Chapter 1: Sea Change
Regarding the new head of the Magnus Institute, and Jonathan Sims' interrogation of his inclination towards isolation.
Remember how I said I had a few (okay, a lot of) one-shots planned after The Plague Upon the House? Well, all of the one-shots that were set to take place in S3... kind of merged into one fic over the course of outlining them.
Did I expect to be writing another longfic so soon? No. Do I have any idea how long this is going to be? Also no. But am I incredibly excited to share it with you all? Absolutely! So: welcome back, and I hope you enjoy the latest thing to come out of this (no longer so) little AU of mine!
The title of this fic is a quote from the English fairy tale "Mr. Fox."
Content warnings are in the end notes.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
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 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.”
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?”
“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.
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.”
CW: Threat of death, reference to a family’s murder of another family member as a means of control.
Naomi Herne's statement is MAG 13: Alone. Forsaken and The One Alone are both canonical titles for the Lonely, but The Wanderer is my own invention, inspired by that one painting that seems to have made it onto the cover of at least one edition of literally any Romantic-era philosophical work, Caspar David Friedrich's Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog (Der Wanderer über dem Nebelmeer).
(Also, if you're curious about how I came to that horrible conclusion about Evan's death, have this meta that I wrote to get around my writer's block on this chapter!)
A brief, but important note: I did my best to stick to a semi-regular update schedule for The Plague Upon the House, and I'm going to try to do the same for this fic as well. However, please keep in mind that life — both my personal life and current events in general — is a Lot right now, so updates might not always be timely. (But rest assured, they will be happening!)
Chapter 2: Threads
Regarding the statements of Tim Stoker and Jonathan Sims, and uncertain beginnings.
Before we launch into things, thank you to everyone who's commented, bookmarked, and left kudos thus far! I'm not going to lie, I was a little worried about springing another multi-chapter fic on readers, but I'm very glad to hear that you all are along for the ride!
Content warnings are in the end notes.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
“So... let me get this straight.” Tim ticks items off on his fingers as he continues. “One: Elias’ replacement is a Lukas. Two: said Lukas is in cahoots with another avatar of the Eye. And three: they claim they’re on our side because they can help us stop the Unknowing, and protect the Institute from… whatever’s looking to take a swing at us now that Elias is out of the picture.” Dropping his hand, he looks over at Jon. “Am I missing anything?”
Slumped behind his desk, Jon shrugs tiredly. “No, I… think you’ve about covered it.”
Tim glances over at Martin, sitting wan and worried in the chair in front of Jon’s desk. At least we don’t have to deal with Peter, he thinks darkly, but he doesn’t say it aloud. With all the grim faces surrounding him, something tells Tim that even gallows humor won’t lift the mood in Jon’s office right now.
From beside him on the couch, Sasha speaks up. “What entity did Nora say she and the Lukases served, again?” she asks.
“She called it the Lonely.” Jon props his elbows up on his desk, one hand rubbing at the hollow of his throat. “From what I could piece together, it’s a fear that feeds off isolation and avoidance. Total alienation from other people.”
Next to Sasha, Jane raises her eyebrows. “... And you went up to talk with her,” she says flatly. “Alone.”
“Well, I hardly knew what she was at the time,” Jon retorts. “And I wouldn’t have found out anything useful if I hadn’t gone.”
Jane concedes his point with a shrug, but she hardly seems reassured.
“But you’re all right?” Sasha asks anxiously. “Neither of them...” She trails off, swallowing. “You’re not hurt?”
For a split-second, Jon’s hand stills over his throat, but then he shakes his head. “I’m fine,” he says shortly. “A bit unsettled, I suppose, but I’m fine.”
Tim doesn’t believe him. But he keeps that thought to himself, too.
“We don’t believe them, right?” he says instead, leaning over his knees. “Even if the Lukases weren’t tight with Elias, there’s no way that one of them’s offering to help us purely out of the goodness of their heart. There’s got to be a catch somewhere.”
“And I told Nora as much,” Jon says tightly. “Granted, I probably should have expressed in less uncertain terms that I did not want her or Cass anywhere near the Archives, but —” He huffs, clearly frustrated. “Well. If they choose to ignore that, I can’t exactly do anything to stop them.”
Martin looks like he wants to say something — if Tim had to guess, something cheering to paint over the harsh reality of what they’re facing — but he keeps quiet instead, nervously gnawing on his lip.
“But… we’re not letting them stop us, right?” Tim persists. “With or without them, we’re still trying to stop the Unknowing.”
“Of course we are,” Jon says. “That hasn’t changed. The scope of what we’re researching has just… expanded a bit.”
Sasha frowns, suddenly wary.
That gets Martin to speak up. “Jon,” he asks pointedly, “you’re not thinking of investigating Nora and Cass, are you?”
“No,” Jon says defensively.
Jane says nothing, but her stare grows even more doubtful. Tim’s right there with her — even if Jon hadn’t denied it so quickly, his poker face has always been rubbish at best.
Jon sighs. “... Fine, maybe,” he admits, throwing up his hands. “It’s just… we still don’t know much about the Lukases, we know next to nothing about Nora, and we know absolutely nothing about Cass. And they probably know everything about us.” He swallows. “I — I don’t know; I just really don’t like the thought of that.”
“And I don’t either,” Martin says. “But you said it yourself, Jon; these women are dangerous. If they find out we’re —”
“Then we make sure they don’t find out,” Tim says. “Look, I’m with Jon on this one,” he adds off of Martin’s disbelieving look. “We need to know who they are and what they’re up to, or we risk a real nasty surprise in the future.”
“Easier said than done,” Martin retorts. “Elias’ sight is… I mean, it’s seemingly without scope. Who’s to say that Cass’ sight isn’t similar, if she’s here to help out Nora?”
“But there have got to be ways for us to counteract that, somehow,” Sasha says. “Elias might have seen a lot, but he can’t see everything. I mean, he couldn’t —” She inhales, steadying herself. “He… told me he’d had trouble. Spying on the Institute. When the Not-Them was still in Artifact Storage. It could cloud his sight, somehow.”
Tim glances over at Sasha. It’s the first time she’s brought up anything about what happened to her last Thursday night, and though she says it evenly enough, her face is drawn and tense and her hands are curled tightly in her lap.
Tim forces himself to swallow the anger suddenly scalding his throat. If killing Elias hadn’t meant killing them all, and if Jane hadn’t taken the first swing at him, Tim sure as hell wouldn’t have hesitated in taking the second.
Jon just nods thoughtfully. “And he was surprised by us coming through the Distortion’s corridors,” he adds. “Michael did tell us that he was difficult for Elias to see.”
“And Elias said the same.” Sasha’s hands clench a little more. “I guess it makes sense that — that entities dealing in unreality would make clear sight a challenge; Leitner did say that the Spiral and the Stranger were —”
“Leitner,” Jane says suddenly. “Of course.”
Jon frowns. “‘Of course’… what?” he prompts.
“The tunnels.” There’s a grim spark in Jane’s dark eyes as she leans in. “The Eye can’t see down there. Not the Hive, not Leitner. Not us.”
Jon’s frown deepens. Martin has long since stopped chewing on his lip, but he still looks uncertain.
“I know. I don’t want to go back down there, either,” Jane says, an edge to her voice. “But... it might be a good idea, for a little while. At least until we learn how Cass sees.”
Tim jumps in. “We can still do our research for the Stranger and the Unknowing up here in the Archives; that’s what Nora and Cass will be expecting us to do,” he says. He can’t say he’s all that eager to descend into the tunnels again, but Jane’s hit upon a loophole that they can’t afford to ignore. “But for any research related to Nora or Cass, we take it underground. Figuratively and literally,” he adds.
Jon almost smiles, but his gaze is still sober.
“At least we’ll have some precautions, I suppose,” Martin says hesitantly. “If we’re going to do this. Which…” He sighs. “I mean, I guess we are doing this, aren’t we?”
“We are,” Jon confirms. He reaches out across the desk, towards Martin. “But we’ll do it together.”
Martin grips Jon’s hand tightly. “Together,” he says, and it sounds like a promise.
Sasha nods, but she’s still sitting far too stiffly for her. Then Jane squeezes her shoulder without a word, and the last of Sasha’s tension finally drains away.
Tim takes a deep breath, one that he hopes will steady him, too. “So,” he says, standing up from the couch and clapping his hands together, “where do we start?”
“... Well,” Jon says slowly. “I was… planning to give my statement.” Reluctantly letting go of Martin’s hand, he pulls the tape recorder at the corner of his desk over to him, then peers back up at Tim. “Were you…?”
The breath Tim had taken is instantly torn from him, and he feels himself sway on his feet for a moment before he remembers how to stand. Right, he hears himself think, light and color swimming in front of his eyes. Knew there was a reason I was dreading Monday more than usual.
“Tim?” Someone touches his hand, limp by his side. “Tim? Are you all right?”
Just as quickly as he’d left, Tim is jolted back into himself. Furiously blinking, he jerks his head down and sees Sasha staring up at him, her gaze concerned.
He tries to smile at her, but it feels wrong on his face. “Just grand.”
Sasha’s expression doesn’t change. Tim’s almost disappointed, though he’s not sure if it’s because he didn’t convince her, or because he can’t even convince himself. Hell, could be both.
“Tim,” Jon says, quiet but firm. “I appreciate you offering to — to stand in solidarity with me; I really do. But I’m not going to make you give a statement if you don’t want to.”
“I told you I’d give it, okay?” Tim says sharply. “Look, we all know we can’t keep hiding these things from each other. And I’m not going to keep demanding that you or Sasha or whoever tell us all their secrets while I don’t say a word about —” His breath catches in his throat before he can finish, choking on that long-unspoken name.
Jon stares at him for a long time. It’s a familiar intensity, but there’s something about his gaze that makes Tim unaccountably uneasy right now. “Would it help,” he says, “if I asked?”
“‘Asked’?” Tim echoes. “In what — ?” He stops again, his mind finally catching up to his mouth. “... Like in an Archivist way, you mean.”
Jon’s gaze shifts guiltily.
Tim swallows. He remembers, then, how Sasha had looked as she’d given Jon her statement last Thursday: her body taut and shaking like a wire stretched too thin, with only her mouth completely unfettered as her pent-up words tumbled off her tongue. He’d been consumed with his own shock and bitterness at what she was saying to pay too much attention to how unsettling it all was in the moment, but now —
“You’re right,” Jon says, despite Tim not saying anything. “It’s... not a good idea.” He still isn’t looking at Tim. “We don’t know exactly what me being Archivist entails, and even if we did, I don’t want to use that power on —”
“I could ask.”
