The night after K’sul’s death, Steve discovered how the Phrox cried. K’lar had shut herself in her room, and from it came a low, deep sustained note.
Ian didn’t understand what was happening, and that night, Steve didn’t have the heart to explain, wracked with guilt and haunted by the sound of K’lar’s grief. There was nothing he could say to her, nothing he could do.
After that night, K’lar didn’t cry again.
Ian leaned on the counter, chin on his hands. “Can I go out and play with Zagnro?” he asked. “Please?”
Just inside the doorway, Zagnro stood with her uncle Topnar. She caught Steve’s glance and waved a tentative hand at him.
Steve didn’t want Ian playing without his supervision. “I don’t-” Steve began, but Topnar cut in.
“I’ll be watching them, Steve,” he said, his voice crisp like all the Phrox. “They won’t leave my sight.”
“Please?” Ian asked again, leaning on the counter more. He looked up at Steve with the best impression of puppy eyes Steve had seen, which was a feat considering Ian had never seen a puppy.
From behind him, K’lar came up with a mixing bowl. She placed it on the counter as she said, “I don’t see why not.” One of her hands touched Steve’s back comfortingly. “He’ll be looked after.”
“K’lar, hello,” Topnar said.
“Topnar,” K’lar replied with an incline of her head. “Zagnro, you’re getting big!”
“Yes!” Zagnro said, sounding much more confident than she’d ever sounded toward Steve. Steve couldn’t blame her. Ian was a child, he was different, but Steve was grown and alien to her.
“Alright,” Steve said at last. “But you don’t leave Topnar’s sight.”
Ian grinned and pushed off the counter, out the door in a flash, urging Zagnro to follow him. This forced Topnar to give Steve and K’lar rushed goodbyes before heading after the two.
“They’ll be fine,” K’lar said, as she continued to prepare her lute. Lute was sort of like bread, but kept much longer and tasted, to Steve, rather of mud. But it was growing on him. K’lar pushed the contents of her bowl onto the flat surface of the counter and began spreading it out. “Topnar will keep a careful eye out.”
Steve knew he would. He was kind and generous, if also a little reserved and nervous around Steve, but many were. And children weren’t common among the Phrox. They had difficulties conceiving, so there were only a handful. If not for their relatively long lives, armored skins, and relative shelter in the valley, they might not have survived as well as they did.
K’sul and K’lar had not had children, but they had been young still, only recently married.
“He’s in love with you, you know.” Steve rounded the counter and joined her in pressing out the lute dough. It squelched between his fingers, not having the wider span that the Phrox had.
“I do,” K’lar said. “But given that I have kept my married name, he should be aware I’m not interested.”
“No plans to remarry?”
K’lar shook her head. “Not… Not Topnar, certainly. He’s good, but… I’m not in love with him.”
There was something she wasn’t saying, but Steve didn’t press. He had learned a lot about Phrox culture in the last five years. Remarriages weren’t uncommon, given that hunting parties didn’t always come back with the same number that had left. Had she been interested in another marriage one day, she would have given up K’lar and gone back to being Kalar. But she held onto it, a sign of what she and K’sul had once had.
There would be no shame if she had wanted to. But K’lar had her own reasons, and Steve would respect that.
“Do you have anyone?” she said. “You paint the walls, but there are so many. Is that how your people do it?”
Steve laughed and shook his head. “Some, maybe, but… no, I did… I did have someone, but she…” Steve shook his head again and pressed at the lute dough. As they worked it, it become thicker, less sticky and more solid. “Well, we were an off again, on again kind of couple.”
Steve had not given up on going home. One day, somehow, he would find a way. But Ian was still so young, it wasn’t safe for them out in the wastes. But once they did, he doubted Sharon would be waiting for him.
He hadn’t when their roles were reversed; he had no delusion that one should be expected to, not in their line of work.
They folded the dough on half, Steve bringing up one end and handing it to K’lar, much like folding a blanket. They then started to press and stretch it again, a process that they would have to do several more times.
It wasn’t unlike making pastries, except instead of making it lighter, it only made the lute heavier.
They finished preparing the lute in relative silence. It wasn’t at all uncomfortable, though. Steve felt at ease with K’lar, in a way that he hadn’t felt in years, even before he had come to this dimension, and even with the danger he faced embedded in his own chest.
