.. | pariah society | chapter 1
It'd been a dark city since Riff could remember. Not eternal nighttime dark, but just a dreary grayness devoid of heat, spattered with grittiness and grime that was sometimes so overpowering you could grind it between your teeth. Even when the sun shined its effects always seemed dimmed and shadowed by looming buildings and tattered colorless awnings. On this side of the city half of the structures were in ruins, standing like eerie skeletons against a bleak gray backdrop of nothingness.
Sometimes he felt that it was the story of his life, this nothingness. With no memory of where he'd been and no anticipation for where he would be, even in the day ahead.
But dreary or not, these ruins were home to them. This was their side of the city, left to all the poor street kids to do with what they could, unbothered only because it got them out of the main cityways where civilization still thrived.
It was when they ventured into the city center that the danger became imminent enough for one to act with caution. The danger existed in a thousand ways or only one, depending on your outlook on things. The bolls, the lowest rung of the law, could send you to a thousand different places if they caught you. From boarding houses to sweat shops to jails or to death, it was good bull not to take them lightly, even as inefficient as they were.
No, the real danger lay with the inner-city rookeries, bands of kids who played it smart enough to be able to thrive within the comfort of the city. They had the means and the resources, not to mention the nerve to outwit the bolls any day. But they didn't take kindly to intruders; territory meant everything when resources were scarce. They defended what they had, especially against the vagabond kids from outside.
Those were the exact reasons why Riff chose to stay on the outskirts. Their small troupe could not survive in the city on their own as they were. It was only on the direst of needs, like food and meds that he would lead them within the center. Even then, they would not stay long.
Riff looked up at the blue sky and closed his eyes. It was better not to think so much about his hard life or he knew he'd fall into that melancholy again, a despair that was getting harder and harder to shake off. Better to think on the better days, like today; those few and far between days that seemed less gritty, less gloomy compared to the haze that yesterday would soon be remembered as. Riff couldn't quite pinpoint what made them different, but everyone seemed to feel them. Shooter would crack more jokes maybe, or Bella would be able to sleep well for once. Toby would smile more and even he himself could be caught taking a good, deep breath, hardly fresh but cleansing all the same.
If it weren't for such days, Riff felt like they would waste away to nothing. One day they would all suddenly not exist, and they wouldn't even know it.
Except he would. He would notice that the pangs of ever present hunger were gone. The feeling of dirt between his fingers would annoy him less. He would notice the absence of Shooter's dirty mouth, of Fetch's laziness and Bella's endearing smile. Toby's gaze that was full of all that he knew of this life they led. If it weren't for the four of them, he knew the melancholy would drag him down for good. Without their company, he would probably fall prey to their harsh surroundings, lay down to sleep and just not bother waking up.
Not everyone seemed as affected however by the state of things. Of all of them actually, Toby was least moved towards the effects of their ambient. He was much the same everyday- quiet, rational. Really only saying what needed to be said and leaving it at that. His silent discord with Shooter had him content to keep to the background instead of being proactive about anything they did; it didn't matter that he had more experience than any of them with these streets.
But Shooter and he had not been at it for some days now and Riff was presently unconcerned. As long as they stayed out of each other's way, things in their group stayed relatively peaceful and.
Riff moved his eyes lazily up the tall, rickety scaffolding they presently lounged on. They weren't supposed to be here but they never minded the rules the bolls made. Cats could go where they pleased, so long as they played it smart. And they were still out far enough that the rooks wouldn't bother to chase them out. They tended to stay closer to the Village, the center of town, which was ripe for thieving.
He looked over to where Fetch and Bella sat with their legs hanging over the side, swinging their feet like the children they were. Fetch looked weary; he'd been working nonstop for them on account of the fact that Toby couldn't find much in the ways of food to lift. They'd have to leave this part of the city soon for the city center, Riff decided, or starve to death. Fetch and Bella could only make so much money around here anyway, selling the only thing they could- themselves.
Riff's gaze wandered to Toby. The elder boy stood with his back to them all, leaning on the side of the building and looking off in the distance, though there was nothing much to see from here. Riff thought he looked tired too, by the slump of his shoulders. As if he sensed he was being watched, Toby glanced back over his shoulder, his face half-obscured by billowing dark hair. He gave a little smile when he caught Riff watching him, then turned back to his vista before anyone else saw their exchange.
