There is, for no reason at all, a cup of tea on Jon's desk.
He has no idea how it got there or what he's supposed to do with it.
Well, drink it, possibly, unless it's... prank tea or, or poisoned tea, or... something. He doesn't think his colleagues dislike him enough to try and bait him with rat poison disguised as tea but, well. He knows he's difficult. He knows he's gotten more difficult and less avoidable since he was promoted to Head Archivist, and made the possibly-mistake of convincing Tim Stoker and Sasha James to abandon their perfectly nice Research positions to help him with the rat’s nest, which might have ruffled some feathers and inspired some petty payback. Tea with ink in it probably wouldn't be out of the question.
Jon sets down the reference book-- which was the only reason he left his office long enough for this to materialize in his absence-- on the other side of the desk, just in case tea is about to launch itself out of the cup to cause general ruin and inconvenience. He hooks two fingers gingerly in the handle of the mug to swirl it around a couple of rotations. Nothing obviously vile rises to the surface. It appears to be perfectly normal black tea, with a bit of milk. No way to tell if there's sugar (or salt, for that matter) dissolved into it.
It's still warm.
This raises a number of questions. Who brought this here? Was his absence at the time it was brought here intentional? Why would someone bring him tea? What would they stand to gain from bringing him tea? What is he, personally, expected to do about them bringing him tea? There are a lot of variables, none of which Jon feels particularly equipped to address. This is one of the many reasons why he prefers, in general, that no one does bring him tea, or ask him about his weekend, or interact with him at all in anything other than a strictly professional capacity. He isn't... personable, or good at personhood in general. Nothing about Jon invites curiosity or friendliness. Rather the opposite. It's even a little bit by design, these days.
And now someone has left tea on his desk.
Maybe... someone... forgot their tea. Maybe they came looking for him while he was in the library and just... left it on his desk accidentally.
Yes, that seems... plausible. He'll just leave it alone. Someone will come collect it eventually.
People do not bring Jonathon Sims tea.
It isn't done. It never has been done-- not at home, not at school, not at any of his workplaces. He and Georgie each got their own tea because they were both adults who had wildly different ideas about what tea should look like-- specifically, Georgie had strong opinions about tea and Jon didn’t have any opinions about tea but had strong opinions about her opinions-- and it was just best for everyone if they didn’t acknowledge that the other person had tea at all. (This is their compromise so that Georgie stops unplugging and absconding with the microwave to prevent Jon from using it to heat water. It’s efficient, and she’s wrong.) Jon doesn't even bring himself tea, as a rule, because it would require leaving his desk for several minutes at a time to go to someplace other than the library and, in the best case scenario, encountering someone who might expect him to make small talk or eye contact. (The worst case scenario generally spirals out into something involving second-degree burns, so he doesn’t consider the worst case scenario. The best case scenario is sufficiently bad already.) In this, as in all aspects of his life, Jon involves as few other human beings in the process as possible. What with the advent of self-service groceries, he doesn't even need to involve a checkout operator anymore. The world is full of little ways for Jonathon Sims to avoid having to interact with people.
Martin Blackwood, newly-minted archival assistant, has apparently not received this memo, because he is standing in front of Jon's desk with a ceramic mug. It’s steaming slightly.
Jon doesn’t actually know much about Martin. He knows that Martin was in Research for some time before Jon was employed, despite his apparent lack of academic rigor; that he is credulous (not an ideal trait in a researcher, in Jon’s opinion, even in this particular field); and that he likes people. Or, possibly, wants to be liked by people. Either way, not someone Jon spent a great deal of time around-- he lacks the basic social charms necessary to avoid stepping all over someone like Martin Blackwood’s feelings, and probably did so more often than he meant to on the very few occasions they interacted. That situation isn’t likely to improve with increased proximity, but Elias insisted that Martin would be suitable for the position, so here they are. This is what Jon gets for not being able to remember the names of more than two of his fellow researchers when asked.
Jon stares at the cup in Martin’s hands, nonplussed. Martin stares down at, possibly, Jon's face, with a fluttery and uncertain attitude that Jon thinks is probably anxiety. It's awkward.
This might explain the tea of mysterious provenance from two days ago, which Jon had eventually tipped into a potted plant when no one came looking for it. He has been observing the plant. It hasn't died yet, but that's not conclusive.
"What," he snaps, when Martin just continues to stand there looking at him. Jon is not that interesting to look at, so presumably there’s some reason he’s doing it.
"Um," says Martin, "I've brought you some tea? If you like?" His hands make a little nervous profferring gesture as if he was going to set the cup on Jon’s desk and thought better of it.
Well, that at least suggests a perpetrator if not a motive. Jon wonders if Martin would reveal a motive if asked. People, in Jon's experience, do not actually answer direct questions if they can help it. It's a great inconvenience to him personally and the advancement of humanity generally.
"Why?" he tries, because sometimes if he just asks a vague question people will come up with the specifics on their own, and that can be nearly as informative as getting his actual question answered.
“B-Because… tea?” Martin says, which is not even remotely illuminating. Trust Martin to be the outlier.
Jon glances up in the general area of Martin’s face long enough to get an impression of his big, dark, nervous eyes and a wavering little frown that he seems to be trying to convert into a smile by sheer willpower-- Jon has no idea what Martin can have been expecting, but apparently it wasn’t interrogation-- and turns back to his files, wiggling his fingers vaguely at the farthest possible corner of his desk.
“Yes, fine, go away,” he says, optimistically.
Martin does go away. He leaves the tea.
Jon catches himself glancing at the cup suspiciously three times over the next twenty minutes, before he finally sighs and drags it close enough to inspect. It looks much the same as the last cup, although it’s better described as lukewarm at this point. Jon dips the end of a pen in it, experimentally. Nothing dramatic happens. He’s not sure what he was expecting.
After some consideration, he puts the end of the pen in his mouth. Jon does not chew on his pens-- nasty habit, ruins teeth and writing utensils alike, also it’s unsanitary, also his grandmother would have had a fit if she had ever noticed, not that she would have been likely to-- but it seems marginally safer than actually drinking anything.
It tastes like tea. Also, plastic. That’s the pen, presumably.
Right. Mystery solved. Normal tea. Martin being Martin. It’s fine. Jon puts it out of his mind and gets back to work.
At sometime around half past seven, when he realizes he probably should finish notating this file and then actually go back to his flat, he also realizes that the cup is empty.
It doesn’t stop. Or perhaps, more correctly, it escalates.
Every day there’s a cup of tea on his desk. Sometimes he notices Martin arriving, and sometimes he doesn’t-- sometimes, he’s pretty sure, Martin deliberately times it when Jon is out of the office for some reason. There have definitely been occasions when Martin must have come in when Jon was working and he just… didn’t notice. Which doesn’t say much for either Jon’s local awareness or his interpersonal skills, he’s sure, but that’s nothing new.
For the first few days, Jon expects something to materialize out of the situation-- unpleasant additions now that it’s been confirmed that Jon is drinking the tea, however cautiously-- but it’s always just… tea. Normal, actually fairly nice, tea. Slightly different each time, admittedly, but not in a way that appears to be malicious or even mischievous. If anything it gets a little better with each iteration.
The only persistently irritating thing about it is the irregularity of the timing. The intervals between Martin’s arrivals in Jon’s office bearing tea-- and, if Jon is very lucky, his actual follow-up reports-- are, as far as Jon can tell, entirely random.
Hi, mouths Martin silently, gesturing with a mug at Jon’s desk. He pauses, hovering half in the doorway, when he realizes there is absolutely nowhere to put it down because Jon has twelve case files spread over his desk in various states of completion.
Jon jabs the stop button on the tape recorder and does his absolute best not to glare because he is not, strictly speaking, angry with Martin right now. His absolute best isn’t very good, so he’s not surprised when Martin cringes.
“U-um,” bumbles Martin, finally committing to entering the office in his entirety and meandering his way towards Jon only to hover, loomingly, blinking down at the mug in his own hands. Jon is reasonably sure that he doesn’t do the looming intentionally. He’s reasonably sure that Martin has no idea what size he actually is and that he could probably pick Jon up bodily and throw him across the Archives like a small dog. It’s one of Martin’s very few redeeming qualities. “I brought… do, do you need… some help?”
“No,” says Jon quickly, because he trusts Martin’s investigative skills about as much as he trusts the statement-givers themselves, which is to say: he doesn’t.
“Oh. Y- no, right, um. I’ll just, I’ll-- did, did you want, where should I?” He traces a vague circle in the air with the mug.
Jon can just see that at any moment tea is going to slosh over the rim and destroy, at best, a number of questionably-documented case files. That’s if it doesn’t manage to hit the laptop and destroy that too. (The tape recorder will be fine, he’s sure, which is a shame, because if it was ruined in a tragic workplace accident maybe he could convince Elias to at least update to something that wasn’t manufactured in the early 90s, but so it goes.)
He does not, precisely, plan to reach out and take the tea away from Martin before this can happen. Which is unfortunate, because if he had planned it maybe he wouldn’t have grabbed Martin’s entire hand on auto-pilot. Jon freezes. Martin freezes. The tea, mercifully, at least doesn’t spill. That is literally the only upside to this situation.
Martin’s hand is very warm. For an absolutely wild second Jon cannot imagine why that would be the case-- are his hands just very cold?-- but obviously it’s because of the tea, which is warm, and Jon is an idiot, and he should let go immediately. He does not let go immediately. His brain, having gotten him into this mess, has apparently decided to now stop delivering input to his limbs.
“D-did you…” Martin begins, and then trails off, staring at him.
With what seems like a very disproportionate amount of effort, Jon snatches his hand back. Martin sort of deflates, very slightly, presumably relieved that his boss is no longer inexplicably holding his hand.
“Y- I, just-- anywhere, just put it… anywhere,” Jon mutters, hunching over a document and scribbling pointlessly just to keep his fucking hands occupied.
He resolutely ignores all the little aborted words Martin stammers as he hesitantly puts the cup down, and absolutely does not look up until he hears Martin shuffle out of the room, gently closing the door behind him.
Then he drops his head to the desk and sighs aggressively until there’s no more air in his lungs and he feels a little bit less like he’s going to vibrate out of his own skin.
The tea is fine.
Jon does not immediately notice that Martin isn’t in. It isn’t until he receives a text about it, in fact, that he looks up and realizes he hasn’t had any interruptions all day. Sasha is out investigating a case, and Tim has been either working diligently or pretending to work diligently while he ‘protests the abuses of capitalism by underperforming and dedicating time to more valuable pursuits like, for example, getting a date, Jon, you should try it some time’. With Martin home sick, the possible reasons to intrude on Jon’s privacy are essentially nil, and he’s been able to get an astonishing amount of work done.
Of course, now it’s past nine in the evening and when he opens the door to his office the Archive is dark and quiet and empty.
He should probably go back to his flat.
Instead, he wanders out to the break room-- yes, he does know where it is, Tim, it’s just not a productive use of his time to be in it-- and fixes himself a cup of tea. Everything is strange and loud in the cavernous silence of an Institute entirely empty except for him. He watches the timer and opens the microwave before it can beep, stirs sugar into the tea without letting the spoon clang against the sides of the mug.
He’ll just finish filing what’s already on his desk.
The tea sits near his laptop and goes cold.
Martin continues to not be in.
In a slightly abstract way, with most of his attention on his actual work, Jon thinks this is for the best-- everything is more efficient when Martin is away. Jon is more efficient when Martin is away.
(It’s been a while, though. This seems like a long time to be out with a stomach bug.)
After nearly two weeks, it occurs to Jon that there might actually be some sort of consequences for Martin’s absence if it continues any longer. He’s not sure if he has any actual feelings about that, other than a vague impression that maybe he can get Martin replaced with someone who is more familiar with library science than with tea service, but it’s probably something he should actually be thinking about in some capacity.
Of course, the capacity he ends up thinking about it is: has Martin actually gone to see a doctor? Because two weeks definitely seems like a long time to be laid up.
Some kind of parasite, Martin texts, and then stops responding when Jon tries to get more information.
Which. Is fair. Because they aren’t friends, and Jon is his boss, and he probably wouldn’t be thrilled if Elias started asking him about the specifics of his medical history.
Someone should make sure he isn’t dying? For paperwork purposes if nothing else.
