Spirit of Fire

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Chapter Two: Crashing Waves

Saffire

The smell of salt in the air greets me as I awake from a dreamless sleep. I don’t know what woke me up, but I become wide awake as soon as I remember what today could hold, a pit forming in my stomach.

I quickly go through my morning routine, taking a quick shower to try and distract myself from my thoughts.

It works. . . somewhat.

The warm water wakes my body up as I feel myself relax, but only just a bit. My thoughts still buzz in the back of my mind, only just loud enough to be present, but unable to be fully ignored. I sigh, blocking them out as much as I can, at least for now.

I exit the shower and wrap a towel around myself as I catch my reflection in the mirror. My face is a little red, mostly in my cheeks and forehead. Freckles that dot the skin around my small nose seem more visible today for some reason. Coburn thinks they’re cute, and I like them well enough. I think they add character to my face.

I open the door to run back to my room when Katya virtually greets me at the door, jumping when she sees me.

“Saf! Why are you up so early?”

I glance at a clock on the wall that reads 7am.

I guess it is pretty early, for me at least.

I shrug while thinking of an answer.

“Couldn’t sleep, I guess. I don’t think this will be a regular thing though,” I wink.

She laughs as I exit the doorway so she can get into the washroom.

I take two large strides across the hallway and open the door to my room, shutting it quietly behind me.

I decide not to put my nicer outfit on right now, since there’s still a few hours until the big announcement. I think it’s scheduled to happen around the middle of the day, but I’ll need to check that to be sure; I don’t remember the exact time.

For comforts sake, I put on a pair of black leggings with a dark, long sleeved shirt and an oversized, cream coloured cardigan that I’m pretty sure I stole from Katya’s closet. I’ll give it back eventually.

I towel off my hair and exit the room. I know my hair well enough to know that it usually looks the best when I let it air dry. That way the curls usually look pretty good, but who even knows with curly hair. It’s always a gamble.

I take a glass of water and mosey over to the living room, where Katya joins me a few moments later. The kitchen and living room are open concept, so there are no walls between the two spaces. A dark wooden coffee table sits in front of me, and I lean back on the indigo-coloured couch that’s decorated with a few pillows. There are three cushions, but you could probably fit five people on here if you tried hard enough. It’s cozy.

Small, minimalist decorations fill the room, mostly canvas paintings that Katya and I painted. Well, mostly Katya. She’s definitely the artsy one out of the two of us. Two that I’ve done hang on the wall, one of them having a more galaxy colour scheme, and the other a close up of a flower. Mine tend to be more abstract, whereas Katya’s pieces are intricate and detailed, and she tends to stick with a black and white motif. My favourite one of hers is a vase of flowers. Nothing special, I just like how much thought she put into every stroke of the brush.

Katya emerges a few moments later, quickly moving to boil water for a cup of tea.

“Hey! That’s my sweater!” She exclaims.

I cling to it dramatically.

“Actually, it’s a cardigan,” I tease.

She laughs.

“It looks better on you anyways.”

She makes up her cup of tea and joins me a few moments later.

“How are you feeling?” She asks kindly.

I take a sip of my water and a deep breath before responding.

“I’m feeling okay, I think. What time is the announcement again?”

“12:30, I’m pretty sure. At least you get to know ahead of time if you’re the one picked or not,”

I sigh, picking up a yellow decorative pillow from the couch. I place it in my lap, playing with the soft diamond patterns that protrude from it.

If no one contacts me before the announcement, I’ll know it’s not me and I won’t have to worry about it. The elemental leaders live in Headquarters, which is at the heart of our civilization by an enormous plaza that can fit the entire population within it. The announcement takes place on the steps of HQ, if I remember right. I’ve only ever seen HQ from the outside, and it’s a large, business like building, I can only imagine what it looks like on the inside. I feel like I might be a little on edge knowing that someone could be showing up at any moment to tell me I’m the one they picked. The thought runs away on me, making my heart beat a little faster.

“Hey, I got you no matter what happens,” she musses up my hair a little before taking a sip of her tea.

I chuckle as I smooth it out.

“Thank you,” I say with a smile.

As much as I love being around Katya, I feel like I need some time to myself before all of this happens. I need to get my head on straight, regardless of what events unfold today.

I put my water down and stand up, turning to Katya.

