Read My Mind
This title is #1 of the Under the Empire series.
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Scott Kensington lives happily without magic; prayer is all he needs to worship the gods. Then he starts his studies at the University of Frannesburg, and not only is he suddenly surrounded by eccentrics—those gifted with magic—but his own latent ability begins to surface, with consequences that could tear his soul and family apart.
Nick Barns is grieving for his lost mother and desperate for distraction—usually in the form of limited-edition action figures. As a telekinetic, he’s no stranger to magic, so he offers to help Scott adjust to his new powers. They quickly learn how their magics interact, their shared passions soon growing beyond superheroes and immortals. But Nick’s not taking his studies seriously, and his father threatens to pull him from the university. Overwhelmed by his own crumbling family, Scott’s convinced he can’t handle a relationship, but he doesn’t want to let Nick go.
With grief, guilt, and magic complicating everything between Nick and Scott, it seems that not even the gods—or a new comic book—can save their relationship now. Sometimes, even reading someone’s mind won’t help you understand what they want.
This title comes with no special warnings.
Caution: The following details may be considered spoilerish.
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Sometimes you just gotta pray. And I know our goddess will answer those prayers, ’cause she wants us all to live our best lives.
I smiled. My mom’s ConnectUs status reminded me of listening to her at the dinner table back home. I’d only been away for three weeks at this point, but gods, I missed her. And not just her advice and support—I missed her spaghetti, too.
Tapping on my phone, I tabbed back to my profile page: Scott Kensington, with a profile pic featuring my younger sister and me smiling outside of high school. My most recent status read, “I made it through my first week at University of Frannesburg! Miss you all!” I was living the beginning of a coming-of-age movie by going away to college, but there was no way I’d have any life-changing epiphanies or meet the love of my life right off the bat. Not when even the social requirements of going to class made me exhausted.
I glanced back at my mom’s status. Maybe prayer would help with that.
Leaving my religious theory textbook open on my pillow, I climbed down from my loft bed. My desk and dresser hid underneath the loft bed on one side of the dorm, and my roommate Mark’s unlofted bed and desk sat on the other wall, with his dresser on the back wall under a window. There was too much furniture for the size of the room. We couldn’t have made it work if Mark hadn’t suggested lofting one of the beds.
I’d never had to share a room before. It was like those TV shows with feuding brothers, where they put a line of tape down the middle and each side was completely different. The walls on Mark’s side were covered in posters for bands and video games, and he had a dual-screen handheld game console and pile of games and strategy manuals on his dresser.
My side? Still sparse. All I had really managed to set up was my altar on my dresser . . . showed my priorities, I guessed. But my altar was full: a ten-inch statue of Natalis carved from a marbled rosy stone stood before a round mirror, which held small figurines of Sanya and Flavius in their creature forms, a fish and a phoenix respectively. Mom had given me Sanya before I left as a prayer to stay healthy. And Dad had given me Flavius as a prayer for ambition and opportunity. Though I displayed him for the luck.
I lit a tea light in front of the mirror with a flip-open lighter and rubbed my thumb across the floral insignia etched on its side. Ten petals for the ten gods.
Swiveling my desk chair around to face the altar, I sat down. The candle’s light danced on the central statue, throwing her curvy shadow onto the wall behind her.
“Hi, Natalis,” I whispered, running a finger down the side of the statue’s face and across her shoulder. “I’m lonely. I hope you don’t mind if I talk to you.”
She wouldn’t mind of course. But I hated feeling like a bother. Why would my little voice matter among the billions she heard from each day?
“University of Frannesburg isn’t that bad. The dining commons has decent food, and the classes are pretty much what I’d expected, all reading assignments and don’t forget office hours,” I started, like I was talking to my mother. But I didn’t have to talk to Natalis that way anymore, now that I wasn’t home, and Mom wasn’t right behind me.
With a sigh that drooped my shoulders, I tried again.
“I’m lonely. Ralston feels a whole world away, not just two hours. I knew Frannesburg would be different, but Mark doesn’t even have an altar, and the Flavius statue in the quad doesn’t have any offerings. What am I going to see next, an eccentric not knowing which god gifted them magic? I hadn’t expected religion to be so unimportant to people in this city, with so many eccentrics here.”
After growing up in a little town full of normals, magic still took me by surprise. I had seen dozens of telekins around campus, and the university had a healing program. Yesterday I had even passed a fire weaver with actual fire in her palm, my first time seeing fire weaving in person—
But that wasn’t what I wanted to talk to the goddess about.
“The problem is . . . I don’t feel any connection to anyone. And I’m fucking up every opportunity Mark gives me to be social.” You’re not supposed to swear to the gods. Shut up, Mom. “Why does it sound so awful when he asks me to hang out? Why can’t I relax around him and meet his friends?”
I realized I was squeezing the lighter in my palm, so I put it down and took a few breaths to un-fluster myself. I had to get all my thoughts out, and at the end would be clarity. That was the hope, anyway.
