They walked home quietly, not in any sort of enforced silence, but simply taking their environs in. Few trees on Gethen were deciduous, but those that were had started to change their foliage from bluish gray to reddish purple, and these purple boughs lined the edges of one of Ehrenrang’s public parks that Genly and Estraven passed on their walk from the Ekumenical embassy back to their apartment.
It had been a busy day considered by itself, but considered with the days of setting up the embassy in the first place, it was not so bad. Embassy affairs were falling into rhythms and patterns, which didn’t make them easy but certainly made them more navigable.
Genly was wearing gloves, because it was a bit nippy out, and Estraven walked close beside him with his hands tucked under his hieb, resting in the pouch above the belt. They walked with their arms linked at the elbow. Holding hands was a profoundly intimate gesture in Karhide; not completely uncouth in public, but more acceptable for young lovers than for older ones who knew better.
A couple sitting on a park bench close to the sidewalk held hands. The high flush on both their cheeks suggested imminent or just-begun kemmer. Genly and Estraven walked past them a little faster to give them their privacy. They did not walk past fast enough so as not to hear their conversation. Genly tried not to listen but overheard something about wanting to get indoors and a mock-petulant complaint about “that way again? You have all the luck.”
That comment gave Genly pause; it stuck in his mind like a thorn. It related to some thoughts he had been thinking lately.
For six months now, he and Estraven had been lovers. The love had existed between them since the winter, but they had started keeping kemmer in the last month of spring when Estraven’s banishment was finally revoked, and continued through the summer, through hot days that never truly got hotter than March in the Pacific Northwest as Genly had known it as a child on Earth, but were hot enough for Gethen that even with the narrow slit windows open, Estraven would kick the covers off the bed while asleep and still wake up clothed in sweat.
“No one should be in kemmer in the summer,” Estraven would mutter, all the while climbing into Genly’s lap with fervor and sticking his hands under Genly’s clothes.
It was something like having had six honeymoons, Genly thought. Estraven’s kemmer always hit with the intensity of a flash flood, but Genly was quickly learning how to keep his head above water for three or four or five days, and then adjust to the abrupt longer period of absolute asexuality. A Terran could adapt to love on Gethen. But a Terran could not become a Gethenian, and could not change like the phases of the moon. A Terran was a tide-locked satellite strong enough to tide-lock its planet in return.
For six months now, he and Estraven had been lovers and Estraven had gone into kemmer the same way again every time. Whatever chemical influences Genly sweated out were not half as potent as a Gethenian person’s, but were still legible to Estraven’s body—they were both human, after all—and still capable of tipping the scales during thorharmen. Six times in a row, Estraven had gone into kemmer as female, though that word didn’t map neatly onto the closest Gethenian concept. Animals had sexes, but humans had temporary sexual states of being, without meanings beyond physical attached to either kemmer form. There were certain social assumptions about the rare Permanents, those half-gendered Gethenians who would never know what it was to change cyclically and thus never bear nor beget, but even then, the assumptions were the same for every kind of Permanent. Even some of the kinder assumptions were tinged with pity, though. Permanence was not enviable.
Same way all the time. Estraven hadn’t complained. Not yet, Genly thought.
“What has you unhappy?” Estraven asked as they walked up the steps to the island building that contained their apartment. Genly startled, and made sure he wasn’t Sending via mindpeech. He wasn’t. Estraven was merely attuned to his moods.
“I wouldn’t say ‘unhappy,’” Genly answered, sounding quite calm despite his hastening pulse. “Only let’s talk about it in private, and once I’ve gathered my thoughts.”
It was a conversation, Genly thought, that had to be had, even though it was one he partly dreaded.
Dinner—first dinner, that is; they would eat again after sundown as was customary in Karhide—was a spiced mushroom soup made with leftover fish stock. They did not discuss anything serious over dinner. The time to eat was not the time to think. Instead, Estraven recounted a comment that Soshe ner Arreves, a young Karhidish colleague of theirs, had made to the somber Hainishman Ke’sta that had Ke’sta bent over laughing. It amused Genly too. Arreves was quick.
After dinner, by the embers of the fireplace, they sipped hot beer.
“So,” said Estraven gently.
He did not ask, ‘what did you want to tell me?’ or ‘what’s on your mind?’ Those were a little too direct. ‘So,’ had plausible deniability.
“I think I kind of want to apologize,” Genly said suddenly, rashly.
Estraven’s expression didn’t change much. He was not one to show surprise easily. But his deep, brown-black eyes narrowed slightly.
“For?” he asked.
Genly wasn’t sure, exactly. He felt guilty, not as though he had made a simple error but as though he had done something shameful, or ruined something good with clumsy hands.