Shooter stood up and stretched his wiry legs. "Well, I'm hungry," he said, turning to Toby expectantly.
Even in the disarray out here, there was still some order to life. Everybody had a job. Toby was their thief, responsible for providing food and meds more often than not when they had no money with which to buy them. But on the outskirts of the city, there was little to be found nowadays.
"I can't pinch anything here," he responded cheerlessly. He looked at Riff for an answer.
The tall blond should have known that their short rest here couldn't last forever. No one ever liked staying in one place for too long. With a sigh, Riff stood up as well and took the time to stretch himself. He had at least hoped to stave off the inevitable for a few more days at least.
"The Village then," he said doggedly as he began to climb down the scaffolding, carefully choosing a path they could all follow safely, even the littler ones.
Bella and Fetch immediately tagged along behind him. They'd always followed him without hesitation, a fact that both gratified him and worried him. Toby moved to go down next but stopped to give Shooter a wide berth as the other boy went first. Riff eyed them closely from below, watching for any signs of trouble.
No one had appointed him the leader, much less the peacemaker and he certainly hadn't chosen the job for himself, just as Toby had not chosen to be a thief. It was the order of things that had just fallen into place as they'd traveled together, the things they were good at. He knew the cityways the best, so he led. Toby had the most talented hands, so he stole. Shooter could climb the highest and fight the best, so he was their lookout and proxy should it come to a match. Fetch and Bella, well, they knew their place too.
In silence, Riff followed the routes he knew well through alleys and backpaths, leading them closer to the city center where Toby could find food and Fetch and Bella could find business. But it was a long hike, especially on empty stomachs.
Riff made consistent glances behind himself to make sure all was well. Eventually, Shooter had hiked Fetch on his back to carry the younger boy, and Bella kept a steady hand on his arm as she trotted to keep up. Riff smiled to himself as he continued on his way. Despite his rough mouth and uncured manners, Shooter watched out for those kids as if they were his own blood, and for that their leader was very glad. Toby, on the other hand, was keeping a decent distance away from Shooter, walking quietly behind them all, watching the pavement ahead of him. Riff disapproved of how cowed he seemed as he went along. He wondered if Shooter had been giving him hateful glares again while he wasn't looking.
But his mind wasn't overly concerned about that. The longer they walked, the more unsafe their surroundings would become, and the more likely they were to have a run in with the bolls, or worse yet, one of the rookeries that had staked out their territory. And no one was a match for those groups, least of all them, when they had no means with which to protect themselves in terms of weaponry. No one carried guns, they were just too hard to come by, let alone ammunition. Even the bolls carried simple nightsticks. Riff knew their sorry state was bad enough, but their saving grace was that very few rooks had access to such weapons either.
What they did have were skills in fighting- free boxing, they called it. Shooter had the most ability of all of them, it was usually he who would take a match if they were given the choice. It was just how the contracts worked- sometimes you could make a bet on one match. If you won, they let you go. If you lost, well, you lost. But problems were starting to arise now that these haughty rook kids refused to make contracts of it any longer. They were starting to prefer brute force than honest matches anymore, and starting to demand a higher form of payment when it came to trespassing.
It was becoming even more risky now that they couldn't even be sure they would be able to use their only means of defense. Riff had always been concerned that it was only he and Shooter who had enough power and bottle to take on a rook kid if it came to a fight. The time would come he knew when they may not even be given the chance.
By the time the sky had begun to darken they were within the city center blocks. After that, began the search for a place to sleep for the night. As they searched, Shooter was visibly on his guard while Bella huddled close to Toby and Fetch followed closely behind. But for the bustle of the crowds of citizens, it was unnervingly devoid of spying rook kids.
Riff settled them in an old empty flat that he had spotted from the outside by its wall of paned windows, half of which were kicked or knocked out in neglect. They'd had to climb an old iron escape the get in there since the building was boarded up, but such a hard entrance made it unlikely that anyone else occupied it. The place even had some old furniture left in it, including a dusty old mattress that leaned against the wall, as if still waiting for someone to move it.
