On the philosophy of windows on rainy days

Outside, the rain was falling in heavy, noisy drops.

It was midday, and the smell of their neighbour’s heavy sausage stew crept into the apartment. Gevuyn tried to concentrate on the presentation he was trying to write – some stupid idea by the higher-ups, speeches at schools and universities, detailing their work – but not too exactly, of course – what a stupid, stupid idea – it was hard.

At first, when the smell started up, it was disgusting cause the grease had to burn off. Then it turned to where it made him hungry. Most of his unhealthy lunches were due to that smell. Then it got overpowering, and sometimes she’d add stuff that made his stomach turn, so he had to be done with lunch by then.

At last he got up from his papers and opened the window behind him.

Cold air blew in, welcome and damp, smelling like rain, winter just on the cusp of spring, but spring was still being coy or maybe just lazy, and wanted to be persuaded.

Meanwhile, its rain did the persuading on the majority of the people.

Some windows in the housing block complex were opened, some closed.

There were two types of people. Those that opened the window in this weather for the rain’s soothing qualities, and those that kept it closed for the same reason.

Yurtoril and he were the third kind. The “whatever” kind. The ones that could choose either, on frivolous whims, because they had not been given a choice in the past.

He remembered being a kid, in the Watcher’s academy dorm, or rather cell, when rainy days meant the windows had to stay rigidly closed. Withdrawal. First you had to get the stuff out of your system, even if you had some base immunity, or maybe it was all just attitude. No one seemed to know.

Wanting nothing more than to open those damned windows and hold your hand out and end the plaguing of your thoughts. End it all. Give up and be happy, or at least not miserable.

Sitting back down on your bunk bed and reading something spitefully negative or depressing as a fuck you to the rain you couldn’t have.

Gevuyn sighed. Grit his teeth. He held out his hand into the rain. Heavy, noisy drops that didn’t do a thing.

“Fuck you, rain,” he whispered under his breath.

He left the window open and sat back down to his notes as the rain drenched the windowsill.

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Theoretically

“I’d say,” Gevuyn’s voice came through the kitchen door before the man himself appeared, dressed in the bare necessities, hair still wet from the shower, “I’d say it smells like salt bread.”

“And you’d be correct.” Yurtoril fetched the skewers from the firekeeper.

“Do I get one?” Gevuyn leaned over across the kitchen table, water from his hair dripping down onto the surface.

Yurtoril watched the puddle form for a moment and raised his eyebrows.

“What?” Gevuyn looked down. “Oh.”

“Never mind.” Yurtoril handed him a skewer. “Here. Figured you could use some, too.”

Gevuyn took the skewer and hastily pulled off a piece of salt bread. “And you’d be correct.”

They devoured their bread skewers in silence.

“I had a thought in the shower,” Gevuyn said, laying down the skewer on the table.

“Yeah?”

“About the director.”

“Didn’t you want to be done with that?”

Gevuyn furrowed his brows just a bit. So there was more.

Yurtoril sighed. “You know, after today’s farce, I wouldn’t mind being done with it myself.”

His partner’s look got probing. “Farce, huh.”

“Well, yeah.”

“So you thought so, too. Came to me late.” Gevuyn pointed down to his bare skewer. “How much more do we have?”

“Plenty. I put in the whole package; wasn’t thinking too straight.”

Gevuyn grinned at him. “All the better.”

It was uncomfortable in a different way. He returned the grin. The heaviness seemed lifted for now. Yurtoril got the remaining four bread skewers out of the firekeeper and laid them out on the cutting board. “We can still drop this if you want.”

Gevuyn’s hand halted on the way to the cutting board. “If I want? You mean… Don’t tell me.”

“You wanted to be done with it. The order is happy. There’s no need to pursue it further.”

His partner’s hand was still hovering above the board. Then he was hit by a beaming smile. “Well, we can have a little chat about it. Just to compare.”

“Just to compare,” Yurtoril agreed. “Living room?”

Gevuyn nodded swiftly, his wet hair falling into his face, and picked up the cutting board to carry it over.

Yurtoril held open the door. “Bit well-prepared, wasn’t she?”

