“This is delicious!” Remy declared, talking around a mouthful of half-chewed food. “What’s it called, again?” Zarah had to lean back to avoid the flecks of rice that flew out with his words.
Mrs. B. chuckled fondly. “It’s called maafe, Remy. Sometimes domodah or tigadegena as well, but if you say maafe it’ll probably communicate the idea fine.”
“Awesome!” He finally swallowed, to the relief of everyone else at the table, and immediately picked up his glass of water and slammed it down. His face was flushed red, and he was sweating profusely. Zarah hadn’t even been sure he could sweat, before now. “I haven’t eaten anything in ages.”
Mrs. B. gave Zarah a quick, concerned look, which she disarmed with a small shake of her head. Complicated, she mouthed.
Mrs. B nodded. “You alright there?” she asked Remy instead, offering up the water jug.
Remy took it eagerly with both hands, then before anyone could stop him, lifted the entire thing to his mouth and started chugging.
It was a two litre jug, still mostly full.
Remy drained the entire thing in under ten seconds.
He lowered the jug with a satisfied sigh, and found all eyes in the room on him.
“What?” he asked, wiping his mouth with the back of his wrist. “It’s spicy!”
Mrs. B. leant over the table and took the water jug back. “I’ll go refill this, then,” she said as she stood from her seat and limped towards the kitchen.
“What is wrong with you?!” Orae hissed as soon as she was out of earshot.
“What?” Remy asked, his face a picture-perfect mask of innocent, child-like bafflement. “What did I do?”
Zarah let her head slump down onto her arm where it rested on the table.
“You know,” Kihri said through a mouthful of spectral popcorn, “this is actually going better than I was expecting.”
If she was being honest, Zarah wasn’t entirely sure how the others had ended up returning to Mrs. B.’s apartment with her.
She’d ended the phone call with every intention of going their separate ways once they’d returned above-ground, and indeed, neither Orae nor Remy had expressed any opinions to the contrary. They’d managed to set the pile of chimera corpses on fire without a hitch-
“No, please,” Orae said. “Go ahead and drink it, maybe it’ll finally shut you up!”
“I’m not saying I’m going to drink it,” Remy clarified, “I’m just wondering what it would taste like if you did!” Despite his words, his hand continued to inch closer to the drip of chimeral bodily fluid.
“If you die, you’re going on the pile as well,” Orae told him.
-without any major hitches.
In the end, the chimerae were flammable but not combustible; they’d been ducking back into the maintenance hatch just as the spark reached the end of their makeshift gunpowder trail and ignited the corpse pile with a disturbingly aromatic smell. It really was just pork when she thought about it, but the addition of the mutated ghostlight was-
Well, suffice to say it hadn’t left her with much of an appetite.
A problem, as it turned out, that neither Remy nor Orae shared.
At first, Zarah had assumed they’d all simply been coincidentally going in the same direction – there had been an ongoing conversation as they’d emerged from the subway entrance back out onto the city streets, and because she wasn’t paying much attention, she had assumed it was just the natural continuation of things until they inevitably had to move in different directions.
By the time she realised that something was up, they were only a few minutes away from the apartment, and when she’d tried to call them out on it, Remy had just seemed genuinely confused. Orae, at least, didn’t pretend they hadn’t known what was happening; their rational was that they were going to have to sit down and work over the map somewhere, and Mrs. B. had offered.
Zarah couldn’t really argue with that (not without spending fifteen minutes struggling to convey the concept of taarof in Brechtin), and then they’d been at the door and there had been introductions and chatter and preparations and before she knew it, they’d all been sitting around the table and eating peanut stew. She still wasn’t happy about it, but the look on Mrs. B.’s face when she’d opened the door to see Zarah had brought company after all had made things… a little more bearable.
Orae, who had been tapping their fork rhythmically against a clean plate, glanced up for just long enough to shake their head, before returning to their absent ruminating. They’d worked through the meal mechanically and methodically, and hadn’t said more than five words the entire evening. Which Zarah could certainly relate to, but it did seem out of character – or it would, if it wasn’t extremely obvious what had caused it in the first place.