As Riff stood surveying the place, Shooter pulled the mattress down and flopped back onto it. He sneezed at the dust that billowed out.
"This isn't so bad," he said, bouncing on the old creaky springs.
Silently, Riff went to look out the windows. He could just see the main strip from where they were, lit up with flashing lights and crowded with people who lived decent lives. He let himself smile; tonight could be a good night after all. He turned to Fetch and Bella as they stood watching him like obedient pups. He smoothed Bella's dark blond hair from her face.
"Be back early," he said with a smile. They each smiled back at him, then wordlessly exited the way they'd come in.
Toby, quiet all this time, pulled on his outer coat which he'd had tied around his waist. "I'm going too," he said.
The blond looked back at him but carefully schooled his expression. He hadn't wanted Toby to go so soon; he should at least wait until full dark. But Toby had always done everything on his own plan.
"Be back early," Riff repeated softly after a moment. After Toby was gone, that left just Shooter and he to wait them out.
The other kid stripped off his heavier outer-clothes, since it actually managed to stay a bit warmer in here than outside. Left with just a ragged tank and his baggy pants, he playfully punched Riff's arm. The white-blond of his short cropped-hair showed almost blue in the dusky light.
"Wanna fight?" he said, boxing against the air only a few inches from Riff's side. "Come on, it'll warm you up."
"You've been at it again, haven't you?" Riff said suddenly, watching the distant strip.
Shooter sighed and stopped his teasing. "Clear off. I haven't done anything to him," he asserted. "He's the one giving me dirty looks." He came to stand next to Riff and followed his gaze outside.
"Then I suppose he's just quiet lately because he's got nothing to say," Riff said humorlessly.
"He never has anything to say," Shooter snorted, grabbing his outer shirt from the floor. "Besides, how the hell should I know what's eating at him and what do I care? He stays out of my way, that's all that matters to me." He turned his back to Riff, irritated at their conversation. They'd already had this discussion several times over.
"Fucking brummy," Shooter mumbled under his breath. "Faffing around all day... then we still go hungry enough to have to come here-"
At his words Riff suddenly whirled and slammed him back against the panes with one arm. A few more glasses fell out from the force of it and had the frame not been iron paneled, Shooter would've gone through the whole thing. For the moment though, the kid was a bit too stunned to do anything but stare at him. Riff almost never made such a standing of his leadership, but this time he'd been pushed a little too far.
"He's not a brummy," Riff growled. "Belt up and leave him the fuck alone. I've had it with you two."
Despite the strength of his reprimand, Riff also knew well that Shooter could easily have thrown him off and probably even won the match if it came to a fight. However, there were a few qualities about the kid that more than made up for his prejudices. Namely, his loyalty.
"Fine," the kid grumbled, looking away from Riff's gaze.
The tall blond let him go and straightened his jacket to regain his composure. "I'm not going to tell you again," he said.
Shooter turned back to the window panes and shoved his hands in his pockets. "Fine," he repeated.
It was past dark when Toby came back in, his cheeks reddened from the cold and his pockets full of snacks and money. They'd buy a real meal later, but for now it was enough to sit in a triangle on the floor to eat hungrily in silence. Riff set aside the sweeter things for Fetch and Bella, but his confrontation with Shooter had left him without an appetite of his own. He could only pick at his portion and decided to himself that he'd give it to Toby later.
"How was it out there?" he asked, breaking the silence.
Toby chewed his food with a simple grace and didn't speak until he'd swallowed. Riff watched him with a slight smile. Toby had always had an elegant way about him, some inner refinement the rest of them lacked. Perhaps that delicacy led to his ability to work so well at his thievery; no one would even feel those hands as they robbed them.
"I didn't see anybody," he said after a moment.
Riff nodded approvingly. If Toby hadn't had a run in with any kids from the local rooks or the bolls, then he supposed they could stay here for the night and feel safe. He would be more than happy to make use of that old mattress, dusty or not. Toby took another bite of his bread, glancing up at Riff momentarily, then looked away before it caught Shooter's attention.