“It’s not like I’m scared of them. They’re kids, like me.” You’re not a kid anymore if you can drink, smoke, and be drafted. Deep breath. Un-fluster, for the gods’ sakes. “They’re in the same situation as me, trying to figure out college life. But nothing they want to do sounds worth it. I don’t want to go to some random burger place. I don’t want to lie in the sun on the quad. Not alone, anyway.” Lying with a boyfriend would be okay.
Like that would ever happen at the rate I was going, leaving the dorm only for class and food.
“I need help finding the courage to get out there,” I said, drumming my fingers along the edge of the dresser. “That’s it. I know courage isn’t really your thing. It’s more Flavius’s. But Mom always encouraged us to talk to whichever god we wanted, and Mom’s prayed to you my whole life. I trust you. You can give me the right level of help. Thank you. Together we love.”
I blew out the candle and smoke snaked over the altar, its reflection in the mirror crossing behind the gold phoenix of Flavius. Maybe she was calling on him to help me out. Or maybe it was a big ole coincidence of positioning.
Well, there, out of my system. I didn’t feel better, but it had been worth the try. Maybe tomorrow I’d have the guts to—
With a single rap at the door, Mark bounced in, his smile infectious and his golden-brown hair flattened from the drizzle outside. He threw his backpack onto his bed, collapsed into his desk chair and gave it a whirl.
“Hey, dude, you like ice cream?”
“Ice-cream social at eight tonight in the third-floor lounge. One of those meet and greet sorta deals. You in?”
I blinked. I was tired, but . . . “Sure.” Something this unforgivably social had to be Flavius’s doing. But, thanks, Natalis, that was actually really fast. I could hear Mom now.
See? You just had to pray. You just had to believe.
And she was right, of course. Faith, and trust. In Natalis, and myself.
* * * * * * *
Being away from home was awesome. I could stay up as late as I wanted and simply caffeinate before my classes the next morning. I could skip my homework, as long as I did enough work to pass. And Dad couldn’t barge into my room and bother me, couldn’t ask if I had a job, and finally finally finally would stop asking when I was going to go to college.
I’m here, old man. Look at me now.
Jason Rox’s newest single boomed out of the speakers of my laptop, and I tapped a spare pencil on my desk to the beat with pushes of telekinesis. The newest action figures had been released on Super Collectors, and I scrolled through the webpage with a wave of a finger, my magic barely working on my laptop’s track pad. I sat back; college was the fucking life.
And I wasn’t going to give that nagging thought—that I can’t do this forever—the time of day.
Samuel burst into the dorm without a glance toward me. He had been busy this afternoon, buzzing around collecting clothes to bring to the laundry. He had already headed to the communal wash machines twice today. How’d he go through that many clothes in less than a month, huh? He was a fun guy and all, but his desire for popularity had carried over from high school—he hadn’t spent a year off like I had, after all—and apparently popularity meant a different shirt every day and more pairs of jeans than I had seen in my life.
As he gathered a large pile of underwear and socks, I swept our door shut from across the room.
“You got the quarters for all that?” I asked, and he paused halfway back to the door.
“Yep. My dad gave me a whole roll at the beginning of the year.”
“Which will last you half of today?” I asked, smiling as he chuckled and continued on his way, distracted enough to—yes!—smack into the door.
He swore, gathering his lost delicates, and I couldn’t stop laughing.
“You’re a fuckin’ riot, Nick,” Samuel muttered, pulling the door back open. “Just as bad as my sister.”
“Just as rad, you mean,” I countered, as he slammed the door shut behind him. Refocusing on my laptop, I studied the newest posable Angel of Flavius. Man, they had done a great job sculpting wings covered in flames. The detail was so badass. I added it to my favorites list. Definitely considering that one.
There was a knock, and as my telekinesis was awful with door handles, I called, “Come in!”
The RA for our floor, Philip, pushed open the door enough to peek through. “Hey, Nick!”
“Yo,” I said, eyes back to the webpage. I tabbed over to the comics section, to see if there was anything new.
“Can I talk to you a minute?”
I tried not to huff at him and pulled the door fully open with a twiddle of my fingers. Philip strode in and sat on Samuel’s bed across from me. His short black hair was spiked up and his shirt sported a stylized Japanese script. I could appreciate an Asian guy who wasn’t reluctant to wear something that looked Asian, even the Empire-friendly version. I stuck with comic shirts so as to not encourage the sorts of questions he probably got, like “Hey, what does your shirt say?” Especially because for me, they’d be followed with, “You’re Asian, right?” Such was the biracial existence. My features were just Chinese enough to not always be ignored as white. It was easier to avoid those situations all together.
“Hey, man,” Philip started. “I’m making the rounds, want to make sure I catch everyone ’cause I have a few announcements. How’ve your first few weeks gone?”
There was silence, and I met Philip’s level stare and patient smile. It was enough like my dad’s to intimidate me into answering.
“Not awful. So much reading though,” I sighed.
“An intro literature class will do that to ya. And the math?”
“I don’t really get when I’ll ever use calculus, but Gen Ed is Gen Ed.”
“Well depending on what field you’re going into”—here we go again—“it may come in very useful. Have you given your major any thought?”
If the thought was I don’t know and I don’t care then yes, but that wouldn’t appease Philip. But at least it was Philip badgering me here, because my dad hadn’t realized that I was undeclared. I didn’t even remember what I had told him it was. “English is fine, yeah?”
