"Hey, guys, you have to get up! Please, please answer the door!" Nickolai awoke to the sounds of pounding. The voice was unmistakably Skii's.
"mrf?" Furry said, still not entirely awake.
"It's Skii," Nickolai replied.
"mrf," Furry replied.
Nickolai sighed and climbed out of bed, opening the door slightly and peering out. Skii was standing there, fully dressed. "Oh good, you're awake. It's nearly dawn, and I promised Ken we'd have the bikes back by one, and I've got to get Fadi back to the tour for breakfast. Could you guys hurry up and get dressed and all?"
Nickolai stared for a second, collecting his thoughts. Yes, he had agreed to go with Skii, and yes, Skii had agreed to get the Jialani's back by one. "Give us a minute."
"Thank you thank you thank you," Skii replied.
Nickolai closed the door and wandered back to the bed, pulling up the netting on Furry's side of the bed. He paused for a second, staring down at her, quietly curled onto her side, only her head sticking out above the bedsheet. He looked down at her sleeping form, fascinated by her ears; they were large, mouselike ears set at slight angles from the vertical. He reached down and traced the outer edge of the one visible to him; it flickered under his touch. He smiled and bent over, kissing her inside the 'cup' of her ear. She murmured something unintelligible, and he whispered "It's time to get up."
"Hmph," she said. Well, he thought, that pretty clearly explains her position on that.
"We did promise to get the bikes back by one."
"What time is it?" she groaned.
"Hmph," she repeated. "Okay, I'm getting up."
"Good," he replied, "Or else I'd have to tickle you."
She stuck her tongue out at him, and he leaned over to kiss her. "Good morning," he said.
"You too," she sighed. They both quickly clambered into the clothing they had been wearing the night before. Nickolai felt sweaty, sticky, and he thought his smell wasn't too great, either. Furry looked disheveled, the fur of her body in chaotic whorl patterns from lying in bed.
"We need a shower," he observed.
"Yeah," she smiled. "But let's get the bikes back first."
"Actually, before that, we have to go to Carraraug."
"Oh, that's right- Fadi has to go back, doesn't he?"
"Let's get moving then," she said, pulling on her shoes and dashing for the door. Skii and Fadi were standing outside. If Skii was nervous, Fadi appeared stunned... by the frenetic pace of morning or by the athletics of last night, Nickolai couldn't tell. They quickly found their bikes and flew out of the barn where E'Lyn had stored them, reaching 300kph and maintaining that speed all the way to Rocchodain, through which Skii slowed down. Past the town, he again went full-bore until Carraraug. The entire trip took under ten minutes. Skii's voice over the intercom said "Five minutes to Rocchodain, four to the castle. That gives us... six minutes to spare."
"Where do you think he got that number?" Furry asked Nickolai.
"Probably giving us a spare minute or two."
They stopped at the hotel, where Skii and Fadi had a brief, friendly kiss before Fadi disappeared into the hotel. "Write me," Skii said as the doors closed behind him.
"They never do," he said to Nickolai and Furry. "Let's get going." With a quick turn, he sped out of Carraraug and they followed close behind, reaching the Castle vehicle bay with three minutes to spare. "Wonderful," he sighed. "Just made it."
As they walked down the hallway, Skii said, "I want to thank you guys for being here and being so helpful. I really like that little place in Tuilpalya, but I haven't been able to get there with a date for a long time, because Tuilpalya has no SDisk... have to get there by foot or vehicle, and by foot is kinda out of the question when I have to get there and back in one day."
"How was your... 'date'?" Furry asked.
"Wonderful," Skii sighed, his eyes glossing over slightly. "They usually are."
"He seemed a little out of it this morning," Nickolai commented.
"Well, we only got about seven hours of sleep last night."
"You two were at it for five hours?" Furry asked, incredulous.
"You know what happens... start fooling around and you lose all track of time. It happens all the time."
Furry glanced at Nickolai, who shrugged, looking a little embarrassed.
They reached the lagoon and, having grown used to the effect, dove in as one for the underwater SDisk, appearing inside the Castle. Nickolai and Furry excused themselves and made for their bedroom and the shower.
As Nickolai soaped her back with his fingers, Furry sighed gently, but it wasn't completely one of pleasure. "What's wrong?" he asked.
"I don't know," she said, turning around. "I guess... I guess I'm aware that tomorrow you're going to be packing your bags and your memories, and watching Skii and Fadi, and his comment afterwards, makes me wonder. Nickolai, will you write me? Will you still love me after you go home to your human girlfriends and classmates and leave me six light years behind?"
"Furry... Jofuran. I'm never going to forget you. I don't know if I'll be able to think about human girls after you. I've discovered I have a thing for your ears."
She smiled, awkwardly. "Promise?"
"Promise. I'll write you... well, if I promised to write you everyday, they'd be very short and boring letters. I'll write you every time something interesting happens to me."
"And I'll write you, too," she promised. "Will you tell me about your girlfriends?"
"If you'll write about your boyfriends."
"And my girlfriends?" she asked.
"And your girlfriends, too. Actually, that would be kind of... interesting. If you wrote down every sexy detail, I might have something to tease my roommates with."
She grinned and batted at his soft cock. "You're so silly."
"Hey, that hurt."
"Sorry," she smiled. "Let me kiss it and make it better." She bent over and kissed the base of his penis, then the head, then took the entire soft length into her mouth. He sighed as her tongue washed over his penis. When he was soft, he noticed, she could get the entire length into her mouth, and the sensations were wonderfully strong. She slowly pulled away from his crotch, applying suction and actually stretching his penis... that hurt too, but it hurt good, as it popped out of her mouth.
He smiled and said, "Let's get going... I'm really hungry."
"Me, too," she said.
