Jon sits on the edge of his chair, uncomfortable against the solid wood. Opposite, Elias reclines. His chair is leather. It is not a subtle discrepancy.
“More questions?” Elias says. “I suppose it’s in your nature, and I wouldn’t want you to think I’m being discouraging. By all means.” He makes an elegant gesture, at once inviting and dismissive. I permit you to waste my time, for a while.
“Tell me about Michael,” Jon says. He spots the narrowing of Elias’ eyes, the tightening of his fingers. A flicker of something unpleasant, crossing his face like the briefest of shadows. Abruptly, he finds himself sweating. Nervous. He can’t work out why.
“I’ve already answered this,” Elias says flatly. “I don’t enjoy repeating myself.”
“You didn’t actually tell me anything.”
“I said what I needed to. The creature you so charmingly refer to as ‘Michael’ is nothing more than one more mosquito in a swamp full of the things. A parasite, feeding off far more complex organisms. His amusements are short-lived and ultimately pointless. As I told you last time: an irritant.”
“Leitner called him- it, Distortion,” Jon says quietly. He’s watching for a reaction; they are so rare where Elias is concerned, which makes the rage so much more disconcerting. Well-hidden, but not well enough. Jon sits as far back in his chair as he can manage.
“The Spiral discards identities like you discard junk mail,” Elias snaps, and Jon flinches. “Equally meaningless, just as unwanted, nothing to dwell on. If your ‘Michael’ shows himself again, let me know, and I’ll make sure he’s dealt with. Was that all?”
Jon rubs his palms on his trousers to dry them. His chest feels oddly tight; his heart beats too fast. He doesn’t know what it is he’s afraid of.
“I’ll have more questions,” he says thickly. “In the future. Though I doubt you’ll give me any easy answers.”
“No,” Elias agrees. The usual bland smile is back in place, and Jon breathes a little easier.
“Right. So I’ll just go back to doing things the slow way.”
“It’s not forever, Jon,” Elias says gently. “You’ll get there in the end. My only concern is making sure you’re ready for what you find.” He stands, moving around his desk with a disconcerting grace. One hand touches Jon’s hair as he passes. Strokes it, stopping before Jon can say anything. He turns to protest and finds Elias standing by the door, holding it open for him.
“You’re doing well,” Elias tells him. “So well. And now I need you to go and continue doing the same. For your own sake. And for me.”
Jon feels the lingering presence of Elias’ hand in his hair, like a flash of light inside his eyelids. His knees are weak when he stands. He doesn’t know why.
It’s all he can think of for the rest of the day.
Michael is in his flat. Jon doesn’t know when it arrived, or how long it has been sitting at his kitchen table while he boils water for tea. He turns, and there it is. It greets him politely. Asks him how his day was.
“Terrible,” Jon says, fumbling down a mug with hands that won’t stop shaking. “Where the hell have you been, by the way? Never mind. I went to an…ungodly amount of effort to track down answers, getting myself maimed several times, and when I arrive back at the Archives expecting a reckoning, Elias…wins. Now we’re back to square one. Record the statements, ask what questions are permitted of me, feed the Beholding.” He’s not sure why he’s confiding in this creature; it watches him with a smile that doesn’t reach its eyes, tapping its fingers against his table with a hollow, clacking sound.
“You want answers,” Michael says. “That is only to be expected, from an Archivist. You have a…penchant for seeking that which harms you, and for acting in truly unwise ways, just to see what will happen. I am surprised your master thinks he can keep you in the dark. It doesn’t work that way. Never has.”
“Try telling him that.” Jon gives up on the tea. He kicks a chair out at the table and sits down next to Michael, although his instincts bawl at him to stop, to turn, to run for his life. He doesn’t care. He is tired of mysteries. “Or better yet, why don’t you tell me? You’re the one who first mentioned the struggle, the- Unknowing.”
“Yes,” Michael agrees. “A…slip of the tongue, shall we say. My mistake.” It is lying, of course. A timely reminder that Jon can’t trust anything it says, or implies. There is no point in asking it for answers; any it deigns to give will be suspect. Not to mention outright dangerous.
“I do have a suggestion,” it says, and Jon shrinks back as its laughter grates against his eardrums. “An incentive for your master if…you are willing.”
“A threat,” Michael says. “Your watchful keeper is so very touchy about its Archivists. It grows fretful when you stray. And it responds so badly to challenges, as your predecessor discovered.”
“Yes, well, excuse me if I’d prefer not to end up like Gertrude,” Jon snaps.
Michael makes a sound like a sigh, and like a giggle. The result is almost unbearable. “I wasn’t proposing betrayal,” it says, aggrieved, as if it is insulted that Jon would think otherwise. “Only to remind your master that it is not the only one who possesses the knowledge you seek. If we…suggest that I might be willing to confide in you, I…suspect you will find yourself inundated with answers. Anything to keep you from straying.”
Jon considers. He watches Michael, sitting on a rickety chair as if it has only ever encountered the concept in theory; as if it has both too many and too few joints in its frame to fit around the chair. It’s doing its damn best to pull off the human guise. Curly blond hair, rounded face; there is an aspect of innocence there, a cherubim air that Jon doesn’t buy for an instant. The eyes do it no favours. They are…wrong. Subtly wrong. And whatever it is that looks out from behind them…
An irritant, Jon remembers Elias saying. He thinks it might be the first time he’s caught his ‘master’ in a lie.
Michael is dangerous. He’s certain of it. He’s known since before meeting it. And since that meeting, he’s been hard pressed to keep its presence from his thoughts. He can’t work out what it is that fascinates him so. Only that he can’t stop.
