The cat is a mistake, to be sure. They were going to have dogs, but no dogs came. Or, a thousand dogs came and none stayed long. One was a Garden spy, muzzle still warm from the gristle-snap of a murdered strand. She sank into Blue’s arm like stone into water mere seconds after Red poured her kibble, all too eager to betray the Great Betrayer. She was young. She was rude. Blue hung her entrails upthread as a warning, or perhaps a promise.
Or to make Red terribly jealous. That was the best bet. It worked.
The Agency’s dog-spy came in a tangle of wires and iron mesh and snapping, yappy hinges. Red boiled the whole of it into a roux, foul as the vacuum. The iron stench lingers in the walls now, no matter how many flowers (always blue) Red purchases from the grocery store.
But that was before Blue finished seeding every strand of their braid with clever traps and before Red disemboweled the last hiss of drone—the Cottage is sealed now, so far downthread that everything else is only portent. Easily chased away by the flock of roosting blue jays (ha!) ready to greet the sun each morning.
It is fit for stretching haunches, keening yawns, geriatric widowers.
“You’re bored of peace already,” Blue accuses, ducking Red’s knife with a quick jerk of her neck.
Red pauses their game, arm still pinned over Blue’s collarbones—they are playing mafia to pass the time between embedded engagements, in rival families, of course.
Her eyes are green here. They are still not used to blinking and so she stares. Blue only sees the stack of letters behind them, ready for Blue to make her selection and start reading. Like she doesn’t know every word already.
“I love you,” Red says plainly.
“My Candy Apple,” Blue lilts. “You’re sweet.” She swoops under Red and pulls her down by the knees, a dirty move. Blue's family is known for playing dirty here. She loves playing.
Red's laughter rings through Blue like a string quartet, matching pitch and tuning every synapse. she knows what melody she’s poised to sing, but her own laughter wants to ring out triumph. (Of course, it already has—but, the game the game the game.)
They scrap in the alley like boys in a playground, like black holes dueling for supernova. Blue loves her. Blue loves her. Blue loves her.
Then, a cat meows.
And the game ends.
“Hello pretty pretty, hello.” Red pulls a writhing mass of pink skin from a garbage can. “You are a terrible audience, yes you are.”
Blue wipes a swathe of blood from her cheek. She rolls over on her side, languid. “Didn’t the Agency teach you not to play with your food?”
“Hmm.” Red flips the cat, protesting wildly, around and around. “No tech. She must be one of yours.”
“Garden wouldn’t meow.”
“Isn’t that the whole point of them, the meowing?”
“Well placed, yes.”
Nothing in this conversation is new, except for the cat. It is simply another game, made from the ravages of a deserted war. How pathetic the war is now from their vantage of peace, their happy ending.
“Journeys end in lovers meeting,” Blue murmurs. She stares into the sphynx’s eyes and finds no secrets. Perhaps elevator music. An eternal ride between destinations, or hunts.
“I didn't like that book,” Red says regretfully. The only thing Red ever regrets now is not liking Blue’s book recommendations. The cat squirms in her arms again.
“But you remembered that line from the book, Cherry Blossom. Not its Shakespearian origins.”
Red kisses her. She soothes the split lip with her tongue, touches her chin with raised, bruised knuckles. “I won't bore of peace,” she murmurs. “But I am afraid of it.”
She whispers the last part, only the barest wind carries it into Blue’s ear. She hears a car honking, a distant siren. Mothers putting on white noise machines to put their city-children to bed. Squirrels chasing crows in central park. Perhaps she mixed that one up.
“I love you,” Blue says. “Do you want to keep the cat?”
Why the fuck did she ask that. Of course Red says yes. Red wants all the warmth and tenderness and keeping-care she can muster. And Red musters better than anyone.
She names the sphynx Maelstrom, for obvious reasons. She goes on the Internet to research its dietary needs, pulls Blue onto her lap to watch internet videos of Maelstrom's squirming cat-sisters being totally adorable, according to the descriptions.
Maelstrom doesn’t warm up to either of them, which isn’t how the story is supposed to go. She is a garbage cat, a gutter girl. She is ugly and her eyes have gunk in the corners and she does not wished to be smooched or scritched out of her curse into a princess.
But Red is determined to love the thing.
Perhaps Blue is jealous.
“She destroyed the universe for me,” Blue informs Maelstrom one sun-shower morning. “She would do it again, too.” The cat licks at her genitals and curls deeper into the crochet blanket on the couch, which is Blue’s favorite blanket. Of course.
