“You what!” Sergeant Kilowog reared upright, abandoning contemplation of his fricasseed venyachut, a moist delicacy celebrated for its abundant, many-jointed legs. His heavy brow lifted; he gawked at Razer, who sank in his seat next to Aya and covered his face. “With him?”
“Yes,” said Aya, bemused. She looked to Hal to gauge his reaction; his brow, too, had risen, and he was glancing from Aya to Razer to Aya again. “No one else was present.”
Sotto voce, Razer said to Aya, “I told you we shouldn’t tell them.”
Primly, she shot back at him, “There is no reason why we should not provide superior officers with a thorough report.”
“I can think of several,” Razer argued, “Sergeant Kilowog’s reaction being but one of many.” He began tapping claws against his arm.
She tipped the corner of her right eyebrow up, a facsimile of Hal’s look of disbelief. “That is not sufficient reason.” The minute flickering of each finger arrested her.
“No?” Razer considered her. She returned his gaze evenly, though his tapping unsettled; she found it difficult not to replay the movement of his hands. “Perhaps if the sergeant directed his dismay at you as well.”
“I am certain that with time you will persevere.”
“I’m sorry if I’ve upset you,” said Kilowog to Razer; she did not think him sincere. Then he looked over at Aya, raised his brow again, and said, “But seriously, Aya, him?”
“I can see my presence is unwanted,” Razer muttered, turning around in his chair so that he faced the spread of stars lighting the viewing screen.
“Untrue,” Aya told him.
Razer’s eyelids were dark, blending with the black, halved mask of melanin so stark in his face; they rose as he peeked, still lidded, sidelong at her. She’d too limited a range of reference to decipher the tension drawing his cheeks flat and his mouth wide. She looked from his mouth to his sloe-lidded eyes. A mistake, as she was as uncertain looking into his eyes as she had looking at his lips, pale and slim and now known.
“You are necessary to my report,” she said at last, wanting for more.
He looked down to his crossed arms. The gash of his mouth thinned.
“Okay,” said Hal. “Let me get this straight. You—but why?”
This, at least, she could answer readily. “Our position had been compromised. We needed to evade police attention without revealing our identities. If we were discovered, your own mission would have been jeopardized as well.”
Hal rubbed at his jaw. His gaze dropped; it rose again; he looked once to Kilowog and then to Aya and Razer, still turned from them all.
“Aya,” he said, “if you’re in danger, forget the mission. What if they had investigated?” At her blank look, he extrapolated: “If it hadn’t worked—you put yourselves at risk.”
“I do not understand,” said Aya, frowning. “This is a common camouflaging technique used by undercover operatives on your planet.”
Hal pulled back, blinking. His dark eyebrows knit. “What?”
The inconsistency of organic beings’ memories at times vexed. She explained: “You recommended many recordings from Earth that you called ‘classics.’”
His face cleared. “Right, a bunch of movies. You watched them?” Momentarily, he appeared pleased.
She nodded. “Many times in these movies, when the protagonists were threatened with discovery by external forces, they would use this tactic to divert attention. It appeared highly effective.”
Hal rubbed at his jaw again; briefly, his eyes closed. “Aya, those were movies. They aren’t real.”
“I am aware,” she said, stung. “While entertaining, they were also highly improbable and relied on munitions to resolve narratives. I see now why you enjoy them.”
“Hey!” said Hal.
“She isn’t wrong,” said Razer, then. “You’re highly improbable and rely on munitions to resolve your problems.” He looked over his shoulder and smirked first at Hal then at Aya, sharing; she smiled back. But Razer’s smile faded; he turned away.
“All right,” said Kilowog agreeably. “You watched a bunch of pertukin Earthman movies.”
“Hey!” said Hal again, interrupting. “These are classics. Die Hard is an institution.”
“What?” Kilowog, diverted, looked askance at Hal. “Die ‘hard’? What does that even mean? You saying somebody can die soft?”
“The title does raise several grammatical questions,” Aya agreed.
“It’s a metaphor!” Hal smacked his palm against the navigational console. “And anyway, I’m not the one taking suggestions from action flicks.”
“You’re certain of that?” drawled Razer. His shoulders had tipped at a slight angle. Aya found herself entranced by the promise of musculature particular to the shape of his upper back.
