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.・゜゜・༓☾ ARC I : Change ☽༓・゜゜・.

 


 

Martin finds his first Mechanism album in a second-hand record shop he stumbles into by accident, trying to escape the unexpected fury of a late-April thunderstorm. 

The weather forecast hadn’t said anything about rain but it’s April, he really should’ve known better than to leave his raincoat at home. Even if he hates it because it’s second-hand and doesn’t really fit. 

His mother will be furious if he’s late, of course, but there’s nothing to be done about that now. She’s very particular about dinnertime and he knows he won’t make it in time to cook. But then again, he doesn’t have any control over the weather, last time he’d checked, and worrying has never helped anyone. Which is much easier said than done, obviously.

 

“Fucking weather…” a man’s deep voice grumbles behind him and Martin almost jumps out of his skin, suddenly remembering that he’s not the only one who fled the weather's sudden decline. There are a few others, staring out through the windows, not that there’s much to see through all the water. It’s the kind of rainstorm that conjures up thoughts of apocalypses, and Martin is suddenly very glad that he isn’t outside anymore. And that he didn’t take his raincoat; otherwise, he might have tried to make his way to the tube, and a single glance tells him that he’d have drowned before making it even half-way there.

 His eyes need a while to adjust to the dimness of the shop now that the sun is hidden behind a raging stormfront. When the lights finally flicker on, they almost blind him, feeling oddly appropriate with the thunder rolling outside. 

The shop itself isn’t big. There are a few tall shelves and boxes filled with records of—as far as Martin can tell—basically any kind. Easy to browse. He loves the atmosphere of it, loves how old-timey it feels. Not for the first time he aches to own a shop like this. It doesn’t have to be a record shop specifically; he doesn’t even own a record player. Just. The way it feels— it feels how he’s always hoped home would feel like: fitting comfortably like a well-worn shoe, slightly retro, just a small, cosy shop somewhere off the main streets. Maybe his could be a bookshop? Somewhere he could surround himself with stories and have soft music playing in the background, maybe. Build something that’s just his. A home of his own making. A dream made reality.

He scoffs and pushes the thought away. Sometimes, even thinking about it aches something awful. Especially when it reminds him of why he can’t do that, because then he immediately starts to feel guilty about his frustration, too. 

He doesn’t really miss the small city he grew up in. He just misses the feeling of it, of having a place in the world that he knows, that at least somewhat belongs to him. London is too big, too busy, and it never sleeps. His mother needed to move here so they’d be closer to the doctors, though, and there wasn’t anything (or anyone) binding him to that place anyways. He’s always been the free-floating type, even if he doesn’t want to be, and the only thing he’s lost is that vague feeling, too tiny to put into words; swept away by the torrential currents of the London weather. 

He sighs, and then he makes himself smile. People like others more when they smile, and it’s better to just relax and enjoy the comfortable atmosphere while it lasts. 

Apart from Martin there are maybe ten other people who don’t quite know what to do with themselves. Contrary to them he’s always loved old, used things, so he finds himself walking toward one of the boxes, and starts flipping through the records to pass the time. It’s not like he can listen to them anyways, even if he found one he’d want to buy. He likes music, but he’s never had a favourite band. It’s just… nice, sometimes. Makes him feel less lonely. And he likes to sing along, too. Some people from school told him that he has a nice voice, once, and he’s still feeding off that compliment, even if it’s been years. 

 

Somehow, impossibly, he manages to lose himself in the printed cardboard and the slightly scuffed edges; in the stories they could tell him, if only they spoke. Finds himself wondering aimlessly about past owners; how they made their way here; who might come to take them home. He’s so entranced that he almost jumps out of his skin for the second time today when someone speaks, just to his right. 

 

“Can I help you?” There’s a young man there, smiling a patient and surprisingly genuine smile. He looks about Martin’s age and after a moment Martin realises that he must be working here. His nametag says “Nico” and Martin blushes furiously, only barely managing not to stumble back. “Oh— I…I’m f-fine…” he mutters, then tentatively returns his smile. “Really. Just. B-browsing? You know?”

Nico’s smile widens. “What kind of music do you like?” 

Martin realises dimly that the storm’s over. That everyone else has left. That he’s somehow still here and that he really doesn’t want to leave. 

And so he says “Oh, I don’t know, I always love songs that tell a story…” 

 


And that’s how Martin finds a new friend, buys his first record, and ends up staying for so long that the thunderstorm is a distant memory and his mother is furious when he returns three hours late—except he doesn’t even care. 

He’s going to see Nico again tomorrow, and they’re going to listen to his record together: High Noon Over Camelot, by a concept band called "The Mechanisms". 

Nico has been a fan for ages, he’s visited half of their concerts, including their final one, Death to the Mechanisms, which happened three months ago. Martin just spent two hours listening to him rant about the stories, about the characters, about the whole concept of the band, and he’s entranced, can’t wait for the next day. It’s a Saturday and he won’t even have to work. 

He falls asleep with a smile on his face, and for once, he doesn’t have any nightmares.  

 

Martin doesn’t yet know how much his life will change for the better. He doesn’t know about the hours he’ll spend hunched over his tiny laptop screen staring at old, low-res videos on youtube. How entranced he will get and how many hours he’ll spend reading and re-reading the short stories on their website. How long he’ll spend learning the lyrics, and how he’ll be singing the songs to himself to fall asleep for years to come.  

He doesn’t yet know that he’ll spend all his spare money to buy his very own record player, and that he’ll buy all of their albums digitally as well so he can carry them around at all times. (He just loves the concept of a record player so much that he feels like he has to own both, and besides, it sounds much better. Even if it takes him a while to earn the money.) 

He also doesn’t yet know about the man he’ll fall in love with, one youtube video at a time. How much he’ll come to love his voice and his persona, his evil cackle, his spidering eyeliner and nail polish and steampunk clothes. 

 

Martin doesn’t yet know that he’ll be furious at himself for ages to come, because he managed to find them three months late. Because he’ll never get to see them live. Because youtube videos and audio recordings are all he’ll ever get of Jonny d’Ville and his motley crew of immortal space pirates. 

 


 

In the end, Martin becomes desperate enough to lie on his CV, and it’s not just about his age. 

Somehow, impossibly, he still gets invited to a job interview at the Magnus Institute, of all places. They are the only ones who called back, so as much as he’s afraid of this interview, he knows that he has to nail it. (But: what if they know? What if they only invited him to laugh about his feeble attempt at falsification? What if it’s just a prank and he’s never had a chance at all?) 

His mother is moving into a care home, though, and he can’t afford it on the jobs he’s currently working. He tries to suppress the sinking feeling in his stomach when he remembers the way she reacted; that she smiled at him for one tiny, tiny moment, before it slipped off her face. How she looked away, something ugly in her expression. 

 

The day before his interview he skypes with Nico for two hours and it helps a little but it also somehow widens the hole in his chest. He’s too nervous to laugh at Nico’s jokes and besides, Nico moved away two months ago and Martin knows that they’ll never see each other again. He can feel it in his bones. Their contact will ebb until the other man only remembers him in passing. Until he’s nothing more than a small footnote in an otherwise interesting life. That thought hurts but it’s not like it’s the first time that has happened to Martin. And besides, the thing that connected them was music, and Nico doesn’t really listen to the Mechs anymore. He even gave Martin all his band-shirts when he moved away. 

As much as Martin should be glad about that part, he can’t. He can’t even wear them yet because they remind him of that happy time in his life. Because he’s lost the only person he could always talk to about anything. And it’s not even his fault, or Nico’s. It just happened.

“You’ll do great,” Nico says at the end. “They’re fools if they don’t hire you!”

“I lied on my CV,” Martin says dryly. “I’m the fool. Even if they do hire me, I doubt it’ll take them long to realise.”

“You’re worrying too much. Channel some Jonny and you’ll be fine. I promise. You just need to change the attitude; you’ve got everything else covered already.”

Martin doesn’t believe him, but he smiles at the thought of appearing in eyeliner and too many leather belts, swaggering into the office and insulting (or killing, hah) his way through the interview. It’s a funny thought, at the very least. 

When they end the call, he somehow feels better about himself and his situation even if he knows that Nico might never call again. Those who leave him behind seldom do, but he has his music, and that will have to be enough.

 


 

Afterwards, Martin doesn’t remember much of his interview or the man who conducted it; he just remembers his eyes, pale as frost, his gaze dissecting Martin like he’s a particularly bland type of frog. Until something in those eyes shifts and Martin suddenly feels like they’re staring right into his soul, pulling his essence apart truth by truth. The man smiles (his expression makes Martin think of too many teeth, even if he shows none), and Martin knows that he knows about his CV. And yet, for some nebulous reason, he’s still hired. And the man’s smile is definitely real as he shows him out the door, as is the warmth in his voice. 

Martin doesn’t know which is worse and he shivers, even as he furiously reminds himself how lucky he is. He has a job. His mother will move out. 

He’ll start on Monday. 

It’s Thursday. 

 

The trip home feels surreal, and for some reason he can still feel the man’s eyes on his neck, even hours later. He listens to all the Mechs albums on shuffle and enjoys the whiplash of the different songs colliding with each other; that tiny moment of anticipation right before he knows what song will come up next.

Hates how he can’t sing on the tube, how he just wants to sink into the music and disappear. 

That night, he dreams of being hunted, of being watched by a glacial, indifferent stare. Until he’s caught. He wakes up right before the monster tears him apart, and it takes him almost an hour to calm enough to sleep again. He falls asleep with Loki and Sigyn’s final promise on his lips, and aches for the day his fortune will turn around. 

 


 

On Monday, Martin is so restless that he can’t even properly enjoy his music on the way to work.

Work. 

The Institute building looms above him, impossibly tall, foreboding in a way he can’t even put into words. It was creepy the last time, too, but somehow it feels worse now. He doesn't even know why. It’s just a building, right? 

He finally takes a deep breath, and makes himself walk up the stairs, pushes open the door. The receptionist smiles at him and he automatically smiles back, even if his nerves are telling him to run and never turn back.

“I-I’m Martin Blackwood?” he asks carefully once he gets close enough. “T-The new researcher?”

“Oh, right! Elias told me that you’d start today! I’m Rosie, nice to meet you, Martin.” Rosie’s smile doesn’t falter as she leads him up to the second floor and, somehow, it’s grounding in a way he would never have expected. He finds himself breathing a bit easier by the time they reach the door, and then Rosie’s opening it and he’s greeted by a few faces staring at him over the edges of their monitors.

Martin swallows heavily. He hates being the centre of attention, always has, always will. 

“Hello everyone! This is Martin, he’s the new researcher. Sasha, maybe you can show him around?” 

A young black woman nods and smiles, getting up from her chair. Martin feels reminded of school. Of holding a presentation and suddenly forgetting the words right as he starts to speak.

He doesn’t have a master’s in parapsychology. 

He didn’t even finish school.

What is doing here? He can’t do this! 

“Hey, it’s okay” Sasha laughs next to him—how did she get here so fast?!— ”We all start somewhere. Meeting new people can be scary, mhm?” 

He can only nod, tongue heavy as lead in his mouth. 

“Well, you can leave your things by that desk”—she points to the empty desk next to hers, and he’s never been more relieved in his life—”and when you’re ready, I’ll show you around?” 

“Y-yes. Uh, thank you,” he stammers. Stumbles over to the desk. Plops his bag on the chair. And his jacket. Feels everyone’s curious glances like needles on his skin, the daunting silence a smothering weight on his chest. He swallows, and when he’s sure he can’t procrastinate it any longer, he looks up again. “Thank you. For showing me around, Sasha.” 

She smiles encouragingly and nods. “That’s Tim,” she says, pointing to an unfairly attractive Korean guy with an easygoing smile on the desk opposite, “and those are Stephanie and Kenzy and…” 

Everyone smiles and welcomes him graciously and after a few more moments, Martin starts to feel a bit better. 

“Hello everyone,” he just says awkwardly, “it’s good to meet you! I-I’m a bit nervous, but this… helped.” 

“Hah, just wait until you’ve met Jon,” someone mumbles from a few desks further back, but before Martin can ask Sasha takes his arm and navigates him out of the room. 

“Let’s not wait for his return,” she says brightly, “he can be a bit abrasive at times. But it’ll be fine, you’ll see. He’s just not good with people, especially not when they’re new and don’t know the ropes yet.” 

Martin swallows heavily at that, but he doesn’t say anything. After a moment Sasha lets go of his arm with a quick grin, and then she shows him the rest of the institute. Slowly, slowly, he starts to think that maybe he might be okay. He’s in far over his head, but he’s always been a hard worker and a quick learner and he’s sure that he’ll manage, somehow. Especially as Sasha seems like a great person. He likes her already. 

 

“There he is,” Sasha says brightly, entering what Martin suspects must be the researchers’ breakroom. “Jon, this is Martin, he’s the new researcher starting today.” 

There’s a man at the microwave, just about to pull out a mug of water with a tea bag in it, and something in Martin’s brain must’ve short-circuited because one, he’s gorgeous (if somewhat bedraggled and tired-looking); and two, he seems familiar in a way Martin can’t put his finger on, it’s on the tip of his tongue but somehow he can’t reach it— 

And then there’s three, which somehow, impossibly, overrides his other thoughts. You just. Do Not Microwave Your Tea. That’s just not something you do. 

“What are you doing?” he finds himself saying, his mouth apparently no longer under his control. With daunting horror, he realises that he sounds like a scandalised television actor from an era long past, piqued that this beautiful man somehow dares to do something as horrible as— 

“I’m making tea?” Jon says matter-of-factly, raising a dramatic eyebrow in a thoroughly unimpressed way. “It doesn’t take as long.” Then he just brushes past them with his tea, teabag still in it. As the door falls shut behind him, Martin just groans and closes his eyes, wondering how he’s going to survive in a place where people are allowed to microwave their tea. This was a bad idea. This job—no. He can’t do it. He just. Nobody can expect this from him, surely?—  

“That was… surprisingly tame,” Sasha says, cruelly interrupting his spiralling, horrified thoughts, “you must’ve truly unbalanced him. He almost looked rattled!” 

Martin groans and rubs at his eyes. “Does he always do that?” he asks plaintively, ignoring Sasha’s statement because how is he supposed to reply to that? Rattled? 

Sasha grins at him, apparently unperturbed, or, possibly, horrifyingly, used to it. 

Martin isn’t sure which one is worse. 

“Yup,” Sasha says, as if from far away, “and nobody has discovered a way to make him stop yet. I’ve given up on him, personally.” She glances at him, grin widening. “He can be… a handful at the best of times. It’s usually best to just stay out of his way. He has a… way with words. Especially those that draw blood.” 

Martin just nods dumbly and they continue the tour, but his thoughts are a whirlwind of smooth, dark skin and black, slightly grey-streaked hair, bright sharp eyes and— microwaved tea. 

At the end of it even Sasha must’ve realised that he isn’t actually listening but she just smiles. There’s a twinkle in her eyes that tells Martin that his thought-process is entirely transparent to her. He tries not to think too hard about that but doesn’t manage to suppress the blush. 

 

When they’re back in the researchers’ office, barely an hour has passed, and he spends the rest of the day acquainting himself with his new job.

Which is definitely interesting, to say the least. 

He’s also sure that he’ll be fired within the next three months because someone's bound to realise that he’s utterly incompetent. For some mysterious reason Tim takes pity on him though, and by the end of the day he at least understands the basics of the software they’re using. Which is something. 

He eats his lunch in the breakroom with Tim and Sasha. Tim has apparently cooked for both of them and Martin suddenly wonders if there’s something between them, but he is too shy to ask. 

“If you want you can join the Meal Wheel,” Tim says, grinning widely. “We take turns cooking, and on Friday we order takeout. Sasha has a spreadsheet, I think.” 

Martin finds himself smiling tentatively at that. “I’d love to!” he says, feeling a strangely warm presence in his chest that wasn’t there before. Like the feeling he gets when a stray cat chooses to rub its head against his hand. 

And that is that.

 


 

The rest of the week passes slowly, filled with arduous tasks he doesn’t quite understand, endless piles of paperwork, and phone calls. At least he can safely say that he’s stopped being afraid of them by Friday morning, the terror replaced by a leaden tiredness. He’s always liked people, but researching is hard work and even if he’s doing his best, Jon always finds something to complain about. Like Sasha, he’s a senior researcher and has, apparently, been assigned to look over Martin’s work, something both of them find equally unpleasant. And yet—despite all the biting remarks—Martin finds himself staring at him again and again, especially when Jon sinks into That Headspace and forgets that he’s in the office, when the angry crease in his forehead flattens out and he just looks… content? Almost… nice. 

Friday afternoon, Martin makes the mistake of trying to talk to Jon about his tea, but somehow, despite being told quite scathingly that my tea is none of your concern, Mr. Blackwood, all he wants to do in that moment is to reach out and smooth out Jon’s frown with his fingers. 

Fuck. 

He’s got it bad. 

 

Friday evening, just as Martin’s about to leave, Tim suddenly appears in front of his computer, wearing a crooked little grin that widens as he speaks. “Hey Martin—Marto—Marty? What do you say? Want to join me and Sash for a drink?” 

“Please, just Martin,” he responds, but how can he say no to the offer, even if all he wants is to go home? They’ve been so nice to him this week, and they even praised the food he brought on Wednesday! 

“Jon, are you coming, too?” Tim turns to look over his shoulder at Jon, sitting hunched behind his desk. (Why is Martin’s heart thudding at that question, desperately hoping that Jon says yes, while simultaneously praying that he won’t?) 

Jon mutters something incomprehensible yet obviously scathing in response, and Tim just rolls his eyes. “Fine, we know you’re busy, just please promise to go home before ten, alright?” 

Martin catches Jon’s answering glare but Tim just chuckles. “One day, Jon! One day we’ll drag you there, and if you’re screaming bloody murder all the while, that’s a price I’m willing to pay.” 

Then they’re off, and Martin suddenly realises that he doesn’t want to be found out. That he doesn’t just need the job, he also wants it. 

That he’s come to genuinely like most of the people here, especially Sasha and Tim (and also Rosie, who asks him how he’s doing every day and seems to genuinely care about his answer). 

(And even if Jon’s too deep into his work to actually talk to anyone (which is definitely for the best given how scathingly he reacts at any interruption) he’s still quite nice to look at. In an old-fashioned-librarian kind of way. And only If one ignores the empty cup on his table, with a teabag still in it. Martin wonders if Jon just reuses the same tea bag during the day, but surely not even he would be that barbaric? The thought alone makes Martin furiously decide that he must teach Jon The Ways, if only he had enough courage to do so.)

The evening is fantastic. By the end of the night he knows for sure that he’s made two new friends. Martin hasn’t been drunk in years, and he’s sure that he’s never been this drunk. He vaguely remembers teaching Tim the lyrics to Drunk Space Pirate sometime during the night, until they were both laughing themselves half to death, stumbling their way through the words. 

It’s in the early hours of Saturday morning that Sasha tucks them both into different cabs before leaving them to their fates, and Martin almost falls asleep on the drive home. 

 

When he finally stumbles into his flat, his flat, his very own, tiny flat, occupied solely by him!—he finally realises that he’s never been more hopeful about the future. 

 


 

It doesn’t take long to settle into a routine, and slowly but surely Martin gets more comfortable with this new life. Thankfully someone in management soon realises that Martin works much better with Sasha than with Jon, so he gets to send his work to her for a final look. 

Life goes on. 

Jon continues to be pretty (and sometimes also petty), but Martin prefers to keep his distance, and to give up on the tea thing. It’s much better for his mental health, anyways; Jon behaves rather poorly any time they meet so having a crush on someone like that really isn’t in Martin’s best self-interest (not that his heart ever cared about that). And if Martin doesn’t see Jon that often, he can make himself believe that he’s gotten over him, at least. 

 

When Gertrude Robinson disappears (dies?!), it doesn’t really change anything for him. He’s been in the basement once or twice, has seen the chaotic mess they call “the archives”, but it’s not like he’d ever exchanged a single word with her. Sasha knew her much better, but even she only helped out from time to time. 

A few months pass, and nothing happens. He dimly hears about the investigation into her death and the police talk to him once, too. Apparently they found quite a lot of blood on her desk, so it’s unlikely that she’s still alive. It’s kind of strange, that someone should want to kill an archivist, but he doesn’t really think about it much besides speculating with Tim and Sasha. 

 

That changes drastically when an email from Elias politely informs him that he's now an Archival Assistant. 

 

For a few moments, he just stares at it. Rereads it again, closes his eyes, takes a deep breath. When he opens them, the email is still there. 

“—to Martin? Earth to Martin? Come in Martin! Ah, there you are!”

Martin looks up to find Tim standing behind his monitor, lips quirking into a wide grin. “Did you see a ghost?” he asks. 

Martin smiles weakly. “…something like that.” Why him? Why now? He’s just gotten used to this—has been happy. There are so many other researchers who’ve been there much longer, with a lot more experience as well. He hasn’t done anything to earn this. Or is it a kind of punishment? Most of all, though, he doesn’t want to leave Sasha and Tim behind. “… I got promoted.” he adds, wondering if his voice sounds as dead as he feels. 

“Oh, yeah, Sash and me too,” Tim says nonchalantly, “'The Archives', huh? Spooky… we should get our stuff and find out about the new boss, yeah?” 

Relief washes over Martin with the power of a tidal wave. “Yeah,” he echoes faintly, but he’s smiling as he collects his things, and logs off the computer for the last time. 

 

Martin is quiet on their way downstairs. All in all, he doesn’t how to feel about this change; a raise in pay is nice, sure, but he has no idea what to expect. Judging by Tim and Sasha’s conversation, Tim seems to think it’s all a big joke, and Sasha is preoccupied by something else. 
“Who do you think it’ll be?” Tim laughs, “I didn’t even know archival assistant was a thing until now, Gertrude sure never had any…” 

Just as they reach the heavy basement door, it’s thrown open and Elias Bouchard strolls out, immaculate and polished as always. 

“Ah, here they are,” he says, looking them up and down with those cold, pale eyes of his. “I’ve put the necessary paperwork on your desks. Make sure to hand it to Rosie by the end of today, if you’re so inclined.”  He sweeps past them with one last amused smile, the door falling shut behind him. 

Tim, Martin, and Sasha look at each other. “I guess it’s not a joke then” Tim says, and carelessly pushes open the door. Elias has to be much stronger than he looks because Tim almost has to work for it. 

And then he just kind of stops in the open door.


“Tim—?” Martin asks, stepping behind him, “What—?” 

The man in front of them is small and thin, and he’s clutching an absolutely ridiculous mountain of paper. His lips twist into a scowl. “Ah yes,” he says sourly, “Elias said he’d send you three down.” 

Martin wants to die, because his new boss is none other than Jonathan Sims, Perpetrator of Heinous Crimes Against Tea, subject of the most useless crush in the history of mankind.

 


 

The first weird thing Martin notices about the Archives is the constant feeling of being watched. 

In retrospect it’s not entirely new; the feeling has always been there, even when he was still in research. All of that is nothing in comparison to what it’s like now though. Now it almost seems to have a physical presence, weighing down on him like a wet blanket, and it only ever really disappears when he leaves the archives and the Institute in general. 

Martin doesn’t know how to feel about that, except that he slowly but surely starts to realise that maybe the archives are more important than he anticipated. That maybe there’s more to all of this than he’s comfortable with, really. 

 

The second weird thing is that, after knowing Jon for years from a distance, he feels like he knows him better than he should. It’s tiny things in his body language, just from time to time. Weird turns of phrases… Martin doesn’t know what sets it off. Has no idea how to put it into words, even. He tries to describe it to Tim, once, but in the end he stops, frustration obvious on his face. 

“It’s just—like—I don’t even know how to—God, it feels like I can sometimes predict what he’s going to say? How he’s going to react to things? But almost never when he’s with me, just… you know, with Sasha, or you. Like… like when he’s in a good mood. I don’t know if that makes sense? But I don’t even really know him! I’ve done my best not to know him!” 

Tim has no advice for him but at least he tries to keep his obvious amusement off his face. He’s failing at it but it’s not like Martin can’t appreciate the sentiment… 

The feeling doesn’t abate either. 

As it turns out, Jon is even more obnoxious as a boss. Martin isn’t sure what’s going on in his head but it must not be very nice. He’s always been a rude and oftentimes snappish workaholic, but his new position seems to have enhanced these traits to a painful degree. Martin sometimes finds himself wondering if Jon is still sleeping at all, but only until he realises that he’s thinking about Jon again. 

After a while, Martin also starts to wonder if Jon has realised that Sasha should’ve been promoted instead of him, and if he’s working so hard to prove himself to Elias. Martin’s far too intimidated by him to ask about it, though; and then there’s also the problem of Jon’s… personal frustration with him, specifically. After all, Jon still remembers Martin’s work from the beginning, and the only other assistants are Tim and Sasha, who are both excellent at their jobs. Martin’s only ever been average, even if he’s working his hardest.
… of course, considering he didn’t even finish secondary school, he’s quite sure that he must be doing fantastically. Unfortunately for Martin, that’s a secret he’s absolutely willing to take to his grave. After all, Jon would fire him if he ever found out, and Martin had only just gotten over his fear of being kicked from his research position. (He’s told Tim about it because he had to tell someone and Tim is his closest friend but even so, nobody else must ever know.)

So… yeah. In that respect, being confronted by Jon every day really hasn’t helped at all. It makes no sense to be crushing so hard on someone who treats him so badly, but apparently Martin has no self-control in that area. And by now he just wants to solve that mystery, too: why the hell is Jon so familiar to him, to the point where his voice sometimes seems to send him into the weirdest feeling of déjà vu? 

He has no idea where to start, and it’s driving him insane. 

After a while, he kind of gives up, but it remains a constant thought at the back of his mind. Has he met Jon before, somehow? But he couldn’t have, at least not to this degree. Right?! Then where does it come from? 

 

The archives are also strangely isolating—before starting here, Martin had talked to other people every day! Hell, there had been more than ten other researchers working in the same office as him! Now they’re in the basement, their break-room is in the basement, and everything else they could need is there as well. The only times he sees other people is when he seeks them out in the canteen during his lunch break, which has never really been his style, and besides, they’re still doing the Meal Wheel, so there’s no reason to go to the canteen. 

So little has changed, and yet, it feels like his life has been turned upside down. 

Not even to speak of the horrific things mentioned in the statements they’re researching. Even if the trail has gone cold ages ago, Jon still expects them to be absolutely thorough, and if there’s nothing to be found, well, that’s Martin’s fault then, not that of the statement. 

Despite these frustrations, Martin valiantly fights his way through follow-up on the self-same horrible statements; he endures Jon’s acidic comments and tries to turn a blind eye every time he’s confronted by his horrifying tea-making; and at least he can listen to music when he has to go file-hunting, so that’s that.

And it’s not like he’s entirely on his own. Thankfully, Sasha and Tim are there as well, and they always have his back. Martin knows that things could be worse. Even if their workplace is absolutely chaotic, a fact Jon complains about daily which Sasha apparently interprets as a conspiracy. Tim laughed about that at first; after all, who would care about a dusty old archive? And Martin sure saw his point. Problem is, then the creepy statements appeared. 


Elias has apparently told Jon to record audio versions of the statements, to make organisation easier. 

During their second week Martin, Tim, and Sasha wonder over drinks why they wouldn’t first organise the paper files before recording anything. Since Sasha’s the only one Jon never snaps at, she’s now the official ambassador of “Team Archives” (Tim’s name idea, of course). When she asks about that, Jon just shrugs, lips pulled into a thin, down-turned line. 

“Elias said to record audio versions as we organise the Archives,” he says curtly. “So that’s what I’m going to do.” Then he steps back into his office, closing the door behind himself a bit more forcefully than needed. 

 

And that’s that; at least, until Jon tries to record the first Bizarre Statement (”BS”, it’s Tim’s revenge for Jon forbidden them from using the word “spooky”), and apart from him being a mess for the rest of the week afterwards, the file is one as well. It’s fine right after the recording, but as soon as they try to reopen it, something in it breaks and it turns into nothing but garbled distortions, the only recognisable parts being Jon’s introduction and “statement ends” as well as the final follow up. The audio file is unreadable on any other device but the laptop they record it on, and they only get a weird error whenever they try to upload it to the institute cloud.

It’s not the program. 

It isn’t the laptop, either, or the phone they try next. The BS won’t scan, and any time Martin tries to type up a transcript, that file dissolves into a mess of letters and numbers and symbols. True bullshit. 

Jon asks Elias about it, but Elias doesn’t seem to have an answer either; Martin gets to hear Jon grumble about “useless pencil pushers” for the entire rest of the day. 

In the end, the whole thing takes more than a week while IT is scratching their heads over it. When Jon finds an old tape recorder tucked away in Gertrude’s—well, his—office, nobody really has any hope left but for some reason it records just fine. 

Martin can feel in his bones that these are the statements the Institute got founded for, and he’s glad when Jon tells them to give him any weird statements they unearth in the Archives. 

 

After a few weeks, Martin realises that he can tell when Jon records a BS—his dark skin takes on a weirdly ashen tint and instead of looking like he hasn’t slept in a week, he starts to look as if he hasn’t slept in a month. 

Not that Martin cares, of course. 

He also definitely doesn’t try to make Jon leave earlier. (All he gets for his troubles are scathing remarks, but for some reason he can’t stop himself from caring. It’s a true curse. He wonders what his mother would say.)

Jon also gets even beastlier, especially when confronted with Martin, and seems to need the rest of the week to regain his footing. This does not help with the caring too much problem either. 

Somehow, impossibly, despite all of the evidence to the contrary, Jon resolutely tears apart every statement he records, even those that send shivers of dread down Martin’s spine. Possible hallucinations and mental breakdowns of the statement givers aside, Martin still can’t believe quite that someone working for the Magnus Institute continues to deny everything despite having near-constant, obvious proof as to the contrary. 

Especially with the scrambled files and all that. It’s not like it isn’t obvious. Even Elias seems to be amused by Jon’s antics. 

Sometimes Martin wonders if Jon truly doesn’t believe in them, or if it’s just an act to distance himself. If so, Martin can only hope that it’s helping. 

 


 

It’s after an especially harrowing statement—one about spiders, apparently; Jon seems to have a phobia of spiders—that Martin decides to make Jon tea, despite his own better judgement. 

The day’s been slow-going so far and it’s surprisingly cool downstairs so Martin has spent most of it wearing his jacket, but the kitchen is warm so he discards it by the time he makes his way to Jon’s office, tea-cup carefully balanced in his hands. 

The door is closed, as always. 

Martin hesitates for far too long. He knows that Jon doesn’t actually care about the kind of tea he drinks, and that he also doesn’t seem to care about anything else about it. But what if that’s wrong? What if he made the wrong kind of tea, and what if Jon somehow likes it too bitter or too watery or—? What if—

He knocks before he can lose himself in the thought spiral, and when he hears Jon’s stiff “come in,” he carefully opens the door and pushes his way inside.

The office is a mess. 

It also still looks as if Jon hasn’t changed a thing about it since he took over from Gertrude, even if it’s been several months by now. 

“I-I made y-you tea, it looked… it looked like you might n-need some,” Martin says, nervously pushing his way inside. 

“Mnh,” Jon says, still bowed over whatever pile of paper he’s looking at now. Every conceivable surface is covered in paper, except for a small path on the ground, which Martin now steps on to carefully navigate his way toward the desk.

Jon looks up. For a moment, their eyes meet. He looks miserable in a way Martin hasn’t seen him, ever? The bags under his eyes are of such a deep bruised purple that Martin wants to gather him up in his arms and carry him to the next hospital by himself, just to make sure that he actually arrives. (Funny, Jon is so small that Martin could probably … do that. Not that he’d dare to, ever. Jon’s presence is that of a cave-bear, woken up half-way through hibernation, hungry and wild and mad. But he could. That thought makes something rise up inside him, but he squashes the feeling before it can show up on his face.)

“Where, mhm, where should I. Put it?” Martin asks to distract himself. 

Jon’s eyes focus, and then he’s staring at Martin’s… chest? For, like, at least a minute. His skin somehow manages to pale a bit further, until he looks like he’s seen a ghost. Or maybe he’s turned into a ghost? 

Then Jon’s eyes turn cold and something seems to snap shut in his face, all emotions pushed back inside, doors and windows barred.

“On the desk,” Jon snaps, breaking whatever spell had fallen over him, turns away. “And please don’t violate the dress-code again, Martin.” He manages to put so much poison into his name that Martin can feel himself shrink, even if he’s mostly confused. What was that?  

“Y-yeah. Sure, J-Jon,” he mumbles, putting the teacup down with a clink (he forgot the coaster but who cares about that now?), and then he flees the room before he can think dumb thoughts and get himself into more trouble. 

 

Tim’s gaze is anticipatory when Martin returns, but his expression immediately turns angry when he notices Martin’s face. “What happened?” he asks before hugging Martin, and Martin kind of melts into the hug and tries not to think. 

“He d-didn’t even say anything about the stupid t-tea,” he mutters, “he just s-said not to violate the dress-code. What am I even doing, Tim? Please just shoot me. Put me out of my m-misery…” 

“What, over an old band-shirt?” Tim asks disbelievingly, “last time I checked he hadn’t turned into Elias yet. I will have a word with him.” 

Martin just nods and is incredibly grateful for Tim’s existence. 

He tries not to think of the moment before Jon snapped, on the way he looked at Martin, with nothing of the usual scorn. 

It proves impossible. 

 


 

Of course it has to be the same damn spider statement that ends up bringing Martin into personal contact with the supernatural. And it wasn’t even a spider! 

He knew that investigating the BS by breaking into someone’s home probably wasn’t such a good idea, he knew it, but of course he still had to meet that…that thing in person before he actually started to believe in his own damn intuition. Of course. Because life can never be easy, can it? 

It was only a matter of time, but he really would’ve rather it be an evil book that finally did him in, not an eerie, horrifying worm-person…monster… thing. 

He’s always hated filth (if he hadn’t been a compulsive cleaner, the flat he lived in with his mother would’ve turned into a dumpster; she’s always been a terrible hoarder and even worse at keeping things clean), and now there’s a not-woman waiting for him in front of his flat door, and it’s still dark outside, and nobody knows anything—

And it’s knocking on his door. 

He can hear it everywhere in his flat, because his flat is tiny, and apart from the bathroom and the kitchen there’s only his one room, the door far too thin and flimsy to give him any form of reprieve. He’s put any towel and any shirt and really any kind of fabric he could get his hands on in the gaps around the door, and then the gaps around the windows, anywhere a worm might try to squeeze through. 

His heart is still thudding like it’s trying to escape. Like it’s trying to outrun the horrors waiting for him, and he can’t even blame it. 

 

Now he’s huddling on the ground, back leaned against the wall, staring at the door to his flat in shivering terror. 

It’s like a trance. Like he’s become bewitched. Like he can’t move.

He doesn’t even have his phone and he never bothered to get a landline (who needs one, these days?). There’s no electricity in his flat, either. He checked. The lights won’t turn on. 

He’s hungry, but in this dim, dull way; he knows it’ll be hours until he can make himself move.

 

Time flows like syrup. At one point it gets brighter, and then everything sinks back into darkness.

 

Knock, knock. 

 

He doesn’t know when he realises that this must be what’s left of Jane Prentiss, waiting to turn him into something like herself.

The thought is so horrifying that he just sits there for a while, trying to wrangle down the horror boiling up in his throat like bile.

 

Knock, knock. 
 

At one point he finally manages to make himself move. His limbs have fallen asleep hours ago—if only the rest of him had, too, but he’s too scared to sleep, and too tired to think, yet his mind is constantly turning, and turning, and turning—and it takes a long while until feeling returns, and then even longer until the feeling isn’t pain. 

Every tiny ache makes him shudder, makes him feel tiny, writhing bodies burying him his skin, his flesh, eating away at— 

 

Knock, knock. 

 

Martin is infinitely glad that the pipes still work, that he still has access to water, at least. His mouth is bone dry and he spends at least half an hour in the kitchen, gulping down tiny amounts of water, just to feel at least somewhat alive. 

At least he has a few ready meals in his cupboards, and cans, for bad days, even if he’s never liked them very much. He curses himself for not having stocked up properly the day before. He’d wanted to go grocery shopping but he’d forgotten. 

And now it’s too late.

Because he’s a hostage in his own flat, and nobody knows. And he can’t even call anyone!

He wonders what the neighbours must think of the worm-thing sitting in the hallway, but his flat is on the highest floor, at the very end of the hallway. There aren’t many people who are going to come by. 

 

Knock, knock. 

 

Sometimes he wonders if he’ll die, and the shaking gets so bad that, at one point, he barricades himself in his bedroom, in his bed, and doesn’t resurface for another few days, except for necessities. His only company is the stuffed whale he once bought in a museum shop, and he clutches it, in his bed, feeling like nobody will ever miss him if he never returns to work.

Sasha and Tim might start to wonder where he is, but he really hopes that they won’t come to check.

He couldn’t bear it if they somehow got hurt. 

And, well, Jon will probably be relieved by his disappearance. No more useless archival assistants to command around, of course, but it’s not like it’ll make a major difference. 

For everyone else, life will carry on.

 

Knock, knock. 

 

He starts to ration his food after a few days, laughing a mad, broken laugh when Prentiss knocks just as he was sure that she’d finally gone. 

 

Sleep isn’t something he really gets much, these days. Any time he almost falls asleep, he’s either startled awake by the knocking, or he feels something slither up his leg, or down his back, and he starts screaming. 

He’s so tired, his eyes can’t even really focus on the books he’s trying to read. He doesn’t own many books, these days. There just isn’t that much space in his flat. 

He reads all of them multiple times, until he can recite parts by heart. 

The boredom slowly but surely drives him insane. 

 

Knock, knock. 

 

In the end, Martin doesn’t know when he starts singing. It’s not like he made a conscious decision about it, he’s sure of that, at least. 

It’s more that the lyrics were suddenly there, in his brain, and his mouth made the executive decision to form words, and then there he was, singing. 

 

Your soul is connected to the world you’re in,
You’re dragging it down with the weight of your sin,
Surrounded by temptations and you just give in,
We’re falling into the flames… 

 

Oh, if only he had a flame thrower right about now. He doesn’t like fire overly much—the wounds fire leaves scare him quite badly, if he thinks about it—but right about now he’d kill for a flame thrower. He’d kill with the flame thrower. Though, is it really killing when the thing you’re incinerating has become twisted into—that? Isn’t it closer to, to… salvation? 

Did Prentiss choose to become this thing? 

Why does that thought scare him so much? 

 

Knock, knock. 

 

He starts with his favourite album, his favourite songs, but at one point the songs stop being in the proper order. It doesn’t matter. The sound soothes him, calms him. He can’t listen to the proper recordings, of course, but the Mechanisms have come a part of him so much that, by this point, he doesn’t really need to. He can still hear them as clear as day. He isn’t sure if that’s the sleep loss or not. And anyways, it doesn’t matter. It’s like balm upon his poor, tormented soul, soothing him like nothing else could. The Mechanisms have been there for him for years now, through thick and thin, and of course they aren’t abandoning him now! 

Sometimes the singing gets muddled because he starts to cry, but that’s okay, too. He can still hear it, even if the words are drowned. 

At one point he also realises that he stops hearing the knocking when he’s singing, because the words become his world, rushing through his blood, through his soul. They’re so second-nature that he falls asleep singing that night (day?) and it’s the first half-decent sleep he’s had in, what, three days? Four days? Ten days?

He can’t tell anymore. 

 

Knock, knock. 

 

At one point he hallucinates that Jon has come to save him, but of course he hasn’t. 

Nobody will come because nobody will notice. 

But he has Jonny d’Ville—funny how similar the first name is, as if Martin had a type—and that has to be enough. 

 

Knock.

 

Silence.

 

“Martin! Good lord, Martin, are you alright? Martin! Martin!”

 

It’s only when someone calls his name, again and again, that he slowly pushes himself upright in his bed, “Old King Cole” dying on his lips, and realises that the door to his room is open, and that … 

Jon is standing there, something bare and broken and human in his face, except his eyes also so much darker than they’re supposed to be, and there are also too many of them, and he’s just standing there, bleeding weird too-dark not-blood from far too many holes in his face and neck and arms, oh god, it’s pooling around his feet, looking so helpless and tiny and frail, framed by the open door, arms half-outstretched—

Martin just stares at him, unmoving, sure that he’s going to disappear any moment now. That he’ll blink and Jon will be gone.

Because he obviously isn’t real. One, Jon would never come for him, and how would he even know to come? 

But, and much more importantly, two: there are so many emotions on Jon’s face, it’s hard to keep track of them.

He looks like Jon, only he can’t be Jon, because Jon doesn’t have any emotions besides anger and frustration.

At least not with Martin.

Jon… Jon would never look at Martin with such— affection in his eyes.

Martin blinks. 

Jon is still there. He has less eyes, thankfully. Only two. Which is how many eyes people are supposed to have. Right? Even if Jon’s eyes are still much deeper than they’re supposed to be.

 

Martin swallows, heavily. 

 

He’s still not quite sure that this is real. Maybe Jon is just a hallucination? 

Maybe Martin is hallucinating now. It seems more logical than the alternative. 

 

“Martin”, Jon just says. There’s so much impossible relief in his voice. His eyes are so intense, looking far too deep, somehow, but not in the icy way of Elias’ eyes. They just seem… caring. 

 

“Jon,” Martin whispers, dimly noticing that he’s crying, and staring. He doesn’t care.

 

And that is that. 

Chapter Text

Jon doesn’t know what prompted him to run off to Martin in the first place. Or, alright, he knows exactly, but it’s not something he actually wants to confront. It hurts too much.

Problem is, once he’s started talking, his mouth just won’t stop.

“Uh, because… because I trust you. I-I’m trying to think about what to do, and I… If I did try this, I don’t want to do it alone. But we could leave here, you and me. Escape.” You and me. Really? Did you just say that out loud? His heart is thudding in his chest as if it’s trying to outrun his thoughts. He can barely hear Martin’s response over the blood rushing in his ears.

His hands are shaking and he can’t seem to make them stop.

“Jon. Don’t do this.”

“Do what?” He has no idea what Martin is talking about. Doesn’t know why he’s so disappointed, that Martin didn’t ask about that part. Doesn’t want to think about the pain it causes him.

“Make it my decision.”

Is that what he’s doing? “I’m not—”

But Martin interrupts him before he can even figure out what he’s wanted to say. “I mean, could you even survive at this stage? Is there anything else keeping you alive?” Martin laughs mirthlessly. The sound is grating and Jon finds himself flinching despite his best effort.

“Uh, I-I don’t know. I don’t—know. But… maybe it’s worth it? The risk—y-you and me, together, getting out of here—one way or another…” He’s thought about it, on his way up. Of course he has; it’s a good question. Can he still survive? But then again, shouldn’t he be dead anyways? Either this works, and he’s getting out, getting to live, with Martin, or he—or he dies.

Jon can’t say why death doesn’t scare him anymore, but it doesn’t.

Maybe it's because it’s the coward’s way out? He pushes that thought away, back to where it came from. After all, this isn ’t about him; it isn’t even about his guilt. It’s about them, about his—about his victims. The price is too high, and it isn’t him who is paying it. It’s everyone who gets too close and everyone who doesn’t; everyone who isn’t him.

Georgie did the right thing when she abandoned—when she decided to cut contact. He shivers at the thought of all the pain he’s caused, all the suffering he’s causing, every single night, and despises himself for how much he doesn ’t hate it anymore, This is what scares him—and it isn’t worth it.

It isn’t worth his sight, or his life.

I might actually do it, he thinks, and he isn’t sure how he feels about it.

“Jon.” Martin sighs, pulling him back into reality. Jon suddenly realises how stupid it was to come here. To impose himself on Martin like this. He really hasn’t thought it through, has he? These days it seems like he’s doing that less and less.

Sometimes he wishes he could just take it all back.

“No. No, o-of course, this was stupid; you have your own plans going on, don’t you?” he forces himself to say. Each word feels like he’s pulling it out through his throat with a nasty metal hook.

“Just— Look, I need to see this thing through with Peter to the end. If, If what he’s saying is even half true, I need to be there.”

And Jon understands. It’s just that he also has the impossibly strong urge to find a sharp knife and assassinate Peter Lukas right about now, and to grab Martin and drag him out of his horrid, too-empty office. Martin probably weighs twice as much as him though, and sometimes Jon isn’t sure if he himself still weighs anything at all. After all, he doesn’t really eat anymore, either.

He really misses Martin’s tea.

Funny, that the things that annoyed him to no end, years ago, are what he misses the most these days. He also really misses Martin’s smile. He doesn’t smile anymore. Martin has become as pale as a ghost, like he’s only ever half-way there.

Jon takes a deep if shaky breath. “But what if you don’t? We could just leave . I mean, whatever their plan is for me, I am damn sure that doing that isn ’t it. I’d derail everything— we could derail everything, and then just — leave!

When Martin starts laughing, it sounds like he’s crying and it breaks something inside Jon. Oh, how he’d love to reach out and stuff all the horrid laughter back inside, all the way down, and then hold Martin until he cries and Jon cries and then they—

Then we gouge our eyes out and everything will be fine?

He almost laughs at that thought, too, but he’s too tired. Too tired to even be angry with himself.

Things will never be fine again. Things haven’t been fine in a long while.

He doesn’t say anything, and he doesn’t move. He just looks at Martin, whose laugh slowly starts to fade away, until they’re both just standing there, staring at each other.

“What?” Jon asks.

“Nothing; it’s just—it’s just ironic, that’s all.”

“Martin…”

“Who are you kidding, Jon? You’re not going to do any of that.”

“I—I might,” Jon says.

Martin’s voice is horribly soft when he speaks; the false laugh still reverberates in it and Jon has never hated anything quite as much as the way it sounds, coming from Martin’s throat. “But you won’t. That’s why you came to me, isn’t it?”

Before he add anything more, Jon looks him directly into the eyes and says “I’m a, a monster , Martin. It-it would spare so many people so much pain, ” he laughs helplessly and flinches at its bitter cadence, “I mean, look at me! There will come a point where I can’t help myself anymore. Most of me doesn’t even want to stop, these days. That’s the worst part.” He can’t make himself meet Martin’s eyes, and Martin doesn’t respond. When the silence gets too long, too painful, Jon turns around and leaves, quietly pulling the door closed behind himself.

He doesn’t have the energy to cry as he makes his way back down to the Archives. He just feels empty. Drained.

If the idea was a faint concept at the start, it’s bloomed into something more. Maybe it would be best if he just… removed himself from the playing board.

 


 

The Archives are silent around him. Nothing moves.

He’s alone with himself and the silence, and usually he might prefer it that way, but not today.

Not after speaking to Martin.

Not after the fearful high of figuring out how to escape—and … everything that came after.



He’s been sitting in his office for an hour or two, staring sightlessly at the featureless wall. His thoughts are a maelstrom, spiralling deeper and deeper. He can’t seem to make them stop.

Can’t stop shaking, either. It’s cool in his office. It’s always cool down here, these days. Or maybe it just feels that way to him? He can’t remember when he last felt warm.

Was it before he died, or after?



I’m a monster, Martin .

No matter where he tries to steer his mind, it always circles back around to this. This sentence. This sentiment.

The fact that Martin didn’t say a word. How the silence shifted.

He couldn’t even meet Martin’s eyes.

What would he have found there? Resignation? Anger?

Fear?

Or maybe he would’ve found no emotion on his face at all. Martin is far too pale these days, far too… see-through.

But Martin knows what he’s doing.

He must know what he’s doing. He isn’t stupid, after all.

He’s never been stupid.



Jon sighs, and the sound reverberates through the empty room.

How long has it been since he came back down? A few hours, maybe… the lights in his room are far too dim.

He’s so tired.

There’s a clock on the wall opposite him but it stopped working a while ago. He hasn’t had the energy to buy new batteries. Or the courage to leave without making a mistake.

And it’s not like time really matters anymore.

He’s already died once.

There’s nobody left.

Even Martin didn’t say anything when he called himself a monster. Not that it surprises him—what was Martin supposed to say? It’s the truth, after all. Jon stopped being human a while ago, at the latest when he died.

When he should’ve died.

But I wanted to live.

And now he’s here, and he wonders what it would feel like to die, in this strange, detached sort of way. He probably can’t die the old-fashioned way anymore, there’s too much he survived.

But what if he removes his eyes? What if he—actually does it.

Nobody will truly miss him when he’s gone. Martin might have, once, but it feels like that ship has sailed a while ago. Basira doesn’t like him anymore anyways. At least not what he’s become. Just thinking about her or her disappointed rage sends shivers down his spine. And Melanie hates him. She wouldn’t bat an eyelash.

And then there’s Georgie. Would she care? He doubts she’d be fine with it but she broke off contact with him, not that he can blame her. Best not think of Georgie, really.



The Admiral would miss me.

He feels a pang of guilt at that, and a guilty laugh forces its way out of his throat. The Admiral would miss him.

He would definitely miss the Admiral, too.

Kind of sad, that this is what his life has become.

He likes the idea of it ruining Elias’ plans, though. It fills him with a snarling satisfaction, that Elias might see it and be too far away to do anything against it.

I used to have friends, he thinks, sadly. Basira was my friend, once.

Those were the times.

He wonders how the others are doing. Maybe he should try to fill the biting silence with their music? He has it on his laptop somewhere, he’s sure of it.

Basira might show up, and then they could reminisce about the good old times before the fear factory.



And then there’s also Daisy.

He can’t fathom the idea of leaving her behind.

He hasn’t told any of them yet. They haven’t been around.

They deserve the truth, all of them.

He thinks of leaving them a note on a piece of paper and sticking it to the tape, in case he doesn’t make it. The thought hurts.



I could just write “I quit”. Elias would hate that.

But I suppose so would they.



The hunger is particularly bad today. It feels like it’s going to dissolve him from the inside, like the hole that has become his stomach will start devouring his organs next. Until he’s hollow. A shell of what was once a human being, and is now achingly empty, to be filled with nothing but words and second-hand trauma.



Does he even still need the messiness inside his body? He can only barely remember when he last tried to eat actual food. It felt like chewing cardboard, with a horribly dry, papery texture. It tasted like it, too. Even the smell made him dizzy with nausea.

The only thing that still tastes good these days is tea with far too much honey, but Martin isn’t there to make it for him anymore, and he’s never managed to make (or buy) one even half as good.

Martin, Martin, Martin.



Sometimes he gets dizzy, or his vision blurs during the most mundane things.

He hates himself for his weakness, and hates himself even more for the yearning hunger shivering inside his chest.

How he sometimes gets so consumed by it that he can do nothing more than sit in his office, near-catatonic.

Usually, it’s Basira who frees him from that state by barging in without knocking.

He hasn’t seen her in hours.

Maybe it’s for the best that he’s like this, and that he doesn’t leave the Archives anymore. Last time he went for a walk, he ended up almost eating someone. He didn’t do it, in the end, but the worst thing—

The worst thing is that he only didn’t because he’d been afraid of the fallout.

Of Basira and Melanie or, well… of Martin finding out.

Especially of Martin finding out.

Sometimes he remembers the tape Martin left Basira, of Jess Terrell’s statement. Remembers the way she described him. Remembers that Martin was there with her, listening to every word she spoke. His resigned voice hurt the most. Like he’d seen it coming and didn’t have it in him to be surprised. Because why would he? It’s a slow descent but anyone who looks at Jon for long enough can see where it will end. And if it weren’t for Basira and Melanie and, well, also Martin—he’d probably… do something really stupid, right about now.

He did something stupid, multiple times already, and he knows it ’s only the start. It’ll get worse. He’s seen the—the other Avatars, and, well, most of them seemed to be having fun. Even Oliver had accepted his fate.

When does the guilt and horror become second nature? When will it stop actually bothering him?

He should feel remorse for what he did, but he doesn’t. He feels guilty for the pain he’s causing others, but he doesn’t feel guilty for taking their statements.

He feels worse for having been caught than for the actual act, and that’s what scares him the most, really. When has he started becoming—this? Did it start when he got promoted to Head Archivist? Good lord, he remembers his nervousness well enough, the nausea at the things described in the statements. How he clung to normalcy and denial.

Did it start then, or later?

Gertrude never seemed to have had these kinds of problems.



Sometimes he wonders if she would’ve shot him on sight.

 


 

After half an hour, he’s so restless that he leaves his office in search of a few statements he hasn’t read yet. Eric Delano’s statement helped a bit but it’s not like the written ones really do much for him anymore. Even those the Eye does not want him to see. Even those Elias keeps locked away in his—well, Peter’s—office.

They’re better than nothing though, and so he makes his way to the Archives, walking between the shelves in search of that particle of truth among an ocean of lies and delusions.



These days, the Archives are much less of a mess than they used to be during Gertrude’s reign. At one point he stopped caring though, so there are still unsorted piles of paper everywhere. Was it after Elias framed him for murder, when the truth started to take shape? These days it feels particularly useless; after all, he Knows the contents of a statement before he even reads it, not even to speak of the ability to tell truth from imagination (calling them “fiction” feels mean; most “fake” statements feel real to those who come here to write them off their chest, after all).

It still takes him a while to find something palatable but even when he does, the emptiness refuses to budge after he’s read it.

If anything, the hollow ache inside him is worse.

It makes him feel like crying, but it’s been years since he last cried, and—and he doesn’t want to discover that he can’t, anymore. Or something even worse. (He keeps having this horrible vision of him standing in front of a mirror, crying ink. He has no idea how he ’d deal with that. If he could still deal with that.)

Instead of crying, Jon does the next best thing and lets himself drop to the floor, rocking gently back and forth until the tightness in his chest abates a tiny bit. He takes a deep, hitching breath.



Until today, there was nothing he could do about any of this.



But now, he Knows.

 


 

It doesn’t take him long to find his way back to his office, in the end.

He’s in a strange, uncaring daze, almost; things don’t quite register as they should.



All things considered, there isn’t much that scares him more than losing his sight. He can scarcely imagine what it would be like, to have to relearn how to navigate the world, and reading, oh god, reading , and writing, all those things he’s been taking for granted…

If it doesn’t just outright kill him at this point.

He really can’t tell.



Somehow it feels selfish to take this step. To just… make it everyone else’s problem. To make this choice and just… step away from it all, either through dying if he’s not human enough anymore, or through… living, unbound.

But then again, it’s not like they can’t handle themselves, right? Like Basira won’t be fully capable of taking control, or like any of them don’t know what they’re doing.

That they won’t be glad when he becomes one less problem for them to handle; when they won’t have to worry about him running off and forcing some poor person to recount their worst trauma for his god’s delight.



It’s surprisingly easy to choose a sharp-enough-looking pencil.



To close the door to his office.



To text Basira to call him an ambulance.



The pain is far, far worse than shaking Jude Perry’s hand.

Faintly, he can hear someone scream his name, feels hands on his shoulders, grabbing him so tightly that it hurts.

It’s swallowed by the pain, and his screams, and he has no words for the sensation he feels, like something behind his eyes, behind the pain, sucking him inward until he’s so delirious, so dazed, that he blacks out.

 


 

For a time, Jon floats.



It’s a feeling beyond time and space.

Beyond pain and suffering.

Beyond thinking and feeling, beyond the senses, beyond anything really.

At the heart of fear, maybe? In the centre, where the calm is eternal and unchanging, its shifting influenced by the warping of reality outside.



When he falls, he falls in another direction, on a slightly crooked path.



It will not let him go but it cannot send him back from where he came.

Elsewhere, then.

A new start.

A slight twist.



When it pushes Jon back into his new reality, the body that is his yet never was warps slightly beneath its touch, and adapts to the mind now occupying it—so similar yet so alien.



Jonathan Sims falls into a restless dream, the first (and last) normal dream he’s had in years.

 


 

Wakefulness happens to Jon like being hit by a train.

He can feel it coming long before it happens, but then it’s suddenly there, and then he’s awake.



At first it feels like a dream, and he’s content to just lie there, unmoving.

Then he realises that he is, in fact, lying there .

That the surface he’s lying on feels like a bed, and not even like the lumpy monstrosity that calls itself ‘mattress’ that’s in the cot in the Archives.

It feels like an actual, proper bed with an actual, proper blanket.

For a moment he wonders if he lost his mind alongside his sight, and then he opens his eyes from reflex, and the worst thing is—



He sees a room.

It isn’t his office, either, or the hospital.

It’s a room he hasn’t seen in a long time, in a flat he hasn’t been in for—years?

He stares at it for far too long without truly understanding what he’s seeing, his mind grasping at every—any—possible explanation, really. It makes no sense. None of this makes any sense. What’s going on?

But his vision is strange; too… too wide somehow, like he’s seeing more than he should be, like his field of vision has expanded.

He blinks, and it’s disorienting .

Spiral? his mind wonders immediately but he pushes both the thought and the resulting fear down, and stays safely in bed, unmoving.



It’s been so long since he’s seen this room.



He shouldn’t be able to see anything at all.



Maybe it’s a particularly vivid dream-hallucination? But he only ever stalks statement-givers in his dreams these days, and this feels solid, somehow.

If it were a hallucination, he wouldn’t feel the mattress, or the blanket.



He closes his eyes again and tries to ignore the splitting headache that’s slowly building up like a thunderstorm waiting to happen, rain-heavy nightmare-clouds piling up into the sky until they’re everything there is.



Jon makes the executive decision to drift back to sleep.

 


 

When he wakes again later, there's a faint buzzing panic underlying everything else. At first he isn't sure what it is and where it's coming from, until he realises that his phone alarm is going off, that it's—

That it's late?

When did he last use an alarm? When did he last sleep long enough to need one, or in a place that required him to get up at a certain time and leave for, well, work?

Does being Head Archivist still count as work? He remembers a time when he told people that he had no problem with his job becoming his life but back then no-one could've guessed how ironically fitting that sentiment would turn out to be.



His mind is still a jumble of unsorted thoughts.



After lying uselessly in bed for long enough that the alarm stops altogether (he remembers this alarm clock, a useless thing he once bought second-hand for uni... except it had stopped working years ago, hadn't it…) he finally forces himself to open his eyes again.



The effect is exactly as dizzying as before.

In fact, maybe it's worse because he's prepared for it this time around.



Somehow he can't find it in himself to be surprised.

Of course the Eye wouldn't let him go that easily; not him, not now that he's become... this.

He pushes down the rage with difficulty, but he pushes it down nevertheless. It won't help him.



Next problem is—something has changed, and he hates it. Hates how... strange the world surrounding him seems. It's somehow different from when he last woke, too, but in ways he can't put into words. It just feels different? And there's... too much he can see.

Jon raises his hands to his face to rub at his eyes and realises three impossible things:

His burn scar is gone, that's the one that's most obvious, if the least unnerving. It's far worse that he can see his fingers from more angles than he should be able to, and when he closes his eyes, his vision doesn't cut away abruptly the way it's supposed to be. It shutters closed a tiny bit too late.



His mind stops, held into place by a faint, screeching horror, and he keeps his eyes firmly shut.



His hand moves as if it has a will of its own, as if it's not him moving it but something else, fingers slowly gliding down from his eye to his cheekbone.

There's nothing there.

He isn't sure if he's relieved or not but relief definitely plays a large role as his fingers carefully explore his face, heart in his throat, and find… nothing.

Except three thin, slightly elevated lines; two beneath his eyes, and one in the middle of his forehead.



He isn't sure how he feels about that and has a horrible sinking feeling that he knows exactly what they are, where they come from, and what they mean.



Whatever happened, however it happened, something has changed, and it isn't just him.



He's in a room a lifetime away, with an alarm clock that stopped working ages ago, and…

He doesn't even want to think about it, just wants to crawl back under the blanket, but it's not like he'll ever get to escape. The only thing he hoped might work has failed, and it's … done this to him, whatever this means.



Jon sighs, and despite everything inside him screaming not to do so, he opens his eyes again and pushes the blanket aside, sits up, and blinks a few times.



The weird effect is there every time. Like monitors flickering off one after another, almost in sync but not quite.



He shivers.



His weird, dizzying gaze falls on his arms and he faintly realises that the worm scars are gone, too. That his head is too light. That there's no hair tickling the back of his neck.

That he hasn't felt this awake, this good, in years.



Maybe it was the Spiral after all.

 


 

After sitting there for another five minutes, Jon pushes himself to his feet and tries to forcibly ignore everything weird around him while he does his best to remember his way to the bathroom.

The—his?—flat is exactly how he recalls it except that it's obviously lived-in, and that the chaos isn't half as bad as it was when he left for the last time.

He isn't sure how to feel about that fact or the impossible conclusion that slowly pushes itself more and more into focus.



Walking turns out to be more difficult than anticipated because of his perception shift. He feels a bit like he’s drunk, unbalanced somehow, but he does arrive at the bathroom, pushes the door open.

Braces himself, and looks into the mirror.



There are several things that shock him, but none of them are what he was bracing himself for.

He has two eyes, just like he should. They look… darker, somehow… but there are just… two.

He can’t even see the lines he felt. His skin looks the way it’s supposed to, and yet it isn’t…his.

The worm scars are gone in his face as well.

The bags under his eyes are far less pronounced. It almost looks like he’s had sleep in the past week. (Which he did, judging from the fact that he woke in a bed. )

There’s a bit of stubble on his cheeks, as if he’d shaved it off a day ago.

Apart from the dazed, horrified expression, he almost looks put-together. Better than he has in years . Like he did before he got transferred. Promoted. Before his life shifted away from his control, even if he had no idea what was happening.



For one tiny, delicious moment Jon considers that it was all just a bad dream. That he’s still a researcher, that he isn’t beholden to some ancient fear entity, that he didn’t stab his eyes out with a pencil. That the smell wafting out of restaurants doesn’t make him shiver with nausea, and that he can’t tell which Statements are real, which people have Stories, which—



That he can’t still feel echoes of that horrid pain if he thinks about it, and that Martin never got dragged away from him by Peter Lukas, that he’ll be fine. That Georgie and Melanie and Basira don’t hate him, that Sasha still lives, and Tim, oh God, Tim



That he can’t remember hands clutching at him as he was dragged down into unconsciousness, can’t remember Daisy’s voice brokenly calling out his name.



He sobs, and then he groans, hand going up to his forehead to rub small, soothing circles into the skin in the hopes of alleviating the surging headache.

Thing is, he flinches before his fingers can even meet the spot, because they seem to descend straight into his field of vision, into his eye , even if he knows that they would have touched his forehead.

For a few moments he doesn’t move, just stares at his fingers with an eye that isn’t there, can’t be there.

Until he slowly lifts his hand to his hairline—well out of way of…whatever this is—and then slowly moves it down.

It’s disorientating.

He can feel his heart starting to creep into his throat as he pushes down, and then—

Something tickles against his finger, and something closes but it isn’t his eye, or, well, it is, but—

He can feel an eyelid and eyelashes where the mirror acts as if nothing’s there. In the centre of his forehead. His field of vision has changed, too, become slimmer with the not-eye half-shut.



He stares at himself, hand slowly sinking down, feeling an emotion similar to dread but more visceral somehow, and he can’t even put any of it into words.

Dimly, he hears the alarm going off in his bedroom again. Did he press the snooze button? He didn’t, right? The blood rushing in his ears is deafening and yet, he raises his hand again. Touches the lower edge of his right (mostly normal) eye. He shouldn’t be able to see much of his hand, and yet—he does. From more than one angle, which shouldn’t be possible, either.

Again.

When his fingers move down slowly, he can feel the shape of the eye-that-isn’t-there-yet-is.

He stares at himself in the mirror, feeling numb.

Does this mean that he has invisible phantom eyes now? Is this his punishment for trying to escape? But what about the lack of scars, of—of all this?

He faintly remembers his dream, the strange lurching sensation dragging him inward, as ephemeral and weird as it felt. He prods at the eye he can only feel, the eye he can see through that still doesn’t seem to exist.

He wishes he could burrow inward and understand what happened, what’s going on.



Something shifts. It feels like at the optician’s office, switching between different lenses, his sight getting sharper or blurrier, except that isn’t what’s happening.

It’s something about the colours, flickering across the face that watches him from inside the mirror, the face that is his yet isn’t, looking far younger than him, less broken by the weight of the world and the consequences of his choices, and then

Then there are Eyes, staring back at him from where he could feel them before.

One in the middle of his forehead.

One underneath each of his normal eyes.

He can feel something Else watching through them, hiding in the too-dark blackness of his pupil, spilling out like oil over his irises. There’s a tiny, almost invisible current of green running through them that definitely wasn’t there before, and he shudders, staring at the phantom in the mirror.

Jon twists his head slightly. His eyes reflect the light weirdly, the tiny greenness flashing like the eyes of a cat in headlights. When he blinks, his normal eyes blink a fraction of a second faster than the others. He can see it.

He wants to say something, curse, profess his weariness, anything; but all that makes it out is yet another groan, and so he just stares, and then he slowly backs away from the mirror.

When he blinks, the eyes vanish from the mirror.



What will Basira say now? The thought brings a tiny, hysterical laugh to his lips and he doesn’t manage to clamp down on it in time. The sound grates down his spine with the pointed sharpness of Helen’s fingers. Not for the first time he considers if she’s mixed up in all of this, if it’s just some cruel joke.

Maybe all of this is some strange, horrifying hallucination conjured up instead of dreams, now that he took the final step and removed himself from the game. Maybe the Spiral saw its chance and slipped into the hole left behind by the Eye?

The thought is terrifying but moments after he’s let himself think it, he Knows that—whatever happened to him—it’s the Beholding’s doing. And if he can still Know things…

What day is

March 10, 2016.



And for once things start making absolute sense, even if they don’t make any sense at all.

 


 

It takes Jon a while to reorient himself in his flat, reacquaint himself with a space he’s outgrown long ago, shed like a snake sheds its old skin. Or a spider , the Eye provides, and he shivers at that thought and distracts himself by going through his wardrobe.

It still holds all the things he’s missed for so long—but they ache in a way he doesn’t really want to examine. He finds 3 different What the Ghost t-shirts, from the early generations of Georgie’s merch, and at the very back of it are all the steampunk things he’d worn as Jonny d’Ville. It feels like a lifetime ago, or two, or maybe even three. Like there was one life that reached until he left school, one that encompassed his time at uni and with the Mechs, and then his job as a researcher at the Magnus Institute, back before everything went downhill.

By that count I’ve reached my sixth life now , he thinks and doesn’t quite know if he’s bitter about it, or sad, or amused, or if it’s all of those things rolled into one.

The fourth life ended when I died, and my fifth life ended when I tried to kill the Archivist and become Jon again. Just Jon.

And now he’s here, and he hasn’t succeeded.

And it’s 2016 again.

Half a year too late to stop working as Head Archivist. …is he still the Archivist, or has the Eye transformed him into something else entirely? A ghostly shiver skitters down his spine at that thought and he shoves it down, away. The Eye doesn’t respond, of course, so he sighs and continues to look through his things. If he’s back here—less than a year as Head Archivist, but already tied in ways he hadn’t understood until it was far too late for him—then maybe he can do things differently this time around. Save everyone who—who died.

He’ll have to reacquaint himself with Jon Sims from 2016, and the best place to start doing that is right here. To look at all the things his past self owned, to maybe become more tethered in this time? Something inside him cries out at that thought too, but… it’s too late.

Another burden added to the pile, shouldn’t be too hard to handle, right? His chest tightens but he refuses to examine the pain, shoves it down and away ruthlessly.

He isn’t ready to deal with it yet.

Did time get rewound or is it like a parallel dimension? (Did he abandon everyone he cared for without the ability to make things better for them while still being forced to continue on like this?—) The questions pierce his heart with the viciousness of a rusty knife and it takes several minutes until he’s gathered himself enough to even think again.

The only good thing about all of this is that he gets to go through all his old things, and that that’s the best distraction he could’ve come up with.



The longer he goes through them, the more he realises that he Knows every single item. Knows where they came from, where they were before he got them as gifts, or bought them himself; remembers people he hasn’t seen in years, their names immortalised in books and cards and other paraphernalia he had forgotten about.

Remembering them now brings a dull, sad pain that tightens his chest.

When did he last speak to his friends from his university days? True, apart from the Basira and the others in his band, he’d met them through Georgie and so he hadn’t really contacted them after they’d broken up, but still.

Remembering hurts far worse with distance, because he knows that in his past he didn’t hear from any of them ever again.



And then the alarm goes off again, except he’s in the right room this time and it only takes him a few moments to realise that it is, in fact, not his alarm but his phone.

Sasha.

His heart does a strange little jolt when he reads her name, and his hands shake as he accepts the call. Her voice isn’t familiar to him at all and he hates how much it hurts; how much the Not Them took from him, from Tim, from Martin—

Oh God, Martin.

Did he die in his own timeline? (Is that really what happened? It still feels so surreal as to be nearly impossible.)

“Jon! Where are you? Are you alright?” a woman asks from inside his phone, concern and annoyance bleeding through to equal amounts.

“Y-Yeah, I… I think so?” he says, not sure what else to say. I time-travelled and have no idea what’s going on, oh and I seem to have five eyes now. Oh, and I’m a monster who eats fear and I can’t die because any time I try to escape, it somehow gets worse. I’ll do my best to keep you from dying, Sasha, if that really is you, I can’t seem to recognise your voice anymore, just the impostor who ate your life—

“You don’t sound alright,” the woman says. Sasha. It’s Sasha. It must be. Sasha!

He wonders what she’ll look like and is equally relieved and annoyed that the Eye doesn’t tell him. Maybe it’s the Stranger’s interference, cancelling out the Eye?

“Jon?”

“Oh, yeah, uh. Why are you calling again?” he manages to ask, still not quite over hearing her speak.

If he’d thought that that would be enough to reconnect the broken memories in his head, it isn’t the case. His Sasha still remains lost and blurry.

He can’t quite believe that he’s talking to her right now, to a past version of her anyways, at the very beginning of this whole ordeal.

Has she met Michael yet? Sometimes it’s hard to keep the events straight in his mind, to remember what happened when.

“Uhm, it’s Thursday, Jon? Where are you?”

Jon stiffens. Thursday.

“I tried calling a few times already but you didn’t pick up. Are you sick, too? What’s going on?”

“I—I—” He tries to make the words come but they’re just—stuck. Great first day at work! Why didn’t the Beholding tell him about this when it informed him of the date?

Does it change anything?

I ’ve never been late to work in my life.

He almost wants to laugh at that sudden panic. It’s not like anyone cares. Past-him didn’t know that yet, at this point, but—

Oh. It will be quite hard to pass off as Jon, won’t it? At least the others don’t know about the Not Them yet, or they might think he got replaced.

Which, well, isn’t so far from the truth, actually.

What am I doing here?

“I— forgot something important,” he says lamely, “I am on my way. I’m—sorry that I forgot to tell you.” Too late he remembers that 2016-Jon would never have said sorry in such a manner, and that he would’ve sounded quite differently, too. He remembers how inadequate he felt and how he tried to make up for it by being as brusque as possible, afraid of anyone getting too close and realising the truth.

There are few things he regrets more than that, especially how he treated Martin.

Martin.

“Alright,” Sasha says. Her voice sounds dubious and he knows she isn’t buying it one bit. He suppresses a groan and closes his eyes, all five of them.

What if they can see the eyes and it ’s just the mirror that doesn’t pick up on them all the time? Even my normal eyes changed.

Maybe I should just tell them the truth. But he brushes that thought away instantaneously. He knows how Tim feels about the supernatural, and he knows that Sasha worked in Artifact Storage.

They definitely won’t appreciate it if their boss got replaced by a monster feeding on fear, even if that monster is also their boss.

Just later.

Many mistakes later.

Jon takes a deep breath and remembers that he’s still on the phone with Sasha. Who hasn’t hung up on him yet, for whatever reason.

The silence hangs heavily between them and he wonders if Sasha is doing it on purpose. Giving him the opportunity to talk to her?

“I’m fine, Sasha,” he mutters. “get back to work.”

She laughs at that and even if he doesn’t know her anymore he can feel that she’s shaking her head at that.

“Fine,” she says, “but hurry up. Tim is going mad with boredom.”

“And Martin?” he hears himself ask as if from a distance, and he hates how his voice is almost shaking. This isn’t his Martin. He has to remember that.

“He hasn’t come in yet, I think he’s still sick? Didn’t he text you? You said so yesterday, too.” He can hear the amusement in her voice and it doesn’t help his nerves one bit.

“O-Oh, uh, right,” he lies, “see you… later.”

“Bye, Jon.”

She hangs up. He stays frozen to the spot, deep in thought. Obviously, he will have to go to work now, won’t he? It will be suspicious if he doesn’t show up. Jonathan Sims is known for being the first through the door, hours too early, so he can get a good head-start. To be the one who leaves (if he even does leave).

At this point he supposes he has to be glad that he got to wake up here instead of at the Archives. He probably wouldn’t have put things together quite as quickly if he hadn’t.

The worst thing about the extra eyes is that, by now, he’s almost gotten used to the change in his field of vision. It’s still disorienting but it doesn’t make him quite as dizzy anymore.

