Nervously, Karen dialed a number. The phone rang once. "Pendorian Embassy, this is Athena. How may I help you?"
"Hi, Athena. This is Karen Turrow. I'm calling for Reff Ng. Is she there?"
"Karen! Hi! Reff is out, but she's listed as available. I could forward your call."
Karen felt herself blush. "Yes, please. Thank you."
"You're very welcome. Are you in town?"
"Yes, on business, but I have some free time."
"Wonderful! Reff will be very happy to see you." There was a click, and then the ringing of a phone in the distance. But when a familiar voice answered the quality was perfectly clear. "Hello?"
"Mellon, Reff! Karen nai!"
"Karen? Melmet! It's good to hear from you. I was afraid that you had given up on me. You didn't call me after the first few times!"
Karen experienced a twinge of guilt. "I had run out of things to tell you over the phone."
"Well I hadn't!" Reff's voice was full of mirth even as she growled her response. "To what do I owe the pleasure of this call?"
"I'm in town. US Geological Services conference at the Red Lion, Northside. Are you available for dinner tonight?"
There was a pause. "I can't, not tonight. There's a group from Britannica here and I'm supposed to meet with him tonight. We won't be done until nearly midnight. We could get together after that, or tomorrow. Would those be good?"
"There's a reception tomorrow night, but I could be free by nine. Do you want to go to dinner after that? I'll be dressed a little formally."
"I'm sure Athena can find me something to wear that will be appropriate," Reff said. "Should I pick you up around 9:30, then?"
"I'll meet you at the front door."
"I'll meet you there."
Karen stood outside the hotel, watching as cars rolled past one by one. She felt self-conscious in her elegant blue dress and expensive hairstyle. A van pulled up, unmarked, with darkened windows. "Karen Turrow?" the driver asked.
"Yes?" Karen said, startled that she should be recognized. The driver was a blond woman wearing a uniform that was slightly more professional than one would expect of a driver. It looked almost militaristic. She had exited the van and was holding the door open for Karen.
"Pendorian Embassy professional services, Ma'am. I'm here to pick you up."
"I thought Reff would be picking me up."
"She asked me to drive you to a restaurant. I hope that's not a problem?"
Karen shook her head and stepped in, looking around. She wondered what she was looking for. It was just a van inside. The central bench was missing and the front one lower and moved back slightly, providing for much more head and leg room, which made sense given that it was probably used by people as large as Ng'Reff. The materials on the inside were what one would expect from something "official."
She took a seat as the driver hopped back in. "How did you get this job?" she asked as they pulled out into Washington traffic.
The driver shrugged. "I worked for a pretty sleazy limousine company for a while. Rock stars, dignitaries, things like that, people who paid extra for 'extra,' if you get my meaning. The Pendorians offered me better pay, a steadier gig, and people who would keep their paws off of me." She laughed at her own joke; Karen gave her a smile. "It wasn't something I could pass up. A friend of mine from the service also tried to get a job, but they passed her up. I don't know why; she's a better driver than I am."
Karen nodded. "So you like working for them?"
"Are you kidding? If I ever have kids some day, I'll be able to recite the names of all fifty-one Pendorian nationals by heart! And some of them are pretty cool people in their own right. There's something about working for them. They respect me. It's hard to explain." She pointed out the front window. "There's your restaurant. Who would name their restaurant The Book Store?"
She let Karen out of the van at the front door. "Reff will call when you need me." With that, she disappeared.
Karen walked inside. "Can I help you, Miss?" the maitre'd asked.
"I'm here for... the Pendorian."
He smiled. "Of course. Follow me." He led her into a dark room, laden with dim yellow lights, candles, and curtains of the darkest red. The tables were small circular affairs that in this much lighting may as well have been black. Karen immediately picked Reff out of the crowd. She sat towards the back, her face illuminated by the single candle at her table.
When she spotted Karen, her eyes lit up in immediate delight, and as Karen slid into the table, Reff took her hand and squeezed hard. "I'm so happy to see you!" she said. "Come, sit. What are you in town for?"
Karen's own pleasure at seeing Reff again kept her from talking for a moment. When she finally did she said, "The US Geological Survey convention. It's not very exciting. I'm spending most of my time on the oceanographic oils and natural gas seminars, because that's what I'm doing right now for a contract, but I should also spend some time on the careers track because I don't think this contract will last."
"Where are you working now?"
"Fecofi Drilling. He's one of those geniuses who sometimes finds oil where people say there is none. He thinks there's evidence of a huge oil deposit off the coast of Mexico in the Pacific. There are some, but not where he's having the team I'm working with look."
Reff smiled. "I can't get over how happy I am to see you!"
