RAIN

"Did'ya see that?!" The bus was accelerating and the corner of Washington and Sardis quickly receding, but the young woman doggedly clambered over the man seated beside her and pressed her nose to the window. Her nostrils flared as she exhaled, and a warm blast fogged the glass and obscured the scene that she had so desperately sought to catch another glimpse of.

By the time she'd swiped her arm across the condensation, they were on a completely different road. "Damn," she uttered, settling back in her seat and crossing her arms.

"What was it, El-N?" the man she'd climbed over inquired. There was an inflection in his voice that suggested that he was more than mildly interested. He had to know what she'd seen and what she had to say about it. Anything El-N had to say was important, even if it wasn't important; so, if it was something that she actually found to be important, naturally it was particularly important, and he must hear it.

"I don't know if my mind was just making it up," she confessed, still looking vexed, "considering all I've heard about this place. But I think, I think I just saw a man grab a woman by her shoulders and kiss her."

"Well," was the noncommittal reply, accompanied by a fidgety gesture, an adjusting of glasses, a tiny shrug, "they do that here. This is a very different place from home."

"I know that, Ayryck, don't patronize me!" El-N snapped back, eliciting an almighty flinch from the young man. She continued, glowering. "It just caught me off guard, okay? It's my first time on Earth, I've never seen a man do it to a woman."

Ayryck was still wincing as though her words had been physical blows, lowering his head and pressing his hands to his face, utterly abashed. "I'm sorry! I didn't mean to come across as...that is, I was only saying...I'm sorry. Forgive me."

"You only have to apologize once, Ayryck." But, when his eyes finally dared to dart over her face, he saw that she was smiling.

He let out a small sigh of relief. His glasses were smudged, and he started to clean them. "So." He waited politely to see if she would fill in the silence; when she said nothing, he gave her a tentative prompt. "So [cough]. You saw...a man kiss a woman?"

"I thought I did, at least," she said with a shrug. (Was there an edge to her voice? Was she being defensive? He couldn't tell. Oh no...if she was getting defensive, that had to mean she thought he didn't believe her...) "I've heard about it happening, and there was a man and a woman standing right there at the corner, and...well, see, I might have made up what I saw. We went by so fast. But it could have happened. You know. Since they do it here."

He was only too happy to corroborate. "Right. Of course they do. I'm sure that's what you saw." Relief again. She couldn't think he didn't believe her now. He ought to throw in a supportive smile, but when he turned to look at her he was faced with a nondescript blur. Oh, damn. Glasses. They were actually leaving a small stain on his shirt as he wiped at the lenses. What was this crap on his glasses? Probably some sort of pollution-laden, Earth-based toxic residue. This city was so thick with industrial waste he was astonished that residents could walk about without protective masks. To his knowledge, the whole country was like this. Feh.

"I also heard that they don't have partnerships of different genders, and they don't want them, isn't that ignorant?" El-N mused, half to herself. This did not make her words any less important, and Ayryck stopped cleaning his glasses to pay attention. "Why did we come here?" she went on abruptly, this time addressing him so that the importance of her words was unquestionable. "It's interesting, it's different, I'll give it that, but I feel like I'm going to have a miserable time, Ayryck! And we've only been here for two hours!"

He jolted as though he'd been electrocuted and promptly dropped his glasses to the filthy bus floor. "El-N, w-we wouldn't have come if you hadn't agreed to visit in the first place-! I-! You-! I-it was your choice to come here, h-have you changed your mind-?!"

He was cut off when El-N, without warning, grabbed his collar and demonstrated the proper way of kissing. She was refreshingly charming as ever, giving his ponytail a yank as they parted, a mischievous glint in her eye and a laugh caught between her throat and her teeth. "You flakin' idiot," she grinned, sweet, affectionate, loving, "don't you know a joke when you hear one?"