“Alright,” he says slowly, knowing as he does that it’s a terrible idea. “Thank you, I’d…appreciate the help. What do you need me to do?”
Michael beckons. As if tugged by strings, Jon rises from his chair and approaches. For one heart-stopping moment, he thinks it might pull him into its lap. Instead, it nudges him to perch on the edge of the kitchen table. Coaxes him into undoing the top three buttons of his shirt, pulling it open to expose his neck. Its fingers hover by his jugular.
Jon wets his lips. “Are you going to try and tell me it won’t hurt?” he croaks. Michael gives a wavering chuckle.
“No?” it says. “Would you like me to?”
“I would not.”
“Whatever you say, Archivist,” it tells him, and drags three of its fingers across his collarbone. The skin parts like butter under a knife, splitting open and pooling red in its wake. Michael takes its time; Jon is shaking long before it is done, his vision blurring as his mind tells him, panic. His heart pounds in his ears. He fancies it skips a few beats.
And then it’s finished.
“Well done,” Michael says, holding him steady as he shivers. “You barely flinched at all.” It is lying, and its fingertips are daubed with blood like a painter’s knife. The rest is dribbling steadily down Jon’s collar. He makes no move to stop it. He feels slightly dizzy, distanced from the world in a way that reminds him of shock, but isn’t. There is a humming on the inside of his skin. He can’t take his eyes off Michael’s fingers where they shine, red, wet, gleaming.
“Yours,” Michael tells him. There is a smile in its voice. “Would you like it back?”
“Yes. I would.” He takes it by the wrist, which sinks under his grip, limp and insubstantial. But the fingers are solid enough. He licks the blood from the first, tentative, careful not to split his tongue apart. Michael holds very still; he knows without being told that it will not move until he’s finished. It will wait. And it just seems easier to take the other two fingers in his mouth, sucking trails of blood from surfaces that threaten to cut, and don’t.
Michael watches him do it. There is an uncanny absence of expression to its face, when it has a face; it flickers, at once human and anything but, and in the spaces between its possession of eyes, nose, mouth, Jon sees something else. A hunger he can’t name. An invitation he can’t not answer. He lets its fingers slip from between his lips.
In one of the moments when Michael’s face is bearably human, Jon leans in and kisses it.
His heart doesn’t stop; mind doesn’t snap, which was his main concern, and now seems faintly ridiculous. The dizziness is there, and the humming in his skin. A repeated, echoing buzz; like fractals would feel, if they could be felt, except that they cannot, and Jon moans into a kiss that sends seismic quakes through his sense of reality. He parts his lips against Michael’s. Takes its tongue into his mouth, sucks on it and finds it soft, yielding, and implausibly skilled. It seems to know what he wants from it. Of course it does. It is inside his mind. Inside his mouth, licking remnant blood from his saliva. The taste of it makes his jaw ache. He fumbles for purchase against its boneless shoulders, pulling himself closer to it. Michael lets him. It doesn’t seem to mind at all.
He is still bleeding when it eventually leaves him alone.
“This is unacceptable,” Elias says. “You shouldn’t need me to tell you this. How could you be so stupid?”
He stands on Jon’s front doorstep, incongruously elegant against the backdrop of peeling white plaster and faded walls. His long coat cuts in at the waist, and Jon feels dowdy in his old jeans and shirt. There is blood staining through the collar. He knows. He stood at the bathroom mirror and stared at it until Elias started knocking.
“I had questions,” Jon says, stepping back to let Elias in. “You told me I should go and find answers for myself, and that’s what I was doing.”
“I also told you to stay away from Michael.”
“You didn’t actually tell me that,” Jon says. “Technically.”
Elias stops in his hallway. He seems taller than he should be; his shadow stretches much too far across the thin grey carpet. There is a very cold look on his face. “I assumed the implication was clear,” he says silkily. “Which it was. And yet, you chose to disregard it.”
“Well, why not?” Jon argues. His hands have started to shake, his heart to pound. He hates that Elias can do this to him. “You dangle hints in front of me, and then pat me on the head and tell me to go back to my statements until I’m ready. You can hardly hold it against me if I start asking around to see if anyone else wants to share with the class.”
“You can’t ask a liar for the facts.”
“I didn’t in the end,” Jon says. “I meant to, I-I was going to. But I didn’t get there.” He holds himself still as Elias approaches, tugging open the collar of his shirt. Peering at the raw red slits in his skin.
“Goodness, Jon,” he murmurs. “That looks painful. What did you let that thing do to you?” His tone is light, carefree; his fingers yank buttons from their fastenings, forcing Jon’s shirt open. Jon goes to protest. Stops as his shirt is pushed off his shoulders, and Elias’ hands are on his chest. Cool, firm, pressing gently against the edges of the three cuts.
“It’s not too bad,” Jon manages. “Not as bad as it looks. There’s not much pain.”
“Of course not, he wasn’t trying to hurt you.” Elias trails his fingers along the line of the cuts. Jon shivers. “This is nothing more than a good, old-fashioned challenge. He put his hands on you, he got away with it, and now he wants me to know.”
Somewhere under the growing fog in Jon’s mind, he thinks, you told me Michael was just an irritant. Now you say it’s challenging you. How can it be both? But he doesn’t have much room for coherent thought; Elias is still touching him, kneading his shoulders now, his thumbs pressing painfully into the grooves between Jon’s bones.
“I’m assuming you let him,” Elias says mildly. “You do have something of an obsession for that creature. A soft spot. I can’t imagine why, he hasn’t done much to endear himself.”
“You mean aside from saving my life twice?”
