Pushing and pulling against my very mysterious nature was tiring. It yanked on my bones, stretching the fibers of my resistance until I killed again. Burning the fragile ends until they were weak and thin, brittle and breakable.
"Tally, you need to eat," Era's exhausted voice prompted me. I stared down at the food – the fuel. Without it, I couldn't kill. Unwilling, I shook my head.
"No," I said. "I can't." The large plate of corn chips with shreds of chicken, melted cheese, and lettuce were probably tasty….but I couldn't. They even had made me a healthy dessert – plain, sour yogurt with raisins dotting the top. 400 calories. More than enough for my muscles to seize and use to decimate someone else, stop another heart's frantic beating.
Era snarled at me. "Why not?"
"It helps the killing. I won't do it again," My voice was firm, jaw hardened. My resolve against eating was crumbling, though. It was passable. The urge was gnawing at my organs.
"Please, Tally." Indale said, worry making a crease between her eyebrows. I took a bite. The fork felt like lead. If only they knew that they were dragging me to an edge that I was willing to cross. Willing to jump…..or, at least, the killing part was.
I polished off the plate of food quickly. Guilt swam over me, encircling my extended, full stomach and taunting me. Teasingly, the killing part of me was growing, feeding itself on the strength. I clenched my fists, shoving the plate of food far away from me.
"I'm going running," I announced through expertly clenched teeth. My two friends paused, considering.
"No," Era said. "I don't think that's a good idea. You'll burn your calories off too fast." The rational, girly part of me noted the protectiveness settled in his blue eyes. He cared about my safety. Warmness exploded in my chest.
But if I ran... I quenched the blood thirst. "That's the idea."
Indale sighed, crossing her thin arms over her chest. The material of her shirt strained against her ample chest. She was the toast of all the male Unders. Jealousy ached in my legs. I needed to run. "Be reasonable," she bargained.
I stood up, grimacing at the empty plate of food before me. "No, I'm going."
"Then I'm going with you."
"Era, no," I said, already by my bed, digging to find my running clothes. Era's hand gripped my wrist. I couldn't move, I knew. He was strong. Stronger than me.
"Yes. You need to stay here," he urged. A hint of an unknown emotion – worry? Concern? – played in his flexed fingers. I shook his grip off when he loosened it. Irate and retreating to the bathroom, I slammed the door and changed. I drew my dark hair into an awaiting band and laced my running shoes up. When I exited, Era was dressed in his own running outfit.
I glared at him. "You're not coming with me."
Era laughed bitterly. "Oh, yes, I am. If you're so sure-fire about this, then I'm coming."
"I'll probably kill," I reminded him. He let out a breath in response. I knew he didn't like to see me when the killing took over – when my more primal instincts rendered me a flawless murderer. He was silent, though. "Fine. You can come."
He looked pleased, but still worried. "Good."
We ran a mile before he spoke to me. We were jogging on the sidewalk of the Under highways, watching the traffic speed by above us.
"So what's your magic plan for getting me safe?" I asked warily. Surely they didn't think to stay in Under – the bounty hunters lived on the outskirts and would be nearing us in two days or less. The Searchers were unable to locate me until my position was recorded on a 'standard-issue' Floater. Which may not be long, I noted as a few wondering looks began to fall on us from above.
"The Outside," Era said between steps.
I froze. "You're not serious." Era stopped to face me. He was tensed. Expecting a fight.
We'd all heard the stories of the Outside – the thousands of miles, millions of miles isolated from the City and civilization. We'd have to make an unparalleled journey through all three layers to escape from the Top. Or, that is, descend into the nearly-forgotten Under-paths. But that wasn't a good option, a viable one. That's where the Gyps were. Dangerous rogues who never accepted the authority of the City.
"Completely serious," breathed Era. His eyes sparkled.
I shifted from foot to foot. "When?"
"The morning. Listen, you have to do this. You know you're not safe."
"But what about the Pairs?" I asked warily.
The Pair was a rule made about the exit into the Outside. In order to keep a relatively stable population, everyone who left the City had to be in Pairs. Basically….married.
A blush heated Era's cheeks. "Indale's staying back," he murmured.
My eyes widened. "Era!"
His timeless eyes apologized, pleading. Killing was farthest from my mind, the itching feeling in my insides easy to ignore. "You know this is the only option," Era spoke.
I stood tall, not that it made a difference. I was still very much shorter than the man before me. "I won't take away your citizenship. It isn't your fault that I'm a freak, a murd—"
"You're not a murderer, Talya," he insisted. He looked infuriatingly excited, anticipating our escape.
I rolled my eyes. "I'm your best friend, Era. Not your Paired."
He looked momentously hurt. "That could change."
"Not this way, if at all," I said, crossing my arms. "It's not right."
"If we stay, we're dead in the water." Era reminded me. It was true.
Suddenly, an idea pricked in my mind. "We could live in the Under paths."
The look of absolute repulsion that crossed Era's features was to be expected. After all, I had just rejected his ridiculous plan of becoming his Paired. Sure, most of our friends had done either that or married up into the Tops. A few strayed to be middle-class Insides, content with meager lifestyles. I wasn't, though. It was impossible not for me to have to move, with the lives that had fallen at my hand. One thing was always certain.
I'd always be running from myself.