The Journal Entries

Anar, Narnya 20, 03198

A Pleasing Shape, Chapter 3: Fame

Peren came over the next night, and Darzi was happy to paint her for two solid hours before sending her home. Peren brought food the next night, and the painting went on for three hours. Neither of them discussed the awkwardness.

Darzi worked on it when she wasn't there, and fixing it when she was. He wanted to get it just right. The colors around the painting took on a soft but melancholy tinge, and Peren said that was all right. "I deserve those colors. It's the girl in the middle that's not right. She's so obviously me, but she's so much more beautiful than I am."

Darzi said, "I'm only painting what I see."

It took a week to finish the painting. Peren came over every night, and Darzi was happy to have her around. He liked Peren. They didn't have sex again but the encounter had him convinced that maybe that wasn't what their relationship was supposed to be about.

After he closed the door and turned out the lights, Darzi realized that he and Peren hadn't set a future date for their next painting. He wanted there to be a next painting. He wanted her to come back. She was wonderful to talk to. She had her own friends and her own collaborations in the daytime, and he did too, but for the past week he had enjoyed having her night time. Having her.

He tried not to think too much about it as he undressed for bed and slipped between the covers. It was late, he was exhausted. He'd put much into that painting.

He was having sex with Peren. She was under him, her arms raised to him in invitation, her mouth open with hunger and stunning delight, her eyes filled with tears of happiness. He wasn't quite sure if he was fucking her or just lying on top of her. There was a rhythm, but it didn't feel like it came from him. They were in an invisible ocean and the waves put them together, rocked them, made them merge into a single being, a single ecstatic soul, a deserving pair.

Darzi whimpered softly, then kicked and woke up. "Auugh!" he groaned, his erection full and hard against the mattress. He turned over and grabbed at the demanding erection, stroking it a few times before remembering that he had the perfect outlet for this kind of need. He slipped out of his bed and over to the other.

Jouet was lying on her side. She had a tendency to fall over although it never seemed to happen when he was looking. He would hear it more often than not. He pushed her over onto her back, not bothering to remove the oversize shirt. "I hope you are just a doll," he said, putting his hand to her cheek and kissing her lips. "Because..."

He lifted her legs and posed her there, then pressed the head of his cock down into her sex. "Unh, you're so tight," he groaned as he made his way into her. She was as slippery as last time, optimised for this kind of sex, ready whenever El had been. He pressed down until his hips were pressed against hers, his cock buried deep inside Jouet's pussy. "Sweet," he groaned.

He fucked her then. Hard, without holding back. In the dark he pounded against Jouet's warm but unresponsive body. In his imagination, though, it was Jouet, then Peren, the Jouet. Peren made noise. He tried to imagine just Jouet. But then his imaginary Jouet began to make Peren-like noises. He tried looking down into Jouet's eyes, barely visible in the moonlight. They stared back, fixed, but not insensate, he was sure of that. Jouet was beautiful, Peren was beautiful. His cock was surrounded by tight, slick, fleshy warmth, and as he poured every sinew of strength into Jouet he could hear Peren's voice cry out, "But I want you!" and he came, pouring his desire and demand into Jouet's pliant body.

He collapsed. "Oy," he breathed. "Now I gotta wash you again, don't I?"

Jouet gave no response.

After a few days of staring at the painting of Peren, Darzi came to a decision. He pulled out his own padd and put it on. "Peren, please."

"Tower?" she said when she answered. The connection was audio only.

"Do you call everyone that?" he asked.

"Not recently," she said. He could hear her grin. "What's up?"

He steeled himself. It had been easy up until this point. "I'd like to enter our painting into the Winter campus show."

"Tower! I thought you'd never ask! I wondered what you were going to do with that thing."

"I wanted to... you know. Get permission before I put you on display like that."

Peren said, "Only one?"


"Only one painting? I mean, don't you want to put a few more up? I could model for a whole bunch, you know, like four or five. Maybe I could pose with your dolly."

Darzi was stunned. He hadn't thought about that. He wasn't sure he was comfortable. "I'd... I'd love to, but..."

"You stay there. I'm bringin' dinner again."

An hour later Darzi heard a knock on the door. "Who is it?" he said.

