Chapter 30: Comfort Came Against My Will
~SOUNDTRACK: Mikky Ekko – Time~
Ember found herself yet again in that spot where she’d so often before come with Max. She told herself she wanted to be alone and to think, but by choosing to come here, it was rather clear that she did want to be found. And it struck her dumb how much she wanted it to be Max who found her and who helped her clean up the mess in her head.
But he didn’t come, and Ember’s common sense was grateful that he gave her the space to sort herself out. Gods above. She did not need this now. She had a war to fight and a family to save and witches to kill. She did not have the time or the energy to spare being selfish and thinking about her heart’s wills.
And yet, Christopher’s words kept playing in an endless loop in her head, loud and deafening like shattering glass. Soulmate. The word rested on her tongue, but every time she got close to whispering it, she felt the tingle of hysterical laughter bubbling in her chest. Kaleb was her bloody soulmate and that knowledge pressed over her shoulders with suffocating heaviness. She felt as if it stripped her of the liberty of a choice that was to dictate the way she’d live her life and that she didn’t get to make.
She froze in place, Kaleb’s voice ringing through her bones. How very foolish of her to allow herself to hope Max would be the one to find her. It was Kaleb, always Kaleb, who kept clinging to every grain, to every speck of dust she threw his way, like no more than a loyal puppy. She loved him, truly, she did, even now, when it put her off that the feeling didn’t quite feel hers anymore. But the intensity with which he loved her suffocated her.
She turned around and saw him lurking a few feet away, shy and tentative. Ember sighed and punched the bridge of her nose, suddenly feeling every ounce of exhaustion gathering behind her eyes like the smoke clouds of a headache.
“I needed to be alone, Kaleb,” she managed to tell him. “I thought my storming off would make that very clear.”
“It did,” he replied, taking a step towards her. “But if we don’t speak of it now, we may never get the chance to. We’re at war.”
“Yes, Kaleb, we’re at war,” she snapped at him. “And I cannot grant my heart the privilege of chasing its selfish choices that I may not even get to live with. There is too much at stake. You ought to see that.”
Kaleb paused, his teeth gritted, and once again, Ember watched him miss the point entirely, with deadly precision. It would have been funny, had it not been so sad. But unlike her, Kaleb was having trouble looking past his heart’s selfish wishes.
“Choices?” he inquired, his voice broken. “But I thought—“
“Yes, Kaleb, you thought the choice has already been made for us and that we can live with it, happily ever after. But it does not work that way, not for me. You truly don’t get it, do you?”
He shrugged helplessly and a few tears glinted in the corners of his eyes. It hit Ember like a thunderstorm with how much hope and joy he’d chosen to believe in this prophecy.
“No,” he admitted, and it broke Ember’s heart a little. “I truly don’t. I don’t understand anything anymore.”
Ember sighed and ran a hand through her onyx black locks.
“Gods above, Kaleb,” she murmured, then cursed silently. “This changes nothing for me.”
“But it changes everything for me,” he cut her off. “It built a foundation to a castle of feelings so intense, they have been cutting me open and twisting my insides, Ember. And I understand why now. I understand why I need you more than my lungs need air.”
Ember shook her head and stepped backwards when Kaleb reached for her.
“I’m sorry, Kaleb,” she murmured helplessly. “Perhaps we’re soulmates. Perhaps we should’ve stuck to being a boy and a girl, in love and against the world. Perhaps, had he grown up in the Onyx Valley as we were supposed to, things could’ve been different. But I stand by my words. This changes nothing, Kaleb. You and those prophecies cannot will me into feeling what I do not feel. You’re my best friend and I love you, truly, I do, little Lahey.”
She moved to stand before him, tears dancing in her eyes, but her chin held high. She would make no apologies for the way she felt, not anymore. She watched Kaleb grit his teeth and clench his fists, playing brave, but by the way the fractured light of the upcoming dusk fell on his forest-green eyes, she could tell he was breaking.
“But it appears that, in the end, it truly wasn’t enough,” she concluded, then moved past him and walked away at the same time as a single tear slid down Kaleb’s cheek.
