Chapter 27: Make Up of A Foolish Mind
~SOUNDTRACK: Snarky Puppy feat. Lucy Woodward – Too hot to last~
Max cracked his eyelids open. Sunlight made his head hurt like hell and he groaned in pain. He was having trouble placing the past days’ events and to remember where he was. Everything hurt and he felt his body too weak to even get up. He glanced around and it started coming back to him.
Ember’s hut. He was at Ember’s. They’d been attacked by skinwalkers. She’d carried him here. He started touching his sides and he felt improvised bandages circling his torso. They were dirty and bloody, but he supposed they’d done the deed. He was alive, wasn’t he?
He glanced to his left and his breath hitched in his throat. Ember slept with her head resting on her forearms, sitting on a chair by his bed. Max’s felt his heart warm up.
He reached despite the pain and touched her onyx black locks lightly. They felt like silk under his fingertips. He took his time, careful not to wake her, just taking her in.
“She hasn’t moved, you know,” Max heard Kaleb’s voice a few feet away; he turned his head to see the dragon boy standing, a troubled, pained expression on his face. “She’s sat by your side the whole time. Growling at me if I dared so much as to look at you wrong.”
Max barked a laugh, but regretted it instantly, as every inch of his body hurt terribly.
“She would,” he conceded, then he turned to gaze again at the dragon boy. “You did this? You fixed me?”
Kaleb sighed and let himself drop in a chair. “I don’t know much about your ethics, captain,” he spoke sharply; and Max had to respect him a little bit for finally growing a bit of a spine. “But mine are quite clear. Regardless of whatever bad blood there may be, you did help us. Saved Ember’s life on more than one occasion, from what I hear. And she wanted you to live. The problem seemed rather simple from where I stood.”
Max nodded. “Thank you,” he made himself say. “It would seem I owe you one, mate.”
Kaleb seemed rather perplexed and troubled as he stood from the chair and started pacing.
“You owe me nothing,” he replied shortly. “Nor do I you. But you owe her every day of your life that goes beyond today. As to me, I think it would be best if we started acting as allies for the time being. We’re at war. We must win this at all costs.”
Max swallowed hard. He didn’t like that Kaleb was being the mature one, and the fact that he’d saved his life didn’t help. Without a grudge to hold and without a reason to hate his guts, he only felt guilty for the other war that was going on between just the two of them. A war fought to win over the damsel in distress. Not that he’d ever call Ember that to her face.
~SOUNDTRACK: One Two – Without you (Grey’s Anatomy version)~
Before he got the chance to reply to the dragon boy, he felt Ember shift under his touch. She moved slightly and raised her head, rubbing her face and her still closed eyelids lazily. When she opened her eyes to grant him the sight of her summer-kissed green eyes, Max’s breath stopped. Gosh, he had no self-control these days. She’d taken it all from him and replaced it with a bloody weak ass all too addicted to her presence.
She froze for an instant when she realized he was awake.
“Oh,” she gasped lightly, then louder. “Oh, Max. You’re alright.”
He saw the corners of her eyes glint with the beginning with tears and he began to reward her with one of his sly smiles. But before he got to it, she went right ahead and punched him in the shoulder. Max remained short of breath in pain, grunting and moaning, while Ember’s face showed no sign of remorse whatsoever.
“You scared the living hell out of me,” she spoke fiercely. Vaguely, Max noticed Kaleb slipping out of the hut to give them privacy. There had been forged some sort of mutual understanding between them that shocked Max to no end. All of a sudden, gazing up at Ember, he felt as if he had someone to answer to for every time he touched her. Like he had something to feel guilty for.
He cleared his throat and tried to calm himself down through the sharp pain. “Why, deepest apologies, fire breather. Next time, I’ll try to not almost die.”
She pursed her lips in a tight line. “Well, you’d better. You cannot die on me, you bastard. You said you’d be safe. You said you’d meet me back here.”
Max reached to take her hand reluctantly and she let him. “I said many things. Would you have left me behind, had you known there was even a remote chance for them to come after me?”
“Of course not,” Ember was quick to reply.
“Precisely. I had to let you do your thing, at the cost of my own life.”
Ember withdrew her hand from his and stood up, pacing and running her hands through her hair.
“You insufferable moron,” she hissed under her breath, then turned to him. “What happened to us being enemies? Not long ago, I recall, you were quite keen on keeping things clear. When did that turn into you trying to save my life at the cost of yours?”
