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It’s nearly one in the morning before any of them think to mention sleep.

Why none of them said anything earlier, Jane doesn’t know; maybe they were all too exhausted to even think of a way to amend it. But the takeaway containers have long since been picked clean and thrown in the kitchen bin, right next to the two empty wine bottles sticking out of the recycling. The board game that has occupied the coffee table since dinner has similarly been abandoned, and though the TV is still on, flashing light and casting shadows over the walls of the living room in lieu of a lamp, it’s been muted for at least an hour. Even the featureless night outside is quiet, undisturbed by street traffic below or stars above.

Still, the five of them remain clustered around the coffee table in this comfortable, companionable silence. Tim, sprawled sideways over the armchair. Martin, cross-legged on the carpet. Jon, cheek anchored against Martin’s shoulder. Sasha, collapsed back into the couch. 

And Jane: head nestled in Sasha’s lap as she lets the hush wrap her up in its welcome warmth.

Across the coffee table, Jon’s eyes close briefly. Then his cheek slides off Martin’s shoulder, nearly sending him face-first onto the floor. Almost immediately, Martin loops an arm around Jon, righting him before he falls.

Jon’s eyes fly open, confusion and exhaustion blearing his gaze for a moment. Then he looks at Martin, and recognition creeps across his face. “Thanks,” he mumbles, flopping back into Martin’s side.

Martin wraps his arm a little tighter around Jon. “Maybe you should get some sleep,” he suggests gently.

Tim yawns, his head dangling over one arm of the armchair. “Sleep,” he repeats. “Now, there’s an idea.”

Jane hums in agreement, curling into herself a little more. Sasha’s couch is comfortable, even more so than the one in Jon’s office; Jane thinks she could easily fall asleep right here, if she were to close her eyes and let herself go. 

But Sasha’s thigh burns against her ear, keeping every single nerve flaring and awake.

Above her, Sasha speaks up. “Obviously, you all are more than welcome to stay the night, but I don’t have much in the way of accommodations.” She gingerly shifts Jane’s head off her lap so she can stand; Jane is simultaneously dismayed and strangely relieved at the loss of heat. “I mean, there’s my bed, and the couch, but —”

“Sasha, we’re hardly going to kick you out of your own bed,” Tim interjects. “And honestly, if you give me a blanket and a pillow, I can sleep anywhere.”

Jon nods sleepily. “I can take the floor,” he volunteers, already sliding back off of Martin’s shoulder.

Martin instantly hauls him upright again. “You are not —”

“Martin —” Jon objects weakly.

“Jon, come on —” Tim swings his legs down off the other arm of the chair and drops to the floor by Jon, attempting to get him on his feet. “I’ll take the floor; you just —”

“Well, what about Martin or Jane?” Jon challenges, remaining stubbornly put. “Where are —?”

“I… can take the chair,” Martin offers. “Unless…?” He glances over at Tim, clearly expecting him to reclaim it.

“You go ahead,” Tim manages, still trying to heave Jon off the floor. “I’m fine with sleeping on the floor; it’s actually supposed to be great for your back.”

“Then why can’t I sleep on the floor?” Jon interrupts. “I mean, my back is —”

“Okay, neither of you are sleeping on the floor,” Martin says in a tone that brooks no argument. “Jon, couch. Tim, chair.”

Tim slackens his grip on Jon; Jon, no longer stretched upwards, deflates back onto the carpet. Then they both frown at Martin.

“What?” Martin protests.

“Well, you’re not sleeping on the floor,” Jon retorts, clearly appalled at the idea.

Martin almost falters, but he stands firm. “Well —”

“You’re not,” Tim adds with a shrug. “Simple.”

“Well —” Martin repeats, a little louder and a lot more irritably.

A hand gently shakes Jane’s shoulder. Attention abruptly drawn away from the argument unfolding across the coffee table, Jane sits up.

A tired, but fond smile on her face, Sasha tilts her head back toward the hallway: out of the living room, past the bathroom, to a closed door at the end. “Come on,” she whispers. “It might take them a while to figure this out.”

With Sasha’s palm searing through her jumper and down to her shoulder blade, all Jane can do is nod.

 

When did something as ordinary as touch become so complicated — confusing — overwhelming?

One did not touch the Hive: not without it reaching back. And when it did, you did not flinch from its cold, corpselike touch. You let it pierce you, possess you, pick out all your sinews and marrow and fill the itching hollows with the writhing multitudes of worms that moved with you, instead of you. 

But if you belonged to the Hive, nothing but the Hive would touch you, could touch you. Not unless they wanted to join you in that entropic embrace, for a time. Then the worms would do their work, feed off the fear so sweetly fattened and flavored in the decaying flesh, and you would again be alone, and not alone.

Noli me tangere, for the Hive’s I am — was. Wild for to hold, and worse to tame.

And worse to touch again, and wonder, and worry.

Worse still that everyone around me made it look so natural. How could Tim slap shoulders in laughter and give those tight, yet tender hugs as easily as breathing? How did Martin not blush even more when his fingertips brushed against Jon’s when handing him tea or a statement or whatever pretext he’d conjured to just be close to him? How was it that aloof, uptight Jon, upon being told he was loved, instantly melted into Martin’s arms and has never strayed far from him since?

And how did she — how did Sasha —?

Did she know what she had done that day we met, for real? When she held out her hand, and called me Jane? When I took her hand, almost uncaring of what might reach out for her from within me?

She had power even then, to see my longing and unlock it with a single word. But now, she’s given the key back to me. 

And I still don’t know what to do with it.

 

Sasha’s bed is much larger than the one in her cell at the Institute, and Jane can’t deny that it looks far more comfortable. Sasha’s already moved a few extra pillows away from the headboard and onto the floor (Jane still can’t believe Sasha has more than one pillow), and the comforter that she’s currently folding back from the flannel sheets underneath is almost as thick as the mattress it covers. Everything about it looks warm and welcoming, and just looking at it makes Jane want to burrow beneath the blankets and curl them all around her into a cozy cocoon as she drifts off into a deep, dreamless sleep.

So she can’t quite fathom why she’s still standing here, halfway across the bedroom, as Sasha turns down the bed for the two of them.

