Jonah | 2014
Elias’ eyes snapped open in the dark, fingers reaching for the sharp-tipped letter opener on the bedside table. He’d heard something, a distant noise in the flat that should have been empty.
Another quiet movement, a thump, muffled swearing, and the sound of the refrigerator opening. His eyes focused and he noted the cold blur of mist hovering at the edges of his vision. He relaxed, dropping the letter opener, then slowly rolled out of bed, grumbling.
He walked right up to Peter without being noticed.
“Wasn’t expecting you back for another two days,” he said, and watched Peter, blind in the dark, dramatically flinch and bang his elbow on the counter.
“Augh! Elias. Hello.”
He was barefoot, squinting at him in the dark, eyes the color of sea ice, beard untrimmed, the smell of salt still clinging to him. Elias refused to express any sort of joy at being woken up unexpectedly, but all the same, this was his favorite version of Peter—a little ragged at the edges, well-fed from the months at sea and jittery with awkward energy at suffering the indignity of human contact again. He’d evidently forgotten the layout of Elias’ kitchen since the last time he’d been there, a carton of milk was sitting on the counter while he pawed through the bowls in the wrong cupboard.
Elias flicked the light on and Peter blinked in the sudden light. “Glasses are in the other cabinet. No, that one. That one. The one I’m pointing at. Peter. Peter look at my hand.” Peter had gotten flustered and was opening all the wrong cabinets. “Peter? Peter. That one.” Alright, now he was just doing it on purpose. “Peter.” He started opening drawers. “Yes, very clever. I’m going back to bed if you’re just going to be silly.”
And then Peter yanked open the drawer that should have been locked—the drawer that, in fact, was locked; but it was a flimsy lock and Peter snapped it loose from the counter without even realizing it—and said “ooh! A gun!”
Elias groaned. “Put it back.”
Peter aimed the gun at him, grinning. “Say you’re happy to see me? Please?”
Elias tensed. “Peter, I’m too tired for this.”
“Fine, fine. You’re like a toddler when you get woken up from a nap.” Peter shoved the gun down the front of his trousers and went back to ransacking the wrong cupboards. Elias inhaled slowly through his nose, rubbing his forehead.
“Peter. It’s loaded.”
“…What?” Oh that got his attention, finally.
“If you shoot your own dick off I’m going to divorce you,” said Elias without looking up.
Peter very slowly removed the gun and gave it to him, careful not to aim it either of them this time. Elias took it and flicked off a piece of lint.
“Elias. Why do you have a loaded gun in your kitchen?”
Peter took down a bowl and poured milk into it, then drank out of the bowl. Elias flung open the cabinet next to him and gestured at the glasses. Peter pretended not to see it, instead squinting at the inscription plate on the gun, trying to read it upside-down.
“Bobert Smiggle? Robbie Smark.”
“Ah! I know that name.” Awkward pause. “I’ve forgotten why I know that name.”
“No no no, now I’m curious. Can I see it?”
“Don’t shoot me.”
“Elias, what do you take me for!”
Elias hissed and ducked as Peter demonstrated that he had never learned trigger discipline. “Whoops, almost dropped it.”
“Peter if you damage that thing,”
“Okay okay okay! Just curious huh? Never seen it before.” He flipped it over in his hands—if it went off Elias was going to literally kill him—and read the inscription. “To Robert Smirke on his 30th birthday. Your loving brother, Richard. Aww that’s sweet. Who’s Smirke? I swear I’ve heard the name somewhere.” Elias grunted noncommittally. Peter snapped his fingers (and almost dropped the gun again.) “Oh, that was one of those old people you used to hang out with, back in the old days, right? Like Mordechai. And, uh, Raymond? Rainier.”
“One of those old people?” snorted Elias. “He wrote Smirke’s List. You know, the first clear categorization of the Fourteen Powers?”
“OH! Oh that Smirke! Right! Why do you have his gun?”
Elias took the gun back, put it in the drawer and slammed it shut.
“Long story. Don’t break anything else before sunrise or I’ll kill you. Goodnight.”
“Hey you can’t just leave it there, now I’m curious—”
“Peter,” snarled Elias.
To his credit, Peter Lukas understood when he had to be left alone. Not that that stopped him from testing the limits of his patience on a regular basis, but it was something.
Elias turned and left the room.
Peter shrugged and started to pick up the milk carton.
“PETER IF YOU DRINK DIRECTLY OUT OF THAT I AM GOING TO STRANGLE YOU,” yelled Elias from the other room.
“I’m not,” yelled Peter.
“I CAN SEE YOU,” yelled Elias.
“Ah, can you see this?”
“YES. VERY FUCKING MATURE. GOODNIGHT.”
“Nice to know you care!”
Elias flung himself into bed and closed most of his eyes. A few never quite closed.
Peter wasn’t going to let it go, now that he was curious. Elias could respect intellectual curiosity but Peter’s brand was more like a small dog absolutely hellbent on consuming a piece of plastic: he’d latch onto something stupid and never let it go.
So he’d have to have a story for him by tomorrow. Which meant actually thinking about Robert Smirke, something he didn’t often do.
He lay awake as Peter finished his midnight snack and stumbled around bumping into things and quietly swearing before climbing into bed next to him and collapsing into an exhausted sleep. No power of earth or beyond could rouse him once he’d started snoring, Elias had checked. So he got up and went back into the kitchen without bothering to keep his footsteps quiet.
He left the lights off, relying on touch and his perfect vision to find the pistol again and hold its weight in his hands. Was that a scuff mark? Probably, with the way Peter had been manhandling it. He sat down at the table and disassembled, cleaned and polished it, movements slow and precise in the dark. He hardly needed supernatural vision for what he was doing, he’d done it so many times before.
He’d carried it with him through multiple lives, one of few things that he bothered to transfer from one body to the next—a carved bone good-luck charm he’d won in a bet against Maxwell Raynor, a playbook signed by Oscar Wilde, and a broken pocket watch with a bad-quality photograph of some people who now looked like strangers to him. The gun, despite being nearly 200 years old, was still in good condition, thanks to being cleaned regularly and never used. He ran his fingers over the smooth wood and cold metal, remembering the one time he’d heard it fired.
Robert | 1799
It was early spring, he was 19 years old, and he was growing steadily less invested in the conversation at a joint art opening between him and several of his classmates. It was unofficial; none of them were proper visual art majors, but all of them sketched and liked to show off. And Robert had looked forward to getting a break from talking about the design that had won him the Royal Academy’s Gold Medal. Surely people would talk to him about his sketches, and not the design for the National Museum, which wasn’t even displayed. It would just be a fun night out with friends.
He was wrong.
He was proud of the achievement, of course, but he also wanted to talk about his pet projects. Nobody else seemed to share his interest. Several people praised his sketching skills, which was rather nice, or asked if he was going to take up painting like his father, which was frankly uncomfortable. Joshua Bloodworth tried to convince him to switch his major to painting again, even though he’d explained to him that architecture was his true passion, no really, I’m not just rebelling I’m telling the truth I’m not even good at painting, multiple times before.
But his favorite works, the more experimental designs, got barely a confused glance and maybe a polite mention. Nobody wanted to discuss the dizzying effects one could create with space and shape; the way an interior could lend itself by structure alone to a feeling either of coziness or desolation. He knew that designing museums would earn him his bread and butter, but he wanted to design temples that would fill with shadows like water or open into an emptiness like the sky. Impractical, obviously, but interesting. They’d never get sponsored, he knew that. But if the structures would never be built, he’d at least like the chance to discuss their potential with his peers. He thought it would make for interesting conversation. He was very disappointed when it did not.
So when, for the first time in several hours of animated chatter about everything he didn’t care about, he found himself alone for a moment, and noticed at the same time that there was a man looking at one of his favorite designs—which had been pushed away into a badly-lit corner of the room—he practically ran to join him, intending to wring an interesting conversation out of the man if he had to use torture to get it. He was sick of rehashing his plans for the National Museum to different people over and over again.
It wasn’t until he’d gotten too close to the man to back out—until he’d attracted his attention, and he’d started to turn—that Robert recognized him with a shock. Not by name, he didn’t know him, but he’d seen him come in with what he guessed was a group of students. They weren’t from the Academy or he would have recognized them, maybe from another school? A few of his friends had seemed to recognize others in the group and had gone over to talk to them, so he could easily have asked for an introduction, but he knew better, because when he made eye contact with the tall green-eyed young man from across the room his stomach dropped and he felt himself contemplating something very foolish. His father was not a hard man, but when he had told Robert that he would be disowned at the next hint of scandal, Robert knew he’d meant it, and had done his best to stay out of trouble. It wasn’t like he was a really difficult child, he thought with some irritation; he didn’t drink or smoke or gamble or produce bastard children, but flirting with men was, in the eyes of his family, significantly worse. So, he avoided doing so with a self-imposed rule: don’t talk to attractive men. Simple. If a boy gave him pleasant tingly feelings to look at he avoided him like the plague, and so far it had worked. It was fine. He was able to appreciate women too, so he really wasn’t losing anything by limiting himself. Really. It was fine.
So he’d ignored the extraordinarily beautiful green-eyed man; had in fact done his best to avoid him, except for the occasional sneaking glance when he thought he was turned away—but he seemed to have an almost preternatural sense for when someone was looking at him; and more than once they had made eye contact across the room for one desperately uncomfortable moment before Robert pointedly looked elsewhere.
He was just trying to analyze what it was that made him so pleasant to look at, Robert told himself; the same way he stood still for hours to analyze a building that gave him a similar shiver. Maybe it was because he looked so much like a Greek demigod—all the fineness of the best carved marble without the coldness; all the clean lines and divinely-shaped curves, but animated in a warm, living rush of blood and bone, thought and movement.
“Robert Smirke, I presume?” said the man, and some part of him with common sense was screaming with horror, but Robert smiled and nodded. He couldn’t do anything else because his throat had closed up for some reason, even as the thought struck him: the greatest sculpture was only an echo of this man’s presence.
Firm handshake. He had wonderful hands. That was absolutely a normal thing for an artist to notice, definitely, he noticed lots of hands, this was fine. (They were very nice hands.) He took a deep breath and regained the ability to speak.
“My pleasure. I’m glad to see someone’s interested in my personal projects rather than the museum, I’ve frankly grown a bit tired of talking about it,” Robert said in a rush, afraid that his voice didn’t sound normal.
“Hm,” said Magnus, turning back to the design sketch. “It’s an unusual structure. The—the concentric circles of pillars, they’re designed to form a solid wall while still maintaining a sense of depth?”
“Right. From within the pillars, the interior and the scenery outside would both be visible; to a person in the center the pillars would completely hide the outside world.”
“Huh. I see why no one will talk to you about it. Seems like a lot of work for no practical purpose. Forgive me, that’s not to say that it isn’t conceptually fascinating. The top is open to the sky?”
“Yes, I meant to create something reminiscent of ancient druidic worship, open to the elements, like—”
“Like Stonehenge, yes exactly.”
“Interesting.” Magnus considered the sketch a while longer, and Robert memorized the shapes of his profile: sharp, delicate nose and lips, shapely dark brows, eyes slightly narrowed in thought. He’s only a man, Robert reminded himself, even if you do think he looks like Apollo. He is completely ordinary. Don’t act silly.
“…In the top-down view, the pattern reminds me of a spider’s web,” said Magnus.
“Good! I love spiders. I didn’t, er, consciously plan it to look like a spider’s web, but I do love them; it’s fascinating how such little creatures know to make such symmetrical patterns.”
A subtle smile tugged at Magnus’ lips.
“I don’t like spiders, but I do think they’re fascinating. Actually, most of the things that most interest me also terrify me.” He turned to face Robert, “I think fear is an essential part of the human spirit—so much of what we do is driven by it, whether anyone recognizes it or not.”
Oh it was not fair that a man this beautiful would also be interesting to talk to. He was going to do something stupid and then he was going to die on the spot. But instead he heard himself asking, smiling and flippant,
“And what are you afraid of?”
Magnus smiled bitterly. “Death, plague, the dark. Most everything that could be construed as disturbing, in fact; I’m practically an archive of fear. What about you?”
The bitter crushing weight of the sea settling on his chest, the empty graves stretching forever in silence, the world of screaming machinery and torn flesh, the crawling sickness killing from within,
“Disappointing my family,” laughed Robert, and Magnus smiled but made a sympathetic noise that made him think he knew very well what he meant. “But if you’re afraid of the dark—”
“I was just about to ask about this one. It’s similar to the other, but with a roof on it?”
“Not many light sources.”
“Yes, that’s the point.”
“Hm. Isn’t that generally considered an important part of planning buildings?”
“Yes, usually. See my goal here was to create a space that was overwhelmingly dark, but still leave just enough light to see how much darkness fills the space.”
Magnus shuddered appreciatively. “Fascinating. What would be the purpose of such a structure?”
“None at all, it’s purely theoretical. I liked the idea and so I had to sketch it.”
“Well, that’s a bit reassuring. I’d hate to walk into someone’s drawing-room and suddenly become lost in a void of intense dreariness—interesting as the idea is to contemplate.”
Robert laughed and took Magnus’ arm to pull him to another drawing. (The part of him with any sense was screaming at him. He ignored it.) “This one, however, does have a purpose.”
Magnus stared for a few moments before visibly giving up. “What?”
“To induce vertigo.”
“That’s even worse than the dark temple. Why aren’t there any railings?”
Magnus made a face. “People would definitely die here.”
“Then it’s good that the idea is theoretical,” said Robert. “The last thing I want to do is get someone hurt! I just love playing with the ideas, you know?”
Magnus nodded eagerly, and probably would have said something else except that Joshua Bloodworth descended upon him like an evil fairy at just that moment. Robert, who had until now accepted his friend’s more annoying qualities with a gracious if not untiring patience, had never hated a man more.
“Oh you’ve met Magnus! He really is great. See, Smirke? This is a good use of name. Actual genuine wordplay. You should smirk more.”
“I can’t smirk,” said Robert, a little flatly.
“You really can’t,” said Bloodworth, “not smug enough. Well, that makes it easier for you to make friends. And patrons. Alas, that art should be shackled by money. Well what have you been talking about?”
“Just—the designs. How do you know Magnus?”
“Oh, do you remember my research trip to Oxford? I got terribly lost in the library, I’d been studying for hours and had forgotten to eat and I was half mad by the time I thought about leaving and I got all turned around, and then Magnus here appeared out of the shelves like a gazelle from the jungle and asked if I was lost, I was lost and I said so even though I believe he may have been joking, and he graciously led me back out to the sunlit world again!”
“You were right next to the entrance,” said Magnus without humor, but Robert laughed without thinking about it and something shifted in Magnus’ face at the sound. “I suppose it is rather easy to get lost in there if you’re not familiar with the space.”
“What are you studying?” asked Robert.
“History, Philosophy, and some Theology to pacify my parents.”
“Goodness, that’s a lot. Are they hoping you’ll become a parson?”
Magnus smiled bitterly. “Seems like it, although I couldn’t tell you why. I don’t think they know me very well.”
“Magnus, there you are,” said a man that Robert didn’t know, joining the group and clapping Magnus on the shoulder. Robert, to his shock, felt a small surge of jealousy, that this stranger was allowed to so casually manhandle Magnus while he stood at a distance. That was a dangerous feeling, for more reasons than one. He planned to make his excuses and bolt while Magnus was distracted, before he could—
Oh, no, he was looking right at him. And there was something alarming about those eyes, even now. Before he’d thought it was just his guilt at having been caught staring, but they were, if anything, even more piercing at close range. He found he couldn’t move.
