Chapter 26: Penumbral Whispers

CWs: unreality, suicide attempt trauma, mental illness/PTSD (SO MUCH), paranoia, drug discussion, closet anxiety/internalized homophobia

The beliefs of the Southlanders are as varied as their tongues, but one sticks out to me in particular; that of ‘prophets’ or ‘seers’, who would speak of things that had passed, things unknown, or things yet to be; the words of gods, the decrees of spirits, and suchlike. Elessans have long since moved past such notions, but it has always struck me as terribly tragic that the suffering of these ‘prophets’ never seemed to matter to those who benefited from their words. Indeed, in a recent intervention, I had the opportunity to study one of those afflicted, and instead of anything divine or supernatural, it seemed to me to be a case instead of dementia praecox; premature dementia. These beliefs, then, rely on the mad ramblings and fading minds of the insane and nothing else, and divine inspiration consigned to the same bin as holy shrines and displeased watchers.

Still, though. One thing troubles me still, one that shall not leave the pages of this journal.

It occurs to me — how could it not? — that an oracle may very well be demented, half-rotted and speaking of nothing but his own delusions… he may very well be all this, and also be what he claims to be. One must admit, if a god wished to remain hidden, one could think of no better disguise. But that would mean accepting the existence of gods at all.

Dr. Alois Gulliversohn Gammon, personal journal, 1845 entry (Journal #4, 1844-1847)

Wolfie was the one driving him home, not Jacob; and Rook had never felt so guilty in his life. He stared out of the window, resolutely not looking at Csindra or Wolfie. Achielsohn, he reminded himself. He was… trying to get better at that. He hated calling anybody by their middle or last names. It just rubbed in what a nothing his was.

At least Csindra was in the back. She was pre-occupied with something; Rook could tell that even without turning back to check. She’d barely spoken to him, and usually he would have been chewing himself up about it, not the pseudocalm self-assurance that she was mad at him, but it would come up eventually, one way or another. Probably because he was too hyper-aware of who else he was disappointing.

It wasn’t until he’d gotten into the front seat that it had occurred to him to even wonder — but Jacob had definitely talked to Wolfie. Rook could tell, not in the same way that he knew what was on Csindra’s mind, but in the way Wolfie was resolutely glaring straight ahead as he kicked the car into gear and not looking at him.

Rook stared out of the window, head still bubbling. The laudanum was taking its time wearing off properly; there was a reason he ate light when he ate at all, because the nausea would’ve been even more overwhelming if he’d had a full stomach. “I’d rather you just got it over with.”

Wolfie sighed, pulling to a stop at the end of a road. Luckily the door between the sections was closed; still, it didn’t mean Rook didn’t flinch at bit when Wolfie replied, “Opium, Rook? Really?”

Laudanum. We’re not exactly talking about heroin.”

“It’s the same fucking thing.”

“If it was the same thing, it’d be the same thing,” was Rook’s exhausted response. He gently bumped his head against the seat. “Jacob’s already told me off plenty.”

“Sure. Like he’s ever that hard on you.”

Great. More of this. More of Wolfie seeming fine, and then bursts of… something. Oddness, uncertainty, meanness out of nowhere, or what felt like out of nowhere. He chewed over a few possible responses, then threw them all away, retreating back into sulky silence. He didn’t want to fight with Wolfie. Not right now, not when he’d been dreading this for a long time. He expected Wolfie to put the car back into gear; instead, the silence between them grew, underscored by the gentle purr of the engine. It was late. Nobody else was out, not in this part of town. Prole territory, but upper-class proles, who went to bed at nine o’clock and walked their dogs in the mornings.

Rook glanced at Wolfie, at the words that kept half-taking shape on his lips, half-begun sentences that didn’t quite come out. Whether it was just guessing or intuition, he could almost hear some of them. If you’re in trouble, you’re supposed to come to me. Or I taught you better than that. Scripts. You picked them up after a while, even the unusual ones, when it came to the people who’d asserted certain roles in your life. Like Jacob, dutifully trying — and failing — to play at fatherhood. Scheffen, switching carelessly between a mishmash of mother and commander and owner that she probably didn’t even understand. Most people went for parental. Wolfie ended up more at attempted-sibling. It was all very sweet, Rook supposed, and it also just didn’t fucking work. When you could hear the woodenness in some of the lines, you stopped being able to take them seriously.