Gevuyn balanced the board with the skewers out into the living room and sat it down on the usual book stack. “Have you ever seen an air dryer? I’ve only seen them in books in the academy.”

“Once, in the Eastern district. Shortly before they released me from training, in a practical mission. I accompanied a seasoned knight; was a smuggling case. The stuff we found was from before the war.”

“And the print on the ones today was…”

“Eastern, yeah.” Yurtoril sat down on the couch and reached for the salt bread.

Gevuyn wedged himself in between, blocking his access. “Could you read it?”

Yurtoril raised his eyebrows. But fine. “Same company, long since defunct.”

A snort. “You… Alright. Alright.” Gevuyn picked up a skewer but held it out of reach. “So would you say this was something that a grieving widow could pick up easily, in the…” He twirled the skewer around a few times. “In the twelve days since her husband died?”

Yurtoril smiled. “Even with her connections, it’s highly unlikely.”

Gevuyn returned the smile and finally handed him the bread skewer. “So…” He picked up one for himself.

“So the director being an ally to the order is also highly unlikely.”

Gevuyn laughed that raspy laugh of his. “Figured. And the water filtering systems… and the window cloths… All recent, right?”

“Plausible deniability but not likely.”

“She tried to tell us something, didn’t she? I wonder what.”

Yurtoril tore off a piece of bread. “Nothing we could have acted on in our current position.”

“Figured.” Gevuyn looked at him. “You could have said something.”

“I was trying to…” He paused. In fact… He inclined his head slightly. “I could have.”

Gevuyn’s posture relaxed. “Don’t worry. I could have…” He picked at his bread. “Paid attention right away. Shown more interest. Something.”

“I could have not made her shoot herself.”

His partner broke into laughter. “I couldn’t believe it when Suradin was so happy with our work.”

“We did what we were supposed to.” He mustered the other. “Theoretically, we could still go out now, secure something. In the study maybe. Before they clean it up.”

Gevuyn seemed to ponder it, then leaned over to rest his head on Yurtoril’s shoulder, drenching his shirt with his wet hair. It wasn’t so bad. “It’s comfortable here. And I’m wiped. There’ll be more directors.”

He smiled. “Of that we can be sure, yes.”

“Besides, I’m not going to pass on a gift like that.” Yurtoril could see the corner of his grin. “Not going after a case like that. Whatever got into you?”

“Is there a problem?”

“Not a one.”

Reversal

Gevuyn’s uniform was constricting when worn properly, and his tightly bound ponytail strained his scalp. And they had to sit through the higher-ups’ questions. It was like being back in training. He longed to loosen it all up.

Meanwhile, the prettiest man in the world was being obnoxiously straight-laced with the head knight. He’d even taken implicit credit for Gevuyn’s ‘unusually professional attire’. Well, he could let that go today. Just barely.

Pay-off would be later today.

 

“Well,” Sir Suradin said from behind his oversized desk, “you did good work overall. We’ve got most of the Department of Development back in line. There are some left-over factors, but if you’re looking for a new challenge, I can hand those to someone else.”

Yes, do it. Though the man’s eyes were too piercing during that offer. Still, anything but more of that department’s mess.

“Thank you,” Yurtoril said. “We appreciate it. But we like to tie up loose ends. It’s no good to leave things to the next ones in disorder.”

Oh for fuck’s sake, why? Of course, of course. Standing in the order. Promotions. But this case out of all?

Gevuyn bit down on the inside of his lip and straightened his shoulders. “I agree.” He gave Yurtoril a curt nod.

They both looked pleased. Fuck this all.

“Good,” Suradin said. “That’s what I was hoping to hear.” He flipped open a folder in front of him and turned it around for them to read. A photo of a grey-haired woman, Reinelle, 62 years old, etc.

“The murdered director’s widow,” their superior explained. “Normally this wouldn’t be the department’s issue anymore, but she’s been acting erratically by some accounts, and seeking contact within the department, spouting conspiracies. Everyone says they didn’t talk to her, but you know how it is. Something’s up there, and we’ve got to get this cleaned up before we set up the new director.” He looked at each of them in turn. “This is a minor issue, and I don’t care how you clear it up, as long as you do it. And do it today. Things are set in motion for tomorrow; a delay would be awkward.”