“Done for entertainment purposes, because it is momentarily more interesting to keep you alive. Nothing to do with you, and everything to do with what you stand for. What you mean to me.”
“Which is what, exactly?” Jon puts a thread of force into the question; an echo of insistence, of demand. He sees Elias shudder, gasp, and smile.
“I could get used to that,” Elias says. “I really, really could. I don’t think you quite understand what it feels like.” His hands drop to Jon’s waist, knuckles brushing his belt. He meets Jon’s eyes as he slips the buckle from its clasp. “As for your question: you are the Archivist. My Archivist. And I object most strenuously to the Spiral helping itself to you. So. I think something of a demonstration may be in order.” He tugs Jon’s belt free of its loops, dropping it on the carpet.
Jon finds his own hands in the fabric of Elias’ shirt, touching buttons, not quite daring to open them. He can’t work out what’s stopping him.
“Can I-” he begins, and Elias pushes his hands away.
“No,” he says. “Not this time. I’m nowhere near pleased enough with you for that.”
“Right,” Jon says, swallowing hard. “Right, I-fair enough. What do I…”
“You’re going to go and lie on the bed,” Elias tells him quietly. “Naked, if you don’t mind. And you are not going to speak again until I give you permission. I’m sure I don’t need to tell you what’ll happen if you do.”
Wordless, Jon does as he’s told. He leaves his clothes in a messy pile on the bedroom floor (it annoys him, he wants to fold them, but doesn’t dare with Elias at his heels) and stretches out across the bed. Stares up at the ceiling as Elias sits next to him. He wants to ask if he can cover himself; a sheet would do, if blankets aren’t allowed. He wants to apologise for his inevitable arousal, his cock lying heavy against his stomach (it’s not his fault, but in a way it is; should he be so affected by a simple touch and an uncompromising order?). But Elias strokes his thigh, and Jon doesn’t say anything.
“Good,” Elias tells him. “I know you must be uncomfortable. I do appreciate the trust you’re showing me here, but I’m going to have to ask you to show a bit more. Just to get the point across.”
Mute, Jon nods stiffly. He can guess what’s going to be asked; he’s waiting for it, hoping for it, but he doesn’t dare presume without permission. His palms are damp with sweat. The cuts in his collarbone sting, a steady, pulsing pain. He tries not to flinch when Elias takes his right hand, lifts it to his lips and kisses the knuckles.
“Touch yourself,” Elias says, and lets his hand go.
Even here, he’s not permitted control. Elias sits at his side, smiling blandly, and tells him-
No, not like that. I’m not letting you finish that soon.
Long strokes, that’s it. Very good. You’re doing so well, Jon.
There comes a point where Elias says, “Stop,” and John obeys with a pained sound. His cock is flushed, hot against his stomach, starting to ache. But he waits as Elias reaches for the bedside cabinet, opens the middle drawer, closes it again. Jon hears the soft click of a plastic cap being opened, and squeezes his eyes shut. His hands are shaking. He twitches as one of Elias’ hands strokes between his thighs.
“Spread your legs for me,” Elias requests. “Just a little- yes, like that. Now. You may continue.”
Jon tries to stay quiet. Even as he wraps a hand around his cock, his strokes loose and clumsy, gasping open-mouthed for breath, he tries to maintain the silence Elias demands. But it’s beyond him; he gasps as Elias’ fingers find their careful way between his legs, slick and uncomfortably cold.
Two of them breach him at once; Jon gives a sharp cry. Claps his free hand over his mouth. And Elias is less than patient with him, irritation plain in the thrusts of his fingers, knuckle deep as Jon shudders around him.
“I shouldn’t need to remind you that you’re mine,” Elias says. Jon doesn’t dare look at him. “This kind of possessiveness should be beneath us both. But I suppose you’re not to blame for the Spiral pushing boundaries; it’s always been good at that.” Jon chokes down another cry as both of Elias’ fingers slide in past the second knuckle, stretching him carelessly. “Too much? No, I don’t think so. You’re stronger than you believe, Jon. Always have been. Relax.” It’s an order. Jon takes a deep, shaky breath, and obeys.
It gets a lot easier after that. He times the strokes on his cock to match Elias’ fingers as they slip inside him, pressing gently up against his insides, rubbing him unerringly the right way. Elias knows. Of course he knows. Just as he knows that Jon doesn’t need anything more from him than his fingers and his sporadic, gentle praise, the endearments he scatters like sugar crystals.
You’re doing so well for me, Jon.
The last sends him over the edge, shuddering; he should feel demeaned by it, and would if anyone else had been the one responsible. But Elias is, as ever, outside the rules. He takes his time sliding his fingers free of Jon’s body, lingering to make sure he feels every second of it. As punishments go, it’s both effective and anything but.
“That should do the trick,” Elias says, wiping his fingers clean with a handkerchief he pulls from nowhere. Dark green, silky; of course it is. “I trust I’ve made my point.”
Still shivering, Jon nods.
“Right, of course,” Elias says, as if only just remembering. “You may speak. After I’ve left, if you don’t mind. As pleasant as your questions are, I do have things planned for the rest of the day. I’m running late enough as it is.” He leans over and kisses Jon’s forehead. His skin smells of paper, of ink, of dust in library corners. Jon breathes him in and is comforted.
“Be good,” Elias says, and leaves.
In his absence, the cuts on Jon’s collarbones start to sting.
“I hope your master wasn’t too displeased with you,” Michael says lazily. “That would be such a shame.” It stretches across his bed, reclined like a painter’s nude, and it is not even remotely human. The unbearably long fingers threaten to cut through the bedspread they lie on. The rest of its body wavers, odd and uncertain, as if it can’t quite decide what fragment of space it wants to inhabit at any given moment.
