Doesn't matter whether you like road races, mountain biking, cyclocross, fixies, BMX, gravel, bike commuting, bike touring, or anything in between. If you live/work/play in Nashville or Middle Tennessee and you like to ride bikes, c'mon in and speak your mind.
Next Royal Road
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The slight rustle of the dense foliage could be hard as he stepped, two of the pack frowning at him as he sheepishly gestured his apology. The mono-deer that they were tracking perked its head up to look around, the singular eye carefully scanning the surroundings.
The slightest twang of a bow sounded from a tree nearby, the arrow lodging itself just below the neck of the animal. A mortal wound, though not instantly fatal. The deer tore into the forest, blood drops leaving a trail.
Joseph exhaled and lowered his crossbow to unload, the tension from readying to fire it lost now that someone else had gotten a shot off before he could line up something useful. Jax quietly chucked at his reduced enthusiasm once he dropped from his perch, lightly patting the Human’s back and gesturing for him to follow.
“Worry not, Grand Hunter, your specialty resides in taming the wildest of Lilhuns rather than hunting beasts.”
Joseph gave him an unimpressed glare until he couldn’t maintain it, a smirk playing underneath the facade as he navigated the rough terrain. “When you asked if i wanted to join you hunting, i thought it would be a little less...” He glanced to the other two of the pack whom were tracking the animal, one inspecting the path it took while the other kept their bow ready in case something was to hunt them back. “Public.”
Jax dismissed his concerns with a paw, his other idly adjusting his bandoleer of arrows and crossbow bolts, though the male didn’t bring his crossbow this time. “They have not synchronized yet. It is of no concern if they hear us speak.”
He raised a brow at the Lilhun. “Something on your mind?”
The male hushed him as the two doing most of the work signalled that they had closed in on their quarry, both bows drawn and ready. Joseph peered over one of their crouched forms to see the deer stumbling as it changed direction, a moss-wolf some distance nearby prowling low in the brush while blending into its surroundings. A look to the others confirmed that no one else had noticed the moving moss, so he patted Jax on the shoulder, receiving a questioning expression and repetition of the gesture to remain quiet.
A second inspection of the wolf proved to be a wise decision, the beast having caught their scent and changed targets to check out the other source of food that was somewhat closer.
“Jax.” The Grand Hunter hissed quietly, successfully gaining the male’s attention. He pointed to the low-laying animal, though Jax raised his brow in response. A huff was given as he loaded his crossbow and aimed it, pausing to allow his breathing to steady along with his heart rate. One of the other hunters noticed, scowling at him for the breach in stealth.
Sure enough, the deer noticed the more rapid movements of the Human as the weapon was brought to bear, the prey taking off again into the trees. The hunter who was about to complain turned to argue with Jax on his behalf, the action being all the wolf was waiting for.
Joseph’s crossbow recoiled in his hands, the string snapping from the impulse as the animal took to the air. The corpse of the moss-wolf crashed down just inches behind the whining male, the startled expression turning into a slight shock as he noticed the bolt barely protruding from the head of the creature that was going to turn him into its next meal. The Human frowned at his weapon, dejectedly clipping it to his armour with a sigh.
Jax looked back and forth between his Grand Hunter and the eliminated threat, a low chuckle being generated when the stunned male who was saved weakly pointed towards where the deer had run off. Permission was given to head towards it, but not to stray too far. “Perhaps the ‘hunter’ part of your title suits you better than we suspected.”
Joseph crouched next to his kill, the bolt proving too difficult to remove. “I have no idea how you guys didn’t see a moving moss patch.”
“I am surprised you are so calm.”
The Human paused his attempts to free his ammunition, a contemplative expression taking over as he scanned the air around him. A few blinks broke him from his thoughts as he reached a conclusion. “I guess because I’ve been under guard from you guys for so long that i got used to having help if i need it.” He looked over his shoulder to nod at Jax. “Thank you, by the way.”
