Lucas was still frozen in the doorway, broad shoulders filling most of the frame. I glanced past him and saw sunlight streaming in the broken windows of the school, casting jagged spots of light over the cement. By the looks of the sky, it was early to midafternoon. Damn. I'd slept far too long.
Where was Stick and why hadn't he woken me?
"Allison." The relief in Lucas's voice was palpable. Stepping forward, he surprised me by pulling me into a tight hug.
I returned it, feeling the hard muscles of his back, his breath against my skin. Closing my eyes, I relaxed into him, just for a moment. It was nice, having someone I could lean on for a change.
We drew back quickly, not wanting the others to see just yet. This was still new for both of us. "Allie," Lucas muttered, sounding embarrassed. "Stick told me you came back. Were you out all night?"
"Yeah." I gave him a crooked smile. "Sounds like things got exciting after I left."
He glared at me. "Rat started telling everyone you'd been Taken. Stick was freaking out. I had to tell both of them to shut up or I'd put a fist in their face." His glare grew sharper, almost desperate. "Where the hell were you all night? The bloodsuckers were all over the streets."
Lucas's dark eyes bulged. "You went outside the Wall? At night? Are you crazy, girl? You want to get eaten by rabids?"
"Believe me, I didn't mean to get stuck there after sunset." I shivered, remembering what had almost happened in the shed that night. "Besides, rabids or no, I found something that made it all worth it."
"Yeah?" He raised a thick, bristling eyebrow. "This I gotta hear."
"A whole basement of food." I smirked as both of Lucas's eyebrows shot up. "Canned goods, packaged stuff, bottled water, you name it. I'm serious, Luc-wall-to-wall shelves, full of food. And no one's guarding it. We'd be set for months, maybe the whole winter. All we have to do is get out there and grab it before anyone else does." Lucas's eyes gleamed. I could almost see the wheels in his brain turning. The thought of going into the ruins was scary as hell, but the promise of food trumped that easily. "Where is it?" he asked.
"Just past the kill zone. You know the drainage pipe that empties out near the old-" He gave me a confused look, and I shrugged. "Don't worry about it. I can get us there. But we should leave now, while there's daylight."
"You wanna wait to see if there's a lockdown?" He sighed and jerked his head down the hall. I followed him toward the common room. "No, but it'll be risky. Lots of patrols today-pets and guards combing the streets, still looking for something. It'll get worse tonight, though." We entered the common room, where Rat lounged in a moldy chair playing with his knife, his legs dangling over the arm.
"Oh, hey, the lost bitch returns," he drawled. His voice was honking and nasal, as if his nose was still full of blood. "We were sure you'd been Taken, or had your throat torn out in some dark alley. Sure was nice and quiet without you. Except for your wuss boyfriend, bawling in the corner." He sneered at me, mean and challenging. "I had to shove his pasty head into a doorjamb to get him to stop mewling." Lucas pretended to ignore him, though I saw his jaw tighten. We'd kept our...thing...a secret from the others, which meant Lucas couldn't show favoritism by leaping to my defense. Fortunately, I could take care of myself.
I smiled sweetly at Rat. "I'm sure you did. How's that busted nose treating you, by the way?" Rat's sallow cheeks reddened, and he held up his rusty knife. "Why don't you come over here and take a look?" Lucas kicked the back of his chair, making him yelp. "Make yourself useful and get the backpacks from the hall closet," he ordered. "Allie," he continued, as Rat pulled himself to his feet, scowling, "find Stick. If we're going to do this now, we need all the help we can get."
"With what?" Stick asked, coming into the room. Seeing the three of us, his eyes widened, and he edged closer to me.
"Are we going somewhere?"
"Oh, there you are." Rat smiled like a dog baring its fangs.
"Yeah, we were just talking about how we don't have enough food and that the weakest link, the one that doesn't do anything around here, should be fed to the vampires. And hey, it's you. No hard feelings, right?"
"Ignore him," I said, locking eyes with Rat as Stick cringed away. "He's being an ass, as usual."
"Hey." Rat held up his hands. "I'm only being honest. No one else has the guts to say it, so I will."
"Aren't you supposed to be doing something?" Lucas asked in a warning voice, and Rat left the room with a leer, waggling his tongue in my direction. I made a note to break his nose the other way as soon as I got the opportunity.
Stick frowned, looking back and forth at both of us. "What's going on?" he asked warily. "You guys aren't..." He trailed off, looking at me. "You aren't really discussing what Rat said, right? I'm not that pathetic...am I?"
I sighed, ready to brush it off as being stupid, but Lucas spoke up before I got the chance. "Well, now's your chance to prove him wrong," he said. "Allison, in her insane night-time wandering, found something important. We're going to get it."
Stick blinked, glanced nervously at Rat coming into the room again, four dusty, tattered backpacks slung over his shoulders. "Where?"
