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I'll do what I can to help y'all. But, the game's out there, and it's play or get played. That simple.



The rookies have moved on, bird-like, to the latest bit of glimmering distraction. They cluster and chatter and concentrate very hard on faces instead of bodies. Letting attention ebb away from her as Improbability eases loose through her furling fingers, Zolotisty turns to slant a smile at Dex. "Do we want a food?" she asks, crossing the square.

Being in love, Dex decides, is, smiling across a busy Outpost at the sight of your girl, despite being together for over a year, and despite being cooped up in a small almost-windowless space together for days. It's also the returned guileless smile which starts as a flutter in your stomach.

"I made somethin' for you, s'in the kitchen." She wants to pull Z into an embrace and kiss, but keeps herself out of reach, wanting the vertigo that's spread to her forehead and feet to last. She leads the way to the clan district.

There's nobody in the lobby except Julia, bent at her desk. Z stands on tiptoe to look in at her through frosted window glass, wondering a moment later if it was curiosity that made her do that, or wariness. She wonders the same thing when she turns to see Dex gazing back the way they just came, her expression unusually meditative and distant. It's an expression she associates with AceHigh overlooks and new poetry on her girl's wine-weighted lips, but the tension around her eyes is all wrong.

The relative quiet of the clan district makes Z's tail puff and Dex's neck ache, and they forget wanting to hook fingers into each other's belt loops to pull the other closer. Instead, Z turns in place to casually stretch and Dex reaches for the doorhandle. Maybe it will be safer inside.



Cooper tracks them into clan hall, and finally relaxes a bit as Ebenezer ignores Spandex's cast and fangs. The three clansibs settle into a routine like knives thrown, like paperclips arranged, like backtrails wandered - - familiar, easy, comforting. Even so, he recognizes signs that Dex is tense - - the way she enunciates carefully, the way she pulls at the back of her neck, but he still doubts she'll actually get angry at Ebenezer this time, like he always hopes. He doesn't care much for Ebenezer. Not just for the reasons he makes practically everyone in the Network uncomfortable, but perhaps he also sees parts of himself in Ebenezer he doesn't like.

Like cautionary tales.

"The fuck are these flowers. Will you fucking look for two minutes, two. This is your contestant larking around like she's bareskinning cherry in a UV dome."

"Yessir," Cooper says with a bit more impatient-snap than he likes. He glances over and then back to his feed. "Tyr's just come in and- - why does he do that thing to her hair? What is she, twelve? Ahhh. Tyr and Ebenezer are at it already. Jinx and Terry will be all over that, so that's that with the girls." He wipes his hands on his handkerchief and turns enough to watch Spandex picking flowers while keeping one ear and eye on the live Hall scene.

"Keeps them out of our thatches, I suppose," Simpert mutters, swiping at his toggle controls. The feeds rearrange themselves brusquely as he trades Cooper for the live view of DICE clan hall. The meadow scene continues to loop two screens above the live feed. He searches Zolotisty's face for exhaustion and stress. He checks the way she's holding her ears, her tail, the curl to her fingers, whether she's nipping at the inside of her mouth.

She seems alright for now. He breathes out, relieved despite himself.

Cooper squints at the screen above Simpert's head. Spandex has picked flowers for Zolotisty once before, but with Ogilvy breathing down their necks about a marriage proposal plot, he can't take chances. If they miss this.

"What I'm thinking, sir, is that if this was about to be a proposal, wouldn't Spandex be doing it on the sly, rather than right in front of her girl?"

"Three minutes, forty nine seconds, twenty three milliseconds from appearance to disappearance and Earsy doesn't look toward her galah once," Simpert replies without looking away from his screen. His hands are puppetmaster-busy with the cameras. "Maybe she's keeping guard, probably she is, but she doesn't move much even when Spandex comes up behind her - - she keeps that still when she's playing games, when someone's dared her to be still. You want to risk it? Be my guest."

