Spirit of Fire

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Chapter Five: Shadows

*Trigger Warning* this chapter contains conversations of sexual assault/violence which may be triggering to survivors.

Saffire

A few days have passed since the first training session I had with Coburn. All of this is finally starting to sink in, but I still have so many questions. Is this what I’m meant to do with my life? Who knows. Maybe it is. All I know now is that this is my life now. This is a part of it. Maybe this is what I’m supposed to do.

I wonder what Katya would do if she were in this situation. She would probably be having a much better go at it than me. But then again, she isn’t really big on fighting. At the core of who she is, she’s a peaceful person, so maybe this wouldn’t be for her. But she’d still rise to the challenge regardless of all that.

The last few days have felt like a long training montage, like one would see in an action movie of some kind, but Luna feels like I’m ready to go to the Shadow Realm for the first time on my own. I’ve been having a lot of fun training with Coburn and the others over the last few days, but I’m excited to get into some action aside from doing simulations and sparring . . .though it has been fun to get to know this side of his life a little more, and if Luna thinks I’m ready to go to the Shadow Realm, I trust her judgement.

Besides, I’ve been curious about Nox and Midnight ever since the meeting on the first day.

Well, actually, that’s a lie.

I’ve been curious about them for as long as I’ve known Coburn. Any time he’s talked about them – which isn’t that often anyway – there’s always been an air of mystery around who they are, and because of that I’ve sort of built up an image in my head of what they must be like.

Sometimes I imagine non-human entities, with shadowy bodies, monstrous faces, fangs, red eyes. Perhaps they have claws that are long and sharp, or large, leathery, bat-like wings the size of a football field. Maybe they don’t have eyes at all, or maybe they’re covered in fur, like an animal. They could be tentacled monsters for all I know, like those that lurk at the bottoms of oceans, preying on unsuspecting creatures.

I’ve also imagined them looking similar to Luna, especially now that I know they’re her brother and sister. They could have the same brown eyes as her, the same light olive skin tone. I wonder if they could be taller than her, or if they would also be tinier like her.

But then, maybe they’re so evil that they don’t look anything like Luna.

I’m not sure what to think anymore.

My emotions around the Shadow Realm seem to change on a dime. One second I’m excited, the next I’m terrified, the next I’m fearless.

Well, today is the day, I guess.

The portal making has been a difficult skill to grasp, so Luna is going to make one for me so that I can get there safely, but it’s up to me to make one so I can get back to our world without a hitch. I’ll just have to conserve my energy as best I can; I always feel tired after making portals. Maybe because it’s such a new thing, I’m not sure, but maybe I’ll get used to it. I’ve had some success with it, though it’s not a skill I like using very much. Maybe it’s just a fear of ending up in the wrong place, or that something will go wrong while I’m travelling.

“Saffire? Are you listening?” Luna’s voice snaps me out of my thoughts.

I look over at her and nod.

Her long dark hair is styled up today, with half of her hair up in a small bun, the rest of her straight hair falling over her shoulders. She’s dawning her fuzzy slippers edged with white fur, paired with an oversized, light pink sweater and black pants. She must not have any important meetings today, hence the reason why she’s dressed for comfort.

“Yah, sorry, just thinking,” I say quickly.

She gives me a quick disapproving look.

Her and I are standing in the foyer of HQ, making final preparations for me to go to the Shadow Realm.

“Okay, as I was saying,” she continues, slightly annoyed, “I can use my abilities to protect you for about an hour while you’re there. If you’re any longer than two hours I can send someone to get you. But I think you can handle this. Training has been going well for you, and I think you’re ready.” She places a hand on my shoulder and smiles.

Her comment puts me at ease.

I take a deep breath, feeling nerves bubble inside my body, my stomach twisting itself into knots.

And we’re back to terrified.

I jump up and down and shake my hands a little, feeling some sparks fly from my fingertips. They fizzle before they can hit anything.

“Just a little nervous.” I say quietly, my anxiety suddenly taking away my ability to speak.

