CHAPTER 26: A Dream of Freedom
After we had all had enough to eat, everyone went straight to sleep, thoroughly exhausted from the events of the day. I even let Aerin share a blanket with me, since we were still much too relieved to finally be together that we weren't ready to be apart for any longer than we had to. I could already hear him snoring next to me, yet I was still wide awake.
Something just felt wrong. And by that I don't mean I was still afraid the Malatri would come after me, for even though I knew they eventually would, I felt I was safe for now. No, it wasn't the Malatri that was making me uneasy. It was my guilt.
Even though I had sworn that I would no longer put innocent lives in danger, I had found myself doing just that. I had left Aerin and the others with the intention of keeping them somewhat safe, figuring that as long as they were away from me, they would be better off. But then I met Marinel and put him in danger. And Ardin, too. And when the others showed up, I had been so happy to see them that I'd hardly even put up a fight.
They have done so much for me. And what have I done for them besides put their lives in danger?
"Eli," Aerin murmured, pulling me from my thoughts. I hadn't even noticed that he had awoken. "Why aren't you sleeping? I know you are tired."
I shrugged, feeling no desire to talk. His hand reached out and gently turned my face toward his, and his eyes searched mine through the darkness.
"What is it, Eli? You are safe now, I promise you. The Velox are gone. You can rest easy."
"I know," I whispered back, closing my eyes so I wouldn't have to meet his gaze. "I'll sleep now."
"No. That wasn't it, was it? Tell me what's really bothering you." His voice sounded impossibly stubborn, as if he already knew I was going to refuse to tell him anything.
"Aerin, you said it yourself. I'm tired. And there's nothing to talk about. Let me sleep." Even I knew that wasn't very convincing.
"You won't be able to sleep, Eli, until you resolve whatever it is that is keeping you awake."
"No, I won't be able to sleep because you keep pestering me."
"Eli…" he warned.
"What?" I responded innocently.
"I won't sleep until you tell me. And why is it always such a trial to get you to tell me what you are thinking? It is really very bothersome."
"Well, I'm sorry to inconvenience you, but I like to keep my thoughts to myself. They are my business, not yours."
"But when your thoughts are keeping me awake, they become my business, too."
I could hear the frustration gathering in his voice, and I knew he would soon get angry if I didn't tell him. I silently weighed my options. I had a similar conversation with him once before, and it didn't turn out well. I shivered unconsciously just thinking about that experience- our rendezvous deep in the underground passages of Gaia's home- and how it ended. Aerin wrapped his arms around me but said nothing. He was waiting for me to speak. I could always just make up something…
I sighed, letting him know he had won. "You were right, Aerin. I'm still worried about the Malatri. They are still going to come after me, aren't they?" I already knew the answer to this question…but he didn't need to know that.
"Yes," he murmured, somewhat reluctantly, "but we shouldn't worry about that right now. All that matters is that you are safe now, so you shouldn't be afraid."
I sighed again. "I guess you're right."
I closed my eyes as if I were about to go to sleep, and his hand began stroking my hair. "Eli?"
"What's really bothering you? I expect the truth this time."
Damn! I sighed for real this time. "How'd you know?"
"You're not very good at hiding things."
"So I've been told."
"Well, are you going to tell me, or are we going to be up all night?"
"I hate you."
"Is that a yes?"
I hesitated, but knew I would eventually have to give in. "Yes." I took a breath. "Just don't get mad at me, though."
"Eli, I am already angry with you for making me jump through all these hoops just to know your thoughts. Just tell me already."
"Fine." Someone's a little testy. "I feel guilty, that's all."
"Guilty? Guilty about what?"
"About… everything. About the Velox attacking. About putting everybody's lives in danger. About making everyone worry. About not being able to help. About causing so much trouble all the time. About-"
He stopped me by placing a finger over my lips, chuckling to himself. "Once she starts, she never stops."
I hit him hard in the arm, trying to cover up how much his words had hurt me. "If you didn't want to know, then you shouldn't have asked!" I spill my guts out to the guy, and he laughs at me! What a jerk!
"Aw, Eli." I could still hear the smile in his voice. "I truly wanted to know. And I am very sorry I laughed."
I didn't respond.
"But, you know, Eli, you are really being closed-minded."
"What!?!" I hissed. "How am I being closed-minded?"
"Well, you are only thinking of the bad things that happened. What about all the good things you caused?"
"Like what?" I scoffed. "Almost getting us all killed?"
"You think that was a good thing?"
I rolled my eyes, not in the mood for his sad attempt at humor.
"Seriously, Eli, you can't think of anything?"
"Can you?" I countered.
"Then enlighten me, oh-brilliant-one."
His hand returned to stroking my hair, and I let it… for now. "Well, for starters, you make me happy."
I snorted. "Don't blame me for your distorted sense of reality. I have no idea why almost getting killed makes you happy."
He ignored me. "And you make it easier to travel."
I narrowed my eyes. "What do you mean?"
"Well, for some reason, everyone seems to trust you-"
"-which makes it a lot easier to, say, get a room at an inn, or get information from people. You may not have noticed it, but the people we encountered were much more willing to accommodate the two of us than they are when I travel alone."
"So what? It was a tiny bit easier to get people to trust us, but I am sure if you just tell them who your father, they would do anything you wanted. Am I right?"
He ignored me.
"What about Marius and Gaia? They would have never met if it wasn't for you."
"They would have met," I muttered. "And they would have met under much better circumstances."
