Among all the changes Jon had gone through since his time with the Distortion, he was a little surprised to find that the most disruptive was not his inability to stay focused or the way his brain would get his senses mixed up and then leave him grasping for words he should know. No, the change that got him the most was how he no longer had an intuitive grasp of time. Even when his mind was as clear as it got he still couldn’t guess how much time passed, and something as simple as figuring out the day of the week took him a few seconds and far too much effort.
When Gerry left after his visit, it felt both far too soon and like he had been with Jon forever. Gerry had called Michael to ask him to pick him up later, and he had—at least, Gerry said he had, because Jon couldn’t figure out how long he stayed. Even as he dragged a chair into Elias’ office and curled up there, one foot stretched out to make contact with Elias’ leg because he needed the grounding that physical touch provided, he tried to convince himself that it had been enough, even though he didn’t know how long they had spent downstairs in the couch, crying and talking and then just trying to relearn what it meant to be each other’s friend.
They had shared lunch with Elias. That had to mean something. He and Elias usually ate lunch around the same time, he knew. Noon. That meant Gerry had stayed past morning. Morning was… early. Before noon. And before the afternoon, which was before darkness and night. All of that, he could reason out. None of it brought with it that instinctual level of understanding of time which he knew he had once had.
“I think I need a pocket watch,” Jon said out loud, but what he really wished for was his old smart phone. He could set up an alarm every hour to help keep track of time, and if he got confused about the day of the week, it would all be there for him to look at.
“You had trouble reading numbers yesterday,” Elias reminded him without pausing his work.
“Numbers are easier than time,” Jon said with a scowl, because fuck The Spiral. Even reading was becoming a complicated endeavor, when sometimes the letters on a page decided to get difficult and started jumbling in front of his eyes. That he could fix by forcing focus and leaning into Beholding—there was no way the patron Fear of too much knowledge was going to allow its avatar to be illiterate. Unfortunately, it didn’t seem to care nearly as much about time; Jon Knew, from the future, that Beholding could be just as careless about time as the Spiral. Maybe that was simply something all Entities shared.
Elias sighed. “I’ll see what I can find for you,” he said, and Jon thought there was more he wasn’t saying, but he already felt like he was on shaky ground with his guardian so he didn’t comment on it.
“I didn’t make another deal,” Jon’s voice was a lot quieter this time.
“You got yourself into a situation that required you to give something up in order to leave,” Elias said, still not looking at him. “Just because you didn’t see the terms up front doesn’t mean you didn’t make another deal with yourself as the bargaining chip.”
Jon ran his words through his mind and tried to make sense of them. The ease that Gerry had brought to his thoughts was already fading, and Jon had to dig his toes hard into Elias’ side to remind himself he wasn’t actually alone.
Elias is not someone I should depend on, he thought. That a not-insignificant part of him already considered Elias an anchor was bad enough without Jon actively seeking comfort from him while thinking (somewhat) clearly. He should get up and go to another room, try to figure out a strategy to keep the Spiral from his thoughts when he was alone. Try to figure out how to undo whatever stupid thoughts and feelings had him associating Elias with safety. The man was trying to end the world, damn it! He was about as safe as a shark promising it wouldn’t eat you as it eyed you hungrily.
Jon didn’t move. He couldn’t have said how long he stayed there, thoughts drifting, sharing space with Elias and not even trying to make him miserable. He knew that just a few weeks ago he would have done his best to be a nuisance if forced to share a room with Elias for this long. But that was the crux of it, wasn’t it? He wasn’t being forced to be here. Not by Elias, anyway.
Jon had changed. He had taken another step in the path away from his humanity, even if he wasn’t quite sure what it was leading towards. An avatar of three Entities? How could that even work, when the Entities were so often at odds with each other?
(The avatars were at odds with each other. The Entities could only fully enter the world when they were joined together.)
Jon shuddered and lost himself in memories of things that had not yet happened for some time. He thought Helen would find his current situation amusing, and the anger that thought sparked was enough to pull himself back to coherent thinking.
Avatars. Entities. Something about… himself, and how he fit into it all. He remembered a word, buried among too much nonsense.
“The Distortion called me something,” Jon said, the thought coming out of his mouth as soon as it had crossed his mind. For the first time that day (was it that day? How long had Gerry stayed? It hadn’t been a whole day, probably. And he hadn’t slept since he left, so it was still that same day, right?), Elias stopped what he was doing and looked over at Jon.
