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People called it ‘the incident’, or ‘that thing Dmiri did’. It overshadowed the trickle of news coming out of the Polis about the stadium bombing, at least among the employees at the resort. It made Vitre furious, especially when ne heard that Bharah had suspended him from work and was talking about firing him. Kreth, of all people, was one of Dmiri’s most vocal supporters when the lunchroom talk turned nasty. Terynik could barely stopped crying long enough to get through work each day. Neimei, the only one among the crew who had lived in the Polis before coming to work here, was withdrawn and barely around outside of her duties. Everyone was on edge.
Vitre could barely tolerate being around other people. Work felt pointless in the face of larger events, and having to continue as if the entire world wasn’t going the way of Darkness was beyond frustrating. Ne wanted to just pack up and leave, head home where ne might actually do some good. But business was even busier than usual now that even the wealthy realized their privilege wouldn’t protect them in the capital of the republic. The resort was booked solid as they all fled the city like cockroaches fleeing the light, heading for somewhere equally luxurious so they could keep denying reality. As much as being around them sickened Vitre, it wouldn’t be fair to Xiazi if ne left without warning. Ne had to at least finish the season out first.
Updates on the investigation into the stadium bombing were slowly leaked to the feeds. They weren’t being blamed on radicalized clans after all, as Vitre had initially feared. It was so much worse than that. They were saying it was draces.
Zeph had already quietly vanished overnight. Hyss had left, with Xiazi and Vitre’s blessings, to disappear to a place where homini couldn’t find her. Vrissa refused to do the same, but Terynik was still sticking to her side day and night so nothing could happen to her. Vitre didn’t might, and joined them whenever ne felt up to being around company. Dmiri, having nothing else to do while he was on suspension from work, was also helping to guard Vrissa, and the two of them seemed to have reached some kind of truce. The one night Vitre had been around all three, Vrissa had spend the whole time asking Dmiri about his abilities. Dmiri had spend it dodging the questions, but hadn’t seemed annoyed about it.
Vitre had asked Vrissa what she thought of the feed reports about draces being behind the bombing. Vrissa had looked thoughtful for a while, flicking her tongue in what Vitre had understood to be a contemplative sort of way.
Then Vrissa told her, “If it was done by draces, they were acting in behaviors they’d learned from homini. We are violence in subtler ways.”
It had been disturbing, but enlightening.
It had also left Vitre wondering who might have gone to the trouble of framing the draces for such a senseless act of terror, and what purpose they thought it would serve. The republic would be stretched even thinner, now; they fought to keep control in the wetlands, they kept a well-armed force in the north to keep the steppes docile, they kept the Tribes suppressed, and their own cities were hotbeds of random violence and fear. Now there were rumors and even feed reports of military raids on drac settlements, and of rounding up and arresting the draces in the cities. If the conspirators who carried out the bombing had intended to create chaos and make the republic view everyone who was not a citizen as an enemy, then the plan seemed to be working. Otherwise, Vitre couldn’t guess what motive they might have had.
When Vitre finally got off work and headed to the trailer, all ne was planning on doing was check on Terynik real quick and then hiding alone with a bottle for the rest of the night. Instead, ne found Hexen huddled in a lawn chair just outside the door of the trailer, clearly waiting for nim to show up. Vitre sank into the other chair, not bothering with a greeting, leaning nis head back and closing nis eyes, waiting.
“I didn’t want to go inside without Illikhr, and he doesn’t get off until midnight,” the man finally said.
“’S fine,” Vitre mumbled.
They sat in silence for a while. Vitre felt exhausted, thoroughly worn out by nis constant rage and frustration and confusion. Ne started to dose off a little, drifting nearly to sleep and then jolting awake again. Hexen was an undemanding presence, quiet and contained, and not being alone was surprisingly peaceful. Vitre missed nis lover back in the wetlands, so badly it felt like a physical ache in the center of nis being. The relationship with Terynik was too new to have the same comfort and ease, and with everything so uncertain about Dmiri’s fate, she was under a lot of strain. Vitre didn’t resent Terynik’s need for support right now, and wished ne could provide more of it, but at the same time, not having the same support for nimself felt so much less bearable than it might otherwise.
“It’s just going to keep happening, isn’t it.”
Hexen spoke so softly that Vitre wasn’t sure for a moment if the words hadn’t been part of a dream ne was having without realizing it. Ne roused nimself and asked, “What is?”
“All of it. The homini. They just can’t stop being afraid of everyone else, even when all we want is to be left alone. And when the homini get too scared of the shadows, they think the answer is to burn the world down.”
They, not we, a part of Vitre’s mind noted. And we. There were stories ne’d heard about the Lupus clan, and about the kind of people they tended to adopt. Ne’d thought they were just moon-time stories to entertain and scare the kids. But…maybe there was more too them than ne’d figured. Ne wasn’t one to judge or pry about that sort of thing, though, so ne just said, “It certainly seems that way, doesn’t it.”