They walked out together, having dressed in similar pale-yellow jumpsuits again provided by Dave, and headed to the roof. Shardik was there with a PADD about three-quarters of a meter on a side, and was going over it rapidly with a pen. "TGACCTCCGGCT... Let's see, that's four trios not counting the initializer... No, no, that doesn't read correctly the other way. Hi!" he said, putting down the pen and PADD. "Sorry, just playing around right now. How was the Inn? As good as I said?"
"Perfect," Furry replied. Nickolai was surprised when she bent over and kissed him on the cheek gently. "Thanks for the suggestion."
"My privilege," he said.
"Ken," Dave interrupted.
"I hate to say this, but... incoming."
"Incom-? Oh, no."
"I'm afraid so. Transit from above the walls, angling in."
"She's gonna kill someone someday."
"Actually, she is not alone. Molinar is dropping with her. Her accuracy is quite astonishing; she has never strayed more than three meters from her original epicenter of impact."
"Molly's... in with her, or in a different suit?"
"Different suit," Dave said. "Is that a concern?"
"You're damn right it's a concern. How much control do they have?"
"We're about to find out."
Shardik turned to Nickolai and said, "This should be fun. Watch out there." He pointed in the direction of the ocean. "You should see a big spout in a few minutes. Actually, if you look up, you might see them entering the atmosphere... yeah, there they are. See that bright trail?"
"What is that?"
"Atmospheric burn... literally setting the sky on fire. That's how hot they are coming in."
"Are they going to slow down?"
"I doubt it. She likes to use the emergency temporals. Those are full powered Shirow Powered Armor Scouts. They'll hit the ocean at full speed."
"Four minutes." They traced the burning contrails as the two SPAS screamed through the sky, burning a hot hole through the air as they descended. The last second of the fall was a flash, a fiery explosion of light and water, followed by a enormous jet of water that at the distance appeared as a tiny splash. "It's about eight klicks out," Shardik said.
"Yeah. Now watch."
After about three minutes, two suits of Pendorian powered armor came running across the water at a full tilt, slowing down only as they reached the shore, sinking into the surf as they did so. "Those suits are great. They can survive nuclear explosions, terminal reentry, everything," Shardik said. "I just wish Rainy wouldn't use them to get home like that."
The suits stopped on the beach and the forward chestplates on each cracked open. Molly, the pretty Vulpin with red fur that they had met on their first day in the Castle stepped out of hers first, looking a little dazed; a smiling femTindal that Nickolai figured for P'raine Shardik stepped out of the other one. "Daddy!" she shouted.
"Rainy!" Shardik replied. "You know I hate when you do that!"
"Oh, pooh," she said, helping Molly across the sands and into the water. A few moments later she and Molly joined them on the rooftop. "Hi, Dad."
"Hello, sweetheart," Shardik replied, giving her a kiss that was anything but fatherly, followed by a more familial hug. "How have you been?"
"Not bad, not bad. The pressure test is going pretty well."
Nickolai listened for a moment, but his thoughts were interrupted by Molly saying "Hi, how've you two been?"
"Fine," Furry replied calmly. "I asked about you, but they said you were on Terra."
"Saturn, actually," Molly corrected her. "Yeah, we're custom-fitting a couple of high-pressure suits. A Terran corporation wants to experiment with what they call 'ultra-high-pressure' hardware, and we agreed to help as long as we get to go in for the results. That's my specialty at the moment, hardware design for extreme pressure conditions."
Molly changed the subject herself. "So, Nickolai, how much longer do we have your company?"
Nickolai scowled slightly and said, "I go back tomorrow."
"Oh," Molly replied. "I'm sorry."
"Yeah, me too," he said.
"Do you think you'll be coming back?"
Nickolai glanced over at Furry. Her face was full of hope. "I know I will," he replied emphatically. "Even if it's going to have to wait two years."
"Wow," Molly said, somewhat wistfully. "You know, I sometimes wish I had someone who I felt like that about, but I've never really had the wherewithal to maintain a relationship."
"We've only been together for two weeks," Furry replied.
"Yeah, but to promise to come back after two years... I mean, for me, that's actually a lot. I only give that promise to Ken. And that's because he's family. Hey, I owe you something, don't I?"
"Oh," Furry replied. "That's not a big deal. It got rained out, so we'll just hold onto the raincheck. Maybe when Kolya comes back."
"Or..." Molly replied thoughtfully, "I could let you drive around my SAPS."
"Just a second." The Vulpin charged between Shardik and P'raine, talking to both quickly. There was a moment of exchange, then Shardik said "Go have fun. But be careful!"
"Come on," Molly said as she returned to where Nickolai and Furry stood. They followed over the side of the Castle, down to the sand and out to the beach. "I'd like you to meet the SAPS standard Shirow Mark Nine. Terrans refer to the Mark Nines as BVDs because, according to the translation of the joke I got, BVDs are the sort of things you do everything in. And everything can be done in a Mark Nine Shirow." She climbed up into the one that was clearly "hers" and pulled something out, placing it over her temples. "This is my override. Now then, Nickolai, take mine, and Furry, get into Rainy's."
Furry looked over at Nickolai, who smiled and clambered up the sides of Molly's suit. Furry paused for a second, looking up at this thing that was nearly three times her height before finding the handholds and hauling herself up and into the cockpit.
"Now then," she said, "You'll find a set of headbands behind and to the left of you. Are you both familiar with biocybe and how it works?"
Both acknowledged that they did. "Good," Molly said. "Okay, put the headbands on and wait. Tell me when you're ready."
"Ready," Furry announced.
"Ready," Nickolai agreed.
"Okay. Hold on." Without warning, the front hatches MHD latches activated, closing down. "Okay, you're now in a suit of Shirow. Buckle up- use the full harness. Tell me when you think you've got it."
There was another long pause, and then both said they were ready. Molly's disembodied voice corrected Nickolai on the placement of two buckles around his crotch- "They're in the wrong slots. If the suit inverted, that would do very bad things to parts of your anatomy that both you and Furry probably deem very precious."
"Probably," Furry agreed, chuckling over the intercom.
