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Too Much Time

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Jon sat by himself in the end of the world, and tried to think of nothing.

It had been a lot easier to pretend that he wasn’t aware of something he knew to be true before his mind had become wired directly to the god of secrets and knowledge. He thought with melancholy of his early days at the Archive, when he clung to the veneer of a skeptic, even as it became increasingly stupid to pretend that the statements he read were not real. Now, the best he could manage was to avoid certain thoughts, for denying anything that came from Knowing was as antithetical to what he was as letting go of the guilt he felt about ending the world.

It hadn’t been that bad, once. (It had always been bad).

He hadn’t always been alone. (Don’t think of him, he never existed.)

At least he wasn’t hungry. (A lie. The being which had merged itself with him didn’t know how to be nothungry, and even when he lost all sense of himself and drowned in the fear of thousands, he still emerged with that ragged edge of more and want and that door in his mind was wide open and he could be everywhere and everyone and feel just about anything and-)

It had gotten worse. He hadn’t thought it possible, but it was the truth. It had been… months? Years? Time had lost much of its meaning, and yet the Eye still tried to let him Know, as best as it could, just how long it had been since time had last meant anything. It would have given him a better estimate, except that he had stupidly gotten lost in one of Helen’s doors, after she offered to help them take down Elias.

Neither him nor the Eye could say how long he had been there, because in the context of a world in which all the entities were merged with reality, there was literally no way for time to make sense in the Spiral’s domain, even when Jon and the Eye tried desperately to make it so. The best they could do was to get him thrown out of there, eventually.

He had never seen Basira again. (But he Know where she was.)

He had seen Martin again, but never for long. (He missed him more than he could bear.)

He’d tried to kill Helen, to little effect. All she had to do was stay away, and there was nothing he could do to compel her when she couldn’t hear his voice. He tried to understand why she had betrayed them, but as ever, understanding the Spiral was an exercise in futility, even for him. Especially for him.

He’d tried to save them. (A joke. He had never been a hero. He was even less of one now.)

He’d failed. Every time. His ill-conceived rescues only made everything worse. (He was so tired of trying.)

It turned out that Knowing where they were, and how they were suffering, didn’t mean he had any means to get to them or, worse, to keep them safe.

Because in the world he had brought forth, safety had as little meaning as time.

He lost himself, then, for a while. It was easier to let go of the threads of his self when he started to drown in self-hatred and loneliness. Once, there had been someone to hold him, to make it worth the effort to return. Anymore, Jon had a hard time convincing himself there was any point to fighting all that the Eye was more than happy to stuff into his brain.

He was walking, and he couldn’t remember when he had started, or where he was going. He couldn’t remember if he was asleep and dreaming—except he knew he didn’t sleep anymore, so that couldn’t be the case. He continued walking, trying to figure out if it was himself who was walking, or if something else was moving him. The fear that made his limbs go cold was all in the flavor of the Web, and with the memory of a certain Mr.Spider and his door.

He stopped moving, and only then realized it really had been his own decision, though the fear of being moved still clung to him. How unfair, he thought idly, a familiar thought, that I made this whole travesty of a world possible, and I am still not immune to the fears I heralded.

More than that, however, his thoughts had gotten stuck elsewhere. Despite everything, or more likely because of it, he hadn’t really thought about his childhood encounter with the Web in a long time. Not since before the world ended, really. There had been so many other things to worry about and obsess over than a single Leitner book which could only take a single victim at a time.

He wondered if the world wouldn’t have been better off had he just gone in that door. Would it have hurt all that much? It would have been terrifying, of course—there was no point to it otherwise. But really, in the grand scheme of things, getting eaten by a giant spider over the course of, what, a few hours at worse, didn’t seem all that bad.

The thought stayed, and over the next few stretches of lucidity wouldn’t leave Jon for more than a few minutes at a time. The Eye, helpfully, let him Know that it still existed, in a broken-down little bookshop in London. Jon tried to ignore it, but in truth he had little else to distract himself with. Maybe he could go get it and burn it, for an insignificant amount of satisfaction?

It wasn’t like he was had anything better to do. (Nothing that would make things better. Nothing would ever be better, and knowing himself he’d only find a way to make things worse.)

As he made his way towards that abandoned book shop and the little book that had first set him on his cursed path, he began to have an idea. It was a terrible idea. It was an idea that Jon, in his right mind, would never have entertained.

Jon hadn’t been in his right mind for a very long time.

The crux of the matter was that Jon really, really didn’t want to keep going. Alone, forever, watched and watching, with only different flavors of fear to break the monotony of terror that had become the world.

A part of him was disgusted that he was thinking of giving up. (His friends, he Knew, were still alive, if out of his reach. Could anyone really die anymore, if the entities who played with them did not wish for them to?)

Another part of him felt it was futile, that there was no way Beholding would ever release its Archive now that it had what it wanted. (Only the Eye never interfered with anything he did, except to watch).

The largest part of him started to feel a sickly hope. The trick of it was the never-ending competition between the entities. Even now, with them all an integral part of reality, their avatars still plotted and fought against each other, and all of them against the Eye, which by the nature of Elias’ ritual had come to exist above them all. It meant, ironically, that in this world, it was the avatars who were in real danger of death, or whatever permanent end could be reached in this reality.

Jon had thought about this before. The other avatars had little affection for him, but they preferred to toy with him rather than risk his death. None of them were willing to risk having something go wrong because of his death, seeing as the ritual had been summoned by him. They would throw him into endless mazes, trick him into houses filled with people who looked like friends but were decidedly not human, burn down buildings where he tried to hide the couple of times he had reached someone he knew and tried to help them. Hunted, always, but never with the intent to kill.

With a Leitner book, though… there was no real will behind those, was there? Nothing beyond what it was created to do. If Jon didn’t fight it, was it possible that it could kill him? Out of all the other entities, the Web was the one that had marked Jon the earliest, the one he suspected had a far deeper hand in what he had become than he was aware of. Not that even the Eye could tell him the depth of its involvement.

He stood in front of the half-collapsed building for what felt like hours, too scared to commit and go in or to change his mind and leave. Contradictory thoughts refused to leave him alone; he was the only hope his friends had—which amounted to nothing since hope was false and nothing he could do would work. He might be able to find a way to reverse the ritual, as Martin had tried—only Martin was the only one who had ever believed it could work, and look where it landed him.

(He had to spend another length of time on his knees, throwing up and crying, at everything he Knew Martin to be living through now, so far away he might as well be on another planet.)

For all Jon knew, all those other avatars had a point, and his death was the thing that would finally undo this nightmare. It felt… poetic. There was no flash of Knowing that let him know if his thoughts were true or not, but he figured there wouldn’t be. How could the Eye know what would happen, when nothing like this had ever happened before?

And if it didn’t work, well, it wouldn’t leave him all that worse off, would it?

(His imagination, now ripe with the terrors of thousands, supplied many scenarios which would, truly, be much worse. He chose to ignore them.)

When he stood back up, he was almost sick with the desire to see it all end. He was too weak to do any good, he knew. He would have to hope that his death did what he alive couldn’t, and that someone else would figure it out if it didn’t.

He just wanted it all to stop.

And if he couldn’t save his friends, save… save his love, then he would rather not be alive in a world where he couldn’t escape from his mistakes.

He knew that made him a coward, on top of everything else. He couldn’t bring himself to care.

He found the book easily, picked it out of a bookshelf that hadn’t been buried in rubble when the rest of the building had fallen. He flinched when he first touched it, as the feeling of a thousand little legs crawling up his spine warned him of its nature. As if he didn’t already know.

It looked familiar, but not exactly how he remembered it. It had grown in his memory into something ominous and terrifying, but holding it in his hand now, it looked like any other children’s book. Well, any other children’s book where the eyes drawn all over the spider cartoon on the back stared back at him, intent.

Maybe its my standard for ominous and terrifying that has become unreasonable, he thought, half-smirking. He felt calmer now than he had standing outside, and a little more pessimistic. He had survived so much already, become the Archive of fear that Elias had named him. It seemed silly, with the children’s book in his hands, to believe that it could end him where so many other things could not.

He turned the book over in his hands, pressing one finger down against the web design on its cover, tracing the letters of its title. Silly or not, he knew he was going to do it. For the first time in what felt like forever, he felt a measure of peace. Here, he had made a decision. He wasn’t wandering aimlessly, waiting for the next time he succumbed to the monstrous nature he had adopted.

He always felt better when he had a goal in mind, even if that goal was to get eaten by a giant spider.

The story was exactly as Jon had remembered it. Static rose and a tape recorder clicked on, as his mouth opened without any intention on his part, and he began to read out loud. His hands were steady as he turned the pages, and he didn’t try to fight any of it.

“Knock Knock,” he started, his voice shifting. “Who is it, Mr. Spider?”

Jon can almost see himself in the face of the anxious fly on the next page. “It’s Mr.Bluebottle, and he’s brought you a cake. Mr. Spider Doesn’t like it.”

Jon can’t help his eyes from hovering over the stains below the door in the book, a distant part of him wondering if that’s all he’ll be, soon. He feels the faintest brush of fear, familiar, but he’s caught up in the performance, and still riding the wave of sick hope, that this will work, that the Web will decide to take him as a way to hurt the Eye.

“Knock Knock,” he continues, “Who is it, Mr. Spider?” And this time it’s Martin’s face he sees when he looks at the fly’s frightened face. He would have stopped then, if he had been able to. “It’s Mrs. Fruit, and she’s brought you some flowers.” It didn’t mean anything, did it? It couldn’t. Martin was nowhere nearby, and he wasn’t in the grasp of the Web. This was just- it was just the book messing with him. It was just-

“Mr. Spider doesn’t eat flowers.” It was just his own messed up brain, and he was already half-crazy and he would Know if he had just somehow gotten Martin killed, wouldn’t he?

The stains on the spider’s mouth draws his attention now, and his hand shake as he turns the page.

“Knock knock. Who is it, Mr. Spider?” The two flies in this page look like Tim and Sasha, and he almost feels relief. They were long dead, weren’t they? It really was all just in his mind, and didn’t mean anything-

But they had all been pawns of the Web, and sacrificed for its design and Beholding’s ascension.

Jon wants to throw up. He wishes he had never opened the damn book. To think he had believed he could find any kind of comfort in this world. He truly was stupid, and incapable of ever learning his lessons.

“It’s Mr.Horse, and he’s brought you his son.” The words feel raw in his throat. He goes to the next page, the static louder, his mind frantically fighting back, finally. This was stupid. This was a mistake.

The entities have no concept of mercy. Things can only ever get worse.

“Mr.Spider wants more.” He turns the pages, unable to look away. The grey threads in the page extend past its boundaries and go everywhere, including a thick one straight into Jon’s chest, which splinters into a thousand small threads that are tied up all around Jon. Had that always been there?

“Mr.Spider wants another guest for dinner. It is polite to knock.” He finishes the words of the last cutaway panel. His body aches, painfully, as though he’s just finished swimming for his life, and when he looks up, he’s not surprised to see a door on the side of the bookstore that had not been there before. When his bully had read it, he had to follow him for hours before they had come to the door. He supposes the Web doesn’t have to be nearly so patient, now.

His feet move him to the door, and Jon Knows that he is caught. He swallows, tries to open his mouth, tries to use the power that he usually curses, but his mouth stays shut, his words dead in his chest. He can feel every unnatural twitch of his muscles, every forced movement, and though he tries to remember that it had been his idea, he can’t help his instinctive struggle, the growing horror of knowing exactly what was happening, and that there was nothing he could do about it.

His hand lifts, all on its own, and pauses just over the doorway. Savoring his fear. Creating torture from anticipation and doubt. Jon knows it’s a trap, but he still clings to that pause, tries to pull his arm away.

He can feel his god Watching, and curses its uselessness, because of course it wouldn’t interfere, not when it was being fed. His knuckles push forward and tap twice on the door.

The door opens.

Jon’s eyes widen. Thin, black, hairy limbs reach for him, at the same time that a familiar, inhumanly large and pointed hand does. He barely has time to think Helen? Before each grabs him by an arm and pull him inside.

Chapter Text

Something is wrong. Jon knows this immediately, though it’s all he can muster the concentration to think. His brain is broken—or else his body is—or maybe it’s the world? This shouldn’t happen anymore! He is- he is- he-

There is pain, like a burn, only from inside his skin, and he tries to scream, but he can’t remember if he has a mouth. Eyes, eyes, those he knows he has, though he sees nothing- or maybe everything? He is being pulled, in all directions, only directions don’t really exist, and its more like he’s being pulled inside himself, three different ways. Two familiar, one new but not at the same time.

They’re going to tear him to pieces.

Wasn’t that what he wanted?

But it hurts so much.

He pleads with them to stop, though he doesn’t know if he has a mouth, or who they are, or why they are burrowing under his skin and eating him from the inside. He pleads with them to just finish already. He-


and then the pain is over, a memory still caught in his heaving chest.

He's stumbling, pushed, then falling to the ground, landing on his back, face to the sky.

The sky which is the star-dotted black of night, and not the nightmare-colored eye he had grown so used to.

He breathes, and stares, and has no idea what has happened.

For once, he’s ok with not knowing.

Sometime later (and yes, it feels strange to realize that he can’t just lay on the ground forever, because time once again moves as it should), Jon rolled over onto his belly and picked himself up.

Once he was on his feet, there was one detail about his new circumstances that became obvious. He was short. Really, really short. He couldn’t seem to make his body move correctly, and nearly fell face-first to the ground when he over-estimated the length of his stride and tripped on his own feet. After stumbling around in a panic for a few seconds, wondering if he somehow ended up in someone else’s body, he found himself leaning against a dark widow and staring at his own reflection on its surface. The residential street around him was dark, but the light of the gibbous moon overhead was enough to show him the truth.

He wasn’t in someone else’s body. He was inside his own much, much younger body.

He gaped at his reflection, at the child standing in ratty second-hand clothing with his mouth half open, in the middle of a dark, empty street at night.

His earlier resolution crumpled in seconds, and without second thought he dived into the ocean of Knowing he had grown used to. He tried to, in any case.

It felt like someone had driven a jagged spike through his left eye. He fell to the ground, chocking on a scream, hands covering his face. He could barely think. It’s gone. The Eye. His connection to it, his access to all that it Sees and Knows.

He was alone, truly alone, for the first time in years.

He sobbed, once, twice. His hands left his eye and covered his mouth, trying to stop. He should be happy about this. He had wanted it gone for years, wanted nothing more than to be human again. But now he couldn’t stop crying at the thought of its loss. (Was it any surprise? He had rolled over for Beholding long ago.)

It had become a part of him, he realized. Wanted or not, he felt like he had just lost a limb, and grief clawed at his insides as though it was a friend he had lost, and not the attention of a fear-eating abomination.

He reached for it again, instinctively, and beside the new agony that grew behind his eye something else drew his attention. With his motor control over his new body still a mess, it’s all he could do to crawl to the side of the house and huddle against it, trying to get his breathing under control. He closed his eyes and tried again, this time gently, with the softest of pulls for something to Know.

He remembered well when the door in his mind had been kept barely ajar, back when he was growing into his powers, and only small morsels of Knowing had passed through. He had become far more familiar with its state of being wide open in the world after, although never really in control of it. This, now, felt like neither. He could feel the door, the tantalizing brush of Knowledge, just out of reach, but with the door in between him and it firmly closed. It stood, in his mind, solid and real, waiting.

Choose me again and we can be what we were always meant to be, again, he can imagine it saying. He shuddered. He didn’t know if he would ever open that door again, but for now, he was determined to leave it alone. It’s enough to know it’s there, that his connection to his god was not all dead.

(Shouldn’t he want that connection to be gone? What was wrong with him?)

With that matter settled, he could finally focus on others. He shifted against the wall, putting it at his back and staring upwards, unashamedly enjoying the sight of a perfectly natural night sky. His mind felt scattered. He lifted a hand in front of his face, seeing the silhouette of much too small fingers, and a thin child’s arm.

Was this real? It felt like it. He had been caught in fake realities before, when the Spiral or the Stranger messed with his head. It hadn’t felt like this. His head was still throbbing with the remnants of the self-inflicted pain from reaching for something he no longer had access to, and below that there was a bone-deep ache and exhaustion that felt… well… mortal. The wall at his back felt uncomfortably cold, and one of his shoes fit too tightly, and his jumper was itchy where it touched his neck. All regular human aches and annoyances. All minor inconveniences he had slowly grown out of.

He needed to figure out what had happened. How it had happened. Was it permanent? He could think of little more horrifying than thinking he had gained a second chance, only to be pulled back into his nightmare of a future. He pulled his legs in close to his chest and hugged them. He needed to figure out what had happened.

He thought back to the book, and the door, and by pure habit started speaking. “Statement of Jonathan Sims, regarding his monumentally stupid decision to get eaten by a giant spider. Statement given… who the hell knows when. Statement begins.” He stopped, and was as surprised that he was able to stop, as by the realization that there had been no click of a tape recorder, and that nothing was listening to him.

A part of him wanted to keep going, regardless. Taking statements was what he did, after all. But what he did, he reminded himself, was what had led to the world ending. Maybe, if all of this was real, if he was somehow inside the body of his younger self, he should try to take advantage of his second chance by breaking his old habits.

He buried his face in his legs, mouth pressed against his knee to remind himself to stay quiet. He didn’t need to speak to think, did he? That had just been a convenient crutch.

He had never been a very good liar.

Just stop getting distracted and think! He demanded of himself. He had read the book. The door had opened. The Eye had watched as not one, but two manifestations of different entities had reached for him.

Had he imagined Helen there? He didn’t think so, but he’d been pretty disoriented by the book. And he supposed that doors appearing out of nowhere were more her domain than they were the Web’s, though as always, the fears overlapped. Why had she shown up? To mess with him again, to leave him wandering in the Spiral’s mazes for another indeterminate amount of time?

To save him?

He shook his head. Helen was the distortion, more after the world ended than ever before. There was no understanding her-its motivation. Might as well try to figure out why the Web had been so eager to have him. (Because he practically threw himself into its mercy, that’s why!)

Something had gone wrong. Maybe it was Helen forcing itself into the Web’s territory, or else Jon being pulled back by the Eye as two other entities tried to claim him, while he was in all of their domains at once. He remembered the agonizing eternity spent in that limbo, and then another memory rose to the surface.

Hadn’t he followed his bully, that boy whose name he couldn’t remember, to a residential neighbor like this one, at night, on the day he had died?

He looked backwards, then up. The house he leaned against didn’t look familiar, or strange—it wasn’t much different than any of the other houses in the neighborhood. But when he looked closer-

There. Sitting open on top of the house’s front door, was the book, still open on the last page, still calling out its invitation. Something inside of Jon stirred, and before he could think better of it he leapt to his feet and tried to run to get it.

Only he was no longer an adult able to reach to the top of a door, and instead he hopped ineffectually as he tried to reach a book that was impossibly out of his reach. Worse; he was clumsy as a newborn colt, and on his third attempt to jump, he tangled up his feet and slammed his face against the door.

He stopped, glaring up at the book, still feeling that strange tug, but not the compulsion he had felt before.

If only the others could see him now. Jonathan Sims, Head Archivist of the Magnus Institute, the Archivist, bringer of the end of the world.

Hopping like a demented rabbit trying to get a book that any idiot could see he couldn’t reach.

He snorted.

Then he froze.

The others. There was no torturous Knowing at his thought of them. There was nothing, really, save for his own complicated mess of feelings. Then he thought about it some more.

None of it had happened yet. None of it. Most of them would still be children, like himself. And sure, it might be hard to make many changes when the world would treat him like an eight-year-old child, but that just meant he had that much more time to make sure the changes worked! He could- he could convince Martin never to join the institute. He could warn Tim about his brother, make sure he was never taken by the Stranger. He could warn Sasha, and maybe even help Daisy, if she hadn’t yet been attacked by her friend, and keep her from ever joining the Hunt.

The possibilities dizzied Jon. He had to lean against the door to stay standing. What about all the other he knew, all those people whose statements he read, who had yet to live through those terrors which haunted or killed them? Could he help them, too? He wasn’t naïve enough to think that the entities wouldn’t feed on others, even if he was able to help those individuals he knew about, but there was something so alluring about the thought of helping all those people, people whose misery he had consumed. It felt like- well, like he could give it back to them, what he had taken. Like amends.

Like he could truly change who he was, if he did so.

He laughed, and found that he couldn’t stop. It wasn’t an altogether happy sound. There was an edge of madness to it, the hint of an unnatural echo he didn’t want to think about too closely.

He was still laughing when the door opened behind him, and a bewildered middle-aged woman in her nightgown asked him if he was alright as he rolled on the ground at her feet, her confused, frightened face providing more fuel for hilarity.

His grandmother had to pick Jon up from the police station. After his little bout of insanity, Jon had tried to explain to the woman who found him that yes, he was alright, and no, he didn’t need help getting home. She, understandably, had not believed him.

It didn’t help that he couldn’t remember what his home phone number was, or the exact address of his grandmother’s house. It had been more than ten years since he had lived there, it wasn’t like there had been any reason to hold on to that particular bit of trivia! And it wasn’t like he had the Eye feeding him relevant information anymore. The door in his mind remained firmly closed. Most of him felt this was a good sign.

The woman—Angela Rovers—had ushered him inside and ignored all his protests while she served him a cup of warm milk and called the police. Jon had to bury his groan in his arms when he overheard her tell them that she had encountered a young runaway. Having police attention on him was going to make everything that much harder.

Worse than that, though, was how she cajoled him into drinking his milk while they waited. Even more embarrassing was that it worked, and he really did feel better after drinking it. He had become suddenly exhausted, and had no memory of falling asleep. Next time he woke, he was being carried by a large man into the police station, one large arm holding on to the back of his hips and the other holding his upper body to his chest.

Jon refused to explain to the nice receptionist why his face was red. He doubted he could have explained the mortification of being an adult in a child’s body, even if he had wanted to. He felt only relief when he spotted his grandmother entering the police station. At least she wasn’t much for physical affection; she had treated him like a small adult for as long as he could remember, more like a roommate than a family member.

“Jonathan,” she greeted him. Back in his own time, she had been dead for years before the world ended. They had lost track of each other long before her death, however, and despite spending years of his childhood at her side, Jon was a little discomfited to realize he could barely remember her.

That was the wrong way to put it. She was of average height for a woman, with the tanned, leathery skin of an older person who didn’t put much care into it, brown eyes and wide lips, eternally down turned. Jon knew what she looked like, and though she was a little younger than in his memories, she was still recognizably herself. No, what he didn’t remember was who she was.

He remembered Martin. He remembered growing close enough that he could guess that he was about to suggest making tea just from a particular frown on his face, or that he needed reassurance because of the way he turned his body, just a little, towards Jon. A hundred tiny gestures, mannerisms, all observed and hoarded and memorized. Each of them, seeing the other and learning them, knowing them.

It hadn’t just been Martin, either. He could instantly summon Daisy to his mind, all the ways he had learned to predict when she needed someone closer, or when she needed space. He had never been very good with people, but he had realized, at some point, that it wasn’t a good excuse. Like everything else in his life, it was a skill that he had to learn, but with effort he could do just that. Everything good in life took effort, after all.

Basira and Melanie, and before them, Tim and Georgie. Even notSasha, to a lesser, uncomfortable degree. These were all people he knew, who he remembered, who had carved a place in his heart.

His grandmother was like a blank slate.  I never bothered to learn who she was, just as she never bothered to learn who I was. It had seemed the most natural state of being, back then. He remembered fights he had with Georgie, back when their relationship was new but straining. She called him distant. He called her clingy.

God, he’d been a fool.

Still, for his purposes now, he had to admit his grandmother was perfect. He would never be able to do all that he had to if there was a responsible adult looking over his shoulder.

“Grandmother,” he responds to her, trying to sound respectful and mature, but missing the mark when a yawn escapes as soon as he’s finished the word. He fights back the urge to rub his eyes with his knuckles. He had almost forgotten what it was like to feel tired. He had forgotten how it felt to be tired as a child. He could barely keep his eyes open.

Focus, Jon. He reminded himself. The nice receptionist, who had let him sit on the chair across her desk and doze while he waited, smiled at him while an officer came to speak with his grandmother a little distance away. That couldn’t be good. He couldn’t remember what kind of punishments his grandmother had given him when he was this age—as far as he could remember he had never really done anything bad enough to get punished. Still, being dragged out of bed to the police station to pick up your runaway grandson wouldn’t be something she could ignore.

It didn’t matter that he told everyone he could that he didn’t run away, thank you very much. He had just gotten lost. He went for a walk, lost track of time and got lost. That was something children did, wasn’t it?

Jon groaned again. He hadn’t been around children since the last time he was one. He had no idea how he was supposed to behave.

“It will be alright, dearie,” the nice receptionist assured him, giving his arm a gentle squeeze. Jon blinked blearily at her. He hadn’t noticed her get up. His survival instincts in this body were pathetic.

“I didn’t run away,” he tried, for the fourth or fifth time. He really hated how squeaky and childish his voice sounded.

“Of course you didn’t.” She smiled, patted his arm again, then went back to her side of the desk.

Jon buried his head in his arms. It was going to be a long decade until he was free of all of this nonsense.

Chapter Text

The ride home from the police station was uncomfortable. His grandmother made him recite their home phone number and address again and again, clearly annoyed that he had somehow managed to forget them since the last time the police had been forced to return him to her doorstep, only weeks before. She was muttering about installing locks in the house to keep Jon from wandering off, and it was all Jon could do to bite his tongue and not make matters worse.

He needed the freedom to leave the house, if he was to get anything done. He was going to do everything he could think of so as to not antagonize his grandmother into locking him into her house or worse, deciding he needed closer supervision.

And so he repeated their phone number and address, again, and didn’t try to tell his grandmother that this time, at least, he hadn’t been anywhere he wasn’t allowed, technically. Or how the only reason he was in another neighborhood to begin with was because one of the books that she had given him had tried to kill him.

He had no idea how she might react to that, but he didn’t think it would involve allowing him more independence.

By the time they were home, she was more relaxed, or at least more tired. She waved him away to his room to change into his nightclothes, promising that they would have a long, serious talk in the morning. Jon mumbled something unintelligible as he tried to pull off his jumper, which of course had to get stuck when it was still only halfway off, because between clothes that didn’t fit and his complete lack of coordination, it was bound to happen.

“What is that?” Her voice was horrified, and a surge of adrenaline had Jon tearing his head free and looking around the living room in alarm. The room was small, with only a faded yellow couch and television set, and Jon’s eyes darted from corner to corner, trying to find whatever it was she had seen.

His grandmother took two steps toward him, and he belatedly realized she was looking at him. More precisely, at a large design blooming on his left arm, stark in its contrast against his skin. She grabbed his arm and pulled it to her, almost throwing him to the floor.

Alongside his grandmother, Jon examined the new… God, the new marks, he thought, and felt cold. On the outside of both arms, just above the elbow—the places where Mr. Spider and Helen had grabbed on to him to pull him into the door—were two large, distinct patterns, in what could have been ink, or could have been carved into his very skin, or, most likely, both and neither.

His grandmother assumed they were tattoos. She snapped, angrier than Jon had ever seen her, as she berated him for marking his skin, for ruining his future, and Why would he do this? Why couldn’t he just behave for just a week and not be such a nuisance?

Jon ignored her and examined both markings more closely with a sinking feeling in his stomach. On the left: a spiral, wobbly, with tiny dark lines spreading like fractals in between the thick dark line that covered the space of an adult’s palm. On his right: a spiderweb, the lines thin and delicate and a little smaller than the Spiral’s mark. Just off-center, a slightly darker spot, the suggestion of something already trapped in the web.

That… that couldn’t be good. At least there wasn’t one of the Eye? Jon’s attention snapped back to his Grandmother, ranting now about just who would be irresponsible enough to give a tattoo to an eight-year-old. As soon as he was alone, he was getting naked and making sure there wasn’t an eye mark anywhere on his body.

What did those marks mean? He remembered the way he had felt after being pulled into the door. Like every bit of him was being pulled apart. Between the two, the Spiral and the Web, he had been tossed through time, somehow, into the body of his younger self. Or, into a close approximation of it, already marked and claimed by two—three?—of the entities. He remembered Elias’ statement, how it had been Jon’s existing mark from the Web which had caused him to choose him as the head archivist. If Elias—Jonah, damn it, why was it so hard to remember to use the right name—ever took an interest in him again, he had just made his job that much easier.

Only that’s not going to happen, not this time, Jon told himself, and really wished he could believe that. More urgently, he needed to understand what the two brands meant for him, and for his plans to not end the world.

He was pretty sure that he wasn’t an avatar. At the very least, he was certain he wasn’t the Archivist. The door in his mind was shut tight, and the only hunger he felt was the mundane one that came about from skipping supper. Would he know if he was an avatar of the Web or the Spiral? He felt like he would, but he also remembered being well on his path of transformation into the Archivist before he noticed anything was wrong the first time around. Only, you had to choose, didn’t you? He had chosen Beholding, but that seemed to have been undone, at least partially. Did reading that damn book of his own free will count as choosing the Web? He didn’t think so, but he also didn’t understand the other entities nearly as well as he understood the Eye.

I just have to avoid anything to do with them, he thought, a little desperately. He was already determined to get some distance between himself and Beholding: to be less curious, to stop reading things out loud and to leave behind all of his mannerisms as the Archivist. Could he not do the same with the other two entities, and avoid those behaviors associated with them? He would… not trap anyone else in a hellish endless maze? Not manipulate others?

He was going to have to think about this a lot harder. He would need to do research, at some old statements in the Archives and-

No. That was bad. That was old Jon talking. New Jon wouldn’t do any research!

Except the idea of accidentally falling into the service of either the Web or the Spiral seemed a million times worse than the risk of doing a tiny bit of research just to stay safe.

Jon wondered if his grandmother kept any painkillers in child-accessible places. His head was killing him.

“You’re not even listening to me!” His grandmother’s grip on his arm became bruising. Jon looked at her.

“I- I don’t know how I got them?” It was the plain truth, but phrased as a question, and to his grandmother a blatant lie. She opened her mouth, but stopped. She dragged her thumb across the design, frowning.

“You drew this on yourself, didn’t you?” Her eyes were narrowed in suspicion. Jon had no idea where that idea came from. As far as he could remember, he had never once tried any kind of prank or mischief of this nature, for her to jump on that conclusion.

Still, it was an opening. “Uh, yeah, grandmother,” Jon nodded hastily. “I’ll go clean it up now!” Jon knew his grandmother kept make-up somewhere in the house. Maybe he could pretend to wash it off and cover it up, somehow?

“No, we’ll go clean it up now.” Her voice had no room for disagreement. It seemed like he had finally managed to go and push his grandmother past her limits, and it hadn’t even been over something he had done. She used her grip on his arm to pull him into the bathroom and under the shower. Without giving him a chance to remove any of his clothing, she turned on the shower, which came out icy and made Jon yelp.

“Should have thought of that before you went and did something like this!” She snapped. To her credit—or at least as a testament to just how angry she was—she was getting the cold water all over herself too, while she reached for soap and a sponge. Jon hissed as she vigorously scrubbed at his skin, soon going from irritating to painful.  Jon started to tug on his arm and try to leave, but small as he was, he had no chance against her. He resigned himself to wait, wincing as her vigorous rubbing scraped his skin raw. She could have at least let him change fully out of his clothes.

Fifteen minutes later, Jon shivered for warmth in his faded blue pajamas, under his covers, covering the painful parts of his skin with his hands so they wouldn’t rub against the itchy blankets. His grandmother had given up on trying to scrape them off his skin, and had sent him to bed with a glare and the promise that tomorrow he would tell her just who had made those tattoos, so she could figure out who was going to jail over it. Jon had no idea what he was going to say.

Jon had no desire to say anything. He felt furious, and humiliated, and… powerless. A part of him reminded him that this was what it meant to be human. The rest of him didn’t want listen, especially because the problem wasn’t that he was human, but that he was in the body a child, when he was very much not one. The outrage in him warred with frustration, that this was only the first day in what would become years of similar treatment.

He ignored the pile of wet clothes on the floor at the foot of his bed and curled up into a tighter ball on his bed, shivering, missing his supernatural healing and magical insomnia. Missing his independence. He thought his worries and discomfort would keep him up for hours, but he was asleep in minutes.

Jon had woken up the next day before dawn, with a splitting headache and a fully formed idea.

The idea was a bad one. It was risky, and it would only create even more tension with his grandmother. If he went through with it, chances were she would put locks on the door to keep him from leaving for the next year.

Sitting up in his childhood bed, his arms still aching, head pounding, Jon was having a hard time worrying about the future. He knew that if he didn’t do anything, he was going to do something very stupid to his grandmother when they finally had that confrontation she had threatened him with the night before.

He had gotten very bad at impulse control back at the end of the world, where nothing he could say or do could make a difference.

Which brought him back to his bad idea.

Before doing anything else, he scrounged around the house for where grandmother kept the medicine, barely remembered to check the dosage for someone his physical age, then swallowed the pills without a second thought.

If he was going to do something stupid no matter what, then at least he could go and do what he wanted to do. He didn’t think he could stand being cooped up in this house for another hour, let alone the rest of the day.

Next, he went looking in his closet for the best combination of clothes he could find. A lot of his clothes were second-hand, kept for years after his father had grown out of them decades before, and had strange logos Jon didn’t recognize and patterns he wasn’t drawn to. He found a dark blue button-up shirt which was only a little too-large for himself, and some dark jeans that matched up pretty well with their color. There would be no disguising his age, but at least he could look more like a responsible young person and less like a half-crazy wild child, the way he had the night before.

Dressing was an exercise in concentration and patience. His movements were uncoordinated and jerky, but so long as he moved slowly, he could avoid the worst of it.

Lastly, he went to where his grandmother kept her emergency cash fund and snuck a few bills from it. Just enough for a bit of travel and some food; he wasn’t robbing her.

As the sun was rising from the horizon, he was out of their house and on his way to do a little research.

Navigating the London Underground both as an unaccompanied child and without a smart phone proved to be more difficult than Jon had assumed. It took him an embarrassingly long amount of time to interpret the printed map at the Station (he was out of practice, that was all!), and to plot his route to the Magnus Institute, which would include changing lines twice. Surprisingly, he didn’t have trouble buying the tickets, once he politely explained to the seller that his mother was buying them breakfast and would be there soon (he hadn’t really expected it to work. Were people just more careless back in the 90s? Maybe he should write a letter to government about this.)

To avoid any unwanted attention, he made sure to sit close to other adult passengers, hoping people would assume he was traveling with one of them. It also had the added benefit or reminding Jon not to speak out loud to himself, which was why, as the train moved him closer to his destination, Jon made his plans in silence, arms crossed and half-asleep as he looked out the window.

His idea was simple. He needed to know more about what was happening to him. He needed to remind himself about the nature of the Web and Spiral, of what they had been before they had free reign on humanity (He could still remember, without much effort, all they had gleefully done afterwards). Lastly, he needed to know if he was still tied to the Institute. The door might be closed, but it was still very much there, and Jon didn’t know if that was a link only to his god, or to the Institute which had bound him to it in the first place.

The best way to tackle all of these problems at once was to simply go to the archives. He didn’t plan to just walk inside; children were a rare sight at the Institute, and he didn’t intend to draw any attention to himself. He could do it carefully, though. He knew of a few entrances to the tunnels under the Archives outside the building, and he planned to sneak inside through one of them.

He tried to ignore the doubts that grew louder the closer he came. There Jurgen Leitner: Jon had no idea if the man would already be there, but he reminded himself that the librarian was good at keeping his distance and would probably leave him alone so long as he returned the curtesy. There was also, of course, Gertrude: but really, with the way she had kept the Archives, Jon would bet he could live there for weeks without her ever finding him. If she was even in the building to begin with. Finally, there was Elias—Jonah Magnus, Jon reminded himself, because it was still far too easy to think of the man as Elias, and it was important to remember who exactly he was: he was blind in the tunnels, and wouldn’t know to watch for Jon, even outside of them.

It should be safe.

It was a terrible idea.

Jon didn’t know how to stay away.

It was mid-morning by the time he stood across the street from the institute, eating a sandwich. He knew he was staring, but he couldn’t help it. He had gone to it once, after the world ended. Before the disastrous trip to murder Elias with Helen’s help, he had asked Martin to stay behind so he could go in. There was no way something would be allowed to happen to him in Beholding’s own temple, he had Known.

It had been twisted, as the rest of the world was. More a temple in truth than ever it had been under Jonah Magnus’ direction. The Archives and the rest of the institute had merged, and sitting there in the tenebrous halls that had once been the library, Elias had waited for him.

Jon shook his head free of the memory. It didn’t matter anymore. It wouldn’t matter ever again. He was going to stop it from happening. He was going to stop Elias- Jonah- from ever attempting the ritual, with him or with anyone else.

I still have time for that, he reminded himself, when the anger and hatred twisted so violently in his gut that he had nearly torn the sandwich to shreds.  Gertrude would never let herself be used in that way, and so long as she was the Archivist, the world was safe.

Maybe he should try to go and talk with her. He knew a lot that she could use—if she didn’t decide to just kill Jon. Even Gertrude wouldn’t kill a child, would she?

No, Jon decided. Not until he could be sure what he was. He would try to think of a way to sneak her some information without doing so in person. As the Archivist, she should be able to discern that what he told her was the truth. He had to be careful, though. He didn’t want to be caught up with the institute again this time around.

(Which was why the first thing he had done was head straight for it the moment he was able to, wasn’t it?)

Jon finished his sandwich and fidgeted. After a long commute and with his headache finally abated and his stomach filled, he finally felt calm enough for reason to overtake his emotional impulsivity. Just what was he hoping to accomplish here? Yes, he needed research into the Spiral and the Web, but throwing himself headlong back into the Eye was not the way to do it. He should have spent a few days getting used to his new body, letting his grandmother calm down, and working out a plan that was more than ‘go for it and hope for the best’.

Jon crossed his arms, the tips of his fingers touching the raw spots on his arms where his new brands lay just below the fabric. Had he always been this impulsive? He didn’t think so, although he remembered a certain incident with an axe and a broken table that lead to the death of one of his only friends. Was he being influenced again by one of the entities? Or had he simply changed, after all that time on his own in the nightmare wasteland? Was there any way to be sure, regardless of the truth?

He looked back towards the institute and felt… loss. Longing. Hatred, but also a welcome familiarity. He had practically lived in the Archives for some time, after he allowed his job to become his life. Other than Georgie, it was where he had made all of his friends. It was where Martin had first made teas for him and the others. It was where Tim, Sasha and Martin had surprised him to celebrate his birthday, the only time he had celebrated it with anyone else other than that time with Georgie, back when they were dating. It was where Jon had become who he was now, for better and for worse.

It was more of a home than his grandmother’s house had ever been. And it was far, far too dangerous for him to get close to so carelessly.

What am I doing here? The thought was edged with despair, but also incredulity. None of the people he loved were here. They wouldn’t ever be here, if he had his way.

And for the sake of the world, neither would he.

He closed his eyes and took a deep breath. This wasn’t the only place he could use for research. He would find another way. He had time, and he could afford to be patient.

He turned, ready to figure out how he was going to make his return trip, and what he was going to tell his grandmother when he did.

He felt an Eye turn on him. Instinctively, he reached for his own connection to follow it back to its source. He was on the ground again, retching, both hands pressing down on his left eye, the pain so fierce his other senses felt dulled, and he was barely aware of people stopping on the sidewalk and talking to him, asking him where his parents were, if he was alright.

He needed to leave. He really, really needed to leave. He tried to get back up to his feet, but his body was all wrong, and his attention too scattered to make it move how it was supposed to. There was someone’s hand on his elbow, steadying him, trying to help him up, but Jon tore his arm from the stranger’s grip. He needed to get away.

He could still feel the Eye on him, a feeling as familiar as it was unwelcome. He didn’t need the help of any fear god to know what it most likely meant. He made it to his feet, finally, still dizzy from the slowly receding pain. A ring of adults surrounded him, tall and noisy, and all he wanted was to be in a dark room somewhere, hidden from view.

Just how unfair was the world, that Jon should draw the interest of the one person he most wanted to avoid the moment he made a mistake? (He had been staring at the Institute for nearly half an hour. It was a surprise it had taken Elias this long to notice. He really needed to remember that the passage of time was something to be aware of.)

Had he been an adult, he could have simply pushed his way through the crowd of onlookers and found a nice quiet alleyway to recover. When he tried this in his current form, the person he pushed against misunderstood his intention and reached out to help him, assuming he had been going to them for help.

Jon would have screamed, if he wasn’t sure that doing so would only summon even more unnecessary worry and attention. He wasn’t- he wasn’t a toddler! Sure, he looked a little young for his age, and was short and scrawny, but he couldn’t remember anyone ever making such a fuss over him before. I never caused such a public scene before, either, he thought.  

“Please let go of me,” Jon said loudly, in as civil a tone as he could manage. The hands on him quickly retreated, though the circle of people surrounding him didn’t go. Just deal with it and leave, he told himself. He looked over at one of his would-be rescuers, a large gentleman wearing a tan suit and carrying a briefcase under one arm, the last to ask him if he was lost.

“No, I’m not lost.” He tried to ignore the itching between his shoulder blades, that too-familiar feeling of being observed he definitely did not miss. (It only counted as company if you were crazy, and Jon was trying really hard not to be crazy). He reminded himself that he was being watched, by a crowd of perfectly human voyeurs, but that did nothing to calm him down. “I was just…” he scrambled for a likely explanation. He didn’t even know what day of the week it was, or if he had to come up with an excuse for why he wasn’t at school.

It had been a long time since he had to improvise his way out of trouble. It had also been a long time since he talked for any length of time with someone who wasn’t himself. He wished he could simply toss some spooky Archivist power around. If he compelled a single one of them, he bet the rest would be more than happy to scatter.

“You shouldn’t be out here on your own, hun,” said a woman in her twenties. “You need us to call your parents to come find you?”

Jon dug his fingernails into his hands and discarded the first dozen scathing remarks that came to mind. It didn’t even matter that he had no excuse, because none of them were bothering to listen to what he said! At least some of them were leaving, content to see that someone else was involved and dealing with him.

“I think I see my mum now!” he said loudly, pointing down the street towards a crowd of people instead of someone in particular. It did the job of making everyone look in the wrong direction just long enough for Jon to clumsily run away, join the crowd of people on the streets just long enough to confuse anyone who had tried to follow him, and then do as he had wanted and duck into the mouth of a small alley that smelled of stagnant rain and trash.

He almost collapsed to the ground as soon as he stopped, and had to lean against the wall as he panted for breath. He added ‘get into shape’ into his mental list of things to do. The alley in which he was hiding was a dead end, with only a small dumpster for the businesses on either side to share, a door with no handle that only opened from the inside on one building, and two different doors side by side on the other.

At least the Eye’s presence had withdrawn from him. Damn it, that had been too stupid, too risky. He couldn’t do something like this again. He had gotten lucky, but he couldn’t afford another mistake like this. I’m never coming back here, he thought, angrily, bitterly, sadly. He couldn’t afford to.

“Well, isn’t this a surprise?” The voice was instantly recognizable; the smug, arrogant tone doubly so. Jon froze, like a mouse who wasn’t sure yet if the cat had seen him. “And who could you be?”

There was a strange buzzing in Jon’s ears. If Jon hadn’t been leaning against the wall, he would have fallen. Panic made his heart flutter in his chest like an angry hummingbird. He looked up, at the man standing between Jon and the street, into uncanny blue eyes that he couldn’t believe he had ever believed to be human.

It was strange to see Elias as a man in his late twenties, rather than the middle-aged man Jon had always known him as. He wore a suit in the same style as he would in the future, dark and fitted, elegant without being out of place outside in the streets. His hair was longer than how he would wear it in the future, and without a hint of gray to it. His smirk, that damned smug expression that Jon wanted nothing more than to claw out of his face, was all Elias.

All Jonah Magnus, rather.

He was staring. Damn it. Jon tore his eyes away. There would be no pretending he was an innocent bystander if he glared at the man like he had killed all those he loved.

(Which he had, even if not all of them were technically dead.)

Jon was not a good liar. So, anger overriding his good sense once more, he decided not to.

“Take another step closer and I’ll scream you’re trying to kill me,” he snarled, his fingernails scraping against the rough wall of the building he leaned on. He wouldn’t meet Elias’ eyes again, but glared at his chin.

“Now, that’s a bit dramatic, isn’t it?” Elias crossed his arms, unconcerned. He still blocked Jon’s way, but his posture was more relaxed, harder for anyone passing by to see anything threatening by it. “I don’t believe we’ve met, and I think I would remember doing something terrible to someone your age.” There was gentle mockery in his voice, and the kind of double-speak that had taken Jon way too long to figure out, back when this man had been his boss.

Not that he wouldn’t hurt a kid, or watch while he allowed one to be hurt, but simply that he had no memory of doing so. All spoken in such a calm and reasonable tone, that anyone listening could be excused for thinking it was a joke.

Jon shook. He wanted to attack him. He wanted to draw on his old powers and pull everything out of this man until there was nothing left of him. He wanted to jump on him and claw at his face and pull out his eyes and-

And he had already tried that, only he had learned that serving the same god gave them both protection from each other, and Elias had mastered his own abilities long before this point in time, and the door in his mind remained firmly shut, much as he battered at it and ignored the renewed spike of agony it brought with it.

Elias’ smile slipped, just for a moment. He stilled, and Jon felt the weight of a thousand eyes upon him again. His focus faltered. It was all he could do to stay on his feet.

“Curious,” Elias muttered. Jon clenched his teeth and pushed his head against the wall, dizzy, fighting pain and fury. Then Jon felt a hand on his head, the touch feather-soft on his forehead, like someone trying to take his temperature.

Jon turned and bit him.

Elias was not expecting it. He jerked his hand back with an instinctive yelp, and Jon took off during his brief distraction. He wasn’t the fastest runner, but they were near a busy street, and Jon doubted that Elias would be willing to corner him again if he was surrounded by people. He felt eyes on him still, and the blood in his mouth tasted of misery and death.

He slowed to a walk and discretely spat into his sleeve, eyes darting around him. Elias wouldn’t bother to follow him on foot, not when he had a more reliable, supernatural way to keep an eye on him. Too bad for him, Jon knew how to blind those particular eyes.

Without hesitation, Jon went to find one of the entrances to the tunnels.

Chapter Text

Jon was not panicking.

He sat against the cold wall in a dark tunnel underneath the Archives, head buried in his knees, in a posture that had become distressingly familiar since he had found himself in his new body.

His headache was back, worse than ever. A jagged spike of pain on one side of his head that made his eyes water and his vision spin. A reminder that his first instinct was still to reach for inhuman powers that he should be happily discarding. A reminder that it was no longer an option.

“Why do I keep doing this?” Jon said to himself, just barely keeping his voice from breaking. He was in enough trouble that panicking was simply not an option. Elias had noticed him. There was no taking that back. “But he doesn’t know my name.” He said. Unless he simply lifted that information from Jon’s mind, as he was wont to do. Did his tenuous remaining link to Beholding provide any defense against Elias’ prying? There was no way to know, but it would be irresponsibly dangerous to believe otherwise.

As dangerous as waltzing into his territory unprepared, and then staring at it like a starving lunatic. As irresponsible as doing anything except behaving like a normal eight-year-old kid until I had a real plan. His mouth shut at the end of his thought, and he realized he had said it all out loud.

“At least I didn’t make it a statement,” he muttered, hugging his knees tighter, fighting against a sudden urge to laugh that felt too similar to panic for him to indulge in.

His mouth still tasted foul. He didn’t like the thought that he had a bit of Elias in his mouth, although remembering the bite itself and his yelp felt satisfying. He hoped it got infected.

“Alright, stop. Stop and focus.” Jon took a deep breath, then another. He had made a mistake, but that didn’t mean everything was lost. He was still free. He still had time. We can figure this out, he heard Martin’s voice, encouraging and unrelenting, refusing to let him give up even when he was sure he had nothing left to give.

Martin. He breathed again, chest tight, but panic fading. He still had to save Martin, and Sasha, and Tim and Basira and Georgie and Daisy. If he did nothing else, he would make sure his friends were safe. Not that they were his friends yet, or possibly ever. He relaxed a little, and allowed his mind to wander. It was hard to try to think of them as they must exist now, children with only a passing similarity to the adults Jon knew. Had Martin developed a liking for poetry yet? Was Sasha as brave and driven as he remembered? Was Tim as happy as he had once pretended to be, with his brother at his side?

If he met them now, would they want anything to do with him? Would Jon want to be around them? He might look eight, but he didn’t relish the thought of having to spend time with a bunch of children, though he could make an exception where they were concerned.

If he interfered now, though, so soon, wouldn’t that mean that whoever they grew up to become, they would never be the people Jon knew?

Jon swallowed against a lump in his throat, and decided not to think about it anymore. He would do what he had to. He had failed his friends once already. If the price of saving them was that he never got to meet his Martin again, then it meant he would be the only one to pay a price, and he would pay it gladly.

For their sake, he had to figure out how to fix his most recent mistake.  

He tallied up the facts he knew.

  1. Elias had taken an interest in him.
  2. Elias had seen Jon be excessively aggressive towards him from the moment they met.
  3. Elias had seen Jon head straight to the tunnels and vanish inside them.

It was not the best way his first day back in the world could have gone. Of the three, the second one was the least worrisome. Having a strange man corner a child in an alleyway might have turned anyone aggressive. He hadn’t said anything that couldn’t be explained away as the nervous bravado of a scared kid.

The third one was damning, though Jon couldn’t think of an alternative that could have worked. He didn’t want Elias to know where he lived. He doubted he could have evaded his attention without using the tunnels. Would Elias come down here to find him? He lifted his head and looked around, his eyes seeing little in the darkness. Until Jon decided to move, he would see and hear Elias coming long before the bastard saw him.

The first point was the most dangerous one, because without it the other two wouldn’t be problems at all. It was also the one Jon knew least about.

Why had Elias become interested in him? He could understand him taking a look, after noticing the strange boy outside, and maybe sensing the touch of the other entities on his soul. A lot of people were marked by them, though, children included. Had Jon noticed a child glaring at the doors to the institute while he worked there, he would have assumed the kid was drawn to give his statement, as so many others were.

But Elias hadn’t been content to watch from a distance. He had come out to meet him, for some reason. What was it he had said? Isn’t this a surprise? And who might you be?

There was something about Jon that Elias had been drawn to, but he hadn’t known who Jon was. That didn’t mean he didn’t strip that knowledge from Jon’s mind while they had been together.

“Worst case scenario,” Jon thought, “he knows everything about me. Everything about…” Oh, damn. Damn it. He thought about Jonah Magnus’ statement. Thought about how, at this time, Elias didn’t have a plan for a ritual that brought forth all fears, bound together through his Archive. It would be years of watching Gertrude before he came to that realization on his own.

Unless he had picked it out of Jon’s head less than an hour ago.

Fear and dread curled up like twin snakes inside of Jon’s guts, and he threw up his breakfast all over the floor beside him.

That wasn’t- he couldn’t have- it wouldn’t be fair, if he were to come back all of this time, only to put the world at risk much sooner than the first time around.

(The world had never been fair, and there hadn’t been a single mistake in his life as the Archivist that hadn’t been turned against him.)

 He didn’t know for sure yet, Jon reminded himself. Elias had to want to look before he could Know something, unlike how Jon’s own link to Beholding shoved knowledge into his mind when it was relevant. There was nothing about Jon that would have made Elias think ‘time-traveler’, and so there shouldn’t have been any reason for Elias to want to Know about Jon’s future, rather than his past.

Jon didn’t even know if Elias’ abilities had worked on him.

“Best case scenario,” he tried, clinging to unfamiliar hope, “he knows nothing about me except what I look like, and if I keep my distance and never come to this part of town again, he never sees me again.” It would be tricky, even if it turned out to be true. He would have to leave the tunnels sometime, and Elias was no doubt keeping an eye on all the exists. Could he leave through the Archives, exit through the main doors?

If I was ten years older, maybe.

If there was any chance that Elias didn’t know who Jon was, and where he lived, he needed to take it. If the worst was true, there was little he could do about it now. Gertrude was still alive, younger and as capable as she had ever been. Even if Elias now knew how to enact his ritual, there would be time before he was ready to do so. He would figure out a way to warn Gertrude, and he would figure out a way to stay safely out of Elias’ reach.

Maybe I’ll have to run away for real, he thought, but it was not an attractive notion. He had no idea how he would be able to stay free and healthy, and he had learned already over the incidents the night before and this morning that strangers weren’t happy to see someone who looked like him out on his own.

He scoured his brain for possibilities. Could he wait long enough for Elias to stop paying attention to the tunnels before he left? His grandmother would be furious at him, but he could deal with that. The problem was that he couldn’t know if he was being seen until he was outside, and either did or did not feel the Watcher’s gaze on him.

Jon discarded the idea. Elias was a patient man, and Jon would starve before he waited him out.

He could wait until the time matched the surge in traffic to do with people leaving their work for the day, and try to lose himself in the crowd then. There wasn’t much hope for that working, but it was the best idea he had at the moment.

Jon got to his feet, and did his best to ignore the dizzying pain still lingering behind his eye. He didn’t particularly like being in the dark tunnels without a source of light for any longer than was strictly necessary. He knew, perhaps better than anyone else alive, just what the things that could make these tunnels into their hunting grounds were able to do. It would be just as effective to wait closer to the tunnel exit, and a lot safer.

He made careful progress in the dark, one hand trailing the walls to keep himself vertical and oriented. He went to a different exit than the one he had entered, a bit surprised at how easy he found the tunnels to navigate, when compared to his memories of frustrated exploration. He had spent a lot of time down here, after he had lost Martin. In the world after, not even the wonders of its architecture were able to keep the Eye outside, but its regard had felt a little dimmer, and the overwhelming surges of Knowing just a bit easier to bear.

He continued to think as he walked. What other precautions could Jon make? He could destroy all drawings and pictures of eyes in his house, he supposed, though his grandmother would think him even more crazy.

This time, he would do it right. He would keep his head down and do whatever it took to stay unnoticed. He would figure out the best way to approach all those he wanted to save, and do so carefully, so that he didn’t accidentally draw them in deeper, instead.

The tunnels grew lighter the closer he got to the exit, an old rusted gate that let out into regular sewers. From there, he would only need to go another couple of blocks before he could exit back out into the street.

He reached the gate and stopped. It would be hours before the rush hour he hoped to take advantage of. Idly, he looked over the gate to make sure it wasn’t locked.

That’s when he saw the spiders.

Jon had intimate knowledge of so many of humanity’s horrors that, had anyone asked, he would have told them there was nothing in particular that frightened him. Hell, he had gone willingly enough to read that bloody book, hadn’t he? So what if he had been afraid of spiders before? There was more than enough space inside of him for the fears of just about everything else to grow to that same level.

Jon discovered now that this was not true, and that he had a wholly involuntary reaction when presented with a swarm of the creepy monstrosities.

He screamed, and leapt back, and brushed his hands violently all over his skin, which was suddenly full of the phantom touch of hundreds of tiny hairy legs upon it.

It took him minutes to get back control of his body, and even then he couldn’t stop the trembling of his limbs, or the overwhelming revulsion he felt at the thought of being so close to the spiders.

The question was, were these regular spiders, or something else?

“Stupid question,” Jon muttered, and rubbed the brand on his right arm. Was it his imagination, or was it itching?

A better question was, what was it doing? And was it doing it because of him, or had Jon merely stumbled onto one of the many invasions of another entity unto the Archives?

Jon noticed more spiders, skittering at the corners of his vision. He took another step back.

“Is it for my benefit that you warn me off this path?” He asked aloud, but did not have the weight of compulsion to demand a reply.

A thought rose, unbidden. He remembered speculation that the Mother of Puppets liked the world the way it was now. He remembered also that grasping black leg, pulling him into a door that had thrown him into the past. He had assumed it to have been in error; an accidental side-effect of Helen deciding to throw a wrench into his ill-conceived plans for self-destruction. But that wasn’t the way of the Web, was it?

Had it sent him here on purpose? Did it have the same goals as he did, to stop the end of the world?

His fingernails dug painfully into his arm.

“I owe you nothing,” He hissed at the spiders. He wasn’t about to substitute one abominable god for another, simply because their goals happened to align.

He also remembered words spoken in desperation, back when he was hiding at Georgie’s house, back when he had been preparing to stop the Unknowing. He needed allies. He couldn’t afford to do everything alone.

Not now, though. Not when he didn’t know what part of himself he sold if he accepted its help. There was a new mistake waiting to be made regardless of what he chose now, and Jon could only decide if he wanted to err in favor of the Spider, or Elias.

No real choice at all, he thought miserably, as he settled down to wait farther inside, as far from the spiders as he could get while still keeping the gate in sight.

Better the monster he knew, than the spider he didn’t.



After hours of waiting in the dark tunnels with nothing but the spiders for company, Jon felt desperate to leave. He tried to spend the time making plans, trying to think of all the statements he had read which happened close to this point in time. Between his still aching head, his gnawing hunger and the spike of sick terror every time he heard one of the spiders got too close, he found it impossible to concentrate.

Instead, his mind went down familiar paths. Like groves cut into the very shape of his soul, there were certain patterns that his thoughts took, time and again, whenever he found himself lucid and alone, despite trying each time to think of nothing at all. He thought of Martin, and of failure, of a ritual he could still recite every word of, as though it was burned into the back of his eyes. He thought of missed opportunities and guilt, and of a self-loathing that Martin, in frustration, had once called selfish.

The only solace he clung to was his imperfect connection to the Eye, which allowed only his imagination to supply the painful and gruesome images of the damage he had done to the world, rather than know them intimately and in detail.

By the time the small watch on his wrist showed it was five, Jon wasn’t sure there was anything in the world that could have stopped him from leaving, Elias or no Elias.

Jon took off his shoe and used it to cover his hand, and then hopped one-footed all the way to the gate. Spiders and webs still covered its surface, but the only thing Jon saw keeping the gate closed was a rusty latch with no locks.

Standing with one foot in the air, Jon reached with his covered hand and tugged at the latch. He shivered when the spiders started to crawl over his shoe, but a few hard tugs on the latch finally got it to slide up, and then he shoved it open and hopped as fast as he could out of the tunnels.

He had been so focused on the gate and the spiders that it wasn’t until he was halfway through the sewers that he remembered the original danger he had been escaping. He stopped for a moment, panting and leaning down to shake his shoe free of spiders before he put it back on. He tried to feel Beholding’s attention on him, but to his relief, he felt nothing.

Maybe Elias had given up? Or maybe he didn’t know this particular exit from the tunnels. They did have a tendency to shift, and Jon wasn’t sure if Elias was able to keep track of all the changes.

Jon left the tunnels, and the spiders, with nothing but relief in his heart.



Returning to his grandmother’s house was a lot easier than leaving had been. With the round-trip tickets already bought, he didn’t have to make excuses to anybody, and the trains were crowded enough that no one assumed he was by himself as long as he stood close enough to an adult on the trip.

Jon felt a paranoid itch between his shoulder blades the entire trip back, although not once did he feel any supernatural attention. He still didn’t know what Elias had been able to see in his mind, if anything at all. He would still have to make up something to his grandmother to excuse him being gone all day without a word, and to explain the marks on him that she believed to be tattoos. He still had to strip down in front of a mirror and make sure there wasn’t a third mark belonging to the Eye somewhere. Not that his god had ever felt the need to mark him in such a way before.

I chose it, before. Time and again, I made the choice to get closer to it. Jon hugged his arms tighter to his sides and shivered. Not this time, he reminded himself. He was going to do better.

It was getting dark by the time Jon, exhausted, hungry and aching, finally made it back to his neighborhood. He was tired enough that it wasn’t until he was halfway across the street that he noticed the police car parked in front of his house.

That… couldn’t be good. He bit his lip, wondering if his grandmother had called to report him missing, and how much more strain this was going to put into his home life.

I can fix this, he thought, a little desperately. He continued walking to the house.

They noticed him when he stepped on the driveway. The porch light turned on, and the door opened to reveal a woman Jon had never met before. She was short and a little overweight, with short frizzy black hair that was graying at her temples, and wore an ill-fitting brown pantsuit.

Jon stopped moving. Was she police? She wasn’t wearing a uniform, but most of the time Daisy hadn’t either, even when she was still working for them.

“Jonathan?” She called out to him.  

“Y-yes?” He wasn’t sure what was happening, but he knew it couldn’t be good. He had the sudden impulse to run, and it was more his weariness than any common sense that kept him where he was.

“Oh, good,” the woman ‘s shoulders sagged. “Come inside, love, if you would. Everyone’s worried.”

Jon’s feet felt frozen to the ground. He forced himself to move them, one step at a time, until he reached the door and the strange woman ushered him inside. His mind had gotten stuck in an endless refrain of I can fix this, repeated so many times it had become meaningless noise.

There were two other strangers inside the house, a couple of uniformed police officers who were sitting at the kitchen table with his grandmother. She looked up when he came in, and her face was red and bruised from crying. Something in Jon cracked at the sight. He couldn’t remember ever seeing his grandmother cry, and the fact she had done so because of Jon hurt in a way he didn’t think he would ever feel for her.

The woman was talking. “I’m Mrs. Newman, Jonathan. It’s a pleasure to meet you.” He saw her offered hand from the corner of his eye, and automatically turned to shake it. “I want you to know that you’re not in any trouble, but that what you did today was very dangerous. Do you understand?”

Something about the way she was talking was irking Jon. He was pretty sure that even at eight, that would have sounded condescending.

“I didn’t mean to be gone that long,” Jon muttered uneasily, looking again at his grandmother, who wouldn’t meet his eyes. “I- I won’t do it again,” he tried, this time addressing his grandmother.

“Jonathan…” the woman—Mrs. Newman—looked sad. “Jon. Can I call you Jon?” Jon nodded, looking back at her, trying to understand why she was trying to sound cheerful when it was so obviously fake. “I’m here to help you, Jon. Do you think you could go to your room and pack some of your clothes, and your favorite toys?”

“Pack?” Jon didn’t understand. He looked over at his grandmother, and hesitated. “I-I-I’m sorry,” he said, and took a step towards her. Her shoulders drew in, and she still refused to look at him. He looked back at Mrs. Newman. “What’s going on?”

“We’re here to make sure you’re safe, Jon,” She replied, too gently. “Sometimes, our family isn’t able to take care of us despite wanting very much to. Your grandmother is old, Jon, and she is worried that she’s not doing right by you. We’re just going to make sure you stay somewhere safe while we figure things out, alright?”

All Jon felt was cold. It sounded like... abandonment. Was his grandmother giving up custody of him? Just like that? Over an argument and a small ill-advised trip? “Why isn’t she telling me this?” He snapped, suddenly angry.

His grandmother sobbed, then. It was such a foreign sound that Jon could do nothing but stare.

“Someone called us earlier today,” Mrs. Newman explained, placing a hand on Jon’s shoulder to guide him out of the living area and towards his room. “They said they saw you in Chelsea today, that you, um, attacked someone?”

Oh. Oh, damn. He supposed that answered the question of whether Elias knew his name, and address. He just hadn’t expected the man to contact the police, of all things. What was he up to?

“I didn’t attack anyone,” Jon said, and didn’t have to feign the offense he felt at the suggestion. “Some creep tried to corner me and I defended myself!”

“Which shouldn’t have happened, if you were where you were supposed to be,” Mrs. Newman said. Jon glared.

“It was a mistake, I know!” they went into Jon’s room, and Jon started to pace back and forth. “It wasn’t my grandmother’s fault,” he tried, looking back at her. He may not have the warmest relationship with her, but he didn’t want to go and be put with a stranger. If he had to be stuck with an adult as his guardian for years, he would much rather that person be his grandmother.

“Oh, Jon,” there was so much pity in her voice that Jon almost kicked her. I’m trying to prove I’m not a problem child that needs to be removed, he reminded himself, but he couldn’t put a lid on the desperate anger that was building by the second.

“I won’t do it again, I don’t have to leave,” he said instead, trying to stay outwardly calm.

“Jon,” Mrs. Newman’s voice was too careful. “Your grandmother was the one who asked up to come. This is what she needs.”

And for the second time in as many days, Jon’s world was shattered.

Chapter Text

Jon really should have seen it coming. He should have fought or run the moment he saw the police car in front of his grandmother’s house. He should have gone anywhere other than back to that place. Surely, living out on the streets would be a better outcome than… this.

It hadn’t taken long to pack a backpack with a few changes of clothes. Nothing else in his room felt familiar or sentimental, so Jon had to assure Mrs. Newman twice that there wasn’t anything else he wanted to take with him.

Through it all, Jon acted through a strange fog of numbness, not too dissimilar from the detached emptiness of the Lonely. He tried to remind himself that his relationship with his grandmother had never been good. While this was inconvenient, Jon would be stupid to take it personally. He had driven his grandmother past her limits, and everybody was allowed to have their limits.

But she’s my family. The thought was so immature and infantile that it gave him pause. For the first time, he wondered if being in this body was more than a simple inconvenience in how others treated him. He had all the knowledge and memories of his adult self, but looking back over the last couple of days, he saw a pattern of behavior that went beyond Jon being unprepared and unused to dealing with the real world.

His emotions all felt too close to the surface, and his reactions to them took his full concentration to subdue. He had assumed it was simply because of his long isolation after losing Martin, when he had grown used to indulging in self-pity and drowning in other people’s fears. But even taking that into account, his actions had been… uncharacteristic. Impulsive. Emotional.


Jon spent the long car ride after leaving his grandmother in silence, blessedly numb, but with a growing worry. (He hadn’t tried to say anything else to his grandmother, and she had remained silent as he left.)

Maybe he should start to consider his situation differently, if he hoped to avoid any more mistakes of the magnitude he had already committed. Instead of considering himself as the adult Jon in a child’s body, as the Archivist without access to his god, he should start to think of himself as the child he was, with the Archivist’s memories. Memories that were more than any eight-year-old should be forced to deal with, and was it any wonder he had lashed out violently when forced to confront his life in that brand new context?

Mrs. Newman tried to engage him in conversation as she drove, but Jon had little interest in speaking with her. Rationally, he knew that none of this was her fault. Emotionally, he wanted to throw something at her, open the car door and bolt.

Maybe I should try counting to ten before doing anything. That’s a thing people do, isn’t it? Even before Jon had become the Archivist, he hadn’t been the most likeable of adults. He had been quick to judge, dismissive of other’s feelings and outright rude on more than one occasion. He had never before had a problem with his temper, though.

He sighed and forced himself to look over at Mrs. Newman. She was just a woman doing her job, and he appreciated that she was trying to spare his feelings as much as possible while dealing with problems that were mostly caused by Jon himself.

“Where am I going?” Jon meant to sound calm and polite. His words came out in a shy squeak.

“Oh, there’s no need to worry, love. You’re going to stay with a nice man for a few weeks, until we can contact the rest of your family and figure out something permanent.” Jon felt a nauseating wave of unease at the thought of having to live with a stranger. Still, they didn’t hand over children to just anybody, did they? Didn’t you have to… take a test, or pass a class or something, to become a foster parent? It wasn’t something Jon had ever seriously looked into. As for the rest of his family, Jon knew he had some distant cousins elsewhere in the country, but they had never taken an interest in him before, and he didn’t think they would change their minds now.

Maybe his grandmother would change her mind, after a bit of peace and quiet. If he behaved and caused no problems with the man they placed him with, he could prove to her that he wasn’t a wild, tattoo-getting, runaway lunatic. The thought calmed him. He liked having a goal to strive for, and the idea that his separation from his grandmother might be a temporary one, instead of a permanent one, soothed him.

All of that left the murderous elephant in the room: Elias. He had known how to identify Jon to the police when he had told them of Jon’s ‘attack’ on him earlier. The arrogant bastard had probably made it all seem like Jon’s fault, too. Oh, I was just going to check on this poor child who looked so lost and confused, and the little monster bit me, out of the blue, just for offering to help! It’s such a shame, the state of today’s youth.His imagination provided the words in Elias’ most smug tone of voice. Jon tightened his hands into little fists, and pushed his head against the cold window so Mrs. Newman didn’t have a chance to see the rage on his face.

How much did he know? Jon had no way of finding out, and as a consequence no way to plan for it. If Elias still didn’t know about the new ritual, then the safest option was to keep his mouth shut about it while he figured out how to kill Elias, once and for all. If matters moved like they had before, it would be decades before he figured it out, and Jon would have all of that time to figure out how to kill him. If Elias had become aware of it, though, then he needed to contact Gertrude as soon as possible, to warn her about it and hope she could figure out something to keep herself, and the world, safe.

Jon’s stomach audibly gurgled. He sat up and looked down at himself, embarrassed for no particular reason.

“Oh, sweetie, when was the last time you ate?” Mrs. Newman asked, features softening. Ten minutes later they were back on the road with a hamburger and fries that Jon was eagerly devouring as he half-listened to the woman lecture him about eating regularly and not having fast food too often.

All in all, Jon was feeling happier and calmer by the time they pulled into the driveway of a large, two-story house in a nice-looking neighborhood. Jon didn’t recognize this part of the city, but going by the other houses and cars, it was likely that the owner was well to-do. Jon didn’t much care about the money, but he supposed if he had to spend somewhere forcing himself to behave for a few weeks, a nice clean house wasn’t too bad.

Mrs. Newman got out of the car at the same time he did, and walked with him to the door of the house. She gave him a comforting smile and a gentle pat on his back before knocking.

Elias Bouchard opened the door.

Jon kicked him in the shin.

It wasn’t something he decided to do. It wasn’t even something he had done out of anger. The instant Jon saw Elias’ face, fear had taken over his body, and he had lashed out. Not only that, but Jon felt instantly awake and alert, his body ready to move. He could- he could run. He had to run. He had to be anywhere else but here. He had to-

“Jon!” Mrs. Newman cried out in a scandalized voice, her hand coming to grab him by his arm and pull him away from Elias. “Why would you do such a thing?”

Elias, who Jon didn’t stop looking at for a moment, didn’t look ruffled. He had flinched when Jon had kicked him, though, and let out a pained hmph sound.

“I can’t stay here,” Jon said. He turned his face a little towards Mrs. Newman, while never letting his attention slip from Elias. “You can’t leave me here with him,” he said, louder.

“I’m sorry, have we met before?” Elias asked in a perfectly polite voice. He looked from Jon to Mrs. Newman, a little confused. “I got a call earlier that you would be placing a child in my care today, but I assure you I have never seen this boy before today.”

Jon seethed. How he had managed to arrange this, Jon had no clue, but he would be willing to bet another of his ribs that Elias Bouchard had not been registered to act as a foster parent before this morning.

“I’m so sorry, Mr. Bouchard,” Mrs. Newman apologized, still holding on to Jon’s arm. “I don’t doubt what you’re saying. Thank you so much for agreeing to this on such short notice. Jon’s had a very hard day.”

Something about her making excuses for Jon to Elias—to Jonah fucking Magnus – to the man who had manipulated Jon into destroying everyone he had ever loved – made Jon snap.

“You’re a fucking liar!” Jon yelled, twisting in Mrs. Newman’s grip and trying to get at Elias, who was too far for his reach. He tried to pry her fingers off him with his free hand, still yelling. “He’s not safe, and he’s not who he says he is, and you can’t leave me with him!”

Nothing he was doing was working. In his impotent frustration, he reached once more for his power, tearing at the door inside him like a wild animal desperate to get out.

It failed. The door remained intact, perfectly sealed against him.

The pain that tore through his mind was on another level to anything he had experienced before. He collapsed, ears gone deaf from a loud angry buzzing, his eyes blurring with tears.

In a strange way, Jon found serenity in the agony that followed. He was barely aware of the world outside his body, outside of that one unending thrum of pain that made his entire body vibrate along with it. Even the thought that he might have broken something his head failed to elicit an emotional response. His world was that pain, and so his world was simple.

Elias was the one to bring him back, some time later. Jon found himself sitting on a tall kitchen chair,  his legs dangling over the edge, his face close enough to Elias’ that he could see the patterns in the blue of the man’s eyes.

He blinked, still stuck somewhere between a trance of pain and a return to reality, and realized that Elias had one of his hands cupped around Jon’s face, holding it steady at eye-level.

“Are you back with me?” He asked. Jon swallowed, painfully. The hand around his face could so easily lower to circle around his throat. He opened his mouth, but nothing came out.

“Good,” Elias’ grip became a touch harder, tilting Jon’s chin up to where it was uncomfortable, but not yet painful. “We are alone in my house. The lady who dropped you off left a few minutes ago after I assured her I was capable of keeping an eye of you for the night.” There was a hint of a smirk at his word play. “She will come by tomorrow morning to check that you are alright, but until then, we are alone.”

That was the second time he said that. Jon hesitated, then gave a tiny nod, which Elias could doubtless feel through his grip on Jon’s face.

Jon was still dazed, though his mind was clearing up by the second. The pain that had constantly plagued him since he first tried opening that door was fading fast. There was no doubt that Elias had something to do with it, since nothing else Jon had tried had managed to lessen that pain.

“Good, good,” Elias tightened his grip once more, then removed his hand and took a step back. Jon almost fell of the chair once the pressure keeping him upright lifted, but he caught himself. “Now, if you’re done with your tantrums, we can talk.”

Jon pressed his own hand against his cheek, trying to erase the feel of Elias’ touch on his skin. He felt surprisingly calm. Still frightened, of course, but not in the way he had before, where his instincts overrode his reason. You’re here, figure out what you have to do to survive, Jon told himself.

“Not… a tantrum.” He really needed to figure out a way to keep his own mouth shut.

Elias replied only with a skeptical look and an arched eyebrow.

“You’re the creep who corners innocent children in streets and kidnaps them,” Jon added, with a little more heat.

“Your presence here is perfectly legal,” Elias countered easily. “And you are the one who attacked me not once, but twice without provocation.”

Your face is the provocation, Jon thought petulantly.

“Then send me back and get rid of me, if I’m such a nuisance,” Jon said instead. He crossed his arms, and though he really wanted to look away, his survival instincts refused to let Elias out of his sight.

Elias snorted, but didn’t dignify it with a reply. Jon was gratified, at least, to notice that he was standing outside of Jon’s kicking range.

They stared at each other in silence for a minute, and Jon knew that Elias was toying with him, trying to force him to be the one to break and speak first. Jon didn’t want to lose, but at the same time, he did have questions. Was there a way he could figure out how much Elias knew, without letting Elias know how much Jon did?

“How did you figure out my name?” Jon asked slowly. Elias smirked, and reached behind him to touch the back of his dress shirt.

“Your tag,” he explained, “has your name on it.”

Jon wanted to bury his face in his hands. Of all things… he pulled his shirt away from his body and twisted it around his neck until he could see the tag. There, written in his grandmother’s blocky script, ‘Jonathan Sims’.

Jon could have cried. He cleared his throat instead. Stay focused, he reminded himself. Just because there was a mundane explanation didn’t mean that Elias hadn’t also looked into his mind. Wasn’t going to look into his mind now.

At least he had practice about not thinking about specific topics.

Even if he was still rubbish at it, after all that practice.


“What-“ his voice was too rough. He cleared his throat again. “What do you want with me?”

There. A direct question, no information there to inadvertently give up.

Elias tilted his head, still staring at Jon, watching him without Watching him. There was no supernatural pressure to his attention, not yet.

Jon could feel his temper rising. It had been a simple question, hadn’t it? Couldn’t he answer that, even in that damned double-speak he loved so much?

“What are you staring at?” He snapped, after another minute of Elias looking at him like he was considering how best to cut Jon open and display his insides.

“Your eye,” Elias replied easily, lifting a hand towards his own face and touching his left cheek. “Did you know it glows, sometimes?”

That took the wind out of Jon. His… eye? That couldn’t… his grandmother hadn’t said anything about that. With her reaction to the marks on his arms, he didn’t think she would have kept her mouth shut about a glowing eye.

But he hadn’t tried to reach for Beholding while he was around her, had he? He didn’t have to think hard to recall the pain he felt each time he did, always on one side of his face only. His left eye, feeling like it had been stabbed through with a spike.

Jon mirrored Elias, and was suddenly more afraid of himself than he was of the man in front of him. The Eye, the Web, the Spiral: all three had left their mark on him, and he was no closer to knowing what it all meant. He had known his bond with his god hadn’t been removed completely, but the Ceaseless Watcher had never bothered marking Jon in such a way before. Had he lost before being allowed to play out his second chance? Was he already on his way to becoming the monster he had been before, only this time with the body and will of a child?

“N-no,” Jon said, lowering his shaking arm back to his side. “I did not know that.”

“And do you know,” Elias continued, his voice still mild, but now Jon could feel the Watcher’s attention on him like icy breath down the back of his neck, pressing down on him, pushing, closer, wanting, watching, seeking, seeing – “how you got that glowing eye of yours?”

It would have been overwhelming, had Jon not lived under an examination a thousand times more thorough every second of his life before he had come back the night before. It was, in an unsettling way, almost welcome. He had become so used to being known, inside and out, filled and emptied, watched but never guided.

The way an abused dog might still wag its tail at its cruel master, for any morsels of attention they could be bothered to toss their way.

Jon closed his eyes and did his best to ignore it all. He couldn’t let Elias see him react. He really, really wished he knew if Elias was able to see into his mind.

“No,” Jon said, voice stronger. It was the truth; he didn’t know why only one of his eyes was glowing, or how he had ended up in the past, or what any of it meant. Not that he would have told Elias, even if he had known.

Elias’ stare was intense, invasive, and calculating. Jon wished he were better at reading people, because he got nothing from his body language. Then, seemingly without transition, the pressure was gone, and Elias relaxed. He sighed like a tired man who nevertheless chose to indulge in the whims of those around him, and walked away from Jon and into the kitchen, where found a cup and filled it with tap water.

“You ask the strangest questions,” Elias said conversationally as he filled the cup and brought it back to Jon. “Not ‘who are you’, or ‘why did you follow me’, but ‘what do you want from me’.” He set the cup on the kitchen table next to Jon, then moved away again to pick up a different chair and drag it over next to Jon. He sat and leaned over with one elbow on the table and his chin in his hand, looking at him.

Jon opened his mouth, then closed it. He frowned. It sounded like Elias trying get Jon to reveal more, much like Jon wanted to do to Elias. There was no doubt that he was better at it than Jon, but that left the question of why. Surely he wouldn’t waste his time and energy like this if he could simply look into Jon’s mind and see everything there? Would he bother to play along like this just to keep Jon in the dark about how much he knew?

Jon wanted to give the idea more thought, but now wasn’t the time.

“Because you’re a creep who somehow managed to get me to your house within the first day of meeting me,” Jon didn’t have to feign the disgust he felt at being forced to share a house with this man, even if only for a night. And it won’t be for longer than a night, even if I have to run away and live in the tunnels with Leitner.

Elias sighed, like he was disappointed by Jon’s words. He ignored them and continued, “and then, just outside my house, you call me a liar, and… what was it again? I’m not who I say I am?” His smile was as condescending as his words, and for a moment Jon was incensed to the point where he thought having to deal with the smug bastard for weeks was a worse prospect than the end of the world. “I wonder if you might tell me who it is I am supposed to be?”

Jonah Magnus. The words were so close to being out of his mouth that he had to shut his teeth on them, spooked. It was one thing to be overpowered by a man using unnatural powers to learn his secrets, but to blurt them out so carelessly? Was it possible that Elias had some powers of compulsion, as Jon once had?

No. He knew the feel of Beholding’s powers on him, and there had been no hint of it. He had been angry and wanting to taunt Elias with knowledge he wasn’t supposed to have. Childish, he reminded himself. He needed to take a step back. He needed to calm down and be more careful.

He needed a way out of here.

That would come later. For now, he could be as stubborn as Elias, if that was how he had to play this little game.

“What. Do you want. With me.” He repeated slowly.

Elias pushed the glass of water closer to Jon, an obvious invitation. Jon had seen him pour the water, knew there was nothing else in the cup, but he was damned if he was going to take anything Elias offered, even if it was just water. Elias must have recognized the stubborn refusal in Jon’s posture, since he gave another dramatic sigh and pulled his hand back.

“It is not so mysterious as you’re making it all sound,” Elias said, with half a shrug. “I noticed you. Even from across the street, the way you…” he shook his head, but didn’t finish the idea. “I got curious, and I saw that if I didn’t act, someone else would. It’s as simple as that.”

“Someone else,” Jon repeated. “I don’t think other people usually think of kidnapping as easily as you do, you creep.”

There. A small flinch, when Jon used the word ‘creep’. He knew it had been getting under his skin. He resolved to use it as much as he could for as long as he was forced to continue this conversation.

“Do you have any idea…” Elias started, then once again gave up with a sigh. “But of course you don’t. It’s a wonder you have survived as long as you have, with survival instincts that abysmal.”

“My survival instincts are just fine!” Jon snapped, aware that Elias was echoing some of Jon’s earlier thoughts, and not being happy about it.

There was another skeptical look and raised eyebrow, which Jon supposed was all that Elias would give in response to that.

“What would you say if I were to suggest you were being hunted, by someone who is not myself?” Elias asked.

Jon would say he was full of shit. Just after he looked around to make sure there wasn’t anyone sneaking up behind him. Being hunted by Daisy once was enough to make him paranoid for life.

There were layers to what Elias said that Jon couldn’t ignore. If Jon knew nothing of the entities, his words would imply there were people out there that wanted to hurt Jon, for some reason. Ridiculous, but he remembered well just how far he had gone out of his way in the past to rationalize all that he saw and read at work, even with evidence at his fingertips.

If Jon was aware of them, and knew specifically of the Hunt, then Elias’ words were suggestive of something far more worrying. Jon tried to keep a blank face. How he reacted, he knew, would tell Elias more than he wanted about just how much he knew.

Could his words be more than a provocation, though?

“I haven’t done anything,” Jon said, frustrated. He hadn’t yet had the chance to. Why would the Hunt be after him now? If he hadn’t been such an impulsive, useless idiot, Elias wouldn’t have known about him. How would the Hunt have picked on his trail, then?

He’s just trying to get a reaction from you, he told himself, trying, unsuccessfully, to forget the idea that already he had made enemies from the other entities. How long would he survive if any of them got a hold of him?

He hugged his arms to his chest, his hands brushing the brands of both his arms. Three times the marked, by three he couldn’t be certain were interested in his goals or his survival. Last time, being of Beholding had earned him enemies for no reason other than his patron. Would he have three times as many enemies, now, inheriting the Spiral’s and the Web’s as well? It didn’t seem fair, when he couldn’t even count on those two as his allies, either.

How is it possible that I go back in time, as the only person with knowledge of the future, and manage to put myself into a worse situation than the first time around, where I failed so utterly?

“Jon.” It was just his name, but it caught Jon’s attention like a hook and dragged him up from his inward collapse. Elias was studying him, his attention focused like a razor wire. “I don’t think it’s unreasonable to agree that we’re both set on keeping secrets from each other, is it?”

There was something about the way he said the words that made Jon shiver. He’s not smirking, he realized. There was nothing smug or arrogant or taunting about his expression, posture or words. He was being serious, which meant he was taking Jon seriously, which felt like one of those times when you realized that the worst things that could happen to you were sometimes the ones you wished would happen.

Why had he been so desperate not to be treated like a child? Children were as good as invisible. He really wished he could be invisible right now.

Jon thought about arguing, and being contrary, but really, what was the point? He was sure his every response was letting Elias know that he knew more than he ought to. He was also growing increasingly sure that Elias didn’t have free reign on his thoughts. Was his mark from the Eye useful for more than a recurring migraine?

If Elias couldn’t lift Jon’s thoughts and memories from his mind, then the danger lay in Jon being careless enough to slip up and say things he shouldn’t. His resolution to run away strengthened. The longer he was around Elias, the more opportunities would come for him to mess up.

“Jon.” Elias repeated. “Please respond when I talk to you.”

That was more like the usual Elias. Jon shrugged, and tried to fake looking relaxed.

“I’m not surprised a creep like you is keeping secrets, Elias.”

Jon wondered what would happen if he pushed Elias into real annoyance, or anger. If he was going to kill me he would have done so already, he thought stubbornly. And since Jon was alive, that meant Elias wanted something from him.

At least until he became an obstacle to his plans, in which case there was always that pipe murder business.

