He found her the next day, sitting besides the swimming pool and reading a book. "Hi, Furry!" he said as he found her. "I've been looking for you."
"Hi," she said, her voice listless.
"You were arguing with your mother about me, weren't you?"
He tauted his lips and said, "Yeah."
"She doesn't want you to be seen with me, does she?"
Nickolai shook his head and said, "No, she doesn't."
He shrugged and said, "Who cares?"
"I care!" she said, a little angrily. "Now tell me what she said."
"She said I shouldn't see you because all Pendorians are perverts, and you'll just try to involve me in stuff that's dangerous. That you could be a telepath and brainwash me. That you could have SANS, even though that's not a problem anymore."
Jofuran smiled and said, "SANS is still a problem. It's still a disease, and it's still dangerous. Worse, the residual damage caused by SANS still has to be corrected surgically, and I don't think you want someone taking a laser to your testicles." She laughed at Nickolai's pained expression. "But Pendorians don't get SANS; there's no need to worry."
"That's what I told her." He was silent for a moment, then "She also said that 'those four boys who had left the arcade were just my age, and I should have more in common with them then I should with that creature.'"
"She really said that?" Jofuran asked, laughing as he nodded. They sat together for a while, and then Jofuran said, "So, are you?"
"Am I what?"
"Going to stop seeing me?"
"I'm seeing you right now, aren't I?"
"I guess so," she said, returning to her former demeanor.
"Hey, what's wrong?" Nickolai asked.
"I just don't like the idea of coming between you and your Mother."
"Look, don't worry about it, okay?"
"Well, I do worry about it."
"I'll never understood why Terrans hate Pendorians so much."
"That's easy to understand," Jofuran replied, brightening. She held up the book she was reading. "Ever read James Burke?"
"No," Nickolai replied.
"Oh. Early twenty-first century writer. Really good at getting his point across. Lots of stage presence, too. Anyway, Terrans hate Pendorians because they covet."
"Back in your twenty-first century, Terrans wanted what we had, namely, spaceflight and medical tech. They got the first relatively quickly. In less than fifty years Terrans were trying their first FAL drives.
"But what Terra really wanted was our immortality. They hated Pendorians because we were all young, strong, and healthy, and we'd stay that way as long as we liked."
"But Humans have that now, too," Nickolai pointed out.
"Yes, thanks to the Saman revolution. But look at it historically. To get what you had always wanted, immortality, you had to give up something very central to your species; the right to reproduce. The Saman process requires almost the entire nine months of fetal development to implement. Your species, Homo Sapiens Immortalis, can't reproduce without technology. Meanwhile, Pendorians, who had started out from tanks, go on having babies like normal."
"Oh," Nickolai said, the issue becoming a little clearer to him. "Should I hate you, then?"
"No," he said. "There's no point to it." This conversation was depressing him. He sought in his mind for something to do, something to take his mind off of the subject at hand. "Hey, can you play billiards?"
"You know, pool?"
"You mean fourpocket/sixpocket?"
"Whatever," he said.
"Not really," she replied. "I mean, I've played before, but I was never very good at it."
"C'mon, I'll teach you."
"Should I get some clothes on first?" she asked jokingly.
Nickolai blushed and said, "Uh, yeah, that would be a good idea."
They reunited outside the elevator door; she wore an oversized satin-shine blouse and a black miniskirt, her tail trailing out underneath it. "Whaddya think?" she asked.
"Uhm," Nickolai replied, his eyebrows going up, "I like it."
"Really?" Jofuran asked.
"Really." They took the elevator to the third level, and Nickolai led her into the billiards room. There were four tables, none of them in use. Nickolai set up a rack and offered to break.
In his first stroke none sank. Jofuran took a stance and got ready to shoot. "Hold it," he said.
"What?" she asked, straightening up. He walked up behind her and said, "Here, like this. Hold your hand like this. Yeah, put your hand down on the table like this, palm to the felt. Right." Her hand felt soft and warm in his. "Okay, now bend over and line up on the ball, like that. You're trying to hit that one, right?" She nodded, her ears waggling. He found it a fascinating gesture. "Okay, pull back on the stick and shoot. Just like that."
Despite all his instruction, her shot still went wide. He laughed and said, "Keep practicing, you'll get it."
"That wasn't funny." She pouted.
"I wasn't laughing at you, Furry. Here, let me take a shot." They played back and forth for a while, Jofuran losing.
"Show me how to do that again," she asked.
"Okay," he said, stepping behind her and putting his left hand on hers. "Hold your hand like this." He held his hand in a standard bridge, "And aim along here. Now, you want to think about your shot standing up, as if you were looking over the table."
