He still didn't understand his power; his hands had become the enemies he couldn't control. He flexed them, watching his tendons and veins tremble beneath his skin. His skin burned, the fire dormant for now.
The years between childhood and tonight seemed to be as countless as the stars he sat beneath. He had been alone so long that he found loneliness to be a breathing, living creature - his constant companion. He felt protected by it though. Protected from the eyes of others, the terror in their eyes when they saw what he could do. But memories still chased him through the dark, beneath his twisted sheets.
He had only been thirteen when his hands burned for the first time. He was playing in the woods with his sisters and they did something that made him angry. The sad part was that he couldn't even remember it now. But the flames lit upon his hands and they all screamed. He waited for it to hurt, for his skin to melt. It never came. It was a part of him and he could feel the connection. He stopped the connection and the fire blinked out. Terrified, his twin sisters ran back to the house, crying for their parents. He chased after them, begging them to keep it a secret. Once he got back to the house, the secret was out. His parents looked skeptical.
"Show them!" Elise shouted, shoving him. His poker face was not up to par because his parents looked at him expectantly. Reluctantly, he tried to bring the fire back to his hands, but nothing came.
"He's lying!" Rachel accused. He could feel the guilt of this unwanted gift seep though his chest. His parents shrugged it off, but his sisters' eyes burned like his new hands.
He was feeding the horses. He leaned in to his favorite grey gelding who seemed to connect to him unlike any other creature before and he handed the grey an apple. As the apple crumbled beneath the horse's teeth, someone grabbed his shoulder. He gasped and before he realized it, his hand caught fire and the hay around them did too. His father stood in shock as the bales all burned around them. They ran out, grabbing buckets of water from the well, but it was no use. The desiccated hay was perfect kindling. He ran back inside and set all the creatures free, his favorite grey first. The horses all ran with terror in their eyes and screams in their mouths. He came back to see his family a mix of sorrow and accusation.
"What did you do?" His father breathed.
"I didn't-. I-. You startled me."
"But I didn't set anything on fire."
"You can't blame me for not being able to control it and you know it! I'm sorry..." His shoulders sank and he turned to see the blaze destroying the once strong and proud barn.
That night, as his family slept, he sat on the porch and watched the smoldering remains of the barn slowly wink out. Even from this distance, his eyes burned from the smoke, but he let the tears fall down his face. He deserved it. From the shadows of the woods, the grey ran up to him and nuzzled his hand. He grabbed his mane and shoved his face into it. These tears weren't from the smoke.
He told the grey to wait and went inside. He packed a loaf of bread, some hard cheese, and a few apples. He grabbed the sword his father had given him when he was old enough to hold it upright; it buckled around his chest and laid on his back nearly perfect now. Without a word, he hopped on the grey bareback. The smoke remained silent as it swirled in his wake.
The army suited him well. No one asked questions and they admired his natural talent for the sword from his father. An extension of his arm, they cried. He rose through the ranks quickly, but no toes were stepped on. Everyone seemed to enjoy his company. He had an easy humor and seemed to have no ego clouding his vision. He was smart and strategy came easy in the offensive.
He still kept his secret from his comrades. Before joining, he learned to control it. A little. The fire was less sensitive to his emotions now. Somewhat. He learned to control his emotions since his hands betrayed him more often than not. It was easier to suppress his human side than the side he didn't understand. He couldn't afford for them to know. Not only could he not bear the terror in their faces, but he couldn't bear it if they wanted it to be a weapon. He hated the fire and no one was going to suffer at his hands again.
They were overrun. He knew it. He called for them to retreat, but it was too late. Their numbers dwindled and there was no one left to run. Someone grabbed him off his grey. The wind rushed from his mouth and he coughed, struggling to get the wind back. He felt a kick to the head and it was black.
