"Good thing I was around, then," says Connor.
"Yeah," says Risa. "If it wasn't for Connor running across that highway, I'd probably be unwound by now too."
There's a moment of silence, then Lev, biting back his anger and revulsion, says, "Thank you. Thank you for saving me."
"Don't mention it," says Connor.
Good. Let them think he's grateful. Let them think they're earning his trust. And once they're lulled into their own false sense of security, he'll make sure they both get exactly what they deserve.
Connor should have kept the Juvey-cop's gun, but he wasn't thinking. He was so freaked out at having tranq'd a cop with his own weapon, he just dropped it and ran—just as he dropped his backpack on the interstate so he could carry Lev. His wallet with all his money was in that pack. Now he has nothing but pocket lint.
It's late now—or, more accurately, early—almost dawn. He and Risa had kept moving through the woods all day, as best they could with Connor having to carry an unconscious tithe. Once night fell, he and Risa had taken turns keeping watch while the other slept.
Connor knows that Lev can't be trusted, that's why Connor tied him to the tree—but there's no reason to trust this girl who had come running out of a bus either. It's only their common goal of staying alive that binds them.
The moon has left the sky now, but there's a faint glow promising a quick arrival of dawn. By now their faces would be everywhere. Have you seen these teens? Do not approach. Considered extremely dangerous. Call the police immediately. Funny how Connor had wasted so much time in school trying to convince people he was dangerous, but when it came down to it, he was never sure if he was all that dangerous at all. A danger to himself, maybe.
All the while, Lev watches him. At first the boy's eyes had been lazy and his head lolling to one side, but now those eyes are sharp. Even in the dimness of the dying fire Connor can see them. Chilly blue. Calculating. This kid is an odd bird. Connor's not quite sure what's going on on Planet Lev, and not quite sure he wants to know.
"That bite's gonna get infected if you don't take care of it," Lev says.
Connor looks to the spot on his arm where Lev bit him, still puffy and red. He had tuned the pain out until Lev reminded him. "I'll deal with it."
Lev continues to study him. "Why are you being unwound?"
Connor doesn't like the question for a whole lot of reasons. "You mean why WAS I being unwound—because, as you can see, I'm not being unwound anymore."
"They will if they catch you."
Connor feels like punching that smug look off the kid's face, but he restrains himself. He didn't rescue the kid just to beat him up.
"So, what's it like," Connor asks, "knowing all your life you're going to be sacrificed?" He meant it as a jab, but Lev takes the question seriously.
"It's better than going through life without knowing your purpose."
Connor's not sure if that was intentionally meant to make him squirm—as if his life has no purpose. It makes him feel like he's the one tied to a tree, not Lev. "I guess it could be worse," says Connor. "We could have all ended up like Humphrey Dunfee."
Lev seems surprised by the mention of the name. "You know that story? I thought they only told it in my neighborhood."
"Nah," says Connor. "Kids tell it everywhere."
"It's made up," says Risa, having just woken up.
"Maybe," says Connor. "But there was this one time a friend and I tried to find out about it while surfing one of the school's computers. We hit this one website that talked about it, and how his parents went all psycho. Then the computer crashed. It turns out we were hit by a virus that wiped out the entire district server. Coincidence? I don't think so."
Lev's taken in, but Risa, fairly disgusted, says, "Well, I'll never end up like Humphrey Dunfee, because you have to have parents for them to go psycho—and I don't." She stands up. Connor looks away from the dying fire to see that dawn has arrived.
"If we're going to keep from being caught, then we should change direction again," Risa says. "We should also think about disguising ourselves."
"Like how?" asks Connor.
"I don't know. Change our clothes first. Haircuts maybe. They'll be looking for two boys and a girl. Maybe I can disguise myself as a boy."
Connor takes a good look at her and smiles. Risa's pretty. Not in the way Ariana was pretty—in a better way. Ariana's prettiness was all about makeup and pigment injections and stuff. Risa has a natural kind of beauty. Without thinking, Connor reaches out to touch her hair, and gently says, "I don't think you could ever pass for a guy—"
Then suddenly, he finds his hand tugged behind him, his whole body spins around, and she painfully wrenches his arm up the small of his back. It hurts so much, he can't even say "Ouch." All he can say is, "Eh-eh-eh!"
"Touch me again and your arm gets ripped off," Risa tells him. "Got that?"
"Yeah. Yeah. Fine. Hands off. Got it."
Over at the oak tree, Lev laughs, apparently pleased to see Connor in pain.
She lets him go, but his shoulder still throbs. "You didn't have to do that," Connor says, trying not to show how much it still hurts. "It's not like I was going to hurt you or anything."
"Yeah, well, now you won't for sure," says Risa, maybe sounding a bit guilty for being so harsh. "Don't forget I lived in a state home."
