Chapter 23: The Quiet Oak

CWs: bullying, exclusion trauma, loneliness

I’ll admit — the first time I saw the kid, I got a bit nervous. Not because of the albino thing. I’ve met albino kids before, you know? It’s a medical condition, not that you’d think that with how some people go on about it. It’s that, well, you expect amnesiacs to be lost, a little helpless. Even if it’s temporary. Rook, well. The first time I met him, his voice wasn’t working properly just yet, and he still looked me up and down and asked me if I was friends with ‘the other one’. And I didn’t think much of it. Amnesiac, right? He’d probably asked everyone that.

It wasn’t til I left that I realized I was wearing that necklace Jacob gave me. You know the one, Syl. When I was teaching him how to make jewellery and he turned that old set of buttons into charms. I know he wears one of them too, but — but, Sylvia, they don’t look like anything. Most people wouldn’t notice them, let alone associate them with each other. So, you know.

Tread carefully.

Captain Thomas Karella in a letter to Sylvia Christadocht Scheffen, 1915

PARC DER RUSSIGNOLS, DEN ELESSA, 1917

In some of the few books Rook had that were stories for children – or at least he suspected they were – characters talked about a point of realizing they were different, understanding being different from other kids or other people. He couldn’t relate. He’d never had any choice or illusion that he was anything but different – but that was alright. He wasn’t sure he was even made of the same stuff as the other people at the school. So, he kept to himself — all the more now that he had his brief but cherished moments with the Vandemeers — and he cherished the times that Jacob met him at school all the more.

Jacob found him that day in the park about a block away from the school, one leg hanging off the tree branch he was lying on, book on his face as he contemplated whether or not he wanted to actually finish it. “You skived off again.”

Rook sighed, pulling the book off his face. “I thought I’d have longer than five minutes after last bell.” He sat up, elbow on the tree branch as he looked down at Jacob. “How’d you find me?”

“You can’t actually forge my or Sylvia’s signature for shit. Nice try, though. They called me at lunchtime once someone actually looked at your ‘doctor’s note’.” The older man folded his arms and leaned against the tree, looking up at Rook with a mix of frustration and amusement. “For someone who’s technically two, you have the rebellious teenager thing down. I didn’t think Wolfie would be that bad of an influence on you.”

Rook chucked an acorn at him. Not hard. Just enough to make a point. “If I’m two, then you’re a civilian.” It was all the more annoying, he decided, that Jacob had caught the damn thing out of the air. “I wish you were,” he groaned, flopping back down on the tree branch.

“Why, so you’d actually get away with some of this?”

“…Yes. Civvies are dumb.”

“You are aware, la,” Jacob couldn’t quite suppress the laugh, “that you’re a civilian.” He tossed the acorn back at Rook, and Rook snatched it before it hit him with another suffering groan. “Although you’re a quick study.”

“You’re the one who drills me on this stuff.”

“It’ll do you good one day.” There was a quiet huff, and then Rook startled upwards as Jacob joined him on the branch. Like usual, Jacob wasn’t in uniform; he always changed into more normal clothes before picking up Rook, although Rook had no idea why he bothered. This time, he had a black t-shirt on below a leather vest that didn’t really look any more ‘civvie’ than his uniform did. Rook suspected, actually, that Jacob had no idea how to look normal — but that suited him just fine, because he was never going to, so he might as well keep equally strange company.

“If this branch breaks,” Rook threatened, “I’m blaming you.”

“I know you don’t weigh owt, but trust, la, it can handle me. You’re not the only one who comes here.”

Rook sat up properly, gazing at Jacob for a moment. “Did you skip school too?”

Jacob laughed at that, too, although there was a hint of something wistful in it too. “Ah, I didn’t really have school. And skippin’ the academy would have just f- screwed my chances, so I was a decent enough student once I got there. Nah, I come here sometimes to clear my head. Not so much now that I live over by Parkland — What?”

