Togi sprawled on nems favorite rock, in the aft-spinward corner of the common room, watching everyone bustle about to get a dinner together. The rock was warmed, which was really nice on Togi’s muscles after having most of a day of strenuous physical activity.
Rrema was seated at the aft end of the table, with wems back to Togi. Wem didn’t use a chair, but instead plopped wems short tailed ass on a cushion, crossing wems legs at the ankle for balance. Wem was long enough in the torso that the table top was right at the bottom of wems ribs.
Rrema was working on hand cracking nuts, wing tips waving about behind wem as wem worked with wems hands. Rrema could fly, and with how tall wem was, that meant wems wings took up a lot of space. The aft part of the room, between the table and Togi’s rock, was kept fairly clear so that Rrema had the room.
And when Rrema wasn’t over, that space was pretty good for dancing and stretching, too.
`errke and Sharwe were sharing the kitchen, working on a broth and something doughy respectively.
Morik, who’d prepped all the greens already, was leaning on the forward end of the table, leading the conversation.
These kinds of moments were some of Togi’s favorites. Nem particularly loved observing the others working together and interacting, ready to participate when needed or requested. In this case, nem had spent enough exertion nem probably really needed food before nem could do much more than talk occasionally. Which was probably what the nuts Rrema was working on were for.
Togi would help with cleanup, in any case.
Nems mind had wandered, thinking about past gatherings, so nem wasn’t up on the subject of the conversation.
When Nem refocused, Rrema was saying, “So, we don’t have to do this, though, right? None of us do?”
Morik shrugged casually and responded, “Not at all. Totally voluntary.”
“So, what’s your motive for poking your nose into it?” wem asked pointedly.
“I don’t know entirely. I have a hunch. A drive,” Morik said. “It’s a little bit like when I’m reading a good book, I want to keep going. I think I can see where it’s headed, even if the author is trying to fool the readers for the drama of it, and I want to see if I’m right.”
“Huh,” Rrema grunted.
`errke looked at Sharwe, who raised an eyebrow and indicated Morik by briefly glancing yems direction. Probably to say, “that’s Morik for you!”
“So,” Rrema pressed. “You feel that way even though you know that in this case there is no author to tell you in the end how it really happened. No final confirmation. Because, like, no matter how much evidence we uncover, we’re never really going to be able to read the thoughts of either Shegrräo or Refka. Especially Refka. And it will just be your interpretation against that of anyone else. Always.”
“Yes, but,” Morik gestured with the knife yem had used on the vegetables, “my hypothesis is simply that there’s more to it. That’s easy to disprove or verify. I’m curious.”
“I feel like curiosity is not really an important enough reason to get involved.”
Sharwe nodded and gestured emphatically at Rrema before picking up gems dough and slamming it down on the counter again. `errke watched gem while stirring rrems pot.
“I do tend to agree with that,” Morik said. “Except that, time and again, it’s been shown that the participation of impartial or less impassioned investigators and intervenors tends to improve the outcomes of even murder cases. And, I think if I had some sort of vested emotional interest that I brought in from the outside, I might actually muck things up more.”
“Are you sure you don’t, though?”
“No, you’re right,” Morik said. “I probably do, even if I can’t identify it. I mean, at the very least this reminds me of the murder fictions I have a really hard time ignoring.” Morik grimaced, “I guess I am a fan. But, also, I find I care about Refka. And maybe a little less about Shegrräo, but not much less. And the more I look into it, the more I care about the Monsters in general.”
“To be honest, I think we’ve been taught to ignore them. And I think that’s a big problem,” Morik put the knife down and circled around to yems chair and started to sprawl across it, folding yems arms to rest yems chin on them. Yem sighed, “I talked to Brekken this afternoon, you know, Grassling’s old Student who invented my favorite tea. Sie said that the biggest changes to the Sunspot’s way of handling justice over the past hundred and thirty millennia have been how we treat the Monsters. And specifically, how the Crew treat the Monsters. Us Children have been kept largely in the dark about them.”
“I mean, the Monsters probably prefer to handle their own justice, right?” Rrema cracked a nut particularly loudly for emphasis.
“To a point?” Morik responded. “A lot of Monsters are definitely opposed to Crew oversight, and feel that us Children mimic the Crew too much in the way we do things. We’re too conformist for them. But a lot of prominent Monsters have written extensively about how they wish we’d listen to them more, pay more attention to what they’re doing, too.”
“They’re not a monolith.”
“Not in the slightest, no. But did you know the Crew isn’t either?” Morik countered.
“I have no idea how the Crew work,” Rrema remarked.
