by A. G. Laroy
We don't need violence to harm others; we don't need evil intentions to act like villains.
III - Hollowston.
Lyra's anger had faded by the time they set foot in Hollowston. She had decided she wouldn't spend another second thinking about that jerk, instead focusing her efforts on their task ahead.
Hollowston had a lovely, sleepy aura to it. They travelled down what seemed to be the only main road, wending their way along cobblestone alleys. Oak trees lined the streets, their branches heavy with snow. Ahead Lyra spotted a white church, barely two stories high, a handful of market booths scattered around the central plaza.
"Just so we're all on the same page," said Falco as they strolled down the street. "We think someone found one of the fire shards and has been causing wildfires around town. We'll ask around, try to figure out who has it, and retrieve it without causing a scene."
"Copy that," said Gabe, raising his hand in a mock salute.
"What could possibly go wrong?" asked Lyra. Falco rolled his eyes.
A bakery they passed had its windows open, the scent of freshly baked bread reminding Lyra of her rumbling stomach. Five minutes after forcing them to stop, Lyra held a sandwich in her hands, happily munching down her breakfast.
"We should split up and ask around," suggested Falco, just as someone yelled, "Dog!" in Lyra's ear. Gabriel bolted down the street towards a shepherd-husky mix and its startled owner. The other two traded bemused looks before jogging up behind him.
"Excuse me, miss," Gabe said when they caught up to him. "May I pet your dog?"
The owner, a blonde lady in her twenties, gave them all a dimpled smile. Gabe took that as confirmation, bending down to pet what he repeatedly called a 'good boy'.
"Terribly sorry for our friend," said Falco. He didn't look sorry.
"Oh, it's all good," the lady assured them with an even bigger smile. "Charlie here loves it when strangers pet him."
"Do you live here?" Lyra asked, trying to turn this interaction into something productive. "We were just passing through and heard someone mentioning some fires recently. Did you notice anything?"
She noticed Falco side-eye her, felt him cringe internally at her lack of subtlety.
The woman's smile wavered. Lyra felt her put up her mental walls, saw her adopt a slightly less relaxed pose. This was nothing new, of course. Whenever she tried to probe into someone's mind, they would, on some level of consciousness, notice her intrusion. This had made people wary of her in the past, and she did occasionally meet someone who would then instictively retreat, mentally shielding themselves. Just like this woman.
She noted that Falco also picked up on that. Gabriel was perfectly content gushing over the dog. The lady leaned in, talking in a low, conspiratorial hush.
"It's been the talk of the town. When it first started happening, people thought it was just someone messing around. But now that it's happened more often, I suspect someone's doin' it on purpose. I just can't imagine who it could be, or why!"
"That does sound suspicious," Falco agreed.
Ask her if there's a weirdo who would do it. Gabe still pretended to play with the dog, only his mental plea clueing Lyra in that he was following the conversation as well. There's always some weirdo everyone talks about.
"But I'm sure there's someone who seems capable?"
The lady hesitated. For a second, the mental image of Jeff flickered through the woman's mind. But then she shook her head.
"The police have said nothing?"
"I'm not even sure they're looking into it anymore. But they won't talk to us until the investigations are officially closed. Personally, I'd try my luck at the fire department if you're really that curious." She said it casually, the way people say, 'we should meet sometime soon'. Like she didn't expect them to follow through with it.
"Will do," Falco promised her. He gave her his most charming smile. Gabe got up from where he had petted the dog, his trousers covered in dog hair.
"Thank you for letting me meet Charlie," he said to the woman.
"And thank you for answering our questions," Lyra added. "We'll need to get going, but it was nice to meet you."
As the three of them retreated, she caught the woman thinking what a strange bunch, before swiftly forgetting about them to focus on her errands. They had successfully stayed under the radar so far.
"You two really need to learn how to be subtle," Falco sighed as they strolled down the lane. The streets were starting to fill as Hollowston woke up. "You can't just keep jumping from question to question. People will think we're interrogating them."
"Isn't that what we're doing?"
"Sure, but you could at least try a bit of small talk between questions." Ever the mentor.
"Hey, Falco," Lyra said to change the subject. "I think you might be right. When I asked Gabe's question, whether she knew someone who would commit arson, she'd briefly thought of Jeff."
"Who?" asked Gabe.
"That jerk who insulted me this morning."
"You remembered his name?"
"I remember everything." She winked at him.
"Regardless," Falco chimed in. "It's a nice theory to keep in mind. But let's not get ahead of ourselves. There is such a thing as confirmation bias, after all."
They made their way towards the central plaza, sporadically stopping passersby to ask them about the fires. Many seemed to share the sentiment expressed by the lady with the dog. When asked if they had any culprits in mind, a few also thought about Jeff. Other names were tossed into the ring as well, but Falco confirmed Lyra's inkling that those were just petty feelings harboured between neighbours, no real indications of suspicion or readiness to commit arson.
They did also hear some wilder speculations. A lanky teenager with her brown hair in pigtails adamantly insisted it was a murderer covering his tracks. A few people thought it was a case of repeated insurance fraud, while others believed that it had started with one person who then inspired others to start wildfires as well. One wrinkly old man said he knew it was just some kids messing around. "You know how kids are," he said to the three kids interrogating him, who all nodded under his stern gaze.
