Queen kainde amedha, currently residing in a secure holding pen in the bowels of the ship. She had been taken when yautja females still existed, when L'tor had been a student.

Vlieg'r chuffed. "Not so bad as the one you went on, from what I heard. We did not end up having to kill ours."

L'tor's bristle intensified. "My sire was there," he recalled of the Queen hunt Vlieg'r was claiming to have been part of, speaking slowly.

"Sei-i. Caught her tail across his face," Vlieg'r remembered. "Was lucky to only lose a nihkou'te. Many others lost their lives." He was referring to Kvklar, L'tor's sire, having been slashed by the sharp edge and point of the Queen kainde amedha's tail, costing him a tusk.

At that point Anya experienced a contraction that lifted her backside off the table and left her scrabbling as her body bowed. The Elder Healer and L'tor quit their pissing contest, Vlieg'r carrying her to the door on the far side of the room and closing them inside a small space with a sloped floor and a grate in the center. He set her gently on her feet and supported her as she crouched, murmuring reassurances as he settled against her back, framing her crouch. The new position let gravity take over, and she ground her teeth at the intimacy, wishing it was L'tor crouched behind her and not Vlieg'r. The Healer, however, was well experienced and guided her through the contractions, telling her when to bear down and push, monitoring and instructing her breathing and urging her active participation despite the odd detachment she was feeling. He seemed to know how little she experienced, and used his own to move her through the process with encouragement and support.

In the end, after a sustained effort that rocked her from the balls of her feet to her knees, she felt the pup slip out of her in tandem with the sensation of a weight lifted. She reached down and lifted it off the fine grate in the floor quickly, before Vlieg'r even needed to instruct her to do so, afraid it might fall through, holding the small being in both hands and raising it up to look at it.

She was utterly stunned at the size of him in comparison to his weight: a twelve-pound infant the size of a six-pound infant. His limbs were well-formed and rangy, and he squirmed in her hands as if searching for the boundaries he used to have, perplexed that they were no longer there.

"Give him here," Vlieg'r rumbled, hands out to her, and she turned her head and glared at him. "Need to clean him," he said, gesturing toward the nearby filled sink.

"I can do that," she protested.

"You will. Later," he purred, his tone going into that soothing, reassuring coo he adopted to calm her. He gestured toward the pup's still-attached umbilical cord that led to somewhere inside her. "You have to finish passing the rest," he said gently.

With a pained sensation that was more emotional than physical, Anya gently passed the pup over to the Elder Healer and anxiously watched his experienced hands as he submerged the newborn in the hot water, then briskly rubbed him to stimulate him. When he pulled the pup from the bloody water it arched, spread its stubby mandibles, dropped its jaw and let out a squall that was clear rage and protest, making her smile. Vlieg'r placed him gently on a suede pad, tied a thin cord around the umbilical, then cut it and dabbed the stump with an instrument that cauterized it.

In the meantime, Anya was still wracked by contractions, and she dared to close her eyes a moment, trust the Healer with her pup, and breathe through them. The pain was minimal, distant, and she finished the process with a remarkable ease, from start to finish. Vlieg'r turned his attention to her, checking to make sure she'd passed the afterbirth and cleaning up the bloody business that was childbirth. Satisfied, he handed her the pup, now clean and wrapped tightly in a small fur. Once again she anticipated him to weigh less than he did, marveling at his heft, able to better understand why this little thing had been so damned hard on her.

She lowered her face to it, still squalling its head off, and after a few seconds it quieted, breathing rapidly in little grunts, stilling its thrashing inside the fur. She breathed deep its heat-scent, unwrapping it again to take in its markings and coloration as it subsided, no longer fighting but moving restlessly.

"There you are, you lil sonuvabitch," she murmured, nuzzling the newborn. "I'm your mother, the bitch," she greeted him, then giggled. He chirped in response, eyes still squeezed shut, mouth and mandibles open and flexing.

"He will recognize your voice and your scent," Vlieg'r said, his tone still low. "He is asking to feed."

"Oh," Anya realized, and blushed. She was still feeling weak and unsteady, and the Healer assisted her in moving out of the small birthing room and out into the clinic. L'tor, still standing where she'd left him near the exam table, suddenly snapped into motion with a baritone rumble of threat, and Vlieg'r agreeably relinquished custody of her and let L'tor assist her to the overstuffed chair.