Someone who isn’t Jon.
He floats this idea to Sasha. She gives him a very long look, raises one eyebrow, and turns back to her research. Tim, across the office, cackles.
In retrospect, he thinks it’s the parasite thing that irks him the most about the whole Prentiss situation. There’s a distinctly smug quality about it, as if he should have been able to put the clues together just from that and known that it wasn’t Martin he was texting with. Like he missed something obvious, and Martin had to pay for it.
Of course, Martin is significantly more worried about the “crimson fate” nonsense, but that’s so transparently intended to be sinister that Jon is almost a little bored with it. He does wonder if Martin is fully aware that he’s stopped bringing anything red into Jon’s office, including several mugs that had been in regular use, but it doesn’t seem worth bringing up.
That also irks him, in a way he’s less certain of. Not the specific mugs in question, just the fact that they continue to materialize on his desk. This shouldn’t irritate him. It’s a welcome return to normalcy after a disruption which was more capital-B Bad, from every angle, than he had realized at the time. Martin’s absence had been a mild distraction in the back of his mind, but looking back on those memories now it was a constant error-- a rotten tooth that had finally crumbled to reveal the hollow. Having Martin back in the Archives doing Martin things should resolve that lingering incorrectness. Martin is back, and alive, and not eaten by worms, and continuing to be mildly incompetent at filing (and not doing field research at all, which isn’t favouritism, it’s practical, Tim and Sasha are better at it anyway and also won’t linger over dangerous situations because they have a complex over not getting enough positive feedback from Jon) and also-- and this, for some reason, is the bit Jon keeps stumbling over-- making tea.
Which is normal. It’s a normal thing to do. It’s a normal thing for normal people, and also a normal thing for Martin, and nothing about Martin puttering around the Archives like some kind of beneficient beverage elf in the wake of being terrorized in his own flat for two weeks should be off-putting in any way. Probably. Jon’s not an expert in that area.
Unfortunately the only person he could reasonably quiz on the subject without overcomplicating his workplace relationships would be Georgie, and: no. This is not a conversation he is going to have with Georgie. So he’ll just have to figure it out the old-fashioned way-- with a spreadsheet.
In the end this clarifies very little, but Jon does at least feel better having the data to hand.
By the time Martin actually clears his throat to get Jon’s attention, there’s no telling how long he’s been standing at the edge of the desk waiting. Jon certainly has no idea, and isn’t about to ask. He just blinks up at Martin, a little dazed as always by the interruption and vaguely aware that the lack of a mug means that this is a different interruption than has become usual.
“Just, just checking, um,” says Martin, in the usual way, “Did you know it’s almost two?”
Jon did not know, but shrugs one shoulder ambivalently anyway. “I suppose.”
This inexplicably seems to make Martin more nervous. “Right. It’s just, well, you didn’t go to lunch? Did, did you… are-- is everything-- I can get you something?”
Jon squints at him while he tries to remember if he has, in fact, eaten anything today. He is not, per se, hungry, though experience has taught him that this isn’t a guarantee that he has actually eaten. “That’s… not necessary, Martin.”
Jon has never actually seen irritation on Martin’s face before-- mostly he sees confusion, concern, anxiety, and what seems to be a permanent veneer of optimism and hope overtop all of it, even in the slightly uncomfortable climate produced by the threat of hostile worms-- so it takes him longer than the expression actually lasts to identify it. As usual, he has no idea what he’s done wrong, so he just files it away for future reference.
“I know it’s not-- just, I’m just… checking,” says Martin, strangely brittle.
“Okay?” Jon tries, without much hope, “That’s fine?”
“Right,” Martin bites out, and spins immediately on his heel to leave.
Jon watches him go, baffled. He has no idea what possesses him to ask, “Is-- are, did you? Eat?”
Martin pauses, one hand on the doorknob, and half turns to look at him, quizzical. This is an improvement over annoyed, so Jon suppresses his automatic impulse to look back at his desk and just taps all his fingers on the wood a couple of times while he waits for this to process.
“Yeah?” Martin says, “A couple of hours ago.”
Jon blinks. Right. “Right,” he says, stupidly, “Yes, because-- lunch. Is a thing that. Yes. Of course.”
Martin smiles at him.
It is not the usual nervous smile, uncertain of its welcome. Jon isn’t sure he could describe the differences if he had to, but it is different. Better anchored, maybe, or warmer, or just… preferable.
He’s going to need a new column on his spreadsheet.
“Lunch is a thing, yeah,” Martin says, “I’ve got another sandwich in my desk. I’ll just go get it for you.”
And then he’s gone.
Jon stares at the door for a long moment, trying to clear the static out of his mind, and finally looks back down at his desk. “Right,” he says, and starts trying to figure out which papers go with which case files so that he can make some kind of space.
(Someday, Jon will think about the attack on the Archives and be angry in a cold impersonal way. How dare she (they, it, anyone) come into his place and touch things. Pretend to see with her false fleshy eyes. Swallow words that belong to him. Frighten his assistants. Interfere. It is not her place. It is his place.)
In the moment, his prevailing thoughts are “this is gross” and “we’re all going to die”.
(That’s unacceptable, of course. So they don’t.)
Jon cannot believe he has allowed himself to be bullied by Martin-- Martin-- into actually taking the entirety of his sick leave. He isn’t sick. He’s full of holes, and admittedly taking a lot of painkillers that are doing at best a passable job of actually managing pain, but that is not the same as sick. He isn’t contagious, and he should be allowed to go back to work. It’s inhumane, probably, to make him stay in his empty flat and stare at his books without having enough energy to read any of them and want to clean all the surfaces in his home in a way that’s probably borderline pathological and, in general, not know what to do with himself.
On the third day of what he is not officially calling his Confinement but which is definitely, absolutely his Confinement, Jon puts a mug of water in the microwave, assumes that somewhere Georgie has just had a sense of great wrongness in the universe, and dumps a packet of PG Tips in to stare at for a couple of minutes.
After half an hour of reluctantly sipping the bitter and increasingly-lukewarm result, he is forced to come to the conclusion that he’s forgotten how to make tea. This is Martin’s fault, somehow, he’s sure.
He drinks it anyway, sullenly, staring at the tap on his kitchen sink and wondering how much his landlord would kill him if he filled in all the plumbing with cement.
Over the course of the next month, Jon does in fact clean every surface in his flat, several times. He also re-organizes his books twice, convinces himself to stop walking through every room of his flat three times before he goes to sleep and to stop keeping all of the doors open at all times, consequently stops sleeping for three days and starts doing all of that again, almost gets himself squashed into a paste by the mysteriously moving tunnels beneath the Institute, kills six spiders that he’s aggressively choosing to believe were normal house spiders that didn’t want to eat him and were dying purely for their crimes against small insects and, on three separate occasions, forgets to take his painkillers and has to just lie on the floor with the heels of his hands pressed into his eye sockets until he can summon up the energy to go hunt them down and take them and then lie down some more until they kick in.
He doesn’t try to make tea again.
At one point he ventures as far as the cafe down the street to get tea there. It’s better than his tea, but not actually, in fact, good. Also he is seventy-percent certain that the person in line behind him tried to follow him to his flat, and he ended up having to walk aimlessly around London for an hour, which was not ideal. So he doesn’t do that again.
Technically no one told Jon that he couldn’t come in at 6AM on the day he is finally allowed to return to work, so that’s what he does.
A couple of hours later, while Jon is already well stuck in and stupidly grateful to have work to do again-- potential imminent murder notwithstanding-- Martin slides a cup of tea directly under Jon’s nose and gives him a nervous little smile when he looks up.
“It’s nice to have you back, Jon.”
The discovery of his predecessor’s corpse in the tunnels, murdered by perfectly mundane means, somewhat validates Jon's initial concerns about the possibility of poisoned tea. In fact, he decides the next day, eyeing the cup which Martin might have left on his desk or which someone else might have left on his desk pretending to be Martin in order to sneak under his defenses or, or, which Martin might have left on his desk having already snuck under his defenses by accustoming him to receiving tea which isn't poisoned only to now deliver tea which is poisoned-- the point is, he can't drink the tea.
He upends it into the same potted plant that the original cup went into, what feels like decades ago.
It doesn’t make him feel any better about the situation.
It turns out that identifying whether any given consumable has been poisoned (and/or drugged) is not practically possible by a casual analysis. For one thing, too many of the potential substances are tasteless, odorless, and colorless, or near enough as to make no difference. For another, he would probably need a full forensic lab and the relevant experience to use it in order to reliably detect any of the potentially hundreds of things that could kill him, neither of which are reasonable acquisitions. He supposes he could ask Basira if she has any suggestions on the subject, but he isn’t sure he actually wants to trust her quite that far.
Much more practical to only consume things that come in tamper-resistant packaging.
So not random cups of tea.
He has to stop watering the plant. He has a vague idea that overwatering leads to root rot.
It isn’t like Jon wants his coworkers to be possible murderers. It’s just that it’s extremely plausible that at least one of them is, and Jon would like very much to not be murdered. He isn’t totally convinced that not being murdered is an option for him at this point, but forewarned is forearmed or something and, look, Jon was never good at letting go of mysteries. This is hardly the first time it’s gotten him into potentially fatal trouble, it’s just the first time he’s been keenly aware of the potential fatalness of it so far in advance.
He thinks he kind of prefers the ignorance, but it’s too late for that now.
In an abstract way, Jon actually feels a little less hemmed in whenever Tim loses his increasingly frayed temper and has a shout at him, if for no other reason than that it seems unlikely to be the behaviour of a subtle and malicious assassin. Which doesn’t rule out other kinds of murder, obviously, but at this point Jon will take what he can get.
In a much more immediate way, of course, it makes him nervous when people start shouting in general, and Tim in particular gets aggressively loud and dangerous-seeming when he gets going. Jon tries not to make it too obvious that he’s keeping the desk between them as Tim stomps around his office.
He looks like he’d like to start throwing things. Or shooting someone.
He won’t, probably. Probably. Sasha and Martin are just outside. Someone would notice.
Jon doesn’t even remember what he’d said to start this particular tirade off, but he suspects that whatever the original complaint was, it’s gone off the rails at this point.
“And god, Martin’s bad enough without you leading him on, as if feeding you infinite amounts of tea is going to make you any better!”
This, specifically, seems like it is more Martin’s problem than Jon’s, but Tim doesn’t seem like he’s interested in constructive feedback.
“You know what your problem is,” Tim demands, slamming his hands on Jon’s desk and looming down at him. Tim’s looming, Jon is pretty sure, is a more intentional thing than Martin’s variety. “You’re a selfish, entitled, weird little creep.”
Jon watches him blandly and waits for a more interesting analysis. He’s heard this one before. It’s accurate, probably, but it’s not exactly an innovation.
“You’re not the only person on the fucking planet who has feelings!”
“I know th--”
“Do you?” Tim interrupts, leaning in, with a smile that’s almost exclusively an excuse to bare his teeth. Jon concludes that opening his mouth was, as usual, a mistake. “Oh poor Jon, so fucking traumatized, better excuse all his crazy bullshit.”
“Um,” says Martin, cracking open the door and peeking through the gap warily, “Everything… okay? In here?”
“Christ not this again,” Tim snarls, spinning abruptly to wrench the door open-- Martin stumbles back a little bit, startled-- and stalking past him without another word. Martin watches him go, eyebrows knitted, and glances at Jon uncertainly.
Jon waits a couple of seconds for his pulse to slow down, resigns himself to the fact that it’s not going to, and clears his throat. “Yes. Martin. Everything is… fine. Go back to work.”
The plant dies.
Martin, it turns out, has been lying to him, but it’s about the most mundane thing on Earth and Jon could not possibly care less that Martin doesn’t have the qualifications for his job. He survived nearly being eaten by worms twice, which is the sort of thing no one is qualified for, so it’s probably fine. Really, at this point, he’s over-qualified-- the rest of them only survived nearly being eaten by worms once.
Martin Blackwood’s resume fraud is possibly the best news Jon has ever heard in his entire life.
Although it does explain some things about his general lack of academic rigor.
Assuming neither of them is murdered in the near future, Jon will have to see if he can find his old college textbooks. He’s thoroughly scribbled in most of them, but they should still be of some use if Martin wants to catch up.
