It takes almost a month after that Thursday for Sasha to find Leitner.
If this had been anyone else she was trying to track down at any other time, she’d probably feel the need to defend her slow results to her fellow researchers or archival assistants, insisting to them that how long it had taken her wasn’t due to lack of trying. Granted, it’s not like she hadn’t been genuinely trying to find Leitner, but it had been a while since she’d had to do any information-gathering more intensive than making sense of Gertrude’s laptop, let alone actual hacking. And considering that Leitner was put down as a John Doe by the responding EMTs and police officers alike, Sasha had her work cut out for her once she finally got access to all those records.
Still. She’s long since finished piecing together this labyrinthine paper trail; she could have told Jon about where that trail ended at least a week before she finally told him today. After all, he was the one who asked her, albeit grudgingly, to find Leitner in the first place.
“He’s the only person we know of who was… at least partially privy to Gertrude’s plans,” Jon had told her. “So if he — if he’s somehow still alive after everything —” He’d sighed, his expression decidedly unenthusiastic. “Well. Given the choice between Nora and Leitner, we might as well give Leitner a shot.”
Sasha got it, or enough of it. Leitner might be on their side, technically, but that didn’t mean Jon miraculously liked him now, even after —
(She doesn’t finish that sentence; she never tries to. But her spiteful memory always fills in the blanks anyway, with blood and with begging and with eyes.)
Still. As much as she had tried to find Leitner, Sasha had tried even harder to do nothing, or next to nothing. To gather records upon records and not actually read any of them. To save a phone call for tomorrow. To put off an actual visit to the hospital.
It used to feel so satisfying to come to some kind of conclusion, to prove that there was a point to all of her research, to see and know that she was right about the knowledge she so relentlessly pursued.
Sasha hates that she can’t trust that satisfaction any more.
Even after painstakingly following Leitner’s trail through the maze of police reports and hospital forms, Sasha’s still at a loss to explain how Leitner went from barely clinging to life at the nearest A&E to the Institute, even after several emergency surgeries, to quietly convalescing in a private hospital room in Chelsea. While she’s well aware that Leitner was wealthy once upon a time — he could hardly have assembled his infamous library otherwise — Sasha is baffled as to how he could still access his bank accounts after two decades of being presumed dead.
But all that matters is that he’s here, in the corner suite upstairs, and she’s finally worked up the nerve to visit him. Even in her most expensive-looking coat and the only pair of heels she owns, Sasha had still half-expected to stick out like a sore thumb, maybe even dismissed at the front desk out of sheer snobbery. But the receptionist seemed to buy that such a sharply-dressed woman with such a steady gaze did indeed have someone here to see, and gladly gave her directions.
The door stands before her now. Before she can hesitate again, Sasha knocks.
The voice from within is ragged and weary, but still familiar. “Come in.”
Taking a deep breath, Sasha opens the door and steps inside.
In contrast to the spotless, sterile hallways she walked through to get here, this room surprisingly looks less like a hospital room and more like a hotel room. In fact, amid the lilac and cream walls, the wood floors gleaming from the sunlight streaming through the windows, and the vases of flowers on seemingly every side table, it’s the hospital bed and its trappings that seem the most out of place.
Leitner is sitting up in bed, thumbing through a newspaper spread out over his tray table. Despite the bandages on his weathered face and the cast on one arm, to say nothing of his frail appearance overall, he’s still looking remarkably alive for a man who was nearly bludgeoned to death a month ago.
He looks up, and recognition instantly sparks in his eyes. “Oh. Hello.” He folds the newspaper shut and pushes it and the tray table to the side, never taking his gaze off her. “Sasha, correct?”
“That’s me.” Shutting the door behind her, Sasha approaches the bed. “And you’re… George Icarus now?”
Leitner lets out a tired chuckle that turns into a cough. “An old nom de guerre, courtesy of Gertrude. Mildly insulting, but admittedly not inaccurate.” Hand pressed to his chest, he slumps back against the headboard. “In any case, I thought it would be better to give that name to the police rather than ‘Jurgen Leitner’ — God only knows what sorts of cases my real name must be connected to.”
