“…aren’t you getting?! A sandwich is filling between two slices of bread! Here’s the filling, here’s the bread! Explain to me how this is not a sandwich!”
“If you top pasta with more pasta, you just have pasta! It doesn’t matter how cooked it- oh shoot, I think we woke her.”
“<No kidding, you cacophonous baboon>,” Zarah growled. She cracked her eyes open, then immediately flinched away from the light, flopping one arm limply over her face to block it out.
“Good morning to you too!” Remy chirped from above her.
“Trust me,” Kihri said, “that’s definitely not what she said.”
“Shut up,” Zarah grumbled.
“Not you.” She pointed at where Kihri’s voice was coming from. “Her.”
“There’s… no-one there, Zarah. Oh, unless- your sister, right?”
She grumbled something vaguely affirmative.
“Cool! Hi, Zarah’s sister! Sorry we can’t see you! Also sorry for when I was naked a bit earlier!”
“It’s fine,” Kihri said, amused. “You have a cute butt.”
“Not repeating that,” Zarah said, dragging herself up into a sitting position. “There was other voice…”
“Over here,” Orae said flatly. “Took you long enough. I had to sleep on the floor.”
“I offered to share!” Remy protested.
“Yes, you did, after explaining that you sleep in the nude, get night terrors, and are a ‘fear-cuddler’, which I have since researched and can conclusively say is not a real thing.” They let out an irritated huff. “Besides, it’s a single.”
“It would’ve been fine. You’re tiny!”
“Call me that one more time and I’ll rip out your spine and strangle you with it.”
“They’ve been like this the entire time,” Kihri said dreamily. “I haven’t been so entertained since that time with all the bed-bugs.”
Cautiously, Zarah opened her eyes, keeping her arm in place while they adjusted to the light. They were all in what looked like a small hotel room; a fairly nice one, actually, with plush sheets and a view out over the city. Judging by the light outside, it was late morning – after the storm the previous night, the sky was crisp and clear, with a breeze strong enough to rattle the sliding door out onto the balcony.
Zarah was sitting on the single bed closer to the window, with Remy standing in front of her and Orae curled up in an armchair in the corner. Thankfully, Remy was no longer nude, wearing the same outfit as the previous night but without the coat. Orae, on the other hand, was wearing nothing but a plain t-shirt so oversized that they were practically swimming in it, bare legs tucked up underneath them and half-hidden in the fabric. They had their dark glasses, staring down at where they were scraping a knife along some kind of metal rod, but their hair was down from its usual buns, falling freely across their shoulders. Luce lay on the floor in front of them, head resting between her paws on the carpet and panting happily.
“…where are we?” Zarah asked, rubbing at her throat.
“Orae’s hotel room!” Remy dropped back onto the other bed with a grin. “Sweet, right?”
Between this and the suits, it was pretty clear that Orae had a taste for the finer things in life. Zarah didn’t have it in her to begrudge them that at the current moment, but she felt confident she’d get round to it eventually.
“We had to haul your unconscious arse the entire way back here,” Orae groused, still staring down at their knife. “A little bit of gratitude seems the least you can do.”
“Orae,” Zarah said. They looked up. “Thank you. Truly.”
They stared at her for a moment, then dropped their head, muttering something that sounded like ‘no big deal’.
“Just so you know,” Remy said in an exaggerated stage whisper, “I actually did all the work, and it was super easy, so don’t even sweat it.”
Without missing a beat, Orae’s hand whipped out, flinging the knife across the room in an instant. It bounced harmlessly off Remy’s forehead, and fell onto the bed beside him.
"That was pretty good!” Remy said, picking up the knife. “You’re still adding that little flick on at the end, though.” Orae groaned, slumping in their chair. “Which is totally fine if you’re confident in a spin throw! But if you’re throwing straight, you want a clean extension through the arm, like this!”
He flicked his arm out to the side, burying the knife up to the hilt in the hotel wall.