Yurtoril met the head knight’s gaze with that too sensible expression of his. “When you say you don’t care how, just to clarify…”

“I mean I don’t care. Use your imagination or be unoriginal. I want the rumour-mongering gone by tomorrow. How the source stops spreading them is your business.”

Yurtoril nodded smoothly. “Understood.”

 

“Why?”

The wind was biting into his skin outside the order’s southern headquarters. At least his hair was safely confined. As confined as he felt.

“You know why,” Yurtoril said.

“That’s the worst part,” Gevuyn muttered.

“It was a test,” his partner elaborated. “We can go up or down, hanging on today. We’ve both been displaced from other districts. If we want to achieve anything in the future, it has to be up.”

“I know all that, I know.”

“You did follow.”

He sighed. “That’s the other worst part.” He allowed himself a smile after all. “Fine. So, a widow. Not the most honourable job.”

“Depends on how we handle it.” Yurtoril gave a tiny frown. “Well, maybe not. So. How do we do this? If you want to try the role reversal another time and go for the safe route today…”

“Oh, hell no. That’s all I’ve been looking forward to.” He raised his hand to brush hair out of his face that wasn’t there. “Highlight of my workday,” he amended. “And the only reason I’m wearing this…” He looked down on himself unhappily. “I really hate this.”

Yurtoril grinned. It was endearing, fuck him. “So potential chaos then? Alright. We did get free rein; it’s a good test case.”

He hadn’t planned this on some level, had he?

 

All the windows in Reinelle’s house were hung with air filter cloth. All of them. They’d checked.

Rusty air driers from across the border with illegible labels hummed and clattered for the most long-term-grating sound carpet you could achieve on short notice. Once in a while, one would sputter and die and turn itself back on. Once in a while, one from another room would do the same, and you’d hear it.

All the water ran through filters.

The humidifiers were, of course, emptied out.

“Have fun,” Yurtoril had whispered to him before they’d returned to the salon.

Reinelle herself sat rigidly in her armoire, her grey hair done up with obvious effort, but there were stray hairs escaping, her face was pale and lined, and she was clearly trying to keep it together.

Well. His turn. “You’re aware of how this looks, aren’t you?”

“I’m aware you’re not here to show me any sympathy. But let it be known you’re in the wrong.”

How did this proceed? Yurtoril cast him a glance. His turn still? Alright. “Like you’ve let the whole Department of Development know? Why don’t you share that with us, too? What’s your insight?” Sneer at ‘insight’. The distanced role was so much less taxing.

“You know why my husband is dead.”

This was where the sympathy came in normally. “Some guy went crazy and killed him. Yeah. And now you’re trying to turn yourself into the same kind of crazy. Why? You’re gonna kill somebody, too?”

She clenched her teeth, and her fingers twitched, probably in annoyance.

Yurtoril stepped closer and laid his left hand on Gevuyn’s arm. His turn now, alright. “Madam, I’m sorry your husband is dead. You can be assured none of us wanted that to happen. He was an important member of the government, and an ally to the order.”

Smooth, maybe a bit focused on the professional. Though who knew, maybe with the dignified widow type that wasn’t so bad.

She balled her small hands into fists, then slowly extended her fingers again and laid them on the arm rests. “I appreciate it.” Her voice was small and forced.

“We have to know – We wish you no harm. But we have to know…” He’d stumbled across that one. Out of his element, clearly. This was rare entertainment.

“You can ask,” the director’s widow said. “I will decide if I answer.”

Yurtoril nodded. “Of course. So – You mentioned something about the rain, to the other members of the department, didn’t you? Perhaps out of anger, out of the moment. Out of grief.” He was copying him! With the generous ‘guesses’ that left the other a way out.

“So what if I did?” Defiant. Gevuyn was itching to jump in again. But Yurtoril was still trying his own role.

“We need to deal with this somehow; surely you understand”, his partner said, the way you’d talk to an unruly dog or a 2-year-old. This was too good.

Reinelle folded her hands. “And surely you understand that my husband is dead, and it’s the fault of your rain.”

