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a melody played in a penny arcade

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Jon makes it to the entrance of the Institute before he has to stop, shaking. It’s been an effort to get just this far, and he’s breathing hard. The calm part of his mind that usually gets buried under endless layers of fear and paranoia and adrenaline is watching the situation unfold. A little help? he wants to snarl at it, but there’s no point.

You can’t leave, Elias had said, but Jon thought he’d meant - well. Nothing, really. But he’d thought it was an order, not a warning.

The doors are right there, but Jon can’t reach for them, can’t breathe around the tight band of fear around his chest. He’s been fighting the acute animal fear for what feels like hours, terrified with the knowledge that something will happen and he is going to die. Jon pushes himself back on his knees; just a few inches, but it’s enough to ease the pressure.

Jon stands up, wipes his face, and walks to Rosie’s desk.

She looks, he thinks — half-disbelieving and knowing he can’t gauge his rationality — like a spider in her web. Like she knows everything. He doesn’t accuse her, because she’s not one of his staff. (Because he’s learned his lesson about giving people and other things the advantage by telling them what you suspect.) Instead he asks, “Rosie, could you call the Pu Songling Research Centre and tell them I’m not coming?” She nods, pretending not to notice the trembling in his voice. She already has the number dialed and the phone starts ringing even as her attention slides away from him.

Then Jon turns, and walks deeper into the belly of the Institute.

 

He tries not to think about the creature Gertrude killed under Alexandria, or the brass gate that kept it there.

 

The others can’t leave either. Tim complains that it’s business as usual, then, and fucks off to his corner.

The rest of them don’t stick around long after that. Melanie laughs, bright and bitter. Basira just nods, once, taking the news with her same determined adaptivity. Martin watches the three of them go but doesn’t follow. He stands by Jon, looking resigned, and says nothing. It isn’t the first time he’s been trapped like this.

Jon looks away.

Still, it’s more of a relief than it should be, when it feels like it’s all of them being deliberately trapped here. He’s not alone, he’s not singled out. So it’s not like being kidnapped at all, really. It’s not because I’m turning into a monster, Jon tries to tell himself. It’s because the monster is targeting us. Again.

When that doesn’t help, Jon tries asking Elias, because, what else can he do, and talking to Elias is always productively frustrating. It makes Jon feel like someone at least knows the secrets, even if he refuses to share them.

Predictably, Elias doesn’t answer. He just smiles and evades and cajoles like always, but this time his jaw is tight.

Jon sees.

“It’s not you,” he interrupts. It’s half a question and half a statement but Elias fixes him with an irritable stare anyway.

“Use your Voice if you’re going to,” he snaps, and then, “No, it’s not me.”

 

Melanie takes to carrying a tape recorder and a stack of files with her. Jon runs into her one morning, staring at the front doors, and when she sees him she says, “Don’t try and stop me.”

“I wasn’t,” Jon says back.

“Don’t watch me, either.”

“Fine,” Jon snaps, and leaves. He walks faster when he hears her making noises, high and wounded. He sits in his office and when he coincidentally makes another loop around the building ten minutes later, no one is there.

Rosie’s typing doesn’t even stutter when he collapses with his knees curled up and tries not to cry against the hot relief choking him. He doesn’t check again.

Melanie fought her way out. She isn’t coming back.

 

Jon wonders if this is what Leitner felt like, all those years in hiding. Jon can enter the tunnels — he pulled up the trapdoor one night and stumbled down the stairs, and the only fear he felt was his own — but more than anything he doesn’t want to. They’re hemmed in here, and Jon can’t help the feeling that they’re being driven forward into the only out.

That means something else is chasing them, Tim had helpfully elaborated the last time Jon saw him.

They’re snapping at each other even more than usual, so they’ve disbanded the team meetings that had been holding on by a thread as it was. Martin serves as the go-between now, and Jon can see the determination at his core in the tea that keeps appearing in the stupid World’s Best Boss mug and a stubborn refusal to let them all fall apart.

Jon waits for yellow doors and an Ouroboros of a splintering laugh, but they don’t come. Michael had never hunted by laying in wait with no sign. Jon doesn’t imagine Helen would be much different, even though he hasn’t seen her since she let him go.

He can’t tell if he’s disappointed or relieved.

 

Basira stays on the third floor, in the library mostly. “It’s the safest place in here,” she tells him once, and huffs a little laugh. “All this knowledge.”

“Furthest from the Archives,” Jon agrees. She smiles wanly and doesn’t deny it.