Blue is terrible at jealousy. If she were to utter those words in front of Red—who is picking apples for a pie, waiting for Blue to make their tea—it might cause a rare, true fight.
“Be kind to her,” Blue warns Maelstrom. “You cannot break her heart or I'll embed myself into a lion and scratch up your face.”
“Meow,” Maelstrom says.
Three embedded lives later, Red decides that Mellie needs a bath. Blue hates that nickname so, so much. It is not a sane derivative, it is cutesy. It means Blue is still jealous of a cat.
Like the first day they found the cat, Red is attempting to lock the mewling thing in her grip. She is dangling her over three inches of bathtub water, which might as well be the boiling lava of Strand 304 Pompeii for all that Mellie is protesting.
“It’s for your health!” Red yelps. “You have oils and sweat on your skin and I'm sure it’s uncomfortable. I’m helping you, damnit!”
Blue laughs until the cat manages to slice open Red's forearm. She doesn’t heal right away because her skin is Blue’s skin is Red’s, twenty-seven percent more skin than it was before. Blue thinks of the tears on little Red’s face as Blue eviscerated her Garden monster, and goes on the computer to figure out how to give Maelstrom a bath.
The Internet suggests getting in the bath too, so the cat won’t be scared and alone. Blue could have guessed that. The Internet makes everyone a little bit stupid.
Red crouches in the bath with Maelstrom, squelching and turning in place until she’s found a comfortable position for the both of them. For a moment, the cat stills and Blue is treated to Red’s smile. Her blaze of a grin. Scorching the fire in Blue’s belly the same way she razed strands to their stems.
Moments can only end, though, only still alive in their happening. It is hard to find them twice.
And so, Maelstrom detangles herself, finally, and gives the bathtub a real college try. She rolls her pink body over once, twice, gets thoroughly soaked long enough for Red to be delighted, dare roll around herself and reach out a seeking hand. This is her fatal mistake. Maelstrom takes the gesture as the first cannon shot fired and hisses, teeth fully bared.
It shocks Red, like few things do.
“Baby, oh, sweetheart,” Blue croons, while giving the cat a devastating glare. They’ve just come out of a long fifties and all that warbling sweetness is still draining from her words. “Red, get out before she scratches you again.”
“She needs a bath for her health.”
“Yes, I know, but—“
“Blue Daba Dee, do you really want to do this again tomorrow?”
“Tomorrow might be an epoch from today.” She lets go of the doorframe and takes a seat on the closed toilet. She reaches out her arms. “Here, kitty kitty. I'm here to rescue you.”
Maelstrom cocks her gangly head and hightails it out of there, shaking water as she scampers. Very predictable move. She would make a poor Agent.
“Oh dear,” Blue says. She feels a smirk twist her face, knows it is Red’s favorite of her expressions, and prepares for her love to butter melt when she turns towards the bathtub and concocts a good cat pun, every braid is so chock full of them.
Instead, Red hardly notices. She’s shock-still in the tub, staring forward and at nothing with wide, tearful eyes. Her face resembles a groundling’s very first take on horror-struck—watching a decapitation and realizing it is not happening on a television newsreel. It is happening now. It is happening to you.
But nothing is happening now.
Nothing. Red’s hands worry together, like she’s protecting the babiest of birds, no pin feathers to signify she belongs to anyone at all.
It is only when her gaze lances Blue that the Red within her clarifies. The redness, the oozing spots that Blue knows when to clean and pick at and when to leave well enough alone. It hurts. She hurts. Once upon a time ago, Red betrayed Blue and it hurt so much she can still recall every savage bite of the berry, the juices sliding into the crook of her elbow and sticking the flesh together, locking the joint in a mockery of rigor mortis.
It hurts. But why now, why here.
“I'm sorry,” Red says hoarsely. Gravely. Not at all the simpering of her final letters, detailing the semantics of loss. “Tell Mellie I’m sorry.”
This spurs Blue into telltale action-before-thought; the thing in her that cannot stand Red in danger or in pain, no matter the lack of root cause, steps into the lukewarm water. She plants herself next to Red on the slippery porcelain in a cross-legged tangle. (She does a scooting dance of her own to find purchase; the tub would not be Blue’s first choice for an emotional breakdown.)
Wet skin presses wet skin. Warmth encounters warmth. Red’s breaths are quick and harried. her elbows are pressed on her knees, every vein is raised on those so-toned arms. Red was an olympic diver downthread, two lifetimes ago. Blue a sportscaster, weaving the story of every flip, tuck, turn, for an audience of thousands.
