"What the Hell do you think you were doing this morning?" Wish stormed into the common space in the wing of the Villa she shared with her systers and stood in front of Katrina with her fists on her hips.
"Telling him the truth," Katrina said.
"Telling what?" Wish said. "You had no right to say that to him, and you know it. It isn't true. If you don't want to fuck him, all you have to do is say so and he'll accept it. He has with me, and Freya, and Wren. You are no different." Wish leaned forward, her usually lovely eyes now as tight as diffraction slits. "Except that you are different. You're not the team Mother anymore, and I'm not sure why. You used to be so careful and so caring. You used to love me. What happened, Katrina? Why are you being such a, a bitch?"
No answer came to her lips, so she turned her head away. Silence passed. Wish said, "When you figure it out, come talk to somebody." She walked off, and as she did Katrina felt, in her skin, in her arms, her belly, an emptiness that was a room without Wish, or Wren, or Freya. Without Light or Dream. Or, she thought sadly, without Song. Wren and Freya weren't Light or Dream. Wish wasn't even Wish anymore, although she was closest to being who she had been.
Once upon a time.
And, Katrina reflected, she herself was probably furthest from being who she had been. Wish was right: Katrina was certainly a different woman from who Promise had been. With that thought in mind, she rose from the couch and walked out into the hallway, then up the stairs to Wish's room. She knocked on the door. "Wish?"
"Katrina?" The door opened and the perky Asian girl stood there, staring up at her.
"I'm not going anywhere," Wish said. "It is my room, you know."
"Can I-- Can I come in?"
Wish gestured with one arm thrown wide and Katrina stepped past her. She glanced around, her eyes taking in the pink wallpaper with the white rose emblems running in patterns from floor to ceiling, the white shaggy rug that occupied the center of the floor but did not quite reach the walls, showing the dark wood underneath. A tiny desk with a white, filigreed topcloth occupied one wall, and the chairs were also done in comfortable pink and red. Through the door, also done in the same soft white that seemed to be the main theme, she could see a bed big enough for two or three with an open wooden canopy. Pink and white scarves decorated the upper frame, and a lace curtain for keeping insects out, completely useless anywhere in the Villa but aesthetic, hung, carefully rolled up, from the ceiling. "Wow. I didn't know you could change it this much. It's like you turned this whole room into your old cubby."
"You can do anything you want with the space Dave gives you," Wish said. "I liked my old room at Whathisname's. I like this one more-- there's more room and I have my privacy." She knocked on a wall.
Katrina sat down on the plush, pink couch and pulled a pillow into her lap, needing something to hug. "Wish, how do you stand it?"
"How can you stand having so many... choices?"
Wish sat down next to her, making her feel curiously big and Mom-like again, but this time it was Wish who wrapped those slim arms around her waist and said, "Is that what's wrong?"
"It's some of it," Katrina sighed.
"And the rest of it?"
"Every time I open my mouth, now, it feels like I'm trying to say something hurtful, something that will drive you and Freya and Wren away from me." She hid her face in her hands and tried to cry, but even the tears wouldn't come.
"That's better than not saying anything at all," Wish said softly. "I'm so worried about you, Kat."
"That's just it!" Katrina said, suddenly enraged. "You're worried about me! What the fuck is wrong with me that you're worried about me? Aren't I supposed to be worried about you? Isn't that my job? Look at you! You're the same as you ever were! You're still happy! You're still whole! You're not being ignored and you're not being abused, and you've finally got everything you've ever wanted in life without that damned circuit and... " Now the tears came, fast and cool down her cheeks. "And you don't need me anymore."
"Because we're different now," Wish said.
Wish shook her head. "Don't make that mistake. Ken and Aaden and P'nyssa have all been very clear about it. Dave is free, and he has Purpose. If you let someone else define what freedom is, you give them the power to take it away. I was free with Whathisname. Free to be the Wish of then and there. I'm free now to be the Wish of here and now. I have always been free."
"Did you feel not-free when we were with Whathisname? Or is that just you think now that you're here, without the circuit?" Wish slid off the couch and onto the floor, a position Katrina had seen her assume time and again with Whathisname's clients and partners. It made her shiver. Wish looked up. "Katrina, you, this you, would hate being what we were with him. But those weren't the same people. We were different with him. And you need to learn who you are now. I did."