"You are well?" L'tor trilled anxiously, turning her chin so he could look at her eyes.

"Look!" Anya exclaimed, cradling the infant who was still staying quiet.

"An'eya," L'tor growled, his tone harder. "You are well?"

"I'm high as a fucking kite!" she said cheerfully through a big grin. He grunted and studied her face for another moment before releasing her and turning his attention to the pup wrapped in the fur in her arms. He left the pup where it was, unwrapping it while issuing a steady, deep rumbling purr. When it was exposed he lifted it naked from the fur and examined it with single-minded intensity, front and back, side to side, top to bottom, drawing in deep, huffing breaths of its scent. It remained docile and pliant, allowing him to handle it, reposition it, draw its limbs out, turn it onto its belly, poking and prodding with firm gentleness.

Satisfied, he returned his attention to Anya with a low, pleased growl and a bright stare, the pup held cupped in his massive hands. She grinned proudly, still flushed from the entire experience and riding a pleasant, numb buzz. The pup shattered the moment with a rising wail, and they both blinked and looked at it.

"He is hungry," Vlieg'r said, still hovering anxiously. L'tor looked at Anya, then tucked the pup back into the fur and waited, watching expectantly.

"You all gotta stare?" she mumbled, suddenly unsure and uncomfortable as she tucked the pup back up, painfully aware of how it had quieted immediately when returned to her custody. She shifted in the chair, reached behind her neck to untie her upper covering, and decided not to freak the hell out when both panels decided to flop down at the same time and expose her chest to the clinic. The pup was cooing and trilling softly, fussing in his wrap, urging her to hurry up and figure it out already. Vlieg'r hovered, knowing better than to attempt to assist or even try to touch her so long as L'tor was watching, and L'tor was avidly staring, maintaining a soothing purring that thrummed around and through her.

Cautiously, Anya lifted the pup, fur and all, and settled him into the crook of her arm, trying to find a comfortable position and feeling awkward about the whole thing. The pup's face contacted the side of her breast and she could feel its urgent trilling flutter through her. She shifted again, anxious, finally finding the right position that allowed the weight of the pup and her arm to rest on the arm of the chair, and turning her body to line herself up more comfortably. There was a tickling sensation along the rim of her nipple and the pup's trilling increased eagerly as he mouthed at her. Giving up the full-body repositioning, Anya used her fingertips to move her nipple to its flexing mouth, sucking in a breath when he wasted no time in latching onto her and mouthing at her, his trilling becoming a mutter as he switched gears and started sucking.

It took her a minute, what with the novelty of the experience, her anxiety, and her staring audience, to actually feel that anything was happening outside of the hot mouth gumming at her sensitive tip. The trilling ceased as the pup applied himself and demanded to be fed, struggling as much as she was to try and figure out what to do. It took a concerted effort and a few minutes between the two of them to work it out, heralded for Anya by a welling and curious sensation of heat building in her nipple and a garbled sound coming from the pup. It continued to build and she was just starting to wonder if the friction from his mouthing was irritating her to rawness when the sound of his suckling began to intensify into a steady rhythm.

Shocked, she lifted her head and looked at L'tor, and he rumbled through his purr and palmed her cheek gently, his claws sifting through her hair. He lifted his head and regally regarded Vlieg'r, still standing by and ready to assist.

"My pup needs no surrogate," he announced flatly, smugly, speaking in yautja so as not to involve Anya. "You may go."

Vlieg'r nodded and left them alone, satisfied his assistance wasn't needed for now and pleased with another successful birthing.

"What was that about?" Anya murmured tiredly.

"No concern of yours," L'tor rumbled, not dismissively but reassuringly as he combed her damp hair, slightly sweaty from her labor.

"You can't pick on Vee, that's my job."

He trilled, then shifted the fur around his pup lower so he could watch him nurse. Anya blushed but didn't object, feeling a welling sense of well-being, pride, and self-satisfaction now that she'd successfully passed the hurdles of gestation, labor, birth and nursing, the last three in quick succession.

"Now what?" she wanted to know.

"We stay here until Vlieg'r is satisfied the pup is feeding well, a little while longer. Then I take you to eat and rest."

"When does he get a name?" Anya asked, studying the newborn as he diligently applied himself to filling his belly, pausing to take a breath every so often.

L'tor grunted. "Not yet. After he is weaned."