“You don’t mind?” Jane asks, probably for the third or fourth time since the door closed behind them. Her hands unconsciously wring the T-shirt that Sasha had pulled out for her. “That — that I sleep —?” In your bed?

With you?

Sasha looks up, a confused crease in her forehead. “Why would I mind?”

Jane almost opens her mouth, but bites her lip instead. 

“I mean, it’s perfectly fine if you don’t want to,” Sasha says, suddenly concerned. “I — I didn’t mean to make you uncomfortable; I just —”

“Oh, I — I do,” Jane says quickly. “Want to,” she adds awkwardly, feeling heat creep up her face. “I mean — thank you.”

Sasha’s expression softens into something more reassured, but her gaze is still hesitant. “Okay. Um —” She lets out a long breath, then picks the wrinkled pajamas she’d thrown by the pillows on the floor. “I’m going to go change,” she says. “You — you can turn out the lights whenever you’re ready.”

Jane just nods, still tongue-tied.

Sasha gives her a small smile, then crosses to the door, opens it, and slips out.

As soon as the bedroom door clicks shut again, Jane tosses the twisted T-shirt onto the bed, then shucks off her jeans and jumper. She almost drops them on the floor, out of habit, then reconsiders and tucks them into the nightstand cubby, along with her socks and bra. Grabbing the T-shirt again, she shakes it out and hastily tugs it over her head. The T-shirt is overlarge and worn soft with age, and it smells faintly of the herbal scent she’s come to associate with Sasha.

The bed lies before her now, empty and expectant. 

Jane tentatively sits on the edge. The mattress sinks slightly under her weight, and somehow she’s sinking, too: lying back, pressing her face into a pillow, pulling the sheets and comforter over her shivering body. She’s a little surprised at how fast she’s surrendered, but now that she’s here, pleasantly smothered under the blankets, she can’t say she’s disappointed.

The lamp on the nightstand is still on, casting a glow that seems too bright in the already-dim room. Jane reaches out towards the switch, and in the moment before she clicks off the lamp and plunges the bedroom into a cool, quiet darkness, the silvery scars on her arms shimmer and shift under the shadows cast by the light.

Curling up on her side, Jane closes her eyes and waits.

It takes longer than she expects for Sasha to return. But eventually, Jane does glimpse the glow of the hallway light through her eyelids, and hear the click of the door and the soft footsteps over the carpet and the clatter of glasses on the other nightstand, and sense the other side of the mattress depressing as Sasha settles in.

At least, she tries to; Jane feels Sasha tossing and turning behind her for a long time. But Jane keeps quiet, keeps pretending to sleep, and finally, Sasha stills.

Jane cracks one eye open. Though Sasha is just as silent as she had been when she slipped back into the bedroom, some gnawing feeling in her gut tells Jane that Sasha isn’t sleeping.

Opening both eyes, Jane rolls over. In the darkness next to her, she can dimly make out Sasha: lying on her back with her arms loosely folded across her stomach, staring up at the ceiling.

Jane’s fingers twitch, wanting to reach out, but she keeps her hand tucked under her cheek. “Can’t sleep?” she asks.

Sasha sighs, low and weary. “It’s strange,” she says. “I — I mean, I was exhausted before I got into bed, but now…” With another, more frustrated sigh, she turns over, towards Jane. “I don’t know. No, I — I do know. I know I should sleep, but…”

Jane waits for an end to her sentence, but it never comes. “But?” she repeats.

Sasha doesn’t speak for a long time. Then: “I just can’t stop thinking about it.” Her voice is barely a whisper, so quiet Jane has to strain to hear her. “I can’t stop seeing it, replaying it over and over and over again in my head, and I —” She stops, her arms wrapping around herself. “I’m afraid that when I fall asleep, I’m going to keep seeing it.”

Jane swallows. She knows what she’d seen when she burst out of Michael’s door and into Elias’ office; she can only imagine what Sasha had seen. But judging by what Elias had said of his intentions (just thinking his name makes her throat burn with bile), Jane has a horrible feeling that Sasha’s reality was even worse than her imaginings.

“He can’t hurt you now,” Jane finally says. It may not be a promise she can easily keep, but she’ll be damned if she doesn’t try. “And he won’t again.”

“That’s the thing.” Even in the dark, Jane can make out the haggard, haunted look on Sasha’s face. “I know what he was going to do; he said so himself. And — and when I refused to go along with what he had in store for me, he — he compelled me. But then —” Her voice cracks. “He stopped.”

Jane frowns; that is something she hadn’t expected. “Why?”

“I don’t know,” Sasha whispers, her voice wavering. “I’ve been trying to figure out why, but — but I can’t. And —” Her shoulders are shaking as she struggles to control her tears. “And I feel like I should be glad that I’m alive and here and — and still me, but I’m not, because I don’t know why he didn’t just —”

Before she realizes what she’s doing, Jane reaches out. Her fingertips graze warm, damp skin, then her whole palm is cradling Sasha’s cheek as Sasha unexpectedly leans into her touch. Her muscles seize up in surprise, but Jane still allows Sasha to cry quietly into her hand, the salt in her tears burning against her stiff fingers.

Sasha sniffs, her fingers curling around Jane’s hand. “I’m sorry. I know you probably want to sleep; I just —” She brings Jane’s hand away from her face, cradling it against her collarbone with both hands. “The only conclusion I’ve come to is that he didn’t stop because he — he felt like it. It had to have been for a reason, and there’s no way it was a good reason.”

Jane sighs. Her muscles finally uncoiling from her sudden contact with Sasha, Jane manages to delicately drape her free arm over Sasha. “Probably,” she admits uneasily. “Still. It’s not something we can worry about now.” She pulls herself a little closer to Sasha, close enough to see the shadowed details of her face. “Not when we don’t know what we’re dealing with.”

Sasha lets out a huff of breath that could have been an attempt at a laugh. “Another thing to worry about on Monday?”

“Mmh.” Jane curls her arm tightly around Sasha; Sasha’s hands might be cool, but her body is so warm as to send heat spreading through Jane from that single point of contact. “For now, we sleep.”

