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Be Bold, Be Bold (But Not Too Bold)

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On Monday, Jon arrives at the Institute earlier than usual.

 

Him being early to work had begun as a purposeful act when he’d left his flat that morning. After all, he’d had more than enough time to think about what would, or could, come that Monday on Friday night, and on Saturday, and on Saturday night, and on Sunday, too. And by Sunday night — the third night spent listlessly staring at his bedroom ceiling or, for variety’s sake, at the alarm clock on his nightstand — Jon had been starting to feel reasonably secure about the choice he thought he should be making.

Reading statements was one thing: a skin-crawling, yet strangely soothing thing. And though the feeling that act gave him was an utterly discomforting one, it was a feeling he had grown uneasily accustomed to. But giving a statement of his own, Jon suspected, would be quite another thing.

And Jon couldn’t say he was entirely comfortable having witnesses to whatever that thing ended up being. Even if he knew who those eyes belonged to.

Granted, he had thought about calling one of his (assistants? coworkers?) friends, just to get a second opinion. As a matter of fact, Jon had thought about it multiple times over the course of the weekend — not just during his sleepless nights, but during his restless daylight hours as well — but he had dismissed the impulse each time. Sasha, he was sure, had Jane to concern herself with, and Jane with Sasha. Tim had strongly hinted he would be giving a statement alongside Jon, but Jon felt it hardly necessary to bother him for his thoughts when he could barely make up his mind about giving his own statement.

And Martin… well.

 

Jon had just emerged from the depths of Pimlico Station into the suddenly biting, drizzling damp of the February morning when he realized two things. First, he’d left his umbrella back at his flat, after looking out the window and, ironically enough, deeming the weather not wretched enough to warrant it. And second, his phone was vibrating.

Digging his phone out and shielding it from the elements with his arm as he squinted at the screen, Jon could see that he had an unread text from Martin. think i’ll bring in coffee for everyone again, it read. we might need it.

Then a second text came through: want me to get you a bagel while i’m there?  

Jon had already eaten breakfast that morning. He’d made scrambled eggs, again, and he’d found himself thinking of Friday morning and Martin’s awful admission to microwaving eggs with every mouthful. 

Still, he’d found himself typing back, as best he could: That might be nice. And then: Thank you.

He’d stashed his phone away and dashed out into the rain shortly after sending the text; even if he was going into work early, he didn’t want to arrive any later than the time he’d appointed for himself. But as he hurried along the sidewalk, head tucked into his jacket collar as much as possible, Jon had felt his phone vibrate again in his pocket.

And, despite the unexpectedly rotten weather, he’d found himself smiling, just a little.

 

By the time he’s climbing the broad steps of the Institute, Jon is back to reconsidering his approach to Monday. And he strongly suspects this reemergence of his indecision has something to do with Martin’s texts.

Ducking under the portico and out of the rain, Jon pulls his phone just far enough out of his pocket to check for any new texts. Save for the unread text he’d received from Martin just as he’d left Pimlico Station — a smiley face and a thumbs-up emoji — the screen is blank.

Jon lets his phone drop back into his pocket. What was it Martin had said to him on Thursday, in the depths of the tunnels that were so dark that Jon was certain he’d never see the light of day again? That he kept getting glimpses of Jon through the cracks of all the walls he’d thrown up. That he didn’t know why Jon didn’t want anyone to see him. That he had seen Jon anyway. 

And that he wished Jon could see himself, too.

But what is there of me to see? Jon wonders dryly, pulling open one of the double doors leading into the Institute and heading inside. And does anyone actually want to see that? See a lonely child scared of spiders? See an even lonelier man turning into a monster without knowing it?

I don’t want you to — to brood and think you have to suffer alone just because you think you’re some kind of monster! Martin’s past retort resurfaces in his mind with surprising speed, as if he’s right there with him. Because you’re not. 

Behind him, the wind slams the door to the Institute shut with a hollow finality, and Jon sighs heavily. You don’t know that, he responds to his memory of Martin. None of us do. None of us know what I’m capable of.

I know you’re scared. But so are we. Martin’s voice is as desperate as he remembers it, but strangely straightforward and sure. And I know everything’s bad, but we’re — we’re in this together, right? So we should be dealing with it together.

… Together. Right. Jon swallows. And how well has that worked out for us so far?

“Jon? Jon!”

Jon blinks, startled at the interruption of his internal argument. Glancing around the almost-empty atrium, he sees Rosie leaning over the reception desk, frantically beckoning him over.

Jon makes his way over to her, wincing at the obnoxious squishing sounds his soaked shoes are making with each step he takes across the pristinely polished floor. “Rosie,” he says once he’s close enough. “What is —?”

Rosie cuts him off. “Have you heard?” she asks. “About Elias?”

Jon frowns. “What about Elias?” he asks carefully. Where to even begin with Elias?

Rosie exhales, running a hand through her hair, despite it already being pulled back. “Elias got arrested,” she says, as if she can barely believe the words coming out of her mouth. “For murder.”

Right. That. Somehow the least surreal of Thursday’s many revelations. “... Oh,” Jon manages, trying to sound casual. “Who... did he murder?”

