Chapter 2

Home in Haven

"It's not," he breathed walking closer. He was so close she could see the glint of hurt in his dark blue eyes. "This is not good-bye."

Pressing her against the barren willow tree, he leaned in close. His breath was hot against her face. She didn't want to hesitate. This was exactly what she wanted, but…

Suddenly, she remembered how cold it was. There was blood—blood all over her hands. And, what was she holding?

"Darling," his words echoed in her head, "My heart's up here." An eerie smile curled over his lips.

(Five weeks ago)

Rila shot up from bed, her dark brown hair damp from sweat, and the feeling of panic still tugging at her heart. Her blanket and comforter had rolled off the edge, perhaps, from all her tossing and turning. It was cold. She sniffled as she reached down for the covers. That's when she noticed she had been crying.

Morning didn't come quickly enough. The brunette laid wide awake in the dark for what seemed like hours before the mellow orange light of dawn cracked through the curtains. At seven she rolled out of bed and shook off the bad feeling the dream had given her. As she went about her morning routine, she promised herself, today would be a good day.

Treading back into her room, she pulled open the curtains. Sunlight spilled in. Rila shielded her warm grey eyes with one hand as she peered outside. The high-rises were glimmering in the morning sun. The streets and sidewalks were already bustling with cars and people. She hated the cuty when she and Tommy first moved here, but after four years, the place had really grown on her.

New Haven City, New Haven—sitting near the southeastern coast of the New Haven Sanctuary, it was the city to be for all big-dreamers. As capital, New Haven City was also often the center of media attention.

So maybe it should have been expected when a number of peculiar events occurred before Rila Avalon's eighteenth birthday.

In old gold, the words "New Haven Academy" arched elegantly across the slender black gates of the high school. Students, in their dark blue and white uniforms, were trickling in through the front and side gates. A few near the main gate scattered back as a red motorcycle skid to a stop in front of them.

"Omigod, Tommy," Rila huffed as she dismounted her step-brother's bike, "So embarrassing." She pulled off the candy red helmet she had been wearing and tossed it at her brother.

"Don't have too much fun," he said, handing Rila her backpack and leaning over his bike.

Rila frowned as a kiss landed on her forehead. "Don't do that," she gasped. The nearly run-over students were staring and whispering. "They're gonna think you're my boyfriend!"

Tommy chuckled, "As if." He pulled the red helmet over his medium-length dirty blonde hair. "Call me if you need a ride after school."


"See ya, kid."

"Bye. Be careful at…work," she trailed off and stopped waving. Tommy had already sped off.

New Haven Academy, which sat on the outskirts of New Haven City, was the only school in the area that incorporated military science in its curriculum. Its gated-in courtyard was symmetrically landscaped. Students swore that whoever designed the school must have been OCD. There was an even number of picnic tables, surrounded by the same amount of shrubbery and trees on each side. The stony sand-colored buildings, which seemed to tower over the courtyard in their steep Romantic roofs, stood neatly across the main grounds in what looked like an "H" from aerial view. The rest of the campus was equipped with athletic fields and "the playground," which was grounds for their military-styled training sessions.

Naomi Winter stifled a laugh with one hand as she watched her friend scold her fellow peers and walk pass the gates. Rila could be quirky at times, but that was one of the qualities Naomi liked about her. They had been "BFFs" since childhood. Even when Naomi's popularity suddenly rose during their sophomore year, she still preferred Rila's company over that of the "it" girls who quickly befriended her. It's because you're the epitome of the ugly-duckling-turned-swan story, Rila had said, they are careful not to make enemies of their competition.

"Rilaaa," Naomi sang. Her long black hair swayed behind her as she fell into step beside her friend.

"Hey, girl," Rila responded, a sweet smile touching her warm eyes.

"What were you guys blabbering about? Your brother?"

"Ugh, yeah."

"It's simple. He's hot. They're jealous."