But Kilowog had caught the scent again. “And where were you during all this?” he demanded of Razer.
Razer looked up. His face was hard; anger swept over him. Anger—for what and whom? If Hal and Kilowog had only given her cause to defend her choices, Razer gave her cause to regret. He had so rarely looked to her after they had separated there in the alley, his fingertips pressed to her jaw. To steady her, she had thought then; but perhaps he had meant to push her away.
“Where do you think?” snapped Razer. “I suggested we defend ourselves. Aya kissed me.”
“For the record,” said Hal, “that never happened in Die Hard.”
“I say we stand and fight,” Razer argued. Again, he touched the chain around his throat; beneath his tunic, hung from that chain, the Red Lantern’s ring lay against his clavicle.
Aya paused in consideration of the alley they’d ducked into. The hooded cloak, made of a thick, dark material cut to cover all but her face, obscured her eyes; she pulled at it.
“You would rather they have the opportunity to attack us first?”
“I would rather not jeopardize Hal and Kilowog’s position,” she said. She checked all accessible channels, seeking more information; nothing new had been broadcast in the last minute.
Razer paced beside her, his back curved so that when he spoke, he did so over her shoulder and near to her ear. “Hal and Kilowog are more than capable of defending themselves.”
“Immaterial,” she said, expanding her environmental scanners. “Sacrificing our positions will mean forfeiting the mission.” She looked up to Razer, lingering at her shoulder; his eyes, very blue, flashed to her. “A guard unit is moving in our direction. They will arrive in approximately twenty seconds.”
His jaw worked. The long line of his white throat ticked; he looked to the mouth of the alley where it joined with a broader, well lit avenue.
“Then we fight.”
“No.” She caught his hand at his collar, trapping his fingers against his chest, over the lump of his ring. “Our mission is too important.”
“Then what do you suggest we do?” he whispered harshly at her. His hand clenched. “That we await discovery?”
He’d drawn close to her; when she reached for him, she’d turned. A half inch separated them. Beneath her fingers, the tension in his hand was palpable. Aya weighed the nearing guards against their options. If they ran, they risked exposure; they risked the same if they remained.
Razer’s mouth had pulled so the breath came from between his lips. He was looking at her, his eyelids low but his gaze unblinking.
Aya pushed Razer across the alley and against the bricked wall opposite. His eyes widened; the breath burst out of him. Her hand at his collar, she pulled at his tunic so that his head bent to her. Careful study of the recordings Hal had recommended had suggested kissing to be a technique effortlessly mastered. It had come naturally to all parties, and Aya presumed the same would hold true for her.
Razer’s nose mashed against her cheek. His fangs, exposed, pressed into her unyielding skin. His lips and hers were flattened by the touch. She had misjudged the force needed. Embarrassment flared within her; had circumstances permitted, she would have withdrawn and perhaps played the guise of curious, uninvolved intelligence to mask such. She could not withdraw.
He was warm against her, warm and bony at his joints. In contradiction to every kiss in the recordings, Aya’s eyes were open; Razer had not closed his. They stared at each other over this point of contact, and Aya thought: Twelve seconds. The guards would not be fooled.
Razer’s fingers loosened beneath her hand and Aya left off his wrist. Instead, she threw her arms about his waist, pinning him against her. Razer sucked in a sharp breath. The hand at his collar fluttered, brushing against her cloak. She tipped her head, meaning to tell him that they might very well have to dispose of their covers; the gesture brushed her lips over the corner of his mouth.
Then Razer cradled her jaw in his free hand, turned his head so their noses matched, and kissed her back. Aya did not blink. His eyelids dropped low, masking the blue of his eyes in black. The pressure on her lips was slight. His lips, just parted, surrounded the swell of her lower lip; she felt, in precise detail, the length of each of his lips. Ten seconds. And then he moved, sucking at her lip and teasing for her tongue, the motion of his mouth sudden and urgent, as if he could not decide whether to bite at her tongue or pull softly at her lips or lick the superficial demarcations of her artificially constructed rows of teeth. He licked hotly at the roof of her mouth.
