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I hurt my preschool student. But I think it's what he wanted

Lucas is the most amazing student I’ve ever had. I didn’t want to hurt him, but I think it was supposed to happen. After all, it was his decision. And I feel better than I’ve ever felt in my life.

It sounds crazy. But something extraordinary happened between us this week.

To fully explain, I suppose I need to tell you about myself.

I haven’t lived a happy life. I work at a fairly shitty preschool; it’s probably not a good career fit for me. I'm not as peppy or caring as my coworkers, but I feel stuck, probably due to my (self-diagnosed) anxiety and depression.

My life consists of work, home, couch, weed, alcohol, any drugs I can get my hands on (which is unfortunately not as many as I’d like), sleeping at odd hours, and repeating. Days blur together and nothing really changes. Some days I feel like I’m holding back tears, and others I just feel empty. I’ve spent the last couple years entertaining suicidal thoughts that have only increased as time goes on.

At least, they had until now.

Lucas started in my classroom a week ago on Monday, July 9th.

I was nervous, knowing that my comfortable, albeit exhausting, routine was about to be upheaved. The initial meeting with his father revealed that Lucas, born to abusive parents, had been recently adopted.

His biological parents reportedly tied him up for hours at a time. When Child Protective Services removed him from their house he was malnourished, developmentally delayed, and deeply traumatized. He couldn't even be touched without having a meltdown. The parents had a drug problem, supposedly.

Good thing I never had kids. Some of us aren’t suited for it.

Anyway, while I certainly want the best for any child in that situation, I didn’t feel equipped to handle him. I had no idea what to expect and braced myself for the worst.

Monday (his first day) went ok.

Luckily, he didn’t have any major tantrums or outbursts like I feared. Instead, he acted like he couldn’t hear me, seemed incapable of cleaning up after himself, and turned away whenever I tried to talk to him. He wouldn’t say a word. Fine, I was too exhausted anyway. I let him do his own thing. Besides, he seemed to prefer being left alone.

On Tuesday, he started watching me closely. It was eerie - I’d turn toward him and his large, sunken blue eyes, standing out brightly against his pale, sallow skin, would be fixated on me. I started gently smiling at him then turning away, sensing that we both preferred to be ignored. A commonality between us.

I heard him speak for the first time on Wednesday. He tripped and fell on the playground, so I walked over to him.

“You ok, buddy?”

Once again, the deep stare. A stretch of silence. And then he spoke.

“I think you’re nice. I wish you weren’t so sad.”

I tried to hide my surprise, both that he considered me nice when I had mostly ignored him, and also that he had such an intuitive grasp of my emotions, which I kept devastatingly private at all times.

“I’m not sad today Lucas, what makes you think that?”

He stared at the sky this time, squinting up with a pained expression. He was shorter than all the other 5 year olds, awkwardly skinny, with protruding bones that created sharp angles over his body. Sharp, with nearly translucent skin. Looking at him too long made me uncomfortable, but at the same time it was hard to tear my eyes away.

“I can feel the sad in people. Don’t tell... but I know you won’t.” He said it with a mixture of mumbling and whispering, but I knew I heard him right. Suddenly he turned and walked away with his awkward gait - seemingly off balance, with a slight limp.

He didn’t talk again for the rest of the day, but from then on, whenever our eyes met, he would gently smile back.

The first instance happened on Thursday.

God, my head was killing me that day.

Sitting at my table while the kids played, head in my hands, struggling to keep my eyes open, gently rubbing my forehead. Trying to fight the nausea and wishing I had something to ease the pain. I hadn’t slept well the night before, just on and off here and there throughout the evening.

That was the state I was in when Lucas walked up to me.

Silently, our eyes met. The pain inside him was so deep, almost palpable. I was simultaneously terrified and intrigued.

He gently placed his hand on mine.

I was so captivated by him that I didn’t even notice my headache was gone until he’d walked away. He went to a quiet area of the room where we store cots for naptime, a corner hidden behind the cubbies, without any toys or activities to choose from. He sat down, laying his head in his hands.

I could tell he was in pain.

That evening, all I could think about was Lucas. Surely he couldn’t have healed my headache, but how did it stop so suddenly as soon as he touched me? I felt different, too. I went to sleep at a normal time, and ate a semi-normal dinner. I attributed the change in routine to my preoccupation with this unusual occurrence.

Lucas wasn’t at school on Friday. I worried about him all weekend. It was a typical boring, empty weekend. I found myself sitting and wondering what to do, with this odd feeling that I should be doing something. I usually don’t feel that way.

He was back today, on Monday, eyes looking glassier than before, moving a bit slower. I was thrilled to see him, and had to practically hold myself back from hugging him. It was the strongest emotion I’ve felt in awhile.

“Lucas, I missed you on Friday! Are you feeling okay? Were you sick?” Why was I so worried about him? I don’t tend to get emotionally attached to children in my class.

He looked at me with worry in his eyes. Whispered something unintelligible.

