On the first day that neither Jon nor Elias showed up at the Institute, Gerry was a little worried. When Rosie told him that Jon had come down with a cold and Elias had called to say he was staying home to take care of him, he was still worried, but he tried to push it aside as his usual paranoia and resolved to call him as soon as he was home. That night, when the phone call to Jon’s home went unanswered, he tried to reassure himself there could be a hundred normal reasons no one was picking up the phone, even as he spent a restless night switching from nightmares starring his mother or some other monster getting to Jon, and staring sleeplessly at his dark room and telling himself that Elias could—and would—protect Jon if it was necessary.
On the second day they were gone, Gerry’s worry started to gnaw painfully in his gut. He badgered Rosie until she told him that she had heard from Elias personally that morning, and that while he sounded a little tired, he had assured her they were both fine. Gerry got on one of the office phones soon after and tried calling their house, but found the line busy no matter how many times he tried to call throughout the day. He was seriously considering taking off on his own and trying to find his way to Jon’s house—and probably would have, if he knew where it was. The two times he had been there, Michael had driven them, and Gerry wasn’t sure he would be able to find the place again, especially if he had to try to find his own way using public transport.
When he and Michael left home after work, Gerry tried to convince him to drive them to Elias’s house.
“We can’t just drop by unannounced like that, Gerry,” Michael said on their way out of the building. “Especially not—well, he’s my boss. He’s my boss’s boss. I know you’re worried about Jon, but I’m sure he has it handled. He really cares about that kid.”
“We went without asking for Christmas,” Gerry said, “and it’s Jon’s house too and Jon is my friend.” He ignored the twinge of doubt as he said that, because while he and Jon had been having problems lately, he was mostlysure that they were still friends. At least, Jon hadn’t yet said he didn’t want to be friends anymore, and Gerry was going to stubbornly cling to their friendship until and unless Jon told him not to. Friends fought, right? Or, friends got into strange uncomfortable silences for weeks after one of them was going to go to school and the other one wasn’t?
Fuck. Gerry had no idea what a normal friendship was supposed to be like. His only real consolation was that he was pretty sure that Jon didn’t, either. Seeing as it had proven impossible to change Michael’s mind about going to school, he was just going to keep doing everything he could to stick close to Jon and prove that it wasn’t going to change anything.
(It was going to change everything, and Gerry hated it.)
“That was… more Rosie’s idea than mine,” Michael admitted, looking sheepish. He looked over at Gerry, and must have seen something there, because his face went into that soft, sympathetic smile that usually preceded him giving in to whatever Gerry wanted. He placed a hand on Gerry’s back, pressing gently between his shoulder blades. Gerry knew that if he moved away from the touch, even the slightest bit, Michael would back off and not mention it. Gerry didn’t move. “How about this: if they’re not in tomorrow, I’ll call and set things up, and we’ll go visit them after work.”
Gerry crossed his arms and looked away, but he nodded after a few seconds. He knew that was as much as he was going to get, but it wasn’t going to stop him from trying to call Jon’s house every ten minutes until someone picked up that stupid phone.
No one did. After the third hour of Gerry refusing to part with the only wireless phone in the house, dialing the eternally busy line every five minutes, he and Michael got into one of their infrequent arguments, which resulted in Michael confiscating the phone and forbidding Gerry from using the landline for the rest of the evening. Gerry responded to this by yelling some untrue, hurtful things he knew he should apologize for, but instead locked himself in his room for another endless night with little sleep and stomach-churning worry.
On the third morning without word from Jon or Elias, Gerry flew right past worried into badly contained panic. Jon wouldn’t simply vanish for three days without letting Gerry know, not with what they both knew existed out there. Especially not after what had happened on Tuesday, when that predator inside Jon had come out and his face had gained that hungry, fixed look Gerry had seen only once before. Once Gerry had pulled him away, and Jon was back to himself, he had looked so lost and ashamed that Gerry hadn’t known what to say.
“It’s not your fault” would have fallen on deaf ears, because Jon was always quickest to assign blame on himself for everything that went wrong around him. “It will be okay” was a lie that Gerry didn’t know how to say without feeling ridiculous, because he had no idea what was happening to Jon, and in all his covert research into the Twisting Deceit for the last few months, he was no closer to understanding why the Lichtenberg figure might have called Jon ‘little one’, or how to help Jon out with his connection to any of it.
