Milo could feel the sweat dripping down his face and fogging his vision as he hauled another burlap sack over his shoulder. He'd already delivered eight bags of fertilizer to the vegetable gardeners, who were running dangerously low. Without keeping the soil healthy and maintained, the crop harvest would be a disappointment and they would have to go back on the rations schedule.
He'd been a laborer for two years now, since his dad pulled him out of school at seventeen to begin working towards the greater good of the city. [i Education wouldn't put food on the table,] he'd heard repeatedly. [i Hard work would see them all prosper. Do as you're told, and trust in the governor's methods.]
And what methods he had. Capable bodies over the age of sixteen were to apprentice where their skills were needed. Curfew for everyone at eleven. Mandatory council meetings at city hall to obtain updates on the status of the wall holding strong, protecting them all from the outside world.
Protection from what exactly, Milo didn't know. He'd perch on the roof of his house every evening and watch the sun disappear over the horizon, illuminating the vast fields of trees on the other side. He'd never seen any danger nearby. Still, nineteen years and he'd yet to see outside them concrete fortress.
He'd petitioned more than once to get placed on one of the hunting troops that his father led, only to be rejected each time. Too young to be a hunter, he'd always hear. Maybe next year. He'd heard that last one for the last four years. He was itching for a taste of freedom outside of the city walls where the muggy air was perpetually filled with smoke.
Milo's thoughts drifted to the envelope of official documents waiting under his mattress back home. He'd snuck them from his father's office late into the night and he was anxious with anticipation to pour over them, despite only functioning on three hours of sleep during a nine hour shift of backbreaking work.
Lost in his thoughts, he'd failed to notice the loose stones he was about to tread on. When his foot went left and his body went right, the sack of fertilizer hit the ground and the burlap split open where a jagged edge caught the material. Milo sat up and felt for the gash on his forearm that was stinging and bleeding.
[i "Be careful, boy!"] a nearby shopkeep scolded him, hurrying forward to gather the torn bag instead of offering his hand to help the young man on the ground. [i "We won't go back to starving because you can't keep your head out of the clouds."]
The balding man waved him away, cradling the bag in his arms like an infant. [i "Go. I'll do this myself. I'll be damned if we lose this crop."]
Milo couldn't bring himself to argue. He stayed seated and scratched at the four-day old stubble growing on his face, another sign that he was due for rest. Still, there were plans to be made, and he promised he wouldn't go through the documents without the presence of his best friend.
He hauled himself onto his feet and started off towards the western side of the city. He had to find her while he could take advantage of the unexpected break. And maybe get a bandage once he flushes out the nasty gash.
[center Selene sighed and held a hand up to her face to shield her eyes from the sun. She hated this time of day. The tarp that kept them shielded from the morning sun was no longer useful, which made the work ten times worse, especially this time of year.]
[center Groaning, she felt one of the other women elbow her. Wincing, she glanced at her and gave her an apologetic smile. [b "Get back to work, before someone sees you and fusses at you."] Selene nodded and whispered a small apology before she turned away, going through their supplies.]
[center She never understood why they didn't just serve the workers inside one of the buildings. She was always told that it was easier for them to come by and snag a snack or meal and returning back to work instead of sitting inside. She found this to be a stupid reason. They busted their asses to keep the place held up, and they couldn't even enjoy a cool, shaded building.]
[center Writing down everything, she turned to Mary and smiled. [b "I'm going to go grab a couple of things. We're running low."] The older woman waved her hand. [b "Just hurry back,"] she mumbled.]
[center Putting the paper in her pocket, she made her way out of the small, cramped area and her eyes settled on a very familiar face. Her smile widening, she rushed over to him and threw her arms around him. It wasn't until she saw the blood on his arm that her face paled. [b "Oh my God! What happened to you?"]
[center Shaking her head, she tugged on his sleeve. [b "Tell me on the way. You need to take care of that before it gets infected."]]
For the second time that day, he was nearly knocked to his feet as the hurricane of blonde hair and limbs plowed into him. Rolling his eyes, but grinning, he held up his battle wound. [b "I got into an argument with a rock. I put up a decent fight, but it had a bunch of rock buddies that helped. I think we may have to amputate,"] he answered.
Like a loyal puppy, Milo let her guide him along. [b "Looking a little sunburned there,"] he pressed the back of his hand to her cheek. [b "We should put some aloe on if we're breaking out the med kit anyway."]
The weather was only going to get worse throughout the day. The forecast was calling for a storm later in the evening, but the air was already thick with humidity and the shining sun was relentless on those working outdoors. Their clothes were sticking to their skin with sweat. With water shortages becoming more of an ongoing issue, they couldn't even use a hose to cool off.
The Powell residence was closest and thankfully empty when Milo unlocked the door for them. His father had been gone for two days with his hunting team, and his mother was no doubt holed up in a city council meeting. That left the sweltering townhouse in a rare quiet. [b "I'll get the kit,"] he told her, ensuring the dead bolt was fastened before disappearing up the stairs.
The kit was in the closet in the hallway directly across from his bedroom. Milo glanced towards his bed. His mother would no doubt get in late, and his father wasn't due back for another day. There wasn't going to be another opportunity to show Selene the documents any time soon.
He dug them out from between the mattress and box-spring, hurrying back to the den where he'd left her. Dropping both the kit and the files on the couch, he snapped the curtains shut. [b "Okay, we'll get to this in a second,"] he shoved the med bag to the side and fell to his knees beside the couch. [b "This,"] he handed her the folder. [b "Is what I've been dying to show you."]
The first page was all he had read on his own. Half of the words were redacted in thick black marker, but there were key phrases that still stood out. [i Goods to be exchanged] and [i shared lands], in particular.
Milo caught her eye and gave a wide grin. [b "This is more proof that they've been lying to us. What the rebellion has been saying all along. The governor and his staff have been in contact with others outside of the city. This whole time they've been telling us that we're safer inside the walls."]
He pointed out a line in the document. [b "We've been on food rations off and on for the last year, but it says here that the governor has accepted shipments of goods. Where's the food gone? People are starving in the streets, and he's got secret contacts elsewhere."]
Milo shot to his feet and began pacing. [b "My dad had these files in his office, and I'm positive that my mom is involved as well."]
Needing something to do with his hands, he started digging through the med kit, producing a packet of aloe gel and rubbing alcohol. Dabbing some alcohol on a cotton swab, he rubs it against the cut on his arm. [b "How do we get this information to the rebellion?"] he asked her through a hiss as he tried to clean his arm.
[center Selene couldn't help but laugh at his words. He always had a way to make light of a situation. That was one of the reasons why she liked being his friend so much. Where she would panic, he would be calm. Where she would be worried sick, he would be collected.]
[center Feeling his hand on her face, she stuck her tongue out at him. [b "So not my fault. They refuse to let us use any sunscreen, even if it's available."] Another thing on her list of why she hated being confined there. But she knew that that was all going to change soon.]
[center Stepping inside, she waved her hand in front of her face, nodding as he disappeared. Even though she pretended to be interested in the items around the house, she could tell what was where with her eyes closed. She'd been inside his house too many times to count. Then again, that wasn't a surprising. The two were practically raised together. She couldn't even remember when they'd met, she'd just known that he'd always been by her side growing.]
[center She smiled as memories flashed through her mind, only snapping out of the nostalgia when he came back. Frowning at his off actions, she knelt in front of him, taking the folder from him. [i What could be more important than...] The thoughts trailed off as she opened it, eyes widening.]
[center Looking up at him, she met his grin with her own. This find was unbelievable! And the fact that he found them in his father's office may have been a good sign for them.]
[center Standing, she closed the file and held it to her chest. [b "This is exactly what we need! I can't wait to see the look on their faces when this gets out..."] She wanted to jump up and down. She could barely contain her excitement. Setting it down on the table, she reached over and took the aloe from him, gently rubbing some onto her face. [b "Mary, one of the women that I work with, is involved. Maybe I could pass the info onto her? I won't offer the document, of course. But I could tell her that there's physical proof. She'll freak!"]]
[center Selene didn't know what was going to happen once this information was released, but she knew that it was going to lead them to a better life. It [i had] to.]
His thoughts were racing a mile a minute. He trusted her judgment completely, and if she was confident that this Mary woman was worthy of being informed, then he wasn't going to stop her. [b "If she can get us in touch with one of the rebels, we can hand them the documents personally. Hell, they might even take us with them so we can finally get out of this hellhole."]
It was a dream they'd often talked about since childhood. Being raised in such a claustrophobic environment made the two stir crazy, more often than not. Before they were old enough to be hauled into the life of hard labor, they would spend most days pretending that they were exploring the fields of trees that spread as far as the horizon took them. Maybe now they wouldn't have to pretend.
Milo slapped a bandage haphazardly over his cut and began cleaning up, lest his mother come home to find a package out of place. Taking the aloe from her, he squeezed a bit onto his finger and tapped the gob of gel on the tip of her nose. [b "Don't want to look like a clown there, Selene,"] he teased.
Reaching once more for the files, he spread some of the papers out on the coffee table. More of the pages had redacted information. Names, mostly. Potentially locations. The general gist of information was still legible. [b "This is a letter to someone at city hall,"] he slid the paper so she could see it too. [b "Talking about a meeting place."]
Who exactly the person was meeting was blacked out. It could have been one of the hunting groups, or any number of council members that spent hours locked away in their office. A knot formed in Milo's stomach as he considered that one (or both) of his parents could be a guilty party in all of this.
[b "Its talking about a trade agreement, but they've redacted whatever the agreement is for. It could be anything,"] he grumbled.
He moved from his place on the floor to sit beside her on the couch. Slumping back in his seat, he let his head fall to her shoulder and groaned. [b "Alright, adrenaline is wearing off. Now I'm just anxious to get started on this. Do you know where Mary lives? Maybe we could catch her at her house so we can discuss it with her more privately than being out in the open."]
[center [b "When I see her next, I'll ask her if we can come along. I don't see why she would say no!] She smiled at the thought. She couldn't wait to leave now. She had no idea what was outside the wall, but she knew now that it definitely wasn't as bad as what they had been brought up to believe.]
[center Her stomach dropped for a moment as she glanced at Milo. A part of her felt bad for him. His parents were probably apart of this whole thing, which meant he'd have to go against them. The thought upset her. She didn't want him to have to do that, but what choice did they have now? She sighed a little. She couldn't imagine what would happen if her father had hid anything like this from her. He spent most of his days locked in his room. She wasn't completely sure why. She'd been told the death of her mother had sent him over the edge by her aunt, but she was too young to remember.]
[center Selene gasped as Milo took the aloe from her and the cold goop hit her nose. [b "Oh boo!"] she said, sticking her tongue out at him again. [b "I only look like one because of the sun. At least I wasn't [i born] looking like one."] She elbowed him playfully.]
[center Turning her attention to the table, she leaned over to look at the letter. [i A meeting place?] She smiled to herself. [b "This could be the information I give to Mary. If the people of the rebellion can intercept it, they can finally reveal the truth to everyone. With the files, of course."] She could finally taste freedom. But underneath it, she also felt scared. Sure, there were other civilizations out there, but what else? Were there really mutated creatures beyond the wall? And what were the other civilizations like? Those questions constantly burned in the back of her mind.]