Tim looks back down at Sasha.
“I’m not the Archivist,” Sasha says quietly, “but I — I can still ask, the same way Jon does. To some extent.” She squeezes his hand slightly. “I’m not sure if it would be any better than Jon asking, but… it’s an option, if you want it.”
Tim considers it. It’s still not a comforting idea, no matter who asks him, but if it stops his feet from getting any colder —
“Okay,” he says dully, sinking back down on the couch beside her. “Let’s give it a shot.”
Sasha slowly nods, then she glances over at Jon. “Jon, you’ve got the recorder; can you —?”
“Oh, right. Yes.” Jon hits a button, and the tape recorder whirs to life.
Shifting her position on the couch to face him, Sasha takes both of his hands in hers. Her expression is serious, but there’s a flicker of fear in her eyes.
“Go ahead,” Tim says. He tries to smile again, tries to reassure both of them. This is Sasha, he tells himself. She’s your friend. She’s the last person who’d ever hurt you.
She knows some of it already. How hard could it be to tell her the rest?
Sasha inhales. “Tim,” she says, and her voice is quiet, but clear as a ringing bell. “Can you tell me about what happened to Danny?”
Danny. Tim’s jaw drops open just hearing the name.
“Sure,” he hears himself saying through the haze of static in his ears. He clears his throat, even though he strangely knows he doesn’t need to do that for him to be heard. “Statement of Timothy Stoker. On the disappearance of — of my brother. Danny.”
Tim doesn’t know how long he’s sat there, spinning out his awful story under Sasha’s steady gaze with his hands shaking in her grasp. But he does know when the tape recorder stops running.
Jon’s trembling hand falls away from the STOP button. “I think,” he says, his voice strained, “that’s enough of that.”
Sasha’s grip on his hands slackens. Her face is ashen, but behind her glasses, her eyes are bright.
Tim sucks in a breath, acutely aware of the air scraping its way down his raw throat. “Well,” he says with all the dryness he can muster, “that sucked.”
Sasha bites her lip, and the brightness in her eyes is suddenly snuffed out.
Tim sighs. “Not — not you,” he says. “You were trying to help. And the talking helped. I think.” He rubs one goosebump-covered forearm. “Everything I was talking about, though...”
Jon nods, but his face is still stricken. “God, Tim —” he breathes. “I’m so sorry. Looking at your CV, I never imagined —”
“Well, that was the idea,” Tim says wryly. “And it’s not like I told my old boss that I was flushing a promising publishing career down the drain because I wanted to hunt down a creepy Victorian murder clown.”
“‘Victorian’?” Martin asks, a furrow in his brow. “How do —”
“I did get somewhere, when I was first starting out. Landed a lead, but… couldn’t figure out how to follow up on it,” Tim says tiredly. “That clown was Joseph Grimaldi. A Covent Garden Theatre regular.” He snorts. “Or... something wearing his face.”
“Like the Not-Them,” Sasha says quietly. “How it wanted —” She swallows, unable to continue.
Tim’s hands drop into his lap as he stares at her, that hissing voice in the tunnels that was Danny and not Danny snaking through his head again. Skin, he thinks numbly. They wanted skin. They wanted to look like people. Act like them.
... But not quite.
“The Stranger,” he says. “The Not-Them, the — the thing pretending to be Grimaldi, they — they’re both with the Stranger.” The same entity that we’re trying to stop.
“I… think that’s a reasonable conclusion to make, yes.” Suddenly, Jon’s expression darkens even more. “That circus statement —”
“Leanne Denikin’s?” Tim interrupts. “Yeah, I’m pretty sure that’s connected as well — I mean, didn’t you stop to wonder why I had all the books on spooky circuses checked out of the Institute’s library?”
“Not that one,” Jon says hastily, “although considering that very same steam organ is currently locked up very tightly in Artifact Storage —”
(“God, really?” Martin says, dismayed.
“Of course it is,” Jane mutters.)
“ — I’m inclined to agree that there’s a connection,” Jon finishes. “But there’s another statement about that — that Circus of the Other.” He pauses. “One that Gertrude recorded.”
“What?” Tim says, trying not to sound too accusing. “When was this?”
“It was the first tape Basira gave me, from the boxes of tapes found with Gertrude’s body,” Jon says defensively. “I — I didn’t think much of it at the time, since it didn’t seem to add anything to my investigation into her murder, but now —”
“Yeah, it sure is relevant now,” Tim says dryly. “I mean… if Gertrude was looking into the Circus, they’ve got to be involved with the Stranger. And the Unknowing.”
“We should keep going through those tapes, then,” Jane says. “We’re bound to find something useful somewhere in there.”
“And in… just about everything of Gertrude’s we took from Elias’ office,” Martin adds.
Jon grimaces. “Clearly, we have a lot to sift through,” he comments. “We’re going to need a way to keep track of everything.”
“Why not go full-scale conspiracy board, red string and all?” Tim suggests, cracking a smile. “Worked well enough for us when we were still in Research.”
Much to his surprise and relief, Sasha laughs a little. “It’s... certainly appropriate.”
“Fantastic,” Tim says. “I’ll pop up to Research some time today and steal the largest cork board they have.” He pauses. “Wait, is the elevator to the basement still out?”
“Tim, the elevator’s been out for as long as we’ve worked down here,” Sasha says.
“All right: the largest cork board I can maneuver down the stairs without falling and dying, then,” Tim amends. “Martin, got any yarn you’re not using?”
Martin blinks. “I’ll check what I have and bring in some options tomorrow,” he says. “I... don’t think I have red, though. Magenta maybe, but not red.”
“As long as it’s bright and won’t unravel easily, we can use it.” Tim pauses. “Wait... this is your first conspiracy board, isn’t it?”
“It’s not something we generally did in the library,” Martin says. “So: yes.”
“I’ve never done one, either,” Jane adds. “For… obvious reasons.”
“Oh, you two are in for a treat,” Tim says, gleefully rubbing his hands together. “I’ll admit, using them gets tricky when you have evidence that you can’t exactly pin to a board, but they do provide a really nice visual.”
“I’m glad you’re all so excited about this,” Jon says wearily, “but just remember why we’re putting it together in the first place.”
Tim feels a muscle in his jaw twitch as his mood turns. “Trust me, Jon: I’m not going to forget.”
Jon instantly looks ashamed. “I — um — right.” Averting his gaze, he hits the EJECT button on the tape recorder and removes the tape.
“Mind if I keep that?” Tim asks suddenly. “I… don’t really want that going into the Archives proper.”
Jon looks up, wide-eyed and startled. “... Of course,” he says after a moment. “Yes, of course.” He holds out the tape.
Tim leans forward and takes it; it feels far too heavy for something so small. “Thanks.”
Jon nods. Pulling open one of his desk drawers, he retrieves another tape. Tim almost asks if it’s Gertrude’s tape about the Circus, but when Jon puts it in the recorder, he then remembers that Jon has yet to record his own statement.
“You don’t have to do this, either, you know,” he says. He knows it won’t change Jon’s mind, but Tim feels that it’s worth saying all the same. “Just because I pushed myself through it —”
Jon’s already shaking his head. “But you did it for me,” he says. “I’m not going to leave you alone in that choice now.” Hand poised over the tape recorder, he glances at Sasha.
“Do you really want me to ask?” Sasha already sounds resigned to it.
Jon’s mouth tightens. “I — I should know,” he says. “What it feels like.”
Sasha stares at him, aghast. “Jon —”
“Sasha, please,” Jon says, a note of desperation in his voice. “It’s already been hard enough for me to get to a place where I can talk about it, but I still need to actually talk.”
Sasha doesn’t look any more convinced, but she nods. Straightening up on the couch, she pushes her hair back behind her shoulders, then presses her hands down into her lap, the uncertainty slowly erasing itself from her face.
Then: “Jon.” There it is again: that quiet, clear bell of a voice that pushes up goosebumps on Tim’s skin all over again. “Can you give us your statement?”
Jon stiffens, as if trying to repress a shiver. Then he turns on the tape recorder. “Statement of Jonathan Sims, Head Archivist at the Magnus Institute, London.” He swallows, and Tim sees the fear growing in his eyes. “Regarding a — a childhood encounter with a book formerly possessed by Jurgen Leitner.”
After Jon finishes his statement, Martin can’t turn off the tape recorder fast enough. He’d probably damaged the mechanism of the STOP button with how hard he’d jabbed it, but that’s not his primary concern right now.
Jon lets out a long, shuddering sigh, his head collapsing into his hands. Rising from his seat, Martin walks around to the other side of the desk and, with only a moment of hesitation, places a hand on Jon’s shoulder. Jon’s shoulders slump, but he doesn’t shake off Martin’s hand: only shifts his own hands to anchor it in place.
Surprisingly, Jane breaks the silence first. “Small wonder you hate spiders.”
Jon chokes out a short, humorless laugh. “I — I was never very comfortable with them to begin with,” he admits, “but after that —”
“Jon, I’m so sorry,” Martin blurts out.
Puzzled, Jon cranes his neck to look up at him. “About what?”
Martin stares at him, his horror at his own past actions mounting. “About all those times I — I dismissed your fear of spiders?” he says. “About all those times I tried to convince you that spiders were good, and had a place in the ecosystem and — and —”
“Martin —” Jon tries.
“Oh my God, the Halloween decorations,” Martin groans. “I put up those — those tacky fake cobwebs, and you wouldn’t even go near that corner of the Archives the entire month! And then you told me to take them down and I —”
“Martin.” Jon’s hands wind around his hand a little more securely. “Martin, you didn’t know.” He smiles, but it’s too despairing to be a real smile. “I mean… how could you? I — I’ve never talked about this; you all are the first people I’ve ever told —”
“Still,” Martin insists. “I — I shouldn’t have pushed it. And I’m sorry.” I should have paid more attention. I should have figured out that something was wrong.
Jon’s smile grows a little less sad.
“I’m sorry, too, Jon,” Sasha says quietly. “Reading a Leitner is —” She swallows. “I mean, I wouldn’t wish it on anyone. Especially not one like that. And especially not you.”