He just hopes that Elias won’t be able to spot the difference. Maybe he should start wearing sunglasses? Though that would only make him more suspicious…

“Right,” he mutters to himself, and then he chooses the least uncomfortable piece of clothing he can find—damn Elias and his dresscode and also his own past self—grabs his bag and his keys and his phone, and then he leaves, hoping anxiously that nobody else will notice how many eyes he has now.

That he won’t feel the need to eat anyone on his way there.

 


 

By the time he arrives at the Institute it’s almost midday. Thankfully nobody has stared at him oddly so far so he’s reasonably sure that most people can’t see his extra eyes. He isn’t sure if the other Avatars will be able to spot them—probably—but at least he won’t scare anyone uselessly on public transport.

Rosie greets him as he makes his way past the reception desk, and he smiles at her and greets back, only noticing by her surprised expression that this is Not in character for Jonathan Sims.

Fuck, it’s like he isn’t even trying .

Then again, is he, really? He isn’t a good liar, never has been, but he is quite decent at acting, and he’s always enjoyed it, too. Jonny d’Ville is just one example, multiple theatre classes and performances during school are another.

Maybe he should write himself a character sheet for past-him.

Thing is, he really doesn’t want to go back to being prickly to everyone he’s surrounded by, so he supposes that this is how it will go.



The Archives are filled with Tim’s raucous laughter when Jon pushes the heavy door open.

“Hi boss!” Tim greets him, feet propped up on the pile of paperwork lying on his desk, arms spread wide, leaned back as far as he can in his chair, “we thought you’d been eaten by—by a giant spider or something!”

Jon wants to roll his eyes at him but instead he just stands there and stares, and somehow there are tears in his eyes —all of them?—and he can ’t stop staring, and then his bag is falling to the ground and he still can’t stop.

“… are you alright?” Tim asks after a while, grin slipping off, replaced by a strange uncertain worry.

“Tim,” Jon just croaks, and swallows the I missed you so much and the I’m so sorry and all the other embarrassingly messy emotions welling up from who-knows-where.

Tim, for his part, just frowns.

“…Sasha said you were sounding off on the phone but I-I didn’t really understand what she meant.” He lowers his eyes, then looks to the side.

Jon follows his gaze, feeling dazed and numb.

A dark-skinned woman is coming around the shelves, black curly hair held back by a colourful hair band, looking at him with a quizzical expression on her face.

He doesn’t recognise her at all, and yet, there’s something about her that he’s drawn to instantly, something he can’t put into words. He isn’t even sure what part of him is pulled by it, if it’s actually him, or the part of him that hates himself for failing her, or the part of him that belongs to the Eye. Is it triggered by the curiosity he sees shining in her eyes, as obviously as a candle’s flame in darkness? It was her curiosity that brought her here, after all, same as him. She would’ve made a far better Head Archivist, too.

“Sasha,” he hears himself whisper, all colour drained from his face and his voice.

He feels like a piece of paper, blank and lifeless.

“I missed you both so much,” he chokes out, his voice breaking into a thousand tiny shards upon the words; he hates himself for his weakness, for making it this obvious that there’s something wrong with him, but he’s too tired to care, too shocked to care.

Too much has happened in the past few hours and it’s only now catching up to him.

Tim and Sasha are just staring and it's not like he can blame them, right? What would he do in their shoes?

“I’m so sorry,” the something that’s in control of his body says, and then he just kind of regains enough control to push himself past them toward his office, slamming the door shut, and collapses against it, breathing heavily.

Well. That was a train-wreck.

 


 

It takes Jon about an hour to gather himself enough to get back to his feet.



He hasn’t heard much from outside except for hushed voices and that’s probably for the best. He doesn’t want to hear what they’re going to say.



He wishes Martin were here, and then hates himself for it.

I left him behind with Peter Lukas. I didn ’t think, and I left him behind.

What if he would' ve needed my help in the future?

Now he' s actually alone, not just by his own choice.

Jon swallows down the tear, forces himself to survey his desk and the piles of paper. There’s a forgotten tea cup on it, too, balancing precariously on the edge. It has a tea bag in it. Jon disposes of the bag and puts the cup to the side, and then he starts to clean his desk.

The only good thing about being too much monster is that he Knows what the Statements will be about, and that he can also tell immediately which ones are real.

It’s not like it should’ve taken him long to figure that part out, given the tape recorder and all that, but the denial was more of an armour than anything else, really, and he can’t bring himself to blame his past self.



Two hours later, he’s done everything he could in his office. He doesn’t feel like re-recording Statements he’s already recorded. Instead, he braces himself and heads outside, walking toward Martin’s desk simply because it’s to the side and he can see both Sasha and Tim without having to stand the entire time.

He still feels strange on his legs, without all the little bits of chronic pain aching their way through his body. And the strange vision-shift.

The thing is, before he can really start talking, he looks at the Statement on Martin’s desk, look at his notes, and when he reads the name of the Statement-giver, it feels like he’s having a heart attack.

Carlos Vittery. The spider guy.

Prentiss.

 


 

“Jon, are you okay?” Sasha asks for the second time this day. He doesn’t dare look her in the eyes; he’s too close. She would definitely see that something’s off about him, well, more off than all of this, and anyways—

“No, I’m not okay,” he hears himself say and regrets everything immediately.

“Jon, look at me. You—whatever's going on, you can talk to us.”

He cringes in his chair, staring sightlessly at his folded, unscarred hands.

“Do you need a hug?” Tim’s voice is so hesitant, so quiet, that Jon almost doesn’t hear it at all.

His head nods without his input, and for a few beats, neither of them move.

Then Tim shifts and gets up, looks down at Jon. “I have no idea what happened to you, Jon, it must’ve been horrendous, but it’s an honour.” Then he pulls Jon bodily from his chair and crushes him in his arms.

Jon has never felt this guilty in his life but he hesitantly returns the hug. Even if Sasha doesn’t join in, he only barely manages to suppress his tears.

“I, uh, I think I’ll go home early,” he croaks once he can breathe again. “I—I’m sorry. For making you worry. And… this.” He tries to smile but is fairly sure that it looks sickly on his face. His mind is racing, though; every second he spends here is another second Martin will have to endure Prentiss. How many days has it been? Why is his memory so bad?

Ten and a half days, the Eye provides, and Jon only barely suppresses his shiver.

He can’t tell Tim and Sasha where he’s going, they might try to join him and they wouldn’t stand a chance against Prentiss; lying is the only option. Will they believe him, that he wants to go home? Maybe he’s wretched enough that they will. He can only hope.

“You must have a really horrible day,” Tim says with a half-grin-half-grimace and Jon just tries to school his face into a mask of indignation but he isn’t sure if it’s working.

“I’ll call Elias myself,” he says pointedly, “and I’ll try calling Martin again, too. I hope he’s better now.” Best to cover his bases.

Sasha gives him a weird glance and Tim’s face erupts into a barely disguised mischievous grin. “Sure, boss,” he just says, “sounds like a great plan.” The two of them exchange meaningful glances Jon can’t read but he doesn’t have time for this anyways, because Martin is sitting barricaded in his flat, eating canned peaches, and that’s just not acceptable.

“Fine,” he mutters but it isn’t half as snarky as he’d intended it. Tim lets go of him, and then he walks back to his office—tries not to rush—and grabs his things, before leaving the Archives.

He does run after the door falls shut behind him, ignoring Rosie’s bewildered glance and the fact that he can feel Elias’ eyes on him, which he hates.

 


 

Jon had forgotten to look up Martin’s address but it doesn’t really matter as he can just Know things, and today those things include Martin’s address and also, how to get there.

Jon wills the tube to go faster, and feels like time is coming to a stand-still.

There are far too many thoughts in his mind that he tries to keep suppressed at all cost, and it’s really hard to keep doing that when you have nowhere to go, nothing to do, are surrounded by far too many people, some of whom attract you in ways you don ’t want to think about —

But at last, the tube arrives, and then he’s off, pushing his way through the masses of people on either side, cursing his horrible stamina.



The building Martin lives in has a lot of floors, the elevator isn’t working, and Martin lives at the very top.

The way up is agonisingly slow, especially since Jon has absolutely no idea what he’s even going to do.

Is he going to stare Prentiss to death? He remembers the terror of worms burrowing into his flesh, remembers the pain, the fear on Martin’s face.

He really doesn’t like the Corruption one bit.



When, at last, he enters the corridor, she’s standing next to the door to Martin’s flat, what must count for her hand raised against the wood.



Knock, knock.



It echoes through the empty hallway. Jon wonders why nobody else noticed Prentiss being here. Are the other flats unoccupied?

The ground around her is covered in worms, more than ankle-deep. It’s the first time that he truly sees her, sees the horror her flesh has become, worms wiggling in and out of holes where no holes should be, horrifying in their impossibility.

She hasn’t noticed him yet. The worms don’t reach up to where he’s standing, halfway through the door to the staircase.

 

Knock

 

He wants to scream at her, but he doesn’t. Instead, he just looks, truly Looks, and something shifts in his vision, making her appear … different from before, even if he can’t say what it is, and then he speaks. “Jane Prentiss,” he says, because he has to do something , and he can taste the slightly acidic flavor of the Compulsion on his tongue, “Jane Prentiss, tell me your story.”

He faintly notices the worms stilling, as if they’re just one creature, and then all of them turn their sightless, horrible heads toward him, slightly upraised. Prentiss’ hand stops against the wood of Martin’s door, and she turns around just as her worms start rushing toward him, as inescapable as a tidal wave.

Somehow, the calm does not leave, even as the first worms leap at him at heights they should not be capable of achieving.

“Archivist, ” she hisses, but he doesn’t let her continue further than that.

Tell me your story!” he repeats, deadly calm, and Prentiss makes a horribly sickly sound, like she’s gagging against something, like she’s trying to withstand him and the power of his god, but she can’t. Even if he knows her origins from her statement, there are so many more sides to her Corruption, so much he hasn’t heard before, and as her inhuman voice trips over itself in its supernatural haste to tell him, he starts feeling better than he has in weeks.

It sickens him, somewhere deep below everything else, but he can’t really say that he’s regretting any of this, to give back to her what she first instilled in him.

He notices dimly that there are worms in his legs, his arms, up his neck and somehow, impossibly, against his face, and it hurts , but it doesn’t hurt half as bad as it should, and after a while, the attack stops. He doesn’t understand why, his eyes—all of them, opened wide—focused on Prentiss’, drinking it down, all the terror she felt and still feels, the horror she spread and still spreads; sweet and horrible upon his tongue.

She only stops speaking when she almost collapses, sucked dry, worthless to the Eye. He resurfaces like he’s waking from a dream, can feel something Change, and realises that the corridor somehow gets darker as he does so, that the green tinge that had clung to the walls and the ceiling has faded away as if it had never been there in the first place.

He decides to ignore his sudden, blooming concern and steadies himself against the wall, breathing hard.

There are no worms inside him, and the holes in his body are leaking a strange, black fluid instead of blood.

He almost doesn't notice Prentiss fleeing past him down the hallway, too horrified by what he’s done, how good it felt, and what it means.

 


 

For a few moments, he’s silent; motionless; completely and utterly uncertain as to his next action. Maybe he should just go? Martin will figure it out on his own, that Prentiss is gone. He did that last time, too—

Except it’s then that he hears the singing, faintly filtering through the too-thin walls and the flimsy-looking door, and suddenly the thought of leaving without seeing Martin is gone, replaced with a horrible worry that things changed, that worms got into his flat this time, that Martin is in danger, that if he waits even one moment longer they’ll—

He kicks through the door, momentarily horrified by the fact that he can do that , and almost stumbles over all the towels and shirts Martin has stuffed into the edges in his haste to get to him, to make sure that he ’s okay, that he at least didn’t abandon this Martin, even if he isn ’t his.

“Martin! Good lord, Martin, are you alright? Martin! Martin!

The three steps it takes him to cross the tiny hallway feel far too long, except then he’s at the door, finally, and pushes it open.

It’s only then, in those few moments before Martin realises that Jon is even there, that Jon’s mind grasps what , exactly, Martin is singing.



…And he would watch as the suns burned out, collapsing from their core,

Oh, never to forgive he would eternal live, his hands dyed red from gore …


Factories churn, bodies burn,

Stars are shining bright.

It ’s your turn, now you learn—



And then Martin looks up, and his eyes widen, and the words and melody die on his lips and Jon just stands there, staring back at him, and for a moment neither of them moves.

The refrain of Old King Cole is still ringing through Jon’s head when he suddenly realises with vague horror that he’s standing in the open door to Martin’s room, arms outstretched toward him, trying to do—what, exactly?

Hug him?

He blinks.

His vision shifts and the Eyes snap shut. He desperately wishes he could time-travel again, but only five minutes this time, and enter Martin’s room looking as normal as possible.

Which isn’t an option, probably, because his blood isn’t red anymore and he doesn’t yet know how to deal with that either.

He opens his mouth, trying to summon the words to explain himself, explain everything in a way that doesn’t make Martin want to immediately burn him on a stake. All that comes out is a simple “Martin” and Jon realises once more that dealing with people is actually much harder than dealing with monsters.

At least he knew where he stood with Prentiss.

This, however? What is this? Why is Martin Blackwood singing my song? Did my Martin know them, too, and I just never found out?

Did I even know anything about him, even if I Knew so much?

I could Know the answer to this riddle, too. But he doesn’t want to. He really, really doesn’t want to.



“Jon,” Martin whispers.

There are tears in his eyes. Martin doesn’t do anything against them. He just stares. He doesn’t seem to know what to do, either, so at least Jon isn’t alone in his social anxiety.

“You came,” Martin adds. His voice wobbles a bit. He looks surprisingly alright, all things considered.

“Too many canned peaches?” Jon asks before he can stop himself. Martin’s eyes widen and he laughs a tear-stained laugh that almost turns into a sob, but not quite.

Jon is utterly certain that he has never felt this awkward in his entire life.

“Y-Yeah,” Martin whispers, his eyes still pinned to Jon’s, and he shifts uncomfortably under his gaze.

“I-I’m sorry that I didn’t come sooner,” Jon says, just to fill the silence with something. He isn’t sure how well this current attempt is working though. “I—I couldn’t come sooner, really.” It isn’t a lie, is it?

“You’re bleeding!”

“Oh… yeah… that. I-I’m fine, Martin. They… uh, they don’t seem to like me very much. A-Apparently.” Jon stares down at the small puddle of his not-blood forming on the ground, and wonders in a strangely detached manner if it’s ink.

“And you—you had so many eyes!”

“Oh… that… y-yeah. They’re gone now?” Stupid. You could have said no and then you both could’ve pretended that it was a hallucination.

Dread rises in his throat like bile but he pushes it down.

“Prentiss is gone. Y-You’re safe again. Though, uh, it’s probably best if you don’t… you know, stay here.”

Jon scratches at his eyebrow and wonders what his life has become.

The holes in his cheeks and neck have stopped leaking.

He isn’t sure how he feels about that.



This day has really been something.



“I think, uh, maybe you should pack some things and then… well, leave? Get some, uh, distance between you and this place. There’s a cot in the Archives that I use from time to time, or, well, you could come with—but no, that’s— no. Uh. O-Only if you want to, of course!”

Martin looks at him and he sees his own confusion echoed in his gaze. It’s nice to know that neither of them know how to deal with this situation, that it isn’t just Jon who’s grasping at straws.

“The Archives?” Martin asks and Jon nods. At least this he can do. Looks away. Can Martin feel his gaze upon him the way he can feel Elias’, now? Or is he not far enough gone for that yet. I just ate Jane Prentiss. I think I’m far enough gone for anyone’s wants.

He shivers at that thought.

“Thank you,” Martin whispers. There are still tears in his eyes.

Jon shuffles a bit on the spot. “Y-You look like you might need a hug,” he hears himself say and curses his horrible, horrible tongue, laughs uncertainly, “I… if you want. I—I’ve been told that hugs, uh, help. In situations like—like this.” Like this?!

“I—I’d love a hug,” Martin croaks, and then he slowly and awkwardly untangles himself from his bed. His voice is so rough, Jon wonders how long he’s been singing.

He wonders if he knows any of his other songs, too and has no idea how to feel about that revelation. Does he want to die or dance or cry at the thought of Martin singing his songs to calm himself

Instead of confronting these sentiments, he shuts it all down, and then Martin’s there, right in front of him, so much taller than him—

Jon wraps his arms around Martin and holds him tight, shaking only a tiny bit—they’ve never been this close—and when Martin starts to sob, Jon does his best to rub soothing little circles into his back, and he even hums a bit, but only a lullaby his Nana sang to him when he was small.

 


 

In the end he helps Martin pack.

They go through his flat and through all the clothes Martin has taped against the inside of his window-frame, and they pack everything into a small bag he had under his bed. Some clothes and toiletries, no books. Martin has read all the books in his flat several times.

Jon feels sated on a level he hates, and is tired in such a human way that it scares him. How adapted is this body to its current host? (Or is he an inmate?) Martin is still shivering by the time they finally leave his flat, but he’s gotten a lot better.



There's a strange kind of silence between them, one that isn’t quite awkward but also not quite comfortable. Martin keeps throwing strange looks at Jon, at his face. The first thing they did was to bandage his wounds. Martin kept waving his corkscrew around but after staring at Jon’s blood for more than a minute, he finally accepted that, maybe, the worms didn’t like Jon very much anymore.

Martin hasn’t asked any questions about it yet.

Jon doesn’t know what to answer when he does.

They’re both tired, and they’re weary, but there’s something between them that Jon can ’t put a name on. It aches in his bones and he wonders how Martin is feeling. He doesn’t even know how he himself is feeling, and yet, he can’t really make himself care.

“Do you want to grab some food on the way?” he asks when they’re on the tube, heading back to the Institute. It’s evening but not quite late enough for Sasha and Tim to have left.

“I—I think that would be great,” Martin admits, so they stop at an ambiguously “Asian” takeout place after they’ve left the tube.

Jon somehow feels famished at the smell, so he gets the least pricey option they have.

He’s deeply afraid of both possible outcomes and equally deeply grateful when Martin tells him that they can wait with the eating until they’re in the break-room of the Archives.



Rosie is still there when they come in and despite Jon’s best efforts immediately bustles over to tut over the plasters and gauze covering him in far too many places.

Her care almost brings tears to his eyes but he wrestles them down.



Two hugs in one day.



He can’t remember the last time anyone hugged him before.



Martin hugged him despite the ink-blood and the Eyes.

Martin knows the Mechanisms.



Maybe he’ll be okay after all, even with the guilt weighing him down.

Maybe they will be okay.

All of them.

He sets his jaw as Martin pushes open the heavy door effortlessly.

I' ll make sure of it.

Chapter Text

It’s all a bit of a blur to Martin, if he’s being honest with himself. All he can say with certainty is that he’s back at the Institute, that Jon is right behind him, and that he… got a hug?!

From Jon?!

Jon saved him?!

Eyes???



He wouldn’t be surprised if he woke up now.

It just doesn’t feel very real at all.

Martin knows for sure that Jon doesn’t believe in the supernatural. He heard his follow-ups to the statements! Tim pokes fun at him on a regular basis!

Martin’s been away for maybe a week, and now Jon of all people has too many eyes that he didn’t even try to deny, and he was bleeding something that was very obviously not blood? What happened?

And he—

And he saved Martin from a worm monster.

Somehow, that makes even less sense and it’s also what helps Martin realise that it couldn’t have been a dream. Even his fantasising brain couldn’t have made up something this impossibly unrealistic.

And then there's the fact that Martin’s self-same brain can’t stop torturing him, because it keeps replaying the last few hours on a loop with every step he takes. Jon’s eyes, Jon’s expression, Jon’s paper-ink-and-dust smell, Jon’s arms around him, holding him, Jon humming, Jon

There’s something about him, even now that he’s wrapped up in gauze and looking so weary, so human … Martin can’t put his finger on it. Jon is almost looking—better, somehow? The bags under his eyes aren't as pronounced as Martin’s used to, even if his expression is so tired and weary and open that Martin desperately wants to wrap his arms around him again. For some nebulous reason he’s sure that Jon might let him, and that’s the weirdest thing about all of this by far.

What happened to Jon during his, what, one week absence?

Martin has known Jon for years, at least from a distance. He’s about as far away from a “hugger” as you can get. Before today, Martin would’ve thought that Jon wouldn’t even know what a hug is.

Well. As it turns, Jon is, in fact, an excellent hugger. Who’d have thought? Martin wonders if he’ll ever believe that this day truly happened.



And then he notices with a jolt that they’re in front of the Archives already, and he holds the door open for Jon before following him inside.

 


 

Tim and Sasha are sitting next to each other, huddled very closely around Tim’s laptop, and the expressions on their faces are absolutely priceless when they look up to find that they’ve got company.

Sasha moves from her chair before her brain even seems to catch up, her eyes going wide as she takes in Martin and then Jon, and it’s not like Martin can blame her. The bandages seem to glow on Jon’s dark skin and the awkward grin he gives is incredibly endearing and makes Martin melt all over again. He didn’t even know Jon’s face could do that.

“You said you were going home,” Tim says, confusion and concern colouring the edges of his voice, “what the hell is going on?”

Martin has never seen him this rattled, and when he follows his gaze, Jon looks very uncomfortable and Martin is struck once more by how differently he holds himself, how he seems to flinch away from their eyes, instead looking at his feet or the walls.

Anywhere but them.

Martin still hasn’t gotten over the fact that Jon came to him. That Jon is standing so close that they could touch if Martin reached out, that they did touch, that his physical presence that seemed imposing before is so much smaller and softer now —that he looks so nice in casual clothes, so much more relaxed

Judging by Tim and Sasha’s reaction they have no idea what happened either, and Martin doesn’t know what to do with that information.

“I, uh, I tried to call Martin again and, mhm, something was weird about all of this a-and then I went to v-visit him, and, ah, Prentiss was w-waiting in front of his, uh, his door…” Jon trails off, seeming to make an effort to look them in the eyes. Martin is not convinced; Jon is a terrible liar and it’s obvious he’s hiding things from them.

Somehow, he still doesn’t care, because he’s also not over the fact that Jon actually came for him like a knight in shining armour. That he saved him from the monster, even if his shining armour is a black hoodie with What the Ghost?! inscribed on it and a stylised ghost on the back.

All of this seems impossible, and yet here he is, and it’s happening to him.

“Jane Prentiss?” Sasha’s voice sounds horrified.

“She took his phone,” Jon mutters, “and the texts weren’t actually from Martin. That’s why I, uh, never reached him. And why he didn’t answer the phone. It k-kind of clicked earlier today, I suppose. I didn’t want to put you two in danger and I knew if I-I’d told you, you would’ve wanted to come…”

“So, you just went there on your own, without telling anyone? You could’ve died, Jon! Look at you!”

Instead of facing her, Jon chooses to study his feet. “Yeah, well, I didn’t even know what was g-going on—” (for some reason, Martin knows that he is lying, even if it makes absolutely no sense) “—and, ah, I didn’t want to get anyone else in danger, too. If, uh, if I’d known there was danger. What would anyone else in addition have helped against, ah, a horde of worms? A-And it’s fine! Nothing happened. Uh, I mean, almost nothing happened.” He laughs, a small jittery thing, his fingers unconsciously trailing over the bandages on his neck.

When Martin looks up, his eyes meet Tim’s and he watches as one of Tim’s eyebrows skeptically travels further and further up his forehead. Apparently, Martin isn’t the only one who doesn’t quite know what happened to Jon. He’s never heard him laugh like this. Or talk like this.

It is kind of cute, actually. Especially combined with the softness of his voice.

“Look, I know I asked you before, but: are you sure you’re okay? Because you seem a bit, ah, weird. First you get here hours late, and now this?” Tim crosses his arms in front of his chest, but he can’t hide the worry in his eyes.

Jon still refuses to look at him. “I’m fine, Tim,” he snaps instead, “you don’t need to worry about me. Martin is the one who got trapped in his flat for more than a week and nobody noticed!” His voice almost sounds like Jon again and for some reason, it makes Martin ache. There's an undercurrent of something else in it still, something that Martin doesn’t know how to deal with. If he isn’t imagining it, it sounds like Jon is feeling guilty.

Why would he feel guilty? It’s not like he could’ve known, no matter how weird he sounded earlier. And honestly out of all of them, Martin wouldn’t have thought that Jon would be the one to care. And yet, this day definitely proves him wrong, doesn’t it?

Somehow this thought fills Martin with a lot of far too soft feelings, and he does his best to push all of them away. It’s very obvious that Jon is not okay either and Martin feels horrible because he can’t even say that he’s regretting anything about this situation.



“Today has been, well, weird. That’s all.” Jon says, pulling Martin back from his spiralling thoughts. They’ve been spiralling a lot. Maybe he needs to eat something.

“…I don’t want to-to talk about it yet,” Jon adds softly after a moment’s pause and when Martin looks up his eyes meet Jon’s for one tiny, tiny moment, and Martin tries not to dwell on the warm feeling suddenly blooming in his chest. It’s dumb. Jon saved him but that doesn’t mean that it’s going to change anything beyond today.

He’s just being nice because this—well, this is an extraordinary situation, isn’t it? You don’t almost get eaten by worms every day. It’s fine. It’ll be fine.

“Fine, boss, fine,” Tim says, almost repeating Martin’s thoughts word-by-word (maybe he’s a mind-reader now? Who knows what else happened while Martin was away), and raises his hands in a placating gesture. “Just—if you need help, talk to us, okay?”

Martin watches Jon’s face break as if in slow motion, watches him gather the pieces by force, and push them back into place. Jon’s eyes are both impossibly dark, magnified by unshed tears, and impossibly pretty.

There’s nothing more he wants to do more than to wrap his arms around Jon and hold him—but somehow, his body doesn’t move and he’s just standing there, transfixed.

And then the moment passes.

It's only when he manages to tear his eyes away from Jon that he realises that it was a rather long moment, and that Tim and Sasha are both wearing very wide, very smug, impossibly knowing grins . When he blushes, looking back at Jon, their eyes meet again for a short moment before they both glance away.

“Uh. Right,” Jon mutters.

There’s a beat of silence where Tim and Sasha communicate without saying a word—

But then, just before Sasha turns back around, Martin spots a hickey on her neck.

And suddenly a few pieces fall into place, and he knows why Sasha and Tim didn’t come to visit him when he couldn’t answer their calls; and then he’s grinning back at them, almost against his will.

Sasha looks away and coughs and Martin almost laughs. Tim’s shit-eating grin widens into something else entirely and Martin had expected nothing less from him, really.

The mood in the room is suddenly much lighter. It doesn’t even change after Sasha looks back up at Martin, expression mostly solemn. “I’m—sorry, Martin. We should’ve noticed—and in my defence, I did try to call you several times, and you did seem to answer our texts… they were a bit, well, weird , but I was distracted. I still should’ve noticed. It was shitty of me, I’m sorry.”

She eyes Tim before poking her elbow into his side. He yelps and then does his best to look sad.

Martin just sighs and shakes his head, amused on a level he can’t even vocalise. “It’s alright,” he says and looks from Sasha to Tim.

Tim drops the act and grins back unabashedly while Sasha at least has the decency to act as if she has no idea what’s going on. Thing is, Martin can see that Tim is bothered, even if he’s trying his damndest to hide it. Martin isn’t sure how to respond to either of them, really.

He isn’t sure how to respond to any of this in general. It ’s so much safer to just push it all down and not deal with it, but he doesn ’t want to not deal with Jon. After all, whatever is going on with him, he’s at least as not-okay as Martin, ignoring all of them studiously in favour of something incredibly interesting near the far wall of the Archives.

When Jon clears his throat a few moments later, Martin jumps.

“Sasha, Tim, you’re, uh—it’s late, I-I think you should go home. What are you even still doing here? I… ah, I’ve got some work to catch up on and, and Martin is going to stay here for a while, until we, ah, can make sure that Prentiss isn’t going to come back. And I may have broken his door a little bit on my—my way in. Anyways—”

“You broke his door?” Tim interrupts in disbelief, a half-laugh tearing its way free from his throat. “You? How?”

“I—I actually have no idea,” Jon mutters, “believe me.”

Tim whistles, grinning. “Any other secrets you haven’t shared with us yet, boss?” he teases, “maybe you two want to join us and we can discuss it at the pub? Sash and I were planning to head there after work tonight but then we forgot the time…” He wiggles his eyebrows suggestively while Sasha’s pointy elbow finds its way into his ribs again. This time, Tim just laughs. Jon rolls his eyes, apparently unamused.

Martin wonders if he’s even picked up on the obvious or if he’s exactly as oblivious as he seems.

Martin also knows that Tim is lying because it’s Thursday and Tim and Sasha have never gone drinking on a Thursday before. He eyes them and when Sasha shifts beneath his glance, he knows that he’s right. Somehow, he only feels happiness for them at that. “I think I’m good for tonight. I’m a bit… tired. After everything.” His amusement must show even through the fatigue because Tim just grins.

“Oh well, maybe tomorrow? Jon, what about you?” It’s quite obvious to Martin that none of them actually expect Jon to react, least of all to look as if he’s going to tear up.

“I—I’m going to stay here, too, I’m—too tired to go out. Too much… happened. Today. But— but I think I’d like to join next time? Tomorrow is Friday, right? Maybe we could all…” Jon trails off, looking anywhere but at them. Again.

Tim and Sasha gape, but all Martin can suddenly think of is how nice it would be to wrap Jon in a thick, soft blanket and make him some tea. He looks like he needs it.

“Jonathan Sims, actively deciding to join us for once?” Tim exclaims in mock disbelief, hand dramatically pressed to his chest, “I am in shock! Sash, Martin, did you hear that? Who are you and what have you done with Jon?”

Jon laughs weakly, still staring downward. “I-I’m sorry for the… the way I behaved. I will try to do better. I promise." There's almost an edge of panic to his voice, but Martin can't for the life of him figure out why. 

For a long moment, nobody says anything. Martin is afraid that any words might shatter Jon into a million tiny pieces. He still can’t quite believe that Jon acknowledged the invitation. Can’t quite believe any of the things that happened today.

Then Sasha claps her hands. “Right! Well, then, we don’t want to keep you from your food. Come on, Tim. We’ve got drinking to do. See you tomorrow, Jon, Martin.” She grins at Martin and he knows he isn’t imagining the mischievous sparkle to her gaze. It makes him blush deeply because it’s Sasha. This is something Tim would do, but Sasha? And what does she think is going to happen? It ’s not like anything can happen. He’s still Martin, and Jon is still Jon, despite everything.

What would she think if she knew about the hug?

He can never tell her. She’d definitely be cool about it, but Tim would find out sooner or later and Martin knows exactly how Tim would react, and he is not ready for that. Or the teasing. Or the comments to Jon. Just thinking about it makes Martin die from embarrassment.

The thing is: if Tim and Sasha leave now, “to go drinking”, that means that he’ll be alone again. With Jon.

He’s terrified of being alone altogether, but he’s also panicking at the mere thought of being alone with Jon.

Not that anything will happen, of course! Jon will go into his office and Martin will try to sleep, and that will be that.

Except that Martin is also incredibly aware of his own chaotic tendencies, and that he’s probably going to do something stupid if anyone leaves him alone with Jon.

He tries to convey that feeling with a mute, pleading glance and then realises that Sasha knows exactly what she’s doing, and after a glance at Tim it becomes increasingly obvious that she and Tim share the same evil streak because they’re both ready to abandon him.

They know Martin’s tendencies, they know about his crush, and they can’t wait to see him burn himself.

They didn’t even see the hug, they don’t even know about the hug, but they already have the entirely wrong idea despite that fact. Martin can’t even say that he’s surprised. Or that the idea of being alone with Jon again doesn’t excite him, deep down in the deepest darkest recesses of his mind.

And he really isn’t ready to deal with being alone again, after everything.

Maybe it could even be… nice? With Jon?

 


 

Martin knows that something fundamental has changed when Jon puts water into the electric kettle.

“What are you doing?” Martin asks, and Jon just looks at him in confusion.

“Making tea?”

Martin feels like his brain has stop functioning.

“With… a kettle?” He’s known Jon for years and the microwave was fully functional, last time he checked

“Uh… yes? Is that not how you…” Jon trails off, shifting uncomfortably. Then: “Oh, huh. It seems… hm.”

For a moment they just stand there, staring at each other. Jon takes a deep breath several times, but he doesn ’t actually say anything. It’s like he's bracing himself for Martin’s reaction but then never ends up being brave enough to actually speak. It’s funny how Martin knows exactly how Jon is feeling because it’s exactly how Martin felt about speaking to him not too long ago. He never would’ve thought that Jon could experience these kinds of thoughts and fears, much less talking to him.

“I… I really like your tea, Martin,” Jon finally ends up saying, looking anywhere but at Martin’s face, “would you, uh, mind… I have to admit, I kind of… maybe … missed it. A bit. While you were. Gone.”

Martin freezes.

“Martin? Are you… alright?”

“You...You really like my tea?”

“Y-yeah? It’s—I’ve never had such nice tea in my life. As when you, ah, make it.”

Martin feels like he’s going to fall apart. Like a tiny breeze will come in through the door (impossible, it’s the basement, but that’s beside the point) and he’ll shatter into a thousand tiny pieces.

Jon likes his tea.

And he never said anything before, but now, he did.

Jon missed his tea.

“I— I’d love to make you tea,” he somehow manages to make his mouth say and Jon smiles at him and Martin has to take a moment because his brain is filled with nothing but incoherent screams and he doesn’t know how to handle—any of this. So he busies himself looking through the tea collection (he knows it by heart, almost all of the teas in the cabinet are ones he brought in himself, but it’s still better than having to deal with Jon and possibly dying of a stroke right here, right now) and starts to mindlessly whistle the melody of some Mechs song. He realises with a deep, deep ache that he really misses his music. When he turns around with the tea Jon is staring at him, the tips of his ears noticeably flushed, quickly evading his gaze when Martin’s eyes find his.

He doesn’t say anything when Martin puts the tea down in front of him, he just inhales deeply, wrapping his fingers around the hot cup, and when he takes a tentative sip he smiles again.

Martin perishes on the spot.

“It’s perfect” Jon says, and his voice does a tiny little wobble at the end and Martin smiles so widely that it hurts before hiding his face behind the fringe of his hair, staring down at his own mug.

After a week of nothing but water the tea smells delicious.

 


 

They mostly eat in silence and somehow it doesn’t even feel awkward.

Jon makes weird faces while eating, and Martin isn’t sure exactly what’s going on, but it’s the best food Martin has ever tasted in his entire life.

He swears to never eat canned peaches again and to keep his fridge fully stocked from now on, even if he’s feeling too tired to go grocery shopping.

No excuses.

He low-key wonders how Jon knew about the canned peaches earlier because he doesn’t remember telling him. Well, he never talked to him, anyways; there wasn’t a chance to talk about the fact that he had canned peaches in his flat.

After Martin finishes, he looks up to find Jon studying him, something strangely vulnerable in his too-dark eyes.

Martin could get lost in these eyes.

Jon doesn’t even look away immediately, he just looks… sad, after a moment, in a way that makes Martin’s heart clench.

“I’m sorry,” Jon says, and his voice is as soft as his eyes, wiping all thoughts of peaches from Martin’s mind immediately. He vaguely notices how long Jon’s eyelashes are.

“For the way I treated you. Before. I—I didn’t know— ah, well,” Jon laughs a tiny, skittish laugh, “it doesn’t matter, I suppose. I behaved rather poorly in general. There’s no excuse for that and I hope that you can somehow forgive me. One day.”

Jon looks away.

Martin just stares for a good two minutes before he can make his mind think thoughts again.

“I’m not very good at this job,” he settles on, finally, after the silence stretches. “I—I will admit that you were a bit, uh, harsh… but. It’s my own fault, really—”

“Nonsense. Your work is quite good, actually, especially— I just—well… it doesn’t matter.” Jon takes a sip of the tea Martin made him, and the tiny, tiny smile that tugs at the corners of his mouth almost makes Martin cry. Jon didn’t lie. He really does like his tea. Who’d have thought? Maybe he was just too proud to admit it earlier?

“You don’t have to stay here just for me, Jon,” Martin finds himself saying. “You should—you look tired. You should go home, and sleep.

“I’d rather stay,” Jon says quickly (too quickly?) and then he studiously refuses eye contact. “I’ve got—work to do.” A tiny pause. “I’ve… lost far too much time already.”

Martin’s heart sinks, because yeah, of course that’s why Jon is still here.

For some reason Jon doesn’t move after he’s said that though.

“Do you—want me to show you the cot? It’s not very big but it could be… worse.”

Martin smiles and nods.

 


 

If Martin didn’t know better, he’d think that Jon is stalling. He’s helped him change the sheets on the little cot in document storage, and Martin has put his bag on the ground and taken out the things he needs.

There really isn’t much more to be done.

Still, Jon hovers, and Martin can’t say that he isn’t glad. It’s a bit awkward because Jon obviously has no idea what to say either, but Martin is grateful for the company.

When Jon finally leaves after half an hour (hesitantly, as if he doesn’t actually want to leave and keeps searching for an excuse, except that can’t be it, right?), Martin feels it like a physical weight settling down on him.

He sighs, and then he goes to brush his teeth; gets ready for bed.

He hasn’t felt this tired in years.

So why is the thought of trying to sleep so daunting?

 


 

When Martin finally manages to fall asleep he dreams of knocking, and of darkness, and of worms.

At one point the worms combine into a shadowy, writhing figure that calls his name, again and again, until he startles back into wakefulness to find Jon’s face hovering above him, gauze-wrapped and anxious and worried.

“Martin,” Jon says, sounding so relieved, “I’m sorry for waking you but you were screaming and shaking and, ah, I thought I should—”

He’s cut off by Martin throwing his arms around him and all caution to the wind. Jon lets out a very soft oomph, but then he hesitantly wraps his arms around Martin too. For a moment Martin just tries to breathe, and to stop crying, and to get his racing, terrified thoughts to stop.

Jane Prentiss isn’t here.

He’s in the Institute, in the Archives.

He’s not alone, he’s not alone, he’s not alone, not anymore.

Jon is there, just like last time, because he came for him. He chased Prentiss away, both the real version and the dream one, and he's solid and warm and his position on the edge of the bed is a tiny bit awkward but he doesn’t even seem to mind.

For some reason Martin can’t stop crying.

Both of them seem unwilling to break the hug, and Martin clings on for dear life until he finally calms down. And then they just kind of sit there, the only light filtering in from the hallway.

“Thank you, Jon,” Martin says, his voice a broken croak. “I really… I don’t think I can be alone right now.”

“Of course,” Jon says. And so quietly that Martin must be imagining it, “always.”

He doesn’t know how to respond to that, so he doesn’t.

They sit in silence for a few more minutes, just breathing.

Even the darkness doesn’t seem so scary anymore, now that he is no longer alone.

 


 

After a while Martin makes himself let go of Jon and moves a bit so Jon can sit more comfortably.

“How late is it?” he asks, and yawns.

Jon shrugs. “Not sure,” he admits with a little quirk of a half-smile, “probably too late.” He doesn’t sound very concerned. Martin can hear how exhausted he is and he kind of wants to slap Jon for still being here, but even he isn’t that recklessly stupid.

“What did you do for so long, and do I really have to tell you to take care of yourself?” Martin instead asks, voice echoing his own horrified disbelief.

For a moment Jon is quiet. Then he sighs. “I’ve been, well… I started cleaning my office. Getting rid of all the things that were still Gertrude’s, and re-ordering the bookshelves, and throwing out everything that had no use being there… it has been a long time coming. I—I kept pushing it off.”

He glances at Martin, and then away.

Is he embarrassed?

Why? I, I mean. Why now, Jon?”

This time when Jon looks up, his eyes stay on Martin’s face. He looks exhausted but it’s almost as if a tiny part of it falls away in that instant. Martin has never seen anyone brighten like that upon seeing him and he isn’t ready to deal with the fact that it’s Jon so he puts the thought neatly into the Jon drawer of his mind and shoves it closed.

Then he takes a very deep breath. “Not that—that I’m unhappy at seeing you here. Or at you s-saving me from a nightmare. It’s just. God, Jon! It must be really late!”

“Probably,” Jon says sheepishly. “I… I’m still here because I don’t, well—I don’t want to go home either. Alone. And it felt... weird. To leave you behind after something like—like this.”

For a few moments they just stare at each other.

“Right,” Jon says at the exact same moment as Martin says “thank you” and then they’re back to staring and once again Martin can’t believe that this is his life now.

After a moment, Jon just nods.

“Do you want to… talk about it? I’ve been, ah, told that I’m a… a good listener. Or can be. Only if you want to, of course.” Somehow, he sounds nervous about it.

Martin looks at him and his eyes are all wet again. He takes a deep, shivering breath. “I—I think that might… might actually be nice. Thank you, Jon. For everything.”

He shuffles a bit to the side, until he’s sitting with his back against the wall, and after a moment’s hesitation Jon takes off his shoes and sits down on the bed.

He looks at Martin, eyes glinting strangely in the darkness for a tiny moment, and then he smiles a tiny smile.

For a moment Martin’s mind freezes but then he manages to scoot a bit more to the side, patting the bed next to him. “Come on,” he says, heart thudding painfully in his chest, “it… I might take a while and you don’t—don’t look very, uhm, comfortable.”

Jon hesitates before nodding solemnly and moving a bit closer.

And that’s how Martin finds himself sitting on a tiny bed in the document storage room, close enough to touch Jon if only he tried. After a while they seem to be sitting even closer than before, until Martin can feel Jon’s warmth, and when Martin notices that he seems to shiver, he spreads the blanket across Jon’s lap as well, ignoring all of his feeble protests.

After Martin’s started talking about Prentiss, he somehow doesn’t stop. It moves from Prentiss to his fear of being alone, and then to his mother. He’s never told anyone half the things he tells Jon, not even Nico —and Jon listens, and Martin isn’t sure if it’s something about this day or this night or Jon or him or the weird atmosphere or the trauma he’s gone through, but he manages to tell him what he’s never even known how to put into words before.



By the end of it all, Martin feels… free.

Their shoulders are touching, and he feels the point of contact keenly, as if Jon is a power source and Martin is receiving energy from him.

They’re sitting so close, but Jon doesn’t seem to mind.

It feels like Martin has finally managed to let go of something he’s been carrying around his entire life, entirely unaware of its weight.

Until it’s gone.

And now he’s free.

It feels exhilarating.

“I think it’s time for more tea, Martin,” Jon finally says with a crooked little smile (Martin can even hear it in his voice, damn him), and that’s when he realises that this is no longer just a little dumb crush.

No.

He actively likes Jon now, and if that isn’t worse, he isn’t sure what is.

He’s the biggest fool in the history of mankind but he can’t even be mad at himself.

 


 

The breakroom is quiet and dark when they get there and the small clock on the wall proclaims that it is, in fact, almost four o’clock in the morning.

Martin feels exhausted just looking at it but there’s a strange energy between him and Jon now, and he knows he won’t be able to sleep, not even if he tried.

Not even because of any possible nightmares, just because… Jon. At some point before he woke Martin, Jon must’ve changed into a pair of joggers and he looks so soft that Martin wants to cry. He might still cry. He hasn’t decided yet. Night-brain has different inhibitions— far less of them, apparently; Martin wouldn’t be surprised if he did cry again, at this point.

It takes the kettle far too long to boil, in his professional opinion, and then the tea needs far too long to be right, but in the end he hands Jon his mug and they make their way back to the cot without even talking about where they’re going.

Martin wants to cry about that, too.

 


 

When they reach the cot, they end up sitting closer than last time, but still a bit apart. The atmosphere is more relaxed this time around, too. Over-sharing and nightmares really do seem to bring people together, don’t they?

“I really missed your tea,” Jon whispers after a while, as if vocalising his biggest secret. He finally meets Martin’s eyes. The vulnerability is back, and it’s like he’s searching for something when he looks at Martin. Martin can’t say what he could be searching for, but he can see his jaw clench. He wonders if Jon is conscious of that.

He wonders how long the worm holes will take to heal, and if they’re going to scar.

He wonders if Jon will wear the marks of this day forever, or if they will fade away with time.

“Out of all things, I missed you and your tea the most.” Jon looks back down at his mug, and Martin has no idea what that’s supposed to mean. Out of all things? He was only gone for a week, wasn’t he? What happened?

“Really?” Why is his voice this choked if he doesn’t even fully understand what Jon is saying? Is it because of the undercurrent of pain he can hear in his voice?

Jon smiles wanly. His eyes are very shiny in the dim hallway-light. “Yes, really. Of course I like your tea, Martin,” he just says with a tiny wistful smile, “It’s the best I’ve ever had. My grandma made some excellent tea but yours is far superior.” His face falls when he notices that Martin’s lower lip is starting to wobble. “Oh, I didn’t mean to— I didn’t mean—”

“It’s been a rough couple of days,” Martin whispers, “and this just… hearing… I’m sorry, I— I might need a moment.”

“Do you, maybe, ah. Need another hug, too?”

Martin grins and a tear rolls down his cheek. “Hugs never hurt,” he whispers.

Jon carefully places his and Martin’s empty mugs on the ground before moving closer, awkwardly wrapping his arms around him. Again.

Somehow, it all crashes down on Martin in this moment. It’s like telling it to Jon earlier removed the wall holding it back in his mind, let it all out—and as if this hug finally lets him feel the things he’d suppressed for the entire last week.

Martin cries and Jon holds him, and after a while he wraps his arms around Jon too, and he can feel wetness trickle from Jon’s eyes down onto his neck. He doesn’t mind at all.

He doesn’t know what happened to Jon, but he knows that pressing him won’t help, and that whatever happened, it must have been horrible.

He knows that he’ll be there for him when Jon needs him.

He hopes that Jon knows that, too.



They sit like that for a long while, and Martin can’t say that he minds. He feels like Jon doesn’t, either.

When they finally move apart, they’re still so close that Martin can feel Jon’s body-heat.

“I-I’m sorry about your mother,” Jon finally says, breaking the silence when Martin has started to wonder if he’s fallen asleep. “And… I meant what I said, earlier. To Sasha and Tim, too. But especially you. I—I’ve been very… unfair to you, Martin. I… there are… I’m not good at apologising but I—I’ll do my best to do better.” He’s sounding so earnest. So sad. What is it about this day, about this night?

For some reason, when Martin opens his mouth the thing he actually wanted to say—it ’s alright—isn’t what comes out. Instead he asks: “What about you, Jon? Are you alright?”

And instead of answering, Jon just laughs. It’s a lost, sad little laugh, and there’s mild panic mixed in. Martin has no idea how to respond to this laugh. Is he supposed to say something? To just ignore it?

“I… ah, something happened to me today. I… I’m not sure how to talk about it yet. I—haven’t quite… I suppose it doesn’t really matter. It, ah, it made me re-evaluate a few things though. Like… all of this. I’m not very good with…with people. But I—I want to change that? Does that make sense? I’ve been—horrible to you, and Sasha, and Tim. You’ve done your best and been—really nice, actually, all things considered. Honestly, I can’t quite believe that you’re even—that you even stand to be near me right now. After… ah, earlier.” He falls silent, staring down at his hands. They’re very nice hands. They look like the hands of someone who should be playing piano.

Martin wonders if he should ask Jon about earlier. In the end he decides to be selfish though. If he asks about it now, he has a feeling that Jon might turn skittish and flee, and if there’s one thing Martin knows, it’s that he’ll treasure this day and this weirdly magical night forever, and that he does not want it to end.

Despite the horrors the last week brought, it’s all worth it for this evening. For the hugs.

For Jon.

And maybe Jon does need to talk about it, but Martin isn’t going to be the one who brings it up.

It won’t really change anything, after all.

“Well, in my mind you’re already making up for it by saving my life and letting me stay here,” Martin says.

Jon laughs awkwardly and Martin regrets that he didn’t record that laugh—he wants to keep it in a little box, maybe, so he can treasure it forever.

Jon yawns.

“I’m sure you would’ve been… well, not fine, but… all things considered, you did a really god job.”

Martin looks at him. In the darkness his eyes seem even darker and bigger than before. Like a well one can fall into, and never resurface from. He looks away, down at Jon’s hands. For some reason, they feel safer to look at.

“With what?” Martin asks, trying (and failing) to keep the self-deprecating amusement from his voice, “with not quite dying? I was pathetic. I didn’t even—”

“There was nothing you could’ve done.” Jon’s voice is quiet and intense. When Martin looks back up despite himself, Jon’s eyes are as intense as his voice. Martin shivers involuntarily and is glad that Jon either ignores it or doesn’t seem to notice. Maybe it’s too dark.

“No, Martin, look at me. There is nothing you could’ve done. Did you see the statements left by her victims, and by everyone who encountered her? You did remarkably.

Something in his eyes changes and the intensity fades away. Martin almost misses it.

“Ah, sorry,” Jon mutters, shifting uncomfortably.

“Thank you,” Martin says instead. There are emotions in his voice he doesn’t dare name. Emotions in his heart he doesn’t dare confront.

He’s decided that he doesn’t want to cry in front of Jon. Not again.

“Thank you for…for saying that. It… it really means a lot, Jon.”

“Hmm,” Jon makes.

For a while they’re silent.

And then, without warning, Jon’s breathing slows down, and he slumps against Martin, and Martin sits there in utter disbelief, a tiny, incredulous smile bubbling up inside him, uncertain what the course of action is now.

He still doesn’t have his phone. He can’t even call Tim and ask him what to do. Sorry, Tim, it seems Jon has fallen asleep on me in the document storage room in the Archives, the one with the bed, you know —yeah, I know the tropes, no, Tim, it really isn ’t like that, shut up—

What do I do now?

He almost laughs hysterically, but then he swallows it down and thinks. At first, he doesn’t dare move at all.

After half an eternity he tries to shift the two of them into a more comfortable position and it sort of works. Problem is, the cot is really tiny and the only way they both even sort-of fit is with Jon tucked against Martin, and only with a lot of careful moving, Martin’s back pressed against the wall.

The small hysterical laughter does finally escape when Martin discovers this, because he has no idea what to do. He can’t move out of the bed, because then he's going to wake Jon for sure.

In the end he just sort of curls around him, and even if it seems impossible, he drops off like a stone after just a few minutes, Jon’s back against his chest.



And that is that.

Chapter Text

Jon wakes up trapped, heart racing in his throat and a primal fear sitting tightly coiled in his chest. There’s something slung around him, over him, a weight that makes him shiver with dread, and it’s dark and he doesn’t dare move because the thing is warm and breathing and alive and he feels like he ’s going to suffocate, can almost taste mud on his tongue, like he's back in—



The room slowly peels itself from the darkness, and though its colours are strange, he knows it.

The relief is so monumental that he nearly sobs out loud. It’s Document Storage, he’s in the cot in the Institute—

(It’s 5:34AM. The sun rises at 6:23AM.)

His eyes don’t stop adapting to the darkness. Jon watches with an unblinking, horrified fascination as the shapes of the shelves seem to grow in an unsettlingly organic way until they’re solid and real. He can see colours he doesn’t have names for, and it isn’t just the colours. It’s his vision in general, like a picture being compiled from several slightly off-set viewpoints. When he tilts his head, the images get re-assembled into something slightly different and—

Oh.

His head starts to ache.

Right. Thathappened.

Right.

Jon groans, and that’s when he remembers that he—

That it’s Martin who's—



His brain blanks.



For a while he just lies there, staring sightlessly at a room that has no shadows, no lights, that he can see with disorienting clarity. His mind is a confused jumble of guilt and pain and fear, but there’s also that strange warm fuzziness sitting comfortably inside his chest.

He has no idea where to start, how to go about sorting through it all, even as the events of the last day slowly fall back into place.

None of it makes sense.

Martin knows who— what Jon is, doesn’t he? Martin was kept in his flat by Prentiss for more than ten days, and even after he saw Jon’s monstrousness first-hand, he still chose to—

To—

Martin is warm against his back and Jon thinks he might combust. His breaths are too shallow, his heartbeat too fast, and all he can remember are Martin’s screams when he walked past the room, when he rushed in to find him shaking and dreaming and crying, when he woke him and Martin pulled him close, when they drank tea and Martin told him—almost everything.

When Martin didn’t want him to leave because he didn’t want to be alone either.

Martin didn' t want to be alone either.



Martin shifts a bit in his sleep and Jon is suddenly, horrifyingly, reminded of the weight of his past choices—and how they all, impossibly, brought him here.

After all, it’s a big step between talking and… this . Whatever this is, exactly.

He can feel the tips of his ears heating up at the mere thought, and is infinitely grateful that Martin is still asleep, and that it’s dark.

What happened? Why did I even—did I somehow guilt him into—into letting me sleep in the same—

The flush spreads from head to toe before Jon can even finish that thought in the privacy of his own mind, utterly consumed by his own mortification. He’s so absorbed by it that the slowly returning memories blindside him completely, fuzzy-edged and soft as they are—him smiling into a mug of tea, close enough to Martin to feel his warmth. Martin asking if he needs a hug. Jon almost breaking down, almost telling him, and accepting the hug—

Oh God, I can ’t ever face him again. I was a wreck yesterday.

No wonder he was being nice to me, having a crying monster on your hands would probably be much worse than a smiling one.

And of course, it’s then that a sudden, horrible thought strikes, and really, it's the only other thing that makes sense.

Jon’s breath hitches in his throat.

I must have compelled him.

Somehow.

…I didn’t even notice.

I ’m getting worse and worse, and I didn’t even notice—

Oh God, and I kept talking about his tea, of all things!



For a while he just lies there, Martin warm against his back, rigid with quiet horror. Clenching his eyes shut against his new sight and the terrible truths he’s unleashed upon himself and this world—well, this time.

I can ’t even remember how we ended up like—like this. This close … Why would he let me do that? Especially after seeing what I am?

Without even asking me about

Did I make him —?

His chest is suddenly tight and breathing becomes hard.

Maybe he didn't choose this at all, a horribly plausible-sounding voice whispers inside his head, who knows what else has changed? You’re different, and the eyes, and the blood—

Maybe it extends to abilities as well? A nice gift from the Eye...

Maybe that's why he hasn’t run away yet, because you are projecting your Martin on top of him, forging them together, compelling him into staying so he can't abandon you this time around—

Except it was you who abandoned him, wasn’t it? Taking that pencil, making that choice—that was all you.

There are tears in his eyes, and he’s shaking. He can’t remember when he opened them. The world returns in spurts and bounds. The darkness isn’t dark anymore, and the colours hurt. Unlike yesterday he can feel the Other Eyes when he blinks, can feel them close and open, their eyelashes impossibly faint against his skin.

There’s an itch at the back of his hands, down his arms and legs, and neck, and shoulders. As if the worms didn’t actually leave. As if they’re still there, burrowing ever deeper inside him.

He shivers, swallowing heavily. A tear rolls down his cheek and gets absorbed by the band-aid covering one of the worm holes. Somehow, he feels like they’re gone already, healed up, even if that should be impossible. They don’t hurt anymore, it’s just that incessant itching—

He freezes when Martin shifts behind him, but then Martin just kind of presses his face into Jon’s hair, and continues to sleep, his breaths evening out again.

Jon stays rigid for another few minutes, too terrified of accidentally startling him into waking. He can feel Martin’s warm breath brushing against the back of his head and neck, and it sends goosebumps down his entire body.



He can’t remember the last time he was so close to someone, the last time someone held— held him. Like this.



It feels—nice.

God, it actually feels nice to feel the warmth and closeness of another person…

Maybe he can stay for just a few more minutes, even if he can’t sleep?

…His insomnia might actually be for the best. Good lord, what would I have done if Martin had woken up before me? He almost perishes just thinking about it, about trying to explain how it must’ve happened. The worst thing is, he’s fairly certain that Martin would probably have told him that it’s fine.

Will probably still tell him that it’s fine.

Is this going to end up on the growing list of somethings between them, like the Monster Thing—unspoken, and all the worse for their unnamed weight?

I really have to talk to him. The thought makes Jon shiver. Maybe Martin was too afraid of me to say anything? He hates how much sense that makes and suddenly wants nothing more than to curl up into a tight little ball—but he doesn’t, because that might wake Martin, and besides, the bed is too small.

—Oh God, Martin would probably smile at him if he wakes now, and Jon would melt again, trying desperately to hide how much seeing Martin happy affects him, how much it aches to see him smile that smile despite everything that’s already happened to him.

This Martin is still worlds and years away from the one Jon left behind—and Jon can only hope that he won’t ever become that way—but just that single thought ignites an explosion of guilt inside him. After all, most of the bad things that happened to his Martin are Jon ’s fault, and now Jon is here, and he’s left his Martin behind with Peter Lukas?

In typical, spiralling fashion, Jon has thought about that extensively while he was cleaning his office: the concept of time-travel, and what it means.

He’s come to the distressing conclusion that he must be in a slightly different reality because some of the details just don’t add up. Some of the objects in his office are entirely unknown to him, the placement of everything is off, and some of the things Martin talked about yesterday didn’t happen that way either.

Jon is also fairly certain that Martin, Sasha, Tim weren’t quite as good friends in his past… and then there’s his blood , and his eyes . Beholding won’t tell him anything about these things, of course, but he can still feel with an alarming certainty that his actions might change the future without changing the one he’s left behind.

That thought almost makes him cry, and he desperately hopes that he’s wrong, but he can’t Know. He hates how used he’s gotten to the concept of just Knowing things, and how vulnerable he feels when it doesn’t work.

And now he’s here, and he’s carrying all of these unspoken, confused feelings and thoughts that he doesn’t even understand himself. Projecting them onto a Martin that should never have to bear them, while he’s left behind the one he couldn’t reach when it mattered most.

He deserves neither of them, and they never deserved a boss like him. Jon only ever makes people miserable and angry, and he shudders when he remembers the horrible things he thought and said about Martin in the past. For years.

He’d been selfish enough to abandon his Martin, how can he be so selfish to somehow expect this one to be nice to him after all Past-Jon said and did?

And the worst thing is, nothing about Jon’s most recent actions was even conscious.

I made him talk about all these things, and I didn' t even think to question why he’d do it.

It isn’t fair. Both Martins might share the same (similar?) life up to a certain point, but Jon’s arrival has changed that already, hasn’t it? They could just as well be different people altogether, by this point.

(This Martin still smiles as if Jon is the sun himself, and it looks genuine on his face.)

(The Martin Jon has left behind probably won’t ever smile like that again.)

And it’s all Jon’s fault because he wasn’t there when his Martin needed him; because he wasn’t brave enough to try and save him. Because when he did try, it was with a plan involving self-mutilation. Of course his Martin said no.

No; Jon doesn’t deserve either of them, but he’s damn well going to make sure that this Martin won’t ever fall to that fate.

Jon knows that the Eye would never send someone back for something as nice as “fixing past mistakes”, that it must have its own disquieting plans for him, but he also knows that he’ll do his damndest to fix them anyways. That he’s going to save everyone he doomed last time around. It’s the least he owes them, after all. Even if the Beholding has its hooks so deeply buried in his soul that he’ll probably never escape, it’ll all be worth it if he manages to free them.

Oh, but it hurts to remember that this is how his Martin smiled, too, once upon a time—



And it’s then that the memory hits, that the Knowing hits, that he Remembers. For a moment he’s back there; for a moment he can feel the warm, trembling weight of her arms around him, and remembers the shivering pain in her voice and the salty wetness of her tears—

The pain crashes down on him like a tidal wave and for a moment he can’t breathe, because—counting from Jon’s internal timeline—the last time someone held him was the day before yesterday.



It was Daisy.



I didn' t even think about her yet, despite the dreams—



The sob tears itself free from his throat before he can do anything against it. Thankfully Martin does not stir, but it still takes every ounce of willpower inside him to resist the urge to tear himself free and escape, and it leaves him hyperventilating with a racing heart, even as the guilt once more hits him like a punch to the stomach.

Martin doesn’t wake, and Jon forces himself to relax.

It’s too late. He’s too late. All of it—

He’s here, and they’re all back there, wherever and whenever there is, and there’s nothing he can do about it.

He made his choice and it was the wrong one, and now he’ll have to live with the consequences—

Oh God, is the Admiral going to understand that he’ll never come back? Is Georgie going to tell him or—

No, his mind pleads desperately, no, please, no, but his spiralling thoughts refuse to cooperate. (After all, the Beholding is the God of seeing too much and of knowing horrible truths better left forgotten, and Jon belongs to it body and soul.)

He isn’t sure if it’s his fault or the Beholding’s that he suddenly remembers his Dreams, but does it matter, in the end? It’s part of him and he’s part of it—and the end results are the same.

He always remembers his dreams and tonight there was something new. He shivers, thinking about it— about the endless loops, the familiar faces, all of them back, even if they seemed… younger. And then, before the loop started again from the beginning, he remembers staring at himself being eaten by worms, and he feels his younger self’s pain. He watched as his younger self shook Jude Perry’s hand, as he fell eternally even though he never left the chair in Mike’s flat, as he was chased through the tunnels by the Not Them.

He felt his own fear being reflected back at him as if it was just a Statement, could hear his own voice narrating his experiences even as he watched a younger version of himself stumble his way through the Unknowing and the Distortion’s Hallways, getting stabbed by Melanie and Michael, almost being killed by Daisy. He watched as he made the decision to return, as he woke, as he lost two ribs, and Jon felt his own throat move as though against his will, watching and recording.

He watched his younger self look upon the dark sun, and watched himself save Daisy from the Buried, and he felt his own fear and the cold, damp earth pressing in on them, the taste of mud and desperation mingling on their tongues, coating the insides of their mouths—

He felt it all, but it wasn't like the first time.

It felt removed, the way it does when he records statements, but it didn’t make the pain any less real, any less horrifying.

Jon realises that he’s shaking and that his eyes are wet with tears. Despite himself, he thinks of Daisy’s quiet, terrified voice in the darkness, and then he thinks of Melanie, and of Basira—

Are they back in his dreams because they’re not yet part of the Institute in this timeline? They looked younger. Frightened. Even more so than he’s used to.

What do the changes mean? Maybe he’s still the Jon from this timeline, warped by memories and experiences that aren’t his own, or maybe this is how the Eye binds him to this reality—

As if noticing his discomfort, Martin shifts behind him, snuggling closer, impossibly gentle and soft even in his sleep.

And it should be sweet, and Jon should feel guilty like he did before. He should blush, the way he did just minutes ago.

Instead all he can taste is mud, and pain, and fear.

Instead, all he can feel is the need to breathe, the phantom pain in his hand, ghostly adrenaline pumping through his veins, like he’s falling forever.

All of this—suddenly it’s all too much. It’s as if nothing has changed, except everything has, and all he can feel is the crushing guilt of having left them all behind, of forcing his friends to relive trauma they haven’t even experienced yet (with his luck)—

Daisy will actually kill me on sight, this time around.

Jon rolls himself violently out of Martin’s grasp and topples out of the bed, half-dazed, hitting the ground with a painful thud.

The floor is hard and cool beneath him but there’s nothing weighing down on him here, and after a few moments his heart rate finally starts to slow.

Martin stirs, but he doesn’t quite wake.

Jon isn’t sure if he wants to cry or be relieved about that, and he hates that this is how he feels.

 


 

It takes an eternity until Jon can finally force himself to sit up.

The day hasn’t even started yet but he’s already tired on a soul-deep level.

What am I going to do? It ’s not like I can talk to anyone.

Or, well, he could but then he’d have to deal with the fallout, and he isn’t ready for that yet.

He’s alone; he’s always been alone.

God, I’d make a good candidate for the Lonely, too, wouldn’t I? He catches himself brushing light fingers over the skin Martin’s arms had touched before, and the resulting furious bitterness at both his actions and his thoughts is immediate and damning.

Why does his head return to Martin again and again?

What am I going to say to him when he wakes? I ’m sorry I’m a monster now and that I made you overshare, I won’t tell the others? I also time-travelled, you see, and I still feel this crushing guilt at what I inflicted on you, and somehow I’m even more monstrous than you might think, so you’d better stay away from me. I’m also forcing people I know and don’t know to relive trauma they haven’t even been through yet, so, well, let’s just forget about all of this and move on?

Oh, and you can ’t quit your job so you can’t even leave.

Jon sighs and then forces himself off the ground, out of Document Storage, and in the general direction of his office.

Maybe finishing the clean-up of his office can provide the distraction he sorely needs.

 


 

His office looks like a war zone, as if a bomb has exploded in the middle of it.

There’s paper strewn everywhere and the book piles he made yesterday are covering most of the remaining floor of which there’s precious little to step on, let alone see.

To top it all off, he’s found so many abandoned mugs with tea bags in weird places that he’s lost count entirely.



It’s the perfect distraction.

 


 

Jon can’t tell how many hours have passed by the time Elias shows up.

He’s pretty sure that it must be past sunrise by now but he doesn’t care enough to Know, his watch is nowhere to be seen, and he’s taken the batteries out of the clock on the wall because the ticking annoyed him.



God, he's tired. Is it a surprise that he jumps when he hears Elias’ voice, when Elias turns on the lights, blinding him momentarily?

“Good morning, Jon. You’re up early.” He sounds so smug.

Did Elias always sound like that, even before Jon knew the truth?

For one tiny, glorious moment Jon thinks about striding over and decking him right here, right now, but the ramifications probably wouldn’t be worth the satisfaction. After all, he’s supposed to be a meek under-prepared researcher who’s still horrified at the mere thought of Elias’ disapproval.

Even though that might be a moot point if Elias can still look into his mind, because then he’ll know anyways.

Somehow Jon can’t make himself feel regret at that thought. In fact, it pleases him immensely, and it takes a lot of willpower to keep the grim smile off his face.

... and it's useless anyways. He had his lights off and was moving about in complete darkness. There's no way Elias doesn't know that something's up.

“Elias,” he just makes himself respond even if the name sounds distasteful on his tongue, and then he continues to sift through the shelves, trying to figure out which books to keep and which ones to discard. There’s so much stuff in his office! Honestly, what was past him thinking?

When did he clean it up last time? … Possibly never.

Jon sighs, and then he finally looks up towards the door.

Towards Elias.

For a tiny, tiny moment he thinks that he’s seeing something weird, some sort of creepy shadow, but when his eyes find Elias it’s gone. “What do you want, Elias?”

Elias just smiles, and Jon gets the disconcerting feeling that he does , in fact, know exactly what's up, mind-reading or not .

Dimly, Jon realises that he’s breathing harder again, that his fingers have clenched around the book in his hands, fingernails leaving dents in the cover.

He doesn’t care.

He feels like a deer trapped in headlights, and, judging from Elias’ expression, Elias has no problem being the car.

“Oh, I’m just here to check in on you after the Prentiss affair yesterday. Martin made it out alright?”

Jon stares at him blankly for few moments because his brain refuses to produce thoughts. For some reason, the ones he ends up thinking keep rotating around the fact that Elias knows about Prentiss, even if that’s entirely beside the point. Of course Elias knows about Prentiss. He can see anything he turns his mind to, after all.

…Oh, so that’s how he knows how I’ve changed. Why he came down.

Jon shivers, incapable of averting his eyes, and Elias just stares back, nothing shifting in his face at all.

And then something inside Jon’s brain snaps. “He did,” he says curtly. “Now, if you please—do you want something? I am busy.

His head is aching again. It feels like something’s trying to break free from inside his brain.

“I can see that, Jon. I hope you’re settling in well as the Archivist? I probably should have checked in with you before, but my timetable has been busy recently.” There it is again, that smirk. Jon hears the capitalisation of the title, and he also doesn’t miss the horribly smug note tucked deep inside Elias’ words. When Jon looks him in the eyes, there’s amusement there, and something else.

Suddenly, Jon realises with utter certainty that Elias doesn’t care that Jon isn’t who he’s supposed to be. It’s reflected in his pose and in his cold, pale eyes, his expression sending shivers down Jon’s spine.

For some unfathomable reason, Jon’s reaction isn’t fear. It’s rage.

“I’m fine,” he snaps, “but there are some things we—” He breaks off. Takes a deep breath. “Prentiss seems to be vulnerable to CO2—we need a bunch of CO2 fire extinguishers if you could arrange that, just in case, and I’d be much obliged if you could change the Institute’s systems to CO2 as well, Elias.

“Anything else?” Elias’ voice is infuriatingly calm.

They both know that Jon doesn’t need CO2 to make Prentiss leave. Not anymore. Still, Elias appears to be enjoying the dance, and Jon is too busy panicking to think about it much, or to control what he says next.

“Is the table in Artifact Storage?” he hears himself say as if from far away, and it’s this point that finally makes him realise that he’s made a mistake when he didn’t smack Elias when he first entered.

“What table are you referring to?” Elias asks, his smirk widening impossibly.

Jon stares at him grimly, heart racing painfully in his chest. “The one with the spiderweb design,” he chokes out, and hates how frail and distant his voice sounds, as if he’s miles away from himself.

“I don’t think so,” Elias responds mildly, “I can ask if you want, of course. Are you quite alright, Jon?”

For a fraction of a moment Jon considers committing bloody pipe murder, and he’d probably do it too, if it weren’t for the fact that there are no pipes readily available.

“I am, thank you for asking,” he says. Elias’ smirk has reached cartoonish levels.

“Have a nice day, Elias.”

“Quite. You as well, Jon. If you need any help, just ask. I’m sure something can be… arranged.”

Is it Jon’s imagination or does Elias’ gaze linger just below his eyes on those last words?

Given Jon’s luck it probably isn’t.



Elias leaves.



Jon gives himself ten minutes to stare blankly into space before he finally slumps onto the ground between the seemingly endless piles of papers and books.

 


 

Sometimes self-care translates to screaming into your balled-up hoodie for fifteen minutes straight, praying that your co-workers haven’t arrived yet.

 


 

When Jon is almost ready to face the world again, he goes to the bathroom, only remembering half-way that he’s arrived too early in the timeline, and that he hasn’t actually stocked up on toiletries in the Archives yet.

His hair is shorter too, so at least it won’t need that much care yet. He intends to grow it out again—he misses the comforting weight of it, almost feels vulnerable without it—but that will take a while, and maybe that’s for the best.

Daily hair care has been the one, comfortable constant in his ever more escalating life, and he can’t imagine not having that anymore… but then again, this is a new start. He gets to try again. (He gets to try again.)



Jon opts to take a shower.

 


 

The problem with bandages is that they have to be taken off before you can shower.

The problem with worm-holes and Jon is that there are only faint scars where deep, seeping wounds should be, and that once he discovers that fact, he spends ten minutes zoned out, blankly staring at nothing as his mind migrates elsewhere.

Yesterday.

It happened yesterday .

They’re still fresh and raw, tender to the touch—but they look like they’ve been there for at least a few weeks.

Jon feels slightly nauseated when he finally manages to make himself move; when he finally steps into the shower and rinses himself off.

He can’t believe he slept in yesterday’s clothes, in the cot with—

No, best not go there again.

He’s had enough panic attacks already.

It’s barely eight in the morning.

God.

 


 

Jon showers until there’s no warm water left because damn it, if there’s one thing he’s earned then it’s a nice long shower.

Even in the shower, his thoughts won’t stop, and he wonders if Elias was so smug because he knew that the wounds had already healed, or because of Jon’s new eyes, or because Jon could see in the dark, or because of something else entirely. Or all of it? Maybe he could smell Jon’s weariness and broke into his mind. Maybe that’s why his head started hurting when Elias arrived.

Maybe Elias has always been a smug bastard and Jon just never noticed because he was too busy bowing and scraping and being afraid that he didn’t adhere to the dress code closely enough.

And maybe all of this is somehow Elias’ fault—but even if it is, that doesn’t make a difference now.



After Jon has finished showering he sighs and walks over to the medical kit. Then he hides the horrible evidence of his inhumanity below a new abundance of band-aids and bandages, until all of the scars are covered up and nobody can see a thing.



And as luck will have it, of course that’s exactly the moment Martin decides to walk into the bathroom.

 


 

Jon can’t remember a time when he wasn’t awkward. When he knew what to say.

Time-travel hasn’t changed a thing about that and now Martin’s here, freezing in the half-open door like he suddenly wants to disappear into thin air as well.

Like Jon won’t notice him if he doesn’t move.

If only it were ever that easy.

“Good morning, Martin,” Jon forces himself to say. His throat feels like sandpaper. “If you’re, ah, if you’re planning on using the shower… I have to admit that I, hm, just used up all the hot water…” Jon trails off, forces himself to meet Martin’s stare.

It only takes half a second until Martin blushes deep red and glances away. “I-I just w-wanted to, ah, pee.”

They both stand there and don’t say anything.

Then Martin follows up with “Are you okay?” and Jon curses himself for not fleeing immediately.

“I’m fine,” he grouses, trying to brush Martin off, but he’s still standing in the door, peering intently at Jon’s face.

“How are your wounds…?” Martin asks slowly, as if uncertain if he wants to know the answer or not. “I, ah, I hope you slept okay?”

