Chapter 29: Built To Fall Apart
~SOUNDTRACK: Mikky Ekko – Pull me down
~8 years ago~
Kaleb Middleton knew Ember Blackthorn was trouble. She was restless and full of an energy he was having a hard time keeping up with. Oh yes, she was trouble. But he was so caught up in her hurricane, he had nothing whatsoever against being drawn into her troubles.
He sat in their clearing, where they met and played every day, and she was running late today. It was never good when she was running late, he thought. Every time she was running late, it only meant she was up to no good and that he would yet again fall victim to her schemes. And as much as he loathed to admit it, he quite enjoyed the way she kept making him peak out of his comfort zone. And he had no doubt that someday soon, she would catch his wrists and pull him down her path, right across the line and outside that safe area.
She showed up minutes later, a small pout curving her lips and a frown darkening her features. It fazed Kaleb that she wasn’t dancing or pouncing her way to him as she always did. Perhaps her troubles ran a bit deeper today. He hated to see her sad. It didn’t happen often, but these rare moods of hers had a way of making Kaleb fuss around her until he felt better, which mostly ended in her being annoyed by his attempts.
“What’s the matter?” he asked as she dropped next to him in the grass.
“Nothing,” she snapped, and Kaleb frowned.
“You’re upset,” he stated, which only made Ember glare at him.
“I’m not upset. I’m angry. I got into a brawl with Jonah Fairley.”
“You got into a brawl?” Kaleb exclaimed, his eyebrows rising in utter shock. “But there’s not a scratch upon you.” That got a smug grin out of his friend.
“That’s because he’s a coward and I knocked him out effortlessly.”
“You knocked him out?” he shrieked again and Ember shrugged indifferently, like it was no big deal. “But why? Oh, Ember, this will get you in so much trouble. Mother may not let me see you anymore. You know how she feels about unnecessary violence.”
He waited for her to argue, as she always did. He waited for her to claim her violence had been perfectly necessary and called for. He waited for her to tell him that the Onyx Valley needed them together, so there was no way they would separate them. And he waited for her to vow, as she always did, that she would not let a single breathing soul take him from her side. To promise she’d have his back and that no harm should come to their friendship.
But Ember stayed silent.
“What did Jorah do to you, Ember?” he asked cautiously, and the little girl wouldn’t meet his gaze.
“He didn’t do anything to me, Kaleb. He’d never dare. I would’ve punched a few of his teeth out, as well, had he thought to even lay a finger on me.”
“Then was it something he said?” Kaleb tried, and he could see he hit a nerve. “What did he say?”
Ember groaned and she lied on her back, closing her eyes and letting the sunshine dance on her closed eyelids and try to smooth the lines of her frown.
“Jorah Fairley is an imbecile with a big mouth,” she mumbled. “He’s just jealous that you and I will be rulers one day and he’s jealous that I only play with you these days. He doesn’t understand that we’re good friends. He thinks you’re my stupid boyfriend.”
Kaleb nearly choked and he was fairly certain he’d blushed several shades of red. Boyfriend. Well, he was a boy, and he was her friend. But something in Ember’s tone had made it sound almost dirty, like the way his father referred to those friends of his who went to see other women after their wives went to bed. He didn’t quite grasp the concepts, but he knew there were some implications that went around his head and straight past it.
“B-Boyfriend?” he mumbled lamely, and Ember sat up, leaning back on her elbows, glaring at him.
“Yes. You know. Like we love each other or something.”
Once again, Kaleb didn’t understand why she said love as if it were a bad thing.
“But we do love each other, don’t we?” he tried to understand. “We’re friends. Of course I love you.”
She sat up straight this time, looking him dead in the eye as she did when a new challenge arose. There it was. Trouble. Clear as daylight reflected in those emerald green eyes of hers. And when she opened her mouth, even before the words could roll off her tongue, he knew he’d fallen prey to her vortex of mischiefs.
“Do you?” she challenged, and he gulped. “You love me? Prove it.”
“P-Prove it?” he stammered.
“Yes. Prove it. Give me a kiss. Maybe I’ll let you be my boyfriend and rub it in Jonah’s face.”
He couldn’t tell whether she was joking or she was being serious. The dance of her eyes was playful and teasing, but her features were stoic as she was staring him down, daring. And he’d never been one to run from her dares. It was how he’d survived her friendship for so long. He ought to keep up with her. The day he’d turn down one of her dares, he knew she would just shrug and walk away, slowly slipping into boredom. And he didn’t want to be a bore. He cherished being her friend.
