13-9

It served as a helpful reminder that, despite their seemingly-aligned goals, the girl couldn’t be trusted. Remy either, but they hadn’t been particularly inclined to trust him in the first place.

“I see,” Orae said. It seemed safest. “I know the rest, of course. Admittedly, I am somewhat curious as to how you found the Hafton cache-” she reacted almost imperceptibly – related to the lie, then, “-but I suppose that isn’t really so important, as much as where it led you next.”

As one, they both glanced at Remy. 

“What?” he asked. “Is there something on my face?”

Zarah’s eyes twitched. “We’ve both shared our side of things,” Orae cut in smoothly. “It seems only fair that you do the same.”

“Oh, sure, okay. You’re sure there’s nothing on my face, though?”

Positive.

“Hm.” Remy shrugged, then passed a hand over his mouth anyway. “Okay so the thing is, I’m like, not supposed to talk about some of this stuff? So you’ll have to tell me if I say something I’m not supposed to.”

“We…” Zarah said slowly, “tell you when you say something we aren’t supposed to know.”

“Yeah, exactly!”

“…but if we know what it is, then we already… know what it is.”

“…oh.” Remy’s face fell. “Oh, shoot-darn. Um, okay. Just uh… hm.” He seemed genuinely discombobulated. “Man, I really don’t want to have to kill you guys!”

Orae started to make a comment about his confidence, remembered the man flying off into the stratosphere, and reconsidered. 

“If you say anything,” Zarah said, completely po-faced, “we promise not to tell.”

“Oh, perfect! Thanks so much.”

Orae wasn’t sure if it was less scary, knowing the boy was this naive, or even more so. No, scratch that – it was definitely much more scary.

“So,” Remy started, “basically the folks back at home got kinda PO-ed at me, again, but this time even more so than normal cause I ‘destroyed a sacred vineyard’ or whatever, except this time instead of just, y’know, throwing me in The Pit like normal, they’re like ‘ooh Remembrance we have a special mission for you!’. They always call me Remembrance, it’s like- weird, but nice? You know?” 

Orae already had so many questions.

“Next thing I know, I’m on a float out of Jenae with an itinerary and the name Yanis Metzin. Apparently, she’s like- got something? Or knows something? Or- something? And she’s not supposed to, so I’m supposed to find her and, you know. Make her un-know it.”

“You can do that?” Zarah asked.

“Oh, no, I was just- I’m supposed to kill her. I just… I thought that was like a funny way of phrasing it.”

Considering his level of eloquence up to this point, Orae actually thought it was a fairly decent effort. “They just… set you loose?” The question of who ‘they’ was could be addressed later. 

“Well, kinda? Like…” he scratched the back of his head awkwardly. “I mean, uh, don’t mention this if anyone like official asks, but they don’t really… like me?”

Zarah coughed.

“Official like who?” Orae asked.

Remy shrugged. “You know. Official. The Chival or whatever. Uh, anyone from Kallus too. And Sessate? I mean, do they even have Sessate here? Really, just like, anyone who’s… anyone, I guess.”

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13-8

Hopefully, the phrasing would lead them to consider it a pseudonym – which it was, in a sense. Just not in the sense that mattered.

“Hi, Callmeorae!” Remy said cheerfully, provoking an eyeroll from Zarah. “What? What’d I say?”

“Just- Just Orae. And,” they added quickly, seeing Remy’s mouth open, “if you call me ‘Just Orae’, I won’t be held responsible for my actions.”

“Okay, ‘Orae’.” The light touch Zarah put on the name told them their ruse had at been at least somewhat successful. “First things happening first; I presume you were following me, and not Remy?”

Orae inclined their head, seeing no reason to deny it. “Just so.”

Zarah matched their gesture with one of her own, to precisely the same angle. It didn’t seem conscious, but Orae found themself unnerved all the same. “And you are not attacking me now, or at any point since. Why?”

Orae sighed. “As I said, I regret my actions. I was… overcome, you might say.”

Zarah said nothing, but Remy let out a little snort. “So I guess you could say you… saw red?” 

