Chapter 1 | Secrets
“Stop daydreaming,” a voice snapped.
The boy wasn’t having it. He shoved her against a pole, and then the nearest wire fence as soon as her fingers grazed the silicon beam. As her skin indented briefly against the criss-crossing rails, her backpack dragged down her arms, and her body laid sprawled across the ground, she considered that the lamppost had more purpose than her simple self.
Lyn wearily peeled her eyes open. The sight of the limp files sagging out of her bag greeted her. Next to her materials, the shadow of the boy casted across her frame. Not doubt he triumphantly thought he’d conquered her, body and mind.
She snorted to herself. If he thought that fall hurt, then he should have seen her falling off her bed after the factory late bell rang. Lyn laid against the cool cement a little longer, allowing her back to finally adjust to the uncomfortable curl she lay in.
The boy didn’t agree with her slight respite, and kicked her thermos against the barbed barricade. They both watched her coffee silently leak out, slithering along the spotted, cracked ground. When she propped herself onto her elbows, the boy merely smirked at her, the yellow tufts of his ruffled hair daunting her.
She paused, contemplating if he was worth it. A feeling akin to bitterness stirred in the pit of her stomach, prodding her onwards—
—so it was easy to follow suit, and jump onto her toes. Fingers flung her flimsy zipper up and fetched the flask no longer full of her lifeblood: caffeine, her lifeblood, her trigger.
If she wasn’t going to drink all of her coffee, then there was no point in drinking any at all. Without a second’s thought, she splashed some coffee onto the boy’s face, clothes, and shoes.
Check and mate, she mentally fistbumped herself.
The blond boy cursed her, tension crackling in the air. Goosebumps scattered across her skin, the ends of her hair upright.
It wasn’t until he stalked a safe distance away did Lyn allow herself to crack a smile, palming the silver watch in her hand. He had practically asked for it to be stolen. Continuing her stroll, she slung the straps of her bag over her shoulders.
Spicules of ice still clung to the bottoms of the Metro, meaning everyone would be walking today—except the Patrons. Frost littered the pavement, wind snipping at her revealed face, a ghost of an animal. Why couldn’t California fit into its sunny, clear, not-overcast stereotype? She’d barter her Sponsored-status that stereotypes probably jinxed it.
Her shoes slapped against craved pavement, her toes curling into the soles, wishing to instead dig into rich soil only Patrons could afford to plant in pots. Maybe worms would wriggle over her feet, but she’d prefer that natural sensation over walking barefoot with blisters and cold sores washed with sewer water.
But in the grand scheme of things, what was the Universe other than an invisible fragment of fate with a vendetta against all things simply her? Call her childish—but that wasn’t in an insult to her anymore. After all, hearing words repeated over some time, didn’t they become fact? When facts entrenched themselves into commandments, you couldn’t help but revere the words.
Or perhaps she ultimately equalled the typical, angsty teenager. Or maybe it was a little bit of both. Or Patrons shouldn’t be bold enough to target Sponsors in broad daylight—and stay on their side of the Borders.
A familiar sight of dark, glossed hair swayed into her sight. Tall and slim compared to the hunched bodies swarming the morning, merged streets, the figure headed towards to the Gates: looming, haphazardly-built sloped walls, a sore sight for early eyes, separating the Patron’s lands and the slums filled with orphans and other scavengers.
“Hey, Ian! Wait up, you colossal cheetah!” she yelled, quickening her strides. Ian served as the only Patron she didn’t mind on her supposed “side” of society. He rarely traversed over unless to bail her out of some Patron-punishment, so today was more than a nice surprise—except he hadn’t told her what business brought him over this time.
Yet her best friend, albeit only friend, was already yards ahead, the distance furthering. With polished clothes and straight spine juxtaposing the streets of shattered windows and slanted buildings, Ian shouted Patron-status whether he wanted to or not. She nearly cried with relief when he turned around and slowly started towards her, the edges of his mouth curling into a smile.
That smile disappeared just as quickly when Lyn stumbled over a crack in the sidewalk, catapulting into his arms. Almost her entire coffee spilled all over his perfectly pressed shirt and slacks. A scowl graced his face, skin steaming slightly. Lyn shot him a worried look, but he waved her off, setting her upright instead. She slightly shivered as he brushed her bangs from her face.
Lyn shifted her backpack strap into a more comfortable position, and yanked out napkins from her bag with a flourish. “Oops?” she said, holding them out.
Ian adjusted his cufflinks. “You are the clumsiest creature I have ever met.” He swooped to the floor, retrieving the cursed thermos.
“Good morning to you, too, Ian,” she chirped, and then barked in protest when he drained the last drops of the contents. “You know what happens when I don’t get my daily dose?”
Her companion grimaced, stuffing the thermos into her bag. A zip, and her bag was once again hefted onto her shoulders. “Things tend to get ugly fast.”
