The first few days at the Academy were cold, and it had nothing to do with the January weather.
Everyone in the school had been identified by a Prophet or seer as being important to the future of the world—and especially the future of the country—in some measurable way. Or rather, everyone was supposed to have an important role to play some day. On the other side, Tyler’s own importance was fully dependent on Connor’s. Quiet rumors also swirled through the hallways, as elusive as tendrils of fog, that a spot in the Academy could be bought. Apparently, parents only had to know the right people and pay the right price. Where did those rumors come from, though? Tyler couldn’t imagine that anyone who had been accepted in the Academy in this particular way would boast about it.
Whether they had an important destiny ahead of them or not, however, the hundred or so Academy students were at the moment no different from the ones in Tyler’s old school. They were immature, or lazy, or exuberant; others were shy, or fun, or a thousand other things that teenagers could be. And they were also cruel in a way that only teenagers could manage.
If it had been cruelty toward himself, Tyler would have shrugged it off. He’d had a lot of practice learning to let comments about his sister, his clothes, his preferences, every damn little thing about him, slide off like innocuous water drops he could just shake off. He couldn’t have kept taking a swing at every damn idiot who looked at him wrong, so he’d learned to ignore it.
But when vicious jabs were flung at Connor, it felt different. Very different indeed. Like mud rather than water, and it stained and it stank. It didn’t help that Connor never reacted. Whether in class, in the cafeteria, in the hallways, or even in their dorm room, whenever a hurtful word was thrown at him he always remained utterly still in a way that, to anyone else, might mean he didn’t care. Tyler heard it as the unending shout of pain and rage and despair that it was. In truth, what else could Connor do? Any verbal protest would be lost unless Tyler interpreted it, and even then being one step removed would take away the sting of whatever he might say. As for fighting, it didn’t seem like something Connor would do, as though it were simply beneath him.
Tyler couldn’t understand why the other students, or at least a large number of them, were so mean to Connor. It was just so perplexing to him. Connor was a Prophet. How could they disrespect him like this when they owed their very presence at this elite school to someone like him? Even seers, much more common than Prophets, were well regarded, even if they could only predict events on a much smaller scale, and less reliably than Prophets.
Someone finally clued him in. Prophets were honored and respected for the knowledge they imparted. How could Connor be a true Prophet when he never said anything to anyone? If he didn’t intend to play his role, the other students, or at least most of them, would make him pay for it.
By the fourth day, Tyler had had enough. He couldn’t actually believe he’d let it happen until now, and didn’t want to imagine how long Connor had been forced to endure it. When they woke up that morning in the four-bed dormitory and one of their peers said something idiotic toward Connor, something Tyler didn’t even want to remember after that day, Tyler stood from where he was putting on his socks at the foot of his bed. With one sock on and his shirt only half-buttoned and untucked, he crossed the room and punched Stevenson in the nose.
It didn’t break—Tyler knew from experience how much force it took to break a nose, and he had a small idea about how much he could get away with at the Academy. A broken nose was on the wrong side of the line, but damn if it wasn’t satisfying to look down at that idiot, sprawled on the floor and blinking wildly up at Tyler. Their other dorm mate, Dalton, seemed ready to intervene, but a hard look from Tyler and he wisely appeared to think better of it.
“You leave him the hell alone, you hear me?” Tyler said, ostensibly to Stevenson, but he had no doubt the message, his message, lower case and still very important thank you very much, would spread throughout the Academy. He might have to repeat it, but he was ready for it. “You leave him alone, or I’ll make you.”
When Stevenson did nothing more than blink, Tyler turned very calmly and went back to his abandoned sock. In no more than a handful of seconds, only he and Connor remained in the dormitory. Connor hadn’t moved a finger since Tyler had first stood from the bed. He was watching him with a slight frown and an expression Tyler couldn’t really place—but then, he was trying not to look at Connor, so it wasn’t all that easy to figure out what he was thinking.
“Snowfalls are stupid in the summer,” Connor finally said.
They were the first words Tyler had heard him utter since their first introduction. And he heard the Message behind them loud and clear.
That was completely unnecessary.
“You’re welcome,” he said, grinning.
Connor looked away, but not before Tyler could catch the smallest of smiles flickering on his lips.