I take a few deep breaths, steadying myself.

She places both hands on my shoulders again and looks at me intently.

“Look at me. You can do this, okay? You’re ready.” She says with a firm kindness.

I take one more deep breath and nod.

“Okay.” I run my hands through my hair for a moment, grounding myself.

She focuses her energy for a moment before a swirling portal appears in front of me, with a slightly darker tinge of purple to the colour.

“On the count of three.” She says.

I take a step forward.

“One . . . two . . .”

I step through the portal before I even hear her say three.

*

The light of the portal surrounds me again, though it constricts my body more than it did when I travelled with Coburn. Maybe because it’s a further distance or something.

I cough for a moment as the pressure around me releases, and my eyes adjust to my surroundings.

I stand in a large field, with a mountainous area off to one side. The dark, muted green grass crunches underneath me, like it hasn’t been watered in a long time. The area is void of any rich colour, with everything around me having cold gray undertones. It almost feels like I’ve walked right into a black and white movie from before my time. The sky above me is a dark gray colour, like it could rain at any moment, though I don’t feel any pressure in the air suggesting an impending storm. Maybe it’s just always overcast here. The mountains to my right are dark gray – almost black – with the peaks being hidden by some of the clouds. I wonder if they get snow here. I make a note to ask Luna when I get home. We almost never get snow where we are, mostly because we’re so close to an ocean, so none of us have really seen anything besides an occasional sprinkling of snow every once in a while, in December and January.

The area is cold, like the morning after a frost, the chill echoing through the air. The soft smell of pine radiates through the atmosphere, likely due to the wooded area that’s at the base of the mountain, I conclude. The trees are tall, foreboding, the needles of the trees appearing sharper than the pine trees I’ve seen back home, like sewing needles that could easily prick your skin. They are an even darker green than the grass, their shadows extending, reaching outwards. They almost look as though they could come alive; that dark, ominous eyes could be hiding somewhere among the thick branches. I find myself missing my walks through the forest path with Katya, the bright colours, the sheen of the blue, velvety flowers that she always adds to the scene. I miss the light filtering through the tall trees, bathing the area in light. I close my eyes, reminding myself of it, before I bring myself back to the present day.

I slowly walk around the area, the grass crunching louder under my boots as I step forward. Maybe it doesn’t rain that much here; if it did, the grass would be a lot softer.

Or maybe it wouldn’t make any difference.

Something about this place feels familiar, but I can’t figure out how.

Wait, my dream! My dream had to have been here. But why?

I feel my heart start to race at the thought. I can visualize the dark wave heading towards me again, climbing down the mountain towards me. I can almost feel it around me, constricting me, taking away my breath.

A spark shoots out of my hand, igniting a patch of grass beside me before dissolving into dark gray ash.

The action jolts me back to reality and out of my nervous thoughts.

I remember my main objective.

Find Nox and Midnight, then get out of here.

But where could they be?

What am I even looking for?

The monstrous forms find their way into my head again, animalistic, fangs, red eyes, covered in shadow. My heart pounds out of my chest.

But if that’s what they look like, why does Luna look so normal? That can’t be what they’re like, it can’t be.

I cling to the thought to reassure me and I feel my body relax after a few moments.

This won’t be too bad. You can do this. You have nothing to be afraid of.

No matter what I say to myself, I can’t get the knots in my stomach to go away.

I decide to walk over towards the mountains, since they’re my only landmark in the area besides the large, uninteresting field. Maybe something is over there. Maybe Nox and Midnight are up there.

Questions form in my mind as I start walking, making me feel uneasy.

Do they know I’m here? Can they sense me? Are they watching? Should I even be seeking them out, or what should I do?

“Who are you?”

My ears pick up at the sound of a cold, male voice and I jump. I turn around to look behind me, trying to find the source of the sound.