"But I'm not like you," Katrina said. "I'm not satisfied just being a fucktoy."
"That's not all that I am," Wish said. "And now I get to choose. That's like really important to me."
Katrina nodded, trying to understand. "Without the circuit, though, there are so many things to... to do. When I was with him, I remember that I never had these problems. There was no question about what to do next. It was always about him. Now..."
"It's about you," Wish said.
"But I don't want it to be just about me," Katrina said. "I was never just about me. But you don't need me, Wish. None of the others do either. So I have to... to find something to choose. And there are so many, so many things to choose."
"That's what life is like for ordinary people. And now we are ordinary people." Wish put her hands on Katrina's knees. Katrina knew it wasn't meant to be a suggestive gesture-- it was just Wish's way of getting her attention-- but it was a gesture Wish had long practiced for other reasons. It did get her attention, and some of the way that attention focused was not what she wanted right now. "And I bet part of the problem is that you want to take Ken's offer."
"You know me too well," Katrina moaned.
"I know me too well, too," Wish said. "And that's the important part. None of us can escape the fact that Whathisname's sellers could take their pick of genes and structures, and there are genes and structures that make us what we are. And a small percentage of human woman have the cheerful slut pattern, and that's what they gave us." She touched Katrina's face. "Don't deny yourself."
"I don't want to be a slave to his choices anymore!" Katrina cried.
"You're not. Nobody controls you anymore, Katrina. Just go do what your heart tells you. It's what I'm doing."
Katrina nodded, taking Wish's hands in her own. For a moment, she rubbed at smooth signs of muscle and tendon on the back of Wish's hands, admiring them, wondering if there might be anything more there. Whathisname had asked the least of Wish is the way putting on "shows" for he and his guests, and Wish had never seemed comfortable with her in that role. She pulled Wish up into her lap and held her. "I'll try," she said.
Wish climbed out of her lap. "Then go apologize to Ken. Maybe you don't get it yet, but Freya and I do."
She found him sitting by the boulder out in the villa quadrangle, sitting next to that strange carnivorous plant that Aaden cared for. He looked up as the door creaked open. That had to be deliberate. That door only made noise some of the time and she was sure that a certain AI was responsible for making that happen. The noise made Ken look up and take notice of her. He peered at her, his eyes wincing against the sunlight, and then went back to his book.
She walked over to him and sat down. "I'm sorry."
He didn't move for a long time. Then he slowly put the book down. She read the cover: Ovid's Heroines. His eyes regarded her with pain. "Really?"
She nodded. She felt stupid, just nodding, not knowing what to tell him. She felt that there was something different about him, today, something guarded. He had always seemed so free, putting his arm around Freya and Wish when they were around, even touching her when she least expected it, fingers to her arm or back or cheek. She had flinched and he had soon stopped, but there had always been that inviting attitude, that smile and regard. Today, it was not there.
"Let me tell you something," he said. "I could have let you all die. To some people's thinking, it wouldn't have been at all different from what you wanted anyway. You may not want it now, but that's not important: at the time, it could be argued, I violated your will. I asked my question very carefully. You wanted to live, but not without him. I only asked you if you wanted to live, and you said yes, and I fulfilled that need. I knew the reasoning. I chose to ignore it. To some, that makes me a monster. I took away your choice."
"But you gave me so many more."
"The end justifies the means?"
"No... but..." She flailed. Her anger for him flared hot, but she knew it wasn't meant for him. She didn't know who it was meant for.
"I heard Wish yelling at you. Katrina, I didn't save you so I could have something new and interesting to stick my dick into. I did it because I felt you deserved another chance. That, minus one self-destructive quality, you needed that chance. Shit, maybe I was wrong. At least I wouldn't have this Katrina here now to make snide comments about me."
She was shocked. His words had landed like blows. She felt bruised by them. "Was I wrong?" he demaned.
Her lower lip trembled. "No," she finally managed to choke off. "No, you weren't."
"But you still don't like the outcome."
"I don't know what I want," she said. She looked up. "Then why did you... this morning... ?"