Orae’s first impression had been significantly less pleasant, compared to Remy’s. Mrs. B. had been subtly but visibly excited at the sight of them, and after she’d introduced herself to Remy in Brechtin, she’d attempted to speak to Orae in Ashadi.
Who, trembling with furious embarrassment, had been forced to explain that they didn’t speak the language.
She’d apologised for the assumption, of course. But the stilted insincerity of their acceptance had set the tone for the rest of their interactions for the evening.
“Not a fan?” Mrs. B. asked sympathetically. Maybe a little too sympathetically, to Zarah’s ear. She wouldn’t claim to understand Orae, but it wasn’t exactly hard to figure out that they didn’t like feeling like they were being pitied or condescended to.
Probably a height thing.
“…no,” Orae admitted grudgingly without looking, “it’s… good. Thank you.” They even managed to look like saying as much was only causing them a small amount of physical pain, which was a pretty impressive achievement for someone who seemed to be physically allergic to the words.
“You’re welcome. Zarah, Remy?”
Zarah had already eaten seconds and thirds – creating ghostlight, even more than just using the blacklight on its own, left her with a powerful appetite.
(Considering that Remy had at least a small amount of blacklight burning at all times, she wasn’t surprised that he’d eaten even more than she had).
“Fine, thank you,” Zarah said. She’d left a bit of food left on her plate to indicate that she was done, and laid her cutlery neatly on the other side. “It was good, thank you,” she added. To the degree that she paid attention to things that like that, anyway, but she knew better than to add that part out loud.
Remy finished the mouthful he’d been chewing, and grinned. “Well, if you’re offering!” There was a small shard of peanut stuck between his front two teeth, and the sight caught Zarah off-guard enough that she couldn’t help but snort in amusement.
“Don’t think I need to ask how you got so tall, then,” Mrs. B. said wryly as she passed the serving dishes over the table.
“Oh, yeah,” Remy confirmed as he ladled out another heaping serving. “They never messed around with meals as a punishment, cause of uh… nutritional stuff? Even in the hole, they’d toss down regular meals that were the same as everyone else got.”
He dug in, unaware of Mrs. B. staring at him with wide eyes and pale face. Over his head, both Zarah and Orae made hasty ‘abort’ gestures at her.
“Well,” she managed after a second. “That’s… good.”
“Dwn wrry,” Remy added through another mouthful of food, “ths ‘s wrr b’r.”
After the meal was finished, Remy and Zarah both offered to help with the washing-up, but Mrs. B. waved them off fondly.
(Zarah had the thought that she really needed to figure out how to explain taarof, and also whether or not that was what Mrs. B. was doing).
Orae wanted to go up to the roof at first, citing privacy as a reason, but that only lasted as long as it took for them to realise that the wind would blow their papers away, and they grudgingly acquiesced. Instead, they moved to the room Zarah was staying in (it still felt too weird to call it ‘her’ room). It was small and sparsely appointed, but there was a desk and chairs inside in addition to the bed.
Orae looked around as they entered and Zarah flicked on the lights, taking in the undecorated cream-coloured walls. “Cozy.”
“<I wasn’t exactly carrying around a lot of personal touches>,” Zarah muttered under her breath.
“Nothing.” Zarah set herself down on the floor at the foot of the bed, unrolling the map on the carpet in front of her. Remy pulled the old dining chair that sat against one wall over and sat on it backwards, folding his arms on top of the backrest and resting his chin on them. Orae took the desk chair, wheeling it over before settling in, curling their legs up underneath them while Lucel settled down onto the floor beside them, her body partially intersecting with two of the chair’s legs.
After they’d gotten the map held open once more, there was a brief arg- discussion over who should take the notes. Shockingly, Remy won out by unanimous vote – while slightly slower than Orae’s lightning-quick chicken-scratch, his handwriting was almost uncannily neat and tidy, almost mechanical in its precision (Zarah’s was somewhere in the middle – readable, but not exceptionally so, and slow due to a lack of practice).
