Laverna: Roman patroness of thieves and con men; her aid was invoked by thieves to enable them to carry out their plans successfully without forfeiting their reputation for piety.
Feronia: Roman goddess concerned with wilderness, health, abundance, and liberty in a general sense, also associated with Angerona, the goddess who relieved pain and sorrow.
"Never again," Rebecca Stone hisses and reaches out to swat her husband on the arm with her free hand, surprisingly forceful considering the exertion she's just gone through. Isaac only smiles and leans to kiss her sweat-salty brow, looking down at the squirming, kicking bundle that's cradled in her other arm. "What should we name him?" she asks, her voice softening as she touches the baby's head with her fingertips; he's got hair, a surprising amount of it, silky-fine and dark.
Isaac hums in his throat. "I always liked Matthias."
She turns the name over in her mind, then prompts, "What about Jacob? Jacob Matthias."
"Hm. Jacob Matthias Stone. Yeah. That sounds right," Isaac agrees, then glances over his shoulder at the sound of the anxious whining from his dæmon. "Esther, what's goin' on over there?"
The bloodhound is anxiously trotting back and forth, ducking her head until her long ears drag on the floor to look beneath the bed and the chairs. "We can't find it," she whines nervously.
"Find what?" Rebecca murmurs, sitting up slightly and looking to her own dæmon, Adrastos.
"His dæmon. We cannot find her," the condor answers gravely.
There's a temporary panic. Adrastos and Esther tear through the room, searching desperately because there has to be one, it just has to be there. Even the nurse's dæmon helps them search, but eventually, they run out of places to search and they have to accept the fact there is no other dæmon in the room.
The nurse takes a step away from them despite herself, one hand reflexively reaching up to grasp the finely wrought crucifix around her neck; her squirrel dæmon leaps back onto her shoulder and burrows under her bronze hair in fear. Isaac swears and steps away, too, shaking his head as Esther cowers behind his legs; Rebecca only holds her infant close and does not speak. Adrastos comes to land on the bedrail, staring down at the seemingly perfectly healthy baby asleep in her arms with solemn red eyes.
Jacob Stone, for all intents and purposes, has no soul.
On the other side of the world, a young woman outside a pub in Melton startles when her dæmon suddenly huffs and shakes himself vigorously. "What's up with you, mate?" she asks, fumbling in her pocket for a lighter.
"Dunno," the scruffy dog dæmon replies.
"Got fleas, then?" she teases.
"Bugger off," the dæmon huffs in reply, and she lets out a smoky laugh before crushing the cigarette beneath her heel and heads back inside; it's too dark for either of them to notice the shapeless, ethereal scraps of golden Dust that's appeared around her and her dæmon. It's nearly invisible to the naked eye except under the right light, jumping about and flickering as if uncertain of itself somehow, waiting and patient.
Jacob Stone is six years old, and he knows with no uncertainty that he is wrong. The other children his age run away from him, screaming that he is a freak and a monster; the parents of those children look away from him with barely repressed shudders of revulsion and no longer speak to Isaac or Rebecca unless necessary. He has to walk to and from school every day because even if he is waiting at the end of their long, winding driveway at six-thirty on the dot in the morning, he always manages to miss the bus. Teachers will not look at him when they call roll, and they do not call on him when he raises his hand in class.
He sits on the end of the bottom of the porch steps, knees pulled up to his chest, and traces shapes in the dust beside his feet. It's a warm, sunny Saturday, and any child would be begging to go to the park or down to the creek with their friends or to ride their bikes over to the arcade. Jacob doesn't ask, because he knows that if he goes to the park, the other kids will find someplace else to play; if he goes to the creek, the other families will decide that they've spent enough time outside and should return home; if he goes to the arcade, the other kids will say that video games are stupid and go to the park.
He hears the porch creak behind him but doesn't look up, not even when he feels the breeze from Adrastos' massive wings pass over his head as the condor alights on the railing, digging his talons into the wood.
"It's too hot to be sitting out here in the sun, sugar," Rebecca says gently, lowering herself to sit on the step next to him. "Why don't you come in, have some lunch? I made lemonade."
He doesn't budge. "Do you think I'm wrong, Mama?" Jacob asks in a small voice, hugging his bony knees against his chest.
Rebecca shakes her head, stroking a hand over his shock of thick, dark hair, rubbing up and down his back. "No, of course I don't, darlin'," she murmurs. Her dæmon ruffles his dark feathers, his form a legacy of her heritage, one of the most powerful witch clans of the north. "Here, look. Watch."
Rebecca cups his chin and lifts his head. Adrastos opens his wings and takes off with a few powerful strokes, stirring up a swirl of red Oklahoma dust. He coasts upwards on warm updrafts of air, thermals created by the sun on the baked earth, spiraling upwards swiftly. In swift course, he is much further away than most people would be comfortable with, but he keeps rising. Jacob lifts his head to watch, having to tip his head almost all the way back as Adrastos spirals higher, until he is just a little black spot in the sky, and then he disappears into the glare of the sun. Rebecca shows no discomfort.
"I cannot see my dæmon. I cannot hear him or touch him. But I'm not afraid. I don't think that I'm wrong or broken. Because I know that he is there. I'm him, and he's me," Rebecca explains, her Southern drawl slipping away as her formal speech reasserts itself; she touches her breastbone. "I feel it, here."
Jacob frowns. "But how can I know she's there if I've never seen her at all?" he asks.
"Do you miss her?" Rebecca asks in return. "Do you want her here?"
"Yes," he mumbles back. He aches sometimes, in his chest. Not right where his heart is, but close to it. Aches, and feels hollow with longing and loneliness, and he envies everyone else so much, so much that sometimes he hates them, too, even his mother, although he's pretty sure that his mother is the only person who loves him.
"Then she's there. How can you miss your dæmon if you don't have one?" she prompts. "She's there, darlin', just…" Rebecca pauses and sweeps her hair behind one ear. Isaac had asked her before their son was born that she not teach him anything about witch culture. She had agreed at the time; boys did not inherit the magic, it would be cruel to tell him about a world he was never permitted to enter. But now she's reconsidering that decision. Jacob is not a witch, he does not have magic, but he does not see himself as human, either. He doesn't belong in her world or in theirs. "Would you like to hear a story?"
He lifts his head slightly; he loves stories in any shape or form. "Yes."
Rebecca wraps her arm around him and draws him against her side, stroking his hair and tells him the story of the witch princess.
