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Thawing the Frozen

Chapter Text

Jessa set the biggest suitcase she owned down in front of the high counter at the Atlanta HKR building with a thump. The human contractor working the reception station looked up at her, startled.

“Can I help you?” the receptionist asked.

”Hi, yes, I think so,” replied Jessa, shoving her dark Mediterranean curls back off her face. “I’m being called as a bride. I need to do the draft paperwork and then get a shuttle to the Mother Ship.”

“Umm, OK. Is your warrior…?”

“On the Mother Ship, yes. His name is Thail if you want to look him up in your system, and he’s one of the Dark Kindred.”

The receptionist chewed her lip. “Just a moment, Ms…?”

“Stefano. Jessa Stefano.”

“Right. Ms. Stefano, I need to get a supervisor for this, if you’ll hold on for a minute.”

The receptionist did not wait for an answer from Jessa before she scurried off through a door behind the counter. A minute later an icy blond Blood Kindred warrior emerged, frowning.

“Jessa Stefano?” he asked. “I’m Commander Ruje, the Kindred attaché for this HKR office.”

“Great,” she acknowledged. “Before we get started, is there any kind of paperwork I was supposed to bring with me? I went ahead and brought my passport, but I couldn’t find a document list on your website.”

“No,” Ruje drawled. Skepticism covered his face. “The only thing brides are required to have is the male calling them. You told Ms. Walters that your warrior is still on the Mother Ship? Has he not come to claim you?”

“Well, no,” Jessa fought the urge to squirm, sensing that the conversation was starting to go sideways on her. “But we’ve been dream sharing for eight months now. Everything I’ve read says that this always ends in a claiming. At first, I was really scared about it, but by now I’m mainly tired of not knowing.”

Jessa took a deep breath and twisted her hands in the hem of her shirt. “So, I’m here. I’m as ready as I’ll ever be. Either I’m Thail’s bride, or he needs to stop dream sharing with me.” Pleadingly, Jessa looked up at Ruje.

The Kindred looked back, nonplussed. “Eight months? By the Earth calendar? And in all that time your warrior has not attempted to claim you?”

“No,” admitted Jessa, wishing that a hole would open in the floor and swallow her up. “I know it’s weird. I don’t know if something’s gone wrong, or if Thail just doesn’t want me, or what. But I see him every night in my dreams.”

Jessa started ticking off fingers as she recited what she had learned. “Thail used to be one of the Dark Kindred. He does something about air quality on the Mother Ship. He’s a big guy like all of y’all, and he’s got tannish-bronze skin, with long, dark brown hair that he usually wears tied behind him and green eyes. He has a little scar on the bridge of his nose. If he’s not real, then I’m completely crazy.”

Ruje relaxed minutely when Jessa raised the possibility of delusions on her own. “Ms. Stefano, if I check and there is no such warrior on the Mother Ship, will you agree to seek psychiatric care?”

“Yes,” Jessa agreed without hesitation. “But I don’t think it’s going to work out that way.”

Ruje nodded, and turned to the nearest computer terminal. He tapped away for a few moments, and then rocked back on his feet ever so slightly.

“Ms. Stefano, I apologize. There is an unmated warrior matching that description on the Mother Ship. Are you…claiming him?”

“I can do that? And it’ll get me on the Mother Ship and let me find out why we’re dream sharing?”

“Yes. It, um… yes.”

Jessa took a deep breath and lifted her chin defiantly. “Then yes, I suppose I am. I claim Thail. Now what?”

Chapter Text

‘Now what’ turned out to be several hours spent in the waiting lounge in the HKR building. The Kindred attaché Ruje had to contact a dozen different people to figure out how to handle Jessa’s claim.

Gayle Walters, the receptionist, kept Jessa supplied with soft drinks and updates. She let it slip that Jessa was apparently the first bride to take matters into her own hands and file a formal claim for a warrior in 20 years.

Gayle was practically vibrating with excitement, and as she explained it, she wasn’t the only one. “I know the Blood Kindred don’t give away much,” she told Jessa, “but by his standards Ruje is jumping up and down and squealing about this.”

“Yeah, no, I wouldn’t have guessed it,” allowed Jessa.

Gayle lit off a warm, maternal smile. “The boss man looks really aloof, but he’s a hopeless romantic. They all are. A woman coming and choosing a warrior like this is pretty much their equivalent of winning the lottery.”

Jessa was not particularly reassured. Even more nerve-wracking, an hour into her wait a brand new bride was brought in for claiming. The other girl was probably ten years younger than Jessa, absolutely gorgeous, and very curvy. She had smeared mascara and tear tracks down her ebony cheeks.

An older woman, evidently the girl’s mother, was standing by her side. She was stone-faced, as though she’d just been given a death sentence. Mother and daughter huddled together while the girl kept shooting scared glances at the Twin Kindred who had evidently come to claim her that morning.

The twins were full of nervous energy. They flitted back and forth between staring dreamily at their new bride, dealing with HKR administrivia, and trying without much success to reassure their bride and new mother-in-law that they would take excellent care of her on the Mother Ship.

In very little time they had the paperwork done and launched into a short ceremony to mark the occasion. Jessa offered to take a few pictures for them. The mother of the bride looked at Jessa like she had just grown a new head and then started sobbing her heart out.

Gayle, who was obviously very used to these kinds of scenes, stepped in with a well-timed box of tissues. Jessa backed off, feeling embarrassed and generally useless.

At the ceremony’s end, the twins kissed their bride, who actually honest-to-God swooned like a character in a costume drama. She managed to keep her feet only with the help of two strong arms that had found their way around her waist. When she turned to say her goodbyes to her mother she looked as dazed as a steer in a slaughterhouse.

Then – no sooner than the sniffles had died down and the last tears had been wiped away – the twins were whisking their new bride off for her claiming period. Jessa knew it was supposed to be one part month-long honeymoon and one part blind date.

She wasn’t sure if she was jealous of the other bride or horrified. They don’t even know her but they know they want her, she thought.

Oh, if Thail had swept in when they first started dream sharing Jessa undoubtedly would have been shocked and terrified. If he had claimed her that first week, when she was teaching her 3rd graders in rural Georgia, she would have needed a shoulder to cry on.

That was eight months ago, though. It was eight months of worrying that the future she had planned for herself on Earth was no longer an option. It was eight months of learning everything she could about the Kindred. It was eight months of restless nights, watching like a voyeur while Thail went about his life.

Jessa felt like she had gotten to know him during the past months and he seemed…actually really decent. He was even-tempered and had a dry sense of humor to match her own, but he was kind and considerate.

In his spare time Thail volunteered for the Mother Ship’s civil defense brigade. He had a soft spot for the Mother Ship’s park space. She had come to enjoy his taste in music, and occasionally caught herself humming alien melodies she had learned in her dreams of him.

What she felt for Thail wasn’t love, exactly. It was maybe more like the affection people felt for good characters on favorite TV shows, or likeable celebrities they had never met. Whatever else you might call it, Jessa had grown fond of him.

And dear God, the few times she had dreamed of him in the shower or changing had been…memorable to say the least. It was hard to guess Thail’s height without ever having stood next to him but he was unquestionably big. And muscular. And, yes, hung in a way that suggested all of the rumors about the endowment of the Kindred were accurate, if not understated.

If Thail were human she would have been excited to be asked out for coffee by a guy like him. But of course Thail was clearly not human and by all reports the Kindred did not offer to take girls out on casual dates.

They also don’t ditch their brides, whispered a mean little doubting voice. But your boy Thail has shown exactly zero interest in you. Y’know, like pretty much every guy you’ve ever really wanted.

Jessa sighed. She had a nice enough figure that split the difference between lush and willowy. Her Italian ancestors had given her beautiful dark eyes and hair to match. Her girlfriends and her third graders loved her for who she was as a person.

Still her nights were lonely. It wasn’t just because dating was hard for all of her peers in elementary education. It didn’t exactly help that her chances of meeting an available man at work were near nil, but nobody had ever accused Jessa of being a wallflower. As Jessa saw it, she had two main problems.

The first problem was that despite having a few nice features, she was no beauty. From her Italian grandfather she had inherited a prominent nose to go along with the great hair. Her rounded cheeks, asymmetrical features, and receding chin had always overshadowed her dark eyes.

No amount of makeup or careful posing for selfies ever seemed to keep the attention of a man worth having once they met in the flesh. One particular asshole she had dated a time or two in college had saved her in his phone as “Butterface”. Most other guys were a little more discreet, but no less harsh in their judgment.

The second problem was that she was just naturally a take-charge kind of person. It seemed to mainly attract man-children looking for a personal assistant with benefits. Jessa liked to take the lead, but she wasn’t interested in playing surrogate mommy and household servant to a guy frittering his life away on videogames and fantasy sports.

What she was, was an Eleanor Roosevelt in a world that wanted Marilyn Monroes. She had tried dating anyway when she was younger. Oh God, she had tried hard to make it work with guys who ranged from disappointing to downright piggish.

She had tried playing hard to get and tried laying all her cards on the table. She had bent over backwards to be fun, low-maintenance, and likeable. She had endured more texts to guys left on seen than the law ought to allow.

For her efforts she had gotten all of the one-night hookups and turds who wanted polishing, and none of the second dates with men worth bringing to a cousin’s wedding. Time and time again, she had gotten over it and gotten back out there when her relationships fizzled.

But once she blew out the candles on her 30th birthday cake, Jessa decided that to spare her own sanity it was time to step back from dating. She deleted her dating apps and online profiles.

When she decided to stop holding her breath for Mr. Right, she picked out a little house near the school where she worked and asked her parents to spend her wedding fund on the down payment. She used her own wedding savings to treat herself to a summer backpacking trip through East Asia.

Her girlfriends with small children and unreliable men in their lives swore they were jealous of her. Jessa still felt like a little part of her died every time a coworker or a college friend handed out bridal shower invitations or went on maternity leave.

Five years ago Jessa would have recoiled in horror at the thought of being drafted. Now here she was volunteering and low-key jealous of the scared girl whose warriors at least gave enough of a damn to come and get her.

Jessa wasn’t convinced she wanted to be married or bonded or whatever to Thail. She wasn’t even sure he would be any good as a boyfriend. The only thing she knew was that she wanted to get some resolution on this dream sharing. And the only way she could see to do that was going through a claiming period.

If it’s as bad as I’m afraid it will be, I can come back home and no one will be the wiser, she told herself.

Jessa had kept her dream sharing largely secret, at first because she hadn’t even been sure it was real. When she concluded that she wasn’t imagining things and that the dreams weren’t going away on their own, they had still felt too private, too intimate, to share in the teachers’ lounge.

Even when she made up her mind to see it through, she hadn’t been eager to publicly admit that she was lonely enough to actually volunteer for the dreaded draft. Fortunately, one of the perks of being a teacher was that she had been able to time this trip for her summer vacation.

Only her family knew the truth about what she was doing. Her mother knew all about the dream sharing Jessa had been experiencing, and what Mom knew, the rest of the family soon found out. None of them were exactly thrilled about her volunteering for a claiming period, but they were at least cautiously supportive.

Jessa’s dad had volunteered to mow her lawn and watch her cat for her while she was gone. Coming from her Italian-American padre it was a huge gesture, since he had taken the Dark Kindred attack on Rome very personally. Her parents had even planned to come with her to the HKR building for emotional support.

But then Jessa’s sister-in-law had gone into labor three weeks early, which threw a wrench in everyone’s plans. She had delivered last night. The new little family was fine but understandably a bit overwhelmed. Jessa’s parents were at her brother’s house now, hurriedly putting the final finishing touches on their first grandbaby’s nursery.

Jessa had considered waiting until things quieted down to go to the Atlanta HKR but time was ticking on her summer break. So rather than wrest the spotlight away from her beaming brother and newborn niece she decided to make an Irish goodbye. Honestly, it was kind of a relief not to have her parents along to worry and fuss.

And now here she was in the HKR building, exhausting the available distractions on her phone while she waited. Finally Ruje approached with another warrior.

“Ms. Stefano? Good news. We have you cleared to travel to the Mother Ship on a one-month claiming visa. A guest suite has been reserved for you, and Commander Golt here will fly you up. He’ll also escort you to the Sacred Grove of the Mother of All Life, where you’ll be briefed about the claiming process by one of our priestesses. Are you ready to go?”

Jessa thumped the side of her suitcase and put her phone away. “Ready or not, here I come.”

* * * * *

The Mother Ship was a marvel. Under any other circumstances, Jessa would have wanted a full week to wander and explore all the places she had been glimpsing in her dreams of Thail. Her escort was making a beeline for the Sacred Grove at the center of the Mother Ship, though.

Golt was a Beast Kindred and clearly thrilled to be bringing a woman to claim a brother warrior. He was also more gregarious than Ruje had been by an order of magnitude. Golt chatted nonstop about Jessa’s life on Earth, his own human bride, the claim he had made on her five years ago, their two young sons, and their lives together on the Mother Ship.

And it sounded nice. Really nice. Even though the Kindred had recently been making an effort to be more transparent, this was a side to them not many humans had gotten to see.

When Jessa had first started dream sharing with Thail she had joined every social media group for the families of brides that she could find. Her first line of defense in the face of fearsome unknowns was always borderline obsessive research.

Where the Kindred were concerned, it was really hard to separate fact from xenophobic rumor. At the far end of the spectrum, some conspiracy theorists were convinced that the Kindred had been in league with the Illuminati for centuries. Others told ominous stories of brides forced into sexual slavery and constant pregnancies and weird, cultish sex rituals.

In the last few years, the Kindred had finally addressed a handful of the most persistent rumors. Their technology was still mostly off-limits, but they had disclosed more details about their history, their culture, and their biology.

But even after the Kindred started to become more forthcoming, there was still a lot of ground left between blatantly ridiculous conspiracy theory and universally acknowledged truth.

Maybe the males never sought divorce for religious reasons, but would they really deny it if the wife insisted? Was it true that they were all deathly allergic to shrimp? Were they making plans to develop Florida swampland for a new utopian settlement on Earth?

For those kinds of questions, all Jessa had to go on was word of mouth from brides and those closest to them.

Were the brides themselves happy? Brainwashed? Somewhere in between? Were their families doing what millions of others did when faced with unsuitable sons-in-law – holding their tongues until the bride came to her senses on her own? Or were these Kindred warriors really becoming welcome additions to the family?

The longer she studied them, the more Jessa drifted into the camp that thought the brides stayed of their own free will.

A few of them had agreed to be seen by human doctors and have the results made public to reassure anxious families. Others had been hauled into court by their families for emergency competency and guardianship hearings. There was never any solid evidence that the brides were coerced, delusional or under the influence of any kind of drugs or devices.

Rumors still abounded that the males used some sort of addictive or psychoactive ‘bonding scent’ to control their brides. There was even some pretty credible evidence that extra-potent pheromones played a big role in the process.

Still, brides’ attachment to their mates didn’t wane even in the rare cases when they were physically separated for weeks on end. Instead, each and every one of them described a connection so strong it could only be characterized as a spiritual experience.

Despite that, the Kindred and their brides didn’t seem to fit with what Jessa knew about cults. Once the Scourge War had ended, brides seemed free to return to Earth and visit as long as it was safe to fly. They could still talk freely with other humans, even those who were staunchly anti-Kindred.

If a bride decided she needed an extra few days on terra firma, it didn’t seem to be a problem. When a bride wanted to vent about some of the … odder aspects of adjusting to life on an alien mega-station, no one stopped her from criticizing Kindred culture.

Jessa didn’t really think she was going to be brainwashed up on the Mother Ship. If she had, she would have dealt with the dream sharing on her own for as long as she could hold out.

Still, it was a deep relief to meet someone like her escort Golt. He seemed genuinely likeable and genuinely in love with his bride. It was believable that they were so head-over-heels for each other that she had given up her previous life in Buenos Aires to be with him.

If that was what being bonded was really about, then Jessa was open to it. But why wasn’t Thail?

The answer came when Golt dropped her off at the Sacred Grove of the Mother of All Life. She got a dose of translation bacteria and met her first Kindred priestess. She also met a Tolleg surgeon named Yipper who was familiar with Thail’s case. And then she learned that the situation was… complicated.

Chapter Text

Thail was concerned. The CO2 monitors in Sector 62 had been giving consistently elevated readings for almost a month. He thought the culprit was probably emissions from one of the new wastewater processing systems brought online in Sector 61 in recent weeks. The question was which one.

Fortunately, Sector 62 was used for nothing more sensitive than storing raw materials for the industrial fabricators. And while the CO2 levels were still just within the permissible range, that did not mean that Thail was content to let unbreathable gas build up inside of his home.

A few cycles ago Thail had immigrated to the Mother Ship. He had sworn to follow the Mother of All Life and protect her children aboard the Mother Ship. He was one of a small percentage of Dark Kindred to do so after the failure of the Collective’s invasion and its subsequent collapse.

Many hundreds of thousands more of his brethren had chosen to remain on their desolate homeworld with their emotion dampers intact. They preferred the familiarity of its bleak cities over adding more uncertainty to their lives in already tumultuous times.

Thail was not one of them. When he had gotten the chance to disable his emotion damper, Thail had chosen to do so. He had not been able to fully articulate why at the time, but the desire for change seemed most common in males like him who had a higher percentage of Kindred DNA in their genomes.

It had seemed to Thail at the time that he had a sensation of incompleteness in himself. He had not been able to feel discontent at that point. Yet without the Collective’s voice drowning out his own, he quickly became aware that some part of him that should be there…was not.

When the damper was disabled he had been overwhelmed by a flood of strange new feelings. Fortunately, the three-fold effect did not apply to tube-grown males who had been implanted with dampers before they ever drew breath.

Nevertheless, the process of becoming a Feeler had been far outside of both Thail’s personal experience and Z4’s institutional capacity. He had found it necessary to travel to the Mother Ship to learn to manage his new feelings. He had initially expected it to be a temporary stay.

Once aboard ship, though, he found that he had no desire to return to his former homeworld. Z4 was a ruin. It would not thrive again in Thail’s lifetime, and he would not thrive as long as he stayed there. The more Thail learned about other Kindred races, the more he yearned to find a place for himself among them.

When the mainline Kindred races announced that the Mother Ship would accept Kindred refugees from the Collective, Thail had applied to join them permanently. He presented himself at the Temple, allowed a priestess of the Goddess to look into his mind to know his character and intentions, and then swore to uphold the warrior’s code.

The initial adjustment to his new life had been difficult but it was entirely worth it. After a few cycles of acclimatization Thail was happier than he had ever been before, happier than he had previously understood was possible.

There was life here – life in all its complexity, life in its ceaseless movement, life from the roots up and not the top down.

It was thrilling to Thail. The constant chafing of the Collective’s consciousness against his mind had ceased. His feelings were his own to experience and the course of his life was his to choose. However, there were still aspects of existence aboard the Mother Ship that puzzled him.

Chief among those puzzling aspects of mainline Kindred life was the constant emphasis on bonding. Clearly bonded males were quite pleased with their status. Unmated males were universally encouraged to join their ranks. Most seemed to need no persuasion whatsoever and eagerly anticipated the day when they would have a chance to call a bride.

Thail felt no such pull. That was no surprise. He had been warned that his time under the Collective’s rule had left the bonding locus of his brain permanently scarred.

The Collective’s implants used – or really, abused – the same region of the brain that Kindred warriors used to align with their brides and bond. The Collective had no use for bonding, of course, but it had learned that when implants were attached to a male’s bonding locus they could link him to the network and even control him.

Some males’ brains tolerated dozens of cycles of misuse and stress with no lasting negative effects. Others formed scars in their bonding loci. The scars impaired bonding functions in varying degrees even after the implants were removed. Affected males were known aboard ship as the Frozen and were generally pitied by their mainline Kindred peers.

Thail didn’t feel pitiable. He was a warrior in the prime of his life. He had struggled out of oppression and endured the restoration of his emotions. He had healed here – healed and grown, both – and he was grateful for it every day he woke up breathing free air. For the first time in his life, he had a people to call his own and a home worth fighting for.

Females were fine and good, and worthy of warriors’ reverence. He bore no resentment towards mated pairs. Pleasures of the flesh had their place in his life.

He had a very healthy libido. He found the female form infinitely fascinating. He had derived great satisfaction from exploring his sexuality and his capacity for sensual gratification. But Thail had accepted that his fate was to remain unbonded.

If solitary pleasure was all the Goddess had in store for him, then it was still so much more than he had ever hoped to experience. The life of an unmated male aboard the Mother Ship suited him completely.

He took none of life’s simple joys like companionship and beautiful surroundings for granted. He had found the next best thing to family with his brother warriors. He also took pride in his work protecting his people and keeping their environment safe.

As Thail was running down the list of potential emissions culprits in Sector 61 his supervisor and acclimatization sponsor Welcomes Warmly came to his station. For once the amiable light twin appeared to be struggling for words.

“Thail?” he finally asked. “Will you hand that project over to Acts Swiftly? I need to see you in my office.”

Thail confirmed the instruction, frowning slightly. That was highly unusual. Acts Swiftly and his dark twin Listens Intently were in charge of balancing the ever-changing load on the air handling systems in this quadrant of the Mother Ship. They always had a full slate of work to do.

The population aboard the Mother Ship was beginning to boom as the genetic trade with Earth bore fruit. Sectors of the ship that had been vacant and closed off for many cycles were being opened to accommodate new families, which meant that the life support service needs were always in flux.

If anything Thail usually was taking tasks off of the brothers’ work queue, not adding to it. Thail shrugged to himself. Welcome surely knew how busy the younger twins were and had a good reason for reassigning the task. He took a few minutes to tap out a quick status note before shifting the Sector 62 carbon dioxide question to Act’s work queue.

When Thail sat down across from Welcome’s desk the older warrior was fidgeting nervously with a sketching stylus. “I suppose congratulations are in order,” he said to Thail. “You’ve been claimed.”

“Claimed how?” asked Thail. “I am content with my work assignment here and have not sought a transfer.”

“Not work,” answered Welcome. “I’m here as your friend and your acclimatization sponsor, not as your supervisor. You’ve been claimed as…by a bride. I’m supposed to take you down to the Sacred Grove for your claiming ceremony.”

Thail was thunderstruck – he could not have been more surprised if Welcome had announced that he needed to go down to the propulsion department and belch hydrogen gas into the primary reactor.

“Brides do not claim males,” Thail blurted. “Do they?”

“Brides almost never claim warriors. But it can happen. And son, it looks like that was the Goddess’s plan for you.”

“Wha – but, how?” sputtered Thail. “I have not sought a bride. I am Frozen. I cannot align with a female and I cannot bond. Every day there are dozens of suitable warriors meditating in the Sacred Grove, praying to align with their brides. I have never been one of them.”

Welcome spread his hands in a bewildered gesture. “I have no idea why it was you. Have you been dream sharing? Even a little?”

Thail shook his head emphatically. “No. I dream of my life aboard this ship and on Zeaga Four. I take care of my sexual needs in my waking hours and have never dreamed of any specific female.”

“That was perhaps more than I needed to know,” groused Welcome. “But even if you have not dreamt of her consciously can you call her to your mind’s eye now?”

Thail shrugged. “I... I suppose since we are in orbit around Earth, she must be native to that world, so human, I guess? And their largest racial group is comprised of the people with the straight, dark hair and epicanthic folds at the eyelid, so she would most likely be from that population.”

Welcome shook his head. “The HKR outpost where she presented her claim is on the opposite side of their planet from Asia. It does not seem likely that she matches that description. It says here that her name is Jessa Stefano. You really have no sense of connection to her?”

The frustrated look on Thail’s face said it all. “Jessa Stefano?” he asked, trying out the strange alien syllables. “Do you think her people call each other by their first names or their second?”

Welcome sighed. “The Mother of All Life has brought you together. I don’t know how she has given shared dreams to a bride whose warrior cannot meet her halfway. I don’t know why she has given this gift to a warrior who did not seek it.”

Welcome leaned forward. “What I do know is that she does not do these things by accident. Perhaps it is too much to ask one of the Frozen to understand the magnitude of this blessing. But Thail? Even if you cannot love this female you must swear on your honor to be kind to her.”

For the first time that afternoon, Welcome had posed a question that was easy for Thail to answer affirmatively. “On my honor, I swear that I will.”

Welcome stood and offered Thail an arm to clasp. “Then come. I will stand beside you in the Grove of the Goddess as you answer your bride’s claim.”

Chapter Text

Jessa shifted her weight from one bare foot to the other in the grass of the Sacred Grove, waiting through the longest half hour of her life. A little crowd of onlookers was gathering for the spectacle.

For something like the thousandth time, she adjusted the top she had chosen – a finely embroidered, off the shoulder, white-on-white peasant blouse. When combined with her form-fitting slacks it was just professional enough for walking into the HKR building and navigating the bureaucracy, while still being date appropriate.

And maybe just a little bit bridal.

It’s not a wedding, she told herself. I’m just hanging out at a temple with a priestess waiting to pledge to honor the literal man of my dreams before we can start the honeymoon. And I’ve got a healthy glow going, not a nervous sweat.

Her warrior was coming after months of waiting, and her claiming period was about to begin in earnest. Well, his claiming period, really.

The standard Kindred claiming contract Jessa had signed when she registered for the draft was quite specific. Almost all of the rights and responsibilities hinged on whether you were the claimee or the claimer, not whether you were the woman or the Kindred male. It just happened that the overwhelming majority of claimers were male and the claimees were almost always female.

So under the claiming contract Jessa wasn’t going to be the one getting seduced. She had to be the seductress. It was on her to convince Thail that they belonged together. She was supposed to woo him. She was supposed to open his heart to her.

She, Jessa Stefano – the Girl With No Second Dates – had been left in charge of persuading this near-stranger from an alien culture who had a biological romance impairment that he was her soulmate. And she had a month to do it. She felt like a whole swarm of butterflies were fluttering around in her stomach.

At least I know now that he hasn’t rejected me on purpose, she thought, only a touch hysterically. He just had no idea that I’m alive and have been dreaming about him for eight months now.

She had been royally tempted to walk out – to abandon her claim on the spot – when the Priestess told her that. She had openly questioned whether the Kindred Goddess might, just this once, be a little bit wrong if not downright crazy.

The Kindred Priestess had not taken that suggestion kindly.

Jessa considered herself to be firmly in the “spiritual but not religious” camp. She’d had a few transcendent moments in her life when she felt that she might be in the presence of something holy. She believed in some form of karma and hoped for an afterlife. She had always flinched, though, when people started talking about religious dogma and claiming to know the mind of God.

The Kindred seemed to be just as firmly in the “spiritual and religious” camp. The Priestess talked about her Goddess like they had a face-to-face chat together at least every few weeks. Every single person at the table – even the Tolleg surgeon Yipper who had apparently removed Thail’s brain implants – had nodded along like this was par for the course for worshipping the Mother of All Life.

Jessa was not 100% convinced of the Goddess’s existence, still less her active intervention in the lives – and especially the love lives – of her followers. It did kind of fit with what Jessa had learned about the Kindred so far, though.

Apparently the warriors and their brides alike all swore that the bond between them was genuinely supernatural. The dream sharing and telepathy between couples that were the hallmarks of the Kindred bonding experience were completely beyond the ability of human science to explain. And then there was the question of who got called.

Almost all young and young-ish unmarried women were required to register for the draft. Only a tiny percentage of eligible women ever got called, but by this point the brides still numbered in the thousands. Somehow, though, despite having made claims on six of the seven continents the Kindred almost never got it wrong.

Girls in strong relationships never seemed to get called, even if they were not officially disqualified by engagement. Jessa had never discovered a single instance of a lesbian or asexual woman getting called.

And sometimes women who were exempt under the draft bureaucracy’s rules ended up bonded anyways. In one notable instance, a woman had actually been broken out of federal prison by a warrior intent on claiming her. It was only a minimum-security detention facility, but still…

Whoever or whatever was choosing brides, it was clearly not the work of an impersonal computer pulling out random Selective Service numbers. It also couldn’t be the result of the warriors swiping right on the most superficially appealing girls on the list.

Somebody seemed to be supernaturally good at picking brides who were well-matched with the warriors even when both halves of the couple came into the relationship as strangers. Direct matchmaking assistance by the Kindred Goddess was the only explanation offered.

When Jessa had voiced her concerns about being matched to one of the Frozen, the Kindred Priestess had admonished Jessa to trust that the Goddess had chosen wisely in her case. She insisted that Jessa should have faith that Thail would love her like no other man had.

It was a big ask for someone with Jessa’s history of romantic failure, bigger than the striking green-haired woman could know. But maybe, Jessa thought to herself, she could muster a bit of courage even if faith wasn’t on the table just yet.

The truth was Jessa was not really ready to lock her bruised heart away for good. Oh, she was truly sick of blind dates and striking out on dating apps. But in a not-so-well-hidden corner of her soul she wanted a husband and children of her own badly.

One last time, she told herself. I’m going to put myself out there for this supposed miracle match for one month. If it doesn’t work out, then I can go back home to my family and my classroom. I’ll throw away my razor and adopt a houseful of cats and live happy-ish ever after.

Movement stirred in the foliage across the Grove as three massive male frames and one petite feminine one emerged on a path at the other side of the Grove. The male on the right was Thail, Jessa realized with a shock of recognition.

She usually saw the world through Thail’s perspective when she dreamed of him. Only occasionally had she caught glimpses of his face reflected back at him. Still, even at a distance she was certain it was him.

There was something in the way he paused and turned as he looked around the Grove, the way his big, square hand absently smoothed away a non-existent wrinkle in the tight black trousers he wore with his pewter gray uniform shirt. She knew him.

Thail was beautiful in a completely masculine way. He was also huge by human standards – he towered over the tiny, pink-skinned female next to him – and yet he was well-proportioned and balanced.

His broad shoulders tapered down to a narrow waist. He had clearly never skipped leg day. But for all his height and musculature, he was graceful as he moved through the trees on bare feet.

As Jessa stared unblinkingly at the warrior who had been in her dreams for so long, the female of the group bustled across the lush lawn to her. Jessa had seen her in Thail’s life before along with the two older males in the group.

She knew that as one of the Dark Kindred, Thail didn’t have any biological relatives on the Mother Ship. This trio filled a quasi-familial role for him, though. In a sense, Jessa had sat in their living room a dozen times already.

“Jessa Stefano?” asked the pink-skinned female. “I am R’Fil of Twin Moons, bonded mate to the warriors Welcomes Warmly and Waits Quietly. We’ve come to stand with the warrior Thail who has become like a son to us. Is it your intention to claim this male?”

“I…yes. I’ve been dreaming of him for eight months,” Jessa answered. She wracked her brain as the Priestess looked on watchfully. What all had the Twin Kindred said to their new bride’s mother before the ceremony she witnessed back in the HKR?

“I will open my heart and my home to Thail,” Jessa continued. The paraphrased words felt a little stilted to her, but they were still vastly better than trying to improvise small talk, or worse yet, awkward silence.

“I have signed the contract to claim him,” she continued. “I will be governed by its terms. I also give my pledge to you that I will guard him throughout our claiming period. I promise that no harm will come to him by my hand.”

R’Fil nodded approvingly and smiled. Jessa scarcely noticed, because by that point Thail had also reached the Priestess’s side. It seemed like he was somehow taking up all the air in the park.

He was wearing his hair down for the occasion so that it tumbled to his shoulders in loose mahogany waves. His intense green eyes and strong features were so gorgeous it kind of hurt to look at him.

Thail looked like a model for a plastic surgeon’s website. Jessa had spent enough time what-if browsing to know.

“Oh, Goddess,” she whispered to herself. “What exactly have you gotten me into?”

Thail’s eyes, which had been engaged in their own frank perusal of her, snapped back up to her face. His brow furrowed. Jessa flushed deep red. She had momentarily forgotten about the rumored acuity of Kindred hearing. Thail had clearly caught her whispered comment.

The Priestess cleared her throat and gestured for them to approach her. Then she started a short speech about love and new beginnings. The liturgy was clearly written on the assumption that the Kindred male would be doing the claiming. She guided Jessa through her promises without a hiccup, though.

Jessa found herself pledging to honor the claiming contract and watch over Thail during his claiming period. She managed to keep a straight face while vowing that her 5’6” self would protect the massive warrior’s honor, but it was a near thing.

When the Priestess prompted Thail to make his own promises Jessa learned that his voice was a deep bass rumble that sent a shiver of awareness down her spine. He could knock down doors with that voice, she mused. Or at least drop panties.

Instead, he used it to pledge that he would abide by the laws of the claiming and the warriors’ code of honor, which was apparently a last-minute improvisation to the claimee’s part of the ceremony.

Thail signed the claiming contract with quick, decisive strokes in a spiky alien script and then the Priestess gave a final blessing. She looked at the new couple expectantly.

I’m supposed to kiss him, realized Jessa. Here, in public, in front of an alien priestess with green-on-green eyes and green-streaked hair, a surgeon who looked like a baboon with basset hound ears, Thail’s foster family, the Kindred Goddess if she was as close as everyone claimed, and every gawker passing by the Sacred Grove that afternoon, they expected her to lay a good smackeroo on a man she had literally just met.

Except … it was Thail. She felt like she knew him – like they had laughed together and taken a dozen evening strolls around the park together, even if only in her dreams.

The fact that they were really meeting for the first time didn’t stop her from wanting to kiss him. Not at all. With her heart in her throat Jessa put her hands on Thail’s shoulders and went up on her toes, stretching her face towards him for a kiss.

He just stared back at her. He was at least a foot taller than she and unreachable at his towering height. His expression was perplexed as though she was speaking a language he had never heard.

The male standing closest to Thail’s side – the darker of R’Fil’s two mates – caught on more quickly. He jabbed his foster son in the ribs with a sharp elbow. “She’s trying to kiss you,” he hissed quietly. “Bend down so she can reach.”

Thail obeyed, and finally Jessa managed to find his mouth with her own. His lips were still and unresponsive against hers. Of course he is, she thought despondently. No matter what they say about Kindred in general, he doesn’t know me, he doesn’t want me, and he doesn’t want this.

But then, just as she was about to withdraw and go question every single one of her life choices, something changed in Thail’s demeanor. His arms came around her to support her and his lips began to move with her own. Strong arms pulled her tight against his big body.

Jessa became aware of Thail’s scent rising around her. It had the sun-kissed herbaceous and mineral notes of a good sauvignon blanc overlaying a clean, masculine musk. It was unexpected, but it was also absolutely delicious.

Thail’s response to her kiss was eager once he got the hang of it. He rapidly found his footing and took the lead. It was incredibly intense for a first kiss, but somehow it felt right.

Jessa wasn’t put off or intimidated – she wanted more. Her nipples tightened and her pussy took note. Down along her belly, she felt his shaft pressing against her, growing harder by the second.

He wasn’t the only one reacting. As sick as she was of dating, Jessa was a long way from done with sex. It had been altogether too long since she had even kissed a man, let alone been kissed with such intensity. In next to no time, she found herself wet and wanting.

Jessa broke the kiss before she could give in to the temptation to climb Thail like a tree. Huh, she thought dazedly. Maybe the crazy intense pheromone thing isn’t just a rumor. “So,” she said. “Nice to finally meet you.”

Thail still held her in his arms, looking at her like she had just whispered the secrets of quantum physics into his ear and he was struggling to understand. An approving cheer sounded from the gathered crowd.

The Priestess smiled – Jessa had begun to wonder if Kindred females were even capable of it. She chimed a ceremonial gong and announced to the crowd, “The claiming period has begun! Jessa Stefano of Earth, take your intended mate to your suite, and may the wisdom of the Goddess guide you in all of your endeavors!”

 

Chapter Text

Thail and Jessa left the Sacred Grove together, with Welcomes Warmly’s invitation to bring his bride for a visit once they had gotten settled still ringing in Thail’s ears. As they left, Thail found himself reevaluating a great many things he thought he had known about being Kindred.

Brides did call warriors sometimes after all. A human might go out of her way to pursue one of the feared Dark Kindred who had devastated her world not many years ago. Being kissed by a woman was a vastly more sensual experience than he had expected.

Thail hadn’t had any preconceived notions of how being claimed by a bride would be. Everything that had happened to him from the time he sat down in Welcome’s office up until Jessa had kissed him had felt like a scene out of someone else’s life.

Feeling her little mouth pressed to his, her warm body against him, though…that had made things suddenly very real. Now he was surprised by the intensity of his feelings, both physical and emotional.

Jessa was taller than R’Fil and yet she still felt petite in his arms. Her dark curls seemed as soft and delicate as lace. She wasn’t fragile, though. She had steadily held her ground when he had approached her even though he loomed over her.

He had sensed a certain lean strength in the arms she had looped over his shoulders and determination when she pressed her lips to his. When she had pledged to protect his honor, there had been an unmistakable hint of mischief in her eyes. He could see her wry awareness of the absurdity of the situation, given that she was barely half his size or strength.

Still, she had made the promise anyway, and said it like she meant it.

Jessa was so…vibrant. She was warm to the touch and smelled incredible, like kinnis fruit ripening on the vine and something he could only describe as intensely feminine. Her lips against his own had somehow been tender and inquisitive and yielding all at once. He could hear her heart racing with his sensitive hearing and somehow that caused his own to charge along with hers.

She was not generic in the way of the pairing puppets. Those had always reminded Thail of how he and the other organics of Z4 had been as slaves of the Collective. Thail did not find the pairing houses to be very pleasant places to visit.

He understood that the puppets were true machines and that there was no living mind underneath their lab-grown skin. Still, it was disquieting to perform intimate acts with something that looked very much like a person and yet had no real passion in its responses.

But when Jessa looked at him, Thail knew that she was looking with more than just her physical eyes. Her soul was searching for his own. Her gaze wandered and sought out things that captured her interest in the new environs of the Mother Ship.

She was so completely alive and completely herself. It made all the difference in the world. It made him feel like she was for him alone, in a way that no one ever had before.

And to top it all off Thail had just learned that even though his brain was too injured to bond, his body’s other sexual systems were in perfect working order – all of them, including the anatomy only active in bonding males.

Thail knew that by Dark Kindred standards his genes were remarkably undiluted. Most organics of Z4 had no more than 20% or so of their genes from Kindred stock – just enough to give their brains rudimentary telepathic abilities for the Collective to exploit. But Thail had been created specifically to work in difficult environments with compromised atmospheres.

He and others like him needed the robust constitution typical of full-blooded Kindred. As a result, Thail had something like 86% Beast Kindred DNA and another 5% or so of Blood Kindred influence. Outside of making him stronger and tougher, it had never really made any difference in his day-to-day life.

His genetic sources were making themselves known now. When he concentrated, he could tell that his own scent had intensified and taken on characteristic elements of a bonding scent.

And it took no concentration whatsoever to detect that he did have a mating fist after all. After a lifetime of dormancy, it had come alive for the first time when Jessa pressed her curves to his chest. Now it was clamoring for attention.

Thail ran his tongue experimentally over his teeth. They seemed unchanged but his mouth was tingling slightly. He wondered if it was just the memory of the kiss he had shared with Jessa or if he had trace amounts of essence in his saliva.

A large part of him had been skeptical when he had first been told that a human bride was coming to claim him. What connection could they possibly share? Those doubts were quickly giving way to a dawning realization that he was the one missing something obvious, not her.

Thail had told Welcomes Warmly the absolute truth – he had never had any inkling that he was dream sharing. He had had no particular sense of connection to any female before he came close enough to breathe Jessa’s scent and feel her body pressed to his. She hadn’t looked familiar to him when he first spotted her from across the Grove.

Not that Jessa was unpleasant to look at. She wasn’t conventionally pretty, it was true. But after decades on Z4 – mired in unending bleakness and conformity, where anyone or anything that deviated from the Collective’s rubric was ruthlessly purged – the unconventional was marvelous to Thail. Jessa was something better than pretty. She was unique.

And then there was her body, which…oh, Goddess, yes. Shamelessly, Thail’s eyes traced the curves of Jessa’s figure as she leaned forward at an interactive station map and checked for directions to their bonding suite.

She was clad in a white gossamer shirt that outlined the fullness of her breasts and seemed to float around the rest of her. Her tight trousers hugged every curve of her shapely legs.

He was intensely curious to get a glimpse of how the garment fit her rear but that was largely covered by her shirt. Somehow, she managed to appear both deliciously soft and beautifully sculpted at the point where her trim waist gave way to feminine hips. She was a treasure. His fingers itched to touch her again.

She also didn’t smell like him in the slightest. They were standing in one of the busiest spots on the Mother Ship and his female still smelled more strongly of the males she had encountered on her journey up from Earth than she did of him.

Thail was shocked to find himself on the verge of growling out loud at the thought. Where had that come from? Everything was moving so fast. What in the Seven Hells was happening to him?

 I am completely unprepared for this, he realized. I never took the notion of calling a bride seriously, and now I have no idea what I am doing. I wasn’t supposed to scent mark her during the claiming ceremony, was I?

Jessa’s muttered imprecation to the Goddess before the claiming ceremony was beginning to make more sense to Thail. Goddess, have mercy on our souls, he echoed her prayer. Because you surely know that I am lost without it.

Thail remembered when his friends Strikes Hard and Opens Doors had bonded. The twins were normally reliable and easy-going – even Strike, at least by Dark Twin standards. That had changed when they had started dream sharing.

Their bride-to-be had been wed to another at a very young age, and was still in the process of severing that unhappy relationship when the dream sharing began. Strike and Open had been forced to wait for three months for the divorce to be finalized before they were allowed to make their claim. In the interim, they were insufferably mopey and irritable.

Even when Strike and Open had come back from bonding leave, they’d been…distracted. Thail had given up trying to make plans with them after the third time they’d shown up the next day, smelling strongly of their mate and sheepishly apologizing for last-minute cancellations. Their other friends, who were a little wiser to the ways of newly mated males, hadn’t even bothered to extend invitations.

Or take Ronien – that male had lost easily 10 ah’do while bonding because his fangs were so frequently extended that they made eating difficult. Or Jaqq – his new bride’s family had insisted that she choose between him or them. She had chosen him, of course, but it had been agonizing for both of them.

By now, things had settled down for all of them. Strike and Open had their first pair of sons on the way, the Goddess had blessed Jaqq and his bride with a daughter, and by the smell of things Ronien and his mate were having lots of fun trying.

They were all happy. Changed, yes. Tested. Tempered by adversity. But happy.

Thail couldn’t bond, but he apparently was not immune from having his life completely upended by a claiming. He had not yet had an hour with Jessa. He knew little more than her name and the too-brief feeling of having her body against his own.

He also knew that it would be intolerable to him if another male sought to experience it for himself.

Jessa straightened and got her bearings. Thail gently caught her wrist, unable to stand the thought of her continuing through the Mother Ship without giving any outward sign that she had claimed him. “We need to talk,” he told her.

Jessa nodded. “Yeah. Yeah, we really do. I think we’re close to the guest quarters. You ready to head back?”

Thail nodded but did not let go of Jessa’s hand. “Lead the way.”

* * * * *

When they reached the guest suite that had been assigned to her, Jessa discovered that her suitcase had already been delivered from the shuttle hangar. A riotously colorful floral arrangement was sitting out on the table, courtesy of the New Brides Welcoming Committee.

There was also a basket full of alien fruit next to the giant vase. They were ripe and fragrant, and each kind of fruit was more exotic than the last. Jessa didn’t recognize a single one of them, although she was looking forward to sampling them all.

Well, all but one. The basket was topped with a card in five different human languages warning her not to eat the triangular, pinkish-peach ones unless she was ready to permanently bond with her warrior. And since not every bride was literate in one of those five, there was even an illustrated warning.  

It depicted a girl eating a piece of the triangular fruit, then feeling woozy or something, then getting unmistakably railed by a grinning, buck-naked Kindred warrior. The illustrator had gone out of her way to make it abundantly clear that Tab A was being enthusiastically inserted into Slot B.

Interestingly, the warning card did not contain a message in the Kindred language. Jessa mentally shrugged. Presumably, the big warriors all knew what the triangular fruit was for – it was just the tourists who had to be warned. Either that, or they weren’t affected by it.

Jessa did not want to face the X-rated drawing when they sat down to supper. She plucked the card off the basket and tucked it out of sight underneath.

Part of Jessa was tempted to keep procrastinating with the stuff around her. If she lunged for her suitcase she could easily burn thirty minutes, maybe a full hour, unpacking her things and figuring out what all of the buttons and switches did in the unfamiliar suite. It wasn’t fair to Thail, though.

If it were her in his position – and there but for the grace of the Kindred Goddess, apparently, she would have gone – she would be dying with questions. Thail had to be wondering about this person who had stepped uninvited into the center of his life. He had already been much more patient than Jessa would have been.

With a sigh she dropped into the corner of the Kindred-scale couch in the middle of the living room. She patted the armrest next to her. “So, Thail, let’s talk.”

Thail nodded and to her surprise took the seat right next to her on the couch instead of the chair by its side. “They tell me that you have been watching me in dreams for eight months now?”

“I have. Please understand that I didn’t mean to,” she pleaded. “It just…happened. And I don’t expect anything from you because of it. They told me that bonding with me – with anybody, really – wasn’t something you were planning to do.”

“It is not just that I have not planned it,” said Thail. “It is that I am not capable of it.”

He stared stonily at his feet and continued on. “You know that I was one of the Dark Kindred?”

Jessa nodded. “Yes.”

“In a few ways, I still am one of them,” Thail said. “The Collective did not intend for us to bond. It had other plans for Kindred mind-sharing abilities. There were … lasting consequences to the bonding locus of my brain.”

“What about dating or marriage,” she ventured. “Did you ever think that even if you couldn’t bond, you might still like to have a girlfriend, or maybe a wife and a family?”

“That had not occurred to me,” he answered truthfully. “Kindred do not date as humans do and we do not marry. We bond and bonding overpowers everything else. It is considered unwise for a warrior to make commitments to a female who is not a bonded mate.”

Jessa hummed, thinking it through. It made sense – a male who made those kinds of promises would inevitably cause suffering if and when he found a woman he was able to bond with.

But ‘it hadn’t occurred to me’ was not the same thing as ‘it isn’t possible’. Perhaps an exception could be made for a male in Thail’s situation.

Thail was evidently thinking along the same lines. “Maybe an unbonded relationship would be tolerated for one of the Frozen,” he continued. “But with few exceptions, the only unmated women who are permitted to stay aboard the Mother Ship are brides preparing to bond with a warrior. And until we bond, Kindred remain sterile.”

“Oh,” murmured Jessa. That made it sound like Thail was a long way from interested. A moment of silence passed. “If that’s how you feel, I won’t make –” she started.

At the same time Thail spoke hurriedly. “Sterile, but not impotent. And not emotionless. Not anymore. If it were possible for me to bond or even take an unbonded mate, I would want to try. I am beginning to see that it brings something…more to a male’s life than the Dark Kindred have ever understood.”

“Well,” hesitated Jessa, “How do you know whether bonding is possible or not?”

“The Kindred Medical Corps has scanned the brains of the Frozen in great detail. Our medicine is advanced, but brain injuries are still difficult. The damage caused by the Collective’s implants is extensive and unhealable. Several of the less damaged Dark Kindred have managed to bond but none of the Frozen have ever shown any signs of having the ability.”

Thail turned to face Jessa more directly. “I must be honest with you. Some males’ brains tolerated the implants better than others, but I had a particularly strong negative reaction. The chances that I can successfully bond are effectively zero.”

He looked away. “I was conceived and grown by the Collective and implanted very early in my development. My physicians tell me that I have relatively severe scarring in the bonding locus of my brain. And I have not dreamed of you.”

“They told me you probably hadn’t,” she said. “Especially since you never came to claim me.  But you signed the claiming contract anyway. Why?”

Thail shrugged. “It is required by our treaty with your people. If the claimee is unbonded, and not specifically exempt, and of an appropriate age, the claiming period must proceed. I would be a male of very little honor if I did not perform my duty.”

Jessa knew that love at first sight was too much to hope for. The odds of Thail feeling any kind of romantic interest in someone who was essentially his involuntary stalker were low.

It still stung to hear him describe this claiming period in terms of obligation and resignation. It was not who she wanted to be, not to him and not for herself.

Jessa pinned him with a fiery glare. “Fuck that,” she growled. “You hear me? Fuck forcing anybody into a situation like this.”

She took a deep breath and relented a bit. “I get that it’s different when both people are dream sharing. It’s more mutual. But that’s not what happened to you. These dreams don’t give me a right to force you into a relationship you don’t want.

“Thail, I don’t want a man who doesn’t want me. So you don’t have to complete this claiming period. We don’t have to have a Holding Week, or a Bathing Week, or a T-Tasting Week or any of it.

“If you tell me now or at any point down the road that you want out, I’ll breach the contract for us. It won’t be your fault. There won’t be any…any stain on your honor. And the Priestess said that one-sided dream sharing would eventually fade away on its own if we don’t bond.”

Thail looked back at her, a thoughtful expression on his face.

“So-o,” she continued on, just a bit shakily. “What do you want to happen here?”

Does he even know? Jessa wondered. Does anyone, when they’re first claimed?

Chapter Text

“I want to kiss you again,” Thail rumbled. Successfully adapting to his new life with the mainline Kindred had meant being flexible and open to new experiences. Thail didn’t see any reason why sexual experiences should be the exception to that rule.

Plus, the kiss he had shared with Jessa in the Sacred Grove had been supremely pleasant. It also had felt very … unfinished, like he had opened up a filtration device, disassembled it, and then left the pieces lying scattered about.

Gently, remembering his vow to be kind to her, he reached towards Jessa’s face. Her eyes slid shut and her lips parted as she accepted his touch. His mouth covered hers and he began to explore.