“Gertrude Robinson.” Rosie’s eyes are wide with disbelief. “And — and another man. Or… almost murdered, anyway. I don’t know who, and I don’t think the police know either; they just found him, or what was left of him, in Elias’ office when —” She stops, peering at him in sudden confusion. “Wait, you’ve really heard nothing about this? Did the police not talk to you on Friday? I mean, considering it was Gertrude…”

Thursday, yes. Friday, no. “I — I wasn’t in on Friday,” Jon says awkwardly. “Felt a bit under the weather, so I thought it best to stay home and not... overexert myself?”

(Jon remembers too late that he was, in fact, in on Friday: if only to help Sasha and the others pack up Jane’s cell. Granted, he hadn’t seen Rosie manning the reception desk at the time, but still —)

If Rosie suspects anything, she doesn’t call him on it. “Well, good for you,” she says sympathetically. “I mean, I’m sorry that you weren’t feeling well, but you deserve to take a break, Jon. You work yourself too hard sometimes.”

Jon attempts a smile. “Uh, thanks.” He clears his throat, trying to ignore how dry it is. While he’s sure that hearing the whole truth wouldn’t help Rosie’s current distress any, he still doesn’t enjoy lying to her face. “So, the police came ‘round on Friday?” 

Rosie nods. “The detective who talked to me — name’s Tonner, I think; I’ve seen her around a time or two — said that they got called in late on Thursday, but, well —” she lets out a shaky half-laugh “— couldn’t exactly ask any questions then with no one around.” Rosie frowns. “She was so… intense about it, though. Kept asking me if I had any idea who that poor man was, if I’d noticed anything unusual about Elias or about…”

Jon waits for the end of her sentence, but it never comes. “About…?” he asks cautiously.

“About you,” Rosie says, worry creasing her forehead. “I tried to ask her why she was asking about you, when she’d said herself that Elias was the murderer, but —” She shrugs helplessly. “She just said something how she was asking the questions here and just kept bombarding me with them.”

Jon swallows. Why was Daisy asking about me? he wonders, unease twisting his stomach. She certainly grilled us all enough when she was on the scene on Thursday; what does she need to go behind my back to find out?

And what does she think she’s going to find?

“Well,” Jon eventually says, “I suppose if Da — Detective Tonner wants to talk to me, she’ll be back again today.” He rubs at his neck; the rain soaking his hair is beginning to drip underneath his collar. “If she asks for me, just send her down to the Archives.”

“She didn’t strike me as the type to stop by reception as a rule,” Rosie says wryly. “But if I do see her stalking through the atrium, I’ll call down and give you a warning.”

“Appreciated.” Jon pauses. Though Rosie seems to have calmed down a bit since their conversation began, she still seems on edge. “Are you… holding up all right?” he ventures. It’s the least I can do… considering I don’t even know where to begin with explaining all of this.

Rosie sighs, picking at her nails. “It’s just… bizarre, you know?” she says. “I mean, I’ve worked here long enough; I’m hardly blind to all of the weirdness in this place. But... this feels like a different kind of weird from —”

“— the Archives?” Jon says mordantly.

“I was going to say Artifact Storage,” Rosie says apologetically, “but, I mean... considering you use a tape recorder because you keep insisting that some of the statements in the Archives just won’t record digitally —”

“I’ve told you before; it’s not user error on my end,” Jon says, then winces at his sharp tone. “And… it’s probably not a hardware or software error on your end, either,” he adds, a little more conciliatory. “Some of the statements are just… well, peculiar.” To put it very mildly.  

Rosie cracks a smile. “Apology accepted,” she says. “Honestly, those kinds of difficulties aren’t entirely unexpected. I mean, the Institute studies the paranormal and the unexplainable — on some level, I suppose ‘weird’ is just in the job description.” Her smile fades. “But murder... that’s not so much weird as it is…” She swallows. “It’s just unsettling is what it is. I mean, you think you know someone after working with them for so long, but I guess you never really know.”

A memory of a sing-song hiss in the dark suddenly snakes through Jon’s mind, and he barely suppresses a shudder.

“And… it just makes you look at everything you do know about them a little differently, you know?” Rosie continues. “Don’t get me wrong, I trusted Elias’ judgement, but even I found him hiring Jane Prentiss to be a bit odd. I mean, she seemed perfectly nice when I met her, but given… well —” she shrugs “— the circumstances under which she ended up at the Institute, it seemed a strange response.”

That gets Jon’s attention. “What do you mean by that?”

Rosie blinks. “Wait,” she asks, confused, “you mean Elias added Jane Prentiss to your staff without any explanation?”

Jon snorts. “Oh, there was an explanation,” he says, “but I’d like to know what explanation he gave you.”

“A very general one.” Seeming to realize she was ruining her manicure, Rosie crosses her arms tightly over her chest. “Elias told me that she was recovering from a parasite, probably supernatural in origin, and that once she was better, the Institute was going to give her a job. Help her get back on her feet. Since… we couldn’t help her when she came to us to give her statement before.” She sighs. “I — I feel like I should have been more suspicious at the time, but… I don’t know; he made it sound like it was the right thing to do. The kind thing to do.” Rosie glances up at him hesitantly. “Was it?”

Jon thinks back to Friday morning and to Jane: her hair mussed from sleep, scarfing down the scrambled eggs he’d made like she’d never eat anything again. He’ll never forget the gaunt, grinning, worm-ridden once-woman looming over the trap door, but after so many months of seeing his and Tim’s scars reflected on every inch of Jane’s skin, the monster is getting harder and harder to remember.

