June 12, 2028
Heartstrong Valley, Colorado
“Oh, look at this. Richard. Ira, let’s stop here. We can meet our new neighbors,” Jane trilled excitedly towards her husband and son.
All three family members glanced out the window to see a stately, newly painted, white Victorian style manor house with clematis growing on the side. Its large green vines were complimented with white buds that released a sweet fragrance. In the front, covering most of the large porch were white gladiolus and red rose bushes. The porch itself had wicker chairs and a table, shaded by a portico, where more vines grew. It was well maintained.
The house could almost be featured in a home & gardens magazine.
Yet, as they glanced at the many cars parked in the large driveway, the Byrne family found that it was a large farm with orchards, bushes, and vines of fruits and vegetables.
A white sign near the road, read in deep blue letters:
Near the sign was a table with preserves, jellies, and jams, in checkered colors of blue, rhubarb, red, and orange.
“Ira, this looks like fun!” Jane turned in the passenger seat to see her teenage son with his foot resting on the back of the center console, looking bored and uninterested. While they had moved to Denver for Richard’s work, Jane kept encouraging Ira to “Buck up, and put a smile on that face.” That moving was, “simply a new adventure.”
“Yeah, I guess,” was his simple reply as he lazily glanced out the window again. He didn’t like the fact that they had moved. He missed his friends, especially Alec Parry.
They grew up together in Boston, Massachusetts. Now, he was in Denver, Colorado. It was easy to guess which place Ira preferred. What’s worse was that his parents wanted to drive, not fly. So, they were on the road for five, long, boring days.
Richard had parked the sedan behind one of the SUV’s, and they all stepped out and breathed in the fresh, mountainous air. It was different from the east coast, where there was the constant gas, salty air, and fish smell. The clean air, fragrant blossoms, and clear skies gave off a sense of welcoming thoughts.
While his parents insisted on him finding fruits to pick to take home, they had greeted the owners, the Grigori’s. The married couple were both tall. The husband had black hair and aqua eyes, but the mother had mahogany hair with blue eyes. Even though this was the first time meeting the Byrnes, the Grigori’s greeted them with a welcome and warm smile.
This was definitely not Boston.
Wearing a black tee shirt and dark blue jeans under the hot sky was not ideal. Ira decided to take shelter under the orchard trees. There were peaches, apples, and nectarines the size of a baseball. He reached up and picked a peach. It was ripe, slightly hard and ready to eat.
He was about to pick green apples when he heard a small boy’s shrill voice scolding someone he could not see. “Blackbird, you’re not allowed to do that! Ma said no!”
“Don’t worry, Falco, I’ve done this plenty of times. So what if I do it plenty more?” a girl’s cool, sisterly voice called back from one of the trees.
Glancing over, Ira found the small boy who chided the girl; he had brown hair and aqua eyes.
Through the branches and leaves, Ira could just barely see someone with raven black hair.
The child, who looked no more than seven, crossed his little arms. “It’s Falcon!” He glared upward.
The girl Falcon had called Blackbird chuckled brightly, “Okay, Ayah. Now step back. I’m coming down.”
Deciding to witness the commotion, Ira stepped forward. Ayah had noticed him, and beamed, “Hi! I’m Ayah. What’s your name?”
Before Ira had a chance to respond, Blackbird called from the tree. She was at the very top, where the limbs were least stable. “Ayah,” she sighed as she unsteadily climbed downward, “You know my name.”
“Need a hand?” Ira asked her.
Cursing from the shock of someone watching her, Blackbird lost her grip and footing and fell to the ground, landing across a protruding tree root. The wind had been knocked out of her. She grunted, her figure stiffened and shook uncontrollably.
She tried to will away the pain from the inevitable cuts and bruises.
While she was stationary, Ira caught full glimpse of her. She was gorgeous, with fair skin, raven black hair, and bright blue eyes. She looked to be about his age, fourteen.
Clutching her head and back slowly, panting, the two heard Ayah.
“Oooo… I’m telling Nana, Meryl! You’re in trouble!” his small fingers covered the sides of his mouth forming an o, as if he had just witnessed something bad happen.
Dealing with the pain, Blackbird glanced at Ira, then Ayah. “Oh, go tell her then if you must. Swan will have some remedy.”
Ayah grinned and ran off, leaving the two alone.