“…What?” Magnus had said something and he hadn’t caught it.
“I said, will you write to me? Bayer wants to go and we’re leaving in the morning, but I’d like to discuss this further.” Magnus was scribbling his address on the back of a calling card, which he then handed over with a smile.
Robert was terrified that he was acting extremely stupid, because his brain seemed to be working very slowly all of a sudden, but he mumbled some kind of thanks and goodbye as the others left, Joshua Bloodworth following his friends down the hall and loudly complaining about the too-short visit. For the rest of the night, he was only half-present to the conversation of his friends. Every now and then he took out Jonah Magnus’ card and looked at it. There was a simple black-and-white design on one side, an owl holding a scroll with his name, and the other had his handwritten address.
There was no reason not to write to him, he decided. After all, he could hardly get into any trouble that way. His first letter was warm but formal, not overly familiar. He nearly convinced himself that it wasn’t worth mailing it, that Magnus hadn’t really meant to keep up a correspondence, but had just been polite; surely he wasn’t really that interested in architecture.
He had a response to his letter within the week. Magnus was, apparently, very interested in architecture, or at least in Robert’s ideas.
He didn’t even try to lie to himself over the following months. He looked forward to the regular letters from Magnus and answered them with more care than he answered his other letters. If he had more than one to write, and one was a reply to Magnus, that one came first, even if the others were technically more urgent. But that wasn’t the concerning part.
Robert had never had much patience for sketching the human form. He’d learned the clean lines and symmetry of buildings, the curves of arch and decoration, but the correct proportion of waist to hip had never interested him. He hadn’t had the time.
Now, for some reason—despite the fact that he had no more time than he had before, and still had no intentions of pursuing a career in visual art—he found himself sketching the human form, roughly, frowning as he tried to get it right. Looking at reproductions of marble sculptures. After finishing a building design, rather than putting his tools down and resting his hands, he’d push the used paper away and continue filling up a scrap sheet with hundreds of smoother shapes.
He was used to thinking of his sketches as architectural forms, and he couldn’t tell if this was helping or hindering him in his new goal. The framework of bone, the softness of flesh and skin. The perfect arch of hips. The strange, living beauty in the rise and fall of ribs and the proud arch of neck. He decided that Michelangelo’s David had hands like Magnus and from that moment forward he could not look at a reproduction of the cursed thing without losing his composure. In previously-calm moments, the thought of that right hand, relaxed half-curled against the smooth curve of the young king’s thigh would invade his mind and distract him from whatever he was doing.
As he filled up pages of paper that he ought to have been saving for his designs, an approximation of life began to take shape. The bodies were recognizably human; they held themselves up on the page. He’d learned to capture the general form of a person, the shape of their bones, but most of these anatomically correct forms were vague and faceless, only halfway present on the page. The clearest sketches were of a young man with dark hair and piercing eyes. He appeared regularly, emerging from the chaos of half-finished practice sketches around him like Aphrodite from the crash of waves. The first time he drew Jonah Magnus naked he felt so guilty that he nearly convinced himself to stop, but not quite. The idea wouldn’t leave him alone otherwise, he reasoned, and anyway he wasn’t doing anything improper, he was just practicing anatomy, and it wasn’t like he actually knew what Magnus looked like naked, anyway, it was just going to be another practice sketch that happened to look a bit like him in the face. But he knew his intentions and trying to guess what Jonah looked like naked felt like a horrible invasion. He stopped multiple times, cheeks burning, and considered just burning the page before he was finished and a more delicately-shaped David stared back at him with his closest approximation of that piercing gaze.
He tore the piece off the page and hid it, tried to convince himself he should burn it, couldn’t do it. He was almost embarrassed to look at it, but it was too good to burn, really, some of his best work.
He wondered how accurate it was.
He regretted wondering how accurate it was.
He hid his many pages of Magnus-inspired sketches in a drawer and sat down to write a polite but reserved letter to Magnus himself. He felt like a hypocrite.
Magnus’ letters added a different dimension to his guilt. He was an excellent correspondent and he had a fascinating mind. He liked to think that they were becoming friends; it was wonderful how similar their minds were. Magnus had mentioned early on that his real passion was for the macabre and unexplained, and Robert had shared a few of the more reputable ghost stories he’d heard. Magnus’ excitement in response to this was infectious. Two of the three he’d discredited after consideration, but the third he admitted might be genuine, and he included a page and a half of speculation on the implications if it were.
Robert’s chest tightened as he read it. He was so close.
For as long as he could remember, Robert had sensed something outside of the world, but woven through it, thin and subtle as spider’s web. Presences of dread power that shaped his dreams. He’d begun to know and name them by their traits, and had thought of trying to find evidence for their existence in the waking world. If he could prove that his dreams were based in reality, perhaps not the visible reality but reality all the same…
But he couldn’t just tell Magnus about that. He’d never told anyone about the dreams, after the one nurse who cried and then had the parson come and bless him. It was too much trouble, and he’d decided when he was much younger that his knowledge belonged to him alone; that it wasn’t the sort of thing one should or could share with others.
But Magnus, by sheer force of research and intellect alone, came so close to what Robert sensed was real. If they could talk about it together, combine their knowledge, surely they could discover a truth that had eluded mankind for ages of fear.
For once he didn’t respond to Magnus’ letter immediately, but spent a day obsessing over it before finally deciding to answer.
He tried to keep it brief and simple, not bet too much on Magnus’ belief just yet. Dreams were hardly a solid proof of anything, even if they were unusual, and the vague intuitions he felt were, so far, only that. Not very impressive. He doubted, given Magnus’ responses to him so far, that he’d brush him off entirely, but he knew that his dubious experiences would be easy to dismiss, and if Magnus did that he thought it might kill him.
He mailed the letter and waited tensely for a reply. A week passed. A day and then another. Magnus was usually very punctual. Despite his efforts to remind himself that a letter late by a few days meant nothing personal and that Jonah Magnus probably just had more pressing matters to attend to, he couldn’t help but expect the worst. Magnus thought he was silly, or insane, and had ceased to take him seriously and would never write to him again. In his distraction he even stopped sketching.
And then one day he received an incredibly heavy letter, sheets and sheets folded and crammed awkwardly into a thick envelope. He carried it up to his room with his heart beating fast but feeling lighter than it had all week, prepared himself for the unknown, and broke the seal.
My dear Smirke,
I find it hard to express to you with what excitement I read your last letter. Your manner of writing seems to suggest either an incredible humility, or a doubt that I would appreciate the importance of your dreams. I hope you would not think so poorly of me, and I beg you to forgive the length of my letter. There is much I wish to discuss with you.
He put the letter down, flung himself facedown on his bed, and lay there for a few minutes, grinning into his pillow. When he had recovered he read the rest of the letter.
Jonah Magnus was nothing if not thorough, and his greatest joy was to pick a subject apart, examining it from all angles until he had the full picture. For the first time in this letter Robert saw him completely unrestrained; there were passages where his handwriting, usually so neat, became borderline incomprehensible in his rush to put his thoughts on paper. Robert read every word. He’d never seen this side of Magnus before, there was something endearingly unguarded about it: he could tell that the letter hadn’t been planned out, it was Magnus’ thoughts in their rawest forms. In several places the writing broke off abruptly, then resumed with a complaint at having been interrupted. Robert wondered if Magnus’ friends had had to pull him away from his writing-desk for meals. He’d admitted that he had once fainted in the library because he stayed there all day from opening to closing time three days in a row, spending all his free time on research rather than common human activities like socializing, eating or drinking. Evidently the sight of Jonah Magnus collapsed across a table with his face in a book was so normal that no one noticed, and Magnus had recovered and left the library without anyone noticing. Robert had thought this reflected badly on both Magnus and his friends, and had sternly written him to make sure he was eating regularly. Your mind cannot function well in a starving body, he’d said, and Magnus had agreed, but then gone off on a tirade about the nourishment of the mind being more important to him than the body, which Robert had thought was a lot of nonsense and only showed that Magnus was far too involved in his studies and needed to go outside the library more often. But at the moment he thought he was starting to understand; he would rather read this letter than rest, than eat, than anything.
He’d almost reached the end.
I am certain you will have much to say to me—many of my thoughts here are simple conjecture on matters which you have more knowledge of than I do. I curse my hand for growing tired as I write. I hope I will see you soon, so that we may continue this conversation more easily in person. Truly, Robert—may I call you Robert, since you have shared your dreams with me?—I would rather talk to you than to anyone else I know.
Robert stopped reading here, put the letter down, and stood silently in the middle of the room for a while to experience some feelings.
When he returned to read the conclusion he was emotionally exhausted—a good feeling, but he had been reading for what felt like hours, and his intense focus was finally starting to lag. As a result, he read one line twice over before registering what it had said.
It would give me the greatest pleasure for you to join us. As I’ve mentioned, there is very little to do at our country home, and I have previously found vacations there exceedingly tedious, but I think that you and I could manage to make it quite pleasant.
Robert stared at the page for a few seconds, then read the section over again.
He folded the letter up and curled up on his bed.
He couldn’t, obviously.
Because his first reaction had been completely unrealistic. Magnus liked talking to him and wanted to be friends, that was all, there was absolutely nothing romantic involved and the fact that he was thinking about it in those terms meant he couldn’t allow himself to go. Not to mention that the thought of being alone with Jonah Magnus made him feel slightly dizzy, another good reason to stay far away. It was easy enough to keep his composure when writing letters, he had plenty of time to plan out what he would say, what he should say. He wouldn’t have that time, or that level of detachment, when seeing him face to face. The one time he’d talked to Jonah Magnus in person he’d gone all giggly and acted like an idiot and he didn’t want it to happen again.
Then again, maybe it wouldn’t, maybe he’d be alright. He was prepared now. He knew how he felt, and he knew that he had to resist it, and he could just be good friends with Magnus—Jonah? Was he allowed to call him Jonah in person now, to his face? Were they close enough for that? Oh, no, this was a bad train of thought, he could feel himself blushing even in the dark, no no no he wasn’t going.
He wasn’t going but he was going to spend all night thinking about it.
He didn’t remember falling asleep, but suddenly someone was shaking him.
“Are you alright?” asked Jonathan Fanshawe. Robert blinked up at him. Jonathan and he had gone to the same school when they were younger, and now that they were both studying in London they often met up on their free days. Like today.
“Oh, Jonathan, I completely forgot!”
“That’s alright. What happened, are you sick?”
Robert realized he’d fallen asleep in his clothes.
“No, no. I was up late reading a letter.”
“No, good news.”
“…Really. Well, that’s reassuring.”
Jonathan waited for him to wash up and change out of his rumpled clothes, then they went out for a late breakfast. The sun was already high in the sky, and Robert wondered guiltily how long Jonathan had waited for him at their usual meeting place before coming up to his room to look for him. He was just about to ask him when Jonathan elbowed him in the ribs.
“So what’s this good news that has you so distracted?”
“Come on, I’ve never seen you like this, unless it’s when you’re working on something. Who’s the letter from? Is it a young lady?”
“Nnnooooo,” said Robert in perhaps the most suspicious way he could possibly have said the word.
Jonathan looked at him. “Ah. Not again.”
“I know!” said Robert defensively.
“I just—I can’t—I know I shouldn’t,”
“Shouldn’t what? It’s clear to me you can’t control how you feel about someone.”
“Yes, but—but it shouldn’t be this hard, I’m afraid I can’t even let myself talk to him, which is infuriating because he is so interesting to talk to—”
“Robert, calm down. Breathe. Why not?”
“I don’t know! I’m afraid I’ll do something stupid!”
Jonathan laughed. “You won’t. Are you afraid you lack self-control?”
“No… that’s not it.”
“Then you’ll be fine. Would you rather avoid this mysterious muse entirely, or learn to be his friend?”
“The latter.” He’d take anything, he just wanted to be allowed to be in his presence. But he was afraid he’d ruin what they already had if he gave himself that chance.
“Good, then. Do that. What was in the letter that got you so upset?”
“I’m not upset.”
“Robert. Listen to yourself.”
He didn’t tell Jonathan about the dreams, but he told him everything else. He was talking about Magnus for half an hour straight: how they shared an interest in ghost stories and dead languages and the curious effects of architecture on the psyche, how very interesting he was to talk to, and how perfect and graceful his posture was—
“Is he responsible for your sudden interest in heroic sculpture, then?” asked Jonathan.
“You know what,” said Robert, “Forget that last thing I said.”
“I will not,” said Jonathan, lazily stirring his tea. “I wondered what had started that. The last I knew, you didn’t have any time to spare for statues of Apollo except as ornaments to an interesting archway. Now they seem to be your main focus.”
“No they’re not.”
“Ah, I see. You just checked five sculpture books out of the library by accident.”
“I was there with you! The librarian scolded you for keeping the OTHER sculpture books past date! What’s next, do we deny that the sky is blue?”
“It looks rather grey today, actually.”
“No, the clouds are grey, the sky is blue.”
“You’d turn anything into a debate. I think you’d like Magnus.”
“I doubt it, he sounds insufferable. I don’t know how you’ve managed to get such a bad case of misplaced admiration—”
“It’s not misplaced!” several essays on Jonah Magnus’ many virtues later, he realized Jonathan was laughing at him. “Oh, leave me alone.”
“This is quite amusing. Just as long as you don’t end up crying for a fortnight like you did the last time—”
“Ugh, please don’t mention Colin.”
“I didn’t. You mentioned Colin.”
“And now I’m unmentioning him. Anyway, the reason I’m so upset—”
“Oh, there is a reason! I thought it was infatuation in general.”
“No, no, listen. He asked me to come stay with him at his family’s country estate.”
“Oh, that sounds fun! What did you say?”
“Ah. Too busy panicking to reply.”
“What’s so hard about replying to the letter, Robert?”
“Because I don’t think I should accept but I want to accept and I can’t even figure out a polite way to not accept while making it clear that I do want to accept but I can’t!”
Jonathan visually expressed his confusion.
“I can’t go!” Robert summarized.
“Why not? Are you afraid that if you see him in person you’ll go into an apoplectic fit and die on the spot?”
“No! I just can’t.”
“I told you, I feel like I’m going to do something stupid if I see him.”
“You won’t! You’re an adult, Robert, you know better.”
“Do you think so?”
“I think that either you’re going to make things supremely uncomfortable for both of you—and me, honestly, if I have to keep listening to this—by avoiding him, or you’re going to confront your feelings, realize that you are strong enough to control them, and get used to having him as a friend. And hopefully stop neglecting your other friends.”
Robert took a deep breath. “Maybe you’re right.”
“What’s the worst-case scenario, anyway? Do you think he’s the type of man to blackmail you if you slip up and say something inappropriate?”
“Good, then you should be fine.”
“Thank you, Jonathan.”
“I really don’t know what you see in him.”
Robert paused with his mouth open for another defense of Jonah Magnus. Jonathan was trying and failing to suppress a smile.
He laughed, and the rest of the day passed almost normally, even if the letter was always in the back of his mind.
That evening he sat down at his desk and took a deep breath.
