Actions

Work Header

smiling, smiling

Work Text:

Claudia Coburn was not a frequent drinker, but, well— desperate times, she supposed.

It wasn’t exactly a hole in the wall, this place, but it certainly was less upscale than the sorts of establishments the staff of the Parrington tended to frequent. Nevertheless, it had a sort of working-class charm, and Claudia felt at home there. She sat alone at the scratched wooden bar, on a worn leather-topped stool, and listened absently to the crackle of a radio through the amber smoke that seemed to hang perpetually around places like this. She had never gravitated towards the upmarket anyhow, and right now she was aiming to feel as comfortable as possible.

Claudia finished off the last of her second scotch, and called the bartender over with a flick of her finger. He looked at her a little askance— a small woman such as she drinking to what might have appeared from the outside to be excess was bound to raise a few eyebrows. Claudia certainly didn’t look like the sort capable of drinking most men under the table. Nevertheless, he poured her another, and she took a grateful swig.

She couldn’t stop thinking about the woman in the wall. Her hand, the piteous manner in which it had still seemed to be grasping for the outside world. The thought of Madeline Stanhope chained up in the basement, watching hope disappear brick by torturous brick at the hands of Havillard DeWitt, all that was bad enough on its own, but worse yet was her fate after death. Booth had been reluctant to speak on it, but leaving such matters to speculation was far worse than any confirmation he could have given. What had the man done to her? What was her existence like, this not-Madeline Stanhope— the creature Claudia had seen, ghostly and demonic with those awful teeth that had so terrified the both of them, was she recognizably the woman she had been before death? Was it better or worse if she was?

Claudia finished her scotch in an attempt to numb her racing thoughts, and the door to the bar opened behind her.

She turned to look— this late at night, she was interested to know who else felt such a burning need to drown their sorrows that they would brave the thick-falling snow outside. What she saw made her frown in surprise.

“Booth?”

He looked up at the sound of her voice, and Claudia saw her expression mirrored on his face. “Miss Coburn?”

“Claudia,” she said reflexively, as he crossed the floor to sit next to her, snow falling from the shoulders of his wool coat. “What are you doing here?”

Booth settled himself on a bar stool, looking comically out of place— though with his hair and build there were not many places where Booth in fact blended in. Claudia bit back a smile. “Couldn’t stop thinking about—”

“Madeline?”

He looked at her in surprise. “Yes. How did you know?”

“I can’t get her out of my head either,” Claudia admitted, and waved the bartender over. “What will you have?”

“Ah—” Booth looked frozen in indecision, and Claudia realized that he must drink even more infrequently than she did.

“He’ll have the scotch, same as me,” Claudia informed the bartender, and he shuffled off dutifully.

“Thank you,” said Booth, a bit sheepishly.

“Don’t mention it.” Claudia rubbed the rim of her glass absently.

“I just—” Booth glanced around, realizing for seemingly the first time how empty the place was, and leaned his elbow on the bar. “I can’t stop thinking about how her skin felt. How she looked at me, Claudia, my God— every time I’ve tried to sleep for the past three days I see her eyes, I dream of walking the museum corridors with her following me. DeWitt was awful, I know, but I don’t know if anyone deserves the fate of— of having a creature like that descend on them.”

“I know,” said Claudia, unsure of what else to say. “At least now she won’t hurt anyone else.”

“I suppose so.” Booth fidgeted a little in his seat. “I— I know we’re off hours, but as long as we’re here, would now be an appropriate time to ask you about something work-related? Only, well, it’s not quite strictly archival, and I figured we could both use something to get our minds off of—”

Claudia couldn’t help but be charmed by the tentativeness with which Booth asked, tripping over his verbal feet for the sake of being polite. “Of course, Booth. What is it?”

“You did your doctoral work on Bronze Age Crete, is that right?”

“That’s right.” Claudia took a sip of scotch.

“Would you happen to have any knowledge of Linear B?”

“It was a large part of my undergraduate training, why?”

Instead of answering, Booth bent over and rummaged through his satchel. Claudia frowned and leaned in, trying to get a glimpse over his shoulder, and was nearly knocked in the face when Booth found whatever he was looking for and spun back. “Can you read this?”

Claudia slipped on the spectacles she kept in her breast pocket and peered at the object Booth was holding. It appeared to be a stone statuette perhaps five inches tall, humanoid in shape but of indeterminate gender, with an inscription running around the base. Something about it seemed— oddly familiar, somehow, though it was likely just that she’d encountered many of similar type before.

