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“It’s called –“ Christopher trailed off into a series of sounds which were meaningless for Wikus.  God how he’d come go hate proper nouns; they didn’t have to have a root word anywhere, they didn’t have to relate to anything which already existed in his vocabulary, and they frustrated him to no end.  His eyes narrowed and his mouth did its best to frown (although he’d been told the expression was alarming and that people in general did not make that face unless they were experiencing convulsions).

“I don’t understand, what does that mean?”  Wikus muttered petulantly and Christopher chuckled. 

“It doesn’t mean anything.  It’s a funny word, a nonsense word.  This is a game played by children Wikus, it is not logical.”

For a long moment Wikus glared at his mate, then he turned away with a sigh, fingers scratching at his cheek as his gaze slid back to the children running in the field next to their home. 

At the beginning of the game two of the little ones had been given large sticks painted white on one end and red on the other.  The rest of the group had immediately begun running from them, shrieking, darting between each other as they tried to avoid the stick wielders.  It appeared that when someone was hit by the red end of the stick, they had to grab onto the white end of it and follow along with the stick wielder.  When another child got struck they had had to grab onto the hand of the first child, and so on and so forth, the line of them growing and growing until it became a winding snake.

As the number of free players had dwindled, strategy had developed - the stick children pulled their chains of younglings around in circles, trapping the remaining children inside so they were much easier to tag. 

One very little one who had been highly elusive earlier in the game squealed as he found his exit cut off.  He tried to duck between the legs of the children in the chain but they tightened up and he was denied.  With a small clack the red end of the stick smacked his shoulder and he joined the end of the line, huffing in resignation.

“What happens when everyone has been tagged?”

“Tagged?”  Christopher asked.

Wikus rolled his eyes. “When everyone has joined the line.”

“The person with the longest chain wins.  Then the last person added to each line gets the stick and they start over again.”

The herd of children had rapidly thinned.  Only a few players remained free and they bolted about with increasing desperation, the walls of children closed in. 

“Is it fun?”  Wikus’ antennae twitched slightly as he heard one of the trapped children shriek unhappily.  His hormones had been a mess lately and the sound put him on edge.

Christopher smiled.  “It was one of my favourite games when I was little.”

Around the two of them in neighbouring homes other parents sat watching as Christopher and WIkus did.   They relaxed in comfortably formed chairs set up on the small patches of ‘lawn’ each family called their own before the common green space opened up In the middle.  Next door the parents of a child named Ekaa clapped encouragingly, laughing as they watched their young one dance out of reach of the sticks.

Wikus’ eyes widened as he tracked the game’s progress, realizing that asides from Ekaa one of the last surviving children was Oliver.  His chest swelled with pride as he watched the child dart and weave his way between the trains of children, avoiding the sticks for all he was worth. 

“Oliver is good!”  He exclaimed after a moment, watching him dance away from the smaller stick wielder. 

Christopher’s smile grew and he reached out to take Wikus’ hand in his own.  “He had trouble when we first returned home but I think that was more that he had not spent much time with others his own age.  He is quite agile really, he is a good racer.”

Wikus frowned slightly even as his eyes never left Christopher’s son.  “Are sports popular here?”

“Sports?”  Christopher asked.  “As in hunting?”

Wikus shot a startled look at him.  “No, I mean, I don’t know if you hunt, but I was asking about competitions.  Athletics.  You know, sports.”

Christopher shook his head.  “I do not know that word.  We do have races, and children play games like this, but most of these games are not played by adults.”

“Interesting.”  Wikus murmured and turned back to the competition.  It was down to Oliver and Ekaa. 

They watched in comfortable silence as they game dragged on, neither child willing to give up easily.  Subconsciously Wikus found himself shifting slightly, leaning left and right in his chair as he followed Oliver’s progress.  After a minute or two Christopher gave one of his chittering laughs and Wikus tensed up, shooting him a glare. 

“What?”

The larger male shook his head and chaffed his thumb over Wiku’s hand soothingly.  “Do not take offense, I simply enjoy seeing how engaged you are with the game.”

For a moment Wikus let himself be offended, but it faded rather quickly.  It was hot, the sun low on the horizon and beating down on them in a way that almost made him nostalgic.  He had neither the energy nor the inclination to keep his hackles up for long.  He sighed and stretched his legs out in front of him on to the grass-like ground covering.

He shrugged slightly.  “I like sports.  I used to be a big fan of soccer and I enjoyed rugby.  I’d even went to cricket matches now and again.”

“Was soccer that thing with the ball on the ground that got kicked about a lot?”