Tim nods in silent agreement, but there’s a strange look on his face: one that Martin swears is regret. But over what?
“I — thank you,” Jon says quietly. “And thank you for — for asking.” He peers over the desk at her, suddenly concerned. “Are you… feeling all right? After that?”
“Um...” Despite how drained she looks, Sasha shrugs and smiles. “Yeah. Little tired, maybe, but nothing coffee and getting outside at lunch won’t fix.”
“Want to stretch your legs and help me steal that cork board from Research, then?” Tim offers. “I mean, no time like the present.”
Sasha’s smile shifts into something a little more genuine and a lot more grateful. “Absolutely.” She glances beside her. “Jane, do you —?”
“Yes.” Jane is already standing and opening the office door.
Sasha looks back at Jon. “I… guess we’re going to get that cork board, then,” she comments, standing and following Jane out.
Jon blinks. “Oh, uh — all right.”
“Don’t worry!” Tim says a little too brightly, getting to his feet. “We’ll get that cork board down the stairs in one piece if it’s the last thing we do.” And with that, he makes his exit and closes the office door behind all three of them.
Jon slumps over his desk; now Martin’s hand slips off his shoulder. “I — I shouldn’t have pushed Sasha like that,” he says quietly. “Or Tim.”
“You didn’t push anything,” Martin says. He considers putting his hand back on Jon’s shoulder, but dismisses it as too awkward, too insistent. “They made their choices, and their choices were to support you.”
Jon lets out a soft snort. “Does that change anything?” he asks. “I mean, what do our choices really mean, Martin? Can any good end be worth bad means?”
Martin frowns. “Come again?”
Jon sighs again, collapsing back against his chair. “Nothing,” he says. “Just… thinking about something that was said to me.”
Martin stays silent, not quite sure how to respond.
Jon swivels his chair around to face Martin. “Saying all this out loud,” he says slowly, “I — I’ve realized that, since then, I’ve lived with this terrible feeling. The feeling that if that boy hadn’t gotten involved, he might still be alive.” His already-unhappy expression becomes even bleaker. “Or if I had been able to face that — that thing myself, I could have saved him.”
Martin stares at him, stunned. “Jon,” he says. “You were —”
“Eight, I know,” Jon mutters. “What could I have done, even if I had known what I was facing? Which I still don’t,” he adds.
“But we’re going to find out,” Martin insists. “We’re going to learn all there is to know about these entities, and their rituals, and everything. And we’re going to use that knowledge to — to save the world.” He gives Jon what he hopes is an encouraging smile. “I mean... that choice matters, right? It has to.”
Jon stares up at him, his gaze still uncertain, but growing clearer. “I — I think it does,” he says. “I hope it will.”
Martin nods mutely. He realizes then, embarrassment creeping in, that he’s been standing too close to Jon for far longer than usual; he half-expects Jon to have said something by now. “Uh... do you want any tea?” he asks automatically.
He isn’t expecting Jon to jolt upright in his seat, as if he’s just remembered he left the stove on. “I suppose — actually, I —” he stammers. “Well, yes — but actually —”
“I mean, it’s no big deal if you don’t want one,” Martin says quickly, placatingly. “I was just going to put on the kettle, and I always like asking if anyone else besides me wants tea; I mean, I hardly want to be rude and —”
“Do you want to get lunch?”
Martin’s train of thought slams on the brakes, derails, then tumbles off a cliff.
“It doesn’t have to be today,” Jon adds, still stumbling over his words a bit. “Or this week. Or at all, if you don’t want to. I just thought…” He takes a deep breath, making eye contact with Martin. “Well. We haven’t really talked since Thursday, and… everything. So…”
Lunch, Martin thinks dazedly, his head still spinning. Me. Jon.
Wait. He frowns, realizing something else. Talking? Thursday? Talking about Thursday. What about Thursday? What about me and Jon and Thursday?
And then Martin remembers exactly what happened on Thursday. Or at least, the events of Thursday that Jon is most likely referring to.
And everything he’d confessed to Jon, about his feelings for Jon, on Thursday.
“Jon?” he blurts out. “Are you inviting me on a date?”
Oh no, Martin thinks. Oh no.
“I mean, it’s okay if it’s not,” he adds hastily. “A date, that is. I’d still love — er, like lunch. Eating it. With you, I mean. And I get it. Even if I like you and you like me, we’re still co-workers —” He laughs awkwardly. “Actually, you’re technically my boss, so I guess that makes it a little more weird —”
Jon’s hand wraps around his own hand. Surprised at the sudden, but gentle touch, Martin stops mid-sentence.
“Martin,” Jon starts. “I —” He clears his throat and straightens up, regaining some of his usual stiffness, but his gaze is still soft. “I… would very much like you to join me for lunch sometime. As a date.”
Martin’s breath catches in his throat.
“If... that’s something you’d like to do,” Jon amends, his expression worried.
Too overwhelmed to speak for a moment, Martin just squeezes Jon’s hand. “Yes,” he finally manages. “I — I’d really like that.”
“Oh.” Jon visibly perks up. “Is… this afternoon too sudden?”
Martin feels a smile spreading across his face. “I don’t think so?”
“Oh. Good.” And then Jon smiles: actually smiles.
Martin feels his heart skip a beat at the sight. It’s a poetic cliche; he knows that — but those exist for a reason, don’t they?
“And… Martin. If it makes you feel better,” Jon continues, that rare, wonderful smile turning charmingly wry, “I think we have much bigger things to worry about right now than Institute HR.”
Martin laughs. “I guess,” he admits sheepishly. “But…” He’s smiling now, too; he can feel it and it feels good. “I’m not going to worry about any of those other things until after lunch.”
“Seriously, Sasha: how are you feeling?”
Sasha falters, almost catching one foot under the wheel of the cork board stand, but she recovers quickly. “Really, Tim, I’m fine,” she says. “Like I said: just a little tired.”
Tim gives her a dubious look around the other side of the cork board. “Sasha —”
“Tim,” Sasha says firmly, struggling to keep the cork board rolling along. “Look, I — I appreciate you asking, but —”
“I didn’t even know you could do what Jon does,” Tim says. “How long have you been able to do that, anyway?” How long have you been keeping this secret?
Sasha swallows. “Not long. Not as far as I know,” she says quietly. “I’ve only ever compelled someone on accident, but now —”
“ — you’ve done it, and meant to do it.” Jane grabs the frame of the cork board, holding it in place and halting both Sasha and Tim, her face gravely concerned. “Twice.”
“I know, Jane.” Sasha exhales hard, her hands clenching around the cork board. “I know I shouldn’t have done it; I shouldn’t have asked —”
“No, we shouldn’t have asked you in the first place,” Tim cuts in. “And I shouldn’t have let you. I mean,” he says, trying not to sound so harsh, “I remember how wretched Jon looked when he first started recording statements; it must be awful for you —”
Tim frowns, taken aback. “What do you —?”
“It isn’t,” Sasha repeats, with far more urgency. “I feel — I mean, it’s draining, at first. But… then I feel fine. I feel —” She stops, her face pale and her eyes bright.
Tim’s stomach turns at the sight. Still, he has to know. “You feel…”
“I feel good, Tim.” Sasha’s mouth twists. “Sated. And you —” She takes a trembling breath. “You don’t get anything out of me asking you to talk: not even the relief of talking. Just — just the fear of my question.”
Tim wishes he could tell Sasha that she’s wrong, that she had helped him: just as she always had, just as she probably always would. But the way the light of the atrium reflects in her bright eyes reminds him of the burning heat and color of stage lights, illuminating imperfect skins and hastily-painted faces, and the words shrivel and die in his mouth.
A scarred, slightly-too-cool hand nudges his grip on the cork board loose, and Tim realizes that Jane’s taking it from him. “I can help her get this downstairs,” she tells him in an undertone. “I think Sasha needs to —”
“Yep. Right,” Tim manages. “No problem.”
Jane nods, her eyes dark. Then she wheels the cork board around, rolling her end towards the basement stairs first, with Sasha, once at the front, now following her without protest. Tim watches them pick up the cork board’s frame and start carrying it, one halting step at a time, down the stairs, and then they are lost to his view.
Tim swallows. Jane’s got this, he tries to tell himself. She can talk Sasha through this; she knows what it’s like to be — to be like that.
Still. He’s been shut out, again — but this time, knowing why Sasha isn’t opening up to him doesn’t make it any easier.
Turning away from the basement stairs, Tim drifts back across the atrium: not to the stairs leading to higher levels, but to one of the twin hallways on this level. He wanders down to where the hallways bend and meet, to the wooden double doors, and peers through the warped glass panes. Despite the lingering mist, this morning’s rain seems to have stopped, so he wrenches open one of the doors and steps outside.
When Tim first started working at the Institute, he couldn’t believe that more of his coworkers wouldn’t take their lunches outdoors and into the back courtyard. As small as it is, shrunk even further by the high brick walls sequestering it from the street, the courtyard is strangely picturesque. Cobblestone paths ring well-pruned bushes and low-growing flowers, leading to a quietly bubbling stone fountain at the center of the courtyard’s garden. Between the spreading branches of a single sturdy planetree and the shadow of the Institute itself, the courtyard is always cool and dappled in shade, even in the hottest of summers. Aside from what suspiciously looks like an old, burned-in scorch mark at the base of the wall in the garden’s far corner, the courtyard seems a surprisingly pleasant place, especially considering it’s the Institute’s.
It had taken Tim a few months of solo lunches to realize why the Institute’s employees never lingered in the back courtyard. There was no gate leading out to the street: just uniform, unbroken wall fencing the whole courtyard in. The only way in and out of the courtyard was through the Institute itself.
Tim snorts. Fitting. He meanders down the path to the fountain and sits on its broad edge; the stone is mostly dry, but its chill cuts through to his bones. No way out unless Elias dies… and even then, we’d all leave in body bags.
It had all turned out so terribly ironic. He’d come to the Institute in the first place to get answers, maybe even justice if he could, but all he’d gotten was complacent, comfortable, forgetful. And now, he could get both answers and justice, at the cost of never leaving and always knowing that there would always be more horrors out there than could be fathomed: always more to watch him, always more to fear.