"I didn't know how I would feel," Karen said. "But it is good to see you. How did your meeting with the Britannica people go."
"Terrible," Reff said, grinning. "At least the Geographic people were sensible, but now it seems that because of the deal we made with them a lot of other people have their knives out for us." Reff picked up a menu and handed it to Karen. "Here, order. Eat whatever you like. I'm on an expense account."
"So am I," Karen replied. They summoned the waiter who, as efficiently as possible, memorized their orders and then disappeared again.
Karen looked across the room. The other patrons were stealing glances at the two of them, as discretely as is possible in a city where the most politically powerful people on Earth congregate. Karen enjoyed their looks, enjoyed that they didn't know who she was.
But that made her think. "Reff? Am I in any danger being near you? In San Diego nobody knew you were at my house, at least I doubt anyone did, and nobody ever asked me about it except for my friends. But here, everyone knows you're in Washington and they know where you live. Would they use me to get to you?"
"Yes, probably," Reff said, looking uncomfortable. "You're actually not in danger from sane people, but we have noticed that the number of insane people on Terra is alarmingly high and poorly monitored. We're also concerned that you're going to be approached by agents of one or more government agencies, either from the US or other countries, who would want to pay you for any information you would have about us. Economic espionage is yet another possibility, although it's one that we aren't concentrating on since at the moment we don't have much to trade other than a few commodities and our access to space." She squeezed Karen's hand again. "Do these scare you enough to scare you away from me?"
"I don't think so," Karen said. The waiter brought their drinks. Karen noticed with amusement that they had both ordered red wine. She tasted hers and found it passable, enjoying the tart spice of it.
Reff seemed to enjoy hers. "This is something we're going to have to trade for," Reff said. "There are no wines quite like this on Pendor. We haven't figured out how to make them the way you have, and we don't have the right kinds of grapes." She sighed. "So much to trade for, and I want it all now."
Their meals came. Reff ate with a cautious gusto at first, then with apparent enjoyment. Karen enjoyed watching her eat. She had obviously come to enjoy what Earth had to offer and didn't let anything inhibit her from the pleasures she had access to.
"I envy you, Reff. You get to enjoy all of these new pleasures from an adult perspective. So many things we're exposed to as a child don't register quite so much when we've grown up. I think I'd enjoy fish more if my parents hadn't lived in a fishing town and made it so often. It probably doesn't help that I've been stuck on a boat with a crew that thinks that fending for itself with rod and reel is a great way to pass the time."
"But, surely you have a greater appreciation for these things as an adult," Reff said.
"Intellectually, yes. But emotionally? No. Not really."
Reff nodded. "I wish I understood better. But Pendor doesn't have a rich cultural life. We have only a few institutions, most of them organized around getting the colony going. Art, writing, music have all been neglected, although not forgotten. With Earth to draw on, there will be more in the future. Hopefully someday we'll begin to make our own contributions."
"You will," Karen said. "I know you will, at any rate."
The check came, and Reff grabbed it. "I'm far more capable than you are. I don't think my boss will get upset at the total. And she likes you. I don't know how your boss would feel about me. I don't represent access to oil. Far from it. We intend to reduce Terra's oil needs by two-thirds within the next fifty years."
Karen looked up. "How do you intend to do that?"
"That's still a secret." Reff grinned. "Actually, I don't know the details myself. That's Trade Ambassador R'Dam's territory. Shall we go?"
Karen nodded. They grabbed their stuff and stood up. For the first time Karen got a good look at what Reff wore, and she did not disappoint. An eight-foot-tall felinoid alien with a bulky, powerful body did not seem built for tradition, and Reff, or whoever had advised her, had realized that. She wore black silk pants with flared bell bottoms, a style that Karen had seen before on many of the feline Pendorians on TV. On top she wore a masculine cut white shirt with a white, circular collar decorated by a black stud over the throat. Over that Reff wore a black jacket, feminine but not much so. She did not wear heels.
"You look wonderful," Karen commented.
Reff grinned. "I'm glad you like it, Karen. I wanted to appear appropriate next to someone as beautiful as you are. I hope I did well."
Karen blushed. She was not used to being called "beautiful" by anyone. "Thanks."
They walked out onto the sidewalk. The van was waiting for them. They climbed in. "Where to now?" Karen asked.
"The Embassy. I have someone I want you to meet. If that's okay with you." Reff struggled out of her jacket and tossed it onto front passenger's seat.
Karen nodded, curious. She reached out with one hand and touched Reff's now exposed arm. "I missed you, Reff." The other fem didn't respond for so long that Karen was afraid she hadn't heard. "Reff?"