[center Sitting beside him on the couch, she smiled at him. [b "You need to get some rest. We really don't want those wounds getting infected."] Sighing, she pulled the paper out of her pocket. [b "I have to get back, actually. I promised I'd bring more supplies and wouldn't be gone long."] Playfully shoving him away from her, she smirked. [b "Now get off of me. You way a ton."] Standing up, she stretched her arms over her head. [b "I'll let her know that we have something to discuss with her. I'm sure she'll want to meet up as soon as possible. Hopefully tonight!"]]
Milo protested the order, despite his eyes falling shut. [b "Not tired. Just...resting my eyes."]
He made a dramatic show of slouching against her even more, weighing her down under him. [b "But if you leave, who is going to be my pillow? I could use a massage,"] he rolled his shoulders jokingly at her until she shoved him away and got to her feet.
[b "Some best friend,"] he grumbled and hoisted himself up.
If they were successful in getting Mary to help them, it would ignite a renewal of hope in them. For months they'd been tracking dead ends. Leads that wound up being nothing more than fiction spread around by bored workers looking to entertain themselves; spreading false hope and watching it die before their eyes.
Milo gathered the papers and tucked them back in the folder. He even scanned the table and floor a second time to make sure he didn't leave any evidence for one of his parents to stumble on when they got home. If they came home, that is. Milo had the house to himself for nearly three days; his mother making use of the sofa in her office to work late hours. Still, he wasn't going to be sloppy.
[b "I have one scheduled delivery left today. Once that's done, I'm going to head down to the bunker to meet Laurel. He said he's got some new contraband he's willing to trade for. Come find us when you're done,"] he reached out to tug on a lock of her hair.
The bunker was their sanctuary. Some steel container that someone had buried however many years ago in hopes to avoid a cataclysmic event. Whoever built it hadn't lived to use it. Milo and Selene found it while exploring the year before, and it quickly became their escape from reality. Laurel only came to use it after he'd needed a place to stash his stolen goods, and Milo had agreed on the condition that he and Selene got first pick of new items.
[b "That is, unless you get a better offer than hanging out with two gross boys,"] he pretended to pout, leaning against the doorway to bat his eyelashes at her.
[center Selene smiled at him before glancing over at the documents. She couldn't wait to tell Mary. She almost felt like running back, which would be a feat on it's own in the heat.]
[center Watching him put everything away, she gripped the list in her hand. She was running everything over in her head, picking and choosing what she would say to her first. She would only give her a little bit of information, just enough to peak her interest and get them in. It was bound to work.]
[center Selene felt her heart skip a beat as he tugged at her hair. She wasn't sure if her face was warm from the sun burn or if she was blushing. [b "Well damn. He's talked to you? I haven't even received a hello!"] She placed her hand over her heart and feigned being upset. [b "I [i knew] you were cheating on me with him."] Chuckling to herself, she brushed past him and shook her head. [b "I could use that time to get a bath. Oh, and maybe make some brownies. It wouldn't be hard to sneak something out."] She nudged him in the side before leaning against him and glancing up at him. [b "Who am I kidding. There's nothing I'd rather do than spend time with you."]]
[center Blowing him a playful kiss, she made her way out the door and hurried off, making sure to grab as many supplies as she could, placing them inside of a little basket that they kept off to the side. Saying a quick goodbye to the guard that stood at the door, she rushed off towards the area her and Mary had been at.]
[center When she arrived, the older woman scolded her for taking so long and quickly took the basket from her, hurrying to set everything up. Looking around, Selene moved to her side and began to help her. [b "I have something I need to tell you. It's important to the rebellion."]]
[center Mary narrowed her eyes on her, keeping her voice low. [b "You're not supposed to talk about that, child."] Just like Selene had, she looked around to make sure no one had heard them.]
[center [b "I know, I know. But..."] Leaning over to her ear, Selene told her about the documents her and Milo had found, watching in excitement as the older woman's eyes grew wide. [b "Tonight, my house. Don't get caught,"] Mary finally said, moving away from the young girl. Selene nearly squealed. She couldn't wait to tell Milo!]
Milo rolled his eyes at her and shooed her with a hand. [b "Go be productive. I'm off to cause mischief."]
He tripled checked that the file was securely under his mattress before leaving the house again. His last delivery was an easy one - nothing more than a crate of potatoes from Gentry's garden to deliver to an elderly couple too frail to make the trek across town for their rations. Milo let the sweet woman pinch his cheek and accepted a stale oatmeal cookie from her as payment instead of the few coins he knew was the last they had at the moment.
Finances weren't a cause for concern. Money hadn't had value in decades. The barter system was firmly in place, with everyone being responsible for fair trade negotiations. The coins that circulated the city bought them nothing more than privileges. An extra sack of oats was five tokens, while a sick day from work cost fifteen. Milo was in decent shape and was able to fend for himself. Tokens were nothing to him, but that elderly couple could use them for more food.
As the work day ended and floods of people returned to their homes, Milo navigated the quiet streets he and Selene had long since memorized. Up three blocks and four to the left. Avoid the uncovered sewer drain. Thirty feet to the right and stop at the utility shed behind Walter Winston's house. Tucked just past the weeds was the door to the bunker.
Selene had quite literally stumbled on it when they were walking one day, as the rusty handle had been jutting from the grass. It had been their best kept secret.
With the coast clear, Milo opened the hatch and carefully climbed down the ladder, securing the door over his head. [i "You're late!"] a voice drawled out below him.
[b "Unlike you, I actually work for a living,"] Milo tossed an apple core at Laurel.
The redheaded man was sprawled on the futon pressed against the far wall. His beard was rattier than the last time Milo had seen him, and his eyes were a bit more sunken in. [b "Betting your rations away again?"] Milo sunk onto the futon beside him. [b "Hope this stuff is worth it."]
Laurel held up a finger and retrieved a duffle bag. [i "I always deliver, don't I?"] he grinned.
Pouring the contents onto the table, he gestured with a hand. Milo looked over the scattered tokens and pill bottles. [b "Did you trade for people's prescriptions?"] he blurted out, reaching for a well-expired orange bottle of painkillers.
[i "Not everyone is a goody-goody like you,"] Laurel snatched it back. [i "Some of my customers appreciate an escape from reality."]
[b "I'll pass, thanks. And I'm not a customer, I'm your friend. We went to school together, remember? Or did all these prescriptions rot your brain,"] Milo snorted, prodding at the man's head.
Laurel clicked his tongue. [i "You're always hard to please, Milo Powell. Alas, I have something that I think even your honor student brain will agree with."]
He reached for a bag and produced a dusty bottle of wine. [i "Enough of an adventure without getting your underwear in a knot. It's classy."]
Milo took the bottle and pulled the cork from the top. It smelled sweet enough. [b "What do you want for it?"]
Laurel tapped his fingers against his knee. [i "That is to be determined."]
[center When the time came for her to finally leave, it took everything Selene had in her not to run off. The last thing she wanted to do was draw suspicion to herself. Her heart racing, she kept her head down, smiling to herself as she made her way home. In her hand, she held a small bag, containing two chocolate bars that she was able to snag. She was hopeful that Milo would enjoy the treat.]
[center Arriving home, she looked up at the sky before hurrying inside. She wasn't sure how much time she had. The sun was already setting and she still had to meet the two boys before she could go find Mary. She sighed to herself as she decided to quickly wash off. She wasn't too worried about her hair, but her fingernails were already dirty and her clothes were sticking to her.]
[center She practically tore her work clothes off and threw on some shorts and a loose t-shirt. She didn't care if the shirt was too long or if it looked good. She just wanted to be comfortable in the heat. ]
[center Grabbing the bag, she checked in on her father, who sat quietly in a chair by the window, staring outside. Her heart broke a little before she walked over and wrapped her arms around him, placing a gentle kiss on his forehead. [b "I'm going to Milo's for dinner. Please don't wait up for me."] Though she knew he heard him, he didn't reply, and she left just as quickly as she had entered.]
[center Keeping to the shadows, Selene had to take her time to find the bunker. She knew some of the guards would be out and she didn't [i dare] get caught sneaking out.]
[center Finally finding the handle, she quickly opened it and climbed down, making sure it was shut tight behind her. Already, she could hear the two men talking.]
[center Smiling, she approached them. [b "Oh my lord, get a room you two! You fight like an old married couple."] Throwing her arms around Laurel, she glanced at the things on the table, turning up her nose. [b "You better hope those costumers don't turn you in."] she said, releasing him from her hug.]
[center She walked over to Milo and looked at the bottle in his hands. [b "Ooooh..."] she said, letting out a low whistle. Quickly digging into her bag, she pulled out one of the bars of chocolate. [b "Will this suffice?"] She smiled sweetly at him.]
Milo turned as the hatch opened, grinning widely as Selene came into sight. [b "Nice of you to join us,"] he teased.
Laurel welcomed her hug with open arms, rubbing his beard playfully on her cheek to scratch at her. [i "This boy would be lucky to marry me. That being said, tall dark and sarcastic is not my type. Feel free to keep him."]
Milo chucked a couch pillow at him with his free hand. Selene took note of his distraction and swiped the wine from him. [b "Hey! I was going to trade for that,"] he tried to flash a pout at her.
The redheaded male reached for the chocolate. [i "Too late! Sold to the highest bidder. Enjoy the merlot, madam."]
[b "I could have had something really good to trade for it,"] Milo crossed his arms and aimed a light kick towards Selene's shin.
[i "Books that haven't been relevant in over a century aren't my cup of tea, but thanks anyways. Chocolate will do,"] Lauren replied around a mouthful of the sweets.
It wasn't the first time Selene had beat him to something good, and it certainly wouldn't be the last. Milo huffed and tugged her onto the sofa with them, pulling her legs onto his lap so she's leaned against Laurel's side. Despite being a year older, Lauren had taken the two under his wing when they'd hit thirteen. He got them into all kinds of trouble, but had a heart of gold and treated them like his own brother and sister. [i "I've missed you both,"] he sighed, dropping his head back and closing his eyes.
Milo rolled his own. [b "Maybe if you didn't vanish every other week, you'd see us more,"] he propped his feet against the coffee table. [b "It's not as if we're going anywhere."]
His sulking was evident. Laurel was all too aware of their desire to leave the city walls. He'd fed into the dreams once upon a time. Years of disappointment left him disillusioned with the idea of leaving. So, he busied himself with the underground trading system. [i "It could be worse, Milo,"] he attempted to comfort his friend. [i "You know you're safe inside the city. You know food is going to be on the table, no matter how tasteless it may be. We don't even know what's out there. There could be mutated animals waiting to eat you at every turn."]
Milo locked eyes with Selene and raised an eyebrow. Laurel was known for his tall-tales and exaggeration. [b "Don't worry, when I find my way out of here, I'll send you a letter to say that I'm fine and enjoying my luxurious lifestyle elsewhere in the world."]
[i "Make him stop,"] Lauren fake whispered in Selene's ear. [i "Tell me what you've been up to so he'll quit his pouting."]