Aya had no sense of taste. She could not discern fragrances. The complexities of Razer’s unique body odor were broken down by her olfactory sensors into a detailed list of chemical compounds. His mouth was hot. His lips, so thin, did little to mask the sharpness of his fangs. Aya could not bleed; he could not cut her to make her do so; she could not hurt from his touch. The suggestion of each point stuck her.
Aya tipped her face up to him. She wanted closer. She wanted more. His teeth scratched over her tongue, coaxed between his lips. There was nothing graceful to his touch. It was eager and very rough. A crude curiosity broke open inside her, a want to catalogue every inch of Razer, every secretion, every physical detail, and to do so the next day and the day after and again, to study in perpetuity every minute change. Why did he kiss her in this way? Had he kissed others before with such amateur wildness? Had he kissed Ilana—
The fingers light along her jaw tightened. He freed his other hand and cupped the other side of her face. He held her there, right there, his little fingers slipping down to stroke her throat. A line drawn? A request—
Footsteps sounded at the corner. The possibilities and probabilities skittered away from her. Aya tipped her head, turning her face from the avenue. At the small of Razer’s back, hidden in the folds of her sleeves and his loose tunic, she ignited her palms at the lowest setting; a precaution. A gasp—Razer. He arched off her hands; she clutched him. His arms bent; he drew her nearer.
His fingertips were rough; his fingers curled, digging. Aya opened her mouth, wanting. Razer gave. His tongue was slick. His teeth, bared, scraped. She mirrored the movements of his tongue; lacking experience, she caught his lip, the dip beneath that led to his chin. The scar tissue beneath his lips was thick and hard. The marks had been cut into his skin and then a material pigment similar in composition to charcoal rubbed into the fresh wounds. She should have been satisfied with this.
Razer pulled back; his lips slid from hers. The fingertips at the corners of her jaw shivered. She stepped closer, pulled him near, kissed him again. His eyes closed. Greedy, Aya studied the suggestion of movement behind his eyelids, the faint blurring at the edges of his natural mask where the melanin thinned, the acute corners of his cheekbones. The touch of his mouth, his hands, the press of his lean chest against her consumed. She gave in. Aya closed her eyes. Still, she was flooded; he overwhelmed. What could she do? There was nothing. Everything in her came to bear on Razer.
His fingernails scratched her jaw. He withdrew. His nose brushed hers. Aya opened her eyes.
He was staring intently at her; then his gaze dropped.
“They’re gone,” he said.
He was correct.
His hands slid from her face. He glanced to the avenue, away from Aya. A lonely nanosecond passed. Then Aya lowered her arms.
“We should return to the Interceptor,” she said, “before they perform another sweep.”
Razer led the way.
“And you, what?” asked Kilowog. “You just let her do it? You didn’t make a scene or nothing?”
“We were already at risk of discovery,” Aya reminded him. “I believe Razer understood that if he had ‘made a scene,’ it would only have drawn more attention to us.”
Hal shook his head. “You put yourselves more at risk doing that. In a situation like that, you need to be alert, not distracted by—” He winced, but continued. “By each other.”
Aya lifted her chin. “Neither Razer nor I were distracted from our situation. I intended to divert attention from our appearance by appealing to prevailing social mores, and I succeeded.”
Kilowog grunted. “That’s all there is to it, huh? Kids,” he said to his cooling meal.
At this, Razer pressed his hands down against the console and pushed up, out of his chair. His eyes passed over Aya; he did not recognize her.
She leaned forward. “Where are you going?”
He paused at the door. Razer turned; she saw him in profile, his long nose, the attenuated slope of his lip. “To my quarters.”
She began to stand. “But we have not finished our report.”
He turned away. “My presence doesn’t seem to be needed.”
Aya began to protest, rising fully from her chair, but Hal held his hand out to her and said quietly, “Leave him.”
Razer, unstopped, passed through and was gone. Troubled, Aya made to sit again.
After a moment, Hal said carefully, “We should probably talk.”
“We are talking,” Aya pointed out.
Hal ducked his head, rubbing at his neck. The winching of his mouth to the one side suggested discomfort. “No, I meant. A different kind of talk.”