Elias muttered something that could have been ‘children’, but once more ignored Jon. He sat up in his chair and rubbed at his eyes. Jon felt a thrill of accomplishment at that. He might not be able to outsmart or outmaneuver Elias, but at least he was capable of annoying him.

“I’m going to be blunt, because subtlety seems to be lost on you,” Elias said, still rubbing his eyes. “I know you’re thinking about running away. I know you think, for whatever reason, that I’m the villain in your story and that getting away from me is most important.” He sighed, then opened his eyes again to look Jon in the eye. “I’m not going to pretend that I don’t want to know what you’re keeping secret, or how you came to know about me, or how you got that unlikely eye of yours. I will also admit that I don’t know much about how to care for children, or even tolerate them.” There was a flinty look in his eyes that made Jon almost regret his earlier taunting. He glared right back, though his heart picked up its frightened pace. “But I need you to listen to me, and to believe me when I tell you: you are being hunted.”

“Why should I believe you?” Jon asked, and did not say, you are more dangerous than any hunter that might be after me.

Elias considered him for a minute, and then shrugged. He extended his left hand, palm upward, to Jon. “I can prove it.”

Jon looked at the hand with distaste. “I am not going touch you,” he said.

“You’re in my house and under my guardianship already, Jon. Really, what’s the harm? Either you believe me or you get more proof that I’m that dastardly villain you’ve already cast me as.” Elias shrugged, and lifted his hand a little.

Jon glared at it, and almost laughed when he noticed a faint line of bruises shaped like teeth along the outside of his palm. The sooner you get this over with, the sooner you can figure out a way to leave. He took his right hand and put it just above Elias’, so his fingers were barely touching Elias’ palm.

He felt the Eye’s attention on him once more, heavy and expectant. He also felt a distant tugging, like there was a chord attached to him mind that someone had picked up and pulled. It felt like an invitation. Jon didn’t have a chance to do more than turn his thoughts to it, curious, when—

A blind mat stands across the street from a well-maintained two-story home. The street has been plunged into darkness around him. The street-lights, those unwelcome invaders of the night that make fools believe the darkness has been tamed, fade in the proximity to the man who knows the truth of them.

They are lies, and they are distractions, but the blind man can bring the truth to everyone, if only they look outside, and join him in his dark vigil.

He is not here for them that night, however. The blind man stands across from the house of the Ceaseless Watcher’s servant, and he waits for an opportunity.  

There wasn’t a servant to any of the gods who failed to notice the rupture in reality the night before. The blind man can only greedily remember the ecstasy of a single moment when his god was suddenly in the world beside him, closer than it had ever been before, and the truth of its essence had nearly turned the blind man mad.

In the next moment, the world was returned to normal, and all the gods’ servants wept at the loss.

It was by chance that the blind man passed the child standing across from the Ceaseless Watcher’s precious Archives. His purpose became forgotten when he sensed how the boy bled fears much the same way a boat would leave ripples on still waters. Fears of everything, the blind man knew, and in the same flavor of the rupture the night before.

The blind man stands and waits for an opportunity outside the house where he knows is a boy, whose fear feeds him still, that has answers he desperately needs

Jon tore his hand free of Elias’, and promptly lost his supper all over Elias’ kitchen floor.

Chapter Text

Jon felt too sick and shocked to complain when Elias ushered him off the tall kitchen chair and moved him to stand in a corner of the kitchen. He didn’t complain when the man pressed the cup of water to his hands, and instead slowly sipped at it as Elias bustled about cleaning up the mess he had made. He was making small disgusted sounds as he took off his shoes and placed them in a plastic bag by the door, then returned with a mop to ineffectively clean the floor.

Jon didn’t know what to feel. Was it possible for someone’s emotions to simply shut down after being hit with too many shocks, too quickly? Jon hadn’t thought so, before. Even when he was overwhelmed, especially when he was overwhelmed, he was cursed to experience everything, all at once. Maybe the problem was his child’s body, unused to such strains. Just this day he had been cornered, chased, and forced to hide in a spider-riddled tunnel for hours. He had been abandoned by his only family and taken in by the person who most frightened him, who now had full legal control over him.

He had been shown that, once again, he had enemies, ones who were not as profoundly tied to the concept of curiosity as Jonah Magnus was. Ones who might simply decide to kill him, or send him into a fate worse than death, if he didn’t cooperate.

Jon didn’t remember dropping his cup, or starting to cry. It should have been embarrassing to break down like that in front of Elias, but Jon couldn’t find it in himself to care. He wasn’t even sure what he was crying about. He just felt too full, too overwhelmed. There was fear, and hurt, and hysterical laughter that bubbled up in between sobs until he could hardly breathe, until he was sure he wasn’t breathing, and oh god, he couldn’t breathe- was he going to die here? Like this? All alone in the company of the one man he wanted dead above all others, having accomplished nothing?

His heart hurt, and it made a strange kind of sense that it did. He hugged his trembling arms closer to his chest, barely aware that he was on the floor again, or that Elias was near him, saying something he couldn’t recognize.

He wished he had gone to find Martin instead of going to the institute. Even if he was just a child, it would have been nice to see him one more time before he died.

“Jon,” It was Elias again, too close, about to touch him and make him see again. Jon tried to move out of his way, but his body had locked in place and refused to move, and he still wasn’t breathing, and-

“Jon,” Elias repeated, and the Watcher’s gaze manifested like a lead weight around Jon’s shoulders. It should have made things worse. Instead, Jon was able to take a deep breath like he had just surfaced from the depths of a lake.

Slowly, he recovered. The pain in his chest faded, and his breathing returned to normal. His limbs ached, but were responsive enough to move once more.

“Jon,” Elias said again. He had another cup of water in his hands, held out for him to take. Jon didn’t want it, but he felt too tired to argue. He held the cup with still trembling fingers and drank it down.

“Maybe we can continue this in the morning,” Elias suggested. Jon gave him a blank, heavy-lidded look. He didn’t think he would be able to form a word to save his life. He only flinched a little when Elias reached for him to take back the empty cup, and then to help him to his feet. He half-walked, was half-dragged out of the kitchen and up the stairs, then into the first room on the right.

The bedroom Elias had prepared for Jon was twice as large as his room back at his grandmother’s house, with a large, comfortable bed, an old wooden dresser and a small bookshelf filled with books.

Jon barely took stock of all of this before collapsing on the bed. He knew there were things he needed to do. He needed to plan for an escape. He needed to figure out just how many other avatars had become aware of him and were coming to get him. He needed to replay his conversation with Elias word by word until he could be sure he hadn’t given up too much, and to convince himself of his hunch that Elias couldn’t read his mind.

He knew he should do all of that, and more. He was simply too exhausted to do it.

Elias was saying something, but Jon was asleep within seconds.

Jon dreams of a room that is not a room. He knows it is supposed to be a room, but it is wrong in all the details, as though it was a room drawn by someone who had heard the word described, but never seen one before.

There are four walls, a floor, and a ceiling. They are all painted the same uniform white color that is impossible to make paint out of, more like light itself compressed into two dimensions and shaped like a box. There is a door, but it is drawn on the wall, and cannot be opened. There is a table, and it has four legs and a surface, but it looks more like a madman’s drawing of a headless, flat-backed animal than anything a person would make. The surface is smooth like polished metal, though the legs are furry and strange.

On top of the table are three objects. They look like charms for a bracelet, a bracelet that Jon suddenly Knows he is wearing, but they are as wrong as the rest of the room.

There is a living spider made of metal with a ring attached to its back, just behind its second set of legs. It scuttles on top of the table, making small clink sounds as its legs make contact with the hard surface.     

There is a miniature puzzle, indescribable, shifting and twisting and becoming more impossible the longer that Jon stares. It has colors and patterns, Jon is sure, but none he can remember when his eyes are no longer locked on it.

There is an eye, round and staring, with a glowing green iris and a pupil which reacts to stimuli Jon can’t see. It moves, looking everywhere, never stopping, and only the small metal ring on the side opposite the pupil keeps it from rolling around the table.

Jon picks each of them up, carefully, too curious not to. The spider skitters over his hand and sits on his palm, staring up at him with too-many eyes. The puzzle shifts and almost melts into his skin before he drops it back on the table. The eye stares, its full attention only on him while he holds it.

“Three is too many,” he tells them, but they are not human, are not even alive, really, and so they do not understand. “You’ll get me killed.”

Jon attaches the eye to his bracelet without thinking. It has been a part of him for a very long time, and he doesn’t want to lose it. He clicks the bracelet shut and lifts it to get a better look, but as he does the ring on the eye charm breaks, and it falls back down on the table. Jon frowns, but doesn’t try again.

The walls of the not-room change. He sees old memories, those he used to visit nightly and devour, back when he knew what kind of monster he was. They are blurred, and removed from his experience such that he can only tell what they are because they were once so familiar.

Then the walls are gone, and the room is gone, and Jon can feel himself alone once more, and more mundane nightmares take root in his restless sleep.

Jon woke up in the afternoon, disoriented and lethargic. He struggled faintly against unfamiliar sheets that had become tangled around his body, a constraint which had probably been the reason why he woke from a nightmare of being dragged into the Buried.

“Damn it,” he whispered to himself, giving up on the sheets and staring blankly at the ceiling in his new room.

The events of the two previous days cluttered around his mind like a flock of frightened birds, a hundred little decisions he wanted to take back, a dozen revelations he wished he had known before he went and made things worse for himself.

Over it all, memories of his life before he returned waited to be acknowledged, like a dark shadow beneath his every thought, waiting to be acknowledged.

His earlier optimism was nowhere to be found. Yes, he still had a lot of time before any of his friends became involved with the Institute (and he really needed to  sit down and figure out how much time, exactly, where they were at this point in time and what the best way to reach them would be). Yes, he knew everything he had not the first time around, and would not be falling for the same lies and manipulation this time.

Somehow, though, Jon had managed to turn his every advantage into a liability. All that extra time meant nothing if he was already getting embroiled in the affairs of avatars, twenty years early and without even the independence of adulthood as a flimsy defense for himself. All of his foreknowledge was putting him in danger, instead of being the tool he used to keep himself and his loved ones safe.

He thought of the Seeing that Elias had shared with him the night before (Had Elias always been able to share his awareness like that? Just how many of his abilities was Jon still unaware of?) and felt echoes of the nausea from the night before. It wasn’t just that there was an avatar of the Dark already interested in him (that couldn’t be Maxwell Rayner, could it? Surely in that mad church of his there was more than one blind person to become an avatar? and wasn’t that a delightful new nightmare, to think of himself as defenseless as he was in the grasp of cultists from the Dark?), and it wasn’t just the implications that there might already be others on his trail (just how unlucky would he have to be, to have run across any more avatars during his ill-advised trip the day before?),  it was the sensation he had shared, from just a moment, as he was shown the blind man’s mind.

Jon had been a monster before, for a very long time. Because of his chosen patron, and the way he had been tied into the final ritual, he had become able to feed on every kind of fear. He could feed on the primary fear itself, and not just while voyeuristically sharing the experience of it. Or maybe they had become one and the same thing, with the Eye up in the sky, sharing everything with him as it happened, as ignorant sometimes of the concept of time as any of the other entities.

There was a strange sense of cannibalism, to feel another feed on Jon’s own fear in the way he had so often fed himself. Of course, his fear had always fed his god (and the other entities, too? They had been there in the world, as much a part of the world as the ground on his feet or the air in his lungs, and Jon himself was the Archive of all fears, forever doomed to feel them second-hand, an eternal feast—god, he needed to think of something else), but Jon had never been made to feed on his own fear before.

He had also never stopped to consider that, with all the memories he dragged along in his wake, he really did make an appetizing meal for any avatar that came across him. Was he ever not afraid? It had become a part of him, something he accepted and worked around, and barely tried to fight. It had gotten better, he thought, once he was back in the real world. Better, he realized with another disgusted wince towards his earlier self, was not good.

Every avatar had felt his arrival. In retrospect, Jon thought he should have considered the possibility. For a moment, past and future had become linked through whatever gate across time had been opened by Helen and the Spider. For that moment, the warped reality of the future had bled through into this present. Jon shuddered, and curled around his painfully empty stomach. What else had been affected by that break in reality? What other change would come to haunt Jon, unprepared for the consequences of his accidental travel in time?

Eventually he became tired of sulking, having made no progress while his thoughts chased each other around in circles and did little more than rise his anxiety. Carefully, he managed to extricate himself from his tangled sheets, wondering how he had managed to get under them when he was pretty sure he had fallen asleep on top of the bed. More curiously—alarmingly? –he was only wearing his underwear. He sat up and looked down at his mostly naked body. Had Elias… stripped him and tucked him into bed last night?

Nope. He wasn’t going to touch that thought with a ten-foot pole. As far as he was concerned, he had taken off his own clothes while half asleep when he got too hot, then gotten under the covers when he got too cold, all forgotten from how tired he had been. That was definitely what had happened.

Now that he was up, though, he remembered an earlier thought. Hadn’t he wanted to find some privacy to check himself over for any other marks? He supposed there wasn’t much of a point, now that he knew the Eye had marked him, by giving him an eye that glowed whenever he reached for a power that was no longer his own. Still, he was determined not to be blindsided by something on his own body again, and so he got to his feet, and swayed from a lightheadedness that almost dropped him back in bed.

After minutes of looking himself over thoroughly, the only surprises were just how young he looked, and how untouched his skin was. He had almost forgotten what it was like, not to have the scars of worms on his face and neck, or the gruesome burns on his wrist, or the thin scars from being stabbed by Michael and Melanie, and cut by Daisy. Hell, when he was looking, he could notice there was a difference in how his ribs looked, now that he was no longer two short of the whole.

Not unmarked, though, he reminded himself, looking at the two marks on each of his arms.

He found his old clothes nowhere to be found in the room, but after a bit of exploration, found that the dresser on the wall opposite his bed held a selection of new clothes in his size, some still with their price tags attached. Jon frowned as he put on the first clothes he found, and wondered when Elias had had the time to go out and buy him clothing, then to bring it in and put it away in Jon’s room. Surely, that had been before Jon had come along last night? Jon didn’t want to consider how deeply he had slept last night, if Elias could come and go bringing clothes and taking out his laundry (which had undoubtedly been left on the floor by Jon himself, and Elias had picked up after him, probably just unhappy to have a messy eight year old in his house).

He ended up in a long-sleeved shirt with horizontal green and white stripes and a green hoodie that was more ornamental than useful, comfortable jeans and black socks. It wasn’t exactly his style, but then again, eight-year-olds didn’t usually walk around in dress shirts and vests, did they?

Now dressed, but in no desire to leave the false safety of his closed room, Jon took his time exploring it. The window was, perhaps unsurprisingly, welded shut. There was a nice view of the back patio of the house from here, hidden from the other houses by tall hedges that ensured privacy. The bed Jon paid little attention to, save for quickly rearranging the blankets on top into a semblance of order. The bookshelf held Jon’s interest the longest, small as it was, since Jon couldn’t help sitting next to it and taking out every single book it contained and looking it over before putting it back.

It held a strange combination of books: there were fairy-tales (mostly the darker versions not often read aloud to children), a few history books from the industrial revolution, and some hand-written volumes that reminded Jon uncomfortably of how long it had been since he last read a statement.

Which was stupid, since he no longer needed to feed, since he no longer had any powers to make him hungry. Habit was a powerful thing, though.

He was only two thirds of the way through when he felt the Watcher’s eye turn on him, and hastily shoved the book in his hands back on the shelf, feeling flustered for no reason he could have explained.

Seconds later, he felt the distinctive clack of a latch, and his door was opened. Jon, still kneeling on the ground next to the bookshelf, looked up at Elias, standing in his doorway and giving him an unreadable look. Then, Elias’ face became animated, and he flashed Jon a lopsided smile.

“Like the books?” He asked.

“No,” Jon replied immediately. Anything that made Elias happy was wrong, and so he became determined to be as contrary a child as there ever had been. Elias rolled his eyes.

“Come, there’s food and we have much to discuss.” Elias left the doorway and headed in the direction of the stairs. Jon hesitated, then decided he was too hungry to complain and followed.

“You locked me in,” Jon accused him as they went down the stairs and again into the kitchen.

“You’re likely to get yourself killed if left to your own devices,” Elias replied calmly.

That wasn’t true! Sure, he might have gotten kidnapped once—or twice—or a few times—when he was doing things his way, but he hadn’t died yet!

(Yes, he knew his own thoughts had run along the same lines not long before. No, he was not willing to cede even an inch to Elias in his own thoughts.)

“Am not,” Jon replied, eloquently. Elias, as was becoming his custom, ignored him.

The kitchen looked much as it had last night, pristine and without warmth or personality. The place where Jon had made a mess had been cleaned, and Jon could only assume Elias had called someone in to do it, remembering how bad a job he had done with it the night before. He forgot to be annoyed at Elias when he noticed the covered pot in the stove top, and caught the scent of tomato and beef and other delicious herbs that made his mouth water.

He didn’t need Elias to tell him to sit. He clambered onto the same tall chair at the kitchen counter he had used before, with some difficulty given his height relative to it. By the time he was seated, Elias had already filled a plate with a small serving of spaghetti and meat sauce and put it in front of him.

Jon ate like a starved lion, with little attention paid to manners or to Elias watching him. He hadn’t been able to keep a meal down since he had arrived in the past, and he was tired of feeling hungry.

He finished much too quickly, and the only reason he didn’t get up to serve himself another serving was from realizing how difficult it would be to get off the chair without falling, and that he probably wouldn’t be able to reach the pot’s lid even if he did. He hesitated, looking from his empty plate to Elias. It wasn’t like asking for more food was going to make his current situation worse, was it?

Not that it mattered, since Elias took his plate and set it on the sink, and said, “that’s enough for now. We don’t want you getting sick again.”

Jon did not throw a saltshaker at him. Barely.

“We need to finish our conversation from last night.” Elias sat down at the kitchen counter, this time across from Jon. A gesture, probably, that Jon was allowed some space. A failure, in that Jon became too aware that the distance between them was entirely Elias’ choice. Nonetheless, Jon wiped his face with some napkins on the table, and tried to make himself look calm and collected.

Because as much as he hated to admit it, Elias was right. They did need to talk. And many of Jon’s certainties from the night before – that he had to figure out a way to leave as soon as he could, that Elias was his worst threat, that nothing could be worse than staying—felt as unsteady as a tower of cards in a wind storm.

Hadn’t he decided once, already, that of all entities Beholding was the least abominable? If he was already embroiled in their world, he could do worse than to get Elias as his guardian. At least as long as he kept the truth from him.

“Is the- ah, the man, from last night. I- Is he still out there?” Jon asked.

Elias shook his head. “I imagine he has more important things to do than stand sentinel outside a house he has no intention of breaching, no matter how interesting a secret it holds.” There was a strange, angry smile on Elias’ face as he went on. “Not everyone is as dedicated to secrets as me, I’m afraid.”

Jon started to nod, then turned the gesture into a jerk of his head. He didn’t want Elias to know just how much Jon knew, and a part of that was feigning ignorance about the entities. If not their existence, then at least their nature.

Which meant he couldn’t let what happened last night slip by unquestioned. “What was that? When you- when I- seeing outside—” He made a vague gesture with his hands, pointing to Elias, then back to himself, then moving his hands back and forth.

“It is something I can do, at times,” Elias said, his eyes penetrating. The Watcher’s gaze, which hadn’t lifted from Jon from the moment it saw him back in his room, became heavier. “Don’t worry yourself over it.”

True, and absolutely worthless as a piece of information. If Jon didn’t hate the man as much, he would almost be impressed. That was exactly the kind of answer Jon should be aiming for. Something true so he wouldn’t be caught in a lie later, but something which would give Elias nothing to work with.

“He… is he the only one, the only other one, after me?” If Jon was forced to ask questions to things he already knew the answers to, he might as well ask something he wanted to know.

Elias shrugged. “Maybe. Maybe not. I can’t be sure. What I do know is that the way you are right now you are likely to draw in a crowd, if you should go out on your own again.”

He was hinting towards the avatars, in case Jon knew what they were, but leaving it vague enough to mean anything, in case he didn’t. Jon tried to remember what he had been like before he had become the Archivist. Skeptical, certainly. Had Elias tried something like this on his old self, what would have been his reaction?

Dismissal and a condescending lecture on how most things were not supernatural, and that Jon was fine and there was nothing to fear from walking around when he was innocent of whatever Elias suggested.

No, that wouldn’t work. Jon didn’t want to put himself in danger from other avatars just to convince Elias he didn’t know anything.

“So what am I supposed to do?” He wasn’t feigning the frustration that came through in his voice. He did notwant to deal with any of this. “Stay locked inside my room, or your house, for the rest of my life? And how safe is this place, anyway?” Jon gestured around him in the kitchen, which was clean and nice, but not exactly a fortress against other avatars. “And how safe are you? You’re just the one who got to me quickest, aren’t you?”

Too late, Jon realized his outburst would only convince Elias that Jon had already drawn a parallel between him and the cultist of the Dark. He should really stop and consider his words better, but they were still coming.

“What are you going to do to me, Elias? How far will you go to satisfy your curiosity, how much safer are you than –” under the table, he grabbed his pinky finger and twisted hard enough for pain to drown out the torrent of words. Tears came to his eyes, which he quickly blinked clear and wiped on his shirt sleeves. The tears could just as easily be an emotional response, and it wasn’t like he had broken his finger or anything. It was just a quick, painful twist to bring him back to his senses.

It had been necessary, too, since Jon was almost certain the next words out of his mouth were going to be ‘the Dark’.

Elias had no reaction to his outburst. From the way his eyes seemed to drink up Jon’s every twitch, however, Jon knew the man had been paying close attention.

“And so we come to the crux of our problem,” Elias said softly. “Trust.”

Jon tried to make his face go still, but he was sure that every line of his body screamed how impossible it was that Jon would ever again trust this man.

“I do not mean to keep you locked up in my house indefinitely,” Elias said, choosing to go back to Jon’s first arguments. “The… trail that the man outside noticed in you, it is fading.” Jon was surprised by this. He didn’t feel particularly less afraid than he had yesterday. Could Elias be lying? Trying to placate Jon into not doing anything stupid by giving him false hope? “I believe that within a month or two, it will have faded to the point where it should only be visible to one who stands in close proximity to you.”

A month or two. Jon grimaced. If this was the truth, then staying with Elias during that time would probably be the safest option for him. It would not be the safest option for the world, but was that even an option anymore?

“There are a number of practical ways we can deal with this. I will not be sending you back to your school, for one. I would be unable to protect you there.” School. Jon had barely thought of it since he had returned. He would want to drop out of it as soon as possible, but while that was a possibility for a teenager, there was no way they would allow a child as young as he was to stop going. Not without an adult guardian taking him out of it.

He felt ambivalent about it all. School would have been one way to stay away from Elias for several hours each day, but it would also be filled with children, who would expect Jon to be one of them, and endless hours of being taught things he had no difficulty with.

“You will be accompanying me into work when I go in,” Elias continued. Jon’s attention snapped back to him. He was going to be doing what? “My house is not unprotected, and I am not without allies, but in these matters I find it best not to allow temptation to take root.”

“Your… work.” Jon repeated slowly.

“Yes. I am the head of the Magnus Institute, recently promoted. But you knew that, didn’t you?” His smile changed again. “And we haven’t even gotten to the question of what you were doing looking at my Institute like a lost little calf, have we?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Jon muttered, looking down. Elias waved it off.

“We’ll get to that. We have time.” There was little Elias could say that could make a shiver run down Jon’s spine. ‘We have time’ did. “We can also get into what my Institute does, exactly, as needed later.”

“And what am I supposed to do there?” Jon glared up at Elias. “I doubt you’ll let me go anywhere if you’re that worried I’ll be getting myself killed anywhere I go on my own.”

“The Institute is a safe enough place for you, as these matters stand.” Elias said. “Not that you’ll have the run of the place, but it won’t be hard to set you up in an empty office or the library, and you can continue your education there.” Jon took that to mean it wouldn’t be hard for Elias to lock Jon up in an empty office, or to set someone else to watching Jon in the library. “Or you could stay in my office with me, if you’re quiet enough,” he added like an afterthought.

“I would sooner jump off a cliff,” Jon replied honestly.

They stared at each other, and there was a small victory for Jon when Elias was the first one to look away and bring his fingers to his eyes, like he was starting to get a headache.

“The rest of your questions are harder to answer, Jon. Not because I don’t know the answer, but because I’m certain you are not going to believe anything I say.” Elias sighed and spread out his hands in a gesture of ‘so you see’. “Like I said last night, we both have secrets. We are both very committed to keeping our secrets to ourselves. In other circumstances, I might be willing to call in outside help from some of my less savory allies in order to tear your secrets out of you in any way I could,” he smiled sheepishly, like he was showing how ridiculous what he said sounded, if not for his damnably serious uncanny blue eyes, “but I’ll repeat my earlier point; I won here. I have the time to play this patiently, to earn your trust and wait.

“You won as well, Jon, even if you don’t believe me. Trust me when I say, if the others had gotten you, they would show you neither patience nor kindness. You’re not stupid, Jon. I can see that very well. Young as you are, smart as you are, you are also frightened, and alone, and beset on all sides. Let me help you. It is the best—the only—chance you have.”

“It is because you are being…” kind seemed like the wrong word, so Jon tried, “nice, that I know you’re planning something.”

That finally got a reaction. Elias looked exasperated for a moment before he pulled it back with a deep breath. “We’ll definitely have to go and figure out when all this mistrust for me is coming from. You realize you put me in an impossible situation? If I’m nice, I’m suspicious and want something from you. If I wasn’t- well, then I would be already hurting you, wouldn’t I? Nothing I can do here will reflect well on me.”

“Someone like you doesn’t do ‘nice’ without getting something out of it,” Jon said again. He had no intentions of telling Elias about their shared history. How else could Jon explain what he knew about him? Could he afford not to give an explanation, and to allow Elias’ imagination to fill in the blanks? Maybe a little misdirection could work. And if that was a tactic he had learned from Elias himself, all the better. “I-I know what you are.” It was a risk, but not a big one. Elias already knew that Jon wasn’t completely ignorant. He spoke slowly and picked his words carefully. “You and that man outside. A-and others.”

Elias said nothing, but the Watchers attention grew almost painful on him.

“You’re all monsters. Not… not human.”

“And what would make you think such a thing?” Elias asked, so softly Jon barely heard him over the sound of his own heavier breathing.

Jon hugged his arms to himself, pressing down on the marks there. Had Elias seen them already? Did he know Jon already had close contact with two—three, counting Beholding—entities?

Could he count on Elias not seeing them, if he really was going to spend the next few weeks with him?

“Because I have some experience with monsters,” Jon said, just as soft. Let Elias make of that what he would.

“I bet you do,” Elias agreed, and the Watcher’s attention on Jon vanished. “You’ll have to tell me the details, sometime.”

Jon glared at him, and said nothing more. Elias chuckled.

“You are not going to be an easy kid, are you?” Elias folded his hands in front of him and rested his chin above them. “Maybe I am a monster, and maybe I’m not. Maybe my behavior towards you is because I want something from you, or maybe it’s not. You have a choice to make anyway, Jon. Because while I would love to do this with your cooperation, I am also more than capable of dragging you kicking and screaming to safety.”

A choice. Who was Elias kidding? The only upside to picking him over whatever other avatar could get their hands on Jon was that Jon knew Elias, and his goals, and had a small chance of staying alive long enough to do something that mattered. The downsides were too many to count, including putting the world at risk.

Jon was selfish, though. He wanted to live. He wanted to find his friends and save them. He wanted to make a difference.

“I’ll cooperate,” Jon said, feeling damned. “But only when it comes to my safety.”

Elias smile broadened. “We have time to work on that.”


Chapter Text

Jon learned pretty quickly that Elias’ job wasn’t all for show. Shortly after their conversation, while Elias was still watching Jon expectantly and Jon was determined to say nothing else for the rest of the day, if necessary, the house phone rang. Elias went to pick it up, and Jon was left with the uncomfortable feeling that he didn’t know what went next.

Running away was out, obviously, but so were most of Jon’s other ideas. There was no way he was going to research his friends when Elias was looking over his shoulder, and the same went for anything else he could look into to help him stop Elias. Moreover, just how was Jon supposed to look into any of this, when he was stuck inside Elias’ home, without a computer or phone?

Jon unhappily followed that thought to the realization the he didn’t even know if the internet existed yet. Surely it did—hadn’t he read something about it being invented in the 80’s? But there was a big difference between it existing, and it being something Jon could access and use for his purposes. He remembered making his first email account when he was twelve or thirteen, at school. His grandmother hadn’t bought him a computer until 2002, when his constant asking had worn her down enough to buy him a cheap model ‘just for school’.

Did Elias have a computer? At work, almost certainly. Given what Jon knew about Elias’ real age, he found himself curious about just how well the man adapted to modern technology. Did he stay up to date and buy himself the latest technology to keep himself educated? Or did he turn his home into a shelter for the sensibilities of an age gone by?

Bored and curious, Jon climbed down from the kitchen chair. Elias was still speaking on the phone, something about travel allowances and quarterly reports that didn’t sound remotely sinister, except in the mundane way of businesses everywhere. Jon hesitated, wondering if he was supposed to stay in the kitchen, before remembering that he didn’t much care what Elias wanted him to do.

Jon explored the house, aware of Elias eyes, real and supernatural, constantly on him. He found a large living room in the first floor, tastefully decorated with matching furniture in white and green. There were two large couches against one corner and a squat glass coffee table, along with a recliner next to a small stand which held a book and a pair of glasses. Even the rug was pristine and matched the décor. The living room had glass doors which led to the back patio Jon could see from his room, which had neatly trimmed grass and well-tended flower beds Jon would have bet Elias never touched.  

He found a dining room, as clean as the rest of the house, with fine tableware stored inside a cabinet with glass doors, ready for a dinner party. (Jon wondered if Elias ever had dinner parties, and if he did, who with? He couldn’t shake a disturbing mental image of Elias sitting across from Peter Lukas, Simon Fairchild and Nikola Orsinov, sharing wine and conversation).

There were three bedrooms upstairs: Jon’s own, with a newly installed deadbolt on the outside (originally a guest room, Jon assumed), Elias’, locked against his curiosity, and what looked to be an office/library, with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves filled with books that made Jon pause to admire. There was also a large, antique desk, with a small lamp perched on one corner, and neat piles of paper arranged on top. The chair looked new, black and expensive, and there was a bulky dehumidifier working from a corner of the room, preserving the books.

The house also had two bathrooms, a larger one upstairs with a shower and a smaller one downstairs with only a toilet.

Jon wandered back into the library, frowning. He wasn’t sure what the house told him about Elias. A lot of it felt as blank and lacking in personality as the kitchen. Clean and tasteful, yes, but they also gave the feeling of having been picked from a catalog. Jon wondered if he kept his more personal furniture and curios in his room, or if he was so invested in playing the role of Elias Bouchard that he gave up on all his personal possessions every time he moved on to a new host.

No television, he thought, as he tried to cast back to his childhood and remember how common that had been at this time. Unusual, but not unheard of, he decided. It didn’t bother him much; other than the occasional documentary, he had never been much for television, and he found it hard to picture Elias sitting on his large couch, laughing at some comedy.

He could hear Elias downstairs, still on the phone, and feel the eyes he had set to watch him. He went over to one of the bookshelves, which didn’t seem to be organized with any system Jon had heard of, and found a mix of titles similarly disparate as the ones he had found in his room. There were history books, and biographies, interspersed with an occasional science textbook or fiction novel. Throughout, more handwritten volumes, without words on their spines to indicate their contents.

His eye caught on one while he browsed. It was bound with a dark red leather cover, and on its spine was a spiral identical to the one on Jon’s arm. He hesitated, having already drawn it halfway from its shelf. Could it be a Leitner? It was possible, he supposed, though he didn’t see what motive Elias would have to keep one in his personal library instead of out causing chaos in the world.

It had a title, Jon saw, and pulled it the rest of the way out. Collected histories from patients at the Hanwell Lunatic Asylum, 1842-1847. That didn’t sound much like one of Leitner’s books. Carefully, he cracked the cover and saw, inside, a bound up collection of papers and letters, many in different hands, all sewn together into the volume. More curiously, he spotted a note on the first page, which read,


I gathered the stories I believed show my theories on the entity we last spoke of, here. I know you were skeptical of it, or of how it would differ from what I have been calling the Stranger, but I hope these examples will do a better job of explaining what I meant.  

Yours sincerely,

-Robert Smirke

Well. That was a bit of history in his hands right there. It was strange, to think of Elias—of Jonah Magnus, young, ignorant of Beholding or avatars or any of this. He hadn’t had someone to sit him down and explain things—he had to go out and find evidence, collect it, catalog it. He had been the one to found the Magnus Institute, after all.

“You can take it and read it, if you’d like,” Jonah said, leaning against the wall just outside the library. He had the phone in his hands, but it was off and at his side. He smiled. “Might give you nightmares.”

Jon wanted to throw the book at him out of pure contrariness, but couldn’t bring himself to. It would probably tear if he did, and that would be a shame.

“You’re not going to interrogate me or force me to listen to another monologue?” Jon asked. Elias rolled his eyes.

“Not today,” he said drily.

“Then I’m going to go read.” Jon took the book with him out of the library, and into his room. He shut the door in Elias’ face.

The rest of the day was spent in a strange kind of companionable silence. Elias retreated to his office to work, occasionally answering calls, while Jon read through the book he had pilfered. It was strange to read these little proto-statements without his role as the Archivist allowing him to Know which were real and which were not. Strange also not to read them out loud; he had to stop himself three times when he noticed he started speaking. This was more embarrassing than it was alarming, given that he had no trouble stopping, he knew there was no strange compulsion to speak or finish, which also meant that the voices he was giving the words on the page were also all in his own imagination.

Jon had stopped, about an hour into his reading, to sneak back outside his room and look for some paper. Since he didn’t want to talk to Elias again, he avoided the office and scrounged around the living room until he found a notepad and pen in the small table next to the recliner, then returned to his room He stared at the blank paper for a long time without writing anything, trying to think and be smart, for once.

Elias was Watching him. It had eased off as more time passed, to the point that Jon suspected Elias knew where he was and generally what he was doing without picking up any details, but that didn’t mean it was a good idea to write down anything damning. He stood by his earlier conclusion that it was too dangerous to try and look into his friends, or how to stop Elias, but he also remembered wanting to look into more of the Spiral and the Web, and their avatars, to try and figure out what the marks on his arms meant.

That had been his original plan when he approached the Institute yesterday, hadn’t it? And maybe it hadn’t worked out the way he wanted to, but he was technically going to be inside the institute now, in the library if not the Archives, and it would look suspicious to Elias for him not to be curious, wouldn’t it?

He would still have to be careful about what he wrote down, even if it was about other entities. He suspected that Elias had learned more about him than he wanted him to, but it wouldn’t do to leave papers laying around with the names of entities he should be ignorant about.

Jon pushed aside the paper and the book, and sat down in the floor of his new bedroom, his back to his bed, his neck bent upwards with his head on the mattress.

What was he doing? He had already gotten himself trapped and hunted by being impatient once. Was he going to make the same mistake, just a day after?

No. He was stuck with Elias for the next couple of months, at least, no matter what he did. He would have limited access to the Institute library, maybe even the archives, depending on how closely Elias planned to have him watched. He could afford to be a little patient, a little cautious. To lull Elias into a false sense of security.

For the sake of his sanity, he was going to pretend that Elias was unable to access his thoughts. It didn’t seem like a ridiculous assumption, since without it all was lost regardless.

He needed to be more practical, and address his needs in order of their urgency, rather than by how nervous they made him. The marks on him were already there. So far, other than the Eye giving him headaches, they didn’t seem to do anything. He would stay vigilant of them, but they were not a priority.

A priority was… his body. His reactions. His infuriating impulsiveness. He needed to know if the way he was behaving was due to his new body, as he was growing to believe, or if it was something else. In either case, he needed to know what was happening so he could make a strategy to deal with it.

Another priority was to think up a good story that could explain everything he had, inadvertently or not, already shown Elias. He didn’t like the idea of simply hoping for the best and leaving Elias to draw his own connections; the man had discovered the truth of the ritual once already without Jon around, after all. If he could think of an alternative explanation, and if he could lead Elias to it instead…

Jon sighed. There were an awful lot of ‘ifs’ in that plan. Jon hadn’t been a good liar when he was an adult; he doubted he would be any better as a child.

It’s better than doing nothing, he thought.

Was there a realistic scenario that would explain all of Jon, outside the truth? (Not that the truth would be very realistic, to one who had not lived it).

Jon tallied what Elias must know about him now, and what he was likely to discover no matter how well Jon acted. He ticked points off on his fingers as he thought.

  1. Jon knew about avatars, at least to an extent that there could be human-looking monsters blending into society
  2. Jon knew those monsters well enough to know there were many, and dangerous, and to fear them
  3. Jon had been marked by Beholding, in the form of an eye that sometimes glowed
  4. Jon had been marked by the Web and the Spiral, on his skin. (Would Elias be able to sense anything more about those marks? Could Jon play them off as marks made by himself or another, without Jon’s understanding?)
  5. Jon had known what Elias was from their first meeting
  6. Jon knew about the tunnels beneath the Archives, and knew to hide there from Elias
  7. Jon reeked of fear for all entities, to a ridiculous degree
  8. Jon was related to an event two days before, during which all the entities had been drawn up into reality for a moment

With eight fingers in the air in front of him, Jon sighed. The first six, maybe seven, he could probably play off by pretending to have had a particularly grueling encounter, or encounters, with other avatars or inhuman monsters. The entities, as Jon well knew, were not as separate as their followers liked to believe, and so his comprehensive fear did not have to mean he had experience with each individual entity. In this case being a child might even do him a favor, in that sometimes children accepted the fear of abstract things far better than adults who tried to rationalize them.

The last was a problem. Jon knew exactly what it meant, and his connection to it. He couldn’t think of a single excuse that might explain it. A ritual gone wrong? Unlikely, that it had gotten that far with neither Elias nor Gertrude having a clue to it. An accidental ritual gone wrong? Even unlikelier; as with most other aspects of the entities, rituals required choice. Not for everyone involved, as all the sacrifices killed in previous attempts, as well as Jon himself could attest. Nonetheless, Elias had chosen for him, had written the incantation, and had sent it off to Jon with the intention of him reciting it.

He was on the right track, though he had to be careful. If he tried to spin a tale about a failed ritual which involved several entities, that would give Elias the very ideas Jon wanted to avoid.

So maybe something closer to the truth. Something he could easily remember, which could still explain accidental slip-ups. A sort of half-true version of Jon’s real story, with elements borrowed from all those statements still floating around his mind.

Young Jon had gotten his hands on something he shouldn’t have. A book about a spider that wanted to have him for dinner. Young Jon had read that book and only narrowly avoided his fate—but not due to the unlikely help from a bully, but rather from the unusual interruption of a competing avatar, wanting to derail the Spider.

Jon brought the pen to his mouth and chewed on it thoughtfully. Which avatar would be willing to disrupt the Web’s meal in such a way? Desolation hated them, but given Jon’s distinctive lack of burn scars, they would be a hard sell. The Spiral? It would tie in nicely with his mark, as well as reality, but Jon knew very little about its avatars, given that most of them had been dead or in hiding by Gertrude’s hand by the time he became the Archivist. Michael—no, Michael wouldn’t be the Distortion yet, would he? Not for years still. The Distortion itself, then, though Jon had a hard time imagining it as it would have been, before it was forced to become more human-adjacent.

It had the added benefit of including no one Elias could question or Watch, to find the truth of the matter.

So. Young Jon is about to be eaten by a giant spider, only to be saved by the Distortion, which… pulled him into its dimension. Inside there, Jon discovers there are monsters. And…

And he didn’t know where to go from there. His grandmother would have seen him that morning, and then again when she went to pick him up from the police that night. It wasn’t a long time for Jon to have gone missing, figure out a few secrets of the world, then return a fundamentally different child.

Where did Beholding come into things? And Elias, and the tunnels?

Jon groaned and dropped it. He would think on it more and return to it later. His plan was still to give Elias as little as he could, which brought Jon back to his first priority.

Carefully, Jon opened his eyes, sat forward with his legs crossed, and picked up the pad of paper. He put the pen to the paper, and wrote a single letter, ‘B’, for body. His hand was as uncoordinated as the rest of his body, and the letter a childish scrawl rather than his usual neat handwriting.

Jon tried again, this time writing an ‘M’, for mind. Then an ‘H’, for health. He frowned at the paper, and added a ‘D’, for childhood motor function development. Every letter was the same, the handwriting of a child, and no matter how careful he was or how slowly he wrote, they came out the same.

I can’t even write anymore? It was a depressing thought. Still, he looked down at the small checklist he had made for himself. There shouldn’t be any way for Elias to figure out what each letter meant, and if he somehow did, it would give him nothing. It was a message only for Jon, a reminder of what his current priorities were.

He needed to figure out the limits of his new body and become accustomed to it. He needed to understand the differences between an adult mind and a child’s mind, and also read on about how his mind was likely to change over the following years. (The thought of going through puberty, again, with a smug Elias looking on was enough to make him shiver in revulsion).

He needed to talk Elias into taking him to a doctor, at some point. Jon didn’t know if shoving the memories of a much older monster into the mind of an eight-year old had done any damage, but given how much he had been throwing up and how volatile his mood swings had become, it couldn’t hurt to have someone take a look at him.

(He dreaded that conversation. “Why do you feel you need a doctor, Jon?” “Why, Elias, because I am in reality a thirty-something year old monster you created from the future sent unprepared into the past. And I think I might be giving my childhood body physical and mental trauma.”)

Finally, he needed to figure out if there were exercises or books he could read to help him with his fine control. He was going to get his handwriting back as soon as possible.

He put the list down and stretched. He felt a little better, even with a plan as simple as this one. He would focus on his body first, and everything else later. He noticed the book he had taken from Elias’ library on the floor, and considered going to return it.

Then he decided it would look more suspicious to not finish it, and got back to reading.

The rest of the day passed in similar silence between the two of them. At some point Elias opened his door (without knocking, of course), and told him to come downstairs for dinner, where they shared a silent meal of reheated spaghetti. Once they were done, Elias politely asked Jon if there was anything else he needed for his stay. Jon stared at him suspiciously, but decided there was nothing wrong with spending the man’s money; he obviously had more than he knew what to do with, and Jon wasn’t about to feel guilty at making him spend it.

“A desk. And a chair. And paper.” He said. Not that there was anything wrong with reading on the floor, or on the bed, especially with his younger body that didn’t get sore no matter how long he stayed in an awkward position. It was hard to write, though. Privacy, he almost said, but that would be admitting he knew Elias was Watching him. He felt inspired, though, and added, “and books. Which aren’t about creepy things.” There. A perfectly normal thing for a kid to ask, wasn’t it?

Elias smiled at him like he was pleased by his request. “You seemed to enjoy that volume I lent you well enough.”

“I-It was-“ Jon stammered, embarrassed at himself for being caught off-guard. He shrugged. “I just like to finish what I start. I didn’t actually like it.” That much was true. Going by his intimate knowledge of the Twisting Deceit, Jon didn’t have much trouble discerning the real statements from the false ones, even without his otherworldly senses. The reminder that the thing which had branded him did all those terrible things to people was unpleasant and made his skin itch.

Elias hummed a non-committal reply. “Knowledge is power, Jon. I don’t think that’s a lesson you can afford to learn later in life.”

Jon returned a flat look. “Then why don’t you just tell me all the things you think I’m so ignorant about?” This was strangely familiar ground. He remembered asking, demanding, that Elias give him straight answers, back when he had returned from his captivity with Orsinov. Every time, he had replied with-

“Because I believe that answers you search and struggle to learn teach far better lessons than explanations a teacher might give a child, promptly forgotten,” tripe like that.

“But I am a child,” Jon said. That stopped Elias for a full second, before he shrugged.

“All the more reason to educate you properly from the start, then.”

“Making me grasp for answers in the dark with no idea what I’m doing is not educating.” Jon argued, for form’s sake. Elias had few answers he needed, this time around, but it wasn’t hard to channel the frustration he remembered feeling, back when answers were all he wanted.

Elias gave him a long, contemplative look. “Perhaps you’re right,” he said, but wouldn’t elaborate.

He promised Jon a desk and a chair for his room, and more books, as soon as he could send his assistant out to get them. He didn’t mention what those new books would be.

As Jon lay in bed that night, the bolt locking him inside his room so Elias could rest without worrying about Jon doing something stupid, Jon cursed himself for not asking for something more practical or kid-friendly, like a computer or a television. It would be useful to be able to tune in to the news and get a better idea of what the world was like now, and with a computer he would have a better idea of just how much technology had yet to go before he could do something like google Martin’s name and go find him.

He fell asleep still enveloped in Beholding’s distant embrace, and dreamt of an Eye in the sky, feeding him the world’s misery.

Chapter Text

Jon woke up the next morning feeling oddly nervous and giddy. He took his time getting out of bed and experimentally pushing on his door, not wanting to get dressed before he had a chance to shower. To his surprise, the door opened; Elias must already be awake. He went to the upstairs bathroom, found fresh towels in a basket under the sink, and took a luxurious hot shower that did much to make Jon feel human again.

When he left the bathroom, towel wrapped around his torso and a mental note to take his clothes with him next time, he heard Elias call out to him from downstairs to come down for breakfast once he was dressed. Jon frowned, and didn’t answer back. It felt too domestic, a word Jon had never believed he would use to describe Elias.

Back in his room, Jon dressed in another long-sleeved shirt, this one a uniform navy blue color with a small galloping horse printed in yellow along the hem. He wore the same jeans from the day before, and his old shoes. He felt a little apprehensive at how mismatched he must look, which in turn led to him being angry at himself over the feeling. This wasn’t his first day at work. He wasn’t trying to make a good first impression on the people at the Institute—he didn’t even know anyone who worked there! Except for Gertrude, sort of, but he still wasn’t convinced that talking with her face-to-face was the best idea.

Still, she would be down at the Archives, and Jon doubted that Elias would allow him to wander down there, at least not yet.

With that decided, (and repeatedly telling himself that he didn’t care what he looked like, or what anyone thought of him), he went downstairs to find Elias plating an egg he had just finished cooking. Jon hadn’t really thought that Elias cooked, despite the food yesterday; he had assumed Elias hired someone to come in and take care of his house, and that Jon had simply woken up after whoever it was had already left.

“I’m glad to see you’re able to wake up at a reasonable time,” Elias commented while he served them both in the same places on the kitchen counter they had used yesterday. “I was about to go up and wake you.” His eyes darted from Jon’s face, to his clothes, then back to what he was doing.

Jon wondered what would happen if he refused to cooperate and accompany Elias in to work. Would Elias forcibly carry him into his car, and then the Institute? That was more of a scene than Jon thought Elias would be willing to attempt.

Which is why he made sure to gain my compliance beforehand, Jon reminded himself.

“You never said what I was supposed to do to keep busy while you work,” Jon said, climbing up once more to reach his meal. “I can’t just sit alone in an empty room for hours with nothing to do.”

His childhood self had never dealt well with boredom. His childhood self had never had to deal with someone willing to physically lock him up when he started to wander.

“Oh, you’ll be occupied,” Elias reassured him. “As you reminded me last night, as your guardian it is my duty to make sure you are getting the education you need. It just won’t do for a child under my care to be deficient in such a way.”

Jon froze with a forkful of eggs halfway to his mouth. Elias couldn’t mean to… homeschool him, could he? Jon must be misinterpreting things. Besides, they were going to the Institute where Elias had to work, which by definition meant he wouldn’t have the time to play teacher to Jon.

Maybe he’ll just get me age-appropriate textbooks? Jon thought hopefully. There was no way Elias had any better idea of how to raise a child than Jon did, and Jon had no idea what he would do if he suddenly found an eight-year-old boy at his doorstep.

This was Elias he was thinking about, though, so maybe age-appropriate textbooks alongside creepy hints about the nature of the entities? Jon could deal with that. It would be mind-numbingly boring, but he could go through the motions easily enough.

They remained quiet for the remainder of breakfast. Once they were done, Elias told Jon to be ready to leave in five minutes, then headed upstairs to get his briefcase, and was adjusting his tie as he came down.

“Do you know what the Magnus Institute is, Jon?” Elias asked once they were in the car and on their way.

“A place where people go to tell their monster stories,” Jon said. This question he had prepared for.

Elias smiled his pleased, lopsided grin. “Close enough, I suppose. Yes, people come and give statements of their experiences and encounters, and we collect them, research them, and archive them. We also collect artifacts with strange capabilities, and research them as well.”

“And do any of them know what you are?” Jon asked, knowing the answer, and hating that he was giving Elias an opportunity to brag.

“I would say very few of them know me well,” Elias said. “I have only been the Head of the Magnus Institute for the last five months.” He looked so proud of himself. Jon knew he was expecting a question about how he had come to the role, or how he could be both a monster and an annoying administrator.

“You must not have very good employees, if they can’t even recognize what they research every day when it walks by every morning,” Jon said instead. It was a bit of a dig at his younger (older?) self, but he deserved it.

Elias wasn’t fazed. “People tend to see what they expect to see,” he said. He gave Jon a sidelong look as they waited for a traffic light to change. “Which makes it all the more curious that you spotted me as soon as we met.”

“Your eyes are empty,” Jon said and crossed his arms. Truths, but not useful truths, he reminded himself. “And you looked at me like I was food.” Both of those things, while true, Jon could only recognize because he already knew the truth.

“You are quite an observant child, if so,” Elias mused, and Jon knew he wasn’t convinced. “I take it, from our conversation last night, that you want to learn more about… monsters?”

Such a loaded question. Jon was going to be forced to spend most of his days in a temple to Beholding, and his nights in the home of its most fervent avatar. Wasn’t he supposed to be trying to draw away from the Eye?

And yet, Elias wasn’t wrong when he implied ignorance was dangerous. He needed to know more, if only to protect himself. He just didn’t like how it worked out that protecting himself from two of the entities meant giving in and feeding a third. Did he have any choice here? Any good choice?

“I wish I could forget about them altogether,” Jon muttered.

Elias laughed, which really annoyed Jon. “No you don’t, Jon.” His grin was wide, knowing. “You’re much too curious a child to ever really desire such a thing, aren’t you?”

Jon ignored him for the rest of the ride, which only made Elias' stupid grin turn more smug.

 Twenty-five years had changed the Institute very little. There were no digital security cameras, he supposed, and the receptionist’s desk in the lobby had an old-fashioned bulky white monitor and a fax machine, of all things, but the fundamental look of the place—the decorations, the wallpaper, the lighting—was the same.

Even the receptionist was unchanged, though Rosie looked to be in her early twenties, with a smooth round face and a perky smile when she saw Elias and Jon approach.

“Mr. Bouchard! And this must be Jon!” She crowed happily, getting up from her desk to come meet them. She looked Jon up and down, perhaps noticing the distance Jon made sure to keep from Elias (out of arm’s reach—though to be fair Elias also seemed content at the distance, out of reach from Jon’s kicks). “I see the clothes fit you well! That’s a relief.”

“Rosie here was kind enough to do some last minute shopping for your wardrobe when I heard you were going to be placed with me,” Elias explained to Jon, relaxing his face into a polite smile. “Thank you for your hard work. You went above and beyond, truly.”

Rosie blushed, but smiled brightly all the same. “Oh, it’s no bother Mr. Bouchard. We have to stick together, right?”

A few minutes later they were past her, after she had shaken Jon’s hands and assured him he could come find her for anything he needed, and that everything was going to be alright. Jon wondered what kind of lies Elias had told her to make her worry so.

“I hired her as my assistant and receptionist not long after I got my promotion,” Elias explained quietly as they went to the elevator at the end of the hallway and waited to enter. They had arrived early enough to the Institute that Jon saw few others out in the hallways. “She’s very grateful to have given such a position, given her age, and she’s determined that we’re a team set up against the world.” He chuckled at that.

“What did you tell people about me?” Jon asked, deciding to dodge the matter of Elias’ manipulation of his employees entirely. The topic was too close to Jon’s heart to talk about without losing control, and he doubted there was any good to be done talking to Elias about it.

“Nothing,” Elias said. “I told Rosie I would be fostering a child who was placed with me under emergency circumstances, since I asked her to do the shopping for you, but otherwise I haven’t told anyone.”

Jon looked around apprehensively as they entered the elevator, and Elias punched in the third floor.

“Won’t that make people talk? If they see you suddenly walking around with a kid?” Jon asked.

“It will annoy some people,” Elias admitted. “I’m quite young for my role, or so some people here believe, and they won’t like that I’m also bringing in a child to the mix. Not that any of them have a chance in hell of prying this position from me.”

That wasn’t what Jon had meant. He let it lie. I don’t care what they think of me, Jon reminded himself.

He wished he was better at lying to himself.

They came to Elias’ office a minute later. It was much as Jon remembered, with the same desk and general setup, and the same decorations, again with the only exception being an older computer and a potted plant that had most likely died between now and then.

“Alright, take a seat here for a moment, Jon, if you would,” Elias indicated one of the small chairs on Elias’ side of the desk in his office. “I will show you around later and find a place for you to sit, but there are a few things I have to take care of, first.” He placed his briefcase on his desk and sat at his own chair.

Carefully, Jon walked past him and perched in one of the chairs Elias had indicated. Jon had never been on this side of the office before, and he felt ill at ease. He felt worse when he realized he had just done everything Elias told him to do without complaint.

It would be childish to take it back now, wouldn’t it? Luckily for Jon, he was a child.

“I don’t want to be here,” he told Elias, making his words as much of a whine as he could.

Elias flashed him a look. “Then be quiet and let me get this done so we can get you out of here sooner.”

Jon turned around in his chair and sprawled in it, legs over one of the arms with his head hanging down underneath the other one. He started humming the theme song of Pirates of the Caribbean, only realizing once he had looped back to the beginning that the movie wouldn’t exist for another 20 years. He considered stopping, but then figured Elias would only assume it to be the song from one children’s show or another he had never heard of, and kept going.

It had the unexpected benefit of distracting Jon, reminding him of the date he had gone on with Georgie where they had gone to see that movie. It had been the second one of the series, if Jon remembered correctly, and Georgie had hurriedly summarized the first movie for them while they waited to buy tickets, since Jon had never bothered to watch the first. He wasn’t much for going out to see movies.

It was not a bad date. He and Georgie had bickered a lot, which had been their usual way of interacting, but she had laughed when he started in on all the ridiculous nonsense going on in the movie. He hadn’t gone after any of the stupid fantasy going on—he knew what kind of movie they were watching—but he had torn apart the minor inconsistencies and plot holes ruthlessly.

“Anyone ever tell you’re ridiculously fastidious?” Georgie had told him, still laughing. Jon had argued that if someone was going to throw all that money into making a movie, they could at least try to stay consistent. They had argued about it all through dinner.

Jon wondered how Georgie was doing now. She was truly out of his grasp, growing up somewhere in Liverpool, happy in her ignorance. He would have to find her before her first year at uni, to warn her about the cadavers, but that was years away. He couldn’t justify going to talk to her beforehand, not when he would be putting her at more risk, unnecessarily.

He had stopped humming, and was staring blankly at the white ceiling.

Wasn’t that true of all of his friends? Out of all of them, only Daisy had a childhood encounter with any of the entities, as far as he knew. Now that he was tied to Elias and the Institute again, it would be better for all of them if he kept his distance for as long as possible.

It made sense. It gouged an open hole in his heart. He hadn’t admitted it to himself, but in that brief window of time between getting up in this body and being bound by Elias once more, he had fantasized about finding his friends, about growing up with Martin, and Tim, and Sasha, doing it right this time. Keeping them safe, but also keeping them close.

He didn’t want to be alone.

He looked over at Elias, busy doing whatever task he had set himself to. He especially didn’t want to be alone with Elias. How long could he keep things up? The game they had started with each other, of keeping secrets, misdirection and manipulation, was one Elias played far better than Jon, as easy as breathing. It had only been two days, and Jon was already growing tired of it. And if his stay with Elias extended past the ‘few weeks’ that Mrs. Newman had outlined, or the two months Elias himself estimated before Jon was no longer avatar bait?

If Elias didn’t have his answers by then, there was no way he was letting Jon go. Could Jon finish fabricating his story, and feed it to Elias by then? Would he be allowed to leave then, or would Elias decide Jon was too dangerous to be allowed into other hands? Would Jon want to leave, with the cult of the Dark still after him?

Everywhere he looked, Jon’s future had no room for those he loved. No room for happiness, or friendships, or love. It was just Elias, or another avatar or entity, there for the rest of his life.

I can still stop the world from ending, Jon thought, and clung to it. He didn’t need to be happy. He just needed the world not to end.

He stayed quiet for the next hour as Elias worked, indulging in memories of happier times. Him and Martin traveling to that cabin, finally comfortable with the idea they shared feelings for each other. Basira, Melanie, Daisy and him going out for drinks, and having an awkward but enjoyable evening in the midst of everything else. Tim and Sasha, cracking jokes in the break room and ‘fleeing’ before their grumpy boss.

God, he could have had so many more memories with them, if he hadn’t been so consumed with his work. If he hadn’t allowed distrust and paranoia to poison his relationship with Tim. If he had warned Melanie sooner to stay away.

There were so many regrets, and all of them for things which hadn’t yet happened. Which wouldn’t happen again.

“That’s quite an expression you have on your face,” Elias said, and it was only after Jon blinked tears from his eyes that he realized Elias had stopped working and was now standing over him. He tried to roll over and rub the tears from his eyes, but he had forgotten the complicated position he had locked himself into and had to roll around for a minute before he managed to get his head unstuck and sit up properly.

He rubbed at his eyes furiously, now embarrassed both to be caught crying and at his pitiful display. When he finally looked up, Elias was watching him, hips leaning against his desk, amused.

“Excuse me if I’m upset after getting kidnapped, threatened, and locked up in a strange house!” Jon snapped. Elias’ smile vanished, and his eyes darted to the door of the office, open but empty. So there are things you care about people here overhearing, Jon thought with angry triumph.

“Jon.” Elias said seriously, softly, but in the tones of one talking to a child, or an idiot. “You agreed to cooperate when it came to your safety. Saying such things would put you at risk, do you understand?"

Jon gritted his teeth. Yes, he still needed Elias. Which meant he couldn’t let the government try and take him away. For now.

“I understand.” He said.

“Good.” Elias stood up straight and gestured for Jon to get up as well. “Come, I’ll give you a tour. Please keep your outbursts to a minimum.”

Jon glared at him but did as he was told. He would find ways to annoy the man without having to put himself at risk. He briefly considered acting overly affectionate to see how awkward Elias would act around him, but even the thought of it turned his stomach, and it would be as much punishment for himself as for Elias.

Besides, he really was looking forward to being shown around. He was going a little stir-crazy, and he wondered if there would be anyone he might recognize, perhaps from the research department. Maybe if he made a good impression, they would let him hang around and he could have another place to avoid Elias while they were at the Institute.

Elias took Jon on a tour that started in the third floor (where Jon met a few other administrators he had never of), then into the second, first to the research department (where Jon was introduced to dozens of researchers in quick succession, and remembered none of their names), then to the library (where Jon was again introduced to people working there that he didn’t find remotely familiar), and finally down into the first floor, where Elias gestured towards artefact storage and simply told Jon to “stay out of there for now”.

All in all, it left Jon with a strange impression that everyone he was introduced to didn’t know what to make of him, or why Elias was bothering to show him around. The Magnus Institute wasn’t exactly a child-friendly environment, and more than one person looked stunned when Elias introduced Jon as ‘my foster son’. Had Jon been given any leeway to speak for himself, he might have contested Elias’ introduction, but he had been too busy trying to remember names and put them to faces to say anything other than ‘nice to meet you’.

The entire introduction Elias gave was: “Hello everyone, if you would stop for just a minute. I want to introduce you to Jon here, who is my foster son. He was unexpectedly put into my care over the weekend, and he will be at the Institute often while we figure out other arrangements. Jon, this is…”

It certainly implied that Elias wasn’t planning for Jon to be following him into work indefinitely. It also implied Elias believed Jon would be staying with him on a more permanent basis.

“The canteen is also on this floor, if you turn right down this hallway,” Elias explained, pointing Jon in the right direction. “There’s not a lot of variety in what they sell, but it serves its purpose well enough.” Their walking brought them to the door that led to the stairs down to the basement, into the archives. Jon couldn’t help how his hands started to sweat, or his heart sped up. Was it nerves, or excitement? The archives weren’t his, not anymore. Still, he felt drawn to them. He couldn’t stop himself from feeling the edges of the door in his mind, gently tugging at them, like pressing down on a sore tooth in the back of his mouth.

“And at last, there are the Archives,” Elias said. “It holds a collection of the statements taken, and sometimes researched, by the Institute. The staff down there are a lot more limited than in the other departments; other than the Head Archivist, Gertrude Robinson, she has two assistants working with her. They are-“

Elias’ voice cut off as he turned to usher Jon forward. Jon stopped staring down the stairs and looked back at him, a little dazed.

“Your eye is glowing again,” he said, and it startled Jon enough to bring him out of his fugue.

His eye was aching, but not in the agonizing spikes that had previously accompanied it. Jon clamped both of his hands over it, horrified. What had he been thinking?

“Come on,” Elias placed a hand on Jon’s back and ushered him away from the door to the Archives. Jon jerked away from his touch but continued to move in the direction he was pushed. This was- damn it, why was he being so stupid? Meeting Gertrude under any circumstances was going to be delicate and dangerous, but doing so with one eye glowing with the mark of Beholding on him would instantly raise her defenses. He did not want to give Gertrude an excuse to decide he was her enemy. He knew what she did to her enemies.

They ended up back in Elias’ office, where he cajoled Jon into showing him his eye. “It’s back to normal,” Elias said, and Jon’s shoulders slumped with relief. He hadn’t realized he had become so tense. “Is there any chance you would tell what happened to make it start up?” Elias’ words were deceptively casual.

Jon tried to jerk away, but Elias’ hands were suddenly there, one digging into his hair and forcing him to remain in the same place, and the other on the side of his face, thumb resting just below his afflicted eye.

Elias is not safe, Jon reminded himself, angrily. He held on to Elias’ wrist as hard as he could, the one holding onto his hair so tightly his scalp hurt. He had become somewhat used to the man over the last couple of days, enough to relax his guard a little. It was a stupid mistake. He couldn’t afford to forget who his real enemy was.

“Let. Go.” Jon snarled.

“Do you know,” Elias mused, and his thumb ran lightly just below Jon’s eyelid, “I have been a part of this world for a very long time, longer than you would think.” He chuckled. “I’m older than I look.”

Jon could feel his entire body start to tremble. Fear, ever present, rose above its usual background noise to choke any words he might have said. Elias added his index finger to his thumb, gently pressing down on his skin and pinning his eyelids open.

“I have never heard of someone with your particular… affliction.” Jon let out an involuntary whimper as Elias pulled him closer, staring into his open eye like he expected Jon’s life to be written in his sclera.

Jon’s mind was blank with panic. He couldn’t think of what to say, couldn’t even remember how to form words. He was just—held—open, observed, watched, examined, surveyed—dissected—not just by Elias, but by the one behind Elias—inside Elias—inside Jon—just on the other side of a door—a door that wouldn’t open— why didn’t it open—

“And there it is,” Elias whispered. His grip loosened, but did not let Jon leave his grasp. He studied Jon’s eye, keeping it open, even as it filled with tears both from the pain of Jon’s desperate grasp for his old powers, and from being held unblinking. He held him there for what felt like hours, but was probably less than a minute, drinking in whatever mark Beholding had left on Jon.

When he let go of Jon’s hair, Jon threw himself backward as far from his grasp as he could. He ended up with his back against the far wall of Elias’ office, both hands once more over his eye, heaving in lungfuls of air that didn’t seem like they gave him enough air.

Elias remained where he had been standing, his hands held out to his sides in a mocking imitation of innocence. “I needed to see,” was all he said.

“Wha-w-what happened to- to- to being p-patient?” Jon demanded, his voice too loud, lacking all control.

“Patience is for things that don’t endanger us,” Elias said, in that damnably reasonable tone of voice, like Jonwas the one being ridiculous for reacting the way he had. “Having your eye start to glow like that out of the blue could put a target on your back, and as your guardian, one on mine, too.”

Jon wanted to snap that he was being stupid, that Elias was already known to most of the avatars out there, and cooperated with many of them, to boot. What stopped him wasn’t caution, but the sudden realization that Elias meant Gertrude. At this point in time, Gertrude wouldn’t have figured out Elias’ true identity, and he might still be trying to keep that particular secret from her. Which would be harder if he showed up with a recently obtained child of Beholding.

Jon wasn’t in any mood to forgive or empathize with Elias, though. He hugged himself, trying to stop the shivers that still shook his whole body. “A-and what did that all t-tell you?”

Elias shrugged, still looking pleased with himself. “It happens when you feel threatened. But it doesn’t do much to protect you.”

Jon glared. What kind of bullshit was that? It wasn’t even true!

Alright, it was kind of true, in that when he was pushed his first instinct was still to reach for his old powers, and that without access to them the reaction was self-defeating. Jon tried to remind himself that Elias reaching the wrong conclusion was a good thing.

“Which begs the question, why did you feel threatened about going into the Archives?” Elias continued.

“No,” Jon said. Elias blinked. “No, I’m not going to answer any of your questions! No, I’m not going to pretend this was alright. You’re—fuck. You’re a monster. I knew that. I’m not going to do this anymore!” Jon wasn’t sure if he was talking to Elias or to himself. But he had reached his limit. His body wouldn’t stop shaking, his eye was still in pain, he could feel a rising nausea that would end up with his breakfast all over Elias shoes—again – and he knew this wasn’t something he could keep up. His body would fall apart first.

He was… damn it. He was crying again. He tried to wipe his tears, but he couldn’t bring himself to stop. Fine. I’m a child, and children cry. Accept it and move on. He stopped trying to wipe his face and returned to glaring at Elias.

Elias looked, for the first time in Jon’s memory, uncertain. He opened and closed his mouth twice, thinking better of whatever it was he was about to say. He scratched the back of his neck, looking away, looking uncomfortable.

“That… could have been done better.” Elias offered after a few minutes. Jon ignored him. Elias sighed. “I’m sorry, Jon. I should not have pushed you so.”

Jon gave him an incredulous look. Did he really think Jon was going to buy such an insincere apology? He might as well have said ‘I’ll make sure to manipulate more carefully in the future’.

“Here,” Elias moved to the coat rack on his side of the office, and picked up his own heavy wool coat from where it hung. He took two steps closer to Jon, and before he could react he threw it over Jon’s shoulders.

Jon flinched, but Elias made no more moves to touch him. He almost yelled about how his shivering had nothing to do with being cold, but to his surprise the heavy warmth of it around his shoulders actually made him feel a little better. He sniffed self-consciously, then deliberately wiped his face over one of the coat’s sides before he adjusted it on himself.

“How about you go with Rosie to the canteen for a snack?” It was a better idea than anything else Elias had thought of so far. Jon didn’t want to be anywhere close to him at the moment. He nodded.

Elias went to the door and opened it. Jon hesitated with Elias’ coat still on him. Elias smiled, still a touch uncertainly. “Keep it.”

Having a snack with Rosie turned out to be a lot better than Jon had expected. She didn’t ask any questions or fuss over him too much, but she did him a double serving of ice cream to go with his hot chocolate, and crowed over how cute he looked almost drowning in Elias’ jacket. That was almost enough to make Jon take it off, but he found that having it on him as an extra layer of protection from the world felt too good, and he was in no state to turn down any kind of comfort, even if Elias had been the one to provide it.

(It wasn’t the coat’s fault that Elias owned it, he figured. And he hadn’t thought to bring one of his own—had Elias even bought him any?)

“That man,” Rosie declared at one point when Jon was simply sitting in one of the canteen’s plastic chairs, holding the half-empty mug of chocolate close to his face, “I swear to God. He’s a good man, and a generous boss, but I would swear he hadn’t been around a child since he was last one himself!” She noticed Jon’s look and hurried to add, “not that he won’t take care of you, love. His heart’s in the right place. It will simply be a bit of a difficult transition for you both, eh?”

Jon wondered what Rosie believed had happened, when a puffy-faced, still-crying Jon and an apprehensive Elias showed up at her desk. Elias had pulled Rosie aside and they had whispered to each other for a minute before Rosie came, took Jon’s hand and led him to the canteen.

“What did he say?” Jon asked curiously. Rosie snorted and reached out to flatten the messy hair on Jon’s forehead.

“He asked if it was normal for children to cry so much. As if you hadn’t had your entire life uprooted just a few days before. You go ahead and cry as much as you need. It’s good for you.” She reached into her purse and pulled out a cheap plastic comb. “Do you mind?”

Jon shook his head, then sat passively with his chocolate as Rosie got behind him and drew the comb across his scalp. Elias had probably left it looking a mess.

He relaxed under her care, and allowed some of the fear that gathered at Elias’ actions to dissipate. He had surprised Jon, yes, and that was a lesson Jon intended to remember. Never trust him. Not even a little. Still, he hadn’t done any real harm, and in more than one way Jon had come out the victor afterwards. Elias had the wrong idea about his connection to the Eye, and he had realized that Jon was more fragile than he seemed. Also, Jon had learned that Elias had no idea how to respond to tears.

If it had been a performance, Jon would have been proud. Instead, he felt tired and unsteady. He really was a lot closer to his limit than even he had known. He couldn’t imagine being forced to share a silent car ride with Elias after work. Or dinner. Or… or anything. He didn’t want to see Elias ever again. (Elias, he knew, was Watching him now, but that was easier to ignore.)

That wasn’t going to happen. As pleasant as this little interlude was, Jon knew he should go and face Elias soon. The longer he waited to do it, the harder it would become. As Jon already knew, he couldn’t afford to allow things to get much harder than they already were.

“Thank you,” Jon told Rosie earnestly once he was done with his snack, and she had finished getting all the worst tangles out of Jon’s curly hair. She smiled and kissed the top of his head.

“Now, Elias told me I could set you up in one of the empty offices in the third floor if you’d like, or-“

“I need to see him,” Jon interrupted. Rosie hesitated. “Not for long,” he added quickly. “Just to make sure…” he didn’t know how to finish that sentence. Rosie seemed to understand, for she gave his arm a comforting squeeze and nodded.

“I’ll go let him know we’re coming.”

Rosie left him at the door to Elias’ office. Jon knocked and waited for a ‘come in’ before he let himself in and closed the door behind him.

Elias, sitting at his desk with a pair of reading glasses, pen still in hand, straightened and looked at Jon in silence. Jon swallowed nervously. This had been his idea, so he knew he had to be the one to speak.

“I-I’m not like you,” Jon said. He kept Elias in the periphery of his vision, but didn’t look up to meet his eyes. He fiddled with a button at the end of the overlong sleeve on Elias’ coat. “I can’t… keep up like this. Maybe you’ve been doing this a long time, but I… haven’t.”

“You’re keeping secrets,” Elias said, in a suspiciously neutral tone.

“Because I don’t trust you, and I don’t like you, and for all I know you’re just keeping me alive until you figure them out.” Jon didn’t realize how much he meant all of what he said until it was out of his mouth. It wasn’t the whole truth, but it wasn’t a lie, either. If Elias realized what it took to complete his ritual now, what would be the point of keeping Jon around? He would want to get started on it sooner. Getting rid of Gertrude, then finding an ignorant, biddable subject to turn into his sacrifice. Jon would be nothing but a liability, knowing everything he did.

Elias sighed. “And so we come right back down to the question of trust.”

“I don’t want to die,” Jon said, so earnestly that his voice broke and he had to bite back a sob. That wasn’t entirely his child self, either. He had always been a coward.

“Damn. You really are a child, aren’t you?” Elias wondered out loud. Jon looked up to him in shock. Had he been doubting that? “You have been keeping yourself together so well, I assumed there must be something more to you. Perhaps a union between the child you appear and one of those monsters you go on about? Or perhaps you are just a child, but one hiding a monster inside.” He tapped his chest for emphasis.

Elias had been drawing his own conclusions. And he had convinced himself he was matching wits with something in the form of a child.

Not too far from the truth, all things considered.

“But no,” Elias continued. “That eye is definitely a part of you, and you alone. I’d love to know how you got it.” He shook his head. “But I’ll back off. I’ll return your promise of cooperation. I’ll stay patient and give you your distance, unless it has to do with your survival.”

“Th-Thank you.” Jon said. It tasted bitter in his mouth, for he was sure Elias would break his word the moment he thought it would be to his benefit, but it should give him some breathing room, at least for a few days.

“And I don’t want you dead, for the record,” Elias added. “You’re a fascinating, with or without your secrets.”

Jon made a face, but hid it in the collar of the coat. He didn’t want Elias to find him ‘fascinating’.

“Here,” Elias pulled his chair from the desk and reached into a drawer. He drew out a small plastic bag and tossed it to Jon, who barely caught it. Jon opened it to find a small, pharmacy-bought eye-patch. He pulled it out of its container, and gave Elias a puzzled look.

“When you’re here, or around other people, it’s best if you wear it. To prevent any… accidents.” Elias elaborated. To prevent someone from seeing Jon’s glowing eye if he was stupid enough to reach for Beholding around strangers. Jon couldn’t deny it was a smart precaution.

He fitted the thing around his head with some difficulty (it was sized for an adult), but eventually got it to where his eye was fully hidden beneath the white cotton. He just needed to wear it until he got his bad habits under control.

Elias stifled a laugh. “We’ll go find something better after work.”

“People already saw me today without one,” Jon said. “What am I supposed to say if they ask about it?”

Elias shrugged. “You got a rock in your eye in the afternoon, or something.”

Carefully, the two of them settled back into place. Elias returned to work, and Jon sat down in one of the chairs on the other side of Elias’ table. Elias even passed him a pad of paper and a pencil, without being prompted.

Did Jon want to be anywhere other than inside this room? Yes. Did he need to do this to remind himself that Elias wasn’t going to randomly attack him during all the times he would be forced to spend in his proximity? Definitely.

So Jon allowed the rest of the morning to pass in nervous boredom, writing out sentences and trying to see if he could make his handwriting improve with a few hours of work. They stopped for lunch and Rosie brought them take-out from a Chinese restaurant around the block, which they shared with minimal conversation. She was surprised to see Jon sporting his new eyepatch, but said that his eye had been looking redder than the other one, when they were together earlier. She offered to make Jon an appointment with a pediatrician, which Elias accepted after a moment’s hesitation.

One item down my list, and I didn’t even have to ask, Jon thought. Thank you Rosie.

The afternoon brought a surprise from Elias, who had sent a different assistant to buy test prep materials for children’s at Jon’s grade level, and sat Jon down across from him on the desk to fill out as many tests as he could.

Jon quickly grew bored with the task. He made sure to make a few mistakes on purpose (he didn’t want to give Elias an excuse to start doubting his real age again), but everything he read was trivially easy, with a few exceptions when it came to rote memorization of dates or names he had long since forgotten.

It was around two in the afternoon when Elias suddenly sat up straight, his eyes alighting on the open door to his office. Jon (who had not been doodling a little M and a heart, no matter what it looked like) became alert as well.

“What-“ he started to ask, when a woman strode into Elias’ office like she didn’t care who owned it.

Jon had seen pictures of Gertrude Robinson before. He had heard her voice in dozens of statements, listened to inhuman monsters who reveled in the fears of mortals, who nonetheless feared her.

Nothing had prepared him for the shock to his system that was meeting the current Head Archivist of the Magnus Institute.

She wasn’t tall, and even this far in the past, she wasn’t young. She was a statuesque woman in her late forties or early fifties, wearing black dress pants, a white blouse and a red cardigan. Her graying hair was tied up into a neat bun, and her face was set into a humorless flat line. More than her appearance, it was the presence she brought into the room, as though she had just dragged in a thundercloud in her wake, which took Jon by surprise.

She is the Archivist, he said in his head, with an odd level of disconnect. He knew there was something he should be doing, or trying to do, but all he could feel was that ever-so-familiar smell of paper and dust, the pressure behind his eyes, behind his door, where the connection between the Eye and the Archivist lived.

“Elias Bouchard,” Gertrude said, with distaste. “I hear you have been dragging some child across the Institute like a new dog you just purchased. I did not believe I would need to ever explain this to you, but this is a place of work, not a daycare.”

Jon could feel the connections being made in his brain as he started to understand why his connection to Beholding had become what it was. He gripped the arms of his chair harder, trying to ground himself. Trying to ignore a feral thought, rising in volume, drowning out reason and caution.

She had what was his.

“At least you had sense enough not to bring it down into my Archives. I trust I will not have to make this plain to you twice?”

He knew why his door was blocked. The Eye wasn’t going to have two Archivists at once, and Jon had arrived to a time when one was already alive and working. But Jon had been far more of an Archive- an Archivist- than she ever had been. She had been effective, and deadly, and brutally practical, yes. But Jon, Jon had been drowned in an Ocean of Knowing, had learned to swim in the very waters that were both his god’s domain, and his god itself. And when Jon had been flung back in time, Beholding had tried to hold on to him.

Only there was an obstacle that made that holding become torn, instead of whole. A patchwork connection where once there had been infinite strands tying them inseparably close.

A small part of him tried to remind him that he had been trying to flee the Eye’s hold on him, that he had wanted to be as human as he could. It screamed that it had been good fortune that Gertrude was here to tear Beholding’s grasp on him, or who knew what kind of monster Jon would have emerged as.

Jon glared at Gertrude, and all he felt towards her was sick, overwhelming envy.

“Why can’t I go down to the Archives?” Jon demanded. They were his, more than they had ever been hers. He knew their god agreed, could feel it just on the other side of his shut door.

Gertrude barely spared him a look.

“Elias, your pet is misbehaving. I told you children have no place—”

 “Like you belong here any more than I do!” Jon snapped, shooting to his feet. His head hurt. His eye, painful, so painful he couldn’t really see straight, but he knew he was so close, the door could open with just a little push, if he could just…

Gertrude narrowed her eyes at him, more of her attention falling on him. She took in his clothes, his ridiculous coat, his patched over eye. Could she feel it too? Beholding’s gaze on them all, watching this all unfold, impartial—mostly impartial—the pressure upon a door that wasn’t hers?

No. She had never embraced her role as Jon had. She had been a reluctant, disinterested Archivist, bent on an altogether different, pointless mission.

When she turned back to Elias to deliver another demeaning chastisement, Jon attacked her.

He wasn’t sure what he was trying to accomplish. All he knew was that bounding fury and envy, and the need to hurt her, because she had what he wanted.

It went about as well as could be expected, with Jon landing a single scratch along Gertrude’s arm, and Gertrude picking him up and throwing him across the desk at Elias. A very startled Elias, who grabbed hold of Jon from around the shoulder’s and wouldn’t let him get back up.

“Really!” Gertrude exclaimed, unimpressed. She pressed a strand of hair that had come undone from her bun back behind her ear. “And you let a child like that run wild around here? I will not have him in my Archives, Elias, do you understand?”

“He’s, uh, been through a lot in the last few days,” Elias said, still holding on to Jon. “And yes, Gertrude, I understand. I’m sure once he’s had a chance to settle down he will want to give you an apology.”

“An apology for what?” Jon twisted in Elias’ grip, but all he managed was to turn far enough to glare straight at Gertrude. “It’s not my fault she’s a terrible Archivist!”

This time Elias turned him and placed his hand over his mouth.

“He won’t bother you again,” Elias assured her. Jon couldn’t see how she was looking at them, and no matter how much he twisted, Elias didn’t let him move.

“He better not,” Gertrude said icily, and Jon heard her steps as she turned and left.

Once she was out of the room, sanity returned. With it came terror, shame and disappointment. He stopped struggling in Elias’ arms, and Elias carefully helped him back on his feet, with his hands still over Jon in case Jon decided to bold after Gertrude.

Jon had no intention of going anywhere.

“Oh, god,” he muttered, horrified, and brought his hands to his face, which was burning with shame. “I didn’t say that. Please tell me I didn’t say any of that.”

“The words came out of your mouth,” Elias said, amused. Jon looked up, too horrified to be angry.

“She’s going to kill me. Oh, god, what did I do?”

Elias laughed. “Don’t ask me. Here I thought I was the only one you arbitrarily decided to hate and attack. I have to say, it’s a relief to know you make snap judgements like that of others.”

“This isn’t funny!” Jon hissed, his eyes darting from Elias to the door, then back. “I didn’t- I shouldn’t have made an enemy of her!”

“Because she’s a monster?” Elias guessed, not at all worried, and clearly enjoying Jon’s theatrics.

Because she’s Gertrude freaking Robinson! “Because it’s stupid and unnecessary!” He said instead, and buried his head in the folds of the coat. His face was burning up. Had the blindfold not been on, he was sure his eye would have been glowing. “I don’t know what came over me,” he muttered.

He did, though. He didn’t understand the intensity of it, but he understood its cause. The cause which should have made him happy, not jealous. As long as Gertrude was alive, Jon was free, as free as he could be under Elias’ roof, anyway. Why had his reaction been so… explosive? Violent? He had never been a violent person before. Now, twice with Elias and once with Gertrude, he had turned to violence as a first option.

He didn’t like this. Something was wrong with him, worse than he had been assuming. And now he had gone and burned his bridge to Gertrude, the person with possibly the best chance at helping him stop Elias.

It felt like too perfect a coincidence. Which made him think of the Web, and of the mark on his arm that maybe wasn’t as harmless as he had once believed.

“Don’t worry too much,” Elias said dismissively. “Gertrude has plenty to keep her busy. She wouldn’t go after a kid just because you lipped off to her.” A lopsided smile twitched on his face. “Even if you did try to scratch her eyes out.” He studied Jon for a second before his self-control faltered and he laughed again. “You know, I thought you were a temperamental brat at first, with all your stubborn fighting. Now, though, I can see the appeal of it, when I’m not the one you’re targeting.”

“I really hate you,” Jon whined into his coat, curling up in chair with the coat completely covering his head.

Elias continued didn't stop smiling for the rest of the day. 

Chapter Text

The next day Elias set Jon up in an office down the hall from his own in the third floor. It had a desk and an office chair that Jon could put at the tallest setting to reach the surface of the desk at an almost comfortable height, though his legs dangled far off the ground. It had little in the way of decoration; Jon gathered that it had been empty as of yesterday, and whoever Elias had tasked with dragging the desk and chair inside the room hadn’t brought in anything else to decorate it. There was a window, at least, even if the view was only of a few other rooftops and walls.  

On top of the desk were textbooks, in a variety of colors, subjects, and difficulty levels. Elias had barely glanced at the tests that Jon had filled in the night before, before shrugging and tossing them away. Jon didn’t know iff that was because he had changed his mind about what he wanted to do with Jon after the whole Gertrude incident, or if they had simply been a way to keep Jon occupied for an evening and Elias never meant to look them over in the first place. Either way, once they had left the Institute the night before, they had stopped at a bookstore on the way back, where Elias had asked one of the salesmen to pick out ‘something for his level’ as he pointed to Jon.

The salesman had stammered out a handful of questions (“How old are you? What year are you in? Have you been going to school?”) which Jon hadn’t felt like answering, and Elias had stayed silent and watched the exchange with more of his damn smugness. As a result, the frustrated and confused young man had grabbed a few books on math, English and science, from years 2 up to 4, and had handed them over to Elias with a look like he was expecting to be met with anger. Elias had thanked him, bought the books, and continued their silent shopping trip to a store where they had been able to buy Jon a few kid-sized eyepatches.

It wasn’t that Jon didn’t know the answers to those questions. It wasn’t even that he had wanted to try to keep his exact education level hidden so he wouldn’t accidentally make Elias suspicious when he inevitably slipped up. Jon had simply been unable to muster the energy to care.

He had messed things up so badly yesterday that even after a fitful night spent waking up from nightmares of Gertrude hunting him down and dealing with him, he couldn’t come to grips with it. A hundred rationalizations crowded for space in his mind, explanations for on his actions and emotions when Gertrude had come into the room, which freed him from the responsibility of how wrong it had all gone.

Elias had put me on edge, not long before. I was already nervous to meet with Gertrude. I was taken by surprise. It wasn’t as bad as it seemed.

They were lies. Or, if not lies, then exaggerations, excuses to try to shift the blame off himself, when he knew in reality that was where the blame for it all lay.