“You already told me. It called you ‘little brother’,” Elias said.
Jon could leave it at that. Should leave it at that. But he was tired, and he was still feeling all that leftover relief that came from making things right with Gerry. There were some things that he could never tell Elias, of course, but this wasn’t end-of-the-world related. This was whatever-the-hell-was-wrong-with-Jon-now related.
He wondered if the Jon of last month would have separated things like that and found, surprisingly, that he didn’t care. He still wanted to stop the world from ending but somewhere between going into the Distortion’s domain and depending on Elias to get him back out, he had stopped worrying as much about keeping everything in his life secret.
Dangerous thoughts. Dangerous feelings.
Intuition, came the garbled thought, in the voice of one Jon should never listen to.
He had been quiet too long. Elias had turned to face him and had one hand pressed to the side of Jon’s face, thumb resting just below his Marked eye. Jon blinked, and tried to remember if colors were something that one saw or smelled, because Elias really smelled of old faded green, and he thought that might be a bad sign.
Right, wrong patron, he thought, before Elias could say it. (Or maybe Elias did say it?) The pounding in his head that had become his constant companion since he had returned rose a few notches, and the out-of-place smell faded.
“What did that creature call you, Jon?” Elias asked.
“He called me little brother. He called me one of theirs. He called me Harbinger.” The answer came without thought, but the words felt right, even when they made him want to curl up forget he existed. “Little Harbinger, he said, but he lies.” He didn’t know when he had grabbed Elias’s arm, but he was holding on to it hard enough to leave bruises. “They lie. I’m not—it was a lie, wasn’t it?”
“It deceives,” Elias said, and Jon was too far into his own mind to interpret what his expression looked like, but it might have been a smile, or a scowl. “But it doesn’t always lie. Harbinger.” He said the world like he was trying it out, savoring it. “It fits. And it doesn’t.” He hummed thoughtfully.
“Elias?” Jon’s voice shook. Elias focused back on him. “I don’t want to Become,” he whispered, the same words he had written in Gerry’s notebook. Elias touched Jon’s head and ran his fingers through his hair, brushing it back from his face.
“I think, Jon, that it’s a bit late for that,” he said, and for once he didn’t sound smug. “But we can still make sure you are not lost in the role, or lose the role to another god.” He added.
Jon felt himself tear up again and tried to stop. Hadn’t he cried enough already? It was no surprise that Elias wanted Jon to explore what he was Becoming, or to try to bind himself more to Beholding in that role. Elias had never bothered to pretend otherwise.
“And if I was?” Jon couldn’t help asking. “If I got lost, and the role cut me away from Beholding entirely?”
Elias’s face went blank for a moment before his smile returned, looking fake fake fake.
“Let’s make sure that doesn’t happen, alright?” But all Jon heard was a gunshot, and the sound of Elias’ voice as he said pity and killed a woman he had known and worked with for decades because she had become an obstacle in his path.
How hard would it be for him to get rid of a child he had known for less than a year, if he was no longer an ally or of interest to him?
The Institute felt different. It wasn’t something Jon was able to explain, even to himself. The closest he got, after an hour of frustrating attempts with Gerry and his notebook, was that Jon felt more aware of it, like an itch inside his skull he couldn’t scratch. Or maybe it was more accurate to say it felt more aware of him. A lot of the time, both ideas seemed freely interchangeable, and Jon struggled to remember why the two were different.
Gerry thought this might be because of Jon’s closer connection to the Spiral – seeing as the Institute was a temple to the Eye, he reasoned, those aligned with other Dread Powers might feel different when they were inside of it (Jon wondered if the Eye could get jealous of one of its possible avatars being lured by another fear. That was thinking of it too much like a person, wasn’t it?) Jon wasn’t too bothered by not knowing – another novelty right there – because the change didn’t feel like something bad. In much the same way that Elias’ constant violation of his privacy could often calm him down, the way he now felt around the Institute felt almost like coming home.
