Smoke and Mirrors

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Chapter 7: Edge of Desire

Ember woke up that morning with a smile plastered on her face. And that was beyond odd itself. But humming silently to a song as she was making breakfast for the little ones was outrageous. For a second, she thought she might have been running a fever or that she’d fallen sick over night, but when no symptoms appeared, she realized she was only suffering from anxiety.

Yes, she was nervous. Kaleb had been anything but cryptic in his explanations, and the idea of heading out of the village with him somewhat unsettled her. Of course, she had been alone with him outside of the village before, but she had held a knife to his throat right before that and said knife had been on her all along. Ever since, there had been time for a certain tension to build up between them, for certain glances to be exchanged, for wondering what excuses to make just to touch each other and then changing their mind at the last second, for smiles and teases, for a mutual understanding that neither of them could quite name or spell out loud. Ever since, Ember had found herself questioning certain types of thoughts and feelings that had never taught her that the wind blew differently when you let it sweep off your feet, that the sun rose differently when you let it kiss your skin, that words are never words when they roll off the lips you often find yourself thinking about. And eyes are never just eyes, and hands are never just hands, and orchids are more than just orchids, and seconds, minutes, become unbearable under the promise that you’d see him again.

Oh, yes. Gods, this was bad.

It was all slightly exaggerated, or at least, Ember tried to tell herself so. Kaleb was a man who gave her attention and she was flattered as could be. Surely she was getting ahead of herself.

She sighed. She still had about half an hour before meeting up with Kaleb on the outskirts of the village, and paying a visit to Clarissa was long overdue. She kissed her siblings goodbye and, considering they were quite used by now, she figured they’d be fine on their own for a while until Nana came. So she grabbed her cloak and headed for Clarissa’s shop.

It was way too early for anyone to be up and going just yet, so with her hood down, Ember walked inside the shop just to find a smiling Clare behind the counter.

“Hello, stranger,” her friend greeted. “Finally showed up, didn’t you? I was starting to worry.”

Ember chuckled. “Hello, Clare. I’m fine, but the business hasn’t been so lately, not really.”

Clarissa clicked her tongue. “’S what friends are for. Tell me what you need, sugar.”

“Actually,” Ember reached inside her bag. “I dropped by precisely because I did catch a few things I can give to you.”

Ember only had a few nothings she’d managed to steal from some passing-through travelers that weren’t carrying anything valuable along, but Clare still managed to give her enough food for her family to make it through the week.

“Ember, are you okay?” Clarissa asked her right before Ember was about to take off, a concerned look on her face. “You seem rather odd these days.”

Ember frowned. “I’m fine. Why wouldn’t I be?”

Clare shrugged and narrowed her eyes at her friend.

“I don’t know, sugar. You tell me. You look rather distracted. Perhaps quite anxious, too. But it’s not that, because that would not strike me as odd. It’s the fact that you look more joyful these days.”

Ember prayed to the Gods that she wasn’t blushing as she cleared her voice and replied.

“Am I not allowed to be joyful?”

Clare snorted. “Sugar, I’ve known you for years. And not once have I seen you joyful. If I didn’t know better…” She trailed off, and Ember watched mortified as realization became readable on her friend’s expression. “But I do know better, don’t I? Ember, Ember, Ember. Do you have anything to tell me? Perhaps something about a certain jeweler boy? You know. Green eyes, wild hair. Stammers five times per sentence.”

Too late for the Gods to do anything about that blushing. Her face was so flushed, Clarissa needed no spoken answer to her questions, since every sought answer was written in every shade of red on Ember’s face.

“Don’t be absurd,” Ember tried and failed to defend herself, so as Clarissa looked at her incredulously, she did the next best thing. Fled. “Now if you’ll excuse me, Clare, I’ve got places to be. I’ll see you in a few days.”

“But, Ember—“ Clarissa tried to call after her, but Ember was out the door before her friend could have a further chance to debrief her.

