"Ready, Darch?" Sandahl asked as he stood in the doorway. He wore his favorite jacket, a reconstruction of his white flight jacket from back when we were part of The Project. He had recently cut his fur down to military trim around his face and hands, although the fur along his back and tail still waved as he moved. He looked every bit the perfect Pendorian, really. I wanted to be like him, like the others. But something wasn't right about me. Something hadn't been right since the day I had woken up.
"Yes," I said, pulling out just a hat for myself. The weather reports had indicated warm, sunny skies for the next couple of days, "perfect decanting weather," Ken called it. I suspected that anything less than perfection would have been impossible. I just needed something to shade my eyes. I applied some sun-block to my guss and the bald spot at the base of my tail. I wasn't sure what had caused that, either. But it was tender sometimes.
Sandahl led the way upstairs, his feet light on the steps as he went up. I envied him the simplicity of his moving. Ken had told me that I'd lost my entire back pair of legs and pelvis. Everything had grown back, thanks to the Pendorians, but I still wondered if it was all just like the original. Maybe that's what the bald spot was from.
"Good Afternoon!" Ken said as we stepped out onto the sands around the Lagoon. I relaxed inwardly. He was in a good mood. Many of his friends had assured me that his current cycles of depression and exhilaration were not normal and that he was more often than not in the better of the two states. He waved to us from where he stood by the gates that led to the Spinward March, the Great Road of Pendor. "Are you ready?"
"I already asked him that," Sandahl replied. "I know I am."
I nodded. "I'm ready."
"Good. If you'll all pile into the 'speeder, we'll get going." He indicated a large, open-topped vehicle that seemed to rest on nothing at all. By now I should have been used to that but I still wondered what kept it in the air. Sandahl sat down in the driver's seat-- I didn't find that surprising either.
Ken sat down next to me. "We're still waiting for someone."
"Trianna?" I asked, feeling more than a little abashed to ask.
He nodded. A few minutes later she arrived and took her bench next to Sandahl. I tried not to look at her. She, on the other hand, refused to let me go. She leaned close to my ear and whispered, "You don't have to be embarrassed, Darch. I like you. And I forgave you, Darch." She keeps having to remind me. I don't know why. I don't even remember what I did. I just know that it's something I should keep apologizing for.
Ken said, "Okay, Sandahl, let's go."
"We're on our way." He took the controls confidently and seconds later we barreled down the road at breathstealing speeds. Nobody spoke much until, fifteen minutes later, Sandahl pulled off the road onto a barely-visible dirt path so small the trees overhead reached out to one another and shaded us from the sun. "Put her down right by the edge there, Sandahl," Ken said, pointing.
A great meadow of low grasses and yellow flowers spread out before us as Sandahl silenced the engine, guarded on all sides with trees centuries old and still growing. Insects shocked by the noisy arrival filled in the path we had made. The land tilted slowly away from us, down to one corner of the forest where a great tent of pale canvas seemed to expand with the gentle wind like one of those dragon creatures frozen on the inhale. It all seemed to glow with a power I had lived near for over a year and had never put a name to, and that glow made it all look so unreal.
To my left a small shuttlecraft lay with its rear door open and from it I saw the team manager Aanji step out, look inside and point. Two other figures emerged from the shuttlecraft and it all became real again. More real than it had ever been. Between them, on a gravitics stretcher, they directed the sleeping form of a female Ritan. Curled up, innocent, sleeping, she looked so vulnerable and so... real.
I stepped a little away from the party as they watched, as fascinated as I had been. "Sandahl," I hissed. He didn't notice. "Sandahl!"
He looked over, closing his mouth in the process. I gestured for him to join me and he did. I had an idea, a... way... of joining my own people again, of being one of them. I needed his help.
I don't particularly like Sandahl. Maybe it's our relationship; he's an officer but from a different branch. This time he listened to me and he seemed to understand. "If it's what you want, Darch, I understand completely. Now that you've thought of it, I wish I could join you. But someone has to stay behind."
"Thank you," I sighed. For someone as dissolute as Sandahl, he has moments of maturity that make me feel inadequate and unwise. He has been learning from the Pendorians and learning well. I haven't. We rejoined the others. Ken was talking to a technician, a short Markal in a grey jumpsuit, when I tapped him on the shoulder. "Ken?"
