CW: self-harm, blood, injury, violence, empathy issues, psychosis, mental illness
ROSENHILL ACADEMY, DEN ELESSA, 1916
My favourite pastime is seeing how many people underestimate me because I’m a Bard. Far too many people assume Bards can’t be dangerous. Who could possibly fear music? I like to establish their belief in that before the running and screaming starts.-1st Lieutenant Rémy Kristensohn Haber, witness in his own defense, Court Martial #1450-BG. Classified Files. 1912.
He’d expected it to be Jacob to pick him up. All of the other times, it had been; he’d just walk home with the older man, pretend everything was fine, and at most, Jacob would throw in some comment about playing nice. He was okay with that.
But this time, it wasn’t the Lieutenant who came through the doors of the principal’s office, where he sat waiting. It was Scheffen herself. She was in civvie clothes, but he knew better than to assume that meant she hadn’t been working; she was always working. And whether she was in civvie clothes or not, the badge on her left shoulder still made it clear who she was.
Rook shrunk down into his seat, only slightly hidden behind the divider between the office and the waiting room. He hadn’t meant to cause trouble. Well, maybe he had a little — but he hadn’t expected Scheffen to come over it. She’s going to kill me, he thought miserably. She’s going to throw me back into the ocean. Or grind my bones into glass for her next kaleidoscope.
He glanced up at Scheffen again — and Scheffen met his eyes through the glass. He ducked, and stared back down at his hands, slowly popping each knuckle out of the joint and back. Another thing that marked him as different. He couldn’t even duck his head and blend in, not with grey hair and skin so pale he could disappear against some of the walls. That was what had started the fight. Pieter Janssen had muttered some joke to his brother about Rook being a ghost, and Rook had exhaustedly and peevishly responded that he’d rather be a ghost than a moron. That was normal enough. The teachers didn’t intervene over schoolboy arguments. Besides, Pieter knew that Rook was smaller and weaker than everyone else; he’d win any fight against the weird Zeesohn kid, easy.
Then Rook had started whistling.
The door between the sections opened, and Rook looked up through his fringe of hair, hoping for some sign of how much trouble he was in. He couldn’t suss it out, though; instead of the fury he’d expected, Scheffen looked… disturbed. Ill at ease.
He hadn’t done anything that bad. Had he?
“Rook, with me.”
“Yes’m,” he mumbled, picking up his coat and schoolbag.
“You’ll talk to the other boys?” she said to the principal, who just gave her a nod in response. “I’ll let you know how it goes.”
Oh, god, he’d been right. He was getting thrown back into the ocean. He waited for her to say something else to him — but instead, she was dead silent, and he followed her out, adjusting his necktie uncomfortably. People were looking at him. There were only three classes at the Rosenhill Academy — there were bigger schools for thaumaturgy, but this one was supposed to be the best, in the heart of Den Elessa itself.
It wasn’t until they’d exited the main doors, under the grey-blue city sky, that Scheffen let out a low, trembling sigh. “Where’d you learn how to do that?”
“Don’t play cute with me, Rook,” she said with a smile that didn’t quite reach her eyes. She opened the door of the car she’d come in, and he slid into the passenger seat with a sinking heart. She took the driver’s seat. “Tell me the truth.”
Damn it. She was the only person he apparently couldn’t successfully lie to. He entwined his fingers in his lap. “…Figured it out.”
“You figured it out.”
“Yeah. I mean, I — I’m pretty good at Songwork. I’ve got a good ear for it, and whistling just means you can always do it, right? So—”
“That’s not what I mean.” Scheffen sighed, reaching into her purse for a cigarette and fumbling as she lit it. “Rustelozen sla me neer.”
“I don’t understand.”
“…He wasn’t hurt that bad,” he mumbled, voice getting quieter and quieter, because he was starting to think he’d gotten something wrong.
Scheffen looked so furious he thought she might lose her temper finally. “That bad? Rook, he was bleeding. What did you do to him?”
“I swear, I didn’t — I just cut him up a bit! It doesn’t hurt that bad, I do it all the time —”
Scheffen’s hand lashed forward and grabbed his arm before he could say or do anything else. A moment later, she’d shoved up his shirt-sleeve. He averted his eyes away from her, wincing, still not fully sure what was wrong, but slowly realizing that he’d done something much, much more wrong than he thought.
“How long have you been doing this?” she asked after a moment. She let go of his arm, sinking back into her seat and smoking her cigarette with stress-lines at the corner of her eyes.
“You don’t know. At the hospital?”
“No,” he admitted. “There were always people pricking me with needles and stuff there. And I was never lonely at the hospital.”
“You do it because you’re lonely?”
“Yes. No. I— I’m not sure.” He waited for another question, but she was waiting for him. “…It — it makes me feel better. When I’m… I don’t know.”
“I’m listening. I promise,” she added, voice softening slightly.
“I get stressed. About stupid stuff. When I dunno how to calm down, c— cutting something helps.” Something. It sounded better than myself. “It hurts a bit, but that’s why it helps.”
“Rook…” She sighed, running a hand over her hair. “God. I don’t… you can’t be doing that to yourself.”
“I always stitch them up after!”
“That’s not the problem. The problem is you used Songwork to cut Pieter Janssen almost to pieces today.”
Rook swallowed. Then he swallowed again. He kept telling himself it hadn’t been that bad.
But there had been so much blood.
“Nobody told me to stop,” he whispered.
“They were scared, Rook.”
“Nobody’s scared of me.”
“They are now.”