“That can’t be good,” Gerry muttered after Jon told him this. The two of them were sitting on the couch, with Jon leaning so hard on Gerry the was practically sitting on his lap. He ignored the small voice in his head that sounded like a stuffy old Archivist insisting that he was an adult and Gerry a child and he should neither lean on him as much as he was, but he should keep his distance as well. Whatever Jon was now, he didn’t feel like a child or an adult; sometimes, he felt barely human, though far more vulnerable than he would have been had he simply embraced becoming an avatar.
As complicated as so much of his life had become because of his trip into the Distortion’s door, some things had become far simpler. He needed help. He needed Gerry, and he needed Elias. Without them, he couldn’t function.
At least not in a way where he could do any good.
(Like anything he did ever made a positive difference.)
“Jon?” Gerry shook him again. His arm was around Jon’s shoulders, though Jon couldn’t remember when they got there.
Right. This is my new standard of ‘functional’, Jon thought acerbically.
“Sorry,” he mumbled.
“No need to apologize,” Gerry said, not for the first time. “It’s only been a few days since… since the change. I think you’re doing amazing, considering.”
Tears gathered in Jon’s eyes, and he blinked rapidly to get rid of them. For someone who was as socially awkward as Jon himself most of the time, Gerry could sometimes say the exact thing that cut to Jon’s heart.
“You got a lot of examples to compare it to?” he tried to joke, but it came out as bitter as the angry voice in his own head when he stopped being confused long enough to think about what he had done to himself.
Gerry squeezed his shoulders harder. “I think you’re amazing,” he said, earnestly.
Some indeterminate amount of time later, Jon stopped crying and pulled away from Gerry.
“Right,” he said, his voice wobbly from the crying. He wiped his face on his sleeve. His eyes burned. His head hurt.
His thoughts were clearer than they had been in days.
“Right,” he repeated, and if his mouth tasted like lies and regrets, he was at least able to ignore it. “We need—I need strategies. Ways to—figure out when—what makes it better. Why—” he cut himself off again. He was thinking better, but the words were tumbling from his lips like nonsense.
“We need to try and see what makes you better and worse?” Gerry suggested. Jon smiled, relieved. Even after their stupid, extended argument about school, Gerry was very capable of understanding Jon better than most. Almost as well as Martin had, once.
“I see you, Jon,” the words were a whisper in his ear, a breath against his skin, the hint of a smell like wet wool and warm tea. Jon was on his feet in a second, heart pounding, looking around wildly.
“Jon?” Gerry was on his feet, one hand inside a pocket in his coat, his posture alert and searching. “What is it?”
“I—” Jon swallowed, and shook his head. “You didn’t… you didn’t hear M—something?” he asked, and he hated the pleading tone his voice took.
Gerry looked around the room another time before carefully taking his hand out of his pocket and shaking his head. “I didn’t hear anything,” he said. “What was it?”
“Nothing important,” Jon muttered, suddenly tired. Auditory hallucinations now? That was a new problem. A very unpleasant one. For just a moment, Jon had thought—maybe—if he had been sent back, would it be so impossible for another, for—
Don’t go there. He hugged himself, nails digging through the long sleeves into his skin below until he could feel the pain. He had already done his best not to think of him before his mind got messed up. It was just another thing he was going to have to learn to do better.
“Thinking of some people makes me worse,” Jon said, sitting back down and trying to smile for Gerry. He was fine. He would be fine. He needed Gerry’s help, but he didn’t want him drowning in Jon’s problems. They would figure it out. He had to believe that.
“…Right,” Gerry said after a moment, then sat down and picked up his notebook, which had fallen to the floor when they had both shot to their feet. He turned to a new page, wrote ‘bad’ on top of it, then added ‘thinking about’ before looking to Jon for how to finish the line.
“Family,” Jon said, and felt guilty at the omission. He had decided to trust Gerry and work with him, but there were still secrets he couldn’t risk Elias knowing. He wasn’t sure if simply thinking about Martin had been the trigger to hearing that—he had thought of Martin before, and while it had been painful, he hadn’t hallucinated anything at the time. At least, nothing he had noticed.
As he watched Gerry fill in the word, he felt dread pool in his stomach. He knew that his new condition wouldn’t be easy to manage, but only now was he starting to get an idea for how complicated it would be. He barely understood the workings of his own mind at the best of times. Now? With the influence of a god of madness to twist his senses and prey on his doubts?