The script was indeed Linear B, and Claudia squinted at it, trying to make out the small letters. “I’m not great with epigraphy, Booth, but I think— I think it’s a funerary statuette.” She read the text aloud. “Here’s the name of the god, Demeter I think, and here’s the dedication with the name of the dead. Akheos, it looks like. This would be the equivalent of Dis manibus in Latin. The figure is probably a likeness of the goddess.”

Booth gingerly took the statue back from Claudia and examined it in the smoky amber light. “And what purpose would this sort of thing have served?”

“We don’t really know,” admitted Claudia. “They’ve been found as grave goods, on Knossos as well as on the mainland, but also in domestic residences. Perhaps they were meant as votaries, or amulets, as in Egypt. Do you happen to know the provenance of this one?”

Booth looked around furtively, and Claudia felt her stomach drop. “You didn’t steal it.”

“No!” Booth’s cry of protest drew the bartender’s attention, and Claudia winced. “I mean— no, I didn’t steal it,” Booth continued, more quietly, flushing a bit. “It was a...gift.”

“From whom?”

“I have no idea.”

Claudia leaned forwards, half-finished fourth scotch forgotten. In her days as an undergraduate at Brown, she’d taken a material antiquities course that went into some detail on the art trade, legal and not, and an anonymous donation to a senior archivist at an eminent museum set off all kinds of alarm bells. “How did you receive it? Did it come in the mail?”

“It appeared on my stoop.”

“When?”

“Friday afternoon. It was just— sitting there when I came home from work. I had planned to take it to you first thing Monday morning.”

“Packaged at all? Was there a note?”

“No, just the figurine.”

“Hm.” Claudia frowned. “And you’ve just been carrying it around with you since then?”

“Well—” Booth gave that furtive glance around again— “yes. It has a...sense to it that I can’t quite explain. I feel as though I shouldn’t put it down, somehow, as though I’m— supposed to hold onto it.”

“Oh,” said Claudia, her stomach sinking.

Booth leaned in close to her, and she noticed for the first time that his eyes were unusually bright, as if he were feverish. “It’s not malevolent, I don’t think. It doesn’t feel like it wants to harm me. Not like…” He trailed off, but both of them knew the way that sentence ended. “I think it wants—”

“It wants what, Booth?”

He looked at her, and Claudia resisted the urge to push his hair out of his eyes. “I don’t know. Help? But I can’t help it, or whatever’s attached to it, until I know more. That’s why I wanted to come to you. You saw Madeline, at the gala, you know—” He broke off, biting his lip nervously. “I’m sorry to drag you into this, there’s no reason for you to be involved in this sort of thing, I don’t want to impose but it’s just I didn’t know who else to tell—”

“Booth,” said Claudia, and put her hand on his arm. “I don’t mind helping you.”

“Are you sure?” He looked at her with something verging between hope and desperation, and Claudia noticed that the heat of his skin matched the overbrightness of his eyes.

“Yes, I’m sure.” She stood up, nodded to the bartender to put their drinks on her infrequently-used tab. “Come on.”

“Where are we going?” Booth trailed behind her, bending nervously in that endearingly awkward way he had.

“The museum.”

“At this hour?”

By now they were out on the street. Snow was falling even more thickly than earlier, and the city was quiet in that way reserved only for still winter nights. Flakes stood out on the black wool of Booth’s coat and blended into the pure white of his hair, the streetlight giving him the vague appearance of a halo. “Would you rather go home?”

“No,” Booth admitted. “I don’t think I can stand another night of thinking about— her.”

“Me neither.” Claudia took Booth’s hand in hers, lacing their fingers together. He didn’t flinch away, as was his habit; Claudia found herself surprised. “Come on, it’s freezing out here.”

+++

The Parrington at night was— not welcoming, exactly, but familiar in a way that Claudia was very grateful for. If things were to go south with Booth and...whatever was influencing him, she would much prefer to deal with it in a location she knew inside and out.

Claudia remembered the first time she’d ever been to the Parrington after hours— it had been on a third grade trip, when she was eight years old. The elite day school her Truelove mother had sent her to was nothing if not well-connected, and Claudia’s class had been granted a special extended tour after the sun went down. Her classmates had been afraid, but Claudia had been fascinated, staring wide-eyed at the darkened displays, entranced by the sense of almost holy mystery that hung over the empty museum. It felt as if the past really might come alive there, in the way a child raised on stories of Carter, Petrie, and Lloyd-Stephens would naturally dream of. She’d been interested in archaeology for as long as she could remember, but that night had cemented in stone her desire to work at the Parrington, or a museum like it.

“Where are we going?” asked Booth as they entered the rotunda, snapping Claudia out of her reverie. “And what exactly are we hoping to find?”

