“W-WHAT DO YOU MEAN?”
“You’re not the gold from the p—what are you doing out of bed?”
Ash furrows his brows and begins to walk towards me. I throw out both hands. “Don’t come—closer,” I say.
His face falls. “Alright,” he says. His expression smooths over, but not quickly enough to hide his confusion. “I’m sorry. I didn’t realize… I thought we were okay.”
“We’re not,” I snap at him. I wonder what other things he’d planned, what other plots he’d pushed into motion before disappearing from Edgecliff. After all, he was the one Jem had talked to that night right before kicking me out of our house. The house.
“Alright,” Ash says again; his posture becomes a little too correct, too straight. “I just came in to check on you.”
“You have, now—”
“And to tell you that I think I know why you’re sick,” he continues, “and discuss how we can fix that.”
My legs are beginning to shake, forcing me to put one hand down on the desk behind me to support myself. I don’t like this weakness that’s in my body, that’s in my voice every time I try to speak. I want this to be over. I want to be normal again.
“Fine,” I hear myself saying. “Tell me.”
Ash nods at the mattress. “Come sit,” he says. “It’s a long story.”
I hiss through my teeth, and he raises a single eyebrow. I know Ash; this is just part of his stall tactic, to keep me preoccupied with details until I forget what truth I was trying to pry from him. “No. Start talking.”
“Fine,” he says stiffly. “First of all, you’re safe here. This cabin is deep in the forest, and extremely well-protected, even more so than the house itself. It used to be a last resort. It’s like a panic room; there’s even a ward around the entire area—one that you did not break or affect in any way when I took you through.”
“Fascinating,” I roll my eyes. “Now, can we fast-forward to where you explain why you kidnapped me again?”
Ash’s fingers curl together. “You’re safe here, East,” he says instead. “There are only two people at a time at the safe house who know its location. Right now, that’s me and Callia.
“I brought you here so that your fire can manifest. Properly and fully this time,” he clarifies. “Something must have gone wrong the other day, when—” He hesitates. “—well, everyone reacts in different ways when their fire manifests.
“That’s part of why parents send their children to us. It’s hard to heal a body in the process of trying to accommodate its fire, but that’s what we’re good at. Sometimes, though, all a new lighter needs is to be alone for a while so that they can focus on this new spark inside of them
“This place has helped a lot of lighters, East. Think of it like taking a sabbatical,” he urges. “Callia and I both activated here…” His eyes take on a faraway look. “…and Parker as well. He was always too stressed around Maggie, so we…”
But I’ve stopped listening; I don’t hear Ash’s words anymore, only his low rumbling voice. My mind is finally connecting the dots and the picture that they form makes me straighten with a gasp. “It was you,” I blurt out. “You—disguised it—Callia’s sparks—”
Ash’s eyes widen. I look into them, daring him to tell me the truth for once.
“Yes,” he says quietly. “And I know I shouldn’t to ask anything more of you, but I’d like to ask you not to advertise that fact.”
He looks away. His shoulders seem to slump a little. “There’s a prophecy in our community,” he begins to say, slowly, and my heartbeat picks up. Here it is. “It’s… It’s not important. Look, all you need to worry about is—”
And my temper flares. It’s just like it used to be, like it always is—him hiding behind his secrets and leaving me to deal with the ramifications of his goddamn schemes all by myself. “How about I make this easier on you,” I say nastily. “Callia already told me the whole story.”
Ash starts. “‘The whole story’?”
I wait until he meets my eyes. “The whole story…” I repeat, slowly, “…about that prophecy, and me, and you.”
I’m ready for his excuses, his denials. I’m ready to cut him off, no matter what he tries to say. But he doesn’t say a word.
“Aren’t you going to defend yourself?” I demand hoarsely.
“You won’t listen anyway.”
And that just infuriates me more, that he can be so calm and act as though I’m wrong for blaming him for things he did and for the way that he had torn my life apart all for the sake of his oh-so-precious gold fire. “Well, good,” I say lamely, angrily, hating how thin my voice is. “Then I’m sure you can understand why I’d like you to get out of this room so that I can get out of this shack as soon as possible. A cabin in the woods… Really, Asher?” I sneer weakly at him. “I’m not an idiot.”
