They were dragged one by one from the house. One by one, lined up against the front porch, chests bowed down across their knees, sweat dripping from their noses, hands bound behind their backs. None of them sullied their pride by begging or asking why. If there was a why, they would know soon enough. Black eyes studied the dirt, blocking out fear and panic with years of experience. But he could smell it in the air, thick and vile, just like the Colonel’s cologne. Didn’t even have to look up to know who their attacker was. Thankfully, the Colonel’s face was more widely recognized than his own. They didn’t yet know what they had caught. Perhaps it could stay that way. He prayed that it would stay that way.
“I expected more from the lot of you,” the Colonel chuckled, pacing the ground in front of them, scratching at the hem of his pants absently. He didn’t want to be there. This was a low-grade mission. Hopefully, it would make him cocky.
This new life was full of emptiness. The absence of miracles. An absence once filled by the lack of desire. If there was nothing good in the world, then there was no hope. If there was no hope, then there was no loss. All of this goodness, this hope, made him feel hollow inside.
He closed his eyes against it, willing his soul away. He had no need for it. Especially not if things went south.
A soldier passed behind him, checking their tethered wrists. Michael could hear the checklist in his head. Tight. Tight. Tight. Tug. Tight. And then, another soldier in front. He caught the gist of the movement long before the fraying rope touched the back of his neck, sharp pinpricks against his skin. The rope was pulled down, to fasten him to his knees. A forced bow, despite the fact that he’d never once looked up, and he felt his muscles rebel against it. Felt it even before his mind sent the signal to calm himself. To stop. It was that pesky hope, surely. Those hollow prayers. The idea that something could be better than the sharp sting of the rope, and the straining muscles in his back. The idea that he could move. That he could act. He quieted himself a moment too late. Felt the hand clenched in the fabric of his shirt, forcing him down. Felt more than heard the ripping, the tearing, of the old t-shirt. The thin layer of fabric separating his secret from the world. The intricate weave of black that cut deep into his skin. The brand that signified his name. His talents. His skills. And his kills.
Saw the soldier’s face turn from angry red to white, his pupils becoming pinpricks as they retreated into his iris. Michael waited until those tiny dots turned up into his. Waited until he had the soldier’s full attention. Waited patiently, because right now, at this very moment, was the very last chance he would ever get to pause and enjoy the peace his life had settled into. Enjoy the fleeting hope. Enjoy his final prayers, before all the goodness disappeared from the world again.
“I really, really wish you hadn’t done that,” he said softly, hearing the pain in his own voice, and separating. Branching off, away, as calm seeped into his bones. The hopeless calm. The killing calm with blood on its hands and ice in its hateful black eyes. Not like James’ eyes. Kind eyes. After this, James would never look at him the same way again. Fear had a way of warping eyes into something sickening. Oh, what he wouldn’t give not to see fear in James’ crystal gaze. Perhaps, he’d kill him, too. Save himself the heartache. Truly rid the world of hope, for all the good it did him.
“James,” he whispered, looking sideways into crystal blue. Kindness. Confusion. Horror. Pain.
And worst of all, hope.
“I need you to close your eyes.”