Jack exhaled slowly as he splashed water on his face. The scar from the cut had faded until it was just a light discoloration. He looked in the mirror, water dripping off his face as he stared at the scar. It had been about a month since he’d last seen Dev. Since he had told him to stay out of their world. And for the most part, it had seemed that the rich youth had listened. Other than visiting the Ring briefly and freaking out Stephan, Dev had been silent. Jack snorted. He’d probably gotten bored. He was just a rich kid after all.
Pulling off some paper towels, he wiped off his face and exited the bathroom. Ross and Stephan were sitting on the table, talking quietly. Stephan was holding a math book and Ross was looking less than pleased. Jack grinned. He slung himself into the bench seat opposite the two. “Hey. Where’s Elle?”
Ross glanced up from the math book. “Front office I think. Mrs. Donely asked her to drop some papers off or something. Steph, no matter how many times you explain it-”
“You’ll get it, you’re just not trying.” Stephan cut him off, frowning at him.
Ross rolled his eyes. “Why would I try to do this when it doesn’t even matter?” He groused, sitting back, pulling out his cigarettes.
He flicked his lighter, and inhaled deeply. He exhaled a smoke ring, which Stephan ruined by waving a hand through it. “Ross. Please. You need to at least get a C.”
“Why get a C, he’s doing pretty well getting D’s,” Jack teased, making Ross choke on smoke and Stephan turning beet red.
“Jack,” Stephan whined, hiding his face behind the book.
Jack shrugged, reaching out to grab Ross’s cigarette while the other coughed out a few more smoke rings. He inhaled, feeling the rush of the drug. He blew out slowly. “Speaking of Ds, heard anything from Dev?” He asked casually, glancing at Stephan, as if it didn’t matter to him. And it didn’t. Shouldn’t.
Stephan smirked at him. “First off, I’d tell you if so. And second, are you jealous?” He teased.
Jack took another long drag, thinking about it. He exhaled, smiling bitterly, passing the cigarette back to Ross. “I’m pissed. I thought he’d try harder. But he’s just the same as the rest.”
Ross exhaled. “Same. He talked a big game but guess he couldn’t hack it.”
“Who couldn’t hack what?”
Jack looked up to see Elle sliding into the seat next to him. He threw an arm over her shoulders, pressing her head to his. “Rich bitch being a disappointment.” He replied.
Elle pushed off him, her brows furrowing. “Would the rich bitch be that GPA?”
“Yeah. Jack’s mad because he didn’t call after,” Ross teased, earning a fierce kick from Jack.
“He’s in the office right now. I saw him on my way out. That orientation thing is today, right?”
Jack hated to admit it, but his heart dropped into his stomach before shooting into his throat. Dev was here. He pulled his phone out, checking the time. It was only a little after lunch period. If the orientation was after school, why was he here so early?
He felt a soft kick and looked up at Stephan, who was looking over his shoulder, his grey gaze cryptic. Ross lit another cigarette, his hazel gaze empty. Jack turned, and stared. Dev was indeed here, standing a little ways away, watching them.
He was even more handsome than Jack remembered, in his starch white shirt and crisp slacks. But his pale face was pinched and tired. The only thing that remained the same was his cold, empty gaze. Again Jack found himself wondering what had caused Dev’s gaze to be so utterly lacking in warmth.
He came over to them, his steps hesitant, as if gauging if he was welcome. That question was answered by Stephan himself, who slipped off the table, stepping forward, nestling into Dev’s arms. Jack ignored the flicker of annoyance as he saw the ice fade just a little from Dev’s gaze as he returned the smaller boy’s embrace.
“Hi. It’s been a while,” he said softly, pulling away from Stephan. His gaze travelled over each of them, ending on Jack. Jack met his gaze squarely, until Dev reached out a finger, pressing it gently to the scar. That made Jack flush and look away. “It healed well. I’m glad. How’s your back?”
“Where have you been?” Elle demanded, covering for Jack’s awkwardness.
Ross blew a smoke ring in Dev’s face. To his credit, Dev didn’t even flinch. “Was that all big talk? Did you realize that you’re just a little boy playing in the big leagues?” Ross asked cuttingly.
