Thank you for your patience. What can I say? Sometimes you just need a break. Mom is doing better, husband still has some ongoing issues and problems. Lost my job early this year and even so still couldn't find the motivation to get back to writing until yesterday. The job loss isn't the end of the world, so no worries there. I'm thinking I might write one more chapter and put this saga of a story to bed, finally. It depends on how wordy my muse gets.

Thank you thank you thank you to those who reached out to me. I will get cracking on responses ASAP. I so appreciate the love for this story, and I miss L'tor as much as most of you do.

The usual disclaimer applies, and since it's been awhile I'll remind you that this is a Mature rated story and I don't own the Predator universe but I do like to play in it.

Anya had braced herself as the door slid open, uncertain of what or who to expect and steeling herself for a confrontation or more bad news. It took her a second or two to recognize the massive yautja standing in the corridor, and when she did her only reaction was to blink as she took him in.

Faded mottled hide stretched tightly over bulging muscle that gleamed with a combination of health and grooming oil. His stance was relaxed and perfectly balanced, his huge clawed hands loose at his sides. Anya let her eyes wander from his broad chest to his washboard abs to his thick thighs, noting every scar, becoming aware of a low baritone rumble. Good gawd, she thought automatically, visually eating up the details while struggling with the big picture. Good gawd.

"Little One," Warkha rumbled, his voice slow and breathy, deep and gravelly as he spoke her native tongue. She blinked, remembering the pet name he'd given her and thrown off by his personable greeting, her eyes darting to meet his. Was there warmth in his pale gaze? Clearly he remembered her.

"Elder Arbitrator," she finally said back, her voice small. She'd assumed, apparently wrongly, that they'd meet again in sort of a group thing, like at a conference table or maybe even something like a courtroom. Not that he'd knock on her door alone. His mere presence stunned her as much now as it had the first time she'd met him, once again leaving her frozen in place and at a loss for words.

His upper tusks lifted and she watched him draw in a long, slow breath of her that inflated his already mammoth chest and caused the straps that hugged his upper body to creak. At the same time, his scent drifted in from the corridor, strong smoky hops smothered in bright, sweet citrus. Her nostrils flared and she licked her lips as her toes curled, an unconscious reaction to the mere scent of him. Her attention broadened to the large metallic ring centered on his chest that attached the straps that went over his shoulders and around his ribs. That held on the rust red cape draping behind him. There was a two headed axe hanging off his hip with a short handle, and a coiled whip on the other hip. An axe and a whip. What was he, some sort of goliath Paul Bunyan/Indiana Jones offspring? She was far more used to seeing a knife at the hip and a shoulder cannon or two as preferred warrior weapons. Warkha's choice of weapons for today was bizarre but Anya had no doubt he could take out a platoon of soldiers bearing machine guns with them.

He rumbled, then said, "Much has changed since first we met."

And suddenly she was knocked out of her awed trance and reminded of L'tor, the thought of him shooting a pain through her that slammed her right back to the present. When she'd first met the Elder Arbitrator L'tor had been there guiding and reassuring and protecting her, smoothing over her mistakes and blunders, using touch to soothe and calm her. She nodded to Warkha and herself as she regrouped and gathered herself. "Thank you for coming, Arbitrator," she sighed, deflating the tension she just now realized she still held herself in and remembering her manners.

His heavy brow lifted and she read his surprise, then his expression suddenly darkened and in one swift movement he reached behind and beneath his cloak and withdrew what looked like a scimitar as he advanced, entered her quarters, and swept her behind himself while at the same time abruptly leveling the point of the blade on Limpy's unmasked face.

A'ni-de remained frozen at his post just inside the doorway where he always positioned himself whenever the tone sounded that they had a visitor. His hands eased up on either side, pale palms out in surrender as Warkha growled, the sound clearly angry.

"What is the meaning of this?" the Arbitrator hissed in yautja, the point of his blade held steady.

Anya, still behind him, suddenly snapped into action and sidestepped the hand that had shuffled her back so she could move around him. A'ni-de's hand on that side lifted higher and rocked, urging her back. "Wait, I can explain-"

"Silence, Little One," Warkha barked, his tone rough, then he switched to his native tongue and growled, "I will hear the answer from you," to A'ni-de, his arm flexing just enough to ease the sword tip another millimeter closer.

"I am aseigan, Honored Arbitrator," A'ni-de finally responded, then braced himself as Warkha hissed and pressed the point of his weapon against his crest, pinning his Blooding mark.

"Arbitrator!" Anya barked, seeing the bright green blood that welled and trickled down the deep and prominent features of Limpy's face.

"Explain," he demanded of A'ni-de, seething.

Despite the overwhelming threat and danger and tension, A'ni-de hesitated, met Anya's eyes, then slid his attention back to Warkha. He made no attempt to ease back from the blade cutting into his crest, instead pausing long enough to draw in a deep, slow breath, hold it, and steady himself. The straps of his borrowed awu'asa creaked and the armored panels pressed harder against his hide, reminding him of who he really was and what he was born and bred to do. "Ki'sei," he agreed to the Arbitrator's order with a firm, sure voice. "I am an offspring of Arbitrator Kvklar, an older half brother to Master Elite L'tor. My name was A'ni-de, and I was honored to follow the warrior's Path until I fell. Cetanu was not prepared to receive me so I was obliged to remain."

There was a beat of silence, and he felt the point piercing his crest and resting tip against the thick bone of his skull ease back some of the pressure behind it as Warkha regarded him with renewed interest. It felt good to bleed this way again. To stand strong and tall against a worthy adversary and show no fear. To center himself, find his zazin, remember his training and show his boldness and strength. He drew in another slow, deep breath, adopting the posture he only dared to practice in the privacy of these quarters. The warrior's stance, his shoulders square, his chin and crest held high, his weight centered. Warkha's gaze raked up and down his length as the Arbitrator took him in, assessing and evaluating while Anya seethed, the acridness of her scent broadcasting her agitation.

"Mister Arbitrator," she said, her tone the cold, hard, clipped one that warned the recipient – usually L'tor – that a truckload of shit was about to come down on his head.

He heard her; they both did. And her scent was hard to miss, but this, right here, was between them and didn't involve her.