The princess is the only child of the clan queen, but she is born without her dæmon. Witches are not born able to separate from their dæmons; when they come of age, they are put through a trial, in the chasm beneath the earth, where they must willfully separate in order to stretch their bond. Though it hurts the queen greatly, she exiles the princess, even though she is her only child; the princess has been chosen by the Old Religion to endure this trial, and she must do so alone. The princess leaves her clan and flees to the frozen wastelands where not even the panserbjørne venture and stays there in isolation until she is shown her path. The gods use their chosen hard but rarely give the path clearly. Tales spread, tales of a soulless woman who lives in the snow and does not feel cold, and they say that she is evil and will devour the dæmons of those who trespass on her lands, consumed by longing for what she has lost.
But even the worst stories change in their telling. When it reaches the ears of a Gyptian boy, he hears of a beautiful girl who is cursed to live alone and dæmonless, bereft of her soul. This story means a great deal to him, for he was born with two dæmons, and despite his family's objection, he steals a boat and sets out north that very night and journeys tirelessly until he reaches the far north where the princess lives. The villages try to warn him away, insist that he will surely be irresistible to the 'devouring monster,' but again, he does not listen, steals a sled, and goes north. Nobody knows what happens in the frozen wastes, but the Gyptian boy returns with the princess with both dæmons settled: a grey goose and a black crow, sacred birds to witches and Gyptians, and nobody is certain which dæmon belongs to whom, for they mixed and touched so seamlessly.
The princess returns to her clan and the witches rejoice, for she has completed the trial of the gods and will bring many blessings. The Gyptian boy returns to his family, and they celebrate as well, for what he's done has forged an eternal bond with the witch clans. The boy becomes the King of the Gyptians, and the princess becomes the queen of her clan, and they have many children together. The girls are witches who will grow into powerful queens themselves, and the boys are Gyptians who will head their own families and rule with just kindness. And even when the boy grows old and dies whilst the princess remains young, she does not mourn, for her dæmon still flies with his through the Aurora, and she can still feel his presence in the singing of the Northern Lights upon her skin, forever together.
By the time Rebecca finishes the story, it's well past dark, and Jacob is almost asleep but fighting it. "So, my little one, I do not believe you are wrong. I think you've been chosen for something great. But the gods use their chosen hard and rarely give us mortals reasons as to why," she says gently, stroking his hair.
"So does someone else have my dæmon?" he asks, rubbing stubbornly at his eyes to stave off drowsiness.
"Perhaps. And when you meet them, you will be so close that nobody will be able to tell you apart, a connection that nobody can break," she replies. "And you will do great things together."
He curls against her side and closes his eyes, and Rebecca has to carry him to bed. Adrastos does not return for hours; when he does, she strokes his feathers and silently prays that gods do not use their chosen so hard that they break.
It takes the matron at the group home two weeks to notice. Ezekiel is a quiet and calm baby, he has been ever since he was left there without any explanation two months before. The infant can't do much of anything yet, and his dæmon will scuttle around him without ever going far. He doesn't fuss much and if he's not being fed, he's likely asleep. Which is part of the reason why it takes them so long to notice that he's not quite the perfectly normal, healthy little boy they presumed he was. When she goes to check on him, peering into the bassinet, he's asleep and his dæmon is curled up next to his side as a tiny orange kitten, but…does it have heads on both sides? She stares at it, trying to determine if she's just had too long a day or—one of the heads moves and yawns as the other one suddenly sneezes.
The matron screams, her chough dæmon fluttering towards the ceiling.
In under an hour, there's a doctor peering into the bassinet at Ezekiel with beady, fascinated eyes. He's supposedly the leading researcher in the field of dæmonic study, and his own dæmon, a lanky capuchin, is reaching down to carefully handle the infant dæmons with her dexterous forepaws. One stays as a kitten, but the other, to their surprise, becomes a scorpion, waving its stinger warningly at the capuchin. "How fascinating," the doctor murmurs and hastily scribbles more notes.
"Are…are they both his?" the matron asks once he finishes with his clinical poking and prodding, scribbling fervently all the while. She has one hand pressed to her chest, the other smoothing down her chough's ruffled feathers gingerly.
The specialist hums, tapping his pen against his teeth as he stares down at his notes. "It certainly seems to be that way. They both react to his emotional state, they are both female, and they both seem perfectly healthy. I've never heard of such a thing, but it doesn't seem to be harmful in any way."
"That...it's not natural," she insists in a lowered voice.
He hums again. "I'll agree with you, but the child is much to young to do a separation test, or we could know for certain," he replies, and the matron stares at him in quiet horror hearing him so casually discussing pulling on the link between an infant and his dæmon.
"So...so what do we do?" she asks at last.
The doctor makes a small gesture with one hand. "There's not much that can be done, I'm afraid. He simply seems to have two dæmons. It's certainly an oddity, but I wouldn't call it harmful in any way. You'll simply have to monitor his condition as he grows up, regular psychiatric sessions to evaluate their stability," he replies disinterestedly on his way out the door.
There's a new boy that's moved in up the road from Jacob's house.
His name is Martin Capshaw, and he's the only person in town that actually looks Jacob in the eye when they're talking…or talks to him at all. Martin's dæmon looks at him too, without fear or hesitation, gazing into the abyss unblinkingly.
Martin's dæmon is male. His name is Volly, and neither of them will say what it's short for. He's already settled, too, as a brownish-red and white Border collie, even though Martin's only eight.
Jacob is ten, and he knows that dæmons aren't supposed to settle that early. But he also knows that boys' dæmons aren't supposed to be male, and that people are always supposed to have dæmons.
Martin has scars all over his arm, shiny, warped scars that go from his wrist all the way up his arm and come halfway up the side of his neck. There's men on the oil rig that have scars like that.
Jacob doesn't ask.
Ezekiel knows that the other kids want to be adopted, and he's really not sure why. If parents are so great, why do they ditch their kids in the first place? He doesn't really care if he's adopted by anyone or not, because he doesn't need anyone else. He's got Laverna and Feronia, what does he need grown-ups for?
Feronia already acts like a grown-up anyways, but not one of the stupid ones that dump their kids with strangers. No, she tells him stories when its bedtime, the most awesome stories, and she makes sure none of the older kids pick on him because she can turn into so many things and use some really big, nasty words to scare them off. The other kids think he's weird because he has two dæmons, but Laverna tells him it's just because they're jealous. Who wouldn't want two dæmons?