The warmth in his gaze from Stephan’s hug was gone now as he looked at Ross. “No. I’ve been busy. That’s why I’m here early. I needed to talk to you all. May I sit?”
Stephan went back to his perch on the table, and Elle and Jack shuffled over. Dev sat carefully on the bench, reaching up, tugging the tie loose around his neck. “I assume Stephan told you all about my night at the Ring?” He started off, looking to Stephan.
“Yeah. What’d you think?” Ross asked, flicking ash in his direction.
“You’re a very skilled fighter. You and Elle both. For someone like Jasper, losing you all will be a huge financial hit. So, I just need to make an even bigger one to convince him that letting you go is in his best interest.”
Jack stared at him. He said it so easily, so casually. Like he was commenting on the price of apples, not people.
“How do you propose to do that?” Elle asked, frowning. She leaned forward on her knees. “And how do you know I’m a good fighter and my opponent wasn’t just shit?”
Dev smiled at her a little. “Your odds. And the fact that there was an obvious difference between you and your opponent. Does Jasper train you?”
“Yeah, every Monday/Wednesday/Friday we do training after school. Some is natural ability, but mostly it’s just working out and practicing,” Ross replied, shrugging a shoulder.
“Can you age out of being a fighter?”
Jack looked away. “Not exactly. You fight until you become a liability. Then you’re retired.” He absently rubbed the crescent shaped scars on his forearms.
He looked back, and saw that Dev was watching the motion. He flushed, dropping his hands to his sides. “So. Back to Elle’s question. How do you propose to get us out?” He asked harshly, and Elle rolled her eyes.
“You know what the different districts sell, right?”
“East, weapons. North, drugs. South, money. West, entertainment,” Ross ticked off his fingers.
Dev smiled a little, pointing at Ross. “Exactly. And they all tie together with Jasper’s business at the crux of it. Drugs for the Babies and the patrons, guns to protect his “merchandise,” and clean money to keep things above board. Now. It becomes the question of how can we cause the maximum amount of damages so we can use that as leverage.”
Jack frowned, leaning back against the table. “What’s to stop Jasper from coming after us. What you’re proposing sounds like you’ll just get us killed.” He said slowly, looking over at Dev.
Dev looked at him. “True. Which is why I’m going to destroy Jasper from the inside out.”
“You’re going to start an inter-District war.” Elle said suddenly, straightening. Her eyes were wide. “That’s your plan. That’s why you were at the fight.”
Dev smiled, a small little expression that was somehow both warm and cold. “I have a contact that is helping me navigate the back channels, but yes. He’ll be so busy trying to reassert his dominance that what’s a few fighters?” He shrugged a shoulder.
“What about after? After this war you’re starting, after getting us out, what then?” Jack demanded.
Dev looked at Stephan, who looked down at his lap. Ross reached over, curling his fingers around the smaller boy’s hand. “Then you can do whatever you want. My contact can make new identities for you. You can go anywhere, be anyone. That’s the beauty of it. You’ll be free.”
Jack felt a lump in his throat as he felt Elle stiffen next to him. Free. Free to dream, to have something more in life than this purgatory hell. He looked at the others. His family. The people whom he loved and trusted most in this world. The people he’d do anything for. Pay any price.
He looked at Dev, who was watching them all with his dark gaze. And in that moment, Jack knew. He knew that Dev was playing a big game of chess with them as his pawns. He knew what words would make them believe. That would convince them to trust him. Jack knew, because he had lived most of his life with a master manipulator.
He stood abruptly, knuckles white as he clenched his fists in fury. Dev stood as well, his gaze guarded.
“Who do you think you are, coming in here to fuck around with our lives like you’re some God?” Jack spat at him. He felt Elle’s hand on the back of his shirt. But he didn’t care. He reached out, grabbing Dev by his tie, twisting it, making the other boy’s eyes widen. “You think after a lifetime with Jasper that we can’t hear a sales pitch? You come in here, with your money and your privilege, talking to Stephan like you can say your life’s been hard. Boohoo, I’m sorry your parents don’t love you. But that’s nothing like having the shit beat out of you while people like you place bets on how many ribs you’ll break. That’s nothing like having to sell yourself to people like you in order to eat. So who do you think you are, coming here, telling us you can change our lives? You don’t even know us. You don’t care about us. You just want someone to kiss your feet and tell you you’re a good boy.” He shoved Dev away, making him stagger.