Ember let out a shaky breath as soon as she was out of the shop. Gods. What was wrong with her? Why couldn’t she stand up for the perfectly platonic relationship she had with Kaleb? He was a good-hearted boy who felt compassion towards her and she had nothing but gratitude to offer him. She should have explained that to Clarissa. After all, Clarissa was the closest thing she had to a friend, Ember should have been able to confide in her. But then again, if it was all nothing but platonic, why did her heart flutter so much as she walked across the village to meet Kaleb? Why did she pull the cloak tighter around herself, as if trying to keep herself in, trying to keep him out? Out of where? Why did she feel the need to raise barriers? What was she afraid of?

She let out that breath and squared her shoulders. She would not give in to silly emotions. She was above that. She had more to think about and she needed her mind clear.

But as she arrived on the outskirts of town and saw him a few feet ahead of her, the fog once again clouded her head and she could no longer think clearly as she’d meant to. Gods, he was gorgeous. He held himself with such grace that was beyond unnatural for a man of his upbringing. He was no noble, after all. And in completion to such grace came a stunning gentleness that left Ember breathless. It was that sort of motion to his gestures that one would treat a precious porcelain doll with, the gentleness to speech that one would speak with to a high-born old lady, the tenderness with which one would caress a bird’s feathers or would kiss their mother’s cheek. Kaleb was the human equivalent of a whisper, or of a cloud, or of a pen scribbling on paper.

She stopped before coming into his sight and took him in. His stance, his ruffled hair, his eyes wandering across the horizon as the wind fought hard to get a closer look to him, and Ember could not blame it. He looked as fallen out of a painting.

~S O U N D T R A C K: Halsey – Is there somewhere~

Ember breathed in, smiled wide and accepted the storm that Kaleb incited in her heart.

Then she stepped forward and Kaleb turned around when he heard the leaves cracking under her feet. And at her sight, he broke into the most dashing smile and it made Ember’s heart expand in size and capacity and fill her body with all sorts of emotions that she could not name, yet welcomed in.

And Kaleb was equally, if not more enthralled by her presence. She looked like she had been carved out of those very woods that had granted him the sight of her slim silhouette standing before his eyes, grinning like a wicked fox and looking at him sideways with those eyes glinting with a promise that the first sunshine of the sunrise had planted there. She took his breath away every time, unmistakably.

“Ember,” he tried to find his words when she was close enough to hear. “Good morning. I’m glad you could make it.”

She shrugged one shoulder and shot him that half smile that made Kaleb’s head spin.

“Curiosity got the best of me,” she replied. “And I could not have lived with myself knowing you would have been waiting for me all morning.”

Kaleb lost a breath and did his best to calm down his heart’s rapid dance before speaking again.

“Shall we?” he extended his arm towards the path on which they were headed and Ember quickly fell into step by his side.

“Do I get to know where it is that we’re going?” she inquired, and he shot her a half smile.

“Not until we get there, you don’t,” he replied, and Ember chuckled at how sweet this tentative aura of mystery looked on him.

They walked silently side by side for a while and soon, Ember found herself taken aback by how easy to talk to he was. They talked about her siblings, about his life as a jeweler, he asked to know how Bandit was adapting to life as being a spoiled pet, she asked about his early life under the jurisdiction of his warm-hearted, yet hard-willed Nana. She learned that he hadn’t had that much of a choice in becoming a jeweler and that he would’ve much rather become a physician. Ember decided she didn’t like his father. She also learned that the sunrise liked to take shelter in his green eyes and dissipate into million emerald drops of their own caged in just two eyes. She also learned that he used to build small shelters for broken animals back when he was a child, and Ember was bewildered by how much kindness his heart could contain.

