It was twenty minutes before last bell by the time Ebie made it to the corridor that connected her district with the 942. The emergency lock was a dusty box that forced her to swipe her card three times before the walls moved and revealed an unfamiliar hallway.
The guy, Kim, was sitting on his haunches, leaning against the wall a few steps away. He rose awkwardly and Ebie braced herself. From the moment the fluff found her at lunch with a “message” from 942 she’d been prepared for disaster.
“Talk,” Ebie said, as the walls slid together behind her.
Kim met her eyes with obvious effort. “I can’t help you anymore,” he said. “I’m sorry.”
Of course. “Why is that?”
“I… I can’t take the risk anymore,” he said, chewing on his lower lip. “Everything’s different.”
Ebie resisted the urge to roll her eyes. “So, Sol wasn’t a problem but Arai is? Or are you scared of the kid?”
“It’s not like that!” Kim said, suddenly angry. “Everything is falling apart, and I’m not like you, I don’t know how to do this. How to make everything… work.”
Ebie felt her fists clench. “Quiet.” If anyone saw her here… she had to deal with this quickly and get out.
“Why do you need me anyway?” Kim said, voice lower. “You have your Key privileges and your Key friends.”
Because some secrets required sacrifice. Because Vrei couldn’t keep her district in line. Because Len’s life mattered more than anything.
“That’s not important.” She grabbed Kim by the arm, fingers digging into his uniform, and dragged him through the nearest door into an empty classroom. “How did you even manage to be a problem for Sol?” She had to stall until she found something, some kind of leverage to make him change his mind. “How are you here, crying to me, instead of doing something? Go tell Arai to get another job. Become Bo’s new best friend or whatever.”
Kim rolled his eyes. She’d clearly chosen the wrong tactic.
“You think it’s that easy?” he said. “Sol was a useless piece of—”
Definitely the wrong tactic; she couldn’t do this right now. “Whatever she was, trust me my mentor was worse,” Ebie interrupted. “And I wasn’t born knowing how to do this, I learned. You know who else needs to learn? Your new Key.”
The meaning of the words didn’t hit her fully until she’d said them.
“You know what happens on Transfer Day?” Ebie went on. “He’ll give up everything, including your laundry rations.” It wasn’t strictly a lie.
There was a sharp intake of breath. Now she had his attention. Good.
She took a step forward, forcing Kim to step back, pressing him up against a workstation. “I could go easy on him. Make sure he doesn’t screw up too much.”
Kim’s eyes were on the ceiling. “I can’t.” He sounded conflicted.
She had to push harder.
“It’s one boy for one day,” Ebie said, infusing as much confidence into the words as she could. “942 has the biggest territory, it won’t even be that hard.”
Kim shook his head. “You don’t know what things are like.”
They were running out of time. If Len were here he’d know what to say. He was always better at figuring out what people needed to hear.
Ebie gave Kim a light shove. If he hadn’t been backed up against a workstation it wouldn’t have mattered, but his feet were stuck and the push nearly knocked him off balance. He looked up at her, startled.
“You do it or the kid doesn’t get my help.”
For a moment Kim was silent, but then he closed his eyes and nodded and Ebie took a step back, air rushing back into her lungs.
This was going to work. She was going to keep it together. She’d managed to prevent a disaster for now.
“Go.” There were only a few minutes until last bell and if he got stuck at the Compound it would only mean more attention. “And don’t waste my time like this again,” she said, as he pushed past her towards the door.
She stayed still, listening, until the sound of his footsteps faded.
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