~SOUNDTRACK: Twinbed – Trouble I’m in~
Ember made her way to Max’s cabin, feeling somewhat reluctant. She wanted nothing more than to escape this soulmates drama, but something told her Max hadn’t taken it well, either. Well, that, she could deal with. Her situation with Max was entirely different from her situation with Kaleb. As were her feelings.
She opened the door slowly, walked in and closed the door behind her, all without looking up. She could feel Max’s eyes on her, intense enough to make her weak around the knees without even meeting them. She took a few breaths and finally dared to raise her gaze. There he stood, a few feet away from her, still as a wax figure. She wondered if he was even breathing. His features looked drowned in a storm, his usually clear blue eyes now seemed almost gray, bearing the heaviness of smoke clouds. Like that, Ember painted him on the canvas behind her eyes. Her captain was the most beautiful creature she’d ever laid her eyes upon. Intense as the breath before the kiss. Refreshing as the first drops of drizzle, but ravishing as the hurricane that followed, blinding bright as every bolt of lightning that it brought. Max had shaken her all up, to the very core, as would the most restless sea and the wildest currents. But she was no longer sea sick. If he was an ocean, then she was alright with both sailing on it or drowning in it.
He was the first to release the breath he’d been holding and Ember’s eyes hurried to leave his silhouette, uncertain as to how much longer she could go without falling helplessly into his arms. Her gaze fell on the sheets spread on the floor and she frowned. Max cleared his throat awkwardly before being the first to break the silence.
“You can take the bed again,” he explained. “I don’t mind the floor. I figured we should catch some sleep before night falls, gather our strengths for the upcoming battle.”
Ember inhaled through her nose, brought to the edge of exasperation, and she leaned with her back against the door.
“You don’t have to do that, Max.”
“Aye, I do,” he was quick to interrupt. “Things have gotten complicated. The last thing I want right now is to push you even harder, make it even more difficult for you. So I’ll take the floor.”
“It’s fine, Ember. You don’t owe me an explanation. You don’t owe me anything. A good sailor knows when they’re not his waters to sail.”
He turned his back on her and crouched to make his bed on the floor. Ember shook her head, unable to even begin to explain to him how wrong he was, grateful for the steadiness of that door pressed against her back, because she didn’t trust her feet much at the moment.
“Max, listen to—“ she tried again, but he stood abruptly and moved to stand before her so fast, it made her dizzy.
“No, Ember. Leave it be. Do not open that door because there’s a flood behind it you’re not prepared to face.”
Ember gritted her teeth and held his gaze.
“Do not underestimate me.”
Max ran a hand over his face and Ember got a surge of satisfaction when she noticed that his hands were shaking almost as bad as hers.
“Fine,” he spat. “You want me to tell you? Know that I have never been a particularly decent person, Ember. I am a man of opportunity. I see something I want and I seize it. I take what I desire and I feel no remorse for it. I have been that way my entire life. And I cannot be that man with you. Believe me, I want to. I’ve tried.”
Ember clenched her fists so tight, her knuckles hurt.
“What’s stopping you?” she asked. “The prophecy?”
“Bloody yes, the damn prophecy,” he raised his voice. “Because you’re his by blood right, Ember. Because ancient magic dictates that you’re to love him and he, you, and because your precious Kaleb is actually a good, decent man who actually deserves you. Believe me, it would be so much easier hate him, beat him, drown him, kill him, betray him and fight him for you if I didn’t like him. If he hadn’t saved my life. Because he’s the one fate says you should be with. And because I gave you the freedom of choice. I let you learn whether you want to give in and want me, too. It would appear that choice has already been made long ago.”
Ember groaned loudly and moved past him, putting some distance between them to gather her thoughts without his intoxicating presence standing so close to her. Was he truly so eager to give up, to let it all go just because some ancient buffoons had decided it was too out of his hands? Since when did Maxwell Lockhart let such inconveniences stand in his way?
“You’re a bloody fool, Maxwell Lockhart,” she hissed at him, and he remained straight-faced. “You think I will let some prophecy dictate how I feel? My choices are mine and mine only.”