“What did you say? Sorry, I couldn’t hear you.” I leaned down to get as close to him as possible. I'd never had such a strong desire to hear every single word out of a child's mouth.

“My old parents liked drugs too. But they were bad people. You aren’t bad.”

For an instant, my heart stopped. Most 5 year olds don’t know what drugs are, and I’ve never had anyone, adult or child, hint that they knew about my life outside of work. I hide it surprisingly well.

It felt like he had gotten into my head.

“Lucas, I’m not sure what you’re talking about, sweetie...”

Suddenly, Lucas grabbed my hands. Squeezing tighter than I would’ve thought possible for his frail body, nails digging into my skin, white knuckles.

His expression was frozen in a look of shock and despair. He began to scream.

I tried to free myself from his grip, but his nails were so deep in my skin that it tore as I pulled away, and blood trickled down my wrist. His shrill scream rang in my ears, making me feel slightly panicky.

“Lucas, it’s okay! Please let go, that hurts...”

He kept screaming, at the top of his lungs, as the other children in the classroom silently gathered around, scared and confused, to watch the spectacle.

All at once, I felt a rush. The feeling was indescribable, as though someone had opened up my brain and reset it. I felt clear. I don’t think I’d felt that way before.

The depression, the negative energy, the demon, however you choose to make sense of the debilitating horror that can infest our being, drained from my body.

Then Lucas collapsed. Sobbing on the floor, fetal position, rocking back and forth. Inconsolable.

Our assistant director rushed in after hearing the screams. She saw the blood and nail marks on my wrists, and immediately took Lucas up to the front to call his parents. It all happened so fast, I didn’t even get a chance to say goodbye.

***

It's now Wednesday, July 18th. Today I found out that Lucas was found dead in his bedroom last night. He had somehow gotten into a gun case that his dad could’ve sworn was locked, and he shot himself.

It’s a story that is absolutely devastating the town, and made national news. A 5 year old child with such a horrific childhood, killing himself with a gun, such a tragedy. A preventable accident.

But I know it wasn’t an accident. That was supposed to my death, my suicide. Lucas took my pain and saved my life.

Part of me feels guilty, but I also realize that he chose me. His small, weak body held an incredible power, and he knew my life was meant to be lived. And now, thanks to him, I know it too.

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356

There's Sex at the End

Bra off.

Panties off.

A little black dress: you can’t go wrong. I slink into one that hugs my ass without squeezing it, and enhances my tits without giving everything away.

I’m definitely taking a man home with me tonight.

But before you sling any judgment my way, wait until you hear my story.

*

I’m sitting alone at the bar all alone in my fuck-me dress and the free drinks are coming over faster than I can consume them. And no, the fact that I’ve accepted your gift does not mean I want to talk to you. I didn’t ask, but I gladly took, and that’s just part of the deal.

You struck out with me before you struck up the conversation.

A for effort, though.

No, I’m looking for a special type of guy tonight. One who’ll last a long time when I take him home.

Think you’re what I’m looking for?

Probably not.

I’ll have a cosmo, though, if you’re buying.

Though I can’t stay and chat: he just walked in.

How can I tell? It’s nearly impossible to put it into words. You can’t articulate a je ne sais quoi by its very definition. And if you have to ask, you just don’t have it.

I guess the closest thing to an explanation is that I can smell him from across the room. Yes, that’s about right.

He knows I’m here, too, and is sitting next to me almost immediately.

“You’re dry,” he says, probing my curvatures with his eyes. “Let me fill you up.”

He gets up, walks out of sight, and comes back three minutes later with a fresh cosmo. He grins and listens to me talk.

He’s exactly what I’m looking for.

But how many drinks have I had up to this point? The memory is kind of fuzzy, to be honest. They must really be catching up with me, because this last one’s packing more of a punch.

“I think I kinda need to get out of here,” I say. I reach out and grab his knee, partially to be flirty, partially so that he can see I need help balancing. “Just let me finish this last one up.”

I chug the rest of the cosmo. Fuck, it’s bitter. It’s almost like he ordered me a negroni instead. Meanwhile, he slams a twenty onto the bar and picks up the 87 cents in change, because he sees no reason to tip a person who makes their living by serving others.

I stand up and the people around me turn to watch as I clutch him for balance. They say nothing, though, as he wraps a supportive arm around me, cups my breast, and leads me outside.

When we get to the alley behind the bar, I begin to stagger. He grabs me forcefully to keep me upright.

Not many people go into the alley.

“We’ll go to my place,” I mumble, head lolling.

He smiles. “Nah. We’ll head over to my apartment.” He doesn’t let up on the force as he turns my swaying frame and pushes me forward.

No,” I say more emphatically, giving limp resistance. “I want to go home.”