"Okay," Molly said, "Nickolai, take a step forward."
"Think about the process of taking a step, without actually moving the leg. Try and send the orders down the nerves to your leg without really moving it."
Nickolai concentrated for a moment, and then the suit lurched forward slightly. "Okay, I've got you in training mode... the suit is doing its own counterbalancing for you. In full-function mode, the sense of balance is provided by the user. So you're not going to fall over unless I want you to."
"Thanks," Nickolai said dryly.
"Take another step." The suit lurched again.
After about an hour of walking around the beach, getting their balance and picking up large trunks of driftwood and throwing them several hundred meters at a time, Furry complained that she was getting a headache. "Okay, time out," Molly said. "Come back and sit down." Nickolai drove his suit carefully back to where he thought he had originally found it and sat it down. The hatch popped open and he clambered out.
"How was it?" Molly asked.
"It's... strange. I'm not sure I like having that much raw power. And it'll take some getting used to before I could use it at its full capacity."
"Yup." The other suit came to a stop and sat, hard. Furry climbed out, rubbing her temples. "Are you okay?"
"I don't know. My head hurts."
"I overdid it on the active b/c," Molly said. "I'm sorry. Nickolai, why don't you take her in and have her take a nap?"
"It's only five," Nickolai said.
"Yeah, so? A nap is a great Pendor tradition. Do you think we regularly put in twenty-hour days? Only in boot camp. Go on, sleep 'til about nine. The party starts around fourteen today. We moved it back a little after last week... eating gets hard in the dark."
"Okay," Nickolai replied. "You want to go sleep?"
"I think so," Furry replied, still rubbing her temples and looking uncomfortable. He led her back to the Castle and their bedroom, and almost as quickly as Nickolai kissed her she fell asleep. He threw the covers over her, undressed and climbed in beside her. "Dave, wake us around nine."
"Of course," the AI responded easily.
Nickolai awoke to the erotic sensations of sucking. He looked down to see a lump formed under the wine-colored bedsheets, and pulled them aside. "Hello?" he said gently.
"You were so nice to me this morning, I figured I would return the favor," Furry replied, smiling and looking up the length of his body.
"Thank you," he replied, tensing the muscles in his groin to make his cock bob back and forth. She grabbed it quickly with her mouth again and sucked down, making him tense with pleasure. "Wow," he sighed.
She let go and snaked back up the length of his body. "Actually, I just wanted to tease you and let you think about later tonight."
"Because... Well, I just want you to remember tonight."
"Furry," he sighed, "I'm going to remember these past two weeks for the rest of my life," he insisted. "Why do you think I should be particularly concerned with tonight?"
"I dunno," she said, burying her head in his shoulders. "I just want... I want something I know you'll come back for."
"You already are something I'll come back for. I don't need special presents or reminders."
"I know," she sighed. He tickled her ears gently, enjoying the reactions he got, watching them flicker.
"What time is it?" she asked. He wondered if that was an attempt to get him to stop tickling her, but she seemed to ask in earnest.
In any event, Dave replied "It's almost ten o'clock."
"Dave, I asked you to wake us at nine."
"And at nine you distinctly told me to give you another hour."
"Yes. And since you gave me no specific instructions to ignore requests for more time, I took your request seriously."
Nickolai sighed. He wondered if the event Dave described was true, since he didn't remember giving any such instruction, but it was possible... he'd learned to turn his alarm clock off in his sleep a long time ago. He turned over and said "We should get up."
"Yeah," she agreed. They climbed out of bed and dressed, Nickolai taking advantage of her nudity to tickle her.
They walked out onto the rooftop and Shardik was still there, dozing, a book over his face. "Hello," Molly's voice interrupted them. Nickolai looked around for a moment, then found her, swimming in the pool. "Come in, it's not bad."
"Do you want to," Furry asked.
"It would be nice."
"Then let's do it," she replied, easing out of the clothing she had put on not ten minutes earlier and diving into the water. Nickolai followed her close behind.
Molly was staring at them as the hugged in the water. "You know, I really envy you two. I wish I understood what it was that made you two work so well."
"Well," Nickolai asked, nuzzling Furry close, "What about Ken and P'nyssa and Aaden? That seems to work, too."
"Can I ask you a question?"
"Sure," Nickolai replied.
"How long do you two think you'll be together?"
"Hopefully," Furry replied, "a long time. I don't know. I really don't. Something could come up, something that makes us incompatible. I hope not. I mean, we've only had two weeks to really get to know each other, and on the one hand it's been a wonderful two weeks, and on the other I'm starting to itch to get back into school, and get ready for a professional life, who knows. To really find out, we'd have to spend a long time together. Maybe we'll get that opportunity someday."
"I'd like that," Nickolai said quietly.
"Is that all it takes? A willingness to try?"
"That's all it takes," a new voice interceded. "I wondered about that. At forty, you're a little beyond the norm to not have had kids yet, Molly." Shardik stood by the edge of the pool and looked down.
"Hiya, Molly." Shardik knelt down to kiss Molly. "Guys, let me tell you about Molly. Actually, let me tell you about a political matter. Terra used to fight this argument a lot. Molly here was what used to be called an unwanted child. You don't mind if I say that, do you?" Molly shook her head. "Her biomother decided, after reviewing the fact that her genetics were pretty much perfect, not to terminate the pregnancy even though she was absolutely sure that she could not take the time from her present project to raise a daughter. It's a very private situation, too. Because of the AI's involved, I don't know her biomother. She knows who I am, and Dave knows the whole story, and he's authorized to walk in anytime she wants and she knows it. But P'nyssa, Aaden and I all raised Molly. And she's grown up a fine child."
"Thanks," Molly said, blushing.
"What's wrong with the truth?" Ken asked. "You're a beautiful child, Molinar, and nothing will ever change that. You're smart, successful, beautiful, sexy." She grinned. "You're also the shyest child I've ever raised. Does it bother you when I tell your life story to strangers?"
