Chapter Eight: Compelling
*Trigger Warning* This chapter contains information about sexual assault/violence which may be triggering to survivors.
All I see is darkness.
Around me, below me, above me.
I can’t tell if my eyes are open or closed.
My ears prick up at the sound of footsteps.
Click, click, click.
They come closer, closer.
Through the darkness I see a figure.
My eyes adjust and I can make out who it is.
She comes closer, closer.
My heart pounds in my ears.
I want to run, but I can’t.
My feet are stuck.
She stands in front of me.
My breath is shaky.
I can’t move.
“Don’t . . .” I whisper.
My voice disappears into the darkness.
She ignores me, closing the gap between us.
Tears prick the corners of my eyes.
“Please don’t. . .” my voice cracks.
She covers my mouth.
“You’re mine,” she hisses in my ear.
Tears roll down my cheeks.
I wake up gasping for air, quickly sitting upright, pushing my covers off me. I take a second to catch my breath, wrapping my arms around my stomach. I can still hear her voice in my head, the sound lingering in my mind. I shut my eyes hard, pushing the thoughts away. My heart pounds in my throat, my breathing is rough, strained, short. All I can think about is the memory of Midnight, her voice, everything about her.
I want it to go away, never to come back.
It takes me several moments to remember that I was dreaming.
I lay back on my bed, hands covering my face, my fingers clutching the hair by my forehead. Despite the warmth surrounding me from the covers, it feels as though a draft has entered the room, like someone replaced the walls with blocks of ice, dropping the temperature of the room. I shiver, seemingly unable to get myself warm again, goosebumps crawling up my arms; though I can’t tell if they’re from the cold, or from my fear.
I haven’t had a nightmare about Midnight in months; I wonder why they decided to show back up. I thought I had worked through everything to do with her, why would she still be showing up in my dreams?
It haunts me. She haunts me.
It happened over a year ago; it feels like I should be past it by now. Perhaps some of it will always linger in the back of my mind. But I don’t want it to. I want it to go away, I want the memory to leave and never come back.
One feeling that always prevails is that I didn’t fight hard enough. That I should have been able to stop the situation before it got to the point it did, but I couldn’t. The thought makes me feel weak, uncapable, helpless.
It’s hard to not blame myself for it.
I shake my head.
The light of day is now pouring into the room, the clock on the wall telling me that it is near 10am. The sunlight hits the white of the clock, illuminating the section of the clockface between 10 and 12, the black numbers standing out like words on a page. Another section of sunlight hits one of the floating shelves on the furthest wall, brightening sections of the wood while making the sections in the shadows look darker, richer, fuller.
This is the latest I’ve slept in in a while, though with everything that happened last night, I’m not surprised.
I quickly get to my feet, put on some clean clothes, and exit my room, eager to leave the thoughts of the night behind.
Ana sees me in the hallway and gives me a small smile. Her hair is styled in a low bun, with small, golden strands of hair framing her face, highlighted by the natural darkness of her roots. She’s dressed in a loose gray sweater and black pants, like she’s dressing for comfort today.
“Good morning,” she says quietly.
“Hey,” I reply.
“How are those burns doing?” She asks, stepping closer.
I shrug, absentmindedly running my hand over the burn on my neck. It’s still radiating a little bit of heat, my skin standing to attention at my touch, but nowhere near the point it was at yesterday.
“They’re all right, I guess. Are you doing okay?”
“Hard to know. Luna healed me earlier, but sometimes I feel fine, and other times I feel like I can’t breathe. I think I just breathed in too much smoke last night, I should have been more cautious,” she mumbles.
Air wielders like Ana have to be so careful around smoke. If I thought I looked bad by the time I got out of the building, she probably wouldn’t have lasted more than a minute if she was in there. Ehren is all right around smoke, but he’s the most vulnerable to burns out of any of us, which is why he couldn’t go anywhere near the fire.
“At least you weren’t in the building,” I say with a laugh.
She presses her lips together.
“Speaking of which, what possessed you to go in there? You know you can’t handle smoke as well as her.”
“Just some misplaced courage I guess,” I say with a sigh.
“Not misplaced. Just a little reckless. But the important thing is that you’re okay,” she smiles, “are you two still fighting?”
I look to the side for a moment.
“No, we made up yesterday.”
She breathes a quick sigh of relief.
“Good,” she pauses before sighing in frustration, “I hate days off. I never know what to do,” she mumbles under her breath.
I frown at her.
“You’re not tired after last night?”
She contorts her face.
“Of course I am, I just find that training is the best way to get my mind off things.”
I bite my lip.
