It had started out like any other night.
They had met in the dry, warm pit of the bar, ordering drinks, along with their usual snacks - tuna sashimi for him, and some bizarre concoction of fried apples and sweet flatbread for her. No alcohol, of course; neither of them cared very much for it.
They'd made little small talk, as usual. He remembered that he had complimented her new haircut - which was really much the same as all of her other haircuts, but short hair suited her so well that he couldn't help but compliment her. And she'd teased him for letting his hair grow out so much lately, said that he already looked like he'd spent months in the forest.
He'd thought that it was going to be their last meeting for a very long time, possibly forever... although she would have scolded him for being melodramatic had he said that out loud. He'd finally earned his full degree, and Mayor Narl had pronounced him more than capable of taking over the long-vacant position of Director for the Endangered Species Preserve. And she, who was not inclined towards science but had a rare gift with words, would go to Central City with her diploma and probably spend years chasing after "truth" until either she finally caught it, or it ran her down to nothing.
He'd been looking forward to it for close to his entire life - he felt comfortable around animals, it was what he was meant to do. And she had been about to do exactly what she'd wanted to do since she was a young child - shake things up, learn what was real and what wasn't on that half-illusory world of theirs. And yet it had all felt so hollow, in that moment, as if there had been something slipping away.
He'd supposed it was a kind of premature nostalgia. After all, hadn't they always met somehow, almost every evening they'd had to themselves for the past two years? Ever since she'd come to Giveaway, at any rate. He still remembered how they'd both looked when he'd first seen her; he'd kept his hair short and orderly in a vain attempt to impress colleagues that were half-afraid of him. Hers had been tied up in the long braids that her mother favored and aching for a sharp pair of scissors to set it free. He'd been a lecturer, almost a professor in the Zoology department but not quite what he personally would call a "professor," as that term would imply a more perfect knowledge of what he lectured about than he thought he'd ever have. She had been a student, older than most, having saved her own money and what little her mother could spare to send herself to the university so that she could study Journalism and hopefully catch the attention of the Nedian Chronicles.
They'd made such an unlikely pair. They had both found it strange that they'd gotten along at all. He'd seen her one night at Tackle, sitting at the bar while one of the old rock bands played; she'd watched him standing at a table, sipping his ginger ale slowly and shaking his head during some intermission or another. He'd recognized the promising young student, but only vaguely; she'd heard of the absent-minded naturalist by reputation but hadn't ever actually seen him.
They'd talked for a while, during the switch on stage; one band was leaving, and another was coming to take its place. After the second came - which she pronounced as somehow inferior to the first, although he couldn't find it in himself to appreciate either one of them - they'd decided to step outside, walking in circles in the snow and watching it fall as they continued to speak. Mostly about nothing in particular - eagles and their habits, meditations and koans that her aunt had taught her along with martial arts, the occasional bit of gossip about some professor or another, and a million other meaningless things that never seemed to stop.
That had been the first night. They'd separated after walking for a while, going their separate ways around the school, only to find themselves there again the next week. She'd greeted him like an old friend; it had made him uncomfortable at first, like most familiarity, although he'd eventually become accustomed to it. Grateful for it, even.
A thousand conversations flashed through his head, most of them good. Just one of them was bad, accompanied by one of the only times she'd ever attacked him - he didn't know how she'd done it, but she'd very nearly knocked him out in the university hall. It had been a misunderstanding or something similar, he supposed, although he'd never quite been able to look at her the same way again... since then he'd seen her as an individual, with her own opinions, not a vessel for whatever "truth" she was looking for. It was a subtle change, but it had made a world of difference.
And he'd admired her, of course, for her tenacity and her strength; she'd always been far stronger than he ever could've hoped, her body toned - she'd told him about it once, voice swelling with pride - by her aunt's exercises. She'd learned Jujitsu from her - she'd showed him some of her moves, once, but he'd never quite understood what he'd seen or how she'd done it. But when he'd said that... she'd laughed and told him it was better that way!
He hadn't been nearly so interesting, not to himself. He was the same man he'd always been, vaguely different from the rest of the Nedians, with his ears shaved and altered and still noticeably odd, and his fluid, vaguely graceful motions. At least that's what she had called them; he'd never really thought to look at himself as he moved. But he'd been weak... he'd never cared for sports, or anything else that involved physical prowess. He'd been a thinker by nature, not a fighter. It was all right, though; she had been more than strong enough for them both.
