It's not every day you meet a boy who can read your mind.
The boy in front of me had floppy corkscrew curls and a slightly twisted smile to match. We sat facing each other, cross-legged in a circle in the middle of the clearing. The sun was bright and warm on my back and I looked deep into his eyes.
"Okay," Nauraa the master anchor called out, "take each other's hands."
A burst of embarrassed giggles came from several of the couples in our group. The boy in front of me gave an awkward grin and reached for my hands. His hands were warm and clammy and quite unremarkable
"Do you feel anything?" he whispered.
"No," I whispered back, "maybe we need to concentrate."
We both closed our eyes but after a moment I peeked and noticed he was peeking too. The sun on my neck was slowly cooking me and this was becoming more awkward the longer we did it. I avoided his eyes, looking over his shoulder into the trees, then down at my lap.
I was doubly nervous because the next boy in line was our village leader's son Zach, who I'd been watching for afar since forever."I don't think this is working," we said almost together and then laughed as we made eye contact again.
From somewhere behind me I heard a gasp and somebody uttered a surprised, "Oh," as though they had just learned something remarkable.
Was that it? Was that what we were trying for?
Nauraa passed by us, taking note of our smiles, her dark curls waving in the light breeze. "All right," she clapped her hands, "Switch partners. Leaders in the inner circle stay put. Anchors in the outer circle, move to your right."
During the first year of training, we had uncovered our gifts. We'd been divided into training groups according to our abilities. Leaders, anchors, and conduits. We'd spent a few months honing our gifts and learning how to connect to our power, how to center ourselves and what being part of a laughter coven including a leader, an anchor and four conduits entailed.
Today we were all nervous and excited. My group of anchors had been taken to meet the group of leaders to try and find a compatible match to work magic with. Once we found our match, we would start training together.
I nodded to the boy and got up. Taking a few steps sideways I plopped down again. The boy in front of me turned his deep blue eyes on me and I forgot how to breathe. He had messy walnut brown hair, long lashes, and his full lips were dry with a tiny split on the bottom one. I realized I was staring and dropped my gaze, blood rushing to my cheeks.
Oh, no. I prayed. Dear Uma, what do I do now?
"Introduce yourselves," Nauraa's voice seemed to come from afar and I forced myself to raise my eyes again.
"Hi, I'm Zach," he said and blushed as if I was the one making him nervous and not the other way around.
"Ory," I squeaked. Hoping I didn't sound too breathless.
"I know," he said and my heart skipped a beat. He knew who I was?
Nauraa's voice floated down to us again, as she paced around the circle intoning in her calm reassuring manner, "Now take your partner's hands."
I hastily wiped my hands on my skirt, hoping I wasn't sweating and took a deep breath. Instead of reaching for my hands like the other boy had, Zach placed his hands between us, palms up, letting me come to him. I lowered my hands into his, letting them flutter like butterfly wings just above his, barely touching. I felt the warmth of his skin seep into mine.
I looked into his eyes again, noticing the lighter blue circle just around his iris and the way they gradually darkened into the color of the night sky. While I was admiring his eyes, he lifted his hands slightly, encasing mine and a jolt ran through me. He jerked back, releasing my hands and I felt an instant sense of loss.
"Did you feel that?" he whispered, and I nodded, though I was unsure of what exactly I'd sensed.
"Shall we try again?" he sounded as breathless as I felt.
"Yes," I agreed and he winked at me conspiratorially.
This time I was the one to put my hands out and he placed his hands in mine. I felt his palms, warm, bigger than mine. I felt the small scar on the area beneath his thumb, and I felt his heartbeat, speeding up as he tried to breathe normally. I leaned into the sensation, letting myself dive deeper. He was so tense, though he didn't look it. I felt the muscles bunching in his shoulders. I saw an image of myself through his eyes. Strawberry blond curls, hazel eyes, pink lips. I looked beautiful. Was that really how he saw me? I felt his thoughts, hammering through his mind like birds beating against a window pane, don't stare, don't be weird. Then…Her skin is so soft, her hair is so bright, her lips…
I snatched my hands out of his, my heart beating so fast I thought it would fly right out of my chest and up into the bright summer sky. I heard him. I heard what he was thinking. I felt what he was feeling.