Milo pinched her calf. [b "Remember who your best friend is,"] he warned her with a mischievous glint.
The boys weren't strangers to tickling her mercilessly to get her to side with one of them. They both stared at her with matching grins, waiting to see who was going to have to pounce first to get her loyalty.
[center Selene stuck her tongue out at Milo and chuckled, clutching the wine bottle to her chest. She had every intention of sharing it with him, but [i he] didn't have to know that. Looking at Laurel, she crinkled up her nose. [b "I don't wanna keep him. He smells."] She grinned at Milo and stepped back, sticking her foot out to catch his.]
[center She suddenly felt much more at home with the two than she did anywhere else. Without them, she's not sure if she would've ever gotten through the years like she did. Some days, even now, she was still surprised. There were days where she really didn't feel like she could hold out or wait any longer. But the two in front of her, Milo especially, always reminded her how lucky she really was, given the circumstances.]
[center Gasping in surprise, she glared playfully at Milo before getting comfortable on them, closing her eyes for a moment. This was the kind of moment she wanted to last forever. She wished she had the power to stop time just for that reason.]
[center She tilted her head back to look at Laurel with a small smile. [b "We've missed you, too."]]
[center Watching their playful banter, she began to shake her head. [b "Oh don't you two start. I'll fight back this time."] She hated when they tag-teamed her. [i "It's so not fair!"] she'd always scream at them, though she'd never win. [b "I'm not picking sides this time,"] she said, shifting so that she could lay completely on the both of them.]
Milo crooked an eyebrow at her, and then glanced up to Laurel. [b "I don't think I'm satisfied with a tie. How about you?"] he asked their male companion.
Laurel ran a hand through his beard, pretending to think hard. [i "I can't say I am. I've never been fond of draws. I'd rather win."]
Both boys paused before waging their attack. Milo wrapped an arm around her legs to keep them pinned to his chest while his free hand went to tickle her feet. He'd found out she was ticklish there after she'd fallen asleep one night with her shoes on, and he tried taking them off for her before she got her bed full of dirt. It had been his go-to attack on her ever since.
Laurel's hands darted for her sides, digging in where he knew would make her jump and fight back. [i "Choose! My side or his! No amount of chocolate will buy your way out of this one!"]
[b "Remember all of those times I bailed you out of being grounded! And remember who held your hair back when you puked all over Mrs Cohen's shoes last fall when you had the flu!"] Milo jumped in, eager to win her loyalty.
Laurel jumped suddenly, grabbing his bleeding nose while laughing hysterically. He had gotten caught by her elbow just hard enough to break his hold, but not enough to break his nose. [i "You've got bony elbows, girl! I'm going to have to wear protective padding around you."]
Milo released her legs and rose to grab a rag. [b "I don't think it'll make you any uglier, don't worry,"] he handed the cloth over so Laurel could stop the bleeding. [b "It blends in with the red hair."]
Laurel rolled his eyes. [i "I've changed my mind, you can keep her. She's too dangerous for me. I'm a delicate flower."]
[b "A snapping turtle is more accurate, don't you think Selene?"] he took his place on the couch beside her.
The items in Laurel's inventory were still spread across the table. Milo grabbed a pocket watch that was well-worn and long-since stopped working. A faded inscription was etched inside the silver, with the initials R.P.T. and the year 1997. The dirt caked into the crevasses led him to believe that it had been found buried under mounds of dirt when the gardens were dug up, and had been handed off several times before ending up in Laurel's possession.
He thought of who might have owned it. A businessman perhaps, keeping time while overseeing his workers. A student graduating, gifted a watch as a keepsake. No one could say how long it had been buried before it was found. Now that he held something of the old life in his hands, he didn't want to let it go. [b "I'll give you three tokens,"] he said, digging in his pocket.
Laurel waved him off. [i "Just take the damn thing. I've been trying to get rid of it for weeks. No one wants a watch that doesn't tell time anymore."]
Milo dropped the coins onto the table anyway, knowing it was going to help his friend barter later on. [b "Someone outside of the city owned this,"] he murmured, running his fingers over the tarnished silver. [b "Before everything went to hell in a hand basket."]
[center Selene cried out in surprise, practically flailing to keep them off of her. [b "You sadistic assholes!"] She couldn't help but laugh, though. She should've known that this was coming. Tears were rolling down her cheeks by the time they finally stopped.]
[center Looking at Laurel, she gasped. [b "I'm so sorry."] Sitting back against Milo, she narrowed her eyes on him. Now that she knew he was okay... [b "Try it again and I may actually break it."] She tried to sound intimidating, but her 5'5 was never able to help her with that. She always came out looking like an angry chipmunk.]
[center [b "Definitely a snapping turtle,"] she said, nodding. Sitting up, she pulled her knees to her chest and rested her chin on top of them, closing her eyes. She didn't realize how tired she actually was until now. Hearing Milo, she looked over and stared in awe at the watch. [i Woah... 1997?] How long ago was that? She wasn't even sure. She knew if she took the time to count it out in her head she could, but she didn't feel like it was important at the moment.]
[center [b "Do you think they knew the war was coming? Or maybe they didn't have a care in the world..."] Oh how she wished she could say the same for them.]
[center Eyes widening, she jumped up and turned to Milo. [b "We have to go see Mary! She told me to meet her tonight at her house! She's eager to hear about what we found!"] The exhaustion now replaced with excitement, she stared at him, eyes shining.]
[b "I think they must have known that something was coming. I can't imagine that the end of life as they knew it came on suddenly,"] he said, trying to imagine what it would have been like to have been there first hand.
Milo nearly dropped the watch at the mention of Mary. He'd momentarily forgotten their plan for the night. A detour would have to be made to his house to grab the rest of the papers. [b "Do you think she'll actually be able to help us?"]
Laurel leaned forward to see them both clearly. [i "Who is Mary and what is she helping with?"]
The air instantly fell tense. Milo locked eyes with Selene, a silent question passing between them. Yes, Laurel was their oldest friend, but was defecting to the rebellion something that they could trust him to keep quiet about? He'd tried talking Milo out of it before, when it was just talk of dreams and fantasy. Now that it was a real possibility, Milo was unsure that it was something they needed to include him in.
[b "Mary is a friend of my mom's,"] he lied. [b "She's excited to see the old photographs we found in the library. They're going through the archives and she's interested in historical pictures. We're going to show her later."]
It was a weak lie, but he was desperate for it to work. Laurel, for the most part, hadn't given a hint of whether or not he was suspicious. [i "I didn't know you were down in the archives,"] he raised an eyebrow.
Milo shrugged. [b "It was a slow delivery day last week. They needed some extra help sorting through what could be used for kindling."]
His stomach sank with each word that fell from his mouth. He'd never lied to Laurel before, and even worse was making Selene go along with it. They were her both her boys. Protective and honest with her at all times.
He lightly nudged his foot against hers. It was a silent plea to Selene to pick his side, and trust him above all else. [b "We should probably head to her house soon then. We don't want to be late for curfew,"] Milo shot up and tucked the watch in his pocket. [b "Don't stay away so long next time, Laurel. We're always happy to see you."]
[center Selene froze for a moment. She hadn't even been thinking when it came to mentioning Mary. She knew Laurel didn't know, and she was sure if she came out and told him, he'd be upset with them. She knew he'd wanted to leave at one point but...she knew now that his feelings on the thought had changed.]
[center Forcing herself to talk past the lump in her throat, she smiled at him. [b "Sorry for not mentioning it earlier. I lost track of everything. But I promised her we'd make it tonight."]]
[center She made her way to Laurel and pulled him into a quick hug, squeezing him just a little tighter. She didn't know if this would be the last time they saw him, no matter how much she prayed it wasn't. She loved him as if he were her own kin.]
[center Grabbing the bottle of wine, she motioned for Milo to follow her and made her way outside, keeping an eye out for any guards. Once the coast was clear, she turned to him, keeping her eyes on the ground. [b "I'm really sorry. I wasn't thinking..."] She hated that she made him lie to Laurel, and she knew he must have hated it to.]
It was easier to breathe in the open air. The sun hadn't quite set completely, and curfew was still an hour away. That being said, Milo wasn't altogether too concerned about being out past eleven. By now, he and Selene knew how to navigate the city while avoiding the patrols. Once they were clear of the bunker's vicinity, they didn't have to worry as much about being seen.
[b "It's not your fault,"] he assured her. [b "Under any other circumstances, I'd trust Laurel entirely. When it comes to the rebellion..."] he trailed off as he racked his brain for phrasing. [b "It's best to keep him in the dark. He's so disillusioned by repeated attempts over the years that he's convinced it's never going to happen. Inside the city, we're guaranteed survival. He's comfortable with that."]
The problem was, surviving was not living. What kind of life was worth the back breaking work they had to endure day in and day out just to provide themselves with minuscule portions of oats and vegetables, and bartering to get just a bit more soap to stay hygienic enough to not catch illness? Generations before them, people began rebuilding and along the way gave up to maintain a mediocre existence of poverty and depression. That's when the brainwashing tactics kicked in, trying to convince the population that this was the only way to continue life, and obedience was required for sustaining the remnants of humanity.
[b "It's kind of disappointing, really,"] he mused. [b "Laurel got us into the idea of defecting outside the walls, and now he's happy to bury his head in the sand and continue his underground bartering because it ensures he doesn't have to worry about finding his own food out there."]
They'd all be fairly shit hunters, considering they didn't have any experience with the hunting groups, but Milo was confident that they would learn. Maybe a few rabbits to start off with, and then work their way up to larger game. That is, if there were any even left to hunt. Most of the time, the parties brought back meager catches of fish, squirrel, and birds. The last deer to be killed was when they were barely five, and even then it was divided among families in small cubes to be boiled in stews.
[b "What's the first thing you want to do, when we get out of here?"] he broke the brief silence, turning to look at her. [b "When we're free to go wherever we want whenever we want, without worrying about getting caught."]
[center Selene bit the inside of her cheek and sighed. If they left, she didn't want to leave Laurel behind. Even the thought of doing so felt wrong. [b "Do you think we could ease him back into the idea?"] Not that she thought they had the time. Everything was happening too fast now. If they were going to bring Laurel with them, they were probably going to have to just surprise him with it when it happened. But would he even go with them at that point? And would he forgive them for not telling him? Her mind raced with questions.]
[center His question cut through those thoughts, snapping her out of her near-panic over their friend. She hadn't really thought about it. She'd only ever thought about getting out, and she wasn't even sure if they'd make it that far. [b "Hm...I say we either find a new town, one that isn't so...suffocating, and settle there."] She frowned. Maybe that wouldn't be an option, though. If that were the case... [b "Or, we could always find a place of our own. Just the two of us! And Laurel if we could convince him."] She smiled at him before her cheeks flushed. She hadn't thought about ever living with Milo, but the reality of that possibility was now setting in.]
[center Quickly shaking her head, she shrugged. [b "Of course, we don't have to live together anywhere we go. We could always be neighbors, too."] She suddenly felt silly. She knew she shouldn't care about what they did, but she didn't want to make Milo uncomfortable with anything she ever said or did. Not that she was ever the best at doing that, but she tried her hardest not to. [b "Did you have something in mind?"] she asked, deciding to put him on the spot instead.]
