Work Header

explain, explain

Work Text:

A few days after the confrontation, there's a knock at the door to Jon’s office; three sharp raps, and then Elias is inviting himself in without waiting for a response, sitting down in the chair opposite him, and declaring, “You need practice.”

Jon blinks at him. “What?”

“You need practice,” Elias repeats. “With your compulsion. At present you wield it like a blunt instrument at best and, more than that, half the time you can barely even tell whether you’re using it or not. You need to learn finesse.”

It’s not that what he’s saying isn’t true, but given how most people seem to react when they know he’s compelling them - even unintentionally, for that matter - Jon frowns across the desk at him and asks, “And who am I supposed to practice on? Am I supposed to use my assistants like lab rats, or go out into the world and try more things that want to murder me for it?”

Elias just gives him a long, indulgent look, like an adult dealing with a particularly slow child, and then sighs and shakes his head.

“You’ll be practicing on me, Jon. I’m perfectly capable of shaking it off at your current level - I doubt that you’ll be able to change that, but I expect you to make a fine attempt - and a willing volunteer for as long as you require to learn. Given both of those factors, I believe I’m the perfect candidate.”

Jon can’t really argue with that, and he also can’t claim that having better knowledge and control where this apparent ability of his is concerned would be a bad thing. In the end he agrees to come in over the weekend and meet with Elias for it, and Elias makes to excuse himself.

Something occurs to Jon, then, and he manages to work up the courage as Elias reaches the door to ask, “Elias? You said— you suggested that it was… that you enjoyed it.”

“I did.”

“How much… how much of you volunteering for this is because of what the Eye wants, and how much of it is that?”

Elias laughs, a sharp, half-surprised bark of a thing rather than the softer, more smug laughter Jon remembers from the confrontation.

That,” he tells Jon, “Is an answer you’ll have to pull out of me, if you want it.”

(it probably shouldn’t be as much of a motivation as it is)

The first attempt is that Saturday. Jon heads up to Elias’ office, early, to find him in there and working the same as any other day; if he didn’t know better, he’d wonder if Elias ever even leaves.

Come to think of it, he’s not entirely certain he does know better in this case. Something to ask, perhaps.

Elias nods for him to sit in the chair across the desk and, once he has, begins immediately, “At present, you’re using your compulsion as a blunt instrument on questions alone. On top of that, you’ve worked out how to turn it on, but not how to reliably turn it off. Both are worth learning; there are things out there that know you can compel them, and a great deal of them will react more positively toward you if you make the effort not to, or at least convince them you’ve made the effort not to.”

He glances in the direction of Jon’s hand, and adds, “Something that I believe you’ve worked out already, yes?”

Jon nods an irritable agreement, trying to shake the feeling of being lectured by a professor at university all over again.

“Anyway,” Elias goes on, “Things like this are like a muscle, Jon; the more you learn to exercise it purposefully, the stronger it will be, and the better you’ll become at recognizing the limits of it and then stretching those limits out further. Gertrude did this, to some extent, but I believe that there are levels to it that even she did not reach.”


“That, I can’t tell you.” He lifts a hand when Jon makes to interrupt, and continues, “Not just because of your role, Jon. This is something I genuinely cannot tell you. I can’t see the future - I can make theories and predictions, and they’ll be correct more often than not, but at the heart of it they’re just guesses with a lot more background information than most people have when guesses. Gertrude didn’t reach those levels, if they exist, and to some extent I believe that the individual Archivist has some sway over exactly how particular flavors of the compulsion can manifest.”

“But you have theories about it,” Jon says. “You could tell me those.”

“Yes,” Elias agrees. “However, that’s where your role comes in. I can tell you my theories, but I believe even that would be leading you too firmly if I did so entirely by choice.”

Jon catches the implication quickly, and is rewarded with a knife of a smile when he says, softly, “But compelling them from you would be learning.”

“Quite. And on that note, shall we begin?”

The first thing that Elias works on training him on - the sessions daily after that first Saturday, and running as long as Elias sees fit - is telling when his attempts to compel someone are being resisted. He gives Jon a set of acceptable questions to ask, with the assurance that he’ll allow himself to be compelled for some of them and shake it off on others, but always provide an answer. Jon’s job is to work out which answers are compelled truth and which are lies, made harder by the fact that the approved questions are mundane things in which a believable lie is child’s play to come up with, even on the spot - and given that Elias provided him with a specific list, Jon doubts any of the lies will have to be on the spot.

The added difficulty is the fact that if he tries to rely on more mundane tells, Elias knows, and proceeds to either erase them or factor them into his compelled truths. He notices that Elias hums under his breath before a compelled truth, so Elias starts to do it now and then when lying and sometimes consciously avoid doing it before admitting something under the compulsion. He notices that Elias shivers sometimes when throwing off the compulsion, so Elias stops doing it and schools his expression perfectly whether he’s compelled or not. He notices that Elias tends to give longer answers when compelled, so Elias extends his lies to match.

