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where there's a will, we make a way

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At the end of the world, a tape recorder clicks on, uncountable eyes open wide, and the Archive begins to speak.

 

“There is a tower at the center of creation.

 

"Jutting up from the scorched earth, it casts its oppressive shadow over all, so certain of its rightful place in this world. But although it may appear sturdy and eternal, it is, like everything else in this place, decaying – more slowly than the rest, but moving inexorably toward its own extinction all the same.

 

“In the dying light of a ruined world, it Watches over all that crawls and chokes and blinds and falls and twists and leaves and hides and weaves and burns and hunts and rips and leads and dies. For now, it is sated and gorged on the fear permeating its perfect world – but what happens when the fear runs out? There will come a time when each pinprick of life blinks out around it, one by one, taunting it with the dreadful knowledge of its ultimate, encroaching fate: a slow, agonizing death of boredom and isolation and starvation. 

 

“And it will hurt.

 

"Nothing lasts forever, but rest assured: the tower will be the last thing standing, wilting alone in a barren and desiccated realm of its own making. It will be outlived only by death itself, and even then, only for the briefest of moments.

 

“The tower is a monument to hubris, and as such, it is destined to collapse.”

 

The recorder clicks off and Jonathan Sims comes back to himself, standing alone before the menacing bulk of the Panopticon. The statement was shorter than he's used to, but it isn't surprising – he can't See much here, in the Watcher's domain. Still, it took a lot out of him.

 

He barely has time to take a breath before a familiar door opens up in the ground just in front of him, its yellow paint chipped and faded. The Distortion’s ringing laughter ripples up from the ground and Jon closes his eyes, sighs heavily, and counts to ten.

 

“No ‘hello’ for me, Archivist?” Helen pulls herself up and out of her door to loom over him. “You’ve become quite rude these past few… how long has it been?”

 

Shaking his head, Jon readjusts the straps of his backpack and starts to walk. Helen, of course, prowls after him. Her gait seems different, Jon realizes, and when he trains his sight on her – yes, apparently she’s added an extra kneecap to her left leg. She watches him with a mischievous sparkle in her eyes, daring him to comment on her latest modification, but he’s learned by now that it’s best not to encourage the Distortion.

 

“That was a rather short monologue for you. I very much doubt your patron will be satiated.”

 

“Oh, how I wish he’d go away,”  Jon mutters under his breath. The pronoun is wrong, but it still gets the point across, and Helen is familiar enough with his current mode of communication to catch his meaning.

 

“Still voiceless, are we? It must be very frustrating for you. Reduced to rifling through others’ trauma, forced to appropriate someone else’s terror any time you want to talk. It really is a shame your lexicon is so… limited. You’ve always had such a lovely voice. It seems a waste to deny it any novelty.”

 

Ignore her, he tells himself. Just ignore her.

 

“Silent treatment?” Helen pouts. “Well, that’s fine. I can speak enough for the both of us.”

 

Jon wishes he could comment on the irony of It Is Lies telling the truth, but the Archive doesn’t offer up any fitting statements. Probably for the best, really; as a rule, he tries not to let Helen rile him. Tries being the key word.

 

“Off to see the Watcher? I do wonder how our dear Jonah is doing these days. You’re curious too, aren’t you? You can’t See anything in there. You have no idea what you’re walking into.” Helen’s lips curl in a too-wide smile. “That must drive you mad.”

 

Jon ignores her. Even if he had something to say, he expects he would be speechless at the moment, beholding the Panopticon. The tower bears no resemblance to the Magnus Institute he remembers. It’s the tallest thing left in the wasteland, now; standing at its base and looking up, it’s impossible to estimate exactly how high it stretches. He could Know, but he doesn’t care to. (The Eye bristles at his refusal to ask the question; Jon dismisses it with an almost childish defiance.)

 

All of the surrounding buildings have been reduced to dust and rubble, and there is no remaining evidence of there ever having been a street. The composition of the tower's walls is entirely obscured by a viscous coating of –

 

…aqueous humor, grave dirt, assorted viscera, sawdust, flensed dermis, dental pulp, spider silk…

 

– Jon closes his eyes and shoves the knowledge away with a practiced resolve. Its content is no more unsettling than anything else he’s encountered, but even after all this time, having the Beholding hijack his thoughts is still nauseating. He had experienced intrusive thoughts long before becoming the Archivist, but Knowing takes the experience to an entirely different level.

 

After the moment has passed, Jon opens his eyes again to resume surveying the tower. He can’t tell if it no longer has windows, or if they’re just hidden by the horror cocktail smothering its exterior. He supposes it doesn’t really matter either way; the Watcher doesn’t need windows to See outside. The staircase stretching to the entrance is impossibly long, and the stairs are of the narrow, shallow variety that never accommodate anyone’s stride.

 

Jon sighs as he places one foot on the bottom step.

 

“That looks like an awfully long climb,” Helen observes. “And a tripping hazard. I would offer you a shortcut, but… well, you know.” She winks and flashes him a wicked grin just as her door materializes beneath her feet, dropping her down into a vertical corridor. “See you at the top, Archivist,” she calls cheerfully, her door slamming behind her and vanishing.

 

Jon rolls his eyes and ascends the stairs.

 


 

The enormous doors to the tower are already open when Jon reaches the top of the steps. The moment he crosses the threshold, he is bathed in a blinding white light and every one of his eyes reflexively snaps shut. One by one, the extra eyes he has grown so accustomed to wink out of existence until finally, for the first time in forever, he has just the two he was born with. It’s jarring, having his hundredfold, 360-degree sight so suddenly reduced back to a binocular field of vision, but it feels oddly freeing.   

 

At the same time, he doesn’t quite know what to make of it. Does the Watcher want him at a disadvantage? Is there something inherent to the Panopticon that allows only the Ceaseless Watcher itself to See, rendering all others – even its Archive – effectively blind? What if - 

 

“Look at you!” Helen chirps directly into his ear, cackling when he startles. “My, you spook easily, Archivist. Not very becoming for one who Sees all and revels in the terror he has wrought.”

 

Jon is already walking away. The light isn’t as overwhelming as it was before, but he still has to squint against it. As far as he can see, the interior of the tower is a flat expanse of white. He can't perceive any walls, a ceiling, even the floor, making it impossible to guess the size of the place – or if it has an end at all.

 

“Do you actually Know where you’re going?”

 

“I was finding it really hard to get a solid idea on where we were,”  Jon admits.

 

“Yes. It’s quite like the tunnels, isn’t it? You never could See down there, either. What did you call it – ‘a universal blind spot’? Strange, how your voyeurism touches everything except your own domain.”

 

“I come to you not to wallow in my condition – but to request your assistance.” 

 

She hasn’t been any help in ages, but Jon figures it’s worth a try. Helen simply laughs.

 

“What assistance could I possibly give? You are the most powerful thing the apocalypse has to offer, Archivist. Aside from the Entities themselves, that is. I’m certain you can figure it out on your own. As I’ve told you so many times, all you have to do is embrace it.” Jon glares at her. “Now, as much as I would love to stay and watch you get terribly lost, I believe there are more interesting things going on in the world.”

 

With that, her door swings open on the invisible ground in front of her.

 

“I thanked them as they left, even though they had been of no help whatsoever,”  Jon grumbles to himself. 

 

“You are tetchy today,” Helen teases. “Well, I’ll check back in with you later.”

 

She steps off the ledge and plummets down through her door again, pulling it shut after her. Jon pinches the bridge of his nose and sighs. It’s incredible how after all this time, even a short encounter with the Distortion leaves him feeling drained.

 

But she did have a point. He never could See in the tunnels, but that was before he became the Archive. As he is now, he probably has a better chance of finding his way than Helen would. It’s just that doing so is bound to be… unpleasant.

 

No use putting it off, though. He closes his eyes, looks inward, opens the door, and –

 

A churning deluge of information crashes into him, sweeping him along in its undertow. All at once, he’s drowning.

 

…the equatorial circumference of Jupiter was 439,263.8 kilometres before it was devoured by the ravenous Falling Titan…

 

…Mr. Spider has taken up residence behind innumerable doors – not every door, but any door. It has an average of one guest for dinner every 39 minutes and still it is hungry… 

 

…the Sandman and the Buried wage war over scraps within the catacombs of Paris, now located approximately 6,294.2 kilometres below creation and sinking…

 

…as of 23.8 seconds ago, the Crawling Rot and the Lightless Flame have completed their race to consume the endless apartment block located at the corner of Nowhere and –

 

Jon shakes his head and tries to refine his search.

 

Tell me about Jonah Magnus.

 

…Jonah Magnus was born in –

 

Tell me where I can find Jonah Magnus.

 

…Jonah Magnus is –

 

A wave of force crashes into Jon like a freight train and then he’s back in the white space, eyes open, gasping for air and struggling to fill his aching lungs.

 

It comes as no surprise that the Ceaseless Watcher doesn’t want him to Know the way, but if the Eye didn’t want to be Seen, it should have picked someone less inquisitive. Or less stubborn.

 

He takes a deep breath, steels himself, and dives back in.

 

…in a hollowed-out sanctuary of bone and gristle, the Boneturner scavenges uselessly for –

 

Tell me where to find Jonah Magnus.

 

A harsh buzz of static starts to ring in his ears.

 

…the Distortion in its corridors waits for –

 

Show me how to reach Jonah Magnus.

 

The static pitches up into a shrill whine.

 

…Martin Blackwood’s last –

 

A̵N̴S̸W̴E̸R̶ ̷M̷E̷.̷

 

The noise reaches an earsplitting crescendo, then cuts out abruptly and –

 

When the Archive opens its myriad eyes, it Knows the way.

 


 

Once the knowledge settles in his mind, it's as if a veil has been lifted. As the empty, directionless white void resolves itself into perceptible details, Jon finds himself standing in a cavernous, cylindrical space. Countless iron-barred prison cells are recessed into weathered red-brick walls, stacked vertically one on top of the other and stretching all the way up to an impossibly high vaulted ceiling covered in… cobwebs.

 

Of course. It figures the Web would have infiltrated this place. In fact, it had probably staked out its territory when the initial foundations for Millbank Prison were laid and had simply never left. 

 

Jon shudders and looks away. Or tries to, anyway; there are always a few recalcitrant eyes that linger on the things he does not want to See.    

 

He turns his attention to the observation tower. Its looming presence seems to take up the entire room, radiating a palpable sense of dread. There is nowhere in this world that its gaze cannot reach, but being this close to it is nearly unbearable.

 

It hurts.

 

Jon forces himself to stand there, to experience and endure the sheer weight of its omniscient scrutiny concentrated wholly on him. This is what it’s like to be Seen by the Archive, and Jon needs to Know how it feels – how it felt when he turned the Ceaseless Watcher’s gaze upon the monsters he met on the journey to the Panopticon.

 

And it hurts.

 

It’s like having his consciousness torn to shreds, every memory and thought and experience comprising his existence ripped out of him, pinned under a microscope, dissected with precision, classified and then hoarded away by a dispassionate curator. It’s sharp angles and blinding lights and throat-rending screams and scalding heat; it’s burrowing worms and scalpel blades and crushing earth and cold plastic hands; it’s fear and pain and love and loss and it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts –  

 

Jon’s knees give out and he crumples to the floor, panting, resting his head in his twitching hands as the aftershocks of white-hot pain ripple through him. He lets himself roll over onto his side and curls into a fetal position while he waits for the tremors to stop.

 

Martin wouldn’t have approved, but Jon had to Know. He had to Know what it was like, if the monsters he killed deserved it, if the punishment was proportionate to the crime, and –

 

They did and it was. He can confidently say that each sentence he handed out was justified, and it’s somewhat of a relief.

 

Beyond that, though, experiencing it firsthand was the best way he could think to fully appreciate the consequences of allowing his potential to go unchallenged and unrestrained, and to make clearer the distinction between Jonathan Sims, the Watched and the Archive, the Watcher – or conduit of the Watcher, at least. If nothing else, the memory of it will be an anchor going forward – a searing reminder of how much is at stake and the ultimate cost should his plan fail. 

 

And, of course, it was also an effective way to assess the power he has at his disposal, to determine whether he’s strong enough for his plan to work. He did survive it, at least, which seems like a good sign. Hopefully it's a good sign.

 

As the pain fades to a dull ache, he pushes himself to his feet and takes a minute to compose himself before entering the observation tower. He has not come eye to eye with Jonah Magnus since before the world ended, before he forced himself through the domains of each and every fear that marked him, before he completed his metamorphosis. That was the point of the journey, he realizes now: reliving the terror and retracing every mark was necessary for him to emerge as the fully-fledged Archive.

 

He hopes it was all worth it.

 

Jon takes a deep breath, braces himself, and crosses the threshold.

 


 

Jonah Magnus is a pitiful sight.

 

He sits slumped on the Watcher’s throne within his lonely observation tower, ropes of spider silk binding him in place. The look in his eyes when he beholds his Archive is entirely unreadable, and Jon doesn’t care to Know. 

 

Well – his two original eyes, in any case. The other eyes bulging through Jonah’s skin – bloodshot, rolling and twitching in all directions, and glowing a repellent shade of green – belong to the Watcher, and all they contain is a cold, measured fascination. Jon wonders absently whether they might cluster beneath the skin as well, a fitting mirror of Albrecht von Closen’s gruesome fate. Martin would have appreciated the poetic justice of that thought.

 

Jon takes a step forward.

 

“I don’t think I’ll ever know what they expected to happen.”

 

The Archive’s voice rips through the silence like a clap of thunder on a clear day. There is something of a command threaded through the words, a power that brooks no argument and permits no lies. Jonah flinches at the force of it, and Jon takes that as his cue to continue; he has Jonah’s full attention now.

 

“It’s weird, isn’t it, the things that can change your life?” Jon wonders, briefly, how Tim would feel about his statement being repurposed like this. Hopefully he would approve, seeing the way Elias – Jonah – is rendered silent and cowed in its wake, even if Jon’s voice is the vehicle. Either way, stolen words are Jon’s only option, and so he presses on: “You can plan for all the devastating, terrible possibilities you can imagine, and it’ll always be those tiny, unexpected things that get you. You know, the things that you never even noticed as they were happening, just… just nudging everything into motion. But even if there was a way I could have known, I really don’t think I’d be able to have stopped him.”

 

When Jonah opens his mouth as if to speak, Jon catches a glimpse of a roving eye sprouting from Jonah’s tongue. What comes out is not words, but a small spider, creeping languidly over his lip and up his cheek, as if summoned by the Archive’s mere mention of manipulation. Even from a distance, Jon can See all eight of its eyes focus on him.

 

The Spider perches there, patient and waiting. Whether she is issuing an invitation, a challenge, or simple, curious observation, the Archive does not Know, and Jon will not waste his energy searching for the answer.

 

Curiosity always has been Jon's fatal flaw, he thinks. It can be an asset in moderate doses, but he habitually took it to endangering and self-destructive extremes. By now he has learned how to wield that curiosity with precision, patience, and careful calculation. It was a lesson hard learned and at great cost, but now he knows: there is a difference between a constructive avenue of inquiry and a dead end. One leads to answers that need knowing; the other only sates the Eye’s voracious appetite and leaves Jon adrift and wanting. The trick is to prioritize – which means accepting the existence of questions that aren’t worth asking.

 

The Eye balks at an unsolved mystery, and the Archive’s every instinct drives Jon to seek, to ask, to know at any and all costs – but this is not the first time he has weathered the dueling instincts of Archive, Archivist, and human, and it will not be the last. If he stands in the crossfire long enough, breathes through the dissonance, and allows himself to simply exist as the strange, contradictory gestalt his apotheosis has made him… eventually, he can find the quiet.

 

In any case, the Archive’s eyes outnumber the Spider’s by far, and Jon meets her gaze with a resolve that still feels new and untested, but unyielding nonetheless. Neither of them blink, but the Spider does eventually – slowly, so slowly – crawl away and out of sight.

 

A stalemate. Jon expected nothing more or less; these confrontations with the Web never have a satisfying conclusion, only a protracted, stop-and-start hiatus. 

 

When Jon feels the Spider’s presence fade away, he lets out a breath he didn’t realize he was holding. For all his bravado, the fear never has gone away. He suspects that the Eye would never give him the choice in the first place. It isn’t enough to Know or See the contents of his library – he has to live them, feel them, share in them, or else the knowledge is not comprehensive. The Beholding requires more than facts and words and retellings. It demands the insight and dread that comes only from lived experience, and it has no use for an Archive that cannot fully experience its own catalog.

 

If Jon was given the choice, though, he still wouldn’t give up the fear. It’s the fabric of this world, which makes it a reliable anchor as long as it exists. It tethers him to his humanity; it reminds him of his reason; it keeps him moving forward.

 

And so, he approaches the Watcher’s throne, and the Archive resumes its recitation:

 

“I continue to see in you the reflection of my own past hubris.”

 

It’s a nice touch, Jon thinks, using Robert Smirke’s dying words to rub salt in the wound, and the surge of stunned outrage on Jonah’s face confirms that for him.

 

“Why does a man seek to destroy the world?"

 

Jonah’s human eyes widen ever so slightly as he recognizes his own words.

 

“…you would quite willingly doom that world and confine the billions in it to an eternity of terror and suffering, all to ensure your own happiness, to place yourself beyond pain and death and fear.”

 

Jon kneels before the throne, a mocking gesture of fealty to a man who so arrogantly believed that he was to be –

 

“…a king of a ruined world” – he pauses, fast-forwarding the statement in his mind, picking through disparate fragments to cobble together something that can convey his intended meaning – “had miscalculated.” Another pause, and then: “The ritual failed."

 

Jonah squirms against his bindings, though whether it is in fear or frustration or anger, Jon does not know. He does not need to know, and he strangles that alien part of him that wants to taste exactly what flavor of distress struggles in front of him. He refuses to feed the Eye, even if it is at Jonah’s expense.  

 

“…as much a victim as any” – Jon gives a curt nod to indicate Jonah – “trapped in the nightmare landscape of a twisted world.” 

 

When he sees the glint of the knife, Jonah’s eyes widen further and he redoubles his thrashing. Jon is flooded with memories of his month held captive by the Circus – rough ropes chafing at his bare skin; cold, plastic hands slathering him in strong-smelling lotions; bruises that lingered long after he escaped through the Distortion's door. Part of him wishes that he could enjoy seeing Jonah like this – the one who orchestrated that trauma and so many others – but all he feels is that familiar revulsion that rises up in him any time he catches a whiff of shea butter.

 

Another, louder part of him is relieved to find that even after everything, he still can’t quite bring himself to find pleasure in torture.

 

Taking revenge on Jude Perry, obliterating the NotThem, casting the Ceaseless Watcher's gaze upon countless other monsters prowling through this ravaged world… it felt good in the immediate aftermath – to make them appreciate the terror and pain they had wrought, to stand in their presence not as a victim but as a long-overdue consequence. As soon as the adrenaline wore off, though, he would always crash. Whether or not they deserved their fates was never what haunted him the most. It was the simple act of using the same power that destroyed the world that always left him feeling sick, guilty, divorced from what remained of his humanity, and terrified of what he could become if he embraced his role as the Archive. It felt good in the same way that compelling live statements used to, and that frightened him.

 

Still, Jon has a point to make. He draws the knife to Jonah’s face and holds the tip mere centimetres from his right eye, poised to strike. Jonah freezes and Jon stares him down. The Archive’s innumerable eyes open wide and focus laser-like on a single point, and it waits for the would-be king to blink first.

 

And he does.

 

With that, Jon stands and drops the knife. As it clatters to the floor, Jonah opens his human eyes cautiously, looking first at the discarded weapon and then back to his Archive with uncertainty etched onto his face.

 

“…didn’t even have the decency to kill me,” the Archive says. Jon has to swallow down a wave of hatred at the memory of Peter Lukas’ voice, but he needs Jonah to understand this choice his Archivist has made, to truly appreciate the fate to which he is being condemned.  

 

The Archive reaches for Gertrude next:“They might even stop death entirely, deny us the one last escape, keeping us alive and afraid – forever.”

 

It takes a moment for the words to sink in, but the existential terror slowly dawns in Jonah’s eyes. His greatest fear may have always been mortality, but faced with the reality of what an immortal existence could actually entail, well…

 

“You’ll get used to it here, in the world that we have made."

 

Jonah Magnus’ own triumphant declaration reverberates through the cavernous space in the voice of the Archive he forced into being. The words sound as smug and gleeful as they did the first time the Archivist read them to an empty room, on the day he opened the door. 

 

Behind it all, though, is Jonathan Sims. Not the Archive, not the Archivist, just… Jon. He feels no catharsis, no gratification, no closure. He just feels tired.

 

But he didn’t come all this way to the Panopticon just to monologue at Jonah Magnus. This is the stronghold of the Eye, and that makes it Jon’s best chance of actually communing with the Beholding.

 

He places the tape recorder on the floor next to the discarded knife and turns his back on the man who sought to reign over a desolated world. As Jon walks away, the recorder clicks on, and the Archive’s final statement begins to play:

 

“There is a tower at the center of creation…”

Chapter Text

Jon waits until Jonah is out of sight before he lets himself fall apart.

 

With the Archive taking the lead, it was easier to distance himself from the human experience of it all. He could set aside Jonathan Sims' real-time reactions to the situation, shelve them to be processed at a later time. Now, though, all those memories are rushing back in at once. He's trembling all over as he sinks to the floor, fighting back tears, his breath coming in shallow gasps.

 

Jon had underestimated what seeing Jonah Magnus again would do to him. Staring into the eyes of the man who stripped him of agency and humanity, taunting and gloating as he led him into trauma after trauma, setting him on the path to becoming a weapon and a monster and a hapless victim all at once…

 

Jonah’s statement wormed its way into his head on the day the world ended, and it’s lived there ever since, playing on a loop and consuming him from the inside out.   

 

…when you came to me already marked by the Web, I knew it had to be you…

 

Did the Web choose Jon from the very beginning? Or did he just have the bad luck to stumble upon the book, only then to catch the Web’s attention? How much of this broken future is due to an insufferable child’s inability to stop being such a nuisance and just sit still for five minutes? Even back then, he had that restless, insatiable curiosity, driving him to wander off and ignore any sign of danger.

 

…attacks on the Archives were not uncommon during Gertrude’s tenure, and while she was always prepared, I made sure you would not be…

 

He had always been fumbling in Gertrude’s shadow. Tim and Basira always thought that everyone would be better off if Jon had tried to emulate her. He disagrees with that now, but still, Gertrude wouldn’t have fallen for such obvious traps. She never let the Eye turn her monstrous, never let Jonah turn her into such a pliable sacrifice.

 

…I waited until the worms were in you before I pulled the lever. I needed to make sure you felt that fear all the way to your bones…

 

And he did, he did; the sense memories still haunt him, as marrow-deep as the worms once were. Some days he can still feel them burrowing and his fingers curl around an imaginary corkscrew as he’s swept away by the panicked urge to get them out

 

…it was just a matter of feeding you statements to lead you to a few Avatars I thought were likely to harm you – but probably would stop short of actually killing you…

 

At every turn, Jon had played right into Jonah’s hands. Georgie warned him that his stubborn investigations would destroy him, and he pressed on anyway. He may have been dependent on the statements by then – though he didn’t know it at the time – but he didn’t have to seek out Jude Perry or Mike Crew, did he? Is it any wonder Georgie gave up on him?

 

…I made sure to trap her here, so when her rage bubbled over you would be right here, a ready target. I didn’t foresee the mark coming from surgery gone wrong, but it was a very pleasant surprise…

 

Melanie. God, Melanie. She had fought tooth and nail to make a place for herself in a world that underestimated her. She was the protagonist of her own story until Jonah forced her to play a supporting role in Jon’s. It was never Jon’s intention, but the fact remains: if it wasn’t for him, Melanie would never have been trapped.

 

…you needed more than just the marks; you needed power. And that was something the Unknowing served to test, though it posed no actual danger in the grand scheme of things…

 

More meat for the grinder, more lives sacrificed solely for the Archivist’s progress. Tim died for nothing, Daisy was subjected to the Buried for nothing, and –

 

…it inadvertently pushed you to confront death, a mark I had been very worried about trying to orchestrate…

 

– Martin was ushered into Peter Lukas’ machinations, all for nothing.

 

…you should have seen my face when you voluntarily went to him…

 

Jon feels sick imagining Jonah’s unbridled delight at watching his ignorant, malleable chosen one so willingly offer himself up to the Boneturner. Could Jon have made it any easier for him to win?  

 

…how is Martin, by the way? You will keep an eye on him when all this is over, won’t you? He’s earned that…

 

He’d promised, he promised he would protect Martin, and his best just wasn’t good enough.

 

Jon leans against the nearest wall, curls in on himself, and gives in to the wracking sobs. He hates Jonah – hates him in a way he never thought he was capable of hating anything – but even now, the anger is still eclipsed by the fear and the scars it left behind. He feels more like a victim than a survivor. Jon could take retribution on Jonah in a million ways and Jonah would be powerless to stop him, but it doesn’t change anything: all the power in the world won’t chase away the grief, the nightmares, the incessant fear and pain the Eye filters though him every moment.

 

One look at Jonah, and the memory came rushing back: Jonah using him as a mouthpiece, the statement slithering into Jon's mind and commandeering his tongue, forcing his eyes to open, moving his jaw like a ventriloquist’s dummy, only to cut the strings and send him buckling to the floor as soon as he’d served his purpose. He had tried to scratch out his eyes, claw out his throat, but every wound would heal before the pain even registered. And Jonah – 

 

…I hope you’ll forgive me the self-indulgence, but I have worked so very hard for this moment, a culmination of two centuries of work. It’s rare that you get the chance to monologue through another, and you can’t tell me you’re not curious…

 

– it wasn’t enough for him just to get the result he wanted. He had to take the opportunity to degrade his victim one last time; had to use Jon’s own voice to do it. There are times when Jon can’t even listen to himself speak without flashing back to that moment and unraveling into full-blown panic. He hadn’t felt human for a long time by that point, but the Ritual… it was dehumanizing in a way he could have never imagined. He’ll never be free of that memory, no matter how far he runs, no matter how much Jonah Magnus suffers, and no matter whether he manages to reverse the damage –

 

Stop, he tells himself. Spiraling isn’t helping. Play it back again, slower this time, and think. How would Martin respond, if he was here? 

 

Running was never an option. You’re probably right. Jonah Magnus’ suffering has no impact on Jon’s recovery. He still deserves to have his eyes gouged out – yes, okay, fine! Priorities, I know. (A nearly imperceptible smile tugs at the corner of Jon’s mouth at that.) Reversing the damage, though, making things right – that’s still on the table. There’s still a chance. Then I’d say it’s worth a try, Martin would say, and between the reassurance of his smile and the sincerity in his eyes, Jon would believe him.

 

Jon imagines Martin sitting beside him, arm around his waist, a warm and comforting weight for him to lean on. Thankfully, blessedly, it’s just as strong a sense memory as the nesting worms and Jude’s searing handshake and the Boneturner’s groping fingers in his chest cavity. Martin helped him relearn that physical contact is not always synonymous with pain and fear and violence. Safe hands, warm eyes, gentle touch. Jon holds fast to that thought and lets it anchor him until the storm passes.

 

Eventually – Jon doesn’t care to Know how much time has passed – his sobbing dissolves into broken hiccups, and then into exhausted sniffling. He sits up, scrubs at his face, and forces himself to breathe. The guilt is still there, the pain is still acute, but he has a job to do.

 

Once he’s composed enough, he forces himself to stand and lets his feet take him to where he Knows he needs to be.

 


 

As Jon mounts the spiral staircase leading to the top of the tower, Helen’s door creaks open on the wall ahead of him.

 

“That little confrontation was a bit dramatic, Archivist.”

 

Ten many-jointed fingers curl around the frame. Or twelve, or maybe sixteen, or – it’s not important. Jon stops counting and continues climbing.

 

“And what did it accomplish?” Helen’s face peeks through the opening now. “You've changed nothing.” When Jon does not reply, she leaves her doorway and plants herself on the staircase a few steps above him. She leans down close to his eye level and tilts her head at a disquieting angle. “Ah, but that wasn’t the point, was it? That spectacle was all for you.

 

Jon doesn't have to Know to determine that Helen is bored, which means she isn’t going to leave until he entertains her. Better to get it over with, he figures, and so he finally focuses on her and shakes his head fervently.

 

“Oh, of course. Martin.” Helen smiles – cruel and condescending as always, but Jon thinks he can detect some fondness there as well. “He really did rub off on you, didn’t he? He would have enjoyed that little performance. The sheer pettiness of it all.”

 

The corner of Jon’s mouth twitches up in a rueful little smile. She’s right: Martin would have loved that little standoff. Jon can picture the moment of awe in the aftermath – the lopsided grin, the stammering insistence that Jon, that was amazing, and the inevitable moment once the adrenaline wore off when Martin would tell him: I know I keep saying this, but I didn’t think it was possible for me to be any more attracted to you. And much later, once they were safe and the dust was settled, they would joke about it: Martin would do a terrible impersonation – always fond, never cruel – and Jon would point out that it did have the intended effect –   

 

“Daydreaming, are we?” Helen barks a laugh when Jon startles, his face heating with embarrassment. “Even after all this time, you really are adorable.”

 

Jon groans and makes a shooing gesture in Helen’s direction. Her laughter reverberates even more than usual; it leaves Jon with the distinct sensation of chewing on tinfoil, and his teeth begin to ache.

 

As the echoes fade away, Helen pantomimes wiping a tear from her eye. “So, do you really think this plan is any better than your standard fare?”   

 

Honestly, Jon has no idea.  

 

“I’m well aware that” – a brief pause as he skips ahead in the statement – “to try and prevent whatever fate is coming – is likely impossible anyway, but after what I saw, I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t at least try.”  

 

It’s odd, using Oliver’s original statement like this to express a worldview so antithetical to his current stance. Comparing the person Oliver used to be – desperate to change fate, then desperate to escape it – with who he is now… it’s still unsettling, to see how much a person can change after coming into contact with one of the Entities.

 

“Hmm. I still think you're fighting a lost battle. But I am very curious to see what happens when you try.”

 

Jon shifts from one foot to the other, hitching his bag higher on his back and giving Helen a pointed look.

 

“Impatient to meet your god? Well, don’t let me keep you.” Helen steps back over the threshold of her door. “Try not to get vaporized, will you?”

 

The door swings shut on Helen’s delighted cackle and Jon lets out a long, exhausted breath before continuing his ascent.

 


 

Jon doesn’t know how long it takes, but eventually he reaches the top of the tower. The staircase opens up into a circular, empty room: stone walls, stone floor, stone ceiling. The only noteworthy detail is a stylized eye carved into the very center of the floor. As far as Jon can tell, there’s nothing arcane about the symbol at all – just a bit of trite aesthetic flair for an otherwise bare temple. Still, now that geography has ceased functioning, it marks the exact center point of the wasteland, and it’s exactly where Jon needs to be.

 

He has no way of Knowing whether this will work. He still isn’t even entirely sold on the idea of the Fears being sentient, rather than just… forces of nature, no more or less conscious than gravity. But it’s the only idea he has left, and it’s something that he and Martin planned together, which makes it worth trying. If it doesn’t work, then… well, with any luck, hopefully he won’t live long enough for it to matter. Not that Jon has ever been particularly lucky

 

Several of his eyes swivel and train themselves on a single speck moving down the far wall. He hears his voice before he even makes the conscious decision to speak:

 

“Leave.”

 

The word comes out as a cacophony of overlapping tones and Jon staggers with the force of it. The spider, for its part, scuttles through a crack and out of sight at the command, leaving Jon alone and swaying with vertigo.

 

This is why he hates vocalizing single words: it means replaying every instance of the word stored in the Archive simultaneously, and it always leaves him feeling like a blown out speaker. It’s safest to stick to full, unique phrases – anything with an exact combination of words that occurs only once in all of the Archive’s records.

 

Ears still ringing, Jon shakes his head and tries to reorient himself. If he’s quick, maybe he can get what he needs and retreat before the Web interferes again. He hurries to the middle of the room, stands on the pupil at the center of the eye motif, and –   

 

As the Ceaseless Watcher turns its gaze on him again, Jon prepares himself for a repeat of its earlier scrutiny. It starts slow: a searing, infectious ache jumping its way from cell to cell like a charged current, seizing upon every scrap of conscious thought, building up to a crescendo of rending, electric agony. 

 

This time, though, the Archive Watches back.

 

Helen had said it best: There are exactly two roles available in this new world of ours: The Watcher, and the Watched. Subject, and object.

 

What happens when a part of the Eye allows itself to embrace both roles? What happens when the Eye’s pupil shifts its focus on itself?

 

An eye can’t see inside itself, Jon had said once. And much later, out of the blue, Martin had mused: But what if it could?

 

Jon had averaged at least one identity crisis a day ever since becoming the Archivist, and Martin grew accustomed to sitting through Jon’s hand-wringing over how much of his humanity remained. Martin had always maintained that, first, it wasn’t as simple a dichotomy as Jon wanted it to be, and second, Jon was human in all the ways that mattered.

 

One day as they journeyed through the dying world, though, Martin suggested a new theory. Jonah Magnus had presented a one-way progression from human to Archivist to Archive. The Watcher’s Crown Ritual was meant to be a final act of dehumanization, wherein Jon would cease to exist as a person and become instead a perpetual conduit for the Eye. But Jon had never fully lost himself, had he? It was more like he had fractured into multiple states of being.

 

He could – was forced to, really – See everything that the Eye could See. The part of him that was Jonathan Sims felt the fear and suffering as it was (that is to say, horrific); the part of him that was Archive felt only detached fascination and a sense that everything was just as it should be, because this was the role it was born to serve. The result was a dissonant, twilight emotional state wherein everything felt both right and horribly, irredeemably wrong.

 

In a way, it reminded Jon of how he felt reading statements. When he first started out, he hated it – he could literally feel the fear of the statement givers as if it was his own, and it always left him feeling exhausted. Then, at some point, came the physical dependence on statements. Without his realizing, they became life-sustaining rather than draining. Even then, though, the fear never actually went away – he was just forced to vicariously feel the Eye’s perverse satisfaction in it. Sometimes it felt like being made complicit in his own terror; sometimes it just made him feel numb. It was like having a parasite tucked away inside his mind, passing its own wants and needs onto him and making him feel them as if they were his own.

 

And after the Ritual, every instance of fear in this new world was a statement to be taken in by the Beholding and dutifully filed away inside the Archive - and all of it had to go through Jon first.

 

Jon also had some control over the Eye, though: he could focus its gaze and, as its Archive, he did theoretically have access to most of its knowledge, so long as he knew where to look. He both took to it and hated it, constantly flitting between roles from one moment to the next like a moth wavering between funeral pyres.

 

How is it that I can Know almost anything, but I still can't come to any conclusions about myself? Jon had stormed one day. What even am I now? Not human, so - Archive, Archivist, both? And what does that even mean? Does it even matter?

 

Martin had waited until Jon finished venting and lapsed into an exhausted silence before taking both of Jon's hands, meeting his gaze, and telling him, very seriously: How about all three?

 

Jon had initially taken it as a dig at his habitual indecisiveness, but Martin was being sincere. He suggested that Jon try to embrace being a walking paradox, to use that multiplicity to his advantage – and that was the premise upon which they’d built their future strategies. As they pressed on toward the Panopticon, they each took turns acting as the other’s anchor, and Jon practiced compartmentalizing. Now, finally, it was time to put the hypothesis to the test.

 

So, what does happen if an Eye learns to See within itself?

 

What happens is this: the Archive Beholds the Watcher –

 

…the Eye in the sky scans forward, back; stares into, through; sweeps above, below. Nothing escapes its gaze: not the bloated bodies swaying listlessly in the vast deep; not the cooling cinders of an endless building at last consumed and rendered to nothing but ash in the wind; not the algal bloom suffocating a corpse-choked lake long-dead and fetid; not the merry-go-round with its rusted gears and peeling-paint horses…

 

…far away, the Falling Titan drifts aimless in a void where the stars flicker in and out and eventually not at all; emaciated beasts of the Hunt stagger listless in search of a chase, falling one by one in the dust as the prey remains scarce; the endless war has been reduced to pilotless technology running through the same protocols over and over, few human minds remaining to witness or suffer the collateral damage…

 

…closer, the paint continues to flake away from the Distortion’s doors; the Sandman is running out of eye sockets to plunder; the Forsaken despairs the absence of lonely souls to appreciate its embrace; the Corpse Routes continue their inexorable crawl toward the center of creation, wilting all the way…

 

…there is nothing new under the roving Eye; moments blur together, time runs down, and every grain of sand in the hourglass is the same, the same, the same, the same…

 

…closer, closer, honing in: follow the woven threads and observe how all the lines converge on a single point…

 

– and the Watcher blinks first.

 


 

When Jon finally comes to, he’s sprawled on the floor, all twitching limbs and exhaustion. Dazed, unfocused eyes blink in and out of existence around him, making his vision go pixelated and wobbly. He swats uselessly at them – or tries to, anyway, before realizing belatedly that he can barely lift his arms. Like a cat waking up from anesthesia, he thinks with a delirious little chuckle. What he wouldn’t give for a cat video compilation – no. Focus.

 

Standing up is out of the question right now, but the brain fog is starting to clear. It was so much all at once, but he tries to parse it.

 

The world is running through the same loops now, over and over and over again. He could revisit every domain he trudged through on the way to the Panopticon and any statement he could offer up would be nearly identical to the one he gave the first time around. Victim after victim fed to the endless slaughter, sacrificed at the eternal maypole, retracing the same lonely paths in the fog. The same buildings burning again and again in the exact same way; the same worms struggling one-step-forward, two-steps back in the same tunnels day after day; the strangers on the merry-go-round trading the same limited supply of faces in a closed economy of uncanny horror.

 

It’s… monotonous. Predictable. Stale. And the Ceaseless Watcher never was satisfied by stale statements – oh. Oh.

 

The Eye is bored, Jon realizes all at once. Or – no, maybe that’s not the right word. Malnourished, perhaps? Or is that still too anthropomorphizing? Even after coming into direct contact with the Beholding, he still can’t say with any certainty whether it has any mind or will of its own. It could just be that the metaphysical concept itself is unraveling without anything to meaningfully oppose or contextualize it – much like trying to conceive of the Lonely without the existence of others, or how the Buried and the Vast shore up one another's definitions simply by being so polarized.

 

Or, ironically, perhaps the Eye is simply weakened by its visibility in this new world.

 

The Beholding is the fear of being watched, of being judged, of having one’s secrets exposed. Or, how did Gerry put it… the feeling that something, somewhere, is letting you suffer, just so it can watch. Jon thinks back on his months-long bout of paranoia, and he remembers that one of the most frightening things about it was his inability to trust his own judgment. There was always that creeping fear that perhaps it really was all in his mind, and – when he thinks about it, that paranoia might not have had the same bite to it if he knew for a fact that he was being watched and precisely who or what was doing the watching.

 

The fear of the unknown is an important variable. Once all your secrets are known, what else can the Eye take from you? Once your suspicions are confirmed and the source of your fear has a name, how can it use your doubt to taunt you? In this new world, everything can behold the Eye in the sky. Everyone is fully aware that they are being watched, and the identity of the Watcher is indisputable. It dilutes the fear. The Ceaseless Watcher may well have been at its most terrifying when it was at its most subtle, in the world where the Dread Powers still lurked in the shadows. 

 

And now – now, on top of all that, the End’s promise looms nearer and nearer every day. What is an observer with nothing to observe? What is the Watcher without mortal minds to experience the terror of being Watched? Jonah Magnus’ nightmare kingdom is as inimical to the Ceaseless Watcher as it is to all the other Fears and all of their victims.

 

It takes a minute before Jon realizes he’s laughing at the absurdity of it all.    

 


 

Jon still feels a bit lightheaded as he exits the Panopticon, mind abuzz with hypotheticals. He’s jittery, excited – afraid, yes, but the anticipation is tinged with hope. He isn't prepared for Helen's sudden presence. 

 

“So, how did it go?”  

 

Jon scowls at her before he can think better of it, and her mouth quirks in amusement as she soaks in his momentary burst of alarm. He closes his eyes and begins to shuffle statements in his mind. 

 

“…spent so very long staring into” – a brief skip ahead – “infinity and knowing, truly knowing.”  

 

“You’re telling me you had a staring contest with the Eye?”  

 

It’s a simplistic and annoyingly flippant way to put it, but she isn’t entirely wrong. When Jon doesn’t deny it, Helen claps her hands together in delight.

 

“It just sat there and stared at me,” Jon continues. “I didn’t like staring back at it. It made me feel strange, like it was sorting me into cuts of meat. There was more in those eyes than I’d ever seen -"

 

“Jonathan, won’t you stop speaking in metaphor and get to the point?”

 

The twinkle in her eye tells him that she’s enjoying his struggle to communicate. He really should know better than to let her rile him, but he feels himself growing irritable all the same. 

 

“…a new door,” he says. “And it wasn’t there before. The man asked me again what was inside –”  

 

In a flash, Helen has her deadly sharp fingers at his jugular, just barely brushing his skin. A few tiny pinpricks of blood well up and heal almost immediately.

 

“Don’t you dare repurpose my words, Archivist,” she hisses.

 

It’s not easy to press Helen’s buttons, and Jon won’t deny the flicker of spiteful self-satisfaction that flares up in him at how the tables have turned for once. He doesn’t plan on provoking her further, though; they both know that she can’t kill him, but that doesn’t mean it wouldn’t still hurt to have his throat skewered.

 

But he wasn’t using Helen Richardson’s statement just to antagonize her. It’s just that his library isn’t forthcoming with accurate words. After a few moments of perusal, he finds something that might work. There’s a risk of further inflaming Helen’s temper by using a statement about the Distortion right now, but…  

 

“…staring at them, measuring the patterns they created – the maths behind them – he was on the verge of a great truth.”

 

Jon pauses, watching for Helen’s reaction. The dangerous look in her eyes remains, but she lowers her hand.

 

“I’ll allow it,” she says. “Go on.”

 

“He was going to shake mathematics to its foundations once he figured out the truth, hidden in those cascading fractal patterns.”  

 

To Helen’s credit, she seems to be seriously attempting to interpret his meaning now.

 

“You Saw into the Eye’s inner workings,” she begins slowly, waiting for Jon’s affirmative before continuing. “And you think you learned something about the underlying patterns of this reality.” Jon nods again, more vigorously this time. “You think that you can use that understanding to… what, close the door you opened?”

 

Not quite wrong, but not quite right, either.

 

“He wanted to close it, lock it back in place and get some semblance of control back,” Jon concedes.   

 

But there is no other side of the door anymore, and the Fears can’t be exiled if there’s nowhere to send them.   

 

“It was, to put it quite simply, impossible, and I must have approached it from a hundred different angles trying to make sense of it.” 

 

“Then what?” Helen lets out an incredulous little laugh. “You think you can… unravel this reality? Tug on the strings holding it together, reshape it to your liking?”

 

He doesn’t quite approve of the phrasing – to your liking – but it’s close enough. He’s actually pleasantly surprised that she managed to read that much into his clumsy attempts at an explanation, so he gives another nod.

 

“…to circumvent physics, and suspend natural laws,” he says excitedly, gesturing with his hands and tripping over his words as he stitches the sound bites together. “Rewrite them wholesale – petty rules like space or time –”  

 

“And how exactly do you plan to do that?” Helen scoffs. “You may be overpowered now, but even you don’t have the capability to meddle with the fabric of reality.”

 

“You are prepared. You are ready. You are marked.” Jonah’s words leave a bitter taste on Jon's tongue, but hopefully it gets his point across. “The power of the Ceaseless Watcher flows through you – in the world that we have made.”  

 

“That’s – you’re giving yourself far too much credit.” Helen sounds flustered now. That’s… rare, and Jon doesn’t quite know what to make of it. “You’ve always been a conduit, not a conscious actor. A tool, not an architect. All you did was open a door.” She gives him a severe, almost affronted look. “Reality is malleable, but that doesn’t mean you can manipulate it. You are not the Worker-of-Clay. You are not of the Web. The only ‘power’ that the Ceaseless Watcher grants you is voyeurism. You Watch, you observe, you… you sit on the sidelines and curate reality. You do not shape it.”

 

But I did, Jon thinks.

 

Compared to some of the other Avatars, his powers can seem passive. He has no command over insects or disease; he can’t reach into someone’s chest to turn their bones or cook their heart; he can’t drop people into the sky or disappear them into the fog; he doesn’t have the prowess of a Hunter or the berserker strength of the Slaughter. He Watches, he Knows, he Sees. He asks questions and he compels answers. And yet, he’s just as dangerous as the rest. He doesn't need to make physical contact in order to prey on others, nor does he need to lure his victims into a pocket dimension. He invades them like the Crawling Rot and haunts them like Dark and traps them like the Buried, and all he has to do is use his voice. The insidiousness of it is part of what makes it so terrifying.  

 

So yes, Watching and Knowing may not seem like much compared to the flashier abilities of the other Avatars, but being marked by each of them in turn molded him into something new – something with a voice that shattered and reshaped the world with a single invocation. The concepts of Watching and Being Watched are the metaphysical building blocks of this universe, and both of those are within his purview. The most fundamental law now is the interplay of Watcher versus Watched, and Jon balances precariously on the tightrope of a boundary between the two – possibly the only living being that continuously skirts those categories. His essence is unavoidably mercurial: he exists at multiple points along the spectrum simultaneously, darting from one end of the dichotomy to the other and never quite touching down on either side of the equation.

 

The power threaded through the tapestry of this reality is a part of him as much as he is a part of the Eye. And if he pulls in just the right way, in just the right place…

 

“All you did was open a door,” Helen repeats, but softer this time, almost to herself.

 

But there’s power in the small things, isn’t there? Helen owes her current state to the simple act of opening a door, after all. For Jon, everything was set into motion when he opened a book. Curiosity is so very human, Jon thinks – it seems unfair that it could lead both of them so far astray from their humanity. Perhaps Jon’s life is a Rube Goldberg machine painstakingly orchestrated by the Web, and finding the book was just the first domino in a long chain of missteps; or maybe his fate was just a perfect, unfortunate combination of bad luck, his own restless curiosity, and an entitled old man’s god complex. It doesn’t really matter; the consequences are the same.

 

As Jon starts walking, Helen paces after him. He watches with faint surprise as she wrings her hands uneasily – or a close enough approximation to it, anyway. It’s disorientating to watch, like an Escher woodcut in fluid motion. Several eyes attempt to track her movements, but the endeavor only succeeds in making Jon dizzy.

 

“Where are you off to now?” Helen asks, voice leaden with uncharacteristic uncertainty.  

 

“It felt like if you picked a line, any line, you could follow it through to the center, to some deep truth, if only your eye could keep track of the strands that had caught it.”  

 

“The Panopticon is the center.”

 

Jon stops, turns, and shakes his head. “A stronghold of the Web.”  

 

Oh,” Helen says, eyes brightening in recognition.

 

Jon rubs the back of his neck and grimaces. “I was returning to Hill Top Road, no matter what I might feel about it.”  

 

“The axis of the Spider’s web…” Helen gives the ground a long, pensive look. Then her eyes narrow and flick back up to meet Jon’s. “And what exactly do you expect to do there?”

 

“A scar in reality, that I believe has since been compounded by the interferences of other powers.”  

 

“Yes, we all know about the rift,” Helen says impatiently. “What do you plan to do with it?”

 

“She was going to wait and see.” With that, Jon begins walking again.  

 

“I changed my mind,” Helen practically whines. “This Archive nonsense was funny before. Now it’s just obtuse.” When Jon doesn’t bite back, she heaves a theatrical sigh. “Fine. As usual, I would offer you a quicker route, but you’d be something of an allergen in my corridors.”

 

Jon flips her off over his shoulder.

 

Rude,” Helen calls after him. Apparently she’s recovered enough to goad him, because he can hear the smile creeping back into her voice. “Try not to get lost traipsing back through the Lonely, Archivist. I would hate to have to come in after you.”

 

Her laughter is still ricocheting inside his skull when he hears her door swing shut. Already, he can feel a headache blossoming in his temple.  

 

Jon takes a moment to collect himself before he turns his back on the Panopticon and sets out into the wasteland once again.

Chapter Text

Jon doesn’t remember the hill being this steep.

 

Or maybe he’s just winded from the long trek through the wasteland. He’d had to pass through a long stretch of territory fought over by the Buried and the Vast. The ground there was practically a minefield, pockmarked with sinkholes. They would start out as quicksand traps and suffocating tunnel entrances, only to be hollowed out into yawning chasms and cenotes, then ultimately collapsed all over again by a retaliation-minded Choke. It was an endless cycle of petty rivalry and animosity, and passing so near their battlegrounds left Jon breathless with a discordant mix of claustrophobia and agoraphobia.

 

Worse was when the Dark managed to sneak its way into the mix. Whether it was Too Close I Cannot Breathe or the Vast’s abyss, the Dark could always find a way to exploit subterranean spaces – and it could never resist reaching out to needle at an Avatar of the Eye, no matter how inadvisable it was to cross the Archive these days.

 

As Jon drew closer to Hill Top Road, he left the warzone behind for a mostly featureless landscape punctuated with the occasional foxholes of the Slaughter and pockets of the Forsaken’s fog. Eventually those too gave way to a seemingly endless dust bowl of soot and ash – a sprawling domain claimed by the Lightless Flame.

 

The house at Hill Top Road is the only thing still standing in the midst of an immense expanse of Desolation-scorched earth. The charred terrain stops abruptly at the foot of the hill, a stark line demarcating the boundary between the Blackened Earth and the territory that Annabelle Cane has staked out as her own. Jon had half-expected an invisible barrier to stop him there as well – the last time he was here, Annabelle had forbidden him from returning – but there had been no resistance when he stepped over the border.

 

As he hikes up the incline now, he finds himself worrying over what that might mean. Is Annabelle expecting him, inviting him in? Is she simply tolerating his presence, curious to see what he’s up to? Could he be powerful enough now that even she cannot stop him? Or is he once again wrapped up in the Web’s machinations, doing exactly what the Mother of Puppets wants?

 

He shakes his head. No. He and Martin talked about this. There’s no point in obsessing over the Web’s motivations, letting the memory of Annabelle’s statement paralyze him with indecision. Better to just… keep moving forward.

 

And it’s not like he has anything left to lose. 

 

Jon continues up the hill, increasingly winded, his bad leg throbbing angrily, and he thinks to himself again: he really, really doesn’t remember it being this steep.

 


 

Before long, he’s standing at the threshold of the house at Hill Top Road. The dread permeating the place is just as palpable as he remembered.

 

He waits for the Distortion’s inevitable appearance, determined not to let her startle him this time. As if on cue, a door creaks open on the ceiling above him. Without preamble, Helen lands noiselessly on her feet beside Jon and peers around curiously.

 

“Interesting,” she says with a hum. “I wondered whether Annabelle would let me in.”

 

So did Jon. Maybe he should be concerned about – no. He shuts down that train of thought before it can pull out of the station.    

 

“You still haven’t explained what exactly you plan on doing here.”

 

Honestly, that’s mostly because Jon hasn’t figured it out yet, either. He only Knows that this is the way.

 

The Eye wants things to change – as much as it can be said to want anything. Setting the question of its sentience or lack thereof aside, at the Panopticon he had been able to Know things that the Beholding had previously withheld from him. He might be stronger than the other Avatars and monsters lurking about the world, but he’s not arrogant enough to believe he could overpower any of the Fears themselves. If the Ceaseless Watcher gives him access to knowledge, it’s because his Knowing will facilitate – or at least not inhibit – its actualization, which means that he must have the Eye’s… blessing, to be here? He shakes his head; he’s getting caught up on semantics again.

 

Point is: he Asked a question and – as usual – he was given a scrap of an answer and left to puzzle the rest out for himself. All he Knows for certain is what he wants to happen, and that this is where he needs to be in order to make it happen.

 

“Jonathan.” Helen says his name with a playful lilt and leans further into his personal space. “Are you going to share with the class?” 

 

Without a word, he sidesteps around her and walks further into the house. In her statement, Anya Villette had mentioned a door under the stairs leading to the basement. The last time Jon was here, it was nowhere to be seen. He can only hope it’s there this time.

 

“What are you looking for?”

 

Jon drags one hand down his face and sighs. Having Helen tag along is like taking a road trip through hell with an easily bored and… well, deeply annoying child. Huh.   

 

“I won’t be ignored, Jon –”  

 

Jon bristles, redirects his gaze, and stares daggers at her with a few more eyes than strictly necessary. “Some magically appearing door.”  

 

“You aren’t being very kind to me right now, you know.” She tries to sound wounded, but really she just sounds pleased to have gotten a reaction from him.

 

Jon gives an irritated huff and continues forward through the entrance hall. He treads softly, all too aware of every subtle creak of a floorboard. He doesn’t know why he’s bothering muffling his footsteps. It doesn’t matter how quiet he is; Annabelle will know – probably already knows – that he’s here regardless. There’s just something about the house that demands a certain amount of fearful reverence. Disturbing the silence just feels like a bad idea. 

 

Helen doesn’t appear to have the same concerns. In fact, it almost seems like she’s going out of her way to announce their presence. Of course.

 

Jon catches a glimpse of the staircase as he rounds the corner and – yes, there’s a door under the stairs. A plain, painted white door with a brass handle, otherwise unremarkable and entirely unassuming.

 

And yet…

 

As he tries to approach it, he finds himself rooted to the spot, overcome with a sense of trepidation. He feels his breath coming faster, shallower; feels the hairs on the back of his neck stand on end. Every one of the Archive’s eyes locks onto the doorknob and for a moment he swears he feels tiny, feather-light legs scurrying down his spine. He pulls his pack tight against him, using the physical weight of it to dampen the tactile hallucination.     

 

“I hate it,” Helen says darkly. Jon jumps just slightly at the break in the silence, and a few of the Archive’s eyes suspend their rapt scrutiny of the door handle to glance in her direction. Her posture is tense where she stands, staring warily at the door as if it might lunge at them. Jon has never seen the Distortion look so… unsettled.    

 

She’s right, though. The door is wrong. More than that, it’s the exact same flavor of wrongness that he felt the first time he saw A Guest for Mr. Spider, and again when he reached out to knock on the monster’s door.

 

Back then, he hadn’t known that the concept of wrongness could be broken down into so many distinct subtypes: the uncanny disquietude of the Stranger feels fundamentally different from the depths of the Coffin, the sensation of worms tunneling through flesh, the Distortion’s nonsensical corridors, the Lonely’s suffocating fog.

 

The pull of the Web is in a class of its own, and the sight of the door in front of him drops him right back into the memory of the day he opened the book – the day he took the first step on the winding path that led him, inevitably, to this exact moment. It’s such a fitting parallel, he wouldn’t be surprised if it was orchestrated down to the finest detail. He knows the Web plays a long game, but precisely how much of what has happened was in perfect accordance with the Web’s plans? What even is the Web’s –

 

No. Stop fixating on the Spider, he reprimands himself for the umpteenth time this… day? Whatever; it’s not important. He forces his legs to move.

 

“You’re sticking your hand in a bear trap, I hope you know.” 

 

“I knew opening the door was a stupid thing to do,” Jon says, feigning nonchalance. “So I opened the door.”  

 

Helen breathes a surprised laugh. “Was that a joke?”

 

“The idea that this is all some grand cosmic joke,” Jon rattles off drily, “thousands of us running around spreading horror and sabotaging each other pointlessly while these impossible unknowing things just lurk out there, feeding off the misery we caused –”  

 

“Terrible.” Helen groans and puts her head in her hands. “Here I was, ready to compliment you on finally finding a sense of humor, and you have to ruin the moment with – with existentialist brooding.”

 

Jon chuckles quietly to himself and takes another step forward.  

 

“Wait.” Helen reaches one long-fingered hand in Jon’s direction, then falters and pulls back. For a moment, she seems to wrestle with whether or not to continue. “What’s behind the door?”

 

“A scar in reality –”  

 

Yes, I know about the rift. What do you expect to find in it? An answer? An escape? A means of suicide?”

 

“A metaphysical quirk of this new reality’s divorce from the traditional concept of time.”  

 

Jon pauses, chewing on his bottom lip as he looks inward and browses through his catalog.

 

“It bends and twists and returns to what it was,” he settles on eventually.  

 

“I told you not to use my words.” Helen gives him a warning look, but it’s fleeting, because a moment later his meaning sinks in and she huffs out a short laugh of disbelief. “Wait – wait, wait, wait. You think you can… what, turn back time?”

 

Jon grimaces and makes a noncommittal seesawing motion with one hand.

 

“…could emerge back into the world that she remembered.”   

 

Helen starts laughing in earnest now. “You think you can time travel?”

 

Jon just shrugs, unashamed. He knows he should feel embarrassed – back when he first took the position as Head Archivist, he would have scoffed at anyone making such a suggestion – but at this point, is it any more or less unrealistic than anything else that’s happened?

 

“Alright,” Helen says, stifling another giggle, “I’ll grant you that there’s a rift in space and time. People have traveled through it before.”

 

Jon gives an enthusiastic nod. After her encounter with the crack in the house's foundation, Anya Villette had found herself temporally displaced. What would stop Jon from also –

 

“However,” Helen continues, “what makes you think you’ll just rewind your position on this timeline? It could just take you to a parallel world, leaving this one behind to suffer and decay. Would you abandon what remains of humanity like that?”

 

Seeing as Anya Villette appeared to have also been spatially displaced, Jon has already considered this possibility. Helen probably knows that, too – she’s well-acquainted with his tendency to overthink things. She’s just trying to tap into his chronic self-loathing, demoralize him, make him doubt his own perceptions. It’s a familiar pattern, one Jon used to submit to far too easily.

 

“…better than staying here with this strange woman.”  

 

“Ouch.” Helen brings a hand to her chest in mock offense. “You’re being awfully cruel today.”

 

Jon flashes an entirely unapologetic smile.

 

“I was being serious, you know.” A knowing mischief creeps into Helen’s eyes. “You’ve always been selfish, but would you really run away from your mistakes, save yourself and damn the rest?”

 

Unfortunately for Helen, she’s arrived too late to this particular debate. Jon already spent the entire trip here berating himself and second-guessing his conclusions, and he’s just about gotten it out of his system for the time being. Self-recrimination as an inoculation against the Distortion – now there’s a concept, he thinks wryly.  

 

“Do you honestly believe you deserve to escape an apocalypse that you brought about?”

 

God, she’s persistent.

 

“Now there’s only one thing I have left that I value,” he says simply. “That I love. And I cannot lose him.”  

 

It’s the truth: the final deciding factor for him was, as it so often is, Martin.

 

“You would potentially forsake this entire world just to reverse your own loss?”

 

“There was nothing left to save.”  

 

It never gets easier to admit it out loud, but that doesn’t change the truth of it. This world is already forsaken. Humanity is dying out, slowly but surely, and Jon harbors a guilty feeling of relief that their torment will not be eternal after all. As far as he can See, there’s no way for him to save the ones who remain. There never was.

 

His power was never meant to help anyone. For a long time, the only action within his grasp was to hurt – and so, he went after those who deserved to be hurt, because the only other option was doing nothing at all. But seeking revenge never saved anyone, never even made himself feel any better. If anything, it only made him feel emptier, more and more alienated from whatever human part of him still lingered – and that was a very dangerous place to be.

 

And when he and Martin decided together that he needed to slow down, to maintain some distance between himself and the Eye? Well… nothing substantial changed in the slightest. He didn’t get any worse, but he also didn’t get better. The world continued to suffer just as much as if he were to sit down and take no action at all. Nothing he did or did not do made any impact whatsoever.

 

He Knows intimately that he cannot banish the Entities from this world as long as one person remains to feel fear. Once that last person dies, there will be no one left to save. Hell, depending on how human he still is by that time, he may very well be that last person, and the Dread Powers will just have to ration him. And why shouldn’t they? They’ve all had a taste of him more than once. He’s an unfinished meal. They could just resume hacking away at him, demanding their respective pounds of flesh one after the other until nothing remains – until finally, mercifully, the Fears themselves would wither and die as well. He just doesn’t want to consider how long that could take – no. Best not to dwell on it.   

 

The point is, there is no future for this world. There is nothing left for him to do here. His only hope is to prevent all of this from coming to pass in the first place, and this… this is the only lead he has. And besides, Martin –

 

“You do realize that you have a vanishingly small chance of seeing him again, don’t you?”

 

“I decided to take a risk and try it anyway.”  

 

Helen looks put out at his easy dismissal, but she really ought to know better by now. He might be chronically plagued by self-hate and a visceral fear of being controlled, but Martin is his anchor in more ways than one. Their relationship is proof of Jon’s own capacity for free will, and his decision to go after Martin in the Lonely remains one of the only things he’s done where he’s never once wondered whether he made the right choice. He doesn’t think he’s ever been more confident about anything than he is about their love for each other, even if he doesn’t always feel like he deserves it. Helen really couldn’t pick a worse seed with which to sow self-doubt.

 

When she sees that Jon isn’t taking the bait, she changes tack. 

 

“And assuming this scheme somehow works as you hope it does, and doesn’t just get you shunted to some hellish pocket dimension – which it almost certainly will – you do realize that your little scene with Jonah Magnus will mean nothing, don’t you? This future will be erased, he will not suffer for eternity – he won’t even remember that it was ever a possibility.”

 

“For all her anger, there was no thirst for revenge in the Archivist, only an eagerness to expunge an infection that had gone unnoticed for too long.”  

 

“Then why bother confronting him? I know it wasn’t for closure – if you were at all capable of letting go or moving on, you would never have been a candidate for the Beholding in the first place, and we wouldn’t be here now.” Jon just barely manages to not flinch at that. Luckily, Helen doesn’t seem to notice that she struck a nerve, instead staring up at the ceiling in contemplation, as if trying to decipher Jon’s motivations on her own. “So, why? All those messy emotions it dredged up and for what – the drama of it all?”  

 

“I live for the monologue,” he deadpans. 

 

“Jonathan!” Helen gapes at him in exaggerated shock. “Was that another joke?”

 

She could stand to tone down the condescension, Jon thinks. It isn’t his fault if people overlook his sense of humor just because they never think to listen for it.   

 

“Are you certain about this, Archivist? You have a history of reaching these points of no return and choosing the worst imaginable path.”

 

Even at the very end, the Distortion just can’t resist one last chance at undermining his confidence. Despite the cockiness underlying her taunt, Helen has a hungry, almost pleading look in her eye – desperate, like everything else in this place that feeds on fear, for scraps in the midst of a famine that will never be remedied.

 

Jon reaches out and grips the doorknob with one hand.

 

“Even the end of the world can’t stop you throwing yourself on a grenade. Can’t say I’m surprised. I’m not following you in there, though.”

 

“Thank heaven for small mercies, I suppose.”   

 

“I am trying to have a heartfelt goodbye, Jonathan,” Helen says, not sounding sincere in the slightest. “I doubt this will go as you hope it will, but I’m fairly certain that no matter what happens, I won’t be seeing you again. I won’t wish you luck, but… well, it will be interesting to see whether one of your half-assed plans might pan out for once – not that they ever have gone according to plan.” When Jon’s resolve remains strong, Helen sighs – and this time, her disappointment does sound genuine. “Well, if you’re sure…” She trails off, giving him one last hopeful look – once last chance to fall apart under her skillful denigrations – before her shoulders slump in defeat.

 

Not content to leave it at that, though, she does offer one last parting shot: “Do say hello to the Spider for me, won’t you?”

 

An involuntary shudder courses down Jon’s spine as he remembers Anya Villette’s statement – the massive spider legs reaching up to pull her into the crack in the foundation – and compares it with his own memory of the book, the door, and the monster lurking within. Helen breathes a contented sigh at his ripple of unease – basically a snack for her, at Jon’s expense. Fine. She can have that last little morsel of fear from him, as a parting gift.  

 

“Sometimes you just have to leave,” Jon says firmly, turning the handle. “Even if what’s on the other side scares you.”  

 

And, oh, it does.

 

Miraculously, Helen allows him to have the last word. As he pushes open the door to the basement, he hears Helen’s door creak open in unison. By the time he’s staring down the stairs into the dark, her door has snapped shut and popped out of existence. 

 


 

The staircase pitches down, down, down, stretching far deeper than it should. It’s too dark to see much of anything, and it takes a full minute of descent until Jon notices that there’s a slight curve to it. With every step, the air grows warmer and more stifling. The revolting sensation of walking through cobwebs becomes a constant, but any time he reaches up to brush away the web clinging to him, he feels nothing but his own bare skin.

 

A few minutes in, his bad leg starts twinging again, and he holds on to the wall to steady himself. Before long, his mind begins to wander to the horrifying possibility that the staircase is interminable, and he’s overcome by an image of a funnel web spider waiting patiently for unsuspecting prey. He tries to push the thought away. Just keep moving.

 

Between the lack of visibility and being lost in his own head, he doesn’t notice the sharp turn in the staircase until he plows right into the wall, a sharp pain erupting in his left shoulder from the collision. He throws one hand back to steady himself and only barely manages to stay on his feet, his bad leg protesting as he throws his weight into it. After briefly taking inventory of himself and experimentally putting weight on his leg again – painful, but not unbearable – he gropes blindly for the wall again and uses it to guide himself forward, more slowly this time. It isn’t long before the stone of the wall gives way to cool, damp earth, and he shivers with the memory of the Buried.

 

After several more sharp, nearly 90-degree twists and turns, a faint glow starts to permeate the darkness. A few minutes later, the staircase opens up into a large, dimly-lit space, garlanded with spider silk. The ceiling, walls, and floor are composed of tightly-packed dirt, and Jon has to fight back a rush of claustrophobic panic at the thought of being surrounded on all sides by the crushing earth. It’s short-lived, as it’s crowded out by a much deeper, more primal fear when he sees the fissure in the ground ahead.

 

It’s a repulsive, crooked thing, oozing with a pervasive, tangible feeling of wrongness. It should not be there. It cannot be there. And yet there it is, boldly existing where it has no right or reason to be: a gnawing, open, inflamed wound in the fabric of reality, pulling him toward it like a black hole. It’s a compulsion stronger than the coffin, an abomination more uncanny than the Stranger, a malice deeper than any Dark, an inevitability on par with Terminus itself.

 

Jon hates it. At his first glimpse of it, every one of the Archive’s eyes fly open, greedily drinking in the oppressive presence of something so unfamiliar and anomalous, leeching off of Jon’s terror as he beholds it. The scrutiny is fleeting, though, as the sight of it turns corrosive and blistering; all at once, the eyes shrink away and retreat, like a school of fish spotting a bird of prey swooping down for a meal. It takes some of the edge off, having fewer eyes with which to see the thing, but it still weighs him down with dread and revulsion.

 

He doesn’t know how long he’s stood there, staring unblinkingly at the fault line, before he senses a presence – something colossal and hungry and wrong, malevolence and foreboding given physical form – climbing inexorably toward him. He hears a faint rustling, the whisper of tiny avalanches of dirt scraped loose and sent sliding down the walls of the crevice. He knows exactly what to expect, and still he isn’t prepared when the first of the spider’s legs peeks up over the lip of the fissure.

    

How is it that after a lifetime to process a childhood trauma, it still throttles his heart and squeezes the air from his lungs at the mere thought of it? How is it that, despite being the most formidable thing in this world outside of Fear itself, he feels as small and helpless now as he did on the day he met his first of many monsters? Why is he just standing here, letting those hairy, spindly limbs hover and curl around him like an enormous clawed hand, waiting for a fate that is as unknowable as it is inevitable?

 

Focus, Jon thinks to himself. Listen to the quiet.

 

He slowly reaches into his jacket and breathes a sigh of relief as his fingers close around the notebook safeguarded there. It’s Martin’s, full of poems and sketches and stream-of-consciousness journal entries. Jon has had it with him for a long time now, but he’s never been able to bring himself to look inside it. Martin would occasionally share its contents with him – mostly completed poems, and only rarely works in progress, as he was always self-conscious about his creative process – but Jon doesn’t want to accidentally see something that Martin would have preferred to keep to himself. Martin might not be beside him right now, but he still deserves to have his privacy respected.

 

Still, for Jon, just having it with him is a physical reminder of his anchor, and running his thumb over the cover grounds him in the present. He closes his eyes and looks inward.  

 

The Archive gropes blindly for something solid amidst the noise, some elemental truth to serve as a starting point in the chaotic tangle choking this place. The edges of his mind brush against thread after thread and none of them are what he’s looking for. They stick to him, filling his head with cotton, rendering him sluggish and confused, obfuscating his sight. The Spider watches as he flails, becoming more and more snarled in the web.

 

“I closed my eyes and remembered in as much detail and with as much love as I could muster in my despair,” he whispers to himself, anchoring himself in the truth of the statement. He swallows a terrified whimper as something coarse and fuzzy brushes against his face, and he weaves a command into his next words: “Eventually, I opened my eyes again –” 

 

The Archive obeys, hundreds of eyes materializing on his skin and blinking open in the space around him, grotesque satellites of varying sizes all seizing on a single question, and suddenly he can See –

 

There.

 

A single thread, out of place among the rest, pulled taut and leading down into the deep gloom of the chasm. He spares a brief thought as to its origin point – Is its anchor here, now, or do its roots begin on the other side? – before silencing it. It’s not a question that needs answering right now. The Beholding objects; Jon reflexively shuts it down and takes an aggravated swipe at the nearest cluster of eyes he can reach, like swatting at a swarm of mosquitoes. He doesn’t think it actually does anything concrete, but when they disperse it brings him a small measure of satisfaction all the same.

 

He gives an experimental tug on the thread and – it feels right. That’s good, right? Well, he supposes it could be the Web trying to trick him into –

 

God, he’s like a dog with a bone. He could be trapped in a burning building and find part of his mind wandering off to idly ponder the melting point of steel –

 

…around 1370 °C for carbon steel; between 1400 and 1530°C for stainless steel, depending on the specific alloy and grade…

 

– which, yes, he has done. It’s a good way to dissociate from a crisis. Unfortunately, it’s also a good way to get killed, and the giant spider is still there, Jonathan, focus.    

 

He holds fast to the thread – make a path for yourself, tune it to the frequency you need

 

“Everything about being with him felt so natural that when he told me he loved me,” he tells himself, louder this time, “it only came as a surprise to realize that we hadn’t said it already.”  

 

– and he follows it, stepping carefully around and between the spider’s legs. He has no idea why it isn’t attacking him – what if this is exactly what Annabelle no. He shakes his head as if it will jostle the thought loose. Just be thankful for it and keep moving before the damn thing changes its mind.

 

Moments or hours or perhaps days later, he’s standing at the precipice of the fissure and looking down. Several eyes are riveted on the massive hairy form poised above him, but most are staring into the unknowable darkness with a gnawing, longing fascination. He stands frozen in place, torn between an overwhelming urge to flee and an overpowering need to Know what’s down there: something new, something fresh, something different – any reprieve at all from the excruciating monotony of this nightmare world.

 

The spider shifts above him. It’s now or never. He has nothing to lose, and if there’s any chance at all of changing this doomed future – of seeing Martin again…

 

“Sometimes you just have to leave,” he reminds himself, shutting his human eyes tight, one hand clutching the notebook and the other clenching into a fist until his fingernails cut into his palm. “Even if what’s on the other side scares you.”  

 

He takes one last deep breath, thinks of Martin – safe hands, warm eyes, gentle touch – and he takes a leap of faith.

 


 

Jon can’t see anything. He can’t See, either. There is an incessant, high-pitched whine screaming in his ears and drowning out his thoughts. When he moves to put his hands over his ears, he realizes all at once that he can’t feel his body. He has no sense of up or down, no fingers to flex, no breath to hold, and – and he can’t See.

 

It’s… terrifying. It’s liberating. It hurts, but in the same way that his first gulp of fresh air hurt after three days asphyxiating in the Buried.

 

He doesn’t know how long he floats there in that near-senseless limbo, but between one moment and the next a blanket of fog drops over him and the shrill static is muffled. Through the haze, he can just barely make out a voice, coming from so far away – like he’s drowning, and someone is speaking to him from above the water’s surface. He drifts and listens in a daze as the voice cuts in and out.

 

“– just – thought I’d – by. Check in – how you’re –”

 

It’s a nice voice.

 

“– really need you –”

 

A safe voice.  

 

“– Jon.”

 

Wait.

 

“– bad. I – how much longer we can –”

 

Wait, it’s – that’s Martin’s voice.

 

“We – I need you.”

 

It’s Martin. Martin!

 

Martin is here, he’s here – Jon doesn’t know where here is, but it doesn’t matter, because Martin is here, and – and Jon is so overwhelmed with euphoria that he isn’t actually processing what’s being said. Calm down, focus – focus on the words –    

 

“And I – I know that you’re not –”

 

Oh.

 

“I know there’s no way to –”

 

Oh, no.

 

“But we need you, Jon.”

 

All at once, Jon knows where – when he is.

 

“Jon, please, just – please.”

 

No. No, no, no, no

 

“If – if there’s anything left in you that can still see us, or –”

 

Martin, I’m here! 

 

“– or some power that you’ve still got, or –”

 

I’m here, I’m here, I’m here

 

“– or, or something, anything, please! Please.”

 

Martin’s voice breaks, and Jon’s heart fractures with it.

 

“I – I can’t –”

 

Jon can just barely make out the buzz of a phone and – oh.

 

“I’m – I’m actually with him now.”

 

Martin!  

 

“You were right.” A pause, and a heavy sigh. “I – will they be safe?”

 

Peter Lukas. It’s Peter Lukas. Peter Lukas is still alive, Peter Lukas is hunting Martin, Peter Lukas wants to feed him to the Lonely, Peter Lukas is –

 

“Okay. Okay, I’ll do it.”

 

Martin, don’t –

 

“Yeah. Sure thing.”  

 

Martin!

 

“I’m sorry.”

 

Jon tries to scream, to reach out, to do anything at all, but he doesn’t have a body and he doesn’t have a voice and he can’t See

 

“Goodbye, Jon.”

 

Martin, look at me! Hear me, please - see me! 

 

He tries to thread a command through the words, but the compulsion doesn't come throughand - 

 

Jon hears the rustle of clothing as Martin stands to leave, followed by the soft click of the door as it closes behind him. 

 

Fuck. 

Chapter Text

Calm down, Jon tells himself, quaking with panic. Breathe. Four seconds in, hold seven seconds, eight seconds out. Just –

 

Wait. He has no body. He has no lungs. How – how is he supposed to breathe with no lungs? He can’t – he can’t –

 

Stop, stop, stop – shut up and think about it, he reprimands himself.

 

No lungs means he’s not hyperventilating. No heart means there are no palpitations. He still has a body, he’s just – disconnected from it right now. And even if he wasn’t, during his first coma he had no pulse or respiration, so – so there’s no way he’s experiencing the physical symptoms of a panic attack right now. He’s imagining it.

 

Forget about breathing for now. Think about – think about the positives –

 

His plan worked. Sort of. Yes, he’d hoped the rift would take him back to the very beginning – before he started reading statements to that damn tape recorder, before he’d started compelling answers without even realizing he was doing it, before Prentiss and paranoia and burned bridges and the Circus and Sasha and Tim –

 

Oh, God. If he could have showed up just a few months earlier, he could have stopped –

 

Stop, he thinks, imagining Martin talking him through his racing thoughts, like he used to do whenever Jon got like this. Think about what you can change.

 

This is still an improvement on the future he left behind. The world hasn’t ended yet, and now he has an advantage that he didn’t have last time. He knows who Elias really is, what his plans are, and all the little traps that he set along the path.

 

Jon can still stop the Watcher's Crown.

 

Okay. What else?

 

He might not have been able to prevent Daisy from ending up in the Buried, but he can still save her, just like he did before.

 

And he knows more about Peter’s intentions this time, knows about the Extinction and the extent to which Peter is exaggerating its imminent threat. He… he can keep Martin from succumbing to the Lonely.

 

…can’t he?

 

Yes. Yes, he can. He won’t entertain any alternative. He knows Martin much more intimately now, knows himself more intimately. The first time around, it took Jon far too long to identify how he felt about Martin, to find the right word for it, to admit it to himself – and then, it took him even longer to confess it out loud. He was almost too late.

 

There is the pressing question of how to approach Martin now. It depends on how soon Jon can wake up and how much of a stranglehold the Lonely has on Martin by then. Lonely or not, though, he probably won't be receptive to a love confession at this point in their timeline. From Martin's perspective, it would seem to come from nowhere. He wouldn't believe it. As difficult as it is to accept, Jon knows that he can't corner Martin with a declaration of love and expect to pick up where they left off. 

 

But Jon also knows what words used to comfort Martin and how he liked to be held and where his boundaries lay. Jon had painstakingly learned the best gestures to convey his affection – how best to help Martin believe that he is loved, that he deserves to be cared for, that he doesn’t have to be lonely. Hopefully it will be enough. Hopefully those things are still true, present tense. And if they aren’t, Jon will unlearn it all and relearn how best to be there for Martin here in the past – present, now.

 

Jon is feeling calmer already. Okay, good. Go on.

 

This is before he started to actively hunt for statements. It’s too late for him to save the ones who came before – and even though they came to the Institute willingly, and even though he didn’t know at the time he took their statements that the nightmares were real, he still feels guilty about it – but now he knows better, and he knows he can stop.

 

He will not take live statements this time. He won’t. It doesn’t matter what it does to him, he just – he won’t do it.

 

Keep going. What about the others?   

 

Jon isn’t sure exactly what the date is, but based on Martin’s visit just now - his last visit, Jon thinks with a pang - Jon is definitely too late to warn them about the Flesh attack. That means the Slaughter likely has a strong hold on Melanie by now - but if Jon can wake up earlier than he did before, maybe he can save her before she gets any worse. Maybe this time he can find a better way to approach the bullet situation. Maybe. She probably still hates him, but it’s worth a try.

 

He can warn Basira about the true motives behind Elias' false leads. Last time, Basira felt like she had to carry everything on her shoulders. Maybe this time, he can give her the support she needs - if she lets him. Maybe this time he can earn her trust again. Maybe this time he’ll even deserve to be trusted.

 

And maybe… maybe he can even salvage his relationship with Georgie – assuming she's open to the idea, that is.  

 

All of that is bound to be easier said than done, but at least it’s a starting point.

 

Now if only he can figure out how to wake up.

 


 

Time has even less meaning here than it did in the apocalypse. Jon can’t Know or even guess at the passing of time as he drifts aimless in the void. He splits his time evenly between panicking, talking himself down from the panic, planning, and sleeping. Or – something like sleep, anyway. It’s more like his mind just goes blank, and it’s – rather nice, actually. It’s the first dreamless rest he’s gotten in years, even if it is under such grim circumstances. 

 

It doesn’t last, though. One moment he is nothing and nowhere at all, and the next he’s in a very familiar graveyard surrounded by very, very familiar fog. 

 

So much for dreamless sleep, he thinks. A moment later, the muffled sound of crying reaches him through the mist.

 

He waits, then, to be overtaken by the nauseating sensation of being puppeted. It was a familiar routine. The dream would string him along, stopping him before each victim in turn. He would be compelled to behold their torment, unable to flee or speak or even close his eyes. It never got any easier, but at some point it had become his new normal, and during his previous coma, after six months of the same endlessly looping nightmares, he did start to feel numb to it all.

 

During the apocalypse, though, he didn’t sleep. He didn’t dream. There was no need, not when the nightmare was all around him and he could See all of it at every moment. A creeping sense of dread washes over him at the prospect of returning to this again every time he tries to sleep, and he realizes that the old numbness has worn off. He isn’t looking forward to cultivating it all over again – and he doesn’t know if he can take months of this nonstop a second time.  

 

As he stands there lost in his own head, time ticks by second by second until finally he notices that he’s waiting for a compulsion that… doesn’t seem to come. It never takes this long for the dream to commandeer his body.

 

Jon decides to take a step forward, and his legs surprise him by obeying. That’s new. He stares blankly at his feet until another choked sob, louder this time, cuts through the fog. He cautiously takes a step toward the sound, and then another, and another, expecting the entire time for the dream to rip his agency away from him again. It doesn’t. He finds himself at the lip of the grave, as usual – but for the first time, he came here of his own volition.

 

When he looks down, he sees her sprawled at the bottom of her lonely plot, one hand scrabbling weakly against the earthen wall. The skin on her arms is pallid and covered in gooseflesh; her face is covered in dirt, but where her tears have eroded watery tracks down her cheeks, the skin underneath is ashen. She looks… grey, colorless, as washed out as the mist clinging to her. The moment she sees him, a soft, broken wail clambers up her throat.

 

Naomi Herne.

 

“Why are you doing this?” Naomi croaks weakly. It’s a refrain that Jon has heard time and time again, and he feels his heart clench painfully in his chest – or at least, a convincing psychosomatic simulation of it. “Why won’t you just leave me alone?”

 

“I’m so sorry, Naomi,” Jon whispers.

 

They both flinch simultaneously. Naomi flings herself bodily against the wall and Jon jolts backward into thin air so abruptly that he loses his balance and ends up in a heap on the muddy ground.

 

He’s never, ever been allowed to speak in this place. Years of apologies have sat heavily on his tongue, piling up and crowding his throat with every live statement he consumed, and never once has he been able to let them out. And more than that, it’s – it’s his voice. It’s not the Archive, it’s just… it’s just Jon. Staring ahead in stunned silence, he brings one hand to his throat and lets it rest there.   

 

“I… I…” Naomi’s hoarse voice drifts up into the fog, confused and frightened.

 

Limbs still trembling, Jon crawls over to the edge of the grave and looks down again. Naomi watches him, her eyes wide and pale and wet.

 

“You… you spoke to me.”

 

“I…” Jon clears his throat uncertainly. “I – yes, I – I suppose I did.”

 

“You’ve never spoken to me.”

 

“Yes,” Jon murmurs, massaging his throat again.

 

“Why?” When Jon doesn’t reply, Naomi smacks her palm against the muddy wall of her plot and raises her voice. “Why?”  

 

“I –” Jon shakes his head and tries to corral his thoughts into some semblance of order. The fog in his brain just might be as thick as the haze choking the cemetery. “This is the first time I’ve been allowed to speak.”

 

“That’s not good enough!” Naomi shouts, rising to her knees now. “Do you realize – do you know how long it’s been, how many times I’ve been forced to sit here, watching you just stare down at me with… and – and how many times have I asked, how many times have I begged for you to just – just say something, or look away, or do anything else other than – than watch me?”

 

“I…” Jon clears his throat again. “You gave me your statement on the thirteenth of January, 2016. I’m not sure what the exact date is right now, but – I think it’s December? 2017.”

 

“Almost two years!” Naomi’s voice cracks. “I can count in double digits the number of decent nights’ sleep I’ve gotten in two years.”

 

“I know,” Jon says quietly. “I know, and I’m – I’m so, so sorry.”

 

Naomi looks like she wants to rail against him some more, but she seems speechless.

 

The apologies are throwing her off. She wants to scream at a monster, and you’re robbing her of the opportunity –

 

Jon had forgotten how strong the Knowing is in this place. He swats at the nearest group of eyes hovering around him, and the influx of information is interrupted as they scatter and fade out. Whether he successfully distracted the Eye or simply redirected his own attention, he doesn’t know, but either way, he finds the quiet – at least for the moment.  

 

Naomi watches the movement with utter bemusement, then schools her expression back into defiance and suspicion.

 

“So what changed?”

 

“I’m… not sure, exactly. This is the first time this has happened, and…” Jon pauses, suddenly feeling self-conscious staring down at Naomi from six feet above. “Do you want –” He cuts himself off. He’s going to have to get used to dancing around questions again. “I can help you out of there. If – if you’d like.”

 

“Why?” She sounds less incensed now, but fire still simmers just below the surface of the word.

 

“I’ve – I’ve wanted to this entire time,” Jon says haltingly. “I did try, at first, when all of this started. I tried to reach down to you, but I – the dream has never let me move or talk or – or blink before.” 

 

Naomi stares at him with narrowed eyes, arms crossed over her chest defensively. “I don’t trust you.”

 

“I… yes, I suppose that’s fair.”

 

Naomi falls silent. Jon watches her gaze flit nervously from eye to eye to eye as they blink open in the open air out of nothing and then pop out of existence again like bubbles, an endless shuffle of Watchers of varying sizes. The light they emit bounces off the water molecules in the air around them, illuminating the fog and bathing the entire area in a sickening greenish glow.

 

“Here, let me try…” Jon trails off, closes his human eyes and focuses on shutting the others, hoping to make himself appear just a little less monstrous. At one point he manages to pare their numbers down to just a couple dozen before all at once several dozen more blink open again, every one of them immediately swiveling to fix him with a reproachful stare.

 

He’s so preoccupied with glaring back at each of them in turn that he jerks when a hysterical giggle bubbles up out of Naomi’s throat. Now it’s Jon’s turn to look bemused. When his human eyes meet Naomi’s, she laughs harder. She still sounds tear-choked, but Jon can feel the fright draining away from her.

 

“Naomi…?” Jon tilts his head slightly, brow furrowing in consternation.

 

Naomi wipes tears from the corners of her eyes as she tries to catch her breath. “It’s – nothing, nothing. You just… you looked so put out, and it’s just – it’s hard to feel intimidated by a monster when it’s pouting like a toddler chasing peas around a plate with a fork.”

 

Jon feels his face heat, and then suddenly a quiet, involuntary chuckle is clawing its way up and out of his throat as well. It’s just – the tenor of her teasing is so, so reminiscent of Martin.

 

“Sure,” he says, his voice taking on the same teary-and-tickled tinge, “bully the penitent monster.”

 

Naomi stifles another giggle and doubles over, shivering with the surreal hilarity of it all. Both of them stay like that for a long moment, fighting back the bizarre combination of tears and laughter. Jon can’t remember the last time he’s laughed like this, and the realization brings another swell of tears to his eyes.

 

Eventually, Naomi stands on wobbly legs and rubs her eyes, carelessly smearing the moisture and dirt on her cheeks into a thin paste.

 

“Well?” She stands on tiptoe and stretches one hand up toward him. “Are you going to help me out of here?”

 

With a surge of gratitude – he’s being allowed to help someone for once – Jon stretches out flat against the ground and reaches down. A single eye sprouts uninvited on his palm and he scowls at it until it melts into his skin and sinks out of sight. He looks back at Naomi, expecting fear and disgust, but she just looks fascinated and more than a little amused. When he extends his hand again, she reaches back. Their fingertips just barely brush and he scoots closer, head and shoulders leaning over the edge until Naomi’s clammy hand is clutched firmly in his.

 

“Are you actually going to be able to pull me out? You don’t look like you have any upper body strength.”

 

“Every day with the schoolyard bullying,” Jon sighs, reaching out a second hand to grip her wrist more firmly. She takes his cue and does the same, clasping his wrist with her other hand until it aches. “It’s a dream, Naomi. I don’t think physical laws matter much.”

 

She begins to pull herself up, her bare toes digging into the wall as she clambers up. She slips a few times, and Jon grimaces as he takes more of her weight.

 

“Seems like the dream’s decided your noodle arms are just as useless here as they are in the real world,” Naomi says with a strained grunt.   

 

“Watch it, I might just drop you.” Jon panics as the retort leaves his mouth and he hastens to add, “I’m – I’m kidding, I wouldn’t – that was in poor taste, I’m sorry –”

 

“I know,” Naomi says with a breathless laugh. “Are you always this awkward?”

