Paradise Chapter 7

Chapter 7: Choice

Horror tore through her. She could hardly comprehend what was happening.

"I—I—"

"You must make your decision. I don't want to force you. That's not the kind of relationship I want. Gorge, on the other hand, is a little fuzzy on the consent thing. I don't think he even factors it in—he just wants what he wants. Sex would be part of our relationship, but I also want someone to share my life with. I want you to get to know me and love me for who I am. That's what love is, isn't it?"

"You can't just—switch who you love!"

"So that is what it's like for humans. I will be patient. I will wait for you to come around."

Sickness crept over her when she thought of his proposal. "My answer is no. We are leaving." She stepped forward, supporting Ember.

"I'm being generous and giving you a choice. I will let you go, and he will stay. He can go, and you will stay. But one thing cannot happen: you cannot go back together."

"How do I know you'll keep your word?"

"I helped you find the shuttle, didn't I? I kept my word then, and I will now."

She didn't trust Char in the least. But if there was a chance she could save Ember….At least if she stayed, Char seemed like he'd consider her feelings a little….

She didn't want to think of what it would be like to stay with Char, for him to touch her at all in that way. Even if she stayed willingly, she'd never betray Ember by giving into him.

But for all his talk of consent, Char might force her. She would go back to her childhood, when her father had taken her innocence piece by piece….back in the nightmare she'd just crawled out of. She'd had a brief happy spark of time with Ember—

Now, snatched away.

But at least she'd had it. More joy than she'd ever imagined could be in a lifetime crammed into a few days. She'd hold onto it, savor it no matter what happened.

Her heart ached as if tearing in two. She wanted to hold onto him, to never let him go. She could fight them—use her paltry lightning against their combined force—but she'd be no good to him dead.

Perhaps she was born to live this way, forever controlled by others, used for their pleasure, never her own. At least this time, it wasn't senseless. She could save Ember by giving herself up for lost.

She looked up at Char. "All right," she said.

"No!" said Ember. "You can't do this! Sky, I'm not worth it."

She cradled his chin in her hand. "Yes, you are."

Ember grasped her hand. Looked up at Char. "Let Sky go, and I'll willingly stay with—him." His voice faltered as he looked at Gorge.

"Ember, you can't," she said. "At least Char seems more…reasonable. His brother—after what he already did to you—I couldn't bear to let him hurt you any more if I can do something to stop it. You are worth more than me, anyway. You're the prince, the Heir."

"That doesn't matter. You are everything to me. I can't give you up to that—that creature."

"This is all very interesting," said Char, "But it's not your choice that matters. It's hers. I want her consent; Gorge doesn't care if you want him or not. If she chooses me, it either means she cares so much for you she'll sacrifice herself, or deep down, she wants me. That's something I can live with. I will be good to her, Ember. I can't promise the same for my brother. He'd rip into you without caring how much he damaged you, just leaving enough life to heal you over and over again.

"So, Sky, you've made your choice, correct?" He gave what he must have thought was a charming smile.

"I will stay with you, if you'll let Ember go."

"You won't regret it." He grasped her hand.

She froze. She didn't want this—it couldn't be time yet—she couldn't leave the one she loved—

"Please, could I say goodbye?"

Char's face fell a little. "Oh, all right. But make it quick." He let go of her hand.

She wrapped her arm around Ember's shoulder, her cheek pressed to his. I will treasure all that is him even when he's a world away….I will keep impressed on my mind what he feels like, smells like, tastes like….

She caught his eyes, but the pain in them was unbearable. She pressed her lips to his, let their fire consume them until nothing existed but this moment. Forever locked an embrace, turned into people of flame that pain could never touch—

A firm grip seized her arm, tugging at it. She grasped for Ember but it dragged her away from him—she screamed, tears burning her eyes—his fire still raged inside her— the ache of not touching him tore her apart—

"Here," said Char somewhere outside the haze of pain. "Hold her until I get back. I'll put him in the shuttlecar and send him back where he belongs."

"He belongs with me," said Gorge.

"I know you want him. I'll get you a new one, how about that? You might have to wait a while though."

"I want this one."

"I made the deal; you can't do anything about it. Now do as I say."

Something icy grasped her other arm. She shuddered, tried to pull away. But it held her, as indifferent and inexorable as a stone.

"Sky, I won't leave you!" Ember cried.

"Now, you will come quietly or I'll have to use drastic measures."

"Sky! No—"

"All right then." A blast of dark lightning and Ember collapsed to the mud.

Char grabbed him by the arm and dragged him away.

Darkness.


She gradually became aware of sunlight rippling across her face. The sun kissed her skin, and she let its warmth seep away all pain. But of course, there was no reason to feel pain…she'd just awakened from a nightmare…her lover was beside her and she'd lose herself in his glory….

She turned to face him but instead saw a different man—Char—looking down at her, a delighted smile on his face. She struggled against him but he held her, laughing low in his chest, the sound rumbling against her body.

He laid her down on a bed of yellow petals and settled in beside her. She froze with shock and fear, pain still pulsing through her, though she didn't want to face the source of that pain, didn't want to acknowledge why she was here with this being when she should be with Ember.