He responds by tightening his grip on me. “Little girl, you don’t know what you want right now.” He leans in for a kiss. He’s not very good at it, but I don’t stop him. He tastes like cologne and cheese. He pulls back and gasps for air, like he just ran down the street. After regaining his breath, he smiles again. “You want me. You wanted me before I walked in the room. You just don’t know it in your… state.” He licks his lips.

“You’re wrong,” I mumble quietly, like I’m drifting off to sleep. “Totally wrong.”

Here I open my green eyes wide and stare intently into his. “And I do know it. I know it very well.”

I pull myself from his limp arms and stand upright, straightening my little black dress.

And of course, I never break eye contact.

He stands in place, drooling slightly, staring right back. He certainly looks odd. Suspicious, even.

That’s okay, though. Not many people go into the alley.

“How have you been getting away with this for so long?” I ask, baffled. “My acting was terrible, to be honest. And how many roofies did you slip in there?”

The echoing of my heels as I approach him is the only sound in this quiet alley. I reach into his breast pocket and pull out a prescription bottle.

“For fuck’s sake, this is nearly empty. And what country is this from? Can you even read the language on the label?” I cock my head to one side. “Do you even care?”

I sigh and unscrew the cap. “My guess is that you put ten milligrams in the drink. Do you really want to fuck a corpse?” My eyes never leave his, and he never moves. I know he can hear me, though.

“You’re wondering how I’m talking now, and you’re not,” I continue casually. I grin. He stands nearly a foot taller than me even with my heels on, but he just looks so powerless. Will the irony sink in?

Probably not.

I sigh. “Well it takes a hell of a lot more than a dozen cosmos and a handful of roofies to affect a supernatural being, now doesn’t it?”

I tip the bottle upside down into my mouth, swallowing the rest of the pills in one gulp. I wince.

“But those roofies do pack a hell of a punch. Woo! I got hooked on these after I started following your type around. Take enough human-strength drugs, and I’ll actually start to feel it. I just wish they served cosmos in fishbowls, I love that shit.”

Eep.

I grab his arm. “You want so badly to talk.” I shake the empty bottle. “You’re upset because I wasted those expensive pills of yours? Is that what you’re saying?”

He starts to tremble, but the eye contact remains unbroken.

“Oh, you want to know what happens next.” I nod. “Well, we are going to my place after all.” I step even closer. “And don’t worry. You are going to get laid.”

He trembles more.

“You’re scared and changed your mind? I can’t know that if you don’t speak up. But here’s what I can tell you.” I snap my fingers, and he begins to walk next to me, staring into my big green eyes the whole time. “The lion eats the lamb not because he’s mean, but because nature made it so that only one could survive. What I do isn’t any more evil than that.” We are walking briskly now, into the anonymous street. “I get my energy from fucking, and a girl’s gotta eat. But where’s the best shopping?”

We head into my car. It’s awkward crawling through the interior while staring at each other the whole time, but we make it happen.

“My appetite requires an all-you-can-eat buffet. That’s where you come in.”

I turn the engine, and we head for home.

“I’m need multiple feedings each day. So I’m either constantly on the hunt….”

Tears are welling in his unblinking eyes.

“….or I bring the restaurant home to me. But who to use?”

I turn off the main road, and head into the dark woods.

“Maybe someone who’s ready to give back,” I say with a note of finality. “The type of person who’s got a stink I can sense from across the room.”

BD

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134

[OC] The HEL Jumper [Chapter 61]

Previous | First

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A/N: Greetings one and all. Welcome to another installment of the HEL Jumper, HFY's definitive source for Slice of Life, character development, completely ignoring world building, and almost pancakes. Today we recognize /u/bobthemagicalfish for first comment and a pretty fun username. Hope you all enjoy the read!

-----

“Veera, I hate to rush you but Seil doesn’t seem to want to wait,” Winters called from the doorway of their home, holding back the new and quite less shabby chesko door flap to observe the rapidly dwindling daylight. It didn’t take too long to get anywhere in Veera’s village, but he had no desire to be late to Zolta and Asha’s bonding ceremony. Veera waved dismissively at him over her shoulder. She was still naked, preening her feathers and fur with the help of Io’s projection technology. As he received her answer, Winters lowered his gaze to Veera’s shapely posterior, her slit cleverly covered by her tail. Maybe it’s a good thing I had some release before the ceremony, otherwise I’d be suffering a pretty bad case of jump bone right now. He smirked at the ridiculous name the Jumpers had given to the condition of attempting to sport an erection inside a full suit of Aegis armor.

“Darling, much as I appreciate where you’re coming from I will not be seen in public with fur matted by your seed, to say nothing of my feathers,” Veera insisted proudly, turning her head side to side as Io looked on approvingly beside her reflection, pointing out minor asymmetries here and there.

‘Du siehst schön aus, meine liebe,’ Io remarked sweetly, earning a raised brow from her human partner. Veera paused her preening and looked over at the VI, who had now accented her cocktail dress with a pair of sophisticated emerald studs done in silver as well as a thin silver choker. ‘You look beautiful Veera.’