The darkness was like nothing he had known. He wasn't even sure if his eyes were open or closed. He blinked. No difference. He flexed his fingers in the darkness. He wasn't sure if he would be his own betrayer, but for once he looked to his hands for help. The fire came slowly at first, but then his hand was aflame. The room was small, stone. Shadows danced along the walls like nimble women. They spread their arms and leapt with strong, graceful legs. The shackles on his wrists and ankles were tight. They cut into his skin and already he felt the rawness beneath.
Footsteps at first made the fire grow stronger, but then he blinked it out. The door opened and he blinked at the light.
"Did I see light in here?" The guard demanded.
"How is that possible?" He scoffed.
"I could've sworn I saw a fire."
The guard slammed the door. He pulled his knees to his chest and relaxed his head on his arms. Sleep would be crucial, he knew.
The squeak of the hinges woke him first and the kick to the ribs cleared the rest of the groggy fog from his mind. The guards unlocked the shackles from the walls and dragged him up. They pushed him through a dimly lit hall. There were other small rooms that he could only assume looked like his cell from the outside. He could hear groans and sobs of desperate men behind the stone. He was brought to a large, circular room. There were chains attached the ceiling and guards waiting beneath them. For him, they waited. He quickly scanned the room. All guards in helmets and one without a helmet, large sword at his belt. No innocents, he deduced. He tried to summon the fire. Please, now. I've never appreciated this in the past, but I need it now. His hands were shaking too hard. He needed it too desperately. The fire betrayed him once again. The following hours were wrought with sweat, panting, and pain. By the end, he could hardly hold up his head, but he didn't give them what they wanted. They dropped him in his cell, not even bothering with the shackles. The cold stone was a welcome feeling to his sore body. He hugged it, his fingers digging into the stone, trying to get deeper into the coolness.
During his fretful tossing and turning in the night, he tried to summon the fire in the waking hours. He was weak and it was too. Come on, he begged his hands, his power. For once, do something for me. A small flame mocked him in the dark.
Several days gone and the only thing he recalled was pain. But, every night he summoned the flame and every night it grew stronger. He dug deep; he tried to find the emotions he buried beneath his shame.
One day, he hung from the ceiling chains, barely registering the questions they shouted. The snap of the whip brought a scream from his lips that echoed around the circular room and the fire responded in kind. It climbed the chains and spread across the ceiling. He heard the collective shocked gasp follow the remainder of his echoed screams. He opened his eyes and all the guards stared upward, taking off their helmets for a better look. He followed suit and smiled as the fire, his fire, finally showed its face. He closed his eyes and let the focus take hold. The fire shrank back down to his core. He felt it gather in his chest, burning solid. He pushed. The fire shot from his core, spherical in its glory, and the room was pure flame. The fire licked the walls and the screams of everyone inside was drowned by the roar of his fury.
When he finally dared to open his eyes, only a few bodies twitched in the last stages of death. He smiled. The chains that supported him shuddered against his weight; they weren't immune to the heat either.
He chopped the logs in the evening hours. This was his favorite time of night, his favorite time of year. The fireflies danced around his face and through the fields, mirroring the stars. He needed to build up firewood before winter came. Although his internal heat kept him warm, his dogs weren't not as self-reliant.
He only went to the village every few weeks and stocked up on supplies. He knew the villagers thought he was strange and he preferred it that way. They were safer. He was courteous and he nodded as he walked past acquaintances Everyone was an acquaintance. But, there was a new face in the village today. He noticed her instantly. She didn't fit, but in a good way. Her dark locks curled past her collar bone, to her shoulder blades and swayed effortlessly with the timing of her walk. Her companion was a girl he recognized, but he never knew her name. The new face smiled at him and the other grabbed her arm, whispered in her arm. He could only imagine what she said and he didn't think it was anything positive.
He sat on the porch in the mid-day summer heat. Even this was too hot for him to work. His furry companions next to him, panting. He absently patted one's head and sipped from the skin of cool water. He sighed and leaned back on the porch, legs stretched down over the stairs.
Footsteps. Soft. He sat up as the new face walked around the corner of his porch. Her dark curls were pinned in a messy ball on top of her head.
