Spirit of Fire

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Chapter Seventeen: Heart

Saffire

Katya looks over my script with careful eyes. I’ve been spending the last few days on it, to try and figure out how to say what I want to say. I feel like I can’t put one word in front of the other on the subject, no matter how much I try to write from the heart. I just can’t get my feelings across in a coherent way, it seems. Whenever I try, it just becomes a mess of words and emotions.

I figured talking to someone outside the elemental leader sphere would help, and Katya is basically my sister at this point; if anyone knows how to help me with this, it’s her. Coburn has been helpful as well, but I need a fresh set of eyes on this.

I play with the yellow cushions that sit on the indigo couch at my old house, tracing the protruding diamond patterns, feeling the grooves and ridges beneath my fingertips. I focus on the feeling; somehow it helps to keep my mind at ease.

“Okay,” Katya’s voice finally breaks through the air after several moments, “what you have is good, but something is missing.”

I give her a look, “meaning what?”

She lets out a light chuckle, “it’s like, you’re missing from this, or something. It feels like you didn’t write this.”

I lay back on the couch in frustration, “that’s what I was afraid of. I can’t figure out how put myself into it. Whenever I try, I feel like I get too emotional, or something.”

“Hmm,” she plays with her low bun, letting a few strands loose to frame her face, “isn’t that the point, though?”

“What do you mean?” I frown.

“Just from what you’ve told me about all this, the whole point is to help people see there’s more to your skillset than stereotypes, right?”

I nod.

She bites her lip, “I guess what I mean is you don’t have to think so much about it. If people can feel something when you get up there, they’ll stand behind you.”

I chuckle, “no pressure.”

She raises an eyebrow, “you know what I mean. Don’t be afraid to put more of yourself in it.”

I look at her, pressing my lips together with a weak grin, “any suggestions?”

She takes a sip of her tea before responding, “I’m not you. I can’t put you into this, babes,” she says with a light laugh.

“Why not?” I joke.

She sticks her tongue out at me, “I know you’ll figure it out.”

I scoff, “you think so? The address is in like three hours.”

She raises her eyebrows at me, “I know you, and I know you’ll do great. Just like you have been for the last three and a half weeks.”

I smile and look down, “thanks.”

“What else has been happening, anyways? Is everything going okay with you guys?”

“Yah, it’s been a little tense, honestly. But it’s been good.”

She frowns, “how is it tense?”

“I’m sure Luna will go into more depth later today, but there’s some stuff going on in the background that’s pretty scary. I guess,” I sigh, “it’s hard to explain.”

She takes another sip of tea, “you don’t have to tell me, but I can tell something’s up just based on your energy. That’s why I asked.”

I bite my lip, “my energy?”

“She gives me a dubious look, “you know Earth Wielders pick up on energy, girl. You just seem different, if that makes sense. I can’t put my finger on it.”

Everyone can pick up on energy to a certain extent, but Earth Wielders tend to be most sensitive to it. But I think I know exactly what she’s talking about.

It comes and goes, but ever since the assignment to the Shadow Realm, I feel like a piece of me got taken away. Or something. Like part of me never left. Maybe I’m still processing the whole thing – it was only a few days ago – but I can’t shake the feeling that something isn’t totally right. It’s like my mind is trying to heal itself after going through almost being taken over by Nox, but a piece of the puzzle is missing, and I don’t know what it is.

But I don’t know if I can explain all that to her right now. Too many other things are on my mind.

“It’s – it’s just been a really crazy few weeks,” I sigh.

“Hmm,” her tone suggests that she knows more is under the surface, but she doesn’t press me on it, “it’s not just you. Everyone seems to have a weird energy around them recently.”

“I know,” I pause, “I think a lot of things will get cleared up today though. That should help.”

“It better. It’s exhausting,” she says in a light tone, but I think she’s only half joking, “in regard to today though, you’ll be great, you just have to be you, girl. Don’t try to overthink it.”

“But overthinking is my specialty,” I joke.

She raises an eyebrow.

