Honest Impulses 21: Loosened

Anar, Yavar 08, 03262

Shandy gawked at the tall, armored figures who had assembled at the far end of the dormitory building, setting up work lights and approaching the still-crawling demolition drone with caution. It was barely moving, its right side paralyzed, its left dragging it away from the building. Now that she was out of her suit she heard the incredible racket of the hydraulics engines. She recognized the suits immediately thanks to their blocky design and shiny red-and-chrome badges: lTP Service Engineer Suits, Type 2. “We can’t stay here,” Linia said in her ear.

Shandy nodded even as Officer Damarcius started running back toward her from the squad car. It was an anagrav car, quite a rare sight on Hiroshi. “You have to leave the quadrangle!” he said. “The engineers might want to use munitions. There’s a tent around the back of the main library where displaced students are getting help.”

Linia nodded, and led the way to the library. Shandy followed, resignedly. The tent was brightly lit, and if the people in it were cold, hungry, and tired, there were convective heaters circulating air through it, and warm drinks waited on a table. Trianna headed off, then came back with a femMephit holding a pad. “Oh, Chandra Oxenhollar,” she said, consulting the pad. “Grief, what happened to you?”

“Fell,” Shandy said. It wasn’t even a lie. “Face down and hit my nose.”

The fem whistled, loud. Shandy hadn’t known people with muzzles could whistle. Someone in the white-and-red stripes of an emergency nurse came over. Shandy patiently let him fuss over her, wiping the blood off her face and checking her nose with his own analyzer. “No concussion or breakage. But this is a lot more than just a fall.” He looked at her. “Wait. You were the one in the armor, weren’t you?”

Shandy nodded. “Aye.” She sighed. “I just wrecked my semester project in engineering.”

“Wow,” he said. “I hope you get an honorable recognition for that.”

“Thanks,” Shandy said.

The femMephit said, “You need to rest. Do you have your Handbook or a slate?”

Shandy tapped her glasses, and the fem reached out to touch them. “We’ve given you a room on the second floor of the Sky Inn. Room 212. It’ll open to your hand.” She twitched her muzzle. “I’m sorry we… can’t do more, or let you back into your room until the engineers are done.” A horrible metallic shriek filled the night. Every voice in the tent hushed and heads turned toward the dormitory quadrangle, but nothing more happened. The babble slowly returned. “Let’s hope they’re done soon.”

“Aye,” Shandy said, tiredly. Her body hurt in ways no body should.

Misuko hailed a cab. While they waited for it to arrive, Trianna said she’d make her own way, she had a different hotel anyway. “You were amazing tonight, Shandy. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.”

“Aye, Trianna. I won’t.” Trianna nodded, waved to the others, and disappeared into the night. The cab pulled up, a tiny narrow vehicle, and the three of them got in, and it carted off slowly along the lorry roads.

“Honey,” Misuko said, “You can go without sleep longer than I can. Why don’t you take Shandy to her hotel and make sure she’s settled in. I’m sure she could use the company.”

“You need my company,” Linia said. “It’s been a scary night for everyone!”

“More her than me, tonight.” Shandy watched the two of them.

“Misuko…”

“No,” Misuko said, shaking her head. “You need to take care of her, honey. She’s hurt and tired, and I need a good drone driver for the next expedition.” She grinned. “I’m perfectly capable of putting myself to bed, you know.”

Linia pursed her lips in frustration, then nodded. “Okay, I’ll do that.”

The cab reached Linia and Misuko’s apartment, and Misuko got out. “Be good to each other, okay?” she said, and she smiled. Shandy nodded, and Linia did too, reaching out with one hand to clasp Misuko’s before the taller woman walked into the building. “Sky Inn,” Linia told the car.

“Sky Inn,” it repeated back and started out onto lorry roads again. Shandy watched the roads, trying not to look at Linia. She couldn’t believe, wasn’t sure she wanted to believe, what it was Misuko had just said. She didn’t understand how it was possible. She had too many questions.