It reminded him of Bernie, strangely enough. K’lar was far more somber than Bernie ever was, but the contentment that filled these kind of silences was vastly familiar.
Instead of making lute, he might have been on the couch, sketch pad in hand, while Bernie packed up glassware to ship. It was an easiness he had never felt with either Rachel or Connie, as much as he cared for them. He never quite managed it with Sharon. There was too much on both of their minds to ever feel completely at ease.
K’lar thanked Steve for his help before taking the lute up to the roof, where it would sit out for several hours before baking.
When she came back, she glanced at the room Steve and Ian stayed in. “I’d like to hear more about your world,” she said. She didn’t sound hesitant, but the fact that she had held off asking after so many years gave away that she didn’t want to intrude.
Steve smiled. “Sure.”
She followed him into the room where he had painted a mural of the Avengers and his other friends across the wall. He settled cross legged on the floor and K’lar joined him, much bigger next to him.
He started telling her about each.
K’lar listened with interest, and asked questions when he used language or references he had never thought twice about. He realized, with startling clarity, that this was what it was like for Tony, Jan, Rick, and the others when he had first been fished out of the ocean. Whereas they had seem him more simply as “old-timey,” they had an entirely different way of looking at the world, a world that was both familiar and strange to Steve.
As much as he had been reminded of those days when he first began to live with the Phrox, he saw it from the other end now, listening to K’lar ask questions.
“What is it?” she asked.
Steve realized he had been staring. He glanced away, embarrassed, but K’lar just continued to look at him curiously. Staring didn’t have the same cultural rudeness among the Phrox as it did humans, just denoted curiosity.
“Sorry,” he said. “Just thinking.”
“You usually are.”
Amusement was sometimes hard to discern with the way the Phrox spoke, but this time, it was clear in her voice.
Steve scratched the back of his neck, looking up at the mural. “Seems I have a lot of thinking to do these days.” Even with the regular hunting trips, even with the cooking and washing he helped K’lar with, even with taking care of Ian, he found himself lost in thought more often than not.
K’lar stood and moved closer to the mural. She reached out a broad, flat hand, but she didn’t touch it. She hovered a few inches away, tracing in the air the brightly colored figures.
“K’sul often got lost in thought,” she said quietly. “So much so that he begged distraction.”
“And what kind of distraction did he use?”
“Sex.” She said it simply, as if it’s no big thing. “It was distraction for myself as well. You know ours is not an easy life.”
Steve lowered his eyes to look at his hands. He clenched one into a fist. Once upon a time, just a fist had seemed to be the simple solution. Knock a saboteur out, keep the country safe for another day. Things got a little more complicated by the time Steve went to Europe. And they grew even more complicated with every day of the last fifteen years.
“Do you want a distraction?” K’lar continued. Steve looked up to meet her red eyes. She looked so huge standing up in front of him, large and beautiful in the way that the Phrox had.
Steve swallowed, finding his mouth dry, and he felt the first stirrings of interest. It had been so long since he had been intimate with someone. His mind flashed briefly to Sharon. But that had been years ago now.
K’lar held out her hand. Slowly, Steve took it. “Yes,” he said.
He wouldn’t have done so had he not felt something for K’lar. Over the years, her companionship, her care for both him and especially Ian, had affected Steve, had brought him more happiness in this desolate world than he would have thought possible outside of his son.
He still felt guilt for the fate of her husband. But K’lar had told him she did not blame him. K’sul had long been discontent with Zofjar. Steve had done nothing but talk, and why should they be punished for that?
“I’m not sure how this works,” Steve said, standing close to K’lar.
She placed her large hands on his upper arms. She smiled at him, kindly. “Normally, my flange would go into your orifs,” she said. “But I doubt you have those.”
Steve shook his head. “Well, we can make do. If you’ll be patient with me.”
K’lar led him to her room. Steve was grateful. He didn’t want to look at his friends while he did this; it felt like some kind of invasion of privacy, like they could really see him having sex.
The Phrox didn’t wear much in the way of clothes. Their armored skin protected them from injury and weather alike, and it was a waste of material when both fabric and leather were so scarce.
“How do you kiss? Or embrace? Show intimacy?” Steve asked.
