Part 1: Whoa, Here She Comes
“Are you sure?” the creature asked, ears flattened in uncertainty, claws pressed ever so lightly into the researcher’s exposed stomach. “I don’t want to make you do anything you’re not comfortable doing.” 5760 trailed a delicate claw along the doctor’s face, reveling in the feel of her velvet soft skin, smelling the desire that rolled off her body like waves. It couldn’t wait to taste her, claim her, mark her as its own. But not yet.
“I’ve never been more certain,” Lakshmi panted, “I need you inside me, 5760. More than I’ve ever needed anything else.” She pressed her hips against 5760’s bone colored fur, communicating the urgency of her desire. "Please." Her fists clenched in her lover's thick, ragged pelt. She couldn't wait to be taken by the beast.
5760 delicately pulled Lakshmi’s panties off with its teeth, lowered its head between her legs, and
“It was on my office desk this afternoon,” Lakshmi explained.
5760 was silent for a long time.
“Who wrote this?” it asked, voice dangerously calm.
“I don’t know.”
“You’re lying. I can tell.”
“Well, I have a couple of people in mind -”
“Do you want me to eat them? Because I will. They’d deserve it.”
“Are you joking?”
“Maybe? Do you want me to be?”
Lakshmi sighed and turned away, not meeting 5760’s eyes.
“Look, maybe this wouldn’t happen if you weren’t quite so…affectionate.”
“Am I… embarrassing you?”
“No. Of course not.”
“Please don’t lie to me.”
“Well…Yes. You are. Everyone treats me like I'm depraved or like I'm a laughingstock, or both. And meanwhile, I have no idea who you are, or what's going on, or anything about you or why you seem so obsessed with me. I've been singled out, and humiliated, and no one will tell me why! Look, I understand the importance of all of this. I do. But why the hell does it have to be me?"
"Look," 5760 said, "I've just… I've been scared for so long, alone for so goddamn long. You - my memories of you - were basically the only thing that got me through it. It had to be you. It was the only way it would work for sure."
"We've never met before."
5760 looked up nervously at the observation chamber, and Lakshmi did the same. Just the usual crew, exchanging coffee, probably smirking and snickering as they wrote more fucking fanfiction.
5760 lowered its voice. "Yes, we have." it said, sounding surprisingly sad. It chuckled quietly before continuing. "Surprised you never guessed, actually. I mean, god knows you wouldn't recognize me. I thought the voice might have been a giveaway, but… It's me, Lakshmi. I'm Avery."
The syllables took longer than they should have to gain real meaning in Lakshmi's mind.
"No. That's not possible. Avery's been missing - "
"For two years. I was abducted two years ago, Lakshmi. They didn't want me to tell you, but… I couldn't bear it anymore. They knew we were connected the minute I told them who I was - they track all their employees' past partners, it seems. We were working on figuring out how best to contain me, and when it turned out that romantic situations were key, they asked if me I'd be willing to work with you and see if it helped, on the condition that you couldn't know who I was. "
"Prove it. Prove you're her."
"You always were a skeptic. But you want proof? You always sleep on the right side of the bed. You don't drink coffee, only tea - oolong's your favorite. We first met in that dog cognition lab, remember? The pit bull mix kept trying to hump you and I couldn't stop laughing. We got snowed in and we talked. But that wasn't the first time I noticed you. We were in the same class for a month. I kept trying to get you to put down your textbook and notice me. There's a tattoo, on your left shoulder blade, of a lotus blossom. I was there when you got it. I talked you into it, remember?"
It's her. There's no other option.
"I. I need to sit down."
Avery. Not dead. Alive. Here. Somehow. Even then, their reunion here - all too impossible. The Foundation sprawled over continents - and yet here they were, facing one another again against all odds.
Of all the gin joints in the world… Lakshmi wanted to laugh, but she knew that if she started, she would find herself sobbing.
5760 - Avery? - cleared its throat.
"I’m sorry. It’s just…even before all of this,” - 5670 gestured to its antlers - “I realized that breaking up with you was a huge mistake. I was freaking out about the idea of being committed, and it was a stupid decision. You came out to your family for me. You were willing to move jobs for me. I missed you. A lot. You were one of the best things to ever happen to me. And I think us being brought back together now…I don’t believe in fate or anything. But I’m not letting you go again.”
5760 reached out a hand. Lakshmi merely stared at it. The empty space left by the shock of finding Avery again had closed and crystallized and sharpened.
"Are you delusional?"
"I can't believe you. You think, after leaving me the way you did, breaking my heart because you weren't certain if there was something better out there, leaving me for a dozen hypothetically better women - you really thought I'd take you back."
"I understand if you're angry -"
"You're the last person I'd want to start a relationship with right now."
"That's fair. That's very fair."
"You think you could just waltz back in here and sweep me off my feet again. How disconnected from reality do you have to be? And anyway, putting that aside, how, exactly, did you think this was going to play out? We're in the Foundation. I'm a researcher. I don't even think of you as person. Not that it's hard," Lakshmi said, barking out a bladed laugh that landed right where she wanted it to. "What would I call you? Bestial-friend with benefits? And I don't want to know what you were planning on doing in terms of a love life. Did you think I'd somehow get over this," she spat, gesturing to 5760's canine form, "or did you think I was depraved enough not to care? I mean, you're not even human."
