I lounged catlike in the club chair, hosed legs crossed and draped over the arm. I watched Hayden work at his table across from me, face set in concentration, eyes tight on the page. The charcoal smudged and he cursed, low and velvet, like he should be saying love words instead.
I swung myself to my feet and strolled around the little studio, stopping at the portrait of me he had done the last time we were together. I knelt on he ground, long mahogany curls beginning to pull from the braid, as I tried to brace myself on my sword. The katana was splattered with blood, my face smeared with it. I stared defiantly up at the observer, down but not out. He had drawn it from memory after an exceptionally rough training session.
I kept on walking until I reached his side and could lean over his shoulder to see his latest piece of semi-pornographic fluff. He turned his head up to me, smiling, and I smiled back. No reason to be snippy. Just because he won last time didn't mean I wouldn't beat him this time.
Hayden was my master from the time I was 13, when he killed my parents, until just last year. They were just another job to him, something to support his art. I was supposed to be at my dance class when he came. I had convinced my mother to let me quit just that morning.
When I walked downstairs I found him calmly cleaning his gun while my father lay bleeding on the snowy carpet. I think he would have killed me too if I had screamed, or cried, but I didn't and so I got to live.
"So what will happen to me now?" I had asked him, with all the self possession and faux maturity that puberty gives. He smiled that warm charming grin and just kept cleaning his weapon. When he had finished he told me that I could either wait here for the police, or I could go with him. I chose him.
He took me home with him and started training me as his apprentice. I decided it was better that being in foster care at least. I had a maid and got to sleep all day and stay up overnight. The first two months were a teenagers dream.
Then he took me on my first job. We flew out to Phoenix together, just a tolerant older brother escorting his darling brat of a sister. The woman lived alone, aside from a shitzu puppy, which looked like an oversized dust bunny. It was easy to get in, and the wait for her to come home was peaceful. I played with the puppy and Hayden drew at her kitchen table.
After she got home it happened quickly. I Hayden took care of it in just a few moments cleaned his gun and we were off.
"So," he says softly, looking over his shoulder at me,” How’s the rat?" I frowned at him, hard. 'The rat' was what he called my darling shitzu, whom I had rescued from the apartment of that first job. No need for an innocent puppy to be starved while it waited for the police to come looking for its mommy.
"Aria is well. He misses you."
"How you can call that cowardly piece of fuzz a lion is beyond me, and I am quite sure it is not me he misses but the many portraits I was coerced into making." I couldn't help but laugh because he was completely right. Aria meant lion in Arabic, and I had chosen the name in hopes that he would live up to it. I was wrong.
"Aria's well being is not what I came to discuss, and you know it." I looked down into his drowning pools of grey blue. It always seemed as though he stared right through you to your deepest secrets and desires.
"Just what is it then that you came to discuss" he asked me, curtly turning back to the charcoal sketch on the table. The year before he had retired from the hunt and asked me to promise to never take him back into the field. For a long year I kept my distance, only occasionally sending him a postcard or picture of Aria. But this time he could not sit here in his cozy little artists den and pretend that there was not a war going on out there.
"I cannot manage this job alone, Hayden. I will die out there alone, and then who will care for little Aria?"
"If you cannot handle the job I am well aware of the two gentlemen you left down by your vehicle. They are hired muscle are they not?" His sophisticated accent annoyed me, the arrogant tilt of his head as he watched me.
"They don't understand the hunt like we do; I protect them more than they protect me. You have been in retirement for far too long. You miss it."
"I do not believe that a year would constitute 'too lon'. And you made a promise"
"Ahh, but I am not breaking it. I am merely leaving you with a file to look at. One of the boys will wait with you while you look at it. I leave in a week’s time. If you choose to follow me that is your decision, but I am not asking you to come, nor will I wait for you." I laid the manila envelope gently on the drawing table and headed for the door. With my hand resting on the frame I turned back to him one last time, to see a sad, regretful grin spread across his face.
"I would not have come to you if it was not important. Please do not think otherwise." And I was gone. I sent Sasha back inside to watch Hayden with the file. Couldn't have him making copies, or running off with it, now could we?
I spent the rest of my day making final appointments and getting all of my paperwork in order. We would not be flying a commercial plane, which was a blessing, but packing up my entire household and arsenal would take some doing.