Ayryck was appalled that he hadn't realized her complaints had been in jest...how could he be so careless?...but he hid it with a flush and a smile. "The jokes I know usually involve bars." Oh, he hoped that didn't come across as sarcastic...

But she released her laughter, letting it ring heartily through the confines of the bus, boisterously bouncing off the heads of the other passengers (who seemed rather scandalized at this display and tucked themselves deeper into their hats). El-N loved to laugh, and laughing was not laughing unless it was loud. For that matter, she liked all things loud: if she wasn't laughing, she was shouting.

She's so free, Ayryck thought to himself, swelling with modest pride as he ducked under the seat to retrieve his glasses. Free to do what she likes. Free to choose to live with me, to share what she wants with me. And these poor, delusional citizens who sat with them on this bus, what did they have? Their lives must always feel as cramped as the quarters in a bus...hm...or perhaps a better metaphor is that they missed their chance to take the bus, to leave Earth when they could have, should have, and now they were trapped in this totalitarian nightmare.

Well...not entirely a nightmare, or he and El-N wouldn't be here. They came for really only one reason, for the Luna Community had really only one downside: weather. It was not that they had poor weather, but that they never had any weather. The Moon can only boast a meager, tenuous atmosphere, and due to the lack of air they'd built the Community entirely indoors. They had parks, yes, and pools to simulate lakes...but there was always a roof over your head. Stifling. Artificial. This was the one thing that ever bothered any of the members of the Luna Community, and even then, that number was composed of only the individuals that had ever spent any time on Earth. The new generation did not mind, and they were happy.

The Christian State of America had weather, even though the atmosphere was thick with pollutants and the ozone layer floundering. Ayryck had visited once before, with his parents, when he was a child. It had rained. He'd never been in the rain before. He'd thought it was a shower and started to take off his clothes. His parents, still caught in the mentality of pre-Luna times, stopped him.

Now he was back and he wanted to share rain with El-N. He hoped with all his heart and mind that she would like it. The rain would make up for the inconveniences she would have to experience in this country, this country where everything was running backward, where people blindly followed a god and a man who spoke for this god, where a gun was found in every hand, where men kissed and raped women, where diversity was nonexistent, where nothing new or innovative or uninhibited was embraced.

He and the rest of Luna were tolerant of the State's way, but they gracefully agreed to hate it. The State was receptive of the tourists who came from the Moon to enjoy the weather (tourism was a grand industry, indeed), but the people did not find it necessary to extend civility towards these interplanetary guests: they were cold, indignant, and not at all willing to listen to Lunar policies. How very rude of them, how small-minded!

It wasn't raining. It was sweltering and humid and pushing 100 degrees, but the sky hadn't opened in the two hours they'd been here. Since there was no weather on Luna, it wasn't publicly taught, but Ayryck had read in books about rain. This was late summer, and storms were latent. He thought El-N would like storms in particular: crashing thunder and flashing lightning fit her gloriously fierce and free personality perfectly. He hoped, anyway.

"Damn, it's cold on this bus," she chattered, rubbing her hands briskly over her thighs before pulling at the hem of her skirt a little, so that it now reached midway between her hips and her knees.

"It's the air conditioning."

"I know what air conditioning is, Ayryck." She grinned at his briefly horrified expression and poked his shoulder. "Chill out, Ryck. Won't be too hard to do on this bus." She laughed at her quip.

They reached their hotel shortly thereafter, spilling out into the sauna and thawing almost instantly. With their own bags in hand, they made their way into the lobby. There was a brief ruckus when El-N yelled at the doorman for holding the door for her ("What do you think, I can't open a door myself?!"), but they managed to reach the eighth floor without having to endure too much more offensive effrontery. Nevertheless, the incident had put El-N in a sour mood.

"So that's how they do things here, huh?" she seethed, swinging her suitcase onto her bed. It flew open and her clothes were strewn artfully across the sheets. "Chauvinists!"

