“Nice going, dumbass.”
Rain had begun to fall, a brief patter from thin grey clouds that weren’t enough completely to block out the sun, but cast a pallor over the day. Zarah had her hood up anyway, so she barely noticed it, but the people around her were hurrying and grumbling as they rushed to keep dry.
“Seriously,” Kihri continued, “it’s amazing. Shelter, food, a job? Could be a trap, right? It’s definitely better out here, eating the same fucking garbage soup and playing Caleb Cleveland: Kid Cop! I’m proud of you!”
“<Shut up,>” Zarah snapped at her.
“<Make me,>” she shot back immediately. “What the fuck are you doing, man? That was our fucking ticket out of this shit!”
“Oh, please,” Kihri scoffed. “You’re never getting rid of me, shitster. Also, speak in Brechtin, there’s a dude behind you in a suit giving you racist-eyes.”
Zarah waited a few moments, then used the motion of adjusting her backpack to sneak a glance over her shoulder. Sure enough, a older white man in a nice suit was watching her with disgust in his eyes while he spoke on the phone.
She waited a moment, then pulled out her own phone like she was receiving a call and stepped to the side. “Hello? Yes, that is correct.”
Sure enough, he passed by her a moment later, moving by with nothing worse than a sneer. Zarah breathed a sigh of relief, and Kihri made an obscene gesture at his back. “Thank you for the warning,” she said, still under the guise of speaking on the phone.
“Da nata,” she replied easily – ‘no worries’. “There is a reason I keep pestering you about it, you know.”
“…I know,” Zarah admitted as she began walking again. “It is just… unpleasant.”
Kihri snorted. “Yeah, no shit. What isn’t unpleasant, dude? When life shits on you, you can either complain about it or make fertiliser.”
“…I do not think that is a real saying.”
“Come on, if anyone would know, it’d be me!”
“If anyone would lie, it would be you.”
Kihri chuckled. “I do like lying.”
The rain began to fall harder, and Zarah ducked to the side, continuing forward underneath the line of awnings and overhangs that covered that part of the sidewalk.
“I’m not letting you get away with that, by the way,” Kihri noted.
“Don’t play dumb, dude, it’s a bad look on you even when it’s real. You looked over your shoulder a full five seconds before I pointed him out to you – you knew he was there, you just wanted me to point him out so you’d have an excuse to change the subject.”
“I would never do that.” I would swear she was looking the other way. “In fact, I am offended that you’d even accuse me of such.”
“Oh, is that the angle you’re gonna- nope, nope!” She cut herself, making a cross with her arms. “Not gonna let you deflect, Z! Why in the fuck did you turn her down?!”
“Why are you so eager to trust a stranger?” Zarah shot back. “Oh, that is right, it is because you are not the one who would be in danger!”
“One, how fucking dare you. Two, we don’t know what would happen to me if you died, remember? Three, how fucking dare you?!” Zarah couldn’t help but flinch a little. “Is that really what you think of me?!”
“…I am sorry,” she admitted. “That was out of line.”
“Damn fucking straight.” The apology seemed to have mollified her, though. “Four, it’s not like she was that hard to figure out. I mean, you really can’t see it?”
“Huh, alright then. She’s got a super obvious guilt complex about letting that kid and probably some others die or get abused or whatever, and she sees you as a chance to absolve herself by doing it right. Which, like, isn’t going to work, because guilt is way more insidious than that, but if it gets us shelter and a roof over our heads, I’m certainly not gonna point that out.”
Zarah stopped, blinking in amazement. “How on earth did you…?”
Kihri gave a self-satisfied smirk. “It’s basic psychology, dude. You should really watch more TV.”
“…I doubt that would actually help.”
“Yeah, probably not,” she acknowledged. “Actually, though, I was watching some documentaries the other day and- argh, dammit, stop distracting me and answer the question! But also, remind me to tell you later about neurodiversity, I’ll remember what it means.”
They came to a large enough street to have a crosswalk, and Zarah used the timer to consider her answer. “It is not safe,” she finally said, as they began to cross, “to be there. Not,” she added quickly as Kihri opened her mouth, “because of her. Even if she is genuine.”
“…not sure I follow.”
“Say we stay there. We eat her meals and sleep under her roof and work in her store, and we grow soft. And then something happens. She dies. The store burns down. Her rent goes up. Anything. And then we are out on the streets again, on our own, but now we are out of practise and slow and soft. What do you think happens next, Kihri?”
Her sister was silent for a moment. “Are you,” she said at last, “fucking with me?”
“What?” That had… not been the response she was expecting.
“Zarah,” she said through a chuckle, “every single thing you just listed is just part of life! Bad shit’s going to happen! Are you seriously saying that because things might go wrong, possibly, somehow, in the future, it’s better to do nothing?!”
“You are- intentionally misinterpreting me!”
“Nope, that’s exactly what you just said. Might not have been what you meant, but that’s how language works so suck an egg!”
“You- we would be dependent! We can make preparations, we can be cautious, but we cannot make her do any of those things! And even if we do everything right, everything perfect, I could still die because of her mistakes!”
“Again, I cannot overstate how much that is all of life-”
“Shut up!” Kihri reeled back in shock. “Shut up! Enough with the jokes and barbs and- <How well has relying on anyone else worked for us in the past, Kihri?!>”
“You can’t…” Kihri protested weakly. “That’s not the same at all.”