“…oh,” he said, embarrassed. “Uh, whoops? I’ll pay for that.”
Orae pinched the bridge of their nose beneath their glasses. “With. What. Money.”
“…I’ll pay you back for that?”
“…honestly, at this point, I’ll take it.”
“You see what I mean, right?” Kihri said from beside Zarah. “Like their own little vaudeville routine.”
“<…you’d never guess they’d only met a day ago>,” Zarah admitted under her breath.
While the others argued, she stretched her arms above her head, feeling the tension in her sides and back. There weren’t any obvious injuries, at least, but she was sore all over. Stretching relieved some of the tension, and she let out a quiet, relieved sigh.
She was pulling her sweatshirt back down from where it had ridden up when she realised that the room had gone silent, and looked up to find Orae staring at her.
“What?” she asked cautiously. Remy was looking at Orae with a strange expression on his face, corners of his mouth twitching upwards.
“Nothing,” Orae growled, standing and walking over to retrieve their knife . “Your clothes look terrible.”
Zarah couldn’t argue with that. One of them had obviously removed her tattered raincoat, which lay draped over the back of a chair, but otherwise she was still wearing the same ruined clothes as the previous night. The sweatshirt was missing most of one arm, as well as a hole in the torso, and both it and her pants were covered in tiny tears and rips, presumably from shrapnel. When she peaked under her shirt, her bra seemed mostly intact, but judging by the way it was moving around, the back strap was probably torn through. Her shoes, at least, were in fairly good condition – relatively mud-free, even.
“Orae, Remy.” Orae was standing in the corner for some reason, head resting against the wall. “…thank you. Both of you.”
“Oh my lord,” Kihri gasped, putting one hand to her chest. “Do I see Zarah Vyas, displaying a moment of genuine emotional connection? It couldn’t be.”
“<Zip it>,” Zarah snapped at her. “<If this is how you’re going to react when I make an effort, why should I even bother?>”
Kihri floated back, hands raised in surrender.
“Don’t suppose it’s worth the bother of asking what that was about,” Orae said dryly.
“Kihri,” Zarah said in explanation. “She is…” She glanced over at her sister, trying to remember the word. “…knife-mouth.”
“Ehh, knife, cut? Mouth,” and she poked her own tongue out and pointed to it, “this part.”
“Sharp-tongued, maybe?” Remy suggested.
“Yes, that one. She says… sharp-tongued things. Constantly.”
“Honestly,” the girl in question admitted, “can’t really argue with that.”
“She sounds… interesting,” Orae said. “Your point?”
“Just… that. Just thank you. You… if you had not helped, it would be…”
“Inhumane, yes,” they interrupted. “Bare minimum, whoopie.”
She shook her head. “I was saying… understandable, I think. So, thank you.”
“Welcome!” Remy beamed.
Orae rubbed the back of their neck, looking away. “…I think we can safely declare you free of suspicion, at least.”
“Hey, yeah!” Remy turned a curious look to her. “Why did you not want to team up the first time? Orae thought you were secretly working with her, but I figured that was kinda… stupid?”
“It was a reasonable assumption-”
“Complicated,” Zarah cut in. “It is… complicated.” She looked down at her clothes again, and wrinkled her nose at the smell. “Maybe… I shower first, though.”
“Probably for the best,” Orae agreed, waving a hand in front of their face. Remy quickly slapped it down, fixing them with what was probably as close to a glare as he ever came. “Second door on the left, should be a spare towel on the rack over the bath. Use the bar soap, not the tube, and if you touch any of my products I’ll rip your throat out.”
“Sure,” Zarah agreed, not even fazed by the threats at this point. “…maybe also some clothes?”
Freshly bathed and in clean garments, Zarah took a seat at the small kitchen counter next to Remy. Orae stood at the counter, flipping something in a pan, and Kihri hovered over their shoulder, peaking at whatever they were cooking.