"Misguided," Ayryck agreed earnestly, setting his luggage on his bed and leaning over the desk to check the glowing red numbers of the clock with his wristwatch. "They still think women are weak and useless. And these were once our countrymen, part of the same society...can you believe it? You just can't get through to these people."

"Wouldn't hurt to try," she retorted, restlessly moving to the window and shoving it open. "It's too cold in this room. Ayryck, don't you think we should do something for these idiots? For the women!" She leaned out the window and flung her fist out above the street. "HEY WOMEN!"

"El-N-!" Oh jeez, oh shit, she was almost too free for this place. "We have to respect their...I mean... Th...they aren't going to listen, anyway."

She lingered by the window for a moment longer, staring down at the line of cars and the steadily shuffling crowd and officer on his horse who was busy keeping both streams of traffic from mixing. "No, I guess they wouldn't," she acknowledged, mild as she could ever get. Her eyes tracked a chaotic flock of pigeons as they fluttered over the crawling, systematic traffic. "Not like this. Busy little bees are getting pollen for their hive right now. I'll go in and dance for them later...lead them to a new field of flowers."

He loved her sense of dramatics. "Metaphorical today, aren't we?"

She turned and cocked a grin and an eyebrow at him, giving the window pane a tap and scoffing, "Yeah, well, bet these morons wouldn't know a metaphor if it similed at them."

What a terrible joke. It would have worked much better in writing than delivered orally. Ayryck laughed, of course. "You're in good form today, El-N. Good jokes."

She snorted and walked past him, heading for the bathroom. "Liar. You're just saying that. I need to pee, then I want to go to a park." She didn't bother shutting the door behind her.

Ayryck sat on the edge of his bed and stared at the ceiling. It looked as though someone had taken a cigarette and burnt the shape of a cross in the drywall. You found those things everywhere in this country, made out of any material or any medium. Isn't it supposed to be sacred? he mused silently. Shouldn't there only be a few of these things around? It seemed more like a logo than a symbol. But then, that was how religion worked. Religion is propaganda, religion is merchandise. Visitors from Luna even bought little crosses on chains to bring home as quaint little souvenirs...did the State know that, or did they think they were making "converts" out of these people? Hah. Ayryck smiled to himself.

The only right belief was no belief. Can't blindly follow something that can't be proven to exist. Religion promotes immorality, in any case...it only brings violence. Can't have violence. Luna refuses to tolerate violence.

"THERE'S NO HOT WATER!"

Ayryck jumped. "What?"

El-N stalked out of the bathroom, slapping her hands dry on her skirt. "Let's go. Now. I want to see a real river with real willow trees and real wind in my hair, okay?" she snapped.

"It's not very windy today, but we'll do our best," was the stammered response. He went to close the window.

"Hey, leave it open! I'll turn into a flakin' popsicle if we walk back in here later and that window's shut."

"But if it rai-" He stopped himself. He still hadn't told her about rain, he wanted so desperately to surprise her. "It...it's a custom of the culture here in the States. Never...er...leave a window open when you leave a room."

She laughed derisively as she swung her pack over her shoulder. "We aren't a part of this culture, Ryck."

He stared for a moment, uncertain how to respond without offending her. "That...El-N, that doesn't sound very Lunar of you. We're supposed to be tolerant. This is the way they do things."

Her eyes, usually laughing, bursting, full of so many colors you couldn't choose just one to apply, settled on green and became intense. "Yeah. Right. Isn't what they do wrong, though? And don't say," she growled, "that there is no 'wrong way'. Luna wouldn't have been founded, otherwise. We wouldn't have split from the old United States and gone our separate way if 'everything' was okay."

Ayryck was, to say the least, utterly confused. Where had this come from? What on...what was El-N talking about? And how could he possibly hope to answer her questions without crossing swords with her?! She was too, too good at putting him in these impossible situations...but she had every right to make him feel uncomfortable. For how many centuries had the reverse occurred? He took a deep breath and spoke diffidently. "I...don't have an answer, El-N. All I know is...is that right and wrong are relative..." Oh, stupid. Wrong thing to say.