The idea of the two of them being roommates pulled a smile from him at last. It would be comforting to have her just down the hall, instead of in the house next door, no matter how short the distance was between their current rooms. They could spend evenings on their own couch in their own living room, in a house that they could make warm and cozy instead of the cold, clinical spaces they currently resided in. [b "I could think of worse things than living with you,"] he assured her, bumping her sideways as they walked.
Her idea of building a place of their own, away from any town at all was also appealing. He could picture a log structure partially built around a large tree, allowing them to immerse themselves in the nature that they've been denied behind the concrete walls.
Despite both of their best wishes, it wouldn't likely be easy to convince Laurel to come with them. As brave as he was dealing in underground trading, there was still a fear buried inside that this was all there was going to be. The rebellion could just be another let down, he'd heard Laurel argue more than once. [i What happens if you go out there and it's the exact wasteland they've been warning us about and protecting us from?]
It was a thought that had kept Milo up at night several times. The hunters weren't allowed to speak of their outings, therefore they had no idea what waited for them beyond the city fortress. Mutated animals could be lurking, waiting to pounce on fresh meat. Rogue bandits could attack in hopes of robbing them of their supplies. He got so caught up in these thoughts that he didn't realize Selene had thrown his question back at him.
[b "Sorry,"] he shook his head. [b "Right, what would I want to do?"]
Her plan sounded perfect to him, but he couldn't avoid the question. [b "I just want to find somewhere that makes us happy. It doesn't have to be another town, or with other people. I'm just so tired of being ruled by an iron fist with protocols to be followed every waking minute of the day, and being too damn tired after hauling deliveries everywhere to enjoy being alive. Freedom. All I want is freedom. Exploring and discovering places that have been forgotten for the last century, with no one telling us where to be and what to do."]
Realizing he probably brought the mood down a bit, he put a smile on. [b "And I'd be completely happy if I got a pet dog. I've read how awesome they are for companionship. After all, you may get sick of me and find some tall blonde muscle-head guy from a far away land to sweep you off your feet. Then it'll just be me and my new dog."]
The thought of her potentially finding a boyfriend and forgetting all about him was a fear he'd had since they'd turned fourteen and all of their friends began coupling up. It hurt like a bitch to think about, but he had to plaster on a smile so she didn't know how worried he actually was.
[center Selene stumbled a little and glared at him, elbowing him playfully. She was relieved that he didn't mind the idea of living with her. He was her best friend, and if he were ever uncomfortable being around her, it would kill her. She couldn't imagine her life without him.]
[center Snapping herself out of her thoughts, she looked at him, still curious about his answer. Perhaps it was because they were talking about it, but she was getting really nervous. Making their plans now meant they were really going to try and leave. It wasn't just an idea or a thought anymore. She had to wonder what it would be like.]
[center She had to admit, she liked his answer. Finding a place where no one could tell them what to do or where to go would be the best thing ever. She couldn't imagine it would be easy, but it would definitely be better than living inside of the damn walls.]
[center Laughing, she wrapped her arms around his, leaning against him. [b "I could never get sick of you! And come on. Nobody's going to want some greased up pipsqueak like me. Especially not some prince-like guy, if anyone like that even exists."] In truth, she didn't [i want] to find anyone. As it was, she was perfectly content with living her life with Milo by her side. So long as they were safe from the rest of the world, she was happy.]
[center Smirking, she pinched at his side. [b "If anything, you have more of a chance of finding someone than I do. Half the girls here already want you."] She didn't know if he knew that, but she'd heard some of the younger girls on her way to work in the morning whispering about him. Some of their words were enough to bring a blush to her face. She had never thought of doing some of the things to him that they had, and she didn't need the mental images.]
[center But the thought of him leaving her behind for someone was a hard one to accept, though she knew it was probably inevitable. She knew that any girl would be lucky to have him.]
Her adamant argument against leaving him brought a dopey smile to his face. He knew they were loyal to each other, maybe even to a fault. Over a decade of friendship will do that. As such, the idea of some prissy prince turning his nose up at her labour-worn clothing made his temper flare. [b "I happen to like your greasy clothes. If any guy says anything bad about them, I'll have to break his nose."]
It certainly wouldn't be the first fight he'd gotten into over Selene. Her small stature had been a teasing point for bullies in school, and he was always ready to jump to her defense. The black eyes and busted lips were worth it. She was his pipsqueak, and he would always be her protector.
Of course, she then had to do some teasing of her own and through his own love prospects back at him. Milo gagged, knowing a few of the girls she was referring to. [b "I'm eighty percent sure they only stare at me because I have all of my teeth, and understand the concept of basic hygiene,"] he said. [b "Not many bachelors around here to pick from."]
He wouldn't know the first thing about dating anyways. The two of them were so comfortable around each other that he didn't think he'd be able to build a similar relationship with anyone else. He was a bumbling idiot half the time, but Selene was just as goofy, so it worked for them. The idea of starting from square one with someone was intimidating. [b "I'm happy enough with my future of freedom and a dog. I'm a simple man, that's all I need."]
Dating absolutely terrified him, but he didn't have to tell her that. He'd tried it once, and swore off of it after a girl bit him during a kiss in an attempt to turn things a little more heated. When Selene had noticed the swollen lip the next day at breakfast, he'd passed it off that he bit it during a fall. He didn't want her to think of him as a coward.
He pulled her to a stop when they got close to the residential streets. [b "Do you know which one Mary lives at?"] he asked, looking between all of the brick bungalows that were identical except for the brass numbers bolted to the doors.
[center Selene felt her face flush at his words. She couldn't imagine anyone liking her the way she was. Years ago, when she'd been digging through her mother's things, she'd found some pictures from before, when the world was normal. In the pictures, the girls she had seen had gorgeous, shiny hair and adorable clothes. Most days, her hair was a tangled mess, damp from the sweat of the day, and her clothes were always worn out due to the excessive use.]
[center But she had to admit, it kind of felt nice knowing somebody liked her clothes, even if it was her best friend. [b "You're just obligated to say that because I put up with you."] She smiled at him and tightened her arms around him.]
[center She had to place a hand over her mouth to keep from laughing too loud at his next words. As sad as it was to say, he was right. Few guys had the looks and hygiene that Milo did, which [i did] make them a little unappealing. But knowing him the way she did, she knew he wouldn't go after those girls, no matter how much they stared at him. She knew if they begged, they'd probably just embarrass themselves. The thought almost made her laugh again.]
[center Looking around, it took her a moment before she finally picked out the familiar house. She'd only ever been there a couple of times, but the small bed of flowers that Mary kept outside caused it to stick out. When the flowers had first started growing, she'd gotten into trouble because the guards thought she was possibly sneaking seeds into the place, which seemed silly to Selene at the time. But if she had flowers, they had thought she'd have other types of seeds, such as vegetables and such.]
[center Selene remembered sitting on her couch, scared that they were going to arrest or even hurt Mary, but she had been let off when nothing was found. Mary had told her that they didn't like when the people tried to grow their own food, but she had never known the reason why. The reason had become a little clearer as Selene had gotten older.]
[center Pulling him to the house, she knocked gently on the door. She heard the rustling from inside before the door opened, Mary quickly pulling them inside. [b "You took your sweet time, child. You're going to get caught."]]
[center She smiled sheepishly at her and gave her a quick hug. [b "I'm sorry. We got caught up with something. But we'll make it quick now, I promise. It's worth it."] Her excitement was once again growing. She looked at Milo with a smile.]
The porch light was enough to draw Milo's concern. [b "If we could come inside, we'll show you everything,"] he spoke quietly, laying a hand on his leather satchel.
Mary stepped back and let them into the front hall, pointing towards the back of the house. [i "My study is down the hall. There's no window, so we won't be spotted by anyone."]
Her home was as sparse as the rest of them. Chipped white paint coated the cracking drywall, and the floors creaked as Milo walked down the narrow hall. Her study was just as simple. One bookshelf of dusty volumes, and a sunken leather armchair under a lamp. She must have noticed him staring at the emptiness of it all, because she gave him a reassuring pat on the shoulder. [i "The less they have to find, the better. Everything I need is up here,"] she tapped a finger against her temple.
Noticing a lack of seats for himself and Selene, he knelt on the floor and began putting the files. He had haphazardly secured them together with a thick rubber band. [b "My dad forgot to lock his office before he left a few days ago,"] he explained, handing the folders to the elder woman. [b "I found these in his desk. He's one of the leaders for the hunting groups. Half of these have redacted information, but they reference meeting people outside of the walls to trade goods."]
He shuffled through more papers. [b "And these have my mom's signature, all stipulating a treaty over the land the hunters are allowed to use."]
Mary was quiet as she took in the information, skimming over the pages with sharp focus. She didn't ask questions right away, nor did she make any comments. Milo sat back on his heels, feeling his excitement flicker with new nerves.
Had they not found anything of use? Was this just a waste? Milo reached his hand towards Selene's, seeking silent reassurance. She'd always been able to calm him when his thoughts ran wild. Panic attacks and overthinking weren't uncommon to him, and he could feel his anxiety building with each minute of silence that filled the room.
[b "We have something, right?"] he finally blurted out. [b "This proves what the rebellion has been saying!"]
[center Selene followed Milo down the hall, looked around at everything. Nothing had changed since the last time she'd been there, but that didn't surprise her. Unlike the governor, who she knew had a very elaborate looking home, the rest of their homes were bland and boring. Just enough for someone to live in.]
[center Sitting down beside him, she was silent, allowing him to explain everything. Feeling his hand on hers, she squeezed it. She had no idea what Mary was thinking, and she wasn't able to even get a hint of anything from her face. She glanced at Milo at his outburst, then turned to Mary, her face filled with concern.]
[center The older woman looked up at them, frowning. [b "These are pretty important documents. Are you sure your father actually forgot and this isn't some trap for the rebellion?"] The woman's words made Selene's stomach drop. She didn't think that would possible, however.]
[center [b "His father has no reason to suspect there's any kind of rebellion. None of them should, right?"] She looked at Milo for reassurance. If they had known, they would've done something to stop it by now, she was sure of it.]
[center Her mind began coming up with different scenarios, but she quickly dismissed them. [b "No, no there's no reason to think that it would be a trap. I understand the caution, but I simply don't believe it."] The thought just had too many holes in it to be right.]
[center Mary shrugged and shuffled through the papers again, looking at the two of them. [b "Well, it's definitely incriminating evidence, which means we can use it. Would you mind if I keep these to show everyone, or would you like them back?"] She gave them a small smile. [b "If anything, you two can always present it to the Rebellion, since you [i are] the ones who found it."]]
[center Selene turned to Milo. [b "What do you think?"]]
Milo's eyes squeezed shut, trying to recall every interaction he'd had with his parents over the last month. He couldn't think of a single time when they appeared even remotely suspicious. As far as they were concerned, he was a quiet worker who pulled his own weight and contributed to the function of society. Conversations were always kept to council updates on bi-laws, and the progress around town. Never the rebellion.