“So do you,” the Cauthan whispered back, knowing enough about ornamentation and color coordination to appreciate Io’s choices. Clearly outnumbered, Winters decided to relent, returning to his chair and sitting slowly, listening to the wood creak under the weight of the Aegis, sans gauntlets and helmet.

“Can I help at all?” He asked, knowing the likely answer.

‘Oh what I wouldn’t give to take this girl to Harrod’s.’ Alright, that’s not what I expected.

“Io, Harrod’s is in London.” Winters shook his head with a thin smile.

“And I am not a girl!” Veera added for good measure, not caring at that moment where a Harrod’s or a London was. Io completely ignored Winters.

‘My apologies Veera, though I feel the challenge of shopping for you at a human department store would be most exhilarating, especially for a formal function!’

“The two of you can play dress up if we ever get back to Earth. Though I have no idea how you’d pay for such a thing Io.”

‘I would manage just fine.’ She insisted, crossing her arms over her chest.

“Siphoning fractions of pennies off of the global securities trading networks is not ok Io!” She looked at him with wide eyes, her response gratuitously shocked.

‘How did you guess?!’ As VI and human comically stared each other down, Veera attempted to restore order.

“You did enough my love, putting me in this state,” Veera taunted playfully before turning her gaze to him. “But thank you. I’m almost done.” Content with that reply, Winters closed his eyes and leaned his head back, finding a small amount of support from his armor and allowing himself to relive his most recent climax. The beast inside of him was most pleased to have been sated, and forced him to replay behind his eyelids the moment he’d opened his eyes and beheld the aftermath. Veera, beneath him, covered in his essence, her eyes wide and doe-like, so very innocent in that moment of his conquest. Every dominant bone in his body demanded that he recall that moment, remember that moment. He saw little reason to deny himself. A moment later he heard Io hum with approval and the sound of Veera pulling on one of her dresses and her cloak. He opened his eyes as she approached him, bending at the waist to plant a chaste kiss on his nose.

“You feeling alright?” He asked tenderly.

“What do you mean?”

“Your mouth.”

“Oh yes, of course! No problems I think, but just in case…” Veera opened her mouth wide for Winters as he scrutinized her mucous membranes and tongue. He was satisfied and relieved to find nothing out of the ordinary.

“Looks all clear. Ready to go?”

“Yes Russell. I thought we could bring a small cut of salted meat?” She held up a leather wrap. He eyed it approvingly.

“I like that idea. I know what Xan said but I think this is a good compromise. Io, you all set?” Winters asked as he grabbed his gloves and helmet. He intended to keep it off for the duration of the ceremony out of respect, but wanted the option to communicate with Zolta and Asha’s friends and family just in case.

‘I sincerely regret not being able to show off to the broader population, but I will content myself knowing that the two of you heartily approve.’ Io made a slow spin for them, sashaying her hips as she did so, finishing with an expectant look. Winters and Veera looked to one another, smiles on their faces. Veera extended a finger to playfully poke Io’s projection.

“I think I can say for the both of us that you look lovely Io, and we’re happy you’re coming along.”

‘Thank you Veera.’ Io gave the two of them a formal curtsey before winking away, giving them free reign to head out. As Winters held the door for Veera she paused at his side, standing on tiptoe so that she could reach the shell of Winters’ ear, nipping it gently.

“I don’t regret what we did for a second,” she whispered, recalling the name of the smallest increment of human time that she’d become familiar with as they’d trained. Winters’ sudden intake of breath was immensely gratifying to her. She pushed the envelope. “Next time I want you to wipe that shocked and apologetic look off your face. Next time I want you to enjoy it as much as I did.” With that, she swept out of their home, head and tail held high. It was all Winters could do to keep himself from grabbing her by the shoulders and throwing her back inside, her words stirring a full-fledged case of ‘jump bone’ in his armor. That battle decidedly lost, Winters breathed deeply and tried to settle his boiling blood.

‘I cannot for the life of me tell if Veera is dominant or submissive,’ Io wondered after her. Winters found himself smirking.

“Who says she has to be one or the other?” He asked philosophically.

‘A fair point. She is female and a predator to boot. You have stumbled upon quite the woman, sir.’

“Landed on her you mean?”

“Come on Russell! We’re going to be late!” Veera called to him as if she’d not been the one to provoke him so. Deciding to take the high road he strode over to her, cloak billowing behind him, and offered her his arm in a different manner than he’d ever done before. Veera looked at him curiously.

‘Veera, on Earth this is the historical manner in which a man would escort his woman to formal functions, especially the well to do and the nobility.’ Veera’s face developed a hesitant look as she sized up Winters’ extended arm.

“Nobility? Is that…alright?” She whispered, thinking of Cauthan kings she’d never seen, known only thanks to the tales of the caravans. They didn’t seem the type to allow commoners their customs. Winters partially knelt before her, reminding her of the harvest festival. His cloak and body language, not to mention the time of day and the occasion, seemed to lend the action more weight this time around.