Reff looked away. "I missed you more than you can imagine, Karen. It was more than just missing you. It was like needing you. I was so upset when you stopped calling, I didn't know what to do. Athena said I should call you, but I didn't think that would be fair. I'd already called you twice. Any more and I would have felt like I was harassing you. You had your right to privacy. Athena was just making guesses. It's not like being on Pendor." She paused. "But I so missed you. You were the connection I had wanted, the person who made Earth feel like a place I could call home. When you rejected me..."
Karen's heart felt cold in her chest. Is that what had happened? "I didn't reject you, Reff. I... I became afraid that I was bothering you. You were a Pendorian. There are only fifty or so of you on the whole world, you must be so busy doing your negotiations, public appearances, and television shows. I don't have the right to ask you for any of your time... do I?"
"You do if I say you do!" Reff suddenly leaned in, making Karen feel small and threatened. "You stopped talking to me and you didn't even have the decency to tell me why!"
Karen's fear made her snap back just as hard. "You're from another world! What more reason do I need than that? You don't think like us, you don't act like us, you don't feel like us. Our common basis is that we're both humanoidal carbon-based life forms! Maybe not even that. I have more in common with my cat than I do with you, Reff!"
"You can't talk to your cat. It doesn't talk back."
"That's where you're wrong. My cat speaks to me in words you just can't hear. She talks about love, trust, affection..." Karen's voice caught in her throat. She looked away.
They pulled up to a gate. Reff opened the door and extracted herself from the van. Karen followed her to a small gate, which opened as they approached it. Reff stepped through, her back to Karen, expecting Karen to follow her. "Reff, wait. Wait!"
Reff stopped and turned. "You scare me, Reff," she said. "I have a lot to be scared about. It's not your size, or your teeth, or even that you're from another world. It's that you, you're..." She sighed. "I don't want my life to change, Reff. I like the stable little life I've worked so hard to create. I don't want that to go away."
Reff sighed, then looked up. "It's going to rain. Let's go inside."
She followed Reff into the Embassy. The foyer would not have looked out of place in any major office building, complete with a circular station in the middle occupied by a generically pretty brunette. "Hi, Karen!" the receptionist said, looking up.
Reff walked over to the receptionist and said, "Karen, meet Athena."
"I'm pleased to meet you, Karen." She glanced over at Reff. "Poppy will be down in a minute."
Reff nodded, and Karen thought she saw something else pass between them. "Who's Poppy?"
"Poppy is..." Reff didn't finish the sentence as the bell on the elevator announced someone's arrival. Karen looked up to see a blue-furred Pendorian walk out into the reception area. This one was obviously female from the small but visible breasts, something Reff's species lacked. She also had strange arms; it took Karen a moment to realize that she was not wearing shoulder pads but instead really had very muscular shoulders from which extended not arms but something much more flexible, like a pair of powerful boa constrictors. Her eyes were solid green with no discernible iris, and her ears were large, pointed affairs that started where ears should start and ascended until they were even with the top of her head. Unlike other Pendorians Karen had seen, this one had hair, a shocking mass of white, curly hair that tumbled down her back. Her lips were thin and black.
Those tentacles ended in a single mitten with a thumb, which she held out. "You must be Karen." Karen took the mitten in her hand and found it warm and dry to the touch, the inner surface feeling much like bare skin. "I'm Poppy. Reff and Athena have told me all they can about you."
Karen glanced over at Reff and the receptionist. "What's going on here?"
"Poppy is our team therapist, threat profiler, and interviewer," Reff said. "I was curious to know how she felt about you. You said you would be looking for work soon."
Karen was stunned. They were offering her a job? "What would I be doing?"
"Distance teaching," Poppy said. "Right now we're looking for all kinds of teachers in a number of disciplines. I've reviewed your file from Berkeley, very impressive. You made an excellent PhD. candidate and were consistent as a student lecturer." She looked at Karen, her eyes probing with a depth that made Karen uncomfortable. "You're reasonably stable and you've demonstrated an ability to keep your head on when surrounded by strange creatures from outer space.
"You see, Karen, we know much about physics, chemistry, and biology. We know nothing about real planetary geology, solar system astronomy, and other sciences directly related to living on a planet. We also know almost nothing about the humanities, arts and letters, music, and so on. We're recruiting people like you to teach." She smiled. "The geologic stack and Shakespeare are both in the public domain."
Karen looked up at Reff, then back at Poppy. "I don't know. I mean, that's a big jump. Will I ever get to meet my students? How will I know if I'm doing the right job?"
"Oh, you'll get to meet them. Right now our communications has about a sixty-hour delay time, so you'll be meeting with your students twice a week. We'd like to make the class sessions about three hours, so you'll only have the most dedicated students."
Karen thought about it, although she was somewhat off-balance by the suddenness of the offer. "What does it pay?"
