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Equinox

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Mina squinted under the bright sky, the mid afternoon sun still high and beaming down on Stohess District. It was an unseasonably humid day and she could feel the sheen of sweat collecting around her forehead, back of her neck damp. She pursed her lips, hoping the large straw sunhat would offer enough protection to shield her powdered face from sweating off under the sun. It had been a few weeks since her last visit above ground and she was finding it hard to adjust her eyes to the brilliant blue sky. The town was busy, families out to enjoy the beautiful weather, bustling through the market place, bright smiles and cheery faces.

 

Mina walked slowly, keeping her pace even and casual with those wandering around her. She made sure to look up occasionally, as if taking in the sights and sounds of the day, always angling her face away from those close by, so as to avoid any lingering stares over the identifiable marks on her face that could only be covered from a distance, only muted under the cheap face powder. She looked to her right, quickly catching the eyes of Niklas, dressed in slacks, a light shirt and a waistcoat, a hat pulled down low, a charming smile as he conversed with a man at the market stall. It didn’t matter to him if he got too close as unlike her, he was just another unremarkable face in an unremarkable crowd. As if feeling her gaze, he looked up quickly, eyes catching hers before glancing to the man she had been tailing. He gave her a quick nod, a confirmation that she had found her target, before turning back to the man at the market, the silent exchange between them so subtle and quick no one would have noticed a thing out of sorts. Mina turned to face ahead, eyes locked on the man she had been following for the past twenty minutes; sure enough, he was the same man Niklas had clocked an hour earlier. His nod had confirmed it. Her eyes narrowed in on his right hand tucked into the pocket of his slacks.

 

She counted the seconds as she stepped in time with him. He pulled his hand out again, the gold pocket watch clutched in his palm, rising it up to his face before returning it back into his pocket. Every thirty seconds or so he had been doing this movement, Mina guessed he was in a hurry and anxiously checking the time.

 

Good. She thought. His attention will already be muted…his thoughts elsewhere. Distracted.

 

Mina picked up her pace, just slightly, listening to the sound of her worn boots hitting the cobbled streets, the chatter in the air, bellowing laughter. She had a small window of time to grab the watch, knowing she needed to obtain it not more than a few seconds after he had returned it to his pocket. This would allow her the time to get herself well out of sight, before the thirty seconds were up and he reached down to check it again. Her focus grew more intent, not lettering her eyes off of him. She could only see the back of his head; the slight greying hair brushed back neatly, the slope of his shoulders underneath the spotless jacket. She wondered what it would mean to him, to lose his pocket watch. She eyed the jacket again, the spotless shoes, the briskness of his walk.

 

He has money. She affirmed to herself. This will be a mere inconvenience to him. He doesn’t need it to survive. You do.

 

She watched as his head turned. While he walked, he had either been looking ahead or inkling his head to the left every so often. She guessed his was looking for a turning, unfamiliar with this part of town and trying to escape the market centre to make his way back on route to his destination. She knew her window of time had narrowed considerably, she needed him in the market, busy, bustling, where she could slip in and out unnoticed. She picked up her pace again, advancing on him quickly until she was only a few footsteps behind, syncing up with him to the exact beat. She watched as he reached into his pocket, grabbed the watch, lifting it into his vision, sighing irritably, before returning it back.

 

Now.

 

Two bigger steps, matching his stride, before she veered slightly to the left, using her shoulder to bump into his right side. Her form was steady but she feigned a stumble, catching onto his arm as his footing tripped with her.

“I am so terribly sorry!” She exclaimed, pulling herself up, right hand on his left forearm, left hand moving quickly. “I am in such a rush and I didn’t see…a bunch of children just came charging into me out of nowhere, nearly knocked me off my feet! I am so sorry!” She gushed, pitching up her voice, making it shake with sincerity as her left hand worked its way into his pocket, slim fingers moving deftly, just the fingertips pinching the chain of the watch, pulling it out swiftly and cradling it into the palm of her hand, the undetectable movement over in mere seconds.

He shook his head at her, still straightening up as she pretended to balance herself on her feet, moving her left hand to rub her leg through the light pink dress she wore, slipping the watch into a hidden pocket at her side.

