"The Stranger has been… active, recently," Elias had said. "Certain other delicate situations might be affected." So Nicole had been sent out, with a list of locations to observe and report back on.
Given that the Institute had been buzzing with rumours over the Archivist's recent return, and departure, and return again... well, Nicole is fairly certain of Elias's actual reasons for wanting her out of the way. Not that it matters. Her boss isn't the kind to assign busywork, and he hasn't actually done her the courtesy of describing the delicate situations in question, so trying to figure out what's going on at each location without getting herself killed is going to take all of her attention. If the Stranger is involved somehow, she'll deal with it when she knows more.
And for the first several places on her list (Buried/Slaughter, End, and Spiral (and hadn't that been a fun one)), she doesn't see any sign of the Stranger. If they're moving, it definitely isn't here.
In retrospect, that should have worried her more.
One instant, she's easing open the door to 105 Hilltop Road for the second time after slamming it on reflex, trying to ignore the way her brain keeps repeating too many cobwebs. The next, something-
Something is Strange.
Nicole doubles over, clutching her stomach as the world slides nauseatingly. She flails for something solid to hold on to - the doorframe - what's a door? No, she knows what a door is, she - everything looks wrong, but it's not her, it's not here, she can breathe and hold on and-
Her hand lands on the doorframe. Instead of wood, it feels like strings under her hand, tense and vibrating like a plucked chord. Her hand sticks to them, and suddenly she can feel the vibrations go through her - Nicole tries to pull away, but -
There's another lurch of Strange, and -
(Years, and years, and years later, with experience and nearly two dozen perspectives on her side, Nicole will still never be able to describe it as anything other than a blink.)
She's standing on the sidewalk, facing away from Hilltop Road. The day is calm. The world is known, not Strange - she can look around at the buildings and the sidewalk and the few people passing, and think yes, I know this. I know what that is. The people have recognizable faces, and they move in ordinary ways. There’s one she actually recognizes, she passed him on the way up.
Whatever the Stranger was trying, it must not have worked. Nicole lets out a shaky sigh of relief.
She turns around to look at Hilltop Road again - Stranger or not, she still has investigation to do here - and stops.
Something is different.
The building is still standing. But it feels… there are fewer spiderwebs on it. Fainter, to her Sight. And something about the house seems like it's sagging, even though it's clearly a relatively new structure; less imposing than it was a minute ago.
...A minute ago?
The grass is brown. It's cold, she realizes suddenly; the sun is high in the sky, but the day is cloudier and cooler than it was before. The people on the sidewalk are dressed for it too, sweaters and scarves, and jackets zipped up to their chins.
This is autumn weather. Late autumn. Definitely not the early August day it was when she woke up this morning.
She's not sure how long she's been standing there, staring at the empty house, when the feeling of being watched spikes suddenly. Nicole turns without much surprise to see an Eye, hovering over her shoulder and staring at her.
Elias must be interested in her sudden displacement.
"I'll call the Institute when I have a place to sit down," she informs him. She's not actually sure he can hear her - she's not sure of much of anything about how his Watching works, has never even been able to See the signs of it before - but if he can't, he can certainly read lips.
The Eye follows as she leaves Hilltop Road behind and goes looking for a coffee shop.
Nicole makes an effort to be unobtrusive. It's for both safety and convenience; people tend not to remember the young professional in the grey blazer, tend to trust that she has a reason to be talking to them, or wandering around in their building. It means people don't look twice at her when she passes them on the street.
...except that people are, today.
They're not being obvious about it. It's no more than a glance, most cases, and then a careful looking away. But it's accompanied by grimaces of fear, of anger, of the kind of half-dreading curiosity that Nicole knows so well.
No. They're not looking at her.
They're looking at the Eye.
Hands shaking, Nicole ducks into an alley between two houses; turns around and stares at it. It stares back at her, seemingly unconcerned. There's nothing to say that it's any more real, any more solid than anything else she Sees, except that other people can see it too.
