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when you say darling,
the world lights up at its edges. when mouths
find mouths and minds follow or minds find
minds and mouths, hands, hips, toes, follow --
how about you call that sacred. how about you raise
your veined right hand and swear on the blood
that branches there, yes.



"I hate it," Z says dismally, staring down at the thick wool sock Dex has just rolled up her ankle to cover her bandages. She looks at the boot she's meant to put on, unlaced beside Fog's dish of kibble, and scoots backward on the mattress. "Take it off, I don't want it." She watches while Dex crouches without bending at the waist so she can take off the sock. "Donno how you wear them, they're awful."

Dex straightens just as carefully and holds out her hand to help Z up. Instead of tying her hair off her face in a pretty ribbon as she usually does, Dex has hidden her face beneath a baseball cap. She tugs her jacket sleeves down to cover as much of the bandage and cast as she can, then checks her pocket for the little plush tiger radio Z gave her. The battery is dead. "Ready."

Watching her, Z tries to remember the last time Dex hid any of herself, for any reason. "Yeh," she says. "We'll check Eben first, Elias can take care of himselfs. Gimme kiss, you look pretty."

"Bluff like shit, twist. Just don' wanna answer questions is all. Com'ere." She tucks close to Z, taking her weight.

"You do," Z insists, nuzzling close and lipping her neck. "Got your knife?"

"Yeh." One fuckin' throw knife. No tanto, no butterfly blade, one working hand, and Improbability still being a no-show bitch. "Remember the plan."

"Com'on, then." She brings them to CyberCity 404, where the sudden whip of cold wind around them cracks the breath from their lungs. They check over their shoulders. A group of Robots stand sunning themselves by the entrance to the scrapyard while a band of motley contestants repair a section of the Outpost walls. There's no one ahead of them.

Dex peers off toward the eastern gates. "Sorry, Horse." And they set off slowly, like a couple fifty or sixty years their seniors. Dex doesn't mind their Sunday tourist pace, and as they pass a camera she lifts her arm to expose the cast under her sleeve and flip it two fingers, saying, "Still rollin', motherfuckers." She and Z talked for hours about whether or not to try and strike a deal with the Network -- to give up the tunnel to ensure the safety of the clan. When Dex realised that they didn't even agree if the Network was involved with the two Jokers that attacked them, she relented.

They both notice that the camera doesn't turn to follow them. Z concentrates on her numbing feet, trying to keep her balance without putting too much weight on Dex. "S'funny, thought I'd not like being here. Thought I'd be looking for that gun Joker. Don't even care."

Dex lifts her face enough to squint from the sun reflecting off the snow. "I love you, Zolotisty." She bends slightly to get more of herself under Z's weight. "You know, if I was directin' this shit, I'd do a long shot with the sun in front of us and roll the credits, yeh?"

Zolotisty grunts in reply. They skirt an oil slick before she asks, "Credits are the word bits at the end? Or the beginning."

"Ouh, cleverest wife. What's your name?"

"I don't care about that. What's the, ehmn." Dex explained this once. She searches for the word. "The ahmn.. the genre."

"Wildlife Documentary, what else."

Recognizing the smirk in Dex's voice for a joke, Z chuffs and shakes her head.

It's another twenty minutes before they make it to the door of the Warehouse. Knocking, there's no answer. "Maybe he's asleep," Z suggests when Dex finds the door's locked. Sound inside suggests otherwise and in a moment more, the lock clicks.

When the door cracks opens, Ebenezer's pointing his gun at Dex through the gap. "Oh." In a shock, he points it at the floor instead. "Sorry."

"Can we come in, my feets are cold."

They enter, Dex with her good arm raised, and Ebenezer locks the door behind them. "Take whatever you want, it's hidden in the secret pocket down the front of my knickers!" The joke hides her guilt and worry about as well as her cap's hiding the Frankenstein stitches running across her mouth and nose.

It doesn't get even a tiny grin out of him. "S-suppose-suppose we're all still-still alive, then," he mumbles.