 

With one final burst of energy, she heaves herself upward and Jon shuffles back, pulling her over the edge until she has enough leverage to drag herself up the rest of the way. They both lay there for a few minutes, waiting for the adrenaline to fade.

 

“Thank you,” Naomi murmurs shakily.

 

“The least I can do, right?”

 

“The absolute least.”

 

Jon breathes out a tired chuckle. When he realizes that one hand is still linked with one of Naomi’s, he starts to pull away, but she tightens her grasp and the look in her eyes turns panicked.

 

“Please,” she blurts out and then looks away, embarrassed. “I’m – I’m not trying to make it weird, I just –”

 

“It’s okay,” Jon says quietly, and gives her hand a reassuring squeeze. “I understand. We can stay like this for now.”

 

Naomi nods gratefully. She still looks a bit mortified – the color is returning to her cheeks, Jon notes – but more than anything else, she seems relieved. They spend the next few minutes in a slightly awkward but mostly companionable silence.

 

“I really am sorry, Naomi –”

 

“You said.”

 

“– but I don’t know how to stop this from happening.” When Naomi doesn’t reply, Jon continues: “I – I promise that if I find out, I’ll do whatever I can to stop it. I just – I wanted to say that, if this is a fluke – if next time we find ourselves here, I’m back to…” Jon hesitates for a moment. “Remember your anchor.”

 

“My… anchor?”

 

“The first time you got lost in the fog – think about how you found your way out.”

 

“Evan,” Naomi whispers, and Jon nods.

 

“Next time you find yourself here, if you’re alone, or – or if I’m… unresponsive, remember your anchor. And - and it doesn't have to be Evan, it can be anyone or anything that tethers you to the world you came from. I don’t know if it will lead you out of the fog in a dream – it might not even allow you to leave the grave – but it should… it should help you remember that you're not lost. That this is a dream, and you will wake up from it.” He swallows and closes his human eyes. “That the fog doesn’t actually go on forever, even if… even if sometimes it might seem like it.”

 

Naomi is silent for a long moment before she speaks again.

 

“Will you stay with me until I wake up?”

 

“I – I – yes?” Jon stammers, astonished by the idea that she’d want to willingly pass the time in his company. “Yes, if you – if that’s what you want.”

 

“I wouldn’t have asked otherwise,” Naomi says. She rolls her eyes, but it comes off more as indulgent than annoyed. “Keep talking?”

 

Jon opens his mouth – and promptly closes it again. He’s never been a great conversationalist, especially with people he doesn’t know well, and it’s not like he’s had much chance to practice for… a long time. Not since he lost Martin. There was Helen, of course, but their chats were seldom rewarding, even before Jon was reduced to speaking in statements.  

 

Apparently Naomi senses his struggle, because she fills the silence for him. “Do you have an anchor?”   

 

Jon is glad of the assistance. Answering questions – that’s something he can handle.

 

“Yes,” he responds, just a bit dreamily, fighting back a smitten half-smile. “Yes, I do.”

 

Naomi raises an eyebrow.

 

“I… can tell you about him, if you’d like?”  

 

“Sure, why not?”  

 

“Alright then.” Jon fidgets nervously; being open about this sort of thing doesn't come naturally to him. Where to even begin? It would be easier if he had a specific prompt. A question to answer. Or perhaps… “Statement of Jonathan Sims,” he says before he can think better of it, “regarding his anchor, and all the intricacies of being Seen.”

 

“Wow,” Naomi says flatly. “I take it he’s the one responsible for changing you from an arrogant prick to a besotted puppy?”

 

“He… may have had something to do with it,” Jon says, simultaneously fond and abashed. “He’s a poet and a hopeless romantic, and it may or may not have rubbed off on me. Now, do you want to hear a story or not?”

 

“Definitely, but I reserve the right to make fun of you when you’re done.”

 

“That seems like a fair deal, considering the past couple years.”

 

“I think so.” Naomi gives him an expectant look. “Well? Go on.”

 

“Well, his name is Martin K. Blackwood.” Jon doesn’t bother holding back his smile this time. “The ‘K’ doesn’t actually stand for anything – he just, and I quote, ‘liked the way it looked’…”

 

Once he's started, Jon needs no further prompting before he's rambling on about Martin. It takes him a few minutes to remember that Jonah might be listening in. He hadn’t been planning on mentioning the apocalypse to Naomi, but he reminds himself to be careful not to mention any major events that haven’t happened yet, anything that might hint at his foreknowledge of Jonah’s plans.

 

There is a risk of raising suspicion just by talking about Martin in such affectionate terms. At this point in his timeline the first time around, Jon was fully occupied with routinely having his life threatened – and then studiously refusing to process that ongoing complex trauma in any remotely healthy way. He didn’t exactly have the time or breathing room or emotional capacity to examine his developing feelings for Martin, and even if he had, he wouldn’t have been able to tolerate the vulnerability of admitting it to himself, let alone to Martin. 

 

But Jonah can’t always be watching them; he has to assume that he misses out on things from time to time. He probably won’t think too hard on mundane slice-of-life moments involving tea and poetry and debates about what criteria should be used to identify a good cow, as long Jon is vague about the time frame and contextual details of each story. He avoids explicitly putting a label on the nature of their relationship and tones down any particularly romantic interactions. In the end, he succeeds in sounding like he has a not-so-subtle crush on a coworker and is both too emotionally repressed to acknowledge it and too unobservant to realize that it’s reciprocated. (It’s… not a difficult act to pull off.)

 

Jon manages to get through several non-incriminating anecdotes like that before Naomi wakes up. He hopes he’ll still have his voice the next time he sees her. It’s… nice, to talk to another person after so long with only the Distortion to keep him company.

 

He stands and brushes himself off as well as he can, which isn’t much. Resigning himself to the drying mud clinging to him, he steels himself and prepares to continue his well-traveled tour of the dreamscape.

 


 

Jon’s first stop is Dr. Lionel Elliott’s anatomy lab. Jon manages to snatch the apple away from him before either of them have to catch a glimpse of the molars hidden inside it, but it doesn’t stave off the bone-crunching contortions that always dominate this part of the dream. It takes Jon some very long, very painful minutes to talk Elliott down from his fear long enough to redirect the dream’s trajectory, and even longer to convince the man that he means him no harm.

 

Jon does eventually manage to coax him out of the dissection lab and into the hall – (“I think sitting on the floor out there is preferable to staying in here with all the…” – and here, Jon gestures at the nearest blood-spurting heart) – but they don’t get very far into their conversation before Elliott wakes up.

 

They’ll have to see each other again the next time Elliott sleeps, though. Jon can try again.

 


 

Next up is Tessa Winters, sat at her computer. She nearly has the keyboard to her lips before Jon manages to reach her. In his haste to stop the dream sequence, he overturns the table and sends the entire setup crashing to the floor, yanking the keyboard away from her for good measure. Tessa promptly drops to the ground and makes a grab for the nearest shard of glass from the broken monitor.

 

Unable to control her own body, she shoves the glass between her lips and crunches down on it before Jon can wrest it from her. When it slices into the roof of her mouth, an identical gash opens up in Jon’s, and soon both of them have blood running down their throats. As Tessa reaches out a shaky hand to snatch up another piece, Jon catches her wrist.

 

“Tessa, listen to me – you don’t have to do this anymore.”

 

The look she gives him is a perfect mix of enraged and terrified, and she tries desperately to pull away.

 

“Tessa – Tessa!”

 

Shaking her head frantically, she shuts her eyes tight, sending tears streaming down her cheeks. Jon chokes a bit on the blood still pouring freely out of the cut in his mouth. He can only imagine what a sight he must be right now: covered in mud, teeth stained red, all those hungry eyes looking on. He’s loathe to use compulsion, but…

 

“Tessa, look at me.”

 

She abruptly stops struggling and a glimmer of cognizance flares in her eyes. A moment later, she rips her hand away from his grip and backhands him across the face.

 

I probably deserved that, Jon thinks. He puts both of his hands up in a nonthreatening gesture and leans away from her, giving her space. He can at least feel the cut in his mouth healing now that the nightmare sequence is fading, but the taste of blood lingers on his tongue. 

 

“What is wrong with you?” Tessa seethes. She spits blood onto the ground through her teeth, never once breaking eye contact with Jon. With his human eyes, he notes. “I’ve been having this dream for nearly a year and – and…”

 

“You… know that this isn’t just a dream.” It isn’t a question; Jon already Knows the answer.

 

“It’s a very lucid dream.” She’s clearly aiming for decisive, but Jon can detect the waver of uncertainty concealed underneath. Tessa looks away and wipes her mouth with the back of her hand, painting a crimson streak across her skin. 

 

“You don’t really think that, though,” Jon says gently. He could tell from the first time he met Tessa in her nightmares that she knew there was an element of the supernatural at play.

 

“Then what? You’re – you’re secretly a monster in disguise, siphoning off people’s ghost stories? Feeding on nightmares like some kind of – what, dream vampire?” 

 

“I…” Jon frowns. “I’ve never heard it phrased that way, but I suppose? Sort of? I mean, I was – I was human once. When you first gave your statement, I hadn’t realized what I was becoming just yet. I was having nightmares like this, but back then I still thought they were just… bad dreams.”  

 

“So why are you suddenly talking to me now?”

 

“The dream has never let me talk before. Usually I don’t have control of my body, I just get piloted around and made to… well, Watch.”

 

“And what, I’m supposed to feel sorry for you?”

 

“No, I – not at all, I just –” Jon sighs. “I’m answering your question. The reason I’m just now speaking to you is because this is the first time I've been able. I don’t intentionally bring you here. In fact, I hate coming here so much that I sleep the bare minimum amount just to avoid dreaming. But…” He falters, struggling to get the words out. “But it is because of me that you’re brought here, and so I – I owe you an apology.”

 

“Why?” Jon looks at her questioningly. “You’re saying you don’t bring me here, and that you didn’t know what would happen when you took my statement. So, what are you actually apologizing for? Because you feel guilty, and you think saying sorry will make you feel better? That’s not an apology, that’s a cop-out.”

 

Jon’s first impulse is to deny it, but he stops himself, because that is the impression he’s giving, isn’t it?

 

“I do feel guilty,” he admits, “but apologizing isn’t going to make me feel better, trust me. I’m sorry because… like I said, even if I didn’t expect or intend this specific outcome, it’s still because of me that you’re here. I need to take responsibility for that.”

 

Jon gnaws on the inside of his cheek nervously, trying to organize his thoughts. Taking Tessa Winters’ statement was, in retrospect, a watershed moment for him. He had taken several live statements by that point, but all the earlier statement givers had made their way to the Institute independently. (Well, except Helen – Jonah had confessed that he was the one to lead her to the Institute – but Jon didn’t know that at the time.) Tessa was the first time Jon actively and knowingly brought someone to him – and he did it under false pretenses.

 

It’s been eating away at him ever since that first nightmare they shared.

 

“The forum post that drew you to me,” he says in a rush, “asking for statements.”  

 

“What about it?”  

 

“I’d never solicited statements before then. People would just come to the Institute on their own.”

 

“And?” Tessa fixes him with an intense look. “What changed?”

 

“Well, I… I had an ulterior motive in posting on tech savvy message boards specifically.” Jon picks at his cuticles, human eyes carefully averted from Tessa’s. “The laptop you helped me with, it belonged to my predecessor. I didn’t learn until after I was selected to replace her that she was murdered. It was an unsolved case, and I… I needed to know why. I thought, if I could get access to her computer, maybe there would be a clue somewhere.”

 

“And if it wasn’t for that post…”

 

“You would never have come to the Institute. You wouldn’t be here now.”

 

A full minute passes before Tessa speaks.

 

“Did it even help?”

 

“Not as much as I would have liked, no,” Jon says with a short, humorless laugh.

 

Tessa’s lips move wordlessly for a few seconds before she eventually snaps, “Why the hell did you feel like it was your job to solve a murder, anyway?”

 

“It seemed unlikely that it would ever be solved – the police certainly didn’t seem invested in it – and I was worried that I would be next.” Jon rubs the back of his neck for a few seconds before twirling a lock of hair around his finger, tugging gently. What does it say about his life that he misses when things were as simple as a workplace murder? “There’s more to the story, but – suffice it to say, I was paranoid and stubborn and - and unstable, and people got hurt because of it.”

 

The silence stretches between them for several minutes this time before Tessa speaks again.

 

“I don’t forgive you.” Jon winces before he can think better of it, and Tessa continues: “But your apology is accepted.”

 

Jon gives her a baffled look. “I… I don’t understand.”  

 

“I can appreciate a genuine apology, and you seem sincere enough.” Tessa shrugs. “Sounds like you acted out of disregard for others, rather than out of malicious intent. Still not great, but I don’t think one action defines a person.” Her expression hardens and her voice turns firm. “But that doesn’t mean I have to forgive the action. And I’m not ready to forgive, not when I’m still living through the consequences. Maybe not ever.”

 

“That’s fair,” Jon says, and he means it. “Especially since – well, I don’t know how to stop the dreams. If I find a way, I’ll do it, absolutely, but for now… I can’t promise an end to this.”

 

Tessa makes a noncommittal noise.

 

“I am hoping that I’ll maintain basic bodily autonomy going forward. That way, I can – I can try to intervene again, the next time you get trapped in the loop. I’ve done this a couple times now, with other dreams. So far, it seems that if the script gets interrupted, we can ride out the rest of the dream without the nightmare component.”

 

“And if you go back to how you were before?”

 

“Then I’m forced back into the role of Watcher, I suppose.” The thought of it fills him with dread, but he isn’t about to make Tessa process that with him, so he quickly moves on. “But – but I think maybe you don’t need me to break the script? It might be enough to just… memorize how you feel right now.”

 

“What do you mean?”

 

“This is the first time you’ve been here and still had control of your own actions. The moment you’re sat in front of that computer, you become a passenger in your own body.” Jon gives his hair another light tug as he hunts for the right phrasing. “Find something – a word, a gesture, a memory, anything – that you can associate with how you feel right here, right now. Something sensory, or at least simple enough that you can remember even when – when your thoughts start to disintegrate.”

 

“'The angles cut me when I try to think,'” Tessa recites quietly. It sends a shiver up Jon’s spine, and he Knows it does the same for her.

 

“It’s an accurate description, isn’t it?”

 

Tessa gives him a suspicious look. “You can feel it?”

 

“Yes.” Jon shifts uncomfortably at the memory of it. “Like having your consciousness torn apart until everything is sharp edges and… and noise.”

 

Jon can feel Tessa’s anger soften a bit, and he Knows that it’s not out of forgiveness. It’s because she feels vindicated, knowing that the one responsible for her suffering is at least facing the same torture as she is. She feels a twinge of shame over that feeling, he Knows, but even if she didn’t, he wouldn’t hold it against her. Honestly, he isn’t ready to receive forgiveness any more than Tessa is ready to give it.

 

“Anyway,” he says, unceremoniously shoving the Knowing away, “breaking the association between the computer and the loss of control might be enough to snap you out of the usual dream sequence.”

 

“Trick my brain with a bit of classical conditioning?” Tessa snorts. “That’s your advice?”

 

“Just a suggestion.” Jon shrugs. “I’ve found it helpful from time to time.”

 

“Alright then, Pavlov’s monster.”

 

Jon gives an awkward little laugh. “Never heard that one before, either.”

 

“I’m sure I can come up with more,” she says, and graces him with a very small, very tentative smirk. It feels remarkably like an olive branch – or maybe just the ghost of one. He doesn’t feel like he deserves even that.

 

Tessa refuses Jon’s offer to stay with her until she wakes up, so he stands and takes his leave.

 


 

Jon isn’t walking for long when the dreamscape shifts around him again. Rain patters down on the asphalt of a lonely road, stretching onward and outward with no end in sight. The harsh police lights refract off of the rain and the mist, the incessant bright flash sending a stabbing pain right to his temples.

 

He drifts towards the coffin on autopilot, never once breaking his stride, and he throws the chains aside. Before he can think twice about it, he walks down those familiar steps, taking two at a time in his haste to get through this segment of the dream as quickly as possible.

 

The instant the soil closes in around him, he reflexively calls Daisy’s name. It takes him three desperate shouts before he remembers with a sinking feeling that he won’t find her here. The coffin doesn’t allow for sleeping or dreaming, and it will be another few months before Jon can go in after her.

 

As soon as he resigns himself to that realization, the earth falls away and he’s standing in a coffin of a different sort, watching Karolina Górka from across a sweltering, buckling train car. All around them, the twisted metal groans and strains under unimaginable pressure. Karolina does not respond to his explanations, his apologies, his offers to help, his questions. She simply watches him, as he used to watch her, and smiles, until the train car collapses in on her and the scenery fades.

 

Next time, he tells himself, fighting back nausea and guilt. There has to be some way to reach her, and he has plenty of time to figure it out. Next time.

 


 

When Jon finds himself in front of Helen’s door, standing solitary in open air, he’s half-tempted to fling it open, to finally see where it leads in this place. He has to force himself to turn away – 

 

Which, as expected, gives him a full view of the undulating carpet of ants. He scans the swarm diligently, watching it writhe and twist until he catches sight of a hand reaching out to him, and he lunges to grab hold of it. As soon as Jordan is free of the horde, he shrinks away in terror, and Jon can feel the way his emotions vacillate: gratitude, confusion, fear, suspicion.

 

“This way,” Jon says urgently, trying to keep his own mounting fear out of his tone and waving Jordan forward. Jordan looks hesitant until the incinerator door materializes beside them, heralding the appearance of Jane Prentiss. “Keep walking.” Jon's voice is definitely taking on a panicked edge now, despite his best efforts. “Don’t look at her.”

 

Much to Jon’s relief, Jordan listens and hastens after him. In this part of the dream, Jordan has always stood there frozen, eyes darting between the Archivist and the Hive, unable to decide which was the lesser of two evils. This time – for now, at least – Jordan seems willing to take his chances with Jon.  

 

Jon, of course, can’t fully avert his gaze. Even as he walks away, a few mutinous eyes watch behind him, captivated by Jane and the simmering worms wriggling and tunneling through her flesh. Jane’s burning stare burrows into him like larvae. He fights the urge to scratch.

 

“Cover your ears.” Jon is careful to keep the compulsion out of his voice. Luckily, Jordan complies of his own volition – and not a moment too soon, as the hive begins to screech out its death knell only seconds after the words leave Jon’s mouth. Jon watches as Jane’s eyes liquefy and run down her cheeks. All the while, she screams and screams and screams until finally her throat crumbles to ash along with the rest of her.

 

Jon stops then, bending over with his hands on his knees, trying to quell his trembling. Jordan nearly runs right into him, throwing himself backward at the last moment and hitting the ground with a grunt. He takes one look at Jon and begins to scramble away. Now that Jane Prentiss is gone, all of his terror can be directed at the sole remaining monster.  

 

“W-wait,” Jon says, voice raspy. “I – I don’t want to hurt you.”

 

Jordan stops moving, but he continues to stare with wide, terrified eyes.

 

“I know what I look like, and I’m – I’m sorry about that, I don’t have much control over them.” Jon gestures halfheartedly at the eyes phasing in and out in the air around him. Their focus darts about in all directions, greedy and possessive and eager to See everything there is to See. Even just a momentary glance at their restless movements elicits a burst of annoyance, and he can’t resist once again striking out at the nearest grouping of them. They instantly dissipate and Jon turns his human eyes back to Jordan. “But I want to help.”

 

“You’ve never helped before,” Jordan says hoarsely. 

 

“I know. The dream wouldn’t let me.”

 

“But now suddenly it will?”

 

“Yes, and I’m hoping it stays that way. But – but if it doesn’t –”

 

Before he can finish, Jordan flickers out of sight as his real body wakes. Jon groans in frustration. He would have liked to outline a contingency plan in the same way that he did with Naomi and Tessa, but… hopefully the next time Jordan sleeps, Jon can continue the discussion. 

 

The eyes that he had previously banished pop back into existence one by one to his left.

 

“I really, really hate you, you know that?”

 

In unison, they all blink and reopen, slow and purposeful. He tries not to assign personality to them, but he can't help thinking that they look amused. 

 

Jon swears, turns away from them, and kicks at the ground uselessly. Hopefully Jonah isn’t watching this impotent little outburst, but just in case, Jon takes the time to glower up at the Eye looking down on him before he stalks off. It definitely makes him look even more like a petulant child, but at the moment, he can’t bring himself to care.  

 


 

Jon paces feverishly in front of the door to the dissection lab, scratching absently at the back of his burned hand as he tries to calm his nerves. In one fluid motion, he reaches out to grab the door handle, then shrinks back again and runs his fingers through his hair with an agitated sigh. At this rate, she’ll wake up before he works up the courage to go in there.

 

He reaches toward the handle again, but stops at the last moment and raps his knuckles lightly against the door instead. Knock-knock, his mind supplies, sending a chill through his veins.

 

Even though he’s expecting it, he still starts at the answering, “Hello?”

 

Jon braces himself and opens the door, and suddenly he’s eyes-to-eyes with –

 

“Georgie…”

 

The customary sadness and pity in her expression fade away, replaced by faint surprise.

 

“Jon?”

Chapter Text

“Hi, Georgie,” Jon says meekly. There’s a raw quality to his tone that he didn’t anticipate. Don’t cry, he warns himself. Don’t you dare cry.   

 

Georgie surveys him – not with fear, of course, but with a combination of caution and interest.

 

“My eyes are up here,” Jon says with a small, hesitant smile.

 

“Jonathan Sims, was that a joke?”

 

“People might assume otherwise, but I do have a sense of humor.”

 

“Not like that you don’t.”

 

“It’s Martin’s,” Jon admits. When he feels himself start to flush, he averts his human eyes. Useless, really, considering how most of the others are still concentrated on Georgie, but it’s just force of habit at this point.

 

Georgie grins for a brief moment. Jon is suddenly struck with the magnitude of how long it’s been since he’s seen her smile, and then it fades.

 

“You’ve picked up quite a few more…” Georgie motions vaguely at Jon and his general vicinity.

 

“Yes.” Jon shifts his weight from one foot to the other, embarrassed. “They aren’t, ah… manifesting in my hospital room, are they?”

 

Georgie looks at him like he’s grown an extra head. Though, that may have less to do with his question and more with yet another eye that just emerged unsolicited on his left cheekbone. Great timing.    

 

“Uh… no?”

 

“Oh, good.” He doesn’t bother to understate his relief. Everyone already saw him as a monster last time; retaining his post-apocalyptic nightmare ‘he’s-all-eyes’ look would make an already difficult challenge nearly impossible.

 

“So you… you know where you are, then?”

 

“Yes.” 

 

When he doesn’t elaborate, Georgie’s eyes sweep up and down his figure again, and Jon feels exposed. Seen. She folds her arms and jerks her chin in his direction.  

 

“You’ve got mud all over you.”

 

“I… had to help someone climb out of a grave earlier.” In an attempt to distract himself from his own self-consciousness, he begins playing with a lock of hair at the nape of his neck.

 

“And the blood?”

 

“Dream pica,” Jon says guardedly. “And a dissection lab.” He looks around the pristine room they’re standing in. “A – a different one. With more… blood.”

 

“Right.”

 

The awkward silence drags on a bit too long.

 

“It’s… it’s good to see you, Georgie,” he ventures.

 

“Jon, is it really you?”

 

“Yes.” Georgie doesn’t respond, and her expression is unreadable. “I – I don’t have any way to make you believe me, but… listen, Georgie, I – there are some important things I have to tell you before you wake up.”

 

Before Georgie can stop him, he plunges into the first bullet point on his agenda.

 

“First, Melanie. I don’t know how much she told you about her trip to India, but she still has a bullet in her leg, and it’s poisoning her. It didn’t show up on any scans then, and it probably still won’t, but it needs to come out. I know she’s been hurting, growing angrier –”

 

“How do you –”

 

“Please trust me, Georgie. I don’t know whether Melanie will listen to you, especially when you tell her the information came from me, but – but I think she already knows about the bullet, knows what it’s doing to her. She might not want to give it up, and – and it’s not my place to make that decision for her, but – the Slaughter wants to claim her, and I don’t think any good can come from becoming an Avatar.” He laughs bitterly. “Maybe – maybe that would be enough to convince her. Just tell her she could end up a monster like me.”   

 

“Jon –”

 

“I just wanted to let you know,” he interrupts again. “You know her better than I do, and she can trust you more than she can trust anyone at the Institute. I don’t know what your relationship is like right now, if she would listen to you, and – and you don’t have to tell me. But you both deserve to know about it. And she… she deserves a chance to heal. She deserves to know that she has a choice.”

 

“Okay. That’s... a lot to unpack.” Then, businesslike: “What else?”

 

“Martin. He needs to know that I’m coming back. It – it might take another month or two, but I’m going to wake up.”

 

“Jon, I’ve never even spoken to him.”

 

“I know, and – and right now, he’s distancing himself from the others, too. But he’s in danger.” Georgie raises her eyebrows. “A new kind of danger. If you could ask Melanie to get a message to him, to just – tell him that I’m asking him to wait a few more months before giving up on me.”

 

“I’ll pass the message on to Melanie,” Georgie says evenly, “but I’m not going to pressure her about it.”

 

“I understand.”

 

“You… think you can wake up, then?”

 

“Yes. And I will.” He pauses. “Soon, I hope.”

 

“You going to explain, or keep being mysterious?”

 

“I… listen, Georgie, I want to tell you, I do –”

 

“But you can’t, because as usual, you think you know what you’re doing and you’re going to rush ahead and throw yourself at –”

 

“No,” he says hurriedly. “I know it seems like I’m falling into a – a familiar pattern, but that’s not what this is. I want to tell you, and I will tell you, it just – it can’t be here.”

 

“And why not?”

 

“Because Elias is probably watching us right now.”

 

“Your boss Elias?" Georgie gives him a blank look. "Your boss Elias who is in prison right now for the murders he framed you for? That Elias?”

 

“Yes.”

 

“You think he can, what, snoop on your coma dreams?”

 

“And most places in the physical world aren’t safe from him, either.”

 

“Right,” Georgie sighs. She’s known Jon long enough to tell when he isn’t going to budge. “Where, then?”

 

“The tunnels under the Institute. It’s a universal blind spot; he can’t See there.”

 

“And you aren’t worried about him overhearing that?”

 

“No. He’s likely already aware that we know about the properties of the tunnels. Besides, this isn’t some secret battle we’re all fighting. Everything is out in the open. I don’t have to hide my suspicions, and he’s stopped pretending not to be evil. He can safely assume that I’m keeping secrets and plotting behind his back just the same as he is.” Jon glares up at the ceiling and the Watcher beyond it. “I just don’t want him to know the details.” 

 

“Can’t he read minds?” Georgie looks away. “It’s just – Melanie mentioned –”

 

“It’s… complicated.” Jon folds his arms and starts pacing slowly, retracing the same six-foot space back and forth as he pieces together an explanation. “Elias can See things that happen almost anywhere, but he has to concentrate in order to do it. He can Know a person’s secrets and details about their past, but I don’t think it’s mind-reading, per se, it’s just… Knowing, and – and there are limits on it. And he can implant images and knowledge into a person’s mind, but I think he has to actually be within eyesight in order to do it.”

 

Jon abruptly stops pacing and stares transfixed at his feet.

 

“It sounds like there’s a ‘but.’”

 

“But… I don’t think he can actually read a person’s thoughts in real time. Sometimes it seems like it – he has a gift for reading people, and he always seems to know how best to manipulate or… or break a person. But I think that’s an entirely non-supernatural gift.” Jon hugs his sides and draws his shoulders in, suddenly feeling both too small and too noticeable. “It’s monstrosity, but of a very human sort,” he murmurs softly. 

 

“You’re sure?”

 

“Fairly sure, yes, though it doesn’t hurt to take as many precautions as possible. I do plan on explaining things after I wake up, but only in the tunnels.” He gives Georgie a pleading look. “I wouldn’t ask you to come to the Institute if there was another option, but it… it has to be there. And I – I get it if you don’t want to see me in person, I can tell Melanie and then she can tell you, but it just – it still has to be in the tunnels.”

 

“Jon, it isn’t that I don’t want to see you. I’ve been visiting you in hospital –”

 

“I know.”

 

“You could hear me?”

 

“Not – not quite. I only just started being able to hear what goes on out there. But I… I know you’ve been visiting. Thank you.” Jon pauses, biting his lower lip. “Though I know that you… weren’t expecting me to recover.”

 

“It’s been four months, Jon. You have no heartbeat, you’re not breathing –”

 

“I know. And you’re thinking I’ve passed a point of no return and that you should cut ties with me before I drag you down with me.”

 

“Well, have you?”

 

“Passed a point of no return?” He looks up at the ceiling and closes his human eyes. “Yeah. A few of them, actually. I’m not fully human anymore, and I don’t think there’s a way to reverse it. But I – I’m still me, and I want to stay that way. You told me once – not long ago, I suppose – you said that if I was becoming something inhuman, I needed people in my life. To remind me of my humanity. You were right. There are more points of no return I could stumble into, I could get worse, and I don’t…” He swallows hard, fighting back the threat of tears. “I want to get better.”

 

“Do you, though?” Georgie’s voice is gentle, but firm. “Actually?”

 

“Yes,” Jon says without hesitation. “I really, really do. I can’t escape from the Institute, or from the Beholding. Not any time soon, anyway. Even when I was staying with you, I was physically dependent on reading statements – I just didn’t realize it yet. Running away and staying out of danger isn’t really an option for me anymore. It… hasn’t been for a long time. Maybe ever since I took the job.”

 

Georgie presses her lips into a thin line, and Jon can tell he’s losing her.

 

“But I’m not – I know you don’t believe me, but I’m not seeking out danger or heroics. I’m not… I’m not playing the martyr, or – or trying to court tragedy. I would love to go a month – hell, a week without the threat of death or worse hanging over me,” he says with a short, humorless laugh, “but that won’t happen as long as I’m the Archivist. So I – I don’t know what ‘better’ looks like for me now that I’m like this, but I want to try. I think this is a second chance, and I… I want to take it.”

 

“I want to believe you, Jon. It’s just…”

 

“You’ll believe it when you see it.” One corner of his mouth twitches up in a rueful smile.

 

“Yeah.” Georgie’s answering smile doesn’t quite reach her eyes.

 

He can’t really blame her for being skeptical. They’d had a conversation remarkably similar to this one before, shortly before their breakup – minus the supernatural elements, of course. He’d had a breakdown, finally admitted that he needed help, agreed to go to counseling – and then quit after two sessions. She’s seen his obsessiveness, his refusal to take care of himself, the self-destructive patterns he falls into, his apparent allergy to emotional vulnerability. He’s never shown her any other side of him. Come to think of it, he didn’t know he had another side until… all of this.

 

“Look,” Georgie says after a moment and a sigh, “I – I’m not going to cut you out, not completely. But I may need some distance, you understand?”

 

“Of course.”

 

“And I can’t be your only support.”

 

“I wouldn’t want that.”

 

“And I have to decide how much I’m willing to get involved in… all of this.” Georgie frowns. “It’s just complicated, what with…”

 

“Melanie.”

 

“Yeah. I mean, I don’t want you trapped there, either – I think all of you should quit, actually. If you ever figure out how. Maybe even burn the place down just to be safe.” If she’s joking about the latter, Jon can’t tell. He doesn’t disagree with her, per se, but he does take a moment to wonder, not for the first time, how he’s managed to surround himself with so many people who see arson as a first resort. “It’s just –”

 

“Listen, that’s actually the last thing I wanted to mention – I might have a way for Melanie to quit.”

 

“What?”

 

“I – I think the only reason she hasn’t been completely taken over by the Slaughter is because of her connection to the Eye, so it would be safest to remove the bullet first, if she decides that's what she wants, but – yes, there’s a way for her to quit.” He runs one hand through his hair and grimaces. “It’s drastic, but everyone needs to know they have the option. I can’t talk about the details here, though, and I – I’d rather everyone hear everything I have to say before making any decisions.”

 

“You get more and more cryptic every time I see you, you know that?” 

 

“Trust me, this is an improvement on…” Being the voice of the Archive, he does not say. “It could be worse.”

 

“See? Cryptic.”

 

“That can’t be the most off-putting thing about me.” As if on cue, another eye opens on his throat, centered on the scar that Daisy left him, and he cringes. More impeccable timing. 

 

“Nah,” Georgie says after a contemplative hum. “I think the weirdest thing is how you just had an entire conversation about your feelings and didn’t once try to change the subject. Who are you, and what did you do with Jonathan Sims?”

 

Jon laughs. “I guess I’ve… grown, a bit.”

 

“Yeah, but when? Since you’ve been in a coma? This place doesn’t exactly seem ripe with opportunities for personal growth.”

 

“I…”

 

“Let me guess: you can’t talk about it.”

 

“Not here.” Jon gives her an apologetic smile.   

 

“Right.”

 

Jon looks down again, scuffing one foot against the floor to fill the quiet.

 

“So when can we expect you back in the world of the living?”

 

“No more than a few months, I think. Hopefully sooner. It depends on how long it takes me to figure it out.”

 

“Are you sure you’ll be able to?”

 

“If I can’t do it on my own, someone else will do it for me. This in-between state doesn’t suit the Beholding, and there are at least a few interested parties who will force me to make a choice if I take too long. The Archivist has a role to perform, and right now, I’ve removed myself from the game board. Either I submit to the hand that moves me, or I die and make room for the next unsuspecting pawn in line.” Jon looks up. “Sorry, that came out more dramatic than I intended.”

 

“A bit,” Georgie says, not unkindly.  

 

“What I mean is, the coma has a time limit no matter what I do or don’t do. I’m not human enough to die, but I’m too human to live, so I have two choices: I accept what I’ve become and I wake up. I’ll still be me, but I’ll be even less human than I was before, and I’ll have to… make the best of that. Or, I sever my connection with the power that’s keeping me alive, and I die – not quite human, but not a monster, either. A slow death, though,” he adds bitterly. “To make sure I have plenty of time to change my mind.”    

 

“Sounds to me like you haven’t made up your mind.”

 

“I have, actually. It’s just… I don’t know how to finalize my choice, I suppose?”

 

“You can’t just ask to speak to a manager?” One look at Georgie’s playful grin, and Jon feels himself smiling in return.

 

“I wish. No, I – it’s… hm. Like I need to find my way to a crossroads, but I don’t have directions or a map.”

 

“Maybe you just need a chaperone.” When Jon gives her a serious look, her teasing smirk fades. “What, seriously?”

 

“Yeah. I haven’t given up on finding my own way, but if I take too long, a guide will pass this way and… encourage me to choose a path and follow it to the end.”

 

“I’d ask you how you know all this, but I doubt you'll tell me.”

 

“I Know it because of the Eye, broadly speaking, but there’s a more specific answer I want to give you. Just… not here.”

 

“Fine," Georgie says, but she doesn't sound upset, much to Jon's relief. "Anything else?”

 

Jon almost says no, but…

 

“Maybe… maybe one more thing,” he says, lowering his gaze, suddenly showing keen interest in the floor. “I’ve never had any control in these dreams, and I’m terrified that I’ll lose it again. If I do, just… behind all the eyes, it’s still me. I can see you, and hear you, and I was wondering if… I know it’s stupid, but if it’s alright with you – and I completely understand if it’s not, I don’t want you to feel obligated –”

 

“What, Jon?”

 

“I… could you still talk to me, maybe?” Jon says it so quickly that it comes out all as one word. “I won’t be able to answer, but it would still be nice to hear your voice. Tell me about the Admiral, or your current knitting project – or the newest What the Ghost, and the weirdest listener feedback it got, or… or the latest dick move your landlord pulled. Anything.”

 

When Georgie doesn’t reply right away, Jon keeps his head down and braces himself for disappointment. He didn’t mean to sound so desperate, and now he’s made things weird. He probably shouldn’t have –

 

“Huh,” Georgie says finally. “Are you sure you haven’t been able to hear me talking to you out there?”

 

“Not… not that I know of?” Jon cautiously looks up at her. “Not consciously, at least.”

 

“Hmm. Well, next time I see you, if you’re as unresponsive in here as you are out there, I’ll just do what I usually do when I visit you in hospital, which is natter on about my personal life and tell you all about the Admiral’s latest adventures in protecting the flat from spiders.”

 

“Brave boy,” Jon says fondly, and Georgie snorts.

 

They spend some time talking about the Admiral and his newfound obsession with bread ties until, mid-sentence, Georgie wakes. Jon is left alone in a sterile dissection lab, the harsh fluorescent light underscoring the emptiness of the place.

 

The conversation went… better than he had dared to hope, really. He’s both stunned and relieved that Georgie hasn’t written him off yet, but also terrified of messing things up again, of squandering his second chance. He can’t count on getting a third. This is his one opportunity to fix things, to do better, to be better, and he needs to make it count.

 

No pressure, he thinks to himself grimly, and he heads for the door as the scenery around him begins to fade out.

 


 

Time is difficult here.

 

Well, it was difficult at the end of the world, too. Towards the end, Jon didn’t even bother to keep track of it, but he could have Known, if he had wanted. Here, though, he can’t seem to Know anything about what’s happening outside of the dream.

 

Jon relies on his conversations with his fellow dreamers to gauge the time and date in the outside world, and it doesn’t take long for him to realize that his perception of time is wildly inconsistent. Sometimes what feels like hours to him translates to a week on the outside; sometimes a single night in the real world is stretched into days for Jon. There are indeterminate lapses of time in which he drifts in that directionless void again – times when, he assumes, all of the other dreamers are awake, leaving no nightmare settings for him to occupy.

 

At least the passage of time seems to be progressive. Time travel is difficult enough without hopping around to different points on the timeline. He’s glad to see that, his initial leap backwards notwithstanding, time still seems to be moving in one direction.

 

It took a long time for Jon to stop waiting for the moment when he would lose his agency and become the Watcher's marionette again. A small part of him is still waiting for the rug to be ripped out from under him again, but for the most part, he’s allowed himself to relax into it and silence his customary pessimism. He still isn’t sure exactly why he has so much control now. It’s a… well, not best-case scenario – that would be freedom from the dreams altogether, for himself and for the others – but it’s still an unexpected boon that he never would have even thought to consider. Every time he searches for an answer, though, he gets nothing but noise and a blinding headache.

 

The best theory he can come up with is that he’s simply stronger now, after completing his metamorphosis into the Archive. If so, it’s somewhat worrisome. It would mean that coming back in time rewound most of the timeline, but he remains a product of its original trajectory. He is an artifact of a cascade of disasters that never happened – that will never happen, if he manages to foil Jonah’s plans. There’s no way of telling how the world might react to his presence in it. Is he an allergen of sorts, a paradox that cannot be reconciled? Is he something akin to the rift itself? He hopes not – it will be difficult to convince anyone of his humanity if he radiates the same sort of wrongness as the crack in the foundation at Hill Top Road.

 

Most of all, though, he wonders what it means for the Archivist’s progress.

 

At this point in his original timeline, he had been marked by the Web, the Eye, the Corruption, the Spiral, the Desolation, the Vast, the Hunt, and the Stranger. If he isn’t already marked by the End, he will be by the time he wakes up. That leaves the Slaughter, the Buried, the Dark, the Flesh, and the Lonely. He still has to rescue Daisy, so a second encounter with the Buried is a given. Avoiding the Slaughter and the Lonely may be difficult, considering they’ve both already taken up residence in the Archives. He can try to avoid Jared Hopworth and Ny-Ålesund, but that doesn’t mean that he wouldn’t stumble across the Flesh and the Dark some other way. Jonah Magnus is nothing if not resourceful – he won’t give up just because Jon happens to evade two of his traps.

 

Not to mention, Jon has an unfortunate tendency to serve himself up to the Fears on a silver platter. He’s gotten better at tempering his recklessness, at trusting others, at not going it alone, but still – in the past, he’s had an almost supernatural ability to make Jonah’s job easy. It’s possible – probable – that the Web was – is – pulling strings, but trying to account for the Web is like searching a beach for a single grain of sand.

 

Then there’s Jonah Magnus’ suggestion that Jon’s life amounts to a truly unfortunate streak of bad luck, but luck is a nebulous concept, and a lot of Jon’s so-called chronic “bad luck” could be a direct result of the manipulations of – speak of the devil – the Web and Jonah Magnus. At this point, Jon suspects his misfortune probably has more to do with his being easily manipulated than it does with any sort of intrinsic unluckiness or tragic destiny.

 

Jon’s initial encounter with the Web may or may not have been chance, but becoming the Archivist had nothing to do with luck. Jonah chose him because he knew that Jon would be easy to isolate, terrorize, and control. It was a deliberate action, not some passive twist of fate. Everything that unfolded from that point onward was carefully orchestrated and monitored by Jonah, and he always had contingency plans to keep Jon on the intended path. Yes, Jon made it easy for him in many ways, and he’s still responsible for his choices – but he’s also had to acknowledge that regardless of what choices he made, Jonah likely would have been ready with an equally effective backup plan to counter any move Jon did or did not make.

 

Which is exactly why even now, with the advantage of foreknowledge, Jon is still absolutely terrified of Jonah Magnus.     

 

But the more Jon thinks about it – and the more his attempts to Know yield nothing – the more he worries that all of that is moot. He recalls Jonah Magnus' statement with a shudder.

 

…if I could find an Archivist and have each Power mark them, have them confront each one and in turn instill in them a powerful and acute fear for their life, they could be turned into a conduit for the coming of this nightmare kingdom. Do you see where I’m going with this, Jon?  

 

It wasn’t enough to have the Entities cause him bodily harm. The scars are just physical reminders of the encounter. Some of the Fears didn’t even leave him with visible scars. No, the real mark always depended on Jon’s lived experience of the confrontation: the terror, the pain, the confusion, the desperation, the alienation from himself, and the lingering, compounding trauma.  

 

Knocking on Mr. Spider’s door, looking on as the monster took its substitute victim and saddled him with lifelong survivor's guilt. The worms gnawing and tunneling through his skin, wriggling against bone, lavishing praise on the give of his flesh, crooning that he will be cherished, he will be perfect, he will be a home. The pandemonium of the Distortion’s corridors; the razor edge of the bones in its hands. The white-hot agony of melting flesh; the terror of terminal velocity without an end; the inexorable press of a knife against his throat.

 

An entire month of nothing but raw sensory input, disjointed and unfathomable: chittering, faceless things; ropes chafing and eroding furrows into skin; the ache of a jaw forced open by a length of cloth; cramping muscles and screaming joints; chill air and tailor’s tape on bare skin; layer after slimy layer of lotion; the scent of lavender cut through with the metallic tang of blood; so many hands, hands, hands, ever-present and unyielding. Nikola would mark dotted lines onto his skin with a felt-tip marker, providing a cheerful running commentary as she worked – the sorry state of his skin and her promise to get it into proper shape; vivid descriptions of how it would feel to be flensed alive, exquisitely painful yet so very liberating; how grateful he should be that he will get to be part of something so much greater than himself – all of it overlaid with Jon's unquestioning conviction that no one was coming to help him. 

 

And encore after encore: an explosion, an endless nightmare, an impossible choice; the aching strain of bones bending, the agonizing snap of bones breaking, the unsettling vacancy left behind; the damp, earthy press of the coffin; the terrible beauty of unknowable darkness burning holes in his Sight.      

 

Martin paling, fading, vanishing –

 

“Are you scared, Jon?”

 

“Yes.”

 

“Perfect.”  

 

– almost disappeared, almost lost, almost alone. 

 

Jon remembers it all in perfect, visceral detail, every sensation and panic-stricken thought seared into him and easily accessible at the merest twitch of an overactive imagination. He witnessed and experienced worse during the apocalypse, but still those tired old flashbacks would overtake him and bring him to his knees without warning as he passed between domains.

 

The question of mind-body dualism is well-settled at this point, at least as far as Avatars are concerned. Jonah Magnus has been body-hopping for centuries, discarding vessels and possessing new ones on a whim; Jon himself is currently a living mind tethered to a body that is in most other respects clinically dead. What if the body is irrelevant, and what really matters is the conscious mind?

 

In that case, it does not matter whether this body encounters those final five marks. As long as Jon remembers receiving them, his consciousness is still scarred by all Fourteen of the Dread Powers. What’s more, traversing the ruined earth retraced those marks several times over, branding him more deeply with every passage through an Entity’s domain. 

 

It means that Jon is still a living chronicle of terror, fully prepared and ready and marked – and he’s delivered himself to Jonah Magnus months ahead of schedule.

 

Once again, Jon has played right into Jonah's hands. He can only hope that Jonah doesn’t Know it – and even if he doesn’t, it seems foolish to hope that he won’t find out eventually.

 


 

“You’re never going to let me live this down, are you?”

 

“Absolutely not,” Naomi wheezes, doubled over with laughter.

 

Jon groans and covers his face with his forearms, still lying on his back in the mud. He'd been helping Naomi out of her grave, as had become the routine, but she had lost her footing just as she reached the top. In his scramble to catch her, he lost his balance and toppled in after her. Now they’re both stuck down here.

 

“Break any bones, old man?”

 

“It’s a dream, Naomi.” Jon sits up and halfheartedly wipes the dirt off his hands, to little effect. “Also, I’m only thirty.”

 

“Could’ve fooled me.”

 

He glares at her, but it’s tempered by an amused twist of the lips that he can’t quite suppress – which just makes Naomi snicker again.  

 

“So,” she says after a moment, “still haven’t woken up?”

 

“Still trapped,” Jon says, all the levity bleeding out of him in an instant.  

 

“No luck with the anchor?”

 

“No luck.” Jon leans back against the wall and crosses his arms. “Not for lack of trying – or practice. Just the thought of him has saved me more than once. But I guess it’s… different, when it involves trying to manipulate the hour of your own death.”    

 

He should have suspected as much, really. Escaping a pocket dimension is different from trying to meddle with the End’s sphere of influence. In all the statements he’s consumed regarding Terminus, no one has ever been able to truly hold sway over it in any direction. It does not want anything, because everyone and everything succumbs to it eventually, given enough time. It doesn’t answer to summons or worship or pleas. Sometimes it elects to play games, but it engages only on its own terms, and no one ever wins – they simply accrue enough debt to delay the inevitable for as long as it takes to repay their dues.   

 

“You’re being spooky again,” Naomi says brightly.

 

“At this point, I think it’s my default setting,” Jon deadpans back. “More importantly – did you end up going to meet the distinguished Duchess Jellybean Toes?”

 

“Yes!” Naomi leans forward with her hands on her knees, practically buzzing with excitement. “She’s gorgeous. A bit rude, though – she climbed up under my shirt, stuck her head out though my collar, and refused to budge for the entire visit.”

 

“Are you going to adopt her?”

 

“Mhm. I still need to buy some things and get the flat ready for her, but I already paid the adoption fee. Her name is a bit of a mouthful, though. Might have to change it.”

 

“Don’t you dare,” Jon says, giving her a severe look. He meant it as a joke, but when his voice dips lower than intended and too many eyes join in on the staring, he winces.

 

Naomi doesn’t react, though; she’s well past the point of finding him intimidating. “Hm. Well, I’ll have to shorten it, at least.”

 

“Could just call her the Duchess,” Jon says, regulating his tone more carefully this time.

 

“It doesn’t sound too… I don’t know, pretentious?”

 

“Not at all. It sounds regal,” Jon insists. “I’ve told you about the Admiral, and he carries his title admirably.”

 

“If that was a joke, it was terrible.”

 

“That one was unintentional, actually.”

 

“Good. I almost had to reevaluate my opinion of you.”

 

“Can’t have that,” Jon says drily, and then his expression softens. “Seriously though, I’m glad the adoption worked out for you.”

 

“Yeah. I think it’ll be good for me. Less lonely, you know,” she says, voice growing so faint that Jon can only barely hear her. Then, in a louder, more conversational tone: “Besides, I’ve always wanted a cat.”

 

“Me too,” Jon admits. “By the time I finally got a flat that allowed pets, I was… well, always at work. It didn’t feel right, adopting a cat and then leaving it alone all the time.”

 

“Well, you’re not dead yet. Not too late to develop a better work-life balance, even if you are…” Naomi wiggles her fingers. “You know, spooky.”

 

“Maybe,” Jon says, pointedly ignoring the jape.  

 

“Oh.” Naomi sits up straighter and looks at him. “I just realized – are you going to be able to get out of here once I wake up?”

 

“That… is a very good question.” Jon smirks at her alarm. “I’m kidding. It’ll fade out when you do. Then it’s either back to the void, or on to the next nightmare.”

 

“Spooky.”

 

“That’s your third strike. Quota met for the day.”

 

“You really are a buzzkill.”

 

“So I’m told,” Jon says. “Now, if you’re finished harassing me, tell me more about the Duchess.”

 

“Well, she’s a calico – unbelievably fluffy – and she’s only a year old…”

 


 

Jon has never been the most social person. He doesn’t go out of his way to make friends, conversations typically feel like minefields, and he has a propensity for going off on informational digressions that most people find annoying. He asks too many questions, frequently misses social cues, and has always had difficulty modulating his tone of voice. Becoming the Archivist only made things more complicated, since now a conversational misstep can easily mean unintentional compulsion or Knowing (and sharing) something that he shouldn’t.

 

But over time, he’s nonetheless become more dependent on human interaction and less tolerant of being alone. He knew he had been starved for companionship since he lost Martin, but he didn’t realize the extent of it until he started talking again, and in his own voice. So, when the voyeuristic nightmare sessions turn into social calls, he finds himself thriving on it in a way that he never expected.   

 

There’s his budding friendship with Naomi – unexpected, but far from unwelcome.

 

He still finds Dr. Elliott a bit insufferable, but Jon finds himself insufferable as well, so he can’t judge too harshly. He always peeks into the anatomy lab to check that Elliott isn’t in the throes of the nightmare. Sometimes they find some shared academic interest to discuss; other times, Elliott dismisses him, citing a disinterest in conversation at that moment. Jon never asks him to elaborate.

 

Tessa usually declines his company, but occasionally she’ll wave him over and immediately launch into a discussion about neural networks or machine learning or some other tech-related subject that’s been on her waking mind. Well, it’s usually more of a one-sided lecture than anything else, but Jon always finds himself riveted, listening hungrily as Tessa shines light on an unfamiliar subject.

 

The first few times he asked follow-up questions, she took it as feigned interest or ridicule, but once she realized that he was actually interested and not just humoring her out of guilt, she began to brighten every time he offered a new tangent for her to explore. He wouldn’t call them friends by any stretch of the imagination, but she seems to enjoy talking to someone who doesn’t tune her out when she begins to ramble. If nothing else, it’s better than devouring a computer.

 

Jon doesn’t have much in common with Jordan, to be honest. It doesn’t take long for them to exhaust all avenues of conversation and lapse into an awkward silence. Jordan is skittish, though; he finds Jon’s less-than-human appearance perpetually unsettling, but apparently prefers it to being left alone in this place. Eventually they settle on an unspoken arrangement of just staying within eyeshot of one another for the duration of the dream, even when the conversation runs dry.

 

In the silence, it’s more difficult to stave off the Knowing, though, which means Jon gets treated to ceaseless updates on Jordan’s mental state – and Jordan is more repulsed by all those eyes than he is by even the worst infestations he’s encountered on the job. By the time Jordan wakes up, Jon usually feels like an insect half-dead and twitching in the aftermath of an insecticide assault. He can’t blame Jordan, but it does still take its toll on Jon’s already abysmal self-esteem.

 

Karolina remains largely unresponsive. Jon sits with her, talks to her – at her, really – and hopes that he isn’t just annoying her. Her eyes follow his movements, and sometimes she smiles, but otherwise, she’s uncommunicative – whether by force or by choice, Jon doesn’t know, and the Beholding doesn’t seem inclined to tell him. Although he has yet to completely interrupt the dream sequence, there have been a few instances where the train car didn’t collapse. He can’t say conclusively whether that indicates progress, but at least it’s evidence that the script can change. 

 

On the one hand, it’s probably a good sign that Jon doesn’t have as much control over the Knowing as he did in the future. On the other hand, it’s like having his wings clipped after learning to fly, and he hates it. The Beholding did withhold some things from him during the apocalypse, and there were subjects on which it could provide no insight, but for the most part, Jon had unfettered access to an ocean of knowledge. It’s maddening to have it restricted once again.

 

Even before becoming the Archivist, he always hated unanswered questions; it may as well have been a core facet of his personality. But after so much time with the Archive at the forefront, to not Know is wholly incompatible with his nature in a deeper, existential sense. For the human part of him, it’s like having an itch that can’t be scratched; for the Archivist, it’s excruciating; for the Archive, it’s utterly incomprehensible.

 

The balance he’d found in the future is shifting. He isn’t sure what that means for him just yet, or how he feels about it.

 


 

“How is Melanie?”

 

“Struggling,” Georgie says, “but hopeful, I think. It’s really not my place to say much more than that.”

 

“Yes, of – of course. I’m… glad to hear that she’s recovering.”

 

“She’s still angry that you won’t tell me how she can quit.”

 

“I will, I promise, I just… I need to explain everything first.”

 

“She said to tell you that it’s patronizing to assume she can’t make her own decision without you holding her hand.”

 

“I’m not – I just want it to be an informed decision.” Jon frowns. “That sounded condescending, didn’t it?”

 

“A bit, yeah.”

 

Jon looks down and rubs his temples. There’s a likelihood that if he tells Georgie right now, Melanie will blind herself before he even wakes up. It’s her choice, of course, but a choice never really feels like a choice when it’s presented as the only option, when vital information is being withheld that might affect your decision.

 

Namely, the fact that his death would free all of them without a need for eye-gouging. He’s going to tell them – it doesn’t feel right to keep it to himself – but that’s something that he would rather Jonah not overhear. Jonah might be willing to lose Melanie if she takes an awl to her eyes, but if he thinks there’s a chance that she or any of the others would kill his Archivist just when he’s starting to show some promise, well… there’s no telling whether or how Jonah would choose to intervene. 

 

“It’s not just that.” Jon glances up at the ceiling and the Eye just beyond it.

 

“Tunnels-only information?”

 

“Yeah,” Jon says, contrite. “She might not want to hear it, but please tell Melanie that I’m sorry. I’m hoping – what’s the date right now?”

 

“First of February.”

 

“She shouldn’t have to wait too much longer.”

 

“How do you know?”

 

“I just… do.” Jon winces at his weak delivery. He hates being so cagey, but he really has no other option.

 

“Right.”  

 

“How is… how is Martin?” Jon asks tentatively, perking up ever so slightly. Georgie’s expression turns sympathetic.

 

“Melanie says they haven’t seen him,” she says gently.  

 

“Oh.” Jon deflates, his cautious hope abruptly snuffed out.

 

“I’m sorry, Jon. Melanie did send a few emails, and when that didn’t get a response, she slipped a note under his door. But it’s been radio silence.”

 

“Oh,” he says again, almost a whisper this time. He covers his face with both hands and takes a minute to collect himself. “Um, c-can you tell Melanie I said thank you for trying? I –”

 

Georgie is gone before Jon can finish his sentence. The Admiral must have woken her for breakfast. He always has been a natural alarm clock.

 

The dissection lab dissolves around him, plunging him back into senseless, empty space. Left alone with his own thoughts once again, Jon immerses himself in worrying about Martin and a rotating litany of what-ifs. 

Chapter Text

Jon is back in that blank vacuum, and time is doing that thing where every moment feels like an eternity. He suspects it might have just as much to do with his innate intolerance of boredom as it does with sensory deprivation. The lack of any sort of stimulation in this place is unbearable. He never has been able to sit still for long periods of time, and he can’t even fidget here, for fucks sake.

 

It’s like he’s a child again...

 

...seven years old and lying face-down on the kitchen floor, swinging his legs in the air and complaining loudly about how there’s nothing to do. Normally, his grandmother might snap at him to go outside and stop pestering her, but a vicious thunderstorm is passing through and she won’t let him play in it – and besides, he’s technically grounded.

 

Just two days ago, he had wandered off after being forbidden from leaving the yard. Again.

 

In his defense, there was a cat sunning itself just beyond the fence, and he wanted to say hello because he loves cats but his grandmother won’t let him have one, and then the cat stood up and yawned and trotted off, and obviously he had to follow it, and then – before he knew it, two officers were escorting him home. Again.

 

His grandmother had been shocked to find the police on her doorstep with her intractable grandson in tow – she hadn’t noticed he was missing – yet again.

 

After they left, she had been furious with him for embarrassing her like that. Again and again and again. 

 

So, now he’s under house arrest – a new term that he had picked up from the officers: “Your grandmother is going to put you under house arrest if you keep wandering off like this, kid.” The first couple times, they had found his meanderings and adventurous nature cute, albeit worrisome; by the third time, the charm had worn off and the weary indulgence vanished along with it; by the fourth time, he received a stern dressing down about safety and recklessness and making things difficult for his poor grandmother; and now, the fifth time, there had been a not-so-subtle warning about contacting social services to investigate neglect....  

 

With each scolding, Jon would feel appropriately abashed in the moment, but it never took long for it to fade into the background, drowned out by a mind understimulated and screaming for some novel distraction. Somehow, courting negative attention was preferable to receiving no attention at all. When adults were being charitable, they called him precocious and clever. When he was testing their patience, though, he was a difficult child, a nuisance, a bother – and he had a tendency to exhaust even the most tolerant adult’s patience very, very quickly. He's always been... difficult.

 

God, why is he even thinking about this? Is he really so starved for something to occupy his attention that he’s digging into the annals of his childhood?

 

(Yes. Yes he is.)

 

He throws his head back with an aggravated sigh. Or he would, if he had a body here, but whenever there’s no dreamer around to witness him, he’s an incorporeal mind floating in (agonizing, boring) nothingness.

 

What he wouldn’t give to be able to just jiggle his leg right now. Tap his fingers. Play with his hair – or better yet, Martin’s; his hair was always so soft and he would always lean into Jon’s touch like a cat. It will probably be awhile before Jon gets to touch him again. If ever. What if –

 

Stop, he tells himself. You’re only going to catastrophize, and then you’ll get depressed, and then you’ll be useless. Why are you always so difficult? You –

 

He throws the brakes so quickly he can almost feel the screeching halt. Crashing a train of thought like that is like ignoring an itch. Itch, itch, itch, the word echoes in his head – and now he wants to scratch at his worm scars.

 

Wait, no, don’t think about them – it’ll just make you itchy, and you don’t even have a body, which means you won’t be able to scratch, and – and, yes, now you’re itchy, and – damn it, can’t you just sit still and clear your mind for five sec–

 

“Um. Hello, Jon. Do you… mind if I call you Jon?”

 

Wait. Is that…   

 

“I mean, you don’t actually know me. It’s just, well. ‘Archivist.’ It’s so formal, isn’t it?”

 

Oliver! Finally, Jon thinks with relief.

 

“Dreams are like that, you know. No matter how lucid you think they are, there’s always that part that just drags you along. Guess I don’t need to tell you that. At least, not right now.”

 

Oliver. Oliver, can you hear me?

 

Oliver sighs. “Wish I could tell you why I came here.”

 

Apparently not.

 

“Wish I knew why I came here.”

 

When in doubt, blame the Web.

 

“Sorry to go on, I – I don’t talk to many people these days. Putting my thoughts outside myself, it gets a bit, er, clumsy.”

 

Jon knows the feeling.

 

“Be easier if you could talk back, right? Ask me questions, have it tumble all out?”

 

Easier, sure. But far more unpleasant.

 

“But no. It’s – it’s just me. Wish there was a better way, but touching someone’s mind, it’s not as simple as that? Doesn’t always make things clearer, you know?”

 

Again, Jon does know.

 

“Still, I gave the old woman a statement, so maybe I owe you one as well. That’s how it works, right? Give your terror, give your dream?”

 

Unfortunately.

 

“It’s not like I don’t have them to spare.”

 

Preaching to a choir, Oliver.   

 

“Let me tell you about how I tried to escape.”

 

No – let’s – can we just move things along?

 

“So. My name is Oliver Banks. In my other statements, I used the name Antonio Blake, but…”

 

Guess not.

 

This probably counts as a live statement, and Jon had been keen to avoid those this time around. He wishes he could cover his ears, shut his eyes, block it all out – but then again, even if he could, would he? That familiar single-minded fixation is settling over him like a heavy fog, and it’s as unnerving as ever – a craving that he doesn’t want to indulge, but once he has a taste, it feels right. The guilt never comes until after the need is satiated.

 

It’s nearly impossible to stop a statement once it starts. His mind starts to go fuzzy, restless, full of static and pressure. He’s always wondered: is this what compulsion feels like to the ones he turns it upon?

 

The static fades then, everything becoming sharp and clear and real, like a picture coming into focus. The Archivist is hungry, intent on every single word like a cat, motionless and unblinking, watching a moth beat itself senseless against a light.

 

And the Archive – the Archive is ravenous. Its presence looms in the background in a way that it hasn’t since before Jon passed through the rift, weighing heavily on the back of his mind.  

 

He gives up on trying to reach out and touch Oliver’s mind for the time being, gives in to the need, and listens as the story twines itself around and through his thoughts. It's one that the Archivist has heard before, but he laps it up greedily all the same.

 

When Oliver finishes his account several minutes later, Jon feels brighter, more alert, reinvigorated. The disgust and shame will creep up on him later, he’s sure, but for now, it feels right. He feels whole. 

 

“Right,” Oliver says. “That’s, uh, it, I suppose. Maybe you heard me. Maybe you’ll dream.”

 

Oliver, Jon tries again. This time, for the briefest of moments, he thinks he can hear a subdued hum of static. Can you hear me?

 

“Then again, maybe I just wasted my breath – but I don’t think so. Honestly, I’m still not exactly sure why I’m here. But you know better than anyone how the spiders can get into your head.”

 

You don’t need to rub it in, Jon mutters to himself. 

 

“Easier to just do what she asks.”

 

I beg to differ. The static picks up again, more of a persistent buzz this time. Oliver, listen –

 

“The thing is, Jon, right now you have a choice. You’ve put it off a long time, but it’s trapping you here. You’re not quite human enough to die, but still too human to survive.”

 

Yes, yes, I know. The buzz becomes a shrill whine. Oliver!

 

“You’re balanced on an edge where the End can’t touch you, but you can’t escape him. I made a choice. We all made choices. Now you have to –”

 

Oliver Banks.

 

“Um?” 

 

Finally, Jon thinks, exasperated.  

 

“Jon?” Oliver ventures. “Or, uh – Archivist?” 

 

I prefer Jon. 

 

“Huh.” Jon can pick up a soft squeaking noise, as if Oliver just leaned back in his chair. “I’ll be honest, I’m not sure how you’re even doing this.”

 

Neither do I, actually? Jon realizes with a start. But– but I don’t exactly have time to worry about that right now –

 

“I suppose it’s similar to Elias’ ability to broadcast knowledge into another person’s mind,” Oliver muses, almost to himself.

 

Oh. It… it is, isn’t it? That’s… not a comforting thought.

 

“I didn’t realize it was something the Archivist could do as well. I thought your job was more… pulling answers out of people. Acquiring knowledge, not impressing it upon them.”

 

I’d… really rather not dwell on it, Jon says, tamping down the momentary burst of fear that surges through him at the thought of comparing himself to Jonah. His mind has gotten trapped in that particular rut many times before, and it's never a good place to be.

 

Either Oliver respects Jon's wishes or simply doesn't care to waste energy pressing him on the matter, because he drops it and moves on to the main reason for his visit.  

 

“Have you made your choice, Jon?”

 

I made my choice months ago. I just couldn’t figure out how to act on it. How to actually wake up.

 

“I confess, I’m surprised to hear you declare your choice with such confidence.” Jon hears fabric rustling – Oliver crossing his legs, maybe? “I was led to believe that you were… almost pathologically indecisive.”

 

I… usually am, Jon admits, though Oliver’s phrasing is a bit too incisive for his comfort. But I made my choice, and I’d like to follow through on it now.

 

“Ah. Well.” Oliver sounds... perturbed. It almost reminds Jon of himself when he's unable to Know something. “Not sure why you couldn't before?” 

 

Jon wonders if it has something to do with being newly well-fed. Or maybe he just needed direct contact from the End, a psychopomp of sorts to facilitate his transition in either direction? He still doesn't know exactly when he received the End's mark the first time around – whether it branded him the instant he technically died in the Unknowing, or if it needed time to fully set. It's possible that encountering an Avatar of the End was necessary to finalize the mark – in which case, maybe Jonah or the Web didn't want him waking until that happened? But would they really have enough sway over Terminus to delay its work? Influencing one of its Avatars to awaken Jon is one thing; postponing or halting it would be something else entirely.

 

Speaking of, he can feel Oliver’s eyes riveted on him, quietly observing and calculating as if trying to get an accurate estimate of the Archivist.   

 

“But – but you definitely can now. The roots are...” Oliver falters, and Jon thinks he can feel him lean in closer. “There’s something… off about you. The roots, they look… sick. Wrong. And the threads are – tangled.” Another pause. “Can you explain it?”

 

Not here. I don’t want Elias listening in.

 

“Doesn’t he have eyes everywhere?”

 

Almost everywhere. The tunnels under the Institute are… a blind spot, sort of.  

 

“And you would discuss it there?”

 

Within reason, Jon says warily.

 

He doubts whether Oliver would ever be an ally – judging from the statement he gave during the apocalypse, he’s too fatalistic to intervene one way or the other – but he doesn’t feel like an enemy, either. Maybe he would be interested in sharing information, or even just letting Jon bounce strategies and theories off of him? It might be helpful, having a mostly-neutral Avatar to consult.

 

Also, there's just something… lonely about Oliver.

 

If nothing else, it would be a break from the monotony for you, Jon adds.  

 

“I don’t know how I feel about visiting the Institute again. Not out of concern for my safety, mind. Just don’t like the feeling of being watched. Feels… I don’t know. Slimy.”

 

That’s one word for it.

 

“Apologies. I’m not a wordsmith, if you haven’t noticed.” Jon can hear Oliver shifting uneasily in his seat now. He really is awkward, isn’t he? 

 

I don't know, I’m sure you could put together a decent sermon on… existentialist philosophy, or macroeconomics, or the inevitability of death and taxes, or – or something.   

 

“I’m not exactly pleasant company.” He says it matter-of-fact, but Jon thinks he can detect a trace of melancholy underneath the customary stoicism. “People tend to be… unsettled when they meet a walking, talking memento mori.”

 

No more unsettling than talking to an incarnation of paranoia, invasive surveillance, and terrible knowledge, Jon says sardonically. Maybe some of the more vexing aspects of academia as well. 

 

Oliver chuckles at that, but cuts it short. It's almost like he didn't expect it. Jon thinks maybe he can understand. Go long enough without laughing, and then when you finally do, it will come out sounding all wrong to your ears. Like an out-of-tune piano, Martin said once. You have a nice laugh, Jon. You just aren't used to hearing it, and right now it's a bit rusty from disuse.  

 

“I don’t know that I was ever good company,” says Oliver after a moment. 

 

Can’t be any worse than I am. Maybe you’re just out of practice.

 

“Perhaps,” Oliver says evasively.

 

Well, consider it an open invitation. Just... I don't know. Keep it in mind.

 

“Not like I can forget anything.”

 

Quite a curse, isn’t it?

 

“I’ve made my peace with it.”

 

I know, Jon replies. If he’s honest with himself, he can’t help but envy Oliver to an extent – how secure he is in his role, his tranquil embrace of his destiny.

 

Jon isn’t being fair, though, is he? Oliver went through hell to achieve his current level of humble acceptance, and regardless of either of their current perspectives on fate and free will, the fact remains that they were both forced into making impossible choices under duress. They’ve both become something they never expected or wanted to be, and… it doesn't seem like Oliver deserved it.

 

On his good days, Jon thinks maybe he didn't, either.

 

“I’ll… consider the offer.” Jon can detect just a hint of curiosity beneath the reticence.

 

Before he can respond, though, he hears the door open and close.   

 

“Can I help you?” Georgie’s voice, slicing through the quiet like the crack of a whip.

 

“Oh, I – I’m a friend,” Oliver says quickly, clearly taken by surprise. “Of Jon’s.”

 

“Are you, now.” The hard edge to her tone turns icy. Jon can’t help feeling sorry for Oliver, no doubt pinned under that uncompromising stare of hers.   

 

“Uh, y-yes.”

 

“Right. Just haven’t seen you visiting before.”

 

“Um, I’ve… been out of town!”

 

If Jon had any control over his body, he would put his head in his hands right now. Apparently Oliver is just as bad at lying on the spot as he is. Unfortunately for Oliver, Georgie happens to be a natural lie detector.

 

“Right,” Georgie replies flatly. “The nurse didn’t say anyone else was here.”

 

“Oh! Oh – oh, well. Sorry if I surprised you.”

 

“It’s fine.”

 

It’s not.

 

“I’m Antonio!” Oliver blurts out, and Jon cringes with secondhand embarrassment.

 

“Sure,” Georgie says, voice dripping with disdain. “I think you’re done here.”

 

“Oh. Uh, right…” Oliver’s chair scrapes against the floor as he stands up. “Have I upset you, miss –”

 

Bad move. Georgie hates being referred to as 'miss.'

 

“No, you just remind me of someone.”

 

“Ah. I’m sorry. Were they –”

 

“Evil. Yes.”

 

“Uh. Okay, then.” It’s almost funny, an Avatar of death itself shrinking under Georgie’s scrutiny. Then again, she would likely be a force to be reckoned with even if she hadn’t lost her ability to feel fear. “Well, I just – well, I guess I should just go.”

 

“I guess you should.”

 

“Um. Goodbye, Jon. I guess I –”

 

“Goodbye!” Georgie says, putting on a transparently false cheery tone.

 

Jon can make out Oliver’s harried footsteps as Georgie ushers him out. Once the door clicks shut, Jon hears her approach him again.

 

“Sorry about that, Jon, but you really don’t need friends like tha– wait. Did…?” More footsteps; then the door opens again, and Jon hears Georgie’s voice echoing distantly down the corridor. “Hey! Hey, get back here! I need to talk to you!”

 

Jon wonders if Oliver's already gotten away.

 

Oh, Jon thinks suddenly, she’s… not going to be pleased if she finds out I tried to make friends with the grim reaper. Neither is Martin, come to think of it.

 

Jon feels a twinge of guilt and worry. He’s not yet woken up, and already he’s doing things that Georgie might see as careless and self-destructive. Still, though… he doesn’t think Oliver is evil, or even particularly threatening. If anything, Jon thinks he knows now how Naomi must have felt, watching some eldritch monster fumble a conversation like any other mundane human grappling with social anxiety.

 

Well, what’s done is done. Oliver might not even take Jon up on the offer. No use worrying about it at the moment.

 

He needs to focus on waking up.

 


 

Unfortunately, Oliver didn’t explain exactly how Jon should go about waking up.

 

His first instinct is to think of Martin. With practiced ease, he reaches out for a memory, and –  

 

Jon has always had an unexpected sweet tooth. He never really mentioned it to any of his coworkers. It’s not that he’s self-conscious about it; it’s more that he just never thought to share unsolicited facts about himself. Most people would take one look at Jon and either assume he takes his tea black, or that he’d prefer to fix it himself – and the latter wasn’t an unfair assumption. Martin, though… somehow, he figured it out.

 

It took some trial-and-error, though at the time, Jon never noticed that Martin was deliberately trying to puzzle it out. Eventually he settled on the exact right formula, and Jon – well, by the time he realized, it felt like too much time had passed to remark on it. He was never very good at compliments anyway, giving or receiving. From that point forward, though, whenever Jon was having a particularly rough day – which, by their standards, was saying a lot – Martin would make Jon’s tea sweeter than usual. It was such a small gesture in the face of the horrors that permeated all of their lives, but in retrospect, it spoke volumes.

 

Jon took forever to notice all those little gestures. He still feels ashamed of how ungrateful he was back then, but it just never occurred to him that anyone would put that much time or effort into learning his preferences, especially something so inconsequential as how he takes his tea. Jon barely put any thought into his own comfort, let alone that of others.  

 

But Martin isn’t like Jon.

 

Jon has long marveled at how kindness seems to come so naturally to Martin. As much as it might seem like he just preternaturally knows the exact right things to say and do when he sees someone hurting, though, it was never effortless: Martin cares deliberately, painstakingly, actively. He prides himself on that attention to detail, on all the little acts of kindness and consideration that, when put together, make him the most thoughtful person Jon has ever met. 

 

Of course, Jon also feels a wrench in his heart every time he thinks about how and why Martin cultivated that caretaker skill set in the first place. They talked about a lot of things, after the Lonely, and the truth had come out little by little: Martin had never had anyone in his life who loved him unconditionally. From an early age, he tried desperately to curry favor with a mother who resented him for reasons he could not help and that she would never explain. It bled into all areas of his life. Every adult role model, every passing friendship, each of his few short-lived intimate relationships was a link in a long chain of giving and sacrificing and carefully policing himself to meet others’ expectations at the cost of his own vivid inner life – and never once did he receive anything meaningful in return. For too long, Jon was a link in that chain himself. 

 

Martin had learned to measure his worth by whether and how he could be of use to others, and always found himself wanting. Jon could relate to that unhealthy preoccupation with making himself useful, but for him, it manifested as workaholic tendencies, harsh self-criticism, and a fear of letting anyone get so close that it would actually hurt when they inevitably grew tired of him. At the time, though, he would have said he just had a preference for his own company. (Funny, in retrospect, considering he's never been good company for himself.) Martin sought to be noticed and loved; Jon ran headlong in the other direction, unable to tolerate the vulnerability of being known or the risk of being abandoned.

 

He suspects that Martin would be compassionate regardless, though. And it's admirable, it's beautiful, it's brave, and Jon loves that about him – but Martin shouldn't have had to go through hell in the process of nurturing that trait. Trauma didn't help him grow. It only twisted his definition of caring until it became an instrument of self-harm. As they navigated their relationship, Martin did get better at setting boundaries and communicating his needs. It never made him any less compassionate towards Jon or anyone else. He just learned that he deserved compassion as well - from others and from himself.  

 

Jon will always be in awe of how after everything – how Jon treated him in the beginning, how Jon left him alone and grieving in the aftermath of the Unknowing, how thoroughly the Lonely pervaded his life – Martin never once lost that instinct. He admitted to Jon that by the time Peter threw him into the Lonely, caring didn’t feel natural anymore. He was too numb and isolated to really feel a connection to other people. His empathy had been drained away. But even in its absence, Martin still made the conscious decision to care. He still thought that human connection and compassion were important, even if he believed that he couldn’t experience those things himself.

 

After the world ended, when Jon was deep in his grief and hopelessness, Martin stayed by his side. Jon told him that it was no longer a world where they could trust comfort – and Martin responded with patience and kindness. He put comfort into a world where it seemed like none could exist. Jon will always be in awe of how Martin could just… do that, and with such confidence – stubbornness, almost.

 

I think our experience of the universe has value, Martin had told Simon Fairchild once. Even if it disappears forever.

 

It didn't matter to Martin whether or not the universe noticed or witnessed or cared. What mattered was that he cared, and the fact that he cared would never go away – even when the inevitable day came when there was no one and nothing left to remember them. Those stubborn acts of compassion meant something to him in the moment, and their meaning lingered long after Jon lost him.

 

To hope, to care, to try – these things had meaning; these things were worth it, no matter how bleak circumstances became. It mattered to Martin, and so it mattered to Jon. As an anchor, it paled in comparison to actually having Martin at his side, but Jon held fast to it all the same: a reminder of the kinder, gentler side of humanity that could be kept alive even at the end of the world, even in the face of untold horrors and insurmountable odds. Time and time again, it was a lighthouse that kept him from getting lost in the Archive's sea of terrible knowledge.  

 

And right now, Martin is Lonely, but he isn't lost. He'll be okay. He has to be. Jon just has to find his way back to him. He’s done it before; he can do it again. He just has to wake up. 

 

“–m trying – help – came to me.”

 

Lost in thought, Jon almost doesn’t register the voices. They’ve been there in the background for a few minutes now, he realizes belatedly – they just hadn’t penetrated his conscious awareness. It’s like listening through six feet of soil – he curses his brain for immediately reaching for that mental image – and he strains to translate the dampened noise into coherent words.

 

“I came to Melanie.”

 

Georgie!

 

“Well, sorry. Right now, I’m it.”

 

Distantly, Jon can hear the steady ticking of a clock, and he spares a moment to be thankful that he couldn’t hear it the entire time he was asleep. It would have made his restlessness even more intolerable, and – as his thoughts veer off track, the voices go muffled again. Damn it.

 

It takes him a few seconds to refocus his attention.

 

“– don’t know why this guy would have left a tape recorder?”

 

Basira.

 

“You’re the detective,” Georgie says.

 

“And you’re sure it was him who left it?”

 

Jon didn’t hear this part the first time around, but he can safely assume they’re talking about Oliver.

 

“I mean, the nurses said there were no others visitors, so…” Georgie takes a breath. “Unless it appeared by magic?” A pause; Jon can practically hear Basira’s eyebrows raise. “What, seriously?”

 

“I don’t know,” Basira sighs. “The whole tape thing is… I don’t know.”

 

To be honest, Jon doesn’t Know, either. That was always one of the things that the Beholding kept to itself, much to his chagrin. 

 

“Right, well… I showed you like you asked, so –”

 

Breathe, Jon tells himself. Time to wake up.

 

“Shh,” Basira interrupts. Jon can hear movement nearby. “Down here.”

 

Come on. Inhale

 

Jon can feel his lungs expand ever so slightly.

 

“I told you.”

 

Good. Exhale, now.

 

Jon’s lungs contract, and some of the feeling starts to come into his extremities. He experimentally tries to move his hands and one of his fingers twitches, brushing against the coarse hospital linens. At least it's something. 

 

“This is the one?”

 

Wake up, Jon, he tells himself, attempting to overlay his thoughts with compulsion. He tries to wiggle his toes, but it doesn’t seem like they’ve gotten the memo just yet. This is the part where you woke up before. Just – just wake up –

 

“Sure.”

 

Jon feels a brief stab of panic – Why can’t I wake up? – and then he feels his heart stutter in his chest. A telltale pins-and-needles sensation begins to spread in his fingers and – this is probably the first time he’s been relieved to experience the precursors to a panic attack.

 

It’s a good sign, he tells himself. You’re connected to your body again, so just – 

 

“You don’t sound very sure,” Basira says.

 

It isn’t working. Why isn’t it working?

 

Come on, open your eyes –

 

“I mean – I don’t know. It might be a different model, maybe? I thought it was plastic – but yeah.”

 

Just sit up, just – wake up, Jon.

 

Nothing.

 

Neither Basira nor Georgie speak. The ticking of the clock is deafening.

 

Wait, Jon thinks. What if…

 

“So what does it mean?” Georgie says eventually.

 

Open your eyes, Archivist.

 

His eyes fly open and he sits bolt upright with a gasp.

 

“Jon!” Georgie yelps, as Basira simultaneously breathes, “Jesus.”

 

Clutching his throat with one hand, Jon continues to struggle for air in deep, rasping gulps. Each breath comes with a wrenching pain and an uncomfortable tightness in his chest, his lungs protesting after months of disuse and refusing to completely expand, feeling as though they're packed with shattered glass.

 

Eventually, although he can still only manage half-breaths, he looks up at Georgie and Basira. Intending to apologize for startling them, he opens his mouth and – 

 

The tape recorder under his bed clicks on with an earsplitting, static-leaden whine.

 

Both women start again, and Jon’s posture goes rigid, his other hand coming up to rest against his throat.

 

Sorry, he tries to say again, but nothing comes out, and the tape recorder emits another blast of white noise.

 

Basira and Georgie are watching him closely now – Georgie with concern, Basira with suspicion. Jon looks back with terrified eyes, panic blanketing him with a weight reminiscent of the Buried.

 

No, Jon thinks to himself, not again –

 

As his vision starts to blur, both trembling hands leave his neck and reach up to cover his mouth.   

 

“Jon,” Georgie says gently, approaching his bedside again, “what’s wrong?”

 

Jon’s eyes squeeze shut and he shakes his head frantically. He tries desperately to stifle the whimper building in his chest, but it’s creeping up on him anyway.

 

“Breathe, Jon.” When Georgie rests her hand gently on his shoulder, he flinches violently away. She pulls back, holding both hands up palms-out in a pacifying gesture. “Okay,” she says evenly, “okay. No touching.”

 

Jon has had these episodes for most of his life. Georgie had witnessed more than a few while they were dating, though they were nowhere near as frequent then as they are now. It's been awhile, but Georgie easily slips into the same soothing tone she would always use. 

 

His brain is already tuning her out, though.

 

I can’t – I can’t –

 

The Archive prowls forward and settles in just behind his eyes, an opportunistic vulture watching intently for its next meal. If he really needs to use his voice, the library is available for reference. There are plenty of statements from which he can borrow – and if it isn't enough, he can always curate more. He just has to –

 

No – please, no –

 

Who is he even talking to?

 

Jon draws his knees up and locks his arms around them, curling his shoulders in and hunching forward to hide his face. He takes a shuddering breath in. It comes out as a strangled sob. The tears brimming in his eyes finally spill over, sending twin streaks trickling down his cheeks.

 

What is he supposed to do now?

Chapter Text

There are hushed voices coming from somewhere deep below the unbroken whine of static filling his ears. Nearer, Georgie is saying something, but her words are too garbled for Jon to wring any meaning out of them. He isn’t sure exactly how long it’s been since he woke up, but he can feel his muscles cramping from holding the same position for some time now, curled tight and taut and small.

 

…catatonia: a state of –

 

Fuck off, Jon thinks dully.

 

At least he’s not crying anymore. That stopped some time ago, all of a sudden between one moment and the next. Now he just feels hollowed and raw. He knows what he would see if he looked in the mirror: puffy, reddened eyes, so reminiscent of a human – but with a glint of something hungry and monstrous behind them. Any sympathy or concern that anyone might feel at first glance would be quashed with one long look into those eyes, leaving only fear and revulsion and hostility in their wake. And they would be right to fight or flee or freeze, just as they might when confronted with any other predator. 

 

Jon keeps his eyes closed.

 

“– a sedative,” comes an unfamiliar voice, finally reaching him through the haze.

 

“Does he look like he needs a sedative?”

 

Basira, Jon recognizes.

 

“We – we should really do some – some tests…” The first voice trails off uncertainly. A nurse, Jon assumes. He can feel the apprehension coming off them in waves. 

 

No one knows what to do with him. There is no standard of care for a patient who spent the last six months as a seeming corpse with frantic brain activity as its only signs of life.

 

A zombie, Jon recalls wryly. The statement calls to him from within Basira’s bag: a taunt, a balm, and a poison all at once. He pushes the thought of it away.

 

None of the hospital staff like entering his room, he Knows. They certainly don’t want to deal with him now he’s awake. His circumstances presented a medical marvel – the kind of mystery that most researchers would kill for a chance to study – but their curiosity was tempered by that overpowering sense of wrongness emanating from him. They were wisely dissuaded by the sheer dread of coming close to something so unquestionably inhuman. 

 

Most people aren’t so curious that they would run headlong towards an ominous fate like the first person to die in a horror film, he supposes. It’s just one more way in which Jon was – is – such an easy target for someone like Jonah Magnus.   

 

Distantly, Jon can feel himself start to shiver.

 

There’s movement to his right as Georgie sits on the edge of the bed, within arm’s reach but careful to leave a buffer of empty space between them. She tells him that he’s safe – he’s not, and neither is anyone else while he still exists in the world – and that she’s here – for now, but once she realizes how far gone he is, she’ll leave again – and that they’ll sort it all out – yes, and when they do, they’ll never stop looking at him like he’s a monster, and isn’t he?

 

The door closes behind the nurse, but the fear lingers for several minutes afterwards, like blood diffusing through water.  

 

“Jon,” Basira begins, her tone resolute and impersonal.

 

“Give him a minute,” Georgie says.

 

“He’s had a minute. He’s had six months.” There is no malice in her voice, only a bone-deep exhaustion. Basira has been carrying the weight of the world on her shoulders since the Unknowing. She’s barely had a chance to mourn Daisy; she’s wound tight from hypervigilance, made worse by the Flesh’s attack on the Archives; she’s had to put practicality above all else, because sentimentality is a luxury that has long since been stolen from her. “He needs to answer some questions.” 

 

Georgie huffs and turns back to Jon.

 

“Jon, can you hear me?”

 

He nods without looking up.

 

“Are you nonverbal?”

 

Jon can feel a faraway part of himself balk at the clinical flavor of the word. Intellectually, he can appreciate having a term to summarize nebulous human experiences like this. Emotionally, he still has difficulty tolerating how exposed the practical application of those terms makes him feel.

 

Besides, the word doesn’t really apply to this situation, does it? Not in the traditional sense, at least. Not completely. So he shakes his head no.

 

He takes a deep breath and reluctantly looks inward to the Archive. There’s a spark of excitement, or relief, or maybe smug vindication from that alien part of himself when he finally gives in to the need, and he tries his best to ignore it and get it over with. He doesn’t delve too deeply, instead settling on the first thing that might work.

 

“I’m sorry, it won’t let me say the words,” he says, voice strained and scratchy with months of neglect.

 

“O…kay,” Georgie says. “I guess that’s a no?”

 

“Hmm.” Basira doesn’t say anything else.

 

Jon starts picking through his library again, but nothing jumps out at him. His thoughts still feel sluggish, his mind packed with cotton. Or cobweb. Usually he’d shudder at that thought, but right now, he’s just too tired for that familiar fear to actually reach him through all the fog. He’s just spent months literally sleeping like the dead; why is he so tired?

 

When a full minute passes without a reply, Basira speaks up again. 

 

“Georgie, could you give us some time alone?” 

 

“No.” The immediacy of the refusal surprises Jon. He feels Georgie’s eyes on him, and he tenses. “I’m staying, Jon.”

 

“I need to talk to him.”

 

“Then talk to him.”

 

“I thought you didn’t want to be involved in Institute business.”

 

Georgie hesitates, and Jon finally looks up at her. He’s careful not to make eye contact. It’s alright, he wants to say, you don’t have to stay – but he can’t.

 

“…anyone who doesn’t want to be a part of it, they can…” Jon says instead, faltering when he can’t find a good way to express the rest.

 

Back to the charades, I suppose, he thinks sullenly. He holds one hand out and walks the middle and index finger of his other hand across his upturned palm.

 

“Jon, why are you –” Georgie cuts herself off with a short exhale. “Do you want me to stay?”

 

Jon bites his lip. “Probably putting you in danger.”  

 

“Yeah, probably, but that’s not the question I asked.” She sighs when she sees Jon’s blank expression. “Look, the only way I can think to approach all of… this is to break it into smaller pieces. It doesn’t mean I’m committing to anything else, it doesn’t mean that I can’t change my mind, it doesn’t mean that I can’t walk away later. I’m not asking whether I should stay, and I’m not offering to get involved indefinitely or unconditionally. Right this moment, all I’m asking is whether you want me to physically leave this room – for now – and come back later.”

 

For a few minutes, Jon says nothing. If the question had been whether it’s safe to be near him, she already knows that his answer would be an emphatic no. Unlike him, Georgie knows when to cut her losses and leave. It would be condescending to assume that she needs him to protect her from her own choices, especially considering how, of the two of them, she’s the one who actually has a self-preservation instinct. She doesn’t have a choice, really. She can’t feel fear – one of the most basic survival tools – and as a result, she has to evaluate her circumstances much more constantly and painstakingly than others.