But instead, Wolfie tossed the scripts out entirely, sitting back with a scoff. “Figures. Whatever.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“You think you’re fucking immortal.”

Rook nearly bit through his tongue to force himself not to reply. For fuck’s sake. He never should have come back at all. He could have managed it. Send the Den Arden conspirators back with Hank, and just… stay in the Zweispars. Had everything felt so bad before? It must have. Just… If I thought I was immortal, he thought viciously, so loudly he almost imagined Wolfie could hear him, I wouldn’t need it in the first place. And he tripped over the word need. He didn’t need anything. He could function through pain, when he had to, if he had to.

Wolfie put the car back into gear, and Rook found himself watching him through a thin curtain of grey hair, trying to take a guess at how Wolfie was really feeling. I’d hoped you’d gotten it out of your system. He didn’t mean to be an asshole. He couldn’t even remember what he’d said to Wolfie, before he’d left, some time in the miasma that got all wrapped up into a single chunk of time, a chunk of time that started vaguely with an engagement announcement or a night out drinking, one of the two, somewhere in there — and only really ended once he’d woken up from his first night in North Zweispar, head finally clearing enough to think in a straight line.

He hadn’t expected it to be waiting for him.

“How’s Phania?” Rook mumbled.

“Oh, so you care now.” Wolfie stopped himself, then sighed, leaning back as he drove. “She’s… fine. I’m not gonna tell her about you terrorizing her fiance again, and I’m sure he’s too much of a coward.”

“He told you.”

“More or less,” Wolfie admitted with a small smile. “Practically pissed his pants while whining about you being a demon.”

Rook nearly did bite through his tongue that time. But Wolfie just seemed to find it funny. That was the good part, he supposed; Wolfie wasn’t any more fond of Bryan than he was. “…He started it.”

“I know. You don’t start fights. You just end them. Dramatically.” Then another glance sideways at Rook. “One way or another.”

…Yeah, he wanted to be out of this conversation now. It probably wouldn’t matter, if he did try to fumble through some kind of explanation for why he’d shoved Phania away. He was starting to think he preferred the scripted responses and easy roles.

Wolfie finally brought the car to a stop in front of Rook’s apartment building. “If Lambert had it his way, I’d be taking you to the hospital.”

“Yeah, well. I’ve had worse.”

“Unfortunately, I believe you.” Wolfie grabbed Rook’s arm before he got out of the car. “Nope, nope, you’re not getting off that easy.”

“What are you doing?”

Wolfie clicked his tongue at Rook, then pushed two fingers to his neck for a moment, before checking his forehead as well. “No fever, and your heartbeat’s normal — What?” he said peevishly, and Rook realized he hadn’t managed to hide the embarrassed smile.

“…I thought you were mad at me.”

“Of course I am. I’ll be even more pissed off if you up and die during the night just to prove a point.”

“I’d never do that,” Rook said, with a little bit more sadness than he meant; Wolfie met his eyes, held the gaze for a little longer than he felt comfortable with — then leant back.

“You seem alright to me. Surprisingly so, actually, but I guess your animal buddies come in handy. Get some sleep, okay? And I better not see your ass back at the office tomorrow.”

“Yeah, yeah. I think Csindra might tie me to the bed or something.”

“Ah, what I wouldn’t give. Now shoo.”

Rook suppressed his snort of laughter as he climbed out of the car, and his snake stuck his tongue out at Wolfie as he closed the door. Rook gave him a stroke, wishing for all the world that he could talk. Maybe he could explain what was wrong. Why Rook couldn’t just… relax.

“So,” Csindra said after a moment, and Rook started; he’d been so lost in his own thoughts, he hadn’t even heard her get out of the car. Wolfie was long gone. He really wasn’t at his best tonight. “Who’s Phania?”

Motherf— “I thought the partition was closed,” he grumbled sulkily.

“It was. I have good hearing.”