“... I think it was,” he says after a moment. “In my experience, the Institute generally sticks to research and theory. It’s rare we get the opportunity to actually help anyone with what we’ve learned.” Or choose to help.

All too often, it’s easier just to observe.

Rosie nods, seemingly relieved. “That’s what I was thinking.” She smiles ruefully. “I may not trust Elias anymore — for obvious reasons — but it’s nice to know I can still trust my own conscience.”

“Well, hang onto that,” Jon says dryly. “I think after Elias, the next head of the Institute could use a conscience like yours.”

Rosie laughs. “You’re too kind, Jon. Although,” she adds, nervously drumming her fingers against her arm, “it’s funny you should say that, because… well, I don’t actually know who will be running the Institute with Elias… indisposed.”

Jon frowns. “You don’t?”

“I don’t,” Rosie repeats, a note of panic in her voice. “I mean, once the police were done scouring Elias’ office for evidence, I went in there and looked through his desk for — for his planner, for an address book, anything. I could have sworn he’d once mentioned a — a board of trustees or patrons or something, so I thought if I could find contact information for anyone on it, they would know, but —” She throws up her hands. “It looks like it was just him. Him and him alone running the Institute —”

Suddenly, Rosie’s gaze flickers away, and she stops mid-sentence. Straightening up, she flashes a sunny smile somewhere to the right of Jon. “Morning! Can I help you?”

Perplexed, Jon turns around.

Standing just behind him is a strikingly tall woman with a face that could have been carved from marble. She is swathed in a cream-colored trench coat, and a white silk scarf is wrapped around her hair and tied under her sharp jaw. Between her impeccable appearance and her elegant bearing, Jon can’t help but be reminded of some forgotten film actress, just stepping off a flickering black-and-white screen.

But Jon also notices, a strange chill trickling down his spine as he does, that despite the miserably frigid rain that all but drowned him on his way into work this morning, neither her coat nor her scarf have a single drop of water on them.

The woman smiles back at Rosie. “Yes, I think you can.” Her voice is rich and throaty. “Would you be so kind as to point me to the office of the head of this Institute?”

If Rosie is taken aback by the request, she doesn’t show it. “I’m quite sorry,” she says, “but I’m afraid Mr. Bouchard isn’t available —”

“Well, I don’t anticipate that being an issue,” the woman says smoothly, “seeing as I am taking over his office.” She holds out one hand; under the hem of her glove, her veins show, frost-blue, through her pale skin. “But how rude of me to not introduce myself. I’m Nora Lukas.”

Jon freezes.

Now Rosie looks surprised, but only for a moment. “My apologies, Ms. Lukas,” she says, as upbeat as ever. “I wasn’t told that a new head had been appointed quite so quickly.” She shakes Nora’s hand. “I’m Rosie. Good to meet you.”

“Likewise,” Nora responds. “And please: call me Nora.” Still smiling, she glances down at Jon. “And who might you be?”

Jon feels himself bristle at her tone, but he unclenches his jaw as best he can before responding. “Jonathan Sims,” he says curtly. “I’m the —” Archivist is what almost slips out, but he corrects himself in time “— Head Archivist here at the Institute.”

Something sparks in Nora’s eyes — recognition? curiosity? contempt? — but whatever Jon sees, it’s soon gone. “A pleasure to meet you, Jonathan,” she says, holding out her hand to him. “I was so hoping to have the chance to speak with Gertrude’s heir.”

“Why is that?” Jon asks pointedly, not taking her offered hand.

Nora’s hand drops, but her smile doesn’t. “Why, to make sure you and I are on the same page,” she says. “I imagine you have many questions and even more concerns, and I’d like to try and set your mind at ease. After all,” she adds knowingly, “such a shift in power can be difficult to reconcile oneself with.”

Jon scowls. As little as he likes the idea of being in prolonged proximity to a Lukas — it’s not just Peter; there’s something deeply wrong with the whole family — he has to admit, albeit grudgingly, that he does have questions. 

(Granted, recording his statement, if he does decide to carry on with that, will have to wait a little longer. But if Jon’s being honest, he could use the extra time to deliberate.)

“... I suppose,” he mutters.

“Excellent,” Nora says briskly. “Now, would you prefer to have that conversation in your Archives? Or in my office?”

“The latter,” Jon says immediately. Between the Hive’s infestation last year and the Not-Them tearing through the trapdoor last week, I’d rather avoid a third supernatural intrusion for as long as possible. “Weren’t you looking for it, anyway?” he adds, probably more snidely than is safe.

“I was,” Nora says. “How fortunate for me that you can escort me there.”

Jon barely suppresses a snort. “Not the word I’d use.” Turning on his heel with a sharp squelch of his wet shoes, he stalks — or rather, squishes — towards the stairs without waiting for Nora to follow.

Besides, I’m not forgetting the route up to Elias’ — that office any time soon.

 

Aside from the absence of the antique carpet before the desk — and the large, muddy stain on the now-exposed floorboards — the office that used to belong to Elias is largely unchanged from the last time Jon was here. He would have thought the police would have taken more in the way of evidence, but Jon resolves not to delve too deeply into that. After all, Daisy had already grudgingly overlooked him taking Gertrude’s stolen files and tapes — and from what Rosie had told him of her strange behavior on Friday, Jon doesn’t think it wise to continue to test the limits of what little goodwill Daisy has.