“I think I’m going to go for a walk, just to clear my head a little. I think I’m a little out of it,” I say as I run my fingers through my hair.

“Sounds like a good idea. I’d join you, but I wanted to run some errands around here before the announcement.”

I nod.

“I’ll only be like a half hour or so. I’ll be by the water.”

We quickly say our goodbyes and I scurry to the forest path that leads to the ocean. It’s verging on 8am, but there’s no one on the path. I guess I picked a good time to take a walk.

The ten-minute walk to the ocean is a blur, all I remember is getting there as soon as my legs could carry me. It seems counter intuitive being a fire wielder, but the ocean always calms me. Something about the smell, the sound, I don’t know what it is. It makes me feel safe, protected.

Ten minutes later, the forest fades and gives way to soft sands and the crashing waves of the ocean. The waters look more gray today, likely due to the more overcast skies, but it’s still beautiful to me. The wind picks up, biting me with chills, but I don’t care. I close my eyes, letting the winds rush over me, feeling the salt on my skin. I take a deep breath, listening to the ocean waves roar and crash onto the sand. I don’t think I’ve ever gotten here early enough to be the only one here – it’s nice. Peaceful.

Thoughts rush through my head, and I try my best to acknowledge them without letting them take over my mind.

Will someone come to the house today, whisking me away from everything I’ve known up until now? If that happens, will I ever see Katya again? Coburn visits me sometimes, so maybe I’d be able to get away and see Katya every once in a while. Would I have to move to Headquarters, with all the other elemental leaders? I live close enough to the heart of the city, maybe I’d be able to keep living with Katya during all this. Maybe. But then it would isolate me from everyone. Maybe that’s not such a good idea. I wonder what the other elemental leaders are like. I know Coburn, obviously, but what about the others? What are they like? What would they think of me?

Ugh, I don’t know what to think anymore.

I don’t know how long I stood there, taking in the various senses of the shore. I wrap the cardigan around me, the chills making their presence more known. I take that as a sign to head back to the house, but this gave me the clarity of mind I need to get through the rest of today.

“Katya said you’d be out here.”

I jump and turn around, seeing Coburn walk up to me. I put my hand on my chest, catching myself.

“Have you heard of not sneaking up on people?” I say jokingly, catching my breath.

“Absolutely not.” He winks.

We pause for a moment as a large wave crashes on the beach.

“So, are you just out here for a morning stroll, or what’s going on?” I say slowly, thinking about the reasons he could be out here.

My stomach starts getting butterflies. He takes a deep breath, resting his hands on my shoulders.

“Usually Luna would be the one to tell you, but I wanted you to hear it from me.”

He pauses for a moment.

“Luna chose you.”

The world spins and the pit in my stomach reappears as I sink to the ground, feeling the soft sand in my hands. I had a feeling this was coming as soon as he came to find me, but just hearing the words, the confirmation that this is happening, made it that much more real.

Coburn crouches beside me, wrapping his arms around my waist, “are you okay?”

I pull away and look at him, instantly feeling colder without him close to me.

He looks at me with a mixture of concern and empathy, like he wants to make me feel better.

“I don’t know,” are the only words I can think of to say.

How am I supposed to feel? This all just got dropped on me, how am I supposed to react, now that my life is going to change forever?

Coburn helps me up.

“Why me?” I blurt.

He looks at me, his face softening as he pulls the fabric of the cardigan over my shoulder.

“Because Luna sees something in you. She thinks you have what it takes.”

“But there are so many others who are so much stronger than me. I don’t understand.” I say a little more forcefully than I intended.

I didn’t have a chance to think of the words before they fell out of my mouth.

“It’s not just about strength, Saf. You know that. Luna knows you have the drive to do this. And so do I.”

His words make me feel calm somehow. Maybe he’s right.

Maybe.

“Thanks,” I say with a smile.

He takes both of my hands and gives me a quick kiss on the cheek; I blush a little at the show of affection. Coburn may be my best friend, but we’ve never been a couple. The idea of being vulnerable with someone scares me more than anything, but I feel comfortable enough with him to show affection every once in a while.

“Come on. Let’s head back.”

*

Coburn walks me back to the house, neither of us really knowing what to say. I try to process everything that happened.

I’m the new Spirit of Fire. Me. How did that happen?

