It's only a boy. They push the limping, bleeding, bruised and injured figure towards Hunter, with a leash - a leash - attached to the collar. And he is only a boy. A weak, dying boy whose head reaches Hunter's chin.
It makes Hunter feel sick.
They shove him forwards, and Hunter rushes towards the Guardian to catch him. The boy almost collapses into his arms, but finds the strength to snarl and push him away.
"Get off me," he growls, eyes filled with menace. Quickly, Hunter takes the leash and gets away from the boy. I did this to you, he realises, eyes widening. The man who runs this hateful prison of torture and spite is watching carefully, and Hunter knows he has to act human. Treat the boy like dirt.
The mere thought of doing such a thing repulses him.
"Get up." Hunter painfully forces the cruelty into his tone, and pulls roughly on the leash. The boy glares, and tries to lunge forwards and strike Hunter. But he is weak from the pain, and Hunter easily catches his arm, grasping his wrist and twisting it behind his back.
"Obey me," he orders, vehemently hating the actions he has to take. And kindness will rouse suspicion within the men who observe.
Hunter turns, dragging the boy behind him. Each step, the Guardian stumbles, and Hunter has to stop himself from rushing to help. They ascend the stairs, with the boy growling in his throat at Hunter.
"I hate you. All of you. If I get the chance, don't think I won't hesitate to kill you."
"Shut up." I don't blame you.
"Don't worry, Guardian. I've a fine whip at home that should do nicely." Nicely against those who try to stop me from helping you.
"Ha. Whips hardly hurt any more. Why don't you just stick a bullet through my skull? In a world of enslavement and suffering, death is the only liberty." His words drip heavily with resentment.
"I've the money to import any weapon of torture. Don't think I'm stupid enough to kill a slave." Stupid enough to do this, though.
Behind him, the Guardian trips on the stairs, stumbling and falling onto his side. Hunter turns to help, then scowls, forcing himself to remain standing, glaring at the boy with false anger in his eyes.
The boy struggles to his feet, and Hunter tugs on the leash. I'm treating him like filth. Why can people not treat these creatures as equals? They finally reach the summit of the stairs, and Hunter greets the guards with a curt nod, glancing at the boy. He's on the brink of collapse, Hunter realises suddenly. He pulls the Guardian over to the nearest hovertrain station, aware of the attention drawn to them by the way Hunter drags the boy behind him, the rags in which the child is dressed. It's a five minute walk, and, by the end of it, the Guardian is trembling with exhaustion and effort.
They purchase two tickets, Hunter having to kick the boy when he growls at the humans. It doesn't quench his rebellious streak for long, but, by the time they've reached the first class compartment in the hovertrain, the boy has been kicked so many times his shins will be purple by tomorrow.
As the ticket collector nervously takes the tickets from Hunter, he glances at the boy, evidently observing that it must be a Guardian.
"Good day, sir!" he squeaks, and rushes off.
"See? You should fear me," the boy hisses, still standing. Hunter slides shut the door to their compartment.
"You may sit."
The boy glances wearily at him, as if considering whether or not to insult him. Finally, exhaustion wins over. He sits still glaring, and they spend the rest of the journey in silence.
When they reach the city outskirts, Hunter tries to move the boy with a sharp kick. The compartment should be safe to treat the boy with enough respect, but you never know, with humans. There could be a security camera fitted into the lights, and then where would they be?
The boy doesn't get up, just looks defiantly at Hunter.
"I don't want to."
He sighs, yanking on the leash and pulling the boy from the chair.
Hunter drags him through the carriage, leaving through the automatic doors and pulling him through the station, leaving a smear of blood behind on the path from his bare, bloodied feet. They leave the city gates, and the boy almost quickens his pace, trying to reach the pure, clean air of the rural setting.
Finally, they are away from the city, and Hunter loosens his grip on the leash, stopping.
"You need a rest," he says gently to the boy. The Guardian just glares back.
"Why do you care?"
"Just sit down and take a rest. I'll explain it later."
The boy sits, and Hunter drops to the grass beside him.
"You shouldn't care about me. You made me into this. You're a human."
"Yes. I'm also a human who gets nightmares every night because of what I did to you." He looks to the boy. "Do you have a name?"
"Not one that I'd tell you."
Hunter sighs. Of course the Guardian doesn't forgive him. "Then I'll call you Crimson for now, for the colour of your scales. I have to call you something."
"Crimson?" the boy scowls. "And what should I call you, Master?" He hisses mockingly. Hunter shakes his head sadly.
"I don't even deserve a name," he replies sadly. "But, if you really want to call me something, Hunter will do." He stands. "Come on, I'll help you walk. It's getting dark, and I can't promise your safety if the dragon-bats come out hunting tonight."
The Guardian shakes his head. "No. I'm walking by myself. Don't even touch me, human."
Hunter cocks his head with concern. "But-"
Crimson, as Hunter has called him, stands painfully, tottering briefly but gaining his balance again. He grits his teeth, ignores Hunter, and pushes on, refusing the ex-soldier's offers for help.
And then, right before Hunter's eyes, the boy crumples to his knees, exhaustion finally seizing him in an iron grip. Hunter lunges, grabs the boy, and apologises under his breath.
"Sorry, Crimson, but you'll have to accept help if you want to live."
The Guardian mutters something inaudible under his breath, but Hunter just hoists him over a shoulder, easily carrying the boy towards the forest.
Crimson passes out with the somehow comforting heartbeat of the human resounding through his head as darkness engulfs him.
When he comes to, the boy is in a warm bed. A plate of warm food sits on the desk beside him, as well as a glass of water. Human food, he thinks with a scowl, ignoring it and weakly standing. The collar is gone, as is the leash.
A polite cough draws his attention to the human, who stands by the door.
The Guardian stares at the man who ended his freedom. And is giving it back.
He takes a step towards the door, as the human opens it for him.
"I mean it! Just go, OK?"
"I could transform and kill you right now."
The human nods, a little too easily.
"Then do it. But don't get caught again. The nightmares weren't there last night, because you're free. I actually felt happy, because of you. So just go."
The Guardian considers his eyes. They are, strangely, truthful as he speaks. Passionate, almost.
Walking out of the door, the boy glances back briefly.
"I'm not thanking you. But I won't kill you, either."
The human smiles softly.
"It's Liberty." The human raises a questioning eyebrow. "My name," the Guardian adds, turning away.
He walks into the forest, the face of the human stuck in his mind.
And doesn't look back.