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The candlelight strange on our faces
like the silent tiny blazes
And coruscations of its wars.


It's been years, but this morning she started painting.

Three pails of paint sit by her foot. Black, yellow, white. They're each topped by thick decorator's brushes -- she can't work with fiddly tools. Give her something she can grip in her fist.

Spandex unfolds a piece of paper from her back pocket and consults a drawing of four concentric circles. Most of it's been annotated with her all-caps marker scrawl, but there are a few notes in Elias' barely-legible doctor's penmanship.

She dunks the tip of a brush into the pail of black paint, shoos chattering demons of distraction and hesitation from her shoulders, and waits for a winged moment to fill her. When it does, she moves -- she describes a circle with the radius of her arm's stretching. That's the ring that will frame the rest of this painting, and it gets her body moving. Painting's easier to manage as a verb than a noun, even after it's done.

Her work is illustrative, all bold line and flat colour. The paint dries fast, even in the damp of early morning.

The innermost circle: A pig-bellied creature with a bull-whip tail squats in the dirt. It strains to tilt its camera-head far enough back to upskirt a half-rooster half-human creature with a bullet-laden bandolier crossing its chest. One of the half-human creature's hands reaches for the hem of its skirt -- either to hold it down or lift it up. The other hand reaches out toward a stream of requisition tokens. They overfill the creature's hand to pyramid onto the ground. Dex first gives the creature mindless manga eyes, but a second thought turns them into slits of searing anger sun-glared down at the camera.

The second circle: A march. Jungle monsters tread mindlessly down the circle's rightmost curve toward a line of contestants that rise up the left. On the bottom, two soldiers are half-dead and gut-split from fighting. The others as they rise are in turn running, cowering, crying, all but the final two -- one walks smiling onto a beach, and the last carries a surfboard into the sea.

The third circle, much wider than the inner circles, and this with spokes that split it into six equal parts: A toothy, grinning tree-sized monsters stands inside the northwest segment. Its eyes are spaced too wide, its rope-thin arms are long enough to reach the clouds. Nearby, someone shrieks at an extra arm newly sprouted from their shoulder, and in the sky, two girls laugh on invisible swings. Trees hide tiny bouncing fluff-like creatures, and there are brass spiderkitties burying tinfoil beneath bushes. A wooden horse lopes around a nest of blue speckled eggs on the ground. One is cracked.

The next segment is full of Jokers -- a Victorian garbed one, a jovial old man with a canteen one, a half-sheep one, a coyote-eared one, a punk one, a carpenter one, a purple one, a foot-high squirrelly one, and one that looks like a stern accountant in suspenders. The northeast segment houses artists, poets, and musicians. The southeast, animals from otters to orangutans. The bottom-most is crammed with saluting soldiers and Network employees with clipboards, and the last segment is mostly empty but for four people sitting on a sofa. They have empty circles for eyes.

Dex turns away from her painted wall and bends to trade brushes before she begins the fourth and outermost circle. A familiar breeze of Improbability cools the shorn sides of her heads, tingles the delicate hairs on the backs of her wrists. She straightens, arches, twists, rolls her shoulders and stretches her fingers. She's surprised to find tension.

The light's fading, anyway, but still she's not happy that Z's found her.

Zolotisty steps down from a ledge in Kittania, leaving a sudden cloudburst behind her. She's soaked, carrying a covered tray. "I brought a food," she says before she catches Dex in her peripheral vision, and swinging about, she takes in the painting for the first time. Her jaw drops just enough to expose the tips of her fangs. Zolotisty is rarely rooted by surprise, but this evening, it's a skilled enough thief to make away with her voice. She shuffles forward with her head cocked.

"S'not done," Dex says. She crouches to bang lids onto each of the pails and doesn't look up.

Z finds words that Dex said to her recently saved away on a shelf behind her tonsils -- why didn't I know this about you already -- but she says nothing. Putting aside the tray, she presses close enough to the painting to tap at wet, tacky, and dry colors with the pad of her finger. "Filthy," Dex whispers sharply to her paintbrushes, using the same tone that Ebenezer uses with her. The bristles stiffen sympathetically, rejecting the sticky paint.

"What is it?" Z asks finally. She doesn't look away from the wall.

