Light on Shattered Water


          "You handled that well," Mai said as we stepped out of the fug of the tavern and into the dark of the night air.  Heavily overcast now, the moon a barely discernable lighter smudge against the clouds.  Upstream, the lights on the Redmale bridge were a string of glowing pearls against the darkness.  The warmth of the day was still fading and the air was thick with a promise of rain.  I tucked my hands into my jeans pockets.
          "Ah, she's not so bad." I shrugged.  "I was sort of expecting something like that.  And thank you."
          "Ah?  What for?"
          "For standing by me," I smiled.  "Friend."
          In the pale glow spilling from the tavern windows she smiled in return.  "Anytime." Then a hand gently swatted my arm, "Come on, we should head back."
          "All the way?" I asked dubiously, thinking of the miles back to the Palace.
          "Just as far as the Mediator Hall.  Just over the Redmale bridge.  We can ride from there."
          Oh, now they were a taxi service as well?  "They do that?"
          "For you, certainly."
          "I guess difference has its advantages," I smiled, then looked up as a few drops hit my shoulder.  "Uh-oh, you feel that?"
          "What...?" She looked up and got a fat droplet on the muzzle, shook her head and flicked a pink tongue across her nose, "Huhn, A.  Maybe we should hurry."
          We weren't even halfway to the bridge when the heavens split.  The opening shower didn't feel like rain, it was more like a solid mass of water that fell, hit the roofs and the streets and rebounded into a spray that hung around our ankles.  Waterfalls started from the rooftops, falling to shatter on the cobbles; rivulets formed, pooling and merging into small streams flowing across the wharf to the river.  Mai stopped and looked up and grimaced at the downpour, her fur already plastered to her face.  Then she chittered and grabbed hold of my arm, "Come on.  This is closer."
          "Where..." I started to ask, but she was already pulling me along, up a narrow side street where sheets of water cascaded down from the darkness of overhanging eaves high above and crashed to the cobbles in the centre of the alley, spattering us even as we hugged the walls.  "Mai?  Where are we going?"
          "Just up here," she urged me.  In the gloom the puddles were impossible to avoid and the dampness started invading even my waterproof boots.
          At the next intersection Mai and I huddled in the meagre shelter offered by a doorway, her sodden fur pressed against my arm as the dark bulk of a wagon laden high with goods rattled and squeaked across the road ahead.  The driver was a shadowy figure buried under a drab-green oilcloth that glistened with water and reflections from isolated windows.  As soon as it was past we darted out to brave the elements in a short dash across the thoroughfare to the darkness of a building entryway.
          A dark tunnel through the outer wall of the building.  The feeble blue glow at the ends of the tunnel could only be considered illumination when compared to the gut-blackness of the rest of the passage.  Falling water curtained the arches at either end in sheets of flickering light.  Glimmers reflecting from a stream of water wending its way down the centre of the passage on its way to the street.  In the gloom Mai shook herself off and I could follow her shadow against the light of the water curtain as she stopped at a door.  I heard a key rattle in the lock.
          "Where are we?" I asked.
          "Somewhere dry," her voice replied.  "Come in.  Careful, there's a step."
          I did so, stumbling a bit on uneven wooden flooring.  Mai closed the door and what light there'd been was gone.  "Mai?"
          "Right here," a voice spoke, almost in my ear, then a damp hand touched my shoulder: "Come on.  Stairs here."
          "What is this place?" I asked as she helped me find my way up a steep and narrow staircase.
          "Huhn, it's nothing like your rooms," she said.  Pale light washed into the stairwell as she opened a door.  "It's comfortable though."
          I stepped in behind her, standing there dripping on the wooden floor and uncertainly looking around at shadows and darkness: A loft room, not very large.  The only light seeping in was a pale glimmer from an opened window through which I could see rain drumming on a tile roof, producing a low hiss that pervaded the room.  Enough light to see the low bed of thin pallets against the wall opposite the window and a small desk with a rickety stool where Mai was crouched.  Steel struck flint several times, sparks flashing in the darkness.  Tinder glowed as she breathed on it, then a flame caught, painting her face with wildly flickering light and shadow.  I watched as she transferred the flame to a small oil lamp that sputtered and smoked and eventually settled.  Dancing orange light fenced with the shadows as a breeze blew through, casting enough illumination that I could see the coarse and somewhat threadbare sheets.  At the foot of the bed a patch of darkness resolved into a heavy, iron-bound chest.  A small carving of a Rris hung from the wall above the desk.  Opposite the door there was a small stone fireplace, some bare shelves and cupboards on either side of the chimney.