“D-doubts,” Jon said, loudly, trying to ignore what felt like static rising in his thoughts. He leaned into Gerry and breathed. He wasn’t alone. They could do this. They would do this. He pushed hard on the door in his mind, and the static faded, though the headache worsened. “When I stop and I doubt what’s around me, it makes it worse.”
Gerry wrote it all down. That would be the first step: identifying as many of Jon’s triggers as they could, as well as the things that made Jon better.
After came the real work: figuring out how to use it all.
The process was frustrating. It was never as simple as ‘being quiet too long makes it harder to think’. Sometimes being too quiet sent Jon’s brain into that blank, thoughtless place—sometimes he needed complete silence to force his thoughts into order. Thinking too little made it easy to get distracted, but thinking too much sent his mind into tangents he could lose himself in. Talking things out helped—until it didn’t and words stopped making sense in how they were strung together.
Being around Gerry and, to a lesser extent, Elias, mostly helped. Except when Jon got caught in a paranoid thought pattern, in which case being around anyone made him too nervous to speak at all.
Emotional outpouring and honesty seemed to almost always help, for some reason. Whenever he got tired or emotional enough to simply bawl his eyes out, or else to pour out his emotions onto Gerry or Elias, he would feel a strange, hollowed-out kind of clarity for some time after. Gerry thought it made sense; he admitted, one afternoon as they sat on the floor together in their office, surrounded by loose paper where they both wrote as many ideas as they could think of, that the therapist “Michael keeps sending me to for some reason” had told him that sometimes the only way to get better was to go through and feel the emotions, even the bad ones. Elias thought it was another way for Jon to lean into Beholding; he was, in a way, giving his own tiny statements about the way he felt. Jon thought he liked Gerry’s interpretation better, though privately he didn’t think either of them felt quite right.
Jon found, to his consternation and Elias’ endless amusement, that following a strict schedule helped. Elias got him a large digital alarm clock, which Jon made sure was always in his field of view, programmed to beep every hour and prompt Jon onto his next activity, following a newly printed schedule now taped to the alarm clock and to every wall in their office, as well as in Jon’s bedroom and the living room in their house. Any of Jon’s hopes that that the repetitive beeping would at least get under Elias’s skin were dashed by the smug way he looked whenever Jon would get up and followed that damned schedule whenever the alarm sounded.
At least Jon’s dreams returned to their regular nightmares. Whatever the Web and the Spiral had wanted from him, they had clearly gotten, since Jon hadn’t had any particularly meaningful dreams since he returned from the Distortion’s corridors. Nor did he see the door any longer, though he had an uncomfortable feeling that it was just a thought away, should he desire it.
Overall, it was a busy time for Jon. Which made it so much worse when Gerry reminded him one afternoon that he was starting school in a week.
Gerry hadn’t meant to spring it on Jon as a surprise. He had been working, day and night, to help Jon as much as he could while they were still able to spend their days together, but he should have known that Jon didn’t keep up with dates anymore (he always looked surprised to realize it was Friday, even when Gerry made a point to tell him the weekday every morning). If he was being honest, he probably hadn’t wanted to bring it up; Jon had enough problems without constantly worrying about a deadline he could do nothing about.
Not that Gerry hadn’t considered lying about it. Maybe, if he explained to Michael that Jon wasn’t doing very well, he might allow Gerry to skip school for a few more weeks, just until Jon was a little better? The idea died before he could ever really consider it, though. Not only would it mean having to explain to Michael what was wrong with Jon, which would probably prompt him to try to pressure Jon or Elias into getting Jon therapy, but it would also mean breaking his promise to Jon about giving school a chance, and Gerry had no intention of breaking any of his promises.
So when September got close, a week before his first day of school, Gerry forced himself to bring it up. They had made a lot of progress, but a lot of it depended on Gerry being around helping Jon to keep to the structure and coping strategies they were testing. They would need to start finding ways for Jon to deal with it on his own, at least until Gerry could get back to him after school.
The way Jon looked at him made him wish he had convinced Jon and Michael both to forget the stupid school idea. No one should ever look that lost, Jon especially.
“Oh, that’s… ok. Ok. I can—I mean, how do you—why did—” he trailed off, flustered. Gerry pulled him close and gave him a hard hug. Those usually helped him slow down. He could feel Jon tremble in his arms, tense, for a few long minutes before he finally relaxed, all together, like a puppet with its strings cut. His breathing deepened, and Gerry was careful to loosen the hug so that Jon could choose if he wanted to pull away or stay close.