"No..." Molly said.
"Yes, it does."
"No, it doesn't. Look, the moment I was born I was put into your arms... well, actually I was put into P'nyssa's arms. You raised me, you fed me and held me and- gave me your speech patterns." She wheeled around and splashed water at him. "Sure, sometimes I wonder what my bioparents look like, but it's not a big deal."
There was a silence, then Shardik said "Molly, is there anyone you want to spend time with, I mean, a lot of time?"
"Not really," Molly said. "I mean... maybe I haven't met the person."
"Well, maybe you haven't, but I don't think that's the issue. I mean... Oh, hell, sweetheart, I love you. I heard what you said earlier about my being the only person you'd make a promise too."
"Not just you. Mom and Daddy Aaden, too. But... I don't know."
Shardik leaned over and whispered something into Molly's ear. The fox looked up at him and smiled, nodding. "Sorry to discuss family like that... So, you guys have a good nap?"
"Yes, we did," Nickolai replied after a moments thought. It still stunned him to be on a first name basis with these people, he realized. He hadn't yet gotten used to it, and he doubted he ever would.
"Good. Oh, by the way... Molly, you may get a chance to keep your promise to them anyway."
"Kitty called, and she said she'll be here for the picnic tonight."
"So how does Kitty usually get here?"
Molly looked up at him, her eyes getting wider by the second. "We're going to need another cow," she said gently.
"Already dealt with. In fact, Paul and Michelle have already tripped over to R'Rawl's camp and gotten us two more."
"Good," Molly replied, her face scowling slightly. "I still say we eat too much meat."
"It's good for you," Shardik replied.
They lazed about the swimming pool for a while, Nickolai occasionally stealing glances over in Molly's direction. Furry swam over to him and whispered, "You think she's really pretty, don't you?"
"Well, yeah," he admitted, blushing slightly. "Sorry."
"What are you apologizing for? She's a nice person, and she is really pretty."
"You think so?"
"Kolya, if I were here and you weren't, I would seriously think about getting her into bed." Her hand reached down and brushed his groin. "I see the idea turns you on."
"'Seeing' is not what your doing," he hissed, smiling.
"You know what I mean," she chided.
"What are you two whispering about so intently?" Molly asked, gliding through the water to their side.
"Uhm... well..." Furry paused for a moment. "You."
"Like what?" Molly asked, intently curious.
"Well... We were both discussing how attracted we both were to you."
"Really?" Molly's eyes lit up. She lunged through the water and threw an arm around each of them. "Thank you."
"For what?" Nickolai asked.
"For saying that. I didn't dare ask, and I really wanted you both to like me. I was worried because when we first met I felt I was being a little awkward and overbearing. I do that when I first meet people. I'm sorry."
"It's okay," Furry replied. "I understand. We were also talking about how, if the other weren't here, how we'd be trying to get you, well, into bed."
"Do you still want to?" Molly asked, surprised.
"Uhm... " Furry glanced at Nickolai. He leaned over and whispered into her ear. She nodded.
"This is the second time in two weeks this has happened, which makes it all the more unbelievable, but I'm going to have to tell a beautiful Fem 'no'." Molly's expression fell. "Hold on." He reached out and touched her cheek. "I mean, yes, I would really like to get into bed with you, and I think the three of us together would be a lot of fun, but not tonight. This is our last night together for two years, and I think we want to spend it together, alone."
Molly nodded and smiled. "Can I set that down on my list of rainchecks for Nickolai and Jofuran? You know, when you guys get back I'm going to owe you a lot."
"Nothing you hadn't previously offered them anyway," Shardik interrupted. "You know, Nickolai, I have to congratulate you."
"I'll let that one pass. In the past ten days you've done a stunning amount of change, and you've been good for the people around you."
"Do you think so?"
"In ten days you've learned to say what you want, clearly and effectively. You've managed to teach Jofuran here that not everything Terra offers is hatred and rejection. You've helped Molly with her personal struggles, and you've helped Skii with the same."
"Do you really think so?" Nickolai asked. "I mean, all I've done is be there."
"But is there anything more important than that?" Shardik asked. "Sometimes all it takes is for someone to be there, to be the catalyst for change. Even if Furry's dad had to kick you at one point, you've learned to be there. You know the expression 'If a tree falls...'?" Nickolai shook his head. "Oh, there's an old expression. 'If a tree falls in the forest and nobody is around to hear it, did it make a noise?' It's a surprisingly Daoist question, especially since it seems to be a Western creation. If you know a forest well, and one day a tree has fallen over, you have to wonder what noise it made. But if nobody heard the noise, did it even make one?
"It comes down to existentialism. If you didn't exist, would the universe even exist? I mean, you're not here to experience it. So what difference does it make... the question becomes completely meaningless. What's important to you, and to me, is that you are there to experience what's going on in you're universe. All you have to do is be there."
"I don't really understand," Nickolai said.
"It's hard to explain," Shardik said, "because it asks you to hold in your mind one very difficult concept... you experience because you exist, but you exist only because you experience. That isn't really circular logic... it's sort of the base upon which everything else in life happens. But if you accept that you're a part of Molly's existence, then you're being there becomes very important to her. You've decided to let both of your universes, because that's what they are, overlap and interact, while those universes remain intact and undisturbed because they're yours. Any clearer?"
"Not really," Nickolai sighed.
Shardik sighed. "Well, maybe you'll understand it someday. It's not really important that you do. Let it rest at this, Nickolai. Since meeting Furry your universe has become very large, and that means that you've become important to the lives of other people. On the other hand, it also means that you frighten people with universes smaller than yours, people who want your universe to include only them, or a limited set of 'thems.' Furry, too, has had her universe grow, although I think she's the sort of person who was waiting for that to happen."
"Uh-huh," Furry smiled. "I just didn't know how to say it."