Then I panicked. If I heard his thoughts, did he hear mine?
"I think I'd like to die now," I whispered beneath my breath but when I lifted my eyes, he was looking at me. His lips were slightly parted and his look was infused with wonder. His gaze was so soft and tender I wanted to curl up in it.
"Ory," he breathed my name like a prayer and reached for my hands again. This time I didn't hear any words. Instead, my senses flooded with feelings; Joy, relief, and warmth. So much warmth, I felt I was bathing in a summer pool warmed by the sun. I knew from that moment of connection that all this time I'd been waiting to meet him, he'd been waiting for me. Though he was tall and strong and all the girls noticed him, he'd been looking at me.
Was this real? It felt like a dream.
"All right, time to switch," I heard Nauraa's voice but I didn't want to switch. I didn't want to let go of his hands. Not then, not ever.
"Nauraa," my voice wavered and Zach squeezed my hands. He was just as reluctant to let go as I was, "Nauraa, we…" I looked at Zach as Nauraa walked over, "I don't think we need to look any further."
She stood above us, hands on her hips, "You're compatible? That's wonderful. But there may still be other leaders you can work with. Maybe even somebody that you are more suited to. Keep moving around the circle."
There was already another girl standing impatiently above us. She was waiting for me to move so she could sit down and I felt bad about keeping her waiting, but at the same time, I wanted to scream in her face to go away. I let go of his hands, starting to get up but Zach shook his head, bending closer.
At first, I thought that he intended to whisper in my ear but he took my hand one last time, and his thoughts flooded into my mind, faster this time. It doesn't matter if we are compatible with other people, I want you. You're right for me. We belong together.
Yes, I agreed, looking into those deep blue eyes, we belong together.
I stood up, giving the other girl a long defiant look. She wrinkled her nose at me. It didn't matter. Even if they were compatible, he'd be with me. We'd go through the motions but there was no reason to worry.
As I sat down opposite another leader, a girl this time, Nauraa cautioned us, "Some of you may have already found a compatible partner, but we are not making final selections today. Once you find your true partner, switching pairs will feel wrong, corrupt, which is why we don't make this choice lightly. Today we are just getting to know each other. The relationship between anchor and leader takes time to build and requires complete trust. Once you select a partner, you'll be connected in a way that's hard to explain before you experience it. For better or worse, you'll have no secrets from each other."
She took a deep breath, her voice filled with emotion, "Communicating and joining through the magic is deeply intimate. You're letting another person into your mind. They will feel everything you feel. It's like no other human relationship. Which is why it's not surprising that most partnerships evolve into something more."
"Are we supposed to get married?" a girl across the circle asked fearfully.
Nauraa laughed at our wide-eyed stares, "Supposed to? No," she shook her head. "Don't look so scared. You don't need to think of marriage at fourteen years old. You still have a lot of decisions ahead of you and you're free to make your own choices."
"Are you married to your leader?" Somebody was impertinent enough to ask. I twisted around to see who it was. A serious boy with pale blond hair and dark eyes.
"Yes," she smiled reassuringly, "I am, but that was our choice. Not all pairs get married. Some are just colleagues and close friends. Right now, you may have felt the first glimmers of a connection, but after you are paired… connecting through the magic is profound. After you pair with someone who feels right for you, and spend so much time training and working together, it's not unusual to become something more to each other."
Despite being seated in front of a new partner my eyes sought Zach and I found him already looking at me. I couldn't believe I would feel the same way with anyone else. Ending up together felt inevitable.
I was thankful I didn't feel any connection to the girl I was paired with, or the boy after her, or the one after him. I was beginning to relax, convinced that Zach was my only match in the class. It had felt so right, I didn't see how it was even possible for me to connect with somebody else.
My last pairing was with the boy who'd asked our teacher if she was married. As I sat down in front of him, he smiled at me. His smile surfaced slowly as if it was floating up from the bottom of a lake, like a dead fish. It didn't completely reach his eyes.
"Introduce yourselves," Nauraa reminded us.
"I'm Ory," I said at once, eager to get this last pairing over with. I wanted to talk to Zach. I wondered if we would walk home together after school. I wanted to spend more time getting to know him.