Sasha stops dead on the threshold of his office and just… looks at Jon’s desk for a long moment. It would be a stretch to call it staring, but she’s definitely looking at something. Jon glances over his desk, baffled, and squints up at her uncertainly.
“What’s that,” she says finally.
“That,” she says, tilting her head vaguely, “It’s cold.”
Jon blinks down at his own desk in mild confusion for a moment before he realizes that there is, in fact, a cup of very cold tea sitting on the corner. He has no idea when (probably) Martin snuck in and left it there. During a statement, maybe. He can’t confirm that it was Martin, though. Definitely can’t drink this one.
“Oh,” he says, “Nothing, not, just Martin, probably. You know. How he is.”
Sasha looks at it for a moment longer, and then smiles, abruptly, like a flash of sunlight-- lightning-- bioluminescence-- from beyond a thunderhead. “I’ll just take it away from you.”
She sweeps in and carries off the mug and leaves a pile of paperwork in its place, the door swinging gently closed behind her, before Jon can even say, bemused, “Alright.”
(Later, listening to the thing that isn’t Sasha laughing as it stalks him through his own goddamn Archives, he’ll remember that. He’ll wonder what offended her-- it, because it isn’t Sasha-- so much about a cup of tea. He’ll think, vaguely, about tannins and chemical elements and compositional incompatibilities.
It won’t be until much later that it occurs to him to think about connection and care and the warm protection of home-places and home-people.)
The fact that he can’t remember what Sasha looked like bothers him more than it probably should.
He understands why he can’t remember. He’s read the statements, and they’re very consistent on that point. That’s how it works.
But she was one of his. He should know. And he can’t shake that feeling.
He should know.
In retrospect, it probably should have been obvious that it was Elias, both times.
Also in retrospect, immediately fleeing the scene was perhaps not Jon’s best-considered plan.
In his defense, it had been a very long day.
It might be nice if he could pretend that there was a good reason his relationship with Georgie disintegrated, but there wasn't. It was all very human, which-- considering the increasingly inhuman context of Jon’s life-- is actually nice in its own way. He said hurtful things. She said hurtful things. She was more right than he was, as ever. By the time it had ended Jon barely knew what had actually happened, how he had lost track of all the pieces of that relationship, much less how to go about putting it back together. Puzzles were never his strongest suit-- he could organize all the pieces, sort and label them into a hundred categories, by shape and size and color, but he never could quite figure out how to make them fit together.
So he hadn't tried. He'd accepted it as another in a string of failures to understand other people and picked up the next task in his list, the next project to distract himself with. It was no one's fault but his own that it had been the Institute.
When Georgie was asked, though, she usually told people that they had broken up because Jon’s tea habits were heathen.
“You put the milk in first Jon,” Georgie says, well past patience and into frustrated throttling gestures, “Because the tea stays hot longer that way, it’s science.”
“It’s a lot of extra work is what it is,” says Jon, hunched over his mug of half-completed tea defensively. He has a premonition, probably of the mundane variety, that if he leans forward enough to get the milk Georgie is going to snatch his cup and dump it down the sink, which wouldn’t be a great loss per se-- it’s her tea if she wants to waste it-- but it’s the principle of the thing.
“Only because you refuse to put the kettle on like a civilized person!”
“I’m one person, I make one person’s worth of tea, I don’t need a kettle.”
“This is why you’re still single,” Georgie tells him flatly.
“Pretty sure there are other factors,” Jon says, and chances reaching for the milk.
Georgie does, in fact, dump his tea down the sink. Jon doesn’t even bother rolling his eyes about it.
“Nope,” she says, rinsing out the cup and pouring a little milk into the bottom while she glares at him. “It’s entirely down to your refusal to learn how to make tea properly. That is your sole flaw as a human being and a partner. If you would just learn how to make proper tea, that Martin fellow would fall all over you.”
“Oh, shut up,” he mutters. The Admiral, sensing weakness, takes a flying leap directly into Jon’s knees and claws his way up to his lap. Jon tolerates this with the ease of long practice and because petting the Admiral gives him something to do with his hands.
“I’m telling you,” she says primly, putting the kettle on the hob. Jon sighs loudly and she ignores him. “A boy like that cares about the important things in life. Comfortable clothes, good food, correctly-made tea. I bet he brings you tea all the time round the office. Or... brought, I guess, sorry.”
“No, it-- it’s fine, yes, Martin makes a lot of tea, well spotted.”
She squints at him and gestures emphatically with a spoon. He feels vaguely threatened, but that’s par for the course with Georgie. “Right, and how does he make it?”
Jon can already tell that this is somehow a debate and he’s going to lose it. He picks up the Admiral’s front paws and lifts him so he can stare into the cat’s grumpy eyes. “Why is she like this,” he asks.
“Oh my god, you don’t even know!” Georgie shrieks in despair, flinging her hands up and nearly sending the spoon spinning into the ceiling. She remembers it at the last second and jabs it towards Jon instead. “You don’t even know how your crush makes the tea he brings you! What were you doing in secondary school?”
“Learning Latin,” he says, before his brain catches up with his mouth, “And I, hey, no, I do not have a crush on Martin Blackwood, Georgie, Christ.”
She gives him a strikingly familiar oh, Jon look which he could, frankly, go without seeing ever again. It always makes him feel like he’s a particularly stupid pet and she’s about to tell him that he can’t sit on the furniture until he learns to be people.
“I don’t,” he says again, though at this point there’s really no hope of her believing him.
True to form, she puts the spoon on the counter and crouches down to scritch the Admiral’s ears and peer up into Jon’s face. He watches the Admiral curve his entire face towards her fingers, the traitor, and tries not to look like he’s bracing himself for an attack.
“You know,” she says slowly, “Just because you and me didn’t work out, that doesn’t mean you’re broken. You’re allowed to like people, Jon.”
At this point the kettle mercifully intervenes by emitting a hellish screech that makes both of them jump and the Admiral rocket off into another room. Georgie makes a face at him, uses his shoulder as a brace on her way up, and continues haranguing him about proper tea-making procedure instead of expecting him to answer.
He might have to invest in a kettle just for its value in derailing conversations he doesn’t want to have.
Jude Perry burns him, which he supposes he should have expected. He decides, on balance, that it could have been worse.
Michael Crew tries to make him tea. (He isn’t offended, but he doesn’t really have a better description for the visceral rejection he feels at the idea. He’s spending too much time chasing down monsters and it’s ruining his fear response, probably.)
Then Daisy kills Mike and comes very close to murdering Jon while she’s at it, of course.
Objectively speaking, he was safer in the Archives.
He is keenly aware of the irony.
Confronting Elias about murdering two people would probably have gone better if he wasn’t at least two or three steps ahead of all of them. Which makes sense, with the knowledge that he can just… observe whatever he wants, at any time, at will. Which is just… great.
Not that Jon’s attempts to keep secrets were a) very effective or b) very useful, in the end, but the fact that he might as well not have bothered because his boss has supernatural oversight is very… he’s just very tired, at this point.
And now, because he hasn’t ruined enough lives yet, Jon has gotten Basira trapped in the Archives with the rest of them, and Daisy on an extremely thin leash that she’ll probably strangle him with someday.
At least no one’s dead. Everyone but Martin is still apparently furious-- Tim and Melanie are probably getting along like a house on fire, and are liable to burn down everything around them at this rate-- but that’s… fine. He’s getting used to that. Alive and angry is better than eaten by worms or beaten to death in his office. He’ll take it.
Getting kidnapped by a murderous circus was not on Jon’s agenda, but honestly, nothing that happens to him these days is intentional or desired. He should probably just start expecting the worst possible thing that could happen to be the thing that will.
The worst part isn’t even really being tied up, or Nikola’s incredibly disconcerting obsession with the condition of his skin-- which, if he wasn’t gagged, he would be protesting, because: his skin is covering in worm holes and burns and, really, just an ever-increasing catalogue of scars, no amount of moisturizing is going to improve that. No, the worst thing is how much he just… wants to watch them. These not-people made of plastic or sawdust or tallow, going through all the motions of humanity with clumsy eagerness, delighted by their masks and disguises. Pulling each other apart and making themselves new and studying him in return, counting his fingers, mimicking his posture, practicing their horrifying smiles on him to see how he’ll react.
It isn’t even that they’re doing anything interesting, really, in the grand scheme of things. It’s just that they’re Strangers, and he wants to understand them.
Sometimes, he even thinks he does.
Jon doesn’t like to think about Gerry.
He hopes-- god, he hopes-- that he did it right. It hurt, burning the page, removing that knowledge from the world, blinding an Eye, which he’s choosing to believe is a sign that it worked.
It’s a strange feeling, like a missing limb that he never had, a phantom in the corners of his heart that never belonged to a body.
He didn’t really even know Gerard Keay. They weren’t friends-- they were barely even acquaintances. Gerry didn’t want anything to do with him, really-- Jon was a means to an end, to an End. He doesn’t deserve anything else, honestly, not with how much he struggled with holding up his half of their devil’s bargain.
He doesn’t like to think about it.
(But sometimes he thinks: Gerry deserved someone better to send him off. Gerry deserved a mother who wouldn’t turn him into a thing. Gerry deserved better than anything that happened to him.
And sometimes he thinks: we can do better than this.
And that’s always a dangerous thought.)
Jon does not think he likes Gertrude, the more he learns about her. But he can at least admire her extremely straightforward plan for the Unknowing.
She probably wouldn’t have gotten herself blown up with it. But Jon’s getting used to not measuring up to his predecessor.
Later, when he’s back to being mostly made of meat and electrical impulses, Jon will understand this as dreaming.
At the moment, he doesn’t understand it at all. As an experience it doesn’t really invite understanding.
(That isn’t accurate. It invites all kinds of understanding. It just isn’t any of the kinds he has access to, yet. Yet.)
He watches; or, possibly, he is the act of watching. Nightmares unspool around him, looping endlessly, and when no one is asleep it’s his own mind that is opened and laid out in neatly vivisected slices, a space for Mr. Spider and a space for Jane Prentiss and an infinite future for Watching. Sometimes he’ll catch a glimmer of something liquid and light, just at the edge of his vision, not quite ready to come into focus but waiting.
Sometimes he’ll take a step and find himself in a dark wood. Schwarzwald. It smells like bergamot and honey, and steam rises slowly from the damp earth, and it’s comfortable and warm and there is nothing to watch. But it isn’t a scraped-out place in his dreams, a story that has ended. It isn’t something that’s been taken away from him. He thinks maybe he never had it. He thinks maybe it’s waiting for him.
The trees talk to each other in one soft voice, and the sound is familiar, like poetry. He can’t understand them. The next step he takes always takes him away.
That’s fine. He’ll find himself there again eventually.
He always does.
When he (opens his eyes) wakes up, six months have passed without his attention, Elias has gone to prison and is staying there-- which Jon can’t help but think is purely because he wants to-- Martin has apparently defected to their new mysterious boss, and everyone has silently agreed to euphemistically refer to Jon’s death as a coma. (If anything, he thinks, it was some kind of reverse coma. But really there isn’t a medical explanation and trying to pretend that there is one isn’t… productive.)
Tim’s death, apparently, is less temporary.
Initially, Jon worries that he’ll have to explain what he wants to do to Basira, or Georgie, or really anyone. But the collective decision of everyone in his life appears to be to leave him alone as much as possible-- file under: more evidence that it wasn’t a coma-- so in the end he’s left basically unsupervised and allowed to do whatever he wants. Which is… fine. Ideal, really, it’s the state he’s been trying to achieve since sometime in his teens when he gave up on the idea of other people in general. Convenient, anyway.
Sasha didn’t really have a funeral, is the thing. Tim must have, but Jon was dead at the time, so he missed it. But he’ll have a grave marker, anyway.
It isn’t hard to find. It’s right next to his brother’s.
“Hopefully,” Jon says, “Neither of you are ghosts. Gerry didn’t seem to like it.”
Tim would, undoubtedly, loathe the fact that Jon is here at all. Jon is, more or less, the architect of every disaster to befall Tim in the last couple of years, up to and very much including blowing (both of them) himself up. So there’s another good reason to hope that Tim isn’t a ghost. Let him just be properly dead, and then Jon doesn’t have to add “post-mortem harassment” to his list of things to feel guilty about.
