12: Delayed

Circumstances may cause interruptions and delays, but never lose sight of your goal.
- Mario Andretti

When I wake up the next morning, it takes me a while to figure out where I am. It's been a while since I slept in anything even closely resembling a bed. It's about six in the morning, which is when we both usually rise, and start moving. But Haven's door is still shut, it's dark outside, and it hasn't stopped raining.

Beside me, Vaughn is still asleep, snoring quietly. It's the first time I've ever heard it; maybe he does it when he feels comfortable and safe enough to relax. I smile a little at the thought, reaching up to touch his face.

With how tense both of us have been lately, even unconsciousness hasn't been a relief. I can see how I've benefited from last night, too, because I feel a lot better. My nose is still a little plugged, but I no longer feel like I'm lingering on death's doorstep. Seeing no reason to rush through this morning, I close my eyes and snuggle up against Vaughn's chest.

OoOoOoOoO

I'm startled awake by the sound of glass shattering in the kitchen. I shoot up without thinking, my startled brain immediately believing something is wrong, and I must flee. But all I receive for my thoughtless action is a head rush that hurts like hell.

Most of the time, my instinct to be constantly aware and ready to run serves me well, but in times of calm like these it's more annoying than anything else. I shuffle into the kitchen. Haven's sweeping up shards of glass into a dust bin, which Vaughn is holding.

"Morning," she says when she sees me.

Her hair is pulled back into a single ponytail, unlike yesterday when bits and pieces of it were pinned every which where.

"Hi," I answer. I glance at the clock on the microwave and am shocked to discover that it's ten in the morning.

"Why didn't you wake me sooner? We should have left hours ago," I say to Vaughn.

He dumps the glass in the garbage and shrugs. "I was gonna, but I only woke up an hour ago. And you were sick yesterday."

"I feel better now. Good enough to start walking again."

"And just where are you going? Have you been traveling long since you . . . left?" Haven gets a new glass from the cupboard and fills it with milk. Her tone is light and nonchalant, but I hear the earnest curiosity.

"Only about a week from now, but it feels like it's been eternity," I say, ignoring her first question completely. I stand awkwardly I the doorway until Haven gestures me in.

"Come in, Chelsea, make toast. I've got nowhere to be today, there's no rush."

Gratefully, I make toast, and find myself a bowl of cereal.

"Did you eat?" I ask Vaughn as he sits down across from me. He's already dressed in his jeans and sweatshirt, so I know he's ready to go at a moment's notice. The dark circles under his eyes are mostly gone, and it makes me happy to see him so well rested.

"Yeah," he says.

When I finish, I slip into the bathroom to change and can't resist the little bottle of perfume on the counter. As I step into the hallway, though, I hear Haven's voice come from the other side of her cracked open bedroom door. She's speaking softly, so it's hard to hear, but I step closer and make out the words.

" . . . don't know where they're going," she's saying, "but they're definitely the same two kids I saw on the missing persons poster I saw the other day."

I blink in horror as she rattles off her address, undoubtedly to the police. I slip back into the kitchen, where Vaughn is sliding sandwiches into our packs.

"We're leaving now," I whisper, yanking the zippers closed and pulling my pack onto my shoulders.

"What's the hurry?" He sounds aggravated at being interrupted, but we don't have time to argue.

"I just overheard Haven on the phone with the cops," I hiss, "they're on their way."

Fear flashes in his eyes. He grabs his pack and slides past me, stopping at the front door, waiting for me to catch up.

"Shame we can't say goodbye," I comment sadly as we shut the door behind us and zip down the stairs.

"If we waited to say goodbye," Vaughn says grimly, "we'd be shipped back into hell before we could blink."

OoOoOoOoO

This city looks much the same as the last one, but maybe it just seems that way to me. They're all meaningless places I'm passing through, so they blur together in my mind, pointless pictures I can't make sense of. Though we don't want to steal, Vaughn and I agree that we're not walking to the next city and almost freeze to death on the way there again.