And they weren't surprised.
(Is she even still in the real world? Or - has the Beholding pulled her into some kind of pocket dimension for some reason, like the coffin, or the Spiral's mazes? Does her patron even have those?)
Nicole's hand raises; hangs in the air for a moment before she lets it fall to her side again. Instead, she reaches, trying to attune her mind to see what's in front of her.
The Beholding, immense, and overwhelming, looks back.
“Some, of course, don’t properly appreciate the new way of things.” There’s a faint smirk on Elias’s face, like the cat that caught the canary. Or the Avatar that caught the world. “You’ll be observing and reporting back.”
Well that at least is familiar.
“The travel account has been topped up for your use. I have a list of locations, but you can, of course, investigate elsewhere if you find a likely candidate. They’re unlikely to cause any real problems,” the smirk grows for a moment, “but better to keep a watch on them.”
Nicole nods, careful to meet his eyes. Careful to ignore the way his Eye stares at her from offset angles, refracting like shattered glass, and the way the tape recorder hisses quietly on his desk.
The Eyes on the walls follow her as she leaves. She wonders how many of them are visible to the rest of the world.
God she was stupid.
Nicole starts to take a step back; stops, as the gun jerks.
“I know what you are,” the man says. His hand is shaking. The others with him look terrified too, underneath the anger. There’s no mercy in their eyes.
Human. Entirely human. And they’re going to kill her anyway.
Stupid. As if anyone in this world wouldn’t recognize when they’re being Seen. As if she’s any safer because...
Is anyone even going to notice? As far as Mike knows, she’s been gone for a month. (A year and a half. If he’s even alive.) She’s only been working for this Elias for a month, would he even bother finding out what happened? Would anyone-
Behind the still-ranting man with the gun, an Eye blinks open. It looks around, before turning to stare at her. Nicole can feel the pressure of Beholding, added to the mundane, hateful gazes of the fledgling cult.
This is the Eye's world. Everything is seen.
The man's done speaking now. The gun jerks again; raises to aim at her head. Nicole's back hits the wall.
At least someone will know, Nicole thinks desperately, clinging to it. At least someone will know. At least I won't just vanish. At least-
Another Eye blinks open, behind them. Another. The man with the gun's gaze abruptly jumps up, above her head.
The world turns upside down.
Nicole is standing with her back to a wall. In front of her is a patch of very clean concrete, and a half-dozen eyes, hovering. Anything else is gone.
Her legs give out and she slides to the ground.
There's a tape recorder sitting next to her on the concrete. Nicole stares at it. The Eyes stare at her.
"Thank you," she says eventually.
"Martin says you should come home, because of shock," the Archivist says. His voice sounds normal. Matter-of-fact. Maybe a little concerned.
Maybe it's that, that has Nicole automatically start to reply "I can't, I'm still supposed to-"
Nicole's mouth snaps closed.
There's a second, muffled voice audible through the tape recorder.
"...Please," the Archivist says.
Nicole inhales. "Okay."
Beholding's price catches up with her on the train back. The pressure of an incoming vision is subtly different from the pressure of being watched. She hasn't had one yet in this world, but it was only a matter of time.
Nicole closes her eyes and leans back, bracing herself for blood, pain, horror. (At least this time, in this world, she doesn't doubt that it's worth it.)
A single ameboid organism, swimming through the water. A single switch in one codon of one gene; the flexing and folding of a protein structure. The pathway leading to the future, showing how one change builds on another, builds on another, until it builds a whole new machinery.
Nicole breathes out.
"Did you think the mutation was interesting?" The Archivist - Jon - asks her, from a tape recorder waiting inside the Institute. "It's going to be a few thousand years before anything comes from it, but it's really something!" His voice is cheerful, and maybe just a touch concerned.
"Yeah," Nicole says. Feels herself start to smile. "Yes, I really did."
