The view through the binoculars was of a boxy, pyramidal structure topping the roof of a building that twisted as it rose into the sky. There was no ledge between the outer edge of the pyramid and the edge of the building’s glass walls, making it look more like the structure was an odd, metallic hat instead of a commemorative monument. Visits to six neighboring buildings had proven that there was no access to the monument from the outside of the building, and a trip into the twisted building itself proved that there was no internal access route either, not even via the ventilation system.
“I was right.” Julian lowered the binoculars and turned to Rabbit beside him. “You owe me fifty creds.”
Rabbit grunted and pushed away from the fence that ran around the perimeter of the roof they were on. He reached out and Julian handed him the binoculars. Lining up the lenses so that the chain-link wouldn’t obstruct his view, Rabbit peered across at the neighboring building for several moments before grunting again. Digging in his pocket without lowering the binoculars, he produced a prepaid cred card.
Julian couldn’t help laughing at this tacit admission of defeat. The breeze fluttered his hair and he pushed his bangs out of his eyes. “I guess dinner’s my treat now, isn’t it?” The plastic card was smooth between his fingers as he took it and slipped it into his back pocket. “I’m in the mood for curry. That’s fine with you, right? No meat of course.”
“As long as it’s not that place that won’t serve lentils.” Rabbit was still looking at the ziggurat, and Julian wrapped his fingers around the fence wire, squinting against the late afternoon sun reflecting off of the glass and metal from behind them.
“You’re never going to let that go, are you?”
“The waiter pissed me off. Lentils are perfectly normal for that kind of food. It’s not like I’m crazy for thinking they should serve them.”
Julian kicked the fence, listening as the vibrations spread down the length of the roof. “I can’t take you anywhere. That’s three restaurants in as many days that have pissed you off.”
Still not lowering the binoculars, Rabbit muttered, “Who would build something they couldn’t access?”
“It’s a monument. Why would anyone need to access it?” Julian rocked from his heels to his toes, growing bored with this job and practically able to smell the curry. Rabbit was probably just dawdling to distract him from how easily he got pissed off for no good reason lately.
“There are maintenance panels. A bunch of them.”
The imagined smell of curry vanished before Julian could start salivating. He looked at Rabbit and then back at the ziggurat, pressing his nose against the fence and narrowing his eyes. “Seriously? I didn’t see any.”
“There’s at least one on each level on each side.”
“And you’re just now mentioning them?” Julian thrust his hand out for the binoculars, but Rabbit didn’t relinquish them. “Let me see.”
“What language do you think the engraving is in? I don’t recognize it.”
“How many languages can you recognize?”
“Seventeen.” The answer was prompt, and Julian smirked. Of course he’d remember something that was a matter of numbers.
They stood in silence for several moments, Julian with his hand out and Rabbit ignoring him, before Julian finally punched him in the arm. “Give me the binoculars. I want to see.”
Rabbit looked sideways at him and seemed to consider before he passed them over. “Look about a third of the way down the middle level. There’s one in among the engraving.”
Julian aimed the binoculars for the spot Rabbit mentioned and squinted through them. He had to shift to the side, shouldering Rabbit out of the way, in order to escape the glare from the sun. “Oh hey! You’re right!”
Busy lighting a cigarette, Rabbit didn’t look up. “The plans show the monument’s solid, not hollow--”
“Which is a fantastic waste of resources,” Julian cut in, wrinkling his nose as the smell of tobacco smoke drifted past him.
“--Which makes me wonder what’s behind those panels,” Rabbit finished, ignoring him. “If it were solid, say concrete sheathed in metal, there’s no need for those kinds of panels.”
“Guess we should report that.”
“I want my fifty creds back.”
Julian laughed and pushed the binoculars into Rabbit’s hand. “No way. We were betting on if the thing could be reached, not if it was meant to be.”
Rabbit tucked the binoculars into his jacket and scowled, the rings in his eyebrows glistening, but all he did was shove his hands in his pockets and head for the roof access panel they had left open.
“Hey, wait!” Julian jogged after him, and squatted as Rabbit started down the ladder into the stairwell. “What’s up with you?”
“Nothing’s ‘up with me’.” Rabbit scowled up at him as he reached the floor and moved aside. Julian set one hand on the edge of the hatch and dropped down beside him, not bothering with the ladder. This earned him an eye-roll as Rabbit started down the stairs to the top floor where they could take the elevator back down the hundred-odd floors to the skyway.