“Sleep,” Sasha repeats tiredly. “Sure.” She shifts a little closer to Jane, tucking her head under Jane’s chin.

Jane freezes, her arm involuntarily tightening even further.

One of Sasha’s legs brushes against Jane’s as she readjusts her position, sending another jolt of heat through Jane. “You — you’ll stay here?” she mumbles. “Stay with me?”

Jane exhales, her throat suddenly, strangely dry. She doesn’t know if this bed underneath her or Sasha’s body against hers is comfortable or not — but either way, she doesn’t want to risk rejection.

“... Yes,” she finally gets out. Her fingers anchor themselves around Sasha’s waist, and something shivers in her stomach. “With you.”

 

How did we get so close, close enough to share our fears and our futures? How did that change happen so slowly and yet, so suddenly?

The hands, her hand outstretched towards mine, were first. Then hands holding hands became arms embracing. And then, like an avalanche, arms embracing brought tear-streaked faces buried in shoulders and necks — brought bodies that were taken from us back from the edge of the abyss — brought mouths close enough to share breath and promises.

Until now, last night was the closest we’d ever been. And she was so very close: nestled against my side as we sat on the couch in Jon’s office, her head on my shoulder as the music that we shared drowned out the song of the Hive. The basement was cool, but one of our bodies was burning, the heat making my heart hammer against my ribs. I didn’t know if it was hers or mine. 

I wanted to stay, but wasn’t sure how long I could stand it: to be that close to her, while the Hive was still worming its way into my skull. But then Sasha fell asleep, while sleep was still a distant dream for me — and her sleep was not a peaceful one.

I should have known that she wouldn’t be able to sleep any easier than me: not just during those first few weeks of torturous reincarnation, but the whole time I’d been the Institute’s prisoner. I should have woken her; at least then she’d be spared for a short time, until sleep came for her again. 

But I was selfish.

I let her sleep. I laid back on the couch with her clasped in my arms, and I let her sleep. I took both earbuds for myself and silenced the Hive for the night, and I let her sleep. And finally, I slept — and I let her suffer.  

All to keep her close for a little longer.

Sasha told me that she wasn’t afraid of me, that she loved me. I don’t doubt that, not anymore, and I know I love her, but —

But I’m afraid of what I call love leads me to do.

 

When Jane finally wakes up, the bedroom is aglow with gauzy light from beyond the curtains, and Sasha is gone.

Heart in her throat, Jane’s hand creeps over to the hollow in the mattress. The sheets are still warm, but that warmth is fading fast.

Then, outside the bedroom, laughter rings out: muffled by the closed door, but still instantly recognizable as Sasha’s.

Kicking her way out from under the weight of the comforter, Jane scrambles out of bed. She grabs her jeans from underneath the nightstand and does her best to pull them on while making her way to the door, only stopping to zip them up and button them before opening the door.

The rest of the flat is bright in a way that the Institute, let alone the Archives, never gets. As she passes the closed bathroom door and leaves the hallway, Jane has to shield her eyes against the sunlight shining in through the windows; with the light once again catching the scars on her arms, it’s difficult to make it across the living room without being totally blinded. Still, she catches a glimpse of a blanket crumpled on the couch, and another tossed over the arm of the chair, and no blanket whatsoever on the floor, and she feels her mouth quirk into a knowing smile.

“Will you all stop hovering?” While undeniably annoyed, Jon’s voice doesn’t seem to hold any genuine rancor. “I know you’re hungry, but if you want food, I need to focus on making it.”

Dropping her squinting eyes to the floor, Jane follows her feet into the kitchen.

Though the wooden cabinets and the golden walls of the small kitchen temper the intense morning glow somewhat, the stovetop is on and Jane can feel its warmth from the doorway. Jon is bent over the stove, pouring what looks like whisked eggs into a sizzling frying pan, his brow furrowed in concentration; Martin, half-occupied with pulling slices of bread out of a nearby toaster, watches him with indescribable fondness. 

Sasha is leaning against the counter next to Jon, still in her pajamas with a half-empty cup of tea in her hand, but when she sees Jane, she comes right over. “Morning.” She puts her free hand on Jane’s shoulder and places a quick peck on Jane’s cheek. “You sleep okay?”

Jane’s cheek is suddenly ablaze, but she somehow musters a response. “Yes.” She glances over at Jon, now furiously scraping at the half-liquid, half-solid eggs in the frying pan. “Breakfast?”

Sasha smiles. “Jon volunteered. Though I didn’t know you were such an accomplished cook,” she adds teasingly over her shoulder.

“In my defense, I got started at a young age.” Jon deftly lowers the heat on the stovetop, then reaches for the bag of shredded cheese on the counter. “I was… something of a picky eater as a child, and eventually, my grandmother figured out she stood a better chance of properly feeding me if I’d had a hand in making my own meals.” He sprinkles a handful of cheese into the eggs, then keeps shifting the eggs around while the cheese melts. “Scrambled eggs was one of the first things I could cook without her supervision.”

Martin laughs, dropping the pieces of toast onto a plate. “Better than me. When I was a kid, my preferred method of cooking eggs was microwaving them.”

Jon’s head whips around. “You didn’t.”

“I did.” Martin starts buttering the toast. “Coated a bowl with cooking spray, cracked an egg in there, mixed it up, then covered the bowl and put it in the microwave until everything got fluffy… ish.” He shrugs. “Not ideal, but it’s a pretty fast way to cook eggs.” 

“Maybe so, but that’s still the most horrifying thing I’ve ever heard anyone say.” Turning his attention back to the stove, Jon switches off the burner. “On a… semi-related note, the eggs are ready.”

“So is the toast.” Picking up the plate of freshly-buttered toast, Martin looks over at Sasha expectantly. “Are we serving up food for people, or are people serving themselves?”

“Serving themselves, I think.” Sasha turns around and opens up one of the upper cabinets, revealing a stack of plates. “That way, people can get what they want.”

Martin nods and puts the plate of toast onto the burner beside the frying pan. “Does anyone want more tea?” he asks, looking from Sasha’s cup in her hand to Jon’s still-steaming mug on the counter. “I can start the kettle back up —”

“Martin,” Jon interrupts, but not unkindly. He picks his mug up and steps away from the stove. “Get some eggs and toast and get off your feet for a bit.”