Spandex rises slowly to face Z's back. "S'gonna be your Christmas present." It's her own fault that she didn't warn Z off until she was done, she realizes, and sighs.

Ears spading toward the sky, Z stands on tiptoes to examine the grotesque pig. She looks it in its gimlet eyes then grins over her shoulder, trying to shift the wind behind the stiff sail of Dex's posture. "It's good." She backs off from the detail to observe composition. Dex steps forward to hug her from behind, pressing a handful of cleaned brushes into Z's belly.

"What's it mean."

"Have'ta see. I'll finish it in two more days. You can help if you want."

Zolotisty turns in Dex's arms with quirked eyebrows. "No. But I want to watch you do it." She takes the brushes and loops them back around to tickle the nape of Dex's neck. "Why don't you paint all of the time."

"Inside. You're soaked." The wet begins to seep between them, soaking the front of Dex's t-shirt.

"No. Say why."

"Don't wan'to," she replies.

For a moment, Zolotisty considers swinging Dex around to press her like a rubber stamp against the painting, so that she'll carry it mirrored on her back. She likes the idea of reading the mystery of the illustrations in the motion of a turn or a stride, but with a shirt, it will just shed away. It would be no good to leave these colors crumpled somewhere on the floor. "Alright," she says. She kisses Dex's nose and pulls away to collect the food tray, pinning it between undercurve wrist and leanjut hip. "Com'ere then."

Dex gathers up her things and fits herself to Z's free side. "It's based on the Tibetan Wheel of Life. Elias showed me the meanings." She doesn't look over at the unfinished painting. "You're cold." They remain standing in place as Zolotisty gazes again at the painting, distracted.

"Aye," she says finally, leading them inside. She finds a place for the tray, uncovering it to reveal a wine bottle, a sourdough boule, a little wheel of brie, red grapes, green apples, and a sausage from Maiko's smokehouse. "Get a knifes. You've been visiting Elias?"

Dex thops a grape into her mouth. "Picnic after," she says, steering Z to the bed by her hips. Twisting, Z thieves the grape back before Dex has a chance to crush it. She allows herself to be pushes backward, padding along with gluey stick-to-the-floor stopsteps and her hands on top of Dex's hands.

"After who?" she asks, smiling Cheshire with it.

"After you." The cameras slowly refocus and twist, gears whirring, as Dex directs Z's soaked shirt over her shoulders, her trousers down her thighs, and warming Improbability along dimpled skin. After sliding the puddle of clothes away with her foot, she molds her front to Z's back, retracing familiar topography. It's as though Z's an extra layer over her own body, and as she touches, hers remembers. If it weren't for everything else -- the tail and ears, the bright blue hair -- if it were just their bodies, they would be That Couple, the one walking matched down the street. It's remarkable how similar their shape.

Zolotisty splits the stolen grape slowly as she matches the pressure of her tongue to the pull of Dex's hands. She rubs it to a silky pulp against the roof of her mouth before she shifts it backward to swallow. "Are you still hedgepigged?" she asks, tipping her head so that she can feel Dex's earlobe against her cheek.

"No." Hedgepigged is new, but she can feel the sound of it.

"I made you be."

There's no shush this time, but a nip. Z smiles lopsidedly and pulls forgetfulness through her nose, letting i donno what i did out on her next breath. Instead, she murmurs, "My present for you isn't near so pretty, Spandex." Again, Dex gives no response but to pull Z closer, though she can't be, and to stretch her own fingers wide, though there will always be parts of Z left uncovered.

Z reaches for the backs of Dex's thighs and because it is asked of her, she becomes yielding, pliant, only Dex's to move. She drapes against her girl's body like cut cloth, finds her steelstill when her knees weaken. Dex lifts her lips from Z's neck. "Hh," Z shivers, then, "mmh," which might mean I love you or curl your fingers in again -- thererightthere. She swallows, grape-colored, and says, "Dex."