“Everything fit okay?” Remy asked as she sat. “Sorry about the colours.”
Remy was both taller and… chestier than her, so the shirt he’d happily lent her was long in the arms and baggy everywhere else. Not that Zarah had a problem with that – it ended up being fairly close to the way she normally dressed, apart from being bright orange. The cargo shorts, thankfully, were closer to her size, and her belt was still in one piece to hold them up.
Still, she’d feel more comfortable once she was back in her own clothes (and not visible from orbit). Something about that thought tickled at another, but when she tried to grasp the connection it slipped away. A night’s rest, of a kind, had taken the edge off her exhaustion, but it still lingered, clouding her brain.
Whatever Orae was cooking didn’t help either, the smell setting her stomach growling. She hadn’t eaten since…
“<Kihri, when was the last time I ate?>”
Her sister shot her an irritated glare from where she hovered over Orae’s shoulder. “Fuck if I know. I’m not your keeper.”
She ignored the glances Orae and Remy were giving her. “<Kihri. I know you know.>”
“Of course I know, I’m a genius, but that’s not the point. I’m not your personal assistant, and I’m not keeping track of shit like that for you, so don’t expect me to.”
“<Yesterday morning? The night before?>”
“…you had a protein bar at around 11 a.m. yesterday. Asshole.”
“So,” Orae said as they removed the pan from the stove, portioning something out onto plates, “this is just normal for you? Talking to thin air?”
“<Well, normally I try don’t let stuck-up little know-it-alls hear, so no.>”
“Wrong language again,” Remy hinted under his breath.
“Sorry,” Zarah said, pretending it had been fully intentional. “Kihri is annoying when not talking, so, yes, pretty much.”
“Wonderful,” Orae said snidely, setting down three plates and sets of cutlery on the counter. “I can imagine that asking you to stop would be a futile effort, then?”
Zarah wanted to glare at them, but her gaze kept slipping down to the food. It was some kind of fried bread, from appearances, with a thick, dark red sauce containing what looked like beans, and it was the greatest thing Zarah had ever smelled.
“No,” she managed to confirm over the sound of her stomach growling. “I will not stop talking to my sister, so no.”
“Hm.” They passed out the plates and cutlery, and it was a physical effort to not immediately dig in.
“You believe me not,” she accused.
“Last time I checked, ghosts aren’t real, so no, not particularly.”
Wordlessly, Zarah and Remy dropped their gaze to where Luce sat at Orae’s feet.
“That’s different,” they replied hotly, “and you know it. Are we eating, or are we quibbling over semantics?”
“Are we eating?” Remy asked. “And if so, what are we eating?”
Orae gave him a flat look. “It’s beans and toast. You don’t know beans and toast?”
“I don’t think anyone knows beans and toast,” Remy said dubiously, poking at it with his knife. “Humans eat this? Like, people?”
“How would you know, Mr. ‘Do Humans Need To Breathe’?!”
“I already said I used the wrong word there, so I don’t understand why you-”
He looked down just in time to see Zarah swap out his plate for her already-empty one.
“What?” she asked, already cutting into his portion. “What is the expression, ‘snooze and lose’? You snooze, you lost.”
“You could have at least asked first.”
“Oh?” Orae asked. “Now you want to eat it? You must have been insufferable as a toddler.”
“Oh yeah, for sure. I got sent to the hole like, every other day.”
The conversation screeched to a halt so suddenly it was almost audible.
Zarah had frozen with a forkful of food halfway to her mouth, and it slowly slipped free and dropped back to the plate with a splat.
“Sorry,” Orae said, voice strangled, “I think I must have misheard you. See, it sounded like you said you got… ‘sent to the hole’, but surely that wasn’t actually what you said.”
“Nope!” Remy confirmed cheerily. “That’s what I said! No hearing problems to worry about there.”
“The hole,” Zarah said flatly.
