I wave him off. “No big deal.” But I grit my teeth even as I say it. Walking around all day hasn’t helped things, and the pain is returning like wildfire.
The boy sees the strain on my face. “We should change those bandages.” He gets up and, without disturbing Tess, deftly pulls a roll of white wraps from her pocket. “I’m not as good as she is,” he whispers. “But I’d rather not wake her.”
He sits beside me and loosens the bottom two buttons of my shirt, then pushes it up until he exposes my bandaged waist. His skin brushes against mine. I try to keep my focus on his hands. He reaches behind one of his boots and pulls out what looks like a compact kitchen knife (patternless silver handle, worn edge—he’s used it plenty of times before, and to saw through things much tougher than cloth). One of his hands rests against my stomach. Even though his fingers are callused from years on the streets, they’re so careful and gentle that I feel heat rising on my cheeks.
“Hold still,” he mutters. Then he places the knife flat between my skin and the bandages and rips the cloth. I wince. He lifts the bandage away from my wound.
Tiny trickles of blood still seep from where Kaede’s knife stabbed me, but thankfully, there are no signs of infection. Tess knows her stuff. The boy pulls the rest of the old bandages away from my waist, tosses them aside, and starts wrapping the new bandages around me. “We’ll stay here until late morning,” he says as he works. “We shouldn’t have traveled so much today—but y’know, putting some distance between you and the Skiz folks wasn’t such a bad idea.”
Now I can’t help looking at his face. This is a boy who must’ve barely passed his Trial. But that doesn’t make sense. He doesn’t act like a desperate street kid. He has so many more sides to him that I wonder if he has always lived in these poor sectors. He glances at me now, notices me studying him, and pauses for a second. Some secret emotion darts across his eyes. A beautiful mystery. He must have similar questions about me, how I’m able to pick out so many details of his life. Perhaps he’s even wondering what I’ll figure out about him next. He’s so close to my face now that I can feel his breath against my cheek. I swallow. He draws a little nearer.
For an instant, I think he might kiss me.
Then he quickly looks back down at my wound. His hands brush against my waist as he works. I realize that his cheeks are rosy too. He’s as flushed as I am.
Finally he tightens the bandage, tugs my shirt back into place, and pulls away. He leans against the wall beside me and rests his arms against his knees. “Tired?”
I shake my head. My eyes wander to the clothes hanging overhead, several stories up. If we run out of bandages, that’s where I can get some fresh ones. “I think I can leave you guys alone after another day,” I say after a while. “I know I’m slowing you down.” But I feel a surge of regret even as the words come out of my mouth. Strange. I don’t want to leave them so soon. There’s something comforting about hanging around with Tess and this boy, as if the absence of Metias hasn’t entirely stripped me of everyone who cares about me.
What am I thinking? This is a boy from the slums. I’ve been trained to deal with guys like this, to watch them from the other side of the glass.
“Where will you go?” the boy asks.
I refocus. My voice comes out cool and collected. “East, maybe. I’m more used to the inner sectors.”
The boy keeps his eyes forward. “You can stay longer, if all you’re going to do is wander the streets somewhere else. I could use a good fighter like you. We can make quick cash in Skiz fights and split our food supplies. We’ll both do better.”
He offers this idea with such sincerity that I have to smile. I decide not to ask why he doesn’t fight in Skiz himself. “Thanks, but I prefer to work alone.”
He doesn’t miss a beat. “Fair enough.” And with that, he leans his head back against the wall, sighs, and closes his eyes. I watch him for a moment, waiting for him to expose those brilliant eyes to the world again. But he doesn’t. After a while, I hear his breathing grow steady and see his head droop, and I know he’s fallen asleep.
I think about contacting Thomas. But I’m not in the mood to hear his voice right now. I’m not even sure why. Tomorrow morning, then, first thing. I lean my head back too and stare up at the clothes hanging above us. Other than the distant sounds of night-shift crowds and occasional JumboTron broadcasts, it’s a peaceful evening, just like at home. The silence makes me think of Metias.
I make sure that the sound of my crying doesn’t wake Tess and the boy.
I ALMOST KISSED THE GIRL LAST NIGHT.
But nothing good can come out of falling for someone on the streets. That’s the worst weakness you can have, right up there with having a family stuck in a quarantined zone or a street orphan needing you.
And yet . . . a part of me still wants to kiss her, no matter how cracked a move it might be. This girl can point out a detail on the streets a mile away. (“The shutters on that building’s third-floor windows must’ve been scavenged from a rich sector. Solid cherrywood.”) With a knife, and in one throw, she can skewer a hot dog from an unattended stand. I can see her intelligence in every question she asks me and every observation she makes. But at the same time, there’s an innocence that makes her completely different from most of the people I’ve met. She’s not cynical or jaded. The streets haven’t broken her. They’ve made her stronger instead.