“You love Kaleb,” he argued miserably.
“I loved Kaleb,” Ember corrected.
“And now I am telling you that I would still choose you, Max, prophecy or not, because all of those stars and all of that magic could not have seen you coming. I didn’t either, captain. And I haven’t been so scared about anything before in my life, but I also know I’ve never felt like this about anyone. Prophecy or no prophecy. Soulmates or no soulmates.”
Max stood there, frozen in place, his eyes wide, taking in her words. And Ember could see him. Not the smug pirate. The lonely man who’d never known love. She stepped forward again, suddenly not shaking anymore. When you feel that thing you didn’t want to feel and you finally allow it to consume you, it sets you free in a way nothing else can. She stopped short in front of him and wondered, yet again, if he was even breathing.
“You gave me freedom of choice,” she spoke close to his lips. “And I’m making mine now, consequences be damned. You told me that, when I finally give in to the flames, it would be because I wanted you. And Gods above, I do, Max. I want you. But the question is, what do you want?”
Her fingers trailed up his arm and she felt him shudder under her fingertips. She let her hand rest on his shoulder and her other one settled on his chest, right above his heart. She felt her own body hum in response to every beat of his heart and she saw that his pupils were so dilated, the blue of his irises barely showed anymore. He took in a shallow breath and answered through gritted teeth.
“You know. You know bloody well what I want.”
She leaned closer, until her lips became a shadow, the ghost of a kiss hovering above his mouth. She traced his jaw with the back of her fingers, watching him smugly as he caught his breath and his hands flew to catch her waist, fingers digging into the flesh of her hips so hard it hurt. She let out a yelp, feeling the sound vibrate both of their bodies.
“Tell me,” she prompted, her breath caressing his parted lips. “What is it that you want, captain?”
“It’s you,” he whispered. “I want you.”
Without wasting a heartbeat, Ember closed the distance between them and put her open lips to his, slowly letting them shut, swallowing the words resting there before he could even finish the sentence.
And so, Ember and Max learned right there what it is to come together and to come undone. Their bodies became a mess of limbs and hair and kisses and touches and Max’s lips were at her jaw and neck and Ember’s legs were hooked around his waist and he dropped her to the bed and the kisses just flowed and flowed and flowed and words pricked at her skin where his lips had been and her fingers were in his hair and they needed more of each other and more and more and more.
Finding what you love and letting it destroy you is an art. As an artist tangled in her pirate’s arms, Ember found she’d always had this certain skill. It had just taken her a bit longer to acknowledge and to accept that there was a certain fire in her veins and it wasn’t one to be tamed or tempered. So she let it torch her and learned how to paint with the ashes.
Skinwalkers didn’t attack that night, after the darkness fell and the sun hid beneath the horizon. But Ember and Max didn’t catch a single minute of sleep.
~SOUNDTRACK: X Ambassadors – Unsteady (Erich Lee Gravity Remix)~
Ember and Max emerged straight-faced from the captain’s cabin in the morning, stoic as if they hadn’t just left paradise behind. It had been a long, sleepless, blissful night. But today they were going to war.
Ember kept her face blank as she moved through pirates, as she moved past Kaleb, as she moved past Christopher, as they gathered together to make war plans. She ignored the curious glances that Kaleb threw her way and the amused looks crossing Christopher’s features. She didn’t care. It was too bad they faced potential death today. Because she honestly could not remember having been so happy, ever in her entire life.
“Tell me about Maximilian Covington.”
Max sighed and kissed the top of her head.
“What do you want to know?”
Ember shifted her head on his chest so that she was resting her chin on the back of her hands, looking up at him and smiling coyly.
“Everything,” she answered, and Max chuckled.
They sat on his bed, sheltered and safe and isolated from what awaited them outside this cabin. If one night was all they had, they would damn right make the best of it. Ember could think about the war and saving her family tomorrow. For now, knowing these may have been the last moments she got to spend with him, she preferred to grant them to him entirely.
“Oh, you irritating woman,” he joked and trailed his fingers up and down her arm, sending shivers down her spine. “What’s there to say about Maximilian Covington?”