“Yep, that’s it.”
“As in… a hole.”
“As in a hole… in a wall, or…”
“Well, it was in the ground, not a wall, but otherwise yep! We’re talking about the same thing, I’m pretty sure!”
“And,” Orae take over, “when you say ‘toddler’… two to three years old?”
“And you were… put in a hole in the ground when you misbehaved.”
“I mean, that makes it sound like it was just some random hole or something. Seriously, is there something I’m missing here? Which part is giving you trouble?”
Zarah and Orae looked at each other, and mutually, silently agreed to drop the topic like a live grenade and never ever pick it up again.
“Doesn’t matter,” Orae said quickly, taking a bite of their food. “I was jrrst mrgrhnn mrrd mrghrg mrmr.”
“Oh, sure, makes sense,” Remy agreed easily. “Hey, can I make some toast or something? Cause…” He glanced at Zarah, who was currently polishing off the last of his food and cleaning the plate thoroughly with a finger. “Cause that.”
“Do you even need to eat?” Orae asked.
“Look, ‘need’ is-”
“-a very complicated word,” Orae finished for him. “Right. Sure. Bloody… knock yourself out, then.”
While he rummaged through the cupboards, Orae collected the three empty plates. Zarah hadn’t even seen them pick up their cutlery, let alone take a bit or chew, but their plate was almost as clean as hers was. Well, were.
“I take that to mean that you liked it?” they asked dryly.
Zarah had to stop and think about it - taste and enjoyment weren’t really the qualities on which she rated food, so much as caloric load, shelf-life and portability. The food, as far as she could recall, had tasted fine, heavy and dense and warm, so… “Yes,” she decided. “Good. Thank you.”
They nodded, satisfied. “I’ll keep that in mind for the future, then.”
“For… the future?”
They turned back from the sink. “Right. I suppose we had to talk about it at some point?”
“Talk about what?” Remy asked, waiting with one hand over the toaster’s release button as he peered inside.
“The elephant in the room.” Zarah and Remy’s heads whipped around. “Okay, should’ve seen that one coming. The metaphorical elephant,” they quickly clarified. “Not a real elephant.”
“That means something that everyone knows about but doesn’t want to bring up,” Kihri translated.
“Which is?” Zarah asked.
The drama of the moment was undercut slightly by Remy’s toast choosing then to pop out. He fumbled with it for a moment, before managing to catch it in between both palms.
“What about her?” he asked, dropping the now-squished toast onto his plate. “You said she just ran away, right?”
“Yes,” Orae confirmed, “which means she’s still out there, which means we - all three of us - failed.”
“Speaking for yourself,” Zarah said testily. “I did what I wanted.”
“Yes, that was quite evident by the way you were seconds from death when we arrived.”
“...did not know she was going to be there.”
“Yes, it’s almost as if you failed to account for that. The point I’m trying to make is…” they took a deep breath, then clasped their hands. “Any one of us would have died if we’d tried to fight her on our own.”
“Hey,” Remy protested. “Takes more than some construction equipment to kill me.”
“Fine. If you’d fought her alone, she would’ve tossed you around a bit and then gotten away effortlessly, because being an unkillable abomination doesn’t seem to have actually made you any less ponderously slow.”
“Yeah, that’s fair,” he admitted shamelessly.
“The point is,” they continued, “even with all three of us there, we still found ourselves thoroughly trounced. But, instead of finishing her off, she decided to retreat, which says to me that she did think the three of us together posed some threat, even if only because Lucel managed an excellent suckerpunch.”
The dog in question confirmed that with a happy whuff.
“Or,” Zarah countered, “because she is… cold. Not cold, but… when we talked, she was. Not caring? But all over, everything not caring.”
“Sociopathic?” Remy said.
“Pragmatic?” Orae suggested at the same time.
“Yes, both. She was pragmatic, and said she wanted to ‘avoid unnecessary death’. She is… wrong, I think. Broken.”