The black-furred male smiled. “I am honoured you put so much trust in one such as i.”
Joseph shrugged. “You, and whichever one of the girls up there is keeping tabs on me today.”
He turned around as he stood, abandoning the retrieval operations to see Jax looking around cautiously. “Ah, right. You can’t smell that.”
Jax became slightly more distraught. “My injury prevents it.”
A regretful wince crossed the Human’s face. “I meant Lilhuns
can’t. Here.” He let out a two tone whistle, though both notes were rapid and close together in pitch. A black shadow dropped from a tree next to Jax, startling the male. “Calm down. It’s one of Trill’s girls.”
The Head of Security kept a tight grip on his bow as he stepped closer to Joseph. “You have these Blades simply following you?”
He shrugged, not overly concerned anymore since he had spent quite a bit of time idly watching them during his visual scans for Tel. They were pretty good, but he knew why Tel called them ‘dull’. Unlike his most recent addition to his circle of affection, he could hear them on occasion, and they often chose hiding spots that weren’t the best. It could be a result of lesser skill, or maybe he had just gotten good at finding them. “Like i said in the base; you get used to it.”
“Do you not fear they will target your life?”
A skyward glance preceded the thought. “At this point, I’m kind of tired of worrying about it. Besides, they listen pretty well, and Tel seems to have some serious pull with them.” A second shrug was given to confirm his apathy. “I’ve taken to thinking of them as a secret security force or something.”
Jax looked him up and down for a moment, releasing the breath he had been holding as he turned his attention back to the Blade, the latter dutifully kneeling towards the Grand Hunter with their gaze buried in the ground. “What proof do you have they are obedient?”
“What proof do you need? They’ve done everything we’ve asked them to so far, minus taking proper breaks. Pretty sure I’d be dead ten times over if they wanted.”
The male raised a brow at his annoyance, banishing the thought as he audibly mused what might be sufficient. He turned to Joseph with a grin. “Perhaps asking them to disrobe? No disloyal assassin would part with their shadows and weapons in such an environment.”
Joseph stared flatly at the Lilhun. “You just want to see her naked.”
“I am ensuring your claims are valid.”
“I’m not telling a woman to strip out here for something as benign as that.”
Jax made a show of looking hurt. “Surely you do not think of my motives as impure!”
“Jax, I’ve spent the last 3 weeks with someone who looked at me like a piece of meat to be eaten. I know that look in your eye.”
A paw was waved. “Tel is hardly an example of an upstanding citizen.”
Joseph snorted, approaching the stilled Blade and crouching near their height. “Fair.”
Jax watched him as the Human placed his hand under the female’s chin to raise her face, the impassive expression not budging as she offered no resistance. A dagger was removed from her holder on her hip, Joseph waving it towards Jax.
“Pretty sure that letting me take their weapons wouldn’t be the best idea.”
“Or they wish not to fight multiple opponents.”
The Grand Hunter huffed, standing and pulling the Blade to her feet gently, the knife returned with the handle in her direction. “Just ask her to grab whoever is free to come help drag these two back.”
Jax did as requested, obviously curious as to what the Human meant by ‘two’ until the other hunters quietly dragged the deer through the brush. “You will need to practise a communication method if you are to command a shadow force.”
Joseph sighed, rubbing his temple with his thumb before brushing his hair back with his fingers. “Honestly, just knowing your damn language would help a shit-load, even if i couldn’t pronounce half the words.”
The male hummed for a moment. “I believe you would be able. It may be accented, but it would suffice.”
“The question there is ‘how badly accented?’. You all have the translator tech to help you out and Sahari still sounds french. You sounded... I want to say German. Harrow got off mostly clean there, though.”
“Oh? What of your mates?”
Joseph cringed at the plural. “Tel worked out any transition before i heard her speak it. Pan... Honestly? Pan kinda sounded... I don’t remember, actually. I’ve gotten pretty used to how she speaks now.”