‘I’m glad to hear it,” he says stonily. “I’m sure you’ll also understand, then, when I say that you won’t have any choice in the matter. You’re staying.”
“No, I’m not—”
“If you don’t, you’re not going to live for much longer.” Ash’s words are practically a snarl. “You’re dying, East, do you even understand that? Have you looked in a mirror lately? Your bones, your eyes—you can’t even stand there and glare at me without some kind of support. You’re dying. I won’t let you die on me.”
“Of course you won’t,” I say derisively. “Five years is a long time to waste on someone else’s life, isn’t it?”
Fear slithers down my spine as Ash stands up, hands clenched into fists, jaw tight. But all he does is spin on his heels and stalk out of the room.
Five years… Five years he’d lived in Edgecliff, been Jem and Dennis’ best friend, been my friend. At one point we had him over for dinner so often he was like a third brother. I used to think maybe that’s why he spared me that night two years ago; that, maybe, despite whatever horrid motives drove him to spread that fire, he still cared enough to let me live.
Now that I know why he left in the first place, it all makes sense. He does care, just in a decidedly twisted way. After all, five years of youth is a lot of time to invest into something, or, rather, someone. Far too much to let her fail. Far too expensive a price for just one girl’s death.
Something stings my eyes, and I have to blink, blink, blink it away.
– – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
When I’m finally able to get out of the room, and I tiptoe out as quietly as possible, Ash is the first thing I see. Sitting in a big armchair, long legs crossed, a deck of cards spread out in his fingers.
For a moment that last part stuns me; I haven’t seen him with his cards for so long. He used to take them everywhere, would shuffle them around all the time. Eventually I figured out that those tricks and all that curling/uncurling of his fingers both amounted to the same thing: Anxiety.
I look around the small space I’m standing in, and take in the sparse furnishings, the two windows, the door… Which is right next to Ash.
“So, you’re my Cerberus.”
His lips quirk up and then, in a flash, goes back to its neutral expression. “I prefer to think of myself as a sphinx,” he says.
“What, now you’re going to say that a few riddles will cure me of this fire?”
“The fire is a part of you, East,” Ash says steadily. “There’s just something about it that isn’t working, that’s all. We’ll get it sorted out.”
“I don’t want your help sorting it.”
The cards spring down from his left hand to his right. “I won’t interfere, if you really don’t want me to. I’m just here to keep you safe.”
“But I don’t want to be here—”
“Stop whining.” Ash stands up, voice suddenly hard. “This is the only way left for you, East. Ian and Callia and even my mother tried everything they could, and each time you just—” His right hand starts to shuffle the deck, apparently unconsciously. “Nothing worked,” he says. “I didn’t have a choice.”
“You can send me home,” I say. I meet his clear-as-water eyes. Let me go home.
Ash looks back at me evenly. And sits back down.
I exhale. “There’s food in the kitchen,” he says, gaze on those cards. “I left some pasta out for you.”
I don’t move.
“I am trying to help,” Ash adds. “Even if you don’t believe I’m sincere about anything else… This is the best way. Trust me on that.”
“Trust you?” I say, and then laugh, the sound harsh and ugly. “Trust that you’ll save my life, you mean? Why should I? How can I be sure it even matters to you whether I live or die?”
“Of course it matters,” he says coldly. “Like you said, five years is a big investment. I’d hate to see it go to waste.”
I baited him, of course, and he responded perfectly. He’s repeated my words, said what I always thought he’d say if he was in the business of honesty; but somehow it still rips through me, skin and flesh and bone and all.
Turning my back on him, I walk gingerly to the kitchen counter, careful not to trip or stumble. A Tupperware of mac and cheese sits there. But before I can do anything as rational as dumping everything down the drain—I hear it again.
That trickling sound… The rush of current over rock and pebble, each splat as a raindrop crashes through the speeding surface of the… It’s a river; I’m sure of t now. I grasp the counter to push up on tiptoes, trying to look out the window, but all I see is an endless progression of pine trees.
As I listen and listen, something changes. It feels like my body is cooling down, slowing down, calming down even as, deep within me, something warms up. I can hold my head up higher. I can breathe more naturally; my nose feels less stuffy, my throat less sore, and—
A hand reaches around me, grabs the window, pulls it closed. I crash back down to earth.