Sasha’s bright eyes swim back into his memory again, and Tim drops his head into his hands, blinking past the sudden stinging of his own eyes. He’s never forgotten Danny. He’s never stopped missing him, never stopped wishing he could have sat up with him until sunrise instead of falling asleep and letting them both slip into a nightmare there was no waking up from. But, as ashamed as he is to admit it to himself, he had forgotten how much it had hurt to lose him: first the confusion, then the panic, then the horror, then the fear —
— and then nothing. Just him, alone in front of the Royal Opera House with the night air freezing the tears on his face and the only evidence he had crumbling to ash in his hands. Just him, alone in a room full of eyes that should have felt friendlier, with the air hissing with the slow, deliberate spooling of the tape recorder.
Just him. Alone.
“Are you quite all right?”
Tim’s head jerks up.
Standing on the main path to the fountain is a tall, pale, dark-haired woman dressed all in white.
Tim eyes her suspiciously. Jon hadn’t described the new head of the Institute when he’d given his brief account of his morning, but Tim has a pretty strong suspicion that she is who he’s looking at. “You must be the new boss,” he states flatly.
The pale woman smiles. “I am indeed,” she says. “And you must be one of Jon’s assistants.” She tilts her head, studying him with a strangely lightless gaze. “Are you Martin Blackwood, or are you Timothy Stoker?”
Tim straightens instantly, his shoulders stiffening. “How did you —?”
“I’m planning on touring the different departments of this Institute this afternoon, so I familiarized myself with the organizational chart,” Nora says smoothly. “Say what you will about Elias, but the man was nothing if not thorough.”
Trust me: I’m sure you don’t want to hear what I have to say about Elias. “Not planning to visit the Archives, are you?” Tim asks darkly.
“Oh, I’m not,” Nora says. “Jon made his opinion on my presence there very clear, and I intend to respect it. I’ve never had trouble keeping my distance, and that’ll hardly change now.” She pauses. “Cassandra, on the other hand, has never been very good with boundaries, but I’ll try to rein her in.”
Tim snorts. “Yeah, well. Try harder.” He stands up, heading past Nora towards the door back into the Institute.
Nora slightly shifts her weight to one leg, but doesn’t directly step into his way. “Have you also had prior experience with my family?” she asks. “You and Jon seem similarly… reluctant to associate with me.”
Tim pauses mid-step, remembering Jon’s fingers frozen over the hollow of his throat, and his jaw tightens. “Wonder why that could be.”
Nora smiles that same closed-mouth, cold-eyed smile. “Please don’t misconstrue my question as an indictment; I have no objection to your avoidance,” she says. “In many ways, it makes this so much easier.”
Tim’s stomach suddenly sinks. Of course it does, he realizes. Avoidance. Isolation. Loneliness. That’s what Jon says her god feeds on: what she wants from us.
… But I’m sure as hell not going to give it to her on a silver platter.
“Yeah, for you and me both,” he says, crossing his arms. “But, it also makes it harder for you to work with us. If,” Tim adds, “working with us to stop the Unknowing is really what you want to do.”
Nora’s eyebrows rise. “It is.”
“Well. Good,” Tim says bitingly. “Because that’s what I want, too. And as much as I hate to admit it, we might need all the help we can get.” He pauses. “That is, if you’re serious about that offer.”
Nora gives him a long, silent, searching look. Tim meets her black gaze, waiting impatiently for her answer.
(Truth be told, he has no idea what he’s hoping will win out here: her professed desire for solitude, or her supposed desire to help them. Either way, he doesn’t know if there’s a way for him, or the Archives as a whole, to win.)
Unexpectedly, Nora’s smile widens, showing teeth. “You will need help.” She brushes past him in a rush of frigid air, settling on the edge of the fountain. “And should you ask for mine, you shall receive it.”
Tim turns and stares at her, waiting for her to continue. But Nora says nothing more: just produces a silver cigarette case and lighter from somewhere on her person and selects a cigarette without acknowledging him further.
Mouth flattening, Tim turns back around to head inside. He’d had enough conversations like this to know that this one wasn’t going anywhere — and besides, it was growing too cold to be out here without a jacket.
“You never did tell me which one you are.”
Tim wearily pivots back to face her. “Come again?”
“Which of Jon’s assistants you are.” Nora’s chosen cigarette is lit now, balanced between two fingers as she takes a steady drag. “Are you Martin, or are you Timothy?”
Tim once again fights the urge to wince — even when Danny had jokingly called him that in some overblown posh accent, even when he himself had said it when giving his statement, he’s never liked the sound of his full name. “The latter,” he says shortly. “Although it’s Tim.”
“Tim.” Smoke curls from Nora’s mouth as she speaks, floating up past the fountain and into the grey sky. “You seem to be a man of great loyalty. So, I’ll ask you this: if Jon won’t ask outright for my aid, would you consider asking on his behalf?”
Tim stares at her, temporarily at a loss for words. “Absolutely not,” he says. “You know damn well what Jon’s opinion is about you. I do, too, and I agree with it.” His voice is rising, echoing strangely in the too-still air. “And I’m not about to try and change his mind, or go behind his back, or —”
“And I don’t expect you to, unless the situation is so dire as to demand it,” Nora cuts in. “Jon may be the Archivist, but he is still growing into his power. And in pursuit of the Stranger, he may very well find himself in a corner he can’t talk his way out of.” Her tone is idle, even light, but her eyes are as dark and impenetrable as ever. “As one closer to him than I, all I expect you to do is to look out for his best interests.”
“And I will,” Tim retorts. “Just as long as they’re his and not yours.”
I’ve already failed to look out for two people too many, he thinks as he turns on his heel and stalks away from Nora, squaring his shaking shoulders against the deepening chill of the courtyard. Failed to protect them from what they feared.
But I’m not going to fail a third.
Chapter 3: Insight
Regarding follow-up interviews with Jurgen Leitner and Melanie King.
Content warnings are in the end notes.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
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.”
CW: Hospitals, intentional and malicious use of Beholding powers, semi-graphic description of a wound.
All of the additional epithets for the Slaughter are my own inventions, except for Sparagmos (because I really love The Bacchae.)
Chapter 4: Into the Fire
Regarding shared information, and a risky opportunity.
Wow... this chapter really took me a month to write, huh? (Granted, I was on "vacation" for a week, and then I was
and still amwrestling with some medical issues for an additional week and counting, but even so, thank you all for your patience!)
Recommended Listening: "Palace" by Dessa
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
When Jon finally finishes his hesitant, halting explanation after what seems like an age, Melanie doesn’t speak for an even longer time: just stares at him in incredulous silence.
Then: “... Are you kidding me?”
Jon sighs. “Now you see why I didn’t want to have this conversation over dinner.”
“Too late for that,” Melanie says dryly. “Besides, the food is the only thing keeping this conversation even close to bearable.” As she’s speaking, she carves off another chunk of the rigatoni casserole on her plate, but doesn’t spear it with her fork. “But… seriously?”
Jon raises his eyebrows.
“I mean, it’s not like I’ve come up with a more believable explanation for all the weird shit I’ve seen in the past two years,” Melanie amends. “But this…” She trails off, looking over at Georgie. “What do you think?”
Georgie shrugs. “You’ve been a guest on What the Ghost before; you know I’ll believe anything.”
“Yeah, on air,” Melanie retorts. “What about off?”
“Not everything,” Georgie says wryly. She glances at Jon, sobering slightly. “But… I believe this.”
“‘This’ being ‘eldritch gods control the world and eat our fear and sometimes choose people to carry out their evil bidding’?” Melanie snorts. “I mean, that sounds —”
“Oh, I know how it sounds,” Jon says tiredly. “And believe me, I didn’t take it any better than you when I was told.” In fact, I took it much worse.
“How did you find out?” Melanie asks, scooping up some of her rigatoni with her fork. “I’m guessing the ‘monsters are real’ talk wasn’t part of the Institute’s employee onboarding process.”
“Jane.” Jon picks up his knife and fork and starts cutting away at his as-yet untouched rigatoni; while he isn’t feeling particularly hungry, he hardly wants Georgie and Melanie’s cooking to go to waste. “She used to be an avatar of one of these powers. The Corruption.”
“Not the same one that controls the Institute?” Melanie asks through a mouthful of rigatoni.
“Um… decidedly not,” Jon says with a short, shaky laugh. “The Institute belongs to the Eye. It’s focused on knowledge and observation and… well, watching.” He takes a small bite of the rigatoni, chewing and swallowing it quickly before hurrying on. “That’s the one I… apparently serve. As does Cass.”
Melanie pauses mid-chew, her expression souring at the mention of Cass. “So… you can do that… mind-reading thing, too?” she asks. “Just look at someone and —”
“No, I — I have to ask,” Jon says slowly. He reaches for his glass and takes a sip of water, but his throat is suddenly tight. “If I ask a question, people are… compelled to answer me. Tell me whatever they know, whatever I want to know.”
Melanie swallows hard. “The statements,” she says. “The ones that the Archives takes; are those —?”
Jon just nods.
Then Melanie frowns. “My statements?”
“... Probably,” Jon admits. “Not that I was aware of it at the time, but —”
“I’m not sure if I was, either. Not really.” Still, Melanie’s expression is dark. “When Cass looked at me, I felt that, but you...” She sighs, her shoulders jerking up in a stiff shrug. “I mean, I guess I felt a little off afterwards. And I had some really awful dreams, but… I don’t know; I guess I chalked all that up to those experiences being fresh in my memory.”
Jon averts his gaze, guilt twisting his stomach.
“Wait.” Melanie leans over the table and back into his field of vision, her eyes narrowed. “Cambridge Military Hospital. Was what I saw — is that related to these —?”
“Yes,” Jon says quickly, grateful for the change in subject. “I mean, I don’t know about whatever spectre attacked Sarah Baldwin, but Sarah herself —”
“Sarah?” Georgie glances at Melanie. “The sound engineer I recommended?”
“That’s the one.” Melanie starts sawing at her rigatoni again.
Georgie’s forehead furrows. “What about her?”
“Well, for starters,” Jon says, “she’s been missing since August 2006.”
Melanie freezes. “What?”
“But I met her at a networking event a few years back,” Georgie insists. “I told you as much when you called to follow up on Melanie’s statement.”
“That was… very likely not Sarah,” Jon says slowly. “May have looked like her, certainly, but —”
“The skin.” Melanie’s grip on her knife and fork slackens, a strained expression on her face. “Are you saying that something was wearing her —?”
Melanie is cut off by a loud, insistent meow as the Admiral jumps up onto the table and immediately pads over to sniff at Melanie’s water glass.