Wikus wanted to moan.  He put his head in his free hand and sighed deeply. “Yes.”  He ground out, voice strained.  “That was soccer.”

“I have upset you?”  There was a tone of concern in Christopher’s voice so Wikus shook his head to dispel it.

He dropped his hand from his face and crossed over his lap with a huff.  “I am just offended on behalf of soccer.”  He clarified.  “You describe it so dully.”

Christopher leaned away from him, expression quizzical.  “But that’s what it was, wasn’t it?”

“No.”  Wikus barked.  “Soccer is a great deal more than just knocking a ball about.  It’s agility, strategy, speed, balance, tradition- it’s a lovely sport.  I was fairly good at it even when I was younger.”

“And adults play it?”

Wikus scoffed.  It was another sound no one else really made on this planet and it had disturbed Christopher until it had become clear it was just an expression and not a medical problem.  “Yes adults play it.”  Wikus drawled.  “They play it in big stadiums and tens of thousands of people come to watch while hundreds of thousands more watch on tv.  They make millions if they’re very good at it, which is a lot of money mind you.”

“And you played?”

Wikus’ antennae twitched.  When he turned to gaze at Christopher he managed to look only the smallest bit delighted.  “I never made money at it but yes, I played.  I loved it.”

Christopher hummed appreciatively.  “You should show me how to play some day.”

Something swelled up in Wikus’ chest and he had to suppress the urge to coo.  That would be ridiculous. 

“Perhaps.”  He offered up instead.  “It’s not a game meant for two players.”

With great care Christopher pulled his hand free from Wikus’ only to reach it over and rest it against the younger male’s slightly distended stomach.  For a long moment he was silent in his contemplation.  When he spoke again his tone was teasing.   

“We will have to have more children then.”

Wikus clicked in a semblance of a chuckle and covered Chistopher’s hand with his own.  “I am not laying 19 eggs just so we can have enough players for a soccer match.”

“Only 19?” Christopher scratched at a particularly nice spot between Wikus’ plates and the smaller male shivered.  “That will be easy, I was thinking we would need at least as many as there are children out playing ---“ and again he pronounced the unintelligible word for the game Oliver was enjoying.  It almost sounded like ‘Likitikatuss’ but that sounded ridiculous even in Wikus’ mind. 

He gazed out at the field of children with a shudder.  There were at least forty of them mucking about. “God, no.”  He muttered and Christopher laughed.

“Come now.”  He wheedled.  “You will bear half, I will bear half, we will have birthed them all in 24 cycles it will be easy.”

Wikus looked appalled. “And we would keep them where?”

Christopher did that thing with his hand again and Wikus nearly purred.  “Little ones are flexible.  We have almost enough cupboards for them each to have their own. “

At that Wikus burst into laughter, his chittering and chirping bringing Christopher in close so he could tangle their antennae together happily.  “Do you like my plan?”

Wikus shook his head even as his body quaked with good humor.  Christopher curved his hand around the roundness of Wikus stomach and reached out with his secondary arms to touch at Wikus’.  It was an intimate gesture, maybe not one that was entirely appropriate in view of so many children, but it made him warm inside and he didn’t want to stop.

Hormones.  It must be these alien hormones.

“You’re an idiot.” He muttered, working his mouth around an approximation of English when he said the word ‘idiot.’   That hand on his belly kept moving in soothing possessive patterns and Wikus relaxed into his chair. 

“Let’s start with this one and see how it goes.”  He murmured at length, his eyes mostly closed though still just trained on Oliver, a smile quirking his mandibles as Ekaa was captured first, guaranteeing Oliver a stick in the next round of the game.

“Fair enough.”  Christopher murmured and Wikus covered his roaming hand with his own, stilling its motions as he curled their fingers together. 

“Will you make me a soccer ball?”  Wikus asked quietly after a few minutes in which Oliver was finally tagged and a new round had begun - Oliver wielding one stick and a much bigger child wielding the other.

The warmth felt good where it beat down on them, the sun not as bright here but plenty hot when it wanted to be.  A gust of wind picked up and blew across Wikus’ face.  It didn’t cool him the way it used to without sweat glands to help, but it felt nice.  Familiar.  He had a sudden irrational urge to reach up to swipe his hair out of his face, and he swallowed.

Fingers squeezed Wikus’ hand and held it tight. “Of course. “

Wikus opened his eyes to look at Christopher, and did what he could to smile. 

Chapter Text

It reminds him of beetles in a swimming pool. Rainbow bodies, skinny legs kicking, all spikes and black eyes and barely floating for a long minute before it all becomes to much. The always sink into the chlorine.