"Pizza!" Peren's voice shone through the door.

He laughed despite his anxiety and opened the door for her. She flounced in, all smiles and fur and tail, and held the pizza box out to him. "It's from the place near my apartment. It's not great, but it's cheap and it feeds." He took it and placed it on the table, along with two beers.

"There's more than one pose in the world, Darzi," she said. "I had a lot of fun."

"All you did was hold that pose. A lot."

"And hang out with you. You're kinda fun, in a dorky way, you know." She laughed and touched his nose. It reminded him of the way he sometimes touched Jouet's. "And your paintings are beautiful. I would love to have you do more."

He nodded. "I guess."

"Don't guess, Tower. Do it." She glanced across the apartment into his bedroom. "Uh, should I ask why Jouet is naked?"

Darzi felt himself blush. Hard. "What?" she said. "You did her! Didn't you?"

"I had a dream."

"A likely excuse!" she said, but she was laughing as she said it.

"No, I did. I mean, I had a dream and woke up just super-horny, and, well, she was there." He felt his face on fire.

"Was it her in your dream?"

He shook his head. If it were possible for him to combust spontaneously, he was on that verge.

"... me?" Her eyes glowed. "It was, wasn't it?" She hopped off the stool and walked around to him. "I did hope for a third chance."

"Now?" he managed to squeak.

"Not right away. Right now, we eat."

They tucked away the pizza, and then Darzi said, "Let's go find another pose for you."

They moved about his bedroom, looking for just the right pose. He wanted another bed pose, something she could hold for a while. He tried posing her next to Jouet, and a profile came into his mind. "Kneel next to her. Like you were about to kiss her."

"Kinky," Peren said, but she did as he asked.

"Wait," he said. He reached down and picked up the shirt that Jouet had previously been wearing. "Put this on, then get back into pose." Peren looked at him dubiously but did as he asked. "Hold that. Twenty, okay?"

"Twenty?" Peren squeaked.

Darzi went to work with a sketchpad, pulling out the initial details, working hard to get what expression he could out of Peren's face, and Jouet's, while they were both holding this pose. It wasn't going to be hard for Jouet, obviously, that was her job, but Peren wasn't a robot. She couldn't hold still just because he told her to, and she was holding herself up with one hand. "Got it," he said.

Peren collapsed onto the bed. "Unh, that's a hard one. Can we do something easier?"

"How about if you put your hand on her shoulder. Will that give you better leverage?"

She tried it. Her hand rested on Jouet's shoulder, dimpling the skin. Darzi knew he would have to work to capture that look. "Yeah," she said. "Yeah, that works."

They did four sessions of twenty minutes each. Each time, Peren collapsed to the bed, rolling over onto her back, arms in the air with exhaustion. They never looked quite so much like paws, nor did she ever look quite so fetching as when she did that. Darzi found his erection returning. He tried to ignore it. He knew Peren saw it even through his trousers.

She grinned at him. "You like looking at us together, I think."

She was laid out for him on the bed, her eyes glittering behind her glasses, her beautiful breasts falling left and right in perfect symmetry. She rested her head on Jouet's thighs.

"I like to look at you," he said, and he blushed. He hadn't admitted that to a woman since he'd become Darzi. He wasn't sure it was a good thing to say. Peren's diminutive form was well-proportioned for a woman and a Mustel. The current painting was a close-up of Peren and Jouet's heads and torsos, done on a smaller canvas than the last, huge, classic. He sat on the bed and touched Peren on the arm. "You're very beautiful," he admitted. "And I was really bad to you that first night. And the second night."

She reached up to take his hand in a clasp. He was split on her meaning: did she want him to stop stroking her, or did she want some intimacy of her own? "No, no, you were okay. I'm the one who made the mistake. Besides, I was afraid there would be competition."

His eyes glanced up at the blank face of Jouet. He nodded. "There's something going on inside her," Peren said suddenly. "I don't know what. But her eyes move. Her head too. She's taking things in. Did Claude tell you anything about her?"

"Only that her brain was very old but it was Encompassed. He said it was also self-learning. I guess that's a pretty good mix for a robot brain." Peren nodded before she was possessed by the need to stretch, a powerful yawn juddering her entire body. Darzi squirmed at the sight. She smiled up at him.