They reached the hotel, a squat four-floor construct along the northern edge of the city, with a view of the plateau and the desert stretching for miles. It was one of those hotels that in summertime boasted a view of both sunrise and sunset unhindered by clouds. Shandy couldn’t see the appeal: Hiroshi’s blue-white sun, smaller and hotter than a G7, wasn’t anything like the glory of Abi or Sol. Painted white and blue, with outdoor corridors leading to the rooms, the hotel looked dingy and tired.

“Linia?” she said as they got out of the cab. “Did Misuko order you to come with me?”

Linia smiled. “No, she didn’t. No more than any other couple gives orders, or argues. We don’t fight that often.”

“But you do argue?” Shandy said, shocked.

“We have,” Linia said as she summoned the elevator.

“Why? Why would you have a fight? I mean, are you no supposed to be…?”

Linia smiled. “More than anyone else, except maybe her parents, Misuko and I have the capability to hurt each other. We know more about each other than anyone else. We fight for the same reason any couple does: so much is at stake. So much is at risk. When what I believed about Misuko doesn’t line up with something she says, I get scared. The same thing is true of Misuko. We argue to… to make our case for ourselves, I guess. To get out how vulnerable and exposed we feel toward each other, and please, let’s get this cleared up before something terrible happens.” Linia led the way into the elevator.

Shandy thought back to all the times her parents had fought. There had been times. It had always been about either money or Shandy’s unusual hobbies. Her mother had always been worried that Shandy was going to end up unhappy, unwomanly, unCatholic, and her father had been worried about setting boundaries and borders on Shandy’s life too soon, before she had figured out what made her happy. And yet they had agreed on so much, and stayed together and faithful for such an unimaginably long time.

Shandy had to open the door. The room was cramped but clean, the single, broad bed draped in an ugly coverlet of patterned orange squares, the lighting raw and meant for reading before any other activity. Linia adjusted the lights so only the one around the corner in the bedroom gave them any illumination. “It’s okay,” she said.

Shandy suddenly felt impossibly weary, as if there were two of her in the same body. One wanted to sleep until Sunday, the other wanted to stay awake and watch Linia, be with her, hold her. She sat down on the bed and took a deep breath, hoping extra oxygen would help.

“Shandy?”

“Aye?”

“Are you okay?”

Shandy nodded. “Why did you come?”

“Because Misuko said I should, and because she’s my guide to what it means to be a full person.” Linia grinned. “I’m not like one of those stories about a robot that wants to be a human being. But everyone has to learn how to be a person. It’s not as easy as it looks.” She smiled. “I didn’t argue because she was right. She can put herself to bed. There’s no sword hanging over her head. But all this is going to disrupt your life, and then there’s the fact that I need to get my head checked and I don’t trust our local robopsychologist.” She grinned. “I so need De Ette to come back.”

Shandy smiled at her. “The way you say her name… do you love her?”

“De Ette? Yes. She’s one of my closest friends. And pretty much the only person I trust to check my code. But not like that,” Linia said, grinning.

Shandy nodded. “You said she was married.”

“She is. But it’s not the married part, it’s the monogamous part,” Linia said.

“Oh. How would it work if you and me…” She caught herself before she could say more, embarrassed that she’d given voice to her fears so clearly and precisely. “No mind.”

“No, it’s important,” Linia said, sitting next to her. “We should talk when you’re feeling better.” She put her hand on Shandy’s. She smiled, and Shandy saw awkwardness in that smile.

“‘Tis something you want to say.” Linia nodded. She blushed, and Shandy had never before imagined a robot could blush but Linia surely did. “I want to hear it.”

Linia looked away. “When the second QUIP hit, the one when I was close by… You were the one who turned me over.” Shandy nodded. “And when you did, I looked up. I couldn’t talk. A lot of me was scrambled by Mertum’s QUIP and my mind fighting off his virus. But I could remember your name. And I could remember that I loved you.”