“And you’re using it to eavesdrop.” He stepped inside, already trying to figure out how to get out of this conversation. People were exhausting. He’d nearly frozen to death, wasn’t that worth a reprieve?

“Not deliberately. I’m just curious.”

“She’s…” Rook hesitated in front of the elevator. “A friend. She was a friend.”

“Was?”

“We don’t talk anymore.”

Csindra raised an eyebrow. Rook refused to answer the question she was silently posing, because Csindra knew entirely too much about him already, and besides, she would just tell him about how he was being stupid for not fixing it, and he already knew that. “Wolfie has a thing for you, by the way,” he interjected, before she could ask anything out loud.

“Great. Another straight boy who thinks his cock is magic.”

The lift chose that moment to open. Rook tried to keep a straight face at Marcus’s shocked expression. “And now you’re corrupting the youth.”

Me?

“It’s alright, miss,” Marcus mumbled, face turning bright red. “I’ve heard worse.”

Csindra rolled her eyes, clasping one hand to her face. “Perfect. I’m never being vulgar in Elessan again.”

“I like that you specify.”

“Of course I did. Anyway, I figured — I caught him checking me out a few times. I suppose there’s no accounting for taste, but his hand goes anywhere it’s not meant to, I’m chopping it off.”

Rook snickered despite himself. “He’s fine, I promise. He’s flirty, but he can recognize a barbed wire fence with NO ENTRY on it when he sees one.”

“Gotta wonder if that’s a metaphor for something.”

“You tell me.

Csindra chuckled at that, but even in her face, Rook could see the uncertainty, the upset way she wasn’t quite looking at him. He could feel it, too, and now it was bothering him. “Come on. You need sleep.”

“Like you don’t.”

She just shrugged, and walked down the hallway, leaving him lingering in the elevator a moment longer.

She knows—

About what? He mentally snapped back. A little specificity would be nice.

A second voice — Maybe that’s a sign you’re building a house of cards.

Yeah, well. What else was new. He followed her back to his flat, trying to shake the ghastly afterimage in his thoughts, a whispered taunt that nobody was particularly happy to see him after all. It wasn’t that simple.


Jacob had always had trouble sleeping. For nearly twenty-six years, he’d found himself seeing the sun rise, or missing entire nights while trying to at least get some rest. Some of it was pure stubbornness on his brain’s part; some of it was learned restlessness and vigilance. First, it’d been waiting for the creak of the floorboard that told him when his father was home; then, it’d been the jostling and movement of the mikdova, and in Alkmer, being on edge waiting for the possibility of danger. Really, these days, he was the safest he’d ever been and he couldn’t quite adapt to it.

So when he ended up on Thomas Karella’s doorstep, it wasn’t really anything new. Embarrassing, yes, but nothing new.

Tom looked him up and down, then sighed, stepping aside and jerking his head to beckon Jacob inside. “Insomnia’s bad again?”

“Yeah,” Jacob mumbled. “I take it you were spying again.”

“It’s not spying. It’s staying informed. There’s nothing saying I can’t listen to the NatSec radio channels while on paternity leave.”

“Yeah, well…” Jacob couldn’t quite muster up the professionalism he was supposed to have, shoulders falling. “At least I only have to catch you up so much. Olive home?”

“No, she’s staying late again.” Tom took the opportunity to unbutton Jacob’s jacket for him, pulling it off his shoulders. “You look ready to fall over.”

From anybody else, Jacob would have taken practically undressing him as a cue for a different kind of intimacy. Instead, he just half-sunk, head resting on the smaller man’s shoulder. Smaller, albeit not by much; most of the size difference between them was bulk, not height, which was a nice change. “Martinadocht was telling me to sleep.”

“Without offering to stay over? How cruel.”

“Har har. Very funny,” he mumbled.

Tom practically pushed him onto the couch, where he let himself sprawl in an ungainly heap while Tom vanished into the kitchen. He liked Olive; at least as much as you could like someone who seemed to always be shaking off a vague discomfort with you. He couldn’t entirely blame her. If he’d been in her position, watching the casual intimacy between him and Tom, he’d probably come to the same conclusion. But for all that Jacob had plenty of lovers of both genders, Tom had never been one of them. Not for lack of trying, either; but that was long dead and buried. Some of it was cultural, too. Tom was Sigaro, through and through, for all that he passed for Elessan — and Sigaro men weren’t nearly as cold with each other as Elessans.