It wasn’t a fluke, he marveled. Somehow, even though he was anticipating the pleasure now, kissing her the second time was even better than the first. Her heart rate was steadier here, her thigh was pressed against his own. He could take his time now and do it right. Her hair was fragrant and smooth against his fingers. Her lips were so soft underneath his.

Thail felt the fine bone of Jessa’s jaw nuzzle deeper into his big palm as he cupped her cheek. The fit was perfect. Her breath fanned against his face, making him hyper-aware of his skin and her scent.

Cautiously he introduced his tongue to the wet heat of her mouth, tasting her for the first time. His body tensed as a bolt of need raced through him. How had he lived thirty some odd cycles without this?

He suddenly wanted to burrow down into her, to experience everything about her all at once. But gently, gently. She was like one of the semi-wild birds that lived in the Mother Ship’s park space – delicate and ready to disappear into the sky at a moment’s notice.

As the kiss went on Jessa’s cheeks and lips began to pick up traces of Thail’s bonding scent. It only increased his arousal. It felt so right to mark her – to begin the long, slow process of mingling his essence with hers.

Erotic instincts roared up from seemingly nowhere and crashed around in his mind. He wanted to rub his face against her own, and between her thighs. He wanted her nipples wet from the attentions of his mouth. He wanted her honey on his tongue, his fingers, his shaft. He wanted to smell his seed clinging to her secret folds and settling deep within her most intimate places.

Jessa made a little noise in the back of her throat and squirmed a bit, trying to get into a position where she didn’t have to crane her neck to continue the kiss.

The part of Thail that had been unnerved by the speed at which this was unfolding was stunned into complete silence by the sound. Urgency swamped him. Thail responded by wrapping his arms around her. He leaned back onto the seat of the couch and tugged her down with him so that her body draped over his own.

Jessa’s hands skimmed over Thail’s broad shoulders and tangled in the fabric of his uniform shirt as his own explored the lines and hollows of her back. Her breasts pressed against his chest. He could feel his shaft and mating fist begin to throb with need as the covered cleft of her sex settled tantalizingly close to his own.

Slowly he shifted his hips until the ridge growing in the front of his pants aligned with the apex of Jessa’s warm thighs. Jessa released his lips with a gasp. “Oh! Thail….”

She turned to kissing her way down his chin. Her little mouth found his voicebox, which she nipped lightly. Thail’s hips twitched against hers again, this time with a bit more urgency, and a moan seemed to fall out of his mouth of its own volition.

Jessa’s hands buried themselves in his hair at the back of his skull, gently pulling his head back and chin up.  Her face nestled into his throat as she tenderly licked and kissed the skin that she had nipped. The position felt vulnerable, but so unexpectedly erotic that Thail couldn’t have broken away if his life depended on it.

Thail’s hands drifted away from Jessa’s back, around towards her breasts. His questing fingers found the outlines of her upper support garment and weighed her supple flesh in his palms.

Her undergarment seemed to have a bit of padding in the cups – Thail couldn’t locate her nipples through the thick fabric. Still, he ran a knuckle firmly over where he thought one of her buds would be. She shivered invitingly atop him.

“You like that?” he growled. “Like it when I touch you that way?” Thail certainly liked it, and he needed so much more.

Not even two hours ago he had thought he was content to be an unmated male. Somehow, though, Jessa had known that this incredible feeling was possible between them. She had fought to find him and get through his thick skull. And now, Thail felt like he had discovered a new purpose in life. Touch her. Make love to her. Make her come.

Thail reached down and gently cupped Jessa’s mound through her trousers. It was so warm, as though he could feel her arousal pooling there through the layers of fabric. His long fingers probed deep into her cleft to explore further but were thwarted by her clothes.

Jessa gasped softly into the hollow of his throat where she had been lavishing him with soft kisses. The little sound affected him like a spark to a drum of volatile hydrocarbons.

Carefully, he slid out from under her, turning her so that her back rested against the couch as he went. He stood and tossed aside his shirt, only to immediately cover her body with his own.

This felt right. His female was safely held within his arms, her breasts brushing his bare chest. She brought her outer leg up over his hip, opening herself to him, bringing his aching shaft that much closer to her hot core. Thail growled in approval. He could look into her lovely dark eyes like this, as they spent hours learning every inch of one another.

Jessa smoothed an exploratory hand over the planes of Thail’s chest. Gently, she tweaked one of his flat, dark nipples. His hips twitched in surprise. “You like that?” she teased, echoing his words back to him. “Like it when I touch you that way?” 

It had not occurred to Thail that males could be sensitive there, too, but oh by the Goddess he was. His bride could make him convulse with pleasure with the slightest touch.

He pushed back a bit and smiled at her, wanting to share his sense of discovery. “This is so much more pleasurable with you than it is with a pairing puppet,” he told her.

Jessa’s heart skipped a beat, and then her eyes narrowed. She unhooked her leg from around Thail’s hip. The scent of her arousal began to abate. She wiggled up the seat of the couch until she could slide her trapped leg out from under Thail, and then curled her knees to her chest.

She scrubbed her face with her hands once and sighed. “Y’know, Thail, I’m starting to see the wisdom in taking it slow with the claiming period. We’re still just in our Holding Week. Let’s…not rush things.”

“We can do that,” he said, frowning. He had a sinking sense that something had just gone horribly wrong, but no idea what it was. “We do not have to. At least, not for my sake.”

“I think I want to,” replied Jessa. “Ask me again in a week, but for now let’s stay dressed. In fact, why don’t you go back to your suite and pack a bag? I’m going to get settled in here and then I think I’m supposed to be making supper for us. Do Kindred eat pasta?”

Chapter Text

On his way back to his quarters in the Unmated Males area, Thail stopped by Atmosphere Control to pick up his personal data unit. After having spent most of his life with his com set implanted in his brain, he still wasn’t great at remembering to keep track of an external unit. Today, in the madness of preparing for his own surprise claiming ceremony, he had accidentally left it behind again.

Thail had no more than stepped through the door when he was spotted by one of his friends, a fellow air quality engineer named Gawr.

The big Beast Kindred shouted out Thail’s name when he saw him and leaped to his feet with an enormous grin plastered across his face. Gawr – who was a consummate showoff – let out a celebratory whoop and bounded around the room, rallying the other males to join in the raucous congratulations.

“The first warrior to be claimed by a bride in 20 cycles is our own brother Thail! Aaaaa-Woooo-Haaaaa! Thail! Thail! Thail! But what in the Seven Hells are you doing here? Shouldn’t you be back in your bride’s quarters, letting her make her claim on you?”

“His hair is disturbed and his smell has changed,” called out Listens Intently, smirking. “I think she has already made a start on that.”

“Is that a love mark I see on your throat?” asked Aenmar, an unmated Blood Kindred who worked in thermal control systems. “This lucky bastard not only got claimed by a bride, he got claimed by a bride who likes to bite!”

Thail’s anger – usually very slow to rouse – began to bubble up. “My bride is not for you to talk about that way,” he growled.

“Peace, peace,” said Aenmar, holding up his hands. “It was meant as praise, but I admit that it is yours to give. But know that we are happy for you, brother.”

“So how long’s your bonding leave going to last, Thail? Will you be mated by midnight tonight, or are you playing hard to get?” asked Listens Intently.

“I don’t –”

“Thail!” interrupted Welcomes Warmly. “I need you back in my office to get your codes for the outer emergency pressure regulators. The rest of you have had your fun. You can try to provoke Thail into kissing and telling when he comes back from bonding leave.”

Welcome waved Thail back into his office and shut the door behind him. “You have been the news of the day, and not just in this work center. If you let them have their way, you will spend more time satisfying their curiosity than you will spend satisfying your bride.”

A dark look passed over Thail’s face. His sponsor was right – he had so far unwittingly given more gratification to his peers’ thirst for gossip than to his bride’s needs.

“I can guess the meaning of that scowl,” said Welcome. “Just because your bride came to you of her own choice does not make the claiming period easy, does it?”

“It does not,” replied Thail. It was a relief to hear someone else admit that this was...actually, pretty hard. Ever since his claiming had been announced, the reaction from his peers had been festive and congratulatory.

It seemed like other males took to the claiming process as naturally as waking from a night’s sleep. There was nothing obvious about it to Thail.

Oh, it was exciting, to be sure. And the news of his claiming had been met with nothing but happiness and approval from his fellow Kindred. But Thail would be lying if he said this wasn’t one of the most confusing days of his life – and that was counting the time when his emotion damper was first disabled.

Welcome, Waits Quietly and R’Fil had always given him good advice.  The successes he had enjoyed in adapting to life among the mainline Kindred were due in no small part to their support. He could use Welcome’s wisdom here.

“I have not been claimed for a full day and already I have hurt Jessa,” Thail said. “My mind is racing, my body is changing, and my heart is in turmoil.”

“Hurt her how?” asked Welcome with a note of disapproval in his voice.

“Not physically,” said Thail. “But beyond that I am not entirely sure. We returned to her suite. We talked a bit about our circumstances. She asked me what I wanted, and desire took over my mind. I kissed her, held her, touched her. It set me on fire, Welcome.”

Thail shook his head. “Her touch has woken something in me that I did not know I had. In its way it is as intense as beginning to feel for the first time was. It is so different from using a pairing puppet. I told Jessa this and she recoiled and put distance between us.”

Welcome raised his eyebrows. “That is all she did? She did not yell, or break household objects, or demand that you leave her suite?”

“She did politely suggest that I go home to pack a bag for the claiming period,” answered Thail. “She did not show anger, but her entire mood changed as though her own emotion damper was suddenly activated.”

Welcome sighed. “Honesty between friends is a virtue and between the bonded it is a necessity. In the fullness of time there generally does come a point where males tell their brides about pairing puppet use.

“Ideally,” Welcome continued, “The question is not raised until after you have been bonded for 15 cycles and you and your sons have just surprised and delighted her with a thoughtful gift for your anniversary.

“It is the last thing she wants to hear about when the ink is not yet dry on your claiming contract. How would you have felt if in that moment she had started comparing your performance to stimulators she had used, or to other males she had been with?”

Thail groaned. “Like I had been caught with my trousers off and the fresher door open.”

Welcome nodded. “Waits Quietly and I were never in your same boots, of course, but I do remember this much from when we claimed R’Fil. It is a time of great joy but also great vulnerability for males and females alike.

“Though we expect the one who is claimed to be uncertain and cautious, our customs call on a claimer to be bold and forthright. But claimers have doubts too and most especially doubts about their own worthiness.”

“How?” asked Thail. “The most astonishing thing about this is that such a female has gone unclaimed by any male.”

“That is not for me to say,” responded Welcome. “In any event, I know you to be a courageous male, and a strong one to have left behind everything you knew with the Collective. Jessa may try to guard her heart but she will need your strength in this period.”

“She has no small measure of strength herself,” responded Thail. “My bride is determined and not afraid to sacrifice. She would have surrendered her right to claim me if I had asked it of her. But I still feel that I do not even know my own mind.”

“That is natural,” said Welcome. “Without dream sharing and intact bonding instincts your feelings will surely be more difficult to resolve.

“Thail, your bravery should be channeled into keeping your heart open. You are not going to be the warrior who wears down his bride’s defenses with the power of his certainty. You have a harder path to walk.

“Your challenge is to convince your bride that her decision to pursue this claim was a good one. Open yourself to her not your old male sponsor. Let Jessa see you – all of you, even your uncertainties and doubts. And when you stumble into her vulnerabilities – for example, by making bone-headed comparisons with pairing puppets when she is in your arms – you must endeavor to make things right.”

Chapter Text

As it turned out, Kindred did eat pasta. If Thail’s appetite was any indication, they ate it by the bucketful. It was a long way from the fanciest bowl of noodles Jessa had ever made but he didn’t know that.

Jessa hadn’t wanted to get too crazy ambitious with her cooking on short notice and in a strange place. But she came from a long line of pasta-making Italian nonne and could make it in her sleep by this point.

More to the point, she had been pretty sure she could make it in an alien kitchen with only a few common ingredients. With that in mind she had made her way down to the Mother Ship’s nearest market while Thail packed a suitcase.

Probably three-quarters of the store was given over to foods from the Kindred trade worlds and other alien cultures. Jessa took note of a few interesting prospects but left them for another day’s experimentation. The store also stocked a respectable Earth section with groceries ranging from basic staples to comforting junk food for homesick brides.

Jessa was able to find the makings for a simple carbonara sauce and three-ingredient fresh pasta. As far as it went she could have been both lazier and more authentic and picked up the dried kind but she wanted something to keep busy with when Thail came back.

It turned out to be a good call. Thail had come into the suite’s kitchenette as Jessa started to lay out her supplies and tools. He had clearly figured out what he did wrong and was looking for A Very Serious Conversation About Sex.

Jessa was relieved to see that he had that much awareness, but she hadn’t really wanted to discuss it in depth. She didn’t need to hear an excruciatingly awkward explanation about how the glorified sex robot meant nothing to him. She had picked up enough hints from Thail’s conversations with his peers to know what pairing puppets were – and what they were not.

Jessa had never dreamed of Thail when he visited the pairing houses and got the impression that he was not a frequent client. And if the tables were turned and he had been dreaming of her for eight months he would surely have seen her vibrator by now. She could hardly throw stones at him for having needs of his own.

Once Jessa had shooed Thail off to pack she was able to sort through her feelings. She found that she was not more than 15% upset about the thought of him using a pairing puppet – although a little irrationally jealous voice did have some choice words about that. She was 85% upset, though, that Thail was displaying some really poor relationship sense.

Jessa knew that Thail was fundamentally a good guy. Painful past experience had taught her, though, that being a good guy did not necessarily mean being a good partner.

Her father was generally a good guy and an awesome dad. He had still broken her mother’s heart around ten years ago when he had an affair with a coworker.

Jessa had already moved out for college by that point so she was spared the worst of it. But what she did hear was bad. Her parents had separated for several months while they fought through it. Her dad had rented an apartment and they had even gotten as far as hiring lawyers.

Her mom had been absolutely wrecked by the affair. Her brother had stopped speaking to their dad for a few months when he learned what was going on. Eventually, though, her father had retired early to get away from the other woman and persuaded her mom to reconcile. Sort of. It was more of a ceasefire than a permanent peace treaty.

Jessa’s parents slept in separate bedrooms now. Her dad spent more waking hours engrossed in his woodworking jobby in the backyard shed than he did in the house.

Her mom just kind of… did her own thing without involving her dad much. Her dad wasn’t invited out to the get-togethers that just seemed to fall into Mom’s lap. She had clearly gotten custody of their friends in the near-divorce.

These days they were like roommates who had gotten comfortable with each other’s ways. They had a few interests in common, but that was all. Jessa respected that it was their choice to live physically together but emotionally so apart but it was not what Jessa wanted for herself.

In her own love life, Jessa had encountered plenty of other men who fit that great guy/lousy boyfriend archetype. There was the painfully shy blind date who would not look her in the eye and seemed excruciatingly uncomfortable through their whole date. He wasn’t boyfriend material, but he was her best friend’s beloved cousin and an animal rescue volunteer.

There was the college classmate who had been nothing but fun and likeable until she asked him out for coffee. Then he had been so taken aback at her interest that he had literally scoffed like an affronted Valley girl. He had apologized very sincerely afterward, but there was no undoing the moment.

Or there was the high school boyfriend who had laughed and commiserated with her every day at lunch break. He had given her first kiss and had let her set the pace for their first shy, fumbling experiences with sex.

He had also come out to her as gay the day after he moved out of his conservative family’s home. She’d forgiven him – eventually – and even went to his wedding a few years later.

Thail was new at this, she knew. Casual dating was not really a thing in Kindred culture and women were unknown in any capacity on Thail’s homeworld of Z4. She was willing to give Thail the benefit of the doubt on his good intentions.

But she also knew that a man’s willingness to improve his behavior was directly proportional to his affection and respect for the woman in his life. No amount of nagging and adverse consequences and bribery could change a guy who just did not care. And whatever ill could be said about her father for cheating, he did ultimately love her mother enough to make meaningful, permanent changes in an effort to earn back her trust.

Jessa didn’t really want to hear platitudes about how much Thail valued women in general. She did not need to hear him explain Kindred culture. She did not relish the thought of doling out shame for his past sex toy use.

What she needed was for him to demonstrate that he really cared for her. But all talk was cheap and none was cheaper than sweet nothings from a guy who thought he might have a chance at getting laid.

It was just too early for any kind of real emotional connection – Thail had only met her a few hours ago. It would be setting this new little relationship up for failure to expect otherwise. The only thing that was really going to convince her to commit to Thail or cut him loose was time.

So when Thail had opened with an apology she had accepted it readily and with no other question or comment. Then she redirected the conversation to dinner preparations.

Thail turned out to be as new to the kitchen as he was to the bedroom. On Z4, he told her, the organics controlled by the Collective had survived on a flavorless, nutritious mush called garn that was synthesized on an industrial scale.

On the Mother Ship the food options were vastly better. Thail had found a lot of enjoyment in trying new things and expanding his palate.

Still, cooking was not something that everyone enjoyed. Plenty of families chose to spend their time on other things, and lived on meal cubes and restaurant meals. Thail’s foster family was among them and he had followed suit.

As a result, not only had Thail never made a meal from scratch before, he had never even seen it done. He had been eager to learn. He had asked questions throughout, starting with whether pigs naturally produced smoke-scented bacon or it was the result of human genetic engineering efforts.

Despite his lack of experience Thail had proven surprisingly handy in the kitchen. He followed directions well and could figure out missing details when left to his own devices. His work was neat and precise. When Jessa didn’t have a specific task for him he took it upon himself to wash the used dishes and gadgets and put them away.

Jessa got the impression that there was an agile, capable, hungry mind living behind his piercing green eyes. If he was a bit naïve now, that surely wouldn’t last long. He might not be experienced, but he was attentive and smart as hell.

Best of all he was indispensable when it came time to knead and roll out the pasta dough. The little kitchen in the guest suite did not have anything like a stand mixer or a pasta machine. But it turned out that you didn’t really need one if you had a rolling pin and a six-and-a-half-foot tall Kindred warrior with easily 250 pounds of muscle at his disposal.

The few times that Jessa had tried making her own pasta purely by hand she had been left sweaty, sore, and vaguely dissatisfied with her results. Thail was so big and strong, though, that he was able to work the stiff dough with little effort.

Once he got the hang of it, it had been something else to watch his muscular arms making short work of the kneading and rolling. All told, she was pleased with how the meal came out. Thail had been too, and was not shy about saying so.

Now, with supper devoured and the dishes done, the evening stretched on ahead of them. Thail had planted himself back in the middle of the couch, his ankle crossed over his knee, and his arm stretched across the back.

Jessa could easily have taken one of the nearby armchairs. She chose not to. She had asked for this claiming period, dammit, and done so with her eyes open to its overtly sexual nature.

The whole point of this exercise was to find out if she and Thail were compatible. Sexual chemistry was a big part of the equation for Jessa. As unlucky as her heart was in love her libido had never gotten the message that maybe it was time to quit.

She was not going to rush straight into sex with a near-stranger or anything. But on the other hand, she also was not going to give herself permission to chicken out on night one of the Holding Week.

With that in mind, Jessa sauntered up to where Thail was sitting, casually bumped his foot off his knee, and plopped down against his side.

Thail paused for a second while she settled in then rolled his arm off the back of the couch and onto her shoulders. It felt easy and natural, like they had been sharing a couch together for years.

“So, about tomorrow,” she started. “The claiming contract says I’m supposed to take you out and show you a good time. What’s your idea of a fun day?”

“I like the park,” suggested Thail.

“The one where we had the claiming ceremony,” said Jessa. “You go there all the time, don’t you?”

“Well, yes,” answered Thail. “There was nothing remotely like it on Z4. We had nature simulations in virtual reality, but they were not widely available outside of the upper echelons. And they never quite got the tactile input right.”

“So you really like that kind of thing?”

“I do. On Z4, I chose to pursue further specialization in atmospheric carbon cycle systems because I wanted to experience nature. The algae farms were the closest you could get. I even took a posting at an undersea research facility in hopes that we might find some marine life surviving around the ocean vents. No such luck, though,” he said ruefully.

“Hmmm,” mused Jessa. “Have you ever been on a real planet before? Like one with an ecosystem and all?”

“I haven’t. I came from Z4 to the Mother Ship without diverting to any of the other Kindred trade worlds. And unmated males – especially Dark Kindred males – are discouraged from visiting Earth without human guides. There’s too much risk of being perceived as a threat by the local populace if we send males prowling down on the surface.”

“Well, that’s a diplomatic way of saying that the anti-Kindred zealots might cause an interstellar incident. But if you wanted to go, and you just happened to know an Earth girl, and you had a month off work, could you do it?”

“I…like where your mind is going with this,” said Thail. “Yes, I think I could. I’ve got my general clearance to pilot a shuttle. And my enhancement scars are not too conspicuous,” he said, gesturing towards the small white mark at the bridge of his nose.

“So if we promised to keep it low profile, you think you could get a shuttle?”

“Yes,” said Thail. “Where would we go?”

Jessa paused to think. The Kindred shuttle was a game-changer. And translation bacteria! They would both be able to understand the language wherever they went. It was every avid traveler’s fantasy.

The whole world was suddenly open for touring. Thail could fly a shuttle for a day trip to Timbuktu as easily as Jessa could drive to Atlanta to go shopping. Still, knowing what she knew about Thail’s interests, one option stood above all the rest.

“What do you know about the Amazon rain forest?” she asked.

Chapter Text

Two hours later Jessa and Thail had reserved a shuttle, picked out a bird watching tour in the jungles of Ecuador, and figured out what hour they needed to leave the Mother Ship to get there early local time. They had run the battery on Thail’s personal data unit to almost nothing as they excitedly poked through options together and planned their trip.

“One last thing,” said Jessa.

“What’s that?” asked Thail.

“Clothes. I think you’re going to be able to pass for a human guy – at least, a really tall one – but you look like a Kindred brides recruiting poster in that uniform.”

“We…do that? Put up posters?”

“No, it’s just a figure of speech. It means you look like…” Sex on legs? Her brain helpfully supplied. A professional panty melter? Prime grade beefcake?

“Like a paragon of Kindred masculinity,” she continued. “Although, now that I think about it, it might help if y’all did put up posters. You might get a few more brides staking claims.”

Thail’s ears took on a distinct reddish tone. “The Kindred masculine ideal is not hybridized in a tube, and it most certainly is not brain damaged by artificial implants,” he muttered.

Jessa patted him on the shoulder and scoffed lightly. “Y’know, it still worked pretty well on this Earth girl. Believe me when I tell you you’ve got nothing to be embarrassed about.”

Thail did not look particularly convinced.

“Now come on,” continued Jessa. “What are our options for getting you dressed appropriately for a day on Earth?”

“We can do synthetics with the manufacturing unit in this suite. If you want something with natural fibers, the textiles lab will have some Earth designs on file. If we pick out garments within the next hour or so they ought to be ready before we need to leave tomorrow,” answered Thail. “Have you got something in mind?”

“Hmm,” mumbled Jessa, picking up the personal data unit. Quickly she found a good pair of hiking boots and a few things that looked appropriate for bushwhacking through a sweltering jungle. “How about these?”

“That looks fine. What sizes do I need?”

Jessa checked the size chart. “I dunno. I’ve never shopped for anybody as big as you. I don’t suppose you know your exact measurements in feet and inches, do you?”

“I do not. How would I go about getting measurements in those units?”

“I can jury rig a measuring tape with a shoelace. Hold on a minute,” she said, hopping off the couch and disappearing back into the suite’s bedroom. When she emerged a minute later, she was carrying a long cord and an eyeliner pencil.

She found a fixed-scale graphic of a ruler from the Kindred data net, and then had Thail stretch the shoelace taut against the image on screen while she marked it off in one-inch intervals.

“Alright, that gets it,” she announced. “Now help me get your boots off and we’ll start with your feet.”

Jessa braced herself for a face full of stinky guy feet, but it never came. When Thail peeled off his socks, she only got a slightly stronger whiff of his usual clean, warm scent.

His feet were nicely shaped with neatly trimmed nails. Even though he couldn’t have known that he would end up in this position the last time he showered, they were clean and well-scrubbed.

“Are you ticklish?” she asked, gently rubbing the ball of his right foot.

“The grandsons of Welcome, R’Fil and Waits Quietly have discovered that I am not,” he replied soberly. He caught her gaze with molten eyes. “Your touch is pleasurable and exciting, but not in a ticklish way.”

“Mmm. I’ll file that one away for future reference,” replied Jessa, suddenly feeling a little hot under the collar.

She drew out the makeshift tape and measured. “And it looks like your feet are about twelve and a half inches long and four and a half wide. So that would be …about a size 16 shoe on this chart.”

“Very well,” said Thail. He tapped away for a minute. “And…done. The shoemakers should have new boots delivered here by the time we are ready to leave. What next?”

“Let’s get your shirt size. Stand up for me?” Thail complied, letting Jessa turn and tug him into position.

When she went to measure around his chest, Jessa found that it was not easy to get her arms wrapped all the way around Thail’s vast torso. To pass the tape behind his back, she found herself pressed against his chest, with her face resting against him.

His scent was strong in the air around him and his body was warm against her cheek. She was suddenly, exquisitely conscious of all the places they were touching.

Her lashes brushed against his collar bone. Her warm breath gathered in the space between her lips and his shirt. Her breasts pressed against his chest. And down at her stomach, she felt stirrings of his interest as he began to come erect against her belly.

She managed to pass the cord behind him, but once she got it back to the front Jessa discovered that her shoelace was not quite long enough to wrap all the way around him.

She started to step away but was stopped by a firm masculine hand pressed against the small of her back.

Thail did not attempt to escalate but he did rest his cheek against the top of her head. He brought his free hand up and gently stroked her hair with it, playing with a few locks, letting her loose curls slip between his fingers.

It felt really right. Jessa let herself relax in his embrace, molding herself to him from knees to head. Gently she caressed Thail’s broad back with her hands, enjoying the solid feel of him in her arms.

He rocked just a little on his feet as he held her. It felt like floating in the ocean on a calm day at the beach, like she had swum out past the breakers where the passing waves would gently but inexorably lift her up before dipping back down again.

Thail made a contented sound and then dropped a soft kiss on the top of Jessa’s head. “I am beginning to see the wisdom of having a Holding Week, too. Some things should not be rushed.”

Jessa chuckled against him. “Slow is good. Slow can be very good.” She nuzzled her face into the junction of his neck and shoulder, pushing aside his shirt, and planted a lingering, open-mouthed kiss there.

Thail sucked in a sharp breath as his growing hardness twitched against her. His body tensed and he looked down at Jessa for a moment, eyes blazing, before taking a deliberate deep breath and stepping back.

“Slow also has its limits,” he growled. “And if we wait too much longer we’ll miss the cut off for the textile spinners.”

“Fair enough,” allowed Jessa, brandishing the piece of cord. “This time, I want you to use a finger to mark where I tell you and we’ll finish getting you measured.”

She worked for a minute, calling out numbers for Thail to enter into his personal data unit.

“All right,” she said pulling the cord off of his waist. “The last measurements are the hips and the inseam. Are you OK with me doing that?”

“It is allowed under Holding Week rules regardless,” he answered. Jessa started to ask a question, but he raised up a hand and continued speaking. “— and I do not mind at all.”

Jessa nodded. She worked quickly and did not allow her hands to linger over his tight flight leathers, but her eyes seemed to have a mind of their own.

Thail was still half-erect from her previous embrace and he was huge. She could see a long shaft outlined in the dark material of his trousers. There was something else there, too, up at the root of his shaft. What on Earth….

“Our people are physically compatible,” Thail volunteered, making Jessa realize that she hadn’t exactly been subtle about checking him out. “In case you were wondering. I have heard that many human brides question whether penetration is advisable at first.”

Jessa cleared her throat. “Yes, well, um I could see why they would have that concern.”

Thail shrugged. “My size is typical for a Kindred male.” Continuing, he added, “The Dark Kindred have a separate culture, but otherwise are not really a distinct race of our kind. Our genes do not combine easily with those of the organics native to Zeaga 4. Those of us with significant Kindred ancestry tend to be more influenced by the original trade worlds. In my case, Rageron.”

“And Beast Kindred have something extra…” Jessa had heard rumors to that effect, but had never been sure if it was actually true or just xenophobia talking.

“A mating fist,” confirmed Thail, tapping his lightly with a finger. “An extra swelling at the base of the shaft to tie the male and female together while bonding occurs.”

“Wait, what? That’s supposed to go inside m– a girl?”

“It is,” said Thail. “When a male is ready to bond a female to him, his body chemistry changes in several ways. One is that he starts producing compounds in his saliva and precum to help the female open for him. When he has prepared her, she can accept his shaft without injury or pain.”

“Including the mating fist?”

“Especially the mating fist,” said Thail, eyes flashing. “It is something that a male can only give to his bride and essential to the act of bonding for Beast Kindred.”

“Why only a bride?” asked Jessa, curiosity winning out over embarrassment. “I mean, yours looks, um, ready and you said bonding isn’t in the cards for you.”

Thail looked away. “My body does not know that my brain is injured. When I touched you, smelled your sweet scent for the first time today, it responded as any Kindred’s would when beginning to bond. My body believes I am ready, that it is finally time, and so my mating fist has emerged.

“I seem to have the instincts, even though I lack the ability to fulfill them,” continued Thail. “My body does not understand that I cannot forge the spiritual connection that gives bonding sex its ultimate meaning – it only goads me towards the physical acts of lovemaking.”

“What does that mean for you?” whispered Jessa. “It sounds really har- frustrating.”

“It is,” answered Thail. “And I do not know how long my body can sustain an unresolved bonding instinct. In cases where a female has rejected her warrior, or died before the bond could be forged, the physical changes eventually subside. I do not know of any instance where the male and female have stayed together after a failure to bond.”

Jessa sighed. “My dad always tells me not to borrow trouble by worrying. But I meant what I said earlier – if the claiming process gets too hard for you, I’ll breach the contract and give up my claim.”

Thail met Jessa’s eyes. “I do not want to quit. There are too many questions left unanswered. I cannot promise you a bond, but perhaps there are other options. I do want to see where this claiming leads.”

“OK, then,” said Jessa, nodding. “Tonight, it’s pasta and online shopping. Tomorrow is bird-watching, and after that, we’ll take on the meaning of life and love.”

Chapter Text

Jessa sat and wiped her brow, grateful to be seated in the bustling little roadside restaurant where she and Thail had stopped for dinner after their day at the Ecuadorian wilderness reserve.

She had peeled her face off of Thail’s broad chest that morning with reluctance. It was only due in part to the unholy early hour that the alarm went off. The other reason she was not eager to leave was that being curled against Thail’s warm flank was a feast for the senses.

Although they had gone to sleep separated by about a yard of clean, crisp linen on a Kindred-sized bed, her drowsy self knew the score. Her body wanted warm skin next to hers, a pajama-clad leg to twine her own around, and shelter between a toned arm and a firm torso. In the night she had managed to find just that.

Still, the alarm had been effective at its job. They had gotten up and taken turns in the bathroom. True to Thail’s prediction she had found a box of new clothes and boots for him waiting in the hall outside the suite door.

Somehow, Thail seemed even bigger in human-style clothes than he did in his tight black Kindred uniform pants and silky shirt.

As a Kindred male aboard the Mother Ship, Thail seemed big to her but not shockingly so. He fit in among the oversized furniture and corridors, and the oversized warriors who built them. But when Thail had dressed to pass as a human man for a day it became clear just how far he stood above most human guys.

At 5’6” and perpetually a dozen pounds over her goal weight, Jessa did not consider herself petite. But standing next to Thail in his human tourist gear really drove home the fact that his muscular thigh was almost as thick as her waist.

They had had a quick breakfast of fruit from the basket in the kitchen. Jessa gave the bonding fruit a wide berth but found that she liked the mottled red and yellow one that tasted like a spicy pineapple.

She had also introduced Thail to coffee. He had put on an immediate poker face when he first tried it black and admitted that he did not care for it. He also did not have much of a sweet tooth but a little bit of cream ended up making it palatable to him.

Fortified with coffee and fruit, they had made their way down to the shuttle hangar. Thail signed for a little short distance two-seater with an active camouflage system. He also visited the Kindred version of the ATM.

Thail had asked Jessa how much she expected the day to cost for the two of them. She had tried to protest, but Thail had waved it off. The Kindred economy was not like Earth’s, he had reminded her.

Jessa half-remembered hearing it described as a Something Something Partial Post-Scarcity Doo-Hickey on a workout podcast once. The subject was not her best so the details had gone zooming right overhead. She did recall that the gist of it was that reconciling the Kindred economic system with human ones was like comparing apples to oranges.

Kindred technology had automated entire economic sectors and created new ones that humans had scarcely dreamed of. Moreover, their social values were not exactly identical to Earth values, which meant their system of monetary valuation was also different.

Human money, whether it was dollars or gold bullion or cryptocurrency, was a measurement for things humans found valuable – goods, services, and investments. Kindred money was a measurement for what Kindred found valuable –pro-social behavior, time well spent, and above all else family.

Likewise, human money was backed and to some extent controlled by human institutions and markets. The Kindred system for fixing value actually had a religious component, and was different in other ways that human economists were still struggling to wrap their heads around.

All of that meant that Kindred currency was so fundamentally different from human monetary systems that it had stymied attempts to establish exchanges or even a conversion rate.

In any event, the technology and resource imbalance between the two species was severe.  Unrestricted trade would end up with humans selling Manhattan for the Kindred equivalent of beads and trinkets. All of that, Jessa already knew.

Thail explained that despite the barriers, there was still some foreign trade being opened at a slow and very cautious pace. That meant that the Mother Ship could at least barter for a fixed quantity of Earth currency every month.

The allowed foreign trade was not much in the grand scheme of things – just a few hundred million dollars a year. Relative to the hundred and some odd trillion dollars of Earth’s GDP, the total currency barter was a drop in the bucket.

It still was more than enough to fund the Kindred’s mission-critical projects. Mainly it went to pay salaries and expenses for the HKR buildings around the globe, buy goods from Earth for brides on the Mother Ship, support parents who had been depending on their daughters’ financial help, and so forth.

The Mother Ship was also able to stockpile plenty of surplus Earth currency. Those funds were made available for the convenience of warriors and brides with business on the surface. As long as a warrior kept his withdrawals under $10,000 or so a month, no bureaucratic process was required.

Jessa usually was of the opinion that the person who asked for a date ought to pay for it. But when Thail explained that last part, she decided it would be okay if the Mother Ship’s massive slush fund picked up the tab.

She had given Thail an honest but generous dollar figure for park admission fees for two, meals, souvenirs, and emergency cash. The ATM had converted that dollar figure to the pesos nuevos being used in the Pan-Latin Economic Zone.

Thail had withdrawn twice Jessa’s suggested amount without blinking and handed half of it to her. Then they were off to begin their excursion.

Thail had landed the shuttle on a deserted stretch of road just before local dawn in Ecuador. Then he had camouflaged the shuttle as an ordinary rental car with local plates, driven into the sanctuary, and parked for the day.

They met their guide and fellow travelers at the visitor center and started off on a hike through the reserve. Thail was as excited as a kid in a candy shop. Everything from the splendid sunrise peeking through the triple canopy jungle to the little puddles on the ground caught his keen green eyes.

Jessa only wished she could experience it the way he was. Like all Kindred, he had an incredibly acute sense of smell that allowed him to detect the plants and animals around him whether he could see them or not. His sensitive hearing also came in handy. Thail was able to hear chirps and rustling sounds that completely escaped Jessa.

Which was not to say she felt disappointed or left out of the fun. A free flight for a spur-of-the-moment nature hike in the rainforest was pretty awesome even with only ordinary human senses.

And Thail shared his joy with lively conversation about their surroundings and something like a million questions about Earth biology and ecology. Even as his attention jumped from tiny peeping frogs to pitcher plants to a shy howler monkey peering through the foliage, he stayed by her side.

When they clambered over the steep banks of little mountain streams Thail was there with a hand up. When a stinging fly started strafing their airspace he was there to swat it with absurdly sharp reflexes. When they reached the trail’s end and geared up to take a zip line through the canopy and back to the trailhead, he was there to help her adjust her harness.

As the day heated up and the wild animals settled down until dusk, Thail and Jessa had toured the reserve’s self-guided trails and animal rehab unit. They had gotten an up-close view of all kinds of exotic plants, plus creatures that were recovering from injuries or else were too tame to be released into the wild.

Now they had finally left the sanctuary, happy, sweaty and at least where Jessa was concerned, tired. They had mutually decided to sample the local cuisine rather than return to the Mother Ship and cook.

Jessa was relieved. She had the idea, though, that Thail could have picked a stream, followed it until it merged with the Amazon River, trekked all the way to the Atlantic Ocean, and still have been in good spirits to hike right back.

Thail came back to the table she had picked bearing a tray with two plates heaped with fried plantains, a fragrant stew, and arroz con pollo. He passed a plate and an ice-cold bottle of local beer to her.

Jessa’s stomach growled in anticipation – the afternoon’s concession-stand empanadas were long gone. Thail looked so startled at the noise that Jessa couldn’t help but giggle. “Easy, Dr. Livingstone. That one’s not a jaguar.”

Thail grimaced. “Under other circumstances, I believe it would be a breach of contract for a warrior to let his bride get that hungry during a claiming period.”

Jessa huffed gently. “I wouldn’t change a thing. I got to hike through an honest-to-God tropical rainforest this morning. I will take that over a big lunch any day of the week and twice on Sundays. So, seriously, thanks for doing this with me.”

“It is I who should be thanking you,” said Thail, pinning her in his intense green gaze. “This has been, without question, one of the best days of my life.”

Jessa blushed and looked away. “Oh. Well, not bad for a first date,” she said, trying to downplay the moment.

Thail was not having it. “Really,” he said, putting a gentle finger under her chin to draw her gaze back. “You’ve been working all day to make this special. Don’t think I haven’t noticed, and don’t think you haven’t succeeded.”

“You deserve it,” blurted Jessa. Embarrassment was cresting over her like a breaking wave, but she couldn’t seem to stop herself from voicing the thought that had been bouncing around in the back of her mind all day.

“I feel like a creep for having watched you by dream sharing all these months,” Jessa confessed. “I keep telling myself that I didn’t choose it and I couldn’t help it, but I still did it. I know I’d be pretty upset if I’d been the one being watched. The least I can do is tell you that you’ve got nothing to be ashamed of.”

Jessa toyed with her stew. “You’re a good man, Thail. And however this claiming turns out, you deserve some happiness.”

Thail took Jessa’s free hand between his own. His grasp was warm and sure and unhurried. “You’ve done that, Jessa. And I’m not upset about you dreaming of me.”

Now it was Thail’s turn to shrug. “I’m Kindred. Or at least I’m trying to be. Having our brides dream of us – building that intimacy – is something to anticipate, not to dread. If there’s anything I regret, it’s that I wasn’t able to reciprocate.”

“Well, I’m human,” Jessa smiled sardonically. “I never even tried being anything else. And we’re really entirely okay with not having our partners keep up psychic surveillance on us.”

“So, worth a second date?” asked Thail.

Jessa squeezed his hand back in response and smiled. “You know? I think I’d really like that.”

Chapter Text

Three days later a Kindred shuttle touched down gently over a dark, desolate spot on the Polar Plateau of Antarctica, just a few hundred miles from the South Pole. As far as Jessa could tell, this place had never been visited by another person before. It was too far inland even for penguins.

On the Mother Ship it was still only afternoon. But given that they were visiting in July – the height of the Antarctic winter – the barren land was mired in the middle of a months-long night.

For Jessa’s purposes that was perfect. She had not brought Thail here for the skiing. She had suggested it because she wanted to see the Southern Lights.

Seeing the aurora was near the top of her own personal traveler’s bucket list. Plus she doubted she could muster the strength to ski right now if her life depended on it. Starting with their Amazonian jungle excursion she and Thail had been globe-hopping like maniacs.

On Day 2 of his claiming, they had started the day watching pandas tumble around a twilight bamboo forest in rural China, chased the sun west to enjoy a street festival in Greece, and then headed back east in time to watch it rise on Uluru in the Australian Outback.

For Day 3 they had hiked through forests and meadows in the Swiss Alps then enjoyed tapas and maybe too much wine in Barcelona. Jessa’s judgment had deteriorated to the point of attempting a flamenco lesson with Thail. It had been ridiculously fun at the time but Jessa had two left feet and no more rhythm than a rainstorm.

Today, they had spent the morning whitewater rafting through a section of the Grand Canyon. Jessa had loved every minute of it but the high-octane fun was starting to wear on her. She was ready for some quiet time. Aurora watching seemed to fit the bill nicely.

Thail was up for almost anything she suggested, although he had preemptively ruled out visiting Rome or any other sites razed in the Dark Kindred invasion. The wounds left by that tragedy were still sensitive. Dropping a former Dark Kindred warrior – even one who hadn’t been a part of the invasion force – in the places hurt worst seemed like asking for trouble.

All in all, though, Thail was turning out to be a great travel companion. In addition to his inhuman endurance, he was patient when Jessa needed a break, had a bottomless sense of curiosity, and was flexible when things didn’t go according to plan.  And it certainly didn’t hurt morale to see that he was plainly having the time of his life.

Whatever happened, Thail was up to the challenge. In the middle of their Alpine hike a sudden summer storm had blown up and quickly dumped a half inch of rain on them while they huddled under a copse of trees at the meadow’s edge.

Well, Jessa had taken cover.

Thail had grinned like someone had just whispered great news to him, handed her his pack, and gone out to literally soak in his first encounter with rain. He was drenched by the time the weather let up. It couldn’t have been comfortable to hike that way, but he hadn’t voiced a hint of a complaint about it.

When their raft had gotten hung up on a rock, he had quickly worked out how to use the river’s current to push them free, and matter-of-factly shoved the 10-person boat into exactly the right position.

When Jessa got the bright idea to learn flamenco, Thail had thrown himself into the lesson with enthusiasm. There wasn’t a hint of the surly reticence she would have expected from most human guys. He’d just applied that same sense of curiosity to the instructor’s lesson – and once again proved to be a quick study. The big Kindred was surprisingly light on his feet, and he never missed a beat once he’d been shown how to find it.

That had been his attitude throughout the claiming. There was nothing he was afraid to try and nothing he took for granted. He made sure Jessa knew it, too. Where there was work to be done, whether it was researching their next destination or cleaning their gear at the end of the day, he was quick to offer a hand.

He was also quick to offer a foot rub when they came back to Jessa’s guest quarters every night, and he was damn good at it. When he worked on Jessa’s sore calves and toes, she just wanted to melt into his strong hands. But that wasn’t on the agenda tonight.

Tonight, the Kindred Astrogation Service was predicting a period of high solar wind activity in Earth’s magnetosphere and minimal cloud cover over the South Pole, which Thail said were good signs for auroras. The spot they had picked was hundreds of miles from the nearest artificial light source.

Added to that, Thail had been able to book an observation shuttle. The cockpit in front was standard, but the back half of it was essentially just a transparent atmospheric dome. You could stand in the midst of the polar winter without so much as a jacket and see meteors streaking overhead with the naked eye.

Jessa also saw puffs of ice and snow being whipped around by the fierce wind tearing across the Antarctic ice. Even though she’d chosen her snuggliest sweats for the event, she felt cold just looking at it. Scarcely a moment after the thought crossed her mind Thail was draping a heavy blanket over her shoulders.

She sighed contentedly and went back to mixing up hot cider in the shuttle’s little (by Kindred standards, at least) galley kitchenette. Thail said that ordinarily a long-range ship of this size would also have a bedroom or two and a living area. In the observation craft, though, everything aft of the galley and the lavatory had been ripped out to maximize the viewing area.

That suited Jessa well enough. Stargazing did not require a king-size bed, just a nest of blankets and a flat space to lay them out. The shuttle’s decking fit the bill just fine.

Better than fine, she reflected, since this particular model came equipped with one extra-large Kindred warrior for snuggling. Add in a warm beverage and some good music queued up on the shuttle’s sound system and the local planetarium could not compete.

Jessa dropped the last bit of garnish into the mugs and went over to the nest of blankets and pillows Thail had assembled on the floor. As she did he ordered the lights to dim until they were dull orange-red embers, just barely bright enough for her to pick up the outlines of her surroundings.

Jessa handed over Thail’s mug, toed off her shoes, and sank to the floor. With a contented sigh she settled in against his side to watch the show.

*****

Thail was leisurely kissing the side of Jessa’s neck when the alarm sounded on his personal data unit. He had put the blasted gadget on the floor next to him just in case Jessa wanted to match star names to the glimmer of the constellations above them.

That had proved utterly unnecessary. For maybe ten minutes they had watched the gentle undulations of the green bands of light above them. There had been a little murmured conversation about the spectacle in the sky.

Stargazing had quickly given way, though, to flirting, then kisses under the light of the Antarctic sky.

This was a welcome change. After his ill-considered words on their first day Thail had let Jessa set the pace on physical intimacy. So far that had meant a light embrace or a hand held by day, and nights with her gradually drifting into his arms.

Tonight, though, she had turned to look at him, her lovely dark eyes wide in the dimness of the polar winter. Her sweet scent was in the blankets that enveloped them and on her breath. Beneath that he sensed the heat that had been steadily building over the last few days.

It would have been impossible not to kiss her. To Thail’s delight Jessa proved ready to reintroduce that to their physical relationship. Her face was smooth and warm and her lips beneath his had been welcoming and eager. It did not take long before they parted, inviting him to deepen the kiss and explore.

Which he had. At length. His body was clamoring for more, eager to taste Jessa’s honey and plumb her warm depths, but he disregarded it. The pleasure of now was exquisite, too.

If Jessa wanted to run her fingers through his hair and press her soft breasts against his chest while his tongue delighted in the taste of her, what reason was there to rush?

Thail’s data unit apparently disagreed – it began to buzz and emit a shrill sound. He cursed and fumbled for it, intending to turn the alarm off. Instead what he saw on the screen had him sitting bolt upright.

“BATHING WEEK DAY 1 ENDS IN ONE HOUR,” it read in bold type. Below, it offered a helpful reminder that “If the claimer fails to offer to bathe with the claimee, the claiming contract will be in breach.”

“That can’t be right,” Thail muttered.

Jessa sat up beside him. “What can’t be right?”

“This thing says that we’re on Day 1 of the Bathing Week and will be in breach of contract if we don’t bathe together.”

“But today’s our fourth day,” said Jessa. “We should still have three more days left in the Holding Week.”

“That was my understanding as well. Hold on, let me check something,” said Thail, pulling up a menu. “Yes, that’s it. This is set for Z4 weeks, which are only three days long, instead of Earth weeks.”

“I wonder why that is,” said Jessa.

“I don’t know. The Mother Ship uses Earth’s clock for its general systems timekeeping since this is the nearest inhabited planet. I know I had my data unit set to sync…oh.”

“Oh what?”

“I wonder if…” Thail dropped out of the calendar screen and pulled up a copy of his claiming contract. “That’s it. This is why it’s using Z4 weeks.”

Thail switched the display from Kindred Standard to English as Jessa peered at the screen. Translation bacteria made it possible to read in unlearned languages, but there was no substitute for having documents in your native language. That held especially true for complicated legal and technical materials.

Thail had pulled up the definitions section in the fine print of the claiming contract. The part he had highlighted read:

For purposes of this Agreement, the length of a Claiming Period shall be defined as a full revolution of the principal moon of the planet where the Claimee and Claimer share a bed. A Claiming Period shall further be subdivided into four Weeks, each defined as one quarter lunar revolution, rounded to the nearest full day.

In the event that the Claiming takes place in a location without a lunar cycle, including but not limited to a spacecraft, the length of a Claiming Period and a Week shall be established in accordance with the orbital period of the principal moon on the Claimee’s world of origin.

“So,” mused Jessa. “Even though we both use seven days as the length of a week and even though we’re actually on Earth right now, none of that counts for the contract?”

“So it says. Since the bed we share is on the Mother Ship, and it doesn’t have a moon, the contract is defaulting back to Z4’s calendar.”

“And that’s a three-day week?” confirmed Jessa. Thail nodded. “Meaning I should have offered to bathe with you by now?”

“Apparently.”

Jessa paused for a minute, thinking. Thail waited, his heart frozen in his chest. Was she going to move forward with him here and now? As the claimer, she certainly was not obligated to. But if she did not wish to have any further sexual involvement with him it would mean the end of his claiming.

Jessa’s gaze darted nervously back towards the shuttle’s little fresher. Then she took a deep breath and met his eyes. “Thail, will you bathe with me tonight?”

“Of course,” he answered as a rush of relief swept over him.

Being claimed by a human was not like a typical Kindred claiming. Generally a claimee could take it for granted that the claimer would shift the stars to prevent a breached contact. With Jessa, though, there was a real possibility that she might decide she did not desire him enough to grant him further intimacies.

Until just now Thail had not understood how averse he was to that outcome. His claiming had started as an annoyance, then become a curiosity, then an adventure. And now maybe it was becoming something a little deeper.

It wasn’t just that Thail was reluctant for the fun to end. It wasn’t just that he would miss the opportunity to expand his sexual horizons – although it was hard to overstate how much he was looking forward to that part of it.

It was also that Thail…wanted to be chosen.

Jessa’s opinion of him mattered, he realized. For four days she had been letting him learn what kind of person she was. He very much liked what he had seen. He’d never met anyone like her before, and was beginning to believe he never would ever again.