Gerry dragged Michael over to Rosie’s desk and glared at him until Michael explained to her that he couldn’t get a hold of Elias and asked about Gerry going to visit after work that day.
“Oh, love, you don’t need to worry. I’m sure Jon is just fine; he just got sick.” Rosie said, looking at Gerry sympathetically. When Gerry opened his mouth, irrationally angry, she quickly added, “I’ll ask about you visiting if he calls! I wouldn’t get my hopes up, though. It can be exhausting to care for a sick child for the first time.”
Gerry didn’t tell her that she was being ridiculous; if Elias didn’t have trouble taking care of Jon while he was constantly getting himself in trouble with ancient fear gods and their servants, he certainly wouldn’t have trouble with something so mundane as a cold. There had to be something more going on, if Jon hadn’t even called him for a minute to say he was alive.
“Maybe we could drop off some dinner for them, then,” Michael suggested, smiling. Gerry crossed his arms and looked away, frustrated, as Michael and Rosie continued to chat, being casually friendly.
When Michael went back into the Archives to work, Gerry didn’t bother pretending to go back upstairs to the room he usually shared with Jon. If he was going to be made to wait another eight hours before checking in on Jon, then he was going to spend the time doing something useful.
“Gerry,” Michael said, tired, when he noticed that Gerry was following him down. “You know Gertrude doesn’t like to have children down in the Archives.”
“She doesn’t like Jon down in the Archives,” Gerry corrected. She had seen him down there before, when he visited Michael, and even once when he was trying to find some files to sneak away with for research, and she hadn’t told him to leave. Those are a waste of your time, boy, was what she had said that time, before she yanked the folders out of his hand and handed him a different pile. Bring those back when you’re done.
Gerry didn’t know what was behind the animosity between the Archivist and Jon, but he remembered well how Jon had done nothing but glare hatefully at her as she bled out on the floor after his mum’s attack, and he knew Jon’s hatred was reciprocated from her end. Whatever it was, it didn’t seem to spread to Gerry; Gertrude didn’t like him, maybe, but it was in the same way she didn’t really seem to like anyone.
With a final sigh and a defeated slump of his shoulders, Michael led the way down. Gerry felt a little guilty about forcing Michael into the situation—particularly after the things he had said last night, which he still hadn’t apologized for – but he could worry about fixing all of it after he knew what had happened to Jon.
Emma didn’t look surprised to see him when they stepped into the shared office of the Archival assistants, which held four desks but was used only by Emma and Michael.
“Hey there, dark and handsome,” Emma said with a wave. Gerry didn’t return her smile. He didn’t usually have a problem with her; she was Michael’s friend so she was around quite often, but when Gerry was already in a bad mood, her positivity and cheer felt like nails on a chalkboard.
“Morning,” he grumbled back at her, only barely convincing himself to be civil since she hadn’t really done anything to him other than be upbeat while he wanted to hit something.
“You going to be hanging around here today?” She asked.
“Yes,” Gerry said defiantly, looking at Michael. Michael scrubbed a hand across his face.
“Just… don’t leave this room, would you?” he said, defeated.
“He can hang out on my second desk!” Emma said brightly, standing to clear some space off the unused desk next to hers, which was covered with loose papers, folders, and, for some reason, staplers.
Gerry didn’t agree to Michael’s terms, but as a compromise, he went over to sit at the desk Emma had somewhat cleared. He figured he could at least look over whatever Emma left first, and only go out wandering for more after he had decided there was nothing else for him there.
“Those aren’t things you should be reading,” Michael tried again, standing over Gerry and looking weary.
“I’m not a little kid,” Gerry snapped. And I’ve been reading and living much worse since long before we met, he didn’t add, just barely.
“It’s not—” Michael sighed, and scrubbed a hand across his face again. “I know you’re mature, Gerry. But just because you can do something, doesn’t mean you should.”
“He’s been hanging out here for the last six months, Michael,” Emma said, surprisingly. “He’s a curious little thing; there’s no way he hasn’t already read as many of these as he could get his hands on.”
Gerry shivered. She was right, sure, but he didn’t like the way she called him a ‘curious little thing’. It sounded like something his mum would say, when she was happy with him.
Michael sent her a betrayed look. “That doesn’t mean he should read more.”
“I’m fine.” Gerry said, but when Michael looked at him, still tired and worried, he relented a little. Just because you’re worried about Jon doesn’t mean you can be mean to Michael, he thought, though another part of him felt he was perfectly justified in whatever he said to Michael, because it was Michael’s fault he was going to be forced to go to school, and that was what had made everything between him and Jon start to go wrong in the first place.
