He awoke with a start. His eyes snapped open. His body shot up. His breath came in ragged gasps. Beads of sweat ran down the sides of his face and coated his skin lightly in a thin layer. With his hands grasping the sheets so tightly his knuckles lost their color, he stared in shock at the wall across the room. He flinched at the sharp pain rising in his chest. Something was wrong. He could feel it in his gut. But that was impossible. The front door was locked. Nobody could climb over the high wooden fence of the backyard. There were no loud crashes or bangs. Slowly, he drew in a deep breath. He held it.
Just as slowly as he breathed in, he breathed out. He ran a hand through his hair and repeated his breathing exercises. He was shaking. His whole body trembled violently and caused his exhales to sound as though they were a skipping CD. His eyes closed and he focused on clearing his mind, while at the same time, he eased the feeling of impending doom. It was nothing, he told himself. It was probably just a forgotten dream that startled him awake. It happened all the time, he reassured his mind. But that voice in the back of his head told him that nothing was alright. It refused to quiet, no matter how hard he tried.
Maybe some tea would help him calm down... Yes. Tea sounded terrific. With this thought in mind, he tossed the comforter and sheet off his body. Through the darkness, he tried to carefully make his way to the door. He stubbed his toe twice – once on the chair, and again on the door frame as he walked out. The living room beyond his door was much brighter, making it easier for him to wander around in.
The light from the back porch shone through the thin white curtains hiding the sliding glass door, illuminating the modern-styled dark gray furniture and glass coffee table. The curtains delicately flowed as he stumbled his way through the living room and into the kitchen. The numbers on the microwave flashed 12:00 in a steady rhythm. "Great..." he grumbled to himself as a hand swept through his hair. He would just have to deal with it later on today. He just didn't have the motivation to fix it just yet.
The fluorescent lights flickered on with a flick of a switch. Light flooded into the kitchen and caused the boy's eyelids to quickly shield his sensitive pupils. A small pan was soon positioned onto the stove, and one simple Chai tea bag was dropped into a mixture of milk and water shortly after. Five minutes later, the timer signaled its completion and the complete liquid filled one of his decorative mugs. As he made his way to the couch, he stirred in the added sugar with a metal spoon he had pulled out of the drawer next to the sink.
There, he sat with his legs folded and resting on the armrest nearest to him, the warm porcelain cup resting between his palms. Light gray orbs barely focused on the blank TV screen in front of him as he took in the sweet scent of vanilla tea. He banished any thoughts and feelings with the aid of the smell, his muscles relaxing faster than they had beforehand. Maybe he should have just done this in the first place. It seemed to be much more effective than just trying to calm himself on his own. It should have been more obvious to him. Whenever he stressed over something or was upset, his brother would make this for him. It always had that calming effect, without fail.
Gently, he sighed. He could feel the negative energy and thoughts leave him through it. It caused a soft, relaxed smile to tug at the corners of his lips. He sipped at the drink. It was still a little too warm for his tastes. He waited, then sipped again. That was better. He continued to sip at the hot beverage until there was none left.
But he didn't want to move just yet. He wanted to stay just like this for now. Adhering to his body's wishes, he lowered the cup to his lap and tilted back his head until it rested against the back cushions. Distant thunder rolled into the house, carried by the slight breeze tickling his eyelashes. The clock hanging above the television ticked away the seconds. A light pit-pat of the drizzle came from outside. None of these sounds, as calming as they were, phased him in the slightest. The calming tea continued to accomplish its given task.
That was what snapped him out of his calm state. In a heartbeat, he was standing with his feet planted firmly on the ground. His cup crashed to the floor and shattered around his feet. Another heartbeat and he was staring straight at the speaker silhouetted against the open Arcadia door. No defining features could be seen, but that feeling of being watched very closely hit him like an oncoming freight train. The man was judging him, examining him. Neither made a move. Silence, save for the light pit-pat and the resounding tick-tock, hung thick in the air. It was suffocating him. "Who..." he murmured. His voice was weak, his throat tight. He cleared it, and tried again. "Who are y––"
"That doesn't matter." He was cut off. The unknown man's voice was as calm as ever. He hadn't raised his voice in the slightest. But there was no warmth to be found within those words, either. The tension between them thickened. The steady tick-tock grew deafening. "Funny how you haven't noticed the kitchen light yet." Casual. The stranger sounded... casual, with only the slightest hint of amusement. Elijah glanced towards the mentioned room. The light was off. How he hadn't noticed the sudden change in lighting, he didn't know. The stranger's head nodded down. "Careful. You might cut yourself. You dropped your cup." He glanced down, but it was in vain. The couch cast a shadow across his legs, hiding the broken porcelain.
