Chris stood up and eyed her work critically. The banner lay sprawled at her feet, with the word "Education" cut into bits by red scissors. It would have to do. She started gluing a wooden stick on one side.
She didn't believe in what she was doing, not really. The truth was, she'd jump at any opportunity to oppose the Federal Party, and this one was, admittedly, quite good. Rachel was working on her own sign, but when she saw her stand up she came over to her. "Nice work."
It was Wednesday, but instead of going to school they had assembled at the park to prepare for the protest… along with nearly every student of Tolport Public. Chris had been surprised when so many people started showing up, even the thugs and druggies who didn't give a shit about education. But, as always, she had adapted to the new situation quickly and distributed the more committed ones into teams. The rest were just hanging out wherever there was space, threatening to burst the park's people-holding capacity.
It was interesting, she thought, that they would do anything to break the routine. Offer them a legitimate excuse to skip school? They'd jump at it like wolves to a sheep. She wasn't complaining, because it made them easy to manipulate. Maybe they were the real sheep.
"I really think we can do this," Rachel stated, emotion making her voice tremble. "I have my brother, you know. I want him to actually have the chance to a decent future."
Chris grabbed her shoulders and looked her straight in the eye. "We'll make sure he will. This is only the start." Rachel pursed her lips and nodded before going back to work.
And then there was Lé, floating above their heads, observing with a detached curiosity. He had given up his blonde hair to revert to his normal, dark-skinned appearance. He hadn't tried to kill her in thirty hours – probably because her order prevented it – yet she couldn't help the uneasiness that knotted in her stomach. She felt he had his own hidden agenda. Which she didn't like at all.
Her phone rang, and she brought it to her ear with excited anticipation. She listened to the buzzing for a moment before nodding to herself. "Yeah. Everything's ready on our end. We'll be there in about-" she ran her eyes over the crowd again, "half an hour. Be ready, because there's more than we expected." She hung up.
Rachel raised her eyebrows. "Was it them?"
"Yeah." She motioned for Geoff and the guys to start picking up the banners and the leaflets and the signs, and grabbed the speaker. "Alright," she started, addressing the crowd. Some of them perked their heads up to look at her. "We're heading down to Undhog and meeting with them there. I heard they have quite the crowd, too." A few half-assed cheers. "Listen, I know that you'd rather be at home scratching your navel," more heads perked up, "And, to be honest, I'm starting to feel the cold as well. But think of your little brother. Think of your little sister. Do you want them to learn – if it can be called learning – under the same shitty conditions as we've been doing? Do you want them to have their future screwed up because they couldn't pay for the Secondary School diploma?" Silence. Not everyone had siblings, but there was always a moment in their lives when they'd met an innocent, cheerful kid, and that was enough. "I don't. I'm making sure that, when I graduate, I'm leaving behind a better place than when I arrived. For them." Of course, Chris didn't have siblings, but nobody took note of that. This time, the cheers were more enthusiastic. Some of them even got up and clapped. Rachel beamed up at her.
She smiled, but inside she was sighing in disappointment. Sheep. She met Lé's eyes and he gave her a charming grin, which only served to put her senses on further alert.
Chris spotted the TV vans ahead and urgently turned to the side. "We want a future," she shouted to Rachel. Her friend passed the message along and soon the whole front line was screaming out the words like a mantra. "We want a future! We want a future! We want a future!" The people behind were quick to join in. By the time they passed in front of the cameras, the whole column, in its splendid three kilometres of length, was shouting at the top of their lungs and waving flags around.
So far the march had been good – a bit slow, because there were so many people – but with hardly any trouble from the cops. They stood to the side, stone-faced behind their helmets, and they just cut off the traffic quietly and let them pass. If anything, she missed a bit of conflict. She wanted to make this a sensation.
They arrived to the CBD plaza at dusk. By then they had picked up some passerbys on the way (Don't just stand there! Come join us!) which had made the column lengthen out even more. Now they stood in front of the, big, white Sergine Building, the Federal Party's headquarters, chanting their mantra, shouting insults, and pumping fists of fury in the air. The cops had formed a belt around it, but there had been no confrontation – which angered her. She'd thought that a throng of angry young people would be more violent than this.
One hour later, nothing had changed, save that now there was a news helicopter filming them. No fat politician had come out of the building or even bothered to appear at the huge screens on its walls to make their classic announcement of "shut up and go home, kids." If that had happened, she had no doubt that they would get into a row with the police, but as things were the column was threatening to disperse. Chris frowned. It wouldn't make the front page in tomorrow's newspaper.