After a while, Vitre asked, “What do you do when you get scared of the shadows?”
“Learn to see in the dark,” came the answer.
Vitre sat with that for a while, turning it over in nis mind. Finally ne said, “Okay, but in the context of this metaphor, what exactly does that translate to?”
Hexen chuckled, low and reluctant. “Gods, I don’t know. It sounded good, though, didn’t it?”
“Oh, for sure. Very profound.”
Vitre closed nis eyes again, letting nis thoughts drift, letting nis body relax. Letting nimself feel a moment of peace, and not feel guilty about it.
“Of course, in terms of metaphor,” Hexen added eventually, “I’m sure we could make something of the fact homini are daytime animals, whereas draces are nocturnal and shifters were at least a mix, if not outright favoring of night.”
“It does give things a nice symmetry, I suppose. The clan mythology was never very favorable for the sun and daylight people, when it comes to that. Though we were never quite outright nocturnal that I know of.”
“Tenebrae,” said Hexen, and Vitre nodded without bothering to lift nis head.
“Tenebrae,” ne agreed. “We do love our guiding star.”
“He had a shifter companion,” Hexen ventured, sounding hesitant.
“Someone’s been telling tales,” Vitre said, smiling a little. “Yeah, He was accompanied by a black wolf-god with golden eyes for a while. It was a shifter named Lykos. They had a…tumultuous relationship. But sometimes it’s just like that, when two passionate people get involved. Neither of them were willing to compromise when it came to their own people, those they’d sworn to protect, so there were clashes sometimes. And sometimes there was something like love, or at least respect and attraction. They never fully trusted each other, though, so who knows if it was love or not. That’s not for us to judge.”
“He was a real shifter. I remember his name.”
Vitre glanced over. Hexen was looking worried, but Vitre got the feeling it was about something they weren’t saying.
“Yeah, that kind of thing happens,” ne said. “Just because it’s mythology, it doesn’t mean it wasn’t real. People forget that when they get too wrapped up in the new scientific discoveries. They think just because we have a different vocabulary for talking about it, that it means we aren’t still talking about the same things as before.”
Hexen snorted. “Short-minded homini.”
Vitre shrugged. “Some of them. Others pass on the old stories and remember the old traditions.”
“Like the clans, you mean?”
“Lupus has their stories, we have ours. Somewhere between them, the truth is probably still around.”
“Do you really think the clans are fully homin, though? Your own stories say you were created by a star.”
“And that star fell in love with a hybrid. Did you hear that story yet?”
Hexen nodded slowly. “The hybrid was real, too. So was Tenebrae, although they called him a different name back then.”
“They called Him several names. Not all were ones he chose.”
“You haven’t answered my question.”
Vitre gave it the due consideration Hexen seemed to be after. Somewhere in this conversation, hidden deeply under other topics, was the real question Hexen was afraid to ask, but Vitre couldn’t quite figure out what it was. Or maybe Hexen was trying to make a point, and Vitre was just too tired and lacked the context to make sense of it. Ne wasn’t sure. But ne could answer the question honestly. That much, ne could do.
“No, I don’t believe we’re fully homin. I think we’re a mix. Maybe more mixed in some than in others, and perhaps vastly diluted by now, but I do believe that Tenebrae created us. It might not be literal, we might have been wetland-dwelling homini when He first found us. But then He gifted us, each of the clans, with something those who are just homin don’t possess.”
Hexen swallow, and fidgeted, and stared at the ground, and then very very quietly he said, “I’m a fox-hybrid.”
Vitre nodded, wondering what to do with this knowledge. “Thanks for trusting me,” ne settled on.
“Why’d you tell me?”
“You were going to figure it out anyway,” he said. It sounded like a dodge.
Vitre was too tired to deal with more dancing around a subject. Time for bluntness, appropriate or not. “You’re willing to tell me your secret, but you’re gonna lie to me about why? That seems messed up.”
Hexen flinched. “Sorry.”
“I’m sorry too. Now are you gonna tell me the truth? If you don’t want to answer, just say so. You don’t have to lie to me.”
“I…I’m not used to having friends. To trusting people. I try to…with Illikhr, we do this thing, we…trade.”
The stumbling words came to a halt as Hexen fumbled to a way to explain his thoughts. Vitre waited, letting him sort it out in his head without interruption or distraction. Finally the man said, “When we tell each other something private, something secret or…just, something difficult to tell, then the other one will offer something back. It…worked, for us. So, I wanted to try. With someone else. Who could be a friend. I’m just…I’m not used to it. And…maybe trying is my way of learning to see in the dark.”
Even in the fading light of evening, Vitre could see the deep flush of embarrassment wash over his face. Nis mild annoyance softened.
“Thanks,” ne said again, gentler this time. Ne held out a hand, not demanding or insisting, but offering, just in case.
Hexen took it, eyes still fixed on the ground, checks still burning. “You’re welcome,” he muttered.
“You’re my friend, too,” ne told him.