Once that was settled, Kihri began dictating her thoughts through Zarah, Remy dutifully transcribing her words while Orae occasionally chimed in with a comment. Surprisingly, it ended up being an almost-meditative experience. Repeating Kihri’s words aloud didn’t exactly take much mental effort; neither did pointing out specific points of clarification on the map when prompted. By the end she was feeling almost drowsy, suppressing a yawn every minute or so.
“This boring you, Vyas?” Orae asked acerbically after one of them.
Zarah met their eyes and kept her face flat. “Yes.”
She met their stare with her own. “I cannot read,” she said flatly.
They flinched back as Remy gasped.
“Y-you-,” Orae stammered, clearly caught off-guard. “I- I wasn’t- not-”
Zarah managed to hold her placid expression for a few seconds longer, then finally let it relax into a small, mean smile. “Just kidding.”
Orae just stared at her, struck silent. Remy cackled, spinning around in the office chair.
“We’ve texted!” he blurted out. “All of us! And you believed her anyway!”
“Shut up,” Orae growled. “Both of you, shut up, shut up, shut up.” Their skin was too dark to really blush properly, but it was making a go at it anyway. “Gods, I hate you both so much, why do I even-”
The rest of their words became incomprehensible as they grabbed a handful of the bedspread and covered their face with it, yelling incoherently into the muffling fabric.
Zarah’s smile faded as she glanced over, and once again saw Kihri ignoring the conversation, muttering herself as she stared over the map.
“<Hey>,” Zarah said, leaning over. “<You okay>?”
“Hrm?” Kihri hummed without looking up. “<Fine, fine. Just… thinking>.”
Instead of answering, Kihri gestured towards Remy. “Let me see those again.”
She hummed as Zarah got Remy to pass them over, eyes darting back and forth.
“Okay,” she said after a moment, raising one hand and clicking her fingers, “I think I’ve got it.”
Remy scooted the chair over and prodded Orae with one of the legs until they removed their head from the duvet.
“So,” Kihri began, aligning herself with gravity once more and crossing her legs to sit on thin air above the map, “like I thought down there, not all of these are actual active sites Metzin had running simultaneously. Nor are they a full complement of her past sites. This,” and a symbol spun itself into existence in between her cupped hands, looking like a broken triangle, “is what she used to indicate active sites.”
Zarah stumbled over her words slightly, before realising she had to point to the appropriate symbol in the notes for the others’ benefit. She’d seen Kihri… create other things before, changing her clothes or summoning a prop for a point she was making. She’d never seen her do this, before, this thing where she seemed to be… projecting something new.
“This map isn’t completely up-to-date,” Kihri continued, unaware of Zarah’s surprise. “Here is the site that Zarah and I initially found the hammer. As you can see, it’s still got the ‘active’ mark on it, which means this hasn’t been updated for at least two months. This, here, is the one we just found. It’s still active on this map as well – if I had to guess, I’d say that us stumbling on the first one made her ditch them both immediately without doing proper clean-up. She doesn’t seem the type to just leave stuff like those chimeras behind unattended. And, speaking of which…”
Two new symbols spun out of nothingness between her hands.
“This first one was on the power station site but not the subway site, and vice versa for the other. Given that the second one occurs more frequently, I’m inclined to think that they represent the type of experiments she was running at each site, with the latter being for animal experiments.”
“Ew…” Remy murmured.
Kihri gestured, and little markers appeared, hovering over a handful of the locations on the map. “These seventeen are the most likely, in my opinion, to be-”
“Kihri,” Zarah interrupted. “<They can’t see that>.”
Kihri paused, one hand still halfway through a gesture. “…I knew that.”
With a sigh, Zarah leant over and tapped the respective locations for the other.
“These seventeen,” Kihri continued once she was done, “are the most likely to have been recently used.”
“Those are all ones marked with ‘active’,” Orae noted. “Why not the potential sites?”
