From the author: Birch and Melt are young archaeologists in love—but their love is considered crime for the simple reason that they're married ... to each other. This istory appeared originally in Analog SF magazine and was anthologized as part of a Circlet Press erotica anthology ... without me changing a single word. One Analog reader wrote a letter to the editor stating that he found it "erotic in a wholesome sort of way." How so? Read it and find out. ;=)
From the moment they met, eye to eye, hands clasped over the same book, it was inevitable that they should fall completely in love and, having done that, that they should marry. It was an archaeology book, which was fitting; both had Master's degrees in the subject and both were employed by Archaetech, one of the world's largest private archaeological corporations. It was a match made in heaven; they were intellectually equal, philosophically aligned, and theologically unified. They cried at the same movies, were inspired by the same authors, angered by the same injustices. They were, in a word, compatible. And more.
Archaetech was corporately pleased by their decision to wed; husband and wife teams were preferred for the long term digs. It was a perfect situation.
Birch Asbury was a happy man. He congratulated himself almost as often as his many friends did. In a matter of mere hours, he and Meli Bocamp would be married and on their way to their first long term dig. They would live together, work together, make discoveries together and bicker over technique and the significance of artifacts. He smiled.
"Daydreaming, eh?" His closest male friend, Clay Munsi-Couric sat down across from him at the table they shared in the Company Commons. Clay grinned and nudged Birch's arm, just missing the two cups of steaming coffee that had exited the wall replicator seconds before. "Let me guess—fantasizing about your first dig together, eh?"
"As a matter of fact, yes, I was."
Clay's grin widened. "Kidding, right?"
Birch sipped his coffee and wrinkled his forehead. "Why should I be kidding?"
Clay leaned closer to his friend across the table and lowered his voice. "Come on. Admit it, old bud. Don't you at least want to drink a toast to the end of chastity?" He raised his cup and winked.
It was a slight gesture and one Birch nearly missed since his own eyes were dodging away. He blushed, knowing that implied a certain falsity, and wondered if he should bother with a denial. Truth was, he had given some thought to that aspect of his future: An end to chastity. A whole new area of life to explore; a whole new set of rights and prerogatives. But his feelings when he contemplated this were far from salacious. Birch Asbury was frankly uncomfortable with the subject of sex.
He was not a prude. He didn't deny his sexuality. There were those who did, of course, with varying degrees of success and/or honesty, but he was not one of them. He was probably no more ashamed of his sexuality than Clay was. Not really. What bothered Birch was the particular bent it took.
So now, to cover his mild embarrassment, Birch grinned and raised his coffee cup. "Guilty."
Clay touched the cup with his own. "Then here's to the end of chastity."
Meli Bocamp was toasting, too, at that moment, in a patio bistro on the massive, gleaming eastern flank of Archaetech's corporate headquarters. Her two closest girlfriends around her, she lifted a glass of alcohol-free champagne and drank to her future.
"So tell," demanded Cari Munsi-Couric, dark eyes dancing. "What's the honeymoon to be?"
"Indian sub-continent. The caves at Ajanta."
Golden-haired Roella nodded vigorously. "And paid for by Corporate, no less."
"And why not?" Meli asked. "Are we not, after all, doing the work of the Company? Preserving our ancestor's treasures for our children?" Meli flushed at her own mention of children, without really knowing why. But neither Cari nor Roella noticed, and the celebratory lunch continued around a rousing discussion of the halcyon days of the Gupta Dynasty.
Birch Asbury adjusted his collar and reflected that he was not nearly so nervous as he was eager. Eager to get through the brief ceremony, eager to board the international shuttle to Nagpur, eager to meet his new colleagues and begin his new life with his new partner. At Ajanta he would bury himself in the heady atmosphere of discovery, wallow in the contentment of cultural minutiae—with Meli at his side.
Best man Clay interrupted his mental meanders by tucking a red paisley scarf into his suit pocket. "So, old bud, have you found a cleaning lady yet?"
Birch fussed with the kerchief. "Uh, no, actually, I haven't. Haven't had time."
"You're leaving for India tomorrow morning. It's a little late to do it now."
"Honestly, I haven't given it much thought."
Clay gave him a wry smirk. "Bashful boy. You haven't even interviewed anybody, have you?"