Philip nodded. “It’s a great major for teaching. Do you think you might want to be a teacher?”
My widened eyes must have given my opinion on that away as Philip chuckled and stood.
“Keep thinking about it. You’ll want to make up your mind by the end of the first semester. Second semester undeclareds have a much harder time getting the classes they need.”
“Can I major in collectibles?” I asked, keeping my tone level. At least he cracked a smile, as he glanced above my head at the couple dozen artfully posed action figures on shelves. One of the first things I’d done when I had moved into this room was rig up those shelves. And then unpack all my comics. The top of my dresser was stacked with them, just the way I liked it.
“You could get into design, or fine art, or creative writing?” Philip offered, and I shook my head. “Well, if you ever want to talk about it, my door’s always open, okay?”
I gave him a solemn nod, and he shrugged slightly.
“Hey, so my announcements. Don’t forget about the ice-cream social going on tonight with all the guys on this floor.”
“That sounds fun.”
“Yeah, man! Maybe you’ll meet someone who’s majoring in something that strikes you. You know, like an Adela object.”
“Right,” I managed, with no idea what he was talking about. I resumed favoriting the newest issue of Emperor’s Army and tabbed back to the figures. Those religious phrases like “Adela object” were almost always lost on me. I didn’t know the stories, past their versions that showed up in comics. Praying or studying the gods wasn’t really my thing, since Dad wasn’t into it.
But . . . getting some free ice cream sounded pretty good. As Philip went to leave, Samuel came back in. Philip repeated his spiel on the social.
“Any girls gonna be there?” Samuel asked, and Philip laughed.
“It’s for this floor, for you to meet your peers. All guys, man.”
Free ice cream, and maybe finding a cute guy to flirt with? That actually sounded great.
And this Tulian soldier with two sets of snap-on armor? Fucking sweet.
Gods, why did I agree to this? I was already shaking and breaking a sweat, and I had hardly walked through the front door. And Mark had immediately wandered off, leaving me stranded.
The communal lounge had at least three dozen freshmen packed in it, and someone had brought in a wireless speaker which was playing indie music loud enough to make me uncomfortable. Guys lounged on the many couches or stood in groups around the room like everything about this was fine and casual.
The ice-cream bar, which was merely a folding table loaded with several gallons of ice cream and a myriad of toppings, stood below a bulletin board covered in colorful announcements and pamphlets advertising clubs and tutors. I picked up a paper plate, and eyed the sticky ice-cream scoop warily. Glancing around the room again, I noticed Mark join a group on one of the worn green couches, his bowl already piled high with syrup-covered chocolate and vanilla.
I didn’t really want to sit with his friends, who were already talking and laughing with each other. But he was the only one here I knew. I recognized some of the others from my classes, but couldn’t recall their names well enough to go up to them and not embarrass myself.
The scoop in front of me suddenly lifted from its place on the table, and of course I flinched. Ralston had a few telekins, but only one had been in school with me. She hadn’t used her magic much where other kids could see, so an object randomly darting into the air was still a weird phenomenon. Of course I had seen telekinesis on TV, but things only looked so real on a screen, after all.
After a few moments of hanging in the air, the scoop wiggled over to the closest carton of ice cream and plunged in. Mark’s group erupted in snickers as the scoop worked its way through the melty ice cream like it was being wielded by an invisible toddler.
Huh. Weren’t telekins better than that? I peered at Mark’s group, a mix of guys in button-ups and geeky shirts. Then I noticed one of them was facing the wall, and it all made sense. He was the telekin, trying to move the scoop without looking.
The others were all watching the show and laughing, Mark with his phone out recording the whole thing, and I couldn’t help but smile too. And as the scoop managed to extricate a dollop of mostly melted ice cream from the carton, I held out my bowl.
“This dude at the table just offered his bowl. A foot forward. Now to the left. LEFT, Nick. Your other left!”
The telekin laughed, his shoulders and sides wiggling with the sound, as the scoop dropped a few inches on its way over to me, and bumped into the bowl. What ice cream he had managed to scoop up fell onto speckled blue carpet.
“You missed!” I called out, and finally the telekin turned around. He had metal-framed glasses and a round face, with straight black hair feathered across his forehead. His shirt featured an Angel of Flavius, one of the many demigods that had been co-opted by popular media. This one starred in a comic series and had a movie that came out earlier this year. Maybe that’s how eccentrics usually worshiped? Through creative consumption?
“I didn’t get any on your pants, did I?” the telekin asked, walking toward me, his tone and movements all confident and smooth. Heat blossomed in my cheeks.
One of his friends, muscular with deep bronze skin, chuckled. “Tulio condemn you get sticky white stuff on a boy you haven’t even met?”
An eruption of laughter accompanied my jaw dropping. And oh gods, the telekin’s reaction was merely to waggle his eyebrows at his friend as he came to a stop a foot away from me.
“Don’t mind Lucas. His mind’s always in the gutter. I’m Nick, by the way. Do you still want some ice cream?”
With his eyes still on me and his hands at his sides, the scoop plunged back into the carton and skillfully deposited ice cream in my bowl.