But he cares about me, Gerry thought, guilty. He thought he was doing the right thing for him. It wasn’t completely his fault that he was wrong. Maybe if he understood better about this place, and Gerry’s mum, and everything else that threatened him, he would see why it was a bad idea. If only he wasn’t so aggressively certain that none of the things they researched here was real.
“It will help distract me from thinking about Jon,” Gerry offered, a lot more quietly. It was true, if a bit misleading, but it got what Gerry wanted; Michael’s features softened, and when he sighed this time it was more a release of tension than an expression of frustration.
“Alright. Only for today, though.” He was using his ‘stern’ voice, and Gerry was quick to agree. Not because he was afraid of Michael—if there was one thing Gerry had learned over the last month of trying everything he could think of to convince Michael not to send him to school, it was that Michael would never hurt him, no matter how much Gerry yelled, broke things, or otherwise tried to aggravate the man—but because he worried, sometimes, that if he forced Michael to always have to be strict with him, he would stop being kind with him, too.
He didn’t like the sad, disappointed looks Michael would give him, those times when Gerry would go too far and say something personal and hurtful. He didn’t like wondering just when Michael would snap and realize that Gerry wasn’t worth all the care and attention he gave him. Gerry only needed to delay that from happening for a couple of years, and then he would be fine.
On an impulse driven by a sudden well of emotion, he stood from the desk and gave Michael a quick hug. Michael was too surprised to respond, and then Gerry was back at his desk, feeling his face heat and refusing to look up and see whatever expression was on his face.
“Just for today,” Michael repeated, a lot more softly, and Gerry swallowed against a lump in his throat. I’ll fix things with Michael later, he promised himself. For now, he needed to focus on Jon.
It turned out that the papers Emma had left on her ‘second desk’ were almost all related to the Spiral, although Gerry suspected that a few of them weren’t real. He didn’t have Jon’s uncanny ability to spot a fake by quickly skimming the contents, but he had enough experience to sort out the likely from the unlikely.
There were three statements about doors and a man that wasn’t a man who tricked people into disappearing down corridors which didn’t really exist. Gerry had set those aside, unsettled, and remembered how Jon had described ‘the Distortion’, the creature he had made a deal with to try and help Gerry, all those months before.
There were two statements which made Gerry’s blood run cold. One, from a man almost thirty years ago, who described slowly giving in to paranoia and his every worse impulse towards everyone in his life after going to see a psychologist that validated his every doubt about his relationships. The man described himself as being finally safe, now that he had ‘gotten rid of’ every person sabotaging his life. The other was from a woman five years ago who had found a ‘mesmerizing’ ring, only to discover that everyone in her life forgot she existed once she wore it, and even while it was off, their memories of her would have changed, and she never knew how to fit into her life again, prompting her to keep trying the ring, and making everything worse every time.
Gerry’s mum had never been very interested in the Spiral, all things considered, so Gerry’s understanding of it had been more basic than it was for the End or the Hunt, for example, which had servants that were far easier to track down and actually speak with. He could easily recall the way learning had felt back when his mum had been the center of his world, as she would bombard him with stories, books, and whatever other ‘learning aids’ she could find, including inhuman creatures and artifacts. Most days, he did a pretty good job of shoving all of those memories to the back of his mind and ignoring them. That morning, as he read through statements, his mind alight with a determined fire born from finally, finally making progress on a problem he had stalled on for months, he could remember the positive parts of his mum’s teaching methods. The way that a mystery would start out as a jumble of disconnected ideas and slowly became a part of a pattern, and the delight of chasing down that final realization, when he would understand something not just in his head, but in his gut.
He would have worked at that feverish pace for the rest of the day, ignoring Michael and his timid offers of lunch, had Rosie not come down to find him around noon with news. Even then, it took him a few seconds to disentangle his focus from the half-formed patterns in his mind enough to understand what she had said.
“He said—what? You talked with Jon?” Gerry asked, blinking blearily and realizing just then his leg was aching from the awkward position he had decided to sit in for the last three hours.
“I spoke with Elias,” Rosie said, giving him that same sympathetic look from earlier. “He said that Jon was doing better, but that he wasn’t up for company tonight.”