          "You live here?" I asked.
          "A," she sat on the stool at the desk and smiled up at me while water dripped from her fur and puddled beneath her.  "Of course.  It's not like my rooms at the Palace, but it's further up the hill than my room in the Cracks." She saw my puzzled look and elaborated: "That means it's better than the last place."
          Oh.  I blinked.  Back home I had a walk-in closet only a bit smaller than this.  Better?  What had her other place been like?
          Perhaps she saw my expression.  She looked a bit hurt.  "It's dry," she said a little defensively.  "And it's a place to sleep."
          "I just thought... After everything, they would be paying you..." I trailed off.
          "Ah, the pay's good," she smiled and rubbed hands through her facial fur, shaking water out.  "I'd never be able to afford this otherwise.  Anyway, it's all I need."
          "Oh." Floorboards creaked as I crossed over to the window.  Just outside that a water-slicked tiled roof sloped away, and below that darkness and rain shrouded a small central courtyard.  There was a scraggly little garden down there with trees and bushes just visible in the shadows.  A cloistered walkway cloaked in blackness ran around the periphery of the ground floor of the atrium.  Here and there around the courtyard glimmers of light were visible through the gloom: faint light escaping shuttered windows.
          "You'd better get out of those," Mai's voice spoke up.
          "What?" I turned away from the rain drumming on tiles and leaves.  Her vest was already hanging near the fireplace and she was shucking her breeches.
          "Your clothes?  You'll drown if you stay there." She nodded at my feet.
          I looked down at the puddle forming on her floor.  "Oh.  Sorry."
          She chittered, then wrung her breeks.  A stream of water pattered on the floor before she shook them and hung them up alongside her vest.  While I unbuttoned and peeled off my sodden shirt she unfolded a threadbare piece of cloth and vigorously toweled off, tousling her fur into a fluffed-out mess.  Looking like a cat that just come out the worst after a tussle with a tumble drier she crossed over to the old chest.  Hinges squealed as she opened it and rummaged around inside, producing a familiar roll of dark red leather.
          "You're lucky you don't have fur," she grumbled as she unrolled her grooming kit and set about raking a comb through tangled fur.  "You don't have to worry about this.  Ah, you can hang those over there.  Ai!  Shave this."
          "Fur's got its advantages," I observed as I hung my shirt and gingerly sat on the edge of her low bed to undo my boots.  Awkward connotations: her room, her bed.  A situation that might have meant something else if she were a human.  I glanced at her sitting there working some order into her fur and made a conscious effort to try and relax.  Not so easy to do while I was pulling off my pants and my damp skin was pebbling in the cool air.  A distant rumble rolled over the city: far-off thunder.
          "Mai?" I asked, somewhat self-consciously.  "Would you have something I could wear?"
          Maithris looked up at me, slightly puzzled, then the light dawned.  "You're cold?  Sa!  I didn't think... Pestilence, I don't think my clothes would fit you.  Would a blanket do?"
          It did.  A coarse-woven gray blanket, the only one she had.  I hung my clammy clothes up and then sat on the edge of her bed with the coarse sheet wrapped around my shoulders, watching as Mai fiddled with the small fireplace and feeling like a freeloader.  "I'm sorry.  I don't mean to be such a burden."
          "It's all right," she said over her shoulder as she laid a fire in the small grate.  "I should've thought."
          "Ah, you can't do everything." I rubbed my hands and pulled the blanket a little tighter.  "Perhaps I could grow fur?  That might make things easier."
          The Rris chittered and dipped a piece of kindling into the flue of the lamp, catching a fragment of light.  "A laudable suggestion, though I think people might still notice the difference."