“Admiral, no,” Melanie says, but there’s no sternness to her words as she tries to nudge him away. “You know you’re not supposed to be on the table —”
“I’ve got him.” Standing up just enough to lean across the table, Georgie lifts the indignant Admiral off the table, then sits back down and settles him in her lap. “Okay, what’s this about skin?” she asks.
Melanie sighs. “So… when we were filming at CMH, I —” She pauses awkwardly, then barrels on. “I kind of saw her peel off her skin? And then staple it back on.”
Georgie blinks. “... Oh.”
“Yep.” Melanie turns her attention back to her rigatoni.
Georgie’s concerned frown deepens. “You… didn’t mention that before.”
“Yeah, well, I didn’t mention it to anyone. For a year,” Melanie says matter-of-factly. “And then when I did finally talk about it —” she gestures at Jon with her fork “— my story was deemed ‘too unbelievable’ by a place that does believe in that kind of thing, so it wasn’t like I was going to be believed by anyone else. And then I waded into all the war ghost stuff, and...” Melanie shrugs. “I mean, you know all about that bit.” Her mouth cracks into a dry grin. “Not like I moved in with my soon-to-be girlfriend after Ghost Hunt UK fell apart or anything.”
“No, not like that at all,” Georgie says teasingly, returning her smile.
Melanie’s smile turns slightly guilty. “I — I’m sorry I didn’t tell you about it before; I really am. If you’d worked with her again after that and something —” Her voice falters. “And I guess… my course kind of shifted. And I sort of forgot about what got me started down that road in the first place.” She swallows. “Guess it was just easier to focus on the ghost part than — than whatever Sarah was.”
Uprooting a hand from where it had been buried in the Admiral’s fur, Georgie reaches out and gives Melanie’s hand a slow squeeze, her gaze sympathetic. Neither of them say anything, but Jon notices that Melanie’s shoulders slowly lose their stiffness at Georgie’s touch.
Once Georgie lets go, it takes a moment for Melanie to speak again. “Does Sarah have anything to do with — with whatever evil god is in charge of war ghosts?” she asks Jon. “I mean, I’m assuming there is one.”
“There is.” Jon takes another quick bite of rigatoni while he still has his appetite. “But it’s not the same one that Sarah — or whatever’s wearing her skin — is aligned with. That would be the Stranger: things that are human or — or alive and real, but not quite. Clowns, mannequins, taxidermy —”
“Major uncanny valley material. Got it.” Despite her wry tone, Melanie’s grin is entirely gone now. “What’s the war ghost god, then?”
“The Slaughter,” Jon says simply. “It’s fueled by — by just pure violence. Unpredictable, unmotivated violence, like…” He looks over at her expectantly. “Well, like what you were following up on. In India.”
Melanie’s jaw tightens. “Why do you want to hear about that so badly, Jon?”
“Um —” Jon hesitates. He knows he must have had a reason — a good, solid reason — but he can’t think of what it might have been for the life of him. “I — I thought we had a deal?” he offers weakly. “Sort of?”
“Maybe, but there isn’t really much I want to talk about.” Melanie abruptly drops her knife and fork onto her plate, and the clatter of silverware nearly startles the Admiral out of Georgie’s lap. “I got shot by a ghost — a whole mass of really angry ghosts, actually, with very real guns — and that’s all you need to know. Because it hurt like hell to live through, and I didn’t do it so you could stroke your chin and call it fascinating.”
“I wasn’t —” Jon protests. “That wasn’t my —”
“Don’t kid yourself, Jon,” Melanie says flatly. “Ask Cass for her insight, if you’re really that curious, but don’t ask me.”
Jon’s mouth snaps shut. He thinks he remembers his reason now — but he’s also uncomfortably aware that his curiosity wasn’t entirely his.
“Fair enough,” he says quietly. He gingerly sets his own knife and fork down, folding his hands on the table. “I — I did, actually. Ask Cass, that is.”
Melanie leans back in her chair, crossing her arms. “And?”
Jon takes a deep breath, readying himself for any reaction. “When you were shot,” he finally says, “you were marked. By the Slaughter.”
Melanie stares at him, disbelief and dread in her eyes. “But the bullet —”
“It’s still in your leg,” Jon says. “Not physically, but it’s there.” His fingers twist a little more tightly around each other. “I can’t see it, but — but Cass could.”
Once again, Melanie doesn’t speak for a long time; Georgie is quiet as well. Jon fights the urge to look away, to look down at his hands, but he’s also careful to avoid both of their gazes.
Then: “So… what does that mean for me?” Melanie asks, her voice heavy and hard. “Am I going to die, or — or what?”
“I don’t think it’ll kill you,” Jon says carefully. “But I think that you might… change, somehow. Maybe become more like — like how I am with the Eye, or —”
“Great,” Melanie says bitterly. “Just great.”
Jon sighs. “Melanie, I’m sorry; I really am —”
“Just — just stop,” Melanie snaps. “Stop apologizing. Your words can’t do anything about —” Her voice breaks, and the surge of anger in it suddenly ebbs, receding into something close to despair.
Now, Jon looks away.
Exhaling shakily, Melanie pushes her chair back and stands up.
“Melanie?” Georgie asks, concerned.
“I — I’m just going to take a walk. Try to clear my head.” Melanie tries to give her a reassuring smile, but to Jon, it just looks like she’s close to tears. “Be back in a bit.”
Jon doesn’t say anything: just watches with a lump in his throat as Melanie exits the kitchen. The Admiral launches himself out of Georgie’s lap and barrels after Melanie, but despite the cat’s plaintive meowing, Jon still hears the rustling of a jacket being grabbed and pulled on, then the click of the lock as the front door opens and closes.
Eventually, Georgie breaks the silence. “Help me clean up?” she asks, getting up from the table. Her tone is light, but her gaze is still far away.
“Oh, um — yes. Of course.” Startled, Jon glances down at his plate and his half-eaten rigatoni casserole; what he’d managed to eat was excellent, but he can’t bring himself to finish the rest right now. “Do you mind if I —?”
“Go ahead and raid the cabinet.” Georgie grabs her own plate and Melanie’s and takes them both over to the kitchen counter. “And honestly, take whatever you want; we’ve got way too many of those little containers.”
Jon almost laughs at that, but it sticks in his throat. Swallowing, he gets up with his plate and silently follows Georgie into the kitchen. Setting his plate down on the counter, he crouches down, opens up one of the cabinets, and carefully sticks his arm in to grab an appropriately-sized container and lid. Then Jon stands and sets about moving the leftover rigatoni off his plate and into the container.
Sealing the container tightly, Jon turns around with his empty plate. Georgie is leaning over the open dishwasher, fitting the cleared-off plates into the bottom rack.
Jon clears his throat. “Will Melanie —?”
“Leave her be, Jon.” Georgie’s tone is firm, but far from unkind. “I think she needs some space right now. And some time to process everything you just told her.”
“That’s — that’s true,” Jon admits. His hands clench around the edges of his plate. “I’m just —”
“I know,” Georgie says quietly. “So am I.” Straightening up, she reaches out to take his plate and silverware. “But I think the best thing we can do right now is to be there for her on her terms: not with whatever we think she needs.”
Jon nods. “... Right.”
A hush falls over the kitchen for a moment, broken only by the clinking of plates against each other as Georgie finishes loading the dishwasher. The Admiral pads back into the kitchen, leaping onto Jon’s vacated chair and curling up there. Jon just stands awkwardly in the middle of the kitchen, then he sees the two pans of half-eaten rigatoni casserole resting on the stovetop and retreats back to the cabinet for more containers.
“How are you doing?” he asks once he’s laid out the containers and their lids on the counter. “I — I didn’t just tell Melanie that monsters were real; you heard it all, too.”
Georgie sighs. “To be honest?” She closes the dishwasher and fiddles with the buttons to get it started. “It… wasn’t that much of a shock.”
Jon pauses, looking over at Georgie in surprise. “Really?”
Georgie leans back against the now-active dishwasher, fingers drumming on the counter on either side. Her forehead is once again furrowed in troubled thought. “Those gods, or powers, or, however you call them,” she says slowly. “Is there one whose domain is death?”
“Um, I — I think so.” Jon frowns. “Why?”
Georgie looks him dead in the eye. She doesn’t say a word, but Jon doesn’t need to hear her voice to know that she has a story to tell: only the tell-tale sound of crackling static.
“Oh,” is all he says. “Oh.”
Georgie just nods. “... Yeah.” Something in her gaze shifts. “Do you… want me to tell you?”
Jon considers it, and he hears the static surge as he does. But then he swallows hard, wincing at the whining pop of his eardrums as he wrestles himself away from the knowledge pulling him in.
“... No,” he manages, not without effort. “I — I shouldn’t.”
Georgie tilts her head, questioning.
“It’s not that I don’t want to hear about it,” Jon says quickly. “I just — I don’t think I should be the first person you tell it to.” He inhales, gathering his thoughts. “But it might help Melanie? If you wanted to tell her. And I know you said that we shouldn’t assume we know best, or anything like that,” he adds, “but… it couldn’t hurt for her to know she’s not alone in all this.”
Georgie nods again, more thoughtful. Pushing herself away from the counter, she picks up the spatula between the pans of rigatoni casserole and hands it to Jon.
Suddenly grateful to have something to do, Jon starts carefully transferring sections of the casserole from one of the pans into the food containers.
“How about you, Jon?” Georgie grabs another spatula from the jar of kitchen utensils by the stovetop. “I mean, you’ve been marked by one of these entities, too.”
“Um —” Jon finally gets a laugh out, but it’s a nervous, strangled sound. “Could be better.”
Georgie raises her eyebrows. “That’s... not encouraging.”
“I know,” Jon says wearily. “Unfortunately, it’s the truth.” He snaps a lid on the container he just finished filling, then sets it aside. “Remember how I mentioned the Stranger before?”
“Mm-hmm.” Georgie reaches over and grabs one of the empty containers, then gets to work on storing the other pan of rigatoni.
“Well,” Jon says slowly, “the people or — or beings belonging to it are trying to perform a ritual. The Unknowing.” He scrapes out the last scraps of the rigatoni into another container, then closes that one as well. “If it succeeds, it’ll… remake the world in the Stranger’s image. And I —” He exhales. “Well, I’m trying to stop it.”