"What would be the point? I'm on my way to a dig, for God's sake. I don't suppose many women would consider a remote base camp on the Deccan plateau a plumb position. I thought I'd...wait until we got to Nagpur."
Clay nodded approval. "An exotic, dark-eyed beauty. I can see the appeal."
"Honestly, Clay. That's borderline racism."
"So sue me for being politically incorrect." He watched Birch pick at the inoffensive scarf for a moment more. "You really are bashful, aren't you? Good grief, Birch, we're talking about filling a domestic position. Has Meli interviewed anybody?"
Birch kept his grimace to a mere twitch. "She says she's not interested."
Clay shook his head. "That's women for you. Cari tells me most of our married lady-friends have the same attitude. How do they do it? Must be that extra X chromosome."
"It's time," Birch said, then checked his watch.
Clay patted his shoulder. "Look, you'll be in town tonight. Why don't I introduce you to Sonia?"
"My cleaning lady?"
"Oh, right. Thank you very much, Clay. I appreciate it, really. But, well, we've got a lot of packing to do and I couldn't just run off and saddle Meli with it."
"It won't take long."
"Birch, you'll be a married man in less than half an hour. You're entitled. Besides, you're my best friend, next to Cari. I helped you get the job at Archaetech; I guess that means I'm indirectly responsible for you meeting Meli, right? We've shared a lot of important things in our lives. I think it would be kind of, well, special to share this."
Birch didn't allow his face to betray shock. He was getting quite good at masking his thoughts and feelings and it worried him. He smiled in return. "It's a wonderful gesture, Clay. Thanks. But, look, your—Sonia—might not like you offering her services-"
"She wouldn't mind at all. Trust me. For one thing, she'd jump at the chance to make a better living."
"Assuming she even has room for another client."
Clay grinned. "She's an exclusive. And she likes me. A lot." He winked.
"No. Thank you. I'll take care of the domestic situation when I get to India."
Birch gave Clay no time to say more. "I'm getting married now," he said, and slipped from the room.
"Beautiful ceremony!" enthused Cari, and her eyes brimmed with tears, because some people will always cry at weddings. "It reminded me of mine and Clay's. Mom cried, Dad cried, everybody cried."
"I didn't," said Roella. "I don't see any reason to cry at weddings. They're supposed to be happy occasions. Not like before Equilibrium, when it was tantamount to being sold into slavery."
"I am happy," Cari assured her. "I'm happy that Meli and Birch are finally embarking on a life together. Just like the minister said: 'as the angels in heaven.' Meli, believe me, marriage is heaven. Here's your make-up kit." She handed that item to Meli, who tucked it into her carryall. "Just imagine: India. Tomorrow. You and Birch and that heavenly dig. Clay and I went to Peru on our honeymoon. Nice, but too hot until we got into the High Andes. But then...oh, the ruins!"
"I'm not sure I want to marry within my profession," mused Roella. "Seems to me the proximity effect could be deadly."
"It hasn't been for Clay and me." Cari patted her friend's lace-covered shoulder. "Find the right man or woman and you'll see it makes all the difference in the world. Besides, you create your own environment in a marriage. And your own distractions." She shifted her shoulders suggestively and Roella smiled.
"Oh, you hot-blooded older women," she said. "How about you, Meli? Are you going to create your own distractions?"
Meli, barely existing on the same plane, came to at the sound of her name. "Huh?" she said.
"I think Roella wants to know if you've hired a handyman."
Meli shoved a pair of camp-boots deep into her suitcase and shook her head. "No, I haven't. And what would Roella know about handymen?"
Roella blushed to the pale roots of her hair. "Well, Cari has one. I've heard her talk about him. Hell, my mother has one. And I'm of a marriageable age, after all. I suppose I ought to start thinking about these things. It's all right to think about it, you know."
Cari laughed, apparently delighted by the younger woman's defensiveness. "Of course it's all right to think about it. As long as that's all you do."
"Good Lord, Cari. Of course that's all I do! But even a virgin has her fantasies." She shrugged. "I'm curious, that's all. Who wouldn't be? It's nothing to call church about. I've heard Mom and Sis comparing notes... Sis had a semi-regular guy for a while. Said she started feeling like she had to use him just because he was there. Then she realized she wasn't getting anything out of it and fired him."
"Well," said Cari, "to each her own. So, Mel-Mel, you're not going to hire a man. Somehow, that doesn't surprise me. What about Birch?"
