A/N: Another oneshot in the fantasy setting of Boem. There may be more to this one day, but don't hold your breath.
Thank you, grimmsy and cat, for telling me what you thought.
Strom dropped his pencil. That guy from the previous semester walked by and stepped on it, shattering it. "Sorry," he said, but Strom didn't believe it, especially after he added, "Use mine?" and held out a pencil - a green one.
"No," Strom said, not bothering to be polite. That guy knew by now that Strom would say no. He had a pencil of his own. Not a green one, as much as he would prefer it: but it would be too easy for someone unscrupulous to swap a different green one for his own, and that would not be good.
The guy shrugged, but Strom knew he was more disappointed than he let on. Why should he be? He had to know.
He refused to let the presence of the guy stop him from lingering after class to ask the teacher about proteins used by fungi to keep each other away. He could tell the guy was lingering too, but when he walked away, the guy was also approaching the teacher. That was all right.
He stopped by the arbutus at the front of the building. It was blooming. That put it in a mood, apparently, because it said "You need pollination yourself," as he passed.
"No, I don't," Strom said. "How are the bees doing?"
"All right," the tree said, though they both know it was mainly pollinated by the wind.
Strom walked out further down the street, greeting his old friends as he passed. The annuals had little to say, and he had little to say to them. He could speak for them, but their lives were so fleeting, they never progressed beyond the callow.
He was hungry, but he didn't go into he café. He sat on a bench and dozed in the sun. The air was full of springtime activity. His dreams were pinkish and chartreuse. The sunlight nourished him with bright yellowish-white light. He was content, even when insects tickled his neck.
This mood was interrupted abruptly when that guy sat next to him. Strom knew it was him by the way he sat, by his not-unpleasant mammalian smell mixed with a bit of artificial flower and herb essence from that one brand of soap that Strom never objected to on a man, and from the particular color of his shadow as it fell across the corner of Strom's warm cheek.
He wouldn't have minded the fellow sitting next to him, except he was always trying to give him green things.
"Go away," Strom said without opening his eyes.
"Okay," the guy said. He actually got up and stepped back. "But - you're a Stromnik, aren't you? It's just, I really need to talk to you about something."
Strom's eyes flew open.
"What gave you that idea?" he asked.
"You are, aren't you?" The guy was not unpleasant looking. And he had an air of sincerity about him. Unfortunately he also had an air of insincerity about him. A man can be two things.
Strom wasn't going to argue the point. He was what he was. "But why do you think so? And why does it matter?" And he didn't say: I knew you knew because of all those damned green things you keep trying to give me. He was saving that for if this conversation went on long enough.
"It matters because of my grandfather's tree. And I knew because - well, look at you. You're even named Strom."
"And so are about a thousand other people in this city. It's not a common name, but it's not unknown. Are you saying that Strom Lindeski is a Stromnik? He doesn't act like it." The politician was an entire anti-forest force in himself, always introducing measures for surface mining and selling public lands.
"No, but you - I saw you talking to a tree. I saw you having something green happen between you and another tree. The whole air was greenish yellow. I can just tell. It's clear as day." The guy was straining. He really wanted something. He wasn't just out to catch a Stromnik so he could say he did.
"What are you?" Strom asked. "Most people don't see colors when I am looking at a tree."
"I - was joking about the color. I read it in a book," the guy said. "Come to coffee with me. I'll buy."
Strom stood up. "You won't," he said, though he hadn't much money. "You will not buy me anything, you will not give me anything, you'll not so much as hand me a thing even if I paid for it."
The fellow looked startled. As if he hadn't known that it was powerful, and therefore offensive, to give things to a Stromnik. "Okay," he said, and pursed his mouth to ask why, but thought better of it.
While they were waiting for their food, the guy said, "Can I ask you what you were talking to that tree about yesterday?"
"The particular bark beetles that tree has are beneficial. They eat malignant fungus-infested cells and leave the healthy ones alone. The tree is concerned because the gardeners do not know the difference."
"Are you going to tell the gardener?"