He leaned over for a moment, then paused. She smiled, and he kissed his living model gently. Peren squeaked with pleasure as his lips touched her muzzle, and then the two of them became a tangle of tongues, a mix of limbs, a crush of her generous bosom to his chest, and they sighed with the adventure of it. Darzi admired the softness of her fur as he slipped down between her thighs and tasted her vulva for the first time, found her pink insides sweet like the seaside on a bright summer day. He waited for her objection and received none. She tasted of promises and he licked at her tiny clitoris until she was gasping. Her legs trembled with her body's effort to contain herself, and as her delicately sweet juices flowed she whispered his name aloud and then climaxed with one final soft cry.

He sat up again, taking back the perch he had abandoned a moment before. She opened her eyes, reached for his arm, pulled him down and kissed him. "I thought you said you didn't want to fuck me."

"No, I said I didn't want to have to fuck you to get you to come back and let me paint you. And vice versa. But..." He let it trail off, not sure how to finish what he felt. "We said third chances."

She nodded, then touched his face. "Oh, Darzi, I do want to stand next to your flame for a little bit."

"Me?" he said. "You're the one on fire. I think of you as my little gold-furred firecracker."

"Ha!" she laughed. "Take your clothes off, will you?" Darzi did as she said, tossing aside his shirt and pants, then joining her on the bed. She opened herself to him and he slipped inside her. Their bodies meshed, fit, and seemed to merge. Darzi felt her surround him, not just his cock but his whole body with her sturdy legs and strong arms, and they joined into one being as he made love to her. Her head rested on Jouet's thighs and he was glad that the doll was only there as a witness. He kissed Peren and ignored everything else until finally he came inside her, a muffled moan of ecstasy.

He lay beside her, stroking her fur. There was something sweet about the way her ears flickered against the palm of his hand whenever touched her there, and squirmed. "That tickles."

He sighed and pushed his head up on one arm to look at her. His hand stroked her chest and belly, and she smiled at him. Her fingertips reached for his cheek. "You know, I came back because, somehow, this stopped being a one-night stand."

He nodded, then felt momentarily sad.

"What?" she said.

He tilted his head up toward Jouet. "I fugued once. At least once."

She looked at him. He knew that she was a musician and was probably testing the idea for its musicality before she went on to consider its cultural definitions. She must have found it because she turned to him and said, "You did? When?"

"About five years ago. I woke up in a spaceport on Gilligan with a guide telling me who I was, what I was doing, and where I was going. There were a few letters in my possession, actual physical ones, from a guy named Darzi who claimed to be me, telling me that what he was doing was for the best, and that I should go to Discovery and take up painting like I'd always wanted."

She stared at him. "How old are you?"

"According to my paperwork, I'm about three hundred. But my brain was replasticized to about eighteen or so, so I guess I'm 23." He smiled at her. "From what my past self told me, I had always wanted to be a painter, but something happened to my life and I had become ruined by it. I couldn't be the man I wanted to be. So I started over. I don't know what I did to get here, and I'm afraid that I'll just get into the same fix and fugue again. Whatever I was, I was a coward, I think."

"You're a little neurotic, but I don't think you're a coward. I don't know who's crazier-- you for wanting to put up nude paintings at the Winter show, or me for being in them. But you can't say it's cowardly!"

"No, I guess not," he said. He felt real happiness around Peren. She made him smile when he had her attention. It was that simple. "Are we really going to do five paintings together?"

Peren grinned. "I'd like that. You're a beautiful artist, Darzi. You've got something I don't have. You've got passion. I'm happy to be part of it." She turned over onto her belly, exposing her beautiful ass and the drop of her tail to him. "She's so warm." Peren's hand stroked Jouet's thigh gently. "I wonder... " She rose onto her knees until she was head-to-head with Jouet. "If I kiss you, will you come to life?" She pressed her muzzle to Jouet's mouth, parting her lips. Darzi's cock surged back to life just watching them, but this was between Peren and Jouet. Jouet's left arm shook slightly as he watched, and then Peren sat back, sighing. "I guess it'll take more than that."