"So. You think the path back to honor can be achieved by stealing weapons and armor and secreting yourself in the quarters of your kin? Did you think to steal his lou-dte kalei as well?" Warkha demanded, pulling the sword back and using it to motion at him dismissively. A'ni-de didn't hold back his bristle.

"L'tor honored me with the opportunity to serve him and his female. The weapons and armor are his. I have not stolen them. I respectfully believed he would approve of their use in the protection of his mate," A'ni-de replied, his tone still level and calm and respectful. He let his heightened color and raised tresses speak for his mood, and the tight pulling of damaged, scarred flesh and mutilated dreadlocks reminded him to proceed with great caution. As an aseigan his very life was forfeit, most especially against an Arbitrator. No one would object or ever question if Warkha killed him.

"You protect her?" Warkha grated, then switched his putty eyes to Anya, who was still standing off the side in anxious tension. "Explain yourself."

Anya stiffened further as A'ni-de settled his attention on her. "L'tor was not careless about his possessions," he said flatly. "Any of them." He let his statement stand, and Warkha remained silent, his gaze switching between them. "This ooman female is his most valued possession. There is another who seeks to take her for himself." The Arbitrator was paying close attention. To everything. He was made aware that the once-ooman was able to follow at least some of what was being said, enough that her eyes widened on the aseigan.

Warkha growled, the sound rich and meaty and full of baritone. He was on the move now, circling both A'ni-de, who stood still, and Anya, who shifted to keep him in her sightline. Their relationship was puzzling to him. Abnormal. There was some sort of understanding and affection and familiarity between them, an aseigan and his n'yaka-de's lou-dte kalei. The words and the tone of the aseigan conveyed honor and respect to his n'yaka-de, and Warkha knew of this ooman female's great affection for L'tor. Was the Master Elite aware of this relationship between them? If so, was the reason he did he not correct it because the aseigan was his elder blood brother?

He had not been prepared to come across a strange Blooded warrior in L'tor's quarters. He understood that the Master Elite was missing and presumed dead, that L'tor had directed that the mei'hswei he'd known since his days as a student under C'tde should take responsibility for his female, and that there seemed to be some dispute regarding Lar'nix'va, the formerly mentioned mei'hswei. Not only was responsibility for the lou-dte kalei at stake; the female was gestating L'tor's next suckling besides. And then there was honor to be considered. The clan's Firstborn disputed Lar'nix'va's claim as L'tor's second, and had gathered witnesses to a supposed altercation that had occurred between the two mei'hswei over that very subject. Warkha had not met with these witnesses yet, but had been told that they would testify to L'tor supposedly demanding that Lar'nix'va rescind his responsibility and abdicate his position as second, and that Lar'nix'va had refused and attacked him, despite the fact that L'tor had been fresh from the challenge fights and entering the rut. These were grave allegations, and Warkha had elected to first check on L'tor's lou-dte kalei, the better to get a sense of what she knew of this situation.

And then this happened. An aseigan who used to be a Blooded warrior, wearing the stolen armor and weapons of his missing sibling, alone in the missing sibling's quarters with the missing sibling's pregnant mate. He did not know A'ni-de from his days as an Honored Blooded warrior or a student, so he was unsure of the aseigan's trustworthiness. Simple logic dictated that his status alone as an aseigan meant that he wasn't to be trusted or even particularly noticed by anyone of rank...which included L'tor's female. Yet clearly she was agitated for him and ready to defend his behavior. Warkha would hear her defense before he passed judgment, but first he wanted the former warrior to account for himself.

"This ooman brings to mind the young yautja females who were experiencing their first season. Unlike them she has no mei-jadhi to protect her and help guide her, no Matriarch to teach her and keep watch over her. Because she is without clan and kin, others seek to take advantage of her. To demand of her what they have no right to demand," A'ni-de said, his voice strong as he spoke in his native tongue, keeping his gaze on Anya and ignoring the looming, circling threat that was an Honored Elder Arbitrator who was measuring and weighing his every word. His honor demanded that these words be said, that this truth needed to be spoken and acknowledged, regardless if he was killed for saying them.

"I am not kin to her but I can claim kinship to her mate," A'ni-de continued, his voice strong and sure. "He respects her, honors her, trusts her. She is yeyin yin'tekai, brave and honorable. If she does not trust the one who claims her, I will fight for her," he declared. "I claim her mei-jahdi." Sister.

The sound that came out of Warkha terrified Anya, but A'ni-de didn't flinch. The Arbitrator's cloak fluttered like a restless wing behind him as he paced and circled, his eyes measuring and calculating and assessing both human and yautja. Anya closed her eyes and concentrated on breathing, remembering the Arbitrator's gentleness and teasing on L'tor's ship when she'd first met him and he'd taken her measure. His subtly threatening tease about putting her in his ship and taking her. L'tor's agitation after he'd left. Despite the citrusy scented oil he reeked of anger, acrid and cloying. He moved around her like a cat, and she imagined she could feel the draft created each time he passed her. So understated, so tightly controlled. She sensed threat on every level, and she drew strength from A'ni-de's calm demeanor as he boldly stood his ground for the Arbitrator's assessment.

"Dishonorable aseigan," Warkha hissed. "You have no right to claim an Honored Bearer as your mei-jadhi, and no right to level accusations against this clan's Firstborn and the Honored Blooded mei'hswei of your n'yaka-de!" His threatening barking made Anya open her eyes and she caught every other word or so, then saw him double-clutch the wicked sword and sweep it up and back as he rounded on Limpy.

"No!" she barked, and Warkha stilled at the very start of his swing, his ancient eyes settling on hers. "Annie-dee belongs to me," she said flatly, gathering herself and rallying. A'ni-de hissed at her and she sensed his warning but ignored it. "He always speaks the truth," she continued, then cut her eyes accusingly to A'ni-de, "even if it annoys the hell out of me." A bold statement, considering she hadn't understood why what A'ni-de had said had caused the Arbitrator to react so violently. That the comparison of her to a young, naïve yautja female with no elder, no experienced matron and no sisters to help her navigate a ship full of males eager to assert themselves and desperate to reproduce smacked of dishonor on a species-wide scale. It spoke to everything the yautja were doing wrong, and it had hit a sensitive nerve that, if allowed to be exposed, could end the yautja as a species. An Arbitrator should be saying this. A clan leader. An honored Blooded Warrior. Not a lowly aseigan with a missing master.