"Whatever it is we don't have it on tape," Cooper says, leaning his head into his hand. Despite this, he's grateful for Simpert. Cam ops usually work solo in tiny dark closets full of switches and screens. Hour after hour spent with someone you know maybe better than your family or spouse, yet they don't even know you exist. There are bigger rooms with multiple controls set up for special events requiring teams of cam ops and their producers, but until your Contestant is spending a significant amount of time with another, it's just you and them. Simpert's one of the best, and Cooper's grateful for the help making sense in the gaps. Zolotisty and Spandex are clever, tricksy, and if they wanted to mess with their heads they probably could pull it off. Maybe.. maybe.. they're fucking with them right now. Or maybe they're counting on him thinking they're fucking with them. Or maybe a girl just wants to give her lover some pretty flowers. He groans and turns back to focus on the clan hall feed again. "Neither's wearing a ring.. but that doesn't prove- -" And as if on cue, Zolotisty and Spandex:

"Whassa word for a thing that stays the same."


"Dead air," Cooper answers at the same time.

"Har, har."

The two rewind and watch the comeback closely again, first focusing on Spandex's delivery and then on Zolotisty's reaction. Deadpan and amused, respectively.

It's impossible to say. Not without more footage.


Jules Mincks lounges in front of her monitors with a cup of forgotten coffee at her elbow. A few months ago, she never thought she'd be wishing for a bit of, well, action. She stumbled on the quiet little cocoa man and his blooming romance toward the beginning of Season 2. It was a fine bit of luck after a series of washouts, and she was horrified when the friendly KittyMorph suddenly became a monster-killing machine. Tramping through the jungle is a mug's game, and it was a relief when he finally settled down. Good television for a while, sure - - people like a big damn hero - but there's only so many times you can show a man clonking a Titan in the kneecaps.

It goes both ways. Too much downtime makes for dead air.

She sits up straighter as Tyr joins the others. "Good to see you around people again, boyo. I'd like to keep my job, thank you." He's casual and funny - good. Relaxed. Homey time with DICE, then. Plenty of that sort of footage in the archive. Though Ebenezer is there.. Her hand strays toward the phone, which rings before she picks it up.

"Hellooooooo again, Jinx! Are you seeing what I'm seeing?" Terry Babcock's unmistakable, high-pitched laugh pierces Jules' ear. She pulls the receiver a few inches away. "Your lad and mine, together again. About damned time, isn't it?"

"I was starting to think we'd have to drop it altogether. You want to come here, or should I come to you?"

"Oh, I can't possibly be pried away from my screens now."

"All right," Jules nods. "Keep an eye on them. I'll be up in two shakes."

Another shrill laugh. "Got it covered, dear. See you soon, then." Clk.

Jules drops the phone back in its cradle, and snags a bag of crisps from her cabinet. No time for popcorn, duty calls. True to tradition, though, Terry's got it covered. It's noisily pop-popple-popping away in the microwave when Jules arrives.

"So what did I miss?"



Cooper tucks a stray hair back into his small, neat ponytail. "Those two wannabes. They're not going to snog. They've never snogged. They won't today, won't tomorrow, won't ever. But that won't sell placements and- -" Looking back to Simpert's serious expression, he sits straighter. "Sorry, sir?"

"Cooper. Zolotisty just implicated us on the teeth thing."

"Yessir, I heard. Doesn't look to me like Tyr believes her," Simpert shakes his head. Doesn't matter. "But I've marked it and will forward it to- - maybe I should call her." Cooper's hand hovers between his keyboard and phone. As much as he likes to see Ogilvy, even he's not fond of calling her mid-meeting.

"We're deleting it and Christ no you're not calling her on that. How long until she's back; where did they go."

"Moshi Moshi, as usual. Why do you want to delete it, sir, it's precisely the sort of thing Ms. Ogilvy wants for her avant-garde behind-the-fourth-wall film she's got us making."

"She's got us making it, aye, Frills - - but that doesn't mean we have to encourage her. We're Just Following Instructions right now. Have you been put up for review yet?"