"If you were offened by that, I'm sorry. I just... I've really wanted to get to know you all much better since I saved you. You've all been so closed up and tightly wound into yourselves. Wish came out first, naturally, and then Freya finally came out and told me what she wanted. There must be something there, some quality that you and Wren have that, like those two, is keeping you all tied up and quiet. I was hoping to get to know you better. It's the fourteenth century, Katrina, where intimacy is a harmless contact sport. The only thing at risk is your dignity." He grinned. "I wanted to get close to you and see if there was anything behind the impressive barrier you've put up between yourself and the rest of the world, or if the barrier was as impervious as you've made it seem. "
Katrina looked away, up at a window that someone had opened. She saw a little vine creeping over the sill and dangling. She knew how it felt. "I was never very good at it."
"Pleasing men," she said.
Ken put his book down. "I find that hard to believe. It's what you were built for. Some women get it by accident. These days parents might even plan for it. You had fifty years to perfect your technique."
"But that doesn't mean my heart was ever in it. Except with him." She looked over. "That's really what I hate about thinking about her... the old Katrina. She was really good at it with him. She adored him. When he called me... her, her heart would pound and her hands would get sweaty, and then..." She sighed. "It was so good."
"I can't promise you that," Ken said. "You're not purposed to find me the be-all and end-all of your existence."
"But you can't be a virgin for the rest of your life," Ken said. "Well, I suppose you could, but that sounds depressing to me."
"Don't you mean celibate?"
"No, 'virgin'. Your describing the old Katrina as 'her' is pretty good. You are a new person, Katrina, with a new life all your own." His hand touched her arm, running his fingers from wrist to elbow. "Try to enjoy it."
She shivered at his touch. "I like that."
"Really?" he said. He did it again. "You have beautiful hair, Katrina, and I love the fact that your arms are covered with these fine, bright blonde little strands. And no, that's not just because of my fetish for fur."
She looked up at him and wondered. He answered her curiousity. "It doesn't have to be me. I'd be honored if it were. You need to discover what you are on the inside and take care of yourself. There's a woman inside there who's waiting to get out. She just doesn't know what to expect when she shows up."
Katrina shrugged but didn't take her arm away from his gentle touches. "You're..." She shivered at the touch. He was sending such delicious sparks into her. She wanted him, it was true, but there was something missing from it. There was no one else to satisfy with her skill, no one anticipating her to pull off this service, but there was also no fear that she might not be up to it. Unlike many of Malati's acquaintences, Ken had put much of his life up for examination and she had read some of it. She didn't anticipate any unusual kinks from him, nothing she couldn't handle.
"Something wrong?" he asked. "Your face... you scowled."
"Are you jaded?"
His fingertips stopped for a moment and he withdrew his fingers from her skin. "I don't think so. I can't understand what the term 'jaded' means. Is there anything more important, more central to the human nervous system, than eating, sleeping, and having sex? Can you really get jaded from any one of those? I mean, I can get bored with the same meal night after night, but here I am a millenium later and I still want a good burger now and then. A little difference here and there goes a long way. And memories fade, leaving me with the need to refresh them, and I do that by repeating them." He gestured towards the house. "Dave keeps all the memories of mine that are really important. Who I have loved, why I loved them, how fresh I feel the memory must be kept to be relevant to me should I ever meet them again. When you live as long as I do, that's a lot of people, more than one brain can hold. There's nothing sad in having a backup storage." He grinned. "We used to call them diaries. So, no, I don't think I'm jaded. I think I'm just... me."
"That's what Wish said. She was just her."
"And Freya is not only Freya, but she likes being Freya. It's important to her. In fact, that's what she said the night I found out about her. 'I liked being me.' I provided a way for her to be her without doing permament damage to either her heart or her body."
Katrina nodded. "Okay."
"I accept your offer."
"Just like that?" he said.
"Just like that."
He reached out and touched the skin on her arm again, tickling the delicate hairs once more. She squirmed slightly, a sigh escaping her almost closed lips. "You like doing that."
"And you said you liked me doing it." She nodded. "Good. Then we'll do much more of it later." He blinked momentarily. "Tell you what. Why don't I come get you after your workout and take you to dinner."
"Where will we go?"
"A little inn at a town called Tuipalya. It's about seventy kilometers from here."
"I'll be ready."
