"Mathew?" Even after all of these years, they were still friends. Or so she'd thought. "Mathew, why didn't you tell me that you knew what they;re always talking about." He looked guilty. Elena knew he did. There was something in the way that he edged away from her, wasn't there? He had to know.
"I don't know what you're talking about," he said firmly. "I've told you everything that I know."
"Then how do the adults know about you? What do they say?" She was intrigued - nay, fascinated - by what she hadn't heard, more than by what she had heard. "I was listening to my parents talking. They said you guys knew. That you would tell me the truth in the end, so they didn't have to. You must know all this stuff."
Mathew sighed and stretched his hands behind his back. "First of all, do you know what it is I'm supposed to know? And second of all, you should have learned not to listen at doors by now."
"First of all, I know that you know something about why they won't talk about things and why there's no music any more," said Elena furiously. "Second of all, I only listen at doors because no one tells me what the hell is going on the rest of the time. And thirdly, you're an irritating prat when you're like this, did you know that?"
Her friend grinned at her. Of course he did. "Well, I can't say I know anything. The others might." He shrugged. "Why don't you ask them, instead of biting my head off when I don't know what I'm supposed to be telling you?"
Elena scowled at him and stormed out of the room. She would ask the others, but only because she'd been planning to all along. Not because Mathew had suggested it - she never took his advice, since it invariably got them both into serious trouble.
Nowadays she hung around with a group of them. Mathew had introduced her when she was twelve and at first the others had been sceptical. "I'm not sure she's big enough to join us," they'd said. They were a year or two older, and all of them were boys. "She's a little skinny, isn't she?"
"Why thank you," she said, utterly sarcastic. "But you know, you'll probably need me if you want someone skinny. What're you doing that needs strong folk anyway? If it's stealing, a skinny girl's better because we can get through little gaps." The leader stared at her for a minute then laughed.
"Well, I guess..." He looked at Mathew. "You know she's the one that always asks questions? If she goes down she'll drag us all with her."
"That's why I brought her here. She's not going down alone." For a while they carried on talking, Elena staring from one face to the other in bemusement. It was as though they didn't even realise she was there.
"Right, girl," began their leader, Geoff.
"Elena," she told him.
"My name is Elena. Not 'girl'. Not 'lass'. Not anything else completely ridiculous like that." She pouted at Mathew, who just smiled.
"Fine. Elena. Firstly, we don't steal. Secondly, you keep your mouth shut about things that aren't yours to spread, get it? Thirdly, you listen to us or to Mathew. You don't act on your own. You take our orders. And fourthly, if you fall, you fall alone, because we're not taking us too."
"All right," said Elena. And she was in.
Two years had passed since then, but not much else had changed. She still took their orders. The only thing that was different was that she wasn't the youngest any more, though she was still the smallest and still the only girl. Once, she'd watched them lose a man to them. She wouldn't let that happen to her.
"Fine, I'll ask them," she said, poking her head around the door and glaring at Mathew. "But I know you know."