Name: Erica Nash
Genre: Young Adult Fantasy
Title: The Infinite Betrayal of June Grey
My sixteenth birthday was less about candles and more about death. Not my death, of course, that would have been much too macabre for my seemingly delicate mother; no, this birthday was about the death I would eventually deal.
The death that had clouded my thoughts since I caught my father washing the shiny metallic blood off his hands.
"Just in time." Tuck's voice was a low rumble that ruffled the hair near my ear. He stood behind me, hovering over my shoulder, and took a deep breath.
Disregarding the slight blush that warmed my cheeks, I ducked away and turned to face him. He smiled in that way that did funny things to my gut and even funnier things to my head. Tuck and I had been friends for as long as I could remember, but over the past few weeks there had been this thing between us. It bordered on the edge of beautiful and deadly, and was spurred by the fact that we were Promised to each other.
"Just in time for what?" I asked the question even though I knew the answer. Joining the Guard was everything I wanted and it was closer than reality to dream now that I was of age.
Tuck chuckled and cocked his head, a lock of dark hair falling over the top of the scar that ran from his right eyebrow down to the edge of his jaw.
My fingers itched to trace the raised line, as I had done many times before. My awe, both at the creature who'd done the damage, as well as the boy who'd fought for his life, grew more with each time. It was nothing short of a miracle that Tuck had survived.
"If you have to be reminded, maybe you aren't ready."
I looked around at the people who filled my home. Civilians and Guards alike, living in perfect harmony. If the dragons we hunted were in attendance, I had no idea. A shiver of hatred mingled with fear crawled down my spine and I met Tuck's gaze with a measure of ferocity I knew he would understand. "I'm more than ready."
"There's my girl," he said, a goofy smile restoring him to the boy from before.
Before the Promising.
Before the scar.
Before the bloodlust.
In this life where our existence was continually threatened and war was only a misstep away, children had to grow up long before their time. I was given a weapon at the ripe old age of seven and nine years later, I had no reserve when the need to bust a cap arose.
Well, that's what the simulations would have me believe, but I'd like to think that would hold true in the real world.
"Congratulations on having the lamest party in the history of all things lame, June." The smile on Lucy's face, and the fact that it was true, took the sting from her words. "Is the stud keeping you entertained at least?" She winked at Tuck and he laughed, loud and carefree, throwing his head back to the ceiling. "I'll take that as a yes."
She looked at me then, eyeing me from head to toe, holding her chin in one hand. Tuck mirrored her stance and I bit my lip to keep from squirming under their scrutiny. Finally, Lucy spoke. "So what do you think, Ms. Grey--is sixteen everything you thought it would be?"
She was asking the question I had asked myself a hundred times. With this birthday I would be given knowledge, training, freedom. I would be given a chance to join the Guard and keep those I loved safe.
At that moment, there was nothing I wanted more.
Tuck stayed silent, watchful, understanding that the answer to this question was far deeper than Lucy could ever understand.
I wondered again at the luck involved when our parents Promised us. I could have done much worse than Tuck, regardless of the fact that I was unsure of the feelings I held for him. We wouldn't bond until my eighteenth birthday, but knew I could be content with him.
I turned to Lucy and made a face. "Sixteen would be much better if we could ditch this lame gig."
A sly smile graced her pink lips. "I thought you'd never ask. Stay here. I'll be right back."
I laughed, shaking my head at how quickly she moved through the crowd and was out of sight. "That girl is a force to be reckoned with," I said over my shoulder, to where Tuck still stood. When he said nothing, I turned to face him, unsure if he heard me.
He was watching me, an odd light in his bright eyes that uncovered the emotions he so often masked. He took a step forward, his gaze memorizing my eyes, my lips, before he reached a tentative hand toward my face. I fought the need to step back and keep him in the relative safety of the friend zone or to step forward and explore whatever this was. Letting my body decide for me, my lips parted, letting out a heavy sigh that he caught on his fingertips, before he rested his palm against my cheek.
Vaguely, I wondered if he was going to kiss me, here, surrounded by our friends and family. It would be an odd place for a first kiss, but I wasn't exactly against it.
He ran the pad of his thumb across my bottom lip and shifted forward. Our bodies weren't touching, but he was close enough that I could feel the heat from his broad frame envelope my small one. A subtle hint of cologne filled my nose and I closed my eyes.
When I opened them, Tuck was smiling. "Happy Birthday, June." He leaned forward, ever so slowly in that delicious anticipation of first kisses, before I was ripped from his hand.
"Come on, you two, we have to hurry." Lucy was dragging me through the house, Tuck trailing behind, with little concern for the party goers that filled the rooms in my honor.
If I was being honest, I didn't really care that we were ditching. Many of the people here didn't understand the significance of my sixteenth birthday, but those that did were in attendance more out of respect for my father than to honor my coming-of-age.
As Head of the Council of Guards, my father had more power than any politician could ever dream of and therefore demanded the same amount of respect. He was ruthless and intimidating and I wanted to be just like him.
Little escaped his attention,though, having so much power, which is why I shouldn't have been surprised that he caught my eye just before Lucy pulled me out the door. He raised an eyebrow, a silent warning, but said nothing as the crowd around him demanded more of his attention.
My choices were clear: stay and endure more of this borefest, demonstrating the maturity that Dad felt should come with the number sixteen or leave and celebrate as every sixteen year old should, later enduring the wrath of my angry father.
A split second passed before I laughed at myself and let Lucy pull me into the crisp autumn air.
Maturity was overrated.