It has been a week since their last encounter, and the cuts on Jon’s collarbone have scabbed and started to heal. Elias has taken to checking them daily.
“He wasn’t exactly happy, I can tell you that.” Jon removes shoes and socks, sitting on the bed by Michael’s side. He leans back on the headboard. Folds his legs underneath him. He suspects he’ll eventually come to regret being so casual around it.
“Did you get the answers you were looking for?”
“No,” Jon admits. “Well. I got some answers, but they were about as vague as Elias could manage, and I’m not quite sure what to do with them yet. I’m also not sure what made him angrier; the fact that I tried asking you, or the fact that you left a mark on me. Both about equal, I suspect.”
“Yes. That does sound likely.”
Michael chuckles. The hairs on Jon’s arms rise, goose bumps bubbling up on his skin. “What an odd question,” it says. “I am…always full of suggestions, and not all of them result in pain or unpleasantness. Some are even quite enjoyable.”
“Are they really.” Those too-sharp fingers lie at his side. Jon can’t help but touch them. Run his hands over their edges, their curves, the odd ripples and bumps, like shards of obsidian. He looks for joints and finds too many, and none in the places he’d expect. Michael’s hands make no sense. “Tell me about the enjoyable suggestions, then. The ones that don’t involve my death or dismemberment.”
“Is bloodshed acceptable?”
“Yes. Of course.” Michael tells him what it wants to do to him. Jon sits back against the headboard, running his hands over its impossible fingers, and thinks. He thinks about Elias; about the dangers involved. He balances risk with reward with his own insatiable curiosity. He tries to imagine what it’ll feel like, and fails. In a moment of insanity, he makes a counter proposal. Michael is unnervingly agreeable. Jon comes to a decision.
Unasked, he slides off the bed and strips his clothes off.
He lies back down on his chest, folding his arms under his chin, a pillow underneath them. Michael settles itself in the hollow of his spine. It touches his back with fingers that don’t quite cut. Like a massage from a handful of broken glass.
“Careful,” Jon mutters.
“I always am,” Michael says. It is lying.
Its fingers are so sharp he hardly feels them split his skin until seconds after the fact, and by then it has moved on. It starts at the base of his spine and moves outwards. Curves and coils, spiral shapes encircling his vertebrae. Hardly deep enough to draw blood, but Jon knows it’ll scar. That’s the entire point of this. Michael wants to leave a mark.
He’s not entirely against the idea.
“How does it look?” he asks after a while.
“Beauty is a subjective concept I am…unqualified to comment on,” Michael says. “But I am quite pleased with the work. It suits you.”
“You would think so.”
Michael stretches across his back, on sharp hand pressing into his spine, holding him down. Gently, it kisses the nape of his neck. “Hold still,” it says, and laughs until his teeth grind. “It would be a shame if I…slipped, wouldn’t it?”
Jon snarls at it, and Michael laughs, carves its spirals into his back and, unnervingly, kisses its way down his spine to his tailbone, smearing blood across his skin. Unasked, Jon parts his legs. He’s dizzy again, but it’s easier lying down, and it dulls the sting of the cuts in his back. None of this is terrible, he’s startled to find. The bleeding is minimal, and the marks themselves are…fine. It should come as no surprise to him to find that he likes the concept of marks in his skin. Nothing as graceless as Jude’s mutilation, but a tapestry of spirals strikes him as acceptable. Pleasant, even.
Better yet is the press of something cool and mercifully blunt between his legs. Jon doesn’t ask what it is, any more than he asks where the slick lubrication comes from, because he suspects the answer will keep him from sleeping ever again. Instead, he braces on his elbows and arches his back. Wills himself to relax.
It’s unnecessary. Michael breaches him easily, his muscles accepting its intrusion without pain or protest, and Jon howls into the pillow as it takes him deeper than he was ready for, and his body doesn’t care.
“What- oh god, what the hell did you do?” Even as he protests, he’s spreading his knees wider. Torn between gasping for breath and smothering his groans in the pillow. It should hurt. This fast, this deep, this soon, it should tear him apart, and it doesn’t. He can’t wrap his mind around it. He’s dizzy, vision wavering at the edges. Michael bucks up against him, forcing him down against the pillow, and Jon swallows a yell.
“You…did ask,” Michael points out. It has one overlarge hand at his hip, his skin pinching between its fingers. “And you do seem to be enjoying the experience. I certainly am.”
“Is there anything you don’t enjoy?”
“Not where you are concerned,” Michael tells him, laughing. Jon can feel it shake him from the inside out, a series of muscle spasms he can only ride out and moan through. His entire nervous system seems to be tingling.
He still can’t work out what the hell Michael is fucking him with, except that the size and shape are not static. He writhes away as it takes him too deep, too long, then sobs as it shortens, widens, stretches him to the knife-edge brink between pain and pleasure. His cock aches between his legs, but he can’t spare a hand to touch himself. His fingers dig into the bedspread. His spine arches further than he thought was possible.
“I do enjoy you like this,” Michael tells him. “I wonder how long I could keep you here. Quite a long time, I suspect…at least, until your mind started to crack. I suppose you’d prefer to avoid that.”
“Yes,” Jon snaps. “I would, actually, I- argh.” He feels ridges sprout on whatever impossible thing he’s being fucked with; smooth, solid, circling it like cartilage. They press up against his insides, rubbing against him again and again, and John buries his face into the pillow and screams himself hoarse.