Tentatively closing the door and trying not to startle at the click of the lock, Jon watches Nora out of the corner of his eye. She hasn’t said a word since their initial meeting in the atrium, and she doesn’t speak now: just removes her gloves and her scarf and looks around the office with a coolly assessing eye.

Nora seems to pause, and Jon follows her gaze to the painting dominating the wall behind the desk. It depicts a group of men seated around a table, probably modeled after some Renaissance painting of the Last Supper; Jon recognizes the man seated at the center, if only because he’d just passed Jonah Magnus’ portrait in the hallway outside, but no one else.

It takes a moment for Jon to realize that Nora is looking at one man in particular: a bearded, broad-shouldered man, with a grimly stoic face. He stands just behind Magnus’ shoulder, wearing a dark suit that renders him almost invisible against the painting’s shadowy background. And between the pallid skin, the aristocratic profile, and the black hair and blacker eyes, the family resemblance between Mordechai and Nora is frankly uncanny.

Jon frowns. How did I know that name?

“I knew your family were patrons of the Institute, but I hadn’t guessed that the association extended so far back,” he comments, trying to shake off his unease. “Is that why you’re taking over for Elias now?”

Nora turns to face him, one eyebrow arched. “I do hope you have better questions than that, Jonathan,” she remarks. “Otherwise, this might get tedious.”

“It’s just Jon,” Jon says testily. “And you did say you’d answer my questions, didn’t you? Regardless of how… ‘tedious’ they may get.”

“That I did,” Nora concedes. “Though I forgot how seriously the promise of knowledge is taken by those belonging to Beholding.” She laughs, low and amused. “I can’t fault you for your nature, of course, but personally, I find more appeal in the uncertain.”

“‘Beholding’?” Jon repeats, his frown deepening. “You mean the Eye?”

“Beholding, the Eye, the Ceaseless Watcher, It Knows You…” Nora tuts, waving her hand dismissively. “So many concrete titles for the same slippery concept.” Undoing the belt on her trench coat, she shrugs it off and tosses her coat, gloves, and scarf onto the corner of the desk. “But again, I can’t fault you for that. Attempting to impose categories on chaos is what you do here.”

“And what, exactly, do you do?” Jon snaps. “If you and your family aren’t aligned with the Eye, then with what?”

Nora tilts her head, studying him. Not for the first time, Jon is struck by how unnaturally pale she is, from her translucent skin to the white turtleneck and pencil skirt that wash out what little color remains in her complexion. Even her hair, as dark as it is, is shot through with a single white streak that curls over her left temple. She seems to glow with some sort of eerie luminescence: steady as a lighthouse beam, but strangely muted and misted-over.

Like she’s barely here at all. Once again, Jon glances at the bone-dry coat and scarf and tries to ignore the fear continuing to slither down his spine. Like she’s more phantom than human.

Nora smiles then, and for the first time, her smile shows teeth. “Well,” she says. “That, Jon, is quite the question.”

Jon almost regrets asking in the first place. But the faint static still crackling in his ears from his question tells a different story.

Suddenly feeling unsteady, and supremely unsure of what else he could do, Jon walks to the chair before the desk and all but collapses into it, letting his bag fall on the floor beside him.

Seemingly satisfied, Nora turns back to the desk. Reaching into a pocket in her coat, she pulls out a small, metallic object; it isn’t until she flips it open that Jon realizes it’s a silver cigarette case. “Would you care for one?”

Jon almost opens his mouth, then, remembering the general consternation when he’d mentioned taking up smoking again on Thursday, closes it. “No. Thanks,” he says shortly. “I’ve quit.”

“Fair enough.” Nora pulls out a single cigarette for herself, then reaches back into her coat pocket to swap out the cigarette case for a matching silver lighter. “I suppose you still have your health to consider.”

Jon eyes the lighter. “You’re not going to smoke in here, are you?”

“Unless you’d rather continue this conversation outside, I intend to do just that.” Crossing the uncarpeted floor, Nora unlatches one of the tall windows taking up the left-hand wall and nudges it open. A thin, cold sheet of wind blows through the crack, but no rain does. “I myself have no preference, but I imagine you do.”

Though the wind is cutting through his soaked jacket all over again, Jon reluctantly stays in his seat.

Leaning against the windowsill, Nora lights her cigarette, then puts down her lighter and takes a long, slow drag. Jon automatically wrinkles his nose before realizing that the smoke doesn’t smell quite like it should: not like the acrid chemical scent he’s accustomed to, but more like the salty mist of sea air.

“So,” Nora finally says, “how much has Elias told you?”

Jon snorts. “Next to nothing,” he says. “Everything I know about these — these entities has come from other sources.”

Nora purses her lips. “Well,” she remarks, “I can’t say I’m surprised.” She takes another drag of her cigarette. “What have you learned, then?”

Jon shifts in his seat. “... Not much,” he admits. “I know about the Eye. Obviously.” He inhales; the chill air settles strangely in his lungs. “Plus… the Corruption. The Spiral. And the Stranger.” 

Nora’s brows rise.