"Darx," he replied and I assumed his name had been chosen after his mother gazed into the dark pits of his eyes. They were deep and sad as though his life was an endless string of disappointments. It made him look both older and more vulnerable. A faded bruise on his cheek stood out against his light skin.
Nauraa paced behind us, "Now take each other's hands."
Though I had already done it nine times with the other leaders, I felt a flash of apprehension. Darx must have seen something in my eyes because he didn't reach for my hands. In fact, he sat perfectly still, staring at the ground.
"We don't have to do this," he muttered almost inaudibly.
"No, don't be silly. Of course, we do," I said and took his hands. They were long-fingered, callused and cool. His palms were slightly grazed, as though he'd fallen to the ground, or been pushed.
I sat there holding his hands and took a deep breath. With the other kids after Zach, I had felt nothing. With Zach, I'd felt an instant stream of images and thoughts and emotions. With Darx it was different again. There was a trickle. A tiny stream of energy pushing at my consciousness, as though he was doing everything he could to hold it back. I teased at the sensation, easing into it. It was like dipping my toe into a stream. Then I felt a hesitant pulse.
Hi, I thought at him. Can you hear me?
I felt a burst of emotion directed at me. Joy, but it was almost instantly curbed.
Yes. He replied.
I smiled despite myself. If was different but interesting and I was curious. Let me in.
He nodded and the trickle became a stream. I waded in deeper. Before, I'd skirted the surface, but now that I was truly in his mind I could see so much more. I could feel hope that I would give him an equal chance and fear that I'd reject him as his mother had rejected him. I saw she'd left him behind with his grandfather.
I tried to project calm, to let him see a bit more of me but as soon as I did his dark eyes widened in pain. You've already chosen? Without giving me a chance? He was hurt, angry.
What? No. I pushed back in surprise.
He flashed my thoughts of Zach back at me. DON’T LIE. It was a shout inside my mind, making me cringe.
"I'm not lying," I shouted out loud without realizing, then lowered my voice. "No matter what you see, I'm not trying to hurt you."
At those words, his mind slammed me with dozens of images. I saw them the way he'd seen and felt them. Boys pushing me… no, pushing him to the ground. A fist aimed at my face. An old man with dark eyes like his and a belt whistling through the air towards me. I let go of his hands abruptly, flinging my arms up to protect myself. A cry already escaping my lips.
In the clearing around us, there was stunned silence. Everybody stopped what they were doing, looking at us in a mixture of surprise and worry. Nauraa started towards us from the other side of the clearing but before she reached us Zach was by my side, pulling me up. He was furious, his blue eyes flashing like lightning.
"What did you do to her?" he shouted at Darx who got to his feet. They were about the same height but while Zach was sturdy Darx was long and reedy and it seemed Zach's fury alone could blow him over. Even so, Darx didn't back down, he bit his lip and stared at Zach defiantly.
"Nothing. I didn't do anything." He didn't raise his voice, but it was rough as if he'd been screaming.
I pulled at Zach's arm and he turned towards me, his gaze softening immediately. "I'm okay. He didn't do anything. I was just startled."
I tried to smile reassuringly but I was trembling and my cheeks were wet. The images I'd seen were scorched into my brain, and it felt as if I was the one who'd been assaulted. I knew Darx hadn't meant to attack me. I'd felt he had no control over the images his mind conjured when he thought of being hurt. Still, looking at him made me cower in fear. I didn't want to go back into his mind. Zach took my hand and put his arm around me protectively, sending soothing images and comfort into my rattled thoughts.
Nauraa had reached us and she used her authoritative teacher voice to cut through the excited chatter all around us.
"It seems you have two matches here Ory," she said. "That's unusual, though not unheard of. Now you have a difficult decision ahead of you. Apart from you three we only found three other matches here today. Three couples who are compatible only with each other." The rest of our class looked enviously at the matched pairs. "The rest of you will be traveling to the regional meetup next month. It's where unmatched anchors and leaders who didn't find partners in their local schools go to search for compatible partners." She turned her bright green eyes on us. "The rest of the class is dismissed. I want to talk to the three of you, please."
Our friends rushed to pick up their things and return home. When the last of the other kids had left the clearing, she turned to me. Her eyes searched my face, looking especially vibrant embedded in her nut-brown skin.