When he finally returns to himself, his back feels like it’s on fire. He feels rubbed raw, inside and out, and he can’t seem to stop the full-body quivering. There is a definite wet spot on the bedspread under his stomach. Jon shudders.
“Ow,” he mumbles. “Oh god, argh, ow.”
“It is hardly my place to give you advice,” Michael says, “but you might want to consider being more careful about how you word things in the future. Just a thought.”
“What,” Jon says, “You mean, ‘fuck me’ wasn’t specific enough for you? You wanted detail?”
“It does leave quite a lot of leeway. Not that it matters now, in any case; I had a lovely time, and you seemed to as well. So there’s no real harm done, is there?”
Jon drops his head back down onto the pillow. He will eventually have to get up, he thinks. Clean up the bedspread, wipe the drying tear-trails from his cheeks, drown himself in the shower. Maybe in a day or so, when he remembers how to move.
“Thank you, I suppose,” he mutters. “Feel free to leave at any time. Don’t mind me. I think I might be broken.”
Michael chuckles. It pats him gently on the backs of his thighs, its fingers stinging where it touches.
“Not this time, Archivist,” it tells him. “Maybe the next. Sleep well, won’t you?”
It kisses the cuts on his back, and leaves him to ache.
Elias knows, of course. He doesn’t know what exactly, but he knows that something happened, by the simple fact that he couldn’t see inside the room while Michael was in there.
“Distortion,” Jon realises. “That’s literal, isn’t it? You can’t see what’s going on when I’m with it.”
“That’s not something you should be happy about,” Elias says. He sits across his desk from Jon. Steeples his fingers and glares. Again, Jon finds himself inexplicably nervous.
“I’m even less happy about you telling me to underestimate something like Michael,” he snaps. “An irritant? If it’s immune to being beheld, I suspect that makes it a lot more than just irritating. Could it lie if I tried to compel it?”
“I assumed that was what you were trying to do.” Jon doesn’t immediately answer, and Elias sighs. “Show me,” he says very quietly. It does not occur to Jon to refuse. He’s stripping off his cardigan before he can think twice, unbuttoning his shirt and turning around to show off the scars on his back. They’re healing very quickly, and the final product is oddly picturesque. Hypnotic, slightly unnerving, and looking at them too long induces dizziness. Still, Jon finds himself rather fond of them already.
Elias is anything but. He’s flushed with rage, standing slowly, and Jon feels terror taking shape in the pit of his stomach. He imagines the walls of the office start to shift, lean in, sink towards him. There is a pressure in the air, as if the entire Archives are squeezing the air from his lungs. Jon gasps for futile breaths. Elias lays a hand on his back. Touches the scars with an expression of distaste.
“Don’t misunderstand me,” he says, pressing down harder, pushing Jon face first down onto his desk. “I understand that yours is a difficult position, and that you will inevitably find yourself in the line of fire. Some of your interview subjects will hurt you. You will pay for their statements with pain. That is acceptable. This is something different. You allowed this, and I almost wonder if you asked for it.”
Jon doesn’t respond.
Elias taps impatient fingers against Jon’s spine. “Very well,” he says. “If that’s the game we’re playing, then so be it. Take your belt off, Jon. Actually, take everything off, if you don’t mind. But I’ll need that belt from you. And I will also need you to be very quiet, given that there are guests making use of the library. We wouldn’t want to disturb them, would we? I will allow one exception to the rule, however.” He takes the belt Jon passes him, wrapping its length around his hand. “I will need you to count for me.”
Jon starts crying out after the fourth stroke of the belt on the backs of his thighs. He bites into his wrist, the ruined skin where Jude left her mark, where he is always quite numb and won’t notice if his teeth break the surface. And they do, eventually, as he stammers out ever-rising numbers until his voice breaks. Elias doesn’t let up until the blood begins to well across Jon’s thighs. Then, he drops the belt, gently strokes Jon’s shaking back, tells him he did well. Asks him if he can bear to stay there a bit longer.
Mute, Jon nods.
“Excellent,” Elias says smoothly, and kicks Jon’s legs further apart. “You’ll need to brace yourself on the desk- there you are. Good. Do try not to make a mess of my papers when you come, won’t you?”
Elias fucks him like that, bent over the desk, choking down cries with every sharp, furious thrust. There is little preparation and even less mercy. With every sound that Jon makes, Elias smacks him hard across the reddened marks on his thighs. Very quickly, Jon learns to keep his mouth shut. He leans his cheek against the papers on Elias’ desk, pushing back into every thrust, letting his mind go quiet.
When he comes, he is careful not to do so on anything important. Elias smiles, and tells him he did well.
Jon spends the rest of the day glowing. It doesn’t scare him as much as it should.
“Someone’s jealous,” Michael says, touching the backs of Jon’s thighs. Two days after the fact, they have started to bruise, thin cuts scabbing over, still extremely painful to rest any weight on. Jon has taken to recording statements standing up. He tells Martin he’s trying to improve his posture. Martin believes him.
Jon winces as Michael’s fingers threaten to reopen his cuts. “I think you might have touched a nerve. Or several. It was certainly a memorable experience.”
“Memorable,” Michael repeats. There is a lilt to its tone, as if it has just remembered an excellent joke, and can’t wait to share. “An interesting concept, I…never tire of seeing just how far a memory can stretch before it snaps. People are so trusting of their memories. Even when all evidence points to them being unreliable. Do you know, the one of the first things a wanderer does within the maze is attempt to remember how far they have come? As if it matters.”
“Yes, well, you cheat, don’t you? It hardly seems fair to laugh at them. I bet you change the hallways around when they’re not looking.”
