I clutch a bowl of steaming ramen in my hands, trying to quell the remaining feeling of nauseousness. The bowl warms my hands, and I feel much better.
I seem to be craving heat more now that winter is here, and I start to make my way to the fireplace when I hear a voice that I'm starting to recognize. I can't hear the whole conversation over the shrieks of the wind outside, but my ears pick up bits and pieces.
"… absolutely lost… dry off… Kyre…" Definitely Boss.
"… thank you… appreciate it." Ashe. What is she doing here?
Sh*t. Did Boss just invite her in? I inhale sharply. It's really easy to hide my hacking from Boss; she doesn't seem to care much about what I do as long as I do all of the housework and don't pester her. But Ashe? She seems to be a determined person. She's here to find the person who stole her data. If she stays here, it won't be long before my secret's out--and my fate sealed.
I stand there in the hallway, ears straining for another snippet of conversation. Instead, I hear footsteps alternating with the thump of a cane. It's Boss, and judging by the look on her face, she isn't happy to see me. Considering that I do all the work around here, she could at least pretend to.
My face must look annoyed as well, because her expression hardens.
"You dare to look at me like that?" I wince at her sharp tone and shift my weight to my uninjured leg. The winter is not good for my right shin. Despite feeling as though the bone is trying to meld into itself, I school my face into what hopefully passes as a blank expression.
She raises her eyebrows, clearly not believing the look on my face. "I have a visitor. She's by the fire right now. The poor girl…" Her voice goes soft, and I wonder what she is thinking.
Boss looks up at me, and though I tower over her by at least two feet, she still manages to intimidate me. "You better give her some of your ramen. Otherwise, I will kick you out."
"Yes, Boss." I nod reluctantly, and not just because I need to do what she says. She's right. I don't have a place outside of this house. No one would want to take in an unruly, injured sixteen-year-old with a history of trying to escape. With my free hand, I trace over the tracker on my left wrist, the black material lighting up at my touch. The band feels cold around my wrist; a constant reminder of her "generosity." One more year, then I'm free.
I push past her and walk to the fireplace, not bothering with another bowl of ramen. I need to see Ashe for myself.
I find her in front of the fire. Ashe is sitting on the rug, her arms wrapped around her knees to feel warmer. She shivers a little and hugs herself tighter. Her stuff--a backpack and an oversized maroon sweatshirt-- is spread out beside her to dry. She looks mesmerized by the fire, but seems to be unwilling to go any closer even though she is too far away to feel its warmth.
Despite my better judgment I walk over and offer her my bowl of ramen. She looks up when she sees me coming, her eyes widening slightly, before accepting the bowl. She sets it carefully next to her.
"It's warmer when you get closer," I say. She nods, but doesn't move. She looks tired. I wonder where she came from. Do artists really live underground, like the Government said, or was that just another tale crafted to keep citizens quiet?
"Anyway, my name is Kyre," I try again.
"I thought so."
I fidget with my striped shirt sleeve, unsure of what to say next. The alternating bands of black and white blend into gray when I unfocus my eyes. "I thought so?" How does one respond to that? I glance back at her, and a jolt races up my spine. Her eyes are hard and calculating, and she seems slightly suspicious. The moment vanishes as quickly as it had come, and I shift my weight onto my left leg nervously. Ashe smiles slightly.
"You look awkward." She pats the spot next to her. "You can sit, you know."
I gratefully sit down next to her; my bad leg had been bothering me again. "This is where I live. You don't need to tell me what to do."
"Yeah, I figured." She stares at the fire longingly but seems too afraid to go closer, even though it promises warmth. She shivers again, and I sigh.
"Before you go on and catch a cold, you should know we don't have any medicine."
She makes a face at me and points at her soaked flannel shirt, then proceeding to make a show of wringing out her sleeve. Fat drops of water splatter onto the carpet. "Do I look like I'm trying to catch a cold?"
"Hey! Don't do that. Boss is gonna be mad when she finds out. Here, I'll go get you something dry to wear."
I make my way up the stairs, expecting her to stay on the rug. Instead, she follows me. I try my best to ignore the drops of water that I'm sure the carpet is soaking up. Her footsteps are quiet behind me, and I resist the urge to turn and check if she's still there.
"Wait here. I don't want you getting the whole floor wet." She nods in response, and I make a right from the stairwell.
I'm strictly forbidden to touch any of Boss's stuff, and honestly, it's not very appealing. I don't think Ashe would want to wear one of her faded floral nightgowns, anyway.
Instead, I climb a small ladder that leads to the attic and limp to my room. The cold air is a huge step from the warmth from the fire downstairs; my breath comes out in small puffs. The concrete is as icy as it is hard, and it's only a matter of minutes before I feel my feet going numb.