Finally, the stranger moved. Acting swiftly, he closed the back door, drew the blinds, and strode around the room to gather a few of the picture frames. He shoved at least five into the pouch around his waist before Elijah could say a single word of protest. His face, due to the drawn hood, remained undefined and in shadow. He hadn't turned an inch to notice when Elijah's senses finally kicked in and his lips parted. "Shut up," he demanded in that same cold, calm tone. "I'm doing you a favor. I'll keep these safe and return them to you as soon as possible, I assure you. You have my word, Elijah Bayne."
Elijah raised his voice at last, his lips turned down in a deep frown. "And how do I know I can trust you?"
The stranger stopped. He turned to face the apartment's second owner. "Well..." he began. He motioned to the right of Elijah. "He's fine with it, I'm sure."
Elijah followed the direction of the motion. There, leaning against the wall near the kitchen, was a very familiar figure. His toned arms arms were crossed and his hair was held back in a low ponytail. He wore his usual garb; an A-shirt, tight jeans, and combat boots – all black. Gentle gray eyes stared directly at him. A small, almost relieved smile decorated the male's features. Elijah's body instinctively relaxed. A smile wound its way onto his lips. Softly, as if in confirmation, he whispered his brother's name. "Zephyr..."
Through the darkness of the room, Elijah could see the smile given to him widen. Zephyr's gaze settled on the stranger. "Don't worry. You can trust him. He's a friend of mine," he spoke. There was a slight hesitation from the younger. Then a nod. He sighed in what seemed to be relief as his eyes returned to his brother. "Good..." His smile fell and his expression hardened. Even his eyes, usually so kind and understanding, took on a grim appearance. It sent chills crawling down Elijah's spine. "Do everything he says, when he says to. And when you leave, do not look back until he says it's okay. Do not slow down. Close your eyes, blindfold yourself, knock yourself out and force him to carry you, I don't care what you have to do. Just, whatever you do, do not look back. Not even a glance. Understand?"
Elijah's mouth dried. His tongue lay thick in his mouth. He was almost afraid to speak – to his brother, of all people. His own flesh and blood. His whole life, he had never feared telling Zephyr what was on his mind. Not until now, at this very moment. Quietly, a soft whisper slipped past his lips. "Wh... why...? What's going on?"
Zephyr's nostrils flared as he sighed heavily through them. His eyes closed and his eyebrows drew together. "She will find you. She's already searching. She's probably taken a few more lives already," he answered.
She...? Searching? Taken lives? This just made no sense! What could he have possibly done to make things become so serious all of a sudden? He was just an average college student. He attended classes during the day, worked during the evening, and helped pay the rent. Something was being kept from him. Just by his brother's reaction, he could tell. Whatever it was, it was important. There was a sense of urgency in the stranger's actions, and as far as he could tell, Zephyr was having trouble merely just speaking of this woman. Elijah groaned at the thoughts flooding his mind. He glared determinedly at the one before him. "Who? Who is looking for me?" he questioned. No answer. The corners of his lips pulled down even more. Ignoring the sudden pain shooting through his foot, he took a step forward and reached out for his brother, who instantly pushed away from the wall and took a step away, towards the kitchen. "Damnit, tell me! Don't go on and on about something, and end up not telling me what's going on! It's important, isn't it?"
Once again, Zephyr sighed. His eyes opened to reveal a regretful gaze. His arms fell to his sides, his hands tightening into fists. "I'm sorry, Elijah. Please understand. I was trying to protect you." His brother's anger slowly faded into confusion and patience. Zephyr's eyes filled with unbearable guilt as he cast his gaze away. "I kept this world from you for far too long, I know... I was stupid to think you'd never be dragged into it. Please, give me a chance to explain."