Lyn bristled, waiting for him to clean himself up. After a moment’s thought, she mumbled an apology. When Ian shot her a large know-it-all smirk on his face, she added, “I didn’t know you were such a sucker about your appearance at school.”
He just shot her another look, this time in exasperation. “Wait,” Ian started, “Why are the napkins damp?”
She looked down at his shirt and pants to see murky, brownish stains branching out like deformed confetti circles. “Maybe because my hands were wet,” Lyn replied sheepishly, hiding them defensively behind her torso. She had barely finished her duties in Darcy’s kitchen before sprinting out the back door like a hellion.
He released a sigh and studied his watch. “We’re going to be early anyway. Why don’t we stop by H&H so I can clean up and buy you a cup of coffee.” After rolling back his shoulders, he added, “Black coffee.”
Lyn raised her eyebrows. She really didn’t deserve their friendship. H&H not only functioned as their favorite run-down coffee place, but also served as one of the stores she wasn’t banned from—and not because of her Sponsored status. “As sweet as that sounds, did you fail to notice that I just ruined your morning? Where’s the hissy fit?”
As a symptom of the sweeping squalor, Lyn supposed she knew her sights—the penury and pride, respite and revenge. For all perspectives, however, Ian remained the anomaly. He should have found her utterly undesirable, a piece of gum stuck to an immaculate, slick surface, and a resemblance of the littering trash on the scratched and sodden ground. Ian should have that blond boy who’d just pushed her, continuing on with his merry stroll.
“Hilarious, Lyn.” He took her hand within his own, and waved the other at the loitering guards near the Gates. “It’s more like you made this day a tad bit more interesting in an inconvenient manner. Besides, we wouldn’t want you to lower all the teacher’s seats and cubbies to your height, would we?”
Lyn yanked her hand out of his fingers, cold to match the damp atmosphere. When a Gate guard raised an eyebrow, she stuck out her tongue. She flashed her attention back to her tall and towering friend. “One, they’ll think again the next time they think their height can intimidate me. Two, excuse you, but I was surrounded by a phoenix regenerated into human flesh of a teacher wanting to burn my backpack since it had an ant on it—just an ant! A harmless black ant, not a spotty red one! Do we not value other lives because they aren’t human? Or because they’re powerless? Do—”
Ian’s arm flashed in front of Lyn’s body, seconds away from storming across the intersection. Her eyes glared black daggers, matching the asphalt—and the motorcyclist’s machine flying by. Gaze swerving to the buffoon, now an easy speckle in the streets, who had the audacity to flaunt his wealth near the Borders, she swallowed the rest of her rant.
Lyn opened her mouth to mumble a quick thanks, but a quick glance in his direction revealed him solely focused on his phone. She huffed—and he accused her of having a short attention span. His phone screen sucked the soul out of his eyes, where he was no doubt off in another world. Or perhaps another dimension, even. Like he would tell her.
“Hey!” Lyn snapped her fingers near his ear. When he didn’t react, thumbs the wings in the sky for the screen’s device, she crossed the street with a huff of indignation. Boys. What Ian’s dull presence now provided, the other side of the Borders provided all attractions.
The delicately structured buildings soared, boasting swirls of colors to a palette’s envy. Silk-clad Patrons ambled down paved streets dotted with mosaic lampposts. Beyond the Gates laid the Patron induced void, swirling with the slight tinkering of music to fill satiate empty ears, mouths salivating to lush lavishness.
Lyn held her chin high, while her fingers belied her confident facade. Nails scrubbed at the hems of her shirt she’d stitched together from table rags, the pads of her thumbs covering liquid splotches. Becoming Sponsored meant learning a dance that blended two tempos from two different worlds beyond uniting. She still struggled with the fickle beat of perquisites and poverty.
Coated, powdered faces puckered in irritation, noses tilted up. She could feel the waves of animosity clogging her nostrils, and she brought the shorn sleeve of her shirt to her nose. It wasn’t until Lyn exponentially quickened her pace to get to their new destination did Ian call out her name, not without irritation.
“Oh, now the sloth awakens!” Lyn retorted, not bothering to slow down until she reached the curb in front of their destination.
H&H’s revolving doors glimmered in the sunlight, reflecting off passing Patron’s diamond facets. Printed on each glass panel, stamped with one “H” in delicate cursive spiraling upwards, and the other in jagged edges all pointing downwards, the logo flaunted the company’s prestige and success. As she pushed one door open, Ian slid into another, adjusting his tie. “Lyn,” he breathed, “I will always pay—”
Lyn stepped out of the door, an extemporaneous feeling akin to anger overwhelming her. She gave the panel an extra shove backwards, and watched in satisfaction when the hard surface slammed against Ian’s nose. She stood aside and waited patiently for him to step out, catching sight of his surprised expression—and the slight burn on his arm.