Tom reappeared, holding two glass bottles.

“…What are we drinking?”

“This mysterious substance called sarsaparilla.”

“You don’t have any beer?”

“I have a three year old, Jacob. I don’t keep beer in the house. Can you imagine if Lissa got into it?”

Jacob took the sarsaparilla with a smirk. “I’d be too busy being impressed she figured out a bottle opener — ow!” He rubbed his head in complaint from the gentle tap. “Yeah, yeah, got it, I won’t give your toddler any booze, did you need to hear it out loud?”

“No, but it’s nice to. Gwyn knows neither of us have a good base to work from.” Tom sat down next to him, and before he could get another word out, Tom’s fingers were rubbing the back of his head, twisted into his hair, and he’d forgotten how to talk. “Yeah, figured that’d shut you up. You’re like an overgrown puppy.”

“Mm. I’m ok with that.”

“I know that. I’ve seen what you wear to the club.”

Jacob felt himself turn a little pink, and he hid whatever response he was going to make by taking a drink. It wasn’t booze, but it was cold. And Tom didn’t stop, either. The stress was still there, but it was vanishing, or at least lessening. “…Still haven’t found Coben. I fucked up pretty bad.”

“It’s not your fault.”

“You’re my best friend. You’re supposed to say that.”

“Yeah, well, it’s still not your fault. Both Palace and Centrum are supposed to check people out better than that. You aren’t the one looking bad.”

That was a good point, but it didn’t mean he felt any less stupid about it. And then there was… well…

“What do you know about Tenton?”

“Tenton, Etamara?”

“Yeah. It’s a real place, right?”

“More or less,” Tom grimaced. “One of those shantytowns that sprung up after the purges. No room in Avolara or the proper towns, so they built their own. Tenton’s one of the bigger ones.”

That fit with the little bit that Csindra had said. Avolara was one thing; the place was at least a city. The Etamara shantytowns were something else entirely. “Djaneki’s from there.”

“Djaneki? The contractor?”

“Yeah.” He chewed on his lip. “And so is the girl we’re after.”

Tom paused. Jacob watched his face, seeing the same mix of conflicted emotions cross his face that had been plaguing Jacob for hours now, dark eyes processing the information. “It’s not a big town,” he said after a few moments. “That’s a hell of a coincidence.”

“I know.” He dragged a hand over his face. “I don’t think she’s Advolk, but…”

“But nobody caught the first one, either.”

“Can you look into it for me?”

Tom frowned. “I’m on leave. And I work for Internal Affairs, not Investigations.”

Technically the same division.”

“Technically won’t get me out of trouble if I’m caught.”

“Just some follow-up. If it’s nothing, it’s nothing.”

Tom frowned at him… then sighed. “She is a contractor. It’s within my rights and all. Other than the leave part.”

“Which is why you’re listening to military radios, obviously.”

“And you’re asking me about work stuff when I’m trying to put you to sleep.”

That was a fair point. Jacob closed his eyes. There were a lot of things bothering him, and part of the problem was that they kept getting clearer the more relaxed he got. Garrow, for one. Tiffany had said something, on the way back from the Palace — it hadn’t pinged as anything at the time, but it was nagging the hell out of him now. She’d said that she’d expected Garrow to be more upset. A reasonable enough question, when you were young and didn’t know much about Garrow.

He’s never that nice to me. Jacob hadn’t seen him in years — his business had always led him elsewhere. And he’d nearly fallen for it, too, the idea that Garrow might like him. Maybe he did.

But Garrow was also a man who had to keep his anger stifled. Jacob didn’t know the details. The revolution, well — that had happened right in the middle of his academy training. He’d only heard vague whispers of it, and a few dark jokes from Dasta, who had otherwise been respectfully silent about it. But there was a reason Garrow was so dangerous. All it was going to take, if he was masking this hard, was one stray comment from the wrong corners.

Note to self, keep Rook far, far away from him.