When he had been foolish in their first moments alone together she had forgiven him. When he was uncertain, she was patient. She was curious and open-minded and brave. She had taken chance after chance for him, right up to granting him a Bathing Week.

His claimer truly was courageous in her own way. Petite and feminine though she was, she had the spirit of a warrior. Thail wanted to be the kind of male who was worthy of Jessa’s notice.

Meanwhile, as his attention wandered off into astonishing epiphanies about his romantic wants, his bride had started talking.

“– expired by the time we get back to the suite in the Mother Ship. So I guess it’s the shower stall on the shuttle or nothing. Which…I always was kind of curious to join the Mile High Club but I never expected I would…you know…in an airplane bathroom while it was still on the ground.”

Thail struggled to catch up. Mile High Club? He knew what the words meant individually but as a phrase they were nonsensical. He decided to let that one pass without further question.

That set aside, the overall gist of her words was that Jessa thought the first bath had to be completed on the first day of the Bathing Week, not merely offered. Thail was not sure if that interpretation was correct but he did not want to risk a breached contract while they researched it. In any event Jessa’s proposed solution was that they open their Bathing Week in the shuttle fresher.

On the one hand even Thail knew that the opening night of Bathing Week was supposed to be a seductive, luxurious experience. The compact fresher of an unfurnished utility shuttle in the middle of a howling wasteland was not ideal. His unmated friends did not describe such places when they were socializing and daydreaming about how they would claim their own brides.

On the other, Thail had always assumed that his status as one of the Frozen would prevent him from having a Bathing Week of any kind, in any place, ever. He had not gotten emotionally invested in a particular fantasy of how it should go.

What he had done – three days in a row now – was return to the Mother Ship each evening with a bride who carried very little of his bonding scent.

Every time they crossed from the docking bay to their bonding suite curious males sniffed after his bride in hopes that her purely feminine scent meant she was available. He did not relish the thought of taking a fourth such trip tonight.

If Jessa was willing to bathe with him here – to finally let him mark her in earnest and mingle their scents – Thail was inclined to agree despite the utilitarian location.

“The shower in the shuttle’s fresher will be fine,” he said, mind racing. If you want to be worthy of a female like Jessa, what are you going to do to make this a sensual experience for her?

Ordinarily a Bathing Week was about the claimer giving pleasure to the claimee. The bath itself was only one of many ways that the Kindred male who typically initiated the claim showed his devotion and his eagerness to lavish pleasure on his bride’s body.  The terms of Thail’s claiming were unique, but his innate instincts to seek his female’s pleasure were classic Kindred.

The shuttle’s fresher was cramped, without even a bathing pool. Calling the décor ‘minimalist’ would be too kind. The storage cabinets held none of the exotic massage oils and pleasure gloves and tickle towels that would ordinarily be brought out for the first night of Bathing Week in a conventional claiming.

Thail took a deep breath and a sense of peace came over him. No slave of the Z4 Collective was ever created with pleasure in mind. By the grace of the Goddess, though, Thail had escaped and rededicated his life to the Mother of All Life. He had to believe that she had other, better plans for him.

She had restored his capacity for love, and then against all odds given him someone to love. He would not throw that gift away. As inexperienced as he was, and as suboptimal as their circumstances were, he could do this.

Already long-dormant instincts were stirring within him. Jessa’s body was speaking to his in an ancient, wordless language of the senses. There was a thread of arousal in the tapestry of her scent but it was crowded by surprise, and skepticism, and anxiety.

There was a look on her face that suggested she was struggling to find a way to broach the subject of undressing. For the first time her bare body would be revealed to Thail’s eager gaze. This could not possibly be easy for her, Thail reflected.

He and Jessa had been sharing a suite and a bed for several days now. She had been meticulous about not being undressed around him during that time. She changed clothes in the fresher and slept in pajamas that covered her from neck to knee. When Thail undressed, she always looked away.

Granted, Jessa had worn a minimal garment in the inflatable boat today – just pair of shorts and small, stretchy top to cover her breasts. It had been the single most revealing thing he’d ever seen her in. It left her graceful arms and most of her legs bare, gave a very intriguing view of the shape of her ass, and had conformed to her breasts like a second skin. It had been glorious. But she had also slipped more modest garments on over it as soon as they were away from the water.

It was common knowledge among the Mother Ship Kindred that women of the newest trade world tended to suffer under the cruel weight of cultural taboos against wanton sexual pleasure.

Warriors were warned that their human brides might be fiercely resistant to admitting their arousal, even to themselves. And when they had finally crossed that threshold, it still might take weeks of patient encouragement – if not months – for some brides to gain the confidence to initiate sex.

His Jessa was strong and brave but it was time for Thail to show her that with him she did not always have to be. Jessa had chosen Thail and Thail was not a male who would leave a female to do all the work in forging a bond. It would be his privilege and his pleasure to anticipate her needs.

Right now she was thinking too much. Thail could fix that.

Thail swept Jessa into his arms and carried her into the fresher. The lights came on in response to his entry. The shower stall was only just big enough to maneuver with her in his arms. It had room for two to stand under the water spigot but there was no way they would be able to run a bath.

Jessa squirmed in Thail’s arms. Gently he loosened his grip and let her set her bare feet on the shower floor.

“Thail,” she began, “Hold on a second. Let me get my –”

Thail did not hold on. He slammed his big palm into the warm water control. In seconds he and Jessa were both drenched from head to toe.

Jessa let out a shriek that turned into a happy giggle when Thail vigorously shook his sodden mop of hair. Water went everywhere and he grinned the wide, self-satisfied grin of a male who had successfully teased his mate.

“Not a moment too soon,” he announced, pleased with himself. “We have officially bathed together and are in compliance with the terms and conditions of our Claiming Contract.”

Jessa rolled her eyes and then struck like a retti bug grabbing its prey. One minute, her hands were clutching against her soaked clothing and the next, she was expertly squeezing a jet of washing cream from the bottle on the shower’s ledge. It hit Thail dead center in the chest.

“Ha!” announced Jessa imperiously. “It’s not official until the Claimer uses soap on the Claimee. Now we’re in good standing.”

“I’m glad we’ve cleared that up,” said Thail, with exaggerated and incongruous dignity. “Now that that’s taken care of, do you want to get back to what we were doing before we were so rudely interrupted?”

Jessa closed the distance between them, this time as slowly as her soap attack had been swift. She looped her arms over Thail’s shoulders and sauntered up until they were belly to belly. Or belly to shaft, really. Thail’s was rapidly stiffening between them.

“I dunno,” she purred in a voice that made Thail’s heart race. “I get the feeling this might be short-changing you on this whole Bathing Week thing. I mean, there’s the bare minimum of what the contract says I have to do, and then there’s what you actually want to do. And this one’s a big deal for the Kindred, isn’t it?”

“How do you mean a big deal?” asked Thail.

“Well, I’ve been dreaming your life for eight months,” answered Jessa. “I’ve seen you at work, and eating supper, and socializing. And reading. And watching the viewer. I mean The Epic of Pestan and Logela? The Claiming of Madria? Twin Moons Rising?”

 Thail felt his ears go hot. If the media of Z4 tended towards bone-dry histories and other nonfiction, the Kindred arts community went in the opposite direction. Way out in the opposite direction.

Sex was the universal, all-time favorite pastime of the Kindred. Far from being stigmatized, erotic themes in art were praised and emphasized. It was a subject that always had a ready audience of unmated warriors waiting to share a dream and mated couples looking to expand their horizons.

There was very little that was completely taboo between a warrior and his consenting bride and even less that was deemed too prurient for literature and entertainment. Some of Thail’s favorite auteurs had gotten…very creative.

Since coming to the Mother Ship Thail had not been able to completely shake his sense of unease where pairing puppets were concerned. He had, however, embraced the change in his media library whole-heartedly. It was a little disconcerting to realize that Jessa had been watching with him at times.

 “Yes, I know those works. What about them?” Thail asked.

“They’re all pretty explicit about the Bathing Week,” said Jessa. “Detailed. I mean, Claiming of Madria would be unrecognizable if you cut out the bathing scenes. And the Kindred characters have all got some serious expectations about how things should go. So I guess I’m asking – is that what you want?”

Thail paused. He had given Twin Moons Rising a try, but ultimately set it aside unfinished. That world’s style was at best an acquired taste for males of the singleton Kindred races. But the other two titles that Jessa had just listed were among his personal favorites. Very personal.

Thail was not ashamed of his tastes, and knew that they were fairly mainstream for a Kindred male. And sexual topics were fair game in a freewheeling conversation over a tumbler of Fireflower juice with his fellow warriors.

But this was Jessa. Her opinion of him mattered and it was common knowledge that Earth culture was quite a bit more judgmental where such things were concerned. If she did not approve of his sexual appetites it would hurt.

“Those scenarios are appealing,” Thail allowed. “I wouldn’t go so far as to say I had a plan for how I wanted Bathing Week to go. As one of the Frozen I never expected to call a bride. But holding a female close, skin to skin? Anointing her and making her come? Seven Hells yes, I want that.”

* * * * *

Jessa nodded. She wanted to move on to something more sensual, too. But where Thail spoke of his desires in terms of “a female”, she found herself helpless to stop herself from literally dreaming of Thail and Thail alone.

In her fantasies of late, it was always Thail holding her and kissing her. Thail’s warm, clever lips on her nipple. Thail’s big hands bracketing her waist. Thail looming over her with his muscular ass flexing as he thrust between her thighs. Her body wanted his just as badly as he wanted hers.

There was still a gap between their hearts, though. Jessa did not want to just be a lover of convenience, a means for a horny guy to scratch an itch. She wanted to be loved and Thail just was not there emotionally. Not yet. Maybe not ever.

So help get him there, her heart whispered. Or maybe it was just her pussy doing the talking. Thail was not the only one with desires making themselves known.

Jessa had never really bought into the belief that good girls should withhold sex until some arbitrary relationship milestone passed. Even if she had, eight months of dream sharing would have turned that notion upside down.

Would it count as a tenth date if I’ve already sat in on dinner with his foster parents and watched him shower after a workout? she wondered idly.

Still, some deep-seated instinct told her not to rush straight to the main event when it came to physical intimacy with Thail. If I keep some distance, I can still go home and be a contentedly single schoolmarm if this doesn’t work out, she promised herself. My heart’s not completely lost to Thail. Just my libido.

“Well,” she told him, “If you want a Bathing Week with all the bells and whistles, let’s make that happen.” Fitting words to actions she rose up on her toes to seek a kiss.

Chapter Text

Thail had a feeling he was missing some cultural context on what exactly “bells and whistles” were, but he was virtually certain he wanted them. Or really, whatever else Jessa was willing to offer him.

It was hard to contain his excitement. The last four days had been heaven and hell for him. The bride he had been getting to know was adventurous, resourceful, and generous. She had long, graceful legs and what were, in Thail’s opinion, the most perfect breasts ever bestowed by the Goddess.

Jessa’s scent seemed to get more compelling with every passing hour. Thail was pretty sure he had spent more time erect in the last four days than he had in the entire month prior.

He was taking himself in hand every time he got a private moment in an attempt to relieve the pressure, but it didn’t seem to be making a difference. He had started each new day feeling more in need than the last.

There was no doubt in Thail’s mind that his body had slid into what some Kindred called the awakening. It was the state of increased sexual arousal that prepared a male, physically and mentally, to pursue a bride and a bond. And apparently it didn’t require an intact bonding locus to occur.

The first changes had been immediate. Within seconds of coming into close contact with Jessa, his bonding scent had emerged. His mating fist hadn’t been far behind.

As their first evening together progressed, the skin surrounding his mouth and groin – where a male’s scent glands did their invisible work – had grown hypersensitive. He craved friction and pressure against them.

Then he had spent most of the night holding his bride’s soft curves against his body. For hours, her delicious scent had invaded his senses as her hair had tickled his chest and her breath warmed his skin.

That night he had dreamed of her for the first time. It hadn’t been real dream sharing, unfortunately. His battered bonding locus hadn’t been able to share her thoughts, or touch her soul.

But oh, how the rest of him had dreamed of touching her. He had been rock hard when he awoke. Instinct had told him this was only just the beginning of the need he would feel.

It was also just the beginning of his Holding Week – the first 24 hours, in fact – and Jessa had made it clear she wanted to take their physical relationship slowly.

Thail had forced himself to disengage from her embrace and made his way to the fresher. There, he had privately pleasured himself to completion. Not even a full 24 hours into his claiming, he noticed that his production of seed had already increased dramatically.

If there had been any doubt remaining that he was undergoing an awakening, that would have put it to rest. Thail couldn’t stop thinking about how it would feel to pump his cum into Jessa’s welcoming pussy. His body clearly was preparing to do a very thorough job of it.

Most recently, his testicles had enlarged. They felt swollen and heavy. They weren’t aching yet, but he had a strong suspicion that it was just a matter of time. It was unsurprising given how hard they were working. He felt like every part of his sexuality was in hyperdrive.

He was coming harder and longer than he ever had before, but his solo efforts to take the edge off still weren’t enough to curb his cravings. He had barely been able to pay attention to the magnificent landscape as they had taken the odd inflatable boat down the river earlier today.

Instead, his eyes had been riveted on the glimpses of Jessa’s body revealed when her bulky flotation garment shifted. Her swimming garment hugged the curve of her breast, and Thail was lost. Her belly twisted and undulated as she brought her paddle around, and Thail forgot whether he was supposed to be rowing forwards or back.

Thail was starting to feel on edge. He knew that he needed Jessa’s touch. He needed her skin against his, her dark curls brushing against his chest, her tongue gently urging him to explore and probe and taste. And finally, he was getting exactly that.

As he stooped to kiss Jessa, his body clamored for him to push into her, corner her against the fresher wall, and fill his hands with her soft, warm curves. With an effort, he held himself back.

This is the Bathing Week, he reminded himself sternly, and you are Goddess-damned lucky that Jessa agreed to move forward with it tonight. It is not going to be the Accidental Mauling in a Fit of Lust Week.

Thail was aware that as the claimee, he technically had the right to accelerate the pace of his claiming at any time he chose. He was also quite aware that Jessa wanted a more cautious progression.  As the claimer she had the right to terminate her claim altogether if she found him unworthy.

Rules or no rules, Thail was not the kind of male who would try to pressure an unwilling female into giving more than she was ready to share. He might have been grown in a tube and permanently maimed in his bonding locus, but he had at least that much Kindred instinct.

If Jessa wanted to take as much time as the claiming contract allowed then Thail would accept the pace she set. At times it felt like he was being eaten alive by want, but it would be unthinkable to coerce Jessa into gratifying his lust.

His fingers tangled in Jessa’s sodden shirt. It was limp and inert where he craved smoothness and warmth.

“Can I take this off?” he asked.

Jessa worried her lower lip between her teeth for a moment, then nodded yes. “Go ahead…unless you want me to do it?”

Thail shook his head. “I’ve been looking forward to this.”

His hands found the hem of her shirt, and slowly pulled it up, exposing the soft skin of her belly. Jessa lifted her arms, allowing Thail to pull the shirt completely off and chuck it into the nearby sink.

Thail’s eyes were riveted to the curves of Jessa’s breasts. “Amazing,” he said, tracing the edge of her bra. “I didn’t know there was a right way for a female to look, but you’re it.”

He slid a finger under the band of her bra, tugging experimentally. “Does this…?”

“It hooks in the back,” Jessa explained. She guided Thail’s hands behind her. “Pull the ends together to pop the hooks free.”

Thail paused for a moment. He could feel her ribs under his big hands. They rose and fell gently with the rhythm of her breathing. He couldn’t completely span his hands around her chest, but it was a near thing.

When he held her like this she seemed impossibly delicate. Compared to his own broad torso, her body was so small. The heart beating between his palms – the spark of life within her – was incredibly precious. It made him want to wrap her up in his arms, cherish and cradle her against him.

He wanted her skin against his own. He bent his attention towards the hooking mechanism that Jessa had described. With a few moments of experimentation, he was able to work it free. The lacy garment that had been cupping her breasts fell away.

Jessa’s pink peaks drew Thail like a desert hopper to water. He couldn’t look at them without imagining how they would feel against his tongue as he sucked one into his mouth.

He cupped her breast in his hand, feeling its weight and warmth against his palm. “Your skin is so soft here,” he said. “Like it was made for pleasure.”

Jessa gave him a little half smile, and pushed into his touch. “Maybe it was. Have you got any to give?”

Thail growled and found Jessa’s nipple with his thumb. It stiffened against his touch. He rubbed it gently, relishing the feel of its tautness. Her response was immediate as she let out a sigh that fell just on the edge of a whimper, and pulled his other hand into position to touch her other breast.

Thail was burning to taste her there. He judged that kneeling before her wouldn’t put in him in quite the right position, but… He slid his hands down to Jessa’s ass and lifted until her breasts were at the perfect height for kisses.

Jessa gasped and tensed up a bit at being suddenly taken off her feet, but she didn’t ask Thail to stop. Instead, she wrapped her arms around his shoulders and her legs around his waist. Thail needed no further invitation.

He pressed a light kiss against her breastbone, over the spot where he could hear Jessa’s heart hard at work. Not incidentally, it also allowed him to rub his cheeks against the inner swells of her soft skin, lightly marking her there with his bonding scent.

Thail’s jaw clenched at the friction against his sensitized skin. It felt amazing, but it only fed the flames of desire in him. His shaft throbbed within the confines of his flight leathers. He wanted more of everything – more heat, more touch, more closeness.

More of the sexy little sounds Jessa had been making.

Carefully he laved around her areola with his tongue, exploring her thoroughly before he drew her nipple between his lips. Jessa gave a subdued little moan and put her hand on his cheek, wordlessly encouraging him to begin working his mouth against her.

Thail complied, sucking on her cautiously at first, and then with increasing vigor as she pushed into his touch. Her legs clenched around his waist convulsively and she tossed back her head, abandoning herself to his attentions.

Thail switched sides and readjusted his grip on Jessa’s ass. Gods, so warm and so soft, he thought. The intimacy of the moment was staggering. His fingertips were just inches from the heat of her core, separated only by a few layers of clinging fabric.

For a few moments more, he indulged himself at her breast, savoring the flavor of her skin and the exquisite contrast between her soft curves and the stiff peak against his tongue. But there was quite a bit more bathing to be enjoyed and the feminine shape pressed to his hands demanded Thail’s attention.

With last kisses to each of Jessa’s nipples, he gently set her back on her feet. Now that his hands were no longer supporting Jessa’s delicate frame, he could bring them around to her hips, where her own lower garment was sagging under the weight of the water it had absorbed.

Thail hooked a finger into her waistband and tugged lightly. “Yes?” he asked.

Jessa looked away.

* * * * *

God, she wanted him. Thail’s mouth had been electric against her body, and the feel of his muscled torso clenched between her thighs had been … inspiring, to say the least.

Over the last few days Jessa had been startled to see how quickly she had gone from liking Thail in an abstract way, to attraction, to near-constant fantasies of dragging him down to the mattress and having her wicked way with him.

Intellectually, she knew she had done the right thing by putting the brakes on their physical relationship. Emotionally, she had been cursing herself for her stupidity every night since.

The handful of moments she had spent pressed against his tan and toned chest when they first arrived in guest quarters was not nearly enough to satisfy her. Quite the opposite – she had been fighting the urge to cave in for days now.

No longer.

Now under the warm spray of the shower, her body was screaming at her to shuck her soaked sweatpants. If Thail’s touch against her breasts had been that wonderful, what more could he do for her pussy?

Still, she hesitated. Thail waited.

“I…I hadn’t planned for this to happen tonight,” she whispered.

Thail’s brow wrinkled. “The Bathing Week is yours to offer and yours to deny. But if you have changed your mind, where does that leave us?”

“It’s not that I don’t want to.  It’s just that I was trying to give my skin a break, so I haven’t shaved,” she admitted.

Oh, the joys of being Italian, she groused to herself mentally. Dark, thick hair, lots of it, and pale skin. Trying to shave or even wax her pussy only left her with a disaster zone of stubble and dark hair that hadn’t yet emerged from beneath the skin.

Jessa had long since given up on getting bare, and kept a neatly trimmed patch of curls on her mound. But growing it out wasn’t really an option beyond the bikini line. Her inner thighs looked rough no matter what she did. Shaving seemed to be the least bad option within her budget, and she hadn’t done that in a few days.

Thail did not look any less confused at her confession. “Why does that upset you?”

“Seriously?” groaned Jessa.

“Yes.”

Jessa fitfully shoved her wet hair back. It’s a fair question, she reminded herself. He’s literally a space alien, and I’ve just thrown a major wrench into our evening.

“It’s a cultural thing, I guess,” she finally answered. “Body hair is seen as unfeminine. Women are supposed to keep ourselves shaved, or better yet waxed.”

“Waxed?”

“Yeah, you take strips of fabric coated in hot wax and use them to yank out the hair at the root.” 

Thail cringed. “On your legs?!”

“And, you know, a girl’s pussy.”

 Thail’s normally tan face went pale and he swallowed reflexively. “That’s…that’s awful!”

“Yeah, it’s not fun. But it works. More or less.”

“It’s barbaric,” he growled. “What kind of male asks his mate to do that?”

“I guess a few guys do expect a full Brazilian,” Jessa answered. “But for most women it goes deeper than just trying to please a guy. I shave because I don’t like how it looks when I get overgrown. I don’t feel sexy.”

Thail looked her over carefully, head to toe, and then returned his burning gaze to her face. “I disagree. Strongly.”

Jessa’s heart lurched in her chest at the hungry expression on his face. Still, she sighed. “Nobody said it was rational. But seriously, I have never let a guy see me like this. Like, ever.”

Thail blinked. “This really does bother you, doesn’t it?”

“Yeah. It bothers the hell out of me. So maybe we could turn the lights off in here, or something?”

Thail frowned. “I want to see you,” he said with a molten look in his eyes. “All of you. Maybe there’s a way we can both get what we want.”

He pulled away from her abruptly and began to shuck his own wet clothes and toss them neatly into the sink with her shirt.

Jessa’s breath caught in her throat as Thail uncovered the full expanse of his body. She had seen him half-dressed and undressed from time to time in her dreams, but it had nothing on being crammed into the shower stall with him as he revealed himself.

Thail was just so damn big. His broad shoulders and wide chest were wrapped in slabs of hard muscle. He had delts like cannonballs, a powerful torso and arms, and tree trunks for thighs.

Jessa knew a few of the regulars at her gym back home who had pieces of the puzzle – nice arms here, a well-developed back there, and a cute butt doing squats over by the rack. She had never seen anyone put it all together quite like Thail did, though.

For a human guy, maintaining a body like that would be a full-time job in and of itself. It also generally came with a lot of low-fat, low-carb, low-fun chicken breast dinners where the conversation kept circling back to protein powder and lifting regimens.

It had to be different with the Kindred. From what Jessa had seen Thail ate what he wanted without fussing over macros or carbs or supplements. Whether their destination was known for its stir fry or gyros or cheese fondue or wine or corn dogs and ice cream, Thail was along for the ride.

She had also seen Thail’s workouts while dream sharing. He tended to go for runs in the park, some kind of Kindred field sport with his friends, or calisthenics with a martial arts instructor. She had rarely seen him doing the hardcore weight lifting that a human bodybuilder would rely on. Jessa was almost as jealous of his natural athleticism as she was turned on. Almost.

Despite the weight of muscle he was carrying, Thail was graceful as he finished disrobing and stepped out of the shower. Quickly he – and his delectable bare ass – made his way over to the bathroom’s supply cabinet and rummaged around for a moment. He found a little packet there and tore open the wrapper, revealing a white tube about the size of a marker.

“Got it,” he announced, before turning around to return to the shower. In the process, he gave Jessa her first good look at his fully erect cock.

She had known from her dreams that he was big even while soft, but she hadn’t realized he was a grower not a shower. When hard…if she had ever seen a bigger erection, she had no idea where.

The smooth round head crowning his shaft reached about to his navel, and his girth was unquestionably more than she could wrap her hand around. And that was even before you took the mating fist at the base of his cock into account, which at least doubled the width of his shaft.

Oh shit, she thought, momentarily at a loss for better words. She had been a little nervous when she glimpsed it through his uniform pants the other night. Now she was downright anxious. Thail looked so much like a human in so many different ways, but that enormous cock was…otherworldly.

Jessa knew that thousands of human women from around the world had been claimed by Beast Kindred males since the genetic trade treaty had been signed. Thail had seemed certain a few days ago that his size was average for one of his kind.

Somehow, those other human/Kindred couples had found a way to make it work. Thail had told her that his mating fist would not pose a problem, that her body would accommodate him if they ultimately did have sex. But for the life of her, Jessa couldn’t imagine how.

“Have you ever seen one of these?” Thail asked, stepping back into the shower.

“Well, not one like that. I mean, my God, Thail, how do you even fit that –” started Jessa before dragging her eyes back up to Thail’s face. He wiggled the little white tube for her consideration and she realized he was not talking about his equipment. At least, not the equipment attached to his body.

“Oh. You mean that,” she squeaked, suddenly embarrassed. “No, I don’t think so. What is it?”

“It’s a hair inhibitor,” answered Thail. “Males who want longer term hair removal use it for grooming, but it works for females as well.”

He pressed a button on one end, waited a few seconds for the device to power on, and then lifted an arm over his head. The move exposed his armpit and a truly awe-inspiring set of lats.

Thail placed the nub at the end of the little tube against the skin of his underarm and squeezed gently. The nub flashed with a soft pink light and chimed. When he took it away the light dusting of hair that had been underneath the device’s tip washed off, leaving only smooth skin.

He held the device out to Jessa. “You squeeze on the grip pads to operate it. Soft pressure will inhibit the hair underneath for a day. But the harder you squeeze it, the longer it will inhibit the hair, up to about a year by Earth’s calendar. Either way, it’s painless.”

Jessa took the inhibitor from Thail’s outstretched hand and turned it over thoughtfully. “That sounds simple enough,” she said.

“You’d think so,” said Thail ruefully. “It’s still a little tricky to get right. The trigger is extremely sensitive. Too soft, and it won’t do anything. Too hard, and the safety cutoff will kick in and shut the inhibitor off. It took me weeks to get a feel for it.”

“Going too soft isn’t going to be my problem,” said Jessa. “If this thing will give me a year without shaving, that’s absolutely what I want.”

“Up to you,” said Thail. “Do you want to get a few practice rounds in on me before you try it on yourself?”

“I don’t want to mess you up…” hedged Jessa.

“Nothing to worry about,” replied Thail with a grin. “I’m not sentimental about armpit hair. And you’ll be able to see how it’s working better if you start on me. It might be easier to learn if you can practice at eye level first.”

“You sure?” asked Jessa.

“Do your worst.” To illustrate his point he put his arm over his head again and exposed his flank to Jessa.

“OK…” said Jessa. She carefully placed the end of the inhibitor next to the spot Thail had already hit and squeezed gently. Nothing happened. She tried again, just a little harder. Still nothing. “Is the battery maybe worn out on this?”

“No, it’s fully charged,” answered Thail. “Try squeezing it a little bit harder.”

Jessa gave it just a little more pressure. The device responded by emitting a discouraging ‘ba-bonk’ sound and shutting down. “Well, the safety cutoff works,” she said. “Do I press this button on the other end to turn it back on?”

“That’s right,” replied Thail.

When the device finished powering up, Jessa tried again. And accidentally shut it down again. And restarted it. And tried unsuccessfully to trigger it three times. And then finally got it to go once, when it made a high pitched little noise that Thail said signified about a week’s worth of inhibition. And then promptly shut it off again next time she tried to use it.

Five minutes later, she had gotten maybe a square inch of Thail’s skin done – with no two patches inhibited for the same length of time – and still had no better a feel for the gadget than she had when she started.

Jessa sighed in defeat. “At this rate, the claiming period will be over before I get the hang of this thing.”

Thail dropped his arm over Jessa’s shoulders in a reassuring embrace and gently plucked the inhibitor from her hand. “That wasn’t bad at all for a first try. I know how frustrating it is.” 

“I feel like I’m just on the brink of getting it, and then it beeps at me and I have to start all over. If this is what the Kindred use to shave, it’s a wonder you don’t all have ZZ Top beards.”

“Unmated males who hope to bond generally prefer less permanent removal, so that they can offer their brides a choice. But those of us who do not anticipate a claiming, or whose brides do not like facial hair, use the inhibitor. You’ll get it sooner or later. I can tell you from experience that once you become used to its operation it gets to be second nature. But if you’ve had enough of it tonight, I could always do it for you.”

Jessa looked away, suddenly nervous. “You mean…?”

“Touch your soft little pussy? That’s exactly what I mean,” rumbled Thail with a distinctly...hungry note in his voice. “Exactly what I’d like to do.”

“I don’t know, Thail,” Jessa said. The thought of being free from shaving for a full year was extremely tempting. All the same, if any other guy she had ever dated asked to help her with such an intimate, embarrassing task, it would be an easy ‘no’.

There was something so different about the big Kindred, though. So unassuming…so gentle. You can trust him, a little inner voice whispered to her. He won’t hurt you, physically or emotionally. That’s not who he is.

Thail bent to place a chaste little kiss on Jessa’s brow. “I do know. This is what I want.”

He dropped the arm that had been resting on Jessa’s shoulders down her back and hooked his index finger into the waistband of her pants. Then he tugged the fabric down to expose just the upper curve of her ass and stroked his thumb against her skin.

Jessa rested her forehead on Thail’s chest, gathering her courage and breathing in his warm, masculine scent. His heart was steady under her ear, and his embrace was easy and unhurried. I want this too, she thought.

 “OK,” she told him, “you can do it.”

Chapter Text

Thail wanted to shout his exultation at the top of his lungs, but managed to restrain himself. He knew Jessa needed him to appreciate how difficult it was for her to overcome her cultural conditioning. But Seven Hells, for his own selfish reasons the moment was thrilling.

This was really turning into a genuine Bathing Week! A warrior and his bride, bare before each other for the first time and exploring the pleasures they could share. A male showing his mate just how tenderly he could care for her body.

Thail could do that. Thail had never wanted anything more in his life than he wanted to do that.

A kiss seemed like a good place to start. As Jessa responded to his overture, allowed him to slide his tongue between her lips and savor her, Thail couldn’t help but marvel at this turn of events.

She wants me, he thought with awe. There are many thousands of whole, unmated warriors aboard the Mother Ship, but somehow she chose me. And even though she knows my bonding locus is damaged - even though she knows I am tube-grown and Frozen - she hasn’t changed her mind.

It seemed impossible, and yet here they were. Her slim arms were wrapped around his waist, her perfume was in the air around him, and her tongue worked softly against his own. The urge to cherish her, please her, make her come was overwhelming. But first, he wanted her to feel as beautiful as he found her.

Thail broke off the kiss with an appreciative rumble. “Let’s get started,” he said. “If you like, I can start lower on your legs and work my way inward. That way, if it gets to be too much, you can stop me.”

Jessa nodded. “That sounds like a good idea,” she said. “And it’s really not going to hurt?”

“Not at all,” answered Thail, kneeling before her. He found the waist of her loose, soft pants then carefully, gently, he pulled the garment from her hips and peeled it down her shapely legs.

Although his libido was howling for him to bare her pussy for his rapt appreciation, Thail left Jessa’s panties in place for the moment. He sensed that rushing her would be counterproductive. The delicate panties she was wearing were completely drenched and hid very little, but he would let her stay covered until she was ready.

Meanwhile, there were so many wonderful things to see. There were the contours of her hips and curves of her thighs. There were the elegant structures of her knees and ankles, and the soft swells of her calves. There was the secret shape of her outer pussy, waiting for his touch.

Whoever had convinced human women that a bit of hair could make them unattractive was surely some sort of diabolical genius. Thail let himself brush his fingers against her leg. “Would you like me to do a test run on your calf so you can see how it feels?

 “Please,” said Jessa, nodding.

Thail knelt before her. “All right. How about you lean against the wall here so I can reposition your leg when I need to change areas?”

Jessa complied. When she was securely braced against the shower wall, Thail took her by the right ankle and propped her delicate foot against his thigh. He placed the inhibitor against Jessa’s leg.

“This is what it feels like on the one-day setting.” Thail squeezed its grips with a practiced touch. The little device flashed and chimed.

“That’s it? I didn’t even feel anything,” said Jessa.

“That’s normal for this level. Do you want to see what the maximum setting feels like?”

“Yes, please,” she answered.

Thail worked the inhibitor again. It chimed a little more loudly, but otherwise looked the same.

“OK, that time it did tingle a bit,” said Jessa.

Thail rubbed the spot he had just covered. “Is that acceptable to you?”

“Yeah. I mean, it wasn’t a bad feeling. You can keep going at that level. Maybe start down by my ankle?” she asked with a note of shyness in her voice.

Thail took her at her word, and bent to his task. He worked quickly leaving smooth, bare skin in his wake. As moved up Jessa’s thigh her breathing got shallower. Her scent changed, too, and took on notes of arousal mixed with a bit of fear.

“Are you feeling alright?” he asked.

“Yeah,” she responded. Her voice seemed breathy and quiet.

“I’m going to need to open your legs a bit more to gain access to your skin here,” he told her. “Can I swing your knee out a little wider?”

This time, Thail could hear her heartrate pick up. Clearly, this was not easy for her. “Jessa?” he asked, gently rubbing the cleared section of her thigh. “We can stop if you need to.”

“No. I can do this,” she replied, gathering her resolve. Without further prompting from Thail, she pushed her knee out wide, revealing the innermost part of her thigh for his admiring gaze.

With an effort of will, he made himself go back to wielding the inhibitor. Finally, he reached the upper limit of her right leg…and then started the whole delightfully tortuous process over again with her left.

When he finished both legs, he looked up at Jessa. “Anywhere else?” he asked.

“Here,” she whispered, gesturing at her tender mound.

A hungry, approving noise made its way from Thail’s throat without his conscious decision. “Your pussy,” he confirmed, meeting her eyes. Gods, he loved having those words on his lips. “Your sweet, ripe little pussy.”

After what seemed like a lifetime of wanting, he had a bride. Her pussy was already his to scent, his to pleasure, his to praise. And soon, it would be his to taste and his to fill.

Jessa nodded.

Moving slowly, Thail carefully pulled down her panties until she could step free of them. Finally, her most secret places were revealed to him.

Thail would have loved to just sit and look at her, but he knew his scrutiny would make her uncomfortable. Still, he could see the hood of her little clit peeking out, and a hint of pink along her slit. She was wet here, and he was dying to find out if it was just water from the shower or if she was aroused by his touch.

Thail rested his fingers against the top of her mound, letting her get used to the feeling. “I’ll start at the front and work deeper, then. Do you want any of your curls spared, or do you want to be entirely bare?”

“B-bare,” she told him. “If we’re doing this, then you might as well take everything.”

Oh, those were dangerous words. But Thail interpreted them in the spirit in which Jessa meant them. He pressed a butterfly kiss to Jessa’s gently rounded belly, right above her mound.

“What’s the expression in English? Kiss it goodbye?” he asked rhetorically before resuming his work.

Little by little her soft, dark curls rinsed away, gradually revealing her pussy to Thail’s hungry gaze. The contrast between the smooth skin under his knuckles and the glossy curls under the heel of his hand was mesmerizing.

From time to time, his hand would brush her swollen pearl. When it did, her breath would hitch and her heart would race. So responsive, he thought. If this is how she reacts to something so simple, how will it be when I can taste her?

The thought was incredibly tantalizing. As he worked further back into the juncture of her thighs, his face drifted closer and closer to her sweet little pussy. He could sense her warmth against the skin of his face, and knew that if he tilted his head just so and stretched out his tongue he would be licking her juices. The mental image had his erection pulsing with need.

Thail had heard before that some Kindred males could come simply from tasting their females. He had never really understood how that could be possible. It had seemed to him that a male would surely require some stimulation to his shaft in addition to the pleasure of taking female honey.

Now, in this position, he thought otherwise. The real question was how any red-blooded male could refrain from coming as he stroked his mate’s pussy with his tongue.

Thail felt on the verge of spilling his seed just from being so close to the source of Jessa’s wild, hot scent. He would surely lose the fight for control if he had his mouth pressed to her folds and her soft little hands tangled in his hair, urging him on.

He was so damned thirsty for her – his inborn Kindred need to taste his female had kicked in hard. But this was only their Bathing Week. He would have to satisfy himself with making her come by his touch, not by his tongue.

At least, not yet, he promised himself. But soon. I’ve survived more than thirty cycles without drinking from her. I can last another three days. I hope.

Finally he finished with the inhibitor. Gently he brushed her outer pussy lips to wash away the last of her curls and beheld his work. He truthfully hadn’t been put off by her curls – far from it. But seeing her completely revealed had an appeal all its own. The only thing on her now is my hand, he thought.

“That’s it,” he told her, standing and lobbing the inhibitor into the sink with his wet clothes. “You’ve got the sweetest, smoothest little pussy imaginable.”

Thail couldn’t quite bring himself to remove his hand from where it rested on her mound. He flexed his fingers gently, pressing against the lips of her outer pussy to make them lightly squeeze against her clit. To his immense satisfaction, a little moan caught in Jessa’s throat.

“So,” Thail continued. “Feeling sexy now?”

Jessa responded by looping her arms around his neck. Nobody had ever accused Thail of being slow to learn – he eagerly bent into her kiss. He was not disappointed. Her mouth was hot under his, and the slickness of her tongue stroking and then retreating from his own made him think of…other things.

Almost of their own volition, his fingers made their way deeper between her thighs. He found her wet and wanting, her folds swollen and open to his touch. “Gods,” he gritted out, “Jessa…I want…”

“Yes,” was the only word on her lips. The rest were his kisses and their soft sounds of need and heat. He delved deeper, exploring the center of her pleasure. The pearl of her clit drew the pad of his thumb like a magnet. It was as though he could somehow sense where her need was greatest through the skin of his hands.

He brushed against Jessa’s tight little button lightly, testing her response, and felt her tremble against him.

“More,” she told him, and his heart soared knowing that touching her this way felt as right to her as it did to him. ‘More’ was exactly right. ‘More’ was as necessary as air. Thail gave her what she needed and was rewarded with a wash of honey against his fingers.

Carefully, he worked two of his fingers into her channel. Her body yielded to him, but the fit was snug. A wave of excitement swept up his spine at the feeling of her slick walls surrounding him. He kissed her with renewed intensity.

Jessa pressed her body against his, rolling her hips into his grasp. Thail felt her belly brush against his rigid shaft as she did. The instinct to reply in kind was almost irresistible. It was only held in check by his deep desire to feel her coming against his hand.

Thail caught the rhythm of her hips and then surpassed it. His thumb slid easily against her fascinating little clit and his fingers plumbed her depths determinedly. She was close – somehow he knew it down in his bones.

 “Gotta come for me, Jessa,” he growled. “Come while I touch you.” He crooked his fingers slightly inside of her, seeking out her inner pleasure spot just as she bucked her hips and rubbed her stiff clit against the pad of his thumb. Her eyes slid shut and she gasped against his mouth.

Her orgasm surrounded them both. Thail could feel her clench around his fingers as he continued to pump into her, hear it in her soft little moan and the way her heart raced. Something undefinable in her scent crossed over from needing to having.

I did that, he thought. I gave her that pleasure. And Gods, do I want to do it again.

Jessa seemed to have other ideas, though. As her breathing evened out and her dark eyes again found his she pulled away from his hand, which had been stroking against her soft pussy. “God, Thail,” she said, “That was intense. That’s enough for now, OK?”

Thail frowned. That didn’t seem right. Something told him that he could give her more pleasure, if only she would take it. “Are you sure?” he asked.

“Yeah,” she answered. “I’ve always been a one-and-done kind of girl. So that’s it for me tonight.”

Thail was skeptical. Some deep instinct told him that she had not really reached her limit. And as a general rule, a warrior’s true bride was always going to be a good match for him in libido. Thail admittedly didn’t know everything there was to know about Jessa’s body, but his own was typically a long way from exhausted after just one orgasm.

Still, she had said no. However much Thail was longing for more, he would respect that.

At least, she had said no to him stroking her. It seemed she might have had something else in mind. Jessa took him by the elbows and spun them in the shower stall so that his back was to the spray and hers was to the wall. To his surprise, she sank down until she was perched against the little shelf for cleaners and grooming tools. It would have been too flimsy and small to support a warrior, but Jessa was able to manage with her more petite form.

She poured a bit of bathing lotion into her palm, and then she reached for Thail. The touch of her soft little hand against his shaft was electric. She was tentative at first, giving them both time to ease into the feeling of her touch against that part of him.

Her fingers glided along the length of him, starting at the broad, rounded head of his cock, down its length, and then to the mating fist at its base. Thail sucked in a breath at the sensation of being touched there for the first time.

“Does that feel good?” she asked him. “Do you need something different there?”

“Feels incredible,” said Thail. “You could squeeze it a bit. Pressure is…ah!...very stimulating against a male’s mating fist.”

Thail’s shaft alone was too thick for Jessa to close her hand around, to say nothing of his mating fist. But she was undeterred. She fitted his shaft into the space between her thumb and forefinger, and lightly pressed towards his body. “Like this?”

“Nnnh…yes, Jessa,” he groaned. “Your little hand on me is –” He couldn’t finish the sentence. His thoughts were sent chasing around in circles as she swirled the palm of her other hand over the head of his shaft. His jaw clenched until the cords of his neck stood out as he fought off his orgasm. He wanted this to last.

Jessa evidently felt the same way, because she didn’t repeat the move. Instead, her hand dipped to caress his sack. Thail gave up on trying to control his breathing. There was apparently no bad way she could touch him, nothing she could do but drive him swiftly insane.

Thail brought his hand to his mouth – the same one she had come against just minutes before – and licked her honey from his fingers. He could sense it hitting his system, getting into his blood. The taste of her lit off half the pleasure nerves in his body, and made the other half burn for more. He ached to drink her juices from the source. Tasting Week couldn’t come fast enough.

Thail forced himself to open his eyes and tilt his head back down. It took a real effort but he wanted to watch what Jessa was doing, see her hands moving over his body. To his surprise, after a moment she took her hands away from his shaft and balls.

Before he could marshal himself enough to be disappointed, she captured him by the hips and tugged him closer to her. Jessa squirted another palm-full of bathing lotion into her hands. She started spreading the silky liquid over her full breasts, paying special attention to their inner curves.

It gave Thail a spectacular view. His hands seemed to have grown minds of their own, and unerringly found their way to her taut little nipples.

“Gods, Jessa,” he growled. “The things seeing your body does to mine.” He rolled the firm peaks at the tips of her breasts gently between his fingers and watched as a shiver of desire rolled through her. Her smell got noticeably hotter.

Some small part of his logical mind that was still trying to flicker back online took note. If she was only capable of one orgasm a night, then he was the long-lost true-blooded heir to the ancient royal house of Tranq Prime. I really ought to challenge her on that, he thought.

But not this night. This night, his bride was cupping her generous breasts in her hands and pressing them to his throbbing cock. This night, her soft, slick skin enveloped his shaft. Then she undulated against him, leaving him shocked with desire. “Gods!” he gasped.

The urge to thrust became overwhelming. He wanted everything all at the same time, but the need to fuck was primal and overrode all other desire. Carefully, he began to work his shaft between her breasts. Her body embraced his at its most sensitive part, inundating him with pleasure.

“It’s all yours, Thail,” she purred, inflaming his blood even further. “Come take what you need.”

With every thrust, her curves stroked the sensitive head of his cock and pressed against his mating fist. His mating scent was being transferred onto her skin, coming that much closer to truly marking her as his.

Thail’s balls drew up tight to his body at the thought. He felt himself pass the point of no return. “Gonna come,” he groaned. “Touch me!”

With an enormous effort, Thail withdrew from the warm haven of Jessa’s breasts. He didn’t want to splash his seed on her face, but he couldn’t bear to finish without her. Instead, he wrapped her hand in his own and put it on his shaft. She got the idea and stroked him firmly.

“Jessa!” he called out as his seed erupted from the head of his cock. Over and over, he spilled jets of cream onto her soft curves, his body convulsing in ecstasy. Jessa kept up her steady stroking against his overheated shaft until finally he gave up the last dregs of his pleasure.

Only when he staggered back did she release him. She stood then and embraced him as he started to come back down from the high. He wrapped her in his arms and buried his lips in her hair, and let his feelings and the warm water of the shower both wash over him.

There had been a few major inflection points in Thail’s life. Sometimes in a matter of days or even a few momentous hours, its course had been completely altered.

The crisis on Station 40-C when the central O2 tank exploded and Thail had to save himself and his crewmates had been one. He had very nearly died, but his quick thinking had won the Collective’s approval. As a result, he had been promoted out of the manual labor gangs and allowed to take further specialization as an engineer.

Disabling his emotion damper was another such inflection point. So was presenting himself at the Temple and asking the Goddess and the mainline Kindred to accept him as one of their own. This was another, he realized.

Whatever else happened in his lifetime, the experience of being claimed was going to be one of the landmarks. When he was an elderly male, he would look back on events and categorize them by whether they occurred before or after he was claimed. Before or after Jessa came into his life.

He closed his eyes and prayed that she would be looking back with him.

Chapter Text

Eventually, the afterglow faded to the point where Jessa and Thail were both ready to be done with the cramped, utilitarian shower stall where they had begun their Bathing Week.

Jessa had washed a truly mind-boggling quantity of the big Kindred’s creamy seed off of her breasts. She was pretty sure a human guy would have dropped dead from coming that much. It was flattering to know she affected him that way, though.

Then, too, the thought of him leaving so much of his hot cum inside of her made her pussy clench. Jessa was meticulous about protection and had always insisted on condoms in addition to a hormonal contraceptive.

She knew that STIs had been thoroughly eradicated in the Kindred. And the priestess had made a point of confirming the rumors that Jessa had heard – that condoms were both unwelcome and ineffective with the big warriors.

Still, the thought of letting Thail come in her unprotected pussy gave her the naughtiest little thrill. The Kindred played for keeps.

As Thail wrapped his own towel around his waist, Jessa watched him with frank curiosity. He was just so…masculine. If I ever lose interest in watching those back muscles flex, I will know there is something truly wrong with me, she thought.

All of that warm, tan skin did raise one question that had nothing to do with lust. It had been nagging at her for months now, and finally she worked up the nerve to ask. “I guess you don’t have artificial implants anymore, do you?”

“No,” answered Thail, chucking the last of their wet garments into the shuttle’s little clothing renewer and starting the cycle. “Not anymore. I used to have a respirator mask, though. You can still see the marks, here and here.” He gestured towards the scar on the bridge of his nose, and two smaller marks near each ear.

“Was it for your job?” asked Jessa.

“Yes. It allowed me to work for extended periods of time in places with hazardous atmospheres. I had it removed after I left Z4.”

“Even though you stayed in atmospheric work?”

“Even so. The mask was quite unpleasant. It was designed to minimize wear and tear on its seal, which meant that it could only be removed and replaced by a surgical procedure.”

Jessa was appalled. She made a flustered gesture in Thail’s general direction. “That sounds horrible! How did you…everything?!”

“I could still speak through a microphone and speaker built into the mask. Micro-robotic mites cleaned my teeth. I couldn’t really eat though.”

Thail pointed at a little silver-white scar a few inches below his left pectoral muscle. “Instead, I consumed garn and water through a port here. The worst part of it, though, was that the mask cut off my sense of smell. It would be like constantly being blindfolded to a human.”

Jessa shuddered as she blotted her damp hair. “I can’t even imagine…”

Thail shrugged. “Imagination is not a strong suit for slaves of the Collective. And no one craves the taste of garn. But once my emotion damper was disabled, I rapidly found myself unable to tolerate the respirator. Among many other things.”

Jessa finger-combed her hair, already mostly dry from the Kindred-style towel. She shook the towel out but decided against wrapping it around herself.

The only place to sit in the stripped-down observation shuttle was on the floor. She would lose more dignity than she gained if she spent the next hour trying to keep the towel in place. Instead, she walked naked towards the nest of blankets and pillows in the back and snuggled in.

“Will you tell me about it?” she asked, patting the deck next to her. “Your life before, I mean. And how you ended up on the Mother Ship.”

A hesitant look crossed Thail’s face. “They are not pleasant memories to share.”

“No, I don’t expect they would be,” replied Jessa evenly. “I still want to hear about it. I mean, we’re supposed to be getting to know each other. And now it looks like we’ve only got, what, eight days to do it in? If we’re stuck on Z4 weeks, I mean.”

Thail sighed heavily. “That is not much time.”

Jessa’s heart sank at his words. That sounded... non-committal. Notwithstanding the blisteringly erotic time they had just shared in the shower, she knew it wasn’t fair to hope for more certainty from Thail. Under any other circumstances, it would be crazy to think they might be ready to make a lifetime commitment after less than two weeks of dating.

Any sane human Jessa had ever known – male or female – would run screaming in the opposite direction at the suggestion. Hell, most Kindred brides did, at least at first. Why should she expect Thail to feel any differently about his claiming period?

Still, a part of her cried out, Dammit, it was supposed to be different with a Kindred guy! But even one of the Great Romantics of the Galaxy isn’t really feeling it where I’m concerned. It felt like the universe was just toying with her now.

Unaware of her inner turmoil Thail continued, “I feel at a disadvantage. You have been dreaming of me – and that is a good thing in the eyes of the Kindred – but I have not dreamed of you. Your life on Earth is as much as a mystery to me as my life on Z4 is to you.” 

“Then ask me,” said Jessa, sitting up in the blankets. “It’s a two-way street. You might find the scenery a little boring, but I’ll tell you about my life if you really want to know. In fact...you first. Any questions on your mind?”