“Thanks,” I mumbled, glancing back at the table. “Can I have a scoop of strawberry too?”
Nick obliged, a smirk raising his golden-tan cheeks, while he also picked up a bottle of chocolate syrup manually. “Want some?”
I shook my head, so he shrugged, tilted his head back, and squirted the syrup into his mouth. I inwardly swore at my weak knees, watching his Adam’s apple bob. He was cute, and he was acting cute, and this was all so Flavius’s doing.
“Come sit with us,” Mark called from the group, as Nick plopped the bottle back on the table.
“Sure.” I followed Nick back to the couch where Lucas, Mark, and one other guy sat with mostly empty bowls of ice cream.
Mark smiled, catching the group’s attention as he lightly punched my arm. “Hey guys, this is my roommate Scott. I finally managed to get him out of the dorm.”
There was a smattering of hellos. Mark gestured at the others around him. “Lucas and Chase are on the soccer team and are high school sweethearts—”
A sleek, golden-haired guy, Chase, I assumed, screeched and scooted away from Lucas. “We are not! To the gods!”
“Yeah, Chase isn’t my type,” Lucas added, and Chase snorted.
Mark then gestured at Nick. “And I think you’ve met this one-trick pony, now. Nick. I met him and Lucas in biology.”
“But I’m not a science major like these nerds,” Nick teased. “I think I’m leaning toward English. Or something.”
And then there was silence as their gazes drifted to me. Oh gods, it’s my turn to talk. I swallowed my mouthful of ice cream.
“Cool. I’m, uh, Scott. I guess Mark already said that.” I did a pathetic little wave. Gods. “I’m majoring in divinity.”
The reaction was about what I had gotten from most of the other people I’d told: polite nodding with no real flash of recognition or excitement. Except from Chase, who touched a charm that hung around his neck. “Hey, that’s cool. Are you eccentric? I’m a healer,” he said, all in a rush.
“Nope, I’m normal. But my whole family’s pretty religious.”
Chase gave me a large smile, and let the charm hang loose. A forked fin, for Sanya. Made sense that a healer would worship the healing goddess.
Nick watched me, inquisitive and interested, and I felt compelled to explain myself in his direction. “The stories are fascinating, really. And I love feeling connected to the gods.” In my own way. Without magic. I didn’t need magic to feel like I was together with the divine. Mom had always stressed that as well.
“I like these gods,” Nick said, gesturing at his shirt.
“Did you know the Flavian angels represent asteroids hitting earth?” I asked, a chill of embarrassment shooting down my spine at my overly excited tone. But Nick smiled, and it warmed me.
“So that’s why they’re always drawn with craters around where they land,” he said.
“They didn’t show that in the Angel of Flavius movie,” Mark pointed out.
I scrunched my nose. I had seen that movie, but it had been weird, knowing how the stories were supposed to go. “There was a lot of stuff in that movie that wasn’t quite right.”
“Wait, like what?” Nick asked, pulling his shirt straight and staring down at it with a furrowed brow.
To my surprise, Chase answered. “Well, first of all, Rainier probably shouldn’t have been brown-haired.” He pointed at the front figure of Nick’s shirt, a broad-shouldered angel cutting through swirling clouds with a black-gloved fist raised high. “‘Flavian’ literally means blond-haired.”
“I bet they wanted Rainier to be more like the heir apparent,” I said. “Just like the Flavius statue in the quad looks suspiciously like the Emperor.”
“Maybe the Emperor resembles Flavius?” Lucas asked.
“Not according to any artwork of Flavius from the second age,” I said.
“How do you know all this?” Nick asked, propping a fist on his hip.
I fought a hot wave of embarrassment at everyone’s attention. Staring at my feet made it easier to answer. “Collections study groups in high school.”
“You know what else? Rainier didn’t have a love interest in the Collections,” Chase pointed out.
Nick chuckled, and with his attention diverted, I exhaled deeply to try to soothe my twisted nerves. I already wanted to get out of here and back to my dorm, but my earlier prayer for confidence echoed through me. I could survive this, if it meant making some friends. That’s what I wanted.
“Things are more interesting with a love interest, aren’t they?” Nick challenged, and to the gods, did he wink at me? I sucked in a breath and pretended that it didn’t happen, and that Nick’s smile wasn’t melting my insides.
“Adding a love interest to a movie is fine,” Mark said. “It’s when the video games get love interests that I roll my eyes.”
“Ugh, agreed.” Lucas said, his short black hair sticking through his fingers as he covered his face. “Would it kill them to make some same-sex couples if they’re going to add a romance at all? Or how about a Filipino main character? Anything other than straight white guys.”
The others made sounds of agreement, and I had recovered from Nick’s wink enough to admire him again. He stood with his arms crossed loosely, holding his above-average weight confidently, his foot tapping out of time with his laugh. His glasses distorted his eyes, magnifying them just enough for me to notice.
“So . . .” I started, and Nick met my gaze. “What other parts of the Collections have been turned into comics?”
“Not much of a comic reader?” he asked, and I shook my head. “Want to walk around the floor? I can tell you about my favorites.”