“<It’s exactly the same, and you know it.>”
“<Alright, fine!>” she snapped back, some of her vigour returning. “<You wanna go there now?! Let’s fucking go, then! Let’s lay it all out on the table. How about with whose idea it was to begin with for us to go out, huh? Who was that again?!>”
“<Don’t you dare!>” Zarah yelled. “<We were nine! Do you know how many nights, how many nightmares, I’ve spent reliving it?! How much->”
She spun around just in time to see a metallic blur spinning towards her face. Panic shot through her, and she raised a desperate arm-
-and caught it, metal crumpling under her fingers. It was a pop can, she realised, still half-full and dribbling brown liquid out the side.
Directly behind her, arm still outstretched, a young white man was staring, face frozen halfway between sneering and gaping.
They stood like that for a moment, frozen in mutual shock. Then, not even sure why, Zarah raised the can to her lips and took a sip.
That broke the spell, and the man spun and hurried away, shoulders hunched.
“So,” Kihri said after a moment. “How about we table the argument for now.”
“Sounds good to me.” She took another sip of the soda. Unsurprisingly, it was still cola.
They walked in silence for a few minutes, the rain clearing up as the sun re-emerged. It was growing busier around them as they approached the city centre, with people emerging for their lunch breaks and smokes, and Zarah took advantage of their discomfort with her to duck through the crowds with relative ease.
“Do you actually have a plan?” Kihri asked, floating above her, facing downwards with her arms behind her head like she was in a pool. “I mean, I know you said all that shit to Bzuayehu, but be honest.”
She’d put away her phone, but pulled it out again now. “I do, yes. And it involves you, which is why I could not tell her about it.”
Kihri raised a spectral eyebrow. “Since when have you cared about telling people about me?”
Zarah used moving the crowd as an excuse to avoid meeting her gaze.
“Oh, I get it. You don’t want her to find out you’re crazy, right?”
“I am not. Crazy.”
“Sure, sure,” Kihri said amiably. “All sane people hallucinate their dead sister, right?”
“Can we please not do this again?” Zarah asked wearily. “I understand you enjoy buying the well, but I am trying to be serious.”
“Ugh, you’re no fun. Fine.” She paused, and Zarah could almost see her trying to restrain herself. “Also, use ‘playing devil’s advocate’ in Brechtin. Also also, that’s not even a good translation, because ‘buying’ doesn’t have the same connotation as ‘veshtr’ of-”
“Kihri, I do not care.”
“You should,” she pouted. “What’s this genius plan of yours, then, that you won’t tell a potential mother figure because it makes you look crazy?”
“I need you to touch the blue stuff.”
There was a beat of silence. “Okay,” Kihri said after a moment, “you have to know that sounded dirty, right?”
“Oh, don’t worry, we’re gonna get there. I just wanted to point it out. I mean, really, pretty much any sentence that starts-”
“Fine,” she huffed. “No, and also, fuck you.”
“What do you mean, no?”
“N-O, nuh-uh, nope, not gonna do it, ain’t fuckin’ happening. Find another plan.”
“Cause I don’t want to. Drop it.”
Zarah stopped walking. “<Kihri, this is important. We might be able to find out where he is, who he is planning to attack next, if->”
“Bzzt! Incorrect! ‘We’ ain’t gonna find out shit! I would!”
“<And?>” Zarah demanded furiously. “<Kihri, someone’s life could be on the line->”
“<My life is on the line!>” she yelled. “<You might be eager to throw yourself away after some stupid fucking ideal, but I am not.>”
“<…what are you talking about?! You’re not in any danger!>”
“<Of course you don’t get it,>” she spat, disgusted. “<Cause that’d require getting your head out of your own ass and trying to understand someone else’s framework, right?>”
“<Say what you actually mean,>” Zarah snapped back, “<instead of trying to bludgeon me with fancy words.>”
“<Oh, you want simple? I can do simple.>” She shot forward, and Zarah instinctively jerked away. “<All I am is my memories, Zarah. That’s true for everyone, but it’s even more true for me, because they’re all I have. And you know what happened when I touched that hammer? I didn’t just magically get knowledge, I got her memories. Like they were my own! Are you seeing the problem yet?>”
All Zarah’s anger drained away in an instant. “<Kihri… I… I didn’t realise…>”
She let out a long, suffering sigh and backed away slightly. “<…to be fair, it’s not like I told you. But, do you understand how scary that was, Z? How scary it is? I remember being her, I remember->” she choked, looking sick.
“<…I can’t tell the difference,>” she said instead. “<I know they’re not my memories because they don’t have any context, but they feel the same, they’re indistinguishable! And that means that the more I… absorb, the harder they’ll be to tell apart, and that’s not even getting into the possibility that they’re overwriting my own memories, because how would I know?! I just wouldn’t remember anymore!>”
“<…do you… do you think that’s happened?>”
She laughed bitterly. “<I don’t fucking know, dude. There’s literally no way to know. So I’m sorry, but there’s no way in the hells that I’m going to kill myself, again, for your little crusade.>”
“<It’s not-!>” she bit down on the knee-jerk response. “<…you’re right. I’m sorry.>”
“<No fucking shit I’m right.>” There wasn’t any bite to it, though, and she mostly just looked exhausted. “Look, I’m sorry too,” she continued, switching languages again now that her composure had recovered. “I know how important this is to you, and I’m sorry I can’t help.”
“It is not ‘important to me’, it is just important,” she countered. It wasn’t a good feeling, having to go from being able to properly articulate herself to stumbling over every sentence, but she wasn’t going to push the issue right now. “Any… <Evil is as much the product of apathy on the part of good than it is malice on the part of the evil>.”
“Quote scripture at me again and I’ll show you malice up close and personal.”
“Sorry.” One of the words stuck in her head, though, and she mulled it over. “…actually, Kihri, I believe you might be able to help after all.”