“Sorry about the draft,” Ash murmurs. “I should’ve shut that earlier.”
The heat is back and the stuffiness is back. I want nothing more than to open that window, throw myself out that window, get out of this cabin. It’s just like when I first arrived at the safe house.
But I still feel the river; there’s an ache in my chest like when I thought I’d smelled Mom’s perfume, only stronger… A pull, a compulsion, a call…
It sounded like it was within walking distance. Ash wouldn’t let me go, I know, but he can’t exactly stay awake 24/7.
I take a deep breath. “Thank you,” I make myself say. “And thank you for the mac and cheese.”
Ash doesn’t move as I squeeze past him to get a plate to microwave the food. When I take it out a few minutes later, though, and bring it to the couch, and curl up there, he returns to his perch by the door. I can practically feel his eyes zooming in on me, suspicions fully aroused.
He stands up abruptly. I tense—he simply walks to a small room next to the bedroom I’d come out of and shuts the door behind him. A moment later I hear the sound of a tap turning on. Before I even realize what I’m doing my feet are taking me to the front door, but I stop halfway. No. Ash is smart; scary smart. This has got to be a test.
I take a deep breath. Tonight.
– – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
At night, the forest comes alive.
I slip out as soundlessly as possible. Ash appears to be asleep on the couch, covered in that huge, furry white blanket. He could still be pretending for all I know, but I’m not waiting anympre. I have to go.
The river calls to me. I inhale the night air, let the coat drop from my shoulders, and follow. This forest sings with buzzes, clicks, rustles, and, above all, the percussion of the rain. Everywhere there’s mist so thick that I can’t even see the forest floor; but that’s fine, because I follow the call of the river.
With every step, I can hear it more clearly. Louder and louder, as loud as the clashing of brass cymbals, or bells, some sort of harbingers… The ground is getting wetter and water soaks through my shoes, my clothes, my hair; my eyes are opened wide against it all, even as the rain stings my skin. I follow.
My foot brushes against something hard. Pebbles, navy in this darkness, though a few of them glint silver and blue where the moon was somehow able to nudge aside the storm. The ground slopes downward—I slip, almost fall down, but regain my balance and keep going. I can hear the rush of water now, not just in my head or in my ear but all around me, loud and lucid.
Then I see it: Flashes of silver between the thick needled branches. My feet break into a run, slide down through the mud, and I push through the branches, and then the trees don’t tower over me anymore. For a second I sway, suspended on the edge of dirt and soil and rock. Beneath me is the swirling river, white water gleaming, still deep enough in places that it looks black…
I turn and lean backward and let myself fall—I hit the water—
I cry out, and cry and cry and cry, and the sound of my keening echoes between the mountains. The river is too shallow; I’m barely knee deep. I turn around, over, push my face into the water, beneath the current, trying to jump in, be immersed—but the current only pushes me into more rocks—not enough water—no—
“East, take my hand, East—”
I know he’s there up on the shore, but I keep my back to him and I dive beneath the surface again—almost immediately my cheek brushes against the pebbled river bed and then I’m pulled back up. It’s not enough. I need the ocean. The ocean. Ocean.
“Ocean, ocean,” I’m saying it out loud now, repeating that word, over and over again—to Ash, who has his hands on my shoulders, who’s too warm, warm, warm, whose hair is all wet and plastered to his eyes and whose eyes suddenly brighten to molten silver.
He says something. I yell at him, “I need the ocean,” and he pulls me to him and I push away from hm and he takes me by the hands and tries to pull me up to the shore and I dig my fingers into his skin to make him drop me.
Ash spins around, throws his arms across my middle, locks me in place. He puts his head close to mine and says, “I know how to fix you. I’m taking you to the ocean, I’ll take you to the ocean.”
I shudder against him, and raise my face to the pouring rain. “Take me to the ocean,” I whisper.
He pulls me out of this damned river, keeps his arm around me, does something to his body temperature after I flinch away the first time so that he’s colder, cooler, not so hot. We run, stumble, trample through the rocks and grasses along the riverbank. He knows where he’s going. The rain urges me onward. Almost there, almost there, almost…
Suddenly Ash stops. “It’s here,” he says, points in front of us, then adds something about heights and distances. I don’t see anything at first except a huge stretch of darkness. And then I realize that this is the ocean.