“Did someone say eggs?” Tim, his hair damp and one hand clutching a wrinkled shirt, squeezes past Jane and into the kitchen.

Startled, Jon almost chokes on his tea. “Good Lord, Tim,” he sputters, “put some clothes on!”

Tim gives him a look of mock-incredulity. “Oh, so Martin can stroll around the Archives half-dressed for several months —”

“Only after hours!” Martin interjects, his face bright red.

“ — but when I walk into Sasha’s kitchen after trying to wash up for breakfast,” Tim continues, pulling on and buttoning up his shirt, “it’s suddenly, ‘for Christ’s sake, Tim, cover your dazzling body; we can’t stand the sight of you’ —”

“You’re fine, Tim,” Sasha manages through unsuccessfully stifled laughter. “Go on, get your eggs.”

Grinning, Tim goes to the cabinet and grabs a plate. “Can I have eggs?” he asks Jon. “I mean, I put a shirt on especially for the occasion.”

“I’ll allow it,” Jon deadpans, but the corners of his mouth are twitching.  

“Smashing.” Tim reaches around Jon for the spatula and shovels some eggs onto his plate.

Taking another plate down from the cabinet, Sasha hands it to Jane. “You can grab some next,” she offers.

Jane blinks, surprised, but she wordlessly takes the plate from Sasha and goes to the stove. Seeing her approach, Tim passes her the spatula and moves on to the toast; sneaking a glance at Tim’s plate, Jane carves out what appears to her to be an equally-sized portion of eggs.

“Oh!” Behind her, a drawer opens, and Jane turns around in time to see Sasha sliding a knife and fork onto her plate. “Nearly forgot,” she says apologetically. “Also, the table in here’s a little small, so if people want to eat in the living room —”

“I’m fine standing.” Tim takes a fork, but not a knife, from Sasha, then leans against the fridge. “Honestly, eating’s more important right now.”

Jane casts a glance over to the table by the kitchen window: a compact rectangle with only two chairs on either side.

“You can sit.” Martin takes a piece of toast first, then piles his eggs on top. “I’ve apparently been assigned one of those seats, so the other one’s still open.”

Jane looks around, but, just as Martin had claimed, no one else seems to be moving in that direction. So she takes her plate over to the table, pulls out one of the chairs, and sits down.

Martin sits in the chair across from her. He takes a huge bite out of his eggs and toast, then groans appreciatively. “Jon,” he says once he finishes chewing and swallowing, “I just want you to know that I’m never eating microwaved eggs again after today; these are really good.”

“Glad to hear it.” Jon waits until Sasha’s taken her share of the eggs and toast, then helps himself to what’s left over. “Not that you should have ever microwaved eggs in the first place.”

“Hey, microwaving eggs is fine so long as you actually crack them first,” Tim objects through a mouthful of eggs. “Putting a whole egg in the microwave, on the other hand —”

“Are you serious?” Sasha exclaims, putting her mug down on the counter behind her. “Doesn’t that make the egg explode, or something?”

“Oh, it absolutely does,” Tim says. “In my defense, it wasn’t my idea, but, uh —” He pauses, some strange emotion flickering over his face. He swallows his eggs, but it looks to Jane like there’s still a lump in his throat. “Well. Couldn’t exactly let Danny blow up the kitchen unsupervised.” 

Jon frowns, fork halfway to his mouth. “‘Danny’?”

“Your younger brother, right?” Sasha says softly. “You — you’ve mentioned him to me before.”

Tim exhales. “Yeah, well...” He attempts a halfhearted smile, but it’s not enough to hide the pain in his eyes. “I — I’ll tell you more about him on Monday.”

Jane instantly realizes what Tim is saying, and that realization appears to be dawning on Sasha as well. “Oh,” is all she says.

Tim just nods grimly and goes back to his eggs, effectively ending the conversation.

Looking down, Jane picks up her fork and stabs a loose chunk of scrambled egg. The eggs are still steaming, trailing tendrils of cheese as she brings it up to her mouth, and even though it’s almost too warm to eat, her stomach is growling loudly, so she swallows it down anyway. 

Martin was right, Jane has to admit as she keeps eating, trying and failing at not tearing her way through the food as fast as possible. Jon’s a surprisingly good cook.

Eventually, Martin breaks the silence. “Speaking of Monday,” he ventures, “do we reckon anyone’s noticed that Elias is gone? I mean, Rosie might, but... what about anyone else?”

Jon thoughtfully chews his eggs, then swallows. “Doubtful,” he concludes. “But, on the off chance Elias did have a successor waiting in the wings, and if whoever that person is showed up today, then… well, someone besides Rosie might notice.”

“Do we have any idea who that successor might be?” Sasha asks, a note of worry in her voice. “If there is one?”

“Well, there’s always a Lukas,” Tim suggests. “I mean, the family’s a major source of funding for the Institute, so I imagine they have an interest in keeping the place they’ve been pouring their money into up and running. And who knows?” he adds, cracking a slightly more natural smile. “Elias might still be married to one of them.”

“Don’t remind me,” Martin groans. “I never want to think about last year’s holiday party ever again.”

“Well,” Jon says slowly, picking at the crust on his toast, “if Elias’ successor is Peter Lukas, the good news there is that he’s a known quantity. To… a certain extent,” he amends, frowning. “I know we have a statement or two that reference him specifically, and I would assume he’s an avatar as well, but —”

“— is he an avatar of the Eye?” Sasha continues. “And if not, what power does he and his family serve?”

Something in Sasha’s tone makes Jane glance up at her. Sasha hasn’t even touched her breakfast yet, but behind her glasses, her eyes are bright and keen.

Then Sasha blinks, or maybe Jane does, and that unsettlingly familiar look is gone. “Or… we can wait until Monday to figure that out,” Sasha says after a beat. “See who’s actually taken over Elias’ office at that point.”

Tim snorts. “Knowing what we have ahead of us on Monday, I’m sure not going to do anything remotely stressful this weekend.”

Martin hums in agreement and scoops up the last of his eggs.