Jax shook his head. “Regardless, it would bode well for you to study as much as your kit.”
A glance was given, the Human feeling pride in his adopted daughter as he watched the other two hunters lay their catch next to his own to take a break. “I guess i could ask you guys for lessons or something, but everyone’s pretty busy with the settlement. I’d feel guilty if i tried to drag you out of what you need to do for something that stupid. Plus, i am absolutely shit at learning that kind of thing.”
His black-furred companion patted his back, leaning in to speak quietly into his ear, the deep bass of his voice rattling him somewhat. “What if i were offering to teach you some things your mates might like to hear during the moons?”
Joseph felt his face scrunch in distress as he worked to parse the meaning of the suggestion, a smirk breaking the expression in time with the stunned laughter. “Are you trying to motivate me to learn Lilhun so i can talk dirty?”
Jax shrugged. “Perhaps not so directly, but i can fathom a phrase or two that they might appreciate to hear from you.”
He blinked, giving the male a skeptical examination. “Not typically my thing.”
“Would you wish to learn how to tell them how dearly you cherish them?”
The smile answered for him. “That doesn’t sound like a terrible motivation. I’d want to keep it a surprise though. Well, that might be hard to do if it takes forever.”
“I am teaching Violet.” Jax offered casually. “It would not be much effort to include yourself.”
“And i could help her with her English writing while you try to hammer it into me, yeah.” He raised his eyebrows in consideration. “Yeah, okay. If i could bother you with that, I’d appreciate it.”
The male shook his head at the grateful look. “I have stated before, Joseph. You are my Grand Hunter. I will do as you command.”
“Not commanding you.”
“And yet, i treat it as such. If it will benefit the one whom spared mine existence and led me to accepting the affections of my bond, then i shall do all that i can.”
Joseph defaulted to the mild annoyance he felt whenever they took his ‘role’ too seriously. “Jax, at this rate I’m going to think you have a crush on me.”
Jax tossed on a disbelieving expression, his voice overly dramatic. “Oh woe is me! Does this low one’s love not satisfy you? Mine mate! You may have mine mate if i may only have your heart!”
A firm tap to the stomach was enough to stop the theatrics, the rumbling laughter at odds with the soothing rubbing the male applied to the effected area. “A simple ‘no worries’ or ‘not a problem’ would suffice.”
“But then i would be barren of the opportunity to displease you.”
Joseph nodded, his thin smile eased by the genuine levity in his eyes. “Figured as much. One of these days Harrow is going to be sad that you keep offering her.”
Jax huffed in amusement. “Does she not do such herself?”
“I try not to take you two seriously.” He quickly dumped that train of thought into the nearest black-hole, changing topics to encourage the process. “What made you start teaching Vi anyway?”
“I have done as much for my younger siblings.”
Joseph raised a brow. “No ‘den’ or ‘blood’ prefix?”
“They are kits of my blood-mother, though most do not share the same sire.”
He thought about it for a moment. “Fair, i guess. What was home like for you?”
Jax stepped to the side, taking a seat on a log while they waited for whoever was going to come give them a hand. “My den? Simple, if i were to say.”
“Simple? You end up on a military vessel after working years in security, and that had no catalyst?”
The male chuckled. “One does not always need a tragic beginning, Joseph. My den was simple. Four den-fathers and a single den-mother. We lived too far to be a part of a larger den, so my exposure to such was little more than what i have seen on my travels.”
“So what sparked the career in security?” Joseph prompted with a passive curiosity.
Jax tilted his head slightly as his ears maintained some semblance of vigilance, his focus on the conversation but still maintaining awareness. “Two of my den-fathers were in similar roles. They would tell us stories of their time on this planet or that site, often embellishing the roles into tales of epic proportions to entertain us before the moon grew too high.” The Lilhun smiled softly. “I suppose i wished to become the same. If not for the glory that they imparted upon their retelling, then to pass along my own tales to my kits.”