I grin and look down, “I know, I know. I’ll figure it out. Thanks for having a look at it, I really appreciate it.”

“Of course, babes. You know you’re welcome any time, even if you don’t officially live here anymore,” she sticks her tongue out at me.

“Hmm,” I smile, getting up and readjusting the pillows before I remember something, “oh! On the second Saturday of December, there’s an event happening at HQ where we can invite family and friends to mingle and stuff, did you want to come?”

A wide grin stretches across her face, “would I ever! That sounds so fun!”

“I think it will be,” I chuckle, “I’ll ask Luna for more details and pass them along to you when I know more about it.”

“Sounds good,” she clasps her hands together, “well that’s something to look forward to. In the meantime, you got this, girl.”

We move to the doorway and we give each other one last hug goodbye, “thank you again,” I whisper.

“No problem. I’ll see you later, go kick some ass,” she winks.

I head outside and put my makeshift script in my pocket, making the quick walk to HQ, ignoring the sharp wind that cuts across the area. It reminds me of the day that Ana got compelled, an event I still can’t believe was only about a week ago. It’s crazy to think about everything that has happened since I got chosen. It feels as though it’s been an entire lifetime since I lived with Katya.

I suppose a lot of things have happened since then, but the point still stands.

I try to block out the memory of Ana’s compulsion as much as I can as I walk.

She seems to be doing much better, and I’m really glad we were able to restart our relationship. She’s certainly been more approachable lately, less distant, less withdrawn. She is still quite serious by nature, but she seems to have lightened up considerably. I’m glad I’m able to get to know her better now.

I wonder what she and Ryker would have been like together. From how everyone has described him, they seem like completely different people, but maybe that’s why they worked. I don’t know if that could work for me, but it’s nice if that was the case for them. Even now, I don’t pick up on energy as well as Katya or Ehren, but sometimes I can pick up on something around Ana. It’s as though Ryker’s energy is still around her, or something. Not all the time, but I can sometimes feel something accompanying her; I don’t know what else it could be.

I wonder if people could pick up on my parents’ energy around me after they died. I think Coburn could, but I wasn’t present enough to be aware of that sort of thing. But maybe people could, it’s hard to say. If only I could go back in time to figure it out.

I finish my walk and step through the doors of HQ and head straight up to my room so that I can work on my script a bit more and get ready without being rushed through the process.

I sit on my bed and grab a pencil, narrowing my eyes at my paper.

Why am I getting so nervous about this? I’ve dealt with far scarier things, especially in the last three weeks. I fended off Jaxson, I’ve been to the Shadow Realm, I talked to Luna about something I feel strongly about; maybe I can do this. This seems like nothing in comparison, but it’s not.

I look down at the jumble of notes that are on my piece of paper and begin writing.

Why am I having such a hard time putting my thoughts together about this?

When I talked to Coburn about what’s happening for Fire Wielders, it felt so much easier than this. I can’t seem to put my points together in a coherent way. Everything is all mixed up in my head. Maybe my mind is still recovering from Nox trying to compel me, I’m not sure.

I shiver at the thought.

I don’t want to revisit the memory of being there for more than a second. My mind runs away on me whenever I try, especially now that I know they were targeting Fire Wielders to build unrest. I just keep thinking what would have happened if they had known just how much I’m still processing my parents’ death.

I don’t think I would have been able to fend it off, even if Coburn was there with me.

Even if I’ve worked through my emotions surrounding that, there’s still this hole in my heart that I haven’t been able to figure out how to fill yet. Nothing has been able to; not Katya or her mother, not any other relationship I’ve been in, not even Coburn. Besides, it wouldn’t be healthy to rely on Coburn for something like that anyways. It wouldn’t be good for him or me. I’m secure enough to be romantic without it turning into codependency, but I wish I could figure out how to fill that void within me. I think it’s only something my parents would be able to touch, but they’re not around anymore. I’ve learned to live with it.

But I can’t shake the fear when I think about the compulsion.