Rook, who had lost to a demon. Or, if you really wanted to make him look bad, had let it go.

Tom gave him a gentle thwap on the back of the head. “Stop it.”

“What?”

“You’re still worrying. I will drug you.”

Jacob snorted. “Like you would. Besides—” No, he wasn’t going to bring that up. Whatever the hell was going on with Rook, he deserved some privacy. “I’ll be alright. Just…give me a minute.”

Tom obliged, continuing to scratch Jacob’s head for a few moments before pulling him down onto his lap. It felt ridiculous. It was ridiculous. It made him feel like a child sometimes; he got around it a lot of the time with the promiscuity, although any lover he had kicking around for a while realized pretty quickly that not every night he spent with them was about sex. But sometimes he wanted Tom, specifically.

He closed his eyes again, cheek pressed to Tom’s thigh. He’d been fine for a while. Dozing off on the tram — that’d set him off all over again. But this way — here — he was fine. At least for a little while.

Rook had wanted a switch-up from the guilt — an emotion he wasn’t particularly used to, all things considered — but now he was regretting that wish, because the gut-wrenching, nauseating terror he felt, and accompanying humiliation, just looking at the closed door of his room was not a step up.

He was sort of over this emotions thing. What good had they done anybody, anyway? Particularly him. Every time his emotions got involved, he made stupid, stupid choices. Like the one that had turned his room into a haunted house that only Cutters could see. He’d fought demons and terrorists and wraiths; rogue Cutters and serial killers (well, killer, singular; that’d been a one off) and here he was, too scared even to touch the doorknob again.

His familiar nuzzled one of his bare feet, and he gave the snake a little nudge back. It… helped, that his familiar wasn’t mad at him. Not as much as it could, though. The drugs were all the way out of his system, now, which meant he was replaying how much he’d fucked up and suppressing the urge to throw himself out of a window.

She looked like me.

You’re imagining it.

She was the same as me.

And what is that exactly?

None of the Other voices. Just his own. Like an empty, rattling cavern. He’d gotten so used to them that he was almost lonely when they weren’t there.

Maybe he could talk to Csindra —

Don’t don’t don’t don’t she is lying like the rest of them DON’T DON’T DON’T

Right on cue. “I’m starting to think you don’t have my best interests at heart,” he mumbled.

He wanted to apologize to Jacob. Apologies didn’t come easily to him, even if he suspected it was the appropriate thing to do in this situation. If he apologized the normal way, he’d be asked to explain it, though. So — oh, who knew? He’d just go show up at Jacob’s door like he usually did and figure it out from there. Make it up to him without actually apologizing, because that would involve going into the whys and wherefores of his nasty little habits and Jacob was too good a guy to leave those alone.

Rook sighed, leaning against the opposite wall and staring down the bedroom door a little longer. At least he’d changed out of his wet and blood-stained clothes. It was a shame about the skirt, although he could probably get it fixed easily enough; his skirts looked nice, but he didn’t waste money on anything expensive. He just had normal slacks on, which felt… weird, honestly. At least his long sleeves felt familiar. He did keep men’s clothes around, despite what people thought. He wasn’t that stupid. He didn’t even really crossdress; most of what he wore were still men’s clothes, with the skirt and leggings as the main exception. He just… made some alterations here and there.

He took another glance at Csindra’s room, then closed his eyes and tested the spell. Still flexible, so that was good. He hadn’t planned on that — which was a little worrying – but there seemed to be some give in the distance they could be from each other. Being in the same building seemed good enough some of the time. At Den Riviere, he’d started feeling the tension when Csindra had tried to walk out of the gates, but not before that — here, he was pretty sure he could get all the way down to Jacob’s flat without any problems. If that changed, he’d just…. Oh, he didn’t know. Figure something out. Get around to lifting it, maybe, if he had any energy left to draw on. He hadn’t meant to tie himself down like that. Like most things, it’d seemed like a very clever idea at the time.

He headed out of the flat and locked it behind him, to keep Csindra safe. His familiar had refused to stay put — which he supposed wasn’t the worst idea, but he would have preferred him to stay inside. Between the wraith and the odjaken, it was better safe than sorry.