“The police questioned you?” Sasha circles around to pull one of the chairs underneath the windows up to Leitner’s bedside, and then sits.
“A rather brusque detective was the first person I saw after regaining consciousness.” Leitner grimaces. “Even if she hadn’t been hurling accusations thinly veiled as questions at me, she was… not an especially comforting presence. So, I gave her a name, and then proceeded to feign confusion about everything else she asked.”
Sasha frowns. She has no doubt who this detective is, but she has no idea why Detective Tonner would have any interest in Leitner outside of whatever case she was making against — against Elias.
(Sasha makes herself finish that sentence. However far-reaching his powers of sight are, it isn’t like Elias is some specter in a mirror that could be summoned by name alone. And she isn’t about to let herself become more afraid of him than she already is.)
Leitner’s voice is a surprisingly welcome intrusion on her thoughts. “I take you’re here to interview me as well?” he asks wryly. “You’ll forgive me for doubting that anyone from the Institute would have taken the time to track me down for any other reason.”
Sasha almost laughs at that. “You’re... not wrong,” she admits. “If Jon hadn’t asked me to find you and if, um — ” Her throat feels suddenly, strangely tight. “I don’t know. Maybe I would have looked anyway.”
Leitner’s forehead furrows.
Sasha swallows and forces herself to meet his gaze. His eyes are dark grey and deeply grave, and they watch her with no small amount of wariness.
“I guess what I’m trying to say,” Sasha finally says, “is that — is that I’m sorry.” The words weighing down her tongue for the past month fall from her mouth like stones. “It’s my fault that you —”
“I do believe it’s Elias’ fault that I’m in hospital,” Leitner interrupts dryly. “You didn’t —”
“Exactly. I didn’t do anything.” Her throat is still closing, her voice growing even thinner. “I just — just hid and heard it all and I —”
“And I do appreciate the apology, but there’s really no need. There truly was... nothing you could have done to stop him.” Leitner’s face is greyer than his eyes. “Surely you know that.”
A memory of a choked, silent scream rises in her throat, and for a moment, Sasha forgets how to breathe. “Of course I know,” she manages, her voice bitter. “I just —”
“Of course.” Leitner breaks eye contact, as if ashamed. “Of course you know.”
Jaw tightening, Sasha just nods.
Leitner is silent for a moment. Then: “You... could have read A Disappearance, tried to escape.” He lifts his gaze slowly, his expression somber. “Whatever your reasons for not reading it may have been, I… do believe that I would not be here speaking to you if you had read it.” He almost smiles, but the gesture is strained from all the bandages on his face. “If anything, I should be thanking you.”
Sasha swallows. She can see the logic in what he’s saying, even if she can’t bring herself to accept it. But Leitner hadn’t accepted her apology either, and this impasse is as good a place as any to drop this uncomfortable topic.
Leitner seems to think so as well. “Speaking of which, where is A Disappearance? And The Seven Lamps?” he asks. “Not taken by the police as evidence, I hope.”
“No, we managed to hold onto those, along with all of Gertrude’s files and tapes that we found in Elias’ office,” Sasha says. Now here was something she could actually talk about without falling to pieces in front of a near-stranger. “I got the books accessioned in Artifact Storage; they’ll be secure there.”
“And the files, the tapes?” Leitner presses. “Have you found anything there yet, about the Unknowing or — or anything?”
Sasha shakes her head. “We only just started going through them — Jon wanted to look back at the statements he’d already recorded first, just in case there was anything there that we missed before.” She folds her hands in her lap. “In any case, it’s a lot of ground to cover, and we’re covering it a lot slower than we usually would, mostly because —” She lets out a noise somewhere between a sigh and a snort. “Well... we’ve under new management since… well, everything, and Jon isn’t terribly keen on cooperating with her.”
Leitner frowns. “‘Her’?”
“Nora Lukas.” A thought suddenly occurs to Sasha. “You… wouldn’t happen to know anything about her, would you?” she asks. “Or her family?”