For a few moments Jon just stares at him blankly, trying to think past the fog in his head.

“I’m fine,” he finally repeats himself, more annoyed this time, but then he sighs. “Listen, Martin—I’m sorry about last night, that wasn’t professional at all, I should’ve—”

“It’s fine, you were—”

“—I shouldn’t have made you—”

“—obviously tired, and honestly it w-was almost cute—”

“—I hope we can still work with each other—”

“—ah, a spur of the moment decision, really, with the bed—”

“—What?”

“—Oh… oh.” Martin looks away, blushing furiously. Then his face falls. “So last night—uh, wasn’t, hm, nice… for you—?”

Jon suddenly wishes he’d never said a word at all. “I didn’t say that,” his traitorous mouth says before he can regain control over his tongue and thoughts, and then: “I’m just—I think we need to talk.”

He sighs.

For some reason all he wants to do is hug Martin close until his smile returns.

“Right. Right. Uh—aren’t we… aren’t we talking right now?” Martin asks.

“I suppose… I meant, a-a real talk. Not an awkward bathroom conversation…” Jon trails off.

“Right.”



Silence.



“Oh—okay. I will…come by your office later?”

“That would—would be nice. Yes. Thank you, Martin.”



Instead of answering, Martin nods awkwardly and holds the door open for Jon.

Jon escapes outside and has no idea why he’s feeling weird about it.

They’ve talked.

It’ll be fine.



Martin is coming by later.



Jon has no idea what to tell him.

 


 

Jon spends the next hour pointedly not thinking about Martin, and not thinking about Elias, and not thinking about Daisy, or Melanie, or Basira, or any of the statement-givers.

Instead, he does his best to get through the chaos that is his office, to free enough space to allow himself and Martin to hold a conversation.

He’s nervous, and that does not help.

At first he thinks that Martin will come in any moment, and he’s startled by even the tiniest of noises.

When Martin doesn’t show up after a while he finally sinks into the work, and after half an hour more his thoughts fall blessedly silent.

 


 

When Martin finally does enter his office, Jon doesn’t notice until Martin closes the door behind him, and Jon jumps at the click.

“Good Lord, Martin, don’t—”

“I’m sorry, Jon—”

“Ah, it’s—it’s alright, I suppose.”

Martin smiles uncertainly, two matching mugs of tea cradled in his hands. He somehow manages to look exactly like Jon feels.

Why does Jon feel so much more nervous with him than even Elias? … Maybe it’s because I compelled him into sharing his most private thoughts, and then I made him sleep in—in the same bed…

“I—I’m sorry, Martin,” Jon says, trying to interrupt his own thoughts before he blushes again. He takes a deep breath. “I—I mentioned yesterday that something… happened to me. I-I won’t bore you with the, ah, the details. I’d just—if… God, Martin, I’m so sorry. I didn’t want—want to make you talk about—about all that. That—I shouldn’t have… let’s just forget yesterday n-night entirely, alright? I don’t even remember what happened—”

Martin stares at him with wide eyes, frowns. “What do you mean?” he asks uncertainly, and Jon wants to cry because the smile slowly falls off his face, replaced with concern. Martin carefully approaches the desk and puts the mugs down, the frown never leaving his face. Jon realises with sudden pain that Martin’s concerned for him.

“I don’t blame you!” Jon says quickly, “it’s—it’s my own fault. I—I’ve changed. I…I don’t know how to talk about it yet?” I don’t want to talk about it because then you’ll start hating me, and I don’t think I could deal with that right now. “I don’t know if I’ll ever know how to talk about it.”

Jon looks away. Sometimes he really wishes that he had Tim’s easy charisma, his confident smiles and generosity. Tim would probably grin and everything would be alright, he’d know what to say to Martin to bring his point across, except—

Except he died , and nothing was alright, neither before nor after that. What is wrong with my brain today? First Martin and then the nightmares and then Elias and now —now this?

Jon is so dazed that he doesn’t even notice Martin moving until he’s already by his side, hovering uncertainly next to him.

Jon wants to cry. Martin shouldn’t have to worry about him, shouldn’t feel the need to rush to his side immediately, what did I do to him? I have to tell him, I have to, he deserves the truth

They all deserve the truth, but if I tell them? Elias knows, but I doubt they’d handle it the way—the way he has. Jon shivers, and dimly notices that Martin has taken his arm, is guiding him to sit down on his chair.

Part of Jon is shivering at the contact, leaning into it like a cat, while another is just crying senselessly in the corner.

Most of Jon is crying in the corner.

“You don’t have to be so-so nice to me all the time, M-Martin,” Jon whispers, his voice breaking halfway through. Are there tears in his eyes? Yes, there are tears in his eyes… “I—I don’t deserve your kindness. I did something, you don’t have to follow it, you don’t need to be nice to me, I can—I shouldn’t—I—”

“Nonsense, Jon,” Martin says severely. He almost sounds angry when he rounds the table in a few quick steps, returning half a moment later with the mug, pressing it gently but insistently into Jon’s hands.

“Be careful, it’s still hot.”

His eyes are dark brown, and Jon thinks he could disappear into them forever.

“You look terrible, did you sleep at all? I—Yesterday was nice. Nobody has ever listened to me like that, it felt—it felt good. I have no idea what you, what you’re even talking about, but if you think that—that you somehow made me talk, or forced me to—” He breaks off, blushing furiously. Jon can see his adam’s apple bob when Martin swallows. As Martin continues to speak his eyes never leave Jon’s even though the tips of his ears somehow manage to get even redder. It’s adorable. Jon wants to slap himself for even thinking that thought.

“You didn’t make me talk about anything. It was—it was nice. It was the best evening I’ve had in a while, if I’m honest.” The ghost of a lopsided grin appears on his lips, and Jon smiles back on reflex.

The tea is warm in his hands and he only notices now that he’s shaking. It’s not even nine and he already feels like he should go sleep. He takes a sip.

He only notices that something is off when Martin stares at him strangely. “You can—you can drink that already?” he asks, sounding concerned and surprised to equal measures.

Jon stares at the mug. Now that he concentrates, he realises that it is, in fact, very warm in his hands.

He shrugs and can’t make himself feel surprised. “Maybe my—maybe my pain threshold is h-higher now,” he mutters to both himself and Martin.

There’s an awkward pause during which they both very obviously regret their life choices. It's almost comforting, how openly Martin wears his emotions. Jon has never been comfortable doing that, until now. Until he stopped caring because he's too tired to hide.

“I’m sorry,” he says, and Martin sighs.

“I c-can’t believe I’m the one saying this, but, uh, you can stop being sorry now, okay, Jon? I-I think you’ve made that clear. By now. And anyways, that nightmare was terrible. I’m glad you woke me. And, ah, to be honest… I li— you saved me from that Prentiss thing! Sure, there were—I didn’t want to ask you about the, uh, the… blood. And, the, ah… eyes. Because you looked—you looked like you needed the break, to not be reminded of it? I’m—I think I’m fine with—with all of it, actually. Jon.”

Jon frowns, all thoughts of scalding tea suddenly pushed out of his mind, replaced by the equally sudden worry that Martin is sick. There are words coming out of his mouth, but they make no sense. A break? Worried? About him?

“You just spent more than a week kept captive in your flat by a flesh-hive and you’re worried about me?he asks, horrified. “Martin, maybe you should see a doctor. Maybe we should make sure that none of the worms—” He blushes, looks away. “Maybe you should make sure that none of the worms got to you… and how can you be fine with it? I’m not even fine with it, and they’re my—my fucking eyes! Damn it, Martin, I’d—I didn’t realise how…” he trails off, uncertain how to even start putting his feelings into words. Suddenly there’s so much he wants to say. His hands are clenched around the mug and he forces himself to relax them, to take another tentative sip. Now that he’s concentrating on it, he can feel it burning on his tongue, but it seems to heal almost the moment it burns. There isn’t even much pain, just a slight discomfort.

The tea tastes so nice that he wants to cry.

“Honestly, Martin, how can you be fine with it? How can you even stand being near me? I treated you so—so horribly for s-so long, and then Prentiss, and now this—I’d thought that the trauma—but you’re still so nice, and you slept, so it isn’t—?” His eyes are wet again, damn them. He can’t cry, not now. He refuses to cry now!

“Shhh.” Martin’s expression suddenly softens into something so gentle that Jon just kind of breaks. “I swear to god, Jon, if you say one more time that you’re sorry I’ll—you know what, I think I’ll slap you. It’s—it’s okay, alright? It’s okay. I don’t know what happened to you and I won’t bother you until you’re ready to talk about it, I swear! And you aren’t a monster! No matter how—how, ah, weird you are. No matter what happened, I’ve—honestly, I’ve never seen you like—like this before. It must’ve been horrible, so don’t you dare talk to me about trauma! And drink your tea!” He shakes his head. “No! Drink before you talk!”

Jon’s protests die in his throat and he takes another sip of tea. It’s still too hot for humans but he isn’t human anymore, is he?

Maybe I can become a superhero now that I have magic healing and additional eyes. The thought is so hilariously out of place that he nearly chokes on his tea, and Martin has to slap his back.

“And you did not make me sleep in that bed. You did not make me do anything I didn’t want to! We were talking and you just kind of fell asleep almost mid-sentence. It was kind of funny actually. I wish I could’ve taken a picture for Tim and Sasha, they’ll never believe me.” There’s a mischievous grin on Martin’s face and once Jon notices it, he can’t stop staring, eyes brimming with unshed tears.

He forces himself to drink the rest of his tea, because he can’t get over the fact that he never knew that Martin had a mischievous streak. I really don’t know much about them, do I? Another thing to change…

I should really tell him. He deserves to know that I’m not—that I’m someone else.

“Your tea is really good,” Jon’s mouth says instead, and Jon can’t even feel any regret about it, especially not when Martin’s grin grows as he launches into a speech on the underappreciated art of tea-making. It has a faintly scolding undercurrent that Jon doesn’t quite understand, but he doesn’t mind.

Martin’s voice is very nice.

By the end he can’t tell how long he’s been listening to Martin talking about the crimes of using pre-packaged tea bags instead of proper tea, and he can’t say that he minds. In fact, it makes him smile, and the smile only aches a bit. Just about half-way through the speech, Jon finally decides that he can never tell Martin that he came back from 2018, because that would entail telling him about the Lonely, about Sasha, about Tim. About all the things Jon’s done, the things he’s been forced to do.

It isn’t even about him—about Martin knowing what he became. This time, it’s just about Martin being spared the pain of this knowledge, of something that still threatens to drag down every waking moment, even if it’s gotten better after he left the cot.

It’s still there, as is the weight of Daisy’s arms around him.

Jon doesn’t think anyone else deserves to be weighed down by that kind of pain, so instead of thinking about it further he listens to Martin talk about tea, and when Martin finally stops, almost out of breath, Jon finds himself smiling, and the world doesn’t seem quite as dark anymore.

He’ll still need to figure out what to do about the statement-givers, about the future.

About Elias.

But for some reason, Martin doesn’t hate him, and he probably didn’t force Martin to do anything he didn’t want to, and he’ll just have to be careful.

And being friends is a good thing, surely?

I think I can do that. I think I can be friends with them. It's Friday, isn’t it? Maybe we can go to the pub together, after work.

That might be nice.

And he smiles when Martin asks him if he needs help with his office, and for some reason he says yes even though Martin has no idea about any of the things Jon is sorting through.

It makes no sense, but maybe not everything has to.

Chapter Text

Cleaning Jon’s office in companionable silence is the most weirdly domestic thing that’s ever happened to Martin, he’s sure about that.

From time to time he keeps glancing at Jon just to make sure that he’s still there, that he isn’t a hallucination, that Martin‘s actually—actually helping him clean his office.

The last week feels like a fever dream, and yesterday is a weird mix of nightmare and daydream that Martin both wants to purge from his mind forever, and write a thousand poems about.

It’s utterly surreal.

Everything about last night—if it weren’t for Jon’s utterly endearing awkwardness earlier, Martin would be absolutely certain that he’d dreamed it all.

(Jon hadn’t wanted to go home yesterday because he didn’t want to be alone either. Why is this the thought that keeps returning again and again?)



For some nebulous reason, Jon looks better today than he has in weeks. Under normal circumstances Martin would find this distinctly unfair—Jon has slept less than him, after all, and Martin can feel the lack of sleep in his bones. Problem is, Jon looks like he’s slept twice as much as he usually does and, knowing him, that sounds about right.

Martin wonders if he can somehow force Jon to work shorter hours and sleep more but he isn’t sure if his crush on him would be able to handle that. Jon looks unfairly pretty despite the newly applied band-aids covering his face and neck, despite his obvious exhaustion. Martin knows his heart wouldn’t be able to handle it if Jon actually looked like someone with a sleep schedule.



Today there are two warring factions within Martin, and he isn’t sure what to make of either of them.

The first one is quiet and serene, strangely enough. After all, Jon knows everything about him now. Well, almost everything at least. Martin isn’t sure what exactly he left out yesterday, he just remembers talking for what felt like hours; remembers Jon listening in comfortable silence. Remembers Jon hugging him, and apologising about his mother—

Martin has told Tim and Sasha about her too, but not like this. Never like this. For some inexplicable reason it feels good to be known in such a way. He’s never been this calm around anyone before.

It seems impossible that it should be Jon of all people.



...And then there’s the second part inside him, the part that’s screaming.

He’s in Jon’s office, and Jon isn’t angry with him, and he’s helping Jon, and Jon keeps apologising to him? Jon is being awkward around him? It’s such a drastic role reversal that Martin doesn’t know how to deal with it, not that that’s anything new by now.

It’s weird, to be both incredibly calm and the opposite of calm at the very same time. For a while he tried to cover it up by letting himself ramble about tea, and for some reason Jon listened, and smiled . The very same Jon who microwaves his tea, and who (possibly?) reuses his tea bag during the entire day, and who reprimanded Martin about the dress code, and who has been continuously unsatisfied with his work, which he ’d made clear every chance he got, who doesn’t—didn't believe in the supernatural—

And now they’re here.

And Martin is helping Jon clean up his office, the night after Jon fell asleep on him. Jon now knows him in ways nobody else does. Jon can drink scalding hot tea without even noticing.

Jon isn' t human.

…anymore? Or was it all an act, before—

But that feels wrong, too. If there’s one thing Martin knows about Jon, it’s that he’s honest about who he is. That he’s horrible at lying. That hasn’t changed, has it?

Martin has spent a lot of time watching him during the past few years (he forcefully tries to keep himself from blushing at that thought and fails), and he knows Jon’s mannerisms. The old Jon is definitely still there, somewhere. He’s just also buried so deeply that Martin only infrequently spots glimpses of him.

This new Jon moves carefully as if he’s afraid of intruding even in his own space. There’s something deeply exhausted in his expression, something weary and pained, as if he’s weighed down by a life of pain. His face is open in a way it’s never been—Martin’s never been able to read him like this in the past. Before, Jon’s face was more like a mask frozen in perpetual dissatisfaction, an eternal frown etched between his eyebrows.

And whether he’s human or not, he’s definitely not comparable to Prentiss. Monsters don’t care who they hurt, and if one thing has become obvious to Martin, it’s that Jon cares a lot.

Whatever happened to him, it must’ve been much worse than what Martin went through this past week. No matter how curious he is, Martin knows that he’ll never try to force Jon into talking about it unless he’s ready.

It’s taken Martin until yesterday to tell anyone about his mother and his pain and his loneliness, and even if he’s never felt better, he knows he wouldn’t have been ready any time sooner than that.

It will undoubtedly take time for Jon as well.

Martin has no problem with waiting.

 


 

“Uh, Jon?”

Jon looks up from the book he’s holding, glancing at Martin quizzically. He doesn’t quite meet his eyes. “Hm?”

“Should—should I give a—,” Martin almost says BS and only barely manages to restrain himself, “a Statement? About what happened? With Prentiss?” When did he start capitalising the word “statement” in his head?

“Oh, uhm…” Jon hesitates, glancing at him, at his desk, at the wall, at the blinds drawn close over the window looking out over the cluster of the assistants’ desks. “I… Statements are…” For a moment Jon looks so lost that Martin honestly worries that he’s broken him.

“You… could? But do you—do you really want to?” When Jon’s eyes finally actually meet Martin‘s, it feels like all the breath is being knocked from his chest. His gaze is… something else, these days. Dimly, Martin realises that there’s worry in his eyes.

“I…” Jon sighs. “Look, Martin, I don’t want to discourage you. But you already talked about it yesterday? You don’t have to u-unless, ah, unless you want to. G-Giving a Statement can be—rough. You… you relive… your experience. And I… when I read the—the real ones, those that don’t—don’t record on tape… ah, I… I relive their experiences a-as well. It’s—it can be rough. For the statement givers. Do you—do you really want to do that?”

Martin swallows and frowns, pulled back to reality in a way he really does not like. “Wait. You relive the BS?”

“BS?”

“You know— the, uh, Bizarre Statements…?”

A ghost of a smile plays over Jon’s lips. “Tim,” he mutters, “ah, right. Of course. The … BS. But, uh. Yeah.” He looks away.

“And you never told us?” Martin asks, disbelief colouring his voice, “if it’s this obvious that they’re real, why did you do that? Tear them apart like that?”

Jon smiles sadly. “I was scared,” he whispers. “I… I’ve always known that the supernatural is real. It’s why I started working here in the first place, to get to the truth and find out…” He trails off, laughs bitterly. “Reading the Statements out loud made me—made me feel like I was being watched, as if admitting their truth would… make a difference somehow.” Jon hesitates, looks Martin almost in the eyes (but not quite), glances away. “It’s—all of this, it goes so much deeper than we thought. I know now that lying and denying everything didn’t make a difference… but if you can imagine it or not, I thought it would be safer.”

Martin thinks about that for a while before opening his mouth again. “And with going so much deeper you mean… what, exactly?”

Jon laughs at that, startling them both. “Well,” he says grimly. “I know for a fact that I didn’t have ink blood or five eyes until yesterday morning.”

 


 

“So you’d—you’d feel what I was going through if I give a Statement?” Martin asks after a while. “I—I’d feel weird not giving one. I think—I think I want to give a Statement, Jon. Even if—despite everything. But you—you won’t have to read it, if you don’t want to.”

When Jon meets his gaze, there’s something—off in his eyes. Martin shivers, trying to look away, and finds that he can’t.

“I—I’m not… if you give your Statement, you’ll relive it as well. It’ll pull all the, ah, fear to the forefront of your mind. You’ll feel like it’s—like it’s being told through you. If you’re—if you’re okay with that… and if you…if you want someone there, I’ll—I’m okay with being there.”

Martin thinks about it. Then he nods. “Okay. Thank you.”

Before either of them can say anything else, there’s a crash followed by Tim and Sasha’s voices animatedly discussing something Martin can’t quite make out through Jon’s door.

“Oh, they’re here early,” Jon mutters with a faint smile, and Martin is once again struck by how differently he reacts to things now.

“I’ll go see what happened?” Martin says, and Jon nods.

“I-I’ll stay here. There’s so much work still left to do and I don’t—ah, don’t want to… impose.”

Martin shakes his head slightly at that but he’s smiling when he makes his way over to the door.



By the time Martin makes it out of Jon’s office, Tim and Sasha have put huge backpacks on the ground next to their desks, as well as normal carry-on bags.

They look like they’re going camping.

“Martin!” Tim says happily in his best golden retriever voice. “I hope you survived the night alright? Where’s the boss? Everything okay?”

“Oh, yeah,” he says, letting the door fall close behind him and finally making his way over. “I’m just helping Jon clean his office…” He trails off when he notices both Sasha’s and Tim’s incredulous stares.

Somehow, between the awkward bathroom meeting, his and Jon's united efforts to clean Jon's office, and their most recent conversation, Martin has completely forgotten that Sasha and Tim don’t know yet.

“He k-kind of spent the night?” he finally settles on, forcing himself to maintain eye contact. He knows very consciously that he must be redder than a tomato. “We… uh, I had a nightmare and he w-woke me and, and we started talking…”

Tim’s eyebrows shoot up and his face breaks into a very wide grin. “Jon? Talking?” His eyebrows are performing something really fascinating that Martin didn’t know a person could physically do. “A lot happened yesterday, I take it, hm, Marto?”

Martin’s blush has reached peak performance.

“Uh, y-yeah… kind of.” Then he looks at the backpacks again. “Are you going on a camping trip?” he asks, because attack is the best defence.

Tim laughs. “Kind of. Hey, Sash, are we going camping?”

“We realised that you’ll have to stay here all alone over the weekend, and that just wasn’t acceptable. So we’ve decided to move in with you,” Sasha says, sounding cheerful enough even though there’s something weird in her expression. “We’ve brought a bunch of blankets and Tim still had some camping stuff lying around. We didn’t bring the tents though. We can all move into Document Storage, or we can sleep here, Jon’s opinions be damned.” She smiles at him and he wonders if he imagined the weirdness, and then he actually realises what she said.

They’re going to stay here? On their weekends? With him? (For him?)

“Thank you,” he says, overcome with the immense need to just hug them both forever. He doesn’t, but he really wants to. Are there tears in his eyes? Probably. He blinks a few times, uncertain how to thank them.

“Of course,” Sasha says and Tim just beams widely at him. Martin can see in his eyes that their previous conversation topic is very much not forgotten, but neither Tim nor Sasha say anything (yet) and Martin once again wonders how his life turned around so quickly. Only yesterday he was sure that he would die, and now he’s here, surrounded by friends after he accidentally slept in the same tiny bed with his boss who’s suddenly kind to him?

Martin really could get used to this.

“So… how are you holding up?” Sasha asks.

“I, uh… I’m actually doing okay? For the most part. Jon was—was there. It was… it was nice, actually.” He smiles at them, feeling strangely giddy. Tim’s grin is so wide that it must hurt. Sasha looks mostly… confused? There’s something else there, too, but Martin can’t put his finger on what exactly.

“I—I did have nightmares and they were… well, they were bad. But Jon was still there and… he said he didn’t—didn’t want to be alone, either…”

“You sure you didn’t just dream that part, too? Our Jon? Saying he didn’t want to be alone?”

Martin sighs but there’s a smile on his lips that echoes Tim’s amusement. “He actually said exactly that, down to the word . He’s—he’s going through something horrible? I’m not sure what happened, exactly, he won’t talk about it. I—not that I’m complaining. He was—he said he likes my tea…”

“He likes your tea! That’s almost a love confession, isn’t it?” Tim says, startling a laugh out of Martin.

“Tim! He—shush, I don’t want him to—the walls are really thin!”

Tim laughs again. “Oh, come on. He can handle it…”

“I’m—I’m not sure. He’s—something’s off.”



For a moment they’re all quiet, looking toward Jon’s office. Nothing moves behind the blinds.



“Honestly, he was behaving so weirdly yesterday,” Sasha says more quietly after a while. “I didn’t want to confront him or anything but… he didn’t show up until midday? I had to call him! He did sound… very unlike himself, on the phone. He still does. And he was fine on Wednesday? Well, behaving the way Jon does, anyways. Not sure if that could count as fine. And how did he manage to get rid of Prentiss for you, Martin? He seems to have been… ah, bitten quite a lot.”

Martin sighs and wonders how much he should tell them. Definitely not about the eyes and the blood, right? That isn’t his story to tell, especially since Jon told him that they’re a… new acquisition.

“Uh, I’m not sure, actually? I was in my room, m-mostly, trying to distract myself… He just kind of b-barged in. It was—fairly weird, to be honest. I’m not even sure how he managed to get through my door. The part near the lock was just… broken? Oh, I’ll have to call my landlord about that today… Right. Uhm. Prentiss was gone by the time we left, there were just all these dead worms littering the hallway.” He looks up at them, first Tim, then Sasha. “We—I asked him about it, if he wants to talk about it. I think something happened to him? I’m not sure what, though. I’m pretty sure that it’s—that it’s something he could give a Statement about.”

“BS,” Tim corrects him primly before becoming more serious. “Yeah, that might actually explain some things…”

Sasha nods. “I’ve been wondering about that. It would explain why he only showed up after I called him, and why he sounded so, hm, spaced-out on the phone. He was super weird yesterday, especially after he came to talk to us…”

Tim frowns. “Yeah, I don’t know what was going on but he looked like he’d gotten shot, and then he just fled?”

“I wondered if it was a family-related thing?” Sasha is frowning as well, and Martin can almost see the gears turning in her head.

Tim shakes his head. “His grandmother passed a few years back and as far as I know he has no other family. Not that we ever talked about it, he’s always been really closed-off when it comes to his personal life. If he even has one. He… when he started here, I think he had a few friends he sometimes saw for trivia night but it's been ages since he mentioned them.”



They turn back to happier topics after that and Martin’s kind of glad about it, even as his thoughts return to the topic again and again.

Apparently, Tim and Sasha hit it off shortly before Martin got prentissed. He’s happy for them, even if he can’t quite suppress the fear that things will change even more, and immediately feels bad for thinking that way.

Surely it’ll be fine?

So much happened in such a short time. Martin isn’t sure when it’ll all come crashing down on him, but it hasn’t happened yet and he’s glad about that.

 


 

The rest of the morning passes surprisingly fast.

Jon ends up being right about the Statement—it doesn’t feel like Martin's the one telling it, or at least not as if he’s the only one. He’s fairly certain that he wouldn’t have been able to put it into words like that without any sort of outside influence.

Jon is sitting opposite him during the entire ordeal and a tiny part of Martin wonders if Jon would hold his hand if he asked but he shuts that part down immediately. Jon isn’t interested in him. He’s nice to him now, sure, but that’s got less to do with Martin and more with Jon himself.

Martin doesn’t want to accidentally jinx their budding friendship (friendship? Is this a friendship?) by doing something stupid.

And then there are also Jon’s eyes. For some reason, shortly after Martin starts talking, he looks up at Jon and then he just— stays like that for the entirety of it.

There are only two eyes but they’re neither normal nor entirely human. They’re deeper, and darker, and they seem far bigger than they have any right to be.

Far prettier, too.

Martin can’t stop staring.

Jon doesn’t blink even once.

When Martin finally stops his heart is beating like a drum in his chest, the blood rushing in his ears is impossibly loud, and his throat feels parched.

Jon blinks a few times, rubs at his throat, looks away.

It feels like a loss, somehow; as though his eyes had held Martin together. Had guided him through.

He wonders if Jon’s presence made him so eloquent. It seems quite handy, if he’s being honest.

“I’m—I’m sorry you had to go through that,” Jon says after a while, voice hesitant.

Martin smiles tiredly. He’s feeling drained in a way that almost reminds him of yesterday. Jon wasn’t kidding. He really did relive the last few days.

He just wants to curl up on the cot and sleep.

“I’m fine. You—you saved me, Jon. Thank you.”

“Well, thank you for leaving out the, ah, the eyes. And the blood. I… I appreciate it. I’ll tell Sasha and Tim w-when I feel ready. But… not yet.”

Martin nods, and for a few minutes they’re both quiet.

Martin remembers the times when Jon looked like he’d been rolled over by a train after a statement, and he wonders when that changed.

Jon looks good, even better than he has all morning.

Martin decides not to mention that because he’s pretty sure that Jon will go back to apologising to him once again, even if Martin won’t understand what for.

 


 

“—thank you again. Ah, right, no… I am staying at—at someone else’s place for now. Thank you. Yeah. Bye!” Martin hangs up. The best thing to come out of this job is that he’s no longer dying every time he needs to make a phone call. His heart is still beating far too quickly but he can deal with that.

“Who was that?” Tim asks from the breakroom door. Martin almost jumps.

“Oh, ah, my landlord? About the—about the door. He even accepted that it had been an emergency. And I told him about the, uh, the worms. Not e-everything, of course, but enough. I hope.”

Tim nods, his face serious. “I have to admit, I’m kind of impressed that Jon managed to break through your door. He’s, what, 5’3? Where did he get that kind of strength? Oh, I know! Maybe it’s like these stories you hear, of people performing massive feats of strength when their loved ones are in danger…” It’s at this point that his shit-eating grin can no longer be contained, and Martin punches his shoulder, lightly, feeling vaguely flustered again before Tim continues. “But seriously. Are you okay? I know that we asked you already but I’m—I’m still sorry that we didn’t notice. We should’ve noticed. I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have been able to forgive myself if anything had happened to you, and I’m not joking.”

“Y-Yeah. I think so? Honestly, Tim, yesterday was just really weird. This entire past week was really weird. It’s like one long, blurred thing. Sometimes I think it must’ve been a dream. I’m just—that, and Jon? He’s so open now! I—you know, it’s almost exactly what I wanted, and I can’t even say that I’m regretting the whole Prentiss thing for that, as weird as that might sound! But now it’s the next day and—ah. Something’s seriously off about Jon and I’m—I constantly feel like he might just shatter if I say the wrong thing, you know? He hugged me two times yesterday! And I hugged him, too! He keeps telling me how sorry he is about everything! It’s like he’s a completely different person, but sometimes—sometimes some of his mannerisms still peek through, so it’s not like it’s like that, ah, Not-Graham monster from one of the earlier BS? At least I don’t think so. Nobody noticed there that anything was different. And— I swear, I know I’m going to regret telling you, and I’ll only tell you if you promise to keep quiet about it. Alright? Anyone, Tim. Not even Sasha. I want to tell her myself. And please don’t bully Jon over it either.”

Tim raises an eyebrow and nods. He’s almost serious, there’s only a tiny smile playing around the corners of his mouth.

“So, uh, you know the little cot back in document storage?”

Tim nods.

“Right. Yeah, uh, I slept there until the nightmares came and Jon woke me, and then I sort of ended up telling him my entire life-story, and I made tea, and it was really nice… and then he kind of fell asleep on me. In the cot. It was like having a cat, Tim! I couldn’t just—move… it’s not like there would’ve been another bed—stop laughing! If I’d had a phone I would’ve called you, I almost panicked.”

Tim is still laughing by the time Martin finishes and he just rolls his eyes at first, but then he starts laughing, too, because Tim’s laugh is infectious.

“You—you what? That’s—Jon really has changed a lot, huh.” Tim wipes at his eyes, then frowns. Martin’s heart grows heavy because he can tell where this conversation is going, and he really doesn’t want it to go there.

“I know you said that we should give him some space but honestly, Martin… that’s a lot of change. Don’t get me wrong—I’m glad you’re—I’m glad he isn’t being an ass anymore. But this? Something’s—very wrong. Maybe we should keep an eye on him and… ah, I don’t even know. There’s something weird about him, I didn’t mention it before because, hm… I don’t really know how to put it in words? He’s—BS-weird. Have you seen his eyes? They’re—freaky, Martin. And now this?

Martin sighs and regrets telling Tim about it. Especially since he’s obviously right, as reluctant as Martin is to confront that fact. “…you’re right.” He wonders what he should be telling him. “If I’m being honest, it still feels like a dream. All of it, really. I keep thinking about it, again and again, you know? But—he’s still Jon.”

Tim’s expression doesn’t change. “How do you know?” he asks, voice inflectionless. “Jon is kind of your blind spot, isn’t he?—I don’t want to make you mad, Martin. I—ah, I don’t know. I just don’t understand how someone like him could break through your door when Prentiss didn’t. And he’s behaving very—unlike himself. I’ve known him for years, Martin. He’s a… difficult person. Always has been. It only got worse after the promotion. I’m not sure what could’ve… made him change this drastically in such a short timeframe.”

Martin sighs, and suddenly he’s annoyed. “Yeah, I know, Tim. It’s not as if I’m that much of an idiot! I’m aware! Before yesterday I was pretty sure that he hated me, and now he suddenly doesn’t? And he saved me? It’s—it’s too good to be true, frankly. But he’s still Jon. I’ve watched him for years! The tiny things—they’re still there. He’s just a lot… I don’t know what happened to him but it feels like all his walls broke down, you know? Like something really terrible happened to him . I ’m not saying I know him, o-or that I know what’s actually going on. Just that… I think he needs friends, Tim. He—he cares. And he’s a really good listener.” And, almost as an afterthought: “And a very bad liar.”

Tim huffs a tiny laugh. “Yeah, you’re right about that at least,” he says. “I—I guess we’ll keep an eye on him? I do feel kind of bad about all of this, he’s finally making an effort and being nice and here I am, accusing him of—I don’t even know what I’m accusing him of, really. Just—be careful, alright? We’re—we’re all here for a reason. When Jon and I first started in research we… hm, I think we gravitated to one another because we had a similar drive. We’d both gone through something—I don’t know what he went through, but after a while you start to recognise the look. It’s…it’s stronger now. Even if he’s not dangerous to us that doesn’t mean that he won’t—won’t be to himself.”

For a moment they’re both quiet.

Tim’s words make an awful lot of sense.

Martin wonders what Tim could’ve gone through to strand him here.

He almost feels bad. After all, he’s just here because of a fake CV. Well, until Prentiss, at least.

What did Jon go through that brought him here?

“You’re right, of course,” he finally makes himself say. He can hear his own reluctance and hopes Tim won’t judge him too much for it. “I’m a wreck, aren’t I?”

Tim smiles in sympathy. “You know, maybe it’s nothing. Let’s just hope that he doesn’t immediately go back to being a dick once the shock wears off, hm?”

Martin nods in horror. “I think I would actually die,” he says. “He knows everything about me now! I—oh God, I think I even told him about my CV…”

Tim laughs. “Well, he hasn’t fired you yet. And you have mine and Sasha’s support, I hope you know that? If he tries anything, we’ll be there for you.”

Martin smiles gratefully. “Thank you. What did I do to deserve you?”

“If you believe it or not, you actually do deserve nice things, Marto,” Tim says. There’s a deep intensity to his voice and Martin blushes, looking away.

“…thanks.”

“Which is why I really hope that Jon isn’t going to break your heart, on purpose or not,” Tim continues. “Please don’t let him, okay? I know you’re still crushing on him and I understand if last night made it worse, but… he’s still Jon. I’m not sure if he’s capable of anything outside of work. And he hasn’t treated you kindly these past few years. At all. It’s fine if you give him the benefit of the doubt but I hope you’ll understand if I don’t forgive him immediately, alright? You can be damn sure that I’ll talk to him about it, but I think that can wait until next week.”

Martin isn’t sure if he should hug Tim or tell him not to be too harsh.

He remains silent.

“Come on, brighten up,” Tim says after a moment, “it’s Friday, and he did promise to come to the pub tonight. Let’s see how that goes. I’m sure it’ll be entertaining at least.”

Martin’s heart is impossibly relieved at the reappearance of the tiny mischievous smile on Tim’s lips, and he grins back at him.

“Thank you, Tim,” he says.

“I’m there for you if you need me,” Tim says. “You’re a wonderful friend and I don’t want you getting hurt.”

Martin feels like he might tear up, and doesn’t quite know how to respond.

Tim’s smile softens. “Do you need a hug?”

Martin doesn’t trust himself to say anything so he just nods.

Tim’s arms are warm and comforting and if Martin cries a bit, then that's okay, too.

 


 

It’s Friday, so the Meal Wheel decrees that they order takeout. Martin only realises after the food has arrived that he forgot to eat breakfast.

For the first time, Jon participates even if he doesn’t eat much.

Neither Tim nor Sasha bring his weirdness up and Martin is glad. In fact, they don’t speak much during lunch but the atmosphere is almost homely and the silence doesn’t weight down on them.

Martin hasn’t felt this comfortable in a long time. Friends, he thinks again and again.

Friends.

 


 

The rest of the day passes relatively quickly. Martin helps Jon with his office because Jon looks like he needs help and appreciates the company.

Sasha and Tim do follow-up on their respective BS.

They’re both a bit awkward around Jon, and Martin can’t blame them. The conversation with Tim keeps popping up in his head again and again but he doesn’t say anything because he’s said everything there was to say and the next step is on Jon.

Martin has the vague feeling that Jon doesn’t know what to do about himself either.



All throughout the day, Martin has tiny moments of rigid terror. They’re often caused by almost inaudible noises that startle him, even if Jon doesn’t seem to hear them at all.

He doesn’t mock Martin’s skittishness, though, just asks him if he’s alright, if he needs anything.

Martin feels strangely cared for and does his best to keep Tim’s comments in mind. Jon must have a lot to deal with as well. It won’t do to get overly attached. (Well, more overly attached.)

By the end of the day he’s also started carrying a corkscrew around in his pocket, next to his pocket knife.

Jon notices but he doesn’t comment, he just smiles a really weird sad half-smile that haunts Martin for the next three hours.



By evening, they’re done with Jon’s office and Sasha and Tim help them haul the sorted-out piles of paper to the bins outside. Martin cleans all the tea cups they found. Jon doesn’t make a single comment on those, even if he seems vaguely bemused by them.

Martin has no idea what to make of Jon’s body language half of the time so he doesn’t. He notices that he seems to favour his left hand for some reason even though his right one seems fine, and that he sometimes prods at his throat with his fingers, when he’s deep in thought. There are some other mannerisms he didn’t have before, and sometimes Martin still gets that completely weird sense of déjà-vu.

In the end, he decides to ignore all of that.

It’s not like he’ll get any answers unless Jon talks to him.

 


 

“Ah, Jon, I almost forgot to ask—is it alright if we stay with Martin over the weekend? It’s kind of obvious from all the bags we brought but Tim and I decided yesterday evening that we’d like to stay here, so Martin doesn’t have to be alone. You could give us the keys?”

Martin isn’t sure if Jon looks disappointed for a moment or if he’s imagining it.

“Oh, yeah, sure. Uh… I planned on coming over anyways, so, ah, I’m not sure if you’ll need the keys?…” he trails off, looking away.

Sasha’s eyebrows are very stern. “Jon. Do you honestly mean to tell you that you were planning on working this weekend?”

He doesn’t reply but in a way that’s answer enough.

“Jon.” Sasha’s voice is deeply disapproving, matching her eyebrows perfectly.

Jon shuffles a bit.

“If you—if you don’t want to… to be alone, you can join us?” Martin says carefully, making sure not to let too much hope shine through in his voice.

Jon looks at him (not his eyes though), glances away. “I—I’ll think about it,” he mutters.

Then he flees.

Sasha and Martin stare at each other.

“Uh… I guess that’s a maybe?” Martin ventures after what feels like an eternity.

Sasha just smirks at him but he can see the gears whirring in her mind. “I can smell the secrets but I have no idea what they could be,” she says finally. “Well, we’ll see. Maybe giving him some time is a good idea? See if he’ll come to us.” Her smirk has turned into a frown, though. Martin isn’t sure what she’s thinking but there’s worry in her gaze, and something else. Discomfort?

“Are you alright?” he asks because of course he does.

“I… yeah, it’s nothing. Just… thoughts, you know? But—I’m sure it’s nothing.”

Martin nods, not convinced. “He’ll come to us,” he says. He can’t say why he’s so sure about that, but he is.

“Yeah,” Sasha says. Martin can’t tell if she actually thinks that or not.

“I just wonder. But—it’ll be fine.” She sighs. “Don’t worry, Martin. And in the end I’m just glad that you’re okay, and he did save you… even if something’s off, it’s not like he—like he’s… I don’t even know.”

They’re quiet for a moment.

Martin keeps trying to think of something to say but his mind remains stubbornly empty.

“He very obviously cares,” Sasha finally says as if with great effort. “It’ll be fine.”

Martin smiles uncertainly at her, and after a moment’s tiny hesitation she returns it.

“We’ll give him the weekend and then talk, alright?” Martin says, thinking of what Tim said. “Just… give him some time to—to come to us.”

Sasha nods. “Yeah, I can do that. It’s—you’re right.” Her smile brightens. “It’s Friday! Have you thought about what you want to do with the weekend?”

Martin shakes his head sheepishly. In fact, he’s thought about everything except the weekend.

He isn’t sure if he’s ever done anything on any weekend, really. It's not like he could ever afford it.

“Think about it! This is your weekend and we’ll make it count!” Sasha’s smile is a lot realer now and Martin once again realises how lucky he is that he doesn’t only have Tim but Sasha as well.

 


 

“Cheers!”

The pub is loud and busy and Martin is glad that they’ve managed to find a small secluded table next to the windows.

He isn’t even sure why he’s nervous, he’s been coming here with Tim and Sasha for months.

Never with Jon, though—

Jon, who’s sitting there with a soft drink and a vaguely timid expression.

Next to him.

Looking all soft and tiny and—

Martin shuts that train of thought down before it can travel places he’s going to regret, and takes a sip of his beer.

He’s talked about this with Tim. Tim is right. Just because Jon is sitting right next to him doesn’t mean that he should go back to thinking like that.

“So… what do you want to do with this weekend, Marty-o?” Tim asks amiably, smirking when Martin rolls his eyes at him in annoyance. Every other day Tim will come up with another way of butchering his name and by now he’s kind of given up, for the most part.

“I—Sasha asked me about that earlier, too, but… I still don’t know, really. You’re there, too, right? What do… what do you want to do?”

Sasha laughs. “I asked you earlier because we thought we’d let you choose,” she says, smiling at him.

Martin looks back down at his beer. He has an idea but he’s afraid of what the others will think. It isn’t even that he’s afraid of their judgement—he trusts them, for the most part. He just doesn’t feel like being teased over it by Tim, and he’s afraid of explaining himself and ruining the mood.

“So… any ideas?” Tim asks.

Martin takes a deep breath. There’s no reason to be worried, really.

“I—I think… I might, ah, have an idea?” He studiously ignores all of them, staring at the table instead. “But—you’re not allowed to laugh, alright?”

“Of course not!” Tim says indignantly. His tone makes Martin smile.

“We’d never,” Sasha confirms. There’s a smile in her voice but her eyes are serious when Martin dares meet them. “You’re been through a lot. This is your weekend, okay? We’ll do our very best to support you.” She turns towards Jon. “That includes you, by the way. Just making that clear, alright? We won’t press you, Jon, but if you want to you’re invited to join us.” If Martin hadn’t talked to her earlier he isn’t sure if he’d noticed that her gaze is a tiny bit sharper than normal. It’s almost impossible to make out.

Martin isn’t sure if Jon notices or not but he definitely looks a bit intimidated. There’s something forlorn and vulnerable in his eyes, too; something part of Martin just wants to hug away. He isn’t quite drunk enough for that yet, though. Not that his sobriety will last much longer; he usually gets drunk quite quickly, despite his size.

Nico used to joke about that.

“A-Alright,” Jon stammers, looking away from them. “I—thank you.” His gaze finds them again, one after another, and he seems impossibly sincere.

Two weeks ago Jon would’ve still been working by this time, possibly through the night, or maybe even the entire weekend.

Two weeks ago he would’ve made a caustic comment if they’d asked him whether he wanted to come. He wouldn’t even have had to think about it twice.

So much has changed.

Now that Martin has talked about it to both Tim and Sasha he’s impossibly attuned to the slightest shifts in their expressions, and he doesn’t miss the quick glance they exchange, either.

“I—I’d—I’d like to go to the zoo. If—if that’s alright with you,” Martin blurts out, “I—it’s been ages since I’ve been there and, ah, I—”

He swallows, heart thundering in his chest. Why is he anxious about this? Just because it’s tied to memories of a happier time that doesn’t mean that—

“That’s a fantastic idea, Martin,” Sasha says with a radiant smile, “gosh, I can’t even remember when I last went. I wonder how much has changed!”

“Thank you,” Martin says and finds himself returning her smile, even if it’s a bit shaky. There’s no need to tell them about that. There are many reasons why someone would want to go to the zoo. “I—I just really like animals, you know? E-Especially the exotic ones, you know, those most people don’t like. Snakes and other reptiles, and spiders, and—oh, sorry Jon—I forgot how much you dislike them—”

“It’s—it’s fine,” Jon says. “Really.” He doesn’t seem fine but Martin still has to squash the half-smile that wants to steal its way onto his lips just because it’s such a Jon reaction. Sasha’s own smile becomes a bit more genuine, too, even though it killed the conversation.

For a moment they’re quiet, nursing their drinks, and Martin’s thoughts drift amid the various conversations surrounding him.

It’s nice to be surrounded by people again. Breathing, living people filled with dreams and desires and futures and pasts, all enjoying themselves in this almost-cramped place.

He’s glad he came. He’s glad Jon came, too, even if he seems to have shrunken again. Martin knows the feeling well: when you say something that kills the conversation and you continue to stew in your own internal blame until someone else finds a new topic.

Impulsively, Martin decides that he hasn’t finished talking quite yet. “Maybe one day I can blow your mind with such an amazing spider fact that you’re so flabbergasted that you can’t even dislike them anymore,” he says and grins, “but I just really like snakes, too, they’re so fascinating and, honestly, they’re just really pretty? I always wanted to have a snake when I was small, at least as far back as I can remember, but my mother never wanted pets, least of all snakes…”

He’s vaguely conscious of Sasha’s amused look when he continues to ramble on about snakes and all the other animals he’s dreamed of keeping. It isn’t just limited to reptiles and spiders, of course—there was a really long time when all he wanted was a dog after one of the kids down the road got one, and he also really loves cats.

He’d probably still get a snake if he had the chance, they’re just so fascinating, he loves their little faces and flicking tongues so much, and he’ll never get over watching that one video of a hognose snake drinking tap water from its owner’s cupped hands.

He even shows them the video.

By this point he’s finished his beer and he’s vaguely conscious of the fact that he’s rambled for at least half an hour but he also doesn’t really care, even if he knows on some deeper level that he probably should.

And then his mouth just keeps going, and even if part of him is screaming, another is just relieved.

“…I just really miss going to the zoo! When I was young my mother and father used to take me all the time! Well, not this one, we didn’t live in London. But… you know. I guess I inherited that love for animals from my father? My mother took me one time afterwards but it was really bad and she wasn’t happy, I guess it reminded her too much of him? I don’t remember much of my father, just that he used to ramble for hours and that he taught me so much about animals, did you know that my first poem was about a moth?”

The moment those words leave his mouth he realises that he’s made a mistake.

It’s very obvious from the twinkle that has suddenly entered Tim’s eyes as he leans across the table. “First poem, you say? Does that mean there’s more than one?”

“Have you been hiding secret talents from us?” Sasha joins in, similarly delighted. She’s become more and more relaxed as the evening has been wearing on and Martin is very pleased about that, below the comfortable buzz of the alcohol in his skull.

Tim laughs. “I can’t believe that we’ve been friends for years and you kept this from us? Really, Martin? You write poems? That’s amazing! I can’t believe I’m friends with such talented people.” The smile he sends him is very fond and Martin’s blush is very deep.

“They aren’t all that good,” he mutters and hopes that it’s quiet enough to get lost in the general babble of conversation around them.

It isn’t.

“Nonsense,” Tim says briskly, “I don’t demand that you perform any for us but I’m sure they’re great.”

“They are,” Jon says so quietly that Martin only hears it because he’s sitting right next to him.

“What?” he asks intelligently.

Jon stares at him like he’s a deer caught in headlights, like he can’t believe he said it out loud, like he wasn’t saying it to be heard by anyone. Once again Martin melts, and by now he’s far enough gone that he doesn’t even mind anymore, Tim’s advice be damned.

And besides, Jon knows about his poems? Knows his poems?

“When… where did you…?” Martin asks, feeling vaguely mushy. He should feel embarrassed, shouldn’t he? Or panicked. Which poems did Jon read? Hopefully not the shameful ones Martin wrote that were definitely not about Jon…?

“Ah… it was a while ago…?” Jon asks carefully, as if he isn’t certain about the details and needs Martin to confirm. “They, uh… they were good? I don’t—not that I read much, uh, much poetry but… I liked them.”

He looks at his empty glass. “I—I’ll buy the next round. Sasha, can you help me carry? Ah…”

Tim’s grin is positively wolfish.

Sasha’s hasn’t reached that level yet but Martin can’t say if it’s because she generally doesn’t smile like that or if it’s because she’s holding it back for later.

Jon flees, and Sasha follows.

Which leaves Martin alone with Tim.

“So… poetry, hm?” Tim says.

Martin nods and laughs uncertainly. “Uh, yeah. I just really like—I like writing them. I—I don’t know how Jon could’ve read one, I never even bring any of them to work… they’re just for me, really. But—but I did win a poetry competition in school once. It’s a while back but I was—I was really proud.” Damn, why did he say that?

“I bet!” Tim says, “what do you usually write about?”

Martin flushes and rolls his eyes at him. “Really, Tim? Leave it be! You know what I write about! … well, not just. Sometimes I also write about other people—and things. You know. Like people do when they write poems. And it’s not like I ever mentioned him by name, or anything.”

“What a shame,” Tim says. “I’d really like to know what he thinks of your poems. I thought he hated all poetry and suddenly he likes yours? Which I didn’t even know about? Did you tell him about them yesterday? You wound me.”

“Tim!” Martin says but he doesn’t know what else to say. Did he? Possibly. But he knows for a fact that he didn’t bring any poems.

“Wait. Maybe he found them while I was packing my bag? In my—flat…”

“Well, it’s definitely a huge compliment, coming from him.” Tim is actually smirking. Martin isn’t sure how to respond to that.

“What do you mean?”

“Come on. Jonathan Sims, liking poetry? Remember that one statement in Research, the one that was probably fake, now that I think about it? With the cursed poem that supposedly made people do really bad shit afterwards? Well, Jon was assigned to that one and I kid you not, he spent more than three hours ranting about poems and poets on that first afternoon! Saying all manner of things, really. My personal favourite of his arguments was that ‘poems are just dead songs’ or something like that. He sounded personally affronted, imagine that!”

Martin just stares at him, and he isn’t sure how he’s supposed to feel about that. The man he’s been pining after for years hates poetry enough to rant about it for several hours? But he still likes Martin’s poems, which he’s somehow, impossibly, read?

Suddenly Martin wonders if Jon has read the rainbow one, and desperately hopes that he hasn’t. Or that he has?

He isn’t sure.

God, why can’t he be more like Tim?

“So… you’re saying that he only likes my poems?” he finally says, and then: “Wait. Dead songs? Where did he get that idea?”

Tim shrugs, laughing. “I kind of thought he was right, actually,” he says shamelessly, “I mean, think about it? The really good songs read like poems when you just have the lyrics, and I’m pretty sure that you could make really good music out of many poems! Not sure if I agree that they’re dead, really, but that argument was so weird that I still remember it, even if it’s been years.”

Martin grins back. “Do you think he’d like the Mechanisms?” he asks after a moment. Not that Tim knows their songs, really; he only knows what Martin sings the few times they went to karaoke, and also Drunk Space Pirate, because it’s become something of a tradition for them.

Tim shrugs again, face turning more thoughtful. “I think he might? But then again, maybe he won’t. They’re—kind of raucous. I don’t think that that’s his thing. But then again, it’s not like I know a lot about his personal life, if he even has one. If he even listens to music at all. Do you want to risk it?”

Martin sighs. “…I guess not. At least not yet. But! He likes my poetry!”

They grin at each other.

“Hey there, boys,” Sasha says, plonking a two glasses on the table. Jon follows with the other two. “How are you holding up, Martin? Everything alright?”

Martin grins back at her. “Never been better, to be honest.”

They toast.

Martin realises with a start that he’s actually not lying, and it takes a few moments and a sip of beer to keep himself from tearing up, even as he smiles the widest smile he’s smiled in ages.

 


 

“… that it’s a conspiracy?” Jon asks animatedly.

“I knew Gertrude!” Sasha says, raising her finger self-importantly.

Sasha gets more talkative the more she drinks, and the past hour’s been interesting, to say the least.

Sasha knows a lot of weird facts and other things Martin’s never thought about, and so does Jon.

They’ve been info-dumping at each other for about two hours now, give or take, and Martin and Tim are mostly watching in awed silence.

Martin is fairly certain that Sasha is having fun by now, and that she’s at least half-forgotten about her suspicions regarding Jon.

Jon didn't drink anything other than soft drinks and water but by now he’s gotten over that weird barricade that stood between him and the rest of them, and he’s so deeply invested in the conversation that he hasn’t noticed yet.

Martin finds himself giggling at half of the things they say. After all, Sasha’s theory that there’s a huge Archives conspiracy and that it’s all chaotic on purpose is hilarious, isn’t it?

Who’d even care about a dusty old archive?

There’s the tiny voice at the back of his mind that keeps reminding him of the fact that he nearly got eaten by worms and that there’s obviously something supernatural going on, but he’s keeping that voice purposefully buried.

It’s the best decision he’s made all day.

“Gertrude’s the most ruthlessly efficient woman I’ve ever met! If you’d ever met her—she’d look at you and you could see the steel in her eyes, I swear! That woman knew exactly what she was doing. Even if she’d grown senile as she got older—which she didn’t, I helped her out sometimes and, well, by now I guess we’ve all realised that the Archives aren’t exactly normal—but anyways, I’d bet my horse that it was all on purpose. You can’t—”

“You have a horse?Tim asks, sounding utterly delighted. Martin giggles; the thought that Sasha of all people has a horse

“I—not anymore,” Sasha says, almost stumbling over the words. For a moment she almost looks panicked. Then she styles her face back into something a bit more put-together, which isn’t much, really, but Martin thinks that she’s doing quite well considering the circumstances. “I… might have had something of a, ah, a horse phase when I was younger,” she says. “Before I moved to London. It’s impossible to keep a horse here, especially on our salary. It’s bad enough to find a flat.”

They’re quiet for a moment, contemplating the truth of her statement. Martin agrees, as sad as that makes him. Most of his salary is still going into his mother’s retirement home; it’s a miracle that he has a place to stay in. Even if he’s now living in the Archives.

“So you were a horse girl!” Tim says, sounding triumphant.

“You know what? Yes, yes I was. And I still really like horses! I’d love to go riding again one of these days. But—” She looks purposefully back at Jon, “what I actually wanted to say—I know you never met Gertrude but I’m sure that it must’ve been on purpose! I just can’t figure out why. Does it have to do with the BS? Or something else entirely…”

“No, I think you’re right, actually! I—ah, I never knew her personally but I—there are some tapes that she recorded? There’s—all of this is much deeper than we think…” Jon trails off, staring vacantly into his water. Martin feels bad for him but he can understand why Jon doesn’t want to drink. He doesn’t seem like the kind of person to give up control of his own free will. Especially not now.

“Oh, what do you mean?” Sasha asks, moving a bit closer. She’s half on the table now. For some unfathomable reason this makes Martin laugh, too.

“Uh, I, ah, I guess… I mean, I wasn’t—before Martin I didn’t… It’s nothing. It’s … nothing.”

Sasha seems deeply disappointed. “Oh, come now! We deserve the truth! I deserve the truth, at least!”

Jon laughs a bit uncomfortably. “Yeah, well… denial doesn’t help, does it? I… I realise that now. And Prentiss… I asked Elias to change the fire alarm system and get some fire extinguishers as well, those help against Prentiss… I, ah, I didn’t know how to tell you earlier. But. I got another text from Martin’s phone around Midday? It was… a bit scary. I think she—it—the entity formerly known as Jane Prentiss… might be coming for the Institute. I’m a bit—nervous, to be honest.”

He swallows.

“…Oh,” Sasha says, finally. “I’m… I guess we’re really in it now, aren’t we?”

“… you could say that,” Jon just mutters.

“Anyone want anything more to drink?” Tim asks, voice forceably happy. Sasha nods, not taking her eyes off Jon, and Martin joins Jon and switches to water.

“—I’m—I’m sorry for killing the mood. Again.” Jon says glumly once Tim returns.

“Nonsense, boss,” Tim replies, “thanks for telling us. By the way, I really like your hoodie!”

Jon looks down at himself, confused. “Oh—oh. Yeah. That’s—ah, it’s from a podcast? It’s called What the Ghost and hosted by my—by a friend. It's great, if you’re into ghosts and creepy—I mean, I guess you are, since you’re all, ah, working at the Magnus Institute…” He laughs awkwardly.

Martin grins.

“I know that one!” Sasha says, “it’s really good! I love the host’s voice, it’s so calming! Georgie—something, right? With B…”

“Georgie Barker,” Jon says and smiles at her.

“Right!” Sasha says enthusiastically, “For a while I always listened to it to fall asleep.” She grins. “I know that this isn’t the purpose of ghost shows and creepy stuff but for some reason her voice as just so calming and, well, it really works!”

That startles a laugh out of Jon. “I’ll be sure to tell her!” he says, before the grin slides off his face like oil. “If… if she’ll talk to me, of course,” he mutters quietly enough that only Martin understands him over the other voices in the pub.

“I’m sure it’ll be fine,” Martin says gently, “you’re—” He hesitates. He can’t very well say that Jon’s nicer now, can he? “—did you have a falling-out or something? I mean—if it’s okay to pry.”

Jon sighs. “I guess…” he says, “she’s my ex, we met in college… it’s—you’re going to laugh at me, I know you will, but I swear it’s serious, alright?” He looks at them, avoiding eye contact.

“I—Georgie and I were great friends but we realised that we don’t really work all that well as a couple. Well, it was mostly my fault. I was… I still am a big idiot from time to time. Or all of the time.” His lips twist into a lopsided half-grin. “We kind of had a pretty bad falling-out at the end, and then an even bigger one over who would get the Admiral.”

He looks away.

Martin looks at him in anticipation, as do Tim and Sasha, but Jon remains stubbornly silent.

Finally, Tim laughs. “What do you mean, the admiral? What’s that, Jon? You make it sound like a family heirloom or something.”

Jon’s grin returns but it’s filled with something else as well, something Martin can’t really name. “Ah, I guess… yeah. Uh, the Admiral is—was? Is a cat. We’re sharing custody, actually. I—he loves me more than her but her job is from home and more steady, so in the end she won. I—I didn’t talk to her since then. I, ah, I was a fool. Again, I guess…”

This time it’s Tim whose laugh startles everyone, and once Tim has started, Martin can’t help but join in until Sasha is laughing as well, and even Jon smiles weakly. Probably more at them than the joke but that’s okay.

“You—you broke up over a cat? You stopped being—being friends—over a fucking cat?” Tim laughs, wiping away tears, “I—that’s the most you thing I’ve heard in a while. Do you—do you have to pay her child-care benefits?”

“I—ah, for a while I… I actually did that. Before we’d decided who’d get him indefinitely… she told me to stop because she didn’t want to see me again until I’d—until I’d grown up. I think. I’m not quite sure what her exact words were, too—too tired… it’s been a while.”

“You have to call her!” Sasha says urgently. She suddenly seems at ease in a way she hasn’t, before. “I want to meet the Admiral! What a fantastic name! My cats all have boring names…”

“You have cats?Jon asks in astonishment, eyes going wide with sudden, unexpected joy.

Martin wants to take a photo of his expression and stick it in his wallet so he can look at it again and again. He tries to fix it in his mind as well as he can.

“I do! Two, one is called Pumpkin and the other Schrödinger. They’re quite old, I got them when I was moving out for the first time! Schrödinger doesn’t like strangers very much and you never know if she’s there or not but … I think she’d make an exception with you, actually.” Sasha eyes Jon with a faint smile and Jon grins back at her.

Martin is vaguely jealous that Sasha can make him smile like this and decides that he’ll obviously have to read up on cats.

He’s also incredibly glad that they’re joking like this, though.

Maybe things will actually be alright.



The conversation continues in a similarly lighthearted manner after that, Sasha and Jon discussing cats and the benefits of being “cat blessed” while Tim joke-sulks in the corner because Sasha’s cats refuse to let him pet them, even after he’s met them a few dozen times already.

Martin’s thoughts drift off again, and he mostly smiles and nods, drinking in the atmosphere, the moment; trying to commit all of it perfectly to his memory.

 


 

When the pub finally closes down, Tim and Martin sing Drunk Space Pirate because it’s tradition.

For some reason Jon seems strange on the entire way back but Martin pushes all resulting thought spirals down because he does not want this day tainted by anything, least of all wondering what Jon is thinking of his singing.

And besides, he feels free and floaty, almost, as if he could just drift off if someone let him. There’s a happiness bubbling deep inside him and sometimes it bursts out in a wide grin, or an almost dancerly step. He grabs lamp posts on their way back, swings off them like he last did when he was a little kid, and the other just smile at him and for some reason he doesn’t mind at all.

He hopes the resulting headache won’t be too bad, tomorrow.

The best thing, of course, is the fact that Jon is coming back with them instead of going home, and that he’s so comfortable with them that he’s actually smiling the softest, gentlest smile Martin’s ever seen on his lips, the kind of unselfconscious smile that only appears if the person isn’t actually thinking about it, is just having happy thoughts and it spills over and out.

“Can I take a selfie of all of us?” Martin asks when he can’t contain his happiness any longer, “or, well, Tim, can you take a selfie, of all of us? I really need to buy a new phone. But tonight was really nice, I’d love to—to have a reminder of that.”

Tim grins and complies.

Martin’s happiness knows no bounds as they make their way back.

 


 

In the end they decide to hold the sleepover next to their tables in the Archives proper, mostly because Jon stammers around for a while until finally telling them that he feels more comfortable sleeping in the cot in Document Storage on his own because he sometimes has nightmares and he doesn’t want to wake them.

Martin’s argument that he has nightmares, too, falls on deaf ears and then Jon is gone and only Tim and Sasha remain.

“Well, that was… hectic?” Sasha remarks after he’s left, “but I guess it’s fine. He—it must all be new to him. He’s done remarkably well, though, hasn’t he? I didn’t expect him to stay that long, or to come back with us. And… I think he’s alright. And he likes cats.”

“I guess he’s like a cat,” Martin mutters, “he can only take so much petting before he needs to flee and hide under the bed for a while.”

Tim starts to laugh. “Petting! Yeah, exactly. Petting. Hmm, you sure you’re only thinking about petting, Martin?”

Martin blushes and retaliates by boxing Tim playfully in the arm. “Well, I also don’t think he’s going to go under the bed now,” he grumbles but there’s no heat behind his words. “But it must be quite of a shock for him, right? To go from basically no interaction to drinking with us at the pub and all that?”

Tim just grins.

“Come on, boys, time for bed,” Sasha calls.

Martin shakes his head at Tim but they’re both grinning.

He’s never gone camping before, and this is the closest he’s come so far.

He can’t believe he has such amazing friends.



And that is that.

Chapter Text

Jon’s Dreams have changed.



He still sees the same faces (plus one), the order in which he experiences them ever shifting. The Eye’s unerring gaze still watches from the infinity that should be the sky. Before, he’d never realised how inescapable it truly was, but he knows better now.



He also has new recurring dreams these days.



The Tunnels are dark around him and his breath comes in short, sharp bursts.

Jooooon,” the voice echoes behind him, “come out, come out, wherever you are…”

He scrambles around the nearest corner, his body alien and wrong, responsive in ways he isn’t used to; pushes himself off the wall when he tumbles against it. Feels like there’s more than the one arm pushing him away.

“Joooon… it’s okay, it’s just Sasha…”

He clamps his jaw shut and keeps running.

There’s something heavy at his back, like a cloak, dragging in the air, wearing him down. Sometimes it twitches unexpectedly, but so far he hasn’t lost his balance.

The wall shifts in front of him and an off-yellow door appears. He stops abruptly, caught off-guard.

“There you are…” NotSasha says, “Nothing to be—”

He pushes through the door, heart beating frantically in his chest, tries to swallow the fear, the panic.

It never works.



Jon has changed with his Dreams.



The corridor is endless in front of him, drab and lifeless, the monotony not even broken by the pictures on the walls.

There’s a woman there, turning toward him in hope. Her face falls when she spots him, grows pale. “No,” she whispers, “not again, not again—”

She turns away from him, stumbling along the endless corridor.

Jon barely has time to catch his breath before he finds himself walking after her; his steps measured, unhurried, breath suddenly calm.

He isn’t sure why his own encounters from his own life have become part of the Dreams. Maybe because he’s possessing the body of his past self like an evil ghost?

“Why am I here? what are you doing here, why—” Helen croaks when he finds her again.

They’ve reached a dead end. There's a mirror on the wall. She’s pressing herself into the corner farthest from him.

It’s weird to see her like this, this… human. It will still be months until she meets the Distortion; far longer until she becomes it. Jon wonders distantly if he can stop it this time, and if the dreams would stop as well.

Probably not.

He sees Helen almost every night, and he cannot stop, cannot look away. Five eyes during daytime are exhausting enough, but in his nightmares they seem infinite. At night he sees everything, compounded into a multi-faceted view that shifts and moves as he moves and shifts.

“Please, just—”

Jon stares down at her, and from the corners of his many eyes he can see himself reflected in the mirror’s surface, even though his gaze isn’t focused on it. He’s heard his nightmare-self described before, but he knows that he has changed. Now there’s an unnatural fuzziness that covers him from head to toe. Two thin, stick-like things extend from his forehead, and something heavy falls from his shoulders; huge and dark, ending just above the ground. Sometimes his vision shifts and he finds himself staring back at something that looks like him but isn’t, and sometimes he’s nothing but a silhouette and eyes. Sometimes he swears he can even see himself as he should be, scarred and long-haired and tired, for just one tiny moment before it shifts again.

He isn’t sure which version of him is the worst.

“N-No…” Helen whispers, and Jon shifts his stance, recognising his cue.

They can both feel its presence before it appears, and then Helen starts to weep as a twisting, spiralling shape rounds the corner behind Jon. He doesn’t have to turn his head because his eyes cover every possible angle.

The mirror flows off the wall, revealing a gaping hole, and Jon moves past Helen’s huddled, terrified form, and then he steps through.



Jon’s role within the Dreams has changed.



There’s an empty, dark street, lit by the dim amber glow of flickering streetlights.

Sometimes a person passes, but for the most part all is silent.

A woman lies half-hidden in the shadows, her shoulder shaking with subdued sobs—or is it exaltation? Jon can see her clearly despite the darkness—her red dress, her dark hair hiding most of her face, her honeycombed skin bustling with thousands of silvery worms burrowing into her body.

Sometimes she flickers and he sees her standing with a silhouetted shape, reaching out, her worms arcing through the air toward her victim.

She’s screaming and laughing and singing and he cannot avert his gaze, even as she stretches out a hand towards him, fingers like claws. He isn’t sure if she’s pleading with him or if it’s a threat. He doubts she knows. Her eyes are dark, bitter pits filled with hatred and fear, despair and satisfaction, glitching from one to another without rhyme or reason.

He watches her impassively from a million eyes, unblinking and uncaring, just the way the Eye watches him.

He can feel its gaze on his skin, as he always does in his Dreams, no matter where he goes. He knows he should hate it, should fear it... and a part of him does.

The bigger, sickening part does not. It embraces the feeling and lets it shiver down his back while the smaller part shrieks in terror.

They’ve got that in common, he and the Hive—screaming and laughing.

He watches as she glitches between feeling and being the terror, watches as the smaller part in her realises the truth of what she’s become even as the bigger part embraces it with glee.

Not all of his victims go through the glitch. But some do.

He does.

(Sometimes, when he is awake, he wonders whether this is another piece of the terrible truth—you either embrace it, or you die. Can anyone who was touched by the dread entities escape their fate? He supposes he will find out. He hopes he can help, this time around.)



Jon turns away from the Hive as the street shifts and steps away, into the graveyard.

 


 

An infinity later, he wakes with a start and a headache.

It’s the fourth time he wakes up in document storage and it’s still disorienting. For a moment he just lies there, in the dark, waiting for his eyes to adapt and his heart to calm down.



He could try to sleep a bit more; it’s barely half five.

He could go to his office.

He could shower and let the hot water ease some of the tension from his back.



Instead, he does none of these things. He doesn’t want to go back to sleep, and he’s too restless to just lie there. He doesn’t want to work, there’s too much energy that has to go somewhere.

Maybe a shower would help, but for some reason he can’t motivate himself into doing that either.

Jon sighs, and then he decides to go for a walk.

 


 

The sun hasn’t even crawled its way over the horizon when Jon leaves the Institute, and yet there are already far too many people outside.

He keeps to the side streets, trying to evade the masses, and then he just walks.

It feels good.

No thoughts, just the cool air on his face, the slight drizzle of rain… he can live like that.

After a while, the sun comes up, replacing the artificial light of the streetlamps with its soft morning-glow, and he finds himself relaxing.

It feels impossibly good to just walk.



Unfortunately, the calm solitude doesn’t last very long.

An hour into the walk when he’s finally managed to stop feeling paranoid, when his thoughts don’t return to his nightmares anymore, when he’s finally managed to let himself drift—

He feels the draw.

It’s like a tether tied around his chest, pulling him inexorably toward—

Someone.

A dark-haired man with a suitcase, on the other side of the street.

They’re the only ones around.

There’s nothing special about the man.

Jon finds himself crossing the street, finds himself following the man with languid movements that aren’t his at all.

Like a hunter stalking their prey, a tiny part of him whispers in a shaky voice, but it’s drowned out by the rest of him, ignored, pushed down.

He can feel the Eyes open, can feel something shifting.

He gives it no further thought.

It’s him, but it isn’t.

The man notices Jon when they’re two metres apart, turns around with a startled expression on his face, blanches when he looks Jon in the Eyes, his gaze flickering all over his face.

“What do—”

Tell me your story, Nicholas Avery,” Jon hears himself say. There’s a faint green glow reflecting in the eyes of the other man, now, and Jon watches as Nicholas’ pupils widen to an almost impossible degree, as he flicks his tongue over his lips to moisten them.

“I… w-when I was twenty-four, a few friends and I explored one of the abandoned houses down the street…”



When Nicholas eventually falls silent, Jon blinks. The green glow fades, and he closes his Eyes.

Takes a deep, deep breath.

Nicholas just stands there for a moment, blinking away tears. Then he stares at Jon one last time, gaze flicking over his face in mute horror, before pushing past. He starts to run when he’s a few metres away, the suitcase clattering behind him across the rain-slick stones.

Jon doesn’t move.

His mouth tastes of blood and violence, and his heart beats the steady rhythm of war drums in his chest.



Finally, Nicholas disappears around the next corner.

Finally, the street falls silent once again.

Finally, Jon is alone.



It’s only then that the true realisation hits, like a kick to the stomach.

Only then that the beast goes back to rest.

Jon dry heaves until he’s a shivering wreck on the sidewalk.

 


 

The way back feels infinitely long. It’s raining in earnest now and Jon is soaked to the bone by the time he makes it to the Institute.

He should feel cold, but he doesn’t. (He feels like he could run a thousand miles. It makes his empty stomach clench with nausea.)

When he walks past the breakroom Tim comes out and grabs his arm, but lets go immediately when he sees his face.

He takes a single, aghast step back.

“What happened?” Tim asks when he finds his voice.

Jon just looks at (through) him for a few moments, numb and tired to the core. (Energised and alive.)

“I went for a walk,” he says.

“…o-okay…” Tim says dubiously.

Jon walks past him without another comment and is beyond grateful that Tim leaves him alone. He can probably smell the monster on me, he thinks dully, it's better this way.

Maybe they should just stake me immediately.

But even that would probably not be enough, would it?



He sighs, and then he takes a shower. He doesn’t feel like he deserves it, but he is wet and clammy. It won ’t do if he catches a cold. (Can he still catch a cold? Probably not. But he hates sneezing and running noses. With his luck he could probably still catch the annoying parts of a cold.)

His thoughts are vague and chaotic, flitting from one place to another without staying anywhere for long.

He takes care of his hair with mechanical motions, reapplies the band-aids even if they’re useless.

His wounds have healed completely. They look as faded as his scars had in the other timeline.

The face that isn’t his yet is looks impossibly healthy in the mirror, even if his eyes appear lifeless and dull.

He hates everything about it, and everything about the creature behind the human façade.

 


 

It’s eight when Jon walks to the breakroom to find Tim pulling out plates and brewing coffee.

“You feeling better?” Tim asks with an air of seriousness that Jon doesn’t know from him at all. Is he imagining it or does Tim sounds like he’s concerned? It’s almost enough to break him. (Almost enough to make Jon scream at him, to take a knife to his arm and show Tim how much he shouldn’t care.)

But Jon is too tired, too drained, and it’s only eight in the morning, so he doesn’t.

“Yeah,” he says, and isn’t quite sure if he’s lying or not. He looks at the things Tim has put on the table, looks away.

I've already eaten breakfast, he thinks, what am I doing here?

His stomach rumbles in disagreement, and he sighs. “How can I help?”

Tim smiles faintly and tells him. Jon catches all his tiny scrutinising side glances but acts as though he doesn’t. He just does what Tim says, and hopes that it’ll help him feel better. (Hopes that he’ll feel worse. It’s what he deserves, after all. He doesn’t look forward to the night. He wonders if he can maybe just… not sleep, if he drinks enough tea. Maybe even one of these horrible energy drinks?)



After a while, the others join them.



They eat in silence, but there’s an air of contentment swirling around the room, and he catches Martin smiling at him more than once.

At first, it makes him irritable. Then he remembers that’s something old Jon would do, and they truly don’t deserve that. Truth be told, they deserve anything but him , but at least he’s gotten past that, hasn’t he?

And so, after a while, he tries to smile back and, impossibly, it seems to help, grounding him in a way nothing else seems to be able to.