If he had sneered or crossed his arms or made any one of his predictable noises of disdain, there would be no threatening tears. And fuckit she thinks, because she needs the hug. "Not sure how to thank someone who saves your life," she snuffles, resting her cheek on his shoulder. Her hug catches him by surprise and he stiffens, but doesn't smack her away. "But since you like trades..." Releasing him to step back to their normal distance, she takes her cap off and rubs her scalp before replacing it with the rim facing back. "I'm going to give you a surprise. One day."

For a quiet, startled moment, he studies Dex. In the next beat, he puts his frown back on and shakes his head in refusal. "I don't-I don't need any s-surprises," he insists.

Hiding her hands behind her back, Dex's gaze drops to her feet, but she pulls it back up to him. "How you feelin'?" Z bumps into her sideways, half reassurance and half lost balance.

"Horrid," he answers. His eyes flick between Dex and Zolotisty. "About-about-bout the same with you both, I s-suspect?"

"Yeh," Z nods.

"Worried," Dex says.

"We were running out of foods and I thought she would chew off my foots if we did not go out to check on people today. Has Haccadine been --?"

Spandex shoots her a look before she turns a worried frown on Ebenezer. "You been to Elias? You're not infected or something?" Chastened, Z lays her ears back as she lamely echoes, "Yeh."

"I've b-been to see him. He doesn't-doesn't look good." Turning away from them, he limp-steps back towards his desk. "Elias had to-to cut his leg off." Head still bowed, he places his handgun carefully on the desktop, beside a stack of ledgers.

Effectively leashed to Dex's side by the need for her physical support, Z resists the urge to squirm anxiously in place. "What."

Ebenezer puts himself behind his desk, but stays standing. "He might die."

All the blood leaves Dex's face and her voice is small. "Fuck. You know what happened?"

"He did-didn't-he didn't get to the boat. Elias s-said-he said he was ambushed b-before he could."

"Yeh, we found him in a picnics," Z says. "Has he been conscious."

"Maybe Elias needs our help."

Ebenezer shakes his head. "He's asleep. I only just- just left from there. On-only thing to do is wait."

There's a silence that seems to fill the entire Warehouse. " One of those Jokers is dead," Dex blurts. "And Z's been listening for the clan, they're okay. I wanted to come get you, but we couldn't, and Z figured you wouldn't... that you'd want to be here." And fuck, I'm sorry, she wants to say, but how can you apologize for getting someone shot.

His expression changes just slightly. "Oh. You came-you came to get me?"

"Yeh. Of course! If you want." She flicks a brief look of challenge to Z, who thins her lips.

"To-to go-to go where?"

"Clan hall," Z mutters as Dex says, "Our place." They exchange looks.

"I th-think-I think you ought give up on that place," Ebenezer cuts in. "It's on-only causing-it's trouble."

When Eben uses understatement, Dex thinks, is when he's to be listened to. "Yeh," she says, looking at Z again. They've argued about this very point several times over the past three days.

"Not yours to have an opinion about," Z says.

Dex's eyes widen with incredulity. "Z!" She's stuck. She doesn't want to side against her wife, but doesn't agree with her, not at all.

"Spandex," she replies flatly, meeting her gaze before glancing back to Ebenezer.

"I think he's earned at least an opinion," Dex says soft, but loud enough for Eben to hear.

"Fine. Sorry, Eben. Not yours to make a decision about."

His expression's in a typical scowl. "Right, then. I'll k-keep-I'll keep my opinion to myself," he says. "And I can get-I can get to the Hall when I want."

Dex twists to look over her shoulder, and for a moment considers the door. "S'okay if we sit down?" He nods, and she helps Z, who has no choice in the matter, into the chair in front of Eben's desk before taking a seat herself on a nearby crate. "Shouldn't be by yourself, Ebs," Dex says, weary, leaning her head back against the wall. Z watches him intently, silent.

He turns his frown down to the books--and gun--on his desktop. "They're going to find-to find it, I hope you know. They will. When th-things-when things get lost, they don't just forget about it. You can't hide anything."

What happened to the money you stole, Dex wants to ask, but won't dare with the Network watching.