Orae and Zarah both stared at him, and he withered under their combined glares. 

“The hammer, then.” Zarah’s voice was quiet, and Orae nodded in confirmation.

“I think it’s safe to say you had no hand in its creation, no? Or in any of the… actions it was utilised in?”

“No. It was… I found it, abandoned.” 

As Zarah went on to describe the scene she’d witnessed at the paper station, Orae found their thoughts growing cold, becoming still and icy and disconnected. Your fault, Oraena. Your failure. Your cowardice. The visualisation of her story twisted and distorted, changing into scenes from their past, phantom voices rising in their ears to drown out Zarah’s, the-

“Uh, Orae?” Remy’s voice cut through the visions, snapping them back to the present. “You, uh. You good, bud?”

“Why would I not be,” Orae snapped.

As one, he and Zarah glanced down at the edge of the table, where their hand was clenching hard enough to distort the metal. 

“Ah.” They forced themself to relax, pulling the hand away. “My apologies. Please, continue.”

“Or maybe don’t?” Remy said. “I mean, if you’re gonna start wrecking shit again…”

“I won’t,” they said flatly.

“Done anyway,” Zarah cut in. “You, I am guessing, have similar experiences.”

“Experience, singular,” Orae forced themself to say. “More than enough.”

“Eh,” Remy said casually, leaning back in his chair. “I’ve seen worse.”

The corner of Zarah’s mouth flickered downwards. “Bravado.”

“No, I’m being serious. You ever seen someone get beaten to death with their own skull?”

The question hung in the air for a moment.

“That seems…” Orae said, “logistically improbable.”

“Ha, yeah. That’s what he was yelling.”

Zarah and Orae exchanged a silent glance, and mutually agreed to pretend they’d heard nothing. 

“So,” Orae said. “I admit to being curious as to how you got from… there, to the Aruspex building.”

Zarah stiffened, and they immediately knew they’d hit on something. “…some documents,” the girl said, eyes flicking off to the side momentarily. “At the power plant, bore her name.”

Lie. A plausible lie, but a lie all the same.

13-7

Don’t panic. Don’t. This is still salvageable. Luce had risen to her feet at their side, growling a growl inaudible to all but Orae, but a quick, small gesture had her backing off. Orae met Zarah’s eyes (green like moss), and let their natural shock seep through onto their face.

“I’m sorry,” they said, letting their natural accent seep back in. “Do I know you?”

Zarah tilted her head at them, then glanced off to the side. “Aruspex,” she said curtly. “The hound, thirty-eighth floor. Need I continue?”

“Zarah?” Orae glanced back over to see Remy standing, approaching them with a befuddled expression. “What’s happening?”

“This,” Zarah said coolly, “is another like you. Looking for the Metzin woman.”

Orae considered denying it, but that particular ruse didn’t seem to have much left in it. “‘Like him’ seems to be a stretch,” they replied instead, returning to their usual accent and voice. “From what I’ve gathered, at any rate.”

Zarah’s face remained still, but there was a flicker of amusement in her eyes. “Perhaps, perhaps not.”

“Oh, you’re looking for Metzin too?” Remy jumped in with what Orae had by now identified as a characteristic lack of tact or grace. “Great, me too! I’m Remy, Remy Auclair!”

“I’m aware,” Orae replied mildly, ignoring the proffered hand. To Zarah, “Would you care to sit? Not causing a scene would be ideal.”

“Are you going to setting your hound on me again?”

“Like I said, not causing a scene would be ideal.”

Zarah seemed to accept that, and released her grip on Orae’s shoulder before taking the seat opposite them. Unprompted, Remy dragged a chair over from another table and sat backwards on it, arms crossed over the back.

“I should apologise for that,” Orae started. “Attacking you, I mean.” The jig was up, so they began the process of dismantling their disguise – corralling their hair back into its buns, switching glasses behind a raised hand, buttoning their shirt back up. “It was an embarrassing loss of control on my part.”

“They attacked you?” Remy asked curiously, then glanced over at Orae. “Uh, I mean- they? He?”