Flavius, you are really testing me! “Uh, sure.”
Nick glanced at the others. “Catch you in a bit?”
Lucas stifled a laugh as Mark whispered to him. Their expressions were very there Nick goes flirting again, and I prayed for the sweet release of death.
Chase ignored them and nodded at Nick. “We can head to my and Lucas’s dorm for some games,” he announced, to the other’s agreement.
Nick turned from the others, and I followed; then, when we were a few paces away, the lounge’s door flew open like it was hit with a gust of wind. It took me way too long to realize it was Nick’s telekinesis. We walked outside and again a wind that affected nothing else blew the door shut. I couldn’t help but be amazed, and simultaneously embarrassed that I was so out of touch with eccentrics and their magic.
Nick and I walked the opposite way from my dorm, the hallway deserted, quiet. The dorm hallway was cool enough to prickle the hair on my arms. Frannesburg had much colder weather than Ralston this time of year, and I definitely wasn’t used to it.
Nick smiled at me. “I knew college would have hot guys.”
Oh gods, Natalis save me! I was tall, but I was skinny and pale, with mousy brown hair. Not hot at all, except for the mortification warming my cheeks.
“Me? Uh, thanks? But what if I’m not into guys?” I asked, trying to gain the upper hand in the conversation.
“I took a risk. Did it pay off?”
I cracked a smile and watched my feet as we rounded a corner.
Nick hummed, and the playful tone was killing me. “So, yes.”
“Hey, Scott? I’m telling it the way I see it. You’re hot, and I want to talk to you about comics.”
“Okay, go for it.” We walked smoothly together. When I was younger, I remembered watching my parents’ strides as we went on walks around the neighborhood. My mom was so much shorter than my dad that she’d be practically jogging to keep up with him. Nick was only an inch shorter than me, so we matched up without difficulty.
“But,” Nick started, sticking his hands in his pockets, “I can’t really answer your question. I know a lot of the Collections have been turned into comics, but I don’t know what’s from scripture and what’s been added by one of the authors.”
“No Saturday church school for you, then.”
“Nope. I was in Chinese school instead. And then soccer practice when I was older.”
We reached the end of this shorter hall and turned around, walking back the other way. “Oh, okay. Do you speak Chinese? And do you still play?”
Nick shrugged, his smile strained. “No and no.”
“Ah. I probably shouldn’t have assumed anything.”
“Hey, asking me if I could first is infinitely better than assuming and telling me to say some phrase in Mandarin.”
I nodded, and tried to calm the spike of adrenaline from my screw-up. “So why don’t you tell me about some of your favorite comics, and I’ll tell you what isn’t religious canon.”
Nick laughed. “Sure. A really good one recently was last season’s run of Angel of Flavius. Rainier and his squad were tracking a pack of Claudian shape-shifters. These guys are ruthless killers, traveling across the Empire wreaking havoc on key moments in history. They’re either one step ahead or you never know what they’ll look like or who they’ll be. And the art is amazing.”
I smiled at Nick, shaking my head. “What a load of propaganda.”
“How? It’s just a comic book,” he challenged, giving me a playful push, his warm palm on my arm. We passed the lounge again, and were now approaching the door to my dorm. A bunch of guys were roaming the halls now, returning to their rooms.
“There’s epistles about Claudia being against the tyrannical tendencies of Flavius, dude. This is blatant propaganda by the Empire meant to be anti-shape-shifter.”
Nick stammered, then furrowed his brow. “What’s an epistle again?”
“It’s a story about the gods told by transcended matriarchs. Almost half of the Collections is made up of them.”
Nick quirked an eyebrow. “Right. Right. But shape-shifters don’t exist. Claudia hasn’t . . . you know.”
“Gifted it yet?” I finished, stopping in front of my dorm. “This is my room by the way.”
“Cool,” he said, a smile brightening his face. He gestured past us. “I’m two doors down. 329.”
Part of me urged the words, wanna come in? But I didn’t say them. Nick raised an eyebrow, glancing down the hall.
“Yeah, looks like the guys are just getting to Chase and Lucas’s. They’re in 305.”
“Do you want to join them?”
His eyes twinkled. “Not yet.”
Oh man, I hoped he hadn’t seen the full body tremble his tone of voice gave me. This felt like a one-eighty switch from my anxiety during the ice-cream social. I pulled out my key and let us in. Nick kicked off his shoes, then immediately gravitated to my altar, and touched the edge of the mirror pedestal before returning his focus to me.
“You have your own altar.”
The way he said it and the way he had reached out so hesitantly made me realize he probably didn’t know many people who did have their own altar. I approached it too and ran a finger down Natalis’s arm. “Yeah. My mom always says prayer can get you through anything.”
“Huh.” Nick’s gaze lingered on the altar, and as I did the same, I tried to imagine seeing it for the first time. Statues and half-burned candles. An incense holder with a pile of ash. It wasn’t any weirder than Mark’s stack of games, right?
“So anyway,” Nick started, taking a step back from the altar. “I think my favorite comic series is The Chronicles of Gnomon.”
The topic change relaxed my shoulders as I sat at my desk. “All about tinkering and inventing gadgets to help . . .” What was my favorite thing about Gnomon? “To help solve crimes?”