"Yeh, maybe they will," Z snaps, "but if they do anything else, they can't hide that either. They ruined Horse, Eben. They ruined all my places. There is nowhere else to be. I'm not telling them when everybody's been hurt because then it's all for nothing. All of it. All the hiding, all the worrying, all the running around in the snow being cold and ready to die. Right now at least we still fuckin' have something."

"You-you mean you have something. It's not mine. S-suppose I've done everything for-f-for no reason at all, then."

"You didn't want to be there!"

Dex leans her head against the wall and closes her eyes. Watching her, Z glares back at Eben after a moment and lowers her voice.

"N'I only brought you because it was the safest place to be, Ebenezer."

"Well, there's nowhere s-safe to be now," he answers.

"Guess so. You worked for them, you tell me -- there gonna be more Jokers? I don't.. I can't make up my mind whether that was them or not."

He scrubs at the hair on the back of his head. "I don't know, b-but I think it was them. I think there has-has-there has to be more. I don't know."

The roof rattles. They all startle convulsively; Z's half out of her chair and Dex has unsheathed her knife and Eben's scrabbled the gun from his desk. The silence drags. "Wind," Z says hoarsely, straining to hear anything out of the ordinary. "Was the wind."

Dex tucks her weapon away and gingerly presses her fingertips along her bandages. "Can't live like this anymore, and don't want you alone."

"If an-anything ends it, it's that place," Ebenezer mumbles. He puts down his gun again. No one replies. "Well, what-what-what else are we supposed to do?" Stonefaced, Z leans over her lap as much as she's able, staring down at her foot.

'We', Dex hears, and thinks of the last time her striped stockings changed. She believed it was Guy that she was meant to reach out to, like the symbols said, but now she realises she may have had the wrong person. Do you regret stealing from them? she wonders, but instead asks, "Do you have any earphones? 'N tea?"

"What sort of ear-earphones? And of course I've g-got tea. I've got lots."

Zolotisty lifts her chin, incredulous. "You don't drink tea."

"Do now I'm brain-damaged. Can I make us a pot of tea, Ebs? And, smaller the better. I'll trade you."

"Yeh, whatever, Dex," Z mutters, and hurt flits across Dex's face.

"Tea's in a tin by-by the stove," he says, retreating towards the stock area of the Warehouse. He raises his voice to ask, "What d'you need the ear-the earphones for?"

"Listening to music. Hang on." She leans an elbow on another crate to help herself up and walks slowly to the stove. She puts the kettle on while Eben returns to his desk to grab the control tablet for the Warehouse bots. On her way to him, she pauses to run her hand down Z's hair. Her head only dips lower between her shoulders, ears laid back. "Z gave me this," Dex says, joining Eben by the door to the Warehouse Proper. She lifts the small stuffed tiger from her pocket and hands it to him. "One of those old players, yeh?" She widens her eyes, hoping he recognizes that she's lying.

He looks the tiger over, then glances back to Dex. "Yes, al-alright, then." The door cracks open behind him, letting in a puff of cold air. He takes a step backward through the frame. "Alright." He tucks the tiger away in his pocket and closes the door, shutting Dex out.

"Eben!" Dex calls, cupping her hand around her mouth. "Don't turn it on without earphones in!" There are no working batteries in it, but if he replaces them and tests it aloud, the Network will know she's able to listen to their tech channels. She listens as the whir of well-maintained machinery starts up, followed by the muffled scraping of wooden crates being dragged across the concrete floor. Squinting futilely at the seam of light visible through the door, she finally turns to face Z, who is still staring at the floor.

"Z," Dex pleads, and with a deep breath, pushes herself off the wall and goes to her. "Foot hurting?"

"No." It's a lie, but Zolotisty doesn't want to talk about her foot.

Dex cups her hand around the back of Z's good ear and soothes her fingers gently along both edges of it. Churlish, Z tilts her head away, so Dex just leans her hip against the chair and waits for Eben.

