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since the thing, perhaps, is to eat flowers (and not to be afraid)

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Sasha comes home late on a Wednesday afternoon to find another bunch of lilies waiting on the dining table. This is remarkable for two reasons: first, because the doors and windows are all still locked (she hasn't checked, but they have been every other time, so it's a safe enough assumption); and second, because she wouldn't have thought there'd be room for any more. Every surface in her flat is covered with them: the mismatched tables, the nightstand and dresser, the windowsills, the square of counter beneath the kitchen cabinet, even the rim of the bathroom sink. After a while, she'd given up on trying to find vases for all of them and just started cutting the necks off of old water bottles.

She picks up the newest bouquet and frowns. It's identical to all its predecessors: a bundle of Calla lilies wrapped in brown butcher paper, each cream-coloured petal forming a perfect spiral around the nubby yellow calyx. They're certainly beautiful, but they're also long past the point of becoming a nuisance. Sasha sighs, fills the kitchen sink with water, and resolves to take them in to work tomorrow.

This goes fine for a couple of days, but the offerings don't stop, and soon her cubicle is just as crowded as her flat. One or two vases would be innocuous, but by the sixth, her co-workers have started to notice.

"Sasha," Jonathan says finally, with gentle exasperation, "I'm all for personalisation of the workplace"—his own mugs, eighteen of them in varying patterns and sizes, are lined with regimental precision along the back of his desk—"but this is getting ridiculous."

Heat creeps up the back of her neck and into her cheeks. "I know, I'm sorry," she says. "I'm just not sure what else to do with them."

Jon raises an eyebrow. "You could stop buying flowers, for a start?"

"It's not me!" she protests, and the eyebrow climbs higher. "I swear, I've got no idea where they're coming from. My flat is full of the things, and any time I try to throw some away, more just... show up."

"Would you like to make a statement about it," Jon says, quite dryly, "or should I take that as the cue to mind my own damn business?"

"What? No! Neither! They're," Sasha babbles, painfully aware of how pink she must be at this point, "they're just flowers."

Jon just looks knowing, which, given the whole Martin Situation, Sasha really doesn't think he's in any position to do. All right, yes, so she isn't being entirely honest; maybe she doesn't know where the flowers are coming from, but she does know who's giving them to her, and it's not like she can ask him to stop. She hasn't even seen Michael again since that night at the abandoned pub, and however many things he might be, "easy to contact" does not appear to be one of them.

At home she stands in front of the mirror cabinet—spotty at the corners with age, and the bottom edge has taken on a pebbly quality from repeated openings, as though it's just as old as the building itself—and stares at the scar on her shoulder. It should be a pucker, a puncture wound like the one on her leg from that cycling accident when she was twelve, but it's not. A complex swirl of raised skin, still pink around the edges, as neat and precise as if it were traced there by a spirograph.

He'd saved her life. She'd dismissed it at the time—honestly, if Martin were quick-footed enough to evade the worms, how deadly could they really be—but, well. She'd seen Jane Prentiss's statement, and anything that could rattle Jon that badly was worth due consideration. And that had been before the growing infestation around the Institute. But the fact of the matter remains: this creature—person, monster, entity, whatever—had saved her life.

That much, even, she'd been able to get her head around. She knows the sorts of rules that tend to govern creatures of folklore; Michael may not be one, but the principle had seemed close enough, so she'd just sort of fallen naturally into the assumption that he'd done it with the expectation of recompense. She'd even begun bracing herself for the inevitable moment that he'd come to collect on the debt he'd given her.

Now, though... Now he's buying her flowers.

Well. Giving her flowers, anyway. She's not sure anything so mundane as a transaction has happened since that first time. For all Sasha knows, he could be manifesting them out of thin air. She'd even considered the likelihood that she was just hallucinating them, except that Jon and Tim and Martin can all see them too.

Real or not, though, the thing that bothers her most is that she can't figure out the reasoning behind it all. Presumably, Michael had bought that first bunch of lilies for himself, so maybe he just genuinely likes the things. He'd said he wanted to be friends; is it possible this is his attempt to show her he'd meant it? That would actually be sort of sweet, if it didn't leave her with nowhere to sit.

"Do you like them?"

Speak of the Devil, Sasha thinks, and he shall appear. The tall, distorted figure in the bevelled edge of the mirror is making her head hurt, so she turns and glares at him instead. There, he's just Michael, blond and blue-eyed and wearing a horrible eye-searing windbreaker, smiling blithely at her as if it's the most normal thing in the world.

Still glaring, Sasha yanks the collar of her blouse back over her shoulder and turns around to face him fully.

"The flowers," Michael prompts, as if it could possibly be unclear what he meant, as if he weren't standing in the middle of a forest of identical off-white blossoms.

She wants to tell him that no, she doesn't, they're in the way and getting very old, but what actually comes out is, "They're very pretty."

He beams at her. His mouth gives the impression of curling grotesquely in on itself at the corners without actually doing so. "I thought so too," he says.

"I just," says Sasha, picking her way through the flowers to meet him, "I don't understand why you keep giving them to me."

Michael tilts his head and waits for her to approach. His presence somehow manages to feel simultaneously both damp and staticky. "Isn't that what friends do?" he says.

"Not really. Maybe. But I mean, why do you keep giving them to me? Why so many?"

His head tips in the other direction, like a cat listening to a distant sound. "You smile when you see them."

That takes Sasha aback. "I—I do?" Then, as the implication of his statement catches up with her, "Stop watching me!"

"No," he says, still smiling.

She's really not sure what she expected. She removes her glasses to rub exasperatedly at her eyes, and Michael takes the opportunity to pluck them from her hand and press his spindly fingers to the lenses.

"Hey!" She makes a grab for them, but her own astigmatism and the fact that he's clearly much, much taller than he already appears don't work in her favour, so she ends up swatting uselessly at his wrist instead. It turns out to have been for nothing, anyway; looking amused, Michael hands her her glasses back.

"I fixed them," he says.

"Fixed—?" she repeats, not liking the sound of that at all.

Michael's grin seems much too wide for his face, even though it's a perfectly ordinary grin that fills a perfectly usual amount of jaw. The door that wasn't behind him a moment ago swings open and he retreats into it, not breaking eye contact.

"Wait!" Sasha says, futilely. The door slams shut and spirals out of existence, like water being sucked down a drain. She groans and flops back against the dining table, squinting down at the glasses in her hands. She's been needing a new prescription, but considers it very unlikely that that's what he meant.