“Hundreds,” answered Thail. “Where to start?”

He dropped his towel and came into the back of the shuttle. Jessa knew she shouldn’t stare, but she couldn’t seem to stop. Thail’s body was captivating. And how the hell was he still half-hard after an orgasm like that?

Thail settled to the floor and then slid under the blankets with Jessa. He stretched out on his back, looking up at the aurora still slowly lashing like the tail of a cosmic cat in the sky overhead. “You’ve mentioned your family a few times – have you had the same one all your life, or has it ever changed?”

“Same one,” said Jessa, curling into Thail’s warmth. “Two parents and a younger brother. And now, his wife and their new baby daughter. Although, I haven’t gotten to meet my new niece yet. She was born a few hours before I came to the Mother Ship.”

“Have you ever interacted with a baby before?” asked Thail.

“Sure,” said Jessa. “Some of my cousins were born while I was a teenager. I did a lot of babysitting as a kid. It’s kind of how I got the idea that I wanted to be a teacher.”

“What are they like?” asked Thail. “Babies, I mean.”

“Well…tiny, of course. They’re helpless, innocent. Very sweet, but also very demanding. They don’t have any of the basic knowledge we take for granted, but they’re still people. Their emotions are all there, and they want to interact with you, even if they don’t know how yet. Have you never been around kids that age?”

“No,” said Thail. “On Z4, organics are force-matured in incubation tubes. By the time we are decanted from the tubes, we are fully grown. On the Mother Ship, it happens that my sponsors’ grandsons are all older. Most of my other friends there are unmated males.”

“Maybe when things settle down a bit, you could come meet my niece,” suggested Jessa. “My whole family is curious about you.”

“I would like that,” responded Thail. “Family is something no survivor of the Collective can take for granted. Which…you mentioned that your vocation is teaching children. I’m sure you’re skilled at it, but the school phenomenon seems odd to me. Do the children’s families really not mind letting a stranger care for them during the day?”

“Some do,” said Jessa. “Mostly, though, we believe it’s good for kids to grow up with lots of their peers around, and get exposed to all different kinds of people. And teaching definitely is a skill – not every parent is cut out for convincing kids to pay attention to multiplication lessons. So if you were…decanted as an adult, I guess you never really had a childhood? How old does that make you?”

“Thirty-six cycles,” answered Thail. “It comes out to about the same in Earth years. And you’re right that Dark Kindred don’t have a childhood. We also don’t age the same way as mainline Kindred or humans do. Even though I started out at physical maturity, I won’t experience significant aging for another two decades or so. Once it starts, it will move at the normal pace – our total lifespans are about the same as the mainline Kindred. I just have a few decades to go before I can experience age-related changes.”

Jessa ran a hand over Thail’s muscled stomach. “Take your time,” she murmured. “There’s no hurry.”

Thail cocked an eyebrow at that. “You seem to like my body,” he said bluntly. “Is that just the effect of my bonding scent on you, or would you find me attractive without it?”

It felt like Jessa had spontaneously developed an intense sunburn on her cheeks. In the dead of the Antarctic winter night. Eight days, she reminded herself grimly. There’s no time for bullshit. “Yes, I do find you attractive. And I did before I ever got close enough to…er, smell you. So is that really a thing with the Kindred? Bonding scents, I mean.”

“You could say it is the thing,” said Thail. “It is hard to overstate how meaningful scents are to us. Every person has their own smell. It influences who we befriend, who we avoid, and especially how we recognize our mates.

“When a Kindred male encounters a highly compatible female, his body begins to produce a bonding scent tailored to draw her closer to him. The more he sme-…the more we smell our mates responding, the more our scents intensify. It’s a powerful feedback loop that almost always culminates in bonding. If humans don’t do that and you don’t dream share, how do you find your mates?”

Jessa sighed. “Damn good question. I never did figure it out. If I’d been born on Twin Moons, my name probably would have been Kisses Frogs.” Try as she might, she couldn’t quite keep a note of bitterness out of her voice.

“Is…” Thail cleared his throat. “Is that some kind of cultural reference, or do you literally…?”

“Wha – oh, no. I don’t actually kiss amphibians. It’s from an old fairy tale about a princess who goes looking for love in all the wrong places. What about you? Is Thail a Z4 name?”

“No, we didn’t use names at all in the Collective. I had various numerical designations as I rose through its ranks. My first number was 55-BT-325820-12, when I was a newly decanted worker drone. My last, after I had been promoted to the engineering caste, was 55-BQ-70.

“Our numbers all became meaningless during the collapse, though. Some organics picked names that they found pleasing. I did not. I found it difficult to choose, and…I wished to be named. Like a natural person would be. So I asked the priestess who looked into my mind when I sought permission to live on the Mother Ship to give me a name. She chose a traditional one from Rageron. In their language, it means ‘held by the Goddess’ .”

“Do you like it?” Jessa asked.

“Yes,” Thail responded. “I would not have picked it if I had named myself, but sometimes others see things about us that we cannot see for ourselves. Do you adhere to one of the Earth religions?”

“Oof. You aren’t asking the small questions, are you,” said Jessa. “But the answer is no. I do think there’s something bigger than any of us, but none of the religions I grew up hearing about seemed to have the whole picture. Do you worship the Kindred Goddess?”

Thail frowned and stroked a big, warm hand over Jessa’s waist. “I do not think the word ‘worship’ means quite the same thing in English as it does in Kindred Standard. I do believe that the Goddess exists and that she guides the lives of her children. I pray to her, and believe that she hears me. I endeavor to live in accordance with her will. But she does not ask for ‘worship’ as humans use that term.”

“I wouldn’t say my family ever worshipped in any serious sense” said Jessa. “When I was little I remember my family going to church a few times for Christmas services, but neither of my parents were really believers. I’m guessing Z4 didn’t have anything like a religion?”

“Emphatically not,” rumbled Thail. “Religiosity was deemed a crime by the Collective. A male could be purged for it. Was that your earliest memory, attending the seasonal religious ceremonies?”

Jessa chuckled sheepishly. “Hmmm, not quite. My earliest memory is from when I was about three years old. I was throwing a complete, shrieking, floor-pounding tantrum over some stupid toy my little brother wouldn’t share. In hindsight, it wasn’t my proudest moment. What’s the first thing you can remember?”

“Being decanted,” said Thail. “Waking up in my incubation tube in the orbital gene mixing lab, and beginning to perceive the world around me. I was fully under the Collective’s control at that point. They had me take a few final neurological tests. Once I passed inspection, I put on the exoskeletal armor they provided and then walked out to a catch a shuttle to my first work assignment.”  

Thail looked aside. “It is hard to think about that time in my life now. If I had been able to leave while I was still new, then perhaps I could have escaped with my bonding locus intact. But I could not think those thoughts at the time. Newly decanted drones were not capable of doing much of anything without the Collective’s control. Does it ever bother you, knowing that you were once a baby, and that you were not in control of yourself in those years?”

“No,” said Jessa, shaking her head. “Not in the slightest. It all turned out well enough, and Earth doesn’t have the technology to do it any other way. How did you decide to come to the Mother Ship?”

Thail shrugged. “After my emotion damper was disabled, I was left in turmoil. I didn’t understand my emotions and could not contain them very effectively. For a while, I considered having the damper restored. But before I did, I decided to look into how other organics like me – other Kindred – dealt with emotion.

“Once I came here, I realized that I was not content to live out the rest of my life without at least trying for something better than mere numbness. Around that time the Mother Ship began offering citizenship to Kindred refugees from Z4. I knew this was my best chance to live a more fulfilling life, and so I applied to stay. What about you? You seem to enjoy your life on Earth. Why did you decide to come to the Mother Ship and claim me?”

Now it was Jessa’s turn to look aside. “A lot of it was that I was tired of the uncertainty. Most brides panic when we realize we’re dream sharing because we know it means we’re about to be forcibly taken away to marry – or, uh, bond with – a stranger.

“For human women, that’s usually a worst-case scenario because human guys…I mean there are some great ones out there, but there are some really shitty ones, too. And the sort of human guys who would abduct their women are generally far down towards the horrible end of the spectrum.”

Jessa grimaced. “If I’m being honest, I was scared out of my socks when I realized what was happening. But then the months went by and you seemed like a decent person, but you never came for me. I guess it finally got to a point where I was more scared of living the rest of my life waiting for the other shoe to drop than I was of the claiming process.

“So,” she grinned weakly, knowing she had only told him the easy half of the truth, “here I am.”

Thail frowned slightly. “But you stayed, even after they told you I was one of the Frozen. Didn’t they tell you that my defects would prevent me from bonding you, and that you were free to go?”

“They told me you couldn’t bond. And they did tell me I could abandon my claim if I wanted to.” Jessa said. She didn’t elaborate. She knew there was an implied ‘why’ in Thail’s question, but she just wasn’t ready to answer it.

How could she possibly tell Thail about her desperate hope that maybe he would be different? How wrong would it be to admit she was falling hard for him, when he was only just beginning to adjust to her presence in his life? It wasn’t fair to burden him with her weakness, her neediness.

And it would be more than my heart could take if he reacted badly, whispered a shame-filled, wounded inner voice. He might not want to, but Thail could hurt me so deeply.

She knew they only had eight days left. She knew that Thail deserved a chance to get to know her on a deeper level. She still couldn’t bring herself to show that kind of vulnerability.

“So,” she said, changing the subject in a chipper tone and poking Thail playfully, “What’s been your favorite thing about life on the Mother Ship?”

 

Chapter Text

Jessa turned over in bed and checked the clock. It read 1:38 a.m.

She and Thail had talked about their lives until their clothes had dried, then dressed and made their way back to the Mother Ship. Back in their suite, they had made preparations for their next trip – a photo safari in Kenya – and then gotten to bed.

Thail had dropped off easily enough, but sleep had not come quickly to Jessa. Her mind had been roiling over the things they had said and – just as important – hadn’t said, back in the observation shuttle.

Eight days, she thought again and again, going on seven. There’s no way. And then my claiming visa expires, and I leave the Mother Ship, and that’s all, folks. Jessa hadn’t understood every line of legalese in the claiming contract, but one thing was clear.

If a claiming period ended without the couple bonding, that was it. They went their separate ways, and the claimer was never supposed to contact the claimee again. Even without that provision in the contract, Jessa didn’t exactly have a shuttle or a viewscreen or a Think Me lying around at home. When she got sent back to Earth, it would mean the end of her relationship with Thail.

Her mind kept running in circles, trying to see a way that they didn’t end with a failed claiming, but nothing she thought of made her rest easy. Eight days, going on seven.

She wanted to get up and pace out the stress, but then she would have to explain to Thail why she was freaking out. She would have to tell him about the hopes that she was desperately trying to keep from becoming expectations. It was so unfair, to both of them.

Then, to add injury to insult, sometime around midnight Jessa had started having cramps. At first it was no more than a twinge, but they had grown steadily more intense.

Jessa wasn’t expecting a period, and in any event she had never been prone to more than mild cramping. She wondered if it might be something she had eaten, but she wasn’t nauseous. When she got up and went to the bathroom nothing was amiss.

If she were at home she would have popped a couple of ibuprofen, but she had forgotten to refill the little canister she usually kept in her bag. And even if the guest suite had the Kindred equivalent in a cabinet somewhere, Jessa wouldn’t have known it from athlete’s foot cream.

Instead, she crawled back into bed. Thail had stirred and thrown a drowsy arm over her waist, then subsided back into sleep.

She was sleeping nude tonight for the first time since they had started sharing a bed. She had always disliked getting tangled up in pajamas as she slept and wasn’t in the habit of wearing them at home. And since she and Thail had spent the evening as bare as bare could be, it seemed pointless to dress for bed.

Thail hadn’t commented on the change in her wardrobe. He also hadn’t put on his own sleep trousers when he followed her to bed. Now the only thing separating them was a vast chasm of doubt.

Physically, though, they were close. Jessa had eagerly snuggled into Thail’s big warm body. Maybe if ibuprofen wasn’t on the menu, she could at least get some aroma therapy. When Thail’s bonding scent wasn’t driving her half-crazy with lust, there was something cozy and reassuring about it.

But if anything, Jessa’s cramps had only gotten worse. She had tried to tough it out and keep from disturbing Thail. Finally, though, her restlessness and building sense of worry compelled her to turn over and check the clock.

Behind her, Thail also shifted and spooned his body against her own. “Jessa?” he murmured sleepily.

Well, he was awake-ish now. As long as that was the case, she might as well ask. “Hey Thail? Do the Kindred have anything like ibuprofen?”

Privately, she doubted that it would be enough to stop the cramps at this point – they were at least as bad as any she had ever experienced before, probably worse. But maybe she could take the worst of the edge off.

“Not sure,” he muttered. “What’s that?”

“It’s medicine. For aches and pains, fever, and swelling.”

Thail did not sound sleepy anymore. “Are you hurt or sick? There are several different medications we use depending on the nature of the illness.”

“It’s just some muscle cramping,” she told him.

“If it were me, I would take ergos root extract,” said Thail. “But I don’t know if that’s safe or effective for humans. Can I help you massage out the cramp?”

“It’s not that kind of cramp,” she replied. “It’s more of an internal thing.”

“Oh. Well, I think I have some ergos root in the fresher. Let’s see if that’s helpful for humans,” he said, rolling smoothly out of bed. He padded over to where he had set his data unit to charge, unselfconscious of his nudity in the dim light cast by its screen.

And why would he be embarrassed? The man doesn’t have a bad angle, thought Jessa. Even un-posed and sleep tousled in the wee hours of the night, he was a sight to behold.

The contours of his chest and eight pack caught the glow of the screen. His shaft hung long and heavy between his sleek, muscular thighs. His body appealed to Jessa on every possible level.

After a moment, Thail found what he was looking for. “The med database says ergos will work well for humans. It says it makes a good substitute for NSAIDs in human pharmacology. Is that the kind of thing you were looking for?”

“That’s exactly it,” said Jessa. She gritted her teeth and held back a hiss. The cramps were definitely getting worse.

Thail disappeared into the fresher and emerged with a little sachet. As Jessa watched, he went into the suite’s kitchen and came back with a glass of water. He stirred the powder from the sachet into the glass and brought it to Jessa’s side of the bed.

Jessa sat up and started to sip it. The ergos was a little minty and pleasant enough, but she had to stop after just a mouthful. The cramp tearing through her now was so intense that it took her breath away.

Thail saw the pain on her face, and quickly went from attentive to outright worried. “That is not a mild cramp. How long has this been going on?”

When Jessa got control of herself she told him, “Since about midnight. They didn’t start out that bad.” She took another sip of ergos.

“Do you know what’s causing them?” asked Thail.

“I’m not sure,” hedged Jessa, drinking down the last of the medicine. “I don’t think it was anything I ate.”

“We should get you to the Med Center,” said Thail.

“Oof. I’d really rather not. It’s the middle of the night. And cramps are kind of normal for human women.”

Thail did not look convinced. “It is normal for them to wake you up in the middle of the night, and hurt that badly?”

“For some women, sometimes.” Jessa neglected to mention that it was not normal for her. “Tell you what. Give me 20 minutes or so to let the ergos kick in. If it helps, I’ll go back to bed. If it doesn’t, I’ll head down to the Med Center.”

“We’ll head down to the Med Center,” Thail corrected. He gestured loosely around them. “This is an alien environment to you. Who knows what kinds of pathogen could be responsible for this. Sometime, you should get R’Fil to tell you about the time I caught rummen fever from their grandsons. It’s fairly harmless if caught in childhood, but if a male gets infected as an adult…well, R’Fil tells the story better than I do.”

Jessa smiled wanly. “So far you seem to have done well enough with the things you’ve been exposed to on Earth.”

“So far, there doesn’t seem to be much on Earth that can hurt Kindred. Although a certain percentage of us are allergic to one of your crustaceans. I think it’s called ‘shrump’.”

Jessa started to giggle, but it got cut off by a cramp. When she recovered herself, she asked “Shrimp, you mean?”

Thail shrugged. “Sounds right. In any event, it’s not a severe allergy. Affected males get a little flushed and irritated at the nose and mouth. At least until the usual counter-reaction sets in.”

“Counter-reaction? I don’t think humans have a counter-reaction to allergies. What’s that?” asked Jessa.

“Oh, uhhh…In a Kindred male, exposure to allergens triggers a burst of adrenaloid and, um, other hormones,” Thail cleared his throat. “It has an extremely potent aphrodisiac effect. But it does clear up the allergic reaction quite well.”

Jessa rolled her eyes. “Only the Kindred. Y’all really combat allergy attacks by getting hornier?”

Thail chuckled and spread his hands. “Genetic traders, you know? It’s what we do.”

Before Jessa could volley back, a cramp tore through her. She bit back a groan, but not by much. She couldn’t help curling in on herself under the sheets.

Thail brushed a hand across her forehead, and then stood up and started getting dressed. “You know we’re past the point of just hoping this goes away on its own, right?”

“Yeah, OK,” Jessa conceded, slumping back to the mattress. “You should stay here and get some rest, though. We have an early morning tomorrow.”

Thail didn’t dignify that with a verbal response, but he did do a perfect imitation of her eye-rolling gesture. Once he had his boots on, he brought Jessa’s pajamas to her. She managed to get out of bed and dress herself, but she had to stop halfway through buttoning her top to let a cramp pass.

When she finished, Thail scooped her up in his arms. “You don’t have to –” Jessa started to protest.

“Maybe I want to,” Thail said mildly. And with that, he took her from their suite and down to the Med Center.

* * * * *

A half hour later, Jessa was in a private exam room. She’d had the impression that Thail wanted to come back to the room with her, but he had not pushed the matter when she did not invite him.

A doctor came in. To Jessa’s surprise, she was a human woman. She supposed it made sense, though. The Kindred were very strict about males keeping a respectful distance from mated women. And the Mother Ship surely needed an army of OB-GYNs to keep up with the thousands of brides – and thousands of babies – brought on by the trade.

Jessa wholeheartedly approved of the Mother Ship importing its gynos for other reasons, too. Kindred males’ hands were just as oversized as the rest of them. The petite doctor on call did not seem to have that problem. She greeted Jessa with a warm Caribbean accent and introduced herself as Doctor Ruiz.

“So, it says here you’re a new bride in the claiming period, and having bad cramps. Have I got that right?”

“That’s it,” said Jessa. “They feel like menstrual cramps, but they’re a lot worse than anything I usually have. I took some ergos root extract a while ago, but it doesn’t seem to have helped.” No sooner than she spoke, a bad one had her doubling up in pain.

“Hmm,” said Doctor Ruiz. When the cramp let go of Jessa’s insides, she asked, “What’s your usual method of contraception?”

“I had a new IUD put in a bit under three years ago,” answered Jessa. “It’s been fine so far, and I’m supposed to have another two years to go on it.”

“Um-hmm. And lemme guess, the big guy in the lobby who brought you in has got some Beast Kindred blood in him. And you’ve just started your Bathing Week?”

“Yeah,” said Jessa. “How’d you guess that?”

“We see a lot of this. The thing about the Kindred is that they are exceptionally well-engineered for getting girls pregnant. Their semen is chock full of natural fertility-promoting hormones. There’s not a birth control method in the galaxy that can neutralize the effect.”

Doctor Ruiz began to lay out supplies on a tray. “Any bride with an IUD implanted is going to eventually reject it. With Beast Kindred males, it happens especially fast since their semen also contains compounds that promote extra flexibility and mobility in their mates. You wouldn’t want to take on a mating fist without the help.”

Jessa’s brow wrinkled. “But we haven’t even had sex yet. Are you sure that’s what this is?”

“We’ll run a full bloodwork panel on you to be certain, but yeah. Something like 99% of the time, a new bride presenting in the middle of the night with unusually severe cramps, an anxious Beast Kindred male, and an IUD is rejecting it. And if you aren’t yet, you will be soon.

“The Bathing Week is when we see it crop up the most,” Doctor Ruiz continued. “You’re naked, he’s naked, love is in the air…and that’s pretty much all it takes. If any part of your skin has come into contact with his semen, then your uterus is going to insist on being open for business. The more of it you touch, the stronger the effect.”

An image flashed through Jessa’s mind of the absolutely heroic amount of hot, thick seed Thail had shot over her breasts earlier that evening. “Yeah,” she muttered. “Safe to say I’ve been in contact, alright.”

Doctor Ruiz smiled understandingly. “Been there, doing that, and I’m going to submit the paper to the NEJM just as soon as the High Council declassifies the next batch of medical data.”

“So my IUD has to come out then?” asked Jessa.

“The sooner, the better,” answered Doctor Ruiz. “With brides of the Kindred, I don’t even pretend that abstinence is a realistic option. But we’ve got a local anesthetic that will let me get the device out painlessly, and you’ll feel better pretty much immediately.

“If you were using the IUD to control erratic periods, I can prescribe you a Kindred medicine that’s just as effective.  But most brides find that their cycles level out naturally once they’re bonded – all those Kindred fertility hormones at work again.”

“Yeah, great,” sighed Jessa. Right. Just as soon as we’re bonded, she thought. Even if Thail wanted that with her, it wasn’t in the cards for them.

Doctor Ruiz made a weighing motion with her hands. “As for the birth control angle, the bad news is that there’s not anything I can do to help you plan pregnancies in the long term. The good news is that Kindred are sterile until they bond. You do have another few weeks to decide how you feel about letting nature take its course with your guy.”

Jessa grimaced. The way things had been going so far, it seemed likely that she was going to be going home alone in another few days. And she absolutely hated the process of getting a new IUD – maybe the Kindred could make adjustments painless, but she had never had an easy time of it with human medicine.

Still, refusing to have her IUD taken out pretty much meant refusing to have any further sexual contact with Thail. If her hopes of bootstrapping this claiming into a real relationship weren’t dead yet, that would surely put the final nail in the coffin. That decided her. “OK, Doctor Ruiz. If my IUD needs to come out, then let’s do it.”

Chapter Text

The next morning, Thail went into the food preparation area while Jessa got ready. He had gotten up and showered first after their short, interrupted night, wanting to let her sleep in as much as possible.

He was relieved that Jessa was feeling better. Apparently her muscle cramps had been the result of a syndrome that commonly occurred when new brides came to the Mother Ship. The medic had been able to relieve her symptoms in less than an hour, and had reassured Jessa and Thail both that they were not expected to recur.

Thail had accompanied Jessa home, where she had quickly dropped off into an exhausted sleep. He had not found rest easy to come by.

Jessa hadn’t complained about any of it. She never did.

At the end of a long day of touring through multiple time zones, when tiredness was stamped on her face, she never asked to go home before he brought it up. When he said things that manifestly left her in emotional turmoil, she bottled it up.

She soldiered on forward, as resolute as any warrior could hope to be. Over and over, she had given to him and yet taken nothing.

And then there was last night. When Jessa was in a strange place experiencing pain bad enough to keep her awake for hours, even knock her off her feet, she only asked for a mild pain reliever that she could barely force herself to swallow. Then she had told him to go back to bed rather than escort her to the Med Center.

Even now, he didn’t know what exactly had been causing her symptoms, or what the medic had done to make them better.

A bonded male would have been invited back to the exam room with his bride. A bonded male might have sensed the nature of the problem without even being told. But all Thail had been able to do was sit outside and wait, feeling useless and worried.

Jessa had brushed off his questions last night when she came out of the treatment area. All she had given him was a vague assurance that it was routine and nothing he needed to worry about.

Thail had quickly realized that his bride was a strong one with a wide independent streak, but he hadn’t really put all of the pieces together in the first few days of his claiming. Now that he had spotted her pattern, though, it was unmistakable.

Jessa could show him a certain amount of vulnerability. She had come so beautifully at his touch last night. She had overcome her embarrassment and let him use the inhibitor on her luscious legs and pussy. But she had an iron wall encircling her emotional center that Thail had yet to crack.

It was worrying Thail badly now that he saw it – the only interpretation he knew for that behavior was troubling.

The central challenge in his life since his emotion damper was disabled had been learning how to live as a creature of the now.

As an emotionless slave of the Collective, the present had been almost immaterial. Whether a male’s past or present circumstances were acceptable or agonizing had hardly been worth noticing. The only question that mattered was whether the Collective’s future goals were being accomplished.

Once he embarked on his new life as a Feeler, Thail had been shocked to discover just how… inescapable the present moment was for beings without emotion dampers. He hadn’t realized how hard it was to put feelings in their proper context and proportion.

Fear and anger, elation and frustration, laughter and sadness, longing and disgust – they all clamored for a person’s full attention when they manifested. Whatever the emotion, it loudly demanded to be addressed the very moment it occurred.

When Thail had arrived on the Mother Ship as a newly emotional Dark Kindred refugee, he had come with decades of unprocessed trauma, and no coping skills to speak of. He had needed several weeks of inpatient treatment until he stabilized enough to stand on his own two feet. Even after discharge, he and other Dark Kindred refugees were strongly encouraged to take advantage of the Kindred Medical Corps’ counseling resources.

Thail had done so, to the tune of two cycles and around two hundred hours in therapy. And that was not even counting the time that he had spent with Welcomes Warmly, Waits Quietly, and R’Fil, talking through conundrums and watching them deploy their own coping strategies.

For Thail, it had all been worth every minute. The tools he had picked up for living as an emotional being – and for dealing with what he now recognized as the horrors of being a slave of the Collective – had been invaluable.

It had taken real work to learn how to contain his turbulent new emotions when they were counterproductive. It had taken an equal amount of work to learn how to recognize his own emotional needs and express them in a healthy way.

Even now, he still struggled with striking that balance at times. It was hard for him to judge when his emotions should be fully communicated and when they should be kept private.

Just look at the mess he had made of expressing his sexual feelings to Jessa when they had kissed on that first afternoon in her suite.

It was hardly the first time he had let the intensity of the moment overtake his good sense. He wasn’t proud of the outbursts he had had in the early days of his emotional life, and did not want to relive them.

These days, his preferred strategy for dealing with anything unfamiliar was to wait and see if any additional clues to a solution would present themselves. When in doubt, Thail tended to keep his thoughts to himself.

For her part, Jessa was certainly able to contain herself – she did that about as well as any Feeler Thail had ever met. But unlike him, it seemed that her reticence was not due to uncertainty about her own emotions.

She seemed to be a compassionate and capable teacher of children. Surely one could not do that without having a high degree of emotional awareness. And although she had been reluctant to share her thoughts with him, she had gotten to the root of her anxiety about being seen while unshaven quite directly.

So if Jessa had emotional needs – as all Feelers did – and understood them well, it stood to reason that she was deliberately choosing not to share them with Thail. He found that prospect deeply disturbing.

He had been rejoicing last night, believing that she had chosen him. But maybe it was truer to say that she had only chosen to give him a chance. Her behavior was not that of a woman who had fully entrusted herself to her warrior.

Thail’s personal experience with bonded relationships was thin to nonexistent. Despite that, even he knew that a warrior and his bride should look first and foremost to each other for comfort and support. What was even the point of calling a bride, if not to love and trust one another deeply?

But Jessa closed her innermost self away from Thail. Had she deemed him unworthy, or unable to appropriately respond to her vulnerabilities? The question struck at the deepest vein of Thail’s self-doubt.

Being Dark Kindred…cast a long shadow over a male. As a matter of deep religious conviction, the mainline Kindred revered women in general, and the Mother of All Life in particular.

Motherhood – the mother/child relationship – was sacred, and to be preserved at all costs. It was why the mainline Kindred did not follow the example of related races like the Dark Kindred, the Scourge, and the Havoc, all of whom artificially conceived and incubated their next generation.

Certainly, such technologies were available to aid a Kindred bride if there was a medical impediment to sustaining a healthy pregnancy. But the mainline Kindred would never consider outright replacing females with artificial reproductive systems. The practice was deemed sacrilege of the worst sort, an insult to everything their race held dear.

The Kindred believed that the Goddess put her sons with their brides as well as any mother could ever hope to do. Some would inevitably live and die unmated, but none were unloved by the Mother of All Life. To circumvent her will in these matters was seen as a terrible, blasphemous sin.

But it still happened. Whenever a trade neared exhaustion, precious few brides could be found. There was always tremendous temptation for the unmated to fall back on gene labs, and artificial wombs, and frozen ova.

For males who were motherless, their unnatural origins were always lurking in how other Kindred perceived them. Such males were not blamed for it of course – a child’s parentage or lack thereof was never deemed his fault. They were all sons of the Goddess whether they had mortal mothers or not. But it was not something a Kindred warrior could ever completely forget, either.

Being tube-grown was bad enough. Being one of the Frozen only compounded Thail’s sense of otherness and amplified his doubts about his worthiness to stand among his people. The mainline Kindred had been nothing but generous and accepting to him, but there was always a faint whiff of pity in the scent of their kindness.

Until Jessa had claimed Thail – had given him a close-up glimpse at what he was missing by being unable to bond her soul and quicken her womb – he had never really understood why other Kindred found him pitiable. Now he knew.

It had been a long, sleepless night for Thail as those thoughts had chased through his mind. Less than an Earth week ago, he hadn’t had any idea that Jessa existed. He hadn’t thought that the love of a female was something he needed.

Now, he yearned for it and for her with staggering intensity. What could he possibly do or say to convince Jessa to entrust herself to him, when eight months of dream sharing had not convinced her of his good character?

Or, whispered a little voice, Is she wise to doubt me? Was he truly a male who merited a female’s trust and affection? Could he ever be?

Welcomes Warmly had been right when he first informed Thail of Jessa’s arrival – he had had no concept of what a gift it was to be claimed. And Jessa had been right last night, too. With less than eight days left in his claiming period, there was no time to waste.

Thail couldn’t do anything to heal his bonding locus. He would never forgive himself, though, if he didn’t make the most of every single opportunity he did have. Today he would do everything in his power to convince Jessa that he was a worthy male despite his defects.

He ran through his mental inventory. Their clothes were selected and their bags were packed for their journey. The Kindred Travel Advisory Service had indicated that conditions were good in the region. Jessa had requested good pairs of binoculars for them both, but he had fabricated those last night.

What about first meal? Jessa had seemed to enjoy the fruit provided by the New Brides Committee. The basket was nearly empty now, but there ought to be just enough to go around.

There was still a bul’o left. Jessa had really liked the one she had eaten yesterday morning, so he left it for her. The only other thing in the basket was a handful of pinkish-peach triangular fruit.

They looked vaguely familiar to Thail. What were those again? There were so many new things he had encountered on the Mother Ship that they all ran together sometimes.

It took his sleep-deprived mind a minute to catch up, but then he remembered. He had seen something related in the chiller at Welcome’s suite. They always had a flask of juice hanging towards the back with a picture of that fruit on the tag.

Thail had asked if he could have some once, but Waits Quietly had said in his usual terse manner that that flask was something special for R’Fil. Thail had gotten a different beverage and not asked again.

For some reason, Thail never seemed to see that kind of fruit in the market he usually visited near his quarters in the Unmated Males Area. Maybe they were only available in certain seasons on Twin Moons.

These were here for the taking, though. And if R’Fil liked them, they were probably pretty good.

Thail scooped up the little fruit and started to eat. He found that they weren’t bad, exactly, but they weren’t really to his taste, either. They were so sweet they were almost cloying and they had a complex scent that was a bit odd to his sensitive nose.

Maybe R’Fil saw something in them that Thail was missing. Or it could be that the juice was blended with something else that complimented the taste. He ate all three of them anyway, anticipating a busy day ahead of them.

Speaking of which, Jessa was sure to want some more coffee this morning. Thail could use a cup himself. He had watched her do this a couple of times now, and he thought he had the basic gist of how to brew a pot…

Chapter Text

Jessa looked around as she stood in line waiting to check in for their safari. Thail had gone to take care of their baggage. He was always considerate, but had been especially solicitous this morning.

She wondered why. He didn’t seem like the kind of guy who would freak out about minor medical glitches. He had discussed his former cyborg enhancements in a matter-of-fact way last night. Still, he hadn’t missed an opportunity this morning to fuss over her.

Well, she thought, he’ll probably settle down as the day wears on. Jessa didn’t think Thail had gotten much sleep after they got back from the Med Center last night, and for that she was sorry.

She bit back a yawn. At least they would both have an early evening in this time zone. They had landed at early morning by the Mother Ship’s time, but it was already mid-afternoon in eastern Africa.

Meanwhile, she was looking forward to the safari. She had always loved nature documentaries about the wildlife of the Serengeti. The tour company had a well-run operation, and there was a big, diverse crowd for this trip.

The tour would be run in English and everyone spoke at least a smattering of that. Their guides spoke their native Swahili in addition. Jessa had also heard tourists talking to each other in Afrikaans, German, Ukrainian, and Cantonese already. As she had hoped, the translation bacteria were Ah. May. Zing.

Ahead of her, a pair of Japanese tourists were talking in their native language. They didn’t seem worried that they would be overheard and understood in this crowd, so they weren’t making any effort to be circumspect.

Jessa had already learned that they were a married couple from Kyoto, were particularly interested in getting to see lions, and hadn’t enjoyed their hotel last night. Then the wife had made a bittersweet comment about how her sister would have loved this trip, and how it sometimes seemed as though the Dark Kindred attack on Tokyo had happened just yesterday.

Jessa had flinched at that. The Japanese couple seemed like nice enough people, but they would surely all be happier if Thail didn’t get outed as a former Dark Kindred. It might not come to pitchforks and torches, but it could easily ruin everyone’s trip.

Ahead of her, the couple continued to talk unaware that Jessa could understand every word. Then suddenly, the wife said, “Hey, check out that man over there by the gate. Is that a Kindred?”

 “…You think?” asked the husband. “He’s tall enough for it, isn’t he.”

“Yeah, and he’s big like they are. I’ve been watching. I think he’s here with the woman standing behind us. He could barely keep his hands off her. Like he was afraid somebody would take her away if he let her out of his sight, you know. And she’s not even pretty.”

Jessa was not thrilled to hear that assessment of her looks, but she also wasn’t surprised. Mainly, though, she gave silent thanks that Thail wasn’t around to hear it. She didn’t know how he would have reacted to that statement, and a part of her was afraid to find out.

Thail had not yet said anything – good or bad – about her face. She was glad that he at least didn’t seem to be the sort to pile on blatant, hollow flattery.

Jessa honestly found it insulting when anyone would insist that she was pretty. She had, in fact, looked in a mirror before. Beauty wasn’t on the list of her virtues, and she had been made keenly aware of that already. She also didn’t like the implication that it was somehow wrong or unthinkable for a woman not to be beautiful. Pretty wasn’t a synonym for good. In Jessa’s book, there wasn’t even a correlation.

Still, she wondered what Thail thought. He was easily the most attractive man Jessa had ever met, and she was…her. Did it bother him that the woman sharing his bed was plain? Did he look at her and think that by rights he ought to be out of her league?

Worst of all, could he be another one of those guys who would temporarily overlook her flaws in the interests of getting his dick wet, but turn cold at the prospect of anything more? She thought Thail was better than that, but she didn’t really know.

Jessa had been wrong about men before. If she had a nickel for every time she had caught a guy joking about putting a bag over her head, she would have…well, a dime. That was still ten fucking cents too much.

Thail had been plenty eager to touch her body so far, but she couldn’t take it as a guarantee that he wanted the whole of her. Thirty-six years was a really long dry spell, even if most of them had been spent with an emotion damper repressing his libido. In her lowest moments, the fear that Thail might be using her for sex came creeping out of the shadows.

Meanwhile, the Japanese couple continued to speculate about whether or not he was Kindred. “Hmm, maybe…he’s not pale enough to be one of the Tranqs though. Doesn’t look like he has a twin, either,” said the husband.

“That still leaves the Beast kind,” the wife noted. “And we know the three main sorts aren’t the only ones out there.”

“Don’t the Beast Kindred all have golden eyes, though?” asked the husband. “I think that guy is just a big human. My cousin Tadamori’s got a friend about that size. People thought he might make it as a sumo wrestler when he was younger, but then he wrecked his ankle and had to quit.”

“Well, if he’s a human man, he’s really handsy one,” concluded the wife. “Seriously, it looked like he was about to grope his girlfriend in broad daylight.”

Jessa started to blush. She’d thought they had had been discreet when Thail had kissed her before going off to deal with the bags, but obviously not. Thail had been even more passionate than usual, and it was hard not to respond to that.

Maybe it had only felt like a decorous embrace in comparison to the truly raunchy things she wanted to do to him. Their encounter in the shower last night had only whetted her appetite for more. Even though she was unsure of Thail’s heart, it was difficult to keep her hands off of his body.

Speaking of which, Thail returned to stand in line with her, having finished with the baggage. “Hey, be careful,” she whispered to him in Spanish, which Thail had more or less learned over the course of tapas and a dance lesson. In this tour group, nobody else seemed to speak it.

Still, Jessa was careful not to actually use the word Kindred in the presence of the Japanese couple. “The woman in front of us lost a family member in the you-know-who invasion. Don’t tell anyone where you come from, alright?” she said.

Thail nodded in agreement and draped an arm over Jessa’s shoulders. They waited in tired, companionable silence as the line inched forward. Finally, the Japanese couple got checked in and stepped aside to look over the big map by the front desk.

Jessa confirmed their reservations and handled most of the talking. But throughout, the desk clerk was scrutinizing Thail closely. Finally, he asked point-blank, “Pardon me, sir, but are you some sort of Kindred?”

Jessa couldn’t help but stiffen underneath his arm. But Thail was prepared and aware that the Japanese couple was still standing nearby.

“No,” he lied. His English – which normally had the American-with-a-hint-of-British accent common on the Mother Ship – picked up Jessa’s own southern drawl. “We’re both from Georgia, in the United States. I get asked that all the time, though.”

“Very good, sir,” said the clerk, apparently accepting Thail’s claim. “Now then, if I can ask you to head down to the vehicle lot, we’ll be starting the tour shortly.”

* * * * *

The sun had set on a peaceful evening. The tour group had reached the rustic lodge where they would be staying. Last meal was being served. Thail felt like he was dying.

Up until now, the changes brought about in his mind and body by his claiming and awakening had been intense but manageable. Today, though, the need had passed from distracting to alarming.

He had gotten up that morning feeling the level of sexual interest that he had come to think of as his new normal over the past few days. That was to say, he was endlessly fascinated by Jessa’s body, but he could get by with a deep breath of her warm, feminine fragrance, followed by his own touch during his morning shower.

He had expected that during the day an erection would never be more than a glimpse of Jessa’s smooth skin away. His shaft would usually subside on its own, though, if he did not give into the temptation to touch her.

Not that it was going to be easy to keep his hands and thoughts away from her.

Up until they began their Bathing Week last night, Jessa had been pretty much completely in control. And Thail was fine with that, really. It was her planet they were exploring, and her place as claimer to lead the exploration of each other’s bodies. He was more than willing to follow where she led.

But bringing her to orgasm in the shower had changed things. It had taught Thail a whole new appreciation for the erotic potential in making his female lose control.

Jessa taking his hand and leading him to see a new sight was one thing. Taking her small body in hand and bringing her to orgasm was something very different. Coaxing her to submit, spreading her legs, opening her pussy, touching her until she came against his fingers…. The experience had affected him on every level – physical, mental, and emotional.

Thail wanted more.

As the day wore on, those thoughts had begun to consume him. When they had landed in Africa, he had kissed Jessa before he went to handle their baggage. Thail hadn’t meant for it to get out of hand, but it seemed like the taste of her had exploded through him, demolishing his self-control.

Before he knew it he was thrusting his tongue deep into her mouth and rubbing his thumb over her hidden nipple. His cock had gone from soft to leaking precum in record time, and he had not been able to stop himself from rubbing it against her body. It had been all he could do not to rip her clothes from her where she stood.

Jessa hadn’t tried to fend him off or slow him down, but that had been more forbearance than he deserved. He was not off to a great start on his efforts to demonstrate that he would be a giving and trustworthy mate for her.

The lingering sense of guilt had not been enough to dissuade him. It seemed that all he could think about was sex. The guide driving their vehicle had been talking, but Thail hadn’t heard a word over the throbbing of his shaft.

The other couple in their ground transport had been enthralled with their surroundings. They captured many images of a herd of truly bizarre creatures called giraffes. Thail was dimly aware that not so long ago he would have been fascinated by them, too.

Today, Thail’s attention was elsewhere. His mind was consumed by the motion of Jessa’s breasts on the rough road they traveled, by the touch of her hand against his arm, and most of all by her hot scent.

She had worn a pair of short, light brown pants today that showed her long legs to their best advantage. His fingers had been itching to follow the sleek line of her thigh up to her core, to investigate the source of her bewitching fragrance.

He had been rock hard for hours. That would have been normal enough for a Beast Kindred if he had actually been having bonding sex. It was not so normal to be this hard for this long without the relief of coming at least a few times.

It was starting to genuinely hurt. Thail’s balls were sore and swollen. When he walked the jostling of his clothing against his shaft was painful.

One of the things Thail had never previously understood about life on the Mother Ship was why males universally wore tight flight leathers. Their uniform shirts were practical enough, but the leathers were hot and unbreathable and impeded movement. About the only thing from Z4 that Thail truly missed was the strong but soft and flexible bodysuit he had worn under his exoskeleton.

Today, the flight leathers were finally starting to make sense. The fabric of the human-style trousers and underwear that had been such a welcome change four days ago felt intolerably rough now. The woven textiles were like sandpaper against his sensitized skin, and he found himself longing for the smoother touch of his leathers.

His bonding scent had also been pouring off of his body in waves today. It had thoroughly soaked into the fibers of his human-style garments. He was pretty sure that if he tried to bring the clothes he had been wearing today back on board the Mother Ship, he would be detained and questioned by the security forces.

Thail could actually smell himself without even trying, which was never a good sign. If there were any other Kindred males within 50 miles of here, they probably could smell him too.

Thank the Goddess the humans were mostly dead-nosed where Kindred pheromones were concerned. They would have sent him back to orbit if they could detect what he could.

Except for Jessa, of course. Jessa could smell his bonding scent. And she responded to it so fucking sweetly. Every time he got upwind of her, her own scent got noticeably hotter. But there had been precious little Thail could do in response.

They had been in public places all day, at the mercy of their driver and the other passengers in their vehicle. The tour took them through a stretch of open savanna without any cover more substantial than the occasional bush. It was a mark of Thail’s desperation that he seriously considered dragging Jessa behind one and mounting her anyway.

The lust was driving Thail insane. He never thought he would see the day where he would try to prevent his bride from wanting him, but it had come to that.

He had actually made an excuse to ride in one of the other vehicles when their caravan had made a brief stop. When they were out of the vehicles, he tried to keep out of the wind line from her and at least 30 feet away. The only other alternative was taking her in front of a few dozen tourists and their cameras.

The minute it had been feasible, Thail had just about run for the suite they had been assigned for the night. He hadn’t been able to tell Jessa why he was so desperate to get away without getting too close to her. All he could do was hope that she would follow him shortly.

He had stripped off his pants the moment the door shut behind him, growling at the harsh sensation of the fabric peeling away from his over-sensitive skin. Even his own touch had become borderline unbearable.

Thail limped into the fresher and turned the temperature control on the shower as low as it could go. Human plumbing apparently didn’t offer truly refrigerated showers, so he would have to make do with ambient temperature water.

The gently falling water pricked at his aching flesh like needles, but still didn’t seem to make a dent in his erection. He wished he had had the foresight to get some ice before he bolted for privacy. At least the shower was washing away some of the excess scent that seemed to be rolling off of his skin in clouds of pure need.

Back in the bedchamber, he heard the heavy door to the hall open and then swing shut. He could hear Jessa’s heartbeat and the rapid, staccato sound of her feet marching across the hard tile floor. Gods, she sounded angry. The fresher door swung open. Thail pulled back the shower curtain so they could talk.

“What, Thail?” she blurted, making an agitated chopping motion with her hand. “What the hell is it that I’ve done wrong? You’ve been all over the map today. When we landed, you wanted us close. In the Rover this afternoon, I thought you were going to feel me up right there. And then all of the sudden, you decided you couldn’t stand to be near me.”

Despite her manifest frustration, there was a tremor in her voice as she finished. Her lip quivered in a way that reminded Thail of Welcome’s youngest pair of grandsons when they were trying to hold back tears.

“It’s…not you,” he grunted, trying to keep himself together. Gods, she was so fucking close now. The last time they had been in a fresher together like this, she had pressed her pussy against his fingers and rode him to orgasm.

The only thing keeping Thail from snapping and tearing at Jessa’s clothes was her scent. He could tell that she was not even a little bit aroused. She was deeply distressed, he realized, and it had only gotten worse at his words.

“So the Kindred do that too?” she asked in a voice that was suddenly much smaller and more fragile. “Say ‘it’s not you, it’s me’ and then turn out the lights and close the door?”

Thail had no idea what she was talking about. “But it is me,” he responded. “Something is wrong with me.”

“Yeah, yeah, I know,” she sighed. “One of the Frozen, an injured bonding locus, not going to be able to send me telepathic love notes. Thail, none of that was important to me. I just wanted to…well, I guess it doesn’t matter now.” She turned away from him.

Thail was, if anything, even more confused. “What? No, this is not to do with me being Frozen. At least, I think not. Something else is wrong. It just started today.”

Jessa’s head snapped around. “Wait, you’re not breaking up with me?”

“No!” answered Thail, startled at the suggestion. “Gods, no, not that at all. I’ve been trying to resist you because my body is going absolutely berserk. All I can think about is taking you. To a degree, that’s normal for Kindred in a claiming period, but not to this degree.”

Jessa’s entire attitude changed in a flash. The turmoil she had clearly been feeling was swept out of sight. The iron walls around her emotional core locked back into place with an almost audible clicking sound. All that was left was concern for him.

Thail kind of wished she would go back to being angry with him. He didn’t fully understand the meaning of what she had just shown him, but he did know that the feelings she had been expressing had come from deep within her.

Also, now that her distress was subsiding she was sure to start responding to his mating scent again. The water washing over his skin was helping to mute his scent, but it was just a matter of time before she caught it. Then her sweet, hot perfume would fill the air around them, as palpable to Thail as a caress.

“Do you have any idea what’s causing it?” she asked.

“No,” said Thail. “I was feeling well when I got up this morning. This didn’t start to become a problem until we landed in Africa.”  He gestured vaguely in the direction of his shaft.

“If the problem is that your libido is out of control, could it maybe be a counter-reaction to a food allergy like we were talking about last night?”

“I don’t think so,” said Thail. “The xenological survey of Earth was quite thorough. The only risk we found was the shrum…shrimp, and a few related sea creatures that are not eaten. There was absolutely nothing terrestrial. And I haven’t eaten since first meal back on the Mother Ship. We missed mid meal because of the time change, and then I skipped last meal and headed directly here.”

“What exactly did you have for breakfast?” Jessa asked. She shifted from foot to foot, as though something was making her restless. Thail detected a hint of her sexual scent returning.

“Same as you. Fruit and coffee,” he said. And he had watched her throat work as she swallowed her own beverage, imagining that it was his seed she was drinking down. That fed his other appetite. For a little while, at least. “You don’t think I’m having a reaction to the coffee? Does it ever make humans sick?”

“No, not unless you drink a ton of it…” Jessa got a faraway look on her face and went quiet for a moment. She hugged herself, in the process pushing her breasts up and together.

Not a day ago, he had slid his cock between those curves, thrusting into slick warmth. If he ripped her garments from her body, he could be there again in a matter of seconds. Gods, to mark her with his scent and seed again…

“Jessa?” he asked in a strangled voice.

“I had another bul’o,” she said, thinking out loud. “But there was only one of those left in the basket after yesterday. What did you have?”

Thail shook his head, trying to stay focused. “I don’t know the name of them,” he said. “They were the little pinkish, triangular fruit. I’ve seen them around the Mother Ship before. I think they might come from Twin Moons.”

“Hmmm. There was a card in the fruit basket warning about those. Something about not eating them unless you wanted to bond.”

At the word ‘bond’, Thail’s heart dropped in his chest, and not for the usual reason. “Oh, no…”

“Oh, no, what?” asked Jessa with a note of worry in her voice.

“I think…I think those might have been bonding fruit. I’d heard of them before but I’d never seen…but that would explain why Waits Quietly said–” A dreadful certainty started spreading through Thail.

“Are you going to be OK?” asked Jessa. “Do we need to get you back up to the Mother Ship?”

“I will recover physically, but I may die of embarrassment,” Thail groaned. “Bonding fruit is more a medicine than a food. A medicine for females only.”

“What does it do?” asked Jessa.

“It’s for the brides of Twin Kindred. When they make love, the twins’ shafts fuse so that they can penetrate their bride together. And they are proportioned like any other Kindred, so….”

Jessa winced noticeably. “Oh. God. How do they not split the poor girl in half?”

“Bonding fruit is how,” answered Thail grimly. “It helps their brides stretch, much like the compounds in the fluids of Beast Kindred. Only more so.”

Thail had heard of bonding fruit, of course, but he had never taken the time to learn what they looked like. He hadn’t ever thought bonding fruit would be important to him. Even if he had been able to call a bride, his Beast Kindred heritage would help them join.

A fantasy flashed through his head of that joining. Jessa’s body would open for his own as he pressed into her. In his mind’s eye, he could see her hot, wet pussy yield to him as his mating fist slid home, filling her, locking them together. Her little hands would clench around his shoulder blades as she rode the waves of sensation.

Would she moan his name as he gently coaxed her to open for him? Would she wrap her legs around his hips and press her shapely little feet to his ass and thighs? How would it feel when the head of his shaft nudged against the entrance of her womb, or when she clenched around him as the pleasure overtook them?

