As his hands scrape the bottom of the trash bin and come up empty, he quickly and silently crawls out of the bin, moving on to the next one silently. This one is only partially full, making it easier to maneuver onto its side and crawl in. Underestimating his strength and the weight of the bin, he loses his grip and it crashes onto its side.
Vincent curses and quickly scurries to find a hiding place before he can get caught. He stays low to the ground and hides behind a stack of boxes not that far from the fallen bin, blending in with the shadows.
The silence is broken by quick footsteps and he searches for Naut, who is Vincent’s friend and look out, hoping she has stayed out of sight. He curls up between the boxes and cold steel wall, making himself as small as he can. He has one knee on the ground with his other foot resting against the wall and ground, ready to run in case he’s caught and has to run off.
The footsteps stop abruptly a few feet from where Vincent is hiding and Vincent covers his mouth instinctively. He takes a few deep, slow breaths to try to calm his quickened breath and heart. His eyes search for the owners of the footsteps and he can see three sets of shoes in the dim light.
“You think it was a Rat or an animal?” a voice suddenly asks. Vincent can hear what he assumes is the bin being turned right side up and then the lid slams shut.
“Well, whatever it was must have ran off,” another voice answers, “C’mon, we gotta get back.”
Vincent listens intently as the sound of footsteps and talking gets quieter. An eerie silence takes over and Vincent keeps low to the ground as he slowly peeks out looking for the strangers. The silence is interrupted by a whistle. He freezes in place, and the whistling repeats in the same pitch and tone. It is the agreed upon signal used by Vincent and his friends for “safe”. In response, Vincent whistles to direct Naut to his location. He whistles again for her location. Her response is much closer and louder than he expected. He finds her very close to his location and lets out a sigh of relief.
“Let’s hurry up and find it,” Naut whispers and Vincent nods in agreement. The sooner they find the “coin”, the quicker they can leave. Vincent just hopes there’s enough important data stored on the “coin” for him and Naut to pay for a better bed and a filling hot meal each.
“I’m not lying,” Vincent starts before she can accuse him, “I swear I saw someone throw away a small, golden disk a few hours ago.”
“Maybe someone else snagged it before we started looking?” Naut shrugs as she proposes. “We were gone for a few hours after you saw it get thrown. Maybe this is a drop off spot for some mercenary or other Rat group.”
A Rat is derogatory word for a child who has been orphaned or abandoned. They are typically seen as vermin, or lesser humans, who cause trouble by stealing.
“Yeah, maybe,” Vincent responds deflated and staring at the ground. He feels like he has let Naut down. He had promised her a warm bed and a filling hot meal, but it looks like it might be a cold floor and cold scraps for another night. His stomach growls in agreement at the thought of a real hot meal.
“I think I’m going to keep looking,” Vincent breaks the silence. He reaches into his shirt pocket and pulls out some coins and holds them out to Naut. “Here, this should be enough for you to get a bed and meal tonight. I’ll see if I can scavenge enough for me and join later.”
“And if you don’t?” Naut asks as she shifts her gaze from the coins still in Vincent’s outstretched hand and locks eyes with him.
Vincent overly shrugs his shoulders as he lets out an annoyed sight, preparing himself for the argument that he will most likely lose.
“Vince,” Naut pauses and holds Vincent’s eye contact as she gently but firmly closes his outstretched hand. Vincent looks from his closed fist and back to Naut, who has a warm smile. “I’m not going back to the Cluster without you. We are a team. Either we bother sleep well or we both sleep on the street.”
Under the city lives various tribes of forgotten children, orphans and abandoned children who have developed their own society. These tribes are commonly referred to as a Cluster (remove?).
It’s the same argument they have almost every night, and rarely does Vincent win. They both are too stubborn that they’ll stare in silence until one buckles and fives up. Typically, one of them will start scavenging again and the other follows suit.
“Please Nautica,” Vincent purposefully emphasizes on her full first name in hopes that she gets the message that he doesn’t want to fight again. “Take the coins, and get yourself a good meal and a few hours of rest before the sun comes up. If I’m unable to join, then tomorrow if there’s only enough coins for one of us, I’ll take it.”
Vincent takes Naut’s hand, puts the coins into her open hand and then closes it, pushing her hand to her chest. Naut purses her lips and lets out an annoyed growl. She stares angrily at Vincent, not wanting to give in, but she notices the worry in his eyes. He always has been overly protective of her, but they only have each other.
“If you don’t make it in before sun up, I’m leaving and coming to look for you,” Naut compromises with annoyance. Vincent lets out a long sigh of relief, not realizing he had been holding his breath.
“Thank you,” Vincent whispers with a smile.
Naut crawls slowly backwards a few steps holding eye contact with Vincent to relay silently how much she hates him at the moment before turning around and slowly slipping into the darkness.
When Vincent can’t see Naut anymore, he hopes she isn’t waiting for him in the shadows and tries to push her into the back of his mind, trying not to worry about her. He knows Naut can take care of herself, but she is the only friend he has that he can trust and cares for. They consider each other as a sibling, and their platonic love for each other runs deep. They are a duo, rarely seen without the other close by.