"Well... hello," Shardik said, looking up. "Take a look, out over the ocean."
They all stood up on the stones that marked the more shallow end of the pool and looked out over the water. "See that?"
"That black spot. Look right over the break in the rocks."
"Kitty?" Molly asked.
"Yup. Kitty and Pendor, right on time."
"All right!" Molly said. "They really made it."
"Did you think they wouldn't?"
"How many times have we invited them and they couldn't make it?"
"They always tell us when they can't."
"Sometimes at the last minute."
"Well, this time they promised they'd be here."
Molly turned to Nickolai and Furry and said, "Well, do you guys want to get out, or dry off the quick and dirty way?"
"What's the quick and dirty way?" Nickolai asked.
"Like this," Molly said, jumping out of the pool and taking a swan dive over the edge of the Castle roof. Her tail was the last thing to vanish out of sight.
"Kids," Shardik sighed. "Can't live with 'em, can't shoot 'em. She's gone down to the lagoon SDisk, and when she hits it she'll tell it to take her to the residential level."
"Where she'll arrive dry."
"Right," Shardik said. "If you're not particularly modest about public nudity, feel free. Remember that going down that side you'll fly right past the Felinzi side of the Castle, past M'Ress, N'Skii and M'Riah's rooms."
"Well?" Furry asked.
"What the Hell," Nickolai replied, jumping out of the water and diving over the side.
"Good lad!" he heard Shardik yell as he dove.
Nickolai hit the water head first and swam for the glowing SDisk. As he hit it, he found himself naked in the cool interior of Shardik Castle. Jofuran appeared a moment later, followed by Shardik, who looked comfortably dry in his billowing silken yellow-and-orange shirt. "That's how it's done," Shardik said as he assessed himself. "Make your decision and do it before the second thoughts hit." He turned to Nickolai and said "The trick in life is learning to stave off those second thoughts long enough to do the things that take more setup."
"Is that how you do things?"
"All the time. Go get dressed. Now I have to climb back out and go meet Kitty."
Nickolai and Jofuran caught up with Shardik on the sands of the Lagoon five minutes later. Molly came by a little after that, apologizing because she had to brush her tail down. "Here they come."
A few minutes passed as the tiny speck over the sea came closer and closer, and as it did so it began to resolve into a large black flying Dragon, easing over the water. The neck was shorter than Nickolai had expected, and the wings were wide. The dragon drew closer; Nickolai had to control his urge to flee from this monstrous creature. As it came floating in over the water, he did take a step back... and the huge claws set down onto the sand, the wings giving two final flaps to decelerate completely. On the dragon's back sat a young woman dressed in heavy leather pants and a jacket. "Ken!" she shouted.
"Kitty!" he returned. "How ya doing?"
"Just great!" she replied, sliding down off the simple harness Nickolai could see attached around the dragon's shoulders. Ken ran forward and hugged her as she hit the sand. They stood there for a moment talking, quietly so Nickolai couldn't hear them, then they walked back to where the other three stood. "Nickolai, Jofuran, meet Kitty Moran. Kitty, I'd like you to meet Nickolai Dittrich of Terra, and Jofuran Shigokai."
"Terra?" she asked as she shook hands. "What's brings you to Pendor?"
"Vacation," he replied.
"You're not emigrating?"
"Not as far as I know," he replied.
Kitty shot a confused glance at Shardik, who shrugged. Then she turned and said, "Well, guys, meet Pendor. Pendor, meet Nickolai and Jorfuran." The Dragon nodded. "He says hi. It'll be a few hours before you can start hearing him."
"Molly, about your promise?" Shardik said.
"What? I was going to get Delrio to do it."
"What's this? A promise involving Dragons?" Kitty asked.
"Oh, I promised Nickolai and Jorfuran I'd try and get Delrio to give them a ride. But they've found their own ways around and it's a little late now to get Del's attention."
"What do you think?" Kitty asked Pendor. The Dragon seemed to stare intently at Kitty for a few minutes and Kitty said "He says he'd love to take you two up."
"Well?" Furry asked. Nickolai swallowed and said, "I guess."
"Great. It'll be short. I'm dressed for it, but you two aren't, obviously."
"Oh, Nickolai, that reminds me." Shardik spoke rapidly and then ran back in the direction of the Castle. They stood waiting in silence for him to return. "Here," he said, coming back through the crack in the rocks and tossing Nickolai his leather jacket. "This came back. Rather than have the leather reformed, I had them patch it well but visibly. I didn't think you'd mind a reminder."
Nickolai looked at the patch, smiled and said "No, I don't. That gives me something to tell the guys at school about."
"Okay, guys, get on," Kitty said. They eased onto the Dragon, Furry first, Nickolai behind her, Kitty behind him. "We're a lot of weight, but... Are you sure? Okay, he says we're fine. One, two, three!" There was a sudden lurch, and they were airborne. The flight was, as Kitty had promised, brief and chilly, but there was a certain ethereal thrill at riding on the back of the great Dragon. Nickolai remembered that even though everybody knew who the First Centaur was, Shardik had been very careful with the rest of his Tleils, never revealing who was the "First" of anything else. Rumor had it, though, that M'Ress was the First Felinzi and Pendor was First Dragon. As his heart raced and his mind flew, the events of the past two weeks slowly filtered through his brain again, and he hugged Furry closely. The Dragon began a slow, easy descent for the beach again, and as they touched down he whispered "I love you."
She reached back behind her head and hugged him gently. "I love you too."
They dismounted from the Dragon carefully, Furry pausing for a moment to let her toes soak in the heat of the sand after the flight. "Thank you," Nickolai said breathlessly.
You're welcome, the Dragon said gently.
Kitty started "He said-"
"I heard him."
"I heard him," Nickolai repeated. "Wow."
Hello, Pendor said. It's nice to meet you for real, Nickolai.
"Same here," Nickolai said.
"Wow," Kitty said. "That's got to be one of the fastest connections he's ever made in history."
