I woke up after the sun had risen, and only Blake and Louis were still on the bunks around me, fast asleep. I lay there for a while as yesterday's events sunk into my brain, listening to the silence in the shack and the busy city outside.
It was so weird. Yesterday I had woken up and went downstairs for a breakfast of corn flakes, with Prada at my heels and one of the Harry Potter books in my hand. Simple, every-day routine for a day I didn't have school. I studied for the math test next week, helped Angela cook lunch, and hung around listening to music and playing the old X-Box Kinect. Then Louis got home, and he and mum and I had gathered in the living room to watch the nightly news. The Spacers had announced the estimated dates for lift-off, and I'd left for lack of interest. Grandmum had arrived back home, which would have been normal, but she was early. And that's when everything flipped around, when she'd told me we had to leave...
Grandmum. My eyes filled with a sudden rush of tears, and I rolled over, closing my eyes and pressing my fists to them. I couldn't cry in front of Lou's friends. They were rough-and-tumble street rats of the worst city on earth. They were soldiers, knew this city up and down, fought like savages, survived by gritting their teeth and persisting...
Or so I assumed at that moment. Really, I had no idea how these people survived. I just awed at Lyle's ability to hurt an officer, at Blake and Kate’s adventurous personalities, and at Sierra’s sassy attitude. They seemed genuinely thug to me, whereas I grew up under a clean and safe household and went to a school where violence was very strictly prohibited, except in my tasty literature, and no one wanted to hurt anyone anyway. The aftertaste of the Sweep was all the gore we needed.
Of course, I'd read many books with interesting people in them, and I was analyzing Louis's friends as if they were fantastical book characters. But no author made these characters up.
A scuffling sounded beside the door, and I raised my head slowly. A window let very little sun into the shack, so as soon as my eyes adjusted to the morning light, I vaguely glimpsed a small blonde figure slipping on his shoes.
“Blake,” I hissed, sitting up carefully.
He looked up at me, and I could only just make out his strong nose and chin. “Yeah, Sky?”
Cool. He remembered my name.
“Do you know what time it is?”
“No, but I think it's about eight.”
“Oh. Okay. Um, thanks.”
“No problem,” he answered, lifting a hand in what looked like the salute Trent had given Lyle before hoisting the door open and flitting outside.
I made a sudden mental goal to leap out of bed and catch the door before it swung shut, a usual impulse I liked to act upon, and my adrenaline gave me a miniature heart attack as I scrambled out of bed and seized the sides of the door just as it passed its half-shut mark. It was slower on its hinges than my door at home, and I didn't feel too accomplished as I tried to comb my hair with my fingers, stepping onto the threshold.
As I strolled into the morning air trying to smooth my hair, I felt my cheeks and realised how cold my face was. My bare arms were freezing, too. I shivered a little before making my way around the side of the shack, glancing around and spotting Kate cooking something over the fire. Sierra sat on a crate beside her, watching the flames and tugging teasingly on Lyle's hoodie sleeve.
Whatever Kate was cooking smelled really good. My stomach was rumbling as I sank down onto a wooden crate beside Miller, seating myself straight across from Sierra with my back to the shed where I'd slept.
“How nice of you to join us,” Kate beamed, flicking her wrist to toss something off the pan she held. A large flapjack appeared, leaping into the air and flipping over before landing back into the sizzling pan.
“Where'd you get the pancake batter?” Blake asked as he appeared by Lyle. I blinked at him, wondering where he'd disappeared to within the few moments between both our departures from the shack. I'd sworn I hadn’t seen him sitting around the fire just a moment ago, nor anywhere in between here and the shack.
He caught my bemused look and smirked with one corner of his mouth, pointing over his shoulder to the maze of laundry sheets as he read my expression. I nodded slowly and quickly averted my gaze, looking at the fire instead. These kids could read me like a sheet of paper, and it unnerved me most incredibly.
“From Grovánte, our favorite merchant,” Kate seemed amused as she answered her brother.
Lyle laughed, and I glanced at him as he and Sierra looked at me.
“Who's Grovánte?” I asked.
“Fat Frenchie,” Blake supplied, smirking.
“Sir Sarcastically Sweet,” Lyle grinned.
“Big Hater,” even Sierra was laughing.
“Don't forget Hippo,” Miller giggled.
“We call him every insult in the book, partly because he's best friends with the police, partly because he won't let us steal from him,” Lyle told me, his eyes glittering in amusement. “His real name's Charmont Grovántion, and we suppose he would have been some rich prince guy before the Sweep. He's insanely annoying, especially considering he likes to guard his lovely fruit stand, which happens to be most inconvenient for our rumbling bellies.”