Anya smirked. "Bad luck to do it before then?" she supposed.

"Sei-i, very bad to tempt Cetanu," he agreed.

"Cetanu?" she asked. "Who's that?"

L'tor regarded her with sudden seriousness, staring silently at her. "You know him. He tried to take you from me once already."

Anya mulled it over. "The big guy? But you killed him."

Offguard, it took L'tor a moment to realize she was referring to Bakuub, and their battle for her in the kehrite during the challenge fights. "H'ko," he said gravely. "Cetanu came for you after. Tried to tempt you to him, to thei-de, death." His hand lifted from the fur around the pup to tuck a knuckle under her chin and lift her head to a proud tilt, his amber eyes shining and bright with backlit intensity and his own show of pride. "You did dtai'kai'-dte, battle, with him in this very room for days while I watched and waited. He took you to the edge of dhi'ki-de, near death, and tried to tempt you away by promising you your kin if you followed."

Anya blinked, her mind racing, random bits of scattered memories skimming through her thoughts at L'tor's words. Remembering the agonizing sickness that had followed the injections to change her so she could bear the very life nursing at her breast right now. The confusing visions that even now she was uncertain of, the painfully real memories of things that had never happened. They had become jumbled with the dreams she'd been having since becoming pregnant, leaving her unsure anymore of what was real and what was fantasy.

"You refused," L'tor continued, his deep voice a smooth, hypnotic rumble that caught and held her attention, keeping her riveted to his version of the events that she had experienced. "Each time you denied his temptation he caused you pain to punish and test you, but still you refused. He tried to weaken you, to draw you out, attacking your mind, body and bhu'ja." He released her chin and pressed his huge hand to her bared chest between her breasts, careful to avoid the pup, pushing against her sternum with firm pressure and holding his hand there pointedly. "But you proved to have sain'ja bhu'ja, an ooman female with the soul of a warrior," he rumbled strongly. "He will have his day, and he will remember the ooman female who told him not today and not now, who insisted on her right to live."

Her eyes wide, Anya stared at him without blinking. "That's a little...threatening," she said carefully, and L'tor softened and trilled, removing his hand.

"H'ko, not threat. You have proven yourself and brought one of his mate's favorite creatures to life," he told her, nodding toward the pup. "He will respect that, and you. Cetanu tests all and Cetanu takes all, in the end. He will not regret letting you go, and will visit you another day. When you see him, you will remember him," he assured her.

She still couldn't help but feel a threat in L'tor's cautionary tale of what must be a personification – or yautja-ification – of death. She'd been stalked and lured but resisted and ultimately sounded like the plot of a horror movie to her, but L'tor seemed to find it to be a point of pride.

"You know him, too?" she guessed tentatively.

"Sei-i. Many times over. Cetanu and I are well acquainted," L'tor nodded sagely.

Anya stared at him, thinking about him coming close to death many times over, often enough to feel like Death was an old friend come to visit and not something to fear. She blinked as her eyes welled with sudden emotion, then she looped an arm around his neck and pulled herself close, being careful not to catch the pup between them. L'tor rumbled then settled into a purr, momentarily startled but well aware of her emotions coming to the fore, more strongly now that her scent was able to broadcast what she was feeling to him.

" name for the pup yet, then," she agreed, her voice muffled against the side of L'tor's warm neck. "Cetanu can just fucking wait for all three of us."

After three days' time L'tor allowed her to rejoin the girls in the common room. The pup was feeding like a champ, she had recovered well from her labor, and her restrictive diet was lifted – hallelujah! A'ni-de had been suspiciously absent while L'tor attended to her in his quarters, allowed only to bring the carts to the door and no further; L'tor brought the new ones in and put the old ones out, feeling territorial enough to not allow any visitors. His behavior had allowed Anya to bond with the pup, to establish a comfortable routine and gain confidence in it, and in herself. He held it while she bathed after a good feeding, sleeping soundly enough in his hands not to miss her contact and heat. If she lingered too long the pup would start squalling for her, and nothing would soothe him except for the sound of her voice and the scent of her skin.

She obtained new wraps, ones suited for a Bearer, that could support the pup against her breast in her upper covering without the need for her to hold him. Vlieg'r taught her how to change the pup's wraps and clean him, hovering as she did either to monitor that she was doing both right. The bathing was done in the clinic by all females under his watchful eye, to ensure that the water temperature was right, and so he could conduct a physical examination and ensure that each pup was gaining weight and in good condition.

