Three Keys in the Desert (part 19 of 26)

2 Days Until Transfer Day

Kim was lying in bed, back pressed against the wall. Tyen’s fingers brushed lazily against his hair. There was something comforting about the lack of space, Tyen’s arms too tight around him, the room a little too hot. It forced Kim out of his head.

They’d have to get up soon.

Kim wasn’t looking at the door until he registered the quiet. The sliver of hallway visible through the half-open door looked frozen. Two boys in the middle of an argument were staring at something. A girl stood still with a towel half wrapped around her head.

Then Kim heard the sound of steps, echoing against the stone floors. A few people, walking together.

He felt Tyen tense against him.

People were moving out of the way, letting someone pass. The steps came closer and closer, until finally the door opened fully, revealing… Bo.

Dressed in the kind of brand new uniform Sol used to wear. Clean, his hair pulled back from his face. Only the puffiness of his eyes reminded Kim of the boy at number 8.

Arai stood behind him, next to two elders. Kim wondered what she’d promised them to drag them all the way out to this neighborhood.

Arai spoke first. “The Key wants to talk to you,” she locked eyes with Kim. “Alone.”

This was going to turn into a mess. No way to avoid it. Kim hadn’t told his friends about asking to see Bo again, didn’t tell them what state Bo was in. It hadn’t seemed important. If Bo summoned him, there would be hope. Otherwise, they were stuck with Arai.

But now he needed everyone to get out, no questions, no arguments. This opportunity was precious, and Arai would use any excuse to make Bo leave. A few months ago Kim had watched her laugh while two elders described tying a boy’s ankles to his bed every night. It was a miracle Bo was here at all.

Kim climbed out of his bed, trying not to wince at Tyen’s worried look. Dej was in the shower, which was good. He looked over the room. Three of his roommates looked back, all frozen in the process of getting dressed.

Kim turned to face Arai. “Yeah,” he said. “Of course.”

It had probably been Arai’s idea to come here so early, instead of letting Bo talk to Kim at the Compound, like a person. While Kim’s friends grabbed whatever they needed and walked out, giving Kim stares that ranged from annoyed to excited, Kim pulled on a pair of clean underwear and his nicer uniform pants.

Tyen was the last to leave. He looked from Bo to Arai to Kim as he pulled on his boots, not saying anything. Nothing bad could happen, Kim reminded himself. Arai had dragged two elders here, but that was nothing compared to how many people in this building were on Kim’s side.

Tyen gave Kim’s hair a quick kiss before walking out. Kim hoped he’d find Dej before she could barge in.

After everyone was gone Bo stepped inside the room, followed by Arai. Kim should have known she wouldn’t let them talk alone.

“I want to offer you a… a deal,” Bo said, as Arai closed the door. “You get what you want, I get what I want, everybody…” he took a deep breath, “everybody wins.”

That definitely sounded like an Arai plan. “What do you think I want?” Kim said.

“I don’t know,” Bo shook his head. A few delicate strands of hair fell down his neck. “Anything. Whatever you say. Double mattress, a new room, extra food rations.”

“Right,” Kim said. “So, I help you, me and my friends get whatever we want, and she stays in charge?” He didn’t look at Arai.

“Yeah,” Bo said, looking relieved.

“No deal,” Kim said. “She’s not a Key, Sol picked her.” And Kim would stab himself before he let Arai keep running things Sol’s way. Nothing was worth that. “It’s me or her, Bo.”

Arai pushed away from the stretch of wall she’d been leaning against and took a step closer to Kim. “You can’t be his First,” she said, in a tone that a week ago would have made Kim shiver. “You know even less about this job than he does.”

“Me or her,” Kim said, not taking his eyes off Bo.

“You’ll get all the perks,” Arai said. “You don’t want the responsibility, trust me. This place is falling apart.”

“I know!” Kim looked at her despite himself. “I’m glad you noticed.”

Arai shook her head and took another step in Kim’s direction.

Kim wasn’t afraid. Not here. Arai couldn’t drag him away from this building, not anymore. His heart was pounding, but he’d spent too many years making sure not to look her directly in the eyes to look away now. He couldn’t see what Bo was doing, and in that moment he didn’t care.

“A Key died, you piece of shit.” Arai’s voice was quiet, and when she moved Kim couldn’t help a flinch. Before he could draw air into his lungs again he realized she’d taken a step back.

“I’ll be outside,” she said, before opening the door and then slamming it shut.

“Please,” Bo said. “I need you.”

It was too much. Kim couldn’t focus. The right words were on the tip of his tongue but the drumming in his chest made concentration impossible. “I won’t help you keep everything the same,” Kim said, finally.

Bo nodded. “We’ll change things.”

“With her?” Kim said.

Bo’s face looked like it was about to crumble. “I can’t do this without her.”

It made Kim remember the boy curled up on a bed, waiting to die.

“I can’t,” Bo said. He looked like he wanted to say something else but his mouth wouldn’t form the words.

Kim rubbed his hands over his face. Every part of him screamed that Arai would keep things running Sol’s way. In three days they’d get new kids from the Palace and Arai would make sure they knew their place. Except with Sol gone, the new elders wouldn’t listen to Arai. Sol didn’t restrain them much, but it was something.

Kim could feel Bo’s eyes on him, but he didn’t want to look up. He wasn’t ready. He couldn’t handle Arai and Tyen and keeping his grades up and trying to keep the district functional and doing favors for foreign Keys. He just couldn’t.

But the alternative… Everything was chaos right now, but when things settled, after Transfer Day, it could get worse. Much worse. Especially for people like Tyen.

Kim gave himself one last deep breath before deciding.

“Housing stuff,” he said, finally. “Can I be in charge of that, instead of Arai?”

“Yeah,” Bo said, wiping at his eyes.

“And Compound attendance?” If Kim was in charge of the records—however that worked—he’d have leverage with the new elders.

“Anything,” Bo said. “Just, please, I want…” he trailed off again, eyes on the door handle.

“Tell me,” Kim said. If this was going to work he needed Bo to trust him. To like him. If Arai kept being his crutch Kim would be back where he’d started in a month. “What do you want?”

“A life.” Bo sounded hoarse. “After.”

Of course. The one thing Kim could offer. The real reason Bo was here.

Kim took a step closer to Bo, until they were centimeters apart. “You’ll get that. I promise.”

Bo closed the distance between them and wrapped his arms around Kim’s body. His cheeks were wet against the skin of Kim’s collarbone.

He was so young. Kim wasn’t ready, but this boy… how did they pick him? Why?

“Thank you,” Bo whispered.

 

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