“Of course my lady, may I have the honor of escorting you to this evening’s festivities?” Veera felt her feathers waving gently beneath her cloak.

“You may, my handsome human.” She took his offered arm. “I can think of no finer individual to be seen with tonight.”

“Let’s just do our best to not show up Zolta and Asha,” he joked, standing again before leading them off down the lane. About halfway to the village center a familiar form stood out among the sparse crowd, a large guard carrying a torch and spear.

“Greetings Antoth!” Veera called to him, her eager tone light with frivolity. They received a deep rumbling chuckle in response.

“Please tell me you’re not here to report a crime,” he quipped, halting his patrol.

“My word, did you just make a joke Antoth?” Winters exclaimed, quickly throwing on his helmet. He’d already passed up one opportunity to rib the captain back at the barracks. He would be damned if he failed a second time. Antoth however, was more than ready with a verbal riposte.

“Much as this may surprise you human, the Sentinel does not, in fact, bar us from being humorous.”

“So it’s just you then?” Winters laughed. Antoth waved his torch dismissively.

“I don’t know what you’re implying Winters. My jokes are perfectly honorable. You are simply incapable of understanding Uthos’ divine humor,” Antoth informed him with a perfectly straight face. At the proclamation of ‘honorable jokes’ and ‘divine humor’, Veera released a most amused bout of laughter, looking between the two men.

“You two are unbelievable. But I’m glad to see you’re in a fine mood Antoth. Did something favorable happen today?” The guard looked them over.

“Are you in a rush?”

“We’re attending the bonding ceremony of Zolta and Asha tonight,” Veera explained. Antoth hummed with understanding.

“Ah, that young smith that Winters has been hanging out with? The one who snagged the bushy-tailed lass?”

“Yep! That’s him!” Winters declared, pride evident in his voice as Antoth looked to the horizon. There was still a bit of daylight left, filtering through the sleeping trees, but darkness was fast approaching.

“Very well then, I won’t keep the two of you long. All I’ll say is thank you, Veera.” He looked at her with a smug grin that stretched the scars of his face. Veera didn’t try to hide her surprise at being the one addressed.

“Wait…what did I do?” She pointed a claw at her own chest.

“You put on a show today for my men, one that they know I witnessed. Let’s just say I haven’t found a single guard yet who has enjoyed being compared to you.” Antoth couldn’t help but laugh at his own deviousness.

“Don’t you think that’s a little rude?” Winters shot back, eager to defend his mate.

“Oh but human, yet again you misunderstand me! It’s pretty difficult for a male to find his manhood when his own effort doesn’t measure up to that of an untrained maiden…you are still a maiden, right?” Antoth glanced over at Veera who unceremoniously shoved him, finding her efforts mostly ineffective. Antoth just laughed anew.

“Boy you really are in a good mood,” she retorted, finding a smile creeping over her features as well now that Antoth had explained the situation.

“You’re damn right I am Veera! My men are more shamed and more motivated than I’ve ever seen them, at the beginning of winter no less!” His expression darkened immediately. “It’s been quiet for far too long. One day they’ll be tested again. I’d rather they be ready.” Winters approached and placed a hand on Antoth’s shoulder.

“We understand. And if the worst comes to pass, you’ll have me at your side. This is my home now too.” Antoth’s darkened eyes widened at that pronouncement.

“I will never deny help when it’s given. Uthos would surely smite me for that. But we cannot rely on an alien outsider for protection. For now I thank you for keeping my men sharp and motivated, the both of you. I’ve kept you long enough though; go on before you’re late.” He waved in the general direction of Meylith’s temple.

“Are you sure you don’t want to come too? It’ll probably be a lot more fun than patrolling in the cold!” Veera suggested. Antoth shook his head.

“What sort of example would I be then, eh? You’ve done enough for me today Veera, and you too Winters. Go on and convey my best wishes to the new couple. Gentia chose her path and I chose mine. Tonight she will serve the Mother and I will serve the Sentinel. Selah.” The guard captain parted without another word, throwing the hood of his cloak over his head as a cold breeze blew through the sparsely populated streets. Veera and Winters looked at one another as the human removed his helmet.

“I know I said I liked him a while back, but I really like him,” Winters said as Veera took his arm again and they continued on their own way.

“Should I be worried?” She replied, leaning against his shoulder as they walked.

“Not in a million years. All the same though, hard to find fault in a commanding officer like that one.”

“I suppose you’re more qualified to judge him than most. Come now love, we should pick up the pace so we’re not late!” As Veera tugged Winters around the next corner, taking a back alley shortcut, neither of them noticed the pair of eyes looking back at them. For a moment the guard captain stood alone, feeling the wind whip the hem of his cloak against his legs.

“They make it look so easy; show affection so freely. Did I…waste the time I was given?” His question was lost to the setting sun. The gods, as always, remained silent.