Gerry’s fists clenched. He didn’t care if Jon was up for company or not. He was going to figure out Elias’s address and stand in their fucking doorstep until someone opened the door, and he didn’t care what anyone else thought about that.
“Gerry…” Michael said, half-warning and half-plea.
“He did say,” Rosie added quickly, probably seeing the tension in Gerry and the worry in Michael, “that Gerry was free to stop by in the morning, if he came on his own and promised to be careful.”
Gerry felt his body relax a little. That was something, though it didn’t ease the knot of worry in his chest. If Elias wanted Gerry there without Michael, then whatever was wrong was probably related to the Entities. The warning to ‘be careful’ could mean anything. Scenarios started running through Gerry’s mind, where Jon would be safe at home, but unable to give Gerry a quick call.
If he just forgot to do it, or something stupid like that, I’ll punch him so hard he won’t ever forget again, Gerry thought, anger and worry and uncertainly mixing painfully inside him.
“I could drop you off for a couple of hours,” Michael offered, his own smile a little strained, and Gerry once again felt the weight of guilt for the way he had been treating Michael the last couple of days.
“Thanks,” he said, forcing himself to look Michael in the eye and smile, even though he didn’t feel remotely happy. It was enough to get Michael to relax, though. He reached out and put his hand over Gerry’s shoulder in a gentle squeeze.
“Come on. Let’s go have some lunch. Everything else can wait.” Gerry felt an itch in the back of his skull at the thought. He still wanted to go back to work. He still wanted to know how it all tied together, to get lost in the search.
But he wanted Michael to be happy with him more.
Emma declined their invitation to go out to eat, while Rosie enthusiastically agreed. As they left, Gerry thought he felt Emma’s eyes on him until they left the Archives, but he said nothing and did his best to enjoy lunch and not count down the minutes until he could see Jon the next day.
Gerry was unable to recreate his earlier focus once he returned from lunch, too distracted by thoughts of the next day. He took the folders he had set aside about the Distortion and slid them into his backpack when neither Emma nor Michael were around to see, and tried to sort the rest of the papers on the desk into things he would sneak away with to study later and things he could leave behind. He wasn’t sure why Emma had been stockpiling information about the Spiral here, but he couldn’t expect it all to stay in one place until the next time he came down here.
Unless Jon isn’t back next week, either, Gerry thought, and tried to distract himself. He had less than a month left until he had to start school. He needed that time to fix things with Jon, even if he still didn’t have any idea of how he was going to fix things.
The rest of the day and night were spent in a fog of anxiety and worry. Michael took him home early, deciding that Gerry “had spent enough time hidden down in the basement for a day.” For someone who didn’t believe the statements were real, he sure did worry about their influence on Gerry an awful lot.
Once they were home, Michael decided to lecture Gerry on health and hygiene while they made their dinner. After the third time he reminded Gerry to wash his hands thoroughly and to not let Jon run around if he was still feeling sick, Gerry realized that Michael was worried about Jon as well and was trying not to let Gerry know. The knowledge that Michael was taking it seriously, even if he assumed that Jon was sick in a mundane way, somehow calmed Gerry more than the dozens of “he’ll be fine”s he had heard the last couple of days.
When it was time to go to bed, Gerry was surprised to find how quickly he fell asleep. If his dreams were riddled with nightmares they were at least the ones he was used to, and Jon didn’t feature in any of them.
He was awake and ready to go long before Michael, who informed him in a grumpy, half-asleep voice that he was certain that when Elias said “morning” he hadn’t meant dawn, and made a long wordless sound when Gerry pointed out that dawn had been half an hour ago told him to stop exaggerating. He was wearing the hoodie with the eye design Elias had gotten him for his birthday (it couldn’t hurt to suck up a little, could it?), and had packed his Gameboy, eye-searing pink deck of cards, a notebook he sometimes doodled in, and his CD player (with five CD’s of artists he remembered Jon preferring) into his backpack. He had even brushed his hair and tied it back into a short ponytail, which made him almost presentable.
Jon wouldn’t care what he looked like, but he thought Elias might; he needed to stay on the man’s good side if Elias was going to be deciding how long or how often Gerry would get to visit Jon at home. He almost smiled, thinking of the face Jon would make if Gerry was dumb enough to point that out. Jon hated being reminded that Elias had any say in his life, even if the man was his father in everything but name.
