by Ri Maku
It's been 10 years since her friend went missing. Now, he's back, and he's got elf ears.
It's day again. Another morning. Light streams through a single slit in my blackout curtains, and I wince. I'll have to adjust them again. No matter how hard I try, I can never fully block out the damned sun.
I get up slowly and make my way to the sink. Another dream, just like every night for the last ten years, but it still leaves me shaken in a pool of my own sweat. A splash of water does the trick, and for a moment I'm too shocked by the cold to remember his face as he left my dorm that day. I take a look at myself and compare my features to my memory of back then. I don't look much different. Longer hair, now, dark brown and tumbled about my back, and an expression that seems haggard, tired, and stern. Hope has no home here, and I've accepted it with the same dull expression as before. Move on, it's another day.
Breakfast is easy, simple. A meal replacement drink that tastes like chalk washes down the morning supplements and I grab my bag to head out to work, the same old same old. I turn to the foyer of my apartment and the sound hits my ears, three heavy bangs against the cheap wood of my front door. I furrow my brown and check my watch.
Who the hell bothers someone at this hour? Did I do something wrong? Forget something? The wonder and curiosity laces my anxious steps forward. I glance through the peephole, but I don't see anything. I swear, if it's some kids playing ding dong ditch or some shit, I'm going to lose my shit. I open the door, and i stifle a scream.
A body lies crumpled at my feet. The front of the door where he knocked is red, dripping with the splattered blood of his knuckles, and he's not moving. I kneel down immediately and check for a pulse. Being a doctor, or a resident at least, has its perks. I feel it, there on his radial pulses, faint, but present. He's alive. I reach for my phone to call work and let them know to send an ambulance, but his hand shoots out and grabs mine, and that moment of contact sends a spark of....something... through me. A feeling? I don't know, but what i do know is his voice as he mumbles.
>"Don't. Please. They're coming, Zeda."
I freeze. My whole body locks up, tension lacing every muscle.
I practically breathe his name, my voice barely registering as I shift the hood from his face. It's bruised and it's smeared with blood, but there's no mistaking him. I have no words. I have no thoughts. Everything is a blank for just a moment of static disbelief. Ten years. Ten. Years. It only then occurs to me as I take in the scene, phone in hand timing out and going dark, dropping to the floor, what he's wearing. He looks straight out of a renaissance fair, dark cloak covering most of his body aside from dark leather boots. I shift the cloak to look beneath it, checking for blood as he groans. Is that...armour? It's broken and bent, but the chest piece is unmistakable.
I grab him under the arm and tug him up to get him inside. I've prided myself upon my own maintenance, so it's not the biggest effort in the world to do it. I get him inside and look both ways down the hall before shutting and locking the door. He's on my kitchen floor now, back rest against the island as I rush to his side and begin checking his form for lacerations or signs of internal injury. I haven't figured out what to say, yet, so defaulting to work mode seems like a good enough coping mechanism. I go to unclasp his cloak and he once again grabs my wrist, looking up at me with piercing blue eyes that i somehow know have seen too much.
He manages, and somehow that's the first thing I want to do.
I stammer incredulously. He stares at me, as though reading me desperately for a reaction. I can't quite believe what i'm seeing. I go to touch them, just to convince myself that I am, in fact, awake, and that this is, in fact, happening, but common sense snaps me back to manners and i withdraw my hand.
"I need to see if you're bleeding into your abdomen."
I say firmly. Medical knowledge is laced with facts, not feelings, and it's safe to run only on what makes sense. Ishan follows my movements with his eyes and nods, weakly. I unclip the clasps to his chest piece and it falls to the floor with a loud **clank.** He's wearing a loose fiber shirt beneath, but I can see the red where whatever beating he took bent the armor inwards and sliced through his flesh. I stand, rushing to my drawer by the fridge and taking out my kitchen shears. He's silent beyond the pained expression as I cut away the fabric and expose his stomach. A brief inspection shows the wound to be superficial; a little bactine and a good gauze wrapping and it'll heal fine. It's the bruising that concerns me, right around his ribs.
"Looks like you may have fractured something, here."
I say, zoned in. He looks down and grimaces.
"Sure feels like it."
He grunts and tries to sit up more, but I stop him, a hand on his chest, and meet his eyes.
"Where have you been? All this time..."
He stares back, haunted, and I notice the changes time has wrought. His eyes are fiercer, his face, scarred on the upper left side, just over his eye, and like mine, his features bear the sadness I've felt since the day he went missing.
"It's a lot to explain."
He manages, finally, and that's when it hits, an fury that I never let out before. Angry tears well and, against everything I know from bedside manners, I break.
"Ten years. TEN. FUCKING. YEARS. You were gone, just like that. I looked for you even when every trail ran cold and the cops marked you off as a cold case. Where the FUCK have you been?!"
His brow furrows and his shoulder blades clatter as he suddenly pulls me into a hug. I break down completely, tears streaming and dripping onto the blood-stained floor as he holds me.
"I'm so sorry, Zeda. I want to explain everything. God, I do, but I can't. Not yet. Not till you're safe."