She turned her back to him. His cold fingers stroked her cheek, brushed back her hair tenderly. She curled up, trying to block him out.

"I didn't want it to come to this," said Char. "I wanted you to choose me without an ultimatum of any sort. But still, you chose me of your own free will, and that's all that matters. So beautiful….It's amazing that you're mine."

The realization hit her she'd never see Ember again. The ache in her chest built to a piercing pain. But still, she wouldn't betray his memory. All she'd agreed to was to stay; she hadn't agreed to give any more of herself. "I will never be yours."

"You think so now. But after you see all that I have to offer, you will come to love me. We will live an eternity together in this place. It's beautiful to me now, with you in it." He caressed her cheek with his cold fingers. She flipped onto her stomach, her skin pressed against the velvet surface of the petals, letting their fragrance seep into her—reminding her of her wedding night with Ember when he'd had flowers brought in, just for her—

Pain cut through her at the memory. Sobs ripped from the horrible ache in her heart.

Char ran his hand down over her arm, as if comforting her. She froze, knowing she couldn't get away from him. Tried to block out his cold touch and focus on Ember. Now that she had lost him, she knew that she'd loved him with every part of herself; she'd given it away to save him from a fate even worse than hers.

Ember—I love you.

She curled up, wrapped in grief, longing for numbness but still wanting to feel pain, her last connection to him—she held onto its reality, blocking out all else, and closed her eyes to the light.

Ember's face—so real she could almost touch it—she could see every feature, its perfection, his mesmerizing eyes—his incomparable body…the soft pressure of his lips against hers….

A hand shook her shoulder. She ignored it.

"I brought you some food," said Char. "You at least have to drink." When she didn't respond, he pulled her into a sitting position and lifted a cup to her lips. Water sloshed at the edges of her closed mouth.

"Sky, I don't want to force you. But you can't go on like this." He tipped her head back. The water slipped in, and she gulped it automatically. It soothed her throat, and sent a warm feeling through her, but she hated it; she didn't want to feel anything apart from Ember. Char tried to get her to eat some of the fruit he'd brought, but she turned away.

Char sighed. "You're going to have to eat eventually. Perhaps you could appreciate to what lengths I went to get you. You are astonishingly beautiful—and I'm not just saying that because you're the only woman on this world, as far as I know. Perhaps this place is a blessing in disguise. Before I was banished, I was wired differently…I was not as much physical as I was energy. But now that I am bound to this earth I am free to express my feelings." He kissed her cheek. "Mm. To be so close to you—for you to be willingly near me—I have never felt so intensely while in this form. I wonder….I want to create a bond between us that would rip apart any bond you may have had with anyone else.

"Part of you must want me, or you wouldn't have agreed to stay with me. I don't want to wait anymore, now that I have you." He laid her down onto the bed of petals.

"This can't be too hard. I've seen it done enough times." He made a sweeping motion with his arm, and his clothes faded like smoke.

She glimpsed a smooth body beneath, glowing like fading twilight. She shut her eyes. He laid his hand on her chest, her heart thumping hard against it.

"I can feel how much you want me, even if you won't admit it." He fingered the neckline of her dress. Then he tugged at the arm.

Shock rippled through her. She had to get away. But she was frozen beneath his hands.

"Please—" she whispered, "could you wait a little?"

"This is for the best. Don't worry, I will try to be gentle, although I've never done this before." He pulled the dress rather awkwardly down over her shoulder, sliding her arm out.

"Ah. So lovely…." He tugged the dress down over her other shoulder, smoothly maneuvering her arm out.

She hated the feeling of his cold skin against hers but she still could not move—he would hurt her if she tried to get away—

He furled the dress down over her stomach, pressed his hand to it. "You could carry my children. We could create a magnificent race, you and I…. Never be alone again."

Horror crept through her. He could easily overpower her if she resisted—but there was a tiny chance he might listen. In any case, to just lie here, to not resist with all she had, would betray Ember.

Char tugged the dress down over her waist, gasped. "So amazing…" He reached down toward her, but she slid away, slithering through the flowers. The dress slipped down her legs but she didn't care. She scrambled to her feet, stood shakily.

"Please, don't do this. I—I don't want you. I never will. I only agreed to stay with you to save the one I love." Her voice trembled.

He just laughed and came toward her.

She ran, her bare feet on the turf and fallen petals—slipping, then running again—his laughter behind her, bursting terror into her—

The flower stalks thickened, creating shadows—she ran into their refuge, dodging around the huge stalks, their smooth surface brushing her bare skin.

She stopped, gasping, holding onto a stalk, bell-like pink flowers dancing above her. She'd just catch her breath, then keep running—never stop until she collapsed—

A hand grasped her shoulder. "Hello, Sky." She whirled around.

Char towered over her, his face in shadow. She backed up against the stalk, grasped it from behind.

"I can't stand it anymore," he said. "What you do to me-"

He leaped forward, grabbing her, his body immersing her in darkness, consuming her.

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