Mary was gone, actually gone. For real this time. Gerard didn’t think he could believe it until Gertrude approached him with the scorched tatters that used to be Mary’s pages. He pulled the book closer with trembling hands, the smell of charred flesh rankled his nose but he had to see it for himself, he had to know. Mary’s pages had been uncomfortably warm in defiance of true death but were now indistinguishable from any other leather.
“You really did it, she’s actually gone.” Something halfway between a laugh and a sob tore from his throat. He brought his hand to his mouth to stifle the hysterics before they could spill out of him.
He almost didn’t notice how Gertrude’s eyes crinkled around the edges as they tracked across the tattoos adorning his knuckles. There was a flicker of recognition before she hid her surprise and they slid back to the book between them.
“Yes, well. She didn’t go easily.” Gertrude flipped the back cover closed, the ghost of a smile playing at the corners of her mouth. “I managed… in the end.”
“It isn’t-- wasn’t ,” he corrected, “in her nature to make things easy for anyone but herself.”
“No, I suppose not. Stubborn, to the last.”
Gertrude’s eyes found his tattoos again. He was used to them drawing attention when he went out without gloves or in short sleeves. Most of the time he would catch people deliberately not looking at them, in an effort to seem polite or some other bullshit. But Gertrude, it was like she had to put in effort to keep her gaze from sliding off the tiny eyes that adorned his skin.
He watched her struggle for a while before deciding to break the growing tension. “Admiring the ink?”
“Yes,” her voice had a faraway quality to it. “Yes. They’re very… intriguing.” The Archivist focused fully on the man sitting across from her. “I’m sure there’s quite the story behind them.”
“Yes, there is. I--” Gerard caught himself. His hands clenched into fists on the table in front of him; in front of the book that used to hold what Mary had become. He took a deep breath and blew it out, pressing his hands flat. Mary warned him against giving a statement, especially to the Archivist, but Gertrude had done him a favor by finally ridding him of her. Spilling one of Mary’s secrets to the Institute she despised so much seemed a fitting payment.
“My tattoos?” Gerard flexed his hands, watching the way the skin stretched over the joints, warping the eyes that always stared back at him. “They were Mary’s idea,” he huffed out a bitter laugh. “Of course they were. I wasn’t a stranger to tattoos mind you, but I wasn’t exactly jumping at the chance to have them done on every joint in my body.” Gerard shifted uncomfortably in his seat. “Not that she gave me a choice in the matter.”
Gertrude didn’t offer any condolences or pity. She sat across from him, watching, and waiting for him to continue. That was fine, she wanted his story and he didn’t want anything to do with her pity.
“She said she would wear them herself but it would push her too far from the precious balance she tried so hard to maintain. She couldn’t risk being claimed herself but she had no problem foisting it off on me . ‘The Eye is a fitting allegiance for an heir to the Von Closen line,’ she told me as if it was her doing me a favor. She smiled, told me to trust her, that it would all be worth it. She never promised it wouldn’t hurt and oh, did it hurt.
“I was about to make myself breakfast when she came into the kitchen already wearing her coat and holding mine. She told me to put everything away, that today we were fasting and to go get dressed. That was never a good sign but I was too tired to argue so I did what she asked. She didn’t tell me where we were going, not that she was ever big on sharing that kind of information.
“You wouldn’t know it was a museum to look at the place from outside, a faded sign near the end of an alley on an anonymous side street in London. The front room was dedicated to all kinds of art depicted on the human body. There were pictures of tattooed men and women ranging back to the earliest days of photography and even a few hand drawn portraits from before then. It wasn’t just pictures though, I noticed some of the frames held preserved human skin, ensuring the artwork on it lived long after the owners who bore them had passed.
“It was fascinating really, I could have stared at those exhibits for hours. Maybe I did.
“Mary led me back through a curtained doorway where an antique tattoo parlor was set up in a small room. What I at first took for a display mannequin turned out to be a man, so covered in tattoos it was impossible to tell the original color of the skin underneath. As I watched, I could see the ink was moving , shifting under his skin, never quite settling on a pattern for long enough for me to fully decipher it.
“He smiled when he saw Mary and stood to embrace her. ‘Ms, Keay!’ he said, ‘finally decided to take me up on that offer?’ She shook her head and pointed to me. ‘I thought perhaps my Gerard might do the honors if you’re amenable.’ He nodded, ‘of course,’ and gestured to the chair.
“The equipment in the room was so old and dirty it felt like I might catch hepatitis from being in the same room. Something inside me wanted desperately to run, but Mary had her hand on the small of my back, pushing me forward. Before I knew it, I had my shirt off and I was settled in the chair.
“The tattooed man pressed a cup of dark liquid into my hand and urged me to drink. The bitter liquid burned my throat and lingered on my tongue, nearly making me retch. Before long I felt my body start to relax even if the taste never quite faded. It didn’t dull the pain as he tapped the needle into my skin, just made it harder for me to squirm away later when it all became too much.
“I asked where the ink was and he smiled and said he’d given me more than enough. I soon realized he wasn’t driving color into my skin but instead pulling it out from underneath it. I could feel him calling to it, drawing it forth with every tap of the needle. I tried to watch but the shifting patterns on his hands made it difficult for me to follow as he worked.
“It felt like days but it couldn’t have been that long. At some point I could move again tried to push past him and leave. He warned me that I wasn’t done, he needed to get the rest of the ink out or it would fester. I didn’t care, I had to leave. Mary was… disappointed. And she wasn’t about to let me go before the ritual was complete. Even if it meant tying me to the chair and holding me in place so I couldn’t ruin his work.
“Looking back at it now, that was when I stopped thinking of Mary as my mum. What kind of mother offers her child in sacrifice to the manifestation of primal fear? Or maybe I finally realized she had never truly thought of me as her son, only as a pawn in whatever game she was playing with the powers and their avatars.”
Gertrude sat and listened as all the messy details of Gerard’s pain, fear, and betrayal lined up and spilled out of him. When it was all done he felt drained but relieved; a kind of satisfied exhaustion. He slumped back in his seat when the last words left his lips.
Gertrude looked positively perky, eyes brighter than he’d ever seen them. “Thank you, Gerard. That must have been… difficult for you.”
“Yeah, well,” he deepened his slouch and crossed his arms in front of him, desperate to rebuild the walls that had come down. “Mary was never going to win any mum of the year awards, was she?”
“Quite.” Gertrude swallowed, hesitating as she gathered herself. “About Mary, I was wondering if you wouldn’t mind…” She gestured to the book between them.”
“Take it. I don’t want anything more to do with her, or her damn books. As far as I’m concerned, I’m done.”
He couldn’t tell if Gertrude’s tight lipped smile was in apology or thanks. Either way it was clear their business was finished.
Gerard couldn’t move. He fought against the restraints but they held fast. The leather rubbed against the fresh tattoos on his wrists sending shocks of pain up his arms. Somehow he knew that while he might be bruising and chafing his skin, the tattoos would remain pristine no matter how hard he struggled. That didn’t stop him from trying.
With each eye coaxed to the surface of his skin, his perception increased. Not literal sight exactly, a knowledge that crushed at his head, far too much to sort through. It pulsed behind his eyes, all of them. Every joint marked throbbed in time with it.
The swirling ink on the tattoo artist’s skin held more secrets than a library of Leitners. If Gerard were to focus, he knew he could read it, force ink into words and words into knowledge. Flesh and Beholding made strange bedfellows but the artist walked that line with practiced ease. His eyes met Gerard’s watching and gave him a knowing look as he finished the eye on Gerard’s elbow.
Any other time he would have been drawn in to those swirling patterns by his curiosity but he was too angry and in too much pain to care. The sharp points of the needle to never blended together into a background noise of pain no matter how fast he worked. Gerard remained acutely aware each distinct pierce of his skin. He could have counted them if he cared to keep track, number the reasons to hate (or fear) the woman he no longer thought of as his mother.
Mary pried his fist open and forced his fingers flat against the armrest. “Now Gerard, don’t make such a fuss. You’ll thank me when this is over.”