(and who’s going to keep them safe from you)

Had that been his own internal voice or one of the Other voices? He wasn’t sure he could easily tell the difference anymore. For a long time, he’d thought he could; but the more of them there were, and the more tangled his own thoughts got inside of each other, the more he struggled to find the gap between the two.

Just tell Jacob—

Tell him what?

Rook curled his bare feet against the carpeted floor, trying to pretend he didn’t have a knife in his pocket just in case. Not against Jacob. No, Jacob didn’t scare him. He passed each of the other doors down to the lift, trying not to let his mind whisper to him how well do you know your neighbours and when was the last time you saw them because he had enough to worry about. The Zweispars had been fine. When everything was strange, the paranoia was reasonable. He was home. Home was supposed to be a comfort.

His own room was supposed to be a comfort.

What’d you expect, Rook? If you spent long enough away then it’d never have happened? You’ve been hurt worse than that on missions—

No. No, he hadn’t. The closest he’d ever come to death, not counting the first memories he had of waking on a sea-shore freezing and half-drowned, was because he’d lost his fucking mind and tried to slash open his wrists all the way instead of just a little cut. Over the stupidest thing in the world. How pathetic was that? He couldn’t decide whether it was more pathetic that he’d tried or that he hadn’t even done a decent job of it.

He shivered a little, then looked down at his feet with a sigh. Maybe he should have put on shoes, especially since the usual night liftboy was off sick. He’d forgotten. He was forgetting a lot, lately. Maybe he’d given himself brain damage with the cold. Or the blood loss a month ago. Or the drugs. Whatever. He had plenty to spare. Maybe being a little less smart would be a blessing in disguise.

Stop it.

Ah. That one was one of the Others. One of the nice ones; he’d forgotten he had nice ones, sometimes. “Are you going to tell me to be nicer to myself?” he murmured under his breath.

You’re punishing yourself.

“What else is new?” He took the stairs — slowly, but his knees seemed to be behaving for now. “You heard Jacob. I let her get away.” He wasn’t even sure if he was talking to the voices or to his familiar, who was following him dutifully but with his usual air of concern.

You know perfectly well he was more worried about you.

“About what, my reputation?”

About you dying.

For some reason, that hadn’t really occurred to him. Probably because he hadn’t really felt like he was that close to death. Although…

His hand paused on the stair banister, and he felt so stupid he considered — only for a brief second — throwing himself over the banister. It wasn’t a real consideration. Just one of those passing thoughts.

Jacob had found him in the water. Freezing water.

No wonder he’d been so concerned.

“Yeah, okay, I owe him an apology,” he muttered. He hated hurting Jacob. Scheffen was… whatever. He tried not to think about it.

(I do so much to protect you and you won’t even let me do that)

(what do you know)

It seemed like him just existing hurt Scheffen. Jacob was different. Jacob was…

Rook paused for a moment before leaving the stairwell, sucking in his lips and forcing himself to stop blushing. That’s enough of that, he tried to tell himself, but at least it had improved his mood, just a little. Yeah, he could pretend all he want that there were only platonic reasons he thought of them differently. Not that it mattered either way; he’d find a girl he was into, eventually, once he spent time with people who weren’t military, and she’d be nothing like Scheffen. Phania had been — a mistake. Phania didn’t count. And he’d get over the Jacob thing, eventually, maybe. It was hero worship, that was all. Hero worship that had nearly convinced him a few times that actually kissing Jacob wouldn’t be so bad, and Rook already looked like a girl, so really, it was close enough.

Yeah, and if you’re thinking about any of this when he opens the door, it will be all over your face, so shut it, he lectured himself, but it was a much nicer topic than what he’d been dwelling on. He made his way down the rest of the hallway, rolling his shoulders to try get the eerie prickle of the nighttime quiet off of his back.

He knocked lightly on the door. That was usually enough. Then he found himself rehearsing what he was going to say. I promise I’m not trying to die this time. Nope, that involved actually admitting that he’d done it before. He might as well put on a broad grin and say, “Well, THIS one wasn’t a suicide attempt!” with two big thumbs up.

Actually, that had potential. For another time, though.

Can I talk to you?