Jon bristles at her silent judgement. “And the rituals,” he continues. “I know about those. And,” he adds, “I know that the Stranger is preparing for its ritual. The Unknowing.”

Nora exhales, another plume of smoke snaking around her face. “Yes,” she says after a moment. “Indeed it is.”

“I have to — I want to stop it. Somehow. But —” Jon almost throws up his hands, then realizes that they’re still numb from the cold. He quickly drops his hands back into his lap and starts rubbing them together, trying to coax feeling back into his fingers. “But I’m not sure how. Yet. I mean, we got Gertrude’s research back — the files and tapes that Elias stole when he murdered her — so there must be something in there, if we just look. And, well…” Jon lets out a short, dark laugh. “Apparently, I’m the Archivist, so… maybe I can use my powers to help? Probably not, but…”

Jon trails off, half-expecting Nora to have cut in by now. But Nora says nothing; just continues to smoke by the open window with a distant look on her face.

A new thought occurs to Jon. “Earlier, you called me Gertrude’s heir,” he says slowly. “Did you... know her?”

“Knew of her,” Nora corrects. “Unlike the rest of my family, I made a point of keeping my distance from the Institute, and Gertrude Robinson especially.” Her tone is light, but her eyes remain unfocused. “Her reputation was rather fearsome… and well-deserved.”

“If that’s the case, then why are you here now?” Jon asks pointedly.

Nora casts him a sidelong glance. “Instead of Peter, you mean?”

Jon shrugs, a little embarrassed. “I mean… yes.”

Nora sighs irritably. “I’ll admit, I’m partial to the boy, but he’s simply not suited for this position. Even without his attachments getting in the way, Peter has had… issues with being entrusted with matters of importance in the past.” A sour smile quirks the corners of her mouth. “Besides, we all have our little duties, Jon. Just as you have certain obligations to the Eye, as do I to my family. And to my god.”

“And what god is that?” Jon retorts. “You still haven’t told me.”

“Oh, I think you’re very close to putting the pieces together,” Nora says archly. “You certainly seem to know enough about my family.”

“I don’t,” Jon says, trying to ignore the chill continuing to creep over him, trying even harder to not look back at the painted visage of Mordechai Lukas. “Not really. But… there’s another member of your family I do know something of.” He swallows. “Evan Lukas. Remember him?”

Now Nora turns her head to face him. “There’s no need to sound so confrontational,” she remarks. “But of course I remember him. Nathaniel’s youngest.” She takes another drag of her cigarette, then sighs out the smoke, sending it billowing across the office. “Such a shame, how he ended.”

“And how did he ‘end’?” Jon asks harshly. Something pops in his ears as his jaw snaps with the force of his question, sending a whine of static vibrating through his skull — 

— and then the static seizes up, stabbed through with a burst of ice that jolts through his teeth and up into his brain. Jon gasps, then coughs as the cigarette smoke — no, the fog — begins to crawl into his mouth.

Through the fog, Nora’s black eyes are suddenly very hollow and very cold. “Take care with your questions, Jon,” she says, almost chiding. “You wouldn’t want to overexert yourself, now would you?”

Jon tries to say something, anything in response, but all that comes out is a thin wheeze. Feeling the fog fill his throat, he instead shuts his mouth and nods frantically.

Nora smiles, then stubs out her cigarette on the polished wood of the windowsill.

The fog dissipates instantly. Rubbing at his raw throat, Jon desparately gulps in the cold, but unclouded air.

(The thought occurs to him, then, whispering with icy certainty, that if he had met his end here, no one would ever have known. Maybe not even cared.)

Nora flicks the cigarette into the wastebasket by the desk. “Now,” she says briskly. “I understand you want answers, Jon. Like I’ve said before, I don’t blame you for that. But we were having a perfectly pleasant conversation before you tried — again, I might add — to rip those answers out of my head.”

“I wasn’t trying,” Jon snaps, but his voice is hoarse and weak. “It just —”

“— happened? Of course it did, Jon.” Nora lounges against the windowsill. “That is the nature of the Eye, your nature: to seek, to know, to lay bare. But —” she raises a finger “— that is not my nature.”

Jon laughs, short and humorless. “It’s definitely not,” he says bitterly. “You, your family… you hide: behind money, behind mouthpieces. You obscure, you avoid, you lead astray, you —”

There was no presence to it, though, he suddenly hears Naomi Herne insisting. It wasn’t as though another person was there; it was — Her voice breaks, and a vivid memory of her drained, tear-streaked face flashes through his mind. It made me feel utterly forsaken.

And then, Jon knows.

“That’s how you serve your — your god,” he says quietly. “Isolation.”

Nora’s smile widens, showing teeth once again. “Others like you have called it Forsaken. The One Alone. The Wanderer.” She exhales; even with no cigarette in her hand, her breath still clouds the air before her. “Myself, I find that Smirke’s simple title captures its essence best: the Lonely.”

Jon fights the shudder that rolls over his skin at her rapturous tone. “Is that why Evan died?” he asks, wary of any tell-tell hum in his ears. “Because he wasn’t alone?”

“Close, but it wasn’t quite so simple as that.” Nora folds her hands before her. “You see, Evan had already scorned our family — a tragedy, to be sure, but it does happen now and again. But then —” she scoffs “— he got engaged. To a lovely, lonely young woman who, by all rights, should have been part of the family that Evan left behind.” Her black eyes bore into him. “And she, Jon, is why Evan had to die.”