"Lé," she whispered to the tall guy walking next to her, "blow up that rubbish container." His expression didn't change, but the container suddenly exploded outwards, making the cops beside it jump back in surprise to avoid the burning trash. She eyed the Genie meaningfully and another three containers exploded a couple of dozen meters behind them.
"It appears," she heard the pretty reporter on the sidelines, "that they have started lighting the containers on fire…"
That was when the threats from the cops started, and it all went downhill. Chris smiled in satisfaction as she watched a group of delinquents insulting the poor public servants, and a few more taking the initiative to start blowing up trash themselves. They had, after all, been waiting for a long time, and a lot of them were starting to get frustrated. "Give me an egg," she instructed Lé. Rolling his eyes, the Genie summoned just a normal, kitchen egg to her hands, and she threw it over the security belt. For a moment which seemed to stretch into minutes the egg sailed through the air like a perfect round stone… To smash ungracefully on the immaculately clean windows of the Sergine Building.
The cops charged.
The crowd dispersed into the streets radiating from the plaza, leaving behind complete chaos. Some of them tried to fight back but were overwhelmed by the pressure hoses. Others just ran in circles, like chickens without heads. Her phone rang again.
"We can't get out," Rachel's voice screamed urgently in her ear. "They've set up a perimeter." Chris glanced up and saw that indeed, the way was blocked by two vans and an unmovable line of officers, stretching all across the road. She assumed every street radiating off the Plaza was the same. Heh. No wonder the cops had been so passive. No wonder the crowd was starting to panic. They hadn't signed up for this.
"I'm charging through on the road to Upper," she shouted back. "Direct the people my way." She hung up, before adding to Lé, "Blow them back."
He glanced down at her briefly, his thoughts veiled, before a huge shockwave sent the line of cops flying back – one of the vans even turned on its side – and the crowd ran them over like a herd of bulls. Finally free, the panic seemed to subside, and some of the fleeing students actually started drawing graffiti on walls and laughing and vandalising everything as the sky darkened.
Chris was jogging along, enjoying the exhilarating feeling of taking part in something this big, when she noticed that Lé had disappeared from her side, and broke out in cold sweat as she remembered that look in his eyes.
She glanced around. Somehow, being completely alone with all this violence taking place around her didn't feel that good anymore. And night had started to fall, and the streetlights' shifty shadows made everything seem more chaotic and frightening than it had been before. She looked around for faces she knew but found none… She spotted Geoff's back, pressing forwards like a professional sprinter. Chris was about to catch up to him when strong fingers grabbed her wrist in an iron grip, yanking her back. She screamed, but the sound was lost in the sea of other screams coming from all directions.
"We need to have a little talk," a voice said behind her, as its owner dragged her to the side of the street. The man had turned his head and it was too dark to see anything, except that it wasn't a cop. Her heart constricted in fear. She dug her heels in but he effortlessly pulled her into a narrow alleyway, and dragged her so far into it that the noises from the protest slowly died down until she couldn't hear anything. "Let me go, dumbass!" She stumbled behind him, trying to pry his fingers off her arm desperately, but he was too strong. So she kicked him hard in the back of the knee, hoping he would fall over.
But he only turned around and pushed her aggressively against the wall. Finally she caught a glimpse of his face – and the spine-chilling blue eyes staring down at her.
"E-" she started to say, but his hand covered her mouth. Frowning, she pulled down on it with both arms. "What's your deal?"
His eyes stared right into hers for a frightening moment, before the deadly ice in them melted away like caramel. "Chris," he said, taking a step back. "Just making sure no one saw us."
Her frown deepened when she noticed the knife spinning nervously around his fingers. "Why? What do we have to talk about?" Then she realised something: "You're still in conditional, aren't you? Did you sneak out?"
"Yeah." He closed his eyes, his breathing fast and shallow. "I did. Fuck. I nearly got caught, too. They'll know I was here."
Chris remained silent, waiting for him to calm himself, and taking the opportunity to slow down her own racing heart in the process. Out here, in the silence, in the dark, what she had just lived through seemed like a dream. She took a couple of deep breaths, adrenalin still pumping in her veins. The CBD, the police… she pushed them to the back of her mind.
"You scared me."
"Sorry. It was urgent." His voice seemed strained.
Eric wouldn't risk extending his stay in that retention centre just because he wanted to get some fresh air. Okay, yes, he would. But he wouldn't be here, in the middle of this huge event, looking visibly anxious, if he had a choice. Finally she lost her patience. "Are you going to tell me what's wrong or do I go back out there?"