"That is bull shit," his partner sneered. "We're right. They're wrong. When everything is said and done, they chose to stay here on Earth, swinging their crosses and beating the shit out of the rest of the world. And they aren't misguided: they know what they're doing, or they would have gone to Luna." She waited, staring at him, daring him to contradict what she was saying. He couldn't possibly disagree with what she was saying, her words were so sensible.

What he ended up doing was to stand and quietly inquire what park she wanted to visit.

At first El-N was furious that he was attempting to change the subject, to avert her attention elsewhere, as though what she had to say was so much fodder that could be tossed aside in favor of discussing the mere matter of traveling to a park. But then she hesitated. It was not in her nature to hesitate, so for another moment she had to ponder what this unfamiliar sensation was, thus creating a longer pause in which nothing happened. She squinted her eyes at Ayryck, intently trying to read his expression.

He repeated his question, even softer than before.

He only wanted her to enjoy herself...he was changing the subject because they'd come here to have a good time, to celebrate their new partnership, not to bemoan the problems with this idiotic world.

"I thought I saw one a couple of blocks away, when we were in the bus. Let's go there. We can walk."

And when Ayryck smiled in relief, she chose to kiss him. He was simply too endearing and modest to bear without kissing him every once in a while. Though she couldn't help but see, in the back of her mind, the man and the woman on the street corner. The man stepping up to the woman, taking her face in his hands, pulling her close, kissing her.

It made her sick. It made her curious.

They left the hotel and fell into step with the masses, sticking out like sore thumbs with their bright clothing, her cropped neon hair, his flowing ponytail, the very way they carried themselves as they walked. Here and there one could spot stray couples such as El-N and Ayryck -other Lunar tourists looking quite out of place- but these two seemed to draw more looks, perhaps because of their comical difference in height. But they ignored the haughty glances and went their way, El-N turning her own blazing, defiant gaze over drone after drone, Ayryck watching the sky almost continuously through his dirty lenses.

"Damn, it's hot!" El-N groaned after about five minutes of this, and before her partner could reply, she yanked off her tank top in one fluid, expert motion.

It would not do the ensuing episode justice to call it an uproar. There may not even be a word in the English language that one could apply to the situation and be both accurate and eloquent in illustrating it. Suffice it to say, it was quite some time before the officer on his horse excused them with a warning (they were, after all, hopeless tourists from that psychotic commie cesspool in a lunar crater), and even more time before he convinced the crowd to go about their business as usual.

El-N was incensed. However, she kept her furious whispers to Ayryck and herself; she now understood that no matter where she was from, she was here in the State and subject to its jurisdiction for as long as she remained. "How the hell can they survive like that?!" she hissed as quietly as possible, which meant she had to bend awkwardly over to be heard. "A flakin' millennium or two of men ruling the world makes the woman's body shameful! Oh, that's rich! And when finally women are allowed to free themselves from these imposed inhibitions, they refuse and stay here in this...this nightmare!"

Ayryck thought of earlier, on the bus. Was this country a nightmare? But where else could they have traveled to in order to celebrate their partnership, in order for him to introduce her to beautiful rain? Europe had basically ceased to exist after the third World War, and the East Asian countries were still trying to recover, and virtually every other country in the world was unendurable, below their set standards...where could they have gone but to an even worse nightmare? This was almost a paradise compared to the rest of the world. He shuddered at the thought. Nothing compared to Luna, naturally. Nothing.

El-N was still talking, he realized with a jolt. He hadn't been paying attention! Well, he mustn't suddenly look as though he was listening now, or else it would be obvious that he hadn't been listening only moments before. So he changed nothing of his walk or expression and listened. "Okay, fine, we still get some of our resources from this place, but we're almost totally independent, so pretty soon they aren't even gonna have that going for them. Yeah, soon all this hellhole's going to be good for will be to serve as entertainment for us...I mean, they've already got the tourism thing down. I'd be glad to pay money to come here and laugh at these brainless automatons." She demonstrated, throwing back her head and laughing as they passed the front of some old government structure from the pre-war days that the State hadn't yet torn down. This drew a few odd looks, but now there was ample distance between their present location and the scene of the shirt incident, so they were not recognized.