I feel as though Nox would have caused that hole in my heart to grow until there was nothing left to me. I like to think I’d be able to fend it off, but I’m not so sure. I’m just glad he didn’t try to grab a hold of that part of me while I was in the Shadow Realm.

He knows my parents are dead, so it’s not like it was ignorance. Maybe it’s part of the reason why I’m scared to even think about being compelled again, that I’m scared he’ll use my parents’ death to take control of me.

The thought makes me nauseous as a shaky breath echoes in my ears.

I sigh, biting the end of my pencil, staring at my notes.

It probably won’t get much better than this.

I might as well get ready.

I go to my closet and pull out a soft, turtle-neck bodysuit with a large, oval shaped, open back piece. I decide to pair it with a plaid, light gray skirt with wrap up detailing and my black tights. I throw my hair into a high ponytail and call it a day; it has not been behaving over the last few days and I’m not in the mood to deal with it right now.

I hear a knock on the door as I’m securing my hair-tie around one final time.

“It’s open.”

Coburn opens the door, blinking at me for a few moments before closing the door behind him. He hasn’t gotten ready yet, but he could honestly go in what he’s wearing and probably get away with it; he always looks so handsome without even having to try. His dark jeans pair perfectly with his light gray shirt, with sleeves that go just past his elbow and buttons going a quarter of the way down his front. He has the top two undone, somehow making him look even more attractive. Parts of his hair adorably hang in front of his forehead; I don’t think he’s styled it yet, but he almost doesn’t need to.

“What?” I tease as I brush my fingers through my ponytail, lightly tugging at a particularly tight knot.

“You look really nice,” he grins.

“Hmm,” I smile at him, feeling my cheeks flush, “you do too.”

He chuckles at I turn my attention to my mirror, pulling a few strands of hair loose to hang in front of my face.

“I just wanted to see how you were doing. Script going any better?”

I sigh, playing with a strand of hair, “no, honestly. Katya made some really good suggestions, but I just can’t get my words right.”

I turn to him, frowning.

He grabs one of my hands, “it’ll come, I know it will.”

“We’ll see,” I mumble, averting my gaze, turning my attention back to the mirror.

Coburn moves behind me and wraps his arms around my waist, his soft brown eyes reflecting back at me through the mirror. I lace my fingers in his and lean back a little.

“You’re going to kick ass. Just like you do at everything else you set your mind to,” he gives me a kiss on the cheek.

“I just don’t want to mess it up. When I talked to you about it, it just felt so easy, I guess. And for some reason, I can’t figure out how to say what I want to say.”

He looks down for a moment, in thought.

“Would – er – would it help if you pretended you were just talking to me? Or Katya maybe? Or whoever you want to visualize.”

I blink at his reflection, transfixed by his words.

For whatever reason, I never thought about it like that. But it makes sense. It makes perfect sense. Maybe that would help. Maybe I’d be able to block out all the pressure surrounding this and just pretend I’m talking to a friend.

A smile tugs at the corner of my mouth, “I think that would work. Maybe.”

He squeezes my waist for half a second as a toothy grin crosses his face.

He has such a nice smile.

“I’m glad. You got this,” he reassures.

After one final squeeze, I pull myself away from the embrace, still keeping my hands in his.

“Thanks,” I look down shyly.

“Why are you getting ready so early?” He asks, changing the subject.

I bite my lip with a grin, “I don’t like to be rushed,” I say with a laugh.

“Hmm,” he nods, “I can let you get back to it then.”

I frown at him, “no it’s okay! I can multitask. Unless you have to go.”

He chuckles, “I don’t need very long to get ready, I can stay.”

I flash him a silly grin before turning back to the mirror, putting some powder on my face, “you could honestly get away with just going like that. I’m jealous.”

“Ha, I don’t know about that,” he jokes.

“Yes, you could, and you know it,” I tease before changing the subject, “is Tessa coming to the big family gathering in a few weeks?”

“As far as I know. Are you inviting Katya?”

“Mmhmm,” I nod, “I know she’s not technically family but she’s close enough.”