A few hours later, Riff stood at the panes again with his arms folded, his mind still not at ease completely. Fetch and Bella weren't back yet and as was his habit, he dutifully waited up for them. Behind him, Shooter was blessedly asleep on the mattress, taking up more space than should be possible for someone of his wiry build. He was snoring softly.
"You didn't eat," Toby said, coming up to stand next to him.
Riff turned his head to watch him, unafraid to do so as long as Shooter slept peacefully. At his silence, Toby sighed. He hadn't expected a response.
"I hate the Village," the thief said after a moment.
"I know," Riff answered.
Toby pushed his hair out of his eyes. "I was surprised not to see anyone. It worries me."
Riff sighed as well, not excited to hear about the other boy's reservations. Toby was older than them all by at least three years and though that wasn't a lot, he'd seen much more than any of them, out on his own. His lack of fight drive which Shooter often took for cowardice or submission was actually a result of his experiences here. He was self-sufficient, he needed the rest of them the least of all. And his independence from them was one the things Shooter was resentful of.
The other was his suspicion that Toby, apart from the general accepted practices of prostitution, was a brummy. Meaning, he didn't need a reason like money to slick with another boy. Shooter had no proof, but Toby's quiet manner and attractive, almost pretty features made him assume enough. And even though their lives were devoid of females, besides young Bella of course, Shooter openly had no love for brummys. As for that however, he had no idea how little he actually knew.
"I was worried about you," Riff said softly. Toby gave a half-smile, tinged with a little sadness. When he didn't answer, Riff reached out and brushed his hair back behind his ear.
Toby tilted his head ever so slightly towards him, but caught himself. "Stop it," he said softly. He threw a meaningful glance at Shooter.
Riff gave a small smile. "Then let's go outside."
They climbed all the way to the roof where they could be truly alone. Toby leaned against the failing vent enclosure with a sigh, looking so tired as the wind ruffled his hair into his eyes and pulled at his ragged clothing. Riff stood a little away from him, breathing in a deep lungful of air. He felt miles away from Toby.
"Shooter's started again," Toby said quietly, as if in explanation. Riff turned to him, putting his back to the wind.
"I spoke to him already," he answered, stepping closer to Toby until he'd pressed the other boy's body back against the rickety enclosure wall. It felt good, this contact, when moments alone were so few and far between.
"It won't do any good, Riff, you know that," Toby said with a rueful smile. His breath was warm against Riff's face. When the blond leaned in to kiss him, he gently turned his head away.
"We can't," he said quietly.
Riff let off of him a few paces, his normally contained frustration getting the better of him. "Can't what, Toby?" he asked. "Can't I kiss you? Here? Where we're the only two people alive?"
The other boy still sagged back against the wall with his eyes cast up to Riff's, giving him a defeated look. "It's useless," he said softly.
"How can you say that?"
Toby just shook his head. He'd never given more of a reason than keeping Shooter's suspicions at bay, mostly because he would be the one to bear the brunt of his spite.
"I don't care about Shooter," Riff said gruffly.
"You should," the slender boy answered. "When it's just the five of us, he could be dangerous."
Without warning, Riff pinned him back against the wall and forcefully kissed his lips. Toby was stiff for a moment but he eventually succumbed, allowing it just this once. When their lips separated, he gave a sad smile. A kiss was ever as far as they'd gotten, it was all Toby would allow.
"I can't believe he's the only reason," Riff said gruffly.
But Toby just blinked his eyes lazily. "It will get harder and harder," he said softly, "if we keep doing this."
"Why should I make it easy on you?" Riff answered, a bit more roughly than he'd meant to. He moved away to look out over the edge of the building they stood on and closed his eyes for a moment. The wind felt good up here.
He couldn't remember exactly what had passed between them that had started this whole thing. When they'd met up with Toby so long ago, the boy had been very much the same as he was now- quiet, patient and uncomplaining, with a degree of resignation to this life that often made him seem like he'd finally just given up. But there'd been something else about him in his elegant looks, high cheek bones, curved jaw and thick dark hair. In his mild temperament; the calm, laid-back attitude that gave the impression that he just didn't care. Riff had never really had an opinion of brummys before, much less ever considered himself one. However, upon setting eyes on the thief, he'd known what Toby was, sure as Shooter knew.
