“You are like this with your women, then. At all times?” Estraven asked. He meant the razor of tension that cut into my mind and, I suppose, his flesh. He could not ask the true questions, could not know what to ask for he did not know what a woman was ; the trouble was, I discovered as I sat there, skimming my memories and my prejudices to form an acceptable amalgam of answer, that neither did I. I mean this in the crudest terms, in the way Harth clearly had asked. He meant in the flesh and in that sense, I had never met a woman, and so did not know what I was like with them.
“You mean, are we always… careful? Yes, I suppose.” Somehow I had obscured the truth further, ran gravel and mud into the crystalline ice. No matter. Estraven only stared at me, open and unashamed, but briefly. When I said no more he turned his head, as if the matter was at end. It was not, though I did not know it then.
“It is not so simple as avoidance. Not so difficult as it either.” I was saying nothing. Estraven did not turn his head but his gaze found me again. “To truly compare, I would have to understand the truth of your kemmer, how it feels.” At this he turned and looked directly at me. “Though of course I cannot. If I had to guess, I would say the urge is uneven, chaotic. I am not always given to it. Others may be more so, still others not at all.”
He looked at me for a time, unrushed in his coming to the next question. I stared down at his hands where they were folded together on his lap. I let myself think and then quickly looked away. I realized he had been waiting some time to ask these questions, his hesitation formed only from doubt that I was ready for them. I wasn’t sure that I was.
He asked anyway. “If one of your women was as near you as I, you would feel nothing?”
I could remain silent and turn to sleep. I could give some weak answer and Estraven would note the change but say nothing against it. Yet we had made it onto the ice. We could not go back.
“It would depend on the woman?” I asked it as if he knew the answer. As if he would know which women would pull me. “Though physically we may always be capable of attraction, it does not always take. The mind is an element in it. The heart too. Though in some cases not, I suppose.” At this I knew I had likely switched my role as the Pervert for the Zany in Estraven’s reckoning with my babbling. I covered my face with my hands and rubbed, not having to feign it as an attempt to warm myself.
“We have some choice in it, Ai.” Estraven said and his voice lit higher with what I thought was amusement but I could not risk to look him in the face and confirm. Let him laugh at me. “As you can well see, I am able to speak to you without being overtaken. I have turned down offers of kemmering.”
“I hadn’t meant to imply—“ I didn’t know what I had meant to imply. “—I mean to say, I know for you it is merely a physical imperative that I aggravate. I am not its cause alone. Of course, I trust you.”
Outside the wind stilled and quieted as if listening to our conversation. Yes, I trusted Estraven. In this, at least. No, in all things now. He had proven himself capable in every possible way I knew. He had earned my trust, my friendship. I owed him my life. What was left to deny him?
He looked at me for a long time, in that open way. I could nearly hear his thoughts then, though not through mindspeech, which I had not even attempted yet. His expression was curiously revealing, his usual neutral face displaying a desire to continue, to ask more. Confusion, then, of course not voluntarily, some flash of desire. Then blankness.
We stopped the foolish talk. I settled into my nightly ritual of folding my sleeping bag and coat in just the right configuration, for I was loathe to give up even a degree of warmth. Estraven took to his journal, his entry this evening longer than usual. He had more to comment on than the weather this evening, no doubt.
How strange he is, about these women. He has conflated me with one of them, obviously, while I am in kemmer. Though I do not think it is because I am as alike to these women as he seems to believe. I think his distress is not so much founded in the truth of my biology, for I am as I have always been, unchanging, since we have met. I think, though I have no way of knowing for certain, that it is Ai that has changed. His identity has been put to question, chipped away a little more each day he has lived on Gethen, alongside our normal society where he is the sole stranger. He sees his perversion now, where before he did not. He no longer sees himself as a normal alien, but as a pervert Gethenian. His strangeness about his own women stems from his own strangeness of self. He cannot even describe them to me. What else could cause such a crisis?
Or perhaps it is true, perhaps I am like a woman. Most likely I would never know.
I closed my journal and set it aside. Ai still shifted in his huddle of layers, his body too big to fit comfortably in the sleeping bag completely. I felt for him, knowing that discomfort could be as terrible as pain. I leaned over and raised the temperature of the chabe a degree.
“You needn’t,” Ai said as I did. “It’s only kroxet .” It was, but it was on the cooler side of it, and I knew even above freezing Ai would be cold. I had long since learned to overestimate the amount of heat he required, so I was near sweating regardless. Still, I turned the chabe back down to where it had been, Ai staring with what might have been disappointment. Well, he had hands. He could make his own decision to turn the temperature up, if he found himself too cold.