Enough now. She was too right, but that didn’t matter here. “Understand?” Gevuyn’s thin grin came easily. “There’s nothing to understand about your nonsense. What killed him was an absence of the rain, for a guy who went crazy.” He shifted his stance. “The associate’s taken on sense again. Maybe it’s time for you, too.”

Her composure was flickering. This was easy!

“Indeed… I must correct myself. You don’t understand a thing. How could you?”

Understand, don’t understand… whose keyword was this? He looked over to Yurtoril.

His partner returned the look, then sat down in a chair and leaned forward towards the widow. “I may understand… and not.”

Reinelle raised her carefully plucked eyebrows.

“Not from experience,” Yurtoril conceded.

Her jaw moved, and she was dragged into it. “You’re married?”

He faltered.

Come on, don’t falter now. Bullshit something.

“No. Not yet.”

Good enough.

Reinelle nodded, with expectation in her posture.

“But…” Yurtoril tucked a stray hair strand behind his ear. Good, that looked sincere. “You must think we don’t understand because we don’t get affected by the rain. That’s no secret, and certainly not to someone in your position.”

She gave a non-committal nod, but she was leaning forward and hanging onto his words now.

“Well.” Yurtoril tapped his lips as if in thought, then rested his hand on his thigh. “There are losses where… if they happened, I’d wish I could drink a whole humidifier of the stuff. Or be like those wretches in the city underside. Anything to stop it. But I can’t anymore.” He leaned back. “So in that way, I don’t understand. You have the chance.”

Damn.

Not bad. Not bad at all.

Or … too real. Or at least a lot more real than this normally got.

Or was it? What was this?

Gevuyn noticed his pulse racing, apparently just in case, and he kept his position very still, so as not to spoil whatever this moment was.

The widow was sitting still, too.

Her brow furrowed slightly.

She sat up straight. “Your girlfriend is a lucky woman.” She reached into the pocket of her dress. “My husband should be as lucky. You’ll understand that much.” She pulled out a tiny handgun, held it to her temple and pulled the trigger.

 

They remained still for a moment, then Yurtoril broke the silence. “Well.”

“That…”

“That could have gone better. On the other hand…”

“She’s not going to talk anymore, is she?”

Yurtoril got up. “Not likely.”

Gevuyn walked over to the widow and examined her. Dead. “No. Not likely.”

“Before evening, too. What do you say, do we leave it like this? It’s a clear suicide. Plausible enough.”

And she’d had the right idea, too, about everything. Pity. But couldn’t be helped. She’d come in too early for them. “Yeah. Sooner we get this over with. Report, then dinner?”

“Let’s.”

 

De-briefing

It was night time, and Yurtoril had a headache. He usually did after these outings.

Peace and quiet would fix it.

It would, but it seemed today his partner was more displeased than usual with their work. That look he’d given him when the last light in their target’s eyes had faded in the rain and been replaced by contentment. It was getting critical.

Yurtoril would have to fix that.

It would take contemplation. He didn’t want contemplation. He wanted to end the day and all thought and this damned headache.

He turned off the light in his room and lay down askew on the crisp blanket.

He frowned and adjusted his position to be parallel with the bed.

Better.

But not much.

He didn’t always want to be the human element, Gevuyn had said. And that Yurtoril didn’t understand the toll it took on him.

He sighed. Then quieted himself. Couldn’t have that heard across the wall.

Gevuyn thought Yurtoril was making it easy on himself with his distance.

Obviously, he didn’t understand a thing.

Unwelcome consideration: Then why did he keep giving him that part of the job? The understanding part.

Yurtoril pressed his fingertips against his forehead, slowly rubbed up and down, and across, to no avail. This one wanted to stay. Damned headaches.

So perhaps he’d have to shift the balance somewhat. The biggest pain would be admitting to his mistake. He didn’t make mistakes.

Wrong. He hated making mistakes. Yes. Better. Less welcome, more accurate.

So.

“Sarvino!” a shrill woman’s voice rang from the living room, startling him out of his thoughts. “You can’t! Our baby!”

What the hell was this now?

“Our baby?” a man’s voice yelled. “Our baby? You mean Aranno’s baby! Don’t you, Lurria? Ah, to think I loved you!”

