It was – what? – a week? Ten days? Two weeks? Something like that.
It was hard to keep track of the days and nights as there were no windows. But they both needed to recover from all of that shocking. So each night, they would just lie together, and the gas had little effect or, if it did, they did nothing. They just needed to rest and recover. Perhaps it was a punishment, for the vet was never called. Or maybe he was busy elsewhere.
But there came a day when Lili had twenty-three fasteners to keep track of. One more - but that could be removed quickly, of course. That one was Hoshi's. Otherwise, everyone had but one fastener holding up the vent grating. Just one. They all reported that the vents were wobbly. So it was decided – the big push would come that night.
The women gathered together as they dried off.
“This is it. Everybody know what to do?” Hoshi asked.
“Yep. Hoist up, remove the last fastener and away we go,” Jennifer replied.
“Still not sure about the gas, though. I mean, if we wait until afterwards, um, he's mainly gonna wanna sleep. And so will I,” Deb explained.
“Sure,” Melissa said, “It's physically taxing.”
“That's one way to put it,” Hoshi said, “We need some way to either ignore the gas or, um, do what we need to without exhausting ourselves or the guys.”
“Might I suggest,” Lili said, “something less conventional?”
“You talking about what I think you're talking about?” Deb asked.
“I probably am. Think of yourself as being, erm, back in High School. Satisfaction without actually going all the way, to borrow a quaint phrase,” Lili said.
“I can do that,” Hoshi said.
Jennifer stared blankly. She was not on board with that decision, “Uh, is there any way we can, uh, do something else?”
“Suit yourself,” Deb said, “But, really, you need for Travis to be able to focus. And you've got to focus, as well. And not be so sleepy.”
“You'll be fine,” Hoshi said.
“Wait, wait, what?” Melissa asked, “I never did that before.”
?” Deb asked, incredulous.
“Um, no,” Melissa said quietly, “Can't anybody, uh, help me with this?”
Everyone backed away and pretended to be far more interested in something else. Finally, Lili spoke, “All I can tell you is, think positively.”
“Uh, okay, I guess I got that. And, that's kinda over the top. I shouldn't have asked. And you shouldn't have told me, I think,” Melissa said to Lili.
“It's okay,” her voice dropped several decibels and Melissa had to strain to hear her, “He doesn't like how I do that.”
“Oh. I would have thought it would be, I dunno, perfect. He seems to think everything else about being with you was.”
Lili smiled tightly, “That's very kind of you to say, but I know Doug, and he doesn't open up much. Do you, uh, do you love him?”
Melissa turned pale, “I, uh, I....”
“He's very lovable. I would, I think, understand if you, if you did.”
him,” Melissa finally said.
“I don't hate you,” Lili said, “You should know that.”
Back in their cell, Deb stared up at the ceiling. The gas had not yet started. It was now or never.
“C'mere,” Jonathan said.
“Okay. Let me, uh, I hope you don't think I'm, uh, I'm some sort of, uh bad woman for what I'm about to propose.”
“Oh? Something different? Things have been good so far.”
She smiled at that. It was great to hear it, “Thanks. But, uh, a little variety. What do you think of –?”
Tripp and Hoshi sat together, “Can I interest you in, um, a little?” she whispered in his ear.
“You silly gal! Why can't you say that out loud?”
“I just, I dunno. It's weird to broach it as a subject.”
“Well, broach away.”
Jennifer didn't ask. She didn't want Travis to do anything back to her. She just wanted it to be over with, so she got right down to it.
Lili smiled a little to herself.
“What's funny?” Malcolm asked.
“I, uh, know how everyone else is trying to, um, get past the gas without getting too tired afterwards.”
“Hmm. Is it some strange Orion slave girl type of techniques?”
“Something like that. Uh, noncoital, um, contact.”
“Lots of great numbers, eh?”
“Yes. And a lot of massages that suddenly turned South, I think.”
“Ah. When you rubbed my back a month ago, a few weeks ago, whatever it was, I confess I did hope that you might take a bit of a detour, although, at the time, I was thoroughly unsure of your willingness. If there was any, at all.”
willingness,” Lili said.
“And on my end as well, of course,” he said. He put his hand on her chin and moved her mouth to his.
“How are you feeling?”
“Much better now. I suppose it takes a while to recover from being thunderstruck. In, uh, in one way or, or another.”
She looked at him intently.
“Something wrong?” he asked, “Have I got, uh, something 'round the side of my, of my mouth, or something?”
“No. I just, I know
? What is it that you know, Lili-Flower?”
“I definitely do. I know
,” she said, “I know that I, that I love you
“Um, I'm really bad at asking for what I want.”
“Well, I won't, uh, judge you, Melissa.”