He tried to lock on to Selene's reassurance that they weren't falling into a trap. They'd been so careful about everything. The rebellion's mission was never discussed outside of their bunker. Aside from the documents in Mary's hand, nothing had been spoken about in either of their homes. Still, the doubt was there.
Had he been conned by his father? Did he know that Milo had been planning to leave, and laid the perfect trap to draw him in and convict him of treason? Even worse, had he led Selene and Mary into danger? His eyes snapped open as Mary held the documents out for him to take, if he wanted.
Sweat began to build on his skin. The familiar tug of anxiety was sucking the air from his lungs and a ringing was rising in his ears. He could hear Selene asking him what he thought. His mouth opened, but no words came out. Milo's eyes flickered between the two women rapidly before shooting to his feet.
[b "Excuse me,"] he blurted, throwing open the door and storming down the hall to the bathroom they'd passed on their way in.
Throwing open the cold water nozzle, he cupped his hands under the flow and splashed it on his face. [i It's just a panic attack] he repeated to himself. [i You'll be fine in a minute.]
It certainly didn't feel that way. If anything, it felt like his heart was going to jump out of his chest, if he didn't go into cardiac arrest first. He splashed more water on his face and took deep breaths to get control of his lungs.
He'd been so desperate to find a way out. To find a life for himself and Selene outside of the prison that was their day-to-day. One speculation from Mary was all it took to fill him with doubt. On one hand, he wanted to hand the documents to the rebel leaders himself, chest puffed out proudly to help the cause. On the other, his parents believed wholeheartedly in the system, and he doubted they would hesitate to arrest them under suspicion of defecting.
Milo's back hit the wall and he slid to sit on the floor, head in his hands. How the hell was he going to lead Selene safely out of the city if he apparently couldn't handle the risk of getting caught with official documents? [b "Fuck,"] he muttered under his breath, counting down from ten as he exhaled.
[center Selene reached out to place a hand on his shoulder but jolted as he jumped up and rushed off. She bit her lower lip and held her hands close to her chest, guilt washing over her. She knew he was having a panic attack, and she knew that it was her fault. She hadn't meant to cast down, but she was scared for him and didn't want to see him get hurt. Or worse.]
[center [b "Excuse me,"] Selene said to Mary a moment later, standing up and making her way down the hall. She stood outside the door for a few minutes, allowing him to get his bearings. Grabbing the doorknob, she slowly pushed the door open and looked at him, her heart breaking at the sight of him.]
[center Kneeling down in front of him, she reached out and ran a hand through his hair. She always hated seeing him like this. [b "Are you okay?"] asked a moment later. She held her arms open for him, giving him a small smile. [b "I'm sorry,"] she whispered, swallowing the lump in her throat.]
Milo knew it was her the moment he heard the footsteps. Selene was always the one to pull him out of his attacks. He'd read once that people used to use medications to sedate themselves during episodes like his, but that was before anti-anxiety tablets ran out entirely. All he had was her soft voice to lull him back into a secure state.
He gave her a pitiful attempt of a smile, letting his eyes fall closed at the feel of her hand in his hair. It was probably childish, but it always worked like a charm when she needed to soothe him quickly. [b "I'm being stupid,"] he exhaled slowly as his breath fell into a normal pattern and he leaned into her open arms.
[b "I'm supposed to protect you and get us the hell out of here, and I didn't stop to think that this could be one giant trap they've placed to capture defectors. Mary's right, I could be marching you down the path to get arrested and all because I wanted to play the hero of the rebellion,"] he let his forehead rest on her shoulder.
Milo could see it now; the police force breaking down their doors to charge them with treason and the rebels laughing at how idiotic he had been out of sheer desperation to live up to his promise to get them both out of there.
Leaning back, he brushed his hair out of his eyes. [b "I can't let her take these documents unless you promise me that you fully believe we haven't made a mistake. You know me better than anyone."] Milo locked eyes with her. [b "Do you think I've just signed our death certificates?"]
It wasn't a secret, what would happen to them if they were charged with defecting against the government. There was no resources to keep them as prisoners. Long gone were the days were criminals spent decades atoning for their wrongdoings. Food was scarce, and supplies were not to be wasted on those viewed as damaging the system.
Death would be the only thing awaiting them if they were to be caught.
[center Selene shook her head and shushed him, running a hand through his hair as he leaned against her. For the moment, it was just the two of them in their own safe little world. Well, maybe it wasn't as safe as they would've liked, but it was better than comforting him in a cell or on their way to their deaths. No, the bathroom was the safest place at the moment, and she took advantage of that. [b "You're no being stupid. Mary has every right to be cautious, just like we do."] She felt guilty now. Had she never told Mary about the files, they wouldn't be having doubts. At the same time, though, Mary was probably their only way out of this place.]
[center Meeting his eyes, she reached out and rested her hand on his cheek, the stubble scratching her skin. [b "I believe it's worth the risk. I don't want to die, but I'm willing to risk my life to make sure the other's around here have a fighting chance."] Pulling her hand away, she looked down. [b "We've come to far to give up. I say we give her the documents and we go from there."] His father was bound to notice the documents were missing at some point, but they had to make sure he didn't find out until it was too late. Hesitating and doubting would only delay their progress.]
[center Looking back at him, she smiled at him. [b "If we go through with this, we'll be out of here before you know it."] She had to believe that they were going to get out of there. Deep down, she knew they could do it.]
Milo raised his eyes to meet her eyes. Releasing a slow breath, he leaned his cheek into her hand. He knew she was most likely right. They had a chance, and they'd be idiots to throw it away on the slight chance that this was a trap. If they came this far and backed away with their tails between their legs, what kind of rebels were they?
[b "Okay,"] he spoke quietly. [b "We give her the documents then."]
Mary didn't appear to have moved in their absence. Milo was still a little shaky as he knelt down in front of her again. The papers were on the table beside her, waiting for their decision. The manila folders hadn't felt quite so heavy before. Flashes of Selene and Mary in handcuffs flashed before his eyes, but he shook them away.
He held them out to the elder woman, locking eyes with her. [b "It's probably best if you do it. They trust you. We trust you,"] he added on a broken note.
She smiled warmly and took the documents with steady hands. [i "The rebellion will thank you greatly for your contribution. Your efforts will not be forgotten once we are freed from this city."]
Milo tried to smile but it barely flickered on his face. The papers condemned his parents clearly, but the potential situation of them getting into the wrong hands also condemned himself. He had to remember Selene's point. What good was life if it was to be spent in the concrete prison built around them? Even he had to admit that death would be a release from the hell they've lived in.
Mary prepared for them to leave, not wanting them to overstay their welcome and risk getting caught by patrol. [i "You'll be the first to know what happens,"] she assured them before closing the door and leaving them in the dark of night.
[b "No going back,"] he murmured to Selene, offering his arm for her to take.
The streets were eerily quiet after curfew. Electricity was turned off every night at nine to conserve the little power the solar panels were able to generate for them. Luckily, that meant no streetlights. They were able to move in the shadows without a spotlight finding them. They didn't live too far from Mary, which meant it was only a ten minute walk before their houses came into view.
Milo pulled her out of view between the two homes, using the shrubs for cover. He dropped his arms to the sides and leaned up against the clapboard siding of his house. [b "I'm more exhausted by tonight than I was at work all day,"] he let his head hit the wall behind him.
[center Selene smiled to him. She had to have faith that they could do this. Once moment of hesitation or doubt and they would be done for. Yes, she was scared and she was worried, but they'd already come this far. She had no intention of backing away from what they wanted now. They were so close she could almost taste it!]
[center Following him back to Mary, she gave the older woman a small smile, letting him do the talking. She trusted Mary with her life. Besides Milo, she was probably the only other once that Selene knew she could run to. She couldn't actually remember a time she hadn't spoken to the woman.]
[center Giving her a quick hug, she allowed her to usher them outside before looking at Milo. Taking his arm, she nodded. [b "You're right. Which means we have to go through this with everything we have."] Wrapping her arms around his, she stayed as close to him as she could. She didn't want to get caught now that they were so close. If they did, it would be the end for them.]
[center Gasping a little as he pulled her to the side, she looked up at him, a little concerned. Had she pushed him too hard when it came to giving away the documents? Her stomach immediately twisted. She hadn't meant to if she did.]
[center Reaching up, she ran a hand through his hair, smiling at him. [b "Don't worry. Everything will work out, I'm sure of it! Very soon, we'll be out of this wretched place and living a life that [i we] make for ourselves, with our own rules. It'll be perfect."] Yes, it would be. She had to believe that, and no matter what, she was going to hold onto that belief.]
That was all they had to hold on to while everything was so uncertain. A perfect life they could form for themselves, away from the rules and restrictions of the city. The idea of perfection would have to appease them until escape became a reality.
Milo gave her a soft smile. [b "Don't mind me. I think I'm just exhausted, and it's messing with my anxiety. I'm excited for this. Really."]
Stepping forward, he pressed his lips to her forehead. [b "Go get some sleep. I'll see you in the morning for breakfast."]
Out of habit, he waited until she disappeared into her house before going to his own. She was unlikely to find trouble between the side of the house and her front door, but his protectiveness kept him firmly rooted in place until he heard the sound of the lock clicking. Only then did he retreat to his own personal prison.
Milo was halfway to the stairs when he caught sight of his father's silhouette in the armchair by the window. [b "Holy fuck, what are you doing?"] he choked out.
Andrew Powell was every bit as serious as he was large and intimidating. His body filled the cracked leather chair, broad shoulders hiding the back rest. He was still in his hunting attire, which meant he either hadn't been home long, or he'd been waiting for Milo to make an appearance. [i "Where the hell have you been?"] he drawled the question.
Milo could feel his heart hammering in his chest. [i Do not lose it again tonight,] he warned himself. [b "I was with Selene next door. We were playing cards and lost track of time,"] the lie spilled out smoothly.
[i "As the son of a council member, I would hope you'd take curfew a little more seriously,"] his father's stare was penetrating.
[b "Curfew means we have to be inside of a house. The law doesn't stipulate it has to be our own,"] Milo countered.
There was a moment of pause while Andrew got to his feet and crossed the room. The two men stared each other down until his father reached out a hand and grabbed him by the throat, slamming Milo back against the wall. [i "Don't try to pull that sarcastic bullshit with me, because I will put you on your ass in a second. This is my house, and I will be respected in my own house. You will obey the law while you're in my house."]
Milo clawed at his father's hand, trying to get some room to breathe. He forced himself to stay silent, not wanting to make matters worse. He could smell the whisky on Andrew's breath, a telltale sign that the hunters had broken in to one of the bottles they'd found months back during an excavation near the old factory. [i "You are to be in this house by curfew every night, do I make myself clear?"] Andrew forced his head back to meet his eyes.
[b "Yes sir,"] Milo choked out.
The rush of air in his lungs was welcomed as his father let him go. [i "Get your ass upstairs and don't let me catch you out this late again,"] he was dismissed.
In the safety of his room with the door locked, his hand went to his throat to feel the tender skin. God, he hoped it wouldn't bruise. He crawled into bed with his wounded pride and waited for sleep to claim him, hoping that freedom would come soon.