The girls welcomed her back to the common room and their company with excitement, congratulating her. They compared notes and birthing stories before wanting to know everything about L'tor's involvement and behavior, endlessly fascinated by her relationship with her yautja. Solo access to her quarters was still allowed to her, despite Vlieg'r's objections to her being able to take the pup from his sight; L'tor was adamant that she be allowed to move around freely and at her own discretion.

A'ni-de was eventually allowed back into her presence, and when he first saw her after she'd given birth he'd huffed at her and kept his distance. Though she'd established a relationship with him she was smart enough to know that she should let things redevelop at their own pace, aware that L'tor was on edge again now that she was toting his pup around. If he'd told A'ni-de to steer clear, she didn't want to counter that message. He diligently attended to their quarters and her constant supply of food carts, eventually once again declaring battle over her relocating of pillows and furs, constantly dragging them back to the sleeping quarters while she took them out and arranged them on the couch for her comfort.

Anya had the sneaking sense that A'ni-de, who had been gradually filling out and looking better fed, was back to meager rations now that she was once again allowed access to all the meat she could eat. He didn't care much for her leftovers of breads or fruits but no doubt he ate them anyway. The realization made her restrict her protein intake to mainly from the common room carts, and to save her snacking on side dishes for the carts in L'tor's quarters. No fool, A'ni-de, who habitually lifted the cart's cover to check her intake, started bristling and staring at her when he came to change out an old cart for a new one. She met his stare and lifted her chin, then made a motion of her hand to indicate he should take the old one away. Her subtle change in habits was duly noted for a few cycles, until the day he recovered a cart, bowed his head to her in silent thanks, and took it away.

He was, she'd long since decided, her ally, one of very few. L'tor protected and provided for her, but he was one yautja on a ship with thousands, maybe millions of them. She had access to a mere two besides him, and she was determined to befriend each of them. To that end, she engaged again with Vlieg'r, winning him back after her shameful treatment of him while she'd been pregnant. Like A'ni-de he was ready and willing for the old Anya to return, almost waiting for her to resume their former easy-going relationship.

It was an easy enough thing; since she was absorbed in motherhood and not in any condition to engage with her mate beyond discussing the details of his pup's development with him, L'tor had returned to offship excursions to hunt. For now that was fine by Anya, caught up in the demands of a hungry and growing pup and needing the company of the other Bearers for support and guidance. She began to reap the rewards in the gifts that L'tor returned with: new furs and pillows, fresh meat, fruits and nuts. And stories, she loved his stories. He was careful to omit the grisly details of his hunts as he related to her the conditions and appearances of the planets he was visiting, the behaviors of its native creatures. She would sit absorbed, listening to his tales of entry, landing and scouting, the hardships and challenges he endured, the weather and conditions, the tracking and preparations. Occasionally he returned with some new battle scar to show off and incite her with, trilling in amusement at her concern and distress, pleased by both as they assured him that she still valued him.

While he was gone she was in the habit of propping herself up on a chair in the sitting room to sleep, arranging furs and pillows in such a way that she couldn't possibly roll onto the pup and suffocate him, aware that A'ni-de came by every hour or so whether she was awake or asleep. Of course he used the pretense of having work to do in their quarters, but she was of the belief that he was checking on her and the pup, since his visits weren't nearly as frequent when L'tor was in residence. And when L'tor was with her, there was a new addition to the furniture in the sleeping room that she dared to use: a separate unit with a dry-sink depression on top next to the bed, made for a swaddled infant to comfortably lie in by himself. Alone, she had no desire to separate the pup from herself, but when L'tor was there she trusted in his superior senses to hear any distress and wake her if necessary.

It happened without much warning. Well, there were signs, but not much different than any other day. Everyone knew Silla was a bitch and Anya suspected she was pathological, but when she finally snapped it took everyone by surprise. She started out behaving as her usual bad-tempered and irritable self, until Debra intervened when she realized that the object of Silla's ire was the pup she was carrying. From where Anya was sitting with several others, all ignoring Silla's latest tantrum, the scene unfolded with sniping that escalated to shouting, then a cascade of gasps from around the room as the pup let out an abnormally loud squall. Anya turned to look and saw that Silla was swinging her pup over her head by its leg, shouting "How do you like it, huh?" at the top of her voice. Debra, pregnant again, was desperately trying to grab the pup while Silla shoved her away with her free hand, becoming increasingly more physical and aggressive by the second.