"Hm?" he asked. I can't really describe what it's like to talk to Ken. I mean, here he is-- furless, unattractive, smaller than you-- and when you speak to him, you are talking to God. He is in charge. I know, he has said he isn't, but he is. Aanji and Aaden push him around some, and that little one has him by the balls, but that's only because they're all going in his direction. If they weren't fire wouldn't rain from the sky, but you can bet nothing else good would happen either.
"You said you could control when they wake up. How?"
He reached into one of his pockets. Ken isn't a very secretive god. You ask, he usually answers. He pulled out something that fit in the palm of his hand. "Alphawave inducers." He opens his hand and shows it to me-- a red cube with four white leaves extending off one side, like someone crushed two dice together and one flattened out. "Put this in the space above and between your guss, right there--" He reaches around my head and taps the place-- "and you'll be asleep. Dangerous to leave on too long, but for a day or so, like here, a great sleep system."
"Is that one for Ritans?"
"Yeah, sure. See?"
I recognize the Quen 'R' symbol stamped on its side. "Just right back here?" I point with my empty hand.
He gives me that look, the one that says he's figured out where you're going. It isn't-- it's not really a calculating look, it's a navigating look. Like I said. He doesn't care if I'm on the same road as he so long as I'm going in the same direction.
"Yeah. Come on." He doesn't say that with any authority, but I ignore him at my peril. He now knows what I want and has apparently decided it's good for me. "Aanji!" he shouts, flagging down his lover's sister. Never did get used to the idea that god is gay.
Aanji joins us, her padd in hand. Ken finds a spot of grass unoccupied, but I am only a few meters from a dozen sleeping Ritan. Their chests fall and rise in comforting rhythms. They are alive, as alive as I could never dream them in all the months without them. I want to run to one and shake him, make him see me, speak to me. That isn't going in Ken's direction. Ken points down at the spot of grass I'm standing on and says, "This one goes here."
She looks at her padd, unfazed by the change of plans. Or is it a change? Maybe they knew all along. "Great. Plenty of room. Darch, could you sit down?"
I do as she asks. I forget to ask how the thing comes off as I feel his touch on the back of my head.
It's dark when I come to. The grass tickles my muzzle and caresses my eyelids in comforting ways. It is like sleeping-- and I don't want to wake. I feel motion near me, though, large bodies moving. I open my eyes and look into the most beautiful sight I have beheld in two years. "Jala!" she says. Her voice is real, is feminine, and is Ritan.
"Jala," I manage to stammer back. I haven't heard my own language come from a voice so sweet in so long that that one word, the Ritan equivalent of your Mey/Konnichiwa/Nihai/Hello, wants to reach in and crush my life from around my ribs.
"What's your name?" she asks, still in Ritan. Anytime else, anywhere else, and the question could have been innocuous or provocative. Here, it's magical. And her language and her name are all she has today. "Darch," I tell her.
"I have a name," she says proudly. "Prezia."
It is a common fem name from another continent, another lifetime ago. She sits up. "Oh! There are others!"
I sit up. There are more-- a hundred more, all like me, all green and growing like the grass on which they lay, all stretching and waking and being alive. My hearts thud.
I look up-- we all do-- at the one source of light in one corner of the meadow. The tent I had seen earlier glows even brighter from within. We all are drawn to it. We all walk down there.
The first Ritan to reach the tent pulls aside the flap. Within, from the simple frame of wood and rope, hang a hundred oil lamps in a hundred glass tubes. I know that Centaur craftspeople had made all of this, a ritual working, by hand, to commemorate their birth and to ensure that no-one would ever have to be born in the rain-- not that it would ever dare rain on one of Ken's decantings.
"Come in, come in." The voice is Trianna's.
We pour in from the outside, a sudden rush of the Century-- plus one. Ken stands in the middle with Diana, Lindsay, Olivia, Trianna, Sandahl, Aanji, Tylia, Aaden and P'nyssa. He speaks. "We are all here-- all who will be here." I realize I was now listening to an experienced showman. "Look at yourselves. All of you. Look at your hands and the hands of your neighbor. Look into the eyes of your neighbor. In your minds, words are forming. Words for male and female, for Ritan and for other things. Things like us up here.
"You are new. You have never been before. You are called Ritan." Murmurs break out in little enclaves around me, whispers of the word-- "Ritan."
"You!" Ken shouts, pointing to someone. "What is your name?"
"Sabineh," she replies, surprised to know the answer. Another name from yet another language, another culture.
"And yours?" He points to another.
"Yours?" he points to a third.