My eyes meet a tall, lanky man with dark eyes and short, jet black hair. His skin is even paler than mine, almost like a white sheet got stuck to his slim face. He looks at me with a wicked smirk, and I catch a glimpse of his defined canine teeth. Yikes. His dark brown eyes are almond shaped, framed by narrow, defined eyebrows the same colour as his hair. His lips are thin, pale, a slightly pinker shade than the rest of his skin. His face looks smooth, unencumbered by freckles or imperfections, like a statue. He wears a black, long sleeved shirt and dark pants, highlighting his tall, slim appearance. The dark colours almost make him look paler, like a ghost. I analyze him, just to make sure he’s really there, that he’s not an apparition of some kind.

He seems to be all here, but I can’t be too sure.

A dark gleam passes through his brown eyes as he analyzes me closely. I’m taken aback at how normal he looks, at least compared to some of the images I conjured of what I thought dwelled in this world.

Though, there’s something sinister about his energy that instantly puts me on edge.

I blink at him as the knots in my stomach tighten.

“Who are you?” He asks again, more impatient this time.

“Wouldn’t you like to know.” I snap, my heart pounding so loudly that I’m sure he can hear it.

He analyzes me again and steps back for a moment, furrowing his brows together before his eyes light up.

“You must be the new Spirit of Fire.” He says with slight realization in his icy voice, “my little sister must be busy. How is she?” He asks, though I can’t tell if he’s being genuine or not.

I blink at him for a few seconds, thinking. His sister . . . then that means . . .

“You must be Nox.” I say slowly.

He nods.

“You catch on fast.” He pauses for a moment, “I must say, you’re much nicer to look at than the last Spirit of Fire,” he looks me up and down with a smirk.

Anger bubbles in me as I throw a flame at him.

Who does he think he is?

He swiftly moves to the side as it hits a large nearby rock with a bang, cracking it down the middle.

My powers have never done that before. That’s new.

“You’re a feisty one. Just like all the other Fire wielders,” he mutters under his breath.

Shivers run up my spine and I don’t answer.

“But how is my little sister doing?” He asks again.

I raise an eyebrow at him.

“Go ask her,” I snap.

“Darling, I’d love nothing more, but I can’t leave this place.”

I narrow my eyes.

“Don’t call me that,” I say sharply.

He bites his lower lip, smirking.

“I’ll call you whatever I want. You’re in my realm,” he says simply, stepping closer.

I take a deep breath.

“You’re nothing like Luna,” I say without thinking.

He chuckles.

“Is that supposed to be an insult? Of course I’m nothing like her,” he says coolly.

I think for a moment.

“No, I was just making sure you knew,” I retort.

He presses his lips together for a moment.

“Well since you seem to know so much about me, tell me your name,” he says with an edge to his voice.

“Why should I?” I hiss.

He narrows his eyes.

“Is it so wrong to be curious?”

I sigh loudly, making sure he can hear it.

He’ll find out sooner or later anyways.

“Saffire,” I say sharply.

“Was that so hard?” He smirks again.

I glare at him.

“Yes.”

“Temper, temper. I’m just asking a question.” He backs away slightly and puts his arms in a surrender formation for a moment. His fingers are long, delicate.

I shake my head, focusing.

“Whatever. Don’t you have another sister too?”

He nods with a smirk.

“Yes,” he says slowly, stopping himself before continuing, “what has Luna told you?”

I freeze for a second, listening to my heart pounding in my chest.

Is he trying to get information from me? Does he think I’m that naïve?

I’m not telling him anything.

“None of your business.”

He steps forward.

“I’ll get the truth out of you sooner or later.” He says with a sinister expression.

“Who is this?”

I hear a female voice behind me, and I turn, positioning myself so that both her and Nox are in my line of vision.

This must be Midnight.