Alright, time to make a decision. Was there any real reason why he couldn’t accept Jonah Magnus’ invitation? No. Did he want to go? Yes. Did he trust himself to not act like a fool?
He’d just save that question for later, and in the meantime he’d write the letter.
He stopped and hid his face in his hands.
Over the next week he must have written Jonah’s name a hundred times. By itself, as a calligraphic design, worked into the design of an archway, shaded into the shadow of a pillar. Above the head of another nude, styled after Apollo but with a suspiciously familiar face. It was unusual for Apollo to have dark hair, but this one did, and he gazed upwards with an expression of prophetic revelation, head crowned with light, lyre falling neglected from his hands.
Perhaps he’d made a mistake. But he was committed now, and he decided not to worry about it.
His anxiety came back in full force when it was time to make the journey from London. He left early in the morning, having agreed that he’d meet Magnus at the closest inn that afternoon. But the roads were muddy, the coach got stuck on two separate occasions, and it was dark by the time they arrived. Robert grumpily reflected that he might as well have slept in that morning, as leaving early hadn’t done any good. Magnus must have given up on waiting for him hours ago, so he trudged inside to ask about a room for the night. He was stopped with a firm hand on his shoulder.
“What—” he snapped, turning, and found Jonah Magnus smiling at him. “Jonah?” He was too tired to stop himself from using his Christian name, it slipped out and in a daze he listened to the sound of it in the air.
“Robert,” said Jonah with obvious delight, “I was starting to wonder if you’d been kidnapped. Hold on, let me find the coachman, I think he went to sleep.”
Jonah sat next to him in the coach, close to enough to talk to him about the landmarks they were passing. He had very keen eyes, and could identify shapes where Robert saw only darkness, so he mostly listened and nodded and focused on staying awake. He’d been frantic with nerves when he woke up that morning, and the first time the coach got stuck. By the second time, his emotions had burned themselves out, and all he could summon was a tired irritation. By the time he’d reached the inn he’d resigned himself to having an awful day, and his worry had been replaced, partially by resentment at the inconvenience, mostly by exhaustion. Now he felt like his mind had been swept clean by a fresh wind. All his negative feelings had been driven away by Jonah’s presence, but his exhaustion kept him calm, even with Jonah leaning closer to say something into his ear, pressing their knees together.
He was half-awake at the house, and all he saw was that it was both old and grand, and that it stood under bare skies with a dizzying depth of stars. That night he dreamed about falling uncontrollably forever, about vertigo and the black spaces between the stars. He awoke to sunlight in a strange room and smiled.
The next week passed like a dream. He and Jonah spent most of the days talking, mostly about dreams, ghosts, primal fears and the Dread Powers presumed to be behind them all, but regularly going off on tangents about anything that came up—literature, funny anecdotes from school, reasons why you actually need to eat to live J o n a h, reasons why knowledge is better than life itself Robert, reasons why you shouldn’t tempt death Jonah, reasons why death is so terrifying, reasons why leggy bugs are so terrifying, horses, nobody likes turnip and this is a fact my mother is just Wrong, and architecture. They both had a tendency to view whatever subject they were discussing in terms of their respective disciplines, and Robert learned a lot about history. Jonah’s mind was incredible—he could quote long passages of literature verbatim, and would sometimes give the original version of a quote written in another language and then follow it with an English translation.
They fell into a pattern of taking walks in the afternoon, though often they would get so distracted by their conversation that they forget to actually walk. Once it got dark while they were having a heated debate about the validity of a ghost story which Jonah thought was completely fabricated and Robert thought might be the embellished version of a true story.
“I still think I’m right,” said Robert on the way back, and immediately walked directly into a bush and fell on his face. Jonah laughed, but helped him up.
“Stay close, I think I know the path a little better than you do.” And he gripped his hand and didn’t let go until they saw the lights of the house, and Robert was silently grateful for the offending bush, even for the scrapes on his hands and the dirt on his clothes, because Jonah helped brush him off when they got back to the house.
Robert lay awake that night thinking about the touch of his hands and trying to convince himself to feel guilty about it. He didn’t succeed.
Jonathan had assumed he’d be fine because he knew what he wanted, but Robert was realizing that the reason for his self-doubt was because he really didn’t know where his priorities were.
He didn’t want to have to break a promise he’d made to his father, or to keep a relationship secret from his family and many of his friends. But when he weighed the consequences against the possibility, however faint, of Jonah Magnus returning his feelings, they seemed inconsequential. Every day a confession was just behind his lips, and he held himself back and held himself back from telling Jonah how he really felt about him, and he talked instead about ghosts and life and death and plague and literally anything that wasn’t his own heart. At night he dreamed of falling and he couldn’t find it in him to be afraid. He surrendered his body to the call of the earth and let himself drop weightless through miles and miles of blue and his blood sang in his veins, and when he woke to the weight of his body and the earth beneath his feet it was a bittersweet feeling, and he prepared himself to meet Jonah, whom he loved, and to pretend that he loved him differently than he really did. Jonah didn’t need to know. It would only ruin a perfectly good friendship.
And yet, and yet. His hope refused to die and every day he would wonder again, what if he feels the same? What if I told him, right now? What then? And again and again he had to stop himself, the words taking shape in his mouth, arguments both for why he should and shouldn’t bouncing off each other in his head.
One morning he walked a short distance down the drive, to a good place from which to sketch the house, and Jonah came along, carrying a chair for him and recreating an argument about the attribution of some Celtic poems that he’d had with another student. The air was fresh, the birds were singing, everything was wonderful until a piece of paper with an athletic nude sketched on it escaped from somewhere in between the others Robert was carrying and fluttered toward the ground, and Jonah caught it.
Robert resigned himself to his imminent death.
“Who’s this?” asked Jonah, flipping the page over.
Robert resumed breathing. It was a long-haired youth with a discus, who looked nothing like Jonah.
“Hyacinthus,” he said, nearly collapsing with relief.
“Oh,” said Jonah, and did not give the drawing back. Some of Robert’s relief drained away as he realized that, although this could have been worse, it still had the potential to be very awkward. “Interesting, I didn’t know you drew… people. You said you only sketched buildings.”
“Well—it’s good to branch out a little,” said Robert. “People are interesting to draw. And, you know, the human form often shows up as, as decoration, on buildings, so. Good. To. Know. How. To. Draw. It.”
“Of course! Do you draw people you know, or only mythological figures?”
“Oh, er, some of both—”
“Have you ever drawn me?”
“Not like that,” said Robert quickly, which was, technically, not a lie, as he’d never drawn Jonah with a discus.
“Oh,” said Jonah, looking a little startled, “Right, that’s… not what I meant…”
“Right,” said Robert, frantically setting up his drawing board so he didn’t have to make eye contact.
“Hyacinthus was—Spartan, wasn’t he? One of the lovers of Apollo.”
“I-think-so-yes,” mumbled Robert, scribbling desperately on his paper. The scribble ended up being distinctly not house shaped, and too dark to erase. Oh, that was unsalvageable. There went a perfectly good piece of paper. He crumpled it up angrily.
“It’s very well done,” said Jonah, and finally, finally handed the sketch of Hyacinthus back to Robert, who put it away.
Part of him wanted to talk more about the love of gods and warriors, part of him was desperate to change the subject. In the end Jonah changed it for him.
“Where should I sit, do you want me out of the way?”
“If I sit over here, will I be a part of the picture?”
Robert looked up. He hadn’t been planning a proper landscape, just an architectural study of the house, but—
“Oh, that’s an idea. Make yourself comfortable, then.”
Jonah settled himself on the grass and pulled a book out of his pocket. Of course. Robert smiled.
It took him longer than usual to finish. He had to get the proportions right, he wasn’t used to drawing the building relative to its surroundings. And he may have spent more time looking at Jonah than he needed to.
That’s when he first noticed it, because it seemed like he couldn’t keep still for more than a minute—Jonah would regularly turn and look over his shoulder, as if afraid that someone was sneaking up on him, and his eyes would often dart away from his book to sweep the yard. After that he noticed it all the time. It seemed to be a nervous tic of Jonah’s, to constantly watch out for—something. Robert wondered if there was a polite way to ask him about it, but couldn’t think of one.
The sketch turned out surprisingly well, though he felt exhausted when he was done. He’d felt compelled to put the same amount of detail into the landscape as the house, and he wasn’t used to landscapes. He was, however, used to drawing Jonah, and it was nice to be able to draw from life for once.
When he was finished, the house was recognizable, though he’d sacrificed some details by having Jonah block out most of the west wing’s ground floor. He didn’t regret it in the slightest. He liked the way he’d drawn Jonah, casual and relaxed, completely absorbed in his book, hair slightly ruffled by the wind. Jonah seemed to like it too.
That night he dreamed of walking towards the house from far, far away, on a sloping path with nothing but the sound of wind, and Jonah almost disappearing far ahead of him. The open space was dizzying. He was utterly free, no bonds, not even gravity, and he ran forwards, but he was running for a long time without moving, and all at once he’d lost Jonah somewhere in that huge sky.
He woke in the predawn almost crying and got up, too agitated to go back to sleep. The fields were silvery with dew and mist. A spiderweb clinging to the outside of his window trembled lightly in the air, and he smiled at it, wondering where the spider had gone.
It rained that afternoon on their walk, and they ducked under a tree to wait it out. This proved to be a bad idea, because the rain was only getting harder.
“Think we should just run for it?” asked Robert. Jonah considered this for a moment, then shook his head.
“I want to show you something.”
“My favorite place here.”
“Really! Why haven’t you showed it to me before?”
Jonah shrugged. “I wasn’t sure you’d like it. But this seems like a good time. It’s dry, at least.”
They set off through the woods, an the thick leaves shielded them a bit from the rain, though the drops that made it through were heavy and harsh. It was dim, and Robert kept close to Jonah, suddenly afraid again that he would lose him somehow, even though he was right there, close enough to touch. He could see the mist rising in folds between them as they moved. So close to him, Jonah’s body was darker than any of the mist-paled trees, but if he moved farther ahead Robert felt like he’d vanish, become just another of the indistinct shapes around them.
They reached a break in the trees, where large boulders jutted out of the earth. Jonah sped up, climbing over some fallen rocks at the base with a confidence that showed he’d been here often, and then he disappeared. Robert sprinted after him and scrambled up the rocks.
There was a bare rock face in front of him.
“Drop down,” said Jonah’s voice from somewhere below him. Robert looked around in confusion. There was a narrow crevice between the rocks. He didn’t like the thought of going down there (too close cannot breathe), but Jonah was there, and he took a deep breath and lowered himself to the ground. The edge of the rock he’d been standing on reached above his head, with the side of the big boulder against his back. In front of him was a small space between the rocks. For a few moments he couldn’t see anything but darkness, then with a shock he recognized Jonah, curled up in a ball in the furthest corner.
“Come in. It’s dry here.”
All of his instincts were screaming at him to run; being cold and wet but under the free sky was far better than going further into this dark hole, but the least intelligent part of his mind was fixated on the fact that there was physically no way for him to join Jonah in the back of the cave without touching him and that this was probably the only opportunity he’d ever have in his life to lean his head against Jonah Magnus’ shoulder without it being weird and he was going to take that opportunity if it killed him goddammit.
He took a deep breath and crawled into the hole. It was even smaller than it looked, and his heart beat faster when he thought about the weight of the rocks above his head.
“Is this stable? They won’t fall down, will they?”
“It’s been like this for years. I think they’re too heavy to move easily,” said Jonah. Robert shivered, but he was next to Jonah now, and it… wasn’t too bad. He could feel the warmth of Jonah’s body next to his. The gentle movement of his breaths. And he’d been right, it was dry in here. He could still hear the rain outside, a gentle sound.
“Are you alright?” asked Jonah, taking his hand, and Robert decided yes he was very alright actually, and said so.
“Good. You sounded afraid.”
“I don’t like small spaces, but this is—this is alright.”
“No. I think that might be another one of them, actually.”
Jonah turned towards him slightly, and he tried to recall all his dreams of being buried, although this was maybe the worst place on earth for them.
“I think that may be one of the ones that bothers me least,” reflected Jonah. “It scares you?”
“Yes. Why doesn’t it scare you?”
Jonah was silent for a few moments. “Do you ever dream that there’s something you can’t see just behind you?”
“No—wait, let me think. Maybe.”
Walking through a dark house, certain that there was someone else there. Someone who was playing hide-and-seek, but he didn’t like the game anymore, he wanted them to come out where he could see them, but they kept moving around and popping out just behind him. When he turned, there was always nothing there. But he knew they were still in the house with him, watching him.
A different dream, from when he’d been very young. He was walking through a field of thick grass that came to his chest. Something was hiding the grass, watching him. He had the sense that whatever it was had too many eyes, but he could never catch it staring, it always moved away just before he could look at it. He kept walking through the grass, desperate to get out of the field and away from the thing following him, but the field stretched on and on and the feeling of being watched was growing unbearable.
“That’s it,” said Jonah in a tone of absolute certainty.
“I think that’s my main fear.”
“That something’s chasing you?”
“No—no, it’s not quite like that. That’s… more like the one you called the Hunt, right?”
“Right. How is this different?”
“It’s not… it’s not chasing me, it’s just—the idea that something is there. Just over my shoulder. I know it’s watching me, but I never know where it is.”
Robert squeezed his hand.
“And down here, you can be sure there’s nothing behind you.”
“…I guess that’s it, isn’t it?” Jonah sounded pleased. “I never quite thought about it in those terms, I just knew it felt comforting, having solid rock all around me. But you don’t like it?”
“Well, no,” said Robert lightly. “It makes me feel trapped. But it’s not a bad place to wait out the rain.”
Jonah was silent for a few moments, then he said “Thank you.”
About three-quarters of an hour later, the clouds had lightened a little and the rain was an intermittent drizzle. They walked back through the woods in what Robert hoped was the right direction. He had no idea where they were, but Jonah seemed to know his way, so he wasn’t worried.
“You know,” said Jonah suddenly, “I like you a lot more than I expected to. I mean, when I first met you—forgive me for how this sounds, but it was your designs that made me curious about you—”
“No offense taken, I was rather awkward at our first meeting, wasn’t I?”
“I didn’t think you were awkward, just… sort of flighty. I’m not sure why I got that impression, now.” He paused. “Were you intimidated by me? Is that it?”
Robert laughed. The smell of rain was in the air and he felt too free to worry himself with fear. “Something like that.”
“Really! What’s so intimidating about me? Do I look like I’ve been cursed with eldritch knowledge beyond the reach of most men? Did you sense a dark kinship? Hm?” Jonah elbowed him and some long-fraying resolution snapped in Robert’s mind. He was safe here. He didn’t have to lie.
“No, actually, I just thought you were the most beautiful man I’d ever seen and I was scared to talk to you.”
Jonah didn’t respond to that for several moments. “Oh,” he said finally, quietly. “Huh. I was… completely wrong.”
And he brushed the back of his hand against Robert’s as they walked, and Robert’s heart leapt, but then he moved away from him in the mist and said nothing else for the rest of the walk, and Robert was left to wonder.
He kept wondering. As they reached the house Jonah seemed determined to avoid so much as looking at him, and disappeared almost immediately, mumbling something about changing into dry clothes before supper. Robert wandered up to his room and squirmed out of his water-heavy outer layers, unbuttoning his shirt. The rain was picking up again, shimmering against the window.