Shandy inhaled sharply, but the word warmed her all the way to her lap. “Linia?”

“Misuko… Misuko worries all the time that I’ll leave her. All of her other loves have. I won’t. She likes that I have my own life, and that I want it, and that I want you this much, but it makes her nervous.” She squeezed Shandy’s hand gently. “What makes me nervous is that whatever we have, if we take that step, it won’t last. It can’t. We could be friends forever, but lovers… that would have to end. And not so far in the future.”

Shandy looked away. “Aye. I figured that part out for myself. It would… it would hurt.”

Linia’s hand left Shandy’s and slid up her arm to her neck. “Yes. But Misuko told me that it has its advantages. We don’t have to learn to live with each other’s bathroom habits, or whatever other shortcomings we might have. We’d be exposed and vulnerable, but not about the little things. Or the bigger things like having to meet your relatives.”

“Aye, how would ever I explain that?

Linia chuckled. “There’s one more thing. I want to earn your respect. Not just in the limerance of now, which I’ve felt since our first night in the kitchen, but for as long as we live. For as long as we’re in each other’s presence, I want to earn your love, every day, thoughtfully, without any programming, actual—” With her free hand she pointed to her head. “Or cultural.” Her other hand slipped around to touch Shandy’s cheek.

Linia’s touch made Shandy shiver. Linia’s words did even more. “You make it sound so simple.”

“I’ve lived with Misuko for years. I know how that kind of love works. This kind, I don’t.” She shook her head. “I want to, for your sake. I think it is simple. But simple isn’t the same as easy.”

“Aye,” Shandy said. “But ‘tis what I’ve known I wanted ever since I met you. I’m sorry I ran. I had this, this line in my head. I thought ‘twas you keeping me from crossing it. Is it right?”

“I can’t make that decision for you. And I’m not asking you to be open to anything except to Misuko’s kindness.”

Sitting, Shandy was just a bit shorter than Linia. She turned to the other woman, leaned closer to her. Linia returned the lean, and when their lips met Shandy felt as if she were being filled with a healing breath. Her bruised body ached, and she felt the aches as she pushed herself up to kiss Linia harder, but they were delightful aches, comfortable aches, deserved aches. Just as much as the ache in her chest that had nothing to do with physical injury.

Something loosened inside Shandy. She reached up with one arm and put it around Linia’s shoulders, pulling the other woman closer. Linia released her momentarily, just long enough to lean back and guide herself down to the bed. “Come here,” she said. Shandy willingly went, and now she leaned her body against Linia’s, feeling the other woman’s warmth and solidity under her own. She draped one arm over Linia’s torso, her face buried against Linia’s neck. She sighed, and smiled. Her body still ached, but it was distant and clear, as if it had no intention of getting in the way.

Linia seemed just as content as she was to not move further. They lay together, idle, Shandy’s hands touching Linia’s chest. After a while, Linia kissed her hair and said, “There’s one other thing.”

“Aye, always is.”

“What do you want?”

“I do no understand.”

“Shandy, I’m the one with the head full of ‘recipes’ and the experience of having had two lovers in the past, neither of whom was very inexperienced when I met them. Neither was I, not really. From the moment Steven activated me I had a library of experience derived from all the sex robots Steinroor Cybernetic Channels, Incorporated, had produced over the years. But what do you want?” Shandy lifted her head to look up at Linia. Linia was looking up at the ceiling. “Do you want to make love? With me, I mean.”

Shandy put her head down and squeezed her eyes until tears leaked out the sides. “Aye. I think so. I have dreamed so much, thought so much about what it would be like. I have wanted that along with everything else ever since I met you. I can no believe have much I’ve wanted you.” Her skin raged like a fire with embarrassment.