“I was going to burn these,” he says, pulling a couple of tapes out of his messenger bag, “Apparently Martin burned some statements very successfully? But it… uh, it didn’t… it wasn’t… I couldn’t do that. So.”
Really all he’d accomplished was repeatedly burning himself, his fingers jerking compulsively away from the tapes every time he’d tried to set the fire. Apparently burning Gerry’s page was a one-time concession, or dying has rendered him less able to bite the hand which feeds him (and which he feeds, and feeds others to, and so on.) Which Tim might have found satisfying in some way, he supposes, but again-- hopefully not a ghost. Jon had been a little concerned that he’d find himself in a similar situation here, but the grass pulls away from the damp earth beneath easily enough, when he digs his nails into it, and it isn’t as if he has to make very big holes. The tapes aren’t that large.
“Anyway. I thought you probably wouldn’t want them to stay in the Archives. And that’s… really hard to care about, actually, but I’m… it’s… I’m trying. You don’t care. Selfish, I know. You weren’t wrong. You’d have killed me properly by now, probably. Basira’s waiting, but you wouldn’t have. Something permanent, I don’t know. Explosions seem permanent, but I guess not… sufficiently.”
One shallow hole over Tim’s grave, and-- after a vigorous debate with himself-- one over the empty plot with Danny’s name on it.
“I thought,” he says, gesturing with one tape, “That the statement you gave should go with Danny. Since it’s about him, mostly. And I don’t have his voice. Which I’m sure you prefer.”
There is still something… incorrect about putting the tape actually in the earth, scooping dislodged dirt and grass back over it. Not a sensation, not really, just a wrongness. These are true things. They belong in the Archives. They belong with him. He tells himself it’s just… unorthodox filing, and that helps, kind of.
“I wasn’t sure about this one. You died on it, though. And if someone needs to stop another Unknowing someday, the rest of the tapes will point them in the right direction without this one. Or the direction we took, anyway. There’s probably a better solution than explosives somewhere, but it worked. Saved the world, at least for the moment. Well done.”
The flowers are mostly just to obscure the fact that the topsoil has been disturbed; a little bit, also, because that’s what you bring to a graveside and Jon does occasionally like to pretend he’s a whole person who does people things. Not very well, usually-- he has no idea if these are the appropriate type of flowers for a cemetary, and investigating seemed like it would lead to conversations he doesn’t want to have-- but he makes the attempt. It seems more important to try to be a person, now that he’s less of one than ever before.
“Okay,” he says, scrubbing his hands on his jeans as he stands. There’s dirt under his fingernails, and it’s going to bother him until it's resolved, but there’s nothing to do about it out here. “Don’t keep an eye on those, because you aren’t ghosts.”
On the ride back to his flat he watches only his own hands, fitting one nail beneath another to scrape at the black earth beneath, and very carefully doesn’t think about anyone.
Jon knows something is off as soon as he settles back into his office. Well, a lot of things are off-- half his things are missing, and he’s only gotten grudging answers about where any of them have gone, and it doesn’t seem worth continuing to set his tenuous bridges on fire just to try and figure out where his preferred pens are and who he has to steal them back from. But even once he’s cobbled together enough supplies to do his work properly, even when he’s figured out how (if not why) his drawers have been rearranged in his absence, even then something’s… wrong. He just can’t figure out what it is.
It’s two solid weeks before he realizes that there’s no tea.
Or there is tea, somewhere, probably. But there's no Martin, setting it at his elbow with a cautious smile, and therefore there is functionally no tea.
Which is fine. Christ knows they all have bigger problems than the presence or absence of tea, and Martin evidently wants nothing to do with him, and also Jon is a monster, probably, in both a metaphorical and increasingly literal sense. He has officially evolved from not particularly wanting people to bring him tea to not deserving people bringing him tea on a more-or-less cosmic scale. It's all fine.
It's just a thing he notices now, is all.
He notices a lot of things now.
It's his job.
He knows where Martin is.
No one tells him, because no one can tell him-- none of them know.
But he knows.
It doesn’t matter, because Martin doesn’t want to talk to him. He’s been very clear that he wants to be left alone. The specifics of why aren’t clear to Jon, but that’s typical.
Jon is not going to repeat the mistakes of the last year.
(He’s going to repeat other mistakes, older mistakes, instead: resigning himself, surrendering, telling himself that he can’t understand it so there’s no point in trying anymore, that he’s only going to make it worse and the best thing he can do is stop. He’s going to tell himself that he’s trusting, and then he’ll do what he always does. He’ll hide until it stops mattering.)
Still. He knows where Martin is. He always knows where Martin is.
So at least he has that.
Sometimes, Jon wonders if his aversion to letting Melanie keep her bullet, to letting Daisy stay in the Buried, (to letting Martin disappear) has something to do with the Eye rather than with him. If it just… wants them, or having been given them is determined to keep them. He’s not sure if it actually can want things-- even by the standards of the other fears, Beholding is… passive. Content, apparently, to watch and understand and lurk in the back of his mind to show him all the things he could know if he would just open the door.
It can’t possibly be as patient as the End, but it can certainly be more patient than Jon, who is... if not really human, anymore, at least still very temporary.
(A world of things to know, and no time at all to know them in.)
He’s not sure which answer he would prefer: for it to be his own desire to keep them… safe, or human, or his, or for it to be something that Beholding has created in him.
He’s not sure which answer would be better.
(He is sure that it doesn’t matter. They won’t forgive him for it, either way.)
It’s after the coffin-- Forever-Deep-Below-Creation, so far away that even the Ceaseless Watcher couldn’t see, until something… until that knowing, hooked where his ribs aren’t anymore, recreated a world with orientations, with up and out and there he is-- that Jon starts trying to make tea. He couldn’t explain why, really, except that it’s… normal, isn’t it? People have tea when they’re… stressed. He thinks he can justifiably call his situation stressful.
(He can’t. He’s the stressor. Everyone else’s situation is stressful, and Jon’s situation is: monster. But he can still make tea. It’s something.)
This turns out to be more difficult than he initially predicted.
None of this tea is right.
He can’t explain it any better than that. It’s just not right. He supposes it’s probably palatable. But it’s not right.
Jon is folded over his desk with his chin on his forearms, staring resentfully at a mug of incorrect tea as it evaporates much more quickly than it seems like it should-- that probably isn’t something he’s doing, unless he’s acquired some traits very out-of-character for his… patron-- when Basira drops a stack of tapes on the desk with an absolutely terrible clatter. Jon about jumps out of his skin-- which is a phrase he should remove from his vocabulary, actually-- and promptly starts picking them up and sorting them, because he is a parody of himself.
“Yes?” he tries, because he’s much less likely to compel anyone to answer anything if he is as vague as humanly possible.
“Martin made these,” she says flatly, “For you.”
He immediately drops them all back on the desk. “Oh.”
“Yeah, oh,” she says, “Stay here and don’t start listening to them until I get back with Daisy and Melanie. No more secrets.”
“Right,” he says, squinting at the labels and trying to nudge the tapes into a chronological order without touching them too much. “Or, wait-- Basira-- he doesn’t want us--”
But she’s already out the door.
Which is fine. Because “he doesn’t want us” is basically the end of that sentence anyway.
In the week immediately following listening to Martin’s tapes about the latest possible end-of-the-world scenario, Jon drowns three plants in rejected tea. Daisy stops replacing them.
“Do you want to talk about it?” she asks him flatly, holding the pot that contains the last of the casualties.
“I kill things,” he says, and then pauses, “Not. Plants. I kill plants. It’s not a problem.”
“Right,” she says.
He knows that she wasn’t talking about the plants as soon as she leaves the room, but Beholding doesn’t see fit to tell him what she was talking about. So. It must not have been important.
He stops sleeping. If he doesn’t sleep, he isn’t stalking anyone’s dreams. He’s not sure if that actually gives them the opportunity for dreamless sleep, or if they just keep having the dreams without him, but while that ambiguity exists he’s choosing to be optimistic about it. His options for optimism are limited and he’s taking what he can get.
He stops eating, too, mostly because he keeps forgetting to. When he does it just makes him aware of how much toast isn’t satisfying whatever his needs actually are now. He isn’t going to eat people-- lecture internalized, thank you-- but there’s no real point in eating anything else. So he just doesn’t.
This doesn’t appear to be killing him despite his initial predictions that it might, unless it’s doing it very slowly, so possibly he’s just immune to death generally now. It isn’t great, and he wouldn’t take any bets on the long-term viability of his mental health, but that was already pretty much shot. Who cares. It isn’t like he really needs to do anything but creep through the Archives, being avoided by his assistants and trying not to be too aware of where Martin is and reading as many statements as he possibly can, stale and unsatisfying but something, until someone decides they need him to be useful.
He’s sure Basira will come up with something suitably justifiable for him to do eventually. Maybe it won’t even be horrible.
(Or maybe it’ll be horrible, and she’ll just tell him to do it anyway, and then tell him how horrible it was. He’s not sure he’ll be able to tell, on his own, so he supposes it doesn’t really matter.)
Most of the time, when Jon knows something, he just knows it. It isn’t dramatic or traumatizing or even really noteworthy. It’s exactly the same way he knows how many fingers he’s supposed to have, and what colors the sky can be, and how to solve for x. The information he… receives is indistinguishable from the information he obtains in more conventional fashions. He only realizes it’s not something he’s supposed to know when he actually says it, and someone stares at him in incomprehension, or horror, or the increasingly popular anger. He isn’t digging through anyone’s memories or invading anyone’s privacy on purpose, but that doesn’t really improve the situation. He just doesn’t know how to not do it. How do you just stop knowing anything?
Don’t think of a pink elephant.
This is probably why he is so unprepared for the door in his mind to suddenly be wrenched open, from the other side, without any warning or fanfare at all.
Beholding pours itself into him and doesn’t even notice him drowning. (Or: it notices. It watches. It’s very interested. It just doesn’t stop.)
And then just as abruptly it slams the door closed again, and Jon realizes that he is tucked beneath his desk, clutching a tape recorder to his chest and recording absolutely nothing but his own sobbing breath, his heart beating at precisely 212 beats per minute. Also, he can feel Extinction stirring, stretching, somewhere else-- he can see it. It’s a small thing that’s going to become a very, very big thing, and it’s hungry, and it’s cold, and it’s much, much closer than any of them realized.
And Martin is going to walk right into it. Willingly, with the best of intentions, he is going to let himself be consumed entirely, and it won’t even make a difference. (It will make one difference-- Martin will be gone.)
“What the fuck, Jon,” says Melanie, sounding tired, as she leans over his desk to peer down at him.
“I… I need to see Elias,” he says, and realizes too late to fix it that he’s speaking in the mother-language of proto-Indo-European.
“Basira!” Melanie shouts, her face disappearing above the desk again, “He’s speaking in tongues or something!”
Basira is going to kill him. She will take one look at him, and know what he wants to do, and then she will kill him.
“Melanie,” he says, in English this time, “Leave me alone.”
It’s really very easy, after that.
“Ignore me,” he tells the guards, and walks right into Elias’ cell.
“Ah,” says Elias, extremely calm, “Hello, Jon. You’re coming along nicely, I see.”
“I need to know about the Watcher’s Crown,” Jon tells him, “And you’re not going to tell me. So we’re doing this instead.”
And he looks.
Elias’ mind is very tidy. Very neatly organized, probably indexed, if Jon was interested in really learning the architecture. He might be, under other circumstances, but right now he is... angry, and tired, and terrified, and hungry. He is not interested in learning the architecture. He rips it open, instead, and sifts through the wreckage.
The advantage of taking information from Elias, instead of trying to get it directly from Beholding, is that Elias is basically human. Not entirely, obviously, but enough. He’s a person, with person-thoughts. He’s interpretable. As soon as he actually finds what he’s looking for, Jon recognizes the shapes of it as things he already knows-- eddies in the flood that filled him to overflowing and have not receded-- but couldn’t find the edges of. He knows them better now. He understands them.
That’s Elias’ job, he realizes abruptly. Heart of the Institute. Management.
Well. Too late for that now.
Elias hasn’t moved at all from the moment Jon entered his cell, and he doesn’t move now, even as blood pools in his skull and his mouth and slides down his cheeks. He smiles, bright with bloody teeth, and says, his voice thin with pain and warm with pride, “Oh, very well done, Jon. Very well done.”