Huh. The Jena boy continued to surprise. “They, thank you.”

“Dope. He for me, please and thank you! Oh, uh, Zarah, sorry, I think I forgot to ask and have maybe been kind of using she? Is that cool, or…” She nodded confirmation. “Awesome. So, uh. They attacked you?”

Zarah’s expression was inscrutable. “Water under the boat,” she said to Orae. “You hit me, I hit you, we both heal. The slate is clean, as far as I see.”

Orae inclined their head in acknowledgement. “Admirably clear-sighted of you.”

“You talk like a news anchor,” Remy noted idly, and Zarah let out a noise that Orae could only assume was the closest she came to laughing, a harsh, coughing bark, gone as quickly as it came. 

“You talk like a child,” Orae replied coldly.

Remy giggled, seemingly entirely unoffended.

“I um aware,” Zarah said, and it took Orae a second to realise she was quoting their early words. Not ‘I um’, but an attempt at ‘I’m’. “How so?”

“Good ears.” They allowed the corner of their mouth to quirk upwards. “In my defense, neither of you were being particularly quiet.”

“Hm. You know mine as well, then?”

“Ah, yes, I suppose I do have you at something of a disadvantage.” Orae hesitated, then took a calculated risk. “You can call me Orae.”

 

13-6

“How about you?” Remy asked. “You’re from around here, right? I mean, I know you have the hair and all but I don’t want to assume and all.”

“…I am here from, yes.” Zarah’s eyes darted to the side for a second, irritation flickering across her face before the neutral mask reasserted itself. “…from here.”

Remy made a face, tongue sticking out. Orae had to admit, he was cute. “Brecht, right? Awful language.”

Zarah perked up, looking engaged for the first time Orae had seen. “The worst language. None of the rules are… are rules, they are just ‘sometimes you are doing this, sometimes you are doing that’ and there is no reasons, you just learn every one or nothing!”

“And the sounds?! What even is ‘th’? What is that?”

Zarah scoffed. “Forgetting ‘th’. The real one is the stupid ‘buh’ or ‘puh’ or whatever.” She pronounced the two sounds exactly the same, and frowned. “‘Buh’ and ‘puh’. This is what I am saying!”

Remy laughed. “Hey, try saying ‘Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers’.”

“Oh, sure.” Zarah cleared her throat. “Fuck you.”

Note to self, Orae thought as the two of them laughed. Language jokes an easy way to get on her good side.

“Anyway, where were we?”

“Jenae, I think.”

Jenae?! 

“Yeah!” Remy bobbed his head. “It’s really nice there, all like, grassy and shit? You’d probably like it! I mean, I don’t really know what you like but you seem cool, and it’s a cool place, so yeah!”

“…thank you. I think.”

“You’re welcome!”

Gods, this is too fucking twee. This Remy really was something else – it was like someone had aged up a prepubescent child and handed them enough power to ensure they’d never have to grow. Honestly, they mused, if the rumours about Jenae had any truth to them, that might be exactly what had happened. 

The arrival of their food, and Orae’s shortly after, put the conversation on hold, and for a few minutes, neither of them spoke as they focused on their food. Remy ate with the messy enthusiasm of a child, but Zarah’s speed was more focused, efficient, containing an almost single-minded intensity as she consumed a platter meant for sharing. Given what Orae had gleaned of her living situation, it was utterly unsurprising, but interesting to watch all the same.

Interesting, and… not sad, exactly, but something of the same genus. 

They picked at their food as they thought and waited, mentally collating and categorising. While not quite ‘orgasmic’, the falafels were excellent, and Orae resolved to return on their own time, if at all possible. The garlic sauce in particular was a revelation – Tem would have hated it, and then Orae caught themself just in time before following that particular spiral down. 

After a few more minutes, Zarah finished her food, and excused herself to the bathroom, moving quietly and quickly. Orae busied themself with their notes, better to appear innocuous, but all that achieved was making the surprise even greater when a hand landed on their shoulder, holding them in place with a grip like iron.

Orae twisted around as much as they were able, and found Zarah staring down at them, expression cold and unreadable.