Once again, Jon remembers Naomi and the unfathomable pain and loss in her voice as she poured out her grief to him, a perfect stranger, and his stomach twists in anger and horror. 

“If it eases your conscience,” Nora adds idly, “the extent of my involvement was attending the funeral.”

“It doesn’t,” Jon snaps, glaring back at her. “Evan didn’t have to die; his death wasn’t nature. It was your family’s choice to take whatever choice he had away from him.”

Nora tilts her head. That old faintly amused look is returning to her face, but her eyes are still dark. “Is there a difference?” she asks. “Can you even tell what the difference is for you?”

Before Jon can answer — if he even has an answer to give — there is a knock on the office door.

Much to Jon’s profound relief, Nora’s gaze shifts. “Who is it?”

“Just me.” The voice is unfamiliar to Jon. “If you’re busy, I can come back later —”

“Of course not,” Nora dismisses, straightening up and smoothing out her skirt. “You know I always have time for you.” She shuts and latches the window, and then looks back at Jon. “Besides, there’s someone you should meet.”

Jon opens his mouth, but he’s once again cut off as the office door opens and closes behind him. Standing up, he warily turns around to see who’s there.

The newcomer is a short, slight woman, with freckled cheeks glowing with energy. Like Jon, she’s soaked from the rain, but unlike Jon, her cherry-pink raincoat has a hood; she pushes it back now to reveal hair dyed a pale, pretty lavender and gathered into two messy, uneven braids. Both of her ears glint with multiple piercings, and a horseshoe ring gleams from her nose. Jon has the strangest feeling he’s seen her before, though he can’t for the life of him say where.

The woman’s gaze goes to him and she immediately perks up, as if she recognizes him as well. “Oh, hi!” she says cheerily. Her eyes are blue, and bright in a disconcertingly familiar way. “You’re the Archivist, right?”

Jon flinches.

“That he is,” Nora agrees, pacing closer to the two of them. “But just Jon will do, Cassandra.”

“Oh! Shit. Okay.” The other woman — Cassandra, Jon notes — looks a little embarrassed, but she recovers quickly. “Sorry,” she apologizes with a smile. “Just excited to meet you in person.”

“It’s fine,” Jon says shortly, nowhere near fine himself. “Who are you?”

“I’m Cass.” Cassandra — no, Cass — sticks out her hand eagerly. “I’m, ah, helping out Nora. Here. With the Institute.”

Jon doesn’t shake her hand either. 

Cass glances at Nora. “What did you do to him?” she asks, almost teasing. “He’s soaked to the bone.”

“I had nothing to do with that,” Nora dismisses.

“That, anyway,” Jon mutters, rubbing at his still-sore throat. 

Cass just laughs. “Nora,” she chides, sidling up next to her, “play nice. We’re here to help, remember?”

“‘Help’?” Jon echoes, looking incredulously between them. “With what?”

“Well, I hardly think you want to be the next head of the Institute,” Nora says archly. “And you have a ritual to stop, do you not?”

Jon scowls. Nora’s not wrong, but he’s not about to admit that outright. “How do you intend to help, then?” he asks, with as much dryness as he can muster.

“Now we’re getting somewhere,” Nora remarks. “As you’re aware, my family has a great deal of money and influence. And I can use both to your benefit: to help you in your endeavors against the Stranger and to protect the Institute.”

“I can help, too,” Cass chimes in. “At least where research is concerned.” She flashes him a grin. “I mean, I’m no Archivist, but I’ll do what I can.”

Jon studies her for a moment. In stark contrast to Nora, ghostly and gleaming-white, Cass is colorful and corporeal. Still, there’s something about the keen, discomforting light in her eyes that gives him pause.

Then he recognizes what that light is — and in whose eyes he’s seen it before.  

“You’re… like me,” he says. Or are you more like Elias?

Cass hums noncommittally. “We-ell... you’re not quite like me. Not yet. But,” she adds, “even as I am now, I’ll never be as powerful as you will be, Archivist — er, Jon.” She shrugs. “So... I think it all balances out!”

Jon blinks, caught between confusion and concern.

Cass laughs again. “I mean… you’re not wrong,” she says apologetically. “We both serve the Eye. But like I said, I’m no Archivist. We can see and know the same or similar things, but we have... different lenses and lines of sight, as it were.”

Jon settles for confusion. “I’m not sure I understand.”

“Oh, don’t worry!” Cass assures him, her tone as bright as ever. “You’ll see it all, in time. I mean, I don’t know how much Elias showed you,” she amends, “but there’s plenty that I could —”

“I’d rather you didn’t,” Jon says flatly.

Cass glances up at Nora, eyebrows raised.

“Cassandra, please don’t frighten him,” Nora says, but the smile playing on her lips softens her stern tone. “After all, he has enough to be afraid of.”

Cass rolls her eyes. “Fair enough.”

“Besides you two?” Jon asks dryly.

“Oh, definitely,” Cass says. “I mean, the Stranger’s more than enough.” For the first time since entering the office, she seems to sober. “Nothing scarier than the unseen and unknown... especially for us.”

Nora hums in agreement, but her eyes are still dark.