A twinge of guilt ran through her body.
Ian growled, staring at her stature. With his phone nowhere in sight, securely tucked within one of his many hidden pockets, his fingers tapped a foreboding beat against his stained pants. If his height didn’t already consume her, then his glare would be the final strike.
“Lyn!” a different voice shouted, saving her from Ian’s incoming, albeit well-justified tantrum.
“Max!” she returned enthusiastically, turning to face the register’s direction.
“What’s my favorite raven doing here at this godforsaken hour?” Max said, wiping down what a horrid explosion of whip cream. Lyn subconsciously tugged at her jet-black bangs, her hair color and temper coining the moniker.
Ian seized the opportunity pinch her arm, eyes crystalline, frozen into a picture of menacing mischief. His gelled, slicked hair culled any crumb of charm, coffee-stained suit carrying contempt.
Oh, you want to play now? Lyn swerved his jab to her stomach, and moved as well. Her muscles twitched and relaxed. Memory’s momentum maneuvered with her marrow, matching malice’s mirthful mannerisms.
“Children,” Max groaned, and shook his head disappointedly. Lyn, grinning from ear to ear, held up Ian’s wallet—not before snagging a few bills. The Patron blindly snatched back his pocketbook, stuffing it inside his dark coat. “It’s too early for tantrums,” Max continued, reaching for a candied canister.
“Wait till you see Lyn throw an actual tantrum.” Ian pinched the bridge of his nose, and then spun around in her direction. His hands ghosted over his wrists. “Where’s my watch?”
Max tsked his tongue, and pointedly looked at her, now seated in one of the stools far away. “Please be a nice, fluffy bird and give it back.” He threateningly held up the canister and let a spurt of syrup spray in her direction. When she didn’t move, he sighed. “Now I have to break my back all over the floor to clean that mess.”
“Only because you asked so nicely.” She slung the metal around her fingers, chucking it at Ian. He swiftly caught it with one hand and smoothly latched it back onto his wrist, jaw twitching. At least she had the other vaguely similar watch tucked safely in her pocket from the rude blond boy earlier.
“It’s only five forty-five, the devil be damned.” Max yawned in emphasis. “Our first customers usually arrive around six-thirty for the free Electricity hours, which sometimes includes me. But don’t tell my boss that.”
Lyn nodded. Without a clean energy source, every minute of using electricity taxed the user. Only affluent and generous stores—which were rare gems in the neighborhoods—provided free Electricity at certain intervals. Patrons, like Ian, could regularly afford such luxury, and as his Sponsor, Lyn benefited. For others...well, Lyn supposed they would survive as they always did—as she once had.
“Ian volunteered to buy me coffee!” she piped up, pointedly looking at Ian, who was throwing his leathered backpack on the nearest table; she followed his suit and jerked her chin at his stained clothes. “Besides, he needs to clean up.”
Max leaned over the counter, setting down the rag. “I’m using my sixth sense here, so help me out. Clumsy Lyn falls and gallant Ian rescues her, not before endangering himself with Lyn’s coffee. Brave Ian spares school from Lyn’s wrath by stopping to my marvelous place to buy coffee, yeah?”
Lyn scowled. Predictability never proved her point.
Ian smirked in her direction, and then glanced at the employer. “Call your sixth sense intuitively adroit, Max.” He walked off to the men’s bathroom. She slumped into the booth.
Max attempted to hide his smile, but failed. “Well, Lyn, just cause you’re a valued customer, your coffee’s on the house!”
Her head snapped up. “Say what? Oh, no you aren’t. I’ve got spare cash. Ian’s only paying today because I wrote his entire mythology essay for him last night. Till three in the morning because I couldn’t exactly plagiarize my own copy.”
Max clucked his tongue, and Lyn suddenly noticed that in his hand was already a cup of her current heart’s desire. Well, Universe curse her.
“I just happened to accidentally make this steaming, delicious coffee without a drop of creamer and sugar. It would be a darn shame if I had to pour it down the sink and rinse this cup without knowing someone enjoyed it. What a waste of ingredients, huh?”
When Max’s shoulders gave no indication of budging, Lyn reached into her bag, pulled out two tens she’d been saving for her seventeenth birthday, and jogged over to the counter. When Max handed her the cup, she snuck the bills into his hand that dwarfed hers.
“Whoa,” he said, his arm still extended. “Did you just not hear what—”
“—I’m acknowledging your generosity,” Lyn snapped, sipping the coffee. She wanted to melt on the spot in embarrassed euphoria. “It’s not everyday people go out of their way for others. It’s the least I could do,” she added quietly, face burning
Max sighed and shook his head, putting the money in the tip jar. “It was on the house, Lyn. You gotta let others help you, like how I let my cat take care of my rodent problem.”