She had just gotten out of the shower when she heard the most unholy roar from the open door leading to the north. It was deep and guttural and unbeleivably loud, and when she had finised dressing and come out she found Ken straddling a large machine. It was a bright red monstrosity that whined, and when it did she saw the grass underneath it bend away as if in fear. "What is that thing?" she shouted over it.
"This is a Mambo Technology Skybike Mark 2. Unbelievably rare. There were less than fifty made, and I think I found the last one in existence. Only the frame is authentic, though. The rest is cobbled together out of Pendorian kit parts, but the action is real." He pointed to a front faring. "There's an air intake there, and two of the smallest high-performance jet engines ever made on Terra underneath. The rest of it is computer power to make the nozzles behave, and fuel tanks. I cheat; these things have SDisks. But without them, it's got about a thirty-minute flight time." He smiled. "And it's a hell of a ride."
"Isn't in unstable?"
"Insanely!" he said, smiling. "Here!" He handed her a helmet, which fit her quite nicely. She pulled it over her head and felt the insides form about her head. He pointed at her chin, and she found the strap he indicated. Although it made her head feel heavy, it was surprisingly comfortable for all that. "Can you hear me now?"
She could barely hear the engines and his voice came through clearly. "Advanced predictive sound cancellation. Probably one of my favorite technologies. You have no idea how much computing power it takes. Almost as much as it takes to keep the bike stable. Possibly more. Get on."
She admired his directness. He had found a way to get the two of them within the usual distance of physical intimacy without at all implying that they were about to get intimate. It was a remarkable piece of suggestiveness. They had half an hour to get used to touching one another, all the time of which she would naturally spend in fear for her life and he would arguably spend driving.
Her thoughts were distracted by the power of the bike as he turned one of the handles and the bike lifted smoothly into the air, roaring like a dragon. She was so surprised she threw her arms around his waist without pausing. "Ooh, Aaden's not gonna like that," he muttered as he peered over the side of the bike and noticed the burned grass on the ground. "Next time, I use a Jialani." He turned the other handle and the bike leaned forward, taking to the air. "There's nothing subtle about these things. Just pure muscle, shoving a ton of steel and flesh into the air."
"Not like you at all."
"There's nothing subtle about me," Ken said. "I'm just who I am." He turned his head for a moment, leaned the bike to one side. It turned away from the sea and headed inland. Katrina watched as the landscape rushed by underneath them. The forested land gave way to low hills, then more forested land peppered with all sizes of lakes and streams. She spotted a large town to the south, and then Ken aimed the bike for a small clearing up ahead from which smoke could be seen rising.
He turned the bike around in a tight loop over the clearing, which was actually almost a dozen building arranged in a circle, the center of which was a loose stand of trees. He grunted for a moment, then began dropping the bike down behind one of the buildings. It landed smoothly and dropped down four spindly legs that Katrina was sure could not hold the bike, but they mananged nonetheless. Ken turned the engine off and removed a key embedded in the handlebars. "What do you think?"
Katrina felt curiously at a loss when he detached himself from her grip and dismounted. She had gotten warm holding him, and although she had tried the entire flight not to think about his manipulation, she had to admit that it had worked. He had reminded her that there was something to be said for the contact of two bodies. She wondered if the communication of two souls still worked. She scowled. "Katrina?" he asked.
"Just... remembering something."
"Something not too bad, I hope."
She shrugged and took off the helmet, tossing her hair. It whipped around and slapped at her face, a sensation she actually enjoyed. She gestured with the helmet and he showed her where it hooked onto the bike for storage. "I don't know yet."
He nodded. "I'll give you time."
"Where are we?"
"Oh, a little place I know." He led her inside, where a short Mustel, brown-furred with a huge splash of white from her chin disappeared into her shirt, stood watching them. "E'Lyn!" Ken said, giving her a hug. "How are you?"
"Business is slow this month," she said, returning the hug with obvious warmth. "At this rate, I may not get an LAU ROI this month."
"You have reserves?"
"I know a half-dozen AIs who would front me the LAU forever if they knew I was in trouble. I'm not. Who is this?"
"E'Lyn, this is Katrina. Katrina, I would like you to me E'Lyn, probably one of the best sommeliers in the universe."