Something inside my chest snaps into place. I sprint out of his hold—my foot touches open air—
I fall down—down—down—down—down for so long I almost doubt this warmth inside of me, this feeling of heartbreaking joy so intense I’m crying—wind whips past my body—stings my face—
A moment before the black mass opens up to swallow me, the whole world seems to stop. And, underneath, a vortex of water spins and spins, and when I reach out my arms an enormous spread of frothing wave curls upward in response, wraps around me almost lovingly, and finally, finally returns me to the embrace of the ocean.
I see black, indigo, blue—purple and green and every shade of grey, every shade of blue—I see bubbles, giggling as they crowd around me and then flutter away again. I close my eyes and reach out a hand and the ocean takes my hand, rolls me through its depths, so deep down I think I’ll never go back up again, and then up up up up up, rushing me up, throwing me high up into the air.
Rain is still thundering down from the sky, so heavy now they seem to be falling in bursts and sprays instead of single drops of water—or maybe that’s just this ocean, just salty sprays of seawater and bursts of white foam that rapturously springs upward and takes me back under again. Water rushes all around me and through me, and I open my mouth and let it cleanse me, all of me.
When I finally look around me at the sky and rain and sea again, I hear so many voices whispering to me. Welcome back, welcome back… Go back to your ocean! You’re so close; she misses you… A lone man hurries down a sidewalk… Cars roar down roads paved with black tar… Cobblestone streets, dirt paths… A little girl jumps on her brother’s back… A woman dances under the trees… So many trees, so many branches to loop around, leaves to bounce across… I’m hearing the voice of the storm.
Then I reach my mind further, and a billion new voices join the old, and I listen to their chorus, feel as though I’m being stretched over the entire world, as though a part of me lies in every raindrop falling everywhere on Earth at this moment—every molecule of every brook, stream, river, waterfall—and I let my mind drift apart…
Some time later, I wake. I ask the ocean to take me back. She knows what I mean and rolls me over and under current after current before finally lifting me out of her waters.
The rock shelf stretches high, high, high up towards where I imagine the gods of iron and storm must be holding court. I wonder how tall this cliff is—three, four hundred meters? I sink my hands into the water, take a deep breath, and gather the ocean to me.
It takes a while—she wants to pull away—but I ask and cajole and prod, and finally she concedes. Slowly, soundlessly, wave after enormous wave rolls in; I raise my hand each time after they break and pull them out, out, up. I feel the water rising, grinding against the shelf of this cliff, pressing its way toward the sky.
The next time I reach out my hand, Ash’s fingers slide between mine. His skin is warm again but it doesn’t bother me anymore; lightning flashes through the sky, makes his hair shine silver as I look into his clear-as-water eyes—thank you—his grips tightens around me. His long fingers move up my arms and around my back and carefully tug me away from the ocean, pull me impossibly close to him. The water refuses to relent, however, and my feet never touch the ground.
He grins at the small whirlpool gathering around us. “Doesn’t it tire you at all?”
I smile and shake my head. Then the water brushes his bare skin.
—ever forgive myself—I was so wrong—she’ll live—the rain stings my eyes—it’s in her hair—she’ll live—she’s melting into the ocean, she’s a part of it, the water is holding onto her—what if it takes her away? We need her—I feel—she’ll live—she’s alive—she’s back—she isn’t one of the fire-born at all—she’ll live, she’ll live, she’ll live—
Those two words keep ringing and water keeps circling around Ash’s skin, keeps singing to me of the aching relief and pure, fierce fierce fierce joy in his soul; and that’s why, when his shoulders shake once, twice in some sort of sob, I ask the water to give him back his privacy; and when his cheeks push too tightly against mine, I hug his warmth and his thudding heartbeat close to me, and I don’t say anything; and when he kisses me, open-mouthed and frantic, I don’t say anything—I kiss him back, let his teeth tug at my bottom lip, let the taste and feel of him fill my mouth and hands and steal away all of my air.
When water curls around my ankles to remind me to breathe so that I don’t pass out from this heady, heady happiness, I finally break away from Ash, a gleam in my eyes. He half-laughs, half-groans, and dips his head so that his nose rubs gently against mine; and I hold tightly onto him, fall backwards, let the storm and the water rush us back into the folds of the sea.