Lyn shook her head and walked back to her cushioned seat. It’s good to tell others some secrets so they don’t burden you, Ian had told her when she had first met him. And so you know whom you can trust.
So they think that you trust them, she’d added, and Ian had merely shook his head.
She met Max’s eyes. “My parents died helping people, who spread their legacy as kindness. I tell myself to carry that peace with me.” And to not meet their same ends.
“I’m sorry, Raven.” He scratched his head, to which she nodded silently and sat back down. Wasn’t everyone sorry? The world could drown in sorrows, and not one would drink.
Ian’s phone buzzed and she lazily typed in his password, back leaning against the windowsill. Lyn enjoyed early mornings. The grogginess meant she didn’t have to fully think about her future—which meant thoughts of sweet oblivion could sink in.
H&H has always been a highly favored place of hers to visit. She’d first discovered the place when she and Ian got into their first argument. He’d stormed off from the orphanage into the welcoming glow of the soaring structure. Lyn had slinked behind him, warped within the shadows. If the guards at the Borders had seen her crossing without permission, they had remained silent. Traversing into the land of Elites for the first time had left her in a stupor, H&H included. The building had been huge—covering seemingly acres of land for a regular shop—for Lyn’s usual, cramped-room style.
She’d lost Ian in less than a second.
It wasn’t until hours later that Ian found her, nose stuck in a book, legs curled to her stomach. Refusing to speak first, Ian had dragged her into another room, separated by thick soundproof walls. To her utter delight and shock, she’d realized Ian had careened her into a club.
Hexagonally shaped, H&H split into a section saved for spewing sounds of all music exclusive to members during the day. At night, a door opened from the middle of the building, and the club take its first deep breath, swallowing the sweaty skins of all souls.
After tripping over other’s horrifying high heels and luxury leathers enough times that Ian’s arms refused to leave her waist, Lyn had discovered a third room that led to the basement downstairs. Unfortunately, lest her curiosity be satisfied, a large manager’s only sign had smacked her in the face. Ian had found her pouting in front of the door, laughed, and carried her back to the pulsing dance floor. And for the rest of that night, her veins were injected with happiness.
Like anyone, she had her doubts that “life-changing” event that advertisement declared was Sponsorship—but now, those doubts were gone. She knew for a fact that, compared to over three-fourths of the world’s population, the life she led now was a life of luxury.
Ian’s phone vibrated again; she clicked on the text from an unfamiliar number.
IMMEDIATE EVACUATION, KADNIKOV
Curiosity wrapped around her like a vice as she scrolled up to see the beginning of the conversation.
THE ASTEROIDS NEAR EARTH
Lyn nearly fell out of the seat from laughter; she had never thought in her entire life that Ian would resume his gaming career. Was that was why he was so stressed this morning? Heavens forbid he’d start ranting about how the app cheated or was rigged.
REGROUPING PO. CANDIDATES IN ANDROMEDA FAILED.
EVAC. RISK >>
She raised her eyebrows. Whatever this intense game was, Lyn planned—no, demanded—to ask Ian for an explanation in full detail. He had even raised his age from seventeen to nineteen years old. Hours later, Ian had responded:
Compromised. Do not expect contact until near nine.
This time Lyn nearly did fall out of her seat. Indeed, Ian had the audacity to accuse her of being the dramatic one? She shook her head, Ian’s supposed guilty pleasure uplifting her spirits—and as she did so, she caught sight of the coffee she had yet to finish. Flopping back onto the cushions, she hooked her finger around the cup’s handle and her lips touched the rim. The coffee was still tepid; its smell permeated the room, and its taste satiating her taste buds. Pure bliss.
“Lyn,” the male of her previous thoughts appeared, his gaze fixed upon her cup. “I didn’t buy you one.”
She shrugged, returning her gaze back to the object of her affection. It was free, but Ian didn’t need to know that. Making him grovel was always a rare amusement.
“I gave you my word.” He pulled out his wallet again.
Lyn’s smile widened. Ian definitely could be dramatic. “Looks like I turned it down, didn’t I?”
She could feel the cold stare freezing her into place. Lyn shook off the chills creeping across her skin, and gave him her signature smirk. Was he honestly complaining? More money for him—not that he didn’t need it
Ian scowled. “I know you can’t afford these things. I—”
“Do not mention my inability to be rich and flaunt it, Ian,” she snapped, rising from the cushions.
“Did you forget that you live in a goddamned orphanage?” He said tightly.
“So does the majority of the world! If you make my life easier, you might as well save everyone out there, too! You’re rich enough!” She allowed the mockery and derision fill herself, the words a cutting blade.
Every Sponsored swore that they would never let the memories of grim, gruesome groveling and atrocious abuse slip from their minds upon entering a new, better life. Looks like I’ve already committed that crime, she thought bitterly to herself. It was too easy to allow herself to bask and bathe in the warmth of wealth, lined even with limited luxury. It was especially easy to turn her head away upon diving into the depths of the slums.