It takes Jon three dedicated hours and about a dozen attempts to devise a cup of tea that he deems wrong-but-endurable, and then another hour to talk himself into actually walking into the office that no one knows is Martin’s.
It’s empty, of course. He was expecting that. He wishes he could be confident that it was empty-empty, and not Lonely-empty, but he isn't omniscient. (Yet.) He doesn’t have the capacity to know that. (Yet.) Martin gets better and better at avoiding him, at not being seen, and it’s always possible that the fishhook sense of Martin’s presence in Jon’s ribcage isn’t as accurate as he wants it to be. It’s always possible that Martin really is gone.
That possibility is probably the only thing that gives him the courage to go through with the whole thing.
He deposits the stone-cold tea on a corner of the desk and debates sitting in the office’s only chair. There’s a non-zero chance that Martin is sitting in it right now. He decides against it and slides to the floor instead, with his back against the side of the desk, and curls his arms around his legs, presses his face into his knees. Sighs.
“I know,” he says, “That you not being here is the point.”
The office is oppressively silent. After so much time with the hiss of tape and the shifting of paper in his ears it feels a little like going deaf.
“But I… I just need you to be here,” he says, “Just for a minute. Please.”
Something unpleasant and cold is curling in his ribcage, and he can’t tell if it’s loneliness or Loneliness. If it even makes a difference.
He waits, and in the back of his mind eyes are opening, one after another, in time with his pulse.
It feels like Martin, here, underneath.
A part of him would like to stay.
(He’s never been very good at standing still.)
“Okay,” he says.
“That’s fair,” he says.
“Thank you for all the tea,” he says.
He doesn’t say goodbye.
He isn’t that kind of martyr.
(He is that kind of monster.)
The thing is: Jon is the Archivist.
He has assistants. Two of them are dead now. Elias kept restocking them, like it was important for him-- or possibly Jon-- to have access to a certain number of bodies, limbs, moving parts. Martin is the last of that original trio, and there is something-- probably something monstrous, probably something ordained; Tim had a better sense of the thing than any of them did-- there is something that happens to archival assistants. That is supposed to happen to them. That he is supposed to allow, or worse, instigate.
He wonders if Sasha even realized what was happening to her.
(He wonders if she wasn’t, in the end, the lucky one; the first to fall, and miss all of this.)
He wonders if Tim was satisfied at all, even briefly, by his revenge.
(He wonders other things about Tim, about his life and his decisions and the complicated motions of his heart, but he shouldn’t. He doesn’t deserve to even wonder, in case he might know.)
Gertrude had assistants. She had a noted tendency to force feed them to other entities and make them into tools and weapons. She didn’t even have the grace to regret it. She didn’t want to be a monster. (Not that kind, anyway.)
He wonders if Gerard Keay would have prefered Gertrude’s Archives or Jon’s, or none at all, if he had had the choice.
(He wonders if Gerry would tell him not to do this, if he wasn’t dead, and dead, and dead, hopefully, finally, as he’d wanted. Hopefully at least that went right.)
He wonders what Michael Shelley’s last thoughts were.
(He wonders what Michael’s last thoughts were, and how much they differed. He wonders if Helen could tell him; if she could even be right, if she did.)
There are plans, certainly, for dealing with Extinction. Everyone he meets seems to have at least one plan for the end of the world or the avoidance thereof these days. But he’s noticed a trend. Individual people never seem to come into it. It’s always so grand in scope that it can’t really even conceive of individual people with individual lives as something that might matter. Fourteen utterly comprehensible nightmares arranging their chess boards, while a handful of determined humans go about overturning tables, but neither of them really cares about the condition of the pieces. He supposes he can understand that, when the stakes are reality, but… well.
He isn’t Gertrude Robinson, and he’s not going to be. He can’t, he won’t. Jon does not actually care, very much, about the abstract idea of the world carrying on as it is. It isn’t as if the world is doing particularly well, as evidenced by the new horror crawling into the corners of their nightmares and elbowing for space at the table.
Jon doesn’t care about the world as an idea.
Jon cares about a very specific handful of individuals in it.
It’s a list that gets shorter all the time.
He doesn’t want to wonder about Martin’s death.
(He doesn’t want to know about Martin’s death.)
The thing is: Jon is the Archivist.
He doesn’t want to be a monster. But it’s his job, not theirs.
They’re his assistants.
It looks like this:
Beneath the Archives are the tunnels. In the tunnels, he can’t be watched. The tunnels are a maze, and there is a center to the labyrinth. It isn’t a prison, but it is a prison. The only thing he’s good for is watching. He doesn’t bring a light. You see?
There used to be a Library. (There used to be a lot of Libraries. He’s thinking of all of them; but this one most of all.) In the Library, there were books. Books are for reading. He shouldn’t be able to read in the dark, but he can. You see?
The books belong to the other fears. But they don’t-- because they’re books. Books are records. The first things that fed his god, the earliest surveillance, were watchful eyes writing secrets on animal skins. Books belong to Beholding, all of them. You see?
He likes nice round numbers. Specificity is valuable, but structure is pleasant, and he is allowed, at this point, to do things he finds pleasant. A thousand books is better than nine hundred and seventy eight books. It doesn’t take as long as it should to round them up, once he’s looking, and to find a few more lurking in dark corners. There aren’t any dark corners when he’s looking. You see?
There was a time when a book almost ate him. This is a new time. He eats books now. You see?
Somewhere, there is a Crown. It belongs to him. It isn’t difficult to pull it out of a secret, once he knows where to look. He knows where to look. It gleams, light and liquid, and sometimes it has pupils in its depths, and sometimes it has words, and sometimes-- horribly-- it blinks. It fits. It was made for him. He was made for It. You see?
There is a prison. There is a circular room with fourteen doors. There is the center of a labyrinth. There is a Crown. You see?
He thinks he might be replacing his blood with ink. You see?
He thinks his heartbeat might sound like static. You see?
He thinks his eyes might be lenses. You see?
(He’s terrified. Of course he is. He isn’t brave. But he trusts Peter Lukas about as far as he could throw him, and Martin won’t talk to him, and the rest of the Archives staff, his assistants, looks at him like he’s already a monster, and.
And he is, isn’t he? So he might as well accept it. Fighting it hasn’t gotten him anywhere, never has. Pretending to be a person was a losing battle from the very beginning, because Jonathon Sims didn’t know how to do that even before he died.
Because, see, it’s about choices. That’s what everyone keeps telling him. All the choices he didn’t know he was making, all the choices he has to make in the future, whether he has the context for them or not. Everyone assures him that no matter how much it feels like being dragged around helplessly by malevolent forces beyond his understanding, it is actually, in fact, all his own fault. All his own choices. All of them, somehow, leading him a little further away from being a person even as he’s been clinging to that delusion with his fingernails.
It’s very important to me you understand that no action I have taken has been controlled, Elias said to him, once.
He understands that more, now.
If he chooses to be a monster, maybe he gets to decide what kind he is.)
The Watcher’s Crown needs no observers. It is the observer. It is a solitary ritual, done in the dark, by the one who will wear it.
It isn’t even very difficult. All it really requires is obsession, the kind that overrides self-preservation.
Jon has been meeting that prerequisite for most of his life.
(It could have been easier, of course. There was a reason Elias ensured he always had assistants, and let them get tangled up in other powers. It’s tricky, knowing everything, understanding it, importing it directly into his being in as raw and untainted a form as he can find. It would be easier to let that knowledge be distributed, to let it be a network, a system, with a heart and eyes and limbs. Parts of him that aren’t quite real feel vestigial-- connections he has refused to make, or has strung back into himself. But the Ceaseless Watcher doesn’t argue with him. He is the closest, by far the closest, that it has ever come, ever will, to being real. It’s never been this close to winning before, and that’s a novel enough idea that it’s willing to let him… bend things. It isn’t like these rituals were ever set in stone. Curiosity always was its weakness as much as its strength.)
(It could have been easier.)
Jon goes into the tunnels alone.
He doesn’t leave a tape behind this time, though the recorders click on and wait with bated tape for him to comment, or justify, or explain. All they record is silence. Communication hasn’t actually gotten Jon very far, regardless of all the hypothetically good advice he’s been given on that front. It’s a two-way street, is the thing, and no one is listening except his god.
No one notices his absence.
(In a prison cell, across the city, Elias Bouchard presses his hands to his eyes and tries to remember how to breathe. He is screaming, and he is smiling.)
The Archivist returns to his office, sits at his desk, and opens all of his eyes.
(The Archivist returns to his temple, sits at his throne, and Watches.)
Scattered across the planet, cameras and microphones of every kind turn on and refuse to turn off, ever. Only some of what they observe is recorded to any medium that humans can access; but all of it is recorded.
(Many somewheres, hundreds of cold cases are abruptly skipped to the top of queues and added to active investigations with new, previously unfiled data neatly prepended in the same precise and clinical hand.)
Scattered across reality, the agents of thirteen terrors flinch, startled out of their schemes, and blink their watering eyes in the searing light of Beholding’s unwavering attention. Some of them bare their teeth; some of them sigh, resigned. It watches them all, patiently, as they slowly return to their places in the stories they have been telling all this time.
(Many somewheres, thousands of frightened survivors find a browser tab opened, or a scribbled page between two books, or a sticky note at the bottom of a bag, telling the stories that mirror their own terrifying realities. They are no less afraid, but they are so much more aware. There is a simple line drawing of an open eye on each one.)
Somewhere that doesn’t quite exist, an infant fear slouching its way to life finds itself suddenly halted, pinned in place like a butterfly on display. It flutters, helplessly, in the cage of fascination.
(Many somewheres, a dozen biologists stumble over the ideas that will let them bring a handful of species back from the brink of extinction. Someday they will meet at a symposium, and then get very determinedly drunk, and then form a committee to monitor environmental and ecological health. It will have a formal name, but in private, to each other, they will call it The Eyes of God. If asked, they will claim it’s an inside joke. They will never explain the joke, and they will never smile about it.)
In an empty office at the top of the Institute, Martin Blackwood feels himself wrenched back into tangible reality, the Loneliness stripped out of him like mist evaporating at the first touch of sunlight. There is a cup of cold tea on his desk.
The shape of the sky distorts, just slightly, and then smoothes back into place.
Nothing else changes.
There is a nothing in the Archivist’s office.
He directs his attention at it and it becomes, grudgingly, a something. This is the first time that the Archivist has actually seen it in person. It smiles, thin and irritated and uncertain of its standing in a changed world, masquerading as triumphant, as victorious. This strikes the Archivist as uniquely futile-- all masks are, now-- and unique things are interesting. He gives it more attention, even the eyes in his face that it is trying to meet. Something in it-- Isolation-- wilts at the intensity of this scrutiny, but if it wants to be ignored… well. Nothing is. There are things he watches less, eyes he could close to give it the illusion of illusion. But not when it is being interesting.
“I won’t claim this was entirely what I had planned,” says the Captain, “But I suppose I’ll take it over some of the alternatives.”
The Archivist considers this. The Captain attempts to fade back into a nothing, but this is the Archivist’s place and he is watching. The Captain’s smile sharpens, crooked, not a frown.
Somewhere else, there is a Crown. It is his. (It is him.) Therefore all the places are his, all the eyes are his. He is unblinking by nature. What he watches cannot unbe. It is a very foolish thing to walk into his office (his throne room) and expect not to be watched. The Archivist wonders how the Captain can have survived this long, if it is that foolish.
Ah. It became accustomed to more polite eyes. The Archivist was never very polite.
“We see you,” the Archivist says, through the soft scratching of the tape recorder on his desk, and watches with interest as all the color drains from the Captain’s face.
“Yes,” says the Captain, strained, “But I’d prefer if you didn’t. I enjoy my privacy.”
“Privacy,” the Archivist considers.
(He gets to decide what kind he is.)
“Is not being seen,” he concludes.
The Captain looks at him. Its eyes are weak and small and limited. It tries its best. The Archivist appreciates attempts to see, even when they fail. He touches the Crown, allows it to settle into being on his brow, draws Beholding’s attention and directs it to a different place. He makes it bright. Something of his-- an originator, a Heart-- is there. It flinches at the light, the wounds and hollows of its mind scorched, but it basks in the presence, in his eyes, in being watched and known. It was an irritation, at one time, when he was not quite the Archivist yet. It is the center of a system that is now redundant.