Sometimes Feronia's temper will swing between calm, joyful, and pleasant into white-hot anger, sorrow, and distress. One of the big kids says that she's bipolar and it means that he's a little bonkers deep down. Ezekiel doesn't mind. He finds it endearing. He's never needed to be as close to Feronia as he does to Laverna. They've tried it once, like all kids eventually do. Laverna gets a few metres away from him before it hurts so much that he has to run to her to stop his heart from aching. Feronia keeps going, though. Ezekiel grips Laverna in his arms and watches as she keeps going.
Ten metres. Fifteen. Twenty.
She's nearly thirty metres away from him when it begins to hurt, but she makes it another two before she has to stop, and he starts sprinting across the lot towards her. He falls to his knees on the ground, and Feronia crawls into his lap. "That's…wicked," he pants, burying his hands in her thick fur as Laverna becomes a sloth and clutches her tight. "But…let's not do that again."
His father doesn't even bother lying to him, simply tells him to get out of the truck and go in the house, he's going up Jawbones for a drink.
Jacob makes it up the stairs to his room and shuts the door behind him. The pain hits him like a punch to the gut. He's not aware of falling to his knees, isn't aware of collapsing. There's only cool floor pressed to his cheek, and he can't breathe. He curls up into a ball, hands pressed to his stomach, his body punishing itself, gasping for air. He wants to scream, to weep, but can't. He drags a ragged draw of air into his lungs, lets it out in a low keening moan, like an animal in pain caught in a trap.
It can't be right, it can't be. His mother is a witch. She is supposed to be immortal and powerful and never, ever die, but she is dead. Not even a witch can survive having her neck broken. She's gone. Adrastos is gone. All because of a single accident, a stupid fucking car accident, because some idiot wasn't smart enough to call a ride instead of driving.
Jacob lets out a pained whimper, the only noise that manages to escape him, and he knows that he is now well and truly alone. The only person who ever loved him is dead, and he is alone.
He rolls onto his back, staring up at the ceiling; his breathing speeds, then falters as if snagged on a thorn, then vents itself in a cheated, howling scream.
In Melbourne, Ezekiel wakes up to Feronia sobbing and clawing at the mattress so ferociously that tufts of white stuffing go flying. Laverna flutters around anxiously as he wraps her up in his arms and soothes her as best he can. She's crying too much to tell him what's wrong, but she clings to him so hard that her claws draw blood, pressing up against him like she wants to make them one being. He doesn't complain even though it hurts, and Laverna snuggles up against Feronia.
The next morning, the other kids stare at Ezekiel's bed; the end of it has been ripped so deeply that naked springs are poking out, and there's clumps of cheap stuffing all over like fake snow. One kid tries to say something about it. Feronia nearly bites the other dæmon's ear off, ripping so deep that the kid's screaming almost immediately.
Ezekiel has to go see the shrink again. The kid has to go to a clinic.
Nobody asks about his bed again.
And Feronia is settled.
The only person that Jacob can stand to be around anymore is Martin. There's an old shed that straddles the property line between the Stones' and the Capshaws' land, full of coils of barbed wire, wooden posts, and posthole diggers for fence repairs. Since neither family is actually in the livestock business, the fence is more of a formality than a necessity, and the shed's gone untouched for a good fifteen years. It's the easiest thing in the world for Jacob to hike out there and meet Martin.
Martin doesn't mock Jacob's intelligence or his lack of a dæmon. When Jacob brings out books about history and art and architecture, he'll sit and listen for hours without ever showing signs of being bored. It's a relief, a blessed reprieve from the constant pain of being avoided and hated and feared because he's seen as some kind of monster, and there are days that Jacob is certain that if Martin wasn't around, he would've borrowed one of Isaac's handguns.
They're sitting out in the shed, and Martin sits beside him, his shoulder pressed to Jacob's. Volly is lying next to him, fluffy head on Martin's thigh. Jacob tries not to envy the only friend he has, but it's hard not to. But he's getting used to pushing aside that ugly little prickle of envy.
When he goes to turn the page, Martin touches his arm, pausing him. "Jacob," he says, and the solemnity in his voice makes him pause. "I…if…" He chews his lip and huffs; Volly nudges at him. "If…if you wanted to…to touch…I wouldn't argue."
Jacob blinks. "Touch? Touch wh…?" He trails off, his gaze drifting down to Volly, who's looking up at him with wide, cognac eyes. "Martin," he says on an exhale of breath.
Volly stands up and slinks around to sit next to Jacob instead, much closer than any dæmon gets to a human not their own. "You can touch, Jacob," he says softly; he's always spoken to Jacob, propriety be damned. "I…I think I'd like it."
Jacob's hand lifts before he thinks it through, but he hesitates an inch above Volly's head, close enough to feel his warmth and the tingle of anbaric energy. He looks back at Martin, who nods and leans further into Jacob's side, pressing close.
He rests his hand atop Volly's warm, fluffy head.
It's…like walking into a nuclear reactor and licking the core. It's writhing and twisting and sparkling, dark and light and twisted cords of refracted gold that glows brighter than any sun and yet as soft and dark and endless as the night. Every filament, every scrap of Volly is interwoven with Martin. A thick band stretches between them; they are separate and together, their strength, their will. Volly responds to Martin's emotions and yet he is Martin's emotions, and it is so complex and fathomless and intricate. And it is so beautiful.
And instead of extinguishing his envy, Jacob finds that it has grown, become something ugly and sharp and biting. He will never have this. He doesn't have this and he never will because he has no dæmon and he is alone. He yanks his hand away, wrenches himself away from Martin, crawling on hands and knees across the floor of the shed before scrambling to his feet and running.
"Jacob! Jacob, wait!" Martin cries after him.
He sprints through the long grasses until his foot catches on a gopher hole and he goes down hard. Martin catches up to him, falling to his knees next to Jacob, helping him sit up. Jacob's leg hurts like a motherfucker, and it'll be a miracle if hasn't broken his ankle. Martin helps him sit up and hugs him hard, digging his fingers in so hard that Jacob will have bruises later.
"I'm sorry, Jacob, I'm sorry. I'm so, so sorry. I'm sorry," Martin murmurs over and over in his ear, and Volly is practically groveling, ears flat and tail tucked between his legs almost to his belly.
Jacob just clings to him and cries.
Feronia scares the other kids, and Ezekiel kind of likes it. She looks like a bear, but she's way too small to be a real bear, about the size of a dog. She's got thick, dark fur with lighter patches on her sides and chest. He's not sure what she is, so one night he breaks out of the group home and walks three blocks down to the bookstore. Feronia uses her claws to pop one of the vent grilles off, and Laverna becomes an owl so she can guide him inside the dark store.
Yeah, he could've just gone tomorrow when the store was actually open, but why wait? He's not gonna steal anything, he just wants to know what Feronia is. So, what's the big deal? Laverna flies over to the wildlife section and points out which books to take down. Feronia snuffles around the store until she finds a lamp that he can switch on; she picks one that can't be seen from the front window, too.
Ezekiel sits down at the desk and flips through the books—they're all illustrated, which is nice because he doesn't feel like trying to read a whole bunch of books. Feronia climbs up on the chair next to him so she can look, too. "Hey, what about that one?" Laverna asks, hopping onto the book before he can turn the page. "That looks like you, Nia."
Ezekiel traces his finger over the illustration; it does indeed look like Feronia, so much it could be a photo of her. "Wolverine. Hey, like the superhero!" he exclaims in delight, then peers at the words underneath. "Oh, no wonder I didn't know what you were, you're American!"
Feronia huffs and bumps him with her shoulder. "I'm an Arctic animal, that's more than just America," she corrects.
"Whatever. Look, it says that wolverines can hunt moose even though they're way bigger and they even fight bears!" Laverna hops around in delight.
Ezekiel shuts off the lamp, scoops up the books, and replaces them on the shelves where Laverna tells him they go—she remembers where each one goes exactly. Feronia gives him a boost up into the vent, and they walk back to the group house. When they crawl back into their bed, Ezekiel is full of pride because he is now officially the coolest kid in the whole house, hands down. He's been stealing stuff from the workers for months without getting caught even though he's only eight, he has two dæmons, and one of them is an animal that fights bloody bears.
Yep. Ezekiel Jones is awesome.
Jacob gets his first kiss from Martin.
He's sixteen, and it's been two years since he touched Volly. It's quick and a surprise to both of them. Martin is rapidly turning several shades of red as he leans away, hugging his arms around himself. "I, uhm…sorry," he mumbles.
Jacob glances away, his tongue darting out over his lips. Martin tastes like the cheap popcorn and the sugary candy floss that he bought at the state fair, the faint sounds of which can still be heard from behind them. "I…I didn't mind," he whispers at last.
Martin glances back at him with wide eyes; Volly's brush tail hesitantly begins to wag again. "Could I…?" He inches a little closer, one hand extended.
A small nod.
The second kiss is better, slower and lingering, and Jacob feels warm down to his toes, even seeping into that hollow place in his chest.
It's good and pleasant and even though there's a back corner of Jacob's mind that sounds suspiciously like Pastor Miller telling him that they're both going to burn eternally in hell for this, he likes it. His toes curl in his boots, and his heart is racing when they break apart. Martin smiles at him, and when he grins, his crooked tooth sticks out over his lip just a little. Jacob finds it endlessly endearing. He holds out a hand, and Martin interlaces their fingers, clasping their hands tightly as they walk across the empty field.
Three weeks later, he gets a call from a teary Mrs. Capshaw to tell him that Martin's in the hospital and he's hurt so badly and will Jacob please come to the hospital because he's Martin's only friend in this Godforsaken town.
He goes to the county state hospital, even though he knows that Isaac is going to give him hell for skipping school, the bottom of his stomach dropping out with each step he takes.
Mrs. Capshaw hugs him when she sees him—it's the first time someone other than his mother and Martin has ever touched him, and it's a temporary shock. Her chough dæmon flutters in anxious circles around her head. Jacob follows her, numb down through his bones.
Martin had been left outside of the hospital three hours ago, pushed out of a moving car with no plates on it. He's been beaten into a bloody pulp, his entire body the colour of plum pudding. He has broken ribs, a dislocated shoulder, and minor internal bleeding. His mouth is wired shut because his jaw's broken in two places, and he's been hit in the head so hard that he has a subdural hematoma that the doctors are fastidiously monitoring. Volly is lying next to him on the hospital bed, his eyes listless and cloudy with the painkillers being pumped into Martin so he doesn't have to know how much he hurts.
Mrs. Capshaw is talking to him, but he can't hear anything over the high-pitched buzzing noise in his ear. Jacob reaches out and lays his hand over Martin's wrist, about the only part of him that isn't bruised. And he knows.
He can taste candy floss and cheap popcorn in his mouth.
When the Capshaws move as soon as Martin is out of the hospital, Jacob isn't surprised, but that doesn't stop him from hurting.
His new foster mother's name is Lenore Jones, and her dæmon is a sleek, marbled polecat named Solomon. She's adopted three other girls already, all older than him—Mercy, Chastity, Honor. Their dæmons have settled, already, too—a bulldog, an iguana, and a macaw. The girls all stare at Ezekiel, and their dæmons all stare at Feronia and Laverna, bugger being polite about it. But Lenore only looks him up and down once, smiles, and asks if he's ever picked a lock before.
The question takes him off-guard, but then he snorts loudly. "Please. I could do that before I could read," he replies.
She holds out a hand to him. "C'mon, then, Zekey. You're gonna fit right in."
On the way back to their house, Mercy's bulldog tries to shove Feronia out of his way; she whirls around in an instant and closes her jaws around the loose, floppy skin on his face, biting down hard before letting go. It's enough to draw blood and really hurt, but not enough to leave permanent marks.
"Ow! You little—" Mercy shouts, but Lenore catches her arm.
"There, there, girls. Don't push if you can't handle a shove back," Lenore instructs, and her eyes are positively gleeful when she looks down at Ezekiel. "That's a fine lady you've got there, love," she says, nodding at Feronia. "Has the other beauty settled yet?"
"Not yet," Ezekiel replies, and Laverna proves it by crawling up onto his shoulder and becoming a polecat to mimic Solomon.
Lenore nods approvingly. "Lovely, pet. Just lovely."
Ezekiel doesn't answer her, but he thinks that she's without a doubt the coolest grownup that he's ever met in his whole life, and he doesn't shrug off the hand she puts on his shoulder.
He turns over the name Ezekiel Jones in his head and likes how it sounds.
