Chapter 20: Quicksand
~SOUNDTRACK: Ruelle – Invincible~
It was exhilarating.
Ember felt like a child taking that first breath. Scary, terrifying, but she felt alive. This new enormous body fit like a glove and she couldn’t wait to push her limits and see how far, how high, how deep she could go. She let the wind caress her wings – her wings – and she soared until everything below became a tiny dot. Then she let go and she let herself fall in pirouettes, enjoying the thrill, the rush. Gods, how had she lived without this? Every part of her body was in sync with the rest, every sense was insanely sharp, she could see things and hear things she hadn’t thought possible, she could smell emotions and taste the joy on the tip of her tongue.
Her eye caught sight of another shape mirroring her in flight and she remembered. Kaleb.
She turned around and she wondered if dragons could gasp audibly. Did she look just as glorious as Kaleb did? Because the sight of him was breathtaking. His onyx black scales shone in the sun and his green eyes were the only thing that let her know he was still himself beneath the thick dragon skin. But he looked dangerous and beastly, and Ember wished she could see herself through his eyes, too, if only for one second, to learn whether she had the same ferocious grace to his movement as he did.
Swiftly, Kaleb spread his wings and took off, and Ember sensed the challenge. She soared side by side with him, teasing him, playing with him, like a well-rehearsed dance. Her memory was still in a blur, but she did get these flashes, just small glimpses that let her know this wasn’t the first time they did this. She wondered if it had been their dragon selves that had brought them together after all. She felt the pull towards Kaleb, she felt the bond between them tethering her to all the things she had lost in the fire. She did not know them yet. But she felt the roughness of their scars in her flesh.
She would get to that, too.
For now, all she wanted was to defy gravity over the soundtrack of two pairs of wings echoing in the distance.
The sun stood witness once more. He’d been so used to seeing them from beneath the line of the horizon, merely peaking and stealing glances that it was hard to believe they were here, in plain daylight, for everyone to see. And they were just as breath-taking as ever.
Even more. Something had shifted. This time, there was a certainty to their movements that felt more grounded, more assumed. The beasts were no longer just beasts, the sun thought as he watched them land on a pirate ship and shift out of their dragon forms. The beasts were children with a power so great they did not yet understand.
~SOUNDTRACK: Andrew Belle – In my veins~
As soon as Ember was back on the ship, Ember wasted no more time. Arms and legs felt weird where there had been claws and her skin felt smooth without scales. But as soon as her feet touched the wooden deck, the rage settled in as her eyes fell on Maxwell Lockhart. She clenched her fists and gritted her teeth and she tried to will herself to stay in control. She felt Kaleb vaguely by her side, trying to regain his composure after everything they had just lived, but to her utter shock, she couldn’t be bothered. All that she saw before her eyes was red and Max’s smug grin.
“Well, that wasn’t so bad now, was it?” he tried to joke, and Ember felt the anger boiling inside her.
Oh, she was about to do something very stupid. So before the thought could catch shape in her head, she turned on her heels and elbowed a few pirates to make room for her to get the hell away from there. She made back to his cabin, but this small room had him imprinted all over it and eventually, it did nothing more but to fuel her rage.
How could he? How could he? She’d trusted him. She’d trusted him so much; she’d taken his word for it when he’d said he’d take care of her. She’d let him get under her skin, and now her veins were filled with dirt and lies and broken promises. She should’ve known better. She should’ve known better that to put her trust in a wicked pirate who’d known the right ways to smile sideways at her and to sweep her off her feet. Stupid girl.
And yet, at the sound of his voice behind her, something trembled in her very core. And she loathed herself for it. And she was on the verge of driving the closest sharp object through his chest for it.
“If you’re here to say you’re sorry, Max, I will rip off your tongue,” she hissed through clenched teeth, without turning around. Oh, she was fairly certain she’d find places where she could shove his apologies.
“I won’t,” he said simply. “Because I’m not sorry. I did what I had to do.”
Ember turned around abruptly, not quite believing her ears. After everything he had put her through, he’d followed her just to drag her through more mud. Had he no shame?