I have a feeling this has to do with Ryker, but I don’t want to push her to share something she doesn’t want to.
“Well, I was going to go downstairs. Want to come?” I ask, eager to change the subject.
She thinks for a moment.
“May as well.”
Her and I turn the corner and head down the foyer stairs and see Luna fast asleep on one of the couches. She’s in different clothes than last night and her hair is styled differently, suggesting that she got up early to do some running around but ended up falling asleep in the process. Her dark hair is fastened in a long ponytail, and she wears a thick navy blue sweater with leggings and her famous fuzzy slippers. It’s probably the most casual I’ve ever seen her look.
“Should we wake her?” Ana asks.
I shake my head.
“Nah, maybe not.” I reply, contemplating the option.
Luna stirs in her sleep.
“I can hear you two,” she mumbles, her eyes still closed as she stretches her arms over her head.
She opens her eyes in the next moment, smiling as she looks at us sleepily.
“Ugh, what time is it?”
“Around ten. We didn’t mean to wake you,” Ana says respectfully.
Luna squints at her, like her eyes are adjusting to the light.
“It’s fine, I was almost awake anyways,” Luna says with a chuckle.
She sits up and rubs her eyes, turning towards me.
“How are your burns?”
“They feel okay.”
“Good,” she says with a yawn before snapping to attention, “oh, I just remembered, I have to make an address to the city about what happened last night. We should have our debrief before then so that we can know for certain what happened and communicate it effectively.”
“Where’s – what’s his name – Jaxson? Where is he?” Ana asks.
“In custody. I’ll get Saffire to talk to him either today or tomorrow.”
“Is that a good idea? Having Saffire talk to him, I mean,” Ana says curtly.
I give her a sideways glance.
“Saffire was the one that calmed him down, she can handle it.” Luna says nonchalantly.
“I know, but is it a good idea to have two fire wielders together? What if they set each other off?” Ana contemplates.
I let out a loud sigh.
Saf and Ana haven’t gotten off on the strongest foot – that much has been clear – but I can’t understand why Ana’s being so cold towards her, and quite frankly, I’m sick of it.
“What is your problem with her, Ana? You’ve been nothing but nasty to her since she got here.”
Ana narrows her eyes.
“Why are you so concerned about it?”
“Because she’s my friend.”
Ana sighs in frustration.
“I don’t have a problem with her. I just have a hard time trusting her judgement. She’s immature and I don’t know if she’s entirely ready to be an elemental leader. You shouldn’t let your friendship with her cloud your judgement on that.”
I cock my head to the side.
Something tells me that’s not what’s going on.
“That’s not fair to say about her, or me, or anyone for that matter. My relationship with her has nothing to do with this,” I retort, pausing for a moment, “does this have something to do with Ryker?” I ask softly.
I want to help her if she’s going through something, but she’s so closed off that I don’t know how to reach out to her.
She glares at me.
“I’m allowed to feel sad about him being gone, Coburn,” she says pointedly.
I press my lips together.
“Of course you are, and I’m sad about it too,” I reassure, “but that doesn’t give you a right to be horrible to Saf just because she’s his replacement.”
She opens her mouth to say something, but no sound comes out.
“Anyways,” Luna says loudly as she crosses her arms, an unimpressed expression on her face, “Analia, I know we’re all still processing what happened to Ryker – not a day goes by that I don’t think about him – but I expect my decisions surrounding the choosing of elemental leaders to be respected. So, you and Saffire need to figure out your differences and move on, okay?”
Ana scowls for a moment before nodding.
“I understand,” she murmurs.
Luna exhales quickly before a small grin reappears on her face.
“Good. Now that’s settled, we can have a debrief in a half hour or so.”
Luna trots up the stairs and turns down one of the hallways, disappearing from view.
I turn to Ana, who has her arms crossed.
“I didn’t mean to bring up Ryker, I’m sorry,” I say softly.
She turns to me, her expression softening.
“I just miss him. I don’t really want to talk about it,” she says with finality.
I look down for a second.
“I’m here if you ever need to.”
She shrugs and strides out of the room out of view, staying on the first floor. Maybe she’s finding a spot to relax. . . for once.
Saf heads down the stairs moments later, giving me a small wave as soon as she sees me. She seems to have also dressed for comfort, wearing leggings and a large cream coloured cardigan over a black tank top, her hair in a loose messy bun. Some of her curls have sprung free from the hairstyle, her baby hairs lining her forehead.
I wave back, giving her a small smile.
“What was that all about?” She asks as she reaches the bottom floor, walking up to me.
I press my lips together.