The other professors had expected them to end up as lovers, he suspected. He'd heard them grumbling about it, whenever they'd seen the two of them chatting in an empty classroom, or just reading in the library together... Oh, what a scandal, they'd whispered behind his back, forgetting what he could hear that they couldn't. What a shock! Destroying what little reputation he's earned, and for >her! What can he possibly be thinking?
He wasn't sure what he'd been thinking either, but he did know that he didn't put much stock in their opinions. He never had; they always seemed to make them without learning enough to make them properly. Besides, it wasn't as though she was a child and he was an old man. She was only... what, three years younger than him? If even that. And he hadn't liked the implication that she hadn't been worthy of his affection. What, did they think she was ugly? Sure, she wasn't very feminine - she wore only the tiniest bit of makeup and always smelled of herbs, not perfume, and he'd never seen her wear a dress. That was true. But that didn't make her unattractive.
At any rate... they'd sat there, that night, at their usual table. The food had arrived in due course - he didn't know anything about her fruit sandwiches and hadn't cared to try one, but he did know that the owner's wife had made particularly good sashimi. The band had been quieter than most that night, but still too loud to make conversation worth the effort; he'd sat and watched her sway a bit to the music, then startle and grin sheepishly as she'd realized he'd been looking and smiling.
There had only been one band that night. They could've stayed as late as they'd wanted, after the music had stopped, and maybe talked all night... but just before midnight, just before they'd started playing their last song, he'd found himself outside beside her, his boots trampling the unusually heavy snow.
They had gone to his house, the modest two-story home that the university had given him. It was cold and dark; he hadn't lived in it for the past few days, having spent all of his time in orientation at North City... he had a housekeeper, of a sort, but she'd apparently decided to visit her family for the night. So he'd flicked on light switches, brushed the worst of the dust bunnies under carpets and switched on as many heat sources as he could find, in an attempt to make the place at least somewhat homey.
Not that he'd ever considered it a home. It was just a place, really. The cabin in the woods was his home, even if he wasn't going to start actually living there for a few more days. He'd already had all of his books sent there, and his paintings, and the woven eagle rug that he loved so much. It was nicer there, surrounded by the soft cries of animals and the chirps of crickets. He would be very happy there....
He'd offered her something to drink, of course - alcohol, if she'd wanted it. She hadn't quite been old enough for it, but he hadn't cared... not that it had mattered, since she'd refused. She'd seemed... on edge, somehow, although she still seemed to sway along with that music, as if she could still hear it. She was nervous, she said - her, nervous! It was completely unlike her. She was always the fearless one; he was pessimistic and depressed, almost always relying on people like her to pull him out of his moods.
It was funny, she'd continued, but even after living two years in the university, she didn't know much about Giveaway at all; she just knew the inside of her room, and her classroom, and the bar. That was it. She just hadn't taken the time to know the rest. By the time she'd been away for a month she would've forgotten it all...
He'd been puzzled, of course. What was she trying to say? He'd asked her, and she'd laughed back at him, shaking her head.
It was nothing, really. Just that there were really only two things that made her feel like any of this had been worthwhile, instead of a waste of two years. And one of them was something that she might be losing for good.
He almost asked what it was... but he'd stopped himself. He wasn't that dense.
He'd barely had time to stammer out some kind of reassuring reply before he'd felt her arms around him - she was stronger than he'd ever be, and faster, and she hadn't given him time to react. There hadn't been much else to do but to hug her back, his face brushing against her red hair, smelling faintly of mint and lavender and the slightest hint of makeup.
He'd never cared much for hugging, or touching in general. It had always bothered him, a little, when near-strangers had come up to him and put their hand on his shoulder; it had overwhelmed him with their strange feelings, with things that weren't his. That was one reason he'd liked her so much; she'd never touched him unless he'd said that she could, except for that once when she'd been angry and had forgotten herself, and he could forgive her for that. He'd forgive her for this, too, since she was perhaps his closest friend and was leaving for good in two days and it'd probably be years before he saw her... they'd both be busy, adapting to their new lives. There wouldn't be time for the past.
He'd opened his mouth to try to tell her that only to have her reach for his face, holding it gently. He found himself unable to pull away as she kissed him, very lightly, her lips shaking. It was the first time anyone had...
It was as though he'd been shocked... his mind went white, blurring at the edges. He'd thought he was about to float away... was that how it was supposed to feel, so out-of-control and disruptive? He'd never imagined... but he'd never thought to imagine. He might've thought of her that way, once, but that had been a long time ago... and things had changed since then. He'd thought...