Looking back down at her plate, Jane is both surprised and dismayed to see it utterly empty. Shame I ate it so fast, she thinks, something in her stomach twinging mournfully. It’s the only good meal I’ll get until Monday.

“Thanks for the food and — and for everything,” she says, dropping her silverware onto the plate. “But I — I do need to head back soon.”

Oddly enough, Sasha looks confused. “Back where?”

“Are you… going back to the Institute?” Martin asks, disbelieving.

Jane opens her mouth, but upon seeing the incredulous, even shocked expressions around her, she guiltily closes it.

“Jane.” Sasha puts her plate down beside her mug, her expression soft, but strangely desperate. “You don’t have to go back to — to —”

“— my cell?” Jane finishes, trying to keep the bitterness out of her voice. “I have to go back at some point; I have nowhere else to go.”

“Yes, you do,” Sasha insists. “I mean, I —” She stops, her face suddenly flushing.

Watching her intently, Jane waits for her to continue.

Sasha sighs quietly. “I thought that — that maybe you’d like to stay here,” she says, hesitant, but hopeful. “If you wanted.”

 

I’ve never had a home.

This is not true, in a purely physical sense. I’ve always lived in houses; I’ve never been truly homeless. But those houses never belonged to me — not as a child, moving from family to family without ever being a part of one, and even less as an adult, struggling to keep a roof over my head for one more month. So they were never homes: safe places, cherished places, places that were loved and loved back.

Prospero Road was the last and worst of these. On bad nights (most nights), I used to look at my flat — the cracked and clogged bathroom sink, the windows that never washed clean, the dusty radiator with the chipped paint — and wonder if this was all I deserved, the best not-home I would ever have. But then I found a home in my attic, in the Hive, and the Hive made its home in me.

Then I entered the house of the Eye, and I was no longer the Hive’s home. And while I always knew the Eye saw me as a trespasser, I came to know that the Hive never meant to be a home to me.

Sasha’s flat isn’t like that. It is bright and warm, full of the sunlight I haven’t seen since ascending to the attic all those years ago. The living room has plants that grow and thrive, vibrant and verdant, and the bathroom smells of sharp, clean citrus and rose. Her couch is comfortable, her bed even more so, and even when the flat is full to bursting with people, it never feels like there isn’t room for me.

And if I had my way, for once in my life, I would want Sasha to always have room for me.

 

And so Jane finds herself back in the Institute.

Admittedly, it’s not how she thought she’d be returning: utterly alone and as unobtrusive as she could get, slinking through the atrium and up the stairs and into the labyrinthine halls where her cell lay. Instead, she’d had Sasha at her side, and at Sasha’s side was a heavy-duty wheeled suitcase that had rattled and jolted up every single step leading up to the Institute’s double doors.

(The others had been with them, too; once he’d heard Sasha’s plan, Tim had offered his assistance, as had Jon and Martin. Jane had wanted to say no, that it wasn’t necessary for them to all be there, that she didn’t have enough personal effects in her cell to warrant a full-scale move, but the already-dry words had shriveled and died in her throat when she saw Tim’s friendly smile and Jon’s determined gaze and Martin’s earnest interest.

(She already couldn’t say no to Sasha. She didn’t stand a chance against all four of them.)

Jane could ascend the wide stone steps outside easily enough, but once she was inside, the thought of continuing the climb any further made her stomach twist into knots. But amidst her revulsion was a sick sort of relief: the knowledge that if she felt this panicked at the prospect of being caged again, even for five minutes, she’d feel that much better once she was freed from her cell for good.

So, Jane had made her flimsy excuses and sent the four of them ahead to clear out what little remained in her cell. The directions she’d given them were specific enough to get them there, and besides, there was no longer anyone keeping watch outside to keep them out or her in. Truth be told, there hadn’t been since her second day of working in the Archives, when she’d returned to find a new doorknob with a keypad and a sheaf of stationary on her pillow with the code written on it in bottle-green ink. The security theater that had shaped and surveilled her first weeks at the Institute was no longer necessary to keep her contained and compliant, and she and Elias had both known it.

(She thinks she should feel better knowing that he is now imprisoned as she once was, that he’s getting a taste of his own bitter medicine. Somehow, she doesn’t.)

Jane had told them she’d wait for them in the atrium — at least, after she’d gone down to the Archives to fetch her iPod and its charger, the only thing she never liked bringing back to her cell if she could help it — and so, here she is. But as she sits on one of the low wooden benches flanking the atrium, with her earbuds in and no music playing, she’s beginning to wish she had stayed down in the Archives.

When the five of them had first walked in, the Institute had seemed quiet, even for a Friday morning. But the afternoon is fast approaching, and more and more serious-looking people in sensible, professional attire are filtering through the atrium like the cold winter sun through the clouded windows. And for every single person that walks by her on their way out to lunch, Jane feels curious, critical eyes passing over her, passing cool judgement on her day-old jumper and her unwashed bedhead and the silver scars on what little skin she has exposed.

She feels nothing of the Eye in their gazes, despite all of them belonging to it. It’s simply being weighed, and measured, and being found to not belong, and that casual, cruel, human assessment is almost worse than anything an entity could conjure.

Still, Jane sits and waits and silently watches them back, because there’s no other way for her to defend her presence here.

Her gaze settles on a young woman working her way through the crowd, heading further into the Institute rather than out of it. While she is as neatly dressed as those around her, her braided hair is dyed a pale, pretty lavender that stands out starkly in the sea of staid tweed and monotone suits. Despite her pointed glances around the atrium, clearly looking for something or someone, those around her studiously avoid eye contact and the inevitable conversation to follow. Watching this, Jane can’t help but feel a strange sort of sympathy for this stranger: as much of an outsider as she is in this place that has ensnared them both.

Then Jane realizes that the woman is looking right at her.

The woman, now standing close to the stairs at the other end of the atrium, doesn’t approach her. Instead, she just raises her arm to wave, and smiles, as if the two of them have known each other forever.

It isn’t until after the woman continues on her way up the stairs that Jane realizes she had given her a small smile in return.

And then she sees Sasha, wrestling the now-bulging wheeled suitcase down the stairs, with Tim helping as best he can and Jon and Martin trailing behind them with faintly amused looks on their faces. 