-----

As the temple came into sight, its doorway flanked by the usual lit torches, Veera and Winters breathed a sigh of relief as they noted a couple other groups arriving as well. Veera looked up at her human. “We made it!”

“Yeah, shall we go find a seat?” Winters led her through the door after the other Cauthan filed inside, moving them both to an open bench on his right, near the back. Before they sat down Veera noticed Xan a few rows up, waving as she got his attention. Winters was pleased to see that he was indeed accompanied by a certain black-furred maiden. They didn’t have to wait long after removing their cloaks for the ceremony to begin. Winters’ eyes were drawn to the front of the large space where the altar was decorated with a pristine white cloth covered with a small pile of offerings, provided by the temple. Veera leaned over and whispered to him, explaining that the offerings would be joined after the ceremony by gifts from the assembled guests. He nodded as he watched Gentia enter from the chambers on the right of the main hall, the same room where they’d helped life be born weeks before. Her appearance quieted the space as she lit a torch on either side of the altar before turning to face them all. Winters followed her gaze briefly and smiled as he noticed Thantis seated in the front row. It wasn’t difficult to appreciate the importance the two elders placed on the traditions and health of their small community.

“On behalf of Meylith, the goddess of home and hearth, I welcome you all and thank you for being here on this most happy occasion. We are assembled today to bear witness as young Zolta and Asha forge their life bond in the light of the goddess, with the support of their family and friends…” As the elder continued her introduction, Winters couldn’t help but slip into a moment of introspection. He wondered how many had been present for the union of Veera’s parents. His expression darkened momentarily as he figured it was likely far fewer than were present for Zolta and Asha. He was brought back to the present as the assembled all stood. Even in the back rows, he and Veera had no problem seeing the events at the front of the room thanks to their height. Zolta had emerged from the same room to the cheers and encouragement of the guests. The Cauthan seated on the left side benches were especially vocal. Winters couldn’t help a broad smile and a shout of his own as the young smith looked typically bashful as the center of attention, coming to stand on the left side of the altar. Over his clothing he wore a thin black cloak, though Winters couldn’t see any obvious ornamentation. As the two locked eyes briefly, Winters gave him a thumbs up and squared his shoulders, happy to see Zolta mimic him, standing straight as he awaited his mate.

Moments later it was the right side of the room that erupted loudly in cheers as Asha made her appearance, draped in a flowing white cloak over another one of her simple but elegant dresses. Winters had no doubt it was another one of her personal creations. Asha’s feathers and tail waved serenely as she joined Zolta at the altar, her warm expression seeming to give him courage. Once the applause and noise had died down, Gentia moved to stand between the two of them, speaking to the couple but loud enough so that the rest of the hall could hear.

“Ah, my children…” she began wistfully. “As high priestess I don’t mind telling you both that this is my favorite obligation, witnessing the birth of young love and the bonds that hold it together through the trials and happiness of life.” She motioned with a hand to the assembled guests. “Today, joined by your family and friends, you will offer your oaths to the Mother. Do so with heart and without fear. All those who have assembled here do so as a show of support and faith, faith that the two of you will live up to the ideals of your own hearts. As the goddess finds favor in those who keep their bonds strong, so too does she love those who support the bonds of others. My wish for the two of you is that today may be the day that you love one another the least, and that each day you will grow stronger and closer to one another, for one another.” After a nod to Zolta and a brief nuzzle with Asha, Gentia stepped aside and sat next to her mate, allowing the young couple the undivided attentions of the crowd. His shoulders rising as he took a deep breath, Zolta reached into a pocket and withdrew the pendant he’d made for Asha that year. As she smiled and bowed slightly so that he could affix it again around her neck, Zolta made his vows.

“Asha,” his voice was quiet but grew louder and more confident as he continued. “This pendant is a token of my love for you, given in the sight of the goddess. With it I pledge to you my life and my love.” After another breath he continued, his words making clear to Winters that only the very beginning of his vows were ‘standardized’. “I’ve always admired you Asha, your beauty, your kindness. You’ve always shone brightly in my eyes, so bright that I was almost blinded. I consider myself blessed that I was able to find the strength to tell you, to become someone worthy of you.” Zolta cast the faintest of glances at Winters, conspicuous in his white armor. With the necklace firmly tied around Asha’s neck, Zolta took her hands in his. “From this day to my last I will be at your side. I will strive for you and for us. And I will always consider myself the luckiest man in the village. I love you Asha.” As Zolta shifted his weight from side to side, Winters looked down at Veera. Both of them were sporting contagious grins, touched by Zolta’s awkward but supremely heartfelt words. A chorus of exclamation returned their attention to the front of the temple where Asha had leaned in and given Zolta a brief peck on the lips.

‘Long live humanity!’ Io cried out, bearing witness to the direct result of her partner’s influence upon the Cauthan. After a brief round of cheers and applause, the temple quieted again so that Asha could reciprocate Zolta’s vows. She procured the necklace she’d given Zolta as a kid, fixing it around his neck as he bowed to her.