Darzi nodded. "I have noticed that she moves, sometimes. She falls over. I find her facing different directions."

"But still that catatonic look on her face, eh?" Peren said. "I guess that's what you get."

"Claude said she was self-learning. I wonder what she's learning by watching us?"

The second painting finished. Darzi announced that he was going to be doing two paintings simultaneously: one in the evenings, and the other during the weekends. Peren agreed to the plan, but said that she would have to bring her keyboard with her. She had her own compositions to create.

Peren, it turned out, had no problem hoisting Jouet onto her shoulder. Darzi shook his head. "Pendorians. I forget just how strong you guys are."

"I haven't tried to crush you yet, have I?" Peren said. "C'mon, Tower, she's only big in one place, where it counts." Peren patted Jouet's butt playfully as they walked up the hill behind Darzi's complex. They found the tree he had wanted. While Darzi set up his easel and paints, Peren settled Jouet under the tree and posed her according to the sketch Darzi had done the week prior, then unrolled the keyboard in her pocket and began playing on it, silently.

Darzi had never watched Peren doing her own craft before and he felt a mixture of pleasure and jealousy watching her. He could identify with the intense concentration, the look of obsession, as she dove right in to the task she loved. After he was set up, he tapped her on the shoulder. "What?" she shouted. "Sorry. Is it time?" He nodded.

She sat in a summer dress of light cloth opposite Jouet, who they'd dressed in a black and white high-collared formal dress of her own. Jouet's blank expression and clothing contrasted well with Peren's easy smile, easy clothing, and general lankiness, and it was that contrast, and his own complicated feelings for Peren, that he tried to pour into the painting.

When the sun finally set and the light faded, he sighed. "That's all we're going to do today."

Peren rose and looked at the painting. She grinned her mad, firecracker grin. The one he loved most of all. "That's going to be great," she said. She grabbed him and pulled him down to his knees before kissing him hard. "You're really good."

"I hope so," he said. "I feel like a blacksmith facing the invention of the SDisk. No more horses? No more engines?"

"You've got nothing to worry about," she said.

"I suppose not. C'mon, let's pack it up and go home." They made their way down the hill. Darzi carried his paints and easel, Peren carried Jouet. When they got back to his apartment, she dropped Jouet in her usual place, sitting on the bed and propped up against the wall. Darzi said, "What are you working on out there?"

"Just some variations on a theme."

"Can I hear it?"

Peren put on her labcoat, tapped out a spliff, put it into her mouth. She worked her mouth around it for a minute or so, then said, "All right." She unrolled her keyboard and moved her hand over the touchscreen in a pattern that may as well have been an incantation for all that Darzi understood what she was doing. After a second, music began to pour out of the keyboard. It sounded religious, churchly: an organ, mostly, with some other wind instruments added for counterpoint. It was beautiful and uplifting.

"Leave it on," Darzi said when she moved to silence it. "I like it."


He described his reaction to her, and she smiled. "The joys of the derriere guard," she said. "You really understand what I'm doing with my music!"

"Well, yeah," he said.

"Tower, look!" She pointed into the bedroom.

Jouet was smiling. She had tilted her head slightly upward and in their direction, but wasn't looking at either of them. Her eyes were no longer hollow and vacant, but were filled with something like recognition. She was as still as a doll, posed as if she'd always been in that position, but she looked different.

Peren jumped up onto the bed, her white labcoat trailing to the ground as she crouched in front of Jouet. She waved a hand in front of Jouet's eyes. "Huh," she said. "No reaction."

"Something happened, though," Darzi said.

"Yeah. Was the last guy a musician?"

"I don't know. But remember, he yanked her memory and took it with him."

"Yeah, but... you don't just yank a robot's memory like that and take it with you. You have to simulate the hardware as well. What she left behind is an empty shell that's designed to be occupied. An empty mind wants to be filled. And she's Encompassed, right, so she wants to be filled with whatever her purpose was."

"But El's gone too."

"Maybe you're it," Peren said. "After all, Claude did say he gave her a program for you."

A chill came over Darzi. "You don't think Claude gave her more than a posing program, do you?"

"If he did..." Peren smiled. She said, "Have you banged her since that time you told me about?"