“I know. It's just odd, 'cause I can talk to my girl about whatever and it's easy. Not as easy sometimes, with you.”
“Well, can I make it any easier? What are you, uh, trying to, um, do?”
She touched him tentatively.
“Oh,” he said, “Here, like this, lemme show you.”
“No, no, you don't. You love Doug.”
“I, I do. But I also know that I love you.”
“What? I mean, I would certainly want to hear that, and feel that it's, that it's true. But you don't love me. It is him who you truly love.”
“Why does it have to be one or the other? Why is that the case?”
“Because it just is
? Something just existing, just being, seems to be a damned foolhardy reason for something.”
“Still. You, you're confused, Lili-Fl – , uh, Lili. And I, on my part, I haven't helped things one bit by calling you by a pet name and all. You are in love with him. Not with, with me.”
“Don't tell me my feelings, Malcolm,” she said, “I know them. I know them. Like I am finding that I know you – how you wake up on a hair trigger, how you flex when you think I'm not looking – but I think you secretly hope I am. How you make silly jokes. How you sneeze, even. How you kiss, how you walk, how you make love.”
“It's not, it can't be, it's not the same as with your husband,” he protested, but he didn't really want to.
“No, it's not. And it should not be. You're different people, after all,” she explained, “I won't enumerate the differences, but they are definitely there. And that's okay,” she ran her fingers along the back of his scalp, and it made him shudder just a tiny bit with excitement, “It's better that there are differences.”
“There's no, there's no precedent for this.”
“Sure there is. You forget I am part-French. And forever, and probably still, there would be, there would be men with a wife and a mistress. And the wife would have the marriage, and the home and the children.”
“And the respectability.”
“Somewhat. But the mistress also had her spot and she also got her due. Sometimes she would bear a child as well, sometimes not. And when the man died, the wife would be gracious and the mistress could go to the funeral, too. She'd sit in the back, in some sort of wickedly inappropriate outfit, perhaps in fire engine red, and cry as much as the wife would.”
“I, I can't be called a mistress. The genders are reversed and it's just not manly,” he said, smiling just a tiny bit. Hmm. He had no idea if he liked the idea, or if it would work at all. But at least, someone else had blazed the trail already.
“I said – the male equivalent of mistress is lover
. I do like that,” he said.
“I love you,” she said again.
“And, and I love you,” he said, and the slow, quiet words suddenly came out in a rush, because they had been held back for so long. It was like a dam bursting, the words just tumbled out, “I love you beyond all reason, beyond all hope, beyond all belief and beyond all faith
“My lover,” she said softly, “Can I give you something?”
? I should be showering you with presents and all I've got is this damned tube.”
“I have something to give,” she said. She slipped the cuff bracelet off her wrist, “Here.”
“I'm not normally much for jewelry, at least not on my wrist. Never even wanted to own an old-fashioned watch,” he smiled, “What an interesting piece this is. It's got the same kind of scrollwork that's tattooed on your arms.”
“Yes; I think it's meant to be complementary to that somehow. And see where it's all faded and softened?”
“Yes,” he said, “It's like hundreds of hands have touched it.”
“Maybe thousands. It was – Yimar's mother is the High Priestess of the Calafans, or at least she was before she got really sick. And I think this went from the priestesses on down. I have no idea how old it is, but I'm sure their culture is a few thousand years old. Maybe it's as old as all that.”
“A cultural artifact. I shouldn't own it, then,” he said.
“Yes, you should. It was given to me, to do what I wanted. And I choose to give it to you.”
“I'll, I should hide it in my sleeve. Otherwise I think Doug will be upset,” Malcolm said. He adjusted his shirt, “There, does that work?”
“Wait, pull this down just a touch. There.”
“Thank you. I don't know what tomorrow will bring. If we'll be together at all. Or perhaps we'll enrage our captors so much that they'll slaughter us all.”
“That's not outside the realm of possibility,” Lili allowed.
“And I know that a big piece of your heart is not with me. And I think I'm all right with that. There is no perfection. But there is something. Something very rare and good.”
“Rare and good and botanical,” Lili said.
“Yes. I'm the lily flower and you are the reed.”
“To be true, but the flower's the exciting part. The reed's just an ordin'ry thing. Nothing special or worthwhile.”
“Don't say that! The flower needs
the reed. Otherwise it's got no nourishment, no support and is just a bunch of petals falling on the ground. The flower can't live without the reed.”
“Can't,” she said, “Not anymore.”
“A puzzle, right?”
“Pieces need to be arranged somehow. Rotated, perhaps. No box or guide to look at, though.”
“A fit, though,” he said.
“Yes. They – somehow – have got
They didn't hear gentle pinging sounds in the other four cells, or the louder sounds of grates being dropped or thrown to the floor.