“I’ll be fine,” Jon mumbled into his chest. “We. We’ll be fine.”
“Alright, Jon,” Gerry said, not quite believing it, but not cruel enough to disagree.
“I will,” Jon said, a little stronger, pulling away just enough to look Gerry in the eye. His eye-patch was a little lopsided after the hug, but the look in his eye was present. “This is good.”
“Good?” Gerry couldn’t keep the skepticism from his tone. “Jon, I should be here, I should—”
“You should get some time to yourself that’s not taking care of me,” Jon interrupted. “You’re my friend, not my dad.” Gerry looked away, a strange weight on his chest. Jon was his responsibility. He was the reason for all of the good things in his life. Gerry could take care of Jon.
Jon sighed, but didn’t push. Gerry was glad. He had promised to give school a chance, but he didn’t like arguing with Jon about it. He supposed it might be a good place to nap, seeing as he had been staying up for hours trying to do research about Jon’s condition.
Their experiments that day, and on the following days, were not great. The best thing that could be said about them was that they were not complete failures. One thing that consistently helped Jon was being close to Gerry, which was clearly not something they could depend on while he was at school. Gerry suggested that Jon write a diary as a way of keeping what happened during the day straight, but the results after half a day of trying were a lot of bad doodles of eyes and thick black lines, as well as isolated words and letters that even Jon couldn’t decipher a few minutes after he wrote them.
“I used to take really good notes,” he lamented, looking down at a page filled with repetitions of the sentence, ‘I am writing’. “I can’t even remember writing this.”
“Which is why you wrote it so many times, I imagine,” Gerry said, smiling. It was a little funny, when you forced yourself to ignore the tragedy of the smartest kid Gerry had ever known unable to put his thoughts down on paper. “Have you ever written a diary before?” Because only Jon would think part of writing down how his day was going would include writing in the diary about writing in a diary.
While Jon was distracted with another attempt, Gerry went down to the Archives to see if he could find another pile of Spiral-related statements. He had started doing so about twice a week since Jon returned, always avoiding Michael and sharing conspiratorial smiles with Emma. He wasn’t sure why she was helping him, but he appreciated it. It was awful to think of Jon being tied into a Power that fed on the suffering he read about, but he was already getting a better intuition for how the Spiral functioned, and in doing so he was getting better at preventing Jon from slipping further into it.
He knew that Michael wasn’t at the Institute that day, since Michael had told him he would be spending the day looking through old paperwork in a pawn shop for evidence about ‘an evil lamp,’ so he wasn’t trying to be stealthy when he walked into the Archives. Instead of finding Emma, however, the person he nearly ran into when he got off the stairs was a stern Archivist, carrying a bulging bookbag under one arm and an antique, rusted fencing sword in the other.
“Boy,” she snapped, as he quickly flattened himself against the wall so he wouldn’t block her path. He might not share Jon’s animosity towards Gertrude Robinson, but that didn’t mean he was stupid enough to get in her way.
As she was passing him, she paused, looking him up and down. “You’re making a target of yourself,” she said, though she didn’t sound particularly surprised or worried. Gerry flinched, one hand going to his pocket, where he had taken to carrying around a fail-safe of his own, in case any other monsters decided to go for Jon while he was around. His mother might have made him miserable, but she had left him a couple of good tools he wasn’t about to ignore from finding them distasteful.
“I can handle it,” he said, meeting her gaze. She looked back at him for another second, then nodded. She started to leave, then paused to give him a longer, searching look.
“Don’t trust Elias,” she said, and was gone before Gerry could think of a reply.
Gerry stared after her, thoughts whirling. In the end, he continued going deeper into the Archives. He wasn’t stupid. He didn’t trust anybody.
(Except he wanted to. He really, really wanted to. But he knew what it took to survive.)
Jon, he could almost trust, if not for his self-destructive streak. Elias? Gerry was pretty sure he could trust Elias to want to keep Jon safe, but he didn’t have any illusions about how far that protection stretched to Gerry himself. He didn’t think Elias was actively against him; it was more that he wouldn’t really try to help Gerry if he got himself in trouble. He was, after all, aligned with Beholding.