The lenses aren't smudged, at least, but they are slightly fogged where Michael touched them, and she rubs them on her sleeve before returning them to her face. For a moment it seems like nothing's changed; then she looks down through the bifocal insets, and her head and stomach lurch unpleasantly in unison.

When she'd been around eight years old, a man had come to give a demonstration to Sasha's primary school class. He had a funny pair of goggles with a big wedge of a lens at the front, and one by one he'd made all of her classmates put them on and try to walk in a straight line. The glasses had been heavy, and made the world feel very strange, like everything was swimming dizzily in circles. This, the demonstrator had explained, was meant to illustrate what it was like to be drunk, and he had taken great pains to impress upon the bemused gaggle of year 4s that this was why they should never, ever drink and drive. Even at the time, Sasha had found the entire exercise absurd; she was eight years old and had no plans on doing any drinking or driving in the foreseeable decade.

She'd have forgotten about the incident entirely, except that looking through the warped half-moons of her ruined bifocals is giving her the exact same queasy sensation.

She turns to the nearest door, which happens to be the one to the kitchen, and says sternly, "I paid £120 for these, you know."

The door, being a door, has nothing to say for itself. Sasha sighs.

The lilies still appear after that, but not nearly as frequently; Michael himself seems to have vanished back into the aether, or whatever horrible plane of existence he inhabits, as well. Maybe he's just at home—Do monsters even have homes? She tries to imagine him renting in Shoreditch and can't really picture it, except that she also sort of can, which is somehow much worse. Either way, she doesn't see him again for several weeks, until Jon sends her to follow up on Case #0032408 with much weary muttering about ‘due diligence’ and ‘wastes of time’.

It's raining lightly when she gets off at Kew Gardens, though the forecast had promised a clear afternoon, and so it's thus in a dampened, slightly dishevelled state that she arrives at the National Archives and checks in with Tamara Dennis at the viewing rooms.

"Back already?" Ms. Dennis says by way of greeting, giving Sasha's ID card a cursory glance. "Who are we following up on this time?"

"McKenzie, Paul? I had the room reserved last night."

"Oh, yes, of course that would be you." Ms. Dennis raises a perfectly-pencilled eyebrow. "Your firm does handle the most unusual cases."

"Perks of the job!" says Sasha brightly, hurrying for the stairs before the receptionist can ask any more questions. According to her identification, Sasha works for a PI firm adjunct to the Met, which, by her reckoning, is more or less true; Tamara hasn't bothered to wonder whether the ‘P’ might stand for anything other than ‘private’, and Sasha hasn't bothered to correct her.

The police report is, as Jon had expected, utterly uninformative, and Sasha is back in the daylight well before noon. The forecaster had been right about the rain clearing up; it's too nice a day now to waste on the train back to Finsbury, and Jonathan isn't expecting her back at work until tomorrow, so she folds the computer printouts into her bag and goes for a walk.

It doesn't take her long to notice that her reflection appears to have acquired a companion. Any time she passes herself in a lingering puddle or the window of a parked car, her image is shadowed just for a moment by the vague suggestion of something tall and sharp and thin.

She's not going to reward him by turning around to look for someone she knows won't be there. Instead she stops, sighs, and says, less brusquely than she might have, "What do you want?"

His weird remnant of a laugh issues very close to her ear, and she can feel that damp electric presence lean in, but she very deliberately doesn't turn.

"I already told you, Sasha James," Michael says. "I want to help."

"So you're following me."

"Yes," he says.

She fights the urge to roll her eyes, mainly because looking through the ‘fixed’ part of her glasses still makes her dizzy. "Why?"

"Because I want to help." He sounds extremely smug. Conversing with Michael has always been circuitous, but this time it's especially clear that he's being intentionally maddening.

Finally, Sasha allows him the satisfaction of turning around, and there he is, for all intents and purposes an ordinary Londoner with absolutely appalling fashion sense, his long blond hair tied away from his face. In the window of the van parked next to them, the wavering, spindly figure leers toothily at her.

Sasha means to tell him off for being infuriating, but once again her traitor of a mouth takes over for her and says, "Do you want to go for coffee?"

Michael is silent for a dangerous moment, and she fears she's overstepped some unknown line; then she sees his expression and almost bursts out laughing, because she's actually managed to catch him off guard. "You invited me last time, so it's my turn. That's what friends do," she adds, fighting very hard not to smile at him.

"Yes," Michael says eventually, in a tone so dubious that Sasha can't help but think he's just as surprised by this as she is. "Yes, I think I would like that very much. Why is that?"

Now she really does have to smile. "Maybe it's because we're friends."

His own grin stretches, and for just a fraction of a second, a frisson of unease goes down her spine, but it's gone and forgotten before she can pin it down. "Is this what it's like?" he says.

"Well, I'd say ‘normally yes,’ but... I'm not actually sure," Sasha says, shrugging broadly. "I've never been friends with a"—do not say monster"well, a whatever-you-are before."

"They say there's a first time for everything," Michael informs her, which is just about the most sensible response she's gotten from him so far. He falls in at her side, warped reflection keeping pace in the passing windows, its long hands trailing behind it while his remain tucked into his jacket pockets. "For what it's worth, I've never been friends with an Archival Assistant, either."

Sasha really shouldn't be as flattered by that as she is, and she quickly boxes the feeling up and packs it away so she doesn't have to examine it too closely. From the small, sidelong smile Michael is giving her, it's possible she didn't do as good a job of it as she'd thought, but he just follows along without saying anything.

There's place near the bridge that she visits sometimes, if the tediousness of whatever documents she's been cross-referencing outweighs her desire to not spend £5 on coffee. She's a little nervous about walking into the place with—well, Michael—but nobody bats an eye. In fact, gazes seem to slide over and off him without even landing. Even the barista at the register has a vaguely glassy expression as she chirps a routine greeting and asks what they'll be having today. Sasha picks something at random, much more concerned with bracing herself for whatever weird thing Michael might say or do, but he just smiles politely and asks for a double espresso. The look he gives her as they find a spot by the window is, she thinks, rather pointed.

What follows is one of both the more pleasant and most surreal afternoons Sasha has had since joining the Institute, and she spent three months working in Artefact Storage. Michael really isn't bad company; in fact, he's surprisingly good company, but he's also not human, and trying to find common ground is like navigating a hedge maze in the dark. He refuses to answer anything that might clarify any of his previous statements; or if he does, it's so confusingly that the end result is the same. She doesn't get any closer to figuring out what he is, either, though he does tolerate her attempts to pry well enough.