He’d hated those bugs that littered the bottom of the pool. They’d disgusted him.

The thought is there and then it’s gone and he doesn’t really have time to think as he wrenches his work vest from his shoulders and throws it aside. He’s stumbling over the boulders that give way to pebbles and then he’s hurling himself forward and into the dark, rapidly moving water. He barely remembers in time to bring his arms up over his head and his hands don’t lie on top of each other the way he remembers they’re supposed to. He must look a sight as he breaks the water’s surface with a mighty splash, his body happy to sink into the river and follow after the lump of a child being pulled away in the current.

On the shore there are children panicking, running up and down the stones. Adults are yelling to each other, pointing at the little one whenever its head breaks the surface, pointing at Wikus, holding the child’s mother back, holding Christopher back. Wikus can’t think about them.

There’s an edge of panic underneath his determination and its unexpected. Of course he knows that he sinks now, but he sinks so easily - even with all the air in his lungs that he can handle.

He can’t think about it.

The children should know better than to play by the river. Even most adults avoid it as a matter of course. Water is for drinking. Water is for washing. Sometimes it’s for catching food. Water is for admiring and listening to and once upon a time it was even for traveling, but one should never get into deep water. They don’t even have a word for swimming around here. You might as well try to fly.

It’s too much effort to keep his head above the water. He just tucks his chin to his chest and focuses on going fast, on catching up with the little one, hoping the child doesn’t hit an eddy and spin away from him.

He can’t think about it.

Wikus kicks his legs viciously, gaining on the child.

He was a good swimmer back in the day. The beaches he’d spent his summer at as a child had always had large swells and deep undertows and he’d had to learn young how to keep his head above the water. The instincts he’d developed - when to go with the water and when to push himself to the surface, when it was worth the fight and when he had to save his strength - still resonated in his bones. He’d never been afraid of the water.

Now he feels like a beetle in a swimming pool.

He can’t think about it.

He twists so his body gets close to a boulder jutting up from the river bed and he kicks off it as he passes, his arm reaching out just as he’s really running out of air and he’s grabbing a hold of the child’s wrist and pulling it towards him, kicking up even as his legs ache and his head grows fuzzy.

He breaks the surface with a screeching gasp and hauls the little one up with him, struggling to prop the child’s head on his shoulder and leave his body as unencumbered as possible.

The child doesn’t move.

He can’t think about it.

The river still pushes them onward, further downstream and towards the narrowing rush of the canyon.

He thinks that he has to get them to shore, now, before the water gets deep with a vengeance. Every second with his head above the surface is a struggle, legs kicking through the surge and tow and he turns his eyes towards the boulders and the herd of people running along with them. His legs are strong but they’re not built to do this. It feels like the water is creeping between his plates, getting inside him, soaking into his carapace. He doesn’t like it; he feels heavier by the moment.

The water is cold, but he can’t think about that. It’s dark and fast but he cant’ think about that. He’s a good swimmer.

He thinks about that time that he watched his friend Robbie get picked up by a wave and thrown down with so much force that he’d lost his swim trunks. He remembers that breathless moment: watching, bracing for the surge of water, waiting for his friend’s head to pop up. He’s laughing, throat stinging, full of salt.

He hears a splash over the roar of the current and he picks his eyes up from where he’d trained them on the water just in front of his nose. Christopher’s jumped in just a few meters ahead, one hand stretched out as far as possible while two larger onlookers have a death grip on the other arm, their weight set back to counter the water that’s already dragging at Christopher’s legs.

Wikus can do this.

He swallows and ignores the pain that’s building up inside, the bloated-ness and the cramping in his joints. He fights with every scrap of concentration he can muster to keep moving in the right direction, to keep his head above the water, to keep a firm grip on the child in his arms.

He kicks at the water and refuses to think. He kicks. He kicks. He kicks.

His mind is absolutely blank as he stretches his arm out as far as it can reach. He doesn’t hear the water. Doesn’t feel connected to his body, doesn’t feel anything as he strains towards shore.

Christopher’s hand scrabbles into his and grips tight.

 

-----

 

The medics arrive on the scene quickly but Wikus waves them all away, pointing them in the direction of the child huddled and wheezing wetly in his mother’s arms. They don’t want to leave him be until he snaps and reels his hand back as if he’s going to hit one of them. The one that had been reaching towards his abdomen jerks back but not fast enough. He’s saved only by Christopher’s restraining grip that tightens around Wikus’ arm and keeps him from delivering the blow.

“Wikus!” The larger male yelps, the arm he has wrapped around his mate’s chest pulling him in tighter, securing him more firmly in his lap and Wikus growls.