"What are we here for?" an impatient male voice calls out from the back.
"I'll answer that," say a familiar voice. All eyes track to Sandahl. "You probably wonder why I am here and you are there. I am one of you. But you are new today and I am too old. I am a thousand years in the past. And I am but thirty years of age. And you don't know what a day feels like, much less a year." Nice speech. I recognize David Major's hand in it. Can you say that about an AI? That he had a "hand" in something?
"Listen to me. A thousand years ago, on a world called Ritacha, people who looked like you and spoke as you and who loved as you will learn to love, fought as I hope you never learn to fight. My people. It will be a long time before you even understand. Look at this room. Multiply this number by ten, a hundred, a thousand, a million, more. All of them are dead. Killed by one another. Their existence taken away.
"Listen to me. One at a time, only you can choose what you will do. Together, though, we are a sign, a symbol-- you are living Ritan. You, together, are here because these people here thought that our fire was too important, to special, too beautiful, to let go out of the Universe.
"Listen to me. You are all children. Out there, among the stars overhead, is the world our parents burned to a cinder. These people, the Pendorians, have remade you. And they are trying to remake our world."
Lindsay rises to speak next. "I am like you, too, for I am from a world where my parent's neglect led my people down a road to destruction if not for the intervention of the Pendorians. But my peoples' path has been very different from the one yours will take, for we were all there in our right minds when the Pendorians arrived. All of you that was left were the dead, but for Sandahl and one other who... has chosen to remain hidden, for his reasons."
"Come," Trianna says. "Each of you take a candle from the holder. Reach up and take one." There are enough for us all, and I wonder how that had been arranged. As I reached up, the one I pull down becoms translucent in my hand, as if the glass has been frosted.
About one in four of the candle holders remain clear. I wonder if it means something. Diana interrupts my wondering with the answer. "Some of you hold clear tubes, and some hold frosted ones. There are a hundred of you here-- yet of the first species to walk on this land, my species, the centaurs, there were only seventy two. We were the first, and we paid a price for going first-- more than one-quarter of our first generation died being born. These candles were made by Centaurs, and they symbolize our remembrance of those who were born, and those who did not make it that far."
Aaden walks through the crowd and takes the tent flap in his hand, pulling it back and tying it off. "Come!" he roars with a voice that fills the room with bright cheer. "Tonight is a night to learn! Come see the stars! Come see the water! Come meet the people who await you!" He never talks like that in person.
We follow him, each holding one candle. Some help others in holding the candle just right-- those who hold the glass high get their fingers burned and have their first experience with pain. I help a young fem named Nori who spends much of our short walk with her fingers in her mouth. I find myself watching them all walk by. None of them know much about clothing yet, as we had all awakened naked on the plain.
Rocchodain is lit up from one end to the other with paper lanterns, folded and painted with wonderful colors, that rustle in the gentle warm breeze of the evening. Night must have just fallen when we awoke because everyone seems to be active. There are thousands of people crammed into such a tiny town and everyone seems to be curious, cautious, friendly. They want us to feel welcome.
I walk over to the Inn and find it still empty inside. I walk in. I would wait for them to come in here. One does-- Nori.
"Mey!" she says. I start, realizing that it makes sense for Ken to have given them both languages. I wonder if one predominates over the other. "Jala!" I say in return, and she laughs.
"You're him, aren't you?" she asks innocently.
"The one who remained hidden," she says. "You're different."
"Why do you think that?" I ask, trying hard to keep reign on my emotions. I cannot believe I am playing coy talking to the first real female I have seen in two years. I guess I should be careful. Trianna might be around to read this in five centuries. She's definitely real, and I know she'll understand what I mean.
"You know things. You walked right to this place like you had been here before. What is this place?"
"It's an Inn, Milady," says the Centaur behind the bar, saving me from having to come up with an answer of my own. With his black skin and fur, he is barely visible against the dark-stained wooden wall. "Here we serve you food and drink and a place to sleep if you need it. And here in the day we provide you with a place to come and talk and meet and visit and eat and talk some more. So, what might your name be?"
"Nori," she says, shyly.
"Darch," I say. I am grateful for his discretion; he doesn't act like he recognized me.
"Good, good. The start of a good friendship, exchanging names like that. What do you want?"
"I... I don't know. He does."
I sigh. Not only is she convinced, she's right. "Food and drink," I say. "In the other order."
He laughs, a pleasant if high-pitched laugh. "Right there in a second."