Orae froze, tension radiating from them. “You talked to her?!”
“Yes.” Zarah shuddered slightly at the memory, Metzin’s uncaring coldness somehow more unsettling in the light of day. “It was. Uncomfortable.”
She recapped the rest of her night to them, leaving out as much detail as was possible and gliding over the fight with Paose almost entirely. When she mentioned what Metzin had said about ‘unnecessarily brutal early methods’, Orae visibly flinched, grinding their teeth, but didn’t interrupt.
She ended up having to explain the cache they’d dug up in Hafton as well, and as she did, a thought occurred to her.
“Remy,” she asked, “could that be the thing she is not supposed to know? Why you are supposed to killing her?”
He thought about it for a moment. “Mmmmmaybe? I really don’t remember, but that sounds pretty gross so I hope not!”
Orae frowned. “You weren’t given… written orders? Instructions? Anything like that? I struggle to imagine that your general lack of information retention is a new factor, so would your superiors not have known to compensate for it?”
“Oh, yeah,” Remy agreed, “they did, but then I lost it cause I fell off a waterfall and it got wet. There was also a backup copy but that… also got wet. In a waterfall. Not the same waterfall, though!”
“You say that as if it makes it better, somehow.”
Zarah jumped in before things could deteriorate (again). “Orae. You know something.”
“You reacted. When I said about ‘early methods’, you reacted.” She pointed at Remy. “Him, orders. Me, murders. Why are you here? What is… ‘your deal’?”
“Hey,” Kihri cheered, “you used an idiom! You go, girl.”
For a second, Zarah thought they were about to snap at her and storm out. Thankfully, they just sighed, all the tension draining out of them, and leant back against the sink.
“I… suppose you could say I was familiar with some of those ‘early methods’. Intimately familiar. My f- some people that I knew were- It-” The words caught in their throat, and they growled in frustration, one hand starting to rise in an aborted eye-wipe. “You want a snappy one-word reason, Zarah?” they said, voice raw and haggard. “I am here for revenge.”
After a few moments of silence, Remy let out a low whistle. “Wow. I just got chills.”
Once again, Zarah’s expectations turned out to be completely off – instead of getting angry or storming out, Orae actually laughed. Hoarse and weak, but definitely a laugh.
“Small blessings,” they said, taking off their glasses to properly wipe away the tears. “Is that sufficient justification?” they asked, meeting Zarah’s gaze.
She looked away – the seaglass green of their eyes was uncomfortable, even more than eye contact usually was. “…sorry for your loss.”
“Mm.” That, Zarah was starting to suspect, was Orae for ‘I don’t have anything else to say, but I still want the last word’. The glasses went back on, and they settled back into their usual prickly persona. “If we’re quite done with the interrogation, I had a point I was working up to.”
“You’re gonna propose we work together, again,” Remy cut in. Orae fixed him with a glare, not affecting him in the slightest. “What? It was pretty obvious.”
“It was a little,” Zarah confirmed.
“Congratulations,” they muttered, “I’m regretting it already. Just- you.” They pointed at Zarah. “I don’t know what particular breed of paranoid martyr complex made you refuse in the first place, but I dearly hope that last night was sufficient illustration as to why that’s not going to work out.”
Zarah was sorely tempted to point out that she’d defeated Paose without either of their help. If she was being honest with herself, though, Metzin would have beaten her even if she’d been fresh. Zarah had only managed to hit her with a cheap shot, and now she didn’t even have the hammer anymore – the hammer that Metzin made in the first place.
So, pushing down the part of her that screamed to cut and run right now before it could all come crumbling down, she raised a hand in weary acquiescence. “Go team.”
Before she could react, Remy darted forward and turned it into a high-five. “Go team!” he yelled.
Zarah flinched away, and he paused, drawing back. “No- no touching me, please.”
Remy nodded, face unusually sombre. “Got it, sorry, sorry.”