Joseph nodded, a wistful expression following the explanation. “So you wanted to do awesome shit so you could brag to your kids, huh? I can understand that.”
The male spoke softly, noticing the longing hidden under his voice. “Violet is a wonderful kit to have, Joseph. I fear i have began thinking of her as my own as well.”
He cycled a deep breath, a smile tugging at his lips. “She’s the ‘den-kit’, Jax. She’s all of ours, in a way.”
“That much is true, my friend.” Jax agreed with warmth to his eyes. “What of your parentage?”
“Mine?” The Human asked in surprise before humming in thought while he tried to summarize the important parts. “Mom worked as a receptionist for a pharmaceutical company before she got sick. Dad worked at whatever he could, eventually taking a construction job for the Union after mom passed...” He exhaled as the memories of his father’s funeral without a body still lay somewhat fresh in his mind despite how long it had been. “He was really excited to be off the planet, mom had always wanted to go. I got a letter a few months after, explaining what happened when he didn’t come back on time.”
Jax took the news sombrely, his face showing that he sympathized with the pain of loss. “My own blood-mother passed shortly before this deployment.”
“Sorry to bring it up.”
The Lilhun shook his head. “Worry not. It was a natural departure to the Great Hunt. She raised many young and loved them all equally. She was a fine female who made each of her kits feel her embrace.”
“Your dad...s... still alive?”
“Two are.” He clarified passively. “Though they have since found new love for their retirements. I have not personally met their mates, but i trust that my blood-mother has imparted a high standard in them.”
A light snort was returned, the comfortable smile on Joseph’s face easing itself into place. “Brothers and sisters?”
Jax chuckled. “I am near the younger of the progeny, only three are less.”
Joseph shook his head slowly. “Too many for me. Rob gave me enough headaches.”
“My kin are kind. We have had our disagreements, but we hold each other fondly nonetheless.”
Joseph bobbed his head to concede. “That works. Think you’ll be able to get in touch with them when we get off this rock?”
The Lilhun fell silent for a while. “Perhaps. I know not of their deployments.”
The Human found himself wrapping an arm around the massive male’s shoulders to pull him into a side hug, Jax doing nothing but accepting the affection from his seated position. “We’ll get in contact with them at some point, okay? I’ll see if Rob or Sil can figure something out, get in touch with your family.”
Jax nodded quietly. “I worry now that i may have grown too used to this.”
A mirthless huff escaped the male. “Friends are sparse in my previous field of work, as much as the current, i suppose. One would need to relocate before any connection may take place. It can be a lonely endeavour.”
Joseph felt that he had more to say, opting to rub the guy’s shoulder to show that he was ready to listen. Based on Jax allowing his weight to rest against him, the message was received.
“When i... The moon that i assaulted... The moon in which you spared me.” He started again, stumbling over how he wanted to frame his thoughts. The Human patted his friend in reassurance. “I worried that i may lose those that i began to feel closer to. Pan, i am ashamed to admit, was not a concern of mine at the time, though i realized after that she had begun to be a part of my pack before i was willing to accept. I wanted to keep them safe.”
“I know buddy, i know.” Joseph continued his light rubbing on Jax’s shoulder, letting the male get whatever he needed to off his mind.
“Now i find myself fond of each of you. Pan has developed to be a fine Paw, Sahari seems less burdened by her past, Nalah has softened her edge, Tel has become manageable.” He chucked at that one. “Harrow has become my mate, and although Violet is not my own, i feel the same fulfillment as if she were... I fail to find a depth to this gratitude i have for you, yet you keep giving me more to be thankful for.”
Joseph paused, squeezing Jax tightly as he absorbed what the male had to say. “You guys are my family, Jax. All i can say to that is...” He inhaled as he tried to find the words, exhaling once he succeeded. “You matter to me, buddy. I care about you.”