I removed my shirt as delicately as I could, for my breasts were tender, even bound as they were. Ai looked away and in my hormone-addled state this annoyed me. There was no harm in looking, was there? I was not being provocative, must not have looked in any way my best, my hair matted and in the same braid frazzled and untouched for three days. There was no seduction in my need to not sweat to death.
Yet I could not resist. Not the sexual urge, for I did resist that, but the need for Ai’s attention. For the pleasure of seeing him struggle with his strangeness. I could claim that small pleasure at least, surely.
Ai was still turned away from me, laying on his side facing away. I undid my braid, finger-combed through it for a few minutes to untangle the snags, perhaps making over-much noise in the doing of it. When that had no effect I resorted to something stupider. I picked my hieb up from where I had folded it and threw it at Ai.
He turned then, surprised. I turned my breasts away from him in courtesy, though I threw half of my loose hair over one shoulder as I continued to comb through the rest of it.
“What’s this?” He asked dumbly and held up my hieb.
“You’re welcome to use it as another layer against the cold.”
Ai said nothing and well he shouldn’t. I was acting ridiculous and knew it, but found it difficult to stop. Vaguely, I wondered if he would be affected by my pheromones, if there was any use at throwing my clothing at him. Probably not. Probably, I had only managed to confuse the man more. I smiled and then shot him a look over my shoulder, fingers still running through my hair.
Estraven stared at me between the strands of his hair like a nereid from the old Terran myths. I knew he could not control it, to a degree, but I too found I could not look away. My mind was in tangles, thoughts came to me and left just as quickly. I was so cold I could barely keep my teeth from chattering.
What else could I do but take his hieb? I threw it around my shoulders and tried to shuffle myself further down into the sleeping bag, though why I do not know. In that state, I couldn’t have slept even if it had been a balmy 50 degrees. Estraven threw his untangled hair over his back and then, with an arch to his back, reached back and began to rebraid it into one thick plait. I looked away when his eyes met mine again.
I felt my body respond and was horrified. I tried to think of anything else as I tucked myself toward the wall of the tent. Shame consumed me and I did not know from where it sprung. It was no more shameful than Estraven’s own state. I could logic it, but to no purpose. My face flamed hot while my fingers chilled cold. God, I was in kemmer.
Minutes or years passed, and finally I heard Estraven’s nightly invocation. This time I joined him, though my lips moved soundlessly with his voice.
“Praise then darkness and Creation unfinished.”
In darkness I thought myself free. I could not catch sight of him, the time of idle talk gone with the light. Yet I laid there, consumed in thought.
My awkwardness and yes, my desire for him was not new. Surprising, in the way an amnesiac is surprised to find the facts of his life written in his own hand in his journal, but not new. I had been reassessing my choices of late, in mirror to Estraven’s. Sure, skilled, an able politician and, most recently, a competent jail-breaker, I wondered at how his actions must surely lead from his thoughts in an orderly line. Why had I left Earth? I could scarcely remember. To join the Ekumen, it would follow, but now I wondered. Had I always been the stranger? Truly it is not the average man who applies for the position of First Mobile. I say this not in pride; the position must attract outliers on principle. The average man could not stand such isolation, such devotion to a cause. I suppose I have always known I was not the average man, but I had thought myself an average human. So then, did I come to Gethen because it was easier to be a stranger among strangers than a stranger among one’s own people? If that were true, I did not present a typical case of my species for the Gethen to study. Had I given them false data, by telling them my truth? And as ever my mind was split along sex: What would have been accomplished differently, if we had sent a woman? I doubt a woman would have made it onto the ice. I doubt too that she would have needed to.
The wind picked up and the cold deepened. I pulled Estraven’s hieb up over my shoulder, the fabric smelling faintly of sweat and of his essence. I felt shame again; I did not know if the scent of him whipped me up into a fresh wave of arousal because of his pheromones, or because I knew logically that the biological process worked that way for Gethenians and the abstract thought alone excited me. Regardless, the result was the same.
I could hear Ai fidgeting in his sleeping bag over the wind. He was restless, and I dared to imagine why. Imagine only, for I had meant it when I said I would resist. The fact that I wanted him was irrelevant. Every decision I had made in the last two years had revolved around the man and this was no exception. What would it matter anyway, if we did join? It would not change my exile, nor his. Our lives were consumed by one goal, to contact Ai’s ship. Thinking beyond that was folly. And while I still believed our chances fair, there was still the possibility that we would not survive the ice. Perhaps though, that was as much a reason to give in as resist.
But I would not force myself upon him. I would not even ask. I was active, aggressor in this, though Ai likely did not see it that way. He saw me as victim to my body’s natural urges, likely because he saw himself that way. And the question was temporary, if I was not in kemmer the question would not hang between us. I held the reins to the sledge. All I needed to do was simply pull on and not look back. Ai would never initiate, he was far too passive for that.