“I can,” Linia said, her chest rising and falling with a deep breath. “Almost from the start. I didn’t understand it. I still don’t. Why you? Why so sudden? It couldn’t have been that you were from Abi, you didn’t even tell me that first time, and it was that first time, when I was riding away from dropping you off and I could feel it, count in my head, all the ways my subconscious was whispering, Shandy, Shandy, Shandy…” Her voice dropped to a whisper.

“I still can no believe it.”

“Sorry,” Linia said.

“Nae,” Shandy breathed. “I’ve no heard anyone ever talk like that about me. ‘Tis no ever been something I wanted. No there, no in Ottiwells. No man or woman there had my attention.” She raised her head, pushed herself upward, and kissed Linia. “Is there a ‘recipe’ for what two women do?”

“Many,” Linia murmured. She smiled. “From beginner to proficient to very, very advanced.”

“What does the the beginners’ recipe say?”

“There are two things every recipe needs. They’re the salt of everything.” Linia pushed Shandy over onto her back, looked down at her with a smile. “Enthusiasm and attention. If you’re paying attention, you know when to do more, and when to do less. And if you’re enthusiastic…” She leaned down and kissed Shandy. Shandy tilted her head, pressing upwards, tasting Linia’s lips. She felt the other woman’s upper lip between hers, felt the slide of her own teeth across that lip, felt Linia’s tongue slip along her own lower lip, caught as it was between Linia’s. She whimpered, pressed up harder.

She’d always thought kissing was a preliminary, a way to start but not a thing to enjoy of itself. She’d been so wrong. The feeling of Linia’s body on hers, the glide of Linia’s free hand along her warm, aching body, the sound of Linia’s gentle whimpers. She made sounds of her own, sounds she didn’t know she would make and didn’t know she could make.

And then Linia’s hand was under her shirt. She felt Linia’s skin against her own, and every fear that Linia’s robot nature might have detracted from her experience evaporated. That has was as alive and lively as anything Shandy could have imagined. She felt those fingers on her belly, felt them as Linia touched and explored and moved upwards, toward Shandy’s breasts.

“Shandy,” Linia whispered. “Do you like having your breasts played with?”

“Aye… I think so. I have no one ever touch them before. Except me.”

Linia’s hand crept over the soft crease of her breast and bra, caressing one nipple through the fabric. Shandy felt it flush and harden, and Linia gently pinched it in the webbing between two fingers. She giggled. “I’m remembering that for later.”

“Later?” Shandy said.

“Not too much later,” Linia reassured her.

The kissing went on, and Shandy alternately wondered when later might come and how she could keep the kissing going forever. She wanted to touch Linia. She wanted to taste Linia. With one hand she gently pushed Linia over, pulling up the fabric of Linia’s t-shirt and kissing the other woman’s belly. Linia sighed. “More, Shandy.”

“Aye.” She kissed Linia’s navel, admired it for a moment. Linia was not of woman born, but she had all the sculptural requirements to pass as one. Shandy giggled.

“Hmm?”

Shandy blushed. “Aye. I’m sorry, but I keep thinking about your nature.” She touched Linia’s navel. “I was thinking how pretty this is, and wondering who chose its shape. ‘Tis probably weird to wonder about your love’s mother at a time like this, though.”

Linia smiled and reached up to touch Shandy’s face. Shandy turned her head and kissed Linia’s hand. “But not wrong,” Linia said. “The only wrong thing is to hurt the other person. Or yourself.”

“Aye,” Shandy said, and resumed kissing. Linia hadn’t put on a bra in her rush to get out and rescue Shandy. She’d worn only sweatpants and a blue t-shirt under her larger riding jacket tonight. “You did no ken what you were running to when our connection broke.”

“Hmm?”

Shandy kissed Linia’s torso. “I just thought. When we were talking. You did no ken the danger. You just came.”

Linia didn’t say anything, but her hands were in Shandy’s hair, touching her head, as Shandy pushed the shirt up to expose Linia’s substantial breasts. She’d never been this close to another woman, not like this. She kissed one breast and Linia growled softly, arching her back just a little. Shandy took one nipple in her mouth and sucked gently. She didn’t know quite what to do. “Linia?”