Georgie pauses mid-scoop, glancing up at him. “Jonathan Sims,” she asks, the ghost of a smile on her face, “are you trying to save the world?”
This time, his laugh feels a bit more natural. “I — I guess I am,” Jon admits. “I mean, everyone in the Archives is, but… yes. I suppose so.” Dropping his spatula into the empty pan, he takes both of the sealed containers over to the fridge and slides them inside. “It’s all we’ve been researching for the past couple of months, but for every scrap of information we dig up, it seems harder and harder to see how it all fits together.” He snorts, letting the fridge door fall shut. “Not to mention we’re covertly investigating our new boss and her assistant —”
“And why is that?” Georgie asks dryly, turning around with her sealed container of rigatoni.
“Because I don’t trust either of them.” Jon takes the last of the rigatoni from Georgie and returns to the fridge. “Cass… well, you know what she did to Melanie.” He puts the rigatoni in with the rest of the leftovers, then shuts the fridge door again. “And Nora’s family is close to our old boss, Elias, who is —” Jon grimaces “— currently imprisoned for murdering my predecessor as Archivist.”
That actually seems to take Georgie aback. “Well. Shit.”
Jon exhales. “... Yeah.”
Georgie’s quiet for a moment as she takes the empty pans over to the sink. Jon watches her fill both pans up with soapy water, the sound of rushing water washing away what static still lingered in his hearing.
“This might sound a bit obvious, but… is quitting an option?” Georgie tentatively asks, shutting off the faucet. “I know you’re on a mission to save the world and I know the job market isn’t great, but even without the fear god factor, the Institute sounds like an incredibly dysfunctional workplace.”
“I can’t quit,” Jon says heavily.
Georgie turns around, dismayed. “Jon, this isn’t —”
“And it’s not that I don’t want to,” Jon adds quickly, even though he isn’t quite sure if that’s even true. “It’s that I can’t. None of us can. We’re all bound to the Institute — and to Elias, somehow.”
“Even though he’s in jail?” Georgie asks.
“It’s why he’s in jail,” Jon says simply. “If he dies… so do we.”
Georgie stares at him, stunned.
“I know.” Jon lets out a small, bitter laugh. “I — I know I screwed up. I’m really in over my head here, Georgie, and I — I honestly don’t know what to do.” His voice breaks on that last word, and his eyes burn. “And every time I do feel like I know something, I don’t know if that’s me or if it’s — if it’s what the Eye wants me to become —”
Jon doesn’t know when Georgie left the sink and came to him, but when her arm wraps around his back and her hand presses between his shaking shoulders, he all but collapses into her. Propping his chin on her shoulder, Jon closes his eyes, feeling a few frustrated tears run down his face. Georgie’s other arm curls around him then, and he feels his spine push against it with his every labored breath, letting the comforting weight of her touch calm him.
Lately, he’s felt more and more like sand, relentlessly shifted and sculpted by a strange tide. But Georgie has always been bedrock: solid, steady, certain. Even after all the time they’d spent apart, not even time could erode that strength at the core of her.
Jon hadn’t wanted to fall back on her like this, hadn’t wanted to burden her again with all his doubts and bad decisions. But she’d caught him all the same.
Georgie finally speaks. “Just… just please tell me that I’m not the first person you’re telling about this, either,” she says quietly. “Because as bad as this is, that’s about the only thing I can think of that would make this situation even worse.”
Jon straightens up, frowning. “... What do you mean?”
Georgie exhales. “You said before it’s not just you trying to save the world. You’ve got people helping you with that.” She takes a half-step back to look up at him, one hand still pressed against his back. “And if you’re worried about turning into something inhuman, well… you should have people helping you with that, too. Anchors.”
“All my anchors are in this just as deep as I am,” Jon says wryly, sadly. For a moment, he thinks of Jane, screaming and thrashing on the floor of the tunnels as the Hive tried to take her back. “Some of them have been even deeper, and they’ve barely made it out.”
“All the more reason to talk to them, then,” Georgie says matter-of-factly.
Jon sighs. “Georgie —”
“Jon.” Georgie meets his gaze. “You came here tonight because you knew what Melanie was going through, and you didn’t want her to do it alone.” Her expression is serious, but her words are gentle. “Don’t do this alone, either.”
Jon inhales shakily, blinking back a few more tears. “Okay,” he manages. “I — I’ll try.”
Georgie smiles. Then suddenly, her smile turns into a frown.
“What?” Jon asks, then stops, a strange foreboding coming over him. At the edge of his hearing, static crackles once again.
“Do you hear that?” Stepping away from him fully now, Georgie goes to the kitchen window and looks out. “Weirdly late in the day for an ice cream van to be driving around, isn’t it?”
Now Jon can catch what she’s hearing: an upbeat, but uncanny melody, faint now, but growing faster and faster with each new hiss of static in his hearing.
All of the breath leaves Jon’s lungs. “That’s not —”
“Jon?” Georgie looks back at him, alarmed.
“Calliope —” Jon breathes. “Outside, but — but how —?” I thought it was in —
Then the full weight of his words sinks in, punching right through his skin.
The Circus. Outside. Jon sprints out of the kitchen and towards the front door, heart pounding in time with the jangling beat of the calliope. Melanie. Outside. The Circus —
“Jon?” Georgie runs after him. “Jon!”
“Melanie —” Jon gasps, grabbing for the doorknob. “She’s —”
The front door opens on him.
Melanie stands on the threshold, clearly startled. “Jon? What —?”
“Are you okay?” Jon demands desperately. “The music, outside —”
“Yeah, I heard it on my way back,” Melanie says, stepping inside and around Jon. “Good to know it’s not just me imagining things.” She looks at him, her confusion turning to concern. “Christ, are you all right? You look like you’ve seen a ghost — or something.”
Jon exhales, looking back and forth between Georgie and Melanie. The static within his ears — and the strains of calliope music outside — have both faded away, but his fear remains.
“It — it was something,” he manages. “Something very, very bad.” He grabs his coat. “I’m sorry, but I’ve got to go.”
“Go where?” Melanie asks incredulously.
“Institute.” Jon skirts around Melanie and steps out the front door. “I need to check on something.”
“Jon, come on,” Georgie protests. “It’s nearly eight —”
“I’m really sorry, Georgie,” Jon says, hastily yanking on his coat, “and — and thank you so much for dinner, but — but this can’t wait.” He swallows hard. “The Stranger’s done waiting.”
“How the hell does someone smuggle a calliope out of Artifact Storage without anyone noticing?” Tim asks incredulously.
“I really don’t know, Tim,” Jon says with a sigh. “Much like the Archives, Artifact Storage has no security cameras, but elsewhere…” He trails off. “Honestly, if this wasn’t so worrying, I think I might be a little impressed.”
Martin hums in agreement. “Proper locked-room mystery.”
“Well, good for the Circus for stealing their creepy calliope back and putting an Agatha Christie plot to shame,” Tim says sarcastically. “Where does that leave us?”
“At least Sonja’s focused on that now,” Sasha says wearily. “She was still trying to figure out who destroyed the table; maybe she’ll forget to return to investigating that once this calliope business blows over.”
Tim just shrugs.
Jane finishes scribbling an addendum on one of the notecards pinned to the cork board. “Do we think it was Breekon and Hope?” she asks, craning her head around to address the others. “They stole the calliope from Leanne Denikin in the first place. And they were probably the ones to take the calliope to the Institute, too.”
“That seems likely,” Martin says. “I mean, they also delivered the table to the Institute; maybe they hoped someone would stumble across the calliope and —” He stops, glancing at Sasha. “Well. That... something bad would happen.”
Sasha swallows. Or something worse.
“I agree,” Jon says. “Trojan Horses — or tables, or calliopes — do seem to be the Stranger’s modus operandi.”
“You can just say M.O., you know,” Tim says dryly. “You know: like someone who didn’t go to Oxford?”
Jon shoots Tim a fondly irritated look that Sasha, barely repressing her smile, instantly recognizes from many lively debates during their Research days. “That’s what you have an issue with? Not the ‘Trojan Horse’ bit?”
“I’m just saying, people are more likely to know some general things about Greek mythology than know Latin,” Tim replies with a grin. “Although in your defense, the main source for the Trojan Horse story is the Aeneid. Which is in Latin!”
“In any case,” Jon says, pointedly ignoring Tim and turning to Jane, “I think you’re correct in assuming that point of connection.”
Jane nods. Picking up one of Martin’s balls of yarn from the basket by the cork board, she pulls out a strand, cuts it, and then carefully pins it to the cork board, connecting two notecards reading calliope and Breekon & Hope.
Jon exhales, clapping his hands together. “Right. I think that’s all the updates we have for today.” He pauses, glancing meaningfully down at the floor. “Unless —?”
Sasha shakes her head. The five of them haven’t been regularly convening in the tunnels since everything that happened with Melanie and Cass — partly because they’d since figured out that Cass’ power didn’t seem to be as wide-ranging as Elias’, partly because no one had managed to find out much of anything about Cass or Nora — but Jon nevertheless has kept using their old signal, just in case.
Tim shrugs again. “I’ve got nothing.”
“Same here,” Martin says.
“And here,” Jane adds.
Jon nods. “Right.” He pauses, then takes his glasses off and polishes them on the hem of his shirt. “While we’re all here…” He sighs. “What I’m about to say might sound… counterintuitive, but, just — just hear me out.” He slides his glasses back on. “I think... it might be time for us to start including Nora and Cass in our investigation into the Unknowing.”
Sasha blinks; she doesn’t know what she’d expected Jon to say, but it certainly wasn’t that. And glancing around, she can see that she’s far from alone in her surprise — or in her wariness.
Jane’s eyes narrow. “Why?”
“Because,” Jon says slowly, “if they feel like they’re in the loop, they might not feel the need to — to just barge into the Archives whenever they please and —” His mouth tightens. “Well. The last thing I want is a repeat of what happened to Melanie. And even though this means we’ll be closer to Nora and Cass than is comfortable, at least we have a chance of keeping an eye on them this way.”
“And,” Tim says, raising a finger to interject, “if Nora assumes that we’ve finally yielded and asked for her help — like she wants — she might let her guard down. And that would also be helpful for finding out more about her, and Cass. Because that line of investigation,” he adds, “hasn’t really been going anywhere lately.”