He couldn’t have expected the frankly horrifying possessiveness that had come over him when he was finally in Gertrude’s presence, true. That much he was still trying to process. (Could that be a manipulation by outside powers? Either the Web or the Eye? Jon had never considered himself to be particularly attached to his power, but it was easy to deceive yourself in that way when you became linked to it so deeply that you assumed the only to ever be separated from it was in death).

But the rest? Jon had known for an entire day that Elias planned to take him into the Institute. He had known there was a real chance he would meet Gertrude, and he had known how important that meeting was going to be. Gertrude was the most important ally he had to secure at this point in time; she was his best hope to stop Elias and preserve the world. How had he not added ‘plan what to say when you meet Gertrude’ in his list of immediate priorities?

Even worse, Jon knew he was having problems being impulsive and emotional. Even without the insane envy that had consumed him, he was sure he would have made a bad impression simply by blurting out something at the wrong time.

Not that Gertrude seems very inclined to pay any attention to children, Jon remembered the way she had spoken of him before he made a fool of himself. Dismissive and outright hostile, before she had even set an eye on him. That implied that it wasn’t something suspicious about him specifically she had decided to hate, but simply that she had no patience for children.

Which shouldn’t surprise me at all. I couldn’t have gone back to a worse time in my life! He ignored the brightly colored textbooks left on his desk, alongside a few books from Elias’ library that Elias had picked out this morning before they left, and buried his head on his arms on the desk.

Everything was wrong. He was given every opportunity to fix the future, and he managed to make it worse, every single time. He had broken his grandmother after only a couple of days, a woman who, while distant, had never given up on herself as his guardian in his first lifetime, and left a sad old woman who felt incapable of rising her only grandson. He had tipped off the one man he most needed to keep his distance from, and had become his ward. He had to cooperate with said man because he had also allowed every single avatar in existence to taste the possibility of their gods’ ascent for a moment, and he couldn’t be sure what that would change, going forward, and now they wanted him for answers. Answers that he had, and that he wasn’t certain he wouldn’t give up under torture, much as he might want to pretend otherwise.

His chance to reach out to one of the few powers that might counter all those avatars and Elias himself had gone worse than he could have imagined, as well. At this point, all he could hope for was that the eyepatch Elias had made him wear had fulfilled its purpose and Gertrude thought he was a violent, ill-mannered child, rather than something she needed to keep an eye on and kill.

Elias, damn him, had still been amused about the whole incident once they got to his house the day before. “I don’t think anyone has ever called her out on being a bad Head Archivist before,” he said musingly while he reheated some pasta for their dinner.

Jon, still despondent but annoyed enough with Elias to manage a reply, had made his token bid for ignorance. “Is she a bad Archivist?”

Elias hummed thoughtfully in response. “It depends on who you ask, I suppose. She is wonderfully efficient in some manners, though I hear she keeps the archives in quite a mess.”

“Isn’t that her job?” Jon didn’t really want to continue with the fake questions, but talking kept his mind occupied, and he wasn’t sure what was going to happen once he actually sat down to unpack everything that had happened that day.

“Gertrude makes her job whatever she feels like making it,” Elias said wryly. He sent Jon a look over his shoulder. “She’s been around a lot longer than I’ve been the head of the Institute. I don’t think I could fire her if I tried.”

Oh, ha ha, good joke, you sadistic bastard. Jon laid his face on the kitchen counter so Elias wouldn’t see any of the resentment on his face. He didn’t have to try hard to remember Melanie’s decision to maim herself to escape from the job Elias had tricked her into.

The dinner had tasted annoyingly good, and Elias had kept his polite distance for the rest of the night, and into the morning (he had still bolted Jon’s bedroom shut, and even now Jon could feel Elias’ eyes on him this otherwise empty office).

Jon felt… lost. He knew what he needed to do, in very general terms. He knew what he wanted to do, which had all become impossible the moment Elias drew him into his life. For now, he would have a few days of peace while Elias kept his agreement about not interfering with Jon unless one of their lives was at stake, but he couldn’t find the motivation to do anything with those days.

Not when everything he did went wrong. Not when he was so incompetent he managed to make problems even where there had been none before.

When Elias had brought Jon and the bag of books the small office set up for him, all Jon had really thought about was relief that it would be easy to avoid Gertrude this deep into the third floor. Then Elias had told him he would come fetch him for lunch, and not to go anywhere, and had left him in this room alone.

As alone as he could be with the Eye perpetually watching him.

He ended up spending an unproductive morning lazily flipping through the pages on one of Elias’ books. It dealt, perhaps not surprisingly, with myths of Beholding. Not that it said as much anywhere in the text. It claimed to be an anthology of stories and myths collected in India at the turn of the century, curated to adhere to a theme of being observed. The book’s author, in its introduction, claimed that this was part of the body of work in his research into how people’s perception of privacy changed with the advent of technology making it possible for people to speak at a distance, and so they started to feel the world becoming smaller, and their privacy more of an illusion.

Jon thought the man, whoever it had been, was a pompous idiot that had stumbled onto something way past his limited understanding of the world. He wouldn’t be surprised to learn if the author had gotten caught up in the Eyes’ attention and ended up like someone in one of his gathered stories. Without thinking, he made a note in one of his new notebooks to look in on the fate of the author, before quickly crossing out his childish scrawl in embarrassment.

I am not the Archivist anymore. I don’t do follow-ups to statements. He ripped out the page and tore it to pieces.

Falling into his old patterns was too easy. It was what he had always done, when things got hard. Worms invade the Archive and threaten him and all his employees? Work later and make everyone else work harder! Find his predecessor’s body and be driven paranoid in fear of who had killed her? Had to read more of those statements! Find his boss shot his predecessor and an old man with a pipe because of him? Hide out at a friend’s house and feed on those statements some more!

And Jon had thought he had grown as a person. Become better, more capable of saving himself and everyone he loved. What a joke.

Elias found him curled up in a corner of a room, despondent, when he came in at noon with lunch.

“Come on, now, Jon. At least have lunch. You can go back to… whatever you were doing afterward.” Jon summoned enough feelings to glare at him, but it didn’t take much convincing to get him back to the desk, where Elias had cleared some space for his lunch. As Jon picked at a warm grilled cheese sandwich, Elias took note of the untouched textbooks, and the torn-up notebook page. (He made a point at looking at them, Jon knew. He would have seen it happen when Jon did it, but he was making a point of Jon seeing him notice.)

“I thought you wanted books that weren’t, hmm, how did you put it? ‘about creepy things’?” Elias looked pointedly at the textbooks, then at the only book Jon had touched in his time here, with a bookmark halfway through.

“You’re pushing,” Jon complained, but didn’t really have the energy to accuse Elias of anything else.

“I’m trying to understand you,” Elias argued, but there was a smile on his face that Jon was starting to recognize as ‘I know more about you than you do!’

Jon dropped the half-eaten sandwich and turned a mild glare on him. If he had been capable of summoning tears, he would have, if only to get the bastard out of the room faster.

“Do you want something?” Jon asked.

Elias shrugged. “Just checking in on you. Rosie tells me children don’t like being cooped up in one place for too long.”

Not normally, no. Jon didn’t think he would have the energy to leave the room if a time-traveling Daisy showed up now, killed Elias, and told Jon to run away with her.

“I’m fine,” Jon said.

Elias left soon after, closing the door behind him. Jon made himself finish the sandwich and juice Elias had brought him. Then he used his coat to make himself a nest in the corner of the office and napped uncomfortably for the rest of the afternoon.

The rest of the week followed in a similar pattern, with small exceptions. On Wednesday it was Rosie who came to check in on him at lunch, and in the afternoon, and tried to convince him to go for a walk with her, which he refused. (He didn’t want to risk being anywhere Gertrude might be). On Thursday Elias got him a small couch for the little office, which Jon happily used for his naps. Thursday afternoon was also his appointment with the doctor, which went a lot more smoothly than Jon would have thought.

The pediatrician was an older woman with a quick smile and cold hands, who examined Jon all over and talked to Elias more often than to Jon. She said he was a little small for his age, but that as long as Jon was eating and not showing symptoms of illness, there was nothing to worry about. She was very quiet when she saw the marks on Jon’s arms, but relaxed when Elias explained that he was Jon’s current foster parent and the marks were one of the reasons he had been removed from his family’s custody.

(Jon had been furious that Elias had hinted that his grandmother had abused him, even when every word out of his mouth was technically the truth. It also confirmed that Elias had seen the marks, and kept his word in not asking anything about them, that day or any other. Jon didn’t know how to feel about that).

She was a little worried when she heard about Jon’s ‘episodes’, which Elias surprised Jon by bringing them up on his own. He failed to mention that both times Jon had broken down in his presence had been due to his own actions, of course. To Jon’s chagrin, Jon’s own melancholy and lethargy had been noted by her as possible signs of depression. She recommended that Elias set Jon up with a child psychologist, but otherwise signed off on Jon’s health as being just fine, barring any surprise in the bloodwork from the samples she took.

(She said this was routine; Jon suspected it had more to do with her worry that his crazy grandmother had used contaminated needles to give him tattoos).

Friday came and went without anything special to mark the occasion. Jon napped, or sometimes broke and read one of Elias’ books, or gave in to pointless daydreams of what could have been, or fell into memories so vivid that they made his current existence so pale and timid he could almost believe it to be the daydream, as he wandered lost in the hellscape under his god’s gaze.

When Elias sat him down in the kitchen counter early Saturday morning, Jon realized he hadn’t said more than a word to him over the last couple of days. A part of him thought there was something wrong with that, but most of Jon was content to do nothing and wait. He couldn’t make a mistake when he did nothing. It was better for everyone if Jon simply faded away.

He was so out of it that he didn’t even realize that Elias hadn’t set out breakfast for them that day, and instead held a stack of index cards in his hands, which he flipped through idly as he watched Jon from across the table.

Jon was able to gather enough strands of his scattered attention to frown, and ask, “what are you doing?”

“I am taking responsibility,” Elias replied seriously.

“What?” For once, Jon wasn’t faking his ignorance.

“I’m taking responsibility,” Elias repeated. He tapped the cards on the surface, meeting Jon’s eyes, looking as serious as he had ever seen him before. “I made a mistake with the deal I made with you, Jon.”

Here we go, Jon thought, becoming more alert, with a growing knot in his stomach. He had always known Elias would break his word. He had only hoped it would take a little longer.

“You see…” Elias paused, and sighed. “As has been pointed out to me repeatedly this week, you are a child.”

Jon blinked, and kept his mouth shut. He was sitting straighter, though, and trying to get into a position which would make it easier to leap off this stupidly tall chair.

“A child who is under my guardianship,” Elias added, with a little grimace. “Which means keeping you healthy and alive is literally the least I am supposed to do.”

Jon had no idea where this was going. He knew Elias had no respect for the police, or for the laws. There was no way he was intimidated to learn his role came with other responsibilities, or that he wouldn’t know how to talk circles around Mrs. Newman when she came checking to see how Jon was doing.

“I made an agreement with you in the same way I would have made one with an adult,” Elias continued. “But that was a flawed idea to start. You are a child, and I am the adult; it is my responsibility to be involved in your life, to guide and nurture you.”

Jon couldn’t keep the baffled look off his face. None of those words sounded like they should have come out of Elias’ mouth. The man’s idea of job training had been to throw Jon unprepared at an avatar of corruption and hope he didn’t die too soon. Not only that, but those words sounded like…

“Rosie told you to do this?” Jon asked incredulously, a little betrayed. He knew Rosie thought she was doing the right thing, but a part of Jon felt hurt that she had gone to convince Elias to interfere with Jon’s life even more.

Elias gave a small, self-deprecating shrug. “She had a point. Whatever else you are, Jon, you are a child. A child I chose to bring into my home and care.” He tapped the index cards again, looking down at them, annoyed. “Maybe a hasty choice, come to think of it, but it was done.”

Jon glared, and felt a vindictive surge of pleasure. So Elias was regretting ruining Jon’s life? He had to be doing something right.

“I don’t know much about children,” Elias continued, and met Jon’s eyes. “But ignorance is never something to be celebrated and protected, is it, Jon?”

Jon almost, almost felt along the edges of the door in his mind.

“So I did some reading this week, at Rosie’s suggestion and my own initiative.” He gave half a smile. “There is quite a large amount of literature out there about how to raise children, did you know?”

Jon stared. Was he—did Elias Bouchard just admit to reading a parenting book? To deal with Jon? It was absurd. Jon had to be hallucinating. That would make a lot more sense than most of this conversation.

“A lot of it is quite contradictory,” Elias said dismissively, with an eye roll that seemed to imply, those silly humans. “But there were a few ideas in there with some merit. What I’ve come to decide is that children need structure, discipline, and an understanding of what is happening to them and around them.”

Jon was fine with the ‘understanding’ part of that, and quite alarmed at ‘structure and discipline’.

“Which is why starting today I am going to be making sure you follow a schedule,” Elias continued.

“No,” Jon said, the first word he could make come from his mouth. “No, that’s- that’s stupid. You’re not my—” Jon couldn’t bring himself to say ‘dad’, “—my guardian. Not really. I mean, you’re just… you’re just keeping me around until you figure out my secrets. We aren’t…” Jon didn’t know how to finish that sentence. He wanted nothing to do with Elias. He wanted Elias to want nothing to do with him. He thought they had at least been on the same page as to their relationship.

Jon had something Elias wanted, and Elias would keep Jon safe (to a degree of safe) until he had it.

This felt wrong.

Elias was giving him an unimpressed look. “I am, quite literally, your guardian, Jon. Legally and in practice, I am guarding you from others who want to hurt you. But we’ll get to that later.”

“But this isn’t what I agreed to,” Jon felt more awake now than he had all week. He was also starting to panic. He tried to keep a hold on his emotions, but they seemed to be growing inside him like weeds, fed by every word out of Elias’ mouth. “I’m not cooperating with you—on this—this thing. Only for my safety, that’s what I said!”

“Yes, it is,” Elias nodded. “But as many of the books Rosie got for me noted, children always test their boundaries when they are placed in new environments, and I don’t need your cooperation. I need to give you structure, and discipline if you don’t follow that structure.”

Jon gaped at him. What was happening? How did this become… this?

 “You’re going to punish me for not doing what you say? What, by locking me into my room at night, taking me away from my family, and isolating me from everyone else?” Jon’s voice had started to rise when he spoke, and he finished it yelling.

Elias’ eyes flashed, and for a second Jon was made to remember who he was talking to. No, he knew Elias could do a lot worse to him than what he was doing. He felt the Watcher’s gaze on him like a suffocating blanket, pressing in. Jon concentrated on breathing, and calmed down.

“The discipline will be on a case by case basis,” Elias said, his smile slipping. “And I’m sure we’ll figure out a way to coexist with each other peaceful without too much trouble, right?”

Jon hugged himself, but said nothing. He had no intention of cooperating, but he also couldn’t dismiss the threat Elias presented. He’s just trying to get control of the situation, Jon thought. He would probably try this parenting thing for a week or two before giving up, and Jon would again have the small facsimile of freedom he had enjoyed until then.

“We can talk about all of that later, though. What I’m going to tell you next, that I need your full attention for. Are you all the way here, Jon?” Elias tapped his index cards again on the counter. Jon, still feeling off-balance by everything Elias had already said, looked at them with trepidation. Just what else was Elias going to spring on him now?

“Jon?” Elias prompted again.

“I’m listening,” Jon said, pulling his legs up on the tall chair with him and crossing them.

“Good. Now, I have a feeling you know more about what I’m going to tell you than you’ve let on,” Elias started, as he picked out card after card from his hand and placed them on the counter, each with handwritten words facing Jon. The Buried/Choke, Jon read on one, and The Desolation/The Lightless Flame on another. Jon didn’t need to count the fourteen cards that Elias placed in front of him to know what this conversation was going to be about.

“But as I said earlier, understanding is important, and seeing as you have already caught the interest of at least four of these Entities, I decided it was more important to fill in whatever details are missing than to force you to share what you might already know. This way we can both be on the same page, and be able to talk about it when another ‘monster’ comes after you.”

Jon had no idea what to say, again. Four entities? He must be counting the Web and the Spiral marks. Unless there is another one after me? Jon couldn’t believe that Elias would willing explain… well, anything. Not unless he felt he had already won and wanted to rub in the way his plan to victory had worked. Given that they were both still sitting across from each other in Elias’ pleasant kitchen, with no apocalypse in sight, made Jon doubt that was the case.

Wait, did he say when a monster comes after me?

Jon didn’t have a chance to ask, for Elias started to talk then.

His explanation was more straightforward than Jurgen’s had been, and more colored by his own desires and perceptions. He spoke of the entities as gods, fourteen of them which occasionally touched reality and caused the supernatural, whether that be phenomena, items, creatures, or people who got too close and started to serve that god. He didn’t note how many of the fears were similar, and how the definitions of each could easily lend them to blend into one another. Jon had no intention of asking or bringing that up.

He went into a quick description of each of the Fears, pointing to the index card on the table which represented it as he spoke. Jon picked one of them up. It had The End/Death written on one side, and fear of death on the other. He put it back down, and continued to look at the cards as Elias spoke, reading upon their backs a sentence or two summarizing what Elias was saying, what Jon already knew.

It felt surreal. Jon had never imagined to hear such a coherent explanation from Elias’ lips, especially not one without any kind of gloating.

When he was done, Jon stared down at the fourteen squares displayed in front of him and realized, far too late, that he didn’t know how he was to react. He wasn’t supposed to have known about any of this, so surprise? But Elias knew he knew at least a little about it, so it couldn’t be disbelief. His original self had learned all of these details after months of reading statements, of starting to see the patterns.

He couldn’t say nothing. Could he?

Elias moved his hand over the countertop, and pushed most of the cards to one side, leaving only three cards in front of Jon. The Eye, the Spiral, and the Web. Jon looked up at him.

“Do you know what these three have in common?” He said, his voice quiet, his eyes piercing.

Jon looked down at them, scared, doubtful. But he knew what he had to say. “They’re the ones that have marked me,” he whispered.

He could hear Elias’ smile in his voice. “You called me a monster before. It would be more accurate to say that I have become a servant of one the gods,” he placed a finger over the card that read The Eye/Beholding, “and that my patron grants me certain gifts in exchange for what I do for it.”

“That’s not what I am,” Jon said quickly. Not anymore. Whatever claim the Web or Spiral had on him, whatever lingering connection still tied Jon to a role he could no longer inhabit, he was still human. Probably.

“Maybe,” Elias didn’t move his finger from the card, “but it is clear to me that my god has made a claim on you. I don’t know the nature of this claim,” he paused, as though to give Jon a chance to explain. Jon didn’t. “But I have never seen someone marked by the Eye in the way you are.” He shook his head. “It is difficult to explain. I doubt anyone not of Beholding would notice anything strange about it, but the way the Ceaseless Watcher marked you makes it… hard to look away.”

Jon felt sick. This was the first Elias brought this up. Was this another lie? He had been so curious to test the way Jon’s eye worked; why would he want to do that if he could already sense that Jon was deeply tied into Beholding?

He said so himself. He doesn’t understand how, or why.

“I am not one of you,” Jon said, his voice small.

“You don’t have much of a choice,” Elias shrugged. “You are in too deep to decide to back out now. Claimed by three gods, and I’ve no doubt the other eleven would happily take you in, if you wandered their way.”

“I can stay away, not feed any of them,” Jon said, a little louder. An echo of his own desperate, repeated claims.

“Oh, Jon,” the fake pity in Elias’ voice made Jon glare up at the man. “The only choice you have left is which of them to feed. And you can make that choice soon, or it can be chosen for you if you leave it too late.”

That was such a vile piece of misinformation, Jon couldn’t help but grimace in disgust. He would have fallen for it, too, had Elias fed him such a line, back when he was still struggling to piece everything together. He knew better, now. Becoming an avatar required choice. It didn’t need to be a conscious one, at least not for the first steps down the path, but it required that you choose to go toward it, every time, in a hundred ways, big and small. At some point, it required that you give in and commit, to finish becoming.

But this Jon wasn’t supposed to know that.

“You want me to pick yours,” Jon spat.

“You have already chosen mine,” Elias replied easily. “Don’t give me that look. It’s the option that speaks to you the most, is it not? Although I suppose you have a bit of the Slaughter on you, if your reaction to Gertrude is any indication.”

“I’m not—I’m not doing this.” Jon had reached his limit. He swung his legs out from under him and got ready to jump down the chair. Elias grabbed his arm.

“You’re not excused from the table, Jon.” Elias said. Jon glared and tried to tug his arm free.

“Fuck you,” Jon snarled, and used his other hand to scratch Elias’ arm. Elias flinched, but didn’t let go, and quickly used his free arm to hold on to Jon’s other hand. Jon struggled, and used his legs to kick out the chair from under him, causing it to clatter to the ground. Jon was held up for a second by Elias’ grip before his long sleeves slipped and Jon fell.

Jon heard Elias yell his name, but he didn’t care. He scrambled back to his feet and ran.

Outside wasn’t safe. Inside wasn’t safe. All he wanted was just a few minutes alone to figure things out without Elias making any other changes. He ran to his room and threw the door closed, then realized with a funny kind of desperation that it didn’t have a lock on the inside.

He leaned against the door with his body, knowing that it wouldn’t be much of an obstacle if Elias decided to push, but needing to do something. Tears came easily to him now, and god, but he was almost tempted to go right back outside and rub his snotty face all over Elias’ shirt, and see how he liked that.

But no, that was stupid. He wanted to avoid Elias. Just as he had been all week. He wanted to avoid all choices, and all consequences.

Not that consequences didn’t find him anyway.

“Jon,” Elias’ voice came clear from the other side of the door. Jon hugged his knees to his chest and stayed where he was, back against the door.

“Jon, you know I’m telling you the truth.” When Elias tried, he could really act. He sounded sympathetic, almost kind. “It’s not easy to hear, but there it is. If it makes you feel any better, you’re not the first child to be deeply tied in to one of the Fears.”

Jon stopped crying long enough to figure out what Elias meant. Agnes? Was Elias comparing Jon to Agnes Montague? Did he…

A new, horrible idea came to Jon. One that would explain why Elias was suddenly interested in his upbringing. Did Elias believe Jon to be something analogous to Agnes, with the Eye instead of the Lightless Flame?

Could he be right?

“I’m not half as incompetent as those who raised her,” Elias added, a lot quieter. Jon didn’t know if he was going to laugh, or cry.

Elias thought Jon was some sort of young super-proto-avatar, and he had gotten it in his head to become competitive over how Jon turned out, in comparison to the wasted potential that had become Agnes’ life, raised by a bunch of violent Avatars who knew only destruction.

Jon buried his face in his knees and covered his ears, but he could still hear Elias’ attempts at consolation through the door for the next hour.

Chapter Text

During his second weekend at Elias’ house, Jon learned many things he wished he had never been put in the position to learn. He learned that Elias’ patience had a limit, when he gave up on talking Jon out of his room after an hour and pushed his way in, then dragged a screaming and kicking Jon back downstairs for breakfast. He learned it again when Jon pushed his breakfast, plate and all, off the table, and Elias picked him up, took him upstairs to his office, and put him inside the small closet in the room. He stood just outside and wouldn’t let Jon come back out until he apologized, which Jon did after only 15 minutes. If he hadn’t been claustrophobic before, all that time he had spent in the Buried rescuing Daisy set his heart to racing even in a clean, uncluttered closet.

He learned to pick his battles with Elias; where the man would go for ‘discipline’, and where he would simply give Jon an annoyed look and back off. Most of the time, the line came down to whether Jon ignored something Elias told him to do, or if he simply didn’t behave in the way Elias wanted him to. The exceptions were when Jon broke anything or became violent, such as when Elias tried to pat Jon’s head when he finished his lunch without argument, and Jon tried to bite his fingers.

He learned that Elias’ standards for ‘structure’ were more confining than those of any parent Jon had ever heard of. Bedtime meant Jon was to be in bed, and asleep, by the time Elias set. It wasn’t until after two nights of Jon yelling at Elias that he couldn’t fall asleep on command, and that if he was going to stand outside the door glaring, then Jon was going to start crying and then they would both be miserable. Elias was the one to learn that lesson, and he agreed to being content if Jon would be in bed, awake or asleep, by the time he set.

He made a schedule for Jon, which described what he was to do every day, down to the minute. It included a lot of time for Jon to do ‘research’ and educate himself more on the Fears, which Jon refused to do on principle. He wasn’t going to allow Elias to push him deeper into Beholding’s grasp. When Elias set him up in his bedroom, at his brand new child-sized desk, with a pile of books and papers that he wanted Jon to read and sort into one of the fourteen fears, Jon sat on his bed, crossed his arms, and did nothing.

“Knowledge of this could quite literally save your life,” Elias said, exasperated, one hand on top of the pile of books.

“It could also make me into something like you,” Jon argued, unmoving.

“So what, are you just going to lie in bed every day, doing nothing for the rest of your life?” Jon smirked at Elias’ tone, disbelief and frustration all wrapped up in one.

“Not until I figure out what I can do that won’t make things worse,” Jon said, letting a bit of sincerity through.

That’s what research is for!” Elias threw up his arms.

“You can’t make me!” Jon yelled.

All in all, not much got done on Saturday, except for both Elias and Jon deciding to call a truce during mealtimes. Elias put Jon in that damn closet three times throughout the day, but it’s effectiveness as a punishment varied with the infraction. Jon would reluctantly apologize for violence or destruction of property after such a punishment, but he wouldn’t budge on reading what Elias wanted him to no matter how long he was in there for.

On Sunday, Elias learned of two more ways to get Jon to cooperate: bargaining and threats. Not threats to Jon’s own safety—they both knew he wasn’t about to risk that—but threats to Jon’s grandmother, about calling in a tip about Jon’s possible abuse at her hands, and ruining her life further. Jon went after him like he had with Gertrude when Elias explained his threat, and had to spend an hour in that closet as Elias explained he would reserve that bit of ‘discipline’ only for the worst of Jon’s transgressions. The fact that he didn’t explain what those ‘worst transgressions’ were put Jon on edge, but he was irrationally glad that Elias wasn’t going to bring it out for their every disagreement; Jon didn’t have the self-control to never talk back to Elias. Elias wasn’t stupid; it was a threat that would only be able to be triggered once, and so was best kept in reserve, since using it would set Jon completely against him.

The bargaining was easier for Jon to bear. When Elias brought up research again Sunday morning, and demanded “what would it take for you to just do as you are told?”, Jon said, “let me make changes to your stupid schedule.”

The negotiations after that were hostile, but productive. Elias had filled in his days with almost non-stop research, with a few breaks for meals or exercise. Jon, determined to minimize what Elias wanted him to do, decided he would lean on his age more, and demanded a television and games, and time to play. (He wasn’t honestly interested in any of those things; he just wanted an excuse to not do what Elias wanted, and he couldn’t think of anything he really wanted to do. He needed to find a hobby.)

Elias thought it was a waste of time. Jon argued that, as Elias had so frequently admitted, Jon was a child, and that children needed time to play and relax. Elias, in a moment of amusing worry, told Jon that he hoped he wasn’t expecting Elias to play with him. Jon didn’t dignify that with a response.

Jon reminded Elias that he was supposed to be in school, and that he couldn’t just spend all his time reading about Fear gods. Elias reminded Jon that no matter what else happened in his life, he was going to be dealing with the Entities for his entire life, so educating himself on them was as important as anything else he might learn in school. Jon reminded him that the social worker was unlikely to leave Jon with Elias if Jon was removed from schooling and didn’t pass any of the mandatory exams. Elias gave a dramatic sigh and agreed to add some time for regular schoolwork in his schedule.

Elias said he would be giving Jon homework and expected him to work to the best of his abilities. Jon demanded a computer, and internet. Elias shut that down out of hand, but then paused to consider. He would agree to the computer and internet, if Jon would also do some of his research on it.

Jon, who was never the most tech-competent person, felt that he would still be far ahead of the curve simply from having lived in the future and being casually aware of all that computers could do. Possibly, he would know more than Elias, and if he was careful could do a little research of his own without his guardian knowing. He wondered if the computers today had incognito mode.

Jon learned that Elias could get things done frighteningly fast when he made a decision. Not two hours after they had finished their negotiation, (ending up with Jon committing to do Elias’ stupid ‘research’, which Jon knew was a badly veiled attempt to feed Beholding and draw Jon closer to it, for three hours every day), there were a couple of men from the local electronics shop in their house, setting up a new computer in Elias’ office, and a small television in the living room. Jon had wanted the computer in his room; Elias had given him a smirk and said they could share, and that if Jon behaved very well then maybe he would get him one for his room in the future.

Jon had, miraculously, not spat back a sarcastic comment. He tried to pretend he didn’t see Elias’ smirk grow wider at that.

Setting up the internet was a little more complicated, and they would have to wait for the people from the phone company to stop by the next day before they could get it installed. Elias thanked the delivery men and paid them, and then it was just Jon and Elias again, alone in their house.

Then Elias brought up how easy things were now that Jon had someone to help him through things, and Jon brought up that Elias wasn’t the only Avatar out there wanting to ‘help’ Jon, and Elias brought up his threat against his grandmother. After Jon had been left out, with a resentful promise not to ‘seek out those who would torture and main him sooner than help him’, they shared an exhausted dinner.

After dinner, Elias had, tentatively, suggested that Jon go to his room and start reading some of the documents he provided. Jon, equally hesitant, had asked what Elias expected of him.

“I want you to look at the stories I gave you, and to write down your impression of each: if it was real, if it was not, and which of the gods you believe to have been behind it, if you believed it was real. I want you to be thorough and explain your thought process behind each.” Jon had frowned. It sounded a lot like what his job as Head Archivist had been, except he was looking at Elias’ personal library instead of the Institute’s statements. It was also something that would be useful for someone in Jon’s position to learn, if he was as ignorant as he pretended to be.

But I’m not the new Head Archivist, Jon reminded himself. He was a child being given the work of an adult. If the last two days had taught him anything, other than a hatred for how controlling Elias was in his personal life and a perverse joy in spoiling his damned schedules, it was that Jon needed to get better at leveraging the few circumstances that were in his favor.

Being a child might have caused about eighty percent of his problems, but it was also a solution for the remaining twenty percent.

He wasn’t going to say anything to Elias now. He’d see how he reacted to half a page of nonsense in Jon’s childish scrawl.  

So Jon bargained, again. “I’ll do that for an hour if I can watch tv until I go to bed,” he offered. He really wanted to start watching the news. He needed to become more grounded in the current date, and hopefully seeing the current events would help before he accidentally made a reference to a world event that had yet to happen.

Elias looked at the clock in the kitchen. “An hour and a half,” he said. Jon nodded, then left without another word to go back to his room. It took him twenty minutes to pick up all the books and pages that had fallen to the floor last night, when Jon had—maybe not exactly on purpose—started throwing his pillows and bedding around the room when Elias refused to leave until Jon was asleep.

Jon picked a folder with only a few pages inside and opened it. He resisted the urge to roll his eyes. It was a statement from someone to the Institute, given in 1974. He sat down on his messy desk and read it, his lips twitching from the effort not to read it out loud.

Corruption. He knew what it was before he was halfway through. The statement giver’s father was a hoarder who started to collect rotting food, and on the last visit, the statement giver had seen an apparently sentient mass of cockroaches follow him around the house, where his father lay in a crowded bed, smelling of rot, with more roaches coming out of his mouth as he watched. The statement giver had fled, and the police had found his father’s corpse the next day. They said they now found roaches in their house, where previously there had never been any, and thought they were waiting.

Jon pushed the paper aside with a grimace. He never had any fondness for the Corruption. He hoped the woman who had recorded it had gotten free of it, or else had a quick death. He dragged his notebook to his lap, picked up his pen, and wrote, in the blocky script he could do nothing about, “Story about cockroaches. I think it is real because it sounds very gross and scary. It is corruption because there are bugs and rotting things.” He looked at his ‘analysis’ critically. Maybe he should start misspelling some words? This was the way children wrote, wasn’t it? He had as little experience with children as Elias did, but he wasn’t so far removed from his own childhood that he couldn’t remember his disastrous attempts at journals when he was 9. He had found them in a box in the attic of grandmother’s house after she died, and had promptly burned them all when he opened them and saw a mess of run-on sentences and embarrassing details of his everyday life.

He probably couldn’t push the act too far; his spoken vocabulary and diction were too good for Elias to believe him a complete idiot. Still, his handwriting was bad, and large as it was the three sentences took up a quarter of the page. And it wasn’t like anyone would have taught his eight year old self how to ‘be thorough and explain your thought process’. He’d have to remember to be consistent with that when speaking with Elias; so far, anger had usually stolen his ability to make coherent arguments, but going forward he was going to have to make sure to infantilize his responses more.

Jon thought about the last two days, and sighed. It wasn’t going to be hard. Something about Elias brought out his worse, most childish behavior naturally.

He went through another statement a he waited for the rest of the hour and a half to pass, taking his time. (“Not real. Isn’t very scary and birds don’t do that to people.”) When the time had passed, he picked up both the statements and the pages from his notebook, ripped out carelessly, and went downstairs.

Elias was sitting in the recliner in front of the television, its screen on but the volume muted, with the house phone on his ear and a glass of dark alcohol in his hand. He gestured for Jon to approach, though the only sounds out of his mouth were mild sounds of acknowledgement and agreement, allowing whoever was on the other end of the line to keep talking. Jon handed over the papers and stepped back, but not before smelling the alcohol in Elias’ hand and recognizing it as whiskey. Jon gave it a longing look. He had never been much of a drinker, but after the week he’d had, he would love to find oblivion at the bottom of a bottle.

Jon tore his eyes away and went to perch on the couch, legs tucked up beneath him, and stared at the screen. It wasn’t any show he recognized, and muted as it was, Jon had no idea what it was supposed to be. He fell asleep within minutes.

Elias shook him awake some time later. Jon went from groggy to alarmed in seconds, shooting over the back of the couch to get some distance between them.

“You done?” Elias asked, his hands spread out in front of him in his ‘I’m unarmed and innocent’ gesture. Jon got to his feet, only a little embarrassed. What kind of person got so close to wake you up?

“What do you want?” Jon grumbled, climbing back into the couch, but keeping his eyes on Elias, and on the papers that he held.

“I took a look at what you wrote,” Elias said neutrally, with both notebook pages in his hand. Jon made sure to keep his face blank, and waited for the inevitable.

“It’s good,” he said, looking over one of the pages again. Jon hesitated. What?

“It’s, uh, it’s what you wanted?” Jon asked, just to be sure.

“For now? Yes. You seem to have a good grasp on what I explained yesterday,” Elias said, sounding more animated. He walked over and sat next to Jon, which caused him to move over to the other end of the couch, as far from him as he could get. “We’ll have to work on being a little more deliberate, and not just working off feelings, but it’s a solid start. You didn’t hesitate to realize that the second one wasn’t real, didn’t assume it was and try to fit it into what I had told you. I’m impressed.”

“Um. Thanks.” Jon blushed, not sure why, and couldn’t meet Elias’ gaze. It wasn’t supposed to be impressive. It was supposed to look childish and stupid! Only, he went and did the assignment for real, and only tried to misdirect in how he presented his results. Why didn’t he think to just lie?

“You were right,” Elias admitted, which again made Jon look at him like he had grown a second head. “I can’t just dismiss your regular education. We’ll have to move forward with both.”

“That’s what we agreed on,” Jon said slowly, wondering if Elias had planned to ignore all they had spoken about earlier and try to force Jon to be buried in statements instead.

“I might get you a tutor. We’ll see.” Elias said thoughtfully. Jon brightened at that. Any time he didn’t have to spend with Elias over his shoulder was good. “Now go off to bed,” he added.

“But I didn’t get to watch-“ Jon started.

“Not my fault you wasted your time,” Elias said, pointing at the large clock on the wall, which showed it to be five minutes before nine. “Bedtime.”

That prompted the second round of bedtime arguments, and Jon yelling, and Jon crying, which led to Elias throwing his door closed with a ‘fine!’, bolting it shut, and agreeing that bedtime just meant Jon was to be in bed.

It was the first weekend of Jon’s new life. While it was not a good weekend, it was far from the best, or worst of them.

Elias didn’t relent with his schedule, even as the situation changed to work on Monday. Jon was set up in the same office as before, with an additional bookshelf inside so he could put all the books and papers he wasn’t currently using and have enough room on the desk. Taped to the wall was a color-coded, printed version of his schedule. On his desk, a large alarm clock. Everywhere else, Beholding’s presence. Jon envied all children who didn’t have a selectively omnipresent guardian making their life hell.

Morning was set aside for schoolwork. The color was green, which meant it was supposed to be English. Jon picked up the Year 3 textbook from his small bookshelf and brought it to the desk. He sighed, opened the book to a random page, and started lazily making his way through it.

Rosie came to get him for his midmorning break, (fifteen minutes, colored in grey), and Jon ate the chips she bought as his snack with his head on a swivel, ready to run at the first sight of Gertrude.

“I hope your situation gets sorted out soon, love,” Rosie told him, smiling. “This is no place for a child, spending all day here alone.”

“I’m fine,” Jon muttered, unused to someone expressing such direct concern for him.

“You’re a brave kid,” she agreed, and ruffled his hair. “But kids should have the room to run around and play, not have to be shut indoors all day.”

Jon felt strangely energized when he returned to his room, and switched textbooks for the math one (in red). He made sure to keep his progress slow and to look as though he was working at it, though in reality he found it easy to turn his thoughts elsewhere.

He wondered if this latest development was positive or negative. On the one hand, Elias believing him to be some kind of Agnes analog explained many of the things Jon least wanted to talk about, including his strange connection to the Eye, the unusual amount of every-flavored fear he leaked all around him, and even the moment of bringing the Entities closer to the world; all could be explained with a ritual, not to end the world, but to create him. Or, rather, to create what he was to become; there was plenty of evidence that Jon had existed as a perfectly normal child before that day.

Jon could bring in the Spider and the Spiral interfering with the ritual to explain the marks on him, and why it had come out flawed. Jon was, after all, not an extremely powerful avatar as Agnes had been; he had none of an Avatar’s powers or appetite, in fact. The questions he would have to figure out, to feed to Elias, were who was behind the ritual, and why they had chosen to use Jon to do it.

On the less positive hand, this meant that Elias was invested in Jon for the long term. Even after his fears dissipated and he gained a chance to go on his own, there was no way Elias would let him leave if he believed him to be some integral part of Beholding’s plan. Jon was almost as afraid to consider what would happen when he realized Jon wasn’t a special Beholding ritual piece (anymore), as he was for the opposite to happen.

Like everything else in this iteration of his life, however, he had a good amount of time before he had to start worrying about any of it.

Having Elias be interested in his well-being and education was annoying of its own right, though. It wasn’t that he didn’t like structure, or schedules, or organization. He just didn’t like having someone else have that much control over every aspect of his life. His grandmother had never imposed anything like that on him, so long as he kept his grades up and didn’t get into trouble she had to hear about.

He suspected Elias was having a similar, if opposite, crisis. Jon could guess how much he valued personal distance, having to care and watch out only for himself. It was part of belonging to the Eye, to stay away, to watch but not get close or participate. It was the part that Jon had never been very good at, despite all the other ways he had become trapped by Beholding.

Elias would have a hundred little plots running simultaneously, needing only a nudge here and there, discarded at whim if ineffective. What he was trying to do with Jon ran contrary to his nature: to allow another into his everyday life, to have to keep one of his plots close at hand, without the intention of scrapping it and trying again if it failed.

He hoped Elias grew bored of his overbearing control soon. He had a feeling that if he was made to follow Elias’ insanity for much longer, he was going to snap and do something very stupid.

The rest of the day followed a similar pattern, with time set apart for ‘research’ in the afternoon, as well as ‘science’ from the same set of children’s textbooks. Jon pushed through a few stories (this time going for one of the books instead of the loose statements), and by the end of the day was thoroughly bored.

As they were driving home for the night, Jon decided to be proactive about things and say, “I still want games.”

“Your days as busy enough as they are, aren’t they?” Elias asked with a warning smile.

Jon smiled right back, just as genuinely. “You don’t lock my door at the Institute, you know. I would hate to wander around just because I got bored. Who knows the trouble I could end up in."

Elias snorted. “You’re not going to put yourself at risk for no reason. You’re terrified of running into Gertrude again.”

That was true. But not the point.

“What have I ever done that makes you think I ever choose to do the smart, safe thing?” Jon asked, and rubbed at his arms. His best ammunition was the truth, but that didn’t mean it didn’t hurt.

Elias gave Jon a brief, considering look, before giving in with a sigh. “Fine. I’ll find a game. But I’m picking it.”

Jon agreed and dropped it. He was sure Elias would try to turn finding a game into another manipulation, but what was the harm, really? Jon just wanted something to do, and he was certain that any requests to get books other than those Elias wanted him to read would be met with more textbooks, or something else equally unappetizing. Maybe Elias would let him spend time in the library at the Institute sometime? There had to be a wider variety of books there, at least.

The phone people had been to the house to connect the internet while they were gone, and Jon stood by Elias as he turned on the computer (had they always taken this long to load?) and figured out how to start the internet (Jon had not missed the loud, animal-being-brutally-murdered sounds of dial-up internet). He stared into the screen, at the low resolution desktop files of windows 95.

“Now what?” Elias asked, and Jon was surprised to realize he was talking to him. It hadn’t occurred to Jon that Elias, all-seeing, insufferably smug Elias, might have little to no experience on the internet, not having needed it before.

“Uh,” Jon paused, then shrugged. He could always play it off as something a friend had shown him, couldn’t he? Not that he’d had friends. Not that Elias would know that.

Jon took the mouse and opened internet explorer. Then he had no idea what to do. Did google even exist at this point in time?

“… and you type in the address you want to go to here,” Jon said, pointing at the appropriate place on the window.

“You’re the one who wanted this internet,” Elias said, sliding his chair out so Jon would have better access. He waved towards the computer. “Go ahead.”

Jon was frozen by indecision. He hadn’t really expected Elias to come through with this, especially not so quickly. All he had were intentions more than real ideas of trying to look up people he knew in the web browser; did they even have search engines yet? He had no idea.

“I-I don’t have anything specific to do,” Jon stammered. “I-I-I just thought—I know these things are useful, and I—”

Elias sighed, then shooed him off and turned off the computer and computer monitor. Just by clicking off the buttons. Jon tried not to stare.

“We’ll figure out what to do with it later, I’m sure,” Elias said. Jon got the impression he wasn’t very impressed with Jon at the moment.

That’s good! Jon told himself. He didn’t want Elias to be impressed with him! Less attention was better.

He still felt like a fool.

Monday night passed without further incident, unless you counted a return of some of Jon’s old nightmares. None of them of the Archivist variety, as far as Jon could remember, but he still had lifetimes worth of terrifying memories, both his own and not, to haunt his dreams.

Tuesday passed much as Monday had, though Jon was a lot less calm by the end of it. Working on those children’s textbooks, on his own in that too-quiet office, for hours on end was slowly driving him crazy. On their way home, Jon wouldn’t stop kicking the dashboard, even after Elias repeatedly told him to, and he was in Elias’ little punishment closet for half an hour as a result.

That night, Jon dreams of eyes, everywhere. Around him and in him and of him. He can see himself, but also see out of himself, and into himself, and there is nothing, not the least bit of Jon that isn’t dissected and cataloged and known. He imagines he feels the whisper of his god, right in his ear, a part of it in him and a part of him in it.

He imagines it says mine, or else come to me, or nowhere to run. None of it is in a language made for human ears to hear or brains to comprehend. It is less of a language and more of a bit of reality, moved alongside Jon so he can experience it, as he had so many times when the Eye looked at the world it made and the little creature that had made it possible.

Jon woke up Wednesday crying, confused and in a panic. He clawed at his door to get out, needing—needing to throw up, maybe, or something else, just knowing he needed to be out of that room, too small, too many eyes, too little proof that it wasn’t just another landscape of the apocalypse, and that Jon had simply imagined escaping to the past.

Elias opened the door a few minutes later, and Jon nearly knocked him over in his rush to the bathroom. He could feel him standing in the doorway, watching as Jon heaved and lost whatever was left of his dinner, then again, and again, until only thin trails of bile were coming out, and Jon felt painfully hollowed out every time his stomach rebelled.

“Bad dreams?” Elias asked softly when Jon had stopped—or at least paused long enough that it seemed over.

Jon, face tear-stained and covered in mucus and who knew what else, glared at him. Elias grimaced, then picked up one of the hand towels, dampened it with water, and crouched down beside Jon where he still leaned his forehead against the toilet seat.

“You’re alright,” he said, wiping the worst of the mess from Jon’s face, and Jon was too exhausted to complain about being taken care of, even if it was Elias doing the caring.

After cleaning his face and flushing the toilet, Elias got him a clean change of clothes and convinced Jon to stand under a warm shower to get cleaned up.

Breakfast was a subdued affair, with Jon barely able to swallow a mouthful or two, and Elias pushing him to try more, though not insistently, for once.

“I think I’ve thought of a game for you,” Elias told him on their drive to work. Jon, still feeling miserable, barely paid him any attention. “I think you’ll like it.”

“And have you changed my schedule around to have ‘game time’?” Jon asked unenthusiastically.

“No,” Elias said. “It will be a bit of a long-term game. You can play it when you’re feeling bored, so long as you don’t abuse the privilege and still do your work.”

That sounded too good to be true.

“What’s the game?” Jon assumed Elias must have gotten Rosie to go out and buy it, since he hadn’t seen Elias leave the house in the last two days.

“A treasure hunt at the Institute,” Elias said, giving Jon his lopsided smile.

“What?” Jon was starting to suspect that Elias liked shocking him. “But you don’t want me wandering around the Institute…?”

“I never said that,” Elias countered. “I don’t want you going into Artefact Storage or the Archives, but I’ll choose to believe you’re smart enough not to do either of those things on your own.”

Jon had no intention of running into Gertrude again unprepared, and he wasn’t about to poke around Artefact Storage for no reason. He thought briefly of the tunnels, but none of his reasons to stay with Elias had changed. If Elias started to give him more freedom of movement, it would open up opportunities for the future, when the tunnels might become a more viable escape plan.

“A treasure hunt,” Jon repeated. “Isn’t everyone who works there going to be mad at me for being underfoot playing?”

Elias shrugged. “Think of it as practice for life. Either stay out of their way or figure out a way they won’t mind having you around.”

Jon tried to think about this from Jonah Magnus’ perspective. Why would he suggest such a game? He could have realized that giving me no outlet at all was going to start having consequences, Jon reasoned. He could want me to become more familiar with the Institute, and a search for knowledge was just as much in the Eye’s domain as reading statements. He could be expecting me to alienate all the others in the Institute, which would bind me closer to him, the only one willing to spend time with me.

It could be none of those reasons, or all of them. It was still a hundred times better than being locked up in that office for nine hours a day.

“Ok,” Jon agreed, tentatively. “What would I have to do?”

Jon would never have admitted it to Elias, but despite his misgivings he found the treasure hunt set up for him a good distraction, and strangely fun. Elias had placed an envelope with his name on it somewhere, and gave Jon only two hints on where to find it. If it took Jon an afternoon or a month to find, he wouldn’t get a different one until he found the first.

He found it that same day, tucked between the pages of new-smelling book on ‘The Science of Ghost Sightings’ inside the institute library. It had taken him only a couple of hours of searching, and other than a suspicious librarian that wouldn’t stop looking at Jon to make sure he didn’t tear up any books, hadn’t been made to interact with anybody to get it.

Elias had assured Jon that Gertrude hardly ever left the Archives, and that as long as he avoided the lobby in the mornings and late afternoons, chances were good he wouldn’t run into her. Jon didn’t entirely trust him, but he knew well enough how the Archives could become a place of their own separate from the rest of the Institute, and he himself hadn’t gone anywhere other than the Lobby and Elias’ office, occasionally, for his term as Head Archivist.

Back in his own office, Jon flopped down on the couch and opened the letter. Inside, unsurprisingly, was another statement. Jon rolled his eyes.

He found the theater of doing school work a lot easier with an outlet at hand, and he was in such a better mood that he didn’t pick a fight with Elias for the rest of the day.

The rest of the week followed with the same pattern, though it took Jon until Friday to find Elias’ second envelope (this time with one of Jon’s own notes, with corrections and suggestions written in red pen below).

The only strange detail Jon took note of was how easy it was to go through statements. He remembered how difficult it had been, back as the Archivist, for himself or any of the assistants to record a statement, to the point that they had only been able to do one a week on average, before being too tired to continue. About half of what Jon was reading now was fake, but he was still averaging something close to a real statement a day, and never felt drained by it.

Was it because he was simply reading it, and not recording it? Was it because he was no longer the Archivist? He knew the others had also had a similar hard time with them, and they were only affiliated with the Eye. Jon probably still counted as affiliated with the Eye, at least from what Elias said. Maybe he was protected from the strength of the statements by his previous experiences; after the world ended, he hadn’t needed to wait a week between statements. He could absorb hundreds, thousands of experiences in seconds, and speak them aloud for days without remembering to feel tired.

The weekend passed in relative peace (with the exception of the incident of the charred boot and the flooded kitchen, which Elias had decided to ignore on account of how he couldn’t figure out if it had been an accident or malicious—it had been on purpose. Mostly.)

By the time the week after had ended, Jon was starting to settle into place, strange as it might seem. Between the game, the work and his ‘studies’, he was kept too busy to worry, and entertained enough not to dwell on his loneliness. During the week his time at home was spent watching the news, watching Elias cook their meals, or testing a few things out on the internet when he felt the Watcher’s gaze on him distracted. (Google did not in fact exist; he rediscovered yahoo, but there were a very limited amount of other websites to look through). Weekends had no schoolwork planned, and Jon decided to read some of Elias’ non-Fear related biographies, in addition to the three hours he had promised Elias, which weren’t exempt in the weekend.

He probably wouldn’t have noticed the end of October, if it wasn’t for going into the library on the Monday of his fourth week with Elias and nearly running into a tall man with a dog mask carrying out a box of papers. Jon stumbled and kept his feet; the man tripped and spilled pages all over the floor.

“Sorry!” Jon apologized, though he was sure about half the blame lay on the man for wearing something that probably blocked his view too much to see out of.

“It’s no trouble,” the man said, voice muffled, as he went down on one knee and started to pick up papers. “It was my fault.”

Jon hesitated, then crouched down next to him to help the man pick up the pages. The man smiled from behind the mask, which Jon only knew from the crinkles around his eyes visible through the mask’s eye holes.

“You must be Jon, Elias’ kid?” The man asked.

“Not his kid,” Jon replied automatically, then added, since he didn’t want to be accidentally removed from the building, “but I’m staying with him, yeah.”

“I heard about you from Gertrude! I’m Michael, it’s a pleasure to meet you!” The man cheerily stuck out his hand for Jon to shake.

Jon froze. First at Gertrude’s name, spoken so familiarly and unexpectedly, and then at the man’s own, because he recognized the voice. Behind that silly dog mask was Michael, the real Michael, long before Gertrude had sacrificed him to the Distortion. It felt like being introduced to a ghost.

“Hello? Oh!” He remembered he was wearing his mask, and hastily pushed it up from his face. Jon couldn’t help staring, seeing that too-familiar face with entirely human proportions and a sheepish smile you would never see the Distortion wearing. “Didn’t mean to scare you there, I almost forgot I was wearing it.”

“I-uh. Yeah. Um. Why? Are you wearing it. I mean.” Jon could barely make himself speak, and he clung to the first subject he could think of.

He had never known Michael when he was a regular human, but he had heard enough of his story to know what Gertrude had done to him. Somehow, he hadn’t even considered that he would still be alive and whole at this point in time.

Alive and whole, but already working as an archival assistant. The only way out would be through blinding himself, and if what he remembered was correct, Michael had no idea about any of the truths behind the Entities. It would be nearly impossible to convince him of anything, especially not as a child, and far too dangerous; he didn’t want Elias to know just how much Jon knew about working in the Archives.

Michael was still smiling, a friendly, kind smile. “It’s my costume. You know, for Halloween.” He looked a little embarrassed. “I know we’re not supposed to make a big deal out of it, but I thought it might be fun to play around with it a little, see?”

He put the mask back on, and made a cartoonish ‘woof’ sound.

Jon stared.

Michael pushed back the mask again, and smiled uncertainly at Jon.

Jon finally realized he was being rude, and bent over again to finish pulling the papers to him.

“So, uh, you work in the Archives?” Jon asked, still dazed.

“With Gertrude and Emma, yeah,” Michael agreed. He hesitated, then added, “my boss doesn’t, um, like you much, so it would be best if you didn’t come down to visit. Not that you wanted to visit! I’m just, I mean, I wouldn’t take it personally. She doesn’t really like children.”

Jon finished with the last loose paper on his side of the floor, and didn’t know what to do.

“Thanks,” Michael grinned at him.

“No… problem” Jon said slowly. Michael picked up his pile of papers and went on his way, leaving Jon with a parting, “I’ll see you around, Jon!”

Jon barely remembered going back to his office afterwards, game forgotten. He couldn’t get the image of an innocently smiling Michael out of his head; or of a not-so innocently smiling Michael, laughing, asking him to choose where he would die.

Hadn’t he planned on saving everyone he could, back when he first returned? That ideal had quickly been shut down by the reality of his situation. It would be hard enough to save his friends under Elias’ nose. Could he afford to risk himself for someone who was essentially a stranger?

No. It was the selfish, safe answer. Jon had to keep his distance, and Gertrude would do what she would.

He just wished Michael didn’t remind him so much of Martin, for some reason.

Chapter Text

Before meeting Michael, Jon had been able to prowl around the Institute with barely a word spoken to anyone he walked closed by. After meeting him, it seemed as though Jon saw him every time he stepped out of his office.

Jon was torn between feeling annoyed and suspicious (because, honestly, it seemed like too much of a coincidence, and he did work for Gertrude, which meant she might have set him to spy on Jon), and enjoying the friendly interactions that left him feeling nostalgic, for once in a good way. On a Wednesday just a few days after they met, they ran into each other in the second-floor kitchen, and when Michael had given Jon that guileless smile and asked if he wanted anything, Jon had said ‘tea’ without thinking.

If Michael thought it odd that Jon asked for tea, he didn’t comment on it. He made him a small cup and used it to lure Jon into sitting with him at a table, sharing a drink and a stilted conversation. Jon said little, and Michael talked to him about television shows, for some reason, which only confused Jon more.

The tea wasn’t as good as Martin’s. Jon felt disproportionately emotional anyway.

He fled the room as soon as he was finished, keeping his tears inside until he reached the relative privacy of his office. For the next two hours he curled up in his couch and tried to stop his tears. It was hard to rein himself in, though, since these tears felt different than his more recent meltdowns. He was just… remembering.  Memories of small, inconsequential moments. Sharing tea, going out for drinks, silly birthday celebrations, jokes and missed opportunities. It hurt, but in a different way than he was used to hurting.

He thought Martin would have liked Michael, if they had ever met, and the mental picture of the two of them awkwardly asking each other if they wanted tea set off a fit of sniffling giggles.

On the drive home that night, Elias scolded him for wasting his time. He assured him that Michael wasn’t a threat. Jon let that comment pass, feeling oddly calm, and only made a single sarcastic comment about how he would try not to allow his feelings to come in the way of Elias’ mighty schedule.

Elias, who had recently come to the discovery that Jon disliked onions in his food, cooked onions into every dish he made for dinner that night.

Jon’s run-ins with Michael continued. He was even introduced to Emma, the other surviving archival assistant, one afternoon when both Michael and Emma showed up to the canteen just as Jon was getting himself a snack.

She was of average height, with short black hair and a plain face, far less social than Michael. He tried to remember if he had ever learned what had become of her, but came up blank. If he’d ever heard of her fate, he couldn’t remember. He knew that Michael had been the last of Gertrude’s assistants to go, however, so he assumed that whatever Gertrude used her for, it would be before Michael’s death, perhaps even sometime soon.

“Jon!” Michael waved cheerfully and moved to stand next to him in the short line, dragging his coworker along in his wake. “Hi! I’ve been meaning to introduce you two. This is Emma, she works in the archives with me. Emma, this is Jon, the kid-“

“You’ve been stalking, yes,” Emma said quietly, with an amused eye roll.

“I have not!” Michael said, alarmed. He looked at Jon. “I wouldn’t!”

“And yet you bring him up every time we talk,” Emma teased, still quietly, but clearly enjoying tormenting her friend.

“I-uh, well, that’s just because, um, there’s not much else to talk about.” Michael had gone red.

“Other than the endless work Gertrude heartlessly dumps on us every day?” Emma asked. Before Michael continued to dig his own grave, she turned to Jon with a shy smile. “Sorry, sorry. I’m just kidding. Michael’s harmless. He just likes kids, you know?”

“Um,” Jon said. It had been… too long, since he had been around banter like this. Even longer since he’d participated. The closest he came was the now commonplace sniping between Elias and him, and he wouldn’t consider that good-natured in any way.

“You’re not nearly as much of a delinquent as Gertrude paints you, though,” Emma added thoughtfully, squinting at him. Jon looked down, heart in his throat, almost certain that she was trying to include him in the teasing, but still too insecure to participate. Besides, thoughts of Gertrude speaking about him made his chest turn to ice.

“Don’t say that, Emma,” Michael said, voice lowering. “I think he’s genuinely scared of her,” he added, low enough that he probably thought Jon wouldn’t hear.

Emma raised an eyebrow at Michael. “Who isn’t?” She said, and though Michael took it as a joke, something in her posture made Jon think that she, at least, had a better handle on the kind of person Gertrude was.

Jon took his snack and left quickly before Michael managed to convince him to sit with them. He already felt guilty every time he was around Michael. He didn’t want to get to know another doomed good person he couldn’t help.

Outside of the institute, life with Elias had reached a strange equilibrium. Neither of them was exactly happy with the other, but Jon was making an effort to keep his attacks mostly verbal, while Elias was making an effort not to lash out at Jon every time he broke one of his never-ending list rules. This resulted in Jon getting sent to the closet only once or twice a week, on average, and Elias being made to lose his temper in a variety of amusing, foul-mouthed rants about every other week.

Jon still had nightmares regularly. Mostly they were the mundane kind that featured memories of the nightmare hellscape the Eye had so helpfully stuffed his mind full of back at the end of the world, (and, annoyingly, his imaginary take on of some of the statements Elias was having him read), but occasionally he would be jolted awake, panicked and sick, by a nightmare that seemed to reach out to parts of himself that were waiting behind the door in his mind. Jon didn’t like to think of those dreams, or of those early mornings where Elias would sit with him and wait out his nausea. He didn’t like to think of how it became more tempting each time to just speak to him, to describe the dream and unburden his mind.

He knew it was a terrible idea. He reminded himself as much every time before he slept, and so far he had managed to keep his silence.

Where the computer and internet were concerned, unexpectedly it was Elias who ended up making use of it far more than Jon. He apparently learned that some of his ‘business contacts’ already made use of the internet, and now as well as receiving frequent work calls, he would switch to working on the computer when they were home. Jon received no small pleasure waiting for Elias to become absorbed with a call, then turning on the modem to cut off the connection, or else “accidentally” disconnecting him as he was using the computer.

It was petty, but Jon didn’t have many ways of inconveniencing him that weren’t petty, so he tried not to think about that too much, either. He still had time, after all. As much as Gertrude scared him, he was guaranteed time to figure out what to do about Elias for as long as she lived.

It was after a month of having stayed with Elias that Jon brought up the subject of his fears. Carefully, he chose a day in which he hadn’t done anything particularly infuriating, and waited until they were having dinner to ask if his fears were leaking as much as they had been.

“They’re still there,” Elias said dispassionately, narrowing his eyes at Jon, pressing the Watcher’s attention closer to his skin. “I doubt they’ll ever vanish entirely, from the looks of it.”

“Maybe if I stopped reading scary stories about how terrible they all are I wouldn’t be as scared all the time?” Jon suggested, stabbing his fork down on a cheesy noodle with more violence than was necessary.

Elias huffed disbelievingly. “They have been going down. Probably because of the ‘scary stories’. The more we know about something, the less uncertain fear of it we have.”

“Yeah, and it simply becomes certain fear, because I know beyond a doubt that there are freaking Fear gods out there that want nothing but to feed on people’s misery.” Jon remembered there being a kind of comfort in denial, impossible as it was to attain anymore. He frowned, reminded himself to focus, and brought the conversation back to what he needed to know. “What about the other ones hunting me? Are they still around?”

“The one who recognized you has set a few people to keep an eye on your activities,” Elias replied easily, like he wasn’t telling Jon that an Avatar of the dark had gotten his insane cultists to follow Jon around. “They’re content to keep their distance for now, probably out of fear they will draw in competition if they make their interest too obvious, but I expect they’ll make their move to get you at some point.”

Jon put down his fork and hugged his midsection, trying not to dwell on that too much. He did have a history of getting kidnapped by other avatars, including Elias in this timeline. “You, uh, have a plan to stop that from happening?”

“I’ll keep you safe so long as you stay close,” Elias assured him. “And yes, I’ve already moved some pieces around to deal with them, but you’ll need to be patient.”

“I-if I’m still leaking fear like you say, aren’t you worried another of the- the servants of a different god will notice me if they’re watching the Institute?” Jon knew that several of the other avatars counted Gertrude as their enemy, and might be watching for a chance to attack her. Which wouldn’t help Jon if he was identified while they were plotting against her. “Some of them have to know what you are,” Jon added, a thought that had been bugging him for a while. “Aren’t they suspicious of me just because you put a target on my back by bringing me here?”

“I am of Beholding, Jon. Dealing with people trying to watch me is something I can do very well.” Elias said. Jon wondered if he was referring to another of his powers that Jon didn’t know. Hadn’t he been able to manipulate the camera footage to prove to the police he hadn’t killed Gertrude? Jon had never figured out how he did that. “So long as you are with me, I can extend the same protections to you, even with your particularly unique fear of… everything.

“On your other point,” Elias sighed, and put down his own fork. “Yes, there are others who know what I am, and yes, they have become curious about you as a consequence. As I’ve told you before, Jon. There is no getting out of this for you. I wouldn’t be surprised if half of those in the know in the London area already classified you as one of Beholding’s servants, to be taken or killed if the opportunity presented itself.”

“But I’m not,” Jon said quietly, stubbornly. Not that it would matter, even if it was true. Whether they wanted him for information like the Dark cultists or wanted him gone because of his assumed allegiance, as avatars like Jane Prentice once had, Jon was as firmly stuck at Elias side as he had ever been. Even if his fears faded to the point he could walk on his own without drawing their attention, he was already marked in their eyes.

“Sure you’re not,” Elias repeated, with that stupid little lopsided grin that Jon was now able to read all too well, the one that meant genuine amusement. He’d adapted to Jon’s own use of sarcasm by turning it back against him at every opportunity.

Jon took a deep breath, tried to ignore that Elias was now needling him. He had questions, and he was going to get through this conversation without it devolving into a screaming match.

“What about Mrs. Newman? Shouldn’t she have visited by now?” He asked. Elias gave him a blank stare.


“The-the social worker. The lady who brought me- after- to you?” Jon stammered, not sure how he wanted to refer to the events that led him here. Kidnapping still sounded appropriate, but lately the word only highlighted to Jon more of the ways in which he was under Elias’ power. Besides, Elias had stopped reacting to it the week before.

“Ah,” Elias nodded. “She was here the morning after she left you. You didn’t wake until the afternoon, but she seemed content to see I had a room for you and you were safe.”

“She didn’t mind the lock on the outside of my door?” Jon asked skeptically. He knew child protection laws had been laxer in the past, but he doubted something like that would be easily overlooked, especially for a foster parent with no relation to the child.

“As I’ve already said, it’s not a big problem to get someone to not see what I don’t want them to.”

Jon decided to drop that line of questioning. There was never a good reason to set up Elias a to gloat. “She said I was only supposed to stay with you for a few weeks,” he tried, watching Elias carefully. Jon didn’t think there was any chance that Elias was going to give him up even in the unlikely event his distant family decided they wanted him, but after thinking on it, he decided he needed to know more about what was going to happen to him. He was starting to accept his circumstances, and the next step was to know about them as much as possible, so he could figure out ways to circumvent them, if necessary.

Elias was looking at him just as intently. “These poor social workers have so many cases, it’s not unusual for one to fall through the cracks,” he said. Jon’s jaw tensed, but he kept silent. If Elias was really doing this under the table, it was a good thing. It meant that if Jon ever figured out a better alternative, he could use legal means to help him get out from under Elias, for whatever that was worth.

“I see,” Jon tried to sound neutral.

“And the paperwork for the legal adoption is well underway, so by the time that gets settled they shouldn’t be a problem.” Elias continued.

“The-adoption?” Jon felt his heart skip a beat. “I don’t want you to adopt me,” he said.

Elias raised an eyebrow. “It would be regrettable if one of the others got you through a legal technicality, wouldn’t it?” He said smugly. “It’s more secure this way.”

A torrent of words clawed at his throat at the same time and got clogged up just long enough for Jon to swallow them. He wasn’t going to give Elias the satisfaction of saying something stupid like ‘but you’re not my dad’ or ‘you can’t do that’. He was not going to give him any more excuses to gloat.

“I guess that means I’ll get all of your stuff when you die,” he said instead, and picked up his fork once more to jab at the remaining food on his plate. “Lucky me.”

“I wouldn’t count on an early death for me, Jon,” Elias said, still so fucking amused. “You should be praying that I live a good long while, seeing as I’m the only one around who wants you protected.”

“Oh, I’ll make sure to include it in my nightly prayers to the mighty Fear Eye,” Jon mocked, “you know, alongside asking it not to make me into an abusive, controlling, manipulative dick of a monster like you.”

“There’s no need for that,” Elias said, “my god will accept you any way you are, I’m sure. Even if you remain a terrified, disobedient brat who can’t do anything for himself.”

The dinner was forgotten and quickly turned into a round of increasingly creative insults that landed Jon, again, in the stupid closet, which was really unfair, since Elias had gone after him at least as much as Jon had gone after Elias. But Elias hadn’t been the one to throw the leftover dinner at the other one’s head, Jon supposed.

And so the second month of Jon’s stay with Elias was off to a wonderful start.

The statements were starting to give Jon headaches. Jon dismissed them first as signs of stress, or consequences of his continued bad sleeping habits, but halfway through November he happened to read three real statements in a row one afternoon, and he was struck by a blinding pain in his left eye just as he finished the last one.

He dropped to the floor, hands clutching his face, confused. He had not reached for the Eye. He knew he hadn’t. Everything he had figured out about his current state told him that there shouldn’t be any pain. He hadn’t tried to speak the statements out loud, hadn’t heard the click of a tape recorder, hadn’t even Known for certain they were real; he simply had enough experience that he was very good at telling the real from the fake, even without supernatural help. It didn’t always work—Elias was quick to point out whenever he made a mistake with his identification, and it happened with a couple of statements or stories every week—but his instincts were usually good.

Jon had become a lot better about not reaching for his powers in the month he’d been in his new body, although that might also be simply because he had gotten fewer direct threats for most of that time. He had yet to run into Gertrude again. Elias hadn’t pushed his boundaries past the breaking point since that time he examined his eye. Jon still wore an eyepatch when he was at the institute, but he could count on one hand the times he had accidentally reached for his power and made it necessary. Still, since that number was not zero, he didn’t argue with having to wear it. Especially after that embarrassing moment when he had picked up a book in French from the Library and had tried to understand what it said, not recognizing that it was in another language right away.

The pain felt similar to the Eye-related headaches, behind the eye that sometimes glowed. If reaching for his powers felt like getting stabbed through the eye, what he felt now was more like something sharp growing out from his head, stabbing his eye from the inside.

The door was rattling.

Jon gasped, and the piercing agony in his head intensified. This was worse than what he felt before. He had no control over it, no way to make it stop by any action he could choose. The door shook, as locked tight as it had ever been, only it wasn’t Jon trying to open it this time, but whatever was behind it, in that endless ocean of knowledge that was both the Eye’s domain and the Eye itself.

The pain didn’t let up for another hour. Elias found Jon at the end of the day, blind and deaf to the world, curled up in a corner of his couch whimpering. He sat close to Jon and reached out to pull his head away from where it was buried among the cushions, then pulled the eyepatch back. He made a thoughtful sound, but as soon as he the Watcher’s attention pressed in heavy and with purpose, Jon felt something inside him loosen, and the pounding, piercing agony in his head finally subsided. The rattling door calmed. Jon cried, and clung to Elias, not caring who it was.

Jon was quiet and embarrassed during their ride back. Thinking back on it all made him feel weak and scared. Had Elias asked him something then, he wasn’t sure that he wouldn’t have spilled his secrets to keep the pain at bay.

Could he be made to bring the world to ruin again, for a reason as stupid and selfish as that?

I’d sooner die, Jon thought, angry, desperate. But first, he’d need to figure out what had triggered that… whatever it had been. And why Elias seemed to be able to make it go away with hardly any effort. Finally, at some point he was going to have to think about what it meant, for his connection to Beholding to act up without him initiating it. Not now, however.

Not anytime soon.

“Are you going to tell me what happened today?” Elias asked him after dinner, both of them sitting in the living room with the news on, Elias on the recliner, Jon curled up on the couch, barely paying attention.

“No,” Jon said quietly, his answer lacking its usual bite.

Jon was very careful in the following days, examining his connection to the Eye constantly. It didn’t take long to piece together that whenever he did something that could be considered feeding his god, such as reading the statements, or playing Elias’ treasure hunt, or even, for some reason, sitting quietly in the canteen listening to Michael try to cheer him up, there would be a small reaction, a soft nudge on the door, the smallest of headaches starting to build.

If Jon rested, the headache would fade. If Jon continued to push, it would grow worse. Worse enough to reach that awful point if he didn’t stop, Jon was sure.

The realization was both good news, and bad. It was reassuring to think that it wouldn’t happen out of the blue, and that he could prevent it from happening by watching his own behavior. It was troubling in that it was proof that his connection to Beholding was still there, broken and maimed as it was. His actions still drew the attention of his god, and it—what, tried to reach back, to give to Jon as Jon was trying to give to it, but was incapable of it just as Jon was? Or maybe Jon wasn’t feeding it, and the pressure of his actions was building on his end just as the Eye’s power built behind the door, but the Eye couldn’t reach out to grab what Jon offered through their broken connection any more than Jon could.

Was it Jon’s imagination, that the same acts were building up the pressure faster each passing day? He needed to stop, completely. He was sure Elias would not be happy, and he didn’t want to have to explain to him the why of it.

“You feeling sick?” Michael asked him in the morning a week after his collapse, joining Jon at the library. Jon, who had barely managed any sleep the night before from fear that his dreams were also, somehow, feeding Beholding, gave him a bleary look.

“I always feel sick,” he muttered. Michael made an unhappy sound.

“Maybe you should get the boss to take you to a doctor,” he suggested.

“What do you want?” Jon snapped, cranky, guilty, and with no subtlety left to deal with the moral dilemma that was Michael’s stupid kindness.

“I’m just checking up on you,” Michael said, backing off a little. “I worry—”

“Well, don’t!” Jon shoved his seat back and stood up. “Why don’t you do something useful for once and worry about yourself? If you devoted half the attention you give to me to you work or your boss, then maybe you wouldn’t be facing the miserable, empty future in front of you!” Jon shouted. Angry, and twice as guilty as before, he left the book he had been reading on the desk and stormed away.

Damn it. Damn it, damn it, damn it. He hadn’t meant to say any of that. He hadn’t meant to—

No. He could be honest, if only to himself. He had wanted to drive the man away. Having him around hurt too much. It made him want impossible things. Jon couldn’t save him. Jon couldn’t even save himself. Better that Michael kept his distance. Better, that when Gertrude finally used him up and gave him up to a monster who would turn his soul inside out, there would be no one left to cry for him, just as it was meant to happen.

Jon stood in the middle of the office Elias had given him, trembling, and tried his best to destroy it all.

He tore pages out of books, ripped open seat cushions with sharp scissors, knocked over both his desk and his chair, hurting himself in the process, getting clipped in the chin by the toppling chair, on his toe with the corner of the desk, hands cut up from holding the scissors wrong when he stabbed the couch.

Elias didn’t wait until lunch to come inside. He called Rosie and took Jon home early, where he bandaged his hands, cleaned him up, and then stuck him inside his special punishment closet until Jon told him what had happened.

Jon was usually not overly bothered by the closet, despite its unfortunate reminders of the Buried. When Jon was in the right frame of mind, he could close his eyes and fight his way through the small claustrophobia of it. He didn’t like it, and he was quick to cave in to simple apologies if that’s what Elias demanded of him to leave, but he could be stubborn and sit there for as long as he had to, if Elias tried to use it to make him back off from something that mattered.

Jon was not in a good place that day. He pounded on the doors and yelled for Elias to let him out, throwing himself against the door, again and again, his heart racing. It was all so unfair. He knew he was powerless. Elias knew he was powerless. What was the point of locking him up into a small cage, when Jon had already agreed to live his life in one that was only marginally bigger?

“Are you going to tell me what set you off?” Elias asked, so damnably calm from the other side. Jon almost, almost reached for his powers, but even in the midst of his breakdown, he could remember the pain that waited for him if he tried that door and turned away. Instead he hit the closet door, with his open hand, with his closed fist, with his knees and his shoulders and head and anything else he could think to use. Elias had long since cleared out the office closet, leaving only a large pillow on the ground for Jon to sit on.

After all of that, minutes of fighting against another door that wouldn’t yield to his will, Jon let himself fall to the floor, gasping for breath, too tired to even cry.

“Jon?” Elias asked again, and Jon thought, what the hell.

“Ok. I’ll talk to you.”

There was another round of cleaning up wounds and reapplying the bandages that had gotten torn up in Jon’s tantrum, and removing a few splinters that Jon hadn’t noticed getting at the time. Then they were sitting in the living room downstairs, Jon at his usual couch, curled up with his legs tucked beneath him, and Elias, for once, not in his recliner but at the other end of the same couch. He had even gotten Jon a cup of warm chocolate milk, which Jon didn’t know they had, but which felt nice and comforting in between his hands.

Not quite as good as tea, but he didn’t think he would ever be able to accept a cup of tea from Elias, regardless of the circumstances.

“I can’t do anything,” Jon said, finally, after a few quiet minutes of staring down into the steaming cup in his hands.

“You do plenty of things,” Elias countered. “A lot of them quite competently, especially for your age.” Jon felt a strange smile tug at the corners of his lips. Elias’ version of praise could sometimes be worse than someone else’s insults.

“That’s not what I mean,” Jon said. He tried to think, tried to figure out how to say what he wanted to. He couldn’t even blame this on being a child again—he had never been good about talking about his feelings. “I don’t get to choose anything I do,” he tried.

“You chose how your new schedule worked out,” Elias said. “And you choose when to stop and play.”

Jon made a frustrated sound. He couldn’t tell if Elias really didn’t get the point he was trying to make, or if he was just taunting him like he sometimes did.

“I can’t choose to do anything that matters,” Jon tried again. “Because you’ve already made all the decisions and everything I can do has no real meaning.”

“Ah,” Elias said. Then, “that’s just what being a child is, Jon.” In a tone that was almost sympathetic.

“I’m pretty sure most parents aren’t trying to manipulate their children into becoming…” Jon made an angry, disgusted noise and made a gesture that encompassed Elias. Elias, surprisingly, laughed.

“You can be so mature about some matters, I sometimes forget just how young you are. I may not have much experience with children, but I’m quite certain that most parents are trying to mold their children into small versions of themselves. That’s the reason most of them breed in the first place.”

“I don’t have anything that is mine,” Jon said, not wanting to get into that particular argument with Elias. It wasn’t was he was trying to say, anyway. “I-I live in your house, under your rules, I spend my days at yourworkplace, surrounded by your employees. Nothing in my life is mine.” He saw Elias getting ready to make the same ‘that’s how it is for all children’ argument, and pushed on, “and it is not the same as others. I don’t get to go to school and make friends, or have experiences for myself, or-or- or interact with people that I want to talk to.”

“You’ve been getting pretty close to Michael Shelley all on your own,” Elias said, which, of course he knew, since he was never not watching Jon, but hearing his name from Elias’ lips felt like a slap to the face.

“Michael is a grown-up who sometimes comes to say hi to me,” Jon said icily. “And he’s still yours far more than he is mine. And he won’t be coming over to talk to me anymore.” The pain from that was sharp and deserved.

Elias tilted his head, regarding Jon. “You had a falling out with him,” he said, like someone piecing together a puzzle. “Is that why you had this little tantrum?”

Jon’s face flushed at the dismissive way Elias spoke. “I couldn’t be in there anymore,” Jon said. “It was all—it was too much. And none of it was mine. And—” I couldn’t make the choice that I wanted to make, and I’ll have to watch a good man die because of it.

Elias sighed. “This is ridiculous. You know why you have to stay close to me, day and night. You don’t have a job or money, so of course everything you have is provided by me. But I’m not about to allow you to break things around you just because I’m the one who provided them. If I can’t trust you to take care of your surroundings, then I can’t trust you to move around the Institute on your own as you have been.

“You will be staying with me in my office during work from now on, until you can prove to me you can be trusted to behave. There will be no more games or free time until you can earn that back. That is the consequence of your actions today.”

Jon couldn’t look up to see what expression Elias wore. He felt cold and strangely bereft. He had actually… God, he had actually opened up to Elias. Was he disappointed the man had belittled his feelings and put Jon into an even worse situation? How many times did Elias have to betray his trust before he learned to never again give it?

Elias sighed again, loudly. “But seeing as how you don’t believe there’s anything here that you chose, we’ll go out this weekend and you can pick out new decorations for your room, and clothes. I’ll pay for it, but it will probably be of poor taste so you can be confident it will all be more yours than mine.”

Jon nodded, not trusting himself to speak.

Three days later, Jon went to bed in bright orange sheets that he knew Elias would sooner burn than use, with a thin book of collected poetry under his pillow, in aggressively green pajamas that clashed even more horribly with his orange sheets, and for the first time in more than a month, slept through the night.

Elias kept his word, and the next two weeks were an exercise in patience that Jon simply did not possess. He tried, he honestly tried to behave, when Elias set him up in a corner of his office and told him he was to do his work quietly. The temptation to ruin Elias’ day was there, stronger than ever, but the lure of being given his own space back got him to try it Elias’ way.

For all of one morning.

Bored, restless, and still angry about their conversation, Jon had ‘accidentally’ unplugged Elias’ computer while he was typing something out in response to the words of someone on the other end of the phone. Then a couple of hours later he spilled his glass of water all over whatever documents had been on his desk.

By the end of the day, Elias’ face promised retribution as soon as they were home. To Jon’s surprise, it wasn’t the closet this time, but rather a practical punishment, where Elias set Jon up in the computer and had him transcribe numbers into the screen for two hours, to ‘make up for the missed work’. It was mind-numbingly boring, and Jon rediscovered the joys of minesweeper when he got too bored to continue. Either Elias wasn’t paying close attention, or he didn’t know what minesweeper was (or, a treacherous part of Jon’s mind whispered, he was letting it slide to give Jon a break), but he said nothing about it when he came to get Jon for a late dinner after his punishment was up.

It got easier when Elias agreed to let Jon pick his own books for some downtime every day, and when he moved a small couch into the corner of his office for Jon to sprawl on rather than a tiny spot on the corner of his desk. It wasn’t pleasant by any definition, but it was bearable, and if Jon sometimes derailed Elias’ meetings, or ruined his work, well, he had only himself to blame.

If there was one positive aspect of his punishment detail in Elias’ office, (and Jon made sure to tell himself every day it was positive, and not lonely at all), it was that it made it easier than ever to avoid Michael. Maybe by the time Elias relaxed his grip on Jon’s life, Michael would have decided to leave him alone, and Jon wouldn’t have to live with the daily reminder of his own powerlessness.

He told himself that the pain of it would fade in time, but he knew he was lying. The best he could hope for was that, with distance, it wouldn’t hurt even more.

Even as he told himself it was a hopeless situation, he couldn’t help but to try to think of ideas of how to get Michael and Emma safely away from Gertrude and the Institute. Anything he could do to save Michael (like telling Gertrude to ignore rituals, since they would fail without her intervention; or explaining to Michael exactly what he was involved in, to make him more careful; or telling Michael and Emma exactly how to get out of the Institute’s grasp, first by having them try to quit, and allowing them that terrible choice), always ran into two fundamental problems: Jon’s secrets with Elias’ constant supervision, and Jon’s age and lack of credibility. Even if he was somehow able to move Michael, Emma, or Gertrude down to the tunnels to speak without Elias hearing, there was little chance that they would believe anything Jon had to say, to say nothing of how Elias would simply be able to know whatever they learned after they came back out.

Whatever protection Jon had against Elias looking into his mind, he was sure that Michael and Emma did not share it. Gertrude was the only one who would be able to take the information and not spill it to Elias, but Gertrude was also the only one that Jon was sure he couldn’t meet with without losing his mind. He considered sending an anonymous letter to her, but he couldn’t know how she would react to it. What if she thought it was a prank and went to Elias to complain about it, and gave Elias the clue he needed to piece together the truth about rituals?

With Elias constantly looking over his shoulder, it was simply too risky to act in a way that would make a difference. He would be saving no one if his ‘help’ led to the world ending again.

All of it added to give Jon a debilitating feeling of powerlessness, which was only marginally made better by the petty inconveniences he threw Elias’ way. He reminded himself that he still had time. Reminded himself that helping his friends would be a lot simpler, as long as he got to them before they joined the Institute.

Every day, those reminders worked less. With no evidence that anything he did mattered, his confidence in helping anyone, himself included, wavered.

On the Thursday of the last week of November, as Jon read a book while sprawled in the small couch in Elias’ office while he painstakingly typed something out on his computer, everything changed.

It started when Elias froze, one finger still on his keyboard, and for the first time since Jon had started living with Elias, the Watcher’s gaze left him entirely. Jon froze as well, a chill running down his spine, and he marked his page on his book before sitting up.

“Stupid woman,” Elias muttered, his gaze unfocused upwards.

“Elias?” Jon tried, uncertain. Elias blinked, then looked back at him.

“I have to go deal with this. Don’t follow me.” Elias stood up and left, closing the door behind him, leaving Jon by himself. Jon was sure that, had he been capable, he would have locked the office door from the outside. As it was, Jon didn’t hesitate for more than half a minute before he was out the door.

Not having the weight of the Eye’s attention on him felt strange, like slipping into an old pair of shoes that didn’t fit in quite right. Jon carefully went down the hallway, ideas coming and going about what he could do with this small freedom. He didn’t know how long it would last, or even what had caused it, but there was a large part of him that knew he couldn’t afford to waste it, for his own sanity if nothing else.

He went down the stairs carefully, not wanting to rush and catch up with Elias accidentally. His first thought was to go down to the Archives; an idea he quickly discarded. Not only was it most likely that, if something went wrong, it was in the Archives and that was where Elias would go, but he still hadn’t figured out a way to talk to Gertrude without going aggressive. Maybe he could go to the lobby, where everyone had to pass through to get inside or out the building, and see if he could spot whatever it was that had made Elias’ hackles raise?

It was as good an idea as any, and he walked slowly and quietly until he was on the first floor, then kept to the narrow hallways as he sneaked around to get a good look at the lobby.

Rosie was sitting at the reception desk as usual, chatting casually with someone over the phone, not looking like she had any idea that something was wrong. The rest of the lobby was empty—no, not empty. There, in one of the seldom used hard plastic chairs for waiting around in the lobby, was a boy. It was so out of place to see another child inside the Institute that Jon stared at the dark-haired boy in surprise for almost a minute before something whispered recognition into his mind.

He didn’t have his leather coat yet. He wore a black hoodie that was a size too large, his hands buried in his pockets as he hunched in on himself in the seat, looking uncomfortable. He wore black jeans and tall black combat boots. He was pale and his face looked hollowed out and tired, his eyes darting around him with paranoia that Jon could relate to.

He felt all his half-made ideas and plans fall away, his attention only on the boy in front of him. He hadn’t—he hadn’t even remembered to think of him. Their meeting had been so brief, and only after the man was already dead. He thought of what he knew of Gerard Keay's life, of his mother, of how there had never been a chance of preventing him from entering the world of Entities and avatars, even as far back as Jon had been sent.

Jon stared at Gerry, still young, but in his own way just as trapped as Jon himself was, and he knew with a certainty he hardly ever felt that some risks were worth taking.