"Sorry, but you'll have to save it for later." The voice came from neither of the brothers. They both turned their surprised gaze to the stranger. One blind was drawn to the side by a mere finger. His head angled just to where both of the boys could see the nose and lips protruding from the jacket's hood, pointed in the direction of the small slit. His mouth was drawn into a tight-lipped frown. Light flickered against his skin. In an instant, the blind was swaying closed. The stranger quickly fled to the other exit. "Get your shoes on," he demanded. His voice had long lost the casual tone from earlier.
Elijah only shifted to continue facing him, watching him in confusion. "Why? What's going on?"
The man tossed a pair of shoes that had been lying near the door. Elijah fumbled to catch them. "Just do it!" he snapped. It seemed as though he were growing more and more impatient with each tick of the clock.
Elijah kicked away the porcelain around him. As he tugged on one shoe, he balanced on the other foot. He had no time to securely tie the laces, he soon realized. As soon as his hands started reaching down to do so, one had been snatched up and violently pulled. He stumbled at first, but was otherwise quick to match the stranger's pace. They darted out the apartment, the door left wide open and swinging on its hinges.
A sense of panic flooded through him as adrenaline kicked in. His heartbeat was deafening in his ears as he ran. The drizzling rain tapped on his skin and moistened his clothes. An iron grip nearly crushed his hand. Street lights illuminated them, then shaded them as they ran past. He glanced to both sides as he was tugged along. Zephyr was no where to be seen. A new sense of panic overtook him. His head turned.
"Don't look back!"
The shouted words startled him from turning his head any father. His gaze snapped back to the stranger pulling him. "But... Zephyr, he's...!"
"Don't worry about him. He can't be harmed."
Elijah's confusion only grew and grew. He just didn't understand! It caused his blood to heat up with frustration and caused suspicion to rise inside him. What exactly was being kept from him? What was the cause for the urgency in both the stranger and his carefree brother? These thoughts, along with many, many others, plagued his mind as he ran through the empty streets. But through them, he tried to remember where they ran. Left, right, straight, left, left, right, straight, right, left... No. He lost track already. His lungs began to heave and tried to pull in any air that they possibly could. The bottom of his feet grew to feel raw and his legs burned. Water soaked his clothes and hair. But the stranger in front of him continued. They wove through the streets until it seemed as though Elijah's feet could only drag across the pavement.
Finally, they slowed to a stop. Elijah collapsed to the concrete. His hand slid from the stranger's grasp and both palms pressed against the wet sidewalk. His head felt light. The world spun around him. His chest and back heaved as his mouth gaped open. His heart threatened to burst right out of his chest. His mind hardly registered the stranger's words. He felt like just lying down and resting for as long as he needed. But something told him that he shouldn't do that just yet, that it was not safe to do so. After a long moment, his breathing began to calm. His heartbeat slowed. The world steadied. The words from earlier echoed in his mind.
"We should be safe now."
His head turned. There was no protest this time. What he saw caused his eyelids to pull back in shock. A bright orange glow rose into the sky. It dyed it and reflected off the lightening drizzle. Flames rose high over the tops of the buildings, dancing brightly against the dark gray surroundings. He knew exactly where they were coming from, without even remembering the way. Tears filled his eyes and a few began to slide down his cheeks. His chest felt empty. His lips parted in disbelief. Time slowed around him. He felt completely numb, from head to toe. His gaze lowered to the street they had just ran up. Empty. He stared for what felt like centuries to him, when in truth, it was only a mere minute. No movement.
His lips formed the name of the missing boy, just as a hand grasped his upper arm and helped him stand. Elijah stumbled and his legs threatened to give out at any moment. He forced them to be strong once more as the hand pulled away, and the stranger ordered to follow. He stared on in worry. But before he could even utter a single syllable, he was tugged in another direction, away from the streets they ran through. He turned his head away from the sight of the flames licking at the night sky and the smoke adding to the dyed clouds. Sirens blared in the background, then vanished.
Despite his trembling weak legs, and his dragging heavy feet, he followed the stranger. He was lead through a tight alleyway, until it opened up to a small lot with a building Elijah had never even seen before, a structure built completely of wood. Five stairs lead up to the small porch. Empty wooden benches with no backs lined the wall and railing. A warm, yellow light poured out of the high windows, dimly illuminating the small area. Blocky letters carved out of an old wood arched over the front door on the left side of the porch. It read 'WHESTLEY'S GRILL & BAR'. The word 'OPEN' was burnt black into a rectangular piece of worn-down wood, held up by a thick black string draped over a rusty nail centered on the door. Muffled laughter and music came from within.