Aya looked at Hal and said, “Perhaps you could elaborate on the parameters of this proposed talk,” so that he would rub at his neck again. She had begun to understand the societal need for discretion, but this hardly meant she did not find it exasperating at times.
“You’re kidding,” said Kilowog to Hal. “Now?”
“She has to learn some time!”
“Yeah,” said Kilowog, “but now?”
Hal threw his hands wide. “It’s obviously overdue if she’s running around kissing people!”
“Razer isn’t people,” said Kilowog. “He’s just the one poozer.”
“You just don’t want to have this talk with her.”
Kilowog swelled. “And you’re some kind of expert all of the sudden?”
“Well, yeah,” said Hal.
“If you have need of me,” said Aya, “I will be running scans of the neighboring star system.”
“Unless you got some little Jordans running around the galaxy I ain’t heard of,” said Kilowog, ignoring Aya, “pretty sure that makes me the qualified officer here.”
“There’s regs about giving a junior officer the birds and the bees spiel?” Hal demanded, incredulous.
Kilowog squinted. “The whats and the whats? Your planet, Jordan—”
“It’s a metaphor!”
“I have located a developing black hole and adjusted our current route to compensate for the gravitational shifts,” Aya announced.
“Aya, we need to talk,” said Hal.
She swiveled her chair about to face them. “Do you require my presence for this discussion?” she inquired politely.
“We need to talk,” said Kilowog, glaring at Hal. “Look, you can’t just go around kissing people ‘cause it’s the thing to do.”
“What Kilowog means,” Hal interrupted, “is that kissing, it’s an intimate thing, not a battle tactic—”
“You have never kissed Carol Ferris to conclude an argument?” asked Aya, doubting.
Hal colored. “That’s different; it’s not the same thing. We’re—in a relationship, you have to—negotiate and so sometimes that means, when you’re—arguing, that you have to, uh, remember the good things, too, like—”
“Don’t listen to him,” Kilowog told Aya, waving Hal off. “He’s an Earthman. They’re barbarians. They kiss all the time. They kiss their mothers.”
“My mother was a saint,” said Hal, suddenly furious, “and you don’t ever say a word about her. Got it?” He stabbed a finger at Kilowog.
Kilowog held his hands up. “Easy. I’m not saying anything about your mother. I’m just saying, your people shouldn’t be given anybody advice about kissing. The way you do it, it’s like bumping fists. No,” he said, building up to his point, “kissing’s something else, Aya. You got to save it for someone special, someone who means a whole lot to you.”
“Geez, Kilowog!” said Hal. “She just kissed the guy!”
“It’s got meaning to it!” Kilowog fired. “Maybe it meant something to Razer, you don’t know. Just because you go around kissing every girl you see—”
“I do not; that is not true—”
“Please! I’ve seen you in action, Jordan, so don’t think—”
“Carol and I are very happy—”
“I still do not understand,” said Aya, as this argument appeared to be escalating. “Have I erred in kissing Razer?”
For a moment, Hal and Kilowog exchanged odd looks, growing odder; then Kilowog deflated and motioned Hal on with a weary flick of his hand. Aya turned to Hal.
“It’s about consent,” he said. “It’s not wrong to kiss someone. You just have to make sure they want you to kiss them, too. What you did out there, that was quick thinking. And thanks to that you made it out all right, and we finished the mission. But movies, they’re not real.”
“Then this tactic is no more realistic than using a motorized vehicle as a projectile against a helicopter,” said Aya. She frowned, looking up to Hal. “Razer and I did escape detection.”
“You can’t count on something like that in the future,” said Hal. “And think—did Razer know you were going to do that? Did you tell him? When you’re in the field, you have to communicate with each other.”
Aya checked the empty door frame. The tips of Razer’s fingers had gone so very still along her jaw. En route to the Interceptor, he had looked only the once back to her. When she met his gaze, he turned from her.
“I see,” said Aya.
“You do?” Hal looked relieved. “Okay. Great! Good talk, everybody.”
“That’s it?” Kilowog’s brow dropped. “What about the birds?”
Hal pitched his voice low, no doubt forgetting the extent and sensitivity of Aya’s sensors: “The, uh, whoopie talk can wait for another day.”