He is considering a gift. It is not necessary. Still-- kindness. He could do that. Choices. He confirms that the Heart is intact. Yes. Acceptable.
The Captain is watching, in its limited way, trying to see. It does not have enough eyes. It is too used to being a nothing. It must sense something, though. It makes a noise, small, in its throat, intended to be forgotten.
The Archivist smiles, records it, plays it again, again, again. It echoes in the still air of the Archive, colored by the hiss of tape. The Captain tenses, a brittleness in its posture. Now it frowns. The Archivist makes a note of the specific curve its mouth makes, wonders which part upsets it.
He could ask. There is something in asking Others, in tasting them. Fear, afraid. The Archivist laughs. The tapes add layers to it, pull other sounds in and press them together-- a Spiral’s laugh, a Stranger’s laugh; screams, sobs; crackling static.
The Captain’s mouth is thin and angry. The Archivist winds back the tapes, smiling, and looks for useful words.
He is being kind. It is tricky. He needs to concentrate.
“Assistants are ours,” he says, his voice-- a voice; his now-- in a half-dozen tapes, “Not yours.”
“Fine,” says the Captain, tight, quick, like something trapped looking for a hole in the net; the Archivist watches an impression of the Hunt prick up its ears and then meet his eyes, show its throat, slink to a different shadow. “Keep him. I hardly need him now.”
“You may have the Heart,” he says, magnanimous. Somewhere else, the Heart stirs, restless. It was his before he was; perhaps it is listening. He will allow that. He is fond of his things. “For now.”
“You… Elias? He’s-- is he still--”
“Ours,” says the Archivist, says Beholding, every tape recorder in the building clicking on simultaneously to deliver this reminder, because he can be magnanimous and possessive simultaneously. He contains multitudes.
“Go away,” says the Archivist, and because he is being kind he stops looking.
There is nothing in the Archivist’s office.
Extinction shifts. The Archivist immediately opens a hundred new eyes to study the disparate ideas that will, one day, be connected into the concept for a new kind of fusion bomb. Beholding, intrigued, pins Extinction in place to study this facet in more detail.
Humans are so good at destroying themselves. There will always be new things to learn about the subject.
The Archivist will stretch Extinction like vellum over a frame and study the promises written in its skin for eternity. It will never break free of his scrutiny. He has as many eyes and ears and aspects as he needs. This is important. He does not remember why.
The Future-Without-Us subsides. The Archivist unfocuses Beholding and its attention moves to other things. The Archivist keeps a thousand eyes pointed at the nascent Extinction to watch for further signs of interesting behaviour.
The Archivist blinks. There is
Martin an Assistant touching him. He focuses his attention on that, momentarily.
“What,” it says, “The hell have you done.”
The Assistant is touching the Watcher’s Crown. He can feel its fingernails, pressed against his skin, where the Crown touches him. He puts it away. The Assistant makes a noise-- the Archivist files it for cross-referencing-- and removes its hand from the Archivist’s temple.
“Oh, Jon, no,” it says. Then it is silent.
The Archivist decides to ignore it until it says something interesting and returns to work.
There are two Assistants lurking just outside the Archivist’s office. He skims his attention over them briefly and finds that they are gathering data-- he is pleased. The data is about him, which is unconventional but not strictly speaking undesirable. He allows it to continue and casts his gaze further afield.
Precisely thirteen minutes and twenty four seconds later, one of them stabs the Archivist in the chest with a pen.
He opens several eyes to study this situation. The Assistant in question glares into one, pulls the pen out of his chest, and stabs again in a slightly different location. He blinks, and a tape recorder clicks on.
“Well,” says the other one, crossing its arms, “I guess it was worth a try.”
How very practical. Assistants do employ more hands-on experimentation. It is one of the reasons he kept them.
“Maybe his heart’s moved,” the Assistant mutters, squinting balefully down at him.
He is not one of I-Do-Not-Know-You’s unthings. He is, maybe, a little offended by the insinuation. He is at least considering being offended by it. He makes a note, leaning around the Assistant and taking the pen from its fist to do so. It glances back at the note and makes a face.
“He isn’t even bleeding, Melanie,” says the other Assistant, “I don’t think the specific arrangement of his internal organs is the problem.”
“What are you doing?” demands
Martin a third Assistant, shrill, storming into the Archivist’s office. This is becoming an unusually dense concentration of Assistants.
“Nothing, apparently,” snarls the Assistant, ceding space to the newcomer when it marches around the Archivist’s desk to flutter its hands around his torso anxiously. The Archivist watches with interest as its fingers persistently fail to make contact.
“You, you can’t just-- how dare-- just, just get out,” the Assistant stammers, whirling to glare at the other two. It has interposed itself entirely between the Archivist and the other two Assistants-- he opens some more eyes, in other corners of the room, to get a more complete view of the proceedings.
“Oh, sure!” snaps the one that stabbed him, “Sure, we’ll just leave the all-seeing terror avatar safe in its lair shall we? It’s not Jon, Martin!”
“No,” says the last, still lingering by the door. “No, that’s fine. Do we have your permission, Archivist, to leave the Institute?”
The Archivist considers. Traditionally, Assistants should be where he is. Technically, he is everywhere. (It could have been easier. It isn’t. He has to concentrate. But he is everywhere.) He prefers this place-- this is his throne room; this is his office-- but it is not incompatible with Beholding to send them elsewhere, to do experiments and gather data.
“Proceed,” a tape recorder allows, slightly staticky.
“Good,” says the Assistant, leaning forward and beckoning without relinquishing its position by the door, “Great, come on Melanie.”
“We’ll talk about it later. Come on, I need to check on Daisy.”
“... Fine,” bites the Assistant bitterly, stomping after it, “But I’m going to kill him.”
Oh. Is that what it was trying to do. Interesting.
The late-arriving Assistant
Martin does not move. It lingers, watching the other two retreat and then watching the empty doorway, with its fingers curled in towards its palms, slightly trembling. The Archivist examines it from every angle, but it does not appear to be preparing to move.
“Proceed,” he repeats, in his best approximation of encouragement. It flinches, and does not turn to look at him.
Perhaps he should teach it to have more eyes.
“Oh,” it says thinly, “I um. I was just thinking I’d… stay here with you, actually. I’m sure there’s… there’s plenty of paperwork. To file. With the whole world, and everything.”
The Archivist is unaccountably pleased.
There is a cup of tea on his desk.
The Archivist consults Beholding, and is informed briefly of the constituent elements of the tea-- black tea leaves, bergamot, orange peel, cornflower petals, lemongrass, 2% milk, wildflower honey, water with trace elements of calcium and magnesium-- but receives no immediate clarification on the purpose or meaning of the tea. He decides to ignore it until something comes of it. There are matters of more immediate import to know.
The tea goes cold.
When he opens eyes to check on the Assistants which are outside the Institute, one of them always tries to blind him with sharp objects. He just opens more eyes, out of reach, until it is reduced to fuming silently.
They break the tape recorders he sends whenever they find them, so he listens to them through other things instead-- the tinny bluetooth microphones in the cellphones of passersby, mostly, or sometimes directly through the auditory cortexes of the same, when he is especially curious or they seem especially excited about something. They notice the eyes and ears of humans much less than they notice the Archivist’s eyes and tape recorders.
One of them notices, once. It slips away from the other two and approaches the human he is watching them with to stare into its eyes, and thus into his eyes, and thus at him. He can see the lingering traces of the Hunt in its blood, in the languid sloping roll of its stride, but the Hunt is not as easy as the Forsaken to evict-- watched, it merely becomes prey instead of predator, and is still the Hunt-- and it is causing no immediate inconvenience. He is watching.
“Not like this, Jon,” it tells the human, and thus him. “This way isn’t right.”
(The cellphones are easier anyway. And sometimes the Hunt-Assistant talks to one of his tape recorders before the other two find it and throw it into the river.
“Good job,” it says into the soft hum of static, “Now work on the rest of it.”)
There is a cup of tea on his desk. It is not cold.
The Archivist consults Beholding, receives no clarification, ignores it.
The tea goes cold.
The Captain and the Heart are not Assistants. They are the Captain and the Heart. Only one of them is even his. (But: everything is his. It is his Crown.) He does not need either one, which is why he has dismissed them from his service and let them do the things that they do instead. The things that they do are not particularly interesting, but that is fine. He is a process. They might be interesting later.
He opens the Heart’s eyes to see if they are being interesting yet.
They are not.
The Captain is standing in front of a stove, moving eggs in a pan. Its back is turned to the Heart, and its shoulders are high and tense, and when the Heart’s eyes settle on it, its head snaps up abruptly. Lonely things are very good at knowing when they are seen. The Archivist enjoys this about them. He shares this with the Heart. The Heart enjoys many things about the Captain, and acknowledges that this is one of them.
“Oh, good,” says the Captain, “This again.”
“If it helps,” says the Heart, “He likes you. More or less.”
The Archivist, while he is paying attention to this part of the world anyway, examines the Heart’s mind. It is still cracked and leaking, but it is more complete than it was before. He finds this progress satisfactory. He does not need the Heart, and broken things are still interesting to look at, but he prefers for his things to be intact. He smoothes over some of the sharp edges. The Heart makes a pleased humming noise in its throat and leans its chin into its hand, scanning its location to provide the most potential visual information. The Archivist does not need the Heart, but it tries to be useful anyway. He also enjoys this about it. He shares this with the Heart, and it warms with satisfaction.
There are things that the Heart can see-- items scattered on tables, or tucked into corners, or sandwiched between the pages of books-- that indicate others have been in communication with the Captain and Heart. The Archivist makes a note of them, but a scan through the Heart’s recent memories does not unearth anything worth pursuing. The Doctor confirming that the Heart is not going to die any time soon; the Distortion investigating for incongruous reasons of its own; several of the Captain’s fellow Lonely, sequentially, none of them pleased; the Skytreader, apparently as a purely social visit, arriving on the balcony without fanfare.
There is a web in a corner beneath a window, with a motionless spider perched in its center.
The Heart has not noticed it before. The Archivist forces it to notice. It hisses thinly between its teeth, and the Captain glances over its shoulder to check it, then abruptly abandons the stove and turns to stare at the Heart, narrow-eyed and frowning.
“What,” it says, “What now, what’s he doing?”
“Web,” says the Archivist in the Heart’s mouth, flatly. The Heart makes an attempt to stand and move towards the offending spider; the Archivist makes it forget how its limbs work and it collapses back into its chair instead. He will remind it how bodies work again before he looks elsewhere. It should not touch dangerous things.
The Captain’s expression is increasingly displeased, and it stutters forward, not quite a complete step, but it seems reluctant to act. That is mildly irritating. He prefers when his things are happy and productive. He prefers it when they are safe. He prefers when it they are not interfered with.
He thinks he is angry at the Web. He shares this possibility with the Heart. It is bemused and slightly alarmed but receptive to the idea. Yes, he decides, he is angry at the Web.
“Do not touch,” he says, mostly for the Captain’s benefit, as he restores functions to the Heart. “We will see.”
He does not wait for confirmation. The Heart will manage the Captain. He closes the Heart’s eyes and opens more of his.
Technically, he is everywhere. His eyes span the whole breadth of reality. If he wants to see, he does. (He wants to. He does.)
Sometimes hands are also useful. He has fewer of these. (He could have had more. It could have been easier. He gets to decide what kind he is.)
Travelling takes less time when he can see the way space branches. There are no more secret doors. There are only doors. He opens one. He walks through it. He is where he wants to be. Somewhere behind him, Distortion rattles irritably at him. He ignores it. He is being kind.
“I wondered when I’d be seeing you, Jon,” says the Spider.
The Archivist did not bring a tape recorder. Instead, his voice resonates in the speakers of a dead television, half-disassembled and full of cobwebs, perched awkwardly in a corner. “We see you.”
It smiles. He counts its teeth. It is a higher-than-average number. He makes a note. “Yes, you do, don’t you? Are you enjoying it?”
The Archivist is unaccustomed to being asked instead of asking. Static pours out of the speaker while he considers it. “It is,” he decides.