“I don’t, you know.” Michael is reproachful. “There’s really no need, I find that people are more than capable of doing all the work for themselves.”
“They’re afraid,” Jon argues for the sake of it. “They don’t know where they are or what to expect.”
“No,” Michael says. Its fingers move from his thighs to his back, tracing the bone-white spiral scarring. It is careful not to hurt him. “I wonder if you’d do any better.”
“What, in your hallways?”
“Yes. It would be a fascinating experiment, wouldn’t you say?”
Jon sits up. He swings his legs over the side of the bed, reaching for his clothes. He’s getting good at predicting when Michael wants something from him, and when it is prepared to negotiate. And he has well and truly learnt his lesson about getting all the facts beforehand. “This sounds a hell of a lot like you proposing to drop me in the middle of your corridors.”
“Not permanently,” Michael says. “And I’d give you an exit, of course. Although…you would have to find it for yourself.”
“Of course I would.” Jon pulls his clothes back on, already resigned to whatever flight of fancy Michael has decided on. “Though I’m still not seeing anything in this proposal that justifies my cooperation. What do I get out of it?”
Michael blinks slowly. It is a calculated act; it doesn’t often bother. “If you find your way out,” it says, “I’ll tell you about the Unknowing. Inasmuch as I am aware of it, and bearing in mind that I haven’t really taken much of an interest. Still. I imagine I could answer a few of your questions.”
Bait, Jon thinks. It’s a trap, and there’s the bait. “Acceptable. Give me a time limit, though; I’m not remotely interested in wandering around your maze for days on end. Three hours.”
“By my watch. Not any clock of yours.”
“Yes. Of course.”
“What if I lose?”
Michael laughs. There is an echo to its hilarity, and Jon turns to find a door in the wall that wasn’t there before. It is yellow. Open. Beyond it lie the corridors.
“What if you lose?” it repeats. “Now there’s an interesting concept. I suppose there should be some sort of penalty, or the game loses meaning. Well. I’m sure I can come up with something, I…did very much enjoy your screams, last time.” Jon feels his face grow hot. He neglects to point out that there was very little pain associated with that particular bout of screaming. It might assuage his pride, but there’s no point telling Michael something it already knows. It doesn’t care if he’s in pain. It wants him afraid; consenting to fear.
He steps into the corridors.
It’s a close finish, in the end. Jon keeps his head throughout the seemingly endless twists and turns, mapping his path in ink pen on his wrist, ignoring his eyes, which tell him the map makes no sense. He recites the turns as he takes them. Hopes that the act offers him some extra advantage, although he now realises that Beholding has very little sway in these passages.
Michael stalks him the entire time. He sees flickers of its wavering form in the mirrors and picture frames, catches wisps of echoing laughter just around corners. It trails him like a hunting tiger. Jon refuses to run.
When the doorway appears, it is distant, and Jon has a minute left. He makes a break for it. Feels something burst from the wall behind him, matching his pace, right on his heels. The walls flex with the pulse of Michael’s laughter. It catches him half in and half out of the doorway, as his time runs out.
“Draw,” Jon gasps as it grabs him by the hair. “Draw, dammit, you don’t get to win this.”
“Yes,” it says, hauling him away from the doorway, forcing him up against the closest wall. “How very convenient. I suppose you’ll be wanting your answers?”
It shreds his clothes like tissue paper, while Jon swears at it, hissing as uncanny wallpaper presses into his chest. It is warm, like skin, and soft to the touch. He scrabbles for purchase as Michael fucks him against it with unpredictable thrusts, an arrhythmic assault that melts both his mind and his knees. It keeps him upright with a hand in his hair; its shadow on the wall shows fingers like needles digging into his scalp.
It whispers to him as he yells himself breathless. Tells him things he doesn’t understand, names he doesn’t recognise, acts he can’t begin to imagine. It tells him about the Stranger, and drags its fingers across his cheekbones. It speaks of the dancers, the skin, the I-do-not-know-you, and Jon takes two of its fingers into his mouth, sucks on them carefully. He feels them press against his tongue. Tastes blood and gags around it.
Eventually, Michael lets him finish, sobbing as he spends himself across the walls that waver before his eyes. His knees give way immediately. It hooks one too-long arm around his back, another behind his knees, and carries him back through the doorway.
Jon wakes in bed. He’s naked, covered by the blankets, and his tongue burns with several shallow cuts. He tries to remember what Michael told him, about the Unknowing, the Stranger, the struggle. He’s not surprised to find that most of it is gone: Michael cheats. It lies. He knows this.
But some of the knowledge remains. For now, it is enough.
Elias has him on the floor of Jon’s office, spread out across the carpet where Jurgen Leitner’s blood has been carefully cleaned out of sight, if not out of mind. There is a tape recorder off to the side. It clicks on without being touched.
“I won’t bother asking you for a statement,” Elias says. “There wouldn’t be much point, given that I’m right here to guide you. However, just this once, I think we might deviate from the silence rule. I’ll need you to narrate.”
Elias smiles. It is not entirely pleasant. “Everything,” he says. “What I’m doing to you, while I do it. How it makes you feel. What you wish I’d do next. All of it, Jon. I’ll know if you keep anything back.”
He fingers Jon open on the carpet that was once a crime scene; starts with two, and smiles tightly as Jon stammers it out and tells him that it’s too much, too soon, and that he likes it.
“I know,” Elias says. “I just wanted to make sure you did. Think you can manage a few more? Count them out for me. Just for the record.”
Jon lasts as far as four and the tip of Elias’ thumb, stretching him further than he’s ever tried before. He begs for mercy. Elias grants it.