“Quite a fall. You should join the circus.” Ira bent over and rested his hands on his knees. He actually smiled as he gazed down at her, chiding her clumsiness.
Faking a laugh, Blackbird gazed up at him. He had light buzz cut hair with bright green eyes, and a strong jawline. “You’re not from around here, are you? Boston?”
“How’d you guess?”
“Your accent is a dead giveaway. Now that you’ve have your fun laughing at my fall, can you please help me up?”
He held out his arm and she took it. Careful not to cause any more pain, he helped her up and she immediately released him and supported herself on the peach tree, leaning over until she was ready to test her spine.
“You okay?” Ira asked, still grinning but worried.
“Oh, yeah,” she answered in a higher tone than usual. “I’ve had worse falls than that one. I just have never fallen on a tree root.” She glanced at him with her piercing blue eyes, then held out her slim fingers, “I’m Meryl, by the way. But, people call me Blackbird.”
“Nice to meet you, Meryl.” Ira took her hand and they shook, “I’m Ira. Ira Byrne.”
Before they could say any more, Ayah had returned with an elderly woman who had the spirit of a child. “Blackbird, are you alright?”
Not seeing Ira at first, the woman, who looked to be in her sixties stood behind her granddaughter, grabbed the base of her neck in one hand, and, balled her other hand in a fist.
Meryl seemed to know what she was doing, and tried to move away, “Nana, it’s alright. I’ll get better.”
“Stop struggling you silly thing.” Her grip on Meryl’s neck tightened and held her in place as she positioned her knuckles on the younger’s spine. Pressing hard enough that Meryl grimaced, Swan held her up and swiftly slid her knuckles all the way down her spine, right to her tailbone. There were loud cracks as Meryl straightened her back, “Ow…”
Swan smiled. “I hope that will teach you a lesson.”
“Nana…” Meryl strained a whisper. “We have company.”
Swan now turned to see Ira. She had blueish-grey eyes and black hair with silver streaks. “Ah.” She squinted and circled the man like a hawk. “Hm… Almost an adult, I see. Strong, in mind, body, and spirit. Intelligent too. Yes, he is a capable man.”
Ira glanced at Meryl, wondering why Swan was sizing him up. Meryl only smiled, and waved her hand off, as to suggest that she did this to every newcomer.
“What is your name, dear man?” Swan stood in front of him and studied his eyes.
“Ira. Ira Byrne.” He was unsure now whether he would pass her inspection or not.
“The Watchful Raven.” She whispered mystically, “Hm, stubborn, sometimes impertinent.”
Meryl stifled a laugh by biting her clenched knuckles. Ira glared at her.
“You will go far in life, dear boy,” Swan decided abruptly, “You will be faced with many challenges, but with luck or some form of fate, you will succeed.”
She strode off without another word. Ayah however waved to Ira with a beaming smile, “Bye. Raven.”
He followed his grandmother’s steps, leaving Meryl and Ira alone.
“That was…” he struggled to find the right words that did not sound rude.
“Unexpected.” Meryl crossed her arms and stepped towards him. “That’s my family. My grandmother does that to everyone, and she’s almost always right.”
“What did she say about you?” Some part of him wanted to know more about her, about this strange, friendly, family.
Meryl shrugged. “She said I was headstrong and passionate.”
The two walked, side by side, back to the parked cars, to the Byrne and Grigori families. Ira asked, half glancing at her, “And are you?”
Grinning broadly, she answered, “That’s for me to know, and you to find out.”
Ira had awakened with the intense sunlight streaking through the window. How many times had he dreamt of their first meeting? It had been so long ago, yet, Ira could still remember every detail perfectly, his parents, her family, and the land.
Pressing the palm of his hand against his forehead, he exhaled deeply, trying to rid that memory, even though it was one of the greatest moments in his life.
As he struggled out of bed, yawning audibly, he happened to gaze out the open window. A cool breeze had whispered in and sent goose bumps down his arm, as if tormenting him with the life he could have led.
While the Grigori’s property had suffered from the fire and destruction, by the time Ira and his friends bought the land and arrived, the plants and trees had flourished, despite the lack of care. The leaves were already green and small buds and blossoms were visible.