He convinced Michael to allow him to stay late with Jon every day that last week before school, leaving only once Jon himself did. They made lists of plans and ideas and put them all over the room where Jon couldn’t miss them. Jon promised to do nothing unusual on his own until he could talk to Gerry, with the exception being if he was in immediate danger. Jon promised, worried, to go directly to Elias if there were any problems.
“He won’t let something bad happen to you,” Gerry told him, hoping to make him feel better about whatever was bothering him.
“He won’t care if I do something bad to someone,” Jon said, still frowning. “He…” Jon shook his head. “He’s still my best choice. I know.”
The week passed. Gerry spent an anxious weekend on the phone with Jon as much as Michael would allow. They went over the new schedule again and again. Gerry wouldn’t have time to stop by the Institute before school, but he would be there in the afternoons for a couple of hours afterward. Gerry memorized the bus routes that would take him from school to the Institute fastest, and wished he were old enough to ride a motorcycle so he could just skip the bus altogether (he could probably go into his mum’s bookshop, take a few of her books and sell them to a few contacts whose numbers he still had memorized; he had considered many ways to get quick money in a pinch, though Michael insisted they were fine with money and that he didn’t need to worry about it).
On Monday, school started. And once again, Gerry’s life changed.
Jon had never had much of a problem being on his own, in his old life. While he couldn’t say he was never lonely, he genuinely preferred solitude most of the time with the option to be around others whenever he felt the need. He had never truly felt the bite of isolation until he returned from the dead to an Institute filled with missed chances and broken connections and much shame and regret. If asked, he would have said it was simply a part of his personality, that even as a child he had never needed or wanted to be around people very much.
Jon now wondered if that was true. His current circumstances were different than they had been his first time around, of course, but he had clung to Gerry even before the Spiral went and twisted his thoughts into knots. Then again, he supposed, he was technically a traumatized nine-year old child with the memories of a grown man who had caused the end of the world. That alone might have changed his preferences for being alone in his own company, especially when his thoughts drifted so easily to the horrors he had lived and Seen.
He had never before craved Elias’s presence, though. He couldn’t even use the excuse that he was too confused to remember who—what—Elias was. Even in the times when he was so lost to the Spiral that he wouldn’t have been able to truthfully say which way was up, he still understood who Elias was. Danger. Pain. Manipulation.
If any of the others could see him now…
There were indistinct whispers in his ear: the click of a tape, the familiar whirring of an old statement read by familiar voices. Jon forced himself to ignore them, even as the sounds got louder. He could almost make out words, one speaking in Tim’s angry tone, another in Sasha’s—the real Sasha’s—voice. He dropped the notebook he had been holding and took a deep breath. It was in his head. He knew it was in his head. He couldn’t actually smell explosives or feel the icy tendrils of paranoia spreading out from his brain. There wasn’t actually a large bloodstain in the middle of his desk, spreading across his papers.
“E-Elias?” He called out, leaning away from the desk space that Elias had cleared for him to work on inside his office.
“It’s not real,” Elias said, not even turning to look. Jon looked at him, then back to the desk. His hearing cleared of the distorted memories, but his desk now looked like something out of a horror movie.
“It’s not real,” Jon repeated, but nothing in front of him changed. He sighed, and sat back with his arms crossed, unwilling to test how far the illusion went. He continued to stare as drops of red ran over the side of the table and fell to the ground, and the overwhelming smell of dark red suspicion made him feel ill. “I’m going to take a walk,” he announced, standing up.
“Don’t go out of the building,” Elias reminded him, sparing him only a quick glance, though Jon knew it was only for show since he could feel the Eye’s attention on him sharpen. Jon passed by him on his way out of his office, but he paused at the doorway. There had been a time when Elias would not have let him wander away on his own like this. There had been a time when Elias had resorted to chaining him to his desk to keep him from leaving this room.
He almost asked him what had changed, even though he already knew the answer. A part of him – desperate and clingy, the part Jon identified with his own youth and fear of, well, abandonment—wanted to hear Elias say it. I can trust you with this because I know you will return to me. Or maybe, I don’t have to worry you will leave any longer because I know you made the choice to stay. They… weren’t exactly true. They weren’t exactly lies, either. Jon had a feeling that the Distortion would be very happy to hear Jon muse on the subject.
