I stand in front of my mirror dressed in clean clothes with my phone tucked in my pocket. I don’t bring my headphones even though I’d rather not leave them behind. I get the feeling that Sialuk would interpret me bringing them along on the date I’m crashing as poor form.
My skin tone is looking a little better, but I’m not paying attention to my bad complexion. I pin my reflection down in the mirror and jab my finger at myself.
“Don’t mess it up,” I whisper. “She’s waiting for you. You can do this.”
Operation win-her-over gets off to a pretty bad start despite my pep-talk. My shoulders lock up with nerves as I walk to the door. I take a big gulp as I’m turning the handle. And… my natural sass comes roaring to the fore because I’m not comfortable being expressive like you are.
I mean… except when I’m with you. But you know how long it took you to get me to open up, so… I have been pretty rude to her, and now I actually care about what she thinks of me.
I’m doing my best, but I still sound cranky when I say, “I’m ready.”
I tell myself I’m just hangry and to keep my head down. I’m making sure I don’t make eye contact with her—even though I want to again—because I need to keep cool. Chill. Zen. Plugging into the supercharger that is her magic isn’t going to help keep my unstable, jittery self very mellow.
“Good. Let’s go.”
She turned round and started walking down the hallway. I realized she was heading toward the outdoors instead of the kitchen.
Crashing her dinner date was one thing, but getting up close and personal with her while eating mana—which explained why we weren’t turning toward food—sent butterflies flying through my stomach. Keeping my eyes away from hers while third-wheeling would have been easy. Avoiding eye contact while sharing mana…
I remember the one time I’d tried to eat mana in raven lands. It hadn’t worked. I’d worried there was something wrong with me, with my tiger skin, but later, at the CNA, Jason had sat with me and impatiently guided me through step-by-step for over an hour.
Feeling mana nourish my spirit for the first time had been eye-opening. I wasn’t prepared for the rush of serotonin—like biting into a perfectly cooked thick steak—or the blissful haze that overcame me.
I remember it was like getting high, if I’m honest. I had loved it, but Jason’s sour mood and obvious impatience with me left not-so-pleasant memories.
“What is it?” Sialuk asks.
“Jason already showed me how to eat mana,” I say.
Yeah. I’m not getting out of this. I can tell from her tone, but I’m not just walking into a situation I’m avoiding without trying.
I do, at least, keep myself from lashing out, even though I could have.
I’m reminding myself over and over that I’m trying to make a good second impression as I try: “You don’t have to teach me.”
Sialuk’s silent a moment, and for one naïve second I think I’ve convinced her to let me wait in the kitchen.
“Did Jason explain the traditions of eating mana?” she asks.
The higher pitch in her tone sounds curious. Legit curious.
“Well, you eat when you’re mana-hungry,” I say.
“Which is usually about the same times you eat food,” she adds on.
“Oh,” I reply.
When Sialuk said ‘traditions’… I guess I really don’t know what she means after all. It’s one thing to observe other ravens, people who are forced to accept me, as they gather around the giant runes and shrug my shoulders and walk away. I haven’t been thinking much about how it has to be so much more than just the superficial facts I couldn’t ignore.
“How often do you eat mana?” Sialuk asks.
“Maybe… once a day? I don’t feel hungry, though. I think.”
“When you need food, you’re hungry,” she starts. Her voice sounds softer. “But when you need mana, you’re munchy.”
I screw my face up. I don’t think I’ve heard other ravens use that word around me, but I don’t think Sialuk would lie to me about it.
It hurts. It’s one thing to recognize I was excluded from true shifter life because I was human. It sucks seeing in hindsight one more way I was pushed to the fringe.
Even if Sialuk isn’t right, the ravens probably do have a different word for being mana-hungry. And I never learned it.
Sialuk sighs. It seems almost like it’s on my behalf.
“That’s all part of figuring yourself out,” she says. “You lived holl—as a human with kin. I know we say it’s the same; we all know it’s not. There’s no shame in not knowing.”
I bite my tongue and resist the urge to look up into her eyes. I wish I’m as good with words as you are at that moment, because I don’t know how to say thank you for the simple gift of saying it out loud.
Too many kin, ravens and otherwise, never say it out loud.
If Sialuk’s noticing how I’m choking on my words, she doesn’t comment on it.
“Eating mana has many of the same traditions that we have with food,” she continues. “Three times a day is average, and the more people, the merrier. It’s usually rude if you eat mana alone without some explanation.”
“Oh,” I say again, frustrated with myself that I can’t say everything that’s really on my mind.
Sialuk, again, doesn’t seem to notice my verbal distress. She walks outside and around the building toward the runes that have been cut into the grass. It’s simple and effective, but I think Sialuk isn’t impressed because she pauses on the edge of the runes.
Nope, silly me. She points to the runes.
“Prove to me you know which is which.”
I raise my finger and point at them. “Purify, enhance, and seal,” I repeat it exactly how Jason showed me. Then, I continue, “Stand inside and relax. Purify first to clear the mana of Rot, then enhance to consume it. Sealing is for emergencies and healing, so I’ve never used it before.”
“Good,” Sialuk says.