“I don’t know,” she shrugged. “Would he have fancied me?”
Max laughed whole-heartedly. “Oh, poor thing. Maximilian Covington would have been scared out of his mind by you. You would’ve broken him.”
“Give him some credit,” Ember slapped his arm playfully. “I’m sure he would’ve held his own.”
“Doubtful,” Max stated with a sad, nostalgic smile. “Maximilian was a shadow, Ember. He had no idea who he was supposed to be, despite how everyone kept throwing it his way.”
He trailed off and pursed his lips, and Ember regretted that she’d brought it up. She hated to bring this sort of memories back to him and to push him. But then she thought better, and this had always been the way the two of them worked. They pushed each other open for one another, for all the cuts and bruises and wounds to be seen, because they were not afraid to be a little broken together.
“Remember how I told you that I’d never been a decent man?” he inquired, and Ember nodded. “Maximilian Covington was. He was a good kid. He adored his mother and dreamed of following into his father’s footsteps. I had a little brother, you know. Arthur. I taught him how to read, how to hold a sword, how to ride his first horse. Father was a bit harsh on us and invested in our upbringing, but mother adored us. It was all so well-planned. I was to grow up and become the greatest dragon hunter this world had ever seen.”
“And then you started sharing a bed with a dragon?” Ember tried to joke, and he looked down at her with so much intensity in his blue eyes, the swirl of his irises started looking like waves on the sea.
“And then I fell for one,” he flicked her nose. “Like a bloody fool. I must be out of my mind.”
Ember laughed and pushed his shoulder and he joined her. This felt good. It felt good sharing the weight of the world with another set of shoulders. She’d found a steadiness in Max and a calmness to his presence that awoke some new kind of bravery in her heart, unlocking something she hadn’t known was even there to begin with. She sighed and intertwined their fingers, turning their joined hands to study the tattoo around his wrist. It was a simple pattern of a chain linked with thorns and on the inside of his wrist was a black heart surrounded by the chain that ended in a complex lock. She trailed its pattern with her fingertips.
“A locked heart,” she murmured, almost to herself, then it dawned on her. “Lockhart. You never did tell me why you chose this name.”
“The locked heart was the sigil of our clan,” he explained. “It was our way to say that we were to remain relentless and impartial in our journey, locking our hearts to all distractions that held the potential to intervene with our paths. I think that, by choosing to ink this on me, even after my whole family was gone and I had taken the calling of the sea, it was my way to preserve my legacy.”
Ember stayed silent for a while, thinking about his words. Max didn’t worry. She knew she didn’t judge his legacy as a hunter any more than he judged her for being a dragon. But he wondered if she ever got the same surge of guiltiness that he did sometimes. Like they were letting down those who had died for them by holding each other now. But as he looked down at her and was met with those deep green of her eyes, he knew he couldn’t care less. He finally had something in his life that he was willing to fight for. His heart was no longer locked. Never again.
“When all this is over,” she began speaking slowly, “will you ink something on me, too?”
“Aye. I take it you have something in mind?”
She smiled sly as a fox and he found himself unable to resist wanting to kiss that smile until he was out of breath.
“A key,” she replied.
Ember refused to meet Max’s gaze, because she knew that he, too, was reliving last night over and over again. And she’d promised to leave it all back in the cabin. For now, they needed to focus.
“Do you know why the skinwalkers didn’t attack again last night?” she asked Christopher, who offered a nonchalant shrug.
“I can make a few educated guesses,” he replied. “Perhaps it was meant to confuse us into striking and thus leading us into a trap of their choosing. Perhaps they’re saving their powers for a greater blow. Or perhaps they simply lack the resources to pull off such a scheme again.”
Ember sighed. “Whatever the reason, we do strike tonight. We can’t risk being the prey for one more night.”
“How?” Kaleb inquired. “How do we even find them?”
“I might be able to help in that matter,” the demon chimed in. “Assuming they’re holding the little dragon spawns captive, I can perform a tracking spell on your siblings using your blood, dragon girl.”
