Chapter 20

Author's Note: Well, this is the end. I'm sure there was more I could've done with the story as a whole and just with this chapter, but I think it came out all right for something that I wrote in 12 days and made a sad attempt at editing in the end.

I enjoyed working with this story, and I really hope you enjoyed the little romp through this magical world. Thank you for sticking it out for so long!

Reviews are welcome, as always, and thank you again for reading. Enjoy this last chapter! :)

"I don't know where it went," Van told me in a panic when I opened my eyes. His words would have been confusing enough without my current groggy stupor, but with it, they were nearly impossible to understand.

He dropped something beside me, and I did my best to focus on what lay on the floor. A dozen or so scuffed and creased tomes were stacked into three lopsided piles to my left. I almost laughed. We'd gotten the books back. Jesus, we'd gotten the books back!

"What?" I grumbled, rubbing my throbbing forehead and making absolutely no attempt to sit up. The room was a familiar one, though the light was blinding and sent an extra jolt of dull pain through my skull, so I felt no need to jerk upright and study my surroundings. I was home. I had no idea how I'd gotten here, but I was home.

"The Hellcat," he started, and I wondered why he was so anxious. "It teleported us back here, watched over you for a moment, then suddenly disappeared. I don't know where it went."

"He probably summoned her back," I explained, a frown tugging at the corners of my lips. "It was bound to happen eventually. She brought us here, though? She was all right?"

"Yes," he answered with a short nod. He seemed to calm down now that he'd gotten an explanation. "She was fine. Your spell was very, very well done." He smiled down at me softly, just a gentle, lopsided curve of his lips. "I couldn't have done it better myself."

I couldn't shake my frown, bittersweet as this was. She wasn't dead. I'd managed to heal her. I'd even managed to impress Van along the way. But she was gone, and I would likely never see her again. I could always recast the summoning spell, but who knew if she would be waiting for me at the other end? A more feral, less complacent beast could appear and rip me to shreds. Perhaps I would try it, anyway. One day. Soon.

"Thanks," I said, my voice almost empty of emotion. I didn't want to sound sad, but I couldn't exactly bring myself to sound happy. This was the best I could do. "I'm sure you could do it better, though."

"It's black magic," he said, and his smile faltered. "I don't do black magic. You know that."

I frowned. He'd given me a compliment, then pretty much taken it away with a subtle put-down. He was too good for dark magic. What did that make me? "Black magic suits my power," I said, unable to keep a bit of hurt from creeping into my tone. "You should know that by now."

"Nothing suits your power," he said, and something like anger, maybe even resentment, entered his eyes. "Your power is uncontrollable and dangerous. Using white magic with it would kill you eventually. Using black magic will just kill you faster."

"I don't care," I said, solemn though I wanted to sound indignant. "I want to practice magic. I like it and I'm good at it, no matter what you say. If dark magic is where my skills lie, then that's what I'm going to use."

"You're killing yourself!" he cried, and for the first time, I realized that his ire might be brought about by worry rather than disdain for the dark arts. "With your power overflowing like it does whenever you cast a spell, you're going to hurt yourself. And if that doesn't hurt you, the mental side effects of practicing black magic will. Or a black spell could just backfire on you one day and you'll be dead." He paused for a moment, squeezing his eyes shut and bowing his head. He seemed to be pulling himself together. When he looked at me again, he was calm, his precious composure regained. I wanted to cry. "Magic is not right for you," he said, his voice bordering on a whisper. "You can't cast it well, no matter how powerful you seem to be. Even children can keep their power in check when casting. The fact that you can't is proof that you shouldn't even try." I felt tears well up in my eyes, soon rolling down my cheeks, landing hot and salty on my lips. It was like being rejected all over again. "You can't do it," he said gently, though every syllable was still a stab through the heart. "I won't allow you to."

"We're still separating, then, aren't we?" I said softly, my voice cracking as I barely suppressed a sob. "You're a nice guy, Van, and you've been a good partner, but I refuse to stop practicing magic just because you said so. I love it too much to just stop."

"You've barely used it," he said, his tone softening greatly though it still had the hard, biting edge of scolding to it. "You don't know if you really like it or not. And whether you like it or not has little to do with whether you should practice it or not." He cupped my chin gently, and it took everything I had to jerk my jaw away from his warm, inviting skin. "It's whether you're meant to do it or not that matters," he said with a sigh, allowing his rejected hand to rest upon his lap.

"You say I'm not meant to do it just because I have a bit of trouble controlling the overflow," I whispered, carefully keeping my teary eyes focused on a wall, a wall that wouldn't judge me or look down on me like Van would. "If you helped me control it, maybe I would be right for it. You said so yourself that I'm good with magic. Why should I throw that away just because of one little problem?"

"It's not as little as you think it is," he said, his voice a gentle growl. "I can't train you to control it. You have to learn to do that yourself. And chances are, it'll kill you before you have the chance to learn. You just..." He half sighed, half grunted, the noise of frustration harsh and jolting in the relative stillness of the room. "You just can't do it, Ember. You just...You just can't."

I turned my face to his now, and a blush instantly warmed my cheeks when I saw that he was staring down at me with such worry in his eyes. There was truth to what he said, I realized. He was trying to protect me because he cared, not trying to crush my dreams because he didn't think I was strong enough. In a way, that hurt even more, and I returned my gaze to the passive, emotionless wall.

"I want to stay with you, Van," I murmured, a fresh tear rolling across my lips. "I really, really like you, and I want to stay. But if you won't let me learn to control my magic, I can't stay here. I'd rather go somewhere that I can practice freely."

"It's not safe for you out there," he grated, frustration forcing all gentleness from his voice. "It's not safe for you away from me. Not if you're going to keep practicing."