He turned away from the fresh, happier life and looked around his room. It was small and quaint; the walls were not yet painted, much like the rest of the house. Of course, the new house had only been built recently. With the help of the neighbors and the city, Ira and his team had a home with running water and warm welcoming walls… Well, almost.
There were very few furnishings in the two story, four bedroom, and two and a half bathroom house. Although Garth and Chris were adamant about choosing the furniture, the dwelling was still far from being done.
Sighing sadly, Ira went to the suitcase that lay on the single swivel chair and dressed into his well-worn, paint stained blue jeans and white, tight-fitting tee shirt.
While donning his shirt, Ira mulled over his friends’ and his significant transition. Not even two months ago, they were battling for their lives, living with rigid schedules and always on edge. Now, they stayed up late, slept in, and ate at their leisure. Garth, Chris, and Alec adapted to their new lives easily. It made sense, as they were the only ones who were laid back about life.
Charlie and Ira, however, still had trouble adjusting. While Ira’s case was explicable, Charlie’s was deep-rooted. He had trained as a physician, a man of healing. He was never supposed to end up on the front lines in New York or Europe. He was also the youngest of the team and Ira was impressed with how well he held back his justifiably disturbed emotions. He could laugh them off and join in any conversation. No one would know of the horrors he had faced behind that boyish grin of his.
Lost in thought, Ira had pulled his shirt on backwards. With a slight chuckle, he corrected the mistake and strode down the hallway. He knocked on the doors of the three other rooms and lilted loudly, “Time to get up, sleepy heads.”
He felt like a mother as he heard the groans and creaking of beds behind the closed doors.
Alec, who was still half-asleep, opened his door. He was unmistakably and knowingly nude as he complained to his captain with a wide yawn, “Dude, it’s nine in the morning.”
“Nine thirty to be exact,” Ira responded smartly.
He had known his closest friend far too long, and did not even blink or avert his eyes from Alec’s extroverted manner.
The five were well aware of Alec’s pride, and lack of humility. He was a Leo, after all.
“Nice package, Alec,” Garth said as he walked between the two closest friends. At least he wore his blue plaid boxers around his toned waist.
Alec winked, clicked his tongue, and said wearily, “Just for you, sweetheart.”
“Aw, too bad honey, I’m taken.” Garth joshed, winked, and shut the bathroom door. The shower ran, and humming soon followed.
Turning back, Alec rummaged around his wreck of a room for clean clothes.
“Wow, having a party and not inviting me?” Ira teased as he leaned against the door frame and scanned the muddled, unfinished room.
“You know I prefer messy.”
“We’ve only had the house for a few days,” Ira chided.
A twin bed was buried under a stack of unfolded clothes. More shirts, jeans, and underwear were piled on the desk chair or scattered on the floor.
His laptop was open and on; a picture of someone with a head of black hair was partially covered by the many websites and programs running different data.
One program in particular scrutinized numbers and letters over a symbol of an eagle holding an olive branch in one talon and arrows in the other.
“Why are you hacking into the military server again?” Ira accused his friend as he recognized the symbol.
“There are reports and documents saying that there were refugees in Paris. It’s not her!” Alec clarified before Ira could ask. The moment he heard ‘refugees’, Ira’s head had turned quickly to ask if she was there, alive.
“That wretched woman.” Alec cocked his hip, crossed his arms, and scoffed, his lengthening hair flying back. “Megan is still there. Trying to get her story. Well, she got it. She’s all over the news stations saying she alone found the refugees.”
“Fat chance,” Chris walked in wearing a tight shirt and shorts. “I bet they found her, or landed at her feet.”
“Or close to,” Garth walked in, the only thing he wore was a damp towel wrapped around his waist.
“Yes, why doesn’t everyone just waltz in to my room?” Alec blurted out while he took his time dressing.
“What are you guys doing?” Charlie walked in absentmindedly as he pulled on his wristwatch.
Alec groaned and turned away.
The youngest of the team strode to the open laptop, intrigued. “You know they can track you?” Charlie sat on the clothing covered chair and looked through the various web searches.
“They can track you, Cyan. I however, have ways of becoming a ghost-” He was cut off.
“Why is there a picture of Blackbird on the screen?” Charlie asked, barely hearing what his friend had said.
Stunned by this abrupt news, Ira viewed the monitor; sure enough, there was the high school photo of Meryl Grigori.