Thought. Thought was something that had grown more and more difficult at that moment. She'd seemed... not desperate, never that, but... he couldn't describe the emotions, not in so few words. Curious - that was part of it, but that wasn't nearly enough. But she was beautiful, strong and proud, and it would've been very easy for him to give in to her and to not worry about defining it.... Her emotions were twining around his and curling and twisting, and his mind was growing more and more blurry, and he was growing more and more conscious of an instinctual urge to go on, to let her.....
And yet.... She'd been his friend for so many years...
He'd pulled away from her, smiling gently as his mind worked furiously to figure out just why it felt wrong. She'd stared up at him; she hadn't had to speak for him to know what she was thinking, he'd felt it, she was so very close... they'd been practically inseparable for so long, they'd often known what each other was thinking before they'd said anything, neither one of them had ever failed to comfort the other when they'd been depressed or angry....
Hadn't he ever wondered? She'd thrown the questions into his face like a challenge, although her tone had been soft and even. Hadn't he ever asked if this was more than what they'd made it out to be? Wasn't he...?
And it had struck him, then; he'd been blind not to see it before, but it didn't matter, now he understood. He'd cut her off, taking her hand and asking softly if she'd ever had any regrets about him, about being his friend. He'd surprised her, he thought; her face had grown considerably calmer, and her eyes had lost their fire.
No, she'd answered. None at all.
He'd nodded. He'd never had any either, of course... he'd always been grateful for her, for someone whom he could talk to without feeling that they were really sneering down their noses at him as soon as he walked away, or shaking their heads and clucking over his strangeness. And, he'd said to her that night, he'd wanted to keep it that way... he hadn't wanted to take her like that. One last night together, curled up in his bed, making love... it wouldn't have been worth it, he was sure of that. Not for an entire lifetime of regretting the one that they'd left behind, or the two wasted years before that night, when they'd been too blind to see.
If it was to happen, it would happen someday. But not then. Nede wasn't a large planet, he'd said; surely they'd meet again if they were meant to... and maybe then they'd know for sure. Or maybe they'd just be friends... but it didn't matter, if it was right, they would know it. He was certain that this was not right, somehow, that it would've ended up destroying them in the end...
She nodded, still a bit shocked, but she'd seemed to understand. It was the timing, she'd repeated. It's not right. Then, with a bit more force, she'd added that it would be a lie.
He'd nodded. A lie... yes, that was one way of looking at it, a way that she'd understand... lies. Something that she'd always hated.
She'd slept in his bed, of course, but not with him. He'd offered it to her, instead of letting her walk home in the cold and the heavy snow; he'd taken the couch in his study instead, sleeping fitfully under a ragged quilt and curled up as tightly as he could. If he'd dreamed of her that night, he was sure that they'd been no different from any other dreams of her - watching her meditate curiously and declaring that he didn't understand the point of it... or listening to her tease him for being so untidy.
That had been the last night.
They'd seen each other again after that, of course. They'd hugged each other again at commencement, him just starting to grow used to her emotions flowing over him. He'd done his best to ignore the glares and whispers of the other faculty; after all, they'd said, she hadn't gone back to her room, and he did have that house all to himself, and it was very possible that those two...
It was almost amusing. There was a kind of joke in all this... they'd never understood either of them, had they? Had they ever even bothered to try?
He'd seen her off to the teleporter to Central City. Or had she seen him off to the Preserve? It hardly mattered; they'd hugged one last time, made promises to at least remember how things had used to be once in a while, and to keep them on the shelf if they needed to. It was... bittersweet, not nearly as painful as it could have been. But he realized with a start after he'd arrived that he'd been crying; tears had been running down his cheeks.
He'd always wondered if she'd cried too.
How many years had it been since then? Time tended to blur, for him, living in that forest with only the animals to keep him company. He'd spent so much time studying and writing reports that he tended to lose track.
Three years, maybe. Yes, that sounded right.
He'd never forgotten her. Not completely. He might not have had the same feelings for her - he'd abandoned them, in a way, knowing that they'd be discovered again if he needed them and they'd only weigh his heart down if he didn't. But he couldn't possibly have forgotten.
Nede was a small place. He'd see her again someday... maybe someday soon, he thought as he stared out the cabin's window. He'd felt... strange, lately. Reflective, as though something was bringing the past back to light, to remind him. Another form of instinct, perhaps, and he trusted those more than even his lackluster attempts at logic.
Someday soon... what would he do then? Would she still be his friend?
He smiled, vaguely, wondering. Maybe. He'd have to find out, wouldn't he?