 

It must be exhausting, Jon thinks to himself. He knows what hypervigilance is like. Even if Georgie can’t experience the fear that goes along with it, it probably still saps her energy in much the same way.

 

He tries to force himself back on track. The question: Does he want her to physically leave in this moment? 

 

No. He really, really doesn’t.

 

Jon closes his eyes, and Naomi’s statement is the first thing his mind touches: “Could you stay please?”  

 

“Okay.” Georgie looks at Basira. “I’m staying.”

 

Jon feels some of the tension leave his shoulders, but he can’t help feeling selfish.

 

“Are you really okay with that?” Basira says, eyeing Jon. He can detect the unspoken question: You know what I’m going to ask. Do you really want her to hear the answer?

 

He does. Georgie deserves to know. They all do. What he doesn’t want is to hear what she has to say to him after the truth comes out.

 

But he nods anyway.

 

“Fine. What are you?” Basira says without preamble.

 

“’Are you secretly a monster?’ probably would have been a great opener,” Jon says acidly.

 

He flinches as the words leave his mouth. They were Sasha’s once – the real Sasha – said with a hint of playfulness, but now they just sound bitter. He’s fully aware that he has an overflowing stock of resentment bottled up inside him, hidden somewhere deep underneath all the layers of guilt and grief and self-loathing, but he wasn’t expecting the vitriol to slip out quite so easily. And he really, really can’t afford to start burning bridges, especially so early on.   

 

But Basira seems unruffled.

 

“Alright,” she says with a shrug. “Are you?”

 

It’s complicated, he does not say.

 

When he reaches up to run a hand through his hair, the movement jostles the hospital bracelet affixed to it, catching his eye. He brings his hand back down and stares at it, hanging loosely from his wrist. He’s always been scrawny, but his arms look thinner than usual. Fragile. With a pang, he notices the scarring on his wrists, left there from where the ropes cut into him during his month in captivity with the Circus. By the time the world ended, they had faded somewhat. As they are now, they’re impossible to miss.

 

SIMS, JONATHAN, the wristband reads. Date of birth. Sex. Blood type. Patient identification number. Barcode. An allergy alert: amoxicillin.

 

Is he still human enough here in the past for an allergic reaction to pose a threat? He could Know, he supposes, but –

 

“Jon?” Basira prompts.

 

He sighs, closes his eyes, and consults the Archive once again. 

 

“It seemed almost human, from a distance, but as it got closer, I saw that it was –”  

 

Jon quickly skims through statements looking for an appropriate fragment.

 

“…some newly-birthed monster,” he settles on. It’s blunt, and a bit petulant, but he may as well be honest. He resigns himself to whatever comes next.

 

Martin would have hated to hear him think like this.

 

Martin’s not here, some destructive, cruel part of his mind supplies.

 

“Why are you talking like that?” There’s the faintest tinge of aggravation in Basira’s tone now. 

 

Before Jon can answer, Georgie gives him a skeptical, almost chiding look. “I doubt it's that simple, Jon. Why don’t you try that again?”

 

“I could see myself becoming one of those people and I fought very hard against the feeling of wrongness that seemed to be trying to worm itself into my mind,” he amends. Better. Probably more accurate, if he’s being kind to himself. (He’s rarely kind to himself.)

 

“That sounds more constructive than just giving up and deciding you’re a monster,” Georgie says.

 

She still seems baffled by the unusual quality of his speech, but it seems she’s trying not to draw attention to it. Probably thinks it’s some neurological aftereffect of the coma. Not-coma. Whatever. Who is he kidding? Georgie is sharp. She knows this is some supernatural nonsense – and there’s a simple, straightforward way to confirm it for her.

 

“I don’t think I’ll ever be the same person I was before.”  

 

“I think that could be said of anyone. We all change from moment to moment, and – wait.” Georgie gives him a shrewd look as she registers the cadence with which he speaks. It’s undeniably familiar, but it’s not him. It’s his voice, but those aren’t his words. “Jon, was that my…”

 

“Statement – regarding the last words of a possible corpse,” Jon says wearily.

 

“Jon,” Basira says, her eyes widening just barely, “are you quoting statements?”  

 

“The words repeated, as though on a recorded loop.”  He gives an affirmative nod, just in case the words are unclear – which is often the case. 

 

“Care to explain why?”

 

“I started to say something – but my voice died in my throat,” he says.

 

Then: “…but it – it didn’t seem to be working right; all I could hear from it was the – faint noise of static, and…”  

 

They probably don’t care how it feels, though, do they? They just want to know what it makes him now. His hands flutter in agitation as he tries to redirect, mind racing to find another statement.  

 

“Okay, alright, I get the gist,” Basira says. There is a long, considering pause. “Can you just… write it down?”

 

The simple answer is no, but the easiest way to make them understand is with a demonstration. He holds one palm flat and with the other hand mimics writing on it. 

 

Reaching into her bag, Basira produces a small notepad with a pen stuffed into the wire spiral binding. Jon pulls the pen out, rips the cap off with his teeth, and –

 

“Seriously, Jon?” Basira complains.

 

“Honestly, Basira, what did you expect?” Georgie snorts. “You can’t tell me Jon’s desk isn’t a graveyard of gnawed-up pens.”

 

Jon manages a tiny smirk at that. Most people were well-acquainted with his treatment of writing utensils after the first week of working alongside him. It had quickly become an office joke. About a month into his tenure as Head Archivist, he’d managed to chomp down on an exploded ballpoint pen. Tim had found him at the bathroom sink twenty minutes later, still trying to get the ink off his face and hands – and, of course, never let him live it down.

 

Well, until Jon burned the bridge between them, anyway. The good-humored ribbing and inside jokes gradually dwindled away, only to be replaced with corrosive distrust and resentment.

 

Jon’s smile fades just as rapidly as it had appeared. He flips to an empty page of the notebook.

 

He sets out with the intention to write a sentence of his own: Regardless of the mode of communication – verbal, written, sign – I can only borrow from statements.

 

It sounds too stiff, too academic, but it doesn’t matter. The moment the tip of the pen touches paper, Jon’s hand seizes. The tape recorder underneath the bed emits a brief crackle. When Jon tries to press down and begin writing, his fingers and wrist start convulsively twitching. A scalding pain starts to seep through his fingers and crawl up his arm, the recorder’s static oscillating along in time with the throbbing. When it upsweeps into a shrill screech, Georgie starts.

 

“Jon –”

 

Picking the pen up off the page, Jon holds up one trembling finger: Wait.

 

With a pained hiss, he shakes his hand out until the ache recedes. When he starts writing this time, it’s with the intention of reproducing a verbatim line from the statement of Jane Prentiss, regarding a wasps’ nest in her attic: I have tried to write it down, to put it into terms and words you could understand.  

 

The words flow easily. The handwriting is a nearly illegible scrawl, but that has nothing to do with the Archive. Jon has always had poor handwriting, and it’s only gotten worse since his encounter with Jude. While his dominant hand is still usable, the burn scar contracture still affects his mobility and coordination to some extent.

 

He’s tried grabbing individual words from statements to piece together a novel sentence before, but just like speaking a single word in isolation replays every instance of it recorded in the Archive and leaves him reeling in the aftermath, trying to write a standalone word is risky. When he writes a word with the express intention of removing it from the context of a statement, every occurrence of the word floods him all at once. The force of it always overwhelms him before he can even start on the next word in his intended sentence. Usually he ends up dropping his writing utensil. Sometimes he passes out. Always it’s unpleasant. 

 

It’s as if whatever power is enforcing the rules knows when he’s trying to bend them. Or Knows, more likely. Assuming he can assign self-awareness to the Ceaseless Watcher, that is.

 

Stop, he tells his wayward brain. Stay on task.   

 

He shoves the pen back into the notebook’s spiral binding and hands it back to Basira, who returns it to her bag. The cap he keeps for himself, rolling it between his fingers now.

 

“What about BSL?” Georgie suggests.

 

Jon shakes his head no.

 

“How do you know?” Basira asks.

 

There are two answers to that. The first is that he just Knows. The second is that he’s tried. Martin knows a limited amount of signs, but Jon’s hands never cooperated when he tried to copy Martin’s motions. His fingers never wanted to curl into the correct shapes, his joints would lock up, and subtle movements would turn into violent tremors. Once, in a fit of stubborn frustration, he kept pushing back against the thing controlling his body. His arms went limp and numb, and he couldn’t use them for hours after.

 

Simple nonverbal signals – nodding, shaking his head, giving a thumbs up – seem to be, for the most part, whitelisted. Most charades and expressionistic gestures will also pass through the Archive’s filter. Formalized signing, though, is usually blocked.

 

The deciding factors seem to be intentionality and whether or not an attempt at communication is deemed to fit the definition of formal language. Sign languages, systems of writing, spoken words – all off-limits unless being used to reproduce the Archive’s existing records. The more imprecise and abstract the attempted communication, the more likely it is to escape the Archive’s strict conceptualization of language.

 

He and Martin experimented a bit with illustration and found mixed success. It was difficult to ascertain any concrete limits. More abstract drawings are easier to produce, but it tends to leave him drained and with a splitting headache regardless of how successful the attempt is. Intent typically seems to matter more than the result – which is probably for the best. Jon is no more of an artist than he is a poet, and it shows.  

 

Any time Jon tried to ask the Beholding for clarification on the rules governing his new-and-impaired communication abilities, it gave him nothing but static in return. He and Martin had to find things out mostly by trial-and-error. Luckily for Jon, Martin is observant and intuitive when it comes to reading people, and he’s a poet with a mind for the abstract. He was usually able to interpret Jon’s meaning with alarming speed and precision, and whenever Jon grew frustrated with his inability to express himself in a way that felt right, Martin would pose yes-or-no questions to help him narrow it down. He would always keep going until Jon was satisfied that he was understood. Even when they were in disagreement. 

 

But Martin isn’t here, Jon’s treacherous brain reminds him again.

 

“Let me guess,” Basira sighs. “You just know.”

 

Jon gives a tired shrug. Even if he could use his own words, he may have had the same response. He’s never managed to have a conversation about his ability to Know that didn’t leave him feeling defeated. Sometimes it doesn’t seem worth trying to explain.

 

“Alright,” Basira mutters to herself, rubbing her temples now. “This makes things more complicated.”

 

You think? Jon wants to snap, and he’s thankful that he can’t. None of this is Basira’s fault; she doesn’t deserve his ire.

 

“So, what does this mean?”  she continues.

 

“I often find myself locked in a sense of esoteric paralysis on how to proceed,” Jon quips, borrowing from Adelard Dekker this time. He wonders if Dekker would have tried to kill him on the spot. He wonders whether he would have been right to do so.

 

Georgie stifles a laugh. Jon can hear the relief coloring it, and one corner of his mouth twitches into a smile again. She’s intimately familiar with his ill-timed gallows humor, and the fact that he can still draw on it so readily is a good sign. Another small piece of evidence added to the Jonathan-Sims-isn’t-too-far-gone column. She wants to believe it’s still him, he Knows, and wants to believe that he can get better – but there’s still a tiny, nagging ghost of doubt somewhere deep in her mind. He doesn’t blame her for that. 

 

Basira isn’t as amused.

 

“Jon,” she groans, “please be serious.”

 

“It was definitely human once I could see, as it grasped desperately” – a skip ahead – “it was trying to say: ‘I’m sorry.’”  

 

“It’s fine, just…” She sighs. “Try to answer the question.”

 

Jon closes his eyes again, brow furrowing in concentration.

 

“…so aware of the position I’m in, and keen to use that power to actually help people.” Referencing Tova McHugh’s statement makes him nauseous – the hatred and disgust he felt the first time he read it was directed at himself as much as it was at her. But it’s a fair comparison, considering what he was doing back then. “I’m trying to do good,” he adds, and hopes it sounds more sincere than Tova’s flimsy rationalizations ever did. 

 

As expected, Basira looks unconvinced.

 

“Look, Jon, a lot has happened –”

 

“He already knows,” Georgie interrupts. “We talked – in the dreams, you know.” Basira does know. “About Tim and Daisy and Martin. And… and Melanie. He’s the one who told me about the bullet.”

 

“I thought Melanie figured it out on her own.” Basira’s eyes narrow as she looks at Jon. “How did you –”

 

“He said he knows things because of the Eye.” Georgie gives him a look that he can’t quite parse. Sympathetic, maybe? An undercurrent of disappointment, but without accusation. Frustration, but not directed at him – rather, it’s for him, on his behalf. “And he said that when he woke up, he would explain everything where Elias couldn’t overhear, but…”

 

“Maybe somewhere in your library are the words to explain what happened,” Jon says, unable to mask his dejection. “I suppose I’ll just have to try.”  

 

“Still want to wait and do it in the tunnels?” Georgie waits for Jon’s affirmative. “Fair enough. I brought you a change of clothes.” Jon gives her a questioning look. “I’ve, ah, been bringing a bag each time I visit for the last couple weeks, in case you woke up. Just some things you left at my flat. I couldn’t find any trousers, so I just grabbed a pair of my joggers – which are definitely too big for you, but it should be better than a hospital gown, at least.”

 

Jon feels a grateful smile tug at his lips. He didn’t expect this level of consideration, doesn’t deserve –

 

“We should probably wait until a doctor signs off on your release, though.” Georgie stands and starts to move towards the door. “I’ll go to the nurse’s station, and –”

 

Jon shakes his head. “I cannot imagine what they would have thought of a person who could not die.”  

 

“Well, you can’t just walk out of here. I don’t care how inhuman you think you are, you still need to be cleared for discharge.”

 

“I’ve no interest in becoming a resident medical marvel.”  

 

It’s a hollow excuse. The first time around, the hospital staff couldn’t wait to rush him out the door. He doubts they’d ever processed a discharge so quickly before or since.

 

“Just stay here.” He’s halfway to ripping off his ECG sensors when she shoots him a stern warning glare. “Leave them.”

 

Jon responds with a peevish huff. Those sensors haven’t been connected to anything since the first week he was here. No one wanted to hear the incessant flatline, and –

 

Suddenly, he Knows all about the heated argument that was had regarding his DNR status. He had no next-of-kin to consult, so they were hesitant to mark him as DNR in advance. That meant that, since he was unresponsive – and his case was so unprecedented as to make any speculation regarding an outcome impossible – they should have been trying to resuscitate him.

 

But they’d already tried that, and the consensus was that he should have been declared dead by the first responders. (Rumor was that his boss of all people had managed to convince them to bring him to the hospital for treatment instead.) Under normal circumstances they would have declared time of death several times over by now and moved him to the morgue – except that brain death hadn’t occurred, and it didn’t seem like the absence of a pulse or respiration was having any effect on that in the slightest. Didn’t that render the entire discussion altogether moot?

 

And then Jon Knows how the only reason he was admitted in the first place is because Elias had a brief chat with the director of the hospital. He was, as always, very persuasive.    

 

“I don’t want to hear it,” Georgie says when she hears Jon sigh. She stops at the threshold and looks back at him again just as he starts fiddling with the IV cannula in the crook of his arm. He freezes and folds his hands in his lap, like a toddler caught reaching for the cookie jar. “Jonathan Sims, you’d better still be in bed when I come back.”

 

Jon rolls his eyes, but stays put. As Georgie leaves the room, Basira lets out a soft chuckle.

 

“No wonder she and Melanie get along so well.”

 

Jon refocuses at the mention of Melanie’s name. He makes a circular motion with one hand: Go on. When Basira gives him a blank look, he has a quick rummage through his catalog.

 

“…see any obvious signs of previous slaughter.” Trevor Herbert’s statement leaves a nasty taste in his mouth, but given Basira’s expression, it seems to have gotten his point across.  

 

“Oh, the bullet?” Jon gives an enthusiastic nod. “Yeah, we, uh… we removed it. Melanie was reluctant at first, but I guess Georgie won her over. She’s… recovering. Physically, at least. She’s still angry, but not like before. Mostly, she just seems lost. And…”

 

Basira hesitates.

 

“…whatever protection it might have afforded you is severed.”  

 

“Don’t read my mind, Jon,” Basira snaps.

 

Jon shakes his head: I didn’t.  

 

“Whatever.” She drops into the chair next to his bed. He can see the fatigue in the way her shoulders slump. Basira has always had excellent posture, but right now, she looks ready to crumple. “Brought you a statement, by the way. If you want a fix before we leave.”

 

Something famished and greedy rears up inside him. It’s only with some difficulty that he manages to force it back. He can feel Basira watching him intently, and he avoids meeting her gaze.

 

“Well? Do you want it or not? You have that hungry look to you.”

 

Involuntarily, Jon’s eyes flick to Basira’s bag. He squeezes them shut again, shaking his head.

 

“Hm.”

 

Jon opens one eye and chances a glimpse of Basira. Her poker face is as flawless as always.

 

It’s stale anyway, he tells the persistent thing inside him. You’ve already got that one. Just pull it up and reread it if you want it so badly.  

 

It continues scratching at the door.

 

Can’t you just be satisfied with Oliver’s statement and go back to lurking?

 

He isn’t sure why he’s acting like the craving belongs to something other. The Archivist, the Archive – they’re both him, even if they feel distinct from the human he used to be. It just helps sometimes, to talk to those parts of himself as if they’re backseat drivers. He used to do the same thing to his intrusive thoughts, back when he was still his own person. It wasn’t difficult to adapt his inner monologue to apply it to the Eye’s influence, even if it is ultimately a self-delusion.

 

When Georgie returns, the nurse trailing behind her looks like she would rather be literally anywhere else.  

 

Here we go, Jon thinks sourly.

 


 

The hospital staff are clearly out of their depth. As it turns out, a rotating cast of specialists have been overseeing his case throughout the past six months, but it seems each of them did so for only as long as it took to hand him off to the next unlucky person in line.

 

Once he’s disconnected from all the (mostly inoperative) sensors and monitors, a nurse – he drew the short straw, Jon Knows – goes through the motions of taking his vitals a final time. Jon does him the courtesy of keeping his eyes lowered and tries to ignore the way the man avoids turning his back. He does not speak except to give short instructions – sit up, lay back, hold your arm out straight, take a deep breath – and Jon obeys without saying anything in return.

 

The current attending physician on duty makes only a cursory show of evaluating his condition. During the brief neurological assessment, she makes no comment on the fact that Jon hasn’t verbally answered any questions or even said a word. She’s barely there for twenty minutes before announcing that she should go work on his discharge papers. 

 

“Shouldn’t he have a treatment plan?” Georgie tries. “Or – or referrals for follow-up, or something?”

 

“I, ah, have to discuss things with his treatment team,” the doctor says, already halfway out the door.

 

She doesn’t, Jon Knows. He hasn’t had a treatment team since the first month he was admitted.

 

“This is ridiculous,” Georgie mutters as the door closes.

 

Jon reaches out to touch her arm, and shakes his head when she looks at him.

 

“It is. It’s unprofessional.”

 

“Understandably, I think – it was entirely my own fault.”  

 

“Stop that. You’re still a patient, you deserve some sort of – continuity of care.” When Jon chuckles, Georgie shoots him an indignant look. “What? You do.”

 

Now that there are no lines restricting his movement, he’s finally able to stretch properly. Doing so yields a series of devastating cracks and pops from his joints, and Georgie gives him a horrified look. He just raises his eyebrows at her: What?

 

When he sidles to the edge of the bed and puts his feet on the floor, Georgie stops him with a hand on his shoulder.

 

“Are you sure you’re going to be able to stand?”

 

No, he’s not, but if he has to sit here a moment longer he’s going to lose his goddamn mind.

 

Predictably enough, he does have trouble standing on his own at first, but Georgie has no problem supporting his weight. Even when they were dating, she probably could have picked him up if he’d let her, and he weighs even less now. The bathroom is small, and he waves her off when she offers to help him dress. She hasn’t seen the extent of the scarring on his body, and he’d rather her not. Once he demonstrates his ability to stand using the handrail, she agrees to wait outside, but she stands near the door just in case.

 

Jon shouldn’t be able to stand at all, this soon after waking up from a six-month coma. He should have more muscle atrophy. He should need extensive physical rehab. He should still be in bed. Hell, he should probably be in some research facility somewhere, being poked and prodded and tested every which way.

 

He keeps waiting for the moment Georgie decides it’s all too much, tells him to take care of himself, and leaves.   

 

Although he’s been here before and he knows what to expect, he still has to brace himself before looking at his reflection in the mirror. He’s haggard. Gaunt. His hair isn’t as long as it was where – when – he came from, only barely touching his shoulders now. It needs a wash. The burn on his hand is almost fully healed, but newer looking than he's used to. Same familiar dark circles under his eyes, same familiar speckling of shiny, pockmarked worm scars. His ribs are visible, and – he’s hit with a bolt of panic in the split second before he remembers that, yes, twelve pairs of ribs is the normal amount that he should have. Hopefully this time he can keep all of them.   

 

The eyes staring back at him – only two – are still his own for now, back to the deep brown they’d been for most of his life before the Archive claimed its place. But he can see something sinister skulking behind them even now, and he knows that everyone else will be able to see it, too.

 

When he emerges dressed in a What the Ghost hoodie two sizes too big and practically swimming in a pair of Georgie’s joggers, he’s surprised to see that she’s still here. That she hasn’t changed her mind and written him off yet.

 

“Better?” she asks, and he nods appreciatively, if a bit timidly. “Sorry it’s not more your size.”

 

Jon doesn’t care. He hasn’t been this comfortable in… well, he doesn’t feel like calculating the time frame of the apocalypse. He doesn’t wait for the Beholding’s disapproval to hit him before he sends it a silent rebuff. At this point, it’s just reflex.

 

“I found you a wheelchair,” Basira says from across the room. “Just in case you need it.”

 

As she gives him a measured look, he feels like he’s being tested. It makes sense. The speedier his recovery, the less human he seems. But he isn’t going to feign infirmity. They deserve the truth from him.

 

There is a familiar dull ache in his bad leg, though. He could do with a cane, but his should be in his office about this time, and he doesn’t want Georgie to have to support half his weight until he has a chance to retrieve it. 

 

“Well?”

 

He wavers a moment longer, then nods an affirmative and has a seat.

 

Just then, the door opens and a nurse enters, a new one this time. Jon makes the mistake of looking up, and when their eyes meet, he Knows that she has a story to tell.

 

The sound he makes as he claps his hands over his eyes is something like a strangled, panicked whimper.

 

“Jon?” Georgie places a hand on his shoulder.

 

“Oh, um… sorry if I startled you, uh – Mr. Sims. I have some paperwork here, we just need some signatures before you –”

 

When she was nine years old, she was playing with friends in a drainage ditch. It was nearly dusk when they dared her to enter the tunnel, but she always was the bravest of them. She –

 

Jon digs the heels of his palms into his eyes until he sees sparks, rocking back and forth slightly to distract himself from the compulsion snaking its roots through his thoughts.

 

– spent days wandering the gloom, and all the while, the frantic calls of the search parties echoed off the walls. Whenever she tried to call out a response, it would tighten its grip on her ankle: that warbling, mangled, broken-jawed thing with the –

 

“Leave it here,” Basira says curtly, crossing the room in a few long strides. “I’ll bring it to you when we’re finished.”

 

Jon can discern the shape of the statement, but it’s not enough. He needs her story. She needs to tell it in her own words. She has to walk through that tunnel again, relive every twist and turn and shade of terror, and he has to experience it alongside her, all eyes

 

“O-okay,” the nurse stammers, “I just – I thought I saw –”

 

– a second shadow, starkly visible even in the deepest dark, all dislocated joints and distorted –

 

Basira shuts the door on her mid-sentence and turns to face Jon.

 

“Jon. What was that?”

 

“…you’re not going to give the Watcher a statement,” he says, panting shallowly, hands still pressed to his eyelids. “You’re better than that.”  

 

He isn’t sure whether he’s saying it for himself or for Basira. Both, maybe.

 

“She… has a statement?” Jon nods. “And you could tell just by looking at her?” Another nod. “That’s… hmm.”

 

“I could hear in her voice that she was afraid of him.” His elbows dig bruises into his thighs as he leans forward and draws his shoulders in tighter. "I was, too.”  

 

“Does covering your eyes actually help?” Georgie asks, giving his shoulder a light squeeze. An attempt at grounding him. It helps.

 

“…it was enough to ease the relentless pressure,” he says, “if only a little bit.”  

 

Jon pauses for a moment as he selects another statement.

 

“…wear a cloth across his face – hold my hand in front of my eyes –”

 

“Oh,” Georgie says, understanding. “Hang on.”

 

She withdraws her hand, but Jon can still feel her standing over him. A few moments later something is being lowered over his face. He goes rigid.

 

“It’s just my scarf, Jon. I thought we could use it as a blindfold.” Jon signals assent. “Okay. You can put your hands down now. Just keep your eyes closed.”

 

He waits patiently while she ties the scarf off at the back of his head and adjusts it, ensuring that it covers his eyes completely.

 

“Better?”

 

Jon lets out a shaky breath and nods. It’s a lengthy scarf and one end sits in his lap. He takes it in his hands and runs his fingers over the fabric: a nice texture, soft and warm and comforting. He wonders if – no, Knows now – Georgie knitted it herself.

 

For a few moments the room is quiet but for the scratching of pen on paper as Basira forges Jon’s signature on the paperwork.      

 

“I’ll go hand this over and then we can get out of here,” she says brusquely. “Don’t take off the blindfold until we’re back in the Archives.”  

 

Jon wasn’t planning on it.

Chapter Text

Jon is physically alone for the first time since he woke up, and he hates it.

 

The tunnel is bleak and empty except for a circle of five rickety chairs, brought down by Basira and Georgie in preparation for their… well, calling it a strategy meeting would be generous. It’s bound to be more like an interrogation, at least at first. A maddening one, considering his current circumstances.

 

He could sit. He should sit. Instead, he paces – nearly limps, really – in circles near the bottom of the ladder leading up to the trapdoor entrance of the tunnels, practically vibrating with restless energy. Every time he puts weight on his bad leg, a shooting pain races from his knee to his hip, like a spark traveling through a live wire. It’s grounding, in a way. Still, he probably should have stopped by his office first for his cane.

 

Or he could just take a seat until Georgie and Basira return with the others, but something about sitting there surrounded by four empty chairs makes his loneliness feel more acute.      

 

Stop being dramatic, he chides himself. They’ll be back soon.  

 

In his defense, he’s always hated the tunnels, and for good reason. Historically, coming down here has often ended badly for him. The trapdoor is still open, which takes some of the edge off, but ultimately it’s no more comforting to him than a dying nightlight would be to a child in the throes of sleep paralysis: the monster under the bed might just be a hypnogogic hallucination, but try telling that to a terrified child. Even for an adult, knowing that would be no consolation in the moment, when that alien presence in the darkened room is hovering just overhead.

 

That’s not even a good comparison, though, is it? The monsters that Jon has met down here have all been very, very real. 

 

He scratches absently at his worm scars, trying not to think about Jane Prentiss and the death knell of a writhing, withering hive. He tries not to think about the Distortion, but he still finds himself double-checking the walls for a door that shouldn’t be there, dreading its sudden manifestation – he really isn’t ready to see Helen again yet. He tries not to think about the NotThem – still down here, just waiting to be set loose again. He tries not to think of Jonah Magnus’ undying body waiting in the Panopticon with its empty eye sockets, or Gertrude’s remains left moldering for months just under their feet, or what became of Jurgen Leitner – and, of course, now that’s all he can think about. 

 

Jon has seen worse since then, but that sight haunts him: the unrecognizable lump of meat and bone where the man’s face used to be, bits of brain matter and skull fragments littering the floor around him, the steady drip-drip-drip of gore from the lead pipe, its end left hanging over the edge of the desk. When Jon returned to work months later, he would still find overlooked droplets of blood spatter from time to time, and it was a constant reminder of his own failing. The answers were right there, and if he had only stayed to listen to what Leitner had to say, maybe Jon could have put all the pieces together sooner. But no, he was overwhelmed and frightened, and he ran away instead of staying to deal with it. And he’d needed a cigarette. 

 

It should have been enough to turn him off nicotine, but it still took the end of the world for him to leave off smoking – and even then, he’d really only replaced it with a different vice, hadn’t he?

 

Jon nearly jumps out of his skin at the first squeak of a footfall on the top rung of the ladder.

 

“Well, Martin isn’t coming,” Basira says as she climbs down.  

 

“So this was all reasonably distressing, but at least it had the advantage of not being unexpected.”  

 

Basira reaches the bottom of the ladder and brushes her hands off on her trousers before giving Jon an appraising look.

 

“I really can’t tell if you’re being sarcastic, or if that’s just the best statement you had lying around.”

 

Jon shrugs. Honestly, it’s a little of both.  

 

And he hadn’t been expecting Basira to return with Martin. It seemed safe to assume that the situation with the Lonely would be more or less the same as it had been the last time. Apparently he was right not to get his hopes up.

 

“Peter’s office was locked and no one answered when I called. And Martin’s office was empty. Freezing, too, like he was blasting the air conditioning.”

 

“Lends itself to isolation well,” Jon says distractedly, still pacing. Well, limping. “Too well, sometimes.” 

 

You’re being ominous again, Martin’s voice plays in Jon’s head – which brings on alternating waves of affection and grief and worry and, yes, pining, all rolled up into a nebulous ball of feeling that Jon… really isn’t equipped to untangle right now. 

 

The discord must show on his face, because Basira is staring at him, her expression hovering somewhere between unimpressed and curious.

 

“Uh huh,” she says eventually, apparently opting not to ask for clarification.

 

The silence that settles between them then is neither awkward nor comfortable. It’s a muffled, creeping sort of tension, like the hush of a courtroom in deliberation: full of sentences not yet determined, culpability not yet assigned, and the looming promise of a judgment to be made. Jon doesn’t know if he’s defendant, plaintiff, or some voiceless, unnamed victim. Maybe all three.

 

It isn’t long before he hears footsteps above, followed by Georgie descending the ladder. Melanie climbs down after her, Georgie standing at the bottom to steady her.

 

One look at Melanie, and Jon can see the strain writ large in her demeanor. Her jaw is set and clenched, her spine is braced and rigid, and her entire body looks taut, like a coiled spring brimming with potential energy. She looks, in a word, volatile: a bundle of frayed nerves and brittle composure.

 

She turns and her sight locks onto Jon, pinning him in place like a moth to a board. She stands stock-still for what feels like an interminable moment, eyes wide and dazed-looking.    

 

Then, in the span of a blink, she’s directly in front of him, grabbing hold of his jumper in two fists and nearly knocking him off his feet.

 

“How do I quit, Jon?” Melanie asks, her voice wavering on the edge of breaking. “Jon. Jon, tell me – tell me – tell me right now or I’ll – I’ll –”

 

Meeting her eyes fully for the briefest of moments, Jon can see the raw desperation there. The first time around, she was all hatred and rage. There was fear there, too, but the all-consuming wrath of the Slaughter kept it at bay. This time, she’s been stripped of that armor.

 

Jon and Melanie have always had more in common than either of them like to admit. The insatiable curiosity, the stubborn willfulness, the habitual distrust, the visceral fear of being trapped and controlled. How they’ve both lived their lives on tenterhooks, constantly waiting on bated breath to be underestimated or condemned or dismissed. The preemptive antagonism they both cloak themselves in to ward off and conceal that chronic feeling of insecurity that hangs over them. It’s really no wonder they rubbed each other the wrong way from the moment they first met.

 

But Melanie neither wants nor needs that flavor of empathy right now, especially from him. It’s difficult enough to weather the sheer vulnerability of being seen and known and understood by another human. When an Avatar of the Eye Sees and Knows someone, it’s like being flayed alive.

 

And in that fleeting moment, when Jon looks into Melanie’s eyes, he sees – and Sees – himself. When he breaks line of sight, it’s for himself as much as it is for her.

 

Then Georgie is there, hand on Melanie’s shoulder, her tone of voice so very familiar: unyielding and soothing all at once.

 

“Hey, hey – he’s going to explain, yeah?”

 

“I – I –” Melanie makes a distraught, wounded noise.

 

“Trust me. Jon promised to explain, and he will. Right, Jon?”

 

“I’m here to provide a statement – and I will,” Jon says, nodding yes, yes, yes, trying to pour as much sincerity into it as he can without actually reestablishing eye contact. “And I promise it will be relevant by the end.” 

 

Melanie bounces on the balls of her feet, eyes darting to and fro as she wages a war with herself. When she finally releases her grip on him, her fists immediately go up to ball in her hair instead.

 

“Please?” she says desperately, almost wails, as if Jon is withholding the information arbitrarily, just to see her beg. It stings. He was prepared for this – the bullet is gone, but the effects haven’t completely disappeared just yet, and it was never just the Slaughter fueling Melanie’s distrust and resentment – but it still feels like layering more bruises atop a sore spot. “Please just – just tell me, just –”

 

“He will, Melanie,” Georgie says gently. “It might take some time – remember I said he’s having trouble speaking? But he’s –”

 

“Keeping secrets – like Elias –”

 

Jon visibly flinches. The shame creeps up on him immediately after. His head is bowed, but he Knows that the way she’s looking at him right now is the same way she looks at Elias – at Jonah Magnus. And what right does he have to take offense to that? 

 

It’s not an unexpected comparison. It’s not even an unfair comparison. Even if he was unwitting and unwilling, he was still Jonah’s accomplice. Intent doesn’t matter much when the consequences mean the end of the world, does it? Some actions are unforgivable, no matter the intention, no matter the remorse, and no matter the reparations made in the aftermath. The victims in the domains he passed through, on those rare occasions when they could actually perceive his presence, would see no distinction between him and their tormentors. Even his fellow monsters saw him as an apex predator – and they were right to.   

 

So, yes, it’s a logical comparison. He’s the one who opened the door. He’s the one with the blood on his hands. He's the one whose existence became synonymous with the Ceaseless Watcher. Jonah didn’t have to lift a finger. Of the two of them, Jon is the one with the true destructive potential.

 

And just because it hasn’t happened yet from this timeline’s perspective, and just because Jon would readily sacrifice himself before letting it happen again, doesn’t make the wrong – or the guilt – go away. Even if he’s the only one to remember it, all that suffering happened, and it happened because of him, and he has the power to make it happen again. The potential lurks there, not too far under the surface. It’s a power no one should have, least of all the only one who’s actually used it.  

 

“Can you sit down for me, Melanie?” Georgie is saying now. “Jon can’t explain if we don’t give him some space to talk, yeah?”

 

Melanie is shaking with pent-up energy, but she allows Georgie to guide her to a nearby chair. She collapses into it and hunches over, bringing her knuckles to her mouth and biting down with a frustrated whimper. One foot is tapping rapid-fire on the floor. The rest of her is drawn taut as a bowstring.

 

Georgie hooks another chair with her foot and drags it closer until it rests flush with Melanie’s. As soon as she sits, Melanie presses up against her and Georgie puts an arm around her shoulders, drawing her close. She allows Georgie to gently guide her hand down and away from her mouth. Jon catches a brief glimpse of the indented tooth marks before Georgie coaxes her fist open to intertwine their fingers together.

 

“Right,” Basira says, folding her arms and squaring her shoulders. “Talk, Jon. What’s going on?”

 

For a moment, he just stands there. His right leg is trembling badly now, shot through with pain, so he puts all his weight onto his left. He lets his hands hang at his sides, fingers flexing and rubbing together nervously as he tries to order his thoughts.   

 

Where to start? How to start? 

 

He can feel three pairs of eyes boring into him now.

 

“Jon,” Basira says again.

 

Just start talking, Jon thinks, and he does.

 

“The Eye – Jonah – has marked me for something – his talk of a grand ritual – to try and wear the Watcher’s Crown.”  

 

It comes out all in one breath, and for an unbearably long stretch, they all just stare at him.

 

“Okay, hang on, you already need to slow down,” Georgie says, speaking softly so as not to jostle Melanie, whose head now rests on her shoulder. “Who is Jonah, and what's the Watcher’s Crown?” 

 

“Jonah Magnus?” Basira asks, brow furrowed.

 

“I will call him ‘Elias,’ for that is how I’ve known him for most of our… acquaintance.”  

 

Elias is –”

 

“…originally known as Jonah Magnus, the founder of this Institute – also as James Wright, the previous head of this Institute.”  

 

“What?” say all three women simultaneously, Melanie jerking upright now.  

 

“It was so very close – the grand ritual – would open the door to a world of – the fear,” Jon says before any of them can interrupt further, stopping and starting like a scratched record as he splices together the scattered fragments of a single statement. “We were to slice a hole in the world, and this – fear – would flow through the wound – that I had created.”  

 

He pauses, debating, before…

 

“I was complete,” he adds. They should know what he became – what he is.  

 

“Okay,” Basira says, pacing now, “so Elias – Magnus – whatever – wants to try his turn at a ritual.” She doesn’t wait for Jon’s affirmative before asking the first of many questions that no doubt just skyrocketed to the top of her list: “What’s your part in it?”

 

…a battery, a ready source of constant terror.”  

 

Jon pauses to scan his library.

 

“…to unlock and open the door.”  

 

“Right,” Basira mutters, massaging her forehead: a familiar gesture that Jon has seen many times before, whenever she’s trying to solve a problem or devise a strategy. “And how is it you know this?”

 

“…travel through time,”  Jon says simply, thankful to find those words in exactly that order only once in the Archive’s stores. He isn’t a poet; he's grateful for any opportunity to avoid speaking through symbolism. 

 

“You have got to be kidding me.” Melanie’s hands curl into white-knuckled fists on her knees.

 

“I’m honestly not, I’m dead serious.”  

 

“Bullshit,” Melanie and Georgie say together – Melanie scathingly, Georgie simply in bewildered, almost amused disbelief – just as Basira says, “How?”  

 

“Statement of Anya Villette, regarding a cleaning job on Hill Top Road.”  

 

“The Anya Villette who never existed?” Basira asks.

 

“And then I noticed the crack. It seemed to split the floor right down the middle; it was –”  

“– a scar in reality, that I believe has since been compounded by the interferences of other powers –”  

 

“I get the idea,” Basira cuts him off, just as Melanie, face buried in Georgie’s shoulder again, mumbles something unintelligible.

 

“Well, I don't. Anyone care to enlighten me?” Georgie asks. At Melanie’s muffled reply, she adds, with an indulgent little smile: “Melanie? You have an audience of one right now, and it’s my jumper.”

 

Melanie picks her head up and scowls at Georgie, who just laughs softly and smooths an unruly lock of hair down behind Melanie’s ear. The gesture seems to have a potent effect on Melanie, whose shoulders relax for the first time since she made her appearance.

 

“Crack in the foundation of a spooky house,” she says, sounding almost calm now. “May or may not lead to a parallel universe. Or something.”

 

“Like… what, a wormhole?” Georgie asks.

 

Melanie shrugs. “Or something.”

 

Jon doesn’t realize he’s grinning until Melanie glares at him and demands, “What?”

 

When Jon shakes his head – Nothing, nothing! – Georgie has to stifle a laugh.

 

“Back to the point.” Basira fixes Jon with a keen look.  

 

“I had been offered the chance to return,”  Jon says simply. He doesn’t exactly have the words to get caught up in semantics right now, even if he wanted to.

 

“Bullshit,” Melanie mutters again, but there’s little bite to it this time.

 

“Jon, this is…” There’s a soft hiss as Georgie sucks air in through her teeth. “It’s really hard to believe. You realize that, yeah?”

 

“But the only other explanation I could come up with was that Alex was lying, and I just needed to look at her to know that was even less likely.”  

 

Jon keeps his eyes downcast, unsure of how Georgie will feel about hearing her statement used. A long, agonizing few seconds pass, Jon picking absently at the back of his hand, before she gives a nervous chuckle, and Jon lets out the breath he was holding.

 

“Okay,” she sighs. “Fair enough.”

 

“You believe him?” Melanie asks – but with genuine curiosity this time, hostile skepticism discarded for the time being.

 

“Well, I doubt he’s lying, at least. Jon can’t tell a lie to save his life. Especially not to me. So…” Georgie puffs her cheeks out and exhales heavily through her nose. “Either it’s true, or he’s mistaken, and… well, I think the former is more likely, given, you know – everything else.”

 

Unfortunately, Jon thinks wryly. If only he could chalk it up to a coma-induced fever dream, or even a complex but mundane delusion – something serious, but with an avenue of treatment. No, he actually is a red button one invocation away from initiating the apocalypse. So to speak. He's not a poet, he tells himself again, but he seems to be growing accustomed to speaking figuratively nonetheless. He isn’t sure how to feel about that.  

 

“Set all of that aside for now,” Basira says, watching Jon carefully. “For the sake of moving the discussion forward, let’s assume for the moment that I believe you. You’re saying you have memories of the future?” Jon nods. “How far ahead?”

 

A full minute passes as Jon thumbs through statements. His mounting frustration must show, because Basira rephrases the question: “How close did Elias come to completing his ritual, where you came from?”

 

Now, reluctantly, Jon actually does make eye contact.

 

“That’s why I’m here: because I didn’t dream that. It happened.”  

 

Basira’s expression is unreadable.

 

“I hope someday I’ll forget what I saw when I opened that door, but I won’t,” he says quietly, looking down at his hands.  

 

“You keep talking about a door –”

 

“…for the most part – treat it as though I’m talking in metaphors,” he says with a resigned sigh.

 

“Right,” Basira says under her breath. “So that makes you, what, a key?”  

 

Jon shuts his eyes tight, forcing back the tears quickly gathering there.

 

“Jon.”

 

“There isn’t a day goes by I don’t curse myself,” he blurts out, the words cascading off his tongue one after the other in a flood. “Soon I was giving my account as a full confession, and I could not keep from crying as I described what happened – I have never felt despair on the sheer scale I did at that moment –”  

 

“Jon,” Basira says forcefully, and he comes to an abrupt halt, like a jammed cassette tape. “Focus.”

 

She’s right, he thinks to himself. He ended the world and here he is making it about how it made him feel. Perspective.

 

“So,” Melanie says flatly. “You kick-started the apocalypse.”   

 

She sounds more disbelieving than condemnatory – and Jon isn’t sure why that’s what does it, but one tear finally trickles loose. He hurriedly rubs it away with his sleeve.

 

“I tried to tell them what happened, they looked at me like I was making it all up.” A bitter, brittle laugh. “At least, when they could stand to look at me at all.”  

 

“Jon.” He recoils at the sound of Georgie’s voice, calm and quiet as it is. “I’m going to ask you a question. It’s not an accusation, and it’s not a judgment. Okay?” Not yet, he thinks, but he nods. “Did you know what you were doing?” When he starts to shake his head no, she holds a hand up to stay him. “I’m not asking whether you knew exactly what would happen. I’m asking if you opened a door not knowing what was behind it – not intending harm, but taking the risk of hurting yourself, or – or someone else, just because –”

 

“…my curiosity was the fault that brought this on me?”  

 

“Yeah.” Georgie says nothing else until he looks at her. “Did you find yourself in a situation where you could have walked away, and didn’t?”

 

It’s a loaded question, all tangled up in the Web with all those nagging doubts about choice and fault. He had plenty of time during the apocalypse to inventory all the watershed moments in his life, scrutinizing each and every crossroads, weighing evidence of free will against the illusion of choice, navigating his impossibly blurred boundary between personal accountability and victim blaming. At what points could he have walked away? Which point of no return had been his last, his most reprehensible?  

 

“I’m not talking about in a broad sense,” Georgie says, sensing his characteristic descent into rumination. “I’m talking about the specific event, ritual – whatever. Could you have walked away in that moment? Could you have just not opened the door?”

 

As much as Jon feels he’s to blame for what happened… he had been trying to walk away, hadn’t he? He and Martin both. Martin reminded him of that constantly – they were trying to get out, get away, get better. Jon didn’t go looking for a grenade to jump on. Jonah came looking for him.

 

So he forces his way through a lifetime’s accumulation of self-loathing, and he shakes his head no.  

 

“Tried to escape it, but some things follow you no matter where you go.”  

 

How is it that that one sentence – confronting that longstanding loss of control, admitting the extent to which he’s been subjugated – is so liberating yet so unbearably terrifying at the same time? Survivor’s guilt and self-blame have only ever been a poison, and yet they were a comforting shield all the same, offering some semblance of agency, however tenuous. For so long, it had seemed like a fair tradeoff.

 

Georgie nods, apparently satisfied with his answer. “Okay.”

 

“You believe him?” Melanie asks again.

 

“Yeah.” Georgie shrugs. “Jon blames himself for everything. If he’s willing to say he didn’t have a choice, I can believe that.”

 

Jon looks away, feeling uncomfortably seen. Georgie’s perceptiveness isn’t new, but it never gets any less mortifying to have it turned on him.

 

“So how did it happen then?” Basira asks coolly.

 

“Statement of Jonah Magnus regarding Jonathan Sims, the Archivist,” Jon says.

 

On reflex, he claps both hands over his mouth, suddenly flooded with the sense memories of Jonah sliding into his skin and wresting that last little bit of personhood away from him. Ever since that moment, Jon has had a knee-jerk association between the sound of his own voice and Jonah Magnus’ monologue. He wonders – doubts – whether that association will ever go away. Most of the time, it's in the background. Other times – like now – it's like the ground falls out from underneath him and he's dropped right back into that memory. It's unpredictable and largely inescapable. It’s difficult to avoid a trigger when that trigger is your own voice.

 

He’s learned to live with these moments when they overtake him. Or, rather, enough time has passed for him to become at least somewhat desensitized to it. Most days, he can swallow the nausea, dissociate from the panic, and relax into a temporary state of numbness that should probably worry him more than it does. On bad days, he just doesn’t speak. The latter isn’t an option right now. So, he reaches for that familiar detachment.  

 

But as he walks himself back from the edge and the seconds pass by, he realizes that they’re expecting him to recount the statement for them.

 

“…not – reading this statement out loud,” he manages to choke out.

 

“But he gave you a statement.” Basira says. It’s not a question. Jon makes a vague tilting motion with one hand and gives a half-nod: Sort of? Basira’s eyes narrow. “Or did you compel him to give you a statement?”

 

Jon shakes his head, making a diagonal slicing motion down through the air with one hand for emphasis: No.

 

“But he offered you a statement, and you accepted it?”

 

Growing frantic now, Jon shakes his head vehemently: No, no, no, no, no –

 

“Then what?”

 

“…chased me – deceit – follow me” – a skip backwards – “read it – tried to read me back –”  

 

“Jon, slow down,” Georgie says, sensing his onrush of panic – but he can’t.

 

“I’ve been tricked into –“  

“– unable to look away –“  

“– there was now a tragedy to it that flowed from the words –”  

“– nothing to do but fall into it – it felt right, like it was all I could do –”  

 

The words come in a halting staccato, his mind speeding through statement after statement without him like a microfiche machine caught on fast-forward.

 

“– even as I did so, in the back of my mind I hated myself –”  

“– I didn’t stop, though – didn’t know what to do, and my mind was swimming with – the collective horror of all the things that I had seen and felt –”  

“– I struggled and fought, but it was far stronger than I was, and I could barely keep its jagged teeth from finding my throat –”  

 

One hand finds his throat now. He can only distantly feel fingernails digging into his skin.

 

“– ’alien’ might be the best word for that presence – because what it made me feel was –”  

“– something in the back of my mind, a frantic, scuttling terror – didn’t do any good, though – no matter what I might feel about it – choice didn’t even come into it –”  

 

The Archive was born with a purpose, and it fulfilled its role eagerly, skillfully, instinctively. It felt good, it felt right, and even now, the instinct lingers. He misses it. He craves it. He wants it back. He –

 

“ – the agony of being opened and remade – to have your who torn bloody from your what, and another crudely lashed into its place –“  

 

There is a rushing noise in his ears, drowning everything out, and he stumbles –

 

“– I did what I did because it was what I was supposed to do – I’m not sure I really recognize who I became –“  

 

Both hands go to his mouth again, clamping down in an attempt to stop the flood, but he’s stuck on a loop, a broken record, a scratched disc, a –

 

“– it felt right, like it was all I could do – felt right – it was – right – all I could do – all I – do –”   

 

He bites his tongue and he tastes blood.

 

“– the flowing tide that swarmed and scuttled as soon as the door opened – the door opened – the door opened –”  

 

Since when does an Archive have blood? Since when does an Archive have a will? How can an Archive be more than it is, what it was made for, what it is destined for? 

 

“– it felt right –”  

 

Vertigo. A body listing sideways. A name being called.

 

Someone’s hands are on someone’s shoulders. Why does the Archive know that? It cannot Know anything here; that isn’t right; this is not where it belongs –

 

“Jon!” Georgie’s voice finally reaches him. Georgie’s hands on his shoulders, steadying him. His blood rushing in his ears. His name being called. “Breathe.”

 

He can’t. He can’t.

 

His bad leg finally buckles beneath him, but Georgie catches him and holds him upright.  

 

“Catch your breath. There’s no hurry.”

 

Jon watches, unfocused, as Melanie brings her knuckles to her mouth again and chomps down, clearly biting back a strong dissent. Basira has no such qualms.

 

“Actually, there is,” she says. Georgie glares at her. “Sorry, but we need to know the rest. Gather your thoughts, Jon.”

 

Jon shuts his eyes, tense and miserable with teeth clenched, hands curled into fists, fingernails biting into his palms. The Archive frequently used to lose control like that when Jon first started losing his voice – especially during his early attempts to suppress it – but it’s been awhile since it’s unraveled to such an extent.

 

“Sit down,” Georgie says emphatically, coaxing him down into a nearby empty chair. “Breathe.”

 

It takes several minutes for him to fully convince himself that that’s even something he can do, and a few more to actually feel himself doing it. The edges of his mind finally brush against that hazy, detached calm, and he lets it take him. As his breathing begins to even out, he motions for Basira to continue.  

 

“So Elias gave you a statement.” Jon gives a listless nod. “And you hearing it was part of the ritual?” Jon shakes his head. “Reading it, then? Out loud?” Another wordless nod. “And you did it.” Jon ducks his head and stares fixedly at his hands, clasped tightly in his lap. “Why? What did he do – corner you, project horrors into your mind, hold a gun to your head? What could he have possibly done to convince you to help him at the cost of the rest of the world?”

 

This would be much easier if he could give them Jonah’s statement in full, but he knows he wouldn’t be able to get through it. Even if he could, it feels like an unnecessary risk to speak any of the actual statement aloud, even the parts that don’t include the actual invocation.

 

“…not – choosing to continue reading this statement out loud,” he says, borrowing from Annabelle instead. “But think about it, Jon. When’s the last time you were able to read a statement quietly to yourself without instinctively hitting record and speaking it aloud – by then you’re away; the roller coaster is dropping, and you’ve no real choice but to hold on and hope that – I don’t crash you.”  

 

“So it’s like compulsion?” Basira asks.

 

“Statement of Jonah Magnus,” he forces himself to say, “regarding Jonathan Sims” – a pained grimace – “the Archivist.”  

 

He has to catch his breath again before continuing.

 

“…felt a… a presence within myself, inside my being. It was a feeling so utterly awful it’s hard to put it into words. Like a reflex reaction, your muscles moving without any instruction from your mind, but rather than a quick twitch of the leg, it’s a slow movement of your jaw, your lips, forming your mouth into words – I could not deny then that there was something inside me.”  

 

He casts about for the next statement in his queue.

 

“And I read them. I read them all, and saw the doom of everyone who lives and breathes and hopes for life and happiness. They were pouring from the air around me and threaded through my mind, and no matter how I begged, they would not stop –”  

 

Another pause; another fragment.

 

“– and then the sky blinks.”   

 

The others stare at him – whether processing the information or just waiting to see if there’s more, Jon doesn’t know. 

 

“Okay,” Basira says under her breath. Then, speaking up: “Could it happen again? If you were given the statement again – today, right now – would you be compelled to read it?”

 

“Yes. At least I think so.”  

 

“And would it have the same effect as it did before?”

 

Jon signals a maybe, but it's like someone else is moving his hands. He's floating somewhere outside himself and when he speaks, his voice no longer feels like a part of him. And that's fine. Good, even. It means that Jonah Magnus can't touch him.  

 

“I was marked –”  

“– I had a few close calls myself – that marked me so distinctively –”  

 

Jon brandishes his burned hand, motions at the scar on his throat, points out the several worm scars visible on his exposed hands, neck, and face – all of it happening in slow motion, somewhere far away from him.   

 

“Every moment moved us towards, towards the completion of the task and the culmination of our charge’s terror –”  

“– fourteen powers – each with an aim no more or less than manifestation. Apocalypse. Apotheosis.”  

 

“Fourteen.” Basira speaks soundlessly to herself for a few moments. When she speaks up again, it's with a suddenness that startles Jon halfway out of his daze. “Coming in contact with all of the Powers – is that a necessary condition? For the ritual to work?”

 

Basira may not have been a detective, but she could have been, Jon thinks. He makes an affirmative noise, adding: “The marks won’t come off, no matter how hard I scrub.”  

 

“But you aren’t marked by all of them. Not yet.”

 

Jon frowns and gives an exaggerated shrug: I’m not sure.

 

“There was still a chance – of this strange ritual –”  

“– having been there once already –”  

“– lingered in my mind and –”  

“– some thought – she was powerful enough already –”  

“– I wonder, are those same words still there, squatting and biding their time, or have they already changed into some new unknown terror that I can neither know nor avoid, waiting to spring on me –”  

“ – I can feel it sometimes like it’s still there –”  

 

 “This read-between-the-lines bullshit is like a literary analysis assignment,” Melanie grumbles.

 

“Meaningless strings of words, or weird little fragments of poetry – repeated over and over again, hundreds of times,” Jon agrees, gesticulating to emphasize that the frustration is very much shared. “Vague, occasionally contradictory descriptions of what they actually wanted – broken or algorithmic English – had to scroll through almost word by word –”  

 

“Jon,” Basira says tersely.

 

“…the words we use are clumsy, vague things, always at the whim of interpretation and decay,” Jon concludes quickly, unable to resist getting in the last word.

 

Basira paces slowly back and forth. “So you might still be marked by all Fourteen.”

 

Jon gives an affirmative, but this point requires elaboration. He stares into the middle distance as he consults the Archive.

 

“I know your work brings you into contact with all sorts of fantastical terrors –”  

“– it warps us and changes us and feeds on us – that’s the only part any of them beyond actually care about – they only care about what feels right, what freezes your belly with terror –”  

 

“Jon, answer the question,” Basira says.

 

He is answering the question. He points at his mouth and hopes his meaning is clear: Listen to what I am saying.

 

“…the fear never really went away. I’ve heard that being exposed to the source of your terror over and over again can help break its power over you, numb you to it, but in my experience –”  

“– it is an enduring terror –”  

 

“Yes, we get it, you’re traumatized,” Melanie hisses. “We’re all traumatized.”

 

Jon shakes his head, increasingly exasperated: You’re not getting it.

 

He takes a breath and continues, haphazardly seizing on any snippets that come close to his intent:

 

“…he still got terrible nightmares –”  

“– I remember feeling a surge of terror –”  

“ – can remember how it felt –”  

 

“Can you stop being self-centered for one minute?” Melanie growls.

 

Jon makes an upset noise and looks to Georgie, willing her to understand.

 

“I remember it so clearly –”  

“ – I remember it like it was yesterday –”

“ – no matter what happens to me, the memory of that – panicked terror will stay with me –”  

 

He traces an X mark on his forehead with one finger, not breaking eye contact.

 

“Oh,” Georgie exhales, and Jon watches her expectantly. “Psychological scars. As long as you remember the experience – the trauma – it still counts as a – a ‘mark?’”

 

Jon nods vigorously.

 

“Oh,” Basira echoes. “That figures,” she says with a huff. “The fear itself is the scar, then. The feeling is all that matters to them.”

 

It’s not a question, but Jon confirms it anyway, finally stumbling across a suitable statement:  

 

“…the damage wasn’t something they could see – I knew they went further, went deeper than would show on my skin – just went on and on and on, far beyond me.”  

 

That should be clear enough. He wishes he could have gone with that to –

 

“You should have gone with that to begin with,” Melanie mutters.

 

“…had to scroll through almost word by word,” Jon snaps back. He could put the conversation on hold every time he has to speak, spend long stretches of time consulting the Archive to find the closest approximation to his meaning, but he doesn’t have the patience for that, and neither does anyone else. He’s long since taken to grabbing whatever is nearest to the top of the pile, so to speak.

 

Melanie rolls her eyes. She doesn’t seem particularly angry with him, though, just tired and irritable in general – and they both always have had this effect on one another. It’s almost comforting, to slide so easily into that old routine.

 

As the seconds tick by and it becomes clear to Jon that the others are speechless, he breaks the silence.

 

“But you know how – sometimes you quit because you want to, and sometimes you quit because you’ve got to?”  

 

That piques Melanie’s interest.

 

“…a way out,” he continues, “a way to escape.”   

 

Everyone’s eyes are on him again.

 

“…that James could watch us from any eye, even an illustration. What did you do? How did you sever that link?”   

 

He watches them back, waiting for the penny to drop.

 

“…to cause me to blind myself, for I shall not deny I did so willingly –”  

 

He closes his eyes, rests his thumbs over the lids, and presses gently. 

 

“Fuck off,” Georgie whispers, and Jon only barely keeps from laughing, remembering Martin’s identical reaction. 

 

“So we just have to blind ourselves?” Melanie asks evenly. Georgie shoots her a worried look.

 

“Just so long as they’re useless,” Jon confirms.  

 

Melanie is staring off into space, cool and collected, as if the solution Jon just presented is as simple and painless as flipping a switch. He supposes it is simple, in its own way. Painless, not so much.   

 

“Is that the only way?” Basira asks.

 

Jon shakes his head no. “I was left with pretty much two options.”  

 

“Okay, and what’s the other?” Georgie asks, still watching Melanie’s blasé reaction with apprehension.

 

“One sacrifice,” Jon says. “Just one.”  

 

“And?” Basira presses. “What is it?”  

 

Jon swallows hard. He’s realizing now that he hates accessing statements he collected after the world ended, but there’s nothing for it.

 

“Angus Stacey had, in the long tradition of Institute Archivists – died,” he begins, pausing to rewind and reorder the statement. “And – when Angus Stacey died – she had the chance to walk away.”  

 

A drawn, heavy silence in which Jon feels… nothing. Maybe the dissociative haze didn't entirely clear after all. Or maybe he’s just tired from this prolonged, slapdash communion with the Archive. It always does take a lot out of him. 

 

“…there are plenty whose lives might well have been easier with my death,” he continues, just in case they need further clarification.

 

Georgie goes rigid. “Jon –”

 

“Are you even able to die at this point?” Basira interrupts.

 

“I had no guarantee it was even possible for me to die,” Jon admits.  

 

Then:“…it was likely he was no longer human enough for me to remove him without the aid of – a Hunter.”  

 

Basira gives a contemplative hum. “Without you, Elias can’t initiate his ritual,” she points out. It’s not a question.

 

Jon nods. But it isn't that simple. 

 

“…just a small delay –”  

“– even if it was only brief or might compromise some of the work –”  

“– he would return eventually, when he was finished with –”  

“– lying low, recovering, before returning –”  

“– look into appointing a successor –”  

“– began what would eventually become a campaign of – terror –”  

“– eventually the door opened –”  

 

He cuts himself off there and gasps, winded from stitching together so many disparate soundbites back-to-back.

 

“But he would be delayed until he managed to prepare another Archivist.”

 

“I’ll not deny it,” he says, breathless. 

 

“You can’t be serious,” Georgie says, looking between them. “This – you can’t actually be considering this.”

 

“We need to explore all our options,” Basira says. “Even the last resorts.”

 

“It isn’t an option at all,” Georgie says heatedly, then looks at Jon. “I thought you wanted to get better. I thought you were done with reckless self-sacrifice –”

 

“You may rest assured I’m no suicide,” Jon says hurriedly, rousing himself at the prospect of losing Georgie again.

 

But…

 

“The choice – was not entirely mine, as my circumstances had driven me into a very particular situation.”  

 

His laugh is jarring, closer to a bark.

 

“…‘too much of a health and safety hazard’ –“  

 

“That isn’t funny, Jon,” Georgie snaps. Jon puts his hands up, placating: Sorry, sorry.

 

“He has a point, though,” Melanie says, mirroring Jon’s pacifying gesture when Georgie turns the glower on her. “I’m not saying we should kill him. I’m just saying that, if there’s no other option, and we have to choose between one person and many people –”

 

“– all the world, utterly destroyed,” Jon supplies. It comes out flatter than he had intended.

 

“Then we might need to make a difficult choice,” Basira summarizes.

 

“Look,” Georgie says, all of her attention focused on Jon, ignoring the other two now. “I – I understand why you feel this way, but no.” She doubles down when Jon opens his mouth to speak. “No, Jon. Because given your track record, I don’t trust you to treat it as a last resort. If we – if I give you permission to think like this, you'll let it become a reassurance. You won’t think twice before courting death if you can do it guilt-free. So, no. You don’t have my approval. You promised me you were going to try, and – Jon, look at me,” she says as Jon lets his gaze drift away. She waits until he meets her eyes before she continues. “If you know you have this contingency plan waiting in your back pocket, it will keep you from finding alternate solutions. I know you.”

 

“…didn’t want to die, the idea of death terrified him –”

 

“Good,” Georgie says curtly, though she doesn’t look entirely convinced. “Take the option off the table, then.”

 

Jon worries his lower lip between his teeth. The thing is, he doesn’t want to die.

 

Admittedly, he’s lapsed into that mindset in the past. During this part of his timeline the first time around, he could likely have been categorized as passively suicidal, much as he wants to dismiss it. At some point, it had taken up permanent residence in the back of his mind. It ebbed and flowed, but even in its quietest moments, it was still there: a constant, comforting weight. Looking back, he realizes that finding comfort in the idea of dying – to the point of treating it like an anchor, in retrospect – should have been a cause for concern.

 

After he lost Martin during the apocalypse, that ever-present ideation rushed to the forefront of his mind, loud and active and erratic. There was a stretch of time where, if he hadn’t been physically incapable of dying, he would have gone through with it. But by then, even starving himself wasn’t a viable option. There was no tuning out the endless flow of statements filtering through him every moment.

 

That was back when his only course of action was to hurt – himself, other monsters, it made no difference. It never helped anyone, never saved any of the victims, never fixed anything. Using that power only made Jon feel more and more estranged from the person he wished he could be, closer and closer to the entity Jonah Magnus groomed him to be, and more and more beholden to the Ceaseless Watcher.

 

He came so close to losing himself. Not dying, not ceasing to exist, not even losing consciousness, just – being lost in the noise, unable to rest and unable to act. Like the Buried, except this time the coffin would be his own mind – and this time he wouldn’t be able to escape. 

 

But things have changed. Right here, right now, he actually has a chance to help. Even just talking to his victims in his nightmares – it’s the bare minimum, but it’s so much more than he’s been able to do in ages. It’s enough to make him feel better about his decision to wake up.

 

Even if he did want to die, it’s a moot point. He still has things he has to do. He has to save Daisy. He has to save Martin. He has to stop Jonah Magnus – hopefully permanently. Now that Jon has experienced the man’s nightmare kingdom firsthand, simply postponing it indefinitely seems unconscionable.

 

And even after he does those things… assuming Martin can still find it in himself to love Jon in this new timeline, how could Jon abandon him? It was reason enough to stay alive during the apocalypse. It certainly has to be reason enough to stay alive now, when there’s actually a chance of making things better.

 

His eyes drift to the fifth chair in the room, unclaimed. The sight is enough to chase away the remnants of that earlier numbness that had been stubbornly clinging to him. 

 

“I had to live. I couldn’t die, not then.”  

 

Basira is watching him, pensive, motionless, silent. It's unbearable. Reluctantly, he calls up the testament she recorded before they all left to stop the Unknowing. 

 

“My options… they’ve gotten a lot narrower,” he quotes. “If you don’t like something, you accept it and you adapt –”  

 

“That’s enough,” Basira says sharply.

 

“– or you fight and you change it.”  

 

The ensuing quiet is charged. Jon forces himself to look up and into her eyes, at the impulses warring there. He cannot Know what she’s feeling, not here in the tunnels, but he does know her – both through past instances of Knowing and through the gentler, more conscious, more human experience of learning a person. He wishes he had more skill with the latter and less experience with the former, but either way, between the two, he thinks he can make some educated guesses: she wants to scream at him – he has no right to those words; she wants to break down – she misses her father, she misses Daisy; she wants to believe him – because she can’t do this alone anymore, she can’t, and having no one to trust is terrifying and exhausting – and Jon knows what that’s like, doesn’t he?

 

Jon takes a breath, steels himself, and tells her: “I’m going to fight, and change it.”  

 

She holds his gaze, intense and stony, for a moment longer – and then her shoulders sag and she exhales through her nose, sounding thoroughly rundown.

 

“Stop looking at me like that, Jon,” she says tiredly, sinking down into the nearest chair. “I don’t want to kill you. I’m not planning on killing you. I’m just trying to account for all the variables. It’s nothing personal. I can’t afford for it to be personal. Not anymore. I’ve had to be practical. You haven’t been here –”

 

“I asked her – I’d like to help.”  

 

“That’s fine to say, but you can’t expect much in the way of trust. By your own admission, you’re not human anymore.” She pauses, giving him an opening to contradict her. He doesn’t. “And even if you were, you just – you aren’t exactly known for coming up with workable strategies.” She huffs. “Hell, if anything you attract trouble, intentional or no.”

 

Jon chuckles at that. It’s not an unfair observation. For a fraction of a second, the corner of Basira’s mouth quirks up in a grin, and Jon is reminded of their dry banter from back when they first met. Other than Georgie, Basira was the only one to consistently pick up on his wry sense of humor – probably because her own was much the same.

 

“Do you have a plan?” Georgie asks. “Bad or otherwise?”

 

Jon holds one hand palm up and mimics writing on it, looking at Basira’s bag. When Basira hands him the notepad and pen, he flips to an empty page and scribbles a few rudimentary drawings: a stylized eye, a flower, and a teacup. The representations are just barely oblique enough to pass through the Archive’s filter. The flower in particular is almost too on-the-nose, and it brings on a momentary tremor in his hand, but he prevails in the end. The final result is shaky, but identifiable enough.

 

He’ll almost certainly have a migraine later, but he’s already resigned himself to that, given how much he’s been taxing himself accessing the Archive. There’s a reason he started avoiding long conversations. Even before all of this, he’s always found prolonged social interaction to be draining.  

 

He holds up the notepad for the others to see.

 

“I thought if I could deal with him” – Jon jabs his pen at the eye – “and save a few lives” – he taps the flower and teacup once each – “I might as well.”  

 

Melanie squints at the drawings. “Obviously the eye is Elias, but –”

 

“The teacup –”

 

“Oh, is that what that is?” Melanie asks, interrupting Georgie and giving Jon a goading look. He just rolls his eyes. He knows he’s no artist, and it doesn’t bother him in the least.

 

“– is Martin,” Georgie continues, hushing Melanie with a stern glance that doesn’t quite conceal her amusement. “Jon used to go on and on about how good his tea was. And he’s been asking after him every time I sleep. Bit of a one-track mind, really.”

 

“I need them to be safe,” Jon says, only a little defensively. “I need him to be okay.”  

 

It feels both peculiar and yet fitting to speak through Martin’s testament from so long ago. Well, only months earlier from the others’ perspective, but – it’s not important. Melanie snorts, and Basira just shakes her head.

 

“What about the flower?” Georgie redirects, gesturing at the notepad.

 

“…Daisy’s coming,” Jon says.  

 

Throughout the conversation, a tiny sliver of warmth had started to peek through Basira’s composure. Instantaneously, it bleeds away.

 

“Daisy is dead.”

 

“…she’s solid,” Jon insists, parroting Basira’s testament again. “She’s a… a fixed point, and –”

 

“Don’t,” Basira says, a distinct note of warning in her tone.

 

“– she’s there, I know exactly where –”  

 

“Shut up, Jon.”

 

He can’t, but as a compromise, he abandons Basira’s statement and forages for another.

 

“…the casket, a hungry thing of the earth, a – tomb that will not let you die because it is too much what it is for death to find you there – buried alive.”  

 

Basira’s demeanor shifts again, and some of the hostility falls away. “What are you talking about?”

 

“When that Hunter killed him – it was there.” Jon suppresses a grimace of pain; the exertion of tapping into the Archive is really starting to catch up with him now. “It was waiting – fed her to it – she doesn’t get to die – gets to live – entombed forever – tied to the casket – can climb in and join her.”  

 

“Is this another metaphor” – Jon shakes his head no – “or a literal casket?” 

 

“It was almost a month before –”  

“– a delivery addressed to me – a coffin.”  

 

Basira digs her phone out of her pocket, pulls up the calendar app, and holds it up to Jon.

 

“When?”

 

He navigates to March and taps on the third day of the month.

 

“And it’ll be delivered here?”

 

Jon nods. Basira is quiet for a long moment.

 

“And Daisy is in there.”

 

“…real and alive – I swear to you.”  

 

“Because it won’t let her die,” Basira says, a hard edge to her tone. “Buried alive, and unable to die – how is tortured for eternity better than just dead, Jon?”  

 

“…the last time I went there –“  

“– to get her out –”  

“– it almost destroyed me. But it didn’t – in the end – I succeeded – we had succeeded.”  

 

“You can bring her back?” Basira’s guard drops even further, revealing just a glimpse of cautious hope.

 

“I said yes, we were very close.”  

 

“No offense, but I wouldn’t call us ‘close,’ Jon –”

 

Jon shakes his head, touches the pen tip to the flower drawing and then points at himself.

 

“You and Daisy?”

 

“…the closest thing this world had to real monsters –”  

“– despite this – or maybe because of it – we became friends –”  

“– there was a camaraderie that came from being the only two people in that weird place, and it didn’t take long for us to become good friends.”  

 

Georgie frowns. “Daisy, is she the one who –”

 

“Slit his throat?” Melanie gives Jon a pointed, almost mischievous look and then flashes a grin at Georgie, like a sibling tattling to a parent. “Yep.”

 

Jon stares daggers at Melanie, who has the gall to feign innocence.

 

“Jon,” Georgie groans, dragging one hand down her face.

 

“I wanted to act, to help, to do something,” Jon protests.  

 

“Are you sure you'll be able to make your way back?” Georgie asks, staring him down. Jon gives an affirmative. “And this isn’t a death wish, or – or some roundabout suicide attempt?”   

 

“I somehow managed to live through one horror movie.”  

 

Georgie lets out a breathless laugh and shakes her head. Then, she sighs and adopts a serious air again.

 

“Look at me.” Jon does. “You’re an adult, I won’t stop you from making your own decisions. But I get to make my own choices too, and a choice isn’t a choice when it’s based on lies and omission. So tell me the truth: is this more of the same, or can you sincerely say that you know what you’re doing?”

 

“If you had asked me before, I would have told you that there was no difference, but I know better now.”  

 

“Do you promise?”

 

He nods, but holds up one finger – wait – as he roots around for the best way to make the promise meaningful. It takes some time and no small amount of effort, but he needs to be precise.  

 

“…I am alive, and I desperately wish to keep it that way.”  

 

He looks into her eyes as he says the words, hoping she can hear the unspoken sentiment: I meant what I said. I do want to live. And even when I don’t, I want to want to live.

 

“We were simply seeking a better life.”  

 

He infuses it with every ounce of sincerity he can muster: I meant what I said. I want to get better. I don’t know what that looks like, but I want to find out.  

 

“This, I knew, was to be my chance.”  

 

The first time, Georgie didn’t see this as a second chance – and neither did Jon. But this time: I meant what I said. I do think this is a second chance, and I want to take it.

 

“I didn’t see any other option than to try.”  

 

It’s the only thing that got him through the journey to the Panopticon, through losing Martin, through the Archive’s death grip on his mind: I meant what I said. I want to try. I’ve been trying. I am trying. I will keep trying.

 

Georgie continues to hold his gaze, and Jon forces himself not to look away. Eventually, she nods.

 

“Alright then.” He smiles – cautious, relieved – and this time, when she smiles back, it actually does reach her eyes. “I’ll hold you to that, Jon.”

 

Thank you, he thinks. He still doesn't believe he deserves her support, but she's owed his gratitude all the same, and he truly does want to earn the trust she’s placing in him. Thank you, thank you, thank you.  

 

“So,” Georgie sighs, smile fading into a frown. “Save Daisy, save Martin, deal with your evil monster boss.”

 

“And get as far away from this place as possible,” Melanie says.

 

“And into therapy,” Georgie adds. There isn’t even the hint of a joke in it, and no one refutes her. “For anyone who wants it, anyway.”

 

“I wouldn’t mind burning this place to the ground, either,” Melanie says. There’s a ghost of a joke this time, but it falls flat. Once again, though, no one raises any objections.

 

Basira takes a deep breath and composes herself.  

 

“Right,” she says, businesslike, sitting up straight and turning her attention back to Jon. “Where do we begin?”

Chapter Text

Jon is unsurprised when such a straightforward question – “Where do we begin?” – quickly devolves into a second wave of interrogation.

 

Georgie wants to know what they should look out for in the coming weeks and what preparations they can start making now. He’s come to expect (and appreciate) that sort of one-step-at-a-time approach from her, but he’s stunned to see her so actively engaged. He had assumed that even if she did choose to stay in his life, it would be from a safe distance. On the one hand, her support is heartening; on the other, he would rather not involve anyone else in this part of his life. But Georgie is as sensible as she is resolute – she isn’t one to recklessly endanger herself or others, and she knows when to cut her losses. And, of course, she isn’t just doing this for Jon. As long as Melanie is trapped here, Georgie is embroiled, too.    

 

Melanie, for her part, has fallen eerily quiet, one hand held in Georgie’s and the other curled into a fist on her knee, white-knuckled and trembling almost imperceptibly. She wears a determined scowl, and Jon doesn’t have to Know to have an idea of what equations she’s running in her mind and what questions she’s queuing up for him to answer later.

 

Meanwhile, Basira wants explicit details about the Coffin – its provenance, the details of its impending arrival, a play-by-play of what happened the last time Jon went in, Daisy’s condition. Jon doubts whether he’ll be able to answer as comprehensively or precisely as she wants, but he can try.

 

For several minutes, Jon indulges a barrage of questions – answering mostly with simple yes and no gestures – but his vision is starting to grow pixelated, interspersed with the occasional flash or sparkle, and he can feel the pressure growing in his temples. Surefire precursors of a migraine, in his experience – and he still has one more pressing matter to attend to before it renders him useless.

 

“I want to focus on the casket for now,” Basira is saying.

 

“Makes sense if its delivery is only a few weeks away, as long as – Jon, is there anything else coming up before then that we need to –” Georgie’s expression shifts from focused to concerned in an instant when she catches a glimpse of him. “Are you okay? You look –”

 

“Before I continue – this is – very, very important for you to know.”  

 

“What is it, Jon?”  

 

“…that Eye of yours – warps us and changes us and feeds on us,”  he begins slowly.

 

”…part of being the Archivist – to harvest the fears of the other entities, dragging out the suffering of those who come to give statements and claiming their terror.”  

 

He struggles for a few moments before settling on, “I don’t want to, but it’s in my nature now, and you can’t fight what you are. Or even what you aren’t.” 

 

“That’s not exactly a revelation, Jon,” Basira says. “We already know that you feed on the statements.”

 

“There’s – more to say about that.”  Jon hesitates. It isn’t that he doesn’t have the words to explain. It’s that he’s afraid.

 

“Go on,” Basira says, watching him suspiciously now.

 

Jon closes his eyes, takes a deep breath, and forces the words out.

 

“…feverishly hunting for –”  

“– someone in person.”  

 

“Live statements.” Basira has that hard edge to her voice again, like she’s assessing a threat. Which is… exactly what she’s doing, Jon supposes.

 

“Like the nurse at the hospital?” Georgie asks.

 

“What nurse?” Melanie finally speaks up, eyes flitting between Georgie and Jon.

 

“Apparently Jon can sense potential statement givers on sight now,” Basira replies, not taking her eyes off of Jon.

 

“What did he do?”

 

‘He’ is sitting right here, Jon thinks tiredly.

 

“He didn’t do anything,” Georgie says, calmly but with a faint hint of admonishment and an apologetic glance in Jon’s direction. His heart glitches in his chest a little at how immediately she comes to his defense. “He noticed what was happening, stopped himself, and asked me to blindfold him until we got somewhere safe.”

 

Jon keeps his eyes downcast. He categorically does not deserve this benefit of the doubt – and she’ll realize that momentarily, as soon as he tells them about all the times that he didn’t stop himself. 

 

“‘Safe,’” Melanie scoffs. “The Archives?”

 

Safe, Jon thinks to himself with exactly the same bitter incredulity. Yet, it’s not entirely inaccurate. This is the safest place for him right now – in terms of both avoiding the other Powers and protecting the rest of the world from him.

 

“You know what I meant,” Georgie says, but there’s no irritation in her tone.

 

“So, you really aren’t human anymore,” Melanie says blandly, watching Jon. He doesn’t object.

 

“It woke something in me. Something truly awful. And I hurt so very many people.”  

 

“You went hunting for victims,” Basira says, comprehending. “How many?”

 

Jon holds up five fingers.

 

“Jesus,” Melanie mutters. Georgie’s expression is unreadable – and somehow, that’s worse than any of the possible negative reactions that Jon had anticipated.

 

“When?” Basira asks. “Before the Unknowing, or in your future?”

 

“…that bit was some ways in the future.”  

 

“Hm.” Basira gives him a skeptical look.

 

“There were very few points where I’d say that I was entirely sober and even fewer where I acted like it,” Jon continues. “I realized too late that I… I was thoroughly lost.”   

 

“Were you controlled?” Basira asks.

 

Jon was dreading this question. How much time has he spent obsessing over it? How many roadside breakdowns and late-night soliloquies and circuitous debates about the nature of free will does he have under his belt by now? Far too many to summarize in a few words – certainly not with his current limitations.

 

He fishes around for a statement that might at least convey the complexity of the question.

 

“My memories of a lot – are, well, not exactly foggy, but feel almost like I’m watching someone else’s memories. I remember that it sometimes felt like I’d do things without actually deciding to do them. Like it was just a muscle memory moving me, or a string gently guiding me. I did what I did because it was what I was supposed to do – I’m not sure I really recognize who I became.”  

 

It really was like a trance, at least in the beginning. The first time, he had gravitated towards his victim without even realizing what was happening. The second time was just after he was stabbed by Melanie and found himself wandering the streets in a near-fugue. He had locked eyes with a passerby and the need overtook him. Despite the haze, he could recognize it as the same impulse that had washed over him when he encountered his first victim. Looking back, although he wasn’t entirely lucid, he thinks he might have been able to stop himself if he had tried harder. When he found his next couple of victims, he had been actively hunting – on autopilot, certainly, but not entirely unaware either. And although he was fully enthralled during the statement itself, he – the human part of him, at least – knew that it was wrong both before and after the deed.

 

And Floyd… well, there’s no denying that that was premeditated. Jon knew exactly what he was doing when he chose that ship. He rationalized it by telling himself it was in line with Gertrude’s trademark utilitarianism – which is what Basira wanted from him, what Tim had wanted from him. But it was never just that; it wasn't even primarily that. The simple truth is that Jon was hungry, and he wanted it as much as he needed it, and it felt good. Everyone already knew he was a monster – there was no point in pretending otherwise – and he was becoming desensitized to that conclusion himself. Helen had been right: no amount of hand-wringing or guilt would stop him from feeding the Beholding and walking the path Jonah Magnus set before him.   

 

“I know that my will and my actions were my own, but even at the time I knew that – I was – so very wrong but… it didn’t feel like at the time I could have made any other choice.”  

 

Because it really didn’t feel like it, did it? But he did have a choice, in retrospect. He changed his behavior, after all – too late, and he still has no idea whether resisting indefinitely would have killed him, but he stopped. It doesn’t make him any less accountable, and it doesn’t alleviate the guilt, but once he knew he could resist, he did. Meaning he probably had the choice all along.   

 

Without Martin’s intervention, he would have continued on that path: being the monster he and everyone else expected him to be, just because it didn’t feel like there was any other choice. It felt right; it seemed unnatural and fruitless to fight it; it was easier to give in and lean into it, and he figured he may as well use that power to make himself useful.

 

“Were you in control or not, Jon?” Basira asks again. “Clarity, please.”  

 

Jon bites back an annoyed huff. What he wouldn’t give for some clarity.

 

“…told me that her will was still her own but that it – felt like something was in her head, changing what she saw and felt and thought.”  

 

That’s probably the most accurate he can get, given his limited speech options: it was a bit of both. He was influenced – by the Eye at the very least, and possibly by the Web – but he also had some measure of self-control. He just didn’t exercise it until he had already victimized five people, and only then because someone else intervened. Jonathan Sims would never have done those things, but the Archivist was another matter entirely. In the end, though, they were and are the same person – and even if they weren’t, the consequences would still be the same.

 

“Is it like an addiction?” Georgie finally speaks up. Jon nearly jumps at the sound of her voice, and he has to take a minute to hunt for an appropriate statement.  

 

“It’s funny how fear can just become as routine as hunger – at a certain point I just accepted it.”  

 

“That… doesn’t answer my question,” Georgie says, not unkindly. “Is it an addiction, or – or sustenance? Do you need it to survive?”

 

Define ‘survive,’ he wants to say. Starving himself hurts in a way that goes far deeper than mere physical pain, but he doesn’t know whether it will actually kill him – or, if so, how long that would take. It doesn’t matter, though. This time, he isn’t going to hunt, no matter how bad it gets.

 

“I resolved to find out.”    

 

All three of them look like they’re about to start speaking at once, and he holds up a finger: Wait. He needs to get all of this out while he still can.

 

 “Reduced once again to feeding on the unsuspecting and confused. That is who I am –”  

“– much as it may pain me to feed the sick voyeur that lurks in this place –”  

“– something I was desperate to avoid doing.”  

 

He stares at his hands, clenching and unclenching on his knees. Miserable though it feels, he pulls up Jane Prentiss’ statement – another Avatar who had seemed so human before she was hollowed out by the thing that called to her.  

 

“You must understand – I need it, but I am afraid. It isn’t right and I need help.”  

 

“So, what?” Georgie frowns. “We keep you under constant supervision?”

 

Jon nods, resolute. Judging by Georgie's expression, she had meant it as a hyperbole, but it's exactly what Jon had in mind. 

 

“…to keep an eye on the monsters –”  

“– they were keeping me under observation –”  

“– under constant scrutiny and given no chance to harm anyone –”  

“– which would keep – away from people.”  

 

“We can’t just keep you under lock and key –”

 

“No, we can,” Basira says, uncompromising. Her eyes haven’t left him this entire time. He expected nothing less than decisiveness from her in this matter, and he’s glad of it. He can only hope she can read his sincerity when he looks back at her and nods in agreement. 

 

“…for the safety of society at large –“  

“– I don’t go home anymore. I’m afraid of what might happen –”  

“– knew it was only a matter of time before he hurt –”  

“– I am dangerous –”  

 “– and here I have remained.”  

 

“So you’re going to just… stay cooped up down here?” Georgie asks.  

 

“…sleep in the – cot I keep in my office,” Jon replies with a shrug.

 

“Well,” Melanie says, “it’s not like he’d be the only one. Basira and I have been living here for months. Barely ever leave.”

 

“Are you sure this is necessary, Jon?” Georgie asks again. “You aren’t just – punishing yourself for things you didn’t even do yet?”

 

“Still, at the end of the day, I did it,” Jon says vehemently.

 

When she opens her mouth, he signals wait again. He takes on a distant look as he queues up the statements he needs.

 

“…I know – I remember – never forgive myself –”    

“– acknowledged that it had happened –”  

“– very much accountable for –”  

“– all the horrible things I’ve done –”  

“– I remember a life that was – shouting, recriminations – I was abandoned –”  

“– so much silence and distrust – passed between us –”  

“– neither could I say I have not earned it –”  

“– trust me when I say he had it coming –”   

“– deserve its ghoulish reputation –”  

“– deserves the things that come after –”  

“– should have fought harder against the temptation –”   

 

Lightheadedness overtakes him for a moment; Jon has to pause and ride it out before he can dive back in.

 

“…I’m well aware that – I have – responsibility to try and prevent –”  

“– real harm in him going out into the world –“  

“– hoping against hope that this time –“  

“– this time I was going to –”  

“– resist – to – avoid being drawn in, like a moth to the flame.”  

 

He takes a deep breath, like a drowning man coming up for air.   

 

“I don’t want you to think I’m some selfish monster grinding people up just to extend my own ghoulish life,” he concludes, scratching absently at the back of his burned hand.

 

Georgie says nothing for a long moment, and then she sighs. “If you’re sure.”

 

“…insisted that this was what he wanted,” Jon assures her.

 

Then: “I didn’t want to go back.”   

 

He falters before also adding, in a near-murmur: “It wears you down to be someone whom nobody wants to see.”  

 

He knows it makes him seem self-centered, talking about his own feelings when the real victims are the people he hurt, but… well, there’s no denying that alienation has only ever made it more difficult for him to cling to what little remains of his humanity. If possible, he would like to avoid becoming a pariah this time around – for his own selfish need to belong, yes, but also because isolation has only ever made him more dangerous. He needs that human connection to remind him of who he is – who he wants to be.    

 

“Alright,” Georgie concedes, though she still sounds dubious. “Well… I managed to save some things from your flat before you lost it. I can bring them in, if you’d like.”

 

Jon nods distractedly, only half-listening. He feels himself flagging now, and there’s one more thing he has to get in before he crashes.

 

“On the subject of Elias – has certain… abilities of clairvoyance, which allow him to perceive out of any eye, real or symbolic, so be wary. Play ignorant as long as you can while you expand your own research – the longer he is ignorant of how much you know, the better.”  

 

“All of this is tunnels-only information,” Georgie translates.

 

Jon nods.  

 

“…ensure that they always under- or overestimate you. Never reveal your true abilities or plans.”  

 

It makes his skin crawl, adopting Annabelle’s mindset, but it’s the only way he can think to deal with someone like Jonah Magnus. And he can’t really bring himself to care overmuch at the moment. Lethargy is dropping over him like a lead blanket.

 

“Jon?” Georgie’s voice sounds like it’s coming from three rooms over.

 

“I just needed a break, some time to get my head right,” Jon mumbles through several layers of exhaustion, his tongue feeling thick and heavy and out of place in his mouth.

 

“Later,” Basira says. “We’re not done yet.”

 

To Jon’s credit, he does try. But at some point, he tries to draw on the Archive and hits a wall of static. Georgie seems to pick up on it before anyone else. When Jon struggles to answer a simple yes-or-no question for a solid two minutes, she jumps in to rescue him.

 

“I think that’s enough for today,” she says. For a moment, Basira looks like she wants to argue, but Georgie cuts her off. “Jon’s an insufferable workaholic. If he was physically capable of continuing this discussion, he would. Look at him.”

 

The insufferable workaholic in question can’t quite work up the energy to glare at her for being right. Basira only needs to take a cursory look at him before her shoulders sag and she relents.

 

“Fine,” she sighs. “We’ll pick this up tomorrow, then.”

 

“Good,” Georgie says brightly. “In the meantime – takeaway?”