What now, then? He supposed that could have been worse, but… well, he wasn’t sure how to interpret that, except as mute acceptance with an implicit plea that he never mention it again. He wouldn’t.
He was still watching the rain trickle down the glass, lost in thought, when a knock at the door pulled him back to reality. He opened the door and nearly walked into Jonah, who was standing right on the threshold. He’d already changed and looked impeccably neat as usual.
“Oh, hello—that was fast—I’m still not ready,” stammered Robert, and stopped, wondering at the intense look Jonah was giving him. He was suddenly very aware of the way that his wet shirt clung to his shoulders.
Jonah brushed past him into the room, mumbling something. Jonah never mumbled.
“…What?” said Robert.
“I said, did you—does this room have a key?”
“Did they give you one? There should be—hold on—” He was opening drawers.
“Jonah. What are you—”
“Ah, found it.” He walked back around Robert, shut and locked the door, and turned to face him. “Can I kiss you?”
Jonah’s face froze. “Right. I’ll just.” He turned back around and fumbled with the lock. “I’ll, just, go, then.”
“No no wait wait wait, I didn’t say no, I just—what?!” Robert flung himself between Jonah and the door. “Just—wait a minute, I’m confused. You wouldn’t talk to me! I didn’t know what to think, I thought I’d offended you.”
“Oh,” said Jonah, looking incredibly blank. “…No. You didn’t.” He raised a hand to Robert’s face, lightly cupped the side of his jaw, and paused for several moments as if trying to calculate the angles before leaning forward and carelessly mashing their mouths together. Robert wrapped his arms around his waist, pulling him closer, and Jonah half-fell against him, pressing his back into the door. He couldn’t breathe, and he didn’t want to.
They paused for a moment, and Jonah pressed their foreheads together. The rain had grown louder, pouring down in opaque sheets, and it seemed to make him bolder, as if reassured that whatever was following him couldn’t see inside. He traced the shape of Robert’s lips, then the soft skin of his bared neck, and kissed him again, slower, with just a brush of teeth.
They were late for supper. It was a strange blend of euphoria and slow torture. Jonah’s parents were nice people, but Jonah would never meet his eyes when they were in the room, and Robert couldn’t help but resent them a little, especially when Jonah’s mother brightly suggested that they all play cards together after dinner and requisitioned their presence for the next hour. But they took the first polite opportunity to slip away, and Jonah pulled him into a linen closet and kissed him in the smell of lavender, avoided his eyes on the walk upstairs, locked them into his room and kissed him again.
It was all rather infuriating. Now, for some strange reason of his own, Jonah wouldn’t touch him when they were outside, even if they were completely alone, and his fear of being watched seemed to have grown from a skittish habit to a full-blown paranoia. Even when they were alone in his room, Jonah’s eyes would stray from Robert to sweep the room, over and over, as if expecting to find something standing in one of the corners. Robert could tell he made it worse, which he understood—he had to suppress a rush of panic sometimes when he thought of what his parents would say if they knew—but he couldn’t help but feel that Jonah’s reactions were excessive. It didn’t matter how deserted the location, how certain he was that they were alone; he never touched Robert anymore when they were outside on walks, which he found more than a little annoying. Surely the constable wouldn’t descend on them for linking arms as they walked. But Jonah got so tense when he tried that he gave it up, deciding it wasn’t worth the discomfort it obviously caused him. And he made up for it when they were alone—although, he also got jittery if he felt that they’d spent a suspicious amount of time in a locked room, so that wasn’t a complete solution either.
Still, he was happy, happier than he could ever remember being. It was more than he’d hoped for, to be able to measure Jonah’s body with hands and lips. He’d have to revise his drawings. He didn’t have the body of a god, cold marble in superhuman perfection; none of the perfectly measured angles of a master’s work. He had the body of a young man, on the thin side, slightly awkward still, with traces of dark hair. Robert loved every inch of him. The birthmark might have been his favorite feature: a dark oblong streak just above his left hip bone. He wondered how many people besides himself had ever seen it.
“It looks like a dab of paint,” Robert said once, tracing it with his fingers as they lay tangled together.
“Does it?” said Jonah. “I always rather thought it looked like an eye.”
“Oh, two aren’t enough for you? You want three eyes?” said Robert, and Jonah chuckled, Robert’s head bouncing on his chest.
Far too soon the visit was over, and then they were back to writing letters, and trying to contrive opportunities to meet. Jonah’s anxiety about being seen together was only heightened by the return to the city, and Oxford wasn’t a very convenient visiting distance, either. But despite Robert’s frustration at the separation, they stayed close, taking every opportunity to be together that Jonah’s paranoia would allow, and writing when they were apart. Robert even convinced Jonah to rent a flat in London with him for a few months, before he had to leave.
“Pity,” said Robert one day. “I’ve been desperate to leave the country and see some proper architecture, and now that it’s time to go, I don’t want to leave.”
“No?” prodded Jonah, running his fingers through his hair.
“Not really, no. Not when we’ve just got things worked out.” But his family had been planning the trip for years. He was going on a grand tour with his older brother and he didn’t see a convenient way out of it. Shame, he’d been so excited about the idea just last year, now he could think of few things he wanted less. “Unless,” he said, “You could come with us?”
To his credit, Jonah pretended to think about it for a moment. “No,” he said, “I can’t.”
“Alright,” said Robert, “Then I’ll miss you.”
“I’ll miss you as well, but I certainly hope you’re not going anywhere so uncivilized that they won’t have a postal service. We can still write.”
“True. But it won’t stop me missing you.”
He burned the incriminating sketches before he left, all except the one of Jonah as Apollo, which Jonah asked to keep. He agreed, and sketched a self-portrait to go with it, of himself surrounded by hyacinths, holding a discus.
Even his reluctance to leave Jonah could not entirely spoil the trip, although he often winced when he thought of how long he’d be gone. They had planned to spend five years abroad, but he thought he could whittle it down to four; surely that was more than enough time. Still, there was much to do and see, as they travelled through France, then Germany, then Italy; and he spent days sketching the Roman ruins, marveling at the worn dignity still remaining in the crumbling buildings. But it was Greece that he really loved. The sound of waves seemed to follow him everywhere he went, and the buildings there were so perfectly constructed he could have cried; but instead he took out his drawing board and sketched madly, desperate to make a record he could keep of what he had decided was the perfect form.
Richard complained about his obsession with the ruins. Richard liked them alright, he said, but he’d get bored after half an hour of staring at the same pillars and wander off, leaving him to sketch. And so he did. He even bought a tin of watercolors and made a halfhearted attempt at painting a landscape, though he didn’t feel happy about the result. He spent most of his time mixing shades of green, trying to recreate the color of Jonah’s eyes.
Richard was less impatient in museums, because there was “more to look at,” as if an entire temple wasn’t enough to look at. But this gave Robert a good excuse to sketch the statue of Apollo that stood in the main hall. He looked almost familiar, Robert thought—if he just altered a few features—
Suspiciously un-Apollo-like hair, a little dark patch of shading above the left hip. A crown a light. He dated and attributed it and labeled it APOLLO and hoped it wasn’t too obvious. His letters to Jonah were less guarded: they still argued over the categorization of fears; they had identified that there were between thirteen and fifteen now, and Jonah regularly offered critiques on Robert’s attempts to classify them. And when Robert had no new thoughts on fear, he told him about how warm the sunlight was, and how the sound of the waves seemed to follow him wherever he went. Even at night he dreamed of being warm, but it was a warmth that pressed down on him like the weight of the whole earth, crushing and burying him. He’d always hated those dreams, but now, somehow, even when he was asleep, they reminded him faintly of Jonah, and there was a strange kind of comfort in them. He included small sketches of his favorite views of the temples he was studying, sometimes a self-portrait, or a funny drawing of Richard being confused by the foreign food, or a drawing of Jonah himself.
Jonathan wrote to him too, sometimes. He’d met Jonah before Robert had left, and had made an effort to like him, though he had frankly told Robert he didn’t know why he was so fond of the man. Still, he’d mentioned Jonah in a few letters, and Robert had hoped that they were getting along well, until one.
I hope you do not mind if I speak about your friend, Jonah. I know he is very dear to you, but I cannot find it in myself to fully trust him. There is something strange in his manner, and I dislike the way he speaks about people. No one in particular, of course, but humanity in general seems almost beneath his care. But perhaps I’m not explaining it correctly. It isn’t that he is unaffected by human misery, but his interest in it seems voyeuristic, an academic curiosity free of human compassion. I have tried to stay on good terms with him for your sake, but I find that I simply do not enjoy talking to him.
Robert replied that Jonah had a very stiff manner, but that he had a good heart underneath it. He understood what Jonathan meant, of course—once or twice, in the heat of debate, Jonah had said things that made him uncomfortable; he had a tendency to view strangers as so many faceless factors in an experiment rather than people, but Robert believed it was just the quirk of an overly scientific mind. Jonah would never really hurt anyone.
Then one day he was trying to make a quick sketch of one of his favorite temples at sunset, with the sound of the waves crashing in his ears and most of the tourists already heading home. The sky was impossibly deep over his head and he was lonely, but not crushingly so. He had work to do.
A shadow fell across his page, and he shifted, frowning. Instinctively tried to brush the darkness away, then, realizing that it was futile, looked up to see what had moved between him and sun.
“Hello,” said Jonah. “Your brother said you’d be out here.”
He sat next to Robert, who gripped his hand, and Jonah squeezed back and didn’t pull away.
“I realized I could get away for a few months,” said Jonah simply, “And you just wouldn’t stop talking about how nice the weather was.” He glanced behind them, then gave him a quick kiss.
If Robert had enjoyed Greece before, it felt like Olympus now. He took Jonah around to all his favorite spots, showed him the statue of Apollo—and “that doesn’t look even a little bit like me,” Jonah pointed out, and Robert shushed him—as well as a painting of the death of Hyacinthus. He lay in Apollo’s arms, bright blood spattered across his head like a gory crown, a trickle of blood running from one eye like a tear. Hyacinths sprouted from the ground where his blood fell, and from around the bloodied discus lying a short distance away. Some versions of the myth faulted the West Wind, jealous that Hyacinthus had chosen Apollo rather than him, for blowing it off course; some just said it was an accident, and left it there. Even a god’s aim wasn’t always perfect, and now Apollo, beautiful face twisted in immortal grief, held his lover’s dying body.
“It’s a pity all these Greek stories are so tragic,” said Robert, making a quick glance around the room. They were alone, and he linked his arm with Jonah’s, and Jonah let him. “We’ll do better, won’t we?”
Jonah nodded, but his eyes were fixed on Apollo’s face, and he seemed to be lost in thought.
Richard went out that night with some friends, and Robert invented an excuse to stay at the hotel with Jonah. It was the first time they’d had uninterrupted time alone together, at least the first time that Jonah hadn’t been constantly looking over his shoulder. He’d put on a little weight; he wasn’t as frail as Robert had remembered.
“You don’t look like a starving academic anymore,” he said.
“I thought I looked like Apollo,” said Jonah, making a face.
“You always look like Apollo,” said Robert, “Because Apollo is the most beautiful god.”
“Oh, no, don’t say any of the gods are the most beautiful. You’ll start another war.”
“I don’t think anyone would dare argue with me.”
Jonah made an embarrassed noise and ducked his head.
Robert ran a hand over the birthmark on his hip, and thought of something. “Wait right there,” he said, and went and got his paints and some water. Jonah watched him curiously.
“I thought you said you didn’t paint.”
“I don’t, usually, but I make exceptions. Lie down.”
Jonah lay on his back, looking curiously up at him. Robert knelt on the bed next to him, mixing shades of royal blue and emerald green to a color like the waves, then drew the brush across Jonah’s birthmark. The brushstroke covered it perfectly, and he smiled in satisfaction.
“See? I told you it looked like a dab of paint.”
Jonah nodded silently. Robert had been planning to leave it at that, but the sight of him lying there inspired him. He brushed another streak of paint onto his right hip, matching the other. Symmetry. He touched Jonah’s knuckles and the hollow at the base of his throat with the blue-green color, then sat back to admire his work.
“There’s not much I can add to you,” he said. Jonah sat up and reached for the paints.
If Robert hadn’t considered himself a skilled painter, Jonah was even more lost. He held the brush gripped awkwardly between his fingers like a writing quill, and spent a long time mixing colors and frowning in dissatisfaction before finding a deep red-gold color which met his approval. Robert had sat up to watch him, and Jonah pushed him down with a gentle shove to the chest. Robert closed his eyes and waited for the touch of the brush, wondering where he would start.
The cold paint started just above his groin and streaked up in a line to just below his navel; a pause, then two gentle dabs, one below and one above, and another streak crossing his stomach and ending at the bottom of his ribcage. Another series of dots and streaks covered his sternum. Two cold dabs over his nipples. A pause, then the cold touched his throat, streaking gently over his Adam’s apple and lifting for a moment, followed by a dab on his chin, another on the bridge of his nose, and finally another on his forehead. He heard Jonah set the tin down and he opened his eyes.
“Stay there,” Jonah murmured, touching the paint on his forehead to see if it was dry, then blowing on it. Robert laughed.
“Can I get up now?”
“Not yet. Hm. Seems mostly dry.”
Jonah leaned down and kissed the spot of paint on his forehead, then the one on his nose, then his chin. Robert realized with a gasp what he was doing when he reached his neck. Jonah slowly worked his way down his body, kissing every spot he’d touched with paint, then sat up to look at him, lips flecked with gold. Robert was trembling.
“I think it suits you,” said Jonah, tracing a finger along the lowest brushstroke. Robert sat up and flung his arms around him, bits of blue and gold transferring between their bodies where the paint hadn’t quite dried.
Jonah left far too soon, and it was almost worse than before, because he had to say goodbye a second time. Jonah touched his arm, just briefly, before getting on his ship. “Write to me,” he said, and Robert promised.
As he watched him go, he felt torn apart. The temples he continued to study seemed so empty now.
Peter | 2014
Half-awake, he pondered the unusual sounds, or absence of sounds. The room was silent except for his breathing and a distant metallic sound.
Normally, he would hear Elias breathing next to him; quiet, but there. More than that, he was unusually sensitive to the presence of other people—he could tell when he was alone; the air was cooler, there was a muffling stillness as the fog was allowed to crowd close. It was good, it was what he wanted, but not tonight.
He sat up, slowly waking, senses sharpening. He was now certain that he was alone in the room, but not in the apartment. There was a presence in…
Click. Click. Click.
Elias was in the kitchen, and what was that sound?
Well, curiosity killed the cat. He knew he couldn’t go back to sleep now.
He walked into the kitchen and flipped the light switch.
Elias was at the table, aiming a gun directly at him. Peter watched his pupils, dilated in the darkness, shrink; then he pulled the trigger.
Peter noticed the bullets arranged in a circle on the table. The gun wasn’t loaded. He resumed breathing.
He looked back at Elias for some explanation as to why he was sitting in the dark miming firing an empty gun, and realized that his face was wet.
Oh. God. Oh fuck. Oh, no, that couldn’t be good, oh shit.