And Jane feels her smile grow even wider, splitting her mouth to the point of shattering as the pit in her stomach grows even deeper.

 

I don’t remember the friends I had before the Hive, if any. But I do remember, the awful, nagging knowledge aching deep in my bones, that I was a bad friend.

I know that, even though I don’t know how or why. Did I cling too longingly to anything that could love me, so it could love me and me alone? Did I grow too envious of anything that stole their sweet attention away from me? Did I accuse or curse or cry crocodile tears until they reassured me, more and more irritably every time, that they did care for me, but that I was hard to be around because I was so...?

Difficult. Controlling. Possessive. Toxic. 

That was the word, shouted over and over again in their accusations and recriminations before I was abandoned: lost to them and their love, lost in my own self-loathing. I was told, again and again, that it was in my nature to poison anything, anyone I touched, and soon I learned that if I wanted to keep anything lovely and loved in my life, I would be wise to never touch them.

So when I reached out to the Hive and felt the wasps’ legs whisper over my hand, as soft as any human touch that had been withheld from me, I couldn’t help but weep at what I had regained.

But I have other friends now, and our friendships are all different from the ones I had, or thought I had, before. They do not blame or belittle, but rather understand and support and care. For me, of all unworthy people.

We certainly didn’t start as friends, and perhaps they never meant to be my friends, but... I think they are now.

… No. That’s not true either. 

I know they are.

 

After the lively hubbub in the kitchen that Jane had woken up to this morning, Sasha’s flat seems strangely hushed and lifeless upon their return. Though Jane is more than aware of Sasha’s presence at her back, she finds herself irrationally longing for the presence of others as well: Jon’s quiet restlessness, Tim’s easy energy, Martin’s cheery warmth. Anything that could distract her from the disorderly thoughts running through her head, or the lingering unease that’s set her fingers twitching and eyes shifting all day. 

But, with their small parts in the expedition to the Institute completed, the others had said their goodbyes (“Until... whatever the hell happens on Monday,” Tim had said with a dry grin) and went on ways separate from her and Sasha. Jane didn’t know if Sasha had asked the others to give them some space, or if they’d all made up their minds to leave themselves, but either way, here she was: standing inside the small entryway of Sasha’s flat with the suitcase she’d insisted on dragging up the stairwell at her side — and with Sasha.

We’re alone now. Jane distantly feels her hand slide off the suitcase handle. I’m alone. With her.

“Are you all right?”

Jane inhales, more surprised than anything else, as that familiar prickling sensation scurries over her skin.

“Shit.” The door locks with a click, then there’s a faint metallic scrape as Sasha hastily yanks the key out. “I’m sorry,” she says as she comes around Jane’s side and takes the suitcase handle. “I know that questions — my questions aren’t —”

“Sasha, you’re fine,” Jane says tiredly. “I’ve told you before; they don’t bother me that much. Jon’s are a lot stronger, anyway.”

“I know, I know. But still...” Sasha trails off.

Jane scrutinizes her. Sasha looks even worse than she did the night before; her face is still wan and exhausted, and her glasses starkly magnify the dark circles under her eyes. “Are you all right?” she asks pointedly.

Sasha bites her lip, a strangely guilty look creeping over her face.

Jane sighs. “Sasha, I —” She reaches for Sasha’s hand, but finds herself faltering. Steeling herself for contact, she slowly curls her hand around Sasha’s. “Look,” she says, trying not to focus on how soft and warm Sasha’s skin is under her cool palm. “You’ve always told me I can talk to you about whatever’s on my mind, so I have. But… you can talk to me, too.” She lifts Sasha’s hand away from the suitcase handle, squeezing it slightly. “Because —”

that’s what friends do. Jane stops herself before the rest of their familiar phrase slips out of her mouth. But… we’re not exactly friends anymore, are we?

“Because I love you.” Jane exhales, savoring the sudden, glowing heat spreading through her chest. I love her. And I know she loves me.

Sasha’s face softens a little, but that same guilty look in her eyes remains.

“I love you,” Jane repeats, a little more urgently, “and, well... now that I’ll be living here, with you —” She stops again, an unthinkable idea occurring to her. “Unless —” No. No. She’d already made up her mind this morning; Sasha wouldn’t change her mind just like that — 

“‘Unless’...?” Sasha blinks, confused, then she suddenly realizes. “No,” she breathes, horrified. “Jane, I — I do want you to stay here. Or at the very least, anywhere that’s not that cell. But… I’d like you to be here, if that’s what you want, too.” Her hand tightens around Jane’s. “I’m just —”

“Just what?” Jane asks cautiously.

Sasha stares at Jane for a long time, her eyes wide and oddly desperate. Then: “I just don’t want to ruin everything,” she blurts out.

Jane frowns, taken aback. Even after everything they’ve endured in the past forty-eight hours — the table, Michael, the Not-Them, Elias — seeing Sasha this visibly panicked fills her with unfathomable dread. Why is she worried about that? she wonders. If anything, I’d be the one to ruin things between us.

Pushing her own fears away, ignoring how Sasha’s hand burns like a brand in her grasp, Jane meets Sasha’s gaze. What would Sasha say, if I had been the one to confess this? “What makes you think that?” she asks, as steadily as she can manage. 

Sasha lets out a long, shaking sigh. Her hand slips out of Jane’s, and she turns, walks into the living room, and drops onto the couch, her elbows propped on her knees.

Jane follows her in. Sitting down next to her, she turns herself to face Sasha; their knees knock together as she does, and a flash of heat shoots up Jane’s leg. 

“Um…” Sasha hesitates, then laughs, short and self-conscious. “Sorry, I — I don’t really know where to begin,” she says. “Compared to you, I’m — I’m honestly terrible at talking about my feelings.”

“I’ve had practice,” Jane says wryly. She reaches out, a little surer this time, and squeezes Sasha’s shoulder. “Just… don’t overthink it. The words will come.”

Sasha groans and flops back against the couch, Jane’s hand slipping away from her shoulder as she does so. “That’s exactly my problem,” she says. “Or part of it, anyway.” She pushes her hair away from her forehead, but her eyes are still staring into the space ahead. “See… something that I’ve figured out about myself over the years is that I ruin all my relationships the same way. And it’s because I’m impulsive.”

