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A Very Shiny Hat

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Jonathan Sims used to read.

To clarify: Jonathan Sims- just Jonathan, before the Institute, before the Archives, before The Archivist – used to read. When he was younger, like so many precocious, vaguely antisocial children before him, he’d taken refuge in the rustle of pages and the smell of ink, preferring the bound experiences of fictionalised others to the reality of trying to negotiate social encounters of his own. People were difficult. Books, however, were easy. You could pick them up and lose yourself in them, the less tolerable reality around you fading in favor of soothing fiction... their seductive magic could almost be considered a Power, were it not so universal, so comfortingly mundane.

After the Institute, of course, Jonathan’s relationship with books took a decidedly less trusting turn. It became impossible to view a book – any book – as mundane or ordinary, not after one became aware of the Leitners.

He still reads, of course, but statements don’t count, do they? That’s work. It’s not reading for pleasure, and pleasure in reading has been long since dropped by the wayside.

There’s a bookshelf in Jonathan’s office, though. He hasn’t so much as looked at it in well over a year. The powdery layer of dust softening its surfaces gives mute testimony to the ongoing lack of attention paid it. It holds a couple of lurking tape recorders, some derelict file folders, a few unaddressed envelopes. An empty mug sits slightly askew from its long-dried coffee ring on the top shelf. God only knows whose cup it is; Jonathan isn’t, has never been, a coffee drinker. Next to this, a newspaper appears to have molted, leaving behind a frail personal-ad exoskeleton. A scattering of hard plastic cassette cases, as anachronistic as the newspapers, sit tucked up against the back of one shelf.

And here and there, half-hidden as though ashamed of themselves, there is also a small handful of books.

Helen considers them, standing with her arms loosely crossed. She doesn’t move when the office door – the permanent one – opens behind her. Jonathan’s sharp inhalation has an edge of anger to it, but Helen pays it no mind, and the door clicks closed again anyway, as she was sure it would. A second, fainter click echoes it from somewhere else in the room, as she’d also been certain would occur. Seldom is Jonathan in a room without a tape recorder running.

“Can I help you?” he says, obviously annoyed. Helen half-turns to bestow upon the Archivist a small smile, which only deepens the scowl near-permanently etched on his lean face. Jonathan drops to sit heavily in the chair behind his desk, glowering at her. “Well?”

“I came to check up on you,” Helen replies mildly, turning back to the bookshelf. “You weren’t here, but I assumed you would be. Sooner or later.” How long would she have waited? No telling, even to herself. As long as it took, probably. Time is... inconsequential, now.

Jonathan snorts. His chair creaks as he leans forward, and there is a dry rustle: file folders sliding together as he sorts through them, searching without any real certainty what he’s looking for. “Lovely,” he replies. His tone could slice paper. “And now you’ve checked. As you can see, I’m still here, still breathing, still doing my job.” The rustling stops; he’s selected a file. “And on that note, I’d like to resume recording, so if you don’t mind...” It’s a pointed and entirely unsubtle hint to get out.

Helen blithely ignores the hint.

“I do mind, actually,” she replies pleasantly enough, her back to the irascible Archivist still. There is an idea emerging and she doesn’t question it; why not indulge? Why not, indeed. She reaches to lift a book from where it lies cover-side down, and examines the title. Keats? Interesting. The one underneath it: Donne. A slightly foxed volume of Yeats sits propped diagonally against a shelf wall, and underneath a pair of file folders rests the collected works of Walt Whitman. The Archivist likes poetry is a thought Helen never expected to have, but there it is, swimming through her forebrain, as out of place as a pike in a public fountain.

Jonathan’s already reading, ignoring her presence as peripheral to his task and therefore negligible.

“Statement of Leda Ward, regarding her exploration of Blå Jungfrun, and her experience with its Trolleborg labyrinth. Original statement given October fourteenth, nineteen-sixty-seven; read by Jonathan Sims, The Archivist. Statement begi-”

Jonathan looks up at Helen in shock and re-kindled anger, and reaches for the file folder she has neatly lifted out of his hands. She merely smiles broadly at him and with a snap of her wrist, flicks it through the door – her door this time, which closes immediately. Jonathan pushes to his feet. “What the hell do you think you’re doing?” he demands, voice raised. He starts for the closed door, ready it seems to simply storm through it after his statement, implacable as any mob before the Bastille. Helen slips smoothly between her doorway and the irate Archivist, placing before him the unspoken threat of a physical altercation. Not unexpectedly, Jonathan stops before he reaches her, although it’s close enough that when he points at her door, his hand is next to her ear, close enough to touch (but careful, so careful not to, anathema to the intensely private Archivist). “That’s Institute property and you have no right to remove it from the premises.”