She looks more like Luna than Nox, though maybe that’s because they’re sisters. She looks like a taller, paler version of Luna, though there’s something – off – about her. Her straight, jet black hair is short, falling just above her narrow shoulders. Her slim features are highlighted by a dark, long sleeved tunic top with a deep V in the front, and dark bottoms with chunky boots. She wears a thick, cloth choker around her neck, embellished with a smoky jewel that I don’t recognize, though it reminds me of the ever-present overcast sky above me. She has the same brown eyes as Luna, but there is no kindness or light in them. They’re dark, ominous, unwelcoming, made to look bigger by smoky, dramatic shadows on her eyelids. Her prominent lip-line is defined by a dark brown colour that highlights her mouth curving into a sinister grin. Her face is also smooth and void of imperfections, like that of Nox, but I can’t tell if that’s the case under the makeup that she’s wearing.

She’s good at applying it, I’ll give her that.

I can see why Coburn doesn’t like talking about her. They both scare me, but I especially feel the dark energy coming from Midnight. But there’s a sense of unease I felt the instant Nox spoke to me that Midnight doesn’t possess.

I shiver.

“This,” Nox starts, “is the new Spirit of Fire, Saffire,” he announces with a flourish.

I roll my eyes.

“Skip the pleasantries,” I say coldly.

Midnight scans me through her long eyelashes.

“Hm, you’re much shorter than the last one,” she pauses for a moment, her eyes lighting up with realization, “do you want to hear how we killed Ryker?”

I take a large step backwards.

Even if I am curious about how Ryker died, I don’t want to hear the story from either one of them.

“No,” my breathing becomes shallow.

Midnight bites her bottom lip, like she’s disappointed she didn’t get more of a reaction from me at her comment.

“Shame really. It’s a good story. Full of all kinds of twists and turns.” She lingers on the syllables, like she’s relishing in the memory.

“Save it,” I say without thinking.

“You’re not curious at all about it?” Midnight tilts her head to the side, some of her hair falling away from her face due to gravity.

“No,” I say quickly.

Midnight and Nox laugh.

“You’re a terrible liar,” Nox muses.

Nox concentrates his energy for a moment and a dark shadow gets sent my way.

I block it with my forearms and most of it bounces off me – likely due to Luna’s protection – but I feel a small amount of the attack break through, some of the darkness sinking into my skin, like my body is absorbing the shadows somehow.

Did I actually absorb it, or is that just what it feels like to deflect shadow?

I make a note to ask Luna when I get home.

In the next moment, I decide I’ve spent more than enough time here, and if a small attack got through the protection from Luna, then that must mean my time is almost up.

But I’m not letting them know that.

I did what I was supposed to do – I found Nox and Midnight – and now I need to get the hell out of here.

I begin to focus my energy into creating a portal back home, closing my eyes for a second, feeling energy radiate to my hands.

“It’s rude to leave without saying goodbye,” Midnight says.

I open my eyes for a moment as something hits me in the stomach, knocking the wind out of me. I get pushed backwards, falling onto my back with a thud.

Ouch.

I quickly stammer to my feet, shaking my head in an attempt to focus as I catch my breath, wheezing, my hands shaking from nervousness.

Midnight and Nox chuckle to themselves.

“You have a lot to learn, darling,” Nox says.

“I said don’t call me that!” I shoot a fiery beam at the two of them, which they dodge. The attack sets a patch of grass on fire for a moment before it quickly goes out.

Nox steps forward, slowly.

“And as I said before, I’ll call you whatever I want,” he says darkly.

I shiver, fear making a home in my mind.

I try to hide it as best I can.

“Are you scared?” He asks.

“No,” I stutter, my breathing shaky.

“You really are a terrible liar,” he says with a chuckle.

“I’m not lying,” I protest.

He narrows his eyes, analyzing me.

“But you are. You really think I can’t see the fear in your eyes?” He asks as Midnight chuckles in the background. “You’re afraid. And rightfully so.”

I pause before answering, a little taken aback by his comment.

“What do you mean?”

Midnight steps forward so they’re both inches from me.

My feet are glued to the ground, heavy, like weights got attached to my shoes.

“Let’s just say that the next time you come back,” Midnight places her hand under my chin and tilts my face up, “getting knocked off your feet will be the least of your concerns.”

Nox grins at me and a pit forms in my stomach.

Are they threatening me?

I quickly back up, creating space between them and I.