Yurtoril laid one hand across his face, then another, inhaled, then let them both drift down to his chest.

Fine. There wasn’t going to be sleep now anyway.

He felt woefully underprepared.

Might be an idea. Might be some of that human element that his partner claimed to see an imbalance in.

Going out now was a dreadful idea.

He got up, put on a fresh pair of socks, and his slippers, and went out into the living room.

 

Gevuyn was sprawled on the couch watching television with a half-empty bottle of red wine on the stack of books next to him, and a half-filled glass cradled against his chest.

He looked up to him. Yurtoril’s chest clenched. The venom was still there.

He grit his teeth. “Did…” Wrong beginning. And too quiet.

Gevuyn reached for the remote control and silenced the television. Expectant look.

Fine, deliver. But what? “Is it Aranno’s baby?”

His partner was taken aback. Then a probing look. Not the kind he normally got. More like the kind the targets got. The one before he turned on the fake warmth. Was that what they felt like? Couldn’t be. Couldn’t be, because…

“Sit with me.” Gevuyn’s voice was slurred as he sat up, careful not to spill his wine. “Bring a glass. And I’ll explain you all about Lurria.”

This was still a bad time to smile. Nothing was sorted, nothing was fixed. It would be counter-productive. But his lips betrayed him. He walked over to the cabinet and got out a glass. He looked at the couch and faltered.

Gevuyn scooted to the left corner and patted the space to his right. “Sit.”

So he sat. The cabinet’s door was still open.

“So.” Gevuyn filled his glass, more than was usual, and added more to his own glass for good measure. The bottle made it safely back to the book stack.

Yurtoril raised his glass, then cursed himself inwardly. He wouldn’t want that yet, and getting blown off would be…

Gevuyn gave him another one of his probing looks, then clanked his glass against his. “To Lurria.”

He failed at getting rid of the smile, again. “Lurria seems like an unfaithful kind. Maybe someone else. Is anyone there better at this?”

“No. Well, you’d think Sarvino would, for all he’s yelling, but… oh.” Gevuyn grabbed the remote control and turned the volume up again, filling the room with crying voices. “He actually had a thing with Natrija when Lurria had her brain tumour. Aranno was there, but then he caved to the family obligations. And Ninna had the fortune from the tax fraud. So…” The look turned probing again, but this time like the ones Yurtoril normally got. “You don’t normally smile that long.”

Did he? He felt caught. “I… I wanted… You said, I…” Damn this all.

It did get him a smile in return, at last. Not a target smile, either. A real one. For all he knew.

He swallowed. “To the baby. May it grow up to be a better person.”

Gevuyn clanked their glasses together again. “If it survives.”

They drank in silence while a new couple provided the backdrop argument.

“Can I ask what this is?” Yurtoril asked at last.

“This…” Gevuyn looked almost embarrassed. But he caught himself and brushed his hair off his shoulder. “This is our reward.”

He knew he looked confused, and there was no helping it.

Gevuyn poured them both more wine, and they drank in silence again.

“This is approved television,” the explanation went on at last. “This, and the rain, killer combination. Not like the serious stuff we get at the order, with all the actual information and background. Well, that’s a cliché. Our stuff is just as filtered for what they want us to see. But this.” He pointed at the screen with his barely filled glass. “This without the rain. We can do this. They can’t.”

Yurtoril frowned, trying to grasp it. He looked down on his wine glass and downed the rest, then held it out to his partner. Then halted when he realised what he was doing.

Gevuyn looked at him, and reached for the bottle. “It’s funny,” he explained as if to a child.

Yurtoril snorted, looked at the screen, at the glass, briefly at his partner, at the screen.

His glass was being filled.

The other, too.

The empty bottle went down on the floor, and another full one surfaced and took the place on the book stack.

“So you like the faithful kind, huh?”

“What?”

“Lurria.”

Yurtoril blinked. “Oh. That. I…” There was no uncompromising answer here. “I suppose.”

“Don’t worry.”

He blinked again.

Gevuyn looked down on his glass, looking almost vulnerable for a moment, then clanked it against Yurtoril’s, spilling some wine onto their hands. “Sorry. Anyway. You want to be good? Then we’re good.”