[center Selene stared up at him, her cheeks flushing a little. She could only hope that he wouldn't notice. Giving him a quick hug, she whispered goodnight and hurried back inside of her own home. She hoped her would be okay. She hated when he felt panicked and she wasn't there to help. Then again, she felt like it was her fault most of the time, though if it was Milo would never tell her.]
[center Walking through the dark house, Selene made her way to the kitchen, taking a few minutes to make something small. She'd been gone far longer than she had intended to and she was sure her father was hungry. Of course, it wasn't much. Just a few sandwiches, but it was better than nothing. Placing two of them on a tray, she made her way to his room, placing them on the window in front of him. To her surprise, he actually smiled at her a little.]
[center She smiled back at him. [b "Do you need some water or anything?"] she asked. He nodded, and she hurried back to the kitchen for a glass. He hadn't said anything to her yet, but just acknowledging that she was there was enough to make her feel good. Bringing the drink back to him, she set it down, sitting on the bed and telling him about how her day went with Milo. Of course, she left out all of the details about the documents and Mary's house, but he seemed invested enough.]
[center Giving him a kiss on the forehead, she told him goodnight and left the room, taking notice that, even though he had said he wanted the drink, he hadn't touched any of it. However, she shrugged it off. He had said yes and that was enough for her. Perhaps, if he was finally coming out of his fog, she could tell him everything and convince him to come with them.]
[center As she got ready for bed, though, a feeling of dread washed over her. She'd always had a small fear that he wouldn't be able to make it out and for the longest time, she'd just tried to accept it. Now she was regaining some hope that he [i would] make it, and it terrified her. Sighing, she laid down and closed her eyes. If she could, she would talk to Milo about it. If anything, he could make her feel better.]
Milo rose the next morning, surprised to see that at some point during the night, his mother had also returned home. Greetings were clinical, and the three Powells maneuvered around each other in their morning routines. He couldn't help but feel a shiver shoot up his spine every time he caught his dad staring in his direction. His mother, thankfully, seemed none the wiser for the argument her husband and son had the night before. Either that, or her poker face was better than Milo remembered.
Ready before his parents, Milo reached for the front door, only for a meaty hand to catch the wood and shove it closed again. Andrew stood close, head stooped to catch his son's eye. [i "I don't expect a repeat of last night, am I clear? Curfew means your ass is in this house, whether your mother and I are here to enforce it or not. Do you understand me?"]
A flurry of sarcastic and vulgar come-backs flashed through Milo's brain, but he bit down on his tongue. Andrew reached out and grabbed his chin, forcing his head to the side. [i "I said, am I understood?"]
[b "Yes sir,"] Milo dictated back.
[i "Don't be late for work,"] Andrew's aggression melted to that of a dutiful father, clapping Milo on the back and stepping around him to leave for the hunters meeting.
Closing his eyes, he counted to ten. Breathe in for four seconds, and out for seven. Steady rhythm. Stay focused on the air in his lungs. Shaking off the tension, he walked to Selene's front door and knocked. [b "Your escort awaits, Mademoiselle Selene!"] he called through the chipping wood.
As was routine, he waited on the front steps for her to finish getting ready. Her father, in his unwell state, was too weak to entertain any guests. It was better to leave the house quiet for him, especially first thing in the morning. Milo was more than happy to leave him be, having heard stories from Selene of how withdrawn her father had been becoming.
[center The next morning, for reasons unknown even to her, Selene took a little more time to get ready, making sure her hair was brushed at least three times and that her clothes were decent. In fact, they were a little more dressier than normal. Working with the other women in the heat with food and other things wasn't really ideal for the clothes she was choosing to wear, but for some reason, today felt like a better day than any.]
[center Perhaps it was because of the night before. A couple of great things, in her opinion at least, had happened and had brought her mood up a great deal. Looking at her reflection in a dirty, cracked mirror, she smiled. She was pretty proud of herself. Turning, she quickly made her way out of the room, bringing her father some water and kissing him on the forehead. Once again, he gave her a smile, but still hadn't said anything. Searching the kitchen, Selene bit her cheek, sighing a little. They were beginning to run low, and she wasn't sure when they'd get their rations again.]
[center Deciding to go without, she smiled at the sound of a familiar voice outside. Yelling goodbye to her father, she hurried to the door and stepped outside, giving Milo a quick hug. [b "Well, good morning, Monsieur. I hope you slept well?"]]
As she broke the hug, he dramatically bowed and kissed the back of her hand. [b "Ah, Mademoiselle, t'was a long night on a lumpy mattress,"] he spoke in a poor imitation of a French accent they'd heard in the old projection movies as kids. [b "I am all the more better now, having seen the sunshine that is your face!"] he tapped her nose with his finger.
He wasn't going to tell her anything that had happened the night before. As far as she needed to know, his father was a grump of a man, but he hadn't ever mentioned the hitting, and never planned to. He was just grateful his dad hadn't left bruises on his neck from the night before.
Mary was already seated at her usual table as they entered the dining hall, which was really just the old community center crammed with old tables and chairs. Milo locked eyes with her but quickly looked away, afraid that even a shared glance would draw suspicion about their meeting the previous night. [b "Grab us seats and I'll get us food?"] he glanced at Selene, barely giving her time to respond before getting in line.
Why the hell did it feel so hard to keep a blank face? No one was looking at him. He knew no one was looking at him. So why did it feel like they were all staring? Milo busied himself with scooping scrambled eggs and two slices of bacon on each plate, acting as natural as he could.
[i "No trouble today, right kid?"] a bony elbow caught him in his ribs, nearly making him drop the plates.
[b "Excuse me?"] he instantly went on defense.
Thomas, the town baker stood behind him in line. [i "I saw you drop some of the deliveries yesterday. Don't want any bags of seeds getting ripped and wasted. No wheat crop means no business for me. Try to stay on your feet, yeah?"]
Milo forced a smile and chuckled. [b "Yeah, I'll watch out. Can't have a repeat like that."]
Breaking the conversation before it could really continue, he trudged back to their table. [b "Are you as paranoid as I am?"] he asked her, moving his seat closer to hers and keeping his voice low. [b "I feel like I'm going to go crazy by the end of the day. Please tell me I'm just being stupid."]
[center Selene felt her face flush at his words, clearing her throat before smiling up at him. [b "Oh, quit trying to butter me up."] Though it [i was] very sweet that he always tried to make her days good, even when they were stuck in this hell hole. She had to push away the excitement that suddenly began to rise at that thought. [i Won't be in this hell hole much longer, though, now will we?] She couldn't help it. She hadn't had this much hope before now.]
[center She followed him to the hall, nodding quickly as she watched him walk away. She glanced around for a moment before finding a seat near a corner. Weaving through tables, she said quick "excuse me's" and "sorry's" before finally snagging a seat.]
[center Intentionally, she kept her back to the wall. It was the easiest way to keep an eye on everyone that was currently present. Her eyes soon fell on Mary, and she gave a short wave, though the woman hadn't seemed to notice. Slowly putting her hand down, she waited patiently for Milo to join her.]
[center Her optimistic demeanor soon came to a halt as he approached her. Moving her food in front of her, she tilted her head, focusing all of her attention on him. She felt a little silly now. While she'd been more exited than anything, he'd been worrying enough for the both of them. Giving him a smile, she placed her hands and shook her head. [b "You're not being stupid. I won't lie to you and you know that. It's alright to be worried."] She glanced around again before returning her gaze to him. [b "But if you openly act worried or paranoid, they'll catch on pretty quick, and I don't think we can afford that with your father."]]
[center She sighed before giving him a full smile. [b "It's all going to be alright. Okay?"] She had to believe that, and she wanted to do her best to help him believe it as well.]
He exhaled and forced a smile. [b "Right. It's fine. We're fine."]
Milo would make himself believe it. Even with his brain screaming the exact opposite to him, he would repeat it to himself until it stuck. She was right. His father would notice immediately if they failed to keep it together. Things had to remain status quo if they were going to make this work.
Breakfast was as bland as always; rubbery eggs with no spices, and fatty bacon dripping grease. Nutritious enough to start the day, but nothing even remotely appetizing. Milo poked at the eggs with his fork. [b "If we get anything out of this, I hope the food is better,"] he muttered to her.
Across the room, Laurel sat with the men who worked in the coal mine. Half of them were still covered in the soot and grime from yesterday's shift, eyes half-lidded with exhaustion. For a brief moment, Milo wondered how many of them were dying already from the toxic environment where they worked twelve hours a day. Overexposure to the fumes in the mine left men sickly after a while, and a new batch of workers was always ready to replace them. A sacrifice they felt necessary, to contribute to their city.
Laurel caught his eye from across the hall. A flicker of fear stuttered Milo's heart. He didn't think that Laurel would ever betray them by spilling the secrets of last night's conversation, but the man also tended to have a loose lip whenever liquor started flowing. He spent a lot of time with his brother's mining crew, and illegal moonshine was never in short supply. It would only take one shot too many to let their plans slip from his tongue.
[b "I'm scheduled to haul the coal deliveries today. I can sweet talk Mrs Palmer into giving me a couple apples, if you want to sneak away to join me for lunch,"] he offered. [b "We can discuss things."]
[center Selene squeezed his hand before letting go, starting on her food. While it wasn't the best, it would get her by. Better than eating nothing at all. She glanced at him, smiling a little at his words. [b "It'll have to be. We'll have to catch our own, after all."] While they didn't know how to hunt, they'd learn. They'd have to.]
[center Watching him, she tilted her head and followed his gaze, her eyes falling Laurel. She smiled and gave him a small wave, trying to be as normal as she could. In reality, it wasn't easy. Not with everything that was happening. She felt her stomach tighten a little. It wasn't going to be easy at all trying to be optimistic or normal. It was all happening so fast, she wasn't sure they'd have time to actually be ready for it.]
[center She looked away and took a deep breath, quickly shoving her last piece of bacon into her mouth. She'd just done her best to make sure Milo felt better, and yet here she as, psyching herself out. How silly was that?]
[center Glancing up at him, she nodded, doing her best to hide the internal struggle she was having. [b "An apple would be so good right now,"] she said, leaning over to rest her head on his shoulder. [b "Where would you want to meet?"] she asked, closing her eyes. Even if it was just for a second, she wanted to rest her eyes and pretend they didn't have to part ways soon.]
He tilted slightly to rest his chin on her head. [b "We can meet behind the school. Everyone will be inside working, and there's no windows behind the gym. We can probably get twenty minutes of lunch without disruption."]
Everything had to be timed perfectly. With so many prying eyes around at any given point of the day, Milo had logged away decent hiding spots all over the town. If anyone got caught wasting time while they were technically on the clock, meal rations would be taken away. They barely ate enough as it was.
Outside, the seven o'clock siren blared through the speakers. Another day to survive. Milo pressed a kiss to the top of her head. [b "See you soon, Sunshine,"] he promised.
He piled into the back of the truck that transported the men to and from the mining pit on the edge of the city. Being shoulder to shoulder with them made their gaunt features more apparent. Sunken eyes and skin pulled tight over their jaws, courtesy of excessive manual labor with lacking nutrition. They were practically skeletons.
[i "Budge over,"] Laurel shoved him to make room on the bench.