“Something is. You’ve been really on edge since...well since the meeting we all had last weekend, at least.” Julian clomped down the stairs after him, choosing to ignore the way Rabbit let the access door start to swing shut without bothering to hold it for him. “And that’s saying something, because you’re always on edge.”
“It’s none of your business.” Rabbit was already at the elevator, holding his fist against the call button as though that would hurry it along.
“Bullshit, it’s none of my business.” Julian stopped next to him, close enough to pick up the scent of faux leather under the cigarette smoke. “I have to work with you.”
Rabbit was silent, watching the number above the elevator door change as the car rose. Julian pursed his lips and decided to give him until they were in the elevator to answer. He was beginning to be annoyed, but more than that, he was concerned. As long as he had known him, Rabbit had been acerbic and stubborn, but lately it was different. This wasn’t his normal, laidback irritability.
It was a long wait as the elevator rose from the seventeenth floor, and they spent it in strained silence. Finally inside the car, leaving the lingering cigarette smoke behind, Rabbit only said, “We need to make a stop on the way back.”
Swallowing his annoyance, Julian asked, “Where?”
“Alan’s. I want to ask Quinn about the engravings. Find out if he recognizes the script.” He took his spent cigarette out of his mouth and reached out to put it out on one of the buttons on the elevator’s control panel.
Julian smacked his hand away. “Why not ask Alan?”
“His memories are all jumbled. Even if he knows, he’s probably forgotten he does.” Rabbit dropped the cigarette on the floor instead and ground it under his heel. “Quinn’s a surer bet if I really want to know. Otherwise I’ll have to search through his books, and fuck that.”
“Is it going to take long?” Julian scowled down at the cigarette butt on the floor of the elevator and thought of all the curry he was currently not eating.
“Why? Don’t want to spend that long around Alan?”
Julian grimaced. “He’s creepy.”
“Yeah, he is,” Rabbit said with a smirk. He looked up at the floor counter as they passed the sixtieth floor and frowned slightly. “You know, I saw Hiroki at his shop.”
The elevator was suddenly smaller. “What?! When?”
“It was...a week ago? Maybe longer. He bought something.”
Julian grabbed Rabbit’s shoulder, pulling him around to face him, nails digging into his jacket in sudden desperation. “What? What did he buy?!”
Rabbit scowled and tried to shrug him off. “How should I know? I came in as he was leaving. You can ask Alan when we get to his place.”
Mind racing, Julian forgot about the curry. He followed Rabbit out to his bike when they finally reached the skyway where they had left it and mounted behind him. He could think of a thousand items Alan’s store might carry that he wouldn’t want Hiroki to have at his disposal, and his mind painted a thousand accompanying disaster scenarios for him to enjoy.
He shook his head against the wind in his ears as they sped along, trying to clear his mind. Finding out what Hiroki had bought might give them clues to his plan. It was time to act like a detective, not a man scared of the end of the world; the more they knew, the greater their chances of succeeding would be.
Compared to most of the streets within the attack zone, the Hallow had fared very well. Many of the shops, although partially destroyed, seemed to be open, with a surprising number of pedestrians shuffling around the mostly cleared street. In a period when people needed something to believe in, many of them had chosen the pseudo-spiritual offerings of the shops on this street. Rabbit didn’t need a special charm to ward them away from his bike, though; all he had to do was glare.
Alan was actually behind the counter when they went into the shop, leaning against the display case and half flirting, half arguing with a woman who seemed disinterested in anything but the contents of the display. Rabbit ignored his friend, slipping behind the counter and disappearing into the backroom, leaving Julian to loiter alone in the front of the store. He drifted to a shelf of oddly shaped bottles full of questionable liquids, examining them vaguely while he waited.
“Look, if you can’t make up your mind, why not come back later?” Alan asked the woman lingering at the case, apparently not interested enough in the improbable opportunity to sleep with her to put up with talking to her any longer.
“All you have to do is answer a simple question,” she shot back.
As though anything with Alan was ever simple. Bored and only half wishing he could warn her not to bother, Julian pulled a bottle off of the shelf and popped the cork off. The heady mixed scents of mint and vanilla wafted out and he replaced the stopper quickly when he started to see fireworks.
“‘Will this make me rich’ is not a simple question.” Alan tapped on the case with his nails, the noise loud in Julian’s ears as he rubbed his eyes to clear them. “This ring is old. How well it will work in a world of digital money is untested.”
She pulled her purse further up on her shoulder and turned away, speaking over her shoulder as she stalked to the door. “I’m not interested in something that won’t work.”