The sign rattled against the door as the stranger flung it open. The bell chimed. The muffled noises were no longer as such as a hand pushed on his back and shoved him inside. He stumbled forward, into the room filled with a light haze of smoke. The scent of cigarette smoke, liquor, various foods, and barbeque fires filled his nostrils. Booths lined the walls, and round wooden tables occupied two thirds of the floor. On the closest wall, directly to the left of the door, a bar resided. On the wall opposite to that, a small stage with round tables flanking each side. Though the stage was unoccupied, drunken customers and carefree citizens alike danced on the floor before it. Cheers and whistles rang throughout the small, yet lively, room as the onlookers smiled and laughed from their seats.
Elijah was in a daze. His eyes wandered through the restaurant-bar. He tried to take in all the sights, smells, and sounds around him, but found it hard to make heads or tails out of. A couple passed by him. They smiled welcoming smiles and politely bowed their heads as they passed. Dumbstruck, Elijah returned the gesture, then continued his survey of the area. His eyes finally landed on two cat ears sewn onto a black hood. He glanced around him. Sure enough, the stranger wasn't at all near him. Then it occurred to him; as he was standing here, just staring, the stranger had left him behind and headed to the bar.
He hesitated. Was he supposed to follow? Was he supposed to stay here? A motion from the stranger told him which action he should take. Obeying the beckoning of the wave, he willed his legs to move. He forced them to carry him to the stool in which the stranger sat. Another gesture to the one beside him, and Elijah was quick to sit down. Instantly, his eyes were drawn to the man standing behind the bar – mostly due to the eyes of an usual shade of pale blue.
This man wore a grim expression as he stared down at the wine glass in his hands. Hair dyed a dark-red hue layered over his head and framed his face, the bangs partially covering his left eye. The thin black frames of his glasses almost concealed the small dark freckle decorating the bottom left corner of his right eye. The man's lips didn't move in the slightest as his gaze shifted to look directly at Elijah. Then he paused. A surprised expression formed. The glass nearly slipped from his hand. He set the fragile glass cup down on the counter as he adverted his attention to the stranger and tilted his body forward. Rushed words, in a hushed tone, came from his lips. "When you said that it was someone important, I didn't expect you to mean him!"
"There have been..." The stranger paused. He chose his next words carefully. "… certain circumstances, I suppose you can say."
Kasey's face lost all its color. He straightened as his eyes relaxed in understanding, yet they held a hint of disbelief and tremendous grief. He barely caught himself as he stumbled back, running into the shelves behind him. The glasses clattered together in return. One hand lifted to brush the hair from his face, running it across his scalp afterward to help compose himself once more. "I see..." he murmured. His gaze swept to Elijah. "Then you... You must be Zephyr's brother."
Elijah found himself hesitating. Gently, he nodded as silent confirmation.
The bartender's eyes slid closed. His lips tightened. "I can tell," he nearly whispered. It Elijah to lean forward just to hear him, his arms resting on the bar table. "You have the same eyes." Confusion once again became the reigning emotion in Elijah. But the man paid no attention. Instead, he opened his eyes and held a steady gaze. "Follow me. There's much to tell."
Before Elijah had a chance to question, Kasey had called for another worker to look over the bar and motioned for the newcomer to walk around. Elijah groaned. Didn't anyone know how to give him a chance to speak? Though his body screamed in protest, he stood and briskly did as he was told. He glanced to the stranger – and only found an empty bar stool. "Come on, hurry up," he heard the man say just as he turned his head to try to locate the stranger who had lead him here. Huffing lightly, Elijah shoved away all thoughts of the mysterious man.
He followed the bartender through the wooden door and into the storage room. The door quickly closed behind him. A single light bulb dangling on a chain flicked on, gently swinging. The man held a stern gaze. "Before we do anything, you must swear that you will not speak of this place. To anyone."
"What's going on?"
"I don't even know yo––"
Elijah's hands lifted in defense. "Okay, okay, I swear!" he gave in. The main relaxed. His gaze softened. Elijah lowered his arms as the man dropped to his knees. "You never gave me your name."