I need to get out of here.

“I’m sure I’ll manage,” I say bitterly.

Midnight shrugs.

“Well, tell my dear Luna we say hello,” Midnight finishes as they both evaporate into the shadows.

I breathe a sigh of relief as soon as they leave, suddenly aware that I was holding my breath during most of the interaction. I catch myself from falling to the ground.

They’re gone.

Are they actually gone?

It takes a moment for the news to settle in. I feel the nervous energy slowly dissipate from me, though my heart continues to pound out of my chest no matter how much deep breathing I do.

In the next moment, I remember my objective for coming here, and I remember what I have to do to get back home.

I concentrate my energy again and a light coloured portal sparks to life in front of me, though it looks as though it could dissipate at any moment.

Come on Saf, you can do this.

I concentrate harder, giving everything I have to keep the portal alive; I feel my energy draining rapidly.

Now’s your chance!

Before the portal has a chance to go away, I stride through it, making my way back home.

*

The next moment I open my eyes, I’m back in the foyer of HQ.

Safe.

I didn’t realize how dark the Shadow Realm was until I came back to our world. My eyes adjust to the light that I had taken for granted until now, looking up at the bright chandelier in the foyer for a moment, like I’m seeing the sun for the first time.

I look in front of me as Coburn enters the room, a relieved smile on his face.

“You’re back!” He exclaims.

I glance at him, smiling, but I start to feel dizzy.

I feel like I can’t get enough air into my lungs.

My head starts to feel heavy, Coburn’s voice getting further and further away. A voice is saying something, but I can’t make out the words.

My heart beats in my throat, darkness limits my vision.

I feel like I’m in a tunnel, but the light at the end is getting further and further away, like I’m going backwards.

My consciousness starts to fade.

He catches me before my face can hit the floor.

*

I wake up, feeling like I’m suspended in midair somehow. Maybe someone is carrying me, but I can’t be sure. The sweet smell of rain fills my nose.

What am I doing here? Am I not still in the Shadow Realm?

Suddenly my mind catches up to the present events and I remember.

You’re home.

I glance up and I see the edge of Coburn’s face. He looks down at me and a relieved expression passes over his face, smiling.

I give a weak grin back, like all the energy has been taken out of me.

“Saf, you okay?” Ehren exclaims as he runs into the room. He is wearing a bright blue tee shirt and athletic shorts, like he was getting ready to go into the training room.

I lazily turn my head towards him, still feeling dizzy.

“I think so.” My words slur together.

Coburn gently puts me down so I’m standing next to him, but I lose my balance and lean to the side, falling into him.

“Easy, it’s okay.” He says with a chuckle, supporting my weight.

Luna enters the room a few moments later.

“Saffire, thank goodness you’re okay. How did everything go?”

My mind starts to wake up, my thoughts connecting together again.

“Um, it was – er – I saw Nox and Midnight.” I say.

“Did they hurt you?” She asks.

I think for a moment.

“No?” I say, uncertain.

Suddenly I feel a cold burn on my forearms, like they’re sliding across ice.

I grimace.

“I think something happened to my forearms.” I pull my sleeves down and see a blackish shadow covering them, darkness sinking into my skin.

“Sit down. I can treat this.” Luna commands as she leads me to the room where we had our meeting a few days ago.

I sit on the couch, crossing my legs as the soft cushion sinks a little. Coburn sits next to me.

“I can see why you don’t like to talk about Nox and Midnight.” I whisper to him.

He looks down.

“They’re pretty crazy, huh?” He replies quietly.

“So, tell me what happened.” Luna pipes up as she starts to heal my forearms. Ehren comes into the room and sits on the arm of the couch.

“Er – I got to meet them, they seemed like they were trying to get information from me.” I say, my head still foggy.

Luna looks at me intently.

“Did you tell them anything?”

I sigh, remembering.

“They asked a lot about Ryker. They seemed eager to talk about what they did to him.”

Coburn tenses a little beside me.

“They’re just trying to manipulate you. Don’t engage with it.” Luna says without looking up, focusing on healing.