But his assumptions may as well have been unfounded, as Toby gently resisted any advances he made. The boy seemed willing enough, sometimes gazing at Riff as if it was the only thing on his mind at certain moments, but there was something holding him back. Perhaps Toby just hadn't decided what he wanted. Or maybe Shooter really was that much of a threat to him.
At that thought Riff turned around, again putting his back to the wind that ruffled his shaggy blond hair just into his eyes. "You said it's because it's just the five of us," he said. "What if there were more?"
Toby blinked, confused. Riff moved back towards him and leaned against him, face to face once again. The roughness of their layered clothing was just another barrier between them.
"What do you want me to do?" he asked softly. "Build you a real rook of our own?"
"Clear off." Toby rolled his eyes and looked away at the absurdity of the idea.
"I'm serious," Riff insisted, pushing this ludicrousness further. "Gather the biggest gang to run this side of the city. Be really in charge. Then we wouldn't have to worry."
Toby decided to play along. "And what if the rest of them were just like Shooter?"
Riff pulled away the tattered, colorless scarf that covered the thief's tender neck. He lowered his head to kiss the exposed flesh, sensing a slight lessening in his resistance.
"Not everyone's like Shooter," Riff mumbled against the lapel of his coat. He pulled the fabric away to reach skin. "Besides, they wouldn't be able to reach us."
Toby tilted his head back ever so slightly and closed his eyes. "Why not?"
"Mmm. We'd shack up in a good loft- maybe in the Highs downtown? Far away from everyone else..." He nuzzled Toby's warm throat, delighting in how much the boy was letting him get away with. But when he reached to pull open Toby's coat, the older boy caught his hands in his own. Toby brought them to his lips and kissed his fingers, gently denying him once again.
Riff stood back with a sigh.
"We should go back down," the thief said softly, pulling his coat closer around him and moving to the edge where they'd climbed up. The moment of ease was over just like that.
Riff knew he should have been more aggravated than he was, considering how much he wanted to be let inside Toby's distant reserve. In the beginning he had been so childishly put off by rejection that he wouldn't even speak to the boy for a time after, while Toby endured his frustration with quiet, unending patience.
But Riff no longer felt angry when Toby chose to close himself off. Time had passed, he had grown up, and he had long gotten used to things ending that way.
Both Fetch and Bella had returned by the time they climbed back into the old musty room, chilled from the cold and equally as subdued in mood. Shooter still dozed on the mattress while the two younger kids sat together, munching quietly on what sweets and scraps had been left for them. Fetch gestured to a pile of money and change next to him.
"It's all we could get," he said with his mouth full.
Toby counted the cash and tucked it away in his coat. He nodded at Riff. Good, a decent take.
"But no problems?" Riff asked, ruffling Bella's hair as he stood over her. "Little girl?"
She shook her head. "None," she answered with a smile, smoothing her flaxen hair back.
Riff sank back into the mattress, resting his weary legs and relaxing finally. He watched the two eat heartily, deciding that tomorrow he'd have to get them some real food with their hard-earned money. Bella was starting to look a little thin.
"I'm going to start sending Shooter out with you again," Riff said suddenly.
Fetch was wiping his hands on his shirt. "But everything was fine!" he protested. "It'll slow us down-"
"It will give me peace of mind," Riff cut off. "You took too long tonight."
Fetch mumbled his acceptance and took a long swig from a beat up bottle of water. Bella just smiled shyly at Riff. She never complained. Riff let them eat a little more then hustled them off to sleep, and watched as each of them curled around Shooter, who lazily cast a protective arm over Bella and shifted into asleep again.
Toby and Riff were the last to lay down, as usual. Riff took one last look through the panes to make sure all was well, unwilling to take any chances. Satisfied, he went to stretch out next to Toby on the mattress. The spring of it was still comfortable enough despite the musty smell.
Toby lay facing him. "I still don't like how quiet it is," he said softly, so as not to disturb the others.
Riff stared at the ceiling, his arms behind his head. "Me neither," he answered. He turned his head to look at Toby. "But we shouldn't take it for granted, right?"