          Carefully, furry fingers carried the tentative flame to the grate.  It flickered as it caught the chimney draught, then touched the kindling.  A tiny glow, larger flames spreading.  Maithris added pieces from her meagre pile and sat back on her inhuman ankle joints watching the flames grow.  "That'll help a bit," she said and flowed to her feet in a single quicksilver motion.  "Hai, Mikah, if you want to make things easier, could you just keep that going?  I have to use the water closet or something's going to burst."
          "Uh, yes.  I think I can handle that."
          She smiled and reached up to stroke my cheek on the way past to the door, still wearing only her fur; "Just be a minute," she told me.
          I stared at the wooden planks, hearing a faint creak of a floorboard as she descended the stairs, then I shrugged and crossed to the fire.  It was going fine.  Make-work, I realised with a slight smile.  I fed the flames a slightly larger piece of wood and stood up, adjusting the blanket and looking around, the desk catching my eye.  It was well used: ink stains and a few scratches marred the surface.  A sealed inkwell sat beside a small wooden box, just large enough to hold a few quills.  Four well-used, leather-bound books were stacked toward the back of the desk.  I touched the uppermost, tracing out the Rris markings on the beige cover: [Revelation?  Insight?] of the Body, I laboriously translated.  Inside were columns of printed text and intricate sepia wash and line drawings of Rris bodies, body parts, organs... An anatomy textbook.  About what you'd expect a doctor to have.
          Beneath that was a thinner volume, dogeared and bound in a crinkled black leather cover with no title or text anywhere.  Inside, a crabbed script covered page after page, interspaced by occasional line drawings.  They were... proficient, but not overly impressive: sketches of organs and anatomy with notes and labels dotted in the margins.  I traced a drawing of a Rris skull and looked at a notation in the margin.
          "A chir'it standing?  In the eyes.  See how mistrach se... sechre? ..."
          I couldn't make any sense out of it.  I flicked through the pages, then stopped and went back when some sketches in the last entries caught my eye.  I spread the book open and stared.
          Pictures of me, of a human at least.  I leafed through the latter pages, seeing sketches of my body, anatomical details, my hands and head, details of my eyes and ears, notes and measurements in that tight handwriting in the margins.  She knew more about me than I did.  Was this what she was doing?  Simply studying me?  Making notes?
          And from behind came the soft click of the door latch closing.  Mai was standing there in her bedraggled fur, watching me, head tipped to one side.  Her eyes flickered from the book in my hands up to my eyes.
          "I'm sorry," I said, moving my hands away.  "I didn't mean to... If this is personal..." I glanced at the black notebook, then at her and appealed: "Mai, what is this?"
          "Ah.  My work."
          "But these...?"
          She sighed, walked over to look down at the page: a picture of a human, similar to Universal Man, but with more familiar features.  "As I said; my work.  I'm supposed to look after you.  I'm doing what I can but... you aren't Rris." She waved a shrug and turned the page: a portrait of my face.  "You don't act like Rris, you don't think like Rris."
          Another page: a picture of my eye.  A clawed finger touched below that, then reached up to stroke the skin below mine.  I still flinched at the sensation: "You don't [perceive] like we do.  I'm trying to understand how you do, what you are.  The differences in how we think, the similarities.  That doesn't offend you?" she asked.
          "No," I gave a small shake of my head, then slowly closed the book.  "I'm sorry."
          Maithris patted my shoulder, then shifted the hand to toy absently at the longer fur on her chest.  "Mikah, you're not something to be studied; you're a person.  I know that.  Different from us, but still a person." She ducked her muzzle and looked up at me with slitted pupils, an almost coy look.  "A person I like."
          I returned a tight smile.  "Thank you," I whispered, "friend." Then reached out to brush down an errant clump of fur on her shoulder.  Outside, the rain picked up, drumming on the roof and Mai glanced past me, then flicked her ears.  "And I thought you were going to be looking after the fire."
          "I was... Oh, shit!"
          It wasn't dead, just resting.  Just a bit of poking to bring it back to life.  Mai watched my efforts to restore it, amusement in her expression, "Tell you what," she smiled, "I'll forgive you, on one condition."
          "What?" I asked warily.
          She tossed something my way, I plucked it out of the air and turned it over: her brush.  "You help me with my fur."