His eyes slid to the corner, refusing to meet hers. The knife spun faster and faster around his fingers.
"Eric." Now she was starting to worry. She searched his gaze and when she found it, she was surprised to see shadows there. Of fear. Fear? Eric? "Eric?"
"Alright. Listen." The knife stopped spinning, and he put it back in his pocket. "Do you know any tall Black gangster dudes?"
"You mean, aside from yours?"
He sighed, running a hand through his brown hair, and sat down on a cardboard box lying around. Good. He seemed to have calmed down. "Yes. Aside from mine."
"Well," he said, getting something out from the multiple pockets of his coat, "one of them gave me this. Yesterday." He chucked her a packet of bills so heavy she nearly dropped it.
Chris ruffled through it thoughtfully. "Why didn't you tell me yesterday then?"
"You were busy, and I had shit to organise." He got out a cigarette and lit it, the small flame casting his face in darker shadows. "But I didn't think you'd actually come to this thing. I thought it was a farce. It's not your style."
"Yeah, well." It was true; it wasn't her style. She was more the type to set up the events and then leave others in charge of them. In truth, she'd been surprised herself at her decision of taking part in it – but then, how could she refuse, when the guys from Undhog had practically begged her to, and she knew that her name would show up in the papers sooner or later? She kept ruffling through the bills, eyes widening when she realised just how much money it amounted to. Holy shit. Whoever had given this to Eric was dead serious. "And?"
"He said he'd give me double if I threw you out a window." Their gazes locked for a few tense seconds, in which none of them moved. The cigarette's end lit up as he took in a big mouthful.
Then Chris burst out laughing. He frowned, annoyed, the ghost of fear returning for a second. "Hey, he was fucking serious. Imagine he tried to bribe anybody other than me. You'd be dead." She heard the shakiness in his voice, the genuine concern, but she couldn't stop laughing. "And we don't know he hasn't, dammit! Chris!" As she still didn't calm down, he got up and grabbed her by the collar. "They want to kill you, girl! Get that into your head!"
She stopped, because his eyes were going a bit crazy. "I'm alright, Eric. It wouldn't be the first time."
He stared at her silently for a second before letting her go, realisation dawning upon his face. He went back to sit where he was before, took another long gulp, and faced her again. "You know who it was."
"Yeah. Lé," she called.
He didn't come, so she gave a mental yank on the chains binding him. Lé. He appeared at her side in an instant, hands in his pockets, and surveyed the scene with dark eyes. In a blink he took in Eric sitting on the box and the bills in her hands, but, admirably, there was no change in his expression.
"What do you mean, Lé?" asked Eric.
Chris waved it away with one hand, but she was still cracking up inside. "What exactly happened?"
"Dude asked if I knew you. Said I didn't. Gave me money. Said I did. Asked me to kill you. Said I would. I was leading him on, trying to find out more about who he was." Lé's eyes flickered, but his face remained as bored as ever. "Tried to follow him when he left, but he disappeared. Right after, I called up the guys and told them to watch out for him, take him out if they saw him, or anyone else asking about you. I figured you'd be safe if you stayed Upper side. Didn't think you'd come down here," he repeated.
The rest was implied. He'd gotten wind that she was actually at the front of the march and he'd broken out of the retention centre to warn her. Chris's features softened, and she took a step forwards. "Thank you. I… I owe you one."
They looked at each other for a second, and the silence stretched, drowning any noise save for the beating of her own heart. "You owe me many."
She smiled. "True."
"Anyway," he said a bit shakily, standing up, "I gotta go back, before they do a full check up and notice it's me who took out the guards, if they haven't already."
"Hey, Eric." He turned around. "Thank you."
"No prob. Be careful."
"You too." He disappeared in the darkness of the alley.
She turned back to Lé, who was still standing there impassively, and put her hands on her hips with a chuckle. "Didn't turn out as you expected it would, did it?"
His eyes were darker than the night sky. At first it was only that. But as she stared deeper in them she realised that there was an immense, inhuman fury there, and it filled her with satisfaction. It was good seeing your worst enemy's plans fail. He was probably feeling very frustrated and humiliated in this moment, but he hid it well; when he spoke, his voice was light and uncaring. "Things won't always be in your favour, you know."
She smiled. "Next time you want a potential murderer, don't look in Upper side. Anyone who's strong enough to hurt me there wouldn't betray me if their mother's life was on the line."
With a dramatic flip of her hair she headed back to the main street.