I have so many questions running through my head, but I can’t click one thought to another to compose a comprehensive sentence. I don’t want to seem ungrateful for the opportunity, but I still can’t figure out why she would have picked me. Maybe Jaxson would have been a better contender.

Can I drop out? No, Luna’s decisions are final. You can’t drop out. Will I be able to stay with Katya, or will I have to move? What kinds of threats will I face? What killed Ryker? Will the same thing kill me?

Coburn leads me to the doorway, telling me he’ll be back to get me around 11:30 for the announcement.

At least that gives me time to get ready, I suppose.

After a quick goodbye, I go inside, where Katya hug-attacks me the second I walk in the door.

“Coburn told me.”

I’m taken aback at first, but then I reciprocate, hugging her tightly. I feel tears pricking at my eyes, but I fight them back, trying to hold myself together. I take a few deep breaths, calming myself down.

I’m not sure how long we stayed like that, it could have been days for all I know. Her support makes me feel loads better though. It must be her calming influence. Maybe I can do this.

“Are you doing okay?”

I look at her and nod.

I can do this. I can do this.

“It hasn’t really sunk yet, honestly. But I think so,” I reply, my voice shaking a little.

She gives me a warm smile.

“You got this, girl. You deserve this chance.”

Between her and Coburn, it was nice to get support from the two of them.

We talk for a little while longer before I retreat to my room to get ready. I take a red dress off the hanger and lay it on my bed while I take off my other clothes. The dress is a darker red, almost like a wine colour, with long sleeves and an open back. I pull it over my head and examine it in the mirror, adjusting it as I need to. The skirt is a short, A-line style, with the back of the dress creating a V midway down my back. The fabric feels soft as I pull it over my shoulders, securing it in place. I look at myself in the mirror. I’m on the shorter side in terms of height, with medium broad shoulders and a small waist. My lower body is probably the strongest part of me, with defined legs and hips. I decide to put on some black, opaque tights to match the dress; I might be anxious about all this, but I still want to make a good impression.

I sit down and put a light face of makeup on, putting a veil over my imperfections and highlighting my eyes with a little mascara. I define my strong cupids bow with a little bit of liner that is the same colour as my natural lips and set my face.

My hair hasn’t quite cooperated, maybe because of my decision to go to the waterfront, but the curls aren’t really where I want them to be. I try to manipulate them with some frizz spray and some leave in conditioner, which seems to do the trick. Not the best, but it’s good enough.

I exit my room a few minutes before Coburn is supposed to come get me, sitting down on the small couch. This might be the last time this place will be home to me. It will always feel like home, but I’ll never live here again.

Katya sits down next to me, drinking yet another cup of tea.

“Which shoes are you wearing?”

I hold up a pair of black flats. She retreats to the shoe rack for a moment before tossing me a sleek pair of black ankle booties with a small heel. They feel like they’re made of a suede material, soft to the touch, “these are comfy, I promise.”

I quickly slip them over my feet, enjoying the few extra inches of height; they make my legs look longer too.

“Thanks,” I say with a smile.

“You got it babes. Feeling any better?” She asks.

I shrug.

“I have no idea. Maybe it’ll feel more real once the announcement happens,” I sigh.

As if on cue, a knock at the door interrupts the conversation; I take a deep breath, feeling my heart beat out of my chest again. I try to relax as I get up and answer the door.

I open the door and see Coburn, his hair styled the same as before with a little gel, wearing a black button down with cuffed sleeves and dark jeans and black shoes. I can’t help but admire how he looks.

“Ready to go?” He looks at me with a dashing smile and winks.

I turn around and give Katya a long hug, knowing this is the last time I’ll really see her under normal circumstances. It feels like I’m leaving a piece of myself here, or like I’m moving on to a new phase of my life or something. I know Katya will always be there for me, and this is a place I can come back to if I need, but this will no longer be my home.

I pull away and she gives me a warm smile.

“You got this girl,” she reassures.

I take a deep breath and nod.

I can do this. I can do this.

“Thank you,” I whisper, unsure of what else to express.

She gives me one more quick hug, squeezing me tightly, before I head out the door with Coburn.

Coburn leads me around to the back of the house, hiding us from the foot traffic passing by the main walkways.