“What you had to do?” she shrieked. “Max, we could’ve died.”
She threw her hands in the air exasperated.
“But you did not know that!”
His calmness only managed to frustrate her to no end. With each and every passing second, she came closer to tackling him and showing him exactly just how much of a beast she could be.
“I don’t care, Max! I don’t care if you had the power to foresee the future and you could tell for sure what would happen. What you put me through is inexcusable.”
“It worked,” he shrugged, and Ember ran a hand over her face.
“Is that what you will be telling yourself from now on? It had to be done. It worked. I hope that will serve as enough of an excuse for you as you wonder why you lost my trust. Because I trusted you, Max.”
He finally broke his stoic expression and Ember saw the exasperation light up his features.
“Well, that was a mistake on your behalf, wasn’t it?” he raised his voice. “What did you expect of me, Ember? To stay put and hold your hand until you were ready?”
He moved to stand in front of her, clenching and unclenching his jaw. Ember stood her ground, ignoring the heat surging from his body and the way hers met it with equal flares. The air was charged between them and they could both tell by the way their breathing became frantic.
“Don’t fool yourself, love,” he spat, standing so close his breath was hitting Ember’s cheek. “I’m not the good guy. I will break you and feel no remorse for it if circumstances call for it, because this is what I do. And you’re not supposed to like me or to be my friend. And I’m sure as hell not here to provide you comfort.”
She stayed silent, not knowing how to respond to that. She’d come to that conclusion, too. But hearing it from his mouth, it struck her hard and fast as lightning. And every word died on her lips when she saw how badly he was struggling himself with the realization, as if he was finally letting it out after he’d let it eat him up.
“Then what are you?” she managed to snarl at him. “What am I to make of you, Max? Do I hate you? Do I trust you? Do I proceed to regret every single moment I’ve chosen to share with you since I got on this ship?”
“I don’t know, either,” he shouted back at her. “In fact, by all means, go ahead and expect the worst of me, because I will deliver, Ember. I am a villain and you’re a fool for believing otherwise. We are enemies. We are supposed to hate each other and all I know is I bloody can’t anymore.”
He took another step closer, until Ember’s brain starting screaming at her. Too close. Too close. Too close. But despite the rage that sent her brain spinning, her body begged to differ. Closer. Closer. Closer. The magnetism was undeniable, yet again, now when they wanted to claw at each other. They were just two edges of the same blade. And when he spoke, he was mere inches away from her and Ember could no longer tell if she was panting because of the anger or because of the closeness.
“You want to throw stones, love?” he whispered dangerously. “By all means, throw the first one. Lead the way and I will follow. Go ahead and hate me so that I can have a bloody reason to hate you back.”
Ember couldn’t precisely name the moment in which she’d made up her mind. Oh, it was a bad decision. The kind you always live to regret, and she was so certain she would never escape the waves of regret around this one. But in hindsight, as she’d reached in and searched the corners of her mind and heart, the decision had been made long before her muscles could act. Perhaps it had been the rush of today’s events, perhaps she was beginning to misinterpret her feelings from lately. Perhaps the rage had created an escape shortcut for every emotion she’d suppressed.
But when he asked for a bloody reason to hate her back, when he asked her to throw the first stone, she realized she was empty handed. She had no stones. And without stones to throw, her hands grabbed the first thing she could think of. His collar. And before she could even process what was happening, the gravity became too much and she pulled him to her hungrily.
And when their lips met halfway, Max let a small gasp against her lips. And if she’d thought there had been flames between them before, then this was an explosion of sparks ignited just behind her eyes. After the shock of the initial contact, it snapped, and she felt Max’s hands at her waist and in her hair and on her shoulders and everywhere where he could touch and it got raw and messy and wild and she gave in with her whole being. And if she’d thought he’d gotten under her skin before, that he’d filled her veins with dirt, she now understood the hurricane that was Maxwell Lockhart and how her veins had actually become nothing more but oceans for him to sail.