Chapter Text

Gerard Keay sat slumped in the lobby of the Magnus Institute, hands buried in the pockets of his hoodie, and tried to figure out if he wanted his mum to hurry and come back, or take her time and leave him alone for a while longer.

It was a familiar sentiment, where his mum was concerned. Anything he wanted from her, he wanted equally to have without her. There was a duality in his desires, one that he sometimes thought he saw in his mother as well, as she dove into learning what she could of the cursed books while keeping herself back enough to never commit. He’d tried talking to her about it once, but he wasn’t great at organizing and speaking the thoughts in his head, and she had been so angry, believing that he was insulting her.

He hadn’t tried to broach the topic since.

He wasn’t sure what they were doing here. Two days ago, as his mum tended her neglected bookshop after their long absence, a man who was not fully a man had come inside. Gerard had never seen him before, but he recognized the sings of danger like other children might recognize their friends. The lights in the room dimmed, and Gerard saw a couple of the special books react, though later he wouldn’t have been able to describe how he knew that.

His mum didn’t mind him eavesdropping; half the time Gerard thought she forgot he existed. He had learned early that wanting to know more hardly ever ended well for him, however. After that time two years ago when his mother had seen him take an unusual interest in a little blue book with that damned Leitner stamp on it, and had sat with him for a day and a night, painstakingly talking him through the logic of something that didn’t have any logic, Gerard had grown even more cautious with what he showed any curiosity towards. (For days after, Gerard had been unable to function, having forgotten how language and communication worked. Even signs, or pointing, had been nonsense to his scrambled brain. His mum had seemed delighted at how well the book had worked.)

It was for this reason that Gerard kept his distance from the man that trailed darkness like a smoker might fill any room he entered with his smell. He quietly crept to a different isle in the narrow bookstore so he could keep an eye on the front counter and his mum, while acting like he had noticed nothing and was just doing as told and cleaning some dust off the shelves.

The man had stayed for half an hour, his conversation with his mom animated and passive, though not friendly. Whatever he was saying, it had caught her interest; she leaned forward, legs crossed beneath her stool, one hand jotting down notes in her latest personal journal. Gerard didn’t need to know the specifics to know she had just gotten another lead in her hunt for information. He didn’t know if he should hope that it was a book, or another frightening not-human who would give him more nightmares.

The man left soon after, shooting Gerard a glance that he successfully dodged by ducking into the back of the store. Minutes later his mum was there, journal in hand, muttering to herself. She stopped when she saw him, and smiled.

It was not a nice smile.

She didn’t explain herself, or her new mission. She worked tirelessly over the next two days, both inside and out of the bookstore, reading notes, talking to some of her other sketchy London contacts. Gerard, as always, followed, with little clue as to where she was taking them.

She told him where they were going only after they were already on their way there. Gerard had heard of the Magnus Institute before; his mum sometimes ranted about them, about the ‘academics in their ivory towers’ and how they ‘collect mediocrity and call it gold’. He knew his father had worked there, before he died. He knew his mother had some links to it still, though she didn’t often talk of it.

He had shivered when he first set eyes on the building, for no reason he could explain. Someone was watching him and his mum cross the sidewalk and step inside, and Gerard was smart enough to trust his instincts where fear was involved.

The lobby at the entrance was small, and empty. A young, pretty receptionist looked up and smiled at them when they came in.

“Stay here. She won’t want you around,” his mum said, waving him off to one of the waiting chairs bolted to the ground. She strode forward, confident and poised, and shared only a couple of words with the receptionist before she moved deeper inside, leaving Gerard alone.

It’s probably best I’m not there. She might be doing something I shouldn’t see. Or she might be doing something that would require his help. He didn’t want to help, but he didn’t like the thought of her needing him, and him not being there.

Surely she would need him someday, wouldn’t she?

Gerard hoped he was there when it happened. At least, he mostly hoped so. He might mess up again, and make it worse. Or he might make it worse by succeeding, which would be even worse.

Breathe, Gerry, he told himself, stern. He had found a book on meditating left forgotten in the train a few months ago. There was nothing strange or dangerous about it—just sixty-four pages of someone trying to explain how to take control over your thoughts and emotions. The idea had spoken deeply to Gerard, who felt as though he had little control of anything in life, even if his mum had dismissed it as ‘self-help drivel’ when she saw him reading it.

He had hidden the book in the seams of his luggage. He took it out to read sometimes, when she wasn’t around. When he could, he liked to close his eyes and attempt some of the exercise it described.

A lot of it was about breathing. Gerard hadn’t known that breathing was something he could do wrong, but according to his mum there wasn’t anything he couldn’t ruin, so he supposed it made sense. There was also a section about trying to find who you were through expressions of individuality, like finding what kind of music you liked, or clothing that better reflected who you were. As his mum slept, he had taken some of her money and gone looking for a new version of himself.

She had barely batted an eye when he returned, hours later, with bags full of black clothing, a portable CD player, and a stack of CD’s the saleswoman at the record store had been happy to recommend to him. He still wasn’t sure what all that said about him, but he liked how it looked, and the music spoke to something inside him. He wondered, sometimes, if he could get his mum to listen to them, if they could explain what he was trying to say better than his own clumsy words.

Gerard wished he had thought to bring along the CD player now. Then he could be doing something other than staring angrily at the tile floor of the lobby, overthinking things and wasting his time.

“Um. Hi.” The word came out from just beside him, and it was enough to make him jump. He hadn’t noticed anyone approaching. He was halfway out of the seat when he noticed the boy shuffling clumsily in front of him, backing off quickly, and looking at Gerard with wide a wide open, frightened eye.

Gerard froze, then felt silly about his overaction, and sat back down slowly, trying to play it cool. He was twelve, for god’s sake. He didn’t get scared by little kids sneaking up on him.

(He couldn’t think of the last time he had ever spoken to a little kid, but he knew he wasn’t scared of them.)

The kid looked so painfully awkward that Gerard didn’t have it in him to feel any amount of annoyance toward him. He was a tiny thing, with the crown of his head reaching maybe to Gerard’s chin (and Gerard wasn’t particularly tall; he was still waiting on his growth spurt). His had messy brown hair that stuck out in all directions, except where it lay flat on one side of his head where he had probably been sleeping on it not long before. He wore a strange mix of clothes, dark grey jeans that bunched up at his knees, a long-sleeved striped shirt that alternated between lime green and obnoxious orange, but with a well-fitting, solemn black vest. He wore an oversized black eye patch over one eye, and his other one was a bright amber brown that was focused with alarming intensity on Gerard.

He realized, too late, that he was staring back at the kid with the same intensity, and quickly looked away, not wanting to frighten him.

“Um,” the kid tried again, and Gerard saw him fidget nervously with the hem of his shirt. “I-I’m Jonathan. J-Jon. Sims. Uh, but you can just call me Jon.” The kid took a step forward, then stepped back, like he wasn’t sure how close he was supposed to be standing. Gerard looked back up at him, confused, unsure what he was supposed to do. He didn’t really interact with other children, ever. Even with adults, it was always through the lens of his mother, and usually with things that could only technically be called people.

Jon hadn’t stopped staring at him, but now that Gerard was looking, he saw something more in his face than just fear. There was a strange… anxiety, but also need and hope, incongruously there the more he looked at Gerard. He wondered if he hadn’t accidentally read one of the Leitner books and was now seeing emotions where there were none. Or perhaps even seeing children that shouldn’t be there? He couldn’t think of any reason why there would be a young kid at the Magnus Institute, looking at him like he held answers to all his questions.

The kid- Jon?- twisted the hem of his shirt between his fingers. “U-Um. What’s- what’s your name?” He stammered, and finally looked away, color rising in his cheeks. Gerard groaned internally. There was no Leitner out there to make a nervous kid show up and introduce himself to you. He was being stupid.

“Gerard,” he said, hardly moving, not wanting to spook Jon any more than he apparently already had.

Jon brightened when he heard that, a wide smile spreading across his face. “I didn’t-uh, I mean, what are you doing here? N-not that you shouldn’t be here!” he hurried to add, when Gerard hunched lower into his seat, “I just mean, uh,” Jon’s eyes darted around the lobby, like he was looking for inspiration. “You’re young! Like me. And there aren’t many, or, well, any, other children around here. Not that I’ve ever seen.”

“What are you doing here?” Gerard asked, suspicion leaking into his voice. He wasn’t usually approached by strangers. He knew what this place was, a nexus for the kind of knowledge his mum lived and breathed. It made sense that there wouldn’t be any children around; Gerard was the exception everywhere they went, and Jon being here, implying he was here often, set off alarm bells in his mind.

Even if the kid looked tiny and helpless.

Looks can be deceiving, he reminded himself, and tried to listen to what his instincts were telling him. They were being frustratingly contradictory, however.

Jon didn’t jump or get more scared at Gerard’s questioning. His fidgeting paused for a second, and he peeked backwards, in the direction his mum had gone, before turning back to Gerard and speaking in a whisper.

“I don’t want to be here,” he said quickly. “I was- um. I got put with—no. My grandmother—no no, that’s not—” he sounded frustrated.

“It’s usually easier to lie if you think of it before going to talk with someone,” Gerard said slowly. But when Jon went red to the tips of his ears at that, he tried to make his tone a little gentler. “You don’t have to tell me if you don’t want to.”

“It’s complicated.” Jon said, full of frustration. “It’s—well, you know about them, don’t you?” His eyes darted, again, from Gerard’s face to the hallway leading deeper into the Institute, then back. “The-the- fear gods. The ones that feed on the scared. The one that Watches and—”

Gerard was out of the seat, one hand on Jon’s mouth, heart pounding so loudly that he didn’t hear the receptionist yelling for seconds after he had moved. Quickly, he pulled back, not wanting that lady to get close enough to hear what Jon had been saying. God damn it, what Jon had been saying! That idiot was going to get himself killed, or worse!

“Don’t talk about that,” he hissed to Jon, who was still standing where he had left him, blinking dazedly. “And sit down before that lady comes to yell at us!”

Jon did as he was told, climbing up on the seat next to Gerard’s and sitting with his legs folded below him, so he was a little taller and closer to Gerard’s height.

“Sorry,” Jon said, keeping his voice down. “I wasn’t thinking.”

“Why do you even—” nope. He didn’t want to know. But if Jon was just a kid, stupidly looking into things that would get him killed, if he didn’t even have someone like Gerard’s mum watching over him… “You should forget about all of that,” he told Jon. “It might seem cool to learn about it, but you’ll get yourself killed. The best you can hope for is to forget about it all and hope nothing out there ever takes an interest in you.” He could only hope his clumsy words reached Jon, though he knew better than to expect them to.

Jon had gone still, his hands going around his midsection and tightening around the loose clothing there. “Too late for that,” he said, so softly Gerard could have imagined the words. Jon looked upward, and his eye was moist, like he was seconds from crying. There was, incongruously, a smile on his face. “Pretty much everything has taken an interest in me, I think.”

He said it in such a matter-of-fact way, with no hesitation or stutters, that Gerard didn’t think to doubt him. He felt, instead, a wave of pity, and an unfamiliar sense of kinship with this strange kid.

“Sorry,” he said to him, a small word to express a sentiment so large he didn’t know how to describe it. Jon shrugged.

“Will you come back?” Jon asked.

Gerard was at a loss. He felt like he couldn’t follow half the turns this conversation was taking. “I don’t know,” he said honestly. He still didn’t know why his mum had come, of if there would be a need to return.

“I-um.” Jon fidgeted again. He looked Gerard in the eyes, searching for something, reaching out, somehow, with such a depth of feeling that it made Gerard want to look away, or else never stop looking. “Do you want- um. I think we should—could—um, should, should be friends. Ok?” Jon was red in the face again by the time he finished speaking. Then, in Gerard’s answering silence, he looked away and started fidgeting. “I just- I think we’re alike. A little. And I think you—um, me, I think I need a friend. Maybe. And we’re both fucked so it’s not like we would be putting each other in danger. Probably. Um.”

Gerard tucked away the memory of the little boy saying ‘fucked’ somewhere he could laugh about it, when he wasn’t so stunned. There was a warm feeling in his chest, almost painful. His instincts were saying to run, but also to stay. To reach back to the boy who was so obviously reaching out to him, but also to get him to never look in his direction again.

Then Jon looked back, and said, in a small, uncertain voice, “please, Gerry?”

And Gerard knew he would never be able to say no to anything this strange little boy asked in such a way.

“Ok, Jon.”  

He and Jon sat quietly in companionable (awkward) silence for the next few minutes, at least until Jon suddenly stiffened and looked up, towards the hallway. He looked there, then back at Gerard, and whispered quickly.

“I’ll find a way to help you. I promise,” before he got up and ran towards the other hallway. Gerard was left feeling strangely alone, with the feeling that it should have been him saying those words, though seeing as he knew next to nothing about Jon, he had no idea how he would go about helping his new friend.

(Friend. The word became alight in his mind, like a color he had never seen before, painting in the dull and faded corners. He didn’t know what having a friend met. But he watched TV, he read books. He could figure it out.)

His mother came storming back into the lobby seconds later, angry. A man followed a few steps behind her, much more calm. He wore a fancy suit in different shades of dark grey, and his blue eyes never left his mother.

“You’re welcome to come back if you accept my offer,” the younger man said to Mary’s retreating back.

“I would sooner swallow poison, you spineless worm,” she snapped back at him, not even turning to look at how little effect her words had on their target. “Come on,” she jerked her head at Gerard, who was just behind her as they left the Institute. Gerard shivered, looking up the clouded sky. Sometime while they had been inside, it had started to snow.

She walked briskly towards their parked car with anger fueling her movements, which Gerard kept up with at half a jog. He wanted to know what had happened, but he knew better than to ask anything just yet.

When they were in their old, beat-up car, the heater working hard against the chill of the cold morning, his mum decided to start ranting, as Gerard had assumed she would.

“Ignorant little pencil-pusher,” she spat. “Not that the sedentary old bat in the basement is any better. She just sat there and stared at me like I was a bug pinned to her table. As if her patron could intimidate me.” She snorted. “And when that idiot came in? She didn’t say a word, though I know I caught her interest. She’ll be calling me by the end of the week to find out what I know, mark my words.”

“What were we there for?” Gerard asked, once she was in her flow of words. It was always easier to get her to talk once she was already talking.

“To confirm a- a rumor, I suppose you could call it. The fools who worship the dark, they say there’s a new player in town, appeared around two months ago.” They had been halfway around the country at the time, so it didn’t surprise Gerard that his mum hadn’t heard about it before then. Still, what did ‘a new player’ mean?

“Another… Eye follower?” he suggested hesitantly. Mary could be very inconsistent with how she saw people affiliated with the Powers. Sometimes dismissive, sometimes jealous, but it was hard to predict which way it would fall.

“Something else,” Mary said, shaking her head. “Something new, was what I was told. But it was captured by the Institute. I thought that old Archivist might have something to say about it, and seeing as she’s always sending those fool assistants of hers out and about, I figured I could offer her some of what I know in exchange. The old bat pretended she didn’t know what I was talking about.”

Gerard got a bad feeling, low in his gut. For some reason, he remembered with perfect clarity Jon sitting next to him, close to tears, saying, ‘pretty much everything has taken an interest in me, I think’.

“Then that new idiot, Elias Bouchard” she intoned in a different accent, imitating someone, “show up and tells me he had been wanting to meet me! The nerve of the man. Apparently Wright left some notes and he was interested in hiring me.” She sounded disgusted. “when I told him where he could stuff his offer of enslavement, he said he was going to have to ask me to leave, as I hadn’t gotten a visitor’s pass in the front desk and the archives were a restricted area. Like I hadn’t been there before!”

She ranted for another while, heaping abuse on both the older archivist whose name Gerard didn’t remember, and on the new head of the Institute, whom his mum hadn’t met before that day. They were halfway home before she got back to the original topic.

“You didn’t see anything strange while you were there, did you?” She asked him, flicking her eyes away from the street to him.

Gerard’s heart skipped, but he knew how to keep his face still. He didn’t know Jon was what his mum was after. Mary didn’t know what she was after. And he wasn’t deluded enough to think that she would approve of his improvised friendship to anyone, let alone a strange little boy.

“No,” he lied.

“We’ll have to go back,” Mary said, frowning. “If there is something there, something new like my contact said… it might be the key to the puzzle I’ve been looking for.” Her eyes shone, in the way they did when she was about to spend hours poring over Sanskrit texts and books that smelled of blood and decay.  “You keep an eye out, too. Sometimes children can see things adults can,” she said, and Gerard shivered. She had tested out that principle before, and it had almost gotten him maimed the last time he saw something she didn’t.

“I- I thought you said they wouldn’t let you in,” Gerard tried, conflicted again. He wanted to go back, to try talking to Jon again. But he knew how dangerous his mother could be, and wanted her nowhere near his new friend.

“We can go after Elias has left for the night,” she said. “I know Gertrude was more interested than she let on. She’ll speak to me next time, I’m sure.”

She waited for a traffic light to change, impatience written in every line of her posture. “And if she doesn’t, I can think of a few allies who might want to help me get a good look inside the Magnus Institute, with or without an invitation.”

Feeling cold despite the warm air blowing out of the car’s vents, Gerard closed his eyes and tried to act like nothing was wrong. He had his answer from earlier, though. He knew how he could help Jon. Gerard could only hope he was smart enough to keep Jon safe from his mum.

Chapter Text

Jon made it back into Elias’ office a full minute ahead of the man, and threw himself onto his couch, finding the book he had left abandoned and opening it to a random page. He knew that Elias was Watching him, and had been since that moment he returned his attention to Jon down in the lobby, but he didn’t see any reason to make things easier for him and admit anything without making Elias work for it.

Plus, he also wanted a few seconds alone to squirm and bury his face into the couch pillows, and try to get the ridiculous blush out of his face before Elias arrived.

Just the memory of his conversation with Gerry was enough to make his face grow hotter. It was stupid! Maybe he had never been popular, or had any close friends before Martin or Daisy, but he hadn’t been aloneall his life. He had friends back in school, and in Uni. Some of them he had even approached himself! He had been the first to talk to Georgie, before they dated. He couldn’t remember feeling nearly so flustered with any of those meetings.

He had never wanted someone to think well of him as badly as he had with Gerry, though. Even before the world had ended, he had been haunted by the memory of the man, faintly translucent, face twisted in a small grimace, and so many scars, marks of a life no one should have been made to live. His words, the last ones he had spoken to Jon. A kindness and a cruelty. I always wanted my friends to call me Gerry.

He felt guilty that, in almost two months of being back, he hadn’t even considered Gerard Keay.

It wouldn’t have made much of a difference, he told himself. Technically, it still didn’t. He was in the same position with respect to Elias as he had been just an hour before. The considerations against helping Gerry were almost the same as those against helping Michael.

But Michael is not in pain right now. Michael is not going to be forced to live in Mary Keay’s shadow for the next decade. Like most of Jon’s loved ones he wanted to save, Michael’s doom lay in a single incident in the future. Gerry’s lay in a continuous stream of misery throughout his life, and then again after his death.

Seeing him now, so small, wary but not… weary, in that way his older self had been, Jon couldn’t imagine not trying to help. There had to be something he could do. Some way, to get Gerry away from Mary, at any cost.

Jon’s eye ached from another instinctive grasp towards his powers, but for once he didn’t berate himself. He would gladly accept all the powers and setbacks of being the Archivist again if it meant he could save his friend. Hell, he wouldn’t even need to be careful about it; Gerry was about as entrenched in the world of the Entities as he himself was. There would be no need to hide, or to worry that showing an interest in him would paint a target on his back.

Which still leaves figuring out how to deal with Mary Keay, Jon thought. As little respect as he held for her, Jon as he currently was would be no match for her if he tried to go after her directly. What should his end goal be, anyway? Did he have it in him to try to get Mary killed? Was there any way to get her away from Gerry, otherwise?

Would Gerry ever forgive him if he did?

Elias came in, and though his face was set into a neutral expression, Jon now knew him well enough to spot the anger underlying his faster pace, and the way he closed the door to the office with far too much care. Jon, uncharacteristically, decided now wasn’t the time to aggravate him more. He sat up and put the book away, watching him carefully.

“Is there any point in me telling you to do something, or will you always go and do the exact opposite every chance you get?” Elias’ tone was measured, but Jon could spot the real anger beneath his words. His knee-jerk response of ‘If you ask me to do stupid things, expect to get stupid results’ died without ever making it to his lips. He annoyed Elias constantly, and had made getting him to reach incoherent exasperation into a sport, but he could count on one hand the times Elias had gotten close to real anger with him, and the consequences of each of them.

Having the vision of the avatar of the Dark pressed into his mind. Getting the threat of harm against his grandmother. Being made to spend every hour of every day tethered in the same room to him.

He wasn’t willing to risk another set of like consequences, especially not when he might need to get Elias’ cooperation in whatever he came up with to help Gerry.

“I didn’t follow you,” he said instead, and fought the urge to shift his gaze guiltily to the ground. “I stayed in the lobby. Rosie could see me there the entire time.”

“Do you think the rules I give you serve no purpose? Have I not impressed upon you the danger you are in, the people and things that I am keeping you safe from? Did you not agree, on your own, to listen and obey me when it came to your safety?” His voice never quite reached the volume of a shout, but there was a bite in it that Jon had seldom heard.

“You didn’t tell me what it was about,” Jon muttered, unable to help himself. Would he have left anyway even if he had? Probably. He had gotten used to thinking of the Institute as safe. It wasn’t like he had planned on going to the Archives, or outside. If he had stayed just a little longer, though, he would have run into Mary. Would Mary have recognized the signature of the fear in him, as avatars could? Could she have made him a target, if she saw him with Gerry?

Fear, sharp and delayed, made an unwelcome home in his chest. He had never met Mary. Had only heard about her from others in her life, and from her own lips. She wouldn’t have scared him, if he had any talents or abilities to draw on. But he was as helpless as the child he appeared to be, and he couldn’t forget that, either.

“And there it is,” Elias said, crossing his arms and leaning against his desk, his angry attention still uncomfortably focused on Jon. “Sanity returns.”

Jon swallowed, uncomfortable with both the attention and the sarcasm. “Sorry,” he said, forcing the apology out. It had been a stupid risk. One he couldn’t regret, since it had led him to meet Gerry, but that was more of a lucky coincidence than a defense for his actions. Still, if Elias didn’t keep him under constant surveillance,then maybe he wouldn’t overreact when he finally felt himself unseen.

Elias sighed, a bit dramatically, and rubbed at his eyes. Some of the tension left his shoulders at Jon’s easy acquiescence.  

“If I tell you to stay put, I expect you to do as you are told,” there was a weight to his voice, something like Jon’s compulsions, but not quite. There was no question there, there was only a push to listen and pay extreme attention.  

“I understand,” Jon said, still subdued. Elias relaxed, and didn’t seem to notice that Jon hadn’t actually promised anything.

“Um. What was the problem?” Jon asked, after a minute of Elias leaning against his desk saying nothing.

“I had to deal with an annoyance,” Elias said, waving an arm dismissively. Jon frowned. He knew Elias had gone down to the Archives, and he knew Mary Keay had been in the building, but he didn’t know how all the pieces fit together. As far as he knew, in the original timeline Mary hadn’t been to the Archives until years later, once she was ready to attempt little ritual with the skin book, shortly before her first death. Had this happened before, and Jon was simply unaware of it since there had been no recording of it?

But no, he remembered that recording, the way Mary gloated, the way Gertrude maintained her distance. He remembered Eric Solano’s statement, and how Gertrude had known little of his son. If Mary visited the Archives more often, they would have sounded different, wouldn’t they?

But if this was a new development, what did it mean? Other than being taken in by Elias, Jon hadn’t yet done anything that would cause such large ripples, had he?

My very arrival affected every avatar in the world, Jon reminded himself. As far as he knew, only Elias and, possibly, all the cultists of the Dark, knew there was a connection between that event and himself. He suspected at least some with the Web and the Spiral knew, as well, but he wasn’t about to put himself at risk to test that theory. Beyond that, there was always the chance that another avatar had seen him on that first morning, being stupid, but if so, Jon couldn’t know, and Elias wasn’t saying.

Elias’ own behavior could be a change that others would notice, even without knowing much about Jon specifically. How many other avatars knew of his real identity as Jonah Magnus? And of those in the know, how must it look for a man whose habits changed little in centuries, to take in a boy with no warning, putting him inside his house and work as he had?

Mary isn’t an avatar, Jon thought. She wouldn’t have felt anything on the night of Jon’s return. He didn’t think she knew anything about Elias’ true identity, either, and so she wouldn’t think it suspicious that the new Head of the Institute, a barely-known stranger, would get a kid. Jon couldn’t see how he could have affected the world toward bringing Mary in to the Institute years ahead of schedule.

“An annoyance doesn’t sound dangerous,” Jon said, finally, testing the waters.

Elias speared him with a look. “An annoyance for me is still far more than you can handle, Jon,” he said flatly. “And you should really stay away from strangers; you are the target of people who would do you harm, Jon, really.”

Jon felt heat come back to his face, unhappy with the way Elias was talking down to him, but he didn’t back down. “That was just Gerry,” he said, trying to sound casual. I’m just a kid who made a friend, he told himself, trying his best to project that. Nothing strange here at all.

“Gerry.” Elias repeated, his voice once more flat and unreadable.

“He was nice,” Jon said. Then, because he knew that Elias hadn’t heard the conversation, he tried stretching the truth. “I don’t think he likes his mum much.”

“You don’t, do you?” Elias repeated, still neutral.

“She sounded… a bit like a monster, I think,” Jon said carefully, watching Elias, hoping this was the right track to take. I need to know more.

“A monster.” He repeated, and snorted out half a laugh. “Oh, she wishes she were half that competent or dangerous.”

“You know her?” Jon asked. Elias’ smile sharpened to a smirk, unfriendly and baiting.

“She’s no one you need to know about,” he said. Jon narrowed his eyes.

“You’re the one always saying that I need to learn more about this stuff,” Jon argued, gesturing around them as is he could encompass ‘details and intricate relationships between evil fear entities and our world’ in a single gesture.

“Then read the books and notes I give you,” Elias said, crossing his arms. “There’s no point risking your safety for something as… inconsequential as Mary Keay.”

“If she’s so inconsequential, then why did you have to run down to meet her?” Jon asked, mirroring his pose.

“Because even a cockroach can set a house on fire, if it knocks over the right candle,” Elias said. “This is not an argument, Jon. Stay away from Mary Keay, and stay away from her son.”

“No,” Jon didn’t even think before his denial burst from his lips. “I don’t care about her, but I like Gerry. He’s my friend.” He wasn’t even sure how much of what he was saying was still pretending, because the words were almost painful. “I want to help him.”

Elias looked at him like he was crazy. “You talked to him for all of five minutes,” he said, shaking his head. “You’ll find other, less compromised friends.”

“You mean among all the other children around here? Or maybe you plan to send me off to school someday, and I can get some ignorant kid killed when they’re standing too close to me when something else comes to get me?” Jon wasn’t shouting, but it was a near thing. He was angry. He wanted to kick Elias again, to get him to understand, but he was, just barely, keeping control.

“So you’d be fine if this Gerry was that kid that got hurt?” Elias asked, with fake sympathy.

“Gerry knows. He lives this and his life is just as- no, his life is way more messed up than mine!” Elias twitched, but he still had too good a hold of his expression, and Jon wasn’t sure what that meant, “I mean, you’re a servant of an ancient god of fear, but you don’t—” Jon made other frustrated gestures, but he knew he couldn’t use any of the examples he knew, since they technically hadn’t happened yet, and even Gerry wouldn’t know of them to tell him. You didn’t kill my father and bind his existence in a book. You didn’t try to skin yourself alive, then blame and haunt me for not helping.

He was trying to indoctrinate Jon into a kind of cult, technically. But he also made sure Jon was fed and slept enough and, annoyingly enough, even made sure Jon was up to date with his studies.

“He deserves better,” he finished.

“I’m glad to know you think living with me is somewhat better than living with a power-hungry, vicious psychopath,” Elias said drily. Jon didn’t meet his eyes. Elias was a power-hungry, vicious psychopath; he was just an organized, patient one. And I suppose he’s yet to directly kill anybody, seeing as Gertrude is still around. Jon made himself look back. He wasn’t sure how he was going to help Gerry yet, but having Elias’ help would make an impossible task merely difficult. And if he wanted Elias to help, he needed him in a better mood.

“That’s not what I meant,” Jon argued, unconvincingly. Elias raised an eyebrow, and Jon buried his face in his hands for a moment. Right. He was bad at lying. He was also bad at flattery. But Gerry needed him. He tried again.

“I got lucky,” Jon said. And it was true. Out of everything that could have happened to him after making such painful mistakes, being put with Elias wasn’t the worst possible scenario. It wasn’t good, but Jon was alive, healthy, and relatively safe. “I-I know that. I just—I want—” Jon’s arms, wildly gesticulating, lowered down, and he clasped them in front of him.

This wasn’t going to work. The last time he had tried to appeal to Elias’ sympathy, nothing had come of it. But there was a strategy that had gotten him some minor victories: bargaining.

“I want to help him.” Jon took a deep breath and stared seriously at Elias. “I’ll- I’ll do better. I’ll try harder, or-or-or change my schedule, do what you say. If you help him. Please.”

Elias watched him, expression giving away nothing. Jon didn’t dare look away. See how serious I am, he thought, hoping, dreading, what Elias would do. Because he knew any help from him wouldn’t be cheap.

“No.” Elias said. Jon slumped, tears gathering in his eyes. He wiped at them furiously. Was there a different tactic he could try? Another way to convince him? “Have you thought about what you’re asking me to do?” Elias asked before Jon could gather himself enough to rally. “You want me to interfere with a woman who finds murder and torture a fun pastime. You want me to—what, kill her? And then take her child and… put him elsewhere? Despite what you might believe, I don’t have a habit of bringing strange children into my home.”

Jon hadn’t thought that far ahead. Gerry was older than him, but still too young to live on his own, even if Mary was out of the way. He opened his mouth again, but Elias continued.

“You already have enemies, Jon. As do I, I suppose, though in this business allies and enemies can be one and the same, and change from side to side with little warning. There is a balance I have to maintain, to keep the Institute safe. There is an image I cultivate, for the right people. To be seen to meddle, as you ask… it could risk far more than you realize.”

Gertrude meddles, Jon thought, but managed to keep to himself. But Gertrude was a force of her own, and not everyone knew who really pulled the strings here at the institute.

It wasn’t that Jon didn’t understand, and to a certain degree, agree with what Elias said. But even alone and cornered, Jon had never felt at ease with making alliances of other powers, and he had never been the type of avatar for Beholding that kept his distance and did nothing. But he knew what Elias was, and it had been stupid to ask.

“I understand,” he said, echoing the start of the conversation. Elias reached out and mussed Jon’s hair, much to his irritation.

“Chances are, you’ll never see them again,” Elias assured him. Jon pulled away and curled back in on the couch, book forgotten.

He would not be so easily deterred, though. Maybe getting Elias to help had been an impossible prospect, but as long as Jon was willing to take risks, he still had options.

And he was going to make use of them.

By the time they returned to their home that night, Jon had come up with the bones of a plan. He wished he could write it all out, so he would be better able to visualize it and see if there was something he was forgetting, but he couldn’t allow Elias to have any clues as to his intentions before he was ready to act.

When they got home, Jon went through the motions of their routine, but he hardly spoke to Elias. When he had a chance, he scoured the bookshelves, looking for something written in Sanskrit, with no results. Annoyed, he told Elias he was going to use the internet, and then had to pretend to browse random websites (by writing out arbitrary sentences ending with ‘.com’) with Elias over his shoulder until he got bored ten minutes in and wandered off.

Jon still had the Watcher’s gaze on him, but he didn’t think the focus was particularly strong. As long as he didn’t look suspicious or act different, he didn’t think Elias would notice anything strange.

A couple of weeks ago, Jon had re-discovered yahoo. It wasn’t google, and there weren’t nearly as many websites out there to find, but it was good enough for straight-forward searches, if you got lucky that someone else had made a website about what you wanted already. Carefully, making sure he looked bored and typing with a childish two-finger method, he looked up Sanskrit.

There were a few results, none of them particularly promising, but one had a banner using letters in Sanskrit, and Jon didn’t need to write something that made sense for his plan to work. It just needed for it to look good at a glance.

He memorized a few of the letters before deleting his browser history and turning off the computer. Elias shouted something at him from downstairs, but Jon ignored it and went to his room, holding on to the mental image of those letters in his mind. In his room, he picked up one of his notebooks and started doodling, mostly nonsense circles or eyes, with the occasional letter thrown in as carelessly as anything else in the page.

Once he was confident he could imitate the letters correctly, he went to the next page and drew them out in what looked, to his ignorant eyes, like two sentences. They were gibberish, he knew, but that was ok. If his plan worked, that wouldn’t matter. He tore the page out and stuck it in a different notebook, one he took in to the Institute with him. He didn’t think Elias would think this anything strange; Jon had made a point of being careless with his notes and messy, if only to be as annoying as possible.

With his little preparation done, he paused, still sitting at his desk. The next part would be trickier, and there was little he could do to prepare for it. It would be risky, too. If it went wrong, or if Elias caught wind of what he was trying, it wouldn’t end well for him.

I can’t do nothing, Jon thought, stomach churning. Not when he still had options, even if they were bad. Not when he could still feel that creeping, awful pull of hopeless desperation at the bottom of his chest, whispering that nothing he did mattered. He needed to save Gerry, as much for Jon’s own sake as for Gerry’s.

So he hugged himself, as had become his recent habit, each hand pressing down on the marks left on his arms by Entities he knew only at a distance, and he focused.

Give me this, and I’ll find a way to feed you, too. He thought, sick. He had no idea how he would feed either the Spider or the Spiral, but he needed their help. He wondered if this was how he would ruin his new chance at humanity, if a single deal made in desperation would throw him into service with one of two gods who would be, arguably, worse than the one he was already bound to.

Can an avatar serve two fears at once? Once, he would have thought it impossible. With the way the ritual had worked, though, with his new understanding that all fears were intricately tied to each other, he simply didn’t know.

As he went to bed, shivering, a strange taste in his mouth and a shiver up and down his body, with memories of all those ravaged by those two fears playing in the theater of his mind, he supposed he was about to find out.

Chapter Text

Jon dreams of standing at a massive crossroads, surrounded by so many paths that it should be impossible to be only a step away from the start of each, and yet he knows that is the case. In front of him is the largest path, bright and paved, stretching out far beyond the horizon. Unlike all the other paths, though, this one is blocked by a gate, a terrible thing made of iron and wood, with its weight sunk deeply into the soft ground, and a heavy lock keeping it shuttered tight. He thinks he might, at best, stick his arms through and see a little more inside, but he Knows that the gate is locked, and that he is incapable of bypassing it, much as he might want to.

There is an eye on the gate, open and Seeing, with a bright gold iris accentuating a dilated pupil that stares only at Jon. It Knows Jon, just as Jon Knows it, and Jon is distracted for minutes simply returning that perfect gaze.

“Open,” He pleads with it, but the eye blinks, and it starts to bleed, and a thousand eyes manifest over every inch of the gate, a static screech rising in the air. Jon flinches, and Knows that it can’t. He looks longingly towards the bright, open path beyond, but the path he has traveled before is closed to him.

He turns away, instead, curious to see all around him. There are thirteen other paths—fourteen? The number changes every time he counts. Most are dark and unwelcoming. A few have things or creatures at their mouths, waiting for Jon to make the wrong move. One has a doll with too-human skin and an impossible smile, standing beneath a dark tree and giggling every time Jon’s eyes pass near it. Another, a shadow, the suggestion of darkness so profound that it swallows light, rather than be banished by it. One path is entirely set on fire, angry brown-orange flames that leave only ashes and smoke.

Jon knows to stay away from them. He looks away from the one with hundreds of bugs crawling on top of each other, merging and shaping themselves into a humanoid form of a man making a welcoming gesture. So too does he pass over the path that is merely a drop into an endless sky, or a cave where he can’t see more than a few steps inside. He ignores the simple looking one that smells of funerals and tastes like the cold of death. The one with the pacing, snarling wolf-like monster with shark teeth and too many claws doesn’t get a single look, as Jon knows better than to encourage it. The one that is lined with an open gate made of half-living animal parts gets a disgusted squirm. The one made from people, each trying to murder each other with their bare hands though they are embedded into the mud of the path next to each other, gets a single shudder. The empty one, entrance shrouded in mist and hollow whispers, holds his attention for a long moment, before he remembers the feel of warm hands on him, remembers that he was once loved, and he is able to turn away from this one, too.

The final two paths are unlike any of the others before them. They are not as bright and elaborate as the gated one with the Eye, but they are illuminated, their entrances welcoming. Even the one that is crawling with spiders of all shapes and sizes feels like a warm, welcome whisper in the back of his mind. The one with walls that twist and bend and are quickly lost inside its path also feels familiar, like an old friend he can’t really remember.

The eyes on the gate still screech, and Jon knows that they are glaring at all the other paths. Jon wishes he could ignore them too. But Jon came here for a reason, and if the Eye can’t give him what he needs, he will find something that can.

He doesn’t step into those paths, however. Not in the way he Knows he once stepped onto the path now closed to him. He hasn’t lost all his sense of caution, even in this dream where his fear seems absent and all he Knows is what he wants.

Instead, he speaks of a bargain. He says to the two that exist at the ends of the illuminated paths all that he wants. He spreads his arms and offers what little he has; he will return what is given, but he will not move from here. Because he needs them both. Because he doesn’t really want to give up on his own God.

Spiders leave the entrance to their path, invited into Jon’s middle ground. They weave their webs and surround him, binding him. He hates the feeling of their small legs over his body, of their number crawling into his nose, his ears, his mouth. He wants them gone, but he was the one to ask for them, so he remains still.

The buzzing in his mind is also new, a strange creep of uncertainty that makes him stumble, and almost take a step in towards the path that is also a maze. He coughs out spiders and tries to think through the new wool that blankets his thoughts, through a kaleidoscope of colors that turns every path into a rainbow of lights and darkness.

He senses… assent. But also confusion. He can’t really parse it, because he’s being torn open by the spiders, as they stich him back together with their silk in subtly wrong ways, and his arms feel too long for his body, and he can’t remember where he’s supposed to be, or why he’s standing there as his body and mind are picked apart, and there’s an eye looking just at him, and he remembers what he is.

Jon wakes with a start, shivering, and all the delayed reactions that he should have felt in his sleep catch up to him at once.

Elias didn’t get him out of the room in time to avoid his vomit on the bedroom floor. Nonetheless, he sat next to Jon for the next half-hour as he retched, endlessly, and shivered, and tried really hard not to think of what he had done.

Elias didn’t make a comment, but the way he looked at Jon, eyes narrowed, slightly frowning, made him think that he had some intuition about what Jon had done. He can’t know, Jon reassured himself. He couldn’t see into Jon’s mind. At least not as Jon had been, before he went and made a deal with two Entities that weren’t the Eye. Could he have lost that protection? He felt sick again.

It will be worth it, Jon reminded himself, though in the aftermath of his painful morning, doubts and regrets started to creep back in. Gerry wasn’t in immediate danger, after all. He could have tried a little research into alternatives before betting everything into the first idea he had.

No. Jon accepted the cup of water Elias offered. Gerry doesn’t deserve a day more of what his life has been. I need to help him as soon as possible.

“Nightmare again?” Elias asked companionably. Jon shrugged. “Nothing you want to tell me, Jon?” He prodded again, like a parent who knew the child had done something wrong and was giving them a chance to confess. Jon glared. Elias raised both hands in defeat. “Very well. Be down for breakfast in fifteen minutes. Don’t forget to clean that mess in your room.”

He left Jon, still filthy and tired on the ground. Jon frowned after him. It wasn’t that he wanted Elias to stay, but his behavior was different. Every other time this had happened, Elias had stayed around to help him into the shower, and the couple of times he hadn’t made it to the bathroom in time, Elias had been the one to go and clean it up while Jon showered.

He know something is wrong, Jon repeated to himself. Well, his plan wasn’t meant to take long in preparation. He figured that, by this time next week, it would have worked or it wouldn’t, and Gerry would be free or Jon half dead by trying. He just needed to keep Elias in the dark until it was too late to stop what he set in motion.

He cleaned up, cleaned up his room, and went downstairs with his notebook tucked carefully into his backpack.

Gerard hadn’t gotten any sleep last night. He stayed in the backroom with his mother as she went over all the Leitner books in her possession, muttering ideas to herself, occasionally sending Gerard to get a specific book or take one back to its spot on the shelves.

Gerard couldn’t afford to get distracted. He needed to know exactly what his mum was planning, because he needed to know if he would need to save Jon from her plans, and how.

They didn’t return to the Institute that night. Mary had said it would be too predictable, and that she needed to make a few backup plans before she committed to anything big. She called one of her less monstrous contacts and enticed him with the promise of a lead towards a book on the Buried if he would stake out the Institute and let her know when Gertrude arrived and left, as well as everyone else in the building.

Gerard didn’t ask his mother if she was planning to hurt anyone; he knew better than that. She had found a trail to something new, and he knew just how determined she could be when she was on the hunt for a book or a new monstrous contact. So much so, that Gerard sometimes wondered how she managed not to end up affiliated with The Hunt, though he supposed she was just as dogged in her pursuit of most other entities.

When she went to sleep around seven in the morning, in preparation for ‘confronting the Archivist’ later that day, Gerard finally sunk into his own bed in exhausted relief. Nothing that his mum said or planned put Jon in any danger, as far as he could tell. He didn’t exactly know why the strange kid had been at the Institute, but he doubted he would be there after hours (he wasn’t even sure if he was there regularly, though he had hinted at it).

He wished he had a way to call him and warm him, but neither of them had thought to exchange phone numbers. Maybe, if he saw him again, he could do that. Then, when his mother dragged him on their next trip, he could call Jon every once in a while, maybe. Just to keep him safe. And to remind him not to go around talking about the Powers.

He fell asleep with such thoughts, and had no dreams he could remember.

Elias left him alone in his office almost as soon as they got to the Institute. This wasn’t a completely new situation; Elias often wandered around the Institute, visiting the different departments or having meetings with individuals at their own offices, but when he did he told Jon what he was doing before leaving. This time Elias gave Jon a sharp look, told him to behave, and left without another word.

Jon, already nervous and still queasy from that morning, wasn’t able to last more than half an hour before he decided he needed to just go for it and do it. He slipped out of the room, trying to ignore the Watcher’s gaze as it sharpened on him, and hurried down the stairs, avoiding Rosie’s desk as he snuck down farther into the basement.

Going into the Archives felt like going home. It smelled dustier than he remembered, and the walls and desks had papers and decorations that were unfamiliar, but Jon had to pause to breathe, and to pass the urge to once again press on his door, which somehow larger in his mind. Can’t linger, he reminded himself. Elias could come by any minute, or Gertrude could, and he needed to finish before they did. Summoning an avatar of the Spiral or the Web would be nearly impossible in a space as entrenched in Beholding as the Institute, but the same couldn’t be said of the tunnels below.

Hurrying, he started to move again. He saw no one, though he avoided the break room and the assistant’s offices, and didn’t run into Gertrude as he went into her office, and hurried to enter the tunnels from there.

Entering the tunnels was like losing a weight on his shoulders, but also like someone stuffing his brain full of bugs. His connection to the Eye felt wobbly in a way it hadn’t when he had been the Archivist, exploring the same tunnels, or even when he had been here two months before, avoiding Elias. He pushed all of that aside, to think on later, as he hurried down a path, found a blank stretch of wall, and took out his backpack.

He needed to contact both The Spiral and the Web. He didn’t think the Web would be a problem; he knew it was already hanging around the tunnels. The Spiral was another matter entirely. By its very definition, it was not fond of being known or of communicating with different parts of itself. Jon may have dealt with the Entity as a whole in his dream (if he was interpreting it correctly), but he needed to treat with one of its avatars in order to get what he wanted. With no better idea, he stuck with what he knew best, and took out Elias’ books on collected Spiral stories, and started to read. The reading was, on i’s own, of the Eye, but Jon hoped that speaking its stories would gather the interest of something that could come down and respond to him.

His voice in the darkness of the tunnel echoed. He went through story after story, going for the ones he suspected were real, and it took him a long time to realize that the way the echoes of his voice bounced in the room did not match the shape of the room at all, that his voice had become distorted.

That there was a door in front of him.

Jon swallowed, then tucked the book away. He had gotten something’s attention. The door suggested it was the Distortion, but Jon didn’t know what to expect from it, here in this time before it became Michael. Would it be close enough to human to listen to him?

I’ve come this far. Do I have a choice? He stepped forward, touched the door handle, and twisted it open. The landscape within was both familiar and not, with its long hallways, but also with colors on the walls that Jon was pretty sure didn’t exist, which his brain kept insisting he wasn’t—couldn’t—be seeing at all.

Then his eye snapped to the center of the doorway, blocking his view, to something vaguely human shaped, with hands much too long and with too many segments on its fingers, and a face that was not a face that Jon was unable to look at, grinned at him from the reflection of its twisted proportions on the floor.

“Welcome, brother,” it said, in a voice that was only very technically a voice.

“N-no,” Jon said quickly. “I-I-I just asked for a deal. B-both sides get something. That’s all. N-not one of you.” The thing cocked its head, and then its head continued to twist, in different directions, at different speeds, in each one of its wrong reflections all along the floor, walls and ceiling.

“Deal?” The Distortion repeated, and laughed, and laughed, and laughed.

Jon, trembling, hugged himself. “To confuse a woman. To make her think something she sees is what she wants. To make her doubt herself.” Jon said, quickly. “You can do that, right?”

“I?” The distortion said thoughtfully. “I could take you. I could have you walk my corridors forever, little brother. Would you like that?”

“N-no.” Jon said, trying to keep his voice strong. His mind had started to buzz. His vision was swimming. The part of himself that indulged in self-doubt was screaming at him, and spreading, and coloring in everything he thought, everything he knew.

“You don’t much know what you want, do you?” It said and laughed again.

Jon bit his lip against saying something unwise, and hugged himself harder. “I-I-I told you what I want.” He said. “Will you do it?”

The thing made a twisted humming sound. “Come inside and I will. Maybe. Or I might forget. It’s so easy to forget, don’t you think? And why should I confuse a human just for you, if you won’t give me a thing?”

“I am,” Jon hissed. “I-I made a deal. I’ll keep my end.” Somehow. He still didn’t know how he was supposed to feed the Spiral. Did he have to go and toss someone into the Distortion? Try to drive someone crazy?

“You will maybe do what you say. I will maybe do what you say. This seems fair. Come inside to shake on it?” It extended its hand, the twisted thing with far too many bones, twitching and shifting.

Jon closed his eyes against sudden nausea. This would have to do. “Mary Keay,” he whispered to it. “Please make her think this is real.” He took out the folded paper with the Sanskrit he had written on it. Then he turned and left, walked away from the door, away from the still laughing Distortion.

Finding the spiders was easy. Out of all the Entities, the Spider had the least amount of trouble communicating with her avatars, and he knew he was being seen by them, that they had waited for him to finish his deal with the Spiral before they moved on to their own part in his scheme. Just a couple of turns away, he found his path blocked by thick spiderwebs, covered in spiders that were standing unnaturally still. Jon put the paper down on the ground in front of him, and watched a wave of spiders come down and scuttle over it. Seconds later, it was gone.

“Thanks,” Jon muttered, trying not to flinch when one of the spiders climbed on his shoe and wouldn’t leave. It must want to stay close to him, at least until his side of the bargain was done. Jon ignored it as best he could as he made his way back. He had as little clue as to how he was supposed to feed the Web as he had with the Spiral. He wasn’t great at manipulating others.

I’ll figure it out, he told himself, again, just a little desperately. He was almost running as he found his way back into the Institute, out of the Archives, and back into Elias’ office.

Elias greeted him with a humorless smile from the other side of the desk. Jon froze, heart still hammering.

“We need to talk,” Elias said.

Jon knew Elias was angry. He knew Elias was waiting for something before he confronted Jon about it all. What he didn’t know, was how much of what Jon had done that morning Elias knew. Or what he was waiting for.

He wasn’t sure what to do. Every time before, when something had happened, Elias had been quick to confront as soon as they were in each other’s presence. Now, as Jon sat stiffly in his couch, unable to keep his eyes off Elias for more than a few seconds at a time, he wished the other man would just get it over with. It felt like standing in a room with an angry tiger, waiting for it to remember you were there to attack you.

“I’ll be back in an hour,” Elias said, around lunch, after two hours of saying nothing to an increasingly nervous Jon. He stood up, stretched, and gave Jon an unfriendly look

“O-ok.” Jon stammered.

“Since you can’t be trusted to follow simple rules for your own safety,” Elias said, a bit of the anger leaking into his otherwise neutral tone, “I’m not leaving things to chance. Come here.”

Jon carefully stood up and went to Elias’ side. “Sit down.” Elias said, arms crossed, nodding towards his own chair. Jon, carefully, did, though it was far too large for him, and he had to hold on to the chair’s arms in order to climb up. Elias crouched down next to the seat and reached for something under the desk.

“Now, this isn’t something I particularly enjoy,” Elias said, as he brought out a thin length of chain that made Jon go pale. “And I would much rather not have to resort to this, but seeing as you refuse to see reason or give me any reason to trust you, you’ve really pushed my hand here.”

The chain links were small, each one about the size of a large bean, and the length of chain stretched from somewhere below Elias’ desk to his hands.

“Couldn’t you just lock the door?” Jon asked, edging as far from Elias as he could while still stuck on his stupid chair.

“Oh, once you’re set up in another office again, you can be sure I’ll do that,” Elias replied, the meaning clear. He wasn’t willing to put something that could be used to trap him on his door. “Now, you and I both know how… resourceful you can be. But let me assure you that there is no way you can get this off of you and leave before I would return, and the consequences of that would be… unpleasant.”

Jon swallowed. Elias was serious. He was seriously going to chain him to his desk like an animal. And Jon still didn’t know what the ‘consequences’ of his early wandering would be.

“I won’t go again,” Jon said quickly. “I-I just had something I needed to do.”

“Down in the Archives,” Elias snapped. Jon flinched “One of two places I told you not to go. And what, pray tell, was so important you had to go down there for?”

Jon set his jaw, crossed his arms, and looked away. Two could play at being quiet. Elias rolled his eyes and reached for Jon’s leg, which Jon barely stopped from kicking up into his face. Satisfying as that might feel, he could sense Elias’ anger permeating the room like a smell, and he didn’t want to make anything worse before he knew just what he was in for. Seconds later, Elias had wound the chain twice around Jon’s leg, then closed it with a small padlock.

Not impossible to slip out of, Jon admitted, feeling around it once Elias stepped back, then trying to figure out what its other end was tied to on the desk.

“Rosie will be by in a few minutes with your lunch. Don’t try anything.” Elias said. Jon raised an eyebrow.

“And she won’t think there’s anything weird with you chaining me to your desk?” Jon asked, disbelieving. Elias gave him a smirk.

“She won’t notice, unless you force the issue. Will you force the issue?” There was something beyond anger in Elias’ words, in the promise of consequences. Jon realized, with a plunging feeling, that Elias might just be angry enough to take it out on someone else, if Jon was stupid enough to bring them in the middle of their fight.

“N-no,” Jon said, and looked away. Elias slammed both hands down on the chair of the arms around Jon, boxing him in, forcing him to look.

“I think,” Elias said, voice deceptively soft, “that I have been far too lenient on you. Given you too much freedom, without you ever earning it. I won’t be repeating that mistake. From now on, if there is anything you want, you will work for it. You will convince me you deserve it. Are we clear?”

“Yeah,” Jon said, just as softly, his arms going back to his sides, squeezing. Tears were falling on his face, but he couldn’t remember when he had started to cry.

“I have a lot of work to do today,” Elias continued, without moving or giving Jon any space. “So I will be coming in and out of the office a lot. I expect you to do your work. I expect you to be silent and behave. We are still going to talk, but that will wait until we are home tonight. And I suggest you put a lot of thought into how much you decide to tell me.”

And then he left, and Jon was left alone to try to stop his anxious crying, telling himself over and over again that it had been worth it, though he believed it less each time.

They left the bookstore in the afternoon. This time around, Gerard knew, the plan was only to talk. Unless the Archivist left herself open for his mum to take advantage, anyway. Mary always took her chances where she finds them.

The Institute would be closed soon. Mary wanted to arrive early to meet up with her contact, learn what he’s seen since the day before, and then to stay in the area. With the god they serve, she told Gerard earlier, picking out a narrow volume from the shelf before they left, she’ll be the one to find me.

It meant they wouldn’t be entering the institute, even after hours. Gerard breathed a sigh of relief at that. A part of him wanted to see Jon again, but another part reminded him that he still knew very little of the boy. If he was, as he suspected, Mary’s target, then he was more than just a strange, pushy boy. He knew enough about the Powers that he wouldn’t underestimate someone tied so closely to them, regardless what they looked like.

Or what they sounded like, near tears, pleading for friendship.

Stop that, he told himself. He could both protect Jon, and stay away from him until he learned more about what he was. And maybe he was wrong! Maybe Jon was simply the son of one of the researchers, who regularly brought him in to work for… some reason.

It was no good. As much as he turned his thoughts around, he was as conflicted about Jon as he was about everything else. He liked him. He wanted to see him again. He wanted to keep his distance and stay safe. He wanted to keep Jon safe. He wanted to know if he needed to keep the world safe from Jon.

His mum’s contact was a younger man with a scar on his chin who went by ‘Rob’. He gave Gerard a curious look when he sat down at their table in the dingy restaurant two blocks from the Institute where Mary had decided to set up.

“Payment first,” Rob said, grinning a gap-toothed smile. Mary smiled back, that dangerous, angry smile that Gerard knew so well, and could never understand why others didn’t run from it as soon as she sported it.

She lifted an envelope out of her pocket and waved it at his face. “All the info I have on it, here. And the promise I’ll give you a month’s head start.” She said, eyes shining. A lie. Gerard was sure the details were true, because Mary didn’t want it getting out that she gave out bad information, but he was also sure she planned on moving on the book as soon as they were done here, and Rob would end up dead before he ever reached the book.

“ ‘s all I wanted,” Rob said, taking the envelope and tucking into a pocket in his coat. Then he started talking, telling Mary everything he had seen over the last day. How many employees came in, at what time, when they left, when the notable people entered and left (which included, to Gerard’s surprise, a note about how the Head of the Institute left with a small boy in tow, and came in the morning with that same boy). He hadn’t seen the Archivist enter or leave in the day he had been watching.

Mary took notes, mostly about general numbers and times. When he was done, she waved him off, and he left with no argument.

Gerry checked the clock behind the restaurant’s counter. It was about the time when all the employees left for the day.

“How long are we waiting?” He asked, because he was nervous and couldn’t help himself. His mum reached out and flicked his arm, hard.

“As long as we have to,” she said. She didn’t like being questioned. She paused, though, and took a long drink from the beer she had been served when they first ordered. “You’ll have to sit at another table when she comes. She doesn’t like kids.”

Gerard didn’t say, I’m not a kid,  because he had seen enough tv that he knew that was the easiest way to sound like one. He also didn’t think you’ve never treated me like a kid before would go over well.

He didn’t want to be shuffled too far, though. If they were talking about Jon, he needed to hear it. He needed to hear it if they weren’t, too.

“I can move now,” He said, and without waiting for her permission he picked his own backpack and got up, then sat down at the next table, still close enough to hear. He dug out his CD player and headphones and put them on, then took out a notebook. He figured, if the Archivist did come, she might assume he was the kid of one of the restaurant workers, working on some homework. He could simply lower the volume of the music and listen, once she was there.

It had the added benefit of him being in the same room as his mum without her able to talk to him. Not that he knew she would want to talk. Not that he didn’t want her to want to talk to him.

Breathe, he told himself, and sank deeper into the loud music and emotional vocals, drawing on his notebook, lost to the world.

The Archivist, a woman who was maybe a decade older than his own mum, with a rigid posture, humorless dark eyes, and neat silvering hair pulled into a bun behind her head, stormed into the restaurant and stood next to Mary’s table without a hint of hesitation. Gerard quietly reached for his CD player and lowered the volume, watching what was happening from the corner of his vision.

Gerard was no stranger to formidable women. His mum, he was sure, was the scariest woman he would ever meet. The Archivist had a weight to her, though, that he had never noticed from his mum. Even wearing nothing more than black slacks and a warm winter coat, Gerard knew to be wary of her. When her attention was on you, Gerard could guess, you would feel breathless.

Mary smirked and leaned back in her chair, closing the narrow book she had brought with them, but leaving her hand possessively over it.

“Do that again and I will burn down your store with you in it,” Gertrude said, in the tones of one making a promise, not a threat.

“Calm down, Gertrude. I just wanted to get your attention,” Mary said, still smirking, though Gerard could see that it had cracked just a little. “Wanted to talk where no one was likely to come and interrupt.”

Gertrude pursed her lips and looked around the mostly deserted restaurant, eyes pausing on Gerard before dismissing him. “If you think meeting somewhere like this will keep the Eyes off us, you are more ignorant than I believe.”

“It’s not a God’s attention I worry about,” Mary said with a shrug. “Will you speak? Or must I beg?” The hand pressing down on the book moved as though to open it.

“Your threats are as ill-advised as your ideas,” She said drily. She sighed, then took off her heavy outer coat and took a seat across from Mary. “What do you want?”

Mary leaned over the table and rested her chin on one hand, the other still idly playing with the cover of the book. “I want to know if you’ve had any other thoughts about what I told you yesterday.”

“No,” Gertrude replied without hesitation. “There is nothing in the Institute that has not always been there, unless Artefact storage received something substantial without my knowing it.” The way she said it made it clear she thought this was impossible.

“This is how you’re going to play this?” Mary asked. “I don’t believe you understand what I said. Something new, Gertrude. We’ve both been in this business long enough to see how rare of an opportunity it is, haven’t we?”

“Even if there was any truth to what you said,” Gertrude said, looking bored, “I would sooner eat that book than to work with you in any capacity. I know how your allies end up, Mary.”

Mary’s hands tightened on the cover of the book. It was a special one, Gerard knew. Aligned with the Eye, it could draw people’s attention to you. If used as Mary did, it could draw specific attention to you. Mary loved to use it to arrange for discrete meetings. As someone that worked for Beholding, Gerard assumed that Gertrude didn’t approve of how his mum was using it.

“Last chance, Gertrude,” Mary said, locking eyes with Gertrude. The older woman stood up and put her coat back on.

“Don’t waste my time like this again,” she said, and left.

Well, that was pointless, Gerard though, hesitating for a second before putting his notebook away, dangling his headphones over his neck, and moving into Gertrude’s recently vacated seat. His mother looked angry and thoughtful, her finger tapping still on the cover of the book.

“She knows something,” she said, looking at Gerard. An angry smile spread across her features. “But if she won’t help us, I know who will. The Eye isn’t lacking in enemies, after all.”

Gerard shivered. “Who?” He asked.

“We need to find where a certain church meets,” Mary said, and stood to leave the restaurant. Gerard barely paused to look back towards the restaurant counter, behind which lay the bodies of the owner and his wife. It was nothing new. He followed his mum back out into the night, and hoped that it wouldn’t be Jon’s body he left behind once his mum was done with the Institute.  

Chapter Text

Jon sat across from Elias at the kitchen counter. The counter was empty (a preemptive move so that Jon couldn’t throw anything?), and the house was quiet. Elias’ too-blue eyes moved over to Jon’s every few seconds, between looking down at the folder in his hands. They had been here for ten minutes, but both of them had yet to speak.

Jon thought that Elias might be waiting for Jon to apologize. Jon wasn’t against apologizing, necessarily, but with the way that tension had been coiling around his belly and throat all morning and afternoon, he wasn’t sure he wouldn’t just throw up if he tried to open his mouth. That would be a bad start to this conversation.

(Or maybe it wouldn’t? Elias had shown him pity before, for his weak stomach. Maybe that would dull his anger, even if the thought of playing a victim for Elias made him feel ashamed.)

Jon worried his sickness wasn’t due entirely to his anxiety. He could still find that spider, somewhere under his clothes, whenever he stopped to look. He could still hear distant echoes he knew weren’t real. What he had done had brought the two Entities that had already marked him closer. He tried to convince himself, for the hundredth time, that nothing he had done was irreversible. He had made a choice to become the Eye’s avatar, once. He hadn’t made that choice for anything else.

(He remembered feeding on statements and gaining the capacity for Knowing and Compulsion long before he made such a decision.)

“Have you decided what to tell me?” Elias said finally, voice quiet and deadly. Jon looked from the folder to Elias, and back. He doubted they would be information index cards this time around.

Jon had, strangely enough. He’d been given sufficient time to stress over his choices and change his mind a dozen times over, but for once he wasn’t being forced to think on his feet for excuses or for how much was safe to say. He wished this didn’t feel so much like Elias giving him all the rope he needed to hang himself, though. He didn’t owe Elias anything. Any protection he provided was motivated by his own desires, and only helped Jon by the coincidence that he wanted Jon safe, for now at least.

(Jon remembered long painful mornings and gentle hands and words, and he remembered warm meals, always shared, and he told himself they didn’t count.)

“I had a dream,” Jon said, choosing his words carefully, watching Elias as closely as he ever had. He had to get this right. “And in the dream there was—” his voice hitched, because the memory of the dream could still bring phantom feelings of wrongness if he didn’t watch himself, “them. The ones that marked me.” Jon knew that Elias knew about the marks on his arms. He always wore long-sleeved clothes, and Elias hadn’t yet pushed Jon about them, but he knew. “The Eye. The Spider. The Spiral.” He didn’t mention any of the others. None had drawn him in like those three had, and he didn’t want to give Elias any ideas.

His hands found their usual spots around his arms, over his marks. “I was being asked to choose.”

Something flickered in Elias’ eyes, there and gone too fast for Jon to identify. “Did you?” He asked, too calmly.

“I—” Jon shook his head. He had, much as he didn’t want to admit it, much as his choice hadn’t been accepted, and the gate had remained closed. He always chose the Eye. “I couldn’t. I couldn’t move.” He probably could have gone to the others, though. Any of them, even the ones that had seemed most unwelcoming in the dream. “S-so I talked. And. And they offered.” More like, he had asked, and they had agreed. Close enough.

“Offered what?” Elias asked.

Jon shrugged. “Their help. Since you wouldn’t.”

Elias went still. “You will not,” he said, still far too calm, “blame your mistakes on me.”

Jon looked away. “I couldn’t do nothing,” he whispered.

Elias leaned forward over the counter and placed the folder at his side. He buried his face in one hand with a heart-felt sigh. “Jon. How many statements have I had you read, that you determined to be true?” He asked.

Jon fidgeted. If he averaged about one a day, every day for the two months he had been here… “sixty?” Jon guessed, and grimaced. That number would have taken him a year to go through as the Archivist. Well, he wasn’t recording them, and they were taking their toll, though he still hadn’t told Elias about that.

“And of those,” Elias continued, “how many involved the subject being drawn in too deep by being offered something they thought they wanted?”

Jon couldn’t find the words to refute that. It’s not the same. It wasn’t until he heard Elias snort that he realized he had spoken the words out loud. “It’s not the same in the same way you’re not the same.”

I have brought you into my home, fed and clothed you, and kept you safe, despite the fact that you have shown me nothing but contempt, mistrust and a complete lack of common sense!” He snapped. “What have these ‘saviors’ of yours done for you?”

Jon’s cheeks heated. He would not feel ashamed for this. Elias had kidnapped him! And while he had done everything he said, it had only ever been because he thought doing all of that was the best way to get what he wanted, not for Jon’s benefit. Jon didn’t fool himself into thinking that either of the other two Entities would be any different; the Spiral in particular, Jon didn’t want to consider what it would ask of Jon if he was forced to rely solely on it.

“They listened,” Jon snapped back.

Elias slammed a hand down over his folder, eyes flashing, and Jon flinched back.

“Trust.” Elias said, his quiet, icy voice a contrast to the fury that Jon could spot burning in his eyes. “That’s what it always comes back to, isn’t it? But here’s the thing, Jon. It’s a two-way street, and it has to be built up, on both of our ends. You have proven yourself to be untrustworthy, at every opportunity. Even with what little you agreed to on your own, you still went back on your word.” Elias looked down at the folder below his hands, then picked it up. He slipped one page out from inside and slid it towards Jon. “On my end, I need you to know that I’ll follow through with what I promise.”

Jon felt the bottom drop from his stomach, staring at the paper, frozen. He remembered a threat, spoken months before. But it couldn’t be that. That was a threat that could only be played once, and what Jon had done-

What I did threatened everything Elias wants from me, Jon realized. Like Agnes, put in the reach of the Web, and bound to Gertrude. Elias couldn’t know that Jon wasn’t like Agnes, and the Web did not want the same from him. Jon bit his lip. At least, Jon didn’t think that’s what the Web wanted. If it was trying to make sure the Eye never got its ritual, though, maybe it was trying to prevent Jon from ever properly becoming an avatar of Beholding.

Jon’s hands trembled as they reached for the paper. He pushed it in front of himself, and read.

It was a police report, filed this morning. It listed a series of accusations against his Grandmother, from mental abuse to physical, with pictures of the marks on Jon’s arms as evidence.

Jon felt dizzy. He and his grandmother had never been close, but he cared for her. She had been there, trying her best, for all of his first timeline, through his restless childhood and moody adolescence. They weren’t really compatible as people, but he respected her, and had only wanted for her to be as well as she could be, after he went and broke her confidence this time around.

His breath felt strange, and spots danced in his vision.

God, did Jon have to ruin absolutely everyone and everything he came into contact with? What was he doing? Who was he kidding? He was never going to save his friends, save the world. The best he could hope for was to ruin the lives of his enemies just as much as he ruined the lives of his loved ones. In that sense, then, wasn’t he exactly where he should be? Exactly where he deserved to be?

Jon didn’t remember falling out of his chair. He was on the floor, disoriented, and there were warm hands around him, and someone holding his head, pressing down on a spot that burned on the side of his forehead. He couldn’t think straight. Hadn’t he been on the chair? He had been talking to Elias. Elias had…

Jon started thrashing, knowing that there was only one person who could be holding him, knowing that they were the person he least wanted to be touching.

Elias was much larger than him, though, and it wasn’t a challenge for him to wrap an arm around Jon’s torso and arms, pressing him back into his chest, immobilizing him. Jon let out an angry, frustrating cry, trying to leverage his legs into launching his head against Elias’ chin, but Elias quickly pinned down his legs as well. He pressed his free hand over Jon’s mouth, muffling his cries.

“Listen to me, damn it!” Elias was saying, loudly. “Stop and listen or my contact in the police is going to follow through with that report!”

Jon paused, panting. He played Elias words in his mind a few times, trying to make sense of them. He made it sound like there was still time. But the report had looked real. It had been an official copy. Hadn’t it?

“Are you listening?” Jon, carefully, still dizzy, nodded. Elias took away the hand over his mouth, while not letting go of his grip on Jon. “I filed it with a… friend. My friend will leave it sitting on his desk, unfollowed, until I tell him not to. Do you understand?”

Jon nodded again, wobbly. He didn’t trust himself to speak, but he needed to. “H-how do I know you’re n-not lying?” Jon asked. He wouldn’t put it past Elias to see how badly Jon reacted, then come up with something like this to keep him in line.

“We can call her,” Elias said. “At her house. However many times you want. Will that prove to you that she’s not in jail?”

“I-I can talk with her?” Jon asked, and he wasn’t sure if it was relief or nerves that made his voice break.

“…yes.” Elias agreed.

“O-ok.” Jon relaxed, just a little, enough to start to feel really embarrassed about the position he was in, on the ground with Elias, with the man embracing him from behind.

“Are you going to kick me or try to break my nose again?” Elias asked.

A part of Jon wanted to make a joke about how Elias wouldn’t be able to trust him no matter what he said, but he was still sufficiently out-of-sorts to simply nod. Elias released his tight grip on Jon, and they both got to their feet silently.

A second later, Jon stumbled, and Elias had to catch him before he fell. “Let’s finish up in the couch,” Elias suggested, and corralled him into the living room.

Once they were both sitting on Jon’s couch, the earlier silence resumed, like neither of them knew what was supposed to happen now. Jon couldn’t look at Elias, too angry, or embarrassed, or something. His feelings were all tangled up. He picked at a loose strand on the couch.

“Consequences, Jon,” Elias said. “If I have to hold your grandmother’s well-being hostage so you will not throw your life into the hands of Entities who will eat you whole, then that’s what I will do. This is the only warning you’ll get.”

Jon nodded.

“I need to hear you say it.”

“I won’t approach the other Entities, or you’ll ruin my grandmother’s life,” Jon said.

“All the other privileges you have enjoyed: your free time, your freedom, your privacy, you will have to earn back by showing me that you are trustworthy. You do this by following my rules, by asking for permission if you want to do something we haven’t previously discussed, and for god’s sake, by not putting yourself unnecessarily in harm’s way.”

Jon agreed, and they lapsed into a silence that was less angry, if just as uncomfortable. Jon’s head hurt, and it wasn’t until Elias left and came back to clean Jon’s forehead and press a band aid on it that Jon realized he must have hit his head when he fell from the table. He still felt sick, but Elias was being strangely gentle, and his head hurt too much for him to complain.

Jon fell asleep to the sounds of a bad sitcom on tv with Elias still on the couch with him.

Gerard was not a heavy sleeper. As a consequence, he rarely slept through the night, especially not when his mother was in one of her manic moods. Sometimes, he wondered if she had found a Leitner that removed her need from sleep, but he had found her passed out too many times to truly believe it.

They had found a place where the Church of the Divine Host met a couple of hours into their search, and had been able to meet with a couple of their members soon after. As his mum had promised, they were interested in getting inside the Institute and doing some damage. ‘Blinding that wretched Eye for a change’, one of them had muttered angrily. They had promised to bring Mary’s ideas to their superiors, and Mary had left with a spring in her step.

Once they were at the bookstore, she was too wired for sleep, so she dove into research. Gerard left her, exhausted, and went into his room at the back, wondering if he could find the Magnus Institute in the Phone Book, and give whoever answered a warning. He sighed. It was too risky, and he wouldn’t do anyone any good if his mum caught him siding with her enemies and decided to punish him, instead of letting him hear everything she planned. Gerard knew the value of patience, much as it burned, and he told himself he would be ready to act, if and when he saw his opportunity.

He didn’t fully believe it.

Truth was, his mum hurt people. A lot of people. It didn’t seem to make a difference to her if Gerard was around or not, except those few times she had tried to get Gerard to help, and he had been shaking so badly that she called him useless and sent him away. Gerard often fantasized about helping some of those people, but he had never figured out how to do it. In a contest of wills between him and Mary, his mum always won.

It will be different this time, he told himself, tired and chasing sleep that was nowhere to be found. It has to be.

He hadn’t realized he had fallen asleep until he woke with a jolt, hours later, at Mary’s scream of rage, then tumbling laugher. He went to the work room, wary, and saw her with a piece of paper in hand, holding it up to the light. It had Sanskrit letters on it, but Gerard couldn’t make sense of any of them.

“It’s a person,” Mary said, still looking at the paper. “I wondered if it might be another fragment of a power, like the Distortion, but whatever this new player it, it is definitely a person.”

Gerard entered the room, staying close to the walls. Mary grinned at him, a triumphant, bloodthirsty smile. “And it knows I’m a threat.”

“I don’t understand,” Gerard said. Mary lowered the paper and offered it to him. He took it, but up close it was even more non-sensical than he had thought. Just a lot of random letters, all strung together with no apparent pattern, in clumsy handwriting. Gerard turned to give it back to his mum, and noticed on her table, open, the skin book. She had been working on it again.

“It was a trap,” Mary explained, taking the paper, crumpling it and letting it fall to the floor. “Someone wrote a page of nonsense, but they put it where I would find in my research, and they cursed it to appear like the answer to a puzzle I’ve been working on for a very long time.” She shook her head. “I wonder if that was one of its powers, or if it has access to a Leitner I’ve never heard of.”

“But it… doesn’t look like that anymore?” Gerard asked. Could this be Jon’s doing? It seemed impossible. Jon would have no way to sneak anything into the bookstore, even if he did have powers like his mum suggested. And his mum had a lot more enemies than those she made this week alone.

“The curse broke, seconds ago,” Mary said with a shrug. “If I had been fool enough to believe in it and go through with what it said, I would most likely be dead.”

Gerard felt cold, and he wasn’t sure why. He didn’t want his mum to be dead. But he would be lying if he didn’t say that the idea of her incapacitated in some way didn’t appeal to him.

He also knew she was lying. She wanted him to believe she had seen through the trap from the start, but he knew her well enough that she wouldn’t bring out the skin book if she hadn’t planned on doing something with it. Had whatever illusion marked the page not broken, she would have kept going until it was done, thinking she had found the secret for immortality on those pages.

What else would it have had her do? That book was not one that encouraged gentle reading to reap its effects. Gerard imagined waking up to blood, skin, and a corpse, and shuddered.

“If it is this threatened by me, I can’t very well give it another chance to come after me,” Mary said, still thoughtful, but also angry. She stood up and went to get her phone. “Plan’s moving up, I suppose. I’ll give those Dark lapdogs a day to prepare, but come the next one, I’ll have that arrogant little monster in my hands or I’ll see the Institute burned down around it. Come, Gerard. There’s a lot we have to prepare.”

As she placed her calls and finalized her plans, Gerard shook, and told himself, again and again, that when the time came, he would act.

Elias didn’t chain Jon up to his desk the next day, despite being gone for most of it once again. Jon, being very careful not to draw out his anger again so soon after their last disaster, stayed in the office, and followed his schedule, and tried to ignore the strange feeling he had all day, like was close to catching a cold, an itch in the back of his throat, a strange buzzing just below his skin. Seeing how stressed he had been lately, it wouldn’t surprise him to find he had gotten sick, but he didn’t look forward to seeing what Elias would do when he found out. Would he force Jon to come in to work anyway? Or leave him alone at home? Neither sounded like good ideas.

When Jon had woken up that morning after a dreamless sleep, the spider had been sitting on his chest, unmoving, staring at Jon with those creepy little eyes. He had thought himself over his fear of spiders, after everything that had happened, after being made to live so many worse fates.

Jon had let out a startled shriek and tumbled out of bed, checking himself all over for spiders before he remembered he had agreed to—had invited—the horrid little creature in the first place.

Oops, he thought guiltily, wondering if the Web would be angry at him if he accidentally crushed one of its instruments. He needn’t have worried; by the time Elias opened his door, he had seen the spider scuttling under his pajama bottoms.

Despite his efforts to ‘behave’ to keep the peace with Elias, he found himself constantly distracted, aided by the discomfort from his growing illness.

His thoughts became a roulette wheel, ever spinning, touching on one of three topics, and on the countless thoughts that lie between each one. He wondered if his plan had worked, if even now Mary was making plans to ‘ascend’ or whatever other nonsense she would call it, with the fake instructions he had given her, which the Distortion would make her believe were real. If she followed her path from the last timeline, she would set up everything, then go to give Gertrude her statement before going through with it.

This led to his second thought: Gerry. Had things changed enough that she wouldn’t return to the Institute? If she did, would she bring Gerry with her again? Jon wanted to be able to speak with him, to warn him of what might happen, to tell him to stay away so he wouldn’t see her half-way through her ‘ritual’, as he had the last time. He felt guilty, now, that he hadn’t considered how badly it might mess with Gerry, young as he still was, to see his mother mutilate and kill herself. He told himself it was still for the best. Better for everyone, Gerry included, if Mary was dead. That it was, technically, at Jon’s hands made him nervous and guilty, but he clung to the statements he’d heard. Mary might not be an avatar, but she was as much of a monster as Lukas or Jane Prentiss, or any of the ones he had hurt before.

Which tuned Jon’s thoughts on himself, and on worrying about what he was going to do to fulfil his bargain with the two entities he had bargained with. He doubted reading statements of their previous exploit would do any good, other than as research for ideas he would never have the stomach to follow through with. Or at least, that he hoped he would never have the stomach for. When he felt hunger, he brushed the feeling aside desperately, not wanting to even consider that it might be anything but mundane.

He went through countless statements in his mind, all of the ones he could remember that related to avatars, specifically. The ones with Simon Fairchild, or Maxwell Rayner, or the Lukas family. (Or himself). They fed by using the abilities their connection to their god granted them; a simple cycle of never-ending cause and effect. In much the same way that every one of Jon’s abilities were designed to facilitate him feeding his God, all the other avatars he knew of were likewise prepared.

He couldn’t think of a case where someone fed a fear like that without already being on the path of an avatar, and without the act of feeding their fear pushing them further down it. Jon wondered if his own fear could be served up as the sacrifice; it was never far from the surface, after all, and he was sure he could be properly terrified of both the Web and the Spiral, if given time to focus.

Those thoughts led inevitably back to why he was in debt to them in the first place, and so his mind continued to spin, on and on, throughout the morning and well into the afternoon.

When the door to the office opened, after Elias had been gone all day (with his attention never once leaving Jon, as usual), Jon was ready to indulge any distraction that could pull him from his thoughts.

He froze when Gertrude walked in through the door.

His mind stalled, and he could do nothing but stare from his seat at Elias’ desk, hand still gripping a pen, as Gertrude walked inside, closed the door behind her and locked it.

It was the click of the lock that got Jon moving. He pushed out of the table and was on the floor, standing with the pen gripped painfully tight in his hands, keeping the desk between them. The feelings from their first meeting were slow to return, tempered somewhat by Jon’s instinctive fear response in her presence. It was building, though, and Jon knew that the longer he was around her, the worse it would become.

“Elias isn’t here,” Jon said, eyes narrowed, hostility bleeding from his every word. No attacking her, Jon reminded himself, while he still had a small amount of control over himself, and dropped the pen to the ground before he could do something stupid with it.

“I’m not here to speak with Elias,” Gertrude said, voice like hard iron. “It has come to my attention that you are not as you appear, child.”

“Neither are you,” Jon snapped back, feeling like her voice was fingernails scraping inside his skull. “And I have a name.”

“Jonathan Sims.” Gertrude said, without hesitation. “Eight years old. Born January 23rd, 1987. Mother and father diseased, lived with your grandmother until October 7th of this year, when you were removed from her house and placed into the custody of Elias Bouchard.”

Her words sent a shiver through Jon, which was quickly overwhelmed by anger. What right did this false Archivist have to go looking into his life? This woman who denied all that was offered to her, who pushed aside such opportunities like the annoying buzzing of flies. She who denied all that Jon wanted, needed, and yet kept it from his grasp.

“What’s your point?” Jon said, wondering if there was anything in the office he could use against Gertrude. To defend himself or to hurt her, he wasn’t sure. Thinking was becoming hard, and the headache he had been nursing was becoming a pounding in his eye, both from the inside and outside.

What are you?” Gertrude demanded, and Jon got to feel for the first time what it felt to be on the other end of a Compulsion. It felt, strangely enough, like someone was reaching into his mouth, grabbing at the truths inside of him, and pulling them back out. He gasped, swayed, and barely kept his feet. He wasn’t going to give her the satisfaction. How dare she use the skills that were his, against him?

He felt sick, and he felt weak, and he was making whimpering sounds and clutching at Elias’ desk to remain upright, but no words left his clenched jaw.

At least until Gertrude repeated her question.

“Nothing now. Nothing yet.” Jon said, the words clawing their way from his mouth like living things.  “I am too much Knowing in the body of a child too young. Or else I am that child who simply learned too much and can do nothing about anything.” The frustration dragged along with his words was so real it brought tears along with it. Hatred burned hot and painful towards Gertrude, towards this woman who would force him to bear his soul with gifts that Jon desperately wanted back.

“I saw you speak to a monster who consumes people like candy,” Gertrude said, not changing her position, still staring at him with dispassionate eyes. “I heard that monster call you brother.”

Jon closed his eyes. So she hadn’t been out of the Archives yesterday. She had simply stayed out of his way and followed. Damn it. Some day, he would learn to take basic precautions. Some day, he would learn not to rush into every damn bad idea that came to his mind.

“It is not my fault they all took an interest in me!” Jon yelled. He felt raw, unguarded, what few filters he had put in place during his months with Elias torn to shreds. “I wanted to be done! I gave up! All of this—” Jon made a desperate gesture at himself, at Gertrude, at the office, “it wasn’t my doing. I don’t know what they want!

It was the same thing he had been wanting to yell at Elias—at Jonah fucking Magnus, because that’s the one who had gotten into his head that his god wanted the ritual, and Jon didn’t even know if that was the case, because really, why else would it have let Jon go through that stupid door, if so? Did any of the entities want their rituals to succeed? The world after had been a farm for generating endless fear, but Jon could remember the Eye still being hungry, despite having the entire world to feed off of. Why had he been sent back? Had it been on purpose, or some twisted accident? Did any of the Entities know where he was from, what he had been, what he was capable of doing?

Were the entities much like their own avatars, and they had felt the potential in that moment of connection from future to past, without understanding? Spider, Spiral and Eye, all three closely tied to him in that infinite moment of pain and transfer, had all left him marked. Would the other entities have done as much, had they been able to? Were they still trying to?

“Jonathan.” Gertrude fucking Robinson was still there, now moved closer, around the desk. “Breathe.” And she took a deep breath, which Jon found himself mimicking. In and out. It was easier to forget to hate her when he focused only on her mouth, the breath coming in, the breath going out. Jon’s thoughts went quieter. His anger dimmed a little, still burning like a coal in his chest. He couldn’t let go enough to feel regret at his own words, or fear. He wanted to say more. He wanted to tell everyone how utterly ruined everything was, to make them feel as miserable as he did. He wanted to tell her how she was personally keeping the only good thing about any of this out of his grasp, and making it that much worse.

But instead he focused on breathing.

“You know the role I have taken,” Gertrude said. Her intense eyes held him, mid-breath. “And I would wager a fair deal more beside. Did Elias… no, forget it. You register as human to my senses, for the most part.” She narrowed her eyes and looked him over critically. “But that’s not quite right, is it?”

“Ask your questions, Archivist,” Jon spat, crossing his arms and glaring. He was still angry, still twisted with envy, but it was being tempered by something else, by that strange, unfamiliar buzzing just below the surface of his skin, growing stronger.

Gertrude continued to watch him, her eyes narrowing. “No,” Gertrude said. Jon bared his teeth. She didn’t want to push her powers any farther, did she? Jon felt offended that she wouldn’t, even when it was clear her own curiosity was unsated, when their god was all but pushing the ability for her to find out into her hands.

“Then get out of the way,” Jon took a step towards her. He needed to be away from her. Or he needed to hurt her. The two seemed like good ideas, but he could still remember thinking he shouldn’t attack her, so he would make do with leaving. Gertrude blocked his path around the desk.

“We’re not done,” she said.

“What do you want?” Jon could feel something inside him shifting. He could feel—he could see—something about Gertrude, calling to him, making him look.

“I need to determine if you are a danger,” Gertrude said, voice gone dangerous and hard.

Jon reacted to her unspoken threat and tried to run past her. She reached down and grabbed his arm. Jon—reached—pushed—

There is darkness. Complete and absolute, covering everything. There are sounds, distant and muffled, but over it all the blanket of darkness presses down and makes it hard to move, or think, or speak. There are things that must be done, but he knows his enemies are here, that they won’t wait. He starts to move, but something cuts into his back, and he makes a noise he has never heard from his own throat, and he falls to the ground, bleeding, knowing not only that death approaches, but that as it comes his work is left unfinished, and the agony that comes from that burns away layers of apathy and determination, makes him want to crawl to his feet, to push forward, to save the world from all the terrors that stalk it….

And he dies, alone in the dark.

Someone was holding Jon. He could feel an arm under his knees, and another one across his shoulders, holding him up. His head was against a person’s chest, and he could hear their heartbeat, fast and loud. He felt… strange. Disoriented at finding light around him again, confused about whatever had just happened, but also strangely sated, like he had just slept a dozen hours. There are voices, and it’s a pain to pay attention to them, but curiosity is enough to push through the lethargy in his limbs.

“…trained me well.” The familiar voice was saying, his voice making his chest vibrate. Elias, Jon thought.

“You’re not going to pretend anymore?” Gertrude asked, and Jon made a muffled noise and dug deeper into Elias’ chest, because anyone was better than that rotten thief.