"Of course, every third quarter, just like - - Sir?" Still sensitive about the widely-known fact he was recruited personally by Ogilvy, he looks up from his screen to see what Simpert's implying.

"Ohoh, no. Wrong kind of review. You're cherry, then. Two pissfuck accountants with all of your performance reports and ratings, with one gimp from HR holding a noose and a best practices manual, then the regional CEO, and you. They do those meetings solo, you don't get to hide behind your sec op or your producer - - and your producer doesn't get to hide either, they get grilled just the same. This maverick 'I'm making a movie for the masses' shit? It's going to get reviewed. We don't have a choice, but we don't need to help it along any."

The defensiveness is knocked right out of him and replaced with a barely hidden terror. "When- - when did you have this happen?" He can't imagine Miss Axelsson getting her team in any sort of trouble. Everyone knows she only got her job because of her uncle, and her only strength is delegation.

"I didn't do fuck-all to deserve it. Everybody working the Murphy plot back in Season One got held to the fire when Litant lost Skidge for the first time. Surprised it didn't happen again this Season when she fucked off again - - guess it just made more sense to fire her."

Cooper ducks his head and returns to his work - - he leaves most of the Tyr and Ebenezer material for Terry to slather over, but the rest is binned.



Jules groans. "Riddles. With Zolotisty. Wonderful."

"Ooooovertiiiiiime," Terry sings. "Paid, if you can anticipate it."

"If she approves it, which is as likely as your boy mud-wrestling - - and liking it. Plus, what's to say she won't just take him.. wherever she's hiding, hm? Too many chances to lose them, and I don't want accounting tearing out my throat."

"Your lad won't go missing. My lad won't go missing. They never go missing. They travel on foot and it's easy as cake to follow them. None of that teleportation stuff."

"True enough. But Tyr has a tendency to get caught up in - - wait."

They zoom in.

"Oh, that's good! That's so good," Terry croons. "We've got this bromance in the bag, Jinx. Ebenezer's dodge. Perfect. 'Oh, what an uncomfortable topic! Menstruation! Oh, save me, Tyr!' And then yours!" A delighted squeak escapes her. "Can't bring himself to explain the feminine side of things. Simple as can be, Jinx. We play up Tyr's awkwardness. Clip in a knowing look from my dear lad, and bam. We're back in business. Give us more, boys. Come on, now. And give me that popcorn."

Tyr waggles his eyebrows at Eben. "Please, you've been married longer than anyone else I know. You must be doing something right. Is that a carrot in your glass, or are you just happy to see me?"

Terry shrieks in rapture, nudging at Jules with an elbow. "We'll have to cut out the married bit, but they are on tonight."

Then they're off again. Instead of blushing, sputtering or recoiling, Ebenezer points to Zolotisty and spits out just one word. "That."

"What," Terry asks. The two-dimensional version of Ebenezer doesn't answer her. "What did she do?" She turns to Jules. "Can you see what she did?"

Jules shakes her head. "I didn't see anything." She plays it back. "She fidgeted before he said it, but it's Zolotisty, so.. didn't see anything that would set him off like that. No fingers in the smoothie, no stealing of glasses, no pilfering of handkerchiefs."

"No-no. N-never-never mind."

"Never mind," Terry echoes. "It's not important. We'll just clip something in there. Surely, we've got a good reaction shot somewhere that'll fit in. Just keep going, boys."

This time, they don't oblige. The peaceful, semi-suggestive scene dissolves away when Dex returns with rowdy, hooved animals. Ebenezer's retreated up on the countertop. Tyr's losing a battle with a wooden horse.

Terry is livid. "Oh, come on now! This isn't a fucking pony show!"



Madeline's barely half through her second sake when Ogilvy nods to their private server for another round. The restaurant's full of Network execs and their clients from their various media divisions, its decadence surpassed only by its prices. Even lab-grown sashimi is extremely hard to come by. Most places, even nice ones serving up tube trout, call dog meat by different names. At least it's fresh.