Jon swallows. “So… that’s it?” he asks. “You keep the Institute safe and help me stop the Unknowing because — because what?” He scoffs. “All this because Elias demands it?”

“I wouldn’t say that,” Nora says stiffly. “I’ll admit, filling this role was hardly my first choice, but it’s a sacrifice I’m willing to make to stop the Stranger.”

“And the Stranger,” Cass adds, her face still serious, “must be stopped.”

“How selfless,” Jon says sarcastically.

“Doubt us if you like, Jon, but the fact of the matter is, you need us here,” Nora says. “With Elias gone, the Institute is intensely vulnerable to encroachment from other powers — and you alone don’t have the strength yet to protect this place, or its people.” She places a hand on Cass’ shoulder, squeezing it slightly. “But Cassandra and I do.”  

Jon almost retorts, but then hesitates. He remembers, all too well, the static rushing through his ears at his clear, cold command to Jane. He remembers his head swimming with the echoes of the Hive’s screaming as he collapsed on his hands and knees. And he remembers Martin’s arms tightening around him as he lay on the floor of the tunnels, limp and listless and staring helplessly at the door as the Not-Them began to tear it down.

They’re going to die here, he remembers thinking, despairing. I tried so hard to do right by them, to keep them safe… and they’re going to die anyway. 

And I can’t do a damn thing to save even one of them.

Cass is idly drawing Nora’s hand across her shoulders, twining their fingers together, but her gaze is fixed on him with an uncanny intensity that takes Jon aback. Her eyes are bright, so bright it feels as though she’s shining a light through to the back of his skull.

Trying not to look directly at her, Jon shifts his feet; his shoes are finally starting to dry, but they’re still damp. “And… if I do accept your help?” he asks reluctantly. “What’s the catch?”

Nora laughs. “Why are you so certain there will be one?”

Jon glares at her.

“So suspicious!” Cass teases.

“Not without reason,” Jon says tightly.

Nora sighs. “Jon,” she says. “I understand your reluctance to work with me, given your grievances against my family. And I certainly don’t expect your reservations to vanish after a single conversation. All I ask,” she continues, eminently patient, “is that you keep Cassandra and I in mind, should you need our help.”

I don’t think I will, Jon wants to say, but he can’t seem to get the words out.

“And if it helps your decision,” Nora adds lightly, “it does benefit us both to interact with each other as little as possible.” She smiles. “You don’t want to see me… and I do my best work out of sight.”

Jon snorts. “Well,” he says, leaning down to pick up his bag from where it had fallen next to the chair, “you’re right about that, at least.” With that, he brushes past Cass and Nora and heads for the door.

“Easy for you to say, Nora,” Cass puts in. “I need to see what I’m working with.”

“A fair point,” Nora concurs, something like indulgence in her voice. “Ah, Jon? Before you never speak to us again —”

His hand hovering over the doorknob, Jon reluctantly looks over his shoulder.

“Would you mind terribly if we were to drop by your Archives this afternoon?” Nora asks. “Perhaps meet your assistants, if you have any of those?”

“Does it matter if I mind?” Jon asks bitingly.

Nora’s brows arch, but her eyes are dark and solemn. “Of course it matters,” she says. “Regardless of the consequences they bring down, your choices have great weight, Jon.”

Throat tightening, Jon turns his head back towards the door. Then why, he wonders bitterly as he opens it, trying not to feel their eyes on his back as he leaves, does it feel like I have no choice in any of this? 

 

Even back in the familiar territory of the Archives, as far away from that upstairs office as he could possibly get, Jon can’t help but feel more lost than ever.

Shutting his office door behind him, Jon peels off his wet coat and tosses it onto the coat rack. There’ll be no getting rid of Nora or Cass; despite his wishes to the contrary, he knows that. They’re clearly dangerous, and far more powerful than he is, and they could very likely do away with him — let alone Martin, or Tim, or Sasha, or Jane — without a second thought; he knows that, too. 

And as much as he doesn’t want to see it, Jon knows that they’re right about one thing, at least: that the Stranger is a far greater threat than Nora or Cass.

Even so: why would they offer to help? he thinks, dropping his bag and collapsing onto the couch. I can understand Cass wanting to help; we’re both aligned with the Eye, and the Eye and the Stranger… seem to be opposed. But Nora… He frowns up at the ceiling, trying to work out what makes him so uneasy. She’s of the Lonely; what does she get out of this? Why intervention instead of isolation?

And is she really as reluctant to take over for Elias as she claims she is?

Distantly, the door to the Archives creaks open.

Jon frowns up at the clock. It’s eight-thirty: far later than he intended on getting down here, but still far too early for anyone else to be here. For a moment, he thinks it could be Jane, but then he remembers that she’s no longer living in the Institute.

Nora, then. Or Cass. With a huff, he stands up and grimly turns towards the door. So much for the sanctity of my choices — or them respecting them.

Another creak as the Archives door falls shut. “Hello?”

Heart leaping, Jon yanks his office door open and bolts outside.

Martin is shaking out a battered umbrella with one hand and very carefully balancing a tray of coffees — and pinning a paper bag with only his pinky to the underside of the tray — in the other. Then he realizes that Jon is there and looks up. “Uh — hi!” he says, his cheeks coloring. “I actually didn’t expect anyone to be here yet, but I — oh!”