"You think he's hot?" Rila replied in feigned surprise.

Naomi's hazel eyes widened and a light pink color tinted her pale cheeks. "I felt like an idiot that day," Naomi said, recalling the time she had tried to ask out Tommy. "Sorry, I play for the other team," she continued in a mock low voice. She flipped back her raven fringe in an exaggerated impression of how Tommy often pushed back his hair.

Rila turned away, trying to hold in her laughter, but failed. "I tried to tell you," she sputtered between laughs.

"Never in my life had I so badly wished that I was a dude."

"I'm sure you'd make a hot guy," Rila said after catching her breath, but she couldn't imagine it. Naomi had very delicately feminine features. In the right lighting and with the right style of makeup, she sometimes looked ethereal.

"Ah, good times," Naomi sighed, feeling a bit nostalgic.

"Anyway, how was practice?" Rila asked. Naomi was in her curve-hugging cheerleader uniform.

"It was eh," Naomi made a face scrunching her nose. She was stunning; even her silly faces looked cute. "I am so glad it's Friday," she said emphatically and did a twirl. Her pleated cheer uniform skirt twirled with her.

"Me too."

As they neared the stairs of the central building, Naomi stopped and grabbed her friend's arm. "Hey, isn't that?" she asked pointing to her right.

A familiar one-eyed man was walking towards them from the eastern gates, two men in formal suits trailing behind.

"Vagh," Rila tried to say, but the words got choked up in her throat as she recalled the bad dream.

"What's he doing on campus?" Naomi whispered.

They inched forward, trying to look casual.

"But that would leave you…" one of the two men said. He had a dark tattoo on the side of his neck. Its design was big enough that half of it peaked out from his collared shirt.

"You must remember, the people are your priority. That includes the Academy and it's students," Armand cut him off. He spotted the two girls, and the conversation stopped.

"Good morning, ladies," Armand greeted as they crossed paths. He smiled, but the gaze he cast with his single icy blue eye gave Rila a shudder.

"Morning, General Vagh," the girls said, nearly in unison.

Armand turned back to his guests and uttered something about showing them the campus. The three of them sauntered toward the northern courtyard.

Once they were out of earshot, Naomi gave out a sigh of relief and released the death grip she had on Rila's arm. "Oh God," she breathed, "The way he looked at us—I thought he was going to kill us."

Rila laughed but thought what they had overheard was odd.

"I'm sorry about…" Naomi began to say, but the school bell cut her off. Its resounding melody echoed across the now almost empty courtyard. Only a few scattered students remained outside.

"Wait, it's eight already?" Naomi gasped, throwing a glance at the school's clock tower, "I need to change out of this uniform before homeroom."

They rushed up the stairs of the central building and split up in the halls.

Rila stumbled to her homeroom, a couple minutes late. She'd surely be penalized for this. Holding her breath, she reached for the door handle. The classroom was positioned so that the door opened into the front of the room. The teacher was already standing near the blackboard, talking and scribbling announcements on the board. He stopped when he noticed Rila.

"Nice of you to join us, Ms. Avalon. Please," he said gesturing for her to take a seat.

She flushed as the students looked up and stared. Quietly, Rila made her way to the empty seat in the back and slumped down. Sitting to her left was Saito Kaneshiro, her other best friend.

"Hey Ree, looks like you beat me today," he whispered. If Saito was known for anything at the academy, it was for picking fights and showing up late to everything. He seemed to relish in being called a "rebellious punk," but peers would always be shocked to see him ranked in the top ten when scores were posted.

"Not something I'm proud of," Rila breathed, as she plopped her planner on the desk. "What did I miss?"

"Nothing interesting. Except," his lips straightened, "did you see Naomi this morning?"

"Yes, why?" she responded almost immediately. Saito never mentioned Naomi, unless it was to say "forget about her." Rila never fully understood why, but her two best friends didn't get along. In fact, they absolutely hated each other.

