"You really shouldn't be doing this," I whisper to myself, leaning against the cobbled wall of the Aeon Club. "This is honestly the worst idea you've had in a while."
My mind is racing, flashing images speeding past my memory, my father's last words as he's carted off to jail. Whatever you do, do not set foot inside that Club.
Oh, Papa. If only you could see me now, you'd be rolling in your grave. My palms are sweaty, and I keep rubbing them on the fabric of my jeans to dry them off.
I can't get Papa's words out of my head.
How the hell am I supposed to tell Mama that I've gone and planned to waltz into one of the most notorious clubs in the Crescent? Yes, Nadia, this is truly a genius move.
My stomach rumbles, and I'm violently reminded of why I need to do this. Not just me, but Mama and Finn.
Finn barely speaks anymore, he's so overcome by hunger, and there's no more money for his meds. He's just dealing with every day as it comes, and just the sight of it breaks my heart.
I steel myself, pushing my bangs away from my face and into my hood.
The Crescent is far from silent, which is distracting enough without adding the possibility of getting locked up for life like Papa. At least then I wouldn't have to deal with school.
Kids race through streets down the road, the Gliders make their weird whoosh sound as they trundle down the railway tracks, and everywhere, the sound of pain and hunger.
Clenching my hands, I slip around the corner and down a slim alleyway.
Black trash bags line the walls, ripped open and reeking of stale takeaway boxes and the sweet, cloying scent of rotten fruit. I wrinkle my noes.
How cute, wasting food for the rest of us 'cus you're all rich.
Luminous purple light emits from the door at the end of the alleyway. The door itself is a deep black, the colour of my hair. The colour of inky shadows that creep along behind you.
"Okay, Nadia, too far," I murmur, my heart threatening to stop at the reminder. "Keep calm, you can totally do this."
One look at the printed sign hanging on the doorknob and honestly, I'm not even sure I can totally do this. It's thick, like cardboard, and painted white.
Someone's used a pen to scribble one message; Non-Leechers Only, pay with $$$, STEAL AND YOU DIE.
Ignoring the sign, I glance around behind me before I touch the doorknob. With one last rethink of my life decisions, I push the door open, slipping inside before anybody notices.
I don't think anyone in here's a Leecher, but it would be just my luck if they were. But I highly doubt anyone would be alive if one of those things snuck in here.
Kind of like how I'm sneaking in.
The first thing I notice is that this place is packed. Top to bottom, bodies brush against each other in a weird rhythm and wriggle of dance. Not all of them are here to buy stuff, surely.
Maybe people actually go to the Aeon to have a good time. Stuffing my hands in my pockets, I try to peer up over everyone's heads. Sometimes being tall comes in handy.
Smoke wafts through the air, tinged purple from the strobe lights, clogging my lungs and nostrils.
I try not to cough everywhere, because that would be super stealthy, hacking and exhaling my insides onto the club's floor. There isn't a whole lot inside - just a big, empty room.
Pushed up against one wall is a bar, with glowing neon lights above it. A few people sit around on barstools, laughing way too loudly to be sober.
It takes me a while to see it, and I kind of have to stumble over dancing feet and beer bottles to find it, but when I do... Oh, gods. Here it is. You know what? It's not too late to go home.
This is great, really. Stuck in a place with no clear fire exits, where any illegal evil guy could kidnap me, and I'm planning on stealing the elex in this alcove.
It's properly dark in the alcove, almost like someone was trying to hide the illegal things in it, but failed miserably.
I look around me, stuffing my hands in my pockets and bringing out the strings of necklaces, bracelets, and watches that I've taken tonight.
I mean, I don't need any of them, 'cus nobody at the market touches the fake stuff - and that's all that anyone in the Crescent wears.
It's all any of us can afford to wear. But I sort of thought that this crowd would have had something of value. Guess I thought wrong.
Rolling my eyes, I slip the fake goods onto a shelf beside a phone.
The elex sit out in the open; they aren't protected by any glass or anything, they're just there. Hah, bad move. Quick as lightning, my arm reaches out and swipes 6 or 7 different gadgets.
I've never seen so many in one place before, but there's no time to stay and gawk, I slip back neatly into the writhing crowd.
Nobody says a thing. My heart thumps loudly in my chest, echoing in my ears - but nobody says a thing. Smirking to myself, I pat the pocket of my hoodie, deliberately baggy for this purpose.
See, Papa? Your little girl has still got it - ain't nobody getting past Nadia.
I make my way through the crowd for a second time, eyes darting frantically across the large expanse of the empty room.
There are only one of those illegal alcoves, so it's a 100% chance that I'll be caught as soon as I put my hand on the doorknob, but I'm prepared to take that chance.
Just think of Finn. Finn needs this more than these people do - they can all move their limbs happily, they laugh and talk and interact with each other like they know each other.
Don't cry, Nadia, please. Wiping my eyes, I shove past people and almost send a short woman with fiery red hair sprawling.
"Hey, watch yerself, yeh twerp!" She yells at me, but I don't turn around. I can't. "I'll sue yeh for that, don't think I won't!"
Right, sure, if you say so, honey. I huff under my breath, trying to find my courage as I reach the door. I'm so close when I catch sight of two dudes standing by the doors.
One's abnormally tall like he was stretched thin as a child, and the other ones more averagely sized but built like a tank.
They're both wearing the same black top with the familiar intertwined triangles on the front.
My footsteps slow, one by one until I'm being pushed back and forth by the undulating crowd.
Guards from the Crescent police force. I curse under my breath.
Why the hell are they here, of all places? I push myself far away from them, heading to the far side of the room by the wall.
Maybe there's a secret exit somewhere - bad guys who have illegal elex stashed away have to have a secret exit, right?
Frantically, I run my hands up and down the wall, keeping one eye on the Guards.
I slide over to the left a bit and nearly scream when my back hits something that digs into my shoulder blades. Someone's ass bumps into my arm.
Ignoring their apologies, I turn around to find the handle to a door inlaid into the wall. I glance over my shoulder, and one of the Guards have moved.
Oh, shoot. He's busy inspecting the little nook where the elex are. It's like it all happens in slow motion after that.
He signals to the other Guard, and they both take out their tasers - high voltage, usually used on escaped Leechers, which is scary.
My fingers roam over the handle, and I hit something large and square.
I'm kind of expecting both of the Guards to turn towards me, picking me out from the crowd and pointing their fingers like 'her.
Capture the thief!' But instead, they flip on the tasers, blocking both the main door and the elex place.
"EVERYBODY STOP!" The tall one screams. His voice rings through the club, and a few people stop what they're doing. Mostly everybody ignores him. He doesn't like that. "NOW! I SAID STOP, NOW!"
The music cuts out, drenching the hall in silence. The purple lights stop swaying back and forth, and someone beside me flicks on the light switch.
I shy away from the brightness, fumbling with a bobby pin that I pull from the pocket of my hoodie. Sweaty, my hands couldn't be less helpful right now.
If I don't frickin' unlock this thing soon, they'll find me, and find the elex, and I'll go to prison and -
"Ma'am, step away from the wall." The stocky guy - the one who looks like he'd be able to throw me through the door if he wanted to - is halfway across the room, staring straight at me.
The lock feels like a brick in my hands.
I blink at him. It's like I'm paralysed; I can't move anything, I'm stuck with my hands pressed into the cold metal but with my legs unable to move anywhere.
Come on, come on, Nadia.
"I'm sorry," I say, modifying my voice slightly to hide at least some part of my identity. Papa taught me well. "I really can't do that."
The lock falls onto the floor, and I fling the door open. Without a glance back, I disappear into the night.