So the choice was rather simple. He gulped and hid his shaking hands as he leaned closer and closer, breathing heavily as her face grew closer and closer to his until he could smell her hair. He saw her eyes widen right before he could muster the courage to drop a kiss on her lips and she pulled away abruptly.
“What are you doing?” she demanded, looking at him through narrow eyes.
“K-Kissing you, I think.”
She burst into a waterfall of giggles. “I was only joking, you silly. You don’t need to kiss me to prove a point.”
“Jonah is a moron,” Ember brushed him off and leaned back on the grass. “Of course we love each other. Don’t mind him.”
He knew her ways well enough to not question them. She made little sense right now, but he let her be, shrugged it off and leaned back on the grass next to her, letting his gaze drift to the shape of the clouds. They still looked like sheep to him.
“Kaleb?” he heard Ember’s voice by his side.
“I’m still claiming that kiss,” she spoke serenely, without looking in his direction. “For when we’re older, perhaps. I’m your best friend, so I presume I’m to have it. So keep it safe for me in the meantime.”
~SOUNDTRACK: Calum Scott – Yours (Ella Henderson cover)
Kaleb’s eyelids cracked open and broad daylight blinded his sight for a second. He groaned and rolled to one side, the memory of the dream still making his skin tingle. His body was covered in cold sweat and he was breathing slowly, but deeply. For a moment, he allowed himself to think the girl from his dream wasn’t Ember. That she was just someone who was supposed to rise in his path and to take his hand and pull him through to the end of this journey, where she would await him, just as loving and loyal and adoringly troublesome as she was in his memories. But the eyes gave her away. The bright green eyes full of mischief from back then. The same bright green eyes he’d unknowingly fallen in love with so many years later.
He sighed and got up from his bed in the modest cabin the captain had granted him, putting on some clothes. He stepped on deck and, by how the sun looked, he figured it must have been around noon. He expected the ship to be in the frenzy of preparations for a new attack once the dusk set, but to his surprise, the pirates looked rather festive. The rum flowed and music played and jokes were told and people were laughing. And in their midst, Ember stood like a beacon of hope, smiling at them and allowing herself to be caught in their joy, her pirate a few feet away, watching her with a spark to his gaze that made Kaleb’s heart shrink a little. Kaleb watched her look back at him and she broke into a wide grin of her own as their eyes connected. He sighed. How could he even begin to compete with that? Under his own two eyes, Ember and her pirate spoke in metaphors through glances as the rest of the world ceased to exist around them. There was no denying, and the realization settled in Kaleb’s bones painfully. He was losing her. Slowly, steadily, to Maxwell Lockhart.
He stood idly by, watching the crew party as if the death threat above their heads didn’t exist. Eventually, Ember caught sight of him and smiled. Kaleb managed a small wave before she started making her way to him.
“I thought we were to make war plans for today,” he remarked instead of a greeting and she simply rolled her eyes. The gesture reminded her so much of the little girl in his dream that it struck him dumb.
“Leave them be, Kaleb. We had one small victory last night. They need to dive in it for a while before we march them to potential death.”
He sighed. She did have a point. “I know. It just feels wrong to enjoy one victory when we could lose the war tonight.”
“We won’t,” she turned to face him, holding his gaze captive. “We’ll win. I’ll get my family back and we’ll emerge victorious. I’m not losing anyone else to those bloody witches.”
He shot her a sad smile. “Somehow, it felt easier to believe you back when we were children. When I didn’t know better and I relied on you to.”
She waved him off. “Oh, please. You did know better. You were just scared to talk back to me and we ended up doing all the stupid things I came up with.”
Kaleb let out a breathless laugh. “Not much has changed.”
Ember glared at him playfully and slapped his shoulder, feigning a pout. They both laughed and he realized she was right. They needed the win. As little and insignificant as it may have been, he welcomed it. If only for the knowledge that it may have been the last one.
~SOUNDTRACK: Mikky Ekko – Who are you really~
“Reminiscing, I see.”
Kaleb and Ember turned around to see Christopher standing a few feet away from them, hands tucked behind his back, as always. The whole party stopped and turned to him, silence suddenly feeling haunting across the ship. All the sailors now listened to him and Kaleb noticed the way Max kept finding his way around Ember’s orbit protectively, even now, when they more or less trusted the demon. Although perhaps trusting him was a stretch.