“I’ll give it back,” Helen tells him with another tiny smile. “It’s not like it’ll do you any good anyway. Not meaty enough.” She points at the narrow, cheap futon that lies against one wall, and after a moment, Jonathan lets his hand drop. With a mutinous glare at Helen, he stalks over to the sofa as directed, depositing his underfed frame there. He sits with his elbows on his knees, his slender hands loosely clasped between them. Helen gives him a critical once-over, purses her lips. “You need to eat more. Better. Not those leftovers you’ve been barely subsisting on.” She gives a pointed glance at the yellow door through which she’d tossed his just-begun statement.

Jonathan only grunts irritated acknowledgement that she has spoken, refusing to grant her the satisfaction of agreement, and shifts to find some way to sit comfortably on the lumpy futon cushion. Helen waits for him to settle, then continues, “It’s your turn to be read to, for once. Leave your poor tape recorder alone.” Never mind it’s still recording, dutifully trapping her words along with his, along with the sounds of their breathing, of the movements of their feet on the floor, of the rustle of Helen’s skirt against the desk as she perches there on its edge.

Jonathan looks startled at the very idea of someone else doing the reading for once, like it’s never occurred to him that anybody other than he is capable. Typically arrogant, Helen thinks, then opens the dusty volume she had removed from his bookshelf, delicately licks a fingertip, and idly turns its pages until she finds one that suits her mood. She glances up at Jonathan from beneath a sharply arched eyebrow.

Away with us he’s going,” Helen reads. “The solemn-eyed:

 Now Jonathan looks astonished, and she continues.

"He’ll hear no more the lowing
Of the calves on the warm hillside
Or the kettle on the hob
Sing peace into his breast,
Or see the brown mice bob
Round and round the oatmeal chest.
For he comes, the human child,
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping than he can understand."

Jonathan is staring at her. Helen stares placidly back at him, then gives a supple shrug of her shoulders and turns a few more pages.

“Not to your taste, Archivist? Mmmm. It does hit a little close to home, doesn’t it? Let’s see...” Helen traces a fingertip down the page, smiles beatifically, and recites, “My mother dandled me and sang, ‘How young it is, how young!’”

Jonathan is very, very still, staring at her with wide eyes and an expression she cannot quite read. There’s anger in it, to be sure, inevitable and evident at the very surface, but something else simmers behind it, underpinning the immediate ire with something less determinate. Helen considers him from beneath half-lowered lashes.

"My mother dandled me and sang,
‘How young it is, how young!’
And made a golden cradle
That on a willow swung.
‘He went away,’ my mother sang,
‘When I was brought to bed,’
And all the while her needle pulled
The gold and silver thread.
She pulled the thread and bit the thread
And made a golden gown,
And wept because she had dreamt that I
Was born to wear a crown."

Jonathan is on his feet in an instant, vibrating with indignation. He points at Helen with a shaking hand, and advances a step or two. “How dare you?” he hisses. “You come in here uninvited, rifle through my belongings; you interrupt my mea- my work without a hint of apology, you abscond with Institute property, toss it aside as though it’s so much trash- God only knows what’s going to happen to that statement inside that twisted maze of corridors you call home-”

He advances, his fury blossoming around him like the nightmare wings of an avenging angel. There is, Helen admits with a flare of secret pleasure, something breathtaking in this, his anger transforming him from a skinny academic to something more dangerous, whip-thin still but with a core of wiry strength, rather than simply malnourished and gaunt.

Jonathan points at her, savagely accusatory. “And then,” he snarls, “And then you read not just anything, oh no, that won’t do, not for you; no, it’s got to be a reminder of everything I’m working against, everything I’m trying to fight. How DARE you come into my office and throw that in my face, like- like it’s some sick joke, how-”

The book shuts with a loud snap, and Helen slips off the edge of the desk to stand toe to toe with the irate Archivist. She taps the book’s spine gently against his chest, putting a sense of her own power behind it: leashed, but unmistakably there. Helen is smiling, widely, and it does not reach her eyes. She leans in.