Too open. Jacob might try to steer the conversation. Although that begged the question of what Rook actually wanted the conversation to be about. If he talked about how much pain he was in, he already knew how that would go. Why didn’t you tell me sooner? One, because he wanted to keep his job, and two, because he honestly hadn’t realized it was that weird. Nobody had really given him the down low on how human bodies were supposed to work. They’d just sort of dressed him up and given him an encouraging shove. You can’t be in that much pain all the time— No, Jacob wouldn’t ask that. Scheffen might. Olive… maybe. Jacob tended to take him at his word for things like that.

God. He sounded so confident about this, but now he was realizing Jacob wasn’t answering the door.

Come on, you didn’t piss him off that much.

You sure?

Rook swallowed, forcing himself to steady his breaths. Jacob had never deliberately ignored a knock, so what was more likely, Jacob suddenly turning into a whole different person or Jacob just not hearing him?

Tough question. Jacob had really good hearing.

No, stop, think. Jacob wasn’t always home. He just wasn’t thinking clearly. Jacob was —

With one of his girlfriends? snarled one of his voices. One of his own, at that, so he didn’t have any excuse but jealousy. The Others didn’t get this thorny about petty bullshit. What if Jacob was with a girlfriend? He didn’t care. Besides, it was just as likely he was at the Karella place.

Rook sighed, leaning his forehead against the door and trying to pretend he didn’t care if Jacob was with Tom Karella, either. As far as he knew, that was a platonic relationship, but he wondered sometimes. Frankly he was starting to suspect that it was safer to assume Jacob was sleeping with someone unless explicitly told otherwise. He should have fallen for someone shorter, or uglier.

He guiltily glanced upstairs. It was one thing pulling this when he only had himself to worry about — but he doubted Csindra was too pleased with him right now, anyway. Besides, they were well within range of each other. He couldn’t feel so much as a tug on the spell.

Rook whistled a few notes and heard Jacob’s lock click open on the other side. It was a trick that only worked if you actually knew what the lock looked like — otherwise Jacob’s apartment would have been vulnerable to just any thaum — but he was still proud of it. Jacob had actually made him break in a few times over to make sure his door was otherwise secure against magic, and now he could let himself in if he needed to. He still thought giving him a key would have been easier, but there was no accounting for paranoia.

He opened the door, and even though he’d known perfectly well, he still found his heart dropping a little at the sight of the empty flat.

You really wanted to talk to him.

“You sound surprised,” he mumbled back. He didn’t really need to mumble, now that he was inside and away from anyone who might overhear, but it still felt weird.

Not surprised. Just… interested. You care for him a great deal.

Maybe it was just the conversation from earlier getting to him, but Rook found himself blinking rapidly, furiously trying to stop tears from forming. Like a stupid girl after all. He sat down on the couch, curling up on his side and trying to ignore the voice. The problem was, especially now that he was alone in an apartment that wasn’t his but was almost as familiar, the voice was nearly as audible as a real person. That was the trouble with the Others. His own internal voices, well, those were easy enough. He wasn’t entirely sure they weren’t — something, not with the way he went at himself sometimes or couldn’t make up his mind about the most infuriating things, but it wasn’t like this. Like someone standing in the room next to him and talking straight into his ear.

<This embarrasses you. Why?>

“What are you, a fuckin’ interrogator?”

<Curious.>

Rook grabbed one of the sofa cushions, clutching it over his face. That wouldn’t keep it away, though — and this was still one of the better ones. He wondered, idly, if this was the same one from his dream about the ocean, then dismissed that thought with rapid horror. That was falling into the trap of treating them like they were real. “Because I’m supposed to like girls, dipshit, in case you hadn’t noticed.”

<And you don’t.>

Rook groaned into the pillow. This was just another version of a painstaking conversation he’d already had with himself plenty of times. Most of the time he barely even acknowledged that there was such thing as a closet that he may or may not be in. It was spending time with Csindra that was making that hard. Csindra was so — casually confident in being a lesbian, even without talking about it, and Rook was jealous. Of what, he couldn’t even explain. It wasn’t like Csindra was flirting with people in front of him or showed any particular success with women. She just… didn’t bother hiding it. Like Jacob.