Toby's dark eyes shined a little in the cold light that crept in through the paned wall. He wasn't smiling, he rarely ever did. But there was a gentle look to his face, as if he would give a small smile at any moment, though it never came. After a few moments, Toby nuzzled his cheek against his folded arm and closed his eyes.
Riff looked back up at the ceiling and sighed as quietly as he could. He wasn't hurt. Toby was who he was and would never be anything but that.
When he awoke, it wasn't because morning had come, or that he'd finally gotten enough sleep for once. It was because Bella shrieked.
Riff shot straight up, on his feet before his eyes had even focused in the dim blue light that crept in through the panes. Not even dawn yet. Shooter was beside him in a flash, fists up, ready to fight whatever they faced. Behind them, Toby moved to gather the girl up and hush her mouth.
The intruders appeared out of the shadows into the light like ghosts. Five of them, all dressed in a dark style Riff didn't recognize. They couldn't be rook kids; they wouldn't waste money on such auspicious clothing. No, these people were different. An uneasy silence hung on tenterhooks among them. Riff could feel his heart beating in his throat so hard that the pounding resounded in his head. He waited.
The one nearest the front held a half-finished cigarette between long fingers, the gray smoke from his narrow nostrils hanging above him in the air like an eerie mist. He took a drag; the others behind him remained motionless. In fact, he was the only one that looked alive, though the features of his face were obscured by the shadows and the hood of his dark coat.
The hooded stranger remained silent. The one who did speak up suddenly came from a hidden position in the background, making it six total that they faced. He was taller than the rest, slender, and moved with deliberate bearing, which told Riff he was their leader and was very used to the position. He was olive-skinned, dark-eyed and dark-haired, and amid all that his uncovered face held an openness that was unnerving. He even gave a slight smile, as if amused to see them all on their guard. The multiple piercings in his both ears glinted in he light.
"Caught sleeping," he said in a deep, amused voice. "That's no way to begin."
"Who are you?" Riff demanded, checking his peripheral vision to see that Toby and Shooter were nearby.
The stranger walked the front line with a slow pace, his gloved hands clasped behind his back. He stopped in front of Shooter. The fighter stared defiantly at him, though he stood a good three inches shorter than the other. Riff inwardly regretted the rebellion in his comrade's furious glare. He himself was no coward, but he at least knew when a little more caution would be suitable whereas Shooter had always lacked such good sense. They were unarmed and weary, at a great disadvantage.
"My name is Milo," the dark stranger answered after a moment, turning away from his study of Shooter. "And I come with a proposition for you." He walked back over to Riff. "I've been watching your little group for a while now, every time you come into the city in fact. You fight well, you run well. The fact that the five of you have survived for this long says something for your skills."
"We stay on the outside," Riff said evenly.
Milo nodded his head. "Except for tonight." He'd begun pacing again and stopped in front of Toby, who held his gaze as well but with a better-placed lack of emotion.
"I want to help you," Milo continued.
"Why?" Shooter piped up with classic nerve. Milo looked over his shoulder at him as if surprised to hear him speak, but did nothing more. He looked back at Riff.
"Because change is coming," he answered.
Riff was listening, but found himself distracted by the other stranger, the one who'd had the cigarette in the beginning. Though the hood of his coat still obscured his eyes, he was obviously watching Toby. He had been the entire time.
"What are you talking about?" Riff said, trying not to seem so concerned about the thief; that would never do among these strangers.
Milo tilted his head with a smile. "It's a change that we're going to bring about," he answered, walking around Shooter to touch Fetch's head almost fondly. "I need someone of your, should we say, caliber?"
Riff watched him carefully, though he was still more concerned with how Toby's gaze never wavered from the hooded stranger that watched him right back. Something was happening there, something he felt the urge to stop. Strangely enough, he thought he saw Milo notice it too, though he was careful not to show it outwardly. The mysterious man moved to stand between the two, but continued to look at Riff, addressing him only.
"Can we make a deal?" he asked with a white smile.
"You haven't said anything that makes sense," Shooter growled from the background, impatient. Damn that mouth of his.
"I only offer a means to advance yourselves," Milo continued, ignoring him. "It's pricey, but I think we all know that in this world that's a given-" He reached out and touched Toby's cheek.