"Tell me what happened," she said quietly.
"He hurt her," Zach cried out before I could respond.
I put my hand on his arm, touching his skin. I felt Zach's concern, his protectiveness of me, his anger towards Darx. I tried to project calm until I felt his swirling emotions subside. I knew he felt what I'd experienced. They weren’t my memories to share, but I couldn't control the flood of information between us. I hoped at least Zach would feel more compassion for Darx if he saw what Darx had been through.
I can do this by myself, I thought and he relented. He kept quiet but he remained at my side, close enough to keep touching. A fact I was sure both Darx and Nauraa noticed.
"Darx and I have a connection," I peeked at Darx, hanging off to the side, his shoulders hunched. I caught his eye, hesitant to expose his pain to Nauraa. "I saw…" I didn't want to say too much, "memories, that startled me."
"I didn't mean to scare you," Darx said softly and took a step towards me. I unconsciously stepped back, pressing closer to Zach, and saw hurt flash in Darx's eyes.
"I know you didn't. I'm sorry." I felt bad for being one more person to let him down, although I wasn't sure what I could have done differently.
"Well, we know you are compatible with both Zach and Darx, which is rare." Nauraa crossed her arms over her chest. "In our lessons, we'll learn how to channel our thoughts and control the connection between you better. Hopefully, in time you'll learn how to dampen your more painful thoughts," she said to Darx. "I'll work with you on how to shield them. Show you how to protect Ory from feeling them so potently."
"Why does she have to work with him at all?" Zach protested.
"You can't call dibs on an anchor just because you saw her first." Darx cried out, his fists bunching and I felt Zach's muscles tense against my back. I leaned into him, hoping he'd calm down.
"Precisely for this reason." Nauraa responded to Zach's question in her authoritative tone, "Because when Ory makes her choice I want it to be based on experience working with each of you and not in the heat of the moment. I know how emotional it is, discovering you have a connection, but this won't be decided by you two fighting over her like two dogs over a juicy bone."
I blushed because I'd never had anyone fighting over me before. Despite being compared to a juicy bone there was something exciting about being the person they both wanted and holding the power to choose.
"Do we have any say in the matter?" Darx asked.
"You can bow out now if you like," Zach muttered and they glared at each other.
Nauraa stepped towards me and took my chin in her hand, holding it lightly and looking into my eyes, ignoring both boys. "I know this is confusing Ory, but give it time. Don't make any decisions yet. Can you promise me that?"
I nodded but I felt I was lying to her. I could feel Zach's steady heartbeat against my back, close enough that his breath stirred my hair. Our connection felt bright and pure and all I wanted to do was dive back into it. On the other hand, I never wanted to go back into Darx's mind. I didn't understand how she could ask me to.
"Come with me Darx. I want to talk to you." Nauraa said, striding out of the clearing and I was grateful to her. She must have sensed that it wasn't a good idea to leave the three of us alone. Darx followed her, giving me one last intent look that I couldn't hold. I dropped my eyes to the ground after a moment.
When they were gone Zach let out a breath of relief. I felt lighter now that Darx's presence had been removed, though the threat of working with him still loomed. Zach faced me and touched my cheek, his breath hot on my face. I gazed into his bright blue eyes and felt our connection again, as strong as before. I felt his concern as his thoughts touched mine.
I'm all right. I thought at him.
You're rattled, he shot back. He smiled, looking so handsome I forgot to breathe again, you can't lie to me, don't even try.
I placed my hands on his, smiling back and I felt his breath hitch. I still couldn't believe I had this effect on him.
It doesn't matter. If Nauraa says I need to work with Darx for a few weeks, so be it. I was startled but I'll be prepared next time. But as far as I'm concerned, I've made my choice. I choose you.
Zach released a burst of joy that warmed my insides like sunshine. I focused on his breath fluttering my eyelashes. I let my joy at finding him flow free and pushed my fear at working with Darx down as much as I could.
It will only be a short while, I said to reassure both him and myself. Till she asks me to choose and then I'll choose you and be done with him.
I found my leader today," I told my mother as I helped her to prepare dinner. She cried out in excitement and hugged me.
I realized later that I hadn't mentioned Darx to her at all.