 

“It’s quite alright.” He grumbled as she moved off of him, giving him some space as she straightened out, brushing his hand across the front of his jacket awkwardly.

“I’m very sorry sir, I hope I didn’t hurt you.”

“No, no…of course not.”

 

She flashed a quick smile, not letting him see the expanse of her face, a small nod of sincerity before she turned on her heel quickly, moving to her right, slipping into the crowd, working her way through streams of people, out of sight in mere seconds. She pushed through the market center, now knowing she had to get out of the busy streets and into the side roads and alleyways. She turned her head minutely to catch Niklas’s eye again, still at the same street vendor, waiting for her signal. She gave a small nod, just the subtlest jerk of her chin and he flashed her a smile. She fidgeted with the high neck collar of her dress, feeling the sweat pooling underneath the scratchy material, moving faster out of the direct sun, turning sharply to her left, a precise switch of her foot to disappear down one of the many alleyways she had memorized. She took of her sunhat once sheltered form the crowd, feeling her thick hair plastered to her face and cranking her neck irritably at the sensation. She palmed the pocket watch quickly, taking another left, hiking her foot up onto a drain to pull herself up, quickly, onto a low roof, shimmying across on her stomach to cross the wall, dropping to the other side almost silently in front of Niklas, who stopped with a start.

 

“Damn it!” He cursed, shaking his head, running his hand through his own sticky hair. “I hate when you do that.”

“Let’s go.” She muttered, taking the lead down the alleyway and out onto another open street, wincing as the sun once again found them in the open. He fell into stride beside her, taking her arm in the crook of his, their walk synchronizing into a casual stroll. He kept a grin on his face.

“You get it?” He asked.

She glanced up at him, expressionless.

“Right, sorry.”

Mina always did what was required of her. She wouldn’t have left until she had done so.

 

He sniffed, pulling her closer, eyes darting around. Mina watched as he looked every few seconds, turning his head back, tilting it to the left, then to the right, as if agitated. She sucked her teeth.

“You were by that vendor an awfully long time.”

He let out a breathy laugh. “Yah, the old man didn’t see a thing. I probably swiped half of his morning’s takings while he prattled on about apples.”

Mina’s eyebrows furrowed ever so slightly.

“Relax. He had a good set up, looked light on his feet. Nice gold chain round his neck too, if only I could have gotten closer to that. It won’t do him any significant damage in the long run.”

“Mmm.” She glanced at him again out of the corner of her eye as he cranked his head again, peering behind them, to the left, to the right. She then looked at the hat in his left hand. “Niklas. You took that hat off after you let the square…right?”

He gave an evasive hum.

She pursed her lips, feeling the anxious energy prickling on his skin, heavy in the air, in the way his fingers were pressing into her shoulder.

“How many?”

He was quiet for a few seconds.

“Huh?”

“Niklas. How many people saw you?”

“Jeez…you really do know me too well.” He laughed without humour.

“Niklas.” Her tone was sharp.

“Okay, okay…not the market seller, I was done with him….just some middle aged guy and his wife…I swiped some coins and failed to see the fucking five inch kid at his feet.”

“Niklas.” She exhaled, face hardening in anger.

 

He’s getting too reckless. This is not how we survive.

 

“Mina, calm down okay. I had my hat off yes, I was sweating like a pig okay and this stupid fucking outfit…look the kid saw me, as soon as he did, I was off. I doubt the father turned round quick enough to see my face okay… I was gone.”

Mina pursed her lips as he continued to grin, keeping up an appearance for any passers-by. He rubbed her shoulder.

“You don’t believe me?”

“Not when you’re breaking your neck to look around every five seconds.”

 

Their stride hadn’t faltered throughout as they cut across a busy street. Mina rearranged her features, softening them slightly, tucking her head down so that the right side of her face was hidden under her hair. They continued to walk in silence, too crowded to talk. Niklas tugged her to the left as she went to carry on down the road, to cross the bridge out of town.

“He’s parked back here.” He muttered.