It hums, still smiling, faintly sad. “We did try, you know. This wasn’t necessary, Jon. We were taking care of it. We were taking care of you. The world could have gone on being exactly as it was.”
“It is,” he says.
“On the surface, maybe.”
This is not why he is here. “They are ours.”
Its eyes-- also a higher-than-average number; he is a little bit pleased-- widen slightly in surprise. “Oh. Oh, Jon, really? Is that what all this was about?”
He opens more of his eyes. It does not shrink away from them, but it goes still, watchful, waiting. The Web is almost as good at watching as he is. It watches differently. It looks for places it can fill with silk. He does not fill anything. He watches. He was willing to be tolerant, but there are limits. He decides what they are. He has decided that he is angry.
There is an electric whine in the static, like something screaming, far away. “They are ours. Not yours.”
“We don’t have to be at odds, Jon--”
“They are ours. Not yours.”
“Haven’t we been helpful? Haven’t we been so very nice--”
“We see you.”
It flinches. He watches the threads it has woven shiver with the movement and reaches out, wraps them around his fingers, pulls. The thin, silver strands snap and dissolve. The Spider makes a wounded noise, but does not move again. The static in the speaker fades to a low, purring background hum.
“We are being kind,” he says.
He opens a door. He walks through the door. He is where he wants to be.
There is a cup of tea on his desk, and an Assistant standing beside it, staring at him with horror as he closes the Distortion behind him.
The Archivist consults Beholding. OURS, it tells him, as expected, about
Martin the Assistant. It provides no clarification about the tea. The Archivist decides to ignore both rogue elements until he needs one of them and sits at his desk.
No, he doesn't, because the Assistant is in the way, wrapping its fingers around his upper arms and maneuvering him a few steps away from his desk. He allows this to happen, intrigued. The Assistant is speaking to the Archivist. The Archivist dutifully records its words-- “It’s not, it can’t be safe, Jon, not even-- look, just, let me, let me call you a cab or something, next time you want to… go somewhere,”-- and presents them to Beholding. Beholding does not loom with satisfaction or fascination, so the words are not important, but they came from an Assistant, so they belong to the Archivist and Beholding anyway. Perhaps he will show them to the Heart, later, and get its input on them.
Eventually, the Assistant leaves. The Archivist sits at his desk. The tea goes cold.
Martin is touching him. Its hand is on his shoulder, light, barely substantial. (He opens several eyes, abruptly, to sear out any lingering Loneliness, but no-- there is not a nothing. There is just the Assistant.) It peers into his eyes, searching for something. He stops blinking to let it make a full assessment.
After a moment, it sighs, flicking its gaze down to the tape recorder running on the desk. It frowns. The Archivist glances at the tape recorder. It is perfectly normal and should not inspire displeasure.
The Assistant straightens and puts a cup of tea on the Archivist’s desk. This explains the provenance of the tea. The Archivist is satisfied to have solved a mystery.
(Something seems familiar about this, but the format of the memory doesn't quite fit in his mind. He shuffles it to the back of his attention, where it won't get in the way.)
The tea goes cold.
“You’re such a reckless, self-sacrificing idiot,” says
Martin an Assistant.
The Archivist doubts the accuracy of this assessment, but records it for Beholding anyway. Beholding, humming behind his many eyes, is more interested in a young woman three thousand six hundred and eighty three miles away opening a book written in Hungarian, a language she does not read. It tells her how to read it. She learns about nuclear fission. The Archivist makes a note.
“Why couldn’t you just trust me to know what I was doing,” the Assistant continues. It is slumped in the chair where Statements usually sit, but it is not giving a statement. The Archivist glances at it with interest, studying and noting the angles and lines of its limbs.
Trust is a word. The Archivist remembers it.
“Assistants are trusted,” he says, with his own mouth. His voice feels flat and unpracticed. He is not sure why he used it.
“Jon?” asks the Assistant, stumbling towards a more upright posture in a flailing tangle of limbs, leaning in to meet the Archivist’s eyes with a scrutinizing intensity that the Archivist approves of.
The Archivist watches it. After several moments, it slumps again, silent, and turns its gaze to the ceiling. For some reason, it avoids meeting the eyes there.
The Archivist decides to ignore this unless the Assistant begins to taste like a Statement and returns to work.
The Archivist does not have a system. He is a system. It could have been easier, but it is not, so he has to concentrate. He can see the Web. He can see the Forsaken. He can see the Spiral. He can see the End. He can see--
Something important is burning.
-- the Desolation. He opens his eyes, he opens a door, he walks through the door, he is where he wants to be.
It is a Library. It is on fire.
“Oh, look,” says the Candle, “You can still come out to play.”
Beholding does not have emotions. That is why it has the Archivist. That is why there is a Crown.
There is a Crown in a burning Library. All across the world, simultaneously, every station begins broadcasting an identical signal, and that signal is: an image of an unmoving Eye that hates you, and the sound of static, speaking, saying, “WE SEE YOU.”
The sky stops being a sky. It stops stretching up and starts pressing in. The atmosphere thickens into a wet lens and bulges towards the earth. Behind it, the stars arrange themselves into the stroma of an iris, streaks of light defining the pitiless edges of that all-consuming pupil.
E v e r y t h i n g s t o p s.
It is assessed to its smallest atomic structures. It is made aware of the void between them. It is made aware that it is nothing. It is made aware that it is something. It is observed. It is watched.
If everything could move, it might weep.
It cannot move. It can only be. It is SEEN. It is KNOWN.
Very quietly, beneath the roar of static, a woman’s voice sing-songs, “Imagine you’re a butcher…”
There is a Library. It is not on fire. It is perfectly climate-controlled to protect the delicate pages from damage. On the floor of the Library there is a featureless puddle of wax, slowly hardening. (He does not have to be kind.)
The Archivist opens a door. He walks through the door. He is where he wants to be.
Martin An Assistant is standing in his office, rigid. It is holding a mug which contains tea; there is also tea on its fingers, and splattered on the floor. Breath stutters into its lungs as soon as the Archivist comes into its more limited field of view. He pauses on the way to his desk to study it. It is pale and shivering. Hmm.
“What,” it croaks, and then hesitates, clearing its throat and swiping its tongue over its lips. The Archivist watches with interest. “What was that?”
The Archivist examines the Assistant, vaguely surprised by its apparent distress. It is his. It should not be concerned by the presence of Beholding, or the unmaking of a Desolation-thing. Perhaps it was alarmed by the potential threat to the Library. The Archivist smiles reassuringly-- there is no threat. The Assistant flinches. More tea sloshes over its fingers.
“We watch,” he explains in a burst of static. Several eyes open demonstratively. The Assistant glances at them, quickly, and then stares intently at the Archivist instead. The Assistant often watches the Archivist, even though his voice is in the tapes and his eyes are everywhere. Assistants have so many peculiar whims. “You are seen.”
The Assistant opens its mouth, hesitates, closes it again. It takes several breaths. It looks down at the floor. The Archivist confirms that there is nothing new to observe there. Well, whims. The Assistant is welcome to study hardwoods if it wants that knowledge.
“Right,” it says quietly, “Right, of course.”
It turns around and leaves. It takes the tea with it, except for the tea which is on the floor. The Archivist considers the fallen tea, and then decides that it is not interesting. He sits at his desk. He gets back to work.
The world, shivering, returns to its regularly scheduled programming.
The Fearnaught is not an Assistant. It does not belong to him (everything belongs to him) or to anyone else, because it is the Fearnaught. Nothing gets satisfaction from it at all.
(It exists. This satisfies the Archivist. So it is his.)
Sometimes he opens eyes in its ceiling, or settles into its equipment to listen to its voice. It watches him back, steady and unconcerned, drinking from cups and dragging its hand over a small animal that lives with it. Sometimes it tells him stories.
“Welcome back to What the Ghost,” it says, “And special thanks to our idiotic eye overlord for driving every person on Earth to find this podcast in a desperate search for meaning in all this craziness. Today we’re talking about a staircase in Chelsea that eats people.”
The staircase in Chelsea does not eat people; it leads to the Distortion, and that eats them. He listens to the story anyway. He likes the way it tells them.
There is a cup of tea in the Archivist’s office, but it is not on his desk. An Assistant
Martin is holding it.
“I’ve been thinking,” it says. The Archivist, in a slightly abstracted way, approves of this.
“I don’t think you’ve ever thanked me for tea before,” it says, “Not, I mean, not really. Just when you wanted me to go away and you were trying to be polite about it, which… which you aren’t very good at, for the record.”
This is plausible, though it appears to be a digression from the initial comment. Well, Assistants are not required to be well-organized. They are his. He is fond of them.
“Not, not that I’m complaining. Or, well, maybe a little bit-- it’s nice to know you’re, you know, appreciated and… but that’s beside the point, the point is it’s not really something you do, ever, so I’ve been thinking.”
The Archivist is not sure where this is going. That is a sufficiently novel situation that he directs more of his attention to the office, and to the Assistant blinking down at him. Its expression is determined, but its fingers tap along the edges of the mug restlessly. There is a multi-faceted click and the room fills with the gentle hiss of tape as the Archivist waits patiently for it to come to some conclusion. The Assistant flinches, very slightly, its eyes flicking around the room and resting lightly on various tape recorders. The Archivist resists an impulse to preen. He has quite a few tape recorders in this office presently. He will be able to record the Assistant’s words in great detail.
“Right,” it says, taking a fortifying breath, “Right. So you’re the Archivist, and that’s-- you’re supposed to, um, record experiences. So you can know them better.”
The Archivist waits for a more compelling and less self-evident thought. He is sure the Assistant can come up with something.
The Assistant gestures gently with the mug. “So I was thinking-- you haven’t had any of the tea I’ve brought you. So, you know-- or, I mean, that’s just it, you don’t know. What it’s like. So. You should drink this. Okay?”
The Archivist blinks up (and down, and around, and through) at the Assistant. It smiles at him nervously, takes one of his hands, and presses the warm side of the mug against his palm. He looks at the mug, curling his fingers around it obediently so that the Assistant can let go without dropping it. Inside the mug there is tea-- exactly the same, compositionally, as all the other tea that the Assistant has been leaving in his office. He does not see what he might be able to learn about it that he does not already know.
“Just,” the Assistant sighs, “Just, for me, please? And then I’ll leave you alone. I’ll, I can go find something more interesting for you to… learn. Just start with this.”
(He gets to decide; he is being kind; they’re his assistants.)
Slowly, not entirely sure why he is doing it and strangely aware of
Martin the Assistant’s eyes tracking every movement, the Archivist lifts the cup to his mouth and takes a sip of tea.
Things happen very fast after that.
For a split second, nothing is watching.
(He closes all of his eyes. It’s panic, more than anything; it’s realizing, really understanding viscerally, what he’s done. On the scale of his fuck-ups, this is… this is, just, orders of magnitude worse than the worst he’s done. He knew it would be, he did it on purpose, but it’s one thing to know it and plan it and execute that plan and it’s, it’s something else actually be in it.)
Then, suddenly, everyone is watching.
(He opens all of his eyes. He opens all the eyes. Not all of them are his. This is a mistake. It was easier when he wasn’t himself. Everything was easier when he could just concentrate. He can’t concentrate like this. There’s too much. There’s too much, and he’s so small, and it could have been easier. He made a choice, and now there’s just this.)
Imagine every living thing on earth screaming, just for a moment. Imagine that noise. Now stop imagining it.
(It occurs to him that it has probably hurt like this the whole time. He just didn’t care before. He would perhaps like to go back to not caring. That isn’t actually an option now.)
Imagine the soft blurring fuzz of static, instead, filling every sense.
(Beholding can’t stop watching, and never would, not for anything; but it can turn all its attention to him, to its Archivist, to its conduit and avatar. Feedback loops aren’t very interesting, but they make for good troubleshooting. The Ceaseless Watcher watches ceaselessly while he realigns matrices, stitches things into place, reaches out and connects to an abandoned piece, adjusts the fit of his Crown. It’s not going to be as good as it was-- it’s going to hurt, it’s going to be even more difficult, he’s going to have to be in it-- but it will keep working. Nothing that can win a throne gives it up easily.)