"Little One," Warkha rumbled, holding still. His tone was warmer for her. Gentler. She heard warning in it, like he was metaphorically taking her hand to lead her out of the hole she'd just dug for herself. Like she was less than. Incompetent and unaware. "It is not aseigan's place to make decide the rights of the Firstborn or the worthiness of a Master Elite's mei'hswei," he declared, standing before her, a massive, terrifying statue poised like a batter about to swing, the edge of his blade gleaming in the overhead lights and flashing in her eyes. His putty gaze switched to A'ni-de who hadn't moved a muscle to retreat or defend himself, then back to her, waiting. Ready.

"Is it my place?" Anya demanded, then eased herself sideways to move rigidly and boldly between him and A'ni-de. She heard the low growl and the rustle of movement behind her as A'ni-de moved aside, and for a moment she closed her eyes and drew in a breath at the awareness that he would not let her stand in the way of whatever fate or punishment the Arbitrator had already decided for him. "He has told you what he knows. Let me tell you what I know," she said flatly, opening her eyes on Warkha and continuing to stand her ground. "Put your blade away, Honored Arbitrator. Please."

No audible sound came out of him but Anya felt a deep baritone vibration in her very marrow that started like a tickle and built to a warm liquid shivering, and from male to female it took her breath away and made her forget herself for a second. She stared at him, still poised with his weight on his rearmost foot, his right elbow up and parallel to the ground, his huge knuckles perfectly aligned as he held the sword back and ready at the top of his swing and she stood directly in its intended path. Something small and shiny dangled from the pommel of his weapon beneath his clenched hands, and the fine gold chains he wore from his prominent lower tusks to the spines at the corners of his jaw glittered.

My gawd, she thought again, standing boldly in the line of fire and letting her eyes wander where they would. The old Anya remembered Warkha being big and scary. He was still that, but the new Anya opened all her enhanced senses in the wake of that infrasound he'd just made, took him in, and had to admit he was an impressive specimen. Momentarily losing her place in time and space, she glanced over at A'ni-de, for some reason expecting L'tor, wanting to waggle her brows at him to antagonize him. He'd been threatened by Warkha's interest and affection for her, teaching her that a jealous L'tor was an aggressively horny L'tor, and it had been way too long since they'd -

Brought back to the harsh reality of the here and now by the sight of her armored aseigan, she blinked then squeezed her eyes shut to center herself, then she opened them to regard the Elder Arbitrator. "Put your blade away until you hear what I have to say, Elder Arbitrator," she said again, flatly but firmly as she struggled internally to get a handle on herself.

Warkha chuffed, his eyes widening subtly, then narrowing as he regarded her with renewed calculation and interest. He rumbled again, this time audibly, as he relaxed his stance and lowered his weapon. His elbows thrust his cloak back as he tucked the sword away behind him, never taking his eyes off of her. For her part, Anya met and held his alien stare, wondering how eyes the color of cold concrete could convey such warmth.

"Thank you," she said, letting out her breath when his hands reappeared at his sides without weapons other than claws. "Shall we start over?" she suggested, and he continued to silently regard her after pinning Limpy with a direct stare that implied homicidal violence. A'ni-de wasn't out of danger and she wasn't off the hook. Warkha was just curious to see how she decided to handle things.

Anya eased herself aside, bracing for a reaction from the Arbitrator to her movement, then allowing herself to incrementally relax when he didn't immediately pounce on her. "Drink?" she offered, gesturing at the cabinet where L'tor kept the liquor. Lord knew she needed a tipple to help settle her nerves. Between the surprise visit, A'ni-de's almost-murder and her confusing physical reaction to that bone deep rumble Warkha had made, her head was spinning. She was angry, hurting, overwhelmed, scared and apparently sexually frustrated, a volatile combination.

Her senses still stubbornly stuck wide open and disorienting her a bit, Anya glided toward the couch and settled herself on the far side of it. "Come. Sit," she beckoned, her eyes on Warkha as she patted the cushion beside her.

His mood definitely more subdued, he eased himself closer to her, sitting sideways near her so he could keep an eye on A'ni-de. The couch let out a single creak of protest as the Arbitrator's weight subtly settled, and Anya licked her lips.

Big male. Strong male. Why didn't L'tor pick him for a successor?

Down, girl, she thought with an irritated shake of her head as she clenched her jaw and pressed her lips together. She stroked a hand downward over her belly and the pup beneath, reminding herself, and Warkha's putty eyes followed the motion before lifting to settle on her face again.

"Annie-dee, would you do the honors and get the Elder Arbitrator a drink, please?" she called.

Moving with deliberate caution, A'ni-de came forward and removed a goblet and a bottle of liquor from the cabinets, then advanced to set both on the low table in front of Warkha. The Arbitrator regarded him as he stepped back and stood at attention, then he rumbled and unstoppered the bottle, lifted it, and took an investigatory huff of its contents. Apparently satisfied, he poured out a small amount into the goblet, set the bottle down, and lifted and swirled the cup before pouring a tiny amount politely into his mouth.

"Annie?" Anya said sweetly. "A cup for me too, please." Limpy huffed at her, his eyes dropping pointedly to her midsection before drilling her with a glare. "Just a teeny bit," she implored, raising her hand with her forefinger and thumb a hair's width apart. He huffed again before turning and retrieving another goblet. For her he poured, a mere dollop of liquor that he swirled around the bowl of the cup before handing it to her. "Thank you," she said quietly, accepting it, aware of the rapt attention of their guest. She lifted the goblet to her nose and drew in a deep, quiet breath, smelling the stinging alcohol in the cup before tilting it against her lips and taking a small sip. It burned her tongue and her nasal passages and she let it warm in her mouth before swallowing, then couldn't hold back her full-body shudder in reaction. Yautja c'ntlip was vile stuff, the more vile the higher the quality, she'd learned. She was momentarily relieved that A'ni-de had given Warkha the best bottle in the cabinet, then she drew herself upright and regarded the Elder Arbitrator. He had seen her reaction to the liquor, and when she met his appraising gaze he sent her a subdued but amused trill. For a moment it threw her off; L'tor had been right, as usual. Warkha definitely had a certain warm affection for her, enough to even tease her in the midst of their tense situation.