Others start to filter in. Soon, the Inn is crowded with a hundred faces, about a third of them Ritan. I wonder where everyone else has gone. The Centaur places two drinks on the table. "These are birch-root beers. They have a strong effect on those not used to them. Drink wisely."
"What does that mean?" Nori asks.
"It means it makes you drunk." She still doesn't understand. "Alters the way you think. It might make you act without thinking about the consequences."
"Then why do I want to drink it?"
"Because sometimes you want to act that way. To some people it feels good. Like he said, it's something to think about wisely before you do it."
She looks carefully at the glass, then lifts it to her muzzle and pours a little onto her tongue. Her eyes widen. "It's good!"
Such a simple assessment. She would learn. I raise mine and drink it as well. Looking around at the now-crowded bar, I see a few of my people-- already, I think of them as my people-- surrounding Lindsay, listening to her. On her lap her child, Maya, sits and squirms and protests. "Mom! I wanna get up!"
I look over at Nori. Half the glass is gone. She's picked up a slice of apple and is chewing it thoughtfully. I wonder what is going through her mind. She smiles again.
I don't know what happens for the next few hours. The birch beer settles comfortably into my brain. Compared to much of what they have at the Inn, the birch is so low in alcohol they let their kids drink it, but enough of it affects even me. The bodies of Ritans flow past me like temptations long forgotten. I know Sandahl, but I didn't know anyone standing in this room among the Ritans. I want to dive in, to know them, the feel them all. And even in the midst of all that richness, I still feel alone. Detached. I want more from them. I want to be one of them.
Guss are funny things. They can sense when someone else is probing you with theirs, and I now feel Nori's looking me over carefully. I turn to look at her, and she withdraws hers. "Sorry. I don't know if I should or not."
"You can," I say. "But it's nice if you ask me first."
"If you'll let me."
"Of course!" she says, opening her eyes and muzzle in a wide and beautiful grin. Nori isn't beautiful by my standards-- her fur is too dark, her muzzle a little too wide, her body too skinny. Most of the Ritan here look underfed, but I imagine that'll change as they adjust to eating.
As I run my guss over her, my hearts start to beat harder. Sensations, vibrations, realizations that I had not felt in two years and feared I might never feel again wash over me. If there are changes to her basic anatomy they are subtle. To my senses she is all Ritan and all female and the more I look at her, the more I feel her body with my guss, the more I realize that I had better stop or all sense will abandon me.
"Are you okay?" she says.
"You... you were getting... I don't know how to say it. I could feel something, something... " Her eyes try to say it, too, and also fail, but in failing they reflect back a ritanity I couldn't imagine seeing anywhere else.
"Nori?" I say, finally. "Um..."
I sigh, my hands opening and closing as I fight for the words I need. "Would you walk with me?"
"Just outside. I... I need to tell you something I can't say here."
She gives the room a look, then nods. I hold out my hand. She takes it.
Shock runs up my arm. I am touching a femRitan. My hearts beat harder still. I feel dizzy. I have to get out. Quickly, I lead her out into the street, where other Ritans are milling, talking, getting to know themselves. I lead her down the street, away from the din, out toward the lake on the edge of town. She follows me willingly. "Oh! It's pretty!"
I look up. I am so busy charging away from that crowded room and its temptations, hauling along the one temptation I want more than all the rest but can only have after I fill out the necessary paperwork, that I almost miss the lake.
The paper lanterns that had been strung up along the town are here too, floating on the water, each glowing like a tiny star all its own, each cast of paper giving these stars their own coronas of light. On a small platform in the middle of the lake I see two figures, both humanoid, sitting casually, lighting candles and putting them on little wooden platforms to set them sailing across the lake in a gentle breeze. They aren't in any hurry, and even at this distance the soft wind now carries the sound of delighted laughter-- from them or from somewhere on the shore I cannot tell.
"It is," I said, feeling a smile come on me. "Oh, Nori... How do I say this?"
"You were right back there. I am the one who stayed hidden." I am having trouble catching my breath. Fear won't let me go that easily. "I... I didn't want to stand up and tell you all that I was different from you. I don't want to be different from you. I want to be just like you."
"I don't understand. Aren't you just like us?"
"No, I don't think I am. I think there's something different about me. I have... a memory. I remember what life was like before yesterday. I remember what life was like back on Ritacha, back before the war. You can't even imagine what a year is like, but I have been without hearing a voice like yours for two years. I haven't heard a fem's voice in two years, Nori, and every time you talk to me I feel it in here and it won't let go."