Before he knows quite what he’s doing, Jon is across the floor and his arms are around Martin. Martin gives a small start, but after a beat, he lets his umbrella fall on the floor and wraps his now-free arm around Jon.

“... Hi,” Jon mumbles into Martin’s shoulder. Some warm feeling is flooding through him, and it takes Jon a moment to identify it not as the embarrassment he expects to feel, but relief — though he’s not quite sure what he’s relieved about.

“Hi,” Martin repeats, and Jon hears the smile in his voice loud and clear. “It’s... good to see you, too.”  

Jon feels his own face heat up; not for the first time in recent memory, he finds himself thinking back to Friday morning. How he’d woken up with his face smothered by Sasha’s couch and with his back warmed by Martin. How he’d worried over whether or not he’d thrashed around in his sleep as he seemed to do most nights nowadays, if his elbows had jabbed Martin’s soft stomach or if his spine had gouged a mark in Martin’s broad chest. How he’d squirmed around onto his other side to find Martin somehow still solidly asleep: still there with him.

It’s then that Jon realizes why he was so relieved, but it makes him tense once again just to think about it. Since leaving the upstairs office — Nora’s office — he doesn’t think he’s seen a single person. And even before then, he hasn’t seen anyone since Friday, let alone spoken to —

“Jon?” Martin prompts. “Everything okay?”

Letting go of Martin, Jon takes a step back and rubs at his suddenly-cold arms. “Um —” He glances down at the tray of coffees and the paper bag, both of which Martin is barely holding onto. “Oh, uh, let me help you with that —”

“I’ve got it.” Martin quickly goes to the nearest desk and puts down the tray and the bag, then doubles back to fetch his umbrella from the floor and prop it up to dry. “You like cheese and garlic bagels, right?” he asks. “I mean, you ate one last week, but —”

“I do, I do,” Jon says quickly. They’re not his absolute favorite kind of bagel, but if it’s what Martin brought, he will eat it gladly. “Thank you. Again.”

“Of course.” Martin hesitates, a familiar crease in his forehead. “You’re here… early,” he finally says. “Is something up?”

Jon blinks. With Nora’s arrival casually, catastrophically upending his morning, he’d almost forgotten why he’d been trying to get to work so early in the first place. Almost.

He’d been so sure that giving his statement solo was the right choice. After all, he’d cloistered himself with that old fear for decades — what difference did it make to suffer through it for another day, just as alone and afraid now as he was then?

Jon thinks he can see the difference now. 

“I… was going to record my statement,” he says slowly, making an effort to meet Martin’s gaze. “Alone.”

Martin cocks his head, looking slightly more confused than concerned.

Jon sighs. “I didn’t want any of you to hear me,” he confesses, crossing his arms tightly over his chest. “I… didn’t want you to see me that way. And I —” He finally ducks his head, avoiding Martin’s eyes. “I didn’t know how it would feel. Giving a statement instead of taking one. And I know how that sounds,” he adds, now more irritated with himself than anyone else. “I know it was a stupid idea, but —”

“That’s not what I was thinking.” Martin takes a step towards him, one hand settling on his shoulder. “I... honestly think I would have done the same thing.”

Jon lifts his head, looking at Martin doubtfully. 

“Look, I get it,” Martin says. “I mean, I don’t know what it’s like to record statements, but… I do know what it’s like to give one. You don’t. And that thought of losing control where you once had it… probably scares you.”

“That’s certainly one thing that does,” Jon remarks darkly. Then he pauses. “What does it feel like?”

“Um…” Martin makes a face. “Honestly, the experience wasn’t exactly what I was focused on at the time,” he says quickly. “I just… I just wanted to get it out, you know? I didn’t care about how strange it felt to actually give a statement of my own; all I cared about was telling someone my story. Someone who’d believe me.”

“You... thought I’d believe you?” Jon asks.

Martin flushes. “I mean… I hoped you would. And when you did, I —” He takes a deep breath. “Look: what happened to me was horrible. And giving that statement wasn’t the greatest, either. But knowing that you believed me and took my fear seriously…” He shrugs, giving Jon a sad little smile. “It didn’t make it all ‘worth it,’ but… knowing that did make me feel a little bit better.”

“Knowing that you weren’t alone,” Jon says softly.

Martin nods.

Jon swallows the sudden lump in his throat. “I don’t think,” he says after a moment, “that I want to be alone for this, either.”

“Then you won’t be,” Martin says earnestly. He curls his hand a little more securely around Jon’s shoulder, looking him in the eye. “Even if you don’t want to wait for the others... I’ll still be here.”

Exhaling shakily, Jon leans back into Martin, resting his head on his shoulder. His eyes sting unexpectedly, but he just closes them, focusing instead on the steady warmth of Martin’s hand around his shoulder, anchoring him in place.

“So,” Martin finally says. “What do you want to do now?”

Jon reluctantly straightens up, but he doesn’t shake Martin’s hand from his shoulder. “I think I should probably wait for the others to get here as well,” he says. “Unfortunately, I have worse news to share than just my statement.” 

“‘Worse’?” Martin echoes, alarmed. “Jon, what’s happened?”

Jon sighs. “The Institute has a new head,” he says tightly. “And who it is is as damn near close to a worst-case scenario as we imagined.”