Chapter 1: Esther
I ran and ran and ran and I didn't stop until my feet couldn't carry me anymore. I stumbled through streets, my socks bloody and my breath gasping as I tried to ask for help, but the few people I passed on the street either avoided me or told me to go away. I didn't cry- I had already spent my tears and I was sure they'd left tracks down my dirty cheeks. I fell to my knees, my body weak after the four days of isolation and then running since the early morning, my limbs shaking as I fought to hold myself up.
A door down the way opened, lighting up the night and I lifted my head just enough to see two men stumbling out of a building, a third walking behind them and making sure they got into a car safely. I watched the third man, his tall and dark silhouette not moving until the yellow car with numbers all over it turned a corner. A last burst of hope filled me and I pushed myself to my feet, willing them to take me to him. He had just turned in my direction when my body crashed gracelessly into his, his hands barely catching my body from bouncing right off him.
"Please, help me," I said in a quiet, broken voice that I didn't even recognize. My legs gave out and I winced in preparation for hitting the ground. I was filled with relief when I realized he'd tightened his arms around me just in time to keep me upright. I let myself relax into him, knowing that it was a risk but not really having the strength to do anything else.
"What the fuck?" I barely heard the man's voice over the dark closing in on me. I could tell that I was about to pass out, but I couldn't get my lips to move and my last coherent thought was merely a wish that this man wouldn't be any like the ones I'd known before, and would help a poor lost girl in her obvious time of need.
I woke suddenly, startling myself and another person nearby. I heard them let out a startled squeak, and I turned quickly to follow the source of the sound. A pretty woman with dark skin and braids almost as long as my own hair stood there, eyes wide as she looked me over.
"Good lord girl, you about made me pee myself. You can relax, you're safe."
"I don't know you," I said carefully.
"My name is Tasha. Now you know me."
"I'm not sure that's how it works." I said the words with confusion. Maybe I was wrong, after all there was a lot I didn't know about this world.
Tasha burst into laughter, her thin braids swinging with her amusement. "No, not really. But you can trust me. I'm just helping Tony out."
Now I was really confused, which I'm sure showed on my face. I'd never been that great at hiding what I was thinking, and it was one of the things that got me into trouble with everyone at the Palace.
"Tony was the guy who brought you here. Seeing as how we dabble in the taboo and slightly dangerous side of sexuality here, we usually keep at least one person trained in the medical field on site just in case. Tony asked for our help, and here you are. Looking much better than you did two days ago, by the way."
"I've been here for two days?" Wonder filled me, and I finally took stock of myself. I was hungry, but not nearly as thirsty as I'd been when I'd ran. I was in a gown that only went to my knees, but I was clean. My head had a slight ache to it, and my feet were lightly throbbing. I remembered the moment I'd seen my chance for escape and hadn't been able to grab my shoes or safety bag before I ran, and I knew I'd done a number on my now bandaged feet.
All of that was eclipsed by the fact that I was free. I'd done it. A choked sob-laugh escaped me, and Tasha flinched at the sound.
"Are you gonna be okay, little one?"
I looked at her, a giant grin on my face, tears pooling in my eyes. "I really think so."
A light knock sounded on the door, and a man carefully stepped in a moment later. Panic filled me, realizing I wasn't decent and I grabbed the blanket to cover myself so only my head was showing. Tasha let out a small snort of laughter, and if I hadn't been completely in awe of the man walking in the room I would have glared at her.
This man... Looking at him made me feel things I'd only felt before once. A mixture of excitement and nerves filled me as I watched him moving closer, studying me intently but not in a way that made my skin crawl like I'd felt numerous times back at the Palace. He was tall, so much taller than I was at 5'2", and with skin that was a little darker than Tasha's. A flashback to the man who'd held me as I fainted flickered in my mind and I gasped.
"You- you saved me?"
"Didn't give me much of a choice, did you?"
"What do you mean?"
"It's not like I can let a girl who looked as terrified and desperate as you to your own devices. You ran into me and then fainted. Didn't even have shoes on."
I felt my cheeks flush with mortification. I'm sure I looked haggard at the very least. I hadn't eaten or drank anything in days before I ran for it, and being locked in a dirt basement had my already pale skin covered in dirt. Remembering that I was now clean and wearing unfamiliar clothes, I lifted the blanket, wondering if he was the one who'd changed and cleaned me.
"Did you.. umm..."
Thankfully he interrupted before I could get the words out. "Tasha helped clean you up. I'm not in the habit of undressing women while they're passed out- at least, not without permission first."
His lips quirked in a way that said something I couldn't comprehend. When I just looked at him, he shook his head, his long-ish beard not moving from its tamed position. I had the urge to run my fingers through it to put it back, and that shocked me all over again. Sure, he was handsome, but I'd seen pretty men before. I'd never in my life wanted to touch one casually, much less in the intimate way running my hand over Tony's dark, tightly curled hair had me feeling.
"Is there anyone I can call for you, little one?" Tony's question was kind and gentle, and the way he said "little one" filled me with warmth that Tasha's same endearment hadn't which confused me, again. I bet I was going to be confused by a lot of things in this world; one thing that Palace had gotten right was that people lived very differently outside its walls.
I shook my head, remembering Tony had asked me a question. "There's no one."
"No one? Where were you going when you ran into me? You had to have had a destination in mind with the speed you were going, even being half dead."
"I did. Away."
He looked at me very seriously. "Are you okay?"
"I am now, thank you. And I appreciate whatever you've done for me here. I can figure it out from here though," I said pointedly, hoping he would get the hint and leave.
"Oh really. You mean you don't need help even though you have no money, no form of identification, no clothes- not even a pair of shoes?"
At the brutal truth, I felt my eyes well with tears. I'd managed to escape, yes. But it hadn't gone at all how I'd planned, and everything he'd listed and more for my escape was in a tiny rucksack, buried just enough to be invisible next to the chicken shed back at Palace.
"Fuck, please don't cry." Tony's voice held a note of panic. "I didn't mean to be so harsh."
"No, it's okay. You're right. I have no idea where I'm going or what I'm going to do." I flung my body back on the bed, covering my face with the blanket so my tears didn't scare him away. I didn't know why, but something about his presence comforted me just as much as it scared me.
I couldn't see him, but I heard soft footsteps move toward me, and the air next to the edge of the bed changed enough that I knew he was beside me. A hand slowly gripped the top of the blanket and pulled it down slowly, giving me the chance to stop him if I really wanted. I didn't though, and next thing I knew I was looking at his face close up, all the little hairs on his face from his stubble begging me to reach out to feel how rough it was against my fingers. His eyes looked at me with concern, and the feeling that someone actually cared about me well-being only caused more silent tears to fall from my eyes.
He knelt next to me, continuing to pull the blanket down until the top of the nightgown I wore was exposed, and then thankfully stopped there. He reached towards my face and brushed a few tears off my face with a rough thumb, and my body warmed at his touch. I stared silently, watching with wonder as he put his tear stained thumb in his mouth, licking away the salt of my pain. My lower body clenched unexpectedly, and a tiny gasp blew from my mouth at the sensation.
"So pretty when you cry, even though I hate it," he whispered almost to himself. Before I could ask what he meant, he shook his head and stood up, breaking the tension. "Wait here, okay? I'll be back in a minute."
"Um, yeah okay." What else could I do anyway?