We split apart in a crowded section of the city and agree to meet up in the park. Neither of us will wander so far away that it gets out of our sight, because if we do get lost, we're screwed and might as well make our way to the islands on our own. I stand beside a big fountain in a square, studying all the different people who pass by closely, but not too closely.

I left my pack behind a dumpster in the mouth of an ally parallel to where I stand. I brushed my hair, my teeth, and had a shower last night. I've even got a little mascara on. Nobody gives me any weird looks, and it's nice to know I don't look so grimy and lost anymore. But Vaughn and I can't hang around in the same place for very long; someone could recognize us from the missing persons poster just as easily as Haven had.

I feel energetic and better than I have in ages, but I'm not going to let it make me cocky. I spy a middle-aged man coming my way in a big gray coat and nicely pressed pants. He looks like he could afford to lose some money. I saw a woman earlier with her wallet very loosely in her grip, but she was so tired looking, practically dragging her feet across the sidewalk, and I could not bring myself to steal from her.

I set off towards the park, and "accidentally" bump into the man. As we collide, I reach up and slide my hand into the inside pocket of his coat. Quickly, I step back and shove my stolen wallet into the pack pocket of my jeans. I blink several times and make a show of looking dazed.

"Excuse me, sir," I say, stepping around him.

The man steadies himself and mutters "it's alright" under his breath and walks hurriedly away. Feeling triumphant yet guilty, I enter the ally across from me, grab my pack and then hurry to the park, stopping at a black bench, where Vaughn sits, waiting. I get the black leather wallet out of my pocket and hold it up. He, in return, shows me a crisp fifty dollar bill.

"Where'd you get that?" I ask, plopping down next to him.

"Some woman's purse. Couldn't risk taking the whole thing. You?"

I explain about the man and open the wallet, ignoring the license and the credit cards. It's the cash I'm after. There's quite a few small bills, and after I count it all up, it comes to seventy three dollars.

"Not bad at all," I say as we put our money in our bags.

"More than enough for the bus, anyway." He's smiling, in a decent mood today.

I nod and absentmindedly reach for his hand. It's finally a nice, clear day, with blue skies filled with clouds so light and puffy they couldn't possibly be holding any rain. I run my thumb over the back of his hand, avoiding his eyes, which I know are on me. I'm struck by the thought of my growing affection for him again, but I push it away, in favor of a more practical one.

"We're so close," I say softly. "We're actually going to make it. Part of me didn't think we would . . ."

"We can't breathe easy yet," Vaughn says, ever the optimist, "I mean, we still have to worry about actually getting the job."

"One step at a time," I tell him.

He squeezes my hand, and I hesitantly glance up at him. His eyes are soft, and I can't help wishing he would make this face more often. But I guess, in order to, he would have to have a good reason. And reasons to be kind and loving in this life have been few.

"Traveling with you hasn't been as awful as I thought it would be," he admits, and I chuckle.

"'Not at awful'? It's just flat-out impossible to say something flat-out nice, isn't it?" My tone is light, so he knows I'm joking.

He shrugs and looks away.

"Wish we had the time to just be lazy in the park today," I say wistfully.

A couple walks by just then, holding hands, looking carefree and in love. Some day, I promise myself, that will be me. It's a bold thing to think; I don't usually let my hopes get so high. But I feel too good to care; I'll be angsty and broody later. It's inevitable. For now, I entertain the fantasy of me walking down the street with my boyfriend, with no major worries. I even go so far as to cast Vaughn in that particular role, and the image soothes my tattered soul.

"Me, too," Vaughn sighs, getting to his feet. By this time, it's about one thirty, so we agree to go get some legally obtained lunch.

OoOoOoOoO

Okay, so maybe this city is a little bigger than the last one. By the time we locate the bus station, they've stopped running for the day and we're forced to find somewhere to rest until early morning. For once, it's not raining, but it's still cold, and I miss the warmth of Haven's apartment so much it hurts.