"Clear off and leave us alone," Riff said suddenly. "We want no part in your deals."
Though his words were strong, Milo appeared unfazed. After a moment of holding gazes, he merely shook his head and smiled. He gestured to the rest of his group without another word, and one by one they exited through the escape window. In a moment, all but the hooded stranger and his leader were gone.
Milo walked up to Riff and leaned intimately close. "We are the same, you and I," he whispered, softly enough that surely no one else heard. "Creatures of habit and custom and necessity. You just need a reason to change."
Riff stubbornly held his gaze, though inside he was confused, tense. Something about this dark stranger had him on edge more than anyone had ever been able to push him, and he couldn't even pinpoint why.
Milo moved towards the window and the iron escape beyond it. "Cade," he said. The hooded stranger followed silently. They were gone in a matter of seconds, leaving the room feeling bitterly cold and empty.
They all looked at each other, speechless. All but Toby, that was, who remained where he stood, staring at the floor in front of him. He was visibly shaken to a point Riff had never seen- that in itself was cause enough for worry. But there was no time to think, only time to act. He launched into action.
"We're leaving. Now," he said. Fetch ran to gather the rest of their stores and Shooter began tossing out their coats from the pile. Still, Toby remained where he was, his fingers to his lips, staring at the floor.
"Toby?" Riff said, helping Bella bundle up for a run through the cold night. At his name, the thief snapped his head towards Riff, wide-eyed, looking as if he didn't know quite where he was. Riff left Bella and went to him, real fear beginning to rise into his throat.
"Toby?" he said again, softly this time. He took the thief by the shoulders and shook him, hoping to snap him out of whatever daze he'd fallen into. Toby began shaking his head, moving finally of his own accord.
"We have to go," he said with urgency in his voice. "Riff-"
"We're going," he assured, releasing him to usher the two younger ones towards the exit. "Hurry now-"
Shooter followed closely at his heels. "But who were they?"
"Get moving!" Riff said brusquely. He'd rather not think on Milo's cryptic words, or give himself any reason to think the young man was more than a simple rook leader whose territory they had strayed onto.
The night was freezing, even more so after being woken so frightfully. As a group they ran through the dark alleys, feet echoing off the surrounding slick brick walls. Riff didn't know what they were running from, but something had sparked a warning in his head. This night would end badly, he just knew it.
Suddenly, in mid stride, Riff skidded to a stop on his heels. The others tumbled into him, unable to see yet what he saw standing in their way. The darkened figures lined the alley and path, blocking their way forward and back. A pack of rook kids, out on a night watch probably, and they'd run right into them. Riff cursed under his breath at his carelessness as he tried to count how many emerged from the shadows to stand against them. He was willing to fight or flee, but it would seem there were just too many of them to do either.
Their leader stepped forward, looking quite amused at their catch. "A bit late for you to be out, isn't it?" he sneered with a tilt to his head. This was not the same bunch that had run them out of their sleeping place. These were simple rook kids, but that wasn't quite a comforting thought.
There was nothing Riff could say in their defense; it wouldn't have mattered anyway. All he could do was wait to see what they would offer, and then hope they could afford to pay. Two kids climbed down from their perches on the wiry awnings at their leader's gesture. They began rummaging the pockets of each of them one by one, starting with Fetch and Bella, taking what they found in ways of money and coin. When they reached Shooter, Riff could only hope the kid would keep his cool.
"I have to ask what you thought you were running from," the leader said. "Must have been a hell of a lot scarier than us." Soft laughter from those around him. He looked at Riff as he was searched. "Believe me, Milo can be. Tell me, what did he want with you?"
"He wanted a deal," Riff said gruffly, shoving the looters away as they finished with him.
The rook kid raised an eyebrow and there was a reaction among those gathered, though they kept it down to murmuring among themselves. Their leader looked back over his shoulder, silencing them.
"What did he offer then?" he asked.
Riff held his gaze. "Does it matter?"
"It matters," the other answered, gesturing to his followers again. "Let's go to the warehouse, out of the cold." He looked at Riff. "We'll talk more there, hmm?"
part 2 | back to main