After enough of it, to any normal observation there’s no difference whatsoever between the lies and the truths, no way to discern whether the compulsion is holding him or not.

It’s then, or at least shortly after, that Jon starts to register it outside of normal observation; an odd, twisting sensation, like pulling on a rope and feeling it fray and then give way under the tension. He observes the feeling, learns the shape of it and, when it still keeps happening beyond the point Elias usually would have corrected for it, he seizes on it.

He insists on continuing to test it when Jon tells him he’s grasped it, but when they’ve gotten through the entire list of the day’s questions and Jon has a perfect score on lies versus compelled truths, Elias leans back in his chair, looking pleased.

“Good, Jon. You’re coming along quicker than I ever would have expected.”

There’s a feral sort of pleasure in Jon at the success, and he grins or bares his teeth and isn’t sure which it is as he grasps the feeling of the compulsion and asks, “Elias. What are your theories about what this power will be able to do in the future?”

(he’s not surprised to feel the rope fray and break under the pull, but he watches Elias’ shiver and files away the sight of it with an intensity that it doesn’t occur to him to worry about until later)

Now that he has the feeling of it firmly in his grasp, learning to turn the compulsion off barely even takes a lesson. It only takes a few attempts, feeling the rope trying to loop around Elias and pulling back before it can, before he trusts that he’s at least reasonably capable of asking a question without worrying about compelling anyone. He’s not completely convinced it’ll hold out if he’s particularly frustrated, if he wants an answer particularly badly, but he follows Elias’ logic that the best way to work on that is to just fine-tune his general control.

“The next step,” Elias tells him, “Is to make it less… heavy-handed. You said your concept of it is feeling like a rope, yes?”

When Jon nods, he goes on, “Then your aim is to make it something thinner and less noticeable, without sacrificing strength. To shift your concept from a rope, to a string, to a fiber, without losing the tension or making it weaker and easier to shake off.”

It doesn’t sound easy to Jon, and it turns out to be even less so in practice. He’s trying to balance using and not using the compulsion - turning it off on some questions, with the aim being to prevent Elias from being able to tell the difference - and adjust the feeling of it at the same time, and it’s more frustrating and tiring than learning Elias’ tells and watching them promptly disappear was. The rope of the compulsion doesn’t want to thin and when it does it feels weaker even to him, Elias brushing it off like cobwebs. A few times, Elias brushes it off with such little effort that he doesn’t even register the attempt, and marks the question down as one where Jon hadn’t tried to compel him.

Elias is patient with him, though, and he starts to grasp it eventually. He manages to reach the point where Elias doesn’t always notice it immediately, though he always catches himself a word or two in at best and shakes it off, shifting in his seat in a way that has Jon’s eyes fixed on him every time.

They shift away from the agreed questions, then, Jon asking him questions about all of this, about what’s happening, about what he needs to do in the moment. The kinds of things that Elias insists he can’t tell Jon of his own free will, that would be helpful for Jon to know if he manages to slip the compulsion under Elias’ radar even once.

He doesn’t know what it is that alerts him to the fact that he has it, that he has a grip firm and thin enough to slip under - he hopes - even Elias’ view. Only once, he thinks, and he suspects that will be the case for anyone or anything else that’s knowing to look for the compulsion; he’ll have one conscious shot at it, but he thinks most of them will realize in the aftermath if nothing else, the way Jude had.

It’s difficult to decide on which question to use for this - quickly, too, because Elias is firmly avoiding watching Jon’s intentions so as to make this possible at all, but too long a pause might make him curious - and he stumbles over a few rapidly in his head. In the end, he decides that most of them are things he can find out from other sources one way or another and that questions about what he should be doing are too limited, made useless by Elias’ insistence that Jon not ask anything more extensive than what he should be doing within the next week, for fear of it being too much like leading him even if Jon compels the answer from him.

That leaves just one that only Elias can answer, and that Jon suspects will be helpful for putting him on the right track, or at least a right track.

“Elias. What are your theories about what this power will be able to do in the future?”

Jon feels the compulsion loop itself around Elias and tie tight, and he keeps his face still and carefully expressionless as Elias says, “I suspect, with enough work, that you’ll be able to compel actions, rather than answers. The Archivist’s role is about experiencing and cataloguing events, not making them happen, so it would be limited - perhaps more a firm suggestion than actual compulsion - but nonetheless. When you add the differences of individual Archivists, I suspect that Gertrude would have been able to compel actions specifically for the purpose of watching them, had she reached that level. With your track record so far, I have to admit I fear it’s more likely to manifest in your case as being able to compel others to act upon you than anything like that.”