Jax met his gaze, his left eye dulled and less responsive to the light as his right focused on the scars around Joseph’s. An opened mouth failed to voice a thought, a soft huff causing it to be abandoned in favour of a second. “We have quite the unorthodox relationship, no?”
The Human gave the male one last squeeze before parting, a laugh joining the action. “Yep. That we do. Now if we could get past you asking me to join you two in bed then we might have something to call normal.”
Jax rose to his feet as two more of the pack returned, the slight tint of peppermint signalling the return of the Blade. “You have befriended and lead a people who you were unaware of before this. I believe normality has long since departed.”
“Not going to drop it, are you?”
Joseph sighed, joining the convening group to ready the results of the hunt for carrying. “Fuck off, Jax.”
“Of course, Grand Hunter.”
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They returned to the settlement after a few hours, a break being taken part-way to give those who were pushing the smaller carts a chance to rest their legs while Jax and himself took over once they got moving again. The gate, having never really held a massive door in which the name would suggest, had become something of a topic amongst the construction team as a wolf had wandered in at some point. Luckily, it was noticed by Nalah and Sahari before it had the chance to do much besides startle some people.
This also had the side-effect of causing the blond-furred female to seek him out once he walked within the walls.
She approached, prompting him to pass off the cart to someone else so that they could bring it to the hunter’s lodge, the subtle golden stripes running down her body contrasting with the leathers she wore often whenever she was being more hands-on with whatever was being built at the moment.
They hadn’t really spoken since the morning, Tel’s mark being a point of contention and then a mention of a bath house being their last proper interaction before Harrow dragged him off to be physical tech support. There was a slight worry that something would be brought up again, he wasn’t really looking forward to reiterating how little he minded the whole ‘mark’ thing now that Tel had more-or-less been accepted, but he would if it came up.
A skyward glance occurred as he struggled to come to grips with how smoothly his new... Mate? Girlfriend? Bodyguard? Assassin... Mate. How smoothly his new mate entered into the pack dynamics proper.
“I suppose your hunt was successful.” Nalah mused as she watched the group cart off the two corpses, her expression exposing that she was at least somewhat impressed. Joseph shrugged, following the gaze for a second.
“We need to work on awareness. A wolf got way too close and nobody noticed.”
She raised a brow. “Is anyone injured?”
“Nah.” A lazy shake of his head was the most emotive he could have been about the matter. “I put a bolt into it before it could do anything.”
The female furrowed a brow skeptically, her eyes scanning his face. “I would have expected you to be rather worked up after something like that.”
“Jax said the same thing.”
She shrugged. “It is what we have come to expect. Previously, you would have insisted on extensive defensive measures and caution.”
The Human exhaled, rolling his eyes in contemplation as his weight shifted to his other foot. “Yeah, i guess. I don’t know. Been facing death too often to worry too much about it at this point.” A frown appeared as the words left his mouth. “That’s concerning.”
Nalah slapped his shoulder with a laugh, the impact off-balancing him. “You have sought an assassin for your bed, Joseph. I would say you are trying to lay with the Void rather than fight it.”
He rolled his eyes more genuinely this time, a smile and a slight blush of embarrassment ruining the attempt to seem annoyed. “Ha. Ha. Very funny.” Nalah smirked at his displeasure as he continued to whatever brought her to him. “So what’s up?”
Her expression remained smug for a moment before she shook her head and pointed off to a rapidly developing framework for a building that was partially blocked from view. “We are progressing on the bath house first, since you seemed to be interested in the project and the pack were in favour, and i would like your more direct input while others craft a suitable solution for the gate.”
“Sure, i guess.” He answered, not entirely sure what he could have to offer to professionals and the woman who literally designed the layout of the village. She liked to run ideas by him, but that was mostly just formality, right?
A firm nod was returned, Nalah placing her paw on his shoulder and leading him to the site.
The skeleton suggested that it was going to be a sizable building, if nothing else, though it was just the exterior and basic layout that was framed. The orientation suggested that it would be a single entrance with a split to the dedicated baths by gender.