“I’m fine!” He snaps after a moment, trying to twist his arm out of Christopher’s grasp but his grip is unrelenting. “Let go of me!” The words are a snarl as they rip out of him and Christopher does no such thing.

“What is wrong with you?” Wikus twists at the concern, tries to get away. “Are you hurt?”

Wikus’ lungs are still heaving from the swim, and the ache in his legs keeps on burning, his muscles so overworked that as the adrenaline wears away he’s realizing it might be awhile before he can really walk again. The tissues beneath his leg plates are already tender and swollen. The colour of that fragile chitin too gray, unhealthy, and one of the medics who stepped back just enough to give him some space is eyeing him warily.

“He has muscle damage, and his body is waterlogged.” He mutters to Christopher. “I don’t imagine he’s torn anything but we want to deal with that swelling quickly.”

“No!” Wikus snaps, trying to move his leg to kick out at one of the medics and his eyes get big when he feels nothing but more pain, his limbs not wanting to obey.

Christopher’s hand has curled over his abdomen now, cradling the swell there. It’s hardly noticeable, only a few weeks old, but some of the fight goes out of WIkus even as his fury remains. “Why not?” Christopher asks, voice pleading , and WIkus is so fucking exhausted. He slumps in Christopher’s arms, chest heaving, arms shivering.

“I don’t know.” he grits out at length. Christopher must have leaned his head down because Wikus can feel his mate’s forehead touch the back of his own head, feel their antennae brush.

Christopher asks gently “please let them help you?”

Clouds move over the sun, turning an already cool day even chillier and Wikus shivers. He startles as suddenly he starts hearing the water again, a thunderous, sloshing rush. It’s such a big sound, it fills his ears for a long minute accompanied by a ringing and he squeezes his eyes shut tight, he makes a fist and he can barely get a grip, his hand is shaking.

He coughs, eye snapping open, then struggles to find a rhythm again to his panting and finally he just nods in defeat.

“Fine.” He manages to gasp.

Christopher murmurs something that is probably a thank you, then Wikus feels his mate shift as he nods to the two medics ready to approach. One leans in with a little scanning device focusing on his belly, the other begins prodding gently at his still swelling legs, looking for muscle tears and testing the extent of his strain.

“Are you alright?” Christopher murmurs next to his ear and Wikus just wants to go to sleep. He wants everyone to go away and leave him alone and he wants to go to sleep.

“The little one?” He asks instead, mandibles clicking together a little bit because he can’t control them and the grip Christopher has on his wrist has loosened and turned soothing, his fingers sliding forward to lace their hands together.

“He is going to be alright, there are medics with him now.”

Wikus clenched his maxillae together and tried to control his breathing. ‘I’m a good swimmer.’ He thinks vehemently.

“You are, that was extraordinary.” Christopher murmurs and Wikus realizes he must be speaking aloud and he’s having trouble thinking even though he can think now; it’s okay, he’s okay, the kid is okay.

“I’m tired.” He mutters and one of the medics looks up at Christopher sharply, his antennae swiveling as he thinks.

“He’s in shock.” He declares, like it isn’t obvious, and Wikus wants to roll his eyes and shrug away but even his eyeballs are tried and he just wants to shut them so he does. The medic’s still talking and he lets it wash over him barely registered. “He’s confused right now but he should be alright. The egg is fine, we’ll get some inflammation reducers in him and the swelling in his legs will go down. He’s going to be alright.”

“I want to sleep.” He snaps out at the medic, eyes still shut, but they’re not actually paying attention to him. Christopher churrs in his ear.

“Then sleep.”

“I want them to leave me alone.” He whines a moment later, eye lids peeling back just enough to see Christopher’s arms in the edge of his periphery. Christopher strokes his antennae back like Wikus can remember his mother pushing back his hair and for a terrible moment he thinks he might cry.

“They’re trying to help. It will be alright.”

“Is the egg okay?” The words come out choked and Wikus holds his breath once they’re free.

“The egg is fine, everything is fine. Trust me dear one, you’re safe now. You did well, you are extraordinary.”

“No I’m not.” Wikus slurs and he’s so tired now. It seems so very far away that he can hear a child begin to cry and he droops into his mate.

“Is the baby okay?”

The medics have brought a blanket to wrap Wikus in and they murmur to each other about how best to get him back to his nest. Christopher ignores them speaking softly against the top of Wikus’ head.

“Everyone is well, Wikus. I am proud of you.”

“No-” Wikus groans quietly but he’s asleep before he even knows what he’s talking about.