Her hotate-gai is long since finished- - Ogilvy is an extremely quick, though entirely graceful eater. "Those two have done very well for us, Madeline, and here we are again. I have to admit they had me worried for a bit." She sips from her porcelain ochoko for no reason but a well-timed pause. "But you did always tell me to chin up, didn't you."

"I'm fine, thank you," Maddie tells their server, putting her hand over her own cup as he moves to pour her another serving. She looks back to Ogilvy and purses her lips. "Did I? Hmh."

"Oh, in your inimitable way. I should learn to relax like you can."

That earns an unexpected grin - - Madeline's sharper than her doll-face would suggest, though she doesn't often take the time to show it. "Subtle, Hisoka. That's unlike you. I agree, it's been fortuitous - - so much so, that it's usually easier to let them do their own thing. Let luck fall as luck may, as Zolotisty likes to say. Maybe Spandex's ratings would improve if you took up the philosophy."

Ogilvy holds her breath long enough for her fury to dissipate.

Weekly reports are sent to the entire Network, hyped as part of ongoing efforts to create a flat organization built on collaborations and partnerships, but everyone understands what it really is - - a trumped up weekly Hall of Fame list. Headlines and opinion pieces in various media (ironically all owned by Network) are highlighted. Financial figures. Current ratings list by contestant names and their teams, and for the top ten, details of current plots. No one else matters, not even the glorious fuckups. Not that those get ignored. Those teams disappear.

"Hmm? As opposed to..?"

"Micromanaging. Bonsais die if you prune too much."

"Ah, yes, but while you have bonsai, I transplant dandelions that have muscled their way up through cracks in the pavement." Like she did to get where she is today. "But yes, point made."

"Transplant." Maddie delicately plucks a sliver of faux unagi from the remains of her chirashizushi. Her lips curve slowly around her chopsticks, and she chews before she remarks, "I'd want to groom my dandelions too, if I'd transplanted them. Or maybe import's the better word. Have you found another stray? Funny, that I'm the one with the mongrel and you're out collecting them."

No other Network producer recruits their contestants, let alone with the same degree of tenacity Hisoka Ogilvy takes to the task. It's a widely known (and mocked, when she's well out of the building) fact that she spent months tracking Spandex before requesting her for the show. Ogilvy managed to piss off the whole HR and Talent departments by going directly to Godard for approval, but as a producer that has consistently excellent instincts, she was given free pass.

"Shhh," Ogilvy says, leaning forward with her finger not-quite touching her dark lips. "Mustn't let the cat out of the bag. People may start to think I actually care about my recruits. I've just learned that to be successful at this old game, you have to pick the right flowers. Mongrels, Madeline, are for eating."

"Some days a bonsai, some days a mutt. But people who own pets do grow to look like them, they say. Spandex has the same affectation that you have, when it comes to caring for things. Amnat, too, come to think of it." She smiles and lays her chopsticks carefully aside. "But that's of no consequence. If I hear you've been issuing Matt orders, any sort of creative direction at all - -"

Matthew. Speaking of pets. "Madeline, if I may interrupt, if anything, I'm just protecting us both from Stasi. Fixing discontinuity is tedious work, and costly." She waves her hand of it, as if it's all trivialities that she knows Madeline doesn't want to be bothered with.

"It must be, since Spandex has miraculously acquired such big teeth. Curiously, I don't see Zolotisty with any such edits to be made."

Just as Madeline implied, Ogilvy and Spandex share a few traits, including an instinct to argue especially when they sense an injustice. But Madeline's just unwittingly given her an opportunity to be left alone to produce the work she wants, and she takes it.

"Point taken again, Madeline. My apologies. I won't be bothering him again."

Maddie's mouth is already open to counterattack, and the sudden capitulation surprises her. She purses her lips again, studies Ogilvy for a long moment, then says, "Good." A beat, and she remembers herself. "Thank you."

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