It was a slight oddity to him. Lilhuns had no issues seeking out recreational sex, and as far as he was aware, they didn’t really care about being naked in front of others, but that might just extend to others in their den or pack.
He paused to think if he should even ask the question, mentally sighing when he remembered that they would likely answer whatever he asked, regardless of how personal it was. “How is nudity viewed in your culture? You guys didn’t seem to really care until clothing became an option.”
She gave him a confused look, smirking once she finished processing his query. “Do you miss seeing our forms, oh venerable Grand Hunter?”
The female dodged his weak attempt to tap her arm with his fist. “I’m happy without the distraction, thank you very much.”
“Oh, so it is pleasant to see?”
He ignored her, a chuckle returned.
“It is not preferred, if that is what you are asking.” She answered after her amusement wore off. “Besides the basic utility and protective qualities, we do value modesty. Though, that is quite fungible within the confines of the den.”
He looked at her out of the corner of his eye as they walked, a step avoiding a placed marker for future construction. “So you guys don’t mind as much within the base?”
Nalah hummed, her tone suggesting he was only partially correct. “Privacy of one’s den will influence it, yes, but it is the people where it truly matters. I, for one, would rather not be bare if i can help it, but i also wouldn’t put much thought into it if i were to be such around our own.”
He nodded, understanding where she was coming from. It wasn’t much of a stretch to be naked around people who spent the better part of a year seeing you like it. Not like there was anything left to be embarrassed about at that point. “I can see that.”
“Yourself?” She asked passively, killing the time while they crossed the expanding village.
“I hate it.” He noted aloud, though it was mostly him voicing his opinion rather than thinking about it. “In company, anyway.”
“Would it ease your mind if we were as well?”
He shot her a doubtful stare, the placid expression on her face showing no ulterior meaning to her offer. “I’m pretty sure I’d be stared at or assaulted.”
Nalah snorted, nodding at a Lilhun who seemed to be taking a break some distance from the nearing construction. “As you viewed our forms?”
A blush took to his cheeks. He was going to argue, or even just deny, that he had inadvertently taken more than his fair share of time noting the similarities of their builds to the human counterpart, but the attempts died in his throat. “Sorry.”
A jolt to his back stopped his self-chastisement. “We are a different people. It is understandable that one would be curious.”
He cleared his throat, desperate to jump topic before it got to questions he would rather not answer at the moment. “How are things with Sahari?”
He proceeded a few steps before noticing that she had stopped, her gaze fixed on the treeline beyond the wall. He doubled back, worry evident.
“Yes, apologies.” She answered after snapping from her reverie. “I am not accustomed to others being aware.”
A soft smile formed on his face. “Look, i had a talk with her. Don’t look at me like that.” He pointed a finger at the beginning form of betrayal in her expression. “I didn’t tell her anything, but
, i did want to figure out if it would only get you hurt to keep this up.”
“Joseph, I am aw-”
“Keep it up.”
She stared slack-jawed as he cut her off in her attempt to dissuade him from asking her to move on, the encouragement seeming to have been something she didn’t expect. “Pardon?”
A huff of amusement preceded the light hand on her shoulder. “I said that you should keep it up. Sahari just needed a push, she’s spent a long time thinking that she didn’t deserve to be loved since she lost her old mate. I...” He paused for a breath, his eyes falling to the ground. “I spent a long time thinking the same, Nalah.”
A choked sob caught his attention, the female’s tears building on her fur prevailing any attempt for her to speak. He took advantage of her relaxed legs equalizing their height to pull her into a tight hug, a hand gently rubbing her back.
“Hey, it’s okay. I’m here for you.” He cooed in a soft voice. “Don’t try to talk yet, just let it out.”
Though she didn’t start bawling, she did return the embrace, the damp moisture feeling cool on his neck as she absently nuzzled into him. A slight rasp worked its way into her voice. “Thank you.”