“That’s not her,” Kihri replied immediately with ironclad confidence. “Hell, if she’s still in the city I’d be real fucking surprised. This isn’t about finding her, not yet. This is about finding more stuff like this map, although if we’re being honest I doubt we’re gonna get another jackpot like this.”
There was a lot to repeat there, but eventually Zarah stumbled her way to the end. It wasn’t just the length that was giving her trouble, though – she was starting to get a bad feeling about how confident her twin was being.
Kihri was smart, Zarah would never try and dispute that. She loved to absorb information and find patterns and puzzle things out in a way that had just never made sense to Zarah.
But she was pretty sure that some of the stuff she was saying were things that couldn’t have come from the map alone.
Orae, unfortunately, was apparently thinking along the same lines as her. “There’s no way you extrapolated all this from a map and some symbols.”
“No,” Zarah agreed, trying to deflect. “I did not.”
“Oh for-” They threw their hands up. “For the last time, I am not going to indulge this delusion of yours.”
“Zarah,” Kihri said flatly, “punch ‘em in the face for me. Out of sisterly fuckin’ compassion.”
“<Tempting>,” Zarah muttered under her breath. “Will you just- here.” She stood up and walked out of the room, standing just outside the door with her eyes closed. “Hold up fingers, behind your back.”
“Oh, so now-”
“Just do it,” Zarah snapped.
She heard them growl, then a little bit of rustling.
“Two,” Kihri immediately called out, thankfully having divined the purpose of the demonstration without Zarah having to explain it. “Left hand, index and middle finger.”
When Zarah repeated as much aloud, Remy started applauding.
“That doesn’t prove-”
“Still two,” Kihri cut in over them, but its index and pinky now.”
Zarah repeated that as well.
“And now they’re just flipping you the bird, not even behind their back.”
“Rude,” Zarah said.
“That doesn’t prove anything,” Orae seethed. “I’m not saying- oh for god’s sake, come back inside, I’m not talking to you like this.”
Zarah moved back inside, but leant against the wall with her arms folded instead of sitting down again. “Please,” she said dryly, “telling me more about how I am crazy.”
“It proves nothing,” Orae repeated more insistantly. “Just because you have some kind of- extrasensory perception, that doesn’t mean that it’s your dead sister telling you those things.
“Why?” Zarah demanded. “Why are you so insistent this one thing is not real? Why are you okay with… with <ghosts, and dead people, and your own fucking ghost dog lying at your own goddamn feet but somehow this>-”
She’d anticipated being interrupted, but not who would be doing it.
“Kihri?” she asked hesitantly.
“Leave it,” her sister said quietly, eyes shadowed as she looked down at the ground. “Just- leave it, okay?”
And Zarah wanted to push, wanted to ask why she was saying this now when just a minute before she’d been ready to fight Orae to the death, wanted everyone to just act normally – saints did she ever want that –
-but she was trying to better, and she knew that sometimes that meant taking people at their word. So instead, she kept her mouth shut, and moved back over to sit down again.
She looked at Kihri, but her sister was looking away while trying to appear like she wasn’t. Maybe it would’ve fooled someone else, but that was part of the problem.
There wasn’t anyone else.
Orae seemed to have no interest in breaking the detente, at least. “So,” they said once Zarah had lowered herself back down to the ground, “is this really all we have? A bunch of possible leads that are… dubious at best.”
“Aww,” Remy cooed, “you said ‘our’.”
Zarah was so prepared for Kihri to respond to Orae’s words that it actually left her feeling physically off-balance when she didn’t. “Yeah,” was all she said, in a mild tone. “It’s not great, but it’s not like we have much else to go on. Kind of the whole point of all this, actually.”
“Hey,” Remy said, “chin up! We’ll go kick down some doors, maybe kill some more weird dogs-” Orae flinched “-and we’ll have this wrapped up in no time.”
“Remy,” Orae said, “have I ever told you that I admire your boundless optimism?”
Remy frowned in thought. “I don’t think you have, no!”
“Good. Because I don’t.”