The sweetness turns to a scuffle as they disagree with shifting grips about who should be where. It's almost more struggle than sex, at least until they're both left defenseless. The picnic comes now, after they catch their breath and kiss flushedskin and drift their fingertips along warmslopes. Z's tail thomps Dex's thigh as she pulls away to clamber from the bed. Touching her hand to the bandages around her middle, she collects the tray finally. "The bread's from Maiko's," she says, half-apology. "'Cos I've not seen Stan. But it's fresh." Setting it on the bed, she rests her hand on the boule. "S'still warm. Why don't you like to paint."

Dex sits up crosslegged and leans over the tray to thop another grape into her mouth. She crunches it before Z can steal it. "I do," she shrugs, eating another. "Today I do."

"Mm." Notching a hunk out of the brie, Z takes an apple. "I like it that you can." But Dex is elsewhere, staring at the wine bottle. Finally, she taps the glass with her fingers.

"Don' gimme shit for not tellin' you this. I got a story about doin' art'n'shit. What you got for trade."

"Waffim ibbim ou it," Z replies, sucking juice back into her mouth. She rumples her tail as she scoots forward to sling her legs across Dex's lap. "Waff usd asgin." She scissors her too-big bite into something more manageable, then raises her eyebrows when Dex dangles the wine bottle toward her.


Taking the bottle and a corkscrew from the tray, Z begins picking foil from around the cork with her claws. "Free pick. You can ask what you like."

There's not even a breath of hesitation. "Sex history. Who, what, where, what was it like, the first. You know." Cutting some meat, Dex uses it to swipe cheese up, creating the breadless sort of sandwich she prefers.

"Mn." Z pauses to muss the fur around at the base of one of her ears. She considers before pulling the bottle open. "Was just Sessine -- in--"

"What," Dex almost chokes. "What! Oh my god, Z, we need to.. you need to.." She looks at the door as though she's thinking of remedying this now and gets a foot in the gut for her intensity. "Z-- ouff!"


"Jus' him and then me? That's.. you need more, twist. You gotta experiment." At this, Z lays her ears back sourly. "Trouble is," Dex continues, "who.." She's staring off at the doorway again.

"Who would you want me to."

Looking back, Dex almost slips into a whirlpool of giggles at Z's foul expression. "Mrmm. Someone good. But not better'n me."

"If they're not better than you, why would I sex them!"

Spandex stalls through her last bite of meat and cheese as she considers the dilemma. A nearby camera vrrrs gently as it zooms in on her expression. "Aren't you curious?"

The brie is good, soft enough now to smear. Swiping her bread in it, Z shakes her head. "No. I reckon not all blokes are ahmn." She rolls her eyes toward the skylight. There's no hint of condescension in her elaboration: "Sweet.." She gnamns a bite. "But." A shrug. "I like you."

It's a well-crafted answer, Dex figures, but the effect's the same. "I like you," she says, chin-lowered. "But.. he was sweet?"

"Gentle and slow and nice." Z pulls one of her legs back, scuffing cornmeal and flour from her hand as she reaches to cup Dex's breast. Spandex's gaze turns downward to stare intently at Z's fingers. A moment passes -- Z's shoulders are as loose as Dex's are tight, and she yawps when Dex bowls her over with a warcry of, "Picnic after!" Laughing, Z holds her bread above her head before using it like a paintbrush against Dex's neck. "Picnic still now," she says, settling more comfortably.

Later, they're grapeless, breathless, and marooned amid rumpled sheets. The empty tray is an island on the corner of the mattress and they're adrift, alone save for the red recording lights of the cameras around them. Dex sits up enough to slug back the last of the bottle before snuggling in, pulling a blanket along with her. "Kay, so.. I'll start."

Her voice settles into its sleepy storyteller's volume, a late night rise and fall that Zolotisty knows well. "Cops finally nailed Vera after her fourth stolen baby and shut'er down. I was sent to group homes and foster whatsits. Was to be just 'til they found sommat permanent, but I got picked up by this cult of artist. N'Academy s'what they called it. 'Member how I told you all art'n'poetry'n'theatre, 'cept state-sponsored, got sent underground?"

"Mhmn." Z nods and rolls onto Dex's belly to blanket her twice over. Dex's hands roam mindlessly over Z's bak and head and hair as she continues.