The pain starts to get drawn out of me, like a force is pulling it out.

“However, I’m glad it went well for the most part. You’re on your way, Saffire.” Luna looks at me warmly.

I smile back without thinking.

“Thank you.” I say quietly.

Coburn reaches for me, his thumb skimming my shoulder, comforting me.

I glance at him, smiling.

Maybe I really can do this.

“Did I pass out?” I ask absentmindedly.

“Only for a minute or so.” Coburn replies with a wink.

“Why? Is that normal?” I ask.

“I would think it’s a mixture of portals being so new for you and the experience of going to the Shadow Realm for the first time. Same thing happened to Ehren. You’ll be okay.” Luna says quickly.

“Hey!” Ehren exclaims.

“You were fine.” Luna says with a chuckle.

I glance at Ehren, smiling mischievously.

The last of the pain gets released from my forearms and Luna runs her hands through her hair. Part of it is tucked behind her ear, showing off her piercings. The silver glimmers in the bright light of the room.

“Does it snow in the Shadow Realm?” I ask, remembering what I wanted to ask her.

Ehren snickers next to me.

“What?” I wine.

He looks at me and chuckles again.

“Nothing, nothing. You’re just funny.”

Luna looks to Ehren for a moment and then back to me with a puzzled look.

“No, not really. Why do you ask?”

I look away.

“Just curious.”

“By the way, did you try to block an attack?” Luna asks.

I nod.

“Yah. Why did my body absorb it?” I ask, remembering my other question.

She sighs.

“Just the nature of Ether. Try and avoid getting hit if you can.” She says, glancing at me as she brings her hands away, the last of the shadow getting extracted from my skin.

“There we go.”

*

After Luna finishes healing me, Coburn and I move into one of the private living rooms on the second floor. The room has an old Hollywood feel, with wine coloured red walls, bright gold trimmings, and dark, lavish curtains and furniture pieces. Small, flower like light fixtures are suspended periodically on the walls, filling the room with a soft, warm glow. A fireplace stands to the side of the room, crackling gently, surrounded by dark brick and making the room feel cozy. The room smells like a mixture of alcohol and a sweet smell that I can’t quite put my finger on, something mixed with sugar, like cinnamon buns or some kind of freshly baked pastry. This must be a room where memories are made, after all the training, after all the hard days, where everyone can have a drink and enjoy the pleasure of each other’s company. Or perhaps a place where one can curl up with a cup of hot cocoa on a cold winters’ night.

I notice a pile of board games underneath a dark oak coffee table close by. I don’t recognize any of the games, but it reminds me of the times that Katya and I would drink wine and play Crazy Eights. A chance-based game, really, but she always seemed to beat me. I relish the memory for a moment before bringing myself back to present day.

Coburn and I sit together on the same couch, talking and relaxing after a long day. The cushions feel like a soft velvet, highlighting the dark purple colour that looks as though it could stain your hands if you touched it for too long, like ink. I run my hands along it absentmindedly, taking in the buttery soft surface.

“So, first time in the Shadow Realm seemed to go well.” He says.

I nod.

“Yeah, it seemed alright.” I say quietly.

He scoots closer and looks at me.

“What’s wrong?” He asks with concern.

I give him a puzzled look.

“What do you mean?”

“I can tell something is bothering you,” he says, like he seems to know something about me that I don’t know about myself.

I narrow my eyes for a moment before sighing, leaning my head back on the soft back cushion. My head sinks into it a little, like a pillow, feeling pressure from my ponytail on the back of my head. I take it out and brush my hair with my fingers a little, letting the dark red curls fall down my shoulders in a relaxed fashion.

“No, I just, I’m still processing what happened, that’s all,” I pause, thinking about what to say next, “they threatened me.”

“How?”

“Just by saying getting knocked off my feet will be the least of my worries next time.” I say as I lean forward, looking down.

He puts an arm around me, gently rubbing my back between my shoulder blades.