Darzi shook his head. "Not since then, no."


"Should I?"

"I don't know," Peren said. "I might get jealous. I'd hate to get to the point where I start acting like a girlfriend and say 'It's either her or me!'"

When Peren arrived to accompany Darzi to the Winterval show, Darzi was trembling so hard with anxiety she joked that maybe he should have sex with Jouet just to calm down. "That's not funny."

"You've done it before, Tower," she said, and she smiled at him to show she meant no rancour.

"Yeah, I know. But ever since you started coming over and playing music, the smile on her face tells me that I probably shouldn't. It wouldn't be right. I don't want her to wake up thinking she's only a sex toy."

"What if that's what she wants, Darzi? What if that's what she is?" Peren said. "We don't know anything about her relationship with that El guy, do we?"

Darzi shook his head. He said, "I need to get dressed." He walked back to the bedroom and threw open his closet, taking out his one good suit, the static suit, the one that shouted that he was a member of the derriere guard, and began to put it on. Peren sat on the bed where Jouet spent most of her days sitting and watching. Darzi thought Peren looked beautiful in the metallic red dress that shimmered and glowed when she moved. It was cut to show that she had breasts, but not to show them off. "I'd love to paint you wearing that," he said.

She smiled at him, her hand playing on Jouet's thigh. "You said that you haven't done it with her since that one time, but how often have you had sex with your mannequin?" she asked.

Darzi blushed. "Just twice," he said. "That one time I told you about, and the first day I got her. Sorry."

"That's all? I would have thought more. You're a healthy guy, Darzi, and you're not doing me, so I thought you'd be at least doing something."

He finished putting on his tie and shoes. "Maybe my creative output goes elsewhere."

"Maybe," she said, looking away. Darzi had looked at Peren a lot over the previous three months. He loved to look at her, the way her muscles moved under her fur, the sly, sensual look that stole over her eyes and muzzle when she was thinking of something wonderful. From her every gesture sprang afterimages of her body in motion. As he watched her he thought, "I could paint that, and that, and that." He would have been happy to paint her all day. He tried not to harbor any illusions: she was just a femMustel, flesh and bone, but that wisdom warred with his own desire to capture her. To encase in canvas and oil Peren's very sweetness, the music she created, the light, fast sarcasm that was her hallmark.

His eyes looked to the body on the bed, Jouet's still body and her wide, staring eyes. Was what he felt toward Peren akin to love, he wondered, and if it was, did he prefer to just take his intermittent lust out on Jouet? It wasn't as if Peren were either unwilling or breakable; she had a misplaced sense of intimacy, perhaps, but she didn't treat her sex as if it were either a great mystery to be plundered or a great treasure to be hidden away. It was just something she had, perhaps to trade, perhaps to share. Like his talent with oils and canvas. Like her talent with music. Then again, did he prefer Jouet? He hadn't done her that often. As he'd told Peren, it was only twice. It should have been more often.

Peren was digging through the big bag of costumery that she had collected for Jouet from second-hand sources around the town. Blouses, skirts, socks. A hat. She tried the hat on. It was a black beret with a red-laced band. Darzi smiled at her. "That looks good on you."

Peren bounced up, making his heart beat a step quicker for a moment. She regarded herself in the mirror behind the door. "You think so?"

"It goes well with the fur and the dress."

"Mmm," she demurred. "I think the red on it is too dark for the dress."

"Maybe," he said. "Ready to go?"

"You look great," she said. "I like the kilt, especially."

"It's not a kilt, it's a skirt."

"What's the difference?"

He gestured toward the floor. "It goes down to my ankles, covering my calves. A kilt would stop here," he said, pointing to his knees. "In theory, I should be able to kneel and not get the kilt under my knee."

"I don't know anything about men's fashions," she said. "But it's nice to know I could reach up underneath if I wanted to." She made a feint for it, and he dodged out of the way. She took off the hat and put it on Jouet. "There," she said. "That'll keep your head warm."

Darzi regretted that Peren wasn't tall enough for him to take by the arm properly, but she was still a delight as they walked through the town. It had rained that afternoon; the cold and humid air damped down any sense of enthusiasm, but the bright yellow lamps scattered throughout gave the brick-lain streets a shine that reflected another world, a warmer world full of hope and opportunity.