“Why are we back here? Isn’t the headquarters that way?” I ask curiously.

He chuckles.

“We’re not walking to HQ,” he replies with a mischievous smirk, “we’re taking a portal.”

I’ve heard about the elemental leaders using portals to travel to different assignments quickly, but I didn’t know they used them to travel such a short distance.

This should be interesting.

He concentrates his energy for a moment before a swirling, lilac oval appears in front of us, about the same height as Coburn. I stare at it, taken aback at how mystical it looks. He gestures to it with a playful grin.

“Ladies first.”

I give him a look.

There’s no way this can be safe, but if he and the others use portals to get places quickly, how bad can it be?

I slowly step in front of the portal and hesitantly step forward into the mauve light.

For a second all I can see is the pale light of the portal all around me and I feel a little bit of constriction around my body. In the next moment, I’m in a large, brightly lit room that’s about double the size of mine and Katya’s house. The room is exceedingly modern, with bright white walls and high ceilings decorated with an elegant chandelier in the centre of the room, filling the space with light and warmth. The bottom of the room is decorated by a dark hardwood floor which leads up to two staircases that line opposite walls, leading the way up to a small balcony at the top of the stairs which looks like it connects to a second floor hallway. I wonder what’s up there. A few large art pieces cover the walls, a few of them connecting together into a three-panel mural of a waterfall that cascades down the wall. The room is clean smelling, a fresh linen sort of scent wafting through the air, just heavy enough to be present, but not overpowering.

Coburn joins me a few moments later, placing a hand on my shoulder.

“Welcome to headquarters,” he says softly.

My eyes move and I see three people standing near the staircase on the wall furthest from us. I’ve seen Luna, Ana, and Ehren in passing before, but I suppose this is my first time officially meeting them.

Luna is tiny, even smaller than me, with a light olive skin tone and expressive brown eyes. Her straight black hair falls halfway down her back, with part of it styled up to keep her hair out of her face. She wears a simple, elegant black dress that comes down just past her knees, with some lace detailing on her slim shoulders that run down the three-quarter sleeves and black flats to compliment her look. A number of silver piercings can be seen on her ears, imitating stars and moons and planets, giving her whole look an ethereal energy.

She walks up to me with a smile and gives me a light hug, as if to welcome me. It catches me off guard a little bit, and I pause before returning the gesture.

“Saffire, my friend, how are you?” Her voice is soft and elegant, but there’s a presence to her that makes you want to pay attention.

My mind races, thinking of what I should say.

“I-er-I don’t really know.”

The words tumble out of my mouth before I can really think about it. I feel my cheeks flush as she nods.

“I know it’s a lot, just let me know if there’s anything I can do to make the transition easier for you. We’ll discuss more about your roles and responsibilities later today.”

I nod. I don’t know how, but her reassurance makes me feel better.

“Okay,” I say, trying to hide my nervousness.

I wonder if she noticed.

Who am I kidding? She definitely noticed.

“Fantastic. I need to go add the finishing touches to some things, but I’ll be right back.”

She retreats down one of the hallways and my eyes turn to Ana and Ehren.

Ana is tall, almost taller than Coburn – maybe and inch or two shorter than him. She has broader shoulders like me, with a lean, athletic build and a medium dark complexion. Her hair is a dark brown colour at her roots and fades into a warm blonde halfway down her hair, which falls a little way past her shoulders. She wears a white, strapless maxi dress with a gold belt at her waist to give some shape to the billowy fabric, with the rest of her ensemble accented by gold jewelry.

Ehren’s complexion is deep, and his dark brown hair is long and very curly, parts of it styled to one side, framing his face. He wears a purple button down and dark jeans, paired with black shoes. He’s a little taller than me, but not as tall as Coburn or Ana. He looks at me with kind eyes and smiles; he has similar energy to Katya in the sense that they both have a calming presence about them. I smile back without thinking.

They walk towards us as Coburn and I walk in their direction, meeting in the middle of the room.

Ehren extends his hand out and I take it, feeling a little calmer.

“Wonderful to finally meet you. It’s hard to get Coburn to talk about anything else.”

He smirks at him and I look over, a light pink flush passing over Coburn’s face. I let a small giggle escape, though I can’t tell if it’s nerves or just the comment.

“Oh, really?” I look at him inquisitively.