          I laughed.  "A deal."
          So she sprawled out on her stomach on the hearth, head laid on her forearms while I sorted through her grooming kit and picked out a broad-toothed comb.  She rumbled softly as I started working the worst of the snarls out of her back.  "This happen every time you get wet?" I asked.
          "A, most times," she replied, already relaxing under the brushing.
          "Could make a fortune selling hot-air fur driers," I said, working a recalcitrant knot.
          "You already have a fortune," she chuckled, then asked, "What driers?"
          I told her and she vented a low sound that was not quite a growl, "Huhnn, I want one.  When you make them, keep one for me."
          We spent the evening there, in her small attic room with rain drumming a staccato tattoo on the roof above and a small fire flickering in the grate.  We sat there and talked while I brushed and groomed her fur and distant thunder rolled over the lake and sleeping city.  A long while before the last of her fur was dried, gleaming in the glow from a fire that'd died to embers and the rain never stopped.
          There was only one bed and I insisted she have it: It was too small for me anyway.  I made do with just taking one of the thin pallets that made up the mattress and laying it on the floor near the remains of the fire.  It was a thin sandwich of linen stuffed with wool, but better than wooden boards.  Mai let me keep the blanket, and long after the last embers had died I lay there, watching the darkness, a square of night-glow that was the window, listening to the rain and Mai's light snores.

          A cold darkness.  I moved through shadowy wooden halls, following a faint glimmer that kept the darkness at bay, not sure where I was going.  Draughts skittered through chinks in boarded-up windows, freezing pieces of icy air touching me as I passed dark pictures I couldn't make out.  Sounds echoed, shapes flitting by at the edges of vision, a fear of the unknown.  I don't know what I was looking for, I don't know why I opened that door.
          A room, stretching away into a distant gloom.  There was a small circle lit by flickering red, an old wooden table placed in the centre of that light with something lying on it.  I approached, looking down on myself... half of myself: the left side lying still, the other an anatomy lesson of bone and flayed skin and tendons and muscles.
          I reared back and the darkness at the periphery of the room resolved into tiers of benches, filled with silent figures, a thousand points of shimmering fire reflected from oil-on-water, all watching me.
          I ran.
          Trees.  Snow.  Moonlight and shadow.  The shapes moving between them lean, predatory.  Cries rose around me as I struggled onward with my heart pounding, and there were only trees.  Fleeting glimpses of hunters, sometimes on two legs, sometimes on four, never clear.  Running, the terror building into desperation as the howls grew closer and from the shadows a shape leaped to seize me with raking claws and furious eyes burned as glistening fangs ripped into my face as I screamed...
          "Mikah!" the maw snarled.
          The hands were still holding me, the face still there, and my arm was up in a frantic effort to ward it off while my heart labored and lungs burned.  "Mikah?" the face asked again and where I was, who this was, came back to me.
          "Oh, Shit," I sobbed air, sagging back to lie flat on the biscuit-thin mattress.  I felt ill, light-headed, exhausted, muscles still trembling while my heart still pounded.  Fur shifted beside me, brushing against my skin.  A hand with callused pads on palm and fingertips stroked my temple and hair.
          "A bad one," a low voice said.
          "Yeah," I croaked, then licked my lips.  "You could... you could say that."
          "I think I just did.  You're all right?"
          I lay quietly for a few more seconds before struggling to sit up and huddle tailor-fashion, wrapping the sheet up around me like a shawl.  A glance out the window showed it was still night, still raining.  Feeble moonlight fighting through the clouds, gray as a ghost: a steady shower of heavy raindrops pattering on rooftop tiles and cobblestones, raising a fine ankle-high mist as droplets were shattered.  Pacing itself, something that could last all night.
          "Mikah?" A furry hand touched my arm and inhuman eyes searched my face.  "Please, you're all right?"
          Inhuman eyes.  Amber, lambent orange with that slit of jade that just as quickly went to a black moon.  And there was nothing but concern there.  I looked away, caught after her hand and that just served to highlight my shaking.  "I'm all right." I tried to laugh and knew that the strangled noise could never be mistaken for a genuine one, not even by her.  "I'm almost used to them.  I'm almost... I..." I choked off, bit my lip and swallowed hard as I squeezed her hand, holding on.