"Peren," he said, finding the nerve to track down his voice. "If nothing great happens tonight, I want you to know that I think you've been the best model I've ever had, and I'd love to keep painting you next season."

She took his hand, their fingers lacing together. "I'd love to keep coming over and watching you paint. Have you ever watched yourself paint? It's so powerful. Your face is so completely concentrated on the canvas." She sighed and looked up at the clouded sky. "It's supposed to get cold enough to snow tonight. I wish... I wish I had your concentration. I just... plod. Note after note. Line after line. Eventually I spit out something. It gets good grades but it's never really transcendent. Not the way you get sometimes."

"But your music is beautiful," he said. He had listened to it enough, and he knew just how skilled she was.

"Yeah, but not in the same way. You get... you get lost almost instantly, and you stay there." She smiled at him. "I'd love to be able to get lost the way you do, until the alarm goes off, until it's time to break the pose, or whatever."

"Whenever I interrupt you, you react so strongly, Peren. I think you are getting lost. You're just so busy to notice."

She looked at him. "That can't be it."

They resumed their walk through the town, nodding to other passers-by until they reached their destination. A small crowd of students, most dressed in their best suits, stood at the door.

"Darzi!" Konrad, one of the few avante-garde artists with whom he got along, extracted himself from the crowd, absently shoving people out of the way. "Where have you been the past, solo? I knew you were going to one of those ass-kissing ateliers, but that doesn't mean you have to ignore your old friends like this!" Konrad was a tall, well-bred man in whose mouth the word "solo" looked like a bit of a joke. Peren, with her spliffs, probably had more right to use the word than Konrad.

"Painting," Darzi said. "Non-stop. Oh, Konrad, this is Peren. Peren, my friend Konrad. He's one of those people who like to plant his face up against the art so you can't see it anymore."

"Jealous?" Konrad said.

"Of sharing spit with a thousand other visitors? Never!" Darzi grinned and Konrad grinned back. "Where's Paecc?"

"He's around." Konrad reached down with one hand, his eyes lingering over the shimmering red dress and the sonsie figure packed into it. "I'm uh... uh... "

"You're very pleased to meet me, yes," Peren said. She materialized a spliff out of mid-air. "I know." She put it into her mouth, a short cane that hung there, limp and suggestive. "I'm pleased to meet you too."

"I can see where you've been," Konrad said.

"Yeah," Peren said. "Holding still for long periods of time. Darzi painted five full canvases of me, and we're going to win tonight's competition, aren't we?"

"I guess we are, if you say so."

"I do. If I have to bang every judge to make it happen." Konrad coughed politely.

"So, what did you put up tonight?" Darzi said.

Konrad said, "I have a piece called War Composition, and another called Peace Disintegration. They're historicals about the llerkin-Sindar battle, and the way the community fell apart. I did them as multi-pane triptychs, and yes, you can lick them if you want."

"Since when are you into politics?"

Konrad shrugged. "It's more about history. I just wanted to say something. I mean, what do yours say?"

Darzi stopped. He hadn't thought about it. He'd been so busy exploring the medium and the technical proficiencies needed to master it that he hadn't thought there was anything to say with them. Peren said, "They're about the relationship of the artist to the model, aren't they? Especially the ones with Jouet. There's nothing there, so there's no relationship. That comes across."

"Who's Jouet?"

Peren said, "His posing mannequin. The word 'jouet' means 'doll' in French."

"Oh. You named your mannequin?"

"Actually, Claude did," Darzi said, thinking fast. Being around Peren seemed to require it. "He gave it to me. Oh, hey, they're letting us in."

The director of the art school gave some kind of introductory speech. Darzi missed most of it; he was too busy eyeing the competition, very little of which he had seen before. The Salieri School of Visual Arts and Design was considered high prestige; the fact that he remained here was a sign of their good will toward his work. He knew he should listen with more attention, but he had heard it all before.

As he mingled among the guests, Peren stayed at his arm, looking around, muscling her way between people to get a look at the paintings and installations. She disdained one honeyed construct that looked like a misshapen blend of a human woman and a cow, dripping golden-orange syrup from its many distended breasts.