Rook stifled his smile. “You can swear in front of me, Jacob.”

“Now, you say that, and then you learn new words and get me in hot water with Syl.” At the mention of Scheffen, though, Rook’s smile soured. Jacob noticed, too. “You two still not getting along?”

Rook shrugged. “It’s usually fine. Just…” He didn’t want to bother explaining it, in part because he wasn’t sure if he could. Scheffen just transparently didn’t know what to do with him. The jokes Phania and Wolfie made just underlined how bizarre their relationship was; the Vandemeers kept assuming a motherly or at least parental relationship, and he found himself undecided on whether he wanted that instead, or if he just wanted… someone else. “Please don’t tell her I skipped again.”

“I’ll do my best.” Which, from Jacob, usually meant yes.

He couldn’t help the small smile of gratitude, and looked away, suddenly embarrassed. When he looked back, though, Jacob was leaning against the trunk, watching him with a curious expression. “What are you looking at?” Rook grumbled.

“Why do you keep skipping, anyway?”

“I dunno. I pick up the lessons fast enough with just the textbook anyway. And there’s all this stupid stuff I don’t know.”

“Like what?”

Oh, like Jacob didn’t know. Still, Rook decided to indulge him. “Apparently the ocean’s — well, cursed. I didn’t know it was that bad. I just said something about sharks and asked if they were real and got laughed at.”

“Hell, that ain’t your fault. Besides, they were real. Most of them died out centuries ago.”

That did make him feel better, although it didn’t take away the real stinger of that conversation; the idea that everything that came from the ocean was tainted, or poisonous. Including him. He couldn’t get away from it, either. The name Zeesohn hadn’t been intended to be cruel, but it followed him around anyway, a constant reminder that he was something that was alive when he wasn’t supposed to be. Then he caught on to what Jacob had said. “Wait, most of them?”

Jacob grinned at that, clearly enjoying the thrill in Rook’s voice. “I grew up down in Alkmer. There are river sharks in some of the deeper parts of the Az’ around there. Not as big as the ones in stories, but still sharks.

“Bullshit.”

“Now who’s swearing? And bis Grendelszahn, I will take you there and show you one just to give you the joy of vindication.”

“Forget that, I just wanna see the sharks now!”

“You know they eat people?”

“Which makes them icons in my opinion. More sharks in government, fewer dumbasses with more money than sense.”

“I really need to hold my tongue around you more,” Jacob muttered, although he was clearly too amused to mean it. “You’re gonna get me in trouble.”

“Don’t worry, I’m smarter than that. I’ll only get you in trouble if I’m trying to.”

“Again, for someone who’s technically two—”

Rook kicked at Jacob’s leg with another scowl. “I’m thirteen. I just… have some more catching up to do.”

Jacob reached forward and ruffled Rook’s hair, which he still couldn’t decide if he liked or not. “Oi, don’t let my jokes bug you. You’re doing great.”

Rook bit his tongue, trying not to think about Pieter Janssen. “You think so?”

“I’ve been training you with a bloody BB gun, la, and you’re a better marksman than any of the snots in your class. You with live ammo is going to be scary. Let alone what Tommy’s been teaching you with those knives.”

“I like the knives better.”

“I was worried you’d say that. There goes my bet with Tom.”

“You bet on it?”

“Old habits die hard. And sue me, I want another gun nut to talk shop with.”

Rook couldn’t help his grin at that one. “Are you sure I’m a civvie? Cause you don’t train me like I’m one.”

Jacob went a little quiet at that, and Rook tried to figure out what he’d said wrong. Nothing too terrible, he decided, because Jacob looked more thoughtful than upset, but there was definitely conflict going on. Faces were hard for him, but Jacob was someone he spent enough time with to start picking up on how his body language worked. If he spent enough time studying faces, bodies, people, he’d probably manage being a real person eventually.

Jacob exhaled after a little bit. “You’re right, I don’t.”

“Why? Just — curious.”

