Street lamps blazed holes into the night sky like smoldering cigarettes being pressed into dark blue linen paper. Along with the lights of the city that hugged the town's limits, they intimidated the stars into staying home. This victory of the unnatural luminence gave the short street and the houses lining it a harsh glow. Every edge blurred, dithering into the yellow-orange lights that seemed almost solid. Taivuttaa stood in the middle of the street, staring down a single-level house that would have been a dim yellow in the sun. He sighed, releasing a tired breath of profanity like an afterthought.
He'd been tossed out of that house too many times to be angry about it anymore, far too often to waste time complaining. It would have almost been funny if the nights hadn't started getting so humid. The stink of the city was worse at night than it was during the day, against almost all reason. Just thinking about it made him want to pull the collar of his hoodie up to cover his nose. But it was too hot for the hoodie in any case, and he ended up just pulling it over his head and rolling it into a sloppy wad. It rained nearly every day now, freezing the days into solid demands for warm clothing and then melting the nights into sticky definitions of summer.
Running would help the heat. There was no breeze, and there wouldn't be onenot something to rely on, wind. Of any kind. Taivuttaa considered dumping the hoodie on the sidewalk, but he knew he would need it later. He didn't have a shirt, and although the air felt good on his bare skin now, when the sun rose and the wet weather of the day started up again, he'd regret the lack of cover.
"Nuisance," he grumbled at his thankfully-intact sneakers. Tomorrow, if he came back while Algorithm was at work, then it might be possible to sneak back into the house. Long enough, at least, to get something to eat and take a shower. Taivutta's neck itched with anticipation just thinking about it. At this point, he was certain that he would be immediately accepted by any passing wild animals. The undersides of his fingernails were nearly black with grime, and his dark red hair, normally rather fluffy and friendly, was stiff and spiky. He tugged the lock of hair he'd accidentallly dyed a muddy sort of purple and grinned to himself as he walked. Times certainly had changed. Before, if he'd even imagined reaching such a state, his mother and father both would have locked him in the bathroom with a full tub and a year's supply of soap.
The run into the city seemed shorter than it usually was, even though he wasn't going very fast, and the hoodie got in his way. None of the buildings afforded a safe-looking alley, they never did, but there was one that was at least empty. He slung the hoodie over his shoulder and hauled himself up the fire escape ladder, careful not to make too much noise. There were a handful of apartment buildings with unused roofs, but this one had a fine crawl space that was quite cool during the night and warm enough during the day.
He slung his leg over the edge of the roof, then pulled the rest of himself over. "Hot air rises, dummy," he reminded himself. The humidity pressed down on him like a fat thumb. He held the hoodie in front of his mouth, figuring that the smell of his own body odor and hiding places was better than whatever lay rotting in the open dumpster on the ground, no matter how far away it was.
His relief was palpable as he dragged himself into the crawl space. It was damp, but cold. He shivered gratefully and waited a few moments before putting the hoodie back on. He stretched out as much as the space would allow, then, using his arms as a pillow, welcomed the loss of consciousness that would hasten the next day.
Barely an hour after he'd closed his eyes, the sound of shoes crunching against the rough surface of the roof snapped him awake. Someone was running towards him. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and sat up, nearly knocking his head on the overhanging slab of stone that served as his own roof. There was nowhere to hide other than where he already was, so he held his breath and waited for the runner to pass.
His heart pounded, thudding painfully in his chest as his lungs screamed for more than a thimbleful of fresh air, but he didn't dare take it. The running footsteps had stopped; a pair of muddy boots and sturdy workman's trousers blocked his view and his only possible escape route. The size of the boots and trousers did nothing to ease the ache and fear in Taivuttaa's head and chest.
As his vision began to blur and his throat turned on him, he let out the breath he'd been holding, very slowly and as quietly as he could. The boots began to inch away, then eased back to their place. It was all he could do not to swear as he took a silent breath that did not give him nearly enough air.
"There you are, you thief!"
This time he did knock his head on the slab, but he bit his knuckles to hold in the cry of surprised pain. His teeth broke the chapped skin and the familiar coppery taste wrapped itself around his tongue, but he held his silence and did not spit. A pair of practical house shoes confronted the muddy boots. The house shoes were attached to a pair of bare, shapely legs that could only belong to a girl. Or an extremely unfortunate boy. Taivuttaa pressed himself against the wall, measuring his chances of survival if he was discovered.
The muddy boots broke into a run, and were quickly followed by the house shoes. He crouched closer to the ground to afford himself a better view, only to see a calloused hand reach into his hiding place and tug him out by his collar. The hand held him up, forcing him to stand on the balls of his feet and to stare into fiery blue-gray eyes and an energetic scowl. The face they were settled in belonged to a girl his age with gingery brown hair and a tight, surly expression. "You've got sneakers on!" she growled in his face. "Go after that guy!"
Taivuttaa took a breath to ask why, or how she had known he was hiding there, but the girl twisted her grip in his hoodie and launched him forward. He stumbled along, frantically trying to gain some kind of balance as he ran on the momentum she'd given him.