I walk over to my chest and open the drawers that contain my clothes. I look over them and sigh again. They're too big. I settle for a black shirt and a pair of gym shorts. They'll have to do.
I climb back down, hissing every time I have to put my weight on my right leg, and hold the clothes in a bundle. When I get back to the edge of the staircase, Ashe isn't there.
I curse softly under my breath and promptly go looking for her. Doesn't she realize how big this house is? She should've known that when she came in. I did, when I had signed the contract to live here.
My father had stormed out of the house when I was three. I was too young to know why, and whenever I asked my mother about it, she got this sad, closed off look on her face and would stop speaking to me. I eventually stopped asking.
She was a very kind person, my mother. She'd enrolled me at a public school when I was five, and when I finally had a friend, she invited her over and baked cookies in welcome. I don't remember that friend, though. It's been too long.
She brought home all kinds of cloth, and she sewed most of my clothes. That was when I first became interested in art. I saw her ability to create, and I was fascinated.
That was, in fact, the reason I started hacking. To be able to create something. My reason would change over time.
She loved lemon drops, and she took every reason to bring them home. She was the sort of person who could find the good in every situation, including when Father ditched us. Her smile was my hope that life would work out, even with a missing parent and a ban on all things related to art.
Art, the only thing that seemed to keep Mother sane.
"You and Elena deserve better than a father who left. I'm afraid I'm the only one that's left. Make me proud when you both grow up, alright?" She'd offer us lemon drops, and then we'd take a walk down the road, just skirting around the trees of a forest.
Despite her apparent happiness, she was broken. Emotionally shattered. Our father had left, and his sudden departure left a gaping hole in Mother, a wound still raw after two years. He'd never come back, not even once, to check up on us.
Not to mention, her only real skills were in baking and sewing. And in a society that was slowly getting rid of art of all kind, Mother was hopelessly struggling to make ends meet.
Life was harder for her than Elena and I could have imagined, and she couldn't handle it.
She never told my sister or me, but I wished she had. I wished she'd told me about her low-paying job as a maid at another mansion. I wished she'd told me about how she couldn't pay the bills. I wish she could've told me she couldn't afford my school's tuition. I could have somehow helped. I could have tried. As self-centered as it sounds, I wish I didn't have to find out from the legal papers listing the reasons she couldn't continue to take care of us. The legal papers that included my contract to Boss.
I still remember, even after eleven years, my last moments with my mother. Her eyes, a warm brown so different from mine, were distant. She gave me a small smile, but there was a graveness in her face that I couldn't describe. As though sensing what was about to happen, my own eyes welled with tears.
She knelt down in front of me and gently wiped my eyes.
"Kyre, my dear, I can't take care of you anymore. I'll come back, I promise. Until then, this nice lady will take care of you. Be nice to her, will you? When I come back, I want to see a fine young man."
"M-m-mother…" I whispered, not wanting her to go. "Please…"
She pulled me into a tight hug, her cheeks wet with tears. "I promise, Kyre, I promise."
And then she was standing up, leaving. Leaving me. I still remember the way she clutched Elena's hand, the way she walked in her cheerful manner, as though she had not just given up her son. I'd felt lonely then, and betrayed.
"Why?" I'd asked Boss. "Why?"
She said nothing, instead giving me a single sheet of paper with many words and a line at the bottom. "Read it through carefully, then sign the line." She pointed at it, then handed me a pen.
I gave a half-hearted attempt at reading it, then decided to just get it over with and sign the paper. Mother wasn't here anymore, so what was the point?
Now I wished I'd read the paper better.
The woman took a shiny black band and fastened it to my left wrist. It lit up, giving me instructions on how to use it. I hated how cold it felt and tried to pry it off, but to no avail. The woman just watched me fidget with the tracker, before finally letting out an exasperated sigh.
"You can call me Boss." She pointed across the dusty street. A beautiful mansion stood in its white stone glory. It looked so tall. "You'll live there, with me. I make the rules. And here's the first one: No questions."
I just nodded numbly and followed her.
I'd later learn that Mother had sent Elena to the Government, where she was being used as a testing subject for virtual reality programs. They were messing with her brain to see if their codes worked.
And the promise my mother made when she left? She never went through with it.
She never came back.
I find Ashe standing on the balcony, shivering in the cold wind but looking thoroughly engrossed with the view of the city's ruins below. What was with her and being in the cold?
"Fascinating view, huh." I take a spot next to her and try to downplay the fact that I just searched the whole house for her. "Here are some clothes. I'm sorry I couldn't find anything that would fit."
She nods and takes the clothes. "Where can I change?"
I point her in the direction of the bathroom, and she leaves. The cold wind blows harder, and I wobble, my dark hair covering my vision. I push it back with one hand and return downstairs, only to see the uneaten bowl of ramen. I pick up the unused chopsticks and proceed to eat it as I wait for her.
No reason to waste perfectly good food.