“Oh, you read it?” Nick asked, reaching up to grab the loft’s frame. I shook my head, and he laughed. “Well you described it to a T.”
“Of course I did. That’s one of the best epistles. Gnomon solves the murder mystery of Tulio’s son.”
“Wow, yeah. Did you know they’re making a movie about it?”
“Nope.” Somehow hearing this from a guy who had flat out told me I was hot made the idea of a Gnomon movie actually appealing. “And it’s already a comic?”
“Yeah, there’s a whole series of comics about Gnomon and his tinker brigade.”
“Tinker brigade?” I echoed. “They’re just called his children in the Collections.”
“Maybe they spruced it up for the comics. But I’m really excited for the movie. Rainier’s making a cameo and everything.”
“That’s totally not canon . . .” I mumbled, wondering how much of the Collections had been co-opted by the Empire in mass media. “But cool,” I finally finished, giving Nick a smile. It wouldn’t quite have the stories I know, but it would sure be nice to go see it with you.
“It’s out in the spring. Maybe that can be arranged.” He waggled his eyebrows.
I chuckled, and it took a full three seconds to realize I hadn’t said that last part out loud. A thrill shredded down my spine as all the metaphorical gears in my head ground to a halt.
“Wait. What?” I muttered.
“I mean, assuming we’re still hanging or whatever?” He shrugged.
This had to be a joke. “No, what can be arranged?”
“Uh, seeing the movie with you.”
No, wait. Maybe I did say it out loud. “Did I say . . .”
“Oh man, I’m sorry. You told everyone you’re normal, didn’t you? I should have figured you don’t like people talking back to your thoughts.”
“I’m not . . .” This was unreal. Completely unreal. Natalis, what on earth?
Nick shrugged. “My cousin’s boyfriend is like that. Telepath quirk or something. Doesn’t like people answering his thoughts unless he makes eye contact when he says them.”
“I’m not a telepath,” I finally got out, the waves of confusion and excitement sweeping through me to my arms and legs. Did Laesth just gift me magic? Why was this happening to me now? With this guy I didn’t know? I wrung my fingers together, and Nick’s expression twisted up.
“Are you serious?”
All I could do was nod.
“To the gods, did you just get telepathy?” His voice was much quieter than it had been throughout most of our conversation. He was frowning, biting his lower lip. And why on earth did he have to be so damn cute when nothing made sense anymore?
“Obviously, we need to figure this out.” His phone flew into his hands from over his shoulder, and he tapped at it briefly. “Okay, okay. Here’s a website. Laesthan Resources Online. Let’s go to . . . ‘So you think you’re a telepath.’ All right. Think something random at me.”
I couldn’t even . . . purple elephants.
“Purple elephants? Well, I guess I did say random.”
Natalis save me. I sucked in a breath, and it hitched in my throat. “This can’t be happening.”
“Okay, I’m going to think something random at you. Look at me.”
I did. I wasn’t sure if I was expecting to hear his voice in my head, but after five seconds of me studying the deep black-brown of his eyes, I exhaled and looked down.
I shook my head.
“Fine, no rainbow salamanders for you then.”
Gods, he got me to chuckle.
“So you can broadcast but can’t receive—that’s really typical. At least, you can’t receive auditory thoughts.” He tapped at his phone and frowned at his screen. “What am I looking at?”
My attention wandered to him, the phone, my altar. “I don’t think that’s working.”
“Okay. You are definitely not receptive then. Most telepaths aren’t. But let’s see if you have image projection. Bring something up on your phone. A specific picture.”
I pulled my phone out of my pocket and went to my photo library. Found a picture of my little sister Kathrine cradling our dog. Stared at it.
“Uh . . . a teenage girl with long, brown hair. And a puppy? Man, everyone had a dog growing up except for me, damn apartments.”
I practically dropped my phone.
“This can’t be happening, how can I suddenly get telepathy now?”
Nick frowned at me, and I took several deep breaths as I tried to keep my mind as blank as possible because what if everyone could read everything I thought.
“It mostly works if you think it loudly in someone’s direction,” he said, quietly. “And it works better with people you’re closer to. You’ve never known any telepaths?”
“No? No!” I was shaking now, afraid to think. What did this mean for my future, for my family? Gods, what would Dad say?
Nick put a hand on my shoulder, but I swiveled my chair away from him and faced the wall. The thankfully blank wall. I stared at it and breathed. The Empire liked telepaths. They were interrogators, translators, diplomats. But, I didn’t want to work for the Empire.
I didn’t trust the Empire enough for that.
There was a tickle up my arm and I jerked, but nothing was there. I glanced over my shoulder, and Nick was several feet back, his hands in his pockets.
“I won’t touch you if you don’t want me to. I just think you need someone and wanted to remind you I’m here.”
And now there was the itch in my throat and the threat of tears blushing up my cheeks. I don’t know who I am now.
“You’re you,” he said. “You probably know as well as any eccentric that this is a gift.”
“But my whole family is normal. I’m normal.”