There was not enough roof for that. He reached the edge and nearly toppled over it. As he flailed for balance, he watched the owner of the muddy boots, a stocky man in a bulky jacket, scrambled across the roof of the next aparment block. Sweat dripped into Taivuttaa's eyes, blurring his vision and stuffing up his nose. He tried to lean back, but the self-interested force of Gravity wrenched him forward. Towards the drop.
He shouted, something intelligible and embarrassinglly high-pitched, then felt his feet leave the bricks. As he fell, he realized that his last words weren't even words. And they'd been in front of a girl. Both of these things seemed unfair.
A gloved hand snatched his wrist, stopping him with a painful lurch. He heardand feltsomething crack, and cried out again, although this time it was not anything like a squeak. The grip on his wrist did not loosen, instead, it grew mercilessly tighter and became a pull. His shoulder felt as though someone had dropped a match on it, but he bit his tongue. There was still a girl on the roof, and with his luck, the gloved hand belonged to another one. He reached up his other hand and waved it around until the mate to the first gloved hand clasped it. The pain in his shoulder eased, and he nearly passed out.
The windowsill scraped his skin through the hoodie, but he hardly noticed. "Thank you," he muttered breathlessly, mind racing from one thought to another, without bothering to finish either of them. He looked around the room. There was no light save for what trickled in through the window, and nothing for that light to fall on other than his own frightened face and the smoother features of his rescuer. It was a man, although without sufficient light, Taivuttaa couldn't determine any of his features, aside from the basic shape of his face and figure. He was taller than Taivuttaa, and not as athletic, with large hands and a narrow face.
Without a word, the man opened the apartment door and shoved Taivuttaa into the hallway, then slammed the door shut. The lock immediately clicked behind him.
For several moments, he stood there, shaking from the adrenaline and a sudden cold, likely caused by the air conditioning and his now sweat-drenched skin. He held his hand up to the level of his eyes and watched for the tremors to fade. He was afraid to move his other arm.
Thumps to his left made him jump. Then they transformed into the slaps of practical house shoes and he saw the angry young woman from the roof. Her jaw was set, like a bulldog's. She strode toward him, arms held tightly to her sides. As soon a she was close enough to touch him, he flinched out of reach.
"Oh don't be a big baby," she said, significantly softer than she had been when she'd ordered him to chase the muddy boots.
He tried to calm down and let her approach him again. "Sorry," he watched her hands as they took him by his uninjured arm, then let her lead him down the hall. "Are you going to turn me in or kick me out?"
"Neither." She held him at arm's length, as if the smell was too much for a young lady of breeding. "I'm going to take you to my place."
He chuckled and tried to think of a slighlty dirty joke that wouldn't give her an excuse to break his nose. When he couldn't think of one, he just walked a bit faster and said, "You don't know me."
This only made her sniff haughtily. "That's an excellent point. So far all I know is that you suck at chasing thieves. That's not the best clue to the rest of your personality, even though it does suggest that you're a little useless."
An indignant squeak built up in the back of his throat, but he swallowed hard and banished it to his cart-wheeling stomach. "I'm not useless."
"Anyone would say that," she said, waving her hand dismissively. "What's your name?"
They stopped in front of a weathered door with the numbers 5031 emblazoned on it in scratched-up fake bronze letters. "Taivuttaa Blackburn," he said eyeing the door. "Why are you letting me in?"
The young woman took a step back, away from him and closer to the door. "Mostly? Because you look really pathetic, and you smell like you need a shower more than a meal. And trust me, you look pretty hungry."
Odd words, 'trust me'. "I don't even know your name."
"Salugi Eszme." She flicked her hair over her shoulder, plain gold bracelet dully jangling about her wrist. "Look, I'm not a 24-hour outreach program. I don't invite homeless guys into my apartment for the kitsch of it."
"When I asked you to go after that guy, you just did it."
Taivuttaa nearly snorted at that. 'Asked', she said. "So?"
"So maybe I could use a guy who doesn't ask stupid questions when it's a really bad idea." Salugi leaned against the door and put her hands on her hips. Her hair was sticking to her neck despite the air conditioning. He wondered if it would be cooler in the apartment. There would have to be a working shower in there...
He licked his lips, lingering on a tender spot he must have split without realizing. "What do you mean 'use'?"
Salugi rolled her eyes. "Nothing you're thinking about, pervert."
Of course. She was inviting a strange guy into her apartment and he was the pervert. Apparently some bits of life stayed the way they were high school. Taivuttaa thought about what could happen, and decided that the worst would be if she turned out to be an insane murderer. She wasn't much taller than he was, and he was certain he was stronger. "How do I know you're not crazy?"
"Hell, I don't even know that." She laughed, it was a dry sound, a bit like someone trying to write on sandpaper with a ballpoint pen. "But I can promise you that I won't hurt you...on purpose."
He shivered and pulled his shoulders up to cover his neck, then yelped and dropped them again. "I think you've already done that... I-indirectly, but still."
"Fine, I'll help you with that. And then you had better shower, or I'll kick you right back out." With that, Salugi unlocked #5031 and sailed inside, leaving the door open just enough that he could choose to follow...or not.
He took a deep breath and reminded himself that rabbit holes only happened to people like Alice, then walked in.