Enough. She had to take control of this disaster before she found herself not only without her L'tor but without her Limpy.

"Annie-dee is my aseigan," she said quietly. "What he does in the privacy of my quarters is my business. If I direct him to dress in Lahtor's spare armor, what business is that of yours?" She heard Annie draw in a short, sharp breath at her bold statement. Warkha didn't bat an eye as he met and held her stare, no reaction. She stared back, thinking: Fuck. Not as dumb as Chulonte, not as predisposed to accommodate her as Lar'nix'va. She was certain he would respect her status as female, but apparently he was going to make her work and prove herself to him.

"Which brings me to my next question: why are you here? Is it customary for an Elder Arbitrator to just show up unannounced at the private quarters of a female and attempt to kill her aseigan?" she continued, her tone clipped and flat.

One minute he was sitting tensely beside her, the next he was standing upright and bristling down at her. He froze like that and she dared a small smirk, then lifted her goblet to take another tiny sip, thinking Gotcha. What she'd said was outrageous to him, but what he'd done was outrageous to her. Limpy was blatting something that they both ignored, like they had both ignored Anya's protests during the altercation between the aseigan and the Arbitrator.

"Not your aseigan," Warkha countered, his tone low and angry as he remained standing. "Not your quarters. All belong to L'tor."

"He's not here right now and I'm his mate," she returned. "Lahtor made these quarters my decision. Same for the aseigan."

His angry gaze intensified and swept her length, settled a moment, then returned to her eyes. Ticking his chin up a notch, he pointed to her leg and smugly said, "This marking say you property of L'tor and clan."

Well, shit. She'd forgotten about the damn thing though it was still clearly visible against the mottling of her skin. For a moment there she'd been riding high, asserting herself and taking back control of this situation until this fucking relic of a tattoo tripped her up. She looked down at it, then slowly stroked the pad of her thumb over the carefully drawn characters that spelled out L'tor's name and title. "This was done a lifetime ago," she said, her voice quieter, more subdued. "Before I was changed. Before I settled here and became a Bearer." Again reminding him of her current status and title and reality, hoping that it meant something, that all that had happened since her early tattooing carried some weight or value.

Undeterred, Warkha's chin ticked up another notch, triumph in his gaze. "Even so," he rumbled, unmoved by her point as he gestured again at her leg.

Anya deflated and dared an apologetic glance at A'ni-de, trying to hold back from projecting the desperation she was feeling. The second she looked at him she blinked as her expression blanked and her eyes were drawn to the bloody mark on his crest, then she sent him a wink and returned her attention to Warkha. He was, she was aware, waiting. Not passing judgment, not pressing his point or moving whatever his usual proceedings along. He was waiting her out, curious to hear what she had to say next. She braced herself with another minuscule sip of alcohol, again holding it on her tongue before swallowing it down.

"I understand," she sighed, rubbing the tattoo. "But if this marking means that nothing has changed since I received it, then logic dictates that you should listen to what Annie-dee says, right?" she asked, her voice sweet. "After all, he's marked as a Blooded warrior," she pointed out, touching her brow between her eyes.

The Elder Arbitrator went rigid then growled, the sound irritated even as he again somehow produced that sound that shivered inside her like liquid heat and made her toes curl, her flesh pimple and her entire body want to wrap itself around his so she could feel it more intimately and intensely. There was hands-down no contest between this male and any other, and Anya had no idea why every other female within a mile wasn't throwing herself bodily at the door in an attempt to get in and get closer and feel more.

Unable to stop herself, Anya huffed and shuddered, almost dropping her goblet as her whole body trembled like an orgasm had just savagely ripped through her. It felt that good. That startling and uncontrollable, and leaving behind the same sensation of euphoria and warm satisfaction. She lost her train of thought and was left uncertain of where she was, what she was doing and what was going on, only able to stare wide-eyed at the Elder Arbitrator as she tried to reboot.

The mountain of muscle in front of her was a skilled and mature male, experienced and dominant, and she had struggled to maintain some semblance of control over this situation with the simple reasoning that she was female. A'ni-de had already laid it out in the simplest of terms: despite her species, she was young and inexperienced and lacking in proper guidance. Warkha had a biological advantage over her and he was apparently unafraid to exercise it. The sound he was making, or not making, had liquefied her insides and utterly distracted her, and her attempts to keep putting together an argument literally blanked out just as she was forming the thoughts, leaving her blinking and staring at the Elder Arbitrator.

Good gawd, Anya thought for the millionth time, staring at him with stars in her eyes as he narrowed his gaze on her and maintained his mesmerizing baritone thrumming. For a moment she found herself inexplicably wondering what it would be like to be standing closer to him instead of facing off with him. To feel the warmth of his body...of his hands...of his lap. To feel him give guidance and direction and reassurance with this silent, thrumming power that resonated in her bones and stirred her senses. A mature, dominant male who was capable of communicating with her on a level that spoke to her instincts and not her intellect, visceral and deep.

Warkha had started to turn to face A'ni-de, then he caught her reactive shiver and hesitated, facing her and maintaining the infrasound that she was reacting so strongly to. His heavy mandibles lifted in a yautja smile, dangling gold chains shivering beneath his wide, spine-adorned jaw as his pale eyes lit with interest and the sound stuttered to a stop and allowed her to start regaining her self control. His stance shifted and he gracefully crossed his mammoth right arm across his massive pectorals, then bowed his crest to her. "Apologies, female," he rumbled smoothly, then lifted his huge head to look at her, sitting stunned on the couch, awash in his scent with his close, sweeping bow. "It was not my intention to use such tactics with you." She blinked at him, reading his self-satisfied and pleased amusement, and schooling herself to a poker face to avoid him picking up any other unintentionally broadcasted signals off of her. "It has been a very long time since I have had the honor of being in the presence of a female. Even Elders can make the mistake of growing lax about their self-discipline."

