Oh gosh, I...I really have no excuse for taking so long with this chapter. My apologies, everyone. I'd really love to continue writing this, though; and the updates may be a bit slow since I'm still in school for a bit longer, but they shouldn't take two or three years again, haha. Thanks for sticking with me, and hello to any new readers. :)
Yuri swerved out of the checkpoint line and parked swiftly along an adjacent curb. Estelle's light protest was cut off when he yanked himself out of the driver's seat and slammed the door shut.
"Yuri!" she cried, sliding out of the vehicle behind him. Estelle came to a stop beside him on the sidewalk, where he was watching the mingling police officers from a safe distance.
"We can't just drive through," he said, half to himself. He pulled his fedora lower over his face as he spoke. "They'll definitely catch us that way."
"Is there a way around them?"
Yuri paused thoughtfully, scanning the area with a careful eye. The officers seemed preoccupied with the line of cars, but he knew he couldn't risk simply sneaking past their checkpoint. He'd have to be much craftier now. And lucky. He'd need lots of luck.
Estelle watched him in thoughtful silence, making no comment as he stared down the road.
"On your way to Halure, too?"
Both started. A woman had disentangled herself from the crowd and had came to stand beside them, one hand perched on her hip while the other brushed long hair from her eyes. There was something vaguely familiar about the woman and the way she carried herself, but Yuri couldn't quite place her.
"Yeah, we are," he said after a pause. "I wasn't expecting a checkpoint."
"Me neither. Just look at the traffic they've caused. At this rate I'll never get my shipments in on time."
"I'm sorry, but you are...?"
The woman only smiled. "I'm surprised you don't remember me. I was at your bar a few days ago. And you're far more handsome in a vest, if you don't mind my saying."
Yuri recognized her then. She'd ordered an entire case of champagne the night she came to the speakeasy, before she returned to her table of well-to-do cronies. His supervisor pointed her out as a gang member later, though he couldn't recall which she belonged to.
"Don't mind at all," he said. "And it's not my bar, exactly."
Her grin widened. "The name's Kaufman. I...work in distribution and trades, you could say."
Estelle couldn't help but jump in then. "You're in a hurry too, aren't you? Do you know any other ways around the police checkpoints?"
"I'm afraid there's not much we can do at this point. Every exit in Zaphias is sealed off."
"Shame," Yuri said with a frown. "But I guess it's no point in getting worked up. We can figure something out."
Estelle bit her lip. "But...but this is an emergency! We absolutely need to get through!"
Kaufman looked at them curiously. "It's that important, is it? Something that really can't wait?"
"You'd think someone involved in distribution and trade would know a few extra routes around the city," Yuri pointed out.
"And you'd be right. Listen, I'll tell you what: if I help you out today, you're going to owe me sometime in the future."
"You trust us to follow through with that?"
"You'd better. I've got ways of finding things out, Barkeep. I'll find you sooner or later."
Estelle took him by the elbow. "Let's agree with her, please. I'll take care of your share of the work if you don't want to."
Yuri looked back and forth between the desperate Estelle and cunning Kaufman. The thought of getting deeper with the gangs didn't sit well with him, but...
"All right. But only because this is an emergency."
Estelle nearly jumped for joy. Kaufman only grinned wider than she had before.
"Good choice, Barkeep," she said, before nodding away from the crowd. "There's a back alley about a block down. I doubt it's being patrolled as heavily as the streets right now. Go up the fire escape and make your way over the rooftops. If you're quick and careful, you'll find yourself in Halure quicker than you can blink," she said.
"Thank you so much," Estelle said, giving Kaufman a short, respectful bow before she turned away.
"Hey!" Yuri called, but she'd already disappeared around the street corner.
"Looks like you've got yourself a bit of a handful."
"You can say that again."
Kaufman couldn't help but chuckle. "Good luck, Barkeep. I'll be seeing you again."
Yuri reluctantly chose to ignore the dread he felt growing in the pit of his stomach. Instead he chased after Estelle, down the road and through the throngs of people. He found her standing beside the alley that Kaufman had pointed out only moments before, her hands clasped nervously at her front.
"In here?" she asked, sounding more curious than disgusted. Yuri couldn't help but feel a bit of pride for the sheltered girl.
