(Read the previous scenes here.)
A bout of shivering seized me, and my jaw ached as I clenched it to keep my teeth from chattering. Minnesota was not Georgia: I knew that, and yet here I was, soaking wet and outside late on a windy and none-too-warm night. All because I couldn’t let go of tradition.
It started when I was twelve. My gifts had manifested about a month earlier, and were still volatile enough that, although I’d enjoyed my birthday party, I felt twitchy and less than fully in control of myself. After my friends left, I went for a swim in our backyard pool, and ended up floating there for a good hour, thinking about everything in my life: manifestation, how I’d changed, where I was going. The next year, although I didn’t need the calming, I decided to to do it again. And every year since then, the same.
Unfortunately, the swimming pool here was indoors, and striped with lane ropes. Really not what I was looking for. The creek that ran through the Arboretum was deep enough for swimming . . . but it was also freezing by comparison. I hadn’t meditated for very long.
If only I lived somewhere closer, like Wolfstone. Shushunova lay practically on the other side of campus from the Arboretum. I had to cut through the middle, passing administrative buildings and classrooms, not to mention several dorms that made me think of those ads on apartment buildings: If you lived here, you would be home now. Next year I was going to have to find a better place to dunk myself. Maybe the pool wasn’t so bad. Or a bathtub.
Up ahead lay the First Manifestation monument, my halfway point to home. I wrapped my arms more firmly around my body as I crossed it, wishing I’d worn my winter coat, and never mind that it was only the end of September.
Then every hair on my body rose, in a way that had nothing to do with the cold wind. I wasn’t the only one passing through the monument. I looked up at the other person, and froze where I stood.
Grey eyes. They drew me in and trapped me, windows to something not quite human. I was sidhe-blooded, like everyone with psychic gifts, but his eyes . . . they held all the numinous wonder and terror of the sidhe themselves. Every muscle in my body shuddered. I was a mouse transfixed by the gaze of a hawk, a moth flying too close to the flame, and I couldn’t look away.
It was the cold that saved me. Not all of my shivering was because I’d just met a wilder’s eyes. I shuddered hard enough to break the deadlock, and wrenched my gaze down.
Never look them in the eye. My mother had taught me that when I was a child. Avoid skin contact; avoid eye contact. The presence of a wilder was enough on its own: a reminder that the sidhe had been more than simply a species with different abilities. They were the source of our gifts, and alien in a way that did not belong to this world. Wilders, having more of their blood than most, gave off that skin-crawling feel wherever they went.
Like, for example, the campus monument on a late September night. How long had I been standing there, frozen? It could have been five seconds or five minutes, but either way, “frozen” was becoming less and less of a metaphor. Okay, so I’d found our resident wilder. Good for me. But he probably didn’t appreciate me gawking at him like that—or had he met my gaze on purpose? To see what I would do?
What I should do was act normally. The way I would if he were any other person. Now if only I could remember how that went.
Just keep on walking.
So I did. Across the marble of the monument, its polished green surface black and reflective in the moonlight. His dark clothes blended into that background, against which his skin and hair stood out shockingly pale. We’d been about twenty feet apart when I looked up, and he’d stopped when I did. Now he started again, along the same course he’d been following—which was to say, straight toward me. As we drew near, I avoided his eyes, but smiled and gave him a nod. As if he were just another student, passing in the night.
“Are you all right?”
It jerked me to a halt again. But the weirdness of his voice was just an echo from all the stone around us; beneath that, his tone mingled curiosity and concern.
“You’re shivering,” he added. “And wet.”
I hadn’t expected him to say anything, not after that appallingly rude staring match—whoever’s fault it had been. I touched my dripping hair and blushed. “Oh. It’s my birthday.” As if that were any kind of answer to his question. “I do this every year—it’s a tradition. I think back over the past year—kind of a meditation—and, well, go swimming. So I jumped into the Copper Creek.”
He nodded, as if I had said something perfectly reasonable. Was I breaking the promise Liesel and I had made? No; he was the one who started this conversation. The polite thing would be to find something sane to say, but between my incipient hypothermia and the disorientation of meeting his gaze, my brain was in no state to help.
Glancing down, I saw he had a fistful of late roses. “CM assignment,” he said, when he noticed me looking. Then, after a brief hesitation that seemed almost like he was arguing with himself, he handed me one of them. “I’m Julian. I’m sorry to have startled you.”
I took the rose, dumbly, and stared at it.”What’s this for?”
“Your birthday?” he said, as if he’d heard somewhere that normal people gave each other gifts on such days. “And an apology. I shouldn’t have done that.”
Shouldn’t have met my eye. Maybe he had done it on purpose, though I couldn’t guess why. He spoke politely but stiffly, like he was edging his way out onto thin ice, waiting to fall through. Afraid of how I would react, maybe.
I was afraid of the same thing. What I could say that wouldn’t sound weird? When in doubt, be polite. “Thanks,” I said, and stopped the twitch of my arm before it could turn into an offered handshake. Skin contact would only paralyze me again, and we’d had enough of that for one night. “I’m Kim. Freshman; I live over in Shushunova. What—”
I was about to ask what dorm he was in, but a giant shiver cut the words off. My laugh was equal parts embarrasment and chattering teeth. “Sorry. I’m freezing to death.”
“You should get home, then,” Julian said. Still with that wary courtesy, but I thought I detected a hint of relief underneath it. Maybe he wasn’t any more sure than I was where this conversation should go.
“Yeah. I’ll see you around,” I said, wondering if I would. We’d missed each other so far. Possibly we just moved in totally different circles, but from the gossip I’d heard, my money was on him playing hermit. I couldn’t really blame him. Not when people like me turned into twitching idiots at the mere sight of him.
Julian hesitated, then walked onward. I glanced over my shoulder, once, trying to guess where he was headed. Earle, maybe. I could look it up easily enough. But I wouldn’t do that to him.
With the rose clutched in one icy hand, I hurried back to my dorm.
(“Welcome to Welton” is a series of teaser scenes. Teasers for what? The answer to that, my friends, is coming on September 18th. Check back each weekday for a new scene!)