And yet I allowed my hand to slip down between my legs. I dared not touch bare hand to bare flesh. Even over my clothing the touch slicked my thighs. My phallus throbbed with neglect. In the haze of kemmer-logic, this seemed the sensible path. Only a touch. Only myself. I was being very stupid.
All at once the tent erupted in motion. I froze, my hand still cupped over my sex. Ai threw back his coverings and half-stumbled to the tent flap in darkness.
I sat there counting the seconds, half-worrying I would have to follow him out and rescue him from the cold but he came back not a minute later, softly cursing under his breath.
“All right, Ai?” I said, though my voice came out rough, suggestive. He laughed, equal parts bitter and cheerful. Perhaps the ice was getting to him.
“All right? It’s cold. Always cold. I can feel my thoughts sticking to the inside of my skull.” Though I could not see my hand in front of my face I heard him shivering in the dark. He found his way back to his sleeping bag and made a fuss of covering himself again.
“I’ll turn up the chabe,” I said, not waiting for him to protest this time. Whatever he wanted, I would give it to him, even if he refused to admit it.
“You needn’t—“ I reached out anyway, groping in the dark for the stove. Ai’s hand was there already. Where I touched him, I burned.
Estraven’s hand was fever-warm and soft as… no. It was simply soft. Surprising, given everything we have been through, but I suppose thinking about it now with a clear head, the constant protection of gloves and resistance to the chaff of cold would keep Gethenian hands soft. Perhaps I was addled. Perhaps they were soft because any touch at all would have felt like heaven to me through these lonely years. Perhaps it was because it was Estraven.
He said nothing of course, his natural inclination to pull away at war with his desire. It was desire, I could no longer deny it. I had known, of course, but to touch him reframed it because now the choice was active. I had to choose to pull away because he could not.
I left my hand where it was on the chabe, his fingers grazing the tops of my knuckles. I left it there too long, itself a choice. I hadn’t recoiled and now Estraven knew.
“Harth,” I said though my voice shook with nerves that I hoped he would take for a sudden chill. I was shaking, I realized, but I was also very cold. Cold like one feels with fever, the core warm and over-hot, the edges frayed and frantic, chilled. “Therem,” I tried when he did not answer to the other name.
He remained silent even at the second call of his name, his hand still upon mine. I could not see his face, could not read his expression in the dark. Blessedly, nor could he see mine.
“Move,” he said in a short bitten-off breath. I was causing him undo pain while I dithered over my own personal morals and ethics. While I sat here wondering at the softness of his skin. I did move then, but into the oblivion of light. I only turned the dial on the chabe up softly, a dim glow of outline and intention. I was afraid but I wanted Estraven to see it.
He hid nothing from me as he stared at me openly. His other hand was balled in a fist in his lap, his jaw set, clenched with annoyance or discomfort. I must have looked ridiculous, staring with my mouth half-open, shivering from the cold. I was a coward and hung between two options, unable to commit. His fingers slid across the back of my hand. Two fingers curled around my thumb, not pulling me towards him, not letting me go. I closed my eyes, bracing myself for it. Willing myself to do it. I felt his touch disappear and panicked. I did not think. I opened my eyes and reached out and took his hand in mind. He stared at me, still doubting even as he curled his fingers around mine and leaned forward.
“Do you mean this?” he asked and his voice consumed me. I no longer wondered to which sex his pitch belonged to. Who could care? Who could wonder over abstracts in such a situation?
“Yes,” I said simply because every ridiculous addendum I could add sounded adolescent and foolish. His fingers tightened over my own. When I looked up to meet his gaze this time I held it and without speaking, we knew.
He pulled me towards him at the same moment I lunged towards him. All restraint left me as I fell into his arms. My mouth found his. His lips were cold and chapped and I opened them to further exploration with my tongue. He was a bit stupefied by my speed but after a few moments returned the kiss. I knew I should have gone slower, should have eased him into it, but one does not wade into a lake to acclimate to the cold. One simply jumps in.
He put his arms around me, hands safely running down my shoulder blades. But his terror of my body ebbed ever away, and soon he got up the nerve to run his hands down to grip my hips. I laughed with pleasure as he smiled against my lips. I had been half-sitting on his stomach, arching down over him with relative ease as he was taller, but now with his hands on me I lifted up and back to grind down against his erection. He gasped and lifted up and I ground down upon him again, catching the second gasp with my mouth.
He was bigger than me, which I had expected. Thankfully though not by much. I would be able to take him without too much effort, something I had wondered over on more than one occasion. I do not know if given multiple kemmering, I would have always taken the same sexual role, if my biology would always react to him the same. Such conjecture was far from my mind that evening.
