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There he was. Lying in the snow, trying to cease the pain in his back, ignoring the fact that his legs and arms already felt like burning because of cold. The other boys stood still, looking forward without any expressions, concentrating to keep their chin high and all marks of possible pity off their faces. He didn't blame them. It wasn't their business to feel sorry about something that ment nothing to them. In their lives – in his life – there was no room for sadness or sympathy.
He touched his face and being very aware of his brand new black eye wiped all possible tears away. The strangers, three men and a woman in very expensive and surely warm fur coats, were talking to the capitain. The group leader, the man who had beaten him just minutes ago, was now coming closer again. The yell broke out from his lips as the man forced him up, pushing his beaten back with his foot. Their eyes met.
He couldn't keep from shivering, not only because of cold but what he saw in those eyes. It was something he didn't even have a name for, some kind of hunger inside him that was glowing in his eyes. He knew, that the day was coming when he would learn exactly what it ment, he had known it for a long time. It scared him, allthough some part of him was still wondering why – it couldn't be worse than all he had gone through this far.
Except that it could. Somehow he knew that there were much worse things that can be done to him than hitting and kicking – and he wasn't even thinking about killing yet.
His private nightmare had started about a year ago. They had gotten a new group leader. First he had just thought that he was picked up because of his childish outlook, but then he began to understand that there was something terribly wrong with this man. He heard rumours from older boys, and saw this one boy, not much older than he, being beaten many times before one day he was ordered to stay in the classroom after others. Only a month after that boy had disappeared – hanged himself, as unofficial rumours said – and now he was going though the same hell and he knew it would surely end just the same. He would be beaten, he would be punished from nothing, and finally he would be too tired to kick or hit or run and then it would be too late to even shout hoping that somebody would hear it and come to see what was happening, no, his mouth would be covered with a rough hand, his hands would be pushed against his chest, he wouldn't be able to breath because he would be choking to the smell of that man and he would close his eyes to avoid those terrible, burning eyes and try not to cry until...
-Cadet! Come to the capitain's office. Immediately.
The distant voice woke him up from his anxious thoughts. Suddenly he was completely aware of the coldness, his hurting back and burning legs, and the tear that had almost frozen to his right cheek. Something was trying to break the mask he had taken to his face – it was a little, bitter grin. Was he finally admitting the truth? That his hopes for revenging all this someday would be meaningless – that this was really going to end like this, he was really going to die here, die as a toyboy that ment nothing.
He felt a slap on his right cheek. It broke the frozen tear, and it almost broke his bone as well. But it made him feel alive again. He straightened and lifted his chin, using strength he didn't know he had, and forced his gaze off from the distant horizon he had been looking for a while without noticing it. He still didn't feel his bare feet, but he felt the burning in his back and the hand on his shoulder, and it was enough. He took a quick step forward, shooking the and off his shoulder and followed the commander while all the other boys were still standing on straight lines both side of him. He knew that they were saluting the commander, but something made him feel that they were doing it for him.
He hadn't ever visited the capitain's office before, and was amazed how warm it was compared to those cold rooms where he had lived last eight years. His back was hurting even more now, but he didn't let it to be seen from his face, like he never did. Those three strangers where there too, still having their coats on. They were arguing, the men against the woman. He tried to concentrate to their words, but couldn't understand what they were talking about. Then the other man turned to him and asked him, with the most perfect Russian accent:
-How old are you, boy?
-13 and half years, sir, he answered.
-And how long have you been there?
-Eight years, sir.
Again, they were arguing. He began to feel himself very sleepy when he was standing there in front of the fireplace – maybe it was the natural thing to do for his beaten body. Because he didn't understand Italian, and most likely didn't even know that there was a country where it was spoken, he couldn't know that they were talking about his future.
Years after, when his nightmares were almost gone, he was told about that conversation. Even then it almost scared him to hear how close to death he had been on that day. It had been the men against the woman: men had said that he was too old – the 13-year-old was too old to start training, and 8 years in military school had caused too much mental damage to be healed – and he was clearly aggressive and too disobeying, not even mentioning the fact that he was underfed and since that a way too slight to start a new kind of training immediately. The woman had answered that he was gifted – he had a strong and sharp mind, it could be seen from the way he had stood still for the whole punishment. He was outstanding – all rescuited boys like him had become SCORPIA's finest assassins, and from all boys she had seen he was the most talented one. And… at this part the woman had hesitated. She even hesitated when she was telling about it to him. It was because she was a woman – she couldn't let the men think she was weaker than them. But it had truly been a one reason, the one that had finally convinced the men and saved him: the fact that he was dying there. Being beaten to death, committing a suicide or being used and then killed to cover it. They had seen many boys who had ended like that. And for some reason, maybe because of that quick, cold look he had given to them before punishment, this time they wanted to save him from that destiny.
She kept telling the story, but he wasn't listening anymore. He remembered very well how it had ended. The woman had woken him up with soft, pleasant question. He had answered wrong. He had given his cadet-number instead of his name that he had almost forgotten. No one had called him with that name for years. But the woman wasn't angry, only amused – then she asked again.
-Yassen, he had whispered, trying to find out what was happening. He had known that the woman was being to nice for him, that she couldn't be serious – but maybe he had been to tired and beaten to think it further. He had looked the woman in the eyes and said with louder, stronger voice that had sealed his destiny: