Tasha moved quickly, clutching the paperback to her chest. Behind her she could hear Burlow murmuring softly to Jaan, shushing him whenever he tried to speak. The store was empty, save for them.
Tasha had always had a good degree of intellectual curiosity to drive her. She valued knowledge for knowledge's sake, and tackled new subjects with dedication. However, unlike some of her friends who relished the idea that there would always be more to learn, unknown elements frustrated her. When she encountered something she didn't understand, she worked hard to decode it more out of the desire to know than to learn. She didn't feel secure in a situation until she understood all of its angles, and Burlow seemed eager to set her off-balance every chance he got.
No matter what the old man said, she was ready to know.
She reached the Special Collections section. It was one row with a single plaque denoting its specialness, and not much to show beyond that. Some of the old hardcovers did look valuable, bound in leather with gold lettering or hard and tan with age. But there didn't appear to be any unusual storage or preservation system, and in the middle of the right-hand shelf there were three books similar to the one she held in her grasp. Shoddy paperbacks, with worn-out spines and covers that flipped too far outward when closed. There was an empty space for one more.
Tasha looked at the book in her hand. Its title was Dominion of Voices, and it still didn't seem like anything remarkable. Glancing in the direction of Burlow and Jaan, she flipped it over to read the back.
Taymen ar Nasina, reclusive alchemist and serious misanthrope, has found herself in the middle of a war. Blackmailed by the Resistance, she must help to overthrow a tyrannical theocracy, bring peace between two cultures, and protect a small girl who is rumored to have the power to see the ultimate truth "between the world." With the help of a duplicitous assassin and an idealistic warrior priest, she must decide if such a revolution is worth…DYING FOR.
Tasha snorted and began to flip through the pages.
To her surprise, there were a few illustrations – they weren't very good, and she began to suspect that the author had drawn them personally. The woman with the cape from the cover, using two crackling rods as weapons. A man she assumed to be the assassin, shoving her against the wall with a knife to her neck. The "small girl," looking afraid, her eyes drawn almost comically large with a ridiculous amount of shining spots in each iris. The priest.
Tasha doubled back.
It was impossible to tell for sure, with such an inexact drawing. And there were certainly differences – his short hair was decorated with a number of tiny braids and his robes were wide and sweeping. He brandished some sort of double-edged scythe, definitely more weapon than holy staff. But something about the shape of his chin, and the amused but patient glint in his eye…
She wouldn't have noticed it at all, if she hadn't seen Jaan just a minute ago.
"Yes," Burlow said, making her start. "I think you're beginning to understand." He stood at the edge of the row, hands behind his back. His expression was serious, but not angry – at least, not angry at her, as far as she could tell. Jaan stood beside him, still blinking his dizziness away. He clutched at the strap of his backpack. It was funny, she thought in a distant sort of way while the rest of her mind raced, that he still carried a backpack around as a senior. And it didn't make him look stupid at all.
Burlow took a step towards her, and she held the book out apologetically. He shook his head. "Perhaps it is time to begin," he said curtly. "I apologize. I didn't realize things were progressing at such a rate. To answer your inevitable questions: Yes, that picture is of Jaan. Yes, his role is different in that tale. No, you can't let him see it. Yes, you can read the book. No, he cannot."
Jaan stood quietly, chin tilted almost submissively downwards. He didn't seem shocked by all of this, simply absorbing and processing more or less peacefully.
Tasha looked back to the cover and found she couldn't look away. It was though there were some sort of energy, vibrating just enough to feel it against her palm, that she had been too stupid to notice before. The two figures climbing the mountain made something twinge in the back of a distant memory, and she focused hard on the orb, on the knife.
"Why?" was all she managed to say.
Burlow approached until he was towering over her. "Because if he is introduced to all of this information about himself at once, his mind will reject it. It's too much. He has to awaken naturally, in his own time. Do you understand?"
"No," she said, the word verging on a whisper. When she looked up, she found that Burlow wasn't looking at her. He, too, was transfixed by the book, something like adoration in his eyes.
"One of my favorites," he said softly. "True, it was the author's earliest attempt and the prose is incredibly overwrought at times, but the characters have a sort of liveliness to them that I think some of her later work lacks."
Tasha felt a strange coolness spreading through her body, out from the base of her neck.
"Jaan is connected to this book," she said.
"Yes," Burlow murmured. "As, in a different way, are you."
Hark and Bill were sprawled out on Bill's bed, playing a heated game of Super Smash Bros. For the moment Bill had the upper hand, and Princess Peach continued to clobber Samus. Hark, it must be noted, was playing upside-down, his head falling off the edge of the bed and tongue sticking out the edge of his mouth in concentration. His thick carrot-orange ponytail extended almost to the floor. Bill was crouched on his knees, bouncing the bed a little bit with every big hit. When Hark finally succeeded in sending Bill flying, Bill shouted in aggravation, bounced off the bed, and shut the old PS2 off.
"Hey, what the hell?" Hark whined, sliding off the bed to the floor. "I was winning!"
"This game is boring," Bill said. "Boring and dumb."
"You are such a kid sometimes, d'you know that?"
"Like you're one to talk," Bill snapped, grabbing another mini bag of Doritos with vehemence.
"Whoa, chill," Hark laughed. "What's eating you?"
"Nothing," Bill muttered, shoving chips in his mouth and thinking very hard about things that weren't his after-school chat with Casey Brenner.
He still had no idea why her rejection bothered him so much. It wasn't even "rejection" in the romantic sense; he honestly hadn't been trying to ask her on a date. Hark was right about one thing: Bill was as "weird prude or something" and romance never crossed his mind. It honestly just didn't compute. At first he had figured it had something to do with his variety of mental health issues, but his doctors hadn't seemed to think that was the case (not that doctors knew anything, as a rule). Now he just figured he was aromantic.
But what he had felt for Casey that day, and during the dream the night before – it had been intensely something. Not physical attraction, and not even a crush, exactly. Just…a draw. An incredibly raw, powerful, devastating draw, and he had been afraid to admit the extent of it to himself until the moment she had walked away.
He wanted so badly to see her, talk to her, be near her. And when he allowed his racing mind to pause for more than a moment on the subject, it was absolutely terrifying.
"Is it a giiiiiiirl?" Hark sang. Little snot.
"Naw," he said. "Let's play another round." He switched the console back on and waited for the title screen. Hark took his place on the bed, not even questioning the sudden shift back. They had gotten used to each other well enough.
Bill was also used to having disturbing dreams; they had plagued him for years. From before he could remember, he would sometimes wake his mom up with the screaming. The funny thing was, he couldn't remember anything scary about them. Just…shapes, and colors, and chaos. Sometimes a random object, like a chair or a piece of grain. But without the proper medication, they could make him scream until his voice gave out.
The dream last night had been disturbing too, but for different reasons. The room was white, and he was somehow both inside and outside of it. He knew that for most dreams, that would be a totally normal feeling. Here it was so inherently bizarre that he couldn't think about it too hard without giving himself a headache in the waking world. In the room there were two spots of color: one was a man in a white lab coat with shock red hair, and the other was Casey Brenner. The man raised a gun and shot her in the gut. Everything was muted. She didn't make a sound as she died, and her hand flopped over the edge of the operating table and her blood ran red red too real red onto the white tile floor.
In the moment before he woke up, he felt two things: an uncontrollable white-hot rage that he knew would annihilate him and take everyone else in that godforsaken building with him, and the feeling of Casey's blood as it lifted itself from the floor to run backwards into her veins. He was the blood, and the girl, and the man with the gun, and he was going to destroy it all.
It was, to be frank, some freaky shit.
Hark beat him again in Super Smash Bros. and Bill barely even complained. But this time Hark didn't notice any odd behavior on Bill's part, because he had a story of his own.
"So do you know Nico Whatshisface? That one douchebag with the long black hair and beak nose? He's a sophomore, I think."
Bill shrugged. "I've seen him around. He bothering you or something?"
"Kinda, but I gotta deal with it." Hark rolled over onto his stomach. "He's tutoring me. He is such a tool, you have no idea."
Bill laughed cruelly. "You should do something to really freak him out. You know if he's 'phobic?"
"Probably," Hark said derisively. "He's just so fucking above it all, you know? He actually told me he wasn't a miracle worker when we were talking about which subjects he'd help with."
That only made Bill laugh louder. Hark shoved a pillow in his face.
"You know," Bill said, flinging the pillow out of both of their reach, "if he's the person I'm thinking of, he's tall and pasty and too skinny, and he walks like he's got a stick up his ass."
"That's the one," Hark grinned.
Bill just looked at him.
"What?" Hark said suspiciously.
"That's your type."
"What?!" Hark shot to his feet, spinning around to face Bill head-on. "No! My type isn't – isn't – douchebag!"
"Get a new word, dude." Bill craned his neck up to look at him.
"How the hell do you get that he's my type?! I like frikkin' gorgeous girls and really hot guys and usually the really nice ones!"
Bill raised an eyebrow, glad for the chance to think about a different subject. "I think you've misdiagnosed."
"You're wrong. You don't like the ones that are nice, you like the ones that have presentation. That act like fuckin' royalty. Sometimes that means they're benign, passin' out seats at their lunch table and rides in their nice cars like boons for loyal subjects, but sometimes they're smarmy bitches. It's just the authority you like."
Hark was as red as his hair. "You're fucked in the head."
"So they tell me."
"I'm not attracted to smarm or whatever. I just like people!"
"Indiscriminately," Bill said dryly.
Hark made a sudden, peculiar noise that sounded almost like a growl.
The two of them stopped and looked at each other in surprise. Hark raised a hand to feel his own adam's apple.
"Well that was…"
"Weird as hell."
Hark broke first, a huge smile engulfing his face. Bill followed until they were laughing, fully and loudly, and making stupid growling noises at each other.
When Tasha left the bookstore that day, she had the book in her hands. It was on loan, Burlow had been sure to tell her, and must not be harmed under any circumstance. She took him seriously, although personally she thought that the copy had been through quite a bit already.
He had given her a chance to look at two of the three other paperbacks, but had firmly warned her away from the third, similar to the way he refused to let Jaan see Dominion of Voices. Jaan himself had looked with her, a calm and strong presence at her side that understood as little as she did, but with more patience.
One book was entitled The Fox and the Raven. It depicted three young figures on a winding country road, the bright midday sun shining cheerfully above them. They were dressed in somewhat medieval wear, and Tasha was instantly reminded of the copy of the Canterbury Tales that she had already procured based on its presence on the English class syllabus for later in the year. The figure on the left was a tall and leggy female wearing a dress that was probably scandalously short for the time period, her silvery hair tied up in a bun at the base of her neck. She looked familiar, though Tasha couldn't place her. In the middle was a boy with long dark hair, his face sullen, clothes rich and sleek. Most striking about his face were the bright red eyes. And on the right, a boy with a bushy head of carrot-red hair walked besides them. He seemed happier than the other two put together, and his arm was linked with the boy in the center. The back didn't tell her much more, except that the three were on a quest to return the heart of a princess, and that they would learn to love and understand themselves and each other, or something along those lines.
The other book said, simply, Poems. It was undecorated. Burlow would not let her look inside.
Jaan looked at the other book Tasha wasn't allowed to see. She could feel it, even when she wasn't looking. She knew that the book he held was hers, in the way that Dominion belonged to Jaan. It was so frustrating to not be able to see, but Burlow told her, quite harshly, that should she look she might lose her mind.
And she was not allowed to tell her friends, which was the hardest part of all.
"It might be difficult," Jaan said quietly, walking beside her. "I know that whatever is going on here is bigger than the both of us, but I hope you won't mind if I…talk about things with you. When they hit me." He gave her a warm half-smile. "I don't have anyone else who would even believe me."
"If I understand the Professor correctly," Tasha said solemnly, "over time they'll remember more. And then we can talk to them, too. It's just – it's not safe to tell them yet." She was careful not to let Jaan see the cover of the book. Having his potential mental breakdown in her care was a bit terrifying. "I'm allowed to help them once they're closer, and…apparently I'm supposed to talk you all through this, I guess? Like, definitely do come to me if you remember anything else."
Her head still felt like it was spinning. Everything was so different now, and yet there were still vast blank spots in her knowledge about which Burlow was maddeningly silent. She understood a bit better now, since apparently telling her more could put her health in danger, but it was still upsetting to not have such crucial pieces of information about herself.
She felt a little like she was dreaming.
"Well, this is where I turn," Jaan said when they reached the corner of Mabel and Pine. "Unless you want me to walk you?"
"No, it's fine," Tasha said hurriedly. "Just…thanks for…coming today, I guess."
Jaan laughed. "Glad to, though I don't know if I had much of a choice."
It wouldn't be so easy with the others. Jaan's spirituality, both in real life and in whatever other form was contained in the book, had led him to a greater awareness of the strangeness that surrounded him. Chances were no one else would just amble into the bookstore, driven by some greater power. She wasn't even sure who all the others were.
Jaan smiled kindly, and the two parted ways.