Yet Kaleb remarked she spoke so little about her childhood, close to nothing. But he did learn she was making up stories every night for her siblings, a new one every time. He did learn she hated cats and that Bandit seemed to hate her, too, but at the same time, the little monster was growing on her more than she would’ve cared to admit. He did learn that each and every one of her curls had an individual dance that he often found himself enraptured in. He did learn she had quite a collection of scars on her hands, wrists, and around her ankles, that she’d gotten from troublesome robberies, and he loved that she was slowly losing restraints when she talked about being a thief. And by the time they were close to the spot he wanted to show her, he could precisely name the moment when she had decided she trusted him enough. Because halfway there, she let the hoodie of her cloak fall down and reveal her pretty face, which Kaleb recognized as an analogy to walls dropping. With every word exchanged, with every piece of information shared, she let him in a little more. And he took her defenses down one by one.

And Ember loved it.

She was not afraid. She let him tear the walls down brick by brick, because Kaleb’s knuckles knocking at the doors of her fortresses were a beautiful harmony.

“We’re here,” Kaleb announced out of nowhere, and Ember stopped abruptly.

She turned around a few times, frowning.

“I don’t see anything different. Dirty road, thick woods. Am I missing something?”

Kaleb chuckled lightly.

“You must close your eyes first. It is just past these bushes.”

Ember bit her lip. She was reluctant about putting her trust so blindly in someone, letting herself be guided by different hands, by different eyes, by different feet than her own. But this was Kaleb. The one knocking. With him, her hand was already clutched around the doorknob.

“Beforehand, you should know I still have my knife,” she mused and smiled to let him know she was joking. “Consider yourself warned, little Lahey.”

He chuckled as she turned around, closing her eyes as instructed. Without her sight, her other senses were enhanced. She nearly gasped when she felt Kaleb’s hands on her shoulder, pushing her slightly forward, then she heard his breathing in her ear and felt his warm breath on the back of her neck as he moved branches away from their path. His hands moved from her shoulder to her hips, making her breath hitch in her throat.

“Almost there,” Kaleb whispered, and Ember noted smugly that he sounded just as out of breath as she was.

They took a few more steps and once she heard the ruffle of leaves and branches die behind her, Ember’s face was hit by a refreshing gush of wind. She let out a breathless laugh and felt Kaleb’s hands leave her body.

“You may open your eyes now,” Kaleb instructed and Ember thought he sounded a little nervous, but when she opened her eyes, all was forgotten.

She gasped out loud. She was standing in the middle of a field of bright red poppies, and far in the distance, the poppies met the skyline. The field was surrounded by woods, and in the middle of it was a wooden pavilion. It was breathtaking.

“There are no orchids, I’m afraid,” she heard Kaleb whispering in her ear, and she became suddenly aware of their closeness. “But I believe these poppies make up for it in beauty.”

“Indeed so,” Ember breathed. “It is lovely, Kaleb. How did you even find this place?”

He looked embarrassed for a brief second.

“I used to roam a lot when I was little,” he admitted. “I did feel like getting away most of the time. My father was not easy being around. The woods became my solace and, one day, I came across this place.”

Of course, that wasn’t exactly true. After his nocturnal clandestine escapades that he remembered nothing of, he often woke up in the morning not far from here. One of those mornings had been when he’d come across this place, but he could not let Ember know that.

However, Ember didn’t seem to pay any kind of attention to his words, looking completely mesmerized by the view. And Kaleb was as well. But by a different view. For instance, he could not help but notice, as she let her red cloak drop from her shoulders and into the grass, that she was wearing a bright blue tunic just a shade darker than the sky than contrasted so deeply against her skin and against the line of the horizon. Yes, lovely indeed, he had to agree with her on that.

They were buried in a comfortable silence, enjoying each other’s presence. Ember crouched and closed her eyes, and Kaleb felt as if even the poppies had to bow to her beauty.

“Oh, this is perfect,” she breathed out, meaning every word. She could not remember last time when she’d been so carefree, so surrendered to the will of the wind to carry her wherever it wanted, surrendered to the sunshine, surrendered to the smell of woods and poppies.