K’lar smiled at him and took his hand, spreading it flat against hers, palm to palm. Then she pulled him in, their hands trapped together between their bodies. she sighed, content, and then said, “Like this.”
Steve’s hand felt warm between their bodies. The Phrox ran cooler than he did, but like this, he didn’t notice the difference. “Can you kiss with both hands?”
K’lar’s amusement was obvious. “You are forward.” But she pressed her other hand against his and placed them between their abdomens.
Steve had to look up at K’lar. He met her eyes, red and round, and asked, “Can I kiss you my way?”
She inclined her head in a nod. Steve stetched up and pressed his mouth to hers. It was gentle and more than a little awkward. She didn’t have lips the same way he had, and without the use of his hands, it threw him a little off balance.
But it was nice. Good. Intimate, with their mouths together and their hands together, two different kinds of kisses shared between them.
When K’lar kissed him back, hesitant, but willing to learn, Steve let his mouth open. That took her by surprise and they broke apart, only to laugh a little. “Takes time to get used to,” Steve admitted.
“Yes,” she agreed. “But I don’t want to stop.”
“Good.” The word came out as a rasp. “Because I don’t want to, either.”
He kissed her again, open mouthed, and she followed his lead. Then, he felt something touch his side, and because they were pressed together, he could feel K’lar’s shudder. He broke apart and glanced down at her body. There were two armored panels, on her stomach, far enough away from the center of her abdomen that Steve could see them. They had contracted a little, and beneath, grooves appeared. From the grooves rose up thin, pale tentacle-like appendages. They were no wider than a pencil, and there was one for each groove, resulting in about ten. But they were longer than he thought the should be. Another appandage - flange, Steve thought - stroked his side again, and once again, K’lar shivered from the sensation.
“Amazing,” Steve said softly.
K’lar made a sound that was almost like a purr, except it sounded scratchier and rougher. It was brief, lasting only a moment, but it was clearly pleasurable.
“Pleased?” he said.
Her flange began to stroke and probe along Steve’s body, as if they were searching. The scratchy purr came back again, only this time, K’lar kept it up.
He guessed that they could have stayed in that position had he been a Phrox himself, but his pants were beginning to feel tight. “I’m sorry, but I need my hands for a moment.”
K’lar’s flange moved away as one. The purring slowed, and then stopped. “Yes, of course.”
Steve stepped back and flexed his hands. They had become a little stiff from being pressed against her tougher hands, but in a good way. He first pulled off his boots and then he undid his belt, sliding his pants off in one smooth motion.
He’d had to give up underwear years before, but for once, he counted that as a silver lining.
He kept the top of his suit on, however. That he never took off if he could help it. It was hard enough to block the voice that crept in the back of his mind. He didn’t want the visual reminder.
The air was cold on his cock, and he reached down to stroke himself. There was precome beading at the crown of his cock, peeking out from his foreskin, and he used that to smooth the way.
He felt a little shy to be standing half naked like this in front of K’lar. He was feeling old and out of practice, and this was definitely new territory for him. Steve said, still stroking his cock, “That’s better.”
K’lar approached him again. “May I?”
Steve nodded, and her flange, floating by her hips, moved forward again, continuing their exploration of Steve. When they brushed against Steve’s cock, they felt almost electric against his bare skin. He gasped from both shock and pleasure. K’lar’s purring began again, and Steve felt tempted to join her, if she kept up with the light, exploratory touches of her flange.
They also touched his hips; there were enough in number and were long enough to wrap around to his back. They did eventually, though they moved slowly, mapping out his skin. Whenever they touched it, he felt little shocks, strange, almost hot, flashes of sensation.
He reached down to touch his cock again, to show her how to touch him, but his hand brushed against one of her flange, and her purring turned into a loud, brief keen.
Steve snatched his hand back. “I’m sorry,” he said quickly. “Are you alright?”
K’lar eyes were up at the ceiling. The keening had stopped, and her purring was back. It took her a moment to refocus on Steve. “More than alright,” she said at last. “Do that again, please.”