"I did, but the gardener told me to get empirical proof, because how can he tell that I know what I'm talking about? So I was asking the botany professor how to get follow-up studies done on it. He's going to look into it."
They settled at the window table. Strom laid his lunch out in front of him: green tea, a green salad, a pie of spinach and bacon.
"I was beginning to think it wasn't true about Stromniks liking green things," the guy said with his own large cup of coffee and whipped cream in front of him. "You didn't want the spanakopita or the kiwi fruit."
"A person can have all sorts of tastes. And I won't be given things," Strom said.
"But Grandpa told me - he said that I should give something green to a Stromnik. He said you don't care for gold, but if I give you green, you're - oh."
Strom rolled his eyes. The surprise of revelation was real, but the innocence was not. The man had known what could happen if Strom accepted the green, and he meant it to happen: but what he hadn't realized was that Strom would know it too, and would be taking steps to avoid it.
Not all that bright, or maybe just so single minded that he hadn't thought it through even in the face of the evidence of Strom's behavior.
"Okay, I get it, sorry," the man said after a moment. Strom didn't reply, but tucked into his lunch. It was good. He didn't usually like bacon, but in the spinach pie it was very good.
"You're not a vegetarian?"
"Why would I be?"
"Because you're - because you're a -"
"Are trees vegetarians? Do they eat plants? What do they eat?"
"Okay, but you're not a tree -"
"No, I'm not. And if I was, I would eat light and water. But I'm not. So I eat what I feel like."
A moment later Strom finally asked, "What is your name, anyway?" He had been busy enough avoiding the guy that he had never caught his name.
The guy hesitated. "I thought you knew," he said, but it was clear he hadn't really thought so and was not sure that telling him was the right thing to do. But he said "I'm Wallen," and Strom couldn't see what was so worrisome about admitting to that name.
"And your surname?" he asked.
"If I'm agreeing to talk to a guy who's been trying to capture me for five and a half months, I think I deserve to know his name, don't you?"
Wallen shrugged, but he hesitated again. "Schmidt," he said.
"No, it isn't," Strom said. "Why would you hide your last name?"
"Because it's Lindeski, okay? The guy's my great-uncle. Kind of. More like a cousin. And he might be able to cut down my grandfather's tree, and I know there's some reason he shouldn't be allowed to but I don't know what it is, and my father won't listen to me, but he might listen to you, if you told him exactly why he shouldn't."
"So you want me to talk to this tree? And you thought you had to capture me to get me to do this?" This was so clearly not the whole story.
"I didn't know there was any other way of dealing with a Stromnik. I could hardly believe it when I saw you in a college chemistry class."
"I'm a very young Stromnik," Strom said. "I have lots to learn. And so do you."
"Will you come with me and talk to the tree? I have a car."
The man slumped. "I should have made you take the green somehow."
"That is why I won't get into a car with you and I won't let you give me a ride. For example, what color is your car?"
"I thought so. How long has it been that color?"
"Forever. I just like the color, all right? Did you not notice I always wear something green?"
"What are you?"
"I'll tell you if you come to my grandfather's place. But it's not half so special as what you are."
Strom sighed. "Give me the address. I'll get there on my own."
When Wallen smiled, he wasn't half bad looking.
Wallen's grandfather's place was a small estate on the outside of the city. Not that long ago it had been all countryside, but now it was mostly suburban highrise apartments and sprawling industrial installations. Right around the estate it was green and partially semi-wild, though. Fortunately for Strom, one of the perimeter metro lines went quite close to the place, and a bus ran from the station to a stop a short walk away. The sign on the bus stop read "Willow," and there was indeed a prominent line of willows running parallel to the road, obscuring no doubt a pretty little creek.
