Toby was not fast enough. He could see his building, at the end of the street, but he could also see shadows of Dark Keepers emerging from buildings, large guns in their belts. The last of the sunlight flickered out existence behind the horizon and Toby darted into the closest alleyway. The shadows cast by the tall walls made it even darker, making the stars above him seem to shine more brightly.
Toby’s heart raced and his breath came in short, sharp gasps. It would be safer to navigate the alleys from here, but he had never been through them before, let alone in the dark. Besides, if a helicopter flew over, he would be seen in the spotlights. He had as good a chance as any by running the rest of the way down the road and trust in the inaccuracy of the guard’s aim.
Just as he was about to jump out of the alley and make a sprint for home, two pairs of hands grabbed him. Both his elbows were pulled painfully behind his back and his mouth was covered as he took a breath to yell out. He was pulled back, deeper into the alley. His screams muffled by the grasp of one of his captors, Toby kicked out and struggled against them, but to no avail. They were too strong. Pain flared in his shoulders.
“If you don’t stop screaming, you will alert the Guard,” said the figure on his left, the one with his hand covering Toby’s mouth. “We both know they won’t help you.”
Toby fell silent, but his breath still rasped loudly. He managed to strike one of them in the knee with a kick. He cursed under his breath and Toby slipped out of his grasp. He used his free arm to punch the other, who grunted in surprise. He had a split second of freedom before torchlight filled the area. They were at a crossroads where four alleys met at right angles.
Six people surrounded him in a loose circle, all wearing identical long, grey, hooded coats, and black silk scarfs across the lower halves of their faces. Their eyes were all in shadow. Standing inside the circle was a man, a few years older than Toby. Unlike the others, who stood as though preparing to run away at a second’s notice, he stood perfectly straight. His hood was down, his face uncovered, though he wore the same coat as the others. A torch flamed in his left hand. They were too far into the labyrinth of alleys for the guard to see the light from the road.
“He’s a little scrawnier than I’d hoped,” the man with the torch announced, like Toby could not hear him. His voice was strong and clear, without the hint of wariness that the others had. It was also faintly familiar, though Toby was too busy trying to think of a way out of this mess to focus on this.
“He’s strong for a scholar,” an accomplice muttered, Toby presumed the one he hit. Other than the variation in height, they were almost impossible to tell apart.
“Then perhaps he will fill out a little.” Toby stopped looking for an escape route, knowing there was none other than to scale the walls upwards, and he was certain these men could climb much faster than he. He focused on the man standing in the centre of the pool of orange light, his hair glinting gold. “Tell me, Tobias, will you listen to my proposition without interruption?”
Toby was breathing heavily and found the question strangely polite. He almost laughed. “What if I don’t like what you have to say?”
“Then you may walk away and forget this ever happened. We will even walk you safely home.” The man spoke sincerely, yet his face remained unreadable. Toby stared at him, trying to find some flaw in the promise, a loophole, or any sign that he was lying. He found none.
“I’ll listen,” he answered reluctantly.
The golden-haired man smiled slightly. “I’m glad. But first I must make sure you aren’t one of the Guard, a Dark Keeper disguised as an unfortunate civilian caught outside after nightfall designed to lure us from our dens. How can I be sure you won’t win our trust before killing us?”
“I have never killed anybody,” Toby answered honestly. “My war is also with the Dark Keepers.”
“I’m sure. But how can I be certain? How can I put my mind completely at rest before I reveal the true secrets of our work? Of course,” he continued before Toby could come up with an answer, “if you are a Dark Keeper, we will have no choice but to kill you, as you have already seen my face and I can’t risk you identifying me as a Night Wanderer at a later date.”
This put pressure on Toby’s answer, and he knew it had been done on purpose. Instead of frightening him, it gave him confidence. He spread his arms as though in invitation. “No one knows I’m here. Feel free to search me for any weapon or communication device; you will find none.”
The leader nodded at the figure flanking his right. As he approached, Toby properly noticed the sheer size of him; broad shoulders leading to massive arms. He stood at least a foot above Toby, staring down through the shadow of his hood. He was close enough now to see the jagged blue patterns of paint disguising the upper half of his face, framing a large pair of muddy-brown eyes.
“Don’t hurt him, Marcus.” It was a female voice that spoke, much to Toby’s surprise, but he could not tell which of the figures it was.
“We could always strip-search him,” said another, male, young and mischievous.
“Quiet.” Although he did not raise his voice, the command silenced everyone immediately. The leader gave another nod in Marcus’ direction. “Get on with it. If he’s a Dark Keeper, I want it dealt with quickly.”