"Yeah," Shardik agreed. "Oh, by the way, Pendor, we got you steak for dinner. How do you want it done?"
Rare. Hot, but rare.
"Got it. Oh, and a friend of yours is here."
"Aaden?" Kitty's expression lit up.
"Yeah. Come on." Shardik led them back to the lagoon. Pendor took to the air to hop over the lip of the bowl, landing easily on the lagoon sand and curling up around a large rock, closing his eyes and snoring gently.
"Does he always do that?" Nickolai asked.
"Yeah," Kitty said, smiling. "He's a bit lazy at times, and we flew a good long distance. The funny thing is you can still talk to him. He's just resting."
Really, the Dragon replied without moving. By the way, Molly, you owe me a game of chinese checkers.
"We were tied," the fox replied.
Yes. Not a situation we should allow to continue unresolved.
As good a time as any.
"Aaden!" Kitty's voice broke the relative quiet of Molly's conversation with Pendor. "Hi!"
"Hiya, kiddo," Aaden said, dropping down and hugging her closely.
"What is this 'kiddo' shit?" Kitty said. "I'm older than you are! You're starting to talk like he is."
"Ohmifah," Aaden said, grinning. "Am I starting to look like him, too?"
Kitty took a step back, giving him a critical look with one eye closed. "May...be."
"Very funny," he said, pulling her close and hugging her again. "You look good."
"And you look great," she said.
"How's the lug?"
"Pendor? Still the same... lazy, helpful, a great baby- sitter."
"It's a damned shame I never could talk with him without hardware."
The conversation settled down into an easy, familiar pattern that Nickolai was starting feel more and more a part of. He knew that he was in a place that Terrans usually considered dangerous, mysterious, perverse- yet he found nothing dangerous at all in these people. They asked nothing of him that he wasn't already willing to give. He was perfectly aware of the relationships within Shardik Castle, at least as aware as any Terran was allowed to be. He knew that Shardik and Aaden sometimes participated in sadomasochism, that Kitty's sometime sexual partner was Pendor, that... he could go on with the list of objections.
Furry came up from behind and wrapped her arms around him. "How are you feeling?" she asked.
"Weird," he admitted. "Having one of those 'I can't believe I'm here' attacks."
"Well, you still really are here. What I can't believe is that your mother gave in."
"That's not so hard," Nickolai said. "Now that I think about it, she knows she can't really control my life anymore, and if I come home in one piece, maybe it'll be good for her."
"Hopefully," she said.
"Nickolai!" Shardik said loudly, startling him. "You're hired."
"We need some people to move tables and gear down the tunnel, and someone has to dig the firepit."
I'll do that.
"What? Oh, what am I thinking?" Shardik asked rhetorically. "There's a dragon here. Yeah, yeah... Uhm, Aaden, you know where you want it."
"Right over here," Aaden said. The massive bulk of the Dragon shifted in the sand, and Pendor stood up on all fours. With a single swipe of his massive forepaw a huge gout of sand seemed to vanish. A few casual digs and the entire pit was hollowed out of the sand. "Thanks."
No problem, as long as I get first bite.
"Better give it to him," Kitty said.
"I will, I will," Aaden replied, smiling. "Okay, Nickolai, Furry, Molly, go join Skii and M'Riah... they're down the tunnel. I need the stones, the grill, both tables, and the spit for turning."
The three raced down the tunnel, Nickolai grateful for something to do, and found Skii and another Felinzi male sorting through a storage room. "Hi?" he asked when they entered.
"Hi, guys," Skii asked, embracing Nickolai. "Thanks for getting me out of a bind this morning."
"No problem," Nickolai asked. "You must be M'Riah."
"And you must be Nickolai Dittrich of Terra. Yes. Skii's been telling me all about you. And this must be Jofuran." He held his hand; when she offered hers he kissed it. "My pleasure."
"Mine as well," Furry replied. "What do we need?"
"Well, the ATV there has the stones for the pit. You'll need to set them once they're out there. And here's the charcoal," he grunted. "We'll need more than that eventually. M'Riah, can you?"
"Take the cart? Of course." The black-and-white Felinzi walked with perfect posture to the cart and drove it away.
"Don't worry about him. He's like that all the time."
"Seems so... formal," Furry said.
"I don't know. He's been that way since I was born, and Ember tells me he was like that the day he was born. Very quiet cub. Anyway, he's actually kinda fun in bed- just sorta cuts loose, y'know? Almost doesn't say anything, just purrs and growls a lot. Very sexy, if you're into the animalism fetish." Skii smiled wide.
"Come on, come on, grab a table." They walked back down the tunnel with the tables in hand, Nickolai and Furry on one, Molly and Skii on the other.
They spent the next hour doing much of the same, setting up tables and putting out foodstuffs. Nickolai encountered a lot of food he was familiar with, and a bewildering array of things he wasn't, including a very heavy stew which Nickolai found delicious. "Good?" Shardik asked him as he sampled it.
"Yeah," Nickolai answered, smiling.
"It's unofficial nickname is Sandless Chili."
"Yeah. See, most spices you get pre-packaged are sold with sand as a primary de-caking agent, so it'll flow. I get fresh herbs and such and throw them all into a blender with some water... It makes a really spicy paste that I use to flavor the stuff. Also, I use a really coarse cornmeal as a thickener, and real stew meat instead of ground beef." He seemed pleased to have someone new to discuss his recipe with. "It works." He smiled momentarily, then said "You seem happier, Nickolai. Why is that?"
"Oh, I don't know," Nickolai replied. He did feel good, almost to the point of laughing. "I just feel good having something to contribute. I've felt like a bit of leech the past couple of days."
"Nonsense, dear boy. Look, you're sixteen and I'm a thousand. What's the difference. I invited you, your my guest. Besides, you've just encountered the first hurdle in the psychology of abundance."