"Total? We find you an apartment and pay for a one year lease, renewable along with your contract to us. Aside from that, 28K a year and health insurance."
The pay was slightly less than what she was making, but if they were going to cover her rent and provide insurance, she would be coming out far ahead. Besides, it was only six hours a week dedicated time plus whatever time it would take to put the material together.
What would she fill the rest of the time with? She couldn't imagine living in Washington D.C. But she also couldn't imagine giving the position up. What would she put on her future resumes? "Consultant on Terrestrial and Planetary Geology to the Pendorian Consulate," she imagined. She wondered how that would go over with future employers.
Finally, she let out a breath she hadn't been aware that she'd been holding. "I need to think about it."
"Of course," Poppy replied. "I just wanted to give you that chance. It's an offer. We'd need more, of course, about your skills and your employment record. People are usually hired more on how we feel about you rather than on your establishing any sort of bona fides. We understand that you know your science."
Poppy held out one of her mittens again. "It was nice to finally get to meet you, Karen."
Karen took it. "And you," she said. Athena had mentioned that Poppy was the team therapist. Did that mean that Reff had talked to Poppy about her? Karen wondered.
"I'll see you around. Reff, why don't you show her the classroom? Let her get a feel for the place." With that, the Tindal turned on a soft-shoed heel and disappeared into an elevator.
Reff nodded. "That sounds like a good idea. We can talk down there." She turned to Athena. "I don't think she needs a pass at this hour, do you?"
Athena shook her head. "It would be a shame to muck up that lovely outfit with a big, ugly hall pass. I'll alert the staff that there's a legitimate visitor without a hall pass in the area. Your description shouldn't be too hard. 'Stunning, willowy redhead in sexy, blue semi-formal dress.'"
Karen blushed. "Thanks."
"Good. Then let's go." Reff led her to the elevator, and in minutes they were up a floor, down a hall, and through a door. The classroom was in the classical amphitheater design, a third of a circle in the round centering on an average sized desk with a black plastic top, complete with sink. It could have been any lecture hall in the world. The floor was a rug of institutional yellow, the walls a commonplace brown wood. The only thing about the room that stood out was its cleanliness. She had never been in a room like this when it was brand new.
Reff sat down in a front-row seat that seemed to fit her fine. Karen found that mysterious; all the other seats were obviously sized for humans; was there just one chair for Uncia, or did the chairs resize themselves for whomever sat in them? "I'm sorry about springing that on you like that. I didn't know how you'd take it, but I knew that we were looking for people like you to teach our classes and when the subject came up at a staff meeting I put your name into the candidate list. If you want, I'll ask Athena to remove it."
Karen shook her head. She took a seat in the same row, two chairs away from Reff. "No, don't. I just haven't had a lot of time to think about it. I wonder what my friends will think."
"I expect that most of them will think it's the most wonderful thing that could happen to any of you and they'll be envious of your access to us." Reff grinned. "But you'll miss them. We can provide for regular flights out there, once a month if you really like, so you can visit them."
Karen shook her head. "No, the party was breaking up already. Space had found a job in San Francisco, so that particular game that you came in on was shutting down. I wasn't able to play much anyway because my job kept me out to sea a lot. The lease on Mos Eisley ends soon. It'll be hard to keep the group together. These things happen. I guess my time just happened to come up now. Damn."
"I didn't realize how hard it would all hit me. I hate when things start to get crazy."
"Think of us as a soft landing pad now that everything is up in the air for you." Reff grinned. "I like English. Your people have a wonderful collection of expressions." She reached out with one hand and let her fingers trace over the back of Karen's hand softly. "You said you were afraid of me. Why?"
"You may have realized that, well, I'm not exactly straight." Reff nodded. "I'm in the closet to most people, although Mos Eisley knows and doesn't care. I don't try to advertise it. There's this disease out there killing gay men and people are using it as an excuse. It's like it's open season on gays and lesbians, Reff.
"I guess... I've decided to make a life for myself that's harder than usual. I didn't choose to be a lesbian, but I did choose to be an oceanographic geologist. I don't know if I chose to be a science- fiction fan, but... there I am. Have you ever read that most men find smart women difficult? So do lesbians."
"I don't think you're difficult. I think you're fascinating. And I'm not exactly straight, either."
"It's different for you. Your planet is sane. You didn't seem to care at all. The last time we were together you acted as if our being together was a problem because Terrans thought that my being friends with an alien was a problem. That we're both women didn't matter to you." She glanced down at her arm, where Reff's hand was absently tracing invisible paths on her skin. "That feels good."