Meli flinched mentally. "What about Birch?"
"Has he got himself a squeeze, yet?"
Roella coughed. "Cari Munsi-Couric! Your language! That's so-so derogatory, so sexist."
"It's just a colloquialism, Roella. You should hear what they call us—'little men,' 'neuters,' 'bergs'—that's short for 'iceberg.' Sonia calls me Eunice right to my face."
"Clay's cleaning lady. She's not being disrespectful, really. It's just a joke between the two of us."
"A joke?" Roella shook her head. "I don't get it."
"Eunice—sounds like Eunuch?"
"Oh. Oh. I get it. But you're not a Eunuch at all. I mean, you've got a guy."
"Yeah, she calls him my 'ice-pick.' Cute, huh? Point is, I'm neuter as far as Clay is concerned. Sonia just doesn't 'get it.' I mean, her whole world is sex, right? Love isn't something she relates to. Not the kind of love Clay and I have. I feel sorry for her."
Meli paused in her packing and studied Cari's pensive face. "You actually socialize with her? Doesn't that feel...well, strange?"
Cari and Roella were both looking at her, brows knit. "That's a weird question," Cari said. "Why should it feel strange? Clay has a lusty sex drive. It has to go somewhere. Sonia's clean—I insisted he have her checked, of course—and she's exclusive to him. As a matter of fact, she'd just registered with the agency when he hired her. Straight out of highschool. A virgin. Clean slate. And I like her. In fact, if we decide to have children, she'll probably be the carrier."
Meli frowned, pushing the flutter of unease back to the pit of her stomach, pushing another pair of shoes into her suitcase, pushing any further weird questions to the back of her mind.
Roella shook her head. "I don't understand that. I mean, why would a girl not want to go to college? Why wouldn't she want a career and marriage? Have you ever asked Sonia that?"
"Honey, Sonia has a career. She's a Sexual Relief Specialist. And yes, I did ask her, just out of curiosity. She's from a poor family—a dysfunctional family, as it happens—she did poorly in school, no head for academics or trades, and she liked sex. She said staying a virgin through high school was the hardest thing she ever did."
"Jeez," breathed Roella. "I thought...with the Equilibrium and all..."
"Not everybody can live by the same code, Ro. For which we should be thankful. If there weren't people like Sonia around to take care of a man's needs, where would we be?"
"Back in the dark ages, I imagine," said Roella. "I see your point."
Cari shrugged. "So, Sonia's in social service. She's happy. Clay's happy. I'm happy. She's a gorgeous girl—healthy, nice disposition. She'll be a great carrier for our kids."
"But if she has a baby," Meli asked. "How do you know it's yours? I mean, how do you know the pregnancy is the result of the implantation of your egg and Clay's sperm and not, well, the result of their having intercourse while she's on the fertility program?"
"Meli, I trust Clay. After all, he's my husband. He loves me."
There was no doubt in Cari's voice, no uncertainty in her face. She and Clay had that kind of relationship—a perfect relationship, Meli would have said. A relationship based on love, respect, trust, equality, intellectual compatibility and a passionate commitment to mutual growth and happiness. She and Birch had all that, she knew, if not the level of openness Clay and Cari enjoyed. The most she'd ever said to Birch about her sexual inclinations was that she wasn't particularly concerned about them. Which was only partially true. Until she'd met Birch, her sexuality had been a non-issue. Now, it was an issue she studiously and ambivalently avoided. She envied Cari and Clay their frankness, their openness.
No. No, she didn't. She wanted to envy them and did not. And that disturbed her.
Ajanta was an amazement. Sweeping along the rocky basalt face of a Deccan river gorge, the twenty-eight hand-hewn temple caves bore mute but eloquent testimony to the ingenuity and perseverance of humanity. Dating from India's Golden Age in the tenth and eleventh centuries after the Advent of the Buddha, the religious shrines were begun during the reign of Emperor Harisena. They were unfinished when a sweeping return to Hinduism, followed by an advance to Islam, left them to lie forgotten until 1819, when a British army detachment stumbled over them in the colonial darkness.
After over a century of dithering and dickering, the disposition of the caves fell to the Global Tribunal which, in the interest of India's heritage, hired Archaetech to restore the temples to their original glory.