“Good,” Ember nodded forcefully. “Then you’re to get them out fast and soon, Christopher. Get them to safety and I will free you from the deal. I’ll give you my tears right away if I have your word that you will not leave their side until I come back or if anything happens to me.”
The demon nodded once, not daring to mock her. Perhaps even his wicked self could show the slightest amount of respect to a soldier making amends.
“You have my word,” he replied, and Ember nodded.
Max frowned and looked from one face to another expectantly, when he realized Ember wasn’t going to address the issue of interest to him.
“What about me?” he inquired a bit sharper than he’d intended. “You seem to have everyone’s role figured out. What’s mine?”
But when Ember averted her eyes, he knew.
“What is it with you and mermaid stories?” she slapped his arm after yet another one of his dirty hints that somehow came back to that mermaid story he was so fond of. Max laughed whole-heartedly.
“I bet you’d love to know, wouldn’t you?” he wiggled his eyebrows at Ember, and she gasped and widened her eyes in shock.
“Maxwell Lockhart,” she nearly shrieked, sitting up. “You said mermaids aren’t real.”
“They’re not,” he shrugged, smiling wide.
“So that story you told my siblings—“
“Made up,” he sneaked an arm around her waist and pulled her back to his chest. “With a hint of truth in it, though.”
“Maxwell, I will kick your ass,” she threatened playfully and he kissed her temple, his whole body shaking with laughter.
“I think you and I both know how that’s bound to end, little fire breather.”
“Then I will shift into a dragon, grab you in my claws and drop you from the sky.”
“As if,” Max mocked. “I’d just bat my eyelashes and you’d swoon all over. I told you, love, my charm is irresistible. It’s a surprise you managed so long without falling into my arms.”
“Oh, please,” she pinched his side, and he yelped. “You were practically groveling not long ago. Had I let you boil just a little longer, you would’ve practically fallen at my feet and begged and drooled as you nearly did for that nymph.”
Max snorted. “Fair enough.”
“Now tell me about this mermaid of yours.”
He sighed, glaring at her playfully. “I see you won’t let this go. Very well. There was indeed a girl and she was indeed alluring as a mermaid. I did hear her song. One day, long ago, when I was young and restless and I was making my way through a village or merchants. She was a slave, but she sang so beautifully it hurt. The sea serpent was her master and I did try to fight him for her freedom. He beat her dead one night after he learned of our escapades, and in return, I slit his throat and fed him to the sharks. My signature move, as you’re well aware.”
“Oh,” Ember frowned at his nonchalance. “Did you love her? The mermaid girl?”
Max snorted. “Bloody hell, fire breather, of course not. But she had this huge pair of—“
Before he could finish the sentence, Ember groaned and pushed him off the bed.
“Hell no, Ember,” Max hissed through gritted teeth. “There is no way you’re leaving me behind.”
Ember crossed her arms over her chest, feeling the intruding eyes of his entire crew, of Kaleb, of Christopher on her, but unable to meet Max’s only.
“I’m not leaving you behind,” she made herself say. “You’re going to stay behind because it’s the logical thing to do. If Christopher gets my family out and I’m left to continue the battle, you’re to set sail and take them far away from here. I’m trusting you with their lives.”
“Bullshit,” he yelled, earning a flinch from everyone on the ship except the demon. “Is that what you tell yourself to make it easier? I am not staying behind, Ember! You’re not fighting this war without me.”
“Max,” she lowered her voice, begging him to see reason. “I cannot fight it with you. I cannot afford distractions and worrying for your safety and struggling not to torch your crew in the process would be very distracting. I am begging you, stay out of it.”
He turned around and paced back and forth like a lion in a cage before kicking a barrel and running his hands through his hair and over his face in exasperation. Eventually, he trailed off in front of her and spoke soft enough for her ears only to hear.
“Ember,” he almost begged. “Let me fight for you. Let me protect you. Don’t take this from me.”
Her fingers twitched, yearning to reach for him, but she clenched her fists around them. “And I am asking you to let me fight this on my own terms. I’m trusting you with a task that’s bigger than this entire war. There are only six lives in this world I care about. Kaleb is going to help me. I want the other five on this ship, sailing away from Clarissa’s reach. Max, please, understand that I cannot lose anyone else.”