"It does, doesn't it?" Reff asked. "Karen, I'm sorry if I frightened you. I don't mean to. It's just... as you may have guessed, I talked to Poppy about you. A couple of times. I was worried that I was becoming obsessed with you to an unhealthy degree." She leaned back. "You spoke Quen. You kissed me. You showed me movies and fed me pizza. Your friends are wonderful. I couldn't stop thinking about you."
Karen got up from her seat and stood in front of Reff. She reached with both hands for the material of Reff's shirt and pulled the other alien closer to her. They hesitated for one second, then Karen kissed Reff hard, lips to muzzle. For Karen it was a moment of truth, a revelation. Warmth filled her to the tips of her toes and all doubts were momentarily wiped away.
When they parted, she whispered, "Then don't." She stepped back and walked to the middle of the classroom, standing behind the large elevated demonstration table. "I thought this was going to be distance learning. Cameras and all that."
"Oh, this is better," Reff said. "We don't use cameras. We want this to be as immediate as possible. We use holograms. Athena, do you have any examples?"
"Right here." The door Karen and Reff had used opened up and a smaller felinoid stepped through. Karen recognized it as a Felinzi, probably male. "Hi," he said, walking right up to Karen as if he could see her. "I'm Ch'Mrra. My interests are in geology and astronomy, and I understand you're going to be my teacher in one of those fields. I hope to learn a lot from you." He bowed low.
Karen, not sure how to react, said, "Thank you."
To her surprise, Ch'Mrra said, "You're welcome. Excuse me. This is not class time, and I won't take up any more of your time right now." He bowed again and walked out.
Karen watched, stunned, as Ch'Mrra left the room. "That was not a projection!" she accused.
"Yes, actually, it was," Athena replied. "It was a collection of thing Ch'Mrra has said and done over the past couple of weeks as we have been assembling students, edited judiciously together into a seamless stream. The objective is to make the students as real as possible. The first two times you teach, they'll just sit there, passively, responding only to mundane things like requests for their names and so on. But in the third class, they'll start to ask you questions about what they heard in the first class. It'll take some getting used to, but we hope that it will make the classes more meaningful to you."
"Wow," Karen said. "Could I touch it?"
"We could make some tactile impressions, but it would not feel like real fur or skin. And simulating some things, such as bad breath, are just not in our capability. Yet."
"What?" Karen asked, catching a glimpse of Reff grinning.
"You're asking the sort of questions than would get asked by someone who wants the job. Good." Karen felt her own face fell as old insecurities arose within her. It was Reff's turn to say, "What?"
"Do you believe in love at first sight, Reff?"
"I have never experienced it," Reff said. "But if you want to know if it happens to other people, other people have reported that it does and I have no reason to doubt their experiences."
Karen sighed. "I don't think I can experience it, Reff. I... I'd like to. I read about how good it feels, and something inside me understands what they mean when they talk about it, but every time I have met a woman I liked and wanted, something inside me told me that I would never love her. I can never put aside that skeptical part of me, Reff, the part that wonders why someone wants me, loves me. I had one lover who said she loved the sex by itself; that made me feel like an exotic toy. I don't want to feel that way. I want to feel like a person. But I also want to lose myself in loving someone else. It's like being a junkie, but being addicted to something that doesn't exist."
"And how do I make you feel?" Reff asked.
"Like nobody I've ever known before. If I close my eyes I hear someone who's been open an honest and only a little screwed up, unlike my former lovers who were a lot screwed up." She laughed. "When I open them I see the impossible, a fantasy but not a sexual one, an eight- foot-tall alien..."
"Who wants to hold you and snuggle you and get to know you better." Reff stood up and walked until she faced Karen across the demonstration table. "I don't know what to tell you, Karen. I just happen to like you, a lot. I knew some of my initial reactions to you were too intense; with help I worked them out. Now, I want to get to know you better."
"You see, that's it, Reff," Karen said. "You like me. You don't love me. I think I like that. Love places too much of a burden on me to accept or reject it. I don't want to reject you. I've rejected too much already."
Reff nodded. "And I've been rejected by too much on Terra, too. That's why you're cutting me off hurt so much. I wanted to understand it, tell you that I wasn't going to be too much to you. I just wanted to be friends."
Karen walked around the table and approached Reff, then hugged her close. "And I wanted more than that."
"Do you still want more?"
"Yes," Karen said immediately. "Yes, I do. Because I like you, Reff. And if I didn't take this opportunity, what would I tell my grandchildren?"
Reff laughed so hard it startled her. "That's why I like you! A human strong enough to look forward to the day when Pendorians are just more people, a lesbian in a culture like this brave enough to hope that she can have children some day." Reff picked her up and cradled her in her arms. Karen's body reacted to her friend's physical strength, warmth and fur with surprising desire. She hadn't anticipated the feelings she was experiencing. She couldn't put them into words.