 

Out of the busy street once more, down a back road, the cobbled street narrow, buildings slimmer and higher, blocking out the sunlight so that the air was tinged with a blue filter. Down the alleyway, they took a sharp turn to the right, to see the carriage waiting for them. Mina patted the horse’s head absentmindedly as she approached, receiving a snort in return before she climbed into the waiting carriage without a word. Niklas followed, leaning over Mina to pull the curtains to her right tightly closed. They settled. To Mina’s left, past Niklas, the curtain opened and Niklas smiled, nodding his head towards the familiar MP that stood on the other side.

Mina didn’t look in his direction, not needing to in order to know he probably wore the same smug smirk he always did, shirt pressed, uniform jacket pulled proudly around him, copper hair slicked back.

“Whatcha got for me?” He asked, his voice nasally.

 

Mina knew she had disliked Peter when they first met, as soon as he had first opened his mouth.

 

“A good haul my friend.” Niklas replied, pulling out the cloth satchels he stored in the pockets in the inside of his waistcoat, the smaller one stuffed up his sleeves. He jingled them in front of Peter’s face. “Not just coins. Snagged some jewellery too. A lot of wives seemed to be shopping their selves silly today, and lucky for us, dressed to the nines.”

 

Peter grinned, a slimy smirk as he took the bags, stuffing them, into the various pockets and crevices of his uniform.

He nodded towards Mina expectantly. “Your sister?”

Niklas grinned. “She got the real good stuff.”

 

Mina didn’t bother to turn to look at either of them, fishing her hand inside of her pocket to retrieve the watch. She placed it into Niklas’s open palm, eyes trained forward, staring at the soft tassel of the curtain in front of her instead. Niklas passed it to Peter, whose eyes widened slightly, letting out a low whistle.

“Once again…you never let me down little Mina.”

 

Mina could imagine the self satisfied smirk on his face, the lilt of his voice making her grimace inwardly.

“That’s my Mina.” Niklas said.

Mina stayed quiet.

 

Peter tutted as she made no move to acknowledge either of them, seemingly transfixed with the space in front of her. “She could do with learning some more manners. I know they don’t teach you shit down there except how to act like animals.” He scowled in her direction, pocketing the watch.

Niklas forced a toothy smile, strained. “You know how she is by now. Don’t take it personally. She’s just not as sociable as me.” His voice as charming as ever.

Peter didn’t look convinced, eyeing her up in dissatisfaction.

“She gets the job done though. That’s the most important thing.” Niklas affirmed.

 

Peter let out a low chuckle “Of course.” He nodded at Niklas. “I’ll be counting this up and tallying the worth. You’ll get your payment in a few days’ time.”

 

If Mina was forced to find any redeeming qualities in Peter, it was that he never shirked on their share of the money. Sure she was forced into this position and their cut of takings was only 10%, but he was always good on his word.

 

“Once again, it’s been our pleasure.” Niklas grinned again, tilting his head towards Peter.

Peter snorted, throwing another scowl at Mina before pulling the curtain shut. Mina heard him call forward the carriage driver, who had been waiting out of sight, sure enough bribed with a nice pocketful of change to pretend he hadn’t seen or heard a thing. It was quiet as they set off, Mina working to unbutton her dress as she listened to the gentle pattering of the hooves, fingers fumbling as she bounced with every divot and dip in the cobbled street. She pulled on large slacks and a shirt, grateful for the loose, breathable material that covered and hid her body. Niklas adverted his eyes, waiting until Mina was finished.

 

“You done?” He asked.

She hummed in response.

He looked at her as she pulled the collar of her shirt up, hiding her neck, moving her hair forward to fall over her face.

“You did well today Mina, that watch…that will keep us comfortable for a good few weeks at least.” She nodded. “You know….Peter is pretty good to us…as good as anyone can be in this shitty place. It wouldn’t hurt you to not piss him off every time we do this. We need him on our side.”

 

“I didn’t say anything.” She muttered, not looking at Niklas’s narrowed eyes.

 

He sighed. “That’s precisely the problem.”

 

It was quiet for a few moments again.

 

“You’re getting reckless.” Mina murmured.

“What?” He asked, almost incredulous as he turned to her again.

She was quiet for a few moments again, before shifting her head slightly to look at him. “Ever since we started working above ground…little by little…you’re getting sloppy….over confident…you need to be careful.”

He frowned at her. “You’re talking bull...i know what the fuck I’m doing Mina…I’ve been doing this for longer than you.”