I cracked a smile. “Oh?”
“True story,” he winked, and I raised a brow in amusement.
“There's also Mr. Jardine, Mr. Rixton, and Lady Margaret. Because, where there's—”
“One, there's got to be more,” the others chimed in to finish his sentence, chuckling.
“It's our saying,” Trent explained with a wide smile. “Where there's one, there's got to be more.”
I laughed, nodding.
“And you, darling, are going to have the chance of a lifetime and meet them, just as soon as we train you,” Sierra giggled.
“Train me?” my smile faded as nervousness suddenly pierced through my chest. Train me to what? Steal food?
“Of course. You live with us, you have to abide by the Rules of Us,” Lyle smirked.
“The Rules of Us,” Miller rolled her eyes, getting to her feet with a graceful movement. “Don't worry, it's nothing too difficult. Louis will teach you. Speaking of which, is he awake yet?”
“Not yet, I don't think,” I shook my head, watching her start towards the shack.
“No canoodling,” Lyle pointed at her with raised eyebrows as if lecturing a child, the hints of an amused grin pulling at his mouth. He looked so pleased with his humour, yet I got the feeling that the snickers coming from the others weren't for his joke, but because he was such a dork. For some reason that made me like him that much more, and I bit the inside of my cheek, frustrated with myself.
Miller’s cheeks tinted pink. She hit Lyle as she walked by, and the sound her fist created on contact with his muscly shoulder made me wince. But Lyle was giggling, swatting at her hand as she withdrew it and flipped her hair before continuing along her way.
“Sass,” Trent, Kate, and Blake all whispered in unison, drawing out the hissing noise at the end of the word before breaking into quiet laughter.
Sierra sighed, rolling her eyes and making a sound of disgust in the back of her throat. “Canoodling?” she looked at Lyle as if she couldn't believe the word had come out of his mouth.
“Yes'm,” he grinned cheekily, showing off his dimples. I felt my breath catch, and I forced myself to look out at the city instead of observing the gentle curve of his lips. The others laughed, then began conversing again, but I had already zoned out.
The sun was hanging between two skyscrapers to our left in the Eastern sky, reflecting off windows and forcing me to squint as I stared through the row of old laundry, past the glare, and into the city beyond.
I hadn't noticed last night, but we were in a pretty decent spot, as far as the view went. I could see central London, where Louis had showed me the ice cream shop and we'd stared up at the Westminster tower. The large clock was visible now, displaying the time: eight fifty-seven. Beyond it was more skyscrapers.
I sighed, glancing to my right, away from the rising sun.
Laundry sheets blocked most of the scene, but I glimpsed more skyscrapers, letting my gaze sift slowly through the closest ones. To my relief, the Demos Mortem was nowhere in sight, but the other buildings weren't nearly as impressive as the grand building where my grandmum was being held.
I began to wonder if she and Mum were okay.
“...That's my favourite part of London,” a voice said next to my ear as a long arm stretched out in front of me and pointed to one section of the city that looked more modern and active than the rest. I jumped, blinking at his tattooed skin and ringed fingers for a moment before turning to look at him, scooting away a couple inches.
“Stop doing that,” I frowned at Lyle slightly, glancing back to where he was pointing before I could start admiring him for another stupid reason. His British accent wasn't helping. I wanted to mimic it and start rolling around on the floor giggling because I was surrounded by awesome-accented people, and his was the most extraordinary of all.
“Doing what?” his amazingly-British voice was edged with curious amusement. I decided that 'amused' was the word to claim his status of the norm.
I ignored his question. My gaze stared hard at the place he'd pointed, trying not to be distracted by him and his amusement.
“Why is it your favorite?”
He shrugged, shaking his head. I dared to glance at him, seeing his mischievous smirk. It was the same expression he'd worn right before he'd stabbed the officer. I resisted the urge to shudder at the memory, and changed my mind about wanting to know why it was his favorite place in the city.
But he spoke anyway.
“I'll show you why. Street rat training begins now.”
I gasped, opening my mouth to protest as he seized my hand and hauled me after himself. My heels dug into the ground desperately, but all they had to stick to was dusty concrete, and I only ended up stumbling after him awkwardly as I fought to keep my balance, straining against his firm grip. I whipped around to look at the others for help as he began to drag me away, but they were all laughing about something, watching as Kate piled plates with pancakes and bacon.
Lyle chuckled and pulled me past the shack, picking up a hum, a tune I recognised but could not place.
“No! Wait, I—I don't want to,” I stuttered, shaking my head frantically. His fingers were strong, and I couldn't help but get a little lightheaded admiring his strength, even though I was horrified.