“We should look at the photos,” Tim says suddenly, “maybe after work? Together?” There’s an impish smile on his face that he aims specifically at Jon. There’s a glinting knife hidden in that smile, sharp and in search for fresh blood.

And somehow, it’s this that drags Jon back from his mood, this excitement—

Because they had fun this weekend.

He had fun this weekend.

He'd almost forgotten.

They’d been surrounded by people on all sides, and yet, he’d had fun. He hadn’t fed from anyone, either. He’d almost managed to forget about the terrors of being a trauma-eating monster.

“Have I added you to the group chat yet?” Tim asks, and Jon has to bite his lip not to cry. If only Tim knew.

“Y-You haven’t,” he says, voice weirdly scratchy. “Maybe—I think I’d like that. Looking—at the photos…” He forcefully keeps himself from asking for it now, because now is not the time. Even if he’d like nothing more, because damnit, it would’ve been a reminder at least.

It was just yesterday, and the day before that.

It isn ’t even nine yet.

“Maybe we can go through together and I’ll put the best ones in the group chat afterwards,” Tim says thoughtfully.

They nod, and Tim smiles, looking genuinely pleased with himself. “So, we’re staying here for another night at least, Sash?” he asks playfully, and she rolls her eyes at him, but there’s a wide playful smile on her lips, too, echoing his.

Jon aches, looking at her. At them. At their happiness.

“So, Martin—how did you like your weekend?” Sasha finally asks, and Martin’s answering grin is similarly wide.

“It, it was the best time I’ve ever had,” he says and his smile makes Jon ache, too, the sincerity and happiness in his voice—

“I still can’t believe… thank you. It was wonderful. A-And that you, ah, that all of you were there. Almost makes me wish that I’d been held hostage earlier, hah.” He looks at his plate. “Well, maybe not entirely. But… I’m so glad we went.”

And Jon agrees, because Martin is right.

 


 

On Saturday, they’d gone to the zoo, as per Martin’s wish.

It had taken Jon a while to come to terms with the fact that he really wanted to join them. In fact, he’d realised that quite soon but he’d been too disbelieving to accept it. Him, going to the zoo? (Him, having fun?) Unheard of. Jon can’t even remember when he’d last been there, before. Had he ever gone? Maybe during uni … though he isn’t sure about that. (September 17th, 2007, with Georgie Barker , the Eye lets him Know. A day trip to London. )

In the end it had only taken him half an hour of lurking near the others until he asked if he could join.

It had been midday by the time they’d gotten there and there were far too many other people, but it had been fun.

He hadn’t fed from anyone, hadn’t felt the weird tethered feeling. It had just been the four of them, and he’s never regretted his past self’s actions quite as much as now, because… well, he’s sure they could’ve been friends, if he’d let them, back then. If he’d let himself.

Turns out, Martin knows a lot of weird trivia facts about almost all types of animal, and even if the Beholding could’ve told Jon all of them as well, he’d realised quite soon that he’d enjoyed listening to Martin’s voice the most.

By the end of the day they’d all learned a lot… and there’d been a carousel. (Even the thought alone makes him blush, now, and Jon knows that this, specifically, is what Tim was alluding to when he spoke about photos, because—)

God, they’d all been on the carousel, but it had definitely been Jon’s reaction, walking past, that had prompted Tim to make them get on it and—

And there's photo evidence.

There’s photo evidence of him on a snarling plastic tiger.

He hopes that nobody apart from Tim, Sasha, and Martin will ever see it, especially not Georgie. She’d never let him live it down; he’s sure that she still has that photo of him with the Jonny d’Ville makeup and costume, buried under a pile of kittens with a wide, drunken grin on his face. God, the mortification. It had been at Basira’s flat (they were the kittens of her flatmate’s cat), after a concert (hence the makeup and costume) so that photo had not only made it to Georgie’s fridge collection, it had also been published on the official Mechanisms facebook page. He desperately hopes that nobody will ever find that , especially not Tim … —thinking about it, Tim and Georgie would probably get along well. He’d never live any of it down, he’s sure of that. Oh God. (He still hasn’t called her. He—he should. He really should, shouldn’t he? Is her phone number even still the same?— yes, he Knows, yes it is . No excuses. And yet, after what he did today? Maybe… maybe he shouldn’t. Maybe he should try to leave her out of this, this time around? He—he’ll think about it.)



On Sunday the weather was overall miserable, so they’d stayed in, ordered takeout, and Sasha had helped Jon dust off the old movie projector he’d Known to be at the back of the storage room. They’d watched weird old movies all afternoon and evening, stuff Jon never would’ve watched on his own, and it’d been great. (They’d found the video cassettes in the storage room as well, and Tim had been delighted. Jon knows that Tim and Sasha are still joke-fighting over whose stash it was, and he could tell them, but it would probably ruin their fun.)

Jon is pretty sure that he watched more movies yesterday alone than in his entire previous life, time-travel included. (He forces himself not to Know, and thankfully, for once, it works.)



It had been wonderful.



(If only he could’ve let himself have this the first time around. He’s sure he wouldn’t be here now if he’d had friends at his side.)

 


 

The best and worst thing about their shared breakfast is that he enjoys food again, that he enjoys eating again, that he needs it. That it almost tastes good. It isn’t quite what it once was, but the smells are once again appetising, and he still vividly remembers that first moment on Thursday, making his way back to the Institute with Martin, and realising that he was starving in a human way.

Food is quenching his hunger again.



The problem is the other question.

How often do I have to feed now?

After all, he’d taken almost everything Prentiss had on Thursday, and Martin’s Statement on Friday.

It should ’ve been enough. Did it truly only last until tonight?

He should’ve been able to stop himself, but he wasn’t. The part that drags him through the nightmares, the part of him that enjoys the suffering he’s causing, the part that is more prevalent during his Dreams…

He wonders if it’s stronger, now.

He wonders what else changed when he went back in time, and if that’s truly everything that happened. Did it break something fundamental inside him? Did the Eye change him in some other, profound way, beyond the visual and the physical?

He’d felt better after taking Martin’s Statement, too, even if he’d already heard it before. Sure, it was a bit different now, but it shouldn’t have been that different, right?

No matter how he turns it around in his head, Jon still doesn’t understand the rules of this new game.

Will the paper Statements still help? How often will he have to take Live Statements if they don’t?

Will it force him back onto the path he left behind, or is this one new?

The more he thinks about it, the more certain he becomes that it’ll be the second, but he doesn’t know , and as always, he can’t Know either.

There’s no-one he could ask except for Elias, but he trusts that man about as far as he can throw him. His answers are less than helpful at the best of times and the way Elias looked at him on Friday… it still makes Jon shiver. He doesn’t know what Elias’ deal is, but that man is sinister in a way that makes Jon severely uncomfortable. (How did he not see that the first time around?)

There’s nothing he can do now except to wait and see.

…I guess I’ll find out.

And that terrifies him almost as much as his increased monstrousness.

 


 

They end up being done with breakfast shortly before nine and Jon reluctantly moves back into his office.

After everything that’s happened this morning, he really doesn’t want to be alone, even less than he did before.

His office feels empty and he hates being in here on his own when he can hear the others joking in the room just outside. He’s left the door open but that only serves to further illuminate how much more stands between them.

And he can sense the confrontation building, can feel it in his bones. He could feel it the entire weekend, too, even if they had all done their best to enjoy themselves. And they had. It’d been wonderful. The weekend had been the best thing to happen to him in years.

Still, the storm is looming huge and dark on the horizon and there’s nothing he can do about that. He could go to them and confront the issue head-on, but he just doesn’t know what to say.

He’s thought about it for three days now, and he still doesn’t know what to tell them.

Earlier, when he was alone in the breakroom with Tim, he could almost feel Tim’s thoughts spinning. He’d forced himself not to Know, and for some reason it had worked, but now he wonders if that really was such a smart move. He hates the idea of Knowing things about people that they don’t want him to, but at least he could’ve thought about what they’d confront him over.

And in the end, Tim had stayed quiet.

And the storm only builds.



In a way, sitting out here and hearing them joke feels similar to the evenings when Jon had left them to sleep on his own in document storage.

He’d fled as soon as they’d gotten ready for bed, too anxious to stay.

He hadn’t dared join them, mostly because he didn’t feel like they’d want him to; he isn’t sure if he was right in that assessment or not, but even if he’d joined them, he probably would have died of embarrassment so … it’s fine. And they might have asked, and he might have let something slip. Or he might have Known something. No, it was better this way. And anyways, it’s fine.

Tim and Sasha had been there for Martin’s nightmares.

It’s all fine.

No, he’s glad that Sasha and Tim will be staying another night, that all the stuff is still out there. It makes the Archives feel less… lonely. More like a home, somehow? Lived in. He likes it.

And he has gotten better over the past two days, but he still feels quite unbalanced and the idea of going back to the lonely little flat that doesn’t feel like his anymore, filled with stuff that he’s let go of years ago and clothes he doesn’t want to wear any longer…

It feels off.

The cot has become more of a home than that flat ever was, as sad as that sounds, and the others being here too… he’s seldom been happier. (Oh, God. That sounds even worse. Then again, it’s not as though his life has been particularly happy in the recent past, has it? Sometimes he really misses Georgie and his bandmates, pre-Institute. But he misses them less this time around, surrounded by people he could almost call friends, if he dared.)



Jon sighs, finally forcing his mind off wild tangents and back to the paperwork on his desk. There’s a list of things he needs to research, and a list of Statements to find. He remembers the case he’s working on from the first time around (the skydiving one with Simon Fairchild) so it shouldn’t be too bad to find the other Vast ones. He can just Know where everything is, now, too.

The idea of doing it all over again makes him tired.

It feels impossibly unimportant.

He’s the Archivist, is he not? He still doesn’t even know how archiving really works, and this job isn’t actually about archiving anyways, otherwise Gertrude would’ve been kicked out years ago. He had researched what being an archivist entails when he first started and he’s always done his best, but Georgie was right when she said that he wasn’t qualified for this job.

Neither were Sasha, Tim or Martin.

He remembers looking up what a Library Sciences degree truly meant after his and Georgie’s talk, but then so many things had happened, and then he’d died. Well, almost.

It feels like a lifetime ago.

It was a lifetime ago.

He’s back, and he’s got another chance. Another shot.

He’s the Archivist but nobody knows that yet, except possibly Elias.

Sasha ’s always known that something weird was going on. I was too angry at Gertrude’s bad management to realise that she knew exactly what she was doing.

I should … Gertrude knew. I should follow in her footsteps.

But it ’s too late for that, isn’t it? And I’m not her. I never was. I never could’ve been.

Not getting it back into order feels wrong.

Jon buries his hands in his face and takes a long, deep breath.

I can only try and do my best.

At least this time around I know enough to not repeat all of my mistakes.

I hope.

 


 

In the end, Jon can't even say that he should've been surprised. Of course Elias would show up sooner or later.

It's just the right day for something like that to happen—the tensions are still there, bubbling just below the surface, and Jon still feels impossibly guilty, and drained, and antsy, even though he’s never felt better physically. He’s usually cold, but today he isn’t. He Knows it’s because of the Statement he took, and he hates it. (Hates himself.)

Sounds about right for Elias to come by before anyone else can resolve any of the tension, truly.



"Hello Jon," Elias says, lips pulled into his usual amused smile.

Jon is impossibly tired of that smile.

"I hope your weekend was… relaxing?"

Jon forces his face to remain motionless and tries to swallow the first five snarky answers that come to mind. He's sure that the others have picked up on his animosity regarding Elias by now, but he doesn't want to force the issue.

It just feels like another thing they might bring up, another thing they might want him to explain.

If he remembers correctly, he'd been quite... docile during the beginning, the last time around.

(Until he'd started to wonder whether Elias was a murderer, of course.)

"What do you want?" he asks, ignoring Elias' question, doing his utmost not to compel him. Trying for polite disinterest and failing quite dramatically.

Elias' amused smile turns into a full-fletched smirk.

"Now, where are your manners, Jon?" he chides as he would a child. Jon can't suppress the full-body shiver that makes its way down his spine.

He doesn't know what Elias wants from him, exactly; he'd last seen the Elias he knew before the Unknowing.

It feels like an eternity has passed since then, and in a way it has. Just in the wrong direction.

He narrated my nightmares. I heard the tape.

Elias is still staring at him and Jon realises suddenly that he'd asked a question.

For a moment Jon wonders what would happen if he asked him right here, right now, about Gertrude's murder. If he knows that Leitner is living in the tunnels.

What he knows about Jon himself.

It would be a horribly bad idea, of course; these are things he knows that Elias doesn't. He's so used to it being the other way around that he sometimes forgets that Elias isn't entirely omniscient. He can be tricked. (He can be tricked.)

Jon sighs in the privacy of his mind. "Why are you here, Elias?" he tries again, doing his best not to sound the way he feels. He’s proud that he isn’t compelling Elias this time, either, despite his frustration.

Elias' lips twitch but this time, at least, he does not comment. "I wanted to let you know that, while acceptable on the weekends in case of emergencies, it is unprofessional to have camping gear blocking the work areas of the Archives. Could you tell your assistants to please remove them? What would visitors think, coming all the way to our esteemed Institute only to see the employees living in their workspace?"

Jon just stares at him for at least a minute after that, remembering very distinctly how Elias had never cared about him living in the Archives.

"Martin can't very well go home anymore," he forces himself to say when he finally feels like he's back in control of his vocal cords, "and you—"

"That may be true, but I would still like to be notified in case of something like this happening, Jon," Elias interrupts. The amusement drains from his eyes until they're cold and hard like diamonds.

Jon stares back, fear suddenly curdling in his stomach, taken aback.

"This is my institute, Jon," Elias says with sharp precision, voice low enough that Jon is certain the others won't hear, "and next time you tell someone that it's okay for them to move in, you come to me first, yes?"

Jon finds himself nodding, petrified.

He'd forgotten.

He'd just—taken it for granted. But this isn't the same time nor the same place as it was before, is it? This—

This is different.

This Elias hasn't spent years watching and grooming him into a monster. This Elias cannot look into his head.

This Elias doesn't know everything.

He wonders if Elias watched him on his walk this morning, and for some reason can’t remember whether he felt his stare or not.

It’s reassuring, in a way. Jon might not have the upper hand in every respect, but he knows things Elias doesn't. Elias is furious with him because from one day to another, Jon turned into someone else, someone who is wary of him, someone who knows him to be the monster he is. Someone whose mind is untouchable.

They are not equals, but they're a whole lot closer than they were before.

Elias is used to being the chess master behind the scenes. (For the first time, Jon wonders if Elias is secretly an agent of the Web, even if that only makes sense if one can be bound to more than one entity.)

"I-I apologise for that," Jon says, and it feels like pulling teeth, "i-in the wake of, ah, Prentiss… I—I will tell them." His voice trails off.

"Excellent," Elias says pointedly, "oh, and Jon?"

"Y-yes…"

"What I came to tell you—I have ordered as many fire extinguishers as you could possibly want and the system will be changed to CO2 next week. I hope that is sufficient."

Jon is too tired to comment on that the way he wants to, but he forces himself to smile nonetheless. "That—thank you." Certainly a word he'd never have thought he'd have to say out loud again to Elias.

"Quite," Elias said, "I'll leave you to your work then. Have a good day, Jon."

Jon nods weakly, and Elias leaves, closing the door behind him.

Jon can't decide if Elias is trying to send him a message through the door-closing or not.

(Whether he knows about his Archivist’s new eating habits.)

(What he knows, and what he doesn’t.)

(And somehow he’s almost too emotionally exhausted to care.)

 


 

In the end, Sasha gives him fifteen minutes to calm down before she knocks on his door.

It’s almost kind of her, really.

Jon Knows it's her before the knock and almost tells her to come in, but then he catches himself and waits.

He wishes it'd been Martin with tea like last time, but it’s a Monday, and Mondays have never been kind to him. Of course it can’t be Martin; the universe would never allow that on a Monday.

“I heard you and Elias,” Sasha says after closing the door, watching him thoughtfully, carefully, over the rim of her glasses.

She doesn’t say anything else and neither does he.

For a moment they just study each other.

She feels known again. Not Known, but… known. He’s spent enough time around her on the weekend to get a feel for how Sasha was before his memories of her got taken, and that thought almost drives tears to his eyes but he pushes all of that aside. He doesn’t have time for that now.

She’s here, and they will have to talk.

Unfortunately.

“He… I forgot to tell him,” Jon makes himself say when the silence starts to weigh on them. He rubs at his face, at his eyes below the glasses. “On Friday. We were back so late on Thursday… and then on Friday… I forgot to ask, ah, about Martin, hm, staying…”

Sasha nods slowly. “I heard that,” she says. “Did you and Elias fight?” Her eyebrows rise as though they’re preparing themselves for a conspiracy.

“Hm, not really,” he says. “I… I guess I realised some things I hadn’t, before.” He looks at her, takes a deep breath. Nothing but the truth. “Like how you should’ve gotten this position in the first place. Not that we didn’t both know that at the time, too, but… I’m sorry that I never addressed it before. I—I told Elias when he promoted me, if that helps. He just… he has a way of making people do what he wants them to do.” And apparently that included me failing my way through a job I’m less qualified for than you. But he must’ve done that on purpose, too. He wanted me to become—this.

You would ’ve been too smart to fall into his trap, just like Gertrude was.

You would’ve been her perfect successor, but Elias—Elias couldn’t have that.

Sasha crosses her arms in front of her chest, but she nods, slowly.

“I don’t blame you, really,” she says, “it wasn’t your fault. You still behaved like a dick though.”

He’s too tired to blush. Instead he just nods jerkily. “Yeah,” he agrees, “and I’m—I’m truly sorry about that.

You can sit, by the way. If you want.” He’s both impossibly relieved and utterly terrified that they’re finally having this conversation. After all, he still doesn’t know what to tell her. Why can’t the Eye ever help him when he actually needs it, instead of dropping useless information into his skull when he doesn't?

“I suppose… I suppose we have to talk.” Jon sighs, and then he forces himself to look at her.

Sasha doesn’t sit down. She doesn’t move at all, the only thing changing about her being the fast-growing frown on her face. “Right. Well, I’m worried, alright? About—about what’s been going on with you. I thought you were on good terms with Elias? And what about Martin? You’ve—you’ve changed a lot. What ’s going on? And I’m not saying that I don’t—that I don’t like the new you.” She pinches her lips, stares at him for a few moments, scrutinises his face. He shifts uncomfortably in his chair but doesn’t look away.

“Because, you know what? I do. We’re all in agreement on that front, I guess. But people just—people don’t change like this overnight, no matter what Martin might say. I’ve given you time. Talk to me, Jon.”

And suddenly he Knows why she’s here, what she's thinking, what she’s been worrying about, and he has to take a deep, hitching breath because the situational irony of being confronted over this by Sasha, today

Sasha who died without anyone noticing, who was replaced by a thing wearing her name but not her face, behaving completely differently

“I am still me,” he says weakly and tries to smile but even he can feel his lower lip wobble. He bits down hard enough to draw blood but it doesn’t distract one bit from his deeper pain. “I—I know what it looks like. You did most of the follow-up on the Graham Folger Statement… But—I’m still me. The NotThem—it, uhm, absorbs identities and changes memories and records, you never notice the, ah, difference. You feel that something is off and get paranoid, but nobody actually suspects anything.” He swallows, tries to keep his voice from getting choked up. “Someone will notice but everyone will think they’re mad, until they start questioning their own memories, too… they’re the ones who come here. There are a few accounts in the Archives, if you want—I could find them for you.” He stops speaking, closes his eyes. Why would I tell her all of this? “I promise, Sasha. If you listen to the older tapes… it’s still my voice. I’m still—me. Tapes and polaroids don’t get affected, it’s just—just newer digital stuff. I don’t know why.”

He opens his eyes and forces himself to face her.

She’s staring at him. There’s steel in her gaze but she also looks exhausted. He can’t blame her.

“Sit,” he says again, voice soft, and this time she complies, sinking into the chair with a weary sigh.



For a while they’re both quiet. The only sounds come from outside, from Martin and Tim discussing something in quiet, muffled voices.



“How do you even know all of this?” Sasha finally says, exasperated. “I swear, when you left on Wednesday you didn’t even believe in any of it. You were always tearing the, ah, Statements to shreds—I just—and Prentiss? Nothing about you makes any sense. Honestly, if you hadn’t saved Martin…”

Jon laughs weakly. It only sounds sad. “I’m just—tired. Thursday morning… it really changed some things. I should probably talk about it, give a Statement, even… but I’m not ready. It made me, ah, it made me re-think some things, mhmm, about how I’ve been behaving. N-Near-death experiences do that, don’t they… they really make you, uh, re-evaluate life, and think about what you nearly lost. I’m… I’m not ready to discuss it yet, if I’m—if I’m being honest. I don’t… wouldn’t know how to… explain. But it really—put some things into perspective. I-I have a lot to catch up on. Thank you for letting me, ah, join you over the weekend. I—I really appreciate it. And you, and Tim, a-and Martin.” He takes a deep, shuddering breath and can’t believe that he said all of that. It's the closest he’s come to opening up so far and… it felt good.

When he dares face Sasha’s gaze again her eyes have softened, even if there’s still an edge to them. He can see that she believes him, though, Knows that it falls into some kind of pattern she’d probably figured out by herself. He doesn’t probe further; only sighs.

She really would' ve been Gertrude’s perfect successor.

“I’m sorry you went through that, Jon,” Sasha says, and he believes her.

The NotThem should ’ve taken me, not her.

We never even got to mourn her or bury her remains. She was just gone, and nobody noticed for over a year.

She would’ve noticed.

He tries to stifle the sob that wants to tear itself free from his throat, and it turns into a weird choked squeak. He can feel Sasha's concern radiating off her, but he ignores her.

No wonder Tim went mad. He didn ’t—they were so close—I never realised, before—

He closes his eyes, and there it is—the sob. (In some twisted way he’s relieved that he’s feeling anything at all. Finally.)

It should ’ve been me.

“Y-Yeah, I’m sorry about that too,” he whispers, and tries to swallow the tears. His thoughts are like a maelstrom now, pulling him down, down, down; his voice so hoarse and tear-choked that he wonders if she understood him at all.

and then I started stalking Tim, and Sasha stopped being Sasha. It must’ve hurt something awful, losing both of us at the same time. And then Tim finds out that she’s been dead for over a year, and that all the clues had been there all along?

And that he didn ’t suspect it, either?

“I-I guess I’m—ah, I’m sorry about this. Just—” He hears himself say words, but he has no idea what he wants to say. It’s like there’s a fog in his head, between his mouth and his mind.

He lost both Sasha and Danny to the Stranger, and I was too blind to notice any of it.

Never again.

Jon wipes futilely at his (main) eyes and then he finally glances back up, meets Sasha’s gaze.

Never again.

His glasses are smeared with tears and he can’t make himself care even if it would usually drive him to madness.

Sasha seems at a complete loss about what to say. He can’t blame her. It’s not like he knows either.

“If you—if you want to, ah, make sure … well, you know where the tapes are,” he croaks when he finally trusts his voice not to crack. “I know it’s—quite a change in the, ah, level of pretentiousness, I suppose… but… I’m still me. It’s still my voice, des—despite everything.”

(He doesn’t say: I’m not some monster that replaced him. He doesn’t say: I’m the same Jon you know. Those would be lies, after all. God, they’re right to mistrust him, aren’t they? He really isn’t that much better. Especially after what he did this morning.)



“I guess I knew, in a way?” Sasha says after what feels like eons. There’s a tiny pause. “But at the same time, I didn’t, not really. On some strange level I can recognise that you still feel like you but… I’ve been doing enough follow-up on these things to know that… well. Rationality only gets you so far, you know? I’m glad you got Martin out, though. How did you know what was going on with him and Prentiss?”

She doesn’t have to ask her true question out loud for him to pick up on it. How did you survive Prentiss? At least she mostly sounds curious, now; the accusation nearly gone from her voice.

I don ’t deserve any of her kindness.

“S-Something about Martin’s texts felt… off. And I never reached him when I tried to call, either. I suppose I kind of knew, too? And I’ve always hated spiders, and looking at his desk and the spider statement… it made me wonder.” He sighs, hates how foul the lie tastes on his tongue. Wonders how he’s supposed to explain away how he managed to make Prentiss run. He decides to ignore that part entirely and hope she doesn’t ask him directly. “And it’s not like I don’t believe in the supernatural either. I’ve always known, ever since I was a child. I was just sc—I didn’t want to admit it, I suppose. It felt safer, even if it wasn’t.”

“So Tim was right and you went through something, too?”

Jon flinches. She knew?

Of course she does.

“I—I don’t want to talk about it,” he mutters, refusing to meet her gaze. Rubs at his eyes, tear-encrusted and gritty as they are. The tears are drying on his cheeks now. He feels empty, and tired. More so than before, even.

“Oh, I-I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to—”

“—It’s fine—”

“No, really… we… Tim and I kind of had a small discussion, on Thursday, after we’d left you two alone. You—you don’t have to talk about it. I…I won’t make you.” She hesitates. “Is that why you hate spiders so much?”

Jon takes a deep breath, thinks about lying, and somehow finds himself nodding instead. It’s the closest he's ever come to actually admitting it in person. He looks at his hands, at the unblemished skin that should not be; at the tabletop.

Anywhere but her.

“Okay,” Sasha says.

“Okay?”

“Okay. I—I guess we’re okay. You’re still, well, weird… but monsters don’t get themselves seriously injured trying to save the coworker they hate. I’m not saying that it's over… but it’s okay. Please talk to us before you self-destruct, alright, Jon? We—we’re there for you. If you need us, we’re here.”

Jon furiously tries to blink the tears from his eyes but for some reason there are only more, and then one rolls down his cheek and when he tries to breathe, he sobs instead. Again. He doesn’t have it in him to tell her the truth, and somehow that only makes it hurt more.

“I—thank you.” He swallows, rubs at his eyes, hates how the glasses get in the way. Takes them off. “And f-for the record, I n-never hated him,” he finally whispers, and it feels like a secret of the worst kind to finally admit it out loud. “He was t-too—too kind. I—it’s taken—it was easier to push him away than to—I’ve never known how to deal with kindness.” He’s crying in earnest now and he’s never felt more ashamed, more weak. I’m a fine monster, aren’t I?

“I still don’t, not really. I’m not—not good at letting people in. Being—being cruelwas always so much easier… Nobody tries to get to know you when you’re—when you make it o-obvious that you don’t w-want them to…get close…”

There’s an awkward moment of tear-stained silence in which he desperately tries to pull himself together. (What an odd description—pulling yourself together…)

Sasha doesn’t say anything, though, and he refuses to look at her. (She’s wondering how she got here, what she can say to make it better, he Knows. She isn’t used to dealing with a crying boss who’s undergone a sudden, drastic personality shift she doesn’t know how to deal with either; who’s suddenly no longer the grim-faced man who keeps everyone at arm’s length and never shows that he even has emotions—)

(He’s being open and vulnerable in a way that’s so utterly human and pathetic that he Knows that she believes him. And he cries only harder for it, because she has no idea how wrong she is in that assessment.)

And then, impossibly, he feels her hand on his, on the tabletop, patting it a bit awkwardly. When he looks up, Sasha seems conflicted, uncertain.

“I’m sorry, I shouldn’t—”

“Maybe you should get a therapist, Jon.”

And for a tiny moment, Jon forgets to cry.

For a tiny moment, he just stares.

Then his tears turn into slightly manic laughter, and then he’s choking, and hiccupping, and laughing, and crying. He wipes at his eyes and tries to control himself, but it’s useless. When he finally manages to see Sasha through his tears again, her expression is one of mild concern and poorly masked discomfort.

“I—I’ll think about that,” he says weakly. They both know that he won’t, but Sasha tries very obviously not to frown too hard at him, and he lowers his eyes back to their hands on the table. (Her hand still resting on his, awkward and slightly clammy. He wonders if she’s afraid of him and Knows that she’s mostly curious. Distantly, he wonders if he should pull his hand back to give her an easy way out, but Sasha James has never struck him as someone who wouldn’t assert herself, and so he doesn’t. The contact is grounding, reassuring. He can be selfish for this one moment, can he not? Even if he’s a monster? Surely, just this once?)

And it’s not like he can explain his situation to Sasha, can he? Well, he could, but he shouldn’t. He isn’t sure what her stance on monsters is, but she’s worked in Artifact Storage. She knows the dangers of the supernatural. (God, why is that making him sad again?)

And there’s truly no therapist in this world who can actually help. He isn’t even sure what the best-case scenario would be. That they think he’s insane? Maybe he is. But he also has five eyes, his blood is weird, and he eats trauma for breakfast. It’s no wonder that he’s cracked down the middle. What would he even tell them? Would he lie about the supernatural parts, even if it might defeat the purpose? Would he tell the truth and hope that they think he’s speaking in metaphors? His life is so fucked-up that he doesn’t really want to let anyone know about the true darkness lurking in its depths.

He can’t think of any way therapy could help without ruining someone else, especially not with the whole time-travel thing on top.

Well, at least I ’m not crying anymore.

He sighs, and hiccups half-way through. “I’m not sure if a therapist can help me with this. I know I give Statement-givers the same advice you’ve just given me but—I’m not… I don’t want to terrify a therapist. I will think about it, I promise. But I can’t p-promise to actually do it.”

He looks up, meets Sasha’s gaze. It softens a bit and some of the other warring emotions finally drain away. They’re still there, under the surface, but he doubts he can expect anything more than that, right now.

“I won’t agree with you because I don’t know the situation you’re talking about but I will—accept that. For now.” She eyes him carefully. “You better take care of yourself, alright?”

He nods, feeling like he might tear up again. It's been so long since anyone cared. (They don’t know; they wouldn’t care about him if they did. How long can he hold off on telling them?)

“I—I will. Thank you, Sasha.” I don’t deserve any of this. I’m sorry.

“You’re alright, Jon. I guess we’ll figure something out.”

And then she leaves.

And he stays behind.

And buries his head in his arms, and then he cries some more.

 


 

When he finally comes back to himself he realises that he can see fine without the glasses.



It takes him about fifteen minutes to come to this conclusion. When he does, he grabs the glasses and stares at them in confusion.

Frowns.

It ’s just… glass.



And suddenly he Knows that the Jon he’s replaced doesn’t actually need glasses. That he just wears them because he thinks that they make him look more refined.



Jon stares at his desk for a solid five minutes after that.

Then he balls up his hoodie, presses his face into it, and then he has a good, long laugh.



He feels immensely better afterwards, if slightly manic and unhinged.

But maybe that's alright, too.

Maybe he has earned that.



He puts the glasses back on.

 


 

The rest of the day passes by relatively uneventfully.

None of them had time to cook so they abandon the meal-wheel and buy sandwiches at a nearby bakery, go for a walk during their lunch break.

Nothing supernatural happens during the walk.

After a while, Jon forces himself to broach the subject he’d forgotten to broach with Sasha present.

“E-Elias told me that, ah, that you’ll have to remove your, hm, sleeping quarters from the Archives. And I kind of might have f-forgotten to tell him about Martin staying… he wasn’t very amused. I think it would be best if we, ah, didn’t sleep in the Institute tonight. I’m sorry if that ruins your photo plans for tonight, though, Tim.”

Tim’s eyebrows knit together. “He came down for that? he says, disgust plain in his voice.

Jon mentally agrees. “Yeah, he did. Well, he said he came because of some administrative things I’d asked him to do, but I—I’m pretty sure he was just being petty.”

(Jon can feel Elias ’ Eyes on them, he can always feel them, but he’s never been so pleased about that as during this one moment.)

“Did you really just say that?” Tim teases, “I’m so proud of you, boss. But… yeah, you’re probably right.” He turns to Martin, and grins. “Hey, Marto, want to move in with me while this crisis lasts? I can guarantee you that the sofa bed in my flat is a better alternative than whatever Sasha or Jon can offer you. I know our food preferences differ, but I’m sure we can work something out, hm?”

Jon isn’t sure if he’s feeling disappointed or relieved and he shoves the feeling down as far as he can because he Does Not need it, thank you very much.

“That—thank you, Tim,” Martin says, looking and sounding impossibly relieved. Jon shoves whatever internal reaction he has to that down to the other unexamined emotion.

“No problem,” Tim says easily, “always happy to help out a friend.”

Martin grins at that (it makes Jon’s heart ache, but he ignores that as well. What an utterly useless emotion) and after that they continue their walk before returning to the Institute.

Jon’s treacherous head keeps returning to that moment over and over again the rest of the afternoon, alternating between it, him feeling terrible about his emotional outburst in front of Sasha, the glasses incident, and the terrors waiting for him if he sleeps tonight.

What if he’d been the one to ask Martin? But then again, why would Martin have agreed to come stay with him of all people? They’re not even friends, not really, not yet. Jon’s behaviour has been too consistently horrible for that.

Sure, there was that one night—

But no.

Don ’t think about that either.

And he tries his best to follow that advice, even if it seems impossible.

He doesn’t deserve Martin anyway, not after the way he’d treated him, and especially not after the way he’d treated his Martin.

No, now that he’s thinking about it—it’s best if he keeps his distance and lets the others handle that. (Even if everything inside him aches at the thought.)

It wouldn’t be fair to Martin.

 


 

In the end, Tim decides that he and Martin will look through the photos at home and put the ones they like into the group chat.

Jon does his utmost not to be disappointed by that, but it makes sense for Tim and Martin to leave on time so that they can get everything organised at Tim’s place.

 


 

When evening finally arrives, Sasha bullies Jon into going home with a glare-communicated threat of telling the others about their earlier talk, and his earlier cry.

Jon doesn’t want to go home, but he doesn’t want to stay in the Archives either.

(Mostly, he doesn’t want to be alone.)



Jon acquiesces to her wishes, and he goes home.



It’s weird to be back at the flat. He hasn’t been here since Thursday, and on Thursday he had… other issues. He’s mostly adjusted to his new sight now, but seeing his old flat again sends him reeling.

He stops in the open door, frozen to the spot, and it takes him a while until he can make himself move again: until he manages to step inside, turn around, close the door, drop his backpack.

It’s probably for the best that he’s back. All his stuff is here.

Past him had kept a lot of things in the Archives already, but not everything.

Not yet.



It feels strange to stand in this empty, stuffed space, to look at the signs of life in the detached way of a scientist analysing the habits of a strange new species.

There are photos on the wall.

He can’t remember if he ever put up photos, before.

He sighs, and then he finally forces himself to consider the possibility that he didn’t just travel back in time.

After all, they aren’t the only discrepancies; he’s noticed other things, like the tea mugs in his office, like his glasses, like the order to his desk drawer. Like the shoes he’s wearing, which look like they were his old self’s favourite, and yet he Knows that he has never owned shoes like that.

It’s that and an abundance of other smaller things within the Archives, and yet he hadn’t actively thought about it, just a side frown here and there. He’s always been good at remembering faces, yet he had no idea who the researcher was that greeted him when they returned from their lunch break. Tim had called him Jake with an air of casual friendliness.

Jon is sure that he’s never seen him in his life, but apparently he and Jake had worked a case together when he was still a lowly researcher?

Maybe this isn’t quite the reality I’m from , he finally forces himself to think, and God, that really makes it all feel so much realer, doesn’t it?

What does it mean for those he left behind?

What does it mean for the Jon he replaced?

Should it even matter? (Of course it should, but is there anything he can do about it? No. No, there isn’t. Then why does it hurt so much? Why can’t he let it go?)

Because I made the choice, and everything got worse, but not for me.



For a moment, he just tries to force himself to breathe. That thought feels like a panic attack. His breaths seem too slow.

I tried to play them all, and I did.

I came out on top.

And it just cost everyone else everything.

He closes his eyes, all of them. He feels dizzy. He sits down.

The floor is hard and cool, smooth, polished wooden boards.

He tries to calm his breathing. It feels impossible.

I left them behind, and now I ’m here, and they’re all—

They ’re so kind—

I don ’t—

I don ’t deserve any of them.

Not after what I ’ve done, after what I did, today—

And yet, I ’m too much of a coward to tell them. To own up to the terrors I’m committing every single night.

Oh God, what am I doing.



He lies down on the ground, then, the hard wood pressing against the bandages on his face, against the rim of his fake glasses, but he’s too drained to cry.

Too tired to care.

He’s been crying far too much today.

He can feel the Eye’s Gaze on him, and it’s soft as a hug.

He’s never hated anything more in his life, not even Elias.

“What am I supposed to do?” he whispers, as if to himself, against the ground. “What am I…”

The laugh is sudden, and panicked, and filled with nothing but pure pain.

“I can only keep trying, huh? Is that what you want? Why did you put me here?His voice breaks, but the tears won’t come.

He takes a shaky breath.

“I—I don’t understand. Why couldn’t you just let me die?” The last words are barely above a whisper, and they drain him.

He closes his eyes.

“I don’t deserve another chance. Not after everything I’ve—I’ve done.”

Another shallow breath.

“But maybe this isn’t about me at all. Maybe—maybe it’s about them. About… saving them.”

He feels like he’d gotten to this realisation before, but it feels… more painful, this time around. More true. He’d never really understood the relationships between his assistants.

They’d been friends. They’d been close.

And one after the other, he’d watched them fall.

Never again.

 


 

After lying on his ground for another ten minutes, Jon finally forces himself to get up, to move.

Not far; just to his couch. It feels more comfortable than the ground, and while he supposes that it makes sense for him to punish himself in such a way, it’s also incredibly useless.



There’s no-one around apart from him, and the silence feels oppressive.



He could put on some music, but he doesn’t feel in the mood. Listening to his own music feels weird, especially after hearing Martin singing it. It would probably make him cry, too. Another group of people he’s abandoned.

What are they doing with their lives, these days? Are they still in Oxford? (No, the Eye tells him; funnily enough, they’re all in London. His former self had been seeing them regularly for trivia night until about two years ago. Jon has no idea how to feel about this information.)

In the end, it’s just another group of people he stopped talking to, left behind without another word.

They’d been so close, once.

He wonders if they’re still in contact with Georgie, but they’d been his friends first.

He wonders if he should call Georgie, and knows that he should, but he’s too tired.

Not tonight.

Not after everything that happened today.



His phone buzzes in his pocket, and he nearly jumps.

It buzzes again, and again.

By the time Jon finally manages to extricate it, there are three new text messages and a photo in the general archives chat, all of them from Tim. The app tells him that Sasha is typing.



The photo comes first. It’s the selfie from Friday.

a drawing of a selfie of the OG archives crew: from left to right, Tim, Martin, Sasha, Jon. Tim and Sasha are roughly equal height, Martin is the tallest, and Jon is very short. They're wearing jackets and scarves and are lit from the back in warm pink/yellow contrast. All of them are smiling widely; even Jon has a small happy smile. Unfortunately, their happiness is half-hidden because the entire image is distorted/glitchy, with Jon's face being lit by his eyes glowing in an unnatural, sinister neon green. There's a third eye on his forehead that glows as well. It makes him look severely unsettling/lowkey evil.

Tim [8:37PM]: WTF JON

Tim [8:37PM]: THEYRE ALL LIKE THAT

Tim [8:38PM]: we have to talk

Chapter Text

Jon stares at—through—the glowing screen of his phone, thumbs hovering anxiously.

 

His hands are shaking so fiercely that the phone almost slips from his grasp multiple times.

He does not move.

There are words but they don’t register, repeating and merging until they are just static noise, meaningless and hollow, echoing unregistered through the numb fog that occupies his mind.

 

The phone vibrates. Sometimes his thumb mindlessly taps the screen when it threatens to lock.

 

(Five missed calls from Tim.)

(Four missed calls from Sasha.)

 

His mind is far away, in a place beyond thoughts.

Just high-pitched, grating pain.

 


 

At one point the phone slips and falls.

The noise startles him back to reality like a gunshot, heart racing, throat dry.

He’s still shaking, he notices dimly through the haze. It’s been two hours. (Two hours, thirteen minutes, twenty-three seconds since seeing the photo. 10:51PM.)

 

After an eternity, he finds the strength to move.

To bow down, motions uncoordinated, achingly slow.

To pluck the phone off the ground with shaking fingers.

 

He tries to look at the screen, but his eyes refuse to focus.

 

He feels so cold.

 

They’ve stopped messaging.

 

He stares through the lock-screen and thinks nothing at all.

 


 

Twenty-four meticulously typed, re-typed, and unsent messages later, Jon puts the phone down on the small coffee table in front of the couch and buries his face in his hands.

 

He isn’t sure if he is feeling anything at all. If he’s thinking anything at all.

The world seems fuzzy and there’s a low, angry droning sound inside his skull, like the buzzing of a swarm of bees. Muffled as if heard through a fuzzy blanket.

His thoughts are sluggish, drowned out. Dim.

 

He stares at the bookshelf, at the books he’s read, the books he hasn’t read, the books he’d never owned.

 

He doesn’t know what to do.

 

He doesn’t want to do anything.

 

(He wants to stop existing.)

 

It’s almost midnight.

 

There’s a supermarket a few streets over that’s still open, barely.

Jon can’t decide if he’s more terrified of accidentally falling asleep, or of feeding on anyone despite himself while he goes to buy things.

(He’s the most terrified of what tomorrow will bring.)

But then again, he also has no normal food at home, and he’s probably going to spend more time here now. (Maybe he should just never leave again. But then they’ll come here, won’t they?)

 

He groans, forces himself to his feet.

He feels faint, like his legs are going to buckle beneath him.

It was fine for two days, even surrounded by people … it was fine.

It’ll be fine.

(Please let it be fine.)

 


 

Jon makes it to the shop and back without issue. It’s almost too easy.

(He feels like he should be relieved but he still doesn’t feel much of anything; he’s moving on autopilot, terrified of returning fully to reality. Of returning to thoughts he has to confront. Futures he’s ruined. He should start thinking about what he’ll tell them. He can’t— )

 

When he gets back, the emptiness hasn’t left.

 

If anything, it’s worse now that he’s back. The silence settles like it’s trying to smother him.

Crying is tiring and he’s never felt this—what? It’s a place beyond mere tiredness. It is him, through and through. He doesn’t—he can’t—

He knows that he’d fall asleep if he were to close his eyes, so he doesn’t.

He’s bought groceries, and energy drinks. Jon hates energy drinks, always has, always will, but they’re a bad habit he picked up in uni and food tastes less these days, so presumably energy drinks will follow that rule? (And he can’t sleep. He can’t let himself sleep. Not tonight. Not after—)

No. His victims deserve one restful night.

Energy drinks it is, then. Maybe they’ll help.

(Of course there’s also tea and coffee, but just thinking about tea makes his heart ache, because that ’s tied to Martin—who knew about Jon’s Eyes but who hadn’t—I look so evil in that photo—)

He swallows harshly, and pops open one of the cans. No, he can’t think of Martin now. Of what Martin must think, now that he’s seen the photo.

(And Jon never really liked coffee either, even if it’s always been better than energy drinks. But then again, he doesn’t feel like he’s earned coffee.)

No. Energy drinks it is.

 

The smell alone makes him dizzy and it tastes exactly as bad as it always does, but he feels a bit more awake afterwards so that’s something.

Jon grimaces, and then he wonders what he can do now.

(It’s seventeen minutes past midnight.)

There’s nothing he can think of, and he hates it.

 

After a while, he sits down on the sofa, turns on the telly, and tries to numb his mind that way, but it's really late by now and there isn’t anything on that’s even remotely interesting. (It doesn’t help that the Eye tells him exactly what the shows are getting wrong, and where things have been pointlessly embellished. What gruesome details they’ve missed.)

He goes through the collection of books on his shelves, but nothing sounds interesting.

He looks through his music, but it just makes him want to curl up on the sofa and close his eyes to the world.

Reminders, and memories, and half-suppressed pain.

 

I still haven ’t replied.

 

Jon looks at his phone and tries to formulate a response in his head, but the words sound clunky and awkward and I’ve waited too long to reply and they ’re hopefully asleep and I wonder if they will show up tomorrow and maybe I should never go back and maybe I should just

Just what?

 

Just run away? As if it’d ever been that easy. He hates the bitter laugh that tears itself free, clamps his hand over his mouth and tries to swallow the pain and cruel mirth.

 

After a long, deep breath Jon finally looks at his phone again, and wonders if he should’ve known.

They’d looked at the photos after they’d taken them. Everything had been fine then.

Maybe it takes time.

Something twists in his stomach and he feels like he has to throw up.

He banishes the thoughts and goes to find his laptop, not sure what exactly he’s going to do then, but maybe aimlessly scrolling the internet can help?

 

In the end he watches cat compilation videos on youtube, and if it weren’t the middle of the night (and if they were still on speaking terms) he’d call Georgie and ask to come pet the Admiral.

But he doesn’t.

He’s never missed the Admiral more.

(The cat videos help a tiny bit.)

 


 

It’s shortly after four in the morning by the time he makes up his mind to walk to the Institute while it’s still early, in the hopes that he just won’t meet anyone.

He’s not sure if he’s ever been this tired, this shaky, but he makes it all the way there without incident and is only worse off for his terrified heartbeat.

 

It takes Jon half an hour to calm down after the walk, and he feels like he might faint the entire time.

 

Afterwards, Jon takes a deep breath, and then he pulls out a blank sheet of paper.

It’s best to have a plan, after all, and he’s always been better at thinking if he writes his thoughts down.   

I... I am in a different... reality? To where I was before.

He stares at the page and then writes that down. Adds two points beneath: ink blood, eyes.

Strength??

Jon smirks bitterly at the page, at the words. Oh, but it feels utterly useless to be doing this now. Why is he doing it again? What if anyone finds it? ... but then again, that makes no difference anymore, does it? He will have to find a way.

An explanation, too.

Maybe he can tell them parts but not everything?

Warping... phone camera photos. Digital recordings in general?

It ties his stomach into a knot of dread. Just like the Statements.

Can my normal voice still be recorded digitally? The thought hurts.

And I have no control.

He forces himself to write that down, too: No control . Frowns at the page.

Somehow, that last one feels significant in a way he can’t quite place. It had never been like this, before, had it?

Elias’ voice echoes through his mind—oh, but you did choose.

And that’s what Jon had asked Annabelle too, wasn’t it? Whether the Web had anything to do with him feeding on the trauma of those he’d purposefully searched out, back then.

Why did that change?

Maybe the Web helped in bringing me here?

Is it something about him, or something about this world, or is the Web responsible?

But my dreams have changed, too. It feels like me. Just... another part of me.

It feels the same as in my dreams.

Inevitable.

He stares down at the paper and has no idea what to write.

Somehow, before, he’d wanted to be absolved of this responsibility, hadn’t he?

And yet now that it—that it feels like this

A shiver scrapes its way down his spine, and he notices that his fingers have clenched around the pencil and that the tip has torn a hole into the paper. It’s a strangely distant observation.

I ’d wanted it to not have been me, because I thought I’d feel less guilty. But it didn’t work like that, did it? It only made everything worse.

And now—I don’t want to disappoint them. I will have to tell them something, and I have no idea what. Even pieces of the truth

He swallows. His throat feels parched but he’s too despondent to make himself get up and get a drink from the breakroom, and the water bottle in his office is empty.

I can ’t tell Tim about where I come from. Who... what I became.

And I can ’t tell any of them about what I did.

He remembers the feelings from before the Change.

Remembers needing the stories, wanting them . Remembers liking the compulsion, and hating himself for liking it, but...liking it nevertheless.

Here, now? It felt like it was me, but it wasn’t. It took over and I was it, but afterwards it left again.

Like the part of him that likes this power, that likes the trauma, the part he ’s been ashamed of, the part he’d tried to starve, that he’d tried to kill

Like that part has been torn off, somehow, made distinct from him.

Before, it had been him.

It had been his choice.

Now that part has been ripped off, and he no longer has any control over it.

And suddenly he realises exactly how that happened, and he doesn’t even have to try to Know to be certain.

I tore it straight off when I stabbed out my eyes.

The Eye just didn ’t let me go.

It put me here, with that... monstrous part.

 

He becomes very still, just sits there.

It stuck me and the ripped-off monster part back together, but I ’m still—

I ’m still two pieces.

 

How do the additional eyes fit into all of that?

 

After a while he stares back down at the paper and notices that his hand has drawn an eye.

 

He’s never been good at drawing.

The eye seems to mock him from the page with its photorealism.

 

His mind just kind of … stops, after that.

 


 

It’s far too early when the others arrive, barely seven in the morning, and Jon doesn’t hear them coming.

One moment everything is quiet, and the next the door to his office is pushed open with such force that it slams against the wall, followed by Tim storming in with Sasha on his heels and Martin a few uncertain steps behind them. Jon startles so badly that he knocks against the back of his office chair, which topples, and then, as he’s falling

Something unfurls inside of him.

Something shifts.

(And he doesn’t notice the impact at all, because suddenly—)

 

He ’s calm.

 

He looks up at them slowly, at their widened eyes. Notices dimly that Martin looks anxious instead of scared, strangely sad, and that thought lances through his mind with painfully accurate precision.

Jon slowly pushes himself back to his feet.

His motions are strangely smooth, a detached part of his mind tells him, and the eyes keeping track of Sasha’s and Tim’s movements tell him that they’ve started to slowly inch back toward the door.

He can sense their fear.

He can sense something else, too.

Something that drags his multi-eyed Gaze irrevocably toward Tim, because he can feel it.

 

Tim has a story.

 

“H-Hey, ah, Jon—what’s… going on?” Martin says into the silence, and immediately blanches when the forehead eye swivels toward him.

When he doesn’t say anything more, Jon hums, and then he slowly focuses all of his Eyes back on Tim.

Tim, who’s gone pale as a ghost and is shifting uncomfortably, who nevertheless remains frozen to the spot, as though he’s entranced.

Tim, who shouldn’t look like this.

Tim, who’s my friend.

Something screams and his vision blurs as the world shifts back into focus, and it’s only then that Jon realises that it’s him who’s screaming, and that the Eyes are gone, and then he’s back on his office floor, shaking with horror and no idea how he got there.

Tim

“What are you?!” Tim shouts, voice straining with barely suppressed rage and—and fear. Jon barely hears him over the blood rushing through his ears, and he cringes, trying to make himself as small as he can against the table, desperately trying to figure out what to say, but his throat is blocked and instead of words the only sound that gets out is a subdued sob.

And then there are steps, coming toward him, echoing through the floorboards.

He Knows that it’s Tim, but he doesn’t move. Whatever Tim plans on doing, it's what he deserves, isn’t it? It’s what he—

Except someone stops Tim before he can reach Jon.

Except someone steps between them, and another sob tears itself lose from Jon’s throat because it’s Martin, Martin who saw and who knows and who still—

Still

“Stop, Tim,” Jon hears Martin say softly, and he almost can’t hear him over the static cloud filling his head. “Look at him, Tim—hey, Jon, it’ll be, it’ll be alright, ah, just...talk to us? We—we can figure this out, okay—Tim

“That isn’t Jon,Tim hisses, and his voice is tight and furious, and Jon drifts, because Tim isn’t even wrong, in a way he’s right, isn’t he? I’m not, I’m something else, something that became a monster and somehow still is, even if it that part is separate now.   

“No,” Sasha says, tearing through his thoughts, and Jon isn’t sure who of the four of them is the most surprised. “No... or at least—I don’t know. I... It’s his voice on the tapes. And I’ve watched him. Martin’s right—the little things are still there.” She sounds reluctant, and there are things Jon can’t quite name straining below the surface of her voice, as if she herself can’t quite believe what she’s saying.

Sasha believes me.

Despite everything

He doesn’t suppress the next sob. His chest is tight and his vision blurry, and Sasha believes him, despite everything, despite everything

“He’s a fucking monster with too many eyes who can’t be photographed!” Tim shouts. Jon flinches, curling tighter into himself, against the hard edge of the desk.

“What are you? What do you want? What did you do to Jon?What happened to D—” Tim breaks off, breathing hard.

And Jon can’t say a single word, can only try to cling to the edge of pain burying into his side, his breath too fast, erratic, heart doing something complex and painful in his chest—

“Jon! Can you hear me?”

Martin’s voice is impossibly far away, it’s a miracle Jon hears him at all. “Jesus, are you, ah, what can I do?

Martin’s kneeling beside him, and Jon Knows that he’s reaching out towards him, not quite brave enough to touch. A part of Jon hurts at that, but another part is just relieved, and Jon shivers and tries to pull away when he feels Martin’s warmth directly next to him, keeping his eyes clenched shut tightly. His head is burning with an unholy pain and he wonders, through the haze, if it has ever been this bad. But then again, I ’ve never tried to…tried to eat my friends before, and Tim is right—

And then Martin is kneeling down beside him, and Jon flinches away from his presence.

“Can you—can you breathe for me, Jon?” Martin asks carefully, quietly, almost disappearing in the static filling Jon’s head, “we breathe together, alright?”

Jon somehow manages a tiny nod.

“Okay. T-Thank you, Jon. Sasha, can you, ah, can you take Tim outside? I—I’ll call you when he’s, when he’s… when he’s stabilised.”

“How do you know he won’t do whatever—whatever it was he tried to do, again?” Tim asks harshly.

Martin takes a deep breath, lets it escape in a hiss. Jon can feel it against his neck, and it sends shivers down his back. Before Martin can answer, there’s a scuffling noise followed by Sasha’s voice.

“Come on, Tim. Be logical, why would he do that? He saved Martin on Thursday, remember? There’s—there’s something going on here, but harsh accusations won’t help anyone. Let’s give him some space, okay?”

Tim grumbles something under his breath, the door opens and closes, and then Jon and Martin are alone.

And it’s quiet, or at least as quiet as it can get with Tim and Sasha arguing outside, the words too muffled to make sense.

“Alright, Jon,” Martin says and sighs. “Well, that, ah... right.

“Right.

“Can you—can we try the, the breathing exercise? We—we will do it together, okay? O-Okay.”He laughs shakily. “Okay.” There’s a moment of silence. “Okay. I’ll just—start, then. Uh. One...” Martin takes a deep, audible breath. Holds it for a moment, then lets it go.

And Jon somehow manages to follow suit, even if he can’t hold it half as long as Martin. It still helps a tiny bit, and the world comes a smidgen closer.

“...very good, now two...”

They breathe again.

And it helps, even if it isn’t much.

 

Slowly, slowly, he feels himself calm down, regains more control, until the numb fog in his mind dissipates; until the tightness in his chest leaves a tiny bit; until he can breathe steadily again.

After a while, Martin carefully pats his back. “Do—do you want a, uh, a hug?” he asks.

Jon starts to sob.

 


 

Twenty minutes later, Jon finds himself fidgeting with a biro, sitting awkwardly at the round table in the break room.

Tim keeps glancing at him. (Jon can tell despite aggressively not looking in his direction. As though I’m now supernaturally attuned to other people’s eyes, too.) The thought should disturb him more, but he’s too tired, both from the crying and the all-nighter. At least Martin is there too, sitting right next to him. A moment ago he still had his hand on Jon’s shoulder, but it’s gone now. A part of Jon aches at that, but he shoves that pain down mercilessly.

Tim is directly opposite Jon, as far away as he can get and closest to the door, with Sasha on his right.

A part of Jon can’t quite believe that he’s here , like this. Under these circumstances, most of all. That he managed to fuck up this badly in less than a week. (He feels like he’s sitting in court, like he’s about to be judged for his crimes. And that’s exactly it, isn’t it? He has exactly this one chance to make his case, to explain himself to them so they don’t—)

(Don’t what?)

He can sense Sasha’s eyes, too, and while she still seems concerned, Jon somehow feels like she’s concerned for and not about him.

He has no idea what to do with that feeling. After all, she was the most suspicious toward him from the very beginning, wasn’t she? He has no idea when she changed her mind, and that doesn’t even account for the why of this entire situation . He can’t sense any fear from her at all. Shouldn’t she be afraid, after the photos and his earlier—reaction? And why does that lack of reaction unsettle him so much? Is it because it's just another reminder of how little I know her? How much the NotThem took from me—from all of us… how even getting to know her again doesn’t magically unlock that lost knowledge. I ’ll have to get to know her all over again.

 

Maybe that’s why Tim’s reaction was almost a, a relief. Because I knew how he would react, and I was right. Because, for the first time since I got here, I predicted something correctly.

Even if it took me less than a week to ruin any hopes of friendship with any of them.

Even if Tim might never give me another chance.

Even if it hurts more than anything.

 

“Alright, Jon,” Martin says after the awkward silence starts to stretch. Jon’s fingers clench involuntarily, and he can feel his heartbeat pick up but it’s still miles away from his earlier reaction so that must count for something, right?

“Uhm. Y-Yeah,” Jon says intelligently, studiously studying his unscarred hand. (He is still surprised every time he sees it.)

“I—I’m Jon,” he finally adds, heartbeat in his throat. “I—I’m just not—your Jon.”

There’s a beat of deafening silence, and it echoes through his head like a thunderclap.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Tim finally snaps, but even Jon can hear the sudden wary uncertainty in his voice.

He feels their eyes on him, but he doesn’t dare look up.

“I... I think I’m from... Christ, I know how this sounds but—I think I’m from—another reality? If that makes sense? Like, I know all of you, for the—for the most part, but, but sometimes things are…off? And... then there are the Eyes. And—all of that. That’s... all of that’s new...” he trails off, closes his eyes. Realises with dread churning in his stomach that he has no idea how to make himself tell them the rest.

Now’s the time for his defence—but then he’d have to tell them about everything else, too, and he’s thought this over, again and again . A defence only works if you don ’t dig yourself in deeper, and he knows that if he tells them—

He’s made the same decision multiple times, in a thousand increments—and now the time is here, and he is incredibly conscious of the fact that he can ’t.

I can ’t destroy them like that.

I can ’t tell Sasha that nobody noticed, that we never even got to mourn her. I can’t tell Tim that he didn’t notice, either.

I can ’t tell Tim that I know about his brother, or that he sacrificed himself to save the world, or that I stalked them. And Martin… I could never look him in the eyes again. Any of them, really.

Elias would know exactly what I' ve become, too. I could take them to the tunnels and tell them there, but Elias would still know once he looks after we’ve left the tunnels. They aren’t protected from him.

He forces himself to look up.

To face them.

To look them in the eyes, and to not flinch away.

“I am still me. But—I’m not who you think I am. I know v-versions of you, that aren’t you, at least not really. I-I… something is happening to me here. Something that was happening where I-I’m from, too… but I think I’m here because I tried to escape t-that fate.” He looks at Tim, and his heart is heavy.

“There—There are… entities. They were where I’m from, too… but I think they work a bit differently here? M-Maybe. I don’t… quite know. Yet. T-They feed on, ah, on fear. Animals, people… doesn’t matter. They’re—powerful? The…the real Statements are all about… about them.” He swallows, drops his gaze back to the table. Forces himself to look at Martin next, because really, who was he kidding?

“A-And sometimes, uh, sometimes people become something else, by becoming—tied to, ah, to one of them. Like—like Jane Prentiss.” He sighs, and it’s a pitiful sound that almost makes him flinch. “I—that happened to me, too. Not that I—not that I wanted that. The Institute belongs to—to the Ceaseless Watcher, the Eye, the Beholding… Elias does, too. He’s—I tried to escape, but instead—instead I woke up here. With more eyes, and not… less. I can’t escape. And I left—I left everyone behind.” Jon swallows, harshly. Blinks away the wetness from his eyes; finally forces himself to look at Sasha. “I should’ve—should’ve told you. But—you were all so nice. Where—Ah, I supposed it doesn’t really matter now, does it? I can’t go back. You’re—stuck with me. I’m sorry about the ruined photos, though. I—I didn’t k-know that would happen. And… I am not sure what happened to… to your Jon.” I would quit if I still could. I should tell you about that. But how will you react then? Should I wait? I

“I’m—I’m sorry.”

He rubs at his eyes because his vision is blurry again and then Martin ’s hand is on his shoulder, squeezing it, and he sort of leans into the touch and tries to swallow the torrent of conflicting emotions inside him. There’s a lump the size of a mountain blocking his throat. He can feel Tim’s gaze on him as though it’s a physical thing, and Martin’s, and Sasha’s, but he doesn’t know what else to say.

He’s said everything there was.

He’s a coward .

“Jon,” Sasha says. There’s a helpless kind of gentleness to her tone, and it breaks something inside of him that he didn’t even know he had. “We can—”

“If—If you need me, I’ll be—I’ll be in my o-office,” he chokes out, and even though losing the weight and warmth of Martin’s hand is what he wants the least, he finds himself standing, knocking over the chair in the process.

The world is a blurry watercolour painting, and his glasses are foggy.

He takes a step backward, trying not to fall over the chair, and then just—stumbles out of the breakroom, back to his office. Jon closes the door, leans his back against it, and not for the first time in less than a week, he lets himself slide down until he's reaching the ground, chest heaving with half-suppressed sobs.

One, two, three the breathing count-down helps a bit, if not half as much as he’d want it to.

Jon wipes at his eyes, accidentally wiping the glasses half off as well, until they’re balancing awkwardly on the tip of his nose. He takes them off and puts them carelessly on the ground next to himself.

His hands are shaking again, and his heart is still galloping.

It feels like he ran a race, but as if his body took until now to notice, delaying its reactions.

He wipes the tears from his other eyes as well and feels like a fool.

I basically confirmed that I’m a monster, didn’t I, he thinks bitterly, knowing that the fall-out will hurt.

And they don ’t even know that I have no control. Alright, they probably suspect it at least. After what I—

What that part of me nearly did.

The shaking is worse now. Not much, but a bit. He takes a few shivering breaths, counts the beats between each breath, and then just kind of lets himself slide down until he’s lying on the ground. Tugs his legs close to his chest, wrapping his arms around them. The pressure against the wall is Good.

He exhales slowly, and knows that they’re talking about him, in the breakroom. He could Know about it, if he wanted to.

But he’s never been brave, and so he just lies there, shivering, and tries not to think.

 


 

In the end it’s Sasha who knocks on the door, and, when Jon doesn’t answer, she tries to push it open.

It doesn’t budge, of course, because he’s lying in the way. He makes a soft hmff sound, then slowly pushes himself up and away from the door.

“You—you can come in now,” he says, and groans. His body feels stiff and sore all over. He isn’t sure if he fell asleep or not. I feel like I got rolled over by a car.

Sasha carefully opens the door and sticks her head out through the crack. “Are you—” Her eyes fall on him. He can feel her mental sigh.

“Alright.” She opens the door properly and steps through, looking down at him. “Do you maybe want a hand up?” she asks carefully.

He sighs. “Are you sure you want to help me up?” he asks quietly.

Sasha raises an eyebrow. “I asked you, Jon. Of course I’m sure.” She shakes her head at him. “I don’t know what happened to you where you come from, but I assure you, you…” she trails off, and sighs. “Come on. If we’re going to talk, we might as well do it sitting on actual chairs. I have a feeling your spine will fall apart otherwise.”

Jon gives a half-smile at that and lets her pull him up.

“God, you’re far too light,” she mutters, “are you eating enough?”

He doesn’t answer that, and she eyes him with an exasperated shake of the head.

“Alright. We will talk about that later.”

They sit down, Jon behind his desk, Sasha on the same chair as yesterday. It’s still in front of his desk, too.

“So, you’re… from somewhere else,” she says calmly.

He nods, clutching his own hands to keep them from shaking.

“Alright. I have a few thoughts about your, ah, your situation. Is it okay if I just say them, and then we talk about it afterwards?”

Jon nods again; swallows.

“Okay. I listened to the tapes yesterday and you’re right. You’re still you. You still sound like yourself too, in a way. Am I right in assuming that you went through a lot where you came from?”

He shifts in his chair, and finally nods a third time.

“Yeah. Not surprising, really.” She sighs. “So, you know us but we’re not quite the same? And there are alternate dimensions? And what about those monsters? But—we’ll talk about that later. I just want to… want to make one thing clear.”

He can feel her gaze on him. It should feel sharper , but it doesn’t. It feels… okay.

“I am not blaming you. Martin is not blaming you. Tim is another matter—he’s, ah, he isn’t taking it very well. Some—personal things, regarding… all of this. And you. Things in his past.” She sounds apologetic and he hears fabric shift, Knows that she’s shrugging. “He’s taken the rest of the week off, I think, get some space and do some thinking. He’ll be okay.”

Jon looks up sharply. “Will he come back?” he asks, and something in his voice must have alarmed her because Sasha frowns at him, then tilts her head.

“I guess? Why?”

“Ah… I will—mention that when we—when we talk about the, uh, Entities,” Jon says softly. He isn’t sure how he feels about this development. It’s definitely easier if he and Tim can figure out things on their own but at the same time… he really hopes that Tim will be okay. It hasn’t worked out well for me when I was alone.

For some reason Sasha nods.

“Okay. The fact is: Martin and I don’t know what happened to you. I know we talked about this yesterday already, but you really need to talk to someone about this, Jon. It isn’t healthy to keep it on the inside and let it fester. We’re not going to force you to talk to us but it’s—you’re not doing well. You don’t need to have a thousand panic attacks for us to realise that.

I’m not sure what the deal with the photos and this morning was but it ’s fairly obvious that you’re not really in control over that kind of stuff.” She looks at him searchingly, then sighs again. “Martin and I talked about this. Tim is freaking out over it but we’re actually more concerned about what it might do to you , if you’d believe that—”

There’s a knock on the door (Jon almost has a heart attack) and then Martin opens it, precariously balancing three mugs of steaming tea.

“I thought this might help,” he says and, without waiting for an answer, pushes open the door and starts to carry them over to the desk, except—

Except he’s about one step into the room when there’s an ugly cracking sound, and he stops abruptly, sudden panic twisting his face.

All three of them stare at his foot.

He carefully takes a step back, revealing the mangled remains of Jon’s glasses.

“Oh god, I’m so—”

“It’s alright—”

“—sorry, what were they—”

“—I don’t need glasses—”

“—doing on the ground?

“—anymore anyways…”

They both trail off. Martin’s eyes are wide and shocked, and he looks so horrified that Jon is hit by the sudden surreal quality of the moment.

He doesn’t even plan on it but then he’s cackling, full-bodied laughter tearing itself from his throat.

“Wait, what?” he hears Martin say dimly over his laughs, sounding entirely lost.

“Jon?” Sasha asks. They both sound so confused that Jon just laughs harder, until he’s shivering and there are tears streaming down his face, except these are laugh-tears. He feels lightheaded, wonders if he’s going to pass out. Honestly, that would be the only thing he still needs, wouldn’t it?

“I—I’m sorry,” he wheezes through the laughs, tries to swallow them but they won’t quite stop. “It’s just—I just told you I’m a monster and that there are—that there are fear-eating entities out there, but you only look properly scared after—after stepping on my, my glasses?He cackles again, half-bowed over his desk. Senses the gazes they’re exchanging and doesn’t care at all. “Sorry—it’s just—hilarious. I don’t even need those g-glasses. Never have. This—this world’s Jon never needed glasses. I—he wore them, wore them because he—because he thought they’d make him look the part, not because—not because he… needed them” He swallows, and then hiccups.

Which makes him crack up again. There's a hysterical edge to his laughs but he doesn’t care. He’s so far beyond caring at this point that that on its own is almost hilarious again.

“You—he didn’t need glasses? You don’t… don’t need them?” Martin’s voice somehow manages to be funny, too. “So—you’re not blind without them?”

“No,” Jon manages to say through the laugh-tears, “it’s—it’s okay—I can see—perfectly clearly—”

“Al—Alright,” Martin says dubiously and finally carries the tea over to the table. “I—I’ve made, uh, tea.” He looks at Jon, puts the biggest mug in front of him. Jon cracks up again. “Are you—are you okay? Do you need… help?”

Another hiccup escapes Jon’s throat, mid-laugh, and it makes him laugh harder .

“I—I think he’s… I think it’s the stress,” Sasha says quietly, but not quietly enough to escape Jon’s hearing. “Sometimes the body reacts strangely to stress… I guess.”

Jon feels their dubious glances, but he doesn’t care, and somehow Sasha’s words are incredibly funny too.

“So… you’re a monster, huh?” she adds dryly.

She’s obviously thought that it would stop him from cackling, but instead it only sends him over the edge again.

“I think we should, uh, maybe just… wait it out,” Martin whispers to her.

“Yeah, maybe,” Sasha agrees, so in the end they just sit there until Jon finally starts to calm down. It takes ten minutes of helpless laughs. In the end they sound more like sobs than anything else.

“Tea,” Martin says helpfully, because of course he’s noticed. His smile is so gentle that something inside Jon breaks again, and he buries his face in his tea mug (the tea is perfect), and he's impossibly grateful.

 

By the time he finishes, his eyes are mostly dry again, and the hiccups are finally gone, too.

 


 

“So… entities, huh?” Sasha finally says.

Jon sighs, wishing she hadn’t.

“Yeah, entities,” he mutters. “Fourteen in total, as far as I know. The Institute belongs to the Eye. It is the fear of being watched, of all your secrets becoming known, of being driven to know even if your discoveries might destroy you. I—this job… where I come from, it made me into something else. I won’t lie—I made bad decisions, too. It just—went too far. But when I tried to escape it, it sent me here instead. I—” he closes his eyes, takes a deep breath. “The other part of me can sense—can sense when someone has gone through a traumatic experience involving one of the entities. Like—like Tim. I Know which Statements are real, too, and which entity they belong to. I—through making that choice, through trying to escape… I guess I split that part from myself? I can no longer—control it, really. That’s—that’s what happened in the morning. With Tim. Except I still managed to break through before it was too late, so I guess I can still…take back control, if I have to.”

He breaks off, looks down at his hands. Suddenly he mostly feels tired, ready to fall straight into bed if anyone allowed him to. It isn’t even nine yet.

“Is that why you hate spiders?” Sasha asks, “is there one related to them? Is it connected with Prentiss? Creepy crawlies and all that? But no, the spider BS felt different from hers…”

“The—Prentiss is an avatar of what is called the Corruption, or the Crawling Rot. Disease, filth, anything that triggers revulsion and disgust, that sort of stuff. And—I guess it can also manifest as… unhealthy love, I suppose? Prentiss is a—a flesh hive. Home to those worms, a union, so to speak. Never lonely again. They—they like to prey on those who are lonely. Promise them eternal companionship.” He studiously refuses to look at Martin. “There’s also the Lonely itself, of course—the Forsaken. The fear of isolation, disconnection from yourself and others. Remember Naomi Herne? She was—suffering from that. The Lukas family is deeply connected to the Lonely.” He shivers, and can feel Martin shiver, too. A part of Jon wants nothing more than to hug him forever, to tell him that he’ll never abandon him again, that he’ll keep him safe—but he doesn’t.

He can’t. What if it’s a lie? It can never be a lie. Never again.

“So those are three down,” Sasha says, counting on her fingers. “What else? What is the—the NotThem, you called it, right? Something that takes identities? The fear of being…”

“The Stranger,” Jon whispers. “The fear of the unknown and uncanny, that creeping sense of something not being right. There are—many statements tied to it, here. Tim—Tim’s Statement, too.” He looks at the table, feeling miserable. “Sometimes I Know things, too. Things I don’t want to know, never helpful…” he trails off.

“But yes. The Stranger. There’s also the Spiral, the Twisting Deceit. The fear of madness and deception, that the world is lying to you, that your mind is lying to you. The Vast is the fear of heights and large spaces like the sky, and space, and deep water. Insignificance and meaninglessness. That Leitner, Ex Altiora? It’s associated with the Vast.”

“Those are six,” Sasha says. Her voice sounds… weird. He can’t really blame her. Takes a deep breath.

“There’s also the Buried—fear of drowning, suffocation, being trapped in tight spaces.

The fear of the Dark, I think that one mostly explains itself? Yeah.

The Desolation… All those Statements involving fire. Tied to it is the Cult of the Lightless Flame as well, just like the Dark has the People’s Church of the Divine Host. The Desolation is the fear of pain and loss and senseless destruction.

Then there’s also the End—fear of death.

What else… ah, right. The Flesh. Basically…” he laughs a bit, then sighs. “Those body horror films? Yeah, that would be the flesh. Bodies being unnaturally twisted and reshaped, fear of being butchered. That we’re all just… meat. A very primal fear.

Uh, and the Hunt, also quite self-explanatory. And the Slaughter—the fear of unpredictable, useless violence without motivation. Manifests in war, for example. I—I think those are all?”

“No, you missed one. Thirteen so far…”

“I—I think, the, the spider one?” Martin says quietly. He’s been so quiet for so long that Jon had almost forgotten that he was there.

Jon closes his eyes. “Yeah,” he whispers. “The Web, the Spider, the Mother of Puppets. The fear of being manipulated or controlled without knowing that you are, or with being forced to do things you don’t—don’t want to do.” He swallows, suddenly impossibly tired. “I had an encounter with that one when I was young,” he says, and he doesn’t even know where that is coming from. Is it meant as a form of apology, to tell them about things he’s never meant to tell anyone in person, ever? “It’s what brought me here.” He has a vision of long, black legs reaching out of a doorway, hears a cut-off scream. “Just like the Stranger brought Tim.” Like the corruption trapped Martin. And like how the Distortion might show interest in Sasha.