“I’m normal too, if you’re going to use the word like that,” Nick shot back. He got me there. Being eccentric wasn’t bad and I knew that. “Sometimes magic comes in a little late. Sometimes early. My dad’s telekinesis started when he was five. Mine? Sixteen. We all thought I would never get it.”
“I’m . . .” I’m going to be nineteen in a month.
“You’re still within a standard deviation or two.”
“Oh gods, don’t math at me right now.”
Nick stuck out his tongue, and I almost laughed.
“What am I supposed to do with this?” I swept out my hands, and felt the twiddle of telekinesis in my palms. I appreciated that he cared—if this meant he cared—but his touch-without-touch was almost eerie. At least, it was at the moment, with me figuring out my magic.
My magic. Damn. Did . . . Did I really have telepathy now?
“Companies are going to love you for that image projection.”
I shook a finger at him. “Oh gods, those advertisements have been the worst part of campus.”
He imitated my finger shaking, and I did laugh at how silly it actually looked. “You learn that from your mom?”
“Anyways, read up on telepath rights if you don’t like them. Which god is telepathy again?”
I sputtered. “How do you not know this?”
Nick leaned toward me, my desk light reflecting in his glasses as he held on to the edge of my bunk frame. “I’m going to let you in on a little secret. A lot of us don’t know god stuff like you do.”
“But how?” I asked, scooting my chair toward him so the ties of his sweatshirt dangled a few inches from my face. “I’ve known the names of the ten gods as long as I’ve known how to count to ten.”
“I know their names,” Nick scoffed. “I just can’t remember who does what past Sanya healing, Flavius with the fire weaving, and Vogel having telekinesis.”
Yet so much of the rest was in his comics. “You know more than you realize,” I said, touching the dangling ties. The ties waved at me as Nick pushed himself back. I stood too, and then leaned on my desk. “The god of telepathy is Laesth.”
“Oh, the panther. And United Nations of Laesth. Duh. Right. That means you might have Asian ancestry.”
I had to really think about it. Telepathy had originated a few hundred years ago in the United Asian Nations, now called, at least by the Empire, the United Nations of Laesth. He had to have been right, since magic inherited as though it were genetic. “Three generations back on my mom’s side, I think? But that’s it. I’m pretty . . .” I gestured at myself. “White.”
Nick smiled. “Yeah, but I can forgive you for that.”
I nodded, crossed my arms over my chest as I offered him only the smallest of smirks. “You mentioned Chinese school earlier, but, I’m sorry, I bet everyone asks you this.”
“I’m biracial. My dad’s white. And a telekin. My mom’s Chinese.”
“Cool.” My fatigue from before the ice-cream social returned in full force, and I deflated with a sigh. “I guess I better talk to Laesth tonight.”
If there was a time I wished the gods would speak back to me, this would be it. None of what happened tonight made any sense, and I didn’t know how to process it. Why here, why now, why him, why me?
Nick glanced at my altar. “Should I leave you to it?”
With another nod, my bones weighed me down with exhaustion. My arms fell to my sides, and I didn’t think I’d be able to lift them again.
Can I have your number? I thought, still not completely sure he’d hear it.
He held out his hand, and I unlocked my phone and handed it to him. Tap tap tap, and then his phone chimed.
“Catch ya later, Scott. Maybe sometime you can tell me more about the gods.” He pulled open the door manually, but it swept shut behind him.
I picked up my phone. He had texted himself.
Scott: I’m eccentric now!
Yeah, apparently I was. What was I supposed to do? Post a ConnectUs update? Scott Kensington has marked a new life event: Telepathy. Like. Wow. Heart.
No, no way. Too public. Not yet. The first thing I had to do was pray.
None of the guys believed me. Honestly? I didn’t blame them. Who witnesses something like this? I mean, some parents were probably around when their kids got magic, if the kids were young enough. But I had never seen someone getting their magic except for myself, and what happened in Scott’s dorm was probably more traumatic than what kids usually went through. The explosions of fear and anxiety that had accompanied his thoughts as they had tingled in my head . . . very weird. Not like commercial telepathy.
Of course the topic of first magics brought out stories, as we lounged on Chase’s bed, across from the TV and gaming console on Lucas’s dresser. I told my infamous “didn’t want an action figure to break so I caught it midfall from across the room” story. With plenty of dramatizations.
To our surprise, Chase admitted he’d found out he had been gifted healing by occasionally poking himself with sharp objects to see if he could heal them. I countered with the obvious.
“Were you trying to get yourself into a hospital? Or did you not realize that most healers are crap at healing themselves?”
Chase rolled his eyes at me. “Both my parents are healers. I knew. But that didn’t stop me. And when I proved I was an autohealer, my victory was all the better.”
Having the rare ability to help yourself out of a bind, instead of needing another eccentric, must be nice. But that shit was rare.
“You’re probably the only autohealer in Frannesburg, you know,” I pointed out, and Chase gave me a wide, toothy grin.
“I’m one of only two in the Sierra Territory. I’m in a registry and everything.”
“You say that like it’s a good thing,” Mark said, queuing up a video game. It looked to be a fighter game of the button-masher variety.