A handful of people just ignored them, hurrying on with a guarded expression. A woman in her forties yelled at them to stop loitering around. A group of young adults gave Lyra a sour look as they exclusively talked to Falco and Gabe. Many people eyed them with suspicion before hesitantly answering their questions. By noon, Lyra had developed a serious headache; her nerves were fried.
What they learned about the brothers only seemed to support their theory: Jeff and John Benson had grown up with relatives on their farm. Both their parents had died when Hollowston had first burned down, and it didn't take much for the friends to puzzle together the Conflict had affected the brothers on a personal level. Gabe was now starting to come around to their theory as well.
"I can definitely understand feeling bitter about what happened," he said with a nonchalant shrug. "And you did say this guy harboured a lot of anger."
"But let's keep in mind that they're both pretty reclusive," said Lyra. Talking to the townsfolk had made it clear how quick everyone was to imply the outsiders. "It's easy to point fingers at the person everyone knows least."
She was growing more certain with every interaction they had with the residents, yet there was still this lingering doubt. What were the odds that the very first person they met was the one they were looking for? But he was their only real suspect so far.
They briefly walked in silence before Gabe brought up a point that had been bothering him all morning.
"Don't you think it's a bit weird how you two are constantly reading other people like that?" When Lyra and Falco gave him confused looks, Gabe sighed and elaborated. "It's just, it is a breach of privacy. I mean, I know about you guys' powers, and I'm kinda taking a leap of faith that you're not consciously using them on me. But none of these people consented to having their minds and feelings read like that. Feels a bit icky, if you ask me."
"It's not like I'm actively doing it," Falco defended himself. "I'm trying to block people out. It's hard enough to control myself so that I don't accidentally influence everyone's emotions. And it'd be nice to know what I'm feeling without all this constant interference." He made a vague gesture to the people around them. "And besides, it's not like we're doing this for fun. We have a job to do."
Lyra considered what Gabe and Falco had said. Unlike Falco, she didn't have to take extra precautions not to use her kanoth, but neither had she ever given a second thought about what others might think of her telepathy. She'd been catching people's thoughts ever since she could remember. It was like seeing or hearing to her, just another way of interacting with the world.
"I feel like it's just one of my strengths, and why shouldn't I be allowed to use it? Some people are naturally more charismatic, or they just know how to manipulate others to get what they want. I feel like my kanoth is kind of like that. It allows me to understand how other people think. If anything, it's something positive; I'd like to think it makes me better at communicating. Everyone's got some talent that gives them an unfair advantage over others; why shouldn't I be allowed to use mine?"
"Sure, but just because other people are doing stuff like that doesn't mean it's okay for you, too," Gabe pointed out.
She offered no response to that.
John came running down the street, waving to get their attention. Gabe rolled his eyes and Falco protectively scooted closer to her, but Lyra sensed John's intentions and shouldered past them. Almost immediately, she reprimanded herself for prying into John's mind like that, Gabriel's words still fresh on her mind.
"I'm - I'm sorry," panted John when he reached them. "About my brother. He's not that great with people."
"I'll say." Lyra still wasn't sure what to make of him. She'd be glad if she'd never have to meet Jeff again, but his brother seemed nice enough, overall. He had a juvenile softness around his face, a kind of hopefulness Lyra had once felt herself before she started training with the Order. His eyes were bright and so full of hope.
"Yes, alright, don't worry about it," she told him, and John's face lit up. "You weren't the only person to ask us what we were doing here today."
"It's in our nature." John shrugged. "Don't get too many visitors in Hollowston."
"I never would have guessed." Gabe had stepped closer.
Lyra waved at him to shut his mouth. John had an openness to him she had rarely seen in other people. She didn't want Gabe's sarcasm to ruin the mood. His every emotion was visible on his face, every micro expression clear, laid before her like a book. She felt like she didn't have to use her kanoth to understand him. Would it be too much of a gamble to...?
"Say, do you know anything about the fires?"
"The - the fires?" He choked, which she found interesting. Falco's attention shifted - to what she couldn't sense - and Gabe also leaned in. "You mean the most recent ones? I heard they were starting all around town. Dunno much else. I've got bigger things to worry about." She had successfully stayed out of his thoughts up to this point, but now his mind was racing, a colourful whirlwind of thoughts engulfing her, making it impossible to identify a single one.
"I'm sure of it." Now Falco moved closer, fixing John with his usual stare. She felt John mentally retreating into himself. Lyra had been on the receiving end of that stare as well. She moved into Falco's line of sight, breaking the spell.
"Well, let us know if you do remember anything else."
Relief flooded into John's eyes when Lyra saved him. "Will do. Sorry again. About..."
"No worries. And thank you." She smiled at him, waving him good-bye.
"I don't like him," sulked Falco as soon as John was out of earshot.
"Jealous?" teased Gabe. He had watched the back-and-forth with mild interest, taking his usual backseat in the conversation.
"No, it's not that. He's hiding something."
"Maybe he knows it's his psychotic brother and he's trying to cover for him."
"I'd appreciate it if you didn't use that word."
"I don't think he's hiding," said Lyra. "He seems so... genuine." His thoughts tumbling over each other like that did strike her as odd, but then she remembered how Falco said he seemed to like her. Maybe that was the reason for his nervousness?
"He was genuinely sorry about his brother, I'll give you that. But how he came running after us? Something's not right."
"To be honest," said Gabe, "I'm not sure telling him we're looking into the fires was the best idea. Not saying it was his brother, but if it was - "
"He seemed alright enough," said Lyra, pushing on ahead to keep them moving. She would not debate her trust in John.