The gods use their chosen hard.
That's what his mother told him whenever she told him the story of the witch princess. Well, Jacob thinks that the gods can just go fuck themselves.
He knows that his father loves his mother. Which always kind of confused him, given that Isaac Stone is, on his best days, a hidebound xenophobe, and his mother is—was—a witch who worshiped a pantheon of nature deities. But it's never properly occurred to him just how much his father loved his mother. Loved her so much, so deeply, that losing her has broken something in him that won't ever be put right again.
And Isaac is taking out the anger of losing her on the person that looks more like her than anyone—Jacob.
He's already a freak with no dæmon, and now he's a painful reminder of the loss of the only person Isaac ever loved.
It starts small, but most things do. A sharp cuff upside the head when he's being 'mouthy,' the belt coming off at the smallest wrongdoing, maybe a swing or two when Isaac is blackout drunk. Esther snarls and snaps but she never looks at him. Jacob thinks she can't look at him—like looking into an abyss, seeing her own absence reaching back for her. He wonders if she's afraid of the abyss gazing back into her. It's always the dæmons that react the worst to him.
But soon it's an everyday occurrence, the thrown bottles and hard fists, the sharp bite of the belt on his back. Jacob knows that he should tell someone, he needs to tell someone before Isaac goes over the line. But he can't. He can't. He deserves it; he's the freak with no dæmon, the reason that the whole town whispers about them at Sunday church, the reason the Capshaws moved, the reason Martin was hurt so badly.
There are days that are worse than others. Their house has a cellar; the windows are all barred from the outside, and the outside doors are chained shut with a padlock. If Jacob does something that Isaac deems worth of punishment—like not making dinner the way he wants, or not doing the dishes two nights in a row—he'll be thrown down the steps and locked in; the lock's on the outside, a heavy deadbolt that he can't break without tearing apart the whole frame.
The longest he's ever been in the cellar so far is nineteen hours.
When he comes out, there is a bike chain on the fridge and a padlock on the pantry. Jacob stands in the middle of the kitchen and stares at them wordlessly.
"They'll come off," Isaac says coolly, stroking Esther's ears with one hand, "when you learn to listen and respect the rules of my house."
"Yessir," Jacob murmurs softly.
He wants his mother.
He wishes Martin was still there.
Ezekiel loves his mum, and for the first time in his life, he finally understands why those other kids in the group homes spoke of being adopted like it's a gift from God. His name is Ezekiel Jones, and one day, he's going to be the best thief in the world. The girls don't think he has it in him, but he knows he does. He's the kid with two dæmons, he can do anything.
His sisters pick on him all the time, but he's pretty sure that's just what sisters do, and it's only natural to be jealous of his awesomeness, anyways. Since Feronia can eat all their dæmons for lunch if she wants to, he's not too bothered by them. Her zigzags between calm and fury grow more sporadic and more aggressive, but he and Laverna are used to them now, and they know how to calm her down.
There's always food in the pantry, and Mum says he can buy whatever he wants so long as he nicks the pocket-money for it on his own. Sometimes, though, he just feels so hungry all the time. Even when he eats until he feels like he's gonna throw up, he's hungry.
Mum tells him that's just what happens when boys start growing up, he'll grow out of it in a few years.
He catches Feronia hiding food in his room from time to time, in the empty space behind the vent grille in his wall, and she growls unhappily whenever he puts it back.
But that's her quirk, not his, so…he doesn't argue about it anymore. Not like it means anything, anyways.
Jacob's running the company in all but name.
Isaac doesn't let him work on the rig. He's twenty-two years old now, the whole town is used to the freak with no dæmon, but that doesn't mean he's allowed to socialise with them, like he's actually a person and one of them. No, instead, he stays closed up in the office that's supposed to be his father's and goes through the accounts, arranges contracts, looks over any complaints, checks out the potential new hires. Officially, he's not on the payroll. In order to actually get a check, he would have to fill out the required forms, and there's a little box on the forms requiring the name and settled form of his dæmon; it's as mandatory as putting his date of birth or his Social Security number. If he wanted, he could go down to the courthouse and have it made official, but he doesn't much see the point.
He already knows that he's not going to leave this town, and when he dies, he'll probably end up turned into some kind of bogeyman, just like the witch princess was, some monster with no soul that'll snatch up naughty kids who stay up past bedtime and steal their dæmons because he doesn't have his own. Hell, he's halfway there already, and he's not even thirty yet.
The old man's stopped using him as a personal whipping boy. He's not sure if it's because he's finally grown into himself and can take the old man in a fair fight, or if it's because Isaac's too drunk to see straight most of the time. The locks have long since come off the fridge and the pantry. He's not seen the inside of the cellar for nearly three years now.
But if he still hides a few cans under his bed or sleeps with his bedside lamp on all night...well, that's nobody's business but his.
He is one of MI6's youngest field agents, and he's still kind of on the fence about how he feels about that. Sure, he's doing good things for Queen and country and he legit has permission to steal from other people, but Ezekiel Jones has this long-standing dislike of rules and superiority figures in general, so....
He's not sure what made them contact him in the first place, whether it be the fact that he managed to outdo a Sterenko by himself (the system has been programmed to respond to one dæmon per intruder, so he kind of broke it by having Laverna and Feronia with him at the same time) or the fact that he does have two dæmons, one settled and one not, one able to go over thirty metres away from him despite having no formal separation training. Maybe it's a mix of both.
He hates his handler, though. Hates him. He's a fat, balding slug with perpetual body odor and an unpleasant opossum dæmon that eyes up Feronia and Laverna with naked greed in her beady black eyes whenever she sees them. Ezekiel feels the urge to hide them from his handler whenever they're in the same room, like a mother trying to shield her teenage daughter from leering men at the mall.
And right about now, he hates his handler a whole lot more.
"Are you fucking kidding me?" Ezekiel and Laverna say in unison.
The objective is fairly simple. Break into an arms dealer's secure office and steal documents confirming the largest shipment of drugs, guns, and ammunition since the 1940s; this bloke is smarter than the average bear, so he keeps all his illegal transactions strictly on paper, unable to be hacked, easy to burn and destroy if needed. The only way into the office, though, is through a pipe, a storm drain that runs directly under the building in case of flooding; all the other entrances are heavily covered, and trying to take the office by force would only result in a clusterfuck of epic proportions. Ezekiel had wondered why the storm drain wouldn't be secured too, and now he realises.
The pipe is too small for anyone to fit into, except maybe a very skinny toddler. Ezekiel's no stranger to tight spaces, but even he couldn't manage that, not unless he found a way to turn all his bones to rubber. They had never meant for him to steal the files at all.
"She'll fit," his handler says, and his dæmon's greedy black eyes are fixed on Feronia, who's standing silent and unmoving, staring down the narrow pipe. "Your bond is stretched."
"Only thirty metres!" Ezekiel shouts back, his voice echoing in the small sub-basement room they're standing in. "The office is a hundred and fifty metres away from here!" Laverna becomes a cobra and flares her hood indignantly, furious and hissing.
"This is our only secure entry point," his handler replies dispassionately.
Ezekiel has never shot anyone before, but he's really giving it consideration now. His hand twitches towards his mandatory sidearm when Feronia speaks softly, "I'll go."
He drops his gaze to her in horror. "Nia, no." They've been able to push it, sure, and a lot further than most people ever managed, but this wasn't just trying to go another metre, this is adding over a hundred. Only witches can stretch their dæmons' bonds like that, and he bloody well isn't one of those. Ezekiel shudders at the idea of Feronia pushing it too hard and their bond just, pop, snapping. He wonders if it would kill him. People can't survive without their dæmons, but he has Laverna, too. Oddly enough, he doesn't have a burning desire to test the theory out.
"I can do it," Feronia says in that same quiet voice, staring down into the narrow little pipe with grim determination. It disturbs him a little that she can bear the thought of being separated from him.
He thinks about blocking the pipe, maybe getting Laverna to become something big and strong enough to hold her down, but before he can even formulate a real plan, she's gone. "Feronia!" he shouts, dropping to his knees and thrusting his arm into the storm drain. His fingertips only just skim the fluffy end of her tail before she's too far out of reach. Laverna cries out and becomes a ferret, scurrying after Feronia, but she can only go so far before the bond forces her to stop. Ezekiel pleads with her to come back. He doesn't know if Laverna's presence is what allows Feronia to go so far, but he can't bear the pain of them both pulling at the same time. So she comes back, and clings to him fiercely in sloth form.
He feels it in degrees. A slowly building pressure in his chest, then an uncomfortable tugging, and then, when she reaches the thirty-two metres they've only ever managed to achieve and keeps going, it turns into a twisting, biting, stabbing pain, like ground glass in his joints and rusty blades slowly pressing between his ribs to his heart.
"Come back, come back, come back, come back!" he wails, his nails scrabbling at the floor so hard they break. Laverna sobs with him, writhing and twisting on the floor.
Feronia keeps going. She's too far away to hear him, and even if she could, she knows that he's speaking in delirium. There is no going back. It's an eternity in hell. He's senseless in a matter of minutes, convulsing on the floor, and there is nothing but agony. Why won't they just shoot him?
Slowly, slowly, it recedes. A dull numbness replaces the pain, a gradual building of empty euphoria, and he becomes aware of the world again. He's on the floor still, taking great, shuddering gasps of air, soaked in sweat. His tie is stuffed in his mouth like a gag. Laverna's muzzle is so close to his face that he goes a little cross-eyed trying to look at her, and his handler is as far away from him as possible whilst being in the same room.
Feronia returns a few seconds later, crawling out of the pipe with a binder full of files clamped in her jaws. She drops it carelessly on the floor in the general direction of their handler then crashes into Ezekiel and clings with all of her sharp claws, digging in so hard they draw blood. Laverna turns herself into a boa and wraps her coils around both of them, squeezing them together as tight as she dares to.
Ezekiel leaves MI6 as soon as the case is cleared.
Jacob rolls over and bites down on his pillow just before he begins screaming.
The pain makes the world fall into a white-out haze around him, aware of nothing but this pain, as though a bladed hand had reached into his chest and was trying to carve his heart out between his ribs, piece by agonising piece. He clutches at the bedsheets and screams because screaming is the only thing that's keeping him from throwing himself out of the window, just to make the pain stop.
When it fades, slowly dissolving away, his whole body goes lax, boneless and sore everywhere. He's clenched his jaw so hard that his muscles ache when he releases the pillow. He glances over at the clock, and its blinking red eyes tell him that it's only been forty minutes, but it feels like days to him.
He stares up at the ceiling, breathing roughly, then resolutely rolls over and yanks the blankets around him.
He has work tomorrow.
Laverna still hasn't settled, but that's alright. It's bloody useful, actually. When he's pulling off a heist, Laverna can be anything she wants, except for a wolverine. And then, when the cops show up and everyone's looking for the dastardly culprit, he can stand right there on the sidelines with Feronia and nobody be the wiser. Because they're looking for someone with a bird dæmon, that's what the guard thought he saw. Definitely a bird dæmon, and oh, look at that, his dæmon isn't a bird. Can't be him, then. Laverna always hides in his pocket as something small and inconspicuous, like a mouse or a moth, and giggles so hard that he has to put a hand over his pocket so nobody else hears her.
Feronia acts as his lookout sometimes. Since they've stretched their bond, she can go as far from him as she likes without it hurting. And he doesn't have to worry about her stealing his cut or turning him in, either. He has the world's best partners, and he is awesome. No MI6 required, thank you very much.
It's also Feronia that urges him to give away what he steals. She's better with money than he is, which doesn't really make sense, but he's not complaining. Mum has always said that L-O-V-E is spelt G-I-V-E, but Feronia's never agreed with that. Well, actually, she does, just not in the capacity that Mum means it. She finds the people that need it the most, and she knows how to give it away so it lasts whilst still keeping enough for them. Sometimes he wonders how it is that Feronia can use words that he doesn't even know, or know so much about things he's never even heard of.
Like the time he goes to steal a painting from a museum; whilst they're casing the place, she shakes her head and informs him succinctly that it's a fake. A good fake, but a fake nonetheless. He won't get beans for it, steal that one instead.
"How do you know it's a fake?" Ezekiel asks in an undertone, staring at the painting. It looks pretty bloody real to him.