A line had been crossed, and they both knew it. 5760 avoided eye contact with the self-collected shame of a criminal who knows they deserve their punishment. Lakshmi swore silently.
"I'm sorry - "
“It's fine. You're right. You're completely right,” it said, very quietly. “I'll ask for you to be taken off my research detail.”
For all its monstrosity, in that moment 5760 looked like nothing more than an overgrown kicked puppy.
“No. We’re going to do what we need to keep you safe and contained. If this is helping, we’re going to keep doing it. Your safety is key here, okay?”
5760 looked unconvinced, but - “Okay."
Their next meeting was not what one would call enjoyable. Lakshmi was silent save for the occasional monosyllabic response, glaring daggers at Avery - 5760. Her irritation grew almost every time 5760 moved - the way it held its fork, the slight tilt of its head when it was pondering something, they way it gestured in conversation - all Avery's little quirks and gestures. Part of her was annoyed at herself that she hadn't figured it out before - now that she knew, she couldn't stop seeing the woman behind the wolf in every little action or phrase.
"I like your earrings," 5760 said.
Avery poked her head into the tiny bedroom they shared in their studio apartment. "Babe? You said you were going up to put on earrings and you've been up here for, like, twenty minutes. You're not like having a seizure or something, are you?"
Lakshmi turned away from the mirror to face her girlfriend. "I think my clavicle is asymmetrical."
Avery began laughing hysterically, and didn't stop. Instead, she somehow got louder. Somewhere outside, a dog began to bark in response. Lakshmi noticed a bird that had been sitting on the window flying away.
"It's not funny."
"It's not. It's really not. I'm sorry, I thought you were, like, dead, or something. I'm laughing at myself for panicking, not at you."
"Sure you are."
"Here. Let me see." Avery bent to inspect Lakshmi's collarbone. "You're looking good," she said as she rose back up, before tucking Lakshmi's hair behind her ear and kissing her on the nose.
"The food okay?" 5760 seemed genuinely concerned with the answer. "I know it's not that Asian place we used to go that you liked so much, but it's close as we could get."
"Okay," Avery said through her mouthful of Mongolian Beef, "I mean, all Chinese food is good even if it's bad, but this is really fucking good."
Lakshmi was too busy stuffing her face to agree.
"Cheers to our first night in our new apartment," Avery said, holding up her bottle of Mountain Dew to clink against Lakshmi's cream soda.
"I still can't believe the liquor store here's closed on Sundays."
"I'm half Catholic! It's fine!"
They finished their meal, and 5760 followed her to the door.
"It started snowing today," 5760 said. "Gonzalez told me. I miss snow."
"That was…"Avery's voice trailed off as she pressed a kiss onto the nape of Lakshmi's neck. Lakshmi could feel Avery's eyelashes against her skin, had to keep herself from squirming as Avery traced feather-light circles on her stomach. "That was… really good. Like, amazing."
Lakshmi laughed, still out of breath. "Thank you? I guess?"
Avery kissed her again. "No guessing about it." She got up from the bed, clutching the blanket to her for warmth and coverage, and peeked out the window. "Lakshmi, look! It's snowing!" The orange glow of the streetlights illuminated each individual flake.
"It's really coming down out there," Lakshmi said. Avery pulled the blanket around Lakshmi, and began nuzzling the place where her shoulder met her neck.
"Why is it," she said against Lakshmi's skin, "that all our relationship milestones happen when it snows?"
"You're right! We met when we got snowed in at the lab, and the restaurant where we had our first date closed early because of snow, and now…" Lakshmi kissed Avery long and slow. When they broke apart, Avery was grinning.
"Guess it's our lucky charm."
Lakshmi didn't say good night, nor did she look back as the door locks shut.
She found Gonzalez in his office, preparing to leave for the evening.
"I know," was all she said, looking him in the eye and refusing to break contact.
"Shit," Gonzalez said, and took his coat back off. "Knew this was coming. You better sit down, Agarwal."
"You have exactly three options here. First option: you opt out due to personal connection to the skip and we find someone else to take over. I won't blame you if you want to do this. But - "
"No." She remembered her encounter with the thing that lived in 5760's head too clearly to allow even the slightest chance of it happening again.
"That's what I thought you'd say, thank god. Wouldn't exactly have been pleasant for the rest of us. But. Here's your other choices. We either dose you with amnestics and keep going, or you can keep the cat in the bag, so to speak. If the administration knew we were having this conversation, I'd have to dose you and get it over with, and tell the skip not to do it again. But I think you've got a right to know what's going on here."
Gonzalez sat back and grinned. "But if you could make it quick, that'd be great. I ain't got all night here."
Lakshmi surprised herself when she told him she was perfectly capable of staying quiet, thank you very much.
"All right then, Agarwal - we've got a deal."
Part 4: I Keep The Wolf From The Door
Part 5: I Slip, I'm Still An Animal
End Part 3