“You’re basically sisters even if you’re not related by blood. There’s no hard and fast rule or anything,” he chuckles.

“True. What about the others? Do you know who they’re bringing?”

“Ana’s bringing her brother, I think. Ehren, I’m not sure.”

I frown, “Ana has a brother?”

“Yah. He’s a real charmer. I think Ehren is sweet on him.”

Excuse me?

I quickly turn to face him, “what? Are they together?”

He looks to the side for a moment before shrugging, “I’m not sure.”

“Liar,” I stick my tongue out at him before turning back to the mirror, “is that who Ehren was talking about the other day?”

“Probably, but I actually have no idea if they’re together,” he laughs, “but the times I’ve seen them they seem to have something going on.”

“Hmm,” I pause, “it feels like everyone had us figured out before we did.”

“That’s probably true,” he laughs, “I know Ehren did.”

I roll my eyes lightly, “of course he did,” I say as I finish my makeup, putting my brushes and powders away.

Without warning, he wraps his arms around my waist and lifts me up, garnering a squeal out of me as he spins around once before gently putting me down, keeping his arms around me, my back still against his chest.

“I feel so happy with you,” he whispers against me.

I turn around so I’m facing him, “I feel the same,” I grin.

He brings his forehead to mine, “who would have thought that we’d be together all these years later,” he kisses my cheek.

He has a point. I don’t know how common it is for childhood friends to stay in contact and eventually get together later in life. We never acted on our feelings before, why is it different now? I can’t deny I’m drawn to him, but why didn’t I feel this way before?

Maybe I wasn’t ready until now, or it’s the fact that I’m seeing him more often than before and I really realized how important he is to me. But what about him? What attracted him to me?

“Hmm,” I smile, “maybe this is a weird question, but what drew you to me in the first place?”

He moves so his soft brown gaze meets mine, “what do you mean? We’ve always been friends.”

“I know,” I pause, “I just, any girl would be lucky to have you, but I want to know why you were drawn to me, I guess.”

He tilts his head to the side slightly, a shaky breath escaping him.

“Saf . . .”

He pulls me into a tight hug, catching me off guard at first before I reciprocate, feeling the strength in his back.

“You, I – er – I don’t know how to put it into words,” he takes a breath, pulling away to face me, “I guess – when all that happened with Midnight last year, I honestly wasn’t sure if I’d be able to be with someone again. It’s only been in the last little bit that I’ve actually felt ready for something like this. But aside from that, part of me has always liked you, and then when you got here those feelings got stronger, I think. I don’t know, is this making any sense?”

I nod, ignoring my heart bursting out of my chest, “it is.”

He moves and sits on the edge of my bed and I take a spot next to him.

“You’re my best friend,” he starts again, “if there’s anyone I’d want to be with right now, it’s you. I – I can pour my soul to you and you don’t look at me like I’m broken or something. You’re just there for me. I don’t have to hide any part of myself to you out of shame or regret or anything like that. I can just be me, even with all my flaws,” he pauses as his gaze lightens, “and then there’s the fact that I find you very attractive and I enjoy being around you.” He says sheepishly.

My mind races a mile a minute as I feel heat rush to my cheeks.

I could never see him as broken. If anything, the fact that he’s been through so much and come out on the other side speaks to how strong he really is. But even then, it would feel wrong to me if I wasn’t there for him when he needed somebody. Like that day after Jaxson’s big rampage when he clearly just needed a good cry. Or when he told me about Midnight. During those times I never saw him as less than; I felt for what he was going through. I’ve never considered my empathy to be my most attractive quality, it’s something I’ve taken for granted in many respects, but I didn’t realize just how much it meant to him – and me – until now.

And he’s done the same thing for me.

“Coburn, I. . .” I cup his face with one hand, “you’re the furthest thing from broken I can think of. I could never see you that way. You’re kind and strong and you listen and you’re fun to be around and you don’t ever judge and you – you’ve been there for me since the beginning. That day on the beach all those years ago was the first time I ever felt some semblance of happiness after my parents died. And you’ve been there for me ever since. I just – you’re everything I could ever want.”