His tone, his gaze, his stance, everything about him and this entire situation had changed the instant he'd seen the effect he was having on her. A'ni-de could probably start doing a sword dance and fire off a few rockets behind him and he wouldn't notice. There was amused warmth in Warkha's deep, growling voice, a more relaxed posture that projected casualness and eliminated all the threat and tension in the room, and his scent...Anya drew in a deep, slow breath of citrusy, hoppy, masculine, musky yautja male and let out an unconscious low, humming purr.

She wanted to assure him there was nothing lax or elderly about him. She wanted to know everything about how long he'd been without female company. She wanted to tell him that he had her permission to use that infrasound tactic on her all day, every day...pleaseandthankyou.

Oh my god are we flirting with each other now? she realized suddenly, staring back at him and forcibly stopping herself from thinking uncharacteristically naughty thoughts. Uncharacteristic only because they were about someone other than L'tor. When and how in hell did this just happen?

"Your point, Little One, was valid one," Warkha continued smoothly, adding a solemn nod of his crest while Anya blinked and wondered what point she'd made. The only one she was aware of was that she'd proven he could make her his willing sex slave with maybe two minutes or less of that deep thrumming he was capable of projecting.

"Your marking not define you," he purred, "and I have not treated you with proper respect you due as a clan Bearer..."

She would climb on him like a hungry monkey on a fucking banana tree, Anya was thinking as she stared at the Arbitrator, aware that he was speaking, hearing his words but assessing him like mad. She wanted to wrap her fingers in the braided ring between his pecs on his chest harness, using her bare toes on his belt to clamber up his front and nuzzle against his throat as she breathed in his scent and felt the weight and sliding contact of his thick, heavy tresses. Her skin goosebumped as she imagined his heat, the roughness of his hide, the powerful thunder of his huge hearts at that close contact. He could wear her like a scarf and she could just hang around his neck all day, listening to his voice, breathing in his scent, waiting for him to make that sound...

" for your generous reception," he was saying, then he lifted the goblet, spread his impressive mandibles, and tossed the rest of the contents down his throat. He bent and placed the goblet on the table in front of the couch, then straightened and turned to regard A'ni-de, his cape blocking Anya's view of his impressive physique. "As for you, aseigan," he rumbled, his tone deepening and roughening as he switched from english, "the Path back to honor does not lie in claiming this female."

A'ni-de carefully lifted his head. "I do not claim this female as anything other than my mei-jadhi," he rumbled, "and my honor is restored. I kept her safe from unwanted suitors until an Honored Arbitrator could arrive and intervene on her behalf."

Warkha considered his words, pensively rumbling. "Well done," he nodded finally, and approached to roughly clap the fallen warrior on the shoulder and give him a solid shake. "I will consent to your wearing the awu'asa in An'eya's quarters for now. No casters or projectile weapons, though. Remove the sivk'va-tai immediately and return them to the armory."

"Ki'sei, Arbitrator," A'ni-de said with a low, respectful bow of his crest. He held then lifted and said, "But if needed in the defense of the female-"

Warkha grunted out a short, sharp bark, then glanced back over his wide shoulder at Anya. "This female herself is the best weapon you both have," he rumbled. A'ni-de bowed his crest again, and Warkha turned back to Anya. Despite his size he moved elegantly. Gracefully. He came closer and she rose off the couch to stand on her feet, shocked anew by the sheer size of him.

She could smell his interest; no doubt he could smell hers, though he was far better than she at regaining self control. It was all the fault of that other part of her, that took her over when she least expected it and turned her into a primitive bundle of animal instincts. It wasn't Warkha's boyish good looks and dashing charm that had her bespelled; it was his off-the-charts Alpha maleness that had unsettled and unbalanced her and made her forget everything she'd wanted to say. She battled back the animal attraction and forced herself to focus, grinding her molars together in annoyance. Her attempt to throw cold water on her libido by mentally pointing out to herself that their parts would never fit together resulted in a little voice in her head informing her that if she could birth a baby she could take whatever Warkha had in his loincloth. And that the infrasound he was capable of making was like auditory sedative and pain killer.

L'tor, she reminded herself, then she closed her eyes and drew in a quiet breath through her mouth, not her nose. When she opened her eyes, Warkha was still standing before her, regarding her from above the swell of his chest, his every exhalation accompanied by a low, masculine growl.

"I'll ask you again: why are you here, Elder Arbitrator Warkha?" she finally pressed, remembering that he'd never answered her initial challenge.

He chuffed and his tusks slid against each other, the gold chains shivering. "Called. Must make decision."

"About Lahtor?" she asked breathlessly.

"H'ko. About An'eya." Despite the baritone depth of his voice and its gravelly rasp, he kept it low. Yautja did not have much ability to add inflection and emotion to their words, but Anya recognized his tone as an attempt to be gentle.

"What about me?" she asked, surprised by his answer.

"Chulonte...or Lar'nix'va..." he answered slowly, his voice almost a question as he stilled, staring into her eyes without blinking.

She stiffened, then blinked rapidly. Already there were decisions being made about the disposal of L'tor's property, then. And here she was pregnant with his second pup. "Which did you decide, Elder Arbitrator Warkha?" she asked, maintaining respect with the use of his honorific and keeping her voice monotone, though the emotional part of her wanted to burst into tears while the strategic side of her wondered if Warkha might not be a third option.

"None," he said. "Find L'tor first. Alive or dead."

She bit her lip and lowered her chin. "Thank you," she said quietly, shuddering this time with relief, not lust. This was no joke, no game; Warkha held her future in his hands.

He rumbled, stopping short of infrasound but projecting his masculinity effortlessly. "Peace, Little One. I will meet with others and say them my decision. But first, you will say me your version of events."

So she did. At some point Warkha lowered himself back to the couch and settled in comfortably. At some other point Annie-dee disassembled the components of her meal cart onto the table, encouraging them both to eat. Warkha had been appalled by her limited rations and made no disguise of it, and Anya gleefully took the opportunity to apologize profusely while she insisted he help himself. She explained that since L'tor's loss her meal carts had been dwindling as she pushed all the items she had to offer toward him and took nothing for herself.