She looks at me, puzzled. "Is there anything I can do?" she asks. "Does it hurt?"
"No," I say, shaking my head and smiling. Tears start to well in my eyes. "No, it doesn't hurt at all. It feels so... different. I can't tell you how strong it feels. It's so special. It's so... Oh, Nori..." I reach out and touch her cheekruff softly. She didn't flinch. "I just can't believe you're here."
"Because I wasn't here yesterday?"
She laughed and pulled back, giggling and tossed her hands into the air. "Well, I'm here now!" Her breasts bounced invitingly before my eyes. "Oh, Darch, you're being silly. I mean, aren't you?"
"You don't know?"
"No," she admitted. "I don't know. I'm being so careful sometimes. I don't want to be careful."
"You'll learn," I said, understanding what she meant. Ken had explained to us the programming of a Tleil. "It'll become automatic very soon." I reached out and took her hands. My guss reached out toward her, over my shoulders. Hers came toward me, and halfway between they touched, entwined together. A cold, warm, powerful, subtle-- Oh, I can't put words to what it felt like! I felt her. I could know her heart and her soul in that instant. In her eyes were reflected my desires. "Nori?"
"You... " she gasped. "So... so deep. So... Darch? Do you want... me?"
"I do, Nori. But you don't know what it means."
She smiled, but for the first time tonight I saw fear in her eyes. Then she said words that, I'm sure, Ken has heard. Words that later I'd be hearing a lot more often. "Teach me."
I slowly untwined our guss. She watched as I approached her, stood chest-to-chest with her, looked into her eyes. "If it's what you want." I touched her shoulders, closed my fingers on her arms. "Touch me, too, Nori."
She did. Her hands pressed against my chest. Her eyes closed and her guss followed her hands around, touching every square cent of me. "Come, sit," I said.
We settled down onto the grass. My hands groped for her conical breasts. Her nipples pointed away from one another. Her hands were on my chest, looking for my nipples, playing with them.
I touched her cheek with one hand. She looked up to me. I bent my head toward her. She didn't know what to do at first. Then she opened her muzzle slightly. My tongue touched hers. She pulled back suddenly, then just as quickly hers came back to touch mine. I licked her cheekruff, inhaling the scent of her. She smelled right. She smelled perfect.
Her body shivered. "Cold?"
"Scared," she admitted. "I don't know what to do. And I feel hot inside."
I laughed. "Good. Keep feeling that way." I leaned against her, pushing her down to the grass. She fell backward, looking a little more frightened. "Nori, if you ever want me to stop, just say so. I will."
"I know what's happening," she said. "I just... have never felt it before."
"I know," I said. I settled to the grass behind her and kissed her behind her ear. She shivered again. "Talk to me."
"Tickles," she said. "I want you, Darch. I want you to show me this." She paused. I kissed her back, my guss rolling over her exposed flank and my hands reaching around to hold her soft breasts, to press against her firm ab. My hands touched her belly, her abbelly, while my guss explored even lower. She moaned softly. "I feel so strange. I feel wet..."
"That's normal," I reassured her. "It's to make this easier." I rolled over her body and came down between her legs. I saw her vulva for the first time. I touched it with my guss. I wanted to reach for her with my hands. I wanted her.
And then I smelled her. In the past two years I had known more unanswerable lust than any mel should ever have to suffer and now it all came back to seize me at once. I dropped my head and inhaled deeply. She was in heat-- I could feel it. I kissed her vulva softly. I heard her gasp. Her forelegs shot out straight and she rolled. "Do that again." She demanded.
I followed her instructions. I kissed her vulva again. She rolled over fully onto her back, her rear legs, built for speed rather than support, spread wide. The narrow stretch of flesh between her legs pulled her vulva downward, opening her more. I could see the narrow lips, so rich in pleasure, aching for me to kiss them. I couldn't resist. I thought about how lucky Ritan fems are, with the protective folds around their opening so sensitive to pleasure, while the species on Pendor have that clitoris design so far from the opening. And all seem to respond so well to a well-placed kiss!
I licked her. I tugged at those lips with the lips of my muzzle, closing on her without my teeth. She was shaking, writhing as I licked. "Darch!"
"No! Just... softer?" Her voice came in gasps almost painful.
