Tea had barely closed the orphanage door before the yell came and Bluebottle clattered down the worn wooden stairs, leaping into him with a hug that knocked him back against the door.
Winded, Tea took a moment to recover his breath, Bluebottle squeezing so tightly that it wasn’t easy.
“What?” He finally gasped, “What’s wrong?”
“Hellebore said you passed out.” Bluebottle looked earnestly into his eyes, her fingers seemingly desperate to check him all over, hovering over his arms before she allowed herself to touch his face, turning it this way and that to check for damage.
Bold, Tea thought.
“She came back?” He tutted bitterly, “She didn’t come back to help me.”
Bluebottle bit her lip, hands lingering on his face longer than was necessary.
“But you’re okay?”
“But you pa-”
“It wasn’t a blow to the head, it was… like when we found Khat. I haven’t been sleeping very well, and I just fell asleep.”
Tea stepped away from her worrying hands and moved to step around her.
“Really?” She asked to his back.
“Thank goodness. If anything had really happened, I…”
Tea paused then, and turned back to study Bluebottle’s face, seeing the complete relief in it, and remembering what he had thought when Rue was telling him about her friend.
Hesitantly, he reached out a hand to tousle her hair.
“I’m fine, I promise.”
Quickly, he withdrew into the front room, where a little ginger haired girl sat reading on the couch.
“Good morning.” Khat greeted him through her book, not drawing her eyes away for one second. Her ginger hair was woven together in two plaits on either side of her face, her cheeks and brown eyes glowing with excitement. The little girls small pink lips moved determinedly, trying to shape the words from the page.
“It’s evening.” He corrected, taking a deep breath and suddenly remembering how much sleep he’d missed. “I’m surprised Hellebore hasn’t put you to bed.”
“She tried.” The little girl puffed up her cheeks, recollecting a strop she had no doubt stormed out when Hellebore had tried.
How long had Hellebore been back, he wondered.
“What are you reading?” He shrugged off her bedtime tardiness – it wasn’t his responsibility – and moved into the kitchen to ransack the cupboards, stomach rumbling from a long day.
“I don’t know.” She sighed in frustration and slapped the book down onto her knee. “I can’t read it.”
“You’ll get there.” Bluebottle had joined them in the front room, hurrying to take the book from Khat, “You just need sleep for now.”
“I don’t!” She protested. “Not until I can read it!”
“Sleep deprivation is no joke.” Tea lowered his voice, feigning gravity, “If you let it get to you… well… it could just kill you.”
Though Khat’s eyes grew wide with fear, she pressed her lips together so tightly in defiance that they turned white. She leapt from the chair with a thump and ripped the book from Bluebottle’s hand. Her footsteps were purposefully heavy as she ascended the stairs to her room at the very top.
“She seemed so sweet when I found her.” Tea sighed, brushing some nuts, fallen from their bag, into his hand and cracking one between his teeth, “She’s just another brat.”
“Yeah…” Bluebottle laughed nervously, “But… I mean… she is sweet… I mean… she’s trying so hard to read.”
Bluebottle hesitated before stealing a nut from the cup of Tea’s hand.
Tea didn’t protest.
“I wish I could help her.” Bluebottle mumbled.
The room filled with the sound of crunching and chewing.
Tea had been educated by his parents, taught from a young age to read their journals about their historical discoveries, and various types of old architecture that had been uncovered by others from other cities that the Gardener’s refused to tell children about in the hopes that the knowledge of them would disappear – though many in the Garden were descended from people who came from those other cities, and their parents liked to tell them so.
He knew that Hellebore could read; she was the book collector of the orphanage, hoarding any text she could find – visiting libraries, apparently. This could only be due, Tea thought, to her origins in the Roses, where her mother worked for the government.
He was aware that Rue could read, but he didn’t know where the knowledge had come from.