"Din' know who these people were, was too young n'bloody naive. 'Member Vera fed me that shit about my parents.. and so then I'm told I'm being chosen to go to this Academy. They're all excited, saying I shoul'be proud of what my parents sacrificed for the Cause, tellin' me I'm one of them. They knew 'cos I got cobalt in my blood and I had to be taught right in order to fulfill my destiny and shit. But there I was, nothin' but locked up again. I thought, at least this time there are more people around and they're artists, so they'll be interesting, but no."

Stroking Dex's forelock, Z lays her cheek flat against her girl's breastbone. She clears her throat. "How long."

Time is so elastic for Spandex. Days dragged back then, but not knowing her age, never having birthdays or Christmases or annual anythings, means not having events to pin time to. "Uhh. Prolly months of theory. Classical theory. Then... a year maybe? With pencils, and master drawings to copy exactly. Then, few months of charcoal, then oil paints, but always copying. One stray line and it'd be start again and sit there 'til it's right."

Frowning, Z rights her head to look at Dex on the same plane. Doesn't sound like her Spandex. "And you sat?" she asks.

"Yeh. Learn'a be quick so could go do other things, try'n get time ou'side."

"Wh'they do with what you made, grift it?"

Spandex sits up suddenly, rolling Z off her belly with the force of the motion. "Fuck me. Think -- I never even thought.. the bastards told us the best copies were sent to hidden archives so scholars could study them and other students like us could learn. Bastards."

Pushing herself onto her forearms and then her knees, Z takes her time putting the tray on the floor. Then she flomps against the wall, half-propped, and beckons. "Com'ere. Maybe they did."

"I escaped," Dex says, a hint of pride raising the corner of her lips. She sits against Z, pulling her hands into her own lap to play with fingerpads and claws.

"Tell me how."

"Tra-aade," she says, pressing her finger into the center of Z's palm. The muscles respond and Z's fingers curl in just a bit.

"Tell more about Prague, like when you were really really young? Or, umm, when you were first here and learning words'n stuff? Deal?"


"Gotta be somewhere?" She knocks her head back into hers, gently.

Z smiles. "Like listening to your voice," she says. "Like it when you tell me things. 'Specially about you. But aye, I'll tell you both." She settles her arms over Dex's belly.

"S'boring, mine," Dex says plainly, without pity. "I mean, no skycities or lived for thousands years or split in two or time travel."

"You've lived in places I'll never see."

"Gonna draw 'em for you, twist. Decided."

"I don't think it's boring, mean."

"You're in love, can't be trusted to think straight."

"You're the only one who talks about where they came from. Nobody else does, really. Not after their first while on the Island."

"You asked. She twists to half-face Z. "S'not true either, you and Ebs and your gentle ex talked 'bout it th'other day."

Z wrinkles her nose, raising her voice to mimic Eben. "A- and my f- father taught me how to tie a tie. That's not telling anything about where you're from."

Dex playpunches Z's belly with her elbow. "Hey! Ebs' obviously was obsessed about pleasin'is father and-and notice how he never mentions his mother? An'e tries so hard to make it look like his family's normal, yet.." Dex stops her rant, realising how she's revealing how much she's actually thought about this. Z makes a small noise of enlightenment in her throat, inadvertently revealing how little she's thought about it herself.

Bending over the edge of the bed to fish up the bottle of wine, Dex swishes it to feel how much is left. "Need more booze, but not for you 'til you tell your story, 'cos you'll get pissed and blurry and forget all your words or just want to blanket."

Quieter, "I like blanketing."

"Aye," Dex tells Z's tail as she drapes it over their legs.

"Get more wine now then, f'you're gonna get it."

"No, I'm too perfect," Dex says, half just being difficult. She drains what was left in the bottle and lets it drop to the floor. "Z?"


"You're my favourite sex ever."

"How many people have you sexed, Spandex?"

"I got sent to the island 'cos I'm so famous for it--"

"You did not, don't lie!"

"You know why I was chosen?" She can't twist enough to face her fully. "Do you have files on us?"

"What?" Z cranes her neck around to peer at Dex sidelong, laced lashes. "No, I don't look at the computers. I'm shit at them, and you have to.." She mimes typing. "Open fake doors to see things, n'there are instructions but they're tiresome so I don't ever. I could if I wanted, I reckon."