“Are you referring to sex, Lantern Jordan?” asked Aya. “If so, I was programmed with an extensive knowledge of the reproductive habits of all known species in both Oan and Frontier space.”
“I’m gonna go finish my meal in the mess,” said Kilowog, standing hastily with his venyachut in hand. “Jordan, you coming?”
“Yeah, I—” Jordan hesitated, simultaneously half-turned to the door and half toward Aya, who tipped her head neatly to one side. “We’ll chat later, okay, Aya? I, uh, really have to—go with Kilowog.”
“Smooth,” muttered Kilowog.
She inclined her chin, dismissing them both. She had expected it would unsettle them. Shifting weight to her toe, she pushed so her chair turned again.
At the door, Kilowog said, “A helicopter?”
“Live free and die hard!” said Hal. “Yippie-ki-yay, mother—”
The pressurized door sealed behind them. Aya withdrew her hand from the console and laid her hands to rest upon her lap, the left beneath the right.
The vastness of the cosmos awaited her without the Interceptor, worlds uncharted and stars unknown. A fiery spit of ionized gas ran red and wild against the black. As the Interceptor proceeded along its course, the nebula slipped further into view till it filled the whole of the viewing port. In some distant million years the gases would coalesce, birthing a new star. In another, the interstellar dust and remaining gases would birth planets. The universe remained in eternal fluctuation; it could never be wholly known.
It was not of stars she thought, nor planets. The universe was immeasurable yet Aya was small. Looking to that huge and far away nebula, in its red and its black, Aya saw Razer.
Why had she kissed him? The answer was evident. An explanation, asked of her, had been given. She had not lied.
A steady flow of information gathered from sensors placed throughout the Interceptor, within and without its hull, washed through her. Absently, she sorted through it. Hal and Kilowog ate and argued over popular media. Hal favored his right elbow, a concession to a blow he had sustained at the conclusion of their mission. The ship’s battery containment required servicing, but it would continue to hold for another three weeks, five days, seventeen hours, and fifty-nine minutes at the current rate. The Interceptor’s current route would carry it parallel to a small planetoid’s arc for roughly fourteen light years before each took a path perpendicular to the other.
Razer had sat at the desk in his quarters. The lights were on at half-brightness. He was alone, and she had kissed him. She had done so to protect them. That was why she had kissed him.
Aya stared at the view port and not beyond. Nothing awaited her there, only her face. The reflective properties of glass were known. There was nothing she could see reflected in it that she had not seen before.
He had breathed into her mouth when her hands, charged, vibrated at his back. Before that, she had studied him as his mouth opened and his eyes closed. The muscles between his eyes had knotted so that his white brow pulled down into a little v. She recalled, in fragments: his thumb trailing across her cheek to touch the corner of her mouth, the breath he had drawn at the touch of her tongue, the incline of his throat when he turned his head to match her better.
Why had he kissed her? What choice had she given him?
In the silence of the bridge, with no one there to press her for the truth of it, Aya synced up the appropriate log and played it within the confines of her head.
After it was done, Razer drew from her. His lips were soft, made swollen, and he pressed them together over his teeth. His palms lingered, warm against her cooler construction. Like so, he held Aya there before him. He looked down, directly into her eyes. She did not blink but met him. His brow was pinched. His thin cheeks were tight. A muscle beneath the left cheekbone shivered as though plucked.
His eyelids dropped, blacking his face. In a husking voice, he said, “They’re gone.” His fingertips traced her jawline and then slipped from her. He did not lift his eyes again.
Aya cut off the log there; she needed no more. She refiled it and sat, looking out the glass at the far off, glacial rotation of star gas. Had he leaned towards her, there at the end before he let go? Her sensors were objective; the recording must then be true. She knew it could not be, watching her reflection in the glass. No one looked back at her. Nothing had changed. Only Aya remained, looking out of the glass, face the same as ever. Her eyes illuminated. Aya returned to her console.
An hour passed. The nebula went with it. Aya made the necessary micro adjustments to the Interceptor’s course while parsing the continuous feed of data collected by the ship’s external sensors. She had been designed for such work, after all.
The door opened. Hal, stretching, trotted up to the driver’s seat, as he’d dubbed it that first mission so long ago now.
“How’s everything looking?”