“There’s 53 billion of them,” `errke interjected, voice raised slightly to be heard from the kitchen. “Only 900 thousand are Founding Crew, if that. And there are an estimated how many Monsters? Five thousand I think? Even the Auditor doesn’t know the exact number because some of them have figured out how to hide from the ship’s sensors, and they’re allowed to. For Special Dispensation. Anyway, for how anarchic and individualistic they supposedly are, the Monsters are probably more united than the Crew, I’d think. Just by the numbers alone.”
“That doesn’t tell me how the Crew work,” Rrema grumbled.
“Is that what we’re all talking about, though?” `errke asked.
“It’s part of it,” Rrema growled.
“Sure.” `errke visibly bristled.
There was a lot more heat between `errke and Rrema than words alone conveyed. It sounded to Togi like they were both on the verge of snapping at the other.
Togi frowned. There should be a way to diffuse that. But nem needed to observe `errke a bit longer before nem could figure out how.
Nem felt nem knew Rrema very well by now. They were intense lovers, after all, and had been for years.
Except when horny, normally Rrema was the most focused, centered, and calm individual of the household, accounting for the fact that wem didn’t actually live there. Rrema could take on just about any new project in a manner that suggested it was wems Art simply by meditating on it sufficiently before picking it up, and wem seemed to love doing that. But wem was also reacting with relative hostility to this murder case, instead of quietly accepting it and throwing wemself at it like wem usually did with new opportunities. And that hostility probably came from how peopley the case was.
What Rrema liked most was to put on a show for others. But not necessarily to be there. To arrange spaces for people to explore. To curate information or artwork so that it was easier to digest, but also so that the presentation said something more than just the sum of the components of it. Exhibition was Rrema’s Art, arrangement, but not so much conflict resolution.
So, Rrema was already on edge from the murder’s intrusion into wem’s life.
But, now that Togi thought of it, Nir inadvertently leading them all to the murder scene was probably a large part of it, too.
And ‘errke being the one to lead the household to reach out to Nim probably irritated the Scales out of wem as well. ‘Scales’. Rrema didn’t have scales. Where had that oath, ‘Hailing Scales’, come from, anyway? It was so popular these days, even Togi had picked it up.
`errke was the newbie. The addition of a new potential member alone was a stressor for Rrema. Togi had already listened to Rrema about that pretty extensively. But add to that the boldness to reach out to yet another person and bring them into the mix, even for just one night, and it might have actually been scary to Rrema.
There had been very little conflict evident in that encounter to most observers, but Togi could see the undercurrents of it brewing, and for Rrema the worst was the anticipation, actually.
Yeah, no. The problem here wasn’t figuring out how Rrema worked, or why wem was tense. It was figuring out how to help wem communicate with `errke, and vice versa. And that’d take a bit more time.
But, if Rrema was this tense after a whole day of sex, it was definitely A Thing.
“I think maybe you all should investigate without me,” Rrema said. Wem cast a questioning glance back at Togi.
Togi sent wem a small smile. Togi wasn’t really sure what nem had to contribute to the case, either. So, nems best move was to be support for Rrema. Nem could do that.
“That’s perfectly fair,” Morik said. “But, can I ask your impression about something before you bow out?”
Rrema looked up at Morik for a few moments before speaking, probably scowling, “I guess. Yeah.”
“In respect to your Art, what did you think of the murder scene? The whole thing, with and without the recording,” Morik said.
Rrema glanced back at Togi again, a truly dark scowl on wems face, but turned back to answer rather calmly, “It was horrifying.”
“I think the annotations from the Crew were couched in official language, meant to be respectful and impartial. But…” Rrema hesitated.
Morik patiently waited, apparently guessing that verbally prompting Rrema wasn’t a good idea.
Good call, Togi thought. We haven’t seen wem like this much. Rrema can usually take it. But not right now.
“I think they should have withheld any interpretation of the evidence until requested. Even the term ‘Ultimate Consent Violation’ shows bias, but the line in there about apparent motive is going to color other people’s perspectives. It’s like they’re trying to take charge without officially doing so. And if not, it might have that effect,” Rrema explained.
“So, you agree with me about that,” Morik said.
“Yes. But, I just think…” Rrema dropped wems head and cracked another nut intensely instead of finishing.
Morik raised an eyebrow as if to visually prompt Rrema, but then said, “I’m sorry for pushing. It’s OK.”
“No,” Rrema said. “I’m frustrated. Personally. It’s not about the murder, just the case. `errke and Sharwe were about to start work on their integrative garden proposal, and I was excited about that. I wanted to help with the work of building it! But, I just think this case is going to delay that. And it’s not like it’s a rush. I’m just. I’m having trouble shifting gears I guess, and I don’t want to.”
“Ah, thank you, Rrema!” `errke said.