"What are you doing here?" The question popped out before he could close his mouth. Her face registered no offense, she only smiled.
"Not the entertainer I see"
He cleared his throat and stood up. "Did you need something?" He tried for a friendlier tone, but his effort fell from his mouth, crashing and burning into the dirt.
"My name is Ava. I came to meet you. I just moved here from the city and I'm bored."
He wasn't sure why he was the cure to her boredom. He felt like a freak.
She held out her hand to shake his, but he stuck them both behind his back, beneath his belt. She seemed to recover quickly though.
"My cousin said you were the mysterious one so I figured you might be fun."
"I'm not sure the two are synonymous."
Ava smiled without teeth. She wandered over to the porch and Ethan moved backwards in kind. She sat beside the dogs.
"It's hot." She commented. Ethan nodded absently, staring out into the field for what? Inspiration for conversation? He couldn't remember the last time he spoke to anyone that didn't include a transaction of goods.
"I can see why people think you are mysterious." She mused. Ethan looked at her and shrugged.
"I just don't have a lot to say."
She seemed to take this as a quality answer. She leaned back on the porch in a similar fashion that he had earlier. She stretched back and noticed the bow leaning by the door.
"Can you teach me to use that?"
Ethan eyed the bow. "Have you ever used one before?"
"I grew up in the city so what do you think?" Ethan said nothing. He felt awkward; she was more forward than he was accustomed to. But honestly, anyone who asked him anything remotely personal was forward in his book.
"Why did you move here?" He asked. Ava looked away suddenly and her face flushed. So, secrets were a common theme among people. She shrugged.
"Will you teach me or not?" She asked, impatient. He appreciated the change the subject, even if it was he that brought it up. Ethan considered the possibility of this social interaction happening again and he wasn't sure how he felt. Nervous, fearful, exposed. But also, the loneliness that was his constant companion was getting stale.
"Tomorrow morning. It's not as hot." Ethan responded. Ava smiled and hopped up.
"Good. See ya."
Ava arrived, bright-eyed. She could barely seem to contain her excitement. Ethan led her to a few trees just off his property. There were countless notches in the bark where he had practiced.
"Stand with your feet shoulder-width part, sideways to the target." Ethan instructed. It would be easier to position her by touch, but he still didn't trust his hands. "Keep your back straight"
Ava prepared her stance. "Now?"
"Straighten your hand that holds the bow, but keep it flexible. Bend it slightly at the elbow and don't lock up your shoulder. Hold the bow how it is comfortable, but keep your knuckles twisted out so you don't hit your arm with the string."
"Yeah, that should do." Ethan put an arrow in Ava's hands, careful not to touch her.
"Now draw back with the three fingers around the string below where the arrow is in place. Keep the elbow of your drawback hand in line with the arm holding the bow. Pull the string as far as you can, to your face ideally. And then when you're ready, relax and shoot."
Ava did as she was instructed, but when she loosed the arrow, it fell short of the tree by several feet. She let out a sound of frustration, but Ethan just handed her another arrow and told her to try again. They worked on her shot well into the noon hour. Ethan suggested that they come back tomorrow because the heat and her frustration were becoming unbearable. She acquiesced, begrudgingly.
After several days of practice, Ava loosed an arrow and it hit the tree, nearly perfectly in the center of the trunk. She screamed in delight, dropped the bow, and nearly tackled Ethan to the ground in an aggressive hug. Instantly he stiffened and held his arms as far from her as his shoulders allowed. She could feel his body tense beneath her embrace and heard his sharp intake of breath. She let him go, clearly embarrassed, but his face flushed all the same.
"I'm sorry. I- I should go." She averted her eyes and ran off back the village. Ethan couldn't call after her because he was still reeling from such closeness; something he hadn't felt in a very long time.
Ethan drank the fire drink sold at the village market. It burned down his throat and into his chest where it settled with his own fire. His eyes swam as the lightning bugs mingled with the night sky. He flexed his hands, but his fingers felt numb; it made him smile. It wasn't often he drank to excess. But with his mind clear of bad memories and shame, he wondered why he didn't drink more. Now he understood why the tavern was full of shouting and singing every night.