Steve smiled at her. Her flange ran along his cock, mimicking how he had stroked it earlier, and Steve took a minute to catch his breath before lowering his hands again. He cupped his sac, rolling his balls around gently in his hand. He held his cock away from his body so she could see, and K’lar’s flange moved in to take over. She was a quick learner, and Steve felt the need to hang on to something. He reached out a hand to hold onto K’lar’s shoulder. Her purring increased at the touch.
With his free hand, he tapped another of her flange. It rippled at the tap, and K’lar keened again. This time, Steve could feel the ripple hit him as well, and he gasped at the pure pleasure that filled him where that flange touched his skin.
Whatever it was in Phrox biology - perhaps some sort of chemical - Steve very much appreciated it.
He began tapping out rhythms against K’lar’s flange. They made her keen louder and longer, and Steve matched her with his own groans and gasping breath. The waves of pure pleasure that hit him, not only on his hips and thighs, but on his cock, as her flange stroked and squeezed it, made his knees shake, and he was desperately leaning against K’lar and she on him.
No wonder the Phrox did this pressed together.
Then, one of her flange pressed against his ass, and he pushed back, encouraging her. K’lar laughed, even as she continued to purr. Then she said, short and sharp, “Have at least one orif.”
She pushed in with one flange, and it was sharp and tight, but Steve didn’t care. The flange swirled around in him, undulating, and it was better than any fingers, better than cock or a dildo or a vibrator. When it found his prostate, he gasped out, “There!” and K’lar caught on, stroking and touching his prostate.
He tapped on the flange that fucked into him, and that pure pleasure hit his prostate directly. Steve cried out.
He lost sense of space and time and rhythm. He still tapped on her flange, but it was staccato and uneven, random. K’lar moved faster, and her flange then started rippling, faster and faster, and the pure pleasure they gave Steve was constant. K’lar keened, high and sustained, and Steve couldn’t take the pressure on his prostate and cock and balls, the way he felt overwhelmed, could barely breathe, and he came with a cry, unable to do anything but cling to K’lar.
The sensations continued, and now it almost hurt, everything amplified tenfold, and Steve thought he was sobbing, or maybe he wasn’t, he couldn’t tell, and then K’lar’s keen changed to a low grating groan, and her flange pulled free all at once.
The sensation left him in a flood, and Steve slumped forward against her, panting for breath.
He felt exhausted, like his body was a mass of gelatin, shaky and loose and unsteady, feeling like he wouldn’t ever be able to move again. But for that experience, it was worth it.
“Need to lie down,” he mumbled against her chest, and K’lar wrapped her big hands around him. She laid him down gently, and he watched from the bed as a clear liquid began to stream from where her flange met her body. It quickly and effectively cleaned them off, and then they laid back in their grooves. Her armored skin moved back to cover them.
She helped clean off Steve, and then, Steve asked if she would lie there with him. “A human tradition, often,” he explained.
K’lar laid down by his side, and he rolled so that his back was to her, bringing her arms around his body. “That was wonderful,” he said, and it came out in a soft breath.
“Yes, it was,” she replied.
They stayed like that for awhile, then found themselves shifting so that K’lar was beneath Steve. He stroked one of her shoulders absently.
“The real reason I haven’t given up my married name is because I couldn’t marry you,” K’lar said at last, breaking the silence. “And at this juncture, I have no interest in anyone else.”
“Who says so?”
K’lar’s amusement was apparent, a rumbling in her that was the Phrox way of laughing. “It isn’t done, and it would not be allowed.”
She was right. Steve rested his head on her chest, her breathing soundling like a storm this close as it rumbled through several chambers in her body.
“That would make my name… S’even, probably,” Steve said, musing.
“Things are different than when I was young. Many don’t change their name, but if you were to, it would be to Mrs. Kalar Rogers.”
She said the name slowly before shaking her head. “Your customs are too strange for me.”
“Oh, Mrs. Rogers?”
Her hand pulled him in close. “Yes, they are, S’even.”
Steve took her other hand and pressed his own against it, before trapping the two between their bodies in a Phrox kiss. Then he leaned up for a human one, brushing his lips against her almost nonexistent ones.
“Thank you,” he said, barely above a whisper.
There was a note of longing in her voice as she replied, “It is I who should thank you.”
Steve would still find a way home; he was determined to and would not give up. But he had already once made a new life for himself, and he would do so again here, however temporarily.
They were an odd little family, but a family they were nonetheless.