Gerry was determined to be the perfect house guest today. He wasn’t going to give Elias any excuses not to invite him back, and he was going to be the best friend to Jon that he knew how. If it started to get tense and awkward again… well, if that happened he would just ignore it and push forward. Unless Jon told him not to, but he was almost certain Jon wouldn’t.
It’s going to be ok. Jon is fine, and we’re going to fix everything. Gerry didn’t have a lot of experience being optimistic. He wished his thoughts sounded more like statements, and less like questions.
When they finally pulled up to Jon’s house at half past nine Michael didn’t get out of the car, but he made Gerry promise to be careful and to wash his hands before he allowed him to get out. Gerry did, managing not to roll his eyes with incredible effort (he was going to be the perfect guest and the perfectly behaved foster child, because he wasn’t going to give Michael an excuse to stop him from visiting Jon either).
Seconds later he was in front of the house and had knocked, heart pounding, still with no idea what to expect. The door opened a moment later, so quickly he was reminded of Jon’s oft repeated warnings about Elias seeing everything.
He had half-expected it to be Jon at the door, looking ruffled but safe, ready to complain about Elias limiting his phone access for some reason. Instead, Elias opened the door, face drawn and looking more tired than Gerry had ever seen him, wearing sweatpants and a dark t-shirt—a part of him couldn’t help staring; he hadn’t imagined that Elias owned sweatpants like a normal human being. It took Gerry a second to notice Jon, who was standing just behind Elias with one hand clamped tightly around Elias’s arm and looking at Gerry with intense concentration.
Jon was not well. Gerry couldn’t pinpoint any single detail about his appearance that shouted the fact, but he knew as much with absolute certainty. He was wearing mismatched pajamas, with a bright green top and pink leopard print bottoms, which stood out to Gerry because while everyone thought Jon didn’t put thought into his clothes and simply had bad taste, Gerry had grown to recognize the patterns Jon preferred, and he knew that this was a combination Jon would never have picked.
There was his expression, a kind of distracted frown that didn’t fit well with the intensity in his eyes. Jon was smart, and driven, and when he looked at Gerry, Gerry always felt seen in a way he had never really thought about until now, when Jon was looking at him with all the concentration he might give an intense statement but empty, somehow, with none of the feeling Gerry had grown so used to seeing.
Finally, there was the way he was holding on to Elias. From the first day Gerry had met him, Jon had been an unusually affectionate kid, but as far as he had seen that affection was only ever aimed towards Gerry. He saw Elias touching Jon often, usually a hand on the back or a quick ruffle of his hair that Jon ducked away from as soon as he could, but he couldn’t remember ever seeing Jon be anything but annoyed or hostile towards Elias being in his personal space.
Now, Jon was holding onto Elias’s arm like he was drowning and Elias was the only thing keeping him afloat.
Elias raised an arm to wave at Michael, who had been waiting to see the door open before he left. “Well, come in, then,” he said, tired, and Gerry didn’t think he had ever heard him sound tired before. Unsure, eyes glued on Jon and searching unsuccessfully for any hint about what was going on, Gerry followed.
Just as Elias closed the door Jon’s eyes suddenly widened, his expression becoming animated again. “Oh no, I forgot to tell you I was alive, didn’t I?” he said. In that moment he sounded normal, although the look in his eyes was quickly growing frantic. He let go of Elias and made to go to Gerry, but stopped himself as suddenly as he had started. “I’m sorry. Gerry, I didn’t—oh god, I’m so sorry,” he said, and he was crying, and he looked so miserable and lost that Gerry didn’t need any prodding to close the distance between them and hug him.
Whatever had happened to him, if it necessitated him telling Gerry he was “alive”, it couldn’t have been good. Gerry knew without having to be told that it wasn’t just a matter of him forgetting to call, either. Something was wrong. Something was really, really wrong.
“Jon? Jon, it’s ok, it’s ok, really,” Gerry was babbling, but he wasn’t paying attention to the words coming out of his own mouth as much as he was to the way Jon was shaking and returning the hug hard enough to bruise. He didn’t think Jon was hearing him, in any case. His face was buried in Gerry’s hoodie, and whatever words he was mumbling were being muffled by the fabric. Out of his depth and terrified for his friend, he looked up at Elias.
There was a complicated expression on Elias’ face. It looked halfway between worried and angry, and Gerry couldn’t make heads or tails of it. He sighed and it quickly smoothed into something more neutral.