Elias pauses, frowns, and then inhales sharply and abruptly snaps the compulsion with a shuddering jerk. It takes him a few moments to compose himself, throughout which Jon can’t do anything but watch him.

Good, Jon,” Elias says soon enough, his breathing more ragged than Jon would have expected. “Very good.”

Later, Jon suspects he’ll blame the thrill of actually feeling in control for once for the way that, watching Elias there, he finds himself unable to do anything but extend the feeling of the compulsion back into its first, heavy-handed rope feeling and then ask, “How much of you volunteering for this was because you enjoy how it feels?”

He can tell Elias hadn’t expected the heavy tug of the rope - or however it is that he experiences it, because Jon doubts the rope would provide much in the way of tingling - from the way his eyes widen momentarily before he composes himself enough to throw it off. The noise he makes is almost obscene, though, and Jon hadn’t expected himself to enjoy that - the noise, the being the one to cause it, the having made Elias lose his cool - as much as he does.

“That,” Elias bites out, his voice lower and rougher than Jon has ever heard it before, “Was… not what I expected.”

“Yes,” Jon says, voice quiet, “Yes, I thought that might be the case.”

He tries to focus, now, to shake off the haziness in his head. “What did— what did you mean, about compelling others to act upon me?”

There’s no compulsion in the question, but Elias still shifts slowly in his seat before answering, “I… believe it’s likely that it would be something that enabled you to experience things directly. You’re more… Gertrude involved herself in what was occurring, and received injuries and was affected by other powers in the process, but she did not… experience their effects in the way you seem to end up doing without even trying.”

“Wonderful.” Jon scowls as he grasps it, and the part of him that’s carefully filing away Elias’ reactions notes the way he seems to relax at Jon’s return to a more common tone and expression for him. “So perhaps in the future I’ll be able to ask something out there to kindly burn the skin off of my hand or choke the air from my lungs, instead of just relying on my personality to make them want to?”

Elias relaxes further, but before he can respond Jon finds himself asking, “That’s not the kind of thing you were thinking about, though, was it?” He adds a biting thread of compulsion to the question that makes Elias shiver visibly.

He gets the feeling that Elias has only managed to halfway shake it off, from the way the words sound dragged out of him as he responds, “No, it’s— The sensation is… distracting, Jon. I can… I can admit I might have jumped to more… pleasant uses for it.”

“Pleasant uses.” Jon doesn’t make it a question, doesn’t try to compel a response from him, just makes it a flat statement as he watches Elias’ face.

(he can imagine, and any other time he thinks he’d feel flustered but right now it’s different - he feels in control and Elias’ reactions are something to watch and catalogue, not to fear or be embarrassed by - and he finds himself wondering how much of him is Jon, right now, and how much is the Archivist)

“Elias,” Jon finds himself asking, quite apart from himself, “What were you thinking about?”

Elias huffs out a long breath, and Jon gets the feeling he’s examining himself for the compulsion - given that he doesn’t shake it off, Jon assumes he’s missed the thin thread of it that, to Jon’s feeling, is looped around his ankle - before speaking.

“You having someone touch you. Harm you in ways more… appealing than what Jude Perry did to your hand. Let you experience—” he cuts himself off with a sudden sharp curse, and Jon isn’t surprised when the thread of compulsion snaps a moment later.

Stop that now, Jon.” It’s an order, not a request, and the weight of it settles around Jon in a way not unlike his compelling; thicker, though, more like chains than even his heaviest rope. He shifts in his chair, the Archivist perturbed by being limited in its observations and Jon perturbed by the sensation of coming back to himself, of having been somewhere far from all of this even while he was present for it all.

“What was that?” He’s careful to keep the thread of it in close to himself, even though he can feel it wanting to shift and try to snake free of the binding of the command.

“The Archivist thirsts for knowledge, and you are the Archivist.” Elias leans back in his chair, watching Jon closely. “And I fear you let it get to your head, that you were managing to get all the information you wanted out of me.”

A pause, and then, “…even if it wasn’t quite the sort of information the Archivist exists to catalogue, hmm?”

Jon can feel his cheeks burning at the amusement in Elias’ tone, at the way he’s smirking, and ends up biting out, “It started from what you thought I might be able to do, that— that’s why I had to keep asking. I think.”

Elias laughs, though not unkindly, and with the sound Jon feels the heavy chain-weight of his previous command loosen, as though he’s content that Jon is going to behave himself without it for now.

“Well,” he says eventually, “Should you ever reach the point where you are able to compel actions upon you, please do feel free to come to me for further training in that, too. Until then, I suppose you’ll just have to imagine the results, no?”

(it’s said with the certainty, of course, of someone who not only knows that Jon will imagine it, but intends to remain entirely aware of exactly what those imaginings are)