She told the Arbitrator about Silla and her attack on her pup then her subsequent disappearance. About Lillith, Chulonte's behavior and L'tor's attempts to deter and rebuff. The massive yautja methodically and delicately made his way through every item on her meal cart and was no doubt left needing and wanting more, and Anya subtly met Limpy's gaze and sent him a look despite her awareness that she would need to finagle to replace the food that the Arbitrator had eaten. If it hadn't been enough for him, how was it enough for a pregnant female and her servant?

At some point Warkha poured her another thimbleful of liquor into her goblet, encouraging her to tell her story while aware of A'ni-de's protective hovering and anxious disapproval over more alcohol. Anya thanked him then sipped daintily, using it sparingly to please them both. Warkha paid close attention despite the conversation he led, seeing the honesty and partnership between the lou-dte kalei and the aseigan, both invested in the best welfare of the other and united in the care and protection of the pup she was nurturing. The servant daring to stand against the suitors to protect the female and provide a buffer in hopes that the Master Elite would return, and soon.

He had come expecting to resolve a dispute between one who had little honor and claimed to be the chosen successor, and one who was unproven but was the Firstborn of a Clan Leader, to decide the succession of an ooman female whom he'd met before and had an admitted soft spot for. Her remembered her well, her sense of humor and honor, her quickness to defend her mate who at that time had been her n'yaka-de, her affectionate leaning on him for support and guidance while reeking strongly of his scent. She was bold enough to be memorable; now, more so. She'd produced a promising pup for her n'yaka-de-become-mate and was willingly gestating another now. Warkha could see how she would be a favorable and promising female for the clan's Firstborn. But he had checked the records himself and seen that Lar'nix'va was logged as her succession plan by L'tor himself. L'tor was a member of the Clan Leader's council, and more than enough time had lapsed for him to change his mind and make Chulonte his successor, if that was what he'd wanted.

He decided he would follow up on these witnesses who claimed that L'tor and Lar'nix'va had publicly fought over right of succession. Lar'nix'va was currently missing, and the rumor mill Warkha had tapped into suggested he was investigating L'tor's crash site. He could potentially destroy any evidence of why L'tor's ship had failed and crashed. Warkha had already taken that into consideration and sent Lar'nix'va a message to cease and desist and to contact him immediately.

Already he'd seen a reply to his inquiry from L'tor's former Master, who was now training L'tor's firstborn, and it had seconded his decision to confront the female directly. C'tde spoke of Anya in vicious and favorable terms, as a male yautja of a female yautja. That she alternately owned and adored L'tor. That unless things on the clan ship had gone catastrophically wrong she would be capable and competent to speak her mind and voice her opinion, and she should be viewed as wholly and aggressively attached to her mate and willing to fight to defend him and their offspring. Such a description had made Warkha shiver at the mere thought of such a female. The Elder Healer had spoken of their attachment too, describing evidence of their recent and vigorous matings. If it was true that L'tor was gone, then this female needed to be paired with a male who would honor her the way L'tor had honored her, and her influence needed to be kept within this clan in hopes that the other females would feel confident to behave in similar fashion.

He would meet with Chulonte next, he decided. The clan's Firstborn had never distinguished himself in Warkha's mind, and he was interested to hear Chulonte's version of events regarding his deceased lou dte-kalei.

The Little One, he suddenly noticed, was fading. He'd forgotten most of what he'd learned about oomans, and was now reminded of their short days and need for frequent and lengthy rests. Then he remembered that he'd eaten all of her food and that she was pregnant.

"Aseigan," he grunted, and A'ni-de snapped to attention on the other side of the table. "You will accompany me to procure more food for this Honored Bearer, and to see that her rations are acceptably set."

"Ki'sei." A'ni-de responded with a sharp nod, using the warrior's more formal and respectful word for agreement.

Warkha rose fluidly, and Anya pushed herself upright and to her feet to match his stance. "Little One," he rumbled, making an effort not to give in to his baser instincts and address her with infrasound. Standing, he was reminded of her comparatively diminutive size and delicate build. He'd been told that there were scientists in every clan who were invested in selective breeding, working to create a more robust female, one that if she could not be made more yautja, perhaps she could be made less ooman.

"May I speak freely, Elder Arbitrator?" the female in front of him asked. He regarded her hawkishly, made aware of the sudden stillness of the aseigan in response to her request, of the direct and bold eye contact she was making as she awaited a response. He mentally congratulated himself on immersing himself in studying her language on the trip here, knowing he would need more fluency in order to properly converse with and question her, and to understand her responses.

"Sei-i," he nodded.

"I want my Lahtor back," she said bluntly, and she opened her mouth to say more but hesitated as the words she'd spoken brought her grief. "God, I want him back," she repeated after a beat of silence, her voice more vulnerable than he'd ever heard it. Another moment to gather herself and she lifted her face back to the Arbitrator and said, "But if I can't have him back...I don't know which is best," she admitted. "I thought Larnixva hated me. He made a living hunting my kind, I've been told. Chulonte wants me but doesn't seem to even like me. Neither of them seem to have a gentle bone in their bodies. I know that Lahtor picked Larnixva for me, but I think Larnixva beat him up after we came here. Chulonte...Chulonte's had it in for Lahtor since I rescued his pup from Silla...his mate. I just...I don't trust anybody, I guess. That's why I asked them to send for you."

Warkha grunted. "You asked for me?" he trilled. E'tah-dte had summoned him and displayed a mixture of annoyance, exasperation and embarrassment at the situation he'd called the Arbitrator into. He was requested to quickly and discreetly make a determination regarding the succession of this lou dte-kalei, nothing more. He could have refused, but the details compelled him to accept this request: that the female was L'tor's, and that L'tor was missing and presumed deceased.

"Yes," she nodded in response to his question. "More than once. Chulonte wouldn't even send out a search party to look for Lahtor. More recently he sent one of Vee's assistants to fetch me to have lunch with him, then he informed me that I was moving into his quarters." She wasn't looking at Warkha anymore, her gaze was fixed to the door but, he sensed, unseeing. She let out a breath through her nose and pressed her lips together, then shook her head. "That might be my fault, though. I didn't tell you that Larnixva's not here because I asked him to go look for Lahtor, so Chulonte thinks he bailed and left me up for grabs. And after Larnixva left I had a horrible thought, that what if Lahtor is still alive and Larnixva does something to him? Hurts him...or kills him?" Another, more visceral shudder as her eyes fell closed.

