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no such thing as an ideal death

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Martin is, as expected, making tea when he overhears the conversation.

“Demoted!?” someone exclaims, and Martin doesn’t think about it any more than some half-formed thought that it must be someone in a different part of the Institute that Elias is talking to. He only really talks to the others in the Archives; he recognizes a few of the other employees of the Institute but Martin tends to keep to himself. But he doesn’t recognize this voice, which is mostly why he keeps listening. “You’re demoting me?”

“Yes, Jon,” Elias’s voice says from around the corner, and Martin perks up a bit at the name. It’s a fairly common name, after all, but he’s...well. He’s attentive, that’s all. “You’re going to be an archival assistant now, and Sasha will be my new Archivist.” He sounds...mad. Furious, even. Martin risks setting his spoon in the sink and then moving around the room to peek around the corner to see what’s got Elias so mad.

Interesting. He’s never seen this man before in his life.

“If I could, I’d fire you,” Elias continues. Martin takes a sip of tea, thinks about taking a cup over to Jon later. “But I can’t. So you’ll be working here. But I won’t have...one of you as my Archivist.”

Whatever that means. Martin watches Elias stalk off and then this other Jon turns and looks at him. Martin flinches back but then sighs at himself and steps fully around the corner. This other Jon smiles at him. He’s tall, very tall, this Jon, and he seems to be the opposite of everything Martin’s Jon looks like, not that Jon is Martin’s or anything of the sort, but it’s a way to differentiate between the two and—

“Can you believe him, Martin?” other Jon says, shaking his head. “He’s giving Sasha my job. Ridiculous, really.”

Martin smiles at him, small and bland and cautious. “Sorry,” he says, “but your job?”

Other Jon frowns at him. “Head Archivist,” he replies slowly. He takes a step forward, a step closer to Martin, and something suddenly feels very wrong because Martin knows Jon, knows that whoever this is, whoever—

“You’re not the Archivist,” is all he finally manages to get out. His tea slops over the side of his mug and stings his hand, but he just staring at this...this Not-Jon, rightfully terrified, heart pounding in his chest.

“Well not anymore, I suppose,” Not-Jon grouses. “Guess that means we’re the same now, Martin. Won’t have to boss you around anymore.”

With that, this other Jon just shakes his head and turns to walk down the hallway. Martin watches him go, and the second he’s turned the corner, Martin spins on his heel and runs.

Well, he doesn’t run, but he walks quickly to where he knows Tim is working down in the library. Tim cracks a joke about Jon being demoted and Martin feels sick with all of it, crashes down into a chair. All the stages of grief hit him at once and he knows he’s shaking but he can’t seem to stop. Was this some kind of—of joke? A prank? He can’t imagine Elias in on something like that anymore than he can imagine Jon. What is going on?

Something must’ve happened in the tunnels. Something must’ve—must’ve taken him, come back in his place, tricked everyone—

“Whoa,” Tim says, “What’s wrong, Martin? Jon not take your tea again?” He laughs at his own joke.

Martin just shakes his head, taking in a deep, gasping breath. “There’s something wrong with Jon,” he bites out once he feels like he can, glancing around the library to make sure they’re not being overheard. “He’s...he’s wrong.

“Well,” Tim tells him, shuffling some papers around, “even Jon’s wrong sometimes.”

“No,” Martin presses, shaking his head. “Not like that. There’s something wrong with him.” Or maybe someone took him. Maybe he’s in the tunnels right now, handcuffed and blindfolded and Martin needs to go save him. But this Not-Jon is Jon, wearing his face, and does that mean Jon is down in the tunnels without his face?

But then, of course, the other Jon comes into the library, and he’s all smiles and laughter and Martin can’t quite remember how he’s supposed to be but he knows that’s not right. Tim doesn’t seem to notice any difference, and Martin sits there, shrinking back into the shadows, sudden despair filling him, knowing that something has gone very, very wrong, and there’s no clear way for him to make it right.

Not-Jon turns to him and smiles at him in a way that makes Martin feel like a fly caught in a spider’s web.

This other Jon took his place. Slot into Jon’s life like he’d been there all along. He feels sick at the thought. But Jon still has to be out there somewhere, still has to be alive. He has to. Martin doesn’t know what he’d do if he’s not.

He’ll search forever, he thinks, walk every inch of those tunnels, even if it takes the rest of his life, but he’ll find Jon. Whatever creature this is, whatever monster it is, however they took his face, Martin is going to find it out, and he’ll get Jon back. He might be a coward and he might be weak and soft and afraid, but Martin knows this man is not Jon. He is someone wearing Jon’s face, in his skin, laughing and making jokes he would never make, and Martin is going to make him pay.

Oh.

He doesn’t remember what Jon looked like. Was he tall? He was tall, Martin tells himself. Maybe not as tall as Martin, or maybe taller? Was he thin? What color was his hair, his eyes, his skin? Pale or dark or somewhere in between? Martin looks down at his own hands, wonders if Jon’s skin was similar to his.

There’s movement next to him and then Not-Jon leans in close enough for Martin to feel his body heat. Jon, real Jon, never got this close. He wouldn’t have dared.

“What is it, Martin?” this smiling facsimile asks. “What’s wrong?”

“Where is he?” Martin asks, voice torn, and he realizes tears have welled up in his eyes. “What have you done?”