          "Hai," she said softly and I felt her stir, then arms went around me and I hugged her back, burying my face in fur, smelling the musk of remaining dampness, feeling hot breath on my neck.  A warmth, a security for an eternity that wasn't long enough.
          Movement.  A small warm roughness lathing my neck.  I flinched, then held still as she licked me, a rough tongue dabbing against my neck, rising until a warm breath tickled my ear.  A final nuzzle and Maithris pulled back, just a bit, enough for her hands to move and touch my cheeks, my neck, my chest, stroking my skin just under the blanket.  I realised I was holding my breath and took a ragged gasp of air.
          Maithris dipped her muzzle, looking up at me, almost shyly.  Expressions, body language, all such dangerous ground, all so confusing.  "Mikah?" she asked.
          "I... I'm..." I thought I knew where this was leading and stammered off into silence, my throat strangling the words, wishing she would say something to justify this.
          Her eyes studied mine, so close.  "If you don't want this, just say."
          And I still hesistated.  Flashes of another face, another time when I'd had someone, when I'd been so near to her and I'd wanted so much to say what I felt, what I wanted, but was so afraid.  Afraid to cross that barrier that could never be broken, afraid of what it would make of me and her.  Lost chances.  Those nights when she was close and we almost touched and I was the coward.  It was the same fear; the terror of that first step, of the unknown.  And now... she was gone.  Past, and I'd never been able to tell her.
          Now another face was watching me, the lambent eyes filled with such intensity and curiosity flinched and cast down, ears drooping as she turned away, began to withdraw.  "I'm sorry," she said.  "I didn't mean to..."
          I caught the hand as it left my chest and she cocked her head, the ears coming up once again.  "Maithris..." I didn't know how to say it.  "I... please, stay.  I... need you."
          "Hnnn," It was a low purr, a low voice, and her expression was almost coy.  "Need is a strong word."
          I swallowed, noisily.  "I don't... if you don't want..."
          "Then I wouldn't have asked, a?" she said softly, her arms sliding around in an embrace until we were both wrapped in the sheet, her furry body pressing against my chest, against...
          I shuddered.
          "Cold?" she asked.
          "Not..." I swallowed.  "Not cold."
          Maithris pressed up against me, longer fur rubbing against me and trapping my excitement between us.  "Huhn," she breathed, glancing down.  Her ears flickered, a flash of something, then she smiled.  "Different," she rumbled gently.  "Just this arouses you?"
          "A," I choked out.  My hands were shaking; I clenched them in her shoulder fur, hastily let go again.  Confused, uncertain.  How could she be so calm?  "Mai, this is... new."
          She chittered, "For me too.  I think we'll have to write the book, a?"
          "I don't..." I touched her again, gingerly stroking down her chest, feeling a slow drubbing deep within.  "I mean... what... what do I do?  You know me, you know all about me.  I don't know anything about you... about Rris.  What you like...?"
          "Calm, calm," she chirred softly, a finger touching my jaw and hushing my stumbling chatter.  "What do I like," she corrected gently, then cocked her head and pulled back a bit to regard me curiously.  "They all but turned you inside out and nobody ever told you anything about us?"
          I shook my head.
          "Huhnn," that low sound again, not quite a growl, and she leaned close.  A tongue like warm sandpaper rasped against my neck and hot breath touched my ear: "Then perhaps there're some lessons we can go over tonight, a?" She reached up to take my hand from where it was pressed between us, gently slid it down through fur and over muscle to rest over her ribs.  More whispers, gentle hints.  I scratched gently and she twisted, stretching and rumbling softly as her hands rubbed against my skin.  An exhalation on my neck, a gentle nipping.
          We played; touching and exploring and learning.  Hands and fingers of both kinds twining, fur rubbing, claws pricking on sensitive flesh, teeth nibbling and biting.  A time when my blood was hot as her breath as we laughed and learned.  The differences, the touches that brought pleasure, the ones that didn't, the apprehensions and fears being slowly eaten away on the wave of an exhilaration and a growing need that enveloped and caught at me.  Kneeling there, cool air on my skin, the heat of her body where it touched mine: the arm around me, the head leaning on my chest, the pads on the hand as it touched curiously and gently at first, then gripped and moved slowly...