“Well, yeah. Sanya must have thought I was special.” He touched his necklace and got this cute little smile on his face. That seemed to be the way Scott thought about gods too. This . . . contentedness. Did it matter that I didn’t feel that?
“Man, you guys should have seen my cousin get fire weaving,” Lucas started, scooting closer to Mark and grabbing the second controller. “Her dad’s from a weaver family but never had weaving himself. She’s two years older than me and her younger brother, and we were such terrors to her when we were little.”
Chase chuckled, elbowing Lucas in the side. “Like you’re a terror at practice?”
Lucas laughed. “Worse. I had no focus. Anyways. We’re bugging her, kicking a ball around her room, jackass stuff. She’s yelling at us, but we’re totally ignoring it. She says she’s going to tell on us, and then worse, yells she’s going to tell her granddaddy and he’ll scare us with a fire show. She sweeps forward her arms like this”—Lucas demonstrated, controller still in hand, arms spread wide then flying forward—“and fucking sparks fly out of her palms. Scares the shit out of us, but maybe her most of all? We freeze, and my cousin’s like a statue with her arms straight out. She throws her arms forward again—more sparks. The third time? Orange fire.”
Lucas broke into his story with a laugh as he selected a character to play. “The smile she gave us, I swear, I didn’t know I could run that fast. You better believe we didn’t mess with her after that. Hey wait! I wasn’t ready!”
Mark had started a round, launching his character toward Lucas’s and dissolving the almost mystified silence into chuckles.
“Is your cousin doing anything with her fire?” Chase asked, and Lucas shrugged.
“She’s going into accounting, so probably not. It’s not like you have to have a job around your magic. This isn’t the olden days.”
I hummed. “But still, it must be hilarious to tell someone you’re a healer and you’ve gone into something like clothing design.”
“Hey,” Chase said, “Those sewing needles could hurt someone. The fabric scissors, even.”
I rolled my eyes.
Then there was a light tingling at the base of my skull that shifted to somewhere between my ears. Can I hang out with you guys?
Ah, Scott. I looked up, but the dorm door was still shut. Beside me, Mark and Chase had turned their heads in that direction too.
“Is that Scott?” Lucas asked.
Come on, man. Knock, and say it. They’ll say yes.
Oh gods, he was talking to himself and it was bleeding through. Poor guy had a lot to learn.
“Yeah, it is,” I told them.
Finally, he knocked, and Mark opened the door.
“C-can I hang out with you guys?” Scott met my eyes as he stepped into the dorm. His were a little red and puffy.
Mark shrugged. “Sure. But you’ll have to get in line to play a game, I need a rematch with Lucas first.”
Chase gasped, waving his hands excitedly at Scott. “We heard you! We heard you!”
Scott’s eyes grew wide, and my head tingled again. You did?
“Yeah, man! Bright as the stars!”
Scott’s shoulders slumped. “All of you heard that? Not just him?” he asked, gesturing at me. He scanned the scattered shoes around the dorm entrance, and pushed off his sneakers before stepping further into the room.
“I heard it too,” Mark commented, beating Lucas’s fighter against a wall as Lucas grunted, spamming buttons with that familiar clack clack.
“Welcome to the eccentric club. Current members are me and Mr. Autohealer Soccer-star, with our two disciples, the normal gamers,” I offered, and the perplexed expression Scott shot me made me stifle a laugh. “Still not cool with it?”
“You’re not keeping in mind how much this has changed my life.”
Okay, he had a point. But I was having a hard time seeing downsides. Magic was fun. I clapped his shoulder with telekinesis. “It’s not a bad thing.”
He stared at his shoulder, and his chest rose and fell. “I know. But I want to know why me? Why now? And how? My entire family is normal.”
Lucas tossed his controller on the ground. “Sometimes it skips generations.”
“Does it skip three or four? Maybe her parents had . . .” He sighed. “I’m sorry I sound so . . . sad about this? I’m gonna go. Sorry.”
I stood and telekinetically tugged his sleeve. “Naw, man, don’t leave. Play some games with us.”
“Who am I beating to a pulp next?” Mark declared, and Chase shot his hand up. I sent the controller through the air, and he caught it before it smacked him in the face.
Scott gave me a hint of a smile, and I echoed it back to him.
“Anyways,” I started, “You need an eccentric to show you the ropes. Teach you the ins and outs of wielding your godlike power.”
He snorted over the wails of Chase who was getting his ass handed to him by Mark’s own godlike power to wield a controller. “Shouldn’t I see a telepath for that?”
I stroked a nonexistent beard. “I guess, I guess. Or there is always me.”
Now that was a smile. “Okay then,” Scott said. “But I want to help you too. How about you teach me about being an eccentric, and I could show you where your comics come from and tell you about the gods.”
His counteroffer caught me off guard. But something in me immediately said yes. Maybe because he could share his knowledge in a way no adult had been able to. Teenager to teenager, as equals. Warmth blossomed in my chest. I glanced back at the others, but Mark and Chase were absorbed in their game and Lucas was sitting on the couch behind them, rooting them on.
Scott kept his eyes down, his cheeks and ears flushed, and I tapped his chin with magic so he’d look up. His brown eyes met mine, and I smiled. “That sounds great.”