“OK,” Jessa ventured as Thail struggled to see past the erotic images subsuming his consciousness. “But what about males? It doesn’t seem like you would, um, stretch.”

“No,” agreed Thail. It was growing difficult to formulate a response now. “We lack the…anatomy. And Beast Kindred are largely immune to those compounds anyway, since we produce most of them in our own bodies.”

“Largely,” she repeated, nibbling delicately on her full, tempting lower lip. Gods, how those lips had felt against his body. “But not entirely?”

“Apparently not,” admitted Thail. Why was he still talking? He could be kissing her. “One of the other principal effects of bonding fruit is that it is a very potent aphrodisiac. I seem not to have any immunity to that part of it.”

It was surely a sin to let Jessa’s nipples go unsucked for this long. What a waste of a mouth speech was, and doubly so when his words were only barely acquainted with the truth.

Honestly, Thail had long since moved beyond the point of “I seem not to have any immunity” and had passed into “I Gods-damned well do not” territory a few hours ago. His world was narrowing down to the ache in his groin. And now that Jessa’s distress scent had fully abated, her sexual scent was beginning to call to Thail loudly and clearly.

Her body wanted his – would he find her wet and ready if he pumped his fingers between her legs? Would her pink nipples be stiff between his teeth as he teased them? If he pushed her up against the wall and arched his body into hers, would she writhe beneath him or submit and let his hands roam where they wanted?

Did it matter? Thail could feel his judgment, his self-control slipping away. It was getting hard to think of the words for things. If he started to touch her, he was afraid he genuinely wouldn’t have the presence of mind to stop.

“Jessa, maybe you had better get ou–” Thail began.

At the same time, Jessa asked, “Is there anything I can do to help?”

You could ride my face, Thail wanted to say. Spread your thighs and then spend a few hours coming on my cock. Instead he groaned, “Don’t tempt me. I want you. Badly. But this is going to be ugly.”

She’s hardly more than half my size, he scolded himself, trying to bring his excitement down. But the thought her small body against his only aroused him further.

He could have her on the floor in seconds. Tearing away her clothes would be as fun as it would be easy. He wanted to surround her body with his own as he took her from behind. He could easily grab her hips and pin her in place against him as he thrust deep into her pussy.

In his mind’s eye, he could see Jessa throw back her head and pant for breath as he filled her warm little cunt, first with his shaft and then with his seed. He wanted to flood her womb and then see his cream trickling out onto her thighs.

Thail might not be able to bond her, but he would Gods-damned well claim her. Claim her, and open her, and fill her, and mark her with his scent deep within. And then when she’d come over and over on his cock, given herself up to the pleasure he could bring her, she would be his.

Jessa pressed on with the conversation, unaware of how rapidly Thail’s mind was deteriorating. “Isn’t that what we’re here for?” she asked. “To see if we’re cut out for the good, the bad, and the ugly? For better and for worse? In sickness and in health?”

What was left of a rational male in Thail noticed that something in the cadence of her lilting, clear voice sounded like poetry.

He suspected that there was a deep significance to those verses in Jessa’s culture. And her words spoke to the deepest yearning of his heart – to share a life of support and trust with his bride.

The thought of taking from her, yet again, felt like a crushing defeat. And it would be a taking if Thail touched her tonight – in his current state he feared that gentleness was not a promise he could keep. On some level, he was appalled by the ferocity of his desire.

Mainly, though, he wanted to mate the head of his throbbing cock against the entrance of her womb and pump her full of his cum. The channel he had thrust his fingers into last night would squeeze his mating fist so tightly. She would stay tied to him for hours, submitting beneath him as he filled her over and over again.

Her clit would be trapped between his shaft and his fingers. He would rub against that little nub, making her come so that her pussy would clench and milk his shaft. He would feast on the scents and sounds of her pleasure.

He made a last-ditch effort to get Jessa safely away from him. “Very well,” he managed to rasp. “I could use some ice. Could you retrieve it for me?”

“Of course,” she answered, nodding. Then she was gone, slipping out of their suite like a whisper in the night and taking her intoxicating scent with her.

I need to lock the door, Thail thought to himself. Now. While she’s gone and I can still think. His soul might want to create true intimacy with his bride. His body just wanted to fuck hers, and didn’t care what kind of harm it did in the process.

At least I wouldn’t have to worry that I’d accidentally bond her, he thought bitterly. And my seed will never take root. If she hates me after my claiming ends, she won’t be trapped with me.

Thail closed his eyes and exposed the skin of his face to the tepid spray of the shower. He fought the urge to scream out his frustration. Just a minute longer and I’ll go lock her out.

Chapter Text

Jessa walked back through the big, comfortable old lodge to their room, a bucket of ice in hand. For all its rustic touches, the place had clearly been purpose-built as guest housing sometime in the last century. There had been an ice machine in an alcove not 100 feet from their room. Her little errand had scarcely taken a minute.

Unfortunately, it meant that her window of breathing room – literally and figuratively – was closing rapidly.

Stupid, stupid, stupid, she chastised herself for the umpteenth time. What on God’s green earth possessed me to go quoting marriage vows to Thail on our fifth day together?

Mentally, she shook her head. She knew exactly what had gotten into her – need. Lust. The most attractive man she had ever seen had been standing naked and wet in the shower before her. He’d smelled like paradise and spoken to everything female in her.

At least he hadn’t seemed to recognize the traditional promises of commitment. Then again, maybe Thail would have appreciated those words as a genuine boner killer. Poor fellow looked like he could use one. His shaft had developed an alarming dark red hue, and had been standing straight up against his abdomen.

All of Jessa’s experience with erections was second-hand, of course, but it certainly looked uncomfortable. Was it so wrong that she wanted nothing more than to kiss it and make it better?

Unbearable sexual excitement was the absolute last explanation she had expected for Thail’s sudden aloofness. It fit, though. Right before he had made himself scarce, the hand he had rested on her thigh had started to creep up to the hem of her khaki shorts. She had been half afraid and half excited to think that he might just feel her up there in the back of the Rover.

Well, more than half excited, really. His bonding scent had been thick in the air between them and driving her wild. Jessa had genuinely been worried that she had gotten wet enough to show through her shorts.

Or at least, once Thail had left and the air had cleared, she had been worried. While he was in the backseat with her, her only concern had been how quickly she could tempt him into stroking her pussy.

In hindsight, that should have been a giveaway that something unusual was up. Jessa was not ordinarily into public displays of affection. She should have suspected something when she started fantasizing about Thail bending her over the Rover’s hood and having his way with her.

It hadn’t occurred to her that Thail was distancing himself for any reason other than the ones she had come to expect from human men. She had just jumped straight to the conclusion that Thail was rejecting her. Jessa wasn’t proud of that.

She had baggage where men were concerned. She knew she did. But what was the point of even test-driving a relationship with Thail if she couldn’t set her issues aside and consider him on his individual merits?

And his individual needs. Which, if they included a bucket of ice to the groin, were probably pretty urgent.

If she told him no to sex tonight, would he listen? Did she even want to wait anymore? Jessa didn’t have answers to those questions. The one thing she did know was that she didn’t want to run away from the situation.

Jessa pushed back into their room and returned to the bathroom. Thail looked surprised to see her. Surely he hadn’t lost track of her in the minute or two she had been gone. Or was this bonding fruit stuff affecting him worse than she had thought?

“I’ve got the ice,” she told him. “Do you want me to make an icepack with a hand towel or something?”

Thail drew in a deep breath and stared at her blankly for a moment. It took her a second to recognize what was off – other than that monstrously huge erection – but then she realized that his eyes had dilated so wide that hardly any of their green color was visible. It was like looking into the merciless black eyes of a hungry shark.

“Not yet,” he growled, shutting off the shower. “Gotta come first. Gotta get it all out.”

Jessa set the ice bucket down and reached for him hesitantly. She was almost afraid to touch him. Thail had never seemed more alien to her than he did right now, and he towered over her in the close confines of the human-scale bathroom.

Every line of Thail’s body spoke of tension, of physical power, and of all-consuming need. She wanted to help ease him, but he did not look like a man who wanted to do things the easy way.

The only thing that kept her from running away was the wave of need that had washed over her once she got back within range of Thail’s scent. She was aching for him.

Jessa put a tentative hand against Thail’s rippled upper abdomen. He was warm to the touch and as solid as a brick wall. What would it feel like to ride that body, to feel those muscles clench under her hands as he thrust his cock up into her?

Almost without her conscious awareness, her hand crept down across Thail’s abs until it brushed his shaft. He was feverishly hot there. His erection was as heavy and as hard as a gold ingot wrapped in satin. His cock throbbed in her palm in time with his heartbeat. A smear of his precum wet her fingers.

But instead of moving into her touch, Thail flinched and backed away. She tried again more slowly. This time he tolerated her hand on him, but she could tell by the strained look on his face that it cost him to do it.

“Thail?” she asked. All she wanted was to get as close as physically possible to his magnificent cock, to wrap herself in his touch, before taking him deep within her melting pussy. Still, she couldn’t stand to hurt him. “Is this going to work for you?”

“Too much,” he rumbled, his voice hoarse and low. “Hurts.”

“Oh. Can you…can you touch yourself?” Jessa asked, withdrawing her hand from his body.

Thail’s brow furrowed. Lightly, using just the tips of his fingers, he stroked the underside of his shaft. His jaw clenched, making the cords of his neck flex under his burnished skin.

She watched raptly as he moved. God, he was so potently sexual he was almost unreal – like he had stepped right out of her most heated fantasies.

He was driving her absolutely crazy. She needed to give into that lust badly. Maybe she couldn’t touch him right now, but she could still touch herself. Her desire overcame her inhibitions, and Jessa found herself stripping. When she was nude before him, she hopped up onto the bathroom counter.

Thail growled at the sight and advanced on her. He ran his free hand up her thigh until he was in position to pet her pussy. Jessa relaxed into his caress, opening her thighs and giving him free rein to touch her. When he found her wet and hot underneath his blunt, inquisitive fingers, a shudder of lust worked its way through him.

He sped up the rhythm against his shaft but kept his touch whisper-light. Jessa could still see agony on his face as he stroked himself. Thail seemed to have reached some sort of equilibrium point between pain and pleasure. His erection didn’t wilt an iota, but he also didn’t seem to get any closer to orgasm.

Jessa was getting worried now, despite the lust swamping her mind and body. She pushed Thail’s hand away and closed her legs. “Stop, Thail. This isn’t working. Is there any other way you can get off?”

The look in his eyes was frantic. From somewhere deep within himself, he found a few words. “Need to taste you.”

He wanted to kiss her? He seriously thought that would be enough? Well, she could do that. Jessa put her arms over Thail’s shoulders and stretched her face up towards his.

Thail shook his head. Instead of bending into her kiss, he brought his fingers to his lips. They were wet with her juices. Thail sucked on them, his eyes sliding shut.

Oh. That kind of tasting.

She knew that the Tasting Week was a part of the traditional Kindred claiming period. She assumed that it just meant that she would be giving Thail a blow job.

That sounded pretty damn good to Jessa at this point. She very much wanted to run her tongue over Thail’s shaft, suck gently on its head, and watch him succumb to that pleasure. Would his cream be as delicious as his scent was?

Thail’s desires apparently ran in the opposite direction. Jessa wasn’t quite sure how she felt about that. She had had a guy go down on her once. It had not been that great of a feeling.

She had the impression that he must have read somewhere that pussy eating was A Thing Men Were Expected To Do Now. Based on his unenthusiastic performance, she doubted that the idea ever would have occurred to him independently.

It was like he was doing the bare minimum required to technically qualify as giving oral. He had at least been gentle – but it was to the point that his touch was more of a tickle than a turn on. The whole experience had left her questioning whether oral for women was overrated.

Jessa had broken up with the guy in question not long after that – he was the centerpiece exhibit from her own personal Hall of Gormless Man-children. Even if she hadn’t, she would not have been inclined to ask for more.

Jessa had always been self-conscious about letting anyone see her pussy close up. With her dark, plentiful hair and pale skin, her choices were full 70s porn star bush, or a five o’clock shadow any place she did attempt to get rid of hair.

No amount of trimming or shaving or waxing had ever left her feeling like her pussy was an attractive sight. To her, it was just marginally less ugly sometimes.

Thail’s work with the inhibitor last night had removed the hair without a trace. Getting rid of the feeling of embarrassment about her body was not so easy, though. Besides, there was no way a guy could come from eating pussy – and coming was something that Thail obviously needed quite badly.

Jessa ran a finger down Thail’s chest, between his pecs, past his navel, and to the little trail of hair leading to his shaft. She kissed him lightly at the hollow of his throat and then said, “How about we try something else? I could be really gentle with my tongue and mayb–”

Jessa’s words cut off in a startled yelp as she suddenly found herself lifted off the bathroom counter like she weighed nothing.

“No,” was all Thail had to say about that suggestion. He strode across the tile floor through their guestroom and set her down gently on the bed. In one swift motion, he snatched up a pillow, and then knelt on it at the side of the bed.

Thail’s big hands wrapped around Jessa’s legs. He tugged her hips over to the edge about as easily as he had straightened the blanket while making their own bed that morning. Then he was pulling her thighs apart and implacably nuzzling up to their apex.

Jessa propped herself up on her elbows and tried to squirm back away from the edge of the mattress, but there was no dissuading Thail. He locked eyes with her, and inhaled her scent like he needed it to live. She could feel his hot breath against her needy sex. Her nipples were hard enough to cut glass. Oh God, she thought. I need him to touch me, but I’m not sure about this.

“Thail…” she started, but he was already transfixed by her open pussy.

“Beautiful,” he growled. “So wet for me.”

He wet his forefinger at the entrance to her sheath and then used it to tease back the little hood of her clit. Then he was leaning forward, his tongue emerging to taste her for the first time. He licked her bud delicately using just the tip of his tongue, teasing them both with what was coming next.

Thail shivered with excitement. “Gods, your honey is so good. So sweet and hot. Gonna get even sweeter and hotter when you come on my tongue.”

Jessa stopped straining against his hands, and let her legs relax against his shoulders and back. The big, masculine body splitting her thighs wouldn’t be budged. This is happening, she thought. This is really happening, and I’m going to give him this if he wants it.

Thail’s eyes slid shut and fingers flexed restlessly against her thighs. He made an inarticulate noise of pleasure, savoring the moment. Then his patience ran out, and he fastened his mouth to her like a starving man.

Thail lapped at her sex with the flat of his tongue. Once he had thoroughly explored the contours of her mound, he plunged it into her channel, gathering as much of her moisture as he could. He swallowed convulsively, drinking her down, and Jessa felt him jerk between her legs. He groaned out a sound of pleasure and relief.

He really does need this, she realized. His hips were well away from the bed and his hands were both on her body. Despite that, the sounds spilling out of his mouth and into her pussy were the same sounds he’d made when he came against her breasts last night.

Jessa ran her hands through Thail’s hair. “It’s OK, baby,” she reassured him. “You can…can lick me if that’s what you need.” And maybe it wasn’t just Thail who needed it. Jessa’s own body was beginning to respond to his touch.

She tugged lightly on Thail’s hair, wanting to feel his magical mouth on her clit again. He did not disappoint. His lips closed around her sensitive flesh and he began to suck on her. As he did, he worked a pair of fingers into Jessa’s channel and set to a rhythm.

The pleasure was inescapable and overwhelming. Jessa could feel the heat building under Thail’s touch, but she hovered just on the brink of coming. “More, please,” she begged. “Don’t stop!”  She threw back her head and abandoned herself to the sensations he was giving her.

His broad back underneath her calves. His relentless lips in her folds. His warm hands holding her hips inside and out as she bucked gently into his touch. His sun-drenched, musky scent invading her senses. And most of all, his persistent tongue flicking gently at her clit.

With a loud cry, she came. “Thail! Oh!” The intensity of her orgasm surprised her, took her by storm. But tremble as she might Thail stayed with her, riding out her climax as she shuddered again and again.

Eventually, though, her body came down from its peak. Thail gently withdrew his fingers from her channel. He licked them clean before fastening his mouth to her and drinking down all of the honey he could find. Bonelessly, Jessa submitted to his thirst as his own pleasure wracked his big frame.

When he had taken the last of her juices, Jessa moved to sit up. A big hand spread itself across the cradle of her hips, holding her in place.

“Not done,” Thail grunted. He looked a little more…there than he did before, Jessa thought, but he had yet to regain all of the color in his eyes. The shoulders underneath her knees were still feverishly warm.

Jessa knew that she was not going to be able to come again any time tonight, not after an earthshaking orgasm like the one he had just given her. She had always been a one and done kind of girl.

Maybe twice in her life she had managed to come more than once in a night. Each of those times had been by her own touch, and when her first orgasm had been a disappointing misfire. That had definitely not been the case tonight – she thought it was a strong contender for the best, hardest climax she’d ever had.

She subsided under his hand anyway. Thail obviously still needed this. She would let him linger between her thighs if that was what it took to get him over the bonding fruit he had eaten. “OK,” she told him. “But I’m not going to be able to come again. Go easy on me, all right?”

Thail made a skeptical noise, but didn’t disagree outright. Instead, he took her hand and guided it back to his hair. She would have left it lax there, afraid that she would hurt him if she pulled too hard.

He had other ideas. Thail’s big hand closed around her smaller one, curling her fingers into his thick, glossy hair. “More,” he insisted hoarsely. “Touch me. Grab me. Put me where you want me.”

Jessa tugged gently in his hair, and Thail’s eyes went heavy with pleasure. He leaned into her hand and began rubbing his cheeks against her thighs and mound. He seemed to really enjoy that, much to Jessa’s surprise. His eyes were sliding shut, and his breathing was deep and slow.

The way he worked his heavy jaw against her skin reminded her of a video she had seen once of a tiger scent-marking his territory. And maybe that was exactly what was happening, because she could swear that Thail’s bonding scent intensified as he moved. Was it pure instinct that made him want to scent mark her, she wondered, or did it mean something in Kindred culture?

After a while, some invisible signal must have told Thail that he had accomplished his goal. He rested his head against her thigh and let the hand that had been splayed over her hips move up her belly. His fingers explored the curve of her waist and traced the undulating line where her ribs gave way to her abdomen.

Her breath stopped when his hands came up to cup her breasts. Gently he palmed one, letting its softness spread under his fingers. His face remained on her thigh, though, as if he could not bear to take his nose more than a few inches away from her swollen pussy.

His fingers found her nipple. Tenderly, he rolled the little point between them. Thail took his time about it. First a pinch. Then a gentle tug. Then a fingertip sent on an exploratory journey around the border of her areola. With more patience than she would have believed possible, he learned her body.

When he pulled the pad of his thumb lightly over one of her tight nubs, not even hard enough to press it down to her skin, she felt her entire body tighten. Sparks seemed to run down towards her pussy.

“Thail,” she sighed. She wanted…what, exactly? She didn’t even know. She didn’t have multiple orgasms – she just couldn’t. But somehow, Thail’s touch still had her feeling a pulse of desire. He clearly sensed it, because he was nuzzling his way back towards her pussy.

The tip of his tongue emerged and probed inquisitively at her core. She let him. He left her clit alone and wasn’t making her feel overstimulated. His tongue and lips were warm and soothing in her pussy, and infinitely gentle.

Thail was clearly getting what he needed from this. Even though his tongue only played at her entrance, she felt him shake between her thighs again. His mating scent intensified, and he groaned in wordless pleasure.

She felt a rush of renewed wetness flood her pussy, but Thail was there lapping it up as soon as it came. His tongue worked deeper into her body, plunging in and then withdrawing in a steady, deliberate rhythm. Even that was thick within her channel, making his penetration surprisingly satisfying.

“Mmm,” Jessa moaned. “That’s so nice.” Her hands found their way back into his hair. She threaded her fingers through the silky mass, enjoying the feeling of his square jaw working under her palm. He was still blissfully warm against her skin, but was he starting to feel less feverish?

Jessa could hardly tell. Maybe it was just that she was starting to feel hot. And even though she knew she couldn’t come again, she wondered what it would feel like if Thail licked her clit now. Just a little, nothing too intense.

“Thail, can you…” she started.

He pulled his mouth from her. “Can I what?” he asked.

Jessa flushed. She had never in her life asked a guy to use his mouth on her, let alone…there. She never even imagined that she might want it that badly.

Thail seemed to understand that she was struggling to ask him for more. “Can I get enough of your sweet honey? Sorry, but no,” he said. He slid a finger deep into her channel and then pulled it out to suck her juices off of his skin.

Lust turned his expression languid and sensual as he tasted her. He withdrew his finger from his mouth, and gently spread her cunt lips before his hot gaze. “Can I tear my eyes away from this warm, slick pussy of yours? Not for anything.”

He bent in close, so near he could surely reach her with his tongue if he chose. “Now what I could do is kiss your tight little clit. Would you like that, Jessa?”

“Just a kiss?” she breathed, half-afraid to try.

“Just a kiss,” he confirmed. He looked so hungry, like he wanted nothing more than to devour her. “Just a little of brush of my lips against you. If that’s what you’re asking me to do to you.”

“All right,” she whispered. “Kiss me, Thail.”

“With pleasure,” he growled, and then his lips were caressing her swollen bud. Somehow, he seemed to know exactly what balance to strike between a light touch and a strong one. It seemed like the entire world had collapsed down to that one small spot where he had connected with her. She felt enveloped in his warmth.

Then, with a delicate flick of his tongue, Thail withdrew from her. He dipped two of his fingers into the well of her pussy and then bracketed her clit with them. “Was that good, Jessa? Do you want more?”

Part of her wanted to cry out yes – yes, it had been incredibly hot. Yes, she wanted more of the pleasure he was giving her. Still she hesitated. Any minute now, this was going to start feeling too intense against her sensitized flesh and ruin everything.

“I…I can’t –” she started.

“You can now,” Thail rumbled. “We can. Watch.”

He bent to her again, cupping her ass in his free hand, lifting it slightly as though her hips were a bowl he would drink from. His tongue laved its way over her pussy lips and then dove into her channel, stroking her with renewed ardor. As he did, his fingers set to a steady rhythm around her clit.

He built her arousal higher and higher. His scent was everywhere, threatening to drive Jessa right out of her mind.  But above all else, she was consumed with desire at the relentless, inescapable attention he was giving to her pussy.

She couldn’t stop him, and oh, God, she didn’t even want to anymore. His fingers slid on either side of her clit, working her until she knew that coming was as necessary as her next breath.

“Oh…Oh, Thail!” she cried out, and then she was coming on his tongue. Thail stayed with her, wringing out everything she could give and voicing his own pleasure into the juncture of her thighs.

When she finally came back to Earth, he pulled back from her. His eyes seemed to be getting some of their color back, but they were blazing with lust. His lips and chin were wet with her honey. He looked half-wild.

And, apparently, nowhere near done. “Again,” he rasped, before fastening his lips over her clit once more.

This time, there was no pretense. He needed her nectar. He intended for her to come against his mouth. He was entirely capable of making her body respond over and over again.

There was nothing Jessa could do but submit to Thail’s tasting. With a soft cry, she dug her fingers into the covers and let the pleasure of his touch drag her under again.

Chapter Text

Much later, Thail gave one last kiss to Jessa’s swollen, overheated pussy before levering off of his knees to half-sit, half-collapse against the side of the bed. He had lost count of the orgasms, hers and his, but finally the maddening lust had faded.

He was physically sated. He was emotionally wrecked.

At the beginning, the lust had been so consuming that he had been like a passenger in his own body. It had been eerily reminiscent of his early life in the Collective. Stronger forces than his own will had demanded, and Thail could only obey.

As his lust-filled fugue gradually passed, tasting Jessa had become more Thail’s own conscious doing. He could have stopped and let the paroxysms of desire fade out on their own, unfulfilled. But he hadn’t.

Somewhere along the way, it had become his choice to keep tasting her over and over. It had been his choice to rut like an animal instead of resisting like a warrior.

Over and over, he had written his name with his tongue on her petals, her clit, her entrance. The practice was just one part of an intricate, ancient Kindred marking ritual.

A natural-born male would have learned the whole ceremony as he prepared for his coming of age. He would have studied all of the Kindred traditions of pleasure – the anointings, the rites of joining, the great liturgy of love – so that he could give them to his bride if the Goddess so blessed him.

But no one had imagined that Thail would ever be worthy, ever need to be ready. Now it had become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Like an uncouth barbarian, Thail could only give Jessa a crude imitation of the real ritual. He had only known one thing – he needed to seal his bride to him. 

She was his, dammit. His body was completely attuned to pleasuring hers. Whether he was truly worthy to be her mate or not, he felt compelled to claim her body as thoroughly as she had claimed his heart. And now the guilt came flooding into the void left when his lust abated.

Gods, the effect she had on him. He was exhausted, and sore, and ashamed. He had spent hours between her thighs, taking everything she had to give. Her taste and smell and the sounds of her pleasure were indelibly imprinted on his soul now. And still it wasn’t enough. A part of him – and not just the obvious one – wanted to dive right back in and renew his connection to her body.

“Thail?” came Jessa’s soft voice above him. She stirred on the mattress. “Are you OK?”

“I’m here,” he half answered. Although, at this point he doubted she would find his presence reassuring. “I think I’ve gotten the bonding fruit out of my system now.”

He heard Jessa move on the bed. Then her cool, soft hand was on his brow, brushing his disheveled hair off of his face. The tenderness of the gesture almost undid him. What had he ever done to deserve her? And what in the Seven Hells had happened to him?

Not even a week ago, things had been simple. He had been just another unmated male. A fucking air quality engineer whose biggest concern had been a few extra parts per million of carbon dioxide in an unoccupied storage bay.

He hadn’t been anyone special, but he hadn’t been lost, either. His body, damaged though it was, had made sense. His emotions had (mostly) made sense. His world had made sense. Now, absolutely nothing made sense. But he still wouldn’t put his life back the way it was, not for anything.

The hard irony was that this experience had made him both more and less certain of his Kindred identity than ever before. He was more certain in that falling this hard for Jessa – feeling this level of devotion – was the most quintessentially Kindred thing he had ever done. He ached to bond with her, could feel it in his bones that bonding was what his people were intended to do.

And yet, he was less certain of himself than ever. It was the universe’s cruel joke that no amount of wanting a bond would ever enable him to form one. Worse, it felt like when he tried to be the kind of male Jessa deserved, he often as not ended up doing more harm than good.

“I’m sorry, Jessa,” he told her, his voice low and hoarse. “More sorry than I can tell you.”

Her hand stilled on his brow. After a moment, it withdrew. Her emotional walls seemed to grow a foot thicker in the silence that followed. Once again, the more he wanted her close, the more he seemed to push her away.

“How about that ice pack?” she asked, picking up on their previous conversation as though the last few hours hadn’t even happened. As though he hadn’t just learned every fold and curve of her pussy with his tongue. As though her taste wasn’t going to be something he craved for the rest of his life.

Was that what she needed right now – emotional distance? He had been in intimate contact with her for hours. He had held her in about as vulnerable a position as a male could place a female. She had never outright denied him, but he had undoubtedly taken so much more than she had ever planned to give.

Jessa had come every time he demanded it of her. She had let him drink her in until at last he had had his fill. That didn’t necessarily mean she had wanted to. Thail buried his head in his hands.

Thail’s relentless body and his damaged brain both wanted nothing more than to scoop Jessa into his arms and hold her close against his chest. He yearned to talk to her about what had just happened between them, to hear her feelings. He desperately wanted to understand her.

But maybe, he told himself, for Goddess-damned once you can try giving her what she needs. And Jessa had just made it clear that more intimacy with him was not on her list.

As Thail was working through his confusion, Jessa got off the bed and headed into the fresher, graceful as a dancer. A moment later, she was walking back towards him with a pair of small towels and the ice bucket.

Thail winced. He could only imagine how he looked to Jessa. He felt like a particulate filter two cycles overdue for replacement. He was sprawled against the side of the bed, utterly depleted, and as naked as the day he was decanted. He could feel his seed drying on his thighs and abdomen.

That wasn’t even half of it. The pillow he’d been kneeling on would need to be thrown out, and maybe the bed covers, too. It was the mercy of the Goddess at work that the floor of the guest suite was not carpeted.

Thail’s bonding scent was so thick in the air that he could all but see it. He knotted one of the towels around a double handful of ice and rested it on his groin. The other, he used to scrub his face and body, trying to get his own stink off of him.

He had come more and harder than he ever had in his life, without so much as touching his over-sensitized shaft. All it took was Jessa’s taste, and the sounds of her pleasure. And it was a Gods-damned good thing, because the bonding fruit overdose had left him too inflamed and irritated for anything more direct.

Thankfully, fast Kindred healing had already started to kick in. The worst of the skin irritation had resolved itself as he tasted her. The swelling and pain were also starting to recede now that he had spilled enough seed to flush the bonding fruit out of his system.

“Did you pack the ergos root in your bag?” Jessa asked.

Thail nodded. “I did. It’ll be in the inside pocket closest to the fastener. One sachet should be the correct dose for someone your size.”

“I meant for you, not for me. I feel fine,” Jessa answered, digging into his travel bag. She pulled out the little bag of ergos root and wrinkled her brow slightly, “Surprisingly good, really.”

As she returned to the fresher, she tossed a question back over her shoulder, “Is that a Kindred thing, not getting sore?”

That was interesting. Jessa seemed willing to acknowledge what had transpired between them – at least, the physical component of it. She wanted emotional distance, but she was apparently not so upset that she recoiled from any discussion of sex.

“It is,” Thail answered cautiously. “For Beast Kindred in particular bonding sex takes several hours to complete. The same compounds that help our females open for us also help prevent discomfort when we bond and re-bond our mates. The Tranqs can heal their brides with their mouths, and the Twins rely on bonding fruit.”

Jessa came out of the fresher with a glass of water in hand. She raised an eyebrow at Thail’s words and swept her gaze over his body. “The bonding fruit really seems to have done a number on you. I don’t think I’ll be trying it anytime soon.”

Thail grimaced and accepted the water and ergos root from her. “It wouldn’t have been so bad, but I ate three of them where I believe only one is recommended. And then to make matters worse I went several hours without realizing what was happening. Which…well, thank you for putting the pieces together. I’m glad one of us kept her head.”

Jessa shook her head. “That stuff is dangerous. I mean, it seems like the New Brides Committee shouldn’t be handing it out like candy. It’s a wonder the Med Center isn’t full of overdose victims.”

 “Not really,” admitted Thail. “A natural-born male – one who was raised to call a bride and bond – would have known better. And I doubt it occurred to the Committee that a tube-grown male would ever blunder into a bonding suite.”

Thail watched Jessa out of the corner of his eye as he emptied two sachets of ergos root into the water glass. She didn’t seem upset by this turn in the conversation.

“In any event, I suspect that providing new brides with a basket of bonding fruit has done more good than harm,” Thail continued. “Claiming periods have a way of spiraling out of control with little warning. When the bonding urge takes hold, Kindred are not well-known for our asceticism.”

Jessa chuckled. “What about understatement? Are Kindred known for that, or is that just you?”

 “Kindred certainly weren’t considered reserved or restrained by the Collective,” said Thail. “Far too many messy emotions. And in recent cycles, that’s held true for me, too.”

Thail held his breath. Would Jessa see that as an open door to discuss the emotional ramifications of the last few days? Would she walk through it?

“Well, speaking of messy,” she replied, “You look like a shower might do you some good. Are you feeling up to it?”

Damn it. No, she apparently wasn’t going to open up. He might not have traumatized her this night, but he hadn’t won her trust, either.

With a sigh, Thail pushed himself off the floor. “Right, a shower,” he echoed. If she wanted some time apart from him, he would give her that. And while he was washing up, he would try very hard not to think about the precious minutes rinsing down the drain.

* * * * *

Thail had half-way expected Jessa to be asleep when he emerged from the fresher. Instead, he found that she had spent the time cleaning their suite. She had procured fresh linens from somewhere, the floor was clean, and a window had been thrown open to let in the cool night air.

Thail had felt her eyes on him as he dried himself. Human-style towels were not particularly efficient so that had taken longer than usual. And frankly, he’d been in no hurry to cover himself.

He was quite deliberately offering her his body. He wanted her to look. He would have been thrilled if she had touched him. There wasn’t much he was sure of where Jessa was concerned, but the physical attraction they shared was undeniable.

Thail would build on that every chance he got. If he could get away with it, he would stay undressed for the remainder of his claiming period. So when he came out of the fresher, he lingered with the towel quite a bit longer than he ordinarily would have done. Eventually, though, his stomach had growled so loudly that Jessa overheard.

“Hey, Thail,” Jessa had called out, “does that mean I’m in breach of contract for letting you get too hungry?” The tone of her voice suggested that she was speaking in jest, recalling his comments about her own hunger on their “first date”.

“I think not,” he had replied in a similarly light tone. “I believe there’s an exception where the claimee is so determined to get into the bedroom that a meal gets missed.”

Jessa hummed in agreement. “Makes sense. But if you’re feeling better now, want to see if we can get something to eat?”

Thail would have done without in a heartbeat if he thought Jessa wanted to prolong their closeness. But she had arrived in the hotel room a scant few minutes after him, and had almost certainly skipped last meal, too.

Not that she had complained about it. Not that she ever did. 

But if she wouldn’t tell him what her needs were, Thail would still do his best to anticipate them and meet them. He had dressed and joined her in hunting for a late-night snack.

The dining room was dark and quiet when they arrived. The other tourists had already eaten and moved on to different amusements. Many had returned to their rooms. The rest were gathered in a plush lounging area to drink alcoholic beverages and play games of chance.

There was still a light on in the kitchen, and noise within. They approached and found one of the tour company owners, a male named Gideon Nyongo, mopping up. As he did, he was talking with an Elite female who was putting away dishes.

The pair moved around each other like they were performing steps of a well-rehearsed dance. Although human male scents were quite underdeveloped by Kindred standards, Thail could detect Gideon’s scent on the female. She was undoubtedly his mate. Thail still wasn’t sure how territorial human males were, so he resolved to keep a respectful distance.

Jessa evidently was not concerned, and approached. “Hey, sorry to bother y’all so late. We missed dinner. Is there any way we could get a snack?”

The female cast her gaze over Jessa and Thail and rolled her eyes in a gesture of good-natured exasperation. “Newlyweds are you, then? There’s at least one pair of you in every group.”

For some reason, Jessa blushed at this. Thail’s heart sank. His bride was embarrassed for others to know that he made love to her. Was it because he was tube-grown? Was that stigmatized among humans as it was for the Kindred? Or did she find him disappointing in some other way?

Gideon spoke up. “You’re the Stefanos, right? Miss Jessa and…what was it again, sir?”

“Thail.”

“Right. Thail. From Georgia, wasn’t it?” he asked, apparently not expecting Thail to answer. “Anyway, I’m afraid the bad news is that half the kitchen has been taken apart for washing. The good news is that my wife Ruth here is the best cook north of Kilimanjaro, and even the leftovers are excellent. Mpendwa, was there any rice left?”

“No, not tonight,” answered the female, Ruth. “But there was plenty of ugali, and there should be roast chicken and a few samosas, too.”

“Even better,” said Gideon. “Guests can be slow to try Ruth’s ugali on the first night, but usually by the third night we’re running out of it.”

He rummaged in the chiller for a moment and came up with a few plastic containers. He filled a pair of plates, fished out some eating utensils, then pointed towards a low chest out in the dining room. “There are drinks in there. Help yourselves.”

Chapter Text

Jessa picked at her chicken. It was delicious, and she certainly ought to be hungry. She ought to be downright famished. But her mind was so unpleasantly full that it made it hard to even think about an empty belly.

Worse, she seemed to be stuck on the same two trains of thought, chasing each other ad nauseam.

One was how mind-blowingly good Thail had been at going down. She thought of herself as being pretty attuned to her body’s signals, but Thail had shown her things she had barely even dreamt she could do. If all Kindred were that skilled, she could see why so few brides held out beyond the Tasting Week.

The surprise factor went beyond just Thail’s physical skills. Jessa was also startled that she had responded well to him being so…well, dominant seemed to be the only word for it.

She had had a few guys try the whole macho he-man act before.  It had never really worked for her. Jessa wasn’t easily intimidated, and she wasn’t easily impressed. Men were still just people who put their socks on one foot at a time. A penis was no grant of authority. Testicles did not improve a person’s credibility.

At best, it had felt silly and fake to her the few times that human guys had asked for cliché BDSM stuff. At worst, it had been an instant end to a date when one particular asshole had decided that she needed a spanking and he was just the person to administer it.

With Thail, it had been different. After her first orgasm, he had splayed that big hand of his over her womb to hold her on the bed, and she had melted. It hadn’t mattered that he was on his knees at the bedside, and not in any shape to actually force her. It hadn’t mattered that he was completely respectful.

He’d wanted. He’d taken. She’d submitted.

Maybe the difference was that Thail seemed like he really meant his ardor to an extent Jessa had never seen before. He wasn’t just roleplaying. It wasn’t a game to him. He had needed her, and had been damn well determined to have her.

But those musings led inevitably to the second train of thought she was obsessing over. How much of Thail’s eagerness had been his own, and how much of that was just the effects of the bonding fruit?

Thail had been in pain. His mating scent had been intense in the air between them, to the extent that it interfered with Jessa’s judgment. God only knew what it had been doing to him. And the way his eyes had been dilated…that wasn’t just a garden variety case of blue balls. The bonding fruit had affected him on a neurological level.

As demanding as Thail had been in bed, she wasn’t worried that she had taken advantage of him. But if had been just the two of them, no chemicals involved, would he have wanted her like that? Did he actually like going down, or was it something he had only done out of desperation?

When he had finally pulled back from her, he had said that he was sorry. But why? He had to have known that it had been a virtuoso performance in bed, that he had absolutely rocked her world.

Did Thail regret it because he didn’t actually like that kind of thing? Was he embarrassed to have put himself into that position with her? Was he afraid that he had inadvertently led her on, and given her the wrong impression about his desires?

Thail hadn’t been all that affectionate since he picked himself up off the floor. Not that he was cold or rude or anything, but he wasn’t showing any signs of an afterglow, either. He had gone down on her for literally hours, but you would never guess it to watch the two of them together now.

He hadn’t touched her since his lips fell away from her pussy.

Thail seemed more ravenous for chicken than for kisses. That wasn’t entirely surprising given the amount of his cum she had cleaned off the floor. Whatever his emotional state, that had to have been physically exhausting, especially following a sleepless night and a miserable day.

As Jessa watched out of the corner of her eye, Thail polished off the last piece of chicken on his plate. Gideon had loaded them up generously, but Thail’s was now almost empty. On top of that, he had also downed three big bottles of the sports drink she picked out for him. He undoubtedly needed to replace some fluids after what he’d done in the bedroom.

The meal probably still wasn’t enough for him. Thail could put away more food in a single sitting than Jessa typically wanted in an entire day. She might sometimes wish she could get away with a few more candy bars, but she did not envy him the chore of fueling the raging furnace of his metabolism.

“I’m not going to finish all of this,” she told him. “Want a piece of my chicken?”

Thail’s brow wrinkled. “How could you finish your meal? You have not even started it.”

Jessa shrugged. “I’m just not that hungry, I guess.”

Thail raised an eyebrow at that. “You have had a bul’o and a cup of coffee today. Now you are refusing to eat last meal. Jessa, I am worried.”

“You don’t need to be. I feel fine. Just…not hungry.”

“Bullshit.”

Jessa startled at the blunt declaration. “What?!”

“Did I not use the expression correctly?” asked Thail. “I thought in this context it could be used to convey a belief that you were not telling me the whole truth.”

“N-no,” stammered Jessa. “I mean, that is generally what bullshit means when you say it like that. But why do you think I’m bullshitting you about this?”

“You were up in the middle of the night with abdominal cramping that required you to visit the Med Center,” Thail said sternly. “Since then, you have not eaten enough to satisfy a Rageron tree glider, let alone an adult female.”

Thail put down his fork and pinned Jessa under his gaze. “I suspect that you are concealing an illness out of concern that it would end or limit this trip. And while I do not want to carry you out to the shuttle and abduct you back to the Mother Ship for further treatment, I am beginning to think I might have to.”

Jessa broke eye contact. “It’s nothing like that, really.” She hadn’t thought of how her behavior would look from Thail’s perspective. If anything, she had just assumed that he wouldn’t be paying that much attention. Human guys generally didn’t.

Thail’s voice softened. “Then tell me what is happening. Please. I’m worried about you.”

She sighed. This was not a conversation she particularly wanted to have. But Thail’s concern seemed sincere and she didn’t want to leave him worrying about it.

“The cramps last night weren’t any kind of infection,” she admitted. “They were…well, you weren’t the only one with an implant, I guess. A lot of human women have devices placed in our bodies to prevent unplanned pregnancies. I did. But apparently, having a Kindred male…uh, get intimate with us causes our bodies to reject those implants. That’s why I was cramping up.”

“And the medic was able to resolve this problem for you?” asked Thail.

Jessa nodded. “She took my implant out. I really did start feeling better right away once she did. And contraception is kind of a moot point for us anyways, isn’t it?”

“It is,” agreed Thail. “For me and for all Kindred, really. Only, for other males the answer to the question of conception is not until bonding, and then as the Goddess wills it. For me, the answer is no, forever. In any event, no Kindred can choose whether we have children. That gift is beyond our control.”

He sounded so sad about that. Jessa’s heart broke a bit for Thail. Regardless of whether there was any future for the two of them, his infertility was clearly a difficult subject for him. It was hard enough for humans. There had to be a crap ton of baggage that came with it for a race of genetic traders.

“Thail –” she started, putting her hand to his heavily muscled shoulder.

Then the moment was broken as Gideon called out from the kitchen door, “Mr. and Ms. Stefano? That’s it for Ruth and me. If you would please, leave your plates in the sink and they’ll be taken care of in the morning.”

Jessa cleared her throat. “Oh, OK. Goodnight, y’all. And thanks for the meal. Ruth, I can see that Gideon wasn’t kidding about how good your cooking is.”

“The best in Kenya,” said Gideon, grinning. He put an affectionate arm around Ruth’s shoulders as she came up to say her own good night. “And we mustn’t let you forget it, mpendwa,” he said to his wife. Then with a smile and a wave, they were gone, leaving Jessa and Thail alone in the dim light of the dining room.

Jessa half-heartedly nudged one of the pieces of chicken on her plate. “You sure you don’t want this?”

Thail considered her for a moment, and then took the chicken from her plate. He pulled off a bite…and then held it out to her. “Let’s make a deal. I’ll eat if you will.”

She raised an eyebrow at him, but the look on his face was dead serious and unwavering.

He wasn’t wrong. She did need to eat, and she knew it even if she didn’t quite feel it. She took the proffered bite of chicken from his fingers and popped it in her mouth. “Deal.”

Thail relaxed and pulled off a bite for himself. “This is good,” he said. “I had eaten roasted chicken before on the Mother Ship, and did not particularly like it there.”

“Really?” asked Jessa. “How can anyone not like chicken?”

“I can see now that it had more to do with the preparation than the actual meat itself. The chicken I tried was very dry and did not have much flavor. This is much better.” He handed her another piece.

Jessa accepted it. “That would do it,” she agreed. “It isn’t very good when it’s overcooked.” Ruth’s chicken really was delicious. It just wasn’t what Jessa was hungry for tonight.

Anytime she wanted, Jessa could cook up a pretty mean roasted chicken if she did say so herself. She could come up with fun things to do in her spare time at the drop of a hat. She had all the cozy, quiet nights in with the comforts of home she could ever want.

Jessa could find sex when she wanted it. Granted, sex as hot as what she and Thail had was unprecedented in her experience. Still, she wasn’t hurting for orgasms. She could find friendship, too, and even love. She had her family, her gal pals, her students, and her coworkers.

What she had come to understand, though, was that affection was a need she never seemed to get filled. Not just affection – romance.

She wished…she wished she was sitting on Thail’s lap. She wished that he was whispering sweet words in her ear. She wished he would feed her from his hand, let her lick the flavor from his fingers – she’d eat a whole flock of chickens for him if he did. She wished that he would do something, anything to claim her as openly as she had claimed him.

She wished that Thail loved her.

If she was brutally honest with herself, the last six days had pushed her over the edge from fondness into real love. She wanted him to return her feelings more than she wanted a fun trip, even more than she wanted sex. She certainly wanted it a damn sight more than she wanted chicken.

But the safari, the orgasms, and the leftovers were what she had. Anything else had to be Thail’s free choice. So far, he was choosing ‘no’.

* * * * *

Thail watched Jessa eat.

She looked healthy. The explanation she had given for her sudden illness last night made sense. Thail wasn’t pleased to learn that he had caused it, but he was relieved to hear that it was treatable. The medic had said last night that Jessa would recover well. She insisted that she felt fine.

She was not fine. There was something in the downward turn of her mouth and the listless way she picked at her meal that set Thail’s instincts on edge.

He didn’t have to have eight months of dream sharing experience to know that this was not how Jessa behaved when she was happy. He thought back to first meal yesterday morning.

He had loved watching the way she cupped her coffee mug between her hands and breathed in the steam with a contented sigh. Or there was the way she had savored the delectable little tapas they had sampled in Barcelona. Or there was even the enjoyment she had taken in the pasta they had eaten together on their awkward first evening together.

Looking back, he could see that there had been a sea change in her mood over the past 24 hours. It was hard to pinpoint when things had shifted, but he thought the sadness had started to creep in sometime in Antarctica.

At least at the time, he thought he had addressed her anxiety about being seen unshaven appropriately. She hadn’t withdrawn from him after – quite the opposite.

Jessa had taken pleasure in his touch. He knew she had. Her body had responded so beautifully to his. And the way she had welcomed him into her embrace after she had come was now near the top of the list of Thail’s most treasured memories.

So maybe it wasn’t anything he had done. Antarctica was also where they had learned that Thail’s claiming would only last for a dozen days. Was that it? Maybe she was having trouble making up her mind about Thail. The thought sent a surge of anxiety racing through him.

Jessa had been dreaming of him for eight months. She knew his character as well as anyone. It seemed unlikely that there was anything he could say to convince her of his fitness, if what she had seen of him in her dreams was not enough. What good was an empty boast of his devotion without action?

For something like the hundredth time that day, he cast about for ideas for how to not just say that he was worth choosing, but show it. And just as he had the other ninety-nine times, he drew a blank.

Clearly, he was going about this the wrong way. The answer to his question was not just going to suggest itself to him from thin air. Instead, he needed to solicit Jessa’s opinions on the qualities a good mate should have.

“So,” he ventured. “Gideon and Ruth. They seem happy together.”

Jessa smiled. “Yeah, they do, don’t they? You know it’s true love if he’s mopping the kitchen floor for her.”

Thail nodded thoughtfully. That was astonishingly easy – both getting an answer and putting it into effect. Mopping. It seemed like a trivial chore, really.

Then again, a great many things that the mainline Kindred did had seemed strange to Thail at first. Why should human culture be any less surprising? Maybe mopping had some kind of deeper cultural significance, like the frog-kissing legend Jessa had alluded to in Antarctica.

If you squinted your eyes and thought libidinous thoughts, you could interpret the mop as a phallic symbol. The bucket was clearly a yonic one. And then there were all of the creamy suds passing between the two. Suddenly it was making a lot of sense to Thail that humans had adopted mopping as a mating ritual.

The floor in their suite on the Mother Ship was normally cleaned by a swarm of genetically engineered animals not unlike turtles that lived underneath the cabinets. But if Jessa saw mopping as a gesture of devotion, Thail would acquire the necessary equipment. Gideon had been using a large yellow bucket on wheels with some sort of wringing contraption on top…

What else could Thail learn from Gideon’s example? After another few bites, he spoke again. “So, why does Gideon call Ruth mpendwa?”

 “It’s a pet name in Swahili. Like sweetheart or baby in English, I guess,” she said.

“But why? Why would she want him to characterize the taste of her heart, or compare her to an infant?”

“It’s not meant to be taken that literally,” she answered. “It’s just a nice gesture. She’s his wife. He’s the man who’s closest to her. When he uses a little endearment like that, something that’s just between the two of them, that’s what he’s really referring to.”

Jessa shrugged. “I mean…you and I can call her by name, but neither one of us really knows a thing about her. It would be really presumptuous for either of us to use a nickname like that with an acquaintance. Her husband is going to be the only one who calls her mpendwa.”

So pet names are something life mates are supposed to use, thought Thail. Maybe after I’ve mopped for her

 

Chapter Text

Thail was on one of the medical barges in orbit around Z4. How had that happened? Hadn’t he just been somewhere far away?

It did seem like it had been several cycles since he last came up for routine maintenance. Somehow, though, he could not remember why he had been away so long.

Didn’t he usually come here more often? All drones in the worker class were required to undertake a standard physical and emotion damper check once a cycle. In addition, the Collective required organics routinely exposed to hazardous atmospheres to get their lung function checked.

Thail had certainly been exposed in the most recent cycle. Back when he had been installing new industrial exhaust scrubbers at a facility in Fabrication Zone XR, there had been a significant gas leak. His mask had not been able to keep out all of the sulfur dioxide.

The job had been marked as high priority, though. Acquiring and installing a superior grade of respirator would have taken in excess of three days. He had no choice but to stay until the task was done. His eyes and lungs had burned for weeks after that, but eventually he seemed to have healed up.

Then – not ten days ago – several other worker drones in his crew had died after a pressure loss in an orbital facility. Thail had started rescue efforts when he heard the seal blow out, but the Collective had calculated that the odds of success were too low. He was ordered to cease his efforts and let them die. By the time he received the order to quit his own lungs were severely stressed.