“Come on, you can sit in the living room,” Elias said, gesturing for Gerry to go deeper into the house without making a move to touch either him or Jon. Gerry hesitated halfway to suggesting that he and Jon should go to Jon’s room (surely he would be more comfortable with a little privacy?) before realizing that he wasn’t sure how he would move Jon to the couch, let alone upstairs.
Jon was worryingly pliant when Gerry tried to move. So long as he could continue to hold the hug, he didn’t mind shuffling after Gerry as they made their awkward way all the way across the floor and onto the larger couch in the living room. Once they sat, he went abruptly quiet, his face still buried in Gerry’s chest.
Gerry had no idea what to do. He didn’t even know what was wrong. How was he supposed to help fix something like this when he didn’t know what was wrong, and Jon wasn’t talking? He looked around desperately again and found Elias standing at the entrance of the living room, watching them.
“What happened?” He asked, desperate, not sure who he was asking or if it even mattered.
“Jon made another deal he shouldn’t have,” Elias said. Jon stiffened. He lifted his head just far enough to look back at Elias, and though Gerry couldn’t see his face, he would have bet it was a glare.
“It wasn’t a deal,” Jon said with a sniffle. “I just—I did something stupid, and I had to do something worse to get out of it.”
“I have work I need to get back to,” Elias said, ignoring what Jon had just said. He locked eyes with Gerry. “Watch him for me. Call me if anything happens.”
Gerry hadn’t seen him look this serious since that night his mum had attacked the Institute. There was that little bit of anger he had seen earlier, and Gerry wondered if it was aimed at him, somehow. It was his job to keep Jon safe, after all. And he had clearly failed.
Guilt and fear coiled in his gut, and he pulled Jon closer instinctively. Everything good in his life now was thanks to Elias deciding he would be a good companion to Jon. He might have called it being Jon’s “tutor”, but Gerry knew how to read in between the lines. More often than not it was Jon tutoring Gerry. Gerry’s real job was to keep Jon from doing stupid, self-sacrificial things. To keep him safe.
If Elias thought Gerry couldn’t do it, could he take it all away? Jon, and Michael, and his comfortable, safe new life where he didn’t feel like there was a monster waiting to eat him behind every corner, where he felt—(don’t think it, don’t think it)
—felt loved—(Don’t think it, don’t think it)
—felt cared for.
“Y-yeah.” His voice cracked and his head nodded on its own like a puppet’s. Elias kept their gazes locked for another second, then he turned to go.
“Elias?” Jon asked, and he leaned away from Gerry to turn and look properly at his guardian while still keeping half of his body pressed into Gerry’s. The tone of his voice hurt Gerry. He didn’t think he’d ever heard his friend sound so vulnerable and confused.
Elias paused, then sighed, like he couldn’t believe what he was going to do. He came back and ruffled Jon’s head. “You’re leaning into the wrong patron again, Jon,” he said calmly. Jon stared back at him for a few seconds before nodding, a jerky movement. Elias turned and left, and when Jon looked back towards Gerry, he could see Jon’s usually covered eye glowing like a dim torch.
“Jon?” Gerry asked softly. “What happened?”
Jon met Gerry’s eyes, looking more alert than Gerry had seen him yet, and told him.
Gerry wasn’t sure how he was able to sit still and listen to Jon’s garbled recollections about being kidnapped by the Distortion and kept in its domain for the better part of a day. Jon didn’t let go of him as he spoke, his hands fisted tightly in Gerry’s hoodie, his face turned up towards Gerry’s, his eyes almost unblinking, like he was focusing somewhere behind Gerry’s eyes. By the time he had repeated himself a third time about his conversation with another Spiral servant (each time a little different, and Gerry somehow knew it wasn’t because Jon was trying to lie, but because he seemed to be having trouble keeping things straight in his head), Gerry decided he needed to stop being a useless witness, and start trying to actually help his friend.
“Jon?” He interrupted, and it took Jon a couple of seconds to realize Gerry had spoken, and then he blinked his eyes, dazed, and shut his mouth.
“Sorry,” he muttered, looking away. Gerry reached over Jon’s hands and squeezed.
“Nothing to be sorry about, ok? I just—is it ok if I take out a notebook and take notes? Maybe it will be easier if you can see it written down?” Gerry kept his voice calm, channeling every bit of ‘Michael-trying-not-to-be-angry-about-Gerry’s-last-ridiculous-rebellio.’ Jon was out of it enough for both of them; Gerry needed to be the one to stay grounded.