          "Mai..." It was almost a gasp.
          A chitter and lambent eyes met mine, a smile and she released me.  "You feel ready," she said softly, mischievously.  "You know what to do now?"
          "I think I can take it from here," I murmured, my breath stirring the fur in her ear.
          And she chirred again, lunging to nip at my nose before turning in my arms.  Her tail flicked against me as I stroked her back, her ribs, and she squirmed, then knelt in the same way a courtesan had those months ago.  Only this time I was as ready as she was.
          Her yowl rang out above the sound of the rain.
          I froze in alarm.  "Mai?"
          "Rot," she panted, the fur of her back rippling as she shifted and flexed, tossing her head.  "Hai, suppuration!  Different.  Don't stop."
          Don't stop.  A jab of the hips to emphasize.  Muscles gripping me as I shifted, an intolerable friction.  Gasping cool air, closed eyes raised to the blackness of the ceiling... and there was no mistaking her.  Different she'd said.  Differences in the air, in the sensations, the tail flicking against me, in her; differences as we moved together, muscles shifting under her fur as she gave vent to small mewlings; a series of almost inaudible pops of claws through fabric as she clenched at the mattress.  Differences that didn't change the heat welling, the electric jolt through my spine and muscles that crested in soundless white light through my nervous system and faded and I was holding her, sweat cool in the night as we sagged together.  Slowly collapsed to the mattress.
          For some while we just lay there, both of us breathing hard.  My breath stirred the fur on the back of her head.
          "Huhn," she rumbled after a while.  "That was an experience."
          "Good or bad?" I asked innocently, tracing abstract patterns over her shoulderblades.
          She chittered at the question; "Now that question's not so different from our males.  Hai, tell me... you usually mate for that long?"
          "Sorry," I said, feeling slightly stung.  "It's been a long time... I was a bit... ah, over-anxious."
          "A?" Her head shifted.  "No, I... You mean that was short for you?  You usually last longer?"
          Oh, she'd meant... I laughed into the warmth of her fur.  "Yes.  Usually.  Well, most of the time anyway."
          Her body shook as she chittered, then rolled to spoon up against me, an arm going over my hip and fingerpads brushing against my bare skin, tickling slightly.  Her head moved and a rough tongue lapped at the hollow of my neck, then warm, harsh breath touched the dampness as she rumbled, "Well, then perhaps we could last a bit longer this time?"
          "Hai, hold," I smiled and laid a finger on the crown of her head, just between her ears.  "Slow down.  Give me some time."
          "Time?" She looked puzzled, and from there her questions led to explanations.  Another difference there; one that Maithris took with a touch of incredulity, and then amusement.  Rris lovemaking is like a Chinese meal: small portions, but a lot of them.  It seemed I didn't have their recuperative powers.
          "So there's something you can't do after all, a?" she smiled mischievously, a claw poking at my hide.
          "Hey," I pouted, "I'm not perfect."
          "Huhnn," she mock-growled.  "Sorry.  It was most enjoyable."
          "Oh, for you too?"
          Mai chittered and nipped at my nose again, and for a while we lay there.  The blanket was thin and not much protection against the night, but Mai's body was warm against me as we lay entwined beneath the cloth: legs wrapped, huddled close enough that I could feel the steady drubbing of her heart.  Talking, her low voice only audible over the susurrus of the rain by virtue of her proximity, gentle touching as she continued my education and at the same time learned a few things herself.  Touching and teasing, Mai a source of warmth as she nestled close and the pads of her hands were indescribably weird as they touched me, across my hips, my back, my scars.
          "So strange," her voice husked.  "Not having fur.  How does it feel?  So exposed, to every touch, every movement."
          It was the first time she'd asked me something like that.  Those months when she stayed with me, answering my questions but never broaching those... those subjects that brought up our differences.  I moved my hand to stroke the fur just below her eye: like silk under my finger.  "I never thought much about it," I finally said.  "I mean... it's me.  I've always been like this." I sighed, moved to stroke the slightly coarse fur on her shoulder.