He chuckled, the smile causing his cheek to press into her own. “You asked me to bring her back, right? I thought you might like it if i tried to bring that part of her back too.”
Her grip almost crushed him, though he didn’t allow the groan to ruin the moment. “She had lost everything dear to her, yet she saved myself and given me purpose when i had none. All this time i wanted to repay her in any way i could, yet you have done so effortlessly.”
“I didn’t do much.” He tried to assure the now-weeping female, intensifying his back rubs.
She shook her head, dampening his ear in the process. “You have given her a connection to herself and released her of her shackles. I know of no way to reward you, nor apologize for my immature actions in the past.”
A slight confusion settled. “All i did was have a few chats with her over a fire when we were alone. You were the one to support her so much.”
The choked laugh came out in time with an ease of her squeeze, his breathing becoming easier. “She bonded to you, that much would have been cause for celebration enough.”
“A moment, Joseph.” Nalah quietly pleaded. He bit back his bewilderment for the time being. “She sought revenge for her mate, for nothing else could exist within her. She could laugh an empty laugh, smile a hollow smile, but she could not truly feel more than a cold rage and sorrow. You have given her what she has lost, and then given her hope.”
His protest died in his throat at the gratitude in her voice, a defeated sigh escaping as he dismissed his concerns about the topic. It would be brought up later, but now wasn’t the time, it seemed. “Pay me back by making her happy. She’s a good friend of mine and I’ll be pissed if you screw up.”
The female separated, a content smile dominating over her previously overwhelmed expression. “Is there anything i may do for you personally?”
“I’m used to Harrow by now,” He warned, a smirk appearing as the atmosphere lightened. “You aren’t going to fluster me by joking about sleeping with me.”
“Only if you wished it so.” She winked, a free paw drying her eyes as she chuckled.
Proving his experience in dealing with Jax and Harrow to be ill-suited to dealing with Nalah, he stalled, closing his eyes as he sighed. “Let’s start by getting this bath house underway.”
“Of course, Grand Hunter, my apologies.”
“Shut up, Nalah.” He patted her back to get them moving now that they had spent a while just outside of the construction. Several of the crew were beginning to give them confused looks and he was worried they would think he was bullying her. She shook her head, but finished escorting him to the site once the evidence of her slight lapse in composure had been removed.
A soft clicking barely preceded the startlingly large impact tackle-hug that enveloped him, Mama having approached from his blind spot silently thanks to the soft dirt. She made a point of covering almost all of him with her frame and long blades, the purring reminding him that this was the first he had actually seen her since he had left for the trip. He worked an arm free and returned the hug the best he could.
“Hey, Mama. I missed you too. Sorry i was gone so long. Are you doing okay? Pack didn’t drive you nuts?”
She reluctantly released him, a chittered laugh returned for his joke as she nodded. Joseph smiled at the massive insect, two thoughts passing his mind and battling for which would be voiced first. “Would you be interested in learning how to write English with Violet? We’d be able to talk more then.”
The question seemed to have caught Mama by surprise, a consideration was given until she looked to Nalah, the female watching the reunion with a small smile. “You need not fear for the effect that your occasional absence would have on our progress.”
Mama shifted her regard back to him, a passive nod given. He couldn’t fight off the warmth he felt thinking about actually conversing with the two who had been with him so long. “Jax and me are going to be teaching Vi once we work out a schedule. I’ll let you know when.”
She nodded again, seemingly remembering something and gesturing for him to remain where he was. He agreed, a brow raised in confusion.
It wasn’t a long wait, two more large forms around Mama’s size curiously tagging behind the mother. The two were subjected to a brief conversation with the familiar Atmo, several gestures being pointed in his direction. Feeling the need to do more than stand there in surprise at seeing more of them, he waved lightly, offering a polite ‘hello’ while trying to reign in his rapidly developing theorizing.