“I do recall Gertrude mentioning the Lukases once or twice, but I really couldn’t tell you much about them... besides the fact that Gertrude was very obviously disdainful of them.” Leitner chuckles. “One would think that she would consider a family with such close ties to the Institute to be a threat, but that did not seem to be the case.” His moment of mirth passes and his former frown deepens. “But… Nora. I swear I have heard that name, but... if not from Gertrude, then where?”
He falls silent again, clearly lost in thought. Sasha’s almost tempted to ask outright — coax it out of his memory with nothing but a single, simple question — but she bites her tongue and lets him think.
“Ah,” Leitner says after a moment. “I — I think I have it.” He sits up a little straighter, his free arm shaking slightly with the effort of readjusting his fragile body. “Back in… ‘91, I believe the year was — I was at the Bloomsbury Auctions in pursuit of a rather unique pocket edition of a mid-Victorian poem titled ‘The Vampyre’: by no means a famous poem, and by all accounts, not a particularly good one, but...” He lets out another, more rueful laugh. “Artistic merits aside, what really got me interested in the book was its provenance. I’d had one of my assistants look into it before I made my decision to try and add it to my library, and —” He stops, seeing the look on Sasha’s face. “Well, I won’t trouble you with the gory details, but suffice to say, it was at auction for a reason.”
“And you still tried to buy it?” Sasha asks incredulously.
“Tried and failed,” Leitner corrects. “Despite its mildly interesting format, I’d counted on the book’s sordid history being a deterrent to other buyers, so I went low and was subsequently very surprised when I was outbid at twice the amount I’d initially offered.” Unbelievably enough, he still sounds annoyed about it. “I could have easily matched or exceeded the final price, so I arranged a meeting with the buyer and tried to work out a private deal for the book. While she graciously heard me out, she unfortunately refused to sell it and I left that particular auction empty-handed.” He pauses. “Probably better off for it, to be honest, but I’d never failed to acquire a book I was after before, and, well… it did sting a bit.”
“And that buyer,” Sasha says slowly, “was... Nora Lukas?”
“Indeed,” Leitner confirms, “although I didn’t know the significance of her surname at the time. A very courteous and charming woman, to be sure, but… exceedingly unnerving to be around.” He wrinkles his nose. “Particularly since she was smoking throughout our meeting, despite the fact that we were meeting at a rather upscale restaurant. I remember wondering at the fact that one of the waiters or a fellow diner hadn’t already asked her to stop, but —” he snorts “— what little good sense I had told me that I shouldn’t be the one to make that request, either.”
Sasha considers this new information; from what Jon and Tim had said about their encounters with Nora Lukas, that did sound like her. But what would she want with a book like — like that?
Then another thought occurs to her. “When you met her… did she have an assistant or a companion of any kind?” Sasha asks slowly. “There’s an avatar of the Eye helping her run the Institute — a woman named Cassandra, or Cass, for short. Do you know who she might be?”
Leitner’s already shaking his head. “When I had my meeting with her, Ms. Lukas appeared to be alone.” He pauses. “Although… are you certain that this Cassandra belongs to the Eye?”
Sasha shrugs. “That’s what she told Jon.”
“Hmm.” Leitner’s forehead furrows again. “That’s interesting.”
Sasha peers at him. “How so?”
“Theoretically, anyone can be marked by an entity at any time for whatever reason, but practically speaking, there are certain people who are at… greater risk than others.” Leitner’s mouth tightens. “In the case of the Eye, those who catch its attention tend to have some sort of connection to one of its institutes.”
Sasha frowns, taken aback. “Institutes, plural?” she asks. “So there are more places like the Magnus Institute?”
“Indeed,” Leitner says grimly. “They’re not directly affiliated with your Institute; they all operate independently of one another — with the exception of those who have multiple branches in larger countries, I suppose. But they are all very much devoted to the Eye.” He coughs again; when he continues, his voice is a little raspier than before. “I… know Gertrude was in occasional contact with the Pu Songling Research Center in China and the Usher Foundation in the States, but for the most part, all the institutes tend to be very insular. Secretive. Protective of their knowledge.”
Well, Sasha thinks darkly, the Institute certainly has a fair number of secrets of its own. “If you’re right and Cass does have a connection to one of these other institutes… why is she at the Magnus Institute?” she asks aloud. “And helping an avatar of the Lonely?”
“That, I couldn’t tell you,” Leitner confesses. “But regardless, Ms. Lukas and Cassandra are an odd enough couple that I think the Archivist is correct to be suspicious of them.”
Silence falls between them, the still only broken by the ticking of the clock on the wall. Instinctively, Sasha checks her own watch; her lunch break is nearly over, and she still has to get back to the Institute, let alone eat.
“I should be heading back,” she says, standing up. “Thank you for — for your time.”
Leitner nods absently. Not knowing what else to say, Sasha returns the gesture, albeit a bit awkwardly, then starts towards the door.
“Will you be returning?” Leitner asks suddenly. “You’re the only visitor I’ve had since that detective, and, well…” He lets out a laugh, or tries to, before it’s lost in more coughing. “Given the choice between the Institute and the police —”
Sasha hesitates, her hand resting on the door handle. “I — I will,” she says quietly.
I left him to his fate once before, she thinks, opening the door without waiting for a response. Even with who he is, even after everything he’s done… I can’t just stand by and let something like that happen again.
Flipping the file folder shut, Jane shoves it aside to the growing pile at the side of her desk and takes another bite of her wrap. “I thought,” she says through a mouthful of falafel, “that the whole point of taking a lunch break was so we wouldn’t have to work through lunch.”
“That is generally the point, yeah.” Tim discards another file folder on his own pile. “But with Sasha out visiting Leitner in the hospital, and with Jon and Martin out… at lunch? On a lunch date? On a date date?” He shrugs, then reaches for his own wrap. “Anyway, someone’s got to hold down the fort.”
“And get started on going through Gertrude’s files?” Jane asks wryly.
“I mean, if we’re stuck here…” Tim trails off with a wince, clearly rethinking his words. “Though we don’t have to stay in the Archives for lunch if we don’t want to,” he adds. “I mean, the back courtyard is stifling in its own weird way, but if you want to get some sort of fresh air, I’ll join you.”
Jane swallows, but a lump is still sticking in her throat. “No thanks,” she says, picking at the pita bread of her wrap. “I’ve gone outside enough for one day.”
She does appreciate that Tim’s still offering to keep her company. With Sasha unavailable, to say nothing of Jon and Martin, the prospect of getting lunch by herself had been a daunting one. But when she’d asked Tim, he’d grabbed his coat without hesitation, telling her on their way out the door that he knew a pop-up food stand that sold falafel wraps that were to die for and that he always went there on Fridays, so —
But even after ascending from the basement into the crisp March air outside the Institute, she couldn’t seem to escape all those eyes. Granted, having Tim striding alongside her and chatting away did a lot to deflect any potential prying questions from the people peering at the two of them on the street, but even he couldn’t shield her from their stares — and there were so many, sliding over every single silver scar on her face like cold fingers. And even when people didn’t try to stare, they still had to be aware enough of her to avoid looking at her.
Jane takes another bite of her falafel wrap, and one of the hot peppers she’d purposefully added sets her tongue alight. It’s almost funny, all the different ways her life has stubbornly continued to be strange: even as more of her life becomes more recognizably normal. She has a home and a toothbrush in the bathroom and a favorite mug in the kitchen. She has a proper winter coat and boots, and an Oyster card to use on her new commute. She even has a bank account, since Nora or Cass or someone had apparently looked at the books, realized Elias hadn’t been paying her, and promptly sent her a check with a staggering amount of back pay, plus her wages for that week. She has friends, and a girlfriend who loves her and who she loves. And she finally has a life outside the Institute.
Nevertheless, for all her newfound freedoms and all those surprisingly thrilling normalcies, there are still those low, dark days where she thinks everything would be simpler if she was still caged. At least then she’d never have dared to hope of escape from the constant scrutiny.
Jane finishes chewing and swallows; fortunately, the tahini has cooled the heat of the pepper by now. “What do you do?” she asks suddenly. “When people stare.”
“Smile and wave,” Tim says instantly, lifting up his wrap to his mouth. “I mean, it’s not every day you see someone as handsome as —”
“At the scars, I mean,” Jane interrupts.
Tim freezes mid-bite.
