Smoke and Mirrors

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Chapter 8: Hopeless Hearts Passing Through

Ember didn’t get too much sleep that night. She kept going over every minute of that morning, reliving every word, every glance, the smell of rain still fresh on her skin and the feeling of Kaleb’s fingers intertwined with hers still itching on her fingertips.

After the initial bliss followed a vile doubt that split her heart into that part of her that wanted so badly to give in to these newly found feelings, to fully enjoy the freefall, and the part that remembered that she was, in more ways than one, a black sheep.

Kaleb looked at her as if she were made of bright flames that shone in the dark, but she knew better. She was no pure fire, she was the smoke and she was the ash. Perhaps Kaleb was able to see past the thief and stare into her soul, but she knew that, past the thief, there wasn’t much left. Her soul was a castle left in ruins.

For the latter part of the night, it seemed as if the more cautious part of her heart would win this civil war. If anything, she could not be selfish with Kaleb. Regardless of her heart’s desire, she had to think of him. He was a kid who would step into his father’s footsteps and inherit the one profitable business in this wretched village. He would become a respectable man. She could not strip him of that.

The crack of dawn found Ember still awake and stirring in bed, with questions still unanswered. Yet at least she knew with which part of her heart she agreed. But then, as she rolled out of bed, her eyes fell on the wooden box that Bandit had somehow stolen the previous day and had improvised a bed out of.

Ember sighed and moved across the room, shooing Bandit away and picking up the box. The kitten hissed at her and she glared, willing herself not to kick him away, if only for Charles’ sake. The boy loved the bastard.

Ember turned the box in her hand a few times. It was absurd to think otherwise, but when she opened the box, she saw that the letter was still there. She ran her fingers over the smooth surface of the paper and she took it out, reading it again and again until the words stayed tattooed in the back of her mind.

Yours truly,

Kaleb.

I mean well.

And just like that, the fate of the civil war of her heart turned around. As much as she would’ve wished to stop being selfish with Kaleb, his words from yesterday rang in her ears.

My reasons are pure selfishness.


~SOUNDTRACK: Tori Kelly ft. Ed Sheeran – I was made for loving you~

Kaleb couldn’t sleep, either. But it wasn’t for some sort of heaviness of his undecided heart. It was for excitement. It was as if, all of a sudden, the world around him held more colors and the air he breathed in smelled like orchids all the time. He’d never felt so alive, so aware of every little flutter his heart made every single time a certain girl with black curls and red cloak and daggers hidden in her boot crossed his mind. Gods above, it was like his head was on fire.

He got out of bed at the crack of dawn, expecting to feel exhausted after the sleepless night, but instead, he felt fresher than ever, his skin buzzing with the anticipation of what the new day would bring. He got dressed quickly, hoping he wouldn’t run into his father and have him ruin his mood, and left the house in heartbeat, heading towards the market.

He walked with steady steps, letting the sunshine soothe his ruffled hair and letting the world whisper sweet nothings to him. It was a rather warm morning and the sun peaked from across the horizon as if he was in on a secret. Kaleb had no idea a single person can awaken such feelings in you so that the entire world around you starts to look different. What is it about falling for someone that can shift your perspective in such matter that it can make everything sharper around the edges?

Perhaps he was getting ahead of himself a little, but Kaleb thought about how he’d always thought that he was living in a time when people weren’t quite granted the privilege of falling in love. Marriage was a game of interests and his parents were living proof of that. They were a man and a woman who had felt nothing even remotely close to love for each other; they merely tolerated each other’s presence. And the more he looked around, the more Kaleb was proved right about his beliefs. Now when decisions of the heart weighted nothing at all and practical choices had to be made, how lucky could one get to actually fall in love?

Kaleb sighed. He had no idea whether he was falling in love. To him, the entire concept of love was rather abstract, and he was having a hard time finding a definition or a category in which he could place the feelings knocking at the door of his heart. But as he walked around the market, his eyes traveling over random faces, as his gaze stopped on a red cloak and his breathing stopped along with it, Kaleb learned that even theory and reason remained speechless when the heart spoke.

Ember was a few feet away from him, her back turned on him as she was picking up some apples to buy. Kaleb waited for exactly three heartbeats to take her presence in before moving forward silently until he stopped behind her.

Ember sensed him before he spoke. She didn’t know what tipped her off, she had no idea how she could tell that it was Kaleb’s shadow looming over her. Perhaps it was his smell. Perhaps his height and posture gave him away. Perhaps there was a part of herself that resonated so loudly with him, she could not have missed his presence nearby. Whatever it was, she paused mid-movement and bit her lip against a smile.

“One would say it’s destiny that keeps bringing us together,” his velvet voice came from behind her.

Ember refrained herself from chuckling and turned around to face him, wearing a teasing smile.

“One would be a fool to believe so,” she replied.

Kaleb laughed. “Then call me a fool.”

“You are smarter than this, little Lahey,” she retorted. “Destiny is nothing but a fool’s hope to justify irrational desires. An excuse mostly.”