Connor nods. He knows about StaHo kids. They have to learn to take care of themselves real young, or their lives are not very pleasant. He should have realized she was a touch-me-not.
"Excuse me," says Lev, "but we can't go anywhere if I'm tied to a tree."
Still, Connor doesn't like that judgmental look in Lev's eyes. "How do we know you won't run?"
"You don't, but until you untie me, I'm a hostage," Lev-says. "Once I'm free, I'm a fugitive, like you. Tied up, I'm the enemy. Cut loose, I'm a friend."
"If you don't run," says Connor.
Risa impatiently begins untying the vines. "Unless we want to leave him here, we'll have to take that chance." Connor kneels to help, and in a few moments, Lev is free. He stands and stretches, rubbing his shoulder where the tranq bullet had hit him. Lev's eyes are still blue ice and hard for Connor to read, but he's not running. Maybe, thinks Connor, he's over the "duty" of being tithed. Maybe he's finally starting to see the sense of staying alive.
Risa finds herself unsettled by the food wrappers and broken bits of plastic they start coming across in the woods, because the first sign of civilization is always trash. Civilization means people who could recognize them if their faces have been smeared on the newsnet.
Risa knows that staying completely clear of human contact is an impossibility. She has no illusion about their chances, or their ability to remain unseen. As much as they need to remain anonymous, they cannot get by entirely alone. They need the help of others.
"No, we don't," Connor is quick to argue as the signs of civilization grow around them. It's not just trash now, but the mossy remnants of a knee-high stone wall, and the rusty remains of an old electrical tower from the days when electricity was transmitted by wires. "We don't need anyone. We'll take what we need."
Risa sighs, trying to hold together a patience that has already worn through. "I'm sure you're very good at stealing, but 1 don't think it's a good idea."
Connor appears insulted by the insinuation. "What do you think—people are just going to give us food and whatever else we need out of the goodness of their hearts?"
"No," says Risa, "but if we're clever about it instead of rushing into this blind, we'll have a better chance."
Her words or maybe just her intentionally condescending tone makes Connor storm off.
Risa notices Lev watching the argument from a distance. If he's going to run, thinks Risa, now's the time for him to do it, while Connor and I are busy fighting. And then it occurs to her that this is an excellent opportunity to test Lev, and see if he really is standing by them now, or biding his time until he can escape.
"Don't you walk away from me!" she growls at Connor, doing her best to keep the argument alive, all the while keeping an eye on Lev to see if he bolts. "I'm still talking to you!"
Connor turns toward her. "Who says I have to listen?"
"You would if you had half a brain, but obviously you don't!"
Connor moves closer until he's deeper into her airspace than she likes anyone to get. "If it wasn't for me you'd be on your way to harvest camp!" he says. Risa raises a hand to push him back, but his hand shoots up faster, and he grabs her wrist before she can shove him. This is the moment Risa realizes she's gone too far. What does she really know about this boy? He was going to be unwound. Maybe there's a reason for it. Maybe a good reason.
Risa is careful not to struggle because struggling gives him the advantage. She lets her tone of voice convey all the weight. "Let go of me."
"Why? Exactly what do you think I'll do to you?"
"This is the second time you've touched me without permission," Risa says. Still, he does not let go—yet she does notice his grip isn't all that threatening. It isn't tight, it's loose. It isn't rough, it's gentle. She could easily pull out of it with a simple flick of her wrist. So why doesn't she?
Risa knows he's doing this to make a point, but what the point is, Risa isn't sure. Is he warning her that he can hurt her if he wants to? Or maybe his message is in the gentle nature of his grip—a way of saying he's not the hurting type.
Well, it doesn't matter, thinks Risa. Even a gentle violation is a violation.
She looks at his knee. A well-placed kick could break his kneecap.
"I could take you out in a second," she threatens.
If he's concerned, he doesn't show it. "I know."
Somehow he also knows that she won't do it—that the first time was just a reflex. If she were to hurt him a second time, though, it would be a conscious act. It would be by choice.
"Step off," she says. Her voice now lacks the force it had only moments before.
This time he listens and lets go, moving back to a respectable distance. They both could have hurt one another, but neither of them did. Risa isn't quite sure what that means, all she knows is that she feels angry at him for such a mixture of reasons, she can't sort them out.
Then suddenly a voice calls to them from the right. "This is very entertaining and all, but I don't think fighting is going to help much."
It's Lev—and Risa realizes that her little ruse has backfired. She had set out to test him with a fake argument but the argument turned real, and in the process she completely forgot about Lev. He could have taken off, and they would not have known until he was long gone.
Risa throws Connor an evil look for good measure and the three of them continue on. It isn't until ten minutes later, when Lev goes off to relieve himself in private, that Connor talks to Risa again.
"Good one," Connor says. "It worked."
Connor leans closer and whispers, "The argument. You put it on to see if Lev would run when we weren't paying attention, right?"