“Not all the time,” he jokes, though it’s hard to ignore the guilty expression on his face.

I roll my eyes a little and turn my attention to Ana, who smiles and shakes my hand. I can’t seem to get a read on her; she seems distant, or maybe it’s just my imagination.

“Nice to meet you, Saffire.”

I nod returning the greeting.

“Call me Saf,” I say quickly.

“How are you feeling?” Ehren looks at me kindly.

“I – er – I don’t know. A little nervous, I guess,” I admit, looking down.

“You should be grateful,” Ana says, a bitter tinge to her voice.

I look at her, raising my eyebrows.

“I’m sorry?”

“Luna could have picked anyone, but she chose you. You should be happy.” She says simply, emotionless.

Her amber eyes pierce my soul.

Can she tell what I’m thinking? Is she trying to push my buttons on purpose?

I feel my heart pounding, trying to find the right words to respond.

“Lay off, Ana. If I remember right, you were nervous the day you got picked too,” Coburn says with an edge.

She glares at him for a second before Luna comes back into the room. I take a few deep breaths to steady myself.

“Okay, everyone ready?” She says excitedly.

She goes over how the whole announcement process will go about, but I can’t focus on anything she’s saying. Butterflies appear in my stomach, intensifying as the event draws closer. I look down and realize I’ve been fidgeting with my vibrating hands the entire time; I can’t wait for this to be over.

Luna pulls me aside for a second. I look over at the large doors that lead to the outside world, which are wide open, with a black curtain covering the doorway, hiding our interactions from the buzzing crowd on the other side.

“So, you’ll be behind the black curtain and when I announce your name, you can come out and stand next to the others, and then I’ll give my final address.”

“I don’t have to say anything, do I?”

She shakes her head with a chuckle.

“No, you’re in the clear. Are you feeling okay?” She looks at me kindly, but I can see a small wave of concern pass over her eyes. Maybe I look peckish or something.

I smile and try to hide my nervousness as best I can.

“Yah, I’m good,” she gives me a look, like she can tell I’m hiding something.

For a second, I worry that she’s going to press me about it, but her smile returns moments later.

“Okay,” She pauses for a moment, “come on, I think it’s time.”

She and the others walk outside, Coburn giving me a quick hug before going past the curtain.

“You got this. It’ll be over before you know it.”

He squeezes my hand for a moment before moving to the other side of the heavy fabric.

Suddenly, I’m alone.

I take deep breaths, trying to calm myself down and listen to Luna’s words as best I can. She gives a brief eulogy to Ryker – as is customary – before getting ready to announce my name. I’m suddenly aware of how much I’m vibrating; the butterflies are enough to make me nauseous.

I can do this. I can do this.

I don’t even hear Luna say my name, but applause from the crowd is my clue that it happened.

I step through the curtain, my eyes adjusting to the natural light of day, my heart pounding in my ears. I give a small wave and quickly move to the side where the others are standing; next to the podium where Luna is speaking. I sigh as I take my place next to Coburn.

“Hard part is over,” he whispers to me and I chuckle, mostly out of nerves.

I look out to the crowd as Luna gives her final address, looking at the thousands of eyes on me. The plaza in front of the headquarters building is fairly large, with white stone and modern archways at the various entrances to the area. A large clock tower rests to one side, reading 12:45. I scan the crowd for Katya, searching for her face, but I can’t find her. The thousands of eyes on me make my heart beat even faster than before. All I can do is stand here. I take a deep breath.

Just be normal. Just be normal.

I’m not sure how much time passes, but I breathe a sigh of relief when the crowd applauses a second time and begins to disperse through the many entrances to the plaza. Luna steps off the podium and walks up to me gracefully.

“Well that was fun. Saffire, you can go inside and relax a little. The others and I can handle taking things down from here.”

I feel bad leaving the clean up to everyone; I want to help out if I can.

“Are you sure? I can –” she cuts me off.

“No, no. You go inside and take a breather. We’ll be fine.”

Her voice is still kind and soft, but there’s a tone to it that tells me her decision is final.

I nod and head through the doors to the foyer of headquarters.

I nearly collapse on the ground from nerves.

I can’t believe that just happened, but I got through it. I got through it.

I take a few deep breaths to steady myself before I hear a loud bang behind me that pulls me out of my thoughts.