She liked the abstractions better, she admitted. "The representationalists are all trying too hard," she said. "There's something forced about their work."

"What about mine?"

"There's nothing forced about yours," she said. "But then I've watched you create."

He grinned at her. "You're just saying that."

A woman he didn't recognize walked up to him. "You're not wearing anything," she said.

He reached up to touch his face, and she nodded. "I don't like to," he admitted. He pulled out a small padd from his pocket, a folding model, and opened it. "This is all I usually need."

"And yet you painted those beautiful paintings. I'm Azhita, the gallery owner. I wanted to congratulate you. Your paintings were among the first to sell. All five are gone now. You've made nearly three hundred LIU."

Darzi stared at her. "I... I did?" He started to do the numbers in his head. He tried and failed. That was a meal a day for the next century; that was his rent and utilities every day for the next eight years. "But I was just kidding about the price."

"Not anymore, you're not. You said sixty LIU each. The whole set went to a single anonymous buyer. There's a note." She handed it to him.

Peren leaned over. The note was handwritten on a kind of rough stationery. It said simply, "Paint more." "That's it?" Darzi said. "Paint more?"

"Your buyer clearly felt that your paintings were worth owning. Enjoy the money," she said.

"Oh, Darzi, that's wonderful!" Peren said. She looked a little stunned herself, but it was a starry-eyed, girlish kind of stunned. She grabbed him by the collar and pulled him down to her level. There was a crowd gathering around them now as she kissed him, hard. "You're wonderful," she said when they parted.

"So are you," he said, and smiled. "My model."

He stood up as others began to gather around him. He found himself at the center of a mob, most congratulatory. Konrad eyed him with good-natured mock suspicion. "What did you do?"

"I painted," Darzi said. "Every day. Well, almost every day." He looked down at Peren. "And I had great inspiration."

"And you will have to learn to work even without that inspiration, Master Darzi," said a familiar voice.

He turned to see the short femTindal who dominated his life three days out of the week. "Yes, Madame Quenilda," he sighed.

"However, under the circumstances," she said, tilting her head slightly to the left in that gesture only furred Pendorians seemed capable. "Well done."

By the time the show had wound down, Darzi was exhausted. He had explained his technique two dozen times to others who wanted to know his secret. When he explained that it consisted of "find a really good model and paint every day," they sighed and went away, disappointed to discover that the real secret to success was half luck and half hard work.

Darzi and Peren stumbled back into his apartment, exhausted by the night's events: the sale and all the attention it had garnered him bothered him. He worried that it might affect his output, that he might just want to make more in the same mold and fall into a rut. He wasn't done exploring the technical side, much less trying to give a thematic meaning to his work. He was suddenly much more aware of Peren, of how he wanted her to stay by his side. "Paint more," the note had said. Of what? Peren? Jouet? He had joked about doing pornography, even saying so at the gallery. It would make sense in a twisted way, but everyone knew that only fems could do pornography. Mels couldn't be trusted to be sensitive enough. He had grinned as he said it, but there was a nasty undercurrent of truth to his words: that stereotype existed everywhere.

But as the door closed behind him his mind focused on Peren and he knew that he wanted her attention tonight. She was looking up at him, her glittery eyes all pretty in the dim light, and he reached down and picked her up. "Darzi, what!"

He kissed her. She muffled some kind of protest and then kissed him back. He felt her shift in his arms, wrapping her own arms around him and holding him close as they stood in his main room. He carried her to the bedroom and laid her down. "What was that for?" she said.

"To thank you," he said. He sat down next to her. "Peren, can I paint more of you? I want to capture everything about you. I love the way you move. I love the way you smile. I want to do silly things with you, and I want to capture them all in the finest oils and canvas I can find." He blushed as he said it. "I think somewhere in all of this staring at your beautiful, naked body, I've fallen in love with you."

She shifted, a little uncomfortably. "Now?" she said. "After all of this?"

"Yeah, now. Is that wrong?"

"No, it's just... surprising, I guess. We didn't really fit together the first few times."

He touched her hand. "Let's try again, then. It can't hurt."