He stopped abruptly, turning to me as his smile faded. “Why not?” He asked, and I could practically see him deflate. I almost felt guilty for letting him down, but the bubble of skepticism in the back of my brain made me want to slap him. As if he hadn't felt me pulling back in reluctance. Jerk.
“I don't like London,” I furrowed my brow, staring up at him, beginning to admit a list of truths. “I barely know you. I have no idea where you're taking me, much less if it's safe, and the closest to violence I've ever gotten besides your little episode yesterday has always been in the pages of a book! For all I know, you could be dragging me to a club, where you'll probably—”
He laughed, and it sounded like a nervous chuckle as he comprehended what I was trying to say. He let go of my hand, one side of his mouth smiling as he shook his head apologetically. I rubbed my hand, which throbbed a little after being squeezed so tight. “My episode yesterday?” He shrugged. “I'm sorry you had to see that and everything, but you have to realise that London isn't at all a cake walk, Skylar Tekile.”
“What?” I'd figured he'd done worse things than stabbing an officer and stealing a gun, but I didn't want my guess to become reality. I wanted to believe he was cute and adorable, like his personality just a minute ago by the fire, despite how my knuckles ached from his firm grip.
“Let me explain,” he stepped back and folded his arms, surveying me with a calculated gaze. I felt my face burn, with his eyes on me like that, and I dropped my hand to clench my fists at my sides. The street rats thought they had a monopoly on analyzing, didn't they?
“I don't want to be lectured on gang violence, I know about that kind of stuff,” I advised as I folded my arms, mirroring his actions to show he wasn’t the only one playing this game of knowledge. I was probably smarter than he was, anyway. Well, book smart.
He shook his head. “Simmer down, I'm not going to lecture you.”
He sounded troubled. His attitude was completely different than it had been a moment ago, and I didn't like it. He almost seemed sympathetic towards me, and he was definitely choosing his words carefully.
His posture brightened as he appeared to get an idea, and he bent down, reaching into his boot and yanking out a gun. It was the one he'd stolen from the officer.
He raised it towards me, sighing heavily, and my brain failed to comprehend what was happening.
I wasn't scared until he pressed the barrel to my forehead. Then suddenly my heart began to race, and my eyes widened in alarm. I felt myself go numb, like the world was inhaling and I was pressed between its lungs. I couldn't breathe myself, my mind on hyper-drive trying to figure out what had just happened.
He stared at me, dead serious, and several ideas ran through my mind about what he could have been thinking. His gaze was that of a murderer's.
Images of my limp body falling to the ground clouded my thoughts for a moment, and I almost screamed trying to get them out. I wanted to run, but I was scared and my legs felt like waterlogged wood.
“Are you crazy?!” I shrieked, catching the attention of the others.
Louis and Miller poked their heads out of the shack, and I almost sobbed in relief. “Louis!”
I couldn't tear my gaze from Lyle's, the panic rising in my chest.
He stared back steadily, and I realised he looked calm, shaking his head microscopically.
“You can trust me,” he murmured quietly, and I was barely aware of the others as they crowded behind me. Sierra was shouting at Lyle angrily, and Louis's choice of language was pretty colourful as he stormed towards the boy, reaching for the arm holding the gun.
But all I could hear was Lyle. Trust him?! He has a handgun held to my face!
He gave Louis a look that told him to back off, and my brother paused, his neck cords bulging in outrage as he glanced between us two. A second passed, and he slowly fell back.
“Lyle! What the heck are you doing?” Sierra yelled, but Lou silenced her. I felt shaky. He wouldn't shoot me, I knew. But how was I sure?
“You can trust me,” he said again, and I stared at him, barely breathing as I nodded, the circular pressure of the weapon on my skin increasing and decreasing with the tilt of my head.
“Okay,” I swallowed.
“Am I going to pull this trigger?”
I breathed out, regaining the feeling in my legs. “No.”
He relaxed, his posture softening, but he didn't lower the gun, eying me like an equal. I felt strangely gratified, even though the cold metal circle was growing heavy against my temple. His gaze was golden with understanding, filled with something like pride because I'd caught onto the point of this. He wouldn't shoot me. He was teaching me that we were allies by pressing a gun to my forehead, saying, I can kill you, I have full ability to, and I'm experienced with the act of, but you must realise that I would never harm you. And I expect just as much from you.
“Lyle, get your gun off of my sister,” Louis growled as soon as he sensed our silent understanding.
Lyle smirked and lowered the weapon, shoving it away and glancing up at Kate with a charming smile meant to brighten the mood. We all gaped at him.
His grin only widened. “Lesson one complete. May we have breakfast to go?”