One Step Closer
“Ah, Hope,” General Maas called, causing Hop to stop in her path. “Do you have a moment?”
Hop turned to the general, raising her brow. “Do I have a choice?”
Maas cracked a smile. “It will be quick.”
“Alright,” Hop shrugged, following behind Maas as he walked back to his office. As she entered she noted a woman standing behind his desk. She looked her up- and down, furrowing her brow together. Even though her smile seemed friendly, Hop had a hard time believing she was.
Maas gestured her to sit in front his desk. Hop did as she was told, not taking her eyes off the strange woman. Maas said behind his desk, folding his hands together. “Let me introduce you, this is Maria Paradisum.”
Maria stepped forward, extending her hand. “It’s nice to meet you, Hope of Sawarga. I’ve heard so much about you.”
Hop simply stared at Maria’s hand with slight discuss. “What do you want?”
Clearing her throat, Maria retrieved her hand. “You’ve been a Nox for quite some time now and your skills have impressed the Hall.”
“Is that so?” Hop said, her tone bitter. The Hall. They were the ones who took Luca from her, how could she look at one of them without dislike?
Maria nodded. “Yes, we’ve been thinking about promoting you.”
“To a Nox Knight?”
“Oh, no.” Maria shook her head, the sickening smile not leaving her face for a second. “You’ll be promoted to a very special section. We only do this to the most loyal and hardworking Nox Soldiers. You see, we see a lot of potential in you and it would be a waste if it was only to be used for collecting.”
Hop leaned forward on her knees, a bit more interested in this ‘special section’. “And what does this section exactly?”
“They are our most secretive operators.” Maria walked around the desk, her heels clicking loudly on the white tiles. “They do undercover work and spy on suspicious members of our communities. They are also given a wide variety of new little toys to test out. It’s all very exciting.”
Once again, Hop’s brow furrowed. It only confirmed her suspicion that Paradisum was indeed hiding more then one would think. Now with Liber on the move they must be desperate to keep everyone as close as possible. Her slipping must have caught their attention, and before she could turn away completely they pull the bounds tighter.
Smart, she had to admit. If she hadn’t known Luca she might have fallen for it. Now, however, she could use this to her advantage.
Maria leaned against Maas’ desk, something he disliked from the look het gave her. “Like I said, we see potential.”
“That can’t be all,” Hop said.
Maria’s smile faltered ever so slightly. “To tell the truth, after Luca’s betrayal we need to be careful. Liber is getting closer and the patrols have been proven fruitless. We need you on our side, there are more traitors in our midst than you might think.”
Leaning back, a half-grin spread across Hop’s face. “And what’s in it for me?”
“No boundaries,” Maria said, standing back up straight. “You’ll have free access to whatever you want.”
Hop stared at Maria, not breaking eye contact. It almost sounded too good to be true, there must be a catch to it. But it was her best chance at ever seeing Luca again. What else did she have to lose? It was more than worth the risk.
“Alright,” she said, pushing herself out of her seat and shoving her hand in her pockets. “When do I start?”
Something almost greedy passed by Maria’s face, but it was gone as soon as it came. “We’ll start tomorrow. Rest up for now, you’ll be needing all your strength. Also, keep it a secret, we don’t want our enemies to know we’re onto them.”
With a single nod, Hop turned and left the General’s office. That woman was trouble, she could feel it in her bones. The more Maria talked, the more Hop was convinced Liber wasn’t half as bad. She could play along though, amuse the Hall for a while. Luca was the only thing important to her, what else went on was their problem.
Hop turned a corner, only to run head first into someone. Stumbling back slightly, she looked up to see Félix in front of her. He sighed in relief before quickly pulling his hood back over his head.
“Sorry, hey,” she said, rubbing her head. “You got a haircut?”
Félix nodded, patting his hood to make sure it covered most of his hair. “Yeah, it looks terrible.” He laughed, shaking his head. “I really need to look for a better hairdresser, this can’t go on any longer.”
“Is that seriously the only reason you’ve been hiding your hair?” Félix started to walk back to their rooms and she fell into step beside him. “Why do you keep going back if they really are that bad?”
He shrugged, absently playing with the strings on his hoodie. “He’s nice and I can talk to him. Perhaps I come back for the therapy rather than the cut.”
“Maybe I should pay him a visit, too.” Hop glanced at Félix as he softly chuckled. Little dimples in his cheeks appeared as he smiled, she’d always thought it looked cute on him. Especially with the brooding look he wore almost twenty-four seven. It was a feature one wouldn’t expect on a guy like him.
“That reminds me,” he said, turning his head to meet her gaze. “He told me to say hi.”
“To me?” She pointed at herself and Félix nodded. “So you’ve been talking about me.”
“Huh,” he said as they entered the living area below the rooms. He sat down on one of the couches, spreading his arms across the back. “Guess I have told him more than I should have.”
Hop sat down beside him. “Like what?”