It took Jon another long second to reply, like he had to pass Gerry’s words through some internal translator before they made sense. Once they did, he looked back at Gerry, smiling. “That—yeah. I haven’t—I should have—I mean, yeah, let’s try.”
It was a bit awkward to get his backpack off his back, now that he had sat down in the couch and had a nine-year-old boy almost on top of him, but he managed it with only a little undignified wriggling. He left everything else inside and dropped his backpack on the ground by his feet, then he sat up in the couch, tucking his feet beneath him, while Jon readjusted so he was leaning against his side and had a good view of the blank notebook page Gerry opened.
With deliberately clear handwriting, Gerry wrote a number one at the top of the page, then a dash, then “A Distortion door appeared in Jon’s room.” Below that, he added, “Jon opened it and was pulled inside.”
“True so far?” he asked, and Jon quickly nodded. His eye was glowing brightly, which was making Gerry nervous; the last time he had seen it glowing was back when his mum had attacked the institute, though Jon had confided in him that it glowed sometimes, and that’s why he wore the eye patch whenever they were at the Institute. It had something to do with his powers—which, given that Jon’s powers to doom people depended on touch and he was currently stuck to his side like a barnacle, wasn’t exactly helping Gerry relax. Not that he thought Jon would hurt him. Not on purpose, anyway. He made himself refocus on what was important.
Gerry really wanted to know why Jon had opened the stupid door. His earlier explanation had been full of ‘the dreams were so red I should have known better but it smelled like tea and new books and they always lie but sometimes they use the truth if it hurts more,’ which he had no idea how to even start to interpret, and so he forced himself to put off the question until Jon was feeling better.
“Distortion took Jon deeper inside” was followed by “met a servant of the Spiral (worker of clay?)”. That was about as much Gerry had been able to understand from Jon’s earlier attempt. Jon was staring at the four lines in the notebook like they held the key to eternal life. Hesitantly, he reached over and took Gerry’s pen, then pressed it down on the page. Slowly, in his own messy, childish scrawl, he started to write.
“They talked about me helping them.
They like me?
They wanted to trap me there
Elias found me.
Elias’ patron found me
Eye can’t do much in Spiral’s place
I used Spiral and Eye to get back
I can’t get Spiral to stop
I don’t want to become an
I don’t want to Become
I can’t think
I don’t feel like
Even when I think I don’t feel like myself
What am I?
Gerry took Jon’s hand and pulled the pen from his grasp, feeling something cold and painful settle in his stomach. He put the notebook face-down on the couch on his other side and hugged Jon tightly to him. Within seconds, Jon was crying. It wasn’t the first time Gerry had seen Jon cry, but it was the first time he saw him do it in such an uninhibited way. It was loud. It was agonizing. It was breaking Gerry’s heart, because even now that he knew what had happened, he still didn’t know how to make it better.
Jon had given a part of himself away to the Spiral to survive. Gerry couldn’t say he was mad at him for the decision, because the alternative had been that Jon would still be in that monster’s domain, being driven insane. It hurt, though. It meant there was no easy way to fix whatever was now wrong with Jon’s mind, because now it was simply how Jon’s mind worked. From all he knew and all he’d read, there was no turning back from this. Maybe, had it been anyone other than Jon, an option could be to go to a different Fear and take up with them, but for whatever reason Jon was already at the mercy of three of them, so he doubted it was an option.
He remembered Elias’ comment, “You are leaning on the wrong patron,” and thought he understood the situation a little better. Jon, at his core, had always seemed far closer to the Eye than to any of the other fears, in personality and behavior if nothing else.
It took a long time for Jon to calm down. It took just as long for Gerry to do so as well. His own feelings might not have come out in desperate sobs, but he was taking just as much comfort from holding on to Jon and burying his face in his hair as Jon was from their embrace. Jon was alive. He was safe—as safe as he could be, anyway. But he almost hadn’t been.
Gerry had almost never seen Jon again. The thought terrified him. Selfishly, all he could think was and we never would have gotten over our fight.
When Jon’s sobs had turned to sniffles and his grip around Gerry’s midriff was merely tight rather than painful, Gerry made a decision.
“I’ve been a bad friend,” he said. Jon started, lifting his face enough to look up at Gerry. His eyes were red and puffy, his cheeks were still shiny with tears, and there was a gross string of mucus now connecting Jon’s face to Gerry’s torso which almost made him laugh for some undefinable reason.
“No you haven’t,” Jon said, voice nasal after all the crying.
