29-3

“Noooooooo,” Remy cried, tipping forward onto his knees. “Betrayal…”

Thankfully, the dog didn’t try and tackle her again. She hadn’t given up, though; merely changed tactics. Once, twice, three times she butted her head into Zarah’s leg, then moved over slightly to push at the hand testing on the ground with her snout, looking up at Zarah plaintively with large, red-tinted eyes.

Zarah very pointedly avoided her gaze by looking at the ceiling, which worked for all of three seconds until she felt Lucel’s breath on her face as the dog grew closer. Zarah quickly got a hand between them. “Why now?” she demanded, holding Lucel back with a palm pressed against her forehead. Lucel didn’t seem to mind, actually; she pushed back against Zarah’s hand like she enjoyed it. “She never cares before.”

Orae glanced over at them, an unreadable expression on their face.

“…she was a service dog washout,” they said at last. “Not diligent enough, but still good at reading moods. She saw you were distressed; she’s trying to help.” Even that relatively benign detail sounded like it had been forced out of them through a bed of rusty nails. That was… kind of sweet, Zarah supposed. “Okay,” she said to Lucel, “happy now.” She tried for a big toothy smile.

“Don’t bare your teeth,” Orae immediately said. “For almost every other species except humans, it’s a threat gesture.”

Zarah pressed her lips together. “See?” she said without opening her mouth, the words distorted by the way she was trying to keep the corners of her mouth pulled up.”Leave me alone?”

Lucel barked happily in response.

“…is that yes?”

Two barks this time.

“…is that yes?”

Two barks again, but with a noticeable pause between them, long enough that Zarah didn’t know whether they still counted as two or as two separate ones.

She narrowed her eyes. “…<you’re fucking with me, aren’t you>.”

Lucel at least had the decency to look contrite.

Unlike some people.

“Ugh.” Zarah gently pushed the dog’s head away, and used the wall to push herself onto her feet, the concrete scraping at her back through her clothes. Lucel whined plaintively, but Zarah ignored her as she stretched, then walked over to join the others.

“You’re so cruel,” Remy admonished her.

“Not my fault her master not giving attention,” Zarah replied.

“I give her plenty of attention,” Orae sniped back. “I am busy. Like you should be.”

“You are just standing here,” Zarah pointed out.

“I’m thinking.

“How do you know I wasn’t thinking while sitting? If thinking is busy?”

“…shut up.”

Remy threw his arms around both of their shoulders. Seeing as Orae was a full foot shorter than him and Zarah immediately, violently flinched away, it didn’t work out particularly well for him.

“You guys are the best,” he said from the floor.

Over the past two weeks, the four of them (five if you counted the dog (which Zarah didn’t) and Kihri (which Orae didn’t)) had been steadily working their way through the map they’d found in the subway station, eliminating potential and abandoned bases from consideration. They’d found eight before this one; six busts that must have been shut down and cleaned out after Metzin had made the map, and two that had been abandoned mostly as-is.

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