He turned the light off, but he’d already seen, and Elias, undoubtedly, knew he’d seen, which was… terrifying. Elias never showed vulnerability. He’d come within an inch of clawing Simon Fairchild’s throat out when he made a joke about this body’s allergy to shellfish. He’d rejected Peter’s first marriage proposal because “we’re not friends and I have no time for idle ceremonies and sentimentality”; so Peter didn’t mention it again for ten years and then Elias got around to proposing to him. (And of course Elias presented it as a business arrangement, but whatever.) He prided himself on always keeping his emotions in check. And Peter had just caught him crying.
In the dark, he heard the sound of Elias reloading his gun.
He didn’t move. He listened to six bullets chambered, and the cylinder clicking back into place.
Several seconds passed.
He relaxed. He was not dying tonight.
“Well,” he said, “Goodnight—”
A blaze jumped out of the darkness, and he froze, stunned by the sound of the shot.
Another moment passed, and he slowly realized that he hadn’t been shot. He reached out and felt around the wall behind him until he found a warm indentation.
A strange low laugh leaked out of the darkness in the kitchen.
“I wanted to see your face,” it said. “Go to bed, Peter.”
Peter went to bed.
He thought about taking the letter opener with him, but Elias knew everything he was doing, and would only interpret it as an act of aggression. So he did his best to go back to sleep.
Elias’ anger was like lightning, overpowering but brief. If he wasn’t already dead he would probably be fine, he told himself.
Click. Click. Click. Click. Click.
Robert | 1815
He’d been back in England for ten years and was doing well. He had an esteemed and well-paying position, his work was highly sought after, he’d met a fascinating man called Maxwell Rayner under whose guidance he’d more or less completed his list of the Dread Powers—there were fourteen of them, fourteen fears—and not least, Jonah was with him.
Not all the time, of course. They both travelled regularly, but they managed to be together more than they were apart, so he was happy, and Jonah seemed to be happy as well. They both had a tendency to get too involved in their work, though. Robert liked to think he was learning to calm down a bit, but Jonah was just as much of a workaholic as he’d been at school. Robert would have to coax him away from his books for meals. Many nights he never slept at all. He’d spend days absorbed in research, finally coming out of it in a daze and apologizing for his inattention. Robert could never find it in him to be angry at Jonah then, not when he was obviously struggling to work the stiffness out of his body, but he didn’t like it, nonetheless. He just wasn’t sure how to restrain him. He’d responded very badly to it the one time that Robert tried to rip a book out of his hands, and if he was deeply absorbed enough he could be practically deaf to the outside world.
He took to throwing himself across Jonah’s lap or leaning in front of his book when he read for too long. Sometimes it worked, and Jonah allowed himself to be distracted. If not, well, he’d made an effort.
Out of his friends and acquaintances, most only knew him as an architect, but there were some he could take into his confidence on his other work and discuss the list of fears. It had been several years since he had decided that it was, at least according to their present knowledge, finished; Robert considered it still open to revisions, but the pieces fit together far too well for him to think that it would really be necessary. Even among such chaotic things as the primal fears, there was an order. And if order existed, it could be enforced, exploited.
Jonah had become something of an architect himself from looking at Robert’s designs so often. Their interests overlapped where architecture met control of the dread powers. If a structure could evoke emotion, why not a presence? The question, of course, was how to control, balance, and harness that presence.
Often, Robert thought to himself that he should really be more afraid than he was, but it was hard to be afraid of anything with Jonah at his side. Between the two of them, he thought they could figure out anything.
The one thing he was a little worried about was Jonah himself—he just had to hope that he’d mellow with time, or at least that he’d listen to Robert when he told him to take a break and eat something.
There was one man who was regularly mentioned at their more private gatherings, among others who knew of the dread powers, but who never made an appearance. Mordechai Lukas, presumably a servant of the Forsaken, and a good one too because he never deigned to speak to anyone who attempted to meet him. There were two exceptions: Rayner, who had a way of finding his way to places he didn’t belong and who, moreover, had Lukas’ respect as a fellow servant of the Dread Powers—and Jonah, who said he’d met Lukas once by simply walking up to his house and knocking on the front door.
“What was he like?” asked Robert, and Jonah got a strange look on his face, and appeared to think it over for several seconds before answering.
“Powerful,” he said. “Like Rayner, but not as…. Dark.”
“…Did you like him?” Robert asked, and Jonah laughed.
“I think that’s irrelevant. He has knowledge that we lack, so he is an important friend for us to cultivate.”
“I agree, if he’s a servant of Forsaken he must have an interesting perspective,” said Robert, “But he may also be dangerous.” All their research so far had shown that those who gave themselves over to the will of one power or another invariably became unstable and dangerous, and they had agreed that it was safest to remain unaffiliated, and to only interact with the powers as a whole, allowing each one to balance the effects of the others.
Jonah had simply nodded.
“Do you worry about your friend?” Rayner asked him once, quietly, blind eyes turned in the direction from which he had last heard Jonah’s voice.
“Not at all,” Robert lied, “Why would I?”
Rayner smiled oddly. “He is hungry,” he said simply, “and They are hungry. Be careful, in your search for balance, that you do not misstep. It is easy to fall from a high wire, and a long way down.”
Robert chose to take that as just some more dramatic Rayner nonsense. Rayner might have eldritch knowledge, but he also had an inflated ego. Also, he was blind. Surely he couldn’t see Jonah’s trouble, whatever it was, better than Robert himself could.
But whatever it was was getting worse, and Jonah, in typical Jonah fashion, refused to talk about it. There were solid months when Robert was sure he hadn’t slept for more than brief moments at his desk, and he barely talked to Robert. He’d grown obsessed with their plans for the Millbank Prison, a project that he seemed to have even more interest in than Robert did. Robert began to wonder if he ought to have accepted the project at all, given the toll it seemed to be taking on his partner.
And Jonah wouldn’t tell him why.
“It’s the concept of balance,” he said when Robert asked why he was so interested in the prison; but he was just rehashing their old conversations. The prison was to be a new pantheon. A temple to all the gods of fear at once. Their greatest experiment in balance, given physical form.
“I know,” said Robert. “We’ve already talked about this so much, why can’t you put it aside for a moment?”
“Sure,” said Jonah, not looking up from his notes.
“…What could you possibly be looking at that we haven’t gone over already?”
Jonah stared blankly at him for a moment. “Nothing.”
He turned back around and kept writing “nothing” at a mad pace. Robert tried to look over his shoulder and see what he was writing, and all at once he’d flipped the notebook shut and hidden it in his pocket, and “you know what, you’re right,” he said, “I’ve been inside too long. Let’s go take a walk.”
Robert agreed—that was what he’d been trying to convince him to do, after all—but he felt uneasy. He didn’t believe Jonah had anything to hide from him, but his behavior suggested that he thought there was, which was concerning in another way. Did he not trust Robert? Now, after everything?
When they came back inside Jonah froze, so suddenly that Robert crashed into him.
“There’s someone here,” said Jonah over Robert’s confused exclamation. Jonah whipped around, eyes scanning the room. It was empty.
“there’s no one here,” said Robert, but he checked again, just to be sure. No, they were Alone.
“There is someone here,” hissed Jonah, spinning in a circle as if trying to see the room from all angles at once. Robert watched him and for the first time he felt truly afraid. Had he snapped? Was he going crazy?
“My apologies,” said a voice from behind him, and Jonah was focused on it in a flash; “I forgot how keen your eyes were. I had no intention to upset you.”
“You,” said Jonah, relaxing. “Just leave a calling card next time, like a normal person, would you?”
“I’m not a normal person.”
Robert turned, slowly, to see who was behind him, and found a large, dark-haired man sitting quite comfortably in an armchair, with a cup of tea. He was using Robert’s favorite cup.
“Mordechai Lukas,” he said without getting up.
“….Is that you?” said Robert, edgily.
“It is. Robert, I think you know… of… each other, at least,” said Jonah, hesitant but much calmer. “Lukas, what are you doing here?”
“Oh, call me Kai.” He sipped his tea. “Visiting.”
“I thought you hated visits.”
“Indeed! That’s why I came when you were out.”
“That is, quite distinctly, the opposite of a visit,” snapped Robert.
“I didn’t expect you to notice me so quickly when you came back,” said Mordechai Lukas.
“So your plan was to…. What? Sit invisibly in our library? For how long?!”
Mordechai Lukas shrugged and took another sip of tea. “This is quite flat-tasting. Where on earth do you let your housekeeper shop? She should be whipped. I believe this is the worst tea in London, I don’t know where she found it.”
“Mister Lukas, I would very much like to know why and for how long you planned to sit in our library,” said Robert.
“So would I! It was a whim, if I’m being honest. A lark. I was in the area, and I thought I’d drop in, but well, you know me, I didn’t actually want to talk to anyone. Unfortunately, that backfired rather badly, as you can see, and here I am, talking.”
Robert made a frustrated sound and gave Jonah a look which implored him to get this absurd man out of their flat. But Jonah was looking at Lukas with his head cocked to one side, as if trying to catch something he wasn’t saying quite loud enough. His expression was neutral, almost reverent.
“Well, since I’m here,” said Mordechai Lukas, setting his empty cup down, “I might as well tell you, I got your letter, and no, I do not have any interest in, ugh, socializing.” He laughed as if he’d said something funny. Bratty, self-satisfied man. “However, I do occasionally enjoy… observing. Something we share in common, I think. If you’d really like me to come, I’ll be invisible until the last guest has departed; then, if I’m up to it, I’ll stay and answer any questions you might have, but I can’t guarantee I’ll stay long, I get tired of talking very quickly. I’ve nearly reached my limit already, so if you’ll give me your answer now I’ll be going.”
“No,” said Robert strongly, at just the moment that Jonah said
There was an awkward silence. Robert and Jonah looked at each other.
Mordechai Lukas laughed loudly, got up, and vanished into thin air.
Robert looked suspiciously at the empty space he had previously occupied.
Jonah held up a hand, apparently listening to something—Robert couldn’t tell what.
“Yes, he’s gone,” he said after a moment. Then, “why don’t you want him to come?”
“Why—? Jonah, do you want an invisible servant of the Forsaken lurking unseen in our flat?”
“I don’t see why not,” said Jonah. “We’ve just made it clear that he can’t get away with staying longer than he’s welcome, at least not unnoticed, and he’s too passive to stay where he knows he’s not wanted—”
“Oh is he!”
“Yes. I do know him slightly better than you do. And why are you angry at me?”
“I’m not angry at you! I’m angry at this creepy invisible man who came into our flat without permission and only revealed his presence when you started to have a mental breakdown!”
“That’s another thing,” said Jonah accusingly, whipping around to face him. “You didn’t believe me when I said there was someone here.”
“I couldn’t see him. Why would I?”
Jonah glared at him. “There’s a lot we can’t see. I believe your dreams.”
He left, slamming the door behind him.
Jonah never slammed doors, and never looked at him like that. This conversation had involved a lot of firsts, and he didn’t like any of it.
The temperature in the room seemed to have dropped by several degrees, and the colors were muted. He thought it must be a psychosomatic reaction to the stress, but as he watched, the room slowly, slowly returned to normal, leaving only a deep, possibly natural chill in his bones.
That night he dreamed of wading through clouds of mist, feet slipping in the mud, falling into an empty grave. He knew where he was. He knew that he was alone, that each grave was empty, that not even the dead would hear him if he cried out, and he was cold. There was nowhere to go but across more empty graves. There was nothing to see but the same rolling mist. Not even the sound of wind or rain, not a cricket or a bird. If he stared at the fog long enough his thoughts broke down and he began to think it was inside of him, replacing his thoughts with its thick cold numbness, trickling sluggishly through his cold veins instead of blood.
They didn’t discuss Mordechai Lukas again, but their next gathering seemed oddly subdued, and Robert felt cold for the whole evening. Once he saw Jonah pass a drink to someone who wasn’t there, although the glass disappeared just fine.
He decided not to bring it up. But he resented Jonah inviting the man against his wishes. He hoped he’d got something useful out of it. Jonah himself disappeared at the end of the evening for several hours, and came into his room late that night looking haggard and collapsed next to him. He had a strange dead mineral smell about him, like the sea, and he felt cold to the touch.
“What happened?” asked Robert.
He made a noncommittal sound.
“Are you alright?”
He made an affirmative sound, then rolled over and curled himself around Robert.
“…I’m still angry at you for inviting him,” said Robert, but didn’t push him away. He was freezing. “Get under the covers, you’re like ice. What did he do, take you to Antarctica?”
Jonah chuckled, and the sound was reassuringly normal. “No.”
He didn’t get under the covers. Robert found him collapsed across his desk the next morning, pen still in his hand. Robert tiptoed around him to see what was written in the notebook he hadn’t closed before falling asleep. Just a bit closer—he could see the words, they were…. Written…. In cipher. Of course.
What could Jonah possibly have to write down that he couldn’t trust him with? Who else could he possibly be worried about, that he had to write in code? Robert was the only one who saw his notes, he knew that. Unless it was another manifestation of his fear of being watched. Robert tried not to complain about that too much, as he knew it was something he couldn’t help.
Still. This didn’t feel right.
The dreams were getting more frequent. He always seemed to wake feeling cold, and he didn’t like it. The more he tried to gently question Jonah on what was going on, the more certain he became that Jonah was actively avoiding him and hiding a great deal of information.
Some of his plans for the Milbank prison turned up with edits that he didn’t remember making. He thought he recognized the handwriting. That wasn’t terribly unusual, he had accepted Jonah’s critique in the past—but he hadn’t asked for it in this case, and had certainly not given Jonah permission to substitute a revised version of his plans for use rather than the originals.
When he went to ask Jonah about it, he couldn’t find him anywhere. He couldn’t find him at all until late that evening, when he suddenly turned up sprawled on the couch. He looked awful, so Robert left him alone. He’d talk to him in the morning, he thought.
In the morning Jonah woke him. It was barely light.
“I’m leaving,” he said.
“Hnngyes?” said Robert, blinking.
“Might not be back for a while.”
“…You’re leaving, leaving?”
“What? No, I just—have to go.”
“Are you coming back?”
“Of course I’m coming back.”
“I’m not sure yet.”
“Oh knock it off. You left me for four years.”
“I told you more than a year beforehand, not the day I was leaving. And, as I recall, I also mentioned where I was going.” Jonah got up abruptly and left the room. “Wait—” The front door slammed shut.
He was gone for nearly two months. While he was gone, Robert searched his desk and found several of his papers which had gone missing, as well as a sketch of Millbank Prison superimposed with a fourteen-sided design with angles converging on the panopticon in the center and more notes in cipher. He stared at it for a long time. It was obviously related to the Dread Powers, and the concept of balance he’d tried to capture in stone. But what was so important about the panopticon? Perhaps it wasn’t important, it just happened to be the center point of the design. But then why were the notes in cipher?
He pulled out another paper, and found he was holding a sketch of himself as Hyacinthus. It startled him, then he smiled.
One night he was woken from what was now a nightly dream of mist and empty graves by a more physical coldness. Jonah was back, and was curled around him, tightly hugging him.
“You’re back,” he said. Jonah silently nuzzled into his back.
A fear struck him. How did he know it was really Jonah? He hadn’t even been awake when he came in. He pried Jonah’s arms loose and rolled over to look at him.
Jonah blinked sleepily up at him, confused at being disturbed.
“It is you.”
“Of course it’s me.”
Robert settled back into his arms. “I missed you,” he said.
Jonah lazily kissed the top of his head. “I missed you too.”