"Oh, please. If I were that good, would I be working here?" she asked.
"You would if you owned the place. How's Gordo?" E'Lyn's face darkened and Ken reacted oddly. "Something wrong?"
"He left." She shrugged, but Katrina could see that mentioning it hurt both of them. "Got tired of it. I suppose two centuries is a bit of time. He left about halfway through your exile."
Ken nodded. "I'm sorry. I hope the current guy is good?"
"Better!" E'Lyn said with ferver. "There's no danger of you getting anything bad, but..."
Ken gave her another brief hug. "Sorry to bring up an old memory. So, what's the special tonight?" Katrina heard E'Lyn list a few things, all of which made her stomach growl. She hadn't realized just how hungry she felt until E'Lyn was leading them to a quiet booth. There were two other couples in the restaurant, if that's what it was, sitting and talking quietly. A bowl sat at the table, waiting for them with a salad of crisp greens, and two plates were already set aside. A bottle of wine also awaited them.
E'Lyn poured for them and said, "Ken, is Katrina...?"
"Yes, she is."
"I am what?" Katrina said.
"One of the four."
Katrina didn't need to ask 'four what?' She knew what they were talking about. E'Lyn reached out with one hand and touched her arm. "I think Ken did the right thing. I know I'm in the minority, but..." E'Lyn shook her head and looked up at Ken. "You don't know how hard it is for me to admit that. I don't have a stake in it either way."
"Sure you do," Ken said. "We all do."
E'Lyn didn't say anything. She just gestured to their seats, which they took, sitting opposite one another, and then left them alone. "What did that mean?" Katrina asked.
"Just that. I've upset the natural order of things, and E'Lyn is trying to reconcile what she knows about the Pendorian Way with what I've done. She's... accommodating. She's accepted that there's nothing she can do about it and she doesn't want to lose her admiration of the Shardik household. She's not sure there is a way to reconcile them. There probably isn't. Like most people, she'll learn not to look to closely at the dichotomy."
Katrina stared across the room to where E'Lyn had disappeared. "It really is that big a deal?"
"It really is," he said. "I did the right thing. The problem I have is, I can't explain why what I did was the right thing. Until and unless I can, I'm stuck. There may be no immannent punishment for me. There may be none at all. But that doesn't mean that what I did was right." He reached out and covered her hand with his own. "It doesn't affect you. You're an independent person, now. But..." he sighed.
"I didn't know."
"You didn't have to." He lifted his eyes to her again, and she could see the pain behind those calm, brown eyes. "Sinners make their own hells. Mine is knowing that I struck at the foundation I laid myself because I wanted to, not because I should have."
"I'm glad you did." She held up a hand to counter what she knew was coming. "Wish already gave me the then-and-now speech."
He grinned. "Good girl," he said. "I like her."
"She didn't change much."
"Oh, she's changed a lot. She just moved quicker than the rest of you." He smiled and sipped at his wine. "Ooh, I like this. It has a lovely vapor to it, curls around your sinuses like it's looking for a quicker way into your brain."
She sipped at her own and smiled at him. "Ken?" she said. "I accept."
"You already did," he said, gesturing towards the table.
"No, I mean... all of it. Can I stay with you tonight?"
He looked up at her, then smiled. "I would very much like it if you did."
Something inside her warmed to him as he said it. She had made her decision the way both of them had wanted her to, after all. But behind that warmth hovered the twin fears-- of discovering what she was like without Purpose in the presence of other people, and of discovering that she didn't like herself that way.
E'Lyn returned with plates piled high with fish and steamed and buttered vegetables and a soft breadroll-like thing filled with a sweet paste. When she was done, she settled back against the seat and sighed. "That was delicious."
"I'm sure Whathisname had better."
She shrugged. "No, not really. Different stuff, yeah. But what does 'better' mean?" She grinned at him. "Besides, we usually got ordinary food. He wanted us to be trim and perfect, and he didn't want to spend excess money on our maintenence."
"I suppose that's not too weird. It sounds so desperately unfair, though."
She shrugged. "What did you want him to do?"
"Treat you well."
"He did," Katrina insisted, feeling as if it were somehow wrong to be defending her previous owner. "He just didn't... indulge us in anything unnecessary."