“Oh, Martin,” Not-Jon purrs, and one hand gently lays itself over one of his. Martin shudders, tries to flinch back, but Not-Jon’s other hand comes to rest high up on his thigh and he freezes in place, eyes flicking up to make contact with those eyes. He realizes this other Jon doesn’t wear glasses, has some peculiar, muddled memory of the Jon he knows looking scornfully at him from behind a large pair of glasses and he feels absolutely sick. “He’s in here, and he’s screaming for you.” He leans back, slides both of his hands away from Martin, and smiles again. “Good luck,” he tosses over his shoulder as he suddenly moves away. “You’re going to need it.”

Martin digs his fingers into his eyes, takes great, heaving breaths to try to calm himself down. It feels like he’s drowning, like grief and anger are welling up so deep inside of him that it’s going to flow into his lungs and choke him.

“Wow,” comes Tim’s voice, “Guess that cruelty was just a way for him to hide his real feelings, eh, Martin?”

“Shut up,” Martin spits at him, jerking to his feet and storming out of the library.

He doesn’t quite know where he’s going but his feet lead him to Jon’s office, where Sasha is currently standing, looking around, a bit bewildered. Martin freezes in the act of slamming open the door and she smiles slightly at seeing him.

“Oh,” he says, voice caught in his throat. “I heard the news. Congratulations, I suppose,” because what else is there to say?

Sasha shakes her head. “Can you imagine?” she asks, not looking at him and instead looking at Jon’s desk, Jon’s chair, Jon’s papers, Jon’s pens, Jon’s recorders. “Me, the Archivist?”

“No,” Martin murmurs, feeling almost faint. “I can’t.”

Behind him, far down the hall, he can hear Not-Jon laughing, and very faintly, underneath that, he can hear Jon’s screams.


It’s at the end of the longest tunnel that he finds it. He’s been walking for a very long time—over a year, at least, if not longer—and if there is an inch of these tunnels yet to be found, he will find it. That does not mean, of course, that the tunnels below the Institute are not constantly changing and trapping him and moving around him, but he thinks he might just be getting the hang of it, getting used to it all.

Elias hasn’t mentioned it, much to Martin’s surprise. He’d expected a lecture or something on doing his job, performing his required duties, but there’d been nothing, and his paycheck still came every two weeks like clockwork, so he can’t have been doing that terrible of a job. Not that exploring the tunnels beneath your work for the body of your old boss can really be considered a job, but it’s what Martin is doing and what he intends to continue doing for as long as he’s able.

He still holds out hope. He doubts the flame will ever truly extinguish, but has gotten a bit duller, a bit smaller, a bit closer to his chest. He’s grown a bit more stubborn, a bit more assertive, but not by much. All he does is walk. He used to leave arrows drawn on the walls in chalk, but the tunnels got wise to that after a while and figured out how to change them and he’d run in circles for days.

Martin doesn’t know who’s leaving the tape recorders. Maybe it’s Elias, maybe it’s Not-Jon mocking him, maybe it’s...Jon, somehow, pushing through the monster. They just...show up. He’d ignored them, at first, but he’d always been a bit too curious for his own good...so he’d pressed play.

The first time, he’d listened to a few seconds of the tape and then furious and betrayed and so upset he felt sick, he’d jumped to his feet and smashed the poor thing to bits. He hadn’t known who that stranger was on the tapes, but that voice hadn’t been Jon’s, he was sure of it.

He’s not so sure of it now. Whenever he finds the recorders now, he sits down and he listens. He listens to all of it, and most times, he listens more than once. His heart knows that the distinctive voice on the tapes is Jon, his Jon, but his mind is still convinced it’s a stranger. No matter how many tapes he listens to, no matter how many times, he never recognizes Jon’s voice. But he knows, knows deep in his heart where hope is kept, that the man on those tapes is Jonathan Sims, not that thing upstairs pretending to be him.

He finds it at the end of the longest hallway. It’s a picture, and Martin stoops down to pick it up. He lights it up with his light as he straightens up, and then he looks over the people in the picture. He remembers this: Jon’s birthday a year or two or three ago, and Elias had demanded to take a picture, even against Jon’s protestations.

Tears fall from his eyes and Martin chokes on the grief.

He doesn’t recognize the man in the middle. He knows it’s Jon, he knows it. But when he looks at him, looks at the thin, closed-mouth and slightly painful look on his face, the glasses and the wild hair, he knows like he’s known few things in his life. The man he does not know is Jon, the real Jon. But as much as his heart leaps at seeing him, Martin does not recognize him. It feels like his eyes slip away from his face without seeing him, like something is pushing him away, but Martin looks anyway, searches his unfamiliar face for something that he recognizes, even when there’s nothing and he knows there will always be nothing.

But in the picture, the Martin in the past is at Jon’s side, where he belongs, one arm thrown over his shoulders, beaming at the camera with everything he has. He is happy, and Martin knows that for all the annoyed, prickly front Jon had put on that day, he’d been happy too.

He tucks the picture into the breast pocket of his shirt and begins to walk again. He’s going to find Jon down here or rip him out of the monster upstairs. No matter how long it takes, no matter what.

He doesn’t know if it’s a trick of the mind or some spell or some trick played by Not-Jon, but even down here in the dark, Martin can still, very faintly, hear Jon screaming.