“Our formal proposal to the Council is almost done,” Sharwe said. Gem was now wrapping up the dough in a cloth to let it rise for a bit. “I think I can finish it up tonight, with Morik’s help, and then we have to wait for approval. But I bet we can do the physical work of building the new garden while thinking and talking about the case at the same time. And we don’t necessarily have to talk about it around you. I know I’m going to need breaks from it occasionally, if it takes more than a couple days anyway. I can’t imagine it’ll occupy us any longer than it’d take the Council to approve our plans, anyway.”
“OK,” Rrema said.
“In fact,” Shawre pointed at the dough. “While this is rising, I’ll go work on that.” Then gem went into gems room to do that.
“How are the nuts?” `errke asked.
“Some of them are kinda smashed,” Rrema replied.
“Those ones will be great for the broth,” `errke said. “Bring them here?”
It’d be another hour or so before dinner was ready, so Rrema came back from the kitchen with the remaining nuts and the nut cracker, and put them in front of Togi. Most of them were shelled now, so the nut cracker wasn’t necessary unless Togi wanted to eat all of them.
“Thank you, Sexy,” Togi said to Rrema.
“Of course!” Rrema said. Then turning to the others, “I’m going to go for a walk. I need to think about things. Let me know when dinner’s ready, OK?”
“Absolutely,” Morik replied.
`errke waved and nodded from the kitchen.
“You can stay and rest,” Rrema told Togi. “I think I need to be alone, anyway.”
Togi nodded, and said, “take care of yourself.”
If there was one thing Togi could trust Rrema to do, it was to take care of wemself. But saying it should be a nice reassurance.
Stuffing a nut into nems mouth and munching it a few times first, Togi looked up at Morik and `errke and said, “So. Nir?”
All three of them looked out the spinward window, through the trees there at the sliver of Nir’s house that was visible. One of Nir’s windows had a clear view to their window, but Nir wasn’t there right now. Occasionally, Rrema had caught hem gazing out of it at their house longingly, apparently.
“I think hem’s harmless and could use some company. And you all should invite hem over for a meal or something sometime,” `errke said. “But maybe after Rrema has gotten used to me first?”
“Ah. I think you’re already more of a member of our family than you think, `errke,” Morik said.
“Maybe. I think I throw Rrema off a bit, though. And Nir definitely does,” `errke responded.
OK, so, less work for Togi, then. `errke was aware.
“I wish I knew why, though,” `errke added.
“Rrema does things slow and sure,” Togi offered. “I think wem’s irritation today comes from all of yesterday, honestly. The weight of the Ascension party, the murder, all the people, all of that. But also, definitely, Nir.”
“Nir really hasn’t been handling hems anxiety and longing very well,” Togi pointed out. “And that has been making Rrema anxious. Wem doesn’t really trust hem.”
“Ah, I think hem is cute and sweet.”
“You’re not Rrema,” Togi said.
“Anyway, I think your advice is good,” Togi said. “But I think a few days is probably long enough. Maybe. I mean, we’re still just testing the waters with Nir, anyway, and Rrema knows that.”
“We don’t have to do things with Nir as a whole group, either, of course,” Morik suggested. “Maybe just one or two of us at a time would be more hems pace, anyway.”
“Exactly,” Togi agreed.
`errke nodded, then moved the wrapped dough closer to the hot plate, so the heat might help it rise. Then rrem looked between Morik and Togi, “Should we wait for the others to talk about how to contact the Monsters? Or some Monsters? Or… what?”
“Well, we should at least let Sharwe in on figuring out what to say to or ask them,” Togi said. “But figuring out how to contact them…?”
“I always figured that’s exactly the kind of thing our Tutors were for,” Morik said. “Funny thing, I guess, that at least I’ve never asked about how to contact a Monster before. Anyway, after I talked to Brekken, Grassling said Ralf was more likely to have the best advice regarding that.” Morik looked at `errke.
“Only because it knows Abacus well,” `errke shot back. Then, to the air, “Hey, Kiddo? You there?”
“Yes, Boss?” Ralf responded audibly to the room.
“What d’ya think?”
“I think I’ll ask Abacus,” Ralf said. “Monster Network addresses aren’t typically public. They’re traditionally very private. But they do send their own liaisons to the regional councils, and that would be the regular channel to contact any Monster that can be contacted. But Abacus has been systematically interviewing all of them. Or, at least, trying to. It may have warnings or advice.”
“That sounds great,” `errke told it.
Morik faintly shook yems head, “So cool.”
“Being the Student of a minor celebrity like Ralf is weird,” `errke said. “But, I guess since the both of us are here, and we’re poking our heads into something grave and serious, there’s a definite non-zero chance someone like Morde will want to talk to you someday, Morik.”