“Try using your teeth. Just the bottom ones.”

Shandy did, and Linia’s soft gasp told her she’d found what Linia was hoping she’d find. Linia’s gasps were part of what she wanted, but not all of what she wanted. She wanted to love Linia, to let her know that she was loved, that she was lovable. She faltered, lowering her head to press against Linia’s chest, and stopped.

“Shandy?”

“I feel so foolish. I have no right, no cause to be here.”

“What?” Linia sat up. Her shirt fell down across her stomach.

Shandy looked away. “‘Twas wrong of me to think you needed me to tell you someone could love you. Someone does.” Shandy felt Linia’s hand on her cheek and flinched. “Don’t.”

“Shandy, I don’t need it. I want it. I want you. You’re not going to tell me, now, that my sense of taste has gone all wrong, are you?” Shandy looked up at her. “I know what it is. You’re from a different tradition than me. Shandy, in my role as hostess I learned one very important thing: no matter how badly you think you’re doing, if the patrons says you did wonderfully, thank them. Never, ever, ever question the patron’s taste. Always assure them that their taste is spot on.”

Shandy giggled. “Aye.” She shook her head. “‘Tis a miracle how you and Misuko both know so much how to say the right things.”

Linia kissed Shandy’s forehead, then her cheek. Shandy felt her lips as they approached her own. Linia eased Shandy back down to the bed, and Shandy went. “Shandy,” Linia said. “Let’s take off these clothes.”

“Aye.”

Shandy sat up, and started to pull at her own tunic. Linia stopped her and pulled off the tunic herself. “Now me.” Shandy eagerly grabbed the material of Linia’s t-shirt and dropped it next to her own clothes. They looked at each other in the dim light.

Shandy had never looked at another naked woman before, not in this way, and she liked what she saw. Linia’s breasts were large and wonderfully rounded, her waist soft. Shandy reached out and touched Linia’s chest, her hands slipping around one breast and then down to her navel again. She found the elastic of Linia’s pants and tugged. “These too.” Linia lifted up her butt and Shandy pulled the sweatpants off her hips, down to her knees. She barely had time to register that when Linia had left her home, she’d moved too quickly even to put on underwear, that she was completely naked under those two articles of clothing. Soon she was sitting on the bed with a naked woman. “God.”

“Okay?”

Shandy nodded. “More than that.” Shandy reached out and touched Linia’s thigh, made herself register the skin under her fingertips, made herself know this woman’s body. “So more.”

Linia smiled. “I want to see you naked, too.” The rest of Shandy’s clothes took no more effort than Linia’s. She’d remembered to put on underwear, but otherwise each had grabbed the quickest clothes she owned.

Linia descended on her. Shandy was surprised by Linia’s fierceness as the other woman kissed her, hard, and then her mouth was trailing its way down Shandy’s body. She put her hands into Linia’s hair, felt the thick, strong sheafs of it between her fingers. “Aye, aye…”

Linia’s mouth reached her belly, and Shandy’s imagination failed her. She’d never thought anything could feel like this. The way her whole body suddenly sang with lust, with desire, pride, hunger. She’d always known this was what she wanted. A woman who loved her: who wanted to show her love by giving her such fearless kisses.

Linia’s kisses touched her thigh, touched where her pubic hair started. “Linia, sorry…”

“For what?”

“For no trimming it, like you do.”

“You don’t have to,” Linia said. “I like it this way.” She kissed further down, and Shandy gasped. She didn’t know if she wanted Linia to move this fast. She did, but she was afraid that there might be something off. Unpleasant. It had only been a few hours, including one long, comprehensive shower and then a sweat-and-bruise inducing battle in primitive powered armor, since her encounter with Cal.