"You don't know that."
My answer was silence, so he continued.
"And you give us hope, Eli," he whispered.
I rolled my eyes, reaching up to remove his hand from my hair, where it was beginning to distract me. "I give you hope by getting chased by the Malatri? Really, Aerin? That's the best you can come up with?"
"Eli, did you not see the look in Kato's eyes when he looked at you? Lately, he has seemed so solemn all the time, but when he saw you, there was hope. And what's more important than hope in times like these?"
"What's more important?" I hissed. "Happiness, safety, sanity, survival- to name a few. And the only reason Kato may be hopeful is because he thinks I'm something I'm not. He probably thinks I am going to single-handedly bring down the Malatri and save Simul, which we both know is not going to happen."
Aerin chuckled once more. I stiffened. He's probably imagining me trying to save an entire country. And what can I say? It so absurd that I can understand why he finds it funny.
"Eli, just because you are 'important' to Simul doesn't mean you have to save an entire country by yourself- at least, not in the way you are thinking of."
"How would you know?"
"I wouldn't. But I can guess. And I really can't imagine you fighting off an entire Malatri army all by yourself. I think your role in this war will be much less violent, but essential nonetheless."
"You sound as if you have this all figured out…" I trailed off suspiciously. Does he understand why the Malatri are after me?
"I think I do."
"Care to share?"
"Only if you promise not to argue."
I pursed my lips, considering. I wasn't sure if I could hold back my retorts, but I really wanted to hear what he thought, because I had always wondered what being "important" meant. Why does it have to be so dang vague?!?
"Fine," I agreed reluctantly. "I'll try."
In the faint moonlight, I saw him grin. "That's all I ask." His hand reached out toward me once more, this time settling on my hip, his thumb making small circles on my stomach. He was definitely taking liberties with our intimacy, but I didn't pull away, partly because I liked his hand there, and partly because I was afraid I would need its comfort after he told me what he was thinking.
"After getting to know you, Eli, I have a theory. I have been wondering why Jarlath seems so keen on taking your life, and although even he may not know exactly why, I think I do. You are going to help Simul, Eli."
"Aerin, there's no way-"
He squeezed my hip, a silent reminder of my promise not to argue. I reluctantly closed my mouth.
"I know you don't realize it, but you have already begun to help." I opened my mouth again, but Aerin gave me a peck on the lips before I could even utter a sound. That kept me quiet, since I now had to focus on simply controlling my breathing. I had just realized how close we really were, lying on our sides, facing each other, our bodies only inches apart.
"You have brought us all together. Me, Marius, Gaia, Ardin, and Marinel. You may not know this, but even though we are all Simulian, people from the four regions of Simul don't necessarily get along. In spite of that, you have brought us all together, and we fought as a team, everyone doing their part."
I couldn't stay quiet any longer, and just as a precaution, I sat up so that my lips were now a good foot and a half away from his. "But, Aerin, even if I weren't here, you all would have fought together. It was the only way to defeat the Velox, and-"
"First of all, Eli, we all wouldn't have met if it weren't for you. And secondly, could you really see Marinel and I fighting side by side if we hadn't been doing it just to protect you?"
"If it wasn't for me," I retorted, "you two wouldn't hate each other so much."
Aerin smiled sheepishly. "True, but what about Marinel and Ardin? Could you see them fighting together?"
He got me there. The only reason I could see those two working together was if they were fending off the Malatri just so that afterwards they could go at each other's throats without a Velox getting in the way.
"Do you see my point? You bring people together that normally wouldn't get along. Maybe it's because you are from another world, so you don't understand our little prejudices, or maybe it is simply in your nature, but you have a gift for bringing people together, Eli. And unity is something we desperately need right about now."
Still sitting, I hugged my knees to my chest, thinking about what he'd said. There was no way I was the one bringing people together. All my life, all I'd ever done was run people off one way or another. My birth mother, my foster mother, my foster father, my friends. There was no denying that I had a group of friends around me now, but that was just dumb luck. There was no way I had anything to do with that, right? If anything, it was Aerin's strange propensity for leadership that brought them together.
But the seed was already planted in my mind, and although I thought it absurd that I had the "gift of unity," it made a lot more sense than my single-handedly-bringing-down-the-Malatri idea. I guess I will just have to wait and see.
Yet the thought of watching two countries go to war made me sick to the stomach. I mean, sure, there were wars in my world, too, but they had always felt so far away. This one felt so close I though it might suffocate me.
Aerin sat up and placed his arms around me, pulling me back down to lay beside him. I buried my face in the warmth of his chest.
"And, for the record, Eli," he murmured into my ear, "it doesn't matter to me that you are important to Simul. You're important to me-" He kissed the top of my head. "-and that's all that matters."
And in that position, wrapped up in his arms, I fell asleep. That night, I dreamt that the two of us were flying through the air, with no worries, the wind whipping through our hair. And, although even in my dream I knew the Malatri were still out there, searching for me, I simply enjoyed the feeling of freedom- of flight- and the feeling of Aerin's arms around me.
A/N: Well, I hope you guys all enjoyed this story- I know I did. Thank you for reading and reviewing, and hopefully you will continue to read my work. I have a few stories on the back-burner, so it's just a matter of picking one and going with it. With that said, it will probably still be a few weeks before I post again. After I post the next story up, though, I will consider writing a sequel to The Elements of Flight- since I originally meant for it to have a sequel. Tell me what you guys think!