"Which he defined."
"Well, yes," she said.
He took another sip of the wine. "I am definitely feeling this."
"Good," said E'Lyn, appearing almost magically beside them. She whisked their plates away, saying, "You're suppposed to. That's what wine is for. I never understood the tasters who spit it out."
She returned a few minutes later with two thin slices, pale yellow triangles of cheesecake. "Enjoy," she said.
Katrina watched Ken take a small biteful, tasting it, eating it slowly, before she tried some of her own. After she got past the amazing texture the taste of it flooded her mouth and made her feel warm and sated inside, even beyond what the food had done. "Sinful," Ken sighed.
"Creating your own hell again?" Katrina teased.
"Not this time," he replied. "Food can be comforting and pleasurable without being excessive. If all I wanted to do all day was eat, I'd have an AI whisk it out of my stomach before it got processed." She made a face. "See? Even you think it's gross."
"Do people do that?"
"I'm sure some do," he said with a slightly defeated tone.
"Well, I won't." She reached out with one finger to stroke tiny designs on the back of his hand. He closed his eyes and she saw a small shudder ripple over him. "I'll indulge in more ordinary pleasures."
"Extraordinarily?" he asked.
"I'll do everything in my power to make it so."
"I believe you." He rose from the table and offered his hand. She accepted it. "E'Lyn? We're going to bed now. Room one, right?"
"Room Two. Was it good?"
"It was perfect. Have you ever done it poorly?"
"Often enough to give me nightmares. But I was confident about tonight. I'm glad you came. I'll have breakfast ready for you when you rise. Now, shoo. And don't worry about the noise. The people in One will sleep through anything you do."
Katrina felt a twinge of envy, just a tiny one, at the ease with which Ken hugged the tiny E'Lyn and thanked her for her attention and her kindness. She shook her head as Ken reached out with one hand and led her up the creaking wooden brass-bannistered stairs polished with what must have been centuries of attention from people like herself. And Ken?
This was Pendor, where she had become used to doors that glowed with attentiveness and floors that creaked with warning, but here there was nothing like that at all. Here it was simply herself, Ken, and the lumber construction of floors, ceiling, walls, all embedded with a worked organic smell that knowingly seduced her into a state of calm. She had been terrified thinking about the evening, about what Ken had asked of her, what she had asked of herself, but ever since his appearance on that testoserone-soaked beast machine she had felt herself in the artistic hands of a master.
The word was not capitalized in her mind. She appreciated that. It was about an ancient art, and not about posession. And then, for a moment, she felt free to go. He turned to her, his face half-smiling, as if unsure. She didn't believe him to be unsure for even a second, but she believed that if she asked, he would take her home without another word.
She would disappoint only herself.
The revelation made her look up into his eyes even more seriously than before. His expression turned querulous, and she understood. He had everything he needed. His disappointment would be an expression of hers, and nothing of his own. "Sacred Experience," she whispered.
"Did you just say..."
She nodded. He said, "I suppose it is becoming something of a religion after all."
"I heard Wish say it. I wonder where she heard it."
Ken threw the door open and looked inside. "There are plenty of media that have that as its theme. I'm pleased to say that Beropper is not among its proponents."
"I never did understand what his point was."
"Himself. Believe me. I'm an expert on egomaniacs."
"I don't think you're an egomaniac," Katrina said. "I think you're something much more interesting." She walked through the offered portal.
"I'm flattered!" he replied as he closed the door behind. The room was done in the same resinous woods, the same sweet smells. The bed, worked brass head and baseboard and white, cotton sheets overlain with a lace blanket and a deep blue woolen cozy against the coming cold of evening. Next to the bed a wooden bedstand, stained deepest brown, holding only a porcelain pitcher and two tall glasses. Apart from the bed white, curtains on windows, drawn. His hands caressed her shoulders. She shivered. "I shall write you a partheniad."
"I hope I'll be unworthy of it."
He turned her about in his strong hands, asked her to look into his eyes. She saw nothing that affrayed her peace of mind, no threats-- nor the passive surrender tragedians had predicted would afflict those who lived for eternities. Ken, she saw, would, and would remain vibrant to those like her for all that time. "Then a nymphaliad."