But whatever the reason for his absence, now he was on the med barge. His old respirator mask had been removed, as it always was during these visits. The med staff had checked his lung capacity to ensure that he remained fit to work. They also confirmed that he had not developed any cancers due to the toxic gases he was frequently required to breathe.

If he had gotten so sick that his treatment expense exceeded eighty percent of his replacement cost, he would have been euthanized. Already several of his clone brothers from his incubation batch had reached that point. But this time he had passed inspection and was approved for another cycle’s work. 

Once he was cleared, his oral hygiene microbots had been replaced and his hair and beard had been inhibited for the next cycle. A new respirator was issued to him and was about to be installed by a Tolleg surgeon. After that, he would return to his work crew.

But for the moment – and only while he was off the surface of Z4 – he was allowed to live without a visible enhancement.

Being barefaced was a novel sensation. Without his mask, Thail could smell his surroundings – the Tolleg medical team, disinfectants, machinery, and the scents of the other organics who had passed through this med bay.

During these visits the world around him always seemed more…real somehow. Like he was truly awake for only the few hours he would spend here. But soon enough, he would have his mask replaced and the world would blur around him.

He raised his hand and rubbed his chin. It was a part of his own body, but the sensation of touch on his lower face still felt alien. Carefully, he explored the skin of his jaw and his lips. This was him. It felt unfamiliar, but on some level he knew that it was the mask that was unnatural.

Stranger still, when Thail took a deep breath, air flooded into his lungs without having to trickle through a filter first. The sensation was cold and bracing.

He did it again and again, until he was light-headed and on the verge of hyperventilation. Why?

There was no logical need to alter his breathing pattern in that manner. Local atmospheric pressure was well within acceptable parameters and holding stable. The Tolleg medic had just confirmed that his lungs were in acceptable condition. There was no physiological deficit he needed to compensate for.

Still, it was like some part of him was desperate to take in as much fresh air as he could before he was closed back into his respirator. The thought alone of having it reinstalled over his face provoked an accelerated heart rate and threatened to send his breathing out of control again.

He seemed to be perspiring on his bare scalp even though he was not exerting himself. The exam room was not at all warm.

He had not done this – not reacted this way – any of the previous times when he had gone in for scheduled maintenance. If it wasn’t a biological need, and it wasn’t a logical decision, it could only be one thing. Feeling.

“Medic,” he called out. His voice sounded strangely quiet and soft, coming directly from his own mouth instead of being amplified through the speaker built into his mask.

The Tolleg turned to regard him. This one was a female of the species, he saw. But then, his nose had told him that much when she first came into the exam room. The differences in her scent were intriguing.

He wasn’t interested in a sexual way. Their species were utterly incompatible for breeding. Even if they hadn’t been, the emotion damper prevented drones from experiencing sexual arousal. Still, there was something about the difference that grabbed his attention.

“Yes, 55-BT-4051-1?” she squeaked in a high, piping voice. “Is something concerning you? Please speak up, please speak up.”

Wasn’t that his current designation? Why had he thought it was Thail? That sounded like a Feeler name. It couldn’t be his – 55-BT-4051-1 had never had such a name, and never would.

“I appear to be feeling,” he told the Tolleg. Part of him was…afraid? He had a notion that he should not have told the medic what was happening. The medic would take his ability to feel away again. But shouldn’t 55-BT-4051-1 prefer that? He would be of no use to the Collective if he was purged for feel-crime.

The Tolleg pulled around a brain-scanning rig and aimed it at 55-BT-4051-1’s skull for a few minutes. He did his best to remain completely still for the scan, but found it unusually difficult. Eventually, the scanner beeped and displayed a graphic of his brain and implants on the nearest screen.

There was his emotion damper – a lump the size of a pebble by his brainstem, with tendrils extending throughout his brain. And there was the Collective’s communications chip. It had been seeded deep between his midbrain and his occipital lobe before his skull had fully formed in the incubation tube.

In his bonding locus, the Tollegs had said once. That…felt so wrong. Like somehow that part of his brain was supposed to be dedicated to another purpose. Except, what other use could 55-BT-4051-1 possibly have for that structure?

He had heard that the Feelers who were his primary genetic source – the Kindred – used the bonding locus in their mating customs. But 55-BT-4051-1 would never mate. Why would he, when the Collective could create custom organics whenever it needed them?

The closest any organics ever got to reproducing under the Collective’s rubric were the 106-TJ series. Even they only performed clinical work in the gene mixing labs – they certainly didn’t breed. And he was one of the 55-BT series air quality technicians. His only purpose was to service and install systems for removing noxious gases.

The medic reviewed 55-BT-4051-1’s brain scans for a minute more and then spoke. “It does appear that your damper is struggling to compensate for your emotional state. I’m not sure whether that is just a temporary reaction to the maintenance process, or whether it’s a longer-term problem. Organics with more Kindred genes do tend to have a higher failure rate with their dampers. So they do, so they do.”

“I see,” said 55-BT-4051-1. “Will it be necessary to replace my damper during this visit?”

“That would be best,” said the medic. “We could boost the gain on the communications chip to bolster the damper, but I think a full replacement would be better in the long run.”

“A full damper replacement would be a major procedure, would it not?” asked 55-BT-4051-1.

“Yes it would, yes it would. General anesthesia will be required, and the recovery will take between three and six days. However, the replacement procedure is still deemed routine for your particular damper model, and the risks are low. A neurosurgeon could perform the procedure as early as tomorrow morning.”

That would mean at least twenty hours spent waiting for surgery. Twenty hours without a working damper, experiencing whatever emotions crossed his mind. Twenty hours without his respirator, breathing free-flowing air and catching the scents of his surroundings. And then there would be even more time spent in recovery before his mask could be reinstalled.

He felt a powerful surge of curiosity and…longing? Was that the word? What kind of male would he be if he was not serving as a 55-BT series air quality technician? Could he do other things? Maybe he would try eating something with his mouth. That skill didn’t look too hard to learn.

He opened his mouth to agree to the damper replacement, but found other words emerging.

“I prefer not to undertake such a procedure at this time,” said 55-BT-4051-1. “We are due to begin a complete overhaul of the air circulation systems at Nexus 61-D tomorrow. My presence will be required. Boost the gain on my communications chip instead.”

The little Tolleg appeared to be feeling quite intensely in response to 55-BT-4051-1’s statement. She swayed on her stool and made a high, keening noise. It seemed quite unpleasant for her – not at all the kind of thing that any member of the Collective should ever experience.

“Please reconsider,” said the medic. “Boosting the gain on your communications chip would aggravate your bonding locus. It likely would cause permanent damage. So it would, so it would.”

Some illogical part of 55-BT-4051-1 agreed with the Tolleg. He did not want to injure his own brain, even though he was not meant to ever mate with a female. But although he was feeling for the moment, the Collective was still in command of his life. Its will was for him to report to work on schedule tomorrow.

“I understand,” said 55-BT-4051-1. “I will take that risk. Boost the gain.”

The Tolleg looked around to see if anyone else was watching. “Please, no,” she whispered. “You are Kindred. I know you don’t understand it, but you need to bond. It is essential to your species’ wellbeing. Don’t ask me to maim you this way. I beg you, I beg you.”

“This behavior is unacceptable to the Collective, medic,” said 55-BT-4051-1 through gritted teeth.

Again, he found himself starting to hyperventilate. There was absolutely no logical reason for it. Still, it was as though his own body was fighting to prevent him from getting the words out.

Part of him was desperate to avoid going back. But another part – a stronger part, a part that felt increasingly alien and hostile – was adamant that he put an end to this, immediately.

 “Boost the gain,” growled 55-BT-4051-1. “You will not be given another chance to comply.”

The little medic whimpered in distress, but backed away and made an adjustment on a control panel. When she did, 55-BT-4051-1 noticed that his annoyance began to recede into the background. So did his doubts about boosting the gain on his communications chip, and the strange impulses to hyperventilate and touch his face.

He settled back down against the exam table where he had been lying. After a few minutes, the Tolleg began to install his new respirator.

By the time she closed 55-BT-4051-1’s new mask over his face, the inner voice that had been screaming at him to ask the Tolleg for help – or at least to breathe deeply while he still could – was no louder than a whisper.

Chapter Text

The chest underneath Jessa’s cheek was heaving. She struggled into wakefulness. It took a few moments to remember where she was, and who owned the muscular torso she had been snuggled against.

“Thail?” she murmured. “Are you OK?”

He didn’t answer. If anything, his breathing got even more labored. His face was contorted in obvious discomfort. Was he having some sort of asthma attack? Had the bonding fruit not worked itself out of his system?

Jessa stroked her hand against the contour of his pectoral muscle. “Thail, come on. Wake up for me.”

A warm hand came up and seized hers. “Jessa?!” he gasped.

“I’m here,” she told him. “Can you breathe?” She started to roll off of Thail, not wanting to put any weight on his chest if he was having trouble getting enough air.

To her surprise, Thail turned on his side to follow her. He wrapped both of his arms around her and drew her in close to his chest, then worked his leg between her own. Only when he had pressed his face to her hair did his breathing start to calm.

Jessa relaxed when she heard it. Whatever this was, he was going to be all right. At least, he was going to be OK physically. Emotionally, he seemed to be struggling. She stroked a hand along Thail’s jaw in a gesture of comfort.

“Can you tell me what happened?” she asked.

“A nightmare,” Thail answered hoarsely. “A memory, really. One of my worst.”

“Is there anything I can do to help?”

“Just…just don’t stop touching me.” Thail’s hand came up and covered her own. But instead of drawing it away from his face, he brought her fingers to his lips. He didn’t attempt to kiss her hand. It seemed more like he wanted to feel her touch against his skin.

Jessa let him hold her. After a minute, Thail let out a shuddering breath.

“It’s been quite a while since I had that one,” he said. “In my first cycle without the damper, it re-occurred frequently.”

“What happened?” she asked. She moved her hand to cup his cheek again so that he could speak, but brushed her thumb under his lower lip.

Thail told her. Jessa listened on in horror.

It was one thing to know in the abstract that Thail’s implants had damaged his bonding locus. It was something else altogether to learn how he had been forced to participate in his own harm. And the procedure had been so cruelly unnecessary. The Collective could have gotten by another week without having Thail there to replace those damn air filters.

When he concluded, she kissed the scar on the bridge of his nose. It only looked like a small mark, she realized. In truth, it had been part of a terrible wound. After reliving that experience, no wonder Thail needed to feel touch against his face.

She kissed him again, this time on the mouth. He seemed to soak in her kiss, opening his mouth to her and letting her seek out the contours of his tongue and lips.

For the moment Thail seemed content to follow her lead. Slowly, tenderly, she explored him, helping herself to his beautiful body. She traced the contours of his face, stroked the old scars that mapped out both his enslavement and his liberation, and carded her fingers through his hair.

Jessa kept her hands off his obvious erogenous zones – although for Thail, that didn’t mean much. He seemed to take pleasure in it no matter how she touched him. Thail responded to her caresses, pushing into her touch and letting soft sounds of enjoyment spill from his lips.

As always, he shared his excitement freely. In Jessa’s experience, human guys might not have baggage from being slut-shamed, but so many of them were trapped behind a rigid sense of masculinity. God forbid a man getting a blow job admit that it was making an impression on him.

But Thail had never gotten the memo that he was supposed to be grim, and stoic, and unresponsive in the face of pleasure as well as pain. His ego didn’t require him to pretend to be impervious to sensuality. Instead he soaked it up, as shameless in his enjoyment as a tomcat taking a sun nap.

The taste of his mouth was rich and warm, closely related to the bonding scent that drove Jessa so wild. The more she learned about him, the more she found that was just…wonderful. He deserved so much better than the life he had had.

After she had kissed him thoroughly, she broke contact and spoke. “It’s over now. And it wasn’t your fault, Thail.”

He sighed. “Logically, I know it wasn’t. It’s just that sometimes, I still don’t believe it. I was so close that time. If I had been a little stronger, I could have escaped. The Tollegs would have helped. The Collective didn’t care when defective worker drones disappeared – it saved them the trouble of a purge.”

“But they didn’t rescue you,” said Jessa. “You were left to save yourself. And you did, as soon as you were able.”

“But not soon enough. It’s always seemed to me that there must be some alternate universe where I did get out when the opportunity presented itself. The damage to my bonding locus would have been minimal at that point. I would have come to the Mother Ship to join my people, and fought the invasion of Earth instead of passively supporting it.”

Thail ran his fingers through Jessa’s dark curls. Grief was written on his face. In a low voice, he continued. “In that universe, I would have been whole enough to call a bride, and bond as Kindred are meant to do. Perhaps the Goddess would have given me children. But none of that will happen in our world.”

Jessa’s heart clenched. It hurt to see Thail mourning for a life he couldn’t have, a bond that she couldn’t create for him. Everything she had seen suggested that the Kindred valued their bonds above all else. It felt awful, knowing that all she could offer him was an imitation of the real thing.

No wonder he seemed so ambivalent about being claimed.

 “And now, here I come to claim you and dredge this up all over again for you,” murmured Jessa. “Oh, Thail. I’m so sorry.”

“Don’t be. I am glad you came, even if it calls to mind old regrets. In any event, I suspect this recurrence was more due to the bonding fruit than anything else.”

“How do you figure that?”

Thail shifted uncomfortably. “At its peak, the bonding fruit was making me dissociate. I was not fully in control of my actions.”

Jessa nodded. Thail definitely hadn’t been all there when she came back to their room.

He continued, “The experience reminded me strongly of my early days on Z4. Newly decanted Dark Kindred are fully grown and have received some rudimentary brain conditioning, but I would not go so far as to say we have minds at that stage. Without knowledge or emotion, we are blank slates.

“At first, I was entirely controlled by the Collective through its communication chip. It always took a few cycles of existence before we developed a sense of self and became habituated to our environments and tasks.”

“But you become self-aware eventually?” asked Jessa.

“Not many worker drones survived to that point. Communications lag was always an issue when a male was being remotely controlled. It made the newly decanted clumsy and less versatile. We weren’t quite disposable at that stage, but we were close to it in the rubric of the Collective. I was the only one in my incubation batch who survived to the age of ten.”

Jessa stroked Thail’s chest thoughtfully. “How did you make it through?”

Thail shrugged. “Only by some combination of blind luck and the grace of the Goddess. All of the males in my batch were cloned from the same gene mix. I wasn’t any smarter or stronger or better than the other nineteen. They didn’t deserve to have their lives thrown away any more than I did.

“The Collective never deemed the newly decanted to be worth much trouble, though. But males who did manage to live long enough eventually would develop the cognitive capacity to think and act for ourselves.”

“And the Collective tolerated that?” asked Jessa.

“The Collective actually preferred it. Being able to think for ourselves – at least about some things – made us hardier, better workers. Once we had learned to reliably follow its orders, the Collective would gradually ease off its control and let us start making decisions.

“I was in that stage of my life when my damper started to fail on the med barge. I was maybe seven cycles old, and could perform small tasks independently. Larger decisions and more complex processes were still under the Collective’s control. The bonding fruit overdose felt similar. It brought back many memories.”

Jessa couldn’t help herself. She had to know. “How…how much of it was you? Earlier tonight, I mean? Was any of it really your choice?”

“At the beginning, not so much,” admitted Thail. “I was mainly running on the instinct all Kindred males have to taste our females, to make them come. After a while, though, I started to come back to my senses. Once I did, I stayed for the pleasure and not just to ease the pain.”

Jessa wasn’t sure what she had been expecting to hear, but it wasn’t that. “Instinct? To go down like that?” she asked, a note of doubt in her voice.

“Believe it. Kindred have a physical need to taste our brides. It helps us connect with our mates. Licking and sucking your wet pussy is an intensely erotic experience for me. And of course, it tastes really fucking good, too.”

“If you say so,” she replied.

“You saw the aftermath with your own eyes,” Thail chuckled despite himself. “But if you’d like another demonstration I would be more than happy to provide it. And the only thing more arousing than kneeling between your thighs would have been you riding my face.”

“Oh,” Jessa said. She found herself blushing to remember the proof of his passion. Thail was right. He was obviously able to get off on tasting her. And now she felt something hard brushing against her belly.

Even talking about it was clearly affecting him. Since his scent rose along with his shaft, his hot words were starting to affect her, too. Or maybe that was just the memory of exactly how amazing it had felt to have his tongue probing her core and teasing her clit.

“But still, wouldn’t that be…kind of triggering for you? I mean, having your face covered like that –”

“– is completely different from wearing a respirator. Different scent, different feel, different taste, different sounds. It’s like comparing a foot rub to an amputation,” supplied Thail.

“Even after I disabled my emotion damper, I still kept the respirator for a while, thinking I might return to Z4 and need a mandatory enhancement,” he continued. “You don’t know how crazy it was driving me, wanting to taste female honey and knowing that the mask would prevent it.”

Jessa twisted in his arms. As they had been talking, the birds had started calling outside. The sliver of sky she could see through their window had started to lighten. This close to the Equator dawn would break quickly.

She was incredibly jet-lagged, and her body just wanted to sleep another six hours, but the Serengeti did not sleep in. Their tour vehicles would pull out of the parking lot before she knew it. There was no point in going back to sleep now.

She managed to bring her fingers to her slit. She was wet and getting wetter at his low, hot words of desire. Jessa gathered both her courage and her juices and then brought her fingers to his lips. “There’s no mask stopping you now.”

Thail groaned deep in his chest and drew her fingers into his mouth. As he licked and sucked at her cunt honey, she saw his eyelids slide half-closed. His burgeoning erection flexed hard against her thigh.

Jessa found herself wondering how it would feel if she opened her body to his hard cock. If he started to thrust that thick shaft deep into her core, would it be a struggle, or would he be able to move easily within her?

Thail had been right about how tasting her pussy would affect him. Maybe he really did know what he was talking about when he said that his body’s compounds would help her take him.

She found herself wanting to get a closer look. As his mouth worked against her fingers, Jessa tossed back the covers with her free hand. When Thail had cleaned her thoroughly she moved down along his muscular body until she reached his narrow hips.

Jessa took Thail’s cock in hand and stroked it slowly. “My turn,” she told him. “You’re not the only one who wants a taste.”

“You don’t have to,” he said. The look in his eyes said he very much wanted her to.

Jessa shot a wry little smile at him. “Who says you get to have all the fun? Unless you’re still sore from the bonding fruit…”

Thail shook his head. “No, Kindred heal quickly. Your touch is…entirely welcome there.” His eyes were dark with desire.

“Good,” she said, pushing lightly against his hip. “Now skootch.”

Thail obediently rolled his hips flat against the mattress. Then he went one better, and pushed himself up to recline against the headboard. Jessa crawled between his legs and began to explore.

Gently, she brushed against his sack with her fingers. He was big there, too, although not overly so. His skin was very soft, and his scent was intense. Something about it compelled her to rub her cheek against his thigh and breathe him in deeply.

Thail’s hand landed at the back of her head, but he only stroked her hair and did not attempt to grab on or push her around. His voice was tight, though, as he told her, “Feels amazing to have you rub against me like that.”

“Yeah?” she asked. “That’s good for you?”

“Fuck yes,” Thail groaned. “Gonna be even better to smell my scent on you today. Makes me think the hottest thoughts.”

Jessa switched sides and rubbed her other cheek against the opposite thigh. “I like it, too. Your scent is incredible.”

When she had thoroughly marked herself Jessa returned her attentions to Thail’s heavy testicles. She cupped them in her hand, enjoying their warmth and weight. They felt alive in her palm. She petted them lightly, feeling him tense up in response. Then she ran her tongue up the seam between them.

Thail gasped and twitched in her hand but he couldn’t move too far. In a very real sense, she had control over his entire, massive body in this position.

He had to outweigh her by 100 pounds. He had picked her up and carried her to bed last night like she was light as a feather. But when she cradled his balls, she held both his pleasure and his pain in a single hand.

Not that Jessa had any interest in hurting him. This was all about good feelings, pleasure and need. With one hand she continued to fondle his tender sack as she moved her attentions to the base of his shaft.

His mating fist, she was interested to see, did not connect directly to his torso. There was enough room between it and the root of his cock to put her tongue in. So she did.

“Gods, Jessa, you’re killing me,” he said.

“Good killing or bad killing?” she asked before laving the patch of skin between the base of his shaft and his balls with her tongue.

“Nnnh…the best kind of it. Don’t stop.”

Jessa wrapped her free hand around Thail’s mating fist as far as she could and began to squeeze it gently. As she did, she continued to sweep the flat of her tongue against the underside of his mating fist.

Press. Release. Squeeze. Relax. She carefully worked the hard ridge of flesh. Thail began to flex his hips in time with her rhythm. His breathing sped up, and she could see his free hand clenching in the sheets as she touched him.

After a few minutes of stroking and teasing, she felt something wet trickle onto her nose. When she pulled back, she saw that the head of Thail’s cock was shiny with precum.

“What have we here?” she asked with faux innocence. She sat up and trailed a single finger up the underside of his shaft where the droplet had run down, gathering his essence.

“Jessa…” groaned Thail, watching intently as she brought her finger to her mouth and tasted him for the first time.

His essence seemed to jump directly through her mouth and right into her bloodstream. It was like a salty, concentrated form of his warm, musky bonding scent. A flush of heat spread through her body, and her pussy went from wet to soaking.

She couldn’t help herself. She moaned without even realizing she was doing it. All of a sudden, she felt so empty. “Oh, fuck,” she whispered. There went any notion of drawing this out and teasing him further. She needed more of Thail. Fast.

She bent to his shaft again, only this time she went straight for its broad head, straight for the source of that intoxicating flavor. He was so thick that it was a challenge to fit even the head of his shaft into her mouth.

Still, she was motivated. She managed.

“Oh Gods, that’s good,” he growled as her warmth surrounded him.

Jessa lightly sucked against the tip of his shaft, cleaning away the precum she found there. But with each sweep of her tongue, more emerged. She found herself whimpering with need for him.

Distantly, she realized that she never did that kind of thing. She’d had too many tiny dorm rooms and cheap, thin-walled apartments in her formative years to enjoy loud sex. At least, until now.

Well, she supposed she could chalk up one more entry on the list of “Things That Are Different about Sex with Thail”. She was apparently the vocal, demonstrative sort now. As badly as she wanted him – as intensely as her body seemed to be burning for more – she couldn’t imagine keeping quiet.

He obviously felt the same way. “Aaah…” he called out, “Gods…your hot little mouth feels amazing, Jessa.”

She redoubled her efforts, rubbing the tip of her tongue firmly against the underside of his cockhead as she continued to suck against him. With one hand she stroked his rigid shaft, feeling his pulse strong against her fingers. With the other, she lightly compressed his mating fist.

Thail’s fingers twitched against the back of her head, and his hips moved involuntarily. “Fuck,” he growled. “Gonna come. If you want to get back – ”

He didn’t finish the sentence. Jessa felt his balls draw up hard against his abdomen, and knew that Thail had passed the point of no return. His hand stayed loose against her hair. She knew she could pull away, but she found that she wanted to stay with him as he came.

Thail’s thick shaft pulsed in her hand, and then jets of his seed were spurting hard from its tip. She lapped it up and swallowed as soon as it came. God almighty, his cream was so good. Like his precum it tasted strongly of his bonding scent, but this was sweet and rich.

Jessa kept pumping his shaft, milking as much seed as she could from his body. And her efforts were not in vain – Thail’s shaft kept erupting for her, giving her pulse after pulse of his cum. Jessa drank him down eagerly, feeling as though he was filling her with warmth from the inside out.

Eventually, though, his orgasm trailed off. She reluctantly pulled her mouth away from his shaft and turned to licking up the few drops of his cream that had escaped. Thail’s body slowed and then stilled beneath her.

But only for a few seconds.

Hardly a breath passed before he sprung into explosive motion. In the blink of an eye, he popped up onto his knees. Then the world spun, and Jessa found herself on her back, head towards the foot of the bed. Thail was burrowing between her legs, parting her thighs.

Then he was tasting her, every bit as eagerly as she had been enjoying him. Jessa let out a wordless wail of pleasure as he penetrated her with his fingers. His tongue unerringly found its way to her swollen clit. Then he was flicking and pumping, filling and pleasuring her.

It was what her body had been crying out for from the moment she first tasted his precum. Although it would be even better if it was his cock thrusting into me, she thought.

“Oh, God,” she moaned. Just the thought of being breached by the head of his shaft was electric. When she played the fantasy forward and imagined him thrusting home between her thighs, she knew that she was going to have to come.

Thail clearly sensed that she was close. He pulled away just long enough to demand, “Give in to me. Let yourself come on my face.”

Then his lips were closing around her clit, and his tongue was back where it belonged. He stroked the stiff bud in an insistent rhythm as he worked his fingers inside of her body. He touched her like he was starving for her pleasure.

Jessa could no more delay her orgasm than she could delay the tides. She called out Thail’s name and then she was coming – coming so hard, clenching around his fingers with everything she had. Her fingers curled in his hair – she must have grabbed on to him without even realizing it – and stars seemed to burst in her vision.

Thail rode her orgasm out as long as she could sustain it. When her body finally relaxed and came down, he turned to gently licking at her pussy and thighs, patiently and methodically cleaning away all of the honey he could find.

There’s nobody else on Earth like him, thought Jessa dazedly as he bathed her with his warm tongue. How am I ever going to live without him if he doesn’t choose me?

Around them, dawn broke on the sixth day of Thail’s claiming. Seven days left, counting today.

Chapter Text

Earth’s sun hung low on the horizon and shone red as it reflected obliquely through the atmosphere. In the bush surrounding Thail, small animals began to stir in the twilight.

Their guides had split the tour group into smaller parties for the day, the better to observe shy creatures up close. Thail and Jessa had joined Gideon and two other humans, traveling the savanna in Gideon’s ground transport.

They had seen a great many different creatures – herds of nimble grazers, a formidable reptile called a crocodile, and a group of large, placid-looking animals that Gideon called hippos and said were quite deadly if encountered on their home turf.

Now recovered from the bonding fruit overdose, Thail was better able to enjoy his surroundings. Jessa had been her usual, delightful self.

It had been nice. It just hadn’t been progress.

Ever since Antarctica, Thail hadn’t really thought of their destinations as the point of their travels. Bonding was the point – or at least getting as close to it as his damaged brain could manage.

At least, for Thail it was the point. It was still an open question whether Jessa was interested in anything more committed.

Now, they had reached the close of the sixth day of Thail’s claiming. They were already at the halfway point on his meager time to make his case. The missing days of his claiming period were just one more thing the Collective had stolen from him.

Thail felt no closer to winning his bride’s heart than when he first set it as his goal. Today, he had startled her awake before dawn when his past intruded on their sleep. She had been so generous with the comfort she gave. And Gods, had he taken it from her – taken emotionally and taken sexually.

What had he given her in return? One paltry orgasm, and some – hopefully – enjoyable company on their excursion today? It wasn’t enough. Every instinct he had was screaming at him to take her back to their suite and not reemerge into the light of day until he had made it clear that he was the male for her.

It had been on the tip of Thail’s tongue to ask Gideon to drop them back off at the lodge early that afternoon. But then their guide had said that he expected they would see a herd of herbivores called elephants at the next observation site. Jessa had mentioned when they had planned this trip that they were a particular favorite of hers.

So Thail set aside his own wants and tried his damnedest to accommodate hers. If Jessa had dreamed of getting to see elephants, then Thail would not thwart that. He had kept his longing to himself and gamely gone along with the tour itinerary.

The tour company had built wooden viewing platforms at likely locations around the savanna. Each was perhaps twice Thail’s height, shaded, sturdy, and spacious. The five of them had scaled a ladder to the top of the platform and watched the sun sink towards the horizon. Gideon had said that the most likely time for seeing elephants here was in the early evening hours.

There was a bit of a chill in the air as darkness began to fall. It didn’t bother Thail, but he had the idea that Jessa was more sensitive to changes in temperature than he.

They had been sitting side by side on the platform, legs dangling over the edge. Thail moved closer and put his arm over Jessa’s shoulders, asking “Are you cold?”

She fit against him like she was made for him. No, not just “like” she was made for him. He now believed that she had been made for him, and he for her. Her delicate frame had been wrought by the Goddess herself to fit so perfectly against Thail’s own muscular flank.

Jessa nodded and leaned into Thail’s side, seeming to enjoy their physical closeness as much as he did. “Getting that way.”

“We may not have much longer to wait,” said Thail. “I can hear something big vocalizing in the distance there.” He pointed off towards the other side of the grassy area.

“I can’t hear anything,” said Jessa. “What’s it like?”

“Fairly loud now,” answered Thail. “But very low-pitched. It’s at about the bottom range of what I can hear. I’ve been hearing them off and on all afternoon, but this is the closest they’ve gotten yet. I’d say there are at least four or five of them, maybe more.”

“Hmm,” muttered Jessa. She brought up her binoculars and began scanning the tree line closely.

Thail waited quietly, not wanting to disturb her concentration. As he did, he caught a bit of conversation between the other two tourists in their group.

They were a father and son pair. The father, Andrew, looked to be middle-aged. If the boy, Scott, were Kindred then Thail would have guessed him to be no more than thirteen or fourteen cycles. But since he was human, he really might be close to full grown.

“All I’m saying,” said Scott, “Is that I’d really rather spend the rest of the summer with you. It’s just a couple more weeks.”

“Not going to happen,” said Andrew. “The custody order says your mom’s got you once my six weeks are up. Between you and me, you know that harpy will enforce it, too.”

“She wasn’t even going to let me come on this trip after I got my math grade back,” groused Scott. “And now she says I’m not going to be allowed to use the GameBox you got me during the school year. I don’t know what crawled up Mom’s ass and died, but she’s been on me like the Queen of Bitch City.”

“And now you know why I divorced her,” grunted Andrew. “She’s always acted like her shit doesn’t stink. But hang in there. Your mother’s just one of those women who needs the mushroom treatment – keep her in the dark and feed her bullshit.”

To Thail, the conversation was wilder and weirder than anything he had yet seen on Earth, be it plant or animal, in the jungle, the desert, the mountains, or the plains. Had Andrew...left his mate? A mate with whom he had a son?

Thail knew that in species that did not form soul bonds, matings and marriages did not necessarily last for life. If such cases, he could imagine circumstances where a female might want or need to leave a mate. Still, the concept of a male willfully abandoning his mate was utterly alien to him.

And the boy…Scott genuinely did not seem to hold his own mother in any kind of regard. And Andrew not only permitted the boy to speak so disrespectfully, he encouraged it!

Not all mothers lived up to the Goddess’s example. Thail knew that. But still, Scott seemed healthy and well-cared for. His primary complaint seemed to be that his mother was taking reasonable disciplinary measures after the boy had failed to meet academic standards.

Thail tried to imagine the reaction if one of Welcome’s grandsons spoke in such a manner. Truthfully, he could not get as far as envisioning any male he knew – young or old – voicing those words in the first place.

What would Jessa have thought of that conversation? Where on the spectrum between banal and bizarre would it fall in her opinion? She was apparently still engrossed in trying to spot elephants in the fading light and did not appear to have overheard.

Thail would have to ask later. In the meantime, he refocused his attention away from the platform, hoping to get a clearer picture of how far away the elephants were. Instead, he heard rustling sounds in the brush behind them and a few meters away.

A smell wafted up, like dried blood and foul musk. That was no herbivore. Thail pulled away from the platform edge and came swiftly to his feet. He caught Jessa by the waist and pulled her to her feet as well. “Stay close,” he told her. “There’s something out there.”

In the dim light, a strange chuckling bark sounded.

Gideon’s head snapped up. “Hyenas.”

“What are they?” asked Thail.

“Predators,” said Jessa. “Not as big as lions, but they hunt in packs, don’t they Gideon?”

Their guide nodded. He looked Thail directly in the eye and switched to his native Swahili.

“The check-in clerk said you denied being Kindred. But if you just happened to be American by way of the Mother Ship, it would be very relevant information right about now.”

There was no point in denying it. Gideon obviously knew quite well what Thail was, and that he had had all the time he needed to learn Swahili. After all, Thail had been overhearing conversations between the safari staffers plus their radio programs for more than a full day now.

Thail nodded sharply and responded in kind. “I am Kindred. Why is that important?”

“It doesn’t matter to me,” said Gideon. “We’ve had a few guests from the Mother Ship before, and never regretted it. But we’ve learned that it does matter very much to the hyenas. Something about the scent of Kindred upsets them quite badly. That’s why we ask.”

“What was that you said?” asked Andrew.

“It appears this pack of hyenas isn’t going anywhere in the near future,” said Gideon, switching back to English.

“But they can’t get up the ladder, right?” asked Scott.

“No, they can’t,” Gideon agreed. “But I doubt they’ll leave on their own. Unfortunately, my bear spray is packed in the emergency kit in the back of the Rover and there is no cell coverage this far out from the lodge.”

“So how do we get down?”

“We don’t,” said Gideon. “At least not yet. Ruth will notice when we don’t appear for dinner, and she’ll send someone out to check on us. We’re safe, but it may be several hours until anyone comes to shoo them off.”

Thail peered over the edge of the platform. There were seven spotted animals down below, two juveniles and five adults. They were odd-looking creatures, with short rear legs but powerful jaws and shoulders. They reminded Thail somewhat of the dog that the river guide had back in Arizona.

Like the dog, they seemed quite intent on him. Unlike the dog, their interest was not remotely friendly.

Beside him, Jessa shrugged. “We’ll be fine. More time for elephant watching, right?”

* * * * *

An hour later, it was well and truly dark. Earth’s moon was currently not illuminated, and there were no sources of artificial light any closer than the horizon.

The elephants had finally emerged on the other side of the meadow. They had watched the big animals graze for a while, but the humans apparently could not see by starlight alone. Instead, Gideon had been regaling them with stories of adventures he’d had out in the Kenyan bush.

He was a good storyteller and the group was relaxed and enjoying themselves. Unfortunately, the same could not be said for the hyenas, which were not inclined to give up and wander off.

The sounds they made were quite unnerving, and they had not grown more appealing with greater familiarity. And the smell…if the humans really couldn’t detect it, they should count themselves lucky. If hyenas disliked the scent of Kindred, then the feeling was completely mutual.

Thail appreciated Jessa’s willingness to adapt to adverse circumstances. Still, all he wanted was to leave and go back to the lodge. He needed to be alone with his bride. Whether or not they made any kind of love, he craved intimacy with her – those quiet, private little moments where there was some hope that her walls might open just a crack.

And then she shivered, despite the warmth of Thail’s body next to hers.

She didn’t complain. She never did.

In an instant, Thail felt his frustration begin to boil over. His bride was cold and undoubtedly hungry, and he was the reason why. This was the second night in a row he was going to cause her to miss last meal. They were going to be stuck out here on this Goddess-forsaken platform in the middle of nowhere for hours longer if he didn’t do something.

He spoke up, interrupting Gideon. “How fast can hyenas run?”

“Fast. Surprisingly fast. I’ve had one keep pace with the Rover when I was clocking 60 kmh.”

Thail’s brow furrowed. He wasn’t sure what that was in practical terms. “Is that faster or slower than we were going on the road after mid me…lunch this afternoon?”

“About the same,” said Gideon.

Thail nodded, a plan starting to come together in his head. One of the many, many things he had learned about himself after coming to the Mother Ship was that he liked running.

It had been something he avoided whenever possible back when his mask still filtered and restricted his airflow. But once his respirator was removed he discovered that he liked stretching his legs and watching the landscape of the park pass by.

The deep, rhythmic breathing needed to keep a steady pace felt good to Thail. He also discovered that he liked feeling the wind in his hair. While he was enslaved as a drone laborer in the Collective, he had been prohibited from growing any hair at all.

When he had been promoted to engineer and was no longer expected to perform manual labor, he would have been allowed to wear it short. Such things were regarded as frivolous, though, and were frowned upon even where they were permitted.

But now, Thail’s hair and the rest of his body were his to do with as he pleased. For him, that meant wearing his hair long and getting his exercise by jogging.

He had gotten pretty good at running once he’d put in some practice at it. Thail was confident that he could match the speed their ground transport had reached on the road after mid meal, at least for a short distance in a dead sprint.

The ground transport was parked on the other side of a little ditch, only about the length of a glao’sh field away. It was built with an open-air top, and the small cargo area behind the back row of seats could be reached from inside the cabin…

Thail stood and stretched casually, weighing his options. The more he looked, the more doable it seemed. It was too dark out for the humans to see well, but the stars cast plenty of light for Kindred night vision.

Yeah. He was doing this.

He lined up on the opposite side of the platform from the ground transport, making sure he had a clear path for a running start and a good landing. Then with no further ceremony, he stripped off his shirt, dropped into a sprinter’s crouch, and launched himself across the platform at full speed.

As Thail cleared the platform’s edge and started to drop, he tossed away his shirt, hoping to gain a few seconds of distraction and an extra edge. Then he was hitting the sandy ground at a run. Behind him, he heard the hyenas growl and yelp.

Jessa called out on the platform, clearly worried for him. For the moment, he resisted the temptation to call back. He felt a bit bad for not telling her his plan. He also knew all too well that she would have told him not to bother. She would have pointed out that they were all safe, and that a few hours on the platform wouldn’t hurt anyone.

That was true, but as far as Thail was concerned ‘safe’ just wasn’t good enough, not for his Jessa. Not for a claiming period of twelve meager days, half of which had already slipped between his fingers.

As Thail’s long strides began to eat up the distance, he heard the hyenas scramble after him. They were indeed quite fast, despite their awkwardly shaped bodies. They actually were gaining on him. He had managed to surprise them, though, and had gotten enough of a lead that he would reach the transport before they reached him.

Feet pounding against the ground, Thail made it to the transport a solid second ahead of the nearest hyena. Without breaking stride, he leapt up on the vehicle’s hood with a bang. It creaked alarmingly under his weight and dipped low on its shocks but it held. He hurdled the windshield and front seats to land in the second row.

The hyenas snarled and snapped at the vehicle, working up their courage to jump in after him. But Thail had already found the bright orange case labeled Emergency in bold letters, and was digging through it. His fingers landed on a pressurized canister with a trigger on top that carried a faint hint of an intensely peppery smell.

Thail whipped around and deployed Gideon’s bear spray on the hyena matriarch. She yelped in pain and fled into the bush. Thail turned and got a piece of the second-largest hyena with the spray. She also scrambled back, and the rest finally followed, running off into the night.

Thail waited a minute in the suddenly still night air, watching to see if the hyenas came back. They did not.

Gideon had left the ground transport’s key in the ignition. By that point, Thail was more than familiar with the operations of Earth vehicles. The front seat was cramped, but he was able to crank the engine, cross the ditch, and roll up to the platform’s ladder.

“Anybody else ready to go back to the lodge?” he asked.

Chapter Text

Well, you think you know a guy, thought Jessa.

One minute, Thail had been sitting next to her, appearing to enjoy Gideon’s story. The next, he had gotten a bit restless. And then in the blink of an eye he had charged over a fifteen-foot drop into darkness and… done what, exactly?

She hadn’t been able to make out the details. Had Thail actually fought a pack of hyenas? Once he’d drawn them off into the darkness they sure sounded like they were out for blood. She had been genuinely afraid for him.

After he’d launched himself over the edge of the platform, she’d heard a series of excited barks and chuckles from the hyenas. A few seconds later, there’d been a loud bang and a creaking sound from the direction of the Rover, then hyenas howling in pain.

Thail’s shirt was unsalvageable, apparently mauled by an angry predator, and there was a big new dent in the already-battered hood of the Rover.

Well, whatever had happened, there wasn’t a scratch on his body. If anything, Thail looked happier and more relaxed than he had all evening – a little adrenalin had clearly boosted his mood. Jessa fought the temptation to roll her eyes. Men. No matter what species they were, some things apparently never changed.

Not that she’d ever known a man to fight a hyena before. It seemed so unlike the mild-mannered engineer she’d seen in her dreams. They had been safe. Help was sure to arrive in a few hours.

Jessa had no idea what had been going through his mind when he decided to charge off the platform. For all she knew, he just wanted some privacy for a pee break.

Well, he would get it soon enough. After Thail had extracted himself from the relatively cramped confines of the Rover’s driver seat, they all piled in and set off for the lodge. Scott had started to ask Thail what had happened. Andrew – who had otherwise proven to be a blowhard – had for once decided that discretion was the better part of valor and cut his son off.

There were times when you might ask another person provocative questions about his origins and abilities. Right after he had come back from fighting off a pack of hyenas was not one of them. And of course, as impressive a specimen as Thail was when fully clothed and playing a human tourist, he was even more intimidating half-naked and getting back to his Kindred warrior roots.

All good things come to an end, though. As much as Jessa enjoyed seeing Thail half-dressed – and riding back to the lodge pressed against his bare chest in the Rover’s back seat – he couldn’t exactly go to dinner that way.

Back in their suite, Jessa told him she needed a few minutes to freshen up, and asked him to go ahead and order an aperitif martini for her at the lodge’s bar.

Jessa leaned over the vanity as she tended to herself. Thail had already come and gone from the bathroom and was pulling a fresh shirt out of his suitcase. She watched him out of the corner of her eye.

There he was, managing to make the act of shrugging on a t-shirt look like something out of an overheated fantasy. Here she was, flossing a stubborn bit of crud out of her back molars.

Well. Thail’s claiming was only twelve days, but cavities were forever.

As he left, Jessa gave herself a critical look in the mirror. She looked tired, almost as tired as she felt. In spite of both their best efforts to be resilient this trip had been tense and exhausting. Her emotional reserves were running low, and the jet lag was not helping.

Jessa had been willing to do a hell of a lot for Thail. She’d traveled alone to an alien spacecraft full of males with a reputation for bringing women up and keeping them for life. She had let him see her body in a state that she had never shown a man before. She had given up her contraceptive implant. She had let him find relief with her body and push her sexual boundaries when the bonding fruit overdose was tormenting him. She had held Thail close when his past trauma reared up.

She didn’t regret any of it. Jessa still thought they had been the right decisions to make. That didn’t make it easy. The action-packed pace they had set for themselves only raised the difficulty.

Jessa found herself longing for their suite on the Mother Ship. She wished she could rewind back to their first evening together, before things had gotten quite so crazy. What she wouldn’t give right now for a quiet night in with Thail. They could make dinner together again, and just…hang out.

Most of all, she wished they could go back to living under the blissfully innocent impression that they had a whole Earth month to get to know each other more naturally. No weird technicalities about twelve-day Z4 months and contractually mandated sex in a shuttle lavatory. No pasting on a happy face in a Rover full of strangers while bizarre alien sex fruit drove them both crazy.

Jessa was worn out, uncertain, worried…and willing to keep trying. She was going to take a shower after all, she decided. She couldn’t make Thail love her, but she could at least rinse off the trail dust and do a thorough job with her moisturizer.

His mind was still a mystery to her, but she did at least know that he would want her again tonight. However hard emotional intimacy was, the sex seemed to come easy to them. And who knew? Maybe Thail was at least considering her as something more than just a good time. Maybe.

But if he wasn’t – if this was all they would ever have together – then Jessa wasn’t too proud to take it. She would probably hate herself for this when she took her final shuttle back to Earth. But damned if she could stop herself from needing him now.

If the only comfort he could give her was physical pleasure, it would have to be enough.

* * * * *

Thail stared blankly at the two odd, conical glasses the bartender on this alien world had placed in front of him. He had dutifully placed Jessa’s order and gotten one of the same for himself. The martini had been a pleasant surprise – it was flavored with an interesting blend of herbal extracts, and not overwhelmingly sweet like so many popular Earth beverages.

He did not want to be here drinking it.

Back in their suite, Jessa’s body and her luscious, hot scent had been calling out to Thail as clearly as a ringing bell. She needed to be pleasured as badly as Thail needed to give her pleasure. But she had resisted the call, sent him out on this errand, and then been slow to emerge from their suite. Oh Goddess, he wondered, Why? What keeps her from seeing me as her male?

And he was hers now, hers from the crown of his head to the ends of his toes. She had to know. Even setting aside the business with the hyenas earlier that evening, hadn’t he given her his body? Hadn’t he marked her at every opportunity? Wasn’t he wearing her scent with pride?

None of the males Thail had gotten to know since he embarked on his new life as a Feeler could do such things without also giving away their hearts. It was central to what he had been taught about love and relationships. It was also completely confirmed by his observations on the Mother Ship and his own personal, recent experiences.

Other humans seemed to know how he felt. Gideon had called Thail “Mr. Stefano” last night. It was clear that the human male saw how he and Jessa were together and assumed that they were already mated. Thail hadn’t bothered to correct the other male because hearing those words felt like being given a glimpse of his best possible future.

As a newly-decanted drone laborer, he had been designated 55-BT-325820-12. His designations had changed repeatedly as he progressed through the Collective’s rubric until he reached the level of qualified engineer and took on his final designation of 55-BQ-70. And then of course, he had been given the personal name Thail when he became a free male of the Mother Ship.

The priestess who had given him his first real name had not provided a Rageron clan name to go with it. Thail had neither expected nor wanted her to.

Although Thail knew that his genes were cobbled together from Beast Kindred stock – more or less – it was impossible to link him to any particular tribe of Rageron. And since not all Kindred used family names, his lack of one hadn’t posed a bureaucratic problem.

The priestess who named him was certainly kind and wise. He was grateful for the gift of his name – the first gift he had ever received from anyone, given to him at a time when he had nothing. But for all her compassion, the priestess was not someone who actually loved him. If Thail’s name was ever completed, he wanted it to come from someone who did.

He wanted it to come from Jessa. He wanted to be Thail Stefano in truth, not merely in supposition.

But however ardent his desire to be claimed completely was, Jessa wasn’t ready. She wasn’t convinced that Thail was worth a lifetime commitment.

And although it felt like his damnation to admit it, “forever” wasn’t a promise that one of the Frozen could truly make anyways. Not the way an uninjured male could, at least. As the old proverb went, if wishing were the same as bonding, there would be no unmated males. Still…

Even though the bonding fruit had worn off, Thail didn’t feel like he was back to his same old self. Something had changed in him, like his whole body had been rewired in some subtle but important way.

Ever since Thail had tasted Jessa, he had been having these tiny little moments where he could almost swear their minds were aligning.

In the ground transport earlier that day, he felt like he’d known when a song she liked had played on Gideon’s radio. Just now, when the bartender had asked him whether he and Jessa wanted the drinks made with vodka or gin, he felt like he’d known the answer despite never having tried either.

Most of all, he could sense Jessa’s pleasure. He had known she could come over and over again for him even when she hadn’t. And he’d known how to touch her to bring her pleasure, to draw out her anticipation, and to take her to the peak when they were both ready.

Maybe it was just a subconscious sense of the electrical fields fluctuating as the nerves fired in her body, and of faint changes in her pheromone signature. Maybe it was just his hungry heart playing tricks on him.

But Gods, if Thail could wring even a flicker of spiritual connection out of the wreckage of his bonding locus –

“Hey, you ever play poker?” a voice interjected.

Thail turned. It was Andrew and another male, this one older and cheerful where Andrew was middle-aged and dour. “No,” Thail answered. “I can’t say that I have.” He also could not say that Andrew was someone he wanted to befriend after what he had overheard on the observation platform.

Thail would admit to some morbid curiosity, though. What exactly was wrong with Andrew, anyway? How was it even possible that a male could be that deranged, and still be allowed to supervise a child?

“Well, no time like the present,” chortled the older human. “We need another player to get a game going, and I’d be happy to show you the ropes. I’m Wouter, by the way.” He offered a hand to Thail, who remembered at the last possible moment to shake it in human fashion rather than give a warrior’s clasp.

Once the introductions were made, the other two males explained the rules of a variant of the game called Texas Hold ‘Em to Thail. Then they each purchased $50 worth of plastic tokens to gamble with.

Poker reminded Thail vaguely of the barx wagering game he played sometimes with his friends on the Mother Ship. Like barx, there was quite a bit of strategy involved in guessing the strength of the other players’ positions. Unlike barx, the rules for determining which card combinations would prevail were ludicrously unintuitive.

Getting a simple matched pair of numbers apparently meant something; getting all odd numbers or primes did not even though that result was statistically much rarer. The royal matriarch was actually worth less than her consort. Getting one of each face card meant something, but only if the player also had a 10 and either a 9 or an ace. Getting a card of each suit meant absolutely nothing no matter what else the player had.

For Thail it was easy to count the cards already dealt, keep a mental inventory of what was still in play, and calculate the odds of drawing any given hand. He did fairly well at interpreting how the other players felt about their hidden cards based on their wagers. But anticipating the strangely random win conditions was confounding.

Thail found himself losing, consistently. It didn’t bother him. The money was of no concern to him, and he had not invested any pride in his mastery of this game. Wouter’s company was pleasant. Andrew was at least being less unpleasant than he had on the platform.

After a few hands, Àndrew finally worked up the courage to ask, “So, correct me if I’m wrong, but you’re Kindred, right?”

Thail shrugged and admitted that he was. The couple whom Jessa said had lost a family member in the Dark Kindred invasion was not within earshot. There was nothing to be gained from persisting in an untruth since taking on a pack of hyenas was apparently not something human men did.

Admitting his origins provoked a round of questioning from both of the other males. Wouter – who worked in some capacity with the nascent human aerospace industry – was intensely curious about the design of the Mother Ship. Most of its specific technologies were still classified, but Thail answered what he could.

Andrew’s questions were quite a bit more personal. He – thankfully – wasn’t interested in Thail’s past. He was, however, completely fascinated by the notion of an almost exclusively male race and the…accommodations required as a result.