We wander aimlessly for at least an hour. We've been lucky before; we may just have to settle for an ally, although it's risky; who knows what kind of people might be settled there already. Late into the evening, I stop and lean against the wall of a closed book store.

"The sidewalk is beginning to look promising," I say, only half joking.

Vaughn shakes his head and looks around anxiously. The dark circles under his eyes are back; whatever peace he found in our one night of safety had vanished completely. I want so desperately to give it back to him, to make him happy and safe. Both of those things are so not in my ability to give it's almost funny.

I have myself to think about, first and foremost. Wasn't that part of the point of this whole trip? Leaving everything behind, gaining complete independence, having no one to worry about but myself? And here I am, getting myself all worked up about Vaughn's well being, when in reality, he probably didn't share a fraction of my feelings.

A chilly wind whips past, far too similar to the one from the fields. We hunker down behind two clearance racks outside the store, where I cling to him, my teeth chattering before I could stop them.

"We didn't have dinner," he says softly.

"Not m-much left," I get out.

He hands me a protein bar, the last from our stash, and I sigh. "Split it with me."

"I'm fine," he argues, looking away.

"You don't have to act so strong. You're human. You need to eat, too."

He opens his mouth to argue, but I cut him off angrily. "Stop treating me so delicately. A while ago, you told me that you're ultimate goal was to get the Islands and keep yourself safe. I don't to . . . feel things for you, but sometimes you don't make it easy."

I'm not sure what possesses me to say this last part, but it's out there, and that's how I feel. I don't want to be caring for him, worrying about him. But of course, the universe descries to screw with me by sending me on my insane little quest with the one person I might possibly, start to love. Not that I'm crazily, flat out in love with him; I'm just saying I've seen the distinct possibility in the future of it happening. And that makes me mad.

"If you're not careful, I'll start to think you care," I add grumpily.

I push the bar back into his hands. I have – unbelievably – lost my appetite. Vaughn just stares at me for a long time, his eyes hard and unreadable. He stuffs the bar into his pack and looks away, quiet for so long I suspect I won't get an answer.

"I care," he mutters finally.

"Oh?" I fish. "Is that so?"

"Yes," he snaps, "I do. Do you think I like it any more than I do? I want to go back to seeing you as the weird little emo girl ghosting around the school."

I was asking for it, I suppose.

"But I can't," he continues, "and there's nothing I can do about it now. I like having you around. I like that you're just as screwed up as I am and can emphasize a little. It's just one more thing to deal with, Chelsea."

I exhale sharply and stare down at my hands, unsure of what to make of his replies. "We . . . we like each other," I tell him quietly, "and this is not the time, nor place. I get that. It doesn't have to be a problem, Vaughn. We don't have to deal with it at all. I think we've done a great job of ignoring the elephant in the room so far."

Not that it's been easy.

"Yeah. And it's sucked," he sighs, "I . . ."

We both fall silent, listening to the sound of passing cars and the various sounds of a city that never truly sleeps. There's one position on the islands. If one of us gets it, the other won't have the money or the means to stay. And this whole rip will have been in vain. Suddenly, I feel fingers under my chin, pushing it up.

Then I feel a soft, gentle kiss on my lips for just a second. Butterflies dance around in my stomach and my skin tingles irrationally from his touch.

"It gets harder every day," Vaughn says, holding my face in his hands, "not to do that."

"So do it," I whisper, breathless by the emotion in his eyes, eyes that are usually so flat and cold. But beautiful, always beautiful.

He shakes his head and lets his hands drop, and I ache for the lost contact. "It would make it hard," Vaughn whispers, "in the end."

Right. The end. If I gave into my own wishes and desires and was romantically attached to him until we reached our goal, did it decrease my desire to get there? Yes. It did. But. I still want to go. It figures that I would finally get all the freedom and happiness I wanted all my life, but at a very high price.

"I know you're right," I sigh, "even though I want to think you're wrong."

