We've been walking for a while now. I take a slow sip of my cooling coffee. Ashe mirrors my movement, drinking some of her almond-milk coffee. I'd made sure to give her the vegan option; the image of Ashe with welts all over her skin is, as she had explained, not a pretty one.
The sky is painted pale pink and orange, interlaced with the dark blue of the night. Faint stars glimmer in the far distance. A cold wind blows from behind us and blows my hair forward. At this point, Ashe's hand is the only source of warmth I have. Images from the hallucination--or was it a memory?--flit through my mind, the haunting terror, the sharp pangs of pain, the deeper ones of loss.
Blood pouring across the ground, almost glowing with the flames reflected in it. I grip Ashe's hand tighter.
"Kyre?" Her voice snaps me out of my thoughts. When I look down to face her, she continues. "Are you cold? You have goosebumps." She runs a slender hand down my arm, from elbow to wrist. Sure enough, the fine hairs are standing up, making my skin look a bit like a lychee. The ghost of the warmth from her hand makes me realize just how cold the air really is.
Ashe proceeds to pull off my windbreaker. When I move to stop her, she effectively pauses me with a hard look. "It. Is. Cold. And. You. Will. Wear. This."
I sigh in defeat and let her put the jacket onto my shoulders. The colors of the sky reflect in her golden-brown eyes, reflecting specks of orange. She gently takes my half-filled cup from my hand and sets it on the ground, before drawing my arm through the sleeve. Faint nostalgia hits me at her movements and I feel a bit like a little kid. Just as she's pulling my other arm through the sleeve, another cold draft attacks us and she shivers like an autumn leaf.
Without thinking, I wrap my arms around her and pull her into me. Her head rests against my chest. Some of my body heat must have transferred, because her shivering ceases. Even through her hoodie, I can feel the bones of her back, the ridges of her spine. She was telling the truth about never having enough food, which means that she really is from underground. No wonder she was so eager to head to the Store when she first came up.
Her heart beats like a trapped hummingbird against me, her shoulders rigid, but she doesn't move. I rest my chin on her head, feeling the loose curls of her hair tickle my skin. An unexpected warmth threads its way through me.
"Well, look what we have here."
Ashe pushes me away quickly, her head snapping toward the voice. It's the girl from the coffee shop. She wears a black crop-top over a long-sleeved shirt. A few chains hang from her belt, alongside a pair of handcuffs and what appears to be a set of daggers in their sheaths. How did I not hear her come? Her violet eyes glitter as she unclips the handcuffs from the belt at her hip.
"Girl, you're coming with me. You," she pinpoints her glare at me. "can go home. I have no use for you."
There's a pause as Ashe's face morphs from surprised confusion to annoyance. "How about no?" she asks at last.
The girl strides over and grabs her forearm. "I'm authorized to use force to take you with me."
I start toward them, meaning to pry the girl off, but Ashe beats me to it. She twists her arm, and with an expert flick of her wrist, the girl's hand is thrown off. A swift punch just below the ribs, and the girl is doubled over, gasping for breath. She clearly hadn't expected Ashe to fight back.
Ashe stares at her, her expression hard, before reaching down and picking up her coffee. I'd forgotten it even existed. She takes a long sip as the girl recovers. "My name is Ashe, by the way. Not 'girl.' What's your's?"
"Kat."A simple answer. She doesn't want to reveal any information, I realize. She never even said why she needs Ashe to come with her.
Ashe must be thinking the same thing, but unlike me, she actually asks. "Why do you need me to come with you? Where are you going? Why can't Kyre come?"
"You're under arrest for treason. I'm not authorized to give any more information in the presence of anyone else." After giving me a pointed look, the girl picks up the handcuffs she'd dropped and opens them, tucking the key into a pocket in her--also black--jeans. "You can avoid trouble if you come with me and cooperate."
Something glimmers in the corner of vision, and I see the Government seal on a badge clipped to Kat's left sleeve.
So the Government sent her. But why? If anything, I'm the wanted criminal here. Not Ashe.
I half-raise a hand and wave to catch Kat's attention. "I'd like a moment to speak with Ashe. I promise by Luna that we won't try to run."
She ponders my request. My throat dries. I hope she can't see traces of the illegal things I've done on my face. After a long moment, she nods.
Immediately, I grab Ashe's hand and lead her behind a nearby pile of rocks. I can feel the girl's eyes following us.
"What does 'arrest' mean?"
Oh. No wonder she was confused.
"Ashe, being arrested means that you're taken by Officials because you did something illegal, like stealing or painting," I explain.
"So what do I do?"
I lower my voice to the point it's barely audible so that Kat can't hear. "You're from underground, yeah? You're here illegally. If you go, the Officials will realize they can't find you in the Above databases. You'll be thrown into prison until they can sort it out. And if they don't…
Her face changes as she grasps the severity of the situation.
"There have been cases when people disappear and are never seen again. It happened to my sister." I shut my eyes as Elena's face flashes through my mind.
And then Ashe is yanked away from right in front of me by a flash of black. I hear a high scream, abruptly cut off, unmistakebly familiar. Ashe!
I rush around the rocks to find her standing, very still, hands cuffed behind her back. Kat stands behind her. When she sees me, she shrugs unapologetically. "A moment passed." Ashe doesn't make a sound, her face strained, her eyes wide. Her chest rises and falls with quick, shallow breaths. When they turn to leave, I see why.
Kat gently pushes a dagger to the space between her shoulderblades, moving her forward. A dot of red blooms through the thick fabric of Ashe's hoodie.
I jog after them, veering off into a alley to follow them through the sketchier parts of the Ruins. Ashe doesn't know how things work around here, and she might get herself erased if she messes up.
I can't let that happen. Not again.