Again, he was tempted to soothe her with his lowest frequency purr, a subsonic river of sound only the eldest Alphas could produce. He'd seen her reaction to it, the way she'd resonated in tandem and responded instinctively. He curbed himself; the aseigan had been right. She was susceptible simply due to her biology, and to take advantage of such a young and confused female would be shameful. Dishonorable, even. "Lar'nix'va," he rumbled instead, "is L'tor's mei'hswei."

Anya let out a quiet sigh and dropped her regard to the floor. "Yes. I know."

"They were students together," he continued, and she blinked and returned her attention to him. "Trained together. Remained together after chiva." He left off and shook his head, his gray tresses sliding forward over his shoulder. "Lar'nix'va sire was Bad Blood. Female killer." He thumped himself on the chest. "I ended him," he said, not without great pride. "Watched Lar'nix'va. Because of him I also watched L'tor." He lowered his fist and let his hand relax alongside his hip. "Because of his sire, Lar'nix'va was never respected. Bad Blood means bad bloodlines, many years to undo." He snorted. "Lar'nix'va too impatient to wait. Too proud to accept the disrespect of others. Only one who respected him was L'tor." He leveled his gaze on her. "He would kill for L'tor, Little One," he said gravely. "He would die for his mei'hswei."

"Oh," she said softly, shocked and at a loss for what else to say. "I...that makes me feel a lot better about what I asked him to do, then. Thank you," she murmured, rubbing her belly as she mulled it over.

"I was told that L'tor and Lar'nix'va had a fight. Over you," Warkha said, and Anya snapped back to attention, her eyes wide. "Is true?" he trilled.

"Over me?" she echoed, not denying the fight. She remembered the incident well enough but never knew the details. The fight and the resulting damage done to L'tor had been just another thing to add to her list of reasons why she loathed Lar'nix'va.

"L'tor wanted rescind his decision to make Lar'nix'va his successor," the Arbitrator told her, and she let out a breath and collapsed onto the couch.

"He did?"

"Lar'nix'va refused to let him." There was an amused trill after Warkha made this statement, and the slightest lifting of one upper tusk in a small smile. "He still recorded as your inheritor, means he must have won fight for honor of being next in line for you. Does not sound that he has hatred for you, Little One."

"I..." she started, then made a face and shook her head. "I'm confused," she finally admitted, then she shrugged. "He's always just sort of been a raging asshole around me."

The Elder Arbitrator trilled gustily while A'ni-de bristled in reaction to her words. "Lar'nix'va need be taught how to behave properly around females," Warkha agreed. "You will rest, Little One. I will take your aseigan to bring you more food. There are others I meet with before I come back." He dipped his crest to her, keeping his eyes fixed to hers as he smoothly added, "As you requested." Anya found herself flushing a bit in reaction to the implied heat and promise and pleasure in the Arbitrator's tone, and she wondered how much - if at all - he considered what he was doing as a personal favor. Personal favors usually had strings attached or debts owed, and she had nothing to offer the Elder Arbitrator. So she bit her lip and nodded her thanks, then offered another nod to Limpy as he fell in step behind Warkha and followed him out of her quarters.

Later, Anya communed in her soul with her lost L'tor while she stroked her belly, sitting in the overstuffed armchair nearest the wall of windows and staring at the far side of the clan ship. She didn't want to be here without him, but he'd left her with no choice. She wished to go back in time to before she'd ever met him, to avoid the acidic, burning ache of yet another loss of someone so dear to her that even breathing was painful in their absence. She was poison, she decided. Everyone she'd ever cared about died horrible deaths and she feared L'tor was no different.

A'ni-de grunted and huffed by the door, alerting her to her new reality. Her emotions came with smellavision now, and this one, sorrow, was particularly unpleasant to Limpy's opinionated palate. "Pawck off," she said into the darkness in response to his vocalization. He gave her a short, low growl, shifting on his feet, but he didn't bother to correct her pronunciation of pauk. Maybe she'd said it correctly for once? Even on the off chance she had, there was no way she had used it correctly. Probably the reason for the annoyed growl.

"I'm glad I'm not sitting here mourning your loss," she said quietly, keeping her eyes fixed on the distant lights. There was no response. "He was going to kill you." Still no reaction, but she knew he was listening. "Larnixva hates you." Finally a response, a chuff. "Chulonte's probably not in your fan club, either." No doubt he had no idea what a fan club was, but at the mention of Chulonte's name she got another dismissive chuff. "Either of them would probably kill you for doing what you're doing, for wearing Lahtor's armor and weapons. I think you know that. But you're doing it anyway." No response or reaction this time. "I understood some of what you said to the Elder Arbitrator." He rumbled quietly, acknowledging. "How do I say thank you in your language?"

He made a rude sort of honking blat. "No need," he rumbled, and she frowned, stung, then he added, "Would not be able to say anyway, mei-jadhi."

At that she snorted, unable to argue. "How do I say brother in your language?"

There was the faintest whisper of sound and A'ni-de was suddenly standing near her. "Mei'hswei," he responded, speaking slowly and pronouncing the syllables clearly.

"I thought that was hunt brother?" Anya asked, looking up at him, half wrapped in shadows. He shrugged.

"Brother is brother, mei-jahdi. You and I hunt ray-jing ash-yoles together," he rumbled, stumbling over the raging assholes part but uttering it well enough that she understood what he'd said immediately. She was momentarily shocked, then she burst out laughing. A'ni-de was so often tough and unyielding with her that his fleeting moments of revealing the affection he had for her were precious. It surprised her when her laughter became tears, and even more when she stood from the chair to dare to wrap her arms around A'ni-de's broad trunk, felt him stiffen, then felt the warm security of him closing his powerful arms around her to hug her back.