The human male initially supposed that the Kindred of the Mother Ship must be frequent customers of Earth’s prostitutes. Thail was quick to correct that assumption. There were some parts of the galaxy where sex workers were never forced to ply the trade, and an unmated male might indulge himself with a clear conscience. Earth was not one of them.

Andrew was particularly fascinated when the conversation meandered towards the topic of pairing puppets. He bluntly stated that if human technology permitted such things, it would save him a tremendous amount of time trying to persuade women that he was interested in more than getting his dick wet.

Shocked past words, Thail shot a disbelieving glance at Wouter to see what he would make of that statement. The older male only chuckled mildly and said that some of the single men at his company felt the same way.

Encouraged by Wouter’s reaction, Andrew started enthusiastically cataloging the physical traits he would want in a pairing puppet. His list of expectations was quite long and very specific.

There were a few superficial characteristics the little human male said he would like to see. There were many, many more trivial features that he deemed beneath his physical standards, ranging from size, to race, to hairstyle and clothing, to vocal mannerisms, to the amount of makeup a female preferred to wear.

As near as Thail could tell, Andrew was of no more than average attractiveness for a human male. Still, he confidently declared that that was the bare minimum it would take for a woman to be worthy of his consideration. And if he could order a pairing puppet to his specifications, he said, the women of Earth would just have to find someone else to “put up with their crap.”  

Thail’s astonishment must have shown on his face, because Andrew quickly backtracked and acknowledged that he might feel differently if women were actually rare on Earth. Still, Andrew couldn’t resist adding that Kindred might feel differently too, once they got some experience with crazy human women. Wouter laughed aloud at that.

Thail had never been in a bar fight before. Now seemed like a good time to give it a try.

He had set down his cards and was pushing back from the table when Jessa turned the corner into the bar area. She beckoned to him, and the fight went out of Thail.

What exactly did he think he would accomplish with his fists, when several decades of life had not taught these males the value of their females?

Thail scooped up Jessa’s martini with a terse goodbye to the human males. He left the table without cashing in his chips.

His mind was reeling as Jessa accepted her drink from him and kissed his cheek in greeting. Even in the haze of shock he was drifting through, he noticed that she smelled like soap and lotion and paradise. He absentmindedly looped an arm around her waist and pulled her in close to his hip as he lost himself in thought.

It was not the case, as Thail had initially thought, that Andrew was exceptionally deranged. His behavior was if not common for a human male, then at least not remarkably rare. An otherwise reasonable male like Wouter might find it amusing, perhaps sympathetic.

Thail hadn’t realized just how much human men took the presence of women for granted. It was normal for them to abandon or ignore women for trivial reasons. It was common for them to mislead women for the purposes of having sex, with the intention of moving on when a better opportunity presented itself.

He and Jessa went to the dining room for last meal. Thail knew that he was not keeping up his end of the conversation, but his thoughts were racing. He felt like he was on the cusp of understanding something new, something important.

Thail would never get another chance to remake the choices he had made when his damper started failing on the med barge all those cycles ago. He had let those moments of clarity slip through his fingers, and his ability to bond was lost along with them.

Never again. This new train of thought would not pass him by.

Humans and Kindred could eat the same food, breathe the same air, and even have children together. Thail could walk the surface of Earth, dress in local clothing, and mostly pass for human. In many ways, humans and the mainline Kindred were more alike than the Dark Kindred and their Feeler cousins.

But humans were still aliens. Their two species, their two cultures, were different – much more different than Thail had understood. Human and Kindred males saw their women from very contrary perspectives.

Thail had assumed human men were not so different from Kindred. Would human women just assume that Kindred males were like their own? Could Jessa think that of Thail?

Maybe…maybe Jessa didn’t know how it was for Kindred, how it was for Thail. Maybe she thought that Thail would be capable of using a woman like a pairing puppet.

Maybe that was why she wasn’t letting him in – because she was afraid that he would not treat intimacy like the gift that it was.

Jessa could smell his bonding scent where other humans were oblivious. She responded to it passionately, like a true mate would. She let him mark her, and had even marked him earlier that morning. That didn’t mean she really understood what it meant.

To any Kindred, scent marking obviously meant a male was forming a deep, exclusive attachment to a female. But human males didn’t do anything like that, did they. How was Jessa to know that a bonding scent was any more meaningful than a random erection?

The handful of days they had spent together had been more than enough to leave Thail certain that she was the female for him. And he had tasted her – drunk her honey from the source, and lapped at the silky folds of her pussy for hours. Maybe she did not realize how profoundly it affected a Kindred warrior to do such a thing. Thail was hers for life now.

But he had never told her that. It seemed increasingly plausible that no one ever had.

Chapter Text

“…so anyway, that was why I ended up growing a second nose and turning purple yesterday.” Jessa concluded, trying to keep her frustration out of her voice.

“Oh really?” murmured Thail, clearly not having heard a word she just said. Absently he chased a bit of sauce around his plate with a piece of chapati bread.

As near as Jessa could tell, his head had been in orbit somewhere out by Neptune all through dinner. He hadn’t asked a single question since they sat down, and that was not like Thail.

Jessa dropped a hand on Thail’s forearm. “Hey, Earth to Thail. Come in Thail. Are you still in there somewhere?”

His head snapped up. For the first time in a while he looked at her. No, not just looked – he stared at her, like he was seeing her for the first time all over again.

After a few seconds, Jessa started to get uncomfortable under the scrutiny. She felt like somebody had taken a highlighter marker to every single flaw she had. What on God’s green earth was going through his mind right now?

“We need to talk,” said Thail.

His tone wasn’t brusque or hostile. If anything, the look on his face was gentle and concerned. It was an expression she had seen too many times on the faces of decent guys who were searching for a way to let her down easy.

“So talk,” she retorted. Thail didn’t snap back at her – not that that was at all his style. He just got a little more concerned-looking, a little more solicitous. Mentally, she began preparing herself for the conversation that now seemed inevitable, the dreaded I-just-don’t-feel-that-way-about-you speech.

Thail stood and tossed his napkin onto the table. “Let’s head back to the suite.”

This time yesterday, Jessa had been giving herself a pep talk about not letting her emotional baggage color her interpretation of events with Thail. Now, at the ends of her endurance, she felt the last vestiges of pep draining out of her spirit.

Houston, breakup is now imminent, Jessa thought to herself, We are all systems go for permanent separation. She nodded grimly and walked out with Thail. She wondered if he could just drop her off at home in Georgia, or if she would have to go back to the Mother Ship and do some sort of failed claiming paperwork.

She felt her eyes getting teary at the bleak thought of a post-romantic-disaster exit interview with the Kindred priestess who had briefed her on the claiming process. The green-haired female had been so insistent that even Jessa couldn’t screw this one up.

Or maybe it would be with Commander Ruje and Gayle at the Atlanta HKR. She remembered Ruje’s skepticism on hearing that Thail had gone eight months without coming to claim her. God, wasn’t that a giant red flag. She should have listened.

First woman to claim a warrior in 20 years, she remembered Gayle saying. It’s their equivalent of winning the lottery. Only Thail’s decided that I’m no prize after all.

Jessa started to get angry at herself. It was bad enough that she’d fallen for another unattainable guy. It was even worse that she’d fallen for the hype about the Kindred and gotten her hopes up. Now did she really have to surrender all of her dignity and cry in front of him while he dumped her?

Yeah, she realized. Yeah, I think I do. Because I love him, and I can’t seem to stop even though he d-… doesn’t love me back. She sniffed audibly. Oh God, at this rate she wasn’t even going to make it back to their room before she fell apart.

Thail came to a standstill in the hall, not thirty feet from the relative safety of their room. “You are crying,” he observed, sounding horrified.

Jessa gave a short, jerky nod and pushed past him towards the room door. No way in hell was she doing this in the corridor. She fumbled getting the old-fashioned metal key in the lock as her vision went misty with tears.

Eventually, she managed. Jessa rushed into the room. She wanted to go find a corner to hide in, but Thail was hot on her heels. He reached out and took her by the bicep before she could retreat. She wheeled to face him.

“Don’t, Thail,” she told him in a rush of words and tears. “Just don’t even say it.”

He let go of her arm and recoiled as though she had struck him. “Jessa, I want you to know–”

She cut him off. “No. Don’t you dare tell me that I’m a great girl, and you’re sure I’ll find somebody who’s right for me. Dammit, Thail, I love you,” she blurted.

Now that the first crack had appeared, the dam holding back her emotions started to crumble rapidly. “And I know that it’s not fair of me to dump that kind of pressure on you when you just met me a few days ago and never asked for any of this to happen to you, but I can’t help it.”

She knew she ought to put on a stiff upper lip and let him make a clean, easy end to it. Jessa prided herself on never making a breakup uglier than it had to be. But this was Thail. He had gotten way too deep into her heart for her to stay aloof. And if all was lost anyway, then she might as well speak her mind for once.

“I wanted us to work, Thail,” she continued. “I put so damn much hope into this. That maybe you might feel at least a little bit the same about me. And obviously that was stupid of me, but when has that ever stopped me before? So I’m sorry, but yeah, I’m going to cry and make it messy when you’re just trying to let me down e…easy.”

And that was the point where the tears took over completely.

“Jessa…” she heard him start. But she was cut off behind a curtain of sobs and sniffles, and couldn’t quite make out the rest of it. Thail trailed off, apparently giving up on trying to talk her out of her meltdown.

Instead he pulled Jessa into his embrace, held her as she cried. It was miserably unfair that even now, it felt good to have him hold her. If he couldn’t love her, couldn’t he at least make her hate him? She didn’t want to respond to his kindness, his tenderness, now but God help her she did anyway.

After a moment he spoke. “Jessa, I am not good at this,” he told her.

He pushed back a bit. From the corner of her eye she saw him trying to catch her gaze. She couldn’t bear to give it to him. Her eyes got as far as his collar bones and then seemed unable to go up any higher.

Thail sighed, and wiped away a tear with his thumb. “I’ve gotten this so wrong. This,” he said, gesturing around them, “is not what I want at all. I thought it was at first – traveling with you, seeing new places, experiencing Earth.”

Jessa nodded. The frustration was fading, leaving resignation in its place. “But not anymore,” she murmured.

“Not anymore,” Thail agreed. “All day today, I’ve just wanted to go back home. I do not care if we see lions and buffalo tomorrow. I just want to go back so I can mop for you.”

Thail’s words were so far removed from anything Jessa expected to hear that she assumed he was speaking another language. “I don’t think the translation bacteria know that one. What does mahp mean in English?”

 “I thought it was English,” Thail answered. “You know? The cleansing act with ritual significance?”

So mahp was some kind of alien breakup tradition? Was that what Kindred called their equivalent of binging on a pint of ice cream and scrubbing all traces of an ex from social media? Jessa shoved her hair back off her face. She probably had a ton of mahp-ing in her future.

“If that’s how it has to be,” she sighed. “I just…just wish it didn’t,” she finished lamely. Despite herself she pressed her face to the broad planes of Thail’s chest, wanting to savor his warmth and clean, natural scent one last time.

Thail made no move to push her away. “Jessa, I never know what to expect or what do to when I am with you,” he said. His voice was hoarse and full of pain.

“I had never given any thought to calling a bride, and then you called me. I thought I was satisfied with my life, and then you awakened me to everything I was missing. And now you say that you love me, but do not wish for me to love you in return.”

He cupped her cheek in his palm, turning her face to him. “I cannot do that. The Goddess knows you owe me nothing. But I implore you, give me a chance to prove that I can be a good mate.”

“Wait. What?!”

“We still have six days left in my Claiming. You don’t have to decide whether you will claim me fully right now. Please just give me a few more days to show you that I can do better.”

Thail scrubbed his face in his hands, agitated. “I know no female dreams of joining with a tube-grown male, and still less one of the Frozen, but I swear I would be a devoted mate for you. Please let me try. Please.”

Jessa could hardly believe what she was hearing, and wasn’t completely ready to trust it. Still, she did know how to answer one of his statements.

“Thail,” she deadpanned, “I’m here because I literally did dream of being with you. For eight months. And I never would have set foot on the Mother Ship if I didn’t really want this to work. But I’ve had lots of time to get to know you – you’ve had a week. It would be crazy to ask you for a commitment now.”

“Why would a male need more than that?” asked Thail. His tone was genuinely curious, but the question was apparently rhetorical because he did not wait for a reply.

He gestured as though he was weighing something. “The Goddess draws a warrior and his bride together. They share dreams. She responds to his bonding scent. He imprints on the taste of her. Their minds catch up to their bodies, and then they bond. It is not always easy to adjust to the changes, but it is not difficult to recognize it when it happens.”

Jessa looked away. It seemed ridiculously easy, impossibly innocent. “It’s not that simple, Thail.”

“Yes, it is,” Thail argued. “At least, it is for Kindred. I do not need months to understand that you are the best thing that ever happened to me. And I did not need an hour to know that I want you. So much. Gods, Jessa, I’ve never felt anything like this.”

There it was. Jessa almost felt sorry for Thail. She knew what it was like to be put on the shelf, to be overlooked by the opposite sex. God, did she ever know. But she at least always had the option to lower her standards and make do with Mr. Not Quite Right or his cousin Mr. Right Now.

How much worse was it for Thail? He had gone from a sexless life on Z4 to the frustration of being an unmated Kindred male. He had next to no chance of meeting single women on the Mother Ship, and no ability to dream share. Of course he was going to latch onto the first woman who showed an interest.

In her weakest moments, Jessa was almost ready to accept that if it meant keeping him. Almost, but not quite. Bitter experience had taught her that a relationship where one person felt like he or she had settled for too little never lasted.

Thail wanted her now. Would he still feel that way in six months, when the novelty had worn off? When the honeymoon was over? When it started to feel less like exploration and more like a commitment?

“Thail,” she sighed. “I’m not a thing that happened to you. I’m a person. I’ve got needs and I’ve got flaws. Some pretty big ones, too.”

“Then share them with me,” Thail pleaded. He stroked a thumb down her cheek. “You are so strong, Jessa. I have not known you long, but it has been plenty of time for me to see you endure, and sacrifice, and take risks. And now I must ask you to take one more. Take a risk on me, Jessa. Trust me enough to tell me what is in your heart.”

Jessa tensed up. She knew Thail was right – knew that there would never be any real intimacy between them if she didn’t find the strength to be vulnerable with him. But God it was hard.

More than once, she’d lingered with guys who were content to be kept at arms’ length. Men like that were easy to deal with. Passive, generally. Agreeable. So very safe. And completely unfulfilling.

Absent any mind-reading ability, those guys tended to trundle along, blissfully ignorant of Jessa’s inner life. They followed orders and dutifully bought flowers if the relationship lasted till Valentine’s Day, but never took the initiative, never questioned her.

Jessa would find herself picking up more of the emotional labor, more of the responsibility, and getting less and less of what she needed. And sooner or later, the relationship ended with either a bang of pent-up resentment or a whimper of boredom.

She knew that her heart would freeze solid for good if she did the same thing with Thail. Thail had been diagnosed as one of the Frozen, but God bless him, he’d spent the last several years putting everything he had into thawing himself out. And all the while, Jessa had been building up layer after layer of icy armor around her heart.

Jessa needed to let Thail in. Needed to give him the chance to help her, to know her, to please her. Or to disappoint her. To break her heart. To wound her.

Her sense of self-preservation was screaming at her to deflect and deny, to put distance between herself and the big Kindred warrior who was trying his damnedest to get through her defenses.

A large part of her wanted to retreat to her cozy little home, and her lonely but safe life, with her cat and her classroom and one standard tour package’s worth of adventure every other summer break. Happy-ish ever after was within easy reach, and she was so tired, physically and emotionally…

* * * * *

Thail could sense that Jessa was locking her feelings behind her walls. Again.

He’d tried letting her have her space. That got them nowhere.

He’d tried opening doors. She hadn’t walked through.

The only thing left to try was pushing her into a state of emotional openness she apparently could not reach by herself.

Thail’s instincts had been screaming at him to press the issue of their mutual feelings for days now. He’d resisted temptation and denied those impulses over and over again, holding on to his rational, polite self with white knuckles and grim determination.

Over and over again, he had reveled in their physical intimacy while ignoring his craving for emotional connection. Now it was time to give in, and do what he should have done days ago – push them both where they were most vulnerable.

And for once, Thail finally felt like the right male for the job. Jessa clearly hated this – hated feeling out of control with emotion. She had fought this reckoning with everything she had, determined to minimize her doubt and her pain until she imploded.

But Thail had never been particularly good at that. In the first three decades of his life, it was because his damper kept him from feeling any messy, uncomfortable swells of emotion. Then when he did become a Feeler, he had none of the coping skills required to be stoic and reserved.

Thail hadn’t had any choice but to live in a state of profound emotional incontinence until he learned how to self-regulate. It wasn’t an experience he enjoyed, but it was no longer something he feared.

Now it was his turn to be the rock in someone else’s storm. And not just anyone – Jessa. His bride. The female he adored. This was how he could demonstrate that he was a worthy mate – not with empty gestures like challenging hyenas and mopping.

He gathered Jessa’s smaller frame in his arms. There was a chair over in a corner, upholstered and large by human standards, if a bit low for Kindred tastes.

Thail walked to it and sat, arranging Jessa on his lap. For the moment, she let him, but he had the impression that she was ready to spring out of his arms. If he lost her now, if he let her disappear back into the wilds of Earth, he might never find her again.

“In a better world, we would still be in our Holding Week,” he said, trying to put all of the tenderness he felt in his voice. “This is what we should have been doing since you claimed me. Just you and me, being together. Talking. Growing closer in mind as well as body.”

Gently, he kissed her temple. “I have been quite selfish, you know. Everything you have offered, I have accepted. Everything you would give, I have taken. And I hungered for you so badly, I did not stop to ask you how you felt about it. I’m asking now.”

“Confused, Thail,” she sighed. Her slim shoulders and graceful back were tense against his arms. “A week ago, I thought I knew you, even if you didn’t know me. And don’t get me wrong, I liked what I saw. But the male I dreamed about all these months…did not have any kind of feelings for me.”

Thail nodded. “A week ago, you did know me, maybe almost as well as I knew myself. The male you dreamed of was happy to be unmated, and above all else free. That male wanted for nothing. But I…I am not him. A claiming changes things. It has changed me.”

Jessa shifted, and for the first time in a while, met Thail’s eyes. “If you aren’t who you were a week ago, then who have you become?”

Thail allowed himself to kiss her, just once, at the spot where her eyebrows knit together in worry. “Your mate, Jessa.”

Her silence spoke volumes. In spite of himself, Thail smiled. He…had a notion what that silence meant. “You think this is bullshit?”

“I didn’t say that.”

“It is not bullshit. It is Kindred,” he said. “We are made to bond with our brides in this manner. It goes so deep that not even thirty cycles of brain damage can block it out completely.”

“That’s how you feel now,” Jessa ventured. “While it’s all new and exciting and fun. How do you know you’ll feel that way in five years? Is this a face you want to wake up to? Because as long as we’re being blunt about our shortcomings, let me address this one.

“I’m not a beautiful woman, Thail. I mean, I’ve got my good points, but I rate about a four out of ten on a good day, and I know it. And I swear to God, if your next move is to pretend like I’ve been imagining the last twenty years of my life, I’m on the next plane out of here.”

 Thail turned her words over in his mind for a moment. Why was it so hard for her to believe that he found her loveable? Some of it was surely attributable to the profound lack of appreciation Earth males had for their females. But some of it…was not.

Welcome had told him that claimers had insecurities and doubts too. Thail had brushed that notion aside, because it was so obvious to him that Jessa was special. But maybe it wasn’t obvious to humans.

Maybe it wasn’t obvious to Jessa.

Thail wanted to argue with her, wanted to deny that she was anything less than exquisite, but she had made it clear she would not hear that right now.

First and foremost, he had to persuade her to trust him. Only then would he be able to convince her how much he wanted her, how he loved her. If she would only let him, he would happily spend the rest of his life showing her how lovely he found her.

But the first step to earning her trust in this matter was showing that he took her opinions seriously, even when they were wrong. So he let the reflexive denial that had sprung to his lips go unvoiced, and tried a different tack.

“You met R’Fil at our claiming ceremony?” he asked.

“Well,” said Jessa, trying to make sense of the apparent non-sequitur, “just for a moment.”

“You stood next to her, spoke to her?”

“Yes, I did.”

“She is quite petite, isn’t she? And in both senses of the English word – she is not tall, and she is slim.”

“Yeah, so?”

“So, that is far removed from the beauty ideal of Twin Moons. Males from that world strongly prefer the Elite females who have very generous figures.”

“She seemed attractive enough to me.”

“Because you are human. On Twin Moons, the prevailing opinion is very much to the contrary. Females like R’Fil are considered bony and underdeveloped. All things being equal, most males of that world would prefer a female to be twice her weight. But that is not how the Goddess made R’Fil to be.

“Instead, she made R’Fil to be the mate to Welcomes Warmly and Waits Quietly. They have been happily bonded for more than thirty cycles. Their bond has brought them three pairs of sons, many grandsons, a home together, and a full, shared life.

“That is what matters to Kindred. It is the bond, not the body. The Goddess puts us with our brides. She knows what our souls crave even when we are oblivious. At least, she did for me.

“Jessa, no warrior dreams of spending his life with the perfect pairing puppet. If that were all it took to satisfy a male, the Kindred would have stayed on First World and never ventured out to seek brides.

“We want – I want – what Welcome and Waits have. A bond with a bride who loves me. And now I dare to hope that bride might be you.”

“I…” Jessa hesitated. “I believe that you believe that. Claimed or unclaimed, I’ve never known you to be insincere. But Thail, you barely know me.”

“I know enough,” he answered. “I know that you are patient and generous and resourceful. I know that even though the last few days we have spent exploring Earth together have been the best of my life, what I really want to explore is you.”

Thail lowered his face to Jessa, finding the shell of her ear with his lips. “Make no mistake,” he growled. “I want you with everything I have. I want to make you mine as completely as I can. But if I cannot offer you a soul bond, then we will do it your way.”

Jessa shifted in Thail’s arms. “You know that usually takes a few years with humans, right?”

He couldn’t see her face. There was nothing in her voice or her scent that gave away her feelings. But Thail knew that he was finally getting through to her. Some innate sense told him that he had finally coaxed her into opening for him, and that this last obstacle she had brought up was only perfunctory.

“Then I am glad we have an eight-month head start,” he replied. “And…maybe it is not so impossible for me to bond. I have been feeling…things from you. It was so faint at first that I wondered if I might be imagining it. But the more we are together, the more it seems as though my mind might be aligning to yours.”

“You think?” she asked.

“I hope,” he said. “There is nothing I want – nothing I have ever wanted ­– more than a bond with you. But even if that never becomes possible, I still want to be with you. What do you want, Jessa?”

She turned to face him, brought a hand up to caress Thail’s jaw. His breath caught in his throat. “I want to try,” she told him. “I want to believe there’s some way we can turn this weird, messed up claiming period into something more, even if it’s not something that quite fits the mold for human relationships or Kindred bonding.”

“And if I can bond you? Is that something you would want, too?”

Jessa worried her lower lip between her teeth for a moment. A look of apprehension rose on her face…drove Thail’s heart into his stomach…and then passed. “Yes,” she told him. “Yes, if there’s a chance the doctors are wrong and we can bond, then I think I’m ready to try.”

Chapter Text

An hour later, their shuttle settled on the floor of the Mother Ship’s hangar. The landing field was busy since it was still only mid-day by the Mother Ship’s time.

They had two days left on their tour package and still hadn’t gotten to see lions or explore Kilimanjaro. But Africa could wait. The clock was ticking on Thail’s claiming. Neither of them wanted to waste any more days in the back of a Rover, surrounded by tourists and cameras.

The sixth day of Thail’s claiming was drawing to a close. From here, they would have just six days left before Jessa would return to Earth. Thail had raised the possibility of getting her a non-bonding visa of some kind on the Mother Ship, or possibly getting a permanent surface permit for him.

Both visas were highly sought-after, though, and hard to come by. Thail also admitted that the process would be made even harder if they had a failed claiming on their record. And with the school year about to start and Thail’s bonding leave about to end, the long-distance thing would be hard.

It made the handful of days left in the claiming period that much more precious. When Jessa had hesitantly suggested they cut their Africa trip short, and return to the Mother Ship to focus on each other, Thail had jumped on the idea with both big, booted feet. In less than half an hour, he had their bags packed and a flight plan filed to take them back to the Mother Ship.

Now that she and Thail had finally cleared the air between them, Jessa found that her worries that Thail might change his mind were fading away like a nightmare by noon. She was increasingly convinced that the Kindred really were different. Thail was different.

He meant it when he said he wanted much more than just a fling. He meant it when he said that she was the one for him. And wonder of wonders, she had meant it when she told him that she was ready to try bonding with him.

Neither of them had said so in quite so many words, but the prospect of bonding sex was hanging in the air between them. Literally – Thail’s bonding scent had filled the shuttle on the way up from Africa.

Jessa was still a little nervous about it. Thail’s mating fist was as intimidating as ever, as was the prospect of staying tied to a lover for hours. And that wasn’t even beginning to address the emotional baggage Thail was carrying about his brain injury, and how he was bound to feel if they tried and failed.

But they had to try – Jessa knew that. She had completely lost her heart to him, and the feeling was so mutual. She doubted she had it in her to hold out for another twenty-four hours. Waiting another six days seemed preposterous.

In the hangar they were greeted by a Beast Kindred guard and a Blood Kindred clerk for the routine security check. The former stood by, alert but not hostile, while the latter had Jessa and Thail verify their identities with a biometric scan.

Thail went first, inputting his palm print on the clerk’s tablet and then submitting to a retina scan. The clerk took the tablet back, nodded approvingly, and then passed it over to Jessa so that she could also check in.

When she took hold of the tablet, she noticed that Thail’s ID was still pulled up on the side of the display. Curiously, Jessa looked it over. The text of his profile was unsurprising. It listed him as:

Name: Thail

Sex: Male, unmated

Haplogroup: Rageron M22/b

Age: 36 cycles

Height: 155 ilk

Mass: 415 ah’do

Personal ID No.: J-000326584

World of origin: Zeaga 4

Piloting clearance: Class 5 (non-combat, FTL)

Citizenship: Kindred Diaspora, Mother Ship XI permanent resident.

But there was also a picture attached to Thail’s profile, and that was not at all what Jessa expected. At first, she didn’t even recognize him.

Thail’s ID picture was clearly a few years out of date. It had been taken after his mask had been removed, but only just. The scar on the bridge of his nose was still fresh. His hair had not yet started to grow back. His cheeks were hollow and he was paler except for the skin under his eyes, which was dark and bruised-looking.

The expression on his face was tense and unhappy. He looked like he had been through Hell, and was not at all convinced that he had escaped the fire and brimstone for good.

Jessa shot a sideways glance at Thail, who was making friendly small talk with a mechanic he apparently knew from some common connection. His tone was cheerful and his movements were easy and graceful as he gathered up their bags.

It was amazing to see just how much Thail had transformed himself. He’d come from a place of perfect horror. The male in that photo had been enslaved, abused, and mutilated. He had been systematically cut off from everything good that life had to offer, had even been denied any knowledge of what “better” might be like.

Thail had freed himself anyway. With hardly a hint of support or encouragement, he’d found the strength to hope for something more. He hadn‘t had a role model on Z4. He hadn’t had a guide. He hadn’t had anything but the courage to leave everything he’d ever known, and his own drive to make a better life for himself.

And God, had he succeeded. He had a home now, and people who loved him, and a future. He hadn’t forgotten his past – he’d learned from it and transcended it. The peace and joy he had found in the years since shone through.

A wave of affection and pride swept over Jessa. Thail wasn’t just a pretty face. The grim, haunted male in Thail’s passport photo bore only a distant resemblance to the warrior she’d fallen for.

He could have given in to his mental and physical wounds, closed himself off, and effectively made himself ugly. He hadn’t. Thail’s innate goodness and courage made him as beautiful on the outside as he was on the inside.

And now he had a bride who loved him dearly and could hardly wait to get into his tight black pants. The next time Thail cleared the Mother Ship’s version of passport control he would be mated, she resolved.

So suck on that, Z4, she thought with triumph. You did everything you could to ruin his life, but he’s mine now and I’m about to rock his world.

* * * * *

For the second time in less than an Earth week, Thail walked hand-in-hand with his new bride towards their bonding suite, hardly able to believe what was happening.

In their first hour together, Jessa had kissed him and claimed him, and opened his eyes to a whole new realm of possibilities. In six short days, she had changed his heart, his body, and the course of his life. And now, Goddess willing, they were going to complete the transformation she had started in him and render it permanent.

Six days ago, Thail had been feeling unprepared and uncertain. That was over. Now, he felt as ready to bond as a male could get. Still, the events of the last week were absolutely dumbfounding when viewed through the prism of his life as a whole.

The first decades of Thail’s life had been devoid of any sexual feeling. His body had performed its essential maintenance functions during his recharging sequences, but his mind had never been involved.

That had changed after the Collective fell. Without their machine overlords, chaos had threatened to overtake Z4. But the surviving organics had picked up the pieces, dispassionately and with no shirking at the job. Essential services had been restored quickly and life continued much as it had before the fall.

But not completely.

Little acts of non-compliance with the rubric began to proliferate. First it was a few bars of music drifting out of a window somewhere on a residential street. Then Thail spotted some warriors wearing clothing that was not uniform. An older male, almost pure Kindred by the looks of him, had the nerve to smile in public when he encountered one of his clone brothers on the street.

And then one day on the train to Thail’s work site, there was a bit of graffiti scratched onto the back of the seat in front of him. The hasty sketch depicted an organic being. Reclining. Nude. Female. Her breasts were bared, but her pussy was concealed by her hand. And the expression on her face…if the language of Z4 had ever had the words for what she was feeling, they had long since been forgotten.

Thail usually read the news on the morning train, but the little sketch kept pulling his attention away from his data unit. Every time he looked at it, he had a sensation of something stirring restlessly in his mind and body…only to be blocked an instant later.

He’d exited the train at his usual stop, and never again encountered the little sketch. The thought had stayed with him for weeks, though. He would be calculating an airflow rate, or injecting his evening ration of garn, or trying to concentrate on a nature simulation and then the image of the nude female would be back in his mind’s eye.

His reaction was always suppressed as quickly as it came. But what if…what if it wasn’t, he wondered. What if he let himself experience the feelings that the image provoked? Would it really be that bad?

Thail thought back on his lone encounter with feeling back on the med barge so many cycles ago. So long after the fact, it was hard to really remember how the emotions themselves had felt. But he did recall that he had been reluctant for them to end.

Scraps of art and music weren’t the only contraband starting to appear on Z4. There was also software. Links would pop up for hacks and mods that the machine censors of the Collective would have purged within seconds. The slower organic network admins might take minutes or even hours to find them all.

When Thail first saw the software patch that promised to temporarily disable a male’s emotion damper, he hadn’t downloaded it.

But the months wore on, and neither the little sketch nor the software patch ever really faded out of mind. And there were other thoughts and experiences that tickled at the back of Thail’s consciousness. It was as though one of his limbs had fallen asleep under the pressure applied by the Collective. Now it was trying to rouse itself.

If he could just feel a little, maybe only an hour, perhaps he could complete the cycle and integrate those emotional impulses. Then maybe the thoughts would subside back into the background and not be so distracting.

The next time the patch popped up, Thail downloaded it. He would try it, he resolved. It was just for a little while.

At the time, he had been unaware of how completely it would alter his life and his mind. He had set the patch to install as calmly and dispassionately as he would run any other software update.

Thail had plugged into his recharging station just as he had every night since he was first decanted. In the morning, he had woken a changed male. Feelings ripped through him, raced down the halls of his brain and bounced off the walls.

He had not understood them and could neither control nor moderate them. The few twinges of emotion he had experienced back on the med barge so many cycles ago in no way prepared him for the experience of having his damper wholly disabled.

Thail had always assumed that young Feelers were completely ruled by their emotions because they lacked the language skills needed for logic and rational explanation. He had just assumed that since he had already experienced life as a rational adult he would not need to re-learn how to think and act dispassionately.

He had been so very, very wrong about that. Logic and analysis had burnt to ashes within minutes of encountering the blast furnace of his brand new, rough, and raw emotions. He rebooted his damper, but the hacked software patch turned out to be unreliable.

Thail’s curiosity had turned into apprehension, which had grown into nervousness, then anxiety, and finally outright fear of the out-of-control chain reaction taking place in his mind. He had never – before or since – felt so helpless and alone as he had in those first few days.

The experience had been terrifying. When he wasn’t lost in a blind panic, he was swamped by rages and pangs of loneliness and sadness he could scarcely comprehend. Eventually, though, he had utterly exhausted himself and fallen into a shell-shocked fog.

Only then had Thail been able to collect himself for long enough to make his way to the spaceport and catch a shuttle to the med barges. The respite from the tumult hadn’t lasted, though.

Thail had been back to ranting and clawing at his respirator like an animal by the time the shuttle reached orbit. The Tollegs had had to ambush him with a potent sedative before he could participate in any kind of conversation about his condition.

His first rational thought in days had been to beg the Tollegs to implant a new emotion damper for him. Clearly, he had vastly overestimated his capacity to deal with emotion. The Tollegs had been resistant to his proposed course of action, though.

In hindsight, Thail understood why they wanted him to seek specialized treatment on the Mother Ship instead. He also recognized with some amusement that they had performed a textbook example of a hard sell to convince him – and thank the Goddess they had!

As soon as the Tollegs had gotten his hesitant consent to treatment on the Mother Ship, they had sedated him into a stupor before his volatile new emotions would let him second guess the decision. Then they had shoved his insensate carcass into a stasis pod on the next transport headed in the direction of Earth.

In the end, what had convinced Thail to let them do it hadn’t been the medics’ logical arguments, which were rather flimsy. It hadn’t been their appeals to sentiment, which he hadn’t understood in the slightest.

What had persuaded him had been the suggestion that if he got his damper replaced, he would inevitably return to the surface of Z4. There, he would live out the remainder of his days without ever knowing the touch or taste of a female. Unless he was content to die untouched, he would have to learn to live as a Feeler.

Before he had understood anything else about his feelings or being Kindred, he had known desire. His first sexual thoughts had occurred within minutes of becoming a Feeler. They had stayed with him through the rages and the panics and the intense confusion.

He had never even been in the same room with a compatible female before. He had never smelled the sweet, hot scent of a pussy ripe to be tasted. His mask would have prevented him from enjoying it even if a willing female had been present. Yet still, somehow, desire had hounded him from his first moments of feeling.

In all the cycles since Thail had never stopped wanting those pleasures for himself. If anything, the craving had only gotten stronger.

In the months that followed his arrival on the Mother Ship, the anger and the fear and the trauma were all explored and cut down to size. The misery and loneliness were succeeded by hope and belonging. But the lust to touch and smell and taste the body of a mate? That was always with him.

In his first months as a Feeler, it had been one more source of bewilderment and frustration. As he had learned to appreciate his sexuality and to take pleasure in his body’s urges, it had become a net positive in his life. And here, now, on the cusp of bonding it seemed like nothing less than the hand of the Goddess at work.

He and Jessa would return to their bonding suite. They would talk if she wanted to talk, rest if she wanted to rest, pursue other pleasures for as long as she wanted to indulge.

But all roads now led to one destination – the two of them, nude together. His body covering and sheltering hers. Her thighs parting for him. Sounds and scents of passion as his mating fist spread her pussy, and her womb accepted his seed.

And then? Then they would see what the Goddess had in store for them. Maybe Thail wouldn’t be able to form any part of a soul bond, and would only be able to love Jessa as a non-Kindred male might. Maybe they would be able to share feelings, at least. And maybe, just maybe, he would hear her sweet voice in his mind, calling out…

“Thail!” a masculine voice sounded from across the atrium.

Chapter Text

Thail paused to answer to his name, and Jessa stopped with him. She instinctively moved in closer to his side and transferred her grip from Thail’s hand to his muscular bicep, waiting to see what this was about.

After a moment, a Blood Kindred warrior emerged from the crowd. He was older and clad in the white coat favored by both human and Kindred healers. The Tranq’s features were cool and severe, but not unkind.

Thail clearly recognized him and broke out into a wide grin. “Counselor Narin! Hello!”

He turned to Jessa and stroked the hand wrapped around his arm. “This is a male to whom I owe much. Counselor Narin led my treatment team when I came to the Mother Ship. I was – what do humans call it? – oh, yes, a trainwreck. Narin helped me relearn how to live.”

“And live well, by the looks of you,” replied Narin. “I have not seen you in my office for more than a cycle now, but you seem to be thriving. And do my senses deceive me, or have you found a bride?”

Thail draped his arm over Jessa’s shoulders. “Better, even. Jessa found me. As you expected, the scarring on my bonding locus is permanent, and I never recovered the ability to dream share. But the Goddess is good, and so she has led my bride to me.”

A glimmer of what might have been approval passed across the healer’s patrician features. “Wonderful. I know that it was a blow to you to be diagnosed as Frozen. I am pleased to see that you have found love even without being able to form a soul bond.”

“Actually,” said Thail, “I am no longer convinced of that. Counselor Narin, I think my mind has aligned to Jessa’s, at least partially. I suspect it may be possible for us to form some level of bond, even if a complete connection remains beyond my capabilities.”

Jessa would not have guessed it possible, but the icy blond Tranq’s features went a shade paler. “Thail…” he began, then stopped. He took a moment to gather his thoughts, and then leaned in and of all things, sniffed hard at Jessa.

Thail – normally a model of even temper – visibly bristled at that and would have shoved Narin back if he had been half a second slower to retreat.

Narin pinned Thail with a penetrating look. “You have not tried yet?”

Thail looked like he would rather throw a punch than answer the question, but it was clear that Narin could tell just by scent.

“No,” said Jessa, hoping to defuse the situation before too much male ego got involved. “Not that it’s really any of your business, but we haven’t tried to bond yet.”

“My apologies,” said Narin contritely. “I would not ask unless it was genuinely important. Come back to my office. We need to speak about this, immediately.”

* * * * *

Counselor Narin’s office, like pretty much everything on the Mother Ship, was built to Kindred scale. The older male had taken a seat behind a desk the size of a glacier when they entered, and started industriously searching for something on his computer.

Thail had initially drifted towards a long, low couch, apparently out of habit. But with Jessa by his side, he’d opted instead for one of the two large chairs opposite the desk. Jessa took the other, even though the scale of it made her feel like a naughty student called into the vice principal’s office.

She crossed her fingers. Maybe Counselor Narin was just playing the cool teacher here and making sure his sexually active pupils were being responsible.

Then again, maybe not. The Kindred standard for sexual responsibility was entirely on board with barebacking with a partner you had known for just a few days. She wondered what “the talk” would look like for those rare Kindred fathers who had daughters bringing home new boyfriends.

“Son, don’t you dare bring her home before midnight. She’s daddy’s girl, and if you intend to hang on to your family jewels, you’d better have her bonded by the end of the month and pregnant before you graduate.” Jessa stifled a nervous giggle at the thought.

After a moment, Narin found what had evidently been looking for. He hit a button and the back of his display went transparent, allowing Jessa and Thail to see what he had been looking at.

It was a pair of brain scans. The one on the right had Thail’s name on it. Colors were superimposed over it, showing levels of activity in different regions of the brain. It was largely red and yellow, with a few spots of green, with one exception.

Towards the back of Thail’s skull, above the cerebellum but well below the crown of his head, there was a region of blue and purple markings. In places, the colors were so dark they faded to black. Jessa scarcely needed the color key to know that that was not healthy.

“This is Thail’s most recent brain scan,” said Narin. “It was taken at his routine physical six weeks ago. You can see here where his bonding locus sits.”

Narin gestured towards the blue and purple areas. “The colors here are consistent with severe damage. It absolutely would keep you from dream sharing. But you’ll notice that it’s not all black. There is still some living tissue here.”

“Right,” said Thail. “I’m no healer, but to my eye this is unchanged from the other scans I’ve had made since my implants were removed.”

“It is,” confirmed Narin. “As badly damaged as your bonding locus was, it wasn’t completely destroyed. It also hasn’t healed in any noticeable degree.”

“So…you all have known that for ages, and Thail’s been upfront about it,” added Jessa. “I know it means that Thail’s probably not going to be able to form a full bond. And I’m fine with that. I mean…sad for you Thail, I know it’s important to you. But if all we can have is a partial bond or no bond at all, it doesn’t change how I feel.”

“The prospect of not forming a bond at all is not what has me worried,” said Narin. “But I am deeply concerned about the two of you forming a partial bond. Thail, I can see you two had been hoping it would be possible. Truthfully, you had better hope it is impossible.”

Narin gestured at the other scan, which only had a case number on it. “This scan comes from the medical learning archives. It was from a male who had a very similar injury pattern. You can see that like Thail, he had extensive scarring, but did still have around 15 to 20 percent healthy tissue remaining in his bonding locus.”

The resemblance between their two brains was indeed strong, although judging by the other male’s teeth he was of Blood Kindred heritage. Narin gestured to something on the screen, bringing up a nearly impenetrable technical paper in the Kindred native tongue.

“This is a paper about that male’s case. He also found a female who proved to be highly compatible. He reported physical signs of an awakening and some precursors to bonding. He could sense his female’s pleasure, for example, and was attuned to her emotional state.”

Thail looked like his worst nightmare was unfolding before him. “And then what happened, Counselor?”

“Then they attempted to bond,” he answered. “That male was able to deploy his fangs and inject his essence for bonding sex. And he did form a bond, but it didn’t attach correctly.”

Narin sighed. “Partial bonds…are not a blessing. In a typical case, the female develops a severe stress reaction. It starts with headaches, but progresses through loss of consciousness, and eventually her death unless the partial bond is severed.”

“What’s involved in severing a partial bond?” asked Jessa. “I mean, if we try to bond and it attaches poorly, can we just cut it off?”

The stoic healer actually flinched at that. “A partial bond can be severed,” he said in the pained, deliberately patient tones of a person speaking to someone who had innocently said something incredibly offensive.

“It is borderline sacrilegious to us, and very painful for both parties. And…for the males at least, the survival rate for such a procedure is not good. Kindred mate for life. Loss of a bonded mate, even if the bond is new or weak or malformed, has a high incidence of mortality in Kindred males.”

Narin gestured at the screen again. “That was the eventual outcome of this male’s case. Once his mate became symptomatic, the partial bond was diagnosed. He voluntarily severed the bond to save her, and then died seven days later.”

“Yipper didn’t say anything about this,” Jessa murmured, still trying to wrap her head around what this news meant. In the chair next to her, Thail was as stiff and still as a board.

“Yipper is a fine surgeon,” answered Narin, “perhaps the finest I have ever known. He did excellent work in removing Thail’s implants, and that was no simple procedure given the level of scarring involved. But Kindred sexual and psychic medicine is not his specialty, and these cases are rare. I dare say he would never have encountered it on the Z4 med barges, or on the Tolleg homeworld.”

“Well,” hedged Jessa, grasping at straws, “Is there some way we could have sex and just…not bond? I remember the Priestess said something about not being able to use condoms in bonding sex…”

Narin shook his head. “I’m afraid not. It is true that sheathes can interfere with bonding at least temporarily, but they are not truly reliable at preventing it. Bonding sex, especially with a Beast Kindred male, is a lengthy process. And even if the sheath doesn’t rupture from extended use, it tends to, err, overflow.”

Finally, Thail spoke. His voice was flat with shock and horror. “Then…we can only be together if we never make love.” He turned to Jessa and took her nearest hand in her own. “Is that…is that something you’re willing to try?”

Jessa froze. Unbidden, a memory came back to her of the night she had her IUD removed and Dr. Ruiz cheerfully saying she wouldn’t even pretend that abstinence was a realistic option for the bride of a Kindred male.

She thought back to Thail’s bonding fruit overdose, barely a day ago. Jessa had known that he was losing control, losing his mind, and that his bonding scent would drag her along for the ride. But he’d smelled so good, looked so amazing. She’d wanted him more than she wanted her own safety, and so she’d marched back into their room and let him have his way with her.

Jessa closed her eyes and took a deep breath. God, this was hard, but she knew what she had to do.

“Thail, I think we both know what the end result will be if we try to put sex off-limits. I know I’m not strong enough. And it kills me to do this, but the only thing worse would be killing you with a severed bond.”

She had to force the words out. “On our first day together when we talked about the potential for an unresolved bond, I promised that if this got to be too much to take, I w…would end the claiming,”

Jessa made herself meet the eyes of the male she loved one last time. “I love you Thail. And I renounce my claim on you, forever.”

Chapter Text

The door to Thail’s quarters opened. He didn’t turn over to look. The door had been locked, but he knew Welcome had the override. It was bound to be his sponsor, or maybe R’Fil, come to check on him.

How many times had they done this for him as he came to terms with his new life? They’d come to share comfort as he struggled to deal with the trauma of his past. They’d given him acceptance and hope when he had been diagnosed as Frozen. They’d taught him the meaning of family and forgiveness when his volatile new emotions escaped his control and he lashed out in pain or made a fool of himself in confusion.

This time was different. Losing Jessa was not an opportunity for growth in disguise. It was just pain.

Superficially, his life was unchanged from what it had been a week ago. He’d begged Narin to re-run the scan before Jessa left, but the results were indisputable. His brain injury was no better or worse than it had ever been.

There was no reason he could not walk into his work center tomorrow, go to his station, and start hunting for excess CO2 as though nothing had ever happened. He still had his friends and his foster family. Without a bond or a bride in his life, the changes in his body would eventually subside.

Thail’s quarters remained silent. Maybe it hadn’t been Welcome at the door after all. Medical staff could also override a door lock, and would tread lightly upon entering the domicile of a male known to be in an unstable mental state. Had Counselor Narin ordered that he be committed to the inpatient ward?

Thail had been down this road a few times. He had spent his first weeks on the Mother Ship living in the inpatient care ward as he struggled to learn the self-regulation that his damper had always performed for him.

Even after he’d stabilized enough to be released from full-time inpatient care, there had been a few times when he had been taken by surprise by a particularly intense experience. At certain levels, fear and anger and pain all seemed to be self-perpetuating. Until he had learned how to ride out the storm, Thail had occasionally needed a few days of close supervision to get back on an even keel.

Thail hadn’t needed that level of treatment in cycles, really not since before he took the Warriors’ Oath. However, it had undoubtedly saved his life during his first months as a Feeler. More than that – it had taught him how to truly live.

For whatever that was worth.

Thail rolled over to surrender himself to the orderlies. In his heart, he knew that there was nothing Narin could do to heal this loss, but there was no excuse for taking it out on the medics who had been sent to collect him.

None were there. Instead Thail saw Welcome’s dark twin, Waits Quietly, living up to his name.

“Not who you were expecting?” asked the older male gruffly. “This is more my brother’s kind of thing. He’s good at the whole let’s-find-the-day-side routine. He’s usually right, too.”

“Not this time,” said Thail.

“No,” agreed Waits. “Not this time. So you get the dark twin instead. You get the one who can stand to be in the presence of loss without trying to solve it.”

“I keep thinking back to all of the counseling I went through when I first came here,” admitted Thail. “The lessons on self-awareness, on putting things in perspective, on experiencing a setback and then moving forward. I can’t see a way forward from this one, Waits.”

Thail tossed his data unit to the older male, who caught it and turned it to see the screen.

Waits read for a moment. “Emotion dampers, hmm? You don’t see a way forward, so instead you’re looking back?”

“What else can I do? I’m going to have to live the rest of my life knowing that the female I love is just out of reach. That she…she’s out there, Waits, barely more than a light second from here, loving me and missing me just as much as I yearn for her. I can’t un-know that. I think the only way I can live with that knowledge is to stop feeling.”

Waits mulled that over for a few moments. “I keep thinking about all you’ve been through, boy. Surviving conditions that killed your clone brothers, making it off Z4 while your mind was falling apart on you, putting yourself together again one day at a time.”

He made a weighing gesture with his hands, “And then you made it here, to us. You gained your freedom, and you gave your oath to the Goddess, and she sent you a bride. You really think it was her plan for you to go back to Z4 and be a drone slave again?”

“Maybe,” said Thail. “Maybe this was her way of saying I never really belonged here. The more I think about it, the more I wonder.

“She didn’t create me in an act of love. The Collective did that, in an act of sin. I spent the first thirty cycles of my life in open defiance of her will. Seven Hells, I didn’t raise a finger in opposition when the Collective attacked Earth. But I came here anyway, and gave my oath without ever asking if she wanted it.”

Thail rolled onto his back, looking up at the ceiling. “I was too dense to catch the hint when I was diagnosed as Frozen. Then this past week has been one long series of reminders of what I am and what I’m not. And still, I wanted so badly to believe that I could be worthy that I ignored it all.

“I fell short over and over at trying to uphold the traditions of a claiming. You saw how inept I was in the claiming ceremony.”

Waits nodded ruefully. “You needed a little help. But many more claiming ceremonies go wrong than go totally right.”

“My performance did not improve from there,” Thail said. “We went back to the bonding suite, and my mouth ran before my mind. I compared being with her to using a pairing puppet, Waits.”

Waits Quietly grimaced at that. “Welcome told me about that one. It wasn’t your finest hour. Did you take his advice and try to make it right?”

“Tried, yes. And failed. And failed. And failed. Gods damn me, but I forgot to account for the short Z4 month, so we held our Bathing Week in a shuttle fresher. That kicked off a reaction in Jessa that landed her in the Med Center for emergency treatment. Then in my ignorance I overdosed on bonding fruit. She was so kind, and allowed me to ta…take liberties ordinarily not permitted at that stage in a claiming.”