“Zolta, this pendant is a token of my love for you, given in the sight of the goddess. With it I pledge to you my life and my love.” She took a moment to look her mate in the eyes before continuing, taking his hands in hers. “When you asked me to be yours, you swept me off my feet Zolta. Your proposal was unlike anything I’d ever dreamed, and every day I wake up happy that I said yes. From this day to my last I will be at your side. I love you Zolta, and I will strive alongside you, for us…” Veera felt her breath hitch as Asha paused and moved a hand to her belly. “And for our cub.”

Winters had only experienced time dilation a couple of times before in his life, and none of them had ever been at a wedding. In the heat of a firefight, sure, that was to be expected in certain circumstances. He never expected to feel it during a civilian moment, and yet there he was, watching as time seemed to slow and everything happened at once. Asha’s final words hung in the air of the temple, and for our cub. A moment later the congregation had erupted into noise and movement the likes of which he’d only seen at the festival. Asha’s smile was bright enough to pierce the darkness outside as Zolta’s eyes threatened to leap from their sockets and he teetered in place. A male and female Cauthan from his side of the guests ran to him, supporting and hugging him as he looked ready to keel over in shock. Winters figured they had to be his brother and sister. Looking further to the left he saw Zolta’s mother and father holding hands and nuzzling one another as tears came to their eyes. Gentia and Thantis looked similarly elated, thrilled to bear witness to the cycle of life and hope, even in their old age. Asha’s family had similarly gone berserk, cheers ringing out, nuzzling, and even a bit of hugging among some of the younger ones, he noticed. Xan was running up to join his friend. Asha’s parents were fawning over the new mother. Seemingly every guest began trying to present their gifts all at once, overwhelming the young couple with calls of congratulations. Winters, for his part, hung back with Veera, placing his helmet over his head as he felt a very particular feeling building within him. Io was absolutely elated, having erected multiple banners and balloons in pink and blue and shouting something about how ‘they were getting a baby’. Veera immediately removed his helm, smiling widely at him as he shook his head at Io’s enthusiasm.

“Oh no you don’t Russell! I am not crying alone in here!” She informed him, tears of happiness spilling from her eyes as they shared a moment together. Winters allowed himself to let go and hug her to him, his own tears dripping onto her fur and crown feathers.

“We did a good thing…didn’t we?” He choked out.

“Yeah…yeah we did darling. Oh gods…they’re going to have a cub!” Veera cried happily into his shoulder. For just a moment, Winters looked at the ceiling and thought of his friends and shipmates. Mission accomplished guys…

-----

As Winters and Veera collected themselves and continued to hold one another, the scene inside the temple of Meylith slowly began to play itself out. Family had surrounded the ‘bride and groom’ as those assembled finally formed some semblance of an orderly line in which to present gifts and give their congratulations and blessings. Eventually the two of them decided to join the line. As they slowly made their way to the front, Winters noticed that by that point the official ceremony was decidedly over, with certain guests bidding farewell and departing, while others broke into groups and engaged in conversation. Veera’s hand in his, Winters wondered idly how Asha knew she was pregnant. It had only been a handful of weeks, but eventually he just shrugged, knowing that if anyone knew her body, it was Asha herself. When their turn finally came, Zolta had apparently accepted the idea that he would be a father within a year, though he was still clearly processing the full implications. Winters clapped him on the shoulder before drawing him into a hug of his own. Veera had allowed him to replace his helmet so that he could communicate.

“Gah! What the heck Winters!” Zolta attempted to rebel against the embrace.

“Hugs aren’t exclusively for mates among my people!” He informed the young smith loudly, clapping him on the back and partially knocking the wind out of him. “You’re gonna be a dad! Congrats kid!”

“I’m not a kid!”

“You’re damn right you aren’t!” Winters pulled back, looking around at the faces of Zolta’s family. They were equally painted with surprise and laughter. “Congratulations to all of you,” he offered politely before Veera moved in for her own hug, causing a mild outburst from the assembled females and a tittering laugh for Asha. Zolta looked supremely embarrassed.

“Congratulations Zolta! Antoth sends his regards by the way!” Veera cried before immediately turning to Asha. The two signaled briefly with their feathers before grasping one another gently on the upper arms and nuzzling. Winters noted a few disbelieving looks on the faces of Asha’s family, but they said nothing untoward. That was fine enough for him, especially given the circumstances. “Oh Asha, I can’t believe it!”

“Neither can I Veera! But…I don’t know…I just know. My body feels different,” Asha told her, bowing slightly as Winters joined them. He did so as well.

“You have my congratulations as well Asha. We’re both thrilled for you.” He gave Io an understanding and apologetic look as the VI looked put out at being unable to join in the festivities. She got over it quickly, procuring various party whistles and other noise makers, and proceeded to make such a racket that Winters had to mute his HUD, inwardly thrilled that a being like Io could develop such an appreciation and love for something like conception and new biological life. Asha thanked them both as Veera held up their gift for the evening.