Such was the Asbury-Bocamp's happy duty—to bring Ajanta back to life. The work consumed them from the moment they arrived; the magnificence of the paintings, the incredible scope and detail of the statues and carvings, the majesty of the hand-hewn chambers. It was at once overwhelming and satisfying.
It was their special pleasure to rise before their colleagues and visit a favorite cave, sitting in shared and meditative silence before its major shrine.
It was a shrine of love, Meli thought, though disconcertingly medieval in its vision of that emotion. The central group of statues were made up of a woman (Queen Hariti) and a man (Hariti's husband, Panchika) and their many children. They sat, looking out at the worshipful from their basalt thrones, serene, lovely, blissful, while overhead a painted medallion with all the rich color and pattern of a Persian carpet completed their pavilion. At each corner of the medallion's square frame sat a Happy Couple. That's what everyone called them, with varying degrees of sarcasm. Half-naked and entwined in modest intimacy, they gazed eternally at each other with dark, adoring eyes and smiles of secret bliss.
Meli called them 'The Happy Couples' with no sarcasm at all. Except for their implicit sensuality, they reminded her of Birch and herself. She shared that with no one—not even Birch—but she found herself less disturbed by the couples with every visit.
Sometimes she and Birch would paint word pictures of the Buddhist monks and bhikkus going about their ardent tasks—the blessed Holy Men, depicting the beauties of their Faith with absolute delight. Meli could almost see them, working among the statues and frescoes, scurrying along the corridors, climbing the steep stone paths from the gorge below. Much like their archaeological team, she thought, but with one important difference.
"Do you ever wonder," she asked one morning as they stepped out of Cave Two at the summons of the breakfast bell, "what it would be like to create something instead of merely handling creation after the fact?"
They stood in the slanting rays of morning, gazing down into the shadowy, inviting reaches of the river gorge. "I do," said Birch. "I do wonder."
That was the morning of the day Clay and Cari arrived. A surprise. A pleasant surprise, all in all, but one that raised in Meli Asbury-Bocamp the specter of her previous ambivalence. Clay had brought Sonia with him.
She was nice, as Cari had said, if a little vague. She giggled a lot. Clay introduced her around, taking special care to bring her face to face with Birch. Meli felt something insidious and alien coil around her heart.
"I feel like a crumb-cake not telling you we were coming over," Cari told her, drawing her aside to the stone fireplace of the camp's main lodge. It was a real fireplace, but contained no real fire. A Hughes Friction Coil produced the heat; the flames were holographic. "We wangled the assignment a month after you left. We just missed you so much, we couldn't stand it."
"We missed you, too," Meli said, watching Sonia and Clay and Birch chat with a couple of their new camp friends.
"Are you sure?" Cari laughed. "That wasn't very convincing."
Meli gave her friend her full attention then—somewhat guiltily. "I'm sorry, Cari. Of course I'm sure."
The other woman put a hand on her arm. "I hope you don't mind Clay snatching Birch like that. He's missed him a lot. Besides, I think he has his own agenda where Birch is concerned. He's convinced your husband is..."
"Well, too shy for his own good. About sex, I mean. It may be fairly easy for a woman to do without relief—well, some women-" She laughed at herself. (Deprecatingly or proudly, Meli couldn't tell.) "-but for a man, well, it's nearly impossible without endor-therapy and I know very few men who'll take that over marriage and relief."
Meli understood. "He's trying to set Birch up with Sonia." She said it expressionlessly enough to be proud of herself.
"Unless, of course, he's done for himself. Oh! Now, that came out wrong, didn't it?" She shook her head. "I meant to say, unless Birch has found a local squeeze." She lowered her voice on the last word, glancing at Sonia. "I'd hate her to hear me call her that. After all, she is going to be the mother of my children."
Meli was almost certain the odd tightening in her belly was her uterus contracting. "So you've decided to go ahead and have kids?"
Cari nodded, beaming. "I'm so excited. Sonia's going on the fertility program in about two months. That'll give Clay a chance to find some interim relief. She'll be staying in Nagpur until she delivers. So, congratulate me, already!"
Meli smiled. "Congratulations."
"Now, show me these caves of yours. I've seen holos, but that's hardly the same as the real article. I can't wait to get to work on them myself."
"Sure," Meli said. "Maybe the guys would like to join us."