She giggled. "That's not a real word!"
He smiled. "You never know." His hands held her shoulders, then one trailed down over her collarbones to her throat where narrow lacing held shut her tunic about her neck. "I'll certainly write something to honor you." His voice fell to a kind of wonder, as if he were looking at a gift of great price and was unsure if he could ever be worthy of it. For a moment Katrina wondered if she had been wrong, if he would have regretted losing this night with her.
She forced herself to look up into his eyes again. "Don't hurt me." Even as she said it she didn't know why she had or where it came from.
He stopped. "I don't intend to."
"Promise... " She stopped, swallowed at the repetetion of her old name, the hated name from a former life. "Promise me that this is not about you. Promise me that you won't... you won't do this to Wren."
He shook his head. "You're here of your own free will, Katrina." He gestured expansively. "You're free to go, too, of your own free will. But I do promise you... this is not just about me. I can't deny longing for you, but this, I thought, was something you wanted. It's different for Wren." He paused. "I'll leave her to you."
She sagged against him, suddenly. "Thank you," she whispered.
He wrapped his arms about her, protectively, paternally. It felt warm and wonderful, and she wanted him to be more. She tilted her head back and looked up at his face. He kissed her.
For a moment, they negotiated. Kennet kissed slowly, Katrina a bit faster. They found a medium, closer to his speed than to hers, lips pressed to lips. Katrina found herself hungry again, hungry for his attention. He had been a presence in her life for months now, friendly, cheerful, lacivious at times, but also quiet, moody, thoughtful. Now he was here, alone with her, and she felt herself shaken inside. His fidelity to her free will demanded her surrender, and his faith that she had such freedom was almost more than she could bear.
His hands reached the hem of her tunic and pulled it upwards. She let him pull it off with an easy gesture, then fell to opening the simple clasps that ran down the left side of his shirt. It pulled open and he shrugged out of it, dropping it to the floor next to them.
He pulled her to the bed and indicated she should sit. He knelt and unzipped the sides of her white boots, one hand for each, then pulled them both off at the same time. It seemed so easy, so skilled. It wasn't like Whathisname, who had simply insisted they come naked, or undress themselves.
Ken peeled off the socks and tossed them to the chair. His bare hands touched one bare foot, caressing it, and then with delicate care he lifted it to his lips and kissed the underside. Spikes of laughter flickered through her body to her lips, emerging as a giggle. He licked the ball of her foot, then kissed her toes. "You... " She giggled again. "You don't have a foot fetish!"
"Doesn't mean I can't develop one," he said. "Besides, I get to hear you laugh." He took her big toe into her mouth and suckled it.
"Stop using your tongue!" she demanded, writhing, trying not to kick him with the other foot.
"Aww.." He smiled at her. "I'm sure you can handle the pressure."
"No!" she screamed, secretly enjoying it even as she wanted it to stop. Was tickling always like this? Such a struggle between wanting it and hating it? "Stop, please!"
He relented. When he stood up she saw that while he had been teasing her foot he had also unclasped his pants. He stepped out of them, and his shoes, in one easy gesture, standing before her naked. Visually, he was ordinarily handsome, like many Pendorians, like many human mels these days. His body was trim, well-kept, and hairy from the waist down, his skin clean. His cock was... odd. "You're circumsized?" she blurted.
"You forget, I'm from the 20th Century," he said as he joined her on the bed. "Let's get these pants off you." He opened hers without waiting for her permission and let her peel them off, then took them from her hand and tossed them.
He kissed her neck, his naked body pressed to hers in a way she hadn't felt--
Ever. Her body went rigid, and he stopped. "Katrina?"
"Kiss me," she demanded.
He rose up and straddled her, his body covering her own, his mouth to hers. They kissed. He pressed his chest to hers, crushing her small breasts down, belly-to-belly, his cock against her thigh. She was stuck underneath him. She had never felt so needful, or so free. She whimpered as she reached up and pulled him down, her hands on his head and across his back, reaching down for his ass. She grabbed it and pulled him into her even as her legs parted of their own free will, but he broke the kiss. "No," he said. "Not yet."
"Why?" she whimpered.
"Because," he said, slipping down between her legs, "You deserve better."