Max walked her backwards until her back was pressed against the wall and his body was pressed against hers, like he couldn’t get close enough. His mouth trailed kissed down her jaw and on her neck and his hand found her thigh and she gripped his shoulders and pulled his hair and whispered his name breathlessly. His lips drew maps on her heated skin and X marked the spot right above her lips, and he attacked them greedily like they were a treasure chest. And they devoured each other, buried under an ocean of chaos that poured and poured until they used up to the last ounce of hatred and confusion and rage and blame. And when Max’s hand slid around her waist, lifting the edge her shirt just a little to rest on her skin, Ember knew for a fact she was lost. Drowning in the bottomless pit that the captain was, her lungs enjoying the way he knocked out the air.
At Billy’s voice, Max jumped a few feet backwards like he’d just been slapped, his eyes unfocused. Holy Gods above. What had just happened?
Max cleared his voice and ran a hand over his face, trying to regain his composure, and then he turned to Billy. Was she as disheveled as he was? Were her pupils just as dilated, her lips just as swollen, her hair just as messy from his fingers as his was from hers? Heavens, she could still feel the heat radiating out of him and she was quite certain she was no better. They were like two children caught stealing cookies. Except the cookies had been kisses. And a little more than that, considering how they’d been all over each other. Perhaps she’d have been mortified, had she been able to cool herself down enough.
“What’s so important that you must interrupt me, Billy?” Max snapped at his sailor, and Ember saw the poor man gulp.
Max’s voice was charged and Ember couldn’t help but remember how he’d sounded whispering her name like a plea against her skin only seconds ago. And couldn’t help but notice how truly ruffled he sounded right now.
“Apologies, captain,” Billy mumbled. “But the dragon boy asked to speak with you.”
~SOUNDTRACK: Jimi Charles Moody – The other man~
The dragon boy.
Ember stopped breathing.
Only now did she finally see the subtle silhouette standing next to Billy. Frozen. Hard green eyes staring her down, judgmental.
“Kaleb,” she whispered, at loss of breath.
Max finally seemed to notice him just now, and for a second, they both tried to take in the scene through his eyes. He and Billy had walked in on them, finding them tangled in each other and the stench of the guilt hovered over them still. Ember could practically see Kaleb’s eyes traveling down the route where Max’s lips had been, and realization finally started to settle in. Oh, Gods. She’d kissed Maxwell Lockhart. The pirate who’d kidnapped her and had made her jump off a cliff just hours ago. Had she lost her mind? Over whom? Maxwell Lockhart, of all people? She dropped her gaze, unable to look at Kaleb wearing the shape of Max’s lips all over her skin.
“It’s fine,” Kaleb spoke harshly. “Your captain seems rather busy. I can wait until tomorrow.”
That having been said, he turned on his heels and left, leaving Ember red-faced with shame and troubled as never before. Billy simply shrugged and left, too, and Ember was once again alone with Max. But she didn’t have the time to face the aftermath of her actions, not now. She’d deal with Max later, when they would no longer feel these insane urges to rip each other’s clothes off. When they would agree that this was foolish of them, utterly unwise and bound to never happen again. For now, she had to make things right with Kaleb. She moved to run after him when she felt warm fingers clasping her wrist.
A wave of shock surged through her whole body. She still felt the shadow of the touch of those fingers all over her body. The memory of it made her frustratingly sensitive to it.
“Hey,” he whispered softly, and it unnerved her more than he would have if he had raised her voice and yelled at her again. She could not go down this path with him.
She took a last look at him, gazing into crystal deep eyes and she saw the hunger, the passion, the fire in them. He wanted her. He didn’t want to want her and God knew she didn’t want to want him, either. But, unlike her, he seemed to have already made up his mind as to whether to keep the flames burning or to put them out. No. No, not yet. She was still not yet ready to do this right now. Kaleb. Kaleb first.
So she removed her wrist from his arm and followed Kaleb, praying she’d find the right words to make him understand.
She found him in the same place where she’d spent exactly 43 evenings with Max, sipping on rum and made-up stories. How beyond ironic this was. She could tell he’d heard her approach, but before she got the chance to choose her words and speak up, he turned around abruptly, nostrils flaring.