“Fine.” She busied her fingertips with an environmental feed. “A debris field obscures our current flight path. As the battery containment needs repairs, I suggest a brief detour to Velisilit Kiit.” She called up a holographic image of the space port. “From there, we can avoid the debris field entirely.”
“All right,” said Hal, “let’s do that. Good call, Aya. Hey, space port! You think they’ll have any good bars?”
“Given what happened at the last good bar you patronized,” said Aya, “a policy of temperance might prove wise.”
“Hey, hey, whoa,” said Hal, shaking a finger at her. “That was all on Razer. Kid cannot handle his liquor. I don’t think he’s ever had a day of fun in his life he didn’t feel bad about later.”
“He is greatly concerned with guilt,” said Aya, thinking.
Hal snorted. “You could say that again.”
She saw no reason to do so, so instead Aya smoothed her hand across her console; then, locking it to her base code, she rose.
“Pardon me, Hal,” she said, “but I must resolve something.”
He’d leaned back in the chair, his arms crossed behind him and set against an enormous pillow construct. “Sure thing, sweetie. You just call if you get in any trouble.”
“That will not be necessary,” she said at the door, “but thank you.”
At the door outside Razer’s quarters, Aya stopped. The door was plain, neither marked nor adorned. When the Guardians had assigned Hal and Kilowog to the Interceptor on a permanent basis, they had taken this as permission to personalize the vessel, a task to which they had taken with much enthusiasm unshared by Razer. A sign in the style of a ‘license plate’ hung from Hal’s door, and Kilowog’s quarters could be located by the large firing target attached to it from ceiling to floor. Razer’s quarters were distinguished by a lack of anything at all.
Aya had access to every room aboard the Interceptor, a privilege written into the base coding she shared with the ship’s operative software. She knocked on the door clearly, twice, and then she folded her hands together before her and waited.
“Razer,” she said to the door. “It is Aya. I would like to speak with you, if you are not busy.”
A nanosecond passed in stillness, then another four in precise measure. The silence was not absolute. His breathing was regular as was his heart rate, both monitored by atmospheric sensors set at intervals through the ceiling and walls. About them all, the Interceptor hummed.
“I’m not busy,” he said. “You may come in, so long as Jordan isn’t with you.”
“I am alone,” she assured him, stepping forward as the door automatically swept back for her.
The room was dark, in concession to his comparatively sensitive optical nerves. He was seated cross-legged upon the double-wide pallet laid across the floor, he’d stripped of both tunic and cap, and he was reading. The small collection of books aligned on the desk beside his lantern had tilted precipitously, its anchor thieved.
The door closed at Aya’s back. As it did so, Razer marked the page with a folded corner and set the book aside. He looked up at her. His gaze was steady. His mouth gave nothing.
“You are reading,” said Aya. “If you wish to be alone—” She stretched her hand back to the door, but she did not step.
“I’ve read it before,” he said dismissively, though his eyes flicked to the small, brown book at his knee. His head bent fractionally. The sparse collection of fine, black scars knotting his shaved scalp showed. He looked up again. “Did Jordan send you to fetch me?”
She remained a moment with her arm held out at her back. The sleek black cap he wore beneath his Red Lantern helm usually hid that pattern. Exposed, it resembled nothing so much as the gaping construction of an orb-weaver’s web. Another cap, then, this one of ash rubbed into broken skin.
“No one sent me,” Aya said. “I came only because I wanted to speak to you.”
Razer touched his thumb to his Lantern’s ring, and the black under-tunic returned; so did the cap. He made to stand. As he did so, he collected the book. His long fingers—the knuckles thick, the individual phalanges flat and thin—obscured half the cover.
“Then say what you have to say.”
What she said was, “You have already read this book. Why would you read it again?”
He paused then and glanced to the book held in his hand. “For meaning,” he said.
Aya took three even steps into the room. “Explain?”
Razer’s shoulders were tight, turned in. They eased then, only slightly, and he turned at the waist as if to face her, though his eyes remained upon the little tome.
“Sometimes you miss things,” he said, “the first time you read a book. Or it has a different meaning when you read it again.”
“The book changes?” she asked doubtfully.
He shook his head. Something like a smile, without humor, pulled at the corner of his mouth and then gave up.