He heard the soft footsteps. Even in his drunken stupor, his senses were still sharper than most. Ava walked around the edge of the porch; his dogs ran up to greet her with tails wagging.
"I needed to apologize for earlier." She started, but then he saw her face twist in surprise and maybe disgust. It was hard to tell in the dark. He should be used to that expression, but his mind was more than a little cloudy. "Are you drunk?"
"No, why do you ask?" He slurred.
"Because you have a whole jar of that fire liquid and it's nearly half empty."
Ethan inspected the jar and realized she was right. He chuckled and took another sip.
"Give me that." She snatched the jar from his hands and tightened the lid. "This stuff is next to poison."
Ethan shrugged and leaned back on the porch, which instantly starting spinning. Ava sat beside him.
"Anyway, I came to say I'm sorry for jumping you like that. I was just ... excited."
Ethan smiled. "I'm just not used to people getting near me, let alone touching me." Ava was surprised at his admission, but the smell of alcohol on him reminded her that his inhibitions were down, if there at all.
"Why are you so withdrawn?" She carefully prodded. Ethan rolled his head heavily towards her and studied her face.
"I'm not that drunk." He responded. Ava laughed, in spite of herself.
"Well, you should drink some water, ya drunk. Goodnight."
Ethan laughed. "G'night."
Weeks passed and Ava and Ethan's relationship only grew stronger. She came over to practice archery or sit to watch the stars on the porch almost daily.
One night when the clouds were too thick to watch the stars, they sat inside around an unlit fireplace. Specifically unlit, but with candles lighting the room, which were on the other side of the room.
"My cousin is driving me insane! She's so country. No offense." Ava quickly added.
"I don't consider myself country."
"Why do you think I'm country?" Ethan asked.
"We don't really know much about archery in the cities."
"Just because you didn't know about it doesn't mean it's country. And it doesn't mean that city people can't." Ethan retorted with a friendly tone.
"Ok, fair enough. But we don't chop wood."
"No, you don't chop your own wood, but I can guarantee you some does it."
"Yeah, country people." They both laughed.
As their laughter died down, the silence rolled in with a deafening clap. They both stared at each other for a moment, daring each other to look away. Ethan averted his eyes first.
"Can I ask you something?" Ava broke the silence.
"Are you happy here?"
Ethan looked at hands. He wasn't sure what to say. Indifferent was probably the right word, until her anyway. Those sentiments couldn't make it past his lips though. He wished he could whisper it to an empty room and she just know without him having to say it in front of her. His response time was ticking past the acceptance of social expectations.
"I can't complain." Ava looked disappointed and he was too. There was so much to it than that, but there wasn't a way for him to say it.
"Why are you secretive?" She suddenly demanded. Her face had contorted to impatience and anger.
"Why did you move here?!" He shot back, defensive. If she could keep her secrets, he could keep his too. Her face was only full of anger now. She stood up and walked out of the house. No, that wasn't fair, he thought. She couldn't be so accusing and then not expect the same of herself.
"Hey! Ava! You can't do that. You can't just demand something of me and not expect it from yourself. I never took you as a hypocrite." He shouted at her back. She stopped and whirled around, stomped up to his chest.
"Do you want to know why I'm here?! I got pregnant!" He didn't need the stars to see her eyes were brimming with tears. Ethan had no words. "Is that what you wanted to hear? Are you going to tell me what you're hiding now?"
"No, you wanted to know! My parents were furious, but I had accepted it. I was going to be a mother, but I lost it." Her voice lost its edge at her last admission. Ethan felt awkward and ashamed. He hadn't wanted it to be this way. He didn't want to know her hidden truth in a moment of anger. She didn't wait for him to reciprocate; she turned and walked off.