“Is there a point to your interruption?” Ember crossed her arms over chest and Christopher regarded her amused. Had there been anyone else, they would’ve lost their tongue in the blink of an eye. But he had to give the girl credit. He respected her a little for the guts to stand up to him fearlessly. It was bold and reckless, but admirable nonetheless.
“Just sheer fascination, I’m afraid,” he retorted. “I was merely curious if you two, dragon spawns, have figured out why it is that you keep having dreams and flash backs about the early times of your childhood friendship.”
Kaleb frowned, not quite appreciating the coincidence of him mentioning these dreams only minutes after he’d awaken from one.
“What is there to figure out?” he inquired. “We’ve spent years without our memories. I thought this was their way of flooding back to us.”
Christopher chuckled – actually chuckled. “Afraid not, little dragon. It’s a rather vital piece of information that I have only recently gotten from your auras. You see, an aura is like a bundle of energy encircling your body that comes from your very core. One can easily read emotions and personalities from the color it takes. And the more I look at yours, the more I see the way they mingle, the way they’re so in tune with each other all the time.”
Ember sighed and ran her hand through her hair anxiously. “You have yet to get to that point we’re so eager to find out.”
The demon smiled, amused. “Patience, little dragon. What I’m about to tell you will change the way you regard some things. Are you certain you want to find out?”
At the question, Ember narrowed her eyes at the demon suspiciously. How come he’d only now thought of sharing information? How many more tricks did he have up his sleeve?
“Just say it, Christopher,” she prompted.
“Very well,” the demon shrugged, and Kaleb saw Max move even closer to Ember’s side, his jaw tight. “As far as I know, you two, little dragons, are already aware of the legacies you’ve inherited from the dragon clans.”
Kaleb’s muscles tensed. As if he needed another reminded. “That we were to rule the clans? Yes, we remember.”
“Except it ran somewhat deeper than that,” the demon continued. “Tell me, dragon girl. When’s your birthday?”
“March 20th,” Ember answered in a heartbeat.
Kaleb frowned. His birthday was March 20th, as well. His expression didn’t go unnoticed by Christopher, who smiled devilishly at him.
“You see,” he began, “18 years ago, on March 20th, two babies were born. But perhaps the story starts even earlier. Twenty years ago, a prophecy was delivered. The race of the dragons would meet its end, inevitably, and it was to rise from its ashes under the rule of two yet unborn at the time little beasts. Two souls tethered together by forces of the universe, by magic so powerful no human could understand or toy with. They were to inherit the strength of a whole kin and they were to reestablish it to its glory. The dragons awaited. And two years later, their wait was rewarded. In the night of the spring equinox, when the magic was at its zenith, you two were born. A boy and a girl. Tied together by magic. To your race. And to each other.”
Silence fell over the entire ship. The crew stayed quiet, none of them daring to move while Christopher spoke. But the dragons didn’t even breathe. They let Christopher’s story sink in and the words eased one into another until they made too little sense of them.
Tied together by magic.
To your race.
And to each other.
Ember knew the meaning beneath his words, but she didn’t want to acknowledge it just yet. Because once she let the realization bloom on her lips, it would be real. There was no taking it back. The responsibility of it would fall on her shoulders and it would bring her to her knees.
But Gods above, so many things made sense right now. Starting with how her steps had been drawn to the market during that first day when she met Kaleb, why her heart had hummed with energy and excitement, despite knowing with how much hatred she’d be met in the midst of the villagers. But it had been like an invisible thread that kept tugging her forward. More, more, more. Almost there. She’d been in a haze the whole way there, not knowing it was actually ancient magic carrying her footsteps to the right place, to meet the right person, to start setting everything in motion. And from there, every single moment she’d spent with Kaleb, getting to know him, falling for him, had been like an endless dance played by an enchanted flute. And the steps felt so carefully choreographed.
Pardon me for my boldness, m’lady. But I have been raised in such manner as to always remark a woman’s beauty when stumbled upon.
I do hope we cross paths again.
I’m the one carrying a knife. But I can escort you, if you’d fancy.
I mean well, Ember. Yours truly, Kaleb Lahey.
Am I distracting you?
My reasons are pure selfishness.
One would say it’s destiny that keeps bringing us together.
Perhaps I wish to be seen with you.
If you asked me, I believe I would follow you to no end.
I will stand by you.
I’d stand against a whole world.
I want to be worthy of the faith you have in me.
I want to make it work because you’re my hope and I love you.