I continued to grind against him, and was delighted when his hands reached up and found my breasts. A flare of pride rose up in me, that he would take such initiative. I moaned appreciatively as he cupped them over the binding. If he was still hesitant it was only in small part, for after a minute of this he pulled the band off of me all on his own. I fell back against him, trailing my lips and teeth along his neck, smothering him with my lust and heat.
“Are you still cold?” I asked coyly as I kissed his ear.
“I am,” he said sheepishly. He moved his legs against mine and they were quite cold.
“Get back into the sleeping bag.” It took us several more minutes of grinding against each other and kissing before we could be convinced to stop and shuffle back together into the bag.
Pulling away from him was an agony I could barely tolerate. I was still fully clothed, but still cold even with Estraven’s body heat penetrating me. My trousers had ridden up from the friction of our movement and I discarded the last of my shame with them onto the floor. Estraven had not seen, was not looking at me as I continued to take off my shirt and undergarments, leaving myself exposed. He was too busy doing the same. I slipped into the sleeping bag and shivered, though as much from anticipation now as the cold.
Estraven sat nude before me and I was struck by my need for him. Not twenty minutes ago my mind raced in terror at this very scene. Now all I could think was how badly I wanted him to come lay against me again. I reached out my arms. He smiled and obliged me happily.
How little it mattered when the moment finally came. I could see Estraven’s body had taken a shape that would suit mine. Relief, I suppose, was the strongest emotion I felt, but even that was overblown. All this time I had built it into something it was not, had worried myself into needless fretting. Finally I had my answer as to what Estraven was: he was mine.
I opened the sleeping bag and shivered as Estraven’s bare skin touched mine. He settled on top of me, legs spread and straddling me. He was wet to a degree I hadn’t realized was possible, and his phallus, while diminished by the dominance of his internal genitalia, was still half the size of mine. When he pressed it against my own I closed my eyes and turned my head. My hands found his hips again and he waited, pressed soft but insistent kisses into my neck. I pulled him closer and ground up against him.
“Genry,” he sighed into my ear. He reached up and put his hands on my shoulders for leverage to grind down again. I was losing my focus, my head spinning with strangeness and pleasure. If you had told me this was what my time on Gethen would lead to when I stepped off my ship, I would have turned around and spent another 17 years returning. Thankfully then, I was ignorant.
Finally Estraven lost his patience for what must have been an intolerable amount of foreplay. He slid up higher against me and then slid down onto my length. The pleasure and heat was intense and sudden and I must have babbled something foolish because Estraven buried his face into my neck and laughed.
It did not take long for kemmer to take me completely. Sensual touches and kisses soon gave way to outright fucking. Ai took it better than I thought he would, kept up with me as well as I could have hoped. Once I had come the first time, the urgency bled out of me for a moment, the edge dulled. I laid there atop him, my head propped up on my left hand as I ran my other hand down his chin. He was still inside me, spent and flagging, but I refused to uncouple from him.
After a few mindless seconds of petting him he asked me, “will we need to continue? It lasts for a day or two, does it not? I think I can manage.”
I kissed him. I could not help it. He amused me so much, one moment talking about starships and the universe, one moment saying something like that. “It need not be continuous. Yes, we usually couple many times, but for pleasure, not need.”
“If we were to lose another day to the ice…”
I laughed. “I would much rather spend the effort fucking than pulling the sledge in the wrong direction.” He smiled tentatively, I think embarrassed again. I decided to make it worse. “If you’re willing, there’s still much more I can show you.”
“I’m willing,” he said and then shifted so that finally he slipped out of me. “I just need a minute. Or perhaps a few minutes. And maybe some water.”
“I’ll fetch it for you.” I extracted myself from the sleeping bag, endeared by the sound of protest he made as I did. I didn’t bother getting dressed and went outside to get some ice to melt. The cold air felt good on my too-hot skin. When I came back Ai was staring at me, though I could not tell if it was lust or awe at my resistance to the cold. Perhaps it was both.
By the time the water was heated and had, I was beginning to feel the pull again. I pulled Ai into a kiss and soon we were back in the sleeping bag. I positioned myself under him this time and jokingly said, “I’ll be a woman this time.” His eyes grew wide at that and I worried I had said something wrong but then he laughed. He settled himself against me and leaned down for a kiss.
“No,” he said, and then pressed into me with a sigh of pleasure, “please, let us never talk about such things again.”
I nodded and wrapped my legs around him and pulled him close. We went on like that for hours, stopping and starting again until the morning light, slept, and then went on again for several hours the next night. I swore kemmering to him, though I did not tell him so. I kept it to myself, unable and unwilling to say such a thing knowing what I knew.
I do not know if he felt the same. I never asked. If I was lucky, I would never know.