Jane bites her lip. “Sorry,” she says quietly. “I — I know it’s a bad question. Especially from me.” Especially since I’m the reason you have them.
Tim sighs. “No, you — you’re good; it’s fine.” He takes his bite and begins to chew, but his face is considerably more somber than before. “And honestly, it depends. I think it’s easier for me to ignore it now, just because I’ve… gotten used to it.” He swallows, then drops the wrap back into the foil spread out on his desk. “But back when they were still fresh, people used to ask me, a lot, how I got them, and —” Tim grimaces “— that’s what really got to me.”
“Did you ever say anything to them?” Jane furls what remains of her pita bread a little tighter around the loosening filling, then pops it all in her mouth.
Tim shrugs. “Sometimes. Never what actually happened, though; I just kept making shit up.” He snorts. “The last guy who asked me — and he did it on the Tube, while I was on my way into work, so that was infuriating on so many levels — I told him that I worked in publishing and I’d recently gotten this big promotion. But, one of my coworkers got jealous, so he armed the entire copywriting department with freshly sharpened pencils and then they Ides of Marched me in the conference room.” A familiar wry smile is tugging at the corners of his mouth. “By the time I started wailing about how I was now dying a slow, painful death from lead poisoning, he could not get off the train fast enough.”
Jane raises her eyebrows. “Pencils have graphite, not lead.”
“Not the point. Point is...” Tim pauses, sobering slightly. “Unfortunately, people are going to stare,” he finally says. “And sometimes, some of those people are going to be really rude about it.” He idly rubs at one of the scars higher up on his cheek. “Honestly, there’s no one way to deal with it. You just have to find a way that works for you.”
Jane narrows her eyes at him. “... I can’t decide if that’s terrible advice or not,” she remarks.
“Oh, it is not terrible advice,” Tim scoffs, gesturing at her with a flourish and a grin. “See? You can glare at people just like you’re glaring at me now! That’ll stop anyone from asking any rude questions!”
Jane considers it. “... I guess,” she admits grudgingly.
“‘I guess’?” Tim repeats, as if offended, but he’s laughing as he says it. “I give you not-terrible advice — no, spectacular advice — and that is the thanks I get?”
Jane finds her glower breaking down into a grin. “You heard me.” She balls up the foil that used to hold her wrap, and then throws it in the wastebasket beside her desk. “But… seriously. Thanks.”
Tim nods, his smile a little more rueful. “Yeah. Sure.” Picking up his wrap, he continues eating his lunch.
After a moment, Jane wheels her chair back around to fully face her desk, then she picks up the next file folder and flips it open. As with the previous cases, she glances over the initial filing form at the beginning — the case number, the date of the events in the statement, the date when the statement was given, the statement-giver’s name, notes from whoever investigated and then filed it — then moves on to skimming through the statement itself.
Unlike the previous cases, this one gives her pause.
Jane spins her chair around again. “Tim.”
“Yeah?” Tim’s polished off his own falafel wrap by now, although as he wheels his chair to face her, he aims his balled foil at the wastebasket by the copier and misses by mere centimeters. “Got something?”
“I think so.” Jane holds out the folder to him. “Case 0131910, statement of Chloe Ashburt. See what you think.”
Tim takes it from her and flips through the pages. “Oh Christ, I remember this one coming through Research,” he mutters. “Wasn’t too long after I joined the Institute.” He closes the folder, his expression grim. “Even if I didn’t look into this one myself, it’s kind of hard to forget a story about a murderous mannequin.”
Jane frowns. “You thought there was a connection?” she asks. “To what happened to your brother?”
“I mean... yeah,” Tim says darkly. “More circus bullshit and more skinning.” Exhaling harshly, he stands up and starts walking towards Jon’s office. “I’ll leave it for Jon to take a look at when he gets back. Get another opinion on whether I’m imagining the connection or not —”
Before Tim can finish his sentence, the door to the Archives is shoved open, hitting the wall behind it with a bang before it closes again.
Having barely slipped through the door, Melanie stumbles to a halt. “Shit. Sorry,” she says to a startled Tim, then looks frantically around the Archives. “Oh! Hey, Jane!”