Marcus stared down at Toby. “Open your shirt.”
“I beg your pardon?” Toby answered.
“Just do it,” Marcus said coldly. “If you have nothing to hide, as you claim, then you shouldn’t have any problem with it. Do you have anything to hide, Tobias?”
“I don’t have anything to hide,” Toby replied, trying to match the stony, defiant tone.
“Nothing but that skinny chest of his.” The mischievous voice piped up again.
“Jack,” another scolded him, one that had not yet spoken.
Reluctantly, Toby undid the buttons down the front of his shirt, knowing that he was making himself vulnerable to attack. But he also knew that a cotton shirt would do little in the way of protection if one of them decided to stab him. Marcus lifted both sides of his shirt, examining the lining in search of some threatening object. There was none, obviously.
Marcus continued to pat him down, searching for weapons or communication devices. By the time he was done, there was not one part of Toby’s body that had not been checked and he was humiliated in front of the group of anonymous strangers.
“Satisfied?” he snapped at the leader when Marcus finally stepped back.
“We have to be sure,” he replied calmly. “I’m certain now that you aren’t a member of the Guard. But there’s always the chance that you will betray us to them at a later date. I know you won’t do this, but how do I know, Tobias?”
Toby felt as though he were sitting an exam. Although he did not have a blade held to his throat, he could see the glints of silver in their belts and he felt threatened. “My guess is that none of you will reveal your identity to me unless I agree to join you. By then I will be putting my own life on the line by betraying you.”
“Very good.” The leader looked almost impressed. “Will you join us, Tobias?” Toby hesitated. “You have already said that your war is also with the Guard.”
“Everyone in the city is at war with the Guard,” Toby pointed out.
“And barely any of them brave enough to do anything about it,” said the female voice. Toby suspected it came from the slight figure between Marcus and Jack. “Why do you want him anyway, Lukas? He’s a scholar. Look at him: he hasn’t had any physical training.”
“A scholar is exactly what we need,” the leader – Lukas – answered her coolly. “We can train him when the time comes, but in the meantime we need someone with information on the Academy.”
“Why?” Toby asked.
Lukas’ eyes hardened slightly, but his voice remained calm. “The people you see here make up only a fraction of the Night Wanderers. Other Watches scatter the city; we don’t know them and they don’t know us. Information is kept safer this way. There are many, many of us with talent for scaling buildings, bringing down their war machines, assassinating government officials. We have come to a…tricky situation in which brains outmatch brawn, and we have a limit on the former.” Marcus snorted quietly. Lukas pretended not to hear.
“So this has nothing to do with wanting a spy in the Academy?”
“The time may come for that, but that is not my reason for wanting you on side right now.”
Still Toby could not make his decision. Being a Night Wanderer would become a way of life, a secret he would have to hide from everyone he knew whilst trying to continue his study.
“Must this decision be made immediately?” he asked Lukas.
Lukas smiled a small smile, his mouth curling fractionally at the corners. “You have three days. Oliver?” A figure behind Toby stepped forward. Lukas handed him the flaming torch. “Take him home.”
Oliver. Toby knew that name, and recognised the eyes that peered at him over the top of the scarf, despite the disguising patterns of paint.
“Three days,” Lukas repeated emphatically, before he and his men – and woman – swept away into the alleys, fading into the dark with no light to guide them. Oliver’s eyes twinkled as he watched Toby’s awed gaze.
“I don’t know how to get home from here,” Toby admitted, buttoning up his shirt.
“I do,” Oliver answered cheerfully. “This way.” He led the way down the alley to the right, the torch flames illuminating the black stone walls in warm orange light. The Night Wanderer had quick, long paces that Toby had trouble to keep up with. The contrast between the rebel in the grey coat and the young man he had protected in the café three days ago was astounding. Apart from the stains on his skin, there was nothing to betray Oliver’s secret. Now he walked with his shoulders down, his knees slightly bent, making him look like a big cat on the prowl.
“Why does Lukas want me to join?” Toby asked. Although his voice was little more than a murmur, it echoed loudly off the surrounding stone.
Oliver glanced back at him. “We need documents decrypted, and no one in our Watch knows how to. We’ve been looking for someone from the Academy for the past three weeks with no luck.”
“Surely you need someone with experience in fighting as well as coding?”
“I wasn’t spying on you when I came into your café, Toby. But the selflessness and bravery it took to turn against the Guard in a public area is exactly what the Night Wanderers need. You essentially put your life on the line to protect me, who you didn’t know from Adam.”