I feel my cheeks grow warmer as the final words leave me, looking down.

“Saf, look at me.”

I bring my gaze back to him, a small, hopeful smile on his face. For being such a small gesture, there’s so much emotion surrounding it. There’s a way the corner of his mouth tugs up that exudes compassion, a flicker in his brown eyes suggesting a form of wanting, or perhaps desire is a better word for it. But then there’s a form of tenderness on his face that I can’t pin down to one feature.

“I love that we can be close again. I missed you so much when I first got this role, honestly. I just wished it could have been like when we were kids. And you’re here now and it’s like no time has passed and I – I’m just really happy I’m with you.” he grins as his cheeks turn pink.

My ability to speak suddenly evades me, a shaky breath escaping my lips.

“I feel the same,” I finally manage to whisper as I find the amber chip in his iris again.

Before I know it, his lips meet mine and he pulls me close to him; closer than ever before, it seems. Intense butterflies make their presence known within me as my hands fall to his chest, his hands on my waist, gently pushing me back onto the sheets as he moves on top of me, a soft sigh escaping my lips. My hands find the hem of his shirt and I pull it part of the way up as he helps me with the rest, pulling it over his head.

“Is this okay?” He whispers.

I nod with a light giggle.

Even though I’ve seen him without a shirt before, something about this feels different. There’s something electric about how his skin feels, the warmth sending shockwaves through my fingertips. My hands trail over his shoulders and down his bare chest before moving to his back; all I can focus on is how smooth his skin is, how strong he feels, the spicy rain scent that always follows him. He holds me like I’m the most important thing in the world, as though nothing else could ever matter as long as we’re in this moment.

He leaves a featherlike kiss at the corner of my mouth, before moving and leaving a slow trail of kisses along my jawline, behind my ear, and down my neck as he gently moves the neckline of my turtleneck bodysuit aside. Everything about him is intoxicating me; his touch, how soft his lips are, the warmth radiating from him. I can’t get enough.

He pulls away and I catch his eyes, a soft wave of passion enveloping his gaze before a playful smile crosses my face and we both start laughing. Our foreheads connect again as he gives me one last long, lingering kiss before he pulls me up, catching me by surprise as he pulls me into an embrace. He holds me so close I don’t think I can breathe, but I hardly notice that. I hug him back just as tightly, taking away any space that could have been present between us. I lace my fingers in the base of his hairline as his hands find the open back panel of my top, his hands tracing the outline of the fabric before trailing up and down my spine.

“I wish we could stay like this forever,” I mumble.

“Me too,” he whispers against my shoulder.

I don’t know how long we stayed like that, but it felt as though no time had passed by the time I glanced at the clock, telling me there is only forty-five minutes until the address.

I pull away and give him a quick peck on the lips, “the address is soon.”

He looks over at my clock, “ha, yah, I should probably go get ready,” he chuckles, before pulling me against him once more.

“Hmm?” I tentatively reciprocate the hug, unsure of what he’s doing.

“Just one second,” he starts, “I want to savour this as long as I can.”

My heart flutters, “that was the most adorable thing anyone has ever said to me,” I giggle.

“Well, it’s true,” he reassures with a slight cheekiness to his tone.

After a few more moments, he releases the hug. I move and he gets up, putting his shirt back on as I follow him to the door.

“I’ll see you in a bit,” he smiles, cradling my cheek and giving me a kiss on the forehead.

“Bye,” I whisper shyly, gently shutting the door behind him.

*

I head down to the foyer shortly before the address is set to start, spending every last possible minute fixing up my script. Something still seems to be missing, but I don’t have enough time to fix it now.

This is as good as it’s going to get.

I slip on Katya’s heeled ankle boots she gave me back on announcement day and head down to the foyer. The others are standing and talking at the base of the stairs, though Luna is nowhere to be found.

I wave as I join their group discussion.