"Don't worry. It'll be fine," he assured her.
The alleyway was much narrower than he'd anticipated. Yuri pressed his back to the cool brick wall, moving sideways to avoid trashcans and overturned boxes. He glanced once over his shoulder to make sure Estelle hadn't run off again; much to his relief, the girl was still trailing close behind him.
"How far is it to the Halure district?" she asked, stepping delicately over a muddy puddle.
"Well, technically it's a few feet away, but I don't know how tight security is over there. We're going to take a bit of a detour."
Estelle's face lit up. "Really? Where are we going?"
He smirked, then reached forward to tap the metal fire escape they'd stopped at. "We're going up."
Her smile only widened. Yuri helped her as they climbed, navigating carefully up the steep stairwell and past open windows until they reached the top.
Estelle gasped the moment she set foot on the roofs.
The entire Zaphias district - as well as a small part of Halure's - spread out before them like the pages of a book. Impossibly tall buildings, black swirls of chimney smoke, the ant-like people and cars: they had a near-perfect view of it all. Estelle perched cautiously at the edge of the roof, jaw slack and eyes wide.
"It's...it's amazing," she breathed. "I've never seen the district like this. From up here."
Yuri came to stand beside her. "Nice, isn't it? It looks even better at night, when everything's all lit up."
Estelle spun back around to face him. "Do you think we could come up here again sometime? I'd love to see it."
"Maybe." He gave a halfhearted shrug. "We're going to have to lose these police first, though."
She looked back over the district once more before she shied away from the edge. They could hear the distant wail of police sirens now, amongst the impatient chatter of people and honking cars.
"The view from the company building wasn't this amazing, even from the highest floors," she continued as Yuri led the way to the opposite side of the building. "It's so different up here, with the open sky and the fresh air..."
"Did you see all the chimney smoke? We're breathing in more of that junk than fresh air."
Estelle's smile never faltered. "It's still a completely different experience!"
"Well, I'm glad one of us is having fun," he said, although he was smiling.
Yuri glanced over the edge before he descended the next fire escape. The alley below was dark despite the morning light, but he could still make out the two sentinel policemen standing guard at the bottom. They seemed to be squabbling amongst themselves - about what, Yuri couldn't hear and didn't care to know - but they weren't distracted enough that he could slip by.
"Damn it," he muttered.
"What is it?"
"Cops. We need to find another route."
"Is there another way down? Er, besides jumping, of course."
"Actually, now that you mention jumping, it's really not that far across..."
Estelle stared at Yuri. Then she turned to the gap between the roof they were standing on and the one beside them. Her face went a strange shade of white.
"You're not thinking of-"
But he'd already started running. Estelle gave a startled cry as he pushed off the edge of the building, arms and legs flailing, before he landed unsteadily on the other side. Yuri felt his feet slip beneath him, the wild panic mounting in his chest - before he managed to right himself again with a sharp gasp.
His heart was pounding in his throat, but he turned back to Estelle with a theatrical flourish. "See? Nothing to it."
The girl clapped politely. "Wow, that was amazing! Where did you learn to do that?"
"You pick up a few tricks in the Lower Quarter." Yuri extended a hand. "And now it's your turn."
Estelle's clapping immediately stopped. "M-Me? Are you sure? I've never done something like this before..."
"It's a little scary the first time, but I'll be here to catch you. Promise you won't fall."
She looked down between the buildings. The gap that had been relatively short before suddenly seemed so much longer. Impossibly long. She edged back a few paces, breathing fast and heavy.
"I wouldn't make you do this if I didn't think you could make it."
Estelle met Yuri's eyes then. He was staring back at her, so calm and so confident.
She steeled herself and broke into a run.
The gap came closer. Closer. Closer. And suddenly there was nothing beneath her feet and she was flying through the air, light as a bird but far less graceful. For a moment she felt her stomach drop and she imagined herself falling to the ground, but Yuri's strong arms wrapped around her middle and pulled her safely to the other side.
Estelle breathed a sigh when she finally touched solid ground.
"Thank you for this, Yuri," she said, breathless and giddy with relief. "I appreciate you bringing me this far."
"Don't thank me just yet," he said. "We've still got a ways to go."