The only thing stronger than her fear that she’d be inadequate was her desire to let Linia do what she wanted. “Whatever you want,” Shandy breathed, and Linia’s mouth came down on her pussy. Shandy sucked in her breath, and Linia’s hand gently pushed her legs apart. Shandy looked down the length of her body, saw her heavy thighs is the air and Linia’s head between them, felt Linia’s mouth reaching deeper into her sex, heard the strange liquid sounds of Linia’s lips and tongue against her lips. Linia’s tongue invaded her body, sending a powerful shiver through her, and then that tongue was seeking out her clit, touching it. The sensations were so strong Shandy hissed momentarily and Linia backed off, circled her clit, paid attention to Shandy’s moans and read Shandy’s needs.

“Aye,” Shandy said. “Aye. I love you.”

Linia moaned softly against Shandy’s flesh, the little soundwaves tickling and reverberating inside her. Linia’s tongue flickered. “More,” Shandy whimpered. “More.”

The smell of her own wetness reached Shandy’s nose, and it made her self-aware again, but she tried to push it aside. Linia would let her know if anything was wrong. Shandy closed her eyes and settled back, letting her hands play in Linia’s hair, touching the other woman’s face, as Linia licked and kissed her. Shandy sighed deeply and relaxed, spread her legs a little wider, and Linia took the hint, pressing in harder and faster, advancing on Shandy’s clit directly until the pleasure growing inside Shandy burst forth in a shuddering, moaning climax that was unlike anything she’d ever felt in her entire life. “God, god!

“Shandy?” Linia shifted to lay next to Shandy, propped up so she could look down on the other woman.

“Oh wow,” Shandy said, looking up at the ceiling. She put a hand to her forehead, and tears formed in her eyes. “‘Twas more than… more than I ever thought… I deserved.”

Linia grinned down at her. “You deserve everything the universe could possibly offer.” She kissed Shandy’s cheek. “Whoops. Sorry. Forgot to clean up first.”

“Nae,” Shandy said. “Come here.” She reached up and guided Linia’s mouth to her own, their kisses trading the wetness Shandy and Linia had just, together, smeared all over Linia’s cheeks and chin.

Linia lay against Shandy, this time her head in the crook of Shandy’s neck and shoulder. “‘Twas the beginner class?”

“Mmm-hmm,” Linia said. “Although to be honest you don’t need much more than that. Fingers, tongue, and teeth are all most people need.”

“Do you and… no, I should no ask.”

Linia giggled. “A few other things. Nothing too advanced. Compared to Steven, Misuko’s tastes are very vanilla. A few toys, nothing too crazy. She’s big on doing it in the shower.”

“Aye, I can understand why. Maybe it’s an Abi thing.”

“According to my records, lots of people like doing it in the shower, either alone or with a partner.” Linia’s voice was soft and seductive. “What do you want, partner?”

Shandy shivered. She couldn’t believe she’d finally come, with someone else, and it had been so different from what she’d expected. Still wonderful, but not in the way she’d most expected. “I no ken. I want to kiss you like you did me, but I do no ken what to do.”

“Well,” Linia said, giggling. She pushed herself into a sitting position, then rose and threw one leg over Shandy body, straddling her head. Shandy was shocked to find herself mere centimeters from Linia’s pussy. Linia’s pubic hair was thick but carefully trimmed, a neat garden of fur covering her opening. “You know where all the parts are, right?”

Shandy looked up the long length of Linia’s torso, up past those beautiful breasts to that smiling face, those wide and lovely eyes. “Aye,” she whispered.

“Which part do you want to kiss first?” Linia said.

“All of them,” Shandy said as her eyes flicked back to that gorgeous shield of black hair. She reached up with her hands to pull Linia’s hips downward until Linia’s pubic hair tickled her lips and chin, until the smell of Linia’s sex hit her so hard and made her feel as if she’d never experienced anything better, not even that wonderful llerkin incense Linia had showed her a month ago, and she reached in and kissed with all her heart. “Yes,” Linia cooed. “That’s it. You know where to go.”