“Melanie?” Surprised, Jane gets up from her desk.
“The one and only.” Melanie gives a lazy salute, or tries to, but her hands fall to her knees as she flops forward. “Listen, um,” she manages in between hard breaths, “is Jon around? Or Sasha?”
“Both out right now.” Tim drops the file folder into the mail tray mounted outside Jon’s office door. “No idea when either of them will be back, but you’re welcome to —”
“Gotcha.” Though her cheeks are flushed with exertion, Melanie’s face is quickly draining of color. “Can I sit?”
Jane grabs the back of her chair and wheels it over as quickly as she can. As soon as it’s within reach, Melanie grabs the chair and collapses in it, her legs crumpling underneath her at odd angles.
Jane peers at her. “Are you all right?”
Melanie makes a face. “No, not really,” she says. “Got shot. Sort of. In India?”
“You what?” Jane asks, alarmed.
“Oh, it’s — it’s mostly fine now,” Melanie says quickly. “I can sort of walk on it now, at least.” She gingerly rolls one of her ankles around. “It’s… actually what I wanted to talk to Jon about. Or Sasha.”
Tim arches an eyebrow. “Do you really want to do that?”
Melanie frowns. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
Jane casts a pointed look in Tim’s direction. Tim just raises his hands and shrugs.
Jane sighs. Tim’s not wrong, but right now is very much not the time to discuss it. “How long have you been back from India?” she asks Melanie.
“Not too long,” Melanie says. “Flew home as soon as I got out of the hospital. Spent the last... week, I think, recuperating on the couch while I tried to figure out… well, everything.” She taps her knee, then immediately winces.
Jane notices. “Sasha keeps Ibuprofen in her desk,” she says. “I can get some for you if you want; I’m sure she won’t mind.”
“Thanks, but I’ll manage.” Melanie’s tone is brisk, but her face is still tight with pain. “It’s just…” She huffs. “Fuck, I don’t know why it still hurts this badly.”
“Well, you did say you got shot,” Tim says dryly. “I’d imagine that getting shot hurts.”
Melanie gives him a withering look. “Yeah,” she says, “but it’s not like the doctors found a bullet or —”
“They couldn’t see it.”
Jane’s head turns to the door.
The speaker is a young woman, standing just inside the entrance to the Archives. Between her lavender hair, the piercings studding her ears and nose, and her colorfully mismatched clothes, she stands out against the beiges and browns of the Archives, but she carries herself with surprising self-assurance, as if she knows she’s meant to be here.
With a start, Jane realizes that she’s seen this woman before: on the Friday after Elias’ arrest, when she was waiting in the atrium for Sasha and the others to clear out her cell. Her dress had been businesslike and her hair had been in braids, but this was the same woman who’d waved at her, who’d given her a smile as though they’d known each other forever —
— or as though she’d known exactly who I was, Jane realizes, and that thought makes her unaccountably uneasy.
Melanie spins her chair around, instantly on edge. “Excuse me?”
“They couldn’t see it,” the woman repeats; her voice is high and clear and oddly upbeat. “They could see the wound they were stitching up: just above the tibia, just avoiding the knee. But they couldn’t see past the broken skin: deeper into the bleeding flesh, the bruised muscle, the battered bone.” Her gaze slides down, down to Melanie’s leg. “But I can.”
Her skin suddenly erupts in prickling, and Jane realizes too late what it is that she finds so unsettling about this woman. Her eyes are a piercing blue, and bright in a way she is unfortunately all too familiar with.
“You can’t see it,” the woman continues, almost sympathetic, “but you can feel it, can’t you?”
Jane wants to say something, anything to drown out this woman’s stream of speech and dim her sight, at least for a moment. But her mouth won’t listen to her mind, and when she looks at Tim, silently pleading with him to do the same, he stares back at her in mute panic.
“The hard metal throbbing against the bone, burrowing into your marrow and splintering apart your nerves with every staggering step.” The woman is still dreamily rambling on, her eyes alight with awe and fascination. “The rust flakes in your bloodstream, pumping corrosion and carnage through your body with every pounding drumbeat of your reckless heart.”