Toby thought about mentioning the fact that he had been more concerned about the state of the café’s interior than the ongoing feud between the Guard and the Night Wanderers, but decided against it. He was tempted by Lukas’ offer. He was sick of the oppressive nature of the government, of the contemptuous looks the Dark Keepers gave the rest of the citizens, and above all, the killings. He wanted change, but he felt it was unfair to expect other people to risk their lives for it.
Oliver stopped and indicated the wall on the left with an inclination of his head. “I believe this is your building. If you move slowly enough, the Dark Keepers won’t see you. When it’s this dark, they rely on movement to spot us.”
The alley looked out onto the main road and Toby noticed that Oliver held the torch flame around the corner, hidden.
“I’m not supposed to show preference,” Oliver went on, “but I hope you join us.”
He dropped the torch into a puddle, dousing it and plunging the alley into complete blackness.
Across the room, Elsa stared. Tears glistened in her beautiful green eyes, threatening to spill down her face. Toby watched her warily, uncertain as to whether she would shout at him, burst into tears, or run into his arms. He hoped for the latter, but she did none of these things. She ran at him, but her hardened expression and bared teeth in preparation to yell sent him stumbling back a few steps. She looked scarier than Lucy in that moment.
She ran into his chest, pounding him with her fists. It did not particularly hurt, but it pained him to see her so furious. “How dare you disappear without a word and come back a year later with no warning!” she screamed. She would wake up everyone in the building, Toby thought, and he did not want that just now. He had to keep a low profile in the meantime. “Was I supposed to fall into your arms? Is that what you expected?”
“Is this where you’ve been? With the Night Wanderers? With Lukas?”
“I had to leave the public eye-”
Toby took hold of her wrists to stop her hitting him. Her cheeks were wet with angry tears. He did not want to remind her why he had to go into hiding, but he had no choice right now. She had to stop shouting, or he risked the neighbours coming to see the source of the noise.
“I had to leave because I killed a woman,” he murmured to her. “There was a chance someone saw me.”
“They didn’t,” Elsa spat. “The murder was labelled suspicious, but there was no report of any suspect.” Toby bit back a retort that lingered on the tip of his tongue; he had stabbed her with a knife, so there was little else the death could have been but suspicious.
“How could I have known this?” Toby asked coolly.
“It was in the paper. The government is desperate to identify the Night Wanderers, so if they had any idea it was you, it would have been reported. Don’t lie and tell me Lukas doesn’t check the paper, because I know he does.” She had a valid point, but Toby did not want to admit it. He felt guilty enough as it was without her pointing out more of his wrongs. “I hate you for what you’ve done.”
He stiffened all over. She must have felt it, because she looked almost remorseful. Toby released her wrists and stalked past her towards the bathroom, shrugging off his coat as he went and leaving it heaped on the floor, along with his scarf.
“Where are you going?” Elsa asked, her voice a more acceptable level.
“To wash,” Toby answered shortly before closing the bathroom door between them. His eyes burned with the tears he refused to shed as he heated the water and ran it into the bathtub. I hate you. He stripped off his clothes and stepped into the warm water. It had been so long since he had washed in a bathtub; Jason had tapped into the water pipe that ran beside the bathroom to create a number of showers at the outpost. He almost felt nostalgic, but his anger shadowed it.
Sitting in the water relaxed him, banished his anger to make way for the hurt underneath. He had been afraid of her reaction, had expected anger, but he never considered the possibility that she could hate him.
He washed himself down with the bar of soap on the side table, cleaning the shallow cuts on his hands he had gained from climbing the building. He noticed now, as he ran the soap along the lines of his arms and legs, how much his body had changed since he had last seen Elsa. Months of climbing tower buildings had broadened his shoulders and strengthened his arms. Free-running had left his legs laced with a thicker layer of muscle, and combat training had given the muscles in his abdomen prominence. Not only this, but his hair had grown longer and darker, his skin paler from lack of sunlight. It was a miracle she had recognised him at all, he thought on reflection.
Toby submerged to wash the paint off his face. It peeled off in clusters, decorating the water in what looked like blue snowflakes. He watched them from beneath the surface of the water as they bobbed about, evidence of his night-time endeavours. The remaining paint he scrubbed off with the flannel, before washing that out in the bathtub. Not wanting to put his dark clothes back on, he settled for tying a towel about his waist when he left the bathroom. Elsa had seen him wearing less.
She was sitting on the sofa when he emerged into the living room, staring down at her twined hands. She looked up when she heard Toby’s soft steps on the carpet, her eyes immediately drawn to the gash on his calf. She looked shocked.
“What happened?” she asked, sounding for a moment like she used to. Her voice was hoarse from the shouting, but the melodic, sweet tone was audible and almost made Toby relax. Her earlier words still rang in his ears nevertheless.