Reff carried her to the elevator, then put her down. "Don't want to carry me over the threshold?" Karen asked with a grin.
"That must be it," Reff agreed as the doors opened on the thirteenth floor. Karen found it curious that there was a thirteenth floor; the Pendorians had occupied an older building, probably at an exorbitant price, and there had been signs in the front lobby and in the hallway of ongoing construction. They must have changed it to read thirteen, one of those little things to defy superstition.
Reff led Karen to a door. "Here we are." She opened the door and let Karen go first.
Karen had expected everything to be scaled to Reff's height but, to her surprise, the opposite was true. There was one table of solid, wood construction very low to the ground, surrounded by seating cushions, all on a small square of off-white carpet. The floor was hardwood. The kitchen was open to the rest of the studio and if there had been a bar separating the two it had been removed by experts; there was no sign of construction here. Pantries of beautiful, dark cherry wood lined the wall next to the kitchen. A display case, bookshelves, and one large wardrobe lined the opposite wall; in the display case Reff had a curious collection of nicknacks, kitsch items from her travels around the world. Each had a name. "Welcome to Hawaii!" "Seattle!" "Taiwan!" "Moscow!" There was a rolled-up mat, a carefully folded blue comforter, and two pillows under one of the two beautiful, large windows, and if this was the extent of the room then that must have been the bed.
Karen looked up at Reff. "Bathroom?"
"That door, there," Reff said, pointing to the gap between the bookshelves and her wardrobe. Karen nodded and made use of it. The bathroom was likewise nothing spectacular, although the ceiling was high enough for Reff and the shower stall big enough. The Pendorians well understood the importance of achieving the right scale.
When she had returned, Reff had unrolled the mat and spread the comforter over it. It was a beautiful piece of work, shining silk of the deepest blue into which someone had stitched geometric patterns in white and lighter greens and blues. Reff saw her admiring it. "Yes, I like this. I found it at a small shop in Chinatown and fell in love with it. I'm disappointed that I will never know who actually made it, although I'm convinced that much of it is machine made."
Karen walked over to where she sat and giggled. "'The cat sat on the mat.' I have no idea where that's from, but suddenly it's stuck in my brain. And I know I've heard it before." She sat down next to Reff. "What next?" She looked around. "It's warm in here."
"I like it," Reff said. "It reminds me of home." She turned to Karen. "How do I take that off?"
"What? The dress?" Karen pointed over her shoulder, then realized what Reff was asking for. "Reff... Oh, nevermind." She stood up again and walked to where Reff was sitting. "Unzip me."
She felt Reff's fingers probe under her hair, find the zipper, and tug at it. The warm air of the room wafted across her back and strong hands were stroking her shoulders, pushing the dress down over her arms. She let Reff pull the dress down over her waist, and then it fell to the floor. She closed her eyes as Reff's fingers fumbled at her bra, finally opening the latch. Karen helped her take it off. Then those same hands were on her panties, tugging at them, pulling them down. She was trembling inside, not wanting to stop Reff but not sure of what would happen next.
She felt something press against her butt, and giggled. "You have a cold nose," she protested. She turned around. "It's time to undress you, too." She went to work on the buttons of Reff's shirt. Reff kicked off her shoes and pants, and then they were both naked, looking at each other.
"God, you are so huge," Karen sighed as she dropped herself again into Reff's lap. "The first time I had no idea what to do with you. I still don't. And sometimes I just want to curl up with you and sleep next to you."
Reff smiled. "That's one of my favorite memories. The feel of your body next to mine, listening to your breathing."
Karen grinned, then yawned. "Sorry."
"You're tired," Reff observed. "Close your eyes."
Karen did so. Reff's warmth closed around her naked body, her fur pressed against her skin. It was so welcoming, so tempting. Karen's mind kept taking stabs at thought, trying to think of the implications of Reff's offers-- to be her lover, to teach Pendorians, to teach on another world. It was beyond her imagination. Just last year she had been a student at the University of California, a PhD. candidate who just couldn't afford the program and went into industry instead, living under Ronald Reagan and Pete Wilson, another human being who loathed Flock of Seagulls.
But she kept coming back to the sensual comforts of Reff's body. Reff began to rumble softly and Karen recognized it as purring, scaled up to someone Reff's size. It felt wonderful. It tempted her. She fell asleep that way.
She woke with darkness still outside Reff's windows and wondered what time it was. Reff slept beside her, unmoving, breathing slowly. It took her a few seconds to recognize the rumbling that she heard as purring, scaled up to someone the size of a large bear. She listened for a minute, again remembering the feelings she had experienced when Reff had picked her up. She wondered if that's what falling in love felt like, at some level, and she was just too dense, or too cold, to recognize it for what it was.