“Because, Archivist,” she whispers. “You keep forgetting.” Thrown completely off his stride and clearly uncomfortable with her closeness, Jonathan takes a half step backward, moving to put a little more space between them. Helen follows, refusing to grant to him that smallest of concessions, relishing and refusing to relinquish that discomfiture. “You treat it like a joke, Archivist, like something you can pretend away. You pretend you’re normal, that anything about your life now is anything but deeply, irreparably unnatural. You, Archivist, pretend you’re still human.” Jonathan is still backing up, and Helen keeps pace with him, step for step, relentlessly putting herself within the bubble of his personal space, does not allow him to ignore or dismiss her. “That way madness lies, Archivist, and the surest way to lose any last shred of your dwindling humanity is to pretend you’ve not lost any of it at all.”

Jonathan’s face has drained of color by the time his back fetches up against the wall. He looks away, and his hand drops to curl over the back of the futon, gripping it white-knuckled as though it alone keeps him from toppling over, a victim of gravity and his own abruptly-obvious exhaustion. His anger is empowering, but it so evidently costs him dearly. Helen, remorseless, crooks a finger under his narrow chin and lifts until he meets her gaze, merest inches from her (dangerous, dangerous, something tells her, dangerous to look into the eyes of the Eye, and she ignores it). “You. Are not. Human,” Helen says gently, so quietly it could be mistaken for merely a breath, although she is certain the patient tape recorder will have caught every syllable, every nuance. “Not anymore. And the longer you fight it, the less human you become, and the more quickly. Accept it, Archivist, and accept that instead you must be strong.”

“I’m not- I don’t want to be a monster,” Jonathan whispers after a moment, his voice breaking on the last word. He searches her gaze, something in his own expression desperate. Lost. “Giving in... it feels like giving up.”

“Oh, Archivist,” Helen murmurs. She lets her hand drop, steps back a fraction, enough to make it clear as the concession that it is. “’Giving up’ is starving yourself into vulnerability.” Aware of the irony, she gives him a small smile in exchange for the frank vulnerability he is showing her now. “’Giving up’ is paralysing yourself with indecision. ‘Giving up’ is crippling yourself through denial. Acknowledging the reality of your situation is not giving up, Archivist. It’s arming yourself.”

He is gaining control of himself again. Helen watches as the moment of fragility passes, watches Jonathan visibly tucking the frayed edges of his composure back into place, hiding them away again with the ease of long practice. He pulls himself straight, draws a deep breath; lets it out slowly.

“I suppose you’re right,” he tells Helen quietly. He looks down again and she allows him to disengage. Jonathan absently rubs the scarred skin of one hand with his other palm while he searches for words. They’re hard, when they have to be his own. It’s easier to read others’ words and judge them, than to strip his own bare and wait for them to be judged. “I- I didn’t choose this. I didn’t want this. I suppose I’ve just been...”

“Lying to yourself,” Helen finishes for him, her tone briskly matter-of-fact. She has crossed the room now, stands in her doorway with one hand on the frame. “It’s time to start treating yourself with brutal honesty, Archivist,” she continues, “because reality isn’t going to conform to your comfortable delusions. Otherwise, I’m afraid, you’re going to end up with a very shiny hat.”

Helen’s door closes behind her, but not before something comes spinning through it. Jonathan jerks his head to the side to follow its movement till it lands on his desk and sends folders scattering.

Jonathan doesn’t move for a moment that stretches thin between the seconds. Finally, he takes a breath and the tension dissolves. He sits heavily down behind his desk and picks up the statement Helen had tossed back onto it, and he stares at the text marching in even lines across the page, a legion of typeset words waiting patiently for him to take up his duties. He glances up. Helen’s door is, unsurprisingly, no longer there.

Jonathan sighs.

“Statement of Leda Ward,” the Archivist intones, settling into the level cadence that heralds his slide from statement to nourishment. “Regarding her exploration of Blå Jungfrun, and her experience with its Trolleborg labyrinth. Original statement given October fourteenth, nineteen-sixty-seven; read by Jonathan Sims… the Archivist. Statement- statement begins.”