“For what? And it better not be because I didn’t call you a woman’s name. We literally just went over that. Women can—”
“No, I meant thank you for making me laugh. It’s been a really long time.”
“Oh.” I shifted, turning more on my side, then debated what to do with my hand. If I put it out straight, it would be awfully close to his nether region. He was a guy, so he’d probably shift when I wasn’t paying attention just so I’d find myself holding his junk. But if I shifted my arm anywhere else, I’d have to rest it on him.
“Do you mind if I just…” I lightly dropped my hand to his pec. It flared, pushing at my palm. “Ah.” I jerked my hand away.
He was laughing again, making the bed plead surrender. “You can put your hand wherever you want, Turdswallop.”
I hesitated in letting my hand drop again. “You can’t call a person turdswallop. That’s a word, not a name. And I think it’s a bad one, but I can get away with using it because my mother doesn’t know what it means.”
“Your recipe must involve making up words, because turdswallop is not a word.”
“Not even in England?”
Laughter bubbled out of him until he bent from the force of it, his eyes squeezing shut. “No,” he wheezed. “Not even in England.”
“I think you’re wrong. I’ve definitely heard it before. What is so freaking funny?”
“How can you say all of this with such a serious face?” He started laughing again.
“See? This is why I hunch all the time. I’m the butt of everyone’s jokes but usually have no idea why. This is normal life.”
He shook his head, wiping an eye. “This is not normal life. This is a blessed life.” He calmed. “I mean it. I haven’t laughed very much since before my brother died. And yes, he was my size. I’m six-two and he was six-three. Neither of us were this muscular, though. We worked out, but it was different…these last few years on the run have made me tough. Strong and magically powerful. I’ve worked at it every day. The only way to stay alive is to be at the top of the food chain, no matter how many of them come for you.”
“Why since before your brother died? Were you and he fighting?”
He moved his hand until it was sliding under mine where it rested on his chest. He lifted his fingers, and I threaded mine between them. “He was high up in the guild, and like I told you and your mother, he was trying to effect change. Straighten things out. That’s why he joined them in the first place. He wanted to help shape the Mages’ Guild into an organization our parents would have been proud of. I told him he’d get himself killed, and that it couldn’t be done. But he didn’t listen. And then it came true. It wasn’t even a premonition—just logical thinking. That made it so much worse, because he would’ve believed my premonition over logic.”
“Why didn’t you lie and say that it was your premonition?”
“I don’t have them about other people. I only have them about myself. He knew that.”
“Oh.” I thought back to earlier that evening. “So the guild wouldn’t really go after me if I left?”
He turned his head until his cheek was against my forehead. “I guess I should’ve said that I only have them about myself usually. Your fate is tied with mine, but I’m honestly not sure why. My fight has nothing to do with you. Nor am I a good teacher to help you with your magic. I’m not even a good guide to the magical world. But for some reason, we’re in this together, for good or bad. My danger sensors now encompass you. I don’t know much more than that. Maybe I can just tell if you’re in danger if I’m in danger too. I’m not sure yet.”
Silence descended between us, and the throb of the music downstairs drifted into the background. My eyelids drooped and my body hummed in an aching, unsettled sort of way, but the feeling didn’t require action. Despite lying on a near-stranger and admitted criminal who was about to take me into the heart of some serious danger, I was completely content.
“I’m the only mage I know of who has pure black survival magic,” Emery said. “I’ve always assumed it was showing the world what I truly am.”
His huffed laugh made my eyelashes flutter. He squeezed me. “Evil.”
I tilted up my head and he glanced down. Our gazes connected in the dim light. His lips twitched, his attempt at a smile he didn’t feel, before he rubbed my arm with the hand draped around me and looked back at the ceiling. “I know it’s not true.”
But I could hear in his voice that he wasn’t being honest. He did think it was true. He thought he was evil.
My heart ached for him. What a horrible thing to go through life believing. Especially after losing everyone close to you, and being forced to leave your home and way of life. He was an outcast, more so than anyone I had ever known. He had nothing to his name except his family’s legacy and his magic. That he would think he didn’t have honor, that he was doomed to darkness, was more than I could bear.
Warmth seeped out from my middle, filling me. I tried to wiggle closer, to paste my body against his, so he had my touch for comfort. It wasn’t much, but it was all I knew to do.
“You’re not evil, Emery. Far from it. And that’s not just an opinion—I can feel it. I can feel your goodness.”
“I’m not like my brother. His survival magic was pure white. He always saw the good in everything. He wanted to build things. To create things. I was always the kid that knocked over the stack of blocks.”
“That makes you a jerk, not evil.”
He moved his hand up until he could tuck a strand of hair behind my ear. “Survival magic is a living creature’s essence. You felt it in Joe—his survival magic turns him into a wolf. Changes and morphs as he needs it. Non-magical humans have it too, in tiny amounts. That’s where intuition and gut feelings come in. If the magic is visible—by someone like you or me—it’ll lean toward one color or another. But while a shifter’s magic looks like a green haze, if you’re close enough, you can see that it is actually an ultra-fine and delicate weave of a great many patterns and textures, like you see in a spell. Mages, witches, vampires—every creature’s magic is the same. Except mine. It’s jet-black. Like a tear in the universe.”
I shrugged, because that didn’t mean anything at all. His survival magic was a color just like anyone else’s was. But I was sure someone, likely his brother, had explained that before. It hadn’t stuck then, so it wouldn’t stick now. I decided to go a different direction with my argument.
“Mine is solid too,” I said. “Solid white. Devoid of any personality whatsoever. I hate white walls, white cars—I really don’t like the color white. My survival magic is taunting me. So you see, you aren’t the only one with a grievance.”
“White is pure. The color of angels. Of innocence. It is goodness and light.”
“It’s also the color of the tunnel leading to death.” I tilted my face up to his again. This time, though, he didn’t look down to meet my eyes. His demons were haunting him. “Look at it this way. White is the absence of color. All the colors bounce off it. Nothing stays. Black absorbs all the colors. It is the culmination of color consumption. So really, I’m a blank canvas, and you are full of it. I think that fits.”
He sucked in a breath and choked on it. His body bent, bucking me off, as he coughed, pounding on his chest with his fist. Laughter fought his struggle for air.
I laughed with him, settling again with my head propped up on my hand.
“I think you have it better, quite frankly,” I said when he sat up, coughing. “I’d rather be full of color than devoid of it. Besides, black is way cooler. How many goth kids run around in white jumpsuits? None, that’s how many. You’re the bad boy. Your brother was— Oh.” Realization dawned.
I hadn’t properly taken in what he’d said moments before. But now I saw the dilemma. And the connection.
“I have the same unusual color as your brother did,” I said softly. “Was that why you stood in the middle of the street that one night? Because it made you think of your brother?”
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