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"You going home today?"
Zack Boundary glanced up, surprised not just by the question, but by who was asking it. It was nearing the end of his night shift in the Kismet Port Authority, and he was finishing up typing up the week's situation reports before heading back to home, to his wife Ru, and to bed. He'd let his new partner (Colette, a novice who'd only been in Customs for a few days) take the night off so that she could get a good night's sleep before the day's festivities. At the moment, the only thing on his mind was making it through the half-hour until his relief showed up, eating dinner with Ru -- who also worked nights -- and then getting some rest.
He looked up at his brother Gil, standing in the doorway of the Customs control room with folded arms and wearing his characteristic scowl, and all he could do was wonder why in Kismet Gil would be asking if he was going home when he got off shift. Of course he was going home; where else?
Then he remembered that today was Founder's Day, a day traditionally spent with one's family, and Gil probably didn't mean home to Ruvidaiya.
"Wasn't planning on it," Zack said, turning back to his screens. "What are you doing here anyhow? You're not working today."
He realized as soon as the words were out of his mouth that he'd stuck his foot in it, again. Gil's fits of brotherly loyalty were rarer than moonquakes, and here he went, insulting him. Zack glanced up to see that Gil's scowl had darkened, his arms clamped across his chest in an impenetrable barrier against the world.
"Figures," Gil said, his voice cold. "You still think you're too good for the rest of us. Zachariah Westline Northcorner Boundary, boy wonder ... Well, go have fun with your wife."
His voice lingering oddly on the last word, Gil turned his back and strode away, his boots ringing on the metal floor.
Zack rubbed the bridge of his nose, swamped in weariness. He didn't need this, not at the end of a long shift -- the guilt, the reminder of the family who had turned their backs on him, not the other way around.
Gil's words made him want to call Ruvidaiya, reach out to her. Beautiful Ru, his lifemate, his cornerstone in a difficult and shifting world. But she would still be working at the clinic; her shift would not end for a couple of hours yet. He went back to the computer.
"Son-of-a-bitch," Gil mumbled, striding along the dim streets of Kismet, his hands jammed deep in his pockets.
He wasn't sure what impulse had compelled him to ask the question, knowing even before he asked it that the reception would be cold. Zack still liked to pretend that he'd grown up in a little suburban house on a little suburban street, not in a patched-together habitat in the hill country behind Kismet. Zack had been the first in their family to attend college, the first to leave the scattered ramshackle householdings of the Westline Northcorner Boundary, and by the time Gil had followed two years later, his brother had already begun to establish himself as what their father would have called "city folks." Zack had a little apartment and he was dating a city girl; he certainly had no interest in a bunch of relatives from the hill country ruining his urbane facade.
Gil wasn't that close to his extended family, and didn't like most of them, but at least he talked to Mom every once in a while. Zack, according to their mother, had neither written nor called since he'd left. And yet ... and yet ...
And yet every time he called her, all she could talk about was Zack. The college graduate. Ten years after Gil had dropped out, she still asked him, in every one of their less and less frequent conversations, when he was going back and finishing like his brother. Like his brother. Like Zack the wonder boy, who never called and never wrote.
Gil spat at the dusty moon-rock of the street.
He wasn't too far from the Kismet Clinic, he realized suddenly -- the Kismet Clinic, where Ruvidaiya Boundary worked. Crap ... he'd just been walking, hardly thinking about where he was going, and his feet seemed to have a mind of their own. The last thing he needed, in his present frame of mind, was to see Ru.
But a few moments later, he found himself there.
In honor of the holiday, the door had been draped in colorful bunting: red, black and gray, the unofficial town colors. Gil pushed the door-open button in irritation. One reason he had been considering going home for the day was just to get out of town. The Boundarys, at least, didn't bother about this patriotic nonsense.
The interior of the clinic was equally festive, with swaths of bunting hanging from the ceiling and a wall-sized holographic display at one side of the room showing old films from Kismet's history. The colors and movement of a parade drew Gil's attention. He'd seen the holo before, scores of times -- it was unavoidable at this time of year: footage of the very first Founder's Day, nearly three centuries ago, when Kismet's citizens had bought out the town's mining charter and become the official owners of their own moon.
"Hello, Gil. Can I help you?"
He looked around to see the floating, disembodied head of Fletcher, the clinic's holo-secreteary. "I'm here to see Ru."
Fletcher smiled as she drifted off. "I'll see if she's free."
Disdaining the clinic's stained chairs, Gil waited uncomfortably in front of the shifting holo-mural, which was now showing jerky recordings of the first settlers constructing the early dome. Some were obviously taken from flat films that had been dimensionalized, and none of them offered anything new to see.
At least he was the only person in the waiting room. Six in the morning ... late enough for the night crowd to have dispersed, but too early for most of the day people to be stirring yet. Gil smiled faintly, amused that an underground city still held such archaic conventions -- most parts of the galaxy, in fact, used the traditional twenty-four-hour day, even on worlds with a much longer or shorter diurnal cycle. His smile faded as he stared up at the bunting over his head. Tradition. Human nature, clinging blindly to the customs of a vanished world, or creating new customs and clinging to those instead.
Like marriage vows ... archaic remnants of a vanished past.