"The ruins," I answered as Rat instantly dropped the packs in horror and disbelief. "We're going into the ruins." We split into two teams, partly to avoid notice with the patrols still wandering about the Fringe, and partly because I would've strangled Rat if I had to hear him complain one more time that I was going to get us killed. Stick wasn't happy, either, but at least he shut up after the first round of protests.
Lucas finally gave Rat a choice: either help out, or get out and don't come back. Personally, I was hoping Rat would choose the latter, swear at us all and stalk out of our lives in a huff, but after a murderous look at me, he grabbed a pack from the f loor and finally shut up.
I gave Lucas directions to the tunnel entrance before we split into two groups, taking different routes in case we met with any patrols. Guards didn't look kindly on street rats and Unregistereds, and because we "didn't exist," this gave some the idea that they could do anything they wanted to us, including beatings, target practice and...other things. I'd seen enough to know it was true. It was almost better to be caught by the hungry, soulless vampires; the most they would probably do was drink your blood and leave you to die. Humans were capable of far, far worse.
Stick and I reached the ditch first and descended into the tunnels. I had the f lashlight, but it was more of a " just-in-case" item. I didn't want to be spoiled by artificial light or, more important, use up all the battery life. The sun peeking in through the grating up top was still more than enough to see by.
"Rat and Lucas better get here soon," I muttered, crossing my arms and gazing up at the cracks overhead. "We have a lot of stuff to move, and there's not much daylight left. I'm not doing a repeat of yesterday, that's for sure."
I glanced at Stick, huddled against the wall, an oversize pack hanging from his skinny shoulders. His face was tight with fear, and his hands clutched the straps so hard his knuckles were white. He was trying to be brave, and for a moment, I felt a stab of guilt. Stick hated the dark.
"Do you think I'm useless?"
"Are you obsessing over what Rat said?" I snorted and waved it off. "Ignore him. He's a greasy little rodent with a security problem. Lucas will probably kick him out soon, anyway."
"But he has a point." Stick kicked at a loose bit of pavement, not meeting my eyes. "I'm the weakest link in the gang. I'm not good at stealing like Rat or fighting like Lucas, and I'm not brave enough to go scavenging outside the Wall by myself like you. What am I good for, if I can't even take care of myself ?"
I shrugged, uncomfortable with this conversation. "What do you want me to say?" I asked, my voice coming out sharper than I'd intended. Maybe it was the fight with Rat, maybe I was still tense from last night. But I was tired of listening to excuses, of him wishing for things to be different. In this world, you were either strong, or you were dead. You did what you had to if you wanted to survive. And I could barely take care of myself; I couldn't worry about someone else's in-securities. "You don't like the way you are?" I asked Stick, who shrank back from my tone. "Fine-then don't be that way. Grow some balls and tell Rat to piss off. Punch him in the nose if he tries to bully you. Do something, but don't just roll over and take it." He seemed to collapse in on himself, looking miserable, and I sighed. "You can't depend on me forever," I said in a softer voice. "Yeah, we look out for each other, mostly. Yeah, Lucas preaches family and all-for- oneness and whatever, but that's a load of crap. You think any of them would jump in front of a vampire for you?" I sneered at the thought. "Lucas would be the first one out the door, with Rat right behind him. And me."
Stick turned away, hunching his shoulders. It was an old tactic of his, avoid the problem and hope it went away, and that only pissed me off more. "I know that's not what you wanted to hear," I continued ruthlessly, "but, God, Stick, wake up! This is the way things are. Sooner or later, you're going to learn that it's everyone for themselves out here, and the only person you can depend on is you." He didn't answer, just continued staring down at the pavement. I turned away as well, leaning against the wall. I wasn't worried. Give him a few minutes, and he'd be back to normal, talking and pretending that nothing had happened. If he wanted to keep burying his head in the sand, I wouldn't stop him. But I wasn't going to keep holding his hand anymore, either.
After several long minutes, Rat and Lucas still hadn't showed. I fidgeted and glanced at the sky through the grate.
Hurry up, you two. Cutting it this close to evening was already making me jumpy. But I wanted that food. I was hungry again, and knowing there was a whole stash of food out there, just beyond the wall, was driving me crazy. I'd almost forgotten what it was like not to be starving all the time. Not feeling your stomach cramp so badly you wanted to puke, only there was nothing in it to throw up. Not having to eat roaches and spiders, just to stay alive. Or share a crust of stolen bread with Stick, because if I didn't take care of him, he would curl up somewhere and die. If we could get to that food, I wouldn't have to worry about any of that for a long, long time. If Rat and Lucas ever got their sorry butts down here.
And then, I had another thought, one that the cynical street rat in me hadn't had before. If we could get all that food, I wouldn't have to worry about Stick as much. Lucas would probably be happier and less stressed, and might agree to learn how to read. Even Rat might go for it-if I could stomach teaching him, anyway. Again, I had no idea where it would lead, but every revolution had to start somewhere.
The vampires have taken everything from us, I thought, angrily kicking a pebble into a wall. Well, I'm going to make sure we take something back.