“Jack-” Elle started, hand on his shoulder. Jack shook it off.
“Stay away from us. We don’t need you. We won’t play out your little power fantasy.” He curled his lip at Dev, tipping his chin back, crossing his arms. He stood in front of the others, between them and Dev. He would do anything for them. They were family. But he would not fail a second time. He would not let them get sucked into another game played by the rich. He had failed them, failed Elle, the first time, and that had gotten them trapped in Jasper’s little fantasy world. He would never make the same mistake again. He was stronger now. He wasn’t an orphaned thirteen-year-old on the streets anymore, easily swayed by the promise of a bed and some food for his sister.
He stared Dev down, watching the other’s face, searching for any signs of anger, his body ready to react. But Dev just looked back at him, his gaze empty of any emotion. Then suddenly, his lips twisted into a small smile. It wasn’t angry, or smug, or mocking. It was sad. It was the briefest glimpse behind the cold mask, behind the bravado. It was the most heart wrenching thing Jack had ever seen. He took a step back, frowning slightly.
Dev turned his face to the side, as if he couldn’t bear to look at them anymore. He ran his hand through his hair, messing up the perfect strands. And just for a moment, he looked exactly like what he was: a tired teenager. Jack felt a little of his hostility and distrust melt a little as he looked at Dev’s side profile. Out of every reaction, he had not expected this.
“Okay. I won’t force you into anything. It was a pleasure to meet you all. I wish you all the very best. Take care of each other.” Dev looked at them as he spoke, his voice soft, fragile. His gaze wandered over each of them, some foreign emotion in his gaze. Jack couldn’t read it.
Then he turned away, pulling out his phone. They heard him talking to some other Council member as he walked away, his back rigid under his starched shirt. Watching him walk away took the breath out of his lungs, twisting his stomach, leaving a sour taste in his mouth.
“Jack, he’s not a bad person.”
Jack turned to look at Stephan, who was standing behind him, his grey gaze sad. He reached out, wrapping an arm around Stephan. “Doesn’t matter. It’s better this way.”
Ross looked at him critically. “Is it? Is it so bad to trust him?” He asked, voice hard.
“Everything has a price. We learned that the hard way. And I’m sick of letting people fuck around in our lives like we’re just pawns to them.”
“He saved your life, Jack.” Elle reminded him, and Jack shrugged.
“So did Jasper, or did you forget? Saving a life, doesn’t mean anything if they expect you to owe them for it. And he wants something. You can see it.”
“He said he envies us, Jack. Us. What we have. You saw his house. When’s the last time anyone lived there? He’s desperate for other people. And what’s so wrong with that? What’s wrong with wanting to be loved? He doesn’t want us to kiss his feet. He just wants to matter to someone.” Stephen said, pulling away from Jack.
Jack rubbed the back of his neck. “I was harsh. I know that. But I won’t fail you again, I can’t risk you all. If it was just me, fine, but it’s not. I can’t lose you all.” He looked up at the others, and saw their angry gazes soften.
Elle sighed, stepping into his arms, pressing her face into his chest. “You won’t lose us,” she said softly. She tipped her head back, suddenly grinning at him. “And you don’t need to protect me anymore. I can take you in a fight,” she teased, sharply punching his stomach. She danced away before he could catch his breath.
He rolled his eyes at her. “Whatever. Let’s get to class. VP gonna blow a gasket if he finds us.”
Ross threw his arm around Jack’s shoulders, with Stephan riding piggyback. Elle continued to dance around, throwing mock punches at Jack, who swiped out a hand, missing her by a mile.
He felt his skin prickle, and he turned a little. In the shadows of the library, now surrounded by other uniform clad boys, Dev was watching them. Jack tipped his chin at him, turning away. They didn’t need him. They had each other, and that was good enough.