“I…I’m sorry,” Martin says. “I—I didn’t know. I guess your… I guess it makes sense that you… don’t really like spiders very much.” He laughs nervously, then takes a long sip of tea.

For a moment, all is quiet.

“So, you… can tell?” Sasha say finally. “The Stranger, huh? Tim won’t like that you know so much about—about that…” She trails off. “It certainly explains why Tim reacted like that, didn’t it?”

“Yeah,” Jon says. His voice is almost inaudible, even to himself. “Honestly, I thought you’d all react like Tim. I—I still can’t quite believe that you’re willing to talk to me a-after… all of this. Why? It makes no sense! I—I could be l-lying!”

He looks up at both Martin’s and Sasha’s amused noises.

“What?” he asks, trying very hard and failing to hide his indignation, “I could be lying!”

“What, you? Jon. You’re a terrible liar.” Sasha grins but there’s something else in her eyes, in her voice. Something he can’t pinpoint at all. Something searching? “And sometimes you’re just. Overly dramatic, you know that?”

He frowns at her but they both know that he’s incredibly relieved.

“We’re all aware that you haven’t told us everything,” Sasha adds after a while, “but we talked about this yesterday already, and Martin and I agree on that point. We’re both willing to wait. You—if what you’re saying is true, we’re strangers—uh, well. That word sure feels different now… what I mean is, we know you as little as you know us? Or at least, somewhat. So, I’d say we take it slow and… get to know each other again. Does that sound alright? Tim left so I’d say Martin can come with me after work—I have a key to Tim’s flat.” She turns toward Martin. “We can get your things after work. Sounds okay?”

He nods.

Once again, Jon feels as though the carpet got pulled out from underneath him. On one hand he wants nothing more than to ask Martin if he’d like to stay at his place, but on the other he’s incredibly grateful that Sasha has asked before he could, because why should Martin say yes? And she’s right. They don’t know him. He doesn’t really know them. He never gave himself the chance to get to know his Martin before their lives fell apart.

“How about you come with us after work and we get to know each other at my place?” Sasha asks. There’s an incredible gentleness to her voice. When Jon blinks, there are tears in his eyes again. He hides his face in his mug again. It’s almost empty and somehow that makes him sad, too. His heart is doing something strange in his chest, something that is a strange mix of giddy disbelief and a deep, aching pain, but it’s a good pain. It’s a good feeling. It feels like hope.

“I—I’d like that,” he croaks, hates how his voice breaks. He takes a deep shuddering breath. “I—thank you for—for giving me this… this chance.” Another deep breath. “Why?”

For a moment they’re quiet. Jon refuses to look at either of them, just stares at his mug, at his hands.

“Because you’re a good person,” Martin says quietly. “Because whatever is happening to you, ah, we, we just want to help, Jon. This thing with Tim in the morning—it wasn’t you. That was—fairly obvious. Is that how you got rid of Prentiss, too? Why you had that many eyes when you broke down my door and came to save me?”

“Y-Yeah,” Jon mutters. “I—I’m… I’m bound to the Beholding. It—it feeds on the fear of others, particularly the supernatural kind. I can—can force people to tell me their stories. They—they’ll appear in, in my dreams. I… I see them every night, and they see me. They’ll never be allowed—allowed to get over their, their trauma. It’s—it’s horrible. It’s why—why you were so straight-forward when you, ah, when you told me your, your Statement. I—it’s my influence. This place—it’s a, kind of a temple to the Ceaseless Watcher? I—the moment I got promoted, I was… lost. E-Elias belongs to it, too. He—he knows everything. He can read y-your thoughts, or implant memories, or—or make people feel pain. He owns this—this place. A-And… we can’t quit. Physically. If—If Tim stays away for t-too long… he’ll be in pain. T-The only way to… to quit… is if you—if you remove your e-eyes.” He stares at them, feels tears running down his face. “I-I’m sorry. I feed on fear, too. These days. B-But before I—before I tried to escape… I could control it. It was me who did terrible—terrible things. I never k-knew what I was—was getting up to. But all—all of it, it was still my choice. But… but here? I—the monster… it’s part of me, but I—I have no control over it anymore. If—if it gets—hungry… it’ll just… take.”

He drops his head into his hands, hides his face in his palms. “I’m s-sorry. You—you shouldn’t… you should stay away from me, but—but none of us can. This—this was never my—my intention. I didn’t k-know… I should’ve—suspected, I suppose? I…” He’s rambling, he realises after a while. And for some reason, they’re letting him talk without interruption. It feels good to talk. To get it out. But there are so many things they should ask about. Why don’t they?

“So—so we’re stuck here,” Sasha says after a while. Her voice sounds weird, strangely flat. Almost toneless. “Supernatural job security.” She laughs, disbelieving. “I—I guess I’m—glad I didn’t get your job, huh?”

Jon hears his weak laugh before he realises that he let it out. “Y-Yeah,” he says, voice pained. “Now, thinking about it? It all makes so much more s-sense. None of us—none of us were really q-qualified for this job. Well, except maybe Martin, since he came from the L-Library—”

“I—didn’t?” Martin says, uncertain. “I—I worked as a researcher, before? You… uh, was it different where—where you come from?”

Jon raises his head, wipes at his eyes. “Wait—what? You’re—hm, interesting. I—in my—my reality… I’d worked with Sasha and Tim for a few y-years. I—I trusted them, so I asked for-for them when I got—got promoted. Elias assigned you, too. There was—dog—chaos? No?”

He stares at them in disbelief when they shake their heads. “Huh. I—I guess we’d better find out what—what else is, uh, different.” Grins shakily. “Besides me not needing glasses.”

All three of them turn to stare at the sad, bent remains on the ground. “Ah, well. But—but yeah. Gertrude—this chaos… it’s on—on purpose. The Eye doesn’t—doesn’t like it like that. I’ll-I’ll probably continue with the recordings and the—the cleaning. I am too much of the Eye to—to leave it like that. I am… sorry about all of this. I guess Elias will come by one of these—these days, to gloat? He can’t—can’t look into my head anymore but I don’t doubt that he knows exactly—what I told you, now. It’s… it is what it is. I’m—sorry. F-For dragging… dragging you into this—this mess.”

He shivers and drains his mug. Looks down at it with a sad expression. “I would’ve told you e-eventually. But… I guess I am… more monster than I thought. I-I hope T-Tim… but no.”

“Jon?” Jon looks up. Martin smiles an impossibly sad, gentle smile. “You know that this isn’t your fault, right? Because—it isn’t. We all make shitty choices. It doesn’t absolve you of all responsibility, but neither is it all your fault.

And Jon just stares at him. Did Martin listen at all? And where are those pesky tears coming from again?

“It isn’t your fault, Jon. How can you—how can you blame yourself for everything?

“They were, they were my choices, Martin,” Jon says, but his throat is tight and his head aches. I don’t want to cry again. Not again.

“I will keep my questions for later,” Sasha says, “You obviously need a moment, Jon. See you both later.”

And then she leaves.

And then they’re alone.

“Do you need a hug?” Martin asks immediately.

“Y-Yes,” Jon croaks, pushing himself off his chair.

He sinks down onto the sofa and into Martin’s arms, and only cries a tiny bit.

 


 

After Martin finally leaves, Jon feels drained.

It’s almost 10AM by now.

He starts leafing through the paperwork for a while, but at some point beyond his control he closes his eyes “just to rest them”, and then, ten minutes later, lays his head on his arms on the table.

He’s asleep within minutes.

 


 

When Jon wakes it’s dark, and he wakes with a start, heart in his throat.

Where am I? (The cot in document storage, the Eye supplies.)

Jon’s breathing calms down incrementally.

How

Martin.

He closes his eyes again, tries to swallow down the sweet ache in his chest.

Martin.

He can see it—can see Martin knocking on his office door, making his way inside when Jon doesn’t answer, only to find him asleep on his desk. (Is this really what I look like from the outside?) He can see Martin put the tea mug down, his gentle smile. Can see him walk back out to Sasha. They talk for a few moments, before Martin comes back in, carefully extricates Jon from between the desk and the chair.

I didn ’t even wake up.

Jon buries his nose in the pillow. It still smells like Martin, too.

Kindness.

He stays in the darkness for another half-hour, just breathing, and thinking, with an aching, heavy heart that is somehow, at the very same time, light as a feather.

 


 

“We’ve put some left-overs from lunch into the microwave for you,” Martin says when Jon finally rejoins them. He’s taken a shower and feels a lot more like a person already.

“Oh! You—your bandages…?”

“They—I don’t…” Jon shrugs awkwardly. “Benefits of being—no longer human, I suppose? They’ve been healed for… a while.” He looks away. “It doesn’t make any sense to, ah, to waste good bandages and band-aids on wounds that… don’t need them anymore. And—you know, now.”

Martin looks like he wants to say something but apparently decides against it almost immediately.

“I—I guess,” he says after a while, sounding hesitant. “They—they still scarred, huh?”

“Y-Yeah. I… I’m not sure if it’s because they’re—well, supernatural worms… but in the end, well, doesn’t really matter, does it?”

“No… I guess it doesn’t.”

“T-Thanks for the, ah, the lunch. I… I didn’t…”

“It’s no problem! … did you sleep at all last night?”

“I—I did not—”

“Jon!… you do know that people need to sleep, right?”

“Yeah, but—”

“—you looked positively undead this morning!”

“I—if I don’t sleep at night, my—my victims won’t be there, during the nightmares,” Jon says quietly. “It will just be me. They’ll get to have a normal night, with normal dreams. Without me.”

For a moment they just stand there, neither quite knowing what to say.

“We—we’ll figure something out.”

“Yeah,” Jon agrees, and they can both tell that he doesn’t quite believe it, but that he’s willing to try.

 

A beat of silence.

 

“Elias was here earlier. He—wanted to talk to you,” Martin says hesitantly. Jon sighs, rubs at his eyes.

“Of course he did,” he says, “what did he say?”

“Oh, I have no idea.” Martin’s face is almost cheerful. “I didn’t let him get that far. If he knows everything anyways… Sasha and I are very good at misdirection. He left when he noticed that he wouldn’t manage to bulldoze his way through to you.” He grins but there’s something hard and cold in his gaze, like iron. “We won’t let him corner you alone again, Jon.”

Jon takes a deep, shuddering breath, and Martin’s answering smile is as bright as the sun.

 


 

At the end of the day, they leave early, first swinging by Tim’s apartment. Jon waits outside, nervous that Tim might actually still be there. He isn’t, Jon Knows he isn’t, but that doesn’t seem to matter that much to his anxiety.

He’s disproportionately relieved when they finally leave.

 

Sasha’s place isn’t very far from where Tim lives, and it’s easily twice the size of Martin’s or Jon’s apartment. Despite Tim’s promise on the matter, Sasha has a sofa bed as well, so it’s definitely better that Martin is staying with her, because apparently Jon is the only one without one. (Jon shoves all further thoughts concerning this topic out of his head aggressively.)

The best part of spending the evening at Sasha’s place are, of course, the cats. They’d talked about them on Friday, but Jon hadn’t actually imagined that he’d meet them any time soon, certainly not before the Admiral. However, as fate will have it, here he is, and there they are.

“They’re called Pumpkin and Schrödinger,” Sasha says (as though Jon could ever forget the name of any cat), “and I honestly doubt that you’ll meet Schrödinger, she’s very... well, her name fits. I think Tim has seen her... once?”

Martin cracks up at that part. “What, how often has he visited you to have only seen your cat one time?” he asks incredulously.

Sasha grins. “They both don’t like him very much. He acts as if he doesn’t care but I’m fairly certain that it annoys him.”

Jon feels vaguely anxious about that fact. What if cats hate him now because of what he’s turned into? The Admiral never minded but he also hadn’t grown additional eyes before.

What if they hiss at him? I think I’d cry.

Again.

 

In the end, he shouldn’t have worried.

The moment Sasha pushes open the door, there’s a soft mrrrp coming from the living room, and it comes closer and closer until a huge orange tabby cat rounds the corner. The cat looks so similar to the Admiral that Jon’s heart does a strange little flip.

“Pumpkin!” Sasha says, bowing down to scratch the cat behind one ear, “Hey there! How have you been? Yeah, I know, I know... but! I brought friends! This is Jon—“ she waves one hand vaguely in Jon’s direction, “—and this is Martin!” Another wave. “They’re great! I’m sure you’ll get along fantastically, hm? Yes…” then, in Jon’s and Martin’s direction, “She loves to be scratched under the chin and ears, not so much the back! If she shows you her belly, you’re basically family. She’s very calm in general and loves everyone, except for Tim somehow.” She grins.

Jon is already on his knees, holding out his hand carefully toward Pumpkin. The cat sniffs it gingerly, then comes a bit closer, rubbing her head against it. “Hello, Pumpkin,” he says gently, “My name is Jon! Oh, your fur is so soft… what a beautiful, beautiful baby you are…”

He hears Sasha and Martin snort from above but ignores them entirely, transfixed by Pumpkin rubbing her head against his knee. Pets her carefully between the ears and feels his lips stretch into the biggest, happiest grin. “Sasha, can I move in, too?” he asks, only half joking.

“Sure,” she says easily, and then she and Martin move over to the living-room, so Sasha can show Martin the flat.

And Jon stays on his knees in his coat and shoes, and his aching knees don’t matter because there’s a cat there, and she’s purring, and her fur is as soft as heaven.

 


 

By the time Sasha returns, Pumpkin is sitting on Jon’s lap, purring like a chainsaw, and Jon has never been happier.

“I—I guess you two get along,” Sasha says, deeply amused.

Jon looks up at her and can’t keep himself from smiling. “I—thank you, for taking me along, too,” he says, voice husky. “I—it’s been too long since I got to pet a cat.”

She smiles. “My pleasure. And, well, Pumpkin’s I suppose. Is she your cat now? Pumpkin, rude. You’re supposed to like me most. … Cats.” She shakes her head. “If you want, ah, I mean. When you’re free… you’re welcome to join Martin and me on the couch.”

Jon nods. “I—uh, I guess at one point I’ll come, probably? I mean, if Pumpkin thinks it’s okay. Pumpkin, do you mind—?”

—It feels exactly the way it does when he Knows things, arriving without notification. He just… Knows. For a moment, Jon stares down at the cat in his lap; tilts his head; frowns. Then he looks back up at Sasha. “I—hm. I think… I’ll follow you now?…”

“What do you mean—”

Sasha is interrupted when Pumpkin prrrrpts gently, uncurling from her spot in Jon’s lap, hops off and looks up at him, at Sasha. Then walks toward the living-room.

Jon and Sasha exchange a long, faintly confused look.

Sasha glances toward the living room. Toward Jon. “Did you just—”

“I’m not sure what—”

“—talk to…?”

“—just happened.”

A moment of silence.

“Jon, did you just talk to my cat? Sasha repeats.

Jon shrugs, completely at a loss. “I just—I just knew? Suddenly? The way I just… Know things. It’s not like she said anything! I just… apparently she somehow understood what I, ah, what I asked her? I mean, it, it was a rhetorical question when I asked but just—Sasha, can I talk to cats now?”

The stare at each other.

“We will investigate this further,” Sasha decides. “Come on. Get up. And put your cloak on the hook and take your shoes off, please.”

Jon shrugs, and complies. Can I talk to cats now?

The thought makes him vaguely giddy.

At least something nice about this whole mess, he thinks, smiling, and then he follows Sasha into the living-room.

 


 

In the end, the evening is fantastic.

They play card and board games until it’s far too late. Jon, Sasha and Martin talk about everything and anything. They don’t talk about the horrors lurking at the Institute, and they don’t mention Tim either. Sasha owns a polaroid instant camera and Jon isn’t glitchy on the resulting photo.

 

In the end, Jon stays the night as well.

They cook, and laugh, and joke, and slowly but surely Jon discovers that he can, in fact, talk to cats now. It isn’t really talking—more Knowing, really—but he’s never been happier than when he slowly coaxes Schrödinger out from under Sasha’s bed. By ten Schrödinger is purring on Jon’s lap, and Pumpkin is perched on the back of the sofa, between Jon and Sasha. Martin isn’t very experienced with cats yet, but it doesn’t take very long for Schrödinger to be calm in his presence too, and she even lets him touch her soft fur. (She’s black and white with the most beautiful amber eyes, incredibly fluffy, and Jon instantly falls in love with her as well. Sasha’s cats are both fantastic. He can’t wait to tell the Admiral about them.)

 

In the end, Martin and Jon sleep on the sofa bed, and Jon can’t quite believe his luck.

There are two cats sleeping curled against him, and one Martin, and he’s never slept better.

Martin has no nightmares either, for the first time in days.

Jon does, but there’s little he can do about them.

When he wakes in the middle of the night, the cats are there, and they help him get through the few moments of mindless terror with gentle purrs and soft, soft fur.

 

In the end, Jon takes out his phone at 3 in the morning, and he opens the long-out-of-date chat with Georgie, and he takes a long, deep breath, and then he types.

 

Jon [3:06AM]: Hi Georgie, it’s me, Jon.

Jon [3:06AM]: I’m sorry. I was an idiot. Are you free on Saturday? We could meet up, if you want to, of course.

 

He stares at his phone.

 

Jon [3:10AM]: I miss you. Both of you. Things have gone a bit crazy. I’d love to catch up with you, if you’ll let me?

 

He sighs. Puts the phone down. It’s 3AM. Of course she won’t answer.

 

The phone buzzes three minutes later. Heart in his throat, he grabs it.

 

Georgie [3:13AM]: lmao only u would type full sentences jon

Georgie [3:14AM]: … i miss u too. and its not just ur fault.

Georgie [3:14AM]: its mostly urs but I couldve handled things better too

Georgie [3:15AM]: and I should be free on saturday! the admiral misses u too

Georgie [3:16AM]: when and where?

 

And Jon smiles, and his heart aches, but it’s a good ache, and the smile is impossibly wide.

Chapter Text

👁️👁️👁️

When Sasha and Martin make it home on Friday, Tim is waiting for them on the steps in front of the house.

Instead of reacting he just watches them approach like he’s a statue cast from bronze, rimmed by the golden glow of the setting sun.

He doesn’t smile. It's faintly unnerving, and Martin doesn’t even realise that he’s slowed down until Sasha grabs his arm and pulls him along.

“You’re back,” she says when they reach Tim, looking down at him. He looks back up. His eyes are still faintly wild around the edges, but his body language is calm, self-possessed, loose.

It’s an act, and all three of them know it.

“Yeah,” Tim says.

“Where’s your stuff?”

Instead of answering he pulls his hand from his pocket and shows her a key before sticking it back inside, the rest of his body remaining utterly still. Martin is thoroughly unnerved, but Sasha appears to be ignoring it entirely. “Ah, right. How long have you been waiting?”

“About an hour. I guess.”

A beat passes. (Martin is suddenly glad that Jon declined their offer of joining them tonight. Something about being anxious over meeting an old friend tomorrow.)

(Had Jon known that Tim would be back? Surely not, right?)

“We bought some groceries,” Sasha finally says, holding up the bag.

Once again, Tim just nods. For a moment, the pervasive silence returns. Then Tim finally breaks his own stillness for good, taking a deep breath, rubbing at his face, and sighing. “I’m sorry. I guess I… overreacted a bit. At least towards you two.” He looks at Sasha, then at Martin. “But I’m—I’m back now. I just had to get away for a while, you know? Think… think things over myself. Away from it all. Reflect a bit.” He sighs again. “And I’ve made a few decisions, too.”

Another pause. Martin has no idea what to say, whether Tim even wants him to say anything at all. He’s infinitely relieved when Tim breaks the silence once again. “I think you should know about—about my brother, Martin. I mentioned it recently, when we were discussing Jon in the break room. He’s the reason I’m here. The circus is the reason I’m here…”

“Tim?” Sasha interrupts gently, “Let’s go inside and talk there, alright? And make some food. I’m starving.”

Tim nods distractedly. “That’s—probably a good idea.”

(The circus? His brother?) Now that Martin is looking at him directly, it becomes more and more obvious how tired Tim looks, underneath all the put-on nonchalance.

“You—you do know that you don’t have to tell me a-anything, right? I can wait, Tim. I-I appreciate it, but I don’t, ah, want to make you uncomfortable or, or anything…”

Tim smiles wanly. “Yeah, no. It’s—it’s fine. I felt good telling Sasha about it back then and now… well, now that we all know that this world is fucked and our boss a monster, I guess— I’ve thought about this, and Sasha knows already anyways. I’m—” He hesitates. “I’ve done a lot of thinking these past few days.” He rubs at his eyes. “Jon—well, I mean, he did… tell us. Not that he had a choice, really, but he could’ve lied, and he didn’t. And you… you deserve to know about Danny, too. About me. I’ll—I’ll try to be more open in the future, good examples and all of that. We—we’re all stuck in this together, might as well… be open about it. Right? And I’ll figure things out with Jon. Somehow. It might just… take a while.” He sighs again, finally lets the mask drop. “I’m just kind of tired,” he mutters. Martin nods.

“Yeah, I—I feel that, Tim.” Martin holds his hand out towards Tim to help him to his feet. “Work really feels different without you. I’m glad you’re back.”

“Aww, did you miss me?” Tim’s tone is full of mirth but when his eyes meet Martin’s, he seems to shrink back into himself. “Oh,” he says quietly, “I’m—I’m sorry about that. I didn’t even think—I’m sorry for leaving you behind to deal with—Jon—on your own…”

“No!” Martin says, surprising himself about as much as the other two, “no! We didn’t have to deal with Jon. He’s behaving the way he has for the past week, e-except now we actually, you know, know what’s going on, and he’s apologising for the smallest things. Really. We were mainly, ah, worried about you, Tim, whether you’ll believe it or not. Jon was really worried about you, too. He’ll be glad to know that you’re back.”

“Let’s take this inside,” Sasha repeats. “Besides, I’m hungry. Did I mention that already? How hungry I am? Because—”

“Yeah, yeah, alright, we get it.”

Tim sighs again, but there’s a tiny smile tugging at the corners of his mouth, and he finally accepts the outstretched hand and allows Martin to help him to his feet. “Sash, you know what? I’m hungry too! What a weird coincidence.”

“Yeah, yeah. Come on.”

And so Martin follows them and their banter up the stairs to the front door, then to the elevator, and even though he was certainly a bit dejected at the outlook of not seeing Jon this entire weekend (they’d been having a lot of fun during the past few evenings, after all) maybe this is for the best. They’ll certainly have to figure a few things out.

 


 

When they reach Sasha’s flat, there’s a surprise waiting for Tim.

The moment they pull the door closed behind themselves, there’s the gently greeting ‘mrrp?’ Martin’s become accustomed to by now, followed by Pumpkin making her way out from the living-room towards Sasha, then Martin—and then Tim.

“—were very nice, you know, I’m almost sad that I came b—Pumpkin? Are you okay?” Tim interrupts himself, tone shifting so entirely mid-word that Martin wouldn’t have recognised it as his voice if he hadn’t been standing right next to him. Tim holds out a careful hand towards the cat and Pumpkin sniffs it equally carefully, before rubbing her head and back against Tim’s knee, purring gently.

Martin has to swallow down a laugh at his dazed expression.

“Do you need a shock blanket?” Sasha teases gently, but Tim doesn’t seem to have the mental capacity to respond.

Martin busies himself by taking off his jacket and shoes, trying to push away the feeling that he’s intruding on Tim and Sasha. (He knows it’s dumb but apparently that doesn’t make much of a difference at all.)

“What happened?Tim finally asks, “she always flees when I visit! Even when I brought my stuff earlier—” (He points at a bag in the corner. It's surprisingly small.)

“Jon and Pumpkin had a talk,” Sasha says with a gargoyle’s grin.     

“A—talk,” Tim say, “They had—a talk?

She laughs, then looks at Martin. He can see the mischief sparkling in her eyes, and somehow that alone helps, and he grins back at her before turning toward Tim. “They did! Jon really loves cats, and they, uh, they really love him back.“

“Have to agree with Martin here,” Sasha says gleefully before poking Tim in the side with her right foot. Tim makes a small noise of protest and almost falls over before managing to catch himself with his hand against the ground. Pumpkin looks at him reproachfully, but after a moment she goes back to letting him pet her. He still looks stunned, but there’s a small smile on his lips despite his frowning eyebrows.

“Can’t say that I have gotten over my own cats backstabbing me like that—even Schrödinger! Little traitor—but I have to admit, it really helps with, well, with trust, you know?”

“Yeah...” Tim mutters, and sighs.

“Should I take the bags into the kitchen?” Martin asks Sasha before Tim can add anything. After a moment’s hesitation she nods.

“Sure, and maybe put everything on the table so nothing gets squished? Thanks!”

Martin nods back and leaves, half-closing the door behind himself. He can hear them continue their conversation on the other side and is vaguely relieved, remembering how long it took him to somewhat calm Tim down after he’d discovered the glitching photos. He’ll just—take a little break until they rejoin him in the kitchen. It’ll be fine.

“But yeah, apparently whatever has happened to Jon has given him the ability to somewhat communicate with cats as well. Maybe he put in a good word for you, Tim.” Martin can hear the grin in Sasha’s voice, even through the half-closed door.

Tim laughs, but it sounds a bit strangled, a bit humourless. “So… what does that mean, Sasha? They stopped liking me from one day to the next, but they love our monster boss and can talk to him?” He sounds so hurt that Martin almost walks back before remembering that Sasha's the one who actually knows him, despite how close they've gotten over the past few years. 

“Oh Tim,” Sasha says quietly. Martin feels guilty for leaving her semi-alone with this situation, but then again, she does know Tim a lot better than him.

“Animals are very good at picking up on certain things that people don’t.” Sasha sighs. There’s a sound of rustling fabric, of joints popping, and Martin gets the impression that Tim has finally gotten up and taken off his coat.

“Apparently there are monster gods or entities that feed on our fear, and one of them is responsible for what happened to Danny. Were you still there for that part? Anyway, I think the cats can smell that influence on you. They stopped letting you pet them after he went missing, right?” Sasha’s voice is thoughtful and quiet, and Tim has suddenly gone still once again.

(Danny… that’s Tim’s brother, right? They still haven’t confronted that part, not that Martin really needs to, even if he’s maybe a tiny bit intrigued, if in a guilty way.)

(How do you act when the thing you want to know more about is tied to the trauma that scarred your friend? It’s not like Martin can just ask about it, can he?)

“Hey. Come on, Tim. We talked about this! I know how much you hate the monster stuff but… Jon isn’t responsible for what happened. None of this is his fault. If anything, he’s a lot worse off than we are, and he knew as little as us getting into it. And I know that he still hasn’t told us everything, but I... I think he’s still trying to protect us, you know? He’ll get there, I know he will. We just have to give him time. It’s been less than a week.” Martin can hear Sasha breathe in deeply, as though she’s trying to prepare herself for something. “You’re actually pretty similar in some ways, you and Jon.”

There’s a moment of silence.

(Martin doesn’t move at all. In fact, he’s kind of hoping that they’ve forgotten that he’s there.)

“What do you mean?” Tim finally says. His voice sounds weird.

“Remember what we talked about after you’d told me about Danny?” Sasha says, “How we theorised that something might have happened to Jon, too? Well, we were right. He had an encounter when he was a kid. It’s why he hates spiders so much. You’re not quite in the same boat, but, hm, you’re on the same river, if that makes sense. Except that Jon is a lot further along, and he’s fallen down a waterfall that broke his boat to splinters, while you’re still teetering on the edge, caught against one of the rocks.”

Tim half-laughs at that. “Really, Sasha?” he asks, but he doesn’t sound half as crotchety as he probably wants to. (Martin wonders if maybe he can sneak out of the kitchen into the living-room, but he’d have to open the door further to get through. He doesn’t want to remind them of his existence.)

“Yeah, really. You dealt with Danny’s loss by hiding behind a mask of golden-retriever-level happiness, and you joke about everything so nobody digs further. Jon dealt by pushing everyone away, hiding behind scowls and scathing words. See the similarities yet, Tim? Yeah? Yeah.”

Tim doesn’t seem to have a reply to that, and Martin really can’t blame him. He also really, really hopes they’ve forgotten that he’s there. (Tim probably wouldn’t want him overhearing this.)

“You’re both deeply traumatised, except Jon doesn’t have just his spider trauma anymore. He’s from another reality and covered in eyes, Tim! There are a few things that don’t make a lot of sense to me yet, but I’m fairly certain that he will talk about it if we give him some time. He’s—hm, doesn’t matter.

And regarding you—as far as I can tell, your mask broke on Monday evening, Tim. You have two choices now. You can throw yourself down the waterfall into further self-destruction, or you can try to get to safety and heal. Get off the river entirely. Maybe you and Jon could even help each other.” She sighs. “I know that this is a low blow but honestly, what do you think Danny would want you to do with your life? I’m pretty sure that self-destruction isn’t on his list.”

“Fuck you,” Tim mutters, but there’s no real anger behind the words.

“Yeah, that wasn’t fair,” Sasha agrees, but she doesn’t sound very apologetic either. There’s the sound of rustling fabric again, and Martin comes to the conclusion that they must be hugging. A moment later Pumpkin stalks into the kitchen, coming through the door separating the kitchen from the entrance area, which Martin left half-open earlier. She rubs her head against Martin’s ankles, before leaving through the slit of the living-room door. (Martin wishes he could follow and is glad she didn’t make any sounds at him, and sad that she didn’t stay for pats.)

“The thing is, you’re both complete and utter buffoons, you and Jon, and I’ll be very mad at you if you can’t figure something out. Before-Jon was an emotionally repressed buffoon, and New-Jon’s been through so much that all his shitty coping mechanisms fell apart and he had to become a self-aware buffoon.” Sasha takes a deep breath. Martin suppresses a laugh at her description of Jon. “He’s still the same buffoon, Tim. He just has a lot more problems now. Have you seen him? That vulnerability... that’s what happens to people when they reach the end of their rope. I really hope your impromptu holiday helped, because while I’ll listen to your vents, I’m not going to tolerate you antagonising him any further.”

Tim grumbles something Martin can’t make out, but it doesn’t sound entirely convinced.

“Of course I’m right,” Sasha says primly. “I’m always right. Come on, Tim. Let’s make some food.” Then she raises her voice, and Martin freezes. “I’m sure Martin’s had enough of quietly standing in my kitchen.”   

Sasha pushes open the door and Martin tries to act as though he’s been incredibly busy this entire time, but all three of them know that it’s an act.

For a moment they’re quiet. Then: “Did I mention that I’m starving!”

Tim grins and slaps Sasha’s shoulder. “You did, in fact, mention that! She did do that, right? Martin?”

Martin shakes his head at the two of them, but he’s also infinitely glad at Sasha’s ability at breaking awkwardness with food talk.

“Yeah, Tim, she did.” He grins. “Let’s make some food so she doesn’t fall over dead.”

 


 

Two hours later they’re sitting on the couch (fed and watered, as Martin’s mother would say), and Sasha and Martin have finally finished explaining the entities to Tim.

On the surface he seems to have taken this new, worldshifting information surprisingly well.

Martin can tell from the tightness around his eyes and jaw that this is only marginally true.

“I just…” A muscle jumps at Tim’s jaw. He looks like someone trying to act casual by forcing himself not to scream.

“Tim?”

“What, Martin? I just—I can’t believe that you knew about his—about all of it! And you didn’t even tell us!”

Martin sighs. They’ve been over this ten times already. Or eleven? (He’s lost count already. It’s been two hours! How has he lost count already?) Somehow he’s a lot less motivated to explain his reasoning once again. “Tim. We talked about it on Monday. What else am I supposed to say?”

“I don’t know!”

“I’m sorry, Tim. I-I just—I didn’t think it would help.”

Tim finally moves, mainly to stare at him. “You knew he was— visually improved and you didn ’t tell me because you didn’t think it would help? he asks, incredulity making his voice weird and tilted. “What does ‘helping’ have to do with this?”

Martin snorts. “Visually improved? Really, Tim? But… yeah.” He takes a deep breath. “I mean. It hasn’t, has it? Take a step back and tell me that knowing helped you in any way.”

For a moment they’re all quiet. Tim very obviously wrestles with his thoughts, Sasha has been doing her best to keep out of the situation in general, and Martin… Martin is in pain, just very generally speaking. “I don’t, ah, I don’t know what happened to you because, well, because nobody ever tells me anything . But look at everything that ’s been happening recently and tell me that knowing about Jon made it better in literally any way. Because as far as I can tell we’re not one step further, and you ran off for half a week, and you’re also—hurt. I don’t like it when… when my friends hurt.”

Tim stares at him for a moment. Then he sighs.

“Alright. That’s—that’s probably fair. I’m sorry, Martin.”

Martin shrugs. “It’s fine.”

“No, it really isn’t, and you know it. I’ve been—behaving kinda shitty, lately. I’m sorry I just took off without even bringing you your stuff, and that I then just showed up here like this. I haven’t been—haven’t been a very good friend recently.”

“I think it’s time you told Martin about Danny, Tim,” Sasha says after a while.

“You don’t have to if you don’t want to,” Martin says gently. “Talking about these kinds of things is hard…”

“No—I want to. You should know too. You see, my brother…”

 


 

“I’m sorry, Tim,” Martin says half an hour later.

Tim sighs. His posture has changed entirely. He only looks tired now, as though telling Martin about what happened to Danny brought the memories back to the forefront of Tim’s thoughts. (Maybe it did? Isn’t that kind of what Jon implied over the last few days, regarding his nightmares especially?)

“Yeah, me too,” Tim says. He voice sounds hollow and strangely dull. “I gave up my entire future to be here, and now I—what? My brother was just one of many victims, and my rage and fear only feeds the fear gods? How fucked up is that? And Jon is a monster now, but it hasn’t always been that way, and he got conned into it? And he got magically transported here from somewhere else because he tried to escape by stabbing out his goddamn eyes, except now he’s worse because he lost control over the monster part? What happened to our Jon?! I just. I hate all of this. So much.”

“Yeah,” Martin says quietly.

“I get why he didn’t tell me. Us. Whatever. Still sucks, though. For—for everyone. But—and I can’t believe I’m saying this... I guess it sucks for him the most.”

“Yeah.”

“I was so mad at Elias for promoting Jon and not Sasha. I’m not sure how to feel about it now.”

“Yeah.”

“Jon isn’t human, but I guess he isn’t a monster, is he? Not by choice. Some part of him is, but it isn’t him anymore.”

“Yeah.”

“And you knew all this time—”

“Yeah, Tim, but—”

“Let me finish.”

“Fine.”

“You knew all this time, but you didn’t tell me because you’re just a really good person, and a fantastic friend.” He looks at Martin, just looks. Martin realises that his eyes have gotten all wet because he has to blink to see Tim clearly. When did that happen?

“You were his friend despite all the bullshit original Jon put you through, despite him never having been your friend in the first place. It wasn’t your secret to tell, so you didn’t.”

Martin swallows harshly. “Y-Yeah. Something like—like that,” he mutters. Why is his mouth suddenly so dry? “And he’d saved my life, too. He—he got hurt saving me b-but he... he did it anyways.”

For a moment they’re all quiet.

“There’s— s-something else though, Tim. Jon told us when he, when he... explained about the entities.” He swallows again, wipes his hands against his trousers. “We, well… we can’t quit. If we stay away for too long we’ll get… sick. He was—he was really concerned when you left, because of that.”

For a moment Tim doesn’t react.

“We can’t what?

“We can’t quit. He can’t e-either. Except if we—uhm, do what he, what he tried to do. With the, uhm, the e-eyes...”

Martin can see Tim’s throat working furiously at that. Then his shoulders bow in defeat. “Makes sense,” he says dryly, “of course we can’t quit. Elias can’t have us running off, can he? He’s one of them too, right?”

“Y-Yeah. He can, ah, he can apparently r-read minds and put in thoughts… and things like, like that.”

“Right. Of course he can.”

“Yeah. I’m—I’m sorry, Tim.”

“Me, too.

I’m glad you told me, though. Thanks, Martin.”

“Of course.”

“Anyone want crisps?” Sasha’s voice breaks through the numbness, artificially bright.

Tim laughs weakly. “Sure, why not...”

 


 

They spend the rest of the evening playing with cards because Tim loves card games, and even though Sasha and Martin haven’t talked about it they’ve come to the unspoken agreement that they’re going to be as gentle with Tim as possible. Halfway through the playing, Tim starts teaching them card tricks, and after Martin and Sasha have mastered a few of them, Tim tells them of trips he and Danny used to go on when they were younger. It’s sad and bittersweet but Martin can see that it helps Tim—just the simple act of having people to talk to who believe him, who are there for him, who listen and understand.

 

By the time they finally head to bed, it’s late enough that Martin can’t speak without yawning at least once, and Tim is mostly back to normal. Not entirely, but he’s certainly doing a lot better than he ever has before.

“Sasha?”

“Yes, Martin?”

“Last weekend you, ah, you let me choose what we did. I... I think this time it’s Tim’s turn.” Martin turns toward Tim when Sasha nods enthusiastically. “Tim? What do you want to do with your weekend?”

“Aww, you guys! That’s—that’s very nice of you. Thank you! I—Have you ever gone kayaking, Martin?”

Martin laughs. “I haven’t, but we can do that if you want to.”

Tim’s impossibly wide grin is answer enough.

 


👁️👁️👁️


 

In the end Jon is half an hour early, because of course he is.

After all, the cafe he and Georgie had agreed to meet in is closer to her than it is to him, and to reach it he’d had to take the underground. Naturally, he’d decided to be one train earlier just in case of delays —there are few things he hates more than being late—but of course, following that train of thought he ’d left early so he ’d be there in time to catch it. Long story short, he somehow managed to be three trains early and now he ’s already here at barely 9am when they’d agreed to meet at half past. He’s having regrets, and uselessly anxious thoughts are creeping back into his mind as well, because of course they are.

Is this the right cafe?

Am I wearing the right clothes for the occasion?

What do you even wear to a meeting with your ex, especially if you haven’t seen each other in years?

Why can ’t we just meet at her place? ...Because she doesn’t trust me enough.

Which makes sense. It just also really hurts.

...What do you wear if you've never seen this version of your ex, and have generally no idea if she's the same person or slightly different, or if you parted on the same terms as you’d done in your reality, or—

Jon takes a deep breath.

Should I walk in and choose a table and wait for Georgie there? Should I wait for her to come before doing anything? Should I go for a walk and return later? What do I do?

He sighs. Why is this so hard? It's just Georgie. I’ve known her since forever.

It should be fine.

 

What if she doesn ’t like this version of me? Or what if she notices that I’m different?

...what if she doesn ’t notice?

 

He looks down at his clothes. A plain black t-shirt and equally black jeans, and one of Other-Jon’s zip-up hoodies. He’d spent half an hour debating whether or not he should be wearing a band shirt. On one hand it might remind Georgie of his former self, of a past he’s left so far behind that he sometimes wonders how it’s possible that he was like that at some point, all dark eyeliner and piercings and half-ripped pants and shirts. Feels strange, looking back. But that ’s the guy Georgie probably remembers. He pushes the resulting panic down. It ’s fine. People change. She won’t be suspicious. Why should she? She has no reason to.

On the other hand, that self-same reminder could’ve gotten painful really quickly. In the end, the main question had been whether he wanted to remind her of that Jon, so he’d decided to go for something halfway between the two—still black and casual, but just that and nothing more. Depending on their interactions, maybe he can wear the band shirt next time? If there is a next time, of course...

But thinking about band shirts also inevitably ends up reminding Jon about Martin. Martin, who had come to work in a Mechs shirt on Thursday. One of their earliest designs, even! And it had been so washed-out— worn with love , a part of Jon had whispered, is still whispering—that half the letters had peeled off... unrecognisable to most people, unreadable to anyone who didn’t already know what it said.

But Jon did know, and he does know, and he still can ’t quite believe that he managed to forget about the whole Martin-loves-the-Mechs thing, but then again the last few days have been stressful so that’s probably understandable, right?

Thing is, he still doesn’t have a single clue about how Martin will react if he tells him, and whether he should, or how, or when. Maybe I can ask Georgie? he wonders, She’d always been good at this kind of thing, right?

Maybe that’s actually not a bad idea.

He glances at his watch again. Five minutes have passed since he arrived, a fact he could’ve Known if he’d wanted to, but he’s very thoroughly decided that, actually, he does not want to know, and so far it seems to have worked.

The five minutes felt like an hour. There are twenty-five other minutes remaining.

How am I going to survive that? I should ’ve grabbed a book when I left.

He can’t say that he regrets the cafe Georgie picked out—but it’s far enough away from the places he’s familiar with that he has absolutely no idea where he should go to spend the time. Is it weird if I wait inside?

Probably.

Or even worse, she arrives and waits for me but I ’m waiting on the inside and then we never find each other and she just goes home and I

Yeah, I ’ll stay here.

He sighs, and then he sits down on the edge of a stone planter box. There are no flowers in it, just a small and somewhat prickly shrub. It catches Jon in the back and he sighs again.

Twenty-four minutes...

Will Tim be back on Monday? How will he react? Where did he even go? I really hope that he ’s okay and that he doesn’t have to come back because he was forced to return. I really... I hope we’ll figure something out.

It’s been a few days now. Actually, thinking back, Jon knows for a fact that they were the nicest days so far. Not quite as fun and relaxed as the weekend had been, mainly because they’d had to work instead of just being lazy all day, but Martin and Sasha had... known. And it had been okay. They’d brainstormed ideas for a new sorting system for the Archives, Jon had started separating all the real Statements from the rest, and they’d actually started to get things done.

Elias had called Just Jon to his office three times, and Martin and Sasha had stubbornly accompanied Jon every time. Elias had also tried to catch him alone in the Archives, but Martin and Sasha seemed to have actually meant it when they told Jon that they wouldn’t let him talk to Elias alone anymore.

And besides, if this reality’s Elias is aware of all the things that Jon told his assistants, then he knows how much Jon knows anyways, and that Jon knows that he knows that Jon knows.

Jon still can’t quite decide what exactly Elias is aware of, and what he doesn’t know yet, but at least it’s a beginning. I will confront him properly about everything when Tim—if Tim comes back. With all of them there, like we’d done when I’d come back from—from being accused of murder, I suppose?

Jon sighs. I really hope Tim makes it back alright. And that we won’t stop doing game night at Sasha’s place.

They’ve gotten so much closer just during these past few days alone, and Jon slowly starts to feel as though he’s finally back to knowing Sasha. It’s a fantastic feeling; one he doesn’t want to lose, if he can manage not to.

And now I'm  here, and I’m actually ready to meet Georgie again, without even having to move in due to a manhunt!

Almost feels too good to be true.

 

 


 

As it turns out, Georgie is seventeen minutes early.

“Jon? Jon! Hah, I knew that you’d be too early. You look so—different! I mean—good different, not bad different... Where are my manners? I’m so sorry. It’s good to see you!”

Jon, who still hasn’t mentally prepared himself for Georgie already being there, just kind of stares.

She’s gorgeous. There’s a gradient of purples and pinks and blues going through her dreads, which she’s bound back with a headscarf, and she’s wearing dark jeans with a nice t-shirt and the same leather jacket he’d really loved back when they were still together and talking. (All the pins he had given her back then are still pinned to her backpack as well. Jon might cry. He’d wondered if she would’ve thrown them away. She didn’t, though. This reality’s version of Georgie is as close as could be to the Georgie he remembers.)

Jon coughs. “Y-You, you look good, too, Georgie! It’s—it’s really been a while, hasn’t it?”

She smiles. For a moment he admires her dimples. “Yeah, it really has... how have you been? What are you up to these days? Still working for that library?”

He grimaces and can’t quite decide how to answer. “Yeah, well, I am… but, uh, actually, a lot of things have... have changed, recently... but... I think I’m okay? At least... for the most part, I suppose.”

She tilts her head, studies him carefully. “Mnhh. Well, we have the whole day to talk if we want to, I don’t really have anything else I need to be doing. So... let’s head on inside?”

Jon nods gratefully. “Yeah, let’s, ah, let’s do that.”

 


 

Ten minutes later they’ve settled down with breakfast and tea for Jon and coffee for Georgie. He still can’t quite believe that she’s a coffee person, and that they ever lived together despite that. The cafe is pleasantly empty, and they’ve found a nice little table near one of the windows, overlooking the street. Sometimes people pass by in front of them, but for the most part it’s quiet outside.

“So, how early were you?” Georgie asks after she’s taken a sip of her coffee. There’s a grin on her face, and it’s so familiar that his heart aches a tiny bit. It’s been too long since he last saw that grin.

He still sighs. “Thirty minutes,” he admits begrudgingly, but he can’t suppress his own sheepish grin. “I wanted to be, ah, well, ten minutes early but... you know me.”

“Yeah, Jon, I really do,” Georgie says and laughs. “I knew you’d be early because you’re always early, but if I’d known that you’d be that early... I might have come earlier as well.”

He just smiles. “Thanks, Georgie.”

“No problem, Jon.”

For a moment they’re just quiet, eating.

“So... how’s the Admiral?” Jon asks when he can’t keep quiet anymore.

“Oh, he’s fine,” Georgie says and smiles. “I’d wondered how long it would be until you asked. He definitely misses you. Like, I don’t want to fight again, Jon, but I still think that we—that we made the right decision, you know? Him staying with me. Even if it... well. I’ve missed you too, and I’m glad you sent the texts. I would’ve, but I wasn’t sure if you would’ve wanted me... wanted me to. There was a lot of... uselessly dumb pain in between us. I regretted it for years.”

Jon is quiet for a moment, trying to figure out what to say. Then he sighs. “Listen, Georgie, I—I’m really sorry about... all of this. How I behaved. It was... kind of childish, actually. I... wasn’t dealing very well with the loss of, well, of my band, and then my grandmother, and... all of it just kind of fell apart one after another, you know? We left uni and moved away to London so the band fell apart, but at least I still had you, and then I got a new job and for a moment everything was fine, but then we didn’t work out anymore so I had to find a new place, and then shortly after that my grandmother passed away, too, and there’d been so many things I’d never... told her... so many things left unsaid, you know? It just... all of it just kind of followed one another and you—and the Admiral—and I couldn’t—ah, it, it doesn’t really matter, I suppose. I was... I was in a really bad place, and the Admiral had always been there for me. I was fine until I didn’t—didn’t have him anymore, as stupid as that sounds. I... I’ve recently come to the realisation that I was an absolute fool, though. So, for what it’s worth... I’m sorry, Georgie. I really, really am. If I hadn’t been too stubborn and too proud, things might not have... come to this point. At all.”

For a moment Georgie doesn’t say anything. She just stares down at her coffee, stirring absentmindedly, and Jon is too awkward to say anything else. There’s so much he wants to say, needs to say, but he has no idea how or when.

“I... I was quite mad at the time,” Georgie says finally without meeting his eyes. “And I was quite ready to never talk to you again, you know? On the night you left, I’d made this one decision—that either you’d apologise, or we just wouldn’t talk anymore. That I wouldn’t take any more steps in your direction, because you obviously weren’t ready to behave like a proper person instead of a ... I don’t even know. Doesn’t matter.” She sighs. “So, it’s not like it’s completely your fault. We both made mistakes, and mine were just as bad as yours. It takes two to make something work, you know? I was just... really mad. I guess I didn’t really understand how much the Admiral meant to you, too. At the time it felt really... really bad to be less than a cat in your eyes. I mean, I know you didn’t mean it that way. I probably knew back then, too.” She closes her eyes, rubs at the back of her neck. She looks incredibly exhausted, but Jon has absolutely no idea how to help her. “I just didn’t want to accept it. I wanted to be mad, because it was... kind of the only thing I actually felt back then, for a while? I... something happened in Uni, and I was still dealing with it when we started dating. It’s not like you were the only one who had problems with your mental health.” She laughs but it sounds sad. Jon just kind of stares. He isn’t sure if she’s ever been this open with him, not even in his reality, at least not until she gave him her Statement.

She looks up at him, blinks slowly, smiles a sad smile to match her laugh.   

“I think I got better through dating you, actually. We didn’t really... didn’t really work out in the end, but, you know, I’m glad we... I’m glad we lasted as long as we did. And I really like you, Jon. You’re a good person. I’ve thought a lot about us during the past few years, once I’d gotten over my rage. I’ve talked about you with my therapist as well.” The sad smile grows into a happier grin. “She helped me understand you. The whole cat thing... sometimes animals are just easier than people, especially to confide in. I’m glad you texted! I wouldn’t have taken the first step, I guess I wasn’t sure if you would’ve wanted me to. I know I said it already but... I missed you too.”

Jon smiles back. Georgie’s grin makes her whole face shine like the sun, and it’s this moment specifically that makes him realise just how much he’s missed her. Even if it hurts because she ’s talking about the other Jon, not me, because she doesn’t know the truth. Because things turned bad when my Georgie found out. Because I’ve never been an actually good person in my life.

He pushes those thoughts away forcefully, and it almost works.

 

 


 

“So... what have you been up to in the meantime?” Georgie asks a while later, because of course the conversation had to circle back to that. Jon sighs mentally and tries to think about how much he can tell her. Next she’s going to ask me if I’m still working for the Institute, and how I’m doing, and I’ll either have to lie or tell her the truth, except I can’t tell her, can I?

It’s the whole lying-by-omission thing again, except this time it’s with someone he’s never lied to before. Someone who can always tell when he lies. Someone who knows me better than I know myself .

“Are you still working for that spooky research institute? What was it called again? Something with... with M, right? Hmm, oh, right! Like the ice cream! Magnus!”

And despite the conversation going exactly where he thought it might, her words still manage to startle a laugh out of Jon.

“See! I knew it! My memory is so much better than I expected!”

“Yeah, you’re right,” Jon says, trying with all his might to keep the grin taped onto his face. Of course, Georgie looks through him immediately, her grin faltering and shifting into something a lot more concerned.

Jon wishes he were better at lying. Why the hell am I good at theatre but not acting outside of that? It makes no sense!

“Oh, oh no. What happened, Jon? Are you—are you okay?”

Oh no. She hasn ’t seen me in years! Why does she sound this concerned?!

Jon rubs at his eyebrows, careful not to touch the other eyes, trying to figure out how to respond without making her run immediately. “Y-Yeah... I suppose.” Nailed it. He looks around the cafe, trying to act nonchalant. Do I tell her? How much? I can ’t very well—

The closest people are far enough away to be out of earshot. Well, that ’s something at least.

Unfortunately, Georgie also notices his glances, and raises an eyebrow in his direction. Jon just shrugs, and sighs. How much should I tell her?

It would be selfish, wouldn’t it? To tell her. The problem is: he really wants to, and he knows that if he were to ask her, she ’d want to know as well. And she’d probably side with him. I could tell her about the time travel, about everything. She ’d probably be mad at me, but she’d understand.

But it would also ruin her life. After all, it ’s the kind of truth that hurts. The kind of truth that destroys, and there’s no way back once you know.

The kind of truth the Beholding craves above all else.

He finds himself rubbing his throat once again with his left hand, the right one carefully shielded in his lap, and forces himself to stop.

I can ’t do that to her. Not here, not now, not like this. Maybe not ever. He’d spent yesterday evening and the past four hours obsessing over this one question, and he knows that whatever way he chooses, it’ll be the wrong one. Georgie will be mad at him if she finds out, but she’ll also be mad at him if he drags her into this world. Maybe not consciously, maybe not at first, but later on?

She ’ll leave me behind and cut off all contact again. I need to do better this time. He sighs. Or is it worse if I don’t tell her? If I keep the truth away from her, try to shield her… it should be her decision, right? But how can she truly decide if she doesn’t know the cost of that choice? Fuck.

He swallows. I ’ll tell her. But not yet, and not here. Not like this. It feels—bad. “I-I’ll figure it out. I always have, so far.”

Georgie doesn’t seem very convinced, but she doesn’t prod any further either. Jon isn’t sure whether he’s relieved or disappointed. He doesn’t even know how he should feel about it.

I think I ’ll have to talk to Sasha and Martin about this . Somehow it had felt too private before. I’m a fool.

“Hm, alright. If you say so, Jon.” Georgie’s words pull him back to reality, and there’s a moment during which she just studies him, eyes concerned and thoughtful and... filled with something else, some mix of emotions he can’t parse. She takes a deep breath and looks as though she’d like to say something, but aborts the attempt at the last moment and stays quiet.

“So… what about you?” he asks as though he doesn’t know exactly what she’s been doing.

Her expression brightens. “Oh! I’m still doing the podcast! It’s doing really well, actually…”

And to Jon’s impossibly huge relief, the topic turns away from his place of work.

 


 

“—so, you know, I’m doing a lot better. Sasha is really nice. We’ve gotten a lot closer recently, too, I, ah, I kind of had a… uh, breakdown on Tuesday… it’s been dealt with! It’s all good! But… yeah. Her cats are so cute, I love them so much! I’ve told them a lot about the Admiral, too, one of them is called Pumpkin and the other one’s named Schrödinger, you know, because she’s usually gone when strangers visit… but they both really like me!”

Georgie laughs. “Yeah, makes sense. Cats have always loved you, haven’t they?”

Jon smiles. “They have,” he says easily, because they both know that it’s true. “It’s the one thing I was most proud of during school. I had a lot of cat friends, even if the humans were all, well… less than satisfactory.”

“Pfff, less than satisfactory. Ah, I’ve missed you, Jon…”

“Stop bullying me over my vocabulary!”

For a moment they both grin at each other. Then Jon looks away self-consciously. It really hasn’t taken long for them to fall back into their old tracks. It ’s been years. Years longer for me than for her… and yet.

“Oh, but there’s another thing I wanted to talk about.” He takes a deep breath. No way to draw back anymore. “I’ve mentioned Martin before, right?”

“You might have, a few times,” Georgie says. For some reason her grin has widened. He decides to ignore the sparkle in her eyes even though he knows that he’ll regret it. “Right. So, Martin… did I also mention that he’s a die-hard Mechs fan?”

Georgie’s eyes widen. When she starts to laugh, Jon just stares.

“What?” he says indignantly, “why are you laughing?!”

“Oh, Jon…” Georgie manages to say between laughs, “are you really—sometimes I can’t—honestly…”

What?”

“You’re so oblivious! How can you—never mind. What do you want to know?”

“Mainly what’s so funny about all of this. But besides that… do you have any advice? I have no idea how to act around him! He wears band-shirts all the time! He must know, right? But he hasn’t said anything about it! What if he hates me if I tell him? What do I do, Georgie? If I tell him, they’ll know! I don’t want Tim or Sasha to know! And if they know, my boss will find out too, I know he will! Nobody will ever take me seriously again! I—”

“Calm down, Jon! The main question you should ask yourself is: do you want to be taken seriously? From what I’ve heard you’re friends with the others now, would you really mind?”

Jon frowns. “I’m their boss , Georgie. Granted, not a very good one, and—”

“—Wait, you’re their boss? When did that happen? Why didn’t you tell me? What are you doing again?”

Goddamnit.

“I… I got promoted half a year ago. Sort of. It’s complicated, and it doesn’t make a lot of sense. Martin and Sasha and Tim changed departments with me—we’re working in the Archives now, not the research department.—I know what you want to say, and, trust me… you don’t want to know, at least not yet. It’s all… a bit… bad. But we’ll figure it out.” He sighs. “But you didn’t answer my question! I have no idea how to talk to Martin about it! He’s really kind and I was, well, not the best boss for a long time, I suppose? So, uh, I… I have a lot of areas to improve in… what do I do? Do I tell him? Do I… ignore it? What if he finds out?

Georgie laughs. Jon has no idea how to interpret that laugh. “You’re a fool, Jonathan Sims,” she says, shaking her head, “so you’re afraid that he hates you but likes the music and if you tell him that you’re Jonny d’Ville he’ll start to hate the music?”

“N-No… not anymore? I mean, I think he was wary of me, but… I stopped being an ass and he did tell me everything about himself and, uh—why are you looking at me like that?”

Georgie just shakes her head. This time the disbelief is very obvious. “Jon. Jonathan. Jonny-boy . You cannot tell me that —ugh, I ’ve forgotten how obli— alright. Martin? The guy you’re working with? I have never heard of him before today, but I know so much about him just from the things you’ve told me during the—” she checks her phone, “—past three hours. I think if I were forced to, I could write a pretty good character sheet for him… let me see. He’s good with animals, especially the kinds that other people don’t like. Spiders, hm? He isn’t very experienced with cats, but he gets along well with Sasha’s. He’s a really good listener and keeper of secrets, he’s kind and patient and generous… let me see, he has dimples and a lot of freckles, and he’s red-haired, blushes easily, has pretty eyes and is overall very cute and—”

“I never said that he’s cute

“Shush! That’s part of the point I’m trying to make, idiot! Look at that list! You talked a bit about Tim when you first started working there, and I know that Sasha is a good friend, but I know more about one of her cats than about either of them combined! And now Martin loves your band enough to wear band shirts to work?! Jonathan, look me in the eyes and tell me that you don’t have a crush on that man.”

Jon sputters. “Of course I don’t have a crush on him! He’s nice, that’s all! Sure, he has a nice smile and, ah, he’s a really good singer, too, but…” He trails off. “Georgie, do I have a crush on Martin?”

Georgie grins, and then boops him on the nose. “Bingo, Jonny-boy. Bingo.”

Jon groans and buries his face in his hands. “I can ’t have a crush on Martin! He—I—good lord…”

“Aww, come on! You’re not that bad. It could definitely be worse! And if he told you his entire life-story, are you sure he doesn’t feel the same about you?”

For a few moments Jon tries to order the panicked swirl his mind has become. Then he gives up. “Yeah,” he mutters. “Yeah, I’m sure. I’m—just—”

I ’m a monster and he’s been humouring me.

“If you self-sabotage, I will come after you, Jon,” Georgie says. Jon isn’t sure how to respond to that, so he doesn’t.

“I am entirely serious. I don’t know Martin, but I swear—talk to him, alright?”

Jon doesn’t say anything to that either, because he’s busy wondering where the conversation diverged this drastically. “So, I should… tell him about the Mechs?”

“Yup.”

“Hm.”

“Sorry, Jon.” She grins. “You should tell him and take a photo of his expression.”

“Hm.”

“If it sweetens the deal… do you want to come back to my place and watch something and stay for dinner? You’re so much better at cooking than me…”

Jon stares at her. “You mean—I get to see…?”

Georgie just nods. Jon pushes his chair back with enough force to make it fall over. He blushes as he pulls it back into an upright position, ears burning.

“And it was just getting nice,” Georgie grumbles behind him, but they both know that she isn’t serious.

Jon feels as though he’s floating, as though he just passed some kind of impossibly hard test. And in a way he must have.

“Thanks, Georgie,” he says softly.

She smiles a bit sadly. “He misses you.”

“I miss him, too.”

“I know. I’m sorry. You should’ve gotten him after we broke up.”

Jon smiles sadly. “He would’ve been home alone all day, and he would’ve missed you. It—it was… better this way.”

Georgie’s answering smile is equally sad. “You’ve changed a lot,” she just says.

Jon doesn’t know how to answer, because he has, and she doesn’t even know the half of it.

“That’s another thing I wanted to ask you about. Regarding pronouns…? Cause I noticed that you kinda dress a bit differently than before and, uh, well, I wasn’t sure how to bring it up at first and, hm…”

He frowns, staring at her uncertainly. “Uh, what do you mean?”

“Ah, never mind…”

“No, Georgie, what—”

“Well, I can’t remember the last time you didn’t wear nail polish, and your piercing holes are all grown shut, and the whole eyeliner stuff seems to be in the past, too, hm?”

He feels his face heat up and looks away. Remembers the clothes in the back of the wardrobe, the skirts and other things he’s never worn before. Suddenly wonders what kind of person the other Jon was, before he joined the Institute. Maybe I should find the online recordings from our concerts and see what else is different, huh?

“Yeah, ah… the Institute has a, uh, a pretty strict dress code…” He trails off.

Georgie just nods, but he can feel her heavy, thoughtful gaze, and has absolutely no idea how to respond, or what she must be thinking about now. Pronouns?

Thankfully, Georgie releases him a few moments later. “We could pay and then head on to my place!”

He smiles, impossibly grateful. “That sounds great, Georgie.” The thought that he’s going to see the Admiral again soon brightens his mood immensely, even if it isn’t quite enough to keep his mind from wandering. I really have to stalk Other-Jon online, don't I? Pronouns?!

 


 

“—podcast is really good, Georgie. It took a while for me to be able to listen to it again, but I’m all caught up now, I really loved the episode about the twin ghosts in that hou—”

Jon is interrupted by a loud yowling sound. They’re half a staircase away from Georgie’s flat door. It sounds like a cat.

“Is that the—”

“Oh God, I hope he’s—”

“—Admiral?”

“—okay!”

Talk forgotten, they run up the last few stairs, Georgie frantically fumbling to find the right key.

There’s definitely a cat on the other side of the door, and it’s definitely screaming like it’s in pain.

Jon’s heart is pounding a frantic rhythm in his chest and his hands are shaking. What if something ’s happened to the Admiral? Could he live with himself if it happened while he was with Georgie?

“Admiral, baby, it’s okay! We’re here, we’re he—”

She finds the right key, turns it, and pushes open the door. The Admiral doesn’t stop screaming. Instead he presses through the gap, straight toward Jon, before he launches himself at him, and Jon only catches him by happenstance. The screams immediately stop, turning into purrs that are so loud Jon can feel them reverberate through his entire body.

“I’m—I’m here,” he whispers shakily into the impossibly soft fur of the cat, half in his arms, half over his shoulder, then turns toward Georgie, who just stands there, staring.

“He missed you so much,” she says.

Jon feels tears well up in his eyes and swallows harshly. “I—I suppose he did,” he croaks, and Knows exactly how much the Admiral has missed him, how much he loves him, how much he never wants to let go of Jon ever again. “I got to know two wonderful friends, Admiral,” he whispers into his soft fur, voice damp and tear-choked, “their names are Pumpkin and Schrödinger, and they are so soft and sweet, but—you’re my favourite, Admiral, you’ve always—always been my favourite. I’ve missed you so, so much…”

In the end, Georgie has to take his arm and gently lead him inside her flat, because Jon has stopped functioning.

 


 

They spend the rest of the evening on the couch, talking about everything and nothing. Georgie hasn’t gone out with anyone since she and Jon broke up, at least not seriously. She’s gotten to know a lot more voice actors and podcasters over the past few years, and she knows Melanie, but not very well yet. Jon wonders whether he should try to introduce them to one another, especially given how Melanie doesn’t know him yet. Will she come by the Institute again? Maybe I should try to make a list and figure out which Statement giver came when and see if anything changes?… and definitely make sure that she doesn’t get stuck with us this time around… Hm.

The Admiral refuses to leave Jon’s side, so when Jon and Georgie cook dinner, he sits in the hood of Jon’s jumper, half-slung over Jon’s shoulder, watching everything attentively. He’s still purring. Jon has never felt so loved.   

It’s been a long while since Jon has cooked with anyone. Since he cooked in general, to be honest, given how he’s too lazy to prepare meals when it’s just for himself. It takes a bit before he realises how much he’s missed this—preparing elaborate recipes his grandmother taught him when he was young, which he last cooked in this very kitchen one reality away, years ago.

“I’ve missed this,” Georgie says afterwards, when they’re back on the couch, waiting for the oven to finish. “This… it’s nice.”

“Yeah,” Jon agrees quietly, feeling soft and warm.

There’s a comfortable pause, filled only by the content purrs of the Admiral.

“You… you wanted to know about my job, earlier.” Jon has no idea why he said that. What is he trying to accomplish? They’d let it drop. He could’ve just… stayed silent. He didn’t have to tell Georgie anything. Still, he finds himself continuing.

“Only if you’re comfortable sharing,” she says, looking at him carefully.

He nods. Hesitates. “Working there… it is a lot. I knew the supernatural was real before, too—of course I did. That knowledge has influenced my entire life. But… it’s different once you actually… get deeper into it.” He watches her carefully, trying to gauge her reaction. Her eyes never leave his, but he can’t work out what her body language is conveying.

The Admiral rolls onto his back on Jon’s lap, exposing his belly. For a moment, Jon just stares at him, swallows through the thick lump in his throat. He Knows that the Admiral trusts him with his life, trusts him in a way no person ever has, and it throws his thoughts off the rails entirely.

“He’s the best kitty,” Georgie says with a tenderness that makes something ache deep inside of Jon. For the first time he’s glad that the Admiral stayed with Georgie. That she could give him a good home, that he didn’t have to move with Jon, that, no matter what happens, the Admiral will always have a good place to stay in. A good place that hasn’t been touched by anything bad, not yet.

They ’re safe, in this timeline. And I’ll make sure that it stays that way… I can’t tell her. I can’t disrupt her life—their lives.

And so Jon just smiles at her, at the Admiral, feeling his love in a way he could get addicted to. “He really is,” he says, “I love him so much… but I’m happy you gave him such a good home. He’s happy here. He loves you too.”

Georgie laughs. “Are you a cat whisperer now? I didn’t even know that was a thing!”

Jon grins. “Maybe. I’m still his favourite though. He told me himself.”

“Pfff! … but alright, I’ll let that one slide. He does love you a lot. Makes sense if you’re his favourite.”

After dinner, they spend the rest of the evening like that, until it feels as though Jon had never moved out, as though time hadn’t continued, as though the last years haven’t happened.

They have, of course; Jon’s vision is still weird and kaleidoscopic, even though he’s gotten more and more used to it. He isn’t sure whether the Admiral can see his additional eyes or not; he spends a lot of time on the backrest of the couch, half-slung across Jon’s left shoulder so that he can see Georgie as well.

The evening is good. If Georgie noticed that he dropped the job talk, she doesn’t mention it, and Jon is glad about that. I will tell her; she deserves to know. But we have time. I have time.

I actually have time, now.

The day feels like coming home in the best way.

 


👁️👁️👁️


 

Sasha gets a call from Jon after dinner. Martin and Tim are playing Super Mario on the Wii and Sasha’s watching the game from the side when her phone rings and she excuses herself from the living-room.

Jon’s voice is excited on the other end. In fact, his tone sounds so unlike himself that Sasha has to check two times to make sure that it’s actually him.

“Jon? What’s going on? I hope your day with Georgie was nice?” Sasha asks, smiling to herself. She’s certain that his day must’ve been nice. His voice seems to glow when he speaks.

“It was wonderful,” he says, and her smile widens. “But the reason I’m calling—listen—I’m on my way home now but I talked with Georgie and—she mentioned that a friend’s acquaintance is working at a pet shelter and they got a lot of cats earlier this week and… what do you think of an archive cat? I would take them home in the evening, of course, but just… your cats and the Admiral—I won’t stop loving your cats and I won’t stop visiting them either but I just, I think we might all feel a bit better about everything if… if there’s a cat there too, you know?”

“So… you’re calling because you want to…?”

“I want to adopt a cat at the shelter, and you know a lot about cats, and I wondered whether you might want to come with me? You know… help with picking one out? I mean, if it’s alright with you. And if you think it makes sense, and are, uh, free tomorrow…”

Sasha smiles. “Elias probably wouldn’t want a cat in the Archives, would he?” she muses.

She can hear Jon’s grin when he responds. “I imagine he wouldn’t,” he says, before suddenly inhaling. “You know the best thing? The Eye just told me that Elias is allergic to cats.

Sasha is too slow to swallow her cackle. “Delightful!” she says, not even trying to hide her glee, “I’m sure he will love our archive cat then. Do you want to keep it secret until Monday? We’re staying at Tim’s right now because he has a Wii and we have a few more things planned for tomorrow, but I can probably leave in the afternoon…?”

“Oh, Tim is back? I hope he’s okay? I completely forgot—how are you? How has your weekend been? How is Tim?!”

“Oh, calm down, it’s fine. He’s doing a lot better, the time away seems to have helped a lot. He’s opened up to Martin, too, let’s see what happens on Monday… I’m hopeful, though. I think he’s healing. Your whole monster stuff… I think it worked like a wake-up call, you know?”

“…yeah. Yeah, I know.” Jon’s voice is subdued. Sasha has no idea what’s going on in his mind. She wonders whether he himself remembers the eyes. Is reminded of his tears as well.   

“When do you want to go?” she asks to distract him, and thankfully it seems to help.

“Hm, maybe after midday? That way we can really get to know the cats, talk to the people there… should we adopt one or two? So they can keep each other company?”

“Well, do you want to carry two cats through the city every day?” Sasha asks back, trying to be reasonable. “And besides, we’re there, too. I doubt the cat will be bored with all of us there.”

“Ah, you’re right. Okay. So… when do you think you can leave?”

“Do we want to keep it secret until they come in on Monday? That would be fun! I think I can leave around, hm, maybe one or two? Half past one?”

“Alright. That sounds perfect, see you tomorrow, Sasha!”

“See you, Jon.”

Sasha hangs up. Her grin is so wide that it almost hurts. A cat for the Archives, huh, Jon?

“Who was that?”

Sasha turns around, grins at Tim, leaning in the doorframe. His eyes are big and dark in the gloom. There’s something soft and gentle about them, and sometimes she still can’t quite believe that he’s looking at her like this. That this is her life. Sure, there are all the other things, what with being tied to an evil fear god, but this? She’d rather be tied to an evil fear god than work elsewhere, without ever having met Tim, or Martin, or… yes, even Jon.

“Jon,” she says. She notices how he stiffens but acts as though she hasn’t. “We have a surprise planned for Monday, so I’ll leave you and Martin around midday tomorrow. I’m sure you can find something to occupy your time with.”

Tim’s posture relaxes a bit. “Yeah… I’m sure we can find something,” he says agreeably, then smirks. She can barely make it out in the near-darkness, but it’s there. “I’m kicking Martin’s ass at Super Mario, I doubt the poor guy has much experience with it.”

“Yeah, don’t think so either. Please take pity on him and don’t be too mean, alright?”

“Alright.”

“Love you.” Funny, how quickly those words cross her lips these days. How much she’s learned about love ever since she and Tim started talking about it when they got more seriously involved; how much choice and caring play a role. That Tim might love her differently than she loves him, but that it doesn’t matter because they’ve chosen each other, and that is enough.

“Yeah. I know.” He smiles, and his smile is as soft and gentle as his gaze. She’s never seen him look at her like that, and it sends sparks through her core, down to the tips of her fingers, electrifying and strange. She walks towards him and hugs him, and he melts into the hug.

“I’m so glad you’re back, and that you’re doing better.”

“I’m glad too. Thank you, Sash.”

“Always.”

He kisses the tip of her nose, and then they lean their foreheads together to enjoy a moment of quiet in the dark. Sasha hopes it’ll never end.

Chapter Text

On Monday morning, Tim and Martin are late.

“It’s not my fault my alarm didn’t go off. Stupid thing is unreliable as fuck…”

“Yeah, sure, Tim…”

“C’mon Martin. It’s not like it actually matters, right? Nobody cared when I ran off for a few days…”

Martin gives him a long, disappointed glare.

Tim sighs. “Alright. You all cared. Fine.”

“You—you just don’t want to talk to Jon,” Martin says, and they both know that he’s right.

Breakfast is a quick affair—Martin didn’t know Tim liked baking bread, but they’d done just that yesterday, after Sasha left. The bread is soft and fluffy and good, so good that only half the loaf is left. Martin had never baked bread before but he’s since come to the conclusion that he wants to do it more often. Maybe not alone though. It seems like a good group activity.

 

The trip to the Institute doesn’t take very long—if they weren’t this late, they could’ve collected Sasha on the route there but both Tim and Martin know that Sasha is probably already there. It’s almost ten. It’s a good thing Jon has changed, Martin thinks, and then feels incredibly guilty immediately. After all, this is a different Jon. His Jon—the original Jon—probably wouldn’t even have noticed that he’d been held hostage for over a week. Strange to have to think with this distinction now. Things have changed so much in such a short span of days—how long has it been? A bit more than a week, right? Two weeks ago Martin had still been caught in his flat, with an eldritch worm monster outside his door… And then he’d gotten saved by an eldritch eye—being. (Does Jon count as an eldritch horror monster? Martin shivers, remembering the way he’d moved, the way he’d changed when Tim had confronted him. Some parts of him probably count as eldritch horror monster … but definitely not all. Definitely not actual Jon.)

His Jon had been rude and abrasive from day one. Martin wonders how much of what Sasha said is right—Jon coping by pushing people away as a coping mechanism. It—sounds right, doesn’t it? But what does that admission make of Martin? Did this new Jon start out just as rude and only got it beaten out of him by force? Martin shivers. Well, that does not sound very comfortable.

“Do you mind if I listen to music on the way?” he asks Tim, “We’re quiet anyways and I just—”

“Oh, go ahead. Still the Mechs?” Tim asks with a smile.

Martin nods distractedly, trying to push his thoughts away from Jon’s nervous, adorable smiles and silver-streaked, rumpled hair, cursing himself for his idiocy. Does he have two crushes on different versions of the same person now? Does it count as one person? Does he even still have that crush on original-Jon? Why does he feel guilty thinking about that? Oh, he ’s a disaster , that’s what he is—

“Martin?”

