He lingers over his approach to the front door, breathing deeply, filling his dry, creaky lungs with the scent of home. Stone and damp, old tomatoes and dust. His life encapsulated by a perfect smell.
And he’ll never smell it again. The soulbond is drawing to an end, he can feel it, feel the weight lifting. Two days, he estimates. Two days and the bond will be gone. He’ll be alone for the first time in years.
He casts his gaze over the two storeys of the little house, crammed in at the end of a high-walled alleyway—and yet the only place he’s ever been able to breathe. The gang—his family, the ones he chose and raised—are like that. They kept him going when there was nothing else to live for.
He winces. What is he thinking? They need him, his protection—and he needs them. He pauses stiffly on the front step, rubbing the age from his knuckles and the pain from his face.
He opens the door and Tara storms out into the hall. She attacks the stairs without even a glance in his direction. His mouth bunches tightly as he suppresses a laugh. Oh, yes. This is home.
He steps inside and closes the door behind him, smoothing a hand over wood more worn than he is. He takes another deep breath, basking in the warm smells of oak and brass polish.
A sigh, from the living room. Is that her? Fortuitous, if so. The more of them he can avoid today the better. Dying is hard enough without having to say goodbye. Especially when one must die alone.
He creeps across the hallway, floorboards gently protesting, and pauses for a moment in the doorway to drink in the scene. The bay window to his left lets in the little light available in this bottom storey of a back alley, softly illuminating the furniture older than he is—and probably in better condition. His lips twitch in a half smile.
And there, curled in the single armchair by the fireplace, bathed in flickering firelight, sits Jessana. He smiles at the contradiction of the literary novel in her hand and the assassin’s knife lying on the table next to her, loving it even as he hates himself for nurturing the killer in her. But it had been necessary, a choice of her life, the life of his almost-daughter, against the lives of faceless, impersonal others. He’d kept her alive by teaching her his skills.
He tenses, thinking of what he is about to do; it feels precariously like abandoning her. Pain stabs at his ribcage. He sucks in air that tastes like age and smooths the mask over his face. They will never know about the pain—but the goodbye he can’t delay much longer. So he straightens from the wall, squares his shoulders, and enters the room.
Jess glances up and smiles. “Hello!” She unfurls her legs to get to her feet, but he waves her back down.
“No need for that.” He lowers himself into a nearby chair and nods at her clenched fist. “What have you got there?”
Jess sighs and rolls her eyes, putting down her book and offering her other hand. “Tara found it.”
“Unusual.” The glossy black ring seems the antithesis of Jess, shrouded in darkness as she is haloed in light. For a moment he feels as though it tugs at his soulbond; but the moment passes, and it is just a ring, if an unusually deep black one.
“Very,” Jess responds. “And I don’t even want to know where she got it from, especially if it’s where I think she did.”
“And where might that be?”
“A dead body.”
“Oh, Jess,” he says, laughing. “You’ve got your hands full with that one.” He grins; Jess grins back.
“Is there any hope?” she asks in mock despair.
He sobers. “Funny you should say that,” he murmurs. “I was just thinking the other day that she reminded me of someone.” He shoots Jess a significant look.
She responds with a wry smile. “Okay,” she says. “I give in. I’ll persevere with the little monster.”
He chuckles. “Good girl.”
The silence stretches. Jess glances at her novel, then back at him. “Did you want something?”
It’s time. It has to be done. His mind races for things to say, anything other than what needs to be said. Nothing comes, so he inhales and begins. “Yes, Jessana, I do want something.”
Her body language changes, becoming more alert. “Is everything all right?”
He smiles. “Everything is fine. In... in a manner of speaking. You see, it appears that I have...” He swallows, almost choking on the lie. “I have a son.”
Jess jerks in surprise.
“Yes,” he continues, finding his rhythm. “I was somewhat shocked myself to discover it. But the main point is, he is quite unwell, and his mother is unable to support them with all his medical expenses.” A slight pause before the climax of the lie. “I loved his mother very much. I... I have found a job.” He stares at the floor, sick to the stomach. “I'm going to live with them, and support them.”
He risks a glance at Jess, whose shock is written on her face. Shock, but not disbelief. That’s a good sign. He presses on, the hardest part behind him. “The house will need a new leader, Jessana. I want that leader to be you.”
“Me?” she says, incredulous. “Why me? There are others much better qualified. River is the eldest, choose him! Or Patty, she knows how to get everyone moving. Or Alek, or...” She flounders. “Why me?”
He smiles gently. “It has always been you, Jessana. From the moment you arrived. Don’t you notice how they follow you?” The whole world worships the ground you walk on, he doesn’t add.
Jess squirms. “I suppose so...”
He takes her hand. “They will support you. Never alone, remember? Do it for me?” He blinks back the tears that threaten to clog his eyes. Their motto, everything they live by—but he has to throw it away. He can’t cling to false hope, can’t risk having the bond transfer to someone he loves when he passes on.
Jess nods, exhaling. “Okay,” she says. “For you.”
“Then good.” He claps his hands once together and smiles. “That’s settled.” He makes to rise.
“When do you leave?” Jess says softly, and he feels her eyes probing his facade for the truth, pinning him back in his chair.
He shakes off her gaze, stands and closes his eyes; turns away from love and comfort and joy.
“It’s today, isn’t it?” she says.
“Oh.” And she is there, beside him, wrapping her arms around him, and the tears that he’d promised he wouldn’t shed are coursing down his cheeks, making rivulets to rival his wrinkles.
Slowly, her soothing works its way into the crevices of his soul and the tears subside like dust settling to the ground. Jess pats him on the shoulder. “You should go, then,” she says. “Wouldn’t want to be late, now, would we?”
He smiles, a false, brittle thing that he erases before it cracks his fragile exterior. He flees to the front door and jerks it open, determined not to look back. He steps out, pulls the door—but Jess catches it and props it open, standing to watch him leave.
He walks away down the alley. Midway, Jess calls. “Wait!”
He steels himself, knowing he can’t deny her the chance for goodbye. He tenses as he meets her gaze, so piercing he thinks it might kill him there and then.
“Wait,” she says again.
“How much longer do you have to live?”
And there it is, the very thing he’s been trying to avoid, the reason he’d concocted the story of the job and the family in the first place. And despite it all, in spite of all his acting and plotting and planning—she knows. She still knows.
He works his tongue to moisten his suddenly dry mouth. “Not... Not much longer,” he says in a voice that rasps like dead leaves.
Those eyes. Stars of Fate, those eyes... He presses his own closed and forces the words out. “Two days.”
The silence and curiosity opens his eyes. Their gazes lock, and she nods. “Two days. Stay nearby. I’ll find you.”
“You can't!” he says, hands clenching. “I won't have the bond jump to you!”
Jess smiles sadly. “It can't. I'm already bound.”
He reels like she's slammed the door in his face. Jess, his precious, perfect Jess, is soul-bound too. No wonder she'd seen through his lies.
He nods. “Nearby.” She deserves that much. He turns to leave.
Something thuds into the ground behind his feet, and he glances down. Her knife. His gaze flicks to Jess.
“For the pain,” she says.
He nods and picks up the knife. “For the pain.” Tucking it into his belt, he walks out of the alleyway for the last time.
Behind him, words echo down the street that smells like home. “Never alone, Guiro. Never alone.”