“Aye,” Shandy said before diving back in. She moved her hands around until she felt the fullness of Linia’s butt against her palms, guided Linia’s pussy to her mouth, opened her mouth and struck out with her tongue. Linia’s sex felt slippery and sweet, and Linia’s lovely inner labia were as easy to map with Shandy’s tongue as any obstacle course would have been with her fingers. She knew nothing about the look of someone else’s pussy, but she had touched her own often enough to know that the lips led upward, and she pushed her tongue until she found a swollen little point. She flicked her tongue back and forth across it.

“Uh-huh,” Linia sighed. “Right there.” Shandy’s eyes flickered up the length of Linia’s body. She was leaning forward, holding herself up against the wall behind the bed, her head nodding downward in a beat that matched Shandy’s tongue.

Shandy licked at Linia’s pussy as if she’d found the one meal Linia could give her that no one could ever reproduce. Shandy had missed being held and touched, being loved and hugged. Being worthy of someone else’s physical love and pleasure.

“More,” Linia whimpered. Shandy felt the hard touch of Linia’s fingers as the other woman reached down with her left hand and held her labia apart. “There. Harder.” Shandy saw Linia’s other hand, arm bent against the wall, clenched in a fist.

Shandy dove in with all the enthusiasm in her heart, her lips sealed to Linia’s pussy, her tongue pressing as hard as she could. She was drowning in Linia, holding onto her, loving her. “Uh, huh, uh huh,” reached her ears, the pitch going higher and higher until suddenly Linia threw her head back with a loud gasp, her chest heaving, her body shuddering. Shandy’s own desire soared, her heart glad, her soul aflame. “Slow down,” Linia said. “Down.” She pushed herself away from Shandy’s happy hands and lay down on the bed next to Shandy, hugging her, holding her. “Oh, Shandy… Thank you.”

Shandy nodded, unable to still form any clear words of her own. Pride, lust, gluttony: her list of sins went on forever, and she no longer cared. There would be a reckoning later, but for now— for now— she had what mattered. “Aye, you’re so welcome.”

Linia kissed her, gently. “We’ll have to do more of that.”

“Aye. Coming days.”

“Coming days,” Linia agreed. “But you should go to sleep.”

“I’m no tired,” Shandy said, her hands exploring the rise and fall of Linia’s torso, from her ribcage down to her butt, stroking the skin, trying to imprint the image of this impossibly magnificent woman onto her brain.

“You should be,” Linia said.

“I’m afraid to sleep. I’ll wake up and it’ll be a dream.”

“I’ll still be gone. Misuko is expecting me home tonight.” Shandy felt a stab of disappointment, but she couldn’t argue. What she had been given was a gift granted her by Misuko and Linia. “Just know that when you wake up, I’ll still be your friend. I’ll still love you.”

Shandy nodded, and then the tears began. The magnitude of Misuko’s generosity overwhelmed her even as the conflict between the decency of these people and the old habits of her homeworld grew evermore stark in her imagination. Linia didn’t say a word, just gathered Shandy into her arms and held her, and Shandy cried tears that were joy and admiration and terror and desolation, at all the lives she could have lived, all the people she could have been, all the pleasure she could have found or could have neglected. “Too much,” she whispered.

“What is?” Linia murmured, kissing her hair.

“‘Tis too much, the happening.”

“Take your time to work it out,” Linia said. “Give yourself permission to.”

“Aye,” Shandy said. Linia had been right. The bodily aches returned, her eyes felt glassy and heavy, and her limbs signaled their reluctance at each order she gave. “I’m tired.”

“Come on,” Linia said. “Under the covers now.”

Shandy let Linia pull the covers of the unfamiliar bed aside. It was soft and comfortable, and Shandy felt protected and safe. Linia cuddled up next to her. Shandy could still smell their lovemaking, hers and Linia’s juices drying on her face and her pillow. She smiled at the warmth of it all even as she fell asleep.