“Hm? Oh-oh, yeah… yeah.” Martin grins awkwardly. “I—I think I only survived Prentiss because I could sing, you know? Music—it… really helps sometimes. With the craziness. And, well… the Mechs are important to me.”

“Yeah,” Tim says and smiles knowingly, “yeah, I know.” The smile is very warm and Martin wonders how the hell Tim can be like this—warm and funny and mischievous—when he can remember that other Tim so well, too—manic and furious and terrible. And scared.

“If you don’t mind we can listen together?” Martin asks. “You have a headphone splitter, right? I mean—if you want to, that is. I know they aren’t your favourite—”

“Nah, it’s fine. It’s been a while since we listened, hm?” Tim grins. “Time to refresh some memories, I guess.” He procures the headphone splitter and his headphones from a pocket in his coat and lets Martin plug everything in.

Martin takes a deep breath and smiles, then opens the playlist. “You okay with listening on shuffle? Or in order?”

Tim smiles. “Whatever.”

Martin smiles back, and clicks play. Ragnarok IV: Jormungandr, one of the narration tracks from The Bifrost Incident, starts playing. Tim freezes in the middle of the street, eyes going wide. He turns to stare at Martin.

“Uh… are you okay, Tim?” Martin asks dubiously.

“You—” A quick succession of emotions passes over Tim’s face, too fast to keep track of. “You—uh, don’t think he sounds familiar…?”

Martin blinks at him, not sure what Tim is getting at.

Tim shakes his head. “Uh. Hm.” There’s a strange look on his face. Martin can’t decide whether he’s trying not to laugh, is in pain, or something else entirely. Maybe there was something wrong with the bread or he suddenly remembered that he needs to talk to Jon today?

“Ah. Never—never mind, Martin.”

“Uh-huh…” Martin frowns at him. “Are you sure you’re okay?”

“Y-Yeah…” Tim makes a weird coughing noise and winces. At least Martin is pretty sure that he’s wincing.

The continue their walk, and after a while Martin lets himself get back into the music, and the time passes quicker than anticipated, even if it’s harder to walk-and-listen when you’re both bound to the same device. Must look weird to other people on the street, but Martin can’t say that he cares much. He’s just glad that he gets to share his favourite music with his best friend. After a while Tim seems to be doing better, too. There’s still a weird expression on his face but he doesn’t seem to be in pain anymore, so that’s good.

Martin elects to ignore it, and that’s probably a good idea, too.

At one point they even reach Drunk Space Pirate and Tim cackles out loud when it comes on, sounding weirdly disbelieving (what about, Martin has no idea though.) They both whistle in tune until they break out into song in the middle of the street, cracking up at the irritated glares of everyone else around them.

Martin has seldom been happier, and he squashes the tiny voice that cringes at the commotion they’re causing, because damn it, he will enjoy himself.

 


 

Sasha is there already when they arrive, sitting at her desk. There’s something gentle about her expression, but her lips are pressed together and her eyes seem to squint.

It’s only when he follows her gaze to Jon’s office, blinds drawn up and Jon at his desk, that Martin realises that Sasha is trying to suppress a grin.

Even from a distance, Martin can tell that Jon looks as though he’s in paradise.

There’s a cat sitting half-crouched over the tape recorder, and Jon is trying to write, but the cat keeps batting at his pen.

Jon’s expression is impossibly fond, and he’s scratching behind the cat’s ears.

“Surprise!!” Sasha says from behind him (Martin almost jumps, so immersed that he’s almost forgotten that there are other people there with him).

“So that’s why you were gone yesterday?” Tim says incredulously. “A bloody cat?”

“Yeah! It was Jon’s idea, too. Apparently the meeting with his ex went really well and he came to the realisation that he needs to have a cat on his own, but since he spends most of his time here…”

They all look at Jon, at the impossibly gentle smile on his face as the cat claws at his hand, possibly drawing blood. Tim hisses in sympathy. Jon doesn’t seem to notice.

“So that’s what love looks like,” Tim muses. Sasha swats at him but he’s too far away and she misses.

Martin isn’t sure what exactly he’s feeling but it feels the way clouds look.

“You could visit him and get to know the new cat,” Sasha tells them.

Martin just kind of nods (maybe? Does he truly? Does he even have a body anymore?) and then suddenly he’s in front of Jon’s office door, with no memory whatsoever how he got here.

“Tim?” he asks, turning around.

Tim just makes a general wavy gesture at him. “I—I’m good, thank you. We—we’ll talk later. I guess.”

Martin nods, dimly remembering that Jon and Tim have to have a Talk, but it seems unimportant now. He can’t even see Jon from this angle, hidden behind the door.

Martin swallows, knocks, and enters after hearing Jon call out. Damn, his voice sure is different from when they first met, isn’t it? Strangely familiar, somehow, but that must be from the last few days.

Martin pushes the thought aside and enters.

 

“Hey,” Jon says, and Martin can hear the smile in his voice. “I hope your weekend was good?—Ah, Cinders, that’s m-my—ahh…” He gently extricates the cat paw from his hand and grins awkwardly.

He looks more alive than he ever has, as far as Martin can tell. At least original-Jon didn’t look this alive, ever, and new-Jon, well… even during that first weekend he didn’t look this happy.

This relieved.

Then Martin’s ears catch up to Jon’s words. “C-Cinders?”

“Yeah?” Jon blinks at him.

Martin doesn’t respond for a moment. He just looks.

Jon’s eyes are very pretty when they’re not hidden behind his glasses. (That he broke. Oh, what a moment that had been.) Very —strange, too, if you stare too long—almost too deep —but… pretty.

Martin could get lost in those eyes.

Except the cat’s name is Cinders.

Like the character from the Mechs album.

But Jon doesn’t know the Mechs.

It’s probably a really common cat name.

It must be, right?

Jon just looks at him.

Is there the faintest smile playing at the corners of his lips? No, surely Martin must be imagining that.

And what about the mischief sparkling in his eyes, dark and endless though they may be?

No, it’s nothing.

It must be nothing.

Cinders.

“Is it named after Cinderella?” Martin hears himself say, feeling as though he’s a thousand light-years away.

“Actually, yes, she is!” Jon says. He’s equally far away. Martin is not imagining the smile, or the glint in his eyes.

He just—doesn’t have any idea what to make of them.

“And the colour fits, doesn’t it?”

For the first time, Martin looks at the cat.

It—she—is mainly black, with white paws and a white tail tip, a white snout and a bit of white fur at her throat. She is a very cute cat. Very fluffy. Just like Sasha’s cats. Very aesthetic—white whiskers, too. Nice contrast.

Martin’s brain is progressing things in tiny bursts.

Cinders.

“So… the fairy tale?”

“Oh—oh, yes! Abso—absolutely. The fairy tale. Yes. Cinderella… Cinders is a nice name, isn’t it? I’ve always liked the word, Cinder. And Cinders… it has a good sound, I think.”

“Y-Yes. Of course.” (Martin desperately wants to continue the conversation and ask The Question, but his tongue won’t move. His brain won’t think. He feels like a robot that needs to be plugged in because it has only three percent of its batteries left.)

“I thought—having a cat around could be nice?” Jon asks after a moment. “We will have to clean up a lot, of course, and it’s a big responsibility, but…”

Martin is impossibly grateful for it. He feels clunky and awkward, too big . Turns around and remembers that there’s a chair somewhere, so he can at least sit down.

“Ah, yeah! Y-Yeah. Of course. A cat. Around here. In the Archive. Yes.” He thinks for a moment. A tiny part of his brain reawakens. “Uh, what about Elias? Won’t he mind?” He frowns. “I’m pretty sure that cats in archives aren’t a, hm, a good idea. Maybe.”

Jon shrugs. “Elias is an eldritch fear monster. I don’t give a fuck about what he thinks.”

Martin’s jaw almost dislocates. For the second time in as many minutes, he has no idea what to say. His mind has dislocated to Antarctica, and his brain is wiped clear. If he were to concentrate, he’s sure he could hear wind whistling through the empty cavity that once housed his thoughts.

“If Tim could hear you,” he finally manages to say, very faintly. “I-I think he’d—I didn’t even know—since when do you swear, Jon?”

“I think dimension travel broke me, to be honest.” Jon’s smile is very awkward, and very adorable.

Martin has no idea what to do with himself, or with that smile.

He tries to pull himself together but it’s hard, and requires actual effort he doesn’t have the capacity for right now.

At least he can speak again. And think, if only vaguely.

“I—uh. Hm. Can’t say—anything against that. I guess. Are you okay?”

Jon nods rapidly, making his hair fly. The cat attacks his hand again. He grins at it like a fool, and Martin feels his heart do a weird little flip. “Never been better!” he says. “I met Georgie on Saturday and it was wonderful! We had a lot of catching up to do, and a lot of talking too. And I met the Admiral again. He—I have missed him so much. Her too. Cats are so good! I know you aren’t that much of a cat person but—they’re so g—aw, come on Cinders, not now—” he gently extricates his hand from the cat’s jaw— “we truly don’t deserve cats.”

They both look at the bloody scratches and tooth marks. Martin raises a dubious eyebrow. Jon grins at him. His hair is dishevelled and his eyes shine with joy. His blood is black and weird, and neither of them spares it another thought.

“I—I guess we don’t,” Martin agrees, not talking about the cat at all.

(He will deal with the name later. With the meaning of the name. That only he knows, of course. Obviously. As though Jon would know the Mechs. Jon is about the last person Martin knows who ’d know the Mechs. This is stupid. And impossible. And hilarious. What a funny coincidence, truly. Martin will have a good laugh about this with Tim tonight, he knows he will. Tim won’t understand the hilarity of the situation, but he’ll be supportive, because he always is. Martin swallows the laugh, and then he drags the chair to Jon’s desk, and lets him talk about the Admiral and Georgie, even though those are the last things Martin wants to hear about. The cat—Cinders—continues to murder Jon’s hand.

Martin just enjoys the sound of Jon’s voice, and lets the words wash right over him.)

 


👁️👁️👁️


 

“Hm, so… the Mechanisms, right? Martin must’ve talked your ear off about them by now.” Tim’s voice is combatively amused, as though he wants to use it to punch a hole through Jon’s chest. There are hidden thorns attached to that amusement, as well as hooks meant to tear through tender flesh.

Jon flinches, shrinking under his gaze, and holds up his hands. Up to this point he’d still felt restless, all pent-up mischief and breathless happiness.

Unfortunately, Tim’s tone of voice freezes his giddy excitement in an instant.

Suddenly, Jon just feels cold, and it isn’t the fault of Storage’s climate control system. “Hey, Tim—I k-know we didn’t part under good terms—”

“That’s not what I’m talking about, and you know it. C’mon. Martin made me listen to that music on our way here. I don’t know how I never caught it before, maybe you were doing the Serious Grim Respectable Grump Voice back then, and I never listened to the narration tracks before. But now, Jon? What the hell?

Once again—far from the first time, truly, can’t this just stop for once—Jon feels like a deer in headlights. He looks to the side, down the rows and rows of archived documents in their cardboard boxes. Some call to him. Some whisper. Some remain silent. Some repulse him.

He shakes that thought off, trying to remain in the present. The coldness has reached the marrow of his bones.

“…it was a long time ago, a-and I was y-young and in c-college—”

“AHA! So it is you! I knew it! What the fuck, Jon?”

“… regarding what, exactly?”

“Everything! Why wouldn’t you tell him? Don’t you know how much this music means to him?!”

“Y-Yeah. I do know. What if it ruins it for him?! I’m a monster Tim! Y-You said so yourself. I didn’t even make this version of the music. I’m an imposter, living the life of someone I’ve replaced. It wasn’t my fault directly but—”

“Oh, bohoo! You’re an idiot, Jon. I—I’m—I apologise for getting so—mad at you. I mean. You kind of did deserve it. You tried to, what, eat me? Eat my soul? What exactly do you do? Sasha and Martin tried to explain but… I would like to hear it from you.”

Jon sighs. “Al-alright. Here?” He glances around the room. They’re still in Storage. Tim had confronted him before he could leave.

“Yeah,” Tim says grimly. “We can go back to the—cot. This room is soundproof and—I don’t know, man. I trusted you. Or—Other-You. I knew the world is fucked up, but all of this?” Tim brushes his fingers through his hair. His eyes are wide and frantic.

Something inside Jon can taste Tim’s fear, but it’s a different kind of fear than the one it craves.

Tim is still afraid of Jon, though. Even if it’s mainly subconscious. Even if Tim tries to make up for it in bravado, in appearing big and loud.

He’s acting like a skittish animal, and it hurts.

“A-alright. Tim. The, uh, cot,… sounds like a good idea.”

Together they make their way there, past the rows of shelves, Tim a step behind Jon. Jon feels reminded of Daisy dragging him away to his death. It’s a terrible thought, and it makes him shiver.

Tim notices. Jon can tell because his wariness has changed when they reach the cot. Because he looks uncomfortable. I never would’ve noticed that kind of stuff before. He pushes that thought away. He doesn’t want to be reminded of the ways the Eye makes him more observant, helps him make connections he wouldn’t have, before.

Especially since he came here.

“So… what happened to you?” Tim asks. His voice is a bit more uncertain. Less harsh around the edges, though the harshness remains. “I know you, ah, aren’t from here. And about the—entities. And Sasha… Sasha said you know about my brother?”

Jon hears him swallow, and knows that this is the crux of the actual problem.

The most secret thing being taken from Tim, without his will or ability to do anything against it. Again. Powerlessness in the face of—evil.

Jon closes his eyes and swallows, too. “I—I do. Kind of. In—where I come from… you told us. I—the Archivist—it can taste it now, too. Always. It—it Knows. But not exactly. It—it feeds by—making people tell. Relive their—trauma. That’s—that’s what they do, Tim. They feed on trauma. Fear. The Eye—what I… what the Archivist does… it makes you relive trauma the other Entities induced. That is—was—my role. I think. I am not entirely, uh, certain? Nobody ever… Elias refused to talk about it, and by—never mind. But—yeah. I… I know. But not from here—from the—the other world.”

For a while they’re both quiet. Jon can hear the questions rattle through Tim’s head but Tim refuses to voice them, and Jon does his best not to Know.

“So… you came back on Friday?” he tries after a while.

Tim makes a tiny gesture that could be interpreted as a nod. “I… I needed… space. I… fuck it. I have no idea what to do with you, alright? You were my friend, Jon! But this—this isn’t you. You ’re a fraud , alright? I didn’t befriend you , I befriended someone else that you replaced. Someone who’s gone, maybe dead. I don’t know you. You tried to —I don ’t even know how to say it! That look in your—and your eyes . I’ve never been that scared, except maybe when the whole thing with Danny went down. Yeah, well. I must’ve been as scared back then as now, if you—that thing inside you—wanted to eat that. You know how—how wrong that sounds, right? So. Please excuse me when I can’t trust you as quickly as Sasha or Martin do! There you have it. I—I’m sorry.”

He doesn’t move though.

Jon looks down at his scratched hand. The wounds have healed already, leaving behind only very faint scar lines. Jon suspects that even those will fade within the hour.

“Yeah,” he just says. “I know.”

“That’s it?” Tim’s voice is incredulous. He turns to look at Jon, eyes wild around the edges.

Jon shrugs. “I’m tired,” he says. “Tired of fighting. Tired of losing everyone. Tired of—this.” He gestures at the room around him. “I’m still bound to the Beholding.” His voice sounds bitter but he doesn’t care one bit. “I tried to escape, but it wouldn’t let me. And now I don’t even control the monster anymore. I don’t want to, ah, to fight you every single step of the way. I don’t—” want to lose you again.

“I don’t want this life. But I have no choice. If you wanted to escape that badly, you could blind yourself. As far as I can tell, that’s the only way out.” But then you can’t go kayaking anymore, or climbing.

Or reading. You used to work in publishing, didn ’t you, Tim?

You ’re here for a reason, too.

“I am not going to bow before the Eye this time around. Or Elias. Did you know that he’s allergic to cats?”

Tim turns to stare at him. His expression is still weary but his lips twitch into a smile. “He is?”

“Yeah.”

“Huh. Fancy that.”

For a few moments they just sit there, as far apart as possible. Jon remembers the times in research, when Tim used to lend him his jacket when he’d forgotten his again.

It seems ages ago.

It is ages ago. Two ages.

“Do you miss your reality? Your versions of us? The Tim who trusted you to talk about—this? And Martin, and Sasha?”

Jon swallows, harshly. Refuses to tell Tim the truth about his Tim, because it hurts. Because he can’t. “I—Yes.”

“There’s more to it, isn’t there?”

“There—might be.”

“Hm.”

Another moment of silence passes between them.

“How was your weekend, Jon?”

“It was—nice. I saw Georgie on Saturday. It was—wonderful. There are—things I have to think about. I don’t even—know how to start with those, though. They’re—weird, kind of. And I… I’m afraid of pushing her away again. With the truth. Like you.” He glances at Tim. Tim is staring at him, eyes luminous and dark in the dim light.

“I didn’t meet her under—good circumstances. In my reality. When we met again. This—it was much better. But. She doesn’t know. Anything. I know she—she had an encounter, too. But I… I have no idea how to talk about it. How to address it. How to address this place. Do I even have the—right? To bring it up? Fear gods? She’s… I don’t know. I just… don’t know. It will reframe everything. Do I have the right to remain silent? It will shatter her reality. It might ruin everything for us, too. I don’t—like her that way, anymore. But… I’d love to be friends again. We never worked as a romantic couple, but we were fantastic friends. I am bad with people, Tim. Is what I’m—trying to say. I’m sorry.”

“Yeah,” Tim just says.

He isn ’t afraid of me anymore though. He sees me as a person again. Not as a monster.

“The Mechanisms, though? Really, Jon? Your youth must’ve been wild. What happened? I think we could’ve gotten along really well, if we’d met back then.”

Jon smiles faintly, sadly. “We made music together in college. All the worldbuilding and brainstorming and character development… there’s a website somewhere still, with the short stories we published. It was—fun. The band broke up a bit after the first of us had finished uni. When we weren’t in the same place anymore, and didn’t have time to write more songs. Georgie helped me clean up my social medias afterwards, so I wouldn’t have problems getting hired.” Jon tilts his head. “I had piercings, once! I think you even asked me about it back then. It was… a different era. I had so much repressed fear… I don’t think you would’ve liked me much. It wasn’t an easy person to be around. I’m still not easy to be around.” He sighs. “They told you about the Web, too?”

Tim nods faintly.

Jon sighs again. “It’s only fair. I—I know about Danny already. Do you—want to know?” He meets Tim’s eyes. They’re utterly unreadable.

“I—you don’t have to. I—forcing someone to—to talk about their trauma… no. Jon. You don’t have to. But I—I appreciate it. Really. I… don’t know this version of you but—but I guess… you’re…”

“Yeah. Yeah.”

“Words are hard.”

“Yeah, I know.”

Tim sighs. “The longer you don’t talk to Martin, the worse it will get once you do. You know that, right? You’re—he had a crush for your character for years . I swear it was the only thing he talked about when Sasha and I first got to know him. He showed us all your grainy youtube footage too. Why did you cut your hair? It looked good long. And those skirts… you had fine calves, Jon.”

Jon chokes. When he manages to get himself back under control he sees Tim’s smirk through teary eyes.

“Ah, I guess you are still the old Jon,” Tim says, and the teasing tone almost makes Jon tear up for real.

“Are you sure you’re not from the 1800s,” Jon retorts, “ankles and all that.”

“You’d know, hm? Steampunk is very Victorian, isn’t it?”

Jon snorts. “Yes, alright, I see your point. You have won. Are you happy now?”

“Immensely.” The smirk in Tim’s voice is audible. The silence following it feels as comfortable as Jon had felt at Sasha’s place, with Martin there. It’s almost physically painful to break it.

“I will work on the monster stuff. I will find out how to get it back under control—or maybe even escape. For all of us. And I’m sorry. At least—at least I know that I can still… control it enough, when I have to. To not do—that. I—it was horrible but… it gave me hope. And—polaroids still work, too. I—I think we should take as many as we can and—put them everywhere. Just—just in case. You know? The—the Stranger—it does things like this. Replacing people with bad copies. Taking people, and… putting them back out—wrong. And other things. Bad things. I… I just want to keep you safe. All of you.”

“Yeah… yeah. I know, Jon. I’m—I’m sorry too.”

The look at each other in the dim light, and if there are tears in all of Jon’s eyes, there’s nobody who can blame him.

 

.・゜゜・༓☾ END OF ARC 1 : Change ☽༓・゜゜・.

Chapter Text

 

.・゜゜・༓☾ ARC II : Escalation ☽༓・゜゜・.

 


 

These days Sasha often wakes up in the middle of the night, sweat-drenched and breathless, with no memory of her dreams besides a deep, shivering dread, and a strange melancholy nestled in her heart. When that happens she never manages to fall asleep again, because her mind wanders endlessly. It’s as though the world is different at night—things she manages to suppress during the day surface, her mind dredging them up again and again from the trenches of her thoughts.

Because what if—

(—she remembers every single emotion crossing Jon’s face when he first saw Tim, lightning fast flickers she should’ve forgotten but couldn’t—)

(—astonishment flickering into disbelief into guilt into pain and fear and dread, shifting to cautious optimism, hope, relief, joy—)

(—his face open like a book, the first warning that this wasn’t the Jon she knew, that this was another beast entirely, broken and tormented but so different from what she’d expected—)

(—and then he turned his head and saw her )

(—and his face went through none of these emotions. Just a strange, blank hesitation, eyes flickering over her face, over her hair and clothes, back up to her face—)

(—for a moment, he’d just looked lost.)

 

What if things had happened to them, where he came from?

 

It’s during those moments of the night that she remembers exactly what she’d accused him of, a few days later, (thoughtless, thoughtless, thoughtless—) and how he ’d searched her face. How accusing him, asking him, had resulted in those same emotions as when he’d first seen Tim.

 

And it’s in those moments that she feels true fear, acute and sharp, like spikes hammered into her spine with the finality of a coffin’s lid being nailed shut.

 


 

On April 4th Sasha sees a weird, distorted figure through the old glass windows of her stairwell.

At first she doesn’t think much of it, lost in thoughts as she stares down at the street below. She does this from time to time, loves watching how the shapes of people and objects down below twist and shift when she moves her head.

This figure is different. For one, they’re entirely motionless, staring straight up at where she stands on the third floor stairs. She can feel the gaze. Their shape makes no sense either, too long and thin and wavy to be the distorted shape of a human, hands too huge and long and stiff and sharp.

She moves her head to look through a part where the glass isn’t as warped, and the figure seems to blur and shift and then—

Then there’s just a man, tall and slim with long, blonde hair, facing away, and moving around the flower shop display across the street from her.

Entirely normal.

Seemingly human.

She stares at him, at it, dimly aware of the fact that she should probably be more concerned. After all, she knows the truth now. There are monsters in this world, real monsters, and one of them is staring at her from the flower shop, entirely aware that she knows that it’s there.

The man bends to look at a pot of tiny yellow flowers. She watches as he turns around at the approaching florist, as they exchange a few words. After a moment the florist turns back around and walks into the shop, their steps unhurried, calm. Sasha makes a mental note that they must not have noticed anything weird, frowning to herself. Maybe Jon will know more about the figure?

She watches the man a while longer as he walks around the flowers, behaving the way she’d expect anyone else to. She’d almost think she’d seen it wrong but every time she shifts to look through the bubble again, he warps and blurs and changes—and she can feel this monstrous, distorted figure staring at her despite it being too far below to clearly make out a face.

It’s uncanny, really.

She stares down at the tall, twisted thing hiding in the shape of a man, and is surprised that she isn’t more afraid.

I should be, right? But even that thought feels strange—she feels strange, the way she did when Jon almost attacked Tim—strangely, disconcertingly, removed from reality. Utterly fearless, ready to step in and do whatever needs doing. She exhales a shaky breath and has never felt so distant.

And so she just stands there and watches for what has to be at least ten minutes, until the man(?) finally buys a small bunch of yellow lilies and leaves.

When she looks through the bubble again, the distorted figure is gone as well, and with it the feeling of being stared at.

As she makes her way down the stairs, she decides to goes across the street and ask the florist about the man.

 


 

As it turns out, the florist has no idea what Sasha is referring to and the conversation doesn’t really go anywhere because she doesn’t want to buy any flowers.

Sasha remains thoughtful during her commute, turning the event over and over in her mind but coming to no real conclusion, except to tell Jon about it. After all, she’s pretty sure that the thing was there for her. Why else would the figure have stared at her? And she’s working for a literal fear entity…

It’s only fair to expect that it’ll show up again. Maybe Jon knows about it from wherever he came from? Thinking about it, she’s quite certain that he will. He basically agreed that he hadn’t told them the whole story, and she suspects there is more to what happened to him than just being pulled into a different reality. She remembers the way he looked at her and Tim on that first day, sees how he looks at Martin now. She notices all the tics he didn’t have before, all the little ways in which he and the original Jon differ.

The question is: does she really want to know everything if he isn’t ready to share? Is he keeping these things to himself because he wants to protect them, or himself? Will knowing them make a difference? Will it tear a new rift between them?

Do I need to know?

There’s probably a good reason he hasn’t told them, just like he had a good reason not to show them his… eye problem, and to assume that Tim would react poorly.

He knows us better than we know him. No. He knows them better. And that—that worries her far more than the warped figure in the flower shop.

 


 

When Sasha finally makes her way to the Institute, she discovers that she was right.

“Oh—I’d wondered when he’d, ah, when he’d show up,” Jon says when she tells him about it. He’s standing next to her desk with Cinders hanging off him, having climbed most of the way up his leg. He’s petting her head absent-mindedly, and Sasha is trying her best to suppress a grin. Did Martin see all this potential when he first developed his crush on the man, or did Martin just get lucky when the Jonswap happened? Either way, the past month of watching the two of them navigate the dangerous waters of an absolutely requited crush, whilst being impossibly oblivious of each other’s motives, is hilarious. She has an ongoing bet with Tim regarding how long it’ll take them to notice, but she doesn’t share Tim’s optimism. “A few weeks at most, Sash,” he’d said. Yeah, sure, Tim.

Sasha knows that it ’ll take them months. Jon isn’t good with feelings and Martin seems to have a blind spot regarding Jon that extends to the visual spectrum. She still can’t quite believe that he never noticed that he has two crushes on the same man? (She may or may not have spent an entire evening watching old, grainy live recordings of the Mechanisms with Tim a few days back. She doubts she’ll ever see Jon the same way again. But it’s far too much fun to watch Jon and Martin stumble around and place bets behind their backs. Tim even has karaoke plans. It’ll be great .)

“Sasha?” Jon asks, jolting her back to reality.

“What did you say?” she says blandly, refusing to feel guilty.

“Just… he—it—its name is Michael. Sort of. I—” he sighs, rubs absently at his throat. “It’s complicated. And Michael is—dangerous, but—well, complicated. You know?”

Sasha just stares at him and shakes her head. “No, Jon. I don’t know. I won’t know even if you repeat the word ‘complicated’ to me over and over. All I know is that he—it felt off.”

Jon sighs again . He likes doing that, these days. “Can you guess what entity he’s aligned with?”

She thinks about it for a while. “Well… I would’ve said stranger because he was, well, very… strange … but— that doesn’t really fit, right?”

(She’s written all of them down on index cards, which she’s laminated and decorated with simple symbol drawings. Fourteen, plus a fifteenth card for the Extinction, which Jon had explained to them a little later than the others ‘because I am not sure if it’s actually a, uhm, a thing or not.’)

“And because the stranger doesn’t really fit… I think it must be the spiral? It certainly didn’t seem to make any sense…”

Jon’s wide smile tells her that she’s hit the bull’s eye. “Yes!” he says excitedly, then hisses when Cinders pulls herself further up his leg and apparently digs a little too deep. Sasha watches them both with a grin. Jon carefully extracts her paws from his jumper and holds her in his arms instead. She wiggles a bit but he ignores her for the most part.

“—Yes. Michael is the Distortion—a sort of extension of the Spiral.” He hesitates, obviously debating with himself whether to share a certain piece of information. “I’m not… sure why he has decided to—watch you.” He seems a bit uneasy saying that, though, so Sasha’s reasonably sure that he’s lying.

“Look, Jon,” she says diplomatically. “It’s fine if you don’t tell us everything. But that thing is literally watching my house. Watching me. I’m sure it’ll show up again. And guessing from your expression, so are you.”

Jon closes his eyes and extracts one of Cinder’s claws from his hand. There’s a smudge of black where it had punctured his skin, but when he wipes it away with a frown, the wound is already gone. “You’re right. I think—I think the others should hear about this too, though.”

They both look toward the heavy door separating the Archives from the rest of the world. Sasha was already late, but Tim and Martin haven't even shown up yet. Jon doesn’t seem to mind very much.

“Look, you can tell me now and then tell the others later?”

Jon thinks about it for a while, but then he nods even though he obviously doesn’t want to. “Well—Michael is—there are some monsters who used to be human, and some monsters who have never been human to begin with, or are at least so far removed that it’s very hard to tell. I think? Michael is—both, sort of? He used to be one of Gertrude’s assistants, the last one who remained, but she fed him to the Distortion to stop the Spiral’s ritual.”

Sasha stares at Jon in unmitigated horror. “Gertrude used to—wait. I think. I—I think I actually… I think I actually remember him. Not well, but… we—met? I sometimes used to help Gertrude, but she didn’t have anyone anymore by that time, except for that young goth guy, sometimes, but before that—”

“Wait, you met Gerr-Gerard Keay?”

Sasha hesitates, eyes widening. “You mean to tell me that—”

“You actually—?”

“—that was the Gerard Keay? From the statements? The one who hunts Leitners?”

“Y-Yeah…” Jon says, and there’s something very strange in his voice, something Sasha can’t pinpoint at all. She’s usually good at knowing how people are feeling but for some reason she’s entirely uncertain about Jon. Cinders meows and wiggles out of his arms, dropping to the ground with a quiet thump. They both watch as she walks away, fluffy tail held high.

“Hunted Leitners,” Jon says into the silence. “He didn’t even die of anything supernatural. Just cancer, I think? That isn’t to say that Gertrude didn’t do terrible things to him, too. She stopped many rituals, but she was also incredibly ruthless. And, uh, to circle back around—Michael is one of her victims.”

“So Michael is—like you?”

“No! No.” Somehow Sasha has the distinct impression that she’s hurt his feelings with that.

“He’s much worse. He’s also much worse off. I think. He—it… it’s hard to explain. The spiral is the essence of madness and confusion. It makes no sense, you know? Gertrude sent Michael Shelley into the centre of the distortion with a map, and he somehow found the centre of the maze, and—Became it. And the Distortion became Michael. The nonsensical, forced into a form it shouldn’t have, i-if that makes sense? He—it—makes no sense. On purpose. And Michael Shelley is dead. But a part of him is still alive in the Distortion? Sort of ... look, all you really need to know is that it’s—dangerous. But a part of it is probably still drawn to the Institute. Maybe to you, because you used to help out Gertrude from time to time? I’m not sure how aware it is of what’s been going on here.”

Sasha is silent for a while, trying to fit those new puzzle pieces into the greater picture. They watch Cinders scratch at one of the desk legs, and neither of them does anything against it in a distinctly petty manner. Elias will hate this , Sasha thinks smugly, before looking back up at Jon. His eyes seem darker and deeper than usual, like holes to a different world. Who knows, maybe they are?

“How do you even know about that, Jon?” How long will it take until he breaks and tells us the whole truth? I don’t even want to want to know it. And yet

He smiles a lopsided smile at her, tinged with a weary, strange sadness. It still looks misplaced on his features, somehow; and that impulsive feeling makes her sad. He’s been like this for almost a month now, why does it still feel strange to her when he behaves like this, when he shows emotions the way most people do?

“Do you really want to know the answer?” he asks, and he sounds so weary and vulnerable that she almost shrinks back, that she almost back-pedals as soon as the words have left his mouth. Is this it? Is he really willing to finally open up?

“I—”

The door to the Archives is pushed open and Tim and Martin stumble through, Tim laughing loudly. They pull up short when they see Jon and Sasha, moving fluidly from loose laughter to awkward silence.

Jon’s pose stiffens, changes, and she catches his eyes just before he leaves (the heaviness of his gaze worse than usual, with a weight she doesn’t like in the least), and she knows that the moment has passed, the gates have closed.

When Jon has disappeared into his office, Sasha isn’t sure how to proceed at all. She’s disappointed, yes, but also relieved, and when Tim and Martin come over to ask what’s going on, she just waves them away, thoughts already somewhere else.

 


 

The most hilarious thing to result from the Archives adopting a cat are Martin and Tim’s reactions to it.

Cats behave quite differently to dogs, after all, and both Martin and Tim are much more experienced with dogs (though Martin is even more fascinated by reptiles). 

Jon knows cats for the unrepentant bastards they can be and loves them only more for it—he treats Cinders the same way regardless of whether she’s biting and clawing at him, or purring endlessly on his lap. He’s good with cats—she knows that from the way he handles them, is sure he was good at it even before he could talk to them. These days that’s his major advantage, of course. Cinders shows trust to Jon in a way she doesn’t to anyone else, and is wary of Sasha in the way of a cat who knows that she won’t get away with everything because Sasha’s onto her. (This doesn’t mean that Cinders dislikes Sasha, quite the contrary. But she hasn’t been suspiciously sweet to Sasha yet, because she knows that nothing will come of it.)

Tim, however, doesn’t know this yet. Sasha isn’t sure whether to tell him that cats Be Like That or not—especially when he’s sitting at his desk with the widest, most blissful smile, the cat slung across his lap or his paperwork, purring and being the sweetest little furball in the entire world.

She knows that at some point Cinders will snap, and Tim will see her for the manipulative little beastie she is—and then he’ll probably go on another long rant why dogs are better. Honestly, maybe that’s part of why she hasn’t told him yet: she just really wants to see the realisation dawn on his face. (As much as she loves him, she loves those kinds of face journeys the most, hence why she hasn’t told Martin about the Mechs, or Jon about Martin’s crush, or Martin about Jon’s crush. What a weird little tangle they all are.)

The thing is, so far Cinders has been rude to all of them except for Tim. She knows that she can get away with it regarding Martin, because he’s been fawning over her since day one. She can talk to Jon, literally. And finally, Sasha is sure that Cinders knew her for the cat lover she was before they even touched for the first time.

Tim, however, is a weak point. He has only been exposed to Sasha’s cats.

Cinders is using this weakness to her full advantage.

Sasha has lost count of the times she watched Cinders stare at Jon while purposefully pushing a cup of tea off his desk, or a pencil, or, even better, a pencilholder full of pencils. She’s done it to Martin, too, and to her as well. Never to Tim though.

She’s only ever been cute and docile and gentle with him, because she knows that he can’t keep from bragging about it, and that he’s the one who’s been refilling the treats because of it.

The other thing is: They’re currently restructuring the Archives to implement Jon’s system, and Cinders isn’t allowed into the Storage room. She also knows that Tim also doesn’t enter the Storage room much, because he has a dust allergy and all the re-organizing might possibly kill him (it comes quite in handy; Tim is the most organised, cleanliest person Sasha has ever encountered. If her flat looks too bad she can just invite him over and he’ll clean for her. In her defense, she’s only used that tactic once, years back, when a friend was coming to visit. And she’d helped.)

But all of that combines to Tim being outside of Storage the entire time, as is Cinders, who ’s otherwise bored. And Tim has the treats. And he loves Cinders, and he loves playing with her, and he doesn’t give a fuck about what Elias thinks of him, and he knows he can’t be fired…

In short, watching Tim and Cinders is exceedingly adorable in a way she never would’ve expected to experience.

“Tim?” Sasha asks when she pokes her head out of Storage. He’s nowhere to be seen.

“Yeah, Sash?” he asks brightly, and a moment later his head appears behind their desks.

“We found a box full of old books and were wondering if you knew what to do with them? I mean, it’s the Archive down here. They’re probably valuable to some antiquarian? They don’t look like anything the library upstairs would be interested in though. We suspected that you’d be the closest to knowing anything.”

Tim frowns at her. “I worked in publishing, Sash. But maybe we can collect them in a corner somewhere and decide later? I’m fairly sure that there’ll be more. Storage is a mess.

On that at least Sasha can very much agree.

“So… you’re just playing with Cinders to pass the time?” she asks, and suppresses the smirk that wants to make its way onto her face.

“What else I would be doing?”

“Fair point. I’m glad you two can keep each other company,” Sasha says, and then disappears back into Storage before Tim can respond. And she does. It’s been a while since she saw him this carelessly happy.

It’s just also kind of ironic that it’s in regards to a cat.

 


 

The rest of the workday passes at its usual pace, without any surprise visits by statement givers or Elias.

She ends up telling Martin and Tim about Michael while Jon just sits next to them, quiet for the most part. The Meal Wheel has decreed that Tim would cook, so the food is spicier than usual, but by now even Martin’s kind of gotten used to it. (He still lives with Tim, after all; he didn’t really have much of a choice in the matter, especially as no-one else has a problem with it).

After that is just the usual slog of helping Jon with the Archives. Again. They’ve finally begun with the actual work of cleaning up the mess Gertrude left behind (on purpose; Sasha is still pleased with herself for being right), but it’s such chaos that Sasha can tell that it’s probably going to take at least another month or two, depending on what Jon plans on doing with the normal statements once they’ve sorted the rest.

The four of them have spent the last almost-month planning what to do about all of this. None of them actually know anything about library sciences but because they’re working for an evil eldritch fear god they didn’t want to drag anyone else into this mess, so they used google to help them draw up a plan instead. It’s not as though anyone besides Jon (and possibly Elias, unfortunately) actually cares about what happens down here anyways.

It’s such a massive undertaking that Sasha can see Jon almost falling apart at the seams, but he’s still holding it together and she’s deeply impressed with him for that. Weaker people would just give up and procrastinate the work day away on social media instead, but Jon is a workaholic and she doesn't even know whether he has any social media accounts. She’s sure that Martin’s tea is one of the main things that keep him going, and hopefully also that they know about his struggles, and care. And he has a cat now! Cinders genuinely seems to help. (Sasha once came in early to find Jon ranting about things that made no sense, and it took her ten whole minutes to realise that he was, in fact, info-dumping at Cinders about the bad effect of soy in cat food.)

Sometimes she wonders how much of his efforts are due to a supernatural reason, or whether he’s doing it willingly on his part; does he actually want to do this job or did he get compelled into doing it by his —other self? His … needs? (She still isn’t sure about this entire situation, about how to frame it in her mind. How to feel about the fact that Jon isn’t Jon , that he’s a different Jon, yet isn’t; about how little sense any of this makes. But he’s definitely the one with the most problems and she’s always been rather pragmatic in this regard, so as always, she shoves those thoughts down.)

Does Elias actually care whether or not they’re doing their jobs? It doesn’t seem very likely. He’s stopped coming downstairs after he came to the conclusion that they wouldn’t let him confront Jon on his own, and the four of them spend most of their evenings together these days. Not every evening, of course—Sasha still needs her private space, as do the others. Jon is spending the nights at his own flat again, for the main part (with Cinders), but Martin hasn’t really attempted to move back into his quite yet and Sasha can’t fault him. He’s still twitchy from time to time, and she’s noticed how careful he is when they leave the Archives.

And none of them are the type to just sit around all day at work doing nothing (not even Tim, though it took him a lot longer to get bored enough to help) so they’ve devised a new system of structure for the Archives.

“A shelf in Document Storage for every entity, a-and shelves for those that don’t really fit neatly into just, ah, just one category,” Jon had explained to them, “there are much less True Statements here than—than others. We’ll put the rest into, ah, maybe cardboard boxes? I don’t want to destroy them—we can digitise them when we’re done with the rest. They’re worth nothing to the Eye but that doesn’t make them useless to everyone else. So, uh, I’d say they can stay in the free shelves, they were important to whoever wrote them, and they might still make valuable … eyewitness accounts to some historian further down the line. Maybe we can fill two shelves at the front of Storage with, ah, with the boxes so when someone enters, they find the fake statements first?”

“As in—you think someone would try to… steal them?” Sasha remembers herself saying, and also that Jon’s response was a flustered glance and a vague, uncomfortable shrug.

She still thinks about that from time to time—not often, but sometimes during those nights when she can’t sleep.

 

They’re cleaning out Document Storage—Martin is tall, thankfully, so he can reach places where Jon and sometimes even Sasha would need a ladder. Tim mostly stays out at this point; there’s so much dust everywhere that he would probably die otherwise. They’re working from the back to the front, and the five back-most shelves are empty at this point, strewn all across the floor in piles of varying sizes, and collected in high stacks of cardboard boxes alongside the walls.     

Jon sits in the middle of the paper piles, carelessly dumping statement pages into cardboard boxes. Since lunch there have been three True Statements, which is more than Jon expected, apparently, and he’s put those carefully into plastic pockets (for protection), and then into a ring binder.

“How long do you think you’ll need for that?” Sasha asks when it starts getting late.

“Mhm,” Jon mutters, not actually hearing her, and for a few moments they’re both silent while Sasha just stares at him. When Jon finally looks up, he seems kind of out of it. “I… I, uh, how late is it again?” He clears his throat, blinks slowly like a cat.

“Almost five,” Sasha says, “I’ll have to leave for an appointment soon. You should probably head out too.”

Martin appears between the shelves, carrying a huge pile of paper. A few pages get knocked loose and slowly drift to the ground behind and around him. “You should come with me and Tim,” he says brightly, exchanging a knowing look with Sasha.

“You don’t have to bemother me,” Jon says, but there’s a half-suppressed smile on his lips. (It’s a sad smile. He smiles those far too often these days.)

“Yeah, we do,” Martin says decisively. “Also, have any of you seen Tim? It’s been a while.”

Sasha frowns and nods. “Please don’t let Jon stay past five,” she tells Martin, “I’ll head on out and see what’s going on with Tim, alright? Don’t want to be late. … it’s probably Cinders again though.”

“Where are you going?” Jon asks in that absent-minded tone of his, frowning down at the statement he’s holding, “if you don’t mind me asking?”

Sasha sighs. “Therapy, Jonathan,” she says pointedly.

He looks up. His eyes seem impossibly huge and dark, as though the pupil had somehow gotten bigger than usual.

“Oh. Oh, yeah. Of course. I’m—sorry?” He frowns again, “I mean… whatever you say to that.”

She laughs, shakes her head. “Definitely not that. I—will go see what Tim and Cinders are doing.”

“Oh! R-Right!” Jon smiles, and when he looks up, he actually sees her. It’s the first true smile she’s seen on his face all afternoon. “I will come with you!”

 


 

Tim is nowhere to be seen when they leave Storage.

“Tim?” Sasha calls, mildly concerned.

“Hm?” Tim’s voice replies from behind the desks. Exactly where she left him. Several hours ago. Sasha turns to look at Jon, who’s staring at the grouped desks with a tiny quirk at the corner of his lips.

“Are you still behind the desks? On the ground?” Sasha asks in only mild disbelief. (Yes, she affirms to herself. This is him. The fool. My fool.)

“Cinders truly loves me…”

Jon and Sasha exchange another dubious glance. “Oh?” Sasha asks cautiously. She still isn’t entirely sure what to read in his voice.

“Well…” he says, and she can tell from his voice that he’s suppressing a happy laugh (though she can’t for the love of anything say why). “I think I’ll let this speak for itself.”

Sasha and Jon slowly round the table.

Tim is lying on his back, on the ground, with Cinders sleeping on his belly.

There’s a cat toy half buried beneath her (the one with the feather at the end, that neither Pumpkin nor Schrödinger ever seemed to like despite it being literally the exact same one as their favourite toy, which they loved until it died a rather brutal if drawn-out death). Tim is still holding the stick, and he’s never looked happier.

“Tim, you’re a fool,” Sasha says lovingly. “I have to go to therapy now but—” she pulls out her phone and takes a few pictures from various angles— “I will always remember this moment with the utmost love and affection for you.”

Jon makes a snorting nose behind her and Sasha lightly slaps his arm. “You,” she threatens, “I have photos of you, too! Remember those first few days? Those are much worse than this.”

Jon grins at her and she grins back. (They've kind of embraced the glitch, these days. After all, there's nothing to be done about it.) Tim groans from the ground. “What do you do when a cat falls asleep on you?” he asks when they both finally turn to look at him.

“Well, you’re either a monster or not,” Sasha quips, then grabs her bag and leaves, ignoring Tim’s responding complaints entirely.

 


 

When she finally arrives at therapy, there’s a surprise waiting for her.

She doesn’t know what she expected, but she certainly did not expect to see a far too tall man with long blonde hair and a warped reflection.

“Hello Sasha,” he says. She stares at him numbly, wondering if it’s too late to flee.

“Hello, Michael,” she says.

Chapter Text

“Do you want to lie down?” Michael asks with patronising friendliness. On the surface it almost sounds like an entirely normal voice, except there’s a layer of something beneath, some form of danger that’s almost palpable in the still air.

Sasha notices absent-mindedly that he—no, it, not a person, a monster—seems to be wearing some sort of eighties style clothing, that its eyes are somehow even more disturbing than Jon’s are, even at the worst of times.

She also notes that she does, in fact, recognise it—some parts, at least. The surface things, visual cues. She wouldn’t have if Jon hadn’t told her about Michael Shelley, because the thing in front of her couldn’t be more different in the way it holds itself, in the way it moves, its expressions—except at the same time, it’s undeniably the same man. It looks around forty, with an open and friendly expression on its round face, framed by long, blonde curls, except—

Except it followed me here, and did something to my therapist.

“—or sit down.” Michael turns around, gesturing vaguely to the two armchairs dominating the room, a few feet apart. There’s a glass table in between them, with a coffee from the coffee shop she sometimes frequents sat on top of it. For a tiny moment its fingers seem too long, but when Sasha focuses on them, they’re normal and entirely human.

Sasha wonders how long Michael has been stalking her.

“Looking at our last session, how are—”

“Actually—” she interrupts. Then she stops, frozen in the door to her therapist’s office, her mind finally catching up entirely. “Our last session?!”

Michael smiles a little too wide for a human mouth, and its teeth feel to sharp even if they look entirely human, entirely normal.

“What did you do to Kyra?!” she asks, trying her best to suppress her rising dread. Somehow it feels like this is one of those things that can smell when you’re afraid.

Michael just wags its finger at her.

“My my, we sure are feisty this afternoon, are we not?” it says, “I just have a few questions regarding your Archivist. I won’t hurt you…”

And then it laughs, ignoring her question entirely. The laughter is more unsettling than the, hah, distortions or its weird eyes. It sounds as though someone had recorded it beforehand and is now playing it back at a too-loud volume, the sound exactly the same as its actual laugh, but just a tad too tinny, out of sync. Sasha shivers involuntarily and reacts too late when Michael reaches out, grabs her shoulder, and yanks her into the room.

Its hand is heavy and limp and sharp, leathery in a way that sets her teeth on edge. She twists out of its grip and scrambles to the side to get some space between herself and Michael, and to have the bookshelf at her back instead. It’s definitely unnecessary—if Michael chose to hurt her, it wouldn’t have to go to much of an effort—but it still feels comforting to have something behind her, something filled with hard-edged heavy objects. (Of course there’s also the knife in her boot but why use that if you can start by throwing books? Should she start with that now or wait until later?!)

The ghostly weight of its hand lingers far too long and Sasha shivers despite herself, watching as it closes the door, realising that she should’ve thrown the books the moment she reached them. There’s no key in the lock that it could twist, but the act feels final, as though there’s no difference between a door closed by Michael and one locked with an actual key.

Sasha is rather inclined to trust her instincts on this.

Problem is, now she’s in the room with it, she isn’t sure whether it’s worse that she knows Michael’s backstory or not. It makes her twice as relieved regarding Jon—what would they have done if he’d given in to his monstrous side? (Does that remain as an option?) But she’s still here with Michael, who ’s been following her, who’s taken her therapist

Be calm, be calm, you ’ve got this… maybe I could try to text Jon?

Still facing Michael, she carefully pulls the phone from her bag, hoping that it won’t notice. Whatever it’s planning, texting seems like an excellent idea, even though it might take Jon too long to get here. Ask me questions about Jon? Why? What does it want?

In the end, she isn’t sure how much sense the message she sends to Jon makes, but she is faintly certain that she managed to type ‘Michael’ and her therapist’s address at least semi-coherently, and that the main problem is to stay alive until he manages to cross half the city.

If he sees it on time.

If he even ca

Of course he'll care. She slaps her mental voice of doubt and is impossibly glad that she can more or less type without having to see the screen. (She also wonders what auto-correct will have done to her message).

When she focuses back on Michael, its smile turns into a grin, unfolding on its face like a slowly opening venus fly trap. Sasha has the strong impression that she’s the fly.

“What do you want from me? Why are you following me?” she says, trying to suppress her slowly rising panic. “And what have you done to Kyra?”

“If you are referring to your therapist, they’ll return… probably… I do so like therapists. How do you know my name, little Watcher?”

She stares at him. “Well, Jon told me,” she says before she can stop herself, “A lot has happened and I am very tired! And besides, I saw you around the Institute before you became—this—and maybe you have answers for once!”

Michael looks at her, shrugs in a weird affectation of humanity, and then walks over to one of the armchairs, seating itself in a thoroughly unsettling motion, as though its body had too many joints bending in wrong, somehow opposing directions. It then crosses its legs, and the effect is thoroughly unsettling to watch, even if the resulting pose looks entirely normal.

“If you please?” it says, gesturing to the other one opposite it.

Sasha stares at it for a whole minute, utterly lost. When her mind returns to her body, she narrows her eyes, heart pounding. “Why? What do you want?

Michael laughs. “I have a few questions,” it says after a moment of silence that stretches long past the comfortable. “Something changed, did it not? And you knew Michael… what else do you know, Sasha James?”

“How do you know my name?”

Instead of answering it just laughs again. Sasha comes to the conclusion that she’s tired of that too.

“Did the change happen about a month ago?” she asks, and though she’s still not sure if she actually knows what’s going on, she is sure that a shape is starting to take form in her head. The problem is, Michael’s whole point is that it makes no sense, so how far can she trust its responses or where it seems to lead her? She resists the urge to wipe her sweaty palms on her skirt, but only with difficulty.

“Oh, how adorable. Trying to solve a puzzle, are you?” Michael asks, tilting its head, “I do apologise for the inconvenience…”

Sasha shrugs. Her nerves are on fire and her mind is ablaze. “Why—what do you want from me?

Surprising no-one, it just laughs. “Why would I want anything from you?

“I don’t know,” Sasha says, and it’s right about then that something just—snaps. “I don’t know anything! I knew that some things were wrong but not how, and answering that question only lead to more questions, and it hasn’t even been a month! Jon won’t answer anything, the only other person I could ask is Elias but why would I want to do that, and now you’ve kidnapped me for some reason! What are you, and what do you want?”

It looks at her, just looks, and she knows she could lose herself in those eyes. Jon’s eyes are like gateways to another reality, but Michael’s eyes are like doors leading outside of it, beyond rational thought, beyond existence. They’re eyes you stare into until you stop being.

“How would a melody describe itself when asked?” Michael says, and for some reason, that finally pushes Sasha entirely over the edge.

She only manages to stop laughing when she notices how wide Michael’s smile has become.   

“I have a knife in my boot,” she tells it, a little out of breath, “I know it probably wouldn’t make a difference to a melody, but I felt like warning you.” She feels weird; lightheaded. As though none of her choices hold any weight, as though this moment isn’t real. And maybe it isn’t; who’s to say? Either way Michael hasn’t done anything to her yet, and she’s curious, and for some reason that curiosity paired with a general annoyance at this being her life now…

Michael’s grin gains a hint of delight when she finally crosses the room to the other armchair, directly across from it, separated only by air and a glass table.

And a coffee.

“Is that for me?” she asks, knowing full well that it must be. She’s quite certain that melodies don’t drink coffee; her heart might still be a racing drumbeat in her chest, but her mind is sharp and clear as ice. When she finally sits down, the chair at least is a Known Entity. It feels weird to sit here in this context, and she suddenly wonders what the receptionist is thinking. What did Michael tell him so he’d still act as naturally as he’d done? Maybe he—didn’t notice? But Michael must have entered, right? … She also just really hopes her therapist makes it out alive—and sane—even though it seems less and less likely with every passing minute. She isn’t even sure how much of her will be left by the time Jon shows up, if he even sees her message. It does take a while to cross half the city.

“As a matter of fact it would appear that way, would it not?” Michael responds.

“How considerate,” Sasha says, because she knows her manners, and does not pick up the take away cup because even she has no intention to consume things offered by incarnations of madness.

And then they just sit there, because Sasha has no idea what to say.

“Why here?” she tries again when her nerves start firing up again. She’s still nervous. She’s still scared. None of that actually seems to matter much in the face of possible answers.

It’s kinda dumb to expect answers—truthful answers—from something that is a lie and yet she’s here, and she will stay here until Michael either decides to kill her, or lets her go. Or Jon comes in time to save her?

Kinda weird, to think about it like that.

Michael’s smile doesn’t help much. “Because you have sleeping problems and weird dreams, according to your therapist’s notes,” it says. Its smile seems to twist on its face even though Sasha knows that it isn’t. Or maybe it is?

“I can’t believe that you actually read those,” she says, realising that actually, yeah, she can absolutely believe that now that she’s thinking about it. It just reminds her of her therapist though, and the fact that it’s almost hilarious that an Avatar of the opposite of mental health is sitting where her therapist should be sitting. Except Michael ate her. Or killed them. Or whatever spiral monsters do to their victims. (Whatever Michael specifically does.)

Michael just smiles instead of an answer. She’s so tired of that smile, that laugh, that face. Those cursed eyes. The way its shape flickers and morphs when she isn’t looking directly at it, and how it scrapes its way through her brain until her head aches and she can feel the migraine lurking on the horizon.

“So you were … human … once?” she tries after a while.

“I have never been human,” Michael says. She watches as a long gouge is dug into the wooden arms of the armchair, its source invisible. "The person who used to be Michael was human. But now I am Michael.”

Sasha frowns, leaning forwards. She feels as though she’s on the precipice of a grand discovery but has no idea how to grasp it.

“Why did you take my therapist? Why couldn’t you just kidnap me when I arrived at home? Why all of this?”

“What makes you think I have a reason for anything, little Watcher? You’re repeating yourself…”

“And why do you keep calling me that, Melody? I mean, I guess I know why, but that doesn’t make it any less irritating…”

“Why not tell me about your frustrations?”

Sasha feels her eyebrows knit together into an angry V. “My frustrations? You—”

She takes a deep, calming breath. It’s probably not a good idea to throw a hissy fit in front of an eldritch monstrosity with knife hands(?). She looks at the gouge in the chair leg and knows that—were her therapist to return—she’d have to stare at that gash every session from now on. She can’t put the resulting emotions into words.

Is there a future after today? Come on, Jon

“Yeah, I’ve been having nightmares,” she finally says because she can’t think of anything else to say, and she’s now exceedingly certain that Michael is just toying with her. She hates it, but as long as the game continues long enough for Jon to find her—what else is she supposed to do? Can you logic your way out of a situation when the monster in front of you is the antithesis of logic? “For a while now. No-one’s ever said anything about it, so I guess my nightmares aren’t the type that make you cry out?”

“And how does that make you feel? Have you talked to anyone else about it?” Michael’s smirk could wrap once around the entire world, she’s sure of it.

She glares at him and tries to suppress a shiver. “I know I should, but I haven’t,” she admits. “And it’s stupid—the others have shared a lot with me, and I—well, I might have—” Sasha catches herself. “—Why am I even answering your stupid questions?”

“It must be because I am a very good listener,” Michael says, and his laugh rattles the insides of her skull.

When did I start to think of him as him?

“And it is easier to share with strangers sometimes… too personal to talk about with someone who knows a version of your, but has no insights into any of the other masks… though you do not seem to give much thought to that when it concerns others, hmm? No, you need to see…” Michael says once he’s done with laughing. His words tear into her soul with deadly precision, and dread scampers down her spine on icy little spider legs.

“Why do you know about that?” she says, trying to sound accusatory and not just frightened. She doesn’t think she succeeds.

“Do you really expect an answer to that? It should be obvious, should it not?”

“You watched us? What else did you see?”

Michael just laughs, and Sasha takes a deep shuddering breath and tries to mask her face back into a more controlled expression.

“Why—why did you ask about my dreams? Are they—significant?” What do you know about those? How far back did you read? Do you know about the other ones, too

“Dreams can be very enlightening about the things that plague your mind,” Michael tells her. “And as your replacement therapist it is my duty to know about all of that, is it not? So—how have you been sleeping, Sasha James? Do you remember your dreams or not? What do you dream about these days…”

“No! I haven’t been sleeping well! And I’m sure you know that, given how you seem to know everything else about me as well!” She narrows her eyes. “About us, really, hmm? … do you like stalking the Archives, Michael? Is that what you do when you don’t know who to torment, because you remember working here once? Well, before you became—that—” And then a thought strikes. “Maybe that’s why you’re here? Maybe that’s why you had to stalk me outside of work, and confront me away from Jon, on my own… can you still look into the Archives, Michael? Or did that suddenly stop about a month ago, when Jon changed…”

When Michael doesn’t reply, Sasha turns her own thoughts over and over in her head, wondering whether she’s right or not. Does Michael have a plan?

Does it really matter, in the end?

“That’s why I’m here, right?” she finally says. “Because something changed and you don’t know what… but even if that’s not the case, it doesn’t really matter for me, right? I’m still here. I can’t leave. Jon—

Well, I can’t speak for Jon. And do you really want answers? Why do you look normal unless I see you through warped surfaces or from the corner of my eye? Is that what you are, really? Are you just hiding in Michael Shelley’s shape?”

Michael laughs, and Sasha grits her teeth. The more he laughs, the more her head rings, as though all his laughs layered on top of each other to build up over time. “Oh, if only it were that easy. But are you hiding in your shape? Did you choose your shape?” he says.

She stares at him, tries to read anything in his round, friendly, horrifyingly normal face. She wonders what the original Michael was like, and what exactly happened to him.

“Fair point,” she says, nodding her head in begrudging agreement, “but how can you—”

“Enough questions,” Michael says and uncrosses his legs, leaning forward in his chair. “Tell me about those nightmares of yours, little Watcher…”

And maybe it’s then that a little bit of her fear returns, unbidden, uncontrolled, uncontrollable.

“Why—why do you keep bringing that up?” she asks and is proud that her voice only wobbles a little. “Shouldn’t you—I don’t know. Shouldn’t you know? What is it—what is it about my dreams…” she falters, and stares at him.

The thing is, that ’s his whole point. Lying and pushing until you start questioning your sanity… right?

“I just want to help you,” Michael says, and Sasha is sure he must be lying. Or at least that’s what she hopes, because what would it mean for her if he actually did want to help?

“I just want to be friends.”

“Friends?! What for?”

“The Archivist has been making enemies,” Michael says, “You might find yourself in need of allies… and I do not wish for the Crawling Rot to win.”

“The Crawling R—oh, Jane Prentiss? Because he saved Martin, you mean? Oh, that… does that mean—do you think we’re in danger? Are you here to—is this to—what. Warn me? Warn Jon through me? Does that mean you don’t plan on killing me?”

Michael doesn’t say anything. He just continues staring at her, and she swears his eyes shift somehow.

It’s quite uncanny, actually.

“Why would I hurt you?” Michael asks, finally, and there’s something unsettling in his voice. “You are friends with the Archivist as well… and he is as inhuman as I am.”

There’s a long pause filled only by his quiet, wrong laughs.

Sasha can feel the seconds echoing in her soul.

She isn’t sure if it stretches for a minute or two or three.

She doesn’t want to think about the lies and truths of that last statement.

She doesn’t want to be here, thinking about monsters.

She wants to sleep.

Except sleep isn ’t what it used to be either.

“I go to bed, and when I wake, it takes more than an hour to escape the dread,” she says, and can’t for the life of her say why she started speaking, or why she continues. “Sometimes it clings to me throughout the entire morning. Sometimes I wake at two in the morning and can’t fall asleep again. I can never remember entirely, just what the dreams felt like. What they remind me of. I’m not sure if the others noticed anything. They never said, but I don’t—I can’t…”

She breaks off, knowing that there are no words to describe what she’s feeling.

Michael doesn’t say anything. He just looks at her, smiling.

She enters a weird fugue state, staring back at him, and isn’t sure what startles her out of it at the end.

It feels like waking from a nightmare, heart a-shiver and mind spiralling.

Michael laughs.

Sasha’s head spins.

Something about this feels terribly, terribly familiar.

She wants to drink something, but the only option is the cursed coffee from her favourite café.

It’s surely cold by now. Or still scalding.

She isn’t sure what would be worse.

Michael is staring at her, and she notices dimly that he’s still laughing, that it nudges at something deep inside of her, buried at her core.

She blinks.

For a moment Michael is three-fold—a thin blond man with long blonde curls and a terrified, lost expression—a twisting, shifting humanoid figure, too tall, too sharp, too sinister—a twisting shape that makes no sense at all—

And then he’s just Michael again, who is none of those and yet all three.

Sasha feels as though—for a single, stunning moment—she suddenly understood something, but then it slides by, along with her comprehension.

Maybe it wasn’t important.

She shivers despite herself and takes a deep breath.

“What—what was that?” she asks.

Michael grins. “What was what?” he asks.

His voice is weird and wrong and twisting and shifting, like his laugh.

There are more claw-marks gouged into her therapist’s chair.

“Is Michael Shelley still in there?” Sasha says before she can stop herself. “Trapped inside you? You were forced to adapt to him and he was forced to adapt to you? Or did you kill him, and take his shape—”

“You still misunderstand,” Michael interrupts her, and there’s something court to his voice. For the first time Sasha feels like she’s managed to actually irritate him. “Your questions cannot save you. Your Archivist cannot save you. As a matter of fact, he seems to have lost interest in you—or maybe your message did not reach him…”

He laughs his obligatory laugh and Sasha groans at the slowly building migraine.

Then Michael pushes himself to his feet—or at least, that’s as close as her descriptions can get her, because the motion isn’t human and she wonders whether the body parts he seems to be constructed out of actually align with human words at all. “Do tell the Archivist to meet me at Hanwell Cemetery in the evening. I do want to talk to him regarding—the future.”

And the impossibly sharp smile he smiles at that strikes fear into Sasha’s heart in a way nothing else has, so far. It feels more like a threat than anything else that has happened so far.

“W-Why?” she asks, hating herself for the quake in her voice.

“You want to make it out alive, do you not?” Michael asks, sounding amused. “Well, in that case, stop talking.”

She nods slowly, and gets up at an equal speed.

“Did you not want any coffee?” Michael asks, “Maybe tea next week? No caffeine at this hour?”

“W—next week?”

“For your next appointment, of course,” Michael says.

Sasha’s brain blanks. She can feel the windows XP screensaver ping against her skull, floating through the vast empty expanse of her mind.

She’s sure there must be elevator music playing somewhere.

“My…” she says numbly before her mouth stops functioning. “Yeah. Sure.”

Is this her life now? “Can you please—whatever you did—please just…”

“If the Archivist meets me tomorrow, I will return your therapist. If that is what you are asking for, little Watcher.”

“Y—Yes. Thank… you. Yeah.” She stares at him, numbly.

Wasn’t the door a different colour before, and on the other wall?

“I—yeah. What do you want from Jon?”

“There is a worm problem he needs to take care of,” Michael says, which is a surprisingly straight answer (given how nothing else about him is.)

“How do you feel after today’s session? Did it help?” He almost sounds as though he cares. She hates it, and yet she somehow can’t keep herself from answering.

“I—feel—weird. What did you do to me?”

Once again, Michael just laughs. She’s on her feet now, grabbing her bag off the ground. She can feel the reassuring shape of her knife. It’s the only thing that feels solid.

“I did nothing,” Michael says. “There may be things there you want to have someone take a look at. A professional who knows what they are talking about.” He grins.

Somehow, for the first time, it’s almost reassuring. It’s the same after all, the same as before. The same unsettling eyes, the same unsettling expression. The same unsettling drop.

She feels weird, but not bad.

“I think I need to sleep,” she mutters, and then she stumbles past him, twists the doorknob (wasn’t it a different shape before), and walks through the door.

 


 

In her confusion, Sasha only realises that the door was definitely wrong when she finds herself in a corridor that does not belong to her therapist’s office.

There’s a mirror on the wall to her right, and the garish colours of the floor and walls make her eyes water. She isn’t sure whether they move or not.

There’s another door at the end of the corridor.

Is this what he does? a part of her that is slightly less numb wonders. But he said I was supposed to tell Jon

She pushes it open and it’s a lot heavier than it should be, but—

“—ah, so she isn’t in—mhm, didn’t Jon already look there?—hang on, I think—”

Martin looks up from where he’s sitting at his desk, in the Archives , hair sticking up in all directions, eyes bloodshot and expression drowsy as though he hasn’t slept for a week.

There’s a clock to his left. It’s just after two, which is weird considering that it was definitely past five when she left the Archives two(?) hours ago.

For a moment they just stare at each other.

Then Martin startles so badly that he almost falls off his chair, holding onto the phone only because his fingers are stiff with shock.

The delayed reaction would be funny if it absolutely weren’t.

“…S-Sasha…?” he says faintly. Sasha feels like she’s actually in a dream, everything just slight off-kilter and smudged around the edges, pulled along by invisible strings she can only feel. Frozen to the spot even though she wants nothing more than to bolt from this corridor, to slam shut the door and never look back. (To hug Martin, and feel grounded again.)

“We were so worried

There’s a tinny noise from the phone. Sasha can’t make it out, but that might just be because her head is filled with fog and a pneumatic drill, and everything hurts.

Martin lifts the phone slowly back to his ear, not once breaking eye contact. A tiny, relieved smile is starting to form on his lips, and it makes something inside Sasha ache.

“—a-actually I—I think we might have… found her? Can you, uh, can you call Jon for me?” he says. “She just… turned up… yeah. Thank you, Tim.”

He hangs up. His eyes flicker between her face and the corridor behind her.

Sasha feels like she’s a little kid again, helpless and gawky. (Half a minute away from crying. )

“Hey, you’re almost there! Just come in and close the door,” Martin says gently. His voice only shakes a little.

Somehow it breaks through the fog, and through the strings.   

She steps out of the corridor, through the door, and when she closes it behind herself, the two of them watch as the yellow hue blends away, leaving behind the door to Jon’s office—and nothing more. When she pulls it open (just to make sure), there’s Jon’s office behind it, as chaotic as it’s always been.

She can’t put the resulting emotions into words, but she can feel the relief and the weight that suddenly seems to leave, the fog lifting as though burned away by the sun. She’s suddenly extremely conscious of how much her hands shake, of the pounding pain in her head, how uneven her breaths are.

Sasha closes the door, and turns back to Martin. Their eyes meet, and she somehow finds it in herself to smile. “I hate doors.”

“I never would’ve guessed,Martin says, laughing nervously. He’s gotten up from his chair and is now hovering next to his desk. “What happened?

“I-I… I met Michael,” she says. Her teeth are chattering a bit. Speaking hurts. Thinking hurts. “He—he wants Jon to meet him at some graveyard today. We... talked.”

Martin pales. She watches as he takes five steps towards her, then hesitates. “Jon said he suspected, but he couldn’t Know, and when you didn’t respond to his messages or our phone calls and didn’t show up to work today—”

Sasha stares at him, and then she looks at the clock again. Two, not seven. Things suddenly start to make sense. How long was I actually in that corridor? Or does time just flow differently in there?

The knowledge of an impending breakdown gets overwhelming. “What—what day is it?”

“The fifth—no, the sixth, by now… we last saw you on Monday! We were worried sick about you, Sasha! Jon and Tim are still searching—”

“But I—I sent Jon a message? The sixth... how can it be… I’m too tired for this.” She buries her hands in her palms.

In a way it’s hilarious that she’s starting to shut down now, after escaping.

Somehow she knows that most people don’t make it out of the tunnels alive.

That thought isn’t comforting at all.

“Uh—he got a message but it was pretty… illegible? It had the word Michael in it though… the way I understand it, he tried calling you a few times and then asked Tim but Tim didn’t know anything either, and you weren’t home. And then Jon told us about Michael and we, ah, we searched in a few places, and it got really late but we couldn’t find you, and I tried to make Tim and Jon sleep but they refused, and then you didn’t show up in the morning either and Jon and Tim went out to search, but I stayed here to ah, to man the phone and make sure that someone would be here if you came back, and—” He takes a deep breath.

“I guess you did? Are you—are you okay? Do you need, mhm, do you need a—hug? Or a tea? Maybe a tea is better, you look thirsty—”

“Thank you, Martin. That—I… that would be—nice…”

“Of course!” Martin smiles, looking 348.9% more alive than she feels. He’s half on his way to the break-room when he hesitates again, and turns back around, face suddenly a lot more serious than before. “Do you—do you need anything else? Where were you? What happened?”

Sasha smiles weakly. “Michael ate my therapist and then—tried to—therapise… me? I think? I am not—sure. Something happened… so Tim and Jon have left to try and find me?” And then she looks at him again, at his hesitation, and something inside her just—gives way. “You know what, yes, I do want a hug first. Please. That past hour has been a long two days, and—and a hug would be…please.”

And Martin’s whole posture relaxes and he turns back around to her, crossing the space in between them in a few long steps. Then he’s right there, wrapping his arms around her, and she isn’t a short woman but he still manages to be so much taller than her, and she sinks into the hug and has seldom felt safer than at this very moment.

“Shhh, it’ll be okay, I’ve got you… I’m so glad you’re back—we were so worried

It’s right about then that the world gets all blurry, and she knows that her scheduled breakdown has arrived.

 


 

“—We made a map to make sure that we wouldn’t lose time…” Martin says a little while later when she’s mostly gotten herself back under control. She rubs at her eyes and follows his gaze to the wall behind his desk.

There’s a paper map of the city taped to it.

She can see, even from here, that there are red crosses all over it.

She holds out for at least ten seconds before her vision blurs again, and this time around she doesn’t care anymore.

Sasha starts to sob, again, and for a while they just stand there, the two of them, Martin’s arms the only thing keeping her from shaking apart.

 


 

“But I was only gone for an hour?” she finally manages to say. Her voice sounds weird. She feels a lot better than before. “Maybe two! But now it’s afternoon already?”

“Oh! No, it’s past two—”

The phone rings.

“—in the morning,” Martin says like it’s no big deal. “—let me get that real quick, it might be Jon?”

"Wait. In the morning?"

They both stare at each other for a few seconds. Sasha is impossibly comforted by the unbelievably normal, utterly human quality of his warm, brown eyes. No weird darkness, no weird colour, just—normal eyes.

When the phone rings for the third time, she lets go of Martin reluctantly. He doesn’t seem to want to let go either and gives her an awkward little pat on the back.

“Tea afterwards?”

“Alright, sure…”

Then she frowns at his retreating back, and tries not to dwell on the fact that it’s two in the morning, and that Tim and Jon were still out there, searching for her for the second night in a row. Suddenly Martin's confusion regarding today's date makes sense as well.

“Oh—Jon! Yeah, yeah, she’s here—she’s okay—Michael got her. But he let her go? Only with weird—time warping… somehow… Yes. Okay, yeah, we’ll just—wait. See you!”

Martin puts the phone down, smiling tentatively. “Do you want to, ah, come to the kitchen with me? I don’t—I don’t want to leave you alone like this. Here.” He looks at the door. Sasha looks at the door. They look at each other.

"Y-Yeah." Sasha tries to mirror his smile. “Thank you,” she adds, and takes a deep breath. “I’ve never—felt like this. It’s—weird. Disturbing? I… thank you.”

Martin smiles, and she can’t get over how kind and gentle his smile is when compared to Michael’s. “No need to thank me. Michael is— something —”

“It wasn’t just Michael though? I dealt fine with—with h-him. I think I would’ve been okay if it had been just him and his corridors?” She shivers. “But he… I think he did something to me…? I’ll talk about it to Jon. Yeah. Just a bit… ah, rattled, that’s all.”

“If you say so…”

And then she follows Martin into the kitchen, and is impossibly relieved to find that tea does, in fact, soothe more than she could ever have expected.

Chapter Text

On April 4th, Jon wakes in the middle of the night on a street he does not know, staring down at the pale, horrified face of a person he’s never seen before. 

Statement of Beth Autumn on getting lost in the streets of Cambridge at dusk—

It’s quite the shock to wake in the middle of the night, only to find himself standing here (wherever that might be). His mind, still heavy with sleep, starts to race. There’s no green light around them anymore, but he’s sure that it faded only moments ago. 