"The colours are wrong. That shade of blue, it's called ultramarine, and it wasn't imported to Europe until the late 13th and early 14th centuries. If this painting was made when they say it was made, there shouldn't be ultramarine in it. But there is, so…fake," Feronia answers, scuffing her claws against the floor absentmindedly as she looks around the room at the other exhibits. "I mean, they mixed it to try and hide it, but it's a pretty distinctive colour, and I don't see colours the same way humans do. They might as well have put a big neon sign on it." She noses his shin and points her muzzle at another painting on the opposite wall. "Get that one instead. We can replace it with an imitation from Gerry and sell the real one to the Louvre; they've been trying to complete their collection forever, so they'll shell out some serious cash."
Laverna hums from his coat collar where she's tucked herself away in her smallest moth form, hiding out of sight of the others. Usually he doesn't give a fuck what other people think about him and his dæmons, but it's best not to draw attention when they're casing. "She's got a point, Zeke."
Ezekiel shrugs. "Whatever you say, pet."
On the way out of the museum, Feronia points her muzzle at some slick prick in a suit. "Lift his wallet and keys, would you?"
"Why?" he asks in an undertone.
"Because he's over there talking about Botticelli like he knows something, he's getting it all wrong, and he was really rude to that lady when she corrected him."
He smirks. "You put the petty in petty theft sometimes, Nia," he murmurs.
She lifts her muzzle imperiously. "It's one thing to be wrong, it's another thing to be a dick about it," she answers in a lofty tone.
He lifts the man's wallet and keys anyways. Why not? Petty it may be, but it's also good fun and he does enjoy making arrogant arseholes squirm a little.
"You must be Jacob Stone," says a woman's silky, cultured voice, and he barely has time to react to the surprise of someone actually speaking to him before her foot comes up and kicks him square in the chest, throwing him onto his back.
He rolls to his feet hastily, coughing from the force of the blow. The woman standing in front of him is about six different kinds of fine, but she's also holding a fucking sword, and her cobra dæmon is flaring his hood wide, exposing his fangs. Like, what the actual fuck? As she takes a step towards him, a blonde woman suddenly materializes out of the crowd, grabbing the swordswoman by the wrists, twisting the blade out of her grip.
"Who the hell are these guys?" Jacob asks in disbelief as more knife-wielding thugs approach them, wearing all black and ski masks.
"Uh...ninjas, maybe?" the blonde replies after one of them uses an honest-to-God whip to yank her gun out of her hands.
"Hey, that's what I said," she says an instant before the fight is on, and Jacob is more concerned with not being stabbed than the idea of ninjas appearing in Oklahoma. He's not sure if Jimmy decided to put peyote in his glass tonight or what, but it feels pretty damn real to him, even once they've made a wild dash out to his car and are burning rubber down the road.
The blonde introduces herself as Colonel Eve Baird from NATO, and she's here to collect him before the so-called ninjas can. Jacob listens almost numbly as she oh-so-casually lists off the details of his private life like she's reading a grocery list or something, and his hands tighten around the steering wheel until the leather creaks. Her dæmon crawls onto her shoulder, some kind of spiky, spiny lizard that looks more like a tiny dragon than a lizard, and he looks Jacob up and down curiously, even glancing into the backseat, and he realises that she doesn't know. How she can know so much about him and not know that he doesn't have a soul is almost funny.
"You won't find her," he says at last, addressing the baby dragon/lizard dæmon directly, and does his best to ignore the way Eve and her dæmon both flinch at the broken decorum. "I don't have one."
Eve's voice is a touch unsteady. "You don't..."
"Never did. Born without one," Jacob replies, keeping his voice admirably steady.
She swallows hard, and she informs him in an equally admirably-steady voice that he still has to come with her and she'll answer all his questions once they're safe. Her dæmon, though, creeps away from him, slinking down to hide in the breast pocket of her shirt; Jacob doesn't blame him.
When he asks where they're going, she tells him that they're going to the library. Jacob wants to laugh because a library? Seriously? They were just attacked by ninjas and she wants to go to the library? But when she speaks, that hollow place in Jacob's chest reverberates with a shudder, like a bell that's suddenly been struck after thirty-six years of being ignored. His foot nearly slips off the pedal at the abruptness of sensation in a place he's so used to feeling nothing, and he exhales slowly, trying to slow the abrupt racing of his heart.
He tightens his grip on the wheel and asks her which way to go.
Ezekiel's only really listening with half an ear to Carsen's yammering; in his head, he's trying to map out the best exits and what he can logically steal and scram without running the risk of being weighted down and caught. Ninjas are one thing, but magic? Pull the other one, it's got bells on. But as they're walking down a corridor, Feronia suddenly goes tense beside him, her fur all standing on end for a moment. "Nia?" he asks, glancing down at her.
"He's…he's here," she murmurs, then suddenly launches herself forward, towards the door at the end of the corridor. "He's here, he's here, lemme out, lemme out, lemme out!" Feronia shouts, flinging herself at the door hard enough that a crack appears in the wood, her claws scrabbling at the floor and frame.
"Who's here?" Flynn asks, baffled.
"No clue," Ezekiel replies; Laverna leaps off his shoulder to the door and uses her body weight to turn the knob; once the door opens, Feronia is off like a shot, incredibly fast despite her relatively short legs. Ezekiel hastens after her, following the sound of her scrabbling claws around a corner just in time to see her tackle a scruffy, plaid-wearing cowboy wannabe around the knees, bowling him over like a furry thunderball.
Ezekiel staggers and swears aloud, one hand clutching at his chest like he's having a coronary at the feeling of contact and connection and wholeness. It's enough to bring him to his knees.
It's…bloody hell, it's like being plugged into a power plant. He's full of fire and heat and lightning, flickering through his nerves, molten in his bones, liquid in his blood. He's on fire, he's burning alive, but God, it feels so good. And like the movement of molten magma beneath the earth, he can feel a connection forming, too deep to be felt but inexorable and irreversible, tying Feronia, Laverna, him, to this scruffy cowboy currently sitting on the floor cradling Feronia in his arms with a look of naked awe and wonderment and love.
"You're mine," Feronia declares firmly, digging her powerful claws in hard.
"It's…it's you," the cowboy—Jacob, that's his name, Jacob Matthias Stone—rasps out, his voice cracking slightly. He strokes her with one hand, and Ezekiel shivers all over at the feel of rough, callused hands running over his body. "You're my dæmon. I have a dæmon," he whispers, and it sounds like he's about to cry.
Ezekiel stares at the scruffy man—Jacob, he's Jacob, you git—and huffs out a breathless laugh. "I think we need to have a talk, mate."
"I think you broke him," Cassandra says from somewhere over his head, but Jacob's a little beyond hearing at the moment.
