by Shouga Naiko (生姜ないこ)
“It’s been a while.”
“Mm.” Sofia slid onto the neighbouring stool, signalling to the barman for a whiskey-and-water. “I suppose it has.”
She glanced sideways at the other woman. Valérie had been immediately recognisable to her, even through several years and the half-light. Her dark skin and hair, the cut of her clothing. The lines around her mouth had hardened, but the way she held herself was just the same.
She took the Camel Valérie proffered, dipping her head to catch the flare of a cardboard match. She hadn’t smoked Western cigarettes in some time. The taste brought on an almost jolting nostalgia.
“…If you’re after Red Eye, better speak to the Iranians.”
Valérie laughed. “Don’t judge me so lightly. And this is hardly the best place. No, I’m just here to call in on old friends.” She turned to look directly at Sofia, eyes half-lidded and inscrutable, the electric light catching the hues of dark green in them that didn’t always show up.
Sofia twisted her mouth. “Well then, don’t let me keep you waiting.”
Valérie stood up, crushing the end of her cigarette into the ashtray (only half smoked – and Sofia, long used to sucking to the very last dregs or else saving fag ends for later, was surprised by the waste, and then a second later wondered how it was that she’d gotten to this place). She extended an arm to Sofia.
“Shall we go?”
“It’s a bit provincial out here, I know,” she said, excusing the place. The contrast of Valérie’s presence made it look the duller. Sofia felt the awkwardness of meeting again with old friends, who’d once been very close, and tried to concentrate on the conversation.
” –me? Not doing so bad, I suppose. I’ve been in the same place on Mars for about two years, so I thought doing something that involved travelling would make a welcome change.”
“And you wound up here? Not much of a place for a holiday.”
“Hey, this is work. Although, well, I have until next week free, and the local driver I had happened to mention someone who sounded very much like a certain old colleague – and just as I was about to leave, as well – so. You hide yourself well, my friend.”
Sofia demurred. “I don’t know about that … ” The cream in the soup had a gritty undertaste – she suspected reconstituted soy powder.
“You’ve never thought about coming back?”
“Not particularly.” Valérie seemed to be expecting more, so she added, “I’m a chemist. I was never much good at the society stuff.”
“And your skills as such were highly valuable. But I trust that isn’t the point I need to persuade you on.” She lowered her gaze, took a sip of wine, looked back up again. “Don’t you miss it?”
“I get nostalgic about it from time to time, I suppose,” Sofia allowed. – The sunset that dyed us in complementary shades one winter dusk, tanks rolling out in the streets and us catching a lift just so many million miles to Mars, as sure of ourselves as anything. “But there’s a point where you have to say, ‘enough already’. I’ve started over so many times.”
She had been unprepossessing at fourteen; a bony child, hair the colour of used dishwater, with an air of sullen, animal wariness about her. In the alley outside the Blue Dog, the ice-lagged neon gave a pallid cast to her face; she was lanky and androgynous in a hand-me-down parka too big for her. Her gun was a hand-me-down too; that, or a relic.
Having done the outside setup on the roof and scrambled back down via the fire escape, she was waiting, inconspicuous in shadow, cuffs sodden with meltwater.
The door opened two minutes and thirty six seconds later, and Valérie backed out, locked in an embrace with another girl; they were murmuring hurriedly to one another. “I have to –”/ “I know, darling, I just –” – they kissed – “Promise me you’ll call, all right?”/ “Promise” – kiss – “Love you.”/ “Goodnight.”/ “Goodnight.”
She shut the door, leaning on the bar. The music coming from the building was again muted – this time, it sounded odd. Then, looking round;
“You okay, kid?” she asked her unwilling voyeur.
“I’m not looking for him,” she’d said, out of the blue.
“Your father?” Valérie was aware, though not in detail, of the circumstances of the kid her older brothers had asked her to keep an eye on.
“I’m not. He’s dead, right? You won’t lie to me as well.” Her Russian was still accented, fluent but inescapably foreign, and Valérie felt a pang of recognition.
“No. Not to you.”
– twisting awkwardly half-round in the dark to kiss her, sleet down the back of your neck, the motorbike still on clamped solid and hot and buzzing between your legs, her icy fingers in your pants and yours in hers, the flesh warm and your bodies so pulsed through with adrenaline that you were both halfway there before you even started. Her skull presses against the nape of your neck, and you smell wet hair.
“A-aah, Sof– Sonya …”
Sofia froze, and;
“Don’t call me anything,” she said fiercely.
And kissed the girl’s mouth to keep her from answering, and kissed her again, as if trying to drown herself in it.
Halfway through their lukewarm beef bourgignon, the lights stuttered and died.
… and when the lights came back on, the gentleman’s throat had been cut, fronds and vulgar gouts of blood curling heavy with their musk … No. No it hadn’t. “Val?” The smile coming easy through the dark, though she jumped still when Sofia’s hand found hers. “Power cut. Sorry. We get that a lot round here recently.”
She took her hand back as the lights fumbled on.
“You know, about your partner – about Volodya; I’m sorry. I was off-planet at the time, and then … ”
“Don’t worry about it.” Smile. “That was a long time ago.”
“I –” Valérie dipped her eyelashes, to concentrate on the rim of the wine glass. He died, and then you disappeared, and I couldn’t help either of you. It goes unsaid.
“Though it brings back memories, having you turn up here.” You old ghost.
The lights fuzzed at the edges. Was it her, or was it the power supply?
“You know, I always thought he should have married you.” She was saying too much. Saying too much while drunk. But, it had wanted to be said for so long … “You were both so alive. So warm and so – so alive I didn’t understand you sometimes. I could hardly dare believe that you really wanted to be with me.”