“Thank you both, for this and…for everything.” The three of them shared a knowing look, understanding exactly what Asha was alluding to. For the briefest of moments Winters laughed to himself, knowing that the question on everyone’s lips that night would be where and when the two of them had found the time to become as one. It was a secret he didn’t mind keeping. After Veera added their gift to the now very large pile, the two of them bid farewell, wanting to allow Zolta and Asha time to celebrate their marriage and impending parenthood with their families. Before they could, Zolta grabbed Winters by the upper arm. He turned back to the smith.

“What is it, young man?” He asked kindly. Zolta gave him a strong look.

“Thank you Russell, for all you’ve done for us. I don’t know where I’d be without you,” he admitted, his words causing his family to fall silent and look at Winters and Veera. Veera felt her mouth stretch wide into yet another smile as Winters replied.

“All I did was give the two of you a little push. Your love is your own,” he told them before removing him helmet and clapping Zolta on the shoulder again. After leaning close to Veera and asking for a quick translation, he addressed the assembled families. “Selah, and goodnight to you all.” Calls of farewell and ‘selah’ followed them out of the temple.

-----

Winters and Veera walked through the darkened streets, the winter wind whipping at their cloaks and spurring them to move just a little faster, even with the afterglow of the bonding ceremony still warming their hearts. They had been silent for a long time.

“Care to share, my love?” Veera inquired lightly.

“Oh, uh…alright,” Winters replied, feeling suddenly nervous. “I was just thinking is all.”

“What about?”

“That…I haven’t had a home for a long time.” His words floored Veera and even caused Io to briefly project, flicker, and vanish on the B-MASS before she materialized on his HUD.

‘Sir…’ she began, wondering what her partner could be talking about, what he could have been hiding from her and from Veera.

“What do you mean Russell?” Veera asked sadly, feeling very similar to Io. Winters looked between the two of them and tried to smile.

“Woah there, I didn’t mean to get you both looking like that. Weddings just…get me thinking I guess?”

“That much is apparent, darling. What did you mean? You haven’t had a home? What about your family?” Veera asked, taking his arm and holding herself close to him as they continued on towards home.

“I never said I didn’t have a family.” Winters voice became lighter at the mention of his parents and siblings. “Even so…I left home for the military at eighteen. That was six years ago. I was lucky enough to be on leave for a few important holidays over the years, Christmas and Thanksgiving and the like, but Omega has been my family since I left. And honestly, it’s many things…but it’s not a home.” Veera felt tears welling up in her eyes again as they ducked inside and both immediately moved to build a fire. She allowed him to join her, becoming too emotional to deny him anything as they worked in silence for a moment.

“Russell…are you saying…” He smiled at her as the sparks caused the fire to come to life and light their faces with a dull orange glow.

“Between you, Io, this little place we call ours, Zolta and Asha, Antoth, Xan, Gentia and Thantis…hell, even that bitch Ratha.” Veera hugged him fiercely as they couldn’t help but share their laughter. “I just couldn’t help but think that…you know…maybe I was home, in a way.” His declaration was met by a tearful and radiant gaze from Veera, confirming to her that the risk she’d taken cycles before, to commit herself to this alien, this human, was well and truly worth it. She tilted her head up and took his lips with hers in a soft but powerful kiss, full of life and longing. Her hands moved to fully encircle him and she pressed their bodies together as he responded, tending to her needs gently. His prior climax had taken all of the edge off, allowing him to thoroughly and unhurriedly move his hands over her back and shoulders.

“Russell…Russell…” she whispered into the night. “You…”

“It’s alright Veera, I understand.” He placed a kiss on her nose before sitting on the bed and maneuvering her neatly onto his lap. She crossed her legs and wrapped her arms around his neck.

“No darling, I want you to hear this. After all you’ve done for me it’s something I should do for you, something I want to do for you.” She leaned back a moment, purring as his arms immediately supported her, allowing her to take his face in her paws. “You will always be welcome here, my love. I’m sure the others would agree with me; this village is yours now too.” Veera’s heart fluttered at the beaming grin Winters gave her.

“Thank you, feather kitten. It’s…good to have a home…” he whispered as he buried his face in the soft fur of her neck, holding her tenderly as they both basked in the afterglow of all the happiness of the evening and reveled at how far they’d come. Eventually Io made her desire to join in known, playing a song for them all and translating it for Veera so that she could understand why it was chosen. Winters recognized the tune, smiling as he leaned back, allowing Veera to settle atop him as they relaxed together, grabbing Io’s gauntlet on the way. Veera was polite enough to allow the armor piece to rest on Winters’ chest, earning her a look of gratitude from the VI. Her processors were still in the same place they always were, but she still felt closer to them…closer to her family.

‘Today’s been quite the day.’

-----

A/N 2: If you prefer the Fallout cover, here it is.

-----

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