“My office,” said Claudia briskly. “I’ve got a book in mind I think might help us figure out where this thing came from.”

“Ah.”

They were quiet as they climbed the stairs. Claudia noticed with worry that Booth had more trouble than she would have expected; by the time they reached the third floor he was flushed and out of breath. She opened her mouth to ask about it, and then thought better of it.

The hallway leading to Claudia’s office was completely dark, but she knew it would be beforehand, and was more than prepared to navigate it blind; she’d come up here a hundred times after the main power had been shut off. The surprise was that when she and Booth entered the pitch-black corridor, Claudia leading the senior archivist by the hand, she realized that they were not, in fact, entirely in the dark.

She looked back to Booth to ask him if he could see the light source, and discovered that the light source was, in fact, him.

It was very faint, certainly not enough to be noticed in anything but the darkest of circumstances, but here it was unmistakable: Booth’s skin was glowing, slightly, but enough to cast a dim light on their surroundings. Claudia could very nearly make out her name stencilled on the door of her office. “Uh, Booth?”

He looked at her, completely oblivious. “Yes?”

“You’re, ah.” She gestured, and Booth, getting the idea, glanced down at himself.

“Oh.” He looked vaguely faint at the sight

“Do you know— can you feel what’s causing it?”

 

Booth swallowed, seeming more nervous than ever, and for him that was saying something. “I think it would be good if we found out what this is quickly.”

“I agree.” Claudia tore her eyes from him with difficulty, pulled open the door to her office, and flipped the light switch. Instantly the glow on Booth’s skin disappeared from view, and both of them squinted in the harsh glare of the fluorescents.

It didn’t take Claudia long to find the book she was after. By the time she’d managed to rummage through her overstuffed bookshelf and dig it out, almost dropping it on account of the weight, Booth had sat down in her corner armchair with worrying heaviness and seemed to be, based on her occasional wary glances, on the verge of falling asleep. Despite the lateness of the hour and Booth’s reported insomnia, Claudia was somehow sure that this drowsiness was not natural, and kept stealing worried looks at him over her desk as she paged through the tome. It was an old book, inherited from her Truelove grandfather, who had been quite the armchair archaeologist. He was the one through whom Claudia had first been introduced to the ancient Mediterranean— more specifically, ancient Mycenae, the subject of this massive survey.

“What are you looking for?” asked Booth, in one of his moments of lucidity. He seemed to be— drifting in and out, his eyes alternately focusing and unfocusing as he gazed into the middle distance. Booth was always dreamy, always a little distracted, but this was different. Claudia squeezed her pen.

“Anything— anything on your statue,” replied Claudia, her eyes rapidly scanning the tiny encyclopedia-style text. All of this chapter was on grave goods in Mycenae, but it was such a broad topic, and she just— wasn’t sure what she should even be looking for. Had instances like Booth’s even been reported when this book was published, almost a hundred years ago? She’d thought they had, but she hadn’t worked on the material of her dissertation in years, and grad school had been so long ago, and she just couldn’t—

Claudia turned the page and gasped.

“What is it?” Booth asked, sounding a little better. He got up and walked around the desk, leaning beside her and peering at the book as Claudia stared.

“I’ve seen it before,” she breathed. “Booth, I’m an idiot, I’ve seen it before!”

“Seen the figurine before?” Booth frowned as Claudia continued to read, mind racing. “This one in particular?”

“Yes, yes, that one in particular— I knew it looked familiar— look, there it is, right there!” Claudia pointed at the image set in the center of the text. “I saw it at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, years ago, when I was an undergraduate. It was there as part of an exhibit on the Eleusinian Mysteries; occultism was coming back into fashion, and even the Parrington was trying to capitalize on it. Do you—” Claudia tore her eyes away from the text, reached out and grabbed Booth’s hand, looking him in the eye— “do you know anything about the Mysteries? You’re a classicist, aren’t you?”

“I know what they are, but I was trained as a Romanist.” Booth looked wary. “This figurine has something to do with the Mysteries?”

“Yes, of course, I was a fool not to see it earlier,” Claudia murmured, lost in thought. “This wasn’t a grave good at all. It must have been a— a— oh, you’re versed in the occult, what do you call an object used to concentrate power? A...token, of sorts? Representation? Something sacred?” Booth looked lost. “Never mind, it’s not important. The point is that according—” she jabbed at the book— “to our friend Dr. Wilmarth here, this object was probably used in the rite itself. Do you know, specifically, the stages of the Mysteries?”

Booth shook his head. He seemed to have regained most of his awareness, though he still appeared suspiciously drowsy. “I don’t. I— my knowledge of the occult is mostly limited to necromancy, specifically.”