 

“Pizza,” Melanie blurts out with an almost alarming passion, bolting upright like a sleep-talker after nearly a half-hour of total silence. Jon chokes on a laugh. Almost immediately, the color starts to rise in Melanie’s cheeks, and when she glowers at Jon, Georgie can’t hold back a giggle.

 

For a moment, things almost seem… normal. Like there’s a way forward after all.

 

We have a chance of making this work, Jon thinks, and he tells himself that he believes it.

 


 

It feels strange, being back in his office after so long away. It’s not comfortable by any means, but it’s at least familiar. It isn’t safe, but it’s at least relatively predictable.

 

Still, though, he feels on edge. The Archives have always effused an ever-present sense of being watched. Even outside of this place, Jon can’t remember what it feels like to not be subjected to constant voyeurism. By now, he’s used to it. But although this is the Eye’s temple and the Watching here is impossible to ignore, it’s nothing compared to a world he came from: a tower that sees all, a sky that blinks, the Watcher’s eyes embedded in his skin and winking in and out in the air around him.

 

And yet… somehow, standing in his office right now is still almost as unbearable as standing right beside the Panopticon. It’s a lot like the cabin, in a way. The illusion of safety, if only because the horror you know seems preferable to the unknown waiting just outside your door – but no matter how much you delude yourself, there is always something lurking nearby, letting you suffer just so it can watch. Honestly, he isn’t sure he remembers what safety even feels like. That illusion may well have been shattered with a simple knock-knock, taking root in his childhood and echoing down through the years.

 

He tolerates the discomfort for an entire five minutes before giving up and heading for the cot in Document Storage instead.

 

As soon as he sits down on the edge, his mind – predictably enough – drifts to Martin. For months he slept here, clutching a corkscrew for comfort and writing letters he never intended to send to a mother who resented him, because he had no one to confide in except for a notebook and cobwebs. There were so many nights that Jon was just down the hallway, sleeping in stops and starts at his desk. After Martin’s encounter with Prentiss, Jon started spending more and more days working late into the night, finding more and more excuses to not go home at the end of the day. At the time, he told himself it was because he had so much work to do; the truth is that he couldn’t stand to leave Martin alone overnight in this place.

 

Sometimes they would stumble across each other in the breakroom in the middle of the night, matching shadows under their eyes, and Jon never knew what to say. He never was good at comforting people – or being comforted. At least, not at that point in his life.  

 

The way Jon treated Martin back then, how little he appreciated him, how much he pushed him away just because he was too afraid to –

 

And now, what he wouldn’t give just to –

 

Jon sighs. Coming to Document Storage may have been a bad idea.

 

Georgie walks by the open door with purpose, belatedly catches sight of him, backtracks, and enters the room.

 

“Hey, I was looking for you. You weren’t in your office, and…” She trails off. “You’re crying.”

 

Is he? He brings one hand to his cheek and it comes away wet.

 

Oh.

 

Georgie approaches and sits next to him on the cot.

 

“Do you want to talk about –” She cuts herself off with a grimace. “I guess that might not be an option right now.”

 

It really isn’t. He can barely string his own thoughts together, let alone pull something from the Archive right now. He gives her a weak smile, though – he appreciates the offer.

 

“In the dream, then? I know there are things we can’t talk about there, but…”

 

She sighs, then looks up, returns a small smile, and opens her arms a little – leaving him with the choice of whether to initiate contact. When he was living with her, he had become so jumpy – both touch averse and touch starved at the same time. She’d picked up on it without him saying a word, and adjusted accordingly: she would extend the invitation, and let him decide whether and on what terms he would accept. It was remarkably similar to her approach to the Admiral, Jon had joked once.

 

The fact that she still remembers – well, it hasn’t been as long for her as it has for him, he supposes, but still, the consideration is enough to bring more tears to his eyes. He doesn’t have to think twice before he practically collapses into her. He tries desperately to stifle himself because he knows, he knows that if he lets go, he’ll shatter into the kind of heaving sobs that leave him feeling raw and vulnerable. It doesn’t work. The dam breaks and she says nothing for several minutes, just lets him cling to her and cry until all that remains are hiccups and shallow breaths.

 

An eternity passes before he finally releases his grip and draws back, hiding his face in his sleeve.

 

“I’ve never seen you cry so much,” Georgie says softly. When he tenses, she adds: “It’s not a bad thing, Jon. I think it’s long-overdue.” Not entirely true; he’d shed plenty of tears during the apocalypse. Georgie must interpret his reaction as disagreement with the first statement rather than the second, though, because she continues: “When it happens, let it happen. It won’t make everything better, but it will make things feel better, at least for a little bit.”

 

She is right, he knows. If nothing else, it takes the edge off, at least momentarily.

 

“Listen, I have to get back home. It’s late, and the Admiral hasn’t eaten yet.”

 

Jon nods – I understand – and without being prompted begins to unwind her scarf from where it still rests draped over his shoulders.

 

“Keep it,” she says. “You like the texture, right?” He suddenly notices how he’s rubbing the fabric between his fingers, and wonders just how much he’s been doing that over the past few hours. Almost nonstop, he’s willing to bet. “Besides, it looks good on you.” He scoffs, still a bit tear-choked, nudges her with his shoulder, and tries to ignore that hateful voice in his head telling him that this is a going-away gift. And then: “Take care of yourself, okay?”

 

He goes rigid. Georgie – of course – notices immediately.

 

“I’m coming back, Jon,” she says gently. “I’ll probably be back tomorrow afternoon. I’ll bring some things with me. If you’re going to be staying here… I know this place will never feel like a home, but maybe we can at least make it feel a little less…” She wrinkles her nose. “Well, sinister.”

 

Given how long he’s gone without any stable base, homelike or no, it actually is better than nothing. Even before he ended the world, he hadn’t had a place to call home for years. The closest he got was the safehouse in Scotland, and that… that was only because Martin was there. Jon Knew that there was no such thing as a place where they could be truly safe, but Martin made him feel safe, which meant that he could pretend that they were safe, if only for a little while.

 

And then Jon destroyed that, too.

 

“Hang in there,” Georgie says. “Try to get some sleep. You look like you need it, and if we dream at the same time, we can talk there.”

 

She holds her arms open and once again he welcomes the contact, though this time he manages to keep from completely crumbling. It’s just… he spent so long without any kind touch at all, let alone a full embrace. After losing Martin, the closest he got was Helen touching his shoulder once, and that was only to startle him. It made his skin crawl, and her resulting laugh made his bones ache, and he hated it – but the worst part was how much his heart sank when she withdrew her hand.

 

When Georgie releases him and stands to leave, she pauses at the threshold. “Do you want the door closed?”

 

Jon’s heart stutters in his throat. With a quiet, strangled noise, he shakes his head no. He looks away in embarrassment, berating himself for the overreaction. Georgie certainly notices, but she doesn’t call attention to it. It’s just one more item on the list of reasons to be grateful to her.  

 

“Okay. I’m off to say goodnight to Melanie.” She smiles. He can see that it’s intended to be reassuring, but exhaustion and worry show in the lines under her eyes. “I’ll see you tomorrow. Promise.” 

 

Jon doesn’t sleep, of course. He doesn’t even try.

 

He just can’t stop thinking: What if his inability to use his own voice carries over into the dream? Or what if he can’t speak at all? He doesn’t know which would be worse. What if he finds himself back in the role of unblinking, unmoving Watcher? How would he explain the sudden change to the… to his victims? All the rapport they’ve build up over the past couple months will be undone. 

 

He will be the monster in their nightmares again – all eyes, all eyes, all eyes – and he doesn’t have it in himself to deny it. Even if he wanted to, he wouldn’t have the words.  

 

The prospect of it is more than enough to keep him awake. 

 


 

The next day, Jon is practically useless.

 

“Did you even sleep at all?” Georgie asks, arms crossed.

 

Jon doesn’t look up to meet her eyes when he shakes his head no.

 

“And why not?”

 

Because I’m terrified, he wants to say.

 

Instead, he shrugs. “I’ve always had problems sleeping.”  

 

The words are difficult to string together and even more difficult to voice – like talking through a mouthful of peanut butter. 

 

“Yeah, I know that,” Georgie says. “But there’s more, isn’t there?”

 

Sometimes he wishes Georgie wasn’t so perceptive.

 

“Something I didn’t want to talk about,” he says vaguely, wincing as he speaks.

 

“Fine,” Georgie sighs. “You don’t have to talk about it right this second. But this discussion isn’t over. You need to talk to someone, even if it has to be in metaphor or whatever. It doesn’t have to be me, but you can’t keep these things bottled up. Okay?”

 

Jon lets out a heavy sigh, but he does nod.   

 

“Right. You hungry? You didn’t eat anything last night.”

 

He shakes his head no.

 

“What about in the other way?”

 

Jon shuts his eyes. There’s no point in lying to her – she would know – and he is trying to be more open about these things. He dreads the others looking at him like he’s inhuman again – no matter how deserved – once they know how all-consuming the hunger becomes. But they need to know how dangerous he is at any given time, so they know what steps to take to keep him from hurting anyone. His self-esteem is low-priority.

 

“…it’s always there at the edges,” he admits. He tries to cover his grim tone with a tight smile.  

 

“Well, this is an archive. You have plenty of statements lying around.” She pauses. “Will those work, or…?”

 

“…might have made his present state slightly more bearable – he could still feel the hunger, but –”  

“– that was enough for my purposes –”

“– just to appease the thing –”  

“– can help with the pressure –”  

“– some satisfaction in the end.”  

 

“Do you want me to… bring you one? I don’t know what I’m looking for, exactly, but if you –”

 

“…perhaps they asked you if you were going to record, and you shook your head: maybe later.”  

 

He would rather hold off on the statements – even the stale ones – until absolutely necessary. It’s doubtful that detoxing will work in this situation; last time, starving the Beholding didn’t do anything to alleviate the need. If anything, it only made it worse. But by this point, he’s made a hobby of spiting the Ceaseless Watcher whenever possible, no matter how fruitless or petty it ultimately is. How much control he has over his life is a question that will never be answered to his satisfaction, but he’ll grab those moments of agency whenever he can, even if he is only fooling himself. 

 

“If you’re sure,” Georgie says uncertainly. “Well… if you aren’t going to sleep or eat, maybe you want to get some fresh air –”

 

Jon shakes his head adamantly.

 

“If you’re going to be staying here, you’ll need some things. We could just go around the corner and –”

 

“…the danger was too acute.”  

 

“You’ll have supervision. We can cover your eyes, and –” Seeing the expression on his face, Georgie stops herself. She forces a smile, but he can see the sadness in it. “Okay. Make me a list – or, I’ll help you make a list – and I can pick some things up for you.” Jon gives her a grateful nod and a thumbs up. “I’m going to go check in on Melanie. Think of what you need and I’ll be back later.”

 


 

In a private prison cell, Jonah Magnus – also known as Elias Bouchard, née James Wright, née Richard Mendelson, née nearly a dozen other hollowed out and discarded vessels – sits placidly, biding his time and watching the proceedings with great anticipation.

 

He is inordinately pleased to see that his Archivist has finally chosen to accept his role. Granted, he does not know what his role entails, any more than he knew what he was agreeing to when he accepted the Head Archivist position. But does it really matter whether he was privy to all the fine print? He may not have wanted this, but he did choose this nonetheless – and oh, how he took to it, like a moth to the flame.

 

Jonah will proudly admit that his greatest gift has always been his ability to read a person, even long before his allegiance to the Ceaseless Watcher. He didn’t need the Eye’s assistance to know from the very beginning that Jonathan Sims was as near perfect a candidate as he could have hoped for. The details revealed to him by the Beholding only confirmed his first impression of his target: Web-marked at a tender age, leaving him primed for future manipulation and a chronic fear thereof; a desperate yearning to make himself useful, having learned young that the surest pathway to lukewarm approval was to avoid being a burden; isolationist tendencies, leftover from a childhood characterized by loss and rejection and an acute awareness that he was unwanted and unlikable; a nigh-insurmountable intolerance of emotional intimacy, because he never quite learned how to trust and, thus, how to let himself be vulnerable.

 

Jon has always been either too much or not enough, and from that revelation he gleaned an important lesson: it is safer to keep people from getting too close or knowing him too well. That way, the abandonment he has come to expect will never leave too keen a sting. And if his conviction regarding the inevitability of rejection is precisely the problem, well… Jon cannot tolerate that kind of scrutiny long enough to break that self-fulfilling prophecy, even – perhaps especially – from himself.     

 

Alienation was also an important factor. Jonah has found over the years that the lack of a support network is a vital ingredient for managing a target. When Jonah selected him, Jon had no close attachments and seemed highly unlikely to develop any. Even when he wasn’t being deliberately abrasive to keep people at arm’s length, he had poor social skills, he was not charismatic or even personable, and he turned people off with a tendency to either talk too much (he never quite outgrew that childhood reputation as an insufferable know-it-all) or too little (making him seem unapproachable and haughty and intimidating). As far as Jonah could tell, it was rare that someone would tolerate Jon long enough to see a palatable side of him – and Jon knew that, and used it as a shield. 

 

Jon is a perfect mixture of distrust and self-doubt and impulsivity and, yes, loneliness, though he would never admit to that last. As a bonus, he came prepackaged with the heavy weight of survivor’s guilt, which is always an easy weakness to exploit. It took only a few subtle nudges and the ambient influence of the Eye to tip him into full-blown paranoia and self-sabotage. He has a truly impressive propensity for overthinking and indecision; he overwhelms himself with so many variables and possibilities that he can never actually reach a conclusion, which means that no matter how close he comes to solving a puzzle, he will never actually place that final piece.

 

Most importantly, there is his insatiable curiosity. The obsessiveness. That stubborn refusal – the inability – to let a question go unasked or unanswered. These things are innate to him, fatal flaws that marked him long before any of the Dread Powers took note of him, necessary qualifications for an Avatar of the Beholding.  

 

All of that together makes Jonathan Sims so very, very easy to manipulate. It’s as if he was born to be consigned to the Ceaseless Watcher. Jonah could not have chosen a more suitable Archivist, and he is nothing but pleased with the progress and promise he has shown.  

 

And yet… Jonah must force himself to admit to some apprehension regarding these newest developments. He did not expect – did not even imagine the possibility – that the Archivist would awaken without a voice of his own.

 

In some ways, this is a boon: it will no doubt exacerbate the preexisting strife and miscommunication between the Archivist and his dwindling band of grudging allies. If it hasn’t yet obliterated what fragile trust still remained between them, it’s only a matter of time. The estrangement will push Jon further and further into despair. Jon has never been good company, especially for himself. Left alone with only his own catastrophizing thoughts, he will be unable to drown out the call of the Beholding; he will act recklessly in pursuit of any shallow pretense of control; he will have no one to keep him in check when he inevitably gives in to his new existence and all that it entails.

 

He will, in a word, self-destruct – and in the vacancy left behind, the Archive will take root and thrive.

 

However, there is the possibility that Jon's new… limitations will curtail his use of compulsion. He can likely still exercise that power even if he must do so through others’ words, but it won’t be as convenient or as easy. If he has to put forethought into using the ability, he may be less likely to use it by mistake or on a whim – and part of what Jonah likes so much about Jon is just how much he spirals in the aftermath of his mistakes. Compelling people – especially accidentally – would whittle away at Jon’s already flimsy sense of self-control, which would have been ideal.

 

Also problematic is that Jon seems to have already noticed his growing need to feed on live prey, such that he has apparently placed himself under house arrest in order to avoid doing so. It’s only a temporary setback, however. Jon won’t be able to resist forever; he always has had an addictive personality. Regardless of whatever newfound sense self-control he may think he has, Jon does not actually have much choice in whether he serves the Beholding, only how and when and at whose expense. He’s already pledged himself to the Eye, and there’s no going back. Its call will only grow louder, and the Archivist will be compelled to answer it, regardless of Jon’s feelings on the subject.

 

Finally, there’s the matter of how much Jon claims to Know. It isn’t that his Knowing is unexpected; to the contrary, it shows progress, and he had already been showing those promising signs of growth leading up to the Unknowing. But Jon seems to have made a sudden leap in aptitude, and Jonah can’t pinpoint a reason why – just as he cannot fathom why Jon should suddenly have such control over his nightmares.

 

Jonah would be lying if he said he wasn't disappointed and more than a little incensed when Jon not only Knew about Melanie King's situation, but managed to convey that information to Georgina Barker. Melanie's encounter with the Slaughter had been so serendipitous. She was perfectly situated to provide Jon with the mark of the Slaughter: she already detested him even before he fashioned himself into a pariah among his team, which made him the readiest target for her simmering rage. If the bullet had still been leeching its poison into her when Jon returned to the Archives, it would have been only a matter of time before she tore into him.

 

No matter; Jonah can improvise. This isn't a devastating setback, just an inconvenient one. Primarily, Jonah simply hates not knowing things, perhaps even more than his Archivist does.

 

In any case, Jon seems convinced that he has acquired game-changing information. If it was anyone else, Jonah may be tempted to write it off as undeserved confidence. Jon, however, has never been a confident man; it’s noteworthy to see him so certain about anything at all. Moreover, he has of late shown some surprising and frankly infuriating competence when it comes to avoiding Jonah’s surveillance. He doubts that Jon Knows anything that would lead him to discover Jonah’s plans, but Jonah would still like to learn the exact details of what Jon thinks he Knows – whether it will amount to a minor inconvenience or a more serious delay.

 

It is… possible that Jonah underestimated the man.

 

Jonah is not the Archivist. His abilities of Seeing and Knowing are comparatively limited, and much of his advantage relies on the Archivist never recognizing just how much latent power he really has until it’s too late. Another reason why it was vital for Jonah’s chosen one to be susceptible to insecurity and self-loathing: Jon is both unlikely to believe he has any power in this situation and too unambitious to seek dominance in the first place.    

 

A pawn with the capacity to strategize is somewhat more difficult to manage, but Jonah isn’t overly worried. He is the chessmaster; he holds the advantage; he is ultimately in control. His pawns can run around scheming in tunnels and chasing red herrings all they like. They haven’t the faintest idea of the Watcher’s Crown, nor any bread crumbs to lead them to knowledge of its existence. Without the complete picture, they don’t even know what game they’re playing. They stand no chance of denying Jonah his destined throne.

 

This is uncharted territory, so it stands to reason that there will be unforeseen developments. If nothing else, Jonah is pleased to have gotten so far on his first try. It might even be a good thing that the distinction between the Archivist and the Archive is blurring so soon, that Jon is already losing his grip on his humanity so thoroughly. The more his sense of self unravels, the closer he comes to his fated apotheosis.   

 

Jonah Magnus is good at waiting, but he cannot deny his mounting impatience as his long-awaited victory looms ever closer. He focuses his gaze on his hapless Archivist – alone in his office, once again immersed in some foolish, truly futile attempt to defy his nature – and he smiles.

 

Entertainment is hard to come by these days. If nothing else, this certainly is fascinating to watch.

 


 

Jon hisses as he flexes his fingers, trying to chase away the pins-and-needles pain rippling through his hands and up his arms. It had seemed safe to assume that the Beholding would enforce the same restrictions on typing as it does on writing, but he figured it was worth a try.

 

All he wanted to do was pull up an online shopping catalog – it didn’t even matter which one, he just wanted to be able to point at things on the screen. It would at least give him a starting point, and from there Georgie could ask him questions to narrow down what he was requesting, instead of having to delve into the Archive for some roundabout way of saying, if you could get me some unscented bar soap that would be great, because I can’t handle most of the popular scents ever since that time I got kidnapped by the Circus, and liquid soap feels too much like lotion so that’s always an ordeal; and some disposable gloves would be nice because when I need to wash my hair I usually can’t handle the texture of shampoo either and I prefer to avoid direct skin contact as much as possible and I got used to Martin helping me but he isn’t here; which, speaking of, some 2-in-1 shampoo/conditioner would probably be good, because that way I can just get it over with and I only have to risk one undue emotional breakdown per shower, so if you could – actually, never mind, please forget the last several things I said, that was way too much information; I spent the last… a long time just surviving in the wreckage of a ruined world, so I have no idea why I’m being picky; I’m grateful for anything you can bring me, you’re really going out of your way for me and frankly I don’t deserve it; and I’m terrified that you’ll realize that, and then you’ll leave, and you would be right to, but I don’t want you to, and isn’t that selfish of me, isn’t that –

 

Whatever; it doesn’t matter. Jon got two characters into a search query before the tremors started, and attempting to follow through on his intention to press another key brought on the avalanche of pain still crashing over him. He’s half-tempted to push through it – it’s not like he isn’t used to physical pain – but the moment he has that thought, his joints lock up. He doesn’t know why he even bothered.

 

A post-apocalyptic Google, reduced to this, he thinks viciously.

 

It’s not that he misses being a post-apocalyptic Google, it’s just…

 

He sighs.

 

Who is he fooling? He does miss it. And he hates that about himself – these little bursts of longing for what he left behind, these moments of nostalgia for the fucking apocalypse – but there’s no use denying it. There was an overwhelming sense of comfort and security in being able to just Know things – and having that ocean of knowledge at his fingertips had felt so natural, so right.

 

He’s spent his whole life grappling with that incessant need to know – fueled, of course, by a poorly-masked fear of the unknown – and for such a long time, he had the freedom to nurture the first and the power to strangle the second. He had near-complete control over his ability to Know, excepting the occasional tidbit that would slip through when he wasn’t paying attention and a select handful of questions that the Beholding refused to answer. Now, he’s back to grasping for scraps leaking through the crack in the door and being subjected to whatever intrusive trivia the Beholding wants to drop on him without warning. It’s just… frustrating, and –

 

Jon snaps to attention, the hairs on the back of his neck standing on end. The feeling of being watched is background radiation in his life at this point, and it’s part of the atmosphere of the Archives for everyone who finds themselves here. There are some moments, though – like now – when that awareness intensifies, like a microscope slide being brought into focus.

 

Jonah, probably, Jon tells himself with a shudder. It was only a matter of time before he started making his presence known again. Thinking back, Oliver might have been onto something when he referred to the Eye’s influence as slimy. It certainly does feel like a residue – one that can never be truly scoured away.

 

He’s just about to write off the gooseflesh and chills as the sort of casual, low-level, pre-apocalyptic voyeurism he needs to readjust to, to force himself to ignore it and not give Jonah Magnus the satisfaction of seeing him rattled, when Jon registers the drop in temperature.

 

The moment he notices his breath fogging, he bolts upright in his chair. Without thinking, he calls out.    

 

“Martin?”

 

The name tears its way up and out of his throat in dozens of overlapping tones, each instance recorded in the Archive layered one on top of the other and broadcast simultaneously. He flinches, both from the way it shakes him to his core and with a fear of how it might be received.

 

He can just barely make out a sharp intake of breath, coming from somewhere near the open office door, and he could swear his heart stops.  

 

Jon stands, takes a step toward where he Knows Martin is standing, and begins a mad scramble for words.

 

“I called for him to stay still, to wait there –”  

“– I wanted to say something reassuring, to reach out and let him know I was still there –”  

“– I knew I would do everything in my power to help him –”  

“– I asked him if I could help –”   

 

Martin probably doesn’t know why he’s speaking like this. What if it scares him away?

 

Panicked, Jon combs through Martin’s statements, always close at hand:

 

“I need him to be okay –”  

“– I’m sorry I left you – we got separated – I – I tried shouting, but you didn’t answer. I was trying to go back – I wanted to get out of there – I was looking for a way – to get – back –”

“– to come back to you –”   

“– I’m sorry – I’m sorry I left you.”  

 

Silence. Jon tries again, borrowing fragments from other statements this time, throwing it all together haphazardly:

 

“…the last time I saw you before I disappeared – I couldn’t –”  

“– reach out and let him know I was still there –”  

“– I’m sorry I left you –”  

“– I was still there –”  

“– do everything in my power –”

“– to keep a grip on that anchor –”  

“– to come back to you –”  

 

Jon breaks off with a ragged gasp, but holds one trembling hand out.

 

“I need him to be okay,” he says again, desperate.

 

There is a faint shuffling noise, and then he Knows that Martin is turning to leave. Frantically, Jon reaches for Naomi’s statement – morbidly fitting, being the first record of the Lonely he ever encountered.

 

“Could you stay please? I don’t want to be alone – stay please – don’t – be alone –”  

 

Martin’s breath hitches audibly.

 

“Please – stay please – don’t – be alone – please…”  

 

For a moment, he seems to waver at the threshold. Then come the soft footfalls, moving… moving away, pace quickening with every step, echoing with resolve and purpose.  

 

Jon can do nothing more than whisper now – stay, please, stay, I’m sorry, come back, don’t be alone – but it doesn’t matter. Martin is well out of earshot, and he’s taken the cold and the fog with him.

 

No warmth rushes in to fill that empty space.

 

Jon could chase after him, maybe even catch up with him, but… he knows – not even Knows, just knows – that it would make little difference. He’s been here once before, after all.

 

He lowers his hand and sinks to the floor with a sigh, leaning back against his desk with his eyes closed.

 

Now what?

Chapter Text

It’s okay, Jon tells himself, forcing himself to breathe the way Martin taught him: Four seconds in; hold seven seconds; eight seconds out.

 

Well… okay, it’s not okay. It’s very, very not okay.

 

…but – four – it – five – will – six – be – seven… okay, exhale.

 

Some time later – eight minutes, thirty-six-point-eight seconds, he Knows, though he didn’t ask – his breathing evens out and his thoughts clear with it.

 

That interaction with Martin wasn’t unexpected. There’s little reason to expect things to be different this time around, especially this soon after Jon woke up. He knows this.

 

There is a wall between him and Martin right now, constructed from a lifetime of rejection and loneliness that Jon himself contributed to for far too long. It’s been recently expanded by a mountain of grief, loss, and mourning – what should have been years’ worth condensed into the last six months – and it’s been further reinforced by Peter Lukas’ manipulations.

 

It will take some time to coax Martin away from the Lonely. Hopefully it won’t take as long as it did the last time, especially now that Jon knows the hypothetical threat of the Extinction is not as imminent as Peter claims, but still: Martin needs time and space. Besides, Jon simply can’t force the Lonely out of him with a few words and a prayer. Martin has to choose to reject it of his own volition, or it will always cling to him.

 

And most importantly: Martin deserves to make his own choice. Jon has no right to take that from him, any more than he did when they passed through the Lonely’s domain.

 

It would have been nice to be able to physically see Martin, though. Or even just hear his voice outside of his own head. Memories can only provide so much reassurance, and for so long.

 


 

Jon had every intention of continuing yesterday’s strategy meeting this afternoon, but already his brief conversation with Georgie and painfully brief interaction with Martin have left him fatigued. The migraine he had expected yesterday failed to reach fruition, but the threat of it still lingers, accompanied by a painless but still unpleasant sensation of pressure in his head, making him feel off-kilter. As of right now, he can still pull on the Archive to speak. Sitting down and strategizing, though, is another matter entirely. Planning ahead has never been part of his skill set. Anxiety, sleep deprivation, and a supernaturally-imparted speech impediment aren’t doing him any favors.

 

“Let me guess: you’re out of commission.”

 

Basira looks him up and down, taking in his hunched gargoyle posture in his desk chair, his half-lidded eyes, his fidgety hands: one resting uneasily on top of his desk, fingers twitching and tapping with no discernible rhythm; the other wound up in the scarf Georgie gave him, still draped over his shoulders. 

 

Jon can’t tell what characterizes Basira more in this moment: frustration with him, or simple exhaustion. Despite his own hypersensitivity to how others perceive him, he has a feeling that right now, it’s the latter.

 

“I think it can wait until tomorrow,” says Georgie, perched on the edge of Jon’s desk.   

 

“Fine,” Basira concedes. “Tomorrow, then.” She knocks twice on the doorframe. When Jon looks up on reflex, she catches his eye. “Get some actual sleep tonight, Jon. It’s not just your personal mental health on the line here.”   

 

“She is right about you needing to sleep,” Georgie says as Basira leaves. He avoids eye contact. “I’m serious. You look exhausted. I can get you a sleep aid –” Jon shakes his head slowly. “Why?”

 

With a sudden burst of energy, Jon stands, grabs her hand, and leads her to the entrance to the tunnels. He waits until they’ve both descended the ladder and the trapdoor is closed behind them before he turns to her and blurts out:

 

“…too afraid to go to sleep.” 

 

“I can sit next to you while you fall asleep if you –”

 

“…would serve no purpose except to start me having the nightmares again,” he mumbles, sinking into the nearest chair.

 

“You’ve been having those for a long time now,” Georgie says, following his lead and sitting across from him. “And you’ve figured out how to cope with them. What’s actually scaring you?”

 

Jon bites his lower lip and bows his head.

 

“Then I would watch – once again –” 

“– paralyzed with fear –” 

“– tried to scream but I couldn’t find my breath, I couldn’t move –” 

“– I couldn’t talk to anyone –” 

“– unable to move its body, though – its eyes darting around wildly –” 

“– unable to move – to cry for help –” 

“– unable to look away –” 

“– could only stare at him as he slowly, achingly crawled towards his doom –” 

“– being unable to reach him –”

“– stare at it, knowing how your – friend suffers, knowing how powerless you are to help –” 

 

“Slow down. You’re worried you’ll go back to how you were before?”

 

“…could only watch from the sidelines, getting a… a –” 

 

He stops, leaning forward with his head in his hands.

 

“What is it, Jon?”

 

“And the worst part was that, somewhere in me, I – I liked it –” 

“– it drew me in almost as much as it disgusted me –” 

“– getting a… a sad vicarious thrill from –” 

“– when people look at me… that fear“ – Jon’s breath hitches – “it feels amazing.” 

 

He looks up at Georgie.

 

“Underneath all that awful fear, it felt like… home,” he whispers in a haunted tone. The shame crashes over him and he breaks eye contact, ducking his head again.

 

Georgie is quiet for a long moment. Then, she leans forward, reaches out, and takes his hand. He flinches and freezes.

 

“It sounds to me like you don’t want to like it,” she says. “People sometimes have feelings and urges that they aren’t proud of. Things that would hurt other people, if acted on.” She takes a breath. “But… I think it says more about a person’s character when they fight back against it.”

 

“…a presence within myself, inside my being –” 

“– will strip us of what it means to be human, and leave us something alien and cold.” 

 

“I know your circumstances are… different –”

 

“…it was the product of an otherworldly evil and called to me,” he says miserably.

 

“I know,” she says again. “There’s something in you, something that came from outside of yourself, and it’s trying to change you. Consume you.”

 

“…should have fought harder against the temptation –” 

 

“But you’re fighting it now, aren’t you? You want things to be different.”

 

“I suppose I had to believe that the darkened natures of our terror could be kept in check – a rather feeble hope, for my own salvation –” 

“– as if it might ward whatever awful thing waited inside that door.” 

 

“For what it’s worth, I don’t think it’s a feeble hope. This is the most sure I’ve ever seen you be about anything.” She jostles his hand until he looks up at her. “You’re not a bad person, Jon. You’re taking extreme steps to make sure you don’t hurt anyone. It might not change the things you’ve done in the past, but neither will beating yourself up over it.”

 

Jon laughs, wincing when it comes out sounding a bit tear-choked.

 

“I try to think that I’ve left my past behind, but that sort of denial doesn’t help me sleep.” 

 

“Maybe not. But you don’t have to deny the past in order to move beyond it. You can remember your mistakes and learn from them without letting them define you. And I think… I think you’re going to have to do that, if you want to move forward.” After a moment, Jon nods. Apparently unconvinced, Georgie adds: “Also, I don’t know if you need to be told this, but getting better means actually taking care of yourself.”

 

Jon chuckles at that, some of his tension bleeding away. “Thank you for indulging me, you’ve been very patient.” 

 

“Stop that. You’d do the same for me. You have done the same for me.” He opens his mouth to argue. “Yeah, you’re not great at comforting people, I know. But I’ve seen you try.”

 

He must still look dubious, because Georgie sighs heavily.

 

“Do you remember when I was going through that medication change in uni?”

 

Jon nods warily.

 

It had been before they started dating. Jon has never made friends easily, but somehow Georgie had managed to tolerate his company long enough for him to start letting his guard down. At that point in his life, she really was the only one who he could confidently call a friend.

 

So when the antidepressant she had been on for over a year lost effectiveness and she had to start the arduous process of finding a new one, Jon had a front row seat to a depressive episode – and he felt irretrievably lost. He had no script to follow; he worried incessantly that he was making things worse, that he wasn’t making himself useful enough, that he was intruding on her personal space and she just didn’t have the energy to tell him the truth. He would pace restlessly and trip over his words and lapse into uncomfortable silences, wringing his hands and brooding – being more of a nuisance than a help, he was certain.   

 

“You didn’t know how to help,” Georgie says, as if reading his mind. “You couldn’t make me better. I could tell it was driving you mad, not having an answer, because there was no simple answer. It was just… something that had to be lived through, coped with – and you’ve never been able to tolerate that concept, I know. You’re not good at waiting.” Jon huffs – only because she’s right. “But,” Georgie says emphatically, “you spent time with me, even though I was no fun. Brought me takeaway, set alarms to remind yourself to ask me if I’d taken my meds, did all this – this reading and research on how to support a loved one in crisis, which was” – she chuckles – “very you.”

 

Jon focuses intently on the weave of his scarf, petting it absently with his free hand, tracing the knit with his fingertips.

 

“You stayed anyway, even though you were uncomfortable. You didn’t say as much, but you’re fairly obvious when you’re anxious. At one point I told you I didn’t want you to fix it, I just didn’t want to be alone, and… you respected that. Which surprised me, to be honest. I was certain you’d be stubborn about it, act like you knew better than me.” Jon smiles at that. It was a fair assumption for her to make, especially back then. “Probably never would’ve considered dating you if you hadn’t proven me wrong then.”

 

“Until he became me –“ 

“– moody, short-tempered, constantly on edge.” 

 

He gives Georgie a wry look as he says it, though, and she laughs.

 

“You’ve always been moody and on edge, including then. That wasn’t a new development that grew up overnight. What I’m saying is you’ve never been just that – which is why I have expectations of you, because I know what you’re capable of.” She gives him a serious look. “Like I told you years ago, you need to stop seeing things in black-and-white – including when it’s about you. Not everything has a clear-cut answer. You’d be happier if you could make peace with that.”

 

“And he was aware of it always – could not disagree,” Jon says with an exaggerated eye roll.

 

“Of course I’m right,” she quips back. “But you’re trying, and that’s all I ask.”

 

The ensuing silence is a comfortable one. Jon uses the lapse as an opportunity to search for a way to ask after Melanie.

 

“Statement of Georgina Barker regarding –”

 

Jon pauses. There’s really no way of saying the next part without accidentally drawing on more than one statement, but… Georgie is safe, and the phrase only appears a couple of times in the Archive, so it shouldn’t be too powerful. 

 

Statement of Melanie King.”

 

There is a reverb to the words, but the lightheadedness that comes with it is mild and passes quickly. Georgie appears to notice the odd tenor of his voice, tilting her head slightly to track the sound, but she doesn’t pursue it.

 

“You’re asking how Melanie is?”

 

“I wanted to check in with them, find out what happened.” 

 

“She’s… having a rough day. I don’t think it’s my place to say more than that.”

 

Jon nods again: I understand. Then, he repeats again: “Statement of Georgina Barker.” 

 

Georgie leans forward, elbow on knee, chin propped up by her fist. Her other hand continues to hold Jon’s, but she loosens her grip somewhat. The crease between her eyebrows is familiar to him – Georgie is taking her time to inventory her thoughts before speaking. He waits.

 

“I’m… hm. It’s been a lot to process,” she says carefully. “I think I’m doing okay for the moment? I’m mostly worried about Melanie. I’ve been worried about Melanie, but… after what you said about quitting – it’s complicated things a bit. It’s – it’s something we needed to know,” she adds, seeing Jon’s guilty expression. “I’m glad you were honest with us. Actually, I think Melanie was surprised that you told us about the, ah, second way to quit. It… hmm. It doesn't fit with the image she has of you.” Jon snorts at the delicate phrasing, and Georgie gives him a sheepish smile. “Sorry, but she still thinks you’re a self-serving prick.”

 

Jon shrugs, unperturbed. He already knew that, and it’s not like he’s done much to dissuade Melanie of that assessment. Not yet, anyway.

 

“Oh, but she told me to reassure you that she isn’t going to kill you in your sleep, so that’s something? I told her that’s not why you pulled an all-nighter, but she said to let you know anyway.”

 

Jon laughs, and Georgie’s eyes crinkle when she returns a smile. After a moment, though, it fades.

 

“I did want to ask, though… did Melanie find out how to quit in your future as well?” Jon nods. “In that case – I’m not sure if you were planning on it, but in case you were… don’t tell me just yet what her decision was where you came from. I’ve been tempted to ask, but I haven’t talked it over with Melanie yet, and I think that’s her call to make. Okay?” Jon nods again. “And… she’s still angry with you – with a lot of things, really, but especially this place, and she sees you as inseparable from it.”

 

“They’re not entirely wrong,” Jon accedes.

 

“I did talk to her about it. She asked me to let you know that she does want to talk to you – I know she has some questions to ask – but that she doesn’t want you near her right now. She’s trying to sort through her feelings towards you – figure out how much of it is a you problem versus a her problem versus a both-of-you problem. She needs some space to do that. And it’s not the only thing she’s working through right now.”

 

Jon can appreciate that. Honestly, it’s better than he could have hoped for. Last time around, Melanie had eventually softened on him, had even tentatively called him a friend – but at that point, everything in his life felt like too little too late, and she deserved better than to have him poison her life again. When he sought her out that last time, he really had only been looking for someone to help him parse Martin’s intentions – Jon has always struggled with anything less than direct, explicit communication – but Georgie was right to be angry with him. Regardless of his intentions, he was inseparable from the Institute; there was no way for him to ask for advice that didn’t involve dragging Melanie back into exactly the kind of toxicity she was trying to escape.

 

When he left that day, it was with the intention of staying out of both of their lives from then on. They both set a firm boundary, and they deserved to have it respected. But he had plenty of time to brood during the apocalypse, and there were so many things left unsaid between him and Melanie and Georgie. Even if the world hadn’t ended, he probably wouldn’t have approached them again – they seemed happy, and showing up on their doorstep to talk, even if it was just to apologize, would have only been for his own benefit. It wouldn’t have felt right to intrude on them again and open up old wounds just for the sake of securing closure for himself.

 

Now, though? Truth be told, he could use some space, himself. He’s rehearsed it many times before – all the things he might say to the people in his life, both living and dead, if he had a chance to see them again – but now that he actually has that chance, everything he’s drafted in his head feels inadequate. It may take some time to get his thoughts in order before sitting down and openly discussing his and Melanie’s fraught relationship.

 

“So… Martin?” Georgie says, snapping Jon out of his thoughts. “Have you seen him yet?”

 

Jon makes an uncertain tilting motion with his hand, finding no succinct way to explain that yes, he did have a brief encounter with Martin, but it was a one-sided conversation, and Jon expected as much, but it still hurt; and moreover, Martin was invisible when he visited, no doubt intending to just see for himself that Jon was awake, check in on how he was doing without being noticed; and Jon wishes he had been able to do the same, to have some irrefutable physical reassurance that Martin is alive and real and here and now, because it’s been so long, and…

 

“…he seemed determined to avoid – me,” Jon settles on instead.

 

“You care about him a lot, don’t you?”

 

“I need him to be okay –”  

“– the easy, charming man I’d fallen in love with.” 

 

“Oh,” Georgie says, sounding stunned. Jon meets her eyes with a quizzical expression. “I just – knowing you, I figured you’d still be in denial about how infatuated you are? Or, at best, you’d grudgingly admit you maybe, possibly had a little crush? I was not expecting a declaration of love.”

 

“Everything about being with him felt so natural that when he told me he loved me, it only came as a surprise to realize that we hadn’t said it already –”  

“– and together it seemed like we would get past our pain.” 

 

“Holy shit,” Georgie murmurs. “You’re absolutely besotted. I mean, I knew you were, you talked about him all the time and you’re not as subtle as you think you are – but actually acknowledging it?”

 

“…honestly it’s one of the few decisions I’ve ever made that I completely understand,” Jon replies, not bothering to hide his small smile.

 

“Wow. You’ve… changed more than I thought.” Georgie mirrors his expression, but then she falters, chewing the inside of her cheek for a moment. “Can I ask how it – if it…” Jon’s smile fades too, but he makes a beckoning gesture: It’s okay; go on. “Regardless of whether things worked out between you, I… well, I have a hard time thinking you’d come back to this time if it meant leaving him behind in your future?”

 

Jon looks down at their linked hands, expressionless as he begins to construct a response.

 

“I’ll skip over the bit where –” 

“– taking me in his arms and giving me the last and longest hug I would ever get from him –” 

“– he was gone. Just gone. And I was alone again. There was no one I could talk to about it –” 

“– I had plenty of time to mourn him –” 

“– it took all my self-control to keep a grip on that anchor, as I slowly dragged myself away from the edge of my lonely grave.” 

 

Georgie gives his hand a reassuring squeeze, which he returns gratefully.

 

“I’m so sorry,” she says. “For what it’s worth, I… I’m glad you have this second chance. You… are going to tell him how you feel this time as well, right?”

 

Obviously, he wants to say, but it’s not as simple as he wishes it was. He frowns thoughtfully as he searches for a way to explain the situation.

 

“…he’s been so lonely –” 

“– embraced the loneliness like an old friend –” 

“– for a creature of the Lonely, the urge is to isolate, never to communicate or connect –” 

“– I wanted to say something reassuring, to reach out and let him know I was still there –”

 

“But it was like this last time you woke up, too.” She waits for his affirmative before continuing: “So you can do it again.”

 

“…I managed it eventually, but my inability to speak –” 

“– I found him difficult to talk to at length.” 

 

“But,” she persists, “you aren’t going to give up, right?”

 

“…I knew he would return eventually,” Jon says.

 

“Good,” Georgie says with a relieved, somewhat exasperated sigh. “I swear to god, if you’d gotten fatalistic just then, I’d have had some words for you.” Jon chuckles. “Seriously, though – you’ll figure this out. You’ve always been stubborn. Every now and then, it’s even an asset.”  

 

“I’m grateful to her, of course.” 

 

“Again, don’t mention it. As long as you keep trying, I’ll support you. I might set limits on how much I’m willing to get involved with the actual supernatural bits – I haven’t decided just yet – but when I need to step back, I’ll tell you. I’m not going to ghost you just because you don’t grovel.”

 

Jon groans at the pun, which gets a self-satisfied grin out of Georgie.

 

“Oh, shut up. It was a good one.”    

 


 

Right, I forgot: comatose people don’t need pens, Jon thinks irritably to himself the next day, turning his office upside down looking for a writing utensil.

 

He’s so thoroughly preoccupied with rummaging through his desk that he doesn’t notice Basira standing in the doorway until she clears her throat, startling him so badly that he jumps and slams one of his fingers in the drawer. He yelps in pain and pulls his hand back, shaking it out to distract from the throbbing. A moment later, the realization crosses his mind that it’s the same finger he’d tried to cut off the last time he was here.

 

It’s a coincidence, he tells himself before his mind can wander too far down the rabbit hole. He has enough to worry about without getting bogged down in the hypotheticals of time travel and sci-fi tropes about the changeability of the past. Besides, the Coffin hasn't even arrived yet; there are still a few weeks before the original date of his failed self-amputation attempts.

 

“Sorry,” Basira says, eyebrows raised. “Didn’t mean to scare you. Honestly, I figured you’d just know I was here.” Jon has nothing to say to that. Trying to explain the fine details of Knowing has never been a pleasant experience, and he couldn’t tackle that subject now even if he’d wanted to. “What are you looking for, anyway?”

 

“…think of me as an idiot who turned up to give a statement without a pen,” Jon says distractedly, opening another drawer and sifting through it. “I can’t find it anywhere.”

 

“Pens?” Jon nods without looking up. “Yeah, I threw them all out – don’t give me that look, Jon. Half of them didn’t even work, and the others looked like a puppy’s chew toys. Anyway, most of what I threw out in here got touched by the Flesh. You didn’t want any of it back, trust me.” Jon grimaces. “Yeah. Anyway, there are boxes in the supply closet – but I think I can do you one better.”

 

She tosses something at him. He notices the movement belatedly and just barely manages to catch the thing, nearly dropping it.  

 

“Guess knowing things also doesn’t extend to being able to catch without fumbling,” Basira deadpans.

 

Jon looks down at the phone in his hands, then back up at Basira.

 

“Got the Institute to cover it as a work expense. I have no idea where the one you had before the Unknowing ended up; I’m assuming it blew up along with everything else.” Basira leans back against the doorframe. “I’m sure texting will go about as well for you as typing has, but Georgie downloaded a few AAC apps for you to try.”

 

He gives Basira a tentative smile.

 

“You’re welcome,” she says with a curt nod. The look she gives him then is curious – almost like she’s still trying to get a read on him, debating how much closeness she can risk. Then her guard goes back up and her tone turns authoritative again. “You can practice with them later. Meeting’s in a half-hour.”

 

Before Jon can respond, Basira turns and leaves. He looks down at the phone in his hand again. It’s uncertain how the Archive will take to this newest workaround, but there’s only one way to find out.   

 


 

“Here, let me take –”

 

Jon unceremoniously drops the box of statements down through the trapdoor, where it hits the ground below with a dull thud and a puff of dust.

 

“…or not,” Georgie finishes.

 

“Was that really necessary?” Basira calls from the bottom of the ladder.

 

Completely pointless, Jon thinks to himself a bit giddily, ignoring the stabbing pain in his temples with relish. The Beholding can complain all it wants about him mishandling statements; right now, he’s too tired and too delirious to care.

 

He’d had plenty of time during the apocalypse to develop methods of coping with the Eye’s intrusiveness. The most emotionally satisfying one he’d happened upon basically amounted to random acts of spite. It had no material effect on anything – aside from triggering varying degrees of headaches, but he already got those anyway. It was no different than a petulant child slamming a bedroom door, but it gave him that fleeting feeling of being in control of something, and it felt good.

 

“Let me go first,” Georgie says. He gives her a questioning look. “You’re using a cane, Jon. There’s a fifty percent chance you’re going to fall on your ass going down that ladder, and I’d rather keep you out of the hospital for the rest of the year.” Jon averts his eyes and frowns. She must interpret it as reluctance, because she clarifies: “You need a spotter.”

 

Jon signals agreement and she starts down the ladder ahead of him.

 

The thing is, he wasn’t trying to contradict her. It’s just… well, he’s still getting used to the idea of being cared for again, especially when it comes to insignificant things. Yes, his leg is acting up today, but it’s not that bad – the cane is just to keep it from getting any worse. And if he did fall, it’s not like it would kill him. It would be inconvenient, unpleasant, and probably embarrassing, but too temporary to really register on his distress scale.

 

Anyway, he’s grown desensitized to physical pain. Or… no, that’s not quite right. What he’s desensitized to isn’t the pain itself, but the experience of being harmed. He’s come to expect it, and these days only the only permanent injuries he receives are those inflicted by one of the Powers. Everything else heals too quickly and completely to feel consequential. Most things don’t even scar anymore, and those that do – well, what’s one more scar?  

 

He knows it’s not a healthy mindset. Even before the world ended, he’d come to regard his body with a sense of detachment. In retrospect, he should’ve known that his rib wouldn’t work as an anchor. Most days, his body didn’t even feel like it belonged to him. Then, as if to confirm that inkling, Jonah possessed him; the Watcher’s eyes started manifesting on and around him; his presence became synonymous with that of the Eye to anyone who beheld him. He confirmed on several occasions that he wasn’t able to die. Even the Hunt couldn’t kill him. Jon would end one day, like everything else, but a mundane physical death was beyond him.

 

He doesn’t Know if that’s still the case now, and he’s too afraid to ask.  

 

So, yes: he’s developed a cavalier attitude towards personal safety. Avoiding minor injuries feels almost on the same level as what temperature the water is before he steps into the shower: relevant in terms of his own comfort, but otherwise unimportant. He’s always spared little thought as to his own comfort, and it’s only gotten worse since becoming the Archivist. And the apocalypse didn’t exactly have much to offer in the way of comfort anyway, especially after…

 

Jon cringes as he stops to reflect on that train of thought. It took him fewer than thirty seconds to rationalize… well, Martin would have called it self-harm. Or self-sabotage, at the least. Georgie probably would, too, if she could see inside his mind right now. His judgment of what counts as worthy of concern is decidedly skewed, especially to an outside observer. It was easy to justify it to himself when it was just him alone at the end of the world, but employing a mindset forged in hopelessness and tailored to a doomed future is only going to be maladaptive here and now.

 

He should probably take some time later to unpack all of that. It would be easier if he could write it all out; it’s always difficult to keep track of his own thoughts without a visual aid, but –

 

“Jon?” Georgie calls up to him. “You can come down now.”

 

Deal with it later, he tells himself, tossing his cane down for Georgie to catch. As he makes his way down the ladder, his leg does twinge a bit, but it holds his weight well enough, and he reaches the bottom without incident.

 

“Where’s Melanie?” Basira asks.

 

“Resting,” Georgie says, handing Jon his cane. “She had a bad morning. I’ll fill her in on everything later.”

 

“Fine.” Basira nudges the box with her foot. “What’s this then?”

 

“Statements,” Georgie says. She’d watched Jon throw them haphazardly into the box before coming down here. “Not sure why, though.”

 

Jon moves the box to one of the chairs that they left in the tunnel last night. It isn’t too heavy – just some pertinent statements and tapes that he thought might make this discussion flow more smoothly. Taking a seat in the next chair over, he removes the lid from the box and begins rummaging.

 

“Statement of Joshua Gillespie, regarding his time in possession of an apparently empty wooden casket,” Jon says after a moment, holding up a folder labeled CASE #9982211 and containing the respective written statement. One page sticks out crookedly, and Jon’s heart skips a beat when he recognizes Tim’s handwriting. This had been one of his cases to follow up on.

 

He shakes his head and sets the folder aside, reaching into the box for the corresponding tape. Instead, his fingertips brush against a different loose cassette, and his breath catches in his throat.

 

“Statement of Detective Alice ‘Daisy’ Tonner,” he says quietly, removing the cassette. “Traffic stop of a delivery van.” 

 

“This is the statement Daisy gave you?” Basira says. “She said you compelled her.”

 

“I didn’t realize that was what had happened until afterwards,” Jon says softly. He pulls a tape recorder from his pocket and gives Basira a questioning look.

 

“Yeah,” she says roughly. “Yeah, go ahead.” 

 

Jon inserts the cassette and fast-forwards, stopping when he Knows he’s reached the right timestamp. His own recorded voice begins to play.   

 

        “If you don’t mind me asking, h-h-how long have you been sectioned now –”

 

        “I do mind,” comes Daisy’s clipped voice. Then, immediately: “Fourteen years.”

 

        “I don’t suppose you’d like to make a statement?”

 

        “About what?”

 

        “Whatever you like. Fourteen years – you must have seen a number of paranormal things.”

 

        “And you want me to tell you about them.”

 

        “Uh – I-I-I-I-I –”

 

        “Okay,” says Daisy.

      

        “What?”  

 

        “Okay. I’ll give you a statement about – how I got my first Section 31.” A beat. “You look surprised.”

 

        “I mean, I was largely asking as a formality. Basira didn’t give me the impression you were the sharing sort.”

 

        “Maybe you caught me in a good mood.”

 

        “Right, well… good. Do you need me to go over our non-disclosure policy –”

 

        “Not as long as you understand my policy: if it gets out, I’ll break every bone in your body.”

 

        “There are worse things that could happen to them,” the Jon on the tape mutters.

 

Jon hits stop and looks up at Basira. There’s a sheen to her eyes; he does her the courtesy of looking away and not drawing attention to it. After a long few seconds, she clears her throat. When she speaks, her voice is even and impassive.

 

“So you really didn’t know you were compelling people back then.”

 

“…he had no idea what was about to happen to him.”  

 

He probably should have noticed sooner, but he was always so fixated on listening to the answer to a question that he paid comparatively little attention to the asking of it. Insensitive of him, really – far too like the detached fascination of the Ceaseless Watcher, in retrospect. The reality that he had the power to compel others didn’t really sink in until after his conversation with Jude. Disconcerting though it was, he couldn't deny the part of him that liked it - that ability to ask a question and receive an answer that he could know without a doubt was true. Eventually the discomfort and shame overshadowed the satisfaction, but in those early days, he had appreciated that power to an extent.

 

Jon notices belatedly that the other two are watching him expectantly. He hadn’t planned on playing Daisy’s tape first, but since he already has it prepared to go, he fast-forwards to the beginning of her statement and lets it play through to the end. No one makes any comment in the few seconds it takes for him to swap the cassette out for Joshua Gillespie’s statement.

 

“So the Coffin makes people want to enter it,” Basira says as the second statement ends. “Is that why you went in, the first time? You were compelled?”

 

Jon shakes his head no. Daisy had asked him the same question last time. It’s true that the Coffin called to him, but its compulsion never got beneath his skin – not like that of the Beholding or the Web. In the end, going into the Buried was his decision.  

 

“Why, then?”

 

“…survivor’s guilt,” Jon says. “I should be dead, really – it’s hard to reconcile yourself with avoiding a death that you feel should have been yours.”  

 

There was more to it, though. He takes a minute to rifle through statements, to piece together his state of mind the first time he entered the Buried.

 

“I felt a great deal of guilt over my involvement with –” 

“– the path of the Eye –” 

“– when they looked at me, their eyes were full of – anger – blame –” 

“– looked at me with a mixture of hate and helpless terror, as though I could do something to fix it –” 

“– cut off effectively all human contact –” 

“– I decided I had to do something – anything to get out of the fog –” 

“– to lose myself in something that is not the absence of humanity –” 

“– desperate to remind myself that I could still feel something –” 

“– desperate for any human connection.” 

 

He pauses for a breath. Looking back, if Jon hadn’t been so thoroughly claimed by the Beholding already, he may have been a candidate for the Lonely himself back then. Peter Lukas didn’t have to lift a finger.

 

“I was starting to fear that if I didn’t manage to do something –” 

“– I would lose myself – forever –” 

“– I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t at least try –”

“– it was – the most human part of it remaining –” 

“– to act, to help, to do something –” 

“– I need to not lose any more bits of me –” 

“– and worst comes to worst –” 

“– at least I felt useful.” 

 

Georgie’s eyes are on him now, reading between the lines.

 

“Did you even have a plan? Or did you just… rush in by yourself, not even tell anyone?” He nods. “Which?” He gives Georgie a pointed look, nodding a second time. “Both? Figures. Don’t know why I bothered asking, really.”

 

“…but this time was different,” he assures her.

 

“How did you get out?” Basira asks.

 

“It took all my self-control to keep a grip on that anchor.” 

 

“Meaning?”

 

“…her anchor. The thing weighing her down, tying her to this world,” he tries again.

 

“Something to ground you,” Georgie says questioningly.

 

“…to make finding my way back – that much easier.” 

 

“And you can do the same thing this time?” Basira waits for his confirmation before moving on. “What about the delivery itself?”

 

Jon pulls out another folder and cassette, both labeled CASE #9961505.

 

“Statement of Alfred Breekon, regarding a new pair of workers at his delivery company.” 

 

“Breekon and Hope?” Basira asks.

 

Jon nods, inserts the tape, and depresses the play button.  

 

“They’ve been in a few statements, haven’t they?” Basira says afterwards, forehead creased in thought.

 

As an answer, Jon removes one last cassette from the box before tilting it forward to reveal a handful of case files sliding around at the bottom. All of them contain minor references either to Breekon and Hope or the Coffin, but none of them struck him as significant enough to bother bringing the accompanying tapes.

 

The remaining cassette in his hand, label reading CASE #0020406, is only relevant for the last minute or so of the recording: Martin’s encounter with Breekon and Hope on the day they delivered the NotThem’s table and the Web’s lighter. Jon pops it into the recorder, fast-forwards to the relevant timestamp, and hits play. Breekon and Hope’s voices echo in the tunnel, finishing each other’s sentences in an uncanny back-and-forth volley.

 

“Hm.” Basira frowns. “And they just… got into the Archives without anyone seeing them?” Jon nods. “I’m assuming we can expect the same this time?" Another nod, but Jon holds up two fingers, gives Basira a meaningful look, and then puts one down. “Only one of them.”

 

“Statement of the surviving half of the being calling itself ‘Breekon and Hope,’” Jon says. Then: “When that Hunter killed him – took him from me, made us a me – the casket – was waiting – I fed her to it.”  

 

“Do we have to worry about a fight?”

 

Jon shakes his head no. “We did not kill them, did not lift a finger. We were bringers of their awful fate, not its executors – and we both tasted it together.” He fast-forwards the statement in his head. “I am without him now – can feel myself fading, weak, no reason to move, nothing to deliver. But I am no longer tied to the casket, so you can have it – climb in, and join her.” 

 

“So we just, what, let it deliver the thing and leave?”

 

“I told her that any real danger had passed –”  

“– fading, weak, no reason to move, nothing to deliver.”  

 

“And then you go in.”

 

Jon nods. There are more details, of course, but the basics of his plan are the same as they were last time: equip himself with Daisy’s tape, follow the pull of her voice, rely on his anchor to find the way back – albeit hopefully with fewer hiccups this time.

 

Or fewer lost ribs, at least, now that he has a better grasp on anchors.

 


 

Several days later, a visitor arrives in the Archives, albeit not the one they’ve been expecting.  

 

Head pillowed in his arms on his desk, dozing and half-conscious, Jon is roused from a shallow sleep by voices in the hallway, filtering through the open crack in the door.    

 

“This area is off-limits,” Basira is saying.

 

“I’m just looking for the Head Archivist. Jonathan Sims? He still works here, doesn’t he?”

 

Is that…

 

“What do you want with Jon?” Georgie’s voice, sounding genuinely curious, but anyone familiar with her would recognize the protective edge to it.

 

“Look, is he here or isn’t he?”

 

It is.

 

Rubbing bleary eyes and shaking off the remaining wisps of brain fog, Jon stands, his joints cracking in protest. He grabs his cane, heads for the door, and peeks out into the hallway. 

 

Naomi Herne is here, standing in the doorway at the bottom of the stairs between the Archives and the rest of the Institute. She looked his way when she heard the creak of the door opening, and their eyes meet for a brief moment before he reflexively averts his gaze.

 

“Jon?” She sidesteps Basira and Georgie and starts walking towards him.

 

He digs in his pockets and brings out his phone. So far, the AAC app has turned out to be a decent workaround. Prolonged use will still give him a headache in much the same way that communicating through illustration does, but it’s helpful for making specific requests, asking direct questions, and conveying simple or general concepts. He’ll accept a headache if it means not being forced to use some convoluted metaphor just to say I don’t know or I’m short-circuiting, please give me some space or I’m going to make tea; would you like some?

 

“YOU ARE – HERE,” comes the computerized voice as he prods at the screen. “WHY.”

 

For a long moment, Naomi says nothing, staring at the phone in his hand.

 

“It’s been over a week since I last saw you,” she says slowly. “At first I thought it must be because you woke up – which was a good guess, it seems – but then days went by and no dreams, and… I was worried.” Jon tilts his head, confused. “What’s with that look?”

 

Jon opens and closes his mouth a few times, debating on whether to reach for a statement. It feels wrong to be dishonest with her, and a hopeful part of him suggests that Naomi wouldn’t react too badly. She’s seen worse from him, and none of that seems to have scared her away, so…  

 

“…I wasn’t worth worrying about.” 

 

Naomi rolls her eyes. “Why are you so stubborn?”

 

Georgie laughs at that. When Naomi glances in her direction, she starts approaching the two of them, apparently satisfied that Naomi isn’t a threat. Likewise, Basira drifts off down the hall and into the break room. She leaves the door open, though – Jon Knows she still wants to listen in, just in case.

 

“He’s always been like this,” Georgie says.

 

“Figures,” Naomi says, then looks back at Jon. “So, why haven’t you been around? Did you find a way to sever the dreams, or…?” Jon shakes his head no. “Then what?”

 

“It’s not like I sleep enough to worry about dreams,” he says evasively.

 

Naomi opens her mouth to reply and at that moment Jon’s phone goes off. He nearly drops the thing as he fumbles to dismiss the alarm. Once the noise is silenced, Jon sighs and looks at Georgie.

 

“You want me to…?” Jon nods, giving her permission to speak on his behalf. “Okay then.”

 

Georgie looks at Naomi.

 

“Jonathan” – Jon huffs at the use of his full name – “has been depriving himself of sleep. But no matter how stubborn he is, he’s still human.” Georgie gives him a stern look, daring him to contradict her. He doesn’t; it isn’t worth getting into this discussion, especially in front of Naomi. “Now he’s started nodding off in spite of himself, he’s been forced to admit that he can’t go without sleep forever – but instead of actually sleeping, he’s decided that the best course of action is to just set alarms at forty-five minute intervals, to wake him up before he enters REM sleep. Which means he’s not getting any restful sleep.” She looks at Jon and smiles disarmingly. “Does that about cover it?”

 

Jon rolls his eyes – she really didn’t need to offer the detail about his new alarm routine – but he nods all the same.

 

“And why don’t you want to sleep?” Naomi asks.

 

“The only thing that worried me was sleeping. I think it gave me bad dreams,” he says.

 

“Not to be rude, but…” Naomi hesitates before blurting out: “Why are you talking like that?”

 

“He’s been having… some speech difficulties,” Georgie says, glancing at Jon. He makes a circular motion with one hand: It’s fine; go ahead. “Ever since he woke up, he’s only able to speak in quotes from the statements? It’s… challenging, to say the least.”

 

“Ah,” Naomi says, chipper, “just some new spooky developments, then.”

 

Out of habit, Jon glares at her for her word choice, but there’s no real ire in it. If anything, it’s a relief to find that Naomi’s attitude toward him seems unchanged despite said new spooky developments.

 

“But…” Naomi frowns. “You’ve been having these dreams for two years now, and you said you’ve mostly gotten them sorted. So how is sleeping now any different from the last few months?”

 

“He’s afraid that things will go back to the way they were before.”

 

“O…kay,” Naomi says slowly, “but you told me that most of the others have already learned to stop the nightmare sequence without you. And everyone knows now that you aren’t as scary as you look – which, by the way, is it weird that by now it's almost more unsettling to see you with only two eyes? Sorry, not the point. The point is, it won’t be the same as it was before.”

 

Jon stares fixedly at a scratch on the floor. Left over from the Flesh attack, maybe? He could Know, but –

 

Focus, he tells himself before his thoughts can wander too far afield.  

 

He isn’t sure how to explain that the other dreamers may not be as forgiving or fearless as Naomi is. And even if they were to find it in themselves to overlook a relapse, even if they don’t start viewing him the way they did before… the prospect of having his bodily autonomy stripped from him again is more than enough to fill him with dread.

 

It feels too much like the way the hunger pulls him inexorably toward a victim. It will probably feel like how it does when the Archive takes control. And it will definitely feel like it did when he was made a conduit for the Watcher’s Crown. Jonah wearing him like a glove. Locking him in place, forcing his eyes open, hijacking his voice. Making him into a possession, only to cast him aside like a broken toy once he had served his purpose.

 

“– Jon?”

 

With some effort, he drags himself back to the present.

 

“Something not moving but that wants to move. Wants to be free –” 

“– stopped being able to move under his own power – walk him like a puppet – directed and controlled –” 

“– unable to move – to cry for help.” 

 

Hands shaking, he inputs a response on his phone.

 

“I AM – SCARED.”

 

“That’s… okay, that sounds properly horrifying,” Naomi admits. “But you don’t know for sure that’s what’ll happen, right?” Grudgingly, Jon shakes his head no. “So you could be fretting over nothing.”

 

“So far, so normal, right?” 

 

“Smartass,” Naomi says, but with good humor. “Still, you can’t go without sleep forever – you’re going to have to face it eventually. You may as well get it over with sooner rather than later, and then you’ll know for sure. If nothing else, you’ll get some sleep out of it. But,” she says with a longsuffering sigh, “I have a feeling you’re going to keep pushing it, so…” She holds out her hand and crooks her fingers. “Phone. I’m adding my number to your contacts.”

 

It isn’t until Jon hands it over that he even consciously processes her words.  

 

“Just so you know,” Georgie says, “he can’t really text, either. Unless it’s in statements.”

 

“That’s fine,” Naomi says, typing rapidly. “You can just reply with emojis or whatever, Jon. Just something to let me know you’re still alive.” She hands the phone back to him. “And this way I can send you pictures of the Duchess.”

 

Jon perks up at that.

 

“The Duchess?” Georgie asks.

 

“Yep. Adopted a cat last week.” Naomi’s smile is wider than Jon has ever seen it. “She’s settling in nicely,” she says to him before looking back to Georgie. “I almost changed her name, but Jon insisted I leave it as is. Said I shouldn’t deprive her of a title she’d rightfully earned.”

 

Georgie snorts. “He said the same about the Admiral.”

 

“Oh, you must be Georgie, then? I’ve heard a lot about… uh –”

 

“Don’t worry; I’m well aware you’ve heard more about the Admiral than me. Pretty sure Jon prefers his company to mine half the time.” She ignores the indignant look Jon shoots her and holds out her phone to Naomi. “Jon was notoriously terrible at answering texts even before all of… this. Feel free to direct any, ‘Is Jonathan Sims still alive?’ queries to me.”

 

Jon watches in bewilderment as the two of them exchange numbers. Not for the first time, he wonders how this kind of thing seems to come so naturally to other people.

 

“I also wouldn’t mind seeing a photo of the Duchess.”

 

“What about a group chat?” Naomi says. “Spooky-free zone, cat-related updates only. Everyone gets their daily dose of cat antics, I get to honestly tell my therapist that I’m not self-isolating, and Jon can just like things to let me know he’s still breathing. Three birds, one stone.”

 

“Good idea.” Georgie gives Jon an exacting look. “It’ll give you something nice to obsess over. I’ll have to ask Melanie if she wants to be added, too. She could use the distraction.”

 

Jon can feel a smile tug at his lips as he hurriedly taps out a response.

 

“YES – PLEASE – THANK YOU.”  

 


  

Jon and the others try to retreat to the tunnels as often as possible – every other day, if they can manage it – even if there isn’t a pressing matter to discuss. More than anything, it’s a ploy to throw off Jonah. There’s every possibility that he would grow suspicious if the group only held their secretive meetings just prior to major events. Meeting frequently likely won’t alarm him too much, though. Jonah is likely to write off Jon’s furtiveness as paranoia, or simply his near-compulsive tendency to retread the same ground in aimless circles, obsessing over a single question ad infinitum.

 

Jon isn’t sure whether he Knows this, or if he’s just become uncomfortably familiar with Jonah’s thought processes. Either way, Jon is well aware of what Jonah thinks of him, of how the man can effortlessly dissect and predict Jon’s every outward action and inner experience. If he's honest with himself, Jonah’s scrutiny may terrify him even more than the Ceaseless Watcher’s.

 

At least the Eye is alien, operating entirely outside the bounds of human morality and emotion. It and all of the other Fears just… are what they are. Predictable, instinctual, amoral – or operating on a sort of blue-and-orange morality, at least. It brings to mind something Michael said to him, all those years ago: Am I evil, Archivist? Is a thing evil when it simply obeys its own nature? When it embodies its nature? When that nature is created by those which revile it?

 

Someone like Jonah Magnus, though – born human, raised human, spending several lifetimes embedded in human society – can understand his fellow humans much more intimately than any nonhuman Entity ever could, and he uses that understanding to torture his victims, knowing full well how it feels. On the one hand, Jon and all his other pawns throughout the centuries are nothing but means to an end; he cares little for them outside of their usefulness to him. On the other hand, he isn’t fully detached: there’s no denying the sadistic glee he took in gloating as he forced Jon to open the door.

 

Even in a world devoid of the Dread Powers, monsters would still exist, and a mundane human monstrosity is almost as dreadful as a supernatural one. Daisy derived joy from the Hunt with more complexity than a wolf would. Jon’s own hunts may have felt instinctual, but they also felt morally wrong in a way that tearing the legs off a spider would never feel to a cat – and he did it anyway. Even Gertrude embodied a certain flavor of monstrosity, despite never fully giving in to the temptation of the Beholding. She did not need to embrace any supernatural power; her ruthlessness damned innocent people all the same, as thoroughly as the Desolation and with as much precision as the Web.

 

Georgie and Martin – and Helen, even – may have a point about humanity and monstrosity not following a strict either/or dichotomy. Whether the Fears were birthed by humanity or preceded it, in the world as-is they would be toothless without human imagination to fuel and interpret and inspire them. The apocalypse demonstrated that fact rather starkly the more and more the human population dwindled.

 

Jon shakes his head, interrupting that line of thought. There are more important things to worry about right now. Namely: it’s the third of March, and the Institute is expecting a visitor.

 

Basira is with him in his office; Georgie is off keeping Melanie company, away from Breekon and any possibility of a confrontation. They’d agreed to this arrangement last night in the tunnels, and since they’ve been having those clandestine meetings so regularly, it should look like a coincidence to Jonah, rather than a prearranged setup. 

 

And Breekon arrives right on schedule, though this time he cannot catch Basira alone. He comes directly to Jon’s office, dragging the Coffin behind him.

 

“Jon,” Basira says urgently, not taking her eyes off the hulking figure darkening the doorway.

 

They must tread carefully – not seeming so unconcerned as to let on that they were expecting the delivery, but not overselling the act so much that Jonah would sense something was amiss.  

 

“I wish I could say that was the last I saw of them – but they did return – started to make deliveries – Breekon and Hope.” 

 

“Where’s the other one?” Basira asks.

 

“That copper took him from me,” Breekon says balefully. He drags the Coffin over the threshold, lets it fall to the ground with a thump, and jerks his head at it. “So I fed it to the pit.”

 

“Daisy’s in there,” Basira says, bristling.

 

“That’s its name? Then sure, ‘t’s in there, whatever’s left. Find out if you like.”

 

“…get out of my office –” 

 

Jon’s voice crackles with static, and Breekon takes one step backward.

 

“What are you doing? Stop that.”

 

“Jon,” Basira says warningly.

 

“– as soon as they’d placed the box on the floor, they turned around and walked out –” 

 

The static continues to rise in volume.

 

“I said stop it!” Breekon grunts through gritted teeth, even as he turns and steps back over the threshold.

 

“– the door slammed behind them” – Breekon does indeed reach for the handle and pull the door shut after him – “and I was left – with this package.” 

 

The static cuts out abruptly, and Jon exhales heavily, winded.

 

“What the hell was that?” Basira demands, rounding on Jon. “Did you just – compel him to leave?”

 

“…apparently this was how it was done now,” Jon says quietly. That at least answers the question of whether he can still effectively use that power. He isn’t sure how to feel about that.

 

“Knew you could compel people to answer questions. Didn’t know you could compel actions, too.”

 

Jon shuts his eyes, still catching his breath. There were limits on his compulsion abilities even during the apocalypse; there are bound to be just as many now, if not more. He doesn’t have the mindset for muddling through a complicated explanation right now, though, so he opts for the AAC app instead.

 

“LITTLE,” he selects from the screen. It should be enough to get the general point across, at least for now.  

 

“Great. I’ll just put that in the ominous column, shall I?” Basira sighs. “Is it really okay to just… let him leave?”

 

“I told her that any real danger had passed,” he says simply.

 

“If you say so.” She stares intently at the Coffin, arms crossed. “So, what now?”

 

Without another word, Jon stands and beckons for Basira to follow. As he locks the office door behind them, Basira tells him to go wait for her at the tunnel entrance while she fetches Melanie and Georgie. He nods absentmindedly, but she’s already left without waiting for a response.  

 

The last time, two weeks spanned between the delivery of the Coffin and the day Jon actually opened it. This time, there’s no need to wait. He still has some preparations to make – there’s no need to visit the Boneturner, but Jon does still want to leave some tapes running to serve as physical anchors. He also has to plan for the possibility of something going wrong, even if he is fairly confident in his ability to find his way back again. Mainly, he’d like to leave a letter behind for Martin, though the Archive might make that difficult.

 

Other than that, it’s just a matter of mentally preparing himself for another trip into the Buried.

 

Knowing what to expect doesn’t make it any less terrifying, though. If anything, it might make it worse.

Chapter Text

The tunnels are as ominous as they’ve always been, but at this point, Jon just might be growing accustomed to them. The creeping fear he’s always felt down here has faded to the background – an ambient sense of dread. It's almost tolerable, or at least less oppressive than the omnipresent sense of being watched that he’s long since accepted as his normal.

 

Here, he can compose his letter to Martin without the risk of Jonah Seeing exactly what Jon’s eyes see.

 

After the Watcher’s Crown, Jonah did not Watch through Jon’s eyes anymore. Whether that was because Jon was stronger than Jonah at that point or because Jonah did not bother to try, Jon doesn’t Know. Once the ritual was completed, Jonah no longer had any stake in Jon’s trajectory, no need to monitor his progress or ensure his survival. Moreover, Jonah’s inflated ego never allowed for the possibility that Jon could pose a threat to his reign. His Archivist – his Archive – had no further interest to him except as a source of entertainment, and he didn’t need to See through Jon’s eyes in order to behold the show. He could See all of creation from the Panopticon.

 

Jon is stronger now than he was the last time he was here, but he’s still nowhere near as powerful as he was during the apocalypse. He’s tried to Know how he measures up against Jonah now, but the Beholding seems intent on withholding that knowledge from him. Last time he made an attempt, the Eye treated him to a litany of statistics about the interactions between the human body and the venom of various species of spider.   

 

Sometimes Jon thinks that if the Beholding is sentient, it might just be the pettiest of the Dread Powers.

 

In any case, Jonah Magnus is still as much of a gnawing question mark as he’s always been. It’s safest to assume that he has the advantage until proven otherwise – and Jon will take the tunnels over Jonah’s voyeurism any day, no matter how harrowing they may be. Even if he has to be down here alone – which he is.

 

Georgie is with Melanie, and Jon is reluctant to ask Basira for any favors right now. He wonders again if this is how Martin felt, living in the Archives, spending sleepless nights with himself and the scratching of a pen as his only companions. Just like Jon, Martin was never very good company for himself, especially back then – and back now. He was primed for the Lonely long before he started working at the Institute.

 

Speaking of which…

 

Jon sighs, puts his pen down, and begins to read through what he’s written.

 

I’m sorry I left you. 

 

…now I’m here, trying to explain things – 

– had changed since he left – 

– it seemed he was alone – 

– as far as I could tell, all alone in the world, and rather unhappy about the fact. 

 

I will admit to taking a dislike to the man when I first met him – but – 

– I’d say that – was a foolish act of past me. 

 

Jon is still worried about starting the letter like this, but this is a point in time not too far removed from his early mistreatment of Martin. Jon had made his apologies and explanations at length in his future, but this version of Martin hasn’t experienced that yet. Jon can’t just jump into showing affection before taking accountability for his past behavior – recent past, from the perspective of this timeline.

 

He can only hope that Martin will read through to the end, and that Jon’s intention – his sincerity – will be understood.

 

Soon I was giving my account as a full confession – 

– trying my best to fit this into a relatively coherent narrative. 

 

It’s plenty of things I’ve done I couldn’t explain to you. I mean, I’m constantly – looking back at my past self and thinking, what an idiot. How the hell could he have done such an obviously stupid thing? How was I surprised it went so badly? What a relief I’m now so much older and wiser. 

 

I’ve never really been the social type – I’ve always just been happier alone. Well, maybe happier isn’t quite the right word. I did get a bit lonely sometimes. I’d hear laughter coming from other rooms in my building, or see a group of friends talking in the sun outside, and maybe I’d wish I had something like that, but it never really bothered me – I didn’t need another people and they certainly didn’t need me. 

 

Jon looks down at the words with a dissatisfied scowl. Does this come off as too self-centered? As more as an excuse than an explanation? This would be so much easier if he could just say what he means. Then again, Jon’s always struggled with discussing emotional matters, hasn't he? He can’t blame it all on the Archive.

 

These thoughts, these feelings were always in my mind – until – I realized the deeper truth of it all. 

 

I tried to put it into words, but without any real success. Even here, with the time to compose it properly, I’m not sure I’ve caught the essence of what I felt – 

– I had a look through my library, and couldn’t find anything that matched it –  

– those are musings for poets, among whom I do not number – 

– it’s all very well to say ‘write down what you saw,’ but what if you don’t have the words? 

 

I suppose I’ll just have to try. 

 

I’ve always been more comfortable alone – 

– had few friends – reluctant to make the sort of connections that might lead to – 

– the prospect of being genuinely loved – 

– fully and completely known – 

– having people be genuinely lovely to me, I didn’t know what to do with those feelings – 

– I could never bring myself to try. It felt more comfortable, more familiar, to be alone. 

 

It is the fear of being watched, and judged, and having all your secrets known. 

Ironic, in some ways – 

– being what I am – 

– an Archivist pleading for knowledge –  

– to feed the sick voyeur that lurks in this place. 

 

Eventually, I opened my eyes – 

– feeling absurd about how terrified I was about being seen – 

– kicking myself for having been so stupid – 

– it wasn’t natural for people to live in isolation – we were creatures of community by nature. 

 

Soon enough, I could no longer fool myself – 

– the man I loved – 

– who was by all accounts such a kind and gentle soul – 

– when I – saw him standing there waiting for me – I don’t think I’ve ever been happier than in that moment.  

 

He spoke words I thought existed only in my heart, and I loved him as the soil loves the rain –

– and it seemed he felt the same way – 

– and together it seemed like we would get past our pain. 

 

Everything about being with him felt so natural that when he told me he loved me, it only came as a surprise to realize that we hadn’t said it already. 

 

…to say – “I love you” – honestly it’s one of the few decisions I’ve ever made that I completely understand.  

 

It’s… woefully inadequate. Too devoid of context. Unlikely to reach Martin through the fog. But maybe it will be enough to at least convince him to talk to Jon. To keep the Lonely at bay, at least for now.

 

After leaving the hospital, the next thing that is properly clear in my mind is – 

– I need him to be okay. 

 

I couldn’t see him or hear him – 

– I didn’t even get a chance to speak to him – asked what had happened, he was just gone. And I was alone again. 

 

I wanted to say something reassuring, to reach out and let him know I was still there – 

– I wanted to act, to help, to do something, but – I felt helpless to do anything but watch as events progressed. 

 

I think he might be part of something really awful, and I don’t know how to make him see that – of course I did worry. I knew that, secretly, he was as well. 

 

I know how that sounds – but – I ask you to read on. 

 

For a split second, the memory of the ritual flits through his mind – Apologies for the deception, but I wanted to make sure you started reading … – and Jon brings his wrist down on the side of his chair, hard. The pain jolts him out of the recollection and brings him back to the present. He watches halfheartedly as the discoloration fades before his eyes, frustration with his overreaction itching in the back of his mind. Stupid.  

 

With a longsuffering sigh, he rereads the previous section again. The borrowed words sound patronizing, without the qualifying context he wishes he could provide more explicitly. He isn’t just nitpicking – it’s crucial that Martin knows that Jon isn’t underestimating him, despite a history of doing exactly that for far too long.

 

The first time around, he trusted Martin – more than he trusted anyone, including (perhaps especially) himself – and even knowing what he knows now, he doesn’t regret it. He heard the tapes.

 

       “But if I could just explain,” Martin had said.

 

       “And how do you think Jon’s going to react to that explanation, hm?” Peter had replied. “You think he’ll accept it calmly? Come through with a well-considered, rational response?”

 

       “That’s not fair.”

 

       “Or would he assume he knows better than you and do something rash?”

 

       “I don’t like being manipulated.”

 

       “That’s fair. But I’m not wrong.”

 

       “No.”  

 

In Jon’s original timeline, he had proven Peter wrong. He had trusted Martin, respected his boundaries, followed his lead. This time, though… Jon won’t be able to demonstrate that with non-interference, and not being able to use his own words doesn’t help him explain that this isn’t just another instance of Jon just assuming he knows better than everyone else, that he actually does have special knowledge, and – well, truthfulness aside, that sounds condescending, too, doesn’t it?   

 

He doesn’t blame Martin for agreeing with Peter. For a significant portion of Jon’s life, it would have been a fair assessment. He didn’t trust people. He didn’t trust himself, either – not really – but at least he knew his own intentions. That bone-deep fear of being manipulated, of being rejected, of not having control… it never played well with the concept of trust.   

 

And when they first started working together, Jon made no secret of his knee-jerk judgment of Martin as being incompetent, clumsy, and unreliable. In retrospect, he couldn’t have been more wrong – and he knows now that he was only seeing what he wanted to see, projecting his own insecurities and fear of failure onto Martin to distract from his own floundering.

 

After learning that Martin had lied on his CV, Jon readjusted his initial opinions. He was impressed. Martin was remarkably capable for someone with no prior qualifications, no experience, no degree. What he lacked in experience he more than made up for in effort. He was clever, and resolute, and dependable, and genuine, and… and god, wasn’t Jon a fool for taking so long to notice? And then for never saying as much until it was almost too late?

 

This version of Martin hasn’t heard that apology just yet – or the corollary apology for waiting so long to apologize. Georgie had told Jon years ago that he needed to use his words, that people needed to hear directly that they were acknowledged and appreciated. Jon himself struggled with reading between the lines. Just because he had low tolerance for receiving direct praise – despite craving it deeply – didn’t mean that other people had the same hangups.

 

He’s since taken that advice to heart, but he should have done sooner. Georgie had been right about a lot of things.

 

Jon did eventually say as much and more, during those brief few weeks they had in the safehouse. Peter hadn’t been all wrong when he questioned how much they really knew one another. Between Jon’s early irascibility and the distance he felt obligated to keep given their employee/boss relationship; between preventing apocalypses and being in such constant life-or-death peril that it started to feel normal, so normal that Jon didn’t know what to do with himself when he wasn’t being chased or held captive; between the coma, and descending into inhumanity, and the Lonely… they hadn’t had a chance to get to know each other outside of a crisis situation.

 

Jon didn’t even know himself anymore. He wondered if he ever had.

 

For the first time, they finally had the time and space to remedy that. Both of them were changed and would never be the same, but they had each other. They were both willing to put in the effort, to learn how to communicate and accommodate and navigate boundaries, despite neither having much experience with a healthy relationship. And for a little while, it had seemed that they could both learn how to be present in the world again – starting with their own microcosm, one day at a time, encouraging one another to be more patient and kind with themselves.

 

It wasn’t fair, how abruptly that hesitant, hopeful attempt was stolen from them. Jon didn’t feel like he deserved comfort and contentment – he still doesn’t – but Martin… Martin deserved – deserves – to be safe and cared for and loved. Martin deserves to be happy.

 

Jon desperately wants to help him See that.

 

Don’t… misunderstand me, please – 

– I trusted his instincts almost as much as I trusted my own. 

 

More than I trusted my own, Jon amends in his head – but the Archive isn’t cooperating.

 

But I knew that I – knew the future – 

– the promise of secret knowledge, of seeing something that no one else was privy to – 

– there was – a lot – we were missing. 

 

Please. All I ask is that I be allowed – 

– a chance to express myself – 

– said something about knowledge being a good defense here – 

– so here I am, pouring out my lunatic story on paper in the hopes that you might eventually read it. 

 

Statement of Georgina Barker regarding – 

– travel through time. 

 

Jon still has to ask Georgie if she can explain the situation to Martin, but he doesn’t think she’ll mind. It won’t be as comprehensive as Jon wishes it could be – he still struggles with explaining the fine details of the apocalypse to the others given his current limitations – but he’s done his best, and he can trust Georgie to do the same.

 

Some fears can only be endured for so long. I remember every second of that fall. Like it was happening in slow motion. I was certain I was about to watch him fall like I had. 

 

That knowledge I had gained – could finally be put to use. 

 

I shall do my best to explain, and hope that any revelations contained here in me sway you from the path you have started upon. 

 

I wanted to tell him to stop, to warn him – because I knew – 

– the Extinction – while I have seen evidence of its influence in other powers – 

– there was no sign of – imminent arrival – I resolved – 

– its emergence as a true power of its own – 

– wasn’t a threat. 

 

Whatever he was planning – 

– to try and rescue those trapped – 

– trying to protect me – 

– defending the world from the darkness… 

 

…I know – to talk to other people about it – 

– desperately wishing for another human being to talk to – 

– to take too much comfort in – people – would go quite strongly against the spirit of the experiment – had to really feel alone. That at least didn’t take too long to set in. 

 

All that remained was the fog – could wander there for years, and never meet another – utterly forsaken – there seemed to be no end to it. 

 

But it didn’t need to be forever, did it? 

“This too shall pass.” 

 

I tried to explain but all I could manage to get through the shaking sobs was, “I love you.” 

 

By then it looked like he was on the verge of tears, 

 

Jon stops reading for a moment, realizing that, aptly enough, he’s on the verge of tears right now. He swallows them back and continues.  

 

By then it looked like he was on the verge of tears, but I couldn’t leave it alone – just couldn’t let it go. 

 

I have tried to write it down, to put it into terms and words you could understand. And now I stare at it and not a word of it is even enough to fully describe the fact that – 

 

I cannot lose him. 

I – cared deeply about his well-being. 

I know he didn’t deserve what happened to him. 

 

He deserved to – 

– to be – beloved –  

– cared for – trusted – 

– being wanted and appreciated – 

– being genuinely loved – 

– no matter how wrong it might feel –

– when you’re at your lowest point, when you’re your most emotionally vulnerable. 

 

I need him to be okay – 

– and the world is so much better for – 

– the easy, charming man I’d fall in love with – 

– being in it. 

 

Please. All I ask is that I be allowed to – 

– talk to you, before it all comes to an end –  

– and I swear to you that – 

– if you decide to do it – if – 

– you want to be alone – and – 

– didn’t say much to me after that – 

– I made sure to keep – distance. 

 

There’s so much more Jon wishes he could say; so much that he wishes he could say in his own voice, rather than the stolen words of survivors recounting the most traumatic moments of their lives. It still feels perverse, to use their statements like this. It might not be as bad as feeding directly on a victim, but it still falls on a spectrum of appropriating the torment of others for his own use.

 

At the end of the day, it really doesn’t feel all that different from Jonah’s brand of dehumanization. It’s just one more way Jon is complicit in the evil that thrives in this place –

 

“Hey,” comes Georgie’s voice from just a short distance away. Jon startles, sending his pen clattering to the floor. He had been so lost in his own thoughts, he hadn’t even heard her descending the ladder. “Sorry,” she says with a wince. “Didn’t mean to scare you.”

 

Retrieving the fallen pen, Jon waves the apology off – it’s okay – and Georgie comes to sit next to him.

 

“Finished with your letter?”

 

“…I’m vague on the details,” he says. “I have to be.” 

 

“Want me to take a look?”

 

Jon nods; he had been planning on asking her to read it through. Even if it was in his own words, he would likely run it by her. He trusts Georgie’s judgment regarding relationship matters far more than he trusts his own, and he knows she’ll be straightforward with him if he’s said something… well, stupid. He’s gotten better at communicating, but that doesn’t mean his tendency to put his foot in his mouth has disappeared entirely.

 

He jiggles his leg restlessly as she reads, increasingly self-conscious the longer the silence goes on. He resists scratching at his hands – Georgie is sure to reprimand him if he starts that up again. It isn’t that she has a problem with his fidgeting; she was actually one of the first people in his life to tolerate it. Encouraged it, even. She pointed out quite bluntly once that whenever Jon tried to force himself to sit still, his restless energy didn’t go away, it just came out as waspishness instead.