“Did you hear any of it?” I ask.
“Mmhmm,” she pauses, a hurt expression on her face, “Ana thinks I’m immature and not ready for this?” She says bitterly.
“It takes her a while to warm up to anyone,” I reassure, “take her with a grain of salt. Luna and Ehren and I think you’re doing great, and that’s all that matters.”
“So, I guess stopping a psychopath from burning down the city isn’t noteworthy to her?” She scowls.
I place a hand on her shoulder.
“She’s not in the right mind frame to be making judgement calls about you, or anyone. Why do you care what she thinks so much?”
I didn’t mean to say it like that. Oops.
She glares at me for a second before she looks down.
“If we really are a team, I feel like we should all respect each other. I respect her, I always have, but I don’t think she has the same regards for me.”
“She does respect you, even if it doesn’t seem like it on the outside. Give her time.”
She sighs and smiles at me.
“Thanks for sticking up for me during all that though,” she gives me a quick hug before dramatically lying down on the couch that Luna was sleeping on moments ago. I chuckle to myself and take the spot next to her as she sits up and leans her head on the back cushion, turning her face towards me.
“I heard you guys mention Ryker. What’s going on with all that?” She asks suddenly.
I was hoping she wouldn’t ask about Ryker. I haven’t really acknowledged my feelings around his passing since she got here, and death isn’t my favourite thing to talk about. But then, talking about Midnight with her was the toughest thing I’ve ever done, Luna is the only other person that knows the full story behind that event, so maybe opening up to Saf won’t be too bad.
“Ana and Ryker were close. Really close. It’s been the hardest for her, by far.”
Saf thinks for a few moments.
“Is that why she’s so cold with me? Because I’m his replacement, like you said?”
I bite my lip.
“I’m sure it’s a factor for her. She’ll come around in time.”
“What about you? How are you feeling about him?” Her eyes are locked on me.
I take a deep breath.
“It sucks. I was the first person that saw him when he came back,” I look down, “I couldn’t even recognize him,” I breathe shakily, trying not to get thrown into the memory.
She puts her hand on mine.
“Coburn . . .”
I glance up, her eyes bright but soft at the same time. She gives me a small but warm smile, reassuring me.
I feel everything I’ve been pushing down suddenly bubble to the surface, the fear, the anger, the sadness, confusion, grief, guilt, the want to change the past. The feelings surround me, looming, finding their way into every part of me.
I feel tears begin to prick my eyes and I suddenly can’t hold it back. I can’t hold anything back. I put my face in my hands, sobbing quietly, feeling my fingers get wet with tears.
In the next moment her arms are around me, and I hold her close, crying into her shoulder. I feel like I can’t get her close enough to me. I gather the fabric of her cardigan into my fists, tightly holding on in an attempt to steady myself. One of her hands softly trails up and down my spine, the other around my shoulder. She doesn’t say anything, only holding me, comforting, just being there for me. I don’t like being emotional, I don’t like making a scene, but it doesn’t feel like that when I’m around her. It feels like I’m being myself, that she won’t think of me as less than for being more sensitive, that she won’t tell me to get over it, or to push it down deeper and deeper into myself until I can’t take it anymore.
“I just miss him,” I breathe.
“Shh, I know,” she holds me closer.
“I watched him die. I couldn’t do anything to stop it. He didn’t deserve to die,” I say between sobs.
“It’s okay. It wasn’t your fault,” she whispers against me.
For a while she just holds me, letting me cry it out. Ryker was close with everyone, he could light up a room, he had an amazing sense of humour, he was so loyal, worked so hard to be the best he could be at anything. I still remember his blue eyes, how they were always so full of life.
After a while she pulls away, looking at me softly. I wipe some of the tears from my cheeks and look back at her.
“No more tears, because if you cry then I’ll cry and then we’ll both be hot messes,” she says with a laugh. The comment makes me feel better, somehow. I notice the area just below her eyes is a little wet, but I don’t comment on it.
“You okay?” She asks, her cold hand brushing against my cheek.
I nod, smiling.
“Thank you,” I whisper.
“You’d do the same for me,” she says shyly.
I want to tell her I’d do anything for her, but I can’t form the words.
“Of course,” I respond, looking down.
She keeps her arms around me for a few moments after that, just comforting me as I calm myself down, leaning on her shoulder.
“I need coffee, want to come?” She asks, changing the subject after several minutes.
I nod as I wipe the last of my tears away from my face, getting up as we walk to the kitchen. We set up the machine to brew, waiting a few minutes before serving ourselves. The bitter, earthy smell lingers through the air, making me feel more awake with each passing second. Saf and I sit down with our mugs at one of the seats at the island, her cup so large I’m pretty sure it could also be used for a small serving of soup. I think it’s one she brought here from her old house.