He saw her face then, that face that he'd come to love, to admire. He hadn't known until recently just how much he had come to adore Peren's physical beauty and admire her simple resilience. Surprise flooded her expression, as if she were only now becoming conscious of the bond they had told each other would never be forged between them. Miraculously, they had each taken steps away from each other, only to encircle the globe of their own doubt and come face-to-face once more.

He kissed her then, laid her down on the bed with the gentleness of an egg brush, felt the silk of her dress slip beneath his hands like mercury, and the two of them rolled across the creaking frame and into each other's arms, sighing. "I didn't mean for it to happen this way," Darzi said.

"No," she said. "I know. I didn't mean it either."

He helped her take off the dress. They placed it together over the footboard of his bed. "We're here again. Where I'm naked. And you're not."

He laughed, then, softly, a heartfelt, meaningful sound. She slid her fingers along the crease of his shirt and it fell away. The apartment was cold in winter, and it always had been. It felt that way now, but he ignored it, too concentrated on another matter to notice. A gesture of her hands against his waistline and the skirt opened as well. Exposed, he pulled off the unnecessary formalwear and the two of them fell together, arms and mouths entangled in their moment of surrender. He let himself go, let go his doubts about Darzi 1.0, and kissed her. His erection grew against her thigh and she parted her legs, shifting to get under him, to take him in.

"No, not yet," he said. "I want to know what you taste like."

She nodded, nervously, as he slipped down the length of her body, kissing her furry belly and her pubes and then he found her sex open and wet. She tasted of the sea and of flowers, she smelled of fur and earth and strength and patience, and as he licked at her beautiful vulva with its pronounced and dangling labia she danced on his bed, slowly, a courante of ecstasy, approach, withdraw, approach, until finally her paws found his head and her breathing became ragged and forced and she came against his mouth, a breaking tide of surrender.

He slid up to face her, his cock still hard and high against her thighs. "Now."

"Now," she breathed. "Now, Darzi, now."

He pressed his way inside her. She opened herself to him, opened her legs as wide as she could, let him all the way down until his balls rested against the strong curve of her ass. She moaned, and he echoed her moan. Her body was under his now, but she was strong, compact, all muscle and fur. He withdrew to the tip, then lunged into her again. She gasped, "Yes."

Darzi let himself loose. He thrust into her again, and again, harder and faster. He saw himself in her eyes, saw her in her eyes, became lost in the deep well of her, enjoyed the freedom. Her sex surrounded his hard cock completely, the wet warmth of her body, the copious slipperiness of her inside, and the two of them held on to this moment, this precious place outside of time when they both knew they had found love, and were all the better for it.

She was thrusting back, her back arching to meet him with every push, and then Darzi came, loud, deep inside her, letting loose a rapture that encompassed both his body and his soul.

Darzi lay down next to her, exhausted. His body was heavy, as if he were made of half-dried oils himself, able to move only with the kind of energy one had in dreams. The cold air of the apartment registered only in a distant, insignificant way. Peren lay beside him and kissed his shoulder, his neck, quick rapid kisses like a ferret ought to give. "That was beautiful, Darzi."

"As good as my paintings?" he asked.

"Maybe," she said. "We'll have to do it again, and you'll have to paint more, for me to be sure."

"We can... we can do that," he agreed. "Zzz..."

She giggled. "Me too. Can I stay?"

"Sure," he said. He was dizzy, and he felt somewhat out touch with reality. He didn't really care. He was happy. He lay down and fell asleep.

Sometime later that night, the chill temperature roused him, if only enough that he lifted his head to search for his blankets. Blinking into the charcoal darkness, he found them across the room on the other bed next to Jouet, folded. He started to fumble his way out of the covers, trying not to wake Peren, when Jouet stood up.

He watched, gaping, as she picked up the blankets. She walked with her back rigidly straight, a strange swing to her hip as she approached. He couldn't see her face very well at all. She held out the blankets and he took them. "Thanks," he said softly.

Jouet raised one finger to her lips, then turned and walked back to the bed. She had almost made it there when she stumbled herself, falling forward and catching herself on the mattress. She paused for several seconds, then, moving more slowly than before, hauled herself back into her familiar position on the bed and was still.