The door creaks opens again and Ebenezer's got a handful of wires, trying to tangle into each other. "These are the sort-the sort you wanted? Erm. N-not sure how well an-any of them work," he mumbles. There's a beat of silence as he inspects the scene through fogged-up spectacles. He steps back, half-closing the door on himself. "M-maybe I can find a way to test them."

"Yeh, sure. Takes one of the wee button batteries, you know? Just don't turn it on until you have the headphones plugged in, because it shorts or some shit."

"Mm-hm." He closes the door, leaving them alone again. The kettle whistles and Dex shuffles to the stove to make a pot of tea.

"He'll break it," Z remarks lowly a moment later.

The tin mugs are all lined up perfectly on the shelf. Dex resists the urge to move them each slightly out of place, and carefully takes three down. "Maybe, but he didn't bust the punk and rap albums, did he."


She pours a cup for Z and carries it over. "Can you do this with your fingers? S'hot." She can't stand to see Z sulk like this, and she can't find the energy to push her into an argument or try to make her laugh.

"Yeh. Thanks."

"I can't leave him here alone," she whispers. Her shoulders jerk up to her ears. "Almost like leaving Horse in bits all over. Mean, at least 'til we find that other Joker?"

Zolotisty doesn't reply.

"Z, I'm so tired."

"Com'ere." She straightens, leaning back and opening her arm for Dex to lean into. She pulls her into her lap after a moment, wrapping her arms around to rest the mug of tea on Dex's thigh.

"We'll talk him into going to clan hall, yeh?"


Ebenezer emerges from the stock room again, red on his cheeks and nose and ears. The tiger's in one hand and a single earphone string in the other. "Works," he says, countenance stuck in a scowl. "N-never-never will und-understand your sort of music, Dex. Awf-awful stuff."

Dex hasn't grinned like this in days. Along with it is a second wind. "Holy shit! You got it working? Thanks so much, Eben, you fuckin' genius! What you want for it? And, oh, I made tea."

Squinting over the top of his fogged-over spectacles, he approaches. "De-depends what you've got to trade, Dex. I'll t-take tea for now." Impatient, he forces the tiger and headphones on her. She tucks them into her pocket and moves Z's mug before she pushes herself up again to go fix his tea.

"Could paint you something," she says, a bit hesitant. Behind her, Z shows one of her fangs to her knees before her expression relaxes. She hunches over her lap again.

Head bowed, Eben scrubs at his glasses with the end of his necktie. "I'll think-I'll think about it, Dex. I don't know what-what I want. I'll think about it."

"Yeh, okay." She picks up her mug of tea and turns in place once before deciding to sit back down on the crate near the wall.

An uneasy silence seeps through the room, gaining weight and roiling back on each of them. Dex gives her tea a bewildered look but finishes all of it. She leans back against the wall and closes her eyes. Ebenezer and Zolotisty don't look at one another.

Dex's head jerks from the wall. "I stabbed him. He had me in a choke hold, with a cloth over my nose 'n mouth. Got one good punch in with my knife, and... and that's it until Eben's nearby tellin' me he got shot. Don't know why I look like this. Don't know why I got cut. Don't know if they asked me anything, if they wanted anything. Don't know if I refused or caved. Don't know... anything. I've got nothing."

Z looks up, and Dex goes on, "I try to catch it when I first wake up, you know, before things start closing up. Maybe it'll come back when..." my Improbability does. "... when I'm right again. But no doubt it's Them behind this, it's Network. Ages ago I'd ask people, 'you get some Network bitch come tellin' you how to behave?' And they look at me like I'm Drive-fucked. Even you, Z, I saw it. It's not entirely unfamiliar, yeh? Jesuschrist, all my life it's been someone or some group or... fuck.

"You know, and if I tell people, one of two things are going to happen -- either they'll look at me sadly, like you poor sick fuck, dex; or this. You get shot, you get cut up half to death with my weapons. You call me a martyr, Z, but no one else's Netjerk comes to give 'em shit. I know her name, and you know it's real, 'cuz you heard it, Z. And why me? Why's --" She stops. "I can handle it when it's just me," she says softer as the rant runs itself out. "But don't know what to do now."