“Well, I keep making you take the same shape,” he said at last.
Estraven didn’t answer right away either. After a couple seconds, something clicked.
“Ah! You mean in kemmer,” he said. The thoughts of a person in somer were far from the thoughts of a person in kemmer.
“That’s certainly not a voluntary thing,” Estraven added matter of factly. “I don’t see the need for an apology.”
“No, but, I don’t know if it’s right for me to— I mean, you’re, you know, you’re both and neither. I don’t want to— to halve you, to make you only—”
Genly trailed off, making useless gestures.
“A woman?” Estraven asked, raising an eyebrow. He used the word in Genly’s language here.
“No,” said Genly. “Well, I mean— no, of course not.”
“Because six female kemmers in a row do not a woman make. Nor ten, nor thirteen.”
“It isn’t the gender thing,” Genly said, feeling a bit mortified. It had taken him a couple years to get used to gender on Gethen, but he had eventually come to understand Gethenians on their own terms, and he was embarrassed by how long it had taken him and how many mistakes he had made along the way. “It’s just about shape.”
“Shape,” Estraven repeated, prompting him to elaborate.
“Is this all right?” Genly asked. “Me being the same shape always?”
“Genly,” said Estraven (for he had learned to pronounce his name), “of course it is. I chose to be with you. You know that.”
Genly felt an immense relief, but the conversation was not over. It must continue, but he was unsure of how to proceed, unsure of how to talk about feelings that he himself would never know how to feel.
“And,” he said, “do you ever miss taking other shapes yourself?”
Estraven looked down at his own mug. There were about two sips of beer left in it. He swished it around in the bottom of the mug.
“It’s not as though I was unaware,” he said, slowly, “that this pattern would happen. I don’t think I need to kemmer as male to be happy in life.”
“Therem, my love,” said Genly gently, “that’s the answer to a different question.”
“So it is,” Estraven conceded. “Supposing I—If I wished—It's not unheard of to take something to tip the scales—That is to say—On your planet, Genly, do people—?”
He cleared his throat and began again.
“You would desire me in my other form?”
“Yes,” said Genly, without hesitation. “Yes, God, yes, in whatever form you wanted to choose. In any shape it’s always you. It’s you I love, Therem. It’s you I want. I desire you in every form of yourself.”
They were sitting opposite each other, face to face, but Estraven got up and sat beside him, and took Genly’s hand in his own hands. There were certain replies that had to be made by touch. Words were imperfect.
It was settled then, Genly thought. All was well.
Estraven let out a quiet hmm sound, as if laughing inwardly at a private joke. Genly gave him an inquiring look.
“Well, surely not every form,” Estraven said with a suppressed grin. “Not in somer too.”
“Yes in somer too,” Genly admitted, his face a bit hot. Attraction to a person in somer felt so natural to him but would seem odd to a Gethenian.
Estraven stared at him, intrigued.
“What, all the time, really?” he asked.
“I don’t want to have sex all the time, but I’m attracted to you all the time.”
“But do I arouse you in somer?”
“Yes. Yes, I— I keep it to myself because I know you wouldn’t— the time’d be wrong, but sometimes, ah, well, I’m not in somer, so sometimes I look at you...and feel, ah, feel…”
How to describe it to someone whose desires and yearnings were ruled by the calendar? How to describe those little flashes of heat and excitement at catching the sight of a lover’s hip or shoulder at a certain angle, their face in a certain light? Too slip and minute to act on, most of the time, but undeniably there, tripping up the heartbeat, warming up the face.
“Yeah. Yes. It must sound strange to you.”
“You’re not strange to me anymore, Genly,” Estraven said, quietly, earnestly.
Then he added, laughing,
“But still, goodness me!”
Estraven was not truly shocked, of course. The two of them were close enough now to make jokes.
“I don’t think you get to say ‘goodness me,’” he said, playfully poking Estraven in the belly, “after that time you kept waking me up in the middle of the night—”
“Hsh hsh hsh!” said Estraven, laughing, placing a hand over Genly’s mouth.
Genly wrested his hand away, but Estraven was ready with another hand, which Genly also wrestled with. They were both laughing by the end of it, face to face again, Estraven sitting on Genly’s legs, and Genly pinning down Estraven’s hands onto Estraven’s knees.
“Yes, but your wrist was okay,” Estraven protested.
“After it was splinted, Therem.”
“Yes, in the end, it was fine, that’s what I said.”
On impulse, then, before Genly could answer, Estraven kissed him, on the mouth. People on Gethen did not tend to kiss on the mouth outside of kemmer, but it felt natural, between the two of them. It did not feel strange at all. Genly returned the kiss and they sat together on the couch for a while, doing nothing while the embers of the fireplace cooled.