Ehren comes into the room a few moments later, clearly hypnotized by the smell of coffee wafting through the area. He wears a light blue, long sleeved shirt with buttons going a quarter of the way down his front and dark jeans.
“Morning!” he says cheerfully, “you alright, buddy?” he says as soon as he comes closer. Maybe my eyes are still a little watery or something.
“Mmhmm,” I respond, trying to tell him through my tone that I don’t want to talk about it. Ehren is great, but I don’t feel comfortable talking about any of this with anyone other than Saf.
He squints at me for a moment, like he’s trying to decide if he should pursue the question, before shrugging and grabbing a cup for coffee.
“So,” he turns to Saf, then to me, leaning on the counter, “are you two still fighting?”
“No. We figured it out,” Saf says, grinning at me.
I smile back.
Ehren looks between us, a mischievous look on his face.
“Nothing else happened after that?” He asks playfully.
I lightly push him to the side.
“Nope,” I say with a smirk.
Saf rolls her eyes and takes a sip of her coffee before Luna comes into the room. Her hair is now in a half-up style, and she wears a loose, long sleeved, dark purple top with gold buttons tucked into a short black skirt and tights.
“I’m not sure what I’m breaking up here, but it’s debrief time,” she announces before heading towards the living room we use for business meetings.
Saf takes a shaky breath and quickly takes a sip of coffee, like she’s trying to hide her nervousness. The last time I saw her do that was when I told her Luna was thinking of her for Spirit of Fire; a memory that feels like an eternity ago.
“You all right?” I ask.
She doesn’t answer, looking down into the contents of her mug.
She snaps to attention, looking at me.
“Are you okay?”
“Just hyping myself up for the debrief,” she says with a weak grin.
“They’re not that bad. Just tell her what you saw and what you think happened,” I reassure.
She nods, looking a little more confident than before.
I don’t blame her for having anxiety – it’s a common trait in fire wielders, I think – but I hope that being an elemental leader will help her come into her own a little more and give her some more confidence in her abilities. I know she can do anything she sets her mind to.
Saf sits on the couch next to Ehren and I sit across from the two of them, grabbing a bright orange coaster for my cup. It’s made of cork – I think – with a glossy top, making the colour appear vibrant.
I glance at Saf, who rolls her right shoulder with a grimace. I still feel guilty that she got hit trying to protect me.
“All right,” Luna starts, “so last night was crazy for all of us, but despite the short notice, you all did incredible, and we were able to keep the fire contained with no casualties,” she pauses, “but before I make an address, I need to know exactly what happened in the building,” Luna turns to Saf.
She takes a deep breath, taking a long sip of coffee, tightly clenching the handle.
“Okay. So, Jaxson is the one that did it. Strangely enough, he’s the one who attacked me on announcement day, but that’s not important, I guess,” she pauses, “but anyways, as soon as I was inside I felt like I was surrounded by dark energy.”
“Are you sure that’s because it was a million degrees in there?” Ehren asks jokingly.
Saf snickers and I notice her shoulders drop a little.
“No, I can’t feel heat like you guys can, so it wasn’t that. It kind of felt like the dark energy in the Shadow Realm, almost like Nox and Midnight were there, somehow, I don’t know.”
“That’s impossible,” Luna says quickly, “they can’t leave the Shadow Realm.”
“I know, which is what was so strange about it. Obviously, they weren’t actually there, but I definitely felt something dark there. And the fire in the building was laced with shadows; whatever that means.”
Luna takes a deep inhale.
“Okay, that is odd. What about Jaxson? Anything strange about him?”
Saf presses her lips together.
“Where do I even start?” She says with a chuckle, “something wasn’t right with him at all. It was like he wasn’t entirely there, if that makes sense.”
“What do you mean?” Luna inquires.
“I’ve known him for a while, and don’t get me wrong, he’s a complete idiot, but even he doesn’t seem to be capable of this kind of thing. He looked like he was resisting something a few times, shouting a lot, his eyes seemed darker, his voice was off, I don’t know. And then as soon as I got him in a position where he couldn’t attack, he just stopped and passed out,” she pauses, “I think – er – I think something was compelling him to do what he did.”
Luna looks at her for a few moments, like she’s thinking of how to respond.
“Are you suggesting that Nox and Midnight somehow possessed him to do this?” She asks.
“Yah. I know it sounds crazy, but why else would there be a dark presence there? Or shadows in the fire? Is possession something that Nox and Midnight can do?”
