A week or so after the train incident, Taiga ran into me late one night. Besides occasionally, randomly attending some of my classes, I had pretty much gone back to my parties and drunken midnight antics – without the train gang, that is. I’d found another group to hang out with that didn’t so explicitly threaten my life. In this town, guys like me were in endless supply. That night, I was walking along the street, with a bottle in my left hand and my right arm around the shoulder of a heavily-drunk pseudo-friend, when I saw Taiga on the other side heading slowly in my direction. He was talking with one of his juniors, a tall, remarkably thin, androgynous and good-looking high-schooler in a wheelchair. It looked like he had just taken them out for dinner. Typical, I thought. That’s Taiga. He loves to waste his time on society’s hopeless.
A few moments after I’d noticed him, Taiga raised his head and his eyes met mine, his expression soft and surprised. He stopped walking, debated for a second, and said something to his junior that I didn’t catch. The kid gave a hearty reply and an obvious “thank you” before wheeling off. Left behind, Taiga stared at me from across the street. I frowned and glowered, hoping he would leave, too, but before I knew it he was crossing the road to meet me.
“Who that?” my drunk friend slurred. “Wonder if he’s got any cash.”
“Leave off it, buddy,” I replied, taking my arm back from its resting position on his shoulders. “This guy ain’t gonna be robbed.”
Taiga halted in front of the two of us. “Hey,” he said casually.
I frowned at him. “Hey.”
“Having a good evening?”
“Best,” my friend gushed. “It’s been awesome.”
Taiga regarded him for a moment. “What’s been so good about it?”
I tried to cut in, but the guy next to me started rambling. “This beer. You should try it. And walking around at night looking at girls.”
“I prefer to enjoy my nightly walks without beer and girls, thank you,” Taiga replied.
“Hey, you’re missing out!”
I groaned. Something about the conversation was making me sick. It wasn’t the alcohol – I’d developed a pretty unhealthy tolerance, and I knew I wasn’t too far gone yet. Irritated, I pushed the drunken guy away from me. I didn’t even know his name.
“Scram,” I told him. “I don’t wanna hang with you no more.”
“What!” he protested. “Wait a minute–”
“Get outta here!”
“Fine… you’re no fun.” He alternately pouted, whined, and scowled as he wandered away from us into the night.
Taiga and I faced each other, practically alone on the gradually emptying street. Most of the shops had already closed, and those few that were still open were beginning to lock up. I fidgeted uncomfortably, emptied the last of my beer, and shattered the bottle on the road in a sudden, mindless motion. Taiga didn’t even flinch.
“It’s late,” he said softly. “And it looks like it’s going to rain. You should go home.”
“I don’t have a home,” I replied bitterly.
He shook his head. “Then make one. Or join one – you aren’t blind. And believe it or not, you aren’t stupid, either.”
“Don’t try to convince me.”
He studied me in silence for a while, contemplating his next move. I looked around, trying to avoid his gaze, searching for an easy escape route. But Taiga had always been an incredibly hard person to run away from.
“What are you doing tomorrow night?” he asked.
“Same old.” I was about to add, none of your business, anyway, but I stopped myself.
Taiga nodded. “Meet me at the bottom floor of the southside library tomorrow at eight.”
“Just meet me there.”
Before I could respond, the drunk guy I’d been walking with reappeared. He darted up to us, obviously struggling to control his hand movements, his words growing steadily more incoherent. His eyes were wide and large, and for some reason he seemed to be incredibly angry. He was holding a knife in his left hand, with a newly opened beer bottle in his right. Pointing the knife at Taiga, he steadfastly ignored my presence.
“Wallet!” he demanded, waving the knife about threateningly.
Taiga looked at him with surprise. I shifted my gaze between the two, alert and interested in this new development, and I was shocked to see Taiga’s expression resolve into an uncharacteristic reflection of alarm. So, he can be knocked off center, I mused in my head. For some reason this made me really happy.
“I’m not giving you my wallet,” Taiga said. He spoke firmly, despite his obvious unease.
“I’ll kill you,” the young man slurred.
Taiga shook his head slightly. “You’re drunk. You should go home.”
Taiga sighed. “I’m not giving you money if you’re just going to spend it on alcohol.”
“I’m gonna kill you,” he said again, moving closer and giving Taiga an insistent shove on the chest.
My roommate stumbled backward slightly, regained his composure, and raised a perfect hand, reiterating, “You really should go home.”
“Well, I don’t have a home!” the drunk man yelled.
Incensed, he tightened his grip on the knife. I stared at him, wide-eyed, and I knew for sure he was going to swing. In a split-second, thoughtless motion, I lunged forward and tackled him. I didn’t have the strength to knock him down, but at least I could try to push him away. Taiga dodged backwards as I collided with the man and wrestled for control of his dominant arm. The beer bottle went flying amid our scuffle; wildly alert, I heard both of my companions almost simultaneously draw a sharp inhale. Finally, the man gave and we both went crashing to the ground. His knife clattered onto the road, and as I struggled to keep him down and get to my feet, he turned his head and vomited against the sidewalk.
As if on cue, it began to rain. A light misty sprinkle blanketed the three of us – violent occupants of an empty, directionless street.
I slowly stood up, dazed. A dull soreness began to blossom in my shoulder. The young man hurled the rest of the contents of his stomach, groaned, and relaxed onto his back, breathing hard. I eyed him warily, but it didn’t seem like he would be a threat anymore. None of us spoke a word. After a few minutes, he clambered to his feet and staggered away, leaving his knife in the middle of the road.
I turned to look at Taiga. He was clearly shaken, his eyes bright and glittery, his hair ruffled and growing damp. It took me a moment to notice the huge rip in his pants.
“He got you,” I said stupidly.
Taiga nodded unsteadily. “Yeah.”
I narrowed my eyes at the long, thin slash across his thigh. “Does it hurt?”
“Not yet. It’s not that bad.” He ran a hand through his wet hair, took a few deep breaths, and looked around at the rainy, abandoned night. I watched him, feeling incredibly tired, incredibly strange.
“There’s a clinic a couple of streets over,” he said after a while. “I’m going to go get cleaned up before it starts hurting and I can’t walk. You coming?”
I considered it, but the whole incident had already been too much for me for one night. I really, really needed another drink. “No,” I replied bluntly.
Taiga nodded. “Okay. Listen. Thank you.”
I turned without answering and started to walk away, fast and determined, kicking my feet through the rapidly developing puddles by the side of the road. I had nowhere to go, but all I wanted to do then was flee the scene of the crime. Standing alone in the rain, Taiga watched me from behind and said nothing more.