 

But she had a rule: no self-harm, no matter how mild. Personally, he didn’t categorize the scratching as self-harm, but she was firm about it. Lately, the scratching is limited mostly to his burned hand, and he’s tried explaining to her that it doesn’t even hurt – the scar tissue doesn’t register much sensation anymore – but she won’t hear it. For the past couple weeks, whenever she catches him at it, she gives him a look until he stops.

 

“I think it’s good,” Georgie says. “But…”

 

Jon tenses, but then he glimpses Georgie’s playful grin.

 

“It’s nothing bad! It’s just… well…”

 

He can hear the spark of mischief in her tone and somehow that makes him more apprehensive than the prospect of criticism.

 

“See, you say you’re not a poet,” she says, pointing at the letter, “but this part here…”

 

He spoke words I thought existed only in my heart, and I loved him as the soil loves the rain –

– and it seemed he felt the same way – 

– and together it seemed like we would get past our pain. 

 

“You go and use a sappy metaphor – and I know,” she says, seeing him ready to protest, “they’re not your words and you’re using what you have available.”

 

Yes, he wants to say, and my vast library comprised solely of people’s retellings of their supernatural trauma isn’t exactly forthcoming with declarations of love, Georgina.

 

“But,” she says, goading now, “then you go and rhyme the first and last lines.”

 

Jon squints at the letter, and…

 

Fuck. It does rhyme.

 

He moves to snatch the paper away and Georgie stands and holds it out of reach, dancing backwards.

 

“No, nope, absolutely not,” she says, laughing. “Jonathan Sims, I refuse to let you change it. You’re leaving it exactly as is.”

 

“…being used against me in a cruel joke,” he huffs, glowering at her – but her laugh has always been infectious, and he can’t fight it as his lips twitch into a smile.

 

She hands the letter back to him after a minute, still grinning when she takes her seat again.

 

“I’m teasing you. You can change it if you want, but I think it’s adorable and you should leave it. Besides, Martin’s a poet, isn’t he? He might get a kick out of it.”

 

Honestly, it doesn’t bother Jon enough to rewrite the entire thing. And if there’s a chance of it coaxing a smile out of Martin…  

 

“On a more serious note – this part here, ‘statement of Georgina Barker’ – I’m assuming you want me to try to convince him that you actually are a time traveler here to stop the apocalypse?” Jon nods. “Probably easier than trying to write it all out. I don’t mind, but are you sure he’ll listen to me?”

 

Jon shrugs. He has the same worry, but…

 

“As for myself, I must cling to –” 

“– that most insidious of emotions: hope.” 

 

“Somehow both unexpectedly sappy and predictably ominous,” she replies, “but I’ll take it. Better than despair, anyway.”

 

Despite the light teasing, the smile she flashes is genuine. Fleeting, though, as she continues.

 

“Oh, and one more thing – that one bit, capital-E Extinction? One, don’t like the sound of that, and two – should I know what that is? Melanie hasn’t mentioned anything like that before.”

 

“I’m sorry – it won’t let me say the words,” Jon says with a frustrated sigh.

 

“Will Martin know what it means, though?” Jon nods. With any luck, Martin can be persuaded to fill the others in on it. “Good enough.”

 

She watches him for a few moments as he chews at his thumbnail, leg still shaking, staring at the floor.

 

“Something’s on your mind.”

 

Jon sighs and closes his eyes.

 

“I could feel hunger gnawing at me.” 

 

“You still haven’t had a statement?” Georgie says, frowning at him.

 

“Something he could salvage from the whole situation,” he mutters, not looking up at her. “Just a way of getting some control over his life, you know?” 

 

“Jon, you can’t just starve yourself –”

 

“Running was pointless,” he agrees sullenly. “To try to escape from my task would only serve to fulfill another. I finally understood what I needed to do –” 

“– some hungers are too strong to be denied –” 

“– you have to feed it – or it will feed on you.” 

 

“So why haven’t you?”

 

“Even as I did so, in the back of my mind I hated myself –” 

“– to feed the sick voyeur that lurks in this place.” 

 

“I’m not saying you should… go hunting, or whatever you want to call it. This is an archive, there are plenty of statements lying around.”

 

“…you’ve got all this… all these people’s experiences listened to and filed away.” 

 

“Right. They’re already given. They can’t be taken back. You’re not going out and hurting people, you’re just… reading what’s already here.”

 

She thinks he was just agreeing with her, he realizes – she didn’t comprehend his true meaning there. How could she have? He hasn’t properly explained to them that he is the Archive. He already Knows all of the statements housed here. Old statements were stale even when he hadn’t read them yet. Now, they’re even less fulfilling.

 

As a child, he hated reading anything that he felt like he had read before. It seems morbidly fitting that the Archivist in him is much the same way.

 

“Think of it like… like harm reduction,” Georgie is saying now. “From what I can gather, abstinence just isn’t an option for you, at least not right now. The next best thing is to meet yourself where you are. Even if you can’t stop, you can still take steps to minimize the harm – and that includes harm to yourself. Reading the statements that are already here – I think it’s justifiable, if the alternative is starving to death.”

 

“I am not sure how long this might continue for. Maybe years. Maybe forever.” 

 

“Maybe. But right now, you need to take it one step at a time. You’re getting ready to hurl yourself into danger. You should be at full strength for that. If you aren’t going to sleep, you at least need to eat something.”

 

She has a point. There is one other concern, though.

 

“It seems I cannot avoid the ceaseless gaze of – Jonah –” 

“– still there, still watching me –” 

“– eyes were always focused on something, always watching. And – I always felt afraid –” 

“– being under constant scrutiny and observation –” 

“– it may be worth your while to keep an eye on the statements – in case he finds his way here –” 

“– my mind has always been receptive to the thoughts that lurk in the written page –” 

“– that throw out strange or sometimes even dangerous things –” 

“– a simple ruse or deception –” 

“– quietly waiting for you to lose your footing, to slip up and fall.” 

 

“You’re afraid of getting tricked into reading the wrong statement again.”

 

Jon nods, not quite meeting her eye. All of the statements housed here are already catalogued in the Archive. He can recall them on his own word for word, if he concentrates. But something about that doesn’t feel right. Physically reading the statement, speaking it into the tape recorder… it’s like its own little ritual – like there’s an order of operations that has to be followed or it doesn’t count, somehow.

 

“…I outlined basic checks in due diligence –” 

“– checking and double checking –” 

“– before I finally felt safe enough –” 

“– to read a statement – hitting record and speaking it aloud.” 

 

“Well… we can probably vet them before giving them to you?”

 

“…they were also there as a backup in case something went horribly wrong – in case –” 

“– it tried to read me back.” 

 

“Okay,” Georgie says after a moment’s consideration. “I’ll let Basira know.”

 

Her expression is concerned, but there’s something else underneath it. It doesn’t seem like judgment, or suspicion, or any of the other reactions he’s come to expect when discussing his reliance on the statements. It’s definitely not fear; this is Georgie. Pity, maybe?

 

Whatever it is, it makes him feel small and exposed and uncomfortably seen.

 

“Jon, look at me.” He does, with hesitation. “I know things are bad, and I’ll admit I was skeptical when you first said you wanted to change, but based on what I’ve seen over the past few months? I believe in you. It’s okay to have a little faith in yourself, too. I think you’ll need to, if you want to get through this.”

 

His gaze drifts to the floor, self-conscious.

 

“Anyway, it's probably best that Elias doesn’t see us pre-screening statements for you, right? Might make him suspicious. I can just gather a box of them and bring them down here. I’ll bring Basira with me, and we can explain the situation.” She stands and starts to walk toward the ladder, then stops abruptly. “Wait.”

 

She does a half-turn, not quite facing him, watching the floor pensively.

 

“I don’t know what I’m looking for. Is there something particular – like, do you have preferences, or – are there… nutritional requirements or something?” Jon can’t help it; he smiles at the absurdity of it all. “Do you need variety? Does a balanced diet even apply in this –”

 

Realizing he isn’t replying to any of her questions, she finally looks up, sees his amused smirk, and pauses mid-flustered gesture. He chuckles softly and shakes his head, mortified by the idea of cultivating a preference for statements as if choosing from a menu, but also just a bit shamefully, morbidly touched by her thoughtfulness.

 

“Well, I don’t know!” she says indignantly, but she grins back. “Fine. I’ll grab a bunch at random then, and you can just deal. Ass.”

 

God, he missed this easy, playful banter even more than he had realized.

 

Jon watches as she climbs the ladder, preparing for the customary anxiety that tends to hit him whenever she leaves his presence – that conviction that it will be the last he sees of her.

 

When she pulls herself up through the trapdoor, though, he’s pleasantly surprised to note that the fear doesn’t come. He’s even more surprised that a half-hour later, when Georgie sends Basira with a box of statements but doesn’t accompany her, the fear still doesn’t overwhelm him. It shouldn’t be that surprising – he does trust Georgie – but intellectually understanding something isn’t the same as emotionally assimilating it. It seems that for once, his emotions have caught up with reality.

 

“Melanie needs company right now, so Georgie couldn’t come with. She didn't say exactly what you needed help with, but I think I have an idea.”

 

“…to keep an eye on the statements –” 

“– they were also there as a backup in case something went horribly wrong.” 

 

“Figured as much. Anyway, Georgie said she’ll come see you before she goes home today.” Basira drops the box on the floor in front of him. “I told her you probably wouldn’t want her present for the statements anyway. No need to expose more people to them if we can help it. I thought you’d agree.”

 

Jon nods, thankful that Basira is on the same page and he didn’t have to bother explaining it himself.

 

“So, any stand out to you?”

 

May as well get it over with, Jon thinks with a heavy sigh.

 

He leans over the box and sifts through them, eyes skimming over the case numbers until one catches his eye. CASE #0020312, the label reads. Figures, he thinks to himself with a grim, humorless smile, and he hands it over to Basira for her to inspect.  

 

She skims through it quickly – she’s a fast reader, Jon notes – and at several points her eyebrows raise and furrow.

 

“Seems normal enough – for a statement, anyway,” she says, handing it back to him. Then, meeting his eyes: “A bit on the nose, though.” Jon shrugs. “You want me to stay while you read it, right? Go on, then.”

 

The tape recorder clicks on in his pocket, as if to voice its agreement. Jon removes it and takes a moment to glare at it before turning his eyes to the statement, clearing his throat, and beginning his monologue.

 

“Statement of Tova McHugh, regarding their string of near-death experiences. Original statement given December 3rd, 2002. Audio recording by Jonathan Sims, the Archivist. Statement begins…”

 


 

The Coffin sits where Breekon dropped it, hungry and waiting. It’s the densest, most solid thing in the room, as if it has its own gravity, a sort of metaphysical black hole. It’s not as bad as the rift at Hill Top Road, but it has a similar feel to it: oppressive, wrong, its existence impossible but unavoidably present all the same. 

 

Jon stands at the threshold of the office, blocking the entrance, Basira and Georgie standing behind him.

 

“So this is it, then,” Georgie says. “You’re sure you know what you’re doing?”

 

“…as you can imagine, getting out of there proved – difficult –” 

“– but they did return.” 

 

She still looks uncertain, watching the Coffin as if it might move on its own.

 

“…try to keep you far away –” 

“– didn’t want a good look inside that room – stopped at the threshold –” 

“– make it very little distance over the threshold before – swallowed –” 

“– you must trust me on that and not come looking –” 

“– supervise from a distance –” 

 

“Jon,” Basira says, cutting him off, “we get it. It’s dangerous, stay away, et cetera. I can feel the compulsion from here; you really don’t need to tell me twice, let alone five times.”

 

Jon barely hears her, his mind already entirely occupied with what he’s about to do. He stands paralyzed, knees locked, hands trembling just slightly, pulse thundering in his throat. Already his breath feels constricted, and he hasn’t even opened the thing yet.

 

“Do you need more time?” Georgie asks gently.

 

Jon shuts his eyes, swallows around the lump in his throat, and shakes his head no. The longer he puts it off, the harder it will be to take the plunge. And Daisy has waited long enough.

 

“Hey. Look at me.”

 

Jon breathes out, opens his eyes, and turns to face her. She opens her arms slightly, offering an embrace – but he shakes his head, giving her an apologetic look. Pressure is usually good, grounding him, but right now – well, he’s about to have all of creation pressing in on him, and any reminder of that is only going to send him spiraling.

 

“Okay. You have everything you need?”

 

He nods, trying to project whatever thin veneer of confidence he can muster – more for himself than the others, really. He holds up the tape recorder with Daisy’s statement tape in it, then gestures vaguely at the tape recorders littering his desk.

 

“…like breadcrumbs taking us home. Home, in this case, was –” 

 

“Martin,” Georgie says with a knowing smile. “I’ll make sure he gets your message – and yes,” she says, seeing him about to interject, “I’ll make sure he doesn’t read it outside the tunnels. And I’ll explain… the situation. Don’t worry about things over here. Just focus on what you need to do on your end.”

 

Jon nods again, clenching and unclenching his fist at his side, stuffing the tape recorder back into his pocket with the other hand.

 

Time to stop dithering, he tells himself firmly.

 

“Tell Daisy I –” Basira blurts out, then pauses, struggling for words. “Tell her…”

 

She breathes out a short exhale and looks up at Jon. He nods at her: I understand.

 

“Tell her I’m waiting.” She pauses, biting her lip. “And Jon?” He makes a questioning noise. “Come back safe,” she says, then turns on her heel and walks briskly away down the hall.

 

“We’ll see you home soon, Jon,” Georgie says. She pours every ounce of reassurance into it that she can manage, but he can feel that she’s still apprehensive. “Don’t get lost.”  

 

“…I’d – get out of there as soon as possible,” he says, trying to mirror her composure.

 

“You’d better. I doubt I’ll be the only one cross with you if you stay away too long.”

 


 

The tape recorders fill the room with a low, static-leaden murmuring – dozens of overlapping tones, unbroken streams of phonemes rendered nearly incomprehensible, discrete parts unable to compete against the cacophony of the whole. Although it sounds like the background noise of a crowd to Jon, he Knows every word being said: a litany of horror and dread unspooling into the air around him.

 

He also Knows that they will continue running, replaying each statement on a loop until he returns, no batteries required.    

 

A notebook sits on his desk, battered and careworn. It’s Martin’s, half-filled with poems and works-in-progress, many of them from the weeks he was living in the Archives. He left it here when he went to work for Peter. Whether it was meant as a deliberate symbolic gesture – leaving the past behind him, sacrificing this sentimental part of himself in order to become what Peter’s plan required him to be – or was simply an oversight after months of having no time or mind for writing, Jon still doesn’t Know. He never asked. In the future, after Martin started writing again, Jon felt it was best not to reopen old wounds for the sake of satiating his own curiosity.

 

If only he could have learned that lesson earlier in life.

 

Jon has never been a fan of poetry. It’s never really resonated with him; he’s never understood it, and he… doesn’t have much patience for things he cannot understand. But then, Martin went to work for Peter Lukas – and the last time Jon was here, he had burned every other bridge between himself and humanity.

 

When he was a child, he had convinced himself that he didn’t need friends, didn’t need affection. He found human connection in books, and he told himself that it was enough. It wasn’t, in retrospect: he entered adolescence and then adulthood with stunted social skills, and practicing didn't seem worth the risk of failure. Between that and being the Archivist, it was no wonder he had chased everyone away.

 

By the time he woke up from his first coma, he knew that books would be no replacement for actual companionship, but he thought it might at least take the edge off, like it used to when he was a child. It backfired terribly. He would always Know how the story ended before even finishing the first chapter, and it would demolish any motivation to continue reading. It wasn’t just that his reading habits now tend to be as particular as they were when he was young, having little patience for anything that felt like he had read it before. It was that he couldn’t have a moment of peace from the knowledge of what he had become.

 

One day he stumbled across Martin’s notebook in Document Storage, along with some spoken word recordings that Martin had made while living in the Archives. At first, Jon didn’t know what the tapes were, and listening to any tapes that turned up had long since become automatic for him. Once he realized what was on them, he probably should have stopped, but he listened to every second of that handful of tapes, over and over and over again. He felt guilty – he had already violated Martin’s privacy once before, when he was deep in the throes of paranoia – but he justified it to himself because he… well, he'd needed to hear Martin’s voice.

 

The poetry was… well, Jon still didn’t get it, not really. But he found himself liking it anyway, because it was Martin’s voice and Martin’s words and Martin’s story, and Jon didn’t have to understand it for it to have warmth and meaning and value. He should have been content with the tapes, but he kept stealing glances at the notebook, itching to open it and start reading. Part of it was that simple curiosity that was always leading him astray, but for once, that wasn’t the loudest part of him.

 

It wasn’t a need to Know. It was a need for closeness.

 

So, he pushed that guilty voice in his head aside and… he read. Unlike the fiction stories he had been trying to lose himself in, he never once Knew anything about a poem before he finished reading it. He rarely Knew anything about it even after reading it, and then rereading it, and then rereading it again. For the first time in his life, not having answers was… refreshing. Freeing, even.   

 

It didn’t take long for Jon to memorize every word, cover to cover – and he never grew bored of them, despite their familiarity.

 

Gingerly, almost reverently, Jon turns the pages. There are a handful of poems in here about him, and even now, indelibly etched into his memory, reading them on the page still makes him feel seen in a way that is all at once terrifying and comforting. Affecting, certainly, but in a way he could appreciate, once he gave it a chance.

 

You’re stalling, Jon tells himself, closing the notebook and placing one last tape on top of it.

 

He closes his eyes and forces himself to take several deep breaths – it’s the last chance he’ll have for the next few days – and he checks his pocket for the tape recorder with Daisy’s statement in it. Pointless, really; he already Knows it’s there, same as it was the last dozen times he checked.

 

Swallowing hard, he finally turns to look at the Coffin. The moment he lays eyes on it, the static rises in his mind.

 

Oh, shut up, Jon thinks tiredly. The Dread Powers are like cats yowling at overflowing food bowls, insisting that they haven’t had supper yet. At least cats are endearing. The Fears are noisy and intrusive with none of the charm. You’re all so goddamn needy, you know that?     

 

The Coffin carries on, and Jon rolls his eyes. Wrapping himself in annoyance does little to drown out the fear, but it offers a slight buffer. He’ll take it.

 

You’re still stalling, he reprimands himself.

 

With trembling hands he picks up the key, fits it into the lock… and he opens the lid. It lifts easily with only a slight creak, no heft or resistance to it: it wants to be opened, like so many of the other hungry doors lurking around this world, bear traps and snares and spiderwebs all lying in wait for somebody foolish and curious enough to ignore all the alarm bells for just one… peek… inside.

 

Knock-knock, comes the intrusive thought.

 

Shut up, Jon shoots back.

 

The tape recorder clicks on, whirring impatiently in his pocket, as if to urge him onward. You too, he snaps – but as much as his knee-jerk impulse is to be contrary, he has put this off long enough.

 

Jon steels himself, takes one last deep breath – savoring fresh air, full lungs, airways clear of dirt and grime and debris – and he begins his descent.

 


 

Martin is in Peter’s office, tending to some tedious administrative tasks. His brain feels fuzzy, thoughts sluggish and stunted from the lack of stimulation. The tick-tock of the wall clock drones on and on. He’s considered removing the batteries, but it’s the only company he’s had in days. Complete silence might be worse. Besides, the longer he sits here, the less and less the noise scrapes against the edges of his consciousness – and even when it does penetrate the fog filling his head, he can’t bring himself to care.  

 

If Peter intends for the monotony to highlight his isolation and desensitize him to the absence of… well, everything, it’s working.

 

Then, between one moment and the next, there’s a shift. It crashes into him, tears through the quiet, and the world around him comes rushing back in, a sharp and blinding and cacophonous flood of sensory input. There’s a palpable void where one shouldn’t be, and he knows with certainty that it’s distinct from the general sense of absence that he’s grown accustomed to over the past few months. The Lonely feels soft, quiet, gentle – natural, like a cocoon tailored specifically for him. This feels like a knife to the gut, a gaping wound, an alert screaming in his mind that something is wrong, wrong, wrong

 

“Something’s happened,” he says to himself. He flinches at the sound. It’s jarring, hearing his own voice, raspy as it is with disuse.   

 

Before he even realizes that he’s moving, he’s out of the office and hurrying down the hallway, not bothering to close the door behind him.

 

“Jon,” he whispers with a passion and urgency that feels alien to him now, thoughts no longer muffled and detached. He doesn’t know how he knows, but he does: Jon’s done something drastic, and given his track record, it can’t be good.

 

The only thought running through his mind is Jon, playing on a loop like a stuck tape; like the nervous stammering of the person he used to be, intimidated by and enamored with the man in equal measure; like a – like a prayer: Jon.  

 

Martin picks up his pace, making a beeline for the Archives.

Chapter Text

Martin was so single-minded in reaching the Archives, he forgot to shroud himself before descending the stairs to the basement. It’s a miracle that no one was around to intercept him before he could make it to Jon’s office and close the door behind him.

 

For a long minute he stands there at the threshold, staring blankly into the room, taking in the bizarre scene.

 

A long, wooden crate sits in the center of the room, loose chains snaking underneath and coiled on the floor around it. A heavy padlock affixed to one of the links yawns open. Dozens upon dozens of tape recorders are arranged like a summoning circle around the box and every single one of them is on, filling the space with a low, jumbled drone of indistinct syllables.

 

Curiosity getting the best of him, Martin draws closer. When he catches sight of the ominous DO NOT OPEN scrawled on the lid, the realization hits him.

 

“Is that a coffin?”  he says to himself, flummoxed.  

 

“We really need you, Jon –”

 

Martin jumps just slightly when his ears pick out the sound of his own voice from the rest of the chatter. His eyes wander to Jon’s desk where a single tape recorder rests, isolated from the clutter on the floor. As the statement continues, Martin recognizes it with a jolt.

 

“We – I need you. And I – I know that you’re not – I know there’s no way to –”

 

“Where did he get this?” Martin wonders aloud, reaching out to pick the thing up – and only then does he notice the notebook it sits on. “Where did he get this?” he says, a bit louder.

 

There’s a scrap of paper sticking out of the top like a bookmark. Bewildered, he sets the tape recorder aside and flips the notebook open to the marked page.

 

Were I prone to flights of fancy, I daresay I would call his words portentous, the paper reads. Jon’s handwriting has always been nearly illegible, and it only got worse after his burn, but Martin is intimately familiar with it after all this time. A tiny swell of affection begins to bloom in his chest before he forces it back.

 

You can’t, he tells himself, shutting his eyes. Peter’s plan – whatever it may be – requires Martin to steep himself in loneliness.

 

Yes, he agreed to the plan assuming that Jon would never wake up. And he’s glad that Jon woke up, of course – albeit in a muffled, distant sort of way. He should probably be more bothered by that, but he notes it with only mild interest. It doesn’t change the simple fact that his feelings for Jon were never actually going to go anywhere. That sort of thing just… isn’t for Martin, let alone with Jon.

 

At least this way, Martin can put those dead-end feelings to some practical use. He has no illusions about being a hero. Even if Peter isn’t mistaken or lying about the Extinction’s emergence, Martin doubts that he of all people could make any real difference. But with any luck, maybe he can keep Jon safe – or safer, at least.

 

Not from himself, though, Martin thinks, glaring at the Coffin. He’s so… 

 

He heaves a sigh before turning his attention back to the strip of paper with its cryptic message. The makeshift bookmark is held in place on the side by a paperclip. There is a drawn arrow pointing down, and his eyes follow its trajectory to see it pointing at –

 

Oh.

 

Martin can feel his cheeks flush. The arrow sits just above a stanza that he could best describe as blatantly pining, and…

 

“Oh, god, did Jon read this? That’s –”

 

“Embarrassing?”  

 

Startled, Martin whips around to see a woman standing in the doorway. He hadn’t even heard the door open.

 

“Martin, right? Your ears are very red right now,” she says with a smirk. “Don’t worry, he liked it. You saw the note, didn’t you? A bit heavy-handed. He’s always been dramatic, but he never used to be such a sap.”  

 

Martin opens his mouth just slightly, but no sound comes out. The idea of speaking with another person grates at him, bringing his thoughts to a grinding halt like a crowbar jammed between corroded gears.

 

“I’m Georgie. Jon’s friend.” Martin shuts his eyes and grits his teeth, willing her to go away. She doesn’t, though; doesn’t even wait for him to reply before continuing: “We need to talk.”

 


 

It’s worse than it was the first time. How is it worse?

 

Did the stairs end so soon last time? Did the walls close in so quickly? How long has he been here already? How much longer will he have to stay?

 

Jon stops for a moment, panting in short gasps, desperate for whatever stagnant air he can force into his lungs. As if to protest the delay, the walls press in tighter and squeeze a breathless whimper out of him. 

 

Keep moving, he tells himself. Just – keep moving. There’s an end, and if you keep moving, you’ll reach it faster.

 

Without warning or invitation, the tape recorder clicks on and Daisy’s statement begins to play.

 

“…kept walking into the earth” – a peal of static – “completely out of sight” – more static – “the lid closed very slowly, and then he was gone.”

 

That’s… not where he paused the tape the last time he listened to it, he realizes with crawling dread. Why did it pick up there? And it’s – is it making its own sentences, mimicking his clumsy attempts at communication? Is it mocking him, trying to stoke his fear? Can the Buried somehow affect the tapes? What else could possibly be doing it? The Powers usually hold little sway in one another’s domains – except for… except for the Watcher, after Jon opened the door.

 

He’s fairly certain that that no longer holds true. It’s not as if he can still direct the Ceaseless Watcher’s focus; that was in a future that has not – will not – come to pass. But still… curiosity is as much of a pest as it’s always been. Jon resists for a brief few moments before giving in to the urge to Know, even as he curses himself for it.

 

It becomes immediately clear that just like the last time, he can’t See anything in this place. Reassuring, in some ways – the Eye can’t reach him here, and neither can Jonah Magnus – but the Archivist in him still recoils at the confirmation: he can’t See, he can’t Know, he can’t –  

 

Attempting to tamp down his mounting panic, Jon lets out a shaky breath.

 

Breathe, he tells himself – and an instant later, he realizes his mistake. Predictably enough, when he tries to draw in a breath, the earth contracts again and chokes him before he can get to the two-second mark. The forced exhale comes out as a whine, and he hates himself for it.

 

You can’t stop here, he thinks. Keep going.

 

Blinking grit out of his eyes, he presses on.

 


 

“I shouldn’t be here,” Martin mutters to himself, frowning at the weathered stone floor.

 

“What was that?” Georgie asks, glancing at him as she reaches the bottom of the ladder.

 

“I wasn’t talking to you.”

 

Georgie makes a show of scanning the tunnel.

 

“Well, I’m the only other one here.”

 

Martin’s gotten used to talking to himself, but he doesn’t bother explaining that. He’s already exhausted from what brief interaction he’s had with her so far, and he doesn’t care enough to push through the haze.

 

Georgie starts walking towards a collection of chairs arranged in a loose circle a little ways down the tunnel. Why are there chairs down here? Martin wonders idly, before discarding the question with deliberate indifference. He cannot afford to give his curiosity any quarter, no matter how mild.

 

“Well?” Georgie says, sitting down. “Pick a seat and fall into it. You look dead-on-your-feet tired. Honestly, I’m starting to think chronic fatigue is a job requirement for you lot.”

 

Martin lets out the beginnings of a small chuckle. Almost instantaneously, he strangles it, but the noise echoes in his head, unwanted and unsettling. It sounds wrong to his ears, discordant and out-of-place. It’s only now that he thinks to wonder how long it’s been since he’s laughed.

 

It doesn’t matter, he tells himself automatically before repeating: “I really shouldn’t be here.”

 

“Listen,” Georgie says, taking on a more serious tone, “I promised Jon I’d pass a message to you, and this is the only place we can talk without your creeper boss spying on us.” She holds up a folded piece of paper. “He left you a letter, too.”

 

“Fine,” he says flatly, approaching and holding out a hand. “Give it here.”

 

“You can’t read it outside the tunnels.”

 

“Fine,” he says again through clenched teeth. She stares him down for a moment – he resists the impulse to back away – but she does hand it over. He meets her halfway, avoiding skin contact as he takes it from her. He doesn’t even have to put conscious thought into that anymore; at this point, it’s become second nature.

 

Taking a few steps back, he stares down at the paper held loosely in his hands. His thumb toys with one of the corners, peeling the top layer up ever so slightly before letting it snap back down with a soft fluttering noise. There is a part of him – shoved into a dusty corner of his mind, forcibly stifled and neglected – burning to unfold it. A more prominent presence overshadows the first, though, looming over his shoulder, whispering insistently about restraint and resolve and a greater purpose.  

 

When he notices that Georgie is watching him, he sets his jaw and forces himself to meet her eyes.

 

“I can read just fine on my own. I don’t need company.”

 

“Don’t know about that,” she says, not quite under her breath. Then, in a more conversational tone: “There are a lot of things that Jon couldn’t communicate. I’m here to fill in the gaps.”

 

“He went into the Coffin.” Martin barely recognizes the monotone as coming from him.

 

Georgie makes an affirmative noise. Something ugly and unwanted simmers just underneath Martin’s contrived calm, a nagging itch clamoring for attention in the back of his mind. When Martin takes a breath, he can only manage to fill his lungs halfway.

 

“Why would he…”

 

Martin falters. It’s too broad of a query, and just scratching the surface is enough to break the uneasy ceasefire between the Powers laying claim to him. Martin can feel the pull of the Eye begging the question, the pushback of the Lonely at the prospect of involving himself with others.

 

“It says ‘do not open’ in big letters,” Martin says instead. Not a question, just an observation: a tangible, easily digestible detail that he can latch onto, enough to distract the Eye but impersonal so as not to offend the Forsaken.

 

Georgie snorts at that. “No better way to entice Jon to do the exact opposite.”

 

If she was trying for levity, it falls flat to Martin’s ears. The carefully constructed stillness he’s grown so adept at cloaking himself in shatters. When he speaks, his voice comes out sharp, louder – more emotional – than he had intended.

 

“Why is he so – why would he go in there?”  

 

“Because –”

 

Martin makes an agitated noise before he can stop himself. The slight echo of his own voice bouncing back at him off the tunnel walls is already too much company; being repeatedly reminded that there is an entire other person here is unbearable. Every atom of his existence is screaming at him to turn his back on her and get away.

 

Georgie falls quiet and waits. After a few minutes cocooned safely within his own thoughts, Martin looks up and is surprised to see her still sitting there. He doesn’t know why he’s surprised; he didn’t see her leave. There’s just some part of him that cannot reconcile the concept of someone else being physically present in the same space as him.

 

“Sit,” Georgie says. Just a single word, spoken softly but with the weight of a command.

 

Before he even consciously makes the decision to move, Martin is closing the distance between them and lowering himself into a chair. Unthinkingly, he chooses the furthest possible seat from her, and when he sits, he scoots backwards a few feet, as unconscious and instinctive as breathing. If she's bothered by that, she doesn't say.

 

“It was important to him that you read that,” she says, nodding at the paper still clutched in Martin’s hands.

 

“‘Was’…?”

 

Georgie gives him a peculiar look. “It’s not a suicide note, if that’s what you’re worried about.”

 

“What? I wasn’t – I didn’t…”

 

The thought hadn’t crossed his mind. Should it have? Is that something he should have thought to worry about – that he would have thought to worry about once upon a time? It – it is, isn’t it? He knows how Jon can be, how he spirals, how he’s his own worst enemy – how when he’s not actively putting himself in danger, he’s hurting himself through casual self-destruction and neglect. How much has Martin changed, that that possibility of Jon deliberately hurting himself didn’t even occur to him?

 

Wasn’t half the point of Martin doing this to protect Jon? Because he cares about Jon? When did he become so out-of-touch with that part of himself?

 

Should I be worried?” he whispers to himself.

 

“No! I mean, not about that – not now, anyway – I mean –!” Georgie grimaces. “Shit. I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to give you something new to worry about. You just – you seemed hung up on the past tense?” She chuckles drily. “I think I’ve just been spending too much time with Jon. He overanalyzes things like that.”

 

“Semantics,” Martin says obscurely. He isn’t even entirely sure what he means, but Georgie nods as if she understands. 

 

“Always have to be conscious of word choice around that man. I have seen him brood over verb tense for days trying to find meaning where none was intended, instead of just asking –

 

“So what is it, then?” Martin interrupts, his voice tight, staring down at the paper in his hands again.

 

“It’s… hmm.” Georgie gives him a look that he can’t quite identify. “I think you should just read it. Take your time, and let me know when you have questions.”

 

“I don’t think –”

 

“Trust me,” she says with a tight smile, “you’ll have questions.”

 

“Fine,” Martin says, grinding his teeth together. Georgie seems nearly as stubborn as Jon. The sooner he gets this over with, the sooner he can shake her off.

 

He heaves a longsuffering sigh and begins to read. As it turns out, he does have questions, the first of many making itself known mere seconds after he begins reading.

 

I’m sorry I left you. 

 

…now I’m here, trying to explain things – 

– had changed since he left – 

– it seemed he was alone – 

 

“Who is ‘he’?” Martin asks.

 

“Hm?”

 

“It keeps referring to a ‘he.’”

 

Georgie blinks. “You’re kidding, right? I know Jon is oblivious, but –”

 

“What?”

 

She frowns. “How far are you?”

 

“Only a few lines in…? ‘You’ is me, I’m assuming, since it is written for me, but then he jumps right into –”

 

“Oh,” Georgie says, sounding relieved for some reason. “Yeah, I suppose you wouldn’t know yet – don’t get too tripped up by the pronouns. Ever since he woke up, Jon’s only been able to speak in statement quotes. Limits his options a bit.”

 

“That… explains some things,” Martin replies, remembering his brief encounter with Jon a few weeks ago. Martin had recognized some of the words as his own. It was bizarre, but he’d been trying not to dwell on the peculiarities of the one-sided conversation. Thinking about Jon at length always made it more difficult for Martin to stay away. But now that the subject is free-floating in the air like this, his sense of curiosity is making demands again. “Why?”

 

“No clue. Jon hasn’t really said, and I haven’t pressed him on it. I can tell there’s some baggage there, but I wasn’t going to make him unpack it when he wouldn’t have the time or space to actually sort through it just yet. I think it’s safe to assume it’s supernatural, though, not psychological. And it definitely isn’t by choice.”

 

Great, Martin thinks bitterly. Just what they need: more complications. When he turns his attention back to the letter, he doesn’t get much further in his reading before he has to stop again.

 

“Are you sure that Jon wrote this?”

 

“Mhm. He fussed over it for hours.” 

 

“It’s just…”

 

“Weirdly communicative?” Georgie suggests, a knowing smirk on her face. “Uncharacteristically revealing and insightful? Indicating a level of self-awareness seemingly not typical for one Jonathan Sims?”

 

“I… I was just going to say ‘open,’ but… yeah?”

 

“Yeah,” Georgie echoes with a dry chuckle. “Just keep reading.”

 


 

Jon is stuck.

 

One arm is pinned to his side, elbow bruising where it presses against the wall. The other is stretched out ahead of him, bitten-short fingernails digging into the dirt for purchase. Useless. The earth is packed so tightly, he can’t quite get a grip. His bad leg is throbbing painfully with every slight shift, and he can’t seem to move the other at all. He tries to breathe through it, but he can’t seem to force his lungs to expand, trapped as he is in –

 

“A squeeze can be a hole less than a foot wide, sometimes going on for a long way, the rock pressing in on all sides of you,” the Archive recites matter-of-factly. “In a particularly bad squeeze, there are parts where the walls and ceiling are so close that you can’t move your arms or bend your legs to push forward, and you just have to squirm your way to the other side like a worm –”   

 

Jon wriggles frantically, trying to pull one arm free to clap a hand over his mouth, but he’s stuck –

 

“– down, down, down, down, down below the earth, there was a worm. He had not always been a worm, of course, but time and tide and life had pushed him to it – and he was, as definitely always had been the case, trapped. Boarded on all sides with no escape and no recourse.” The words are strained and faltering, the pressure on Jon’s chest being what it is, but the Archive carries on, the statement punctuated with the occasional gasp or grunt of pain but otherwise unrelenting. “Even in his faint and fading memories of a life that wasn’t simply stone and rancid, reeking soil, he wasn’t sure he’d ever known a thing that might be called freedom. Choices he had had, that’s true, and certainly compared to the relentless press of all the weight and dirt now on him, the simple choice of left or right or stand or sit would now seem the most outrageous of luxuries –”  

 

Shut up, shut up, just shut up, Jon rails against the Archive, redoubling his struggling, but it forges ahead, as if to highlight the fact that Jon cannot.

 

“…this was a particularly bad squeeze. Near the end, it got so bad that, if Alena hadn’t gone in first, I would have told her to go back and forget Lost Johns’ Cave.”  

 

Very funny, he thinks acidly.

 

“When had the crushing pressure in his chest become literal? When had the empty promise of the horizon finally vanished completely, replaced by the pitch darkness of this – forever wall of earth?”  

 

Suddenly, the aforesaid earth expands outward like a vast beast drawing in a breath, and Jon pitches forward as the passageway widens just enough for him to move. It’s still a squeeze, but he can at least inch his way onward again. He takes advantage of the opportunity while it still exists, blunt fingernails scrabbling against the walls as he pulls himself along.

 


 

Something in Martin gives – an overlong tug-o-war brought to an unceremonious end by a snap in the rope, sending both sides careening backwards to the ground. Like a tightly-coiled spring let loose, he stands abruptly and begins to pace, trying to suppress the uncomfortable stirrings of emotion threatening to break through the fog.

 

“He’s only saying this because he thinks it’ll change my mind about working for Peter,” he mutters heatedly, running a hand through his hair, making sweeping gestures with his other hand. The letter still clenched in his fist flutters and crinkles with his sharp movements. 

 

“What?”

 

“He’s just –” Martin throws his head back with an aggravated sigh. “He’s always been insensitive, but mostly in an – an awkward, off-the-cuff sort of way. And he can be snappish, but that’s mostly when he’s… scared, or overtired, or… but this” – Martin smacks the paper in his hand with the backs of his fingers – “this is just cruel.”

 

“I don’t understa-”

 

“Of course you don’t,” Martin spits out. “Just – using my – my feelings for him to try to manipulate –”

 

“Hey, hey, whoa,” Georgie interrupts, “that’s not –”

 

“What, then?” He laughs, and it feels almost caustic on his tongue. “He just – he’s gone for six months and then he comes back and suddenly he’s – he’s giving a love confession?”

 

“Yeah, he was worried that you wouldn’t be-”

 

“He doesn’t even like me most of the time!” Martin’s voice cracks, but he can’t bring himself to care. “Even after – I mean, he was nicer in the months before…” He closes his eyes and swallows, throat constricted, unable to say the words. “But he wasn’t around much, so it makes sense. He wasn’t having to put up with me on a daily basis. Made it easy for him to forget all the things about me that he hated.”

 

“I don’t think –”

 

“And – and even when he was here, he was distant. Avoiding all of us, like it would keep us… I don’t know, safe?” Martin’s arms fall limp at his sides, the fight gone out of him. “And – and then he… just…”

 

He trails off feebly, his burst of energy sapping away from him. When he doesn’t rally, Georgie begins to speak. 

 

“Well… being avoidant and snippy, that definitely sounds like Jon,” she concedes. “But trust me, he’s not capable of using your feelings for him to manipulate you.”

 

“What?” Martin eyes flick to her.

 

“Don’t get me wrong, he’s an ass sometimes. I know he mistreated you. He knows he mistreated you. He said as much when he was staying with me.”

 

He did?  

 

“Judging by your reaction, I’m assuming he never told you as much.” Georgie sighs. “I told him to try talking to you. He was isolating himself, and he needed more than just me – needed someone who actually knew about… well, everything that goes on here. And I suggested you, since he talked about you all the time.”

 

He did? Martin thinks again, disbelieving.

 

“And based on what he said, it seemed like you cared about him? Though I don’t think he realized how much. Honestly, he didn’t even notice how much he went on about you until I started pointing it out.” She gives him an amused look, and Martin averts his eyes. “He’s astonishingly oblivious sometimes. He gets so focused on the little details that he misses the big picture. But you already know that, don’t you?”

 

Martin continues to stare at his feet, muscles tensed and knees locked.

 

“Anyway, he was worried about you, too. I kept nagging him about it. Eventually he did say he talked to you, but I’m willing to bet it wasn’t exactly a heart-to-heart.”

 

“No,” Martin says quietly. “I mean, he did talk to me after he was kidnapped for the first time –”

 

“The first time?” Georgie repeats. “It happened more than once?”

 

“Yeah,” he sighs, rubbing his forehead with his free hand. He hates that he has to specify which kidnapping. “And actually, it – thinking about it, it was technically it was the second time, I suppose, if you count Daisy. Anyway, he, uh… he said he wanted to check in with me before going traveling. And he… did seem worried, I guess?” After a beat, Martin adds hurriedly: “About – about all of us.”

 

“But he mentioned you specifically. Said you were taking on too much.”

 

“I was –” Martin sputters, pulling his hand away from his face and flinging his arm out in agitation. “How can he of all people say –”

 

“I know, I know,” Georgie says, placating. “He’s a self-destructive workaholic throwing stones at glass houses.”

 

“Boulders, more like,” he huffs. Georgie chuckles at that.

 

Martin thinks back. Elias had had him start reading statements to keep up with the workload while Jon was… in hiding, then doing independent investigation, then kidnapped – which Elias had neglected to even mention. Jon had always seemed fixated on the statements to the point of possessiveness, and Martin had been anxious that Jon would feel like he was… infringing, somehow? And Jon had been upset, but not jealous or territorial as Martin had expected. He was… he was worried, wasn’t he? That the statements would take a toll on Martin’s mental health? Because Jon knew what they were like, and…

 

More like unleashing an avalanche on a glass house, Martin thinks, pressing his lips together in a thin line.     

 

“Couldn’t wrap his head around the idea that someone might be worried about him.” It isn’t until he hears his voice that Martin realizes he’s spoken the thought aloud.

 

“Yeah. He’s always been like that. I think he’s working on it, though?” When Martin doesn’t respond, Georgie continues. “But, back to my earlier point… yes, he can be an ass. But saying that he loves you, just to convince you to come back? Does that really sound like him to you?”

 

“It’s more likely than the alternative,” Martin says stubbornly, and Georgie sighs.

 

“It’s just… not something he would even think to do in the first place. His guilt complex wouldn’t allow for it, first off. And he can be thoughtless, but even when he’s being harsh, it’s not premeditated. But more than that, he’s not… hm. How to put this nicely…” She taps the knuckles of one hand lightly against her lips. “Jon doesn’t have the emotional intelligence necessary for that.”

 

Martin blinks several times, lips parted just slightly.

 

“That was… uh, blunt.”

 

“Well, it’s true.” Georgie shrugs, unconcerned. “He’s clever in a lot of ways, but this sort of thing doesn’t come naturally to him. Has trouble enough processing his own feelings, let alone managing others’ emotions. He’s always been either hypervigilant or oblivious with not much middle ground.” She casts a pensive look at the floor. “He seems… better than he used to be – or he’s trying, at least – but I still wouldn’t call him socially skilled. And even if he was, he’s still just not subtle enough to be deliberately manipulative.”

 

“What do you mean?”

 

“I mean he’s a shit liar.” Martin snorts at that, and Georgie grins. “I take it you’ve noticed.”

 

“A little over a year ago, he got stabbed –”

 

“Of course he did,” Georgie groans.  

 

“Refused to explain how it happened. Said he cut himself with a bread knife.”

 

“A bread knife?” This time, she laughs outright.

 

“I know, right?” Martin exhales with a little heh. “He just – I knew he was lying, and he knew that I knew he was lying, but he just – he stuck to that story.” His lips curl into a small, timid, but inarguably fond smile. “Just… stubborn, you know?”

 

“Yeah,” Georgie says, the corners of her eyes crinkling when she mirrors his expression.

 

Martin clears his throat, smile fading. “But – but that doesn’t mean anything.”

 

“It does, though.”

 

Martin looks off to the side, chewing on the inside of his cheek.

 

“Look,” Georgie says, “I’ve known Jon awhile. We even dated for a time.” Martin’s knee-jerk flicker of jealousy must show on his face, because Georgie grins. “Don’t worry, we’re not romantically compatible, as it turns out. Strictly platonic.”

 

“I didn’t say any-”

 

“You didn’t have to.” Before Martin can protest again, she presses on. “Point is, you can trust me when I say that he’s not the type to throw the word ‘love’ around carelessly, let alone to use it for emotional manipulation.”

 

“Fine,” Martin says tersely, digging his heels in again. “Then he’s just mistaken. What he feels isn’t love. He just feels guilty, and – and lonely, and he thinks this will make it hurt less.” Martin scoffs. “Or, hell, even the opposite: he knows this won’t work and he’s hoping it hurts when I push him away, so that we’ll be even. Using me to – to punish himself.” 

 

“Yeah, I can see why you’d think that,” Georgie says. “But it’s not the case. He’s… changed a lot.”

 

“When? How? You – you keep saying that, but what is that even supposed to mean?” His lips move soundlessly for several seconds before he bursts out, “He was asleep for six months, not – not getting therapy!”

 

Georgie raises her eyebrows at the increasingly battered letter trembling in Martin’s clenched fist.

 

“I think you should keep reading.”  

 


 

“H-h-hello?”

 

The voice is weak, almost a whisper, but it startles Jon all the same. It sounded like it was coming from some immeasurable distance to his right, and he strains his ears for more.

 

“Is – is someone there? P-please, please help me, I can’t – I don’t know where I am, I – I can’t

 

It cuts out with a pained wheeze, but Jon’s heard enough to recognize it.

 

Well, he doesn’t know who it belongs to, but he’s heard it before, the first time he was here: a hapless plea from a stranger who Jon failed to save. The words are exactly the same. He knows, because they’ve haunted him since the first time he heard them, playing over and over in his mind on sleepless nights. Even after the ritual, they remained etched in his memory, only now they had to compete with the cries of the billions of other souls that Jon had condemned. That he could not help. 

 

“Please,” the voice tries again. “Please, are you still there?” Jon tries to grasp for a statement, but the Archive is eerily silent. “H-hello? Please, please say something.”

 

Jon was unable to find him last time, but maybe… maybe this time, he can –

 

As if to quash that thought, the earth begins to shake, rattling his teeth and sending a shooting pain through his bad leg.

 

“Help me–!” The stranger lets out the beginning of a muffled scream, cut short when the earth surrounding them begins to properly heave and thunder.

 

The packed dirt beneath Jon’s feet begins to give way and then he’s falling, swept down, down, down. He doesn’t know how long the landslide continues before the earth becomes solid again, compressing around him and arresting his descent.

 

“I’m sorry,” Jon whispers to no one, as his ragged panting begins to subside. “I –”

 

When his eyelids fly open, he barely registers the debris that begins to sting his eyes.

 

“It’s me?” he murmurs with a sense of wonder. Daring, he tests again: “Not the Archive.” He lets out a disbelieving laugh. “Just – just me –”

 

The hungry earth constricts again as if with a vengeance, smothering the words before they can leave his throat and filling his mouth with the taste of soil. 

 


 

As Martin reads on, his restless pacing continues.

 

After leaving the hospital, the next thing that is properly clear in my mind is – 

– I need him to be okay. 

 

I couldn’t see him or hear him – 

– I didn’t even get a chance to speak to him – asked what had happened, he was just gone. And I was alone again. 

 

Jon doesn’t know what it is to be Lonely, Martin thinks bitterly. Martin of all people knows what it is to be alone, and Jon isn’t alone. And as long as Martin can keep Peter distracted, he won’t be. Martin made his choice. He has to see this through. 

 

A moment later, though, he’s admonishing himself. He’s being unkind. Unnecessarily harsh. It isn’t Jon’s fault that Martin’s Lonely. This is just a poorly veiled attempt to distract himself from the surge of guilt he feels at reading the words. Because… because there’s no denying that Martin wasn’t there when Jon woke up; that he hasn’t been there since Jon came back. Jon might not need him, not really, but… Martin still should have been there, right? What if he never gets another chance?

 

Martin’s blood runs cold in his veins, his chest tightening more with every passing moment.

 

What if… what if Jon never comes home?

 

I wanted to say something reassuring, to reach out and let him know I was still there – 

– I wanted to act, to help, to do something, but – I felt helpless to do anything but watch as events progressed. 

 

I think he might be part of something really awful, and I don’t know how to make him see that – of course I did worry. I knew that, secretly, he was as well. 

 

Martin huffs, blinking rapidly against the sting in his eyes.

 

“What?” Georgie asks.

 

“Nothing,” he says, tongue feeling thick and heavy in his dry mouth. “He just… sometimes I wonder if he actually hears himself speak.”

 

“Mm. Yeah, I get that,” she says after a moment, but Martin is already looking back down at the letter.  

 

I know how that sounds – but – I ask you to read on. 

Don’t… misunderstand me, please – 

– I trusted his instincts almost as much as I trusted my own. 

 

There was a time – not even that long ago – that hearing Jon say that he trusted him would have meant… everything. Now, it skates right over him, leaving only the barest impression. Or, that’s what Martin tells himself as he reads on.

 

More truthfully, it’s that he doesn’t dare pause to examine his emotional state right now.

 

Jon continues… begging, really, for Martin to listen to him. Ironic, really. How many times have the roles been reversed? How many times did Jon brush off Martin’s sincere attempts to take care of him, to encourage him to take care of himself?

 

And then –

 

Statement of Georgina Barker regarding – 

– travel through time. 

 

Martin rereads the lines silently to himself several times, his brain wrapping around the individual words without quite comprehending the whole.

 

“Travel through time?” he says, as if it will make any more sense spoken aloud.

 

“Right.” Georgie takes a breath, claps her hands on her knees, and gives Martin a significant look. “You… may want to sit down for this part.”

 


 

Partly to keep himself company, partly to make strategic use of this newest development in his overly convoluted existence, Jon records a statement: a rambling, stream-of-consciousness explanation, cramming as many of his own words as he can onto the tape while he has the chance.

 

“Every – every single mark was orchestrated by Jonah. Well, almost every one. I was marked by the Web when I was – when I found – when…” Even now, he cannot bring himself to share it where someone else might hear. “Before I ever started working at the Institute,” he says instead, “which is partly why Jonah saw me as a candidate in the first place. That and… and how easy I was to manipulate. You were right, Georgie, when you suggested that I was chosen because of my inexperience, not in spite of it. He… he read me like a… he knew I would play right into his hands.

 

“And – and of course being marked by the Eye, that happened when I signed the contract to become the Head Archi- well… the Archivist. Though, I think what crystallized it may have been my, ah – need to know, and – and paranoia, after…” Grimacing, Jon scrapes by another tight segment of the passage. “After finding Gertrude’s body. After Jane Prentiss. Jonah knew that she was targeting the Institute, and he let it happen. Put everyone in danger just to see how resilient I was, if I was… if I was a survivor, if I was worth investing in or if I should just be – eliminated, so he could move on to more promising candidate –”

 

Jon lets out a strained whine as he struggles through yet another squeeze.

 

“And I – I survived. Not that I had anything to do with that. It was… it was Sasha’s competence, her ability to act under pressure and think on her feet, which was – the last time we saw her, the real her, and I should have…” Jon swallows thickly. “And – and Tim, finding the fire extinguishers, and coming back to help Martin and me, because he… he was brave, and he wouldn’t abandon us. And Martin, being… well, being Martin. Making the fear bearable, because that’s just… how he is, isn’t it?” His fond chuckle dies in his throat, choked with dirt and persistent, unshed tears. “Caring, stubbornly caring, even when we were both about to die, even though I’d done nothing to deserve his consideration.”

 

The squeeze opens up a bit, allowing Jon to draw in a shallow breath. The air is stale, humid, and saturated with dust, but at least it lets him exercise his lungs a little.

 

“An-anyway – Jonah, ah, he was watching the whole time. Deliberately waited to activate the sprinkler system until the worms had…” Jon shudders, trying to ignore the way his scars begin to itch and crawl. “And Tim – he got caught up in it too, just because – because he was too close to me at the wrong time. I guess that – that never stopped being true, did it?

 

“The next few marks were… well, I couldn’t have made it any easier for Jonah.” Jon laughs, a bitter wheeze of a thing. “I just had to go looking for answers. Stupid. All he had to do is leave me a few pertinent statements and watch as I walked right into the Vast and the Desolation…”

 


 

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Martin says flatly.

 

“Not at all.”

 

“Time travel.”

 

“Yep.”

 

“Actual, legitimate time travel.”

 

“I don’t know what distinguishes legitimate time travel from illegitimate” – Martin rolls his eyes – “but sure?”

 

“How?”

 

“Not entirely sure? Jon’s had trouble going into detail given… well, his current limitations. Something about a wormhole in a spooky house?” She frowns. “And he mentioned spiders offhand once, but I still don’t know whether he meant it literally or metaphorically.”

 

Martin doesn’t reply to that. He paces, paces, paces in short, erratic bursts. The hand not holding the letter curls into a fist, fingernails cutting into his palm.

 

“Tell me what’s on your mind,” Georgie ventures.

 

“I… I don’t know,” Martin answers truthfully. “It’s just – a lot. Elias is Jonah Magnus, and – and he forced Jon to…”

 

He stops his pacing and unclenches his fist, only for his fingers to begin twitching and flexing, as if itching for something to wring or throttle or crush. The pounding in his ears nearly drowns out his own noisy breathing, and he has to take a minute to relax his jaw before he speaks.   

 

“How… how is he?” He manages to keep his voice remarkably calm, considering the crackling, pent-up energy roiling within him. 

 

“Handling it better than I would have expected, honestly? I mean – don’t get me wrong, he’s… traumatized. Guilty. Keeps referring to himself as a monster, and I don’t think that’s because he doesn’t have any better words to use. Still not taking care of himself as much as I would like, but… for once, I don’t think he’s just being careless? It’s more like… I don’t know.” She leans forward with her elbows on her knees, hands clasped together in front of her mouth and gaze fixed on the floor. “He’s afraid to sleep, afraid to read statements – which I guess is like eating for him now? It’s like he has to choose between neglecting a basic need and… well, fulfilling it at the cost of triggering a panic attack. It’s not a fair choice to ask him to make, and it would be unfair for me to hold that against him.”

 

“None of that sounds like ‘handling it.’”

 

“Except he’s not just giving in to despair, and for once he’s not going it alone. He’s actually asking for help, and accepting it when it’s offered.” She straightens in her seat again, and Martin resolutely ignores the pointed look she gives him. “He’s been openly communicating – not just about the facts, but about his own feelings.”

 

“Not enough to keep him from taking it upon himself to – to bury himself alive, apparently. And for a person who tried to slit his throat and – and leave him to… you know, if Basira hadn’t stepped in, I – we never would have known what happened to him.”

 

Martin thinks back to the day Jane Prentiss attacked the Institute.

 

I don’t want to become a mystery, Jon had said. I refuse to become another goddamn mystery.

 

That was the first time he had really seen Jon with his guard down. Martin remembers every detail: the tone of his voice, the set of his jaw, the thinly veiled desperation in his eyes when he finally offered Martin a candid glimpse of what lives behind all those obdurate walls he hides behind…

 

Because I’m scared, Martin!

 

So much about Jonathan Sims had made sense after that. 

 

“Well,” Georgie says, “he trusted us enough to tell us where he was going this time.”

 

“And you let him go?” Martin says, far more vehemently than he had intended.

 

“First off, there’s no letting him do anything,” Georgie says sternly. “He’s an adult; I can’t control him. It’s not my job to control him. But yes,” she continues after a pause, softer now, “he explained the situation and I told him I’d support him.”

 

“Why?”

 

“Because he said he knew what he was doing.”

 

“And you actually believed him?”  

 

“Yes. Because I really do think he’s changed. He promised me that this isn’t more of the same, and I believe him.” Georgie shrugs. “Also, he’s from the future and he’s done this once already. Though by his own admission, last time he didn’t tell anyone what he was planning.” Staring at Martin intently, she leans forward again. He takes an automatic step back, as if pushed. “He’s trying to do better. I think he deserves a chance to prove it – maybe to himself more than anyone else.”

 

“I’m not saying he doesn’t –”

 

“Then sit back down and read the rest.”

 

He doesn’t sit, but he does return to the letter. And it’s… well, he doesn’t know what to make of it.

 

Jon knows about the Extinction. He knows that Martin is cooperating with Peter partly to protect him. He knows that Peter’s plans involve Martin’s isolation.

 

None of that is surprising, if Jon actually is from the future. He seems confident that the Extinction isn’t as imminent a threat as Peter claims, so if Jon does have future knowledge, then… well, Martin might have to reevaluate some things.

 

But despite the weight of that revelation, that isn’t what’s dominating the forefront of Martin’s mind right this moment. What’s tripping him up right now is…

 

He deserved to – 

– to be – beloved –  

– cared for – trusted – 

– being wanted and appreciated – 

– being genuinely loved – 

– no matter how wrong it might feel –

– when you’re at your lowest point, when you’re your most emotionally vulnerable. 

 

I need him to be okay – 

– and the world is so much better for – 

– the easy, charming man I’d fall in love with – 

– being in it. 

 

Almost sedately, in stark contrast to his earlier burst of manic energy, Martin finally lowers himself into the nearest chair. It’s only later that he’ll realize that he didn’t pause beforehand to assess which seating option offered the furthest physical distance from Georgie.

 

“You’re… sure Jon wrote this?” he says meekly.

 

Georgie sighs heavily, but when she rolls her eyes, it’s with amused exasperation rather than true annoyance.

 

“Like I said the last eleven times you asked, yes. They aren’t his words exactly, but the meaning behind them is his. And I don’t think it was the apocalypse that made him so sentimental.” Martin gives her a bemused look, and she sighs again. “It was you, okay? And it started way before whatever happened in his future. He was besotted when he was staying with me last year, even if he didn’t realize it for what it was. And he might be clumsy at expressing it, but… you know as well as I do that he overthinks everything, and I don’t think that’s changed any. If he was confident enough to say all those things, he means it.”

 

“It’s just…” Martin trails off, gesturing vaguely with one hand. It isn’t impossible for him to conceptualize of Jon as someone capable of love. The impossible part is that… “It’s me, you know?”

 

“Yeah, and so does Jon, and it seems he likes you as you are.” She waits for Martin to look up before she continues. “I won’t tell you what to do with that information. I think he would agree with me when I say that you aren’t obligated to reciprocate. But I will tell you that he had the exact same reaction to you caring about him. Regardless of how you see yourselves, neither of you seems to think that the other is unlovable.”

 

Martin… doesn’t know what to say to that. It’s too much, too fast, too unexpected – too unbelievable.

 

“Did he, ah…” The Lonely kicks up a furious objection, but Martin forces himself to ask the question. “Did he say how long he would be gone?”

 


 

Yet again, Jon is pinned, panting and shaky from the exertion of struggling fruitlessly for… well, he isn’t sure how long he’s been stuck. He isn’t even sure how long he’s been in the Coffin. He managed to dodge giving a specific timeline for when to expect him back – he didn’t want to worry anyone if he missed a deadline – but he did insinuate that it shouldn’t take more than a week. Secretly, he hoped he could return more quickly than he did the last time.

 

As expected, though, he has no sense of the passing of time in here, beyond just too long. Too long without air, too long without stretching, too long without Seeing – 

 

That familiar rumbling is starting up again, distant at first but moving closer, closer, closer like an oncoming freight train, volume climbing louder and louder until the entire earth is roaring. The walls contract abruptly with an earsplitting crack, punching the scant amount of air in his lungs out in a wracking wheeze. From all around him come the grunts and groans and yelps of pain from who knows how many fellow trapped souls, but there is one cry in particular that draws his attention.

 

“Daisy?” His hoarse voice cracks, and he clears his throat before trying again. “Daisy!”

 

“Jon!”

Chapter Text

The darkness and overwhelming pressure of the Buried make it nigh impossible to orient oneself. The only conceivable directions are forward, down, into, deeper. Jon’s only choice, when he has one at all, is to keep moving – and so he does, digging and clawing his way through the muck, making a transient pathway for himself as best he can.     

 

“Daisy?” It comes out as a rasp. He tries to swallow, but succeeds only in upsetting his already-sore throat. It feels as though the dirt and debris have taken up permanent residence there, clogging his airway just enough to leave him chronically short of breath without cutting off his oxygen supply entirely. “Daisy, can you reach me?”

 

“Jon,” comes the weak reply, “I’m – I don’t know where – I c-can’t – can’t see –”

 

“I hear you,” Jon says. “I’m here, I’m coming to you. Just – keep talking, and –”

 

As he talks, he inhales a cloud of dust, dissolving into wracking coughs.

 

“Jon? Jon, are you still there?” For a long moment, Jon cannot speak. Daisy’s next words are steeped in panic. “Where are you? I can’t… p-please be there, please –”

 

“I’m still here,” Jon forces out hoarsely, stretching his arm forward as far as it will go. “I’m not going anywhere. Follow my voice, I – I think I’m almost –”

 

Chill fingertips brush against his, and he throws his weight forward as much as possible. He hooks her fingers in his and pulls, and with a burst of energy he manages to clasp her clammy hand in his.

 

“There you are,” he says, smiling weakly.

 

“You’re real,” Daisy says in disbelief, crushing his hand in a bruising grip. “You’re real.

 

“I am.” He intertwines their fingers, as grateful as she is for a hand to hold. “I’m here, Daisy.”

 

“Daisy,” she says dreamily. “Yeah. Daisy. That’s me.” A pause. “Just – just me.”

 

Jon closes his eyes with a relieved sigh. There are no signs that the Hunt still has its claws in her. He had no reason to think that reaching her a couple weeks earlier than before would change anything, but there was still that nagging doubt.

 

“J-just me,” she says again, but this time there’s a waver in her voice. “Just – alone –”

 

“No,” Jon says hurriedly, squeezing her hand several times in quick succession, “not – not alone. Not anymore.”

 

“Yeah.” She grasps his hand even more tightly, as if to reassure herself.  

 

“I’m here.”

 

“Yeah,” she says again, and this time it sounds like she’s starting to believe it.

 

“How – how are you?” Jon cringes. It’s as stupid a question now as it was the last time. Moreso, seeing as he’s already heard the answer. “S-sorry. That’s – probably obvious.”

 

Daisy answers anyway, likely glad of the chance to talk to someone else after so long in isolation.

 

“I – I can’t move, can’t breathe, can’t…” She trails off, hesitating. “But it’s… it’s quiet here? I can’t…”

 

She seems to be struggling to find the words.

 

“You can’t feel the blood,” he supplies.

 

“Y-yeah. How did you…”

 

“I can’t feel the Eye, either. It’s… it’s just me. All me.”

 

“Where are we?”

 

“In the Coffin. The Buried. It’s… the powers don’t have much sway within one another’s domains. The Hunt, the Eye – they can’t reach us here.”

 

“The Hunt,” she echoes.

 

“Yes. You’re a Hunter.”

 

“I… I guess I was. But – not here.”

 

No, not here. But once they leave here…

 

Stop, he tells himself. One thing at a time. Escape the Buried, then worry about the Hunt.

 

“Come on.” He tugs on her hand. “Let’s get you out of here.”

 

“Can’t – can’t move, and – and even if I could, there’s no way out –”

 

“No, I – I can get us out. I have a plan.”

 

“Is this like all your other plans?”

 

Jon chuckles, but it comes out as a wheeze.

 

“Yes and no. But – but don’t worry, it’s – I can do this. I just – need to – to find it.”

 

But when he closes his eyes and concentrates, there’s… nothing there.

 

“Come on,” he says under his breath, keeping his voice deliberately calm. “Come on, where are you?”

 

There’s nothing there. Why is there nothing there?

 

“Just need to… need to focus. Just – focus, think of…”

 

Think of Martin. Martin is your anchor. Clever, brave, loyal, compassionate Martin.

 

He was kind to you even when you didn’t deserve it; he cared for you even though you did everything you could to push him away. He reached out to you through the Lonely when you were at your most monstrous to remind you of the humanity you’d thought you lost. He made you want to do better, to be the person that he saw when he looked at you.

 

You followed him into the Lonely because you love him and because he deserved to know it. You need to return to him now, because this version of him doesn’t yet know that he is loved. If you don’t get back to him, if you don’t reach out to him – he’ll get lost, and he –

 

Jon’s breath hitches. The fear is starting to move in as inexorably as the earth surrounding them, settling cold and heavy in his gut.

 

Stop that, he tells himself. Just think about Martin, not the worst case scenario.

 

Everyone underestimates him, because he spent his entire life striving for the perfect balance between useful and unobtrusive. But he’s not helpless; he’s not a pushover. He took master manipulator Jonah Magnus by surprise; he fooled Peter Lukas for months. Sometimes, you think that Martin Blackwood could outmaneuver the Web if he cared to. If anyone could, it would be him. You don’t think you’ll ever fully forgive yourself for taking so long to notice.   

 

No, Jon tells himself once more, recognizing the warning signs of a guilt spiral. That won’t help. Redirect.

 

In those early days after the ritual, you briefly defaulted to your old habits, withdrawing and shutting him out. He stood up to your brooding, gave your self-loathing no refuge in which to thrive, because he saw right through your sharp tongue to the vulnerable parts of you that it was meant to hide.

 

He is intuitive, stubborn, and patient in the best of ways.

 

You have a tendency to stare. You always have; you typically don’t notice you’re doing it. After you became the Archivist, it went from being an awkward habit to evidence of your inhumanity: all eyes, always watching, always demanding more, more, more until every secret is exposed and any semblance of privacy has been demolished.

 

But it was never just the Eye urging you to record things. You know from experience that nothing lasts forever, that anyone and anything can disappear without a moment’s notice – sometimes leaving no trace, no memory that they ever existed. It only makes sense that you would develop a compulsion to document everything for posterity. The tape recorders were only the most recent manifestation of that preexisting obsession. Before that, you made lists, you took pictures, you wrote on your hands – and, of course, you stared.

 

During your first few days together at the safehouse, Martin called attention to the staring. You were mortified, launched into a rambling apology – but he shut it down, reassured you that he was only teasing, that he didn’t mind it, that it was… endearing, in a way. And once you were given permission, you began to consciously catalog every little detail.

 

He has thirty-six freckles on his face, seventeen on his hands, and constellations of them besides: on his back, on his shoulders, on his arms, on his belly. He blushes easily, and you love it, because you’ve never been good at reading body language, and you can always use a hint. His hair is soft, and the way he leans into it when you run your fingers through it – you think he would purr if he could. You were hesitant, at first, to spend too long looking at his eyes – but unlike most people, he showed no signs that he found eye contact with you unsettling. 

 

You gave him permission to stare, too. And he did. He never shied away from your scars. He liked looking at you – and you knew he was genuine when he said so, even though you didn’t understand it.

 

Martin is self-conscious about his size, painfully aware of how others see him. He rarely stands to his full height, tending to curl his shoulders in, maintain a curve to his spine, keep his arms pulled tight to his body: anything to avoid towering over others, anything to take up as little space as possible. He saw his stretch marks as flaws to be tolerated at best; spent most of his life assuming that his weight and soft edges made him unattractive.

 

There are so many things he hates about himself. It broke your heart a little, to see how difficult it was for him to believe that you like looking at him, that your boundaries regarding physical intimacy weren’t a comment on his desirability. (Though he never voiced that last concern, never wanted his own insecurities to make you feel self-conscious about that part of yourself. Never made you feel guilty or lacking or… or broken.)

 

You regularly stole his jumpers; the first time you did it, he went speechless and flustered at the casual domesticity of it all. You took turns ambushing one another with affirmations and small acts of affection like that. It became something of a challenge, a game: springing a pet name on one another here, placing a soft kiss on a hand there, delighting in the reactions it got. It’s strange how easily you settled into that routine, how natural it felt to let down your guard.

 

At night, he would curl around you like he belonged there, like there was no place he’d rather be – and it made you feel like you belonged, too. The first time he held you in his arms, you realized that you’d never truly known what it was to feel safe until that moment – and isn’t that its own special kind of vulnerability, isn’t it such a cliché? You still had nightmares, still jolted awake several times throughout the night frantic and disorientated – as did he – but it felt so much more endurable with someone to coax you back to reality. 

 

When you first led him out of the Lonely, it was still clinging to him. He couldn’t understand what you saw in him, any more than you could understand what he saw in you. You made it your mission to make him understand. And eventually, he did. It wasn’t the first time you told him you loved him, but one morning when you said it, he looked at you and his lips parted ever so slightly, and you could practically see the epiphany dawn in his eyes, and he whispered that he believed you.

 

You still haven’t found a word that accurately describes what you felt then. You kissed him, and hoped that it would say what words could not.

 

You never gave up on each other, even when you’d given up on your own selves. He never stopped caring for you, even when you were at your most fearsome and fearful. Despite everything, you communicated, you compromised, you comforted one another. You never stopped loving one another.  

 

You lost him once before. You cannot lose him again. You need to find him. Why – why can’t you find him? Why can’t you feel him?  

 

Jon feels his breath quickening, terror needling at the edges of his mind. He jumps slightly when Daisy speaks.

 

“Jon?”

 

“It’s – it’s okay,” he says, his voice shaky. “I’ve – I’ve done this once before. I can do this.”

 

There’s no rule saying he can only have one anchor, right?

 

He thinks of Georgie.

 

She took you in when you had nowhere else to go, even though you hadn’t spoken in years, even though you hadn’t parted on the best of terms. Staying with her felt more like home than you’d experienced in… you don’t know how long. It made you realize how much you missed her – her humor, her ingenuity, her confidence, her tenacity, her generosity, and, yes, even her perceptiveness, daunting though it may be at times. She speaks her mind and you can take her at her word. You can appreciate that, as someone who has always had trouble parsing the implicit and unspoken aspects of social life.      

 

You trust her judgment, and she believes in you, and it makes you want to believe in yourself. You want to be there for her in the same way that she’s chosen to be there for you.

 

He thinks of Melanie.

 

You disliked one another at first meeting, even though – or perhaps because – you have so much in common. Over the years, you saw more sides to her. She’s brave and resolute, not just when it comes to fighting back, but when it comes to making the conscious decision to heal. She’s capable of kindness to those who are receptive to it. You’ve seen how she is with Georgie, how her hard edges relax, how her devotion is as fierce as her anger can be – perhaps moreso.

 

You know that she never deserved to suffer like she has. You know she deserves a happy ending. You want to try to reconcile with her. In your future, she went so far as to suggest that you could be friends. You think you would like that.

 

He thinks of Basira.

 

She’s had no one but herself to rely on for months. She feels trapped and alone; she hasn’t had a moment to grieve; she’s forced herself to compartmentalize and detach because if she breaks down, she doesn’t know if she’ll be able to put herself back together again. She’s told herself that her own comfort and wellbeing don’t matter. She has a job to do and she’s the only one left who is willing and able to do it. The only solid thing left in her life, the only thing giving her purpose is the mission. The mission is her anchor, because she’s lost everything else.

 

When she found out that Daisy was alive, she was almost angry with you for making her dare to hope. You promised that you would bring Daisy home to her, and you mean to keep that promise.

 

And Jon has a job to do, too, doesn’t he?

 

You need to stop Jonah Magnus, you need to –

 

His stomach clenches as the dread grips him.

 

Okay, no. Don’t – don’t think of Jonah. Not helpful, not helpful, not –

 

He reaches further. He tries to think of Naomi, of the Admiral, of –

 

The faraway rumbling starts up again.

 

“Jon,” Daisy says again, urgently, perched on the edge of panic right along with him.

 

This is forever deep below creation, some self-sabotaging part of his brain reminds him. Where the weight of existence bears down. This is the Buried, and we are alive. There isn’t even an up –

 

“I just – I just – I just need to calm down,” he stammers. He can feel his pulse beating in his throat; would be hyperventilating if he could breathe at all. “I – I can’t think straight, and I just need to…”

 

He thinks back to the physical details of the world just outside the Coffin.

 

The arrangement of the tapes –

 

…CASE #0160919 sits 34.2 centimeters west of the Coffin, turned at a 45-degree angle. Approximately 20.6 centimeters south-southwest is CASE #0172904; the casing of its recorder is slightly cracked at the lower left corner. 2.4 centimeters to its right is CASE #0171302; the rewind button on the recorder housing it tends to stick…

 

– on the floor of his office –

 

…where fingernail scratches are still visible in the northwest corner of the room, left there by Enrique MacMillan on 4 November, 2003, after he gave his statement regarding his encounter with a Buried-touched Leitner…

 

– and the tape he left on his desk –

 

…on top of a softcover Moleskine notebook – black, 12.7 by 21 centimeters, ruled – belonging to Martin Blackwood; the Archivist knows every word written thus far on the 68 used out of 192 total pages within…

 

– and on that tape are pleas that went unanswered for far too long, laced with desperation and grief and rapidly dwindling hope –

 

We really need you, Jon. We – I need you …

 

– but Jon cannot hear it anymore.

 

His mind wanders to the single folded sheet of paper tucked away in the top drawer of his desk. A second message for Martin, to be read only in the event that Jon doesn’t return. A transcript, to be precise.

 

On their way to the Panopticon, they had been separated when they traversed the Lonely’s domain. Jon had searched frantically, resisting the urge to simply Know because he had promised. As much as he wanted to, he didn’t feel right forcing Martin to See him the way he did before. It was Martin’s domain, and he had the right to decide for himself whether to leave it behind. Even if Jon had wanted to, though, he suspected that he wouldn’t have been able to actually find Martin this time unless he wanted to be found. And in the end, he did.

 

Just before Jon found him, he managed to catch the tail end of Martin’s statement. Naturally, the Archive memorized every word and dutifully filed it away without any conscious effort or consent on Jon’s part.

 

I am Martin Blackwood, and I am not Lonely anymore; I am not Lonely anymore. I want to have friends. I – no, I have friends. I’m in love. I am in love, and I will not forget that; I will not forget…

 

Before he entered the Coffin, Jon copied it down and left it behind. Just in case. Just in case something goes wrong. If he goes missing in action for too long, he trusts that eventually someone will clear out his desk, find it, and hopefully pass it along to its intended recipient. 

 

It was a last-ditch effort to impart the truth: that a future exists wherein Martin isn’t Lonely; that he can be and is and deserves to be cared for; that it isn’t just an unattainable fantasy. And, most importantly, Jon is not the only one who can provide that, nor is Jon alone enough to fulfill that need. In the end, Martin chose to turn his back on the Lonely. He can do it again.

 

There’s every chance that it was a useless gesture, but Jon doesn’t think he could live with himself if he didn’t at least try – and if he does get lost down here, he’ll be forced to live with himself for as long as the Buried itself exists.

 

But Jon doesn’t want to leave Martin alone with that inexplicable scrap of statement, hoping that it’s enough to get the point across. Jon has to get home. He has to; there’s no other choice –

 

“Jon?” Daisy says again. “You sound like you’re… what – what’s wrong?”

 

“Sorry, I’m – I’m just… I can’t – I can’t feel my anchor.”

 

“Anchor?”

 

“Y-yeah. Something to ground me, help me feel the way out. It’s – there’s a void where it should be, and…” His short exhale shudders on the way out. “I think – I think we might be here for awhile longer.”

 

“N-not alone, though,” Daisy says, almost questioningly.

 

“No. No, not alone. And – and I can still get us out, I think,” Jon adds hurriedly. “I just – I need to… I need to come down from the panic, and it’s hard to do that when I can’t – I can’t breathe –“

 

His breath catches and he closes his eyes. Stop, he tells himself, you’re – you’re spiraling, talking yourself into a panic. Just… listen – listen to the quiet.

 

“Jon?”

 

“Still – still here,” he says, squeezing her hand again. “I’m not going anywhere without you, I promise.”

 

“Do you – if you need a break from – from whatever you’re doing…” She falters for a moment before blurting out: “C-can we… can we talk? I haven’t – I just want someone to hear me.”

 

“Of course. I’m listening.” When Daisy doesn’t reply, he offers a gentle prompting. “Daisy?”

 

“I’m – it’s difficult. I can’t find the words.”

 

“Would it help if I… ask?” The last time, it did help her get her thoughts out.

 

“Y-yeah,” she says with only a slight delay. “Do your… thing.”

 

“Right,” he says. For a moment, he worries that he’ll have difficulty concentrating long enough to compel an answer, but his mind clears almost as soon as he opens his mouth. Of course. “How are you feeling?”

 

The question buzzes like static on his tongue on its way out.

 

“S-scared. I – I’m – I’m s-scared…”

 

Daisy’s words do not deviate from the last time he was here, but he does not interrupt her as she speaks. He latches onto her voice, focuses all of his attention on her story, and tries to ground himself in the present.

 

“Y-you know what I thought, when I woke up here? I thought this was hell. I – I was dead, and I was in hell. And I - I knew I deserved it.” Daisy stifles a sob as she nears the end of her statement. “I don’t want t-to b-be a s-sadistic predator again. I – I don’t want to hobble around like some – pathetic wounded prey here. I don’t know which would be worse. But I’m scared now – that I won’t ever get the choice.”

 

One thing I’ve learned, Daisy, is that we all get a choice, he told her last time. Even if it doesn’t feel like one. 

 

Now, though, he’s not so sure. Or, rather, now he thinks it isn’t quite that simple.

 

“It’s… complicated,” Jon starts slowly. “Choice, I mean. We all have choices, but – but when all the alternatives are unendurable, or impossible to achieve, or – or even conceptualize, then… well, it’s not a fair choice, is it? Sometimes because that’s just – how it is, and sometimes by design. There – there are people, and – and things out there that will abuse their power to deceive you, keep you ignorant about things that would affect your decisions. Or – or convince you that you have no options, no autonomy – or even that you can’t trust your own judgment, your own senses. Some choices can hardly be called choices at all.”

 

He begins to grind his teeth as he considers his next words, but stops as soon as he feels the grit between his molars when he bites down. There are a lot of things to hate about the Buried, but its refusal to allow him to engage in any of his usual nervous habits definitely adds insult to injury.   

 

“You say you deserve to be here, but – do you think you deserved to be marked by the Hunt to begin with? Because one thing I’ve learned is… most people who become Avatars – we don't necessarily do anything to deserve the attention of the things that take notice of us. To be put in these positions, to be given impossible choices about – about things we have no right to decide in the first place.”

 

“What do you mean?”

 

“It seems that a common thread is… well, um, I think Tim hit the nail on the head, actually? In his testament before the Unknowing, he – he said, ‘The only thing you need to have your life destroyed by this stuff is just bad luck. Talk to the wrong person, take the wrong train, open the wrong door, and that’s it.’” 

 

“You remember that verbatim?”

 

“It’s – it’s an Archivist thing.” Well, technically. Jon can’t access the Archive right now, but some statements have looped so many times in his head that he has every word memorized by now. “But the point is that our transgressions, they… the punishment often doesn’t seem to fit the crime.”

 

Daisy is quiet, so Jon continues.

 

“Uh, Jane Prentiss, for instance – stumbled upon a wasps’ nest in her attic, and then the Corruption infested her. In her original statement, she was afraid of what was happening to her, she was asking for help, but it… it was slowly hollowing her out. Appealed to her insecurities, whispered to her that it was the only thing that could love her, that wouldn’t abandon her. Maybe eventually she embraced it on her own, but at that point, how much of her was left to make that choice?

 

“And – and Michael Crew. He was struck by lightning when he was eight. The Spiral never stopped stalking him after that. He spent his childhood in fear, obsessively sought out information about – lightning, and fractals, because understanding it felt like the only way to resist a thing that feeds on uncertainty.”

 

Jon can relate to that, can’t he? He was always curious, but his desire to know and understand things became more obsessive after he encountered his first monster – as if he could solve any problem if only he learned enough about it. But it was never enough, and that impulse never actually kept him safe. It only offered him a flimsy illusion of control, which was something he desperately needed after the Web showed him what it was like to have none. Still, an ineffective coping mechanism was better than not coping at all – or so he told himself then.

 

“When Mike realized that there was no escape from the supernatural once he’d been marked by it,” Jon continues, “he decided that the next best thing was choosing which Fear to submit to – to serve. Obsessively sought out Leitners until he found the Vast, and… it offered him safety. The most basic of human needs, something he hadn’t known since he was a child. The things he did to feed his patron were – indefensible, but I can’t help thinking about the person he might have been, if the Spiral hadn’t come into his life. He… he was only eight. How is a child supposed to process something that even an adult would have trouble coping with? I’m sure many children don’t even physically survive an encounter with one of the Fears, but even those that do… they never actually escape, do they?”

 

Daisy makes an indistinct little noise in her throat. Jon can’t Know for certain, but he imagines she’s thinking of her own first encounter with the Hunt. When enough time has passed that she doesn’t seem ready to say as much, Jon continues.

 

“And there’s – there’s Oliver Banks, he’s an Avatar of the End. He just started having dreams one day, became a death prophet. As far as I can tell, nothing provoked it. It just… happened. And early on, he tried to use that ability to help people, but… the powers granted us as Avatars, they aren’t for helping or saving anyone. When you realize that, after a long string of failures, you start to become… despondent. Numb, even. Maybe some misstep along the way piqued the End’s interest in him, or maybe it was completely arbitrary. I don’t know. I don’t know that Oliver does, either.”

 

It’s difficult to speak at length here, and Jon’s speech is punctuated by frequent gasps and stops and starts, but he plows ahead. Granted, he’s always had a tendency toward intense, rapid-fire speech whenever he gets invested in a topic of interest, but it’s also that he needs to cover as much ground as he can as quickly as possible. There’s no telling when the Buried will constrict again. Sometimes there are long intervals of relative peace; other times, the bouts of crushing pressure come one after the other in a barrage. The inconsistency makes the dread all the more potent: you can never predict when the walls will close in.

 

“And Helen,” he says, moving right along, “before she became the Distortion, she opened a door. That’s all. Most people would have probably done the same. A door that wasn’t there before, that can’t be there – of course the human mind wants to test its perceptions, make sense of the discrepancy. Which is exactly what the Distortion preys on. It let her escape its corridors, because it would make the fear that much more potent when it came for her again, when she realized that it had never actually let her go, that there was never any way to escape. It was… it was just playing with its food.”

 

Like with Benjamin Hatendi, Jon thinks. ‘The blanket never did anything.’  

 

The Fears are never merciful. For an earthly predatory animal, the pain and fear of the prey are only relevant insofar as their utility in capturing it. Granted, the majority of animals may have no qualms about eating their prey alive so long as it’s incapacitated, no concept of putting their food out of its misery – but still, sustenance isn’t derived from the experience of the prey, only from its organic matter.

 

For the Powers, though… terror is the food source. If anything, the misery is deliberately drawn out. The suffering is primary to the meal.

 

“I still don’t know how much of Helen Richardson was left by the time she embraced her new existence and began feeding” – by the time she chose to stop feeling guilty, Jon notes privately “but she never asked to be in that position to begin with. She just… opened a door.

 

“And then… you, with the Hunt. I did hear the tape – of your interrogation with Elias. All you did was trespass on a childhood dare, right? You and Calvin Benchley. Maybe the Hunt chose the both of you, was deliberately waiting for you there. Or maybe you were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Either way, you… you did something that most children do at one point or another, exploring out of bounds – I did plenty of that myself. And – and you’d done the same thing many times in the past, there was no reason to think that things would go any differently. But that time, that time you stumbled into something that most children – most people never do.”

 

Jon debates whether or not to share his own initiation into this world. He never told Daisy about it last time, but he knows – and Knows – about her childhood encounter. It seems only fair to include his own. 

 

“Actually, I… I had a similar experience, when I was eight,” he admits, pushing through his habitual reservations. “Unlike Michael Crew, though, I was an active participant in what happened. There’s no dodging a lightning strike, but me – I… I opened a book I shouldn’t have, knocked on a door I shouldn’t have. I could’ve just… not.”

 

“That’s a funny double standard,” Daisy says flatly.

 

“P-pardon?”

 

“Couldn’t you just as easily say that Crew could have chosen to not stand outside during a lightning storm?”

 

“He – he actually wanted to go inside, but his friend pressured him to keep playing,” Jon says, almost defensively. “By the time they decided to go in, it was too late.”

 

“Like I pressured Calvin.”

 

“That’s –” Jon gives an agitated little exhale. “It’s still different.”

 

“How?”

 

“Did you have a bad feeling about the dare, or was it just like any other day? You had no reason to think that things would go wrong. I… I knew that book was wrong, and I opened it anyway.” Daisy scoffs. “What?”

 

“Has anyone ever pointed out to you that you’re capable of some truly infuriating mental gymnastics?”

 

Jon puffs out another exasperated breath before muttering, “Yes.”

 

In fact, she said almost the exact same thing to him the last time around. And Georgie – she used to say so all the time, especially when they were dating.

 

You always do this, she’d pointed out once during an argument, hands on her hips and a shrewd look in her eye. Any time a conversation gets a little too uncomfortable for you, you just – throw your hands up, say it’s your fault and shut down, and nothing ever gets resolved. Why are you always so eager to take the blame? Is it that it’s better than admitting there are some things you can’t control, or is it just easier than actually talking about your feelings?

 

The answer was yes on both counts, and he had been angry with her for putting it into words. He’d already known on some level, but he studiously avoided that sort of introspection. Now that it had been verbalized, the knowledge would always be there, floating around in his mind – yet another thing to overanalyze, to obsess over, to ambush him in moments of doubt.

 

Since then he’s gotten better at communicating in healthy ways, but the self-blame thing… well, Martin still had to periodically call him out on it, right up until the end. It became a common refrain: It’s still victim blaming even if you’re the victim, Jon.  The reminder did help – at least some of the time – but it wasn’t enough to undo a worldview that he’d spent his entire life internalizing.

 

“Y-yes,” he says again, less sullenly now, “I – I see your point.”

 

“Good. So – evil book?”

 

“A Leitner, yes. The Web.” Jon has no desire to go into all the gruesome details, not when he’s – when they’re both already being suffocated by fear. “And I only escaped through… I don’t know, some combination of mundane human cruelty and luck – or… or someone else’s misfortune, more like.” He gives a tired sigh. “Or it could have been deliberate interference by the Web, taking someone else in my place because it had other plans for me. I’ll never know the exact reason why. If there even is a reason.”

 

He pauses, expecting the Beholding’s characteristic objection to the idea that he should accept not knowing anything, before remembering with grim satisfaction that the Eye can’t quite reach him here. Nor can the Web, for that matter. A small mercy, but he’ll take it.

 

“But the experience led to an obsession with the supernatural. I suppose I thought that if – if I could just understand it, I could conquer the fear. It didn’t work, but an obsession like that – it persists regardless of whether it’s successful or productive or – or healthy. Eventually it led me to the Institute. Which led me… here, ultimately.” He bites his lower lip as he considers his next words. “I’m sure many of my choices along the way were mine alone, and – and I’m responsible for my actions regardless. But that first domino… it was just a restless child ignoring gut instinct, all because he needed to know.”

 

“Jon,” Daisy says, the hint of a warning growl underlying her tone.