“Hey, hon,” Ehren says, “feeling okay?”

I let out a nervous chuckle, “I’ll be glad when it’s over.”

Coburn gives my hand a quick squeeze and I look over at him, a reassuring grin on his face. He’s styled his hair now, but a collection of strands still hang lightly near the top of his forehead. He wears an indigo button down with small white designs dotting the surface of the dark colour.

“Where’s Luna?” I ask, changing the subject.

Ana tilts her head towards the big doors at the entrance to the foyer, “she’s outside. Just putting the finishing touches on things, I believe.”

Almost on cue, Luna comes through the doors and strides over to us.

“Saffire, good, you’re here. Ready?” she looks at us with a determined grin.

We make our way over to the door, when the nerves that have been stagnant for a while suddenly hit me at full force, nearly knocking me over. A few sparks shoot out of my fingertips as my hands begin to shake, my breath becoming shallow as I feel the colour drain from my face.

I can’t do this.

I’m going to say the wrong thing. This is going to end terribly. All I’m going to do is make things worse than they already were.

Luna and the others look back at me as Coburn gently grabs my arm in an attempt to reassure me.

“Are you all right?” Luna asks.

I glance between everyone, taking a deep breath. Nothing about their expressions reads as judgemental or condescending, but compassion and reassurance, as though they know exactly what I was feeling, and they’re here to support me.

The feeling seems to push my anxiety away – for now – and I shake my head, nodding with a small grin.

I can do this. I won’t make things worse. This will make things better. I can do this.

“I’m okay. Let’s do this,” I say as confidently as I can muster.

Luna gives me a quick grin and turns, continuing on as we head outside.

It takes my eyes a moment to adjust to the light of day, the sun shining a bit more than it was earlier in the day, though the crisp late autumn wind still makes its presence known. I try my best not to focus on the buzzing crowd, for fear that it will send my anxiety reeling all over again. Instead, I focus on Ehren’s calming energy that follows him wherever he goes, Ana’s more stoic nature somehow helping me to focus, and I let Coburn’s reassurance push my nervousness away.

Luna goes up to the podium, the crowd silencing as she gets ready to speak.

“As some of you may be aware,” she starts, “there have been some strange occurrences that have taken place over the last few weeks, and I’d like to clear up some of what is happening behind the scenes.”

She pauses and takes a deep breath, “First, I would like to explain the reason why these occurrences have been happening. In the background, there has been dark forces at play, and the situations with Ryker, Jaxson, and Ana have been due to these evil motivations, through something called compulsion, meaning that none of these people were acting on their own volition.”

She quickly breaks down how the process of compulsion works, not going into too much detail, but giving everyone a good general knowledge of the concept. She doesn’t delve into the scenarios concerning Ryker, Jaxson, or Ana, and for good reason. I don’t think the specific details would do people any good – other than scare them – which is the opposite effect we’re going for here.

The crowd buzzes at her words, before she continues, “I understand that raises a lot of questions, and why this would be happening. What I can tell you about it is that the ones orchestrating these situations cannot get to the island, and we are working hard to make sure no more tragic events take place, but we are ready,” she pauses again, “I also understand there has been some speculation about what happened to Ana in particular, and I can assure you these rumors are false. It was a situation involving compulsion, as I mentioned, and I’m eternally thankful it did not end in tragedy.”

I give Ana a quick glance, who looks as though she is putting on a brave face, but I can see the emotions swimming in her eyes.

I put a hand on her shoulder in an attempt to reassure her. She quickly takes it and gives my fingers a squeeze, turning and mouthing the words ‘thank you’ before I move my hand back within my frame.

“Now, I also have been made aware of some prejudices surrounding Fire Wielders that have been circling around recently, and I need everyone to know that these attitudes are uncalled for. Saffire has expressed interest in talking about this further, so I invite her to say her piece.”

Luna steps away from the podium and glances at me, a warm smile on her face.

Coburn gives my hand a small squeeze and I make my way over, my heart suddenly beating in my throat, my breathing getting more and more shaky as I step closer and closer.