Before Anya was even aware of it she was across the room like a shot, her reaction instinctive. Silla, wearing a maniacal triumphant grin, turned to face her and took the full impact of Anya's fist dead-center to her nose. There was a sickening crunch, another louder gasp from their audience, and as Silla crumpled and dropped the pup, Anya caught it and cradled it to her chest. It was frantic, its sharp little kitten-like claws scratching at her skin as it mewled and thrashed in a desperate attempt to try and protect itself. Silla groaned and fought unsteadily to her feet as the other girls joined in, maneuvering Anya away and surrounding Silla to put an end to the altercation. Anya relented only because she had possession of the pup, and when she turned away the Elder Healer was there with several of his juniors. They went to break up the shoving match between Silla and several others while Vlieg'r took Anya's elbow and steered her out of the room and into the clinic.

Silla's pup was a shivering mess of mewling, clawing squirm in her arms and she bore the brunt of its terror stoically, shielding her own smaller pup with one arm as she comforted the traumatized one. The Healer released her then stood aside and watched quietly as she whispered to soothe it, nuzzling and stroking it until it subsided, still trembling. She was still operating in some weird auto-pilot mode, not thinking anything, just reacting and doing what felt right.

Once Silla's pup settled, the Healer shifted on his feet and gained her attention, then he held out his hands as she met his eyes. "Must examine him," Vlieg'r murmured, his tone purling and low. Anya sensed that he was focused on soothing her, as if she was the out-of-control crazy one here. Reluctantly, she lifted the pup from its full-body contact against her skin and handed it over.

Its reaction was immediate once it was removed from her, once again loosing plaintive squalls as the Healer held it and retrieved his helmet, then carried to to the table. He gently set it down, affixed his helmet, and began scanning it carefully while it thrashed and squealed and fought against his attempts to position and examine it. Anya stood close and anxiously watched; regardless of her dislike for this pup's Bearer she couldn't help but be moved by its trauma and the abuse it had just endured.

"Is he alright?" she demanded of Vlieg'r, aware that the examination was over and he was holding the thrashing pup to the table with one hand and now regarding her. The soft purring he was emitting kicked up a notch and became more strident, and Anya's eyes narrowed as she realized it as being directed at her.

Vlieg'r shifted and continued his efforts to soothe the enraged female before him, uncertain of what to do now. Her scent was tinged with warning and she was behaving as if it was her own pup who was attacked, not another's. Her yautjan maternal instincts had been triggered, advising the Healer to proceed with caution.

"No broken bones, no internal injuries," Vlieg'r assured her.

"He's screaming," she snapped, and approached. "Give him here." She held out her hands with demand, and Vlieg'r reluctantly handed her the pup.

Recognizing her scent as the one who had saved and soothed him, the pup quieted as Anya automatically pressed him to her chest to warm and comfort him. He settled a moment then started squirming, seeking the heat, safety and nourishment beneath her upper covering. Anya hesitated only a moment before tucking him inside her top opposite her own pup. He was quick to take advantage of her, and the Healer bristled at the robust sound and rapid pace of the pup's feeding.

"L'tor..." he grunted, fairly certain that her mate would not approve of this.

" well aware of my compassionate nature," Anya said briskly. She shifted the double burden in her arms, suddenly exhausted. "Do you have any better ideas? I'm all ears."

Vlieg'r gave himself a brisk shake and settled. For now, this was the best solution. He needed to see to Silla and find out what happened, and Anya's willingness to care for the pup in the meantime admittedly diminished the urgency of the situation.

Plan in mind, he set about settling her in an oversized armchair in the clinic and had a cart brought to her with food and drink, advising her to stay hydrated. He bracketed her with thick cushions to support the pups and prevent her from accidentally putting too much pressure or weight on either of them, well aware of her steady, almost cautious regard all the while.

"You are certain of this?" he murmured in as gentle and conciliatory a tone as he could manage, once he was satisfied with her positioning. Anya's eyes, heavy lidded, opened wider. "Pup is hungry," he said, gesturing toward the burden under her top. He'd been concerned with its slow weight gain since birth, but had been unable to pinpoint the cause of it, whether it was because Silla didn't produce enough, didn't feed enough, or if there was some other reason. Clearly the pup was famished and able to feed itself given the opportunity, so Silla's insistence that it had a poor appetite was suspect. The pup was still maintaining a pace that Vlieg'r worried meant that he would drain Anya and start demanding her own pup's share.