His own questions towards her, meanwhile, range from the somewhat odd, such as what her favourite colour sounds like, to the incomprehensible: things that sound like they should be riddles, or maybe parts of separate riddles mashed together. Michael never gives Sasha any indication as to whether her uncertain responses are correct, but he seems so pleased by her efforts that she can't help but continue to try.

They do talk about other, mundane things, too, because she remembers him making her laugh, which isn't particularly easy. Afterwards, though, it all seems to blur together, and she can't pick out any particular topic they might have discussed. At some point they must leave the café, but Sasha doesn't quite notice when—only that it had to have happened some time ago, because she and Michael are heading up Prince Albert's Road. Even from there, it ought to take well over an hour to walk to Stroud Green, but it's only mid-afternoon by the time they arrive at Sasha's building. Michael looks up at it almost thoughtfully, then back down at her.

"This was... different," he says.

Sasha raises her eyebrows at him. "Because they normally run away screaming?"

"Yes." Michael pauses. "Normally I like them to."

"Well, in that case, I'm really glad you decided you'd rather be friends." He looks like he's going to reply to this, so Sasha hastily moves on. "Speaking of which, I realise I never properly thanked you. For the tip about the CO2, I mean, and for saving me from that—that thing."

"Yes," says Michael again, continuing to regard her with that faint semblance of amusement. "I will be very interested to see what happens next."

"What happens... with Jane Prentiss?"

"Oh," he says, with that distant radio-static laugh, "no, I'm sorry, but that would be telling."

She glares at him, though without any real reproach. "Of course."

"Do be careful on the stairs up," he continues, studiously ignoring the scowl. "Old buildings like these can play so many tricks, you know." Now he's definitely teasing her. She'd been meant to notice him through the glass like that, she's sure of it; he'd sought her out, right from the start. He really has done nothing but help, in his own odd monsterish way, and she's still no closer to understanding why.

"You said before that you don't care what happens to us. The Institute, I mean," she says. "So why are you helping me?"

He puts his head to one side and smiles—not that he's ever fully stopped smiling. "Why would you expect me to tell you the truth?"

Sasha huffs, but given that this is Michael, it's a fair question. So she shrugs and tells him, "I've learnt better than to expect anything where you're concerned. I'm just curious what your answer will be."

Michael's smile grows much more unnatural, and somehow more genuine for it. Sasha gets the feeling that this was the right answer. After a moment in which he appears to actually be considering his response, he says, "Perhaps I am sentimental. Perhaps I find you interesting, Sasha James. Or perhaps I simply don't want anyone else getting in the way before I've... had my fun." His head tips further until he's looking at her sideways, neck bent at a nauseating angle. "Which do you believe?"

"Does it matter?" Sasha asks, and even as she says it she knows that it doesn't. Whatever he might become later, whatever motivations he might have, in this moment she is certain he can be trusted.

"Not to me," Michael says. "But I think it must matter to you, or you wouldn't have asked."

Sasha mulls it over for a bit, and then says, "Well, then, I believe that maybe all of those were little pieces of bigger truths." She's certainly had enough experience with those lately. Something about Jonathan makes it difficult to lie to him, but revealing her continued relationship with Michael—such as it is—feels like it would be immeasurably worse. "Not entirely true things, but not lies either."

Michael laughs. Not the turned-up memory of a distant laugh, but a real one, a strange, soft, ricocheting noise that Sasha can feel in her teeth. "Very good! Oh, very good, very clever. But cleverness can get you much further in than it can get you out."

She wants to ask him what he means by this, but of course he's already gone.

The number of lilies hasn't increased when she returns to her flat, but the bunch on the dining table, which had been going a bit sad and brown around the edges, has been replaced. Smiling, Sasha lifts one from the vase and brings it close, breathing in the slightly dusty fragrance. She traces a finger along the curled edge of it, up the yellow centre with its geometric lattice of pollen, noticing how the lines repeat and interlock in a complicated pattern. Something about it seems vaguely familiar, and she stares into the middle distance, trying to dredge up the right memory. It comes back all at once: a diagrammed photograph from her year 10 maths book, of all things, but it gives her an idea.

Sasha leaves early enough the next morning that she can stop at the flower stand before work. The cashier squints suspiciously at her when she steps up to the till with a bundle of sunflowers, but rings her up without comment. Getting the flowers all the way to Chelsea on the tube is a small trial, and they're looking somewhat squashed by the time she arrives at the Institute, but she finds them some water and they perk back up a bit.

Jon just gives her a Look from over his mug when she sets them on her desk, while Tim waggles his eyebrows and makes knowing remarks about her "secret admirer". Then Jon gets back to work and Martin shoos Tim away, offering Sasha a congratulatory sort of smile, and she's left to another exciting day of wrangling with the Archive's impenetrable classification system.

She hadn't actually put much thought into how she was going to get the flowers to Michael, though she'd had a vague notion of bringing them to the café in Victoria on her lunch break; she's certainly not expecting him to show up while she's balanced on a stepladder, very carefully reorganizing the topmost drawer of one of the filing cabinets in Section B.

He doesn't announce himself, and the click of his closing door doesn't even register until he says, without any preamble, "You were thinking about me."

Sasha shrieks and saves herself from falling off the stepladder only through sheer reflex. Michael just watches her, serenely amused like always. When she's quite sure she's collected herself, she frowns down at him and says, "You—Is that something you can do? Read people's thoughts?"

He laughs, oddly muted by the corridor of paper and cardboard. "You lied about me to your friends," he says, sounding altogether too delighted by that. "A lie of omission, true, but it's enough. Besides, a certain threshold of awareness does make one more... susceptible to visitation."

That's the most information she's gotten from him yet, even if she doesn't completely understand all of it. Sasha shoulders the drawer closed with some effort and concentrates on backing down the ladder. Michael offers a hand to help her down the last few rungs, and without even thinking, she takes it. His fingers are just as cold, clammy, and sharp as before, but it's not so bad once she knows what to expect. When she reaches the ground and looks up at him, he's just... smiling at her, expression as unreadable as ever.

"...Right," Sasha says, going very pink and taking back her hand. "I, uh. I brought something for you."

Michael cocks his head and leans in a bit, evidently interested. "Oh?"

"Come on, they're on my desk. But don't you dare cause any trouble."

The admonition is obviously wasted on a trickster creature with knives for hands, but Michael only nods with mock solemnity. "Oh, no. We mustn't run afoul of your Archivist."