“You.”

13-5

The different shape served to alter the lines of their face, and the faint red tint ensured that the colour of their acid-green eyes was dulled to something more average – they were easily Orae’s most distinctive feature, and it wouldn’t do to throw them away on a hasty disguise.

Pretending to peruse their menu, Orae focused in on the pair, tuning out the ambient noise. It wasn’t any kind of extraordinary ability, just something that they’d learned to do from a young age, and it had proven its worth many times over.

“…and it was weird,” Freckles was saying, “they didn’t like the robot dance, I guess? Or maybe they were just jealous. I know I would be, if I saw someone else busting out sweet dance moves that I didn’t know. But, you know, I think I’d just go up to them all cool-like and ask them to teach me, instead of shooting them.”

The girl’s head snapped up, as Orae controlled their own impulse to do the same. “…they shot you?”

“Well, shot at me, really. Does it count as shooting someone if it doesn’t hurt them?”

“…yes.”

“Then, yeah, they shot me! Really rude.”

“…rude. Of course.”

Freckles beamed at her as the lined shuffled up again. “See, this is why I like you, Zarah! You get it.”

Zarah, huh? Interesting. It certainly wasn’t what Orae had been expecting; then again, there was no reason to assume it was real. Either way, it was better than ‘the girl’.

“…you just tried to kill me,” Zarah noted dryly. 

Freckles waved a hand. “It was an accident! I just, you know. Wanted to give you a little shove out of the way.”

“Your ‘‘little shove’, Remy, was buried me in solid concrete.”

And Remy as well. Perhaps Orae’s worries about tradescraft were unfounded – neither of them were exercising any right now, that much was sure. 

Their conversation was interrupted as they reached the front of the line, and went to order. Like seemingly everything else about him, Remy’s was nearly-incoherent and full of energy, while Zarah merely pointed to an item on the menu and specified no tomatoes. A crumpled wad of bills emerged from a pocket of Remy’s long grey coat to pay, and he flounced off to find a table without even waiting for the cashier to pick them up. Zarah waited, taking the change without a word and pocketing it. 

Interesting, Orae thought again. 

They were more familiar with kebab shops, but the menu was simple and the falafel smelt good, so Orae ordered and paid with a minimum of fuss, and within a minute was seated one table over from Zarah and Remy. 

“…that is,” Zarah was saying, as Orae listened back in. “East?”

“Ehh,” Remy said, “east-north-east-ish. Maybe. Ooh, do you know the Cetaren Forests? It’s sort of around there.”

Orae frowned, idly scrolling through their phone. The Ridgewoods were on the other side of the continent – if Remy was talking about where he was from, that was quite a ways to travel. It hadn’t exactly been a short jaunt from Brecht to Ostra, mind, but Orae hadn’t had to contend with the Cascades in their itinerary. Every new detail they learned about this situation made it seem stranger and stranger. 

 

13-4

The two of them made a strange sight – if one were able to see Luce in the first place, of course. Luce was already a large dog, easily over two feet tall at the shoulder, and Orae’s diminutive stature made her appear even more so by comparison. In fact, they almost looked of a size to ride Luce, like the world’s only canine jouster – their waist was level with their dog’s ridged back, if not slightly lower. 

Of course, Luce being immaterial would provide additional complications. 

Freckles took the girl (and by extension, Luce and Orae) on a rambling, wandering trail through the city centre, doubling back on himself and getting lost multiple times. At first it frustrated Orae, as it obviously did the girl, but they began to wonder if it was intentional tradecraft – without Luce, they would have lost track of the pair multiple times even with their elevated position. Either way, they eventually stopped at a small hole in the wall, signless and hidden away in a back alley.

After a gesticulated back-and-forth, the two of them entered, and from their position at the top of one of the fire escapes, Orae frowned. Once again, foiled by humanity’s interminable insistence on enclosed buildings. They could just wait outside again, but whoever Freckles was, he seemed to be well-informed – well-informed and powerful. Unlike the morgue, this was worth the risk.

They hoped. 