I jump and quickly turn around to see Jaxson striding towards me, his eyes burning with anger.

Oh no. How the hell did he get in here?

He shoots a fiery beam at me and I instinctively block it, placing my forearms in front of me to create a shield.

“How did you do it?” He shouts.

I feel anger bubble up inside me, like all the nervous energy I had turned into hate, and I throw a flame back at him.

“How did I do what?” I say forcefully.

He comes closer and I instinctively step backwards, trying to keep my distance from the egomaniac. He shoots another fiery beam at me and I block it again, my back hitting a wall behind me. He slams his palms on the wall next to my face, trapping me. I’m suddenly aware of how much bigger he is than me. Oh no. Sparks fly from my fingertips.

“You know what. Who did you have to suck up to?”

I glare at him, my anger intensifying at the suggestion.

“No one, you prick. Can you back off?” I shout as I try to push him away.

He raises his eyebrow and steps closer, forcefully pinning my wrists to the wall. Ouch. A needle-like sensation buzzes through my fingertips. I start to feel sick to my stomach, my anger suddenly being replaced by fear, but he doesn’t get to know that. I try to hide it as best I can; I can’t tell how successful I am.

“I’m not backing off until you tell me how you did it.” He looks at me inquisitively.

He steps forward, getting dangerously close to me, with less than an inch between us. Shivers crawl up my spine. How far is he going to take this? I fight against his grip, but I can’t to get free. My fingertips start to feel numb.

“Get off me,” I say through gritted teeth.

I push my hands away from the wall for a moment before he slams them back against the surface, hard. I grimace a little and try to hide the pain as best I can; I’m not letting him have the satisfaction.

“Hey!” Coburn’s voice booms around the room and Jaxson quickly steps away, freeing me from his grasp.

My back slides down the wall and I sink to the ground, processing what just happened. Jaxson looks between Coburn and I, laughing as Coburn comes up to me to make sure I’m okay.

“No way,” Jaxson starts, “you know Coburn? Did you fuck him to get the position?” My fear gets replaced by anger again and I stand up.

How dare he. He has no right to question my character.

Sparks shoot from my fingertips as I quickly stride up to him and slap him across the face, hard. He grabs his face in pain before stepping towards me again, slowly.

I rub my wrists, trying to distract myself from how much they hurt.

Luna and the others walk into the room moments later. Coburn gently takes my hand and pulls me back as Luna rushes to the scene, standing between Jaxson and I, shadows forming in her palms.

“I’m not exactly sure what happened here, but I’m going to ask you to leave. Now.”

The comment seems to put Jaxson in his place as he backs away, keeping eye contact with us as he makes his way towards the door. Ugh.

Coburn hugs me tightly as soon as he is out of sight and I breathe a sigh of relief.

“Saf, are you okay? Did he hurt you?”

We release from the hug, and I catch sight of the bruises starting to form on my wrists. I quickly put my hands behind my back before he notices.

“I’m fine,” I say quietly, still a little shaken up from the interaction.

I take a deep breath.

“What was that all about?” Ehren asks.

I shrug.

“Jaxson. He’ll get over it,” I say as casually as I can muster.

Luna reaches out and places a hand on my shoulder.

“And that’s exactly why I didn’t choose him. Too much ego. He’ll face repercussions for his actions,” she says reassuringly. “Onto other business though. I can send for someone to collect your belongings; rooms are up the stairs and to the left. I’ll leave you to get settled and we can talk more about your responsibilities this evening.” Her tone has dropped a few degrees.

The information hits me all at once. All this is starting to feel more real, and it scares me, nervousness creeping back into my body.

“I-er-I can get my things. I don’t have much anyways,” I stutter.

Luna blinks at me for a moment before responding.

“I insist. It will make this whole process easier.”

I’m about to ask what process, when I realize she’s referring to me moving in.

I guess that answers that question.

I nod in agreement.

“Come on, I’ll show you where everything is.” Coburn puts an arm around my shoulder and leads me up the stairs, turning left around the corner on the second floor.

“The room next to mine has been empty for forever, it’s yours if you want it.”

I nod, still rubbing my wrists.

I look down and see a purple colour spreading across the base of my palms and around the bone below my thumbs. Yikes.