Walking back to Sofia’s tiny flat, it was becoming cold. They leaned on each other, the slush insinuating itself into their inadequately waterproofed shoes. When they’d set her up out here, she’d wondered if they’d had her adopted homeland in mind. The missionary bells went off, and she sang along in her head; grant us thy peace. She didn’t much care for the dingy church in this town, having been attracted before mostly by thick, headache-scented ritual and the feeling of standing alongside violent men she counted as brothers and telling herself she didn’t need to believe in anyone but this family. Her hands tasted metallic.
The smells of oil and snow. The pale spots that dapple her vision. Like when she’d be in the lab and work and sit and bite her lip so the blood was pinched back white, and wouldn’t realise she was cold, bone-cold, bluish under the nails, until she got up hours later and found tea wouldn’t take the chill away.
In her drifting time, cut loose of years. Eight years. If she was younger, she would have thought that to be a lot.
But Valérie bumped against her as they walked, reminding her where she was, if not who.
Sofia turned to shut the heavy outer door, and was surprised when Valérie, loosened maybe by the wine, leaned on her and didn’t pull away. She arched up against Sofia’s back and untensed.
“Back to back … it felt good, didn’t it?”
And then they were kissing, and stumbling over shoes left in the entrance way, and Sofia found herself responding to the kiss, the feeling pleasurable even through the knowledge in her stomach that this wasn’t right.
“I missed you so much, darling,” murmured Valérie. I lost you both.
Valérie rearranged herself so they were facing comfortably and started to lead them to the bed, swaying against Sofia and running her left hand up and down Sofia’s side, under her shirt.
“You … want me to come back?” Sofia was hesitant. “I don’t know if I … remember – how to do those…”
“Think of it as a galactic holiday, if you will.”
“I don’t have a passport any more.” Automatically, though she knew quite well that wouldn’t be an impediment for people with their connections.
She let Valérie lay her down, pliant, and was surprised to find her looking down angrily, arms straight on either side of Sofia, as if she wanted to pin her down.
“Hey,” she said, “a lot of things happened.” Losing patience. “To me as well – a lot of things have happened.”
Valérie’s frustration had tipped into anger, but still she sat there, between Sofia’s legs. Sofia realised that she was the one in control of this situation. Again. Why? I never asked to be – faced with this choice. The petulant thought.
Yes, she supposed; she was being difficult.
She lifted a hand to touch her friend. The soft, tense curve between ribcage and hip …. She smiled.
“I – very much appreciate, your having remembered me.”
Valérie’s expression softened. She recognised there the brilliant, awkward, fiercely private woman she had known. She leaned down to kiss her.
“Okay. Tell me later, Sonya.”
Sofia put her other arm around Valérie and held her close for a few seconds.
Arching back and supporting herself on one elbow, Valérie started undoing Sofia’s shirt buttons, from navel to neckline. The backs of her fingers skimmed over Sofia’s abdomen. Sofia shrugged out of the shirt, and let Valérie undo her greying cotton rag of a bra. She coaxed Valérie’s top off over her head and ran her hands down Valérie’s back, unhooking her bra and bringing her hands round to cup Valérie’s full breasts, then down to her waist. Valérie was beautiful; mature and full of curves and grace, quite unlike her own tired broom-handle body. Her own breasts pooled flat against her ribcage, and Valérie traced over the dips above Sophia’s collar bones and the places where the skin was pulled tight over the ribs by the weight of her breasts.
Slow and confident, Valérie eased Sofia’s slacks down to below her knees. She stroked with whispering fingers up the inside of Sofia’s thighs, then brought them curling to caress her lips – once, twice, three times, the flesh easily slick behind coarse hairs. Sofia made a small sound and tightened her legs. Valérie shuffled backwards down the bed and dipped her head to explore with her tongue where her fingers had just been, rubbing herself on the sheets at the same time. The rhythm of Sofia’s breathing became progressively more staccato, escaping in inches from her control. Abruptly, she shuddered all over for several convulsive, wonderful seconds, and then lay still and panting for several more.
She reached down to touch Valérie’s shoulder, encouraging her to come back up, and Valérie did so, lying half-on half-off Sofia, gratefully accepting the touch of Sofia’s hands and moving her hips against them until she too was done.
They slept, without dreaming.
Valérie lay on her front on Sofia’s single bed. A band of sunlight passed over her lower back, warm and liquid.
Sofia lit one of her own papirosa cigarettes. Made a desultory attempt at tidying the glasses away. Lit another. She smelt of sex. But, the hot water wouldn’t be on yet. She put the kettle on for instant coffee and settled back to watch Valérie again, enjoying in some way the sensuality of a mild hangover and the spent ache in her genitals and thighs. Her eyes felt hot, as if she’d been crying.
Time, maybe, to lift the feathers that cover her eyes. The Organisation had been … very good to her. More so than she deserved. They’d put her through university, after she passed from her father’s care into theirs. And they’d let her leave when she was too hurt to go on, to spend her days in New Sibir, calcifying without emotion into a being brittle as wax. She owed them, her lovers and brothers, her beautiful woman friend. Though she was apprhensive still, it didn’t feel like a weight. It was a connection to reality.
And, well, it was worth having a change of scenery once in a while, she’d been told. She could always bail and disappear; she was good enough for that.
She took her gun and papers out of the underwear drawer. Her wallet was in her coat. She shook Valérie awake.
“Fine. Let’s go.”
“Hm?” said Valérie. “Oh. I’m glad.” And she stretched and yawned contentedly in her bit of sun, and persuaded Sofia they could have breakfast before leaving, at least, and got out bits of paper and plans so they could start to discuss what work there was to be done, and where.