I looked to him once more, the coldness of my gaze a sharp contrast to the fire in his. "What do you want me to do, then?" I asked. Part of me wished I could sound angrier, more determined, but this whole day was such an emotional drain that I couldn't push aside my numbness, my heavy fatigue. I went on in the same sad, empty tone. "No matter where I go, I'm practicing magic, whether you think it's going to kill me or not. Would you like to supervise me, or would you like me to go out on my own?"

He sighed again, a sound that was really more of a growl than a release of air, and glared down at me in exasperation. "I don't understand why you're being so stubborn about this. Just a few days ago, you were content with helping me perform shows and casting only a few appearance-altering spells. Now, you demand to know everything and practice black magic. What happened to you?"

"If you suddenly developed the ability to fly or to read minds or to move things with your thoughts, would you be okay with giving it up just because someone said it might hurt you?" I asked, and finally, some beautiful, beautiful rage entered my tone. "Would you just walk away from it and pretend you couldn't do it, even though you loved it?" He opened his mouth to answer, but I went on, my voice loud enough to drown out anything he might say. "No, you wouldn't. You would keep going, even if you had to do it in secret, even if someone said you would die from it. You don't just give these things up, Van. You just don't."

"This is different, Ember," he said, desperation replacing the fire in his tone. "This—"

"Isn't you?" I finished for him, and I realized that I was shouting now and couldn't be bothered to care. "This isn't about you, so it's okay to expect me to stop? Just because you said so? Your life will go on the same, Van! Mine won't! I'll always be missing something, and you'll always be there to rub it in my face with your damned magic shows!" I stood now, and though my legs were weak, trembling beneath my weight, I continued. "I'm not letting you take this from me! I'm not going to quit!"

"You don't understand!" Van said, lurching to his feet to face me. His face was red, but it wasn't from the embarrassment I was so used to. "You don't know what this could do to you! It has nothing to do with the fact that it won't hurt me at all. It has to do with the fact that it will hurt you! I don't want anything to happen to you, Ember," he said, and here, his voice gentled. He cupped my chin with a warm palm; this time, I let him. "I don't want you to die just because you want to play with magic."

"I don't want to play with it," I said as coldly as I could, but it was hard to keep my anger going with him looking into my eyes like that, with such love, such compassion... "I want to learn it. I want to do something useful with it, like what I did today." Or yesterday, or last night, or whenever that was.

"You don't need magic to do something useful," he told me softly, and his warm breath blew aside a tangled strand of hair that had been glued to my cheek by my drying tears.

"But it helps," I argued, then his breath was on my mouth and I couldn't speak anymore. "Van," I tried to say, but his lips met mine, and I was quieted.

It started out gentle at first, chaste, his lips slick and eager against mine but never moving or parting to deepen the kiss; then, of course, they gave way to let me through, and our tongues met in a wet tangle.

What were we talking about? I wondered jokingly, a small smile tugging at the corners of my kissing lips. It was impossible to be mad at a man who solved his arguments this way, especially when he was such a good kisser.

Our lips parted with a smack, then reunited to allow our tongues to slide together once more. He tasted of stale blood and iced tea, and I wondered why that didn't bother me one bit. Again, our lips parted, and I smiled wryly at him, though with our noses pressed together, our faces so close, he likely couldn't see it.

"So am I staying, or am I going?" I asked, a flirtatiousness to my voice that I hadn't quite expected, and I felt his lips curve into a smile against mine.

"I don't want you to practice magic," he said, "but I don't want you to leave, either." That wasn't much of an answer, and I opened my mouth to say so, but his lips met mine to hush me once more.

His kiss was rough now, deeper and more passionate. He guided me backward with his hands on my hips, forcing me back onto his nearly empty desk once we reached it. I heard something fall to the floor with a clatter, but I barely noticed the noise, wrapped up in his kiss as I was. His lips and tongue lingered against mine even as he eased my back against the desk, a leg to either side of mine as he leaned over me.

Are we really doing this? I wondered when his hands began to slide up my shirt, his skin deliciously warm and smooth against mine. I could've stopped him if I'd wanted. I could've forced him to continue our conversation. I could've done a lot of things, but for the moment, with my legs still weak and my belly growing all tingly beneath his touch, I let things continue as they were.

His fingers slipped beneath my bra, teasing my nipples with light, gentle rubs, and his lips left mine to trail feather-light kisses down my jaw. I let out a soft sigh of delight, my eyes slipping shut and my hands resting on his shoulders, and just enjoyed his lips against my skin for a moment, now placing those light kisses down the side of my neck.

"If it means that much to you," he whispered after a moment, leaning away from my neck to gaze down at me, an intense emotion to his olive-green eyes that I couldn't quite place, "you can practice magic. Here, with me."

"Really?" I asked in an excited whisper of my own, forcing him back a bit as I propped myself up on my elbows. "You'll let me keep practicing?"

"If you promise to keep your dark magic to a minimum," he answered with a single nod, and I grinned.

"Can Krekkel come, too?" My voice was still a whisper, but barely.

"If you can summon her again," he said, smirking softly in challenge.

I could only gaze up at him for a moment, my eyes searching his face for any signs of trickery, then I placed a single kiss upon his lips, chaste and gentle, and grinned. "Thank you, Van," I murmured. "Thank you so much."

"Anything to keep you happy," he whispered, and leaned down to kiss me again.

Love. That was the emotion to his eyes. He loved me.

I kissed him back carefully, slowly but passionately, doing my best to give him my all right then, with that one solitary kiss; but in the back of my mind, thoughts of summoning Krekkel and learning new spells and learning to control my magic flitted about, taunting me, trying to pull me away.

My future was filled with danger, I knew. Danger and an olive-eyed magician with candy kisses.

Life was good.

What I had left of it, anyway.