“Do you love the pirate, Ember?” he snapped with no preparations whatsoever.
Ember’s eyebrows shot up and she shook her head, not fully able to comprehend what he was implying.
“What sort of mad question is this?” she raised her hands defensively in front of her.
“The one that kept me awake for 43 nights,” Kaleb raised his voice, and Ember flinched; she was not used to seeing this side of him. “Answer me, Ember. I need to know.”
“Kaleb, of course not,” she tried to soften her voice, taking a tentative step towards him. She tried not to let the sharp sting of pain take over her when he took a step backwards instead.
“Your actions speak for yourself,” he accused her. “I cannot pretend to understand what is going on between you and the captain. But I held on to you as a glimmer of hope for as long as I rotted inside that cell. I got out and learned that I am a dragon. And I had to keep it together for you, because we were in this together. And as we conquered horizons together, I held on the knowledge knowing there is a deeper bond running between us, one that cannot be undone.”
He ran a hand over his face, suddenly looking exhausted, and Ember gulped around the lump in her throat, threatening to bring out tears.
“But then I walk in on you and that pirate,” his voice broke over the words. “And I cannot say I never saw it coming. But I had hoped so badly to be wrong. I needed to be wrong. And yet you let him hold you in the same arms that pushed us to our death, Ember.”
“Near death,” Ember couldn’t help herself from saying, and she regretted the words as soon as they left her lips when she saw Kaleb’s face contort in disgust.
“Near?” he shrieked. “Have you the nerve to defend him?”
Ember ran a hand through her hair, knowing she could not take back the words now that they were out.
“No,” she spoke. “I’m not defending him. What he did was wrong and extreme and I tried so hard to be mad at him. I wanted to throttle him like never before, Kaleb. But there’s no denying this. It worked. He brought out that part of us that was stolen from us, from our memories. I feel like I can be whole again. I don’t have to be afraid anymore. And as wrong as it may have been of him to push us to that extreme, we owe him that.”
Kaleb went to stand in front of her, such rage in his eyes that it made Ember’s heart shrink a little.
“I owe him nothing,” he spat in her face. “And least of all, I do not feel obliged to share the woman I love with him.”
“I’m not a piece of meat, Kaleb. You can’t share me with anyone else. Least of all with Maxwell Lockhart. Whatever you saw down there, I can assure you—“
“I could not care less about your assurances,” he lowered his voice. “What am I to you, Ember? Do I mean anything to you at all? You didn’t hesitate when it came to doubting my feelings for you and throwing me in a cell. What about your feelings for me? Was any of it real?”
“Of course it was,” she gulped, and was surprised at how broken her voice sounded. “I’d do anything for you.”
He fell at loss of words at her response and she wanted to take advantage of that tiny moment to say something that would at least get him to listen to her, when they heard someone slowly clap their palms behind them. They turned around to see Christopher standing a few feet away, an expression of mockery glued to his face.
~SOUNDTRACK: Theory of a Deadman – Bloody Jack Villain~
“How very tragic,” he ridiculed. “I am deeply moved.”
“Do you mind, Christopher?” Ember sneered at him.
Christopher stepped forward. “I do, as a matter of fact. As our bright pirate so carefully pointed out, we’ve got no witch and two hexed dragons. I suggest you get your dragon brains onto finding that cave. I am running out of patience in this little game of yours.”
Ember sighed, as it was now clear there was no escaping the devil on her shoulder. And truth be told, she wanted everything to be over with as soon as possible, too.
“I would love nothing more,” she replied snarky. “But the dragon form didn’t bring back the memories. We can rely on these newly discovered instincts, but without proper orientation, I don’t think we can do more.”
“Then we need those memories. And I know just the person to lend a hand with that.” Christopher shot her a cruel smirk that made Ember’s blood run cold. Oh, she could see past that grin of his. Whatever he was up to, it was no good.
“I won’t like this, will I?” she glared at him, just to be rewarded with yet another questionable smile on his face.
“Not any less than you liked jumping off a cliff, love.”