“You did so well,” Elias tells him afterwards, stroking Jon’s hair. He seems to mean it. His smile is soft, benevolent. Fond. “Next time you’ll do better for me, won’t you?”
“Yes,” Jon rasps. “Yes, of course, I will.”
The tape recorder clicks off.
Dazed and dizzy, Jon moves in Michael’s lap. Takes a sharp breath as his muscles twinge. He feels over-stretched, aching, barely given hours to recover from Elias’ onslaught before Michael decided to claim its pound of flesh. He can’t help but wonder if that’s intentional.
“God,’ he mutters, leaning his head into its shoulder. He sinks a bit too far, and it sends a jolt of unnerved terror through his insides. “You just don’t let up, do you? Either of you.”
Michael digs its too-sharp fingers into his hips, a playful threat that matches the grin on its face. When it has a face. Which is about half the time. It is, as ever, laughing at him. “Might I remind you that you started this?” it asks. “As I recall. You were so…overtly inviting. And it is in my nature to aim to please, I am…a pleasing creature.”
It is lying. It doesn’t move, but it also does, and Jon digs his fingers knuckle-deep into its shoulders as it splits him open, fucks him with several indescribable tendrils that twist, writhe, press at his abused muscles. He doesn’t know what they look like. Doesn’t want to know. His inner thighs are slick with the unnamed substance that drips free as they thrust inside him and coil in a way that sends heat through his insides.
He’s come twice already. Michael doesn’t seem to care. It lets his semen drip down a stomach that is and isn’t there, forming odd, spiralling shapes as it falls. Jon stops looking. He rests his chin in the curve of its neck and shoulder. Such as it is.
“If I ask how long you plan on keeping me like this, will you tell me?” he mutters. “Or should I just assume that’s the rest of my evening done with?”
“It is never wise to assume anything, I’ve found,” Michael tells him, eerily cheerful. “That’s just…asking for trouble. I hope you didn’t have any plans.” You don’t anymore, its tone says, and Jon smothers a cry as those tendrils twitch within him, rub against his inner walls and send him shuddering over the edge. Again. It’s starting to ache.
“No,” he manages. “I suppose I don’t. Christ. Alright. Fine.” He swallows. It’s getting very difficult to manage longer sentences; every breath is wrestled through a body wracked with dizzying spasms.
“You are not going anywhere for a while, Archivist,” Michael says. “I would tell you to enjoy it, but…that seems redundant, wouldn’t you say?”
Jon laughs, a hoarse sound, breaking up as it passes his throat. He thinks, briefly, of Elias and his numbers. “Do you need me to count?” he asks.
Michael laughs at him, and Jon doubles over, shaking. “Count? What would be the point? The number is irrelevant. And your senses are hardly reliable, you would…lie to yourself. There’s really no need. I wouldn’t stop until you lost track, anyway.”
“Good to know,” Jon manages. He feels another tendril brush between his thighs, feather-light, teasing at his entrance. He can’t part his legs any further; his nerves are a mess of terror and want, the yes/no current that pushes and pulls him to dizziness. He could lose his mind like this, he thinks. He hopes Michael stops before he does. It would if he asked it to; he doesn’t trust himself to do so. All he can do is hide his face in its neck and let it use him.
The tendril slips inside him, swelling as he writhes around it. Jon lacks the breath to scream. He thinks, yes. God, oh god, yes. Wordless, absent any kind of coherence, he licks Michael’s neck. The taste of it cramps his jaw.
He comes a fifth time. After that, he stops counting.
Elias strokes his hair. Jon looks up at him from his place on the floor, knees sinking into the plush, dark carpet. Green, of course. As elegant as everything in Elias’ office. Much like Elias himself.
“I’m not sure you deserve this,” Elias says. “In fact, I’m almost certain I should still be very angry with you. While I know you’re not entirely to blame for the Spiral’s actions, I’m also not convinced you’ve done anything to discourage it.”
Jon doesn’t answer. He closes his eyes, bows his head and lets Elias’ fingers part his hair. It’s a very comforting feeling. Warming, although the hands themselves are cool to touch.
“Feeling better?” Elias asks. “I know you’ve been having some trouble adjusting to being back home with us. I am trying to be patient with you.”
“I know,” Jon says. He leans his head against one of Elias’ knees where they bracket his shoulders, hemming him in. “But you hired me because I don’t stop until I have answers. From you, from Michael, from anyone. I’m trying to understand. Isn’t that what you want from me?”
Elias sighs. “All in good time, Jon,” he says gently. “As I have told you a thousand times before. Yes, alright. Just this once.” He shivers as Jon’s mouth envelops his cock. “Like that, yes. Good.” Jon moans as the words echo inside his skull, pulsing with warm approval, with affection. He’s hard, writhing uncomfortably against the inside of his trousers, but he also knows better than to touch himself. Not yet. Maybe not at all.
Elias strokes his hair the whole time. Urges, encourages, praises as Jon brings him over the brink and swallows without being instructed to. His voice hardly trembles at all. He touches Jon’s cheeks, his mouth. Touches him like something irreplaceable.
“The Spiral tries its little games, it plays its tricks,” Elias says. “And far too often it is allowed to get away with encroaching on territory it has no rightful claim to. But that is not the case here. I will not allow it to steal an Archivist from me.”
“Steal?” Michael’s laugh is a buzz in Jon’s molars, puts him in mind of that awful summer in his second year of university, when his wisdom teeth decided it was time to make themselves acquainted with the world. A deep, drawn-out ache that spreads through the muscle and tissue of his jaw. He smoothes his hands against the thick yellow carpet, trying to push out the pain. “That is…a thought. How interesting. It is rare to find your master so utterly wrong about something.”