"I'm kind of short for that," Jofuran replied.
"I know. But you have to think that way. Now, you want to grip the stick here," he continued, taking her other hand. He felt extremely close to her; he could smell her clean fur, feel the warmth of her body through his clothing. "Okay," he said, a little less steadily, "now lean over and take the shot. Line up on the ball, just like that, and stroke, once, real easily." She took the shot as he directed her, hitting the cue squarely and smoothly. "Better," he said.
Jofuran straightened up and nearly knocked him over. "Whoops!" She whipped around and caught him by the collar, pulling him back up. "Thanks," he said, more than a little surprised by the speed of her reaction. He had never seen anyone move that fast, except maybe at martial arts demonstrations.
She pulled him close and hugged him. Nickolai's back stiffened. "What?"
"I just wanted to thank you, Kolya. You've been so nice to me."
He pushed her back and held her at arms' length. "Really?"
She swallowed for a second and said, "Kolya, I'm never going back to Terra. My folks moved there when I was six, and now I'm sixteen and I'm going home. To my real home. To Pendor. Because all the time I lived on Terra I was made to feel like, well, like I was different. And I was; I was the only Markal in all of Jerusalem. I mean, there aren't maybe a dozen humans in the old city who spoke both Anglic and Ashkenazic, but I can. I can read heiroglyphics, Kolya. I went home... think about what that means. They all stayed in the facilities, and I went... home to my parents. They all hated me, they all were afraid of me. I couldn't talk about my folks because nobody else there had parents, you know what I mean? I wanted..."
She sighed for a second, then continued. "I wanted a friend, and I never had one. Nobody ever wanted to teach me anything, like playing pool, or 'mech, or anything like that. Even when I tried to join the other girls in their cliques, they excluded me. And why not? I'm not like them; I'm not human. I hope the rats who moved in nearby are doing okay.
"I guess I just wanted to thank you, Kolya."
He smiled and said, "Well, you're not the only one. I mean, theoretically I have more rights then the average kid my age; my mother has more control over some things than the state does. So why do I always feel closed in on?" He smiled wanly. "I always wondered if other kids my age felt the same way."
"Uh-huh," Jofuran nodded.
Nickolai's chest felt tight; he kept feeling there was something he should do, but couldn't decide. Jofuran helped him make the decision; she stood up on her toes and kissed him, gently, on the lips.
He felt awkward returning the kiss, but he held on to her. It was longer then a peck, and when they moved apart he looked into her smiling eyes, then quickly scanned every door (there were four) leading into the billiards room.
"What?" Jofuran asked.
"The last two times one of us tried to make a pass at the other something stopped us."
Jofuran laughed and said, "Yeah, I know. Hey, would you like to meet my folks?"
"I've already met them. You mean... What?"
"You know, go to dinner with us?"
He thought about it for a second and said "Sure. I suppose."
"Well, I don't know. Nobody else ever invited me to meet their parents, and I never invited anyone to meet my mother, that's for sure!"
She smiled and said, "Do you want to?"
"Yeah," he said. "I do."
"I'll let 'em know." She took his chin in her paw and pulled him toward her. Their kiss this time was warmer, more passionate, but Nickolai's primary emotion was relief. All the tension of his mother, his peers, drained from him as he felt her warm tongue against his. She had a small mouth, and he enjoyed the sensation of her muzzle against his lips, her nose against his. He smiled.
They separated, and she said "Gotta go."
He nodded. "You'll let me know?"
"It's not a big deal. Just show up for the first meal."
"I'll be there."
When the chime for first meal rang, Nickolai was already waiting at the door, dressed in dark grey slacks, turtleneck shirt and semi-formal jacket complete with the latest fashion trend, shimmersilk trim.
He was amazed at the number of Pendorians who were suddenly appearing on board; they seemed to make up about a quarter of all the guests at first meal. He calculated and realized that the meant there were maybe fifty on board; Five percent didn't make up that much of the guest list.
His attention was drawn by a large grey-furred feline who was escorting a smaller, orange and black-furred feline. The larger one was well over two meters, while the smaller one seemed to be 160, maybe 170 centimeters tall. The larger one, which Nickolai recalled was an "Uncia," was more animalistic, less humanoid. He had large teeth, but he seemed to smile and laugh a lot. They were not speaking in any language he knew; he knew that all three of the major feline races on Pendor had their own languages.