“How are you doing?” he asks, rote, because Jon doesn’t know what else to say and doesn’t want to be alone yet. He asks every time he sees her. Basira’s answer is always the same and never real, a kindness Jon doesn’t deserve.

“Fine.”

“Is Daisy here?” Jon asks, because he really does want to know. Jon hasn’t seen Daisy since he was kidnapped. He thinks she might have been trapped outside, on a hunt from Elias. Or in the tunnels, maybe.

Basira’s face goes tight and she doesn’t look at him. “I don’t know.” Her voice makes him think of bird bones, brittle and dead. Eventually, she says, “Don’t make me talk about Daisy.”

Jon lets her have her space after that, and stops going by the library.

 

And then he can’t leave the Archives.

Jon had gotten restless after he’d found that even he couldn’t do nothing but cycle endlessly through working and sleeping, and started stalking the second and first floor hallways of the Institute in the very early morning and late evening. Or the best approximation, because time seems to matter less and less but it’s best if he doesn't scare the other staff.

The ones who can leave.

But this morning, when he approaches the doors of the Archives, he can’t move through the sheer terror they fill him with. He’s shaking again, and Jon presses his face to the smooth, uncaring wood. He grits his teeth and tries to filter the terror through the rise and fall of his lungs until he feels like he’s going to drown in it.

Jon rips his hand away from the doorknob and scrambles back towards his office.

He makes sure not to shut the door.

 

Martin is the one who can float the most easily between rooms. He can even get through the front doors, Jon discovers when he paces into the staff room — which doesn’t fill him with an indescribable terror — and finds more food than he’s expecting.

Like usual, Martin is sitting at the table with headphones in. He’s listening to the tapes, Jon knows, trying to find a way to break the trap. Jon’s been doing the same thing. (Tim might be as well, but Jon wouldn’t bet on it. He hasn’t seen much of him in the Archives, anyway.)

“Martin,” Jon says, a hope so fierce it feels like fear rising in his chest.

“Hmm? Oh,” Martin says, casually. “I got through. I noticed we were running out of food, so I thought I should go get more? I didn’t see anyone, but I left some money on the till.”

“Martin,” Jon says again, helplessly.

But Martin sees the hope there and says, quickly, “I can’t, Jon. I’ve tried to do it again but it gets worse every time.”

Jon settles across from him. “Why you?” he says, and Martin laughs uncomfortably. The tape he’s listening to has been ejected.

They both look at it.

Martin plucks it out and closes the lid. It’s - grown a tape, or whatever it does, and starts running. “Why me?” he repeats. “Because - I’m scared, Jon. All the time. I was even before all of,” he gestures helplessly around them, “this, but I was needed. So I learned to get through it.”

The confession feels — right, and the tape has clicked off again. Martin looks back down at it. His voice is quiet as he labels it and pushes it to the back of the pile. “I think I can do it again. But don’t ask me, Jon. Please.”

Something inside Jon’s chest hurts, and he can’t tell if it’s breaking or mending. “Okay,” he promises, and means it. There are people Jon doesn’t feel guilty over compelling. A lot of people, really. Martin isn’t one of them. “I won’t.”

It’s enough, for now, that there is still a way out.

 

Jon has been careful about keeping his office door open even at night, but it turns out that’s not enough.

He walks straight into the wall of fear and it feels like moving through jello just before he bounces back. But he got halfway through. Jon fixes the doorway with a desperate stare and runs at it.

Later, Jon thinks he should be lucky that nothing breaks, but it’s hard to think around what feels like lightning tearing through his skin and bones and blood, one layer at a time. When he can think again, he reaches out tentatively with his fingers, but it’s too late. They slide off the emptiness like it’s glass.

Time starts to move slower, somehow.

Jon hadn’t thought it would be any worse than being kidnapped for a month, but somehow it is. He feels the time in a way he didn’t there, feels the building beneath him and the fear that has sunk into the very foundation, accumulated after centuries of stories. It’s not an altogether bad feeling. Jon keeps getting random bursts of adrenaline that break his concentration, but after a while he finds that he’s able to direct it, make it do what he wants.

He keeps thinking about the Library of Alexandria.

Martin brings food and files and company, even though Jon doesn’t feel hungry and has always been lonely. He’s able to open the door and even leave through it like it’s not a problem, but an invisible wall lays in wait for Jon whenever he approaches the seemingly empty space. He wonders, distantly, if monsters or starvation or isolation don’t kill him, will his heart? It seems a fitting punishment.