Alan rested an elbow on the display case and cupped his chin in his hand. “Not like you could afford it anyway,” he said as the bell above the door rang to signal the woman’s exit. Alan’s eyes shifted to Julian. “Don’t touch anything you’re not going to buy.”
Julian approached the counter, not bothering to ask what it was he’d smelled. He was sure he didn’t want to know. “About a week ago, a guy came in here and bought something. I need to know what he bought.”
“My customers rely on my discretion to protect their privacy.”
“So you don’t remember.”
Alan raised an eyebrow. “Why do you want to know?”
It didn’t take much thought to conclude that honesty was the best way to handle this. Trying to out-deceive Alan would probably not be worth the hassle. “He’s going to try to destroy the world. We’re going to try to stop him. If we know what you sold him, we’ll be better prepared.”
Alan looked at him quietly from behind his glasses. He took so long to respond that Julian had to force himself not to fidget impatiently.
“What’d he look like?” Alan finally asked. Although his expression hadn’t changed, Julian felt hopeful that he would cooperate.
“Blond. About Rabbit’s height. Cheerful.” He scratched the back of his neck. “Rabbit came in as he was leaving. He knows him from the university.”
“Oh, that guy?” Alan grimaced. “He scared the crap out of Quinn. Those damn--” He stopped and shook his head. “And he called Rabbit Nicholas, which just pissed him off.”
Julian leaned forward against the case, trying not to look too excited. “So you remember?”
“What’d he buy?” Julian demanded.
Alan eyed him skeptically, then shrugged, expression bland. “Can’t remember.”
Julian couldn’t help grimacing again, knowing he shouldn’t have expected help from Alan unless he was directly threatened by what was going to happen. Julian would have argued that he was, but it had nothing to do with Alan’s business, so he probably wouldn’t have listened.
“Hey, can I ask you another question?”
For a moment, Julian was afraid Alan would say ‘you just did.’ Instead he nodded slightly, looking bored.
“What’s up with Rabbit lately?” Julian leaned forward again, lowering his voice so that Rabbit wouldn’t overhear from the back room. “He’s a lot angrier than normal.”
“Cycle’s coming around on him.” Alan shrugged. “Always does.”
Julian pinched the bridge of his nose. Nothing was ever easy. “Okay, Alan? I don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about.”
“Rabbit’s got bad rebirth luck. Like, bad luck of astronomical, super nova proportions. That guy gets fucked over in every way you can think of, every time he’s reborn.” Alan picked a bit of lint off of his shoulder, flicking it away. “I know. I’ve seen lots of his lives in the last thousand years.”
Julian stared at him, appalled at how blasé Alan was about it. “Isn’t he your best friend?”
“He’s my brother.” Alan smirked, as though at a joke he wasn’t sharing with Julian. “Anyway, the universe is just reminding him he can’t get away from it. It’d piss anyone off to know that no matter what they do, they’re screwed.”
Julian frowned, opening his mouth to ask for more information, when the curtain behind the counter shifted and Rabbit emerged.
He sauntered past Julian and Alan, hands in his pockets. “Let’s go eat.”
“Hey! Aren’t you even going to say hi to me?” Alan called after him, straightening up.
Rabbit only waved without turning as he shouldered his way through the door. Alan rolled his eyes and settled back. “He better bring me sandwiches next time he shows up.”
Exasperated and no more satisfied than he had been when they’d arrived, Julian shrugged and followed Rabbit into the street. “Did Quinn tell you what language it was you saw?”
Instead of answering, Rabbit held up his hand and stepped away, taking his phone out of his pocket. Julian sighed and leaned against the bike. He had no idea what Hirokimight have bought from Alan, and as he tried to think it over, he was sidetracked by his concern for Rabbit. He wanted more details about the rebirths Alan had mentioned, but knew that even if he knew more, he couldn’t do anything about it. Pursuing it wouldn’t be satisfying, and even more importantly, it would be a violation of Rabbit’s privacy.
He watched Rabbit’s back, noting the tension in his shoulders, the way he clenched and unclenched his free hand, like it pained him. His fingers were covered in stars now; there were feathers drifting across the back of his neck.
Rabbit didn’t want help if he didn’t absolutely need it, and he definitely didn’t want pity. Julian knew him well enough to know that. As difficult and unsatisfying as it was to ignore his curiosity on even the most unimportant issues, he decided to let the question of Rabbit’s past lives go.
At least they’d be eating soon. A plate of good food wouldn’t give him answers, but at least it would be enjoyable and satisfying.