 

“I – okay, yes, I know, I know. Double standards.” He takes a shallow breath before continuing. “My point is, most of us are just… unlucky isn’t the right word, but it’s as close as I can get. Sometimes the Fears seem to seek out victims who are already uniquely susceptible to them – people with phobias, or specific traumas. Other times it seems… arbitrary. And sometimes it seems like the difference between an average victim and those who eventually become Avatars is… compatibility, or – or in some cases, a sense of kinship, even.  

 

“I’ve always been too curious for my own good, a natural fit for the Beholding. Jane talked about being seen as toxic, and it was the Corruption that found her. Annabelle Cane said she was well-versed in manipulation as a young child, the sort of gift that the Web favors. Jared Hopworth always had a sadistic streak, but the difference between him and any other bully is that he found The Boneturner's Tale. I… don’t really know what to make of Jude Perry. The way she told it, she always had the disposition for the Desolation. She would likely have been a nightmare with or without supernatural help, but there are plenty of people like that in the world. She just happened to be one of the few who caught the attention of the Lightless Flame.

 

“But – but I also don’t think preexisting compatibility is a requirement to be an Avatar. Some people really do just – stumble into it, probably. Grow into it, maybe, after enough exposure. Especially if the same Power keeps coming back.”

 

Jon can’t help thinking of the Distortion and its tendency to dog its victims for years. Helen said once that she couldn’t just force her victims into her corridors, that they had to open the door on their own. But that was a lie, wasn’t it? Marcus MacKenzie refused to open the door every single time it appeared throughout his childhood and young adulthood. It started to take increasingly drastic measures: disguising itself as other things, at one point even opening up in the ground in front of him, hoping he wouldn’t notice until he already stepped over the ledge and gravity did its work, like a bear trap materializing beneath a boot in the blink between one footfall and the next. When that didn’t work, it took his father. And then, even after evading it for decades, Helen eventually took Marcus anyway. Choice didn’t come into it. It didn't matter how many times he walked away – it followed him wherever he went.

 

“Either way,” Jon continues, “whether it’s part of some grand plan or just happenstance, the Avatars… we catch the attention of something predatory, and it sinks its hooks into the vulnerabilities it finds. There are plenty of other people in the world who may have the same… flaws, or inclinations, or experiences, but most are lucky enough not to be drawn into this world. I’m not sure exactly what determines who is, but I don’t think it comes down to fairness, or deservedness, or – or some sort of cosmic punishment. I – I don’t think the universe works that way.

 

“And – and after we’ve been marked, maybe we can make choices along the way. But as far as I can tell, none of those choices ever lead to complete freedom from the Powers that lay claim to us. We’re still accountable for our actions; we can fight back, we can resist – but we’ll always be struggling against our natures. Sometimes it seems like there’s… there’s really no choice we can make where things actually turn out okay. Doesn’t mean we stop trying, or give up hope, but…” He pauses to gnaw on the inside of his cheek for a few seconds. “It can be hard to ignore the fear when it’s become such an intrinsic part of you, is all. When it makes its hunger your own, and hollows you out if you don’t feed it. It can make the concept of choice seem… empty.”

 

When he trails off, Daisy blows out a forceful exhale.

 

“That was… a lot.”

 

“Surprised the Buried let me get it all out,” Jon says, a bit sheepishly. “Sorry, I’ve… had a lot of time alone to ruminate.”

 

“I think I can rela-”

 

Daisy’s words are cut short when all at once the earth crashes down around them, as if exacting payment for the courtesy of staying its hand for so long. An indeterminate amount of time passes, weight pressing down on them from all sides, leaving no room for breath or words or thought. Jon focuses on their hands, still linked tightly together, the only anchor to be found here in the dark.

 

Eventually, the walls begin to withdraw in tiny increments. The sinister, sibilant shifting of soil is a constant, unknown variable – it sounds the same whether the earth is compacting or moving away, and often there is no way to tell until it’s already too close and pressing down. Jon can feel his pulse hammering in his throat, can hear Daisy’s gasping breaths overlapping his own.

 

“I was gonna kill you,” she blurts out eventually, breathless and rushed. “You know that?”

 

“Yes.”

 

“I – I don’t just mean that day in the woods,” she clarifies. “Af-after the mission, I was planning on killing you.”

 

“I know. You realized I wasn’t human. That I needed to die.”

 

“H-how did you –”

 

“I’ve been here once before. And – and I should apologize for the dreams, I –”

 

“Wait –”

 

“I know it’s not an excuse, but I never meant to compel you that time – didn’t even realize at the time that that was something I could do, and –”

 

“Jon –”

 

“I didn’t realize then that the dreams were real, and – and when I finally did, I still didn’t have any control over them, but I –”

 

“Jon! Shut up a minute.”

 

His mouth snaps shut a little too quickly and he winces as he bites down on the tip of his tongue. The metallic taste of blood just barely registers on his tongue in the few seconds it takes for the cut to heal.

 

“Just – back up,” Daisy says, toning down the intensity this time. “That thing you said about… you’ve ‘been here once before’? What is that supposed to mean?”

 

“It’s… a long story. And difficult to believe.”

 

“Well, it’s –” Daisy huffs. “It’s not like we don’t have the time?”

 

“I suppose,” Jon sighs. He’s already told this story to the tape recorder at length, but… the idea of telling it to another person, in his own words this time, feels both terrifying and cathartic at the same time. It’s just – difficult to talk about, no matter how many times he recaps it. “Where to begin… oh, I should probably preface this with ‘time travel is real.’”

 

Daisy sounds far too nonchalant when she says, “Okay.”

 

“O-okay? That’s… that’s it?”

 

“Sorry if it’s not the dramatic response you expected. Encounter enough – vampires, and people made of sawdust, and – and this, here, and… I don’t know that anything would surprise me anymore.”

 

“R-right,” Jon replies, still a bit incredulous. “Well, I’m – I’m from the future.” He pauses again, but she doesn’t interject. “And… and I came back to stop the apocalypse.”

 

His inflection pitches up into a near-question on the last word, certain that this will be the point at which Daisy calls bullshit. Instead, she just gives a dry chuckle.

 

“And how’s that going for you?”

 

“Well, uh, actually…” Jon’s laugh manages to sound slightly hysterical despite its brevity. “Being stuck here actually does – put it on hold indefinitely?”

 

“H-how’s that?”

 

“Because – because it can’t go forward without the Archivist.” He takes a shallow breath. “Just like the Stranger has the Unknowing, the Eye has its own Ritual. I was – I am a part of it. I – I didn’t want to, Elias – he orchestrated the whole thing, f-forced me to –” He nearly bites his tongue again when he cuts himself off. “But that – that doesn’t change anything,” he continues, almost viciously. “I’m the one who opened the door. It wouldn’t have happened if not for me, s-so it’s as good as my fault.”

 

“Don’t know about that,” Daisy says.

 

“What?”

 

“Don’t think I can see you making a choice to end the world, if you had any say. Doesn’t sound like you. You – Jon, you just went on about having choices taken away.” Jon is silent, teeth clenched; Daisy jostles his hand insistently. “So – so how’d it actually happen?”

 

“I, ah…” Why is this still so hard to talk about? “So you know how I – I… need the statements?”

 

“Yeah.”

 

“Well, I – it – my appetite only got worse as time went on. Started craving live statements, and – and hunted for them. The others intervened eventually, and I stopped, but I still needed – need – statements, or else I’d… starve, for lack of a better word. So I made do with the old statements like before, but they were – less and less filling as time went on, and – and I needed more of them, and more frequently, even though I tried to – to spread them out, ration myself. And, uh, some things happened, and Martin and I went into hiding – used your safehouse, actually –”

 

“Which one?”

 

“Scotland.”

 

“Ah,” Daisy says softly. “I like that one.”

 

“So did we,” Jon says, smiling fondly. “I – we only had a couple weeks, before… b-but the time we did have, it was…”

 

He clears his throat.

 

“An-anyway, I went – hungry, for a bit, until a box of statements could be sent to us. And the first one I read, it was – a trap, by J- Elias.” He can explain about Jonah Magnus later. If he takes that detour now, he’ll never get through the rest of this. “The heading looked – just like any other statement. Statement giver’s name, date – but as soon as I started reading, it was Elias’ words. It was a, uh, statement about – about me. About what I am. I’m not just the Archivist, Daisy, I’m the Archive.

 

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

 

“I – when I take or – or consume a statement, I, ah – experience it like I’m there, and it – it becomes a part of me. I’m like a – like a living record, a library of – of people’s worst fears, nightmares, moments that I have no right to witness, and – doesn’t matter. Elias needed a fully realized Archive for his ritual to work, so he – he created one, and he fed it a statement. And I – I tried to stop reading, but I couldn’t, even though I – I tried, I really did, I –” He laughs nervously. “Even tried to – to blind myself, but it just – healed. Then, at the end, there was an – an incantation. To open a door that could let all the Fears into the world. And when I read it… it did.”

 

“Wait – all of them?”

 

“Yes,” Jon says quietly. “Just before she died, Gertrude figured out that a ritual to bring one of the Fears into the world could never succeed on its own. The Powers can’t exist without minds to experience them, and our minds – they’re highly associative. The experience of fear is just… far more convoluted and subjective than any artificial taxonomy can capture. The Fears have overlap, and – and some of them are defined by their opposition to the others.

 

“A Vast ritual would collapse without the existence of the Buried, for instance. Or – the Stranger and the Spiral, they’re both tied to unreality, to not being able to trust your perceptions – which can feed into paranoia, which the Eye and the Web also thrive on. The Hunt and the Slaughter run together, and the Flesh can tag alongside. Both the Corruption and the Desolation are equally efficient and thorough in ravaging a home or a body or – or even the general concept of safety.

 

“Even here – we’re too far deep below creation for the Eye or the Hunt to reach us, but there’s still more than the Buried to fear. The Dark, for instance, or being Forsaken. Even the Vast can be found down here, if you start obsessing over your own insignificance in the grand scheme of the universe. The Powers are just – too interconnected, and their rituals never accounted for that.” 

 

“So the Unknowing…”

 

“Would have failed even without our intervention,” Jon says bitterly. “Same goes for all of the rituals that Gertrude stopped, and all the others that have been sabotaged throughout the centuries. All of that sacrifice, and for nothing. Michael Shelley, and Jan Kilbride, and – and Tim, and you ending up here –”

 

“Tim?”

 

“He… he died during the mission,” Jon says quietly. He hears a sharp intake of breath from Daisy.

 

“And Basira?”

 

“Alive. She got out before the explosion.” He can just barely make out Daisy’s sigh of relief. “She… she told me to tell you that she’s waiting for you.”

 

“Oh,” Daisy says softly. “I’m s-”

 

Before she can say more, the Buried begins to writhe around them again, this time closing in molasses-slow. They both instinctively tighten their handhold on one another. As horrid as the crushing force is, this time it at least has the decency to press them closer together. Daisy’s free hand tentatively brushes against Jon’s free wrist. Understanding the unspoken request, Jon interlocks their fingers, and they wait.

 

“S-so,” Daisy wheezes when the earth finally relaxes and settles again, “about – about the rituals?”

 

“R-right.” Jon coughs lightly, still catching his breath. “Well, ah, Elias found out about Gertrude’s theory. Came up with a – ritual that would bring all the Powers through at once, but with the Eye ruling over the rest. It required an Archivist – Archive – directly marked by all the Powers. Elias – chose me. Made sure I’d encounter each of them, and… when I was ready, he laid one last trap and waited for me to wander in, because he knew from experience that I would.”

 

And it could happen again, Jon’s brain helpfully supplies.

 

“Huh.”

 

“Yeah. S-so it probably goes without saying, but if you thought I wasn’t human before, I, ah…” He gives an exhausted, humorless chuckle. “I’m definitely not now.”

 

Daisy is silent for a long moment before saying: “I take it you – you didn’t come here the first time.”

 

Jon frowns, puzzled. That wasn’t the comment that he had been expecting.

 

“No, I did.”

 

“Then… how –”

 

“I told you, there’s a way out. I just – I just have to find it. Last time I found you, and we escaped together. We can do it again.” She doesn’t respond to that, and he kneads the tops of her hands with his thumbs. “Daisy?”

 

“You’ve been here once before, and you escaped, and… and you came back?” She says it in such a small voice, it almost doesn’t even sound like her. “After – after seeing what it’s like, you still came back for me?”

 

“Yes…?”

 

“Why?” she whispers. “Why do that for me? I – I had a knife to your throat, I would’ve killed you if Basira hadn’t found us first, I saw the fear in your eyes and I enjoyed it – and you knew that I’d still planned on killing you the moment I got a chance, so – so why?”

 

“We’re –” Jon stops himself, rephrases. “In my future, we became friends.”

 

“What?”

 

“W-well, we – we were both Avatars trying to resist our darker natures. We went through this together. We just – we had a lot in common.”

 

Daisy offers no comment.

 

“I… don’t know what I would have done without you, honestly,” Jon continues, jiggling one foot nervously as best he can in the confined space. “You were… you were the only one I had, most days. The only one who knew what it was like, having the hunger consume you because you refuse to feed it. And – and you had Basira, but she… there were things she didn’t fully understand, couldn’t relate to. So you would come to me. We, uh… we helped each other. Trusted each other.” He adds, a bit timidly: “I… I’ve missed you.”

 

Still, Daisy says nothing. Jon is about to start rambling again – about what, he doesn’t know; he just needs to fill the awkward silence somehow – but Daisy speaks first.

 

“But – but what about before all that? Why did you come down here the first time around?”

 

“I was… in a bad place,” Jon admits. “Tim was dead, Sasha was dead, Melanie hated me and wished me dead, Basira saw me as a monster, Georgie wanted nothing to do with me, and Martin was… gone. I had no one, I wasn’t human anymore, I was afraid and ashamed and guilty and tired, and I… I was starting to doubt my decision to live. Not wanting to die had started to feel selfish, and I – I needed some way to justify living, some way to make myself useful.

 

“When we found out that you were alive, I – I just didn’t want to lose anyone else. If there was a chance of bringing you home, I had to try. And… there was nothing to lose. If I got stuck down here, it – it would be no great loss. The world would have even been safer for it – moreso than I even imagined at the time. I… honestly didn’t think that anyone would care if I didn’t come back.”

 

“That’s messed up,” Daisy says, a hint of wry amusement in her voice.

 

“Yeah,” Jon says with a self-deprecating laugh. “That’s what you said last time. Like I said, I was in a bad place. But – but in the end, we got out. I know I can get us out of here again. I promised Basira I would bring you home, and I – I – I will. I just… I need some time to find the way.”

 

“No pressure,” she deadpans.

 

Jon makes a strangled, exasperated noise in his throat.

 

“Seriously?”  

 

If he could gesture at the tons of dirt pressing down on them, he would – but he can’t, because of the tons of dirt pressing down on them.

 

“Just trying to lighten the mood,” Daisy says, just the slightest hint of a self-satisfied smirk in her voice. Jon feels one corner of his mouth quirk in spite of himself.

 

God, he really had missed her.  

 


 

The concept of time has no meaning within the Buried. Without any real way to observe or calculate its passing, things tend to feel stagnant. One long note of boredom and desperation and restriction. If not for the unpredictable tides of the soil around them, it might even feel as if time is at a standstill. In a way, it is: there is only one time here, and it is forever – or until the End of everything, at least. To make things worse, true sleep is impossible in the Buried. Sometimes, though, there is a lull in the movements of the earth, and within that liminal space, the mind may be allowed to drift.

 

Jon isn’t sure how long he’s been drifting when Daisy tugs on his hand.

 

“Jon.”

 

“Hm?”

 

“You’re muttering again.”

 

“Oh.” Jon clears his throat when he realizes how groggy he sounds. “Was I?”

 

“Care to share?”

 

“I’m just – I keep thinking about how Basira escaped the Unknowing,” he says, rousing himself. Out of habit, he tries to stretch, only to remember that he can barely move at all – which, of course, only intensifies the urge to fidget.

 

“Oh?” Daisy shakes both his hands in hers, prompting him to continue. Judging by the waver in her voice, the silence must be getting to her again. “How – how’s that?”

 

“She… thought her way out. Like a – an ‘I think therefore I am’ thought experiment.” Jon smiles to himself and shakes his head slightly. “She put Descartes to shame.”

 

“Not even a fair comparison,” Daisy scoffs.

 

“Agreed.”

 

“Were you thinking of trying that here?”

 

“I… don’t think it would work.”

 

“Yeah, I guess you’re not that level-headed.”

 

“That’s –” Jon’s indignation fizzles out just as quickly as it emerged. “That’s… okay, yes, that’s fair.”

 

Daisy snickers; Jon can’t help a small grin in return.

 

“But what I was actually trying to say is that it was a strategy uniquely tailored to the Stranger. The Unknowing was all about – unreality, about not being able to trust your senses, even your own identity. Basira figured out that the best way to anchor herself in that situation was to boil her entire reality down to simple logical premises: She existed. She existed in a place and time. The place was dangerous at that time, so she had to not exist in that place at that time. Places have ends, and if she kept moving, she could reach a different place, and exist there instead.”

 

“Huh.”

 

“Straightforward. Elegant, even.”

 

“It’s Basira,” Daisy says, unmistakable fondness creeping into her tone. Jon snorts. “Shut up, Sims. You were saying?”

 

“The Buried doesn’t operate in the same way. Basira reasoned her way out of the Stranger’s domain by denying unreality. If we tried to do the same thing, we’d just be denying… well, reality. The earth, the pressure, the – the ‘too close I cannot breathe,’ it’s all real.”

 

“Good pep talk.”

 

“Sorry, that’s not what I –” Jon sighs. “I didn’t mean to sound… morose. I was just thinking about different kinds of anchors. Basira managed to center herself and use her own mind as an anchor, and I – I find that impressive, is all.”

 

“That’s one way to describe her,” Daisy says. “She’s… always been like that. Practical, reliable… centered.”

 

Wait, Jon thinks to himself, brow furrowed. What if…

 

“Daisy, tell me about Basira.”

 

“What?”

 

“I – she’s your anchor, right? And – and you’re hers.”

 

“I don’t know about –”

 

“She called you solid, a – a – a fixed point,” Jon says excitedly. “When you’re there, things make sense to her. You ground her. And now, without you, she’s… she has trouble knowing where she stands. She has no backup, no one to orient her. What she did during the Unknowing – it was impressive, but it isn’t sustainable over a long period of time. You can only go it alone for so long before you lose your bearings. She – she needs you. And you need her. Right?”

 

She’s the fixed point,” Daisy murmurs, as if that explains everything – and maybe it does.

 

“Exactly, s-so – tell me about Basira. From your perspective.”

 

“Why?”

 

“Because this is the Buried, where we’re at the center and everything is weighing down on us,” Jon says, mind racing five steps ahead of him. “The dirt, the pressure, it’s all real, but – but the Fears are also about state of mind.”

 

Jon can feel his heart rate pick up, the way it does whenever he’s talking his way through a puzzle. If he could, he would be pacing right now, burning off that restless energy. Instead, he finds himself tapping his fingers rapidly against Daisy’s hands. She doesn’t stop him, though.

 

“I’m not saying that we can solve this with ‘mind over matter’ thinking, but it might – help, if we can both focus on an anchor – a different center point, that is, one outside of this place. Move from this center to that center. There’s a better chance of figuring out which way is up if we’re both feeling for the way out. We can orient each other. If we both feel a tug from the same direction, we know we’re going the right way.”

 

“I can’t feel anything, though,” Daisy says. “Or – I can, but it’s – it’s everywhere, pushing in one direction – pushing down –”

 

Jon grips her hands more tightly when he hears her breathing start to grow ragged.

 

“That’s why you need to tell me about Basira – until you do feel a pull. I could be way off, but it’s worth a try. And – and if nothing else, it might help clear my mind, so I can give finding the way out another shot.”

 

“A statement, then?” Daisy asks sardonically. “Recharge your battery?”

 

“I wish,” Jon says with a grim smile. “The Eye only likes horror stories. If any story would sate my appetite, I could just watch biopics any time I was feeling a bit peaky. Hell, imagine if a fictional story was enough. An episode of The Archers would be like an afternoon snack.”

 

“You like The Archers?” He doesn’t have to see her to know that her eyebrows are raised as high as they’ll go.

 

“You know, I said the exact same thing to you once. And no, I don’t, but you do, and you used to make me listen with you. We didn’t even make a dent in the back catalogue, but I’m an Avatar of terrible knowledge and the Beholding loves spoilers, so guess who Knows every episode now?” Daisy barks a laugh at that. “There are over nineteen thousand episodes, Daisy!”

 

“That sounds like a you problem.”

 

“Anyway,” Jon says, squeezing both of her hands in lieu of nudging her shoulder, “a story just… helps take me out of my own head sometimes. Always has. You’re humoring me, not the Eye. Besides, do you have anything better to do?”

 

“S’pose not.”

 

“I mean – you don’t have to, of course, if you’re uncomfortable. I don’t want to pressure you –” Jon cringes. “Bad choice of words. I –”

 

“Stop babbling, Sims.” He knows that tone of voice, knows that she’s rolling her eyes right now. “We only have so long before the walls close in again –”

 

Daisy cuts herself off with a strangled noise, which she tries to cover by clearing her throat. She was likely trying to lighten the mood again, but the inevitability of the Buried’s ebb and flow is still too real, too close.

 

“Do you, uh… do you want to hear a story or not?”

 

“Please.”  

 


 

“Back again?”

 

Martin jolts at the sound of Georgie’s voice. He tosses a brief glare over his shoulder at her where she stands just outside the doorway to the office, a safe distance from the Coffin. Martin discovered quickly that the Coffin’s compulsion has no impact on him, likely muffled by his allegiance to the Lonely. Georgie, though, has no such protection.

 

Coincidentally, it also means that as long as Martin keeps close to the Coffin, Georgie has to keep her distance from him as well. 

 

“It’s been a week,” Martin says in a quiet monotone, tearing his gaze away from her.

 

“Yeah.”

 

“He should have been back by now.”

 

“Well, he didn’t really give a timeframe –”

 

“But you said he implied that it wouldn’t take more than a week,” Martin says impatiently. “And knowing Jon, he exaggerated how long it would take, just so no one would worry if he was late.”

 

“I… yeah, I know,” Georgie sighs. “I was expecting him to be back by now, too.”

 

Martin nods in a clear ‘I told you so’ gesture – then immediately feels childish. Why is he acting vindicated by her admission?

 

“Does Peter know you’ve been coming down here?”  

 

“Don’t care.”

 

“Oh?” Georgie says, her voice suspiciously bland – and only then does Martin register the significance of what he just said.

 

“I just meant – it’s –” Martin huffs. “It’s none of your business.”

 

“Of course.” Martin can hear the smirk in her tone.

 

“Why are you here?” he snaps, swiveling to look at her again.

 

“Same reason you are, I expect.”

 

Martin says nothing to that, simply turns his back on her. For a few minutes, the only sound is the low, indistinct chatter of the tape recorders, still spooling out their horror stories on a loop.

 

“Have you tried calling to him?” Georgie asks. Martin continues to ignore her, teeth clenched until they ache. “It could be worth a shot. He left all those tapes running – don’t know if he can hear them exactly, but they’re meant to call to him.”

 

Go away, Martin thinks, his hands curling into fists on his knees.

 

“Your voice might be better than a recording.”

 

Why is she so persistent?

 

“Just – think about it, okay?”

 

When Martin doesn’t respond, Georgie sighs, knocks twice on the door frame, and takes her leave. He doesn’t look back around until the sound of her footsteps fade away.

 

“Sure, just leave the door wide open,” he grumbles irritably, rising to his feet to remedy the issue.

 

He pulls the office door shut with more force than intended, practically slamming it. The lone tape recorder on Jon’s desk, previously standing on end, topples over with a light clatter. Martin exhales heavily and pinches the bridge of his nose, trying to suppress the static buzz of nervous energy simmering inside him.

 

“But we need you, Jon,” the tape recorder grinds out. “Jon, please, just – please.”

 

“Fuck,” Martin says, voice thick and strained. He takes several deep breaths – in through his nose, out through his mouth – trying to clear his thoughts. Eventually, his shoulders slump and he sighs. “Fine. You win.”

 

He settles himself on the floor in front of the Coffin again, closer this time. 

 

“Jon,” he says, then falters, unsure of what to say. “I –” He lets out an agitated breath, then follows it up with a bitter chuckle. “This is stupid. You probably can’t even hear this, can you?”

 

There is an uncomfortable, stinging pressure in his eyes and he reflexively tries to swallow back the tears, only to realize how dry his mouth has become. He rubs his eyes instead, digging the heels of his palms into the sockets and applying pressure.

 

“I – if you – if you can hear me, I… I already lost you once. I can’t do this all over again, I just – I can’t. I’m – everyone is waiting for you, and I still…” Martin sniffles and clears his throat. “Just – come home, Jon. Please.”

 


 

“I think I’d forgotten what it was like to just be… present in the moment? A – a quiet moment, anyway.” Daisy sighs. “On a hunt, you always have to think a few steps ahead, anticipate the prey’s movements so you can get out in front of it. Even when you’re present-thinking, like during a fight, it’s – it’s instinct and reflex, quick movements and jagged edges. You can never just… be.

 

“I think I understand,” Jon says. “Not the Hunt aspect, but – but the intolerance of stillness, and fixating so intently on the thing you seek that nothing else registers.”

 

Like solving a mystery at any cost; like seeing the shape of a statement and losing sight of everything else; like needing to Know, even if it means drowning.

 

“Yeah,” Daisy says. “It's like… tunnel vision, sort of. All that matters is the chase, the catch, the kill. Everything else is secondary. But that day, that moment – laying back in the grass, Basira going on about the stars – I was… I was so focused on her that it was almost like tunnel vision, except it wasn't the Hunt's doing. It was just me. She gets so excited, so animated whenever she has a chance to talk about something new she’s learned, and I – I let her go on for” – Daisy laughs – “going on forty minutes, probably, about – about the Wow! signal before she looked over and saw me staring. Got all embarrassed that I let her talk so long.”

 

Jon can feel himself grinning.

 

“In her defense, the Wow! signal is a fascinating topic.”

 

“I thought so,” Daisy says warmly. “I mean, I must’ve, right? The whole time she was talking, I never felt the blood calling to me. Afterwards, it felt wrong, somehow – unnatural – that I’d been ignoring it. Not even resisting it, just – tuning it out altogether. I didn’t notice until then how loud it was – like for my whole life there had been teeth at my throat and I just never noticed until that moment.” She pauses. “It’s strange, but I – I think I liked it. The quiet.”

 

“I don’t think it’s strange at all,” Jon says softly. “I think –”

 

Suddenly, there’s a distinct wrenching sensation within him – like having a hook yank upwards, painless but abrupt enough to make his breath catch in his throat.  

 

“Jon?” Daisy says warily. “What’s wrong?”

 

There’s something there.

 

“Do – do you feel that?”

 

“No? What – what is it?”

 

“It’s – wait, just let me…”

 

Jon concentrates, holding his breath as he waits, and –

 

There. Another pull, like a fish tugging at a line. And another, gentler but just as insistent.

 

“Daisy, I –” Jon lets out a breathless little laugh. “I think I know the way. C-come on, follow me.”

Chapter Text

Much like the ebb and flow of the Buried, that sensation of being pulled vacillates. A few times now, it’s disappeared almost entirely, leaving Jon disorientated and suddenly doubting whether he’s headed in the right direction despite being certain only moments before. It always comes back before long, but each time it’s happened, he’s had to pause to fight down the knee-jerk influx of panic.

 

Right this moment, he’s stopped – both because that sensation is dwindling again and because he’s simply winded. They’ve been in a particularly tight squeeze for quite some time now, and he’s aching and exhausted from the struggle.

 

“Jon?” Daisy prompts, panting even more heavily than he is. Nearly eight months of muscular atrophy and restricted lung capacity haven’t done any favors for her stamina. “A-are you okay?”

 

“Yeah. Just – just taking a break. Getting my bearings.”

 

“Anchor f-fading again?” He has a feeling she was aiming for casual, but the trepidation creeps into her voice anyway.

 

“Yes. But don’t worry, I’ll find it again. I just need to catch my breath.”

 

Daisy laughs. It comes out as some combination of a wheeze and a whimper.

 

“I d-don’t think I’ve been able to catch my breath in… I – I don’t know how long.”

 

“You will soon,” he promises, rubbing circles on the back of her hand with his thumb.

 

“I – I c-can barely remember what that’s like. F-feels like I’ll never know it again –”

 

“I know,” Jon says gently, “I know. I – I know it’s worse for you – you’ve been here longer – but I do remember that feeling. I promise I’ll get us out of here.”

 

“And – and then what?” she says in a near-whisper. “The Hunt, it – it’s going to come back, isn’t it?”

 

“Yes. I’m sorry. But – you’ll still be you, and I’ll still be me, and we’ll – we’ll both fight to keep it that way.”

 

“I – I never thought about it, b-but – I’m prey too, aren’t I?” Daisy makes a noise that straddles the line somewhere between a laugh and a sob. “It – it’ll always chase me down, and it’s – stronger, f-faster –”

 

“Maybe, but I think you might be more stubborn.” Daisy gives a weak chuckle. “We all are, aren’t we?” Jon continues, emboldened by her reaction and intent on distracting her from her burgeoning panic. “Wonder if it’s somewhere in the job requirements: must be stubborn, curious, and preternaturally unlucky.”

 

This time, Daisy actually does laugh – clipped and wet with barely-contained tears, but a laugh all the same. For a minute she’s quiet, before sniffling once and clearing her throat.

 

“Can you tell me what happened last time? Did I – was I able to…”

 

“You fought it, yes,” Jon says slowly. “The call of the blood was always in the background. Distractions helped to take the edge off, sometimes. You spent most of your time with Basira. You and I spent a lot of time together, too. Tried to listen to the quiet. Both of us.”

 

“It sounds like there’s a ‘but.’”

 

“There is,” he admits.

 

“It caught up to me,” Daisy guesses, sounding resigned.

 

“It did. But… you refused it right up until the point where it was your last resort. The Institute was under attack, and Martin was in danger, and you and Basira stayed behind to deal with the threat to buy me time enough to find him. A pair of Hunters cornered you. Basira couldn't take them both, and you… you were too weakened from resisting the Hunt to stand a chance against either of them. You let the Hunt back in because it was the only way you could protect Basira. You made her promise to find you and kill you when it was over, and you told her to run.”

 

“Do you – do you think if not for that, I would have kept resisting? Or was I just – using that as an excuse to give in?”

 

“I don’t know,” Jon says truthfully. He hesitates, attempting to balance honesty with tact. “You were wasting away. We all thought that refusing to feed the Hunt might kill you eventually. But whenever the subject came up, you said you were willing to die rather than let it back in. You were – adamant. And I… think you would have followed through on it. Resisting, I mean. Even if it meant dying.”

 

“I see,” Daisy murmurs.

 

“Actually, it’s – probably morbid to say, but I envied your resolve. You didn’t want to be a predator again. You thought death was preferable to being lost to the blood. Right up until the end.” He shakes his head. “But – but maybe we can find a – a different way. Me coming back has already changed some things that I thought were inevitable. Just – don’t give up hope?”

 

Daisy makes a noise of acknowledgement, but Jon can’t glean anything else from it.

 

“I know it sounds bleak,” he concedes, “and – and maybe it is. But for what it’s worth, I’ll be right there with you. I’m not taking live statements this time around, and it – has similar effects on me that refusing the Hunt does for you. Reading old statements takes the edge off, sometimes, but based on past experience, it… won’t be sustainable, and I’ll – have to cross that bridge when I get to it, I suppose. It’s not exactly the same, obviously – our patrons operate in different ways – but it did… help, last time, having someone nearby who knew what it was like.”

 

“You… know things now, right?”

 

“It’s… complicated. There are a lot of constraints and” – he huffs – “I don’t have nearly as much control over it as everyone wishes I did, but… yes.”

 

“Any educated guesses on our chances?”

 

“None,” Jon says with a grim half-smile. “The Beholding tends to be uncooperative when it comes to concepts like escape and recovery. I won’t lie – marks don’t fade, and as far as I can tell, once someone is fully beholden to one of the Powers, there’s no undoing it. You embrace it, or you wither away. You feed it, or it feeds on you.”

 

“Sounds about right.”

 

“But,” Jon says emphatically, “you should also know that no one had ever escaped the Buried before we did. And we’re about to do it again. So… who knows. Maybe there’s a third option and we just haven’t found it yet. I can’t promise there’s another way, but if there is… we’ll find it.”

 

“Or die trying?” Daisy replies, a wry edge to her tone now.

 

“Suppose so. But not without making a nuisance of ourselves first. I still don’t Know if the Fears are sentient, but on the off chance they are, I find that spite is a decent motivator.”

 

“Naturally.” Daisy snorts. “I wonder what annoys the Hunt?”

 

“Don’t know. Fraternizing with someone who was marked as prey, maybe. You told me once that on bad days, my blood was the loudest thing in the Archives. We theorized the Hunt wasn’t too keen on you letting me go.”

 

“You… weren’t afraid I’d turn on you?” Daisy asks, the question steeped in disbelief.

 

“No.”

 

“Is that because you were suicidal, or because you honestly thought I wouldn’t kill you?”

 

“I wasn’t –” Jon sighs. “My mental state aside, I trusted you. You were as stubborn as I was. Maybe more. Even if we weren’t friends, I imagine you’d have snubbed the Hunt anyway, just on principle.”

 

Before Daisy can reply, the earth around them begins to shake again, soil coming loose and raining down on them from above. They both hold their breath, waiting for the impending crush – but it doesn’t come, and after a few seconds, they exhale simultaneously. Jon’s comes out as something of a cough, jolted out of him by the now-familiar sensation of an insistent upward pull.

 

“Anchor’s back,” he gasps out. “Ready to move?”

 


 

As they move forward – up, Jon assures himself, we’re making progress – the perpetual squeeze begins to open up into a narrow passageway. Sometimes they need to dig to bypass blockages and widen their tunnel, but the closer they draw to the surface, the hard-packed earth gradually gives way to looser soil.

 

Between one moment and the next, Jon’s fingertips – already raw and sticky with blood from burrowing through the debris – scrape against something much harder and rougher than packed earth. Solid rock, hidden by a few inches of soil. He hisses as he feels another layer of skin peel away on contact with the abrasive texture, but he brightens at the memory of the stone steps and walls at the entrance to the Buried.

 

“We’re getting close, Daisy,” he says excitedly, tugging on her hand. “We’re almost there –”

 

The Buried compresses in a blink, crushing them up against one another.

 

“Shit,” Jon hisses. “Shouldn’t’ve said anything.”

 

“Jon?” Daisy's voice pitches higher than usual, shot through with barely concealed panic.

 

“It’s okay, Daisy. This happened the last time, too. Just” – the earth contracts further, forcing a whine out of him – “wringing one last bit of t-terror out of us before we leave.”

 

“Th-that’s – greedy of it,” she rasps with a nervous chuckle.

 

“I find that – a-all the Powers tend to be – like that. Needy, spiteful things, all – all of them.”

 

So do their Avatars, for that matter. Jon thinks of how Helen couldn’t resist frightening him one last time before parting ways at Hill Top Road; of how Jude Perry knew she was going to die and chose to spend her last moments pulling him down to her level; of how Manuela Dominguez knew she had failed, but still wanted to take someone out with her; of how Peter Lukas couldn’t lose a bet gracefully, how he dragged Martin into the Lonely and tried to trap Jon there as well; of how Jonah wasn’t content to just have Jon read out his ritual, how he just had to hijack Jon’s voice to monologue first.

 

And Jon himself isn’t all that different, is he? Didn’t he force himself to confront Jonah in the Panopticon, even though he knew it would have no material impact on anything? Doesn’t he regularly provoke the Eye with small acts of rebellion? How many times has he mouthed off to an assailant threatening his life? He just said it himself: spite can be a decent motivator. Failing that, sometimes it just feels gratifying.

 

“It’ll – let up,” Jon says, for himself as much as Daisy. “J-just – give it a minute.”

 

As if to be contrary, it actually takes several minutes before the pressure starts to withdraw. Slowly, so very slowly, the collapsed tunnel begins to expand again, releasing another downpour of dirt in the process. The passage is still tight and they have to squirm through in small increments, but after some of the squeezes they passed through on their way, even a few extra centimeters of wiggle room feels like a luxury.

 

That said, Daisy’s breathing is increasingly labored, punctuated by soft whimpers.

 

“You doing alright, Daisy?”

 

“Y-yeah, ‘m fine.” Her breath catches and comes out as a pained groan. “Chest hurts,” she says brusquely, before Jon can express concern.

 

“Your lungs aren’t accustomed to having this much room to expand,” he replies, striving for a bland tone.

 

“W-well, they’ll just h-have to – get used to it.”

 

“They will, but – take it slow? Last time, you had a fair amount of bruising. A few cracked ribs as well. We both did.”

 

In fact, he thinks they might just be the exact same ribs he injured last time, if the pain is anything to go by.

 

“Listen,” he says, “I – I think we’re coming up on the exit soon.”

 

Soon soon?”

 

“Fairly certain, yes. Before we leave, I should tell you – Elias doesn’t know that I’m from the future; doesn’t know how much we know. I’d prefer to keep it that way as long as possible. He can’t See us while we’re in here, but as soon as we’re out – the only safe place is the tunnels, like before.”

 

“Got it.”

 

“And also, I…” Not much for it, he tells himself. Make your peace with it now. “I might lose my voice again as soon as we’re out. Maybe – maybe even before then.”

 

“Again?”

 

“I – I mean, I’ll be able to talk, just – not in my own words.” Jon tries to wet his lips and immediately regrets it, succeeding only in drawing more dirt into his mouth. He grimaces and sputters a bit, to no avail.

 

“Jon?”

 

“Y-yeah, sorry. I, ah – remember what I said, about – about the Archive? I’ve – outside of here, I’ve only been able to speak using the statements in my… library, I suppose.”

 

He says the last part with distaste, all but spitting the words out as if they’re poison.

 

“Huh.”

 

“It started partway through the apocalypse, and it followed me when I came back. Being in the Buried’s domain has cut me off from the Archive for now, but once the Eye can reach me again, I – there’s a chance it’ll take over again.” He sighs. “More than a chance, it’s – probably more of a certainty. I just wanted to let you know now, I – I’m still me, it’s just – the Archive puts limits on how I communicate, and it can be – off-putting. And annoying. And… abhorrent.”

 

“Abhorrent?”

 

“I mean… appropriating other people’s trauma any time I want to speak? It’s…”

 

There’s no succinct way to capture just how – how perverse it is, exploiting the words of the people who lived through the horrors retold in the statements. Some of them, Jon himself victimized. More than some, if he considers the billions he condemned in his future. Claiming their terror for his own use doesn’t feel all that different from actually taking statements: dehumanizing, objectifying, degrading. It’s all on the same ghoulish spectrum of monstrosity, just… slightly different shades of wrong.

 

All he says aloud, though, is the last part: “It’s wrong.”

 

And yet, you do it anyway, he thinks, disgusted with himself.

 

“Like going from one hell to another, isn’t it?” Daisy says after a pause. “Getting out of here, only for the Eye and – and the Hunt to be waiting on the other side.”

 

“Yeah. As much as I want to get out of here, I’m… not looking forward going back to – that.” Jon sighs, then rallies himself. “But fresh air and a drink of water do sound nice, don’t they?”

 

“And a bath,” Daisy says, as if it’s the most beautiful word in the world. Jon laughs quietly.

 

“The Institute only has the one shower, I’m afraid. No tub, terrible water pressure, occasionally –”

 

“– occasionally runs cold without warning mid-shower,” Daisy finishes, an audible grin in her tone. “I recall. You won’t hear me complaining, though.”

 

“Nor me. Not for the next couple weeks, anyway.”

 

“Mm. Yeah, I’m sure you’ll hear me swearing up a storm at four in the morning about water temperature at some point.”

 

“Assuming that trivial detail hasn’t changed since I was last here, yes, I will,” Jon says with an amused huff. He readjusts his grip on her hand and tugs gently. “Come on, we’re getting closer.”

 


 

Martin sits in his office, head in his hands and the heels of his palms pressed to his eyes.

 

Eight days. It’s been eight days since Jon went into the Coffin. There have been no signs of when – if – he’ll return, and there’s nothing Martin can do to reach him.

 

Stupid, he thinks fiercely, to think that sitting there and talking to a – a box of dirt would do anything.

 

Keeping vigil at Jon’s bedside at the hospital for months had done nothing to bring him back. Why would this be any different? When Martin’s predictions panned out, he felt almost vindicated that he was right – comforted by the confirmation that he is still all alone in the world; relieved by the reassurance that nothing will disturb his solitude after all.

 

There’s a part of him that still has the decency to feel ashamed at that impulse, but it’s small and distant and shrinking by the day. And yet… it’s still there, withered though it may be: a sentimental sliver of attachment that stubbornly refuses to die, both to his dismay and – to a lesser but nonetheless undeniable extent – his relief. No matter how pessimistic his outlook has become these days, he had still hoped against all the odds that reaching out to Jon would have some sort of effect.

 

It didn’t. Of course it didn’t. That sort of hopeless romanticism is for fairytales. Sure, given the existence of extradimensional fear entities, it isn’t inconceivable that some sort of… long distance psychic bond, or link, or – or whatever could exist. But Martin has yet to see any evidence pointing to the existence of powers like hope and love to balance out the existence of Smirke’s Fourteen.

 

That admission alone is enough to whittle away at that stubborn sentimentality just a little further.

 

And that’s for the best, he tells himself.

 

He can feel a bitter smile flicker at the corner of his mouth. The Lonely’s really got its hold on him, hasn’t it?

 

But no matter how well-suited he is to the Lonely, no matter how resigned he is to the idea that he’s destined to be alone, and that that’s exactly as it should be… Martin still cares for Jon. His emotions feel dulled most days, as if they’re happening to someone else, but the act of caring… he doesn’t have to feel in order to go through the motions. It takes effort and thought, certainly, but the impulse is second nature.

 

Peter tells him that he’ll be free of it before long. Martin doesn’t know how he feels about that. Nothing, usually, or something adjacent to it.

 

Apparently he hadn’t cauterized his feelings as much as he’d thought, though. For the past week, the sense of detachment he’s built up over months of practice and resignation and goal-oriented focus has been interrupted. The calm and quiet that have become so comfortable to him have been punctuated by windows of raw, wild emotion and sensory overload and sharp, racing thoughts, and it’s too much – especially all at once – after months of fog and cold and single-minded resolve.

 

He still doesn’t know what he feels, but it’s something rather than nothing, and it hurts.

 

“Brooding, are we?” comes a voice from right behind Martin, sending an icy chill through him.

 

“Peter!” Martin nearly snarls, glaring over his shoulder at him. “I told you to stop doing that –”

 

“So, Martin,” Peter continues, smoothly overriding Martin’s complaints, “I can’t help but notice you’ve been quite… distracted recently.”

 

Martin looks away, clenches his teeth, and says nothing.

 

“Oh, I’m not upset, Martin. I’m simply curious to know where we stand. To gauge the magnitude of this… little setback.”

 

“Setback?” Martin whips back around, incensed. “You really think I care about – about my progress right now?”

 

“Judging by your tone, I imagine not.” Peter smiles, that customary aloof smirk that doesn’t reach his eyes. “Not very reassuring, but I thank you for your honesty. It shows that we do still have our work cut out for us.”

 

Martin should keep his composure. He should keep his mouth shut. He should feign indifference and continue playing the long game to which he’s committed himself, but he can feel his heart hammering in his chest and he can hear his blood rushing in his ears and all the words he cannot – should not – has to say are brimming in his throat and –

 

“I don’t care, Peter.” Martin almost doesn’t recognize his own voice when the outburst claws its way out. “You promised –

 

“That I would protect your coworkers from external threats,” Peter says mildly.

 

“You don’t think one of the Circus’s monsters just – waltzing unnoticed into the Archives hauling a bloody gateway to the – the literal manifestation of claustrophobia counts as an external threat –”

 

“By the time the intruder’s presence came to my attention, it had already been dealt with. Quite handily, in fact. As for the Coffin itself, our agreement did not extend to saving a self-destructive Archivist from his own foolhardiness. There’s only so much that I can do.”

 

“Then apparently I need to pick up your slack.”

 

Once again, Peter ignores him and steers the conversation to his liking.

 

“I will say, I was pleased to see that the Coffin’s song has no effect on you. It shows that your connection to the Forsaken is still intact.” Peter begins to pace slowly, hands folded behind his back. “I am interested to know why you’ve been spending so much time so close to it in the first place. Why you were… speaking to it.”

 

Martin huffs irritably. “I thought it might help.”

 

“I wonder where you got that idea.” When Martin doesn’t reply, Peter stops his pacing and sighs. “I don’t mean to be invasive” – Martin snorts derisively; Peter continues without pause – “but I notice you’ve spoken to that – woman quite a few times.”

 

“She’s no one,” Martin says hurriedly, hoping that Peter doesn’t notice his momentary nervous flinch.

 

“Is that so?” Peter gives a contemplative hum. “If she’s trespassing on Institute property and interfering with day-to-day operations, perhaps I should have her… removed.”

 

All at once, the world around Martin rushes into focus: clearer, sharper, brighter, louder, more real – every sensation more immediate, every thought more acute. He feels his spine go rigid as he sits up straight and locks eyes with Peter.

 

“Peter,” he says, balanced on a razor’s edge between firm and furious, “we talked about that. You agreed to let me handle –”

 

“Workplace disputes and employee conduct,” Peter says. “Not interlopers.”

 

‘Interlopers’? Really, Peter?

 

“Here I thought you might be glad to have someone like her around,” Martin says, forcing calm back into his voice. “Give me some practice pushing people away.”

 

“Perhaps. But if she’s posing a distraction in the workplace –”

 

“Like the Archives aren’t a distraction all on their own,” Martin seethes, his impassivity quickly teetering into agitation again, “what with the – the spooky murder tunnels, and monster attacks, and surprise coffin deliveries, and the watching –”

 

“You know what I meant. If she’s distracting you from your work –”

 

“When have I ever left any administrative tasks unfinished, hmm?”

 

“Martin.”

 

“Yes?” Martin says, meeting Peter’s eyes with a level stare. There’s a muscle twitching almost imperceptibly in the other man’s jaw. It’s not easy to provoke that sort of response from Peter, and Martin would be lying to himself if he said he didn’t feel just a bit gratified.

 

Peter takes a breath. When he speaks again, he’s regained his usual mild manner – but Martin can still detect just a hint of tension underneath.

 

“As I have told you before, you are the only one who can do this. The plan –”

 

“Which you have yet to explain –”

 

“– requires a servant of the Eye, imbued with the power of the Lonely. And the cultivation of that power depends on your voluntary isolation. I can’t force you to cooperate, Martin. I can only remind you of the consequences should the Extinction emerge – and if it emerges because you choose not to act, then, well…” Peter shrugs. “You can’t keep anyone safe from that sort of power, and that includes the Archivist.”

 

“You still haven’t convinced me that your theories about the Extinction are true.”

 

If anything, Martin is less convinced than ever. Jon didn’t exactly elaborate on what he knows, but he seems certain that the Extinction isn’t a threat. If that’s the case, the only other reason for Martin to cooperate with Peter is to keep Jon safe – or, barring that, to at least keep Peter away from him. And if Jon is gone, then… what’s the point of any of this?

 

Peter takes a step closer and slides a folder onto Martin’s desk. Judging by how thin it is, Martin doubts there’s much follow-up or supplementary material within.

 

“Then you’d best get reading,” Peter says amiably, backing away again.

 

“Peter,” Martin says, stopping him before he can take his leave.

 

“Hm?”

 

“If she disappears,” he continues, mirroring Peter’s faux-pleasant tone, “you can count on my non-cooperation going forward.”

 

“Come now, Martin. We both know you wouldn’t allow the Extinction to emerge over a single life.”

 

Martin lifts his chin defiantly and gives Peter a hard look.

 

“I’d do it for Jon.”

 

“And he’s gone.” There is an almost hungry glint in Peter’s pale eyes. The temperature plummets a few degrees as thin tendrils of fog begin to unfurl from around his feet. “You’re alone.”

 

“Exactly.” Peter’s smug expression wavers at Martin’s non-reaction. “You’re a gambler. Shouldn’t you recognize when you’ve shown your hand?” Martin shakes his head with a thin, humorless smile. The mist creeps closer: wispy eddies and grasping coils stretching across the floor to pool at his feet. “If Jon’s gone, you’ve lost your best bargaining chip. I’ve nothing left to lose. At this point, you really should be thankful for whatever leverage you can find.”

 

“You’re bluffing.”

 

“Try me.”

 

Peter simply chuckles, but Martin can detect the faint uncertainty laced through it.

 

“I mean it. If my work performance is unsatisfactory, just feed me to your patron now if you can’t resist. Seems a waste to do it before you’ve gotten what you need from me, but it makes no difference to me; I’m Forsaken either way.” Martin leans back in his chair with an air of nonchalance. “The only one who stands to lose anything is you.”

 

“And the entire world, should the Extinction evolve unchecked.”

 

“In that case, let her – let everyone connected with the Archives be. And don’t disappear any more staff, either.” Almost as an afterthought, he adds: “Or statement givers.”

 

There is a long silence in which Martin stares into Peter’s eyes, willing himself not to blink or falter. Eventually, the fog recedes and Peter’s fake, plastered-on smile reappears.

 

“Well, I think I’ve kept you from your work long enough.” Peter nods at the statement folder. “I’ll leave you to it.”

 

The moment the telltale static of Peter’s departure fades, Martin lets out a heavy exhale and rests his head in his arms on his desk. Every encounter with Peter tends to leave him feeling drained, but that one was more intense than usual.

 

“Prick,” Martin mutters to the empty office.

 

It takes a few minutes for him to register the low whirring coming from underneath his desk.

 

“Were you listening the whole time, then?” Martin scoops up the tape recorder from the floor. “Or,” he sighs, his eyes flicking to the waiting statement, “are you just hungry?”

 

Martin still doesn’t know what to make of the recorders. On the one hand, supernatural artefacts never bode well. There’s no telling what they are, what’s listening on the other end, what controls their spontaneous appearance or why. Eavesdropping and surveillance are on brand for the Eye, but Jon had a point when he said that the Beholding would have no need to use tape recorders to listen in, especially within its own temple. They weren’t Elias’s doing – apparently all of his spying is done through eyes. The Web, maybe? But to what end?

 

On the other hand, Martin has grown so accustomed to their presence that he was actually unsettled by their absence while Jon was – away. When they started manifesting again, Martin was… relieved, almost. It isn’t the same as having Jon nearby, but it feels like having a connection to him all the same. They’ve almost become a welcoming, comforting sight – at least for the first few seconds after their appearance, before they start making their usual demands.

 

Sometimes, Martin wonders whether Jon might be subconsciously manifesting them himself. Even before his paranoid episode, he seemed keen to document and catalog the world around him, as if it was the only way for him to make sense of it all. It always made Martin's heart ache, how Jon could never seem to relax, to let himself just be in the moment. His hypervigilance was exhausting by proxy, and it’s only gotten worse as time goes on.

 

In any case, ever since Jon’s coma – half-death? – showed that the recorders’ existence is dependent on his, Martin has started to see their regular appearances as decent indicators as to whether Jon is alive at any given moment. And here they are, still showing up. Which means… what? Martin already knew that Jon is still alive. The Coffin doesn’t let its victims die; death would be a release, and it's incompatible with a realm predicated on unending pressure, on the experience of being trapped with no hope of escape. But if Jon was entirely cut off from the world, lost and unreachable, wouldn’t his connection with the recorders be severed as well? So, if they’re still here, does that mean Jon isn’t gone yet? That there’s still a lifeline tethering him to the surface?

 

If so, it’s a useless lifeline, isn’t it? The tapes always make their way to Jon in time, but what good does that do in this situation? It’s not like they’re two-way radios; Martin can’t communicate with Jon in real time.

 

Unless…

 

No. No unless. It’s not even a long shot, it’s just – daft.

 

But hasn’t he already been treating them as stand-ins for Jon for the last few weeks? And is it really any more foolish than talking to a coffin?

 

Martin sighs as he eyes the tape recorder, its reels still insistently spinning. It isn’t going to leave until it gets a statement. He waits it out for another minute or so, but in the end he gives in, just like it knew he would.

 

“Hi again, Jon,” he starts, picking at his cuticles as uncertainly as he picks through his words. “I doubt you can hear me. At least not right now. But I know you listen to all the tapes eventually. Don’t know if you’ll ever get to hear this one, though. If not, I suppose this is rather pointless, isn’t it? You’re always so diligent about listening to them, too.” Martin huffs. “Well, if you want this one, you’ll have to come back and get it. I’m very cross with you, and I’d prefer to tell you in pers-”

 

Shut up, shut up, what are you saying?

 

The recorder lets out a short burst of static, as if protesting the break in his confession.

 

“Oh, shut it,” he grumbles. “Not – not you, Jon. Sorry. I mean, not like you’re hearing this anyway, right? Whatever, just – you’re needed here, alright? You've been away too long. It’s time to come home.” Martin shakes his head and smiles weakly. “Funny, I – I remember when I used to have to nag you to go home at night. The more things change, the more they stay the same, right? Don’t know what good a persuasive argument does in this case, though. It’s not like you need convincing –”

 

Martin stops short, a sudden thought crystallizing cold and heavy in the front of his mind. For all he knows, Jon’s gotten it into his head that he needs to stay in there to keep the rest of the world safe. It sounds like the sort of conclusion Jon would reach.

 

“I mean, I – I – I hope you’re not willingly staying down there out of some misguided belief that it’s – safer, for everyone? Jon?” Martin laughs nervously, on the edge of hysteria. “I – I don’t know why I’m talking like I’ll get a response. Anyway, it’s – it’s probably more likely that you want to come back and you can’t, right?” He chuckles again, and realizes too late how teary it sounds. “I don’t even – I don’t know which of those options is worse, but – but it’s not like there’s anything I can do in either case, so – what’s the point of this, of any of this?”

 

Martin clamps both hands over his mouth to stifle his abrupt, stuttering intake of breath – the precursor to sobbing, if he isn’t careful. He takes a long moment to compose himself, swallowing back tears and slowing his breathing.

 

“W-well, in case you do need to hear it… things are not better with you gone, okay?” His voice still sounds thick with emotion. In an attempt to steady it, he ends up overcorrecting, his next words coming out far more vehemently than he had intended. “They aren’t. And I don’t know how to make you believe that, b-but – if you don’t come back, you’ll never get a chance to learn, and it’s not like you to pass up a chance to learn something, right, so – so just get back here, will you?”

 

He stops again. After months of suffocating, deadening quiet, raising his voice even slightly feels like shouting. He finds himself leaning closer towards the tape recorder, as if he’s sharing a secret. Despite the conscious effort to lower his volume, it does nothing to temper the intensity of his speech.

 

“Jon, you’re late, and everyone’s waiting. Georgie’s worried. Basira spends most of the day camped out in front of your office, just… listening for any change. I – I don’t think she’s been sleeping much. And Melanie, she –” Martin flounders. He hasn’t spoken to Melanie in weeks, but he has no reason to assume her feelings towards Jon have changed. “W-well, she – she’ll be angry if you break a promise to Georgie, yeah? And I’m – I…”

 

Martin doesn’t know what he is.

 

“Look, Jon, you – you need to come back now,” he says, more softly. More like a prayer than a demand. “Come home, and we’ll… we’ll figure things out.”

 

He wracks his brain for more, but comes up speechless. There was a time when he could have spoken volumes about what Jon means to him. Now, anything Martin could possibly say feels shallow and jumbled and meaningless. Absolutely useless. But since when did words make any difference anyway? Jon has always been resistant to an outstretched hand. He rarely accepted any offers of help or invitations to talk; could barely handle a kind word or comforting gesture some days. He seemed to be opening up in the weeks prior to the Unknowing, but then –

 

Martin lets out a sigh and shuts the tape recorder off. Almost immediately, it clicks back on.

 

“Seriously?” He stares daggers at the thing. “That wasn’t enough for you?”

 

He depresses the button again, perhaps a little harder than necessary. The moment he removes his finger, the reels resume winding.

 

“Can’t you just – piss off and let me have some quiet for five minutes?”

 

It can’t, apparently. After several more foiled attempts to stop its droning, Martin gives an aggravated groan. As tempting as it is to hurl it at a wall, all the archival staff know from experience that the recorders are practically unbreakable, taking only superficial damage regardless of the attempted means to destroy them. Martin could toss it into a bonfire and at most it would come out a bit worse for wear; the casing would never melt or warp so badly as to render the buttons entirely nonfunctional.

 

More than once, Martin has caught himself wondering whether they get their durability from Jon. It’s a morbid thought and Martin is always quick to shut it down, but, well – there it is again.

 

At least Jon’s persistence is – charming. Martin glares at the tape recorder some more. Unlike –

 

The recorder crackles with another impatient uptick of static.

 

“Fine!” Martin flips open the folder on his desk, seizes the statement roughly, and gives himself a papercut in the process. Another hiss erupts from the recorder when he swears. “Yeah? Well, I don’t care if personal commentary is unprofessional,” he snaps at it. He doesn’t know who he’s talking to.

 

When he finally turns his attention back to the statement in his hands, he makes no effort to hide his foul mood.

 

“Yet another statement about – I don’t know, but I’m sure it’s bleak and horrifying, or else it wouldn’t be so keen for me to read it. Recording by Martin Blackwood, Assistant to Peter Lukas, Head of the Magnus Institute…”

 


 

Stopping short, Daisy draws in a sharp breath.

 

“Daisy?” Jon tugs lightly on her hand. “You alright?”

 

“Jon, I – I feel something, like a – like a pull, I –” Daisy laughs breathlessly. “There’s an up.

 

“What,” Jon says, grinning to himself now, “didn’t you believe me?”

 

But Daisy isn’t listening to him, instead continuing in an awestruck tone: “I’m – I – I’ll get to – to see Basira again.”

 

Her voice pitches up ever so slightly towards the end, making the statement sound almost like a question – as if she didn’t believe until this moment that seeing Basira again was even a possibility, as if she still doesn’t quite dare to believe it.

 

Jon has repeated the same promise dozens of times now along their trek to the surface. Once more can’t hurt: “She’s waiting for you.”

 

“I know,” Daisy whispers, almost reverently. Then, louder, her mounting anticipation crowding out the remnants of disbelief: “I can feel it.”

 

So can Jon. For quite some time now, that feeling of being pulled along – almost like he’s an anchor being reeled in, oddly – has been relatively consistent. The strength of the sensation still fluctuates from time to time, but it’s been awhile since it last disappeared entirely.

 

Of course, now it’s also shot through with a far more unwelcome pull. He swears he can feel the Archive drawing nearer the closer they come to the exit. Maybe it’s simply his imagination, increasingly overactive as his dread intensifies, but the outcome is the same either way: the Eye will have him again, and soon.

 

“Come on, then,” Jon says, suppressing the grim edge threatening to creep into his tone. There’s no point in worrying Daisy just when she’s started to feel hopeful. “Almost home.”

 


 

Not long thereafter, the passage widens again. They still have to walk single file with their shoulders angled, forced to sidle through a few tight spots sideways, but the soil has finally transitioned entirely to solid stone walls and there is a noticeable upward slant to their path. All the while, Jon doesn’t let go of Daisy’s hand.

 

He grits his teeth against the lancing pain surging through his leg with every step as the incline grows steeper. From the sounds of Daisy’s labored breathing behind him, she’s having a far worse time of it. He’s just about to reassure her again that they’re almost there when his foot connects with something and he stumbles, pitching forward and nearly pulling Daisy down with him. His free hand flails in front of him to break his fall, and that’s when he recognizes –

 

“Stairs,” he whispers, feeling the shape of them, their flat surfaces and distinct angles.

 

“What?”

 

“Stairs, Daisy.” After pushing himself to his feet, Jon places his free hand against the wall as a guide. It’s still pitch dark, and it will be until they manage to lift the Coffin’s lid. “Not much further now. Watch your step, and go slowly. They’re uneven.”

 

Despite an abundance of caution, they both end up tripping several times on the way up. The steps are all different heights and depths: some short and wide shelves, some steep and narrow ledges nearing two feet high – which may seem negligible were they both not so weakened, winded, and wounded. Occasionally, a step that felt solid moments before would crumble underneath them, giving way like gravel; a few times, Jon could swear a step disappeared entirely just before he put his foot down.

 

He’s so focused on keeping his footing that he forgets to be wary of his head. When he places a foot on one particularly sheer step and propels himself upward with the other leg, his head collides violently with something just above him. The pain races through his skull, his neck, his spine, and he nearly topples backward in the momentary daze of the impact. He has just enough presence of mind to throw his weight forward so that when he loses balance, he collapses against the stairs instead of tumbling down them.

 

For a few seconds, all he knows is a high-pitched ringing in his ears and fireworks in his vision. He’s dimly aware of Daisy’s hands patting at him blindly, frantically; her voice is muffled, but he can detect the urgency there.

 

“‘M’fine,” he slurs. He tries to tell her to just give him a minute, that he recovers quickly from this sort of thing, but he’s pretty sure it comes out something more like gim’nit.

 

When he finally starts to come around, Daisy’s words, once fuzzy and indistinct, start to break through the haze: “Jon? Jon, are you alright?”

 

“Will be,” he groans. He pushes himself up with one hand and reaches up with the other, groping blindly. Either it’s closer than he thought or he put too much force into the gesture in his disorientation, but his knuckles collide with rough wood and he hisses when he catches a splinter.

 

“Jon?”

 

“Lid’s right above us,” he says unnecessarily. “Watch your head.”

 

Daisy snorts. “Noted.”

 

“I – I might need some help lifting it,” Jon says, his vertigo gradually fading. He places both palms flat on the underside of the lid. “Last time, it was a lot heavier on the way out than it was going in.”

 

“Got it.” Daisy crawls up a few steps to kneel next to Jon, and he can feel her hands brush against his as she reaches up to find a grip.

 

“Feel it?”

 

“Yeah,” she says. “Ready?”

 

“On three. One – two – three –”

 

As expected, it offers more resistance than it should, as if a force is pressing down from the other side. For a terrifying few seconds, it refuses to budge. Then, with a prolonged creak of protest, it starts to give. Even just the dim light of Jon’s office filtering through that first tiny crack is enough to hurt. Judging from the startled yelp next to him, Jon assumes Daisy is shutting her eyes as well.

 

Jon can hear the low chatter of the tapes he left behind, as well as something louder and clearer cutting through the white noise.

 

“I don’t know how much longer I can do this on my own.” Basira’s voice, overlaid with the crackle of radio static. “I’m here, Daisy. I need you to be here, too. I need –”

 

As soon as the opening is wide enough to stick a hand through, the pressure lets up all at once and the lid swings up the rest of the way. Jon scrambles over the side and grabs both of Daisy’s hands, dragging her up and out. He winces sympathetically when she cries out – she hasn’t properly stretched those muscles in months, and it must be agony.

 

The moment she’s completely cleared the lip of the Coffin, Jon eases her to a kneeling position on the floor and drops her hands. Rising unsteadily to his feet with a pained groan, he takes hold of the lid and drags it back into place. He stumbles the short distance to his desk for the key and hastens to replace the chains and reaffix the padlock. On the way, he kicks a tape recorder and it goes sliding across the floor; an instant later, the knowledge comes to him: Not a tape recorder. A two-way radio.

 

His hands are shaking so badly that he fumbles the key four times before he manages to fit it into the lock. He’s so absorbed in that simple, seemingly insurmountable task that he barely notices the swearing and clattering coming from just outside the office as someone on the other side goes through a similar struggle in their bid to unlock the door. Just as Jon turns the key, the office door swings open to reveal Basira, panting and wide-eyed. The radio in her hand drops to the floor as her eyes rest on Daisy, shivering and gasping for air.

 

“You’re back,” Basira murmurs, frozen in place.

 

“Hi,” Daisy says with short, almost giddy laugh, before promptly collapsing onto the floor. It’s enough to spur Basira into action, lurching forward and going to her knees next to her.

 

“Daisy,” she says urgently, shaking her shoulder. “Daisy, please –”

 

“She’s – she’s alright,” Jon says breathlessly, on hands and knees in front of the Coffin, gulping for air to fill his screaming lungs. “Just – needs to –”

 

He freezes.

 

“Jon,” Basira says, disbelieving. “Your voice?”

 

“I – I – I thought I would – I would lose it again,” he stammers. He begins to move his hand up to his throat, but stops when his other arm trembles violently, unable to hold up his weight on its own. “I don’t – I don’t know, I – I might still, it – it –”

 

The thought turns to static and the words dissolve on his tongue.

 

“…it barely even sounded human as it – as it spoke in a strange monotone –”

 

Jon shakes his head frantically, bringing the lingering pain from his earlier head injury back into the forefront.

 

“…it was then that I became aware of them – hundreds of glossy dead eyes staring at me from all directions –”

“– a tremendous eye – turning to focus upon me –”

“– staring into me, acutely scrutinizing my reaction –”

 

“Jon!” He stops and looks up at Basira, suddenly realizing that she’s been repeating his name for several seconds now. “You’re hyperventilating. Just – breathe?”

 

He latches onto Basira’s voice, forcing himself to breathe – oh, god, he can breathe again –

 

“Good,” she says after a few moments, calm and steady. “Okay. Can you try talking again? No, Jon, listen – look at me,” she says when he shuts his eyes and starts shaking his head again. “Try talking again.”

 

“…but my inability to speak –”

 

“Humor me.”

 

“…it’s still there, still watching me. There’s nowhere I can go, a place I can hide that it doesn’t keep looking at me – I can’t sleep because they’re watching me – those unseen eyes that hover everywhere and won’t let me rest –”

“– I’m sorry – it won’t let me say the words –”

 

“Yes, you can,” she says. Firm, but not cruel. Authoritative, self-assured, decisive – a solid presence to fixate on. “You’re just – too in your own head. Focus on me and try again.”

 

“I –” he begins, then stops short. Not the Archive. He gives Basira an uncertain, panicked look.

 

“Keep going. Try – try something simple. Tell me your name.”

 

“My name is…” His voice quivers as he forces the words out one syllable at a time.

 

“Go on. Who are you?”

 

“The Arch –”

 

The Archive, he almost says, before he remembers with a jolt of fear that Jonah might be listening. Besides, right now it would be inaccurate, wouldn’t it? The Eye does not typically dispense outright falsehoods, and its Archive has no use for fictions. Deception is for the Stranger, for the Spiral, for the Web –

 

“Try again,” Basira says patiently, drawing his attention back to her. “Who are you?”

 

“The Archivi –”

 

“No. Who, not what.”

 

There is a long pause in which he cannot parse the instruction.

 

“Full name.”

 

“Jon,” he says slowly. The sound feels strange on his tongue. “Jonathan Sims. The Archivist.”

 

“Could’ve done without that last bit, but good enough.” Basira relaxes her posture. “You alright?”

 

“I – I don’t understand.” Lightheaded and trembling, Jon releases a shuddering breath and leans back on his heels, slightly hunched over with his hands on his knees. “How did you know that would work?”

 

“I didn’t. But you were spiraling, and I imagine that’s exactly what the Eye wants.”

 

“R-right. I, ah –” Jon runs a shaky hand through his hair, loosing a shower of dirt in the process. “I don’t know how long it will stay away, the Buried severed the connection temporarily, but now it –”

 

“Don’t dwell on it.” At his blank stare, Basira sighs. “Yes, I realize that’s not quite your speed, but try anyway.”

 

“But –”

 

“We’re dealing with things that feed on fear and can rewrite reality as they please, right? You said yourself that the feeling is all they care about. Maybe feeding it your fear just makes it easier for it to write your reality – in which case, accepting a hypothetical bad outcome as an inevitability is just creating a self-fulfilling prophecy for yourself.”

 

“That’s… certainly a theory,” he says cagily.

 

But it’s a theory that Basira must be invested in, because she leans forward, her eyes as bright and interested as when she’s engrossed in a good book or pouring over some compelling research.

 

“Yes, it is, but I don’t think it’s too far-fetched. Georgie and I have been pooling ideas, and – I don’t think ‘mind over matter’ is a panacea, but mental state does seem to factor in. I was studying the statements you left for me, the ones involving anchors, and – I’m still not sure about the exact mechanics, but would an anchor help someone survive one of the Fears if state of mind wasn’t a key variable? It might not be the most important aspect, but it does seem significant enough to affect the outcome. Not all the time – not even most of the time – but in some cases, at least. Under the right circumstances.”

 

“And the Fears wouldn’t even exist without minds to experience them,” Jon says, brow furrowed. It’s uncanny, hearing some of the same ideas he bounced off of Daisy to pass the time in the Buried parroted back at him by Basira now.

 

“Exactly,” she says excitedly, then closes her mouth just as she’s taking a breath to start on her next thought. She clears her throat, looking slightly self-conscious. “I’m getting sidetracked. We can talk more about it later. For now – priorities.” Her expression turns sharp and focused again. “What should we do with the Coffin?”

 

“Artefact Storage. Tell them – tell them about the compulsion, make sure they take special precautions. Maximum security. No interaction or hands-on research.” He forces the words out rapid-fire, still expecting the Archive to take over any moment. “Store the key separately, same restrictions. No public cross-referencing; keep the link between the two on a need-to-know basis, preferably restricted to the head of the department. In – in fact, refer them to case number 9982211. Joshua Gillespie had a rather – creative way of containing the key, if you recall. Simple, but” – Jon laughs, shaking his head – “incredibly effective.”

 

“That’s…”

 

“The best we can do without –” Jon huffs. “Well, burying it. Sealing it in concrete.”

 

“Not a bad idea,” Basira says thoughtfully. She raises an eyebrow when Jon doesn’t reply. “Is it?”

 

“I – I don’t know. We got out, and it seems – wrong, to completely eliminate that possibility for all the other people trapped in there.”

 

“You think you can help them?”

 

“I… I doubt it,” Jon admits, voice dripping with guilt.

 

He could try, but he suspects he was only able to reach Daisy because he had a personal connection to her, plus the recording of her voice to help him navigate. Finding anyone else in there would mean wandering around aimlessly until he eventually crossed paths with someone by chance, hoping he could reach them before the Buried whisked him away again.

 

“But if someone else does make it this far,” he says, “I don’t want to be the one responsible for the moment they try to lift the lid and find it cemented shut. The chains will still be there, but at least there’s a chance of someone – hearing them, helping them? Probably not, but – sealing it off entirely feels… I don’t know, final? Like we would be condemning them personally.”

 

“Yeah, okay.” Basira sighs heavily, absentmindedly stroking Daisy’s hair. “Point taken. Can you stand?”

 

“Not yet. Give me a few minutes. I’ll be fine here, though, if you want to move Daisy. Put some distance between her and the Coffin. It’s a good idea.”

 

“Don’t read my mind, Jon.”

 

“Sorry.”

 

“Are you sure you’ll be okay? I don’t feel right leaving you alone after…”

 

Jon meets her eyes again, tilting his head to the side slightly. Last time, Basira had no qualms about ushering Daisy away from the Coffin the moment she got a chance. She didn’t leave him alone for long – she wasn’t cruel – but still, he was undeniably a low priority. He clears his throat and tries to look less stunned.

 

“I’ll be alright, I promise. Go ahead.”

 

Basira watches him shrewdly, frowning as she considers her options. Eventually, her shoulders slump and she relents.

 

“If you’re sure. I won’t be gone long.”

 

“Careful moving her,” Jon says. “Sorry, that – probably goes without saying? But just – mind her left side. She has cracked ribs on both sides, but two on the left are broken.”

 

A flash of sympathetic pain and vicarious anger crosses Basira’s face.

 

“Thanks for the heads up.” Her voice is clipped, but not unkind. She’s simply trying to keep a tight rein on her emotions, Jon Knows: deal with the situation at hand first, break down later – in privacy – if at all. “As soon as I have her settled, I’ll come back and – and help you move.”

 

He nods tiredly.

 

“Jon.” Basira waits until he looks back up at her. “Thank you, for… I really thought I’d never – I…”

 

“Basira, it’s okay,” he says as she fumbles for words. “I understand.”

 

“You know, or you Know?”

 

“Oh, uh…” Jon grimaces. “Maybe both? I’m sorry –”

 

Basira snorts and begins to gently position Daisy to be moved. “I was teasing, Jon.”

 

“O-oh. Right.” He shifts awkwardly. “Still, though, I – I apologize. I realize the Knowing can be – invasive, and – I don’t have as much control over it as I would like, but I should –”

 

“Jon, it’s fine.” Basira says it with an air of finality, but she doesn’t sound angry. “I’ll be back soon.”

 

“Sure,” he says, not quite knowing what to do with her lenience. “Thank you. I’ll just – wait here.”

 

“Yes, you will. You’ve met your self-sacrifice quota for the month. No more pocket dimensions. In fact –” She stands and swipes Jon’s phone off his desk where he left it, handing it down to him. “Call Georgie, let her know you’re home. Keep you occupied until I get back.”

 

As Basira leaves with Daisy, Jon does exactly that. Georgie picks up on the first ring.

 

“Jon? Jon, is that you?”

 

“Yeah, Georgie.” Jon closes his eyes and smiles at the sound of her voice. “It’s me. I’m back.”

 

“You got your voice back?”

 

“Seems so,” he says tentatively. “For now, anyway.”

 

Something about the tone of Georgie’s sigh tells him that she’s rolling her eyes at him.

 

“Why are you such a pessimist?”

 

“I’m not, I’m a –”

 

“Don’t you dare say ‘realist.’” Jon keeps his mouth shut. “Does Basira know you’re back?”

 

“Yes –”

 

“Are you hurt?”

 

“No – well, I mean, yes, but – nothing too serious. Nothing unexpected. I’m alright.”

 

“Okay. Did you find Daisy?”

 

“Yes. She’s with Basira now.”

 

“Good.” Georgie breathes a sigh of relief. “I was worried, Jon. Do you know how long you were gone?”

 

“I –” Jon pauses, an icy sensation surging through him as the knowledge comes to him. “Oh.”

“Yeah.”

 

“I’m – I’m sorry, Georgie, I really didn’t expect it to take – and it’s impossible to tell time in there, so –”

 

“It's alright, I’m just – glad you’re back. Did you let Martin know?”

 

“Not – not yet, I – I’m not sure how he would feel about me contacting him.” Jon bites his lip. “Do you think I should?”

 

“Don’t know. He doesn’t seem to know what he wants. But I’ve spoken to him a few times now, and he seems to be – I don’t know. Thawing, I guess? Seems less cold. Easier to get through to him than it was that first time. Or – easier to get a rise out of him, at least. He’s actually got some fire in his eyes now.”

 

Jon smiles to himself again.

 

“Georgie Barker, are you annoying him out of the Lonely?”

 

“I –” She pauses, considers, and then chuckles. “You know – maybe? In my defense, it’s not difficult to do. He’s very moody.”

 

“O-oh. That’s…”

 

“Not necessarily a bad thing, Jon. I mean, it can’t be comfortable for him, but – at least he’s feeling something, interacting with the world around him? It’s like – well, he sort of reminds me of…”

 

“What?”

 

“Me, at certain points in my life? I think I’ve told you before, but – the lowest low of a depressive episode for me has always been when nothing can reach me. Feeling nothing, wanting nothing, being unable to envision any sort of future at all and not even caring about it.”

 

“You did, yes. I – don’t think I fully understood then, but now I – I think I have an idea.”

 

“Well, when I start to get better, it can look like I’m getting worse to other people, because they can see the hurt, where before it was – quiet, subdued. All the things I couldn’t feel before, they all come out at once, and it’s – overwhelming, after so much nothingness. But it’s part of the healing. At some point, you have to let yourself feel again, even if it hurts. I know it’s not a perfect analogy, but – this might not be a bad sign, is what I’m saying. Sometimes recovery is messy. It helps to have someone to lean on for support.”

 

“But if he’s determined to be alone –”

 

“The thing is, I don’t think he is. But that’s something he needs to figure out for himself. I’m not saying you can’t remind him from time to time that he isn’t alone, but…” She exhales heavily. “You can’t force someone to accept help. You reached out to him. Give him the space to reach back.”

 

“So… don’t contact him? Because – because I want to respect his boundaries, but –”

 

Georgie gives an exasperated but fond-sounding sigh.

 

“Jon, if you want a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer, I can’t help you there.”

 

“But – but what do you think –”

 

“I think it’s your call. He might not respond, but… he’s been worried, and I do think he would appreciate knowing you’re back.”

 

Jon makes a noncommittal noise.

 

“Well, you think on it,” Georgie says. “Listen, I’m walking out the door now, okay? Be there soon.”

 

“Oh, uh – right. I’ll – see you then, I suppose.”

 

“You’d better.”

 

When the call ends, Jon stares fixedly at a speck on the wall, debating whether or not to… what, send an email? That seems too impersonal, but a phone call might be too much. He could always text, but…

 

Glancing at the screen, he notices that he has several missed text messages. His thumb hovers uncertainly over the icon. It’s unlikely that any of them are from Martin, but he has an irrational need to prolong the confirmation one way or another, to put off knowing as long as –

 

The Eye informs him that they’re all from Naomi, and Jon heaves an agitated sigh. Not at the knowledge itself – he enjoys his conversations with Naomi, however sparse his input tends to be these days – but at having the option of knowing removed from him. When he starts to read her messages, though, his sour mood rapidly evaporates.

 

Naomi

Sun, Mar 4 10:14 PM
jonathan

what's this i hear about a coffin

you won't visit me in my empty grave but you'll climb into a coffin?? smh

anyway text me when you get back to let me know you're not dead

Tue, Mar 6 3:17 PM
maybe by the time you return from the spooky dirt dimension you’ll be tired enough to SLEEP

Fri, Mar 9 1:43 PM
jon you better come back alive, duchess needs her godfather

if i die in a tragic lab accident someone will need to give her the pets she deserves

Sun, Mar 11 10:46 AM
btw i have a queue of duchess photos for you and i will dispense one (1) for every cat emoji you send

how's THAT for an anchor

Mon, Mar 12 2:38 PM
🐱🐱🐱🐱🐱🐱🐱🐱

“There,” he says with a private little smile. “One for each day I was gone. To start with.”

 

Once he sends the reply, he sets the phone aside. His mouth is dry, the taste of dirt clinging to his tongue. Luckily, he thought ahead and stored some water bottles here for when he got back, knowing it would take some time before he was ready to drag himself to the breakroom for a drink. Unluckily, he’d been so preoccupied with all his other preparations in the half-hour prior to entering the Coffin that he hadn’t had the foresight to put them within easier reach. As it is, they’re still stored in the hollow under his desk.

 

He’s still sore and stiff and lethargic, but the prospect of washing the grit out of his mouth is enticing enough to get him moving. Gingerly, awkwardly, he shuffles around to the other side of the desk. It’s slow going; he practically has to drag himself, and he spares a moment to be glad that no one is here to watch him.

 

Well. Except the Eye, he supposes. And possibly Jonah.

 

A noticeable chill shivers through him and his breath catches in his throat. Jon shakes his head to rid himself of the thought. He really needs to stop giving Jonah Magnus real estate in his head.

 

Just as Jon gets a grip on one of the bottles, his phone dings from where he left it on the floor. He bumps his head on the underside of the desk when he starts – not as hard as he did in the Coffin, but enough to send a new wave of pain coursing through him from head to toe. The phone dings several times more in quick succession.

 

“Okay, alright, give me a minute, Naomi,” he grumbles, rubbing the sore spot at the top of his head. No blood, but there’s definitely a bump. It won’t be there for long. He should be glad for his healing abilities, he supposes, inhuman though they may be.

 

The text messages continue pouring in as he makes the return journey to his previous spot.

 

“Guess she really is sending a photo per emoji,” he says to himself. The alert goes off once more just as he reaches for it. “Or more than one.”

 

When he glimpses the screen, it’s not Naomi’s name that he sees.

 


 

Martin is typing up the new rota that Peter requested when it happens.

 

Seemingly out of nowhere, a tape recorder drops onto his desk with a loud clack. Before he can spare a thought on its sudden appearance, another comes plummeting down, smashing two of his fingers against the keyboard.

 

“Ow! What the –”

 

Another collides with the top of his head, and on impulse he covers himself with both arms. Four more fall – one glancing his elbow, three clattering to the floor around him – and then there’s a lull. Cautiously, he brings his arms down and looks to the ceiling, half-expecting more to come raining down. When none do, he relaxes somewhat.

 

“Huh,” he says to himself, bewildered. “That’s new.”

 

He’s used to the tape recorders materializing, of course, but usually it’s only one or two at a time, and they don't drop from the ceiling. They just appear – sometimes sitting in plain sight, but more often slightly hidden from view: under his chair, behind his computer, once in a potted plant in the breakroom. They always click and whir to announce their presence – as if they want to be found, as if to reassure him that they aren’t trying to spy unnoticed.

 

Martin rolls his eyes at himself. Why is he always anthropomorphizing them, assuming they have intentions?

 

In any case, being pelted with a tape recorder shower is unprecedented. He rubs his hand where the second recorder hit him, then his head. He’s bound to have bruises, and his fingers are already swelling up.

 

“What the hell, Jon?”

 

Before he even realizes what he’s doing, he has his phone in his hand and he’s tapping out a text message.

 

Jon 🌷

Mon, Mar 12 2:40 PM
7 tape recorders fell from the ceiling onto my desk in the last 5 minutes

shit

make that 9

He briefly contemplates taking shelter under his desk. When no more fall, he turns his attention back to his phone.

 

i'm trying to figure out what it means. like some delphic oracle trying to divine the future with bird entrails or something. was that a thing or am i making that up?

i’m sure you’d know. not like you’re here to answer

i don't even know if this is still your number. guess it doesn’t matter, you didn't bring your phone with you into the coffin

and you wouldn't get service in there anyway

probably

Martin leans back with a sigh, dragging one hand down his face. What is he doing? It’s not like Jon is waiting by the phone for him.

 

Maybe that’s exactly why he’s doing this. It certainly highlights the loneliness. He probably wouldn’t be texting Jon if there was any chance of him answering, would he?

 

In the span of a blink, that loneliness turns to frustration. For months, his emotions have been dulled, almost to the point of numbness. Things were quiet. It felt comfortable; it felt right; it almost felt safe, the fog blanketing the world and muffling all of its sharp edges, shielding him from all the things that used to leave him hurt and grieving and wanting.

 

Then Jon went and ripped that blanket off him, leaving him exposed all over again. Ever since, it's been nothing but sensory overload and raw emotion that doesn’t even have a name. All he knows is that it’s too much and it’s all at once and he has nowhere to put it, and it’s manifesting as irritability and mood swings and a pervasive, indistinct sense of hurt that he thought he’d left behind.

 

He feels everything after months of feeling next to nothing, as if all the things he wouldn’t allow himself to feel are being regurgitated all at once in a nebulous chaotic tangle, and he isn’t equipped to handle it –

 

“Alone,” he says aloud. That’s it, isn’t it? It’s too much to cope with on his own. He is alone, and for the first time in what feels like forever, that scares him.

 

Biting his lip until he tastes blood, he picks up his phone again.

 

why did you have to go in there

i was so sure about everything. i knew what i needed to do, i accepted that. it felt right. then you go and pull the rug out from under me, and you aren’t even there to catch me.

i already grieved for you once, and now you're going to make me do it all over again? after saying all those things? what am i supposed to do with that? where does that leave me, if you never come back?

you can’t just turn everything upside down and leave me alone to pick up the pieces again

He blinks back tears. It feels wrong, unloading all of this onto Jon, but he’ll never see it, so what does it matter? It has to go somewhere or Martin is going to shatter.

 

i wish i could just go back to being numb, but i don’t even have that anymore. the fog doesn't feel safe like it used to. now it’s just cold

and i want to be angry with you for that and i guess i am but mostly i just

i want you to be safe

can’t you just be safe for once

Martin stops mid-rant, mind going blank when the typing indicator pops up. For a seemingly interminable amount of time, he holds his breath, watching as it stops and starts and hesitates before finally –

 

Martin, I’m home now. I just got back less than a half hour ago. I should have messaged you straight away but I wasn’t sure if you wanted to hear from me, and I’m sorry for leaving you without a proper explanation but I didn’t think you wanted to see me

That sounded accusatory didn’t it

I didn’t mean it like that I swear

I’m not upset

I mean I am but not with you

Fuck. I’m doing this all wrong

And before Martin realizes it, there’s a tearful, slightly manic laugh bubbling up in his chest and out through his mouth and he’s crying, when did he start crying? He's giving himself whiplash with his own erratic moods, but it doesn't matter, because he can just picture how frantic Jon is right now, stumbling over his words, mussing up his hair and muttering to himself. Martin probably shouldn’t find it so endearing, but when has that ever stopped him?

 

Let me try again

I’m sorry. For making you worry, for leaving you alone, for being terrible with words, for how poorly I treated you for so long, and for so much else besides

I miss you, and I’m worried about you, and it’s been too long since I last saw your face

I meant everything I said in the message I left, but you deserve more of an explanation than I was able to give. I have use of my own words right now. Mostly. But I don’t know how long that will last. Can we meet in person? I understand if the answer is no, I promised to leave you alone if that’s what you want. I won’t pretend to like it, but I will respect it.

This is still coming out all wrong. It isn’t my intention to guilt you. I just need you to know that if you want to talk, I’m here. If you need more time, I’ll wait, and I’ll be here when you’re ready. If you want me to stay away, I’ll respect your decision.

And if you want me to stop talking immediately, I’ll understand that too, because I am certainly rambling and almost certainly making an annoyance of myself, and in fact at this point me shutting up would likely be a blessing for both of us.

Martin rubs furiously at the tears streaking down his cheeks, sniffling. He’s debating on responding to save Jon from his own self-consciousness when another few messages come through.

 

To the point: I want you to be safe, too. You deserve better than the Lonely, I’m here if/when you need me, I trust you, and I love you. I really, really do.

Okay. I’ll give you some space now.

Apologies for the barrage of texts

and tape recorders I suppose? I would give you an explanation if I had one but the Eye would rather give me unsolicited spider facts than answer the questions I actually ask. For example, it has just helpfully reminded me that the goliath birdeater tarantula is the largest spider in the world and that it does in fact eat birds on occasion. I’m certain you already knew that. I wish I didn’t.

Martin can’t help it: he starts laughing again. Then immediately feels a bit bad about it. He doesn’t have much time to dwell on it before the next message comes through.

 

Hmm. I have just been additionally informed that it rarely bites humans, but as a defense mechanism it CAN release urticating hairs from its abdomen, resulting in painful rashes and irritation to the mucous membranes. There’s a specific medical condition that occurs when the bristles become lodged in the cornea or conjunctiva. It’s called opthalmia nodosa if you were interested. I certainly wasn’t.

Martin I know spiders are important to the ecosystem but have you also considered that they are malevolent little terrors and I hate them

“Jon,” Martin says, shaking his head in fond amusement.

 

This is a side of him that Martin has always adored: how easily he gets sidetracked and carried away with his rambling, his tendency to trip over his words when he’s excited, the informational diatribes he launches into at the drop of a hat.

 

And now Martin’s tearing up again.

 

“God, what’s wrong with me,” he sniffs, rubbing at his eyes with his sleeve again.

 

I’m babbling again

Sorry

I

really wish I could unsend texts

Okay. Shutting up for real this time.

