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Excerpt--Learning to Breathe, Book One: A World Away

© Carole Cummings


It wasn’t a dream, though it wasn’t not a dream, either.

He could feel his legs, for one thing, both of them, and not just the constant vague ache from the one that still sort of worked, or the bone-deep phantom pain in the one that didn’t. He could feel everything, like he hadn’t been able to in years, and though what he could feel was pain, horrible and encompassing, he still couldn’t really get over the fact that he could feel at all.

He could control his actions, such as control was possible. His voice, when it ground out of him on another exhausted scream, was his own. He could feel the power, saw-toothed and visceral, every time she slid another rope of it through him, shoved his face into a black slab of polished stone and asked him, “Where. Is he?”

He couldn’t answer, though it had nothing to do with dream or not-dream—he just didn’t know. He didn’t even know who she was talking about. He didn’t know who she was.

“Wh-why?” was all he could stutter out on a ragged gasp, clotting in his throat and runneling out his mouth with the drips and drabs of blood that bubbled up from somewhere inside him that had gone very wrong. He could see himself reflected back in the stone, eyes wild and wet, face white and ghostly, and beringed by glyphs he should probably have known but didn’t. The stone pulled at him, the depths of his own eyes like well-deep pits, twice-terrifying because it was him in there, wrenching at his own core, like he was dragging himself down to hell.

She snarled, vicious, and jabbed a bolt of power deep into his guts. His own talents were smothered down inside him somewhere, just as much a prisoner as he was, chained up and locked down, throttled at his core and misfiring all through him. It only made everything hurt more. It brought broken-edged pictures and sensations to the fringes of his mind—hospital rooms and tubes and sympathetic eyes over sterile masks—until it was all wrung from him with another stiletto-fine jab of pain.

He writhed, breathless, voiceless, body arcing away from the heavy table he could sense was made of a power so black he felt like he was strapped across the open throat of something cold and dark and empty. Restraints dug into wrists and ankles and torso, sucking everything important out of him and feeding it to the void, draining him, and oh God, why couldn’t he just wake up?

It must’ve come out his mouth somehow, the pathetic wish-question-prayer, because she laughed, though there wasn’t even a tiny bit of humor in it. She leaned down, otherwise attractive face made ugly by the sneer and the bared teeth and the stripped-stark hatred he didn’t understand. Her hand slid into his sweat-grimed hair, and she clutched, right at the nape, right where it would hurt the most if he could feel pain so relatively superficial anymore.

“Tell me which world,” she snarled.

And he broke, weeping and not caring, sniveling and not ashamed. He didn’t know what this was, what she wanted, who she was even talking about. And as his sanity slip-slid down into the depths of unconsciousness, he could hear the whisper of his own voice telling him to “Find Cam. Oh God, Nathan, find Cam, find Cam, find Cam!” before power burst out of him, wild and unfocused, and the shout crowned up and out into another scream.

It was still clogging his throat when Nathan opened his eyes, not really waking but… coming back to himself, or something else just as indefinable. Because he had been himself, except he hadn’t, and it wasn’t a dream. He hadn’t even been asleep, or at least he didn’t think he had.

His wrists weren’t bleeding and raw and strapped to that horrible thing disguised as a table, but he could feel the sting and ache as if they’d spent too long in restraints; it was hard at first to move his arms, like they’d grown too used to being pinned down. His guts hadn’t been jarred loose from their moorings, but they were crawling around inside him like they were still trying to figure out how to get away from the alien power that just a moment ago had been ripping through them. His right leg was back to being the dysfunctional lump of gnarled scars it had been since the accident, and his left just hurt, though he couldn’t tell yet if that was residual ache from the dream-not-dream, or if it was just back to its normal halfway-useless state.

And his talent… Christ.

The dorm room was a wreck. Papers with notes and formulae all over them still fluttered on the tail-end of a gust that didn’t seem to have damaged anything important but had nonetheless made a shambles of the tiny room. Picture frames were broken, lamps upended, a soda can knocked over and spilling a trickle of flat day-old Pepsi onto the cheap faux-wood flooring.

His talent hadn’t gotten away from him since he was three.

“What the actual fuck?” Nathan breathed, so shaky and small he felt it more than heard it.

His hand was juddering so hard it was almost useless when he opened it. Wisps of flame sputtered, hesitant, from his fingertips, like it was just as afraid and disoriented as he was. And even though fire was the easiest, the very first thing he’d learned how to conjure way back when he was much too young to know better, it still took too long for it to flow through him and out the way he wanted it to. It bloomed eventually, settling back into place beneath his skin, finding its course through his veins, and the wobbly little sparks finally smoothed out into a tiny but steady ball in the middle of his palm.