It was too, too easy. And she’d caved—like all others. She wasn’t special.
Ian visibly flinched, and turned his head away. “I can’t even save you,” he said so quietly that she barely heard him.
The anger died instantly, and she sighed, allowing her hand to fall on the shoulder of the smooth suit. He wasn’t the traitor here. “I know it’s impossible to save everyone, but you especially don’t need to save me, Ian. Offering to buy me coffee was enough. It’s the thought that counts. Besides, money isn’t a cure in this world as everyone believed it to be.” Isn’t it, though?
Society ran as a rigged game, and if the cards were played right, pockets would be filled. But as the lining of the lush clothes grew heavier, the scars scratched deeper, and a curtain casted over the character, a poker face puckered to belie truth. The Patrons dealt the deck, and those beyond the wall could not chea—not when the game had already been written. No paved road for shortcuts opened, demanding the duration of the drilled defeat.
Ian tugged her bangs. “That’s not what I meant.”
Irritation shot up her spine. Did he not understand she was trying to apologize in some form? “Then what?”
“Nothing,” he snarled, grabbing his stuff. “Let’s go.” He shoved open the door panels with more force than necessary, stubbing his toe. Cursing, Ian stalked out, Lyn holding in snickers.
Max muttered something unintelligible under his breath, but nodded at Lyn on her way out. The cold air nipped her face, and she watched Ian eyelid’s close, a mask of relaxation slipping across his features.
“How would you describe yourself?” Ian pondered, slipping an arm around her waist as they crossed another street. “In one word.” He ducked his head from the slanted roofs dangling lighted wires, some flickering sparks.
Lyn let out a snort, sticking her foot out at a passerby. “Lonely.”
Ian placed the other hand over his heart tragically. “But you have me.”
“Not always.” She stuck her tongue out at a cluster of belly-dancers giggling nonsense and jingling their gleaming bracelets. The Sun reflected off the metal, and Lyn winced.
A tiny girl in a kimono barreled into Lyn’s backside, nearly knocking her off her feet. By the time Ian hoisted her upright—which she supposed was now second nature to him—the girl was bobbing along with the crowd ahead, a deep red rose pinned in her midnight hair.
Ian dusted off invisible dirt on his jeans. “Fate put us together,” he argued.
The words spilled out of her mouth before she could bite them back. “Doesn’t mean fate won’t break us apart.”
“Your pessimism never fails to reach new, staggering heights.”
“We’re about to go to school, Ian! Let me mope.”
“You should be happy,” Ian commented, checking his watch. “We’re one minute away from the late bell.”
Lyn was fine with that. It meant one less moment of snide slurs slid towards her, Ian relentlessly battering them away, and her telling him endlessly it was a pointless battle. Even if an elite Patron miraculously decided to raise her status, Patron sons and daughters would continue to toss her around—history was the other thing that kept the future certain.
The streets thinned, and they climbed up a series of gray, chipped stairs . Ian pressed his hand against the small of her back, gently ushering her forward—as if sensing her desire to ditch again.
She kicked open the wooden gate entrance and snorted at the new ’Welcome to Immunis School’ sign. The ink had dripped down to pool at the bottom of the smooth floor, eliciting the clear odor of pungent sharpness, beckoning the unsavory unfortunate to slip.
“Looks like an advertisement for a horror story,” Lyn observed.
“We’re going to be late,” Ian chided, and moved past her impatiently. “Stop dragging your feet.”
The click of heels echoed across the halls, shadows looming over the walls, Ian’s hulking overs tenfold. They turned down the corridor, where the smell of rotten food and soiled drinks permeated the air. The wooden doors creaked spontaneously while the knobs rattled erratically. As the school, and section in general, featured classes mixed with Patrons and Sponsored, the Elites naturally refused to renovate any building in the southern area.
Ian pushed opened the last door in the hall, holding her close. As she slipped behind the door before it shut, a blaring noise echoed across the intercom, the walls shaking in response.
A tall, scrawny figured pranced in the front of the classroom, wagging her pink fingernails at them. “Dmitri! Cahaya!” the teacher tutted. She slammed a palm against her desk, jerking her head at the clock. “That’s the third time this week the tardy bell rang upon your entrance!”
“Because I obviously control the system,” Lyn muttered under her breath, and the nearest people around her snickered under their breaths.
Ian gave he an unappreciative side glance, and strode forwards. Slim fingers reached inside his coat pocket, and flashed a wad of greens. “Excuse our lateness. I needed Lyn for laundry, having spilled coffee over myself.” He slapped the bills onto the teacher’s desk. “I can assure you it won’t happen again.”
Their teacher let out a humph, but quickly reached out to snatch and stuff the money into her cupboard. Reaching into the bin again, she pulled out a long ruler, and waved it around. “It’s Mrs. Pedine to you boy.”