She shrugged. “Like you said…we’ve got a good thing here…you don’t want to have it all blow up in our faces because you suddenly think you’re invincible.”

“Don’t start up on your high horse again Mina, I don’t need you talking like my fucking mother. I know what I’m doing. You think you could do all this without me?”

Mina stared at him, unreadable as she took in his angry features. “Maybe not.” She said slowly, considering her next words. “But you couldn’t have gotten that watch today without me.”

 

He scoffed at her, shaking his head and turning away. They rode in silence, back to the stairs that would take them under.

 

 

 


 

 

 

Peter had caught Mina and Niklas almost a year prior. He had been part of a gaggle of Military Police doing the rounds in the Underground, throwing their weight around, pointing guns in faces, sneering and scowling in disgust. Peter had seen Niklas pocketing goods from passer-by’s. He had broken away from his fellow MPs, cornering Niklas with what he called a proposition, rather than calling it the blackmail that it truly was. He even went so far as to try and paint a pretty picture for Niklas.

For a taste of freedom, every once in a while, Niklas would work for him.

 

Peter would organise for Niklas to have access to above ground, taking him to different cities and districts for the morning…for the afternoon…to see the sun, the sky, the warmth, the light…all that…in exchange for his pick-pocketing skills. Niklas had refused, thrown a few punches, easily gaining the upper hand until Peter pressed the barrel of his shotgun into Niklas’s stomach, reminding him that as an MP, he had all the power in the world to get him arrested, executed without trial.

Niklas had no choice but to play along, soon enough his own ego getting in the way, almost pretending as if it was some sort of fair deal, that he was equally in control of the situation as Peter, as if Peter didn’t have him dangling on a piece of string.

 

Niklas had his selfish reasons for involving Mina. It put her at risk, he was aware, but she was skilled in ways he wasn’t and it gave them greater opportunities. It kept her by his side, always hesitant to leave her alone for such long periods of time. She seemed to attract trouble when left alone. As well as that, Niklas knew Mina dreamed of living above ground and he was determined to give her a taste, despite the high risk and low reward.

 

 

“I’m a good man Niklas.” Peter had said after their third excursion above ground, Mina having swiped a gold broche off of a woman whilst asking for directions. Peter was keen to keep the pair sweet and motivated, his gamble paying off more than he could have imagined after they had come back to him with pokcets full. He was keen to give them more incentive to take more, to have it play out better for him in the long run. “How’s a 10% cut sound? I just ask you to aim just a bit higher from now on,yeah? Keep this momentum up.” He flashed the broche up to the sun, a twisted grin on his face.

 

Niklas had even begun to see Peter as what he referred to as a “good man”, the cut of money enough to stop them from stealing off of their own in the Underground, something that he knew would keep Mina awake at night with a heavy pit in her stomach.

 

 

 

“We have to Mina…it’s the only way to survive.” He had explained this to her time and time again when she was younger.

“But we’re only taking from the bad guys right?” She asked, eyes wide, hesitant.

He clicked his tongue. “There aren’t really any good or bad guys down here Mina…we’re all the same…just trying to survive. Don’t feel bad. We steal off someone. Someone steals off us. It’s just the way things work down here. No one else second guesses this.”

 

 

Niklas knew it was true. No one in that hellhole looked out for anyone but their selves. It was the only way to survive. He knew that was why he needed to be firm with Mina, to install in her the believes needed to survive. Her mother had taught her too many things…had taught her right and wrong…good and bad.

 

And he knew it made her weak.

 

With their new taste of freedom and money in their pockets to at least keep them from going hungry, Niklas was sure that Peter was one of the so called good guys. Mina didn’t hold him to the same standard. She watched the way he sneered at their dirty clothes, heard  his patronizing tone, listened as he laughed to Niklas about his parents paying him his way into the Military Police Brigade, where he was free to drink and play cards all day.

She didn’t like anything about him.

She especially didn’t like the way he would keep his hand by his side, lightly resting on his gun whenever they happened to be alone.

“What the fuck happened to your face?” He had asked her when they first met, his grimace, his narrowed eyes, his nasally voice making her inwardly squirm.

 

She knew he was one of the bad guys.

 

Just like her father had been.