Jacob chewed on the inside of his cheek, and Rook added, “You know I don’t care if you smoke around me—”

“Dammit I hate that you know when I want one.”

“You have a tell!”

Jacob snorted, and he did pull out a cigarette, but he didn’t light it – just rolled it between his fingers. “You are different,” he sighed. “Shouldn’t matter, I know. But you’re special. You’ve been trying to hide how fast you’re learning thaumaturgy, too. Which I’m guessin’ is the other reason you’ve been skipping school so much.”

Rook cast his eyes down, unwilling to admit to it out loud, but Jacob was right. It wasn’t just that he was bored in class. It was more troubling than that. Thaumaturgy wasn’t something that was supposed to come quite so easily to anybody; and when it did, it wasn’t supposed to be all of it. He didn’t find Mirrorwork any more difficult than Smokework or Songwork, and he read his textbook in the five minutes before class instead of at night when he was supposed to, because he just… read so quickly, and took in all the information fast enough that he didn’t need to do it any other way. He supposed if he’d been a Miller or a Pont or a Weiss or whatever it wouldn’t have mattered. Maybe he’d even be praised for it; but he wasn’t one of them. He was the stranger, the foundling, the one who didn’t quite look human — which meant he had to try harder to fit in. Excelling wasn’t an option, but that was the problem; he didn’t even have enough memory to know when he was doing something impressive. So he just… avoided school entirely, when he could, and let the anger curl up in his stomach over how much he wanted to show off. He wanted to enjoy being the best. “You’re teaching me to defend myself because you think I’ll need it,” he said after a moment, trying not to sound so miserable about it.

“Ey, ey, chin up. You’ve got me and Syl and Tom on your side. And, look, I know trying to get along with the other kids isn’t really working, but stick out the school for a little while longer.”

“Until what?” Rook grumbled.

“Until the end of the year. Which is soon. And if it’s still not working out, maybe we can figure something else out. But give it one more shot. For me.”

Rook rolled his eyes at that. “For you,” he taunted, then stuck out his tongue. Mostly to hide that he was genuinely happy to be heard. He’d wanted to tell Scheffen for a while now, that he couldn’t bear the thought of going back, but the words kept getting trapped in his throat, going turncoat at him at the thought of her disappointment, her judgment.

“Atta boy. Now come ahead. Tommy’s insisting on feeding you.”

“What? Why?”

“You’re too skinny. I happen to agree.”

“Ughhhh fine. It’s rude to say no to food.”

Jacob hopped down from the tree, and Rook readied himself to jump down — but first, he reached inside of the folds of his jacket, giving his familiar a stroke. He was in the shape of a squirrel this month, which meant he’d mostly burrowed into Rook’s inside pockets and stayed there quite happily — but he still nuzzled his head into Rook’s hand, tail poking up and out of the pocket. Then Rook jumped down from the tree, landing next to Jacob with hardly a stumble, and decided that if Jacob really wanted him to give school another try, he would. And maybe he’d just let himself be the best, for once. For a little while.

Comments

Phew, schedule slip, sorry! This chapter coincides with Ghosts in Quicksilver Book 3 starting to post, which means I’m now technically on a WEEKLY schedule (biweekly, two serials — I did this to myself.)

This is a nice quiet chapter, and one where Jacob’s regionalisms are a lot more obvious than they usually are. I think I’ve mentioned it in comments before, but Jacob’s accent is based on primarily Scouse accents, mixed in with some New Orleans! Most of his terminology is pretty easy to guess from context (…for now, anyway) but full Alkmeri slang gets pretty wild.

Song: River Flows in You – HAUSER

Bell, Clock and Candle is free to read online and I don’t plan on changing that; however, if you like it and want to support its author, please consider supporting me with a Patreon pledge or a Ko-fi donation! For bonus goodies, Patreon readers get every chapter a week early, and pledging to the Elementals tier ($5+) gets you access to deleted scenes and conlang progress posts.

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