“You change,” he said.
He shelved the book. The row of books remained at a devastated angle; he did not correct it but left it so. The Red Lantern was dull; it gave no light. All the books were old and worn. She thought, if he had not read them all before, then someone else had, many times.
“I did not know you liked to read,” said Aya. “Where did you find these books?”
Razer shrugged. “Around. At the space ports. Or some of the planets we visit. Some of them I read back—before. The Ring,” he said with some of the old, tight anger, “helps. It translates what I can’t.”
“Have you always read?”
She was crossing the room, without thinking she’d an objective. Then she was at the desk and reaching out to straighten the books he’d left so wanting. He watched her do so, his eyes turned down to her hands. It was the most closely he had looked at her since they had parted in the alley. Aya did not look up to catch his gaze.
“I read often when I was younger,” he said. “I didn’t have the time. Not until recently.”
There was much elided in that. She did not question after it. Aya held the last book upright a moment and then she withdrew her hand. It stayed where it was; all its fellows did. She studied the books, most of them compact, all of them roughed with wear. But for this, and for the pallet, the room was without amenities.
She stepped back and turned. Silently, Razer met her. His face was closed to her. His mouth was thinned. He stood like a thin wall separated them and he did not wish to knock it down. Aya looked through it, at him, and did not know how to say what she had come to say. So she began with what was simplest.
“Green Lanterns Jordan and Kilowog will be expecting the rest of our report.”
“You didn’t finish?”
“I thought it imprudent to continue after your departure,” she said. “As we were both present for the mission, we should both be present to provide a report of the mission.”
A muscle at the side of his nose tensed then eased. With it, his lip uncurled. “Fine,” he said shortly. He turned. “If that’s all you had to say.”
“No,” said Aya. She found she was angry, rather. “It is not.”
“If you’re going to lecture me about walking out on a report,” he said, with spitting exactness, “then spare us both the effort. I don’t care.”
“You should,” Aya countered. “If you are a member of this crew, then you have the same responsibilities as any other crew member.”
Razer’s mouth bunched; his nostrils tightened. “Clearly you did not feel my presence was necessary. You seemed able to explain everything neatly enough for Jordan and the sergeant.” He folded his arms over his chest, his usual defensive posture.
“Your departure,” she said sharply, “only intensified their questioning. Without you there to assist me, I had no other choice.”
His arms tensed. His shoulders drew down, bending toward his chest. “If you haven’t forgotten, you’re the one who kissed me. That was not my decision.”
Aya took in the angle of his chest, the tension in his brow. She understood. She believed she did. He did not want her here, in his quarters.
“I made a tactical decision to protect us,” she said.
He looked away from her then. His lips had rolled in, pressed flat. She knew that his heart rate had increased, that his respiratory functions had likewise increased. She knew also that Hal and Kilowog had been right to question her.
“Yes,” said Razer. He said it almost without heat. “A tactical decision. A very wise tactical decision. We weren’t discovered. The mission continued as planned. And we succeeded, all thanks to you.”
She looked to the books again, for lack of anything else. Razer had said some of them he had read before, before the Red Lanterns had found him and therefore before Ilana had died. Ilana. Aya did not hate her nor did she envy her. The dead could not be hated; they could not be envied; they could, perhaps, be pitied but what use? They were immutable. Ilana had lived and then she had died. The reality of her existence could not be denied.
“Hal and Kilowog explained something to me that I had not understood,” said Aya, thinking of her reflection in the glass and of Ilana. “If I had understood then, I do not believe I would have made the decision I made in that alley.”
In that same tired voice, Razer said, “And what did they explain to you.”
She could not say this to the books. She owed it to Razer, whom she had pushed up against that wall and kissed, not knowing and not understanding, but only wanting. Selfishness was a concept she was still learning. This did not mean she was immune to it. Rather, she was ignorant. She could not afford ignorance. None of them could.
“I was wrong,” said Aya to Razer.
His eyes were shadowed with more than dark skin. His neck was bent, his posture slouched. All of these things indicated emotional distress. She did not need to measure the energy fluctuations in his ring to understand this.
She said, “I should not have kissed you.”