Milo frowned. [b "You didn't tell me you switched jobs."]
Laurel was one of the construction crew, who went around doing tedious repairs - partly the reason he was able to acquire his stolen goods so easily. He'd flat out refused the chance to work in the mines when they'd been selected for the workforce. It definitely would have been a subject he'd have broached the night before, had he elected for a new position.
[i "I didn't,"] he responded in a tone that ended any further questions.
The route was bumpy and nauseating, full of poorly patched potholes. Milo kept sneaking glances at Laurel from the corner of his eye, but his friend's gaze remained focused straight ahead. Whatever the hell was going on with him, Selene was going to have to hear about it when he managed to sneak away to join her.
[center Selene nodded. [b "I could sneak away. Mary can cover for me if needed."] At least, she figured she would. With the information they had, she couldn't imagine Mary would try to throw her under the bus or get her into trouble. It just wouldn't make sense. Not unless she wasn't actually helping the rebellion, but she knew that couldn't be true. If that had been the case, everything would've been shut down a long time ago.]
[center Hearing the siren, she felt her heart sink a little. While she knew they wouldn't be able to sit there all day and relax, she had still wanted a little more time. She smiled at him and stood, watching as he left before she made her way out. Maybe today wouldn't be so bad. All she had to do was push through it and everything would be fine.]
[center Finally ending up at her destination, she smiled at Mary and gave her a quick hug. Mary nodded to her before going back to inventory, a hard frown on her face. Selene tilted her head. [b "Is everything okay?"]]
[center Mary sighed and shook her head, setting the notebook down. Selene leaned over to look at what she'd written down. [b "How much is missing?"] she asked a moment later, bringing her voice to a whisper.]
[center Mary shook her head. [i [b "I haven't added it all up yet, but it's not good."]] She turned to looked at Selene, raising a brow. [b [i "I know deep down you didn't, but I have to ask..."]]]
[center Selene quickly shook her head. [b "We would never."] This wasn't good. The day before, everything had been fine. Now, a good piece of rations were missing. People were going to be pissed.]
The mine was uncontested as the most depressing area of the town. Overalls hung on rusted hooks, coated in thick grease and soot. Uniforms were only washed once a week as it was deemed a waste of time to do so after every shift. The stench of sweat and muck clung to the material. Then men who wore them were just as rough and filthy.
Milo lost track of Laurel in shuffle of miners dispersing once the truck came to a stop. They gathered their tools, donned their overalls, and disappeared into the mouth of the pit. Unable to continue his inquiries with his friend, he trudged through the mud to the foreman's shack. [b "Delivery boy, present and accounted for,"] he knocked two knuckles on the open door.
A veteran of the mine, Clifton Briar was a bear of a man. He responded with a grunt and waved a paper at Milo. [i "Ten stops today. You'll have to pack it up yourself. Bags and coal are in the barn. Scale's there too. Weigh each bag until they're all the same, and each delivery gets two bags. No more, no less. Should keep you busy for the day."]
The silence that followed made it clear that Milo had been dismissed. [b "Sir, yes sir,"] he muttered under his breath.
The barn was by far the largest building on the property, protecting the massive piles of the black rocks pulled from the walls underground. It housed the entire town's supply, which was horrifying in the sense that one spark would set the whole thing ablaze in an instant and their power would be lost. Milo approached with thought in the back of his mind, not even recognizing the door was open an inch.
The shadowed sight of a crouched form frantically shoveling coal into a burlap bag caught him off guard and nearly stopped his heart. [b "Hey!"] he barked out, finding his voice. [b "What the hell are you doing?"]
The man's head turned and the light from outside caught his face. [b "Laurel, what the fuck?"] Milo pulled the door shut in a panic.
[i "Keep your voice down,"] his friend was calmer than the situation called for.
[b "Are you out of your mind?"] Milo stepped closer. [b "Do you want Clifton to shoot you where you stand? You shouldn't be in here."]
Laurel remained neutral. [i "I need you to trust me. This is what I do, I'm not going to be caught"]
[b "[i I] caught you!"] he argued.
It was madness. He knew that his friend had kleptomaniac tendecies; hell, he'd benefited from it himself. But this was different. This was treasonous in the eyes of the law. Laurel was silent as he walked around him to the door. Milo's heart was hammering. [i "Yet I'm not worried that you're going to report me."]
Before Milo could respond, Laurel was out the door in a run. He hesitated for only a moment before taking off after him. The path disappeared into the trees around the bend, leading away from the mine. He moved as quickly as he could, but Laurel's legs were longer and he stayed ahead. [b "Would you stop!"] Milo yelled, but it fell on deaf ears.
They were leaping over tree roots and stumps, barreling between the bushes. Twigs hanging down were catching their faces and nicking their skin. Milo could feel the sting that they left behind. [b "Enough!"] he snapped after chasing him for more than several minutes.
He lunged for Laurel's leg, catching him around the ankle. It tripped him up just enough to send him crashing to the forest floor. The breath was stolen from his lungs. Milo hurried to keep him pinned, using his knee to press down on Laurel's chest. [b "Are you fucking insane?"] he yelled in his face. [b "You know what they do to people for stealing from the town's resources!"]
Laurel's face finally cracked into an expression of agitation. Using his larger frame, he rolled until he was the one pinning his opponent down. [i "The only way I'm getting in trouble is if you keep yelling like a fucking moron,"] he slammed his hand on Milo's mouth to shut him up. [i "I never do anything without reason. This is important, and I need you to just shut the fuck up and trust me."]
Both men were exhausted and trying to catch their breath. Cardio wasn't a specialty of theirs, and the running had taken it out of them. Milo stopped struggling and let his head fall back to the ground. Laurel looked at their surroundings, gauging where they had ended up. Glancing down at Milo, he sighed and got to his feet. The bag of coal had landed close by, both of them now staring at it.
Laurel was the one to move first, snatching it up and dusting away the dirt and leaves clinging to the burlap. [i "I'll explain everything, but not a word until then. Understand?"]
Milo looked between the bag and Laurel's eyes. His ears were ringing with adrenaline. Resigned to his loyalty, he hung his head and nodded. Satisfied, Laurel clapped him on the shoulder. [i "Get back before they notice you've gone."]
[center Sure enough, once it was time to start giving out rations, Selene and Mary, along with the other women around them, found themselves with their hands full. They were having to distribute less that day, and the people seemed to notice right away. But there wasn't much they could do except for tell them that that was all. Selene was even accused at one point by someone, though she wasn't the only one. Had some of the soldiers not appeared when they did, she was sure things would've gotten ugly.]
[center When things did finally calm down, Selene leaned against the wall and sighed, glancing at Mary. She had a bad feeling in her stomach now that she couldn't shake, and this time, she didn't have a solution to the problem. Mary shook her head before walking over to her, placing a hand on her shoulder. [b [i "If you need a break, love, then run off before things pick up again."]]]
[center [b "Are you sure?"] she asked, biting the inside of her cheek. She'd hate to leave her there to deal with everything alone. Despite there being other people around, she knew they wouldn't help her near as much as she did.]
[center The older woman nodded before smiling at her. [b [i "I've got this handled. Just don't stay gone too long."]]]
[center Nodding, Selene quickly took off, immediately heading for the school. While she usually listened to Mary, she would take as long as she had to to wait on Milo and tell him. This wasn't the kind of thing she was willing to keep from him, if he hadn't already heard.]
Beyond frustrated, Milo threw himself into his morning's work. One by one he tossed the bags of coal into the wheelbarrow, hauled them to the truck in batches, and filled the bed up with the deliveries until it was full enough for him to drive back. [i He's going to get himself killed,] his panicked thoughts played on repeat as he white-knuckled the steering wheel.
His distraction must have been evident. More than once on his rounds, he'd neglected to notice someone speaking to him. The surly butcher slammed his meat cleaver into the wood of the counter just to get his attention, and Mrs Dowley of the greenhouses smacked him upside the head when he didn't hear her request for another seed delivery. His apologies were hurried, albeit halfhearted.
Milo's brain was so overwhelmed with figuring out what Laurel had gotten himself into, that he'd forgotten to get Selene the apple he'd promised her on his way to the school grounds. By that point, the sun was high in the clouds and he was the image of a crazed man, with his curly hair flying wild and charcoal stains on his skin and clothes.
Spotting her coming around the corner, he felt the first wave of relief he'd had all day. [b "Something's happened,"] he murmured frantically as soon as he was close enough to grab her hands. [b "It's Laurel."]
Ensuring they weren't spotted, he lead her to a more secluded area behind the building. Though his paranoia ensured he checked the area twice more before speaking. [b "I caught Laurel in the coal reserves this morning. He'd stolen a bag. Or, was in the process of stealing it. Hell, I don't even know if he's done it before."]
He was jittery on his feet, bouncing on his heels. His hand flew to his mouth to chew nervously on his thumbnail. A bad habit he'd not yet kicked. [b "I chased him but he's stronger than I am. I couldn't keep him down for long."]
Milo's eyes locked on hers. [b "He'll be killed for this."]
[center Selene leaned against the wall, using her hand to shield her eyes from the blazing sun. She couldn't wait for the day that they finally got out of there. Found a place of their own, where they wouldn't have to work around the clock and in the sun so much. It was amazing they had survived as long as they had, if she were to be honest. Maybe she was crazy, but it felt like every day got hotter and hotter.]
[center She looked around, some golden wisps falling from the ponytail she'd pulled her hair into. She hadn't been early. In fact, she'd felt like she was late, so it was beginning to worry her that Milo wasn't there yet. Panic slowly made its way through her. Had he gotten caught slipping away? Or maybe he'd been hurt? She took a deep breath, trying to push those thoughts away. She knew he was more careful than that. She felt like it would take a lot before something could take him down.]
[center Relief flooded her as she saw him round the corner. She squeezed his hands as he grabbed her, frowning as he spoke. Her blood ran cold for a moment as the worst came to her mind. If Laurel was hurt, or worse...she couldn't think about it. He was like family to them and it would kill her if something happened to him.]
[center She began to shake her head as he pulled her to a better spot. [b "No...No way."] Laurel was brave, but he wasn't stupid. Had he been responsible for the missing rations, as well? She prayed not. She didn't know what she would do. She wouldn't even be able to tell Mary something like that. She trusted the woman with every fiber of her being, but this was too much.]
[center Reaching up, she took his hand back in hers, bringing it to her lips and placing a light kiss on his knuckles. She didn't want to see him chew on his finger so much that they bled. She looked up at him, her face pale. [b "We won't let that happen. Whatever he's doing, we need to find out. Keep him from getting caught..."] She couldn't believe she was saying that. They could all be killed if they helped him, but she was willing to do whatever it took to keep him safe.]
[center She bit her lip and pulled away, wrapping her arms around herself. [b "Rations were missing today...More than enough to be noticeable. Do you think he had anything to do with that?"] She looked away from him, her hands shaking. Whatever he was doing, she wasn't sure she liked it.]
He wanted more than anything to believe her. Laurel was playing a dangeorus game and the fear for their friend had been gnawing at him all day. Milo gripped Selene's hands a little tighter for support until she took a step back and shared her own news. The implication against Laurel was growing, and so was the knot of anxiety in Milo's chest.
