A lonely figure stood at the edge of a rooftop, looking down at the deserted streets where the fog from the sewage rose up with the stench of decay and covered what little decency and good this city without a soul still might have had.
They should have burned it when they had the chance. They should have let fire force out the evil that lurked in the shadows, and cleansed the city’s every hidden nook and cranny. But it was too late now. She couldn’t do it on her own and she was alone now. Stayed behind while they packed their meagre belongings and left her to defend those few pure and weak souls. But there was no purity left here; it was all gone, trampled under the heels of greed and self-interest.
She lifted her face and let the rain wash away the tears that dared slide down her face. It was too late even for regrets now. Too late for everything except... She turned and looked at the skyscraper that dominated in the middle metropolis like a king looking down upon its subjects.
The Tower. The President’s Palace. And the place which the General called his home. Hunter. At the mere thought of his name pain pierced her chest.
The Hunter she knew had died when he became the President’s man, when he became the General. He meant nothing to her now, he shouldn’t meant nothing to her now, but then why... why did seeing his face on the posters always hurt so much...?
She shook her head and tensed her jaw like that would steel her heart. She would find him. And she would shove her hand inside his body and tear out his heart, and she prayed that it would hurt, that it would hurt more than it had hurt her when he had turned his back on them. That he would cry out in pain as she had when he had joined the one who created them, who had made them killers and who had used them in his quest for power.
She dug her heels into the concrete before she shot forward across the roof, then jumped over the street onto another roof. Then onto another roof. And another and another. Forward, always forward, toward where large screens lighted the clouded sky and displayed the handsome and youthful face of the General announcing his eighteenth birthday and that tomorrow the residents would be able to see for the first time the President giving the General birthday greetings in person. She grimaced in distaste. Cashing in on his subject’s popularity for his own gain. How surprising.
But for this the Tower was preparing a big party, offering her a perfect opportunity to slip inside. And she did, through an open window on the eleventh floor, just as she had arranged, and paid heavily for.
Hidden behind the heavy curtains she tiptoed toward the door and across the hallway, up the stairs, then stopped before a steel door with a numbered dial. Her heart started to hammer in her chest. This was too easy.
She wasn’t afraid of being caught, she actually expected it, but the absence of guards and the silence... Could it be that they thought the General was strong enough to fend off assassins without outside help, or maybe this was a trap and soldiers waited for her on the other side of the door?
It didn’t matter. She typed the code for which she’d had to extinguish a life in a very brutal, agonizing way, which still left a bad taste in her mouth.
She held her breath as the door slid open, prepared for the worst. But there, in the room that opened before her was just a big desk and a chair visible in the light that seeped though the cracks of the blinds.
A dead end? She stepped into the room and the door behind her closed. But how could that be?
The chair before her turned.
“Hunter,” she more breathed out than said and for a moment she though that her knees would buckle. He looked almost the same as he had three years ago. His short blond hair was still a mess and his green eyes still so vivid and powerful. She missed him so much that at just the sight of him she wanted to double over in pain, to crawl into some hidden corner and cry her eyes out.
“Hope. It’s good to see you.” The boy, no, a man now, stood up from the chair and with a flick of his fingers turned on the lights.
“You know why I came here?” From the sheath tied on her back Hope pulled out a thin, light sword.
“To wish me a happy birthday.” Hunter came from behind the desk toward her.
“Wrong.” She circled him.
“And to give me a happy birthday kiss.”
“Wrong again.” Hope swung her sword at Hunter.
Hunter evaded the blade. “You promised.”
“All promises were nullified when you stayed on his side.” She thrust her sword forward, aiming for his gut.
“I still want my birthday present from you.” He jumped away and her sword hit the desk.
She pulled the sword out of the wood and faced him. “I did bring something.” She lifted her sword, showing it to Hunter before she jumped up and brandished the blade at him.“I hope you like it.”
Hunter leaped sideways.
She attacked him again and again, but he only dodged her with such apparent ease. It infuriated her, made her careless and in the end she swung her blade in fury, blindly, just trying to hit him. Just once. “Fight me. Why don't you fight me?”
“I don't want to fight you, I never did. I want to do quite different things to you.” He grinned as he jumped away from the tip of her blade. “But unfortunately, you are still a minor.”