He tilted his head in the way Bandit did when he was confused as to why he wasn’t allowed to break every breakable item he could find. There was a confused frown between his brows that Ember found herself wanting to smoothen away with her thumbs. But she willed herself to show some self-control.

“Fool’s hopes are fine by me,” he replied jokingly. “You should give it a try some time. There is freedom and bliss in not knowing for a fact.”

Ember rolled her eyes and shook her head. There was no winning this. She opened her mouth to reply and continue the argument, but just then she noticed the strange looks they were receiving. The lady that was selling apples, the by-passers, practically everyone in the market. Ember was used by now to being glared at, to being on the receiving side of judgmental looks and being cursed at. But knowing Kaleb was thrown in it alongside with her was what reminded her of the same doubts that had kept her up all night. Her face fell and she cleared her throat.

“You should probably go,” Ember told Kaleb, averting her gaze. “It is not good for you to be seen with me.”

Yet Kaleb seemed unfazed. “Perhaps I wish to be seen with you.”

The world seemed to stand still for a second while Ember processed his words. Then she drew in a sharp breath and narrowed her eyes at him, lowering her voice.

“Careful, Kaleb. You’re making dangerous statements. And that kind of danger associated with being seen in my company can become your undoing.”

He calmly waited for her to finish speaking, then just as calmly moved forward until just a few inches separated. Ember stopped breathing and she could feel the glares burning holes in her skull. But because of Kaleb’s proximity, she was having a hard time caring about them at the moment.

“Perhaps it is not my undoing you’re concerned about,” he spoke, and Ember felt his warm breath on her cheek. “Perhaps it is your own. And I do not believe for a second that it is the danger which may come from my reputation being tainted that has you on the edge, because I cannot fathom one single reason from which you would run away from danger. Danger does not scare you.”

Ember swallowed hard. “Enlighten me, then. What is it I’m concerned about?”

Kaleb smiled and, had there not been a whole village staring them down, perhaps he would’ve leaned even closer.

“You’re scared of me. Of what my presence can provide. Certainty. Stability. Roots. Danger is something you know and can handle. I believe your undoing will be that which can take you away from the path of danger and teach you what it is like to open the gates to a heart as fragile as a crystal palace to someone and trust them not to break anything.”

Ember gritted her teeth, unable to break his gaze.

“Do not take the liberty to assume you know anything about me, Kaleb.”

If her words touched him in any way, he showed no sign of it.

“Do not dismiss me for trying.”

“Kaleb—“

He surprised her by taking her hand in his, in plain sight. Lord, the village would slaughter her, eat her alive for corrupting his innocent soul. And still, still she was still having a hard time caring, standing there with her hand in his, a slave to his green eyes.

“Listen, Ember. I shall be in the clearing where we met that time when you held a knife to my throat.” They both smiled a little at the memory. “If it is my reputation and whatnots that you are so worried about, then meet me there tonight. If you decide it will not mean anything, then so be it. Just be there.”

Without waiting for her answer, he gave her fingers one last squeeze and turned on his heels and left, leaving Ember breathless and dizzy and confused.

Meet me there tonight.

Just be there.

Gods, he was out of his mind, to make such a show in front of the whole village. But as much as her brain screamed at her that she had to keep her distance and to stop being selfish with Kaleb, the silly smile plastered on her face begged to differ.


~SOUNDTRACK: Lord Huron – The night we met~

Ember had to admit, it was not the brightest idea.

Meet me there tonight.

Just be there.

But she could not stop hearing his words in the back of his mind, loud and clear as day, she could not picture the movement of his lips as he spoke them, could not help but replay them over and over again. And she had tried to talk herself out of this, she really had.

But if so, then why was she walking now, under the moonlight, down the road that took her to the clearing where Kaleb awaited?

The night was warm and, in the distance, the sea danced an intimate waltz with the moonlight. He breathed in the fresh air and sat down on the grass, his back against the trunk of a massive tree. The nature around him begged to be admired in all the shades of blue and black of the night, but his eyes rested on none of that. Instead, his eyes were glued to the road, looking for that spot of red that was supposed to show up from just around the corner in the form of a girl in a cloak.

He was confident she would come. She was resisting these feelings, unlike him, but he knew she felt it, too. She would come.

The moon had risen high upon the night sky and the stars laughed down at the poor boy with a fool’s hope. And Kaleb laughed right back at them. She would come.

The night was getting a bit chilly and Kaleb’s eyes were growing desperate as they were gazing across the road, expecting that red silhouette. The wind soothed his skin as if to comfort him and his disappointment, but he brushed it off. He was not disappointed.

She would come.

It was getting late and Kaleb started to think about the rage of his father when he’d realize he wasn’t in his room. He would deal with those repercussions in the morning. For now, he had to believe she would come. The stars mocked at him. What if she wouldn’t come?

He glanced at the dark road once more. Three heartbeats later, a red spot came into sight.

She had come.