Strom had consulted with an old relative about this trip before he made it. First of all, the name Lindeski was not unknown. There was an old Stromnik scandal about the name, but nobody was sure what it was, so Strom assumed it had involved the capture of a Stromnik, since didn't all Stromnik scandals involve that somehow? Secondly, when he had asked how to protect himself when going into this kind of vaguely threatening but unknown territory, they had given him tips. He had on a special undergarment that felt both uncomfortable and ridiculous, and he was carrying a particular stone, and he had eaten particular foods for breakfast. He also carried gifts for any birds he might see along the way, and he had been assiduously seeking them out at every transfer point. And he had, in a hidden pocket, a letter from an auntie with a particular formula written on it.
He was as prepared as he could be.
Wallen met him half a block away, as if he had set out to meet him right there but missed the bus by minutes. "I'm so glad you came," he said. "I was afraid when I didn't answer your text in time and you didn't answer mine at all you had given up."
"No," Strom said. Given up? As if the idea had been Strom's in the first place.
The place was surrounded by plantings, not designed to obscure the house, which was old and strangely built - though Strom was not an expert on architecture and maybe it was a normal example of some long-ago style he had never seen: stone and half-timber and all jutting rectilinear bits everywhere and a thatched roof replaced with tin in some places and topped over by a historical gallery of solar panels. They didn't go through the house, which was fine for Strom as he had taken a definite dislike to the building, but around to the back, where the scene was in every way surprising.
It was a gradient. Close to the house were paths paved with ornate tiles, and even more elaborate knot gardens, ancient but well tended, and Strom had no doubt that if he were to look at them from an advantageous angle he would see that the knots contained alchemical symbols at the very least. Farther from the house, the gardens became less and less formal, and less and less domesticated, until at the edge of his vision a primeval-looking forest obscured the horizon. Birds flew up over the trees, and settling, spoke in words that Strom recognized, and he was awed.
That is, he was struck by the majesty of the place, and enchanted by its beauty, and terrified, all at once. But he knew he couldn't leave, not after coming here, not until he had met Wallen's grandfather's tree.
"It's in the forest part," Wallen said, apologetically. "A bit of a walk."
Strom nodded. "Don't show me the tree unless I don't find it," he said.
As they got closer to the forest, Strom's heart began to thud, and he walked faster, almost leaving Wallen behind. There was a particular tree that was compelling his attendance. If it was not the tree that Wallen wanted to save, he still had to see to it first.
Wallen didn't call to him to wait, but began to walk faster to keep up. By the time Strom was face to face with the tree that he had to see, they were running. Strom stopped short, tears running down his face, and pulled out his little piece of paper. He sounded out the words.
The tree responded. Strom fell to his knees and wept. The tree said some more things about its history. Strom wept some more. The tree told him what he had to do. He shook his head, but he wasn't refusing. The tree said something that he might have found comforting if he was a tree, but he wasn't, so it only amplified his sense of despair. The tree reminded him that he had to do it anyway, and he nodded, though he had never refused.
Wallen stood patiently while this was going on. He didn't try to interrupt or ask Strom what was going on.
When the tree finished with Strom he stood up. "First, you tell me what you think you are," Strom said, wiping his nose on his sleeve.
"A mongrel," Wallen said. "I think my grandmother was part Stromnik. And somebody somewhere was part Zelnik."
Strom shook his head. "You can't be 'part Zelnik.' It's not a race, it's just a bunch of chlorophyte cells. You either have them or you don't."
"Nevertheless, my parents don't have them and I do," Wallen said. "Right here." He pointed to a spot just above his hairline.
"Let's see," Strom said. Wallen leaned over. There was, in fact, a green marking where the hair was thin, in crisp clean lines that took the shape of a long-legged spider. The whole thing was the size of a small child's palm.
"That's unusual. Nowhere else?"
"No. What did the tree tell you?"
"The whole forest is pretty crucial. Also, why didn't you tell me it was the tree and not your grandfather who told you to capture a Stromnik?"
"Who would believe a tree speaks to me? And if I told you the tree speaks to me, you wouldn't believe me any more than my father does. Nobody believes that my grandmother was part Stromnik."
"I don't think it matters if she was," Strom said. "The tree claimed you. It wants you to have a Stromnik."
"Why does it want me to have a Stromnik?"