Luna looks away for several moments.
“It is. Though I’m not well versed in it,” she looks back to Saf, “were there any other clues that would lead you to this conclusion?”
Saf takes a sip of coffee, still clenching the handle tightly.
“There was a point when I think I got through to him, like I broke through the possession, and he looked confused. Like he didn’t know what was happening. But that only lasted about five hot seconds.”
I bring myself back to the memory, she seemed to be talking to him when I saw her with him last night. He seemed calm, composed, before he backed away shouting. Maybe that’s when he broke through the compulsion before it overtook him again.
“Coburn, you were in there too, anything to add?” Luna turns to me.
“Nothing that Saf hasn’t already mentioned.” I say, smiling at her, “but he did seem more aggressive than before, at least from what I saw of him.”
“How do you mean?” Luna asks.
I think back. Even on the announcement day when I got in his way to make sure Saf was okay, he didn’t make any attempt to attack me physically, and he backed off right away as soon as I came into the room, aside from his crude comments. He seemed a lot more relentless last night, like he wouldn’t let anything get in his way. I have a feeling the Jaxson I saw at the announcement wouldn’t have tried to choke Saf or try to attack me in the way he did.
“Well, Saf knows him better than I do, but on announcement day he backed off when we told him to. Yesterday it was like he would stop at nothing to get Saf and I out of the equation so that he could keep going on his rampage.”
Saf nods in agreement.
“Actually, yah, now that you mention it he was way more aggressive than I’ve ever seen him before,” she sighs loudly, “I don’t know. I just have a feeling there was something darker going on, or something, I don’t know.”
Luna takes a deep breath.
“We won’t know for sure it was possession until Saffire talks to Jaxson, so we should wait making that claim. But I think it’s safe to say that Nox and Midnight had something to do with this, at least based on what you all have told me.”
“I have to talk to him?” Saf asks, a shocked expression passing over her face.
“Yes,” Luna starts, “I can come with you, if you’d like.”
Saf bites her lip.
“Let me think about it, I’ll let you know by tonight.”
Luna nods, and I notice Ana roll her eyes.
I shoot her a glare.
It’s like she expects Saf to be adjusted to all this right away, even though it’s only her second week here. I don’t understand Ana sometimes.
“Does anyone have anything else to add before we get ready for the address?”
Silence falls on the room.
“Okay,” Luna continues, “I’ll leave you all to get ready and we can meet in the foyer in an hour. Saffire, let me have a look at your shoulder.”
Saf opens her mouth to say something before catching herself, nodding.
Ehren, Ana and I leave the room, walking into the foyer and heading up the stairs.
“Ugh, that guy sounds terrible. I kind of feel bad for Saf, I know I wouldn’t want to talk to him.” Ehren says to no one in particular.
“She’ll be okay,” I start, “if she can handle Jaxson on a rampage, she can handle figuring out his perspective on all this,” I say with a small chuckle.
“What do you two think of all this possession talk?” Ana interjects suddenly.
“I’m a little skeptical, but I wasn’t in there,” Ehren responds, “how would they even do something like that?”
“I don’t know. I guess there’s a lot we don’t know about Ether, Luna’s said that before. But I can’t see how it could have been anything other than possession,” I reply, contemplating the possibility.
I remember the conversation I had with Saf when we got back. It sounded crazy at first, but the more I thought about it, the more it made sense to me. Perhaps Nox and Midnight have found a way to infiltrate our world without physically being here, and if that’s the case, we need to be more careful than ever.
“Well, I guess we’ll have to be careful on the next assignment. We could come back,” Ehren puts on a spooky voice, “and never be the same again!” He cries dramatically, waving his arms in the air like a ghost.
I chuckle; even Ana lets a small smile escape.
“Right,” I say sarcastically, “what do you think, Ana?” I ask.
“I don’t have enough information to make a conclusion on all this,” she says in a stoic tone, adjusting her hair as we reach the top of the stairs.
I guess that’s the end of that conversation.
I turn to the left, saying a quick goodbye as I head down the hallway in the opposite direction, heading into my room after a few moments of walking.
Being back in the room again reminds me of the nightmare I woke up to, my fear coming flooding back to me. I shiver, chills covering my body again. I try to block it out, ignoring the fear, at least for now.
Maybe talking to Saf about all this has brought some of the emotions surrounding the event to the surface for me. By no means do I blame her for it, but I suppose I didn't realize how much I was dissociating from it all. If that’s even what was happening. I’m honestly not sure.
Maybe the nightmares will never fully go away.