As horrified as Jane is sure she looks, Melanie looks undoubtedly worse. “I —” she starts, but it’s all she can say.
“Soon enough, all within you will be rotten and red.” The brightness in the woman’s eyes blazes high. “And those fragile stitches will snap under the glorious, gory strength of your rage and —”
Unexpectedly, the Archives door creaks open.
The spell broken, Jane finally finds herself able to breathe again. Glancing over at Tim, she finds him similarly shaken out of his stunned state.
Even though her legs still quake underneath her and her face is still ashen, Melanie scrambles to her feet. “Stay the hell away from me!”
“Melanie?” Jon freezes on the threshold, his hand still on the door handle. “What —?”
“That means you, too, Jon!” Stumbling past the woman, Melanie shoulders her way past Jon, then Martin just behind him, and then staggers out of sight up the stairs.
Jon looks shocked, even hurt, at first. But as he and Martin enter the Archives, Jon sees the woman and Jane sees his wounded gaze turn into a glare. “I thought I told you to stay away from the Archives, Cass.”
Cass. A chill shoots down Jane’s spine as she puts the face to the name. Nora Lukas’ companion. Another avatar of the Eye.
“Oh, you did, Archivist!” Cass says brightly. “But, you’ve forgotten that I said —”
“It’s Jon,” Jon says shortly. “What were you doing down here, then? And what did you do to Melanie?”
Cass cocks her head. “You know her?”
Jon’s stare hardens. “She’s my friend.”
“Are you sure, Archivist?” Cass asks, a gleam in her eyes. “Really sure?”
“Jon,” Jon corrects her again through gritted teeth. “And yes, Melanie’s my friend.”
Cass blinks. “... Well. My mistake, then,” she says. “I just saw her sprinting down to the Archives, her mark red and angry as anything, and assumed that an attack was imminent.” She flashes a vaguely apologetic smile at Jon. “Once the Slaughter gets going, it’s very hard to put down, so I had to fire off a warning shot fairly quickly.”
Jon’s glare falters into a wary frown. “The — the what?”
“The Slaughter,” Cass repeats. “You know: the Frenzy? The Killing Chord? Sparagmos?” Seeing that Jon looks no less confused, she shrugs. “Or… not.”
Jon’s mouth tightens. “... It’s another entity, isn’t it?”
Cass nods. “It feeds on violence: the more senseless, the better,” she says. “It really thrives in war, but some of its servants can occasionally be found off the battlefield.”
Fresh alarm flashes across Jon’s face. “And Melanie’s… marked by it?” he asks. “How did you know that?”
“I told you, Archivist,” Cass chides. “We can both see, but we see through different lenses.” Her smile widens mischievously. “You see because you ask — and I see because I read.”
Jon just stares at her, not even bothering to correct her this time. “You read —?”
“Pages and all their words in all their languages, like you,” Cass says. “But more often people.” She sits down in Jane’s desk chair, the one that Melanie just vacated. “I saw — Melanie, you said her name was? I saw her limping along as fast as she could go, jaw clenched against the pain shooting up her leg.” She flicks a strand of hair back behind one ear. “And once I had made that little observation, it didn’t take long for me to see what had marked her.”
“And because of that, you decided she was a threat,” Jon says flatly. “And threatened her.”
“I’m not a true mind reader, Archivist,” Cass says tartly. “I can paint a picture from what I see, but it’s no substitute for a photograph.” She crosses her arms over her chest. “I had no way of knowing she was a friend of yours. All I was doing was trying to protect you and your people. You know,” she adds, “like Nora and I promised we would do?”
Jon just glares at her.
“Oh, lighten up, Archivist!” Cass says teasingly. “I already apologized. A thank-you in return might be nice.”
“For the last time, it’s Jon,” Jon snaps. “And get out of my Archives.”
Cass’ eyebrows lift. “Jon —”
“Get out.” Even with no compulsion behind it, there’s no mistaking the fury in Jon’s voice.
Cass almost looks surprised by Jon’s anger, but more indignant than anything else. Bounding to her feet, she brushes past Jon and Martin and flounces out the Archives door.
After a minute, Tim finally breaks the silence. “Well,” he says grimly. “I guess we know now how Cass sees.”