When Ian cocked his head, Mrs. Pedine flickered her attention back to Lyn, and smacked the ruler against the tabled for emphasis. “Find a seat, rat.”
Lyn rolled her eyes, and slunk to her seat. As she slid behind her desk, the classmate behind her shoved her chair forward, metal hitting the posterior of her knee. He snickered loudly, and Lyn promptly dropped her backpack on his outstretched foot. The boy scowled, and she shot him her nastiest glare.
Ian gave her a reassuring glance, opting to sit at the front desk. A wise choice.
“The averages for this test was very low, class,” Mrs. Pedine droned, shuffling through a thick stack of papers.
Lyn leaned back against the chair, wishing it would impale herself. She didn’t mind going to Immunis in the very slightest, especially since education topped exterminating real rats underground to run her mouth and energy off. But this classroom was the bane of her existence.
“I’d expect better from Patron students and their Sponsored alike to score better. We are ranked in the state and have a reputation to uphold. We— what’s so funny, Ace?”
The boy behind her snorted in distaste. Ace Aprogul, son of one of the elite Patrons, flaunted his parent’s social status as frequently as he made her life miserable. Whether seizing the opportunity to constantly kick her chair forward so her jaw would hit the desk, pull her hair back with tweezers, or stab her neck with the blades of scissors, he found her his live experiment.
“Well,” Ace drawled, “Evelyn here has some clothes that are just causing an extremely bad migraine to form. But don’t mind me. It’s not her fault she can’t afford to wash her clothes and get new ones. But my eyes, heavens, they’re dearly suffering.”
Mrs. Pedine clucked her tongue. “Dearie, we must be nice and considerate to the poor littering our spaces. Apologize so we can continue, Ace.”
Was she actually being defended for once—even in a distorted form? Lyn twisted around in the hard seat to face Ace.
He arched an eyebrow, smirking slightly. How she wanted to root out his canals and sell his perfect, white teeth.
“Why should I apologize if I speak the truth and nothing else? Truth hurts, Evelyn.”
She bit her tongue from cursing his very existence—after all, she had already racked up several detentions this semester that filled her transcript. Like hell she needed another one. It was still possible for sponsorship to be revoked if issues persisted.
But cruel honesty with the intent to hurt—that was by no means a virtue.
Mrs. Pedine twirled a pencil in her hand, her painted green fingernails flashing. “Ace, dear? We’re waiting.”
“Must I prove you wrong?” Ace flashed his pearly whites. “From my close perspective, I see coffee stains and clashing colors that no doubt should belong in the sewers. Or back in the Orphanage.”
“Is there something wrong?” Lyn demanded angrily, hot, hot flames rising within her lungs, threatening to suffocate her. In his Patron’s mind, the orphanages were equivalent to the dumpsters, breeding grounds for abominations. If only the Patrons could see the truth—that the orphanages were the spawn of their own work. “These clothes are washed and if you can’t handle looking at hygienic clothes, then you need to dump your ass in the sewers where you’d adjust perfectly.”
Deep breaths, deep breaths.
The room went deathly silent like a reckoning before a funeral, and Mrs. Pedine sniffed distastefully. “Evelyn, your language is more than intolerable compared to the lack of decorum Ace is showing. I don’t know what they teach you at the orphanage, but clearly manners is not one of them. Perhaps detention for a week will fix that. Aprogul, serve one today. Now class, I will pass back your tests so you can look over them.”
Lyn resisted the urge to pick up her chair, bash it into both Ace and Mrs. Pedine’s heads, and stuff their insufferable throats with the chair’s legs. She wanted another classroom where the Patrons were under her heels. She wanted a Universe where she and the orphans ran it so that the Patrons were nothing more than an assortment of her choosing to idly torment with words and beatings.
Ace hissed in distaste, and Lyn’s shoulders hunched together as a cold prick shredded the flesh of her neck.
“Ignorant wrench,” the Patron sniped.
The sharp, thin blade whittled down her skin, and her teeth clamped down on her lips to trap the sound itching to rip out of her throat. When the pressure released, she let out a little sigh, and ripped out a piece of paper to press against the seeping blood.
Ace kicked the bottom of her chair. “I had a gala to attend tonight, but your petty mouth ruined it.”
She slightly turned her head back in his direction, and ignored the flare of pain. Seriously, a gala? She’d be working in the pipelines tonight to ensure his electricity to run the gala worked.
“Sure, but it was your even sorrier mouth that started it.”
“Sorrier? Started it?” he mocked, barking a laugh. “Did you never graduate the basics, Evelyn?”
“Actually, yes,” She threw him a dazzling smile, insides churning, “that’s why I’m in this class right now.” She would have added that she skipped fundamental fifth, passing the district Patron test with flying colors, but then Ace would have thrown a riot, and she didn’t need that on her plate. Was a nice, long nap too much to ask for?