They did; Sonia didn't. Clay and Birch saw her to her off-dig quarters, then returned to catch up their wives, who'd gone ahead. It was an off day, the temple paths were empty of diggers and academics, and Clay and Birch met no one on their way up the canyon wall. Cave One was also empty; Meli and Cari were nowhere in sight.
"We'll catch the girls eventually," Clay said, "when they stop to talk shop. Why don't you introduce me to Cave One?"
Birch agreed, turning on the display lights for the inner chamber as they entered.
"Wow!" Clay's eyes swept the spacious cave, flitting from glory to painted glory.
"This one was a residence," Birch told him. "It's thought to have been commissioned by Emperor Harisena himself. The colors were pretty faded when the first teams started work on them. As a matter of fact, the first cleaning solvents they used took away as much pigment as they did filth."
Clay nodded. "Organics, yeah. But the restoration is amazing. I'd no idea it had progressed this far. Voluptuous. Absolutely voluptuous. The colors, the style-" His eyes stopped their journeying on the image of a bronze-skinned, half-naked princess. Her dark eyes gleamed, her elegant fingers beckoned to her equally beauteous male companion. Her breasts, easily the size of melons, were draped with stringed pearls, the luminous white contrasting with the bronzed mounds and their dark, roseate aureoles.
"Beautiful," said Clay. "Reminds me of Sonia. Lucky the man who drew that restoration." He winked at Birch. "Wasn't you, was it?"
Birch scuffed at the floor, realizing how much he'd come to dislike The Wink. "I did, actually. I did her hair."
"Poor boy. All that body work and you end up a hair-stylist."
"Still no relief in sight, huh?"
"Of the sexual variety, I mean. You still don't have a squeeze, do you?" It was an accusation.
"Isn't 'squeeze' a sexist term?"
"Sonia thinks it's cute."
Birch looked at the princess—at her hair. "You like Sonia, don't you?"
Clay snorted. "Of course, I like Sonia. It's not a prerequisite for our arrangement, but I do like her. Why?"
"Doesn't the idea of sharing her with...someone else make you uncomfortable?"
"Why should it? I don't own her, Birch. She's an employee, not a slave. Besides, that would be jealousy, wouldn't it? Jealousy is irrational and destructive. I mean—of course, Sonia's exclusive to me, but that's just a health consideration, not an emotional one. And I'd be more than happy to share her with you." He gave Birch a disconcertingly appraising look. "You're doing for yourself, aren't you? Not that it's anything to be ashamed of, but it's hardly satisfying in the long run and so unnecessary."
Birch's insides were shrugging and quivering like living gelatin. "You know, Clay, this is really none of your business."
"I'm your best friend, Birch. I'm only trying to help."
"Help? By meddling in my most personal life?"
Clay put a hand on his shoulder. "Look, Birch. Every man feels the need to relieve himself. It's perfectly natural. But it's one of those things you have to handle the right way or certain essential relationships start to unravel like last winter's afghan. And when those essential relationships unravel, society isn't too far behind."
Birch cringed. Next, Clay would give a speech about the sins of Victorianism, Free Love and the Oppression of Women—cultural evils solved for a good part of their global society by the trend toward Equilibrium, but still extant in pockets of ignorance. Birch had no desire to hear how his sexual aberrations—real or imagined—were going to invoke their specters.
"Let's find the girls," he said, and left the cave.
"This is my favorite cave," Meli said. She waved a hand at the collection of statues illuminated by the soft glow of display lamps. "This is the Hariti-Panchika Shrine. In Hindu lore Hariti was an ogress who-"
"-ate her children until the Blessed Buddha delivered her from her ignorance," Cari finished. "Lovely story." She moved closer to the group of statues, gazed up into their smooth stone faces. "How serene. How utopic. The Husband/Master, his wife and kiddies. Domestic bliss, huh?" When Meli said nothing she asked, "Meli, why is this your favorite temple?"
"I don't know," Meli lied, then shrugged. Lid was already off the box. "I think it's the Happy Couples. After all, I'm half a Happy Couple myself."