The smaller one had to be a Felinzi; since they were based on Terran Felis Domesticus, it wasn't possible to actually identify a common species fur color. His tail was long and active, with small black rings becoming more pronounced closer towards the tip. He looked somewhat like a housecat facially, although his lower jaw seemed to be heavier, and more substantial, than a cat's. Also, he was less "animal-like" in appearance than his companion. Nickolai reflected that the current craze among Terrans for Felinzi was more than a little understandable; the example he was looking at certainly was a slinky, sexy one! But then, four years ago it had been Mephits. His roommate had gotten caught up in that one.
He started at the explosive greeting behind him, turned and hugged his assailant. "Hi!" he returned.
"You made it," Jofuran said.
"Did you think I wouldn't?"
"I didn't know. You seemed a little nervous when I suggested it." He shrugged. "Anyway," she continued, "These are my folks. This is my Mom, Helena, and this is Dad, Morrail."
Nickolai shook hands with them both. "Good to see you again, lad," her father said warmly. The chime for entry rang, so they walked into the sumptuous banquet hall and took their seats. There seemed to be plenty of room.
"So, tell me, Nickolai," her father began, "Furry tells me you've had some adventures since you came on board. I understand you and she dealt rather handily with some hoodlums in the arcade."
Nickolai nodded and said, "They were just kids."
"'Kids' are usually quite good at those games."
"But they don't have the intelligence or the dedication to learn all the important things, Dad," Jofuran said. "Besides, they weren't pure of heart and intentions." She smiled wide. Nickolai returned her smile, recalling that she had used that same argument on him.
"Be that as it may," her mother said, "they're still on this ship, and since you are going with the tour, they could still be a problem."
"I already thought of that," Jofuran replied. "I guess I'll deal with it when it comes up. I intend to do sensei proud if I need to use what she taught me."
"Good girl," Morrail said. He turned to address Nickolai. "I also understand your mother doesn't approve of this meeting?"
"My mother doesn't believe..." He suddenly remembered just how many Pendorians were in the room with him and lowered his voice. "My mother thinks that Furry would be a bad influence."
"Your culture's going through some tough times, Nickolai," Morrail said. "After all, Sexually Acquired Neoplasmic Syndrome was a nasty bit of business, and tracking it down required a lot of effort. It was perceived as being worse than any previous plague because it was not only cutting down people who were in the prime of their life, but also people who could be expected to maintain that prime for hundreds of years. Your culture is just now coming out of forty years of forced abstinence and sexual repression. Those people who survived that time have a very enforced mindset. What are you, sixteen, seventeen?"
"Sixteen, sir. I'll be seventeen in two months."
"Sixteen, then. And don't call me 'sir,' please; only my students call me 'sir.' You're coming into your own just when it is permissible, if not yet acceptable, to once again be a sexually active teenager. Those who went through SANS aren't quite up to speed yet. Your mother is probably one of those people who still have the animal and the sentient backwards."
"Sir.. I mean..."
"Morrail will do fine."
"Morrail, I don't understand."
"Lad, there are two halves to every person. Then again, I may just be one of those people who divides everything into two types. The two halves are the animal and the sentient. On Pendor, we chose to exalt the animal in our bodies... We maintain our physical health, engage in physical sports, and indulge in physical pleasures. The sentient we express in our relations with each other; we logically look at every dealing, every contract. We consult with sentience faster and more logical, though not necessarily 'better,' than our own.
"On Earth, it's very different. Terrans exalt the animal as a part of their minds. They let the herd animal instinct drive them- your mob politics, demagoguery, Alpha-male behavior. On the other hand, you inflict pure sentience on your bodies. Ascetism, puritanism, celibacy; the body isn't really made for such activities. It is a body; part of the physical world. It should be celebrated as such.
"Your mother is Talia Dittrich, as I recall; an artists of some measure. How would you feel if I criticized her work?"
Nickolai shrugged and drank from his glass of water. "It wouldn't bother me."
"Your mother's work reflects much of your culture. There are reasons why drug and biocybe abuse are so very rampant in your culture; it's an effort to get away from the desires of the animal."
Jofuran's mother interrupted Morrail's long monologue. "On the other hand, Nickolai, our culture recognizes the advice of parents as very important. On Pendor you would be considered an adult; on Earth you are not yet. Are you quite sure that you want to defy your mother this way?"
"Dear," Morrail said, interrupting, "You're stepping on the affairs of our children."
"No, I am not," she replied. "I'm asking him to consider his future."
"Wait," Nickolai said. "I appreciate what both of you are saying. Look, Furry and I obviously getting along really well. She's been the best thing that's happened to me this whole trip." He turned to Jofuran and said, "You've been kind and sweet and you've kept me from going out of my mind with boredom and embarrassment from my mother. Y'know, despite that word, 'mother,' she really isn't." He turned back to Jofuran's mother and said, "I mean, I am her genetic offspring, but she really doesn't know what to do with me."