Fortunately, Jon is still locked in his office interviewing that professor from King's College, and Martin and Tim are tackling some project involving lots of spreadsheets, so there's little danger of being caught and interrogated. Michael does the head-tilting thing when Sasha pulls the sunflowers from the paper bin she's been using as a vase, his smile widening indecipherably. He doesn't take them, though, just stares at her, and her face starts to heat up again.

"I was thinking about Fibonacci," she says, suddenly desperate to fill the silence, "you know, the ‘golden spiral,’ and, well. I suppose it reminded me of you."

It shouldn't be possible for a human face to smile that wide, and yet there's nothing discernibly wrong with its proportions. Through her warped bifocals, Sasha gets a glimpse of jagged, sharklike teeth.

"You are an interesting one," Michael hums, accepting the bundle of flowers. "Those I visit don't normally tend to associate me with things of beauty." He leans in, bending unsettlingly to be at Sasha's eye level. Up close, his irises are a startling daylight blue, and his pupils form interlocking pinwheels of dark and light, like an optical illusion. It makes her dizzy. "What does that say about you, Sasha James?"

He vanishes before she can even hope to come up with an answer.

It continues like this for some time. Sasha never makes any arrangements with Michael, but every so often he'll appear, usually right when she's starting to notice that she hasn't seen him lately. More often than not, he doesn't actually speak to her—just a glimpse of a distorted reflection to let her know he's there—but every once in a while she'll come home to find him in her flat, paging through one of her books with apparent fascination, or he'll pop in out of nowhere to join her on her walk up to Victoria. His visits aren't regular, but they're frequent enough that she just starts to accept them as part of her life.

The downside of which is that hiding it from her co-workers becomes increasingly difficult. She manages to assuage Jon with a series of half-truths and vague affirmations, and since the flowers have stopped being quite as much of a nuisance, he's perfectly content not to pry. Tim is harder, because Tim is both a busybody and a romantic, which is the absolute worst combination of things to have to hide a relationship from, even if that relationship is totally platonic.

Which it is. She definitely isn't going to consider any other possibilities right now, thank you.

Honestly, it would be easier if it were just some boyfriend, because then she could cop to it and let Tim have his fun, and that would be that. Being weird friends with a monster is significantly more complicated. Part of her knows she should just come clean, make a statement to Jon, but... he's got enough on his plate right now what with Prentiss and her worms, and revealing Michael to the Archivist at this point would feel an awful lot like betrayal. Also—though she won't allow herself to admit it—there's another part of Sasha that likes having this strange, impelling secret and balks at the idea of having to share him.

So she makes it work, and if it means her ordinary life gets less ordinary by the day, well, it's still better than working in Artefact Storage.

Then one day Jonathan knocks a bunch of shelves down chasing after a spider, and the drywall underneath sloughs away to reveal a hole, pitch-black and full of the squelching sounds of many wet things moving. They both stare in for a moment, bewildered, but it's much too dark for Sasha to make anything out. Jon does, though, and with a look of horror unlike anything she's ever seen on his face before, he hauls her away, shouting to run.

After that it's a lot of yelling and frantic barricading of doors and stumbling over boxes, and they get to the fire extinguishers just as one of the horrible bright-eyed worms burrows into Jon's leg, and then Martin's there with the corkscrew, which is brilliant actually, and then Tim comes back and he doesn't know and normally Sasha is the first to call herself a coward but she has to do something and—


Oh, God. She is never, ever second-guessing Martin ever again. Prentiss is—horrifying. Worse than horrifying. Sasha wants to retch except that there isn't time, isn't anything left for her and Tim to do but run, and then of course when she looks back to check on him he isn't there.

Elias. Elias will know what to do. Sasha's barely talked to him since her interview, but Jon said his paranormal knowledge is unmatched, so he's got to know something. The power is out except for the emergency backups, so she hauls herself up the six flights of stairs to his office on aching legs, almost sobbing with exhaustion.

On one of the landings is another fire extinguisher box. The bright red sticker says, Break Glass in Case of Emergency. Alarm Will Sound.

There aren't any worms in the stairwell, but Sasha rams her shoulder into the glass anyway, bright shards clinging to the cable knit of her cardigan. Overhead, the fire alarm starts to whoop, beautiful and deafening, and from the corridor past the landing she can hear shouts of confusion and the sounds of people moving. With a gasp of relief, Sasha yanks the bright red canister from its cradle and sprints up the final flight of stairs.

When Elias tells her he's already reconfigured the main fire suppressant system, she nearly does burst into tears. Michael must have known, somehow, that that was possible—(How could Michael have known that it was possible?)—when he'd showed her the worms’ weakness.

There's only one problem: someone has to trigger the manual override.

Sasha clutches the fire extinguisher and says, with a courage she definitely doesn't feel, "I'll go."

And she'd thought Jon's Looks were piercing. Elias's eyes seem to pin her to the floor. "Don't be stupid, Ms. James, we both know it doesn't suit you. Nobody's going anywhere alone. Now come along." And he strides from the room without another word, beckoning for her to follow.

They've almost made it to Maintenance when that wet squelching sound comes again, accompanied by a faint trembling beneath their feet. Sasha has just enough time to scream, "Elias!" before a pallid, blobby torrent pours from the mouth of an adjoining corridor and spatters against the wall between them. It flows and reforms, coagulating into two thick, questing bodies. One for her, and one for the director.

She can't see Elias, so she rolls along the wall with her arms over her head until her hip hits a handle. She fumbles with it blindly, half-falls into the cold space beyond, and wrenches it shut behind her, just in time for a heavy weight to slam against it from the other side. The door shudders, but doesn't give. Sasha holds her breath and stays statue-still until the wet slide of the worms fades away; only then does she let out a miserable exhale, push her glasses back up her nose, and look around the room.

Her relief dies in her throat and the temperature, already abnormally low, seems to drop another five degrees.

She's in Artefact Storage.

She'd almost rather be back out with the worms. It's been eight months since she transferred to Archives, and she never had nightmares about the monsters under the bed as a girl, but she still has nightmares about this place. The things the Institute has in storage are all wrong, hungry and twisted in ways no object ought to be. Shivering, Sasha fumbles in her pocket for her phone, desperate for better light, but all her fingers find is the tape recorder. Her mobile had been on her desk when she'd gone to see what commotion Jon had caused, and in all the chaos, she'd never had a chance to retrieve it.