While she smiled reluctantly, the blue canopy background could not compare to her bright eyes, which looked worried, or frightened. Ira knew why, at the time that this photo was taken, Meryl’s brother Ayah, was sick with pneumonia.
Alec raised both hands with his shirt halfway on as Ira stared at him with an accusatory glower. “I only have that picture up to see if any of the refugees returning to the city matched her profile. None have, so far.”
His captain did not speak; Ira tramped deliberately out of the room, down the steps, and out the front door.
The walls trembled as the door slammed shut. After a moment of uneasy silence, Garth affirmed, “They found her, didn’t they.”
Alec sighed and nodded, “She appeared over a month ago, but they said they didn’t know who she was or where she came from. She was comatose before they could get answers. The statement said that she was cut up, beaten, and looked as if she had been in an explosion. She only awakened a few days ago. Not only that.” He hesitated. “Phoenix is still alive… at least that’s what they say. But he’s ruined, they had a video of both of them, his arm was severed and he was in a wheelchair.”
No one spoke, as their worst fears, their dreaded nightmares, had once more become reality. It was supposed to be over with the palace’s destruction. He was supposed to be dead and the war with it.
How had he and Meryl survived?
Quietly, as if the walls were listening, Alec pleaded, “Listen, please do not tell Ira about this. If he knows, he will suffer again. To know that she is still alive would tear him in two. Please don’t say anything?”
The beseeching tone in his voice was something that did not happen often with this man. However, he wanted to protect Ira, like Meryl, he knew Ira would blame her, and himself.
The others nodded, barely breathing. A sense of guilt and betrayal coursed through their veins. The thought of keeping a secret from their most trusted friend and captain haunted them to their very core.
That evening, after dinner, Ira had taken his half-finished beer bottle and stepped out into the moonless night.
Scarcely able to see anything past the porch lights, the man leaned against the post and drank thoughtfully, taking in the freshly dried paint smell.
The property was still barren, but he knew that was about to change.
The door behind him opened and a somber, “Hey.” echoed softly to his ears.
Alec, who had a glass of red wine in his hand, stood like a pillar next to Ira. “You okay?”
“Me? Oh yeah,” Ira quickly answered. “I’m fine. Just thinking about what we should work on next.”
Alex could hear the lie slip past, “I mean…”
“I know what you mean,” Ira clipped sharply.
Bracing himself, Alec drained his drink and stated, quite lucidly, “You were talking in your sleep last night.”
The former captain’s gazed shifted, yet he did not meet his friend’s. “Was I?”
“You left your light on again. When I went upstairs, you said something like…” Alec paused, recalling the exact words, “‘There’s no time left’?”
“It’s nothing,” Ira again lied.
It was not nothing. Ira had seen Meryl and Hunter lying dead at his feet. Their eyes, brown and blue were faded, but they were open and watched him with accusing glares. When he bent to close their eyelids, the two had faded, like dust in the wind.
Their voices chorused “There’s no time left.” The faces of his dead comrades had surrounded him; they circled him, haunted him.
He remembered how he had awakened with a cold sweat. He shook so violently, his clammy hands were unable to steady themselves.
“What’s going on?”
Ira nearly forgot that Alec was still next to him, he spoke without thinking. “Meryl’s last words. Hunter had said the same thing in New York City.”
“Coincidence?” Alec suggested. “We were all in sticky situations then.”
Huffing a short laugh, Ira corrected, “We were always in sticky situations. New York? Denmark? France? What if it was all just dumb luck that we survived? What if we weren’t supposed to?”
Alec knew where he was going. This sign of doubt was very rare in Ira’s case. They had been friends since they could remember, and only when he was near Meryl did Ira ever have doubt.
“Listen to me. We survived because we trusted our instincts and relied on our strengths. It’s not dumb luck, nor is it coincidence. Maybe we were destined to survive. Maybe we were chosen to help this world; but it was our choices that led us here, good and bad. I always think about Hunter and the others and Meryl. But I also live for them. I choose to believe that they are in a peaceful place, relishing the time where they are sitting on fluffy white clouds, enjoying endless martinis.”
Both Ira and Alec chuckled. That image burned like a light in their minds.
“C’mon. The boys are up for a movie tonight.”
Alec led him to the door, but Ira stopped him shortly. “Alec. Thank you.”