I listened. I eased. Her body shuddered underneath me as she enjoyed my kisses, my attention. All of my attention. I couldn't think of anything else as I concentrated on the smell of her, the taste of her. My guss laid themselves along the length of her belly and from them I could register heartbeat and breathing and the tension in her body. She couldn't bear much more of this. She had to give way. She had to...
"DARCH!" she screamed. Her legs thrashed in the air as she came, clawing at nothing. I heard a soft thud-thudding noise as her fists beat the grass. I felt her growing weak and I finally stopped, looking up along the length of her body.
She wasn't moving. Her muzzle was pointed straight up at the sky, and I could watch the rise and fall of both of her chests. I stood up, shakily. I had been crouched in that one position for long enough to have a few stiff muscles. And something else was stiff as well. I stepped up along the length of her body until my erection hovered over her vulva. I knelt down until my chest pressed against her, then lowered my torso until I fell off-balance and fell forward. I caught myself with my hands in the grass. "Nori?"
Her eyes were closed. "Darch? Did I just die?"
"Die?" I asked. "God, no, you just did one of the most alive things you could do. You came. You, uh, orgasmed."
"Wow." Her eyes flickered back and forth as she opened them. "I... I want another one! Did you have one?"
"No," I didn't. "I just kissed you a lot."
"But... how do you have one? The same way? I should reach down and kiss your... mels have penises."
I laughed. "You could do that. Or you could just lay there and let me do something else."
"Just as good?"
"Almost as good," I told her. "Or better. Some fems like it more. Some less. A rare few don't like it at all. I few like it more than anything else."
"I hope I like it," she said. "Do it, Darch?"
I lowered my belly to touch hers, and slowly my erection found her wetness. I shifted, and slowly pressed my way in. "Talk to me, Nori."
"It's... That's... You're getting inside me!"
"Yes!" I sighed. I slid the entire length of my cock within her vulva. It was so warm and soft and welcome that I could feel the tightening at the tip already, that itching signal that I'm ready to climax right now. "Nori?"
"Oh, Darch... I... I don't know."
I stroked slowly, and a smile slid across her face. "That feels wonderful, Darch."
I took that as a sign and thrust a little faster. Her eyes closed and she tilted her head back. The long length of our bodies lay in the grass, with only my forelegs to keep us from rolling off-balance. My rear legs were too busy thrusting, my hands too busy holding her, licking her cheeks. I couldn't last long. I couldn't. It was too much, it had been too long, it just meant too much. I rose up completely, my hands holding her forelegs for support, just long enough to shout my unreachable joy at the heavens.
I looked down at her. I saw her smile. The world went hazy, then dark.
"Hey, Darch." I heard a familiar voice. One that annoyed me. "Wake up."
He laughed softly. "Yeah, it's me." He was kneeling next to me, Nori on the other side of me. Behind him a melRitan and a melCentaur stood, looking worried. "Your friend here called us. She was afraid you'd gotten hurt. I sent away most of the gawkers-- we had about a dozen people here."
"How long was I out?"
"About ten minutes," he said. "Long enough. Have you ever passed out during intercourse before?"
"No," I said, shaking my head, trying to clear out the webs.
"Guess it was just shock," he said. "You move pretty quickly."
"I... I didn't mean..."
"You didn't do anything wrong, Darch, except scare your friend here by passing out on her." He looked up at Nori. "It shouldn't happen again. It's just something that happens the first time... or if you haven't made love in a long time. It's pretty rare. Do you have a place to sleep?"
"The Inn, I think," Nori said.
"That's as good a place as any," Ken agreed. "Take him there, both of you go to bed. You have long lives ahead of you." He placed his hand on my chest one last time. "You're healthy as could be, Darch. Go rest."
I nodded, no longer annoyed. I was grateful. Nori knelt beside me. "You scared me."
"Sorry. I didn't mean to. Did I hurt you?"
"Only when you fell on me," she said. "Nothing hurts now." She stood up and held out her hand. I took it and let her help me to my feet. "That felt good, what you were doing. I liked it almost as much as the kisses, like you said. But I might have liked it more if you hadn't made me tired with kisses first-- or if you'd gone longer."
I looked at the stars. Then down the road we walked along, spotting Ken and the Ritans with whom he had come to my rescue far ahead of us. Then back at the stars. "Like he said, we have plenty of time to try both, Nori. If you want to try them with me."
"I just want to try sleep. And then more food."
I laughed. "What about love?"
"Tomorrow. After food."
"Then that's what we'll do." We walked back into town along paper-lantern-lit streets under clear skies.