Vincent continues his search in the bins, this time working more frantic and chaotic. He knows there’s only a few hours left until the sun begins to rise and he’ll have to wait for night to come again before any Cluster will let him sleep. He already missed last night’s deadline and would rather not go another sleepless night.
“Well well well, look what we have here,” a masculine voice states, making Vincent jump and his blood runs cold. In his frantic search, he didn’t hear any footsteps approach, taking him by surprise. “It looks like we have a Rat problem.”
Without moving his head much and staying perfectly still, he scans for the owner of the voice. Without making eye contact, he sees three humans standing closer than he’s comfortable with, all laughing and grinning. His flight response takes over with dread and anxiety, his heart pounding in his chest. He tries to bolt, but the trio catches him easily since they are standing so close.
“And where do you think you’re going Rat?” The same voice asks as his other two goons each grab one of Vincent’s arms and pulls him roughly back towards them.
He let’s out a yelp as his shoulder joints burn from nearly being dislocated. He struggles against Skinny and Tall, but they have an iron grip with blunt nails digging into his skin. Muscles, the guy who has been speaking, saunters over, grabs Vincent’s head to prevent it from moving, and gets so close that their noses nearly touch.
“I knew there was someone snooping around and you fell for the trap,” Muscles explains and all three let out a laugh. Vincent looks at them confused and scared, not understanding what he means by “trap”.
“Oh, look at the poor scared Rat,” Muscles mocks as Skinny and Tall continue laughing. “Let me help you understand. We noticed that the surrounding area has an infestation problem, and we are part of a team hired to take care of said problem. So, we planted a few blank data drives as traps around here in hopes that desperate Rats will come scrounging around where they don’t belong. We’ve seen you and your little girlfriend snooping around here, and it’s about time we caught one of you. Too bad she can’t join us.”
Muscles lets go of his head and punches him square in the nose as hard as he can. Vincent let’s out a cry of pain and surprise as his head snaps back and falls back forward, blood pouring from his now broken nose. His head spins from the sudden whiplash and for a moment he forgets where he is.
“Now normally I wouldn’t hit a girl-”
“I’m not a girl!” Vincent tries to yell as his head keeps spinning.
“-but let’s be honest, you Rats are all the same, vermin,” Muscles continues while ignoring Vincent’s outburst and emphasizes on the word “vermin” with a punch to Vincent’s stomach, knocking the wind out of him.
“I’m not a girl,” Vincent tries to say again as he catches his breath.
“Doesn’t matter much to me,” Muscles shrugs with another laugh, clearly enjoying himself. He punches Vincent in the stomach again and his legs buckle underneath him. Skinny and Tall hold him up as Muscles continues pummeling on him. Vincent goes completely lip with eyes closed, hoping they’ll lose interest before they kill him.
The few pedestrians walking the adjacent street don’t even bat an eye when they notice and assume Vincent is a Rat because of his disheveled appearance, ratty clothes stained with mud and matted short black hair that hasn’t seen a bath in weeks. Most people see Rats as vermin instead of misfortune children. There are so many Rats around that most humans think that if a few die, it’ll help with the overpopulation. Most people see them as a huge problem that contributes to the negative views from the other races, the Raprynni and Daiyovas.
Not only is Vincent a Rat but a Rat who was assigned female at birth but identifies as male, making him more of a target. Many people misgender him due to his height, feminine facial features, and feminine voice. This moment is when neither gender identity would help him. Sometimes he has an easier time begging or getting into less trouble when someone misgenders him, and he bites his tongue, wishing he could correct them.
“Hey, what are you doing?” a new voice that Vincent doesn’t recognize rings out. Vincent barely opens his eyes and sees a young red Raprynni with the head of a dragon.
“This doesn’t concern you so move along,” Muscles response irritably before turning back to Vincent, and he closes his eyes again, waiting for another punch that doesn’t come. “Yo dude. What’s your problem? Why do you care so much about a Rat?”
VIncent slowly opens his eyes again and sees the Raprynni holding Muscle’s punching hand, stopping it mere inches from Vincent’s chest. Muscle’s let’s out a cry of pain as the Raprynni crushes his hand. Vincent closes his eyes again, barely holding on to consciousness as he ragdolls to the floor from Tall and Skinny letting go. He can hear what sounds like a fight but without opening his eyes, he doesn’t know for sure if the Raprynni is winning or not. He tries to open his eyes again but feels too exhausted to lift his eyelids. It suddenly goes quiet, and he can hear heavy footsteps coming his way.
“Hey,” the Raprynni starts quietly, lightly shaking Vincent. “Are you ok?”
Vincent lets out a very shaky breath and slowly opens his eyes. The Raprynni’s brow is knit in worry inches from Vincent’s face. After staring for what feels like a minute, Vincent’s eyes slowly close, too tired to stay open any longer.
“It’s ok,” the Raprynni whispers as he lightly picks up Vincent, cradling him like a baby. “You’re ok. I’m going to bring you to my clan, Mother Kylen will heal you.”
Vincent feels his body moving forward, the Raprynni continuing to whisper reassurance and holding Vincent close. Vincent doesn’t protest or fight the Raprynni as they move, feeling too exhausted and would be clearly outmatched. Feeling he has no other options, he lets his mind slip into unconsciousness.
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