I don’t remember making it to the microphone and unfolding my piece of paper with all my notes on it, but as soon as I do, I can’t speak. My notes don’t form words on the page, nothing is coherent.

I don’t think I can do this.

But then I remember Coburn and Katya’s advice: pretend you’re talking to a friend; people will stand behind you if you put yourself into it.

With a deep breath, I fold my piece of paper closed, and look up.

“Look, I – I’ve never done this before, I’ve only ever opened up to close friends about how I feel on this subject. I suppose what I want to say is that I know what it’s like to feel othered and stereotyped because of what my appearance represents. I can’t speak for other Fire Wielders, but I know for myself I’ve gotten put in a box before someone has truly tried to get to know me. And part of me can understand why. Fire can be terrifying, and it has a higher capability for destruction than the other elemental skillsets. I get that. But that connotation does not mean we’re ticking time bombs of destruction, or that we have problems controlling our anger, or that we could go on a fiery rampage and burn everything in sight, or anything of the sort. I – I know for myself I struggle with anxiety, but that’s the extent of it.”

I sigh, “this isn’t me trying to be spiteful, I want to make that very clear. I’m just sharing my own experience in the hopes that it expands your view on Fire Wielders. I know this was mentioned in Luna’s last address, but I was the one that had to go into the burning building in the middle of the night and stop Jaxson from continuing on. I know Jaxson personally, and” I pause, thinking about how to put this eloquently, “we don’t see eye to eye on many things, but I know for a fact that he would never commit such actions on his own accord. He was compelled, and the ones pulling the strings targeted him for a reason. Through his compulsion, he lived up to the stereotypes that follow people like me all the time, and that was not accidental. He was purposely targeted to build unrest and negativity surrounding Fire Wielders.”

I look down for a moment as I hear the crowd buzz, blocking out the sound as much as I can. I think about adding what I went through with Nox for a moment, but I decide against it; I don’t think it’s totally relevant to this situation and what I’m trying to say.

“I don’t say that to scare anyone,” I continue, “it’s the truth of what’s happening, but we’re at a place now where no more incidents of that sort should be taking place. I guess what I’m trying to say – er – is to try and see past the stereotypes that follow those with red hair. There aren’t very many of us, but don’t let the actions of one person who was under the influence of something much darker than himself impact how you see those around you.”

I’m about to step down from the podium, when I think about my conversation with Ana from the day Coburn and I got back.

It would be wrong to exclude those sentiments.

“And I – I didn’t know Ryker outside of seeing him in passing every once in a while, and I’m sad I never did. But,” I glance at Ana for half a second, “what I do know is that he was an incredibly kind soul who never once raised his voice in anger. And he was a Fire Wielder just like me. I guess, I just wish for everyone listening right now to not treat us any differently. Perhaps fire abilities have a higher capability for destruction, but chaotic unruly actions are not in our nature simply because of our abilities. If Ryker, or myself, or any Fire Wielder I know is any indication, none of us fall into the stereotypes that follow us. So, with that, I – I ask you to see past preconceived notions you may have and open your views.”

I step down from the podium and nearly collapse, realizing that I blacked out for most of the speech. I can barely remember what I said, but it’s over, and I hope I said the right thing.

*

The rest of the address passes in a blur, and I’m barely aware of Luna finishing up until people start exiting the plaza. My body feels numb, as though it’s not completely aware of what’s going on around me. I can’t comprehend any of the words Luna says to the onlooking crowd, I’m too lost in my thoughts to pay any attention.

Did I say the right thing? Did I make things worse?

What if I made things worse?

I stop the thought process in it’s tracks, shaking my head lightly.

How could anything I said have made it worse? It’ll be fine. I did everything I could in that moment.

Just relax for once in your life, Saf.

As Luna makes her way over to us, Ana turns to me, an emotional look in her eyes. Something mixed with sadness and appreciation, I think.

“Thank you for mentioning Ryker,” she smiles, a twinge of heartbreak in her face, but the expression is mostly one of gratitude.