“It’ll be nice to have some privacy,” I say absentmindedly as I continue to look at my hands.

He suddenly stops walking and grabs my hand, examining my wrists for a moment, looking concerned.

“He bruised your wrists, Saf. Are you sure you’re okay?”

I quickly snatch my hand away. I don’t mind Coburn being protective, but I’m not a fan of people fussing over me. We continue walking down the brightly lit hallway.

“I’m fine. I can’t feel my left thumb, but I’m fine. Probably just pinched a nerve or something,” I say quickly, irritation in my voice.

He raises an eyebrow, opening his mouth to object, but then shakes his head and sighs. I wonder if he can read my thoughts.

A couple of doors come into view along the walls and we stop walking.

“Luna can heal it later. The room is right here.” He gestures to one of the white doors.

“There’s a bed in there, but I’m sure it will feel more like home when all your stuff gets here. I’ll be next door if you want to come visit.” He winks.

I roll my eyes with a smile as I retreat into the room.

The space is about double the size of my old room, with a large bed in the corner covered with light blue sheets. The cream coloured walls have no decoration except for black blackout curtains that cover a large window on one side of the room.

This is almost too much space.

I take a few steps to the window and look out, seeing the West end of the city. It looks like it’s going to rain at some point today.

I’m suddenly aware of how alone I am, but the sensation feels foreign to me somehow. I can feel my heart starting to pound out of my chest. Sometimes I need to be alone to clear my head, but now is not one of those times. I know myself well enough to know that I’ll have an anxiety attack and overthink everything that happened today if I stay alone in here.

I quickly open the door and exit the room, breathing hard. I lean against the closed door and look over at the entrance to Coburn’s room, thinking. Maybe I’m just feeling anxious because it’s been such a full day. Maybe I’m overthinking everything. Maybe I’m overreacting.

Maybe.

I don’t remember deciding to, but in the next moment I find myself knocking on Coburn’s door. He answers before I can even get a third knock in, opening the door without a shirt on. I try to keep myself from staring, but I can’t help appreciating how fit he is.

“Can I hang out in here for a little bit?” I ask shyly.

“Of course.”

He smiles and moves away from the doorway so I can get through.

His room is about the same size as mine, with a slightly darker tone of beige covering the walls. His bed has the same coloured sheets as mine, with a few pieces of wooden furniture scattered around the room. A woody scent fills the room, mixed with some kind of spice I can’t put my finger on. The walls have minimal decorations on them, mostly floating shelves with what I can only assume are personal artifacts on them.

I take a seat on the edge of his bed and he stands in front of me, mussing up the hair on the top of my head.

“Hey!” I exclaim with a laugh, smoothing out my hair with my fingers.

“Sorry, I couldn’t resist,” he chuckles, “room doesn’t quite feel like home yet?”

I shake my head.

“Partly that. I’m just a little overwhelmed.”

He squats down so we’re at eye level with each other.

“Hey, I know it’s a lot, but this will start to feel like home after a while. You’ll get used to everything. Luna won’t just throw you into the Shadow Realm with no warning.”

I raise an eyebrow.

“The what?” I look at him curiously and he stands up, looking away with a mischievous grin, biting his lower lip.

“It’s – er – I’ll let Luna explain it. At least you have a familiar face here. Most new Spirits don’t have that, as far as I know.”

His words make me feel better. I nod in agreement.

“That’s a perk, yeah,” I pause for a moment, “but have you heard of putting a shirt on?” A smirk tugs at the corner of my lips, my eyes admiring his exposed chest.

“Absolutely not.” He winks.

Can he actually read my mind?

Moments later he finds a thin, gray athletic hoodie in his closet and throws it over his head.

I’m suddenly aware of how tired I am. Maybe it was getting up so early, or maybe it was the eventful day, I don’t know. Regardless, I need sleep.

I lay down on top of the covers on his bed and shut my eyes, curling up into a ball on my right side. I feel the bed shift as Coburn sits down next to me.

“Tired?” He asks with a chuckle.

“Mmhmm” I respond, keeping my eyes closed.

He places his hand on my arm, his thumb moving idly over my shoulder.

“You can stay if you want,” he says softly.

“Good, because I’m not moving,” I mumble.

I feel my mind shut down, wandering off into a world I can never remember by the time I wake up.

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