She knows what to say now, too. She knows the words and movements to console and andulate, but they are meant for happenstances. The tools for Garden to nurture. Blue is not Garden, and Red is not charge or target. She is Red. She is Blue’s. She is crying now and the lump in Blue’s throat grows in mass, carries letters and tumbleweeds and kisses and screams.
Who are you, she asks the Blue in this body (or perhaps the body asks her,) without Garden. She already had the answer before it was asked. It is an easy answer and it is not simple.
Blue without Garden is. Is.
Well. Yours, she tells the Red in her. Who sings hotly and pushes the lump down into her belly, to digest, to be hungry once again.
Carefully, Blue traces the still healing cut on Red’s shoulder until she receives a shiver, a sign of life. A sigh. Every breath is that. Red’s head tucks into the space between Blue’s jaw and shoulder, right up against Blue's pulse.
She curls a hand around Red’s bicep haltingly, the movement too sudden for practiced hands such as hers. Which is the point. “I’m sure that Mellie forgives you,” she says.
Versed in metaphor as she is, Blue hopes Red knows what she means. A sharp sniffle is her confirmation.
“How can I still remember?”
Red lifts her head. Her eyes are red-rimmed. “The braid you died in.”
Blue swallows. “I’m sure I don't have to give you a biology lesson, dearest.”
“That braid doesn’t exist.”
“It never did.”
Red huffs a hot, dragon’s breath. “Then why do I still…” Her voice curbs, stomped out. She looks at her hands, now limp, and flexes them like she’s readying a mean right hook, five innings in.
“For most of the people we associate with now, time only presses forward,” Blue murmurs. She only murmurs to Red. She turns Red’s precious face toward hers, meets those tear streaks without a lick of fear. “Perhaps they have a point.”
“I can't forget,” Red counters. She lifts a hand and delicately, delicately, moves an errant strand of hair behind Blue’s freezing ear. “Can you forget, Blue Fire? The way I broke your heart?”
Red watches. She watches and watches and adores, watches still. Long ago Blue may have mocked her Agency-born impulsivity and now she craves their next second enough to skip it altogether. She says: “I love you.”
Which means, of courses, Never. That is the point. Only you could break my heart. Never. I love you. I forgive you. I love you. What do you need?
Blue chases Red's exhale and slides their lips together—tear swollen and bloated and wet, this far downthread they are only body—and she chases bad memories away to replace them with something good. Red’s lips turn molten. Her body concaves to meet Blue’s eternal grasp. Something good.
“I think I hate cats,” Blue says.
“We ought to give Mellie to one of our children,” Red thinks aloud. She straddles Blue in one splashy movement. She holds Blue’s face like it might disappear again. “I don’t—“
“Keep the cat.” She slides hands up Red’s back, presses fingertips in. Red ducks back into her neck and oh, yes, that spot. She gasps. “But let’s stop talking now.”
She squeezes Red closer, closer still, slides a hand up her wash rag of a camisole, connects their lips in a desperation to stop being only Blue. Stop being afraid. Stop living somewhere that is dead. She is Red she is Blue she is Red she is Blue. It is peace time, now. She is safe.
Red runs a hand through Blue’s hair and pulls. Blue yelps, then laughs and laughs. And laughs. She only realizes she’s begun to cry too when Red kisses away tears and describes each blue she tastes, each memory she savored in the years when savoring was all they could keep.
Maelstrom wanders in sometime later, demanding dinner. She will not be forgotten by these strange hairless cats who scooped her up and brought her to this new, foul garbage can (oh how she misses New York steaks rotting, all for her, banana peels to curl up on—though she does appreciate the bloodsmell in the walls), but her dinner will certainly be late.
They resume sex in bed, with a hurriedness only present these days after a long embedment. The chance to relearn bodies and reconnect minds is an aphrodisiac in equal measures.
So is loss—or the loss of loss—what comes after loss. Perhaps this is true comfort. Perhaps this is home, the reminder that everything lost is now found. Red's sleep-heavy voice in her ear is not dissimilar to the hum of a good city; she is within and apart and enveloped, pressed down into the bed with a wax-seal kiss.
Afterwards, Red holds Blue from behind, like she once longed to do, while they watch rain droplets race down the window glass.
Tomorrow, Blue thinks sleepily, I will make Red toast with jam and sea glass.
“After our movie date tomorrow in town. What then?”
Maelstrom hops up onto the window. She swishes her fleshy tail. This pleases Blue for reasons she will soon understand, when another night illuminates this one. As life lived forward goes. She sinks further back into Red’s embrace, smug as…well, a cat who’s gotten into the cream.
“Anything you want,” she says.