Max knew the answer to that, but he refused to voice it. He refused to think it. He wasn’t very good at feeling things. And he was even worse at admitting them. He didn’t fully comprehend what it was that Ember awoke in him. All he could tell was that they were past the point of magnetic attraction and it had all evolved into something deeper. He no longer wondered what it would’ve been like to run his hands over her body and to feel her tremble in his arms. He wondered what it would’ve felt like to run his fingers through her silky hair and to feel her sleep in his arms at night. He no longer chased petty revenge or treasure hunting or evading this annoying threat. He now felt a void opening up in his chest at the mere prospect that something could happen to her. But nonetheless, he wasn’t very good at feeling things. And he was even worse at admitting them. So when Ember voiced the question, he simply shrugged.
“I didn’t die, did I?”
Ember threw her hands in the air in exasperation. “Far from the point, Maxwell. You could have. Of all the times when you decide to play brave and selfless, you chose the worst one. It was pointless, reckless and moronic. You would have left me to face everything alone.”
She sat again in the chair next to his bed and folded her hands in her lap. Max would’ve chuckled, hadn’t it been for the tense situation, for she looked like a child throwing a tantrum and pouting if she didn’t get her way. But he saw past that and knew the cut ran deeper.
“I didn’t,” he repeated. “And you wouldn’t have been alone. You have rosy cheeks. And Christopher will keep his end of the bargain.”
“I would have,” she argued in a small voice. “Kaleb is my dearest friend. And I know Christopher will not leave my side until I’m safe. But I can’t do this without you, Max.”
She averted her gaze as she said the words, so she couldn’t see the look on Max’s face. His lips were parted and he’d stopped breathing. His eyes were wide and, even if he wasn’t well aware of that, full of adoration and a bit of smugness, too. With each step, they moved from one point of no return to the next one, feeling crossed bridges crumbling beneath their feet. If they made it out alive, they’d have lots of figuring out to do.
“You won’t have to,” he replied. “I’m a tough one to get rid of. You ought to have known that by now.” That got a small smile out of her. “But careful, fire breather. I’m starting to feel as if my presence is somehow indispensable, that you might, in fact, need me or want me here. It could get to my head.”
She crossed her arms over her chest and narrowed her eyes. “Don’t flatter yourself, captain. I’m merely seeing my best interest. You own a ship and a crew that often comes in handy.”
“Of course, of course, silly me,” Max chuckled, the movement making him groan in pain. “How long was I out?”
Ember bit her lip, falling back to the serious conversation mood. “Three days, give or take.”
“Three days?” he shrieked. “For three days you’ve sat here nursing me? Ember, you can’t afford losing time at the moment. For the Hades Brides, three days can make the difference in terms of losing this war.”
“And hadn’t they had my siblings, I would not have given a bloody damn,” she leaned forward and caught his hand. “We would’ve gotten on your ship and sailed to the world’s end, far from this mess. I’ve never asked for this, Max. And I’m only fighting this battle for the people that I love. I’ve lost so much. I can’t lose anyone else.”
Max sighed. “You’re a bloody fool,” he told her in a soft voice. “But I can’t say I don’t see where you stand. You have the purpose and you have the means. But you should know this, Ember. I’m driven by the same thought. I want to protect you. And for that, I will keep lying to you and doing things my own despicable way, and I will not apologize for it. This is who I am. I’m not rosy cheeks and I’m not you. Doing the right thing tends to get you killed. I will not stop breaking laws and ethics and morals so long as it keeps you safe.”
Ember pursed her lips, but didn’t argue. Eventually, she said, “Then we’ve some great storms coming.”
Max bit down a smile. “So it would seem.”
“But it’s quite alright, Max. I’ve never chosen which sides of you to like and which to despise. You came as a whole from the very beginning. And you taught me a thing or two about being whole, too.”
“Admit it,” he smiled smugly and a bit ruefully at her. “I’m entertaining to have around. I’m addictive.”
“I wouldn’t go that far,” she chuckled. “But you do make me braver. More alive. I don’t feel like I’m supposed to transform into my better self around you. I feel like our flaws and our mistakes even each other out.”