"Huh. With an important difference. You don't have to bear children and you don't have to suffer a relationship crippled by sexual politics." Cari lifted her eyes to the vivid medallion above them. "Ah, I see. More happy couples." She wrinkled her nose. "That's not love, you know, Mel. It looks like love, but it's not. For thousands of years man and woman-kind have fought tooth and nail, hurting each other in every imaginable way through sexual politics. He demands it; she withholds it. She loves him; he'd rather have good sex. Thousands of years of battle, Mel. Just because we couldn't or wouldn't separate love and sex. We kept trying that impossible combination for centuries because some of us maintained the two were identical, or over-lapping, or compatible, and that we'd someday find a Mystical Balance. Men would be more caring and responsible; women would be more independent, more honest about their desires. You were no slouch in history, Mel, you know all this stuff. And you know the Mystical Balance was a chimera. Love in combination with sex is corrupt and self-destructive; sex in combination with love is manipulative. There is no utopia."
"Isn't that what we have now?" Meli asked the rhetorical question in hope of forestalling further dissertation.
"Well, some of us think so. I think so."
Meli conjured up a false smile. "Then, I guess you're half a Happy Couple, too." She almost added, "Or a third of a Happy Triplet," but didn't. She did something almost as foolish; she asked, "Cari, what would you do if Clay fell in love with Sonia?"
Cari threw back her head and laughed, the sound rolling back in delighted echoes from the stone walls. "Oh, I wish Clay could've heard that! That is the silliest thing I've ever heard! My God, Meli, where were you during Sexual Psych 101? He can't love Sonia, he has sex with her. They've got absolutely nothing in common, except that they can make each other come. Clay loves me."
Meli knew she was right. Clay did love her, completely and devotedly. And regardless of what he felt for Sonia (could he feel nothing for Sonia?), he could never love her the way he loved Cari. She glanced at one of the Couples, frozen in a touch. "But haven't you ever wondered what it would be like if Clay-"
"Wanted me? Judas Priest, Meli!" Cari's face flushed an angry pink. "He wouldn't. Clay loves me. I'm his wife, for God's sake. You don't saddle a loving relationship with that. That's why we hired Sonia. Honestly, Mel, I think you've spent too much time in these ruins. They're beginning to influence your thinking."
Meli smiled. "Nonsense. I just have an archaeologist's curious soul. Besides, I love to hear you hold forth on love, truth and the American way. Why don't we move on to Cave Three?"
"She said Cave Two was her favorite," Cari mused later, relaxing with Clay before the fire in the parlor of their cottage.
"The one with the Hariti group and the Lovers' Medallion?" Clay shook his head. "Birch said the same thing. Worried me a little."
"You didn't say anything, did you?"
"Unfortunately, yes. He told me to butt out. I gave him the 'I'm-a-caring-friend' speech."
"Is that anything like 'I'm a little teapot?'"
"Be serious. These are our best friends."
"Sorry. I gave a speech too, I'm afraid, on behalf of political correctness and family values." Cari shrugged. "That's archaeologists for you. I guess some of us have a morbid fascination with the dark ages."
Clay smiled, a half-hearted expression that sat, twitching at the corners of his mouth. "I hope that's all it is."
The couple looked up in unison from the comfort of the small fireside divan. Sonia stood in the door of Clay's bedroom, her new silk sari wound like a bright cocoon around her perfect body. She'd died her hair, bronzed her skin and applied kohl to her eyes. A long string of faux-pearls dangled from her fingers.
"Bravo!" Cari complimented her. "You look just like Princess Cave One."
"Only one thing missing." Sonia giggled and waggled the pearls at Clay. "I need a little help, Clay. Come unwrap me?"
Cari laughed and Clay wriggled his eyebrows in that ridiculous Groucho Marx way that she just adored and said, "Sorry, my sweet, but nature calls."
He slipped gracefully over the back of the couch, his groin already blossoming, and leaned back to give Cari a peck on the forehead.
"Have fun," she said. She almost patted his rump when he turned away, but stopped herself. No sense in sending the wrong signals. Men were peculiarly single-minded in that hormone-flushed state; there was no telling how he might interpret it. She cuddled down comfortably among the tasseled pillows and went back to her magazine, thinking only peripherally about the problems between Birch and Meli.
"I wondered where you'd gone." Birch came out of the shadows at the mouth of Cave Two to where Meli stood in the warm glow of the Hariti Shrine. She turned to look at him and he was struck once again by how lovely she was. She called herself plain, but he thought she was beautiful. God, but he loved her. He moved to put his arm around her shoulders. "It's late."
"I love this temple," she said. "There's nothing wrong with that, is there?"
"I don't think so. I love it, too. Why do you ask?"