“Fight me!” She gathered all her strength, gripped the sword with both hands and charged. He should have fought her, he should have given her the chance to die fighting for the cause she believed in: the fall of the President.
“You are a seventeen-year-old girl pretending to be a killer.” In one jump he ended up behind her and his arms embraced her tightly.
The sword fell out of her hands.
“But this is not who you are. This is not who we are.”
She had failed. Not that she expected any different. “Then what are we?”
“Human beings trying to do what's right.”
“And the right thing is to be the President's parade horse and do his dirty work?”
“Every good deed has its price.” His breath caressed the shell of her ear.
She pushed against his arms. “And you are not willing to pay it.”
“I have been paying it for the past three years.” He turned her in his arms. “They knew. That's why they didn't kill me and that's why they left you behind.”
His embrace loosened and he caressed her face. “Three years of my life for a chance to get close to him.”
“What?” She stepped back.
His arms fell by his side. “And the worst thing was not seeing you.”
“You have...? ” No. How could that be?
“Knowing that you are out there, alone, unprotected. And that you hate me.” He closed the distance between them and his fingers touched her cheeks, her neck, slid over her shoulders.
“I killed a man to get inside the Tower. Not just killed him. I tortured him.” She furrowed her brows and dug her fingers into the fabric of his black shirt. “And it wasn't necessary.”
“He was sick. He was already dead.”
“I used what they taught us on him.” She looked at her hands. The bloody hands that had killed for the first time when she was ten. She could still remember the surprise in that man's eyes and how everything had passed in a blur. Later she had learned from her teachers that her kill was swift and clean and she had even received praise for it from the President himself. Not personal, of course, since nobody was allowed to get close to him, but a message via his most trusted servant. Oh, how he was proud of his little flock, of the darlings that would one day be his personal guard and assassins. But they betrayed him, his little darlings, as soon as they had learned that they were not the orphans they had been told they were, and that children with special abilities had been torn from the bosoms of their mothers to serve him. She lifted her gaze. His little assassins had deserted him then, the precious father who hid his ugly, true face behind a mask of goodness and charm. All his little assassins, except one.
“He didn't feel any pain.”
“He cried and pleaded and twisted in agony.”
“His body might have reacted, but his mind was numb. I made sure of that, and those pleas and cries. They were for your benefit.”
A crease on her forehead deepened.
“You wouldn't have come otherwise. And I wanted you to come.” He caressed her neck. “I wanted you here. Actually I needed you here. To say goodbye.”
“You are not going to die.”
“I might, but not before...” He cupped her cheeks and pressed a kiss on her forehead, then his lips slid over her nose and landed on her mouth.
She wrapped her arms around his neck, lost in the sweetness of his touch and of his kiss. Her love for him, suppressed by the hate, rose up and bloomed inside her chest and she felt like weeping as she reciprocated every one of his caresses.
He ended the kiss and leaned his forehead against hers, his thumb sliding over her lower lip. “Do you remember our promise?”
She had forgotten, not the promise, but how much she cared for him, how much she loved him. A boy who was always there for her, a boy who pulled her up when she fell, a boy who wiped away her tears when she cried, and a boy who always managed to put a smile on her face. “You promised that you would be always there for me. But you broke it.”
“I watched over you, you know, the best that I could do from a distance.”
“And I promised that I would be your sidekick forever.”
“No.” His fingers entangled in her black hair, tugging at the tie that held them in a ponytail. “You promised me you would be mine.”
“If we ever lived to grow up.” A promise that when they grew up they would escape from the institution and be together as lovers, because crossing the borders of friendship was something that they both wanted, but would get them killed by the President’s men if they learned of it. Or they would have died on the job, because if they let their love for each other grow it would have been a distraction in a world where they needed to be alert to survive.
“I’m eighteen, I’m adult now and I’m still alive.”
“But you might end up dead before the morning comes.”
“Whatever happens I want you to know how much I care for your.”
She wiggled out of the hold of his hands and stepped backwards. “It would be easier to hate you.”
* * * * *
The complete story is available as part of part of Limelight, A Golden Light Anthology (link is coming soon) and as part of Short Story Collection.