<Some would say that the skirt counts as not hiding it.>

Rook found himself smiling into the pillow. “You’d think,” he said, voice muffled. “People are very stupid sometimes.”

<And your own denial?>

“I’m a people, aren’t I?”

<Surprisingly accurate.>

Surprisingly. Very funny. He pulled the pillow off of his face — then stopped. He knew when he wasn’t alone. He would have felt it in the air, heard something moving on the floorboards. Something. People left imprints.

So the person hovering above him wasn’t actually there.

Besides, there was another obvious tell. The face looking down at him was his. Not just a vague resemblance, like the odjaken; no, this face had the same pallid skin, the high cheekbones, the aquiline nose and slightly crooked jaw framed by stormcloud-grey hair. And he got the same lurch of unease that he always did when looking in the mirror, the sense of something out of phase, that he was looking through a tunnel and that the other side was another universe’s stranger.

He swallowed, mouth dry. “I haven’t uh… had these in a while.”

“No, you haven’t.”

The last time he’d had full hallucinations was… god. He wasn’t sure, actually. It’d been a mission, though. One he’d gone to alone, so not that long ago; but long enough that he’d almost forgotten.

He averted his eyes, frustrated tears coming back. Not real. That’s not real. Remember. You established that last time. If you lose your handle on that, you lose everything.

Not real. There were things that happened, and things that didn’t —

And suddenly the scream leapt to his throat, the slightest push from coming out.

Like demonbounds?

He was going to throw up.

Don’t look. Just don’t look and —

And what?

It’ll kill you. It’ll kill you because you can’t be sure anymore, you can’t trust it’s not real, you can’t, and you can’t trust your senses either which means you had the right idea before —

When he finally tore his eyes back to where the hallucination (he had to hold onto something) had been standing, there was nothing. He reached for his pocket, flipping out one of his knives – a switchblade, this time. Smaller, easier to hide. “Who are you?” he insisted. No way had it disappeared that quickly.

<Part of you. That’s all.>

“You’re still useless.”

<We mean you no harm.>

That was…

Actually, it was more comforting than it should have been. It told him a surprising amount. His heart was still hammering against his ribs, but especially in the dazed state he was in, he couldn’t quite summon up more of a response than the quiet settling that the Others were something. Maybe he was crazy. Scratch that, he was definitely crazy. Normal people didn’t have to hide this much from potential onlookers. But…

But there was some order to this. If he just figured out where to look.

“You promise?” he asked. It was the first thing that came to mind. It sounded so helplessly childish out loud.

<Promise. Would you like to sleep?>

No, part of him insisted. Yes, said another. And clearly the Others were listening to the second, because the exhaustion started to win. He put his head back down on the couch cushion. Jacob would be back in the morning.

And then what?


Your dreams are where we can speak the most freely; but that comes with a cost

              (blind deaf and dumb you are if you cannot understand the language of the clouds simple simple boy)

     but at least you can recognize our presence now. There are so many of us, bursting at the seams, trapped in too close proximity, and you wonder why you are so mercurial, so quick to temper, so full of extremes—

              (storms are made in the battles between us not in our peace treaties)

                        (izhya ethya ongye achye we call out for each other but in anger not in love)

                                  (drowning still and screaming with a mouth full of water that this is not what you wanted)

                                           (where is ongazhye — dimitri —)

I have tempered it where I can, but without help, even I am losing my grip.

I lied to you, but not out of malice.

My name is Ayakhoh.

But that means nothing to you. And so I hope it remains.

Comments:

Whew, I’ve been looking forward to this chapter! Re: the epigraph, dementia praecox is an old term for schizophrenia (and other psychoses). And yes, if you’re plural and seeing yourself in this chapter – good. I’m plural myself and despite my best efforts, it creeps into everything!

Jacob and Tom’s relationship is one of my favourite side bits in TNB – Tom is a cis-heteromantic ace, but he and Jacob are… QPPs is probably a pretty close term. We so rarely see this kind of casual affection between men that it was sweet to write it.

Song: Sekai Wa Sude Ni Azamuki No Ue Ni (Instrumental)

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