She bawled like a baby in response to finally receiving some form of physical contact and comfort, something she hadn't received in so long that she was aching for it. "I'm afraid he's dead, Annie," she sobbed against the heat and hardness of his abdomen. "And then they're gonna kill you, and this baby, and keep me alive and locked away for the rest of my miserable fucking life." There, she'd finally said it, and she felt the pinch of his talons as he tightened his grip on her and let her soak him in her tears. She wanted to take it back, her words and actions. Her vulnerability and weakness. But it was too late so she let it flow, aware that she'd only lost it this badly in front of her best friend and her mate. Helen was a thousand miles away now and L'tor might as well be.

A'ni-de was purring, she realized. The sound was stuttery and gravelly and ragged, but he did his best to soothe her despite his purring muscle's apparent damage. It worked, too, helping to calm and center her, reminding her once again that it didn't matter that his purr wasn't the best she'd ever heard but he gave it without shame. Gkei'moun, everything after chiva is simple. He gave her a squeeze, sensing that her tantrum was over, then he eased back, met her eyes, and touched the knuckle of his forefinger to his crest, brought his fist to his chest, and gave her a low, humble bow. Thanking her. Stunned, she asked, "What for?" as he rose to stand tall.

"Because hers understands," he rumbled, then nodded to her and retook his position by the door.

Much later, the lights along the clanship dulled in respect of sleep, Anya was vaguely aware of the door to her quarters hissing open, and A'ni-de in murmured conversation. She sat up enough to look and saw the monstrous shadow of Warkha. A'ni-de retreated toward her and L'tor's sleeping quarters, a place she still couldn't go, and the Arbitrator quietly unclipped the cloak from his harness and swirled it with a flourish before draping it across a portion of the couch. He glanced at her and loosed a soft rumble, seeing her eyes open as she watched him. "Sleep, Little One. I keep watch," he assured her.

What she did not know was that the identity of the party who summoned an Arbitrator was always important. In Warkha's experience, usually the aggrieved party was the one to request his input, the one with the most to lose. That the Clan Leader and the Firstborn had not indicated that Anya had requested his involvement was a mark against them, as far as he was concerned. He'd been left feeling unsettled and untrusting of the clan leadership's intentions toward Anya after meeting with E'tah-dte and Chulonte. After passing along his decision to wait until they had evidence of L'tor's life or death, he had further decided to guard her from any more attempted incursions meant to pressure or intimidate her.

He moved silently as a housecat through Anya's quarters, familiarizing himself and doing a habitual sweep of his environment and surroundings, running an electronic scan as he went. No surveillance or listening devices, no unauthorized intruders. He hadn't been pleased that the female was not in bed, but the aseigan had told him she would no longer enter that room. She was awake and aware when A'ni-de had gone there himself to rest, and she hadn't objected.

Finally satisfied, he settled himself on his cloak and rapidly became absorbed in reviewing everything he had gathered so far in this case, using his mask's capabilities to read communications, view videos and listen to audio, then retreating into his thoughts to mull over what he knew. He was still aware of his environment, though, listening to the pace of Anya's breathing, hearing an occasional passer-by in the corridor outside. Word would spread that Anya and her aseigan were under his protection, but for now he wanted to give them both a buffer from the threats they'd been dealing with. It was not a perfect solution and would not last long; the clan's leadership was already pressing for a decision, certain that he had more than enough information to make one.

"It's an ooman lou-dte kalei," E'tah-dte had said in exasperation. "The mei'hswei is missing, just assign her to my son and you can return to making more important decisions."

"The female requested me?" Warkha rumbled, and saw the Clan Leader's hesitation.

"The female requests a lot of things," he finally answered, vague though it was. "L'tor was honorable and a good advisor, but he coddled her. A lou-dte kalei's job is to produce young, that's it. He had...other ideas. Chulonte will set her straight."

"Did he set his first lou-dte kalei straight?" Warkha asked, his distaste clear.

"This one is better suited for him. Behaves better," E'tah-dte shrugged.

He'd avoided clan ships and clan politics for far longer than he'd thought, and without the influence of females they had changed drastically, Warkha realized. It worried him that his kind might be too ornery and stubborn and hard-head and aggressive for their own good, and the realization that all of that might have contributed to their own downfall.

Half a galaxy away, Lar'nix'va had struggled to find an acceptable landing site on the primitive planet's storm addled surface, cursing as he battled the elements. L'tor never should have come here to search for forage. The planet was too young and in flux, its surface still being shaped by a developing atmosphere and a molten core. Whoever had sent him here to begin with had either been given or deliberately given him bad intel.

Lar'nix'va's scanning devices struggled with the electricity and high radiation as he searched for any sign of L'tor's ship. There were zero transmissions coming off the surface and no signs of life. He had managed to secure a copy of L'tor's flight plan and last transmitted location, and using those he tucked his drop ship into a protected nook on the leeward side of a growing mountain. He left his AI battling to find a way to get its sensors to pierce through the brutal storms and suited up, making the bold decision to leave the safety of his ship and search the planet's surface with his own eyes if his equipment wouldn't do it for him.

After struggling for untold hours that had stretched into days, he had located some of the wreckage, marking locations and using his wrist computer to map it out and create a 3D image for him to view and analyze. What he was building was a grim picture that told an even grimmer story. The ship had broken apart in flight and scattered over untold miles. The pieces he'd found so far were small and showed catastrophic damage. It had rained parts roughly along its predetermined flight path until it lost control and veered well off course.

Every so often as he followed the trail, Lar'nix'va would remove his biohelm, raise his head and bellow, then wait in vain to hear any response to his summons. When he moved a certain distance from his drop ship he found that he was no longer able to communicate with it, so he didn't bother using his electronics to try and contact L'tor. The planet was a volatile spark that let off constantly, fierce ionic winds scrubbing its surface raw and charging it with static that discharged in sudden and fantastic snaps of lightning that left him stinging and smothered his senses with ozone. The pieces of L'tor's drop ship he'd found were singed and burned, some blackened, and it didn't surprise him to find no biological evidence. This place was toxic and hostile, evaporating, burning or blowing away any traces of his mei'hswei's existence, leaving nothing behind.

Determined, Lar'nix'va pressed on, obsessively driven to account for every piece and part of L'tor's drop ship, to put together an irrefutable picture that would determine accident or sabotage. The female, he was sure, would be satisfied with nothing less.