"Don't grunt, Nickolai, it's not polite. Look, here on Pendor you're clothed and fed. Nobody's going to deny you basic survival... we've got the resources to easily make everybody obscenely wealthy, but they already are anyway. What you've just encountered is the wish to contribute, to be a part of the system. Congratulations- you now understand how Pendor works better than most Terrans."
"That's it? I contribute what I want when I can?"
"That's it. Don't you see it, though? You want to contribute. Whereas most Terrans are operating under the impression that they have to contribute... their very survival is at stake. The only place where these two systems ever really meet is in space, where you have to contribute to the ship, or you die... but then, you wanted to get on that ship."
"That's... really interesting."
"Isn't it, though?" Shardik asked. "Turn around," he said suddenly.
Nickolai turned around just to see Paul Lewis toss something into the firepit. A HUGE fireball erupted out of it, followed by a minute or so of flames two meters high. They slowly died down.
"I think the fire's lit," Paul called out. "Carcass number one, please."
Nickolai turned just in time to see Ember pull a white sheet off of the body of a dead animal, then turned away equally quickly.
"Nickolai?" Shardik asked.
"I know what you're going to say. That for millions of years my carnivore ancestors ate things like that without any cooking. That Terrans are afraid to know how the things they find in their supermarkets get there."
"No, I was going to ask if you're okay. I know you know all about that."
Nickolai looked up after a deep breath. "Okay. It's just not easy... I mean, as 'natural' as it all looks, I'm not used to it." A thought occurred to him, and he looked up at Shardik and said, "Let me try and explain it. Skii told me how you managed the exocellular nanotech systems for reproduction. The fact that it's... um... The word I'm looking for... ongoing? There for the next-"
"Yeah. Self perpetuating, doesn't make it any more natural than Saman Transfer. I know your argument that it's evolution using intelligence as the agent of change, but maybe that's what Saman facilities are on Earth. Which kinda makes displays like that no more 'natural' than plankton sandwiches."
"Would you use the word 'barbaric?'" Shardik asked.
Nickolai smiled and said, "That's a judgment call, and I've learned better around you."
"Good lad!" Shardik said, slapping him on the shoulder gently. "Come on, where's your girlfriend?"
"Furry?" He looked around quickly, and found Furry with Carroll Lewis setting out blankets and a rack covered in towels.
"Hi!" she said as they walked over together. Shardik kissed Carroll gently. "How's everything?"
"Not bad," Shardik admitted. "We were discussing philosophy."
Carroll sighed. "Again?"
"I don't mind, Miss Lewis."
"Carroll, please," the Centaur said with a hint of frustration. "Miss Lewis sounds so... old-fashioned."
After Pendor had been fed and other members of the family had shown up, making the picnic an almost bewildering array of names that Nickolai had at least a passing fascination with, he found himself sitting on a large towel by the lagoon. Skii swam over to him, coming right up to the edge of the water. "Hey, Nickolai, can I ask you a question?"
Nickolai tried to think of what Skii would ask him, then decided he wanted to know. "I guess."
"This is gonna sound a little predatory, but... do you have sex with guys?"
Nickolai nearly choked on his potato salad.
"No, no... that was just not a question I thought you were going to ask."
"Oh, well... Do you?"
"I... I did."
"But you preferred women more."
"A lot more. Why?"
"Do you want the honest truth?"
"Usually," Skii replied, smiling.
"Because the guy I slept with asked too damned much of me. If you'll pardon the phrase, I don't like getting fucked."
"He forced you... ?"
"No," Nickolai sighed. "But he made me feel like... well, it's hard to say. It was two years ago, I think, and I guess he made me feel like I wasn't a real man if I couldn't do that."
Skii scowled. "Look, I just talked to Molly, and she said that you and she have a... 'raincheck.' What is a raincheck?"
"As far as I can remember, if an outdoor event gets rained out, a raincheck is a promise that tickets for the event are good later."
"Oh... then why 'raincheck'?"
"There are good reasons why Furry and I aren't going crazy and grabbing Molly, or Ken for that matter, since he did make a pass at us earlier this week."
"Did he now?" Skii smiled mischievously.
"It was only a little one, and P'nyssa caught him at it."
"Still... look, can I take a 'raincheck' on the same offer?"
"Since you 'usually want the truth,' I'll give you some. I'd really like to spend the night with both of you."
"Both of us?"
"Both of you. Just because I have a preference for men doesn't mean I don't like women; I'm not like Aaden that way. And that's not saying anything bad about Aaden," he finished quickly. "It's just that Furry's really cute. And I think playing with both of you would be very interesting. And I don't know how you feel about me, but I think I'm pretty trustworthy."
"As long as you're not driving," Nickolai said, laughing.
"Hey, I was pretty careful when I had a passenger."
"You were trying not to scare him that night. In the morning you weren't so careful."
"We were a hurry," Skii replied with a smile. "You're right. I'm a maniac on the road. I admit it. But I'm not a rapist."
"Neither was he," Nickolai mused. "Just a schmuck."
"One bad experience isn't something to base your whole life on."
"No, but when I look at men, I don't get the heat the way I do when I look at women."
"Yeah, so? Nickolai, when the lights are off it's really hard to tell who's sucking on you. Just think about it. And remember, I want her there too."
He nodded. "Hey," Skii said, "Look who's here."
"Evening, kids," Shardik said. In his hand he held a small black box to Nickolai. "There's something you forgot on this trip."
"Think about it Nickolai. Wouldn't you love originated, time-stamped photos of you, me, Skii, Pendor, Carroll, the Castle, everything? Feel free, take pictures. The normal resolution on that's about a one thousand DPC, and if you're willing to take about ten percent of the media you can maintain that for a print two meters on a side."
"What would I want to do that for?" Nickolai asked.
"Isn't there anything you'd like a permanent record of for your wall at school?" he asked, glancing over to where Furry and three others were playing catch with a disc and splashing in the beach. None of them wore any clothing.