Claudia felt herself slipping into teaching assistant mode as easily as if she were still in grad school and educating for her supper. “There were several stages of the Greater Mysteries, the one that everyone knows about. Where our statuette must have come in was at the rites inside the Telesterion at Eleusis. We don’t know for sure what happened there, because the penalty for divulgence was death, but as the ancient historians tell it it was broken up into three stages, one of which involved the displaying of sacred objects related to the Persephone myth, around which the rites were centered.”

“This is the story involving Hades, correct?”

“Right!” Claudia took a breath. “The deiknumena, as it was called, happened likely parallel to the dromena, the reenactment of the abduction of Persephone at the hands of Hades, her descent to the Underworld, her eating the pomegranate, and Demeter’s grief and eventual bargain. Usually, the dromena was just that— a reenactment. But we have sources from the period that talk about an occasion, sometime in the fifth century, where the dromena went...wrong.”

Booth bit his lip, and Claudia could have sworn that for a second, the overhead lights flickered. “Wrong, how?”

“We don’t know, because even disseminating that information was forbidden. But there was an accident, of some kind, involving participants in the reenactment. I think—” Claudia looked at Booth beseechingly— “you know the occult better than I do, but I think our statuette must be connected to that, somehow.” Claudia swallowed. “I have no proof, and I would never advance the idea in an academic context, but...I have a feeling. Might be wrong, but after the gala, I’m inclined to trust things like this.”

“I think you’re right,” said Booth faintly, and then his nose began to bleed.

“Jesus!” Claudia swore and stripped off her jacket, rushing to Booth and reaching up to press it to his face. She wrapped an arm around his waist, and not a moment too soon; his knees gave way under him and he collapsed onto her shoulder. He was tall, but very thin, and Claudia was stronger than she looked. It was no serious matter to ease him to the ground, propping him up against her row of file cabinets.

“Booth,” Claudia said evenly, pressing the bloodied jacket to his face. “Talk to me, Booth.”

“I—” Booth’s eyelids fluttered. “I’m all right, I think, I’m just tired, I just need to...sleep…”

Before Claudia could react, there was a massive, sickening crack, and all the lights went out at once.

Claudia swore more violently this time, and reached out for Booth in the near-pitch darkness. He was still glowing, slightly brighter now; the light was a clear, faint gold. He was clearly asleep. In his now slack hand, Claudia found the statuette, though at no point had she seen him remove it from his bag.

Claudia squeezed her eyes shut, then opened them again, trying to stave off panic. Booth had said it wasn’t malevolent. Whatever was happening, it wasn’t like at the gala. It didn’t want to harm them. It wasn’t going to harm them.

When Claudia opened her eyes, she found that Booth had...changed.

It wasn’t a physical thing at all. He still looked precisely the same. No, the change was in the way he— in the way he held himself, somehow, more confident and upright than before, and the cast of his face. More assertive, more...not confident, but more sure. Less self-doubting, less awkward. It no longer felt like she was in a room with Booth; though she could see him clearly right in front of her, looking at her with now-opened eyes, the man she knew was somehow still asleep. The person gazing out at her with his eyes was a different soul altogether.

“Hello, Claudia Coburn,” it said, in Booth’s voice. Again, the cadence was entirely different, completely removed from the way Booth himself spoke.

“Who are you?” asked Claudia, trying to keep the fear from her tone.

Not-Booth lifted the statuette in its hand, and turned it about, examining it with a bitter expression. “My name was once...Thea, as you say in your language, though in my day it sounded different.”

“Are you— here for the statuette?”

“In a sense.” Not-Booth— Thea— tore Booth’s eyes from the artifact with difficulty and turned his gaze on Claudia. Claudia noticed that they were now the same vague, shifting gold as the light, and with difficulty stopped herself from quailing. “I am the...victim, or perhaps the beneficiary of the rites that went wrong in the fifth century. As you said.”

“How?” Claudia asked, and Thea told her.

“My god,” Claudia breathed, when Thea had spun her tale in Booth’s voice, with Booth’s mouth. “They killed you right then and there?”

“The ultimate goal of the Mysteries is to offer immortality, if not of the body, than of the soul. For that, as in so many other stories, one must first descend into Death, before she may rise again. My fellows in enlightenment wanted to...see if it was possible, if by reenacting the spirit of our myth in a more literal fashion, they too might gain not only revelation, but eternal life in the most concrete sense.”

“But they didn’t.”