This needs time to sink in. Dex holds very still, and Z, watching the muscles of her neck, lays her ears back. "Took the job because CMJ asked me to, Dex, not to look at computers or wear the goggles or yell at people being thick. He's good. S'never around but he's good, I think, and he wanted people he thought were good too, to take care of things so that it wasn't Network." Dex wants to shush her, to tell her it's okay, but she lets her finish. "What's your word," Z's saying. "Narcs."

"Z," she says quietly. "Was just thinkin'bout the file they got on me, s'all."

"You want it?"

"Have you seen yours?"


"Really? What's it say -- what kind of info they have on us? Where'd they get it from? Who sees it?" She's given up on being tucked into Z's lap, and it sends Z's tail sulking to the side.

"Donno. Didn't really read it, just seen it. Personals, or sommat, and where I've come from, and what-all I can do, and if I'm threatful, and rates or sommat, and ahmn. Lots of whatsits about foots. In codes, like. I don't know who all looks at all of it."

"Threat of what? What all can you do? What's your ratings?"

"I don't know, I didn't read it. Do you want yours."

They both prefer when she's decisive, but right now, Dex can't decide. Her curiosity, of course, aches like a few days without Z. "I donno.. how'd we know it's not a bunch of bullshit? And 'sides, Ogilvy comes bitchin' at me when my ratings drop, so --"


"My Network whore. Who's yours?"


"Marketing bitch or some shit, makin' sure m'good TV is all." It's a struggle to keep her tone nonchalant. "Y'don'have one?"

"Don'think so. Nobody I know by name or sight anyway." Zolotisty cocks her head as she thinks about this. She looks unhappy. "This person comes around a lot?"

Spandex scrambles to crawl over Z's leg and off the bed. "Need more wine. And no, not really," she says, not adding and I'm not even sure she's real. A camera turns, panning out to catch Zolotisty picking quietly at her bandages in the background while Dex rummages.

"Don't want my file," Dex decides, pulling the cork on her way back to their bed. "Who cares."

Z looks skeptical, and she mimics, "Really, what's it say?"

"Twiss-ty." The wine sloshes disagreeably as Dex passes Z the bottle. Taking a mouthful, Z squinches as she swallows, then leans her head back heavily against the wall.

"I know," she says. "Story, yeh."

Dex settles expectantly next to her.

"I don't.." She tongues her bottom teeth, tries again. "I don'remember. Much. About bein' in Prague, nothin'. Nothin' that's good to remember anyway, 'cos I got taken from a different place and ahmn.. I remember being caught, I do remember that."

"Nothin' good? I told you lots that wasn't good. S'okay if you don't want to remember, but I wanna hear if you do."

"I'll tell you."

Dex worms her way between Z and the wall to hold her. There's no way she'd ever forget what Z's told her and hinted at so far, and no way to protect either of them from it now -- a young canine Z, cages, needles, experiments, nightmares. Z hasps the side of her thumbclaw along her lower lip. She thinks about the book she read with Sessine, about Pavlov, and about the industry he made out of the dogs in his kennels. Snake oil. It doesn't occur to her to connect the thought to the Network. Wanting the safety of a guarded belly, she turns in Dex's lap and hooks her legs around her hips.

"R'member it mostly 'cos I used to dream about it a lot. Bad dreams. Bloke with a stick with a loop at the end, and a club. N'he'd chase you down in alleys 'til you came up on a dead end. S'when I was very small, I think? 'Cos I remember being in, ahmn." She swirls her hand vaguely, describing the shape of a bag with her fingertips. "Sack. With other ones. And a train, I reckon, 'cos of the sounds. Then I don't remember much for a while."

Silence knits close around them. Some stories you can only take in small doses.

"Dog rustlers, maybe," Spandex finally suggests. "For meat?" That's the only reason to round up dogs that she's ever seen, though she used to help feed and hide the tamer ones.

Z's eyebrows arch. "No." She shakes her head. "Well. I donno. Don'think so, maybe. Nawh, ahmn." She looks down at the space between their hips, choosing her words careful and slow. "It was not like butchering or kitchens. I remember the cages. There were outdoor ones and indoor ones, and mostly at the beginning it was outdoor and they'd take you inside and poke you, but they waited for you to get big, and then they'd poke you more, and some of them they'd kill and cut open. To look inside and take things out and do things with them. They liked me. So they brought me inside, mostly, and if they liked you, they would just cut you open." She traces a circle under Dex's jaw, under Dex's ribs. "And they made it so it stayed open."