"I mentioned to Cari that this was my favorite because of The Happy Couples, and she all but read me the Equilibrium manifesto."
"Funny, I had a similar experience with Clay."
Meli turned beneath his arm, fixing him with those clear hazel eyes. She thought they were nondescript; he believed they were magic. He felt his groin tighten.
"Birch, do you like Sonia?"
"She's a nice girl, I suppose. A little...vague."
"Cari says she's agreed to carry children for them. She's going on fertility in two months."
Meli's brow furrowed. "I suppose I don't really mean do you like Sonia. I suppose I mean, do you...need Sonia?"
"Do I need-? No. No, I don't need Sonia. I don't want Sonia." I want you, added a blasphemous and fortunately silent voice in his head. "Why do you ask?"
"Cari said Clay brought her along partly for your benefit. Since you...don't have anybody. You don't, do you? Have anybody, I mean. A relief...person?"
It was cool in the cave; Birch sweated, regardless. "No, Mel. I don't."
"Neither do I." She seemed desperately perplexed. "Birch, you know I love you."
"Yes, of course. And I love you. Desperately," he added.
Meli's full lips compressed. (She said they were fat; he thought they were sensuous.) "When we have children," she said, "I don't want another woman to carry them."
Birch blinked at the bald admission. "That's incredibly sacrificial of you, Meli. I don't know what to say."
"Is that crazy of me?" She pressed against him. "To want to carry my own babies?"
He thought he was going to burst. "I-I don't know. I don't think so... No. No, it's not crazy, at all." Suddenly he wanted to tell her who the princess in Cave One reminded him of. Whose face his mind pasted to that abundant body. He wanted to reveal his Cave Two fantasies about what happy, adoring couples did in their shared (yes, shared) beds. Did he dare?
Before he could decide, Meli said, "And I'll tell you something else. I don't want my children scientifically implanted, either. I want them implanted naturally... But dammit, Birch, I love you."
Before he could respond in kind, their lips touched and they were clinging together like bathers in a swift stream. Before it could register that Meli wasn't resisting him (or was he not resisting her?)—that she was participating—they had dropped their respective pants and opened their respective shirts to press flesh to flesh. Birch noted that Meli didn't wear a bra and Meli noted that Birch had furry buttocks. But that was the last thing either of them noted because rational observations have a way of swamping in strong emotion.
With a bedroll of pants and shirts covering the cool, sandy floor, the Asbury-Bocamps coupled with abandon right before the basalt eyes of Queen Hariti and her royal husband and their entire stone brood. The Happy Couples graced them with knowing, painted smiles and the soft lights warmed them, if only slightly. They generated quite enough heat on their own.
It was entirely glorious, if gritty, and was brought to an unceremonious end by noises outside the cave.
"Oh my God," Birch gasped, "someone's coming," and intended no pun.
"They'll catch us!" Meli cut short her own paroxysms and wriggled after her shirt. She couldn't bear the thought of being discovered by Cari or Clay—caught flat on her back in flagrant and aberrant delecti.
They broke speed records scrambling into their clothes—socks wadded into one pocket, underwear into another. In the end, it turned out to be a false alarm; only a delinquent pack mule who would not have cared that a man and his wife were coupling in a Buddhist love shrine. They laughed at the mule, then again at themselves when they realized they had gotten each other's pants by mistake. His ankles were bare, her feet were invisible.
They strolled back to the camp housing arm in arm, feeling at once guilty and giddy and relieved.
"Are we awful?" Meli asked.
"Probably." Birch was silent for a measure of steps. "You really do look like the princess in Cave One. I imagined you did."
"You imagined? You thought about it? About me? Like that?"
"I'm sorry. I know I'm not supposed to, but I want you, Meli. Do you...do you feel degraded by that? Because if you do, I can try to behave like-"
"No. No, I don't feel degraded by it. I feel..." She grinned. "...wicked. But in a very nice way."
Birch sighed, relieved. "I was beginning to wish I was Catholic. I had all these horribly conflicted, unnatural feelings about you and I'd no one to confess them to."
"You must confess them to me, my son," Meli said, and delighted in another wicked tingle. "Every aberrant thought."
They'd reached their cottage and Birch held open the door. "We'll have to be very careful. No one must find out about us. Especially not Clay and Cari. They'd never understand."
"No, never." Meli smiled. "They'd think we were mad."
This story originally appeared in Analog.