Yurtoril tried to still the clenching in his chest, or in his jaw, or just his hand. It had wine on it. “I. Yes. I… may have…”

“We’re good.” Gevuyn drank from his glass, and Yurtoril watched him before following suit. There was still wine on his hand. He should get rid of it, but it would break the spell.

Gevuyn sat closer to him.

Yurtoril swallowed. “I… suppose… I could try to be that more. The… human.”

His partner was shaken with a raspy laugh, then gave him a side glance into his eyes. “So I see.”

Unhealthily dry air

“I swear, I didn’t mean to do it!” The development associate’s eyes darted wildly between them. Gevuyn held his arm in a vise-like grip. “It’s like he made me do it! He kept…” The man was hyperventilating.

“He kept saying stuff,” Gevuyn offered.

“He did! Kept… taunting me.”

Yurtoril smiled his thin smile at him. The one that wasn’t reassuring in the slightest. Of course he had to do that now. Gevuyn rolled his eyes. The associate struggled in his grip. Yeah, great. Gevuyn laid his left hand on his shoulder and turned him around to face him. “What did he say?”

The man took several laboured breaths. “He said… He said…”

“Lemme bet. Cause we see that a lot. Stuff that shouldn’t even bother you that much. But it did. And all that stuff came welling up, and next thing you knew…”

“Yes! Just like that. Do you… You said you… I’ve got…”

“A family,” Yurtoril said. “And funds. And high responsibility. That’s all accounted for. That’s why it’s us you see, and not the police.”

The man’s breathing finally calmed down. When Gevuyn let go of his shoulder, he turned around to Yurtoril. “And…”

“The order is aware of your importance. They are willing to let you get away with it. We can work with the director’s accident. Provided…”

The associate tensed up again, and Gevuyn tightened his grip around his arm, then relaxed it, suppressing a sigh. Why did he have to be the human one again? “You want it to go away? The thoughts, the stuff welling up? You’ve been inside a lot, haven’t you? In your office? Bet you didn’t even have time to refill the humidifier.”

The man’s eyes widened, then fell. He exhaled, and the tension left his body. The image of resignation, and its small voice: “I’ve been really busy.”

“That’s what I thought. Don’t worry, sir, we’ll have this taken care of in no time.”

“I’m sure you will,” the man said with that tiny wry smile. Gevuyn hated when they did that. It looked intelligent and called up his sympathy, one of the few things that still did.

Yurtoril took the man’s other arm. Didn’t miss a beat. “Let’s take a walk in the rain. It clears up the thoughts.”

Burnt

The smell of burnt meat smothered the air in the newly assigned apartment in the Southern district. “So they got rid of both of us.” Yurtoril tried not to use too much of his voice lest it devolve into coughing.

“Good, isn’t it?” His co-worker’s already raspy voice coming from the kitchen knew no such concerns. “Shouldn’t be…” The rest of his speech was drowned out by a sharp sizzling sound.

“What was that?” Yurtoril asked when the sound faded, still keeping his voice down.

Gevuyn stepped out of the kitchen. “Shouldn’t be as happy about this, right? It’s just more work I hate, and they were trying to get rid of us, like you said.”

“Well, now the Southern district gets to deal with it. It’s better. They don’t know us yet. We’ve got more time.”

“Yeah, but that’s all rational.” Gevuyn made a discontent gesture. “What I mean is…”

“It’s almost like we’re the ones with the messed up perceptions.”

“Yeah. So who are we actually doing anything for? I mean, us, others; that changes things.”

There was another sound from the kitchen and a new wave of dark smoke creeping around the corner.

“Never mind that for now,” Yurtoril suggested.

“Right.” His co-worker disappeared in the kitchen again to salvage something that was already beyond saving, on the off-chance that it could be dissected and consumed after all.

 

Watchers

“You’re going to get wet,” said the man in the pristine Watcher’s uniform, who had been watching him for a while now.

Gevuyn grinned up at him from his crouching position. “Doesn’t make a difference.”

“Figured.” The man stepped closer but never sat down or even leaned against the wall.

They stayed that way, looking down the levels of supportive structures, with staircases leading further and further down into the mud, people crawling along the surfaces, downstairs, into the filthy canal down below, or pretending to retain some shred of their dignity by staying a few levels above.