She pulls out the recorder anyway, babbling into it as she makes her way between the shelves just for some semblance of comfort. There's another exit on the opposite end of the warehouse, if she can get to it without running afoul of something dreadful. All around her, the oppressive feeling of being watched bores into the back of her neck. She's heard the phrase ‘even the walls have eyes’ plenty of times before, but never felt it more keenly than she does in this place.

She's almost halfway to the exit when she hears a noise.

Dread and adrenaline curdle in her chest until she thinks she might suffocate from it. In the dark blue un-light of the warehouse, every shadow could be an enemy. It hadn't been a wet, wormy sound, but a hollow sort of rattle, like a bit of loose wood knocked by a careless foot.

This doesn't reassure her at all.

Heart in her mouth, Sasha edges along the shelf until she can peer around the corner. All alone at the end of the row is that table that came in for Jon, the one with the spiral on its surface. It's very pretty, and oddly reassuring, at least until she tilts her head and realizes it isn't a spiral at all but a sort of... web? She moves around it, trying to get a better look at the pattern, when there's another noise directly behind her.

She turns.

Sasha opens her eyes, and vows that whatever took her will regret this.

Wherever she is, it isn't the warehouse. It's warm again, humidly so; the surface she's lying on is soft and tacky, clinging to her cheek and fingertips. The distant wail of the fire alarm has been replaced or drowned out by a constant, irregular whispering that echoes from every direction around her. Weighing against her back is an awful, gnawing presence, like she can feel this place's hunger. It wants her—to obey, or to cower, or maybe just to stay; she can't quite tell. All she can make out is the hunger, and the want.

Well, it'll have to do better than that. She didn't throw herself in Jane Prentiss's way only to get eaten by some... table. After everything else that's happened today, the very notion is downright insulting.

"I'll make sure you choke on me," she whispers furiously, and forces herself to rise. The surface sticks to her, adhering unpleasantly to her skin like it's unwilling to give her up. She makes it to her feet and immediately staggers into more of the substance, forming a sort of curved, elastic wall directly behind her. There's a bit of bounce to it, and once again Sasha has to fight her way free, squinting blindly at the vague grey blurriness of whatever's around her.

A glint and a clink at her foot reveal her glasses, thankfully undamaged; at least the soft tacky floor was good for something. She tugs them free and puts them on, and her mouth falls open.

She's at the bottom of an inverted funnel of what looks like spiderweb, if spiderweb were as thick as a grown man's arm. Above her is only the darkening cone of grey, gently sloping down into the wall she fell against; before her, though, it sweeps out into a space so enormous that distance ends it before its own architecture does. Thick silken columns flow down from an impossibly high ceiling to blend with the floor, a cathedral spun from off-white candyfloss. Scattered pools of darkness indicate other openings like the one Sasha must have fallen from, and in that unending silver gloom, she can see hundreds of dark, angular shapes scuttling in and out of them.

She'd seen a picture in one of her secondary science classes: the den of a funnel spider. It had looked like that. Sasha thinks about spiderwebs and the vibrations of captive flies, and about all the flailing she did a few seconds ago, and about how the frenetic motion of those distant skittering shapes does seem to be gravitating, slowly but unmistakably, in her direction.

"Wonderful," she mutters to herself. She takes a cautious step forward, and the webbed surface springs and buckles like she's walking on a trampoline. A few distant specks freeze, and then start scurrying towards her with predatory haste. Moving around is definitely not wise, then, but she's not exactly keen on sitting around waiting to become some demon spider's meal, either.

She looks again, and something catches her eye through the still-warped insets of her glasses. Looking through them is still vaguely nauseating, but it looks like there's a line drawn through the wavy funhouse-mirror image, a sort of pattern to the way the ground is woven. It's not anything concrete, no visible difference that she can pin down, just a vague sense of clarity concentrated in certain areas.

Perplexed, Sasha edges closer. With her ordinary vision, she can't see any difference, but when she gingerly tests one of the patches with her foot, she finds it solid and firm under her weight. The ceaseless movement continues around her, but the spider-things' attention doesn't appear to be drawn by her stepping on it. She takes another step, and the result is the same.

It's a path. She has no idea where it leads, but the spiders are getting closer, and it's better than sitting around waiting for death. With no other options immediately available, Sasha follows it.

It quickly leads her away from the walls, towards what might be the centre of the structure. She feels terribly exposed, but none of the spider-creatures take any notice of her once she's away from the viscid web, even when one scurries down a column not three metres away and careens off into the gloom.

Sasha stares. It had looked like an ordinary house spider—and, thanks to Martin, she knows more about those than she'd ever wanted to—except that it had been the size of a Doberman and carved entirely from wood, with ball-jointed legs that clattered as it moved and something square and heavy in place of an abdomen. Now that she knows what to look for, she can tell that they're all like that: marionette imitations of real spiders, each with an elaborately inlaid box for a body. Once she thinks she sees one that looks like a window scurry past, and then one that might be a door, but both are too far away for her to be sure.

For a long time, she simply wanders. She sits against a gently-undulating pillar and misses Jon, and wanders some more and misses Michael. She spends some time missing Tim and Martin too, and hoping all of them are all right and not getting turned into shambling flesh hives. Then she gets up and walks some more.

It takes a while, though she couldn't say how long, for her to realize that she's going somewhere. Well, obviously, she's still walking, but she's moving with a purpose, like her legs know where to go even if she doesn't. At first she thinks maybe she's just getting used to telling the difference between the sticky and non-sticky webs, but as the day's exhaustion begins to catch up to her, she tries to pause for another rest and can't.

Panic bubbles inside her and she reflexively goes limp. Her knees buckle and she falls onto her rear, only for her feet to keep scooting her along the floor. This is both uncomfortable and undignified, and as soon as she thinks this and stops thinking about being limp, a force closes like a hand around her middle and lifts her back up.

"Let me go!" she shouts, not expecting it to have any effect—which it doesn't—but loathing the idea of not putting up even the most token resistance. A few large spiders turn towards her at the outburst and scuttle over, falling in a short distance behind her. Most are the same patterned box, but there's a couple of casements, a double-hung window with a faded, chipped frame, and a large oak hopper window too. Sasha sticks her chin out and glares defiantly at them, but each one has her outnumbered there by a factor of four, so there's really no point.

At last, something starts to come into view, and she knows immediately that this is her intended destination. It's huge and dark and sets every nerve in her body screaming: whatever it is, it's wrong, and that furious, hungry wrongness throbs at her like an aching tooth. As she's drawn closer, she sees that it's a pillar of loosely-woven web, similar to all the others but at least ten times the size. It's too massive for the diffuse everywhere-light to penetrate very far, but suspended within it are hundreds of shapes, dark and web-coated and uncomfortably human-sized. Every so often one of them spasms weakly as whatever's inside struggles to escape.