Robert thought about asking for an explanation, but he fell asleep before he could get the words out. As it turned out, he needn’t have worried. Jonah was still there in the morning, and gave at least a cursory explanation of where he’d been. He said he’d gone to a library in Kent. His explanation of why he had to leave so suddenly was unsatisfactory.
What was almost more concerning, and was certainly more unusual, was how clingy he’d gotten. Actually, for anyone other than Jonah, it might have been only a normal amount of clingy, but for Jonah to hold his arm even in public was unthinkable. He accepted the change happily, but he didn’t understand it, and Jonah deflected all his questions, as usual. Still, he was willing to accept this as a good change rather than a bad one—not that it did anything to shake the fear that his Jonah, the real Jonah, had somehow been replaced. Stranger. I-Do-Not-Know-You. Only a fear, and not even a reasonable one. He knew his Jonah, and this was him. There was nothing to worry about.
And yet the fear settled in his chest and clenched there, cold and tight and impossible to budge. Something was happening and he didn’t know what.
They had two surprisingly normal days (normal aside from Jonah’s abnormally affectionate behavior) before the night Robert woke up smelling blood. He knew it from his dreams of the abattoir, even though it was fainter here. He scrambled out of bed, shouting for Jonah, and panicked when there was no response. He started for the front door, but stopped when the smell grew stronger. Yes, it was just here, whatever it was.
Something moved in the darkness.
He struck a match.
Jonah’s eyes caught the light, flickering up at him. He was kneeling on the floor, clutching something small in his hands.
Robert swore and dropped the match. There were quiet sounds of hurried movement in the darkness as he searched for another match and a candle.
“Jonah? Jonah!” He got the candle lit on his fifth attempt and lowered it to look at him.
“Yes?” said Jonah, as if everything was normal.
A large cat and a small dog were lying on a bloodstained towel in front of him. His hands were bloody.
“What you doing—is that Mrs. Carter’s cat?!”
“Ah,” said Jonah, and he sounded almost regretful, “is that what it was? I thought it was just a stray.”
“What are you doing with them?”
“An experiment.” He touched the dog, and it made a horrible crying sound, a sound no dog should make, a sound like it was trying to do something unnatural with its throat. Robert realized why he’d woken up. He’d heard that sound in his sleep.
Jonah carefully pulled the dog’s eyelids open, and a cat’s eyes swiveled to focus on the light, slit pupils constricting.
“It worked,” said Jonah, smiling.
In his haste to get out of the room Robert dropped the candle, tripped, and knocked the wind out of his lungs falling across the arm of the couch. Jonah pulled him to his feet and helped him sit down on the couch. He hoped he’d wiped his hands off first, but he still smelled strongly of blood.
“It worked,” he said again, dreamily.
“What worked?” Robert struck another match and watched Jonah’s pupils shrink as he leaned away from the light, squinting. It reminded him a little too much of the cat’s eyes. “Jonah. Can you tell me what you were doing?”
Jonah started to say something, then caught himself, and his face took a more guarded look. “No,” he said, simply.
The match went out, but he hadn’t moved from where he was standing, and Robert thought grimly that he was starting to understand Rayner. You could learn to navigate the darkness if you had a strong enough incentive.
His hand caught the side of Jonah’s face with a slap that knocked him sideways. There was a thud and a grunt, it sounded like he’d hit the table on his way down.
“Tell me what’s going on.”
He heard Jonah shifting around on the floor, then he sighed. “Balance.”
“I’m sorry about Mrs. Carter’s cat. Don’t tell her it was me. I’ll have this cleaned up by morning, alright?” He heard him move away, towards his “experiment.”
There was a sharp little sound, as if a cat was trying to bark.
Robert didn’t sleep much that night.
In the morning Jonah was, as normal, reading at his desk. There was no trace of blood or tormented animals. “Ah, you’re up,” he said pleasantly. Robert ignored him and headed out.
He was in the street before he noticed that Jonah was behind him. “Why are you following me?”
“I want to be alone,” he said, and saw Jonah’s neutral mask crack for a moment.
“I don’t,” he said.
“Unfortunate,” said Robert, and walked away. To his credit, Jonah didn’t follow him.
He didn’t actually feel like walking, he just wanted to get some space. The city was too close. Choked. He found a café that didn’t make him feel claustrophobic and went inside.
He was distracted, so he didn’t notice the moment that it happened. All he knew is that there were other people in the room one moment, and the next, the place was empty, and deadly silent.
Looking up, he caught sight of Mordechai Lukas sitting at a table opposite him.
“What do you want?”
“Oh, rude! Not even a good-day?” said Lukas. “But, I suppose I hardly ought to complain, I like conversations to be as brief as possible. So! Did he make it back alright?”
“…He was with you? Why?”
“By your use of the past tense I assume he did make it. Wonderful! I was a bit worried he’d get lost, but it seems I needn’t have been. Of course, that raises the question, what was it he was chasing after? You or his precious papers? I swear that man writes like nothing I’ve seen—”
“Why was he with you?”
“Hm? Oh, we’re friends now! He hasn’t told you?”
“Well, hardly surprising.”
“He said he was at a library.”
“I do own a library.”
“That makes no sense. Why wouldn’t he tell me? I mean, I know I’ve made no secret of the fact that I don’t like you, I resent your little tricks like—” Robert gestured to the abandoned café.
“Quite,” said Lukas.
“But I don’t see why he had to lie about it.”
“Quite a conundrum,” said Lukas, grinning widely. “Does it make you feel lonely?”
“Oh, fuck off.”
Lukas gasped theatrically and laid a hand across his chest. Robert looked around for something to throw at him.
“Well, if there’s one thing we can agree on, it’s that your Jonah is a fine young man,” said Lukas conspiratorially.
“He’s not mine. I doubt he’s even his own right now.”
“Oh, I’m sorry to hear that! Is something the matter with him?”
“I don’t know.”
“Well, I think he’ll be just fine. Very self-sufficient, I think that’s an important virtue. And he’s got just the right amount of eyes.”
“No no, he’s got a spare! Seems a bit of a cosmic joke doesn’t it, that he was marked with the Eye from birth?”
Robert stared at him, processing this. His mind stopped short of comprehension.
There was a crashing sound, horribly loud in that stillness, and Jonah slid into the café. He looked at Robert’s face, then at Mordechai Lukas. His face went white.
“Kai,” he said. “Are you here to gloat?”
“Me? Well, yes! I’m just so proud you made it home!”
“Mordechai. Our agreement.”
“Oh, yes, of course. But I haven’t done anything but chat with him. I believe that was allowed, yes? Although, if you were so eager to keep our business private, perhaps you should have specified. At any rate, I’ve got other business to attend to, and I’m sure you two have a lot to talk about! Au revoir!” he vanished, but the café remained uncomfortably silent.
Jonah stayed where he was, glaring at the now-empty table Lukas had occupied, his fists clenched at his sides. He was, inconveniently, between Robert and the door.
For a split second, Robert seriously considered diving out through the window.
Jonah turned to face him. He’d composed himself, and now he only looked tired.
“Don’t,” said Robert.
“Let me explain.”
“Oh, you didn’t sleep with Mordechai Lukas?”
Jonah looked like he’d swallowed poison. He didn’t answer.
“Do you have anything to say to me?” asked Robert. Jonah thought about it.
Robert got up and walked past him to the door. Jonah didn’t move out of his way, but he didn’t try to stop him either.
The second he’d exited the café the sounds of a living human London rushed back around him. He could have cried from relief. From the windows of the café, it had looked like the whole city was deserted.
He packed his bags and moved out the same day. He didn’t talk to Jonah after that, but it was hard to completely avoid him.
For one thing, so much of his work with the Dread Powers was permanently associated with him, as were their inner circle of friends. They still ran into each other regularly, though Jonah had the decency to pretend not to see him most of the time. If they were forced to talk, he was coldly polite, and Robert responded in kind.
Time passed, and he started to heal from the shock of it. Then he met Laura, and she was perfectly normal, a good kind human woman without any plans for grandeur and death. They became close.
He momentarily considered inviting Jonah to the wedding, quickly decided that it was too petty; and moreover, the thought that Jonah might actually show up was… unpleasant.
The night before his wedding he dreamed of drifting mist and sinking cold. The dreams still wouldn’t leave him, and he’d grown accustomed to them, at least as much as he could. He lay in the bottom of a grave and let his mind fade away into nothing.
It got better after that. His work continued, with or without Jonah’s help. Laura was wonderful, and they were expecting a child soon.
One of his students acquired an incomprehensible book, covers and pages thickly stained with clay, and immediately died in what he could only assume was a manifestation of the Buried. Everyone assumed that it had been a cave-in, although they all knew it shouldn’t have happened.
Robert quietly took the book away, chained it shut and dropped it in the Thames. A few years before he might have tried to read it, but he’d seen too many of his friends suffer misfortune by now, and was beginning to understand how lucky he was to still be alive. How quickly someone’s luck could run out.
The Thames flooded for the next month, crushing and drowning many in its path.
He’d thought the Dark was empty. Maybe he should have taken Rayner more seriously. The passage under the old church killed another of his students, and this one was his fault. He sealed the passage and did what he could to restore the church above it, hoping the re-consecration of the holy place would keep the darkness at bay. He had a horrible feeling that it didn’t work like that. He didn’t know what else to do.
Laura didn’t quite understand what was going on, but he’d told her the basics—she knew there were Dread Powers outside of reality, and that her husband, a consummate idiot, had spent his life trying to harness their power through architecture. She had always looked doubtful when he tried to explain it to her. She seemed more convinced when he admitted that he didn’t think it was working—at least, not like he had hoped. Perhaps she’d had more sense than he did all along.
Jonah Magnus had created an institute to house his paranormal research. Robert hoped that that was truly all it was, and that it brought him joy, and perhaps some measure of security. If he’d survived this long than he had to have learned the same lessons of caution which Robert had. He’d never seen the Institute, and he had no intention of going: he was starting to think there might possibly be a thing as too much knowledge, and he was having a hard enough time comprehending what he already had. (Not to mention it would be awkward.)
And yet, when Jonah Magnus sent him a very stiff and formal letter inviting him to come look at some recently-acquired books—and making a point to mention that he was included in a general invitation, and wouldn’t be alone—he decided he might as well go and take a look. It had been years, and besides, it’s not like he’d have to interact with Magnus one-on-one. And he was a bit curious about the Institute.
Everything about it seemed normal, up until the books. Jonah looked much the same as ever, sharp and severe, now starting to go grey. For some time now, every time Robert had seen him, something about him had seemed different, but he’d never been able to put his finger on what it was. It was probably just that he wasn’t used to seeing him anymore, which, all things considered, was likely for the best.
Rayner was there, and several others; more Jonah’s friends now than his, though most of the old group had met a variety of unpleasant fates. Robert was in the back, so he had a good view of the whole group when it happened. They walked into a room that had been locked, and found a simple library, walls lined with shelves of handsomely-bound books. Jonah said something or other which he didn’t catch, and then one by one Robert watched the men in front of him collapse.
Rayner, standing next to him, put a hand out and gripped his arm fiercely. His instinct was to smack the hand away, but he reminded himself that whatever else Rayner was, he was an old man and a friend, and he took his hand and helped him out of the room. Once in the corridor Rayner took a deep breath.
“Are they all down?”
“What—yes, I think so. What was that?”
“Too bright,” muttered Rayner.
“I don’t understand.”
“Didn’t you feel it?”
“I don’t know, I was distracted by all the fainting. On that subject, will you be alright on your own? I’d better help the others out.”
Rayner released his arm and nodded.
This time, he did notice a difference when he passed into the room. Subtle, but there. It was warm and dry in here and everything had the clear color of candlelight. The musty smell of old books was overpowering, even with what looked like brand-new bindings. And there was a strange sensation in his head, like his thoughts were buzzing and alive.
Jonah was dragging one of the others towards the door. He looked up with a silent request, and Robert bent and took the man’s other arm and they pulled him out into the corridor between them. Working together they quickly got them all out into the Institute and settled them in chairs to recuperate. Two were already starting to wake up and ask questions, and Rayner was limping around and grumbling at Jonah.
“I think perhaps I should keep that room locked,” said Jonah with a jarring attempt at humor. “There’s brandy on the sideboard, make yourselves comfortable.” And he disappeared, presumably to look the offending room.
“Jonah,” said Rayner, supporting himself against the back of a chair. “Jonah!”
“He’s gone,” said Robert.
“Ah, you! Do you have my cane?”
“No, I haven’t seen it.”
“Well, then, it’s probably back in the library. Go get it for me.”
“Listen, I know you and Jonah had a falling out, but, as I’m sure you can understand, I’d like to leave this place as soon as possible and I very much doubt that I’ll make it down the front steps without something to support myself with. So if you’re not going to hold my arm all the way to the station,”
“Fine, fine. I’ll go get your stick.”
He felt like this might be a clumsy attempt to force him to talk to Jonah. He was too annoyed to really care.
He’d forgotten how weird the room felt, and though he’d planned to grab the stick and leg it back to the others immediately, he found himself pausing, trying to understand what the feeling was. Jonah was on the other side of the room, gazing up at the books with his arms folded behind his back and a pleased smile, evidently lost in thought.
The buzzing at the edge of his thoughts was words. The books were loud, vibrant, begging to be taken down and read. If just looking at them felt like this, he didn’t like to think about what it would do to him to read one.
“You hear them, too, don’t you?” said Jonah.
“Yes. Did you know this would happen?”
“Oh, the fainting? Not quite. I thought they might affect others differently than they affect me, but that was… unexpectedly dramatic. I suppose it was a good idea to test them on men I knew would weather the effects well.”
“So we were the subjects of your experiment.”
Jonah sighed. “Do you have a better idea? What would you have me do instead?”
“Some warning might have been nice.”
“And might have biased you beforehand, thus changing the results. No, I wanted to see what would naturally happen—”
“So it was an experiment.”
Jonah nodded. “How are you, by the way? How’s the marriage?”
“Fine,” said Robert sharply. Jonah smiled.
“None. Why did you ask me here?”
“I thought you might be a good match for them,” he gestured at the books, “I was curious to see whether I was correct. And as you see, I was.”
“Well, that’s convenient. What is it they’re doing to me?”
“Oh, they want to be read, that’s all. I wouldn’t advise reading any of them carelessly, though.”
“I don’t intend to read them at all. Where did they come from?”
“The books? Different sources, I did worry that it might be overpowering to put them all together like this. A few I managed to bargain away from Mordechai Lukas—” Robert make a disparaging sound. “Yes, I know, I don’t like him either. But most of them, the most recent ones—”
“Hold on, you don’t like Mordechai Lukas? Last I knew, you were crazy about him.”
Jonah gave him a pinched look. “He was—useful. He offered me guidance, for a price which I considered quite low, so I accepted. I couldn’t have done otherwise.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Hm, no, I didn’t expect you to,” he said sharply. “This room, this Institute wouldn’t exist if not for him. So here we are.”
Robert slowly processed this.
“I don’t—wait, did he force himself on you?”
“What? No, no. I went in with my eyes open, I did nothing I hadn’t agreed to.”
“You don’t sound happy about it.”
Jonah visibly bristled. “I did what I had to,” he said.
“Why? Who was forcing you?”