She thought of the coldness as something that haunted her, something she wanted to be rid of. Her friends down in San Diego disagreed that it was there at all. Space was particularly adamant that she was one of the warmest and friendliest people he'd ever known, and he'd insisted that he would feel that way "long after I stop fantasizing about getting into your pants." The memory made her giggle out loud. It didn't wake Reff.
What, she wondered, would be worse? To go on living her relatively quiet existence, every day, for the rest of her life, or to go with the Pendorians, live with them, be challenged by them. It should not have been a hard decision. It was anyway.
She tried to picture it and realized that she couldn't. Years of Dungeons and Dragons, Traveler, and Space Opera had not equipped her to actually make the decision or envision her future. There were no stories like this one. There was no alternative to experience.
That was the point, she mused as dawn began to break through the windows. There was no experience to go on. It was time to move, she thought, time to change again. Again? When had she changed before? It had always been the same thing, night after night, repetitive. The only break she had seen recently had been Reff's visit six months ago.
Athena had said she was everywhere in the building. Karen decided to see for herself. "Athena?" she whispered.
"Yes?" came the response in her ear, equally quiet. "Don't worry. Reff can't hear me."
"When do I start?"
There was a pause the length it takes someone to smile. "I can assemble a class of students in twelve days on Pendor, if that's what you want. Or I can wait longer for you to move."
"No, that's okay. If you'll spring for the moving costs, I can do it in a couple of days. Just long enough to pack and say goodbye."
"Done," Athena said. "In case you couldn't guess, I also handle the finances around here."
Reff stirred then, turning over. Karen looked over in her direction. "Good morning," Reff said.
"I was just talking to Athena."
"I thought I heard whispering. What were you talking about?"
Karen smiled. "I'm taking the teaching job."
"I'm so happy you did," Reff replied with a smile. "I think you'll enjoy yourself. What made you decide to do it?"
"I decided that I didn't want to do the same thing for the rest of my life. I'm going to miss my friends, but there will never be a chance like this."
"And me?" Reff asked.
"You don't sound so sure."
Karen nodded. "I don't feel so sure."
Reff rolled on top of Karen, pinning her down. By God, she was heavy. Karen felt not fear this time, but the unmistakable thrill of desire. Reff smiled down at her. "I want you to feel sure," Reff said. "I want you to stay."
Karen reached up with her hands and caressed Reff's chest. "If we were friends, would we also have to be lovers?"
"No," Reff said, "But I would like it."
"How much?" Karen teased.
Reff kissed her cheek. The feel of that muzzle, the warm breath of this speaking animal, this person, this lover, was more than Karen had anticipated. Her body grew warm, her thighs wet. "Reff..." she breathed.
"Hmm?" Reff asked.
"Tell you afterward." She grabbed two handfuls of Reff's fur and pulled the Uncia completely down onto her. She pressed her mouth to Reff's, her sloppy tongue pressing up against the thin feline lips of the other fem. Reff's growl would have to do for a moan for the time being.
Karen pressed for Reff to turn over and Reff readily complied, lying on her back. From the window daylight poured over Reff's body as Karen straddled her hips. She ran her hands through the luxurious fur of Reff's belly. Reff sighed, but she also flexed her hips suggestively. "You're anxious," Karen observed.
"I've been waiting months for this. I don't think it's fair for me to wait much longer."
Karen laughed. "You won't have to," Karen said. "I saw this once before," she said as she pushed her body back along Reff's hips, her sex momentarily riding over the hump of Reff's mons veneris. "Ohh," Karen sighed. "We'll have to do that again." She pushed her hips up against the slight ridge and felt the thrill of that fur, flesh and bone as it parted her own lips. Reff's paws were on her hips, helping her as she moved over that slight ridge.
She was surprised at how readily she shed her inhibitions around Reff, how quickly she was inspired to do anything she wanted. As Reff pushed and pulled at her hips she found that her mind was willing to call up any number of obscene ideas she could try with what her mind labeled as "the big kitty."
She gasped softly, but pushed Reff's hands away and slid back. "I want you to feel something else," she said. She pushed Reff's legs apart and exposed Reff's inner lips to the air. She had seen this before, in her apartment, in the dim light of her shower, but here in the open, under the sunlight in this cheerfully painted and appointed room, she found the pink sight shocking and lovely. It made her mouth water, literally, and she licked her lips.