As Sasha watches, a spider with a weathered sash window for an abdomen drags another swaddled figure towards the structure and begins hauling it upwards—but not before she can make out a dangling arm and a pale, staring face.

More and more spiders are pouring out of those funnel openings, swarming up the sides of the central pillar and clicking their mandibles hungrily. The crowd at her back presses inwards again with a hollow rattle, and Sasha knows with sudden dreadful clarity that if they entomb her in there, she will not die, and that will not be a mercy.

Somewhere behind her, something screams. Not a human scream, but an agonized metallic wail like a long-rusted gate being forced open. Then there's a second scream, and this one is human, almost. The force holding Sasha captive drops her like a puppet with its strings cut, and she fights to remain upright. Before she can turn to see what the commotion is, something bowls through the crowd of spiders and bounces to a halt at her feet: the tortured frame of one of the window-bodied spiders, panes staved in and sash splintered outwards. The shards of glass that still cling to its frame are smeared with thick, greenish gore, and its eight legs twitch weakly as its life seeps away. It's so piteous that, despite everything, she can't help but feel a tiny bit sorry for it.

The other spiders rustle uncertainly. Then, all at once, as though someone had come and turned on a light, they scatter. Sasha can see them huddling in a wide circle a safe distance away, but all of her attention is drawn by the thing that made them run: a many-edged mirage of a figure with long, swaying limbs, which folds and curls in on itself as it draws closer until it's all but human.

"Michael?" Sasha says, not trusting herself enough to believe it, but he ignores her entirely. He's dragging a girl along behind him, and she's dressed just like Sasha—the same shoes and skirt and cardigan and glasses, even the same daisy earrings—but she's not Sasha. Her face, her hair, her eyes, everything else about her is off. She struggles, and her limbs don't seem to bend the right way. It's really, really creepy.

"I've come," Michael announces, "to offer a trade."

The rustling goes still. Not all at once, but starting from the pillar and radiating outwards, so that the endless clicks and skitterings all fade out in a slow tidal wave of hushness.

"This one"—Michael hauls his captive in front of him by the hair, utterly oblivious to her furious screeching attempts to free herself—"was supposed to behave itself in here. You don't like it. I don't like it. So I'll give it back to you, and in exchange, you'll give the Archivist's pet back to me."

Sasha's really not sure how well she likes being called Jon's pet, but she's also definitely not about to interrupt. Michael just stands there, smiling that placid smile with his too-long fingers coiled in the girl who isn't Sasha's hair, letting her claw and swear ineffectually at him as the waiting drags on.

Just as it becomes interminable, the sea of spiders gathered at the pillar's summit slowly begins to part.

A writhing behemoth of legs and abdomens and eyes, knotted together with flaking ropes of web, descends from the churning mass. Chunks of glass and splintered wood from a thousand shattered windows jut from weeping punctures in its bruise-coloured sides. Sasha can't tell if it's one creature that used to be a hundred, or a hundred creatures moving together as one, or if there's even a distinction anymore. She shrinks back as it lowers itself ponderously towards them, but it doesn't acknowledge her in the slightest. Its attention is fixed entirely on Michael's captive, who, sensing this, begins to shriek and thrash with desperate strength.

"You haven't won! This isn't over! They'll never let this stand, do you hear me? She will never—"

But what ‘she’ will never do is lost as at least two dozen spiny forelimbs lance out and down and into the girl that isn't Sasha, and her screamed promises and threats turn into just screaming. Her form elongates and spasms as the spider-creature hauls her away, but Sasha can't see much of it, and by the time its great bulk reaches the ceiling, she's completely encased in web.

Another agonizing silence follows before, in much the same way it died, the spiders' endless rustling resumes. Only then does Michael turn his attention to Sasha at last.

"Well, well," he says, gently chiding, "what have you gotten yourself into?"

Sasha wants to fling herself at him, or burst into tears, or curl into a ball and never come out. Instead she says, "Michael," because it's all she can think to say.

"Oh, dear." His head tilts. She can't tell if his look of concern is genuine or feigned. "I did say you could call me that, yes."

She almost asks if he's real, but she knows that'll just open up a whole can of worms she isn't ready for. Oddly, it's that—the wry private aside—that shakes her out of it, just a little. She holds out her hand, and after a short hesitation, Michael slips his own into it. It's cold and clammy and sharp-edged, like a wet leather glove full of pointed stones. Sasha nearly weeps.

"Why?" she asks him, in barely more than a choked whisper. "Why are you doing this? Why do you keep helping me?"

Michael's smile never wavers. "Because I can use you, of course."

She can't help recoiling slightly at this, hand falling from his. "I knew that." It comes out bitter; she had known, right from the beginning, but it still stings. "Well, you've helped me. So? What's the catch?"

"You are?" He says it half a question, like that should have been obvious. "Your Institute has no imagination. They don't even appreciate how lucky they are to have you." She is not going to read into that. "I, however, have a wonderful imagination, and I know better than to waste a good opportunity. So that is what I offer to you." Michael hums thoughtfully, leaning over Sasha until she has to crane to meet his eyes. "I will deliver you back to your Archivist. Your life will continue, just as it has. However, rather than being the property of the Institute"—the backs of his fingers, so much sharper than they appear, brush across her cheekbones in something like a caress—"you will belong to me."

The way he says it almost pulls a "Yes" from her before she's had a chance to process the actual words. She bites it down just in time, gives herself a few mental slaps across the face, and says, very unevenly, "What, exactly, would that entail?"

Michael steeples his hands, fingertips coiling around each other grotesquely. "Oh, nothing especially difficult," he says. "Information, loyalty. Perhaps a door or two opened. Really, nothing that would tax you. We are such good friends, after all."

Sasha stares blankly at him, mind racing. "You want me as your... double agent."

"Not in such crude terms. Our goals are aligned, at least for the moment."

She still wants to say yes. From the very sharp grin he's giving her, Michael is well aware of this. She squares her shoulders and says firmly, "I won't betray Jonathan."

"Perhaps not. But he will betray you."

Sasha starts to insist that he doesn't know that, but the raw, icy certainty with which he'd said it makes her hesitate. She settles instead for asking, "How can you be so sure?"

"He is an Archivist."

"That doesn't answer my question."