"Good. We agree, then. Now, let's just leave it alone, please? No point in beating the issue to death." His expression instantly shifts into its usual blankness. "We should look for someplace warmer. I heard someone in the park say that it's going to get below freezing tonight."

"Oh, happy day," I mutter as he helps me to my feet, hands lingering a little longer than necessary. Well, at least now I know I'm not delusional, making up feelings between us that aren't there.

We've resolved next to nothing with this little talk, and it hurts my heart. We wander around for a bit and eventually stumble across a little group of homeless people huddled around a fire in a garbage can. Normally, we would steer clear of others, but the promise of some warmth is too great, and we agree to take a risk.

We approach the three of them hesitantly, calling out a hello. One of them turns; it's a woman, with greasy brown hair just poking out from beneath her green wool cap. She's actually a little chubby, which is surprising, under the circumstances. She and two others – which I now see are men – are all in coats, one with fingerless gloves.

The woman appraises us just as cautiously as we stop in front of her; Vaughn angles his body so he slightly in front me, protectively. A part of me is touched by this gesture, but I have no time to consider it now.

"You two are a bit young to be here alone at this time of night," she says, her voice cracking once. She's missing one of her teeth. I want to roll my eyes – as if homelessness has an age limit.

"We're just looking for someplace warm to sleep tonight. We'll be gone by tomorrow morning, early," I inform her.

I search her eyes for any indication of madness, but she appears pretty sane. I hope the same can be said of her friends. The woman shrugs and gestures for the men to step back, widening the circle. We take two places next to her, by the fire. They introduce themselves when we ask.

"I'm Cindy," says the woman, "and this is Max."

The first guy waves at us halfheartedly and mutters a hello. He's just as filthy as Cindy, but he too, appears mentally stable. The third man I can't be too sure of. He tells us his name is Sid, but when he turns back to the fire, he seems to be mumbling things to himself under his breath, and his gaze never seems to linger anywhere for long, eyes darting around constantly, fingers shaky over the flames.

Vaughn must have jumped to the same conclusion as me, because he periodically glances at Sid suspiciously. The fire feels wonderful under my frozen fingers, thawing them out and bringing the feeling back into them. Everyone has some sort of bag; Cindy carries a single plastic grocery store bag, Max has got some sort of shoulder pack and Sid, like us, has a backpack. None of them talk very much, which is just fine by me.

When the fire burns down, we all lie down on the cold concrete floor. Sid pulls a paper plate stacked with cookies in plaster wrap and offers them to everyone. He's stopped mumbling by now and is actually acting a lot less crazy than before, eyes focused and speech clear. I've had two meals today, which is more than I can say for maybe the past month of my life, but I'm still hungry.

I take one, but wait for Cindy and Max to finish theirs. Nothing funny happens to them, so I consider eating it, but Vaughn shoots me a disapproving look, and I decide he's probably right. I push the cookie into my backpack to throw away later.

Sid shoots me a crooked smile – his teeth are tinged yellow and his blue eyes are bloodshot. I shiver a little and look away. Cindy yawns, mutters goodnight, and lies down next to Max. Within minutes, they're both snoring. Vaughn and I wait to relax until Sid is asleep, too.

"That guy is creepy," I mutter in his ear.

"I know. We'll leave before any of them wake up tomorrow. The buses start running pretty early."

We use our packs and pillows, as the others have, and he holds me in much the same way as last night, when we had the comfort of sleeping bags and actual pillows. I shiver in the cold, and he rubs my arm quickly, trying to warm it with friction. I appreciate his efforts, but really, nothing is going to help a whole lot out here short of a heater or a blanket. Falling asleep is difficult; when Vaughn is finally asleep, I focus on the even, relaxing sound and feel of his breathing. It helps, and eventually I manage to drift.

OoOoOoOoO

There's a hand slapped across my mouth. That's the first thing my brain registers when I'm startled awake. My eyes fly open and focus on the face of Sid, staring down at me with what appear to be curious eyes. I can smell his foul body odor this close up; he smells like a mix of garbage and tuna fish.