“I’ve had worse,” he answered bluntly, heading for his bedroom. Elsa intercepted him before he reached the door; he had forgotten how light on her feet she was. She placed her hands on his shoulders to prevent him striding right past her, suddenly all business-like.
“Let me bind it. I’m sure I saw some antiseptic cream in your bathroom somewhere, this is so prone to infection-”
Her touch, now that she was no longer hitting him, drove all of his anger and hurt away. He wrapped one arm around her middle, drawing her to him, and used his other hand to tilt her chin up. His kiss was rough and uninvited, and he felt Elsa tense against him. He was unsure whether she was angry or just surprised.
Toby was quick to step back. “Forgive me,” he mumbled, and sidestepped her into the bedroom. He almost convinced himself she looked disappointed. He dressed in a black button-down shirt and a pair of navy jeans, clothes that were tighter than he remembered. Water dripped from the ends of his hair, dampening his shoulders and back. Elsa remained standing where he had left her when he came back into the living room, her expression blank. Her anger had been difficult to see, but being uncertain of how she was feeling was worse.
“You can go back to bed if you like. I’ll sleep out here,” he said gruffly, embarrassed.
She nodded once, not looking at him, and disappeared into the bedroom. Toby stared at the door, feeling inadequate. There was nothing he could do or say that could make this better, to take their relationship back to how it had been before.
He lay on the sofa, his arms behind his head, staring at the ceiling. He had not slept at night for the past year, and now he could not reach it. His mind was too full of thought to even think about resting.
The buzzer rang. Toby leant up and frowned at the door. It buzzed again, and again, urgently. Hesitantly, he stood and went over to it, noticing Elsa peeking through the gap in the slightly open door.
“Yes?” he asked, pressing the button allowing him to speak to the visitor. He jumped back immediately, suddenly remembering the rather important fact that he had been missing for the past year, and no one should be expecting his voice.
“It’s me. Let me up.” Lucy’s voice allowed a brief moment of relief, before he tensed again. Having Lucy in close proximity to Elsa was not something he wanted. There was nothing he could do except press the button to unlock the door. He paced while he waited for her to arrive, anxiety churning his stomach. He had not been back much more than an hour and yet he was being called on.
Toby heard Lucy approach outside and opened the door before she had chance to knock. She ducked past his arm and glanced around, wrinkling her nose in distaste. “It’s not quite what I imagined when you said you had your own place.”
“What else were you expecting?” Toby asked coolly. “A mansion in the Governor’s District?”
“I prefer our outpost,” Lucy continued, ignoring him.
“If you’re looking for somewhere to spend the night, I’m afraid I’ve no more room.”
Lucy laughed without humour. “If you two snuggled up, there’d be plenty of room for me on your sofa.” She winked suggestively at the bedroom door, somehow knowing that Elsa was watching. “Anyway, I’m not staying, and neither are you.”
“Excuse me?” Toby asked.
“Lukas wants you back immediately. He’s had a message from Samuel that requires our attention.”
Although this sparked Toby’s interest, he was reluctant to leave so quickly. “I thought you were snooping around Prendergast’s house. How did Lukas get the message to you so quickly?”
“It arrived before Jason and I had chance to leave,” she muttered angrily. “This is more important, apparently. Just come with me, we don’t have much time before Lukas gets angry.”
“Give me an hour.”
Lucy rolled her eyes. “You’re keeping Lukas waiting, not me.” She stuffed a piece of note paper into his hand and stalked back out of the apartment, her grey coat swooping behind her.
Toby kicked the door closed behind her, unfolding the note. His eyes skimmed over it twice before he dropped it on the table close by and went to change back into his dark clothes. Elsa appeared, ignored him completely, and made straight for the note. She read through multiple times.
“It’s encrypted,” Toby told her when he emerged, and she was still looking at the paper.
“A raid?” she demanded. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
Toby felt silly. Elsa had been in the same classes as he at the Academy, and she now had an extra year of tuition over him. Of course she could decrypt the message without too much difficulty.
“It doesn’t involve anything extreme,” he said, trying to reassure her while he tied his boots back onto his feet. “It’s a scare more than anything.”
“It sounds extreme,” Elsa commented. “Will you come back with more bullet wounds?”“If I come back at all,” Toby answered, and immediately regretted it. She looked truly hurt, but he could not find any words to rectify it. He sat on the windowsill and swung his legs out. “If you’ll have me back, I will be.” When she said nothing, he pulled up his hood and covered his nose with the scarf. He had no time to reapply the paint.