"Then you will have no answer."

They stare each other down. Everything Sasha knows about the supernatural screams that she shouldn't trust him, but this is Michael. Her friend.

"At least promise me," she says, "that you won't make me hurt them."

He actually looks genuinely puzzled at this. "Hurt them? Whyever would I do that? I just want to keep them from meddling."

"—Oh." Sasha blinks, abruptly feeling a bit guilty. To cover for it, she says, with more humour than she really feels, "You do realize that's something of a tall order."

Michael still seems to find it amusing. "Yes, it is in their nature, but those are my terms. I assure you, it's a much better option than staying here."

Sasha glances back over her shoulder at the pillar of spiderweb, and those hundreds of shapes imprisoned within. She's sure it's just her imagination, but she could swear that there's a new one.

She turns back to Michael and takes a breath. "Yeah. Right. Okay."

His sharp grin grows even sharper, curling at the edges. "Is that a ‘yes’?"

Sasha just looks at him. So quietly that she can't be sure the spiders won't drown it out, she says, "I think we both know it was never going to be anything else."

Once again she offers a hand, and once again Michael takes it. He leans over, bending nearly double until his lips are at her ear. "We have a deal."

He pulls Sasha close, arms wrapping around her and lifting her off her feet. She clings to him with a yelp of surprise, but he just tucks her against his chest as if she weighs nothing. He's cold and jagged and full of impossible angles, but after everything she's been through today, she couldn't care less.

Michael nudges the corpse of the window-spider disinterestedly, then hooks his heel through one of its ravaged panes and drags it closer. "Close your eyes," he murmurs into Sasha's hair. "It wouldn't do to have you go mad just yet, after all the trouble I've gone through to get to you."

She's too tired to even be properly alarmed by that—honestly, she's not entirely convinced she's not already mad—but she hides her eyes in his shoulder obediently. Then she jumps at the sound of that horrible metal scream, this time accompanied by the scrape of broken wood, and has to force herself not to look. A door creaks open, closes, slams; and then she and Michael are somewhere else.

The change is instantaneous, though she can't see it; the spiders’ place was hateful and malevolent and wanted her for itself, but the place they're travelling through now isn't anything like that. It wants her in the way a black hole wants her, wants everything: equanimously, uncaringly, inescapably. Whatever's happening, she can hear it with her skin, a silent cacophony of otherness that batters against her until she thinks she won't be able to bear it a moment longer, and then, just as instantaneously, ceases. Cool air brushes against her face, and Michael says, "You can look now."

They're in the Institute, just outside Artefact Storage. The hallway is dead silent, thick with the acrid scents of antiseptic and ammonia. Cautionary floor signs cordon off one end, and, though she is certain she just heard it click shut, the Artefact Storage door is crisscrossed with yellow hazard tape. After the incessant motion of the spiders' cathedral, the stillness is deafening.

"Did they do it?" Sasha whispers, terrified to intrude too far upon that silence. "Is Prentiss really gone?"

Michael neither answers nor releases her; he simply carries her through the empty building away from the storage rooms. The next door he opens should lead to a stairwell, but when they step through, it's into the street below her building. Michael goes as far as the steps, then stops and looks at her.

"I lied to you, you know," he says.

Panic flaring, Sasha pushes away from his shoulder to stare into his face. "What?"

"I let you believe I would have left you if you'd refused my offer, but I—would not have." His head tips, just so, and his brow furrows slightly. "I wonder if I could have."

And, really, what else is she supposed to do with that? She kisses him, and doesn't mind too terribly that it feels like kissing a toothy boulder covered in damp old leather, or that it makes her head spin until she can't see straight for a totally different reason than it ordinarily might. Michael doesn't quite kiss her back, but he hums against her mouth, and when she pulls away he's gazing down at her with that sincere, too-wide smile.

"I do find you so very interesting, Sasha James."

"See? I knew you were telling the truth before."

"Ha, yes. It's not something I'm known for, but I suppose exceptions can be made from time to time."

They're in the hallway now, though she doesn't remember entering the building. Michael carries Sasha up to the first floor, letting her down just inside her flat. She can't resist stretching back up on her toes to press another kiss to the corner of his mouth.

"Wait here?"

He looks at her curiously at that, but inclines his head in what she interprets as a nod. She hurries into the bathroom and scrubs her face, scowling at the sight of her reflection. She's covered in dust and cobwebs and worm mush, and there's a dark spatter on her sleeve that she has a sneaking suspicion is Jon's blood. She doesn't, however, trust herself not to fall asleep and drown in the bath, never mind the thought of having Michael waiting around in her house in the meantime. She settles for hastily changing, fumbling into a dressing-gown with a regretful sigh over the state of her favourite jumper. When she re-emerges, Michael is standing in the exact same position she left him in, wearing the exact same expression of puzzled amusement.

"There. Safe in your home," he says. "What's a friendly thing to say now? Pleasant dreams?"

Sasha's about seventy-five percent sure he's not cruel enough to mean it mockingly, but the idea of going to sleep after everything she's seen today still fills her veins with ice. The shadows seem to grow starker, the familiar creaking of an old building becoming something sinister, and she's gripped with the sudden, panicked conviction that whatever dragged her into that place will return the moment she lets her guard down.

"Don't go," she says.

He looks at her. The faint glow of the streetlamps outside reflects in his eyes, like a cat's. "Why?"

Coming from anyone else, such a question would be callous, but he really is just asking. She clenches and unclenches her hands. "It's just," she whispers finally, after several false starts, "it's too much. I don't want to be alone with the nightmares."

Michael's eyes linger on her a moment more, and then he comes over and scoops her up, cradling her to his chest. "Foolish little eye," he hums against her throat. "I am a nightmare."

"I know." Maybe to others. Definitely to the thing that had taken her. Michael's nature has always been frightening, but he's never once frightened her. "That's the point."

He laughs and kisses her neck, the scrape of teeth against her collarbone making her shiver. "Clever again. Didn't I warn you? And look what happened." His expression turns chiding. "Poor, reckless assistant. Whatever would you do without me?"

She doesn't even want to think about that. "But I do have you," she says instead, and is rewarded with another laugh. "Besides, would you rather I were dull?"

"No," Michael muses, settling carefully on the edge of her bed, "no, I think it all worked out rather well."