“Come on,” Kaleb smiled down at her and extended his hand, and Ember took it without hesitation.

Where their skin made contact, fire was ignited, and they both smiled at the feeling. They were growing used to these curious phenomena that happened when they touched, or when they were close to each other, or even when their eyes made. It was a connection that ran deep and had emerged fast and steady, and they were quickly falling victims to it, willingly falling in its claws.

Her hand in his, Kaleb led Ember to the pavilion in the middle of the field, and she was having a hard time erasing that wide grin from her face. Not that she was trying hard.

“This,” Kaleb smiled back at her once they were in the pavilion. “This feels like you’re in center of the world. Right in the middle, surrounded by poppies, it makes the world seem suddenly so little and every worry suddenly shrinks along with it. This is where you let go and blend in the painting.”

“Blending in the painting,” Ember whispered back. “Indeed so. You blend in well, little Lahey. Those eyes of yours match the trees. I could paint you.”

They were standing shoulder to shoulder, painfully close to each other, but neither of them aware enough of the small distance that separated their lips, slowly giving in to the gravity.

“I was not aware you painted,” Kaleb whispered, too, falling captive to her eyes.

Ember chuckled and dropped her gaze.

“I would, should I have the means. I would paint all day long. But so far, apart from some worn out textiles and some charcoal, it hasn’t been much I could work with. But you, I could paint despite this little handicap.”

She raised her gaze and met his eyes once again, biting her lip before voicing the question nudging the back of her mind.

“This place feels like quite an intimate shelter of yours, Kaleb. Why would you choose to share it with me?”

Kaleb chuckled and dared to raise his hand and draw his knuckles gently across her cheek. Ember stopped breathing.

“Believe me, Ember. My reasons are pure selfishness.”

She could not pretend she understood what he meant, and even if she did, she was having trouble wrapping her head around what it might have implied. But she didn’t, because that distance, that damned distance, and those lips, those damned lips, and the swift motion, the way neither moved, but it still felt as if they were growing closer with every passing second, it all seemed part of a complex dance that was about to reach its climax soon and be wrapped up into a glorious finale. And their finale was close, so close. All it would’ve taken were a few more inches, and the gap would be closed, and their hearts hummed so loud, so in sync, and Kaleb’s hand still rested on her cheek, and Ember couldn’t move, but she felt her eyelids flutter closed. And then she waited.

But instead of Kaleb’s lips over hers, she was rewarded with a loud thunder.

They both gasped and jumped away from each other like two kids having been caught eating the last cookie. They chuckled awkwardly and cleared their throats, fingers itching to take their place back on each other’s bodies. Gods above, Kaleb thought. His self-control was in shreds.

“We should probably head back,” he murmured, and they both knew he did not mean the words. “It would seem a storm is to come.”

Before he could finish the sentence, another loud thunder rang in the distance and the first drops of the rain fell on the rooftop of the pavilion. Ember chuckled and glared playfully at Kaleb.

“You must be a wizard of some sorts.”

He laughed and extended his hand again. This time, Ember hesitated for a moment. Not because she didn’t want to take it, but rather from anticipation. She prepared herself for the shock that would go through her whole body the second they touched again. Gods, it was fascinating. It was like their bodies somehow knew each other by heart from before the time their souls had a chance to meet.

Then she took his hand and they made their way through the rain back to the village. There was no rush to their steps. They walked slowly, hand in hand, soaked to the bone and with raindrops in their lashes and on their lips.

“We should hurry,” Kaleb yelled over the thunder at one point, smiling wide, and they both knew he did not mean the words.

Ember laughed whole heartedly.

“What’s the rush, little Lahey? This is the most free we get to be.”

And as they walked into the village, right before they parted ways with sideways glances, he realized he could not agree more. In 18 years, this is the first glimpse at freedom he’d gotten. In a thunderstorm, soaked to the bone, hand in hand with a girl who smelled like rain.

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