          "Cold sometimes," I said after some contemplation.  "More exposed than your kind, but I can feel things around... the sun, the wind, a touch, in ways you can't."
          "Hnnn," she rumbled.  "I'd wondered... when we were swimming.  You do have your place in the world."
          "Thank you."
          She smiled, then a light touch on my side, "Can you feel this?"
          A tiny clawtip against my hip: "And this?"
          Featherlight brush of a tail-tip across my thigh: "This?"
          More touching, mischievous caresses that turned from play to something more erotic, until I took her hand and guided it down.  "This?" I smiled, looking into her eyes.
          "Huhn, yes," she growled and squeezed, eliciting a gasp from me, "Now?" she asked.
          "Now," I rumbled back at her and she vented a small mewl as I shifted, rolling her, laying across her.  She made a surprised noise, then chittered and blinked up at me:
          "Your way?"
          "A change?" I smiled back.
          "A," she reached up to caress my face, her breathing as deep as mine, our hearts meeting through our skin.  "A," she rumbled the simple affirmative.
          I shifted, moving and there was tight slippery heat that flowed around me and she gasped, head lolling as her hands clenched the mattress.  A hesitation, twisting to nuzzle at her shoulder, aware of how much smaller than me she was, aware of the slow buzz sounding deep inside her.  Just waiting, then, slowly, moving.  A heat that enveloped me as I shifted, aware of her breathing, aware of the alien heat that gripped me, enveloped me as I reached her heart, feeling it beating around me, below me, as one with me.
          A slow moving, to and fro, taking my time this round.  Minutes of slow moving, just spinning it out.  Beneath me Mai mewled and shifted, eyes closed while her thighs clamped tight around my hips, the sounds of our lovemaking wet and rythmic above the rain drumming on the roof.  I could feel the changes through her, a growing tension like the tightening of a wire, the vibrating of a string as she clenched around me.  Breathing hard and hot, small noises escaping her, her entire body quivering, her lips fleered back from her teeth...
          "Mai?" I slowed, panting, uncertain.
          "Don't!" she gasped and her hands came around to grip my back and buttocks, her spine arching off the mattress as she pulled us together again: hard, panting against me, pulling at me so I moved faster and harder and she clenched and growled and bared her teeth and that string wound tighter and tighter inside and when it snapped...
          Her body bucked violently, spasming against me as her hands clenched, and her cry would have been loud in the small room save that it was drowned by my howl of pain.

          "Oh, suppuration take it, I'm sorry Mikah," Mai lamented.  "I didn't mean..."
          "It's okay.  Don't blame yourself," I winced as the cloth carefully dabbed against my back.
          "But I did this.  I wasn't... I don't..." she trailed off and pulled the cloth away, as if not wanting to cause more damage.  "I don't know what I was thinking.  Hai, rot everything, I'm sorry."
          "So you've said," I smiled a bit through the pain.  "It's all right.  I'll live."
          She was quiet, her ears still down in distress as she went back to tending the ten bloody punctures and scratches across my back.  The rain was a continuous hiss in the darkness, occasionally punctuated by a roll of distant thunder.  I shivered in a transient draught and flinched as Mai worked at another tender spot.  I looked around and caught a glimpse of red saturating the cloth.
          "These... should heal," Maithris said in a small voice.  "I don't think you'll need sewing up..." A hesitation, then: "Mikah, what happened?"
          I smiled ruefully, "You seemed to forget your claws.  I'm not..."
          "No," she interrupted emphatically.  "No.  Not that.  I'm sorry about it, but..." I heard her hiss softly, a sound of frustration, then: "What happened?  What was that?  Why did I do that?  It was... I... I've never felt anything like that.  It was just... I don't know: like I was trying to get somewhere, and all I cared about was getting there.  Nothing else, just..." She trailed off into silence.
          And I opened my mouth and found myself with nothing to say, suddenly realising what she meant.  My back stung as I turned, sitting face to face with her on that thin mattress.  She was watching me with eyes wide and ears turned back.  "You're serious.  You mean you don't... that's your first, isn't it?  Nobody told you?" I had to laugh, trying to smother a grin behind my hand.  "You're a doctor and you don't know?"