“I am what I am, Gertrude. I never pretended otherwise. And I haven’t interfered with any of your… activities down in the Archives, as Wright instructed. If you would like to continue this cordial relationship between allies, I’ll suggest that you stay away from Jon.” His voice went hard at the end, and his arms tightened around Jon.

“I will do what I find necessary. I have never done less,” Gertrude said. There was movement, and footsteps, then Gertrude’s voice again, from a different part of the room. “But if he gives me no reason to act, I will respect your request. I suggest you make sure he stays out of my Archives, Elias. If he goes any farther down the path he’s started, and I might have no choice but to act.” She paused, and it sounded like there was something else she was going to say, but then her footsteps were moving again and she was gone.

As had happened last time, once she was gone Jon’s mind cleared, at least of the influence she was having on him. He still felt out of sorts, and his mind kept returning to the vision of darkness like he was pressing a tongue to an aching tooth, but he was able to regain his compose enough to know that he was not happy for Elias to be holding him in his arms like a princess.

“Let me down,” He demanded, voice rough, pushing at Elias’ suited chest.

Elias looked down at him, frowning. He looked like he was about to say no, so Jon quickly added the most pathetic ‘please’ he could manage. Elias sighed, but went to the couch at the corner of the office and set Jon down on it.

Jon wouldn’t meet his eyes. They had fought just yesterday, he couldn’t handle having another one today, one he didn’t even have a part in causing! Except that apparently Gertrude had followed him into the tunnels, and had listened to his talk with the Distortion. And now Elias knew that, too. And the other things he had said… he couldn’t think about this now. Couldn’t even start to consider how Elias might interpret them, or how he could twist them for his own benefit.

“Jon,” Elias said, in as close to a gentle tone as Jon had ever heard. Jon tucked his legs under him in the couch. He couldn’t go through another one of these, not right then. His mind was still feeling strange, and though the buzzing under his skin had faded, he still felt a little sick.

“Sorry?” Jon offered. Then, because he remembered Elias’ threat, “and it happened yesterday, before we talked!”

“I know,” Elias said. “It’s not… we’ll talk about it at some point, because I don’t think you understand the dangers posed by that creature, but I’m not mad.” He paused. “No more mad than I was before learning of it, in any case,” he amended, because Jon knew a blatant lie when he heard it.

“I didn’t want her here,” Jon said.

“I know,” Elias said.

“Where were you?” Jon asked, suddenly angry. Elias said he was going to protect him. That was the entire reason he was subjecting himself willingly to this entire misery. Had Gertrude wanted him dead, though, Jon would be.

“I was close,” Elias said. Jon tensed. “You weren’t in any real danger,” he explained, “and I stepped in as soon as I had to.”

Jon had no reason to feel betrayed. He knew what Elias was, damn it! Watching someone be scared from afar was literally how he fed. “Ok,” Jon said, unwilling to subject himself to whatever else Elias might say on the subject. So he chose to change it. “What happened at the end?” he asked.

It didn’t make any sense. One second Gertrude was stopping him from leaving, and the next he saw darkness, and a weird dream of death, and then Elias was there. He couldn’t make the pieces fit.

“I don’t know,” Elias said, and those three words out of his mind chilled Jon. “You touched Gertrude, and you both fell to the ground. A minute later, Gertrude woke up and was on her feet, but I honestly don’t know what happened. I was hoping you had a better idea.”

Jon met his eyes for the first time in the conversation, and gave him a helpless shrug. For once, he wasn’t interested in hiding something from Elias. They both wanted to know what had happened, and if supplying information led to Elias learning it, then that’s what he would do.

So when he told Elias about the strange darkness, he didn’t hold back anything, including the strange buzzing that had grown louder, then stopped. Elias listened with interest, and asked a few questions. At the end, though, he admitted he still didn’t know what it had been, though it was clearly some kind of side-effect from his recent brushes with the entities. Jon, who had come to a similar conclusion, could only feel an edge of desperate denial.

A vision of darkness and death had nothing to do with either the Spiral or the Eye, did it? Maybe it wasn’t even his own doing. Gertrude messed around with other entities and Leitners on a daily basis. It could just as easily have been some lingering effect on her, which reacted to Jon’s proximity.

“Come on, I’ll take you home,” Elias offered. “We can even go buy that flavorless mush you like for dinner.” Jon gave Elias a strange look, but agreed easily enough. He was too tired to argue, and if Elias felt like making some kind of peaceful gesture, he would take it.

At least it was Friday, and this awful week from hell was finally over.

Chapter Text

Gerard stood beside his mum across the street from the Magnus Institute on a Saturday morning, shivering against the cold air and the dark, cast-over sky. He knew enough about Mary’s plans to be relieved she had been pushed into making her move in the weekend, when most of the Institute’s staff would be gone from the building. She didn’t really care how many people she might hurt, but she thought it would be easier to identify whoever the ‘new player’ was if there weren’t a hundred other ‘deluded fools’ in her way.

All she needed to do was to make sure to lure back everyone with a vested interest in the Watcher’s Temple, and find the one who wasn’t supposed to be there.

Gerard drew his hood up closer to his ears, aware that he should really be wearing something warmer, but defiant in his choice of clothes. If it hurt a little, if there was discomfort, then it was only what he deserved for standing silently by and being complicit in what his mother planned.

He wished, with a fervor he hadn’t experienced since he was a little kid hoping his mum would turn around and love him like those other mothers he saw loved their children, that he was wrong about Jon. That Mary would set her trap, and that only Beholding’s servants would come to be slaughtered, not little Jon with his too-intense stare and awkward smile.

Gerard wished, but his instincts screamed the truth out to him. Please just stay safe, he thought, and if he had believed in any gods but the ones that would feast on his fears for another’s safety, he would pray. There were very few hands he could play (he had a knife, stuck behind his pants, hidden by his shirt, and a book he would much rather not use, but he knew well enough that it was only unsafe, rather than suicidal to use), and none he wanted to use on his mum, though her allies would be fair game. He wouldn’t play them too early, though. He couldn’t afford to.

He knew what his mum planned to do to Jon once she found him—not that she knew it was a child she was looking for, nor was Gerard planning on telling her. Would it make a difference? Mary breathed violence and chaos like a fish breathed water, but hers was a world of grown-ups and monsters, and children very rarely crossed into her path. She took care of him, in her own way, didn’t she? He would be dead if she wasn’t trying to keep him alive, he was sure.

Would her empathy be capable of extending towards another child? Gerard wanted to hope yes, but deep down he knew the answer was no. She would see an answer, another thread to pull in her endless search for more, and she wouldn’t care that he looked like a child (was a child?).

There was no other reason for her to bring that particular Leitner here, after all. Locked Away in Silence, was the particularly blunt title for the book she kept inside her coat. Gerard wasn’t sure if it belonged to the Forsaken or the Buried, but he knew well enough what it did: it captured, and it kept, indefinitely, possibly endlessly, if used incorrectly. Mary planned to take whoever her target was away, to study and question extensively. Gerard could barely look at the book; Mary had used it on him, once, when he had been stupid enough to ask about it. He wouldn’t wish the fate on anyone, let alone Jon.

The dark-skinned man from the church two days before met with them. He gave Mary a nod, and though his eyes noted Gerard, they didn’t linger. “We’re in position, if you’re ready to play your role,” he said, voice heavy. As much as the Dark was a natural enemy of the Eye, Gerard didn’t think they would risk such an open attack upon Beholding’s temple if they didn’t think there was a reward worth it after. Gerard didn’t know what they wanted, though. Most of those negotiations had taken place over the phone, where Gerard didn’t want his mother to see him eavesdropping. The more curiosity he showed, the more likely she was to try to involve him, and he was having a hard enough time being a simple witness dragged along behind her.

Mary smiled and patted her coat. “I’m ready,” she said.

And the Magnus Institute was plunged into darkness by the reaching of dozens of cultists who now breached its walls.

Jon and Elias were spending an awkward Saturday morning sitting in the living room together, each trying to pretend their attention was on the book in their hands when it was really on each other, when Elias went suddenly stiff, expression distant. Jon dropped his book to his lap instantly, wondering what had caught Elias’ attention. The only other time he could remember Elias reacting this way was a few days ago, when Mary had come to the Archives and he had left in a hurry to intercept her.

“On a Saturday, really?” Elias muttered, coming back to himself and rubbing his eyes with thumb and forefinger.

“What is it?” Jon asked, forgetting to pretend like he didn’t know what Elias could do.

“Old friends of yours making a move,” Elias said, mouth stretched thin into a bad imitation of a smile. Jon looked away, stomach sinking. What did that even mean? There were any number of beings out there who could be doing something Elias didn’t like, that he could blame Jon for. Most of those were genuinely his fault. The Spiral and the Web, invited in by his choices. The Dark, lured in by his carelessness. Mary Keay, maybe? Gone to make her final statement? Much as he wished that was the case, he didn’t believe it, not with how grim and annoyed Elias looked.

“W-What do you want me to do?” Jon forced himself to ask. Because he had made the decision to play along, as much as he was able to. He didn’t have the energy to fight with Elias again, not so soon, and his conditions weren’t all that bad, at least so far.  

Elias shot him a look, surprised at first, then pleased. “We’ll have to leave soon. Once we’re out of here, I want you to stay close to me, but stay quiet. I’m going to have to call in some allies of my own, and I would rather they not get curious about you.” He stood up, leaving his own book at the small table next to the recliner, and went to the house phone.

Confirmation that whatever was happening, it wasn’t at the house. Jon decided to be proactive and headed upstairs to change out of his colorful pajamas. He almost chose to wear some of the darker, more neutral colors that had originally been in his wardrobe, but a seed of pettiness refused to be put out, and he figured that Elias hadn’t said anything about dressing quiet.

It’s not like I’m not going to draw attention simply by existing as a child in Elias’ orbit, Jon figured, tossing on some truly eye-searing purple jeans alongside a vivid red knit sweater, which would clash nicely with the bland brown outer cloak that Elias had gotten him.

When he got back downstairs, Elias was putting on his shoes, and his outfit only got him a faint sigh.

“We’ll have to think of a better place to stash you during an emergency in the future,” Elias mused as they got into the car. Jon didn’t like the way that made him sound like an inconvenient object rather a person who could, in theory, take care of himself, but he bit back his first reply. And his second one. He was trying to be cooperative.

“Which allies am I supposed to be hiding from?” Jon asked instead. “And where are we going? And why?”

“Because, as much as I think Gertrude would usually be equipped to deal with a situation like this by herself, I don’t actually like to leave threats running around my Institute, especially not when their target is you.”

Jon fixed his seatbelt and swallowed. “The Dark?” He asked, more quietly. It sounded like they were finally making their play for him; but why now? Why not at Elias’ house, where there would be less people? “And shouldn’t I not be going, if I’m their target?”

Elias shrugged. “Their kind are… difficult to fully keep an eye on,” Elias admitted. “It is likely that they are trying to lure me out to the Institute so they can have a shot at you alone at my house, as much as doing so would be starting a conflict I don’t believe they want to go through with just yet.”

“Don’t you have protections or something? I mean, if they all just attacked when the two of us were there, what’s stopping that?” Jon asked.

“You’re full of questions this morning,” Elias said, mouth quirked. Jon glared at him, before remembering he was supposed to be playing nice, and looking out the window instead.

“Just sounds like something that would be important for me to know,” Jon muttered.

“The Institute is the Eye’s territory,” Elias explained. “My territory. The house is a more temporary shelter. Are there protections on it? Yes, some. None that I will explain to you, because I can’t really trust you not to misuse that information. The biggest protection it has is that very few others are aware of my identity; or yours, for that matter. Personally, I am protected by my own abilities, by alliances made and kept, and by the simple concept that very few of the other servants want the Eye’s constant attention on their own enterprises.”

“And if someone attacked us at the house?” Jon pressed.

“The house is temporary. There are many ways out, and if you don’t particularly care about the state of the building you are leaving, many ways to leave invaders incapacitated.” Elias said. Jon thought of bombs, fires, and other nasty surprises, and hoped he never had to live through that. How would Elias get him out of his locked room in time to set off such defenses, if that was the case?

But Jon was ignoring that Elias wasn’t likely to be taken by surprise, not with the focus his powers took. Maybe an avatar of the Dark of the Stranger could get close without his noticing, but Jon had a feeling that Elias had more than one contingency plan where they were concerned.

Being an avatar of Beholding didn’t get you the same flashy powers that many of the others got, but there were none better at gathering information. With information, and the preparation to go with it, Jon wouldn’t bet against Elias in a struggle against another avatar. Being in the position he was, it was a strangely comforting thought.

Traps, plans, and preparations, Jon thought, still staring out the window. All made with the knowledge that Elias gained through his god. That was how Elias operated. It was, Jon had to admit, a better use of his powers than Jon had usually managed. There was room in Beholding for reckless pursuit of knowledge, though, and Jon had always fit into that archetype far better than the patient researcher.

Maybe it wouldn’t kill him to learn a lesson or two from Elias, in regards to this.

“Our allies?” Jon asked again, thoughts returning to their destination.

“None you need to worry about just yet,” Elias replied. “And whatever you do, don’t let them touch you, Jon. We don’t need anyone else getting a taste of your particular brand of fear, don’t you think?”

Jon ducked his head and made a sound that might be interpreted as agreement. He didn’t like not knowing, but without the push of compulsion behind his questions, he doubted Elias would give him anything more. Was this part of his punishment? To not only be tied to Elias’ side for an indefinite amount of time, but to have him obviously blocking information from him? There was no way he wasn’t aware how Jon burned with curiosity. It was one of the necessary personality traits for any that might follow Beholding, after all.

I don’t need him to tell me, Jon thought, stubborn. He had more knowledge than Elias assumed, and he could follow ideas to their logical conclusions. Who were the allies that Jon knew about? He knew that both the Lukas family and the Fairchilds were patrons of the Institute. He thought of having to meet a younger Peter now, and imagined that would probably turn out about as well as his first meeting with Gertrude, with a lot less need for an Entity messing with his brain.

How old was Peter, come to think of it? He had seemed of an age with Elias, which would put him somewhere in his twenties now. Jon made another note for himself to look into whether the Tundra had started sailing yet, because if there was anybody he wouldn’t mind throwing under a bus and allowing to die for any reason, it would be Peter.

In a much worse mood, Jon tried to turn his mind back to more immediate concerns. The ‘allies’ Elias had called in. A Lukas, maybe, or a Farchild. Did either of those have an enmity with the Dark Elias could use to force a confrontation between them? Jon didn’t know; he was woefully ignorant of most relationships between Entities outside of how they related to the Eye.

At this point in time, with Gertrude bound to Agnes as she was, would Elias be willing to tug on that string to bring avatars of the Desolation in? Jon shuddered at the thought of having a group of them so near his Archives, and hoped that it wasn’t the case.

When they got closer to the Institute, his thoughts ceased fluttering and settled on dread. The day was dark with thick, grey clouds overhead, such that the shadow covering the Magnus Institute almost looked natural, if not for the way it creeped around the edges of Jon’s vision and brought to mind the Dark Sun that did not yet exist in this reality. Jon’s breath shuddered, and he was momentarily transfixed with the sight as Elias parked the car.

He remembered… a room. Darkness as overwhelmingly intense as the sun was bright. Cold, from the frigid northern air but also from the lack of anything that might emit heat as well as light. Something impossible to describe, impossibly beautiful, which he had destroyed with the simple act of looking upon it and Seeing it. The memories became tangled, and he thought of a different darkness. He thought of his vision the day before, of a death in perfect darkness. Darkness that was as unnatural as the one now wrapped around the Institute.   

He wondered if having that memory still counted as a mark with the Dark, since he had no other injuries on that visit, or if the destruction of that Dark Sun had seared something into his older self’s body that he had never recognized. Was he imagining it, or could he feel that darkness reaching out to him, familiar and angry?

“Jon.” Elias broke him out of his reverie with a hand on his arm, and he jerked away. Elias was looking at him, frowning. “Stay close, but don’t talk. You remember?”

Jon nodded. Then, because Elias was still looking at him strangely, said, “yes.”

They got out of the car, and as they walked towards the front entrance of the Institute, they were met by two others, a man and a woman Jon had never met before, but who Jon instantly recognized by their kinship to the only Lukas he had ever met in person. The man was in his thirties, both taller and broader than Elias, but pale to an almost sickly degree, with the most neutral, uninterested expression Jon had ever seen on a person. The woman looked to be barely out of her teens, and wore low heels, loose jeans and a ragged coat—he wouldn’t have guessed she was from such a wealthy family, if it wasn’t for that particular paleness she shared with both Peter and the stranger next to her.

Jon had a moment to regret his choice in clothing as the two gave him a quick, measured look with washed out eyes of no particular color, before turning their attention back to Elias.

“This resolves that matter with Evelyn, eh?” The man said once they stood together, without a single word of greeting. He and the woman stood just far enough from each other that they wouldn’t need to speak as they waited, and the woman didn’t seem inclined to join in the conversation, smoking a cigarette and looking at the dark Institute.

“Waste of time,” the woman muttered.

“Yes, Nathaniel,” Elias said, not attempting to get close for a handshake. “Help me clear out this little infestation and I’ll never speak of it again.”

“They worship being alone in dark rooms,” the woman continued to mutter, apparently ignoring them. “What is isolation going to do to them but give them an excuse to get bloody religiouser?”

Nathaniel Lukas nodded. “Just the ants. If Rayner is in there—”

“He’s not.” Elias assured him.

“Though I guess churches are kind of a communal thing, aren’t they? So maybe they would feel betrayed to be all alone in that darkness,” The woman’s mutters continued, never pausing as the two men spoke. She acted like she didn’t care to listen in to what either one said, but also like she wasn’t expecting anything she said to be listened to.

Another flavor of the Lonely, Jon thought, trying not to look. To speak to others and not be heard, to not even expect others to care for what you said. It was a flavor that felt painfully pointed to Jon, at the moment.

“Consider the debt settled, then.” Nathaniel said, and exchanged a grave nod with Elias. Jon found himself standing just behind Elias, using him as a shield from the two avatars of Forsaken. He could feel his fear of it growing, memories stirring simply by standing so close to them. Without meaning to, he reached out and held on to Elias’ coat on his back, and hid from the avatars of an Entity whose attention he loathed.

“What kind of idiot joins a church to sit around in the dark and worship it, though?” the woman continued. “How do they worship it? Go into children’s rooms and turn off their lights and make spooky sounds? Who is afraid of something just because it’s dark? It’s nuts, is what it is—” and she continued to mutter, and to be ignored by Elias and Nathaniel, as they all started to walk to the Institute.

Elias reached backwards and got one hand on Jon’s wrist, and tugged so they were holding hands, but Jon was walking on Elias’ side opposite the two others. He knew he would be mortified later to remember holding on to Elias’ hands for comfort, but as he was currently walking next to two embodiments of the Lonely, into territory attacked by the Dark, he figured he was due a little comfort any way he could get it.

Then Elias turned the Watchers attention on the door and the Institute, and Jon shivered at the bereft feeling of losing the weight of his god’s attention. The shadows parted from his gaze, and a path opened up for them.

The doors were wide open, but inside there was only darkness.

Gerard and Mary found Gertrude at the entrance of the Archives, standing in a pool of light that made her look like she was standing in a bubble of air surrounded by angry dark ocean waters. For a moment Gerard wondered if Gertrude was using a Leitner book of her own to defend herself from the darkness, before noticing that she had set up dozens of floodlights at all corners of the Archives, and she was currently standing in between three beams that focused on her position.

“Rather flimsy protection, don’t you think, Gertrude?” Mary said, unsurprised, as she stepped forward and kicked one of the lights placed just by the entrance. It didn’t break, but with it’s beam facing the floor, the room became that much darker.

“You assume I need protection from you?” Gertrude asked drily, not showing a hint of fear. She wore a long sweater with large pockets, and her hands inside them.  

“You think I’m here alone?” Mary countered, and took out from her waistband a long, narrow knife. “I must say, I’ve always wanted to get some time alone with you at my mercy, but I’ll be nice. Tell me what I want to know, and I’ll give you a head start.”

Gertrude rolled her eyes. “Are such theatrics necessary, Mary, really?” She asked. “I have nothing to say to you. Leave now, and maybe you can get away with this nonsense.”

Gerard remained just behind his mum, hands in his pockets, heart hammering in his breast. He didn’t like the darkness; didn’t trust the people his mother had brought in with them. But he knew his mum’s talent with violence, and he wished Gertrude would take her more seriously.  

“Just tell me what I want to know and I’ll leave you be,” Mary said, stepping closer. “I have no quarrel with the archives, or with you.” Her knife twisted in her hand, but Gerard knew his mother. It was her other hand you had to watch, the one clutching one of her books inside her jacket, ready to bring out.

“I think not,” Gertrude said, and pulled out a gun. Gerard had a moment to be surprised—in all the times he had been with his mother during her investigations, no one ever just used a gun, where had she gotten it, anyway?—before his mother was diving out of the way, and there was a loud noise that seared Gerard’s ears, and he realized he was in Gertrude’s way so he ran too, but was soon lost in the darkness.

Jon had never really stopped to think about the difference of power between someone who had fully embraced their strengths as an avatar, and someone who was merely affiliated with an entity, early on their path to becoming. He knew he had gotten stronger, after the decision made while he was in his coma, but the differences had never seemed so obvious as when he saw the young Lukas woman step right up to a cultist who never saw her, and simply push her into nothingness with all the effort one might spend to step on a bug.

Jon’s right hand twitched at the memory of being burned by Jude, and how powerless he had been to stop it. Or at being tossed into the vast by an annoyed Mike Crew, who hadn’t even meant him real harm. He wanted to call all of these people invading their institute idiots, but he knew he had been just as arrogant, and ignorant, at one point.

Nathaniel and the woman left, vanishing into the dark without a care in different directions, while Elias, with Jon still in hand, headed towards the Archives. They were on the stairs when they heard the gunshot, and Jon let go of Elias to cover his ears at the sudden noise. Then he felt someone behind him, but he couldn’t see anything anymore, and on instinct he tried to move, but only tripped and tumbled down the rest of the steps, landing in a breathless heap.

He was surprised not to be in the dark when he sat up, and noticed all the lights that had been set up to keep the Archives lit. Another Beholding avatar who knows a thing or two about preparation, he thought a little bitterly, before shaking his head. This wasn't the time to get irrational about Gertrude. He needed to meet back up with Elias, and—

“You’re going to shoot me, Gertrude, really?” He hears Mary’s voice ask from somewhere deeper in the Archives. Not all of the hallways are lit, Jon realizes. Some of the lights have been knocked to the ground, or turned off. “I’m here defending myself! It went after me first!”

Jon froze, realization crystalizing all around him. He was the reason this was happening. His plan had gone wrong, somehow, and now Mary knew that someone had tried to go after her. Did she know it was him?

There was a sound, of breaking glass and smashing metal, and more of the lights in the Archives went dark. Jon stood up and moved quickly, not wanting to be stuck in one of the dark corridors, wanting to go hide somewhere, or else to attack Mary while she was distracted, he wasn’t sure which.

“You came looking for something of your own will, Mary,” Gertrude said, in her damnably calm voice. “You don’t get to complain if it took an interest in you in return.” Then there was another loud shot, and Jon grit his teeth against the pain of its loud echoes in the cramped Archives.

More crashes, more lights breaking, and Jon was left standing in a dark corridor, huddled against an over-stuffed bookshelf.

“So you admit there’s something here!” Mary cried out, panting, triumphant. Jon spotted more light further down the hallway, and hurried there. Just as he was turning the corner, he felt someone grab him, a hand forced in front of his mouth to stop him screaming.

He fought as hard as he could, throwing an elbow that connected with a face, then going boneless and dropping to the floor before rolling away. He shot to his feet, bruised, scared—

And saw Gerry holding his bleeding nose with one hand and making frantic ‘quiet’ gestures with the other.

Gerard knew he was too late even as he tried to get Jon to be quiet. Jon, looking surprised to see him, then guilty as he stepped closer and focused on his bloody nose, was in full view of everyone else in the room, though the distracted fool didn’t seem to have noticed anyone but Gerard.

For a moment, when Jon whispered ‘sorry’ and reached out for Gerard’s face, Gerard thinks it might be alright, that neither his mum, hiding behind a pillar with a book about hungry shadows in her hands, nor Gertrude, standing in the brightest spot of the room with her gun pointed straight at Mary and waiting for a good shot,  had noticed Jon get close.

But then his mum sent her shadow to knock out another light, this time the one keeping Gerard’s corner lit, and instead of plunging him and Jon into darkness, there was a glow, bright, coming from the eye which Jon had previously hid behind an eyepatch, and which now burned a bright golden hue.

His mum noticed first, posed as she was with her field of view keeping Gerard at the corner of her sight. She stopped, and her eyebrows rose in surprise as she saw Jon, standing in a dim corner with one bright eye still focused on Gerard, before he blinked, and must have noticed the strange lighting himself, because he quickly backed away and covered his eye with his hands, plunging them both into darkness.

Mary changed the hand with which she held her book, and quickly brought out the other one, Locked Away in Silence. She couldn’t have known who Jon was, or anything else about him, but he remembered her words from earlier in the day. I just need to find the new element which shouldn’t be there, she had said. And Jon was most certainly that.

Gerard froze, paralyzed by the darkness around him and indecision. Jon could be running away; if he was, his mum’s book would not be able to get a hold of him, and he would be safe. But his intuition screamed that he was wrong, that he could still hear Jon’s ragged breathing close at hand, that Jon was too damn young to know any better.

And he thought of Jon, tiny and trusting, locked up in that terrible place. And he found the courage he had never had before, and for the first time in his life stood up to his mum.

He ran to her, then, and tried to take the book from her hands.

Jon was barely able to stand with the agony radiating from his eye. He couldn’t even decide if it was still him reaching out for the door, or the other side of the door rattling. He was too scared, too off-balance, and all that he knew was that it hurt, and that Gerry had been looking at him with horror when he saw his eye glowing bright enough to illuminate his face.

He heard a sound and tried to focus, taking a wobbly step towards the noise. Through watering eyes, he saw Gerry in the still-lit part of the room, wrestling with a woman—with Mary, he realized, trying to tear a book out of her hands. Mary looked furious, and Jon saw her drop something with her other hand, before she brought up something long and glinting.

Jon ran at them, not thinking. He wasn’t going to let Gerry get stabbed because of something Jon did. It didn’t matter that he was unarmed and small; he’d bite her hand if he had to until she let go.

Jon felt the ground shift under his feet as he moved, dizzy. His eye hurt. His face hurt. His—skin, somehow, felt odd, too tight—buzzing, again. And a second before he touched Mary, he knew there was something he could do, and so inside his mind, not at his door but at something else, he pushed.

And he sees images, quick, rushed. Victory, taken at the last second. Gloating. Then mist, and loss, and loss, and loss.

Next thing he knew, he was being pulled to his feet. His headache was almost gone, but his eyelids felt heavy, and he found it hard to focus. There’s someone dragging him away, and his vision clears enough to see Gertrude with the book Gerard had been fighting over, telling them both to run, and then everything went dark again, and all he could do was allow himself to be pulled away by Gerry, deeper into the darkness.

Gerard didn’t know where he was going as he half-carried Jon away; all he knew was that it wasn’t safe, being that close to his mum, and that he needed to get Jon to safety. He didn’t waste time trying to figure out what had happened, or to regret attacking his mum. He would pay for that later. All that mattered was to find somewhere to hide Jon, then try to protect him as best he could.

They were barely out of the room when he heard his mum scream, furious, and something that sounds like a knife sinking into flesh (a sound he was far too familiar with). Jon appeared to wake fully, then, because he was on his feet, and his hands found Gerard’s, and then it was him leading the way deeper into these basement corridors.

His eye glowed only a little now, just enough to see the outlines of furniture as they moved, and Jon led them both straight to a door, which he lifted and kicked, then pulled both of them inside, shutting it behind them. The room is a small supply closet, with a broom and mop and other cleaning supplies, as well as, oddly enough, a cardboard box filled with printing paper.

Jon stuck something into the ground next to the door. “It always jams,” Jon explained quietly, in a voice barely above a whisper.

Gerard stared at him, with only the ambient glow of Jon’s eye to illuminate the room, before Jon shuffled awkwardly and covered it up again.

“Sorry,” he said in a mumbled whisper.

“Jon,” Gerard whispered, and stopped, because he had no idea what to say after that. He felt the adrenaline start to leave him, and had to brace himself against a wall so he wouldn’t fall. He could hear Jon stepping toward him, but then stopping, and found that he had no difficulty imagining the awkward boy hovering just out of reach.

He couldn’t help a laugh, but quickly shoved his mouth in his elbow. Silent, silent, he told himself.

“We attack this place and you apologize to me?” Gerard asked in a whisper, knowing he should keep quiet, but knowing that Jon was here, safe, and saying stupid things, was making him do stupid things.

“You’re not responsible for what she does,” Jon replied, just as quietly, but with an edge of anger that Gerard found surprising. Like he knew something about his mum, and was offended that Gerard would willingly take up blame with her.

“I didn’t have to be here,” Gerard said softly. “I could have stayed behind.”

“So could I!” Jon hissed, still angry. “And that’s a false choice and you know it.” Gerard blinked. He had only met this strange kid once before, so he supposed it was silly that he had ideas in his mind already about who he was, and that none of those included him scolding Gerard like this. “Besides, then you wouldn’t be here helping me,” Jon added, in a much quieter voice.

“Um,” Gerard said, at a loss. Then something Jon said caught up to him. “Why are you here?”

“My um, guardian. He’s… of this place. You know.” Jon sounded so stilted and awkward, Gerard almost wanted laugh again. “The ‘grr grr we serve—’ uh, those fear things kind of person.” Gerard realized he was trying not to be specific, since Gerard had told him last time he shouldn’t talk about the Powers openly. Clearly, he knew far more than Gerard had given him credit for.

“And you?” Gerard asked, his voice taking on a little edge. Bad enough that everything in his life was taken up with the Powers thanks to his mum, he didn’t want his first friend to be one of the monsters he spent his life fearing.

“Um.” Jon took a few steps back. “I, uh, I’m not—I don’t think I am. Maybe?”

“That cleared everything up, thanks!” A part of Gerard told him to take it back, that now was not the time to be sarcastic with a scared little boy. The other part of him was terrified that Jon was something about to consume him, and anger had become his favorite reaction to fear, when it wasn’t his mum causing it.

Jon made a frustrated sound. “It’s complicated. And I don’t know!” He said, much too loud, and with a hitch of his voice that made Gerard realize he was crying.

Which was a real punch in the gut. If he’s something else, deal with it later, Gerard scolded himself. He hurried forward in the dark, but quickly found the hunched over body of the sobbing boy.

“Sorry,” he whispered a little desperately. “You need to be quiet, Jon, I’m sorry.”

Jon tried, Gerard saw. His shoulders still shook, but the sounds coming from him were muffled, soft. Feeling guilty, Gerard wrapped his arms around him in an awkward hug, and hoped that was the right thing to do.

People hug kids in movies all the time to comfort them, right? The thought was more than a little bit unhinged, but Gerard was not having a very good day.

He didn’t get to find out if it worked. The door they had jammed was slammed from the outside, which made both Jon and Gerard flinch and cower at the other end of the small closet, still clinging to each other. Then the door was shoved open, past whatever obstruction Jon had put there.

The corridor behind Mary was dark, but not pitch black as it had been before. He had no trouble seeing the fury in his mum’s face, nor the blood on her hands and sleeves, and on the cover of Locked Away in Silence she held open in her hand.

“Mum, no, please—” Gerard starts, putting himself in front of Jon, blocking her view.

“We’ll deal with your actions later,” she snapped, eyes flashing. “If you wanted to be with him so badly, all you had to do was ask.”

And her eyes were down on the open book, and Gerard was on the floor, in no position to get up and get it out of her hands before he and Jon both got trapped in that nightmare.

Then someone is there shoving Mary to the ground. He saw the man from their last visit, the one in the suit who had followed his mum out of the Archives, standing above her, face grim and furious.

“Send her away,” he said to someone else, and all Gerard could see from his vantage point in the closet is another hand come down on Mary’s shoulder, then push her down, into mist that hadn’t been there a second before, until there’s no one on the ground, and the only person he can see is the angry man in the suit.

“Thank you for this. I owe you.” The man said to whoever else is standing in the corridor.

“I know,” said a masculine voice, with a hint of distaste, and then he was gone, and Gerard wouldn’t even be able to say how he knew, since he heard no footsteps leaving and he never saw who it was.

Then the man was looking inside, and Gerard had no idea what to do or think or say—

“Jon,” The man said, with such naked relief in his voice that it made Gerard uncomfortable. “I thought I told you to stay by me.”

“I thought you would approve of me running for my life,” Jon said, in an oddly petulant voice. Gerard turned to look at him, realizing only now that he was still half-hugging Jon with one arm, and Jon was still clinging to him, though his gaze was fixed entirely on the man.

The man laughed. “Come on out of there. The threat has passed. Next time, I’ll find you a place to hide before the violence starts.”

Gerard, feeling lost, helped get both himself and Jon to their feet. Whoever this was, it was clear they cared for Jon. Which meant Jon would be safe, and which left him to worry over whatever had just happened to his mum, and what might happen to him now.

“Gerard Keay?” The man asked, giving him an appraising look. Nervous, Gerard nodded. He wondered if there was any chance he could run out of the Institute, if he tried. If he would find his mum waiting back at their bookstore, still angry, having somehow escaped unharmed, as she always did. “My Jon has quite a high opinion of you,” he said conversationally. Gerard gave Jon a baffled look, but Jon was glaring at the man and didn’t notice.

“My name is Elias Bouchard. I am the Head of the Magnus Institute.” He held out a hand to Gerard, which he hesitantly shook. “And I have an offer I think you will be very interested in hearing, if you’ll come with me?”

Chapter Text

Jon didn’t know what was happening. He felt like he had been playing catch up since the moment he stumbled into Gerry in the dark and elbowed him in the nose. Everything he had tried to do had gone wrong, and yet his ultimate objective had come to pass: Mary was gone, Gerry was free, to a degree, and Jon… didn’t know how to feel about any of it.  

He couldn’t stop thinking about the look of horror in Gerry’s face when the lights went off, and Jon’s eye had been glowing brighter than ever. And sure, he had wanted to be Gerry’s friend because he wanted to help him, for his sake more than Jon’s. Whatever else had happened today, it sure didn’t seem like Mary would be making an appearance again for a while, if ever, so in a way Gerry had been helped, though it hadn’t really been Jon doing the helping, unless you counted ‘making Mary angry enough to attack the institute’ as help.

The point was, if Gerry didn’t want to be his friend—and he probably wouldn’t given that he now had a good chance at separating himself from all the Entities and avatars and the world Jon was entrenched in—then Jon wouldn’t begrudge him that choice. Jon was a grown-up, for god’s sake. And he had been alone long before Gerry—long before going to live in the past—hell, long before he finally admitted to Martin how he felt, nearly too late for it to matter. He knew how to be alone, and he wasn’t about to risk Gerry’s safety just to try to cling to some companionship outside of Elias’ guardianship.

He just wished it didn’t hurt so much, to think of that look in Gerry’s eyes, both in the hallway before everything went to hell, and in the small closet, as Gerry asked him what he was. The worst part was, Jon didn’t know the answer. Was he still human? Was he already down the path to becoming a monster? The door in his mind was locked as tight as ever, but he could feel hints of something else, still too new and unpracticed to be understood. How did the saying go—once is chance, twice is a coincidence, three is a pattern? Jon hadn’t had a third one just yet, but he did have the experience of being an avatar once, already, and if nothing else he could recognize being driven by new instincts before understanding what they were.

Think on that later, Jon told himself. He was still in the Archives, standing next to Gerry and Elias as they picked their way through broken floodlights and knocked-over bookshelf and papers. The lighting was dim, but that was just because it was always a little dim in the Archives. Elias had maneuvered himself to stand in between Gerry and Jon, and placed a hand spread out over Jon’s shoulder blades, thumb and index finger on either side of his neck.

Jon would have tried harder to stay by Gerry’s side, instead, except that he wasn’t sure how close Gerry wanted him, and he didn’t want to push him, especially not after Gerry had been forced to watch his mother attack them and be thrown into the Lonely, all because of Jon.

“There were others with us,” Gerry said, his voice low and hesitant. It hurt Jon to think that Gerry was, for the first time in his life, alone; but he couldn’t help the spark of triumph and relief at having Mary be gone. Still, Gerry was a child, just as Jon was, and it wasn’t like he could simply leave and live a life on his own, and with Elias’ earlier words, Jon worried that Elias might already have plans for him.

If he tries to hire Gerry, I’m going to stab a pen into his eye, Jon thought angrily, trying to shrug Elias’ hand off him, to no avail.

“Followers of the Church of the Dark, yes, if I’m not mistaken,” Elias said conversationally. “They’ve been taken care of. My Institute is not without its protections.”

“Oh,” Gerry said, and he sounded so lost. Without thinking, Jon reached out in front of Elias and grabbed Gerry’s hand. To his surprise, Gerry squeezed back, and then Jon couldn’t think of a reason to let go, and focused on not stepping on too many of the papers littering the floor.

They were walking back the way they had run, after Jon had his little episode. Something like dread was curling in Jon’s gut, which he was doing his best to ignore. Gertrude had been telling them to run, looking in the wrong direction, when the last light in the Archives had gone. Mary had blood on her hands that hadn’t been there before.

Don’t be stupid, Jon thought, desperately. The door in his mind was locked up tight as ever. If Gertrude had died, surely that would have changed?

Unless he couldn’t pick up the mantle of the Archivist without actually working as an archivist? Then again, with the way Elias had been making him read statements, wouldn’t that count? Unless it was being stopped by Jon not recording the statements.

But no, he was being stupid. He could feel the pressure on the door, still. Gertrude had to be alive.

Even if he remembered vividly the vision of a death in the darkness, with a knife to the back.

“G-Gertrude,” Jon forced himself to ask, because if nothing else, he was bad at leaving questions unasked. “Is she alive?” They were coming to the room soon, but he needed to know, before seeing her dead body, if there was a dead body, if it was his fault, if he was locked away from his powers forever and not because someone had been standing in his way, if—

“Yes,” came a voice, rough and familiar. Jon would have rushed forward, but was stopped both by Elias’ hand on the back of his neck and Gerry’s hand still on his. There was a cough, and he could hear ragged breathing as they came around the corner.

Gertrude Robinson was alive, but she was not well. She sat against a wall, hands around a bloody wound on her side, with a trail of blood on the ground from where she had dragged herself to the wall.

“Ah,” Elias said, stopping at the sight of her, mouth twisting into what might, to someone who didn’t know him, look like concern. “I don’t suppose you’ve called an ambulance already?”

Gertrude snorted, then coughed, blood coming up from her mouth. Jon looked away, angry and disgusted. If she embraced her gifts even a little bit more an injury like this would be nothing. Maybe if he distracted Elias, they could delay the ambulance long enough for her to finish bleeding out.

No. No, I don’t want Gertrude dead. Probably. It was not an easy thought to have in the same room with her, so he tried to twist out of Elias’ grasp. “I can go call,” he suggested, wanting to be in a different room.

“You are not getting out of my sight,” Elias said, his hold on Jon tightening.

“I can… go?” Gerry suggested, giving Jon’s hand a last squeeze then taking a tentative step toward the end of the room, which would lead him to the Assistant’s office and, presumably, to a working phone.

“If you would be so kind,” Elias told him, smiling. One of his fake, ‘I’m just a good guy who’s trying his best’ smiles that Jon only ever saw him aim at Rosie, but which he recognized from his first years in the institute, before he knew the truth. “But please, the rest of the Institute is still being secured, so return here once you are done.”

“I, uh, I will,” Gerry said, looking more confused than lost now, but with a quick glance to the bleeding Gertrude and to Jon, he hurried away.

Once he was out of earshot, Elias sighed. “Really, Gertrude? I was under the impression from my predecessor that you could handle something like this.”

Gertrude’s glare made Jon shiver when she turned it on him. “It’s a bit hard to do good work when someone puts you under some kind of compulsion trap,” she snapped, then stopped to grimace and press her hands against her wound harder.

“I didn’t do anything!” Jon argued, looking to Elias, then back at Gertrude. “I mean, I don’t think I did?” He added, because he was really curious about what she meant, even if he was also terrified to know. “I just… saw darkness?”

“Darkness, then getting stabbed, and dying.” Gertrude said. “And I’ve spent every minute since fighting against an annoying urge to disbelieve it entirely, like a little voice telling me I’m crazy every time I think on it,” There was real anger in her voice. Had it been anyone else, Jon might have apologized.

“Maybe if you weren’t such a terrible Archivist it wouldn’t have been such a struggle!” Elias snorted, and Jon huffed. He knew that he wouldn’t usually yell at someone as badly wounded as Gertrude clearly was—that he would usually be on the floor trying to help—but he was proud of himself for simply keeping his distance and not trying to do anything to her while she was on the ground whining.

“But you believed it,” Elias said, drawing Jon back. “And I can’t help but notice you’re not… dead.”

“I tried to avoid it entirely,” Gertrude snapped. “I brought lights, I prepared. I had Mary on the ground and four more bullets—and the gun jammed.

“I didn’t do anything!” Jon repeated.

“The only preparation that worked was that stupid armor,” Gertrude closed her eyes. “And all it did was deflect the stab, not stop it.”

“Fascinating,” Elias said, and Jon didn’t think he was being sarcastic.

Gerry came back into the room then, hesitating at the entrance to the room, then giving all of them strange looks. “The ambulance is on the way. It should be here in ten minutes, they said.” His brow furrowed. “Shouldn’t we, uh, be helping with the bleeding?”

Jon opened his mouth, and Elias put his hand there to stop whatever he was about to say. “You’re right, of course. Would you mind waiting in the front of the building to bring the ambulance down here when they come?” Elias rolled up his sleeves, let go of Jon, and knelt by Gertrude.

She gave him an unimpressed look, but didn’t complain when he pressed down on her wound. Gerry looked alarmed, and froze.

“I could go with—” Jon tried.

“Not. Out. Of. My. Sight.” Elias said, without even looking up from his spot next to Gertrude.

“It’s ok,” Gerry said, still looking confused and out of place. “I-I can do that.” He left, shooting back nervous glances at his back, like he was expecting Elias to jump up and tie him down.

Jon walked to the other side of the room and sat down on an upturned cardboard box. He knew he wasn’t behaving rationally. He knew being around Gertrude made him act… wrong. But he really, really, really, wanted to go over to Gertrude and kick her, then rant for a while about why she should just tear out her eyes and quit her job, or something.

For once, though, there was no pressure on his door, from inside or outside. His eye still glowed, though, for some reason. His eye—

Oh, damn. He hadn’t thought to wear an eye patch. Gertrude had seen—

“I think,” Elias said in a quiet voice, “that I need to hear what you think Jon is, and what you’re planning to do about it now.” Jon had heard that soft threat enough times to know exactly what it meant.

“What he is?” Gertrude asked. “I haven’t a clue. I don’t…” She took in a ragged, pained breath. “Mary might have been more right than she knew. Something new, she said.”

“Not new,” Jon mumbled. He was what he had always been; it was just that no one in this world had the information he did. But he was changing. What Gertrude had said about the vision was concerning. Especially since he could remember dreaming about it last night, in a way he had dismissed as a simple nightmare, since it echoed his Archivist dreams.

“And what will I do?” She met Jon’s eyes, hers hard as granite, his jus as hostile. “I will wait and I will watch. As I always do.” Until she thinks she must act, went unsaid.

Elias tilted his head, but nodded.

“I suppose that’s as good as I’m going to get.” He said, and they settled in to wait for the ambulance.

Gerard didn’t know what to think or do, so he fell back on his habits of doing as he was told. He didn’t argue when he was sent out of the room with the bleeding Archivist, who Jon was staring at with such intense hatred that Gerard wouldn’t have been surprised if he tried to stab her some more. He didn’t argue when he was sent outside to wait for an ambulance, though obviously Elias had to know that he was giving him a way to run and never come back.

He didn’t, though. Where would he run to? If his mum was truly gone, he had no one. There would be no harm to staying around and hearing Elias’ offer. The man at least seemed to care for Jon, and he had saved them both, so he couldn’t be that bad.

The time alone in front of the building did little to calm him down. Gerard had never felt so unmoored in his life. He hadn’t particularly liked his life with his mum, but it was all that he knew. What was he supposed to do now? What had happened to his mum?

Was she dead? Vanished somewhere forever? The mist she had sunk into called on something in his mind, some distant lesson Mary had tried to teach him, or else that he had read in a book. Would she return? Would she come back for him, or move on with her life without him? Why did both of those ideas make his stomach turn?

If she wasn’t coming back, then how was he going to survive? He looked too young to get a job, and though he could probably go back to the store and survive by selling off some of his mum’s books for a while, he wasn’t looking forward to dealing with the people who came to that bookstore on his own. He couldn’t imagine living in that place, on his own, his mum’s ghost haunting the place everywhere he turned.

He wondered what kind of offer Elias might have for him. He could remember, without much effort, Elias saying ‘my Jon has quite a high opinion of you’, which made him feel all kinds of things he wasn’t sure he could name. Jon had told his dad about him? In a positive way? He wasn’t sure what to make of it.

Then again, there was no way that Jon was simply a normal kid. Even aside from his glowing eye, there something about him that drew those who served the powers like moths to a flame. Elias, Gerard was sure, was as much a servant of the Eye as the Archivist was, though he didn’t seem nearly as scary. He supposed Jon must have grown up…wrong, just like Gerard. No one could grow up so close to the Powers and expect to be normal.

There was a chance that Jon was a monster luring Gerard in. But Gerard didn’t want to think like that, and he had made his choice earlier that day. Whatever Jon was, he was the first person to ever come and ask to be his friend. The first person to smile so genuinely at something he said, even if it was just for replying with his own name, and for agreeing to be his friend.

He told his dad about me, he thought, and that still made him feel very strange. Gerard wasn’t someone people talked about, or bragged about meeting. He wasn’t someone children reached out to to hold his hand.

If there was a chance that whatever offer Elias had for him would keep him close to Jon, where he could protect him, and… and be friends with him, whatever that meant, then he was going to take it.

When the ambulance pulled over in front of the Institute, Gerard’s posture was straight, and he led them down into the Archives with a confidence in his own decisions he had never known before.

The police came not long after the ambulance did, and Elias excused himself to take both Jon and Gerard to his office. “I need to sort this out. You stay here. No leaving. Understood?” He asked Jon, sounding strict and worried.

Jon grimaced, but said, “Understood. No leaving. I promise.”

Which left Gerard and Jon alone in the office, for once not in a rush because Gerard was about to leave, or in terror while hiding from his mum.

They sat down on two chairs in front of Elias’ desk, Jon taking easy ownership of one like he was used to sitting on it, while Gerard sat on the edge of his own seat and tried to figure out what they were supposed to talk about.

“He seems to worry a lot about you,” Gerard offered, tucking his hands into his pockets for a lack of anything else to do with them. Jon hunched in on himself a little, and wouldn’t look at Gerard.

“I get into trouble sometimes,” he mumbled into the collar of his thick brown coat.

They were silent again, and Gerard had no idea what to do. He had never needed to keep a conversation going again. And, awkward as he was, Jon was usually ready to say something, except now he was avoiding looking at Gerard, which made knots form in his stomach.

Of course he’s mad at me, Gerard thought. He had followed his mum here with the intention to hurt him. He had yelled at him in the closet and made him cry.

“Sorry,” Gerard said stiffly. “I shouldn’t have yelled at you.”

Jon peeked back at him, only the top half of his face visible from where he had buried himself in his coat. His eyes looked normal now, both the same amber brown he remembered from their first meeting.

“ ‘s okay,” Jon mumbled. “It’s my fault. You didn’t know what I was.”

Gerard shifted awkwardly in his seat, and then felt even worse when his hand found the edge of the book he had taken with him in case he needed it. Forgot about it when the time came, he thought, guilty. It might have stopped his mum faster, maybe even prevented the Archivist from getting stabbed.

“I mean, it doesn’t sound like you know what’s going on either,” he offered.

Jon shrugged. “I think… I think it’s more that I don’t want to face it, really.” He said quietly.

“Do you want to tell me about it?” Gerard asked, a little nervous. He wanted to help Jon, he did, but he had only recently decided he was going to try to be his friend, and he wasn’t sure he could handle learning something bad about him so soon.

To his relief, Jon shook his head. “It’s nothing that won’t wait,” Jon said.

And then they lapsed into silence again. After minutes of neither of them saying anything, they both spoke up at the same time.

“What do you think—”

“You don’t have to—”

They stopped, looked at each other, and Gerard couldn’t help a laugh. Jon had a wobbly smile on his face.

“Go on, you first,” Gerard said. Jon looked away again, fidgeting as he had been the first time they met, his hands playing with the sleeves on his coat this time.

“You, um, you don’t have to be my friend. If you don’t want to.” Jon said, very quietly.

Gerard froze, his smile melting off his face. What? Had he ruined things already? He had barely had a chance to! Then again, who in their right minds wanted to be his friend? He brought nothing into a friendship.

“I…” Gerard had to clear his throat. “I… sorry? I don’t… you don’t want to be my friend?” he asked, in such a pathetic tone that he hated himself for it. He shot to his feet. He wasn’t going to be where he wasn’t wanted. He was a survivor. He could go, be anywhere else, figure things out all by himself.

Before he could dash to the door, Jon had clambered to his feet and grabbed on to Gerard’s arm, eyes wide with panic.

“Please don’t go,” Jon said, and Gerard felt the fight go out of him. He sat back down, and this time Jon was looking at him full in the face, full of worry and uncertainty. “I- I mean, you can go if you want to. I wouldn’t… I don’t want you to… to feel like you have to do something, because I’m not… because I wasn’t…” The frustration in his face was as familiar as breathing.

Clumsy words, Gerard thought to himself. A problem he knew too well. He tried to understand what Jon was trying to say, to pay attention.

“What do you want, Jon?” Gerard asked, and he knew it was too blunt as soon as he said it, from the way Jon flinched. He tried to soften his tone. “I’m not… someone great. I followed my mum around and helped her to a lot of terrible things. It’s ok if you don’t want to be my friend anymore,” he said, though it felt like pulling razor wire from his mouth.

“Gerry, you… you just lost your mum, because of me. She got sent into the Lonely, and honestly I don’t really want her back because I didn’t like her, but she’s still… gone. Why would you want to be my friend?”

Gerard flinched, because he hadn’t connected the dots between the mist and the Lonely until Jon pointed it out. He remembered his lessons, how the way to defeat the Lonely was to cling to attachments, to find an anchor in people you loved. He thought of his mum, there alone, and couldn’t decide if it would hurt more if she never returned, because she didn’t love him enough, or if she did, and he was forced back into his life.

“She was always going to do what she wanted to do,” he said hoarsely, blinking back tears. “And she has nothing to do with you, or, or, you and me.”

“What do you want?” Jon asked, tears in his eyes. “Because I don’t think anyone has ever asked you that, and I don’t want you doing something stupid just because you think you’re supposed to!”

And Gerard stopped, and breathed, and started to count, just like that mediation book had explained. Because it wasn’t something Mary had ever asked him, true enough. But more… it wasn’t something he had ever asked himself. So he leaned back, and took the question seriously, and thought about it.

“I…” Gerard said, after a few minutes. “I don’t know what I want, in a big picture kind of way.” He looked over at Jon, who had pulled his legs up with him in the chair, had crossed them, and now stared at him. As he waited, he had unbuttoned his coat, to reveal a ridiculous red sweater underneath. Gerard smiled. “But, if it’s ok, I think I’d like to keep being your friend?”

Jon went as red as his sweater, but a bright smile spread across his face. He made a happy full-body wriggle, then ducked his head back down.

“Ok,” he said, voice muffled by his sweater.

“Ok.” Gerard agreed, and they lapsed into a more comfortable silence. Then, because Elias wasn’t back yet, and Gerard wanted to talk about something else, he asked, “what kind of music do you like?”

By the time Elias returned to the office, Gerard had started to explain to Jon the difference between post-punk rock and goth metal, as best as he understood it. Jon was a great listener, taking in everything Gerard said with avid interest, though he had a feeling that Jon didn’t understand half of what Gerard was trying to say. Well, clumsy words were sometimes heard anyway.

“What did you tell the police?” Jon asked the moment Elias entered the room. Gerard had fallen silent when the door was turning, and some of the earlier nerves from before his talk with Jon were quick to surface.

Elias waved a dismissive hand. “Said they were some gang that broke in and vandalized the place. That Gertrude called me to take a look, and that she had been stabbed and they left before I got here.”

Gerard took a second to process that. It was a very good cover, for something he must have come up with in minutes.

“Don’t look so impressed,” Jon told Gerard, rolling his eyes. “I’m pretty sure he bribes half the police force, and the other half don’t want to get involved with this place.”

“Why, that’s a very astute observation, Jon,” Elias said, walking around his desk so he could sit on his chair. “I wonder where you got that idea.”

Jon glared at Elias, then seemed to think better of it and blinked, trying, unsuccessfully, to look innocent. “I pay attention,” he said.

Elias snorted. “Sure you do,” was all he said. He sat down, took a deep breath, then turned his attention on Gerard. “Gerard Keay,” he said. “Thank you for the help down there. I appreciate you helping Jon out.”

Gerard didn’t think he’d ever been thanked so sincerely before. He made himself meet the man’s eyes and only stuttered a little when he replied, “you’re welcome.”

“You don’t have to worry about explaining your side of the story to me,” Elias continued. “I happen to be familiar with Mary Keay, and I’ve spoken to a few contacts of mine who have told me a little of what life must have been like for you.”

Gerard felt something cold spread from his limbs inward. He didn’t like people knowing how his relationship with his mum was. He didn’t like being noticed, at least as much as he desperately wanted someone to notice.

Jon had gone quiet, but his attention was focused entirely on Elias, like he was trying to read the secrets of the universe from the quirk of his lips.

“I don’t know if your mother ever told you, but you have a link to this place. Your father was an Archival assistant here for many years, before he went missing. He was well liked. My predecessor would have protected him, if he had let him.” Elias shook his head sadly. “All before my time, of course, but I inherited very thorough records.”

“When you say you would have protected him…” Gerard said, voice thin, “you mean, your god, the… the Eye would have?” His eyes darted away from Elias and to Jon, who looked sad and wouldn’t look back at him.

“We protect our own,” Elias said, eyes shining. “But that’s beside the point. I told you, I have an offer for you, Gerard.”

Gerard sat up straight in his chair, chest tightening. Would he ask Gerard to claim the allegiance his father had followed? He didn’t particularly want to, but he knew how many enemies his mum had. He knew he needed protection. If it came down to it, at least it meant he could stay close to Jon.

“I spoke to an old friend of your father’s, who has agreed to take you in. It won’t be strictly legal, at least at first, but I think you should find this person agreeable, if nothing else. They are outside the office now, and we can go introduce you if you decide you want to go through with this.” Elias said. Gerard felt as though the ground was taken from below him. Someone wanted to take him in? No—No, that wasn’t what he had said. Someone had agreed to put him up. It was better than going back to the bookstore, though he didn’t like the idea of having to sleep close to a stranger. Elias was still talking. He needed to listen.

“I want you to stay around and be a tutor to Jon,” he continued. “In school and in… other matters, there’s a lot he has to learn, and I don’t have the time to teach him.”

“Wait, what?” it was Jon who spoke. “But you said—”

“I make plans, Jon. I have contingencies. It’s what I do. Please let me finish.” Elias looked back at Gerard. “I don’t think it would be a good idea to put you into school right away, just as Jon is also staying away. I can find the two of you whatever books or materials you might need for regular schoolwork, though it will be up to you to catch up on your own education.”

Gerard stared blankly at Elias. He opened his mouth, then closed it. There had to be something more. A catch he wasn’t seeing. Would he be expected to hunt down Leitners for him, maybe? Was he waiting until Jon was out of the room to say as much? And Elias knew nothing about Gerard’s own education. How could he assume he would be a good tutor to Jon?

Because even a terrible twelve-year-old student knows the material that little kids are taught, he reminded himself. It was easy to forget just how young Jon was, from the way he talked sometimes.

“So it will be like a job?” he asked after a minute, still trying to wrap his head around what Elias was offering.

“I can pay you something, probably,” Elias said after a moment, looking amused. “Mostly I’ve been pestered to find Jon some company his own age, and you at least have a good sense for danger.”

So more like a bodyguard for Jon, then. He could live with that.

“Do I have to live with this other person?” He asked. With money and an adult to vouch for him, he could take care of himself, he was sure.

“You’re twelve, and you’ll be hanging around my building. Having you be without a guardian will be too much of a headache for anyone that comes asking.” Elias said. Gerard frowned.

“And this person… is like you? Of Beholding?” He didn’t want to live his life feeling like there was someone constantly watching him.

Elias chuckled. “Yes, and no. He works here, so he is affiliated with my god, but as far as I can tell, he has only the faintest of ideas that any of it is real.”

Jon made a startled sound. Gerard looked at him. His eyes were wide open in surprise.

“Michael?” He blurted out. “Michael’s taking him in?”

Elias sighed, but nodded. Gerard was alarmed at Jon’s tone. Was this Michael someone he was going to have to worry over?

“Oh,” Jon said softly. He looked at Gerard, and there was something complicated on his face for a second, before it relaxed into a happy look. “He’s… a really good guy. A little gullible, but good.”

Gerard nodded, still unsettled by Jon’s first reaction, but a little mollified by his assurances. It wouldn’t have to be forever. Once he was sixteen, he would be able to legally get a place of his own. He had survived Mary for twelve years; he could survive this Michael for four.

“So the deal is, I live with this Michael, and I come here to tutor Jon, and… that’s is?” He asked, making sure he wasn’t missing something.

Elias shrugged. “I might offer you a job once you’re old enough, if you do a good job,” he said. Jon immediately glared at him.

“Not in the Archives,” he snapped, with far more feeling than Gerard thought the sentiment warranted. Elias laughed.

“Territorial, aren’t you? Sure, Jon. Not the Archives.” He leaned forward over the desk, and extended a hand to Gerard. “So? What do you say?”

Gerard hesitated only a moment before shaking it. “I guess I’m Jon’s tutor now.”

They shook hands, but Elias held on before he tried to pull away. “If you ever cross me, Gerard, you will wish your fate was as kind as being stuck in the Lonely,” he said, smile still in place, but something very cold and hard in his eyes.

“Stop that!” Jon snapped, and grabbed Gerard’s arm to yank it back.

Elias raised both arms in front of himself in a show of innocence. “Just being straightforward,” he said, and Gerard found that he didn’t mind it. He couldn’t be mad at someone just for being protective over his son. It was sweet, in its own way.

“I’m fine,” he told Jon, smiling. “Let’s go meet this Michael person.”

Chapter Text

Jon’s world changed again.

He followed, a little dazed, as they all went outside the office to greet a very nervous-looking Michael, who had been pacing back and forth in front of the door while they spoke. He looked first at Jon, like he was surprised to see him there, then at Gerry, freezing in place like he had seen a ghost.

Gerry, for his part, crossed his arms and tried to look uninterested. Not that Jon could blame him; if ever there was a child who had reason not to trust in the adults around him, it was Gerry. He wished Gerry showed that amount of derision towards Elias, though.

“You look so much like him,” Michael whispered, red-rimmed eyes going teary. Gerry’s shoulders hunched inward.

“I’m not,” Gerry said, not meeting Michael’s eyes.

“Oh, of course not!” Michael moved his arms with awkward, abortive movements, both like he wanted to get close and hug Gerry, and like he was trying to pull himself away. “I’m sorry. I- I’m Michael Shelly. I’m an old friend of your dad’s.” He stuck out his arm to shake, the gesture abrupt.

“I never met my dad,” Gerry said, hesitating, before scowling at Michael’s hand and making no move to shake. Michael tucked his arm back down his side, an awkward, pained smiled on his face.

“I-I’m sorry we never met before,” Michael said. “I know this is a little abrupt, and you know nothing about me, but I really will try my best,” his voice sounded painfully earnest. Jon frowned as well, as he quickly imagined what it would have been like for Michael to be the one to take him in, instead of Elias. A small part of him wanted to shake Gerry into being nice to Michael back, which he quickly shoved back down where he couldn’t notice it. Gerry had every reason to be suspicious. And Elias wasn’t that bad; he had kept Jon safe, after all. Had Michael taken him in, he would probably have been taken away by an avatar of the Dark on his first night.

Gerry looked about as uncomfortable as it was possible for someone to look, which was a little better than the angry scowl of a second before. Jon nudged him with his shoulder, because a part of him was still irrationally giddy that Gerry wanted to be his friend, and he wanted to remind him that he wasn’t alone.

“I already agreed to staying with you,” Gerry said, relaxing a little. “I won’t make any trouble.” He wouldn’t look Michael in the eye.

“Oh! It’s- it’s no trouble, really!” Michael said, looking alarmed. “I- I have an extra room, and I’ve been using it as an office, but I’ve got it mostly cleared out, and we can go buy you some clothes—or- or get your things? Is that all you have on you?”

“I didn’t know I was going anywhere else,” Gerry said defensively, crossed arms tightening on his black hoodie. “My stuff is—”

“Out of your grasp, I’m afraid,” Elias cut in. “It would be safest for you to stay away from places your mother’s… associates might find you, you understand?”

Gerry looked scared for a moment before he buried the emotion and went back to looking neutral. He nodded. Michael’s eyes went wide, like he hadn’t considered that Gerry could be in danger. Jon wondered what, exactly, Elias had told him about Mary.

“O-Of course! I have some money saved up, we can go get you whatever you need,” Michael said. This made Gerry look at him suspiciously. Jon could almost hear what he wasn’t saying, and what do you want in exchange?

It was a sensible question to ask of a stranger, really. Jon would probably have asked it out loud, if it were him (had, in a way, asked Elias as much back when they were talking the first time).

“And you don’t have to worry about your privacy!” Michael said, like he had suddenly remembered an item on a checklist. “Your room has a lock, and I won’t ever go into it without your permission.”

Jon looked at Elias at that. He mouthed ‘lock on the inside’, and Elias rolled his eyes. It wasn’t like privacy would ever be an option for Jon, with or without locks. And Gerry wasn’t as likely as Jon to try to run away, or in as much danger should he do so.

Jon and Elias left them to it soon after, after Elias excused them and said they needed to go, and that he would see Gerry on Monday. Michael still looked stiff and awkward, but he smiled towards Gerry in such a hopeful way that Jon doubted Gerry would be able to keep up his distant act for long. Jon, for his part, gave Gerry an impulsive hug before they left, again overtaken by an act he had barely had a chance to consider.

Was it his imagination, or was he becoming more impulsive the longer he lived as a child?

It was a thought that refused to be shelved, as Elias led him away them and down into the lobby. Elias was being serious about keeping Jon close; he didn’t let Jon be in a different room than him, even as he spoke to another police officer, then met with someone he had apparently hired to come in and clean whatever mess the cultists had left at the Institute.

Jon couldn’t get himself to focus. His thoughts flitted from subject to subject, never lingering long enough to reach a conclusion, but never leaving one for long enough that he would forget it. He thought about Gerry, and wondered if he was getting on with Michael; he thought about Michael, and worried that he was being pushed to do something that would make Gertrude his enemy, or else give Elias too many clues. He worried he had already made enough mistakes trying to help Gerry, and both of those scenarios were already in play; he obsessed over the deal he had made, and the visions he had obtained just the day after he made that deal. He went over what Gertrude said, and what it could mean; he wondered if he was already in the process of becoming an avatar, and if there was any way to stop it; he fretted over what that would mean for him, personally: if he was aligned with Spiral, Web, and Eye, would he start growing spiderwebs, or weird proportions? Was it even possible to be an avatar of more than one fear at the same time?

And below all of that, already overwhelming, a thought he had been ignoring for the last two months: was he still himself?

By the time, hours later, that Elias was done for the day and they were back in his car, Jon felt a mess. He asked, without thinking, “do you think I’ve changed since I started living with you?”

The question seemed to catch Elias by surprise as much as Jon. He turned to look at him, which would be a very dangerous thing for any driver other than Elias to do, and frowned.

“I suppose you have,” he said. “You haven’t tried to kick or bite me in weeks.”

Jon frowned, but didn’t push. He knew better than to try to have an open conversation with Elias; unless it was about the Entities, or something Jon had done wrong, he wouldn’t engage.

“There’s also that new trick you’ve got to think about,” Elias said, looking back at the road. “It is new, isn’t it?”

“You were watching the first time it ever happened,” Jon said, too tired to pretend he didn’t know what Elias was talking about.

“You touch Gertrude and see darkness, and feel stabbed, and die, and the next day some Dark servants come, plunge the Institute in darkness, and Gertrude gets stabbed, but doesn’t die.” Elias summarized.

“I didn’t make them attack,” Jon said, though he had already made the same parallels Elias was alluding to. “And I didn’t… compel Gertrude or whatever she thinks.”

Elias shrugged. “Not on purpose, maybe.”

Jon knew what it felt like to push compulsions through his voice; he was quite sure he would know if he had compelled Gertrude into… what, disbelieving the vision he hadn’t known he would give her? Being too slow or unprepared to avoid getting stabbed?

No. The compulsion he knew of—the compulsion made from unhealthy curiosity and demands of knowledge—had nothing to do with what had happened yesterday with Gertrude, or today with Mary.

“I dreamed about it,” Jon admitted quietly. “Only it didn’t make sense because it was all dark, and I wasn’t seeing the vision from inside of her anymore.” He had still known what it was, though. It was similar enough to what he had experienced in his dreams, as the Archivist, for him to dismiss it as a strange association his brain was making. Even now, as he considered what else it could be, he knew that it wasn’t exactly the same as his previous feeding.

He knew, somehow, that the dreams would end now that the conditions it set up had sprung up. There would be no second-hand consumption of fear; only what the Eye could get from a victim of a future tragedy, as they felt their inevitable downfall approach, and doubted their sanity, and could feel another seeing their misery and doing nothing about it.

The Spider. The Spiral. The Eye. It made sense, in a twisted way that he really wished it didn’t, but he hadn’t spent however long drowning in the misery of millions, back when the world was over, and not developed a keen intuition for all the fears.

What he didn’t know was how it worked. Could he approach anyone, touch them and bind them to a horrible fate? Could he decide what fate that was? It wasn’t likely; even the Mother of Puppets had her limits, and whatever Jon could do with the small link he now had to those Fears was likely very limited, at least until and unless he indulged in it more, which he refused to do.

“I have never heard of anyone displaying an ability such as that,” Elias offered quietly. Jon was struck by sudden unease. Elias took him in because he believed him to be important to Beholding, a possible central piece in a future ritual, as Agnes was to have been. If he thought Jon was no longer of his god, would he turn on him?

“I’ll stop using it,” Jon said, distress leaking into his voice. He didn’t like Elias, but he had just had a demonstration of the kind of enemies he would have to face, alone, without his protection. He had no idea what he would do, now, if he was forced to leave.

He felt something else inside of him twist at that thought. Hadn’t his plan been, from the beginning, to wait until he no longer lured other avatars to him, and then to leave? He still had so much to do, and all of it next to impossible for as long as he stayed close to Elias. With the Dark cultists dealt with, for now, and Gerry taken away from his mother, wasn’t this the optimal time for him to try to escape?

Again, the thought rose in him, to wonder just what he was becoming. Jonathan Sims, the Archivist, had been an independent, capable man. He may not have been the most intelligent about his own emotions, or the most careful about his health or relationships, but he had his pride, and he would have done what he needed to get away from Elias, and into a position to help all of those he had once failed.

This new person—child—he was becoming, though, was agonizing at the thought of losing Elias, evil bastard that he was, was incapable of thinking of consequences when deciding to act, sought physical affection like some kind of pathetic animal, acted like a fool around a twelve year old, traumatized boy, and couldn’t go for more than a couple of days without crying over some stupid thing or another. God, even back when he was this age for real, he hadn’t been this bad.

“Jon.” It took him a second to realize it wasn’t the first time Elias said his name. He lifted his chin and took a deep breath, like he was surfacing from a deep pool. He was crying again. Damn it.

He wiped at his face, angry. Why did he have to keep falling apart over every little thing? He had lived in a freaking post-apocalyptic hellscape. He had lost his friends and his allies, then his love, and been left with nothing but his eternal connection to his god. He had survived being chewed on, and cut, and burned, and buried, and abandoned, and betrayed. He hadn’t fallen apart into tears at every setback then.

(He had fallen apart, many times. He had been beyond tears, and Beholding had simply used his distraction to stuff his mind too full, again and again, until he came back to himself.)

“Jon,” Elias said again, and Jon realized they were parked on the side of the road, though he couldn’t remember when that had happened.

“I-I’m ok,” Jon said quickly, and wiped at his eyes again. In his head, though, all he could think was, no control, over myself or outside myself. What a wonderful savior the world has in me.

“Sure you are,” Elias said, and Jon could hear his sarcasm. “Care to tell me what any of this was about?”

“Not really?” Jon said.

“I thought you would be happy, getting your way with that friend of yours,” Elias offered.

“I am happy Gerry is safe,” Jon argued, a little animated by the distraction. “But—but you said you wouldn’t do it. You said to forget it.”

“I know you at least well enough to see when you’re not going to drop something,” Elias said. “I made plans to capitalize on what could happen; some of them came into effect, some of them didn’t.”

“You asked Michael to-to-to adopt Gerry just in case I did something that left him on his own?” Jon asked, incredulous.

“No…” Elias tapped his fingers against the steering wheel, thinking. “I made plans on how to get rid of Mary Keay in ways that would not put me in a bad position. But most of those necessitated that she be the one inciting the incident. It is important for others not to believe that Beholding is starting to interfere.”

Jon thought of Gertrude, but he couldn’t think of a way to make that argument. “You brought in… outside people,” he said instead. “Those two, from the Lonely.”

“It would have been possible to deal with the cultists without their help,” Elias admitted, “but not as quickly or with the same benefits.”

“You said you owed them,” Jon said. “How is that a benefit?”

Elias smiled. “People are far more willing to protect those who owe them, rather than those they are indebted to, provided they think you are good for the favor.”

Jon thought about that. It made a kind of sense, but he didn’t like it.

“So you planned how, if Mary attacked, you could use a favor you already had from them, and once Mary was gone, how you could use Gerry?” Jon asked.

“And a dozen other scenarios, besides,” Elias said with a wave of his hand. “I was quite busy these last few days, if you’ll recall.”

Jon remembered the last two days, being stuck inside Elias’ office while Elias was gone all day. It had been abnormal, but Jon had been too preoccupied to give it much thought.

“But you didn’t have to help Gerry,” Jon said, still suspicious. “You made sure to keep him close, after. Why?”

Elias sighed. “Does there have to be a single reason for everything that I do? It wasn’t all that difficult to set up. It keeps him close enough that you can have your little friend without me having to interact with him every day, and it forces Gertrude to protect him instead of me, since she can be quite possessive over her staff,” he didn’t see the skeptical look Jon threw him, and continued, “as you yourself pointed out, the boy is already involved in all of our extra business, so there’s no need to be overly careful about what’s said around him, and he’s old enough to guide you through your own lessons, so I don’t have to worry about finding a tutor I can vet. He’s proven to be quite protective of you, in his own way, and he is not incapable of defending the both of you, which is a bonus. It also doesn’t hurt that now you’ll have to think about his well-being whenever you have another brilliant idea of putting yourself at risk. All in all, it cost me little to set up, and provides me with a lot, so why shouldn’t I do it?”

“What do you mean, his well-being?” Jon asked, sitting up straighter. “You’re not—you’re not gonna hurt him if I mess up, are you?”

Elias shrugged. “I don’t really think I’ll need to? You’ll be with him when you’re not with me, so wherever you choose to go, you’ll be putting him in as much risk as yourself. If you manage your way around that?” He shrugged again. “I don’t have much use for him outside of what he can do for you.”

Jon felt cold, like a taut wire was being pulled against his throat, cutting off his breath. Elias noticed his look, and gave him what was supposed to be a sympathetic smile.

“Keep to your end of our bargain, and it won’t be an issue, will it?” He said.

“It won’t,” Jon said, voice a little strangled.

“Really, Jon. It’s not like I enjoy hurting people,” he saw Jon’s face, and rolled his eyes. “I don’t. My god is all about witnessing terror, not necessarily being the one to cause it. Will I get my hands dirty if I must? Yes. Will I try to find excuses to do it? No. If you’d like, where Gerry is concerned I’ll agree to warn you first, before you cross that line. Would that help?”

Jon breathed again, and nodded. He supposed there died any possibility of running away, unless he could convince Gerry to run with him. But Gerry is finally at a good place, Jon thought, seeing the nervous, happy Michael in his mind. It would be the worst kind of selfishness, to take a child away from his only hope for safety and security.

“As for that new skill of yours,” Elias said, “it’s probably best if you refrain from using for now, at least until we understand more about it.”

“Ok,” Jon said, relieved. He hoped that whatever the Web and the Spiral had gotten out of Gertrude and Mary were enough to satisfy his deal with them, because he didn’t plan on using such an ability ever again. (At least, not on regular humans. Maybe on someone that deserved it. He needed to figure out how it worked; it was only responsible, really.)

Jon relaxed back into the chair, and the earlier distress sank back down out of his conscious mind. He could think about it later, if he had to. Better yet, he could think about actually useful things that needed to be considered.

Elias turned the car back on, and they drove the rest of the way home in silence.

 The next Monday brought with a brand-new schedule. Elias had fixed up Jon’s old office, picking up the mess he had left, replacing the couch cushions, and filling up the bookshelf once more with a different set of books. Neither Michael nor Gerry were at work by the time Jon and Elias arrived, and so Jon got to see that Elias was serious about not letting him be alone for a minute, since he was stuck in Elias’ office once more, until half an hour later when Gerry knocked on his door and stepped inside, looking uncertain.

Gerry still wore the same hoodie he had earlier, but the black pants he wore looked new, and fit him better, and his hair looked less messy. Or—it was still messy, but it looked to be a more uniform length.

“Sorry I’m late,” he said quietly, briefly meeting Elias’ eyes before looking away.

“Doubtless you had no control over the situation,” Elias said, getting up from his desk. “I’m sure it won’t happen again, will it?”

“No sir,” Gerry said in a rush, some color rising on his face. Jon made a face. He was going to have to talk to Gerry about not putting Elias up on a pedestal like some kind of respectable adult.

He led them into Jon’s old room, showed Gerry the books, and let him know that he would purchase whatever other materials they might need. Jon, who already found it unfair to expect a pre-teen to take on a role that was essentially a school teacher, could only count himself lucky that he didn’t actually need any guidance, and that he might be able to help Gerry catch up with his own education, if he could figure out how without revealing too much about himself.

“You stick to him like glue,” Elias told Gerry, which made Jon groan and bury his face in his hands. “If I’m not in the room, you don’t let him go anywhere without you. For now, it’s best if you don’t really go anywhere outside this room. I’ll have lunch delivered here, and you shouldn’t have any reason to leave.”

“I won’t,” Gerry promised. Elias gave him one last, serious look, then waved at Jon and left them behind, closing the door behind him.

Once the door shut behind him, Gerry let out a long breath. Jon was stuck between telling Gerry not to be scared of him (which was a lie), and not to worry about the ‘tutor’ thing, which would require more explaining than he was comfortable with.

Instead, he settled for, “probably best if you assume he can see everything you do and can read your mind, too,” Jon said. Gerry shot him a look, like he wasn’t sure if it was a genuine warning or a joke. Jon smiled. He’d figure it out soon enough.

“It’s… good to see you,” Gerry offered, looking around the room again. Apart from the couch and the bookshelf, There were now two desks, tucked against the far wall with chairs facing the same direction. Jon wondered if Elias had ever been in a classroom in his life, because there was nothing here that could work as a blackboard; maybe he assumed, since there were just the two of them, they could look down into the same book as they worked. Jon supposed there was some truth to that.

“Yeah,” Jon replied, a little awkward. Throwing out declarations of friendships while you were still running high after a life-or-death encounter was one thing, but meeting now in the calm, quiet daylight, he found himself at a loss for what to say. Another oblique comment about how terrible Elias was? Those came pretty easy, and would annoy Elias, but he didn’t like to gossip. Still, he hadn’t completely lost his manners, had he? “How was your weekend? I mean, after the… thing.”

Gerry let out a quick, bitter laugh. “After the attack? It was… different.” He shifted uncertainly, then headed over to look over some of the books on the bookshelf. “Michael took me out shopping. He… talks a lot.”

Jon followed him over, and saw that a couple of those books were the school workbooks he had been slowly making his way through for the last couple of weeks. “He likes talking,” Jon agreed. He scrunched up his nose. “I don’t see where he has time to work, sometimes.”

That made Gerry frown. “I suppose he must not work much, if he’s been here so long and still knows so little about… well, about everything.” He looked over at Jon, hesitated, then leaned in to say quietly, “Did you know he asked me if I was afraid of spiders, when I wouldn’t go into a shop clearly marked out by the Web?”

“Sometimes people cling to skepticism as a safety net when they’re surrounded by frightening things,” Jon said, a little defensively.

“For fourteen years?” Gerry asked, and Jon had to laugh a little. He supposed it wasn’t a fair comparison; maybe if Michael were attacked and nearly killed by sentient worms, he would figure out the truth of things. His smile slipped. Unless it was Gertrude purposefully keeping him in the dark, as his own statement had implied, in which case he would be just as defenseless by the time the Spiral’s ritual happened.

Jon looked at Gerry, feeling a strange mix of guilty and hopeful. He had given it some thought yesterday, trying to work through some of the too many problems cluttering his brain. His problem with trying to help Michael was the same as it had always been, with one large exception: Gerry. It made it more important to try and save Michael from his fate, because he didn’t want Gerry to lose someone in his life that Jon was convinced would be good for him, but it also opened up opportunities he hadn’t had before.

Could he convince Gerry to enlighten Michael as to the Entities? Could he lead Gerry to figuring out Gertrude’s plan, in time for him to warn Michael away? It was less dangerous than doing so on his own, especially since Gerry already had a good understanding of the entities and avatars, but the thought of maneuvering Gerry in such a way left a bad taste in Jon’s mouth.

He could deal with it if it kept Michael and Gerry both safe, though.

Well, in either case, there was no need to rush. It would be years before the Spiral’s ritual, and this time Jon was determined to blunder ahead thoughtlessly. If there was anything that had become clear after this last week, it was that Elias’ careful preparations had been far more effective than his own impulsive actions, and he was going to take that lesson to heart.

“So, should we figure out how to do all this?” Gerry offered. Jon sighed, and went to help. If he had to be stuck doing the school work of an eight-year old all day, at least he wasn’t going to be doing it on his own.

It turned out Gerry was really smart, but had never had a formal lesson in his life, which left his education with strange, absolute holes in some places, and extremely ahead of the subject matter in others. He tried to start out explaining things to Jon, only to get frustrated with the way the textbook tried to get him to do things, and arguing that his way was better. Jon, who often felt that way about school in general, found himself interested in learning how Gerry did things, and by the time lunch came around they were both ignoring the text books and arguing about the best way to multiply numbers.

Michael came to deliver lunch to them at noon, in two brown bags of take-out from the Chinese restaurant around the corner. Gerry went a little stiff at his arrival, and Jon wouldn’t look him in the eyes, embarrassed still by what he had said the last time the two of them had been alone together.

“Hi!” Michael said, in a voice that was a little too cheerful to be natural. “I thought I’d bring you boys some lunch and see how you were doing.”

“We’re fine,” Gerry mumbled.

Jon, who didn’t want to add to the awkward air between these two, stood up. “I, um, I can leave,” he offered. Except, he realized, he couldn’t really, since Elias had made it clear to both him and Gerry that he expected them to stay together.

“No need!” Michael’s voice turned a little strained. “Actually, Jon, please hold on. I’ve been wanting to talk to you.” Wary, Jon swallowed and tried to meet his eyes.

“Oh,” he said, softly. Gerry had also stood up, and was now glaring at Michael. Damn it, Jon thought. I’m making this worse.

“Sorry about what I said,” Jon said, before things could escalate any further, and Gerry started getting the wrong idea.

“Oh! That’s not—I wanted to apologize. You made it clear you wanted some space and I pushed. I’m sorry.” Michael said.

Jon was pretty sure that wasn’t how it had happened; and even if it had been, he was still certain that didn’t give him an excuse to use Michael’s horrible future fate against him. He was torn between wanting to make things right, because Michael was a genuinely good human being, and making more distance between them, because it hurt too much to be close when he still didn’t know if he would be able to save him.

Gerry was the element that tipped the scales. He was already having some trouble adapting, from everything Jon had seen, and he didn’t want to get in the way of that. He would find a way to deal with his guilt, and it would be good practice to holding his emotions in check.

“It’s ok,” Jon said, forcing himself to look Michael in the eye and smiling. “And-and thank you for the food.”

Michael looked visibly relieved. He came inside and dropped the bags of food off, chatting idly about how he hoped he had gotten food that both Jon and Gerry would like.

Seeing as he had bought enough food for five adults, Jon didn’t think that would be a problem.

It was a strange, happy lunch they shared, with Michael looking over the textbooks and reminiscing about his own school days, Gerry tentatively sharing an idea or two while never taking his eyes off Michael for long, and Jon, of all people, being forced to keep the conversation going.

When the hour was over and Michael had to return to work, he left the food with them and gave them with the odd send-off: ‘I hope you catch up soon and we can look at schools!’

After he was gone, Jon asked Gerry about it.

“I think your dad convinced him not to sign me up to school by saying I needed time to get up to date on whatever I’m supposed to do for a placement test,” Gerry explained. “I don’t honestly know what Michael thinks my mum did, but he keeps making oblique comments about how I should be safe from ‘her people’. Do you think Elias told him she was in the mob or something?”

Jon’s brain, which had caught on ‘your dad’ like a hook, took a few seconds to catch up with everything else Gerry said. “Elias isn’t—he’s not my dad,” he said quickly, almost choking on the words, with a bit too much emotion behind it. “He’s—he’s my legal guardian, I guess, and he’s technically adopting me, but we’re not—” Jon felt like there weren’t enough words available to him to explain to Gerry just how much Elias was not his father. He was moving his arms around him in gestures that probably did nothing to explain to Gerry what he meant.

“Oh,” Gerry said, and looked surprised. “I mean, that’s nice? I guess he will be your dad, then?”

Jon sputtered, and couldn’t figure out how Gerry could possibly be misunderstanding things this much. But the torrent of words in condemnation of Elias wouldn’t come; he was Watching, Jon knew, and Jon didn’t want to paint a target on Gerry’s back by making him think Elias was a threat to Jon.

“We’re really not very close,” Jon tried instead. “I’ve only lived with him since October.”

“Oh,” Gerry said, and Jon knew from his tone that he was making more assumptions that had nothing to do with reality, and that Jon couldn’t possibly go about fixing with Elias still looking in on them. “Well, I’m sure you’ll figure things out. He seems to really care about you,” he offered.

Jon buried his face in his hands. He thought, for the sake of his own sanity, that he was going to drop the matter indefinitely, until he could figure out a way to explain to Gerry just what Elias was to him, either without Elias knowing it, or in a way that wouldn’t get them in trouble.

“About the Michael stuff,” Jon said, lifting his head and changing the subject without an ounce of subtlety, “The mob thing would well enough as a metaphor, I guess.” Then, because he couldn’t help himself, “unless you want to clue him in.”

Jon watched Gerry grimace. “Better for him not to know, if he’s stayed ignorant this long.” He said. Jon hid a sigh. Of course it wouldn’t be that easy.

“Let’s get back to figuring out how to pass that mystery test, then,” Jon said, still flustered and without much enthusiasm.

“Do you really think Elias is watching us right now?”

“Yes, Gerry—wait, are you waving? Why would you wave?”

“Feels like a polite thing to do.”

“You really don’t need to be polite to—to someone like Elias!”

“But I’m bored.”

Fine, you can put on your music, but we need to finish this chapter today!”

The days passed without much to be remarked on, besides Jon needing to ask Elias to get them more comprehensive science books. It was all very well for Gerry to understand the behavior of flesh hives or ghost spiders, but Jon didn’t think Gerry had ever heard of the scientific method, and would probably tell the laws of physics to go fuck themselves if any ever crossed his path.