The truth was, Jon needed Elias, far more than Elias needed Jon (at least, as far as Elias knew). Jon couldn’t think of a single circumstance, no matter how unlikely, which would lead to him running away. A part of him needed Elias to acknowledge that. It wasn’t something he could explain, least of all to himself.
Another part of him – the remnant of the wounded, untrusting survivor he still remembered being – desperately hoped that Elias hadn’t noticed that gaping vulnerability. That he hadn’t noticed how, ever since Gerry had started going to school, Jon would spend most of his time near Elias, even when he couldn’t think of a good excuse for it. It longed for the old antagonistic relationship Jon had forged with the man who had – would – would not – end the world.
A third, quieter part of him was simply tired. Tired of watching every word out of his mouth. Tired of fighting Elias over every detail. Tired of keeping secrets and binding the fate of the world to his incapable hands.
“Jon,” Elias said, and Jon started. However long he had paused on the doorway, it had been enough for Elias to stop what he was doing and look at him. “Are you with me?”
“Yeah,” Jon replied, lifting one hand to rub at his blocked eye until it hurt. He leaned hard against the door to Beholding, allowing his connection to it and the pain itself to bring clarity to his mind. “Yeah, sorry.” He didn’t ask Elias anything. His natural – unnatural?—curiosity didn’t win out over his fear of what the answer might be. He left, still rubbing at one eye, and decided he needed to splash some water on his face before he started crying again.
The water felt like a deep breath on a dark winter morning. He was too short to use the sink in the restroom easily, but months before Rosie had made sure to leave a small stool on the side for his use, which helped him not only reach the faucet, but also see a little bit of his reflection on the mirror.
He didn’t look like himself. Jon couldn’t make himself look for very long, but this wasn’t a new, Spiral-touched problem. He had trouble getting an accurate mental image of himself. At first, he had expected to see an older man, with hair going gray and a collection of scars both on his skin and behind his eyes. As time passed he lost track of that image, but still the youthful face that stared back from every mirror still never felt like his own.
Or maybe I’ve been Spiral-touched longer than I realize, he thought, biting his lip and avoiding his own face in the mirror. If that was true, did that mean he was acting in Web-related ways too, without realizing it?
Overall, he didn’t feel much better by the time he started heading back to Elias’ office. His thoughts were a tangle of memories, which he was trying to sort for a reason he had already forgotten. That’s why we write things down, a voice that was remarkably like Gerry’s said in his head, with a sad smile.
Why did Jon have to go and make things worse for everybody, no matter what he tried?
“Jon!” He gave a startled yelp as an unfamiliar hand caught his shoulder. He had grown accustomed to both Gerry and Elias constantly calling his name to get his attention, but he didn’t have much contact with anyone other than them. The hand was quickly removed, but it took Jon almost a second to recognize that the man who had stopped him was not a stranger, but Michael.
Jon’s vision swam, as he could have sworn that, just for a moment, Michael’s hands were far too long, his hair curling impossibly. Phantom traces of fingertips sharp as knives traced across his skin, and he gave a full-body shudder.
Panic nearly gripped him. Had he failed? Had Michael been taken by the Distortion already? Wouldn’t he have noticed? Wasn’t it far too soon?
“Jon?” Michael spoke again, voice free of impossible laughter and bloodied amusement. Jon closed his eyes and forced himself to press on Beholding’s door. When he opened them again, Michael looked ordinary; tired and worried, but perfectly, wonderfully human.
“Hi Michael,” Jon knew that Gerry had told Michael that Jon was ‘going through something’ as an explanation for what they had been up to lately, but he didn’t know what Michael had made of it. Jon didn’t want to cause problems for Gerry by behaving like – well, like he had been ever since he returned from the Distortion.
Only—only, making Michael suspicious, making him find out about the Fears instead of being kept ignorant, wasn’t that something that Jon had wanted? To do so in a way that wouldn’t be suspicious to Elias? Acting in his present, compromised way wouldn’t alert Elias that Jon was trying anything, and it just might set Michael off on the right path.
Or it might set him off into a path that would leave him dead, since he wouldn’t know what he was getting involved with.
“You alright?” Michael asked, hands hovering close to Jon as though ready to catch him if he were to fall. Jon hadn’t noticed him getting closer, and he would have bet that he also lost some of what he had said.