His mouth touched at her cunt, her thinly-furred slit already dripping with her juices, already overflowing with hunger. She moaned as he licked at her slit, lapping up the juices in preparation for something more. He found her clit, buried his face in her slit, drank at the fountain that was her cunt, and then returned to her clit, each touch colliding down in her soul with her hunger, not quite relieving her. She felt her legs quiver with each stroke, her body thumping with a rhythmic rise and fall of desire. His tongue was a powerful motor attached to the pleasure centers of her soul.
Her hands found his hair and held him there. She could almost feel him object, could hear him gasp for air then return to his task. She didn't care. She was utterly lost in the newness of his act, the sensation of it. She had not known desire like this before could exist, had not known what pleasure was all about. There was something profound in being loved like this, something amazing.
He pressed his tongue hard against her. "More!" she groaned. She felt him gasp once more, his tongue busy against her clit, her body spasming with little climax after climax, until neither one could take anymore. She let go of his hair, he stumbled backwards, panting for the oxygen he had been unable to get with his mouth and nose pressed to her. "Oh, Ken..." she moaned. "Oh, God."
His body landed next to hers, heavily, his hands on her shoulders, his legs over hers, holding her. Blissfully, he said not a word until she came back down and returned the hold. "That's why not," he said.
She smiled at him, still dizzy with the pleasure he had given her, but wanting more. She wanted to feel filled with him, to surrender to him. She wanted him to give of himself. His mouth, however talented it might be, could not be described as doing so. She shifted under him, forcing him up onto her. She opened her legs to him. He nodded and slid his cock into her.
It was like being filled, like being connected to him in a way she could not have described a second before. It was the most intensely satisfying sensation she had experienced in her long life and she could not believe that she had willingly given it up for all these months.
And then he began moving. She felt his cock within her body shift, move, stroke. His body became a more solid, if that were possible, more forceful. She closed her eyes and luxuriated in the feel of his arms by her side, his hips between her legs, his cock within her body. The gentle slam of his waist against her mound, the feel of his hot breath on her face. When she opened her eyes, she saw him smiling down at her, benevolent, grateful. She blew him a kiss through the air, he replied with his mouth to hers, a loop, a circuit, the endless pouring of one soul into another. For a moment she felt as if she were falling into him, falling away from herself.
His body stiffened. She felt his kiss stop, hold for a necond, and then he cried out with unexpected pleasure. It swooped through her as well, a sensation of fullfilment, of accomplishment.
Inexplicably, she started crying. She looked up to see him peering down at her, concern in his eyes. He gathered her close and held her, but there was something else in his voice, something quietly happy. "It's okay," he said. "Let it out."
"That... It... I... "
"You," he said.
She held onto him for a moment, and when the tears had gone, held onto him for more. Eventually, though, that need fell away too and she was left to look at him. "I don't need him anymore," she said, finally.
"Good," he whispered. "I'm glad you don't." They didn't say anything else even as he reached behind himself and turned out the light all the way.
In the morning, E'lyn made them breakfast and bid them on their way. Ken had been gracious, offering her the shower first, taking her hand as they walked down the stairs, every bit the gentleman. She had been uncomfortable at first with him, but eventually she eased. He was going to ask no more of her without her first saying she would accept, and for that she was grateful.
When he started the skybike back up, she straddled it comfortably, taking hold of his waist as if she'd been riding behind him most of her life. They took to the air.
As they flew back to Shardik Villa, she said, "Ken? About last night... thank you."
"I'm not the be-all, though, am I?"
"No," she said, and heard him laugh. "You're better."
"Really?" he said. "Why?"
"Because... because I could choose you. What I felt last night was like nothing else I've ever felt before. It was so satisfying. With him, it was always about being prepared for it, about fulfilling my, my geas to him. Is that the right word?"
"Better than any other I've heard recently," he said.
"Let's call it that. But I can choose who gives me that feeling now."
"Maybe you've just forgotten what it was like with him."
"And I never want to be reminded of it, either," she said.
When they landed, Ken helped her off the bike. They put aside their helmets and he pulled her into a hug. "If you ever want a repeat experience, you know where to find me."
She nodded. "Maybe I will. Or with someone else. But... thank you for being so... polite."
He laughed. "My pleasure."