His eyes closed briefly. Holding onto his upper arms, his fingers clenched then loosened and then clenched again, tighter. When he spoke, his voice was calm and empty.
“Why is that?”
Hadn’t Hal and Kilowog explained it to her? Consent, Hal had said. Consent and communication, and Aya had not asked Razer; she had not told him her idea; she had not included Razer in either the plan or the act, however spontaneous both. She could have asked Razer; they had had ample time before the guards came upon them. While fighting might have jeopardized the mission, the mission might also have been salvaged.
In the end, looking at Razer and thinking of the silent, cold reflection of her face in the viewing port, Aya said none of this to him.
“My judgment was in error,” she said. “I came to a decision on subjective reasoning.”
He watched her, and he was distant from her, and she did not want for him to be so. This was not her decision to make any more than it had been Razer’s desire to kiss her.
“I kissed you,” said Aya, “because I desired to kiss you.”
Razer’s face went very still. He drew a breath; his shoulders rose. His arms began, slowly, to loosen.
“I should not have done so. I was—in error,” she said. “My judgment was flawed by personal emotion.”
“Say it again,” said Razer. “Please. Why you—” He cut off.
“I neglected to consider other personal factors,” she continued. She could not start over; she could not stop long enough to dare. “Among them, the resemblance I share with Ilana. Because of this I failed also to consider your own emotional state.”
Razer was before her. He touched her arms; his thumbs grazed over her shoulders. She tipped her face up, surprised.
“It wasn’t a tactical decision,” he said.
“No,” said Aya. She looked straight ahead, to his collar and not to his gaze, intense and unblinking. “The decision was an emotional one.”
“Aya,” said Razer. His fingers were light on her arms, so light.
“You had not spoken to me of changing my face,” she said to his working throat. “So I presumed you had accepted this facet of my construction. It is difficult for me,” she said suddenly, looking up to him again. “You are inconsistent in your emotional displays. You behave as though we are friends and then you avoid me. Does it cause you discomfort, that I look like her?”
He swallowed. His eyes roamed; he took her in, considered, she realized acutely, her face.
“It did,” he said. “Once. But you are not Ilana.”
“Then why?” asked Aya.
“I thought,” said Razer roughly. “I thought you did not—” He broke off, dropping his chin, turning just so.
She waited, her face lifted to him, her eyes open, her sensors all trained upon him, as they had been, she knew now, for so very long.
He swallowed again. The fingers on her arms tickled, shifting like the many delicate legs of a spider wandering through a maze of its own making.
“Razer,” said Aya. She touched his elbow gently.
His dark eyelids rose. “Aya,” he said, “it was not because of Ilana.”
“What was it?” she asked. “The thing you did not think of me.”
“I never thought,” he said. “That you could want me.”
She did not understand. Razer lifted his hand. His fingertips grazed her jaw, and his touch was hesitant; it was distant; it was shy. And then she did.
“You have formed an emotional attachment to me,” said Aya. The universe was recontextualized. What she knew and had known changed in a sudden, exhilarating rush of upheaval. “Why did you not inform me?”
“And if you had not felt the same?” His fingers curled at her chin. He curled in upon himself. “I loved once before.”
“I am not Ilana,” said Aya.
“I know,” said Razer.
“If,” said Aya, “in the future, you are uncertain about whether your feelings are reciprocated, I would prefer it if you were honest. Unless you are ‘playing hard to get.’”
Razer pulled back. “What? Where did you learn that!”
“The movies Hal recommended were very educational. Human courtship rituals are fascinating. Did you know it is customary on Earth to conclude a kiss with a slap? Should I have slapped you?” asked Aya with interest.
“Those movies are distasteful and absurd,” said Razer hotly, “and you should not believe anything in them.”
She nodded agreement. “I do not wish to slap you now.”
His breath caught. Had she wondered? Razer wondered; she knew it in the softness suffusing his harsh and bony face.
“Razer,” said Aya. She clasped both his elbows now, though she was remembering how he had gasped and arched when she held her hands together at the small of his back. “I wish to kiss you. Is this acceptable?”
“Yes,” said Razer. He licked his lower lip, the flash of his tongue quick. Aya anticipated measuring its flexibility. “That would be—tolerable.”
So she kissed him.