(Gerry was surprisingly foul-mouthed once he started to get comfortable with you, Jon noticed. He also became blunt, to a relieving degree that had Jon reciprocating, and Elias needing to step in to remind Jon that manners were a thing, and he had to spend an evening back in his closet because he found a marker and wrote all kinds of honest opinions about Elias on the walls of his bedroom, after Michael encouraged him to ‘express himself’. It had been worth it; the words couldn’t be washed completely clean and Jon had been able to paint one wall of his room an off-putting canary yellow.)

Jon discovered he didn’t much enjoy Gerry’s music, though he enjoyed hearing him talk about it. Gerry, for his part, looked like he had no idea what to think when he arrived the next Monday with a new backpack full of new notebooks and CD’s of the bands he like, which Michael had apparently bought for him without his asking.

A few days later he had said, with a strange waver in his tone, “He wants me to see a therapist. What the hell am I supposed to say to a fucking therapist?” in such a bewildered tone that Jon had to laugh.

Their ‘tutoring’ had taken on a rhythm of its own, where Jon and Gerry pushed their desks together, and spent their time working through the same material (Gerry, luckily, was happy to shrug off Jon’s advanced knowledge as gotten from reading too much and ‘weird Eye fuckery’), playing games in the corners of their notebooks, talking about whatever subject came to mind, and, in early December, getting to go back out on Elias’ little treasure hunts.

As much as Jon enjoyed spending time with Gerry, not everything was positive in the weeks following his entrance into Jon’s life. Elias, despite eventually loosening his restrictions for wandering the Institute, still refused to allow Jon to ever be alone in a room, with the single exception being his own bedroom after he went to bed. They would sit at the counter or on the couch a few times every week and try to work through Jon’s new abilities, without much success. Elias had started to hint that it would be a good idea to try and find someone to use it on, but Jon knew that Elias’ idea of someone to sacrifice was not someone Jon would agree to.

Jon also started finding spiders in his hair, which was not a very fun experience. He would be concentrating on something, and then feel a soft tug on his scalp, and shiver all over, barely able to stop himself from jumping up and down to get the damn things off him. He wasn’t going to make an enemy of the Web, though. Not when he still wasn’t sure if his debt was paid.

His thoughts were also becoming harder to follow, at times. They would get sluggish, or else speed around from subject to subject without him having any degree of control in them. He found himself doubting his every decision, both the ones he had already made, and the ones he was still to make. He doubted not only the correctness of them, but if he was making them at all; was the Spider pulling him along its strings once more? Who was he anymore, exactly? He would become so withdrawn into himself at times that Elias and Gerry both had to learn ways to draw him back out; Gerry, usually by holding his hand and talking softly to him, and Elias, by pushing the Watcher’s attention sharply on him and calling his name.

Jon didn’t know what was wrong with him, but he worried that the Spiral was taking its own toll on his mind, and that it wasn’t meshing too well with the parts of him that were too much of Beholding to accept its lies.

He would still rail against Elias’ authority over him, at times. Most of the times in the ways that had become almost routine for them both: sarcasm, petty annoyances, deliberate ignorance or malicious compliance. Sometimes it would step over, usually when his emotions were already high over different matters, and then it would devolve into shouting matches, or thrown objects. On one occasion he had managed to scratch Elias so badly that he had shown up to work with two inflamed lines on the side of his face, and Gerry’s worried look had made Jon so angry that he would have destroyed his office all over again, if Gerry hadn’t been there to hug him and help him wait it out.

Other times, Jon would feel so low on energy that he would barely be able to get himself out of bed in the morning, and he would spend most of those days curled up sleeping next to Gerry in the couch, while Gerry found something else to do.

Elias kept his word and allowed him to call his grandmother twice, once the week after the attack, and then again a week after that. Their conversations had been stilted, and neither had said much, but she had told Jon that she wished he was well, and he had responded likewise, and something broken inside of him got just a little closer to being healed.

Jon was surprised when, halfway through December, he and Elias came home to find a small Christmas tree set up in their living room, with sparse but tasteful decorations in the form of a golden garland, green and red baubles, and a little decorative star-shaped eye on top.

“That’s what I get for giving Rosie keys to my house,” Elias said with a sigh.

“Rosie has keys to the house?” Jon asked. “Wait, why did Rosie think to use the whole ‘eye’ star?”

“I joked with her that I liked decorations in the shape of eyes, once,” Elias said with a sigh, dropping his briefcase at the kitchen counter and going to get a closer look at the tree. Jon followed.

Rosie had moved one of the couches to give enough room for the tree, and a couple of presents already laying below it. Jon picked one up, saw that it was addressed to him, from ‘Santa’, and picked the other one up, saw that it was for Elias. Another sigh caused him to look up, and note that in addition to the tree, Rosie had hung up two stockings on either side of the television, each one stitched with their names.

Jon, who was feeling distinctly unsettled by such a domestic image, found himself sharing an equally bewildered look with Elias, who had clearly not had any intention of celebrating the holiday.

“We don’t really have to do anything,” Jon suggested.

“I already bought you all your clothes and things,” Elias said, looking a little disgruntled. “I’m not buying you anymore gifts.”

Jon rolled his eyes. “I wouldn’t want any.” And they moved on with their day, ignoring the decorations, but not putting them down.

At least until Christmas day, which the Institute celebrated as a holiday, and so Jon and Elias were simply replicating their usual weekend routine, when someone knocked on their door close to noon.

Jon opened it to find Rosie, grinning, and dragging behind her a nervous-looking Michael holding a casserole and a curious Gerry, wearing a new black trench coat that covered him down to his knees.

“Happy Christmas!” Rosie said happily, moving in to give Jon a tight hug. “Sorry if we invited ourselves over, but if I know Elias, I know that he’s let work get the best of him and probably forgot to plan anything to celebrate your first Christmas together!”

By this point, Elias had come to the doorway to see the people assembled outside, and his smile looked, to Jon, a little forced.

“You didn’t say you were coming,” he told Rosie, as he leaned in to give her a hug.

“Oh, we won’t be long. But my family’s all out of town, and seeing how Jon and Gerry here are as close as brothers, I thought, wouldn’t it be a shame if they can’t spend some of the day together? I brought lunch!” She took the casserole dish from Michael’s hands and forced her way inside, humming a carol under her breath.

“Um, sorry, I thought she had asked first,” Michael told Elias, looking red in the face. “We don’t want to impose—”

Elias ran a hand through his hair and shrugged. “If you’re all here anyway, might as well. Come on in.” He shook hands with Michael, then with Gerry, who tried to stand straighter under his attention. “Jon, why don’t you go change into something more… presentable for guests?” Elias suggested towards Jon’s all neon-orange pajamas.

“Sure,” Jon agreed, though he wasn’t sure why either of them bothered. He was pretty sure that he didn’t have a single combination of clothes in his closet that Elias would deem ‘presentable’, but that was an ongoing discussion between the two of them and the pile of burned, cut up or otherwise destroyed clothing that was any article of clothing that Elias tried to give Jon without his input.

Gerry followed him upstairs, and Jon felt a vindictive kind of pride when he gave a low whistle at the gloriously awful color one quarter of his room was painted in.

“It’s worse than you said,” Gerry said, awed. Jon snickered, then quickly changed his clothes while Gerry dug knelt next to his small bookshelf and looked at the few books stored there.

“Michael got you the coat?” Jon asked, once he was dressed (now in a neon-pink shirt and loose yellow pants). Gerry shrugged, which was his way of saying ‘yeah, and I really like it, but I don’t want anyone else to know that I like it because then they might take it away’.

“Never really celebrated all this stuff before,” Gerry admitted, letting himself fall on Jon’s bed. “Feels strange.”

Jon joined him, nudging him with his elbow until Gerry made enough room for both of them to lie next to each other, with Jon’s head near Gerry’s booted feet.

“I didn’t think Michael was religious,” he offered. Gerry shrugged.

“He says he’s ‘culturally Christian’, whatever that means. I think he likes the excuse to give people presents.” Jon’s own experience with the holiday had always been a subdued affair, where his grandmother gave him extra money and left him alone, for the most part. As an adult, Jon had realized that the holidays were usually the hardest time for her, when she would be missing all the people in her life that she lost; for Jon, without any real memories of his family, the day usually passed by without him making note of it.

“You like it?” Jon asked.

“It’s nice to come see where you live,” Gerry said, without answering the question, which was really an answer in and of itself. Gerry didn’t like to make a big deal of things he liked or enjoyed. Jon didn’t think that Gerry believed he deserved any of it.

Which really gave Jon no real alternative but to make sure that Gerry’s first real Christmas went as well as it could. He sat up, threw a pillow on Gerry’s face, and jumped to his feet.

“Come on, I might as well show you around the Creepy Bouchard house.” Jon grinned. “I bet you can’t find all the eye decorations Elias had hidden around the place.”

Gerry tossed the pillow back at Jon hard enough to make him topple back onto the bed, but he laughed.

“You’re on,” Gerry said, and they played that game until Elias came to drag them both downstairs to eat. (Gerry missed the carved eye on the back of the office door; it had taken Jon weeks to spot that one).

The meal was delicious, and the company was a balm on his nerves. Long after they left, Jon found himself humming, which had the added benefit of making Elias startle every time he noticed. He finally remembered to open Rosie’s gift, and was a little disappointed to see it was a Game Boy, with a red cover and two games, Tetris and Super Mario Land. Elias made a disapproving sound, and that was enough to convince Jon to play them at least a few times, preferably with the volume set at its loudest, whenever Elias was around.

And so the year almost came to an end without another large disaster or notable event, if it wasn’t for Peter Lukas arriving at their doorstep on the day before the new year, smelling of brine and sweat, and freezing in place when the door to Elias’ home was opened by a child he had never seen before.

Chapter Text

Jon had only met the man one time, though he had heard his voice many times before, in recordings of Martin that made his heart hurt. He couldn’t remember having any opinion about his appearance when he saw him in the Lonely, self-assured inside the so-called protection of his god’s domain. This Peter seemed larger, with a broader chest, longer hair and fuller beard, and not a hint of gray to be seen. His eyes, though; Jon could remember his eyes, those washed-out, colorless things that seemed dead even before Jon had gotten rid of him.

His reaction to Peter Lukas was not the instinctive fear response that had led to him biting and kicking Elias, nor was it the unnatural coil of emotions that took over his mind whenever Gertrude was around. All he felt when he opened the door and saw him there, looking down at Jon in puzzlement, was a twisted sense of dread and anger, coiled so tightly around him that he would have had trouble speaking, if he had anything to say.

Here was the man that had—that would—that wouldn’t—isolate Martin and lead him so far down his own path that he would never be the same. It wasn’t that he loved Martin any less for having walked down the path of the Lonely; it would be hypocritical to begrudge him that, when Jon himself had thrown himself blindly upon Beholding. In a way, what Elias had done to Jon, what Elias was doing to him now, was similar to what Peter had hoped to do with Martin. Set him on a cursed path, and watch him suffer to become the monster they wanted.

Jon had never spoken to Peter outside that single incident where he had torn the man’s life from his lips and dissolved him. And yet, Jon didn’t think it was possible to hate anyone more than he did Peter at that moment. He had tried to take Martin from him. He had taken months from them, months they would never have back, when they could have been together, and instead suffered apart. Something had never quite fit back into place inside Martin, afterwards. Not that they had all that long to explore what they could be, before the world ended and they were forced to become something else altogether.

(Elias was as much to blame, a small inner voice reminded him. But it was not safe to hate Elias in such a way, and it was always easier for Jon to be angry on another’s behalf than on his own.)

Jon felt a flush on his cheeks and anger in his gut, so virulent he felt sick with it. He stopped himself from moving, just barely, reminding himself that attacking avatars as a child was pointless and ridiculous.

But he wasn’t just a child anymore, was he? He’d almost gotten Gertrude killed. Surely it would work better on someone without her… talents?

He didn’t stop to think about it. Peter had opened his mouth and asked something, but his words were drowned out by the roar in his ears. Jon tried to find that distant, buzzing feeling under his skin, though it wasn’t just below the surface as it had been with Gertrude and Mary. He pushed deep inside himself, trying to force it. He shot forward, and before Peter could do anything he grabbed the man’s wrist, as hard as he could, shut his eyes, and tried to push.

Nothing happened.

Nothing, that is, except for Peter placing one large hand against Jon’s chest and pushing him backward, tearing his arm free. Jon was stopped from falling by a hand on his back; Elias, having heard whatever Peter was saying and finally coming out to look.

“What the fuck, Elias?” Peter asked, sounding baffled. Jon grit his teeth, fighting against sudden tears that had no right to be there. Why couldn’t his stupid monster powers ever work when he wanted them too? Always, he understood how things worked too late to do him any good.

“Peter,” Elias said, sounding exasperated. “If you ever bothered to take a call or check your voice mailbox, you would know, now, wouldn’t you?” His hand was still on Jon’s back, not holding him, exactly, but simply there.

And Jon had a strange, sickening feeling, as he realized that he stood between two men he hated, powerless, complicit. He wanted to rip Elias’ hand off at the wrist—to scream, to yell at both of them to stop being, and to see them be torn apart in front of his eyes.

He felt too much. He jerked out of Elias grasp, going forward, and then was too close to Peter—and what the hell? Maybe if he tried again he could get it to work?

Only he was frustrated, and his skin was itching in a decidedly non-supernatural way, and when he moved forward it was more of a tackle than anything else. When he collided with Peter, his head digging into the man’s stomach and his hands reaching out to grab or scratch, and there was nothing there to push into Peter, but he forgot about it and just wanted to dig his fingernails in and draw out blood and make sure he could never hurt anyone he cared about ever again.

His initial contact with Peter had made him take a step back, but the man’s hands were quickly digging into his hair and shoulders, trying to pry him off. Someone was shouting, and there was noise, and Jon didn’t care, he was still trying to make him hurt—

Elias lifted him from behind, pulling him free entirely, weighing him down with the Watcher’s full, heavy gaze. Jon panted, eyes closed, scalp aching from where Peter had been pulling, his body feeling at a strange distance to him. Elias was talking, and a part of him knew it was important to listen, but he was having trouble calming down.

Calm down. Calm down and be smart, for once! He rebuked himself. This Peter didn’t even know he existed; until now, that was. He certainly didn’t know Martin; and never would, if Jon had anything to say about it.

Jon let himself relax in Elias’ hands, head still spinning, but with the dawning certainty that he had made a mistake.

Peter was still alive, and well, and whatever Jon might think to do to get rid of him in the future, he would know Jon had it out for him. Drop it, he told himself sternly. This wasn’t like trying to get Mary killed; no one was in immediate danger from Elias. Well, no one he knew, anyway. Jon wasn’t delusional enough to be ignorant of the countless victims Peter would be taking, but neither was he delusional enough to think he had a chance at saving everybody. His priority were his friends, and the world as a whole. He would go crazy if he tried for more.

Or was that just a convenient excuse? Hadn’t he wanted to save everybody, back when he had just returned, and possibilities seemed endless and easy? Back before his own life was the one at risk, and the only protection he had was one of the worst monsters out there.

This isn’t the time for this. Jon shoved all his doubts and excuses down in his mind. He tried to focus, and it felt strangely like falling back into his own body. Pain and an uncomfortable pressure from where Elias still held him lifted with his arm around Jon’s ribs, and the noise in his ears that became words.

“—not the time,” Elias’ voice, angry? “And no, don’t even think about throwing him in the Lonely, Peter.”

“It would teach the little brat a lesson,” Peter sounded more annoyed than angry, but Jon’s mind was quick to catch up to what they were saying, and he jerked in Elias grip, startling him enough to let him land on the floor, but quickly adjusting his grip so his arm still held on to Jon’s chest, pressing him back into Elias and making sure he couldn’t move away.

“Jon?” Elias asked, something strange in his tone that Jon didn’t want to try to unravel. Jon breathed again, and tried to think fast. He looked up at Elias.

“There was a strange monster at the door,” he said, and whatever he had hoped to sound like, he was aware the words came out dry and sarcastic. The corner of Elias’ mouth twitched into his lopsided smile.

“Maybe come to get me first before attacking any more strangers?” He suggested, and used his other hand to smooth out Jon’s hair. “And don’t lie. You know what the Lukases look like.” Jon huffed and looked back down. Not like there was much of a chance that Elias would have accepted that excuse, but he had to try. Then again, Jon did have a history of attacking strange new avatars when they showed up around him. It wouldn’t necessarily tip Elias off to anything being strange.

Peter made a sound, somewhere between disgust and amusement.

“What do you want, Peter?” Elias asked, his tone going sharper.

“I’d like to come in so we can settle the results of our last wager,” Peter said, and smoothed his hand over the front of his jacket, where Jon had torn out a button sometime in his attack. It made Jon feel a little better; he was used to settling for inconveniencing the villains in his life. “I never thought I’d get to see you being… parental.” He made the word sound absurd and mocking.

“Yes, well, things can change quite fast when you’re off in the middle of nowhere for half a year,” Elias replied, with the tone that Jon had categorized as ‘annoyed menace’.

“I didn’t know you cared,” Jon looked up long enough to see a wide smile on Peter’s face, a gross contrast to his still empty eyes.

“You can be a real pest sometimes, you know that?” Elias tugged Jon backwards, making room for Peter to step inside. “Come on, the sooner we deal with this the sooner you’ll be gone.”

Peter went in with the confidence of one who had been inside before, heading directly towards the kitchen without hesitation. Jon glared after him, but Elias kept him in place. Once Peter was out of earshot, Elias leaned in.

“You tried to use your new abilities on him,” Elias said quietly. It was not a question.

“You said I should try,” Jon muttered, not meeting his eyes.

“Not on someone who could get rid of you so thoroughly no one would ever find your body.”

Jon grimaced, but didn’t have anything good to say in his defense. Elias scrubbed the hand that wasn’t holding onto Jon through his face. “I didn’t realize I had to spell this out for you, Jon. Do not try to use your new abilities on people who could kill you, especially since you still don’t know what you are doing.”

Jon felt heat creep over his face. “I won’t,” he said, because Elias liked to hear him confirm his rules out loud. He supposed he should be glad that the man wasn’t taking this as an extension of his older rules, though it could fit into both ‘asking for permission to do something not previously discussed’ and ‘not putting himself unnecessarily in harm’s way’.

Jon halfway assumed it was because Elias liked to see Jon take his anger out on someone that wasn’t himself, and didn’t want to completely discourage that tendency.

“Why is he here, anyway?” Jon asked. He remembered Peter’s statement, that he had known Elias since—since before he was Elias. Jon had gotten the impression that they were casual acquaintances, who saw each other every few years as the web of Elias’ favors and schemes required. He hadn’t given much thought to meeting Peter, if he was honest. If pressed, he would have assumed that Elias would keep him at a distance, much as he did all of his other plots.

He showed up at our house. Jon blinked. His house. At Elias’ house.

Elias sighed. “We have some outstanding business,” he said.

Jon narrowed his eyes. Elias was not someone who would be happy to meet at his own house, Jon knew. Not with another avatar, at least.

“But who is he?” Jon asked again, not sure why he was pressing the point. There was something here, he knew, and he couldn’t help digging at it. He wasn’t asking the right question, though. Not, ‘who is he’, but, ‘who is he to you’.

“Peter Lukas,” Elias said, as Peter leaned back into view, smirking, and said, “a friend.”

“Elias doesn’t have friends,” Jon said, startled. Peter chocked back a laugh, moving back towards the kitchen, while Elias sighed again. “What? You don’t!” He said, looking back at him.

“Why don’t you go to your room for a while,” Elias said, voice strained. Jon frowned, looked from him to the kitchen. “Now, Jon.”

Jon left, looking back every few steps. Elias watched him go, and didn’t move until Jon closed the door to his room. Jon sighed, once he was alone in his room. A large part of him wanted to go back out and eavesdrop on the conversation down there, but he knew Elias’ gaze was still on him, and there was no sneaking around when you were under constant surveillance.

He dropped into his bed instead, burying his face into a pillow.

That had been stupid. In any number of ways. In every way that mattered. It really had been unexpected, though. Surely he couldn’t have predicted that freaking Peter Lukas would show up at his door, though. He could be forgiven for being shocked, and acting rashly.

It was a bit worrying how his first instinct had been to try to kill someone, though. He was fairly certain he hadn’t been that way, before… everything.

He wondered what Peter and Elias were talking about downstairs. A wager, Jon remembered Peter mentioning. What had he said about himself and Elias, back in the future? They would make wagers, and Peter would win more often than not. Setting him up for the one time Elias couldn’t allow himself to lose. Jon shuddered. But Elias shouldn’t be setting up that scenario yet. Not that he put it past the man to set up the circumstances just as a precaution, though.

“I need to stop moping,” Jon mumbled to himself. He had messed up, but Elias hadn’t seemed all that angry about it. He still had plenty of time to figure out what to do about Peter, if he even needed to do something about him. Which he should, because Peter was awful, but he wasn’t exactly chomping at the bit to track down any other avatars to save their victims, was he?

He pushed the thoughts back down, before they led him down well-trodden paths best left forgotten. Jon had his priorities. He didn’t need to start wondering how much of a monster he was becoming; or how much of his fractured thoughts were thanks to the Spiral’s influence he had allowed into his mind.

He rolled over in bed, staring at the ceiling, and wished that cell phones existed. He could use a good distraction—he was sure he could get Gerry going on a topic, and lose himself in whatever Gerry’s latest rant was. (Lately, he had taken to complaining that Michael never told him to do anything, and how frustrating it was to be left guessing ‘what the hell he wanted from him’).

There was a home phone, of course, but Jon didn’t know Gerry’s phone number, and he didn’t want to ask Elias for permission to use it.

What did Peter and Elias make wagers over, anyway? They weren’t enough Archival assistants for it to be anything like what been done to Martin. He wondered if he could make use of Peter’s obvious weakness for gambling, as Elias would. Could he trick him into getting himself killed, maybe?

Like that worked out so well last time, Jon reminded himself, wincing. He still didn’t know what had gone wrong. The paper had gotten to Mary, obviously; he’d heard her talk about it. It had worked, to a degree, he knew. Had Mary noticed something was wrong? Did she have some protections against the Spiral’s influence? Or did the Distortion simply decide to stop?

Jon turned his face into the pillow again. These questions frustrated him; there was no way to know without talking to either Mary or the Distortion, and either of those ideas were terrible. To leave a question unanswered gnawed at his soul. He punched the mattress, helpless. No, he wasn’t of Beholding, not really. The door was closed, the access limited.

He had always been curious, though. Relentless in pursuit of what he wanted to know, even when he shouldn’t. Becoming the Archivist had accentuated his natural tendencies, rather than give him any new ones. Or maybe that was just his guilt talking? It was hard to remember his old life, sometimes. He’d only been in this body… three months? Almost three months? Already, it felt like an eternity. It was easy to forget how the passage of time felt so very different to children. To him.

He’d always assumed it was related to life experience. Children had less to draw on, so every day felt slower, bigger. As they became adults, and everything became more common, time felt like it passed that much faster.

He didn’t know if that was true or not, but life seemed to pass at a snail’s pace now, despite the lifetime of memories trapped in his mind.

Jon took up another pillow and pressed it against the other side of his head. He didn’t want to think about the passage of time. He was losing control of where his thoughts went again.

Peter and Elias. That was what he wanted to focus on. They were downstairs, still. Talking about something Jon didn’t know. Himself, maybe? He had tried to kill Peter. Not that Peter would know that. Why had he showed up here, anyway? It wasn’t exactly surprising to anyone who knew Elias that he wouldn’t do anything special for New Year’s eve, but that assumed you cared to learn about him, and Peter was a freaking avatar of the Lonely, not an expert at learning people’s habits.

Not that Jon knew much about Peter’s personal life, really. His statement had been about his life as a whole. And there was a lot to be said about how you couldn’t be lonely without the contrast of there being people; how you couldn’t really isolate someone before you knew how they connected to the world.

How did Elias connect to the world? He didn’t, really, as far as Jon could tell. He was content to brush up against the world enough to keep the Institute running, the statements flowing and to feed his god with his distant enjoyment of other’s misery. He supposed such detachment would catch the interest of a Lukas, come to think of it, though he didn’t think that Elias was lonely, not really.

Except he hadn’t left Jon alone for more than a few hours in months, outside of sleep. They shared every meal at the table (except for lunch), and often spent hours together in the living room in the weekends, sharing the space.

It’s to keep an eye on me, Jon reminded himself. Only, he could simply lock Jon up in his room and do what he wanted elsewhere. He had done as much in the early days; leaving Jon in the other office, spending the weekends in the office while Jon was elsewhere in the house. Not since Jon had made the deal with the Web and Spiral, though. He was probably paranoid that Jon would try and do something like that again.

Elias wouldn’t start to suddenly care about him. It wasn’t in him. He was doing with Jon what he was doing with Peter; keeping his options open and preparing him for a time when he figured out what he wanted out of him. Jon needed to make sure that the use wouldn’t be ‘ending the world’ again.

I still have time, he reminded himself, as he did at least a dozen times every day.

He wanted to talk to Gerry. He couldn’t share the truth of everything with him, but Jon felt better just being around him. Gerry had learned to read him, somehow, and always knew when Jon was spiraling—ha, and wasn’t that a stupid turn of phrase. Where did it come from? His thoughts were more like a swarm of bees than a spiral, because they were going neither inward or outward, but everywhere. He wondered if, somewhere in the world, there was an avatar of Corruption made from bees; a literal walking hive. The image was both monstrous and absurd, because he couldn’t help imagining someone having honeycomb skin, and then he couldn’t help but wonder what honey like that might taste like, which made him gag.

He tossed the pillow from his head. He stared at the ceiling, thoughts spinning, and groaned. “I hate this,” he told the empty room. He didn’t like having no control over his mind. It was the last place he had that was his own. But it was also his own damn fault that it kept going wrong. Wasn’t it? He didn’t want to consider the alternative. That his messy thoughts were his own, and he had somehow broken himself, and the Spiral had nothing to do with it.

He shoved those thoughts down, too, and tried to endure a frustrating evening of losing his mind.

Elias came to get him an hour later. When he came back downstairs, he was surprised to find Peter still there, sitting at the kitchen counter and drinking a beer. He tipped the bottle towards him when they entered, and Jon scowled.

“I thought I’d give you a chance at an actual introduction,” Elias said, raising an eyebrow. Jon crossed his arms. He had threatened to do as much with Gertrude, after their disaster of a first meeting, but hadn’t followed through. “Jon,” Elias said, in his ‘don’t give me an excuse to throw you in the closet for an hour’ tone.

“Hello, Peter,” Jon said, arms still crossed and making no move to get closer.

“Nice to meet you, Jon,” Peter said, smirking. “Any family of Elias’ is… well, not much to me, really, but I’ll be seeing you.”

“I hope you drown,” Jon said, which made both Peter and Elias laugh.

“Angry little thing, aren’t you?” Peter looked past Jon to Elias. “You’ll have to tell me your secrets; you’re hardly trying and he smells neck deep into the Lonely already.”

Jon stiffened. He felt Elias’ hand land on his shoulder. “Back off, Peter,” He said, voice deceptively light.

Peter lifted both of his hands in the air in the same ‘I’m harmless’ gesture Jon was so used to seeing on Elias, one hand still holding the beer.

“I wouldn’t poach from you, Elias,” Peter said, with a grin that promised no such thing.

Jon couldn’t stop the shiver that ran down his spine. His shoulders slumped. What was one more entity vying for him? It could get in line. He looked up at Elias.

“I played nice. Can he leave now?” he asked. Elias looked down at him, thoughtful.

“You’ll throw out your one and only friend on New Year’s eve?” Peter asked. Jon looked at him, and he put down the beer and put his hands together in an overly theatrical begging gesture. Elias snorted.

“You’re a pain in my ass,” he said. Peter smiled at his words.

“You should be thanking me that I’m not asking anything more for winning our wager,” he said.

“What wager?” Jon asked, and was ignored.

“I’d prefer it if you simply stuck to the original agreement,” Elias said with an eye roll.

“That wouldn’t be half as fun for either of us, now, would it?” Peter asked.

Jon, annoyed, tried again. “What agreement?”

“Your idea of fun is not what anyone else would enjoy,” Elias said drily.

“It’s something you enjoy,” Peter said.

Jon stepped forward and kicked his shin. Peter yelped and nearly dropped his beer, and Elias was there to pull Jon back, which Jon let him do without a fight. He wasn’t trying to attack him; he was just annoyed at being ignored. And he was uncomfortable listening to the two of them act friendly. He might not be the best at reading people, but he knew what private jokes sounded like.

“Looks like your child is jealous of us talking,” Peter said, smirking, leg lifted and opened wide so he could rub his shin while still sitting at the kitchen chair. Jon’s chair.

“I’m not!” Jon snapped, and he wasn’t sure if he was denying being jealous or being Elias’ child. Both, he decided quickly.

“Stop taunting a child, Peter.” Elias said.

“Why is he still here?” Jon asked, looking at Elias. It wasn’t that he had been looking forward to spending the evening with Elias; it was looking to be unremarkable, and Jon was fine with that. Still, better that than having to spend any more time with Peter.

“He’s staying the night,” Elias said. “He’ll be gone in the morning.”

“Why?” Jon asked, baffled. He couldn’t think of a single reason why Elias would offer his home as a place for Peter to stay. It wasn’t like the man wasn’t obscenely wealthy. Moreover, why would Peter want to stay the night? Whatever his jokes of being Elias’ friend, he sounded far more like a familiar enemy than anything else.

“No reason you need to know, Jon.” Elias said.

“No reason a little brat would understand,” Peter added, still smirking. Jon glared. Did Peter think him ignorant of the entities, and all his little schemes?

“This is stupid,” Jon said. “I hope you both drown.” And he left the kitchen, turned on the tv, and became determined to ignore the two adults in the house for the rest of the evening. He was angry at them both, but also angry at himself. If they wanted to treat him like a child, then he should be fine with it; it meant they were more likely to speak in front of him.

Peter and Elias soon joined him in the living room, though, and what followed was one of the strangest, most uncomfortable nights in recent memory. Peter and Elias joked. They spoke of nothing of value, save for a few veiled comments that Jon tried not to react to. They had an easy familiarity, a certain flow to their conversation that made it clear they were used to each other.

Jon found it distractingly grating.

If it was Peter’s intention to make Jon feel the cut of loneliness from sharing a house with a man who was only nominally his guardian, he succeeded. By the time Jon fell asleep, long before midnight, he was reminded, sharper than he had been in weeks, the exact distance between him and Elias.

Peter was gone before Jon woke up the next morning. Breakfast with Elias was strained, as Jon mumbled monosyllabic responses to anything he said. 

“Is there anyone else I should worry about showing up to the house?” Jon asked him later that day.

“Anyone else shows up at the house,” Elias said, pinning him with a look, “and I expect you to not answer the door. Wait until I do or come get me.”

Jon rolled his eyes. “Yes, yes.”

“Kicking a few shins should be alright, if they’re not a threat,” Elias added thoughtfully, which made Jon glare. “And as long as they’re not mine,” Elias added, smiling.

“I really, really hate you,” Jon said, and decided to spend the rest of the day moping in his room.

Returning to the Institute the next day was a relief. He hugged Gerry when they saw each other first thing in the morning, and though it surprised him, he returned the hug easily. Jon felt tension he hadn’t even known he had melting from his body.

He didn’t tell Gerry the full truth about Peter when they sat down to talk. He said an old friend of Elias’ had shown up and spent the evening with them, and that Jon didn’t like him. The way Gerry frowned when Jon said his name let him know that Gerry knew who the Lukases were. The way he stuck closely to Jon for the rest of the day let him know that Gerry worried Jon had been affected by Peter.

Which he had. But it wasn’t all that bad; Jon was familiar with isolation, and he had never expected more from Elias than protection, regardless of what he continued to stupidly hope for. It was nothing he hadn’t learned to live with before.

It was nothing compared to the warmth he felt at spending the day with Gerry. At knowing Gerry wanted to spend the day with him.

He could deal with the loneliness of his cold bed, and cold house, if he could continue to spend his days like this.

None of which made it any easier to deal with Peter’s presence, again, when they returned from work that day. Or the day after. Or the day after that.

Didn’t he have a boat to get to, people to torment? Elias never seemed happy to see him, but he never turn him away. By the fourth time it happened, Jon had decided he was happy to hole up in his room and play with the stupid Gameboy all evening. He even found he didn’t hate it as much as he thought he would, though he would much rather have access to Netflix to watch a documentary or two.

Peter would mostly ignore Jon whenever he was around, except for the few times they found each other on their own, when his dead eyes would fix on Jon, and the predatory smile would appear, and he would comment on how sorry he was that Jon was so hard to notice when he was in the room, and offer to show him around his own home if he should ever want to.

Jon tried not to reply. He wouldn’t step into the Lukas’ home of his own will, for any offer. Being claimed by three entities was more than enough for him.

A week later Peter was gone, as suddenly as he had showed up. Elias mentioned that he was back at sea, and Jon breathed a sigh of relief.

“This year is going to suck, isn’t it?” Jon said in response, feeling like he could finally relax for the first time since New Year’s eve.

“If Peter is the worst thing that happens to you this year, I think I’ll be happy,” Elias said. He paused, then added, apropos of nothing. “You’re not expecting me to do anything for your birthday, are you?”

Jon looked at Elias thoughtfully. “You could get me a computer in my room. And more books.”

“Books, fine. The computer in the office is still good enough for you,” Elias said, for all the world like a real parent.

“And I want to go pick out more outfits.” It was Elias’ turn to groan.

“No celebration?” Elias asked. Jon stared at him.

“I don’t really celebrate my birthday,” Jon said frankly. He certainly didn’t want to celebrate it with Elias. Elias relaxed, and nodded. On the same page again for the first time since Peter showed up, they finished their breakfast and went to work.

At the Institute, neither Gerry nor Michael showed up, and Jon’s worry reached a peak when he heard Rosie say Michael had called in to say they were sick. He felt Elias’ hand on his shoulders again, heard him say, “don’t do anything stupid”, and knew he was going to be breaking Elias’ rules again soon.

Chapter Text

Gerard hadn’t meant to run away. He hadn’t meant to take the hour-long trip to stand in front of his mother’s bookshop. He hadn’t meant to pick the lock on the back door and go inside, and now he had no idea what he was supposed to do.

He wasn’t sure what it was that had set him off, back in Michael’s house. They had been talking about what to have for dinner, a common enough discussion in his new life. Michael seemed determined to make Gerard choose things, whether it be his new clothes (which he didn’t mind much, though he was still a little hesitant about what he wanted to wear, and Michael’s glee at anything he picked out was disconcerting), new decorations (he had never decorated a room before; he had no idea what he was supposed to do), or the day’s meals. Michael never told Gerard what he wanted, or hinted at what he thought Gerard should get, which was frustrating, because clearly he wanted something out of Gerard, but for the life of him Gerard couldn’t figure out what it was.

He thought he understood why Elias had placed him with Michael: the man seemed to have no backbone, and was both lacking in wits and in confidence. If ever Gerard would have to leave to protect Jon outside the Institute, he doubted Michael would try to stop him. And yet, he still got under Gerard’s skin. This man was supposed to be his guardian? This man was supposed to be taking care of him?

Just about the nicest thing you could say about him was that he didn’t ask too many questions, and that gave Gerard about a hundred questions of his own. Just what was this man doing working at the temple of Beholding, when he was so ignorant and not curious enough to dispel that ignorance?

He didn’t dislike Michael, exactly, but he certainly didn’t trust him. He very much did not respect him. He couldn’t forget how, a week before, when Gerard couldn’t sleep for the knowledge that there was something crawling in his room, and he had decided to throw his lot in with the patron that had taken him in, so he found a knife and started carving an eye right on the wall above his bed, Michael had come in and they’d both frozen, staring at each other. Michael had cleared his throat. Gerard had narrowed his eyes, but done nothing to hide either the pilfered kitchen knife nor the carved up wall.

“That’s—erm, is that really necessary?” Michael had asked.

“Yes.” Gerard had replied.

“Oh. Oh, I guess—I suppose if you must,” he had looked around, uncomfortably, and then smiled, forced. “Couldn’t you do it in the morning?”

“No,” Gerard had said, and that had been the end of that. That wasn’t even the worst of the situations, when Gerard did something Michael obviously didn’t like, and the older man backed down before saying what he really wanted. Was he scared of what Gerard would do? The man was twice Gerard’s size, and knew nothing about the powers, so the idea that he found Gerard intimidating was absurd, and yet Gerard could come to no other conclusion.

The argument over dinner had been no worse than a dozen other ‘discussions’ they had in the month they had lived together, and yet for some reason this time Gerard had snapped. He didn’t want to choose what they ate. He was fucking sick of having to choose everything just because the stupid adult who ended up taking care of him couldn’t—wouldn’t.

In hindsight, it probably had something to do with his worry for Jon, who had been looking increasingly worse during the week, and who was as frustratingly bad at explaining what was wrong as Gerry himself was. Not that Gerry needed an explanation, not when Jon was speaking about someone named Peter Lukas who kept showing up at his house, while looking lost and angry. It was almost enough to make Gerry go and speak to Elias, and demand if the man was aware of what his houseguest was doing to Jon.

He didn’t, though. Because as much as Elias was Jon’s guardian, he was also something dangerous, and Gerard had learned far too well not to get in the way of dangerous beings. It left him feeling dirty and guilty, because Jon was his friend, his first, and only one, and he knew he should be able to help him more, to protect him, but he was still the same Gerard who had cowered in corners as his mum ‘did business’, the same Gerard who was too much of a coward to take a stance.

So, after his third utterance of ‘I don’t care’, when Michael continued to try to press him for any preference for what they would have for dinner, Gerard had screamed, had pushed out the chair where he sat and shoved all the papers and dishes from the table, had been incoherent with rage as he stormed to the door, grabbed his new coat and rushed outside, Michael only a few steps behind him.

It was his first real tantrum, that he could remember. Not that he realized that at first. He was acting automatically, almost as though there was someone else in control of his body, though since his mind had gone nowhere else he had trouble describing it, even to himself. Losing Michael in the streets was easy; he was nothing if not good at running and hiding. Making it to his mum’s shop was little more than instinct, and him trying to get to somewhere familiar, if not exactly safe. It was only once he was in his old bedroom, curled up under ratty covers that smelled of dust and old sweat, that reality hit him, painful and raw.

He hadn’t meant to run away. He hadn’t meant to throw a tantrum like that; it was very embarrassing, really, and now that he was calm, he had no idea what to do. He knew he had been placed with Michael for convenience; the man was hardly likely to say no to a request from his boss, even if it was to put up with a teenager for the next few years. Could this have changed his mind? What was he going to do, if Michael decided he didn’t want Gerard back?

Gerard bit his lip hard enough to bleed and curled up into old blankets that no longer felt like his own. Why couldn’t he have just held it together? It had been a stupid, inconsequential question. All he needed to do was play along, and he could continue to stay in that nice, annoying man’s home, and continue to stay close to his only friend. Why did he have to be so stupid? Jon was the impulsive one, not him. He knew how to wait, and endure, and survive. That was why Elias had brought him on in the first place!

What if this showed him he had been wrong? What if Michael didn’t want him back, and Elias told him he wasn’t good enough to watch over Jon, and he was just… alone? Without even his mum, this time? Did he have any protections? Because he knew he had no one else.

Gerard tossed the blanket away from himself in disgust and stood up. It wasn’t over. It couldn’t be. He would just… return. And apologize. There had to be something Michael wanted from him. He had been complaining that Gerard didn’t say anything to the therapist he brought him to every week. Maybe if he offered to speak during the sessions? He would pick their meals for the rest of his stay there, if that’s what it took.

And he would show Elias this was just a little mistake. If Jon was right, and the man could read his mind, then surely he would read how Gerard was determined never to make it again.

With something resembling a plan in his mind, Gerard started to relax. He had learned to survive in his mum’s world for twelve years; surely he could figure out how to live in Michael’s for the next four. Speaking of which, he was going to have to leave soon. It was bad enough staying in this building with his mum, who had a better understanding of all of her books; he didn’t want to end up dead or worse because one hadn’t been secured properly before they had gone to the Institute.

Not that he couldn’t take advantage of being here, since the mistake had already been made. He found an old ratty backpack thrown in the back of the room and stuffed it with a few of his old things: the meditation book, a CD he hadn’t been comfortable enough asking to replace, a few pictures where both he and his mum looked surprisingly happy, his favorite pair of boots.

It felt strange. He hadn’t lived with Michael for much more than a month, and yet already this room felt like a stranger’s. He supposed it made sense; he had never really called this place home, since he and his mum didn’t stay here all that often. He’d never bothered to put up any decorations here, like Michael insisted he pick out for his other room. There was only the old brick wall in the back and the drafty, grimy window which had been nailed shut since before he was born. Other than the few personal items now in his backpack, the place felt empty, as though no one had ever lived there.

If he had died, back during his mum’s attack on the Institute, no one would have ever known he existed. Not really. Whoever eventually came in here to clean up would assume the room was a spare, and would have thrown out his few items without much care, and Gerard Keay would have left the world without anyone knowing or caring he had lived. He shivered, and forced himself to leave. He didn’t want to be feeding the End so freely, not if he could help it.

Besides, he wasn’t dead. And he wasn’t alone. Jon would remember him, if he died or went missing. Jon would probably go looking, which would be very stupid, but which made him smile, as much as he tried not to. He really needed to figure out a way to teach Jon how to grow some self-preservation instincts, because the boy seemed to be completely devoid of them, despite being scared of everything. Stupidly brave, but also stupidly loyal, and Gerry couldn’t help but to want to return all that loyalty and bravery.

Jon had confessed to Gerry what he had done to Mary, a few days after Christmas. They had been laying together in the couch at the Institute, and Jon had been complaining about a headache behind that strange glowing eye of his, and Gerry had asked him if he knew why it hurt him like that sometimes.

Jon had gone quiet, and Gerry had become tense. He knew their friendship was still new, even if it sometimes felt like they had been in each other’s lives for as long as he could remember. He knew, his instincts suddenly flaring with unusual intensity, that how Jon responded would change something between them. Gerry had a hard time trusting, even when he wanted to. It was easier to trust Jon—to choose to trust Jon—because he was small, and looked harmless, and always approached Gerry with a smile. But he knew, within those terrible broken parts of himself, that if Jon lied to him then, he would never be able to fully trust him again.

“I did something stupid,” Jon had said, in such a soft whisper that Gerry’s nervous thundering of his own heart had almost drowned it out. He had wanted to see what expression Jon had then, because there was something so hurt and wounded in his voice that Gerry didn’t know what to think, but when he turned, Jon had buried his face into the couch cushion at their side, only the top of his head touching Gerry’s hip. “A lot of stupid somethings,” he amended.

Gerry had waited, not because he knew to be patient, but because he had no idea what to say. He had remained silent as Jon had spoken of promises made in dreams, and of a stupid, desperate plan to trick his mother into getting herself killed. Gerry hadn’t known if he was more horrified by that (why would the kid’s first instinct be to go straight for the kill, even if he believed, as he said, that she was hurting Gerry), or by him going straight to a fucking manifestation of the Spiral and asking for a favor (there was no way Jon didn’t know better than to involve himself further into the hands of any of the powers, especially not when he already had a patron, even at his age).

Then he had to reassess his entire scale for measuring Jon’s actions, when Jon told him, in stilted, confused terms, about his new ‘ability’, which had either saved the Archivist’s life, or put it at risk in the first place. Knowing what he did about the Powers, he would put his money on the latter, and credit the Archivist’s own skills with getting out of it alive.

When Jon was done, Gerry had asked him, quietly, what all of that had to do with the pain in his head, and Jon had fussed with the hem of his shirt.

“I don’t—I don’t think it’s all working how it’s supposed to, if—if it’s even supposed to work.” Jon had said. He burrowed one arm into the couch beside him, and pressed it against his face. “It hurts when I—when I reach for it, sometimes,” Jon said into the couch, muffled.

For all that Gerry’s mom had been obsessed with learning all she could of the Powers, he didn’t really know all that much about the details behind the abilities of those that served them. He didn’t think he had ever heard of someone having more than one patron at a time, but he wasn’t confident that he would know, even if it had happened. He had put all of his theories, questions and feelings on the matter aside in his mind for later, when he could unpack them safely.

“Thanks for telling me,” he had told Jon, and had been rewarded with Jon pressing his head harder against his hip (which had started to hurt a minute later, but it was worth it).

Gerry had given it a lot of thought, later that day, in his room at Michael’s house, staring at the ceiling in a room that was becoming rapidly familiar, with glow-in-the dark stars that he had glued there on a whim after Michael bugged him to decorate something. He thought he was going to have to talk to Jon, someday, about maybe not trying to kill people before you knew what was going on. He was sure he was going to have to talk to him about putting a little more value into his own life, and why it was a bad idea to go off on your own talking to the servants of other powers. Mostly, though, he felt a new sort of happiness, to know that someone cared enough about him to risk their life and sanity, even if the way they went about it was incredibly stupid and not a little bloodthirsty.

If his mum didn’t want him making friends with someone who had tried to kill her, then maybe she shouldn’t have tried so hard to get Gerry to not care about the deaths of others.

Once he had everything he could want inside his backpack (and wasn’t it depressing, that he could fit everything he cared about from his entire life into a single backpack?), he stood in the middle of the room and tried to feel something. Regret? Nostalgia? He hitched up his backpack and shrugged. There was the same sense of unease that followed him almost everywhere, but he was pretty sure that was just himself, and not the room.

He stepped back into the store’s backroom, where his mum had planned the disastrous attack less than two months ago. Gerard avoided the table as best as he could, seeing a dark book sitting too-innocently in the middle of it, and being pretty sure that neither he nor his mum had left it there.

He paused at the door to his mum’s rooms, undecided. He loved her, in a twisted way where she had been the center of his world for so long that he didn’t know how to put himself together without her there, but he didn’t know if he missed her. In his ideal world, she would be safe somewhere, doing what she wanted far away from him. She wasn’t, though. She was in the Lonely, lost or dead, without hope or a way out, because clearly she hadn’t loved him enough to come back for him.

He was still not sure how he felt about it. Half his heart was broken at the confirmation of something he had long suspected, and the other half was relieved that she was gone, and that he hadn’t been the one responsible for it.

He turned away from her door. There was nothing there that would help him deal with her loss, or even to figure out if her loss was something he wanted to deal with.

He took a step towards the back of the store when he heard a pounding on the front door and froze. He had never bothered to turn on the lights in the front, or to flip the sign from closed to open. No one out there should know he was here. The door pounded again, and Gerard felt his heart start to creep into his throat. No, there were many, many beings who would be able to tell he was there. There were many, many beings who would happily kill him in place of his mother, who left enemies behind like a child might leave a trail of crushed flowers in a field.

He never should have returned. He needed to run, now. Whoever, whatever was out there, Gerard had no reason to speak with them.

Except for his own damn curiosity, which had frozen his feet to the floor, and kept his eyes aimed towards the front of the store.

This time, when the knock came, there was a voice along with it.

“Please! I saw you moving in there! I just need to look around for a minute and I’ll leave, I promise!” The voice sounded on edge, almost near panic. Gerard looked back towards the door at the back. It would be easy to leave. It would be smart. And he would have to face whatever was waiting for him at Michael’s home.

He moved backwards, knowing it was stupid, and unbarred the front of the store, then opened the door.

Sometime while he had been reminiscing inside, it had started to rain. Strong winds threw sprays of water into the store and made the young man standing at the doorway sway, holding on to the wall. He was wearing a dark raincoat and looked soaked despite it, holding himself with one arm and shivering. The moment he noticed the door was open he pushed his way forward, then shut the door behind with a slam.

The sudden silence after the howling winds left Gerard dizzy, and the store now smelled of water and ozone, while the stranger who had forced his way in stood in a rapidly growing puddle of water, shivering in the cold.

“Oh, here,” Gerry said, distracted, reaching out behind the counter where he knew his mom kept a towel for emergencies, and bringing it to the shivering man.

“Th-thanks,” the man stammered, his teeth clacking, as he brought the towel to his face and tried to dry himself off. Gerard took a step back and made sure he was out of arm’s reach, before looking him over carefully.

He didn’t think he had ever seen this man before, which was a good thing, since it made it less likely he was one of his mum's old enemies. He was short and skinny, not much taller than Gerard himself, and his eyes were almost as pale as his chalky skin. The raincoat over him looked one size too large, as did the large, thick scarf he wore around his neck, but Gerard recognized the way his eyes widened and shot backwards as lightning illuminated the night outside.

Not a servant, then, but a victim. And one who looked like they needed to run, but had nowhere to go.

He cleared his throat. The man shot him a look, as though remembering he existed, then he took the towel away from his face and offered it back to Gerard, who waved it away.

“Can I help you?” Gerard asked, wondering what it was he was supposed to do. It wasn’t that he was against helping this person, necessarily, but he really didn’t have any idea how he could, and he would rather the stranger take whatever it was he brought on his tail away from Gerard.

“L-looking for a book,” the man was still shaking, and Gerard had a feeling it wasn’t from the cold. “I heard—I heard this place might have it.”

Ah. Well, that made more sense. His mother wasn’t usually keep to part with any of the Leitners she collected, unless she sensed that whoever was interested might give an ‘interesting’ result. If this person thought he could keep away whatever was following him with the ‘help’ of a book, though… well, it wasn’t the worst idea in the world, but it certainly qualified as Jon-level in recklessness.

“We’re closed,” Gerard said, hoping he could convince this man to leave. If he chose to come break in later and loot it, then he was welcome to whatever he might find; Gerard would be long gone. As he should have been, instead of opening the door.

“I—” the man’s eyes darted outside again, as lighting flashed and thunder roared, close together. The lightbulbs in the back of the store flickered, then became brighter, a high buzz of electricity rising in the air alongside the sharp smell of ozone. “I just need a minute,” he said, voice reedy and weak, eyes still wide open and terrified.

Gerard felt bad. He wanted to kick the man out, but it would feel too much like throwing a lamb out to the wolves. Not that hiding here, of all places, was going to do him any good.

“There’s a back door,” Gerard offered, uncomfortable. “Might help you outrun it.” He doubted it; but then again, it wasn’t like the powers didn’t like to extend the terror and give their victims false hope. The man might just make it out tonight; it didn’t mean he wouldn’t be overcome some other day.

“I—yes, please?” the man nodded, all thoughts of the books forgotten. Gerard led him through the back of the store, where the man’s eyes became glued to the book on the table, before they snapped away as Gerard grabbed his arm and pulled him along. Interestingly, the sounds of the storm at this door were fainter than in the front. Lighting still flashed, though, and the man still cowered every time he did, as the lights in the store flickered, and the smell drowned Gerard’s nostrils.

“Thank you,” he said, and opened the door to run outside without a second look back, leaving Gerard alone once more at his mother’s store, which now smelled of rain, storms and lighting. Gerard heaved a sigh of relief. It could have gone worse—and he shouldn’t have been so stupid. He turned around and nearly went blind, crying out as he came face-to-face with a being that would never be mistaken for human, though it had the right general shape. It was too bright, with its body flashing like translucent plastic, and all of its insides made up of a web of splitting light—the afterimage burned into Gerard’s retina gave him no details.

He stumbled backwards, hoping to put some distance between them, but he could hear the strong buzz of electricity, could hear as the light bulbs in the store shattered, one after the other. He was still blinded, but he knew there a hand just above him, near his shoulder, close enough to touch. He could feel the sparks landing painfully along his neck and face, but his back was to the wall and he was too disoriented to remember where he was supposed to run to without his vision.

Pain gripped his heart. To die like this, for a moment’s curiosity, to a creature stalking another? It felt wrong, it was unfair. He had only just started to have a life. He didn’t want to die!

He cowered, and probably whimpered, but the being remained where it was, just outside his reach, still burning his eyes though he kept them shut tight. Then it spoke, and its voice seemed to scrape the insides of his brain with raw electricity.

“Ah. Claimed by the little one. Shame.” It wasn’t words. Gerard knew it wasn’t words because this creature didn’t have a throat, or vocal cords, or anything else that could make words come out. And still the meaning was seared into him, onto him, inside of him, and he screamed because it hurt, because he couldn’t understand, because he wasn’t meant to understand, and then he remembered nothing.

Waking up was not a straight-forward process. Gerard first came to an awareness of himself as something that was alive, and that probably had a body, given an annoying, distant throbbing that he tried to push off. There was a buzzing in his ears, which he thought for the longest time was electricity, for some reason, until a new part of himself took notice of it and realized it was a voice, and that there were words in there, words that he knew, if only he could remember. He tried to listen better, and in the trying, remembered his body, remembered that he should be able to move it, and the distant throbbing was no longer so distant, and there was pain that shot through with every small movement he wasn’t aware he was making.

It wasn’t until he tried to say something that he realized he was already making sounds, and more of his awareness returned, enough to realize that the darkness around him was due to his eyes being closed. There was a hand on him, he realized, patting him down—feeling for injuries? It took three tries before he managed to open his eyes, and then all he could see were outlines and shadows, out of focus. He was on the floor, he realized, on his back, and there was someone standing above him.

“Ghn?” was the closest sound he could make to a word, as his brain was still sluggishly trying to finish waking, but his eyes were able to focus enough on the outline above him to recognize it, though there were still shadows everywhere his eyes turned.

“Oh, dear lord, you’re awake, good, good!” The voice above him babbled, relieved. “Are you hurt? I can’t see any injuries, but you weren’t moving and I don’t know how long it’s been.”

Gerard—that’s right, that was who he was, wasn’t he?—shut his eyes tightly, trying to concentrate, and then opened them again. There were still spots in his vision, but he was better able to see Michael now, kneeling on the ground next to him, the room lit only by a torch on the ground beside him. He—remembered—hurt—heard—

Gerard groaned and brought a hand to his head. Whatever that thing had been, he was better off not trying to remember what it looked like. It only made his head ache and bright lines light up beneath his eyelids. He wasn’t sure how he had survived, but he also wasn’t sure what that thing had wanted of him, so he supposed he didn’t really know anything.

It wasn’t important. He was alive now, and he had apparently been passed out on the ground long enough for his body to feel stiff and painful, and for Michael to track him down.

Michael had tracked him down?

“H-how?” He asked, his mind not all the way back just yet.

“Oh, if you don’t know I don’t think I would have any clue,” Michael said worriedly. “Can you—wait, maybe you aren’t supposed to sit up? I called an ambulance, and they should be here soon. I don’t think you’re supposed to move?”

Gerard tried to sit up, alarm finally waking up the rest of his thoughts. “Ambulance? I’m—I’m fine. I don’t need—” Michael stopped him from getting up, an arm over his chest pressing him gently but firmly down.

“We’ll go, and they’ll check you over, and if everything is alright we’ll be home in a few hours anyway,” he said, his worried tone gentling into a comforting one.

Gerard didn’t calm down. His mum hated hospitals. He had only been to one a few times in his life, when it had been unavoidable, and his mum was always angry that it had happened. And he was fine. He hurt a little, but he could still move, and he was sure the pain would fade away on its own with a little time. Michael, for once, didn’t seem to care how much Gerard tried to tell him he was fine, and only continued to repeat that they were going to the hospital.

What a time for him to find a fucking backbone!

“You’ll get in trouble,” Gerard said, finally finding an argument that would work. “Me staying with you isn’t… strictly legal, right?” At least he had gleaned that much from what Elias had told him. His mum had never really bothered to register Gerard in much of anything government related, and his times in the hospital had always been under fake names, so he wasn’t even sure that he existed, in the bureaucratic sense of the word.

Michael’s face hardened, and Gerard thought he had finally found the right lever to convince him to drop the hospital thing, until he said, “your health is more important than any trouble I might get into,” in a hard, strict tone of voice that Gerard had never heard from him before, which left him without any clue how to respond.

The silence that fell around him after that, in the dark back room of his mum’s store, was heavy and uncomfortable. Gerard remembered hearing the light bulbs break when the creature was inside, but he didn’t know how long he had been left here. A few hours? Was it close to morning? There was a gnawing hunger in his stomach, an aching thirst, that he had been ignoring, because there were more important things to think about.

He remembered running away, though. He remembered his conviction to apologize to Michael, and to promise whatever he had to so he wouldn’t be turned away when he tried to return. He looked at Michael again, who was kneeling in the near darkness with him, looking toward the outside and listening for the sounds of the ambulance.

“I’m sorry,” Gerard said, quietly. Michael looked down at him, surprised.

“It’s alright. It’s not your job to worry about me, Gerard,” his broad face split into a wide grin. “It’s mine to worry about you.”

That didn’t seem right, but Gerard wasn’t about to try to contradict him when he was trying to apologize.

“I won’t—I won’t do that again. Running away,” he said instead. Michael’s face twisted into something more complicated, and then settled into sad, but not angry.

“If you have to do something, then you have to do something. I don’t…” he sighed, and rubbed a hand against his face, looking weary. “I won’t pretend to understand what you’ve been through, or what you’re feeling. But if I’m ever making you feel unsafe, or like you need space, please just tell me. I swear I’ll leave the room, or the house, and I won’t ask any questions. And if you really need to leave, then we can talk about finding somewhere safe you can go to. Not… not this place.”

Gerry felt a new kind of pain in his chest, an unfamiliar burning, and he couldn’t keep looking at Michael. He wasn’t going to run away again. He didn’t need to be… coddled like that. He knew how to take care of himself.

“I won’t do it again,” he repeated himself stubbornly.

“Gerard, please—”

“Gerry.” He said, cutting him off. Michael stopped. “I don’t—just call me Gerry, ok?”

“Alright,” Michael said softly. “Gerry it is.”

Gerry tried to ignore the way Michael was smiling when the ambulance finally pulled in.

The visit to the hospital wasn’t long; after the paramedics checked him over, the only thing they could find was a small burn on his shoulder. Still, since he had been unconscious for most of a day, they decided to bring him in anyway.

Gerry was far more horrified to realize he had spent all of Monday passed out on the floor of his mum’s shop. If he hadn’t already been inside the ambulance when he realized this, he might have done something stupid; as it was, he could only hope that Michael had covered for him with Jon, and that Jon didn’t think he was in trouble and would do something stupid.

The check-up at the hospital was more thorough, with a doctor asking him to take off his shirt so he could examine the burn on his shoulder (which hurt, though Gerry couldn’t remember getting it), and shining lights into Gerry’s eyes and asking a hundred different questions that Gerry didn’t want to answer. (He doubted he would get out of there faster if he told them a man made of lightning came and assaulted him).

Michael, for his part, looked both concerned and surprised when no one asked him any more questions once he had established himself as Gerry’s ‘legal guardian’. The doctor applied cream and a bandage to Gerry’s shoulder, gave Michael some pain killers for Gerry to take over the next week, and instructions on what to watch out for and under what circumstances he was to bring Gerry back.

All in all, they were back in Michael’s apartment less than three hours later, bringing with them a take-out meal of burgers and fries that Michael had chosen. Gerry sat at the table in the small living room in Michael’s flat, eating his burger with a ravenous hunger he was happy not to have to ignore, when the phone started to ring.

Michael didn’t have a lot of friends. In the month and a half he had been living here, Gerry could count on one hand the number of times anyone had called, and it had never happened this late, sometime after ten at night. He watched Michael curiously while he continued to eat, then swallowed quickly when Michael walked over and offered the phone to him, mouthing ‘it’s Jon’.

“Ah, hello? Jon?” He asked quickly, heartbeat pounding. Please, please let him not have done something stupid.

“Gerry!” The voice on the other end of the line sounded excited and relieved. “You’re really ok? They said you were sick, but no one would let me call you, and Elias wasn’t letting me do anything, and I don’t know where Michael lives, and—”

“I’m fine!” Gerry cut in quickly, relaxing finally. Elias knew Jon as well as he did; he could only feel relief that the man had watched over Jon so carefully. “I’m… I’m feeling a lot better,” he admitted, his eyes going over to Michael, who had been staring at him and smiling, and now glanced away and tried to look like he wasn’t listening in.

“Oh,” Jon’s voice sounded a little deflated. “Oh, I guess I assumed… sorry.” He sounded sheepish, and it made Gerry smile. No, Jon would not forget him if he ever went missing. He would have to make sure that never happened, because he had a feeling Jon would follow him wherever he ended up. Fear curdled in his belly at the thought, and the painful memory of the creature from the day before made him shiver. He wouldn’t allow Jon to run into something like that, he promised himself.

“Are you going to come in tomorrow?” Jon asked, his voice a lot quieter. Gerry took a deep, cleansing breath and smiled again.

“Yeah. I missed you.” He said.

“Oh. Um. Me too. But you don’t have to if you’re still sick! I’m ok.” Jon said in a rush.

“I’ll see you tomorrow.” Gerry said, still smiling.

“Um. Y-yeah. See you.” Jon said, and Gerry knew he was smiling too. He heard Elias say something he couldn’t make out on the other end of the line, and Jon’s annoyed “yes, yes, you were right, I get it,” before the line cut off. Gerry lowered the phone and handed it back to Michael.

He really, really needed to get his own shit together. For Jon’s sake, if nothing else. What if he had died last night? Would Jon have followed him all the way to the store, maybe found that Leitner book on the desk, gotten himself hurt? Would he have made another stupid deal with the Powers, gotten himself even deeper in with them?

He wasn’t used to thinking of his own safety as something that affected anyone but himself. Even with his mum around, he had always known that she could take care of herself, and that anything that put him at risk was only dangerous to himself.

“I’m really not going to run away again,” he said quietly, mostly to himself.

“I think we need to talk about that,” Michael said carefully, sitting down at the table across from him.

“No we don’t,” Gerry scowled. “I know it was stupid. I won’t do it again.”

Michael shook his head. “I mean, I think we should talk about why it happened. Or, if you can’t talk to me about it, maybe you could talk to the therapist?” he sounded hopeful. Gerry crossed his arms and looked away. Sure, he had been willing to offer to talk if it got Michael to take him back, but now that he was back without having to offer, it didn’t feel like something he really wanted to do.

“I was being stupid,” Gerry repeated. “I got mad and I ran away.”

“You didn’t like me asking you what you wanted to eat?” Michael said, still in that too-careful, gentle tone.

“I don’t like you never saying what you want from me!” Gerry snapped, and regretted it immediately. Godammit, couldn’t he keep his temper for five fucking minutes around Michael? He was strange and mostly spineless, but he wasn’t a bad person.

“Oh,” Michael said, like someone who had just been shown where the last piece of a puzzle fit in. “Oh, Gerar—Gerry. I’m sorry. I just—” he cut himself off and shook his head. Then he crossed his arms and looked thoughtful. Gerry looked down at the half-eaten food in front of him and chewed on a fry, listless. He didn’t want to argue with Michael. He wanted to eat, and sleep, and spend another day with Jon.

“I want you to be safe, first,” Michael said, and though he was still talking like he was picking out each other carefully, there was a level of conviction there that Gerry had hardly heard from him before. “I want you to feel safe, second. And third, if possible, I want you to be happy. That’s what I want from you.” He looked Gerry in the eye, and there was a sad smile on his face. “But that’s selfish, isn’t it? We hardly know each other, so I know it’s selfish to just expect you to trust me, or believe any of that. So I’m trying to give you your space, and let you move at your own pace, whatever you need.”

“How am I supposed to trust you if you never tell me what you really mean?” Gerry asked.

Michael looked thoughtful. “I guess you have a point there. Maybe I should be speaking to a therapist too,” he said. Gerry almost laughed.

“Having me around is messing you up so bad you need to go to a shrink?” He asked. Michael looked panicked.

“No! That’s not what I meant!” Michael buried his face in his hands, looking mortified, and Gerry did laugh out loud, that time. Then, when it looked like Michael was desperately searching for something to say, he leaned forward.

“I don’t… not trust you,” he said. “I mean, I don’t think you mean me any harm or anything.”

He once again tried to ignore the stupid grin that grew on Michael’s face as they finished their late dinner.

Gerry considered lying to Jon the next day about what had happened, but considering the boy had been truthful to him about his own run-in with scary fear monsters, he decided to tell him everything (without going into too many details, of course. He was still an eight-year-old kid, regardless of how he behaved).

They sat together on the couch, Jon with his feet tucked in below him and watching Gerry with an intensity that almost made him uncomfortable, and Gerry with one leg bent to his chest.

“A… lightning man?” Jon asked, once he was done. There was a small furrow on his brow, like he was trying to remember something.

“I would say it was something of the Vast,” Gerry confided, “except it didn’t really… feel right, do you know what I mean?”

“It made you confused,” Jon said, and something in his expression cleared. “Oh. It was—” he looked at Gerry and hesitated.

“Go on,” Gerry said, tilting his head. He didn’t know where Jon would have gotten the knowledge of what it was, when Gerry himself still hadn’t figured it out, but he wanted to hear what the kid thought.

“The Lichtenberg Figure,” he said, and wouldn’t meet Gerry’s eyes. “I read a statement about it somewhere. It’s of the Spiral.”

That made sense, as much as anything about the thing made sense, anyway. He wished the young man running from it good luck. He—

“Wait. It’s one of the Spiral’s creatures? Like the Distortion?” He asked. Jon nodded. He felt his stomach drop. He had nearly convinced himself that he had imagined the last part of the encounter, the words that weren’t words. Claimed by the little one. He looked at Jon, and felt afraid. Not of him, but for him. If his guess was right, and the thing had meant Jon by his comment, that was the second creature from the Spiral to imply Jon was one of theirs.

“Um, yeah?” Jon said. “Why?”

Gerry shrugged and tried to look casual. “Just fucking hate the Spiral,” he said. “I don’t like things messing with my brain.” Or yours. Gerry knew he had a new project. He was going to track down all the statements he could about the Spiral, and he was going to figure out how to free Jon from it. But he wasn’t going to let Jon in on it until he had a better plan; Jon was not terribly good at lying, and if there was anything from the Spiral watching, he wasn’t going to give it any opportunities to stop him.

Much like it happened at Christmas, it was Rosie who mentioned Jon’s birthday, one day halfway through January, when Gerry and Michael were leaving work for the night.

“I don’t think Mr. Bouchard has anything planned for Jon’s birthday next week,” she told them when Michael stopped by her desk to wish her a good night.

“Jon’s birthday is next week?” Gerry asked, looking towards the stairs. He and Elias usually left sometime after Michael and Gerry did.

“Oh, dear,” Michael said, also looking in the same direction. He looked hesitant, rather than determined like Rosie did. “I don’t—we can’t just invite ourselves over like we did for Christmas, Rosie.”

“Gerard is Jon’s best friend,” Rosie said. “There’s no way Jon should pass his first birthday here without his best friend.”

Gerry, who had covered his face with his hoodie as soon as she spoke, stammered out, “birthdays aren’t that big of a deal, are they?” and wondered if ‘best friends’ meant anything, when they were each other’s only friends.

“Birthdays are important!” Michael argued. “They’re a good time to have fun with friends and relax. Didn’t you say Jon had been having a hard time last week?”

Gerry shushed him quickly. He hadn’t meant to say as much to Michael, but it had slipped out the last time Michael had asked after Jon earlier. He had been trying not to ignore everything Michael said out of hand, and since Jon himself had said that Michael ‘was a good guy’, he had been letting his walls down a little more around him. He hadn’t mentioned Peter, of course, but Gerry had noticed that Jon had grown a little more clingy since the man had appeared. Gerry didn’t really mind, but he felt guilty that he had been hurt just after Peter had left, and he didn’t want Jon to worry about him.  

“Exactly,” Rosie said, pointing at Michael with her pen. “I say we throw him a little party here. I can get some balloons and decorate the boys’ room, and you can get a cake, and we can all surprise him and sing him happy birthday when he comes in the morning.”

Michael sighed, but he was smiling. “Fine. Which day is it?”

“January 23rd. Next Tuesday. I’m counting on you, Michael,” her glare of determination made Gerry smile, though it slipped when she turned to him. “And I’ll be wanting to know your birthday too, mister. Don’t think you’ll get away without a birthday party.”

Gerry stammered something in reply, but allowed himself to be ushered out by Michael, who assured him that he didn’t have to share if he didn’t want to. The look of disappointment on his face when he said that Gerry didn’t have to have a party if he didn’t want one made Gerry sigh, and decide that he could put up with it for one day a year, if it would make Michael happy. It was still a few months until May, in any case.

Jon’s birthday cake was chocolate, covered in neon icing of many colors that Gerry had found at the store. The candle was a bright red nine, and it was sitting in the middle of Jon’s desk at the Institute. Michael and Gerry had arrived extra early to help Rosie set up the room, putting up streamers, balloons and a banner that proclaimed ‘Happy Birthday!’ in pink and purple. Now, Michael and Gerry waited by the door while Rosie led both Jon and Elias to the room. He was a little nervous, because Jon hadn’t mentioned his birthday once in the week leading up to this, and Elias clearly didn’t intend to celebrate it, but he didn’t think Jon would get mad at him about it, and the worst reaction from Elias was likely to be a sigh and an eye roll.

Besides, if Elias could see him and read his mind whenever, like Jon said, then Elias knew about the surprise party and had done nothing to prevent it, which was almost the same thing as approving it, wasn’t it?

When Jon opened the door, Michael and Gerry both yelled out ‘surprise!’ and Jon jumped back far enough to crash against Elias, who hadn’t reacted at all. Jon blinked owlishly at the room, the decorations, Michael and Gerry, and the cake. Rosie came up behind him and nudged him deeper into the room, wishing him a happy birthday and leading him over to the cake, before sending Elias a raised eyebrow.

“Happy birthday, Jon,” Elias said, and Gerry thought he looked close to rolling his eyes, but didn’t.

Jon was flustered throughout the birthday song, and cutting the cake, and opening the three presents on the desk (another Gameboy game from Rosie, a book from Michael and an improbably bright green scarf from Gerry), but Gerry knew him enough to see that he was happy with the celebration, and simply uncertain of how to respond to it.

After eating a slice of cake, Elias ruffled Jon’s head affectionately before taking his leave, and Michael and Rosie were quick to follow, since it was a work day. Jon and Gerry decided they were going to take the rest of the day off, though, and spent it crowded together on the couch, talking, taking turns playing on Jon’s Gameboy (which he had brought since Gerry had asked him to the day before, since he usually ‘left his games at home where they belonged’), and just enjoying each other’s company.

By the end of the day, Jon looked better than he had in weeks, and Gerry thought that celebrating with a small birthday party might not be too bad of an idea, when May came around.

Chapter Text

Jon first noticed the door in early February. At the time, laying in bed for so long that he wasn’t sure if he was awake or asleep, he had assumed it was part of a nightmare; it wouldn’t be the first time his dreams were haunted by a door that shouldn’t be there, by the echoes of Helen’s laughter, or the inhuman twist of her lips when she had betrayed them, back when he had lost hope and lost Martin, when he had thought killing Jonah Magnus would be a first step towards saving the world.

He stared at it for a long time, hardly blinking, noticing how its shade of dark yellow clashed with his room’s own awful canary yellow, how the door seemed to almost blend in, where he couldn’t see the edges where it blended in, or if it was simply a life-like drawing.

He wasn’t sure what changed in his mind that finally caused his awareness to rise above a general, exhausted null, but he knew that one moment he was staring, and the next he had scooted back into his bed as far as he could go, his heart pounding in terror because that door was not supposed to be there.

It was an older, familiar fear, one learned from a time when it was Michael who stalked him, and then relearned with Helen’s bid for his ‘friendship’. It was one that had no place in his new life, because Michael was still just a painfully kind man and Helen was elsewhere, presumably still young and without a clue about the creatures that stalked humans and might one day make her their prey.

“Go away,” Jon hissed at it, because there was no way he was getting up or going anywhere close to it, if he could help it. He did not need to be dragged any deeper into the Spiral, not when he felt he was finally coming to an equilibrium with himself and the patrons he had stupidly invited into his life. Unsurprisingly, it didn’t listen to him. It was there when he finally fell into a restless sleep, and there still when he woke up, a cheerful invitation in contrast to the door to his room that was always locked from the outside.  

He started to notice it once or twice a week after that, but only when Jon was alone in his room. He could never feel it appear, or hear the distorted static he had come to associate with it; one moment there would be nothing, and the next there would be a door, always in a cheerful color, always closed. The longer he was around it, the more he would start to doubt his senses; he could never say how long he spent staring at the door, or where his mind went when it wandered during those times. He would wake up from dark dreams, sometimes, and swear he heard the voices of people long dead, or too young still, just behind the door. He wondered, then, if any of the others had been pulled alongside him when he was thrown back in time. In the middle of the night, in the darkness with only the door for company, the idea that some of them were waiting for him just on the other side made his palms itch to throw open the door and look.

He didn’t. He wasn’t completely without self-preservation instincts, regardless of what Elias and Gerry said.  

He didn’t mention the door to either Elias or Gerry. He was already wary of bringing up anything entity-related to Elias, since the man had so far not been pushing him to read statements or test out his new ability, and he didn’t want to give him any ideas. He also assumed that either the Distortion cloaked itself from Elias’ supervision, or it appeared only when Elias was either asleep or with his attention elsewhere, and if that was the case, he didn’t want Elias to know he had a way to know when to act behind his back.

The matter was a little more complicated with Gerry. He felt a strange blend of both guilt and protectiveness when it came to Gerry and the Spiral; or, rather, Michael and the Spiral. The closer Gerry became to Michael, the worse Jon felt about not telling them what Gertrude planned for him (had she already decided to do it, fifteen years ahead of time? Or was she keeping him ignorant as a general strategy in case she needed him?) and the more determined he was to keep both Gerry and Michael as far away from the Spiral as possible.

(Only Gerry had already had a run-in with one of the Spiral’s creatures, independent of Jon. He could only assume that the Lichtenberg Figure was too busy terrorizing a still-human Mike Crew to go after Gerry as well. Mike Crew was… another matter entirely.)

Not that allowing the Spiral to do its ritual unimpeded was an option. Yes, it would fail, but its failure might be what tipped Elias off about the nature of all rituals, such as Gertrude’s disinterest in stopping the Dark ritual had in his original timeline. He really wished he was capable of talking to Gertrude without becoming a bloodthirsty little brat; it would make so many things easier.

As with so many other things, the Gertrude problem had been relegated to a ‘think about it later’ box deep in his brain, alongside ‘how to get rid of Elias before he ends the world’ and ‘how to find and save all my friends from becoming entangled in everything’.

All in all, though, like most other imperfect aspects of his new life, Jon grew accustomed to it. As February turned into March, and the days grew steadily longer, he spent his weekdays at the Institute with Gerry and his weekends at home with Elias, and there were no great adventures or disasters to take away from his day to day.

Jon hated it, even as he treasured the time spent with Gerry and the occasional afternoons when Elias would give in to his stir-crazy tantrums and take him places around the city (who knew Elias liked museums?). He felt aimless, trapped and powerless, but he was also starting to feel guilty for feeling that way, because what was he really complaining about? He did have a goal: to stop Elias from ending the world. If nothing else, then at least he was distracting the man enough so he might delay his realization about the rituals; not that he was set to figure it out for another fifteen years, at least, and Jon couldn’t ignore the possibility that his own interference might be making things worse, seeing as he was tied to three patrons at once, which was a giant clue if you knew what to look for.

How far of a leap of logic is it, to go from ‘three entities can cooperate enough to make an avatar’ to ‘all fears are tied together and only a ritual which calls them all can succeed’? Not that there was anything Jon could do about that, either, except to keep ignoring it all and hoping he hadn’t gone far enough down the path that he couldn’t turn back.

He read statements a couple of times a week, still, though it was Gerry who procured them instead of Elias. Gerry was a big believer in learning everything he could to be prepared, and so he frequently went down to the Archives to ‘visit’ Michael, and returned with a handful of folders he had stolen from his desk. Seeing as Jon had no doubts that both Gertrude and Elias knew what he was doing, and did nothing to stop him, Jon took it as their tacit approval for Gerry and Jon’s research; Elias was no surprise, but Gertrude gave him pause. Was she considering Gerry a future asset, as he had been back in Jon’s original timeline? Was she so cold-hearted as to groom a twelve-year old into the role, or did she simply believe as Gerry did, that being prepared was safer than living in ignorance? And if that was true, then why was she keeping Michael so clueless?

Mostly, though, he and Gerry went through their workbooks and practice tests (Michael had been hinting to Gerry that he wanted him to take placement tests in a few months, and though Gerry pretended he didn’t care, Jon knew he was nervous and helped as much as he could). They would wander the institute on Elias’ treasure hunts when they got too bored or restless, or they would share the couch to read or play when one of them wasn’t capable of concentrating on school, for whatever reason.

After months of Gerry insisting that Jon listen to his music, Jon even found a strange appreciation towards some of it, though he would be the first to admit that most of it wasn’t really something he preferred. In the right mood (usually melancholy and self-pitying), listening to Creep would make him cry, while he saw that others (such as She Sells Sanctuary) made Gerry go quiet and pained, and neither ever mentioned anything when they would sit quietly after, with Jon either burrowed into his side or Gerry gently holding his hand, before the feelings passed.

He was feeling hopeful, overall, despite the door and its tempting whispers. The times of overwhelming lack of control over his thoughts were becoming less frequent, and Elias had agreed to install a phone in his room, which meant that when things started to become too much, he could call Gerry (Michael, for his part, had apparently been so happy when Gerry asked for an extension in his room that he had gone and bought him one in black, to ‘match his things’). He was even finding spiders in his hair far less often, which was a real relief since he had never fully acclimated to them, and he hated knowing that he was feeding the Web himself every time he froze when he felt one crawling on his scalp. If he was manifesting anything from Beholding besides his occasionally glowing eye, he didn’t know.

Honestly, aside from the shock of first realizing what it was, the door came as almost a relief for Jon, who had been waiting for the other shoe to drop since he first made the deal back in November. If the Distortion stalking him was as bad as it got, then he would count himself lucky. (And he wouldn’t open the door. Not again. Not unless he really had to. Not even late at night when he was trying to fall asleep and he could swear he heard whispers from the man he still loved, pleading brokenly for him not to leave him behind).

March brought little new into his life, except for another call to his grandmother that was the tiniest bit less awkward than his first ones had been. She had moved away to live with her niece, a woman that Jon couldn’t remember ever meeting, and she told Jon that time away from the city was good for her, and that she was happy he seemed to be doing well. She even extended an almost straight-forward invitation for him to visit them there sometime (“it’s cooler in the summer around here. I don’t think they’d mind a child like you staying for a few days”).

The door visits became a little more frequent, going up to two or three in a week, and Jon was starting to reconsider his stance about telling Elias about it. He never slept long or well when the door was there, and Gerry was starting to notice, and because Jon was a terrible liar, he was getting suspicious. Jon had started to fall asleep in the living room with Elias there, who would tell Jon the next day that he should go to bed if he was tired, but who carried him up to bed asleep every time it happened.

(His feelings on being carried to bed by Elias were another thing he stuffed deep in his ‘think about it later’ box.)

Rosie, in her never-ending crusade to convince Elias to allow Jon to do more things, managed to talk him into taking Jon to a park a couple of times a week. Elias would bring a briefcase of work with him, sit at a bench and wave for Jon to ‘play around and exercise or whatever it is you’re supposed to’. Jon assumed that the only reason Elias agreed to it was because he was concerned about Jon’s health and the doctor they sometimes visited agreed with Rosie that Jon should be spending more time outside.

Jon, whose idea of fun outside as a child had been to wander off and get lost, and who barely left the insides of buildings once he was an adult, had no idea what he was supposed to be doing, and often just when to lie down in the mostly dead grass, enjoy whatever sunshine made it through the clouds, and feel happy that there was nowhere for a mystery door to manifest around him.

At least until the second week that Elias did this, and Gerry showed up with a grin, saying only that Michael had dropped him off. After that, there was a lot of tree climbing and running (Gerry seemed determined to make Jon capable of running and hiding, if nothing else, and treated it more like training than a game, but Jon didn’t mind). A few other children who were at the park would join them, and both Jon and Gerry were often dragged into playing football in uneven teams with trees as goal posts.

It was almost April when Gerry, laying down on the floor, feet on the couch, with a history textbook raised above his head, brought up Mike Crew for the first time since he had told Jon about his encounter the first time.

“I wonder if he’s still alive,” Gerry said, quietly enough that Jon wasn’t sure if he wanted Jon to hear or not. Maybe Gerry didn’t know, either. Gerry had been changing a lot these last few months, Jon thought, but he would never say. He hadn’t really known Gerry while he was with his mother, other than that initial meeting, and even as an adult he had only ever had one conversation with him. Now? Now he felt like he had never known anybody better, outside of Martin, maybe, and the people he had Known, when he was the Archivist.

He watched Gerry a lot, probably too closely, probably in a way that most people who were unaware of his affiliation with Beholding would find creepy (and that those who knew would find alarming). Gerry never minded when he caught Jon staring at him, though. He didn’t mind when Jon analyzed his every reaction when Jon told him a story or a joke, or when Jon would join him and Michael for lunch and spend the meal quietly observing the two of them.

Jon wasn’t trying to be a creep. He just… cared. In a way that he never had when he had been a child the first time, in a way he hadn’t really experienced before Martin, and everything then was tainted by grief, and desperation, and being so far from human he didn’t know how much of Jon was still himself. He was Gerry’s friend, and he very much cared about staying Gerry’s friend, and he wasn’t good with people, and so he needed to watch Gerry to make sure he wasn’t doing things wrong, even when he was distantly aware that the way he was watching him was probably the wrong thing to do.

It was a new fear that took over his heart when he considered that one day, Gerry might decide he no longer wanted to be a part of Jon’s life. It wasn’t even all that irrational; from experience, everyone he cared for always left him behind when they realized what kind of person he was. His grandmother had never been able to connect with him; he never had close friends growing up; Georgie had left him, twice, and both times his own fault for being too bull-headed and unapologetically blind; Tim had never forgiven him for his groundless suspicion; Basira, once friendly and on his side, had become more like his involuntary keeper than his friend; Daisy, who only stayed close because she felt like she owed him for her rescue from the buried; Martin. Martin, who came back, but who should never have had to leave, if not for Jon’s own dismal treatment of him.

Jon might have very little control over his own life, but he had control over himself, to whatever extent his already compromised mind and body allowed. He was determined to be a better friend to Gerry, and to all of the others when he finally got a chance to meet them again. He was not deluded enough to think a change of that nature could happen without effort on his own end, though, and so he watched, carefully, and listened, and held Gerry’s hand and hugged him and tried to do whatever he could think to show him how much he meant to Jon.

So when Gerry, in a posture so ridiculous that Jon knew had to be posed to appear casual, quietly asked his question, Jon didn’t need him to clarify what he meant. But if Gerry needed to keep it casual in order to talk about it, Jon wasn’t about to pull the rug out from under him.

“The Spiral likes to keep people alive and confused for a long time,” Jon offered, just as quietly, from his own perch on the couch, his feet above Gerry’s. He had a novel in his hands, a pulpy mystery he would forget as soon as he was done with it, but which numbed his mind nicely while he read it.

Gerry made a noise that was half-agreement, half-frustration. “I still haven’t found that statement that you read, about that weird figure.” He gave up and laid the book down, still open on his chest. “It’s just… being followed like that must suck, you know?”

What he meant, but wasn’t saying, was ‘I wish I had been able to help him more. I wish there was something I could do to help him now’. Gerry was a good person who didn’t think he was good person. He would swear up and down that he was practical, and that it was just an idle thought and he wouldn’t act on it, but Jon knew him.

Which was one of the reasons why Jon didn’t tell him the truth. He was pretty sure that Mike Crew didn’t find Ex Altiora before 1997—or was it 1998? Either way, at this point in time, and throughout this year, he would continue to search for Leitners and avoid his stalker. Sometime after that, he would make a choice to save his life at the cost of his humanity, and Jon had no idea what to do about it.

He knew he couldn’t tell Gerry, both because telling would mean Elias heard as well, and there would be no way to explain to him why he knew of such things, and because Jon knew that Gerry wouldn’t leave it alone. Would he try to find Ex Altiora on his own, to give Mike Crew the choice sooner? Or would he try to find an alternative, like Jon had been trying to think of, to keep Mike Crew out of the hands of either of the fears?

It wasn’t like Mike Crew was one of his friends, or a good person. He had hurt plenty of people; had thrown them off buildings and enjoyed their terrified falls. He had marked Jon with the Vast, with a stomach-clenching vertigo that Jon would still occasionally fall prey to, whenever he missed a step and stumbled, or when he considered any one of the seemingly endless obstacles in his path. Then again, he hadn’t really been a person at that point, had he?