"Kasey Miller." He murmured a phrase under his breath and a soft click echoed. "Yours?"
"I thought you knew it. You looked like you recognized me back there."
Kasey glanced up as he grabbed onto a black metal handle Elijah hadn't noticed before. "Know you? No. I recognized you by those eyes. Those are Zephyr's eyes. He mentioned having someone he wanted to protect. But I never guess it would be a family member, much less a sibling." He tugged. A large piece of wood folded back on soundless hinges. He stood and dusted off the pants of the bartender's uniform. A dim light shone through the new hole in the floorboards. "He never gave a name."
"Elijah," the boy answered. "Elijah Bayne."
Kasey stood for a brief moment. He repeated the name softly, to himself, before he focused his eyes back to Elijah. He gave a gentle, kind smile. "Well then, Elijah Bayne, go ahead and head down. I'm afraid I can't leave this open."
He was hesitant at first, but soon gave into Kasey's will. He stared down the old wooden steps as he allowed his hand to glide across the polished railing. 10 stairs down, and he reached a small platform that curved to his left. He followed it and continued down the other then. Three steps down the right and he found himself standing before what seemed to be a modern-day living room.
The floors were carpeted by an off-white rug. The furniture was arranged so that the white couch was to the left and the loveseat was beyond a wooden coffee table covered in papers and books, facing him. Two women sat on these couches; the smaller on the loveseat, playing with a plush rottweiler in her lap, and the taller lounging on the larger couch with a book resting between her palms. Beyond the couches, a white wooden door stood out from the white walls tinted the slightest of brown. Behind the large couch was a square table made of a dark-colored wood, surrounded by six chairs, with a bowl of what appeared to be individually wrapped candies resting on the center. Another white door stood just off to the side of the table.
Elijah's sweeping gaze instantly retreated back to the females as he heard the taller one speak. "Go to the bedroom. Quickly, now," she spoke hurriedly. The book had already been placed down on the coffee table to add to the other junk left there. Her high ponytail swayed as she ushered the other girl with the same dark brown hair into the door across the room, and closed it. She swiftly made her way back to Elijah and swept past him. Grabbing a hold of Kasey's arm, she tugged him forward and shot a warning glare towards the one she didn't recognize. She pulled him to the nearest couch and let go, her shoulder facing Elijah now. "What is the meaning of this?" The thick British accent caught Elijah off guard. He had heard it on TV shows and movies before, but never had he heard it in real life.
"Look, I know this looks bad, but listen to me," Kasey began calmly, lifting his hands in an attempt to help calm the girl.
"And what should I be listening to in the first places? Excuses?"
"No, Lilith. Just listen for a moment."
Her hand flew towards Elijah and her palm spread out towards him to bring the spotlight back to him, dull pink lips turning down. "You brought a stranger here and you're telling me to listen?" she snapped. "Do you have any idea what problems this could cause?"
Kasey rose his voice. How he did this without exploding on her, Elijah feared he may never know. "He's a special case!"
"Special how?" She dropped her arm.
"He's who Zephyr wanted to protect!" Lilith fell silent. Kasey sighed. "Lilith. Take a look at him. He's Zephyr's brother. The eyes are proof enough of that."
Her eyes widened in disbelief and realization, both at the same time. "But if he's here, that means..." Her voice trailed off. Kasey nodded grimly. She returned her gaze to Elijah. One moment, she was standing frozen to the spot. The next, she had her arms wrapped tightly around the boy's shoulders and holding him close. One hand calmly stroked at the black locks of his hair. "You poor thing..." she whispered sadly. "I'm so sorry..."
Cautiously, Elijah returned the hug by placing his hands on the woman's back. "Why? What's wrong?" The questions hung in the air. As soon as they came out, he wished that he could just take them back. But he wanted to know. He wanted to know it more than anything before. This secret had been kept from him for far too long. Even these people, people he didn't even know, knew what he didn't.
Lilith pulled back and placed both hands on his shoulders. Worried red eyes looked straight into his. "You mean... You don't know?"
Elijah glanced between the two strangers. "Know what?"
The color drained from Lilith's face. She turned her head to Kasey. He only looked away. With no other choice, she turned back to Elijah. "Zephyr... Your brother..." She hesitated. Uncertainty and concern filled her eyes as they glanced back and forth between both of Elijah's. "He's dead."