He shook his head and tried to pull away. “I can’t-- I don’t want it.” Gerard’s throat burned. From the acrid bitterness of the ink he’d been made to drink or from screaming in pain and fear, he couldn’t tell.
“You’re embarrassing me,” she scoffed. “It’s only pain, Gerard. And trust me, you’ll encounter far worse in your life. Best get used to it now.” Mary gave the back of his hand a little pat as if scolding a child having a tantrum.
Gerard felt hot tears on his face and he choked back a sob. Through his blurred vision he could see Mary, surrounded by shifting impressions of encounters she had in her lifetime. They clung to her like an oil slick, iridescent rainbows of colors with no names swirled around trying to gain purchase. Of the many things that had touched her- or that she’d sought out- very few had made it deep enough to leave an actual mark. Gerard had never been able to see auras before, despite Mary’s best efforts at teaching him, but as the eyes blossomed on his skin, they opened him to a deeper view of the world. He wasn’t sure if he’d ever not be able to see them again.
Pain along his knuckles brought him back to himself. Christ, it hurt. The bone was so close to the skin. He flinched but Mary held him still. The weight of disappointment in her eyes flaring into her aura with promises of greater torment if he didn’t behave himself.
Mary’s weren’t the only eyes on him, Gerard realized. There was someone else watching from the outskirts, unconcerned with Mary or the tattooed man. He had a flash of hope that they might be willing to help him. To free him from his torment.
The thought died as soon as he recognized Gertrude Robinson watching from the doorway. She wasn’t real, couldn’t be real, and would be of no help to him. He called out in desperation anyway but his only response was a slap across the face from Mary telling him not to invoke the name of the Archivist. Not here, not ever.
His head rang with the slap but the image of Gertrude didn’t waver and neither did the weight of her watching even as reality crept in around the edges of his awareness. He’d never managed to control his dreams, and that’s what this must be-- a dream. Usually if he became aware he was dreaming it would dissolve around him and he would wake up. No such luck now, the dream remained as solid as ever and sharp with the pain as the tattoos were drawn across his fingers. He struggled and fought as Mary held him in place for the tattooed man to do his work.
Gertrude Robinson did nothing but watch.
“I’m a little surprised by your message, Gertrude.” Gerard took the offered seat with a yawn. “That’s nothing against you, I didn’t sleep well. Sorry, go on, Is the book giving you trouble?”
“No, no, nothing like that.” Gertrude waved away his concerns. “But I do have a matter I would prefer to discuss in person. I was curious about what you plan to do.”
Gerard eyed her warily. “Now that she’s gone, you mean?”
“Yes,” she nodded. “Have you given any thought to your future.”
“Honestly? No. I guess I never thought I would have one. I thought for sure something would have taken a swipe and killed me by now.” He looked down into his hands. “I suppose there is some benefit to being able to keep an… heh, keep an eye out.”
“Indeed. That is precisely why I would like to offer you a job.”
“At the Institute?”
“Think of it more as direct consulting with me. I’m going to be very busy soon and it would be helpful to have someone who is already familiar with the kinds of things I deal with.”
“Don’t think your other assistants could handle it?”
“Perhaps,” she allowed, shooting an eye to the empty desks outside her door. “Given enough time and training. But that is a luxury I do not have.”
Gerard considered her offer for a moment. “It’s not like I have any other relevant skills I can apply in the workforce. And after everything, I’d really rather not run a bookstore.” He took the contract Gertrude slid over to him. “If Mary could see me now. Almost makes me wish she could.”
“She would be furious,” Gertrude said with a grin. “Aligning yourself so closely to the Institute.”
“If she didn’t want that then she never should have pushed me toward the Eye in the first place. Speaking of,” Gerard held his signed form out to Gertrude, “I had the most vivid nightmare last night. I could have sworn you were there, watching the whole time while I fought and screamed.”
“Hmm, revisiting old traumas after so long can make them manifest in strange ways. It’s only natural you would dream about your tattoos after giving your statement.”
“I never said the dream was about the tattoos.”
Gertrude’s lips twitched in a brief smile as she filed away his paperwork. “Well, whatever the dream, I’m certain it won’t trouble your sleep again.”