"Yes," Ayryck said.

They arrived at the park, which was surprisingly well maintained considering current environmental policies. Neither El-N nor Ayryck were really aware of what those policies were, but it was logical to assume that they were nothing the State could brag about. Nevertheless, the grass was green, the trees were thick, and the little pond's serene surface shimmered. There were a few benches littered about the edge of the water, and each one was occupied.

"Oh." El-N looked disappointed. "I wanted to sit down with you."

"We could sit on the grass," Ayryck suggested shyly, "it looks dry." It hasn't rained recently. No rain. Wasn't it supposed to rain?

She shook her head firmly. "No way, I'm not dressed for that, I need a bench." She seized his hand and started to drag him towards the nearest seat, where there certainly wasn't room for both of them. She saw who was sitting there and hesitated for the second time in less than an hour. How unnerving. "Ayryck," she murmured in his ear (she was starting to get tired of keeping her voice down, but something about the hush of the park demanded tranquility more than any library could). "It's a black woman."

He squinted through his smeared glasses and yes, there she was, sitting with her legs neatly folded and her knitting in her lap, eyes closed, head cocked to one side as though listening...listening to their conversation? He flinched. Let El-N do the talking. He would never be able to live with himself if he somehow managed to offend this black woman.

El-N's own eyes were closed, but unlike the woman on the bench, her jaw was tight, and her clenched hand was tightening painfully on Ayryck's fingers. "I can only imagine," she uttered slowly, acrimoniously, "the sort of hell minorities have to go through in this country. No, no, I can't even imagine... All the people left here, the ones who didn't come to Luna...they're all what's left over of the old Republican Party, right? Conservatives? They're the ones...you know...they hate..." She swallowed, too angry to speak. And then she let go of Ayryck's hand. "I'm going to go talk to her."

"W-what?" he stammered.

"I'm talking to her," she repeated. She put her hands on his shoulders, but it was not to embrace. She was bidding him to stay. "I don't want you coming, the last thing I want is a man's presence to intimidate her."

He nodded fervently. "Of course."

So he stood at the water's edge, cleaning his lenses, while his partner strode up to the bench and sat beside the resting woman. She was not much older than El-N, and she was quite pretty. She was pregnant.

El-N's stomach turned at the sight, but she scooted closer and elbowed the woman in the side, gently. "Hey."

Dark eyes opened. "Hello."

"I'm El-N. From Luna. You know much about Luna?"

The other woman digested this while she straightened, picking up her knitting needles. She did not look at El-N, but stayed gazing calmly in the space in front of her. "Celia. And of course I've heard of Luna. How are you liking your stay here?"

El-N realized that she ought to ease into the subject she wished to discuss, and decided to go ahead and make conversation with this woman. "It's all right. I'm visiting with my new partner."

Celia smiled. Knit one, purl two. Knit one, purl two. "On your honeymoon?"

"We don't call it that," was the stiff response. "That word's outdated."

"Of course. It carries implications."

El-N cast a suspicious look at the knitting woman beside her, but her face betrayed no emotion. Knit one, purl two. "Uh-huh. So, Celia. I see you're pregnant."

"I am."

For some reason, the direction and flow of this conversation was more than irritating to El-N, it was positively infuriating. She'd have to take the reins and plow ahead. "Y'know, if you lived in Luna, you wouldn't have to be pregnant. We're in the midst of discovering alternate methods...growing babies elsewhere, I mean...test tubes and whatnot...the women on Luna will never have to have their bodies abused, never again." She cocked a knowing grin, even if she still hadn't caught the woman's eye.