Waits nodded thoughtfully. “Did she regret her generosity?”

“I…I think not. Our physical connection was strong, so strong. Pleasure was never our problem. I was our problem.”

“How so?” asked Waits. “For all that you had a late start to your Kindred life, I have never known you to betray our values.”

“The humans have a saying for that one,” said Thail. “They say that the spirit was willing, but the flesh was weak. I wanted to please her. Gods, did I ever. And I tried as best I could, but between what I did not understand about claimings, and what I did not understand about her, I consistently made a mess of it. She wept over the mistakes that I made.”

“And now you think the Goddess does not find you worthy?”

“I am at a loss for any other explanation.”

Waits Quietly thought on that for a moment. “What did Jessa think? Did the daughter the Goddess sent to you believe you were worthy?”

“She was more forgiving than I deserve.”

“That didn’t sound like a ‘no’,” observed Waits.

“It wasn’t,” said Thail, “but that does not make it any better. Jessa did not abandon her claim when she learned that I am Frozen, and an absolute oaf of a male on top of that. She accepted me as I am. I could ask for no more perfect a mate than her. And yet still, it wasn’t enough. My best efforts have brought us both nothing but misery. What can a failed claiming like this be, but a message that I am not meant to be Kindred?”

Waits shook his head. “I hear your pain. I deny your premise. The Goddess does not make mistakes. She willed that you survive your enslavement and be delivered from Z4 where so many were not.”

The older male stood and paced. “If she truly did not hold you in her heart, you would not have been given the name you now carry. You would have stayed 55-BQ-70, and you would have been sent on your way as soon as you were well enough to pilot a shuttle.”

“But a failed claiming –”

“Happens to natural-born males, too. It does not mean that they are unworthy to be warriors in service of the Goddess,” retorted Waits.

“So then…why!?” asked Thail. “Why would the Goddess take two reasonably contented people, dangle the prospect of real joy in front of us, and then yank it away?”

“She has her reasons,” sighed Waits. “Occasionally, we are even allowed to glimpse them. She does not put couples together by accident. However, sometimes she sends people into one another’s lives to teach them things they need to learn.”

“What could there possibly be to learn from this?” Thail sat up and gestured pompously to an imaginary audience, his voice taking on a biting, sarcastic tone. “Lesson One: Do not have an injured bonding locus. Lesson Two: Try to be less brain injured. Lesson Three: If you’re going to have an injured bonding locus anyway, then do not allow yourself to love.”

“Lesson One,” Waits growled stalking over towards Thail, “Do not presume to know the mind of the Goddess. Lesson Two: She knows the difference between what you want and what you need, even when you do not. Lesson Three: In your darkest hour, she will not abandon you. See that you return the courtesy.”

Waits dropped Thail’s data unit by his side. “Thail, you are like a son to us. I know you well enough to know what you want – to be Kindred in all respects: to live as we live and bond as we bond. That is apparently not the Goddess’s plan for you. So now, you must ask yourself if you cannot have the bond that you want, what is it that you truly need?”

Thail slumped back to the bed and covered his face in his hands. “Not what, Waits. Who.”

Chapter Text

Yipper came into his exam room in the Med Center, skimming through the reader that he held in one long-fingered hand. His patient’s latest scans were on the screen and nothing seemed to be amiss.

“Thail, it’s a pleasure to see you as always. Yes it is, yes it is,” he chattered happily. “I don’t believe I have treated you since you had the last of your implants removed. But your claiming ceremony – such a delight to attend. Now, you’ve just begun your Bathing Week, have you not? I’m glad to say you look to be in fine shape for it. So you do, so you do. What brings you here this morning?”

“I need you to finish the job,” growled Thail with uncharacteristic irritability.

Yipper looked up from his charts. For the first time he noticed that although his patient’s scans were a picture of good health, his face was a study in misery. Thail’s eyes were haunted, his broad shoulders slumped, and the corners of his mouth were etched with grief. His voice was hoarse.

Yipper clambered up a stool to talk. “I do not think you’re talking about the removal of your enhancements. No you’re not, no you’re not.”

“No, of course not,” replied Thail. “I’m talking about my Goddess-damned defective brain. I need you to finish the process your colleagues started when I was first created. Destroy my bonding locus for good.”

Yipper was horrified at Thail’s demand. He began to sway on his seat in dismay. “I cannot, I cannot!” he wailed. “Such a procedure would be completely contrary to my oath as a physician. And that is to say nothing of the will of the Goddess – she blessed you with a mate!”

“The Goddess,” rumbled Thail, “did bless me with a bride – a courageous and generous woman with a warm heart fit to thaw one of the Frozen. Jessa wished me nothing but peace and love. And now I have driven her away and wounded her like the worst kind of cur because I cannot risk inflicting a partial bond on her. How could that possibly be the will of the Goddess?”

“That…is quite troubling,” allowed Yipper. “That it is, that it is. But the bonding locus is fundamental to the health and sexuality of all Kindred males. I have never seen nor heard of any such procedure being performed on a warrior. Not even the Havoc attempt it.”

“Mine is already damaged enough to separate me from my bride,” argued Thail. “What greater harm could befall a Kindred male?”

“But if I were to surgically excise your bonding locus you could never offer Jessa a bond. No you couldn’t, no you couldn’t.”

“I can’t offer her a bond now. I never will be able to, so long as it would put her at risk,” said Thail. “What kind of male would I be if I gambled with her well-being just to satisfy my urge to bond? But if I knew that we were safe from inadvertently forming a partial bond I could at least offer her marriage in the way of her people.”

“And what about children?” asked Yipper. “You will remain infertile so long as you are unbonded. So you will, so you will.”

“I know,” admitted Thail. “But I would be honored to give the gift of a family to a child in need, much as Welcome, R’Fil, and Waits Quietly did for me. And I am certain that Jessa would open her heart to a child of our choice just as much as a child of our bodies.”

Yipper shook his head and averted his big brown eyes. Thail’s dilemma was clearly causing him great pain, but to excise a Kindred male’s bonding locus…. The notion went against every instinct Yipper had as a healer.

“I understand you, Thail. There is a certain logic to your request. But even if you are prepared to accept a permanent loss of all bonding ability, this would be an experimental, extraordinarily dangerous procedure. My conscience is not at ease. No it’s not, no it’s not.”

“Then pray on it,” pleaded Thail. “Consult with whomever you need to consult. But know this – you are my first choice for a surgeon but you are not my only option. If need be, I will go back to Z4 to find one who will perform the procedure.”

“Let’s not be hasty,” interjected Yipper. “You more than anyone know the true price of being treated on the med barges. So you do, so you do.

Yipper thought for a minute. “Let me offer this suggestion,” he said. “I will bring your question to the Sacred Grove. If the Goddess gives me her blessing to proceed, I will do as you have asked. So I will, so I will.”

* * * * *

Five days later, Thail circled in low over Jessa’s hometown. There were a few elementary schools in the small community but only one was close to a little café where Jessa had once mentioned she sometimes ate mid meal.

Absently, Thail rubbed the back of his head. Yipper had taken a day to acquiesce to Thail’s request and a day longer to plan the surgery. Thail had not been inclined to tolerate any further delay, and so he had woken in the Med Center three days ago to find a few inches of skin at the rear of his scalp bare, sore, and stitched closed.

Thail had been really drowsy for a day as the anesthesia wore off, but aside from the short-lived pain at the incision site he didn’t feel any different physically. Yipper had told him he likely wouldn’t, and that the brain itself had no pain receptors.

Now the incision site had healed. Yipper said the bone and brain tissue underneath were looking as good as could be hoped. However, neither fast Kindred healing nor the surgeon’s skill had regrown the patch of hair Yipper had removed to prepare Thail for surgery.

The bare spot wasn’t terribly conspicuous underneath the thick growth on the rest of his scalp. Still, Thail found his hand drifting that way every so often. It had been the right decision. It had to have been.

Thail would have gladly sacrificed so much more than just a little hair to finally be free to claim his mate.

Thankfully, the destruction of his bonding locus had only cost him someone else’s borrowed dream. In exchange, Thail was finally free to pursue his own heart’s longing.

Now, for the first time since his near-miss with inflicting a partial bond on Jessa, Thail had hope. He felt for the ring hidden in the waist pouch of his black uniform trousers, reassuring himself it was still there.

He knew that kneeling and offering a ring was essential to proposing marriage in Jessa’s culture. It seemed like an absurdly simple way to start a life together to Thail, and he hoped fervently that he wasn’t missing something important, but he was not willing to wait another day.

Once the surgery was complete, he had applied to the High Council for a hardship exemption to claim Jessa. He had also sought approval to bring her up to stay as a permanent resident aboard the Mother Ship, even though they would remain unbonded.

To his relief, both applications had been granted. It certainly helped that her claiming of him had been the kind of grand romantic gesture that would move the heart of any Kindred warrior. His bride had earned respect from his people with that one. Now, perhaps the Kindred would become their people, not just his.

Not that he would insist that they live on the Mother Ship if she agreed to join with him. Still, he had spent yesterday moving his belongings from his old quarters in the Unmated Males Area to a new suite in family housing, as tradition required of warriors preparing to assert a claim. Just in case.

Thail landed in the school’s parking lot and marched up the steps into the school building. It was dark inside and quiet. Jessa had mentioned that the children were gone this time of year for an extended break before the start of the next academic cycle.

Thail ignored the signs instructing visitors to check in with the receptionist. He was not inclined to seek permission to find his bride. The darkened corridor to the right of the entrance seemed like a good place to start. Thail headed down the hall. At the end he saw a flicker of lights and heard a recorded voice droning on.

“…and this is why we expect the new assessment rubric to launch us into an era of improved pedagogical outcomes, better parent engagement…”

How could someone as adventurous as Jessa stand being cooped up in a room listening to such drivel? Thail wondered.

Thail peered through a window built into the double doors leading into the room. He spotted her almost instantly, sitting alone in the back row and looking lost in thought. They were not happy thoughts. He could see that plainly enough on her face.

Thail’s heart clenched with shame. I did that to her, he thought. And I need to make it right.

Thail shoved open the doors and strode over to where Jessa was seated, heedless of her shock and the eyes of the other teachers on him. In one smooth motion he took her hands and pulled her to her feet before him.

“Jessa Stefano,” he announced, giving the traditional words of claiming in a booming voice that brooked no argument and no doubt. “I am Thail of the Kindred Mother Ship. By the laws of our two peoples, I claim you as my bride.”

Thail bent to place a gentle kiss on her forehead. As he did he noticed that his bonding scent and mating fist were reemerging. They had subsided after the first claiming contract was breached and Jessa had returned to Earth.

Now, back in Jessa’s presence where he belonged, his body remained as blissfully unaware as ever of his brain’s shortcomings. Jessa noticed too as her eyes widened and her lips parted on a soft sigh.

An older female who had been seated near the video system bustled up. “Excuse me,” she said in a peevish tone that made it clear that she felt Thail was the one who owed an apology. “You cannot just come in here, disrupt this in-service, and take one of our teachers away.”

Thail shrugged. “Watch me.” With that he bent and scooped Jessa up into his arms. Jessa managed to snag her purse off of the table, and then Thail was out the cafeteria door and striding towards his waiting shuttle.

“Well,” murmured Jessa once they were out of earshot of her coworkers. “That’ll be the talk of the faculty lounge for the next month. Are you and I supposed to be talking now, too?” Her tone was hurt and skeptical. It twisted at Thail’s heart to think that he might have lost his bride’s trust.

“That and more,” answered Thail as they entered his shuttle and shut the hatch. “I meant it in earnest when I said I came to claim you. My claiming period may have ended – yours is only just beginning. We’ll stop by your house so you can pack, and then we can head back to the Mother Ship.”

“Why?” she asked brokenly. “Why do this when you know it’s what we can’t have?”

Gently, he set her down inside and put their destination into the shuttle’s autopilot. As the spacecraft rose out of the parking lot, Thail took Jessa’s hand and guided it to the bare patch at the back of his skull.

“Nothing is forbidden between us anymore. I have had my bonding locus destroyed, permanently and completely. You no longer need fear that I will trap us in a partial bond.”

Tears filled Jessa’s eyes. “Oh Thail,” she whispered. “You didn’t have to. I never would have asked you to give up your hope that you might be able to bond.”

“I know you would not have asked it,” he said. “My only regret is that I did not do it earlier.”

“But…the Kindred,” she stammered. “Your people live to bond. How could you give that up?”

Thail shook his head. “Bonding is what I have been told to want ever since I left Z4. But you, Jessa, are who I actually need. Not because I am supposed to. Because I love you.”

As the shuttle settled in Jessa’s driveway, he went to one knee and drew out the simple gold ring he had picked.

“Jessa,” he said, “I cannot offer you a bond. But if you will have this damaged male, I will give you love for my lifetime. Will you marry me?”

“Yes,” she cried. “I love you, too, Thail. Yes.”

“Then I have more than I ever could have hoped for,” replied Thail. He fastened his lips to hers, and kissed her as though it was the meaning of his life.

* * * * *

Jessa was awash in feeling and sensation. Ever since she had breached her claiming contract with Thail, she had alternated between grief and numbness.

She had come home and cried on her Mom’s shoulder. Then her Dad’s. Then to her cat, her journal, her pillow, and her shower. God help her, she had cried into the stove as she tried to distract herself with deep cleaning her kitchen.

It hadn’t worked, but life went on. In her dry-eyed hours she had started the slog of preparing for the new school year and signed up for continuing education hours.

Her heart hadn’t been in it. She still loved the kids but the administrative nonsense and lesson planning seemed just shy of unbearable. The only thing worse had been staying at home in her bathrobe feeling miserable.

As hard as she had tried to guard her heart, to remind herself that nothing was guaranteed and to keep Thail at arm’s length, she had utterly failed. She had let him in and fallen completely in love with a man she could not have.

None of the romantic failures of her past had hurt her as badly as losing Thail. Before she met him it had been easy to talk a big game about giving up and becoming a happy cat lady. Now that she knew what could have been – what was so excruciatingly close to having been – the reality of being alone was almost unbearable.

The one comfort in her post-claiming days had been that she hadn’t dreamed of Thail again. She might have gone mad if she had to see him every night when she knew that there was no hope of a future together. It was bad enough knowing he was aboard the Mother Ship without having to see him there moving on with his life.

When Thail had appeared to claim her in the cafeteria of her school in the middle of in-service, she had been stunned. When he had revealed to her that he had voluntarily removed a part of his own brain to make it possible, she had been shocked.

In her wildest dreams Jessa never would have guessed that Thail would do that just to be with her. Everything she had learned suggested that bonding was a Kindred warrior’s reason for being.

But Thail chose her over his culture and his own biology. He came back for her. He claimed her. He proposed to her. And now he was holding her in his strong arms, kissing her like there was no tomorrow.

Jessa broke the kiss. “So if you’ve claimed me this time, do we still have to start over with Holding Week rules?” she asked breathlessly.

“It’s up to the claimee whether we wait through the full Holding Week, Bathing Week, Tasting Week and Bonding Week. Which should each be seven days this time since your home planet is Earth.” answered Thail, watching her cautiously.

“I don’t want to wait a month. I don’t want to wait another hour!”

“Gods, I was hoping you would say that,” said Thail. He ran his thumb over her fabric-covered clit and into the warmth between her thighs. “We need to get reacquainted.”

“Here?” asked Jessa. “Can people see through the windows of these shuttles from the outside?”

“Not here,” answered Thail. “I’m going to give your pussy every inch of my shaft, mating fist included, and it’s going to take hours.”

A thrill of excitement ran through Jessa at his words, along with a shock of nerves. His mating fist as still every bit as daunting as it had been the first time she’d seen it. But damn it, he’d cut out a part of his own brain to make this possible. She was going to trust him when he said it was worth it.

Jessa grabbed her purse and fished out her house key. “Bedroom. It’s at the end of the hall on the right. Give me five minutes to freshen up, and I’m all yours.”

Chapter Text

Jessa took a deep breath and gave herself one final check in the bathroom mirror. Hair? Touchable. Lips? Kissable. Left hand? Adorned with the ring Thail had given her. Body? Poured into the naughtiest – and most expensive – bit of lingerie she owned.

She wasn’t ordinarily much into fancy underthings. One afternoon last summer, though, she had started shopping online for a friend’s bachelorette party. Jessa still wasn’t sure what had convinced her to click the Buy button with something for herself in the cart. Now she didn’t regret the purchase in the least.

The bottom was a strappy little thong in metallic rose gold that only barely covered her pussy. The matching top was hardly more than a cascading fringe of superfine, jewelry-like chains. The delicate strands glimmered in the light but did almost nothing to conceal her body. The chains draped over and around her rousing nipples, leaving the undercurve of her breasts bare.

With a last fluff of her dark waves, Jessa pulled her tube of lubricant out of its hiding place and left the bathroom. At the bedroom door she struck a playful hipshot pose.

Thail was lying in the middle of her bed, propped against the headboard. One foot was casually tucked under his calf. He was wearing a molten look in his eyes, a truly impressive erection, and nothing else.

His gaze slowly roamed over Jessa’s body. She could feel the heat in his eyes as surely as though it was the warmth of his hands. Her nipples pebbled, remembering how they had felt touching her breasts, stroking her pussy.

Over-the-top performances were usually not Jessa’s style in the bedroom. But here now with Thail she felt all of her barriers coming down. The sense of freedom and trust was intoxicating.

She did a slow turn in place for him then cupped her breasts as though offering them for his pleasure. The fine chains of her top bunched and slid over her breasts as she moved, caressing her.

Jessa parted her lips and slowly dragged a finger over her tongue. She slid her hand down her abdomen and dipped into the barely-covered slit of her pussy. Her stance widened as she lightly began to tease her own clit.

Thail muttered a curse and his hands clenched in the sheets. His rigid shaft jerked against the rippled muscles of his abdomen.

Jessa withdrew her finger and stalked over to the side of the bed, hips swaying like she was on the runway at a lingerie show. When she reached the edge, she stretched out her wet finger to Thail’s mouth.

His lips closed around it eagerly. The warmth of his tongue laved against its sensitive pad, paradoxically sending shivers down Jessa’s spine. Thail’s eyes slid shut with a groan of pleasure as he savored her taste. When he had thoroughly cleaned her juices off, he released her finger from his mouth and gently grabbed her wrist.

Thail tugged Jessa’s hand a little closer and slowly began to kiss his way up from knuckle to palm. She trembled a bit at the delicate caress, nervous anticipation building in her belly. At her wrist, he turned her hand to display the hollow where her pulse ran close to the surface and gently sucked against it.

Jessa felt herself go weak in the knees. She clambered up onto the bed before she could collapse into a puddle of want.

As she went to straddle his lap Thail took her firmly by the waist, his big hands almost spanning it. He tugged her against his chest. Then in a single smooth move, he rolled them both on their sides together.

Jessa squeaked in surprise and then burst into giggles as Thail began to pepper her face with tiny kisses. Looking entirely pleased with himself, he fished the bottle of lube out from the covers where it had dropped.

“What’s this for?” he asked.

“Just a bit of lubricant,” she said. “You’re kind of…huge, you know? I don’t want to have to stop halfway.”

Thail turned the bottle over in his hands, popped the cap and sniffed. His brow wrinkled with skepticism. “Does it do anything interesting, or is it just to help ease penetration?”

“Hmm? No, that’s just the plain stuff.”

“Not going to need it,” announced Thail, snapping the lid shut. He rolled to sit up, located the trash can by Jessa’s bureau, and sank a perfect free throw with the little bottle. It landed with a satisfying thonk!

Thail sank back down into the mattress next to Jessa and propped himself up on an elbow. With his free hand he began to trace lazy circles around her nipple, nudging the little chains of her top out of the way to slither across her skin.

Jessa’s eyes slid half shut at his teasing touch. “You’re very sure of yourself,” she said.

“Yes. I am,” he growled. “I’ll get you good and wet, and then I’m going to spread my precum all over your sweet little pussy. You’ll open for my mating fist like you were made for it. And however many hours our joining takes, you’ll have plenty of my seed helping you stay with me all the way.”

Jessa’s pussy throbbed at Thail’s hot, dirty talk. “You promise?” she breathed.

“Oh yeah,” rumbled Thail, gently blowing on Jessa’s exposed nipple. “I’m finally getting the chance to claim you like a warrior should. It’s my turn to hold you, touch you, taste you. You aren’t leaving this bed until I’ve spent hours filling you and making you come.”

Jessa looped an arm over Thail’s neck and came up for a kiss. His clean, masculine scent surrounded her, making it impossible to think about anything but the nearness of his body.

Their kiss started softly but quickly escalated. When Thail began to suck on Jessa’s gently questing tongue, her hands fisted in his hair.

Thail shifted his body to pin her chest just as he had captured her mouth. He left room at her hips, though, and his hand stole down to the seam of her pussy.

“Can’t wait to feel you again,” he said. He stroked her lightly over her little panties, once, twice, a third time as he felt for the edges. Then he plunged his hand underneath the fabric without hesitation. His long middle finger delved into her core as his thumb began to stroke Jessa’s swollen folds.

Jessa gasped as Thail recaptured her lips in a kiss. She was already soaking wet and beginning to ache for him. She arched up and pressed her body into his, seeking the warmth of his muscular torso.

Thail broke the kiss. “Easy, easy. A warrior claiming a bride needs to make her come. He needs to stroke her, show her how good his touch can be. You’re going to have to come under my hand before we move on to other things.”

Jessa took that as a challenge. “That shouldn’t take long,” she moaned as she slowly rolled her hips up into Thail’s grasp. She felt his strong finger shift inside of her, pressing up to the end of her channel.

Thail’s eyes darkened with arousal. “That’s right. Fuck yourself on me. Use me for your pleasure.”

“Thail,” she whispered. “I need…”

“You need to be filled,” he responded. “Let me give you that. Spread those long, pretty legs a little wider for me.”

Jessa obeyed and Thail let his index finger join his middle in exploring her warm, slick depths.

“There, just like that,” he said. “Is this what you needed?”

“Yeah,” she sighed.

“Good. You just keep riding my hand. I want to play with these lovely pink nipples.”

Obligingly, Jessa arched her back to bring her breasts closer to Thail’s face. As she did, Thail’s thumb brushed firmly against her clit. It was almost too intense. Almost, but not quite.

Thail bent to take a nipple into his mouth, licking, sucking, and tugging in a gentle rhythm. With each pull against her tender flesh, Jessa felt a fresh shower of sparks ignite in her pussy.

She writhed hard against Thail’s heavy hand and hot mouth. Again. And again. And again. She felt like she was just a breath away from a devastating orgasm, but still not quite there.

Finally, Thail crooked his fingers inside of her. “Gods, you’re beautiful like this, letting me fuck your sweet little pussy with my fingers. But you need to come now, don’t you? I want you to let go for me.”

He curled his fingers firmly into the sensitive spot in her channel behind her clit just as his thumb rubbed against her stiff bud. Jessa broke wide open, coming hard around Thail’s hand. Her limbs jerked and her belly shook as her world narrowed to the magnificent sensations he was giving her.

Gradually the orgasm faded. She became aware that Thail was looking appreciatively at where his hand was clamped between her thighs. Jessa sighed with relief and let her legs fall open again.

“Beautiful, mpendwa,” he said, gently freeing his fingers from her hot core. “I could watch you do that all afternoon.”

Thail brought his hand, still wet with her juices, to his nose and drew in a deep breath. His eyes slid half shut and took on an almost drugged haziness. Jessa saw his throat clench into a convulsive swallow as her scent worked on him.

“I can’t get enough,” he confessed. His hand trailed down his body until he grasped his shaft. Lazily he pumped himself, spreading her honey against his skin.

Jessa shimmied out of her thong and sat up. “So have more,” she retorted. She pushed gently against Thail’s warm, washboard abs. He took the hint and stretched out flat on his back. Then she grabbed the headboard of the bed and carefully swung her leg over his shoulders. The move left her pussy hovering over Thail’s upturned face.

She lowered herself slowly, giving him time to react. The sensation of his hot, eager breath against her folds was maddening, but she took her time giving him time to change his mind.

Thail had said this was a fantasy of his, but not all fantasies translated well to reality. However adamant he had been about needing to taste her, it still seemed more than a little naughty to press her pussy to his face like this.

She needn’t have worried. Thail’s expression only got hungrier the closer her shimmering folds drew to his mouth. His big square hands came up from behind her and wrapped around Jessa’s thighs as he guided her into position above him. A low moan spilled from him. Then finally, her hot pussy made contact with his lips and his patience evaporated.

He licked her slit from end to end, gathering as much of her wetness as he could before plunging his tongue into her core.

Jessa dropped a hand from the headboard and carded it through Thail’s long, thick hair. He licked and sucked against her pussy as though he was starving for her honey. When the ridge of Thail’s nose found her clit, her fingers drew into a fist as she held on for dear life.

Thail grunted in approval and renewed his plunge into her channel. Again and again he swallowed her honey right from the source, leaving his own traces everywhere he touched her. The pressure and friction of her soft, silky thighs against the scent glands on his cheeks stoked his arousal to almost painful heights.

Thail worked a hand into position to stroke Jessa’s clit. This time, her orgasm lit off like a rocket, catching her off guard with its suddenness. She came hard and fast, moaning and rewarding Thail with a fresh rush of her juices.

Jessa started to pull away, but Thail’s hands clamped down hard, pinning her in place. His fingers clenched around her thighs as he restlessly worked his face against her outer pussy. She could feel his chest heaving between her feet. His low groan of pleasure rumbled up through her core as the pleasure of tasting her ripped through him like a lightning bolt.

Only when Thail had swallowed the last drops of the honey from her orgasm did he relax his grip and withdraw his tongue from her inner cunt.

He wasn’t done.

Before meeting Thail, Jessa would have sworn she would need more time to recover. But it was like Thail could sense her next orgasm waiting for him to unleash it. He had no intention of letting it hide.

His tongue and lips moved fitfully against her, licking one side of her sensitive bud, then sucking it gently, then pressing a hot, wet kiss against her pussy. He kept her guessing how he would pleasure her next, and in no time at all she was moaning, “Thail…p-please. I need…need more.”

Thail muttered something into her pussy. Jessa couldn’t say for certain what it was, but it sounded hungry and possessive. The last thing she wanted to do was pull away so she could hear better. Instead, she relaxed her grip in his hair and gently stroked his forehead and scalp, responding without words.

His chin and lips continued to work firmly against the softness of her folds even as his tongue pushed back up into her. There was no escaping the sensations he provoked, no denying the pleasure he was unleashing.

One of his hands drifted away from her thigh and back around to the cleft of her round ass. He probed deeper, finding her rosebud. Thail stroked it lightly with a fingertip but didn’t penetrate it. Jessa gasped at the sensation. It felt like he was letting her know that he was aware of every part of her, and wanted her pleasure wherever it could be found.

Jessa began to pant and then finally came with a wail as Thail sucked tenderly on her clit. “Oh…Thail! It feels so…Oh!”

Thail continued to work against her until she was dizzy from the intensity of her orgasm. Finally, just at the point she passed from the last traces of pleasure into overstimulation, he lightly kissed her channel and then withdrew from her.

Jessa levered herself off of his face on shaky legs, and then collapsed bonelessly by his side. She felt like she couldn’t get up if her life depended on it.

She didn’t have to. Thail sat up, eyes alight with arousal. He wiped her honey from his chin and cheeks and licked his hand clean. Then he gently adjusted the pillow under her head and straightened her lax limbs. “My bride,” he said approvingly. “My joy.”

Evidently he had come while he was tasting her. Jessa noticed his pearlescent essence was spattered across his belly. As she drank in the sight of him, Thail wiped his hand up his abs, collecting his seed.

He brought it down just outside of Jessa’s pussy. “Mpendwa, this is just the beginning. I need to fill you with my cum. Are you ready to be opened?”

“I’m ready,” she breathed, somehow finding words in the haze of pleasure that surrounded her. “What do I need to do?”

“Nothing at all,” answered Thail. “Just let me prepare you for my shaft and mating fist.” His cock was clearly unaffected by his initial orgasm, erect and proud. The mating fist at its base seemed impossibly thick.

Thail’s shaft trembled with his heartbeat, and looked hard enough to be used for batting practice. And the size comparison isn’t too far off, either, she thought. But if he says he’s got this, he does. He’ll be good to me.

“Okay,” she said. “I trust you.” Putting her body and her heart in his hands, she relaxed into the mattress and submitted to his touch.

Gently, he dipped his hand to her core and began to massage his cream into her hot, soft flesh. Her inner and outer folds, her mound, her channel, and her clit. Every inch got painted with his essence.

As he did, her wetness surged again to blend with his own. Jessa moaned at the sensation. It was like his orgasm was calling out her own.

Thail slid two thick fingers into her channel and scissored them gently, stretching her, testing her. “Gods, you’re so fucking tight,” he hissed. “Slick and so wet. My cum is starting to work on you, though. Soon you’ll be ready to take me.”

“I…I need you, Thail,” she replied. “I feel so empty right now. Like I’m not even whole without you in me.”

He grinned. “Our bodies know. They’ve always known.” Thail reached up with the hand not working to open Jessa’s pussy to massage her breasts. With just the right amount of pressure he pinched and twisted her sensitive nubs, drawing them into tight pink peaks.

Jessa felt like crackles of electricity were racing between her pussy and her breasts. She longed to be clenching around something substantial. “God, Thail, your cock is the only thing on Earth I want right now.”

She stretched out a hand towards his shaft, wanting to give him some encouragement, but the angle was bad. She couldn’t really get her hand in position to stroke him. Instead, she circled his navel with her fingers, teasing him and ruffling the trail of fine hair leading down towards his cock.

Thail groaned as his erection jerked up towards his belly, grazing her hand. A bead of his precum brushed off onto Jessa’s fingers. Thail caught her hand and pulled it to her lips. “Taste me,” he growled. “It’ll help you open for me.”

Jessa caught his blazing eyes and languidly lapped up his salty, musky liquid. It was absolutely saturated with his bonding scent, she realized, and the effect on her was only a little short of orgasmic. “God, that’s good,” she moaned. “But I think I’ll lose my mind if I get any more open without you filling me.”

“The feeling is mutual,” rumbled Thail. Finally he got into position and covered her with his own big body. His shoulders filled her view as his muscular arms braced on either side of her.

Jessa wrapped her legs around Thail’s strong waist, tilting herself up to him like an offering. His shaft slipped through her tender folds, rubbing her, tempting her, teasing her. “Now,” she gasped. “I need you.”

Thail guided the broad, shiny head of his cock to her opening. With a gentle, rolling motion of his hips, he pushed the tip in. Jessa felt herself stretching pleasurably as the thick head of his cock delved into her pussy “Is it all right?” he asked.

“So right,” she replied. Her hands clenched around the hard swell of his shoulders, drawing his chest to down to rub against her own. “I love you, Thail.”

“Love you too,” he breathed. He pulled her left hand off of his shoulder so that he could see where she wore his ring. Gently, he laced his fingers between her own, and tugged the gold band to his lips for a kiss before pinning her hand to the mattress.

Then Thail slowly but insistently sank his shaft into her waiting pussy, inch by slick, hot inch. His penetration seemed to go on forever. Long past the point where Jessa thought he would have to stop, he kept filling her. The sensation was intense but breathtakingly pleasurable.

Finally she felt his shaft bottom out within her, nudging at the entrance to her womb. This was what she needed – what they both needed. She reached up and cupped his strong jaw in her palm, telling him without words how much she cherished him.

“I love the feel of you in me,” she whispered, undulating her hips to savor the feeling of his heavy shaft shifting inside her channel. “Is your mating fist…?”

“Almost there,” he reassured her. “Gods, I didn’t know I could feel this good. You’ve taken my whole shaft, mpendwa. And you’re so warm and tight and just…perfect.”

Thail looked down at where they were joined. “I’ve got your sweet little pussy split wide. Your honey and my seed are mixing together, and the scent of that is so damn hot. Human language doesn’t even have the vocabulary for how good it is.”

“Well then, you’ll have to show me,” Jessa said.

With that, she tweaked one of Thail’s nipples, making him gasp and reflexively twitch his hips. As he did, a stretching, sliding sensation bloomed at the opening of her pussy. Thail seized the moment and kept thrusting, gradually feeding his mating fist into her tight, hot pussy.

“Oh, fuck,” she breathed. “That’s so…f-full, Thail.” She clutched at his shoulder and fought back a moment of panic – he was stretching her to her limit, further than she had ever imagined she could go.

He dropped a little kiss on her forehead. “I know it’s a tight fit, but we’re almost there. Just keep yourself open. Once I come in you, it’ll get easier.”

Finally, with a low groan, Jessa felt the last of him slide into place within her. It was…intense, but not bad intense. So this is how it’s going to be for us, she thought. Completely amazing.

Thail paused for a minute, breathing heavily and fighting for control as his mating fist reacted to her tightness by swelling to lock him in place. Languidly, half-drunk on loving, she stroked the broad planes of his back.

The moment was exquisite. Their bodies cradled and enveloped one another. His hair fell in a silky curtain around them. The head of his cock was leaking precum against the mouth of her womb. They lay belly to belly and hip to hip. His breath was on her lips.

Thail looked into Jessa’s lovely dark eyes with a hundred tender thoughts unspoken and all clamoring to get out. Her perfect little pussy was squeezing him tightly, holding him in and waiting eagerly for his deepest gift. He felt something shift within him, move towards her. It was enormous and fundamental and deeply beautiful.

Jessa didn’t even try to put her feelings into words. She just clenched her inner muscles around Thail’s shaft and mating fist, embracing him as intimately as she could. She could almost swear she felt him throbbing within her, but maybe that was just her own body’s excitement.

His eyes lost focus and he gasped as sparks of pleasure surged up to his spine and his hips pumped instinctively. He couldn’t really withdraw now that his mating fist had fully expanded, but his motion within her channel tugged against her pussy and stimulated her in all the right places. She smiled and pulled her lover to her for a kiss.

Together they started a rhythm. Joined and overjoyed as they were, it didn’t take long before Jessa was calling Thail’s name and writhing under him in the throes of her orgasm. He groaned his pleasure as her slick walls gripped his shaft, pulsing as though her body was trying to milk the cum from his cock.

“Jessa…” Thail finally surrendered to the feeling of making love to his bride. His balls drew up tight and his inner muscles began to contract hard, sending jet after jet of his warm seed deep within her. She felt the force of his orgasm, knew it every time he launched a surge of cum into her pussy.

It was their first mutual orgasm of many. Over and over, Thail brought Jessa to the peak of her pleasure and then tumbled over the precipice with her. Every time he pumped a fresh wash of his cream into her, her body responded by soaking it in and stoking her arousal higher.

Finally, though, long after they began, Jessa sensed that their bodies were almost replete. His mating fist had tied them for hours. His body had been unyielding, declaring his claim on her in no uncertain terms, but she had taken nothing but pleasure from it.

His hot seed had long since filled her channel completely and was surely deep within her womb now. Still, she worked her body against his, exhausted but determined to reach their ultimate satisfaction.

They had taken turns on top throughout their joining. For the moment Jessa was riding Thail. Her legs were draped around his hips while his shaft speared deep into her core.

She took everything she had learned about Thail’s rhythms and his sensitive spots and the little tells that he was getting close and used it to wring a final, devastating orgasm from their overheated bodies. With one last effort, she rolled her hips above his and clenched hard just as he thrust deep, giving him what she knew he needed.

The cords of Thail’s throat stood out as his big body strained with effort, and he spilled into her with everything he had. Jessa collapsed into her own orgasm as her body took all that he had to give.

The last of Thail’s cream shot home deep within her, marking her as his at the most fundamental level. The pleasure was overwhelming, physically and emotionally. It felt like her soul was connecting to his, and in even more places than their bodies were joined. She basked in the sensation, never wanting the moment to end.

So right, she thought. We belong like this.

“Forever, rumbled a silent voice in her mind. “My claimer. My bride. My mate.

 

 

Chapter Text

“Thail!?” yelped Jessa, startled. “Was that…did I just hear you?”

She hardly needed his verbal answer – Jessa could feel Thail’s surprise almost as clearly as she could feel her own.

“Jessa?” he started, then switched back to his mental voice. “Jessa, you heard me?”

“Yes!” she responded. “And it works both ways? You can hear me too?”

“I…yes!” replied Thail.

“Is this a bond?” she wondered.

“It has to be. But how?” thought Thail. He rolled them over to the side, and eased Jessa down onto the mattress. Even though his mating fist had finally begun to relax within her, he still kept them joined. Lifting his head, he ran his hand over the incision site at the back.

“Let me see,” said Jessa. Thail withdrew from her – although she could sense his reluctance through their new bond – and she felt his seed trickling between her thighs. The reminder of the passionate love they had just made had her wanting to start all over again.

Jessa set aside that thought as Thail turned on his stomach so she could have a better look at the back of his head. She finger-combed his thick chestnut hair away from the incision site.

All she could see was a little fuzzy regrowth of hair and a faint, semicircular, red line about two inches long. “I don’t see anything strange about it. I mean, other than that the incision healed way faster than it would have on a human.”

“Hold on,” said Thail, pushing out of bed. “Maybe something went wrong with the surgery. Let me check the records and see if there’s anything there that explains it.” He managed to squirm back into his flight leathers and headed for the front door, shirtless and barefoot.

A minute later, Thail was back inside with his personal data unit and a warm washcloth. “Do you want to get cleaned up?” he asked.

Jessa sat up against the headboard and nodded. But instead of just handing her the washcloth, Thail sat down beside her. Gently he pushed her knees apart and began to stroke her pussy with the washcloth. It was hard to say whether he was trying to wipe his cum off her skin or rub it in.

Jessa bit back a moan as he touched her so intimately. After hours of having the flange of his mating fist stimulating her outer pussy, Thail’s fingers felt new and intriguing. As she flushed with renewed desire, she caught a stray thought from Thail. “Why in the Seven Hells did I get a washcloth? I could have offered to clean her with my tongue.”

Jessa turned and gave Thail a lingering kiss. His broad chest was as firm under her hands as his lips were soft against her own. It took an immense amount of willpower to pull away. Thail leaned forward to pursue her as she did.

Jessa pushed back lightly against his chest. “Not that I don’t want to see where this goes, but I’m still worried about our bond.”

“Right,” replied Thail, making a visible effort to get back on track. He picked up the data unit where it had fallen forgotten in the sheets. As he turned it on an urgent message notification covered the screen. It was from Yipper.

“Thail, this is Yipper, yes it is, yes it is,” said the little Tolleg, as if there could be any doubt who made the recording.

“It’s now been more than three days since you came out from anesthesia, and so I can finally admit what I’ve done and plead for your forgiveness,” he continued.

“When you told me to pray about the course of action you proposed, I did exactly that. Yes I did, yes I did. I went to the Sacred Grove, and one of the priestesses was waiting for me with a message from the Goddess.

“She told me that though your willingness to sacrifice was pleasing to the Goddess, it was not necessary. Where our scanners could provide no reassurance, the Mother of All Life’s power was not so limited.

“Thail, it was her will to let Jessa dream share with you and her will that the two of you be bonded together. She told me that under no circumstances was I to further injure your bonding locus. Not at all, not at all.

“Instead, I was told to proceed as though I would perform the surgery, even anesthetize you and make a superficial incision, but not to actually operate. She said I must keep it secret from you for three days. So she did, so she did.

“I was…not thrilled to deceive a patient, but the Mother’s instructions on this point were absolutely clear. Her word was that it was the only way to accomplish a true healing. Now that the three days have passed I pray that this message finds you and Jessa well. So I do, so I do.” Yipper scrubbed his long paws against each other anxiously.

“If you can bring yourself to Bespeak me, please do so as soon as you are able. If you can, if you can. I owe you an apology, and if you and Jessa have attempted bonding sex, we should have you both checked.”

A pause stretched out in Jessa’s bedroom as Yipper’s message sunk in.

“So,” she said, “the surgery never really happened. Does that mean that you were able to bond all this time?”

Thail looked thunderstruck. “The real question is, is it a healthy, full bond?”

“I…don’t know how a partial bond feels,” replied Jessa. “I’ve got nothing to compare it to.”

“Neither do I,” admitted Thail. “I think we’d better head back to the Mother Ship and see Yipper.”

“OK,” said Jessa. “But this time, whatever the answer, we’re in this together.”

Thail kissed her slowly and deliberately. “Together. Now let’s get you dressed before I give into temptation to rebond you all over again.”

* * * * *

Thail watched closely as Yipper connected a soul tracker to Jessa. When they reached the Med Center, the little Tolleg had scanned Thail first and confirmed what everyone could guess – Thail’s bonding locus was still in place and now highly active.

Thail certainly didn’t need the scan to know. Even beyond being able to communicate with Jessa through their new bond, his body damn well knew it was freshly bonded.

A newly bonded male and his bride, it was said, were insatiable in the first few days. Left to their own devices they would bond and rebond continuously, stopping only when their bodies demanded it.

In Thail’s rapidly accumulating experience, it was entirely true. It felt wrong to be in the Med Center right now, wrong to be dressed, and wrongest of all to be letting anyone, even a trusted physician, this close to his bride.

But we have to, he reminded himself. I have to make sure she’s safe.

The scars buried deep in Thail’s brain still showed up clearly on the scanner, inert and unchanging, but the remaining healthy tissue around them was lit up like a lidar array in diagnostic mode.

The real question was whether he had managed to form a secure, well-placed bond with Jessa despite his unresolved brain injury. If his bond to her had attached poorly, then it would have to be severed before it killed her.

They had been bonded only a matter of hours and already Thail hated the thought. Healthy bond or no, being connected to Jessa felt so incredibly right.

Bonding went beyond the conversations with her that he cherished. It went beyond hearing her heartbeat and smelling her delicate fragrance mingled with his – although bringing her aboard the Mother Ship, finally fully scent-marked, had been a moment of profound pride and belonging. It was so much more than the incredible pleasure they had found in each other’s bodies.

Bonding beat it all. Thail had been aboard the Mother Ship for an hour, and he was pretty sure his feet had yet to touch the floor. If this was what bonding was about, no wonder the mainline Kindred regarded it as the central experience of a male’s life. No wonder Yipper had ultimately refused to destroy his bonding locus.

Ever since he had been diagnosed as one of the Frozen, Thail had told himself that an unbonded life was still a worthy, purposeful life. And it was. Being an unmated male aboard the Mother Ship was vastly more fulfilling than anything the Collective offered its slaves. But by the Goddess, being bonded was incredible.

Jessa was incredible. Her courage, her perseverance, and her willingness to love were simultaneously humbling and uplifting. Her burning dark eyes, and smooth skin, and delicious, delicate pussy also couldn’t be over appreciated.

Thail shifted his stance, trying to relieve the pressure of his tight leathers against his straining shaft. His mating fist felt like a lump of solid stone and his balls already felt heavy and overcharged. As always, his body remained blissfully oblivious to his brain’s shortcomings.

It wanted Jessa, now more than ever. Wanted her pussy pressed to his mouth, slick with her juices and ripe to be licked and sucked. Her kisses showering across his face and body. Her thirsty womb soaking in the seed that he sent pulsing into her deepest core…

Thail could smell his cum on her. Remnants had been trickling out into her panties over the last hour. Knowing that he had left his mark there was driving him to distraction. He wanted to see it.

With a jerk of his head, Thail tried to force himself to focus for something like the fiftieth time since he had reluctantly removed his shaft from Jessa’s pussy. Piloting the shuttle back to the Mother Ship had been a remarkably difficult chore as the memories and scents of their bonding clamored for his attention.

Thail’s stiff cock wasn’t concerned with life-threatening partial bonds. His swollen, heavy balls weren’t dissuaded from their task by the thought of agonizing emotional amputations.

All his body knew was that he was a newly mated male. As such, his instincts were to strengthen the physical connection with his bride at every opportunity. He needed to taste her again, and soon.

Jessa squeezed Thail’s hand. “I like that thought, she sent. “Whether it’s good news or bad, we’ll go back to your suite afterward and reconnect.”

Something beeped in the background and Yipper bustled over to check a readout. “That was a good strong reading across multiple areas. Yes it was, yes it was. What were you thinking about right before it beeped?”

“Erm, the physical aspect of our bond,” said Jessa.

“Who initiated the thought sharing?” asked Yipper.

“I did,” said Thail. “I was thinking about tasting her. She sensed my arousal and responded.”

Yipper nodded and hummed thoughtfully. “Thail, will you please step away from Jessa for a moment? Just a bit, just a bit. And Jessa, please look away from Thail. Very good.”

When she had turned around fully, the Tolleg handed Thail a blanket fresh from the warmer. “Concentrate on this Thail, and send your impressions through the bond. Just like that, just like that.”

After a moment the machine beeped again and Jessa spoke. “It’s fresh laundry, right? Maybe a warm blanket.”

“Yes,” answered Thail. “And you want it?”

The machine beeped.

“It sounds nice,” replied Jessa.

“Better than nice,” announced Yipper. “Your bond is in excellent condition and the soul scanner is showing your spirits are in their correct places. So they are, so they are.”

Jessa whipped around to face Thail and Yipper. “That’s it!?” she yelped. “Just like that, we’re good?”

“That’s it,” confirmed Yipper. “The soul scanner results are conclusive. You have a very new, but very strong bond, and it is behaving exactly as it should. Yes it is, yes it is.”

“So,” Thail said, “The damage to my bonding locus was enough to completely prevent me from dream sharing, but it hasn’t actually stopped me from bonding.”

“So it seems, so it seems,” confirmed Yipper. “You are an extraordinarily fortunate male. I would say not one in a million could have sustained that degree of scarring without losing the capability to bond.”

“I am extraordinarily fortunate to have a doctor who held on to faith when I had lost all hope,” replied Thail. “But yes, I am without question the luckiest person I know,” he said, winding an arm around Jessa’s waist for a hug.

“We both are,” said Jessa.

“On that note, there’s one more test I ought to perform. So there is, so there is. Jessa, will you let me take a small blood sample?”

Jessa nodded and Yipper quickly took a painless vial of blood. He transferred it into one of his machines no bigger than a coffee cup, waited a moment as it whirred and clicked, and then cupped something in his long-fingered hands.

Thail’s breath stopped when Yipper offered the object to him. His hands shook when he accepted it.

“What?” asked Jessa, suddenly worried. “Is it bad?”

“No,” murmured Thail. “It’s a pregnancy test. When we bonded conception became a possibility.”

He had thought he was Frozen and therefore would never become able to father children, but that clearly was not the case. If he was able to bond Jessa, he would also be able to breed her. There was a very real possibility that their child was already coalescing in her womb.

A vivid memory flashed through his mind of pumping load after load of his cum deep into Jessa’s pussy. Her unprotected pussy – she had had her contraceptive implant removed more than an Earth week ago, after all.

It was not unheard of for warriors to successfully breed their mates at first bonding. And an immediate pregnancy was most likely to occur with Beast Kindred whose bodies had hours to adapt as bonding took place.

The prospect moved Thail in ways he had not anticipated. He had always assumed that he would never have a biological family.

He was an artificial person. He had been conceived in a lab, grown in a tube, and reared to become a part of a machine. Mechanical implants had controlled his mind and body long before he ever had a thought of his own. He and his clone brothers had been as interchangeable as cogs in a machine and just as disposable.

It had taken him more than thirty cycles of existence before he had first laughed, seen his own face, or enjoyed an orgasm. For most of his life, he had been as far removed from the experience of natural people as an organic being could be – unnamed, unloved, and unloving.

He had put everything he had into changing that – into becoming a male who had a place outside of the Collective. And there was no denying that his life had improved immeasurably. But no matter how he had changed and grown, it had seemed inevitable that a male without ancestors would also lack descendants.

His was an unnatural existence – he was an experiment from a gene mixing lab, cut off from the tree of life. It was not his place to bear fruit. Being diagnosed as one of the Frozen only reinforced the feeling that he was anomalous.

Jessa had changed that. She had broken through the scars that set him apart, and in the process given him the prospect of children of his own.

His children would be conceived in love, born free, and named by people who loved them. In time, he and they would become part of a bloodline that merged into in the larger family of natural life. The thought gave him a sense of wholeness that he had never hoped to experience.

Sensing the immensity of the moment through their bond, Jessa burrowed in tight against Thail’s side. “Already? You can tell if I’m pregnant this early?” she asked.

“At times,” said Yipper. “And it is possible to conceive – although not probable – on the first day of your bonding. But I test bonded women as a matter of standard practice every time medical care is given. The Goddess blesses the bonded with children in her own good time, but it doesn’t do at all for us to ignore her gifts once they are given. No it doesn’t, no it doesn’t.”

Slowly Thail opened his hands. Inside was a small white flower.

“White means you’re not pregnant,” explained Yipper. “At least, not that we can detect at this early date. Even for Kindred medicine, it usually takes more than a day to get a conclusive result. But sometimes brides register an early positive sign. So they do, so they do. ”

“The test is not positive yet,” responded Thail. “But with Kindred and our brides it almost always occurs sooner or later.”

“Maybe sooner rather than later? asked Jessa through their link. “I’ve always wanted to be a mother.”

“I like the sound of that, replied Thail.

“Well, before we get to that point, I’m going to need you holding me close, giving me what I need, teased Jessa.

Your perfect little pussy, clenching around my shaft and fist as I breed you…” Thail cleared his throat. “Well, Yipper, if we’re finished here?”

“Yes we are, yes we are.”

“Then from the bottom of my heart, thank you,” said Thail. “Remove my name from the roster of the Frozen. It’s time for me to take my bonded bride home.”