Toar’s mother had always said that holding the shield right would feel like sinking into the hot space between stars and finding that the dark bed between was fitted out just for his shoulders. Like standing between mountains and finding he could look their peaks in the eye. Like finally realizing that his body really was made of rolling, unstoppable ocean water, wrapped in delicate, durable skin.
And he’d been waiting for it. Breathing in and out, ignoring aches and pinches in his shoulders, head down, eyes shut, hands spread palm out, he was waiting for it.
Toar was sweating, but he felt like someone had dropped ice down his back, under the skin, dripping down on either side of his spine. It was cold, and he could never figure out why he never shuddered under it. The chill perched in his shoulders, kicking idly off his collarbone before it rolled down his arms, wrapped muscle and bone in ice-cold silk and swept downward to his hands. Under the thin skin of his forearms, it actually began to bite and then, at his palms, it flared to dripping heat.
Opening his eyes, he caught snatches of blue between his fingers, licking like smoke, drifting like heavy dye in the water of the air. And that was too much. It should have fled his hand smoothly, silently, invisibly. It should have only been a heat on the air, fresh mint against the inside of his lungs as he breathed it back in, and a whisper of motion to no one but him as he pushed it up around him.
Toar shut his eyes again, took another breath, and another. He filled his lungs an inch at a time until he was sure that his blood couldn’t run and smoother, and the cold was crawling down his arms. He opened his eyes one more time, just to check his fingers. He could still feel the heat, but there was nothing around his palms but air.
“Ready?” his mother asked. She stood all the way across the yard, but didn’t bother raising her voice. There wasn’t another sound around them except for the breeze and the thin rattle of the leaves as it passed.
“Ready,” Toar said. He breathed the word, hesitant to disturb the rhythm of his lungs.
And then he felt it. There was a sudden rush of heat, whistling and hissing like an animal that hadn’t yet decided to scream. He shouldn’t have opened his eyes, but he did – he always did – and saw the wall of white-blue iron smoke falling toward him from her hands. It was a bonfire in daylight: bright, but not too bright, just hot enough to make the sun on his back feel refreshing. And he flinched.
His stomach tightened. His chest, shoulders, arms, hands followed. And he tried to use it, like he had a hundred times, used the sudden reflex to pull all his own heat in front of him, to pull it together until was a line in front of him, hard as bone. It had to slide: her energy on his, pushed aside, kept away from him, light as tapping dust out the air.
And it did. His line stayed steady in front of him, steady, straight, invisible. Her blue liquid fire turned to either side, rolled on as if nothing had touched it, it had just decided to move, and it caught him between two swirling streams of heat. Like stars. And he fit in the center, just there, without having to adjust his feet, shoulders squared.
He blinked, too many times. Then he stared. He forced his hands to stay up until his mother stopped, until the fire just fell away.
“I did it,” he whispered.
She was smiling, but it was a light sort of expression, that might fall away with a word. “You did,” she said. She was breathing hard.
“I did it,” he said again, a little louder.
Her smile widened, steadied, but more like she was laughing at him. She put up one hand, telling him to wait. “You did,” she assured him. “Perfectly. But you’re not done until you can do it five times in a row, every time you want it.”
Toar blinked at her. He’d dropped his hands to his side and he couldn’t imagine lifting them again, they’d gotten so heavy. But she was breathing like she’d been running circles for the last hour, chest coming up and down like her lungs were trying to grow to catch enough air. Her shirt was caught in uneven wrinkles over the sweat on her arms and shoulders. She was clenching and unclenching her fingers, like they ached. And still telling him he wasn’t done.
Toar swallowed his next breath. He raised his hands, slowed his blood, and looked her in the eye. She was still smiling.
“Ready?” she asked.
“Ready,” he said.