          "My first what?" she appealed.  "Mikah, what happened?"
          I blinked stupidly, then tried to explain using terms I still wasn't familiar with.  "It was a... a... Ai, it was like when a male... finishes?  The word for that?  Well, he feels a pleasure, a peak.  As you did.  That place you were trying to get to?  Well, you reached it."
          She blinked, turning her head to study the rain for a few heartbeats, then: "Your females, this is common for them?"
          "Common enough, yes.  I suppose there are a few who lead sheltered lives who might never have heard of it, but..."
          "No, Mikah," she raked fingers through her facial fur then leaned forward, a clawed fingertip tapping the back of my hand.  "You don't understand.  I know Rris, I know what happens during sex, and this isn't usual.  This... hasn't happened before.  Not to me.  Not to any Rris I've ever heard of.  We feel pleasure, but... but nothing like that.  Usually he mounts and there's the sensation until he finishes, but never like that.  Never..." She trailed off and stared at me, thoughts whirling behind her eyes.
          And I was dumbfounded.  In the pregnant silence that followed I stared back and swallowed loudly.  Adding up what'd happened... it wasn't too difficult: I lasted longer than their males.  I lasted beyond the point where they finished, past the point they withdrew and triggered the females' dénouement; lasting longer and taking her somewhere she'd never been... Rris females: they were capable of orgasm, but so few had ever experienced it that even a Rris doctor didn't know... the first orgasm for a... I shook my head, then started absorbing the ramifications.
          "Oh, shit." Now what had I opened?
          "One way of putting it," Maithris smiled and cocked her head.  "You've brought so much with you, so many changes, and now a little gift nobody even knew you had."
          "Ah, wait a bit." I raised my hand to stall that train of thought.  "You can't be sure of that."
          "No, of course not," she said, gravely serious.
          I breathed a little easier.
          "So of course, I suppose sometime we should maybe experiment some more?  A?" she chittered slightly, sobered instantly when she saw my face.  "Just a joke," she assured me.
          And I gave a small shake of my head, trying to clear it.  "Sorry.  I didn't mean... It's just not what I was expecting to hear." I smiled back at her.  "It's been a night of surprises."
          A faint peal of thunder and she looked out at the rain, then back at me: an eerie silhouette in the gloom.  "A," she sighed.  "That it has."
          Momentary silence, the stage given over to the sounds of the night.  Somewhere outside, in the night beyond the courtyard, a wagon wheel rattled on stone; water sluiced off the roof and guttering, then: "Come on, I'd better finish your back.  I think you should lie down, on your belly."
          "Sorry," I said and gingerly stretched out while she dampened a cloth from a small vial.
          "Mai?" I asked after a short time.
          "A?" She dabbed a wet cloth against the scratches lower down, wiping away drying blood.
          "Could you... Please, don't tell anyone about... about what happened?"
          Even her hands were still, then she said, "If you don't want me to... is there a reason?"
          I sighed.  "I'm... Rris find me unusual enough... To have some other difference, some other reason to try and take me apart to find out how I work.  To have curiosity seekers chasing me, the questions... That's something..." I shook my head; "Please?  Mai?"
          "You know, they might find out about it eventually."
          "Eventually," I nodded slightly.  Maybe then I'd have an idea what to do.
          "All right," she said, her voice a low husk.  "Between us."
          "Thank you." It was all I could ask.
          "And Mikah?"
          A hesitation, then she asked, "What happened tonight.  Did you enjoy it also?  I mean, besides this..."
          I smiled, reached back to touch warm fur: "Mai, you're the best thing that's happened to me in a long while.  I... I enjoyed it." I hesitated, then ventured, "And maybe next time we could be more careful?"
          A soft sound, maybe a laugh, then fingers touched the nape of my neck in a gentle caress.  "A night of surprises indeed."
          I didn't really mean to fall asleep there, while rain fell and the Rris doctor, my friend and lover, ministered to my sore back.  I don't know exactly when I went under, but I think I remember a sensation like a kiss on my cheek, and a vague memory of a low, sad voice:
          "I'm so sorry."

End Light on Shattered Water 26