He's not really aware of anything, really, because he is holding his dæmon for the first time in his life. His dæmon. He has a dæmon, and she's a wolverine, and her name is Feronia. Jacob buries his face in her thick fur, inhaling the wild scent of her. "Feronia," he murmurs; the name tastes as sweet as forbidden candy on his tongue. That empty part of his chest is full to overflowing with light and love and energy and wholeness. "Feronia, Feronia, Feronia."
She tucks her muzzle against his neck, huffing warm breath on his ear. "Jacob, Jacob, Jacob," she echoes.
"I've had two dæmons since I was born, but I never thought that I was just borrowing one from someone else. Isn't that something, and—oi, Laverna, have you settled?" says a voice that sounds so familiar and yet he's never heard it before in his life.
Jacob lifts his head to look at the young man that's kneeling on the floor a few feet away from him. His accent is so Australian it hurts, and he's wearing clothes that probably cost more than Jacob's entire wardrobe. Perched on his shoulder is a tiny monkey dæmon; it looks familiar, but he can't think of what it's called at the moment. Something from South America.
And when you meet them, you will be so close that nobody will be able to tell you apart, a connection that nobody can break. And you will do great things together, he hears his mother's voice echo through his head. He feels warm and flushed down to his toes, and he tightens his grip on Feronia reflexively.
"This is gonna be great," she sighs happily, resting her muzzle on his chest.
"So you were born with two dæmons, you were born without one at all, and they're only just now settling?" Cassandra asks as they make their way into the cool, spacious elevator, glancing between Ezekiel and Jacob.
"That's about right," Jacob replies, leaning back against the wall.
"Not really," Ezekiel corrects. "Laverna's only settling now."
Laverna hops up atop his head to fix Cassandra with a look, propriety be damned. "It's a little presumptuous to assume that we were both unsettled just because I could still change form. I've been changing up until five minutes ago, but Feronia's been settled since we were six, which adds up to about twelve years," the marmoset dæmon corrects, smoothing her fur importantly.
Cassandra's mouth falls open.
"That's an unattractive look on you, pet," Laverna adds with a flick of her tail.
"What the hell?"
Ezekiel snorts and tries not to grin, biting his lips together. "And that's Laverna. She can be a bit mouthy."
"Never would've guessed it," Eve mutters from behind them.
Feronia chuckles low in her throat, leaning up against Jacob's legs. "She doesn't mean any harm, darlin'," she placates.
Cassandra folds her arms and glares at Ezekiel, only somewhat mollified. "I like her better."
"Personally, I'm quite fond of both," he replies with a cheeky grin.
The redhead huffs and looks away. "That's just weird," she mutters.
Ezekiel starts to retort, but a muffled snicker from Jacob makes him stop short. "What's so funny?" he asks just as Cassandra turns her head to look at the cowboy.
Jacob glances downwards purposefully; Laverna's taken up her usual spot on Feronia's broad, furry back, and Cassandra's sleek stoat dæmon has snuggled up right next to Laverna, his glossy pelt a band of reddish-brown across her dark shoulders. Laverna rests one of her tiny paws atop the stoat's head, gently petting his small ears. Feronia doesn't shake off her impromptu passengers, only blinks up at Cassandra with innocent smugness.
The redhead turns away with a huff. "To hell with you," she grumbles under her breath; Feronia laughs.
The Library is...mind-blowing is a bit too small of a word. But what's really amazing is how they all fit there. Jacob, who's never gone more than fifty miles from the town where he grew up; Ezekiel, who's never stayed in one place more than a few weeks at a time; Cassandra, who's never moved outside of the box of her admittedly morbid diagnosis; Eve, who's moved from base to base nearly her entire adult life. They fit in here, in this madhouse Library that's full of sentient artifacts and dangerous magic and impossible things. The fit's not quite perfect, not yet, but they'll get there with time. They're a team, and they're...friends. Which is a little odd, considering that they're a bunch of people that wouldn't recognise friendship if it bit them on the collective arse. But it works, so...it's not broken, so don't fix it.
"Who's Martin?" Ezekiel asks one night over a chess game. They've settled into a not-really-but-almost routine in the three months since joining the Library. If they aren't fall-over tired, he and Jake will have a game of chess or two in one of the quiet reading nooks that are scattered all over the Annex.
Jacob tenses for a moment, setting down his pawn with a little less grace than usual. "Excuse me?" he asks.
"Martin." Ezekiel glances down at Feronia, curled up in a dark, shaggy ball on Jacob's socked feet. "Sometimes, when she was sleeping…she'd start crying. Asking for someone named Martin. And Volly."
Jacob swallows hard. Exhales slowly. It still hurts, to think about Martin, seeing him in the hospital bed hooked up to painkillers, bruised everywhere and slowly bleeding into his brain. But Ezekiel deserves the truth from him, so he tells him. Tells him about Martin and what happened to him and how the taste of candy floss still gets to him. And he doesn't stop there. He tells Ezekiel about Isaac and his unfortunate habit of venting his temper via his fists and his belt. About the cellar and the locks on the pantry.
And in return, Ezekiel tells him about the group homes. The kids that called him the freak with two dæmons. The foster parents that didn't see kids aching for homes, only checks that they'll get each month. About the endless hours he had to spend in a claustrophobic shrink's office because they thought he was a 'problem child.' And then about MI6 and the agony of Feronia pulling away from him. It doesn't measure up to what Jacob went through, but it's not competition, it's honesty, the truth about what they did and what was done to them.
Their chess game is forgotten, but they don't really mind. At some point, they move to sit on the sofa instead, and Ezekiel opens a bottle of wine expensive enough to make Jacob wince when he sees the label.
They talk until it's late enough to be called early again; when they both run out of stories for a moment, Ezekiel leans forward to kiss him. He's only the second person that Jacob's kissed; he doesn't taste like candy floss or cheap popcorn. Ezekiel tastes like $800 Cabernet and spiced peaches. Laverna curls up on Feronia's broad back, a patch of brighter fur against her dark pelt, fuzzy and content.
When they pull apart, Jacob tells Ezekiel the story of the witch princess, how the gods use their chosen hard and never give a reason why but apparently make the reward for completing the trials well worth it. Ezekiel laughs, kisses him again, and calls him t'hy'la; Jacob rolls his eyes, calls him a geek, but doesn't contest the term.
If the shoe fits….