"Because it's not just a matter of stopping your whatever he is from selling the forest for an industrial park," Strom said. "I don't think he gets to do that anyway, since the tree thinks your grandfather's land is entailed and can only be sold to the government as a park in perpetuity."
"Uncle Strom is on a campaign to break the in perpetuity clauses in the public lands," Wallen said. "What does he want me to do with you? Run for public office to oppose my uncle?"
"The details are up to us. But first things first. There's a thing your grandfather had. Is it still around?"
"Are you talking about my grandmother's rope?"
"Maybe. Is it green?"
"It used to be. It's faded. It's kind of yellowish now."
"Go get it. I'll wait here."
The tree compelled him again when Wallen was gone. It kept telling him there were worse things to do than to be captured by a man who belonged to a tree. Strom reserved the right to mourn his freedom. Wallen arrived, out of breath, running, with an old piece of needlework, like a bell rope. "Your grandmother made this?"
"Yes, she did. She presented it to my grandfather when they were married."
"Is that why you think your grandmother was part Stromnik?"
"That, and the color of the air around her when she talked to the trees."
"What about your grandfather? Usually the Stromnik is the one who is captured by giving green to, not the other way around."
The tree was reserving commentary on the subject.
"But he - well he died when I was young, I don't remember anything about him talking to the trees. But wouldn't that mean that my uncle was part Stromnik too? But he doesn't want to save the trees."
"Genetics doesn't determine political alignment. You don't see their genetic inheritance stopping people from killing apes and monkeys, do you? Or any other thing -"
"I get it," Wallen said.
"Okay, I've put it off as long as I can," Strom said. "Put that thing around my shoulders or something, and I'll grasp it. Then I guess I'm yours."
Before he hesitated because he was protecting his secret plan to capture Strom: now that Strom was giving himself to him, Wallen was hesitating again.
"Do it," Strom said. "I don't think it counts if I rip it out of your hands."
"Why are you so eager to do it now? Before you wouldn't even let me give you a ride."
"Because this tree - which you call your grandfather's, but it's more that your grandfather and your grandmother too belonged to it -has told me that it's the best way for me to do what I have to do anyway. And since the main reason for me giving a crap about not being captured in the first place was to be free to fight for the trees like a good little Stromnik, if the oldest tree in the forest here tells me that I can serve that purpose better if I let you take me, I'm not arguing. But I will tell you, right now and in the hearing of every bird and every tree in this landscape, if you ever betray us, I will kill you. Though it will mean my death too and I have no death wish. All right? So don't put me in that position."
Wallen stared at him.
"Do it," Strom said.
As the rope settled around his shoulders, Strom was struck by two things. One, the rope was only partly green, which he remembered Wallen pointing out before, and partly golden: and two, it didn't matter. It didn't have to be green, or any color at all. It only had to be that Wallen had accepted him.
"Wait," Wallen said, though Strom hadn't made a move. "Do the same thing to me."
"I'm part Stromnik, right?"
Strom shook his head but did it anyway.
He saw a yellow-green corolla arise from Wallen. It didn't seem to come to him, though: it went to the tree.
"Did I go to you or to the tree?" Strom asked. It was maybe worse than going to Wallen. At least if he had belonged to Wallen, he could have convinced him to let him stay at college, continuing his thought of being stuck here, within a few paces of the tree, like all the very old Stromniks, instead of roaming free for most of his life, was wasn't suppsoed to be like this. He had made the most of his time, suggesting paths of research useful to the survival of the trees. How much more he could do, once he was a scientist himself. But out here in the suburbs? What could he do?
"It's okay," Wallen said, as if he had heard all those thoughts and maybe he had? None of this was anything like what he had been warned about. "We don't have to live here until we're old. We can go to school. I promise. Remember? You have bark beetles to study, and I have to go into politics."
"Well, for one thing, the rope is only half green, and the rest of it is gold, and you know gold doesn't do anything for us. And for another, if the tree wants us to go, we can surely go. And I am pretty sure the tree does want us to go."
A roiling wave of command made it clear that, in fact, the tree did want them to go.