We are experiencing technical difficulties. Your regularly scheduled programming will return in-- 5, 4, 3, 2, 1--
“Jon? God, Jon, are you okay? Please, please say something, I-I didn’t, I didn’t mean to--”
It takes Jon a moment-- a very long moment-- to place this as Martin’s voice. It takes a little longer than that for him to realize that he is hearing Martin’s voice because Martin is right in front of him, inches away from his face. That makes sense, if he thinks about it, but he’s trying not to.
He notices, vaguely, that there is a broken mug on the floor.
(Beholding screams TEA directly into him, packing information down to chemical components and atomic structures into what would ordinarily be a three-letter word. It’s pointless and unasked for and overwhelming--
And then a veil is drawn over it, and much more quietly Elias says, Apparently you dropped the tea, gently amused.)
He looks at himself and realizes that somewhere between the Archivist and Jon he has been crying.
Martin has crowded Jon into his chair, is kneeling in front of him with one hand pressed hard against the back of Jon’s head and the nape of his neck, pulling him into a slightly awkward forward slump, and their foreheads are resting against each other. Jon has no idea what, if anything, he should be doing with his hands. (I’m told hugging is popular, Elias contributes helpfully. Jon hisses silently at him and he subsides.) He settles for just clutching the sides of the chair like a life raft. It’s not… it isn’t terrible. This is... yes. He doesn’t object to it, generally, although Martin is sort of aggressively pursuing eye contact in a way that even Jon, despite his whole himself, is beginning to find uncomfortable.
Martin apparently finds whatever he is looking for in Jon’s eyes, because suddenly his expression flicks from alarmed to furious.
“I can’t believe you,” Martin hisses, practically into Jon’s mouth. Jon tries very hard not to inhale his breath and then just stop breathing forever. It’s more difficult than it seems like it ought to be. “I can’t believe your whole plan hinged on me figuring out that you somehow made tea into an anchor.”
Jon clears his throat awkwardly, glancing away from Martin’s eyes and then-- accidentally, or possibly instinctively-- glancing back at them. “I, uh, I, I didn’t?”
Martin freezes. Jon winces. This is going to be embarrassing. “I didn’t have an, um, uh, I-I-I didn’t really… there wasn’t an, an exit strategy, per se.”
“What,” says Martin, very calmly.
“Well,” Jon hedges, “Well, you see--”
“Uh. So-- so, for the record, I think it’s-- it’s broadly understood at this point that I shouldn’t be left, ah, unsupervised when, when the world is maybe about to end an-and, in my defense, to be fair--”
“Holy shit,” Martin mutters, squeezing his eyes closed and exhaling hard through his nose.
“To be fair,” Jon says quickly, keenly aware that he’s getting a little pitchy and hysterical, and also-- distantly-- that the sound of static is building to a point that’s a little excessive, “I was pretty sure that the Lonely was just going to eat you, and at least if I was the world-destroying monster I could, maybe, I could… not. Do that.”
“Jesus Christ, Jon.”
“Not one of ours,” says Jon, like an idiot, and then winces, closing his eyes.
Of course, this doesn’t actually do anything about his ability to see, so unfortunately he still has to watch Martin’s eyes fly open and his confused snarl. More fortunately, this means he also gets to see the slow smile creep into Martin’s mouth, the good smile, which is a much nicer expression. In the back of his mind, he is definitely recording the breathy little incredulous laugh that Martin makes. Technically all of this has been recorded, because none of the tape recorders turned off, but that-- that bit’s extra recorded. Thousands of years from now, digital archeologists will be unearthing Martin’s laugh embedded in data all over the universe. There will be stars that sound like him.
“You know it took me almost two years to reconcile myself to the fact that you even made jokes,” Martin says, grimly fond.
He pulls back to stand up, letting his fingers drag through Jon’s hair, and Jon makes an absolutely mortifying sound of protest that just makes Martin smile more. Jon cracks his eyes open to squint up at him, more to justify the fact that he can still see what’s happening than because it has any tangible benefit.
“M’hilarious,” he mumbles, “You just weren’t listening.”
Martin makes what Jon thinks is a disproportionately aggrieved face, not that Jon is particularly good at gauging these things. “I… yeah. So I’ve been told. And probably not. Bit, uh, bit busy with my big gay crush. On you, if that… wasn’t clear.”
Jon sort of always feels like he’s recently missed a step and is about to tumble down a long and terrifying flight of stairs these days-- it’s been a permanent fixture of his life since at least the worm situation, and only increased with Beholding staring intently into and through him at all times-- but that feeling reaches a very quick crescendo. Martin winces a little, glancing at the nearest tape recorder, as the sound of static renders the entire audio landscape of the Archives (the Institute, really, and the surrounding three blocks of London cityscape) into an impenetrable white noise machine.
“O-oh?” says Jon, except all that actually comes out of his mouth is more static.
“Is-- fuck-- are you doing that? Like, on purpose?” Martin asks, shouting to be audible over the noise. He doesn’t need to. Jon would know what he was saying anyway.
(You’re panicking, Elias says, And over absolutely nothing. You already knew that. Calm down.)
Knowing something and understanding it are two different things.
(Yes, well, that’s what we’re here for. Now you have both angles. If you don’t say something in English at some point he’s going to get the wrong idea.)
The easiest way to cut out the static is to just evict all the tape recorders, so that’s what Jon does. Martin, hands over his ears, is squinting directly at one when he does it, and startles visibly when it snaps out of existence.
(A few immediately reappear, of course, in drawers and under his desk and on the tops of shelves, because he’s here so they’re here. We’re going to have to work on your control, I see, says Elias. He’s lucky that Jon now knows the condescension is mostly unintentional. Oh, very fortunate indeed.)
“I… You know, I just kind of assumed they could only, uh, show up when no one was looking?” Martin says, still eyeing the empty space on his desk.
Jon feels like they’ve gotten off-track. It’s his fault, to be fair, but still. “I don’t have a crush on you.”
(Elias is laughing at him and it’s the worst. He should have let Elias be brain dead. Not even at your most monstrous, my dear Archivist. It’s charming and unfortunate.)
“I mean!” he says quickly, before Martin’s face can do something horrible like frown, “I don’t know! I’m bad at this, I’m absolutely the worst, Martin, not just at this but, but especially at this, and I don’t-- I mean I-- listen--”
“Jon,” says Martin, very kindly and also sadly, because Jon is the worst at this.
“It wasn’t the tea! I don’t even care about tea! I am totally ambivalent about tea, except when you make it, because then it’s-- your tea, which is… there’s-- okay, hang on, shut up.”
Martin, looking vaguely offended, crosses his arms and waits. (Elias, picking through Jon’s extremely over-enthusiastic adrenal glands, smoothes over some of his panic and sends him the impression of supremely self-satisfied smile. He’s the worst. Jon will get him a fruit basket. Don’t do that. Just stop waffling so that we can move on to more interesting things. Something’s definitely happening in China that we’ll want to know about when you’re not distracted.)
“Right,” says Jon, and wishes intensely that he could go back to being able to not look at people, to not look at Martin, when he has to talk about his feelings, “So. I don’t-- a crush is. A very. Small thing? And I don’t feel a small thing about you. And I don’t know what it is. Exactly. That it is. That I have? But it’s not a crush. Is what I’m saying.”
“Oh,” says Martin.
“I always know where you are. I knew it in the Buried, too. I didn’t need a rib, that was a stupid idea because I’m an idiot and I don’t think things through. I didn’t even really need the tape recorders. I just needed you. To know where you were.”
“Oh,” says Martin.
“That’s. Um, that’s all. That I have. I don’t know if that’s enough.”
“Jon,” says Martin.
It is, Jon knows, the way he knows how many fingers he’s supposed to have and what colors the sky can be and how to solve for x, exactly enough.
They’re going to talk about a lot of things, including why Jon shouldn’t have done any of the things he’s done, and what they can do now to mitigate the damage, and what boundaries are and how they work and that they both desperately need some.
But right now, it’s enough.
Peter and Elias arrive at the Institute three hours later, despite Jon’s constant insistence that they absolutely shouldn’t do that. Elias cheerfully ignores him, probably because he knows intimately that Jon isn’t going to carry out literally any of his threats but possibly just because cheerfully ignoring his employees is one of Elias’ primary joys in life. Jon would like to not be sure why Peter is there, but instead he knows that it’s because Peter is deeply stressed about Elias’ whole state of existence and has been since the Watcher’s Crown was made real, and certainly isn’t going to let him go back to his god’s stronghold and the Watcher’s den without whatever absolutely pathetic protection Peter can provide. Jon would also like to not find this vaguely charming, but he has to be content with at least knowing that it’s mostly Elias’ fault.
Elias looks like death warmed over, which is actually a significant improvement, so given a couple of weeks of actually being the Heart of the Watcher again he’ll probably be fine. Jon resists the urge to tell Peter this and make him stop looking so sullen and hangdog only because Elias is visibly enjoying Peter’s distress and he doesn’t want to get in the middle of that disaster of a relationship unless he absolutely has to.
“There’s really no need,” says Elias, as soon as he walks into the lobby where Martin and Jon are reluctantly waiting for him, his voice unspeakably fond. Jon, feeling apologetic in about three different directions at once and not sure how to go about dealing with any of them, just shrugs at him.
“No need for what?” Martin asks suspiciously.
“Staying out of my head,” says Elias, “As if he doesn’t already have permanent access to it and as if I would possibly object.”
“I’m trying not to break it again,” Jon mutters, but Elias just looks at him like he’s a strange but adorable wild animal that has wandered into his life without explanation.
“Which he might not appreciate,” Peter interjects from over Elias’ shoulder, smiling thinly, “But I definitely do, so feel free to ignore anything he says. I do it all the time.”
“I can still divorce you,” Elias says tonelessly, without looking at him, but he doesn’t object when Peter wraps both arms around him from behind and practically disappears Elias into his stupid sea coat entirely.
“Again?” murmurs Martin, watching this display with palpable disbelief.
“It, uh. I needed to know some things. That Elias knew. And now I do. We’re… even, more or less. Also he’s the buffer for my whole… myself, now. Us? The Watcher. So. It’s better if he’s not a vegetable.”
Martin just eyes him sideways for a long moment. Jon does his best not to fidget. “Right,” says Martin, very slowly.
“Technically he’s more human than I am, at this point. Not, I mean, not much, but enough to be uh, um, fragile.”
“Fragile,” Martin repeats. He does not seem impressed.
“It wasn’t technically a hemorrhage, it, it doesn’t really have a comparable mundane equivalent, but it more-or-less resembles the symptoms. It’s fine now, I’ve, I was, um, I was fixing it and it should get better on its own now that he’s part of the system again.”
“Jon,” says Martin patiently, “Are you telling me that you ate our eldritch boss’ brain so that you could, what, become our extra eldritch boss?”
“... I mean.”
“Yes,” says Elias, because apparently he’s more inclined to rescue Jon from the consequences of his own failures now that he’s gotten what he always wanted out of Jon’s existence. “That’s not how I would have phrased it, obviously, but you have the essentials.”
“Beholding people,” Peter mutters into the top of Elias’ head, “Not a drop of common sense in any of you.”
“Shut up,” Martin tells him. Elias looks delighted that someone else has told Peter to shut up. Martin and Elias can never be left alone in a room together again, Jon decides.
“He wouldn’t be amenable to most of my schemes anyway,” Elias tells him.
“Schemes,” says Jon. Martin can’t seem to decide if he wants to glare at Peter or Elias. Jon should really teach him to have more eyes.
“Well,” says Elias, “One likes to keep busy.”
There is a cup of tea on Jon’s desk when he closes his eyes. Also Martin, hitched up on the edge with his ankles crossed, looking down at him fondly. All of Jon’s papers have been stacked up on the other side of the desk. He’ll have to sort them again later. That’s fine.
“Interesting?” Martin asks, smiling (the good smile.)
“Basira is dissecting something that Melanie found,” Jon reports, picking up the tea, “They think it’s Flesh, but it has Hunt all over its bones. I told Daisy not to eat it. She said she wasn’t ever going to eat it and that it was a weird thing to assume she would do.”
“It is a weird thing to assume,” Martin tells him.
“It’s for eating,” Jon mutters into the cup, “That’s the point of it. Catch it and eat it and be hunted in turn.”
“Gross,” Martin says, and takes the tea away from him to set it back on the desk.
“Rude?” Jon suggests.
“Probably,” Martin agrees, and leans down to kiss him.