It turned out to be a falafel shop, of all things. Just inside the entrance (which wasn’t so much a doorway as a literal hole in the brickwork), a foldout sign declared that you had just entered-

Orae did a double-take. No, they hadn’t been mistaken – the sign said, in an atrocious font, ‘Orgasmic Falafel’. 

“Well,” they muttered after a second, “I guess we know why there’s no sign, huh?”

Orgasmic Falafel was a no-frills eatery – the furniture was plastic, the menus were laminated, and the man behind the counter looked as if his name was a monosyllable and he’d never made a meal with more than five ingredients in his life.

Orae immediately felt at home.

Despite, or perhaps because of, the decor and general aesthetic, the place was bustling – more than half of the tables were full, and the lively buzz of conversation filled the air. Orae glanced around, trying and failing to find the white-haired girl at any of the tables and starting to worry they’d made a mistake, until the line shuffling forward brought caught their attention, and they realised that the pair were waiting to order. Freckles muttered animatedly, talking with his hands as much as his words, while the girl perused a laminated menu, seemingly oblivious.

As casually as they could, Orae joined the line behind them, snagging a menu of their own. To avoid any possibility of recognition on the girl’s part, they’d done their best to improvise a casual appearance – hair let out of its buns to bounce in a rough sphere with their movements, shirt unbuttoned over a plain undershirt and rolled up to the sleeves. Tying the suit jacket around their waist did a passable job of concealing its formal nature, and as a final touch, they’d replaced their usual tinted glasses with a small, squarer pair. 

 

13-3

The sun had fully set now, and Orae was considering whether or not to reposition, when a noise at the edge of hearing caught their attention. Something about the background noise had changed, something about the swell and ebb of the car engines and brakes and horns. Luce had noticed it too, her ears perking up and swivelling around as she lifted her head, turning to look down the street in the direction of the city centre. Orae followed her gaze as they stood, and within moments, the source of the disruption became clear. The cab of an eighteen-wheeler truck came skidding around a corner with a squeal of rubber and a chorus of horns, swiping a small sedan as it did. 

Luce growled, shooting to her feet, but she instantly subsided as Orae gestured for her to wait. “Not yet, girl.” They watched the cab as it sped down the street, staring intently at the interior. They didn’t recognise the man behind the wheel, but if Luce’s reaction hadn’t already, the self-satisfied grin on his face made it clear to Orae what they were dealing with.

And yet, they did nothing but wait, as the cab picked up speed, veered off the road, and smashed straight through the side of the morgue. 

They waited, as the dust settled. Waited as the noise of gunshots rang out from inside, as the muffled noises of conversation transitioned into those of violence. Waited, as sirens began to wail in the distance, waited as they drew closer, as the street below them cleared of cars and people. 

Waited, as a shockingly loud impact sounded out, the noise of something slamming into concrete at high speeds.

Whatever they had been waiting for, though, the man shooting straight up out of the building like he’d been fired from a cannon apparently wasn’t it. Orae staggered back, mouth agape, as they tracked his form until it disappeared into the sky.

“What.”

Orae probably would’ve remained like that, had Luce’s bark not startled them back to the present. “Thanks, girl,” they muttered, following her gaze to the large hole in the building. The girl was emerging from it, accompanied by a boy Orae didn’t recognise, but immediately mentally categorised as ‘Freckles’. The two of them weren’t fighting, but they clearly weren’t on good terms either – the girl’s stare was practically burning holes in Freckles’s back. He, on the other hand, seemed utterly unconcerned, talking incessantly and making wild gesticulations, and Orae felt a brief pang of sympathy for the girl. 

Only a brief one, though.

The arrival of the first emergency services vehicles seemed as good a cue as any. Orae gestured for Luce to follow as they turned away from the roof’s edge, moving parallel to the street, keeping pace slightly behind the girl. When they reached the end of one building, they leapt across to the next, as casually as if it were a crack in the sidewalk. Left behind, Luce’s form began to flicker and distort, then disappeared entirely as Orae landed, reappearing at their side. The hound seemed utterly unconcerned, trotting happily along her master, tongue lolling out one side of her mouth.