"What?" Ebenezer's eyes couldn't be open wider. "They--?" He takes a slow breath and scrubs at his hair with both hands. "Ac-actually-they actually talk to you, Dex?"

"Not they, she. Ogilvy. You ever hear of her? Likes leather, yeh, the expensive shit. Short tight jacket and boots-- heels like this," and she lifts her hand to show a good three inch height between her thumb and finger. "Not for running, that's for goddamn. Always tapping at some tiny computer. Bun's tighter than her ass, too. First time was when I was still in GERM. We were all out camping and she woke me up in the middle of the night, bawled me out for ... I donno... I think she was trying to tell me I was shit telly, so I went to punch her in the face, but got all tangled in my hammock. Thing was, no one else heard it, no one woke up. Figured it was 'cuz we had all been drinkin' so much-- you know how GERM used to get. Next time--"

Zolotisty's mug murmurs against the floor as she puts it down. She struggles upright, using her tail and arms for counterbalance as best she can.


Using Eben's desk for support, Z makes it a few feet before she's marooned again. She tests her bad foot gently, just the toes, and pins her ears back.

"Come on, stubborn, what you want?" Suppressing a groan, she rolls up off the crate. They intercept each other, and Z bullies Dex back the way she came as soon she has the crutch of her wife's arm. They sit and Z presses close, tucking her nose to Dex's shoulder.

Dex wraps her arms loosely around Z, and continues, keen to tell both Eben and the cameras. "Next time... Know that place we hang out eastside Ace? Fell through a window trying to get in the first time, cracked my melon. Z --"

"Scared the shit out of me," Z interrupts.

"Well me too, but not from that. Z went to get Elias, and I'm lying there crumped useless on the floor in the dark buggin' my eyes open' just tryin' not to pass out and this fuckin' body sits up in the bed like a nightmare and comes to me, and I'm tellin' myself it's just whoever lives there and she stands over me and it's those boots. Same fuckin' boots. That time, okay, figured it might just be that I've been brained enough that this isn't real, but I swear we had an entire conversation, again bitchin' at me about audience and ratings mostly, and she left sayin' the loft was for me and Z and told me where the keys are. And they were."

"Then nothin' until they nabbed Z and locked me in the loft. She didn't show up that time, just talked through the cam mics. I didn't stick around and listen, though." She rests her head against Z's. "But you talk to them, yeh? How'd you tell 'em Guy was coming?"

He scowls down at his desk and shakes his head. "Used-I used the thing in the Grotto. No, I d-don't-I mean. F-Failors. I some-sometimes talk to them, b-but never--" His spectacles don't need to be cleaned again, but he removes them anyhow and rubs at the lenses with his necktie. "D-doesn't sound right, Dex. Network employees don't con-contact the Island. They c-certainly don't come for a visit. No-n-nobody Network in their right mind would ev-even want to!"

"I heard her," Z says. "Ogilvy. Talked through a thing."

"Through a tiny mic that the tech was wearing. Tell him everything," Dex says, and Z does, though there's not much to tell.

Ebenezer places his hands on the desktop and leans heavily forward. "Well, I d-don't-I don't know what to say. It's n-not-it's not normal."

"S'Ogilvy sounds like she's just off," Z says. "Like she'd be, ahmn.. Ionno, on a raft or holding soups in the jungle if she were here.."

"Yeh, I suppose," Dex says, hesitant. "Don't like just explaining things as crazy. Even crazy has a logic to it."

"Could s-sit and think-and think forever, trying to figure that out. Doesn't matter. What-what're we supposed to do?"

Dex squints at him. "You tell the Netjerks that Guy was coming to make yourself look good or save his ass or you just hate him that much or what?" At this, Zolotisty finally looks toward Ebenezer.

He ducks his head to try to hide his cringing expression. "Didn't want him to kill all-all those people."

"That's nothing to be ashamed about, Ebs." She gives Z a small nudge.

"That's not an answer," Z says, instead of, yeh, s'nothing.