She descended on Reff's vulva. Her lips touched Reff's labia. It was a weird feeling, she thought, a little like kissing one's cat. The fur was unlike human pubic hair; here it was dense and short, insulating and padding Reff's cunt without being a huge tangle that had to be dug through. Tentatively she reached out with her tongue and licked between Reff's lips. The sweet liquid that had glistened at her a moment ago hinted on her tongue. Karen rolled it into her mouth, tasting it, and decided that she liked it.
Reff's body shook just slightly. Karen pressed her thumbs just a little bit into Reff's lips, parting them further. Reff's inner labia were tiny things; Karen wondered if that was standard on Uncia. Her clitoris was an isolated little nub right at the top, a darker color than she was used to seeing. But it would still perform the same way, as Karen had found out a few months ago. She lowered her head again between Reff's legs, her tongue taking in the full measure of Reff's cunt, tasting her flesh and the fluids that protected it.
Reff breathed hard, "Nai, Karen. Oh, yes. Nai. Nai." Karen giggled, distracting both of them, before she went back to kissing and licking Reff's swollen, hot cunt. Reff's lips had become swamped with her juices; neither of Karen's former lovers had ever been this wet. More for Karen to wonder about.
She slipped a finger into Reff's cunt, and in response the big kitty parted her legs further. Another finger followed. Karen was surprised at just how tight Reff was and decided not to try for a third. Reff's hands hovered on her belly, right before Karen's eyes, and she watched as the claws at the tips seemed to emerge and sheathe over and over as Karen's tongue danced on Reff's clit, her lips stroking Reff's mound. Karen stopped just once, completely, to lick her fingers and taste Reff's juices fully. Reff watched, her eyes wide with fascination at what almost felt like a ritual to Karen.
She went back to Reff's cunt, a place where the very air seemed to have grown moist and hot. Her tongue buried deep between Reff's labia, she licked and pressed until Reff went completely silent, holding her breath, and then came with a low, long, pleasure-filled groan. The very success of it made Karen's head spin.
Reff breathed a sigh as she again relaxed. "Who taught you that?" she asked Karen as the human girl slid up the length of her body to press her head to her chest. "You were wonderful!"
"Thanks," Karen said, blushing.
Reff surprised her by rolling her over, laying on top of her again. "Oof! I'm going to have to get used to this!"
Reff grinned down at her, showing teeth. A shiver crossed Karen's shoulders as she looked at those large and dangerous teeth. She hadn't realized it before, but Reff's head was even a little larger than was suggested by the scale of her body. She wondered why. But Reff made the wondering stop with an insistent and lustful kiss that made all of the heat Karen had been generating a moment ago come back. She whimpered against Reff's mouth.
Reff's smile was predatory. "Your turn," she whispered.
Karen managed a weak and silly, "Yay!" It made them both chuckle. Karen's turned into a moan as Reff's thick fingers push down through her pubic hair, pressing apart her lips. She felt the touch as a wonderful invasion, one that hinted at pleasures to come. Reff made at most token passes at Karen's breasts before plunging between Karen's legs.
The heat of her breath across Karen's nether lips made her shiver. Karen felt like she would melt with the heat, especially after that hotter-than-human tongue slipped across the hood of her clit, making her gasp, "Ah! Reff!"
Reff's tongue was also larger than a human; Karen felt as if her entire sex were being attacked by a friendly, wet, warm carpet. And a talented one. She touched the top of Reff's head with her hands, giggling momentarily as she tried to figure out where to put them in relation to the Uncia's ears, only to be transported into heavenly pleasures by Reff's earnest licking.
When she came, it wasn't a powerful, all-encompassing thing like the first time. Instead, it was gentle, wonderful, a thoughtful orgasm, if such a thing were possible. Karen felt it wash over her and delighted in it, delighted in the feel of her gigantic lover, her friend. She surprised herself by finding tears in her eyes even as Reff lifted her head from between Karen's thighs.
Karen lifted her head. Reff lay down beside her and Karen rolled into her waiting embrace. "Thank you," she said.
"Karen?" Reff said, concerned.
"I'm okay, Reff. I'm not sure why, but I feel like I'm about to cry. I've never felt like this. You were wonderful."
"Then why... cry?"
"Because..." Karen felt a sob roll through her and let it go. "Because I figured something out." She looked up at Reff. "Because I like you."
Reff embraced her tightly. "I like you too, Karen. But I'm not sure why that should make you cry."
Karen smiled. "Because I'm human, Reff, and fucked up." She touched Reff's nose. "And because I felt something different today. Something unhurried, something calm, in what you were doing to me. Reff? We can be friends but... I think I have to tell you something."
The Uncia's face fell slightly. "What?"
"For the first time, I think I know how to fall in love."
Reff's eyes lit up, and she nodded. "If you think so, Karen, I'm willing to let you try."
"Give me time?"
"All you need," Reff said. "All you need."