"He's fine, Vee," she said wearily, comfortably ensconced in the chair. "He's actually giving me some relief. L'tor's pup doesn't come close to easing the ache yet." Silla's pup was a month older and a completely different animal in every way. She sensed desperation in the pace of his feeding, and she'd seen enough of Silla's mothering skills to know that the poor thing spent most of its time laying on the couch next to her and mewling from hunger. No doubt he was conditioned to take his infrequent meals at a breakneck pace, in fear that at any moment he'd lose access.

Her own pup, on the other hand, spent most of his day sleeping, and he was still small enough that his leisurely feeding was more of a ticklish sensation than this other pup's robust sucking. She and the other girls followed Vee's directives, understanding that their pups were essentially premature and therefore keeping them tucked securely in their tightly swaddled upper coverings and letting them sleep and feed at will. Silla had decided that the whole thing was an annoying nuisance, and constantly complained about the hardship. Anya couldn't help but realize now how badly that viewpoint had affected Silla's pup.

Satisfied, Vlieg'r left her and went out into the common room, no doubt to deal with Silla. When Anya touched Silla's pup's back through her top, he froze and bunched in reaction, so she left her hand there until he resumed nursing, experimentally caressing her own pup with her other hand to test his reaction. He squirmed a bit, reacting to her touch but not bothered or put off by it. She let out a quiet breath and settled more comfortably, checking L'tor's pup and tickling him awake to encourage him to eat, keeping a hand on Silla's pup to settle him into her touch, then she gradually zoned out and dozed off in her chair to the sound and sensation of the tandem feeding, one light and ticklish and leisurely, the other almost desperate in its intensity.

It was a light nap, though, surface enough that she was aware when a massive black yautja with bold grey striping made his way through the clinic toward her from the door that led out to the corridor, staring intently. She could see in a single glance that he was tense from the bearing of his body, the rounding of his huge shoulders and his clenched fists. Vlieg'r came in from the common room and hurried to intercept him, rattling and clicking nervously, hands up in a placating manner. It didn't take a genius to figure out that this was the mistreated pup's sire and she stayed still and quiet, watching. Vlieg'r was speaking to him but he only had eyes for her, glaring with blatantly dangerous intensity. She stayed frozen and stared back, gathering defiant tension and projecting an unspoken warning that the newcomer had best keep his distance, operating on instincts that weren't entirely her own.

Whatever, it worked. The newcomer slammed to a halt three strides away from her and growled ominously, radiating tension and hostility but keeping a respectful distance. Vlieg'r, Anya was aware, was prattling urgently at him, almost simpering, but they both ignored him to glare at each other, she defiantly, he dangerously.

This discussion, in L'tor's estimation, was tedious, annoying and boring. It wasn't unnecessary, though, which was why he was steeling himself to endure. The clan's ship had been in its present location long enough and it was time to relocate, a simple enough thing on the least, it had seemed that way to him. But then those in charge of logistics were called upon to give their input, which involved an exhaustive listing of clan members offship who would need to be contacted with the new coordinates, followed by those involved with defense who presented just as an exhaustive outlining of potential areas that needed to be avoided, then the navigators who outlined every movement the ship needed to perform in order to avoid the potentially dangerous areas. Then those in charge of food and materials procurements were called upon to discuss their current inventories and what they needed, which necessitated a discussion of where the best planets were where the needed items could be obtained. This led to another discussion of course correction and maneuvering.

The momentarily interesting moment occurred when the Firstborn shifted aside to respond to a summons from his communicator, followed by his sudden and rushed departure from the meeting room. The clan's Leader glared after him, annoyed at not only the disruption but at his offspring's unannounced exit.

Some time after that, L'tor felt his own communicator buzz with an urgent incoming message. He surreptitiously glanced at it and saw it was from the Elder Healer in the females' quarters, requesting him to come immediately. At that, he made his own unannounced and rushed departure from the tedious meeting.

Etah'-dte, the clan's Leader, watched him go, then issued a rattling exhalation of annoyance that made the rest in attendance fall silent. He did not approve of drama outside the kehrite, and he had the sudden sense that one was brewing.