Saito grinned his silly grin. "Well, someone's been gossiping about your hotshot motorcycle-riding boyfriend."

Rila gawked as her friend gave an exaggerated wink. There was a mischievous twinkle in his honey brown eyes. Once upon a time, when they first began hanging out, Rila could melt in his gaze. However, that was quite a long time ago.

"That's not true—and it wasn't Naomi!" she seethed under her breath. She remembered the students at the gate. Next time I should let Tommy run them over, she thought.

"Maybe if you dyed your hair blonde."

"What? Like you?"

Saito had naturally dark hair, but he always wore it frosted blonde in a faux hawk.

"Yes, like me," he said sarcastically, "So you'd match me and your brother."

Rila gave him the meanest fake glare she could conjure. It stopped him from talking but it didn't wipe off the teasing smile on his face. However, Rila couldn't deny that she enjoyed their playful banters.

Summer was close. One could tell by the way the sun stayed glued in the sky after seven. Rila woke up with a circle of drool on her homework and the smell of chicken tickling her nose. Tommy was in the kitchen fixing up dinner, his cop uniform still on.

"Sorry, I fell asleep," she muttered, sauntering toward the kitchen.

"That's fine, but you owe me next time," he said playfully.

Still sleepy, Rila rubbed her eyes and began talking without thinking, "I didn't get much sleep last night. I had this odd dream about…" She stopped herself.

"About?" Tommy turned, his brows slightly raised in concern. Being eight years older, Tommy more often than not played out his role as guardian rather than brother.

"Zack," she said hesitantly and searched her brother's emerald green eyes for a hint of what he was thinking. Tommy was hard to read. He hardly flustered, but laughed freely. From the perspective of people who didn't know him well, he was the typical optimist.

Tommy smiled in response. "How was school?" he asked as if the name was never mentioned.

"Huh?" Rila uttered before deciding it would be wise to drop the subject, "You know, the same stuff with a pinch of drama. Right before lunch, Saito got in a fight with Naomi's boyfriend. Then I got in a fight with her and the girls about Saito."

Tommy chuckled. "Another one of those days, huh?"

"I could say the same to you. What happened to your arm?" His left hand and bicep was patched up with gauze.

"It's nothing. Just some scratches," he was quick to dismiss. "Look, I made one of your favorites." He passed her a plate mounted with spaghetti.

Rila peaked over the skillet and pot on the stove. "Chicken parmesan. I'm so jealous how you cook better than me." She stole a slice of chicken breast from the stove and doused it with tomato sauce.

"You know, just one of those things you pick up when your choices are learn to cook or starve," he joked.

They settled at the small square dining table and ate in silence, as they often did.

"I'm sure he's fine," Tommy suddenly said.

Rila looked up, surprised. Ever since Zack had been reported missing in action, mention of his name become almost taboo. Also around that time, Zack's adoptive father, General Vagh, began frequenting the campus with his mysterious guests.

"Don't let those dreams bother you. They're just that—dreams." Tommy's smile was reassuring. There was something about the peaceful expression he often had on his face. When Rila was younger, she thought he had the smile of an angel. She would feel safe in the most cacophonous storms or parental arguments as long as he smiled and told her everything would be alright. Now that she was older, Rila thought her brother's smile was perhaps a mask.

Tommy's phone vibrated with an incoming text. He pulled out his phone and stared at the text for a couple seconds before getting up. "Sorry, kid. I need to take this." Tommy equipped himself, grabbed his belongings, and disappeared out the door.

As Rila milled around, absentmindedly placing dishes in the sink, she received an unexpected call on her cell phone.

"Rila," Naomi breathed into the phone, "Where's Tommy?"

Rila could hear the panic in her friend's voice. "Shit, what's wrong?"

A/N: Big thanks to Ney and Hermione for the helpful feedback! Kind of a slow start, but excitement is on the horizon!