Jon didn’t want to go any deeper into debt with the entities over someone he barely knew, even if it made him feel selfish to think of it. He wasn’t a good person. If he could have helped, without giving anything away to Elias or hurting himself, then yes, he would have. But he wasn’t selfless enough to risk everything for someone he didn’t know.

Just like I won’t risk it to help Michael, even though I know it would break Gerry if anything happened to him.

“I don’t think there’s any real escaping, once one of them has you that deep in its grip, Jon said, voice a little rough from his effort not to show his own emotions. Was that true for him, as well? Was he marked, doomed forever to fall into the hands of the fears from the moment he had read a picture book back when he was really 8 years old that first time around?

“People have gotten free before,” Gerry argued. He sat up on his elbows and looked at Jon, who put down his own book. “Maybe not completely, maybe not without scars, but enough to go back to their lives.”

Jon thought of Georgie, and wondered if she was a point for him or for Gerry. Could his own involvement with her again, and Melanie’s, count as her never truly being free of them?

“Besides,” Gerry added, looking more animated. “Think of this place. Every single person who has ever given a statement survived, at least long enough to come and talk about it, right?”

Jon winced. “Do you read the supplemental information? So many of them end up disappeared or dead.” Especially the ones who were the focus of an avatar or manifestation, as Mike Crew was.

“But not all of them,” Gerry insisted.

“No, not all of them,” Jon agreed. Gerry looked at him for a minute, before huffing and letting himself drop again. “It would be nice if we could find a way around that thing, is all I’m saying,” he said. “Or to fucking kill it. That would be nice too.”

Jon laughed. “Yeah, having a way to kill them would be very useful,” he agreed, thinking about the Distortion appearing in his room every couple of days. If he could find a way to kill it, a lot of his current problems would be solved. It would mean that whatever ritual the Spiral avatars concocted, it would no longer be centered around the Distortion, and Gertrude would have to think of a different way of stopping it.

“I just hope he found a way to get rid of it,” Gerry said, a little more quietly.

He will, Jon thought, unhappy, guilty. Though he wouldn’t survive the encounter with his humanity intact. And Jon was allowing it to happen, knowing exactly what he was doing, enjoying his life despite it.

No, Jon thought sadly. He was not nearly as good of a person as Gerry was.

April came and went with only Peter’s unexpected visit to set it apart. He didn’t stay the week this time, at least. He arrived one Thursday afternoon, invited himself inside and did a such a good job of annoying Jon that Jon shut himself in his room long before he was ready for bed, and not even the presence of the damned door was enough to make him go back out. He was gone by morning, as usual, and only returned for one additional visit, days later. This was the visit that clung to Jon’s mind like tar, drowning his dreams in visions of empty shores and missing friends.

Jon had left the living room shortly after he arrived, thinking that he would lock himself up in his room again and call Gerry for a distraction. He hadn’t realized that Peter had followed him. His hand was reaching for the door to his room when the man’s hand landed on his shoulder, heavy and rough, and Jon felt himself pushed, and his next gasp of breath was freezing, his ears ringing, his chest aching because he knew where he was, he knew what this cursed place with the loud silence and the distant sea was, and he was terrified, because he no longer had the anchor that had brought him back from last time, and he was all alone, and he was keeping so many secrets and he was such a terrible person and he had ended the world and he didn’t deserve to have anyone

He was crying when the hand on his shoulder pulled him back, the real world snapping into place around him like a movie turned on far too loud. He would have fallen to the floor if Peter’s grip on his shoulder had been any softer. He leaned in to Jon, whispered in his ear, “Try me again and I’ll leave you there, regardless what Elias says,” and then he pushed Jon into his room and shut the door behind him.

It was a long time before Jon could get back to his feet after that. He was on the ground, curled up around himself where he had fallen, the feel of the Lonely clinging to him still, though he couldn’t have been in it for more than a few seconds. It was vengeance, Jon knew, for attacking Peter that first time they had met. He had known Peter was patient, but he had assumed the man had taken his attack in stride, since he was a child and all.

He was just waiting until I didn’t have my guard up, Jon realized, still sobbing. And why the fuck did Elias keep letting him into their house, anyway?! He insisted that he was protecting Jon—and yeah, Jon was pretty sure that he wasn’t lying about it—but then he let in someone who was so willing to just casually throw Jon into the Lonely like that?

And why wasn’t he here? Jon could feel the Watcher’s gaze on him, still. Elias must know what happened, and that Jon was… hurt. And if he wasn’t here—

If he wasn’t here—

Then he had probably agreed to let Peter do it, and was punishing him for being reckless and attacking Peter that day.

Jon wiped at his eyes and forced himself to stand up. He was not this pathetic. He had been to the Lonely before. He had killed Peter in the Lonely before. This was nothing, and Elias being here was nothing, because he was Jon’s enemy. He picked up a book at random from his bookshelf and threw himself on his bed, pretending to read, and ignored the door that cheerfully stood out on his wall, an invitation that looked more welcoming than it ever had before.

(He didn’t call Gerry for another hour, because he was not going to give Elias the satisfaction of seeing him crumble and beg for company after Peter’s little tantrum, and because he wanted to compose himself so he didn’t sound like he’d been crying so Gerry wouldn’t worry.)

Peter was gone again by the next morning, and didn’t return for the rest of the month. Jon and Elias got into more fights in the days following than they had since Jon was still settling into his new life; Jon refused to eat at the table with him, refused to acknowledge his rules, and refused to explain why. He was not going to play Elias’ game. He was not going to relive what Peter had done to him just so Elias could have an opening to explain to him why it was a fair punishment and why it was Jon’s fault to begin with.

After a week of shouting, broken dishes, bitten hands, afternoons in closets, no park visits, no phone privileges, a second offensive message scrawled in marker all over Jon’s room, and just general misery for both of them, they reached a truce when Elias offered to allow Jon to stay at Michael’s house on the afternoons Peter came to visit. Like any true compromise, neither of them were happy with it; Jon would much rather he promise that Peter would never visit again, and Elias didn’t like allowing Jon to spend an afternoon away from home where he couldn’t control his life.

Gerry, who was happy enough at the idea that Jon would visit and that he would get to avoid Peter at the same time, was still suspicious about what had caused Jon’s week of senseless rebellion. Jon didn’t want Gerry trying something against Peter, so he half-lied and said it had just been too much, and that Peter hadn’t done anything special, but he hated having to be around him anymore.

April ended with tensions still high, but falling, and with a bright point to look forward to: Michael grinned at Jon and invited him to a small party for Gerry that weekend to celebrate his birthday. And while Michael was certainly more excited about it than Gerry, Jon didn’t miss the way Gerry went quiet and wouldn’t look at him until he said he was going to go, after which he pretended he didn’t care and it wasn’t going to be a big deal anyway.

Elias reluctantly agreed to take Jon to the party that weekend, which ended up being only a little larger than Jon’s own, four months before. In addition to Jon, Elias and Rosie, Emma was also there, and Gertrude had been invited. (Jon was very, very happy that she had declined). Gerry took Jon to his room, which was a little small, but looked very much like Gerry’s room, with dark sheets on his bed, blackout curtains in dark blue, and little eyes carved all over the walls, bedposts and wardrobe. When Jon pointed these out, Gerry shrugged and said, “I think I see spiders, sometimes. I figure, if I’m going to be connected to all of these Beholding people, might as well get something out of it, right?”

“Just as long as you don’t get eye tattoos,” Jon said uneasily, feeling both welcomed and repulsed by the room. Not that he would let Gerry know that, so he quickly changed the subject and Gerry showed him around Michael’s flat while the adults talked in the living room.

It was good to see how Gerry and Michael shared the space with each other: not too easily, maybe, but Michael smiled at Gerry a lot, and Gerry didn’t scowl back, and there was a comfort about them both that indicated to Jon that they weren’t in conflict, even if they also weren’t exactly on the same page, either.

The party was fun, overall. Jon got Gerry a deck of cards with an adorable pink cartoon cat on the back, as well as a small plush toy of the same cat. He tried his best to look guileless while Gerry opened it and glared at him, but could only manage it for a few seconds before he burst out laughing. Elias had bought him a black hoodie with a glowing green eye design, while Rosie, Emma and Michael all got him a Gameboy like Jon had, with different games, including a blue cartridge that Jon recognized, despite never having played the game before. He hadn’t realized those games had been along this long.

While they ate cake Emma told them about pranks she used to pull back when she was in school, her eyes glinting happily in Elias and Michael’s direction as she gave the two of them ideas of how to mess with their guardians.

By the time they were driving home for the night, and Jon was dozing in the car, he was reminded of just how normal his life felt, at times like these. More normal than it had even back when he was a real child, and had never been invited to a party such as this. He couldn’t help the small spike of guilt that dug at his side every time he thought as much; he wasn’t supposed to be spending his days having fun and playing at being a real child. He had a real mission to focus on. He looked at Elias, driving, and frowned.

Had he done anything to help save the world since arriving back in time?

He shoved the thought deep into his mind again. He would think about it later. He was asleep before they got home, and Elias didn’t wake him up to bring him upstairs to his room.

Two weeks later, Jon and Gerry were indulging in their new past time of loitering in the lobby of the Institute and trying to guess which of the visitors had real stories to tell. There weren’t very many visitors; maybe an average of two each day, with a slow day getting none, and a busy one as many as five. Still, since it was known that the Magnus Institute turned no one away, there was always the chance to see truly amusing things walking through the door, such as the lady who had brought in a terrified cat in a carrier and demanded that Rosie bring out ‘their exorcist’ to set Muffles back to normal.

When the frightened man with the slumped shoulders and the brown coat came in, Jon wasn’t sure what it was about him that caught his attention, like a hook pulling his head to look. He didn’t think he had ever seen the man before, and nothing about him was particularly remarkable. Gerry himself didn’t seem to note anything strange, as he barely looked up before going back to the game he was playing.

Jon couldn’t look away, and it wasn’t until the man spoke to Rosie, then was escorted inside, that Jon realized his skin was buzzing again, very faintly. He swallowed and looked away the moment the man was out of sight, though not a moment sooner. He had felt the rising of that power sometimes, when he got close to certain people, but he had been very careful not to touch them and activate it. To play it safe, he should take Gerry and leave, go back to their office so the man would be able to leave in peace.

He didn’t move. The feeling in his skin grew stronger, nearly painful, and Gerry finally paused his game to look him over. He leaned over and adjusted Jon’s eye patch, frowning.

“Jon?” He asked him.

“I—I think I need help,” Jon mumbled. Gerry sat up straighter, surprised.

“What do you need?”

“I—” need to leave, he couldn’t say. It felt like something had taken over control of his lungs and voice, and wouldn’t let the words leave. That man was here to give a statement, Jon was certain. Here to give a statement… and in danger, present and unavoidable, of something else.

Jon” Gerry shook him a little, looking increasingly worried. Jon hadn’t noticed he had closed his eyes.

Did he recognize that man? Should he? He might be one of the many statement-givers whose lives and misery he had read, fed upon in the future. He might be someone who needed help, who Jon could help, if he wasn’t so useless.

If he wasn’t so hungry.

No. No this is wrong. I’ve barely used any of it. I should be dependent on it this soon, Jon thought, desperately. It had been going away. It had been getting better.

Gerry hugged him, unsure of what else to do, and Jon clung to him, hoping that Gerry would keep him from doing anything stupid or evil.

When the man came back out, half an hour later, a weary, lifeless expression on his face, Jon jumped to his feet. He didn’t—he couldn’t—he didn’t have to use his ability on him. But maybe if he could ask what he was here for, and remember who he was, he would have a better idea of how his new power worked, and who he should be avoiding. That sounded reasonable, didn’t it?

The man almost walked into him, and only stopped at the last minute when he noticed Jon in his path.

“Who are you?” Jon asked, desperate, hugging himself to keep from reaching out.

The man blinked, looked at Jon, then blinked again and took in Jon, in his bright green scarf, orange pants, red and white-striped shirt and purple boots.

“Alfred Breekon,” the man said after another puzzled moment of staring down at Jon. Jon froze, because he remembered that statement. Not only the statement, but the body he had found when he had gone to look into it. His feeling made sense now.

This is a doomed man, he thought, and only half of him was horrified.

The other half was delighted.

He couldn’t remember deciding to move, but his hand was there anyway, reaching to pat Alfred Breekon’s arm, and the push was effortless.

A box is waiting, dark and heavy and full of his death. He knows he shouldn’t open it, but he knows he can’t leave it. They had taken his life already, taken it apart piece by piece. He stares at the box, he stares at his death, and knows that it will kill him.

 When it opens, all he could feel is pain. Pain on the inside, endless, too slow and too fast, as whatever was inside the box is really inside of him all along, and he laughs, and he cries, and he dies, as he is consumed, just as his life already had been consumed long before this moment.

He never sees what kills him. Even in death, he can never understand the why, or the how, or any of the questions he has grown too weary to ask.

Chapter Text

Jon didn’t black out or fall this time. He saw the memory—future memory?—vision?—in seconds, but he was also aware of his own body, still standing in front of Alfred Breekon in the lobby of the Institute, his hand touching the man’s arm. He saw Alfred’s eyes widen and go distant, as he saw the same images Jon did; saw him tremble and tear away the moment he could, his breathing rapid and desperate.

“Wha-what—what was that?” he stammered, looking at Jon like he wasn’t sure what he was seeing. Jon stared back, feeling numb, sated and distant. He could taste the fear that had blossomed so suddenly from a source extinguished nearly by desperation and lost hope. Alfred Breekon had known he was going to die, but he hadn’t known how. And whatever kindness there had been in that lack of knowledge, Jon had torn it away.

Gerry grabbed him and pulled him back, a violent gesture that seemed to rattle some of Jon’s brains back into place, and with them the sickness of knowing what he had just done to a man who was already condemned. It had been such a natural act, in that moment, to reach out and get what he needed from that man.

To make him aware of a truth he had been too afraid to pursue on his own. This feeding, more than whatever he had done to Gertrude and Mary Keay, felt like the work of the Eye. He shivered, still not all the way back to being aware of where he was and what was happening, but he knew the arms around him, pulling him away, were Gerry’s, and he trusted Gerry, so he allowed himself to be led, while his mind spun.

Both he and Elias had theorized that his new abilities seemed to draw on aspects of all three entities that had marked him. Could it be that he could draw more on one entity than the others, when he used it? He hardly needed to manipulate circumstances, after all, when it had been all but certain that Alfred Breekon was going to meet his end soon. Nor did he need to muddle his mind to make him think it wasn’t really going to happen, as Gertrude had mentioned feeling, since he was heading towards his own death willingly. No, the main aspect of this one was in making the poor man know exactly what he was going to go through, and know that he was being watched as he did, and that there was nothing anyone could—anyone would—do to help him.

Jon was pushed down into a seat, but he jumped to his feet immediately. He was aware enough of where he was – Elias’ office – to dive right for his office bin before he started throwing up.

What the fuck? What the fuck had that been? It had been a little like what he had done before, but at the same time it had been nothing like it. He had known what he was doing, though he had tried to pretend otherwise. It had been like… like those times, with those innocent people he cornered, back before Martin had figured out what he was doing. The pull had been so strong, so unavoidable, he couldn’t help the shudders that ran through his body.

Because he wasn’t an avatar. He knew that much. He might be on the path, but there was no way he was so far lost to it that he would feed on instinct, like he had when he had been the Archivist, and used up too much of his power.

Something was wrong with him.

He felt someone with a hand on his back, and for a moment he panicked thinking it was Gerry, because at that moment he couldn’t trust himself. What if he acted on that terrible instinct again, and pulled Gerry into one of those visions? Would he see him die, then be unable to do anything to stop it from happening?

But the hand was too big, and familiar in the way it pulled back the hair from his face, like it did a few times every month when Jon awoke from nightmares that left him in a near panic. Jon managed to swallow instead of heaving again, and he heard Elias make a soothing noise.

“Could you go get him some water?” Elias asked Gerry, who was quick to comply, running out of the office. Elias leaned down next to Jon, looking at his face, then gently lifted the corner of his eye patch. “Ah,” he said, and Jon blinked a few times against the sudden light in his eye. “Care to tell me what just happened?”

Jon swallowed, and swallowed again, hoping he could have that promised drink of water because his mouth tasted foul, and his mind was still caught up in the nightmare visions of Alfred Breekon’s death.

“I didn’t mean to,” was the first thing out of his mouth. Which was such a lie, even if he desperately wanted it to be the truth. “I—I just saw him and—”

“And you knew you could use your ability on him,” Elias finished. “And you wanted to use your ability on him.”

Jon frowned and looked down. That wasn’t what he meant, not really. Because he was pretty sure he had sensed other visitors to the institution who he could have preyed on, while he and Gerry did their people-watching game. None of them had pulled him in the way Alfred Breekon had.

Was it because of who he was? Because he had written a statement that Jon had fed from in the future? Maybe, though Jon hadn’t known who he was at the time he had gone to speak with him. Still, if the Eye wasthe one to pull Jon to him, and the Eye knew what Jon knew about the future, it could have drawn him in because of that connection.

“He was going to die anyway,” Jon said, needing to explain, but knowing he shouldn’t. He wanted Elias’ opinion, though. He needed to understand what was happening to him. “I—I think he was, anyway. That’s what he looked like. It—he didn’t want to know. What I showed him. That’s why I showed it to him?” He knew he wasn’t making sense or being coherent, but he couldn’t help it. Every sentence he spoke, he wanted to take back. Because this Jon shouldn’t know what was included in the statement Alfred Breekon had so recently written.

“Ah,” Elias said again, but Jon could tell that he understood at least some of what Jon was trying to say, and was pleased by it. Jon’s heart sank, and he was reminded of how stupid he was being. Elias wanted him bound tighter to the Eye. Whatever Jon said that gave evidence of that, he would push Jon towards, not help him avoid.

Gerry returned with the water, and Jon was spared having to look at Elias’ smug grin as he spat a mouthful of water into the plastic lined bin, then swallowed the rest.

“Jon? Are you ok?” Gerry asked worriedly. Jon avoided looking at him too. How could he look at Gerry, after what he had just done? How could Gerry ever trust him when he had so little control of himself?

“Could you give us a minute, Gerard?” Elias asked, and Jon felt a spike of fear, though he didn’t know if it was at the idea that Gerry would leave, or that he might stay.

Jon heard Gerry move, but it was only to get closer and kneel down on Jon’s other side, lowering his head to force Jon to meet his eyes. “I’ll be just outside, ok?” He said, and Jon couldn’t help searching his expression for… something. He looked worried. He didn’t look horrified or disgusted, though Jon knew he really should. Maybe he didn’t really understand what had happened?

Maybe he could stay friends with him a little longer? Could Elias help him get control of himself, at least enough to keep Gerry safe from him? A distant, logical part of himself knew that the best way to keep Gerry safe would be to keep him at a distance, but the larger, selfish part of him wanted to cling to him for as long as he was able.

He reached out and squeezed Gerry’s hand, waiting there just next to him, and was almost weak with relief that nothing happened at the contact. Gerry squeezed back, hard, and then he stood up and went outside to give him and Elias the room.

“Can you get up on the chair?” Elias asked him gently. Jon didn’t want to, but he didn’t think he was about to throw up anymore, so he nodded, and allowed Elias to help him up and into his chair. Elias backed off and leaned against the side of his desk, looking down at Jon. “Will you explain to me what happened?”

Jon took a deep breath and brought both hands to scrub at his face. His mind wasn’t working right. His thoughts felt both sluggish and out of his grasp. This was not the time to try to have a conversation like this. Not when he had to be careful not to slip up about future knowledge. Not while a part of him was still luxuriating in the feeling of being, finally, sated.

But if he said nothing, that would tell Elias something, too. Mainly, that Jon had something to hide. Which, well, he did, and Elias already knew that, but… but he couldn’t think, and he couldn’t figure out what would be better or worse, and all he wanted was for Elias to explain to him what was going on.

“It was like that time with Gertrude,” Jon said, trying to make sense of things, hoping that, if he was doing the wrong thing, it wouldn’t be the mistake to tip things into an end-of-the-world scenario. “Only it wasn’t at all like that.”

“That’s very clear, thank you,” Elias said, but even his sarcasm seemed gentler than usual, and it was enough to pull Jon farther out of his panic so he could look up at him and glare.

“I felt that buzzing under my skin again, as soon as I saw him,” Jon tried again. He hesitated, then added, “I can feel it sometimes, with some people,” he admitted, because it was going to come up sooner or later, and he would rather volunteer it if it meant he could get away with keeping other, more important things secret later.

“It’s the way you know who you can use your ability on,” Elias prompted, and Jon nodded.

“It doesn’t always feel the same. I don’t—I’m not sure how to describe it. This time it was… overwhelming. I couldn’t look away when he was in the room. I didn’t want to hurt him—I mean, I don’t think I did, and I didn’t know who he was so I had nothing against him—” unlike when he had tried to use his ability on Peter, and failed. Jon stopped and tried again. “There was something different this time.”

Elias looked thoughtful, then he reached around Jon to pick up the phone at his desk. “Hi, Rosie? Would you be kind enough to go and bring me the statement that was recorded by the man who recently left? Yes, that one. Thank you.” He put the phone down. “It seems our earlier guesses were close to the truth; your abilities only trigger with people who are already involved with an entity,” Elias said. “It would have been useful to know you were getting these ‘buzzing’ feelings, however. Even without acting on it, we could have seen what those you identify have in common.”

“They’re in danger, or already doomed,” Jon said without thinking. Elias looked at him, assessing.

“How do you know?”

Jon shrugged, helpless. “I just do,” and the pieces clicked together in his mind, even as he spoke them. But it couldn’t be right, could it? The door in his mind was closed as tightly as ever. All of his abilities as the Archivist were beyond his grasp, including Knowing.

But this is a new bond linking me to Beholding, Jon thought. Could he be regaining a new version of Knowing, from scratch, using his new connection? It didn’t feel like it had before, when he would be thinking of something and suddenly be full of Knowing about it. He didn’t think any of it reached his conscious mind. Something in him could simply know that a person was in danger of being hurt, or already in the process of being hurt, and communicated that to Jon with that strange new sense under his skin.

Rosie came to the door while Jon was thinking. When Elias opened it, Jon saw Gerry trying to peek inside. As Elias moved to close the door after receiving the handwritten paper from Rosie, Jon called out.

“Can he come in?”

Elias paused. “You want him to hear this?” He asked. Jon hugged himself. No, he didn’t want Gerry to hear. But he needed him to. Maybe if he had explained better, Gerry could have held him back and stopped him from touching Alfred. Some of his old fear almost got him to change his mind, but he was thinking more clearly now, and he clamped down on it. Gerry deserved to know what he was getting into. He would not be protecting him from anything if he kept what was happening to him a secret.

“Yes,” Jon said, and if his voice wobbled a little, that was alright. He was doing the right thing. Gerry beamed at him, and slipped inside without asking for Elias’ permission, which was a first. Elias rolled his eyes, closed his door, then shooed Jon out of his chair. They rearranged themselves in the room, so that Elias was in his usual seat behind his desk, while Jon and Gerry sat opposite him in the chairs reserved for visitors.

While Jon and Gerry sat, Elias looked at the papers in his hand and quickly read through Alfred Breekon’s statement. Gerry gave Jon a worried, questioning look, and Jon could only shrug in response. He could fill Gerry in with what he had missed later.

“Ah,” was all Elias said when he was done reading them. He looked at Jon, and the corner of his mouth turned up in a smile, though there was tension in his shoulders. “Would you care to give me the details of the vision you gave to Mr.Breekon?”

Gerry, who was holding Jon’s hand, tightened his grip.

Jon, keeping his eyes on Elias, did so, trying to keep it as short as possible. When he was done, Elias slid Alfred’s statement over to Jon.

Jon didn’t need to read it again, but Elias didn’t know that. He took the pages and read them, with Gerry leaning on his shoulder to read alongside him.

“I only showed him what he was already set on doing anyway,” Jon said, repeating what he already knew.

“Or you gave him a chance to change his fate,” Gerry said quietly, pulling the papers toward him and reading through them again.

“Gertrude said she was only able to change small details of the vision you gave her,” Elias said, and Jon wondered when Elias had gone to speak with her again to gain that information. “She did what she could to break it completely, but in the end the scene was set just as predicted, regardless of what she did.”

Jon remembered the extra lights Gertrude had brought into the Archives in preparation. Couldn’t she have simply stayed away? The cultists wouldn’t have gone after her, and she would have been safe.

But she didn’t know why the attack happened, only that it did. And the Archives are her place of power, so it is where she would choose to make a stance, when all else was uncertain. Which had to have been part of the manipulation to get the prediction to happen in the first place, didn’t it? Had she not been able to be dragged into that situation, would Jon have simply been unable to push the vision into her?

Mary had brought books that countered the lights Gertrude set up. Jon and Gerry had been in the right time and place to distract matters enough for Mary to get the upper hand and stab Gertrude in the back. The only difference, as Elias said, was a small detail of where the stab landed, which turned it from mortal to simply dangerous.

“Once the vision is set, you can’t avoid the… the tableau,” Jon said. “If I can make the vision happen, then it’s because I—or, the Web, or however it works—can guarantee that it will happen.” It wasn’t a strong power, Jon knew. It couldn’t be, not with how new Jon was to it. With Mary, there had hardly been any need for setting the stage; a delay of a few seconds, maybe, for Elias to find them, and for a Lucas to be in the right place to send Mary into the Lonely, instead of simply killing her. With Gertrude, a nudge here and there; to get Mary to bring the right books, maybe. To get Gertrude to be in the right place at the right time, ironically because she was trying to avoid the prediction. Little manipulations that Jon knew he was responsible for, though he had no idea how he had done so.

Just as he didn’t really have access to the Knowing that led him to his potential victims, but he could still sense the end result of it.

“But Gertrude didn’t die,” Gerry said. “Maybe she couldn’t get out of getting hurt, but she used the vision to save herself, didn’t she?”

Had Gerry been speaking with Gertrude, too? That was more than a little alarming.

“She made herself some protective paneling and wove it into the back of her shirt, yes,” Elias agreed, which finally cleared up to Jon how she had managed to survive. “She said it got caught in her coat and barely deflected the knife, however.”

Which implied that while you could beat Jon’s visions, it wouldn’t be easy, and wouldn’t come without a cost. Especially since they were disregarding the third element to Jon’s power.

“She knew to ignore the Spiral’s influence telling her that it wasn’t true,” Jon said. And how many people would be able to do as much, really? How could you focus on defeating a vision of the future, when you were spending all of your time fighting your own perceptions and doubting your sanity?

“Why would it do that?” Gerry asked. “I mean, if you get the vision, but you don’t believe it, it wouldn’t be all that scary, would it?”

“Because you don’t know,” Jon said. “Because you can’t tell if it’s real or not, and that is scary in and of itself, and just when you calm down and convince yourself it’s not real, the doubt creeps back in, and you think it’s real, and the vision returns and you remember, and just when you’re out of your mind terrified of what you know will happen—you doubt it again. Because no one can see the future. And your mind is playing tricks on you.”

Jon didn’t like the Spiral. He especially didn’t like how intuitively he understood it, these days.

Just like with the Eye or the Web, the bit of his power that depended on the Spiral was incomplete. He didn’t know how he messed with his victim’s mind the way he knew he did. His power felt less like his own tool, and more like a black box he could aim at certain people and set off, with little control over what happened apart from whether or not to get it started.

And going by my behavior today, little enough control over that, either, Jon thought.

Was it a side effect of being an ability made from the cooperation of three distinct entities? Or maybe of being of no entity, and only of the shades of many in between. Because he was taking advantage of people who were already being fed on by others: Gertrude by the Dark, Mary by the Lonely, and Alfred by whatever Breekon and Hope were (the Stranger?). His power had an alarming degree of… cooperation, for lack of a better word, with the other entities. Fear of death, for one; two of his three predictions so far ended there, after all.

“It’s still an opportunity,” Gerry said, determined. “You read this. The man was going to his death anyway. If we could go and find him, explain things to him, I bet we could figure out the loophole to his death, just like Gertrude did.”

Jon looked at him, feeling tears gather in his eyes, and something like hope spread warm tendrils around his heart. Gerry had a point. Jon hadn’t even thought about it, but if nothing else, his vision also gave them a single point in time where they knew where everything was. He didn’t really know how he would go about stopping an evil death box, but Alfred wasn’t any worse off than he had been initially, really.

“No.” Elias said. Gerry turned to look at him, and for the first time Jon could remember, looked at Elias stubbornly. “No, you will not go and try to save this man. Forget that neither of you know how to stop the artefact that will kill him; you don’t know where he lives, you don’t have a way of getting there, you don’t have the time to figure out how to save him or find him, and most importantly, I will not allow you to cross paths with those… creatures.” He said the last distastefully.

Jon felt a chill run down his back. He didn’t want to run into Breekon and Hope any more than Elias wanted him to. Even Gerry looked hesitant, with everything laid out the way Elias had. Had they stopped Alfred from leaving the Institute, they might have had a chance to help him. Most likely, they hadn’t been able to because Jon had set him down this path, and Alfred was going to meet with his end one way or another.

Gerry looked down, frustrated. He still held Jon’s hand. He hadn’t ever hesitated, or let go. Jon felt a little bad, to feel happy about such a thing when a man he had condemned to a horrible fate was on his way to meet it, but he couldn’t help it. Bad things happened. Mostly, he could do nothing to stop them, and he would feel terrible about it later. For now, he could hold Gerry’s hand and pretend he wasn’t the monster he knew himself to be becoming.

They talked about it for another hour, but didn’t say anything new. Jon gave Gerry permission to stop him from approaching strangers if he ever acted in such a way again, and Elias rolled his eyes like he thought it was a childish precaution. Elias told Jon that he would expect him to keep a journal of everyone he met who he felt was a possible victim, including details on what his ‘buzzing’ felt like for each one. When Jon and Gerry left to go back to their own room, Gerry was instantly pulling Jon out again, this time to ask Rosie to get him a copy of the yellow pages.

With that in their hands, they went back to their office, and Gerry started scanning the book for numbers associated with ‘Alfred Breekon’ and for the location of ‘Breekon and Hope Shipping’.

“We can at least try to warn him,” Gerry said, flipping through the pages. “It can’t hurt, right?”

Jon wasn’t so sure about that, but he was willing to go as far as Gerry wanted to go. Half an hour later, Gerry had a few numbers jotted down in his notebook, and he and Jon went to the phone in the room to start trying them out with the phone on speaker.

The call for Breekon and Hope Shipping was picked up by one horribly familiar voice, in an accent just as ridiculous as Jon remembered it.

“Yes, I’d like to speak to Alfred Breekon, please,” Gerry said, while Jon was frozen.

“No one here by that name,” one voice said, and another one, more distant from the phone, added, “Anything we can help you with?”

“No thanks,” Jon said quickly and hung up the phone.

“What was that for?” Gerry asked, surprised.

“I think that was them,” Jon said, heart beating rapidly. “The two that replaced him. In-in the statement.”

Gerry frowned, but didn’t try to contradict him. He went down his list of numbers instead, going through the five ‘Alfred Breekon’s in the phone book. The fourth one was picked up by the same voice as before.

“Not polite to hang up like that,” One of them said.

“S-sorry for the bother,” Jon said quickly, and hung up. Gerry looked a little unsettled this time, too.

“I don’t reckon it would be too safe for us to the address here if those two are using his phone lines, would it?” He said, not expecting an answer.

The rest of the afternoon was subdued. Gerry put the phone book in a corner of the room, hidden between the bookshelf and the couch (“in case we need it later”) but neither of them felt like diving into school or a game. They ended up sprawled together on the couch, with Gerry trying to explain to Jon the plot of Power Rangers, which Jon found baffling, and Gerry assured him he only knew as much as he did because he often had to watch televisions with only a single working channel, back when he was traveling with his mum.

It was a bad distraction, but it was an excuse to sit close together and keep their heads together, whispering and trying to pretend there was nothing to be afraid of.

Jon dreamed of Alfred Breekon’s death, again and again. He was standing in the room it was to happen, watching every time that Alfred Breekon hesitated in front of the box, then watching as he was torn apart from the inside, as the dusty room was covered in gore, as the doomed man died with only questions and regrets for company.

As the dead man’s eyes found his, in a moment before the scene was reset, and recognition lit them up, and hatred and terror entered again, just before the room blurred and it started all over again.

When Jon woke up, sweating and trembling, but without any nausea, he knew that Alfred Breekon had not opened the box when he had returned from the Institute last night. He had little doubt the man would open it today, if only to avoid another night like this one.

“Don’t pick at your food,” Elias scolded him during breakfast. Jon, who had been pushing his eggs from one side of the plate to the other, forced himself to take another bite.

“He didn’t deserve it,” Jon said morosely.

“Does anyone?” Elias said, knowing instantly what Jon was talking about. “You didn’t make him do anything he wasn’t already going to do.”

“I made it worse for him,” Jon said.

“You gave him knowledge. It’s up to him to use it,” Elias said dismissively. Jon frowned at him. It almost sounded like Elias was trying to make him feel better. “Keeping our distance and letting events play out is how we serve Beholding.” Jon scowled back at his eggs. Of course Elias wouldn’t comfort him. He was just trying to manipulate Jon further into being an unrepentant monster of his god.

They rode in silence to work that day, and Jon was ready to sprint away the moment they entered the lobby (Elias had finally loosened his restriction on Jon being allowed alone to the few minutes in the morning and afternoon that it took before Gerry arrived and left with Michael). Rosie intercepted them before he could, giving Jon a funny look.

“This came for you today, Jon” she said, carrying a small cardboard box with her. “A couple of strange delivery men came in, not half an hour ago.” She was looking at Elias while she spoke, and wasn’t reaching out to give Jon the package.

Jon froze, eyes locked on the box. The last time Breekon and Hope had delivered anything to him, it had been the Coffin; before that, the Table that trapped the Not Them. Whatever it was, it couldn’t be good. It would probably be smart to simply send the box to Artefact storage and forget it existed.

But he couldn’t do that. He needed to see what it was, because he was certain that it was in response to his act on Alfred the day before, or to the calls he and Gerry had put in. Even if it was a threat—especially if it was a threat—Jon needed to know.

Elias took the box and thanked Rosie, then went into his own office, with Jon following quietly behind. Jon tried to reach out to open it, but Elias pushed him back.

“I’m more durable than you are, Jon,” Elias said. “Keep your distance, please.”

Unhappy but unable to contradict him, Jon did as he was told. Elias took a letter opener from his desk and cut the tape around the box, then opened it. He looked inside, shook his head, then used the knife to cut the cardboard sides instead of pulling whatever was inside out.

There was a note, tucked in at the bottom, which fluttered to the floor when Elias opened the box up. It was handwritten, with long, cursive script that Jon had trouble making out. He bent down to read it.


If you want to share a meal, its polite to ask first.

But if he caught your eye, here’s a keepsake to keep him alive in your heart


Jon looked up from the note to what had been in the box, and his face twisted in revulsion. It was clockwork heart, made up of hundreds of little cogs and wheels from a dark, reddish metal, with small tubes that connected it back into itself, and a dark liquid that flowed inside of it at the pace of the turning of the cogs. It looked anatomically correct, except for it not being made from flesh, and the beating of it was kept by a loud ticking of an internal gear that Jon couldn’t see. There was something in the middle of the heart, though, in between all the clever little gears, that stood out, white among the brownish red.

When he tried to look closer, something shifted, and the white turned to brown, and Jon realized that the entire thing was hooked up to an eye, cradled there in the center, dry and almost alive looking. The same color as Alfred Breekon’s eye had been.

He didn’t know why this didn’t make him retch, when his stomach could be so easily turned in other circumstances. He remembered the note, and felt a distant sickness. Even if it is his eye, they can’t actually keep him alive through that, can they? In the nightmare future world, maybe. But this one still had to at least pretend to follow the laws of reality. So he convinced himself the eye was just a gruesome prank, of the sort the Stranger liked so much, and that Alfred Breekon was simply dead, and his suffering over.

“You won’t try to touch it, will you?” Elias asked, eying Jon warily, as though ready to tackle him if he tried. Jon shook his head. “Because I don’t know what it does, exactly, but it wouldn’t be pleasant.”

“Could we destroy it?” Jon asked. Elias shrugged.

“Maybe. Might not be the smartest move. It’s hard to predict how the servants of the Stranger react to anything. If they consider this a gift, you could be making an enemy if you try.”

Jon wanted to destroy it anyway, but he knew Elias had a point. Not that he had any intention of playing nice with the Stranger this time around, but avoiding them as outright enemies was probably smart.

“We can leave it in Artefact storage,” Elias said. “And we can hope they’ll forget you exist. And if there’s any way you can figure out which entity is hunting your potential victims, I’d suggest we stay away from any being chased by the Stranger.”

Jon nodded and looked away from the clockwork heart, knowing that as soon as he had the chance, he was going to sneak in there and destroy it anyway. With Gerry’s help, though, and maybe a plan this time. But if there was any chance that part of Alfred Breekon’s mind was trapped within that heart, then he couldn’t justify doing nothing. But it was also an unpleasant reminder of what happened when he acted without thinking, and for once, he was going to think ahead and ask for help.

Just as soon as he figured out how to do it without Elias instantly knowing what he was doing.

Chapter Text

After the events of the last two weeks, Gerry decided that May had, overall, been a terrible month, despite the good start his birthday had made of it. First there was the whole Jon attacking Alfred Breekon situation, which Gerry didn’t like to think about, except to fix the distracted, empty look on Jon’s face to his mind so that the next time Jon was tempted to go after someone, Gerry would know to stop him.

Then, just the next morning, there was gruesome “present” which Gerry had fortunately missed out on seeing, though Jon had described it to him so vividly that he felt like he had. When he hinted that he wanted to get it back and destroy it, using a straight-forward metaphor from a game that both he and Gerry had been playing, Gerry had agreed. There followed a week of planning while they kept to the same code Jon had started using, under the pretense that they were still talking about the game, since Elias could apparently see them constantly and wouldn’t approve of what they were doing.

When they had left their shared room halfway through the morning on a Wednesday when Jon was sure Elias had a meeting, they had taken with them Gerry’s backpack, filled with a hammer he had taken from Michael’s toolbox, a lighter, and a couple of bottles of liquor also taken from Michael’s pantry. When they opened the door, however, they couldn’t take a step inside, for Elias was waiting on the other side, arms crossed and an exasperated expression on his face.

Jon and Gerry were marched back out and to Elias’ office, where Elias had stepped inside with Jon, spoken with him for a few minutes, then come back out to bring Gerry to the other office. As a consequence of their attempt, Elias kept Jon in his office and forbid him from talking with Gerry for the rest of the week. The three days apart hadn’t been fun, but Gerry knew the kind of punishments someone with access to the powers could use, and an extended ‘time-out’ was pretty mild, really, even if Jon now made an angry-cat face every time Elias got close to them, and hadn’t mentioned destroying the object since.

More painful was the memory of the talk Elias had with Gerard, alone in the office that was Gerry’s and Jon’s. Elias had, in calm, clipped words, told Gerard that he expected better of him, and that he was supposed to keep Jon safe, not indulge him in being reckless. Gerard hadn’t been able to look Elias in the eye, gut squirming like there were worms writhing inside. He wanted to say that it was better for Jon to take him along rather than to go on his own, but he had been just as keen to go and destroy the monstrous creation as Jon had, if a little more cautious. He had assumed that he was acting as a calming influence on Jon and helping to slow him down, but was Jon the one influencing him to be more careless?

He couldn’t afford to be reckless when it came to the powers, or to Jon’s approach to them. Especially not when Jon was depending on him to keep him, for lack of a better word, human. Gerry took that responsibility seriously, knowing just how badly Jon tore himself up about what had happened to the poor Breekon man. He thought a lot about what Elias said, and about what he had been thinking when Jon first brought up the idea to destroy the clockwork heart.

He decided that he cared more about keeping Jon safe than he did about potentially saving the strange man from suffering. It wasn’t a comfortable realization to come to; he liked to think he was a better person than his mum, who wouldn’t have cared about Alfred Breekon’s fate. But he wasn’t a hero, or even a particularly good person. He was the same kid who had hung around quietly in the background of his mum’s crimes and done nothing to help. Whatever fantasies he had about saving people from the Leitners that had cursed his life, he could give them up if only he could become strong enough to protect Jon, his first and best friend.

It was this new attitude which, ironically enough, sparked the first real fight he and Jon had. The week before, with the two of them finally reunited after Elias’ separation. Gerry and Jon had been looking over one of the statements from the Archive that Gerry had nicked when he had accompanied Michael to his office in the morning. It was a painfully familiar one about a Leitner that Gerry had come across before with his mum, which caused the people who read it to be forgotten by everyone that knew them. Jon had mentioned how the statement, from less than two months before, mentioned the place the woman who had been its victim had hidden the tome.

A week before, Gerry would have enthusiastically agreed to look into it, and helped Jon plan a way to destroy the book before anyone else got to it. That day, still fresh from his revelation about his own priorities when it came to keeping Jon away from danger, he had told Jon to drop it.

Jon hadn’t taken it well. Jon, who had always been far too good at interpreting what Gerry meant, even when his words were clumsy or unable to be spoken at all, had become angry.

“I don’t need you to make my decisions for me too!” Jon had snapped. “I’m not trying to hurt myself or whatever other nonsense you and Elias think!” and that had sent a chill down Gerry’s spine. Because as much as Jon was able to understand Gerry, Gerry had become able to understand Jon—and Jon never blurted out things he hadn’t already thought over a hundred times before.

“You’re not?” Gerry had asked, without thinking, and Jon had shot to his feet and glared at Gerry in a way he never had before.

“No I’m not!” He had shouted. “I might be a little—a little impulsive, sure, but it’s not because I want to hurt myself! I would be very happy if I never got hurt again, thanks!”

Gerry might have believed it, if he hadn’t heard from Jon’s own mouth how he had made a deal with two powers to try and help Gerry, back when they hadn’t known each other for more than a day. If he hadn’t seen the way that guilt ate away at Jon over what had happened with Alfred Breekon. Because seeing it, and recognizing it for what it was, had allowed Gerry to put together things he hadn’t realized before.

Jon always felt guilty. Of what, Gerry had no idea. Jon acted as though he had done something terrible to everyone, and was a step behind in trying to make up for it. He acted as though he not only expected to be punished for it, but in some way wanted to be punished.

It was why Gerry couldn’t ignore his comment, especially not when he confirmed that Elias was afraid of the same thing. It solidified his commitment to making sure Jon didn’t put himself into the danger he was prone to. He was going to have to protect Jon from himself as much as from anything else, but he was determined to do it, because he had never had anyone in his life that he cared about the way he cared about Jon, and he was damned if he was going to lose him the way he lost everything else.

Jon saw that Gerry didn’t believe him, and had sulked for the rest of the day, refusing to talk to him no matter how many times Gerry tried to engage him in conversation. The only reason Gerry hadn’t become a puddle of anxious nerves over possibly losing his friend after that day was that he still sat next to Gerry on the couch in the afternoon, his feet kicked up on Gerry’s lap as he worked quietly. Jon liked to sit close and to touch, Gerry knew. It was often the only way to calm him down if he was having a bad day, and so long as Jon was still touching him, Gerry knew that things weren’t really bad.

Still, Gerry wished they weren’t fighting, and he had no idea how to fix it. Having never had a friend before, and therefore having never fought with a friend before, he wasn’t sure if what they were going through was normal. He didn’t want to apologize, because that felt insincere since he thought he was right, and he figured that talking any more about it would just lead to a bigger fight between the two of them.

That had been last Thursday, and though Friday had been a little less strained (Jon had said a few words to him throughout the day, and had fallen asleep on his shoulder in the afternoon), Gerry was still feeling anxious and uncertain throughout Saturday, half-hoping that Jon would call, half-dreading it.

When Michael asked him to come and sit down with him on Sunday afternoon to talk, looking uncharacteristically serious, Gerry had been nervous enough that he almost bolted. He didn’t, though, because he didn’t want to worry Michael, and it was one of Michael’s few rules that Gerry not run away without a destination in mind, which is what Gerry would have done if he had left the house at that moment.

As they sat across from each other at the table, Michael refusing to meet his eyes and eying a spread of folders in front of him, Gerry dug his hands into his hoodie’s pockets and scratched the fabric from the inside, trying to keep himself from fidgeting. It looked like Michael was preparing himself for a confrontation, which was really not one of Michael’s strong points. In the months they had spent together, the closest Gerry had ever seen him to being angry was when he had found him back in his mum’s shop, and that was more worried than it was angry. He had set down a few rules around the house afterwards, but even those were… gentle? Could you describe rules as gentle? He never would have thought it, before having come to live with Michael.

He wasn’t to leave without letting Michael know where he was going, or without taking his keys and the wallet Michael had gotten him with him (it included, amusingly enough, Michael’s phone number both at home and at work, the address to his flat, as well as an amount of money that continued to refill itself while Gerry slept, meaning that Michael made sure he was never out). He felt a little bit like a lost dog with a tag on its collar, only Michael always treated him like he cared about his opinions and what he had to say, so he couldn’t summon more than a little bit of annoyance about it all.

Never mind that Michael allowed him to leave the house whenever he wanted—or, well, almost whenever, since Michael had asked him not to go out after midnight, but as usual, it was more of a plea than a rule, and Gerry followed it more because there was little to do out on his own than because he thought he would get in trouble for doing so.

Another rule—request?—was that he had to tell Michael if he felt uncomfortable or unsafe. Gerry didn’t really know what to do about that. They lived in a world with fear gods and their servants, and fucked up books that could swallow children and spit them out with broken minds, and Michael didn’t believe or understand any of it. Still, Michael didn’t prod (even when Gerry half wished he would, though he knew better), so when Gerry couldn’t sleep for thinking he heard the scuttling of insects outside his door, or when he awoke from nightmares of books he wished he’d never seen, all he had to do was tell Michael he needed to be gone, and Michael would take him out, for a walk or a meal, or even a movie, at any time of the day or night.

It was nice. It was frustrating. Half the time Gerry wanted to hug Michael, while the other half he wanted to punch him. How could he be so blind? He worked with the powers every day. Ignorant as he was, it was only a matter of time until he stumbled on something that took advantage, and then he would be dead or worse. Maybe if he paid half as much attention to his own health and safety—hell, to his own life—he might have a chance at surviving his own fucking job.

It made him angry enough to smash all the plates in the kitchen, one night after Michael came home, smelling of rot, talking about going to visit a place where a man had reported being watched by sentient mold, but finding little more than an old abandoned wooden house which “must have had a hoarder in there at some point, ‘cause there were a lot of piles of things that smelled real bad”. Gerry had felt something strange catch in his throat, between panic and fear. He’d asked (demanded) if Michael had gone inside. Michael had shrugged and said he had, but he had covered his nose, and it wasn’t that bad. Gerry had said (shouted) that he couldn’t be so blind, that it was too dangerous. Michael, confused and ignorant, had said it was his job, and that he was being careful. Gerry had thrown a plate at him, being so angry that Michael was putting himself at needless risk that he wanted to hurt him to make him understand.

It was stupid. An hour later Gerry would huddle into his bed, mortified and confused about his own reactions. He wasn’t emotional like that. He couldn’t even imagine ever doing something like that with his mum; the thought alone made him shudder at what she would have done to him as punishment. And, yeah, Michael was pretty spineless, but Gerry had come to like him, at least a little, and he could at least try to treat him civilly, couldn’t he?

Later that day, after Michael had tried to talk to him and told him (lied to him) that everything was alright, that the plates weren’t worth much and he was fine, after he had hid in his room like a little kid for hours and replayed his tantrum countless times in his mind, he had been suddenly enveloped by the cold, hopeless certainty that he had ruined everything, that Michael kept him only because he was forced to, that nothing and no one in his life wanted him, and would leave him at any moment.

It had not been a fun night. He had gotten up the next day with the intention to never take his irrational anger out on Michael again. He was already such a burden on the man, who had never even wanted him there in the first place. If he ever realized just how broken Gerry was, exactly, then Gerry knew he wouldn’t want him around anymore. Maybe he wouldn’t throw him out right away, because Michael was too nice for that, but Gerry was thirteen already; he wasn’t a kid, he could take care of himself.

That had been almost a month before, though, so Gerry didn’t think it was what Michael wanted to talk about. As far as Gerry knew, Michael had no idea about his and Jon’s aborted infiltration of Artefact Storage (nor would he understand how dangerous it really was, even if he knew), so he doubted that was it either. It might be about the fight he and Jon were having—as clueless as he was about everything to do with the Powers, he could be frightfully insightful sometimes about his relationship with Jon—but if that was it, then it was more likely to lead to an awkward friendly conversation on the couch, rather than this more formal talk at the table.

(He tried to ignore the part of him that hoped it was about Jon—he didn’t know what to do, and Michael could have good ideas about how to talk to him, sometimes.)

“I need to talk to you.” Michael finally said, squaring his shoulders and looking at Gerry like he was getting ready to fight a monster, and not talk to a too-skinny teenager half his size.  “It-it’s nothing bad!” He must have seen something in Gerry’s face, with how quickly he added that last part, and Gerry tried to make his face go neutral again. “It’s just… well. School.” He picked up one of the folders and fixed the edges of the papers inside. “We haven’t really talked about it, but the new school year will be starting soon. And I enrolled you. In school.”

“School,” Gerry repeated, feeling like his footing was off. Whatever he had expected, it wasn’t this. His mum had never wanted him in school. He could admit, to himself at least, that he had wanted to go when he was younger, and feeling lonely and envious of all the children playing together or stuck in a room together while he was learning about fates worse than death at his mother’s knee. That was years ago, though, and the last few months of being huddled together in a room with Jon over textbooks had been more than enough for him. What did Michael think he would get out of school that he wouldn’t where he was already at? Wait, Michael had already enrolled him?

“H-how? I mean, why?” Gerry stammered, too blindsided to figure out where to start arguing.

“You’ve been doing the tests this last month, haven’t you?” Michael said, putting the folder down and picking up another one, then shuffling through it to pull out a few familiar-looking papers with Gerry’s own handwriting on them. He remembered Michael taking him to different buildings to take the tests over the last few weekends, but he had assumed they were more prep work like what he and Jon did, and not official tests. Gerry wasn’t dumb, but he also wasn’t delusional enough to think there would be a school out there willing to take in someone behind on all subjects and with barely enough paperwork to prove they existed. Being enrolled in school had seemed so ridiculous he hadn’t even bothered to worry about the possibility of it.

“You found some weird charity school that would take me in a grade or two behind?” Gerry asked, pain battling anger in his chest, and leaving him almost breathless. He didn’t need school. He was fine spending his days at the Institute with Jon—Jon! He was supposed to be Jon’s tutor! “-And what about Jon? Is he going too?” He knew that Jon wouldn’t be. Elias didn’t want him anywhere he couldn’t keep him out of trouble.

“Gerry, please, could you sit down?” Michael asked, in a voice that was only barely calm. Gerry hadn’t realized he had stood up, and it took him a few seconds to calm down enough to do as Michael asked. He crossed his arms, but he wanted to get up and leave, to go back just a day—or a week—to when things made sense and everything was alright.

“You’re being admitted to the year that corresponds to your age bracket,” Michael said, and Gerry could tell he was doing his best to sound calm and reasonable. “With the condition that you attend make-up lectures with some certified tutors until you have caught up with the rest of the class.”

“Why?” Gerry asked again. “I don’t need to go to school.”

“Gerry…” Michael put the papers back into the folder and looked uncharacteristically serious. “School is important. I don’t know what it is that you want to do when you grow up, or even if you know what you want yet, but school will help you widen your options.”

Gerry doubted he could tell Michael that inhuman powers cared little for formal education, and that Gerry knew that he was never going to be free of them, so there was no point in trying to think of ‘what he wanted to do’.

“It’s ok if you don’t believe me now,” Michael said, giving Gerry a strained smile. “But even without thinking about your future career… you’re going to be an adult before you know it, Gerry. This time in your life, the friendships you can make, the… the experiences you can have with other your own age, there’s no substitute for them. You need to go to school.” He took in a deep breath, then exhaled. “And if I had my way, so would Jon. But I’m not in charge of him.”

“That’s—you’re not in charge of me,” Gerry snapped. “And I am spending time with my friend. Jon is my friend. I wouldn’t have anything in common with people in school just because—because we’re the same age or whatever.”

“This isn’t up for discussion,” Michael said. “I understand you’re not happy—”

“What happened to talking about things?” Gerry asked, angry. That had been one of Michael’s favorite phrases over the last couple of months. Anytime Michael wanted to do something with Gerry, it was preceded by a short exchange of ‘do you want me to tell you why I think we should do this?’, to which Gerry would usually reply ‘no’, and then Michael would add, ‘it’s good to talk things over’, and explain anyway.

Michael took another deep breath, which only made Gerry angrier. “I tried to talk with you about this. You left the room every time I did.”

“Which really should have told you how I felt about it, shouldn’t it?” Gerry was losing control over himself, but he couldn’t bring himself to care. Why was Michael choosing to stand his ground over this, of all things?

“This is important. Going to school, socializing, being exposed to different people; all of it is important. Come next fall, you are going to school, Gerry. I’m not going to change my mind.” He took another deep breath, and this time Gerry snapped.

“And to hell with what I want? Weren’t you the one that kept pushing me to want things and to tell you what they were?” He was on his feet again, fists clenched.

Michael looked pained. “I meant it,” he said. “And I still do. But something like this isn’t negotiable. It’s—“

“Too important,” Gerry finished. “So all the decisions I have a say in are the non-important ones, then? Just enough to make me feel like I have a say in my life?”

“No,” Michael said, and he stumbled with his words. “That’s not—this is about your future, and your health. If- if you want to change schools, later, we’ll talk about it and figure it out. But you can’t stay out of school forever. You won’t get a second chance at childhood!”

“I never had a first one!” Gerry yelled, and found that he couldn’t stand to be in the same room as Michael anymore, not when he was being so… so Michael. He turned away and hesitated—room or outside?—then turned to go deeper into the flat at the last minute. Deep inside, he didn’t want to make Michael worried about him, or to get him to change his mind about allowing Gerry to stay, regardless of how angry he was right now.

Did it matter, though? If Michael signed him up to school, then he wouldn’t be able to keep an eye on Jon. A part of him was terrified about what Jon would get up to without him there, even though he knew that Jon had been fine before he had come along (to a definition of fine; Elias hadn’t stopped him from making that stupid deal with the Web and the Spiral, after all).

He needed to get Michael to change his mind. He didn’t know how. He’d never really had to convince Michael of anything before; the few things he insisted on were things Gerry hadn’t tried to argue about, and everywhere else he was quick to defer to whatever Gerry wanted, if Gerry could bring himself to say what that was.

He couldn’t just leave Jon alone. The thought made him breathless with worry. Jon was kind and wanted to help others, even when it was inconvenient or dangerous. What would happen if he met someone else like Gerry, without Gerry around to stop him from running headlong into another self-sacrificing plan? What would happen the next time a doomed soul entered the Institute, if Gerry wasn’t there to hold him back from doing something he would regret and use as a weapon against himself?

(What would happen if he forgot Gerry? Or if he made another friend? Would their friendship survive if they didn’t spend almost every day together? What if Jon realized he didn’t want to be Gerry’s friend while they were apart? Surely he would be able to think more clearly, if he had more options. Who would want to be Gerry’s friend, given a choice?)

He paced around his room, breath coming short and vision going dark around the edges. He needed to fix this. Fix Michael’s stupid idea about Gerry going to school, and fix the stupid fight he and Jon were in. He needed that friendship, just as much as he knew Jon needed him. (He did, didn’t he? It wasn’t just in Gerry’s mind. It was why the friendship worked, because they needed each other.)

If he pushed more, maybe Michael would change his mind. He didn’t like confrontations, and he didn’t like it when Gerry was feeling bad, so he just had to push both of those enough for Michael to relent. He could ask Elias for help, maybe. It had been Elias’ idea for Gerry to tutor Jon originally, which, given Jon’s understanding of topics beyond Gerry’s own education level, was almost certainly a cover to have Gerry around Jon keeping him safe. If Elias told Michael to, would he stop trying to get Gerry in school?

Or would Elias’ help consist of putting Gerry in someone else’s care? Gerry stopped pacing, looking around himself, at a room that felt more like a home than any other he had ever lived in, a place which felt safe, even when he knew, logically, that Michael was helpless against all the things he feared.

No. He didn’t want to go to school, but he didn’t want to be taken away from Michael’s home, either. Michael needed his help too. He might be too blind and careless to take care of himself at his job, but Gerry could at least make their home as safe as possible, and protect Michael from anything that followed him home. And he could work on getting Michael to believe. If he left, he would be leaving Michael defenseless.

He wouldn’t ask Elias’ help, then. Could he ask Jon? Michael had a soft spot for him, Gerry knew. If Jon asked Michael to stop Gerry from going, that might change his mind. He didn’t want Jon worrying about Gerry leaving him, though. He had enough things to worry about.

He would try to convince Michael on his own, then. If he really couldn’t, then and only then would he bring Jon into it. He actually liked his life now, for the first time he could remember, and he was going to fight to keep it just how it was for as long as he could.

Jon knew he was being childish and ridiculous. He knew that bringing up the Leitner so soon after their failed raid on Artifact storage had been a mistake, and he shouldn’t be angry with Gerry for taking the stance he did on account of it, but he couldn’t smother the feeling no matter how much he tried.

It didn’t help that Elias was back to being invasively overbearing, not allowing Jon a moment of independence since he had stopped them from entering Artefact Storage. He felt angry at himself for feeling ashamed when Elias had said, ‘I thought you were smarter than this’, and angrier still when Elias reminded him that Gerry was there to keep Jon from doing stupid, risky stunts.

“If he can’t act as a tempering influence on you, there isn’t much reason for him to stick around, is there?” He had asked, tone mild, threat obvious. Jon had shoved all thoughts of destroying the Stranger’s present to the back of his mind, too concerned about Gerry to keep entertaining them, but when he had read about that Leitner from the statement, sitting somewhere out there in the open, what had run through his mind was all the statements about the alternate time’s Gerard going around burning the cursed books, and he had suggested the idea without really thinking.

It wasn’t Gerry’s refusal that got under his skin. He knew well enough that it had been a bad idea (though he still thought there ought to be a way to deal with it without necessarily putting himself or Gerry in too much danger, if only Elias wasn’t the world’s most over-protective foster parent). What made him lose his temper, and what kept him from moving on, was the way Gerry had refused him. Like he was shutting down an idea from an irritating, dim child.

(And yes, Jon knew he was young, almost four years younger than Gerry, but Gerry had never before treated him like less than an equal friend, and it stung to be dismissed that way by the one person in Jon’s life who wasn’t treating him like a little kid who couldn’t take care of himself.)

It was bad enough he got that kind of treatment daily from Elias. He couldn’t stand Gerry treating him that way too.

Which led to him continuing to act in a childish, ridiculous way. To give Gerry the silent treatment and glare at him, because he was still angry, and he wanted Gerry to know he was angry, and if he indulged in being childish for a few days, who could blame him? As far as everyone else knew, he was a child.

When Monday came around, though, Jon was tired of being angry. He missed his friend, and he figured he had made his point. When Gerry came to get him out of Elias’ office for the day, Jon tentatively offered a neutral ‘good morning’, and Gerry brightened, returning it. Back in their office, Jon was determined to act as though nothing had happened, and though Gerry looked a little confused, he didn’t complain and was happy enough to follow Jon’s lead.

Because of the underlying tension from their fight, though, it wasn’t until the afternoon that Jon noticed that there was something else wrong with Gerry. He was distracted, often stopping what he was doing to frown thoughtfully at nothing before snapping back to the present and returning to his current task.

Still, Jon didn’t feel comfortable asking him what was wrong after being a pain during the last few days, so he did his best to act normal and cheerful, and when Gerry went to sit on the couch to play some Gameboy, he followed and draped himself over his friend, looking at his game’s screen as he played. It was almost like a very long hug, wasn’t it? He was never sure if Gerry liked all the close contact or if he just put up with it because Jon pushed him, and he was too nervous about the answer to ever ask, but he thought he saw Gerry relaxing when he did it, and he figured if it was really annoying Gerry would stop him, so he tried not to think about it too much.

Whatever was bothering Gerry continued for the rest of the week, even as they both settled more naturally back into their usual routine. When Elias agreed to take Jon to play at a park on Friday, after more than two weeks of not going after the Artefact Storage stunt, Gerry still seemed preoccupied. When the other kids at the park were trying to arrange a game, Gerry had looked sick, declined and gone to sit on the side. He hadn’t looked better until Jon went to sit by him, and they had spent the evening tearing up grass and throwing it at each other in between silly discussions about whether or not the Power Rangers would have any hope of defeating an avatar of the Vast or Corruption, which they each argued might be the closest to their usual enemies.

June continued to pass in such a manner, with Gerry distracted and increasingly worried about something he never shared with Jon, and Jon doing his best to show Gerry that he was fine and could trust him, and without ever asking what was wrong with him. All he got were little hints he couldn’t figure out how to put together, like the morning Gerry had come in, fuming, and asked Jon if he knew how much money Michael made (which Jon could guess, having filled out employee paperwork for Archival Assistants before), and then muttering to himself that there was no way Michael could afford ‘it’.

He figured it was an argument between Gerry and Michael, but he couldn’t guess any further than that. He knew that Gerry found it frustrating that Michael didn’t believe in the Entities, but seeing as he didn’t know what Jon did about his possible future fate, Jon doubted that was what this was about. There was that partial argument he had overheard, toward the end of the month, when Jon had been coming back from the first floor restrooms after almost everyone had already left, and Gerry and Michael had been half-yelling at each other from the entrance to the Archives.

“It will just be far more work for you!” Gerry had yelled. “You already don’t have any social life thanks to me—”

“I have all the social life I want because of you,” Michael had argued. He looked annoyed, but trying not to show it. “I am not budging on this, Gerry.”

“Oh, yeah?” Gerry crossed his arms, and looked pleased with himself, like he was about to use ammunition he had been holding back just for that moment. “When was the last time you went out on a date, then? Or did anything fun for yourself?”

Michael groaned, and wiped his hand across his face wearily. “I am doing things for myself. Because I want to be doing things for you. And if I wanted to date, I would.”

“That’s stupid—”

“No,” Michael cut in sharply. “It is my choice, and we can talk about it more carefully at home if you are really interested, but not in the middle of an argument, and not as part of an attack on me.”

Gerry stopped, realizing that he had stumbled on something more personal than he realized, and looking a little ashamed. The anger bled off his stance, and he stuck his hand back into his pockets.

“Sorry,” he mumbled. They had both left soon after, and neither had seen Jon watching them from behind the bend in the corridor. Jon again didn’t know what to make of that exchange, except that Gerry was trying to change Michael’s mind about something, and that Michael didn’t appreciate Gerry prying into his dating life. Jon could empathize with that; one of the few good aspects of being in a child’s body was that nobody felt compelled to theorize about his romantic life.

It wasn’t until July that Jon learned what had been bothering Gerry for the last month, and it wasn’t even Gerry who told him. One afternoon while he and Gerry had been chatting with Rosie while they waited for Michael to bring their lunch, she had looked at Gerry and asked, not unkindly, “Are you feeling excited about starting school this September?”

Gerry’s face had gone angry, then blank, and with a sinking feeling Jon had realized that his life was going to be overhauled once again.

Chapter Text

Jon strains against the pull of chains weighing down his limbs, pressing down on his chest to leave him breathless, scraping his skin raw. He knows they are chains, though at times he manages to twist his head enough to look down—up?—and what he sees are fine threads of spider silk, hard as steel, winding up and down his body, leaving him cocooned like the prey of a giant spider. Until he blinks, and they are chains as well as silk, and his head starts to hurt and he looks away from them to stop thinking, because he knows that chains and spider silk are not the same thing, but while he looks he doubts it.

He coughs, the pressure on his chest too heavy, the dark mist surrounding him making any breaths he takes cloying and unsatisfactory. He thinks he hears a ticking, and thinks it reminds him both of a clock and a heart, but he ignores it, because he doesn’t like it. He focuses on the chains again, on how thoroughly trapped he is, and he looks again to make sure that the chains are not woven by spiders.

When he looks the directions change once more, and he is on his side on some surface, and the things binding him are winding tighter, and he can hear the soft clattering of arachnid legs, and his brain supplies the idea that they come in patterns and bursts to join him.

He opens his mouth to tell them all to stop, but his insides tigthen, and he realizes there is something inside of him—a part of him?—and that it is responding to Jon and the chains just as Jon is. He coughs again, and something falls out of his mouth. Jon tries to look, but realizes that what he sees is himself, on the ground, from the eye that has just come out of his mouth, and which rolls slowly away, allowing Jon a nauseating look outside of himself.

He had never realized just how young he looked. He knows he is a nine-year-old child. He can remember, from his first time through his childhood, being on the smaller end of the curve when compared to his classmates. Somehow, that knowledge has never really penetrated his self-perception, in which he often thinks of himself as the adult he was, rather than the child he is.

There is a fracture in his mind, as he watches himself from a distance, half of him knowing that it is his own body, and the other seeing only a vulnerable child, far too young, with messy dark hair that sticks to his face with sweat, eyes closed and skin sallow and bruised, breaths far too shallow, barely stirring the cold mist that surrounds him. Is this what others see when they look at Jon? He could almost understand Elias’ overbearing tendencies, from this angle. If Jon had been pushed into taking care of such a child, back before the world ended, he thinks he would have been just as doubtful of the kid’s ability to take care of himself as everyone in Jon’s current life was of Jon.

Pain crawls from his arm, where the spider silk chain tightens, and where Jon can see a large spider trying to burrow through both the silk and the skin into him. He shudders, but the eye that fell to the ground cannot blink or look away, and all he can do is watch and feel as the spider gnaws. The child on the ground trembles, mouth open, but no sound comes out. He coughs again, and the room they are in changes, twisting and turning so the boy is now held suspended in colorful, impossible twists of wire that come from every direction, holding him up in such a way that Jon can’t tell which way is up, even as the eye that is watching tumbles free away from a non-existing floor and crumbles into dust, which the trapped boy chokes on as it falls on his face.

Jon writhes in his bindings, the pain unreal and uneven, pulling at him just as the spider had done. He thinks he can feel a hot, aching brand spreading on his skin, but none of it is where he would expect to hurt, were he to be tied up and set to hang. His mind, still twisted up with itself despite no longer being outside of himself, catches on the thought that no one should put a child in such a position, even as he knows that it is a result of his own decisions, and that he deserves whatever happens to him.

Jon thinks, I gave myself to them, but he also thinks, it is a series of choices, and I have not made them all already. He thinks, There is one I am bound to tighter than any of these, but he knows that he cannot reach it, nor it him. Still, Jon cannot help trying.

He opens his mouth again. He strains against the chains of spiderwebs and unreal colors, of cloying mist and painful beats of a distant clock. His insides twist upon themselves, a heaving mess of things that are not organs and should not be inside a child. The chains around his chest tighten, and the breath is driven from his body.

Then there is an Eye, and it Sees him and all the others, and Jon is free, and Jon is crying, and Jon is awake in the arms of a man he should hate far more than he actually does.

It took Jon over an hour to calm down after Elias pulled him from his nightmare. Having Elias inside his room, on his bed, for that long would usually have angered Jon, but seeing as it was him who was clutching at Elias’ shirt and refusing to let go, he didn’t really have much of a leg to stand on.

Elias, for once, didn’t say anything. He sat with Jon and rubbed gentle circles onto his back as Jon cried and gasped for breath, with the full pressure of the Watcher’s attention settling over Jon like a heavy, comforting blanket.

Jon had no idea what had triggered the dream. It had been months since the last time he had such a… visitation, and never before had it felt quite so immediately threating. He wondered, sick, if something would have happened to him in the waking world, had the spiders finished their digging, or the wires continued to dig into his skin.

He didn’t need access to the Archivist’s powers to know the answer to that.

“I didn’t invite that,” was the first thing Jon said, once was calm enough to be able to speak a sentence without breaking halfway through with a sob.

“I believe you,” Elias replied easily, still holding Jon at his side. Jon thought about getting up and putting some distance between them, like he knew he should, but he couldn’t summon the energy. He could still feel the phantom touch of the spiders on his skin, the burning slide of wires on him, and Elias’ present touch was all that was keeping him from running to the shower and scrubbing his skin until it was raw.

“I don’t want that,” Jon said, more quietly, and Elias hummed in agreement, though he didn’t comment one way or another on whether he knew what Jon meant.

“You are feeling vulnerable. Others are moving in to take advantage,” Elias said, as though he wasn’t the one to always take advantage when Jon was vulnerable, as though that wasn’t the very reason Jon was in this room, in his house, in his life.

“I’m not a little kid,” Jon argued, annoyance bringing him a little closer to normal than anything else. “I’m happy that Gerry is going to school. It’s good for him.” He twisted his head up, met Elias’ eyes, and added, “it would be good for me, too.”

“You’re not going to school,” Elias said, giving no room for negotiation. Jon scowled and looked away.

You said yourself that my weird fear smell has mostly faded. You already took care of the dark cultists, and no one else knows there’s anything strange about me. School would be perfectly safe; as safe as it is for anyone else, anyway.” Jon argued. It felt strange, to argue to go to school, knowing that he was going to be bored out of his mind during most classes, and that he would have little to nothing in common with his classmates.

But what he had learned from the last few months of clinging to Gerry’s side was that Jon did far better around people than he did on his own, and he wasn’t sure he would stay sane if he had to return to the lonely days he had lived before Gerry carved out a place in his life. Jon didn’t know if his recent need for companionship was a consequence of being young again, or something else entirely, but he was more than willing to attempt a few casual friendships with other children, if it stopped him from feeling that hollow void that had opened up at the pit of his belly when he learned that Gerry would be leaving him behind.

Not behind, Jon reminded himself. He was moving forward on a path to a normal life, like Jon wanted all of his old friends to have. It would be hypocritical to deny his only current friend the same. It was childish to feel abandoned for something that was good for Gerry, and which Gerry hadn’t even chosen for himself in the first place.

“You live with me,” Elias said, matter-of-factly. “There are enough beings out there who can reach the correct conclusion from that alone. Any kind of excursion away from me is far more dangerous to you than what any other child might experience.”

“Are you going to keep me tied to your apron strings for the rest of my life?” Jon asked incredulously. “I’m going to have to be let out on my own sometime.”

“And it won’t be today, or this year.” Elias said. Jon made a frustrated noise, finally annoyed enough to reach past the exhaustion of his nightmare, and sat up, away from Elias.

“You are so—so hypocritical!” Jon fumed, lifting his legs and hugging them to his chest.

“Oh?” Elias didn’t move from his perch on Jon’s bed, simply turning his head to observe him. “How am I hypocritical, exactly?” There was a warning in his tone, one Jon didn’t even consider heeding.

“You insist that you want to keep me safe, but you’re the one who keeps putting me in danger! You take me to the Institute, where people who are hunted by other entities come to talk! That’s only keeping me in the view of everyone that is already watching you. You want me to figure out my power, but you know that the more I use it, the more I get tied to the powers that it gives me, and that is not keeping me safe. You bring Peter fucking Lukas into the house—you let him toss me into the Lonely!—which is worse than anything anyone else has managed to –”

“Peter did what?” Elias asked sharply, interrupting Jon’s stream of words. Jon narrowed his eyes. Was he really going to try to get out of it by pretending he didn’t know?

“You know what he did,” Jon snapped back. Elias stood up. He crossed his arms and looked down at Jon, tense.

“As flattering as it usually is that you believe I know everything, believe me when I tell you that I have my limits. If Peter did something—”

Jon scoffed. “Oh, please. There’s no way he did it without your permission. Without your instruction.” Jon was nearly spitting out the words, anger burning through whatever other feelings had been left from his nightmare. He sat up straighter in his bed and glared at Elias.

“What—” Elias started, then cut himself off and shook his head. He took in a deep breath, like he was calming himself, and uncrossed his arms. “Are you saying that the last time he was here, Peter put you into the Lonely?” Most people, including Jon from a few months ago, would have thought he was speaking calmly. The Jon of today, who knew Elias better than he had ever wished to, could hear the razor wire of rage in his tone. It cut through Jon’s own anger like a scalpel through skin.

“There is no way you didn’t notice,” Jon said, more quietly, but still accusatory. “Your eyes were on me. Your eyes are always on me.”

Silence followed Jon’s words. Elias’ constant watch on Jon wasn’t something either of them had ever spoken about out loud, but Jon didn’t feel like beating around the bush this time around. There was no way that Elias didn’t know that Jon knew, not after what he had told Gerry, and he was tired of pretending. He wasn’t going to let Elias hide under that excuse, not when it came to something like this, not when Jon still found himself drifting off to hear the distant waves of a too-quiet beach when he lost track of his thoughts on empty nights when he could think of nothing except his isolation.

Elias looked at Jon, face still. Then he sighed. It wasn’t the usual theatrical Elias sigh. It was a long exhale, during which his shoulders slumped and something in his face relaxed.

“There is a difference between looking, and paying attention,” he said, and looked pained at having to admit it. “It’s not a distinction I’ve been keen on making you aware of, for obvious reasons,  but if you really believe that I would allow—that I would incite—Peter to such an act—”

“Oh, please,” Jon interrupted. “You would happily throw me to the wolves, if that fit into your plans for me.” He had done as much, repeatedly, when Jon was the Archivist instead of his ward. If he ever came to the same realizations, Jon had no doubts that he would follow along the same path. Daisy hunting me. Prentiss in the Archives. Leads to an irritated Jude Perry and a touchy Michael Crew. Manipulations to end the already doomed Stranger ritual. His life as the Archivist flashed through his thoughts, the series of painful catastrophes that marked his body and soul, just as Jonah Magnus intended. Dead friends and a world of suffering, all because of him.

“Just what is it that I have done, in the entire time you’ve known me, that would lead you to believe any such thing?” There was a bewildered desperation to his words that Jon didn’t like.

“You manipulated my grandmother so you could steal me and keep me,” Jon said, “you threaten her, and you threaten Gerry, to keep me compliant to your rules. You throw statements at me like you hope I’ll drown in them, even when you know they hurt me.”

“I arranged your circumstances so I could have you close, yes,” Elias admitted easily. “And I use every tool I have available to try and keep you from hurting yourself, you insufferable child. As for the statements…” he rubs the bridge of his nose with his fingers, like he’s trying to chase away a headache, “you are bound to our god, Jon. Whatever else you are, we both know this. I was trying to guide you towards a way to Feed and connect to it that would not put you in immediate danger.”

Jon had no idea if Elias was lying or not. It was infuriating, because he was almost sure that he was, and yet he couldn’t find a way to deny the too-rational way that Elias was trying to make Jon sound like he was exaggerating.

“You serve a voyeuristic god who loves to watch and not interfere,” Jon said. “What reason would you have for stopping someone else from causing suffering?”

Elias’ lips twitched. “So which am I? The monster who throws you into danger, or the one that simply allows danger to get close enough to hurt you? Surely I can’t be both.” Jon glared. He could, and he was, but this Jon didn’t have the evidence of his older self. “And as I have already said, Jon, it is not my god, but ours. I think I’ve acted in your defense enough times that you should concede that I won’t stand by and watch you hurt, at the very least.”

That had more truth to it, though it was no easier to hear. Being an exception in how Elias treated the world wasn’t necessarily a good thing, no matter how much a part of Jon warmed at the idea that maybe Elias actually cared.

“What do you want from me?” Jon asked. It was a question he hadn’t asked in months, not since the very beginning when Elias had conspired to get Jon into his grasp. Another question they danced around constantly, as Jon revised his opinion of what Elias thought about him, and Elias revised his approach to Jon. Because whatever else was true, there was a change in how Jon was treated, in the focus of what Elias did for him. What had been, at first, a focus on keeping Jon alive and out of the grasp of other powers to get his secrets, had become keeping Jon healthy, and away from the influences of the other entities. Most days Elias acted more like an overprotective parent than a jailor trying to extract Jon’s secrets.

 At least when he wasn’t allowing another avatar to torment him.

It didn’t fit into the pattern, Jon thought, not if he considered it from that perspective. Elias was… possessive, in a way, over Jon. Especially over Jon being Beholding’s. He resented Jon being bound to the Spiral and to the Web. Would he really be willing to expose Jon to the Forsaken, just for the sake of punishment?

“I don’t know,” Elias answered, and something about it felt like the truth to Jon. “You are… something else. I don’t know what, exactly. The Ceaseless Watcher has marked you more deeply than any other I have ever seen.”

And they were back to this. It was Jon’s turn to slump and rub his face. He had no intention of ever explaining that to Elias, but it was exhausting to refuse, again and again.

“I have told you before,” Elias continued, “that it is effortless to Watch you. I meant that literally. I can have a fraction of my sight on you constantly, without trying. Beholding finds you fascinating, for some reason.” Jon scoffed. Beholding could find a new pastime. “What I don’t have is infinite attention.” Elias thought for a few seconds, then said, “it is like my view of you is a television program in the background, always on. I can turn to watch it when I care to, but mostly it is background noise. If something is different enough, or loud, I will notice and pay attention, but most of the time I merely check that you are where you are supposed to be, doing generally what you are supposed to be doing.”

Once more, Jon wondered if that was the truth. He remembered that it was possible to distract Elias in the future, as Martin had done before, so that much tracked. It would explain why Jon would constantly feel the Watcher’s gaze on him, though at times it felt heavier than others. He suspected that Elias was lying about how often he paid attention to what Jon was saying or doing; it would be in Elias’ interest to have Jon believe he was less watched, so Jon would be more careless about what he said.

More worrying was what it meant, for the Eye to facilitate Elias’ surveillance of him. The door in his mind was, as always, firmly shut, and Jon had gotten quite good at not trying to push through it, even while he read the statements that Gerry procured. It felt wrong, that Beholding could reach out to him so easily, while Jon was mostly barred from reaching back. (It also felt thematic, Jon supposed, what with the Eye being the embodiment of voyeuristic fears.)

 “You didn’t notice Peter shoving me into and out of the Lonely the last time he was here?” Jon asked, this time more as a question than an accusation.

Elias shook his head, and some of the tension from before returned to his posture. “No. I did not.” Something else crossed his face, like realization. “Is that why you behaved like a lunatic after he left?”

Jon looked away and shrugged. He didn’t think that was a fair description of his behavior. He was being rebellious, and showing that he wasn’t going to bend over to Elias’ stupid punishments. If Elias was telling the truth, though, and he didn’t know what Peter had done, he supposed it would have seemed to come out of nowhere.

“Next time someone attacks you, please let me know, Jon,” Elias said. “And if you wouldn’t mind sharing whatever it was you were dreaming about—”

“No.” Even if he was telling the truth about Peter, it didn’t change who he was—what he was. Jon didn’t know what his dream meant, or what had caused it, but he knew it was significant, and he knew he didn’t want Elias anywhere near it. This wasn’t like sharing what he knew of his new powers to figure them out together; there was something in his dreams, in his connection to far too many entities, which hinted at a broader picture that Jon didn’t yet understand. He still didn’t know why he had been sent back in time, or how, or why. He didn’t know if the entities knew he was from the future, or even if they were similar enough to thinking beings to have plans of their own.

(Some were. He had Seen more, and Been more, than he liked to remember, but such inhuman experiences were hard to keep straight in a human mind.)

“Jon,” Elias started. Jon got to his feet.

“I’m taking a shower now,” he said, going to grab a handful of clothes from his closet, dodging around Elias, who still stood in the middle of his room.

“Jon,” Elias tried again.

“Elias,” Jon said, arms filled with clothes, looking back at Elias.

“That wasn’t a regular dream,” Elias said. Jon rolled his eyes. He wasn’t going to try to lie about it, but that didn’t mean he was going to offer Elias anything beyond what he could deduce on his own.

“I can’t help you if you don’t—” Elias started.

“You couldn’t help me if I did,” Jon interrupted. They stared at each other for another few seconds, before Elias rubbed his face and gave one of his more theatrical sighs. Jon took it as acknowledgement that the conversation was over and slipped past him to go take his shower.

Jon had an unfortunately long time to obsess over what had happened that morning once they got to work that day. When the door to Elias’ office opened, instead of finding Gerry there to take him into their office, Michael stood at the door, looking nervously at Elias and giving Jon an apologetic smile.

“Gerry tried to call you this morning, but you must have already left,” Michael explained. “He’s going to be gone today and tomorrow; they’re doing an orientation for new students at his school and he really couldn’t miss it.”

Jon felt an incongruous shiver down his back, which he tried to ignore. “He didn’t mention it last week,” Jon said, too defensively. He had only found out that Gerry was going to be attending school for a little over a week, and he was still getting used to the idea. He had accepted that, starting in September, he was going to be seeing a lot less of Gerry, but his sudden absence, without warning, left him feeling cold.

“I don’t think he remembered, or accepted he was going,” Michael said, with a small wince. That sounded more like Gerry, and Jon wondered what Michael had to say or do to get Gerry to go. “He’ll be back here like normal on Wednesday, though. He said to tell you he’ll call tonight.”

Jon nodded to let Michael know he heard, but didn’t trust himself to say anything else out loud. Once Michael had left, he turned to look at Elias expectantly, and probably a little too confrontational.

“Will I be stuck here all day now that your approved minder isn’t around?” He snapped, and instantly regretted it. Gerry didn’t deserve his anger, even if he was hurt that he hadn’t told Jon about what was happening earlier. And whatever arguments they had, Jon knew that Gerry was on his side, and not Elias’. It was simply that they had both equally decided that Jon was incapable of taking care of himself.

“You will be if you don’t mind your tone,” Elias said, in such a ‘dad’ tone that Jon couldn’t help childishly rolling his eyes at him. “Behave in here until lunch, and I’ll let you spend the afternoon in the other room.”

Jon took his backpack with him to the couch at the back of Elias’ office and threw himself into it, not even pretending to be getting ready to do any work. The fact that Elias let this go unmentioned let Jon know that he was still thinking about Jon’s behavior that morning, and possibly trying to go easy on him. He couldn’t tell if it was supposed to be a half-assed apology for allowing Peter to dunk him into the Lonely, or some strange attempt at comfort.

Probably just trying not to break me too soon while he still has so much to figure out, Jon thought, but it lacked the usual bite. He could remember too easily Elias’ ‘I don’t know’ from earlier, and the vision of his dream, of how defenseless Jon looked from the outside. Was Elias still human enough to care for someone else? Just how unimaginably stupid was Jon to be even considering that?

Stupid and lonely, Jon thought, morosely, as he picked up a book and opened it, but couldn’t manage to read more than a paragraph.

Elias and Gerry were Jon’s only real human connections. He still called his grandmother occasionally, but it was clear that she was doing much better away from him, and had no intentions of getting Jon back. Michael and Rosie were adults in the periphery of his life, nice enough when he passed them by, but hardly people Jon would have described as being close with him. Everyone else at the Institute kept their distance, which Jon could understand, and which, while he had Gerry at his side, was even amusing. No one wanted to be too close to the boss’ strangely dressed charity child.

Once Gerry went to school, things would change. It didn’t matter what Gerry or Jon wanted; there would simply be less time for them to be the pair they had become. Jon had obsessively looked into the school that Gerry was entering, an expensive school for wealthy children called Mattson Academy, which provided education for all school years, though they separated age groups into different buildings (Jon had no guesses as to where Michael was getting the money for tuition or how Gerry even managed to be admitted in).

For Gerry’s year, the school day started at eight thirty and ended at three. Assuming he went straight to the Institute afterward, it would allow Jon and Gerry roughly an hour and a half together in the afternoons before Michael left for the day. There would still be times in the afternoons or in weekends where they went on outings or to parks, but there was no denying that their contact together was about to be dramatically reduced.

Which left Jon with his only other connection: Elias. Elias, who Jon knew he was already starting to make excuses for in his own mind, if only because the alternative was to stay angry and distant from the only constant in his life. Elias, who isolated him, whether by design or as a consequence of the role he had decided on. Jon could imagine with slight nausea day after day of going back to his solitary pursuits, either in his own office alone or in Elias’, getting lost in his own mind, falling deeper into the traps he was sure waited for him there.