“So you’re not trying to- to ‘steal’ me?”
“I don’t have to steal you, Archivist,” Michael tells him patiently. “When I finally decide to keep you, all I will have to do is ask. And you will come to me. There’s no need to steal, when you are so…willing.”
The ceiling above is a flickering mess of torchlight and wavering paint. Like an artist’s palette at the end of the day. Jon squints up at it, and the colours morph. “You think I’m just going to join the Spiral because you ask?” he says. “Just like that? I’m afraid you’re going to be disappointed.”
“Also possible,” Michael agrees. “Whatever the outcome, I am certain to enjoy it.”
“I’m so happy for you.” Dizzy, Jon presses his hands into the carpet, looking for purchase. He moans as Michael shifts within him. A distant pressure, a brief spark of heat. He doesn’t know how long they’ve been doing this, but his cock is leaking, slick puddling where it lies against his stomach, and his entire nervous system feels like it’s on fire. A low-burning warmth, smouldering constantly. He is long past the point of pain. The begging stopped a while ago. Now, he endures.
“Soon?” he whispers. Pleads; his voice is cracked, sandpaper-rough. Michael stretches above him, human and not, and when it has a mouth, it smiles.
“Soon,” it agrees, and it is lying. It thrusts again, lazily, chuckling as Jon shakes. As he tries to simultaneously push himself away and take it deeper. He doesn’t know what he wants anymore.
Not that it matters. Michael will decide for him.
There is, inevitably, another attack on the Archives.
Or there would have been. It starts with Jude Perry in Jon’s office when he returns from making himself a cup of tea; she sits in his chair, at his desk, reading his files with fingers that smoke. When she looks up, her smirk is full of hatred.
“Hi,” she says. “Want another statement?” She offers a hand to shake; not the same one as last time. Jon doesn’t take it. He sees the tape recorder on the desk, which has already clicked itself on and is recording every sound they make. He knows that Elias will not be coming down from the hallowed ground of his office to effect a rescue. All of his assistants are either out of the building or out of earshot, and he can’t reach the blasted fire extinguishers on the other side of the room. Assuming they’d even do anything.
“I’m waiting,” Jude says. Her hand is still extended. “Keep it up too long and I might start feeling offended. Don’t you like me? I was so helpful last time. Any of the others would have just cooked you on sight, but I actually made an effort to listen. That practically makes us friends, except…it doesn’t. You bastard. I heard what happened to Mike.”
Adrenaline floods Jon’s veins. His hands are shaking, his voice is gone, and Elias is happy to listen. Once again, there will be no rescue. He wants to be sick.
Helpless, Jon takes a step closer. He feels the heat of Jude’s hand radiating through the insufficient space between them; the air is wavering slightly. Heat haze. And without warning, his back begins to ache. A spiralling pain, coiling up from the base of his spine and unfurling impossibly, far beyond the point where it should run out of skin. It is not unpleasant. The pain morphs as it strikes, shifts and changes and becomes something sharp and unpredictable, fluttering in his stomach. A jagged mischief.
Jon takes a deep breath.
“Maybe later,” he says, indicating Jude’s hand. “You seem somewhat…unlike yourself. Angrier than usual. Might I suggest that you get out of my office and…go take a walk until you calm down a bit? It’ll help, honestly. It always works for me.” The lies drip from his tongue in a tone that is not his, and he watches, baffled, as Jude stands. Her eyes are oddly glazed.
“Sure,” she says. “Walk it off, come back, and then we can talk. But I’m still going to want that handshake. It was so much fun last time.” The air shimmers around her, twisting away from her heat. Jon moves out of her way as she heads for the door.
“Careful,” he says. “This is an old building, it’s full of odd places. Nooks and crannies, that sort of thing. Mind you don’t get lost.” The last part is pulled from inside him, as if someone has reached down through his throat, broken into his chest cavity and extracted the nearest organ via his mouth. Jon doubles over, choking. He feels a little like he does after a compulsion, only- not. This is more, and it drains him to the point where his knees fail, and he has to sit on the floor by his desk.
He’s there for a long time. Jude Perry doesn’t return. She isn’t going to, he suspects. Jon has a very nasty feeling he might have done something to her. Him, or the spiral scars cutting into his back. He is very much afraid she might have…gotten lost.
At some point, Elias materialises at his side.
“Hello,” Jon mutters. “Come to inspect the damage? Measure the fallout?”
Elias crouches. Even then, he is elegant, casting a shadow much too long. “You know what you did, don’t you?
“Yes. I think so.”
“It can’t happen again,” Elias says, smoothing down Jon’s hair with the hand he once used to lift a heavy metal pipe. “Jon? What you just did there, although successful in the short-term, will have consequences. It cannot happen again.” He leans in; stops just far enough that Jon has to crane his neck to be kissed. Elias tastes like parchment smells, like the scent of new books, fresh ink. His kisses are dry, precise, and finished exactly when he chooses.
“Promise me,” Elias says. He strokes Jon’s hair with one hand, cradles his chin with the other. There is a force to his grip. A suggestion of snapped necks and sudden silence. Jon breathes shallowly. “This stops now. No more games.”
There is a shadow on the wall behind him; a triangle of light. Filtering from behind a half-closed door. It wasn’t there before. It won’t be when Elias turns. The light flickers, dances; there is an airiness to its movements that suggests laughter. Jon wonders what would happen if he called to it. The spiral scars give a beckoning twinge.
“Promise me,” Elias orders.
“I promise,” Jon says, and he is lying.