Nobody else comes to see him, although sometimes Martin passes along books — normal ones — from the library. “We’re all doing the best we can,” Martin says, when Jon asks after Basira. “But she came into this as a hostage. So I don’t think it’s been the same kind of adjustment for her.”

“You think that’s what we are?” Jon asks, leaning against the wall.

Martin goes quiet for a minute. “I think that’s what the assistants are,” he says. “Until we aren’t.”

Jon doesn’t know how to respond to that.

He doesn’t know how to respond to a lot about Martin, though. His presence is both a relief and humiliating, made so by Jon’s desperation for it. Martin’s always liked making sure they’re alright, but now Jon bring himself to rebuff it. Still, the attention makes him feel coddled; a pet among caged animals. The cage gets smaller all the time, but not for the others.

Just him.

(“Little monster,” his grandmother used to call him, but there was real affection in her voice. He hears it again in his lonely office, splintering like driftwood. Now he can find only harshness in it. “Little monster, little monster.”)

Jon wonders how long it will be before he can’t move at all.

“What day is it?” he asks, only once, because Martin goes quiet and clutches at his mug of tea like a lifeline. It’s a miracle it doesn’t shatter. But he answers.

“I don’t know. I’ve been trying to keep track, but…” But it seemed pointless and he stopped crossing off the days. But the computers aren’t capable of handling the warped reality of the Archives on a good day. But it doesn’t feel real. “I think it’s August, though.”

“Has the world ended yet?” Jon asks.

He’s had too many dreams about Nikola and her duct-taped vocal cords screaming to mean nothing. Anticipatorily, at first, then with a joy that made Jon flinch back from imaginary plastic fingers sliding covetously over his skin, and then horribly in despair. Last night he dreamed of being loved by the crawling things making him a home, and felt everything — all his joints, with no pins and needles as they burrowed.

The Unknowing should be past and time should have run out, but the days keep moving forward, on and on without snapping from the force of the blow. Maybe the Unknowing did happen, Jon allows. Maybe this is what the world after looks like. Maybe this is his mind desperately reaching for whatever it can understand.

He’s certainly obsessing over it enough. It feels like the only thing he can change, as the walls move closer around him.

“No,” Martin says, and looks a little startled. Then Jon is alone. He comes back again later, agitated and brutally hopeful. “It’s been too long. Maybe-” and then he doesn't finish, but Jon can, can cover his terrible suspicion.

“Maybe we aren’t the only ones trying to stop the rituals.”

 

By the time Jon has memorized every crack in the wall — even with the distraction of Martin and the tapes — he’s tried to burn the fear out. It’s excruciating, and his perception of time is well and truly fucked now, because every moment feels too sharp and yet everything blurs together.

Elias is the one who pulls him out of it, and Jon hates him more for it. He shoves a tape recorder in the doorway between them and says “I’ve negotiated a truce. Peter isn’t going to be bothering us again.” There’s gold around his finger, etched with waves.

It’s been a while since Jon’s seen that ring.

That calm place in Jon that thinks sense and ruthlessness are the same thing has taken a beating, but it’s still there, rising like Atlantis from beneath his fuzzy, jumbled thoughts. Jon is hungrier than he’s been in - months, now. He wants Elias to see his own weakness reflected back at him in the vindictive delight Jon is taking at his finally being outmaneuvered.

“Statement of Elias Bouchard,” that part of him says. His voice surprises him — it’s clear and strong, without the recent persistent fry. “Regarding the recent isolation of his staff. Taken direct from subject on…” Jon trails off, because he doesn’t know, and isn’t sure he’ll get away with pulling honesty from Elias’ honeyed mouth, even with the quiet fury banked in his eyes.

Elias looks at him with more calculation than Jon has seen before clear on his face as the long seconds slip by. The tape is still churning forward. “Statement taken direct from subject on 20th August, 2017,” Elias finally says, and Jon feels the urge to hide from the strength of Elias’s want. None of the statement givers ever want to spill themselves out, even the ones who intend to come to the Institute and give their statement. And Elias never wants to tell Jon anything at all.

It’s frankly unnerving.

“Statement begins,” Jon finally manages, barely above a whisper.

What else are you lying about? Jon thinks, as Elias pauses. He can’t bring himself to ask and it would be stupid, anyway. Elias seems off-balance and weirdly eager and has been distracted. Maybe, Jon hopes even as he knows he shouldn’t, he hasn’t been watching their conversations. Maybe he doesn’t know what they know about the rituals.

“Peter has always liked bets,” Elias starts. His eyes are steel and his voice is clipped, but for the first time in years, underneath the residue of fear — Jon feels ready.