“You’re welcome,” I say softly, “it felt wrong not to mention him,” I add, running my hands through the loose strands of hair that frame my face.

“You did amazing, Saf,” Coburn hugs me before lightly kissing my cheek.

“Thank you,” I whisper with a grin, enveloped in his gaze for half a second before Luna joins us and I turn to the others, “what happens now?”

“Now,” Luna starts, “we hope we did enough. Ehren, did you pick up on any changes in the overall energy of everyone?”

He frowns for a moment, thinking, “it was significantly less – er – heavy towards the end. I think it was successful in diffusing everything,” he says with a reassuring smirk.

“Thank goodness for that,” Luna sighs before looking out into the crowd, her eyes widening for a moment, “Saffire, you might want to head inside.”

My mind races and I frown at her, “why?”

Just then, I see Jaxson coming up the steps, and Coburn quickly puts his arm around me.

He looks significantly more put together than the last time I saw him, with the usual intense spark present in his dark eyes again.

He meets my gaze, and there’s something. . . different about him. I can’t put my finger on it.

“Saffire, can I talk to you?”

Normally Jaxson’s presence would instantly put me on edge, but I don’t feel myself getting to that point. Maybe there is something different about him. Maybe he really does want to have a civil conversation with me.

I decide to give him a chance.

Luna looks at me, confusion on her face. I look between her and Jaxson, giving her a reassuring nod before she moves aside, allowing for Jaxson and I to step away from the group.

Coburn gives me a worrying glance as he eyes Jaxson wearily. I squeeze his fingers before letting go, mouthing, ’it’s okay,” before he gives me a small grin.

Once Jaxson and I are out of earshot, I face him.

“What’s going on?” I start.

“Being in the containment building gave me a lot of time to think, and I know we don’t agree on a lot of things, but,” he sighs, “I’m sorry for being such an asshole to you.”

I blink at him, astonished.

Jaxson, of all people, is apologizing?

“My anger didn’t have anything to do with you, believe it or not. I can’t speak for what happened in the burning building, because I don’t remember any of that, and it’s not like that was my fault anyways –”

“Jaxson,” I start.

“Right. The point is, I still don’t agree with you getting picked, but I shouldn’t have taken out my anger on you. That had more to do with me than you.”

That’s unsurprising.

“And,” he pauses, “I’m sorry for everything I said or did that hurt you.”

Hmm. I appreciate where he’s coming from, but it doesn’t totally excuse what he’s done and said to me. I still feel a bit uneasy around him, and I don’t know if that feeling will ever go away. But I can at least get behind his sentiment.

I cross my arms, looking to the side for a moment, “well, I don’t forgive your actions, but I accept your apology.”

“That’s about what I expected,” he says with a loud sigh.

Is he serious right now? Ugh.

I raise an eyebrow, “you’re lucky to get even that. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to forgive you, but for now, can we agree to at least be civil with one another?”

“Hmm,” he nods with a light smirk, “I can manage that.”

“Good,” I nod, “well, I have to get back, but I’m sure I’ll see you around.”

“Mmhmm,” he nods and heads back down the steps, exiting the plaza.

I let out a long exhale as I make my way back over to the group.

I can’t believe that just happened. Jaxson actually apologized. Not that it excuses his actions, of course, but it’s something. I don’t know if we’ll ever be friends, but hopefully he holds up his end of the bargain.

“What happened?” Luna asks once I’m in earshot.

“He apologized,” I say, my tone portraying my level of disbelief that is still going through my head.

“Holy shit,” Ehren’s jaw drops.

“I know,” I breathe, running my hands through my ponytail, “we agreed to be civil, but we’ll see if he keeps that up, I guess.”

“Well, his past behaviour has been concerning, but this is a start,” Luna continues, “come on, let’s head inside.”

Coburn puts his arm around my waist as we walk back to the foyer, and I lean against him as much as I can without falling over.

I let his and everyone’s presence surround me, letting it carry me through the rest of the day.

I think I did it.

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