"Uh... yeah. Got any more carts?"
"Will ten total do?" Shardik asked, digging into a pocket and pulling out nine more.
"Yeah," Nickolai said. "Fine."
"I think you've stunned him," Skii said.
"Stunned?" Shardik asked, his voice trailing into falsetto.
"Yeah, stunned," Skii replied. "And don't start with jokes that are literally a millennia old."
"I won't," Shardik promised.
Nickolai wandered away from the conversation and started snapping pictures almost at random. Mostly photos of Furry, but others of members of Shardik Castle. He had Ember, who he had just been introduced to, take pictures of him and Aaden standing by a rather sleepy-eyed Pendor. He got pictures of Shardik, P'nyssa, and himself, at the high-resolution Shardik had suggested. He wanted as much memory as he could possibly stuff into one night on the cartridges. He took pictures inside the Castle, including look-down views on the picnic from the roof of the Castle.
"You're going to go click-happy," Shardik said.
"Yeah, but I realized that we've got a 160cent 1000dpc printer at school, and I think having a picture of Furry on one wall and one of you, me, and P'nyssa on the other would just be perfect."
"Actually, I've got a better idea," Shardik replied. He raised his head above his hands and shouted, "Hey! Everybody put down what you're doing and come over here. Everybody! Stand in front of Pendor."
What are you doing? Nickolai heard Pendor asked.
"Getting a family picture. Now, we can either stand on your head, or you could loom over us."
I'll loom, the Dragon replied.
"Okay, Ember, Michelle, over there. Calffn, you and Calli stand over there..." After a few minutes, he had the entire party of about thirty people all standing in a small circle, Pendor's head just above his shoulder. "Okay, Furry, stand right next to me, on the right, and Nickolai, you stand over here. Okay Dave, whenever you're ready." The camera seemed to float in midair, then a series of whirs told everyone the picture was taken.
"There. Okay, everybody back to what they were doing." Shardik retrieved the camera and said, "There. That should surprise your friends. Not just Shardiks, but Rhysling Adnil, Tarrette Traken, Kitty and Pendor."
"Thank you, sir."
"You deserve it, Nickolai. And stop calling me sir!" he exclaimed, smiling.
As the night wore down, Nickolai and Furry found themselves nearly falling into their bedroom, exhausted from a party that, much unlike the one held the previous week, seemed to have been thrown for their benefit.
"You're not happy," Nickolai said as he sat down on the bed, rubbing his eyes.
"I'm... Nickolai, tonight I made more friends than I had ever imagined possible. I've never played frisbee, or whatever you call that thing. I've never just sat around and gossiped about boys... I saw talking to Skii. I've never had so many people just say 'hello' to me. You have no idea how deliriously happy that makes me.
"But I can't help thinking that this is our last night together."
"It's only for two years."
"No!" she said, angrily. "You keep saying that. How do I know that? How can I be sure? How can I know for sure that you'll be back? Maybe you'll meet someone else, maybe when you come back the 'real' thing won't be as good as the memories that grew while you were gone. Nickolai..." Her eyes filled with tears. "I need you."
He reached out gently and pulled her down onto the bed with him. "I need you, too, Furry." He ran a hand along her fur, touching her. She felt vaguely... dusty, he thought. "You've got salt crystals in your fur... you need a shower."
"Uh-huh," she said, gently. "I know."
"Furry," he said, "I'll be back. I promise you. I've already made the reservations and paid for the trip."
"Ken said use all the resources of the Castle I wanted to."
"And you had Dave do it? How did you pay for it? That's still a Terran transaction."
"Shardik foreign exchange fund."
"You can do that?"
"Dave let me. Does it matter otherwise?"
Furry thought about that for a moment. "I guess not." She smiled gently. "I guess you will be back."
"Oh, yes," he replied. "I'll be back."
"What if you don't... don't find me as attractive when you return."
"Then we'll deal with it when we return. Like Ken said, you can't predict things like that. You have to wait until you get there."
"That's not easy," she sniffed.
"Nothing worth waiting for ever is."
"Did you... did you take a look at the nameplate on the door when you came in?"
"No. Why, I thought it was blank?"
"What does it say."
"Go take a look. When you get back, I'll be in the shower."
She stood up off his lap and walked into the shower. Nickolai, his curiosity piqued, made his way to the front door and looked to his left. He read the plaque three times before heading back to the shower.
"Furry!" he said as he raced in. "What does that mean?"
"What did it say?"
"Jofuran Shigokai," he announced.
As he stripped off his clothes and walked into the steam-filled shower, she said "It means, I have a place here, now. I'm free to come and go from The Castle whenever I choose.
"Ken told me that there are a lot more people who are allowed to live here than who do. Only he and the Lewis' have listed Castle Shardik as their official residence for as long as the Castle has existed, although quite a few others use it as a primary message drop. But it means that I've joined the nine-hundred people or so who can add the name 'Shardik' to their own."
"Jofuran Shigokai... Shardik?"
"Jofuran Shigokai Dittrich Shardik," she said, firmly. "It's a little old-fashioned, I'm told, but I need you, Nickolai, and I'm not ashamed to have your name attached to mine. I want you." She smiled up at him and hugged him close. He felt a little stiff, holding her, not sure how to react. Then he felt that familiar grounding from her and slumped against her, holding her strong. He needed her, more than anything else he could think of, he needed her. "I love you, Nickolai," she whispered over the shower.
"I love you too."
"Nickolai?" she asked, looking at him again, "Would you be upset if I told you I didn't want to make love tonight, that I'd rather we just slept, and tomorrow I put you on a ship headed out?"
He smiled and shook his head. "Anything for you, Jofuran Shigokai. Anything."
She smiled. "Why didn't you use my full name?"
"Because I fell in love with Jofuran Shigokai, and what she's become is just something extra. But even without that... I don't know. I love you, Furry, and nothing is ever going to change that."
"Thank you, Nickolai."