[b "I don't want to say 'yes', but if rations were missing and I found him stealing from the coal supply, it's likely a safe bet that he had at least something to do with it."]
They needed to confront their closest friend, but there was little they could do in the middle of the day when they were both expected to be back on shift. It would have to wait until dark. Who knew where Laurel would even be by then - the man was a disappearing act. He and Selene would have to maintain their composure until nightfall, and then begin their search.
Milo stepped close to her and put his hands on her shoulders, crouching slightly to meet her eye. [b "We'll find him, and we'll set this straight. As long as we're the only ones who know about this, he's not too far out of our reach. We can still pull him back from whatever he's gotten himself into. You know I'd do whatever I can to protect either of you."]
Pulling her into a hug, he resolved himself to keep a clear head. Resting his chin on her head for a moment, he closed his eyes and took a deep breath. It would do no good to fall into a panic attack again when they needed to be headstrong about the situation. [i Now is not the time to fall apart,] he reminded himself.
He released her and pulled a tarnished ration token from his pocket. [b "Take this and stop at the fruit stand to get some lunch. I didn't mean to forget your apple and I don't want you to go hungry because of me."]
They wouldn't be able to stay much longer. Clifton would notice his absence if he was even a moment late getting back. The last thing they needed was a delay because he was getting reprimanded. Their search would start at the bunker, and they needed to time it right. Pressing a quick kiss to the top of her head, Milo backed away towards the treeline. [b "We'll fix this. I promise,"] he assured her before turning to run.
[center The pit in Selene's stomach only grew as they spoke. If Laurel wasn't careful, and it really felt like he wasn't trying to be, either he was going to get caught, or someone was going to get hurt in his place. Selene and Milo could be those someones. The thought of something happening to Milo was almost enough to bring her to her knees.]
[center She was pulled away from her thoughts when he put his hands on her shoulders. She looked up to meet his eyes, hers slightly wide. She nodded slowly and wrapped her arms around him, gripping his shirt as he held her. Laurel, Mary, Milo, they were the only people she really had. If she lost any of them, she could see herself going insane. It was hard enough watching her father everyday. She couldn't afford to see anyone else get ripped away from her.]
[center All too soon, he pulled away and it took all she had not to pull him back to her. She knew they couldn't stay here too long, but damn it sucked. She took the token from him, giving him a dry smile. [b "To be honest, I wasn't even thinking about the apple after this morning. But thank you...I'll make sure I get something, so you don't have to worry about me."] She slid it into her pocket. [b "Make sure you get something to eat, too, okay?"] If he didn't she would be the one to worry. They barely got enough as it was. It wouldn't be good for him to go without, even a little.]
[center She sighed softly at his words and nodded, watching him turn away. She placed a hand on her head, wishing that kiss was something she could hold onto. Things were already about to explode in the villages face. If something went wrong and she lost Milo...she had nothing. It was a thought that stuck her like a blow, but it also got her thinking.]
[center Her mind fresh with temporary ideas, she slipped away, grabbing herself an apple before going back to check on Mary.]
The only good thing about hauling coal deliveries was that it was mindless work. Fill the bags, wheel them back, pile them in the truck. Repeat for another handful of hours. Had it been any more complicated, Milo would have lost several fingers and possibly a foot with the amount of distraction on his mind.
[i "Where the hell are you today?"] Lucas huffed, shouldering past him to pick up the second bag of coal he'd dropped.
Milo grunted as the bag was thrown back into his arms, almost knocking the wind out of him. He elected not to answer. Thankfully, Lucas also didn't seem to actually care for a response. Clifton watched them like a hawk as they threw the last batch of deliveries into the truck bed, cigar burning between his lips. [i "Get the hell off of there,"] he yelled as they moved to climb onto the bags. [i "You're walking your asses back today. Emergency meeting's been called. I'm taking this haul in myself."]
The men had no choice but to back off and watch the dust kick up from the tires. [i Shit.] Not waiting for the others, Milo broke into a jog. The sun would start to set soon and everyone would shuffle into the dining hall for dinner. There was no chance he'd get to Selene before she'd join the others to eat, with at least thirty minutes of sprinting ahead of him. Even with his lungs burning his in chest, he didn't stop until he'd rounded the corner of the market square.
As expected, the streets were clear. Each stall had been packed away for the night and he could faintly hear voices from the open dining hall doors. It would be easy for him to go inside and find Selene but it would be impossible to talk with a room full of people sitting shoulder to shoulder with one another. Not to mention he was sure to raise eyebrows, with his curls plastered against his forehead and shirt clinging to him with grime and sweat.
Despite the growling in his stomach, he turned away. He and Selene took the same route home each night from dinner. Off the usual sidewalks everyone else took, they prefered the quiet of the alley that stretched behind the first row of houses up the road. He'd wait there. Milo took advantage of the momentary solitude to catch his breath, crouching down and letting his head fall back against the fence.
He didn't know how long his eyes had been closed, but the rising volume of voices caught his attention. He pushed further back into the shadows behind a stack of crates to stay out of sight from anyone's wandering eye. When Selene came into view, he waited for her to pass by him before he reached out to grab her hand.
[b "It's me, it's just me,"] he whispered, stepping close to press a finger to her lips. [b "We need to move, and fast. Clifton said that a meeting's been called. My parents are going to be there and I don't know how long before they're back. I think they know supplies have been taken."]
[center For the rest of the day, Selene did her best to help Mary out, keeping the situation as under control as they possibly could. But it was difficult, and by the time dinner rolled around, she felt like she could pass out. Had rations not gone missing, she was sure the day would've been just fine. Boring and hot as usual, but fine. Her thoughts wouldn't have drifted to upsetting possibilities. She and the other women wouldn't have constantly been accused by those that were just as hot, hungry, and tired.]
[center She shuffled beside the older woman, stifling a yawn. Mary patted her on the back and gave her a sad smile. [b [i "I'm sure they'll figure out what's going on and make everything right."]] Selene nodded slowly and returned the smile, but she had no faith in what she said. If Laurel was apart of whatever was happening, she knew there was no way their officials could fix it. In fact, it just made her more anxious to know what he'd gotten himself into and even more determined to help him fix it. Or help him pull it off. It truly depended on whatever it was.]
[center Upon entering the dining hall, she immediately began searching for Milo, her heart sinking when she didn't see him. Perhaps he was working late. Or maybe he had decided to skip out. Or maybe... She quickly shook her head, causing Mary to raise a worried brow. She couldn't think about it anymore. She was sure Milo was fine and would turn up later.]
[center But as dinner dragged on and she finished eating, she had come to realize that he wasn't going to show. It scared her to death, but she knew she couldn't do anything about it. Not yet, at least. Once she was alone, she would go searching for him.]
[center She walked with Mary in silence, hardly even trying to make small talk. It was obvious to the older woman that something was wrong, and she suspected it had to do with Milo, but she wasn't going to pry. The two were young and there was no telling what was going on with them.]
[center When they reached her home, Mary pulled Selene into a tight hug. [b [i "Get you some rest, alright, love? You deserve it after today."]]]
[center Selene nodded and smiled at her. [b "I will. Goodnight, Mary."] With that, the two parted ways. It was only a moment later that someone reached out and grabbed her. A loud gasp escaped her lips and she had to stop a scream that had risen halfway up her throat when a finger touched her lips. She felt immediate relief as she looked up into those familiar eyes.]
[center So many questions burned in her mind, but she knew she wouldn't have a chance to ask him. Not just yet, anyway, and definitely not with the news he'd just given him. Her eyes widened as panic swelled up inside of her. Her voice shook as she spoke. [b "Oh God...Milo, what do we do?"] She was at a loss. Things were spiraling and fast.]
A quick glance around made sure they weren't overheard. [b "We can't wait for Mary to get us out of here. If we don't find Laurel tonight, we can't wait around to find out what the council is going to do about the stolen goods."]
Now that supplies had gone missing, it was only a matter of time before his father noticed the documents missing from his office. It was the worst coincidence that he'd taken paperwork pertaining to the town's resources. With no one else having access to the Powell home, Andrew was bound to look at Milo for an explanation.
[b "In a few days, we make our move. With or without Laurel,"] it broke his heart to even say the words.
As expected, his house was empty when they arrived. It didn't look like they'd been home at all after leaving that morning for work. His father's coffee cup was still sitting half-full on the counter where he'd left it. [b "I need to get cleaned up,"] he looked down at himself. [b "Come on, you can rest on my bed while I shower."]
He paused outside of his father's office on the way, but found the door locked. It did nothing but make him more antsy. His room was the same as he'd left it that morning, giving a brief respite that his things had been left alone. [b "Help yourself to whatever fits, if you'd like to change before we go,"] he gestured to his closet, grabbing his own jeans and threadbare t-shirt.
The water was a welcomed relief, despite it being nearly freezing cold. The hot water tank wouldn't refill until the morning, but it was enough just to scrub the dirt and sweat from his skin. He felt marginally better after dressing in clean clothes but one look at the mirror was enough to see the anxiety still coursing through him.
Milo practically collapsed onto the bed when he rejoined her, covering his eyes with his hands. [b "How the hell did this get out of hand so quickly?"] he murmured, not sure if he was talking to her or himself.
[center Selene hated to admit it, but Milo was right. It was bad enough that she couldn't tell her what she suspected, even worse now that they couldn't wait for her help. She knew that the woman would feel betrayed, but she also was hoping she understood down the line. Mary had always been a pretty forgiving person, so Selene could hope for the best. She sighed softly and nodded, looking away. [b "I just hope we find him,"] she said under her breath. [i And that we don't have to do this without him.] Unfortunately, it didn't feel like fate was on their side.]
[center Following him inside his home, she felt cold, like a shadow was hanging over her. On a normal day, Selene could walk inside and make herself at home without being too worried about what would happen, so long as she followed the rules. But now that things were changing, she felt like an unwelcome guest. The thought caused her stomach to knot. She could only imagine what would happen if Milo's parents found out what the two of them were doing.]
[center She smiled at him once they entered his room, wrapping her arms around herself for a moment. [b "I'll do that,"] she said, itching to get out of her own clothing. If she'd known what was going to happen, she would've stashed an extra set of clothes at his place. Another piece of evidence that fate was not being good to them.]
[center She didn't bother changing her shorts, knowing full well that she'd never fit in any of his pants, but she did borrow one of his shirts, tying it into a knot of the side to keep it from being so loose. She did allow it to hang off her right shoulder, however, knowing that it was going to happen anyway. She cursed her small stature before throwing herself onto his bed, staring at the ceiling.]
[center She wanted to be brave, but her anxiety was through the roof, and she was sure the same could be said for Milo. So many things were going wrong already and she couldn't help but curse Laurel a little bit. Whatever he was planning, he should have known that he could've told them about it.]
[center She jumped a little when Milo entered the room, falling down beside her. She rolled on her side to face him, unsure what she could say. She definitely didn't have an answer. Instead, she shifted to rest her head on his shoulder, closing her eyes for a moment. [b "I don't know, but we need to find a way to get it under control, and fast."] Not that she had to say that. She knew he was just as aware of that fact as she was.]
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