He jerks his chin up to glower at Zolotisty. "Well, I d-don't know what-what answer you want."

"If you knew where we've been, you'd tell them that too." Though Zolotisty uses flat inflection on most questions she asks, this is more a statement than not. "Even though there's not a boat."

"No he wouldn't!" Dex looks to him for confirmation.

He can't maintain eye-contact. "I th-think-I think it'd help."

Z breathes out through her teeth, told you so, and turns her nose back to Dex's shoulder.

"There's n-nothing else-nothing else to do, but give them that!"

"He's right, Z."

"No. There's going to clan hall. Or -- fuckit, you know what. You asked for a story, Eben, for those fishes for the little cat. Here's a story."

"Kitten," Dex says, finding comfort in the familiar retort, and leans her head against the wall.

"Once upon a time there was this Joker, yeh, and this girl. The girl loved truths and poemtries and in-between places. The Joker, she loved things too, like sounds and running and almost-times -- like almost light or almost dark or almost asleep -- but mostly she loved the girl. So when Christmas came that year, the Joker thought about what would make a good present.

"She had heard the girl talk about cambras and privacy and the truths of selves when they were always being watched, and she had seen the way the girl played pokers with her face when they were out together in a Outpost. She thought it would be good to make her a place -- a secret place, an in-between place -- where there wasn't a reason to lie. So the Joker worked a long time and she made a place for the girl that had no cambras.

"The girl loved the place, and the Joker, being with her there, thought sometimes that she hadn't ever really known the girl before the place. Not really. Not truly. So they were happy for a while and then it started going wrong and it got hard to be happy. The things that happened to them, they had to lie about to their families. That made the girl -- who loved truths -- unhappy, and that made the Joker -- who loved the girl -- unhappy too.

"It got harder. There were some very bad days, but also, some very good days. They made themselves wifes in the place. They saved themselves a little cat. And then it got so hard that they couldn't keep the problems that they were having to themselves, they had to tell two of their friends. And even before that, every time that it got harder, the girl and the Joker would talk or they would argue.

"They argued whether they should stop. Whether they should give up the place before it got worse. But always, one of them would say, 'no. This place, it's important. Our truths, they are important. The hard things we have lived, those are important. If we stop, that's saying they are not important.' So they kept going, and it got so hard that they and their friends almost died.

"And the girl said, 'let's be done. It's not so important that we should die.' But the Joker, who did not want to live anywhere that she could not be with the new girl that she knew, said no. One of their friends said, 'you should be done. It's not so important that I die.' But the Joker still said no, because he hadn't lived there and he didn't know what it meant."

Zolotisty stares levelly at Ebenezer. She wets her mouth. "I don't know how the rest goes. You tell me."

He won't look at her. "I'm n-not good at tell-telling stories," he mumbles.

"M'not telling where it is. If they're going to kill us about it, they can come try in clan hall. They won't care about you. You've been good. Maybe not Dex, either. I think they are bully betting."

It's Z leaning against her that's keeping her from hunching into herself. Dex wipes her eyes with her jacket sleeve. "I'll try," she says, quietly at first. "Try to forget they're here or something. Didn't mean to be hiding from you." She keeps herself from glancing up at the camera hanging from one of the Warehouse's girders.

"Spandex," Z says helplessly. It's not what she meant.

"Don't want to end up like Guy. Mean, thinking we're all better off dead." She slips her hand under Z's and looks up at Eben. "You know Allardyce told me he's never seen Z and I kiss? He's trying to learn to be human again, and asks me questions, but he's never seen me kiss my wife because I hide it from the cameras. What am I telling people who watch the show?"

"S'not-it's not my place," he murmurs, scrubbing at his nose with the back of one hand. "I don't have-I don't-I don't have any advice."

Z thins her lips. "Don't bother."

"Stop it, both of you," Dex cuts in. "What now, then?"

"We go to clan hall and sleep. Com'on."

"Get whatever you need, Ebs."

Without argument, he lifts his coat from the back of his chair and folds it over his arm. He grabs the gun from his desk. Gathering together a moment later, they go.

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