“Indeed you are, Miss Evelyn.” Mrs. Pedine interjected. “A ranked Patron class to be exact. Which means you need to shut your unruly mouth.” She then proceeded to slap the test onto Lyn’s desk with a bit more force than usual—which meant that she had scored better than Mrs. Pedine had thought once again.
Lyn didn’t bother turning her paper over, but rather indulged herself in cursing her teacher’s wealth as she sashayed to the front of the room in those incredibly high, neon pink stripped heels of hers.
“Now, class, are there any questions? There should be some! The average was just barely passing.”
Lyn attentively listened to the sound of paper flipping behind her, and a sharp intake of breath. “Hell be damned,” Ace mostly said to himself, then shouted, “Who got the highest grade? And what was it?”
Mrs. Pedine raised her thin eyebrows, and her plastic lips curved into an eerie smile, reminding Lyn of the Greek furies in her mythology elective. “I want a hundred for an answer.”
Ace grinned and swaggered Mrs. Pedine’s outstretched hand, bill already neatly folded in his slick palms. “I already know the answer, but care to enlighten me anyways?”
Lyn’s confidence slightly wavered, but all this palaver incensed her. Tossing money around like that, when the lowliest homeless orphans were nothing more than untouchables, nothing more than nonhumans...her heart wrenched like a hot iron brand shattering into shards of fury piercing every pore. A hundred could buy a month of Electricity, and for Mrs. Pedine to easily demand such sum...the world really was a crackling flame burning against her skin, with the Patrons warmed by the stiff, rich glances of luxury. Lyn supposed it was better, though, to burn with fire within than have cold insides emptied by fixation to greed.
“Well,” Mrs. Pedine said, and when she wagged her head, Lyn caught glimpse of stitches holding her hair together. “Only one person scored perfect. Few ranged in the low averages.”
Ace nodded his head almost petulantly. “Someone got higher than me? Who got perfect?”
Appeasement arose in Lyn’s body. For the fifth time this week, Ace’s attempt to make himself seem smarter and brighter failed. Miserably. Universe serve him right. Perfect.
Mrs. Pedine pursued her lips and nudged her head in Lyn’s direction. Every set of eyes turned in her direction for the second time in class, skimming and passing judgment over her. A Sponsored succeeding where they have failed—she could see the questions swirling in their brains. Did she cheat? Did she get help? Did she beg for the answer key?
The wound at her neck throbbed to a higher intensification.
Ian’s eyes brightened and gave her an encouraging grin. He’d already taken this class last year, so this period remained free to him in observing the dynamics between her and Ace. Sometimes Lyn wished Ian would take the tests again for the sake of scoring higher than Ace, but then she would have much more serious competition.
“Evelyn?” Ace screeched, the sound hitting a high C. Perhaps he’d be better off in choir class, she thought. That would have been a sight to behold in itself. She’d even use her savings to purchase a ticket to a concert. Then set the building afire with this classroom’s only Bunsen burner.
“Hellish, did you give her the answer key out of pity? This runt does not deserve our commiseration, Mrs. Pedine, and I’ll have my father personally inform you of such misbehavior.” He strode over to Lyn’s desk, daintily flipping over the paper with his perfectly manicured thumb and pointer finger.
A hundred percent in red ink slashed his eyes and he emitted a low whimper. Slowly, ever so slowly, Ace recovered from his stunned reverie of her paper and shot her a sly smile, before yelping, “Ow, Evelyn!”
Then he collapsed onto the floor, moaning.
Lyn snorted. Ace should have joined drama class along with Ian.
Mrs. Pedine tromped her way over, seething fumes of anger and wounded pride. “I will not tolerate acts of violence, young lady—”
Lyn didn’t bother contradicting the teacher, and leaned back into her seat. Physical violence was at the bottom of her plate. Plus, she already had detention. What could be worse?
Ian twisted around from his seat in the front and shot her a miserable look. Lyn resisted the urge to kick her legs up on the table, but she settled for winking at Ian.
She breezed through the rest of the day with her head low. Once her last class finished, she quickly headed towards the library for her study session with Ian. As she neared their usual table, she ruffled his hair.
Ian snarled at her in response, and motioned for her to take a seat across from him. Lyn sighed and slammed her backpack on the table. A cloud of laziness stormed her mind, and she decided to watch Ian work while she stared at him.
“I don’t have a math problem on my face.” Ian scowled, not looking up. “So get out your homework.”
“Your face is as boring as one, though,” Lyn shot back, but grudgingly slapped her binder open.
Her companion ignored her, passing time by skimming through a stack of notes. Lyn counted down the time until the clock hit five o’clock, humming an impromptu tune in her head. Very few entered the library, much less checked out a book. She watched Patrons and their Sponsored bribe the staff of librarians to complete their assignments for them, and the staff of librarians eagerly inhale the wad of bills.