Dex's eyes are wide at first, then they clamp shut to bear it. "Who.. Mygod.. what sort'a sick motherfucks..?" You couldn't fabricate a more horrifying nightmare for her. "Z? Z, Me'n Skids can go there with one'a her holes and we could free them dogs --"

"They're dead." Z frames Dex's face with her hands, thumbing her cheekbones. The outrage sparking and spitting in her girl is just cinder and ash for her now. "It was a long time ago. And they were nice." The lopsided smile is no less bitter for that statement, though.

"Good. That they're dead, mean." It takes her a minute to work out the maths. "Wait. How'd y'know? You're not that old."

"There are books about it. The place that I'm from. There's one, one says ahmn. The man who did all of it, who wanted to start doing all of it, he said," and here Z draws in a breath to recite from memory with poison-weighted barbs on each syllable, "'We must painfully acknowledge that, precisely because of its great intellectual development, the best of man's domesticated animals - the dog - most often becomes the victim of physiological experiments. Only dire necessity can lead one to experiment on cats - on such impatient, loud, malicious--'"

"Stop it. ..stop it."

Z doesn't apologize. She does stop, watching Dex holding her head in her hands with a level 'you asked' calm. "Elias found me, he says," she says soft. "With a cage. It had a number on it, and my name, and he quit what he was doing to fix me."

Her wrist will have to do for her nose snuffling, but she leaves her cheeks wet. "Thankgod. Who-- how.. how'd the Network find you?"

Scooting close enough to press their hips and chests together, Z turns her nose to Dex's neck to breathe the smell of her. "Got registered at the beginning of Season One when I started being me, 'cept different ears and tail."

"M'confused, twist. They didn't airdrop you here for the show? Who did then?"

"No.." She takes a deep breath. "Drive, I reckon. The Drive. Elias says everything was going wrong when the Network first moved in. He says, ahmn. It was defending itself, he thinks. So lots of Improbabilities everywhere. I've been on the Island since before the show, Spandex. Elias too."

"Oh." She has to leans back against the wall to try and put this all together. "Improbability saved yer ass, then." She finds it hard to believe -- she's never heard its reach extending beyond the Island, but logically it makes sense. Most of all, who cares; Z's here.

"I don't think it meant to. But aye."

"Good. What ears'n tail did you have before? The originals?" She interrupts as Z starts to respond to add, "And what else haven't you tol'me yet?"

"I reckon as much," she shrugs. "Black." She twists to drag her tail into their lap. "Skinnier. What you mean haven't told you. I did tell you this. Just not ahmn." Just not very well.

"Hear that?" Smiling, Dex bends to tease Z's tail. "Skinnier. And pro'lly less fuckin' sheddin' every fuckin' square inch too." She pats it and it twinges to fit against her hips. "S'good thing you come wi'her." Dex leans forward to let Z's hair curtain her face as she stretches her neck to snuff and nuzzle. It makes Z smile, recognizing herself in it.

There's still a debt to pay. "Was only one way out for me -- I became shit." Dex pulls up straight and reaches for her hand. "Let's go bring Elias a surprise." A twisted smirk. "Nice one, not one of our cuts or breaks'nshit."

It's dark. Z leans to kiss her girl, and squeezing her hand, untangles them to slip off the bed. Pausing for a moment, she looks at the sheets, then leans to take the wine bottle. She presses it into Dex's hands, then takes her by the hips to direct her toward the door. Allowing herself to be led, Spandex pauses to set the bottle down on a little table by the door then spins slowly in place, so that Z's claws belt tearless white furrows around her middle. She collars Z's neck with her arms to gather her into a kiss and to pull their bodies close, not for the satisfaction of pinning and being pinned, but to satisfy her urgent need for proximity.

Finally, Dex pulls away just enough to study Z's face with bright eyes. Finding one of Z's hands at her waist, she lifts it to her lips before turning to take them out the door.

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