He has to fold himself over awkwardly to fit all the way, and they wind up mostly sitting, Sasha curled in his arms with her knees tucked up to her stomach. The faint damp chill of him seeps through her shirt and dressing-gown, but nothing short of the earth opening up and swallowing her is going to get her to move right now. If Michael is uncomfortable, he doesn't show it, although she's not sure how much of the shape wrapped around her is even really him. She rests her head on his shoulder, sighing as all of the exhaustion she couldn't afford to feel before catches up to her at once.

She's almost drifted off when his name finds its way out of her mouth. "Michael?"


"I'm really glad you decided you wanted to be friends."

"Yes, it's been just fascinating so far," he says agreeably, which she thinks means ‘me too.’

She falls asleep that way, head pillowed on Michael's shoulder, and does not dream.

The bed is empty when she wakes up, of course, but it's not like she really expected him to stay for pillow talk. Her glasses, which she doesn't remember removing, are sitting beside her on the nightstand, and the duvet is tucked neatly round her shoulders. Every inch of her aches when she half-crawls, half-falls out of bed; she feels like she’s been run over by a garbage truck. She spends a long time in the shower just staring at the wall, half-formed memories tumbling disjointedly behind her eyes. It's not until she's out, dressed, and feeling slightly more awake—if still not entirely human yet—that she realises someone is moving around in another room.

After undead worm creatures, window-spiders, and whatever the hell that thing that copied her clothes was, Sasha is not about to put up with a home invader, natural, super, or otherwise. Gripping her hairbrush as if it could possibly make an effective weapon, she edges towards the door.

Michael is in her kitchen, eating coffee beans out of the bag. This is only about the thirtieth-weirdest thing she's seen in the past two days, so she just goes in and takes it wordlessly from him for long enough to fill the grinder before handing it back.

He watches her, making no attempts to speak, but when she takes her coffee and curls up on the settee by the window in the reception room, he comes and sits beside her. They stay there in silence for a long time, just looking out the window. At some point in the afternoon—Sasha judges this mainly by the length of the shadows cast on the street below—Michael rises, cups her face in his hands, and kisses her lightly on the forehead. Then he walks back into the kitchen and closes the door behind him.

Sasha gets up and opens the door. The kitchen is empty. She returns to the settee, and to staring out the window. When it gets dark, she goes to bed. She knows she sleeps only by the nightmares it brings.

The next day is Sunday. If that doppelganger thing didn't steal it, her mobile is still on her desk in the archives, which are closed, so she uses the land line to phone her mum. She must sound as out of it as she feels, because her mother barely recognizes her voice and spends most of the remaining time fretting over her, but it's nice. Normal. A reminder that everything is still more or less okay.

She phones Jonathan as well, but it just goes straight to voicemail. Still, Michael wouldn't have gone to all the effort of making her his... agent... unless there was an Institute to go back to, so she probably shouldn't spend too much effort worrying. This, of course, means that she paces around her flat for nearly an hour, rearranging the fading lilies, before finally getting fed up with herself and walking the six-ish blocks down to the boating lake.

On a glorious day like this, the park is crowded with families and even a handful of tourists. Sasha doesn't expect, but isn't particularly surprised, to see a tall thin figure standing on the bank, tossing crumbs to a squabbling pair of geese. He's not in the way, but she still notices several pedestrians leaving the footpath in order to give him a wide berth. If she knows anything about Michael, he's probably really enjoying that.

"Hello," he says when she walks over, earning a few wary looks of her own. "How were the nightmares?"

She scowls at him. "Terrible, thank you for asking."

Michael nods and says matter-of-factly, "Some wounds must be allowed to bleed in order to heal." He leaves off feeding the geese, who immediately paddle to shore to harass the other passers-by, and walks her over to a bench in the shade of a large elm tree. Sasha follows, still mildly annoyed even though she knows he's probably being as sympathetic as he can.

"So the waking up feeling hundreds of spiders burrowing out through my skin, that's all just part of the process?"

"Unless you'd prefer to let it consume you," he says, just as candidly. "The human mind is much more resilient than it gives itself credit for, but it can still fester, and if left untreated..." That shark's grin returns, lips curling back over his gums in something decidedly predatory. "Well, as I said, it wouldn't do just yet. Perhaps later?" He leans in, curls brushing her cheek. "I would so enjoy driving you to madness."

Sasha's mind definitely should not be going where it does with that. She sputters a bit, which she's sure he finds amusing, and casts wildly about for a change of subject before landing on, "Wh—I—But—Well, what am I supposed to say to Jon? About us—This. Everything."

He picks a daisy from the grass at their feet and twirls it between his fingers, still clearly entertained. His hands are only a human's, here in the sunlight, but the thin stem shreds and warps like it's being sliced open. "Whatever you like," he says. "I suspect that may be easier now as well."

Scowling, Sasha props her chin in one hand. Telling the Archivist she made some sort of devil's bargain with Michael is out of the question, but she would still rather avoid lying outright if she can help it, if for no other reason than the ease of maintaining an alibi. It's down to half-truths again, but she's gotten quite good at those. She rubs the side of her face and sighs.

"Right. I'll figure something out. And the rest of it?"

Michael tucks the mangled daisy into the arm of her glasses and begins methodically shredding another. "The rest of what?"

"Of—whatever it is I agreed to. I can't play the spy for you if I don't even know what that means."

"No, you're thinking about it wrong." He shakes his head, pale ringlets swirling over his shoulders. "The eye sees only because the mind looks through it. It's all right if you don't understand," he adds, smiling patiently at her. "You have become, and the rest will follow."

Sasha didn't join a place like the Magnus Institute because she enjoyed being kept in the dark. "Become what, though? I know, melody explaining itself, blah, blah, but—" She takes a deep breath and stares upwards, letting the gentle flicker of sunlight between the leaves allay her. "I'm sorry. It's just that—"

She glances back over at Michael, conciliatory, but Michael is gone.

Typical. She looks around hastily, but apart from a couple of double-takes, nobody seems to have really noticed.

She doesn't actually see him again—won't for over a week, as it turns out—but when she wearily lets herself back into her flat, all the fading lilies have been cleared away. In their place are dozens of others, a kaleidoscope of spiral phyllotaxis: more Callas, tiger lilies, dahlias and garden mums and peonies, and in the centre of the reception room, a bright bundle of sunflowers arranged on the dining table.

It's not clear whether it's meant as an apology, or just his idea of "what friends do," but she smiles when she sees them, and maybe that's enough.

She goes back to the Institute on Monday with her hair done up in a fishtail bun, a camellia tucked behind her ear like an afterthought. As with every other flower in her life, Sasha's quite sure she didn't put it there.

— ໑ —