For the first time in a while, he can’t remember dreaming. He feels

—I was there for a talk at a different college, back during my uni years.
The talk had been amazing, but it had ended a bit later than anticipated and it was already starting to get dark when I left—

—cold. Why is he only wearing a bathrobe, pyjamas and the fuzzy slippers Georgie got him ages ago that are half worn through and now dirt encrusted and ripped and why does he feel more awake than he’s felt in months

—I don’t know if you’ve ever been to Cambridge, but as with many older cities, it’s far too easy to get lost there.
Especially once you get deeper into the backstreets and alleys—

“What are you?” the person in front of him croaks.

—starts to look really similar, this same age-stained grey-beige-brown tint—

“I—” Jon says intelligently. His mouth tastes weird. He shakes his head, trying to shove aside the weird sentence fragments floating through his mind. 

Sentence fragments. 

—that I couldn’t get lost here, with my phone right there, but somehow the directions never seemed to match up with the street names—

He feels—good. Too good. Far too good, in fact. All the tiredness accrued over the past few weeks blown away in an instant.

Good Lord.

—tall blond guy, so I asked him for directions.
I’d seen nobody else since what felt like hours, and by now it had actually gotten dark—

The world gets blurry at the edges and his perception narrows down to just the eyes in front of him, terrified and—

What did I do?

Oh God, what did I do

He stumbles back. The stranger— Beth Autumn, he suddenly Knows—shrinks away from him, then turns around and runs.

—such a really nice smile? I couldn’t—

The Archivist seems to purr, settling back. (That’s new, isn’t it? That I can—that I can feel it. As a separate thing.)

—had gotten lost so thoroughly that I couldn’t even remember the direction I’d come from.
I think he sent me in the wrong direction—

Oh god, what is happening to me?

He just so manages to not fall over, to stabilize himself with his hand against the nearest wall.

Where—where am I?

—don’t think I’ve ever been that lost—

He feels as though he’s been out here for at least an hour, maybe more, but thankfully he Knows that he’s still fairly close to home.

Maybe I walked in circles?

How late is it?

3:56AM.

Ah, of course. Great. Absolutely fantastic.

 

Jon heads home, and tries to feel terrible, and a substantial part of him fails. It does not help that the rest of the Statement keeps invading his mind in leaps and bounds, or that he hasn’t felt this good in ages.

 


 

When he finally opens the door to his flat, he almost stumbles over Cinders, the black parts of her coat invisible in the darkness. She meows in indignation and he only barely manages to swallow his tears at her familiar meows, at the fact that he has a cat, that he has a cat who loves him and waits for him and is indignant at him leaving at this hour of the night and—

He kneels down in the door entrance and pulls her to his chest and she swats at him, her claws scraping down his chin.

The statement fragments have finally stopped coming. 

He still can’t stop thinking about it, but having a cat on his arms helps a bit. 

She was worried. She was worried because I left and she felt that something was wrong but she—she couldn’t get through…

He almost tears up again at that realisation, but somehow manages to pull himself together and back to his feet instead. Swallowing hard, he closes the door, cat now indignantly purring in his arms. Somehow, he manages to cross the few steps to the sofa in the living-room, where he collapses without ceremony.

“I love you so, so much,” he whispers. (It feels a tiny bit like betrayal, but surely the Admiral would understand?) Also, his eyes are a tiny bit wet now. The numbness has slowly started to melt away ever since the statement fragments stopped coming. (He hates feeling the satisfied fullness at the edge of his consciousness, but he’s glad the emptiness is fading. He hates that he can feel it now. That it has an actual presence. Somehow, that makes it more real.)

The Archivist ate someone’s trauma while I was sleeping, and I didn’t—it did—and I couldn’t—I was—what do I do?

Cinders meows again, but it’s a bit softer this time. He knows she can tell how he feels. Otherwise she probably wouldn’t be this cuddly, she’s a bit of a… prickly trickster, most of the time. Not every cat can be as soft and loving as the Admiral, after all. But even the tricksters can feel when their people need a metaphorical hug, so she gently butts her head against his chin and settles down on his chest, purring with the ferocity of a cheetah (Georgie showed him a video once. He’s sure that Cinder’s purrs even make the ground vibrate. Well, maybe.)

After a while, he starts to shiver. His feet and legs ache, and now that he’s started to warm up a bit, he finally realizes how cold he got out there.

Can monsters still catch a cold? he wonders despondently, trying to scrape together enough energy to get up and take a hot shower. Beth Autumn’s gaze seems to haunt him. Every time he closes his eyes, he sees their eyes again, the dawning horror, green light fading away… 

 It’s almost 5, now. Cinders is still sitting on his chest, purring like an engine, a comforting weight on his chest. Like a hug. (She’s also kneading his shirt and her claws keep digging into his skin, but Jon can’t bring himself to care. She isn’t the Admiral, but she doesn’t have to be. And besides, comparing cats is foolish. They can both be his favourite. All cats are good cats. … He doesn’t deserve any of them, anyways. Not after tonight. He’d been so good at keeping it at bay)

After a while, the shivers subside a bit. Jon starts to feel more tired than he’s had in ages. Physically, emotionally. Not in the way that matters, of course. Just from the motion of feet and legs and arms, controlled by someone else. Something else? Something that was him, but also not. Every time he tries to forget, he’s brought back down to reality by the glowing satisfaction at his core—the Archivist satisfied with its meal. Even that part of him wants to nap, in the way a cat might nap after a good, filling meal. 

Jon never really wants to move again. 

Maybe I should take today off.

No. I’d—

No.

He’d have to explain. His friends—friends, hah— would be worried. No, he can’t take today off. He’ll just have tofind a solution. Somehow. 

He isn’t sure where to start. He’s survived on nothing but written Statements for most of the past month. Sure, he’d felt weak and feeble, but he’d never have thought

No. There must be a solution. He’ll shower, now, and then he’ll sleep until—hm, 7. It’s probably going to be fine if he arrives a bit late at work. Martin and Tim are always late, too.

Jon doesn’t move. Just take a shower. Just move. Just get up. 

Just get up. 

It takes several minutes, but finally he manages to force himself to slowly sit up. Cinders is less than happy about this, meowing and digging her claws into his shirt (into his chest) so she won’t slip down. The tip of her tail twitches. Jon winces and smiles a pained smile, stabilizing her and carefully pulling her claws out of his skin. Somehow, hurting almost seems to help, as though the pain is grounding him. Pulling him back to this plane, to his body. He stares down at the cat. She slow-blinks at him, purring in what almost feels like a passive aggressive way. He didn’t know cats could do that. 

Cinders, how can you care about me like this if I’m not even—if I’m not even properly human anymore?

Then he hesitates, and sighs. I am though, right? That part was—torn out. It’s just also still there.

With me, I suppose. 

He sighs again. But it can’t be as easy as that. I have the Eyes. I still bleed wrong. Are we still one, just… split? I should’ve just. I should have died. No escape—

Cinders meows, interrupting his spiralling thoughts.

“Thank you,” he says, pressing his face into her soft fur. She wiggles a bit, but not much. He knows she’d never let him do this if he weren’t this miserable, but he just smiles at that thought (a hesitant, tired smile).

“I… I guess I have to take a shower now.”

And he does. He also does his best not to think about Beth Autumn’s pale face. He wishes he didn’t know their name. Did I look like a normal person or a sleepwalker when the Archivist took over?

He regrets that thought immediately, because this is the kind of knowledge the Eye loves to give him. Like a person. A weirdly dressed one, sure, but I—it—appeared normal, on the outside.

Jon shivers.

Are we coming more apart? Is it—he? going to take over in general?

Can I escape him somehow? Push him out?

The water rushing down on him suddenly feels like it’s drowning him. Jon turns it off and just stands there for a few moments, dripping wet, trying to wrap his mind around everything that’s been happening. Trying to come to terms with everything roaring through his mind.

Why?

He lets himself sink to the ground, wet and shivering. 

The Eye wants to force us back together.

I don’t—

He swallows, hard. Outside, he can hear Cinders meowing at the door.

He’s never had friends like he does now, but he’s also never felt as alone. How could he ever tell any of them? But how can he keep this a secret? 

They should lock me up.

He looks at the tiles on the wall, at his almost-reflection.

I have to find a way to deal with this.

Everything was fine! Why this, why now? Again? It’s been barely a month since I got here—

The Eye didn’t let me escape before.

Why weren’t the paper Statements enough? I felt… 

I…

He doesn’t know what to think. How to deal with any of this, on his own. He doesn’t want anyone to know. They can’t—they can’t know.

I don’t want to become the Archivist again. I just want him gone.

By the time he manages to pull himself back to his feet, he’s feeling worse than before. He turns the shower back on and ignores the world around him until the hot water runs out.



After he’s made it out of the shower, he finds a belt and a rope and ties his arm to the flimsy frame of his bed.

He’s fairly sure that, if the Archivist decides to take him for another ride, there’s nothing he can do about it. He’s also sure that the Archivist has been sated for another week or so, hopefully longer.

He doesn’t want to take any risks, though, and he doesn’t really plan on sleeping, but he’s so emotionally wrecked that he suspects he might not have a say in this. When he settles into bed with his alarm far too late and Cinders’ reassuring, purring presence on his chest, he’s gone within minutes.

 

The dreams greet him as they always do, and he tries to ignore that there’s a new one, too. Spiral-touched. 

There’s no-one there yet. Beth must have been on their way to work.

 


 

Today seems to have been the best day to come in late, because somehow, Sasha is even later than him.

There’s something wild about her body language when she does arrive, and the answer why she’s late becomes readily apparent the moment he leaves his office, Cinders on his arms. (She hasn’t left him all morning. He’s sure this won’t stick, now that his—his friends are around, but he’s grateful beyond words.)

He can feel the Spiral on Sasha even before she opens her mouth, and something twists in his stomach. Not her too. Not now, Michaelis this connected somehow, too?

 

“Oh—I’d wondered when he’d, ah, when he’d show up,” Jon says after she’s done explaining the situation to him. 

For some reason, the only thing he can feel is relief. Nothing seems to have changed between the first time she met Michael (in his reality), and now. Does that mean it was just a coincidence? 

When Sasha asks whether or not she should make a Statement, he refuses. He knows the specifics, doesn’t he? And they both know what the Archives are. And the idea of—of that—after already having—

No. Not today, definitely not. 

And so, because it’s only fair, he explains what he knows about Michael to her. After all, Michael showed up again, too, last time. Better prepare Sasha as well as he can, even if he won’t tell her how he knows. Right? Right. And when she correctly identifies Michael as a creature of the Spiral, he’s definitely proud. She has been doing her homework. (There’s also the fact that last time Sasha didn’t trust him enough to tell him about her encounter before she’d met Michael three times and helped him dispose of Prentiss’ victim.)  

(This time, she did.) 

I don’t deserve any of them. 

“How do you even know about that, Jon?” Sasha asks at the end, and it’s this question, spoken so— carelessly— that shakes him out of whatever weird headspace he’d fallen into. How do you even know that, Jon?

And it might be because he’s too tired. Because he needs to tell someone. Because he can’t carry this secret any longer before it eats him alive. (Because he needs to tell someone about last night so they can make sure that the Archivist doesn’t manage to do it again.)

Whatever the reason, Jon knows beyond a shadow of a doubt that the moment has come, consequences be damned. (It’s not like they can go anywhere, a tiny, horrible voice whispers, and as much as he hates it—is it wrong? They… they deserve the truth. He doesn’t want the fallout, but it is what he deserves, isn’t it?)

“Do you really want to know the answer?” Jon hears himself say, as if from far away. His heartbeat is treacherously slow. He looks at Sasha, searching her face for something, anything. Fear?

Maybe.

“I—”

The moment shatters before Jon gets out another word, interrupted by Martin’s and Tim’s good-natured arrival. 

For a tiny, tiny moment Jon considers telling them all anyways, but Tim’s laugh is too happy, and Martin’s grin too wide. 

He can’t tell them. 

(Jon isn’t sure why he feels like something inside him broke with it, falling apart into a million tiny, glass-sharp shards.)

(Shouldn’t he be relieved that he gets to keep his friends another day?)

 

(Why does guilt have to feel so heavy?) 

 


 

Even as the day continues, filled with work and petting Cinders and light-hearted jokes, his mind keeps returning to that moment, and regret is all he can feel. 

He should’ve told Sasha. He should’ve told them all, happiness be damned. Better ruin it here and now than accidentally attack Tim again. 

One day they will find out, and then it’ll be far worse, and Jon knows that. The thing is: that day hasn’t come yet. Maybe if I proceed to push it away into the distant future, I can solve the problem on my own and it’ll never have to come up … 

The day passes surprisingly quickly. Reorganizing storage is hard work that demands a lot of mental power, and Jon is deeply grateful for any distraction he can get. Sasha ends up leaving around five, and he’s too busy to think much about her much for the next forty minutes.

 

Until that text from her phone arrives, that is.

 

Sasha [5:41PM]: k̶̗͍͘͠r̴͇̉k̸̗͑̋͜p̷͓̈́ Michael ̷̨̽f̵̡͇a̷̻̻̽̄v̷͔͕̅r̶̞̽ȅ̶̄ͅr̵̞̈́͆ ̵̬͕̄͑ȑ̸̹̝h̸̨͘̕r̵̨̓s̵̤̺͌̚ȋ̷͓u̶̯̚͠d̸͍̋͗t̵̢͌d̵̘́ ̶̻̀͝ô̵̼̌ĝ̵̟g̶̛͕͇̎ȉ̵̻͗c̴̍͜r̵͔̙͂ ̵͙̈́

 

Jon’s heart nearly stops. Suddenly, he feels shaky. Maybe they were connected? Did Idid I do this to her somehow?! 

“T-Tim?” he croaks. “Martin? P-Please tell me…” he breaks off. Tell me what? 

No answer.

His breath is coming too fast, he notices dimly over the rushing blood in his ears. Not again. I can’tnot Sasha

How long has it been since she left? Can’t have been more than thirty minutes, right?

He tries to text her back, but his message doesn’t go through. When he tries to call her, her phone has no signal. 

“Jon? Are you alright?” Martin calls. “I thought I heard a—” His head appears around a shelf. When he sees Jon slumped on the ground (when did he get here?!) he rushes over, worry plain on his face. 

“Jon? Are you—are you okay? What happened?” 

“I—yeah…” Jon takes a deep breath, then holds out his phone toward Martin. 

Martin stares blankly at the screen for almost a minute. The shift in his face is strangely fascinating to watch. 

“Oh, oh shit ,” Martin whispers.

“Y-Yeah,” Jon says. “I—I tried to call but, ah, nothing... nothing goes through. The texts won’t either.”

“Maybe, uh, maybe Tim knows something?”

They look at each other. Jon suddenly notices that Martin is very close and decides to ignore that for his own sake.

“Yeah—yeah. Let’s, uh, let’s find Tim.”

 


 

They find Tim.

They call Sasha several times. 

They text her. 

None of the texts go through. 

The calls don’t, either.

 Jon watches Tim devolve into more and more snarky panic, and honestly, he can’t blame him because he knows they all feel the same.

What does Michael want from Sasha? Why does he want Sasha? Last time he’d only talked to her in a coffee-shop, if Jon remembers correctly, and then later she’d met him at that cemetery. It’s how we found out how to kill the worms. 

Is this because of my involvement? Or is it because this reality is different? 

Tim calls the therapist’s office, too, but nobody answers. They find out on the website that it’s closed now; thankfully Tim remembered the address so they could look it up.

They also call Sasha’s land-line, but she doesn’t answer (at least here the call goes through, though, so she probably just isn’t home).

Going to the therapist’s office doesn’t really make sense. If Michael took her from there, she probably isn’t still in the locked building and there wouldn’t be anything they could do about that either. Tim is too antsy to stay silent, so they finally agree to visit Sasha’s flat anyways because there, at least, Tim has a key. And if she isn’t home, her cats probably need to be fed.

 


 

Sasha isn’t home, just as anticipated. They still stay for half an hour, just in case something changes, petting and feeding Schrödinger and Pumpkin. 

Jon tells the cats that Sasha won’t be home tonight, that they’re searching for her, and that it isn’t Sasha’s fault. He promises to bring Sasha home safely as soon as they can.

He hopes that he isn’t lying to them. 

When Tim starts getting too antsy, they decide to write a message on a sheet of paper and leave that in front of the door—in case Sasha does come back, she’ll know that they’re searching for her. Jon writes himself a reminder on his phone—so that, in case Sasha isn’t back early enough, they don’t forget to look after Pumpkin and Schrödinger. He’s half tempted to take them to the Institute, but it’s probably best to leave them in a place they know that also doesn’t include an unknown cat. 

They make their way back to the Institute. 

It tastes like defeat and Jon has no idea what to say.

He tries Knowing where Sasha is several times, but it doesn’t work. He isn’t sure if it’s because she got taken by Michael or because the Beholding is unhelpful on purpose. It doesn’t matter either way. He can feel that it’s because of Michael, and he’s fairly certain that he feels it because the Archivist feels it.

He isn’t sure how that whole thing can be put into words, and by the time they make it back, he’s too angry and weary to think further thoughts about it.

 


 

“What now?” Tim asks when they’re back in the Archives. He’s started up his computer and is zooming randomly through google maps. 

Jon has no idea how to answer.

“Simple,” Martin says. He sounds calm and decisive. Jon has no idea how he does it. (That's a theme, isn't it? I never know anything.) “We have no idea where Sasha could be. Maybe she will turn up tomorrow. It makes no sense to worry yourself to an early grave now. We might as well try and distract ourselves, try to get some sleep. See if she shows up again. Where would you go to search? If she doesn’t come back tonight, we can look for her in places that make sense! Call the therapist’s office, see if they know something. If she even arrived there? For all we know she could’ve been mugged outside the Institute!”

Tim glares at Martin. “You think I can sleep now?” he says.

“Well, it makes no sense to stay up when you can’t do anything besides worrying!” Martin says sharply.

Tim looks away, but his eyebrows are still drawn together.

“Do you have any plans, monster boss?” Tim says after what feels like an eternity of silence.

Jon just stares back at him, grinding his teeth. “Would I be here if I had any?” he snaps. “Do I look like I—I don’t know, like I know where she is? Would I have gone on this wild goose chase if I knew, Tim?”

“Sleep! Both of you! No fighting!” Martin says, but Jon doesn’t care, and neither does Tim, apparently. 

“How the hell should I know? I am not the monster here!”

“It’s not my fault that Michael took her—”

“Then why would he have watched her, if not for you?”

“He—he…” He did that in my timeline too. Without my input.

But Jon can’t say that, can he? They don’t know that he time-travelled, too. They can’t know. Least of all Tim.

He takes a deep breath.

“I don’t know why he watched her, okay? I don’t know, Tim!” This time, the rage is more above the surface than below it. Tim stares up at Jon, weirdly taken aback.

Jon realizes that he’s risen to his feet. That he’s feeling unsteady, and weird.

“Jesus, Jon,” Martin mutters.

The Eyes close.

Good Lord.

“I—I’m sorry. I just. I’m—I’m as worried about Sasha as you are, Tim! Especially—especially if it’s my fault. I… please. Please.”

Tim looks a bit pale at that. But he nods. “We—we can discuss this later. When—when she’s back. Alright? When she’s back. Just… we have to find her, okay? I…”

“Obviously!”

“…okay. Okay.”

 


 

They spend the rest of the night planning their next moves. Martin finds a map. Tim thinks of any place Sasha might have gone, no matter how outlandish. Jon tries not to go insane. Cinders watches their antics and sometimes, her presence almost manages to distract them. (It’s never enough. Not quite. But Jon knows that their nerves would be even more frayed if she wasn't there.) 

The night crawls on. 

Tim and Jon refuse to go to bed. Martin gives up on them, but staunchly refuses to sleep as well, keeping a wary eye on them. Jon isn’t sure if it’s because he’s afraid they’ll leave without him, or if he doesn’t want them to fight again. 

At some point, Jon falls asleep on his chair despite his best efforts.

 


 

Beth is there, this time, straying through twisting, maze-like streets in beige and grey and brown. 

There’s nothing Jon can do except watch and stare and walk away while they plead at him to help them get out of the maze. The last he sees are their desperate eyes as he steps away into a small side alley. Their shuddering breath haunts part of him, but most is unworried, untouched, uncaring. (The haunted part hates that, too.)

When the alley opens up again, light floods it. The sky is overcast and grey, watching unerringly as he walks out onto the snow-covered ground. 

An impossible construct of contorted stairs and doors reaches into the sky. His eyes want to slide off its impossibility.

Then he notices that there’s a very ordinary door with peeling, yellow paint at the foot of the construct.

Jon stops in the middle of his tracks. The door has never been there before. It feels like both an invitation and a threat, and Jon feels drawn toward it with an almost irresistible urge. For a fleeting moment, he wonders whether it has appeared because of Sasha. Is Michael trying to contact him? 

Is that even possible? (There had been that insomnia statement. In a way, it makes a twisted amount of sense.) 

Jon swallows. 

The nightmares had changed sometimes, before—Melanie and Basira had stopped appearing after they’d joined the Institute. Daisy had disappeared while she’d been in the coffin. He’d avoided Helen after she’d become the Distortion, afraid of what he’d find.

But Michael had never been in these dreams, even if everyone else who’d given him a live Statement had been. 

Usually, Michael’s space in the dream-scape is empty. 

Before, Jon had suspected that it was due to Michael’s inhumanity, and because he probably didn’t sleep. Except now there’s a door. 

And Michael has Sasha. 

For the first time the subconscious, sleeping part of Jon’s mind that is him starts to struggle against the Archivist’s wishes. What if Michael is trying to contact me? He’s never been—

For the first time, the smaller part that is Jon struggles against where the Archivist walks.

It isn’t enough, in the end.

The Archivist is stronger, and they walk past it, and the only thing Jon feels is utter despair, wiping away everything else.

 


 

“Jon? Jon!”

Jon comes back to reality with a scream and a racing heart.

“Are you okay?” Martin asks from what feels like a very dim, removed place.

It takes Jon at least a minute to get his panic back under control.

“No, I-I… the dreams—nightmares…,” he finally says, “they never change! But today there was a door, and I couldn’t go through but I know that Michael would’ve been behind it, I know—

“It was just a dream, Jon,” Martin says. He sounds so sure. Jon sighs, too tired and annoyed with himself to explain.

“Why did you wake me?” he asks instead, trying to stuff his frustration down and failing miserably. Maybe if he’d gotten to Michael’s door on the second round, maybe—

“You screamed?” Martin asks, eyebrows raised quizzically. “And before that, you said something. Seriously Jon, what would you have done?!”

Jon takes a deep breath. “I’m—I’m sorry, Martin. You’re right.” He looks around. “Where’s—where’s Tim?”

“Toilet.”

“Hm.”

For a moment they’re both quiet.

“How late is it?” Jon finally asks. He could Know. He doesn’t want to Know. He wants the awkward silence to go away.

“Around seven, I think,” Martin says. He looks exhausted.

“Have you tried to sleep?” Jon asks.

Martin shakes his head. “Can’t,” he explains. “I’m afraid of waking up to find you both gone, or Sasha arriving the moment I sleep, or…”

“I’d never just leave you!” Jon says, before blushing immediately, followed by equally immediate guilt. (In a way, that’s exactly what he’d done to his Martin, isn’t it? I just left him behind. It’s been almost a month, and I—did I honestly stop thinking about him?)

“I know but did I say my worries were rational? No!”

Jon sighs, and nods. For a moment they're quiet again. Martin looks like he could fall asleep in his chair.

“Please go take a nap?” Jon asks after a while, when the silence gets too heavy. “I promise we won’t leave. I’ll—I don’t know. Discuss strategy with Tim? I’m not sure if we can do anything, but we have to at least try, right?”

Martin looks at him, bleary-eyed. Jon can see the warring emotions on his face. Finally, Martin sighs, and nods. “Y-Yeah… fine. I’ll—yeah. Thank you. Please—please call me if you get a new idea?”

“Of course,” Jon says. His neck hurts something awful. His back does, too. 

He feels like half his spine cracks when he shifts his position.

Martin smiles tiredly, slowly gets up. Hesitates, turns back around. “We will find her, right? Jon?”

Jon forces himself to mirror his smile. “Y-Yes,” he says. His voice is scratchy and weird.

He swallows. Then, heart in his throat: “My dreams aren’t normal? I think I explained that already. Michael has never been in them. Today there was a door where there wasn’t supposed to be one. I know he has Sasha, but—I think we can get her back. Somehow. He wanted to—I don’t know. Meet me in my dreams? If that even works? It didn’t—I didn’t—but I think we can get her back.” He finishes in a rush.

Martin nods slowly. “I am too tired to fully understand what you were saying but—let’s talk about this again in a few hours. And you know, maybe—maybe she’ll show up to work?”

Jon laughs at that. Martin grins back at him. The moment seems to last forever, both parties too tired and worried to really care about the weird closeness of it all.

“You okay?” Tim’s voice interrupts them.

“We—yeah… yeah. I’ll just. Go.” 

Martin flees. (Is Jon imagining things or is Martin blushing as much as he is? No, probably not.) 

Tim and Jon watch him go.

“Martin’s going to try and sleep a bit,” Jon says, uselessly.

“Mm.”

“I’ve promised him that we’ll stay here until he wakes up. Or wake him if something happens.”

“Mm…”

“Tim?”

“Yeah?”

“We’ll get her back. I promise.”

“Y-Yeah. I… I really… yeah.”

 


 

Sasha doesn’t come to work that morning.

Nobody is surprised by that fact. They’re all still disappointed, though.

Tim seems to have had nightmares as well (though of the more “normal” variety) so he doesn’t really want to sleep any more either. 

Jon doesn’t manage to fall asleep to try to catch Michael another time in his dreams. He does leave to feed Sasha’s cats, though, and that ends up being the best part of his morning. (He leaves them enough food to last until tomorrow, desperately hoping that they won't need it.)

By the time Martin wakes up again, Tim and Jon are deeply buried in a discussion concerning pins and the printed-out map. Martin joins them. They call the therapist’s office and come to the daunting conclusion that Sasha definitely arrived yesterday and then never left, and that her therapist seems to be gone as well. Tim leaves to talk to them in person. Martin makes tea. Jon paces like a pent-up tiger while discussing Michael with Martin.

When Jon tries the dreams in the afternoon again, he somehow does manage to fall asleep. It feels weird, to walk the paths with almost nobody there. Well, nobody aside from Georgie, who’s apparently sleeping in. She just stares at him in a mixture of curious, slightly wary amusement and pity. Not that Jon can blame her. He’s still a bit surprised that she hasn’t brought it up yet, but maybe she still thinks that they’re ordinary nightmares? Or maybe she just doesn’t remember them when she’s awake.

Well, let’s see how long that continues to be the case.

 

Michael and his door aren’t there. In hindsight, Jon can’t say that he’s very surprised by that. He also can’t say that he feels very awake by the time Tim wakes him up again. They have a subdued lunch in the kitchen, unsure how to proceed. Tim’s trip didn’t really help them besides now knowing for sure that Sasha was there, and that Michael was also there. There were deep gouges in one of the arm chairs, and a (cold, untouched) coffee stood on the small table. The therapist still hasn’t reappeared, and neither have Sasha nor Michael.

At some point Tim decides that he won’t continue sitting around like this anymore, and Jon quietly agrees. Martin just sighs and states that one of them will have to stay behind in case Sasha does come back, and that it’ll presumably have to be him. Jon doesn’t have it in himself to disagree, and neither does Tim. Maybe I’ll run into a wild, yellow door outside? The hope is dim, but it is there. 

They make sure that their phones are charged before dividing the locations among themselves, and then they’re off.

Jon knows that it’s probably pointless. He knows that Tim knows, and he knows that Martin knows, too. Still, they’ve refused to talk about it, and pointlessly travelling around the city seems like a better idea than staying in one place. Maybe it can help distract his spiralling (hah) thoughts?

 


 

They keep in touch for the rest of the day, but it doesn’t really matter. No Sasha. 

In the evening, they meet up in the Archives again. Jon is starving, but it’s a very human hunger. He knows he probably looks the least dead out of the three of them, and that he probably also doesn’t look half as shitty as he did the past few weeks. Somehow, that only makes everything worse, but at least neither Tim nor Martin have made comments about it. 

Probably because they’re too busy being worried—Tim looks like he’s ready to explode, or possibly murder someone. Maybe both. (Jon tries very hard not to think about his Tim.) Martin looks like someone drove him over with a truck.

Jon wishes he still looked as undead as he feels. 

Nothing has changed, so they eat in silence.

The silence grates, but Jon can’t think of anything to say.

After the meal, they take off again, and Jon knows he isn’t the only one who’s relieved by that.

 

It hurts, just a tiny bit. 

 


 

In the end, Jon must have fallen asleep on public transport, on his way back to the Institute.

This time, the door is back. This time, he manages to overpower the Archivist, to walk through the snow and step through.

In retrospect, he isn’t sure what he expected. Maybe to meet Michael in all his spiralling glory, to have walked right into a trap despite knowing what he was doing? But that sounds more like the web than the Spiral, and behind the door lies no trap.

Michael is caught in the dreams like Jon’s other victims, grinning and screaming and shifting and laughing. The thing is—the Distortion has never been human, and it only appears human because Michael Became it. While Jon’s avatar victims go through weird glitching states where they seem to shift between different versions of themselves, Michael is twofold.

Here, there’s Michael Shelley, crystalline, spiralling stuff oozing out of his back and chest and arms and legs, the back of his head, parts of his face. He’s screaming in unheard anguish, as though put on mute. And then there’s the spiralling stuff, spun between him and an ever-changing, shifting, not-person-thing that seems humanoid in shape until you think you’ve nailed it down, when it shifts again. Jon is sure that he can only see in three dimensions, but, staring at the Distortion, he wouldn’t be surprised if he found out that he’s staring into anything between four and twenty, imperceptible by his usual, waking eye, but different in this nightmare form.

It’s weirdly hypnotic, to see both the human and the monster in pure agony and— terror? Held together by something they both want to escape, yet can’t, something that pulls them closer together before letting them drift apart again, caught right on the edge where laughter turns to screams.

For a moment he just watches, transfixed.

He’s seen Michael in his dreams when he’s relived his own traumatic experiences, he’s seen him in Helen’s nightmare, but those dreams only recreate the situations his victims found themselves in. 

Is this a representation of the moment when Michael Shelley found the center of the Distortion’s being and they became one?

“There you are,” something whispers in multiple, overlapping voices, and both Michael’s and the Distortion’s not-head turn toward him in perfect synchronicity.

He sees their combined hatred burning in their eyes, and flinches back despite himself.

It’s this moment—them seeing him, him seeing them—that Jon wonders if he hasn’t made a huge mistake. But what other way was there? 

Only ever forward… 

“Archivist,” the Distortion croaks from two throats, its voice a mix of Michael’s and something utterly inhuman, “I see you have gotten yourself into quite the predicament…”

He feels its torn gaze eye him, and it sends shivers down his spine, shivers that make the things at his back rustle gently.

Why am I here? Jon tries to ask, but no sound leaves his mouth, because he has none. Not in his nightmares.

It’s never been a problem before.

“See, I had started wondering about certain things,” the Distortion says, and laughs. The sound feels like pain, and Jon shivers. “Your involvement with the flesh hive… rumours travel fast. There was this pull every night—your little…. colleague did not help much with that, but alas—giving in lead me here.” The Distortion laughs again, with both the not-body and Michael Shelley’s, but Michael’s face looks scared. Jon isn’t sure if it’s because Michael Shelley is still actually a person, trapped in there just as much as the Distortion is trapped being him, or if it’s because of how his dreams seem to work.

Jon also wants to scream because it mentioned Sasha but he has no mouth to scream with, and his body won’t move anymore.

“No need to worry about her, Archivist. Now… you are quite something to look at. So much delightfully confused terror… and yet other… my, my, Archivist, what have you done?

Something inside Jon seems to freeze at that. Something else wants to scream.

“This pull toward these dreams… We need to have a chat, Archivist. In person.” Michael laughs. “There is something about you that I find very intriguing. I promise I will give you back that assistant of yours, and even her therapist! Meet me at Hanwell Cemetery tonight… I really expected you sooner. Ah, well. No harm done, Archivist…”

No harm done?! I—

The Distortion disappears, and the dream collapses around Jon, turning into fractal shapes that dissolve into snow until he’s back in Sannikov land, staring at the impossible edifice of doors and staircases (and smiles and madness, if he remembers correctly), with no-one there but him. 

 


 

When Jon startles awake, he’s several stations past where he would’ve had to get off. His phone is ringing.

It’s Tim.

“She’s—she’s back, Jon! She’s back… ” Jon is so relieved that the rest of Tim’s words just kind of washes over him.

She’s back. And safe. With Martin.

Thank god. 

Chapter Text

Sasha is wrapped in a few blankets by the time Jon gets back to the Institute, holding a cup of tea, sitting on the sofa in Jon’s office. She’s joking about something with Martin and Jon has seldom been more relieved.

Tim isn’t there yet, but Cinders is purring on Sasha’s lap. Jon secretly wonders if she has a people-feeling-bad detector.

“Hi Jon,” Sasha says. Her voice shakes a tiny bit, but her eyes are as inscrutable as ever. He’s never seen her like that. It feels—wrong.

“How are you?” Jon asks carefully.

“Oh, you know… Michael…”

“Yeah,” Jon says. “Yeah.”

For a few moments they just look at each other.

For a few moments, the only thing they hear is Cinders’ purring.

 

Jon wonders what Sasha is thinking, whether it’s back to that moment two days earlier as well, when he’d almost told her.

“Uh… do you want tea, too?” Martin asks when the silence develops a weight.

Jon nods absent-mindedly.

“O-okay. I’ll—um, I’ll leave you two alone, then.” Martin hesitates and Jon smiles a tired smile at him.

“That—thank you, Martin. I… I think that would be best. Just for a moment?”

Martin’s answering smile is very soft and it makes something melt in Jon’s chest.

And then he’s gone.

And Jon and Sasha are alone.

“Are you okay?” Jon asks.

“Yeah,” Sasha says. Then she hesitates. “Something weird happened. It’s—it’s like he wanted something from me, but I didn’t know what? And I know, I know what he is— believe me, I know! —but this… it felt different. You know?”

Jon nods very carefully. “I don’t… know… but I guess I know what you mean?” He hesitates as well. “I am… I apologise.”

Her eyes narrow at that, almost imperceptibly. “Why?” she asks. “It’s not as though it’s your fault. You couldn’t have known.”

Jon doesn’t move.

Sasha’s eyes narrow further. She doesn’t move either. Her eyes suddenly feel like lasers, peeling away the surface of his very being, so much more discerning than they have any right to be. “Right , Jon? You couldn’t have known that Michael would be there, right?”

Jon feels, once again, like a deer in headlights, a moment before the car hits. His throat is suddenly very dry. He tries to swallow, but it doesn’t quite seem to work. It seems she remembered that moment, too.

The thing is, he couldn’t have known. It happened differently, this time around. But the guilt hangs heavy around his neck.

He takes a deep breath, for some reason anticipating the door being pushed open by Tim, or Martin interrupting with more tea.

Nothing happens.

“I… no. I couldn’t have known that particular—that particular piece of information. But…” he hesitates.

The door still doesn’t move.

The coin is balancing on the edge. He could tip it either way. Say the truth, or remain silent. Sasha knows something is up. He thinks about how the Eye drives people to seek the truth, even if it might destroy them.

He’s so tired.

“Please… please don’t mention it to—to the others yet?”

She nods. Something about her body language freezes until she’s just staring at him, eyes sharp as a hawk’s, entirely motionless.

“I—I don’t want to go too in depth,” he says, suppressing a shiver. It’s like the words are crawling out of his throat on their own. As though he’s been stewing in them for an entire month now, weighing them at the back of his mind for this exact moment.

“And I… I am sorry, Sasha.” He shivers again.

Another moment passes. His heart thuds in his throat and he feels—faint. “I… I didn’t just come from a different reality, though that isn’t—wrong. It’s just not… the whole truth.”

Her face betrays nothing. Jon wipes his sweaty palms on his pants.

“I… when I gouged out my eyes, it was a Wednesday in August. The 29th. But it wasn’t this year. It wasn’t even next year. It was 2018.” He closes his eyes, all of them, and waits for the verdict. He’s never felt so cold. The darkness behind his eyelids seems to swirl around him, hypnotising, awful.

The silence seems to last for ages.

“2018,” Sasha finally says. Her voice is hoarse. Weird.

Jon startles so badly his eyes fly open again. He’s breathing too fast, he notices distantly. He tries to calm down, blinking rapidly, staring at the floor. It feels much better than having his eyes closed. Less destabilising. He refuses to look at Sasha, and forces himself to nod.

“How did I die?” Sasha whispers. Then; “Was it the Stranger?”

He shudders, and nods again. Shoves his hands in the pockets of his jacket. The nod is so tiny he isn’t sure if Sasha notices it at all. (He knows she does.)

She breathes out. “I knew it,” she says, and there’s a strange, proud satisfaction in her voice. He looks up, weirdly startled. “I knew it…” she says. There’s a wisp of half-smile on her lips. Then the not-smile dies.

When she looks at him, there’s nothing there but fear and the need to know. Jon knows that need very well. He still almost shrinks back from the ferocity of it all.

“What about Tim? And Martin?”

He swallows. “Tim—Tim died stopping the Unknowing. I should have died as well, but I wasn’t—wasn’t human enough anymore.” And I chose to live… but Jon can’t bring himself to say that part out loud. “Martin got claimed by the Lonely. I-I tried to get him to—to come with me. To run away together and—try again… away from it all… b-but he was, ah, he was… too far gone.”

Sasha takes a shuddering breath. Jon continues before she can say something, just to get it out. “There were other assistants too, later. They—they hated me. Not—not that I can blame them.

“I’m sorry.”

He looks away, anywhere but at her face. Suddenly, he wonders why he’s still standing here. Why he didn’t just get a chair. It feels like he’s standing in front of a jury and Sasha’s next words will decide if he gets to live or not.

He isn’t sure what to expect, and he can’t tell if it’s because he’s only known her again for a little under a month, or if it’s because of something else.

He is startled when Sasha speaks. “I… I anticipated something? The way you looked at Tim that first day, how different you sounded on the phone… how you looked at me… I hated it. And your, ah, shift around Martin especially… nothing about it made any sense until you told us, but even then, there were big gaps. And I guess—I guess it does now. Thank you for—for telling me.”

He nods again, as near-imperceptibly as last time. He can’t really believe that he got away this easily. That can’t have been it, right?

“You know it’s not your fault, right? Jon, look at me. Jon.”

He does, despite himself.

Her gaze is hard, but this time, it doesn’t make him flinch. The steel in it isn’t meant for him. Suddenly he feels—light. As though he could just float away.

“We—we’ll… we’ll do it better, this—this time around,” she says. Her voice is weird. “So I take it I didn’t—uh, Michael didn’t kidnap me and my therapist where you—where you come from? I wonder if…” she trails off. “Wait. You—you weren’t human enough to die? What is that supposed to mean?”

Jon shrugs, mortified and relieved. “In the explosion… my mind wasn’t human enough anymore to just die. It sort of held on? It… it healed me before coming here, too. I should’ve died, but the… the Eye wouldn’t let me, even then.” He breaks off. Not without choosing to, he thinks, the only actual choice I ever got. Death, or monsterhood. And even that was… barely a choice. He closes his eyes. “Last time Michael only talked to you at a café. You didn’t mention it to us until after you’d met him at that graveyard. I had no idea this would happen. I-I swear. It’s already changing around me, which makes things so much more difficult to predict.”

She frowns. He can see her thoughts whirl.

“He told me to tell you to meet him there. And that he’ll return my therapist if you do,” Sasha finally settles on. Then she yawns. She looks exhausted. “I think… I think I have to sleep. Today was… a lot.”

“Y-Yeah,” Jon says quietly. “Let’s catch up properly with the others later.”

“Can I come back now?” Martin calls from the entrance of the kitchen, almost making Jon jump. “I-I swear I wasn’t listening in! It’s just—the tea is getting cold?”

 

It’s only when they’re all drinking tea that Jon realises that Elias knows these things now, too. He can feel his Gaze on him, as distant as it might be—watching even now, in the middle of the night. Watching like he always does.

But even though he tries, Jon can’t make himself regret telling Sasha.

She’d understood the puzzle pieces anyway. Somehow, she hadn’t been surprised. He suspects no matter what Elias knew or didn’t know, he would’ve put the pieces together as well. He always seems to be one step ahead.

Jon wonders how much Elias knows, and how long it’ll take him to force Jon to talk, the protection of the other three be damned.

 


 

Martin’s head is in his arms on the kitchen table when Tim finally comes back, startling awake when the heavy door to the Archives falls shut.

He sits bolt upright, blinking a few times to try and reorient himself, restart his brain. Jon was talking to Sasha, and he’d made tea, and then they’d come to drink the tea and Sasha had… gone to sleep? On the cot. Right.

And Jon had gone back to his office.

And Martin had stayed here, meaning to do the dishes, but it had been a long and stressful night and he’d—

Fallen asleep? He blinks a few more times, then sighs.

“Tim?” he calls, unsure if he heard correctly, if Tim is actually back or if that was just part of his weird half-dream-hallucinations.

Tim manifests in the door. There’s a wild look in his eyes and his hair is more dishevelled than Martin has ever seen. He looks like he’s run on nothing but adrenaline for far too long, and Martin knows for a fact that Tim last slept before Sasha went missing.

“Martin! Where’s Sasha?—A-Are you okay?”

Martin blearily stares at him for a few moments, trying to gather his thoughts. He has no idea how Tim can still be standing upright. “…m’fine…” he finally mutters. Then sighs. “I thiiiiink she went to sleep… and Jon’s in his office. With—with Cinders.” He smiles at that, but he’s fairly certain that it comes out tired and wrong. “How’re you holding up, Tim?”

Tim laughs nervously. “If I sit down, I’ll fall asleep,” he says dryly. “… so, Sasha is sleeping? Is she okay?”

Martin sighs, rubs at his eyes. “Y-Yeah. Apparently, basically no time passed for her. She wants you specifically to know that she loves you and, uh, and that she feels terrible about what happened…”

Tim takes a deep shuddering breath at that, sagging against the door frame. Then he further slides down until he’s half leaning against the wall, half slumped at an awkward angle on the floor. Martin stares at him from where he’s sitting, impressed by Tim’s uncanny ability to just—remain in that pose. “Do you want tea?” he asks weakly when Tim continues not to move, because that’s what he always seems to be doing these days. Tim groans, shakes his head, nods, and then he finally maneuvers his own body into an actual sitting position. Martin stares at him for half a minute longer, and then he forces himself to his feet—and makes tea. 

Is that all his life, heh, boils down to these days? Making tea for his traumatised friends? 

After a while, he realizes that Tim is watching from the floor, neck craned. The time ticks by, vocalized by the cheap clock hanging on the wall. There are eyes on its arms. Martin has never noticed them until now. The longer he looks back at it, the more eyes there are, judging him with their unerring gaze. 

He stares back defiantly and stares violently when Tim coughs, half an eternity later.

“Y-Yeah?” he asks, trying to act away his racing heart.

“Oh, it’s—it’s nothing. Just. Thinking. You know?”

Martin doesn’t know, but it’s probably fine.

“It’s just—Sasha talked to Jon, but not me? I didn’t even take that much longer than him. I’m just… I’m worried, you know?”

This time, Martin does know. He nods weakly, searching through the tea bags. “She looked like shit, Tim. She cried when she got here! I was surprised she even managed to stay up at all. I-I think she needed Jon to tell her that she’s safe? I’m not sure. I wasn’t there. But… don’t worry, okay? She’s okay. Let’s—let’s go to sleep, okay, Tim?”

The kettle turns off. Martin goes through the motions mechanically, as though his brain has already followed what he just told Tim to do.

Tim doesn’t respond. He just stares at the clock, at the table, and Martin suspects that he doesn’t actually notice either of them. Martin puts the steaming mug in front of Tim’s face, and watches as his eyes do their damnedest to focus on it. Tim smiles the shadow of a smile, and it doesn't reach his eyes. But he tries. “Thank—thank you… I apologise. Shouldn’t be… shouldn’t be whining like this. I really wanted to see her again and make sure she’s okay, you know? That, that the— thing— didn’t—do anything to her, or something. I don’t even know.”

He takes a sip, burning his tongue. Grins a faded, lopsided grin in Martin’s direction which Martin mirrors back at him thoughtlessly. “I’ve already lost Danny… I can’t lose her too. I never want to feel like that again.”

And Martin just nods and smiles and tries to ignore how weird he feels at that, how—alone. Surrounded by people who all care about each other so much, yet what is his place with them?

It takes him a little moment to remember that Jon saved him, came for him, but it feels easier after that and he leans back against his chair and watches Tim drink his tea, both of them quiet. No sounds apart from the ever-watching clock.

 


 

When Sasha wakes, she isn’t sure where she is. She can’t remember the nightmare she had, but she knows that there were doors.

When the shapes of shelves slowly peel from the darkness, she sighs in both relief and annoyance. Of course. Michael.

Jon.

 

Time travel.

 

She closed her eyes again, letting herself sink back against the small, lumpy pillow. Time travel?!

She sighs.

That does explain a lot though, doesn’t it? She thinks about it for a little while, and then she thinks about Michael for a little while, and then she wonders how late it is. Did Tim make it back okay?

She will have to talk to Jon first, probably. She doesn’t want to talk to Jon, not now, not about this. He told her about his horrible secret and she’d known what would come, at least she’s pretty sure she did, but now that she does know… it feels wrong. She thinks about it for a little while. Jon made her promise not to tell the other two, and now that she knows she understands why. Even if they suspect the truth already, hearing it…

Hearing it is worse.

 

Why did it take him so long to tell her about this? Why didn’t he warn her about Michael before if he knew it would happen? What else did he leave out?

She’s dead in the other reality, and Tim, and Martin…

She doesn’t know how she died or when or why, but it felt—true. As though it was the missing piece of a puzzle, slotting perfectly into place. It explains everything seamlessly, and she’s never hated anything more in her life.

Is this the kind of truth Jon warned them of? The truth that destroys instead of changing things for the better.

…did Tim die before her, or after? The Unknowing… she’ll have to talk to Jon about that . It sounds bad, but she isn’t sure what it’s referring to.

 

She realises dimly that she’s angry. Not really at Jon, specifically, it’s more of a very generalised rage, but it does connect to him most of all.

There’s a rage inside her, and it feels cold and sharp, ready to draw blood. She can feel it sitting at her core, harsh and cruel. She will have to find a way to deal with it that doesn’t involve cutting Jon to pieces. It wasn’t his fault. Probably.

Things would be so much easier if it was.

 


 

Jon is sleeping in his office when Sasha barges in. He startles with a tiny shriek and an expression of primal fear, and she isn’t sure if she’s imagining things or if his wide eyes are worse than before, somehow blacker, somehow deeper, staring at her, into her, at the very core of her being.

At the very centre of her rage.

She forces herself not to shiver and closes the door instead before pulling a chair close to his uncomfortable little sofa. He groans himself into an upright position, shrinking away from her in the process. She’s too mad to care, and she isn’t even sure who she’s mad at. Herself? Her alternate self who just died ? Jon? Does it matter?

“What’s the Unknowing?” she asks before he can even open his mouth. “Why didn’t you warn me about Michael if you knew he’d talk to me? Why didn’t you tell us, Jon?”

He blinks at her, owlishly. She can see him think, and it makes something snap inside of her, but she forces herself to clench her jaw and not open her mouth.

“Ah, yeah. Of—of course. Good, ah, good morning to you too,” Jon says. He doesn’t look like he slept at all, and his eyes are too wide. Sasha can’t bring herself to care. She’s also about to tell him that it is not, in fact, a good morning in any sense of the word, but she manages to restrain herself. Barely. 

“The Unknowing is the ritual of the Stranger,” he says when she doesn't fill the silence. His voice is hoarse. Her mind starts racing. The Stranger. So Tim got killed by the Stranger, too?

Fitting, really—first his brother, then him. And her. She wonders if she died first, or if Tim died before her.

She wonders if they ever got together in the other reality. The world feels impossibly far away.

“You mentioned those before. Rituals. A ritual to achieve what? Bring the fears here? Why would anyone want that?”

She’s so tired.

“Y-Yes. Every, ah, every 300 years, avatars can try to bring their, uh, their entity fully into our reality with a-a ritual. Gertrude spent most of her years stopping rituals, like, uh, like what she did to Michael Shelley to stop the Spiral’s ritual. The Unknowing… we stopped it, but the cost was horrendous…”

He looks so old, staring up at her. Small and frail and old and tired. “Tim didn’t want to live anymore, he only lived for revenge, for Danny. For you. He saw no purpose in surviving, because it would’ve meant to return here. He hated everything about this place, me… it, ah, it all fell apart so fast.”

Sasha takes a deep breath and tries to swallow. It feels as though something is stuck in her throat, something sharp and pointy. “You should’ve told us,” she says pointedly, even though she knows why he didn’t and might agree with him under any other circumstances. (Would she have told anyone?) She pushes those thoughts away pointedly. They’re only getting in the way of her rage.

“You know as well as I do what would happen if I’d told you from the start,” Jon protests weakly, obviously frustrated. “You saw what happened the first time. But—I should’ve told you about Michael. I just… didn’t know how. It would’ve come across—weird. You would’ve—caught on. Besides, I didn’t even remember when exactly that happened! And why are you up already? It hasn’t even been three hours, you shouldn’t be—“

“Woke up and couldn’t go back to sleep,” Sasha says courtly. “What else didn’t you tell me? How did I die, Jon? What happened? How am I supposed to stay—to stay safe when you don’t trust me enough to know the truth? It might have helped with Michael too, and all of this—what else didn’t you talk about yet? How many secrets are you hiding? I know there’s more to all of this, Jon! Just tell me! I deserve to know!

He looks up at her. His face looks grey in the dim light, grey like sooty ash. His eyes seem ancient and broken and deep, so so deep.

Suddenly she’s almost scared of him.

“Do you? Do you think you can handle it, all of it? I don’t—I can’t. You wouldn’t like what you found out, it would—it would ruin too much. I’m—you can… you can hate me as much as you want but I—I shouldn’t have told you at all.”

“What do you mean it would ruin too much—Jon, I can decide those things on my own! Don’t patronise me!”

He stays silent.

No matter what things she throws at his head, his demeanour doesn’t change. There’s a darkness in his gaze that doesn’t quite go away, something heavy and deep and terrible, but Sasha is too mad to give it much heed.

When she finally leaves him, she feels more tired than she has in years—worn down and used up.

The rage has grown, but now it only manifests in helplessness.

 


 

The rest of the day passes slowly, something weird and sullen in the air that Martin can’t seem to shake, no matter how much he tries to dispel it.

Jon stays stuck in his office, but somehow he’s never there when Martin visits.

Cinders seems to have gone missing as well. Martin spots her sleeping on a pile of statements at some point, but apart from that she could just as well not exist.

Sasha seems on edge about something, tired and grumpy in a way Martin has never seen before, but every time he asks about it she shifts into this performance of everything is fine, Martin, why are you asking? It leaves the moment she thinks he’s gone, and only her eyes betray the lies—and Martin wonders what she and Jon talked about. It makes Martin uneasy, especially because she also seems to be doing her best not to meet Tim.

What happened? Why is Tim so twitchy; what did he and Sasha talk about? They’ve only just gotten her back, what did Michael do?

Why does it feel as though they’re all in on a secret and Martin is the only one who didn’t get the notification?

It’s frustrating, to say the least.

And, to top it all off, Jon declares at some point that he’s going to go to the cemetery alone.

“No way,” Martin tells him, crossing his arms in front of his chest. “No way I’m going to let you go there on your own. Michael is dangerous and—

“—which is why I’m not going to take you or anyone else.” Jon says calmly.

There’s something weird about him today, something erratic and uncomfortable. It crouches in his eyes and makes Martin glance away if their gazes meet, even if he doesn’t want to. Martin doesn’t like it one bit. He wonders how the world managed to escalate so quickly so fast.

“You can stay here if you want, but I think I know what’s going on. I’m not taking you or anyone else for that matter. If my, ah, my hunch is right, it involves worms.” He stares Martin right in the eyes, and even though he tries, there’s no way Martin can withstand Jon’s gaze. It seems to burrow into him.

“W-Worms? Like… Prentiss’ worms?” Martin hears himself ask.

Jon nods. There’s a gravity to it. Martin doesn’t like it. Begrudgingly, he nods. “…Fine. But you’d better call me after.”

To that, Jon agrees equally begrudgingly.

 


 

Jon elects to walk to Hanwell Cemetery by foot. Michael did not specify a time besides “in the evening” so he leaves around 5 and just… walks.

After a while, he notices that he’s being watched, but even so it takes another minute to figure out that the watcher is a torn-eared calico cat, sitting in the dark mouth of an alleyway and staring back intently. Jon feels a tiny smile tugging at the corners of his mouth and—despite himself—walks over, making sure to not stare back, to stop a few feet away, kneel down, and hold out his hand. “It’s okay,” he says gently. “I won’t hurt you.”

The cat approaches slowly. Suddenly, he Knows they’re a bit anxious around people, but that they would love to be scratched under the chin and massaged behind the ears.

He also knows he shouldn’t dawdle around and pet random street cats, because Michael wants to meet him at the cemetery.

He just doesn’t care because there are cats to be patted.

 

When Jon reaches Hanwell Cemetery about four hours later, it’s with a black cat riding on his shoulder, the calico held gently in his arms, and three more following behind. He’s seldom felt happier. Michael unfolds himself from one of the shadows, an eyebrow comically raised, grin far too wide. Jon just grins back at him. “I made a few friends,” he says.

“I can see that, Archivist.” Michael somehow folds in on himself and it takes Jon a moment to realise that he’s attempting to kneel. The motion in between seems to include too many bent knees and rotations that should neither be possible nor needed. Then he lazily stretches out one shockingly human-looking hand toward the nearest of the cats.

Jon recalculates his expectations and comes to the fascinating question whether or not Michael might be a cat person.

Apparently the cat can’t quite decide on that either, approaching carefully, glancing from Jon to Michael and back to Jon.

When they finally reach him, they nudge his hand with the tip of their nose, immediately coiling back before hissing and scampering off like a fuzzy lightning bolt.

Their panicked motion triggers all other cats, and suddenly Jon’s shoulder is cat-free and the calming weight in his arms is gone as well, dashing around the corner of a building nearby at breakneck pace, fur standing on end.

Jon looks in the direction for a few more (disappointed) seconds, then turns back to Michael with a frown. “Why?” he just asks, not quite managing to suppress the disapproval from his voice.

“Michael used to like cats,” he says with a careless shrug. The motion seems to include too many shoulder bones, rolling like a wave. “Maybe you could introduce me properly next time.”

“You… want me to…” Jon trails off.

For a moment they stare at each other, neither of them willing to back down. Michael’s eyes are wrong. Jon feels vaguely dizzy, as though something is spiralling in on itself at their centre. Doesn’t seem too far off the point, to be entirely honest…

Michael doesn’t appear to mind staring back at all though, and somehow, despite being an actual avatar of the Eye, Jon finds himself looking away first.

Michael seems to find that very amusing, but Jon refuses to rise to his bait.

Instead he sighs. “Right. Right. So, why did you want me to meet you here?”

Michael tilts his head in a very inhuman way and Jon does his best not to shiver. “I think you already know, Archivist,” he says. “So, pray tell… why do you think I made you come all the way out here?”

Jon sighs. “For some reason, you… what do you know?”

Michael’s grin spreads. There is a high whine ringing in Jon’s ears, and it puts his nerves on edge.

“That is not what I meant, but I shall accept it as an answer. For now. Rumour travels fast, Archivist, and you are not quite who you used to be, are you?” His grin widens even further, curling at the edges in a distinctly inhuman manner. Jon can’t remember whether he ever appeared this obviously inhuman in the other reality, and he hates how much it rattles him. It was never explicit there, was it? He appeared human until looked at wrong or through a reflection.

I’d continued looking human, even when I was at my worst. And now I have more eyes. Dear Lord, how times change.

“I-I have no idea what you’re talking about,” Jon lies, because he just has to give it a shot.

This time Michael doesn’t even say anything, he just raises an eyebrow.

Jon clenches his jaw and looks away from his eyes, his grin, his too-tall body. “It’s not just rumours though, is it?” he asks, exasperated. “Well, you saw me in the dreams. There’s no getting around that…” He sighs again, wondering for the first time what would happen if he just—told him. It’s not as though Michael has any stakes in the whole situation. Besides the obvious, that is—besides wanting to be close to Sasha. To him now too?

To the Archives, or the Archivist and his staff?

But maybe it would help?

F-Fine. Alright. I’m—me. Except I’m also… someone else. Split.” He squints at Michael, having reached an unexpected thought he really did not want to reach. Despite himself he says it out loud. “You should know what that’s like, shouldn’t you? Being someone and not being someone at the same time. Being torn apart on the inside, but bound together at the same time… not a who, a what.” Jon shivers, but Michael just laughs in response, ignoring Jon’s self-created mini crisis entirely.

“We are nothing alike, you and I,” he says easily. “But you already do know that, don’t you? And as much as I appreciate this little talk, we are here for a different matter. One I suspect you already know about, if I am not mistaken—but the tangle of lies sorely deceives me. Why not tell me why we are here, Archivist?”

Jon sighs, and finally gives in. There was no sense in continuing the charades anyway. Michael already seems to know. Time travel, lies, and truths. “I expect you want me to take care of Timothy Hodge?” he asks tiredly.

Michael’s grin turns delighted. “There we go… if you would follow me, Archivist… we can talk after.” He detaches himself from the shadows and just—starts walking away.

Jon stares after him numbly, seriously wondering what he did to deserve to be in this place now. Finally, he makes himself follow.

I’ve never murdered someone before, he thinks, feeling feverish and panicked, but maybe it doesn’t count if it’s no longer really a person?

He knows he’s wrong. If only that would matter.

He never really asked Sasha about how she felt after, in the other reality. She never mentioned it again, not even off work. I wasn’t a very good boss in that way either. Far too focused on the bigger picture, on staying alive…

Staying alive.

The thought seems to connect to something. For a moment, he just blankly stares at Michael’s retreating back. Then he stops. “Wait. Michael? Are you—are you taking me instead of Sasha because you, ah, because you expect me to…” he trails off.

Michael turns back around. It should be too dark to make out his grin, especially from a distance. It isn’t. (Though if that’s because Jon can see in the dark or because of any specific abilities from Michael’s side, Jon can’t quite tell.)

“Yes, Archivist,” he says easily. “You look starved. Friends should take care of one another—and you look like you need a good meal, and Timothy Hodge is as good as dead.”

Jon somehow finds it inside himself to glare at him. “Friends?!” he demands, and only barely manages to swallow down the ‘starved’. After all, he knows that Michael is referring to the live Statements, but he’s also never eaten healthier in his life except maybe when his grandmother still took care of him.

“You do need allies, don’t you, Archivist? You look like someone who needs a friend to confide in. But we haven’t got all night…”

Jon doesn’t even deign to respond to that. “What’s in it for you?” he asks instead, vaguely fascinated by this whole exchange.

Michael just laughs at him, turning back around and continuing onward. When he makes no attempt to stop again, Jon sighs and hurries after him. He could probably sense Timothy Hodge from this distance if he tried, but he really doesn’t want to try.

 

When Jon finally catches up to Michael, he still has to take three steps for every single one Michael takes. He’s never felt as short as now, following the tall, thin monster-thing down a side-street.

He’s also furious. “I-I’m not a, a vampire,” he tells Michael the moment he’s caught his breath, exasperated. “You can’t just—whisk me away to some poor fool and make me—make me feed on him…”

“Your choice, Archivist. Your choice.” Michael grins back at him.

Jon doesn’t like the sound of that at all. “My choice?” he asks scathingly. “My choice? Really? You think it’ll give me a choice? And don’t you think you can escape my other question, I’ll—“

He stops. There’s a terrible thought at the back of his mind, and it makes a horrible amount of sense.

Maybe he isn’t even talking to me. Maybe he hasn’t talked to me once. Maybe he means the Archivist when he says that title.

How much does he know?

The thought is chilling enough to shut Jon up for the remainder of the walk.

 


 

Of course, Jon being Jon, his mind does not shut up, thoughts spiralling (hah) deeper and deeper.

How much does Michael actually know?

He knows about the Archivist, at least from the nightmares. Does he know that we don’t—get along?

He knows that I know more than I should.

That I’m much further along than I should be.

What else does he know? Why hasn’t he tried to kill me yet?

Good Lord, what am I doing here? A chat, in person? But it’s not like I had a choice, right? Sasha… her therapist… there was a choice, but it might as well not have been one.

It’s like he’s serving… me… a meal on a platter.

 

Why?

 

That whole friend thing…

 

Is he talking to the Archivist instead of me? Through me? Why did he not just—

 

The abandoned pub looks quite similar to what Sasha described, almost exactly how Jon imagined it from her description. Boarded-over windows, a dilapidated front door, peeling paint, obvious lack of care-taking.

He can feel the presence of the Archivist, lurking at the back of his mind—but he can feel something drawing him toward the pub, too. Am I feeling the presence through him?

The Archivist’s want is almost as alien as the speed of his body’s own pulse, his heart beating like the wings of a frantic little bird trying to escape a cage. (Or at least, that’s what Jon is pretending. Deep down he knows that he’s excited, excited in the giddy, terrified way of a child getting ready to jump off a diving board for the first time.)

He hates it. Hates wanting it. Hates craving it.

Hates Knowing that part of this is because of the Archivist—but it isn’t all his fault.

The gulf is gaping wider, but the separation isn’t clean. I can still compel people. I can still sense things.

Even if I got rid of him, I still wouldn’t be free. How much does Michael know?

If he’s talking to the Archivist and not me, did he take me because—

Are you trying to do me a… favour?” he asks Michael numbly, barely conscious of the compulsion in his voice.

“Yes,” Michael says and laughs at Jon’s horrified expression. “I am not yet sure how you got here, how you became what you are—“ He takes a deep breath, laughs a delighted, overlapping, wrong laugh. “Oh, Archivist… you are quite far along, aren’t you? I can glimpse your aspects in the fabric of your lies… but we must talk later. Go on… the flesh hive is waiting for you.”

Jon can only find it inside himself to stare at Michael. Did you—did you… how does he know I’m here?” he demands, voice shaking ever so slightly.

Michael’s laugh is deeply condescending this time around. “You burn like a wildfire, Archivist. I suspect anyone in a certain radius felt the shift when you arrived. You reek of all of them, do you know that? All except one… so much of you turned inward… so many unknowns, yet so much revealed. A conundrum, an impossibility.” Michael grins, leaning forward, and for a moment he seems to warp in front of Jon’s eyes. “Insanity walking,” he says, voice slow and deliberate. “As though you are a magnet. I can sense your presence, even if it is cloaked from me at the same time, impossible to locate. I tried opening a door into the Archives after you went after the other flesh hive… it did not go well for me. That is the only reason you have been left virtually alone so far. Danger and attraction… news travels fast. I am not even the only one drawn into your nightly circuit.” He laughs at Jon’s expression, an itching, aching, horrifying laugh.

Jon shivers despite himself, heart racing. “But—why are you here?” he croaks. “Why did you bring me here? Why not k-kill me…”

“It sounds as though you want me to kill you, Archivist.” Michael finally leans back, watching Jon intently. “There is an epiphany in your future, a cataclysm, a supernova. I want to be there when it happens. Is that not obvious?” When Jon finally, finally meets his eyes again, he finds Michael studying him with hunger, and for the first time, Jon understands what his own victims see when they find him approaching, eyes aglow.

It makes him want to cry, but this is neither the time nor the place.

“And you can’t take care o-of him on your, your own?” he manages, looking at the door.

Michael just laughs at that, and somehow Jon Knows that there is no way out of this. The Archivist won’t let me.

And so he takes a deep, scared breath and turns back toward the door.

It isn’t yellow. It’s brown and black and half-rotten, hanging off-kilter in its hinges.

Jon blinks and feels the shift even before he steps through—it’s as though someone has taken hold of a button regulating the strength of his emotions, and is turning it all the way down.

For a moment Jon tries to panic, to hold onto the despair and fear he felt only moments ago, but the numb indifference swallows him up before he can, smoothing everything over until there’s nothing left except an empty, calm void.

Instead, he can sense the Stories buried at the core of the shape at the other end of the room. He can’t see what remains of Timothy Hodge, but he can feel it, as though it’s a lodestone pulling him ever closer. Is that how I appear to Michael? he wonders. Is that what Michael meant? Do I look like that to other avatars, with more confusion, maybe?

What did Michael mean, ‘all of them except one’?

Dimly, Jon is aware of his body shifting away entirely from his control, his mind enveloped and pushed back by the Archivist. If he wasn’t as numb he’d feel nothing but despair, but he is, and he doesn’t. Watching the scene unfold in front of his own eyes, he’s so distant that he barely remembers what being under the control of the Archivist felt like before—as though he’d been making the decisions, not packed up and stored away until later. Now it appears as though the Archivist is a creature on its own, caught in the back of Jon’s mind until it smells a meal and breaks free—and there’s never been a meal quite as enticing as this one.

 


 

The Archivist takes a step into the room, step after step until Jon finds himself standing right in front of the sorry figure of what was once Timothy Hodge. It shifts, a million worms slithering in and out of the infinite-seeming holes in its skin. Its head snaps up, the motion far too fast, and what remains of its eyes meets Jon’s—the Archivist’s—straight-on.

Dimly he notices a faint green flow on the distant walls.

“Timothy Hodge,” his mouth says in a voice that doesn’t sound like his at all, “tell me your story.” His body bends forward as though in anticipation.

The thing that was once Timothy Hodge swallows, a terribly mushy sound punctured by silver worms wiggling in and out of its throat through a patch of honeycombed skin.

Its voice is less than a whisper, as though the wiggling bodies moving inside its throat are creating it by rasping against each other, amplified by the hollow spaces that once housed the organs. “I’mmm ssureee yyouu aalreadyy reaad myy ssstatemeent…”

 

It takes half an hour of agonised sound until the flesh hive slumps to the ground, weakened and empty.

It isn’t dead, not yet—but even the worms’ movements have slowed down. Jon isn’t quite sure what it means. Prentiss ran away as soon as she’d finished, but she’d also been a lot more powerful than—this one.

It seems as though Hodge is dying, has been dying.

As though he’s been searching for release even though the hive wouldn’t have let him go.

Jon stares down at him because there’s nothing else he can do. The numbness is still there, but it’s filled with a terrible, soul-deep ache and the equally terrifying knowledge that he’s utterly powerless in the face of the Archivist's controls-but even if he wasn’t, there’s no way to help Hodge, not anymore, if ever. The man had given his Statement after sleeping with one of Prentiss’ victims.

Jon isn’t even sure if they could’ve helped him back then, if anyone had reacted to the threat.

He doesn’t pity him, but he does feel a weird sort of kinship. Neither of us got a choice, really, and yet we kept making them until it led us to our dooms.

Apparently, the numbness has started to draw back and Jon is surprised by the vehement bitterness he feels at the thought. And now I am supposed to end his life as though there is no worth to it, no coming back.

Is the Archivist going to take control of me the way the worms have infested the minds of people like Hodge? Is he going to make me like it or just push me to the back of his thoughts as though I’m a nuisance getting in the way of his meals?

Or will he leave me alone and only come out once a day…

The thoughts send shivers down Jon’s spine. For a moment he’s surprised that he can influence his body in this way again, but a second later the Archivist draws back, releasing his hold on Jon’s mind entirely. Jon almost falls as the strings holding him up are cut without announcement, but manages to catch himself on the crumbling edge of the bar.

Now that the Archivist is gone entirely, the horror and disgust return like a tidal wave. Jon hadn’t even noticed that they’d been dampened until now, but now he finds himself staring sightlessly and horrified at the remains before him.

As he’d realised before, Timothy Hodge isn’t dead yet. The worms still wiggle in and outside of him, but their motions seem slow—sluggish, almost, half-paralysed by whatever effect the Statement-taking had on them.

Worst of all, there’s a warmth inside Jon’s chest that even the other Statements couldn’t attain. He isn’t sure if he’s ever felt as sated as he does now—as though only the Statements from other avatars are truly capable of quenching that hunger, particularly from scared, dying ones.

“I—I’m s-so sorry,” Jon chokes out. “I—I didn’t…” He cuts himself off. The apology feels like a lie, worse even than if he hadn’t said anything at all.

The shape on the ground only twitches in response, its movements faint. Jon isn’t sure if that’s worse or a relief, and then hates himself for thinking like that. The fullness sits comfortably in his stomach, his chest, his entire being. He can’t even sense the Archivist at the back of his mind anymore, and it’s only now that he realises how impacted he’d become by its presence.

When did I last feel this good? It overpowered me entirely, wormed its way into my thoughts, my—everything… It made me call it he.

He doesn’t notice how strongly he’s shivering until he looks at his hands. First it took over when I was out late, then it went on a hunt on its own, in the middle of the night when I was still asleep, and now—

I didn’t even—

It was just—

It wasn’t me, but it invaded me too, and I still couldn’t do anything!

The rift…

When Michael steps next to him, Jon jumps and a startled sound punches from his throat. There is a fire extinguisher in Michael’s entirely normal-looking hand when Jon glances at him, heart-beat slowly calming down, and Michael looks down at the hapless figure in front of them with a vague, uncaring smile. Of course. What else?

“Feeling better?” he asks, handing the fire extinguisher to Jon.

Jon stares down at it, at his hands, shaking, the fire extinguisher feeling so much heavier than it truly is.

Release, he thinks. Release, but what from?

They both know the outcome of tonight. For a moment, Jon thinks about rebelling against it, but then he points the nozzle at the half-dead human hive at his feet and—

 

Murder feels remarkably easy.

 

“Yeah,” Jon finally responds, voice strangely detached. “I think I do feel better.”

“There you go,” Michael says.

Jon hates how satisfied he sounds. “Why?” he asks, voice rising. “Why go through all of this? Why not just—I know I asked this before, but…”

“You amuse me,” Michael interrupts. “A walking tangle of lies and impossibilities and warped truths tearing itself in half… you fascinate me, Archivist.”

Jon blinks tiredly. “I…fascinate you?” He isn’t sure what he expected Michael to say, but apparently that wasn’t it.

He looks back at the dead figure at his feet, nausea roiling in his stomach. “Can we take this… elsewhere? I don’t…”

Michael just grins and inclines his head. “As you please.”

 


 

They end up walking back to the graveyard in silence.

Jon isn’t sure what to say. He’d prefer to leave, but somehow he gets the distinct impression that Michael isn’t done with him yet.

At some point he starts wondering why Michael crashed Sasha’s therapy session, of all things. He didn’t do any of that before. He was creepy and ominous, but he never got this close. Not to any of us. Why did that change? It can’t be just because of me.

But the talk in the morning seems so far away and Jon can’t remember what else Sasha told him. She was so rattled though.

He gave her therapy.

Jon carefully looks to the side where Michael looms. Therapy?! Really?

Michael seems not to notice his stare, even though Jon doubts it.

“Why did you talk to Sasha at such length?” he asks finally. The streets around them are deserted. It can’t be that late, but there’s no-one else around. It makes Jon uncomfortable these days, but the Archivist is fed and silent, so at least Jon doesn’t have to worry about that eventuality.

“Did I make you jealous, Archivist?” Michael laughs. “Must be boring for you, or not? Telling nobody what happened to you, no way to alleviate your fears or confide… oh, I see the struggle inside you, the terror, the lies. Delicious lies, wrought through pure terror… and you are not only lying to your friends but yourself as well! Your body  belies your truth, mind spiralling down and down and down in rationalisations… surely you must know that there is no escape by now, Archivist? Oh, I so love to see a person spiral into self destruction. What did happen to you? I see the conflicts, the lies, the possibilities. But I do not know how you got here, how you happened…

Tell me, Archivist. Who are you? Why do your dreams call to me? And… What does Elias think?”

He’s so close that Jon can feel his true shape, even if they aren’t touching. He stumbles back into an old gravestone, almost falls.

“What do you—you don’t already know?” The last part comes out faint, half-dazed. It feels surreal, to realise that despite everything, not even Michael knows. Why is he asking about Elias?

Michael only looks at him, maddeningly calm.

“I…” Jon takes a deep breath. Thinks back to telling Sasha. Stares at this figure in front of him, suddenly wondering.

“I can give you therapy as well,” Michael says, voice deeply amused. “You can talk to me, you know… I am not bound to your worries. If I decide to kill you, it won’t be because of past secrets, it will because—well. You keep asking me why I did not try killing you yet… Do you know me, Archivist?” Michael laughs. “You have seen parts of me that barely anyone knows about. And yet…”

Jon swallows. “I… I know Michael Shelley worked at the Institute as Archival Assistant under Gertrude Robinson. I know his fate. You aren’t him, even though part of you is. You—you tried to kill me, where I come from. You didn’t succeed because you Became someone else instead, sort of… oh, and you stabbed me in the shoulder once.” He pauses. Look Michael up and down. “You gave me a Statement before you tried to kill me. That is why you are pulled into my—my nightmares. Because I brought those connections, even if the events never happened here.”