Bluebottle, however, was raised by dog-breeders, with knowledge passed down, knowledge that needn’t be read and so the skill of reading couldn’t be passed on to her. Hellebore and Rue had tried to teach her to read – Tea had even felt pity enough to read signs out for her on the street as she struggled, pointing out and clearly annunciating each syllable and which part of the word it came from – but even with the help, Bluebottle could only just find her way around town using a map, her ability to read dwindling behind even Wormwood, and, with the effort the little girl was putting in, soon possibly Khat.
“It’s not so important to be able to read.” Tea shrugged casually, but avoided Bluebottle’s eyes. “A book isn’t going to save your life, or make it any different.”
His friend shuffled uncomfortably, watching her feet.
“And when you’re walking on the street, well… we’ll be there if you need to find your way, or… if you just learn the streets well enough, it won’t matter.”
She hummed thoughtfully.
“I just want to be able to help little kids like Khat to do something, rather than being at the same level as them.”
Tea brushed the crumbs from between his fingers and blinked, drowsiness taking it’s hold again.
“There are other ways, if that’s what you really want.” Together, they climbed the stairs to their room.
“Like what?” Bluebottle wrinkled her nose, clearly unable to think about it, as focused as she was on her embarrassment at not being capable of reading.
Tea thought hard, and suddenly remember all those years ago, when the girl with the snowdrop took him to the orphanage.
If she hadn’t, he thought, I might have just stubbornly stayed there and starved to death.
“You could… save children from bad situations.” Tea shrugged, pushing open the door to their room. “You’ll find something.”
For over an hour, Bluebottle seemed to sleep, curled up in her corner, as Tea was in his.
Neither spoke, and Tea tried to even out his breathing, in case she awoke and realised he still couldn’t sleep.
Go to the city.
The words haunted him.
That’s where my parents are. He remembered the voice telling him, telling him they loved him dearly, telling him that he cared for them, too. Are they worth finding?
“Tea?” The whisper broke his thoughts and drew his attention over to Bluebottle, who was smiling sleepily at him. “I was thinking about what you said about a book not changing your life, or anything…”
He shifted onto his elbow to look at her.
“What if there was?” Bluebottle hissed, excitement in her voice, “Imagine if… if… there was a book that told you the future… or when you were going to die… like magic. That would change your life. If I had that, I’d really be angry I couldn’t read.”
“Well, there’s no need to worry, because that’s impossible.”
“Why? There’s magic.”
“The future isn’t pre-determined.” Tea spoke thoughtlessly, “I know the Gardener’s say it’s all ‘part of the God’s big plan’, but I don’t think that’s true.”
Bluebottle considered this before asking what made him think that.
“Everything can change. Humans can change, society can change, even history and religion can change if you find different information. Who’s to say that there’s really a god, anyway? Maybe we’re all just here… dictating and deciding for ourselves… making judgements on others or on another’s behalf.”
Bluebottle seemed to find that amusing, biting her lip to hold in a laugh. Tea didn’t know whether she thought his ideas ridiculous, or his sudden expression a novelty that needed to be relished.
Deciding for ourselves… or on another’s behalf… He thought, as Bluebottle turned over to sleep again without another word.
“Maybe…” He started hesitantly into the silent, questioning every sound like he was the one who didn’t know how to read, “Maybe I should go to the old city, and find my parents.”
Bluebottle mumbled, pulling herself back out of sleep.
“… Find your parents…? In the old city…?”
“Yeah. When I was asleep, there was a voice that told me they loved me and cared for me well, and that… I loved them, too.” He bit his cheek, then dropped onto his back with a thud, sending dust rolling across the room, “I just thought… if that is the case, then… I should find them.”
The dust reached Bluebottle to receive her reply.
“I think… if you have to question so hard whether you really cared – and, well, you’ve never seemed to care about them to me… I think, well… then it’s not worth it.” Quietly, almost to herself, she added, “Besides… why risk your life in the city for people who didn’t care about leaving such a little boy all alone?”
“Oh.” Tea grimaced, then flipped onto his side, facing the wall, “I suppose that’s true.”
Closing his eyes, he tried to let the darkness take him into sleep.
“Will you stay?” Bluebottle’s worried voice fought with a yawn.
Tea yawned in response.
“For now… Yeah.”
And finally, he managed to sleep.