“Your love for alcohol, the fact that you snore, how you’re basically a child trapped in a grown up body.” Félix booped her nose, laughing as she shot him a glare.
Taking in a sharp inhale through his teeth, Félix shook his head. “I’m afraid not.”
She hit his chest, causing him only to laugh harder. “You’re so mean, how will I ever get a boyfriend now you’ve spread all those terrible rumors.”
“Calm down.” Félix took a hold of her wrists before she could hit him any harder. “He won’t tell a soul, and even if he did it wouldn’t matter.”
“How can you be so sure?” she grumbled, pouting when he wouldn’t let go of her wrists.
Leaning forward, Félix placed a gentle kiss on her forehead. “You’re too lovely for anyone to believe any of it to be true.”
For a second, Hop didn’t fully process what had happened. When she snapped out of her trance, Félix had already left the couch and was heading for his room. Shaking her head, she lowered hands to her lap. “Wait,” she called, a sudden wave of heat rising to her face.
Félix turned back to her, an amused grin on his lips. For what reason she wasn’t entirely sure. “Yes?”
It might not have been the right timing, but she had to ask. She needed to know if he was on her side. “If I find a way to get Luca back, will you help me without question?”
His grin faltered as he looked down, a more serious look replacing it. Biting his lip, he nodded. “Of course I will, Hopper.”
Sitting back, she smiled at him. “Thank you.”
With one last nod, he turned back to climb the stairs to his room. Hop looked after him for a moment before turning back to her thoughts. She wasn’t sure what overcame her when Félix had kissed her forehead. He had done it plenty of times before, there was nothing special about it.
Sighing, she pulled her knees to her chest, fiddling with her fingers. It wasn’t important. He was on her side and that was all that mattered. She had come a step closer to Luca today, unknowing to the Hall. They had only made things easier for her. The childish act was over, the carefree days were gone forever. With Luca, her little peaceful bubble was popped, which was the biggest mistake anyone could have ever made.
This world, it would obey her will or face her wrath.
“So Boss, what’s it going to be?” Phantom asked, sitting down on his desk.
Boss stroked his scruffy jaw, frowning as he thought. “Paradisum’s security is much stricter these days, a rescue mission is almost out of the question.”
“Even with more people on the inside?” Phantom offered. “Félix said if we told Hope about Liber she would surely stand by us. She was Luca’s closest friend.”
Boss leaned forward onto his desk, rubbing his finger over a years old stain. “And what will stop them from catching her? We aren’t even sure how they caught the boy in the first place.”
“Then what do you want to do? Wait and see if the people finally catch on?”
“How important is this Luca boy?” Boss asked, looking up at Phantom with his one white and one dark brown iris. “Why recue him and not someone else?”
Phantom scoffed, standing back up to pace the room. “Félix said-“
“Félix said this, Félix said that.” Boss gave her a stern look as he sat back again, folding his hands over his stomach. “You feel strongly about these people, Phantom, even though you’ve barely met them. Why, according to you, do we have to risk our people and the Hope girl to safe this one boy?”
Biting her lip, Phantom stopped her pacing. She didn’t look at Boss, simply staring at the floor as she thought it over. How could she explain this? After he caught her in the forest she was sure of it. Hell, after he saw the body she knew he was the person they needed to win this.
“Boss,” she said, taking a deep breath as she squared her shoulders. “Luca of Jannah is not just ‘that boy.’ He is our key to win not just this battle but this war. I saw it in his eyes, he has the soul of the warrior and leader we so desperately need. Our plan has already been set into motion, we can’t back down now. Every second we stand here talking ticks by, we are losing the advantage we had in the beginning. Paradisum is always one step ahead of us, but not for long, I promise you that if you would just let me safe him.”
Satisfied with her answer, Boss nodded, a small grin playing on his lips. “That’s all I needed to hear. Go to the city and try to find out what you can. We will discuss further plans when Félix returns.”
“Thank you, Boss,” she said, unable to keep the relief from her posture.
Boss waved his hand in dismissal, pulling his cap down until it covered his eyes. Phantom left his office, making sure to close the door as softly as she could behind her. It wouldn’t take long now. With Félix on the inside, Hop as a potential second spy, things were finally going their way. As soon as Luca was on their side the real attack could begin.
Walking down the overgrown hospital hall, Phantom wondered if the world could ever return to its original state. Could a world forgotten return to what it was with only that what remained was a better question to ask. Not even Boss was old enough to know what it had looked like. So many generations had passed, so much time lost. So many people lost.
Rusting from outside caught suddenly snapped her from her thoughts. She furrowed her brow as she took a step closer to the window. For a second she thought she was something moving between the trees, but it was gone before she could analyze it properly.
After a few minutes of no other movement she shrugged it off as a wild animal. They usually didn’t come this close to the hospital, but it could be a curious or young creature that wondered too far. Stepping back from the glass, she continued on her way.