“They’re just trying to scare you. Nothing will happen to you on my watch.” He says with a grin.

I let out a giggle.

“That’s a promise, Saf.” He looks at me warmly, the light in the room giving the olive tone to his skin a soft glow.

I feel heat rising to my cheeks.

“Thank you.” I say shyly.

“If it makes you feel better, sometimes you don’t even see either of them on assignments.” He says reassuringly.

I look at him, curious.

“But you’ve said before that Midnight always seems to find you.” I say slowly.

He looks down.

“We don’t have to talk about it.” I say quickly, covering my tracks, moving my hair over my left shoulder.

He looks over at me again, a pained look on his face.

“No, it’s fine.” He takes a deep breath, “Midnight and I have a – er – strange relationship.” He continues.

“Strange how?” I ask, my curiosity peaked.

He sighs.

“She . . . attacked me a few years ago,” he says slowly.

His answer catches me off guard.

That’s not what I was expecting him to say.

What does he mean? Did she beat him up really bad? Or . . .

Something tells me it’s worse.

“Attacked you . . . how?” I ask softly.

He glares at me for a moment.

“I think you know.”

I hoped I wasn’t right about him being raped. I hoped that gut feeling was for something else, or that it was nothing at all. I hoped it was just a fleeting thought in the back of my mind, never to be seen or thought of again. But it wasn’t.

“Oh.” The sound escapes before I can think about it.

“So . . .” He trails off, biting his lip.

I feel my mind begin to race in a million different directions.

Why would Midnight have any reason to do something like that to him? Hell, why would someone do something like that to anyone? It's so wrong. I can't imagine how it must make him feel, how it's impacted him. I'm curious about how it happened, what lead up to it, but I don't want to push him to share anything he doesn't want to.

I want to make him feel better, but I don’t know what to say to him. It feels wrong to say I’m sorry. Not because I don’t feel empathy for him, because I do, but I don’t think he is looking for pity. Not from me. That’s not why he’s telling me this. He trusts me enough to tell me something this personal, to open up to me, and I don’t want to mess it up.

What do I say?

I extend my arms out, my mind leaving my head.

“Hey,” I whisper as he looks up hopefully, “come here.”

He smiles and I wrap my arms around him, pulling him close to me.

My fingers play with the bottom of his hairline as I feel his strong arms around me, holding me close.

“Thank you for telling me.” I whisper, the words tumbling out of my mouth.

He pulls away, his arms still around me.

“You don’t think I’m weak because of it?” His voice is barely audible.

I shake my head.

“Of course not,” I pause, “why didn’t you tell me sooner?”

He looks down.

“I didn’t want to make you uncomfortable. But I also just don’t like talking about it.” He mumbles.

“Coburn, look at me,” he swiftly tilts his head up, his brown eyes on me, “I know you always have my back, but I want you to know I’ll always protect you, too.”

Who is this person that is so eloquent with words, and how can I get her to come out more often?

He smiles, giving me a quick kiss on my forehead.

Our eyes lock for a split second, feeling a pull towards him, like there’s energy between us.

I blink.

The feeling is still there.

Butterflies make a home in my stomach.

My breathing becomes shaky.

I look down, breaking the spell.

It’s too much.

I’m not going to lie and say I’m not attracted to him, and I trust him more than anyone, but something is holding me back from this. I don’t want to mess up our friendship, and I feel so safe when I’m close to him. We’ve been friends for so long that I can barely remember a time when he wasn’t in my life. But so many new things are happening right now, I don’t want to add to that pile and get overwhelmed.

I know myself well enough to know that something like this will definitely be too much right now.

“Thanks.” He whispers.

I furrow my brows together.

“For what?”

“For listening, for not looking at me like a lost puppy or something, just being there for me, I don’t know.”

“You’d do the same for me.” I whisper.

“Of course.” He smiles, tucking a stray piece of hair behind my ear.

Without warning he pulls me into another hug, tighter this time.

I rest my head on his shoulder.

He smells like rain.

He’s so warm.

Strong.

Safe.

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