Kaleb stood up abruptly, his breathing catching in his throat. The daylight treated her right, but nighttime suited her best. Even the stars paused their mocking to glance down at her as if she was their long lost sister down on earth. Gods above, she was such a sight. The moonlight reflected on her pale cheekbones, her lips were slightly parted and her eyes were wide in surprise, as if she hadn’t expected her footsteps to carry her here. Strands of hair were stuck on her face and Kaleb took a few steps forward, daring to raise his hands and move them away, letting the back of his fingers linger a little on the smooth surface of her skin.

“Here I am,” she broke the silence eventually, and Kaleb chuckled at how nervous she was, her voice shaking.

“Yes. Yes, here you are. I thought you weren’t going to come.”

Ember laughed nervously. “I thought so, too.”

He took her hand again, like he had in the market earlier, and led her to the grass where he’d been sitting. She followed him silently, sitting by his side in the grass, both of their backs pressed against the same massive tree trunk. He had not let go of her hand and was now drawing small circles inside her palm.

“Do you truly believe that?” Kaleb asked after a few minutes of comforting silence filled only by the song of the crickets.

“Believe what?” Ember inquired.

“That I should not be seen with you. Do you truly believe I care that much about some shallow thing such as reputation?”

Ember sighed. They were sitting dangerously close and their shoulders were brushing. Needless to say, they were both painfully aware of those little touches. Kaleb’s fingers on her palm sent shock waves through her whole body.

“It is easy to brush it off as being shallow if you never had to face its aftermath,” she spoke sadly. “Reputation weighs more that you can now and it defines you, whether you want it to or not. The label people put you under dictates the way you live your life. Does that not scare you?”

Kaleb grew pensive for a minute. His hand trailed off for a while as he thought, but then he resumed his circular movement in her palm.

“Ember, I’ve been scared half of my life. Of my father. Or life. Of women.”

He chuckled a little at the thought, making Ember crack a smile as well. She remembered Clarissa’s description of him. Green eyes, wild hair. Stammers five times per sentence. She could not have chosen better words.

“The list goes on,” Kaleb continued. “Of death. Of pain. But somehow, ever since you and I met, I’m not scared anymore. It’s irrational, but true nonetheless. It’s like I’ve always been missing this vital ingredient and something that’s happened between the moment I laid my eyes on you in the market and this moment has awaken something in me. I do not know for a fact what it is. But if you asked me, I believe I would follow you to no end.”

Ember simply blinked at him. She breathed it once. Twice. She turned to him. He had such an intense look in his eyes, she found herself unable to hold his gaze.

She chuckled nervously. “That’s a little creepy, little Lahey.”

She meant it as a joke, but Kaleb didn’t laugh. In fact, he gave no sign he had even heard her. Instead, he kept his eyes locked on hers and, although blushing violently, Ember felt herself slowly falling captive to its intensity.

Neither of them spoke, and once again, they gave in to the power with which their lips kept being pulled towards each other. They were both holding their breaths and holding each other’s gaze. They were inches apart and Ember finally looked away from his eyes just to look at his lips. Kaleb instinctively licked his lips, but did not move at all. They waited for minutes, not daring to move, hovering cheek to cheek and mouth to mouth and bathing in the moonlight, the stars waiting anxiously to discover the epilogue to a perfect night.

And Kaleb wanted to badly to close that distance. He did not enjoy the uncertainty, did not enjoy the lingering sensation of her lips so close, did not appreciate the itch of his fingertips to be run through her black curls. He wanted to kiss her and put an end to the longing. But he could not. He knew she felt the same way. He knew she wanted this. He read it in her eyes and in every shaky breath she drew. But he was not ready to take that leap unless she spelled it out loud for him. He knew she felt the same way. He knew she wanted this. And if she truly did, she’d have to jump first if she wanted him to follow.

So he waited. Waited and held his breath until he was dizzy, and he saw her eyes drift to his lips and he saw the longing in her gaze and in her flushed cheeks. And then she exhaled sharply. And Kaleb was sure she was about to lean in and he’d be damned, but he could not resist it any longer and he’d meet her halfway for that damn kiss. There was only so much will power a man can have.

But as she let out that breath, Kaleb saw the doubt. And she had walked away from the edge just as he was about to take the leap. He saw her eyes darken and she moved away inch by inch, the shape of her body next to his quickly replaced by the cold night air.

“Umm, we should go,” she whispered and Kaleb tried hard to hide his disappointment. “It was all very beautiful, but the children and your Nana must be wondering where we’ve disappeared. We cannot have them worrying.”

Kaleb took a deep breath. Closed his eyes. Then exhaled. Forced a smile. Stood up and extended a hand to her that she eyed skeptically for a second before taking it. He pulled her to her feet.

“No, we cannot,” he agreed. “Thank you for a marvelous evening. I shall escort you back.”

As they took the road back to the village hidden in the dark of the night, the stars sighed disappointed. The glorious epilogue to a perfect night had turned out to be yet another dreadful chapter that would eventually lead to the same conclusion. The two tiny specks of flesh down on earth were just too wrapped in themselves just now to see that they were merely prolonging the inevitable. They were magnets. The stars only regretted they did not get to witness that final moment in which they’d collide.

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