Jane raises her eyebrows. 

“I mean, I know I overthink everything, all the time,” Sasha clarifies. “But at a certain point, I get so tired of weighing the pros and cons of every action I could take that I just —” she sweeps one hand upwards “— throw all that thinking out the window when I actually have to make that decision, and I just… act on how I feel in that moment.” Her hand falls back down beside her. “And I always seem to end up choosing the option I really shouldn’t. Like…” 

Sasha’s head lolls to one side, her cheek pressed against the back of the couch. She’s finally meeting Jane’s gaze again, but that guilty look from earlier is back. “Did I ever tell you,” she asks slowly, “that Tim and I hooked up once?”

Jane freezes, trying not to feel the sudden stab of jealousy in her chest. “No?” she says carefully.

“I mean, this was a long time ago,” Sasha adds, her eyes darting away briefly. “We weren’t as close as we are now, but we got on pretty well. So when I told him I was transferring out of Artifact Storage and into Research, we went out for drinks to celebrate, and, well… one thing kind of led to another.” She lets out a small, embarrassed laugh. “And it ended up making my first few weeks in Research really awkward for both of us.” She glances back at Jane. “Sorry. Are you…?”

Jane considers it. Briefly, she thinks of that morning — of Tim with a smile instead of a shirt and Sasha laughing in the sun-drenched kitchen — but then she shoves that searing, festering insecurity away. “No,” she says, and she means it. That might have been the person I was before. But it’s not who I want to be now. “Like you said, it was a long time ago.”

“I guess.” Still, Jane thinks Sasha seems visibly more relaxed. “And… granted, it didn’t end up being that terrible of a decision in the long run. Once we got past all that awkwardness, we…” She trails off, a soft smile coming to her face. “I mean, Tim’s my best friend, period. And even though how we got close in the first place wasn’t quite what I imagined, I know I’m really lucky to have him in my life.” Her smile brightens. “Same with you.” 

Jane instinctively finds herself smiling back.

“Even so… for the longest time, I thought what had happened between me and Tim was an exception.” Sasha chews on her lip, her smile fading. “So... when I found myself asking you again and again to stay with me — last night, this morning — I couldn’t help but have this — this moment of sheer panic that I was falling back into that same old pattern and —” She lets out another shaky breath. “Never mind the fact that I knew it was for a good reason: because I didn’t want to be alone. I’d already dealt with so much yesterday alone —”

Jane takes her hand, twining her fingers around Sasha’s palm and sparing her further words. “I know,” she says quietly. “But none of us resent you for wanting us around, you know.”

Sasha shrugs tiredly. “I did, at first,” she says. “But… once I was actually standing in your cell, seeing where you’d been living — I knew I’d made the right choice.” She swallows. “But then… that got me thinking again. About how much of this — of my paralyzing over-analysis and constant worrying is actually me, or…” Fear flashes across her face. “Or if it’s something else.”

Jane hears what she’s not saying loud and clear. “If it’s the Eye,” she finishes. “If it’s still changing you.”

Sasha nods. “Yeah,” she says, her voice choked.

Jane stares at Sasha for a long time. Vainly, she wishes she could comfort her, reassure her that she was still the same Sasha, as curious and clever as ever — but judging from how her throat is tightening and her stomach is churning, Jane has an awful, sneaking suspicion that Sasha’s not wrong.

None of us are unchanged, she thinks, her grip around Sasha’s hand unconsciously tightening. Not after last night.

“In my experience… these entities can’t feed on what’s not there,” Jane finally says. “And they love to prey on us at our lowest, when we’re most lost. Twist our desires to agree with theirs.” She exhales, long and shuddering. “That’s… that’s how the Hive caught me. I was so starved for any kind of affection that I — I ended up not caring where it came from: as long as I got it.”

Sasha’s eyes are full of sympathy. “Were you that lonely before?” she asks softly. “I mean, I read your statement, but…”

“I must have been,” Jane says wearily. “I — I’ve been trying to remember. Who I was, what my life was like. Most of it, I can’t, but what I can —” Memories flood her mind, unbidden and unwelcome, but she swallows down the lump in her throat and soldiers on. “And just… knowing where I am now, it — it scares me to think about how much everything has changed for me in such a short time. For the better, for the most part, but…” She sighs again. “The things that are still the same are… hard to wrap my head around, sometimes.”

“Like what?” Sasha asks.

Jane’s hand suddenly feels very cold and clammy around Sasha’s warm hand, and it takes every ounce of her willpower to not move it. “Like — like touch,” she says haltingly, reluctantly. 

Sasha’s gaze flickers down to their entwined hands, then back up to her, her gaze suddenly concerned.

“Right now is fine,” Jane says quickly. “And — and it is fine, sometimes. But… other times, it’s just… overwhelming.” Her chest constricts ever so slightly, and she struggles to breathe, let alone speak. “Before last night, I — I used to chase after whatever human contact I could get, because I just — I didn’t know how long I could have it before the Hive came for me again. Before I’d hurt someone.” She realizes then that the hand clutching Sasha’s is white-knuckled and shaking, and she forces herself to relax her grip. “But now that the Hive’s dead, and now that I’ll be living with you —”

“— it’s a part of your life again,” Sasha finishes. “You don’t have to worry about losing it anymore.”

Jane nods desperately. “But… it’s there now. And I just —” She lets go of Sasha’s hand as she throws both of hers up in frantic frustration. “Sometimes I want to touch, and be touched, and other times I don’t, and I never know what it’s going to be until it actually happens, and I —” Her voice finally breaks, and she ducks her head, face burning. 

“Jane.” Sasha’s voice is gentle, yet insistent. “It’s okay. You’re okay.”

Jane swallows, then dabs at her suddenly stinging eyes.

Sitting up, Sasha shifts position on the couch, turning to face her more fully. “Have I made things worse for you?” she asks, worried. “When I...?”

The questions prickle across Jane’s skin, as they always have, but these don’t seem to dig quite as deeply. Just another discomforting thing I’ve grown comfortable with, I suppose.