Little had she known, Ember thought. It had always been destiny bringing them together. Not one glance had been accidental and her falling in love with Kaleb, so quick, so blindly, like drowning in blissful chaos, it had all been orchestrated.
“We were always meant to end up here,” she stated eventually and, with the corner of her eyes, she saw Kaleb watching her breathlessly.
“No, love,” Christopher whispered. “You were more than that. You were meant to be the closest thing there is to soulmates. Forged in the same magic of the equinox, born in the same flames, granted by fate itself.”
She heard Kaleb loose a breath, but she didn’t stick around for the conclusion. It felt too much and she was sure her heart would soon combust. So under two pairs of eyes, one emerald green and the other sapphire blue, Ember turned on her heels and walked away and refused to let the weight of choices she had to make and of those that had been made for her suffocate her.
Ember and rosy cheeks were meant to be soulmates, tied together by ancient magic. After years and years of sailing restless seas, Max had never felt the surface beneath his feet more unsteady.
When Ember turned around and fled, Max saw Kaleb move to follow her, but he knew better. And perhaps he was being a bit biased, but he liked to think Ember preferred to be alone for now, to sort through her thoughts. And yes, he admitted it to himself. He couldn’t let Kaleb simply march in and claim what was rightfully his. It made it feel like Ember was a trophy of some sorts.
So Max caught his elbow before Kaleb could move from his place.
“Leave her be, mate. You’ll only confuse her more than she already is.”
“But—“ Kaleb tried to argue, but Max caught him off.
“I know. Give her a while. Come have a drink in the meantime, pull yourself together. You seem like you could use one.”
~SOUNDTRACK: Damien Rice – Cheers darlin’~
He saw Kaleb gulp and he was sure he’d refuse and stroll after Ember anyway. But eventually, all of his emotions came through to the surface and flooded his features and Max could tell that the poor boy really needed a drink. So he led him to the nearest table, both of them dropping in chairs and Max poured some rum in two dirty cups, handing one to him. Kaleb took it wordlessly and emptied it in one gulp.
Oh, yes, Max thought as he poured him another one. They both needed rum flowing through their veins if they wanted to make it past this. They gulped down cup after cup, but instead of fading away, the weight of this bloody triangle pressed even more on their shoulders. A dragon girl, her soulmate and the pirate who longed for her hopelessly.
“I love her,” Kaleb blurted out eventually, breaking the heavy silence.
Max gritted her teeth. He knew that. It was obvious in every glance. And he also knew that Ember had loved him, too, and yet deeply. But for her feelings at the moment, he couldn’t speak. Perhaps he was afraid to, terrified they hadn’t changed as much as he hoped they had, terrified she’d end up staying with the one fate had granted her.
“This ain’t a love story, mate,” he told rosy cheeks eventually, bitterness in his voice. “This is war. Ember doesn’t need a love sick boy who worships the ground she walks on, because she sets this ground on fire. She needs a man who can handle her and her flames. She needs a soldier who can fight her battles.”
Or so he told himself. Maybe he clung to a fool’s hope, but it was all he had.
“And that would be you?” Kaleb retorted.
“Aye, it would. Because I vowed to. And because I care about her. Wholesome. Dragon and all. The fire and the flood. I know you fell in love with the sweet girl who blushed under your stare, who fought valiantly to provide for her family and who needed a safe haven where she could escape from the hatred of a village. But she’s more than that.”
Kaleb stared at him for a few seconds before gulping down another drink.
“You love her, too, don’t you?”
Max froze. Did he? He’d never loved a single person in his whole life. His mother, perhaps, but that emotion was so old and so dormant, he’d forgotten what it felt like. Did he love Ember? He did not know. He knew what he felt, but he could not name it.
“I’d go to the end of the world for her,” was the best thing he could offer, and Kaleb nodded absently.
“You see, so would I. Soulmate or not. I’ve loved her first and I love her now, ancient blood magic or not. And I know she has feelings for you, captain. I can no longer deny that. I don’t know how to fight for her, but I will. And I will have her heart.”
Max sighed and stood up, feeling suddenly sadder than he’d felt in ages.
“That’s the difference between us, rosy cheeks,” he offered over his shoulder. “You want her heart. I want her alive. You may fight for her, but I will fight her battles, regardless of whom she chooses after the war is won. Keep your soulmate, Kaleb. I’ll be fine knowing she’s alive and well somewhere, even it’s you by her side.”
He walked away without waiting for his answer. And in that moment, with every step he took, he knew he’d lost her. Although she’d never been truly his to begin with.