“I—just—had to know. I needed the information he had and he gave it to me. It was a long time ago, now leave it alone!” His voice had risen to a shout. Robert put up the hand which wasn’t occupied with holding Rayner’s cane in a pacifying gesture.
“You’re right, it was a long time ago.”
Jonah relaxed a little. He took a few deep breaths, then stepped closer to Robert and offered his hand. “Let’s go back to the others.”
Robert looked at his hand, words flickering dizzyingly around his head, trying to make a decision.
He stepped forward and wrapped his arms around Jonah’s chest. Jonah made a startled sound, but quickly returned the embrace.
“I do miss you, you know,” said Robert, “The old you, that I’m not afraid of.”
Jonah’s ribs shuddered. When he spoke his voice was thick. “Are you afraid of me?”
“Sometimes. I don’t know you.”
“Yes you do. I’m the same man I’ve always been, I’ve just gotten stronger.”
Then, with his cheek on Jonah’s shoulder, Robert finally put his finger on what it was that had been bothering him about Jonah’s appearance. His eyes were too steady. They weren’t constantly flicking around the room. And here he was, embracing him in a public space, with the door open behind him.
“Jonah, I’ve just realized something. You’ve stopped looking over your shoulder.”
“Oh, you’re right. I’m much calmer now.”
His recent outburst had been the opposite of calm, but Robert didn’t mention that; he just said “That’s good.” And he hoped it was good, but. “How’d you get rid of the Watcher?”
“…I didn’t. He’s still there, I’ve just adapted.”
Something about that felt wrong—maybe the concerning intimacy of referring to one of the Powers as “he”—but Jonah seemed to view it as a good thing, so he’d just have to hope that he knew what he was doing.
“You know,” said Jonah, “I was—I was really just—offering to take the cane from you. But I’m glad you misinterpreted.”
Robert laughed and they separated, though Jonah’s hand lingered on his arm.
“Are you sure you have no regrets?” said Jonah.
“I’m sure,” said Robert. “What about you?”
An unidentifiable emotion briefly touched Jonah’s face, then was gone. “The same.”
“Good, then I’m glad. Take care of yourself, alright?”
As they left and Jonah locked the door, and the buzz of overeager words dropped away from his mind, Robert began to put the pieces together.
“The new books—” he said, and Jonah looked up, “They’re the ones that belonged to Albrecht von Closen?”
“Ah, you remembered.”
“But how did you get them?” he asked, and Jonah hesitated. “Didn’t you say his life was at risk until he returned them to the crypt?” Jonah sighed.
“…Yes. But I think he’s too far gone, regardless, to—at any rate, I had these books switched out and replaced with blank pages when he was having them rebound.”
“You what.” Jonah looked away from him. “And what if this—this creature, the guardian of the books, comes after them the way it came for the coin?”
“That was the risk Albrecht von Closen took in removing and reading them,” said Jonah. “He acted with full knowledge and, judging by the near-incomprehensibility of his recent letters, has paid a heavy price.”
“What happened to him?”
“I’ll know in more detail soon. I sent Jonathan to check on him.”
“Well, assuming he’s still alive when—wait a minute. Did you mean Dr. Jonathan Fanshawe? My friend?”
“Your friend, yes. I wasn’t aware that he was only allowed one friend.”
“You know what I mean. You knew it could be dangerous, and Jonathan is not prepared for—whatever is out there. Why not send one of your own students? Someone, at least, who had some idea what to expect.”
“But that causes the same problem of bias that I tried so hard to avoid today. I wanted an honest, outsider’s account.”
“You won’t receive any account at all if he dies.” Robert handed the cane to Jonah and quickened his pace. “Give that and my apologies to Rayner, I have a letter to write.”
“You’re leaving? To write to Jonathan?”
“Robert, wait, one more thing.”
“What?!” He spun on his heel, impatient. Jonah was smiling, and he didn’t like it.
“Would you like to cheat death with me?”
Jonah walked closer and gripped his shoulders, barely-suppressed excitement visible on his face.
“Think of it. A life free of fear.”
“I highly doubt that, and what on earth are you talking about?”
“I’m not asking you to leave your family—”
“Good, because I won’t.”
“But consider it.”
“No. Death is part of God’s order for life itself, and I do not believe that such a fundamentally inhuman goal as immortality can be anything but detrimental to the soul, regardless of how you would achieve it. Fear of death is only natural, but it’s something we all have to accept. Think about it.”
Jonah looked regretful, but unconvinced. “I will. And you, think about my offer.”
“I’ve thought about it. Thank you, but no. Don’t ask again. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to warn Jonathan that there’s an angry ghost in the village and you’ve switched von Closen’s books with fakes.” He turned and stormed out of the Institute.
One day Laura met him at the door with an expression that said she had something to tell him.
“Your friend is here,” she said, and Robert tensed.
“What? No, not Jonah Magnus. You said you weren’t on good terms with him.”
“Right, I—right. Well who is it?”
“Oh! Good, he’s concluded his trip safely then. Where is he?”
“In the drawing-room, but I think he’s asleep. He’s been acting very strangely, I think the journey must have been very difficult for him. Be gentle with him.”
“Oh. Thank you, I will.” He hadn’t escaped unscathed, then.
Jonathan was collapsed in a chair, in the awkward attitude of someone who had fallen asleep shortly after convincing themselves that they were absolutely not going to fall asleep. He didn’t respond to his name, so Robert shook him gently by the shoulder, and his eyes started to blink open. Then he was suddenly moving very fast, knocking him to the ground and gripping him by the throat.
“…Robert?” said Jonathan.
Robert wheezed. Jonathan helped him up, sputtering apologies.
“It’s alright, I understand. Something happened to you,” said Robert. Jonathan nodded grimly. “Did you get my letter?”
“I did. It was too late to do any good, but it at least showed me that you hadn’t known where Magnus was sending me. I should have guessed that earlier, but from the way he spoke of you, I was led to believe you’d discussed the trip, and that it was a favor for both of you.”
“Well, that’s not at all correct. You know I haven’t been on good terms with Jonah Magnus for a while.”
“You were with him, though, when he—” Jonathan paused, seeing Robert’s expression. “…When he sent the first letter? He mentioned that you had asked him to send your regards? …You weren’t actually with him, were you.”
“I very much doubt it. Do you still have the letter?”
Jonathan searched through his pockets and handed Robert a very crumpled letter. While he was reading it, the younger Laura, his daughter, came in with the cat, quietly set it on Jonathan’s lap, and left again. The cat curled up and began purring.
“…Ah. Thank you,” said Jonathan. Robert looked up, distracted. “Your daughter mentioned earlier that the cat made her feel better when she was sad, and she was going to try to find it for me. It looks like she did.”
“Yes, the cat. Right. Ah… This is a blatant lie.”
“All of it! I wasn’t with him, he did know the reason for von Closen’s malady, and—well, I suppose it might have been true that von Closen was his friend; he certainly treats him as poorly as he treats his other friends.”
Jonathan nodded. “I should have known.”
“But what happened? –Do you want to speak about it, or would you rather not?”
“No, I’m just glad you believe me, I was afraid no one would.”
So Jonathan told him of his trip to the Black Forest, the tree burning in the middle of a storm, the strange, frantic old man and his obsession with the books which turned out to be blank. His death in the crypt. The results of his autopsy. Jonathan’s breathing became ragged as he described the eyes that had turned to look at him from beneath the old man’s skin.
Robert shared the pertinent details of his talk with Jonah (not Jonah’s outburst, or the hug, those details were… irrelevant), and Jonathan sighed, tangling his fingers in the cat’s long fur.
“I wish I could say I’m surprised,” he said.
“I am,” said Robert.
“Why? After what you’ve seen him do?”
“He wasn’t always like this. He’s… different. I’m afraid for him, for what’s happening to him—”
“Robert, he’s always been like this. I never liked him to begin with. Maybe you didn’t see it because you were blinded by your admiration for him, but I promise you, the only surprising thing about his part in von Closen’s death is that I didn’t suspect him immediately.”
Robert started to argue, then paused and thought it over.
Jonathan shrugged. “It’s easy to miss someone’s flaws if you love them. As far as I’m concerned, he’s always been like this.”
He wanted to say that Jonathan was wrong, but did he really know that? Jonah himself had claimed that he hadn’t changed. What signs had he missed, then, for all those years?
Maybe Jonah had never loved him to begin with. Had Jonah always been more interested in his dreams as a source of knowledge than in his friendship? Had he missed it in his desperate hope to see something more there?
He took a deep, shuddering breath. No, he was letting his despair color his memories.
“I think you’re wrong. He was—looking back now, I can see the seeds of it starting when he was younger, but he was not this cold. He has changed.”
“Alright,” said Jonathan in a tone that said that he disagreed but didn’t think it was worth further argument. Then, “Who do we go to about this? Do you think the police would accept a claim that Jonah Magnus the historian has been consorting with dark forces from within his archives?”
“What, do you want to call in the Spanish Inquisition? No, I don’t think so. Do you have any proof of—”
“No, of course not. Who would believe us?”
“I suppose we could get him convicted of theft if you can prove that he stole von Closen’s books.”
Jonathan laughed. “That’s not a bad idea, actually.”
“You think he should be locked up.”
“Absolutely. He’s dangerous.”
“Hm. I don’t think…”
“What? You don’t think he’d actually hurt anybody? He nearly killed me.”
“I know. You’re right.”
He didn’t want to believe it.
“Robert, do you know what he’s planning to do with the Millbank prison?” Jonathan asked.
“Oh, that. He mentioned it to you?”
“He offered me a position there, I turned him down.”
“…Is he in a position to do that?”
“Apparently. I didn’t ask for details. Why is it important to him? Do you know?”
“I know he was very interested in getting me to work on it, and when I did, he altered my designs several times. At least, several times that I noticed. I know he can forge my signature, he’s probably slipped more edits past me without my knowledge. But I don’t know what for. All I know is that, at that time, I was obsessed with the concept of harmony between the—oh, you don’t know about the Dread Powers.”
It was a bit late, but he was finally starting to recognize the mad hubris of his younger days. There was no controlling the Dread Powers. They could not be tamed and should not be contacted. The concept of balance was nice enough, but it ought to have remained theoretical; especially as he was now starting to doubt even that. How could things so chaotic as fears have a solid hierarchy?
“…The what?” said Jonathan.
“Do you want to know? Think carefully before you—”
Robert sighed. “Well, get comfortable. I’ll write down the list and give you as much information as I’ve got.”
“There’s a list? Of… what, demons?”
“I don’t think so, but it’s not a bad analogy.”
“…I was joking. You’re serious?”
“When you were a child, weren’t you afraid of the dark?”
“I—what? Well yes, isn’t everyone?”
“We’ll start with that one. Maxwell Rayner serves it.”
That got a reaction. It took a long time to catch Jonathan up on what he knew about the fears, and on what he’d attempted in his work.
“Why didn’t you tell me this sooner?” asked Jonathan when he was done.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t think I should. I told very few people—”
“I suppose I wouldn’t have told me either. Before seeing what I did in the Black Forest, I doubt I would have believed you.”
“And I thought, if you did believe me, it would only burden you with more fear. It was different than giving names and structure to what someone had already suspected, as far as I could tell you had never been touched by the Powers, not beyond what was normal, at least, and could comfortably go your whole life without thinking about them—barring interference from Jonah Magnus, it seems. So I thought I should leave you the peace of ignorance. Not that it lasted.”
“Not that it lasted. I think I’ll have more questions about all this later, once I’ve had time to think it through.”
“Write them down, I’ll do my best to explain. You have a right to know after being dragged into this.”
Jonathan promised to write and went on his way, and Robert hoped that his words had helped more than they had hurt. He was starting to doubt that his connection to the Powers had brought anything to the world but more pain and darkness. Perhaps the world would be a brighter place if he’d never been born.
No, there was no use thinking like that now. His intentions had been noble, even if he had been blinded by pride. At least now he could see where he’d gone wrong, could try to warn the others not to make his mistakes. He’d been lucky. Few of those touched by the Dread Powers lived to see their children grow up.
So time passed, and little Laura grew taller, and Marmalade got slow and stiff-jointed and Robert could commiserate. He saw Jonah even less, and almost hoped that he’d quieted down—though that mention of immortality still troubled him. The older they got, the more likely Jonah was to do something unnatural, and though he didn’t know what it was he worried.
And then one day he found that there were eyes on him wherever he went.
Subtle at first. Easier to explain away the staring eyes than his own panicked reaction to them. Everywhere he went, he couldn’t shake the certainty that people were watching him. Even animals, sometimes.
He managed to convince himself it was all a trick of his mind until the coachman’s head swiveled front to back to stare at him, bones cracking. Then he became certain that he was being singled out. He’d never hallucinated before, never even had dreams quite like this. It was a new, and unpleasant experience.
The dreams, too, were different. Waking in a silent and deserted room, going outside to where an incomprehensibly huge eye stared down at him. Watching as the sky blinked.
He wondered if he should try talking to him, or if he should write. He wondered if any of it would be of use.
So far he hadn’t seen that hungry gaze in the eyes of anyone he really knew. His family had been spared. He thought it might remain like that until one day he met his own eyes in the mirror and knew he was being watched.
“Jonah?” he whispered.
No response. His reflection didn’t do anything unusual. The presence didn’t change, either.
“Please stop it, I’m trying to get dressed.”
Of course not. Well, it was worth a shot.
Whatever was happening, he doubted that Jonah was fully in control of it, anyway. But he had an idea that he was in some way responsible.
And then it took the form of little Laura. He didn’t sleep that night. The real Laura came to him in the morning, humming a snatch of song, and asked why he looked so tired. Had she been in her room all night, he asked? Yes of course. She looked confused as to why he’d ask. He said it was nothing, that he’d heard a strange noise and hadn’t slept well.
She brought Marmalade and set the cat in his lap. Marmalade was growing old but still knew how to soothe a worried human, nuzzling up against his hand and purring loudly.
Something was coming. Today, not tomorrow. The cat couldn’t distract him from an overpowering feeling of dread. Whatever was coming, he doubted he would survive it, now that the Eye had marked him.
Was this how Jonah had felt, every day of his life until he’d given up his fear for something far worse?
He picked up pen and paper, beginning a letter to Jonah, though he knew it would be too late. He wasn’t sure what else to do. But his focus flagged, and he found himself, instead, slowly sketching a bust of Apollo, with dark hair and an imperious expression, crowned with light.
“So they’ve been watching you too,” said Jonathan. Robert blinked up at him in confusion. He hadn’t heard him come in. “He’s planning something, isn’t he? Come on, you’re the one with the dreams, this is new to me.”
“It’s today,” said Robert, surprising himself a little with his own certainty and calmness. “Nothing we can do.”
Robert slowly added a line of shading below Apollo’s jaw.
“But we know where he’s doing it—whatever “it” is,” said Jonathan. “Millbank Prison, right?”
Robert paused and considered this.
“If he’s attempting a, a ritual, then we just have to stop him before he gets too far. Right? We can do that. I doubt he’ll have anyone helping him, he seems the type to go it alone.”
“The panopticon,” said Robert, remembering.
“The central watchtower. The center of the fourteen points, the focus. He’ll be in there. Watching.” He looked up at Jonathan, slowly coming back to himself, out of the pit of despair he’d fallen into. “Do you have a plan?”