Sorry again

❤️

It’s the heart that does it. Martin doesn’t know why – it’s such a little thing – but that last ounce of doubt evaporates and his reticence crumbles, just like that. The transition is unexpectedly gentle: an easy slip from one state into another, like stepping into a well-worn shoe, a stark contrast to the dramatic, jarring shift he would have anticipated.

 

He begins typing out a response.

 

huh. i think that’s the first time i’ve ever seen you use an emoji

Martin! I didn’t expect you to respond

I mean, I’m glad to hear from you

I’m surprised is all

Apologies, I didn’t consider that the heart might be too forward until after I’d already sent it

I also apologize for the mildly aggressive spider trivia. It’s been some time since I last had a chance to talk to you and I suppose I got carried away

Martin smiles into his hand, pressed to his lips. He’s always found it cute, if a bit silly, how stilted Jon can be sometimes, even when speaking through such an informal medium.

 

And the idea that an emoji is somehow more forward than an overt declaration of love is just…

 

relax, jon.

Right. Sorry

it’s fine. and yes i think we should meet. i still haven’t made any decisions, but we have a lot to talk about and texting probably isn’t the best place for that.

Really?

I mean, yes, I would like to meet, obviously, I suggested it

Sorry, that sounded irate. It wasn’t intended that way

I’m a bit scattered. Adrenaline hasn’t worn off quite yet

Martin’s heart glitches at the reminder of what Jon must have just gone through. If he really is more receptive to help now, maybe he can be persuaded to actually rest and recover for once, but Martin doesn’t have his hopes up.

 

i know, dw about it

Thank you. About meeting: as I’m sure Georgie explained, there are things we can’t discuss outside of the tunnels.

yeah we can meet there. later, though. i’ll text you when peter’s least likely to notice i’ve gone AWOL. he’ll probably find out i contacted you eventually, but i want to avoid him actually following me and listening in on us if i can.

Of course. I’ll keep my phone on me

Thank you for agreeing to meet with me, Martin. It means a lot. I’ve missed you

getting lots of thanks and apologies from you in this conversation

They are all well-deserved and long overdue

if you say so

I know so. And I mean it, I’m very happy to hear from you. Thank you.

oh

well. thank you for coming home?

Martin can feel the flush creeping up his neck and onto his face.

 

listen i should get back to work in case peter comes by. see you soon

I look forward to it.

stay safe until then, won’t you?

That is certainly the plan.

Don’t worry, the Coffin is being quiet now.

“Wait,” Martin says, squinting down at his phone screen. “Is he still…”

 

jon are you still near that thing???

Yes? It’s dormant

“Unbelievable.” Martin huffs an incredulous laugh. “He is unbelievable.”

 

that’s not the point. you just went through a traumatic experience, none of you should be anywhere near that thing. i would think basira would

wait. are you alone right now?

do the others even know you’re back??????

Yes

to which question

Martin groans when the three dots repeatedly disappear and reappear.

 

the amount of typing i’m seeing is NOT encouraging

I am the only one in the room right now, but the office door is open and I can hear Basira’s voice down the hall, so I’m technically not alone-alone. Daisy passed out as soon as we got back, she needed to be moved someplace safer. I can’t quite walk on my own right now, but Basira will be back any moment to help me. I’m just catching my breath. I’ll be fine.

that isn’t as reassuring as you think it is

text me as soon as basira gets back. if i don’t hear from you in five minutes i’m coming down there myself

Oh

I mean, yes I will

Actually here she is now. I’m sorry for worrying you

you aren’t just saying that so i don’t keep worrying right

No, I wouldn’t lie about that

oh really???? mr. “oh it’s just a flesh wound from a BREAD KNIFE”???

That’sZf j

“That’s a lot of typing for just fixing a typo,” Martin says, tapping his foot impatiently. “Go on, Jon, spit it out.”

 

Martin, this is Basira. I’m not going to stand here and wait while you two bicker. Jon will text you back once I bridal carry him to a slightly less sinister location. Georgie will be here soon to bully him into resting. In the meantime, feel free to continue itemizing his embarrassing lies. Or draft a persuasive essay on why he should have a kip. Who knows, maybe he’ll even listen to you.

oh. alright then

Martin rubs the back of his neck and tries to ignore the heat pooling in his cheeks and along the tops of his ears. One good thing about the Lonely: it all but eliminated his embarrassing tendency to broadcast his emotions to the world with a blush. Or maybe it just made it so that there wasn’t much to broadcast in the first place.

 

“So much for that,” he mutters sheepishly.

 

By necessity, Martin has learned to be adaptable. If circumstances have changed this drastically, he needs to reconsider his trajectory. Steeped in some disorientating mixture of emotion – mortification, giddiness, fear, relief, regret, and so much else he still can’t put a name to – he watches the clock and quietly starts to review his options.

Chapter Text

Jon sits on the floor with his back to the wall, waiting as Basira helps Daisy wash away nearly eight months of grime. Through the closed door and underneath the rapid drumbeat of water, he can make out a steady stream of murmured conversation, punctuated by the occasional sob or bitten-back groan of pain. The words are indistinct, but Jon doesn’t need to hear or even Know what is being said to guess the gist of it.

 

Eventually, the shower turns off. It takes several more minutes before the door opens. Even though Jon knows what to expect, he has to suppress a sympathetic grimace when he lays eyes on Daisy.

 

She sits hunched forward on the closed toilet lid, damp hair hanging limp around her face and dripping onto the tile floor. There is a sickly pallor to her skin, mottled with bruising and scrubbed-raw patches of pink. The clothes she’s wearing are her own – Basira never could bring herself to discard Daisy's things – but they no longer fit. Her shirt practically drowns her emaciated frame now, hanging loose off of one shoulder and exposing the hollows of her collarbone. The dark shadows under her puffy, bloodshot eyes might just rival Jon’s.

 

“Better?” Jon gives her a weak half-smile.

 

“Cleaner,” Daisy says hoarsely, staring listlessly at the floor.

 

“Your turn.” Basira catches Jon’s eye and jerks her head back towards the shower. “Left the shower stool in there for you. Clean clothes are on the counter.”

 

“Thanks,” Jon says, but he doesn't move. Part of his brain is telling him to stand; another, more reasonable part is just now realizing that sitting on the floor in the first place was probably a bad idea.

 

“Do you, uh – need help?”

 

“No,” Jon says hurriedly, “that – won’t be necessary.”

 

“No, I wasn’t suggesting –” Basira sighs, flustered. “I just meant that maybe you want to wait until Georgie gets here?”

 

Now that the adrenaline is fading, Jon’s skin is crawling with every moment the Buried still clings to him. Even though he can breathe, it still feels as though his nasal passages and sinuses and lungs are clogged with soil. It's caked under his fingernails, plastered on his skin, and matted in his hair. The loamy taste of it lingers on his tongue. Grit still clings to his eyelashes, stings in his eyes, and sticks between his teeth. Every slight movement sends loose dirt raining down onto the floor. He needs a shower, needs to wash away the seemingly endless supply of cloying, crushing earth.

 

“If you could just help me stand up, I should be able to handle the rest.”

 

Quickly recovering from the awkward moment, Basira gives a curt nod and hauls Jon to his feet. Steadying himself against the wall with one hand, he tests putting weight on his bad leg.

 

“Daisy still needs to see a doctor, and –” Basira frowns, watching Jon wince as he takes a step forward. “Are you sure you’ll be alright? You’re not going to pass out and drown in two inches of water, are you?”

 

It wouldn’t kill me, Jon tries to say, wry and only half-joking.

 

“Not enough to kill me outright,” he says instead. When he feels that familiar static-laden filter slide into place in his mind, he freezes. Before the fear can properly move in, though, Basira’s voice cuts through his stirring panic.

 

“You’re alright, Jon,” she says, authoritative but without heat. “Just breathe through it, remember?”

 

Jon nods distractedly, shutting his eyes and focusing on his own breathing. It takes a minute, but the pressure eventually eases enough for him to hear himself think again.

 

“Are you okay?” Daisy asks, brow furrowed.

 

“Yes. Sorry.” Just those two simple words are a struggle to vocalize, but once he manages, the rest of the weight lifts from his thoughts. He glances at Basira. “I’m sorry, it just – slipped out, and –”

 

“It’s fine.” Basira looks him up and down. “I think maybe you should wait for Georgie, though.”

 

“I’ll be fine. It’s just my leg, and I’m used to dealing with that on my own.”

 

“I thought you injured your ribs.”

 

“Archivist,” Jon says with a shrug – a mistake, he realizes a moment too late, as it disturbs his injuries. He just barely manages to avoid flinching. “I heal quickly.”

 

The truth is, his ribs are unlikely to fully heal until he gets a statement in him. In fact, the last time, his weakness only started to fade after he’d hunted down a live statement. He’d rather not dwell on that right now, though.

 

“Hm.” Basira fixes him with a skeptical look.

 

“I’ll be alright, I promise. You should see to Daisy.”

 

“No,” Daisy says. Both Basira and Jon glance at her. A noticeable full-body shiver sweeps over her, and Basira grabs a dry towel from the small stack on the counter.

 

“You need professional medical attention,” Basira says firmly, wrapping the towel around Daisy and adjusting it to cover her bare arms. “I’m taking you to A&E.”

 

Daisy ignores her, raising her head to look at Jon instead.

 

“I was thinking I could – stay, if you want?” She casts her eyes down again and her voice drops to a low murmur. “It’s just – the shower, it’s – a tight space, and – and it might…”

 

Jon bites the inside of his cheek. It’s true: the shower stall is tiny. Claustrophobic. The room itself is small and poorly ventilated; steam builds up within a minute of the shower being turned on, turning the air thick and stifling with humidity. The single dim light in the ceiling has a tendency to flicker; the bulb has been known to come loose from time to time, plunging the area into near-darkness.

 

It isn’t the Buried, but there’s enough here to bring the Coffin to mind on a bad day – and especially right now, less than two hours out of the place.

 

The last time, Daisy never could manage to use the shower without someone else in the room to keep her company. When Basira was unavailable, she would turn to Jon. Eventually, he got comfortable with her returning the favor. It became a routine, but…

 

“I’ll be okay,” he says again. Unconvincingly, judging from the way Daisy’s eyes narrow at him.

 

“Do you really want to be alone right now?”

 

“I…”

 

No, I don’t. I really, really don’t.

 

“Look, I’m not trying to make it – weird,” Daisy continues, fiddling with one corner of her towel. “It’s not like I’ll see you through the curtain. I just thought – maybe you could use some company? Don’t say ‘I’m fine,’” she says as he opens his mouth to respond. “Just because you can deal with it alone doesn’t mean you should have to.”

 

“Well, yes, but –”

 

“Do you not want me here? Because if you really want me to leave, I will, but –”

 

“No, I wouldn’t mind the company, honestly, but –”

 

“Then I’ll stay.” Daisy looks at Basira, as if daring her to object.

 

Last time, she did object, Jon remembers. Now, though… Basira simply sighs.

 

“Fine. But,” she adds emphatically, giving Daisy a severe look, “I’m taking you to A&E as soon as Georgie gets here, and you don’t get to argue.”

 

“Wouldn’t dream of it,” Daisy says with a tired grin.

 

“Liar,” Basira says, shaking her head with a fond, amused sort of resignation. “I’ll be just outside if you need me.”

 

As Basira leaves, Jon catches Daisy’s eye.

 

“Thank you,” he murmurs.

 

“Thank you,” Daisy says at the exact same time. “For not leaving me there.”

 

Their tentative, exhausted smiles are mirror images of one another as understanding passes between them.

 


 

Someone upstairs has a statement.

 

The Archivist Knew the moment she mounted the steps to the Institute. She was marked by the Spiral, the Hunt, and the Lonely in quick succession, but the Archivist can only barely make out the edges of the story: how she was pursued through a nonsensical, constantly-shifting maze of alleyways by a hulking thing that always stayed one step behind, never letting her escape but never deigning to actually catch her.

 

There was no one in that place to hear her screams. Now, all she wants is to be heard.

 

The Archivist can give that to her. It would be so easy, so right. She came to the Magnus Institute of her own volition, didn’t she? She’s here to give her statement. The Archivist can take it from her and preserve her voice and relive her story for the rest of –

 

Jon twists his fingers in his hair and pulls until it hurts.

 

“You need to sit down,” Georgie says for the third time in as many minutes.

 

“Just keeping warm.”

 

It’s not necessarily a lie. The perpetual damp chill of the tunnels seeps into Jon’s bones in spite of his three layers of clothing and Georgie’s scarf wrapped twice around his neck. Beyond that, though, fevered movement is the only thing keeping him from falling to pieces. If he stops or slows, it will become all the more obvious how badly he’s trembling and all the more difficult to ignore the hunger gnawing away at him.

 

“You’re not even pacing, you’re just – limping.” When he doesn’t reply, Georgie reaches out and touches his shoulder. “Sit. We have some time before Martin gets here.”

 

With a sigh, Jon finally capitulates, sinking into the nearest chair. Immediately, he starts to jiggle one leg, fingers tapping restlessly on his knees.

 

“Talk to me, Jon,” Georgie says, taking a seat opposite him. “What’s on your mind?”

 

“I… I don’t know. It’s – a lot, and…”

 

He trails off, unsettled at the sound of his own voice, shaking almost as badly as the rest of him. His mouth has gone too dry to comfortably swallow, and every passing thought feels blurry around the edges, too ephemeral to translate into the spoken word. The only thing coming through loud and clear is the need and the knowledge that he has the means to sate it, if he would only embrace it.

 

He doesn't have the words to describe the experience, nor does he wish to verbalize it in the first place. As for the rest of it…

 

“Of course now I can talk,” he says with a weak laugh, “I suddenly don’t know what to say.”

 

“Take your time.”

 

Jon hunches forward, allowing himself to rock back and forth in slight movements as he tries to gather his thoughts.

 

“I’m –” Hungry. Terrified. Exhausted. Weak. Hungry, craving, needing, wanting – “At a loss.”

 

“About why you can talk again?”

 

Yes. Sure. He can go with that. It isn’t a lie, and it feels like a safer topic than all the rest.

 

“In part. I don’t understand why I have my voice back, or what that means, and of course my mind is immediately going to the worst-case explanations, and” – now he’s started, he rapidly gains momentum, his speech growing pressured and frantic – “I should just be grateful that I can use my own words again, but I can’t just let it go, because when have I ever been able to just let something go, and –” He tugs on a lock of hair again, letting out a self-deprecating chuckle. “Unsurprisingly, I hate not knowing.”

 

“Well… how about starting with that? Give me some theories. Might help to get them out of your head for a minute.”

 

“Most of it comes down to… I don’t know – why now, I suppose? I don’t have an answer to that, which just makes me think – did I have a choice all along?” It’s a question that has been plaguing him for hours, sitting poised and ready to spring in the back of his mind, but as he finally speaks it aloud, a chill comes over him. His voice fractures like a crack spreading weblike through thin ice. “This whole time, was I just… not trying hard enough?”

 

“I don’t think –”

 

“It was the same with taking statements,” Jon blurts out, wide-eyed and wound taut. “When the others discovered what I was doing, I stopped, which means I – I could have done all along, and just – didn’t.”

 

“You implied before that you were sort of – influenced?” Georgie’s voice is thoughtful, not accusatory; her expression searching, but not judgmental. Jon can feel his shoulders relax just slightly.

 

“‘Influenced’ is one way to put it, yes. But not controlled, exactly – not quite. It was – instinctual, almost? And once a story starts, it’s sort of like – being in a trance, I suppose.”

 

“I remember you having a kind of… faraway look to you, when I was telling you my story.”

 

“It wasn’t like that in the very beginning,” he says, watching his fingers curl on his bouncing knees. “I don’t know when they started having that effect on me. I… didn’t even notice the change. Didn’t notice that I was physically dependent on them until I was traveling. Started to get sick the longer I went without them. And when I woke up… just reading statements wasn’t enough anymore.” He draws in a measured breath. Gathers his thoughts. Exhales slowly. “The first time, I was just shopping. I felt – unwell, hazy. Then he was there, and I just – Asked, before I even realized what was happening. The next time was just after Melanie stabbed me –”

 

“She what?”

 

“It was – sort of deserved,” Jon says, waving it off. He continues before Georgie can get another word in. “I felt – drained, after. Thought I just needed some air, so I went for a walk. Wasn’t long before I crossed paths with my next – victim. Didn’t realize until much later that I must have been… hunting, subconsciously. Like a fugue, almost. But just before I Asked, I had this moment where I – I knew what I was about to do, and I just – did it anyway. And then the third time was –”

 

“After the Coffin,” Georgie guesses. The look on her face is that mixture of sadness and pity that haunted Jon in their shared nightmares for so long.

 

“Yes.” Jon keeps his eyes downcast. “And the fourth time was after I – well, I tried too hard to Know something, and it sort of – took it out of me.”

 

“So the trigger is being injured, or weakened?”

 

“Maybe in the beginning. The last time, though… I was feeling weak, yes, but there was no specific incident that precipitated it. Basira needed me at full strength for a mission. So I Knew where I could find a statement, and I made sure to be in the right place at the right time.” He wrings his hands in his lap. “But the mission was just the way I rationalized it to myself. I was just hungry. I would’ve fed regardless, and reached for whatever excuse was closest to hand, and felt guilty later, and – well, rinse and repeat.”

 

“You didn’t quite answer when I asked before, but… is it an addiction, or is it sustenance?”

 

“It’s a… need.” Jon bites his lip in thought. “Feels like addiction sometimes, but the compulsion is worse than nicotine cravings ever were. And when I tried to stop, it – it wasn’t only withdrawal. I actually was starving. Still don’t know if it would have actually killed me, but…” He shrugs. “Suppose we’ll find out.”

 

“Jon –”

 

“But I – I need you to understand,” Jon says, jolting up straight in his seat. “I’m not making excuses. I’m done making excuses, there are no excuses, just – explanations. I was influenced, yes, and it often felt like being – enthralled, but I still… I knew that I was dangerous, that what I was doing was wrong. If I thought I couldn’t help myself, I should’ve told the others from the start and they would’ve done what was necessary. I always felt ashamed after, but I still – kept doing it, until I was forced to stop.”

 

Did he ever stop? If not for his encounters with Breekon and Jared Hopworth and Manuela Dominguez, would Jon have been hungrier, hunted more frequently, accrued even more victims? And just how much did gorging himself on Peter Lukas' statement sustain Jon through those first couple of weeks at the safehouse? The relative peace of those days had been haunted by an undercurrent of need that grew louder with every passing day. By the end of the first week, Jon no longer trusted himself to visit the village, even with Martin's supervision. The final few days before Basira's shipment of statements arrived had been torturous. Would he have lasted that long if not for Peter's statement? How much longer could Jon have gone without feeding the Eye? Which would have come first: starvation or relapse? Would instinct have taken over at some point, sent him prowling on autopilot? Or would Jon have knowingly given in to the hunger, just as he had before?

 

Jon never had to learn the answers to those questions, never had to test the true limits of his resolve and capacity for self-control. When the box of statements was finally delivered, the short-lived relief was marred by resentment (that the need existed in the first place, that he had allowed himself to stray so far from humanity); by trepidation (over whether he really could subsist entirely on stale statements, whether he was only prolonging the inevitable); by grief (that the Beholding should permeate every aspect of his existence, that it should intrude on what should be a refuge). For a moment, though, it seemed that things would be okay, at least for the immediate future.

 

Until Jon read a statement – one that ensured that he would always be well-fed. And there was a hated, feared, monstrous part of him that was relieved at that knowledge – that looked upon that fresh new nightmare world and thought it right.

 

“I didn’t just need it, Georgie, I wanted it. I – I liked it. It felt good. And I know for a fact that it still would, if I let myself do it again. I’ve seen the consequences of becoming – that, and I still…” His shoulders sag. “I miss it. I’m afraid I’ll never stop wanting it, I hate myself for that, and it changes nothing.”

 

“You’re hungry now, aren’t you?” Georgie asks gently.

 

Jon tsks and pinches the bridge of his nose. “That obvious, is it?”

 

“Mm.” She gives him a sympathetic smile. “You seem more jittery than usual. And you’re shaking.”

 

“Ravenous,” he says with a bitter laugh. “Worst I’ve been in – a long while, and it’s only going to get worse.”

 

He lets his gaze drift to the floor as he briefly debates whether to share the details. She should probably know what manner of monster she’s dealing with.

 

“Actually, ah – someone upstairs has a statement,” he says before he can lose his nerve. “She was writing it out just before we came down here, and I could See the shape of it, but not the whole story, and now I can’t See her anymore, and I – I need –” He runs a frustrated hand through his hair, scraping ragged fingernails against his scalp. “Christ, Georgie, it’s all I can do not to rush up there and rip it out of her.”

 

“I’m sorry.”

 

“Not your fault.”

 

“Not yours, either. Don’t,” Georgie says, cutting him off when he opens his mouth to launch into another tirade. “I’m not saying that you were justified in hurting people. But you didn’t choose to be… this.”

 

“I may not have wanted it,” he says flatly, “but I did choose it.”

 

“How so?”

 

She sounds genuinely curious, not confrontational, which keeps him from going on the defensive. Instead, the question gives Jon pause.

 

“I… I don’t know how to explain it,” he says slowly, frowning. “Just – something Jonah said to me, and it – feels right.”

 

“He said that to you?” Georgie’s eyes narrow as she watches him. “Those words?”

 

“Yes?” Jon squirms in his seat; sometimes, Georgie’s scrutiny is on par with that of the Beholding. “A long time ago. Before the Unknowing, even. When I realized that I was becoming something – not human, and confronted him about it.”

 

Georgie taps a knuckle against her lips, looking down at the floor in thought.

 

“Jon, I’m going to say something, and I want you to think about it – really think about it, don’t just discard it offhand. Alright?”

 

“Okay?” Jon says, apprehension flooding him.

 

Georgie takes a breath and looks him in the eye. “Supernatural flavor aside, that’s just how abusers talk in order to groom their victims.”

 

Jon recoils as if struck and shoves the information away from him almost as soon as the words leave her mouth.

 

“Does it really matter?” It comes out far more harshly than he had intended, closer to a shout than a comment, and he cringes. “Sorry. It’s just – he had a point.”

 

“Jon –”

 

“No, I chose to keep looking for answers at every turn,” Jon says, gesticulating wildly. “I’ve never known when to just stop, no matter how many times people get hurt from it. I was a perfect fit for the Beholding, the perfect candidate for Jonah to do with what he will, and I – I still am. Doesn’t matter if I wanted this outcome. I still sought it out. Moth to a fucking flame.”

 

“Doesn’t mean you chose it, and it doesn’t mean you deserved what happened to you,” Georgie says. For some reason that Jon can’t quite pinpoint, the quiet confidence with which she speaks grates on his nerves. “And anyway, it seems to me you’re doing a decent job at controlling yourself now.”

 

“Yeah,” Jon scoffs. “Only it took Basira threatening to kill me.”

 

“She what?”

 

“Not recently. In my future. It was warranted,” he says with a dismissive gesture. Then he sighs, slouching in his seat. “And I don’t know if even that threat would have stopped me forever. Didn’t have to find out. I managed to end the world first, and then I had all the fear I could ever want.”

 

The moment he stops speaking, his mind once again drifts to the statement ripe for the taking just upstairs. His bitter expression turns anguished and he buries his face in his hands.

 

“I want to kill the part of me that misses it. That might just kill all of me, but honestly, Georgie, I don’t – I don’t know if that would be such a bad thing –” He chokes on his words and looks up at her with wide, frantic eyes. “I – I’m sorry, I didn’t – I shouldn’t have said –” He takes a deep breath and forces assurance into his voice when he says, “I’m not suicidal.”

 

“I won’t be angry if you are,” Georgie says evenly, “if that’s what you’re worried about.”

 

“I’m not suicidal,” he says again, but he looks away as he does, unable to meet her eyes. “I don’t – want to die. I just feel like as long as I’m around, everyone – everything is in danger, and – what right to I have to make that decision for the world? It’s – selfish, and – I really don’t deserve a second chance, especially when part of me still…”

 

Jon swallows hard. Once again, he wonders if the woman with the statement is still here. He pinches the skin of his arm and twists. Noticing the tic, Georgie frowns and opens her mouth to redirect him, but he carries on speaking, undeterred.

 

“I think the only reason I chose to wake up again is because I needed to help Daisy and Martin. I think the only reason I’m still alive now is because I don’t want to leave Martin alone. Or – no, that makes it sound out of obligation or – or guilt. It's not that. It's – I – I want to be with him, I do. I actively want to – to have a life with him, just – live, be. If not for that, though, I… I’m tired, Georgie.”

 

Tired of hurting and being hurt, of watching and being watched. Tired of hunger and want and an existence that hinges upon the misery of others. Tired loss and scars and nightmares. Tired of having to settle for not wanting to die instead of wanting to live. Tired of just surviving instead of actually living.

 

“I’m just tired,” he says, putting his head in his hands again. “I’m sorry. I know you don’t want to hear this.”

 

“I would rather you talk about it than keep it bottled up.”

 

“I just don’t want you to think that I’m not trying to get better.”

 

“Recovery isn’t linear. I’m not going to leave just because you have bad days. It would be different if you were closed off, denying you have a problem, but… you’re not.” When Jon doesn’t answer, Georgie's frown deepens. Her next words sound almost affronted. “I’ve been suicidal, Jon, you know that. Why do you think I’d hold it against you? I know you can’t just flip a switch to make it go away. Why are you so afraid –” Realization dawns on her face. “I left last time, didn’t I?”

 

“I never regained autonomy in the nightmares, so I didn’t get a chance to talk to you before I woke up.” Jon shrugs halfheartedly. “You didn’t expect me to wake up. Then I did, and I didn’t have any of the complications to be expected from a six-months coma. Not even a coma, really, just – everything but brain dead. A corpse coming back to life – I think it was too much for you. You told me I needed people to keep me human, and by the time I took that advice there was no one left to turn to, and now I wasn’t human anymore. It kept me from dying, but you didn’t think it was a second chance.”

 

“I said that to you?”

 

“The, uh, last bit,” he says reluctantly. He doesn’t blame Georgie for leaving, but he can’t deny that her parting words to him on that day still sting, even now – a resounding condemnation that he can’t quite shake. “But you weren’t wrong,” he says, rushing to reassure her when he sees the horrified look on her face. “It wasn’t a second chance, it was just… the next phase of the Archivist’s development. Anyway, you were tired of watching me self-destruct, you knew there was nothing you could to do change my trajectory, and you didn’t want me to drag you down with me. Or Melanie. Her life had – has, I suppose – been nothing but misery since the day she met me. She was trying to get out, to get better.”

 

“And you?”

 

“I wanted to, but I just… couldn’t see a way out. I couldn’t leave, but I…” He bites down hard on his lower lip, struggling with his next words. “I don’t think I was choosing to stay involved, either.”

 

“And I thought you were.”

 

“You weren’t the only one. And it wasn’t an unfair assumption. I was” – am, his brain corrects “in too deep. I didn’t” – don’t, he reminds himself – “belong in normal life anymore. I couldn’t” – can’t, he does not say aloud – “reverse the change. Even when I found out how to quit… I couldn’t just leave Martin here alone. Also, I know now that it wouldn’t have worked for me anyway.”

 

“It would’ve killed you,” Georgie guesses.

 

“No such luck,” he says with a short laugh. Instantly, he feels the blood drain from his face. He looks up and fixes Georgie with a panicked, apologetic look. “Sorry, I – that was in poor taste, it’s just – that was what went through my mind when I first realized it.”

 

“It’s alright.”

 

Jon clears his throat, still somewhat shamefaced.

 

“What I mean is that I, ah, tried to blind myself during the Ritual. Turns out I heal too quickly for it to have any effect on my connection with the Beholding. Otherwise I’d have tried it again the moment I woke up in the hospital.”

 

Georgie says nothing. When he chances a glimpse of her, he sees no judgment or anger, just more of that familiar, gentle sadness. He has to look away again.

 

“I don’t blame you for walking away back then. You didn’t have the whole picture. Neither did I, but even if I did, I probably wouldn’t have given you all the details, and you knew that. I can’t fault you for not wanting to stay involved when you didn’t know what being involved would actually entail.” He looks up and meets her eyes. “Honestly, Georgie, even if you’d stayed, I probably would have made all the same mistakes. I would have continued putting myself in danger and downplaying it. I would still have gone into the Coffin, but I wouldn’t have told you where I was going beforehand. I would likely have distanced myself from you on my own, because I’d have convinced myself it was in your best interests without asking you how you felt about it. I’ve… changed since then, but at the time, I probably would have continued retracing the same patterns. You would have only gotten hurt, even if it wasn’t my intention.”

 

“Maybe.” Georgie frowns, chin propped on her fist as she considers. “I can’t speak for a version of me that doesn’t exist anymore. But for what it’s worth, I’m sorry you were alone.”

 

“And I’m sorry I didn’t realize how much I didn’t want to be alone until it was too late.”

 

“It’s not too late now, though,” she says with a cautious smile.

 

“No, I suppose not.” Jon’s answering smile fades as he gives her a serious look. “None of this obligates you to stick around, by the way.”

 

“I know.”

 

“I’m serious. I’m glad you’re here, but…” It’s more than I deserve, he almost says, but stops himself when he imagines Georgie’s reaction to that. “I don't want things to become – toxic, between us. If it gets to be too much, I’ll understand.”

 

“If it does, it won’t be just because you had a setback. Just – try not to wallow too much when you do, alright? You’re not good company for yourself when you’re like that.”

 

“Yeah,” Jon concedes on a long exhale.

 

Georgie sighs as well, a pensive look on her face.

 

“I think I may have given you the wrong impression before. When I made you promise that you didn’t have a death wish, it wasn’t because I was going to leave if you’re suicidal. It was because I don’t want to be lied to about it if you are. I don’t want to be blindsided by your self-destruction, or made complicit in it. It isn’t fair to me.”

 

“I don’t want that either,” Jon says softly. “And I – I wasn’t lying before, when I promised you that the Coffin wasn’t a death wish. I just… I thought…”

 

“You thought you could make the decision to live once and be done with it.”

 

“Sounds foolish when you put it like that, but… yes, I suppose so.”

 

“Would be nice if it worked like that,” Georgie says with a rueful smile. Then she sighs. “I’m not expecting you to get better overnight, and neither should you – especially when you’re still in the thick of it. I’m just expecting you to communicate when things get bad, rather than throwing yourself onto the nearest grenade as – atonement, or punishment, or some misguided belief that you have to earn the right to live. I won’t be a party to that. I can’t. I don’t… hold it against you personally, I get it, I’ve been there – but that’s why I can’t be around it. Do you understand?”

 

“Yes.”

 

“To be clear,” she says emphatically, waiting until he meets her eye before continuing, “I don’t mind hearing about those thoughts. I take issue with you acting on them with no regard for yourself or the people around you, and then minimizing the consequences. And that – that isn’t a value judgment. It’s just… watching you get trapped in that cycle, it takes me to a bad place.” Georgie chews on her lip for a moment, and then nods, as if coming to a conclusion. “If you were looking for a boundary, there it is. I know you can’t avoid danger entirely, but when you’re feeling like this, can you at least promise to talk to someone before making any drastic decisions? You have to let us know if you’re in a bad way, because it will affect your judgment.”

 

Jon lets out a long exhale. “I will.”

 

“Okay. I can live with that.”

 

“Thank you,” he murmurs, self-conscious.

 

“About your voice, though.” Jon gives her a quizzical look. “I thought it was wholly a supernatural thing, but…” Georgie looks up at the ceiling, gathering her thoughts, and then adopts a delicate tone. “Have you considered that it might also be a – a trauma response?”

 

“I didn’t before.”

 

“And now?”

 

“I… I don’t know. It first started partway through the apocalypse. The more I experienced, the more the Archive asserted itself. I was still me, most of the time, but I was also – more, I suppose? It’s… complicated.” Jon rakes his fingers through his hair as he works on his phrasing. “The human mind was never meant to contain that… much. The Archive’s purpose is to – well, to archive. Every instance of fear and suffering in that place was a statement. Billions of them, every moment recorded live – and when I read or take a statement, I live it vicariously. My own experience of it is… an essential part of the recording process.” He blows out a puff of air. “So I had a lot going through my head at any given moment. The human in me couldn’t be conscious of all of it at the same time.”

 

“That’s… horrible.”

 

“Yes. And it felt right.” He rubs one arm absently, looking off to the side. “I don’t think I was meant to survive – the human part of me, that is. I was just one mind; I should have gotten lost in the multitude. And I did, sometimes, but… I always found my way back. Martin always called me back. If not for him…”

 

If not for him, Jon would have lost his sense of self in the Archive, given up and accepted the role assigned to him, much like he suspects Gertrude would have. When he lost Martin, Jon almost did lose himself as well. He still wonders how close he actually came to losing all semblance of personal identity. To becoming nothing but fear: a collection of the ongoing nightmares of billions of strangers, no longer able to distinguish between their terror and his own.

 

“Either way, I was – above all else, I was still an Archive. I learned to compartmentalize, to an extent, but I was never meant to have my own voice. At some point, it got lost in all the noise. If I wanted to communicate, I could only use the stories hoarded away in the Archive.”

 

Jon frowns in consideration, actively weighing the most likely theories as he talks himself through the evidence.

 

“I… don’t think it was purely a psychological response,” he says slowly, gaining in confidence as he speaks the words. “I think it was a consequence of what I was in that place. The Archive was part of that world’s fabric, so to speak. But this reality operates differently than the one I came from. Its natural laws aren’t dictated by the Beholding. It has… less prominence here. Case in point, I’m significantly less powerful now than I was in my future.”

 

Georgie raises an eyebrow. “How powerful are we talking?”

 

“I was an apex predator among monsters. A direct conduit of the Ceaseless Watcher. Oh,” he adds offhandedly, “and I Knew everything.”

 

“What.”

 

“Well – almost everything. And not all at once. It was more that I – I was able to Know almost anything if I looked for the answer.” He allows himself a small grin. “Post-apocalyptic Google, so to speak.”

 

“Sounds… useful?”

 

“In some ways. It’s awful to say, but I miss it sometimes. Having control over it, mostly. I could stop myself from Knowing things about a person, give them more privacy. But I also couldn’t opt out of Knowing entirely. I just… had more control over what I Knew and when. And there were still things I couldn’t Know. The Beholding will hoard almost any scrap of information, but it has a clear preference for the horrific. It was utterly silent on anything related to an after – an afterlife, a reversal of the apocalypse, any sort of escape or release from the nightmare.”

 

“God,” Georgie murmurs, almost to herself.

 

“Jury’s out on that one, too.”

 

“No, I just meant –” Georgie pauses when she sees Jon smirk. “Oh, I see. You’re just being a smartass.” She shoots him a grin and nudges him with her foot. “What about now? Do you still –”

 

“I don’t have near as much control over it as I used to, no. I can remember the things that I consciously chose to Know then, but… that sea of knowledge, all those potential answers to any hypothetical questions – my access to it is limited now. And I’m Knowing things unintentionally again.”

 

“What about the Archive – the statements?”

 

“When I first woke up, it felt – the same as it did in the future. A sort of – wall of static that lowered whenever I tried to use my own words. It lifted in the Buried, because I was cut off from the Eye – from the Archive. I thought it would reassert itself when I came back – and it did for a minute – but now it’s…” Jon stares down at his hands, clenched tightly in his lap. “I still have recall of all the statements I already had archived. Not all at once, more like a – like a database, I suppose, but – they’re there if I look for them. The Archive is still there, and sometimes it slips through, but… it’s not as dominant as it was before. And seeing as I can speak at all, apparently state of mind is more of a factor than I thought. At least right now. Not sure about before.”

 

“Well,” Georgie says, “even if you have more control over it now, it doesn’t mean you always did. Sometimes circumstances change.”

 

“Maybe,” Jon says, his thoughts already beginning to stray. Georgie sighs in exasperation.

 

“Just because there’s a future where things are better doesn’t mean you’re a failure for things being bad in the present. Jon, look at me.” He does, albeit reluctantly. “What you’ve gone through isn’t something that you just get over. It’s always going to be there. That doesn’t mean things will never get better. It just means that you need to make peace with the fact that you’ll have ups and downs. If you turn on yourself every time you’re struggling, you’ll never notice the moments of progress. And if you see every instance of progress as an opportunity to berate yourself for not achieving it sooner, then, well – I’m sorry, but things aren’t going to get better.”

 

“I – I know. It’s just…”

 

“Difficult. I know. I’ve been there.” Her expression softens. “I’m not trying to be harsh. I don’t expect one conversation to change the way you think. It takes years of practice to break that sort of pattern. But when you need reminders – and you will, and I won’t be disappointed when you do – I’m going to keep giving them to you. I’ll ask you to at least consider them each time before dismissing them outright. Does that sound fair?”

 

“More than,” Jon says, giving her a weak smile.

 

“Good, because I seem to recall you making the same request of me once upon a time.”

 

Did I? Jon thinks back and draws a blank. Not for the first time, he curses how unreliable his memory can be.

 

“Still,” he says, “I’m sorry to be such a –”

 

“If you say ‘burden’ or anything to that effect, I actually will be cross with you.”

 

“Noted,” Jon says with an embarrassed chuckle. “But – sincerely, I – I know that right now I’m –” Dead weight, he almost says. Volatile. Tiresome. Untrustworthy. A walking doomsday button. Georgie gives him a warning look, silently urging him to consider his next words carefully. “Struggling,” he opts for. “But I do want to be there for you if you need me, in whatever way I can, so… open invitation to confide in me, or ask for help, or – or anything you need.”

 

“That was eloquent,” she replies with a teasing smirk. Jon rolls his eyes.

 

“Ironically, I think I was more eloquent when I was the Archive.”

 

“Eloquent in a poetic sense, maybe,” Georgie says with mock thoughtfulness, “but it didn’t lend itself to clarity.”

 

Another hunger pang rips through Jon's mind and he clenches his jaw, curling his shaking hands into fists.

 

“Hey.” Georgie prods his foot with hers again. “You ready to see Martin?”

 

“I, ah…” Jon gives a nervous laugh. “I want to see him more than anything, but I’m also – terrified? I know things won’t be how I remember them, I know I have to adjust my expectations, but I don’t know what to adjust them to, and I don’t know what to expect from myself, either, and…”

 

And the hunger is eating away at him from the inside out, an incessant undercurrent of need-want-feed running parallel with every other thought vying for his attention. He brings his hands to his face, puts pressure on his eyes, grounds himself in the ache. Almost immediately, his brain latches onto the words pressure and ground and suddenly he’s comparing the cravings to being buried alive, to drowning in noise, to being suffocated by the crush of stories that was – is – destined to comprise the entirety of his being. He’s being drawn over the threshold of that ubiquitous, baleful door in his mind: hated and feared, yes, but completing him all the same.

 

Guess that’s the thing about being the chosen one, Arthur Nolan’s words echo in the Archive’s halls. At the end of it, you’re always just the point of someone else’s story, everyone clamoring to say what you were, what you meant, and your thoughts on it all don’t mean nothing.

 

Jon tries to dislodge the statement, but there is no stop button to corral the Archive, and the story continues on: It seeds us with this… aching, impossible desire to change the world, to bring it to us.

 

There are hundreds of thousands of words pounding on the door now, none of them his own, an endless stream of them queuing up in his throat, cramming into his lungs – and with a painful lurch, he’s falling down, down, down –

 

Breathe, comes the familiar mantra.

 

On the one hand, he’s glad for how quickly and mindlessly that coping mechanism kicks in by now. On the other hand, he wishes he didn’t have so many opportunities to practice that it’s become so ingrained in the first place. There is something different about it this time, though. Usually, he imagines the command in his own voice, or occasionally Martin’s. Just now, he could pick out multiple tones, all overlapping: Martin. Georgie. Basira. Daisy. Himself.

 

The effect is potent. It allows him to walk himself back from the edge in record time. The hunger still scratches impatiently at the door, but he manages to tear his attention away from it long enough to remember where and when and who he is. When he glances back up, he realizes that only a few seconds have transpired – a storm so brief that apparently even Georgie didn’t register its passing. Instead, she’s staring over his shoulder. She catches his eye, raises her eyebrows, and nods, indicating something behind him.

 

“Well,” she says with a smile both amused and reassuring, “I think you’re about to find out.”

 

Another stab of panic shoots through him, shattering his momentary calm. Time stands still. When lightheadedness overtakes him and his vision starts to pixelate, he realizes that he’s been holding his breath. He lets out a juddering exhale, and turns around.

 

When he lays eyes on Martin, Jon is speechless all over again.

 


 

Martin startles when Jon’s eyes lock onto his, still unaccustomed to and unsettled by such direct eye contact. He immediately regrets that reaction when he watches Jon recoil and avert his eyes. The reflexive urge to vanish overtakes Martin then – and he feels himself begin to panic a little more when it yields no results. He had been accessing that power up until moments ago, when he dropped the veil; why is it suddenly out of reach now?

 

“Hi, Martin,” Georgie says, apparently unperturbed by the awkward atmosphere. “I was just keeping Jon company until you got here, but I’ll give you two some privacy now.” She stands, stretches, and brings one arm down to touch Jon’s shoulder. “I’ll be here for a while yet. If you need me, I’ll probably be in Melanie’s usual spot.”

 

Martin can see Jon incline his head slightly. If Jon sees her reassuring smile, he gives no indication. Georgie gives his shoulder another pat and starts to walk towards the ladder. Martin steps aside, giving her a wide berth – force of habit – and watches until the trapdoor closes behind her.

 

For what feels like an interminable moment, the stale air hangs heavy with silence. Martin stands rigid, mind drawing a blank. Could cut the tension in here with a bread knife, he thinks to himself, somewhat hysterically.

 

Jon, for his part, is staring steadfastly at the ground, utterly unmoving – and Martin’s heart wrenches painfully in his chest at the sight.

 

Of all the adjectives that could be used to describe Jonathan Sims, unmoving has never been one of them. When he’s not running his hands through his hair or scratching at his skin, he’s bouncing his legs, tapping his fingers, biting the insides of his cheeks, pacing, rocking in place – an endless rotation of fidgets and stims, flowing one into the next. When he’s excited, his eyes light up, intense and intelligent and impossible to break away from; he interrupts himself in his rush to translate his thoughts into speech before he loses them entirely; he’s a flurry of animated gestures and borderline manic pacing. Even at rest, his eyes are bright with questions and his hands flutter when he talks; even exhausted and lethargic, his mind is a hummingbird flitting from thought to thought with frantic abandon, eager to catalog every detail and cover every angle.

 

Sometimes, it’s vicariously exhausting to witness; most of the time, Martin is hopelessly endeared. In all the time that Martin has known him, the coma was the first time he ever saw Jon entirely still. Martin used to wish on occasion that he had more chances to just look at him. Up until that point, he’d had to make do with furtive glances and stolen moments when Jon was too engrossed in a task to notice Martin staring. In the hospital, Martin finally had a chance to really study him freely.

 

Stillness doesn’t suit him, Martin remembers thinking – and another piece of his heart chipped away.

 

Unconsciously, Martin finds himself studying Jon again now. He sits hunched forward with his arms folded tightly in front of him, a white-knuckled grip on each elbow, his narrow shoulders pulled in and forward. Judging from the predictably mussed state of his hair, he must have been combing his fingers through it nonstop recently. His lips are chapped and torn from chewing; the dark circles under his eyes seem to have shadows of their own. His multiple layers of clothing do nothing to hide the gauntness of his frame or the frailness of his wrists.

 

Jon is awake now, yes, but still he looks… distant. Listless. Too close to lifeless for comfort; too reminiscent of deathbeds and silent monitors and grey hospital linens. So Martin breaks the silence.

 

“Jon.”

 

He doesn’t raise his head, but his eyes flick upwards to gaze at Martin through his lashes. Sharp eyes, haunted eyes, more and more so with every passing day – and now, they’re downright bleak. Still, though, they’re beautiful: a rich brown, dark and deep enough to fall into, and Martin could lose himself in them gladly. Then, Jon breaks eye contact again, curling in on himself even further.

 

How is it that he manages to look more run down every time I see him? Martin thinks, and then he notices Jon’s hands, trembling in his lap now.

 

“You’re shaking.”

 

“Yes.” The word cracks on its way out, coming out as little more than a croak. Jon clears his throat before trying again. “Just, ah – just hungry.”

 

“You’ve been back a few hours now, haven’t you eaten yet?” Martin replies automatically, the caretaker in him taking charge. “Jon, you were in there for over a week, you need to –”

 

“Not – not that kind of hunger.” Jon finally raises his head, but his eyes still dart away from Martin’s every few moments.

 

“Oh,” Martin says quietly. “Statements.”

 

“Yeah.” Jon scuffs one foot against the floor.

 

“W-well, I can wait, if you want to go record one?”

 

“No, I –” Jon clears his throat again, sitting up straighter in his seat. “I’d prefer to talk. If that’s alright with you. I’m sure you have questions for me.”

 

Martin considers. On the one hand, his instinct is to insist that Jon take care of himself first. On the other hand, he knows how stubborn Jon can be. Arguing about it wouldn’t change his mind, only waste time and ultimately leave him waiting longer for a meal.

 

“Yeah,” Martin says with a reluctant sigh, “I guess.”

 

“R-right. Well…” One end of Jon’s scarf trails in his lap, and he runs his fingertips over it, in the same way that one might pet a cat. “I – I’ll answer them as best I can.”

 

“Right,” Martin echoes.

 

“Would you like to sit?”

 

Martin nods wordlessly and takes a seat opposite Jon, but his mind goes blank again.

 

“Georgie said she explained things?” Jon tries tentatively.

 

“Sort of. She said she was working on an incomplete explanation herself.”

 

“Yes, that was – that was my fault. I was having some –”

 

“Speech difficulties, yeah. She said.”

 

“Which is also why my message to you was so…” Jon sighs. “I would have preferred to use my own words.”

 

“But did you mean it?” Martin blurts out. He feels his face heat in an instant and he has to look away.

 

“Yes,” Jon says quietly. Confidently, Martin notes privately, blushing more deeply. “The sentiment was all mine. I know it may seem – out of the blue, from your perspective, but I – I meant it, all of it.” Jon ducks his head, but doesn’t look away. “I, uh – I still do.”

 

It’s Martin’s turn to break eye contact, keen to look anywhere other than into Jon’s eyes and the open, sincere warmth living there.

 

“I’m not the person you remember,” Martin says stiffly.

 

“Neither am I,” Jon replies, his voice softer than Martin has ever heard it.

 

Martin’s throat works as he swallows hard. “I’m not the person you fell in love with.”

 

“I disagree,” Jon says, with more of his earlier assurance.

 

“I’m not,” Martin insists. “I don’t know what the me of the future was like, but I’m not – I’m not him. Whatever he did to make you fall for him, it’s – it’s not me.”

 

“Martin, I fell in love with this version of you,” Jon replies, tremulous and beseeching. “With every version of you.”

 

Martin just stares. Jon smiles at him: soft, sad, sorry, sincere.

 

“I – I know it’s difficult to believe. I treated you – horribly, and for so long. Took you for granted. Never gave you the respect or care you deserved. I… I don’t think I’ll ever stop being sorry for that.” He maintains eye contact, and Martin finds that he cannot look away. “I’ve never been… good at this sort of thing – putting words to how I feel. In retrospect, I was falling for you all along. Before the Unknowing. I just – didn’t realize how much until I woke up and you weren’t there. There was a – an empty space where you used to be, and I couldn’t… I was almost too late. I almost lost you –”

 

Martin is startled to see the sheen to Jon's eyes.

 

“I… I did lose you, eventually, and it nearly…” Jon's voice is rough with held back tears. He clears his throat, and when he speaks again, there’s an intensity to his voice that Martin just now realizes he’s missed. “But not – not until much later. Not here. Not now. Not to Peter fucking Lukas.”

 

Martin lets out a surprised, amused huff at the venom with which Jon says the name. Jon looks up, tilting his head slightly – and Martin can feel one corner of his mouth turning up ever so slightly at the familiar mannerism.

 

“Sorry,” he says. “Just – don’t hear you swear much.”

 

“Well, he deserves it,” Jon replies, half-scathing, half-embarrassed.

 

“Can’t say I disagree with you there,” Martin says with a tired chuckle.

 

“About – about Peter.” Once again, the name sounds poisonous on Jon’s tongue. “He’s lying to you –”

 

A bolt of annoyance shoots through Martin at that. “I’m not an idiot, Jon.”

 

“No,” Jon says hurriedly, his hands fluttering in agitation, “I didn’t mean to imply –” He breathes a heavy sigh, flustered. “I know that I – I underestimated you for far too long. But you’re clever, and capable, and you understand people in a way that I find endlessly impressive.” To his chagrin, Martin can feel himself redden at the unexpected praise. “You’re not gullible enough to trust Peter for a moment. I know that. And” – Jon grins at him with such open affection that Martin wants to flee – “last time, you outmaneuvered him so seamlessly that I – after seeing the look on Peter’s face, I – I'd already fallen in love with you, but if it was possible to fall just a little more, I think would have right then.”

 

Martin’s face is on fire now, must be.

 

“I trusted you then, wholeheartedly, and I still do,” Jon continues. “I… I’ll respect whatever decision you make going forward. Even if it means you continue working with Peter. But,” he adds, licking his lips nervously, “I have information now that we didn’t have the first time around, and I – I’d like you to know the whole story. It could have implications for whatever strategy you decide on.”

 

“You’re talking about the Extinction.”

 

“Among other things, yes.”

 

“Is it a real thing?”

 

Jon lets out a long exhale, looking off to the side with a pensive scowl. Martin can feel himself smile at the sight of that oh-so-familiar crease between his eyebrows, a telltale harbinger of a Jonathan Sims dissertation. Resting his chin in his hands and leaning forward, Martin settles in for an earful.

 

“Yes,” Jon says after a moment’s hesitation, “but – it’s more complicated than Peter assumes. It’s real insofar as it’s a pervasive terror for large swathes of the human population. Justifiably so, I think it’s fair to say. And it’s possible that, given existential threats like global climate change, nuclear weaponry proliferation, pandemics, war, artificial scarcity, structural oppression and inequality embedded in society worldwide…”

 

He counts off on his fingers, the line between his eyebrows deepening as he builds momentum.

 

“And of course we have a twenty-four-hour news cycle inundating us all with that reality, and – entire genres of literature and film utilizing those apocalyptic themes… well, suffice it to say, the fear of a world without us might eventually reach a point where it could be considered on par with Smirke’s Fourteen.

 

“But Smirke’s taxonomy is also an oversimplification. The human experience is far too varied and complex to be split into neat categories. The animal experience, rather. It’s likely that the Fears have existed since before the advent of modern Homo sapiens, and if we consider the origins of the Flesh – it would be anthropocentric to assume that only the human mind is subject to them, and” – Jon shakes his head – “I'm veering off topic. Point is, the Fears bleed into one another. It’s why a Ritual for a single power was never going to work, why Jonah – Elias’ Ritual was predicated on bringing through all Fourteen at once. Or, case in point, perhaps Fifteen. The Extinction did have a domain of its own after the change, it was just… less sprawling than the others, and there were fewer instances of it. And no Avatars dedicated to it, as far as I could tell.”

 

Jon taps two fingers against his lips, leg bouncing restlessly as he ponders his next words.

 

“As for an Emergence, though… I really don’t think there is such a thing as a grand birthing event. The Extinction is already here, in a way. Many of the statements feature more than one Fear at a time, precisely because the boundaries between them are so indistinct. Some of the statements that Adelard Dekker collected – I do think that they contain genuine examples of the Extinction as a coherent Fear of its own, just… mixed in with other Fears. I imagine the Extinction’s trajectory might be similar to that of the Flesh – arising as times change, as more and more minds collectively experience that flavor of fear.

 

“It might be a quick evolution – similar to how anthropogenic climate change has followed an exponential growth curve, aptly enough – but I don’t think that the Extinction is or – or will be somehow more formidable than the other Fourteen.” Jon's speech turns rapid-fire as he bounces from one thought to the next. “It can’t exist independently of the other Fourteen any more than the others can, so a Ritual on its behalf would collapse under its own weight. If there is a grand extinction event – well, when, I suppose; nothing lasts forever, the End claims everything eventually, time continues its slow crawl towards the inevitable heat death of the universe, et cetera –”

 

Jon is counting off on his fingers again. Martin shakes his head fondly.

 

“But it won't occur because of an Extinction Ritual,” Jon goes on. “There was an apocalypse where I came from, and it had nothing to do with the Extinction. Just… a very human flavor of monstrosity: the pursuit of power and personal gain, even at the cost of unimaginable suffering for everyone else.” He gives a humorless laugh. “Fittingly enough, though, it all started from a place of fear – of mortality, of subjugation, of the unknown.” His expression falls, voice dropping to a near whisper. “And – and my own fear led me to the eye of that storm, so to speak. All of it can be traced back to that foundational fear of the unknown, can't it? The roots just… branch outward from there.”

 

Jon’s already trembling hands twitch abruptly, as if snapping something in two. He doesn’t appear to notice the gesture, too lost in his own thoughts. Before Martin can voice his concern at the shift in demeanor, Jon shakes his head and forges onward. He reverts to his previous hyperfocused, almost academic manner, but an undercurrent of anxious energy lingers.

 

“Anyway, I actually suspect that, much like the End, the Extinction wouldn’t benefit from a Ritual even if one could work. It thrives on the potentiality of a mass extinction event, not the fulfillment of one. The Fears will cease to exist when there are no longer minds to fear them. Of course, it doesn’t have to be humans, or any creature currently living. If something does come after us, the Fears will likely survive and adapt, but otherwise –”

 

Jon finally makes eye contact with Martin for the first time in minutes and stops short.

 

“Oh,” he says, mortified, “I’ve been… rambling, haven’t I.”

 

“I don’t mind,” Martin replies, unable to fight back a smile.

 

“W-well, anyway…” Jon rubs the back of his neck, looking thoroughly embarrassed. “I don’t believe that the Extinction is the world-ending threat that Peter claims, so if you were planning on continuing to work with him because of that…” He shrugs. “Also, his plan for you was never about the Extinction. Not really. He was – is – genuinely worried about the Extinction, but his plan to stop it is to have the Forsaken destroy the world first. But it hasn’t been long since his last Ritual failed; he knows it will be some time before he can try again. His immediate plan is all about one-upping Elias, taking control of the Panopticon, and accruing power, to increase the chances of success for his next Ritual attempt.”

 

Jon exhales another humorless laugh, and his voice takes on an odd, breathless quality as he continues.

 

“Not all that different from Jonah Magnus, really. His allegiance to the Eye began when he realized that his peers would continue attempting their own Rituals. His solution was to destroy the world before they could. So afraid of his own mortality that he was willing to subjugate the entire human population for his own benefit.” Jon folds his arms again, tucking them against his middle and leaning forward, as if trying to make himself smaller. When he speaks again, there’s a noticeable waver in his voice. “Somewhere along the line, he went beyond justifying his actions – jumped right to taking pleasure in them.”

 

Jon’s sharp eyes go unfocused. The rise and fall of his chest quickens.

 

“I’m sorry,” Martin says gently. He doesn’t know what else he can say.

 

“For what?” Jon asks, coming back to himself after an overlong pause.

 

“Georgie told me what he did to you. I mean, she didn’t go into detail, but she mentioned that he possessed you and used you to –”

 

“It wasn’t possession,” Jon interrupts, a desperate edge to his tone. “Not in the conventional horror movie sense. It was the same compulsion that takes me when I start reading any statement, just – more intense. I couldn’t – c-couldn’t control my body, but he wasn’t actually in my head, it just – felt like it, like he’d crawled into my skin along with his words. Then again, I –” Jon laughs, gripping one wrist with his other hand, fingernails digging grooves into scarred skin. “I suppose I was possessed in a way, in the sense of being someone else’s possession. Have been for a long time – haven’t belonged to myself since the moment he chose me, still don’t –”

 

Jon’s gaze goes distant yet again, and Martin watches with burgeoning worry as his pupils dilate and constrict with the fluctuation of his voice.

 

“…he posited a future where – humanity was violently and utterly supplanted –”

“– marked me as a part of that, without my understanding. Or consent –”

 

“Jon?” Martin says, apprehensive.

 

“– keep me in the dark just so I wouldn’t stop being useful – made me complicit in a thousand different nightmares, and lives ruined for the sick joy of some otherworldly voyeur –”

“– any future I might have had, sacrificed to his –”

 

“Jon, what’s –?”

 

There’s a singsong tenor to his voice and an intensity to his eyes now, reminiscent of the look he gets when he records –

 

Oh, Martin realizes. Statements.

 

“– I swear I could still feel those – eyes follow me – a grin of victory playing upon his lips –”

 

“Jon,” Martin says again, more insistently, reaching out on impulse to place a hand on Jon’s knee.

 

Cognizance flares to life in Jon’s eyes and his hands fly up to cover his mouth. He seems to struggle with himself for a minute, stolen words muffled beneath the hands pressed tight to his lips. He makes a noise that sounds almost like choking, or sobbing; he looks at Martin with wide, watery eyes, then takes a deep breath in. A quiet whimper chases the air out on his exhale, and Martin’s own breath catches in his throat. He’s seen Jon scared, but he’s never heard him make a sound quite like that – not while bleeding out from a fresh stab wound, not with a gash in his neck, not fumbling to apply ointment to a burned and peeling hand, not even with worms burrowing through his flesh and a corkscrew tearing through the tunnels they left behind.

 

“You’re okay,” Martin says, willing it to be true.

 

“I don’t – I don’t want to talk about him anymore,” Jon says abruptly, then winces apologetically. “Sorry, that was – I didn’t mean to sound cross, I just –” He flaps his hands, lips moving wordlessly.

 

“It’s okay, I understand.”

 

Jon nods, but his breaths are still coming fast and shallow. One hand seeks out Martin’s, still resting on his knee; he grips it tight, fingers slotting between Martin’s like they belong there. The direct skin-to-skin contact sends pins and needles radiating up Martin’s arm, but he fights the impulse to draw back.

 

“We can talk about something else,” Martin says, forcing calm into his voice.

 

Jon inclines his head again, gulping down air. Even as his breathing begins to even out, the shivers coursing through him only grow more violent, the tremor in his hands becoming more and more pronounced.

 

“You need to eat something,” Martin says.

 

“N-no, I –”

 

“Yes, you do –”

 

“No!” The exclamation cracks like a whip and ricochets off the walls, echoing down the tunnel. Jon’s face crumples and he shrinks in on himself again. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to shout, I –”

 

“It’s fine –”

 

“It’s not.”

 

“We can argue about it when you’re not literally starving. I’ll go fetch a statement, and –”

 

“It won’t help.”

 

“What do you mean?”

 

Jon brings his free hand to his mouth and bites down on his knuckles.

 

“Jon?” Martin says again, more sternly. “What did you mean?”

 

“I’m – not just the Archivist, Martin, I’m the Archive. All of the statements stored upstairs, I already have them, every single one of them catalogued in my head, and – re-experiencing them takes the edge off while I’m reading, but as soon as the recording stops, the hunger comes back even stronger, and I want…” Jon gives him a pained look. “Did Georgie tell you about…?”

 

“She mentioned something about you putting yourself under house arrest because you’re afraid of hurting people.”

 

“It’s necessary,” Jon says, almost defensively.

 

“What will happen if you don’t take in new statements?” Jon says nothing, and Martin sighs. “Jon.”

 

“I don’t know.”

 

“Will you starve?”

 

“I don’t know.”

 

“Please don’t lie to me.”

 

“I don’t know,” Jon says, pulling his hand away from Martin’s and rubbing his eyes furiously. “It feels like starving, but I don’t know if it will actually kill me. But I don’t want to hurt people just to keep myself from hurting. I don’t want to be like –” He cuts himself off with a sharp intake of breath. “I’ve caused untold suffering as it is. I don’t want to hurt anyone else.”

 

“There was a woman giving a statement upstairs earlier –”

 

“I’m not taking her statement.” Jon’s reply is automatic, almost like a practiced line. It sounds as if he’s trying to convince himself more than Martin.

 

“I wasn’t suggesting –”

 

“Her name is Tricia Mallory,” Jon interjects. “It’s her birthday next week; she’ll be twenty-eight. She has two cats, and a parakeet, and a girlfriend named Shona, who has an engagement ring hidden in the bottom left drawer of her desk –”

 

“Why are you –”

 

“Because I’m so far removed from humanity at this point that I need to actively, continuously persuade myself not to see other people as cuts of meat.” Martin would have preferred snappish to the resigned, matter-of-fact, tired tone in which Jon gives that confession. “Her name is Tricia Mallory,” he recites again, in that same rehearsed manner. “She lost her voice in a minotaur’s labyrinth. She’s finding it again, slowly, but it will never be the same. Her nightmares are horrific enough without adding another monster to the mix. I’m not taking her statement.”

 

“What about just reading her written statement?” Martin asks. Jon blinks, slow and catlike, and Martin can see the uncanny glint of hunger in his eyes. “Have you already heard her story?”

 

“No,” Jon says after a sluggish pause. “I don’t think her statement ever made it down to the Archives the last time. And the knowledge of its content didn’t consciously come to me after the change. There were – so many other statements in progress by then. So much to See.”

 

“So it would be something new for you.” Jon is silent, staring off into the middle distance, unblinking, glassy eyes riveted on something only he can see. “Would that be enough to hold you over for now? It – it won’t be live and in person, but at least it won’t be… I don’t know, stale?”

 

“I…” Jon’s pupils dilate. Constrict. Dilate.

 

“She’s probably left by now,” Martin continues insistently. “I can go track down the statement and bring it back here.” Jon looks as if he’s warring with himself. “Please, Jon. It’s just a reading. You won’t hurt anyone.”

 

Blood wells up on Jon’s lip where he’s been biting it. Eventually, he gives a tiny nod, his shoulders going limp in defeat. Jon needs to eat, but Martin wishes it didn’t feel so much like pressuring someone to break sobriety.

 

“Okay,” Martin says, fighting back the surge of guilt, “I’ll be back as soon as I can. Please don’t go anywhere, alright?”

 

“Alright,” Jon replies in a nearly inaudible whisper.

 

Martin tosses a glance over his shoulder as he leaves. Jon is eerily still again but for the persistent shaking. He looks small, and haunted, and lost; fragile, precarious, with a posture that brings to mind something broken and taped back together in slapdash fashion.

 

First things first, Martin tells himself, and tries to focus on the task at hand.

 


 

Once the trapdoor closes behind Martin, Jon buries his face in his hands.

 

That wasn’t how he wanted this conversation to go. Just judging from his demeanor, Martin has shaken off the Lonely more than Jon had expected, but still, Jon should be the one comforting him. It took the Martin of the future ages to acclimate to the idea that he deserved to be cared for, too; to unlearn the reflex to reverse any attempt Jon made to take care of him for once. Right now, Martin needs to be shown that care, and yet Jon can’t manage to redirect his one-track mind away from his hunger for more than five minutes at a time. Selfish, selfish, selfish –

 

The slow creak of a door cuts through the silence, and Jon’s blood runs cold when Helen’s playful lilt rings out behind him.

 

“Archivist,” she says with unrestrained glee. “Long time no see.”

 

Jon had been dreading the Distortion’s inevitable reappearance. He should have known that she would make her entrance when he’s at his most vulnerable. Like a shark to blood, he thinks to himself, swallowing around the lump in his throat.

 

“Brooding, are we?”

 

“Hi, Helen,” he manages, struggling to stay impassive.

 

It doesn’t matter; he jumps anyway, when several long fingers – too many angles; too many joints – curl around his shoulder. As if her touch was an unpaid toll, she removes her hand once he provides payment in the form of that momentary burst of alarm. Her headache-inducing laugh is made all the worse by the acoustics of the tunnel.

 

“Now, then” – Jon doesn’t look around at her, but he can practically hear her lips curl in a grin – “pleasantries aside, I believe we’re due for a chat.”

Chapter Text

Helen prowls into Jon's line of sight and sits directly across from him in one fluid motion. She looks him up and down, mischief – borderline malice – coming off her in waves.

 

“You look like something the cat dragged in,” she says cheerfully. “Chewed up, spit out, left on the doorstep of a capricious god. The Beholding certainly has sunk its claws into you, hasn’t it?”

 

“More or less,” Jon says with a shrug. The tremor in his hands is unrelenting, but he does manage to keep his voice from shaking.

 

“Feeling a bit peaky?”

 

“Did you want something?” A hint of irritation slips through this time, and Jon kicks himself for rising to the taunt.

 

“Do you ever play well with others?” Helen grins. “I’m simply… sating my curiosity. You of all people should be able to understand that.” Jon gives a noncommittal grunt and scuffs one foot against the ground, refusing to meet her eye. “You’ve all been coming down here rather frequently.”

 

“Have you been spying?”

 

“This is a temple dedicated to shameless voyeurism, is it not?” Helen’s smirk widens further. “I… overhear things from time to time, yes, but I don’t have quite the same propensity for eavesdropping that your lot do. Just enough to inspire some questions, as it were.”

 

“Joy,” Jon says sardonically.

 

Unperturbed by his inhospitality, Helen leans back in her seat and crosses her legs – twice over, her right leg curling all the way around the left, as if boneless. Of course, Jon thinks with wry amusement. All her bones are in her hands.

 

“Time is… difficult, Archivist,” Helen says ponderously.

 

“‘It Is Lies,’ telling a truth.”

 

“I’ve never lied to you, Jonathan.” Helen sulks in mock offense.

 

“Sure.”

 

“Reality – truth – is malleable. It twists and bends” – her right leg wraps once more around the other, plastic and prehensile – “winds and wends, and –”

 

“…returns to what it was, though what you see and feel may leave their mark upon it,” Jon quotes.

 

“Still speaking in stolen words, I see.”

 

“On occasion.”

 

“Time is similar,” Helen continues, disregarding the interruption. “A jumble of strings and noise, blurred edges and faulty perceptions.”

 

“Mm-hmm.” Jon makes a show of examining his cuticles. It’s petty of him, deliberately acting so uninterested, but he really doesn’t care. In fact, it’s almost gratifying.

 

“Am I boring you, Jonathan?”

 

“Yes.”

 

“My, you are cranky when you’re starving.”

 

Jon rolls his eyes. “Can you get to the point?”

 

“You are an out-of-place artifact.” Jon purses his lips and says nothing; Helen gives him a knowing smile. “All tangled up in a web of minutes and machinations.”

 

“Poetic of you to say so.”

 

“Can’t you take a compliment gracefully? I’m simply pointing out how compelling your patterns are. Recursion suits you.” She hums thoughtfully. “In fact, if you ever tire of the Eye, the Twisting Deceit might just welcome you with open doors.”

 

“I really am begging you to make your point.”

 

“Fine.” Helen leans forward, chin resting in her spindly hands. “You are a temporal anomaly. There must be a story there.”

 

“There is.”

 

“I don’t suppose you’ll tell me?”

 

“I don’t suppose I will.”

 

“I thought you would be difficult.” Helen sighs. Leans back. Twists her legs, adding several more loops to the coil. “Why don’t I tell you my theory, and you tell me if I’m hot or cold?”

 

“No.”

 

“You took a wrong turn and wandered down a path that wasn’t to your liking,” Helen overrules, “and – much like a capricious god yourself – you felt entitled to meddle with the course of history, heedless of the consequences. How am I doing so far?” Jon remains silent. Helen flashes a triumphant grin. “Fascinating. You don’t strike me as the type. Self-centered enough to rework a world to suit your preferences, certainly, but not bold enough to actually take that leap.”

 

“Well, never let it be said I’m not fascinating,” Jon says drily.

 

“How did you do it?”

 

“With considerable trepidation.”

 

Helen heaves a sigh that almost sounds genuinely aggravated. “I don’t understand why you’re being so cagey.

 

“To inconvenience you specifically.”

 

“Oh, put your claws away, Jonathan. I don’t plan on running off to tattle to Elias. The game is no fun when all the answers are presented on a silver platter. In fact, I believe Elias would agree with that sentiment.”

 

“When he’s the one doing the tormenting.” Jon scoffs. “Doubt he’ll enjoy being on the receiving end.”

 

“Well, no. That’s what makes it fun.”

 

An amused snort escapes Jon. Helen looks positively delighted at that response.

 

“Well, in case toying with Elias isn’t incentive enough,” Jon says, “you should know – it’s in your best interests that his plans don’t come to fruition as well.”

 

“Is it now?”

 

“It is.”

 

“Care to tell me what his plan is?”

 

“No.” Helen’s lower lip juts out in a feigned pout. “Just know that you had your fun in the beginning, but it didn’t last. If he wins, everyone loses. Even the monsters.”

 

“That is certainly food for thought,” she replies, tapping one elongated finger against her lips. The corners of her mouth hike up sharply in an impossibly wide grin, showing off numerous – too numerous – pristine teeth. “Speaking of food…”

 

Jon glares at her.

 

“How long are you planning on pursuing this pointless hunger strike?” Helen asks, transparently goading. “We both know you won’t be able to hold off forever.”

 

“I can,” Jon says, far more feebly than he would have preferred. He clears his throat. “I will.

 

“Why?” Helen tilts her head at a neck-breaking angle. “Guilt?”

 

“It – it isn’t right.”

 

“Everything eats.” She shrugs. “Actually, your victims are fortunate. They always survive their encounters with you, don’t they?”

 

“Not unscathed they don’t. And surviving isn’t the same as – as living, having a quality of life. It’s wrong to condemn them to – a lifetime of nightmares for my own gratification.”

 

“They would have nightmares anyway.”

 

“Their own nightmares, not – dreamscapes turned into a playground for the Eye. And this way, they actually have a chance to heal from the trauma, not… be forced to relive it every moment.”

 

“You seem to weather it just fine.”

 

“Does this look like fine to you?” Jon snaps, flinging his arms outward to indicate his entire person: haggard, ashen, quaking.

 

“Hmm. Perhaps not. You are shaking like a leaf in a windstorm. I wonder: how long can you hang on before you’re carried away?” She twirls a writhing lock of hair around her finger. “You know, Helen used to be like you. Then she realized that shame wouldn’t change what she was. So she chose to embrace it.”

 

Jon’s expression falls as a familiar guilt rises up in him.

 

“I owe you an apology,” he says quietly.

 

“What?” Helen sits up ramrod straight, apparently caught off guard.

 

“You came to me for help once. Well, twice, I suppose. The first time, Helen Richardson was spirited away right in front of me. Then she became you – or, you became her.”

 

“Self is difficult,” Helen murmurs.

 

That it is.

 

“Then, when you took your first victim, you felt conflicted. Guilty.”

 

“Helen was like you once,” Helen repeats.

 

“You needed someone to talk to.”

 

“Helen liked you,” she replies with a sudden defensive edge. “She felt better after talking to you.”

 

Another stab of shame goes through Jon and he ducks his head, mumbling: “Only because she didn’t realize at the time what I’d done to her.”

 

“What, the nightmares?” Helen barks out an incredulous laugh. “Compared to the waking nightmare of my corridors, the dreams were a reprieve, Archivist. At least there was someone there to witness. To commiserate. To listen, and understand.”

 

“Which is why you sought me out again, isn’t it? You needed someone to listen. I turned you away.” Jon glances up briefly to see Helen twisting her fingers around one another, an uneasy edge to her. “You saw me as a kindred spirit. That… frightened me, more than words can say. It would have required me to confront what I was becoming, and I couldn’t – I wasn’t ready.”

 

“Helen wasn’t ready. To be me.”

 

“No. Neither of us were ready for our becoming.” Jon repeatedly digs a thumbnail into the back of his hand, leaving semicircle dents in the scarred skin there. “We were never going to be ready. We weren’t… meant to be – this. But our feelings never mattered.”

 

“Choice is difficult.”

 

Choice. Time. Self. Truth. A lot of things are difficult, apparently.

 

“In any case, I – I’m sorry. I… know what it’s like, to reach out for help only to find that everyone already sees you as too far gone. To be – conflicted, and afraid, and guilty, and have no one to turn to.” Jon looks up to see her watching him inscrutably, and he forces himself not to break eye contact. “I wonder sometimes, whether things may have been different for you had I not rebuffed you back then.”

 

“It’s better this way.”

 

“Are you sure?”

 

“What’s the point of wallowing in guilt?” Helen says tartly. “You feed it, or it feeds on you until there’s nothing left – and then you feed anyway.”

 

“Still, I’m sorry you were alone.”

 

“We are what we are, Archivist,” Helen says with a dismissive wave. Coming from her, the gesture has the same effect as an optical illusion, a blur of conflicting angles and nonsensical perspectives. Jon finds himself squinting against the eyestrain. “It’s pointless denying it.” Helen’s sly grin returns as she recovers from her fleeting discomfort. “Case in point, you are planning on feeding.”

 

Jon’s stomach drops at the accusation.

 

“I – I’m not,” he protests weakly.

 

“Come now, Jon – is reading a statement really any different from taking one live? Trauma is trauma; a statement is a statement. The only difference is that in one case, you don’t have to make eye contact as you partake.”

 

“No, it’s –” He flaps his hands, a torrent of distress dropping over him in slow motion. “I’m –”

 

“Prolonging the inevitable, and pretending otherwise to soothe your own guilt. A new entry for your catalogue… once you read it, you’ll still have to look your victim in the eye when you sleep, won’t you?”

 

“How do you –”

 

“I guessed.” Helen lets out a delighted cackle. “Correctly, it would seem.”

 

“It… it’s not the same –”

 

“What makes it so different, hmm? Is it that your victim came here to give their statement voluntarily? That you didn’t personally wring the words from their lips? Does that really make the trauma less acute, the nightmares less harrowing?” Helen pins him in place with a victorious, malevolent leer. “Will it taste any different?”

 

“Stop it –”

 

“Or is it simply that your victim won’t recognize you? Won’t immediately identify their tormentor as Jonathan Sims, Head Archivist of The Magnus Institute? Won’t make the connection between this flimsy, cringing persona you cling to and all those eyes?”

 

“Shut up.” It comes out as nearly a whimper as Jon hunches forward, hugging his middle. Even through a thick jumper and two shirts, he can feel his fingers pressing bruises into the valleys between his ribs.

 

“Does concealing the human behind the monster really have any impact on their fear? On your shame? On your appetite? Or does it just make it easier to escape detection, to dodge responsibility – to distance yourself from what they see when they look at you?”

 

“I…”

 

“Whether it’s morally wrong won’t stop you. Neither will guilt. The only thing restraining you right now is fear – of rejection, of how the others will react if they see what you really are. And when that fear is eclipsed by your fear of what the Eye will do to you if you deny it… well, it’s remarkable the choices we make when the alternatives are terrible enough, isn’t it?”

 

“Yes,” he says in a pained whisper.

 

Because Helen is right, of course. It’s disingenuous to pretend that consuming Tricia Mallory’s statement won’t drop him directly into her nightmares. He knows that, and he agreed to Martin’s suggestion anyway, shoved the truth of the matter into the dusty recesses of his mind so he didn’t have to confront the reality of it. Despite all of his promises and professed resolve, he was about to give in – again – knowing full well that it’s wrong. He’s fooling himself if he thinks he can ignore the cognitive dissonance now that it’s spelled out for him so clearly.

 

But isn’t he also fooling himself if he thinks he can ignore the compulsion? What if Helen’s right, and the hunger will eat away at him until there’s nothing left, no humanity remaining to hold him back from a hunting spree? Wouldn’t that make him even more dangerous? What if –

 

Stop it, he rails at himself. Stop rationalizing, stop looking for excuses, stop pretending this is anything less than obsession and want and selfish need, stop telling yourself that you’re any different from –

 

“I’m not trying to dissuade you,” Helen continues wheedling. “On the contrary: once someone comes to feed the Eye a statement, it will never stop watching them. You may as well soak up some of that fear for yourself. It’ll go to waste, otherwise.”

 

“That’s not how it works.”

 

“Isn’t it, though?” Helen beams triumphantly.

 

“No. As long as I – as long as I don’t introduce her words to the Archive, it can’t get to her. The Eye can Watch her all it wants, but – not through me. I just need to – avoid reading any new statements.” He threads both hands through his hair, pulling hard. “Christ, I almost –”

 

Jon is struck with a wave of nausea.

 

“Enjoy your snack, Jon,” Helen says airily. “Whenever you decide to stop dragging your feet.”

 

“I’m not – I won’t –”

 

You will. You know you will.

 

Jon covers his face with his shaking hands again, rocking slightly in his seat to distract himself.

 

No. You don’t do that anymore. Just – tell Martin the truth when he comes back. Tell the others. If you can’t control yourself, they can –

 

“You really do make things unnecessarily difficult for yourself.”

 

“I don’t care. I changed my mind.”

 

As if on cue, the Archive calls up a statement.

 

I don’t want that anymore, Francis says. It’s different now; I’m different now. I’ve worked so hard.

 

Pause for Helen’s laughter.

 

They don’t want to want it, but…

I don’t care, the Spider replies.

Tell me more, the Archivist croons, even as its vessel balks.

 

Pause for Helen’s laughter.

 

Francis only has a desire, an itch in their bones…

I want what you want, the Spider says, deep, deep down in the hidden bit of you you’ve tried so hard to kill.

 

Pause for Helen’s laughter.

 

“Shut up,” Jon snarls, but it’s a toothless thing, weighed down with fatigue and shame.

 

They resist. They sit oh-so-very still and keep their hands held tight to their chest.

No, they say. Not this time. I won’t.

 

Helen laughs, and laughs, and laughs, the reverb pounding in Jon’s head like the clang of metal on metal.

 

“I’m not taking any more statements.” As far as protests go, it comes out sounding far too weak and empty to be even remotely persuasive. “I – I’ll find another way.”

 

“Keep telling yourself that. With enough repetition, maybe you’ll even start to believe it.” Jon flinches as if backhanded. With a satisfied sigh, Helen unwinds her legs and stretches, rising from her seat. “Have a lie-down, won’t you? You look like you need it.”

 

When he hears her chair scrape against the floor, Jon looks up to see Helen walking towards her door, a spring in her step.

 

“Helen,” he calls hoarsely. “Wait.”

 

“Hmm?” She contorts and turns at the waist, claylike.

 

“Remember what I said – about Elias’ plans.”

 

“Oh, don’t fret. I have no love for Elias. He isn’t nearly as fun as you are. And I am enjoying simply… watching things unfold. I’m certain you can appreciate that.”

 

“See you around,” Jon sighs, too weary to take the bait. “I suppose.”

 

“You will.” The doorknob yields a metallic squeak as she turns it. “Speaking with you always leaves me feeling… better. Refreshed.”

 

“Of course it does. Emotional turmoil is like a late night snack for you.”

 

“And a delicious one, at that. You know what that’s like.” Helen gives a merry wave as she steps over her threshold. “Sweet dreams, Archivist.”

 

The door shuts behind her.

 

Jon wishes he had the energy to scream.

 


 

The Archivist only has eyes for the statement clutched in Martin’s outstretched hand. Perched on the edge of his seat like a bird of prey, Jon’s gaze locks onto it, pupils blown wide. He does not blink. He does not breathe. He does not move.

 

He simply stares, leaning precariously forward as if magnetized.

 

“Here,” Martin says uncertainly, extending his reach.

 

Jon stretches out an unsteady hand. Breathes in. Breathes out.

 

Just being in the statement’s presence, a summary of the story flows into his mind:

 

Tricia Mallory clocked out at the same time as she had every workday for the last two years, five months, and three days since she started working at the shop. She was planning on stopping for groceries before heading home and was texting her girlfriend to ask if she had anything to add to the list. When the door closed behind her and she finally looked up from her phone, instead of finding herself in the same familiar alley as always, she was Elsewhere.

 

She began to walk. At first, she made no progress: the alley would lengthen before her eyes, matching her pace. She walked in place as if on a treadmill, and then she began to jog, and then her mounting panic bowled her over and she began to run full-tilt towards an unknown destination that never drew any closer. When the first sharp turn materialized in the towering wall to her right, she took it without a second thought before it could disappear. After that, the maze changed with every step she took: walls popping into existence behind her the moment she looked away, gaps opening in the walls to either side within the millisecond of a blink.

 

She spent so long hopelessly lost, confounded by the impossible geometry of the place, that when she first caught sight of the thing following her, she was relieved. But when she called out, it never responded to her queries: it simply followed her, matching each of her steps with one of its own. It picked up pace whenever she did, but it never charged, never lunged, never closed the distance between them. It was content to follow and loom, a persistence predator that never tired or lost sight of its prey.

 

For weeks, it stalked her through those nonsensical, labyrinthine alleyways, even as she begged it to end the chase, to put her out of her misery. It let her scream her throat raw. It knew that no one would hear her. She was alone, but for the monster and its infinite patience.

 

Eventually, she decided to reverse the pursuit. Whenever she tried to approach the thing, it would retreat to just outside her reach. She can still pinpoint the exact moment she realized that the chase would never end, that she would never reach her quarry, that she would never come close enough to touch something real ever again.

 

When she was found in the alley the next morning, she had injured her vocal cords so badly that it’s taken weeks to regain her voice. The same amount of time she spent lost in the maze. The same amount of time that it was impossible for her to have been missing, according to the calendar and the clock and her girlfriend and the cast of specialists and mental health consultants she’s seen since.

 

And her voice is no longer her own, but everyone else insists that it sounds the same as it always has.

 

It’s a skeleton of a story, a list of plot points without feeling or substance to contextualize them. It’s not enough. The Archivist needs the full account, needs her words, needs to walk those alleys alongside her, needs the lived experience of her fear as she relives each moment, needs –

 

When Jon’s fingertips brush against the statement, the gentle rustle of the paper snaps him out of his reverie. He recoils bodily, pushing his chair back several inches. It’s only with some difficulty he manages to shut his eyes, breaking his line of sight.

 

“Jon?” Tentatively, Jon opens one eye a sliver to see Martin watching him intently, concern writ large all over his face. “What’s wrong?”

 

“I… I can’t,” Jon gasps out.

 

“What do you mean you can’t?” Jon clenches his teeth so tightly his jaw aches. Martin sighs and places the statement on the floor next to his chair. For a moment, his face scrunches up in a clear show of frustration, before relaxing as he tries to salvage his patience. “Jon, we went over this. You need to eat something, and this won’t –”

 

“I lied, Martin,” Jon whispers, his cheeks burning with shame.

 

“What?”

 

“By omission.”

 

“O…kay?” Martin waits for more, but Jon just chews furiously on his bottom lip. His eyes are fixed on the statement again. “You want to elaborate?”

 

“It’s a statement I don’t have yet.”

 

“Yeah? That’s… sort of the point.”

 

“When an Archivist takes in a new statement, it becomes part of the Archive. That statement” – Jon gives an indicative nod – “hasn’t been entered into the Archive yet. If I read, or – or hear it, it will be.”

 

“Again, that’s… that’s the point, isn’t it?” Martin asks with mounting uncertainty. “Feeding the Archive?”

 

“You’ve recorded statements before. You know what it’s like.”

 

“I know, it’s – horrible, and I’m sorry you have to do it, but –”

 

“When you’re reading, it feels like you’re there, right?”

 

“I guess? Sort of?”

 

“W-well, when I take in a statement, it doesn’t just feel like I’m there. I am there. I See the story play out through the victim’s eyes. Told in person, recorded on tape, typed out on a screen, written in ink – doesn’t matter. It’s all the same.” He pauses, swallowing hard around the lump in his throat. “And when it’s a new statement, a fresh statement, unread and unarchived, it forms a – a link between the victim and myself. They’ll be drawn into that memory every time they dream, and the Eye will oversee it all. Through me.”

 

Jon shuts his eyes once again to block out his view of the statement, so easily within reach. As if in protest, the Archive shoves a different one before his eyes. Without warning, the syllables pile up in his throat, crowd together behind his teeth, cling fast to his tongue, and he’s falling down, down, down and away.

 

“He says he wants my story,” he recites mechanically, crisp and clear like the tinny notes of a musical box, each word a pin on the cylinder. “He says he needs to hear what happened to me, and I – I want to tell him to – to go away – but I – I sit down. And I start to tell him – everything – and as I do, it’s like I’m there again – and I just can’t stop talking – I wanted to – to scream, but instead I just sat and calmly told him my life story, and he just watched me. His eyes – drinking in every fragment of my misery – and then it was over, and he looked at me like he’d just eaten, like, a perfectly cooked steak. You know what he said, he said, ‘Thank you.’ Thank you, just like that, like – like reliving the worst parts of my whole life were just a bit of a favor that I’d done him. That wasn’t the end – nightmares, where – he’s there the whole time, just… watching me. And he’s all eyes. He’s all eyes.”

 

As the final words pass through his lips, the invisible wires moving Jon’s jaw are severed and the cloying residue of the statement dissolves in a heady rush of static. He blinks several times as he comes out of the trance. When his vision comes back into focus, the details resolve into Martin, pale and tense and stammering. Jon’s heart plummets into his stomach at the sight.

 

“Wh-what was –”

 

“I’m – Martin, I’m – I’m so – so sorry,” Jon stammers, mortified. “I – didn’t mean to – to vent, it just – slipped out, and –”

 

“Jon, what was that?”

 

“A, uh, a statement.” Jon folds his arms tightly and looks down at his lap, digging his nails into the skin around his elbows. “From last time. One of my victims, Jess Tyrell, she – came here, gave you her – her statement. About me. About what I did to her.”

 

“Oh,” Martin says softly. His tone is unreadable, and Jon can’t bear to look at his face to glean his reaction.

 

“And I almost – I almost did it again.” Jon's recalcitrant eyes drift back to Tricia Mallory’s statement, its siren song monopolizing his thoughts. “If I read that statement, it will be the same as if I looked her in the eye and drew the story out of her in person. She’ll never be able to put it behind her.”

 

“Jon…”

 

“I – should have told you when you first suggested it, I – I don’t know why I didn’t. Or – no, that’s – that’s another lie. I… I didn’t tell you because I didn’t want to be stopped.” Jon hangs his head, letting his hair fall to cover his face. “Christ, I was going to… if it wasn’t for Helen, I would have –”

 

“Wait.” Jon can hear the frown in Martin’s voice. “Helen?”

 

“She paid me a visit as soon as you left. Impeccable timing, as always.”

 

“What did she say to you?” Martin says sharply.

 

“Nothing that wasn’t true.”

 

“Jon, she’s the Distortion, telling lies is what she does –

 

“And I’m the Archivist, and curating trauma is what I do.” A chill runs through Jon, eliciting a prolonged shiver. He waits for it to pass before continuing. “I can’t – I can’t trust myself to do the right thing when I’m like this. I can’t hear myself think over the hunger – it clouds my judgment, and – all it takes is one moment of weakness, and I could…” Jon takes a deep breath and finally looks up to meet Martin’s eyes. “I can’t be trusted, Martin.”

 

“Do you know for sure that reading a statement is the same as taking one live? How do you know Helen isn’t just –”

 

“Because I have prior experience with it. Most of the statements here – they didn’t have that effect, either because they’d already been introduced to the Archive or because the statement giver was already dead by the time I recorded it. It was – rare, to find one that hadn’t already been picked over or – or rendered inactive.” Jon licks his lips nervously. “But there were a couple. Helen didn’t need to remind me. I already knew, I just… compartmentalized the information so I didn’t have to think about it.”

 

“What if… what if I read it first? Silently, to myself? Then it wouldn’t be unread, technically, and then you can –”

 

“I can’t risk it.”