He was silent for a minute, taking in her words. She’d pointed everything out flawlessly. And it only now occurred to him that, at some point, he’d started caring what she thought of him. It had been so long since that happened. He wasn’t one to make excuses for who he was, and his mistakes had all piled up to such an extent that he could’ve easily sailed between them instead of the sea. Back when he was a kid, his mother had always held on to this belief that one is supposed to meet their better half and that it would make him want to be a better man for her. He’d believed in it for so long until he’d stopped believing there would ever be someone so light and pure that she could ignite his heart like a bonfire and chase away the darkness. How wrong had his mother been. Ember had been the opposite of that. She knew real darkness, and she didn’t judge his. She’d come along and joined him on this pitch black road that was his life and now they were to search for light together. Max could’ve never asked for anything better. His heart clenched at the mere idea of knowing her life was in danger. It was a new feeling for him. He hadn’t worried for another life apart from his in a very long time.
“What next?” he asked out loud, looking at their joined hands.
Ember sighed and ran a hand through her hair. “We wait another day for you to regain strength. Then we go back to your ship and try to regroup, to strategize. Now that you’re alright, I still need to find Charles and the girls. My heart tells me they’re fine, that they’re still alive, but who knows for how long?”
“We’ll find them,” Max gaze her hand a squeeze. “As long as the witches have them to lure you out, they won’t touch them. Has Christopher had more luck than me in his search?”
“Not much. But he did learn that the villagers are under some sort of oblivion spell. He used a different term, but I can’t remember it. The witches are trying to lay low and wipe away everything that the people may have seen or heard. They know how to cover their tracks. Christopher is convinced that the hex was the work of one single witch, so that means one of them has managed to blend in with the villagers. She could be anyone and I would have never known. My siblings could be next door and I would never know.”
“Well, fire breather,” Max exhaled loudly and struggled to sit up. “It would seem we’re fast approaching the climax of this war. Count your blessings.”
She smiled sadly and fixated her gaze on the ceiling, a few tears dancing in the corners of her eyes.
“I have run out of blessings. Now I’m running on sheer luck and on the flames I can breathe.”
Max clicked his tongue and winked at her. “You may learn that’s more than enough.”
They waited that extra day Ember had suggested and Max recovered at impressive speed. Ember suspected it had something to do with his absolute revulsion towards being nursed like a cripple, not that he would’ve admitted it. But the following day at the crack of dawn, the two dragons, the pirate and the demon were back in a boat and heading to Max’s ship.
The air was somehow tense around them. While Christopher still couldn’t care less, Ember and the boys were still caught in an intricate spider web. Ember knew she would eventually have to address the issue. She couldn’t go on forever loving both of them and she had to draw the line between what she felt for either of them. And it was harder now. Things weren’t as clean and she could tell that, even where there had been nothing but mutual hatred between Kaleb and Max, it was now quieter and duller. They’d become a team, the three of them, what with lives saved all over again, but that only made it so much more complicated. They were also bound by feelings that demanded being acted upon, and Ember could not do that just yet. There were four innocent children awaiting rescue.
They made it to Max’s ship quietly, each wrapped in their own thoughts.
“We ought to call a meeting,” Max was the first to speak what was on everyone’s mind. “We need to gather our forces and counter attack, or at least build a decent defense. We need to turn the odds in our favor.”
“And how do you suggest we do that, pirate?” Christopher mocked him, but Max didn’t humor him with a reaction.
“I don’t know yet,” he admitted. “Meet me in my cabin in half an hour. After I’ll have had enough rum in my stomach.”
He didn’t wait for a reply before turning on his heels and leaving. Christopher didn’t linger much longer either and Ember considered following Max to make sure he felt alright and that his wounds didn’t bother him. But then she looked to her right and saw Kaleb looking around aimlessly and it occurred to her that she’d chased and pampered Max enough as it was.
~SOUNDTRACK: Ellie Goulding – How long will I love you~
Ember turned to the jeweler’s boy and smiled at him, which Kaleb eyed suspiciously. She didn’t blame him. Things had been tense between the two of them lately and she figured he must have felt betrayed. By the woman he loved, in the most painful way. And perhaps in more than just one.
“Would you like to have a drink while we wait?” she suggested and he scowled.
“A drink? You mean that gut-wrenching rum of your captain?”
Ember flinched at his tone. He may have been in better terms with Max’s presence in this war, but that didn’t make him be too open to the possibility of there being something more than a business relationship between her and the pirate. Your captain. It was clear who he thought had won the war of hearts already.
Kaleb bit his lip when he saw her face and he sighed, rubbing his face.
“I apologize,” he spoke slowly and tired. “That was mean and uncalled for. Not to mention utterly rude. I’ll have to pass the drink, but I would not mind the company.”