There is a short break in conversation. Jon’s heart is racing and he has no idea if he should’ve said any of that out loud, to Michael. It is weirdly easy to confide in him. It feels as though it doesn’t matter what he says, as though Michael is listening without judging, without remembering what he’s saying at all. His eyes are weirdly hypnotic, even in the darkness. Jon feels his heart calming down, and it’s an altogether weird feeling.

“I shouldn’t want to confide in you, right? Did the… did the connection go both ways?” Jon shudders. “You terrified me, before. You… don’t, anymore. I don’t quite understand why not. It makes no sense.”

Michael stares down at him, laughs softly, looks out over the graveyard. The laugh grates down Jon’s spine, makes the fine hairs on his arms stand on edge. “There might be more to that connection than you understand, Archivist,” he says. “I should want to kill you, but you intrigue me far more… far more than it should. I… would like to—be a friend.” It sounds physically painful for him to say the words, but the terrible smile never fades.

And somehow, Jon isn’t even surprised. Sasha had mentioned that too, hadn’t she, back in her Statement? He smiles tiredly, wryly but not without humour. “Friends? Really?”

Michael shrugs, the motion going through his body like a wave. It still drags a shiver down Jon’s spine. Shouldn’t I be used to it by now?

“I have… never had friends, Archivist. I want to see how your lies unravel. You seem to need someone to… to listen.”

“Therapy?” Jon asks, laughing. “What do you want from me, Michael?” Laughing and crying, torn apart yet one, united. Jon shivers, remembering the terrible entwined figures from his nightmare.

“I am not sure,” Michael says with a maddening, impossible grin. “But I intend to find out. What do you want, Archivist?”

Jon has no idea how to answer that question.

 


 

In the end, Jon somehow finds himself talking for an hour, maybe two. He doesn’t tell Michael everything, but he doesn’t lie either, rather sure that Michael would be able to tell immediately. Michael doesn’t seem to care either way. Sometimes he asks a question that makes no sense and sends Jon for a loop, and sometimes his terrible laugh shudders through the night, through Jon, deep down into his bones.

 

Afterwards, Jon feels weirdly light.

He doesn’t know why Michael listened to him, given how he isn’t a person but a “what”, in his own words.

Jon doesn’t know what Michael will use that knowledge for, how he’ll turn it against him.

For now he doesn’t care, because it felt good to tell someone (something) no matter the consequences.

If he wants to kill me, there will be enough chances in the future.

 

For some reason one of the cats returns after Michael has left, and Jon slowly walks back to the Institute, having forgotten entirely that Martin had told him to call.

He only remembers when he finds them all sitting vigil around the phone, pale-faced and worried.

It is a weirdly touching moment, coming home. The only one who doesn’t seem to appreciate it is Cinders, hissing at the cat Jon is somehow still holding onto, who’s purring as though her life depends on it.

“Her name’s Briar Rose,” he says without missing a beat once Martin has calmed down, and Sasha and Tim visibly struggle to restrain their laughter.

Martin sends confused glances their way, staring intently at Jon’s tired face as though searching for the mockery that must surely be there—

But Jon hasn’t been a space pirate in his free time for nothing, and his face remains impassive. 

“We will see how they get along,” he just says. And that is that.

 

The next day there’s a worn, yellow door in the Archives, right next to Jon’s office door.

Chapter Text

Tim is sitting in front of Michael’s door when Jon leaves his office halfway through the morning.

His expression is tempestuous and there’s a knife in his lap. Jon recognises it as the biggest one from the break room.

“Are you, ah, are you okay, Tim?” he asks, knowing Tim is decidedly not okay, but unsure what else to say.

Maybe I shouldn’t have said anything at all, he immediately thinks when Tim looks up, meeting his gaze.

His face is still tired and eyes underlaid with dark rings, but at least he actually slept last night. He grins widely in an overly exaggerated manner, brandishing the knife at the off-yellow door. “I am a-okay, monster boss,” he says mockingly. Then he sighs, puts the knife on the ground and looks away, seeming to collapse back into himself. “I don’t like it being here. Someone’s gotta keep an eye on that thing, you know? Make sure it doesn’t, you know, eat anyone.”

Jon echoes his sigh. “I told you already. You don’t—Michael and I came to an understanding. A-At least I think we did.” He rubs at his forehead. “The door only opens from our side.”

“Well, that’s good,” Tim says, and doesn’t move a single muscle. Jon can’t quite tell whether he’s sarcastic or not. “Wait. Does that mean it’s staying?”

Jon shrugs tiredly. “I… suppose?”

“Seems fitting that its door is right next to yours…”

Jon is too tired to respond to that, so for a few moments they both just stare at the door.

“I will… visit him,” Jon finally says. “Today. Not—yet, but. Today. See what’s going on. Ask… about that.”

Tim doesn’t respond, but Jon counts that as a good thing.

When he returns to his office a while later, Tim is playing with Cinders next to the door and there’s a tiny, happy smile on his lips. The knife is nowhere to be seen. His pose is relaxed, the tension drained away.

Jon allows himself a tiny smile as well. We will be okay.

 


 

They’ve given up on the reconstruction of the Archives for now. Besides it not really mattering to anyone but him (and possibly Elias), all four of them are exhausted.

We can’t be fired anyway, so why bother?

The two cats don’t quite get along with each other yet. Jon has let them know that they’re expected to be friends, both with each other and with everyone else here, but they’re cats. It might take a while.

Jon had never felt much like a parent, but he suspects that this is what it’s like. At some point he finds himself wondering whether the Archives staff might actually be a bunch of cats in trench-coats too. Though he’d be better at communicating with them then, right?

At any rate, after Cinders is done playing with Tim, she prowls the Archives while the new cat stays holed up in Jon’s office. Briar Rose is very sleepy and very hungry, and she purrs twice the volume when Jon gently rubs her ears.

He still can’t quite believe the little calico returned to him. “I guess you liked me, didn’t you?” he whispers into her scraggly fur. She makes a small brrrrp sound and he laughs—helplessly, utterly smitten.

Martin hasn’t confronted him yet, but he’s thrown glances in his direction.

Jon can’t quite believe it. Surely Martin must’ve caught onto something by now, right?

It’s kind of funny though, wondering how far he can stretch it until Martin connects the dots.

And so he doesn’t say anything, and quietly wonders how he should escalate the game next.

 


 

By the time lunch approaches, Jon hasn’t done a single thing besides petting the cat, and from Tim’s overall softened expression he can tell that he spent his time similarly, though sitting on the floor in front of the door.

Sasha still looks a bit worn out when she finally makes her way into the break room, but it’s still much better than yesterday. She glances at Jon before sitting down opposite him, next to Tim—but thankfully there’s no sign of open animosity on her face.

It fills Jon with a vague relief, even if it isn’t much. I’m not made for conflict. First Tim, now Sasha? … At least she didn’t tell anyone. I’d know if she had.

At least she hasn’t confronted me about it again, so far.

He wonders what he’d tell her. How he’d explain himself this time. She’s mostly stayed out of his way, away from the others as well. Jon isn’t quite sure where she’s spent her day, but he hasn’t seen her around ever since she arrived in the morning.

Probably for the best.

Martin finally appears as well, having collected their food order at the Institute’s entrance.

“It’s raining,” he reports, “and… I am not sure, but I think I spotted a few worms. ” He looks at Jon. Uncertain. “You said you met Michael at that cemetery, right? He made you kill that man from that earlier Statement, who’d also become a—a hive? Is it—do you think it’s possible Prentiss is here to, uhm, to get revenge, or something? Like, there were… too many for it to have been a coincidence…” he trails off.

Jon stares at him, sighs, then nods to himself. “That’s—that’s possible…” he admits. “I suppose? Good Lord…” He rubs at the bridge of his nose and notices Sasha eyeing him carefully from the side.

He sighs again. First the door and Michael, and now worms, too?

“Look. I’m going to—I’m going to see about—about Michael and the door. After lunch, alright? And I’ll make sure to mention the—worms. And… see if there’s anything to be done about—about those. Uhm. Thank you, Martin.”

“Maybe we should get bunk beds and just move in,” Sasha quips.

Tim laughs. It sounds so much like the Tim Jon used to know, once, that it sends a full-body shiver through him.

“Elias would love that,” Tim says with a crooked grin. “We could make him pay them with institute funds…”

Even Jon cracks up at that concept, and afterwards the atmosphere is a lot lighter, and even Sasha is smiling.

 


 

When Jon finally does dare to try the handle of the yellow door, it swings open noiselessly, showing the hallways he’s come to know so well from his nightmares. That nightmare is truly accurate…

He takes a deep breath, and then he steps through.

 


 

The hallway is short. There’s another door at the end. This one has a shiny metal plaque saying “Michael” in curly, child-like scrawl. There are small spirals in the ‘e’ and ‘a’. The dot of the ‘i’ is a little spiral too.

Below it states “therapist”, but in the same style, just smaller.

Jon stares at it for at least a few heart-beats, utterly dumbstruck.

The door has a pane of milky, warped glass in its centre. Beyond, Jon can only see shadows. The shapes in the glass seem to spiral in on themselves, because of course they do.

Jon has never seen a door like this one in Michael’s corridors. It looks unbelievably out of place while somehow managing to fit the aesthetic exactly.

He finally manages to make himself press down the handle, pushes the door open (surprisingly heavy?), and steps through.

 


 

Nothing could’ve prepared him for what he sees.

The room is… a room. Squarish, surprisingly big. It has a wooden floor and white walls with framed inspirational quotes hanging on it. There is a window on the left wall that somehow has light streaming through it, even if the glass is as milky as that of the door and it looks as though there’s nothing behind it but blank white space. Cacti line the windowsill. Green and prickly. Jon finds himself staring at them for far too long. One of them is in a blue ceramic pot saying ‘you prick’. Another says ‘looking sharp’.

He blinks, and finally manages to take in the rest of the room.

There is a long lie-down couch pushed against the back-wall, decorated with eyesore patterns and a few throw pillows covered in a variety of stylised fractal prints. Additionally, there’s also a low table in the middle with a comfortable arm chair opposite the couch. The remaining walls are covered in bookshelves somehow filled with books that (upon closer inspection) have titles in imaginary languages, or just don’t make any sense if read, even if all those words exist on their own.

Somehow, that part of the room makes the most sense.

“Hello Archivist,” Michael says from his armchair. His torso is so long that the head juts above it. His legs are crossed at the knees and there’s a thick notepad on his lap. The cover is a mesmerizing eyesore of a print of rainbow colours and a lot of blue. And something written across it. And a disco ball. Jon can’t quite read it from where he’s standing, but it makes him dizzy.

Even from the door, Jon can see that Michael is twirling a comically oversized novelty pencil printed with spirals in his seemingly human-sized fingers.

“You are late,” Michael adds, and Jon can hear his grin. “Please lie down.”

“…late,” Jon hears himself echo.

“I expected you before noon.”

Michael’s following laugh shudders down Jon’s spine, but Jon still doesn’t move. He isn’t sure if he can move anymore.

“Therapy?”

“I thought that was obvious. We discussed it yesterday, or did you forget about that?”

Jon shakes his head ever so slightly. Then he walks forward slowly, vaguely bemused.

“I suppose,” he says dubiously, but somehow finds himself much more at ease than he probably should be. The situation appears so strange that it puts him off-kilter, tilts his world-view a few degrees in a demonstrably sub-optimal direction— and yet. All the tension seems to drop off his shoulders and he takes a deep breath. Walks around Michael’s armchair. There is a cardboard folder on the table. It says Jonathan Sims on the cover, in the same loopy writing as the plaque on the door.

Michael’s notepad cover design reads can’t spell disconnecting from reality without disco.

Jon laughs, helplessly. It’s as though something got unscrewed in his head. He isn’t sure how to adapt.

“How are we feeling today?” Michael asks, spinning the pencil so fast it creates dizzying, colourful patterns in the air.

“Uhhhh,” Jon says intelligently. “I… I adopted one of the cats yesterday?” He sits down awkwardly on the edge of the couch.

“Excellent!” Michael says, and the pencil stops spinning. He folds open the notebook, though one of his invisible fingers shears through it in the process.

When he tries to write on the paper (human fingers holding it in a normal-looking fashion) the notebook gets torn apart by invisible claws digging into the page. His grin doesn’t abide though, and he manages to somehow ‘write’ a few scraggly lines.

Jon almost finds himself impressed.

“I named her Briar Rose,” he says idly. “Do you like music, Michael?” Jon looks around the room, wondering despite himself whether there’s a hidden camera somewhere. It feels like a prank. It isn’t, obviously, and besides, cameras would be Elias’ thing if anyone’s. But Jon has never felt this—caught off-guard, despite everything he’s gone through.

“I can’t say I do,” Michael says thoughtfully, then laughs. “Do you have recommendations? Maybe I can add a—a tape player.” He folds the cover back, despite its torn state. Taps ‘disco’ with a knowing, curling grin.

It makes something in Jon’s stomach twist and he wonders dimly whether he’s going to be sick or not. “Why are you here, Michael?”

Michael’s face splits further into his impossibly wide grin. “I take your mental health very seriously, Archivist.” He folds back the cover. It seems to mend back together on its own as Jon watches. Surreality streams off Michael in waves, but it’s not uncomfortable, somehow.

“I have scheduled your appointments for Mondays and Fridays, there is no set time yet so you may decide on that on your own. Your assistant’s appointments are still open and she does already see a therapist. So—once a week? Perhaps on Thursdays?”

“My…” Jon feels as though he has astral projected onto another level of existence. “You—you expect us to…?” For a moment he feels guilty because he forgot to check in on Sasha’s therapist’s well-being, but Michael as a whole is too—distracting—to feel bad for long.

Jon can feel the migraine building, and idly wonders how bad it’s going to be.

“Did we not talk about that yesterday, Archivist?” Michael asks with another wide smile. “You need someone to confide in. None of this is good for your mental health—and you are safe from prying eyes in here. Or is it the accommodations?”

Jon shakes his head in disbelief and vague confusion. “We did, b-but—wait. You mean Elias can’t—”

He hesitates. Takes a deep breath.

Michael is right. The persistent feeling of being watched is gone.

“What—I thought—and I didn’t even know you could reshape your corridors—” I hadn’t even realised!

“I never had a reason to,” Michael says, and laughs. It grates in Jon’s bones and he clenches his jaw, hoping for the feeling to pass—a bad choice, as it seems to make his headache worse.   

“Truth be told, even I did not know that I could. The more you know!”

Jon stares at him strangely for what feels like minutes before finally glancing away—and finds himself staring at the poster opposite him, behind Michael’s wildly curling hair.

There’s a mountainous landscape on it, with what looks like a small burning cottage. The all-capitals text says You weren’t born to just pay bills and die. You must suffer. A lot.

Jon blinks.

“Your, uh, your interior design…”

“Do you like them?”

“I…” Jon trails off. There are seven other posters, spaced out across the walls. Jon has no idea how to feel about any of them, except that they look—well.

They look like the usual inspirational quotes placed on top of photos, like you’d see on the internet. Except all of them are off on further inspection, in rather interesting ways.

Jon stares at all of them in mute, horrified fascination.

There’s one in a soft white-pink colour scheme, showing a coffee mug and a few heart-shaped cookies with spirals drawn on in food colouring. It states Always consume in fittingly pink swirly letters.

Another one shows the photo of a man standing at the edge of a lake, pine trees, mountains in the background: Remind yourself every day that there’s a little fish inside each and every one. Jon has no idea what it’s supposed to mean, except it somehow resonates with something inside him. With the little fish? he wonders, vaguely hysterical.

Another one is just a blue sky and a black man in profile view, stating Indoctrination is fantastic; then there’s a photo of the tower of a church against the steel-grey clouds and You can be a gullible piece of meat. A gullible piece of meat. A gullible piece of meat.

Jon finds himself staring at that one for quite a moment, uncertain why Michael chose that, of all things. Doesn’t that seem more fitting for the Flesh?

The poster hanging on the door proclaims Never question the attack of time overlaid over a photo of a man kayaking into the sunset.

Is that supposed to be a personal attack? … Does Michael know?

Then there’s a photo of a woman on a sofa with a swirly, handwritten font proclaiming Question objects on the black-painted wall behind her.

Alright. Question objects. Hm.

The final one hangs on the wall behind Jon, and it states that Murderers are coming for you with three people skate-boarding down a steep road surrounded by hills and a sleet grey sky.

Jon only very barely manages not to flinch back from it. It feels oddly personal, given everything that had happened in the not-so-distant-future the last time he’d lived through it, post Prentiss’ attack.

And now there are worms outside the Institute. Everything’s moving so much faster this time around.

How much does Michael know?

“I found some of them to be very fitting,” Michael says, and his laugh shivers through Jon’s skull, only adding to his burgeoning migraine. “What do you think, Archivist?”

“I… I suppose…” Am I supposed to see any of them as a personal attack? Jon doesn’t ask, because he doesn’t quite want to hear the answer.

“The—meat one… feels rather… fleshy,” he finally says.

“I felt like there needed to be some variety,” Michael says, still laughing. “What do you want to talk about today?”

Jon really does not want to talk about anything. “Tim is watching your door with a knife,” he says. “And a cat.”

“I do like cats… and knives. Does he want to attend a session as well?”

Jon shivers. “Maybe don’t ask. I—Is the—is your door going to stay?”

Michael’s grin shifts. “Do you want it to?”

 


 

“Have you seen Jon?” Sasha asks distractedly.

Martin looks up. “I—actually now that you’re asking, I haven’t,” he says. “No. Wait. I think he—huh.” He frowns, trying to suppress his own irritation. “I think he wanted to have a—a word with, ah. With Michael.” He stares at the door. “I think he mentioned that.” 

Sasha’s eyebrows draw together and her lips turn into a flat line, mirroring Martin’s own expression. 

“Hm,” she says disapprovingly. “Then I guess he hasn’t returned yet, has he?”

Martin’s frown deepens at that collective realisation. “I guess he has not.

Together, they turn to stare at the door. The wood structure is still visible below the peeling off-yellow paint. Apparently, this wood somehow grew in spirals, not age-related rings like with normal trees. It makes a shiver crawl down Martin’s spine every time he looks at it, just sitting right next to Jon’s office door, terribly out of place with its weirdly modern-yet-ancient-looking “design” (or lack thereof). Clashing with the design of the entire Archives, actually, which looks much older, except at the same time in much better condition. Somehow, Martin knows it’s on purpose, even if he personally hasn’t had to make the acquaintance of Michael quite yet.

He’s almost surprised to realise how much he hates it. How dare it just be there? Here?! Now?! And wasn’t Jon just supposed to quickly pop in there and make Michael go away? 

Why has it been hours now? 

With Michael? 

“Martin?” Sasha asks. 

“Hm?”

“Are you… are you okay?” Sasha’s expression has softened a bit, even if the irritation still sits scrunched up in her posture. 

Martin blinks. “I… yeah?” 

“Hm.” She scrutinises him for another moment. Then she smiles, expression almost amused. “If I didn’t know better… no. Never mind.” The smile doesn’t quite leave her eyes though. Martin finds his irritation magnified by that, but he pushes it down and away and tries to make himself believe that it doesn’t bother him.

He almost succeeds, too. 

“I just hate that it’s there, you know?” he finally says, trying not to sound too petulant. “And right next to Jon’s door ? It feels…” he trails off. 

“Wrong,” he finishes finally. “I don’t like it. And why hasn’t he come out yet?! What are they talking about?!” 

Sasha actually laughs at that. “So if it was in a different place it would be better?” 

Martin sighs, eyeing her. There’s a mischievous twinkle in her eyes. He hasn’t seen that ever since her therapy, so in that sense it’s probably worth the embarrassment. He still doesn’t like feeling this seen though. At least not when it’s Sasha who’s looking at him like that . “Leave me be, Sash,” he huffs. “I just. I don’t like it.” 

For a moment, they’re both quiet, staring back at the door, immovable, unmoving. 

Then, feeling faintly petty, he adds: “How do you feel about it? With everything that happened…” 

“Yeah,” she just says, all laughter gone from her voice. “Yeah. I hope Jon actually makes it go away.” 

“Yeah,” Martin agrees uncomfortably, and feels bad for asking, even if he knew what would happen.  

 


 

The moment Sasha finally turns around to leave, the door is thrown open, followed by Jon stumbling out. His curly grey-streaked hair sticks up in all directions and his eyes seem even deeper than usual, deeper, darker, further away. They’re still a bit wild around the edges and Martin can see faint lines where his, well, his other eyes are just fading away—can watch them disappear entirely once Jon has closed the door. There’s a frenetic jittery quality to his motions as he pushes it shut, turns around, looks.

He’s still unfairly pretty, but there’s something off about him, and Martin doesn’t quite know how to feel about how much he finds himself liking it. Especially as it’s because of Michael.  

Jon breaths a long sigh, and his gaze falls on Sasha, still standing frozen in the motion of leaving, half-turned. She seems to shrink under the weight of his eyes bearing down on her, but Jon just laughs. It’s a wild sound, strangely alive .

“Well,” he says.

A small pause.

Martin and Sasha stare at him, both caught off-guard, at the weirdness of—all of it. The door. The worms. Everything that’s happened recently, because of him. It all comes back to that, doesn’t it? It’s him, it’s always him. Martin can’t say he’s regretting it, but there’s something off about the Jon who’s just left Michael’s office, and despite his own fascination, Martin has learned the hard way that sometimes, erring on the side of caution is the best option, actually.

“How long was I gone? It feels like hours…”

Martin doesn’t move. Jon sighs. It looks as though a weight slowly settles back down on his shoulders, and Martin suddenly realises what seemed off before.

Jon had looked relaxed. Vaguely eldritch, sure, but also relaxed.

Now the tension is slowly seeping back in, the openness in his features retreating slowly.

Martin faintly notices Sasha taking a step back, stiffening, bending down to retrieve something from her boot, but he isn’t really focused on her. 

After all, something is off about Jon, and Martin should probably be wanting to flee instead. Why is he so calm instead? Maybe because it’s Jon, and the first moment he’d seen this Jon had been when he’d rescued Martin from an eldritch worm lady? Like some goddamn many-eyed eldritch version of a knight in shining armour, just like in those fairy tales? 

This Jon looks off though, in a way Martin hasn’t seen yet. Differently even than when he’d almost attacked Tim, weeks ago. 

“Are you okay, Jon?” he asks carefully, willing his voice not to shake.

Jon smiles ruefully. “I—am. As much as it pains me to say… I think it—helped? Somehow?” His eyes settle back on Sasha, and he grimaces. “Michael said he’s scheduled your appointments for Thursdays, if you, ah, if you. Want.”

Sasha’s still staring at him. Martin suddenly realises that the thing she’d pulled from her boot had been a knife. Now, though, her expression has turned from being taken aback to something part-way between irritation and anger. Martin wonders how much that has to do with the argument she and Jon seem to have had the day before. 

Jon apparently hasn’t noticed the knife, and he doesn’t seem to notice her mood shift either. He continues to stand there for a few more moments, swaying ever so slightly, before sighing and letting himself sink to the floor, leaning his back against the off-yellow, peeling door.

For a moment it’s almost eerily quiet. Martin wonders where the cats and Tim have gone. Is the new one—Briar Rose— still in Jon’s office, or—?

“What is that supposed to mean?” Sasha says, her voice amazingly calm. Martin is strongly impressed by her ability to keep herself under control. 

It’s as though something inside Jon turns back on, slowly but steadily. He sighs explosively. When he speaks, he ignores Sasha entirely. Martin suddenly wonders how much he’s actually with them, mentally. “It appears Michael has discovered a certain… interest… in. Well. Let’s say it the way it is—there’s a therapist office behind the door, down the corridor. It has a plaque and everything. There are posters with inspirational quotes, and it looks. Almost right! Not quite, but—he obviously tried! And there are cacti! And books! And—he has a notebook. He wrote everything down, with one of these impossibly long novelty pencils? His fingers kept stabbing the paper… and for some reason, I stayed. And that notebook…” Jon laughs. It’s a jittery sound that skitters down Martin’s spine on thin, pointy legs. He shivers. Jon is mostly back to normal, but there’s something haunted in his expression, something tender and raw and off.

“He showed me the cover before I left! It said can’t spell disconnecting from reality without disco! And there was a possum on it. And a disco ball. And a chess board, but in rainbow colours… and we talked about so many things. It—it felt good. To confide.” He trails off. “I’m sorry, but I—there are things I can’t talk about yet. Not to you. Maybe never. But him? He listened. He’s—good Lord, he’s a good listener, somehow.” 

Jon looks around frantically. His eyes finally come to rest on Martin, and he gives a small, very warm smile. Martin is very proud that his heart only melts a tiny bit, and if his cheeks blush a bit, well, who can blame him?

Jon’s eyes stay on him as he continues though, and Martin’s never felt quite as much like a deer in headlights as in this one moment, even as something inside him is busy wilting at the fact that Jon prefers to trust a literal incarnation of lies and insanity over him.

And the door is still there, sitting smugly right behind Jon! 

“I think I need to—to lie down. Just. For an hour. Or maybe three. Can you… can you wake me before you leave? Martin?”

And despite everything, despite his self-pitying irritation and Sasha’s cold irritation and the entire mess this situation has become, Martin finds himself smiling back, before he nods quickly. “O-Of course! You… you look like you need it. Did… did he do anything to you?” 

Jon raises an eyebrow at the edge in Martin’s voice, but before he can respond, Sasha has apparently decided that enough is enough. 

“What do you mean I have an appointment on Thursdays?!” she asks, voice hard. The knife is gone from her hands, at least. Martin didn’t even see her put it back in her boot. “I wasn’t right in the head for hours after I’d met him! Why would I ever —I thought you wanted to make him leave!” She shivers. 

Martin suddenly realises that she’s scared, even if it manifests as rage. That even Jon unnerves her. 

Martin comes to the sudden, surprising revelation that he is, in fact, not scared of Jon, not even in situations such as these. It’s happened often enough already, after all. Maybe not quite this type of generalised unhingement, but there’s always a first time. 

“The door does only open from our side,” Jon says placatingly, not noticing how little it affects Sasha. “He said he wants to keep it so he can make sure we’re safe… I am not sure why he’s behaving like—this. But. Our biggest problem is Prentiss, I think? We can—we can think about him after we’ve dealt with her, I—“

“Jon! Why would I ever want to see Michael again?” 

“I don’t know! Go ask him yourself? He said you’d know why he’d want to meet you, and that the door would open for you as well.” Jon closes his eyes and rubs at his temples. When he looks up again, he appears mostly normal. “I—I’m sorry, Sasha. Are you alright? What does Michael want from you?”

Sasha laughs nervously. “No! Obviously not! And I don’t know! That’s why I’m asking you—he was behaving so weirdly and the headache, not even speaking of everything else about that hour I have to think about this.” She stares at him consideringly, eyes still hard and strangely brittle. “We have to—no. Actually, no.” She takes a deep breath, turns to look at Martin. “Can you help Jon to his office? I… I’m going to see if I can find Tim. And a cat. Cinders…”

“Y-Yeah. Sure.” Martin glances between her and Jon. “Just let me know, alright?”

“Yeah. Thank you, Martin.”

He smiles uncertainly, watching Sasha escape to the break room. 

“So,” he finally asks without turning back around, “what happened?”

Jon smiles weakly. “The connection to the Eye is cut off in there. It felt good. Elias couldn’t watch me, and I could just… talk… well, it was still Michael. I don’t know what he wants, if he does want anything. But it felt good.” He smiles again, down at his own hands.

Martin finds himself hating every single word, even if he knows that he probably shouldn’t. Jon deserves to have a safe space. Even if Michael’s corridors of insanity very much appear to be the exact opposite of that. By definition alone

Then he notices that Jon is staring at him, expression strangely soft. 

“Thank you for being there for me, Martin,” he says, voice shockingly gentle. Martin finds himself blushing and tries to push away the sudden guilt that wells up inside him. “I—I really appreciate it. And I apologise that the last few days… well. And I think you’re right—Prentiss might be here for me specifically. I apologise for that as well.” He looks thoughtful for a moment, even though the frown persists.

Martin wants to smooth it out with his fingers.

“And for the door. But if I understood right, it will only open for Sasha and me. But it might be best to crash-test that theory? And I think there’s a chair in my office, its handle should be at the right height…”

Martin, not oblivious in the face of such obvious cues, frowns at the door. Takes a few steps forward, grasping the handle carefully, as though wary it might bite him.

Jon sighs, still sitting with his back leaned against it. He forces himself back to his feet, away from the door.

Martin takes a deep breath and presses down.

The door doesn’t budge.

“Huh. I guess you’re right.”

Jon smiles weakly, another of these impossibly soft smiles that just—make something inside Martin turn to very soft, embarrassing goo. “I have to go lie down,” Jon says finally. “But maybe we can try the thing with the door handle first.”

Martin nods, feeling as though his brain has turned to goo as well.

The feeling doesn’t leave, even once they’ve securely wedged the door to the incarnation of insanity shut with a simple old wooden chair.

It might not actually hold him back, but Jon at least seems visibly more relaxed.

 


 

Martin obviously only allows himself to relax after Jon is safely asleep in his office (with the new cat in the crook of his neck; Martin still can’t quite get over 1) how attached she is to Jon and 2) that her goddamn name is Briar Rose. Surely Jon must know what’s going on, right? Surely this can’t be an accident, right? First Cinders and now Briar Rose?! They must be playing him for a fool, right? But Jon hasn’t said a thing and remained as stoic and unmoved as ever, and Martin knows that Tim and Sasha know because they barely managed not to implode from laughter when Jon proclaimed her name, but his facade hasn’t cracked one bit since, and Martin has no idea what to think. Did Sasha and Tim show Jon the Mechs without him?! But they wouldn’t have, right? They must know how important this moment would be for him. They’ve known about his feelings from the start, both for the Mechanisms and for Jon, and Martin can’t believe they would’ve betrayed him in such an egregious manner. The thing is, he’s been waiting for the perfect, right moment to confront Jon about it, to show him their videos and their music, but it just—hasn’t arrived yet. He’s been fretting about it day in and day out, but he needs it to be perfect, and he’s deadly afraid of the results. Surely Jon would like them, right? Surely even if he doesn’t, he’d be good enough at not showing his disdain? But Martin can’t be sure and it’s too important to ruin. Best to live in uncertainty than certain failure and dejection, right? And yet—)

The door to the Archives is pushed open, and Elias enters with a faint smirk, right before doubling over and sneezing with the explosive power of a landmine.     

“Right,” Elias says after smoothing out his three-piece suit and pushing the single strand of hair that had escaped its pristine configuration back into place. “It appears I forgot! How unfortunate. Well, nothing to be done about it.” He smiles, discovering Martin.

Martin’s eyebrows knit together on sight and he forces himself not to clench his fists. Not to dislodge Elias’ hair further by punching him in the face.

“Good morning, Martin,” Elias says mildly.

“Elias,” Martin grinds out.

“I suspect you won’t let me talk to Jon?” Elias says.

Then he stiffens and freezes in the middle of his motions, eyes going past Martin. Martin half-turns before realizing a moment before he spots it that Elias is staring at Michael’s door—obviously.

“What is that doing here?” Elias says, voice almost managing to smooth over his obvious shocked disgust.

Martin is almost impressed with him.

“Michael gives therapy now,” he responds nonchalantly.

It’s deeply fascinating to watch Elias’ expression pass through all five stages of grief, though they’re so restrained Martin wouldn’t have caught them if he hadn’t paid specific attention.

“Anything the matter, Elias?” he asks, forcing himself not to smile. He might not want Michael’s door here either, but few things have ever brought him such joy in life as watching Elias’ reaction to it.

Elias takes a very deep breath. “Nothing at all, Martin. Where is Jon?”

“Sleeping,” Martin says, putting himself directly between Elias and Jon’s office door. “He went to see Michael earlier, but apparently is the door not only staying, he was also in shockingly, ah, good spirits when he returned. But he’s taking a power nap now. You can come back later, if you want—is that a pineapple?” The last thing is directed at the enamel pin Elias has pinned to the lapel of his suit.

It’s still a pineapple upon closer inspection. Even worse, the individual ‘scales’ are all tiny semi-realistic eyes with slit pupils, staring at Martin with the identical baleful expression replicated over a dozen times.

“Yes,” Elias says superfluously. "It's new. Do you like it?"

For a moment they stare at each other—Martin, Elias, and the pineapple.

Then there’s a soft mrp at Martin’s feet and Cinders stares up at him with huge, luminous eyes, before carefully looking toward Elias.

Elias' eyes widen and an actually joyful smile spreads across his face.

There are laugh lines at the corners of his eyes.

Martin has never seen him like this. Hadn’t even known he had laugh lines. They need to have come from laughing, right? What is going on?

Elias sneezes again before going to his knees, reaching out with his right hand carefully.

And Cinders, the absolute traitor, carefully walks forward, sniffs at his fingers, and then rubs her head against his outstretched hand, his knees.

Elias sneezes again and there are allergy-induced tears in his eyes, but his smile never wavers. “Hello! What a beauty you are,” he whispers to the cat in the tone of voice one usually associates with talking to cute animals, though not with Elias using it. “What’s your name?”

He looks up at Martin.

Martin stares down in shocked disbelief. “Cinders,” he says numbly before he can control himself.

“Cinders!” Elias coos.

Martin feels as though he’s going to faint, and flees in the direction of the rest room where Tim and Sasha probably still remain. How did they let Cinders escape?!

 


 

He only later realises that he’s thus left the way to Jon open for Elias, but apparently the man is too busy petting the traitor-cat he’s deeply allergic to, and Jon gets to sleep in peace. 

Martin also decides Elias’ laugh lines must be from all the evil laughter Elias must be doing when he’s planning his evil schemes. It’s the only plausible answer, after all. 

 


 

It’s only later-later when Martin disbelievingly recounts the events to the others that he starts to wonder whether he hallucinated the pineapple (or maybe the entire event?).

It seems far too out of character for Elias, but at least parts of it must have happened, because Tim vividly remembers Elias walking past the break room.

It still feels like a fever dream, and none of them believe Martin about the pineapple enamel pin.

Martin very much included.

It's new. Do you like it?

 


 

Things change rather quickly after that.

Once Tim is done being absolutely horrified by Cinder’s betrayal (Jon and Sasha both remain entirely nonplussed by the severity of the situation for some reason), Martin finds himself embroiled in deep conversations about cat-related entity alignments.

“They’re obviously of the Hunt,” Sasha says the next day. “That’s painfully obvious, Tim!”

Tim shakes his head vigorously. “But why did Cinders betray us like that, then? I think you’re missing the far more obvious option, Sash—she’s obviously a secret agent for the Eye! Think about it! Lying around all day, doing nothing but watching us? The Hunt might be the obvious answer, but the Eye is far sneakier! Manipulative little bastards— wait. I hadn’t even considered that— manipulation —didn’t you say there was one for that, too—“

 


 

Three hours later, Tim has redecorated one of the Archive walls. There’s a huge cork board Jon had thrown out of his office when he’d redecorated, and Tim has constructed what he refers to as the crime board. First, he has taken and printed shitty photos of both Cinders and Briar Rose. (Martin still hasn’t confronted Jon. He’s even talked about it with Tim when they’d gone home. Tim had sworn up and down that neither he nor Sasha had talked to Jon. What does that mean? Is Jon a secret fan but just hasn’t brought them up yet because he’s just a casual fan? But then why would he name both his cats after—)

Tim has also designed symbols for all the entities (with Sasha’s help to remember all of them). They’re all pinned around the cat photos. Despite what Tim insists, it’s a full-on conspiracy red-string board, looking exactly like Martin has always imagined them to look. There are small blank sheets of paper pinned beneath every symbol with empty space for a tally chart. Below the ‘hunt’ symbol it says 'too obvious but cats hunt mice and stuff!', and below the ‘eye’ one it says 'lying on the shelves and just watching lazily… very suspicious' combined with a crude drawing of an open eye.

Tim seems very proud of his work.

“I have points for some of the others,” Martin says dubiously. “They do really well in the dark, too. And the other day, Cinders jumped down at me from the high shelf—she really likes high places—”

Tim gives him a wide, savage grin. “Well, put them on the board!” he says.

Martin takes a thin black marker. “Alright.” Then he hesitates. “Can we have a contra argument list as well? Because I think cats eat spiders sometimes. That doesn’t seem very web-aligned to me.”

Tim nods thoughtfully, and adds another list on the right to the existing one.

 


 

Hours later, the two of them are furiously discussing entity theories and the tally charts are filled with ever tinier, more cramped handwriting, from when their space had run out. Martin notices Sasha and Jon watching from the sidelines (though not together—by now it’s obvious that they had a fight of some sort, something that went far beyond Jon betraying Sasha by getting therapy from Michael, but Martin hasn’t gathered his courage to ask yet). But Martin doesn’t really care about what they think anyway. He hasn’t had such fun in a long time and he’s glad Tim seems to be enjoying himself as well. There’s black marker all over Martin’s fingers and by the time they finally leave for Tim’s home (given how Martin is still living with him, oh God, he really has to call his landlord, doesn’t he?), they’re still discussing possibilities, even if Martin is vaguely bemused by the whole thing.

There are more worms outside than in the morning. It seems every time Martin steps outside, their numbers have doubled.

“Maybe we should get bunk beds just to spite Elias,” he says thoughtfully.

Tim grins, but there’s worry in his gaze as well. “I—don’t know if I want to stay here with Jon,” he says, voice slightly strained, “but—I would indeed love to spite Elias personally. He deserves it, after what he did.” He sounds disgusted. Martin almost laughs but manages to turn it into a cough. Tim eyes him dubiously from the side before continuing. “He can’t really say anything if we’re doing it for worm-reasons, right? Can’t—can’t Jon do something against them, or something?”

“I think he would’ve if he could,” Martin says quietly.

“Yeah. I guess… I guess you’re right.”

Sometimes Martin really wants to take both Tim’s and Jon’s heads and knock them together. Gently. Recently, Sasha's, too.

(Alright.

It’s most of the time.)

 


 

The next two weeks pass without any large-scale things happening. 

Sasha is still mad at Jon, but it’s not as though he can blame her, really. He wonders whether or not he regrets having told her, but can’t come to any proper answer. He understands why she’s standoffish and why she can’t quite forgive him yet, but there’s little he can do about it besides leaving her alone. She seems to be grateful for that at least. He can feel a confrontation burning distantly at the horizon, but it’s not upon them yet and he’s glad about that. 

Tim’s cat-related theories escalate through the roof, and from what Jon can tell, Martin seems to have a lot of fun egging him on.

Elias reappears three times, but only Martin is there to witness it. Martin had told Jon about the pineapple pin, but it had seemed so outlandishly surreal that they’d all convinced themselves that it must’ve obviously been Martin’s imagination.

The next time Jon sees Elias, he looks the way he always does, no pineapples in sight.

He does, however, bear a gift for the cats.

“Are you seeing what I am seeing?” Tim asks Jon in disbelief. A moment earlier, they watched Elias walk past the break room in the direction of the Archives.

All of them know that Elias must know that they’re all in the break room. The only ones not in the break room are the cats, which Jon hasn’t seen all day. They’ve been getting on a lot better with each other recently, and Jon vaguely remembers that they’ve built a nest at the back of the open archiving shelves (which are still in disarray, for the most part, but archiving and reconstruction has been slow-going with Tim’s and Martin’s escapades, and Jon and Sasha aren’t particularly committed to doing clean-up all day either.)

“Good Lord,” Jon just says.

They carefully leave the sanctuary of the break room, just in time to watch Elias (whistling to himself) walk down one of the isles between the half-reorganised shelves. He’s carrying a knitted eyeball cat toy (dangling from its equally knitted red optic nerve which he’s holding onto) in his right hand and sneezing into a little white handkerchief from time to time.

It doesn’t seem to deter him in the least.

(Jon actively remembers that the Eye currently has the most ‘pro’ points on Tim’s conspiracy board. He wonders if there’s a connection there.)

Jon hadn’t been quite sure if he could’ve believed Martin (obviously he should have but it had sounded so out of character. Elias, ruining his suit with cat hair for cats he’s obviously deeply allergic to? Elias with a pineapple pin with eyes? No, not that last one. Probably. Hopefully.)

And now, here he is. With an eyeball cat toy.

“Good morning, Elias,” Jon says weakly. He isn’t sure why he’s speaking at all.

Elias stops and turns around, smiling blandly. His eyes are a bit red-rimmed already and swimming with unshed tears. “Good morning, Jon. You still haven’t filled out the form for the cats yet,” he replies. “I put it on your desk a while ago. Usually, I’d never permit pets at the workplace, but I might make an exception for these two. If you hand it in until the end of the week.”

“You’re—not going to say anything?”

“Well, as a cat-lover myself—” He wiggles the eyeball toy suggestively, “—just make sure you fill out the relevant forms. And make sure they don’t chew up the files. Have you filed the finance records for the month yet?”

Jon stares at him.

He hasn’t had a private chat with Elias ever since the terrible first ones.

He isn’t sure how to feel about this sudden lack of sub-textual menace.

“And please tell that headache to remove its door from my Institute,” Elias says archly. “Or at least, to reshape its door into something that fits the style more closely. What are statement givers going to think?”

And then he turns back around and continues onward, leaving Jon behind in utter bewilderment. As it turns out, the eyeball toy is filled with catnip and the cats go absolutely wild over it the moment they smell Elias approaching. And then he kneels down in front of them, dangling the toy so they have to play with him.

“Jon?” Tim nudges Jon frantically. “Have you—his socks!”

When Jon spots Elias’ pineapple-patterned socks, he seriously wonders whether the NotThem took Elias this time around.

 


 

Even after Elias leaves, Tim is set into a state of disbelieving jealousy for the rest of the day. He buys them catnip himself the next day and as they’re cats, they seem to love him as much as they liked Elias the previous day.

The next time Elias visits, he’s carrying a pineapple-shaped squeaky toy.

Jon is at an utter loss for words.

The third time (in Jon’s presence at least), it’s a spider-shaped cat-nipped filled knitted toy (matching the eyeball one) and his tie has a pineapple pattern printed on it.

Jon specifically goes to take a look at Tim’s conspiracy board after, and it indeed seems to be that the web has reached the top spot. 

Most of the comments are raving about “manipulative little bastards”.

Jon just smiles to himself in faint disbelief, but it’s not as though he wants to be confronted with his own monster-hood by Elias. And anyway, it’s been two weeks since Timothy Hodge died. Since he took his stories. 

Apart from the Dreams, the Archivist hasn’t made a reappearance, and Jon hopes it stays that way as long as possible. 

 


 

None of them know what to do about Elias’ strange shift, how to confront it, or what to think about it.

“He’s been replaced, ” Tim says with dubious satisfaction. “It’s the only explanation that makes sense.”

“But he’s still allergic!”

“Maybe the shapeshifter is allergic too?”

The good thing about these nonsensical discussions is that Tim seems far less aggressive these days. Jon is a bit weary of what Elias is actually planning, but he doesn’t want to bring it up with anyone else yet. 

Sasha is still a bit weary around Jon sometimes, but they’re capable of holding small-talk-y conversations again. It’s a step up, at least. Baby steps and all that. 

At some point, Jon does actually bring up the door’s ill fitting design with Michael, but this only results in Michael shaping it to look worse. 

Apart from that, his door stays closed and unchanged, right next to Jon’s. Martin complains about it from time to time, but both Sasha and Tim seem to be doing their best to ignore it entirely. (Sasha also misses both her “appointments”, which doesn’t really come as a surprise to anyone. Jon wonders what she’s talking about in real therapy with her real therapist.)

Jon does not miss his appointments. Somehow, impossibly, they help. It’s hilarious how quickly you can get used to something, even if the something is a too-wide grin and a headache of a laugh combined with cryptic, confusing questions and the sound of tearing paper. Sometimes Jon doesn’t tell Michael anything and just visits to escape Elias’ gaze. Besides, he isn’t very good at being a therapist, but he is very good at further confusing him, and sometimes that’s the perfect antidote to a weird, possibly eldritch monster boss who has stopped behaving as monstrously as he’s supposed to and is instead fighting with Tim over the cats’ affections with catnip filled entity-themed knit toys. Though it’s just been a spider and an eye. And a pineapple.

So far. 

He wonders if Elias will bring a new one if Tim decides to give into Sasha’s insistent nagging and decides that the cats are Hunt aligned—but he still has plausible deniability on his side.

Is he trying to test us?

But if so, Jon has no clue what the test could be.

 


 

For some reason, Michael seems to be home every time Jon comes knocking, no matter what time it is, and he’s also always ready to listen to Jon’s increasingly convoluted Elias-themed rants.

Jon is still apprehensive about the fallout that’ll obviously happen at some point, but he’s given up on trying to predict what it might be like.

And besides, there are actual problems to deal with—because after two weeks have passed, there are more worms than ever. Far more than Jon can remember from his timeline.

And in the end, it’s this combined with Elias’ obvious lack of care about the issue that makes Jon decide to actually try the bunk bed idea.

 


 

The bunk beds might have started out as a tongue in cheek joke, but after Jon has seriously considered bunk beds for the Archives once, the thought won’t leave him alone anymore. And after the cat-toy fiascoes even Tim is entirely on board, partially because it would annoy Elias to hell and back if they could somehow make the Institute pay for them.

And so, on a rainy Tuesday after lunch, the Archive staff goes on a field trip to IKEA—just for research purposes. Obviously.

They’ll still have to talk Elias into funding them, after all.

Somehow. 

 

The result isn’t two bunk beds like Jon assumed, but one monster-bed that can house four grown adults—two single beds at the top at a right angle to one another, and a wide two-person bed below the left upper cot. The upper beds are both accessible via ladders, and it’s obvious that Jon and Martin will sleep there, with Sasha and Tim sharing the lower bed.

It’s perfect, if in the most hilarious, surreal way. It fits Jon’s mood 100 percent.

(Jon tries his utmost not to feel as though he’s a little kid again, finally allowed to go on the class trips his grandma didn’t let him take when he was young. Not that he’d wanted to, back then, obviously. He fails.)

 


 

They all file the paperwork the same evening, together, both for the bunk bed and the cats.

The next day Elias appears in the Archives, carrying a knitted cat toy in the shape of a knife (or maybe a dagger, or shortsword?) with a red 'bloody' tip, and a little bag filled with treats

Cinders is following at his heel, purring like a chainsaw. Briar and Tim are both watching carefully from the break-room. 

The thing is—Elias is also whistling a song Jon and Martin both know very well. Conceivably, it could also be the melody to another song—they’d often repurposed folk tunes into their own songs, after all.

Jon knows exactly that Elias is whistling Tales to Be Told, and from Martin’s expression he can tell that Martin is highly irritated, excited, and conflicted at the same time, only barely managing to not bring it up immediately. 

“Really, Elias?” Jon asks, staring pointedly at the Slaughter entity cat toy. 

Elias stops whistling and smiles his blandest smile. “I received your funding request for the bunk bed,” he says, his unbelievably mild tone mirroring his smile perfectly. His voice is just loud enough to be audible. He feeds Cinders a treat from his hands, and then he sneezes.

Jon grits his teeth. He also knows that this time around, the Slaughter had definitely not been at the top of Tim’s conspiracy board. 

“Did you see the amount of worms outside the Insitute?” Jon asks pointedly. “Or do they just ignore you? Every time we leave, I wonder whether we’ll be able to come back the next day. We have one bed, but there’s four of us. Your choice. We could also just buy three additional normal beds, but I calculated and this is a much better option. Price-wise and—”

“I was right!” Martin gasps next to him. “Jon! I didn’t imagine that pin!” 

Jon follows his gaze, only now noticing the pineapple pin adorning Elias’ suit. The pin stares back at them both. Jon swallows. 

Elias’ smile widens a fraction, something in it turning strangely wolfish. He takes one of the treats out of the little bag and throws it in a fluid arc. Cinders jumps into the air to catch it. 

“This is neither the time nor space for this, but please come to my office in an hour, Jon, will you? I have a meeting with the library staff in a few minutes,” Elias says. Briar Rose finally approaches him. He smiles at her (before sneezing) and then scratches her beneath the chin once she gets close enough. 

You have a meeting with the library staff and yet you choose to come here, carrying a slaughter cat toy, just to provoke us? Really?

Then Elias finally gives Cinders the knitted knife toy, watching Briar Rose slink closer carefully. “Enjoy,” he says with obvious satisfaction in his voice. He gets up, brushing off some partially imaginary dust. He sneezes again. Meets Jon’s disbelieving gaze, even if his own eyes are reddened and ever so slightly swollen. “See you later, Jon.” Smiles his bland smile in a thoroughly pointed way before turning away to leave the Archives.

On his way out, he picks Tales to be Told back up, right where he left off.

There’s a moment of unbroken silence after the door falls closed behind him. 

"Does he want us to go all Slaughter on him, or what is he trying to tell us...?" Tim mutters darkly from behind them, having followed Briar earlier.

“How the fuck does he know them?” Martin interrupts him in utter disbelief. “I can’t—”

Tim drags Jon off into the break room and closes the door behind them before Martin can even finish his sentence. 

“This is getting ridiculous,” he says. “Either you tell him yourself now, or you come to Karaoke with us. Tonight. All four. A cat-free, Elias-free, fun-filled evening.”

He throws Jon a threatening glance and Jon's defense wilts immediately. He finds himself nodding in defeat. "Fine,” Jon says. 

"Really, I should've done this weeks ago!" Tim says in exasperation. Then he grins and claps Jon on the shoulder. "Excellent."

 


 

Tim also refuses to let Jon go see Elias on his own. Jon doesn’t quite know what to say to this—after all, Tim is still supposed to be mad at him. 

“I want to see if I can find any leverage in his office,” Tim just says while they’re climbing the stairs, and somehow, Jon believes him. 

He isn’t sure what he expected, but it really wasn’t an entire, unblemished pineapple sitting on a little crocheted green table mat on Elias’ perfectly polished, immaculate desk. 

“Why is there a pineapple?” Jon asks, taken aback. 

“Jon. Please focus on the matter at hand,” Elias says. The pineapple pin is gone. His eyes are sharp and clear.

Jon wonders whether the Archives did anything to him. Maybe the cat allergy addled his mind, every time he visited them down there? Maybe it's Michael's fault. Things have started going weird ever since he showed up, right?

“I’d prefer to focus on the pineapple?” Jon finds himself blurting, and glares at Tim when the other man can’t swallow down his laugh. 

“Since when do you have a mini fridge?” Tim asks immediately after, before Elias can even open his mouth.

Jon turns around to stare. There is, indeed, a mini fridge sitting in the corner of Elias’ office, almost invisible in the shadows gathering there. Unobtrusive, out of the way. Or at least, a mini-fridge shaped delusion.

Jon can’t remember ever seeing it before, but then again, he never paid attention to that corner either.

There’s a sound of the fridge being opened, followed by a moment of stunned silence. 

“I too would prefer to focus on the pineapple,” Tim says in a disbelieving tone. 

This time, Jon has to stifle a laugh. 

“I recently re-discovered a half-forgotten passion,” Elias says stiffly. 

“Why the hell is half your fridge filled with pineapple?” Tim asks, cracking up. 

There’s a tiny moment of silence, before Elias closes his eyes and takes a deep breath. “Do you know what it was like, Tim, in the days before refrigeration was invented? No—even before that, before year-round growing?! Globalisation—making so many impossible things possible—do you know what it was like when food was still seasonal and you had to go months at a time before you even got a chance at eating your favourite food again? And even then your entire fortune depended on the cruel whims of an uncaring sea, overeager to sink ships and consume their cargo and crew. So, even during the right season, disease and storm and cost always stood between you and a single, simple pineapple!” Elias is breathing hard. “Now—about the bunk beds, I have drawn up a spreadsheet—

"What?” 

Jon and Tim stare at him in utterly dumbfounded disbelief. 

“Are you—are you perchance a disgruntled time traveller?” Tim asks after a moment, edging slowly away from the mini fridge after closing its door with uncharacteristic care. “Maybe we should call—I don’t even know, what do you call if someone cracks down the middle? Jon, that can’t be him, right? What’s going on in this place…”

Elias takes a deep, calming breath. “I admit, that was—a bit, ah, much. Maybe. I—it's been a very recent rediscovery. Still, the paperwork won't do itself—"

“For pineapple?” Tim quips.

“For the history of pineapple,” Elias corrects him. “Did you know that pineapple was so expensive and rare that people rented them, originally? They’d get passed around until they rotted, and you weren't even allowed to eat one—”

“Fascinating,” Tim cuts in. “I’m going to be honest with you, Elias—I still think you owe us our bunk bed.” 

Elias’ lips thin into an even thinner line. 

 


 

Half an hour later, Tim and Jon finally make their way back to the Archives. Tim’s shirt is bulging slightly and the moment they step through the heavy door to the Archives, they both start to laugh. There’s a certain wild madness to their laughter. 

Martin pokes his head out the break room door, just in time to watch Tim produce a whole goddamn pineapple from under his shirt, followed by both him and Jon breaking into thunderous cackling.

Martin stares at them in dumbfounded amusement. 

“Everything alright?” Sasha calls from their tables. (She really hasn’t done anything useful today, but she relocated a while ago. Apparently her office chair is more comfortable than the break room ones in the kitchen.)

“Elias only gets it back if he lets us pay for the bunk bed with Institute funds,” Tim explains, looking the pineapple over with deep, purring satisfaction. 

Martin laughs. “Do you think it’ll work?” he asks in disbelief. 

“You didn’t hear the man,” Jon mutters. The laugh still crinkles the edges of his eyes. It makes him look at least five years younger, and Martin does his best not to swoon. “He told us half the history of pineapples.”

“It was incredible ,” Tim adds. “I still think it can’t really be Elias. Cats and pineapples? Only two weeks ago he was still trying to brute force information out of you!” He laughs. Somehow, impossibly, there’s no hint of bitterness in his voice. “I got a little bag of googly eyes the other day,” he adds mischievously. “Wanna help me decorate?” He looks at Martin, then Jon. “Sash? Do you wanna help me decorate Elias’ prize pineapple with googly eyes?” 

“Oh, I definitely want to watch that,” Sasha calls. There’s a laugh in her voice too. Martin almost can’t believe it. He hasn’t heard her this happy since her brush with Michael. It had mostly been quiet brooding and frustrated researching. Plus staying out of the way of Jon, for the most part. Sometimes Tim, too. Everyone apart from him, honestly. (He’s grateful about that, but he had been worried. It’s good to hear her laugh.)

“Alright,” Tim calls, with a wide grin.

For the first time in a long while, there’s nothing terrible in his eyes when he looks at Jon. He doesn't even hesitate when he asks: “What about you? Do you want to help?” 

Jon nods and grins. It makes him look at least another five years younger. Martin’s age. 

Something big and bright and happy is blooming inside Martin’s chest.

“And don’t forget,” Tim says with a cheery grin, “we’re going to karaoke later tonight. No excuses! All of us!” 

Jon groans and buries his face in his palms. But he nods. Even Sasha grins faintly.

And together, Jon and Tim carry the pineapple to Sasha’s desk, and everyone gathers around to watch Tim cover it in googly eyes. 

Martin almost succeeds at not thinking about the evening too much in excited anticipation. 

Karaoke!

Chapter Text

Karaoke night happens at a different pub, two times a month, or so Tim says. This one is a bit further from the Institute and Martin is uncertain why Tim chose it, specifically. The other one has a karaoke setup too, doesn’t it?

“I refuse to sing,” Jon announces halfway there. “I know what you’re doing, Tim, but you can’t make me.”

“Aww,” Tim says, acting all dejected. It can’t hide his good mood. The last few days must’ve broken his brain and possibly his anger with it. Martin can’t blame him—cat and pineapples would’ve broken his brain too.

His theory is that Michael’s existence in the Archives is messing with reality a bit, and that it’s bringing out the weird in them. He has no evidence for this theory, but it would explain at least some things.

Like Jon joining them.

“Are you sure?” Tim asks. There’s something in the stare he levels at Jon, but Jon ignores him and remains resolute, staring forward without blinking.

“Yes. There is nothing you can do.”

“Ah, well.”

“As if Jon would sing,” Martin mutters to himself, amazed by the fact that Tim even tried. Sure, Martin has been hopeful, but he’d admitted to himself a while ago that this was basically an impossibility from the start.

“Agreed,” Sasha snipes. “I doubt he can sing.”

Martin doesn’t miss Jon’s glance in her direction. It’s a fast and furtive thing, careful and… something else. Aggravated and hurt?

“You okay there, Jon?” Tim asks lightly.

“Fine,” Jon grumbles. “I—” He takes a deep breath. “No. Actually, no. Never mind.”

Sasha snickers.

Martin knows he is missing something and wonders whether Jon is hiding a successful career as musician, and the thought makes him snort.

 

 

They reach the pub.

The sound almost makes it out on the street. People laughing, clapping.

Singing.

“I’ve never done this before,” Martin admits sheepishly. “I never really had any friends to do it with except you but the time we went I was too scared.” He turns toward Tim. “It’s your fault we’re here, right? I know for a fact that we could’ve rented a private cabin.”

Tim smiles smugly. “But it’s so much more fun out in the open! Besides, I checked. Their catalogue is immense. I am not sure why, but for some reason they do have most of the songs.”

“Wait. The songs?” Martin starts to grin. “Oh, thank you!”

“I knew you’d appreciate it,” Tim says with a good-natured grin. “Are you okay, Jon?”

It’s only now that Martin notices Jon’s stare, levelled at the front entrance. Is Jon in pain?

“Why did you choose this place?” he asks.

Yup, definitely pain, Martin decides.

“I like it here,” Tim says lightly. “Did some googling, found an old facebook page.” He wiggles his eyebrows. There’s something almost—mean in his expression. Something flat and hungry.

“Hm,” Jon says, eyes widening.

Martin doesn’t ask because he’s come to accept the fact that Tim and Jon still have issues, and this one seems to be getting waged on the field of karaoke and some form of subtext Martin hasn’t been invited to. Well, he isn’t going to complain. It sure is going to be an unforgettable night, won’t it?

“Sasha, what about you?” he asks, turning toward her with a feeling of vague desperation. “Do you want to sing?”

“I am not sure,” she says. “Karaoke usually isn’t my thing, especially not in front of so many other people.” At Martin’s expression, she relents. “However, given that it’s your first time too… yes. Maybe. But I refuse to sing anything other than 80s hits.”

Tim bursts out laughing. “80s hits?! I thought you only knew weird indie bands nobody has ever heard of…”

“Maybe Abba.”

“Your dark secrets wound me.”

“I doubt they have my weird indie bands,” she says dryly. “And the only other stuff I know well enough is from Katie’s terrible sing-star collection.” At the others’ stares, she raises a skeptic eyebrow. “What? Stop judging me. Everyone knows Abba. And I bet you all had that one friend with too much power who forced you to join their sing-star nights.” She wiggles her eyebrows.

Martin looks away, suddenly ashamed.

“I—ah, sorry Martin.” Sasha sighs. “I walked right into that one, didn’t I?” She grimaces.

They’re still standing in front of the pub.

Martin would rather they just walk inside and never mention this topic again.

“It’s fine,” he mumbles. “I’m glad I have you now.” Forces himself not to look in Jon’s direction. “And I did have a friend before.” He blinks. “Maybe I should try and see if I can contact him. See how he’s doing these days. Anyways. Wanna go in?”

Sasha nods seriously, awkwardly.

“Yeah, let’s go.”

They pile into the pub.

 

Martin has never been there before. It’s crowded, and loud. Kind of scary. Possibly fun? His heart thuds in his chest (from excitement, he decides) and he finds himself smiling. Yes. Definitely fun. So many people! Someone is singing a song he vaguely recognizes from the radio but can’t name, people are laughing and smiling. It feels good, to be surrounded by so many people.

“I’ve made a table reservation,” Tim shouts and Martin and Sasha nod. Jon seems to be somewhere else entirely, staring around the room with wide eyes. He looks like he’s seen a ghost.

“Are you okay?” Martin asks, but it gets lost in the noise and Jon doesn’t even acknowledge him at all.

Martin sighs, but he can’t hold onto the sigh for long as he follows Tim through the crowd.

The table is a bit off to the side, tucked into a corner. The night is still young, but the crowd is having fun and Martin tries to let himself relax into the atmosphere, the noise, the music .

Is this really what he wants? To sing in front of all of these people?

Have any of them ever heard the Mechanisms? He could sing something else, of course, but why would he want to? Especially not if Tim really did go through all the karaoke bars’ catalogues to try and find one that had the Mechanisms in it, for whatever reason. He’d been so sure nobody knew them!

Did Tim really do that? For him? He’ll have to come up with something nice in return for that.

Now that he’s looking around, he notices that there are a lot of punks in the crowd, dark-clad with spiky hair and copious amounts of eye-liner rimming their eyes. He smiles at that. Maybe a handful of them might be appreciative of that music style after all.

 


 

Of course it’s Tim who ends up singing the first song. Martin doesn’t know its lyrics but is fairly sure he’s heard it a few times before, even if he couldn’t name the band or title. Tim turns out to be a good singer, good enough to hit the notes and make the crowd applaud at the end, and when he swaggers back to their table, a few dozen eyes follow him and he just grins and laughs.

“Are you here often?” Martin asks.

“Oh, not here,” Tim says, plopping down next to him. “This one is, hm, …actually, I’ll make you guess.” He grins at Jon. “Why, wager, are we here of all places?”

“I have no idea,” Jon says stoically and shrinks further into his corner before hiding his face in his glass. Jon is drinking fanta, because of course he is. Martin finds himself staring at him an awful lot, even as Sasha and Tim laugh.

“Because they have the Mechanisms in their karaoke catalogue?” Sasha pipes up with a grin.

“Yes!” Tim says, “but it’s more than that.” His eyes glimmer when he looks at Martin. “You really don’t know? Look at the stage! Really look! I cannot believe I did this much research and now you don’t recognize it!”

Recognize it?

Martin frowns.

It just looks like a stage.

“It’s where they used to perform the few times they were in the city!” Tim finally says, exasperated. “One of the videos on youtube was recorded here. I thought maybe you’d recognize it?”

Martin looks again. He’s still mostly lost. “I, uh, I never really looked at anywhere but the… uh, the band member… s .” He blushes and staunchly refuses to look at Jon. But this is the new Jon, right? Who won’t tease him for being madly in love with someone’s voice and grainy-blurred, swaggy humour?

Have Tim and Sasha told Jon about Martin’s idiot crush? It’s mellowed out a fair bit over the past few years, sure, but it’s not like it’s gone. It’s just… smouldering. It’s been a long time since he’s watched the videos, too. Maybe he should do that again, one of these days?

What is Jon thinking about all of this? His eyes are inscrutable, but there’s a hint of a smile on his lips. What does that mean? Does he know? Does he care? Well, this will be his introductory night, then. If he doesn’t already know.

Martin makes himself look away.

“I also told the DJ that you want to sing Hellfire,” Tim says nonchalantly.

Martin startles, then sighs. “I guess that’s for the best,” he says. “I would’ve found a way to not sing. There are so many people here, Tim!”

Tim nods. “It’s fun though. It really is. The rush of adrenaline you get… and these folks are just really nice.”

Martin nods at that, anxiously hopeful. He does need a bunch of adrenaline right about now.

 


 

“So what do you plan to do about the pineapple situation?” Sasha asks after a while. There’s a smile on her lips and her eyes are blazing. Jon isn’t sure what she’s talking about.

“The pineapple situation? Oh, you mean with the pineapple Tim, ah, abducted?”

She nods.

“Well, we give it back if he lets us buy the bunk bed,” Jon says with a shrug and a slight grin.

His heart is still racing.

The bar is familiar in an almost eerie way. He still isn’t sure how he ended up here, in this situation, and desperately hopes nobody will recognize him. It’s been years. Surely none of the people here know, right? It might have been different in Oxford, but here? No. The chances are minuscule. Besides, he looks nothing like himself. Or at least, he did his damned best to look nothing like his old self. Alternative self.

Good Lord, he thinks, looking around, let’s hope so.

To be fair, he has regressed back into dressing for comfort, so there ’s less of a visual distance between him and that Jon, but it’s a normal karaoke night. Even if half the bar is filled by black-clad figures with badly dyed hair, that doesn’t mean everyone looks like that.

And he has his corner. Surely he can just hide here until the night is over and they get to go home?

“I cannot believe that will work,” Sasha says.

Jon startles.

“Maybe it’s so out of character it’ll loop back around and be in character again,” Martin says.

Jon breathes a sigh of relief and tries to remember what the conversation was about, and to make himself believe that they can’t read his thoughts. Elias. Right. He snorts. “Honestly, I’m not sure what’s going on with him,” he says, “but I do prefer it to the alternative so let’s just roll with it?”

Sasha grins. “Sounds like a plan.”

Jon tentatively looks in Tim’s direction and is relieved to find him smiling. Less relieved to find the smile aimed specifically at himself though.

“Are you sure you don’t want to sing?” Tim asks innocently. “I am sure it would be great fun for the whole family.”

Jon groans. “I am not going to sing!” he repeats himself, not for the first time, and as much to Tim as to himself. “I—I don’t even like singing.” He hopes the last part doesn’t sound as pathetic to the others’ ears as to him. (It’s been years since he last sang these songs in public. Not quite as long in private, but. Still years. It feels strange to be confronted with this choice now. I could let Martin know without having to tell him directly.)

(It would be the perfect opportunity.)

(No!)

Tim cackles. “Sure, Jon!”

Martin is glancing at them, curiosity reflected plainly in his eyes.

Jon looks away, sighing. Something inside him desperately wants him to give in. To just —sing again. Give it a shot. It doesn’t even have to be our songs! Just—anything! Show them that you can actually sing! It’s so simple!

No,” Jon says again, and this time it’s directed solely at himself. He tries to ignore the others’ gazes. They prickle like tiny needles on his skin. When he glances up haphazardly, Sasha is eyeing him too, eyes bright and expectant.

“No!”

“That sound like someone who actually, really wants to,” Sasha says, only half-joking.

Jon groans, face heating up.

A song Jon half-knows finishes and everyone cheers and claps, saving him from the joys of having to confront Sasha’s declaration. He wonders not for the first time how he let Tim talk him into coming here.

Well, the alternative was him outing you directly, he thinks, and then his mind stays stuck on the ‘outing’ part, because all this is taking him back to the talk he had with Georgie and the fact that he still hasn’t really thought further about everything she’d let slip. He remembers him gathering his nerves to tell her about his aceness, his relief at her reaction. Pronouns. That’s a whole step further, isn’t it?

Then—

“Hellfire, by the Mechanisms!” The DJ’s voice cuts through the noise inside and outside of Jon’s skull, burning down his spine, burrowing into his skull, electrifying him from the tips of his toes to the tips of his too-short hair, and he almost finds himself getting up in a trance, before remembering that this is Martin’s song, that Martin is going to sing his song in front of all these people who most likely don’t know his band at all (hopefully. Hopefully?).

Hellfire.

Oh, the fun they’d had, writing that one.

Maybe I should sing a song , Jon’s single brain cell thinks hysterically.

Dimly, he is aware of Martin getting up with a shaky laugh and equally dimly feels his eyes follow him in the general direction of the stage.

Is it only his imagination or are people quieter now? No, that must be his imagination. It’s fine.

It’s fine.

Martin is singing my song and he doesn’t even know .

Elias has gone mad with pineapple fever, I've named two whole cats after characters, Martin’s favourite band is my band, and he has no clue.

Good lord, how does he have no clue?!

He almost sees himself getting up and running after him, but Martin’s already gone, and then the first sounds of it echo through the loudspeakers and Jon is lost .

Martin is amazing , in a very specific way. Jon doesn’t notice it at first because he’s too lost in the performance, but at some point he realizes that Martin is perfectly copying the studio recording. As though he’s listened to it so much that it has become part of him, every inflection and growl reproduced as well as his voice is capable of.

Jon had recognized Martin’s strange obsession with his old band, but he hadn’t realized the depth of it. When the song ends, Martin’s voice fade, and the guests start to applaud, Jon finds himself ripped out of what feels like a trance, rudely awakened from something wonderful. He’d wanted to join in at first, but now he’s just—stunned. Bemused. Bedazzled.

His ears feel hot and his lips have stretched into what he knows will be a really dumb grin.

“Earth to Jon?” Sasha asks. He catches her bemused smile when he slowly turns his head. “You okay?”

“I—Fine.”

Fine.

How often did Martin listen to him singing to be able to sing it like that?

“You know we’re going to keep coming back until you have your wits about you, right? There is no escape. Might as well get the reveal over with,” Tim says.

Jon shakes his head in vague befuddlement, then just stares at Tim. “I—no. This… no. Not tonight. I… I have some thinking to do. I think.”

Tim laughs and pokes Sasha in the side. “He has some thinking to do! ” He stage whispers into her ear. “You hear that? Doesn’t he know it’s pointless and that the truth will have to come out eventually?

Sasha’s eyes sparkle. “Come on, Jon…”

Jon glances over at the little stage and spots Martin making his way back toward them. His heart is racing. Why is his heart racing? Deep breath, deep breath

“You are both truly evil,” he makes himself say in his best over-dramatic theatre voice, “but I will not cave today, no sir! Not tonight!”

Tim and Sasha snort.

“You’ll have to keep dragging me back, I suppose, but alas… there are worse punishments.” Jon sighs dramatically. It has actually helped a tiny bit. “Maybe you have more luck next time…”

“I’m sure we will,” Sasha says.

“How was I?” Martin’s smile is brilliant and Jon can’t quite make himself look away.

“Amazing!” Tim says enthusiastically.

“Loved it!” Sasha agrees.

Jon nods rapidly, feeling his face heat up. “I loved it,” he says, glancing up at Martin, then down at his glass, then back up. Martin’s glowing expression seems to radiate through him, down to his very core. “You sang very well.”

Martin’s grin widens and he settles back down at their table, radiant with joy.

“It was so scary! But also fun! I didn’t think I’d have fun! But they applauded for me! I think some of them knew the song, maybe? I’m not sure, I…”

Jon listens and smiles and wishes he had the courage to just tell him , but he doesn’t.

And so the evening passes.

 


 

It’s long past “late” and straying into “early” by the time Jon makes it home. He’s exhausted, but in a good way. The day has been a wild ride from start to finish, and he’s relieved to make it back to his own flat, not Sasha’s, even if she’d offered him her couch. They’d stayed at the part until it closed and then made their way back slowly. It’s the middle of the week, but they’d unanimously decided to skip Thursday morning and meet up around lunchtime.

Just get a glass of water before bed, he decides halfway into the kitchen. Takes a glass from the cupboard, fills it from the tap, takes a long sip.

You deserve to have a good time every once in a while. I apologise for making things rough for you recently.

Jon chokes, flails, and only barely manages to keep a hold on the glass, clamping the other one down on the counter at his back.

Relax

Against his will, Jon finds his death-grip on the counter-top weakening, his body moving; watches as his hand places the glass back on the counter. It feels as though he’s doing the motions, even if his mind knows he isn’t.

Better. Uhm … let’s sit down.

Jon’s legs start to move and he automatically walks over to the living-room, sitting down heavily on the single arm chair he’d spent so much of his money on, once—

And halfway through realizes that he can choose to walk on his own. He just can’t do anything else.

It isn’t a choice at all, but he can make it feel like one.

If our interests align, we have the same amount of control, the Archivist says.

Jon laughs hoarsely, trying not to choke on his sudden panic.

Because we are the same. Used to be the same. Are supposed to be the same.

But I don ’t want you! I never wanted you!

You know that ’s a lie. I wouldn’t be here otherwise. I am you, and you are me. We were one. We are one. …We will be one again. There is no actual difference between us. There is no ‘us’, only ‘I’.

No! Never again!

You ’ll see.

Jon’s laugh turns cruel and sharp and short, laced through with nothing but disbelieving pain. He can laugh.

The Archivist doesn’t comment that thought, and when nothing else is forthcoming anymore either, Jon drags himself out of the armchair and into the bathroom, infinitely glad his body works properly again. He turns the hot water all the way up, and tries to drown his sudden worries in a scalding bath.

At some point the shaking in his arms subsides.

The bed seems impossibly warm and soft, even if his body is still tense.

I ’m—I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have.

Jon breathes a deep, shuddering sigh-that-could-also-be-a-sob, and closes his eyes.

“Promise me,” he whispers. “Promise me that you won’t go after anyone tonight.”

I promise, the Archivist says gently. Good night.

Jon feels himself slip into sleep almost instantaneously, and if it wasn’t an utterly ridiculous thought he’d think that his head was filled with a deep, rumbling purr.

Strange, how panic is a physical reaction, how there can be no resistance to calm if the body refuses.