Nicole winces as the door closes behind her. A pulsing ache is already settling in behind her eyes; she breathes slowly, trying to relax against instinct so the tension doesn’t make it worse. It’s going to be ten minutes or more before the headache starts to ebb, but she can manage until then.
(The Distortion will never be Nicole’s favourite way to travel, but spending fifteen minutes catching her breath is much more efficient than spending three hours in transit.
It doesn’t look like she’s going to have that time today, though.)
“Right. Fifteen seconds. Who are you, and what are you after?”
The question prickles. Not enough to compel an answer, but enough to suggest maybe answering might be a good idea. Just the faintest brush of Beholding.
That’s probably Basira Hussain, then.
Holding her hands out from her sides, Nicole turns around slowly.
All three of the women behind her are watching her intently, though only one has that extra weight to it. It’s a bit of a surprise, actually, Nicole would have expected more obvious marks for Jon’s Assistants. But even Basira’s claim only shows in her eyes, too bright for the cloudy morning, and unwavering in their gaze. It’s barely stronger than the other woman’s - Melanie King’s - mark of the Slaughter, a ghost of red on her fingers and hip.
Nicole already knows Daisy Tonner, Hunt-sharpness and all. Though the Daisy of this world seems softer, somehow. Still balanced on the edge, ready to move or strike in an instant, but… it doesn’t feel like she’s looking for an excuse.
Nicole has used three of her seconds. She takes a deep breath.
“I’m from the Institute,” she says.
Basira’s only reaction is a faint frown. Well, it’s not like that could have been much of a surprise. The only people who use the Doors are Jon’s and the Distortion, and Nicole could hardly pass for the latter.
Melanie, on the other hand, snorts. “Didn’t take him long to find replacements.” Her tone is a strange mix of scathing, disgusted, and almost sympathetic. “Did they tell you you were signing your soul away, or was that a fun hiring bonus?”
“I’m not an Archival Assistant. I work for-” Oh this feels like a bad idea. “Elias.”
Melanie goes for a knife.
Nicole scrambles backwards, both instinct and the very conscious decision to get away from the angry Slaughter-marked whose fingers are bleeding brighter red as she watches, not lunging yet but she probably won’t wait long -
Her shoulder hits something soft.
An Eye revolves in place and blinks at Nicole. Another one pops up overhead, staring at the Assistants. A handful more hover calmly, observing the scene from all angles.
Melanie is still ready to lunge, but her glare has transferred to the Eye nearest her, hovering half a meter above her head. She looks like she’s debating how hard she can throw a knife.
(Right. Jon won’t let them kill her. Or - these are his Assistants, Nicole doesn’t know how far he’ll go to actually stop them… but he doesn’t want her dead.)
Basira barely spares an irritated twitch for the Eyes. She isn’t visibly armed, but something in the way her hand flexed when Nicole mentioned Elias says she has something.
Okay. How many seconds left?
“Sorry for you, then.”
Basira glances sideways, briefly, at the third member of their party. Who looks… oddly relaxed, despite the mark of the Hunt in her movements. Even with the Eye hovering over her shoulder.
Daisy shrugs. “He’s a shit boss.”
That’s right. They rarely saw each other - different kinds of assignments, Nicole was sent to look into things, not to kill people - but Daisy of her old world had been working directly for Elias. Probably in this one too.
“Better than my last one,” Nicole says honestly.
“Yeah? How low was that bar?”
Nicole gives her a small shrug in reply. “Jon won’t let him send me after things that might kill me without warning me first.”
"Jon won’t?” Basira says sharply.
That pulls Melanie’s attention back too, which is… non-ideal. “And I guess he gave you a warning about us. ”
“I told her about your knives.”
Nicole has barely located the tape recorder before Melanie is on it. An instant later there’s a harsh crunch as it impacts the brick wall, falling to the ground in a pile of cracked plastic and unspooled tape.
Nicole takes two more quick steps back.