“Oh, no, I understand this even less than you do, I just know that something’s gone wrong and we need to stop Jonah before it gets worse. Anyway, he’s still human, isn’t he?” Jonathan lifted his coat to shop the pistol strapped to his belt. “With luck he’s not immortal yet.”
Robert nodded slowly. “That’s… as much of a plan as we have time for. Alright.”
“Do you have a gun?”
“I think so. Let me find it.” He didn’t hunt much, he’d really only kept it because it was a gift from his brother. Now he was glad to have it.
Laura, his wife, was with her family, so he scribbled a quick note for her and left it on his desk. With any luck he’d be back soon to explain himself in person, and she’d never need to read it. But if things went badly… she deserved an explanation.
Little Laura was sketching in the garden when he left. He kissed her on the cheek and said he’d be back soon.
He was not used to hiding things from her, and she noticed the gun immediately and gave him a questioning look.
“I’ve… I think an old friend is… planning to do something dangerous. I’m going to try to stop him.”
“With a gun?”
“Hopefully not. Will you pray for me?” She nodded. “Good, then I’ll see you soon.”
He wanted to say, don’t worry, it’s just a boring little dispute among old men with no perspective and quick tempers. It’s an academic debate that got carried too far. It’s nothing really frightening, and when I say I’ll be back soon I don’t doubt myself.
He couldn’t say any of that.
Jonathan was waiting impatiently for him in the hall. “Ready?”
“I’m glad you’re here,” said Robert. Jonathan nodded once.
“What are friends for?”
“Shooting you in the heart when you lose all sense of humanity,” said Robert grimly, pulling his coat over to hide his gun.
There was an earthquake on their trip to Millbank. At least, that’s what it felt like, and would likely be explained as. But it resonated in Robert’s bones with a dread familiarity that was anything but natural.
They knew that they were right when they arrived, because the gate stood slightly ajar. Something was happening.
A shiver ran through the stones under his feet as he crossed the threshold. He remembered these walls, as blueprints, as works in progress. Now they were alive and thrumming with power.
His thoughts were interrupted by loud swearing. Jonathan made a motion to duck out of sight, but was too slow; the warden was upon them, though he didn’t immediately notice them, as he was too busy dragging a young man towards the gate by the elbow.
“I TOLD you there are no TOURS today!”
The young man noticed Robert and Jonathan and his face lit up. “Mr. Smirke! Mr. Smirke, hello, hi, I’m a big fan of your work!”
Robert was violently reminded of his dead students. He groaned in disbelief. The warden spun around to face them and his expression became even more sour. “And what are you doing here? We’re not open for tours, there’s an earthquake and WHO IN GOD’S NAME LEFT THE GATE OPEN?!”
“Not us,” said Robert weakly. “Listen—”
“Get out!! I don’t know who you are but I don’t have time for this—”
“Calm down,” said Jonathan, pointing his gun at the man.
“Jonathan,” said Robert, and Jonathan shushed him.
“Ah,” said the warden, releasing the young man, “You planned this, didn’t you.”
“Actually, no,” said Robert, “We’re here to, ah—did a tall man who calls himself Jonah Magnus come in here earlier?”
“Magnus?” he looked like he recognized the name and had decided to pretend otherwise. “Why do you want to know?”
“He’s, uh, responsible for the… earthquakes?” said Robert, realizing halfway through how silly this would sound to outsiders. “I promise we’re not here to break anyone out, we just need to get to the panopticon, I think he’s… doing…. Something… illegal… up there? It’ll make sense later.”
The warden looked at Jonathan’s gun and shrugged. “Don’t see how I have a choice. Can’t find any of my men.”
“Any of them?”
“Yeah, since the earthquake started. Suddenly everyone fucked off to fend for themselves. Least, I’m guessing that’s what happened. Ground shakes a little and everyone jumps ship. Not that I blame them, with this building as unstable as it is.”
“No it’s not,” said the young man, “not anymore, the concrete foundation—”
Robert sighed, “Thank you, Mr—?”
“Randolph,” said Robert, “Go home. This really isn’t a good day for it.”
“But I can help!”
“We’re committing a crime.”
“I’ve done that before!”
“Oh, good,” said the warden, “Can we put him in a cell?”
Jonathan made an impatient noise.
“I think we should leave them both here,” said Robert.
“No,” said Randolph and the warden simultaneously, and another shiver ran through the stones.
“Then let’s go.”
The prison was a geometric marvel. It was not made to be pleasant or easy to navigate. It was made to contain and to crush. And now it was alive, and fulfilling its secret purpose as fourteen-fold temple horrifically well. As another tremor ran through the stones they passed a man bashing his head to a bloody pulp against his cell wall. The one next to him was tearing at himself with his teeth. Robert didn’t look in the next cell, the sounds were enough to warn him away.
“I really think you two should go back,” he said to the warden and Randolph, hoping their resolve might have been shaken, but he had no such luck.
Jonathan shouted, “what is that!” and the two others swiveled their heads around to look at the horrible sound coming up the passage behind them.
“Don’t look, run,” said Robert, breaking into a sprint.
He’d never been good at running, even when he was young, even in an open field. He hit a wall. He hit another wall and realized that space had stopped making sense. The passage was distorted. A hand reached out of the wall and scratched at his face. This was bad, this was a bad place, he needed another passage. He found an opening.
It was dark. Darkness lay in it like rotten water in an old stump.
He backed away and ran.
The next opening he found, he took without question, and the floor became the floor again and he could understand what he saw—but what he saw was spiderwebs, and the second he remembered the manipulative powers of the Web he dove into another passage, and suddenly everything was white and cold and thick and he could hardly bring himself to move.
It was already over. He was going to die here, absolutely alone, and if the others died too it would be his fault.
He sank down and felt the stones press against his knees. He placed a hand on the floor, feeling the frigid stones. A tremor ran through them. Even here, where everything was frozen silence, the place couldn’t quite keep still.
Jonah was out there, he was alive, but he wasn’t himself, and he was using Robert’s work to call the Dread Powers in the world. He was here for a reason. He was here for a reason. He forced himself to stand and start walking. He just needed another opening. Anything. Anything away from here.
The next tunnel burned, but at least it didn’t try to stop him from running. He stumbled out of the mist, gasped in pain, and raced through the burning air. He saw daylight. He reached it and crashed right into Jonathan, smoke curling up around him, and Jonathan patted down his smoldering jacket.
“You made it,” he said, and then the ground tore itself from under their feet.
His next clear impression was of a block of stone slowly, gracefully descending from the edge of the cell blocks and pounding a hole in the stone of the courtyard.
Jonathan pulled him up to his feet. Looking around, he saw the warden and Randolph nearby. Randolph appeared to be bleeding, or maybe it was someone else’s blood, he didn’t have time to check. The warden was staring upwards. He followed his gaze.
He couldn’t see Jonah from this angle, but he didn’t need to. His presence rippled through the stones. They had reached the panopticon, at ground level.
“Come on,” he said, dashing for the door, almost afraid to believe it true when it opened easily and showed a normal watchtower interior and ascending staircase, no strange lights or distortion or fog or bugs—
And as he stepped inside, everything was so very clear—
He could see everything. Every grain of sand in the concrete foundation, every crevice in the rock. He saw the fears taking shape in the prison outside and the prisoners killing themselves in a frenzy of terror. He saw himself, the others frozen behind him, his daughter at home in the garden. He saw himself wandering the shores of Greece, dreaming, meeting Laura; he saw things he’d forgotten and things he’d imperfectly remembered, all suddenly clear at once. He saw everything and he couldn’t stop seeing.
He saw Jonah.
He shook himself, focused on the appearance of stairs in front of him, and ran at them before he could slip into the grains that made up the rock.
Jonah was up there. That was something he could see, too. He focused on that and made himself keep moving.
Why on earth had he made a structure with so many God damned stairs
He reached the top and collapsed, vision blacking out for a moment from exhaustion. When it came back it was swimming and unclear, but he didn’t need to see to know what was here.
Jonah, sitting on a throne in the center of the panopticon, a flickering fourteen-pronged crown of light buried in his skull and reaching into his brain, blood streaming from his empty eye sockets. He held his eyes in his hands, palms up, as if offering them to the world.
“Jonah,” said Robert, and his voice was weak. He struggled to stand. He couldn’t see a thing and he Knew suddenly that his eyes were bleeding, but being blind wouldn’t stop him seeing everything at once, the shape of the earth and the coldness of space—
“Jonah.” There was a reason he was here and he focused himself on it. “Jonah!”
Jonah laughed, and it was not his voice. Robert heard shouting below him and Knew that the Distortion had found his friends, was toying with them like a cat with mice. He tried to focus, but suddenly he couldn’t move. There was nothing holding him but he couldn’t control his limbs.
Web. He Saw it, though there was nothing there to see. He was caught and he would never move again.
The shouting grew louder. Someone urged him to “do something” but he couldn’t even turn his head.
His head snapped sideways with a sharp pain and he Knew that the warden had thrown a rock at him. That he’d reached a hand toward the pain. Moving it, himself. He could move. He still had his gun.
He drew his gun and emptied six shots into Jonah’s chest. He jerked, but didn’t fall from his throne. Robert pulled the trigger a seventh time, desperately.
Jonah turned his bleeding head towards him, frowning.
It was his old voice.
His face shifted into pure terror.
“Get out,” he gasped, “Get out!”
Another ripple surged through the rocks, and everything became so blindingly clear that the shapes of existence itself seemed to cut into him. Jonah was distracted—Jonah was himself, slumped forward on the throne; if he could just get to him and pull him to the floor—
And Jonah screamed, or the rock screamed, or the prisoners screamed, maybe all at once, and he never reached Jonah because the tower trembled and he saw so much that for a while he stopped seeing anything at all.
When he was a boy, bored in school, he’d press the palms of his hands against his closed eyes until he saw things, lights and patterns flickering against the dark. He was seeing something like it again, phantom light flickering in and out of reality, an afterimage of raw power. His mouth tasted like blood and his face seemed to be wet. None of these things made sense to him.
Someone was whimpering nearby. It was a faint, but persistent sound.
“Robert?” said Jonathan. There was the sound of someone panting, then slowly dragging their body across the floor. “Robert, is that you?” a pause. “Randolph?” affirmative whimper. “Where are—ah. Well, there’s… not much I can do for you.” Sounds of rubble shifting, and a breathless cry, probably from Randolph. “Just—lay still, I don’t—Robert?”
There were footsteps, solid and sure, then a wet crushing sound as someone methodically beat Jonathan’s skull in. Then there was silence, except for Randolph, breathing in short gasps.
The footsteps turned.
“Jonah?” said Robert, voice half-lost in blood. Footsteps came toward him, then someone touched his shoulder.
“And I was afraid you wouldn’t recognize me,” said someone with the warden’s voice.
There were sounds of shifting rubble, and suddenly he could breathe again. A sharp pain laced through his lungs when he tried, and he gasped and began choking. Hands turned him, and he cried out in pain. Someone was apologizing. He realized he was now lying on his back, on something softer. The Sight had left and he could only guess Jonah Magnus was holding him with the warden’s body.
Fingers gently touched his eyelids and he winced.
“Why didn’t you run when I told you to?”
“I wanted to save you,” said Robert.
Jonah sighed. “Poor fool. I didn’t want to be saved.” He felt the hands brush his hair back, straighten his collar. “But I can repay the favor.”
“Remember, when I asked you—”
“To become immortal with me.”
“Let me die.”
“Why would you prefer that? Why leave your daughter—”
“Do not use her against me. You have no right.”
“…Then do it for me. Please. You’re already marked, just stop fighting the call.”
“No. I don’t want to.”
“I know.” He struggled to breathe, desperately tried to think. He’d had something to say, what was it? “You killed Jonathan.”
“I couldn’t trust him.”
“You can’t trust me either.”
“Hm. Unfortunate.” Another gentle touch to his eyelids. “Robert, I can save you.”
Robert spent several seconds trying to force coherent words to the surface.
“I want to die as myself.”
Jonah scoffed gently. “Foolish.”
“I love you.”
There was silence, then he felt Jonah bend and touch his lips to his forehead. He smelled of blood.
Slowly everything but the horrible struggle to breathe faded away. Everything but Jonah’s presence. He could still feel that, holding him in place.
He didn’t want it.
He closed his eyes, let go, and dropped outside of Jonah’s reach.
Jonah | 2014
He woke to dim light, the sounds of gentle breathing and the patter of rain against the window. Peter was back and he'd brought the rain with him.
It seemed to rain more when Peter was around. Not heavy, crushing rain, but rain like mist pressing closer to the earth. Peter denied having any ability to change the weather, but he never took an umbrella when he went out, preferring to turn his delighted face to the sky; letting the raindrops touch him as if this were the one reason they had fallen all this way.
He was warm. Peter had fallen asleep with his arms around him, and he could see one hand lying on the sheets in front of his chest, simple gold wedding ring glinting on one finger.
Peter was nothing like his ancestor. Elias had expected to hate him at first, which was one difference already, but he’d been such a fascinating mess of contradictions, hot and cold and lonely and self-sufficient and desperate for a hand to hold. He’d turned out to be quite interesting.
Elias adjusted his position slightly, intending to reach for Peter’s hand, but the second he felt him move Peter rolled away from him, leaving the cold air to press against his back.
Elias was irked. Then he remembered the night before, and, for a split second, almost felt something like guilt. He shook it off immediately and rolled onto his back to look at Peter, now facing away from him.
“Hey. Get back here, I’m cold.”
Peter looked at him, then smiled. “Ah, you’re out of your mood.”
“What mood? I don’t like being woken up, that’s all. Now come over here.”
Peter considered. “Hmm, no.” he worked a hand underneath Elias and flipped him over, rolling him to rest on Peter’s chest. “How’s that?”
“Acceptable.” He shut his eyes and watched the patterns made by the rain trailing down the windowpanes.
He knew Peter was in a good mood because he condescended to stand under Elias' umbrella with him rather than wandering off into the rain. More than once he'd been convinced that Peter had ditched him only to walk into the restaurant and see him sitting innocently at their table, soaking wet.
“So about last night,” said Peter, and Elias rolled his eyes.
“Yes. Right. Sorry I shot in your general direction, but you’re fine, obviously,” he snapped, and Peter hummed, amused. “I’m guessing you want the story now?”
“Stories bore me, actually. So, if you don’t want to talk about it, I won’t bring it up again.”
He paused, calculating. There was silence but for the sound of the rain rushing into the city, throwing muffling clouds between passing strangers.
Peter had decided not to ask.
“Ah. How uncharacteristically wise of you. What do you want in return?”
“Don’t shoot in my general direction anymore, please.”
“Is that it? Really?”
Peter didn’t dignify that with an answer.
He was really going to leave it alone. Good. Well… probably good. The truth was, he’d really rather not talk about it, but he knew that, whatever else he said, Peter was curious. So he thought for a while and came up with a compromise.
“Here’s the story anyway,” he said, leaning into his husband under the umbrella: “Robert Smirke was my friend, and then he shot me.”
“You got better, obviously.”
“Obviously. He was trying to disrupt the Watcher’s Crown, and nearly succeeded. In the end the ritual itself was flawed—not to mention the building, which collapsed quite spectacularly when I was done with it—but still, here I am, so it wasn’t a total waste.”
“Hm. Interesting story. Do you feel like taking a walk later? I love this weather.”
Elias smiled. “Why not.”