He paused, breathing heavily, wishing he could have it in him to keep fighting her about it. But Ember saw it in his eyes. He wasn’t going to deny her this.
“So tell me, captain—“
“Ah, I see,” he cut her off, smirking. “That tone. I was expecting it.”
“You don’t even know what I was going to ask,” she frowned at him, but she blushed a little nonetheless, embarrassed for not being able to keep those curiosities under control.
“Aye, but I strongly suspect it,” he clicked his tongue. “Ask away, fire breather.”
She rolled her eyes, the embarrassment burning bright within her, but she couldn’t quite take it back now, could she?
“So, tell me,” she repeated, squinting her eyes. “Were there many ladies in your life, apart from that mermaid of yours?”
Max chuckled. “I most definitely saw it coming. And the mermaid girl was no lady in my life. I told you, she had—“
“Yes, yes, I remember vividly how you put it,” she smacked his head. “But that doesn’t answer my question now, does it?”
“Oh, sweet, little, innocent fire breather,” he chanted and she glared. “I told you that many women have warmed my bed. But there’s only one lady in my life.”
Ember widened her eyes and blushed even more violently than before at the implications. She hid her face in the crook of his neck and chuckled.
“Oh, Max,” she actually giggled. “That was—“
“Not you,” he snorted, and she looked up with a frown. “Please. I wasn’t going to declare you immortal love already, dragon girl. I’m not rosy cheeks. I was talking about my ship.”
Ember narrowed her eyes at him and unwrapped herself from his embrace angrily, earning no more than a satisfied chuckle from him. Oh, how he enjoyed stepping on her toes.
“Your ship,” she huffed. “How impersonal. What kind of pirate doesn’t give his ship a badass name?”
“How do you know I haven’t?” he rolled his eyes.
“I have now.”
“Enlighten me, then.”
He paused for effect.
“The Crimson Dagger. Quite fitting for the lady aboard, wouldn’t you say?”
Ember’s eyes filled with tears and she let out a breathless laugh before throwing herself in his arms and setting the sheets on fire for the rest of the night, wrapped in each other, before the first sunlight tickled their bare skin and war knocked on their door.
They stood face to face, still and barely breathing, captured in a battle of dominance of who got to paint whom in the back of their heads. No one won. They were still to part ways.
“Just don’t die,” he was the first to speak, his voice broken. “Come back to me.”
For tonight, I’ll be your personal nightmare.
You’re a pirate.
You have no idea what you are, do you?
Dance with me, dragon girl.
Are you scared of me, Ember?
Too bad. You should be.
Perhaps I have no wish to see you dead.
I’m a cuddler.
I can take you anywhere. The world would be ours to unravel.
Don’t fool yourself, love. I’m not the good guy.
Go ahead and expect the worst of me, because I will deliver, Ember.
Go ahead and hate me so that I can have a bloody reason to hate you back.
The little dragon has him under a different spell of her own.
I cannot breathe with you looking at me like this.
When you finally give in to these flames, Ember, it’ll be because you’ll have finally seen it for yourself. It’ll be because you want me.
I’m only now learning that some of my purposes have changed along the way.
You trusted me with your life just now.
Perhaps when we’re done with this whole war business, we can start discovering exactly what fires we can ignite.
You know I don’t hate you. But I begged you to. So what do we do with all these feelings now?
Humor me and stay alive a little longer. I cannot lose you.
I will not stop breaking laws and ethics and morals so long as it keeps you safe.
I’d go to the end of the world for her.
Ember smiled sadly, though her eyes were swimming in tears.
“I wasn’t planning on dying anyway, captain,” she gave his fingers a firm squeeze. “I’ll see you after. I believe we have a world to unravel.”
With those last words, she let go of his hand and turned her back on him, with Christopher and Kaleb on her heels.
She was fairly certain she was going to die. But at least she’d do it knowing she’d shared one last perfect night tangled in his arms and knowing he’d be here, safe.
Ember took a deep breath and, seconds later, a dragon spread her wings and left the one she loved behind.