“And, based on last night’s display, I’m assuming ‘no firearms’ as well?”
Zarah managed not to react again, but only because she was already keyed up. “…I prefer not, yes. You grab me and make me touch it? Definitely not.”
“…I can see how that would be uncomfortable, yes.”
“Look,” Remy added in an exaggerated stage-whisper, “you already got one apology out of them today. Just roll with it.”
“No apology,” Zarah said. “Just do not do it again.”
“Oh, believe you me, I already had no intention whatsoever of letting you handle any of my guns again, after you got mud in Vivi-”
They froze for a solid five seconds. Then, slowly, almost robotically, they turned to the sink and began washing the dishes in complete silence.
Remy and Kihri both turned to Zarah, their faces bearing uncannily identical expressions of glee.
Zarah did her best to fight it, but nevertheless, a grin slowly crept its way across her face.
“Both of you, shut up,” Orae snapped, still facing the sink.
Remy’s grin only grew wider. “But we didn’t say anything,” he protested, entirely unconvincingly.
“You were about to. I could tell.”
“Ooo-kay, Orae,” Remy trilled in a sing-song-y voice. “Whatever you sayyyyy~.”
“Orae,” Zarah said.
They turned around, face an icy mask. “Yes?”
Zarah bit the inside of her cheek. “…can I say goodbye to Vivienne?”
“This is the greatest day of my life,” Kihri whispered in awe.
A few minutes later, while Orae cleaned up the shattered plate from the kitchen floor, Remy followed Zarah to the door, continuing to chatter. Zarah had mostly tuned him out, using her years of experience doing the same thing to Kihri, but he hadn’t seemed to mind, and in fact had started talking to Kihri instead, with Zarah absent-mindedly relaying her sister’s words.
“…really?!” Remy was saying. “That’s so cool! How does that work with the whole ‘ghost’ thing?”
“Eh,” Kihri replied (through Zarah). “I’ll tell you more about it when I don’t have to talk through my sister. I died before puberty, though, so that helped a lot.”
“Ooh, lucky. Wait, does that mean you look like you did when you died?”
“No, god. That’d be awful, can you even imagine? ‘Hi, I’m Kihri, I know I look like a child but I’m actually a legal adult!’ Utterly horrifying.” Then, having tuned back in to the conversation, Zarah added, “Kihri was very cute kid, though.”
Remy blinked. “Oh, wait, was that Zarah saying that? This is confusing.”
“That one was me, yes.” She opened the door, stepping out into the hotel hallway.
“Wait!” Orae’s voice snapped, and Zarah turned back as they stalked into view. “You… where are you going?”
Zarah shrugged. “Out. I left phone number on pad on couch, you can call me.”
“No, I meant…” they hesitated. “Do you have somewhere to… I know you’re homeless, so… if you’re comfortable sleeping on a couch…” They trailed off, fists clenched at their side. “You can stay with us. If you need to.”
“Awwww!” Remy cooed, clutching his hands in front of him. “That’s so sweet!”
“Shut up!” Orae barked. “I don’t trust her, and I want to keep an eye on her so-”
“Orae’s ni-ice, Orae’s ni-ice!”
It was a sorely tempting offer. She could just walk back inside, and not have to face any of the complicated emotions she knew she had to. “…thank you,” she said eventually. “But… I think I do have somewhere to go.”
When the door opened, Zarah looked up with a hesitant, nervous smile.
“…hi,” she said.
Wordlessly, Mulunesh Bzuayehu stepped back, welcoming her inside.
Zarah Vyas came in from the cold, and shut the door behind her.
Chapter Twenty-Two-Point-Five: Bonus Track (in which loose ends remain so)
Abigail Huan stared at the backpack.
The backpack… ...was a backpack.
Abigail took a sip of her wine. The backpack continued to be a backpack.
“...Zarah’s never coming back for you, is she.”