Basira is still watching. “He also said honesty would be best,” Nicole tells her. Which… Nicole is having doubts about, but Basira at least is probably Beholding enough to pick up on half-truths. This might have been worse if she started out lying.
“Honesty is always best,” Jon comments, and there’s another tape recorder. “False or missing information leads to errors in judgement.”
“Like everything you’ve ever done, ” Melanie hisses.
“A lot of it, yes!”
“You haven’t answered the question,” Basira says coolly. She ignores the crunching from behind her, as Melanie grinds the recorder under the heel of her shoe. “What are you after?”
This probably won’t go over any better. “I have a message. A verbal message, from Elias.”
That breaks Basira’s controlled calm, expression finally twisting into a grimace of disgust. “And if we don’t give a shit what he has to say?”
“Then I go back, I suppose.” Nicole’s not looking forward to returning without even having tried, but it really doesn’t seem like the content of the message was the important part. Elias has other ways of delivering it, if he needs to.
“I can tell you, if you want,” Jon offers, proving her point.
“Fine,” Basira bites out. “You, not that. Get on with it.”
Finally. “I’m supposed to let you know that it’s great to be working at the Institute these days, and that you can come back, although your benefits might need to be renegotiated. I’m also supposed to ask if you have any… plans to kill Jon?”
(That last had seemed ridiculous, when she left. It’s less ridiculous now, as she tries to ignore Melanie succeeding in blinding one of the Eyes overhead.)
“And why the hell would we tell you? ” Melanie snaps, abandoning the rest of the Eyes for the moment.
That’s a really good question.
“We might be stuck with the evil Eye for now, but we’re not going to help it,” Basira says flatly. Then her expression softens, marginally. “If you’re not in the archives, maybe you can get out. You should try.”
“I’ll consider that,” is what comes out after a moment. “Thank you.”
Another Eye moves just close enough to get within range of Melanie’s knife, and she stabs it with a “Hah!” Basira is still watching, doesn’t seem satisfied with her answer - not an agreement, Basira must not know that the entire Institute is bound to the Eye, and even then Nicole doesn’t actually...
Daisy is watching her too. When she meets Nicole’s eyes, she makes a little flicking motion with her hand. Shoo, she mouths.
Basira’s eyes stay on her as she leaves.
There’s a tape recorder waiting when Nicole rounds the corner. “You should come home now,” Jon informs her. A door appears on the wall.
It hasn’t been quite long enough for the last headache to fade, but staying here seems like an extremely bad idea. “Thank you.”
The encounter leaves Nicole feeling unsettled, even after she reports back to Elias. (From his smirk, the whole thing went precisely as he intended it to - or at least close enough that he can pretend that’s the case.) She spends the rest of the day picking it over in the back of her head, trying to figure out why.
There are a thousand reasons to hate or fear the Eye, even for those marked by it. (Or especially.) And she might not know why Melanie hates Elias so fiercely, but from everything she does know about him, it’s probably an excellent reason. She shouldn’t have been surprised that they were hostile, to her, to the Institute, even to Jon.
Nicole knew the Beholding was evil. Had known that, the first time she followed Elias Bouchard to his office. That all she was really doing was choosing which fear she would feed, with death or service; that even if she tried to do minimal harm, it would only work for so long. That eventually she would be consumed, one way or another, and her "god" would drink in her fear with as much interest as anyone else's. She knew.
But this Beholding - Jon's Beholding -
(It was so bright.
The light undulated, strands and shards of it licking out like solar flares. It filled the room, sharp-edged and golden; shadows and sunspots forming the pupils of Eyes as they turned, watching the world. Watching her.
And in the middle of it all, a figure. Wreathed by light and Eyes, edges flickering, sun-flares lashing out only to be drawn back into the core, over and over again; and still he stood there, the centre of Beholding in the person of a small, scarred man. Smiling at her.
It was terrifying, and it was beautiful.)
- this is Beholding that cares.