“No.” Thea smiled ruefully. “They didn’t, but I did. In a sense. This statuette, the centerpiece of the deiknumena, I was...bound to it, by means I do not fully understand. Whoever possesses it, I may possess. When it is lost, I am lost, condemned to wander tethered to it like a dog to a pole. I live as a shadow in the Underworld, save for the fact that I have not the peace of those below.”

“And those you possess, do you harm them?”

Thea shook her head. “They are asleep, and only asleep. They do not feel me control them. I am the only one waking in this body, and I may not stay for long.”

“That’s horrible.” Thea looked away, and Claudia reached out, taking Booth’s hands in her own. “I mean it. I cannot imagine anyone so cruel—” in a start, she remembered Havillard DeWitt and Madeline Stanhope, and swallowed hard— ”this should never have been done to you.”

“No,” said Thea. “That is why I have come here. The last owner of my tether, I compelled him to leave it for your friend. He had...heard, of Kyle Murchison Booth, and so had I. I thought he might be able to help.” Thea looked down over Booth’s body, and gave a half-smile. “I was a fool not to realize that were he to own the tether, all my efforts to communicate would be useless.”

“I can help,” said Claudia.

Thea looked back at her with surprise. “You? You are no occultist, Claudia Coburn.”

“No, but—” Claudia steeled herself. “I can offer you my body. Give me your tether, allow me to own it, and speak to Booth through me.”

Thea held her gaze, those gold eyes deeper and darker than anything so luminous had a right to be. Claudia wondered fleetingly what she must have seen, in those two and a half millennia of wandering. What she must have felt. “Are you sure?”

“Will it hurt me?”

“It will be as harmless as falling asleep.”

“Then yes.” Claudia held out her hand, and Thea moved to pass her the statuette, holding it just above her skin for a moment to allow Claudia to prepare herself.

“Thank you, Claudia Coburn,” said Thea as she let the figure fall, and, in a surprisingly peaceful manner, everything went dark.

+++

“Claudia? Claudia, are you all right?”

Claudia opened her eyes to find herself lying on the carpeted floor of her office, with a very concerned Booth kneeling at her side and bending over her. She blinked.

“Did you— is she—”

“Thea’s gone,” said Booth softly, and helped Claudia to a sitting position. “It wasn’t easy, but we managed it. No small thanks to you.”

“It was nothing.” Claudia stretched. “I feel rather well-rested, in fact. Are you all right?”

“Perfectly fine.” Booth stood up, and Claudia followed suit. “The statuette?”

“She— took it with her. I’m not sure how,” Booth admitted. “When she was released, it was so bright, and I couldn’t look or I’m sure I would have gone blind. I checked when the light faded, and couldn’t find it anywhere. I don’t think we should count on it turning up.”

“I rather think,” said Claudia, “that she ought to own it. It’s the least she deserves.” She led the way to the door, and Booth followed her, the night-lights powering back on as they traversed the hallway to the rotunda. The halls of the Parrington, though dark, were as familiar as ever.

“A better way for things to end, at least,” murmured Booth as they stepped underneath the massive dome, and Claudia did not need to look over at him to know that they were both thinking of Madeline Stanhope. “It’s...good to know, I suppose, that they don’t all end up like that.”

“It is,” said Claudia quietly.

“I wish—” said Booth as they crossed the intricate, polished mosaic floor— “I wish we could have helped her sooner. I can’t imagine the torment all those centuries trapped like that, in the most literal kind of limbo. It must have been hell.”

“I know,” said Claudia. They were outside by now. The snow had stopped, and the night sky was the most clear and crystalline black, speckled with hundreds and hundreds of stars. Everything seemed hushed by the recent snowfall, beautifully cold and silent. “But you— we did what we could. All we can do, really.”

“Thank you,” said Booth, as they both gazed up at the cloudless, perfect sky, unblemished by the light pollution of the city. “For helping me. It can’t have been easy, especially after the gala.”

In a moment of daring, Claudia turned, tearing her eyes from the constellations above them, and pulled Booth into a hug. He stiffened at first, unused to touch as he was, but after a moment relaxed into her firm, grounding grip.

“Always,” said Claudia against his chest. “You’re a good man, Kyle Murchison Booth.”

“As are you.” She felt him wince. “A good— good woman, I mean. And obviously you’re not me, I didn’t mean to imply—”

Claudia released him, grinning. “Quit while you’re not too far behind, Booth.”

He laughed, an awkward, endearing laugh, and Claudia took his gloved hand. “Shall I walk you home?”

“I’d like that very much, thank you.”

And somewhere far away, as the perfectly starry night turned on towards a clear and lovely dawn, a woman clutched a small statuette to her chest, and smiled.