Sasha chews on her lip. While what Jon and Tim are saying undeniably makes sense, the prospect of dealing in that level of deception against those sorts of opponents is still making her more than a little uncomfortable.
Jane looks equally skeptical. “‘If’? ‘Might’?”
Jon sighs. “Believe me, I know it’s risky.”
“But if it’s a risk we want to take,” Martin says thoughtfully, “we do have the opportunity to take it on our terms. Not theirs.”
Jon nods. “Exactly my thoughts.”
Sasha finally decides to speak up. “If that’s what we’re going for, I still think we should be cautious about giving them free rein of the Archives,” she says. “Between our own research and… certain architectural features, there’s way too much down here to keep totally under wraps.”
“And considering that Cass showed an unusual amount of interest in coming down to the Archives when we first met, I agree with that,” Jon says. He pauses again, his expression somewhere between doubt and daring. “And if I were to meet with them outside the Archives —”
“But wouldn’t that defeat the purpose of doing this on our own terms?” Martin protests. “That would just take you out of an environment that we have control over!”
“And, you’d be alone. With them.” Jane crosses her arms. “Ever since Melanie, we haven’t been going anywhere outside the Archives by ourselves. That can’t change now.”
Jon looks at Tim, clearly hoping for backup.
Tim shakes his head. “What they said.”
“But I’m the Archivist,” Jon says, a note of frustration creeping into his voice. “That should give me some measure of defense against them: a defense that none of you have. So I’m not about to put any of you at even more risk —”
“That’s not quite true,” Sasha interrupts. “You might be the only one with the title, but we’ve all been marked by the Eye.” She takes a deep breath. “Especially me.”
Jane shoots her a worried, warning glance.
Sasha pushes back her chair and stands up. “If we’re going to do this, and if you’re planning on meeting with Nora and Cass outside of the Archives, I should go with you,” she says matter-of-factly. “Strength in numbers, and in abilities.”
To her surprise, Jon looks like he’s considering it. “... That — that’s reasonable, I think,” he says after a moment. He glances at the others. “What about the rest of you?”
Martin’s anxious expression is slowly creeping towards relief. But Tim still looks deeply perturbed, to say nothing of Jane.
Sasha knows what she’s concerned about; she can’t say she isn’t thinking about it herself. “We’ll be fine, Jane,” she says softly. “This isn’t like — like the last time.” The last time I went into that upstairs office.
Jane tilts her head, conceding the point, but now her gaze expectantly turns to Jon.
“We’ll keep our guard up,” Jon promises her. With that said, he turns and grabs the stack of files in the wire tray by the cork board.
“I take it you’re going up now?” Tim asks.
Jon shrugs. “Might as well.”
“We’ll stick around, then,” Martin declares, wheeling his chair back to his desk. “To make sure you two make it back down to the Archives.”
“Well,” Jon says, “I don’t think that will be necessary, but —”
Martin sighs. “Jon. Humor me.”
The corners of Jon’s mouth twitch into a smile. “All right.” He glances over at Sasha. “Ready?”
“As I’ll ever be,” Sasha says.
Jon nods, then tucks the files under his arm and starts walking towards the door to the Archives. After a beat, Sasha follows him out.
“Have fun storming the castle!” Tim dryly calls after them.
Sasha almost smiles at that. Then the Archives door closes behind her and Jon, and the weight of what she’s just impulsively agreed to do comes crashing down on her.
Sasha exhales sharply. You can do this, she tries to tell herself as they start climbing the basement stairs. You have to do this. If not for yourself, then… so nothing happens to Jon.
“I — I do appreciate you coming with me,” Jon says, clearly sensing her sudden trepidation. “But it’s really not your responsibility.”
“That doesn’t mean it should be solely your responsibility, either,” Sasha replies.
Jon frowns. “... That’s the second time in two days I’ve been given advice along those lines,” he remarks.
“Well, maybe you should start taking it,” Sasha says wryly.
Jon lets out a tired chuckle. “I suppose I should.”
By now, they’ve reached the top of the basement stairs. This late in the day, the atrium is mostly empty of traffic, but as they head for the reception desk, Sasha sees a few people descending the main stairs and heading out for the night.
Rosie’s busily typing away at her computer, but she looks up as Jon and Sasha approach. “Jon, Sasha!” she exclaims with a warm smile. “What can I help you with?”
“Hello, Rosie,” Jon replies. “Do you know if Nora’s available?”
“I can call up and check,” Rosie offers, reaching for the phone. “She’s not very good about answering the phone, but it can’t hurt to try.” Punching in the extension, she holds the receiver to her ear and waits.
Sasha waits as well. Fortunately, or unfortunately, it doesn’t take long for someone to pick up.
“Nora?” Rosie asks brightly. “Hi, this is Rosie.” A pause. “Oh, I’m well, thank you. Listen, Jon’s here and he’s wondering if you’re available?” Another pause. “Oh, wonderful. Shall I —?” Rosie stops abruptly, smile frozen on her face. “Of course,” she continues, as if she’d never been interrupted. “Bye now.” Hanging up, she addresses Jon. “You’re in luck. Head right up.”
“Thanks, Rosie.” Jon starts to turn away.
“Oh, and Jon?” Rosie says, hastily standing up. “While I have you here —”
Jon pauses mid-turn.
Rosie leans over the desk. “Just so you know,” she says, lowering her voice conspiratorially, “that detective came back today.”
Sasha frowns. Detective Tonner?
Jon looks similarly taken aback. “Really?” he asks. “She didn’t come down to the Archives.”
“She wasn’t asking after you this time,” Rosie says. “I don’t know why, but she wanted to see Nora.”
Jon’s eyebrows rise. “And did she?”
“She did not,” Rosie replies. “Nora must have been out — or ignoring the phone.” She shrugs. “Either way, Detective Tonner was hardly pleased.”
“Hmm.” Jon’s frown deepens. “Thanks for letting me know.”
“Of course, Jon.” Rosie sits back down and returns to her work.
Still frowning, Jon heads for the main stairs.
Sasha continues to keep pace with him. “Why would Detective Tonner want to see Nora?” she asks.
“I’m not sure,” Jon confesses. He pauses, a new thought clearly occurring to him. “And why now? It’s been over two months since she arrested Elias; surely the case against him has already been closed.”
I certainly hope so. “And we know she’s also been looking into Leitner — or was, before he transferred hospitals.” Sasha sighs. “I don’t know, Jon; something about this doesn’t seem —”
“— sanctioned,” Jon finishes grimly. “I know she’s Sectioned, but… even so, this seems a little too cloak-and-dagger for even them.” He glances over at her as they clear the landing and continue up the last stretch of stairs. “Have you been back to see him? Leitner, I mean.”
Sasha swallows. “Not yet,” she says. “I’m planning to go back on Monday.”
“Well, when you do, ask him if Daisy’s come around again,” Jon says. “At this rate, I think she might have to be someone else we need to keep tabs on.”
Sasha nods. “Agreed.”
They’re in the upstairs hallway now. Turning the corner, Sasha finds her step faltering as she stares down that old, narrow corridor ending in a chestnut door.
This isn’t the same, she tells herself, swallowing. She follows Jon, but with every step she takes towards the door, the urge to run in the opposite direction grows stronger and stronger. This won’t be the same.
Still, Sasha gains some small relief from the fact that the portraits of past Institute heads that once lined the hallway have been removed. She would have expected to see dusty squares where they had once hung, but it appears as though a fresh coat of paint has been smoothed over the wall, completely erasing any trace of what was once there.
Pausing in front of the office door, Jon takes a deep breath, then raises his hand to knock.
Before he can, the door is opened by a tall, elegant woman dressed all in white. Sasha has a strong suspicion as to her identity, purely from the pallor of her skin and the darkness of her hair and eyes, but the chill creeping slowly over her skin the longer she stares at the woman only confirms it.
Nora Lukas smiles, almost warm. “Jon.” She stands aside, holding the door open. “Do come in.”
Mouth tightening slightly, Jon steps in. Mustering what little bravery remains with her, Sasha follows him inside.
The office that once belonged to Elias looks much the same from when Sasha was last here: same tall windows, same bookcases with their array of books and curios, same mahogany desk. Still, she instantly sees what changes have been made: the new carpet in front of the desk, the bookshelf that’s been cleared off and transformed into a bar. Another woman, much shorter and far more colorfully dressed than Nora (Cass, Sasha guesses), is currently hovering there, pouring the contents of a crystal decanter into matching glasses.
Most notably, the large painting of Jonah Magnus and the Institute’s patrons, like the portraits that once watched the hallway, has also been removed. What has replaced it is a seascape, with grey-green, glassy waves rolling under a hazy, timeless sky and washing a shattered fragment of a ship’s mast onto the sand. As Sasha peers at the painting, she can almost make out a solitary figure standing further down the shore, staring out at a mastless, sinking ship, but the figure is all but lost in the crashing surf.
Nora notices where her gaze has gone. “You like it?” she asks, closing the door.
Sasha does her best not to flinch at the sound of the door closing. “More than what was there before,” she says.
“I agree.” Nora glides around her, her heels silently sinking into the carpet. “I don’t believe we’ve met yet,” she remarks. “Are you Sasha James or Jane Prentiss?”
Cass laughs. “Well, she’s not the Hive,” she says flippantly, without so much as a glance over her shoulder. “Don’t you see her skin?”
“Sasha, then,” Nora says smoothly: as if Sasha had actually responded, as if Cass had never made that casually cruel remark. She holds out her hand. “I’m Nora Lukas.”
Tamping down her discomfort, Sasha takes it. Nora’s skin is as icy and unyielding as marble, and the muscles in her arm seize up for a moment in shock, but she manages to give Nora’s hand a perfunctory shake. “Nice to finally meet you,” she manages.
“Oh, the pleasure is all mine.” That half-warm smile still on her face, Nora looks between her and Jon. “I know you don’t smoke, Jon, but can I get you a cigarette, Sasha?” she asks. “Or perhaps a drink for either of you? It is the end of the workday, after all.”
Finally turning to face them, Cass holds up the decanter and shakes it invitingly.
“No thanks,” Jon says flatly.
Sasha gives Nora a polite smile. “I’m fine. But thank you.”
Nora inclines her head. “Of course.”
Returning the decanter to the makeshift bar on the bookcase, Cass picks up the two glasses. “One for me —” she takes a quick gulp from one glass, then flits to Nora’s side and hands her the other “— and one for you.”