“So what are you doing here,” the uniformed man asked at last, “if you’re not looking for the same as them?”

Gevuyn blew a strand of hair from his face. “Reminding myself why I did what I did.”

“Ah.”

“And you?”

The man stayed still, and Gevuyn figured he wouldn’t get an answer. Then it came at last. “Reminding myself I did anything at all.”

“Ah. You’re the type that can’t be content, no matter what, huh.”

“And are you content?”

“No.” Gevuyn pressed his lips together. “Trying to be. You know how they’re always telling you you’re special and the others just can’t deal with being awake like this? But you can?” Why was he telling him all this? “I still wonder if I can deal with it myself. Sometimes I wish I’d never taken that step. If the rain just worked on me… Not like on them. Like on normal people. Just be content, you know?” He paused and let out a short laugh. “I guess I’m the type that can’t be content, too.”

The man stepped back and almost leaned against the wall, then caught himself and straightened his posture.

Gevuyn grinned.

“Did you just get out, too?” the man asked. Sure, don’t respond to all that soul-baring.

“Yeah. Early this morning. Northern branch.”

“Eastern. Just got done with the charade.” The man rubbed his forehead with two fingers. “I feel dirty.”

“And then you come here?”

“It’s different.”

Gevuyn laughed and fell silent again. “That it is. So what’s your deal?”

The man gestured at the scenery below them. “This isn’t the point. We always knew things were different for us, or we wouldn’t have joined the order. We’ve always been resilient against all this. They allowed us. That’s all. They put us on a leash, and now we’re supposed to help them keep it all up. Threat neutralised.”

Gevuyn let that sink in. His instincts wanted to strongly agree and latch onto this. Well, his instincts were his own, weren’t they? Wasn’t that the one thing he had bought for the price of years of struggle and never a good thing in his life? “And now?”

There was a small smile, but it faded again immediately. “I don’t know yet,” the man said. “But something.”

Gevuyn stood up and brushed off his pants. “I think I’m in for something. You need a partner?”

“Wouldn’t hurt.”

Gevuyn grinned again. “Oh it’ll hurt. But that’s this life, right? We can’t turn back, so might as well.”

That small smile was back. “You’re just looking for some kind of escape, aren’t you?”

“Aren’t you? I’m Gevuyn.” He held out his hand.

The man shook it. “Yurtoril.” His eyes wandered down the gutter. “Might as well.”

Promises

We are placing great responsibility on your shoulders, the chairmen said.

I know, Yurtoril said, gravely, with honest eyes.

You are now one of only very few people, they said.

He nodded.

It is not for many, and most are not ready to face what lies out there, they said.

He agreed.

Do you swear to act in the best interest of the king, the country, and – here they put on a knowing smile – most of all the order?

Yes, and yes – and here he gave the knowing smile back to them – and yes.

In that case, we declare you–

Gravity and sincerity again–

A Free Watcher.

Nod. Sincere goodwill. More motions to go through.

So this was freedom?

Outside on his own, Yurtoril saw the options spread out before him.

He headed for the black market area, where people bought and sold what wasn’t poisoning them enough for their liking, then down the steps to the city’s underside. Where the rain he was declared free from pooled and collected for the most desperate.

Too many strings, still. But down here, the strings of rain held their puppets in an even tighter grip than the one he was trying to shake off.

It helped to see the distance to these creatures. But it wasn’t enough. Distance still implied relation. A continuum. A scale they were all on. That scale had to be snapped, and it would.

It was the first promise today that he intended to keep.

Immunity

Slowly dripping into the gutter were their dreams, if they’d ever had any, washed down by the rain along with their regular dose of serenity.

Squatting on the wet floor, Gevuyn watched it all pour down the gutter, where they’d be scrambling to catch more of it, to make their reality bearable. And their reality was an augmented one already. None of that for the likes of him.

Metallic noises rang along the wires above.

So this was freedom. This was the pay-off for years and years.

To make it worth it again, he leaned forward to peer into the gutter below. Wretched figures drinking dirty water, baring their skin to it, defying the cold if not their minds.

He sat back.

Better.