“Yeah, I have. I’ll… I’ll figure something out. Michael can’t make me go to school. It’s not like he’ll pick me up and carry me there,” Gerry said, though he wasn’t as confident as he sounded. Sure, Michael wouldn’t hurthim, but would he really put it past the tall, stubborn man to drag him around like a toddler?
Jon was shaking his head. “No, don’t be stupid.”
Gerry rolled his eyes. “It’s my choice. There’s nothing I can learn at school that I can’t learn on my own, anyway.”
“No!” Jon snapped. Gerry opened his mouth to yell something back, but his mind caught up before his mouth did something stupid. Hadn’t he promised not to fight? Memories of their earlier arguments made him hesitate. What was he supposed to do? If Jon was angry about him going to school and leaving him alone, shouldn’t him promising to stay make it better?
“No,” Jon repeated, a lot more calmly. He sat up, wiping his nose on the sleeve of his shirt. He made a strange sound that was halfway between a wet cough and a laugh. “You’re being stupid. I’m the one who’s been a bad friend, Gerry.”
“You’re a kid,” Gerry said quickly, one hand still on Jon’s shoulder, not quite ready to let go yet. “I’m the one who’s supposed to figure stuff out for us.”
Jon shook his head again, sniffing and wiping his face with his sleeve again. Gerry wished he had a handkerchief to give him; that shirt was going to be filthy by the end of the day. “You’re a kid too.” When Gerry opened his mouth to argue, Jon went on, louder, “a kid who is going to school for the first time in your life, and—damn it, you’re probably terrified, and all I’ve done is blame you and made you more scared of it, and prevented you from even trying to like it.”
Gerry didn’t think that was fair. “I’m not scared of going to school!” He argued, “it’s just—it’s a waste of time! And I’d rather spend the time with you! Besides—” He paused, tried to think about how he was going to say this, but the words tumbled out of his mouth just as messy as they had formed in his mind. “Besides, you—how you are right now—you’re going to need me around more. For help.”
“I’ll—I’ll figure something out,” Jon said, but he didn’t sound like he believed it himself.
“I mean,” Gerry added, unsure if he should say what he was about to say, “you’re… you’re sounding better now than you did before.”
Jon opened his mouth, then closed it. He wiped his face again, but he was looking more thoughtful than angry or upset. Then, he looked up at Gerry, and said a quiet “oh”.
“Oh?” Gerry repeated.
“You’re… you’re my anchor. One of them,” he frowned, his eyes darting upwards for a second before looking back at Gerry. “My family, I guess. One I chose.”
Gerry didn’t know what to do. He felt his face burning and his stomach churning. How could Jon just say all of that, like it was natural, like it was just something you said as easy as saying the sky was blue?
“Sorry,” Jon flinched. “I didn’t—I know family is a bit of a loaded word for you, and I don’t mean to put all that on you. I just—you’re my safe place, you know? In my—in my mind, or my heart, or however that works. I just, I feel calmer with you here. I… I feel like I fit into myself better?”
Jon reached out and touched Gerry’s face, and it wasn’t until that moment that he realized he was crying. Nothing like Jon’s earlier desperate cries; there were simply tears falling from his face, but his mind felt empty he wasn’t sure where they were coming from.
“I’ll—we’ll—fix this. Fix me. As best as we can. We’re both smart; we can find things for me to try.” Jon smiled and looked toward the notebook on the couch. “I’ll take all the help you give me, and we’ll make it work. But… but you have to take care of yourself too. You have to… you have to promise me you’ll try. With school. Just—just try to give it a chance? Who knows, maybe if Elias sees you having a great time there, he’ll be convinced to let me go?” His smile turned into something a little less sad and more amused.
“Jon,” Gerry said, and found that he couldn’t find any more words. He pulled his friend closer again and held him, far too tightly, trying to press all the feelings in his chest out, trying to make sense of the storm inside him.
He thought he heard Jon say ‘I love you’ into his chest, but the thought hurt so much that he pretended not to hear it. Instead, he promised him everything he had asked for and more. He promised he would give school a chance. He promised he would still see Jon every day, no matter what. He promised he would help him with anything that he needed.
And privately, to himself only, he promised he would never again let Jon face an enemy alone. Because, if Jon said that Gerry was his anchor, his safe place, then Gerry knew that Jon was the same for himself, and he would never survive if Jon got himself killed when he could have done something to stop it.