You are feeling vulnerable. Others are moving in to take advantage. Elias’ words from this morning, which Jon had denied. But he wasn’t so far off the mark, was he? Even if he didn’t resent Gerry for his choices (which he didn’t, and they weren’t even Gerry’s choices!), the reality left Jon with an empty place in his life where there should have been a person he cared for. A person who cared for him.

Jon didn’t do well in isolation. Even as an adult, all Jon had to think about was the disaster he had become after Prentis’ attack, when he had allowed paranoia to separate him from those who should have been his friends, or the monster he had allowed himself to grow into, after he had awoken from his coma and been surrounded by people who expected nothing better from him.

It’s not the same, Jon reassured himself. He would still have Gerry, even if it was less often. There was no Peter Lukas there to poison the Archives and the people he should have felt closest to. Or, well, Peter Lukas was there, but he wasn’t really a factor in this, at least not until he next came to visit.

He was going to try harder to convince Elias to allow him to go to school. It was an imperfect solution, but Jon was certain that having to spend days locked in a room with a bunch of loud children learning boring material was infinitely better than staying by himself and allowing things within his own mind to fester.

Not that he had much hopes of succeeding. Elias didn’t change his mind easily, and Jon didn’t want to divulge the worries he had which might help his case, since he didn’t want Elias knowing anything more about what was happening inside his mind than whatever it was he figured out on his own.

Stranger things had happened, he supposed. Just look at him, existing in the past, half adopted by the man who would have ruined his future.

If nothing else, Jon could keep it together while Gerry was still at his side. Maybe he could treat these couple of days like test runs before the real event. He could do this.


He had the nightmare again the day after. This time, Elias didn’t wake him up. This time, Jon awoke to find himself on his feet, trying to force himself through the locked door out of his room, his limbs moving without any instructions from his body.

Jon shoved himself away from the door and burrowed under his covers, shivering. He could feel the sticky, whisper soft touch of silk on his body, just as he had in his dream. He knew that if he looked, he would find spiders in his room, and webs and silk all over his bed.

Jon didn’t look. He cowered under his blankets until Elias came to let him out, and he barely felt embarrassed to cling to Elias’ side for the rest of the morning. It wasn’t until that afternoon, as he fought against the post-lunch tide of sleep on Elias’ couch, that Jon considered how the Web might have guided him into a different door as he slept, had the Distortion shown up last night.

The jolt of fear that shot through him sent him to his feet, adrenaline chilling the blood in his veins far too late to do him any good. Could the Web have sent him into the Distortion’s domain, without any choice of his own? Or was his own carelessness a choice in itself?

“Jon?” Elias asked, pausing from whatever he was doing at his desk to look back at Jon, something like concern in his expression.

“I—” Jon shook his head, lost. What was he supposed to do? He couldn’t talk to Elias about his dreams. Could he tell him about the Spider moving him? About the doors that had been following him for months now? He already knew that Jon was connected to both of those entities. Surely if he had a way to lessen their touch on Jon, he would have already implemented it. Unless his curiosity of Jon’s newfound powers drove him to leave Jon hanging like live bait for the entities to chew on.

He would not want me to be lost completely to them, Jon thought, swallowing a sudden lump in his throat. Elias fancied himself Jon’s protector, after all. But he was what he was, whatever else he said. A creature of curiosity, of inaction. Just like Jon was supposed to be, once. Only Jon had never been very good at keeping the suffering at a distance.

Is that the difference between being the Archivist and being the Archive? The thought was not comforting, and Jon shoved it deep inside.

“I don’t want to sleep in my bedroom tonight,” Jon said, suddenly thinking of an idea. Elias raised an eyebrow.

“You want to sleep in mine?” Elias didn’t hide his disbelief, and Jon made a disgusted face.

“No,” Jon said, “I want to sleep over at Gerry’s.” The door never appeared when there was someone else in the room, and if he warned Gerry, then he could stop Jon from wandering away if the Web tried to move him again. Moreover, if Elias was right and the dreams were caused by the vulnerability he felt about Gerry, then spending some more time around him might help him shore that up and stop the dreams altogether.

“No,” Elias said, leaning back in his chair and looking over Jon critically. “Until I can be sure that whatever is happening to you isn’t a threat, I’m not leaving you defenseless at someone else’s house.”

“I wouldn’t be defenseless,” Jon argued, but without being willing to explain the situation more thoroughly, there was a limit to how persuasive he could be.

“Your friend is not completely without survival instincts,” Elias said wryly, “but I would hardly classify him as a good defense, if something is after you.”

“I’m—” Jon stopped, shaking his head. “There isn’t anything after me. And you’ve given me permission to stay with them before!” He had promised to let Jon stay there whenever Peter was in town.

“As long as there wasn’t a present threat to you, sure,” Elias said.

“There isn’t,” Jon insisted. His problems weren’t from something on the outside coming to get him; they were from the inside, and from careless deals he had already made.

“Then explain to me why these last two days have seen you wake up terrified and reeking of other powers,” Elias said. Jon grimaced.

“I have nightmares sometimes,” he tried. Elias didn’t bother calling him out on his dishonesty; he simply gave him an unimpressed look. “I—look, I’m not in any danger,” Jon tried. Not as long as there’s someone else with me and the door doesn’t appear. Not as long as there’s someone there to stop me from doing something stupid if the Web takes my body again. “I—” his voice cracked. The thought of being fully caught up in the Spider’s grasp still made him want to curl up and vomit. “I just don’t want to be alone.” He finished in a much smaller voice.

“Jon,” Elias said, speaking much more softly. “Will you please just tell me what’s going on?”

It was tempting. Too tempting. Jon knew he couldn’t trust Elias. Elias had shown him as much a dozen times, in this timeline as much as the other one. He reminded himself every day that there was a distance he had to keep from the man, that just because he was isolated and constantly lured into thinking of Elias as a benign part of his life, it didn’t erase the fact that Elias was his enemy.

It was so hard to cling to that when he was scared, and feeling alone, and he could still remember the warmth from the desperate embrace in the morning, as he soothed Jon back down into functional levels.

 “I don’t want to be alone in my room tonight,” Jon repeated, instead of explaining anything. Elias sighed.

“I don’t want you outside our house while whatever this is continues to happen,” he said. Jon crossed his arms and looked away, desperation twisting his insides into knots. Maybe he could tie himself to the bed, before going to sleep? Or would his sleeping self be able to untie it as easily as he would when he was awake?

“I really hate you,” Jon said, though it came out more defeated than angry.

That night Jon made an excuse to end his call with Gerry early. He made sure to fall asleep on the couch in the living room with Elias; as frustrated as he was with the man, he had learned that the door didn’t like to appear when he was close, and he was betting that the Web would likewise be unwilling to push its influence where Elias could see, especially while Jon was willingly keeping its secrets. Logically, spending the night in Elias’ room would be the next step, but Jon wasn’t quite as far gone as that.

Not yet, at least.

There were no dreams that night, and come morning Jon had convinced himself that he could manage things again, now that he was back with Gerry and things were back to normal. He still had all of July and August to come to terms with being on his own again. He would figure out what to do about the nightmares and their grasp on him by then.

When him and Gerry were finally alone together, though, things were not back to normal. There was a hesitation between them that hadn’t been there before, which neither of them knew how to get rid of. When Gerry asked about their shorter phone call the night before, Jon had become defensive and snapped at him. When Jon asked (a little bitterly, if he was being honest with himself) how the orientation had gone, Gerry was the one to get defensive and said only it was boring, which Jon knew to be a lie.

The rest of the day followed the same pattern. It seemed like neither one of them could say or do anything without getting on the other’s wrong side. Jon went home in a foul mood and forgot to go to fall asleep on the couch while Elias was around.

He dreams he is lost in an endless, claustrophobic forest. The trees are not trees, he knows, because every time he gets close to them, he looks up and sees palaces made from cobwebs and emptied out husks of insects and animals, so large that any one tree should be larger than any forest, and yet as soon as he steps away from one, he is lost once more, surrounded by countless more. Any detail he stares at for too long becomes wrong, so that he doubts his own memories of what dirt is supposed to look like, or bushes, or forests; and how long has he been walking, anyway?

“Leave me alone,” Jon tells the forest, because a part of him knows where he is, even if his mind feels cloudy and full of cobwebs, just like the palace-trees. The forest laughs back at him in a sound that rises and falls, just as endless at everything else.

You are alone, the fog rising slowly from the pink mud at his feet tells him. Always, always.

Jon stomps his feet angrily, and shakes a few small spiders from the tops of the trees, which scurry up along his body. He wriggles and tries to brush them off his skin, but instead trips and falls into a pit that hadn’t been there a moment before. He lands painfully on his back, his breath lost, but feels no more spiders crawling on his skin. There is only silence, and the weight of mountains surrounding him, pushing closer.

He hurries to his feet, heart pounding. The hole is closing with him inside, and he scrambles desperately at the sides, trying to climb back out. He gets a hand over the lip of the hole, and just barely manages to get himself free before the ground closes up, leaving nothing to show it was ever there, the rainbow sheen of the hard-packed earth undisturbed.

Jon’s heart is pounding, and he’s barely thinking as he scrambles to his feet. He needs to get out of here. He needs to get out. But as he stumbles away through the forest, he know that he is going nowhere. There are spiders in the trees, and laughter behind every tree, and paths that twist in on themselves without any beginning or end.

A part of Jon snaps, and he stops moving, halfway between two trees, chest still rising and falling in a panic. “I can see through you all,” He growls, in a voice that is nothing like his recent child’s voice, and which reminds him painfully of another time.

Jon opens his Eyes, and his body screams in pain. There is a door in front of him which had not been there before, and which he knows is not really a door. It is shaking, pieces of it crumbling, being pushed from the other side almost as much as Jon is pulling from his. Behind it is the familiar everything and everywhere, the knowing and being that had once merged so perfectly with him, when everything else in the world was in shatters.

If only he could open that door, these pests wouldn’t dare invade his mind. If he was who he had been, it would be them cowering from him. Or welcoming him. The two seemed one and the same, in his angry, pained mind.

He manages to move the door, just a little. A tiny fraction of a centimeter that no one other than him would have noticed.

And his head splits open, and he wakes up screaming in agony.

Jon was in so much pain that he could barely tell he was awake. He couldn't force his eyes to focus, or think of the movement of his body, and his entire existence was the pain radiating from half of his head and dominating all of his thoughts.

Once the pain had finally come down from ‘ice pick stuck inside my eye socket scrambling my brains’ to ‘ice pick left inside my eye socket but it won’t move if I don’t’, Jon came to himself on the couch downstairs, wearing a set of pajamas that hadn’t been the ones he had gone to sleep in, curled into a ball while Elias sat next to him and rubbed gentle circles into his back.

Sitting up was not fun. The pain would have made him puke, if it wasn’t for the fact his stomach was seemingly already empty. Jon wasn’t sorry he didn’t remember it, and he had an unpleasant feeling that Elias had changed his clothing because he hadn’t been quick enough to unlock Jon’s door and get to his room before Jon made a mess of himself. He might be self-destructively curious, but there was no way he was ever asking Elias about that.

“Try not to move,” Elias offered unhelpfully. “Do you think you could keep down some water?”

Jon barely managed to stop himself from nodding, making a weak ‘mhm’ sound instead. Elias left, and Jon felt unmoored, torso swaying. His head hurt. Thinking that felt like the understatement of all understatements. Might as well say the ocean was wet, or the Fear Entities spooky.

At least he hadn’t been forced though the Distortion’s door. That had to be a positive, didn’t it?

He took small sips from the glass of water Elias got him, only slowly gathering together his thoughts and memories of last night’s dream. They had changed again. He wondered how much control the things entering his mind had over them, or if the details in his dreams were more like his brain’s metaphors for what was happening to him. If it was his mind taking the reins… well, he supposed he shouldn’t be surprised that his brain had endless scenarios to draw from to illustrate how the other entities were trying to play with him.

At least, that’s what he assumed was happening. He didn’t really know; he never had. The closest he had ever come to understanding any of them was the Eye, seeing as Jon had sort of become a part of it, after the world ended, and even that understanding was filled with gaps, and more instinctual than it was conscious.

More worryingly, why did it seem as though more entitites were entering his dreams? His first dreams, months ago, had been only with the ones that marked a claim on him: the Eye, the Web, and the Spiral. Tonight’s dream had included, if he wasn’t mistaken, the Lonely and the Buried, and possibly even the Stranger, if that distant ticking he heard in the other dream was anything to go by. He had the sudden urge to strip and search himself for marks once more, to make sure that none of those others had managed to get to him while he didn’t notice.

They didn’t, Jon swallowed nervously. Elias might be helpless to do anything for him in his dreams, but Jon was quite sure he would have stopped anyone else from getting to Jon while they were awake. Were they there on account of Jon having recently encountered and feared them? The Lonely would be because of Peter’s little revenge prank, while the Stranger would be because of the gruesome ‘present’ they had delivered a few weeks before. Why the Choke, though? Could it simply be by periphery of having to deal with Breekon and Hope, and knowing they had the coffin with them somewhere? Or were all entities there, and so far Jon had only run into those?

Jon swallowed more water, though his stomach twisted in on itself. His older dream, of the gates and the choosing, implied the latter. Maybe he hadn’t yet drawn the attention of the other entities. Maybe he should really be a lot more careful than he was being.

“Can you tell me what happened?” Elias asked him, once he was done with his first glass of water, and he had returned with a second.

“No,” Jon said. He winced at the pain that came from talking. “Hurts,” he added.

“Jon,” Elias said, reaching out, placing one hand on Jon’s face, just next to his marked eye. Jon stilled, looking back at Elias. Then Elias turned the Watcher’s gaze on him, and Jon shuddered, a whimper escaping his lips. This wasn’t the instant fix it had previously been, though. He still hurt. His entire head felt like a cardboard box after it had been trampled. It was better, though. It loosed a knot inside him, somewhere, and Jon found that he could breathe, which was weird since he hadn’t known until that moment that he had been having trouble breathing.

“It was a nightmare,” Jon muttered. Elias narrowed his eyes, and Jon had the terrifying thought that he was about to remove the only relief Jon was feeling at the moment.

“Your eye hasn’t glowed like this in months, if ever,” Elias noted in a careful tone.

“I—I tried something I shouldn’t have,” Jon admitted.

“It glows when you are threatened, and when you are using your new ability,” Elias said, speaking slowly. “I don’t see how you would be able to use your ability in your sleep.”

Jon closed his eyes and sighed. He was saying more than he should. He knew he was supposed to stop talking and figure out how to keep Elias ignorant, but he was tired, and sore, and he didn’t really feel up to it, or care much about what Elias thought at that moment.

“It glows when I try to use my power,” Jon agreed.

“You have abilities you have not told me about?” Elias asked, just as carefully as everything else he had said in this conversation. Jon took another drink of water. He would have shrugged, if the idea of that much movement hadn’t given him nausea.

“I—I can try to reach for power I don’t have. I don’t get it,” Jon said, and a part of him started to panic. This was too close to what Elias shouldn’t know. Too dangerous. He needed to shut up. The majority of him simply felt tired. “It’s like trying to catch dust motes with your hands. I can see it there but I can’t get it.”

“And so, when you feel threatened, you reach… and get nothing,” Elias finished, looking like someone finally putting together the pieces of a puzzle that had been challenging them for weeks.

Jon didn’t reply to that. He knew he shouldn’t say anything else; knew he shouldn’t have said what he did. His head was still spinning. His thoughts felt muddled, like someone had put a hand inside his brain and spun it around, making a mess of everything.

“What kind of powers are you reaching for?” Elias asked.

“Who knows,” Jon said, almost honestly. He didn’t know what would happen if that door were ever to be taken down. Would he find himself the Archivist once more, or would he become the creature who had lived in the world he ended?

“… They are of the Ceaseless Watcher, these powers you try to use, aren’t they?” Elias continued gently, his hand moving again on Jon’s face, his thumb resting just below his eye. Jon was reminded, distantly, of a time when he had recently become a child again, when Elias had forced Jon to reach for his power to better understand what made the mark light up. For some reason, he found it hard to imagine Elias doing the same now.

Brain is muddled, Jon thought groggily. That’s all. I know Elias is an untrustworthy bastard.

“Again, I would dearly like to know what it is about my actions since we have known each other that has you so convinced I’m the villain in your story,” Elias said, slipping from the careful words into more normal tones. Jon almost panicked for a moment, thinking Elias had read his mind, before he felt the dryness in his mouth and realized he had said it all out loud.

“Go to hell,” Jon said, giving Elias a half-hearted glare. Elias let go of Jon’s face, almost making him fall; he hadn’t realized he had been leaning against his touch. Elias smirked, then ran a hand through Jon’s hair, gentle enough that it didn’t trigger any new spikes of pain.

“You are an impossible, annoying little brat, you know that?” He said, almost fondly.

Jon groaned. Having Elias be this happy at him was almost an insult. At least, it would be if Jon could string together more than a couple of thoughts at a time.

“So, what happened in your dreams that made you reach out for powers you don’t have?” Elias asked.

“Nothing,” Jon lied, not for the first, or last time that morning.

Elias didn’t stop asking him as he made them breakfast, or cajoled Jon into changing his clothes for the day, or drove them into the Institute. By the time Jon was in the room with Gerry, his headache was more of a result from the incessant questioning than from his morning misadventure.

“Jon?” Gerry looked him over, worried. As soon as they were alone, he asked Jon what had happened, and Jon, with his patience already drained from a morning of similar questions, had snapped at him that it was nothing and he was fine. Gerry, clearly disbelieving him, tried to push him to talk about it; Jon pushed back.

It was frustrating. Jon and Gerry had been able to read each other pretty well almost from the start, barring a few misunderstandings. Ever since the start of this week, Jon felt like they were out of sync with each other. What should have been a refreshing meeting with Gerry only wound Jon up higher, and it didn’t get any better by the time they left the Institute.

The days and weeks that followed didn’t get any better. He would have the dreams three or four times a week, which started to wear on Elias’ patience. It wasn’t something that Jon could grow used to, although Elias had started to forcefully wake him up early most days, which at least prevented his dreams from reaching whatever destination they were aiming for. If it wasn’t for those few times that Jon woke up with agonizing pain in his head after reaching for his absent powers, Jon thought that Elias would give up on asking and try to force some answers from him. As it was, on those mornings Elias would look smug, and would take care of Jon, and use that stupid too-careful tone of voice that made Jon say more than he wanted to.

(Nothing else dangerous, so far. But he told Elias how he felt, and how frustrating it was to be reaching for something he couldn’t get, and how he wanted that connection to work.)

Elias had started to ask more questions, though. Every morning and night, whenever they were together, he would pry. And Jon was getting tired of saying nothing, was getting closer to convincing himself that his dreams didn’t really have anything to do with the end of the world, and seeing as Jon didn’t understand them himself, what could be the harm in telling Elias of them?

So far, he resisted that impulse. He wasn’t sure how much longer that would last, not when the dreams weren’t letting up, not when his friendship with Gerry was reduced to each of them sniping angry words at each other. Sometimes, he worried the friendship was over—but then he would cry, and Gerry would be there, and they would cling to each other and promise to fix things and that everything was going to be ok; and then the next day, something else would happen, and the pressure would build up all over again.

He felt like he was a container being pushed from too many sides, unable to escape any point of pressure, and only getting worse. If only there was one thing in his life that could let off, he felt like he could deal with it. If Elias stopped asking questions; if Gerry stopped acting weird and being about to leave; if his dreams would stop, or if he could figure out what the hell they wanted from him. He wasn’t sure what he would do if he knew that last one. He was reasonably sure it would be a bad idea to go along with it, but at this point, he was just exhausted.

Exhausted enough that the Distortion’s door, cheerfully appearing in his room every few days, was looking like more and more of an invitation. He didn’t think that was what the dreams wanted; he had woken up to himself trying the bedroom door many times, sometimes with the Distortion’s door just there, ignored. But the Distortion had called him brother, once, hadn’t it? Maybe it could help where Elias wasn’t.

(And maybe Elias could help if he actually shared anything with him?)

July turned to August, and Jon was half convinced that everything would get better once Gerry was off to school. If they didn’t spend any more time together, then they would have a lot less opportunities to bicker, right? Maybe if he could stop worrying about that, he could focus on what to tell Elias to get him off his back, and then he would have the time and energy to figure out how to stop the dreams altogether. There had to be a way, didn’t there?

But then there was that morning, a Tuesday in the first week of August, where Jon sat in the canteen with Gerry and Michael, in one of their better days (they hadn’t talked much that day, but that meant they hadn’t argued, and Gerry hadn’t said anything when Jon had held his hand for a minute). Michael was trying to tell them jokes to cheer them up, which was sort of working, in that Michael had such an awful, corny sense of humor that listening to his idea of jokes was kind of amusing. Jon’s attention was snagged, suddenly, and his head turned.

It was an average looking woman. She was in her mid-twenties, with short brown hair, jeans and a t-shirt with a logo Jon didn’t recognize. Jon had never seen before.

Jon knew she was set to meet a terrible fate, not too far into the future. She was Doomed. Prey.

Gerry, despite whatever else was keeping them distant, recognized Jon’s look right away. Without asking permission or doubting himself, he reached out to grab Jon’s arm. Jon tugged on it absently, the majority of his attention drawn on the woman. Gerry, without a word to Michael, stood up and dragged Jon out of the canteen. It wasn’t until they were well on their way upstairs, almost to their room, when Jon stopped feeling the pull towards the woman and slumped into Gerry’s hold.

“Thanks,” Jon muttered, embarrassed and unwilling to meet Gerry’s eyes.

“It’s what I’m here for,” Gerry said. Jon frowned, caught somewhere between I could have hurt her, you’re also my friend, and you won’t be here to do that much longer.

“I’ll have to figure something else out, then,” Jon said, and regretted it almost as soon as he did. Gerry had just saved him from hurting someone else. He wanted Gerry to go to school, Jon reminded himself. He wanted Gerry to have a normal life, and to be happy.

(He wanted Gerry to himself, selfishly, helplessly, and he hated the part of himself that couldn’t let go.)

“I guess you will,” Gerry said, and Jon still knew him well enough to hear the hurt in his words. When they made it to their room, Michael followed in soon after, carrying the snacks they had abandoned at the canteen, and looking at both of them like he was trying to figure out a difficult puzzle. Since neither one of them were reacting to his jokes any longer, he gave Gerry an awkward pat on the back, told Jon he hoped he was feeling better, and left to go back to work.

Jon knew he should say something to Gerry, but he found himself wordless. For all his preparations, all his efforts to not be as bad as he had once been, Jon found himself at a loss for how to fix things with his only friend. Everything he said only made things worse. Everything Gerry said seemed to dig in just under Jon’s overly sensitive skin, making him react stupidly. Neither of them were great with people. Jon had deluded himself into thinking they had been getting good at being with each other.

But even that worry was a superficial one, which he was using to distract himself from the larger problem. Had Gerry not been around to stop him, he would have done to that poor woman what he had done to Alfred Breekon. It didn’t make sense. Jon didn’t use his ability enough to be that desperate to feed. And yet the moment that woman had come in, he had felt more drawn to her than to anyone with a live statement, even in his worst days as the Archivist.

Did it have something to do with his dreams? Probably not, since he had gone after Alfred Breekon with just as much enthusiasm, and that had been before the dreams really started. Could Jon deal with another problem to pile up on himself, when he was barely managing as it was? What if next time, Gerry wasn’t there? In a month, he wouldn’t be. Jon could hardly imagine what that could be like, all those hours spent alone, locked away to stop himself from attacking some poor, unsuspecting person.

What was he supposed to do? All around him were bad options, and they were only getting worse. How was he going to save the world, if he couldn’t even help himself?

That night, Jon couldn’t sleep. He sat up in bed, huddled in a pile of bright blankets, looking at the yellow wall in his room. He felt exhausted. He had no idea what he should do. Surely, the biggest worry was still Elias. Jon having a hard time with bad dreams had to come as a distant second to risking the world by telling Elias too much, right? Or was he putting everything into danger by being too careless? Would it be better if Jon was simply out of the equation?

No. That couldn’t be right. Elias had gone and figured out how to end the world without Jon around the first time. Maybe without Jon to manipulate and twist into his tool, his plans would fail, however.

No, that sounded wrong too. Jon wasn’t particularly special; he had simply been the easiest target for Elias to start with, not the only one.

Jon blinked, leaned his head against his knees, and tried to think through the fog of exhaustion. He couldn’t keep going as he had been. Something was going to break, and if he just let it happen, it could easily be something that resulted in the world ending earlier, rather than saving it.

That made sense. Take a balloon and fill it with too much air, and it would burst in all directions. Puncture it somewhere, and the air would escape only in that place.

The question was, where should Jon give in to the pressure? He couldn’t trust himself to talk to Elias and not reveal too much. He didn’t know what to do about Gerry; he would be gone on his own soon enough, but he wasn’t sure anymore if that would help or make things worse. Either way, it was out of his hands. His dreams… if he knew how to stop them, he already would have. Where did that leave him?

Jon opened his eyes, and saw the cheerful little yellow door, embedded as ever in the yellow wall across the room from his bed. He blinked at it.

It wouldn’t solve anything, Jon thought, unconvinced. The door had been around almost as much as the dreams, hadn’t it? Maybe if he went… maybe it would at least stop the Spiral parts of his dreams, much as Beholding was only ever in them at Jon’s invitation. Always, the Web and the Spiral were the worst part of them. Could it simply be because Jon had learned to cooperate with the Eye, such as he never had with either the Spiral or the Web?

It made a twisted kind of sense. And it would be so easy. The door was right there.

And it had to be his choice, or it wouldn’t really mean anything.

Jon stood up. With a striped orange and black blanket still on his back, he crossed the room. He could feel Elias’ gaze on him—but was he paying attention? How much time did Jon have, before he came in? Could he even notice the door, or was it a blind spot for Beholding?

Jon hesitated, hand on the door. He couldn’t decide if he wanted Elias to burst into his room or not. He remembered, sickeningly, the last time he had opened a door he shouldn’t have, pulled along by a Spider’s thread, forced to move due to a book he had chosen to pick up. This wasn’t that, though, was it? He had control of himself.

As much control as he ever had, anyway.

I just need everything to stop for a minute, that’s all, Jon thought, a little desperately. He could handle the Distortion; he had done so before. Better that than risk the world, right?

Jon opened the door.

Chapter Text

Jon stood at the threshold of a door that led into a being he could never truly understand, and hesitated. The corridor inside was empty. Instead of the twisted sort-of human figure he had been expecting, he saw only a path leading deeper inside, its walls painted in fantastic patterns of colors and shapes that Jon would have happily worn, if only to give Elias headaches. It felt welcoming, in a way that made Jon even more hesitant than if it had been a dark hallway lined with pain and viscera or whatever other terrible things his mind could conjure.

He was pretty sure that feeling welcome in the realm of the fear of insanity wasn’t a good thing.

He didn’t have to go in. He had only wanted something to change; wanted to be the one to break something so he could direct the fallout. The door was open now, but Jon was still home. Nothing has changed, Jon thought, swallowing against a bitter feeling in his mouth. He was on the edge of something, but he was too tired and overwhelmed to understand what it was, and what the best course for him to take would be.

Not that it mattered much. He was just as terrible at making choices at the best of times.

Jon started to lean back, to let go of the door, and then it was there, appearing between blinks. It looked nothing like it had the last time; and it looked nothing like Michael, or Helen; and it looked exactly like them. There was the suggestion of a human: two arms, two legs, a torso, a head. But its hands seemed to have too many joints, and the places where it moved bent in ways no human would be capable of. There was a strange static in the air, like electricity, and Jon felt like every breath brought sparks into his lungs, which ignited something that made his chest ache.

“Leaving so soon, brother?” It asked, its voice made up of twisted vocal chords and damaged echo chambers. “We waited so long for you to visit. It is rude to ignore an invitation,” It laughed, and its twisting laughter came from inside of it, but also from the walls and the door and the entire dimension across the threshold.

Jon shook his head, trying to clear it of the echoes and nonsense whispers that had filled it since the door opened. He knew the Distortion; at least, he knew two versions of it. It wasn’t to be trusted. It lied, and it was dangerous, and if somehow Jon was being tempted inside, then it was most likely that he was being influenced to do it against his own best interests.

(He wished he had managed these thoughts earlier, before opening the door, but his exhausted mind hadn’t started working until the wave of terror that came from the Distortion’s appearance).

Jon heard something, something that stood out because it wasn’t an unnatural echo or a distant voice in his mind. It was the sound of a lock being drawn, of a door being opened—a regular door, the door to his room— and that meant Elias was there. Jon felt such relief that his knees went weak and he tripped forward, where the Distortion’s hands grabbed him, claws scraping his arms where they touched, and he was pulled inside without getting a last glimpse of the room he was leaving.

Jon tried to turn around, desperate to know if there was still a way back, though a large part of him already knew the answer to that. Creatures like the Distortion were not known for allowing their meals to escape once they had them in their grasp. Before he could turn, though, he was being lifted, and then he was facedown over what he could assume was the Distortion’s shoulder, though it was far too wide and flat to really be called that. Jon tried to struggle free, but then felt one of the too-sharp claws rip a tear down his back to stop him from moving, and he stilled.

“Uh, aren’t you supposed to let me get lost in here?” Jon asked, his voice far too high and squeaky. The Distortion laughed, and its body under Jon shook and rippled. Jon closed his eyes, not wanting to watch the way it moved, the way his brain screamed wrong, wrong, wrong at everything about the thing that held him up, held him inside

Don’t get caught up in the details. Think about—about something else. Something it can’t twist. Jon’s brain scrambled. Everything he could think about could be twisted, had, probably, already been twisted, either by his own paranoia or the Spiral’s influence. His relationship with Gerry—bent out of shape, broken, maybe? His relationship with Elias—never good, never real, Elias was too good at using him and Jon could never trust him.

“Do you want to be lost, little brother?” It asked him, and Jon brought his fist to his mouth to bite down on, using the sharp pain he had control over to focus his mind. It wouldn’t give him any straight answers. It couldn’tgive him any straight answers.

“I’m not your brother,” Jon said, more for his own benefit than its. “I’m not—I’m not even an avatar of the Spiral. Not really.”

“You are more and less than you believe yourself to be,” it said.

“I am enough to walk on my own!” Jon snapped. Anger was better than fear. Anger was better than despair. He clung to the emotion desperately. He had hated Helen, there at the end. He had always hated being played with by all the other avatars who knew more about what was going on than he did.

“We have been waiting,” it said. “You can walk my paths later; you could walk them forever, if you wished. I would like that.”

Jon shivered. “N-no. No thanks. I-I’d rather go back, please.” Anger, he reminded himself. “I don’t want to be here!”

“You came in on your own,” it said, “I don’t think you have figured out what you want just yet, little Harbinger.”

The word felt like a punch to Jon’s ribs. That felt like a title, a way for the others to call him, as they once had named him Archivist. Jon didn’t want a new title. He didn’t want to be growing into the role of an avatar, especially not one called ‘Harbinger’.

“I’m not that, either,” Jon said. “I’m not… It was a mistake. That’s all.”

“Oh, but mistakes have consequences, don’t they?” The Distortion laughed, and Jon covered his ears against the sound. It wasn’t painful, exactly, but it was making his head spin. Everything here was making his head spin. When had he opened his eyes again? He was watching the creature’s feet step over the ground, changing the color of the tiles as it went, bending in so many places that they sometimes looked like warped tentacles rather than legs, and sometimes they melted into the very floor, leaving fractal patterns in their wake.

For lack of any better ideas, Jon tucked his head against the creature’s back, hands still over his ears, and tried to forget where he was. Ignoring its lumbering movements was almost impossible, as Jon was lifted and fell hard onto the shoulder with every step.

He wasn’t going to be trapped here forever, was he? He had powers that came from the Spiral, after all. Surely it would want him out and about, feeding it?

Only, the Distortion was a manifestation of the entity, not the entity itself; who knew what it wanted? Jon was certainly terrified enough of being here that he could be a good meal for it. He might stay trapped here for years, until—until Gertrude found the ritual, and sent Michael inside. Maybe he could rescue Michael then, if there was still a Jon alive in here by then. Take the map Gertrude gave him, throw Michael back out, and become the sacrifice.

It was a bleak thought, hardly better than being trapped here forever, but at least it would mean Michael was safe, and he would keep Gerry safe. But that wouldn’t be for years and years…

Jon almost reached for his Beholding powers, but was just in control of himself enough to know that it would do him no good. Inside here, without Elias to calm him down and watch over him while the pain receded, all he would do would be to make himself more vulnerable. He wasn’t trapped yet. He couldn’t be.

Jon dove deep into his mind and tried to distract himself. He thought of long days spent with Gerry, of talking about anything and everything that came to their minds. He thought of the scarf Gerry had given him, which he had tied to his bedpost at home when it became too warm to wear, so he could see it every day.

His thought of the last month of petty arguments and meaningless fights. He should have been better than that. He knew how easily opportunities were lost, how quickly the world could shift under your feet, until you were alone and no longer surrounded by your friends or people you loved, or thought you could have grown to love.

Anger is better than fear, Jon reminded himself, and thought instead of old pains and betrayals. Helen, promising to help end Jonah Magnus, only to separate Jon from Martin and Basira, and send them off into places Jon could never truly rescue them from. Jonah, twisting everything around Jon, using his own curiosity against him, promising answers he never intended to give to drive Jon into the claws of different monsters.

He could still do that, Jon thought, unwillingly. The Jonah Magnus from his other timeline was the same Elias from this one… wasn’t he? Only, he couldn’t imagine the distant, sneering boss from his first life as the eternally exasperated man who refused to let Jon out on his own, or who made him breakfast and dinner every night, who spent more time every day with him than his own grandmother ever had.

He was trying to make them separate in his mind, he knew. Old Elias and new Elias. The bastard who had used him to end the world and the bastard who kidnapped him and wanted unknown things from him. But they weren’t separate, were they? New Elias would be just as happy to throw Jon to the ‘mercies’ of the other avatars, if he thought it could bring about his desired ritual. Whatever protectiveness he had, it was only because he didn’t yet know how Jon fit into his plans. He was preserving him for future possible gains, not because he wanted Jon safe, really.

And Jon was falling for it, all over again. He had started making excuses for him, grown comfortable doing what he said, with barely any fight left in him. If Elias started to sacrifice pieces of him to his ambitions, would Jon even notice, anymore? Or would he make more excuses for him and stay, too blind to stop things from happening all over again?

Who was Jon kidding? He wasn’t equipped to save the world. Even with all the information he had, Jon hadn’t done a single thing that would safeguard the future, despite being back in time for half a year. Any of the others would have done a better job, if they were sent back. Basira or Daisy would probably have found a way to kill Elias by now, or at least to contact Gertrude to allow her to work on her own to keep the blinders on Elias for as long as possible. Melanie or Georgie would have figured out some clever alternative, or else gotten Elias killed as well; at the very least, they wouldn’t have been stupid enough to get caught and trapped at Elias’ side. And Martin… Martin was practical, and smart. If he hadn’t dealt with Elias yet, it would only have been because he was taking his time setting up a trap that Elias wouldn’t be able to get out of, once it sprung.

Most pathetically, Jon couldn’t help feeling dread at the thought of someone killing Elias. It was the best solution, he knew. It should have been his goal. It should still be his goal. Even if Elias didn’t know how to work the ritual yet, he was the only one of the avatars who had worked it out, after hundreds of years. Tricking him would only work for so long, especially when Jon was as terrible at keeping secrets as he was.

What is wrong with me? Jon thought desperately, digging his fingernails into his scalp hard enough to hurt. He knew who his enemies were. He didn’t have any excuses.

His mind gnawed on the problem like a starving dog with a bone, turning it over and over, reaching no conclusion except to excoriate his own pitiful lack of action or planning, the way he was allowing himself to be driven into a position once more under Elias’ thumb.

He didn’t realize at first when they stopped. With his eyes closed, hands over his ears, and thoughts turned deeply inwards, at first he only recognized a change in the patterns of deep thumps and the rhythmic pain in his ribs from being carried uncomfortably. He remembered to lower his arms and open his eyes just as the too-large hands grabbed him, claws digging new lines into his skin as he was lifted and placed back on his feet.

They were still in the Distortion’s corridors. He swayed unsteadily as the claws released their grip, his ribs and lungs protesting from finally being in a different position after however long he had been carried. Nothing around him looked familiar, or particularly different than the corridors had where he had first come in. There were no doors, though. There was—

A man. Jon’s eyes had gone past him at first, desperation making him dismiss everything that wasn’t a possible exit. He looked like a regular man, short and squat, wearing a loose shirt that left his arms bare, hanging just a bit too far down his sides. He was looking at Jon, head cocked to the side, pale eyes searching him with curiosity.

Jon froze, knowing at once that this… person was an avatar of the Spiral, though he couldn’t have explained why. Rationally, once he had a second to think, it made sense; who else would be inside the Distortion’s maze, looking so comfortable, except one of its allies? But that wasn’t how Jon had known. It wasn’t a Knowing, either; he was as closed off to those abilities as he had ever been.

“So you’re the kid I’ve been hearing about,” the man said, his voice cheerful. He looked over at the Distortion, standing somewhere behind Jon (And Jon wasn’t going to look, it hurt his brain too much, and he really didn’t want to give it the pleasure), and gave it a nod. “Haven’t ever seen you stick to a form that long,” he commented, treating the manifestation of the Spiral like an old friend.

“It can be convenient,” the Distortion said behind Jon, and Jon saw its smile in the way the walls around him twisted.

Jon hugged himself hard, staring at the man, the one thing in this entire place that was behaving remotely how he was supposed to; even if his arms were too long, and he wasn’t moving exactly right, and the moment Jon allowed his attention to wander, for just a second, he was standing much closer than he had any right to be.

“No offense, kid, but from where I’m standing, I can’t really what’s so special about you,” the man—the avatar—and Jon knew who this was, somewhere in his memories, if he could only think for a second and figure it out—said. His hand reached out toward Jon, and Jon stumbled back. He didn’t manage more than a step before he was stopped short by the Distortion, still behind him, and a long, clawed hand, moved over his shoulder, ripping the long sleeves of his pajama top.

He blinked, and next thing he knew the avatar was in front of him again, his hand just as close as it had been before Jon moved. The hand changed trajectories, though; instead of his face, it went lower, towards the arm the Distortion had just bared, and the avatar’s hands grabbed Jon’s arm and turned it, revealing the spiral mark Jon usually did a good job of forgetting.

“Huh,” the man said, still curious, but now looking genuinely puzzled.

“L-let go of me!” Jon yelled, trying to pull his arm back, but without much leverage considering the two beings boxing him in. The man, surprisingly, did so. The Distortion, unsurprisingly, did not.

“Ah, I don’t want us to get off on the wrong foot,” the avatar said, spreading his hands out in a peaceful gesture. “I understand we’ll be working together in the future.”

Jon ignored that. He needed to be safe first, and then he could go back and analyze and panic about everything that was happening here. For now, he needed to find a way out.

“Then forcing me here is a really bad way to start!” Jon snapped. Anger, he reminded himself. Anger was safe.

“You walked in all on your own, little brother,” said the Distortion, laughing again. The colors on the wall seemed to peel off, leaving them bare and sharp, while the pooling colors on the ground melted into a spiral around Jon.

Jon shut his eyes. Arguing with insanity was stupid and pointless. He just had to… he had to get back out. But, hadn’t there been a reason he had gone in? He had been having just as much trouble thinking on the outside, hadn’t he?

“We do not mean to overwhelm,” the man said, and Jon snapped his eyes open again, to find him a few paces away, still smiling, one hand on the wall, digging inside like it wasn’t solid and creating patterns where his fingers went in. “It is… a consequence of what we are. I’m sure you can understand as much,” the conspiratorial smile he shared made Jon feel sick. He had only ever used his powers on one innocent. Gertrude and Mary didn’t count; but Alfred Breekon, he would doubtless agree that Jon’s influence in his life had been overwhelming.

“I go by Gabriel, also called the Worker-of-Clay,” the man said, still smiling. Jon’s brain finally caught up, recognizing both names. Avatar of the Spiral, he remembered, the one who designed the ritual that Gertrude stopped. Will stop. Probably. “My friend behind you has no name, and if you’ll take some advice, you’ll be better off not trying to give it one,” he warned, just as cheerfully. Like they were sharing a joke.

“Why am I here?” Jon asked, closing his eyes again. Whatever Gabriel was doing to the wall wasn’t possible in reality; which was kind of the point, he supposed.

“You are accepting an invitation,” the distortion said cheerfully.

“And I suppose simply calling me on the phone was out of the question?” Jon asked, a little frantically. Gabriel, infuriatingly, chose to answer.

“I hear you got yourself trapped in a temple for the Eye,” Gabriel said, shrugging. “Doubt any call would reach you.”

“We did call,” The Distortion said, and the walls around Jon flowed, dripping like wax, until Jon felt ill at seeing everything around him in motion. “We called and called and called…” his words continued, bouncing back on themselves, itching beneath Jon’s skin.

Jon wondered if it meant the dreams or the doors. He wondered if it mattered.

“What were you inviting me to?” Jon demanded, and doubled over as a spike of pain tore through his eye—and through his arm, for some reason. He had just tried to Compel an answer of them. He cursed at himself. He had thought himself broken of that particular habit.

“Straight answers are not something we are good at,” Gabriel said, sounding amused. Jon glared up at him, not caring that he was revealing his undoubtedly glowing eye. “I guess having to feed two masters as opposed as yours can be must be tough, huh?”

“Only when they won’t leave me the fuck alone,” Jon snapped.

“Is an eye opposed to the brain, when the brain ignores what the eye sees?” the Distortion asked, and put its clawed hand over Jon’s head in a rough approximation of an affectionate pat. Rough, in that Jon was pretty sure one of his fingers had just slashed a deep cut into the back of his ear.

“A body can be at war with itself,” Gabriel said thoughtfully, pulling at another strand of not-wall from inside the Distortion, shaping it in his hands idly. “A body is often at war with itself, particularly the thinking part of the brain with everything else it doesn’t know.”

Jon wanted to shake the distortion’s hand from his head, but he could see one of its many-jointed too-sharp fingers in front of his eye, and so he stayed very still. He wanted to scream. He didn’t want to listen to the philosophical musings of a monster who liked to drive people insane. He didn’t want to meet or be touched by an avatar of the Spiral.

“What do you want with me?” Jon Asked, and flinched as the spike of pain it caused made his vision swim and his bones rattle. This is not normal. Get a grip. He bit his lip hard enough to draw blood.

“We just want a little cooperation, a little company,” the Distortion said.

“You are a new piece that doesn’t fit into the puzzle I have been building,” Gabriel replied with a shrug.

“And you are quite a delicious meal, here,” the Distortion added, and Gabriel shot it a fond look.

“He does put out quite a bit of terror at all of this, doesn’t he?”

It was more than Elias had ever said when asked the same question, and yet Jon had gotten far more out of Elias’ careful evasions than he did from any number of words spoken by these two.

“I’m nine,” Jon said, exasperated. It was close enough to the truth. What, did they expect a child who wandered down a magical insane corridor with two monsters to be calm and collected, to muse on philosophy as these two did?

“A lie and a truth. You are good at this game,” the Distortion laughed.

“How do you go about becoming tied to two different masters, kid?” Gabriel asked. “Wait, no, don’t tell me. It will be more fun if I think of it myself.”  He looked down at the mass of something in between his hands, which he had been shaping as they spoke. “You ever do any sculpting?”

“No,” Jon said, trying not to look at what he was making, but having his attention drawn in anyway. It was hard to think—no, that wasn’t right. It was hard to concentrate. His thoughts were there, just easily diverted, distracted. He hated it. He couldn’t look away.

“When you’re sculpting something,” Gabriel continued, still moving his hands, stretching out the material between them, “sometimes you have an idea of what you want to make, and sometimes you’re just letting yourself find out as you go. I have this project I’ve been working on, see, for a very long time. Longer than you’ve been alive. And I thought I knew how it’s supposed to go, but you—you, my little friend, your existence makes me think I should have been using the second approach all along.”

Jon stayed quiet, though he couldn’t stop himself from tensing at the words. He knew what Gabriel was talking about. The Great Twisting. The Spiral’s ritual. He tried to remember what Michael had said in his statement. Gertrude had gone and ruined it, sacrificing Michael to the Distortion, which had been at the center of the ritual. A ritual which had been held in an impossible tower, on an island which didn’t exist. A ritual which shouldn’t happen for at least another decade.

A ritual Jon was apparently in the middle of changing, just by virtue of existing.

“It is a most excellent project,” the Distortion said with a pleased hum. “But all ideas can be improved,” it added, and the hand over Jon’s head moved again, making him flinch.

“Which leaves me with figuring out how I’m supposed to fit you in,” Gabriel continued. In between his hands the material was taking shape, becoming something tall, long and twisted. A tower, maybe, or a misshapen pillar, the geometry of its existence wrong. Familiar, to Jon, who had seen what became of the Spiral’s touch on the world, after it was free to shape it to its will.

“I’m not one of you,” Jon said again, but his voice came out a hoarse whisper.

“And yet you entrance those whose existence is closest to It-Is-Not-What-It-Is, without even trying,” Gabriel said, and shaped the tower some more, until it was shaped a little like a man, a little like a labyrinth, and a lot like insanity. “And yet you are branded by my master, as though you were made from its will.”

Jon felt sick. He couldn’t stop shaking, and he knew that he was causing some of the claws on the Distortion’s fingers to dig deeper into his skin where they held him. He wasn’t—he wasn’t branded, was he? It was just a mark. Like the other one, the Web’s. From his trip back in time, from being nearly torn apart in that endless tearing of his mind and soul. Like the marks he had gained on his body, scars of his experiences, back in the future.

He was still Jonathan Sims. He was a child whose life was changed by the memories of a future he was determined not to recreate. He was almost certain he was more the child than the man—but was he less of a human child than he thought? Had be been… made? What if he wasn’t the original Jonathan Sims, but something else, made by Spiral and Web and Eye, given the Archivist’s memories and sent in to replace the real child?

No. That’s not true. They’re twisting everything. Jon tried to reach for anger, but found nothing but despair. He still didn’t know what he was, or how he had ended up in the past. He didn’t know why he was marked so prominently by those three entities, or why he was behaving like something akin to an avatar, but also distinct from one. He didn’t know how his child self had been tossed out of Mr. Spider’s door upon Jon’s return from the future, when he knew that he had avoided going into the door in his past.

“I never gave myself to the Spiral,” Jon forced himself to say, because he had to argue. Because it wasn’t true, and he couldn’t leave it unchallenged. “I made stupid choices and bargains, and I- I gave myself to others—” Beholding, most predominantly, but the Web too, when he had willingly opened that stupid book that set this all in motion, “but not to you. Not to yours.” Helen had shown up uninvited, acted without his consent. Choicesmattered. He knew this.

“You almost sound like you believe all of that,” the Distortion said.

“Whatever you are or however you came to be, I believe you are a message to me,” Gabriel said, shaping the thing between his hands once more, and this time it looked like Jon, curled up with his hands on his ears, but his skin was made up of endless spirals like the one on his arm. ”And I believe that message is that you are meant to be at the center of my masterpiece,” he looked up at Jon, and his smile was almost gentle, which sharpened to something excited when he looked past him to the Distortion. “Alongside our friend here, of course.”

“I could share as much with my little brother, probably,” the Distortion said.

“No,” Jon repeated, because that was the only thing he could say. That was what he needed to say. But Gabriel wasn’t listening to him. He was watching him like he was seeing something beyond his skin, and the Jon figure in his hands changed, opened its mouth in a silent scream, dug deep and painfully into its cheeks.

“Though I’ll need to know a little more about you before I can figure out how to make it all work,” Gabriel added, more softly than he had spoken before. He reached out a hand to Jon again, and Jon flinched back, getting a long cut on his cheek by the Distortion’s hold on him.

“Will you let go!” Jon snapped, more panicked than hurt, though his skin stung from half a dozen different cuts he had gotten curtesy of the creature’s touch.

“No,” it said, even as Jon felt its weight on him lift and vanish, and he was left stumbling.

Jon turned around as soon as he could, thoughts a spinning mess in his head, exacerbated by the not-an-Archivist headache he had brought upon himself; he didn’t like looking at the Distortion, but he hated not being able to see it even more. When he looked, though, there was nothing behind him but an empty hallway, leading nowhere.

 “He likes you,” Gabriel noted, coming to stand next to Jon, both hands back to smoothing the features of the Jon-sculpture.

“Doesn’t he like everyone he drags into this hell?” Jon says, taking a step back from Gabriel as his eyes are drawn back to the thing between his hands. Gabriel grins, but doesn’t reply. “He wants me to get lost here forever,” Jon added. If Gabriel wanted him for the ritual, would he care about the Distortion leaving him here to lose his mind?

“We lie as easy as we breathe, kid,” Gabriel shrugged, like that was supposed to be an answer. Did he mean the Distortion was lying about wanting to trap Jon, or that he was lying about thinking it liked Jon? Or about something else altogether?

“I don’t want to be here,” Jon said, and again it felt like something he was saying more for his own benefit than anyone else’s. There was something seriously wrong with the way Jon’s mind was working—something beyond simply being in the Distortion’s domain. He had been in it before, several times, and while it had always been disorienting and unpleasant, it had never been like this.

Everything felt… unreal. And too real. He found his moods swinging wildly from angry to afraid to… accepting? When he tried to look back at everything that had happened since he crossed the door, it all felt like disjointed moments held together by gossamer threads of logic. Even the pain felt distant, pervasive as it was.

His head hurt, the most familiar pain of them all. Then there was his face, scalp, back and arms, which itched where the Distortion’s claws had drawn long scratches on his skin. His entire body ached, a bone-deep ache that radiated out from his bared arm. He couldn’t shake the sickening feeling that his body was made of spiderwebs and spirals, and that if he looked closely at his skin, he would see it bleeding thoughts instead of blood.

“You’re fighting it,” Gabriel said. “It would be easier on you if you just accepted it.” The Jon in his hands wasn’t curled in on himself anymore. He was looking back at Jon, glaring, one eye the same rainbow hue as the walls, the other dark and lifeless.

“No,” Jon said. Again. How many times were they going to make him say it? He didn’t want to be here. He was not the Spiral’s. There wasn’t a single part of him that was suited to it. Couldn’t they all see it? “And you justsaid you don’t know me, or why any of this is happening,” Jon added.

Gabriel gave him an infuriating grin. “I don’t bother wasting time when intuition shoves a mystery at me. Wouldn’t be much of an artist if I overthought things, would I?”

Jon felt unreasonably annoyed at his words, while simultaneously relieved. Because, as annoying as it was to talk to someone who seemed to consider thinking a waste of time, it also made it far less likely that he would stumble upon the correct way to do a ritual, even with Jon standing in front of him, holding all the pieces.

Does it matter if he knows what he is doing, if he uses me anyway? The thought was chilling. Through no choice of his own, Jon was already tightly bound to three different entities. What if his past still marked him out to all the other entities, regardless of the missing scars from his body? The Buried, the Lonely and the Vast had never left a mark on his skin, and yet their mark on his psyche had counted well enough to bring about the end. If Gabriel used him now, as a (possible?) avatar of the Spiral, would that be enough to make his ritual a success, even if he had no understanding of why?

Could any avatar do as much, if they got their hands on Jon?

No. No, it wouldn’t work without Jon being of that Entity, in the way he was of the Eye, and now of the Web and Spiral as well. It did mean that Elias wasn’t the only one he had to be careful of now, however.

Damn it all. Not only was Jon no closer to stopping Elias in his attempts to end the world, but he had added two other groups who were now potentially capable of doing the same, whether they knew it or not. At least the Web has never attempted a ritual before.

Jon was overthinking things. The ritual had worked not only because of how he was marked, but because he had been the Archivist, an avatar that existed to hold together all those fears and experiences. Whatever he was now, it wasn’t that.

Jon glared back at the figure in between Gabriel’s hands.

“What do you want from me?” Jon Asked again, impulsively pushing for powers he knew he had no access to. The result was predictable: blinding pain to one eye, followed by the new echo of pain on his arm. In Gabriel’s hands, one of the sculpted Jon’s eyes flashed a familiar bright blue.

Jon stared at it, ignoring whatever nonsense Gabriel was saying in response to his question and wondering if he had imagined what he had just seen. He was intimately familiar with the way the eye had looked, just for a moment. How—could he—was this something he could use?

Jon took a step to the side, close enough for his shoulders to brush against the bare walls of the corridor, still ignoring whatever it was that Gabriel was saying. Carefully, he pressed against the door in his mind that called to Beholding, clenching his teeth against the pain. As he did, he saw it again; a single blue eye, looking back at him. Calling him home.

The door wasn’t moving, but the door wasn’t the only access Jon had to the Eye anymore, thanks to his new powers. He felt a pull, somewhere both inside and outside him. Intuition, as Gabriel would call it.

His new connection to the Eye wasn’t exclusive to a single entity, after all.

Jon continued to press against the door in his mind, ignoring the pain and concentrating on the connection it allowed him to feel. Elias was watching him, showing him the way back, but it was up to him to use those directions.

As Gabriel had put it, Jon had to accept the hold the Spiral had on him, if he had any hopes of leaving it.

Fine, Jon thought, breathing through the strangely distant pain and cascading thoughts. Fine, I can do this. Don’t overthink it all and just let myself get overwhelmed by nonsense. I can do this.

He focused on the single blue eye trying to guide him, and stopped trying to ignore all the impossible sights and sounds that surrounded him. He breathed again, and relaxed, and—

—He understood what the Distortion was, finally, with such purity that he knew his mind should be breaking but he only felt happy, special, chosen—

—He knew what it meant to be lost here, and it wasn’t all that bad of a fate, was it? He could just wander these halls forever, he could help, he could—

—See the traps these beings of It-Is-Not-What-It-Is set for the poor lost child that was Jon, and See all of the paths that had led to him being here, and all of the paths that could lead him out, if only that lost child would reach—

Jon was leaning on a door that hadn’t been there a moment before, which opened without him having to find a handle. He fell through, only to collapse on the floor of a room that was much too quiet and dark, his eyes blinking away spots. He didn’t need to look to know the door was gone. It was only going to exist for as long as Jon willed it to, after all.

“Jon!” The voice was familiar and strange at the same time. It was too steady and lacked any colors and smells. What kind of voice was that, anyway? “Jon, look at me,” the command came with a sudden weight on Jon’s soul which made him gasp. His thoughts became scrambled again as he felt someone pull him up until he was sitting, and there were hands on his face, on his hair, on his arms. His vision swam, still trying to adjust to a space that was not mired in the impossible.

“E-Elias?” Jon asked, voice muzzy, too loud inside his own head.

“Yes, Jon. Look at me. You can do it,” Elias said, and Jon tried to do as he said. It was difficult. His thoughts were scattered, his senses a mess of contradicting information. He could see Elias’ blue eyes, though. Staring. Unnatural. Comforting.

“You saw me,” Jon said, still dazed.

“I did,” Elias confirmed. “And I need you to see me. Can you do that?”

Jon nodded, though he wasn’t really sure. He wanted to lean on his Archivist powers, but he knew that to be useless. Or, was it? It had helped, before, hadn’t it?

He pushed on the door again, and could imagine his thoughts becoming more orderly as the pain behind his eye grew. Elias was crouching in front of him, one hand over Jon’s shoulder to steady him, the other on the side of Jon’s face to help him focus.

“I—I think I need your help,” Jon whispered.

He passed out before he could hear whatever Elias replied.

Chapter Text

In the ten months that Jon had lived with Elias, Jon hadn’t once stepped inside Elias’ bedroom. It wasn’t something he had ever given much thought to, honestly. Whatever secrets might be inside, he figured they were most likely of a personal nature that Jon had little interest in. It wasn’t like Jon didn’t already know who Elias—Jonah—really was.  

The insides proved to be even more boring than he had assumed. There was a large bed in the middle with dark blue sheets, an ancient looking wooden dresser across the room, two small bedside tables at both ends of the bed, one with an elegant lamp on it, and the other with a small pile of books; all matching the same boring standard decoration as the rest of the house. There was a painting, though, which caught Jon’s eye when he first woke up. It was across the room from the bed, and it depicted a small cabin in the woods, surrounded by trees and shrubs, almost hidden. The artist had given the painting the impression of a moment in time, caught, as the three people in the cabin moved about their lives, unaware they were watched: at one window, a girl danced with a doll in her hands, while her mother hung laundry outside, and her father dug a hole on the other side of the house. Unnoticed by them all, a shadow loomed behind some trees, watching the father, a suggestion of teeth and claws, and the moments before violence.

Jon couldn’t tear his eyes away from it.

He couldn’t have said how much time passed from the moment he woke up in that unfamiliar bed, his eyes drawn to a painting that called out to a part of his soul he was usually much faster to deny, until Elias came in with a covered bowl of something that smelled of rich broth and warm autumn mornings.

“You’re awake,” Elias said, pausing at the door for a moment before bustling inside. He put the bowl on the table closest to Jon, pushing some of the books there aside, before he sat down on the edge of the bed and reached out a hand to Jon’s face. Jon watched, oddly detached, as Elias felt his forehead like he was measuring his temperature, before his eyes wandered away and caught again on the painting.

He wanted to ask how the artist had known to use that particular green color; it made the whole of the artwork sing, and Jon was sure it was on purpose.

“Jon,” Elias repeated, and Jon knew he hadn’t been paying attention, but it seemed like so much effort to turn his head away, and Elias’ voice was too loud and demanding. Didn’t he know that Jon’s brain hurt? Or was it his fault that it hurt? Or was it going to be his fault?

Thoughts were not easy, either. Jon drifted.

Jon,” the words were sharp, as was the sudden, suffocating weight of attention. Jon jolted as his mind suddenly started again, like he had been asleep the moment before. His thoughts were sluggish still, but at least he was thinking. He made himself look at Elias and ignore the painting.

“E-Elias,” Jon said, trying out the word. It tasted like bitter metal in his mouth. Words don’t have a taste, Jon thought, trying to concentrate. His brain was working wrong. He didn’t like it. “I can’t think,” he told him, pleading, but the words that would explain what was happening, even to himself, wouldn’t come.

“Yes, you can,” Elias said calmly, and Jon felt pressure on his hand, where Elias was holding it and squeezing. “You are borrowing from the wrong patron, Jon.”

Jon tried to shake his head. That wasn’t it. Or, it sort of was, but it was also completely wrong. He didn’t know how to explain it. He hated that he didn’t know.

I don’t bother wasting time when intuition shoves a mystery at me. Wouldn’t be much of an artist if I overthought things, would I?

The words felt like tangles of thorns, entwined deep in his brain. They weren’t the only ones. 

But Jon wasn’t an artist. Jon liked to know things. He liked to dig into questions and learn everything he could about them, to take an idea and turn it over in his mind so many times until it was a part of him and he could describe its every detail.

“I—I had to let it in,” Jon tried. Because choices mattered, and choosing to try to explain his mind, even when he couldn’t figure out how, was important. Somehow. “When. When I saw a way back.”

“I know, Jon.” Elias said. He brushed back the hair from Jon’s face, too gently. It sent blue pinpricks of ice down his spine. He’s not to be trusted warred with maybe he cares and he’ll eat me alive. Jon wished he could untangle them. “And now you need to let another in. Can you feel Its gaze on you, Jon? Can you focus on it?”

Jon tried. He knew what Elias was saying; the weight of being Watched felt like the whole world had taken notice of him, and was waiting to see what he would do. It helped him think. It made him hurt.

Not enough, Jon thought. Thinking was painful, but he knew how to make it hurt more. He knew how to reach out to a god he had once shared a mind with.

The pain of pushing on the door of his mind was worse than he had ever felt it before, but it cleared his mind like nothing else had. Like waking up from the edges of death, Jon gasped, eyes darting, finally taking in his surroundings like he should have been from the moment he awoke.

“Why am I in your room?” was the first coherent question that made it to his lips, because any of the others would have had answers too complicated for him to trust himself with at the moment.

Elias’ smile was unfamiliar. Jon wished he had thought to sit up before talking, because he was only now noticing how painfully vulnerable he felt, lying on the bed while Elias held his hand and looked down at him.

“I wasn’t about to leave you alone to get lost in that creature’s mazes again, now was I?” Elias said. There was something strange about his words, but Jon couldn’t pin it down. It sounded like something Elias would usually say, but there was something about the way he spoke that was making Jon wonder if his perception of reality wasn’t still warped by the Spiral’s influence in his mind. Jon pressed down harder on the door to Beholding, accepting the pain it brought as a price for the clarity it offered.

“I… how long was I in there?” Jon asked, wary. Time inside the Distortion’s corridors could be messy. Even with all the effort he was putting towards Beholding, Jon’s grasp on time was more tenuous than he would have liked.

“Almost a full day,” Elias said, and the strange smile slipped from his face. Jon frowned at him, and his eyes darted towards the closed curtains of the room, which were lit at the edges from the sunshine on the other side. It took Jon a minute to put together what was bothering him.

“But its… morning?” He asked. Then, another thought. “Wait, if it’s been a day, isn’t this… Friday?”

“Thursday,” Elias corrected. “Can you sit up? You should try to eat.”

Elias let go of Jon’s hand and moved back, giving Jon enough room to push himself to a sitting position. Jon winced as his movements pulled on a dozen scratches around his arms and scalp. So, he hadn’t imagined those, even if he couldn’t really remember them hurting much when he got them.

It wasn’t until he was sitting up with the soup in between his legs that he finally connected some of the separate ideas which had been nibbling at the corners of his thoughts. “Wait. Shouldn’t you be at work?”

Elias rolled his eyes. “I can take a couple of days of work without it all falling apart, Jon.”

Jon frowned, not because it wasn’t true, but because the idea of Elias not going in to work felt… wrong. He was pretty sure that the entire time he had known him, including in his alternate life, the only time Elias had taken time off from work had been after he was put in jail.

Then again, his memories were pretty scrambled right now, so he could be mistaken about that.

As Jon started in on the soup (he hadn’t realized how hungry he was, but as soon as he tried the first sip he was practically inhaling it), it occurred to Jon that it was very out-of-character for Elias to put Jon in his own bed, and feed him there. Not only had Elias never allowed Jon into his room before, but he had always been adamant about food only belonging in the kitchen or dining room.

Starting to feel nervous on top of everything else, Jon hurried to finish his meal, keeping a wary eye on Elias as he did. As soon as the bowl was empty, Jon put it in the same spot Elias had already cleared for it. With a full, warm stomach, Jon felt something like sleep tug at his eyelids, but he fought against it. He had to stay awake for… reasons.

His eyes found the painting again.

When you’re sculpting something, sometimes you have an idea of what you want to make, and sometimes you’re just letting yourself find out as you go. Jon wondered if the artist had known what he was making when he did. He wondered why Elias kept it here, where he could see it every time he fell asleep and woke up. It was beautiful, in the way of a well-made knife or a predator stalking its prey.

Jon wanted to tear it apart.

Jon,” Elias hand was squeezing his hand again, almost painfully. Jon blinked at him, and remembered that he was supposed to be doing something. He was supposed to be… thinking?

No. No, he was supposed to be pushing on something. Or leaning against something else. Only, he was in bed, wasn’t he? What would he be –

Oh. He remembered the door in his mind, always there, always unmoving. A temptation for pain with no reward. Only, there was a little reward now, wasn’t there? He pushed on it, and felt himself tense, both with pain and awareness.

“Sorry,” he offered, though he wasn’t sure what exactly he was apologizing for. Elias sighed.

“I’m sure you are,” he said. “We need to talk, and I’m going to need you to focus. Can you do that?”

Jon met Elias’ faintly disapproving gaze and gave an uncertain nod. He could think so long as he continued to press down on his connection to the Eye, but he couldn’t manage his usual levels of concentration. He was sure that as soon as his mind wandered with the first distraction to catch it, he’d fall down into…

… into whatever it was his mind became when the Spiral’s influence was allowed to run unchecked.

Which was really unfair. He’d made the choice for Beholding countless times, now, and it hadn’t gone and messed with his thoughts. It was still ignoring him in favor of its current, useless Archivist, even though Jonwas so much better suited for it, and maybe he should just give into the Spiral and go right back into the corridors, because at least they wanted him and—

Jon.” Elias’ voice was sharp, and his fingers were digging into Jon’s wrist hard enough to bruise. Jon quickly abandoned his deteriorating train of thought and pressed down on the door again. He wished it didn’t hurt so much. He wished it would just open already.

“Sorry,” he said, miserably.

“I want to tell you it will get easier,” Elias said, “but I’m afraid that we’re in uncharted waters here, where your connection to both Beholding and the Twisting Deceit lies.” Unspoken, but loud in Jon’s ears anyway, was the addendum, now that you’ve gone and made it so.

“At least it wasn’t the Web,” Jon muttered, trying to find anything positive in his predicament.

Elias gave him an unamused look. “Don’t go around tempting fate,” he said, “You are capable of getting yourself into trouble in endless ways, including some I had never before considered possible.”

“I don’t ‘get myself into trouble’,” Jon argued, pulling his knees up to his chest, but not trying to pry his hand from Elias grip. Somehow, the contact helped. “Trouble finds me.”

Elias’ snort showed how much he believed that. “You wandered into my Institute before I even knew you existed,” he pointed out.

“I was across the street!” Jon argued, face heating up.

“You insulted and threatened my Head Archivist upon meeting her…” Elias continued, looking upward like he was tallying all of the stupid, dangerous things Jon had done since they had met.

“She shouldn’t have that job.”

“You risked making a deal with two powers you don’t understand in order to try and ‘help’ a boy you had just met.”

“…Ok, that was kind of bad. But it all worked out!”

“It resulted in you being tied even deeper with those powers, and nearly being captured and trapped by a pathetic, self-important amateur.”

“Well, yes. But I wasn’t, and Gerry’s safe, and—and I was already tied into those two entities,” Jon’s voice faded a little at the end. He didn’t want to think of it, but he found that he couldn’t turn his thoughts away. The Distortion had responded to him that day, before Jon had ever shown a hint of his powers or role. It had called him ‘brother’—which felt both like the truth, and a very unfunny joke.

His choices mattered, sure. But when he was surrounded by nothing but bad options, and given just enough rope to hang himself with, did he really have any control over his life?

“You opened that creature’s door yourself,” Elias said softly. Jon felt dizzy, and pushed down harder in his mind. Almost nauseous with the pain, Jon squeezed back Elias’ hand.

“What am I supposed to do, when everything around me is trying to move me somewhere I don’t want to go?” Jon asked, and he felt so drained and anxious that he didn’t even stop to worry that he was telling Elias too much. “If I say no to one, I’m saying yes to the other, and neither one is a path I want; at least, as far as I know because I don’t know what the hell any of you want with me!”

Not quite true. He had a feeling about what the Distortion wanted of him—and, by extension, maybe even a hint about what the Spiral did, though it wasn’t an idea he could verbalize. Elias—well, Jon could guess what Elias would want, if he learned enough, but at this point in time, he couldn’t say. Elias had wanted Jon around to understand him, and to bind him tighter to Beholding for possible use in the future. But Elias hadto know by now that Jon wasn’t anything like what Agnes had been to Desolation, despite whatever superficial similarities they might have.

What did Elias gain in keeping Jon around? In making sure he was safe and healthy? If all he wanted was Jon close by and under his control, then why did he go and… and put Jon in his bed, and feed him there like he cared, and hold Jon’s hand to keep him steady and stay when Jon had a nightmare and…

Stop, he pushed harder on the door in his mind, but while his thoughts cleared, his emotions didn’t. He wanted to believe that Elias cared about him, beyond whatever use he could be to the man. He needed Elias to be what he pretended to the world he was: Jon’s guardian.

Jon was crying. He was moving without thinking, acting on feelings and instinct, and his thoughts were muddled again, but in a more mundane way. He crawled out of the covers and hugged Elias, sobbing, demanding comfort from a man he knew was incapable of it.

Or maybe that was a lie he told himself? He didn’t know. As his control slipped, as he felt Elias tentatively hold him, he had a harder time holding on what was true, or even to the idea of truth in and of itself.

Everything was wrong, and later he would probably regret what he did, and Elias would make him pay for it, but for a few moments, Jon knew what he needed, and he didn’t bother to ask before going to get it.

Their next attempt at a conversation went a lot better. It was later in the afternoon, and they had migrated down into the living room, where they both sat on the same couch, eyeing each other warily.

Jon had fallen asleep in Elias’ arms. That was pretty embarrassing, but Jon couldn’t deny he was feeling better. He had woken up a little more than half an hour before, still holding on to Elias like some kind of zombie koala while Elias had maneuvered himself in bed so he could get some paperwork done while Jon slept. Jon wasn’t at all surprised that the man kept paperwork close enough to his bed that he had been able to do as much.

Even now, though Jon was curled up with a blanket at the other end of the couch, his foot was stretched out so it could make contact with Elias’ thigh. For some reason, the touch grounded Jon and made it easier to focus, though he was still leaning heavily on the pain and pressure that came from pushing on the door in his mind. Less pain, now, since Elias had given Jon some pain killers when they came downstairs for dinner.

“You asked for my help,” Elias said, the opening salvo for a conversation that would usually be a battle of wits between the two of them.

“Yeah,” Jon answered, too tired to put much effort into it. He could remember all the arguments he had made to himself before about why it was a bad idea to tell Elias anything, but he couldn’t bring himself to that same level of paranoia now. Maybe he was just tired. Maybe he should put this off until he could think about it more.

And maybe I’ll talk myself into doing nothing again, until I crack and do something even more stupid, he thought uncharitably.

“Your dreams?” Elias asked, again trying to prod at a subject that Jon had become increasingly temperamental over in the last month. Jon still felt angry about Elias bringing it up, again, but it almost felt habitual at this point. A constant wish that Elias would just leave him alone for a few days instead of asking his stupid questions and pressing for things Jon didn’t want to talk about.

But Jon was the one who asked for help here. And Elias was what he was. He would never win an argument about privacy with the man.

“Yeah,” Jon said, again. At Elias’ unimpressed look, Jon turned his face away and started picking at the threads of his shirt. It was orange and had insane looking purple lamas in a repeated pattern across the front and back. It reminded him of endless corridors and nonsense words. He knew none of his other clothes would be any better.

I thought it was all my idea, Jon mused, biting his lip. He had given in and accepted the Spiral’s influence, back when he left the Distortion’s hallways, but he wore proof that it had woven threads into his mind long before he had ever stepped across that door. Should he stop? Ask Elias to go shopping, to buy clothes that were less… loud?

He wrinkled his nose. He didn’t like the idea. He might be clinging to contact with Elias like a terrified puppy, but he had his dignity. And it wasn’t that much of a problem, was it?

Besides, it really annoyed Elias.

“The door kept showing up. Every time I was alone,” Jon said. “It never opened, or anything, but…” he remembered the sounds he could sometimes hear coming from it. Familiar and distorted, sickening, wonderful and terrible. None of them had been the reason he opened it.

“But put a mystery door in your room enough times, and it starts looking like a good idea to open it,” Elias finished, sounding halfway between amused and irritated. Jon shrugged. He couldn’t deny that curiosity had played a part in it. The question of whether it would make anything better, of what it was doing there.

I thought you knew, the words were on the tip of his tongue, but he held them back. That was a lie. He had no doubts that, had Elias been aware of the Distortion’s little invitation, he would have done something about it. At the very least threatened Jon to never step through it.

To Jon, though, they were a way out. A possibility of escape, should Elias decide to do something Jon didn’t expect. Jon’s only way out, seeing as Elias still locked his room from the outside and didn’t allow Jon to exist in a building where Elias wasn’t. That was the real reason Jon had said nothing of them.

Because we’re not on the same side, Jon thought, finally looking back at Elias. They lived together, and Jon complied with Elias’ rules while Elias kept up his end of the bargain and kept Jon mostly safe, but they were adversaries. Everything they did, they did at each other, and not with.

It wasn’t a revelation that should have surprised Jon, but it did. He was used to being part of a dysfunctional team. He worked with Melanie and Basira, even when one of them wanted to hurt him and the other one didn’t trust him not to become a monster. He worked with Tim, even while they both knew that Tim would have sacrificed them both for revenge against the circus. Even back at the start, with Martin and Sasha, he had kept his distance and trusted none of them, not with his real thoughts and worries, and they had likewise kept things from him.

Thinking back further didn’t help. He had never had many people in his life. His relationship with Georgie had been filled with a lot of arguments that he had thought playful, while she had thought he was an arrogant ass who could never admit to being wrong. He and his grandmother had never been a team, really; more like polite strangers who lived together and tried to cause each other as little inconvenience as possible. The only relationship he could think of to contrast them all was him and Martin, after…

Well, after the Lonely. After they talked, and left, and became a unit. Jon and Martin. Martin and Jon. Every time one of the others would talk about them, after the world ended, their names would be spoken always in a pair, because where one went, so did the other. And even when they argued, they learned to do so on the same side, instead of against each other.

Jon missed Martin so much in that moment that it felt like someone had taken his heart out of his chest and squeezed. He gasped, light-headed, as tears came to his eyes again and he hastily brushed them away. These weren’t for Elias. Never for him. It had become easy to stop thinking about Martin; he had a lot of practice in it even before he came back. But in avoiding thoughts of him, he had also avoided thoughts of what was, probably, the first real, healthy relationship in his life, short as it had been.

And in thinking of that relationship, he realized something he should have seen much sooner: he was treating Gerry like an adversary too. He was trying so hard to make their friendship work, that he was thinking of Gerry like a problem to be solved, rather than an ally to help him save something they both wanted.

And he cried again, guilty, because he and Gerry were the ones who had become a unit. And Jon had almost ruined it all by being the same stupid, stubborn idiot who forgot that he wasn’t alone in the world.

“Jon,” Elias tugged at Jon’s foot, and Jon quickly rubbed his eyes and forced himself to come back to focus on the present. His mind was wandering far too easily. He would have to be more careful about that.

“S-sorry,” Jon said.

“If you’re going to apologize to me every time you get distracted, you’ll be apologizing more than speaking soon enough,” Elias said. Jon glared at him, but there was nothing but a weird, disarming humor in his smile.

“Why would the Web and the Spiral torment me in my dreams?” Jon asked bluntly. Elias blinked.

“The Web and Spiral? The powers themselves, or their servants?” Elias asked.

Jon shrugged. “I thought it was the powers, but I guess it could be their servants?” He frowned, thinking back on his endless, terrifying nightmares. “How would I know?”

“I… don’t actually know,” Elias admitted. “I haven’t really heard about a situation quite like this ever before. Still…” He looked up, thoughtful, fingers tapping an absent rhythm into the couch. “I have a few ideas. Could you tell me more?”

Jon did. Just about the only things he held back were his own theories and assumptions, and the presence of what he assumed were entities other than the Eye, the Web and the Spiral. Elias already knew of his connection with those three; he wasn’t going to give him any ideas about all the fears being in concert. Instead, he described the different dreams he had, the way that the Spiral and Web would be after him, or trapping him, or demanding something of him, usually while Beholding was close by, not really interfering in either a positive or a negative way. He told him of waking up from those dreams on his feet, though never going towards the Distortion’s door.

Elias was silent for so long once Jon had finished that it gave him time to regret ever opening his mouth. Old, familiar recriminations of Oh god I just made everything worse why did I do this mixed together with a newer, more casual Oh well, nothing to do about it all now. It made Jon anxious. He’d never been one to calmly accept risks or mistakes; at least, not once he had a chance to think about them.

“They were pushing you,” Elias finally said. The way he looked at Jon made him shudder, though Jon had come to a similar conclusion. He still didn’t know why, though. Or if his going to the Distortion was the result they had been pushing him towards. “If they got what they wanted, they’ll stop,” Elias continued, “and if they don’t, I have some ideas about how to stop them getting to you.” He looked angry, but he shook his head. “Either way, we’ll have to wait first to see if the dreams return.”

“Right…” Jon said, a little disappointed. He wished that Elias had a better plan than ‘wait and see’, but even despite that, he was feeling better. Telling Elias about the dreams had felt… soothing. In a dangerous, reckless way; like giving the control of a crashing plane to someone else and knowing that whatever happened, you weren’t solely responsible for it anymore.

“The bigger danger is that damned door, and that creature that wants you,” Elias said instead. “You need to tell me what happened on the other side.”

“I… I was taken somewhere else. And I met another avatar. Servant. Of the Spiral.” Jon said. His thoughts were going fuzzy again, so he forced himself to make his words come out right. “Gabriel. The Clay guy. He was there. We talked. They…” Jon frowned, tried to find the right way to say what had happened. “They wanted to recruit me,” he finished.

“Recruit you for…” Elias prompted, and Jon was reminded that for all that Elias had ‘educated’ Jon about the entities, he had never brought up the rituals to bring them into the world. So he shrugged, and lied.

“I don’t know.” Then, before Elias could think about that too much, he added, “the Distortion calls me ‘little brother’.”

“That’s… unusual.” Elias said, taken aback.

“I wasn’t going to accept,” Jon said. “I don’t… I don’t like what my mind does when it’s all…” Jon made a vague, circular motion with his arms. “Makes it hard to think and I like thinking, and its hard to ignore feelings and wants and—” he cut himself off. Tried again. “I only accepted because I saw you—saw you draw me a path.”

“I know,” Elias said, softer. “We’ll have to make some changes to the house, to make it harder for either of them to come for you. You’ll have to work with me on this.”

“Yeah,” was all that Jon could think to say about it.

Jon woke up on the couch sometime later to knocking on the front door. He stirred groggily, noticing that it was dark outside and that he was alone in the couch. He heard Elias’ voice, quiet and indistinct, come from the front of the house a minute later.

He was on his feet before he could think, moving quietly across the room until he was crouching next to the stairs, where he could listen in to whoever was there without them or Elias seeing him.

“Are you going to let me in?” Peter asked, and Jon felt an overwhelming, messy surge of emotions at the sound of his voice. If he hadn’t already been so close to the ground, Jon would have fallen. Instead, he leaned against the wall, breathing hard and trying to convince himself that the sudden taste of brine in his mouth and in the back of his throat was all in his mind.

Not now, Jon thought, hugging himself tightly and trying to get his wildly flailing thoughts back under control. Elias was saying something, but Jon couldn’t hear it over the pounding of his own heart, beating far too loudly and drowning out all other sounds. He had only just returned from the domain of one entity. He wasn’t ready for…


For whatever it was that Peter would do. Jon couldn’t think well enough to predict—

—Not that he had predicted what he would do before all that well, had he?—

—but that wasn’t important, was it? Because Jon wasn’t supposed to be here, not while Peter was, because Elias had promised—promised something—something about Peter…

Jon pulled his arms from his sides to his head, like he was trying to hold in all his tumbling thoughts. He pushed again on Beholding’s tightly closed door, using both the pain and the order it brought to his thoughts to shove down all the unwelcome feelings he was barely keeping under control.

Elias had promised that when Peter came back, he could stay with Gerry instead of at the house. He remembered that. What with everything else going on, though, Jon doubted he would hold up his end of the agreement.

But… but hadn’t Elias been surprised, when Jon told him about what Peter had done? Jon couldn’t remember if he had believed Elias’ reaction or not. Jon wanted Elias to have been telling the truth, because as he was right now, he really couldn’t deal with both Elias and Peter in any capacity.

“You’re kidding,” Peter said, amused. Jon had missed whatever had been said between the two of them while he got his mind halfway back to working order. They were still at the doorway, though; Jon could still feel the breeze coming in from the open door.

“I told you not to interfere,” Elias said, in that halfway-from-neutral tone he used when someone was starting to really annoy him. “You complicated some very delicate—”

“Isn’t it about time you stop playing house and admit that child is more trouble than he’s worth?”

In the silence that Peter’s words brought, all Jon could hear was his own heartbeat, pounding so loudly in his ear he worried for a moment that he thought he might have missed the rest of the conversation, at least until Elias spoke, voice low and dangerous

“That child is exactly where I want him to be. And he would be a lot less trouble if you hadn’t interferedwhere I told you not to!”

Peter laughed. “That kid is nothing but trouble. Whatever he is—oh, don’t give me that look, I can do a bit of digging when I’m motivated to—it isn’t worth what you’re putting up with. I know you Beholding types can’t ever leave a mystery unsolved, but really, Elias? This is getting ridiculous.”

“You don’t know what you’re talking about,” Elias said.

“Don’t I? You dedicate more of your energy into taking care of him than you do in that mess your Archivist is getting herself tangled in. She’s making enemies faster than you could keep up with at the best of times. Now? Distracted playing dad to a child who hates you? I wouldn’t be surprised if I returned from my next trip to find your Institute burned to ashes.” Jon wasn’t nearly as good at reading Peter’s tone as he was with Elias, but he sounded a lot more agitated than he’d ever heard him, barring the seconds prior to his death. Jon could guess about the enemies Gertrude was making in general (had she already stopped a ritual? Or was she simply interfering with other avatars at this point?), but Peter’s broader point, that Elias was distracted because of Jon, wasn’t one he had ever considered before.

Would such a distraction be good, or bad? Could Gertrude finish her preparations to destroy Elias and the Institute, as she had planned, if Elias was too distracted with Jon to watch her carefully?

No. That would be years down the line, if it happened at all. If things got that far, it would mean both Gertrude and Elias had both learned the truth about rituals, which would mean that Jon had already failed.

I’m thinking about this too simplistically, Jon thought, angry at himself. He would return to it later, when he was feeling more like himself.

“What do you care, Lukas?” There was scorn in Elias’ voice that Jon couldn’t remember ever hearing before. “I don’t interfere with your little sea voyages; do me the favor of staying out of where you’re not invited.”

“Did I strike a nerve?” Peter asked, sounding amused again. “If I didn’t know you better, old friend, I would almost believe you cared about this child. Is that it? Did he get under your crusty, uncaring exterior to find your old, withered heart of gold?”

Elias laughed; a strange, strangled sound that sounded like it had been dragged out of him unwillingly.  

“After all the time and energy I’ve sunk into him, yes, you better believe I care about what happens to him,” Elias said, regaining some of his composure. “As a project, he’s the most interesting subject I’ve taken on since… well, possibly ever. And I have no plans on allowing anyone else to take him.”

Jon felt a chill, but he couldn’t decide if it was good or bad. Having Elias invested in him, even if it was as a ‘project’ he felt possessive towards, was good for his health and safety, if not for his independence or long-term goals. A part of him felt disappointed, though. He tried his best to ignore that part of him, especially since it was insisting that of course Elias wouldn’t admit he cared, even if he did.

“Haven’t you already?” Peter asked. “That kid is a chew toy for more Powers than just the one you serve. He won’t ever be yours or your god’s alone.”

“So long as he’s ours more than anyone else’s, I don’t care” Elias said, once again making Jon’s heart race. Was that still true, after what he’d done with the Spiral?

I can make it be true, Jon thought, closing his eyes tightly and pushing on the door in his mind as hard as he dared.

“He’s a weakness, Elias,” Peter said, and for the first time Jon thought he actually sounded serious. “Take it from me. He’s a weakness, and I did you a favor giving him a taste for my god.”

“Then I suppose that’s the last ‘favor’ you will ever do for me,” Elias said. “If you cannot abide by my rules, Peter, you are not welcome in my home. Leave.”

There was silence. Jon strained to try and hear Peter’s footsteps leaving, but all he heard was the sounds of the night and a distant siren that he couldn’t be sure he wasn’t imagining.

“Elias—” Peter began, after a minute of nothing.

“Leave, Peter.” Elias repeated. This time, Jon heard the door close. He heard Elias sigh.

When Elias stepped back deeper into the house, Jon was still curled up on the stairs, arms around himself. Their eyes met, but Elias didn’t look surprised to see Jon there, eavesdropping.

“You hear what you wanted to know?” Elias looked annoyed—no, more than that. He looked angry, or maybe frustrated. Like swirls of red and orange in an ocean of sickly green. Like a shallow pond suddenly turned deep, in which Jon could fall and never breathe again, drowning in an ocean of hidden meanings and emotions he didn’t want to acknowledge. His or Elias’—he couldn’t tell.

He couldn’t say if it mattered.

He was getting lost again. Unmoored. He stood up from the stairs and latched on to Elias again. He couldn’t remember what he had been asked. He couldn’t bring himself to care. As long as Elias continued to hold him and stop him from tearing apart at the seams, Jon would be willing to look past almost anything.

Chapter Text

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 avatar of

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.

Chapter Text

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.

Was there?

“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,” J