“Are you ready to head home now?” Ian asked as she stuffed the rest of the homework into her bag, murmuring her consent. He watched her rub a silver piece over her wrist. “Where’d you get that watch, now?”
“Ace was practically asking for it when he invaded my personal space.” Her finger rubbed at the hard metal. She wouldn’t take it off—let others see and report back to the Aproguls. Let them know they had been bested by a lesser.
The orphan stood up, noticing Ian’s disapproving shake of his head. “Your home or the park?” She never allowed Ian to visit the inside of the orphanage, where he’d stick out like a sore thumb. Sure, Ian knew the temporary holding facilities inside the Gates Lyn had found herself frequenting, but past law infrastructures, a new society, with lesser rules, ran.
In the Patron world, rules equated to riches. The more you broke in the Orphanage, the more respect you earned. At these opposite ends, Lyn tethered on a see-saw.
Orphans resented the Patrons for all their wealth and status, which never extended to the courtesy of the rest of the population. Sponsored individuals despised living in their respective orphanages—with Patrons fearing their houses may be “tainted”—with orphans vying for their positions. Both loathed Patrons with nearly every fiber of being, discontentment and violence running through their veins.
Ian may have been her exception, but he certainly wasn’t everyone else’s.
Her Patron glanced up at her. “My house is yours, Lyn. If you were allowed to live with me, I’d make you, instead of living in that wretched dump.” He waved off a defensive response. “Electron affinity means the element has to be in its gaseous state, correct?”
“Of course,” she replied distantly, waving at the head school librarian, who continuously and staunchly refused all bribes. “A solid’s molecules are stringently arranged to where you can’t easily ionize it to that of a gas.”
Ian finished scribbling on his paper, and then deftly tossed the pen at her. “Thanks, Miss Chemistry.”
“You’re welcome Mister Mathlete.” Lyn smiled as they both walked out the door.
The wind caught her off guard, already mussing with her hair. Although they both tightened their jackets, hers did not make much of a difference with such thin material. Ian automatically noticed her shudder. “Here,” he said, hefting her backpack off and draping his warm coat all over her. “It’s not that cold for me anyway.”
Lyn opted to not say anything, training her vision onto the floor. She did appreciate the gesture—she really did; she knew it was an act out of necessity. But when would it would change to be an act out of care?
“Hey, Lyn.” Ian took her chin into one hand and used the other to place her backpack onto her shoulders. “You’re cold intolerant. I enjoy the cold.” His blue eyes never left her black irises.
“Yeah,” she mumbled. “I know.”
Ian grabbed her hand—a sweet misery of a distraction from her downfallen mood—and walked them out of the school. Yet, to the ultimate disappointment of fate that most called timing, Mrs. Pedine also walked out, striped-pink heels clicking like a pyre’s final countdown.
Her preying eyes fell onto the two figures, and at the sight of the smaller one, she crossed her bony arms. “Evelyn Cahaya! Why aren’t you in detention right now?” Her thin lips twisted into a demented smirk. “Did you forget, girl? Or ditch? Think you could get away so easily? I’m surprised you’re so eager to go back to your hellhole. But that’s where you belong and it’ll do well for you to remember.”
Lyn narrowed her eyes, the same roaring inside her mind craving to shatter and hurt. That consuming vacuum yearned to watch Mrs. Pedine on her knees, flesh scarred and burned to the crisp like her yesterday toast. Rotting in the actual pits of hellish fire would be a much too kind mercy. Inhale, exhale, don’t let her win. “I forgot, Mrs. Pedine. But it won’t happen again.” Lies.
“That’s right!” Mrs. Pedine marched to her. “Ian Kadnikov, I thought you’d be hanging out with a better crowd. Hearts don’t matter with their kind.”
Lyn scowled, a retort at the tip of her tongue, but Ian’s hand gave hers a quick squeeze. “Mrs. Pedine, I thought teachers were supposed to be well educated enough and follow proper conduct by treating students equally—I heard Ace serves only today. As it is only fair, while Lyn goes to detention, I’ll file a report to the principal.”
Mrs. Pedine flushed, and stomped. “Oh, no, that’s fine Evelyn. You don’t have to go to detention today,” Mrs. Pedine said, and, with that, she quickly walked away, mouth puckered into a mashed pout—as if Lyn were the entirety of the bubonic plague all meshed into one being. Perhaps she was, and one day—one day she’d unleash it all on them and watch them writhe, popping their self-entitled bubbles. She wanted to experience firsthand the gleeful sensation they all seemed to experience when disparaging her kind, a pandemic only the poor could spread.
She looked up at Ian, their hands still entwined. “Have I told you that you’re my favorite Russian?”
A smile touched his lips. “The only Russian, too.”
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