I pull back, staring at him with all the mixed emotions of a psychotic patient.
"Safe? Who did this to you?"
I question, and he pulls himself to his feet despite my resistance. What energy had led him just to my door was starting to recover, but I knew well enough that he needed rest.
"Ishan, I need you to tell me what's going on. Now."
I demand, even as he limps to the window and glances out the slit in the curtain. His brow furrows further, concern written plain as ink in his eyes.
"Soon. Not now. We need to move. They're here."
He says in a commanding tone, forcing himself forward and grabbing my hand.
"Grab your bag. We're going. NOW, Zeda."
I listen. After all, he seems to know better than me at this point and I have no argument to the contrary, and we go. He inquires about a back way out, and I lead him to the service elevator. We make it down to the boiler room and out the employee entrance. My car isn't far, but he shakes his head, motioning to me to keep quiet. We crouch, passing the lot and towards the encroaching woods along the back way. I catch a fleeting glimpse at four figures peering into my Buick, burly folk wearing garb similar to Ishan. I look at him with concern and he puts a finger to his lips. Quiet. We move like ghosts, silent for about a half hour of hiking, stepping on rocks to hide our footprints as we trudge further into the Oregon forests. Finally, I stop. He's moving slower, and we've got to be at least two miles in, even at our slow pace.
"You need to rest."
I state, not willing to take another step without an explanation. He turns, features eerily matching the deep green of the canopy above. He nods, and I help him sit on the fallen trunk of a great oak.
"I don't know where to start."
He murmurs as I hand him a water bottle from my bag. He drinks a bit, then hands it off to me. I take a few gulps and put it back in my bag. God knows how long we'll be here, and I only have the one and just about zero knowledge of this place and its water sources.
"Start with ten years ago. What happened?"
He watches me, carefully, and speaks in a tone much more quiet than I expected.
"We'll need to go back further than that."
He murmurs, and I stare at him, perplexed. He continues.
"I want you to know that every moment of our friendship was and is genuine. I have genuinely cared for you, Zeda, and I don't want what i'm about to tell you to have any bearing on those memories."
"Just tell me, Ishan. I need to know."
He steels himself and begins, but I can tell that he's having trouble finding the courage.
"I was assigned to protect you all those years ago. You're more important than you know. I was to keep you safe and hidden from the Roving Eyes. They look for people from our world, hunt them down for their inherent properties, and enslave them, using them until they're all but spent before killing them and selling their parts on the black market."
I question, panic setting in. What in the hell is he on about? He looks back at me, blue eyes bright against caramel skin, and strains, revealing the answer to my question.
"You've always felt out of place. You used to tell me that every time we tried to go to parties or that graduation for your roommate. You thought it was normal, and to an extent, most people don't truly feel they belong here, but the difference between us and them is that you don't, and you never did. Zeda..."
He takes my hand, looking at me with a seriousness i've never seen before in him.
"You're elven, same as me. I'm a traveler. I jump from world to world, hiding our people among the rest. We've been seeking refuge for hundreds of years."
I blurt, withdrawing my hand. I point at my ears.
"You're joking, right? Tell me the TRUTH, Ishan. Who were those men back there? What is happening? What the HELL is happening?!"
I'm riled up, and i'd say I have a right to be. He looks downcast as i rip my arm from his grasp and nods.
"It's a lot to take in. I'm sorry."
He sighs, letting his head fall back and breathing the fogged morning air. It's cool out, the beginnings of spring just edging out the winter's bite, and as he sits there, I just stare, mind racing and confused. I wait for him to continue, and i'm not disappointed.
"The men around your car are called Roving Eyes. They come from the people who forced us into hiding. Their cities run on the blood of elves, on the natural magical properties we contain. You were hidden at birth, and your ears were docked to hide your identity. We needed you to believe you were human and act as one. You would have been fine, too, ignorant and blissful. The mistake lay with me. I got too close to you."
"You were my best friend."
He looks over to me and offers a small smirk.
I pause, and it dawns on me that I guess I never really moved on, after all. No friend i'd had since had ever gotten as close to me as he had. It just never felt right.
"Like knows like."
He stated, and like all the facts i'd read in my years of study, it just clicked. Despite the logic saying that elves were the stuff of stories, here he was, ears long and present, and it was all lining up. I nod. He turns to me, wincing to hide the discomfort. I look to his wound in concern, and he shakes his head.
"I'll be fine. I promise."
"So, how was you getting too close to me the undoing?"
I question. He looks down, almost in shame.
"We saw each other every day. Spent every free hour joking and laughing and studying in the commons. I didn't stop to consider the giant target our combined and building energies were painting on our backs. I was too immersed, too happy being your friend, not being lonely. They sensed us, and I had to leave to get them off your trail. So, I left no trace of myself and disappeared. Jumped to another world. It was the hardest thing I had to do, and I intended on doing it forever."
He looked back up at me, eyes gaunt suddenly, full of worry.
"You never stopped building. Now, they know...and they're coming."