"Wait. Ava, wait! Please" She stopped, but didn't turn around. It was actually perfect; he couldn't bring forth the fire with her staring at him. He breathed deep, feeling the burn in his core move to his hands. Two perfect flames sat on either hand. Ava could feel the heat, see her shadow dance in front of the flame. She turned around and her eyes widened in utter surprise.
Ethan waited for the scream, for the escape. But instead, she walked slowly forward and a smile spread across her face.
"How are you-?" She began, but was too enthralled by the fire to continue. She reached out to touch it and it blinked out. "Wait, what did you do?" She accused.
"It's still fire. It will still burn you." He said quietly, unable to meet her eyes.
"It didn't burn you."
"It's because it's... mine. It's a part of me." He could hardly force the words out, but at this point, words weren't going to chase her off.
"I can't remember anymore, honestly. I was 12 or 13."
"It's beautiful." She breathed. His face locked onto hers.
"Wh- what?" He was sure he had heard her wrong, but there was no terror in her face. No hint that she thought him a freak or a monster. Without thinking, he lunged forward, grabbed her shoulders and kissed her with a desperate passion. She returned the kiss with as much fervor. His constant companion slowly backed away as it was replaced by this undeniable love he felt for the one person who treated him like a miracle, not an anomaly.
Ava learned the rules for being in a relationship with Ethan. No startling him. That was it. Ethan had learned to control his emotions enough that he could control it with her around. He had never felt such happiness after discovering his fire and that emotion wasn't the trigger.
"Are you coming to the Summer Solstice festival?" Ava wondered as she watched him repair a broken hinge on his front door. At first, she wasn't sure if he heard her over the pounding of his hammer.
"No." Ethan responded in between hammer strikes.
Ethan didn't respond immediately. He finished his work, put away his tools, and sat beside Ava.
"Just because you are aware of me doesn't mean I want to integrate into society."
Ava focused on patting the dogs on the head, deliberately avoiding his gaze. The seconds crawled by because Ethan knew what she wanted. She was afraid to admit it and he was afraid to give in. She didn't bring it up again.
As they broke away from their midnight kiss, Ava brought it up again.
"Please. I want you to dance with me."
"I can dance with you any night." Ethan knew that wasn't the point, but he couldn't give into to such a difficult request. The disappointment in her face pained him to the his core.
"Fine. I'll go."
Ava didn't say anything, but the pleasure that exploded across her features was all he needed. She gave him a goodbye kiss and ran off.
The night of the Sumer Solstice Festival, Ethan was supposed to meet Ava at noon. But when he started down the path to the village, his legs locked up. It was different than when he was going to buy supplies. He wasn't expected to linger in the small talk and it only took an hour, at most. This was an all day event and he knew it would lead to more questions once the alcohol started flowing. Alcohol.
Ethan knew how to get himself to go. He grabbed a jar of the fire drink and begin to gulp as fast as he could tolerate. The sun was nearly on the horizon when he gathered enough drunken courage to go to the festival. He got to the edge of the festival crowd when his anxiety squeezed his chest through the drunk fog. He saw Ava in the crowd. He watched her easily mingle amongst the crowd with her polite smile and perfectly timed laugh.
It hit him then. He could never be in her world. His trust in her already hung by a thread and he had known her for nearly a year. She thought he was a miracle, but he still felt like he was treading on thin ice. How would he integrate with everyone else? He knew it was impossible to hide his fire at all times around normal people. And what if they got married? What if he they had a child? Would it be like him? He couldn't imagine knowingly passing on this curse to another. It made him sick to think he would give this life to a child.
Ava waited for him all night. By the time everyone was stumbling home, Ava ran to see where he was. She searched his house. The dogs were gone and all his possessions, save one. The bow and the quiver of arrows, attached was a note:
You will never know how much I love you. To know that I'm not a monster in the eyes of the only person I've ever loved has restored my faith in myself. But, I cannot trust myself to be normal. You deserve someone who can't hurt you in a moment's notice. You deserve a normal child and family.
I love you now and forever.