The red Atmo approached first, circling him slowly while taking its time to inspect him, Mama still speaking to them all the while. Finished their observations, the second blue one repeated the gesture, taking less time to complete it.
The two consulted each other, occasionally looking to Mama for something before continuing.
“Is something wrong?” He asked no one in particular, Nalah shrugging, seemingly as confused as he was.
“They had little interest in our own.” She commented, brows lowered in consideration.
Joseph checked himself over for something that might be weird. Other than his legs and lack of more animal-like features, he was pretty close to the company they had been helping. He was a pretty average height when compared to everyone, though most of the males had a few inches on him when they stood upright to their fullest. He was wearing his worn-out clothing that he brought with him on the cruise, so maybe that was it?
“Am i that weird looking?” He asked over his shoulder, Nalah laughing at the self-conscious tone.
“Physical features are a lesser focus of our people, Joseph.” She explained as the three Atmo had slowed their discussion. “That is not to say that you are not a peculiar subject.”
“Wow, thanks.” He deadpanned, becoming slightly more aware of how far he departed from what they would look for in a partner of their own species. It seemed stupid to think about it now, especially since he... It just crossed his mind due to the Atmo’s reaction, is all.
The clicking and pantomiming stopped as the two new insects approached him without circling him again, both bowing low before him. A heavy set of blinks tried to follow whatever the hell was happening when Nalah spoke behind him.
Excited clicks drew his eye to his daughter displaying her sign to the female before walking up to nuzzle into Joseph, the Human chuckling and lightly stroking her as she held up the sign for him as well, though it still only carried the cluster that was Lilhun script.
“I’ll assume that’s you saying ‘hello’,” He crouched to be eye-level with her and gave her a hug, her blades quickly resting over his shoulders as she placed her head against his and purred contently. “You’re doing great, sweetie. I talked to Jax, and we’ll set up some dual lessons soon. Think you could do both English and Lilhun, or do you want to focus on one for now?”
The pressure of her hug forced him to shift his neck so that she had room to do it without cutting into his armour, the alternating sets of legs causing her to bounce slightly.
“Ask Jax when he’s free, i think he should be at the hunter’s lodge right now assisting with what we brought back.”
She nodded, giving him one last squeeze before leaving in that direction, a second sign displayed to the Nalah on her way out, eliciting a chuckle from the female as she said her own farewell.
Once the ‘den-kit’ had passed the point of view, the two Atmo rose to their height, offering him a more shallow bow as they excused themselves back to their work and exchanging with Mama again as they did so.
Joseph inhaled, turning to his friend with pursed lips. “So... What the fuck was that?”
She shrugged. “They seemed to do as much whenever she is around.”
A sigh was returned. “Whatever. Show me where you want my input.”
Nalah patted his back and led him to where she was planning to put the actual baths, though he didn’t have much to say for most of it. It all seemed pretty well thought out to him.
The only part he was confused about was a plan for a significantly smaller set of baths that were sectioned off on either side.
“What are those for?”
The female gestured to them lazily. “That one is for the High Huntress and whomever she has accompany her,” Another paw was raised towards the far end of the site. “And that one is for yourself, until another of proper station is acquired.”
He raised a brow. “Why do i need a bath out here?”
Nalah smirked. “I believed you may enjoy the novelty of the arrangement, if not simply appreciate the privacy. Or would you like to be intruded upon by Harrow again?”
He thinned his lips, a firm nod given as he remembered the female fighting the urge to inspect him while delivering important information. “Point taken.”
Next A/N: 8k views on RR – They’ve reached Mi’low now. We’re hovering at 4.8 stars, which is neat! I think. This arc is looking to be a bit shorter, and more of an ‘at home’ section while we clean up the mess from last arc, so it’ll be pretty character focused. Romance, major plot elements, Tel... yeah, we know where that’s going. Finally: The two comments to pass 10 upvotes were you guys telling me how much you like the story... so.. DAWW