Watching Morik’s eyes widen made Togi want to snicker, but nem held it in. For some reason. Nem still smirked. Nem popped some more nuts in nems mouth.
“Actually. Since this has to do with Monsters, and Ralf’s contacting Abacus, it’s more likely to be Tetcha,” `errke said.
“And where Tetcha goes, there’s Morde,” Ralf added.
“And,” `errke gestured to the air. “Before you know it, we’re all talking to Phage.” Rrem watched Morik’s horrified expression for a couple sentences before smirking and asking, “Maybe we should drop the whole thing?”
Morik blinked a couple times, “Oh. You’re teasing me, aren’t you?”
“Not as much as you might think,” `errke said, raising rrems head. “But, yeah.”
Grassling spoke up, “Celebrity of this type is very new amongst the Children. Nobody quite knows what to do about it. But, you may find that when you encounter any of these people, their drive to focus on their own projects will dominate any interaction. They are people, after all, who have been gripped by a storm of historical change. Focusing intensely is what helped keep them afloat.”
“That makes sense,” Morik said. And then started to give `errke a calculating side look that Togi recognized well. To Togi, who’d grown up with Morik as siblings, that look meant that Morik was trying to decide if `errke might be receptive to being pranked sometime later.
The whole household, except `errke, knew that look by now. But no one else was here to see it besides the Tutors. And they never really seemed to pay attention to that sort of thing anymore. At least not since Togi and Morik were in their teens.
Morik’s next steps would be to covertly extract enthusiastic consent from `errke for whatever it was yem was starting to plan.
Sharwe’s door opened like a pair of curtains, and wem leaned out, “I think I’ve polished the proposal as best as I can. I’ve sent it to you, `errke, for you to triple check. Where’s Rrema?”
“Gone for a walk,” Togi said.
“Ah, OK. Well, hopefully we can have Ralf and Kettle review what we’ve written up and give us some pointers,” Sharwe said.
“Of course,” Kettle said. “I thought that was the plan.”
“I didn’t want to keep assuming,” Sharwe told it.
“Um,” Ralf interjected. “I’ve just received a short list of names and addresses from Abacus, of Monsters who’ve known both Refka and Shegrräo, who might be willing to be interviewed.”
“Neat!” `errke said.
As Togi was rolling a roasted nut in the last of nems bread, Rrema looked over at nem and said, “Can we retreat to your room to talk for a bit?”
“Sure!” Togi said, only briefly glancing at the others.
Morik gave Rrema a hopeful look and asked, “Would you be up for helping me with part of my library afterward?”
Rrema gave yem a soft grimace and replied, “Maybe tomorrow. I need to fly home and get some actual sleep soon.”
Togi noticed `errke giving Sharwe a worried glance, but decided not to act on it yet. Sharwe saw rrems glance and only slightly tilted gems head in reassurance. If they were worried about what Rrema wanted to talk about, they’d wait for Togi or Rrema to fill them in later. If it was even relevant to anyone else.
Togi knew that Rrema frequently used Morik as a sounding board about their relationship, occasionally. Rrema and Morik shared the mutual interest in Morik’s library. But Morik was pretty good at talking about how Togi worked, even if Togi took pride in working to give people as few reasons as possible to wonder. A tight, hot, passionate thing like that which Rrema had with Togi would need emotional backup and a safe ear to vent to, regardless. It was probably better if Rrema vented to someone other than Togi’s sibling, but maybe Rrema could find someone like that later. And this was good for now.
And Rrema rarely had much to say about anyone else in the household, as far as Togi knew. So, if wem was coming to nem to talk, it was either about their relationship or it was about something going on outside their family. And Togi was guessing it was the latter. Mostly. Morik’s interest in the murder was throwing things a bit off kilter, though.
Anyway, the others had completed their investigation planning before dinner, adding a few preliminary annotations to the case file with only their three names on them, so they could talk to Rrema about lighter things during the meal. Including the integrative garden. All in all, it had worked out pretty nicely.
But Rrema had been subtly unsettled since getting back from wems walk, like wem was suppressing something wem wanted to talk about. So Togi had been half expecting a request like this.
Togi popped the breaded nut into nems mouth, chewed it a bit before swallowing, and then drank the rest of nems migoa soup. Taking nems dishes to the kitchen to be sterilized in the maker, Togi said, “That was so wonderful. Thank you! Let me know when the rest of you are done eating, and I’ll come out and put the food away and take care of everything else.”
“No worries,” Sharwe said.
Rrema excused wemself and followed Togi to the kitchen. Then the both of them wandered to nems room.
When the door had closed behind them, Rrema said to Togi, “Nir followed me on my walk, at a distance. But wouldn’t approach, wouldn’t pass, wouldn’t talk, and I had to fly back to lose hem. I don’t know what to do about it.”