Celia kept knitting, unfazed. She seemed to be staring into the lake, but it was difficult for El-N to follow her gaze for some inexplicable reason. Knit one, purl two. "So it's true, then," she spoke up, and although nothing else about the woman's demeanor changed, her voice was penetrating. "You don't have sex on Luna?"

El-N flushed. "Of course we have sex. We just don't get pregnant, we've had operations. Can't conceive naturally. The next generation of synthetic births will be composed of babies with that function already in place...lack of that function, I mean. But we have sex. We have loads of sex." She was growing defensive, insistent without realizing it.

"Mm-hm. So how many of you couples are actually going to raise babies from this next batch? Lord knows raising kids is time-consuming, you have no time for yourself any longer."

El-N didn't want children. She wanted time for herself. She already knew this, why was this strange woman telling her this? She shook her head to clear it, then leaned in close to Celia. "That's why I'm concerned for you, Celia. On Luna, I'm allowed to choose not to take on one of those babies. Here, you have no choice. How are you going to survive? How can you possibly be happy here? There is so much you are not allowed to do in this country, so many regulations imposed that you can't even be yourself...your race, your culture, they're sucking the pride out of it."

Celia halted in her knitting. "My what?"

El-N ran back over what she'd just said, trying to find what Celia was confused about. She was incredulous. "Your race. The African American culture. It can't possibly be surviving in these conditions, can it?"

There was a long pause, filled only by natural sounds: willow leaves rustling, ducks splashing and quacking, a low rumbling in the distance...though that might have been a truck on the street. There was perhaps a full minute of silence between the two young women before Celia slowly, steadily turned her head. She was still not looking at El-N. Facing her, eyes aimed in her general direction. Not looking. "And what," she articulated with pronounced deliberation, infusing a new level of frigidity with each word, "does my 'race' have to do with anything?"

It hit El-N quite suddenly. Celia was blind. That's why she wasn't looking at her, not rudeness. But...but...how to respond to...why was she faltering in her answer?! ...Did she have an answer...?

"Honey, everything okay?"

El-N blinked up. There was a dark man, Hispanic, hovering over the bench and looking down at Celia with concern. His eyes drifted over to El-N.

"I'm ready to leave whenever you are," Celia replied warmly, immediately abandoning the iciness with which she'd spoken to El-N.

The man, her husband, smiled a beautiful smile and leaned over his wife. He kissed her. "Then let's go."

El-N looked away. Celia was sitting, unable to see what was coming for her. He was standing, in control of the situation. Celia let it happen. She let it all happen.

El-N stood and left them, her mind swimming.

Were they all blind in this country? ...Color blind? If what the State preached was conformity...then everyone who stayed behind after the country's split would have conformed. Diversity was nonexistent, multiculturalism had died...but...everyone was the same. Under this theocratic, totalitarian rule...everyone was the same. Wasn't that...wasn't that what Luna wanted? Or was it? White culture had won, was dominant. That was bad, right? Very bad. All those other cultures had conformed and been swallowed by white supremacy.

That didn't change the fact that they were all the same. All...equal?

The sky flashed, and she blinked up in confusion, her thoughts flying away with a nagging breeze that had just started to whistle through the trees and ruffle her hair.

Ayryck was standing beside her, staring intently between the sky and her face. "Did you see that, El-N?"

She was annoyed that she'd been driven from her musings. "Yes, damnit, how the hell could I miss the whole flakin' sky lighting up?!"

Ayryck flinched, cowed, turning his head and shying away.

El-N stared at his profile: his averted eyes, his glasses slipping down his long nose, the fuzz on the lower half of his face, the barren expanse on the upper, the light hair swept back behind his ears. She stared down at him and wondered, for the first time, what he was thinking about. She opened her mouth to ask him-

KRBMMMMM.

She jumped like a cat as the air exploded with sound. "What the-?!"

Ayryck was still shrinking away. "It's okay, El-N, it's the weather, it's called a 'storm'..."