Some horrible part of him that he didn’t like whispered, Good. The rest of him kept trying to block out exactly how much Pieter had been bleeding. Kept… not looking straight at it, like if he only caught the edges, the way it spread was somehow better. “Is he going to be okay?”
Scheffen took another long drag on her cigarette, closing her eyes and taking a deep breath. “Yes. You didn’t cut deep. Which makes sense, if you were basing it on those.” She grimaced. “I’d be a lot happier if you’d asked that question much, much earlier.”
It just… hadn’t occurred to him. He’d insisted to himself, and genuinely believed, that Pieter was fine. That everybody was making a big fuss over nothing. “I thought structured magic was good magic.”
She actually laughed a little at that, and for a moment, he felt the humiliation creeping in — that she was laughing at him. But then she shook her head. “God, what do they teach you? No, magic is — Magic’s just a force. It doesn’t matter what channels you put it through. It’s still up to you to decide what you do with it. And it’s dangerous. Understand?”
He nodded slowly, feeling a flicker of — what he supposed was guilt, although it still felt odd and faraway. Understanding, at least, which was what she wanted. “I won’t use magic at school anymore. Not outside of class.”
“More than that.” She took his hand, gently. “You can’t be hurting yourself like this.”
“Why? If it helps, isn’t that good?”
Scheffen chewed over what she was going to say for a long while — long enough that Rook wondered if she’d gotten lost in her own thoughts completely. “You’re being taught about three kinds of structured magic. Those are the safe ones. The fourth one, the one that we don’t teach you how to use, is called Bloodwork.”
“Bloodwork.” His stomach did a nasty little flip at that. “Oh.”
“When you hurt yourself like this, you’re doing more than just… damaging yourself, for no reason. That’s bad enough. But pain isn’t just pain. It’s power.”
“But that’s good. That means you can protect yourself, right—?”
Scheffen shook her head. “No. There’s a difference between protecting yourself and lashing out. You have to be able to control it. And the thing is, the more you do this, the more you get accustomed to pain, the less you care about it. The more you rely on your instincts.”
“I don’t get it.”
“He hurt you. Didn’t he? During the fight.”
Rook chewed on his lip. “Not bad. I hit my head when he pushed me.”
“And you responded with magic. You can’t do that. If your first response to pain, to hurt, is Bloodwork, then you’ve already been cutting yourself too much.”
He tried to find a way to explain, or a way that it didn’t apply to him; because he didn’t do Bloodwork, he didn’t even know how, so how could he be using it? But it made sense. A month ago, two months ago, he would still have gotten into the fight, still have been sent to the office, still have gotten picked up —
—but it would have been because of a bloody nose. A bruised shin. A black eye. Not this.
“I’m sorry,” he mumbled. “I didn’t mean to.”
“I know. If I thought you had, this would be a very different conversation.”
That… helped. He hadn’t thought it would. “So you’re not mad at me?”
“Oh, I’m furious. But that’s why I’m talking to you. So you don’t do it again.”
“I won’t, I promise.”
She smiled, and this time, it was a real one. “Excellent. And I promise, there’s other ways for you to calm down. Better ways.”
Rook eyed the cigarette she was holding, but didn’t say anything. The longer he put off Scheffen finding out he liked smoking, the better. “Is Bloodwork always bad?” he asked after a bit.
“You said if you use it too much, you start reacting with it to pain all the time.”
“That’s right. And it’s easy to get trapped in a — a cycle with it, really. But I suppose, yes, it’s not always bad. It’s illegal, though. Don’t get any ideas.”
“Now you’re just being confusing.”
“You’re a smart boy,” she chuckled. “Wait until you’re older. You’ll figure it out on your own. But for now, you’d better keep those arms clear. You’re too talented to get hooked on magic that doesn’t give anything back.”
Rook smiled, finally finding himself relaxing. There was still something bothering him — but even all the way home, he couldn’t bring himself to tell Scheffen. Even after only a year, he knew what could get said, and what couldn’t. Not ever. So he didn’t even let himself think about it until he was up in his apartment, alone with his schoolbooks and the taste of something vile in his mouth.
The first few cuts from the whistling, those had been him. Those had been enough to get Pieter off of him. But in the dark, he couldn’t lie to himself — that he could have, should have, stopped there, and that the reason he hadn’t was so simple it was terrifying. There had been a voice behind him (even though all that had been behind him was empty air), telling him it wasn’t enough.
You may have noticed that the CWs for this one were in red/bold to be a little more noticeable; while I assume people are seeing them for each chapter, for ones like this one that are a lot more unsettling, I’m trying to make them a little harder to skip. I know some people consider them spoilers, but especially chapter-per-chapter, it’s hard to consider them that versus making sure nobody reading through isn’t getting something really unfortunate to the face.
While Bloodwork/Cutter magic is a pretty prominent theme throughout the story as it is, this is where I think the connection between it and self-harm really becomes the most obvious, especially for Rook; in that they’re not really separate actions. Additionally, I think this is where Rook’s specific mental issues start to show up more. I won’t go too in depth down here until a later chapter. I will say that I know a lot of people are going to be looking at some of this with concern — the violent mental illness trope isn’t a good one, and particularly its ties with both psychosis and low empathy are usually strongly negative — but I’m very much going into this with intent and personal investment. Rook struggles with things that come naturally to a lot of other people, and that doesn’t make him a bad person . Nor are violent mentally ill people any less deserving of help and care. The consequences of our illnesses are just… different.
SONG: A Drowning by How To Destroy Angels
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