He turned to see what was taking so long, just as Ru walked out of the sliding door behind the nurse's station, a vial of some fluid in one hand and a handheld notetaker in the other. As always, he was stunned into immobility by her beauty.
Ru froze, too. Recovering, she placed the handheld in one of the data slots behind the desk and started the download. "I was not expecting you," she said, eyes focused on the screen.
"Happy Founder's Day," Gil said, unable to think of anything else. The words sounded trite and stupid, coming from his mouth.
Staring fixedly at the screen, Ru reached behind her ear for the stylus that she customarily kept tucked into her braid. It refused to come free and she yanked hard at it. Strands of long, curly dark hair came loose along with the light-pen, marring the precise order of her hairstyle. "Oh, f--" Ru stifled herself and jabbed at the screen with furious thrusts of the stylus, inputting her data.
"So ... you're getting off soon?" Gil persisted.
Ru finally looked up at him, her dark eyes impossible to read. "What are you doing here? You shouldn't be here. People will see you."
"Nobody who cares."
Ru jammed the stylus back into her hair and circled the nurse's station, approached him with quick, angry steps. "I told you it's done, Gil. Please don't keep coming here."
Gil just shrugged, hands buried in his pockets. One small, buried part of him had hoped that this once, just this once, her face would light up when she saw him, just like it did when she saw Zack. Just one small, rebellious part of his mind, playing this scene over and over, like the inescapable Founder's Day film -- Ru dropping her work, forgotten, to the floor; Ru running to him, oblivious to her co-workers' curious gaze, to the jealous specter of Zack hovering behind her.
"That's what you said after the Christmas party," he said. "And after last summer. And after --"
"Gil, stop being an ass. Don't my wants mean anything to you?"
"I think what you want and what you say you want are two different things."
He touched her cheek. She twisted her head away, the dislodged strands of hair falling around his fingers, but he saw how her eyes strayed back to him. He could not have her heart; he had resigned himself to that long ago, except for that small film reel continually unfolding in his brain. But he had her body in a way that Zack never would. She had told him that, long ago, in one of the infrequent times when things were good between them. Of all the things he'd wanted to excel at, to beat Zack at, he'd never expected the one small victory that he'd actually achieved. And he still wasn't sure if he wanted it ....
"What are you doing when you get off work?"
Her lips parted slightly, baring small white teeth like a housecat's snarl. "I'm going home, Gil. I promised Zack I'd come straight home. He is making dinner for me and we're going to have a little Founder's Day celebration of our own, and spend the day together."
"Fumbling in bed?"
"Stop it, Gil. You're an ass."
His hand still lingered near her face, and she was no longer trying to draw her head away. "Are you busy now?"
"Of course I'm busy, you stupid man. Half the staff are off tonight."
"Not even fifteen minutes?"
Gil." Her voice almost broke.
From the corner of his eye, Gil was still aware of the flickering holo-mural. It had rolled back around to the Founder's Day parade, as he'd known it must, as the filmstrip in his head always returned to that first moment when Ru's eyes would meet his and he'd see love in them -- not annoyance or lust or anger or pain. A tradition that could not be broken.
He leaned closer and whispered, smelling the soft perfume of her soap as his lips almost but not quite brushed the skin, "How long as it been since you had an orgasm? How long since you were really happy with your sex life? Since the last time we made love? How much longer can you wait?"
"You make me so angry, Gil. So very angry." Her voice was a whisper now too, shaken and heartbroken. He hated knowing that he was causing her pain, but he hated Zack more -- the much greater cause -- and there was only one way that he had ever found to truly hurt Zack, the golden boy, the one who always won every contest between them.
I'm winning this one, Zack old boy. It's your turn to lose.
He ran his hand down her cheek, down her neck, and slipped it inside her collar, down to the swell of her breasts. Ru grabbed his hand and pulled it away, squeezing it hard enough to send little shards of pain shooting up his arm. He was fairly sure that the pain was not accidental.
"There's a closet back here," Ru whispered, digging her nails into his palm as she led him behind the nurse's station. "No one ever goes there."
Down the back corridors, through the door, and then it was just the two of them in the dark, the two of them alone except for the ghostly presence of Zack: clawing off each other's clothes amid the heavy smells of ammonia and soap, knocking into broom handles and bottles of chemicals. Gil's eyes opened wide as Ru's firm, urgent mouth found his, but though she was only cems away, he could not see her no matter how hard he strained against the darkness. But that was all right; the film playing inside his head came into focus now, flickering again and again over that scene of her eyes lighting up with love for him, not for Zack -- for him, for Gil Boundary, the way no woman had ever looked at him.
"Maybe this'll be our own Founder's Day tradition," he gasped with self-conscious black humor, struggling up from the kiss to free her mouth for other things. They had so little time.
"Don't say that, don't ..." Her whisper, hard and strained in the dark -- and Gil was glad he couldn't see her eyes, because he knew he would find no love there, only blame and anger. "This is the last time. I swear, Gil. No more after this, not ever again. It's the last time."
He dipped his head to hers, sweaty hands finding her smooth body in the dark, and he knew that her words were a lie, knew it as surely as she must know it too. Tradition and custom wore deeper paths in the consciousness than slow erosion's grooves in moon-rock, and just like the looping film, would always keep coming back to the same things in the end. It was only human nature.
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