“I’m—I’m as good as I can be,” Jon said. A part of him wanted to dive into his hastily constructed plan. All he would need to do was to pretend to be a little worse off than he was; maybe trip and lose the eye patch and allow Michael a peek at his glowing eye. It was the kind of impulsivity that generally got him in trouble.
It was the kind of impulsivity that usually got someone killed.
If something happened to Michael now, Gerry would be alone. That was the thought that got him to stop. He couldn’t be of help to Gerry with the way he was now, and Gerry was stubborn enough that Jon doubted he would let anyone else get close to him if Michael were to get hurt or worse.
The idea might still be good, but for Gerry’s sake, Jon was going to sit on it and think about proper consequences (somehow) before he acted on any ideas involving Michael.
“Listen, I just wanted to tell you thanks,” Michael said, and he was looking uncharacteristically awkward, barely meeting Jon’s eye. “I just—I know it’s been hard on you, and I wish you were able to go to school with Gerry,” he must have seen something on Jon’s expression, since he quickly added, “not that Elias doesn’t have a good reason to keep you here! I know I don’t have all the information, and I know he’s doing what he believes is best for you.”
He crossed his arms, then, looking thoughtful. “It’s just—I hope I’m not making you uncomfortable, Jon, but I can’t help thinking that you must be lonely, spending all day here in a building with just busy adults. Even when Gerry was around…” he shook his head. “Like I said, Elias knows what he’s doing. I just worry.”
“Why?” Jon asked, mind too full of everything Michael was saying, both understanding it and not.
“Why do I worry?” Michael asked. “Even if you weren’t my kid’s best friend, I still like you, Jon!”
Jon felt himself blush and wished he could make it stop. Damn, he really didn’t know what to do with easy, open affection like that, did he?
“No- I mean, why did you want to thank me?” he asked.
“Oh!” Michael smiled. “I know that you talked to Gerry about school. I don’t know what you told him, but he seems a lot less worried about going than he used to. I think he’s starting to like it there. At least, I think he’s making friends.”
Jon forced himself to smile, though he thought it might look like a grimace. That was… good, right? He wanted Gerry to have more friends. He wanted Gerry to be around others he didn’t have to worry about or care for, who weren’t such a burden.
He and Gerry were best friends. They were as good as family. He tried to ignore the thought of how little family had meant in his own life, with his grandmother and how she had given him away. Gerry wasn’t like that. Even if it would be better for him to abandon Jon, he wouldn’t.
Michael’s hand landed on his shoulder, and Jon jolted back into the present.
“You’ll make it, too, Jon. I’m sure of it. I can try talking to Elias—”
Jon couldn’t help the laughter that burst from him then, even though it felt like sawdust in his lungs. “He wouldn’t listen to anything you said,” he said, brutally honest. He wanted to scream at him, to kick him and pull at his hair and get him to leave or to stay and listen and he couldn’t even care that they were contradictory. Rationally, he knew it wasn’t Michael’s fault. It wasn’t Michael’s fault that Jon was too careless and got caught in Elias’ grip, and too pathetic to avoid digging himself ever deeper into this nightmare of a life he was building for himself.
But Michael thought Jon was jealous that Gerry was going to school and he wasn’t? How absurd was that? Jon wasn’t lonely—he knew what lonely looked like. He was—he was—
“I’m fine!” Jon yelled, and tore himself free from Michael’s grip. He didn’t need Michael’s help or support. Michael was the one who needed his help! He rushed out of the hallway at a run, thoughts tumbling into one another. There was something he needed not to say to Michael, but he couldn’t remember what it was, so he had to just not talk to him. He was angry at Michael, because he was an adult, and he had worked for Gertrude and the Eye for years, and now he was depending on a broken little boy—monster?—to fix things, and that little monster boy was not lonely, because that was another Fear altogether, and he could barely function with the two fears that had already claimed him, so he had to be fine, didn’t he?
(Except there was a lot less space in between the Fears than those who followed Smirke’s descriptions liked to believe, wasn’t there? And if the Spiral led you to doubt your reality, was there anything quite as isolating as not being able to trust yourself or those around you?)
He found Elias back in his office, on his feet. He crashed into him, and where once it might have been to try to kick him or cause him pain, all Jon did was squeeze him around the middle as hard as he could while his tears escaped, and the words that were coming out of Elias’ mouth became a comforting hum in the back of his mind.