“Ah, thank you.” Nora takes a long, slow sip, savoring it. She smiles down at Cass, and the gesture appears far more genuine than it had been before. “The Glenlivet. You know me so well, Cassandra.”
Cass grins. “Naturally.” Her gaze slides to Sasha, and her eyes are unnervingly bright as she stares at her in unabashed interest.
Sasha forces herself to meet that searching gaze as steadily as she can, but that familiar, unnerving prickling sensation still skitters down her spine.
“Come, sit down.” Drink in hand, Nora walks to her desk, gesturing at the chair before it. “Tell me, what brings you up from the Archives?”
Jon doesn’t sit. “We… thought you might appreciate an update,” he says, a bit stiffly. “On our investigations into the Stranger.”
Nora pauses, a gleam in her black eyes. “My,” she remarks. “This is unprecedented… but not unappreciated.” She settles herself into the chair behind the desk. “Still: why the change of heart, Jon?”
Jon opens his mouth, then closes it, obviously floundering.
Sasha realizes it’s time for her to try and jump in. Quick, Sasha: what would Tim say, if he were trying to convince Nora? “We’ve had a lot of information to sift through, and we’ve gotten a few potential leads out of it, but… truth be told, we don’t yet know what to do with them.” She shrugs and offers Nora a self-effacing smile. “So, we thought it would be best to get a fresh perspective.”
“New eyes,” Cass chimes in. She drifts to the windows, settling herself on the windowsill, but she never takes her gaze off Sasha.
Sasha feels her smile grow a little more forced. “Exactly.”
After a moment, Nora nods, clearly pleased. “All right, then,” she says, taking another sip of her whisky. “What have you found out?”
Sasha looks meaningfully at Jon.
Jon suddenly remembers he’s the one holding all of their evidence. “Right.” Placing the stack of files on the desk, he spreads them out and then clears his throat. “Unfortunately, we still haven’t found out much about the Unknowing itself. But, Case 0141010 — the most recent of Gertrude’s recorded statements that we’ve found thus far — suggests that preparations for the ritual have been underway since at least September 2014.” He swallows. “And that those preparations involve quite a bit of skinning.”
Nora arches an eyebrow. “‘Skinning’?”
Jon sighs. “It’s difficult to say exactly what Sebastian Skinner bore witness to, but… it appears as though the Stranger’s beings were assembling more — more of the same. Using — well —” He stops; he’s looking more than a little queasy at this point. “In any case, that seems to be what they were making,” he quickly concludes. “Gertrude called them ‘dancers’ in her final comments, but we’re still not quite sure why.”
“Hmm.” Nora idly runs a finger around the edge of her glass. “And your other leads?” she asks Sasha.
“They’re more… areas of interest to explore further than actual leads, but we do have some.” Sasha scans the files Jon laid out on the desk, then pushes one slightly towards Nora. “First off, a pair of Cockney delivery men — we’ve been calling them Breekon and Hope after the Nottingham courier service they apparently work for.”
“We say ‘apparently’ because even though Breekon and Hope, the company, went into liquidation in 2009, Breekon and Hope, the delivery men, still seem to be active following that,” Jon clarifies, drumming his fingers on the edge of the desk. “Alexander Scaplehorn, the statement giver for Case 0132306, saw them both at the Trophy Room, and a Breekon and Hope delivery van was placed at the scene of the murder of Lana Billings, as described in Case 0131910.”
“Our second lead is the Trophy Room itself,” Sasha continues, falling in step with Jon’s rhythm of revelation, so familiar from their days in Research long ago. She grabs the relevant file and lays it on top of the previous one she offered Nora. “It’s a taxidermy shop near Woodside Park in Barnet, and according to Mr. Scaplehorn’s statement, its current owner is Daniel Rawlings.” She grabs a third file and adds it to the pile. “Who, according to our previous research into Case 0122204, disappeared in Edinburgh in December 2006.”
“Mr. Rawlings was one of six people to go missing near Old Fishmarket Close in Edinburgh between November 2005 and March 2010,” Jon explains. “Those people were kidnapped and —” a muscle ticks in his throat “— very likely skinned by a being of the Stranger that, per Nathan Watts’ description of it in his statement, we’ve dubbed ‘the Angler Fish.’” He taps Sasha’s pile of case files. “That being was also seen at the Trophy Room by Mr. Scaplehorn.”
“And Mr. Rawlings isn’t the only victim of the Angler Fish to show up in other statements,” Sasha adds smoothly; she’s slipped fully into that old rhythm now, and she can see all the well-worn steps before her and Jon’s back-and-forth beat brings her to them. “According to Case 0161704, Sarah Baldwin, who disappeared in August 2006, went on a ghost-hunting expedition to the old Cambridge Military Hospital in Aldershot in January 2015. And Megan Shaw,” she continues, “who disappeared in June 2008, could be the ‘Megan’ who Mr. Skinner encountered in Gwydir Forest in September 2014, but we’re not yet certain of that.”
“Which brings us to our third and final lead,” Jon concludes, his eyes bright with something like triumph. “Mr. Skinner noted that ‘Megan’ was accompanied by a woman named Jude Perry: a member of the Cult of the Lightless Flame.” Planting his hands fully on the desk, he leans in. “She doesn’t seem to be connected to the Stranger beyond Mr. Skinner’s statement, but Gertrude mentioned that she lives in Havering, so if she’s still living there and if we can find an address —”
“Out of the question.”
Sasha blinks, rudely jolted out of rhythm.
Jon looks almost offended. “I’m sorry?”
“By all means, continue looking into your other leads; they very likely lead somewhere.” Nora downs the rest of her whisky. “But trying to contact Jude Perry would be a grave mistake.”
Jon bristles. “Why?”
Nora gives him a decidedly unimpressed look. “How much do you know about the Cult of the Lightless Flame, Jon?”
Jon shrugs stiffly. “Not — not much beyond what the name would suggest —” He stops, seeming to realize what Nora’s getting at. “The Lightless Flame… it isn’t just fire, is it?” he asks, slowly straightening up. “It’s another entity.”
“The Desolation.” Cass’ voice drifts dreamily over from where she’s perched on the windowsill. “Fire without light or warmth or the promise of comfort on a cold night. Only the agonizing heat of boiling, burning flesh and the blackened earth scoured of life in the inferno’s wake.”
Sasha’s stomach twists at Cass’ rapturous tone.
“Still,” Cass adds, a bit more direct now, “as awful as the Desolation is, the Cult of the Lightless Flame doesn’t inspire much awe these days: if it ever did in its heyday.” She meanders away from the windows and towards the desk. “I mean, their leaders are dead, their messiah is deader still, and the Desolation’s devoted have long since scattered.” She lets out a blithe little laugh. “Ashes in the wind.”
“An accurate assessment,” Nora agrees. “However, I would wager that all that loss she’s suffered — suffering the likes of which she’s only ever inflicted on others — has made Jude Perry more dangerous now than she ever was with the Lightless Flame.” She looks pointedly at Jon. “Which is why it would be exceedingly unwise to try to find her.”
“But — but she might know something about the Unknowing!” Jon protests. “Wouldn’t information like that be worth the —”
“This is the last time I’ll give you this advice, Jon, so I suggest that you take it.” Nora stands and draws herself up to her full height, her black gaze boring into them. “Do not, under any circumstances, try to find Jude Perry.”
“We’re going to try to find Jude Perry, right?” Tim leans back against the bar.
“I certainly am.” Jon sighs, rubbing at his temples. “I — I know that Sasha and the others have their reservations, and justifiably so, but —”
“— just because we’re sharing information with Nora now doesn’t mean we have to trust everything she tells us,” Tim finishes. Or anything she tells us, for that matter.
“Exactly,” Jon says darkly. “And I don’t trust how quick she was to shut that avenue of investigation down.” He rubs at his arms; despite the warmth of the bustling pub, Jon hasn’t taken his jacket off since their arrival. “If Nora is that keen on us not talking to Jude Perry —”
“— all the more reason for us to try and talk to her.” Tim cranes his head over his shoulder to check if their drinks had miraculously materialized on the bar in the minute since he’d ordered them, then turns his attention back to Jon. “So what’s the plan? We see if we can get an address, and then go from there?”
“More or less.” Jon glances across the pub at the back corner booth, where Sasha and Jane and Martin are carrying on a conversation drowned out entirely at this distance by the din of the pub. “I’ll keep talking to the others, see if I can get them on board for the research bit, at least, but when it comes to follow-up —”
Tim doesn’t give him a chance to finish. “I’m coming with you.”
Jon’s gaze snaps back to him. “Are you sure?” he asks, concerned. “If Jude Perry proves to be as dangerous as Nora claims —”
“Then I’m sure as hell not letting you meet her on your own,” Tim retorts, turning to face him. “You didn’t meet with Nora and Cass alone, in the Institute — why would you try to meet with an unknown, potentially dangerous avatar, outside of the Institute and alone?”
Jon’s face screws into a particularly intense frown. Tim’s seen that look enough times to know that Jon’s trying to figure out a way to dispute his logic and, much to his annoyance, only coming up with ways to prove it. “Tim —” he starts.
“Jon,” Tim replies, matching his tone. “Look, I know you and Sasha have the spooky Eye powers, but that doesn’t mean you two should automatically get saddled with all the dangerous stuff.” He places a hand on Jon’s shoulder. “It doesn’t even have to be me; Martin or Jane could go with you, too. I’m just asking you to not go alone.”
After a moment, Jon’s shoulders slump. “... I suppose you’re right,” he grudgingly concedes. He looks up at Tim, his gaze serious. “Are you sure? About coming.”
Tim gives him what he hopes is a reassuring smile. “Of course I’m sure,” he says. “I’ve got your back, Jon. You can be sure of that.”
In pursuit of the Stranger, he may very well find himself in a corner he can’t talk his way out of. Nora’s knowing voice echoes unbidden in his head. As one closer to him than I, all I expect you to do is to look out for his best interests.
And I will. Swallowing, Tim gives Jon’s shoulder a quick squeeze before letting his hand fall away. He might be the only one who can handle this… but I refuse to let him walk that road alone.
The seascape painting in Nora's office is modeled after Shipwreck by William Trost Richards.
(Also, I did indeed map all those connections out when outlining this chapter, so if you want to see the charts that I killed an entire day making — one for the Stranger, one for the Lukas family — they're over on Tumblr!)