Okay. Okay. A dream.

It wasn’t, but he’d tell himself that, because if he let himself believe it was real....

Nathan blew out a thin, shuddering breath and let loose the sob that had been caught in his throat since… God, he didn’t even know. It couldn’t have been long. The same episode of Doctor Who was playing, though Nathan knew this one well and he’d missed enough of it to notice. He snuffed the little flame out, closed his fingers over his palm and fisted his hand.

Apparently, he’d toppled off the bed somewhere in all of… it, whatever “it” was. He locked the brace on his right leg at the knee and shoved at the left until both legs were splayed on the floor in front of him. He stretched as best he could in a way his body told him it hadn’t been able to in far too long, but his mind told him had been minutes. He wouldn’t think about how his back ached like he’d pulled the long muscles of it straining against—

He cut it off and shook his head.

Another sob burbled up but he clamped his teeth against it. “A dream,” he said, but it came out hoarse and shallow, like his throat was too raw from screaming, and that only made another sob lump up and pile against the one he wouldn’t let loose, and fuck!

Angry, furious at… something, Nathan swiped at the sweat on his brow, and knuckled away what he wouldn’t admit were tears at the corners of his eyes. He tried to concentrate on Amy telling Rory how they had love, how it would save them, how Rory wouldn’t be making the jump alone, but when Nathan took his hand away from his eyes, it was smeared with blood.

That was… bad.

His room was handicapped-equipped, so he had an en suite bathroom, but no way was he going to make it there in time. And the way his stomach was abruptly trying to find a way to crawl out his nostrils, no way was that going to matter. All he could do was lean to the side and throw up all over the floor. When he was done gagging, there was more blood drip-dropping into the disgusting puddle, leaking like tears from his eye and trickling from his nose, making his freshly emptied stomach lurch harder.

He was crying now, open sobs, which was likely making whatever was wrong with his eye even worse, but he didn’t care. Shuddering so hard he almost couldn’t sit up, Nathan wiped at his face and fumbled out his phone.

*  *  *


Cam frowned at nothing and crimped his phone between ear and shoulder as he tried to juggle a cold cup of Starbuck’s, books, jacket, and phone, all while jogging down the steps of the sciences library.

“Puff?” The picture on the screen was the close-up nostril selfie Nathan had taken way back at Cam’s graduation party, so it was definitely him, but Cam could barely hear him.

Andi looked at Cam with a grin and made grabby hands for the phone, wanting Nathan to confirm Quiz Night at the bar tonight, no doubt. Cam angled away a bit to stave her off.

“Puff, what’s up?”

Another pause, longer this time; all Cam could hear were a few shaky breaths down the line until Nathan finally said, “I, um. I meant to call Shelley.

“Shelley.” Cam’s frown got deeper. Ordinarily, he’d snort and tease and mock, because Shelley was nowhere near the Cs on a contact list, unless Nathan had some kind of spelling brain cramp or something. But Shelley was Nathan’s campus healthcare contact for special needs issues, and he never called her unless he absolutely had to. It didn’t help that Nathan sounded off, really off, so Cam asked, “You all right?”

Andi tilted her head, frowning at Cam. She leaned closer, trying to eavesdrop, but Cam shook her off, and she slumped back with a huff.

’S funny,” Nathan muttered, voice hoarse, tone distant. “He said to find you. I mean… I said, but… but what the fuck, right? I already know where you are, so… but, I mean....” A long, thin breath. “I don’t know what the fuck I mean.”

“Puff.” Cam made his voice stern, because he didn’t know what Nathan meant, either, and this....  As a general rule, Cam got a lot of weird phone calls from Nathan. Most of them were pretty hilarious drunk-dials at WTF o’clock in the morning, or random middle-of-the-day hey, what’s the name of that movie with that one actress—you know, the one with the thing? It probably said a lot about their friendship that Cam invariably and inexplicably came up with the correct answer (and he made a decision years ago to just not question it anymore). But this one was raising the hairs at his nape. “Tell me what’s going on. Are you all right?”

The hesitation this time was so long Cam would’ve wondered if the call had dropped, but he could hear Nathan breathing, harsh and too fast. He might have even been crying a little.

I think....” Nathan’s voice hitched, and there was a very distinct wet sniffle. “There’s… it was… oh God, I don’t know what....” Definitely crying. Fuck. “Cam, there’s blood.”

Cam had already dropped the coffee… somewhere. “Don’t move.” He shoved his books at Andi and started running. “I’m on my way.”



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