Martin sighs. “... I suppose,” he admits. “Not sure we’re better off knowing how, though.”
Jon says nothing, his expression stony.
Jane swallows, still feeling that unconscious shiver rippling through her scarred skin.
“Hi, you’ve reached Georgie’s cell phone. I’m not around to take your call right now, so wait for the tone, leave a message with your name and number, and I’ll get back to you when I can. Thanks!”
“Hi, uh, Georgie. This is Jon. You probably knew that; I think you still have my number, so… onto the message, I suppose.
“I’ve already tried Melanie’s number, but, um, every time I’ve called, I’ve gone straight to voicemail as well. I did leave her a message, but — well, I know you two are living together now, so can you make sure she hears this? Please?
“Because I am… God, I’m so sorry. I told Cass to stay away from the Archives, and believe me, I am — I am beyond angry that — she shouldn’t have — I’m sorry, Melanie. If Georgie’s playing this message for you, I’m sorry. I — I know my apologies won’t change what happened or make it better, but… well, you’re owed an apology, at the very least.
“And, um… an explanation.
“I would have told you everything before, had I known, but… well, I didn’t know. And some part of me didn’t want to know. But I know more now, about the sorts of things you’ve witnessed, and — and I think you should know, too. After everything you’ve gone through, I think you’re owed that as well.
“I don’t blame you if you’re still angry with me. But… if you want to talk, if you want answers, I’m here.
“... That’s all. And again: I’m sorry.”
Some weeks later, Georgie finally calls him back.
“Just so you know,” she says as soon as Jon picks up, her voice slightly tinny on the other end of the line, “I’ve put you on speaker, so —”
“— so, don’t talk about me like I’m not here,” Melanie finishes, a clear warning in her voice.
“I… wasn’t planning to,” Jon says awkwardly. He drops the tape he’s holding into the recorder without closing the lid on it, then lets himself collapse back in his desk chair. “It’s just good to hear from you. Both of you.”
“Wish I could say the same.” Despite her harsh words, Melanie sounds more tired than angry. “So. Got your messages. I’ll bite.” She inhales. “What the hell was that all about?”
“That’s —” Jon rubs at his temples. “Well. There’s a lot I need to explain.”
“No shit,” Melanie says with a snort. “So start talking.”
Jon sighs. “I’m… not sure having this conversation over the phone is the best idea,” he admits.
“Well, I’m not going back to the Institute,” Melanie retorts, “so unless you want to go all secret-agent and arrange a rendezvous —”
“Actually, Jon,” Georgie says thoughtfully, “are you free tonight?”
Jon grabs his pocket planner from the corner of his desk and thumbs open the appropriate page. He has grocery shopping for Friday penciled in under Thursday, and dinner with Martin at home under Friday, but nothing for Wednesday. “It seems so?”
“Then I’m claiming the home turf advantage this time around,” Melanie says bluntly. “Come over for dinner.”
Jon blinks. “I — thank you for the invitation, but —”
“We’ve got more than enough food, if that’s what you’re worried about,” Georgie says. “We’re doing two pans of —”
“What’s the problem now?” Melanie demands, her voice rising over Georgie’s. “You said you didn’t want to talk about this on the phone!”
“And I don’t,” Jon says quickly. “But I’m not sure that dinner —” He grimaces. “The conversation might get a little... unappetizing for —”
Melanie’s exasperated sigh echoes through the receiver. “Jon, I got shot. By a ghost,” she says flatly. “I don’t know how delicate your sensibilities are, but after that? It’s going to take a lot to make me squeamish.”
“Wait, what?” Jon’s upright in his chair once again. “God, Melanie — you didn’t tell me you —”
“Look, we’re not doing this now,” Melanie interrupts. “And if you’re really so keen on hearing all about it, I’ll give you my statement or — or whatever after you tell me everything. Deal?”
Jon almost presses the issue, but he swallows both curiosity and concern, nodding before realizing there’s no way for Melanie to see him. “... Deal,” he confirms aloud.
“I mean it, Jon.” Even through the cracking cell reception, there’s no mistaking the steel in Melanie’s voice. “Everything.”