“No?” Jane says doubtfully. “I mean, I wouldn’t have known if we hadn’t — if we weren’t so close,” she amends. “But… that’s not making things worse. Just… noticeable.”

Sasha doesn't say anything for a moment. Then: “What can I do?” she asks. “I can give you space, or — or something. Anything. Just…” Her hand twitches in her lap, as if she was going to reach over, but thought better of it. “I just don’t want you to be unhappy or uncomfortable here.”

Jane slowly lifts her head. Sasha is looking at her, her expression still concerned, but quietly earnest.

Jane sighs. “Please: don’t think you have to stop,” she finally says. “Honestly, I think — I think that might just make me feel worse about it all.”

Sasha nods. “Okay,” she agrees. “Then how will we —?” She cuts herself off before she can finish the question.

Jane shrugs off the prickling of her skin. “That’s a way.”

Sasha frowns. “Look, I know you said you don’t mind my questions,” she says firmly, “but… I don’t like the idea of them being our way to gauge how comfortable you are.”

“Me neither. But at least I’d be honest,” Jane says darkly. “And I’d actually respond.”

Sasha’s frown deepens. “There has to be a better way,” she insists. “Some way for you to —” She stops again, her eyes going wide in sudden thought. “When you were holding my hand just now…”

Jane cocks her head. “Yes?” she asks, unsure where Sasha is going with this.

“Can you —?” Sasha clears her throat, quickly erasing her question. “Describe how that felt.”

Jane hesitates. “Um…” She licks at her lips, her mouth strangely dry. “Nice?” she tries. “Warm, but not… hot. Soft. Safe.”

Sasha nods again, somehow seeming to make sense of her scattered words. “Now, um… think about me holding your hand,” she says. “And describe that.”

Jane feels a muscle tick in her throat. “Hot,” she manages. “Startling. Searing. All I can feel is the heat, and it’s —” She exhales sharply. “I can’t think. Can’t speak. Just… burn.”

Sasha is silent for a while, clearly deep in thought. Then she presses the palms of her hands into the couch cushions on either side of her legs and meets Jane’s eyes again. “I think,” she says slowly, “that it might help if you were the one to — to have control, here.” A slight blush blooms in her cheeks. “Over how we touch.”

Jane blinks. The thought hadn’t occurred to her before, but the way Sasha says it makes it sound… surprisingly straightforward. Uncomplicated. Easy. Exactly the opposite of everything she has been feeling.

So much the opposite as to be unreal. Undeserved.

“What about you?” she asks, strangely anxious. “What if I —?”

“If you go too far, I’ll tell you,” Sasha says simply. “And if you feel like it’s too much for you, you don’t have to explain anything, and I won’t ask questions. We can take a break, or stop altogether.” She pauses, choosing her next words carefully. “It… might not be a perfect solution, but I’d like to know if it’s something you’d like to try.”

Jane considers it. Her heart is jolting her tense muscles with its every beat, and her throat is still too tight for comfort, but her mind feels strangely calm. 

“I’d like to,” she finally says. “I — I’d really like to.”

Sasha smiles. The light streaming through the living room windows catches the hue of her long hair, haloing her head with a soft glow and painting her skin with sun.

Heart beating a little faster, Jane reaches out and covers one of Sasha’s hands with her own and waits for any reaction. They’re still warm. Still soft. Still safe.

Her other hand goes to Sasha’s face, carefully cupping her jaw. Skimming her thumb just underneath the lens of Sasha’s glasses, Jane marvels at every freckle scattered over the bridge of Sasha’s nose and sprayed over her cheeks. Sasha closes her eyes and lets out a quiet, satisfied hum, but her hands stay where they are.

Taking a deep breath, Jane leans in, her lips brushing over Sasha’s. Sasha’s mouth twitches slightly, but she doesn’t press further, still letting Jane take the lead.

Jane pulls back a bit, feeling herself begin to frown. It’s nice, but… not quite what it was before.

Sasha’s hand is still underneath hers. Curling her fingers around it and lifting it up, Jane carefully places Sasha’s hand on her own face, mirroring her own movements from seconds before.

Sasha’s eyes fly open, surprised.

Jane stops. “Is this —?”

“I’m fine,” Sasha reassures her. Her hand hasn’t moved, but Jane is beginning to feel its heat spill across her face, seep into her scars. “Remember: you can always let me know if this isn’t what you want.”

Jane exhales, long and slow. Maybe she shouldn’t be trying to push her boundaries this quickly, this insistently — but the thought of either one of them being beholden to the wishes of the other, however benign in intention, gave her greater pause.

“What I want,” Jane murmurs, her other hand sliding around Sasha’s face as well, “is you. Here.” She kisses her again, somehow not flinching at the small spark that jumps between their lips. “With me.”

Sasha’s blush deepens, but when she finally leans in to kiss Jane back, Jane can feel her mouth curving into an even wider smile under hers.

Heart pounding, Jane cradles Sasha’s face even tighter and deepens their kiss, barely feeling how her palms catch fire against the smooth, freckled skin. Sasha lets out another small, but pleased hum, and when her hand winds around to the nape of Jane’s neck, electric fingers threading through her hair and pulling her even closer, Jane groans against her mouth as well.

And for a brief, brilliant moment, Jane burns without pain.

Sasha slowly pulls back; her gaze is bright, but so very far from cold. “So,” she asks, “how did that feel?”

Breathing hard, yet still somehow breathless, Jane finds herself unexpectedly grinning, even as her skin distantly prickles. “Hard to say,” she manages. “I’ll pay closer attention next time.”

Sasha laughs, her whole face luminous. “Next time,” she repeats, almost playful. “I like the sound of that.”

Still smiling, Jane leans in again, the warmth of the winter sun and of Sasha’s lips against hers flooding through her scarred skin like rejuvenating summer rain.

 

Who knows how much time we actually have — before the balance of power at the Institute changes, before the Stranger seizes its chance to change the world, before we have to stop that change at all costs.

Before we are changed: by powers far beyond our comprehension, let alone our control.

But I won’t let this change. I won’t let them take this, poison this, twist this into something it’s not. This isn’t their love, and it never will be.

It’s ours.