She lashed out and grabbed his hand, yanking him close. She didn't know what to think. She'd read about the war, she knew about all the weapons they had here in the State. She'd thought that explosion had been a bomb. She'd thought...

Ayryck, clasped in her hand and squeezed up against her side, felt that she was trembling. How silly. El-N doesn't get scared. She's untouchable in that respect. Nothing fazes her; she's the strong one. She's so beautiful and strong. What would become of him if she should ever be scared? He almost laughed to think of it...absurd...he'd never be able to cope with it.

It started to rain.

"What...what...?"

She's confused, not scared. She can take care of herself. "It's called 'rain'. This is what I wanted to show you. This is why we came to Earth."

El-N could only stare up. The sun was gone, hidden by the colossal, grey, leaking clouds. Electricity streaked across the sky, accompanied by another ripping roar of thunder. She could feel it under her feet. And the rain poured down on her upturned face, cold, very cold, drenching her hair and her clothing, oblivious to her mind...her cause...her life.

She could do whatever she wanted in the rain. The rain didn't mind.

"Ayryck..."

He looked up, beaming like she'd never seen him beam. He loved rain, it was obvious. "Do you like it, El-N?"

"Ayryck...I want you to kiss me."

The smile stayed on frozen on his face. He was too stunned to conjure up a new expression to meet El-N's request. He barely managed to choke out a "What?" from behind his petrified grin.

"Kiss me. I'm not going to kiss you this time. You kiss me."

He'd finally had enough time to register what it was she was saying. He was flabbergasted. He even tried to untwine himself from El-N's grip. "El...El-N, how can you say that?! Oh...I couldn't do that, are you...are you... I can't! It's wrong!"

She held onto him. "It's not wrong if it's my choice, is it? I'm choosing to let you do this. I want you to swoop me into your arms and kiss me, all right? Is that too much to ask? I want to see what it's like."

"Oh, El-N, no, no...I really can't, it'd be...it's demeaning to you, it will make you feel...insignificant...I can't do that to you, El-N, please. You don't want it."

El-N was caught between anger and laughter. She had to choose one. She grinned at him. "Now, Ayryck. That was careless. You said that I don't want it, and I definitely do. Isn't telling me what I am supposed to think a little worse than respecting my wishes and giving me my flakin' kiss?"

She regretted her jest, even if she'd kept it in good nature. Ayryck looked close to tears. She wondered what would have happened if she'd decided to be angry about it...she wondered why she'd never realized how sensitive he was before this... She'd known about his sensitivity with regards to sympathizing with her own emotions and thoughts and feelings...but not about his personal sensitivity...his vulnerability. His...weakness.

Yes, weakness. She thought of Celia's husband and his beautiful, confident grin. There had been something in it that she found herself attracted to. Not the beauty, but the confidence. Ayryck was never confident.

"Kiss me," she said again. "I swear I don't mind, I want it. And you'll be happy about it, too, I promise."

He looked so uncertain, so like an abused puppy...an abused spouse. Partner. I can't force him, she thought suddenly. I need to tell him that it's up to him, after all...his choice.

But then he stood on his toes and gave her a quick peck on the lips.

At first she was startled. She had been ready to give up on him complying with her wish. And then there was this alien sensation...a perfect sensation... She smiled through the rain at him. "See? That wasn't so bad."

KRBMMMMM.

What the hell had he just done...how could he have done that to her...? But...but she was smiling. She liked it. He was starting to feel numb in this rain, numb and confused. His glasses were still smudged; the rain wasn't washing them clean.

El-N took his hand. "Do you want to go home?"

He snapped out of his daze. "To...to the hotel?"

"To Luna. Do you want to go back to Luna?"

He stared. Why did it sound like she was asking an entirely different question? And she didn't have to ask him. It was up to her. Let her answer the question. "Do you?"

She smiled and shrugged. "To tell the truth, I'm not sure. But I'm ready to go when you are."




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