God only knows where the latter comes from. He's hovering over me, and the sight makes any drowsiness I might have felt in the first moments of awakening.

"What the hell are you doing?" I try to say, but with his hand pressed against my mouth it sounds more like "Wutduhullyadoim".

I feel his knee dig into one my thighs, and my eyes get as wide as plates when I also feel a hand on my bare stomach. I try to shove him off me before the horror of this fully reaches my mind. I'd rather be killed, tortured, beat – anything but be raped. I can't think of a single thing I wouldn't take over it.

"Hush, little girl," Sid snaps, "you owe me for that cookie."

Up close, I can see a smattering of red across the left side of his eye where a blood vessel has popped. Frantically, I look over to see Vaughn snoozing about eight feet away. Did Sid somehow drag me across the ground without waking me up? It's possible, but odd, considering I've always been a light sleeper.

The hand that was on my stomach moves up and squeezes one of my breasts, and I want to vomit. Trying to bite at his hand, I start to thrash and kick and struggle for all I'm worth – surely one of them will wake up. I succeed in biting him – he snatches his hand away, curses, and wobbles as I resist.

He's pretty thin, and being homeless for who knows how long has probably made him somewhat weak, but when I head-butt him, it's at the wrong angle and doesn't deliver full-scale force. Sid slaps me, and stars dance across my eyes; I've bitten my tongue, and taste blood. Satisfied that I am momentarily subdued, he rears up on his knees and starts fumbling with the button of his tattered jeans.

Thinking through the pain, I let out a shriek, and my head falls to the side. I meet the gaze of deep amethyst eyes set into a face twisted in a mask of shock. Vaughn blinks and sits up, taking in the scene before him; me in my back with a probably red cheek (it must be red, it feels like it's going to fall off), and Sid yanking down the zipper on his pants.

Shock morphs into fury in two seconds flat, and he jumps to his feet, rushing Sid and sending him sprawling with a sharp kick in the stomach.

"What the - ?" Sid blinks, and wisely decides to shield his head with his arms as more vicious kicks rain down upon him.

"You sick bastard," Vaughn is snarling at him.

Rubbing my cheek, I manage to get to my feet and walk to where he's standing.

"Vaughn, stop," I tell him, "let's just go."

He turns, gritting his teeth in anger, and is about to answer me when suddenly a shape flies out of nowhere and tackles him to the ground landing with a thud right next to Sid, who is now holding his sides with a pained expression on his face. Max is on top of Vaughn, punching and hitting with such ferocity I wondered how I could have ever mistook him for the docile, sane one.

Cindy, too, jumps into the fray, joining her partner in his assault on mine (uh, traveling partner, that is). Horrified, I try to pull Cindy back, and am rewarded with an elbow to the face, cracking across my nose so hard tears well in my eyes.

"Stop it!" I scream at them; apparently, the two of them were more buddy-buddy with Sid than I originally guessed.

Crying out in rage, I recover my wits and sprang on Cindy again, grabbing a fistful of her hair and hat and yanking backward as hard as I could. She yelps in pain, her hands immediately going to her scalp. Still yelling angrily, I let go all at once and my fist slams into her face, and I could go wrong, but I think I hear something snap.

She staggers and falls to her knees. A sharp surge of victory goes through me; it felt good to release some of my anger like that. Turning, I attack Max, who is still attacking Vaughn. We manage fend him off between the two of us, and I expect we'll have to incapacitate him in some way to get him to quit, but when he catches sight of Cindy he stops throwing punches and slinks to her side, sending us a hostile glare.

"Let's get the hell out of here," I say, wincing at the blood running down Vaughn's cheek from a cut under his eye.

I can't tell how deep or bad it is right now, but I pray it doesn't need stitches. He nods, grabs my hand, and we skirt around the three crazy homeless people, yank our packs up into our arms, and hurry away.

Deeper into the heart of the city.

A/N: I apologize for failing at updates.