Ember smiled lightly. It was good to know they were still on the same page, even though the letters were smudged. He was still her best friend, regardless of what that may or may not evolve into.
“I know just the place,” she told him and nodded with her head for him to follow.
She led him to that remote part of the ship where she’d spent so many sunsets with Max. It felt a little like sacrilege, like letting Kaleb in on a secret she wasn’t supposed to tell. But that was silly, she convinced herself. It was a spot like any other on this ship. There was nothing wrong with it. But the more she told herself that, the less she believed it. It was as if Max’s invisible presence tied her hands and sealed her lips. She braced herself as a chill ran down her spine. A chill that felt a troubling lot like Max’s fingertips.
“This is a nice view,” Kaleb commented and Ember exhaled as she took in the sight. It was a little past sunrise, as they had left Thebbington Abbey not long before the first light. The sun peaked from across the horizon and caressed her cheeks softly. She thought it was rather fitting that she got to witness sunrise with Kaleb the way she’d watched sunsets with Max. It was like a metaphor properly chosen, yet with a grim humor, of what they both meant to her and of the times in her life when she’d come across them. Kaleb had been as refreshing as the first rays of sunshine of the day, while Max was mysterious and filled with exciting promises as the dusk that anticipated the starry nights.
“It is,” was all she said. “New day. New ways to mess up. Or new ways to win this war.”
Kaleb sighed. “I hope you didn’t bring me here so that we could wallow in pity together.”
“I don’t wallow in self-pity,” she defended as she narrowed her eyes at him.
“Good. Because I don’t, either.”
They sat in silence for a minute, before a small smile forced itself across Ember’s lips.
“We did for a while, though,” she mused, and Kaleb actually chuckled. The sound of it sent a surge of joy through her heart.
“I bathed in self-pity for more than a while,” he said, and Ember laughed, too.
This way, things looked good again. Like nothing had changed. Like they were still kids in the Onyx Valley with no care in the world. Like they were still in that field of poppies. Like they were still running hand in hand in the rain or star gazing. Or like they were still a boy and a girl in a market, a purple orchid between them. But they were none of that anymore. And everything had changed. The fact that they stood on a pirate ship helped the heavy realization kick in aggressively.
“What will happen to us, Ember?” he asked eventually, fear and skepticism filling his voice. “What’s to become of us if we make it out alive?”
“I don’t know,” she replied honestly. “I know nothing anymore.”
“I know some things,” he said after a few moments of silence. “Enough to get me through. Enough to make me want to make it out alive.”
“That’s reassuring. I couldn’t bear losing you.”
Kaleb sighed and set his eyes on her. They were heavy and dark bags rested under them, but they were still as green and clear as she remembered. After all, these were the first two gems she’d fallen in love with. Before the dragon’s breath. Before the Hope Diamond.
Before blue sapphires.
“That’s one of those things,” he confessed. “The other’s one a challenge of mine.”
Ember suspected where this was going, but she let him continue anyway, allowing him to get it off his chest.
“I keep wondering how far my love for you can stretch. How much longer can I keep loving you? How much harder? Until stars begin shining in the morning, perhaps. Until I can command the sun when to rise. Until I can stop snow from melting. Or until I can start spitting ice instead of fire to match how I feel inside.”
Ember stayed quiet, her heart nearly still in her chest. Her eyes were wet, but she refused to shed a tear. When faced with Kaleb’s pain, she had no right.
“I never meant for this to happen,” she spoke softly.
“Do waves mean to flood the shore? Does wind mean to suffocate the leaves?”
“It’s not like that,” she gripped her fists tight. “I hurt you. I didn’t trust you when my trust was all you had left. I moved on, but I never looked over my shoulder to see that I’d walked all over you. Perhaps those witches hexed us both. But I only was your curse.”
Kaleb looked away and smiled a sad smile that didn’t belong to his face. Like he was suddenly so old and so exhausted. Like he could have slept for days or like he could walk miles without looking back. Like nothing could hurt him anymore. And when a man has nothing more to lose, that is when he’s truly lost.
“You were my blessing,” he argued. “In more ways that you can know. Caterpillars think they die when they start building the cocoons. Perhaps a bad dark cocoon made of pain and ashes was what I needed in order to transcend.”
Ember put his hand tentatively over his. He didn’t fight it.
“Do know that I love you, Kaleb.”
“I know,” he was quick to reply, but the smile didn’t quite reach his eyes. “I just pray it’s enough by the time this is all over.”