They were silent for a while, eating. Nickolai noted that despite their mouse-like appearance, they weren't vegetarians, digging into the poultry being served with gusto. Conversation for the rest of the evening was light.
After dinner Jofuran's parents invited them to go dancing on the observation bubbledeck, since a live band would be performing there tonight. They agreed; Nickolai enjoyed dancing, and although Jofuran seemed a little reluctant at first, he could see she was enjoying herself on the floor. At the first slow dance they held each other close; Nickolai appreciated this long, gentle chance to actually hold her, to feel her body move under his hands, against him. His heart was beating like a drum.
He felt rather than heard her chuckle, and then she said, "Nervous?"
He smiled and said, "Yeah."
She looked up at him and said, "Nickolai, you're one of the sweetest, most wonderful guys I've ever met." She smiled wide and said, "For a human."
He laughed. "Well, you've been sweet yourself."
"Would you be frightened if I told you 'I love you'?"
He held her away from him and said "I don't know."
"I mean, it's not a permanent thing," she said quickly. "I don't want you to live with me or walk the Great Hall for me. I just wanted to tell you that I think you're kinda special, and for the duration of this trip I like you enough that I want to wrap myself around you, hold you and hug you."
"Really," she said, breaking his grasp and closing the distance, hugging him again. "I just wanted you to know that. You're probably one of the best friends I've ever had." She held her arms around him, and he returned the favor, feeling her press against him, feeling his heart beat even harder.
"Can we go somewhere?" she said.
"Where?" he asked, feeling his heart skip a beat.
"Oh, I dunno." She smiled. "We could go to the rear lounge; it's closed right now, but the windows will still be open."
"You mean, sneak in?"
"No, they never lock the doors, silly. I just want to go and spend some time with you, alone. And that's as good a place as any."
"It's up to you," he said.
"Let's go." She took his hand and led him carefully across the floor, and out into the adjacent hallway. The path she took led them through the main lobby of the ship and down a flight of stairs. The secondary lounge was closed during the third flight-shift, but the doors were very typical swing-type doors, and she pushed them open with no problem. The windows were open, true, but the image of stars redshifting as they went by was a computer-generated illusion; there was nothing to see in hyperspace.
"Furry?" he asked quietly as they closed the door behind him.
"This is gonna sound kinda funny, but I don't know what I'm doing here."
"What do you mean?"
Nickolai sat down on one of the larger couches and said, "Come here?"
She smiled in the dim "starlight" and walked over to him. He offered her his lap and she accepted. He put his arm around her. "Furry, when things like this happen at school, they happen because they're supposed to happen. I mean, I'm expected-"
She put her hand to his lips and said, "If you don't want to, it's okay."
He shook his head and said, "No, no... I do. I just... Oh, hell, I don't know."
She leaned down and kissed him, gently. Nickolai was momentarily startled, then returned the kiss, opening his lips slightly as he did so. Her kiss was warm and a little awkward, a little unskilled. He didn't think his was much better.
"Nickolai?" she said as the kiss ended.
"I..." She paused for a moment, looked out at the stars, then back to him. "I've never wanted anyone more than I want you. I want you to... make love to me, except..."
He gleaned what she was trying to say and replied, incredulous, "You've never made love before?"
"Uh-huh," she said, smiling slightly.
"And you want... me... to--"
"Uh-huh," she replied slowly, interrupting him.
Nickolai felt as if about a million thoughts went through him in the next ten seconds. The most powerful one he had was that an attractive, lonely girl his age, a virgin no less, was throwing herself at him, and he was going to say no?
"Would you like to go get some icecream?"
He smiled for a second and said, "I don't... It's not that don't want to, because I do. But, would you be upset if I said, 'I love you', and I don't want to ruin that?"
She looked down at him, tears in her eyes, but a smile on her muzzle. She slid down onto the couch, wrapped her arms around him and hugged him close, fierce and burning. "Oh, Kolya," she sighed. "I love you."
"I know," he said, stroking the fur on the top of her head. "I love you too, Furry."
"Promise me, Kolya, that if it ever gets right, you will?"
"Furry, if it gets right, we will before this trip is out."
She looked up at him and said, "Really promise?"
"I really promise."
"Then lets go get ice-cream." She leapt up from the couch, but Nickolai reached out, grabbed her by the arm and hauled her back down into his lap. She fell with a "whoops!"
He smiled at her and leaned over, kissing her softly. Her reply was wet, sloppy, and he laughed when they stopped. "Now," he said, "We can go get ice-cream."
"Uh-huh!" she replied. They ran out of the lounge together.