 

“B-but…” Martin sputters for a few seconds. “There has to be a – a middle ground somewhere, a loophole –”

 

“There isn’t.”

 

“But how do you know –”

 

“Because I’m a monster, Martin!”

 

Jon’s voice frays and snaps halfway through his sentence. The ragged declaration echoes up and down the tunnel as if in agreement.

 

“Jon…” Martin looks at him with such gentle sincerity that Jon wants to scream. “You’re not… you’re not a monster.”

 

“I am – I have been, I could be again, and I – I don’t want to go back.” Jon’s fingernails cut deeper furrows into his arms. “I can’t, but I need, I need –”

 

a statement, a story, a terror, a dream…

 

Jon raises one arm and then brings it down, slamming his wrist into the edge of his chair. The bright burst of pain disperses the looping thought with a jolt. Martin rises abruptly from his seat and takes a step towards him.

 

“Jon, stop it–!”

 

“What I need,” Jon rants, breathing heavily, his pulse thundering in his ears, “what I need is to be watched – by something other than the Beholding and the Distortion and Jonah and –”

 

“Jon, please –”

 

“I need to be seen by someone who actually wants me to stay – me.” Jon puts his head in his hands and rocks back and forth, grasping desperately at some outlet for the panicked energy raining down on him. “I need someone who believes that’s possible, because I – I don’t know that I do, and that makes me even more dangerous. I – I need people to keep me honest, because obviously I can’t trust myself, and –”

 

“Jon!”

 

Jon finally looks up, moisture clinging to his eyelashes. He’s on the verge of hyperventilation, his mind too full of hunger-want-need to spare a thought for breathing. Martin is standing there, watching him with wide, scared eyes, wringing his hands in obvious distress.

 

“We can figure it out, okay? We – we’ll find some way. We won’t let you starve.”

 

“It may not kill me.”

 

“But maybe it will!” Martin’s voice pitches up half an octave in his frustration. “And even if it doesn’t kill you, you’re still suffering, and that’s – that’s not okay.”

 

Jon has heard those words before, in that exact tone.

 

What the hell do I do with that? I mean, Christ, Jon, that’s – that’s not okay!

 

No, it’s not.

 

It’s not him, is it. Not – not really. It’s – what, addiction, instinct, maybe mind control, something like that? I can’t believe he’d choose to do something like that.

 

Someone is laughing. It takes Jon a moment to realize that it’s him.

 

If he’s already gone, then all of this is just…

 

The laughter fractures into sobbing.

 

“Jon?”

 

“I’m sorry, Martin, I’m so – so sorry, you –”

 

You deserve better than this.

 

“I hope you will forgive me for a great many things, as it may be I do worse. I have that feeling, that instinct that squirms through your belly. There will be great violence done here. And I bleed into that violence –”

 

Jon bites his tongue. Tastes blood. Feels it heal. Gnaws at his tongue, his lips, the insides of his cheeks: feels it heal, breaks the skin, feels it heal, chases the hurt, feels it heal –

 

“It’s actually a weight lifted, the knowledge that you don’t have to do it anymore, but you’re still there, aren’t you? It’s not like you’ve left the slaughterhouse –”

 

Martin is coming closer now.

 

Not safe not safe not safe not safe don’t come near –

 

“You cannot stop slaughter by closing the door.”

 

Martin reaches out.

 

No no no no no no please stop stop stop please –

 

“Stop.”

 

The command rends its way out of Jon's throat and fills his head with a cacophony of white noise. Martin stops short. Looks down at his feet, then up at Jon with an expression of confusion that morphs into alarm as he tries and fails to take another step.

 

“Jon?” Martin asks in a quavering whisper. “I can’t…”

 

He cannot move, because Jon made it so – wrapped his voice around the reins of reality and molded it to suit his own whims. He tries to explain, to apologize, but the Archive shoulders him aside once more, eyes locked on Martin's.

 

“We create the world in a lot of ways. I suppose it shouldn’t be surprising that, when we’re not being careful, we can change it –”

 

Jon bites down on his lower lip so hard, he’s certain he would need stitches were he still human. As if to emphasize that he’s not, the laceration begins to knit itself back together. Jon nearly screams in frustration. Martin’s mouth is moving. There’s no sound at all, save for the blood pounding in Jon’s ears. It doesn’t matter; he can guess well enough at what is being said: Martin looks terrified.

 

He’s afraid. Of you. You did this. Your voice, your words, your nature

 

And once again, Jon is falling down, down, down, drowning and buried and trapped under a destiny he cannot escape, and he isn’t breathing, and he isn’t blinking, and Martin is afraid and the Archivist can taste it on the air, soaking it in with greedy, glassy eyes, and he is whole

 

The world goes dark.

 


 

As Jon lists to the side, Martin lunges forward, but his legs remain planted in place. It isn’t until Jon actually hits the floor that whatever force was immobilizing him lets up.

 

“Jon,” he says urgently, going to his knees next to him. “What’s happening? What’s wrong?”

 

There’s blood on Jon's lips, in his mouth, and Martin can’t determine its source. Where before Jon had been vacillating wildly between heavy panting and shallow hyperventilation, there is no rise and fall to his chest now. Martin places a hand in front of his lips and under his nose, waiting for any sign of an exhale. Nothing. Panicked, Martin presses two fingers to the pulse point on his throat. Still nothing. The only sign of life is the rapid, almost violent flurry of movement beneath Jon’s closed eyelids.

 

It brings Martin right back to sitting at his bedside in the hospital, helpless and waiting for any scant sign of a change in his condition. As days turned to weeks turned to months, keeping Jon company turned into begging him to wake up turned into resigned, hopeless, pointless routine.

 

Martin remembers vividly the day he said goodbye for what was supposed to be the last time. The Lonely had been waiting patiently for so long. When he finally let it in, it was like deliverance. Like coming home.

 

“Jon, please,” Martin says quietly, his lower lip wobbling. “Please wake up.”

 

Nothing.

 

“O-okay, don’t – don’t panic, don’t – he’s not d-dead, he’s just…”

 

Lifeless. Again.

 

Martin lets out a panicked groan and digs his phone out of his pocket. He scrolls to Basira’s name in his contacts, but as his thumb hovers over the call icon, he realizes with sinking dread that he has no service down here. Obviously, he thinks, cursing his foolishness.

 

“What do I…”

 

As Martin takes stock of his limited array of options, one hand migrates to Jon’s, stroking gently over the burned and scarred skin there. Martin could go upstairs, find Georgie or Basira, but that would mean leaving Jon here alone. And would they really know what to do anyway?

 

“Better than I would,” Martin says, his vision going cloudy. “They’ve actually been here for him –”

 

The first tears escape and trickle down his cheeks, hot and bitter. Entirely unproductive; it’s not like crying and pleading ever woke Jon up before. Why are you always so useless? Martin thinks, patting one dampened cheek with his free hand. Focus up, Blackwood. Panicking won’t help.

 

Jon needs a statement. Obviously.

 

For a brief, shameful instant, Martin’s hand twitches towards the statement laying on the floor only a few feet away. He shakes his head in chastisement. Jon would never forgive himself. Even if he wasn’t the one who actually read it.

 

Martin wracks his brain for alternatives. There has to be another way –

 

And there is, he realizes suddenly.

 

“I – I – I don’t know how you’ll feel about this, Jon,” Martin says with a nervous laugh. “I wish I could just – ask your permission, but… I’m sorry.”

 

Martin clears his throat and straightens his posture. Then, with a curt nod, he offers up his story.

 

“Statement of Martin Blackwood, regarding the assault on the Archives by Jared Hopworth and the, uh, other… Flesh… things.”

 

Martin closes his eyes. Opens them. Takes a deep breath.

 

“Statement begins.”

 


 

Jon’s eyelids flutter open to a blur of muddled colors and soft edges. Every sluggish beat of his heart is accompanied by a pulse of vertigo. There’s a presence to his left and a hand combing through his hair. He leans into it, chasing something solid and real to anchor him amidst the jumbled sensory input. Slowly, his hazy vision starts to clear and the vague shape resolves into a person, kneeling next to him on the floor.

 

“Martin?” Jon rasps out, groggy with disorientation.

 

Martin’s distraught expression melts into relief as their eyes meet.

 

“Welcome back,” he says with a watery smile.

 

“What happened?”

 

“God, Jon, you – you weren’t – you weren’t breathing, and –” Martin’s sharp intake of breath turns into a hiccup. “I – I thought –”

 

Details are coming into focus now. Martin is close enough for Jon to count the freckles on his face. To see the tear tracks shining on his cheeks.

 

“You just – passed out, and you weren’t responding, and I didn’t know what to do – I didn’t want to leave you here alone, and there’s no cell service down here so I couldn’t call for help, and…” Fresh tears are welling up in Martin’s eyes. “You weren’t breathing,” he repeats.

 

“I’m sorry.”

 

“It’s – it’s fine.”

 

“It’s not,” Jon says, aggrieved. “You shouldn’t have to deal with me like this, you just came out of the Lonely –”

 

“Yeah, I did,” Martin retorts. “It’s not there to catch me anymore, which means you have to be.” Shocked at his own daring, his cheeks go pink – but only an instant later, the color pales. His voice drops to a near-whisper, but there’s defiance in the set of his jaw. “You can’t do that if you go and die on me again.”

 

Martin is going fuzzy at the edges again. Jon squints, attempting to bring the world back into focus. It takes a few seconds before he realizes that Martin is the only thing in his field of vision that looks indistinct. Almost as if he’s –

 

Fading.

 

Jon sits bolt upright. A mistake, he realizes almost immediately, as another spell of dizziness plows into him.

 

“Please don’t go,” he says blearily, the words tumbling out and running together in a haphazard tangle. “Don’t –”

 

“Whoa, hey,” Martin says, placing a steadying hand on Jon’s shoulder. He looks solid again, Jon realizes with a burst of relief. “You need to take it easy, okay?”

 

“You were – I could – I could see through you,” Jon chokes out. He places one hand over Martin’s; fastens onto it barnacle-like when he realizes it’s ice-cold. “It can’t have you, I won’t let it –”

 

“What?”

 

“The Lonely.”

 

“But… I wasn’t trying to…” Martin wears a puzzled frown, staring at their joined hands as if an answer can be found there. Then he blanches, his bafflement phasing into fear. “I didn’t call it that time, it just – moved in on its own, I didn’t even notice it was happening, I –”

 

“What were you thinking about?”

 

“What?”

 

“This is important,” Jon says intently. “Where did you go? What did you see?”

 

“I… you.” Martin’s gaze returns to his hand, clasped in Jon’s. “I saw you, and you were gone. Again.”

 

“I wasn’t breathing.” Like the coma, Jon thinks, awash with sudden understanding.

 

“Yeah. It just – took me back, I guess.” Martin worries his bottom lip as his eyes turn misty again.

 

“Hey, hey, hey,” Jon says, slipping easily into a practiced soft, soothing tone. “It’s okay. You’re okay.”

 

Martin closes his eyes, nodding. After a minute, his sniffling turns into a quiet chuckle that breaks halfway through.

 

“We’re – both kind of a mess, aren’t we?”

 

“Understandably, I think,” Jon replies. He tries for a reassuring smile, but he’s fairly certain it comes off as pitiful instead. Or maybe just exhausted.

 

“Are you… feeling any better?”

 

Jon blinks slowly. He feels like he’s been beaten around the head with a brick. His mouth is dry, his joints are stiff and aching, and there’s still a metallic tang of blood on his tongue, but… he’s not shaking. It’s like circulation flowing back into a cramped and sleeping limb, a simultaneous rush of stinging pain and crisp relief.

 

“Yes,” he says. He can think clearly for the first time since he exited the Buried, his mind no longer crowded and clouded with need. The instant he notices that absence – the hunger silent and sated and subdued behind its door – abject dread crashes down on him. “Wait, why – why am I better, why –”

 

Martin takes a deep breath, looking apprehensive. “I… gave you a statement.”

 

Jon’s stomach gives a terror-stricken lurch. He pulls his hand back, rededicates it to rubbing and scratching furiously at his opposite arm. Scanning the area with darting eyes, he confirms what he already knew: there’s nowhere to retreat, to hide, to curl up and be contained. He’s making a concerted effort to claw off his skin now; he only notices when Martin places a hand on his to stop him.

 

“Not – not that one,” Martin clarifies, gesturing back towards the statement left forgotten on the floor. “One of mine.”

 

“Yours…?”

 

“Y-yeah.” Martin gives a nervous laugh. “I was – I was so worried that it was one you’d already heard in the future, or – or that you wouldn’t hear me, that it wouldn’t work, but –”

 

“It was about the Flesh,” Jon murmurs. He never had taken a statement on its siege on the Archives before now. As the details of the story begin to trickle into his conscious awareness, he wrinkles his nose and grimaces. “Oh, I see. Flesh spiders. Lovely.”

 

“Flesh spiders?”

 

“Oh, that’s, ah – what we took to calling them during the apocalypse. The ones that look sort of like – severed hands, but boneless, and with too many fingers? They were… a relatively common fixture in the Flesh domains. And the way they move…” Jon blows out a slow breath and shrugs, awkward. “Well. Flesh spiders.”

 

“Oh. Yeah, I… I can see it, I guess.” Martin breathes another nervous laugh. “You, uh – you heard me, then?”

 

“The Archive did,” Jon sighs. “It’s always listening. Always watching.”

 

“I’m sorry,” Martin says, his chin quivering as he averts his eyes.

 

Jon blinks rapidly several times, then tilts his head to the side. “For what?”

 

“I – I basically force-fed you, Jon. I wanted to ask first, but you weren’t responding, and I – I thought you were…” His shoulders slump. “I couldn’t… I’m sorry.”

 

“You have nothing to apologize for. If anything, I should be apologizing to you, for…” Jon opens his mouth. Struggles for words. Closes it. “Well, you shouldn’t have to give away a piece of yourself like that for my sake. It’s not your fault I’m like this.”

 

“It’s not yours, either.”

 

“Isn’t it?” Jon smiles sadly.

 

“It’s not.

 

Jon bites back a tired retort. There’s no point in retreading the same trampled ground. Apparently, silence isn’t the response Martin wanted.

 

“I’m serious, Jon,” he says, adamant. “None of this is your fault.”

 

“Maybe not all of it.” It’s the closest thing to a compromise he can manage at the moment. Martin looks ready to argue; Jon heads him off. “You haven’t heard the full story yet.”

 

Because apparently I can’t finish a single conversation without having a goddamn breakdown.

 

“Whatever you have to say, I doubt it’ll change my opinion.”

 

The absolute certainty with which Martin speaks only makes Jon feel worse.

 

“Why do you always give me the benefit of the doubt?” he whispers, staring down at his hands.

 

“Because you’re not a bad person.”

 

I’m not exactly a person anymore, Jon thinks, shutting his eyes. He knows better than to say it aloud.

 

“Martin?”

 

“Yeah?”

 

“What I was saying before. About the Extinction, before all of –” He makes a vague, circular motion with one hand. “The dramatics.” Martin opens his mouth, likely to object to the phrasing, but Jon continues before he can get a word in. “What I was trying to get across is that you – you don’t need to sacrifice yourself on its account.”

 

“I gathered as much.”

 

“And…” He looks up and meets Martin’s eyes. “I would also prefer if you don’t sacrifice yourself on my account.”

 

The world could stand to lose an Archivist, Jon thinks. Martin, on the other hand – the world is actually better for him being in it. Warmer, kinder, richer.

 

“I know you think working with Peter will keep me safe,” Jon says, “but it won’t, because – because it won’t keep you safe, and I need… more than anything, I need you to be okay.”

 

“But did it work last time?” Martin’s posture goes tense, his eyes narrowing, shrewd and exacting. It’s a sussing-out-lies, brooking-no-argument, calling-out-bullshit expression – one that Jon is all too familiar with. “Did working with Peter keep him distracted, away from you?”

 

“For a time, yes,” Jon says hesitantly. “Then you bested him, cost him his bet with Elias, and he cast you into the Lonely out of spite. Following you in drew his attention to me. Admittedly, I wasn’t exactly subtle about it.”

 

“Suppose that tracks.” Martin snorts. “Never really could protect you from yourself.”

 

“I couldn’t leave you there.” Jon says the words without a hint of levity or compromise, meeting Martin’s gaze with equal determination.

 

“You’d survive without me,” Martin replies flatly, a measure of hard-won warmth sapping away.

 

“I wouldn’t want to. I had to, once, and I almost didn’t…” Jon blinks against the stubborn, stinging pressure welling up in his eyes. “I can’t do it again.”

 

Martin looks away, mouth set in a firm line.

 

“Look, I’m not… expecting anything,” Jon says. “I realize this is – a lot to take in all at once. And I accept that my coming back may have altered the course of things. I just… don’t want to live in a world with a you-shaped void in it. I need you to be okay, even if it’s far away from me.”

 

“I don’t… want to be far away,” Martin says slowly, appearing to grapple with the admission.

 

“You should know, when I followed you into the Lonely last time…” Jon pauses, picking through word after word looking for a way to capture the truth of the matter. “I didn’t do it because I felt guilty or obligated. I didn’t do it expecting anything, or to alleviate my own loneliness. I did it because I love you.” Another searching pause. Jon silently adds words to Helen’s list of things that are difficult. “I couldn’t just – let you fade away, thinking that no one cared, that you didn’t matter, that you wouldn’t be – remembered, and missed, and mourned. I couldn’t let you vanish believing that you weren’t loved.”

 

When Jon chances a glimpse at Martin, he looks stricken. Wide eyes swimming with conflict and denial; lips pressed tightly together; hands curled into fists on his knees.

 

“I’ve never once questioned that decision, and I’d do it again. I… I wanted to be the one taking care of you for once. I still do. I’m –” Jon huffs. “I’m making a poor show of it right now, I know, but I need you to know, you – you don’t have anything to prove. You don’t need to carve away pieces of yourself in exchange for scraps of affection. Care shouldn’t be… transactional. You don’t have to always be the one giving. And whatever you’re thinking right now, I need you to know – you’re not a burden; you’re not too much of one thing, or – or not enough of another. It’s okay to just… be as you are. I promise.”

 

Martin is looking studiously away now, breathing through his nose in short, sharp breaths.

 

“Can you look at me?” Jon asks softly. He waits until Martin meets his eyes. “The Lonely is lying to you when it tells you that it’s the only place where you belong. If you believe nothing else, please believe that you don’t have to be alone. You deserve better than to be alone. You always have. You always will. Unconditionally.”

 

For an impossibly still, drawn out moment, the declaration hangs between them, an outstretched hand waiting for an answering grasp. And then…

 

Well, Jon probably should have predicted tears. He should have also predicted his own panic in response to said tears – which, mingled with exhaustion and burnt-out fear and relief, dissolves into tears of his own.

 

“God, I hope – was that too much?” Jon says, laughing nervously and scrubbing at his eyes.

 

“Yes,” Martin hisses through a choked noise that Jon doesn’t even know how to begin to categorize.

 

“I’m sorry, I – I don’t have the same way with words that you do, s-so –”

 

“No, it’s not – it’s not you, it’s just – everything is too much, and I can’t –” Martin’s lip trembles as he tries to force air into his lungs. A fresh cascade of tears pours forth and he too begins rubbing furiously at his eyes with his sleeve. “I don’t know what’s wrong with me –”

 

“I’m sorry,” they both say at the same time – and then they’re both laughing.

 

“You apologize too much,” Martin says thickly.

 

“So do you.”

 

Martin’s fingertips brush against Jon’s wrist. Unthinkingly, Jon turns his hand palm-up and intertwines their fingers. He flinches away when Martin gasps, an apology already on his lips, but Martin chases his hand and grips it tightly.

 

“Is this… okay?” The question is accompanied by a preemptive cringe, primed for rejection.

 

“Of course it is,” Jon says softly. “More than okay. It’s just – I thought I upset you?” Martin had seemed alright with it earlier, but… “I should have asked first. Last time, it took… quite some time before you were able to tolerate physical contact again.”

 

Martin experimentally flexes his fingers in Jon’s hand.

 

“It’s… strange,” he says slowly. “Like having anesthetic wear off. If the thing that was numbed was a phantom limb.” At the clumsy metaphor, Martin scrunches up his nose – adorably, Jon notes privately. “Or – or something.” He frowns when he glances back to Jon. “What?”

 

“What?”

 

“You’re… smiling.”

 

Jon brings his free hand to his mouth; touches his fingertips to the affectionate curve to his lips.

 

“Sorry, it’s just… I’ve missed you.” He breathes a sigh that starts out contented before catching in his throat and shaking apart into nearly a sob.

 

“Jon?”

 

“Sorry, sorry.” Jon draws in a deep breath to collect himself. “It – probably seems silly from your perspective, hasn’t even been a year, but it was… it was much longer for me.”

 

“How long are we talking?” Martin asks, an apprehensive wrinkle forming between his eyebrows.

 

“I, ah…” Jon puffs out his cheeks, exhales slowly through his nose. “I sort of – stopped keeping track of time at some point? But, uh – long enough to realize that I wasn’t aging, so, um… a – a long time.”

 

And long enough for large swathes of humanity to begin dying off. Long enough for the feast to become a famine. Long enough for the Corpse Routes to begin to wither. Long enough to accept that there was nothing left to salvage.

 

“Oh,” Martin says, nearly inaudible. Jon wishes he wasn’t so familiar with that sad, gentle look in his eyes. Then Martin’s chin dips to his chest, subtle movements in his jaw indicating that he’s clenching his teeth.

 

“Martin?”

 

“I’m sorry I wasn’t there when you woke up,” he says, shoulders hunched miserably.

 

“Not your fault.”

 

“It – it sort of is, though.”

 

“No,” Jon says firmly. “It isn’t.”

 

Martin looks unconvinced, but he doesn’t press.

 

“Do you, uh… do you still not age?”

 

“Don’t know,” Jon murmurs. The concern has crossed his mind more than once. He isn’t sure if the Beholding would deign to answer that question if he tried to Know. He’s been too afraid to find out. “I hope that’s changed, though. I’d – much prefer to grow old with you.”

 

A strangled noise escapes Martin’s throat. Jon is bewildered for the brief few seconds it takes to replay what he just said.

 

“Jon, I – I – I – you – you can’t just say something like that without warning, I –” Martin’s gaze darts around the room, looking anywhere but at Jon. He’s red up to his ears.

 

“Sorry,” Jon says with an apologetic cringe. His free hand starts flapping uselessly of its own accord. Almost immediately, the other pulls away from Martin’s to join in the stim. “I… I guess I forgot that we’re – we’re at different points in our relationship.”

 

“Our relationship,” Martin echoes.

 

“Uh, I mean, I –” Jon can feel himself flushing now. Distress climbing, his hands redouble their agitated flailing. “Sorry, that – that was, ah, presumptuous of me, and I – like I said, I don’t have any expectations – our timelines have diverged in a lot of ways and I’m not entirely sure what that means for –”

 

“Jon, slow down –”

 

“Sorry,” he says again, twisting both hands in his scarf to quiet their flurrying. “I’ve – made things awkward.”

 

“It’s – fine, I just – I’m still trying to process everything. I thought you weren’t going to wake up, and – and then you went into that Coffin and you were gone for over a week and I thought you weren’t coming back –”

 

“I – I should apologize for that as well. I didn’t expect it to take so long, truly. Last time it only took three days. If anything, I thought I could find my way out sooner this time, now I actually knew what I was doing, didn’t have to fuss about with my rib –”

 

“Your… rib?”

 

“Yes, uh – last time I tried using my rib as an anchor.”

 

“You… what?”

 

“I – needed an anchor,” Jon says hurriedly, intent on moving through the points quickly in hopes that Martin won’t stop to react to each one, “and I thought I could use a part of my body, so I tried to cut off a finger –”

 

“What?”

 

“– but it kept healing before I could saw through the bone, so I asked Helen to take me into her corridors so I could find the Boneturner –”

 

“What?”

 

“– and I made a deal with him, his freedom for a rib – well, two ribs, one for me and another for him in exchange for a statement and –”

 

“You’ve got to be kidding me –”

 

“– I left the rib behind when I went into the Coffin, thinking it would, I don’t know, tether me to the surface, give me something to find my way back to –”

 

“Jon,” Martin groans, rubbing his forehead with his free hand in a confused mixture of horror, frustration, and longsuffering non-surprise – yet another look with which Jon is far too familiar.

 

“– but it didn’t exactly work, because I didn’t have any attachment to it –”

 

“It was part of your body and you didn’t have any attachment to it?” Martin yelps, punctuating the question with a shrill, disbelieving bark of a laugh.

 

“Yes, yes,” Jon says with a flippant wave, “I’m well aware there are some things to unpack there. Point is, it didn’t work, so I was – stuck, for a bit. Then I felt a pull, and it guided me back, and when we opened the Coffin, there were tape recorders piled around it, dozens of them.”

 

“Which is why you left the tape recorders.”

 

“Yeah. Got the idea from you. First time around, you’re the one who –” Jon stops short. “Oh, fuck me.”

 

“What?”

 

“I’m an idiot.”

 

“Why?” Martin tenses with growing alarm. “What is it?”

 

“It – it was never the tapes,” Jon says, shaking his head and laughing. “It was the act of you leaving them there.”

 

“What?” Martin asks yet again, his worried expression giving way to pure confusion.

 

“After all this time, I thought I finally had a decent grasp on anchors.”

 

Jon had assumed that the flaw with his first foray into the Buried lay not with his general strategy, but with the anchor he chose. The rib didn’t work because it wasn’t actually an anchor. He had no connection to it, didn’t care about it – wanted nothing to do with it, in fact, as a reminder of his encounter with Jared. Jon’s body hadn’t felt like it actually belonged to him for a long time by that point. He should have known it wouldn’t work as an anchor.

 

And he knew that the tapes weren’t true anchors, at least not in and of themselves. They were stand-ins, so to speak, for the real thing. Reminders. Tokens. The ones he’d placed closest to the Coffin were the ones with familiar voices on them: Martin, Georgie, Basira, Melanie, Naomi. The rest, he left running on the off chance that statements in general would act as an anchor for the Archivist in him. At the very least, having them there as a backup wouldn’t hurt – or so he thought. It was obvious that doing so would preclude the possibility of Martin coming up with the idea on his own like he did originally, but that fact never struck Jon as relevant.

 

“I thought I could pull myself out as long as I had a – a genuine anchor to reach out to, but…”

 

Between waking up in the hospital and following Martin into the Lonely the first time around, Jon had done nothing but reach out for help. It was never enough. He needed someone to actually reach back. He should know by now how adept his mind is at telling him he isn’t wanted. Hasn’t he always struggled with subtle cues and insinuations? Hasn’t he always needed direct communication and explicit reminders and observable demonstrations? Even when he actively avoided those affirmations and connections – there’s danger in vulnerability, after all – he’d still always craved them, hadn’t he? Regardless of what he thinks he does and doesn’t deserve, he still wants and needs.

 

For all he Knows and has Known, he’s remarkably ignorant of his own psyche sometimes. How is it that it always takes a crisis before he achieves these epiphanies, especially when they seem so obvious in retrospect? Of course it wasn't enough for him to reach out. Of course he needed someone to see him – to look him in the eye, so to speak, and take his hand in spite of what lives there.

 

Jon ruffles his own hair, breathing out another incredulous chuckle.

 

“Let me guess – you did something to reach back. To call me home.”

 

“I… I just – talked. Asked you to come back. Or demanded, or begged – threatened, a few times. Depended on my mood, really. I was – sort of all over the place.” Martin snorts. “Felt properly daft, too, sitting on the floor talking to a box of dirt.”

 

“I imagine so.”

 

“In my defense, it was Georgie’s idea.”

 

“I’m willing to bet it was also her idea to have Basira use that radio to call to Daisy.” Jon shakes his head again. “And I think it’s safe to assume that the first time I did this, you were talking to the Coffin as you left those tape recorders. Or, if not, maybe just the act of putting them there spoke for itself. Either way, you were reaching out, telling me you wanted me to come home. That’s what mattered.”

 

“Wait,” Martin says, jaw going slack, “you mean to tell me that you leaving those tape recorders for yourself –”

 

“May have ironically ensured that it would take even longer for me to get out this time, yes.”

 

For a long minute, they each look into the other's eyes with matching blank stares. The silence breaks when one of them – Jon isn’t sure who starts it – begins to snicker. Soon, they’re both doubled over in a new storm of laughter and tears.

 

“I’m – I’m sorry,” Martin manages. “I shouldn’t laugh, it’s just –”

 

“Morbidly, inappropriately funny, yes.” Jon looks at Martin with an exhausted grin as he tries to catch his breath. “And cathartic, and long overdue, and an entirely justified response to the – absurdist horrorshow our lives have become.”

 

“I’d say I’m laughing so I don’t cry, but, well…” Martin points at his puffy eyes.

 

“Also long overdue, I think.”

 

Jon can feel his eyelids start to droop heavily as exhaustion creeps back up on him, but for the first time in a long while, it isn’t accompanied by resignation and dread. His attention is too preoccupied with the sight of their joined hands, the accompanying warmth crowding out the fear.

 

For this moment at least, he feels – in a word – safe.

Chapter Text

Even asleep, Jon is a flurry of movement. The muscles in his jaw tense repeatedly as he grinds his teeth; his limbs twitch and jerk and tremble; his fingers curl into his palms, fists clenching and relaxing at random intervals. The quick, erratic motions beneath his closed eyelids are accompanied by gasps and the occasional whimper. Impossibly, he looks even frailer than usual – folded in on himself and shivering despite the thick, oversized jumper engulfing his slight frame.

 

Martin sits on the floor with his side pressed up against the cot, his arm resting on top of it and his eyes riveted on the few inches of space between Jon and himself. Part of him wants to reach out, to soothe away the varying shades of distress flitting their way across Jon’s face; another part of him, quieter but nonetheless insistent on making its existence known, tugs him in the opposite direction, urging him to widen that handspan of distance between them into a chasm. Something about Jon’s ragged breathing keeps Martin rooted in place, his heart skipping a beat any time the pauses between breaths stretch just a little too long for comfort.

 

At least he’s breathing at all, Martin thinks with a pang. Jon goes deadly still then, and Martin's hand twitches in an unconscious desire to check for a pulse – some secondary sign to reassure himself that Jon really is just sleeping. Several prolonged seconds pass before Jon finally sucks in another deep, rattling breath.

 

At the gentle knock-knock on the doorframe, Martin jumps. The door to Document Storage, already cracked an inch or so, creaks as it swings wider.

 

“Jon?” Georgie calls softly, peeking through the gap. “You in here? I was just – oh,” she says when she sees Martin. An instant later she notices Jon, tossing and turning on the cot behind him. “What happened? Is he okay?”

 

“He… well, he’s fine now. I think. Just… sleeping.”

 

“Wait,” she says, fully entering the room and approaching to watch Jon with genuine astonishment, “you actually got him to sleep?”

 

“Not really? He was having trouble staying vertical, so I told him he should lie down until the vertigo passed, and…” Martin shrugs. He’s still taken aback by the fact that Jon complied without argument. “I don’t think he was planning on falling asleep, but he was out as soon as his head hit the pillow.” Jon’s fingers spasm, brow wrinkling as he cringes and curls into a tighter ball. Martin sighs. “Doesn’t look very restful, though.”

 

“Oh, he’s always been a fitful sleeper. Even back in uni. He didn’t used to be that bad, though. Or – he was, but in short bursts. Not… drawn out like this. He’d usually wake himself up after a minute or so of…” She frowns as Jon goes taut in a full-body spasm. “That.”  

 

“I guess the Eye doesn’t want the dream to end,” Martin says quietly. Jon twists his fingers against the sheets, gathering the fabric in a death grip. Martin’s hand twitches again, inching just a bit closer to Jon’s. He resists the urge to uncurl Jon’s fingers, to give him a hand to hold instead.

 

“Last I checked, the nightmares weren’t as nightmarish anymore,” Georgie says. “I mean, by his own admission, he treated mine and Naomi’s dreams like social calls.”

 

Martin tears his eyes away from Jon to glance at Georgie, a puzzled expression on his face. “Naomi?”

 

“Naomi Herne. He said hers was the first statement he took in person.”

 

“Yeah, back when he was still putting on the skeptic act. And she filed a complaint against him for being…” Martin smiles and shakes his head. “Well, Jon.

 

“I’m not surprised,” Georgie says with an amused snort. “They seem pretty friendly now, though.”

 

“What, seriously?”

 

“Yeah. They do have a similar sense of humor. She doesn’t seem to scare easy, which probably helps. And she has a cat, so…”

 

“What does that have to do with anything?”

 

“Jon… has trouble initiating when it comes to having a social life,” Georgie says slowly. “Just wanting to talk doesn’t strike him as a good enough reason to start a conversation. He worries he’ll just be an annoyance. It’s like he needs to come up with some concrete justification for reaching out. But Naomi is always excited to talk about the Duchess – that’s her cat – which means Jon is less likely to feel like he’s bothering her. Which also makes him less likely to talk himself out of sending a text. Plus, it’s a safe, normal thing to talk about, and he loves cats, so…” She shrugs. “It’s good for him.”

 

“Huh.”

 

“Yeah. Gives her an excuse to stay in touch, too, I think.” Georgie gives Martin a significant look. “Lonely, you know?”

 

“I…” Martin rubs the back of his neck, not meeting her eye. “Yeah.”

 

“Anyway, I thought… well, he said the nightmares weren’t as bad as they used to be.” Georgie frowns as she watches Jon’s lips twist, his teeth bared as he sucks in a sharp breath. “I don’t know. At least he’s actually sleeping. I don’t think he’s slept for more than forty minutes at a time since he got out of the hospital.”

 

“That was nearly a month ago.” Martin gapes at her, horrified. “How has he even been able to function with that level of sleep deprivation?”

 

“The same way he survived for six months without a heartbeat. And why he has to consciously remind himself to breathe sometimes, and has a tendency to forget to blink, and doesn’t have much of an appetite for normal food anymore. He’s not fully human –”

 

Georgie must sense Martin preparing to go on the offensive, because she holds up both hands palms-out, placating.

 

“I’m not saying that he’s inhuman, either. He might be convinced that he’s more monster than human, but he’s still a person. He’s just… different now, and he’s resigned to that, but he hasn’t yet gotten it through his head that there are people who will accept him regardless.” She sighs. “My original point was that he doesn’t have the same physiological needs that most people do. But he still does need to sleep from time to time. Sleep deprivation clearly takes a toll on him.”

 

“Figures,” Martin huffs, blowing hair out of his eyes. “He’s always treated sleep as optional.”

 

“Yeah,” Georgie says with a laugh. “He’s operated on a bare minimum of sleep for as long as I’ve known him. Part casual self-neglect, part allergy to the general concept of resting, and part legitimate insomnia. I told him more than once he should get evaluated for a sleep disorder, but… well, you know Jon. And now that he really does need less sleep than the average person, of course he’s pushing the limits even further.”  

 

Martin looks down at Jon and thinks, as he has countless times before: He really does make it so damn difficult to take care of him.

 

It’s simultaneously heartbreaking and frustrating, even irritating at times – but somehow, whenever Jon doubles down, it only makes Martin do the same. It’s become such a familiar dance, a challenge even, and more often than not, Martin wins those contests of will: badger Jon persistently enough, strike just the right balance between expressing worry and wagging a finger, and eventually he’ll agree to take care of himself. In the beginning, he would grump and roll his eyes and drag his feet; as time went on, though, he became more receptive to it. Some days, he even seemed to enjoy – albeit in a guarded, almost shy way – being cajoled into sharing lunch or tea or conversation.

 

Unthinkingly, Martin brushes a lock of hair away from Jon’s forehead, damp with cold sweat. Wishes he could smooth the tension away as easily.

 

“Did you two talk about things?” Georgie asks.

 

“Some of it.”

 

“Do you want to talk about it?”

 

“I…” Martin bites his lip. “I feel like I shouldn’t want to, but I – I sort of do?”

 

“Well. I have some time to listen.” Georgie takes a seat towards the foot of the cot. “How’d it go? Bearing in mind this isn’t the tunnels.”

 

“It’s… a lot.”

 

“Mm. I can imagine.”

 

“I mean, he…” Martin runs a hand through his hair with a disbelieving, nervous chuckle. “He told me he wants to grow old with me?”

 

“He said that?” Georgie laughs outright. “God, he’s gotten even more saccharine than I thought.”

 

“It’s just – not something I would have ever imagined him saying? To anyone, let alone me.” Martin can feel his palms sweating now; he rubs them on his trousers, hoping to dispel some of the clamminess. “He just seems so… changed.”

 

“He is, but… maybe not as drastically as it might seem. Rather, this is him, just – without all the walls.” Georgie chuckles, shaking her head. “And less of a filter, apparently. Sorry.”

 

“Sorry?” Martin repeats, perplexed.

 

“He’s dumping a lot on you all at once. I can talk to him, if you want. Tell him to slow down, give you some space to process it all.”

 

“I… I don’t…” Martin pauses, coming up against an invisible wall between a daunting realization and the explicit acknowledgment thereof. He makes several abortive attempts at speech before he manages to voice the confession: “I don’t think I want him to?”

 

Left to himself for too long, Martin can feel himself start to come unmoored. The truth the Lonely is so loathe to have him accept, let alone speak aloud, is this: he doesn’t want that to happen. Not anymore. Being in the presence of others, actively taking part in a conversation, seeking comfort in touch – all of these things still feel grating, unnatural even, but a return to solitude frightens him in a way it hasn’t for months. It’s an old terror, one that he had become numb to since accepting the Lonely’s embrace. Now, it seems to have returned with a vengeance. The lingering, ambient discomfort that comes with human connection is quickly becoming preferable to that looming fear of absence.

 

Still, though…

 

“It feels like – going against my nature, every minute I spend talking to him, to you, to… anyone, really. I think I just… forgot how not to be alone?”

 

On some level, Martin wonders whether he ever knew in the first place. He’s had friends, certainly, but every relationship, no matter how ostensibly reciprocal, has been laced with an undercurrent of insecurity: a loud, nagging voice in the back of his mind, reminding him of the consequences should he allow himself to be too much or not enough. Always primed for rejection, he strove to make himself pleasant, to make himself useful, to make himself accommodating and unobtrusive and easy. Sometimes, he felt like an impostor, fooling people into believing that he was worth keeping around. He was always counting down the moments until someone would see through the façade to the inadequacy within, realize he wasn’t worth the trouble, and leave him behind. 

 

“The Lonely… I don’t think I want it anymore,” he says, “but it feels – wrong, to leave it behind. Not me, somehow.”

 

“Hmm.” Georgie drums her fingers against her chin. “I can understand that. Isolation can become so habitual that it starts to feel like home, and anything trying to break through feels like an invasion. You start to feel safer alone, and you deny those moments when you catch yourself wishing things were different, because loneliness has become such a part of you that you don’t know who you would be without it.”  

 

“I… yeah,” Martin says, taken aback by having it laid out so succinctly.

 

“In my experience, it helps to remind yourself that your brain is lying to you when it tells you you’d be better off alone. In your case, I guess it’s your brain and a supernatural fear god or whatever, but… unless you’re keen to fight a god, it might be best to start with your brain. That’s something you actually can exert some control over, with enough practice. And I think it might make it harder for the fear to get to you if you’re not trapped in the kind of mindset it thrives on.”

 

“I guess,” Martin says, looking off to the side. Once again, he rests his arm on the cot, his hand mere inches away from Jon’s, sheet still clenched tightly in his fist.

 

“But you don’t have to take it on all at once,” Georgie says. “If you have to set boundaries, Jon will understand. And even if he didn’t, you still have a right to enforce them. Not to sound cliché, but you shouldn’t set yourself on fire to keep others warm.”

 

The problem is, of course, that the concept of putting himself first is as alien to Martin as the idea of being… well, not lonely.

 

“I can hear the cogs turning,” Georgie says with a gentle smile. “Look, it’s easier to accept a concept intellectually than it is to actually apply it to yourself. There’s a learning curve. But it’s a lesson worth learning. Took me way too long to learn it myself. If it helps, start with – to use another cliché – ‘put your own oxygen mask on before helping others with theirs.’ Then you can move onto practicing self-care without feeling guilty.”

 

“What are you, a therapist?”

 

“Nope. I’ve just had several years of experience being on the receiving end.”

 

“O-oh. Uh, sorry –”

 

“Don’t be. It’s not something to be ashamed of. At this point, I could probably fill out CBT worksheets in my sleep. With enough practice, it does start to become intuitive.” She shrugs. “Anyway, you can’t fix Jon, and I don’t think he expects you to. You can support him, you can care about him, but you can’t make him better. That’s true in any relationship, but… well, obviously it’s – a bit more complicated in this case.”

 

“I just… I want him to be okay, and I don’t know how to help –” Martin startles when Jon kicks one leg out violently, entangling himself in the sheets as he pulls it back and curls into himself again. Martin lowers his voice. “He – he was so starving he passed out, Georgie, he wasn’t breathing and it was like the hospital all over again and – and I don’t think I have any other stories I can tell that would count as statements –”

 

“Wait, you gave him a statement?”

 

“Y-yeah.”

 

“I thought he didn’t want –”

 

“I don’t know if he would have agreed if he was conscious, but he… he wasn’t waking up, and I didn’t know what else to do,” Martin says pleadingly, watching Georgie carefully to gauge her reaction. “He needed a fresh statement. Old statements aren’t enough, and he said new ones cause nightmares regardless of whether he takes them in person or not, so we can’t just give him new written statements that come in, and I – I don’t know what we’re going to do if he gets that bad again.”

 

Martin remembers the look in Jon’s eyes: glossy, glazed and almost luminous with an alien sort of hunger, but shot through with a terror more devastating than Martin had ever seen from him. The unflinching intent with which he hurt himself; the erratic rhythm of his breathing; the way his dilated pupils swallowed the irises just before he fell unconscious. He was lost to the world in those moments, alert but unresponsive, seemingly unable to hear a word Martin was saying.

 

And the abject horror on his face when he commanded Martin to stay away… 

 

“He was… he was so scared. Of himself. He doesn’t want to hurt anyone, but he – he can’t think straight when he’s like that.”

 

“Shit,” Georgie says, pinching the bridge of her nose.

 

“I think working in the archives gives some immunity? I’ve given a few statements, before we knew how all this works, and he never showed up in my nightmares. Tim’s or Sasha’s, either, as far as I know. And I actually… well, I don’t actually mind giving him statements, to be honest? It’s – hard, to relive it, but it’s… cathartic, too. To get it all out, to be able to actually – describe it in words. Maybe I’d feel differently if I came in off the street – or was approached – and I didn’t know him, and wasn’t protected from the side effects, but – as it is, I would be fine giving him statements when he needs them, and that’s not – that’s not a huge sacrifice on my part, is what I’m saying. But I don’t… I don’t think I have any more stories to give.”

 

“Okay,” Georgie mutters to herself, rubbing her temples. “Okay. We… we’ll figure something out. Obviously, Jon needs to be part of that conversation. Maybe Daisy, too – Jon seems to trust her.”

 

“Why would he trust her?” Martin asks, incredulous, almost incensed. “She kidnapped him. She – she slit his throat, she was going to –”

 

“I know. I don’t really understand it either. But supposedly she’s changed a lot, and she’s an Avatar like he is. I get the feeling he might want her there.”

 

“Fine,” Martin says in a clipped voice, even though fine seems like a wildly inaccurate descriptor to him. “What about Basira? And Melanie?”

 

“Melanie… with Jon’s permission, I’ll invite her, just so she’s not out of the loop, but I doubt she’ll take us up on it.” Georgie frowns, rubbing her jaw absently. “As for Basira… I don’t know. Something Jon said…”

 

“What?”

 

“I’m…” Georgie pauses, tilting her head from side to side as she deliberates. “Concerned. About how Basira might approach the situation.”

 

It takes a few seconds for Martin to work out the implication. When he does, he pales, mouth going slack.

 

“You – you don’t think she’d hurt him?”

 

“I don’t think so,” Georgie says haltingly, “but there’s a chance she might put the option back on the table if she thinks he’s too dangerous. She wouldn’t like it, but… well, she seems utilitarian. I think she’ll do whatever she thinks she needs to do. And even if she doesn’t threaten him directly, I still…” She sighs. “Jon’s not in a good place right now, mentally. Frankly, I worry about exposing him to anything that might encourage a better-off-dead mindset, even if it’s just… perceived condemnation.”

 

“God, this…” Martin laughs, high and stressed. “This entire situation is…”

 

“I know. But we’ll figure something out. And in the meantime, make sure to take care of yourself too, alright?”

 

“Yeah,” Martin says, only half-listening.

 

“I mean it. Jon cares about you. He wouldn’t want you to run yourself into the ground on his behalf.” 

 

Before Martin can respond, Jon jumps in his sleep again with a strangled gasp. Flinging one arm out, his hand brushes against Martin and seizes a fistful of his sleeve. Tightening his grip, he tugs on Martin’s arm to bring it closer, practically hugging it in a vice grip. Almost instantly Jon calms, tense muscles relaxing, pained expression going slack, a relieved sigh shuddering out of him as he nuzzles into the crook of Martin’s elbow.

 

Martin can feel his cheeks burning. He shoots a preemptive glower in Georgie’s direction, daring her to laugh – but she only smiles.   

 

“Well, I’ll leave you to it,” she says, rising to her feet. “Have him text me when he’s awake, will you?”

 

“Y-y-yeah,” Martin stammers. “I’ll – I’ll see you later.”

 

He barely notices her departure, instead staring down at Jon with a vague sense of wonder. Jon holds fast to him like he’s a lifeline, and Martin can feel him breathing warm and steady through the fabric of his sleeve. The cold sweat on his brow seems to be evaporating now. Martin shifts his position to more fully face the cot. As he reaches up with his free hand to brush away the hair clinging to Jon’s forehead, a slow, shy smile begins to spread across Martin’s face.

 

It won’t be long before Jon succumbs to another fit of tossing and turning, but in the meantime, Martin simply watches him with faint awe and renewed affection. He’s never seen Jon look so at peace, and he takes the opportunity to memorize the sight.

 

When another shard of the Lonely shatters and crumbles away, Martin is too preoccupied to note its passing. 

 


 

With a startled yelp, Jon sits bolt upright. Gulping down air in deep, ragged breaths, he looks wildly around the room, not taking anything in: it’s all visual noise, smudges of loud colors and sinister shadows, all of it closing in and bearing down on him.

 

Something next to him – close too close too close – moves abruptly, rising up and looming over and settling down beside him. Jon cringes away, only to find that his legs are pinned together by something, restricting his movement, and there’s dirt in his mouth, and dirt in his throat, and dirt in his lungs, and he cannot breathe, cannot breathe, cannot breathe, cannot breathe – 

 

“Jon,” comes a voice – somehow both close and far away. “Listen, you’re – you’re okay, you’re safe.”

 

Trapped in that liminal twilight haze between sleep and waking, Jon gropes blindly for a handhold, an anchor, something real and solid and –

 

His hand collides with something soft, warm – wool, his mind supplies, and then:

 

…wool is able to absorb nearly one-third of its weight in water…

 

He shakes his head to chase away the stray scrap of trivia, digging his fingers into the fabric to ground himself.

 

“It was just a dream,” says the voice again – a kind voice, a safe voice – and Jon takes a shuddering breath, like a drowning man clawing for air.

 

Then a hand closes over his, and that light pressure is enough plunge Jon right back below the surface. He thrashes violently, desperate to break away from the throbbing litany of too close cannot move trapped held pinned in place screeching metal crushing in and down and down and down and Karolina beholds her encroaching fate with tranquil acceptance and the Archivist feels her skull crack and her chest cave in and her lungs collapse and still she smiles and she watches as the Archivist flails uselessly for an escape that does not will not cannot exist and the door bulges and splinters and explodes inward and the deluge rushes in and the Archivist is drowning, drowning, drowning –   

 

The hand draws back, the pressure lifts, the train car finally collapses, and the last remnants of hazy sleep begin to disintegrate.  

 

“S-sorry, I didn’t mean to – it’s – it’s just me, Jon.”

 

“Martin?” Jon chokes out, tightening his grasp on Martin’s jumper – wool, warm, soft, safe – still bunched in one hand. He reaches out his other arm to find a second handhold.

 

“Yeah. I – I won’t hurt you.”

 

Safe.

 

“I know,” Jon says groggily. The tension drains away and he sags against Martin’s side, breathing in slow, deliberate swallows. “’M sorry. Dream.”

 

The first time he’s slept, truly slept since leaving the hospital, and of course it had to be while Karolina Górka was dreaming. Of course.

 

“Do you… want to talk about it?”

 

“Buried,” Jon mumbles, face partially burrowed in Martin’s shoulder. Self-explanatory, he figures.

 

“Oh,” Martin says in a broken whisper. Jon opens one eye to see an expression of helpless pity on Martin’s face. “That’s…”

 

“’S okay,” Jon assures. “I’m okay.”  

 

Reluctantly, he releases his hold on Martin and leans away. When he stretches – partly out of habit, partly to reassure himself that he can – there’s still something pinioning his legs. A spark of panic tears through him before he realizes that it’s just the sheets, tangled hopelessly around his lower half. With some difficulty, he manages to extricate himself and kick the blankets away.

 

“How long was I out?”

 

“Couple hours.”

 

“Have you just been sitting here the whole time?” Jon frowns apologetically. “You could’ve woken me.”

 

“Wake you when you were actually sleeping for once? Uh, no. How are you feeling?”

 

“Better,” Jon says simply. “I’d like to know how you’re doing.”

 

“I’m – fine,” Martin says. Jon raises an eyebrow. “Really, I – I am. I’m more worried about –”

 

“Me, I know. And I’m worried about you. I… don’t think you’re just ‘fine.’” Martin gives a noncommittal grunt. “I really would like to know where you are in all this. How you’re faring. How I can help.”

 

Martin remains silent, lips pressed tightly together as if to seal them.

 

“I know I was – distracted, earlier, but I… I really do want to help,” Jon tries again. “Please let me help?”

 

Something finally gives and Martin slouches with a sigh.

 

“I’m… still trying to figure it all out,” he says slowly. “I don’t know what I’m feeling most of the time, besides… worried, and…”

 

“Lonely.”

 

“Yeah,” Martin says with a wistful smile.

 

“You don’t have to be,” Jon says quietly.

 

“I know.”

 

“I’m not – I’m not trying to –” Jon sighs. “I just… I need you to know.”

 

“I know,” Martin says again.

 

Jon bites back the nagging impulse to ask all the questions itching on his tongue: Have you decided what to do about Peter? How Lonely are you now? Do you need closeness or distance? What should I be doing, or not doing? What can I do to take care of you? Where do we stand?   

 

What do you see, when you look at me?

 

Jon looks away and shuts his eyes.

 

“I’m sorry you had to see me like that, by the way. It wasn’t my intention to frighten you. Or to…” He swallows, fighting back the nausea rising in him. “To compel you.”

 

“It’s alright –”

 

“It’s not,” Jon says brusquely. He makes a conscious effort to soften his tone before he continues. “I don’t want to be the thing that frightens you.”

 

“You’re not,” Martin says with a bemused frown. “I know you didn’t mean to use your powers on me.”

 

“You were afraid. I could…” Jon closes his eyes again and forces himself to say the words. “I could taste it.”

 

And the Archivist in him savored it.

 

“I wasn’t afraid of you, Jon. I was afraid for you. You looked terrified, and in pain, and you were hurting yourself, and I didn’t know how to help, and then I didn’t know if you were going to wake up, and… that’s what scared me.” Jon’s skepticism must show on his face, because there’s an intensity to the words when Martin reiterates: “Not you. Never you.”  

 

“Never say never,” Jon says with a brittle, self-deprecating smile.

 

“I’m serious, Jon.”

 

So am I.

 

“I… I think we need to talk about where to go from here,” Martin says after a moment, averting his eyes.

 

“I agree.”

 

“You do?” Martin looks back to him, blinking in surprise.

 

“Yes,” Jon says, adjusting his position to sit cross-legged and pivoting to face Martin fully. “The others need to know what happened. I can’t be trusted not to hurt anyone –”

 

“No, that’s not what I –” Martin sighs. “I’m worried about what could happen if things get that bad again.”

 

“That’s what I’m saying. I came dangerously close to – to hurting someone. We need some plan in place, some way to keep me contained so that I don’t –”

 

“Stop, stop, stop,” Martin says, holding up a hand. Jon tilts his head, bewildered. “I’m not – I’m not talking about keeping you contained, Jon. I’m worried about you. This goes beyond a compulsion you can beat with enough willpower. You were starving. You… you could have died.”  

 

“We don’t know that.”

 

“Exactly! We don’t know, and I don’t want to find out.”

 

“Well, yes, but –”

 

“No ‘but.’ There has to be some way to keep you fed without hurting anyone. We just need to –”

 

“Martin, terror and suffering is the entire point. That’s what sustains it. Mine, my victim’s, doesn’t matter as long as it hurts.” Jon laughs, hollow and bitter. “It’s not like there’s an ethical way to – to harvest trauma –

 

“We don’t know that for sure,” Martin says fiercely, “and I’m not ready to just give up. I would hope you aren’t, either.”

 

“I…” Jon busies himself with tucking a flyaway lock of hair behind his ear, using it as an excuse to break eye contact.

 

“Please, Jon.”

 

Martin takes his hand, prompting Jon to look up again. A familiar guilt rises up in him, shame at always being the one to put that expression of desperate worry on Martin’s face.

 

It’s enough to make him agree, albeit in a whisper, “Okay.”

 

“Right,” Martin says, giving Jon’s hand a brief squeeze. “Georgie and I were talking while you were asleep. She wants to be part of the discussion, so long as you’re alright with it.”

 

“Of course. We should probably tell Daisy and Basira as well.”

 

Martin appears to hesitate.

 

“I was thinking the three of us can meet first,” he says carefully, “and then we can open up the discussion after.”

 

“Why?” Jon observes the slight concavity that forms as Martin chews the inside of his cheek. “Martin?”

 

“Georgie’s worried about Basira’s reaction,” Martin says abruptly, “and honestly, so am I.”

 

“She needs to know.”

 

“I – I know, it’s just…”

 

“We have so few allies; we can’t afford secrecy and mistrust. And…”

 

And of all of them, Basira is the one Jon can trust to do what must be done if things go wrong. If he goes wrong.

 

“Basira is a strategist,” he says. “She’s good at viewing a problem from multiple angles, considering all the variables, predicting potential solutions and outcomes and then weighing them with a… pragmatic eye.”

 

“The pragmatism is what worries me.”

 

“I want her there,” Jon says simply.  

 

“Okay,” Martin says, but Jon can tell he’s not thrilled about it. “What about Daisy?”

 

“Yes,” Jon says immediately. At that, Martin somehow manages to look even less thrilled. 

 

“And Melanie?”

 

“I… I’m alright with her being there, but I don’t want her to feel pressured. She’s dealing with enough as it is.”

 

“Okay. I can let everyone know, but I think you should get some more rest before –”

 

“No.”

 

“Jon –”

 

“I need to confront this now. While I’m still… in my right mind,” Jon says, plucking absently at his sleeve with his free hand. “Sober.”    

 

For a brief second, Martin looks ready to argue, but then he capitulates with a sigh.

 

“Okay,” he says, releasing Jon’s hand and standing up. “I’ll… round everyone up, I suppose.”

 

“Thank you,” Jon murmurs.

 

Martin glances back several times as he leaves the room. Jon waits until he’s out of sight before he puts his face in his hands, sighs, and tries to brace himself for a conversation he dreads almost as much as the Coffin.

 


 

A short time later, the group – minus Melanie – convenes in the tunnels, five chairs arranged in a loose circle with a sixth left empty off to the side. Sitting almost directly across from Jon, Basira watches him with eyes narrowed, arms folded, and mouth pressed into a firm line. 

 

“What do you mean you ‘almost’ relapsed?”

 

“Martin suggested reading a new statement that came in earlier this evening,” Jon tells her in a straightforward near-monotone. Pushing through the discomfort it brings, he forces himself to meet her eyes when he speaks. “I agreed, without informing him that reading a fresh written statement has the same repercussions that taking a live statement in person does. I was going to feed, knowing that it would hurt an innocent person.”

 

“But you didn’t,” Martin says emphatically. “You stopped yourself.”

 

“Only because Helen pointed out the cognitive dissonance. Took a monster to remind me not to be a monster.” Jon scoffs. “Even then, I almost did it anyway.”

 

“But you didn’t,” Martin repeats.

 

“What about next time?” Basira asks, unimpressed. “When you get hungry again, what then?”

 

“That’s what we’re here to discuss,” Georgie says, assuming the role of mediator the moment she notices Martin’s scowl deepen. “We need to find some way to keep things from getting that bad in the first place.”

 

Thoroughly unnerved, Jon squirms in his seat. Basira has had him pinned under her stare for several minutes now, and she seems unlikely to cut him free any time soon. But what right does he have to object to scrutiny, given what he is?

 

“What did you do with the statement?” Basira demands. “The one you were going to read?”

 

“I… asked Martin to burn it.”

 

Her eyes flick to Martin. “And did you?”

 

“N-not yet –”

 

“Burn it. As soon as we’re done here.” She shifts her attention back to Jon. “Is there an alternative to new statements?”

 

Jon doesn’t miss a beat when he answers, matter-of-fact: “No.”

 

“Jon,” Martin and Georgie say simultaneously, with the tenor of a reprimand.

 

“I’m not – I’m not trying to be difficult,” he replies, finally breaking eye contact with Basira to look down at his hands. “It’s just… reality. I’m an Archive dedicated the curation of statements – of fear.”

 

“You never actually explained what that means,” Basira says. “You being the Archive.”

 

“It’s… hard to put into words.”

 

“Try.”

 

Jon sighs, taking a moment to collect his thoughts.

 

“The Archive is more than – paper and files and tapes. The reason it needs to be housed in a living mind rather than a mere building is because the statements themselves have a living quality to them.” He crosses his arms, brow furrowing as he struggles with his phrasing. “They need to be immersed in a steady supply of fear. A shelving unit, a filing cabinet, a hard drive, a cassette tape – those can’t provide the ideal habitat that they need to thrive. The Archivist is –”

“– simply a battery, a ready source of constant terror –”

 

He cuts the Archive off with a frustrated snarl, digging his fingernails into his arms.

 

“Hey,” Georgie says gently, “you’re alright. Take your time.”

 

Jon has to spend a few minutes counting breaths before he feels ready to try again.

 

“What I was –” He cuts himself off preemptively, half-expecting the Archive to intrude again. Once he realizes the words are his own, he clears his throat to recover from the false start. “What I was trying to say is – without a living consciousness to contextualize them, the statements are just… stories. When I consume a statement – read it, hear it, doesn’t matter – I See the events play out through the victim’s eyes. My lived experience of it is essential to the recording and preservation of the story. I need to be able to recall how it feels, not just summarize the major points of interest.” He sighs again. “And… that’s also the point of reliving the events in the nightmares. All of it is to keep the memory fresh. To keep the story – the fear – alive.”

 

When he looks up to see all four of them staring at him, he begins to rub his arms absently, increasingly self-conscious. He can feel the semicircle grooves leftover from where his fingernails cut into the skin. 

 

“So… yeah,” he finishes awkwardly. “The Archive is defined by the statements and the fear that embodies them. The Beholding always hungers for more, and the Archive is a… a receptacle for all of its knowledge. The continual curation of new statements is what sustains it. Without that, it withers.”

 

“And dies?” Basira asks.

 

The question isn’t unkind, per se, simply businesslike: an eagerness to discover an answer heedless of whatever messy emotions it might elicit. Jon understands that impulse all too well. Not for the first time, he wonders whether Jonah had a secondary, hidden motive for recruiting Basira: a backup Archivist, in the event that his first choice be unable to endure the process.

 

“I still don’t know if it would physically kill me,” he replies, “but the hungrier I get, the more I forget myself. I’m liable to do things that I wouldn’t normally do, monstrous things.” He huffs. “And at the same time, giving in to that hunger will also make me more monstrous over time. It seems like… either way, I – I can’t avoid losing sight of… well, me. The human part of me. Whatever’s left of it.”

 

And wouldn’t losing himself be a death of sorts?

 

In a way, Daisy died the moment the Hunt recaptured her. What she became was her, undoubtedly, but only a small piece of her. The creature that Basira eventually killed… it was an echo of all the hated, feared parts of herself that Daisy had tried so hard to starve out. The rest of her – all the things that altogether made her Daisy – had long since been burned away.

 

If Jon didn’t manage to find a way out of that doomed future, he suspects that his ultimate fate may have been similar: all the fragile scraps of himself that still belonged to him, every sliver of personal identity, every shred of humanity crushed and buried beneath an ever-swelling ocean of dispassionate knowledge. The Archive would have carried on expanding and curating until, one day, it would have either collapsed under its own weight or simply run out of things to catalogue, then to waste away – but by then, it would have borne no resemblance to the original owner of its ravaged vessel.

 

Some endings play out in merciless increments. Jon has witnessed – has caused – more than his fair share of pointless, drawn out suffering. It would have been only fitting for his end to follow a similar path.

 

“Well, shit,” Basira mutters. 

 

“What about statements given consensually?” Martin asks tentatively. “The one I gave you seemed to satisfy the Archive, or – or however you want to call it. And in the past when I’ve given you statements, they never gave me nightmares, so…”

 

“Anyone aligned with the Eye has a measure of protection from the Archivist,” Jon answers. “I was never privy to Tim’s or Sasha’s nightmares, either. Once Melanie and Basira started working here, their dreams were cut off from me as well. And… last time, Daisy ended up signing an employment contract after returning from the Buried. Same result.”

 

“Is it just the archival staff, or any Institute employee?” Basira asks.

 

“I… don’t know,” Jon says thoughtfully. “If I had to hazard a guess, I would say that it’s restricted to those most strongly connected with the Eye. Archival assistants, primarily. Possibly the research department, or at least those individuals who are the most… compatible with the Beholding, so to speak, though I’m not positive.”

 

It's more likely that it's only the archival assistants, tethered as they are to the Archivist, but he doesn't know for sure, and… now that the question has been posed, Jon craves an answer. 

 

“But – but experimenting isn’t worth the risk,” he says, mostly in an attempt to dissuade himself from pursuing the matter any further. He’s pleasantly surprised to hear the confidence in his own voice.

 

As if satisfied with that answer, Basira gives a tiny nod. Jon doubts it’s meant as a vote of confidence or as approval, but her posture does relax somewhat. It's unlikely that she trusts him by any stretch of the imagination, but for the moment she seems to have decided that he isn’t an imminent threat, at least.

 

It feels remarkably, disconcertingly like passing a test he didn’t realize was in progress.   

 

Georgie’s eyes are fixed on the floor, her chin propped in her hand and a contemplative pout on her face. Martin has his lips pressed together, as if biting back an objection. Daisy is the only one looking directly at Jon. She hasn’t said a word since Jon gave his confession, but now her head is cocked slightly to the side, as if she's weighing her words.

 

“I have a lot of stories from my Sectioned days,” she muses. “I could –”

 

“What would you say if I told you that you should go hunt a few monsters?” Jon says immediately.

 

“I…” Daisy stalls for a moment, and then gives a resigned sigh, understanding. “I would be worried that I wouldn’t be able to stop at a few,” she says grudgingly. Her shoulders slump as she adds, “Or at monsters.”

 

“Exactly.”

 

“But wouldn’t it be different?” she asks, perking up again. “The prey doesn’t consent to the hunt. The fear is taken, not freely given. But a statement – that can be consensual.”

 

“The Hunt cares about the terror of the prey in the moment. The Eye cares about the terror of the victim in the retelling. The consent aspect is only relevant in terms of whether and how it influences the fear. The fear is all they care about, and I doubt anything benign can come of consuming the fear our patrons want, consensual or no.”

 

“Do you remember what I said about harm reduction?” Georgie has been sitting quietly with her thoughts for so long, Jon startles at the sound of her voice when she rejoins the conversation. “We need to keep you from getting so hungry that it changes who you are, and new statements are the only way to satisfy that hunger. Correct?”

 

“Well, yes, but –” 

 

“No ‘but.’ According to you, right now your options are statements or starvation.”

 

Struck with a fleeting impulse for petulance, Jon has to swallow a biting retort. It’s an old habit, hackles rising at having his own words turned against him – something for which Georgie has always had an aptitude. Between an impressive memory, an analytical nature, and a tolerance for confrontation, she’s never been shy to speculate on what’s really going on in Jon’s head at any given moment. That ability to dissect his motivations and insecurities and cognitive distortions – it used to feel like being flayed alive, all the vulnerable bits of him exposed and shoved under a spotlight.

 

It’s probably fair to say that his inability to weather that level of scrutiny was a big factor contributing to their eventual breakup: his guarded nature was incompatible with her more straightforward approach to relationships.   

 

“I realize it’s not ideal,” she’s saying now, “but taking statements given with informed consent seems like the most ethical choice.”

 

“It isn’t just unideal, it’s – it’s –” Jon puts one hand over his eyes, rubbing his forehead and fighting back the urge to shout. “This isn’t a solution.”

 

It’s still feeding the Eye. It’s still capitalizing on other people’s trauma. And the stories Daisy has to offer… Jon has to wonder how many of them feature Daisy as a victim or a bystander, and whether those outnumber the ones where she herself is the object of fear. He’s taken statements from Avatars before. Some of them were indeed stories of experiencing fear firsthand. Others, though… the fear threaded through the statement came not from the teller, but from their victims.

 

Jon isn’t keen on siphoning off the secondhand terror of Daisy’s prey. Maybe he can’t afford to be picky, but if there’s one thing he’s learned, it’s that lines have to be drawn somewhere.

 

“We can keep looking for a better alternative,” Georgie says, “but for now… think of it as a stopgap measure.” Sensing Jon’s continued aversion to the idea, she continues: “If your own wellbeing isn’t enough to convince you, consider how you starving would affect other people.”

 

“It might make me more dangerous,” Jon says quietly.

 

“I mean – maybe, I guess? But that’s not what I meant.” At Jon’s blank expression, Georgie sighs. “When you suffer, it hurts more than just you. You have people who care about you. They’re sitting with you right now.”

 

“Still, I – I can’t ask that of –”

 

“Oh, come off it, Sims,” Daisy says, rolling her eyes. “You crawled into hell to drag me out when all I’d done was treat you like prey. And even after seeing what it was like, you went back in and brought me back a second time.”

 

“Yes, but –”

 

“If I sign a contract to work in the Archives, it’ll stop you showing up in my dreams, right?”

 

“Yes. I’m – I’m sorry, again, about –”

 

“And it’ll keep new nightmares from cropping up if I give you more statements?”

 

“Well, yes –”

 

“Then what’s the problem?”

 

Jon opens and closes his mouth soundlessly several times.

 

“I – I – I don’t want you to sign yourself over to the Beholding just so I can – treat your memories like a – like a snack” – Jon flings one arm out in a sweeping gesture, supplementing the disgust with which he says the word – “without facing any consequences!”

 

He looks around at the others, arm still outstretched in the air, waiting for someone to back him up on this. When no one does, he huffs a bewildered chuckle and withdraws his arm to comb his fingers through his hair instead. Why is he the only one making a fuss about this? He thought he could count on Basira at least to raise an objection, but she’s just staring off to the side, apparently lost in thought.  

 

“I was already considering signing a contract anyway,” Daisy says. “Basira said you had a theory that the Slaughter’s effects on Melanie were slowed by her connection to the Eye, yeah?”

 

“Yes,” he admits cautiously.

 

“We were thinking – maybe it’ll do the same for me with the Hunt.”  

 

“Did it help last time?” Basira cuts in, as if she’d never tapped out of the discussion.

 

“I’m not positive,” Jon hedges. “It was a theory we’d considered, yes, but it’s not like we had much of a sample size to test that hypothesis.”

 

He wishes he’d thought to ask these kinds of questions after the world ended, when he actually had a chance of getting the answers. In his defense, he had a lot on his mind.

 

“And it didn’t entirely silence the call of the Hunt,” he adds, looking back to Daisy. “You still deteriorated the longer you refused to answer it.”

 

“Hm.” Basira’s contemplative expression returns as she withdraws to commune with her own thoughts again.

 

“Well, it’s not like I’m going anywhere anyway,” Daisy says with a shrug. “Basira’s trapped here. So are you. And I don’t think I can be trusted to leave here alone without giving in to the Hunt again. I have nothing to lose by signing a contract, and…”

 

Her eyes gravitate towards Jon’s throat. Mechanically, he reaches up to adjust the scarf around his neck, to ensure the scar there is covered. At the guilty expression on Daisy’s face, Jon has to look away.  

 

“If it can help,” Daisy continues, “then I think telling some stories is the absolute least I can do after… everything.”

 

“How many do you have, do you think?” Georgie asks, once again settling into problem-solving mode.

 

“Don’t know. Several. A couple dozen? Maybe more, depending on how far we can stretch the definition of a statement.”

 

“I have a handful as well,” Basira says, her tone wholly unreadable. “Not many, but… a few of the things that happened while you were dead should count as statements, I think.”   

 

“I – I couldn’t ask you to –”   

 

“I’m not offering; I’m just inventorying all the options on the table,” Basira says with an air of finality.

 

Curiously, Martin seems to tense at Basira’s words, shifting restively in his seat and looking askance at her. 

 

“How much time does that buy us, do you think?” he asks, throwing brief, surreptitious glances in Basira’s direction. “How long would a few dozen statements last you?”

 

“I… I don’t know,” Jon says, still altogether uncomfortable with the idea. “If I ration myself, then – a while, hopefully? Hypothetically? But…”

 

He’s loathe to elaborate, but when did keeping secrets and denying reality ever help?

 

“Last time, it kept getting progressively worse. I needed to feed more and more frequently in order to stave off the hunger. The side effects of abstaining grew more severe. I want to hope that it will be different this time. Maybe giving in to the hunger in the first place only encouraged the Archivist’s… evolution. Whet my appetite. It’s possible that refraining from hunting will… I don’t know, slow the process? Maybe? B-but at the same time…”

 

He trails off, lips parted, unable to say the words.

 

“Jon?” Martin prompts gently.

 

“It’s… I’m sorry, but I – I have trouble being optimistic about it. Coming back didn’t… it didn’t reset the Archivist’s progress. I’m the product of what I’ve done up to this point, even if I’m the only one who remembers any of it. I still have all the marks. And… the Archive fledged and thrived in the apocalypse.”

 

“Meaning?” Basira leans forward, watching him intently. 

 

“The Archive is accustomed to a feast, not a famine. Millions of statements filtering through every moment without pause. Even when humanity started dying off – when there was less and less fear to go around, when even the monsters started to decay in that place – the Archive was still sated, because I could See everything. No matter how few and far between those pockets of terror became, as long as fear was being suffered somewhere, the Archive had a steady source of sustenance.”

 

It wouldn’t have lasted forever, of course. Everything has an ending. But that had still been a ways off when Jon left that place.   

 

“I probably would have been one of the last things standing, by the end,” he says softly.

 

“And you think the hunger will be worse this time because you aren’t used to being hungry,” Basira says.

 

“More or less,” Jon mumbles, shamefaced. “Coming back to the past, to now… there was no transition between plenty and want. I – the Archive – was just… dropped into a – a habitat it was never adapted to survive in. It’s like a… like a non-native species, as far as this reality is concerned. Like taking a fish out of water and expecting it to evolve lungs on the spot.”

 

“Hm.” Basira cups her chin in one hand, running a thumb slowly over her lips as she thinks.

 

“I plan to ration myself as strictly as possible, of course. I just want to establish the possibility that things might – escalate, at some point.”

 

“If it comes to that, we can deal with it then,” Georgie says. “In the meantime, we should just…”

 

“Take things one crisis at a time?” Jon tries to temper his bitterness with a weak smile, without much success.  

 

“I mean, yeah, basically,” Georgie says. “But in order for this to work, you need to be honest with us.”

 

“I – I am, I –”

 

“I’m not accusing you of lying, Jon. I just mean… well, you have a long history of ignoring your own limitations, and –”

 

“You’re not good at taking care of yourself,” Martin interjects. His cheeks go pink and he tosses an apologetic glance in Georgie’s direction. “S-sorry, I didn’t mean to interrupt.”

 

“No worries,” Georgie says. Martin looks uncertain until she grins and, still making eye contact with him, jerks her chin in Jon’s direction. “By all means, go on.”

 

Emboldened, Martin turns his attention back to Jon, who meets his eyes with no small amount of apprehension. If Martin is intent on compiling a laundry list of examples of Jon’s poor self-care – and judging from that worryingly familiar look on his face, he is – then he has ample material to choose from. Jon barely has time to brace himself before Martin launches into his lecture. 

 

“You used to forget to eat. You never took lunch unless I hassled you. I had to nag you to go home at night.” He’s counting off on his fingers now, Jon notes with dismay. “You went through most days fueled by a maximum of four hours of sleep and frankly alarming amounts of caffeine. You insisted on coming back to work, against medical advice, immediately after almost being eaten alive by worms.

 

Jon opens his mouth to speak – and promptly shuts it again when Martin gives him what Jon can (with equal amounts of affection and dread) only refer to as that look.

 

“You could barely walk. I had to threaten to forcibly remove you from the building before you agreed to go home. You spent the next several weeks sneaking – hell, limping around down here” – Martin makes a sweeping gesture with his arm – “where we found your predecessor’s murdered body, and –”

 

“Yes, yes, okay,” Jon interrupts, hands flapping anxiously. “I get your point.”

 

“I also had to threaten to withhold the Admiral from you to get you to go have your burn treated,” Georgie chimes back in. Jon glares at her; she looks far too entertained by the proceedings.

 

“I was – I was on the lam,” he protests. “I couldn’t exactly go waltzing about in public.”

 

“But you were perfectly willing to go chasing down Avatars, apparently.”

 

“I…”

 

“Oh,” she adds, “and today was the first time you actually slept since you woke up from a coma.”

 

“I was asleep for six months,” Jon mutters, arms crossed, bouncing one heel against the floor. “I think that more than makes up for –”

 

“You tried to pass off a stab wound that required five – five!” – Martin holds up five fingers for added (and unnecessary, in Jon’s opinion) emphasis – “stitches as an accident with a – with a bread knife.

 

Somehow, Martin manages to sound as indignant now as he did on the day it happened. 

 

“That was several lifetimes ago,” Jon says primly. “At some point you have to let me live it down.”

 

“It hasn’t even been two years!”

 

“Seriously, Jon?” Daisy, who has been hiding a smirk behind her hand throughout the entire exchange, finally fails to contain her stifled laughter. “A bread knife?”

 

“I – I panicked,” Jon says weakly, cheeks burning. “Martin cornered me in the breakroom and it was the first thing I saw, and I just –”

 

Martin starts in again. “You were actively exsanguinating –”

 

“Th-that – that’s an exaggeration,” Jon sputters, watching Georgie out of the corner of his eye to gauge her reaction. She’s shaking her head with a faint smile, and Jon… well, Jon supposes that playful scorn is preferable to actual scorn.

 

“– and you refused to let me take you to the clinic until I threatened to call an ambulance,” Martin finishes.  

 

“I was –” Jon twists a lock of hair around his fingers as he scrambles for some way to save face. “I would have been –”

 

“I think it’s safe to say you have no sense of self-preservation,” Basira says, and even she has a hint of amusement in her tone now.

 

“They have a point, Sims.”

 

“Et tu, Daisy?” Jon says, hoping to garner a laugh – or, failing that, at least halt the relentless bombardment of admonishments. Daisy simply raises her eyebrows and folds her arms, unmoved.

 

“Do I need to revisit some of the things we discussed in the Coffin?”

 

“No,” he says sullenly. When no one else speaks, he continues, somewhat irately: “Are we quite finished with the roast session?”

 

“For now,” Georgie says. “The point is, don’t run yourself into the ground just to test the limits of what you can endure.”

 

“And don’t let rationing statements turn into just another way to punish yourself,” Martin says sternly. Then he bites his lip, speaking gently now: “You… you deserve better than that.”

 

I really, really don’t, Jon thinks. Having no desire to unleash another lecture, though, he keeps the contrary comment to himself.

 

“Besides, letting yourself get that bad probably makes things worse in the long run,” Georgie says. “Like walking on a sprained ankle. Maybe you can endure the pain, but the longer you ignore it, the more likely you are to cause even more damage, and recovery takes longer than it would have if you’d just attended to it in the first place.”

 

“Speaking from personal experience, are we?” Jon allows a hint of retaliatory smugness slip into his voice.

 

“Yes,” Georgie says, rolling her eyes. “That ankle is still weak. Which is why you should listen to me. Just… try to care about yourself even a fraction of how much others care about you, alright?

 

Jon sighs. “Point taken.”

 

“You can trust us,” Martin says.

 

“I – I know that. I do trust you. I’m just…” Afraid.  “I don’t want you to –”     

“– mark me out as something other –”  

“– getting used to people making polite excuses not to look at me –”  

“– it wears you down to be someone whom nobody wants to see – I called out again and again but nobody came –”   

 

Frantic, he covers his mouth with his hand to halt the recitation; the words continue to pour forth undeterred, albeit muffled and likely – hopefully – too indistinct for the others to understand.   

 

“– I remember shouting, recriminations, and I was abandoned –”  

“– no one to blame but my own stupid self – blundering in where I had no right to go –”   

 

A flash flood of restless energy breaks through the dam and then it’s racing through his veins, filling his mouth and his mind with white noise. He kicks one foot out and brings it stomping back down to the ground in a burst of sheer infuriation and near-panic. A crawling sensation travels up and down the length of his spine, a parade of feather-light pinpricks reminiscent of thousands of scuttling spider legs.  

 

The slight whimper that works its way up his throat is thankfully stifled by the hand still pressed to his lips.

 

“Breathe through it,” Basira tells him.

 

Irritation flares to life at the reminder, but Jon forcibly snuffs it out before the spark can catch. Basira is only trying to help – and in a way she knows has helped before.

 

He breathes.

 

A frustrated noise – something between a snarl and a whine – spills out on his exhale, and he presses another hand atop the first as if it can render him entirely soundless. Before another wave of self-directed fury can take him, Jon coaxes himself to take another breath in through his nose. And another. And another, counting up until the pressure behind his eyes lets up and the static clears from his thoughts – at which point, he’s forced to confront the four pairs of eyes playing patient audience to his outburst.

 

Like a toddler’s tantrum, he thinks acidly, burning with humiliation. 

 

“Sorry.” Although the scathing edge to the word is reserved solely for himself, he takes another breath before speaking again, lest the others assume the ire is directed at them. “Sorry. I’ll try to control it better.”  

 

“It’s fine, Jon,” Martin says. “We know you aren’t doing it on purpose.”

 

“Anyway,” Basira says, her peremptory tone indicating a return to the subject at hand, “can we all agree that this is the best strategy for now?”

 

Jon looks down, tracing the weave of his scarf, focusing wholly on the texture of fabric against fingertips in a vain attempt to distract from the pins and needles still skittering across his skin. It takes a moment before he registers the silence. When he looks up, the others are staring at him. Basira raises an eyebrow, clearly waiting for his response.

 

“Even if I do agree to this,” Jon says warily, “I still – I know it’s a lot to ask, but I still need to be monitored for any signs of…” Although the question is meant for all of them, Jon shifts his gaze to make direct eye contact with Basira as he asks it. “Can you let me know, truthfully, if I – if it looks like I might… if you think I’m a danger?”

 

“Jon,” Martin sighs, “you’re not –”   

 

“Yes,” Basira says decisively.

 

Martin glares at her, his mouth falling open with a combination of shock and protective outrage. Jon recognizes that expression, and he jumps in before Martin can get a word out.

 

“Thank you, Basira.”

 

Now Jon is the target of Martin’s glower. He looks offended, betrayed almost, as if Jon took Basira’s side in a dispute between the two of them. Again, though, Martin doesn’t get the chance to scold.

 

“Alright then,” Daisy says, stretching. “It’s settled. You” – her eyes swivel to Jon, their piercing intensity prompting him to sit up at attention – “come to me when you’re hungry.”

 

“Before you cross the boundary into ‘starving,’” Martin says, carving out an opportunity to chastise despite the interruption.

 

“Consider me a vending machine of horror stories,” Daisy quips.

 

Jon grimaces and rubs the back of his neck. “Do you have to describe it that way?”

 

“Oh, quit grousing.” With a flash of teeth, a wolfish grin spreads across her face. “What, would you prefer I write up a menu?”    

 

Her expression turns solemn when Jon winces and looks away.

 

“Sore nerve?” she asks, suddenly and uncharacteristically delicate.  

 

“Are you sure you’re okay with this?” The question is nearly inaudible, Jon’s eyes fixed on the floor.

 

“I wouldn’t have offered if I wasn’t.”

 

Fearing his voice might crack if he tries to speak, Jon bites down on his lip and tucks his chin to his chest, letting his hair fall to hide the others from view. He shuts his eyes for good measure and swallows hard, determined to head off the tears threatening to gather.

 

“Hey.” Daisy stretches out a leg and kicks his foot gently. It’s enough to make him raise his head cautiously. “I was just teasing. Really.”

 

“I –” It comes out as a croak. Jon clears his throat and blinks several times to dispel the stinging pressure in the corners of his eyes. “I know.”

 

“It is… so weird to see you two like this,” Basira says with an air of baffled wonder.

 

Jon notices Martin fidgeting out of the corner of his eye. When he looks directly at him, he sees Martin glaring at Daisy with a mixture of worry, suspicion, and resentment.

 

It isn’t surprising; he never really did forgive Daisy for what she did to Jon. Neither did Jon, for that matter, but… Daisy was so changed after the Buried, it was difficult to see her as the same person who dragged him into the woods. She was, undoubtedly – she was the first to admit that – but she was remorseful and wholly dedicated to changing her behavior, even knowing it might well kill her. She never asked for forgiveness, never denied the harm she’d caused, never tried to justify or shirk responsibility for her actions.    

 

When the Hunt reclaimed her, there was nothing left of the Daisy who he’d come to see as a friend. For that Daisy, it was a fate worse than death. Worse than the Coffin, even. She would have preferred to die as herself, and on her own terms – and the Hunt stole even that ounce of humanity from her. It made her forget that she didn't want to be a Hunter.

 

Jon dreads watching her waste away again, but not nearly as much as he fears the Hunt devouring her whole.

 

“People change,” he says, looking from Martin to Basira, hoping those two words can convey all the things he cannot say. They both look unconvinced, albeit in slightly different ways.

 

The silence drags on uncomfortably long until Georgie claps her hands on her knees.

 

“You never actually answered the question, Jon. Are you alright taking statements from Daisy? At least until we can find a better solution?”

 

“I…”

 

He glances around the others in the circle, looking at each face in turn, trying to discern their opinions on the matter. Daisy gives him a reassuring nod. Martin has an almost pleading expression on his face, worrying his bottom lip between his teeth and wringing his hands in his lap.

 

Basira is… entirely inscrutable, much to Jon’s dismay. He didn’t expect otherwise, but he still wishes he could get a read on her, determine exactly how she categorizes him now. Probably not as a trustworthy ally. At best, perhaps she sees him as human enough to be suffered to live, but on thin ice and under probation. At worst, she sees him as an irredeemable monster and is simply keeping her opinion to herself for the time being.

 

Or – no, the worst might be what he was to her last time. She saw him as a monster, yes, and was fully prepared to put him down – like a rabid animal, he thought when confronted with that wording – if he became too much of a danger. It was comforting to know that Basira wouldn’t let sentiment get in the way if he had to be stopped. Less comforting was how she saw him as an asset: a dangerous tool to be used and then locked away once he’d fulfilled his purpose.

 

Granted, he gave Basira permission to use him – asked her to, in fact. It would be unfair to resent her for taking him up on an offer that he himself put on the table. If his powers could be used to help for once, he was fully willing to sacrifice his humanity to do so. After all, he was already too far gone, he figured – and everyone else seemed to agree. Georgie certainly seemed to think so. Melanie told him outright that he came back wrong. He had likewise interpreted Martin’s avoidance as a comment on his having changed for the worst, at least initially. And he knew from the moment he woke up that Basira saw him as something other, as something more akin to the monsters they were fighting rather than an ally. He understood why they all felt that way, agreed with their assessments even, but it was soul-crushing nonetheless.

 

But even if he couldn’t have – didn’t deserve – trust or companionship, he still needed a reason, something to justify choosing not to die. If being wanted wasn’t an option, the least he could do is avoid being a burden. An annoyance. If approval wasn’t on the table, at least he could convince people that he was worth keeping around. And hadn’t that approach always been second nature to him? In a way, he didn’t tend to seek affection so much as try to avoid rejection.  

 

Ultimately, though, pursuing that strategy started to feel sickeningly familiar. It wasn’t until much later that he realized why: between Jonah and the Beholding – and in all likelihood the Web as well – he’d grown accustomed to being seen as a means to an end, and that made it all the more difficult to see himself as a who rather than as a what. It’s a distinction he still struggles with – particularly during those times when the Archive makes its presence known.

 

He might not have much right to ask for trust or approval, but that doesn’t change the fact that he craves it – perhaps from Basira most of all. If even her opinion of him can change… well, it would go a long way in helping him to believe that he really does have a chance.

 

“Jon,” Basira says, snapping him back to attention.

 

Shit. How long has he been staring?

 

“We need an answer,” she continues.

 

Jon can’t help but wonder if this is another test. If he agrees, will she see it as further proof of his inhumanity, as evidence that he isn’t trying to resist? If he refuses, will it make her suspicious, lead her to believe he plans on going hunting instead? He’s never been skilled at reading between the lines, at interpreting social cues, at deconstructing the unspoken. The best he can do is ask questions and guess blindly as to the right way to respond – and agonize over the repercussions should he get it wrong. Basira has a way of making that already difficult process even more intimidating. 

 

“Jon,” Basira repeats herself, growing impatient now.

 

“O-okay,” he says quietly. “It’s… worth a try, I suppose.”

 

She gives a curt nod. As always, it gives him no insight into her thoughts. He has no time to resume brooding, however, as Martin draws his attention with an audible sigh of relief. When Jon glances at him, Martin graces him with a smile – small, almost shy, but genuine. Jon tries and fails to mirror it.

 

Apparently finished with Jon for the moment, Basira turns her attention to Daisy.

 

“Come on,” she says, rising to her feet and tapping Daisy on the shoulder. “We should stretch your legs.”

 

Obediently, Daisy starts to stand, only for her knees to buckle beneath her. Basira is there to catch her.

 

“Been sitting too long,” Daisy grunts, embarrassment coloring her cheeks.

 

“Can you manage the ladder?” Daisy shakes her head, flushing darker. “That’s fine,” Basira says, though Jon thinks he can detect a hint of fear – maybe even melancholy – in her tone now. “Let’s just… walk for now. Wake your legs up.”

 

The two of them start off down the tunnel, Basira supporting half of Daisy’s weight as she staggers forward.  

 

“Jon?” Georgie says softly.

 

“Hm.”

 

“Try to cut yourself some slack, yeah?”

 

Jon really can’t afford to do that, but saying so will only start them talking in circles again. Martin leans closer and places a hand on Jon’s knee.

 

“Hey,” he says, looking Jon in the eye with overwhelming sincerity. “We’ve got this, alright?”

 

“Alright,” Jon responds, and wills himself to believe it.

 

The three of them exit the tunnel in silence. It isn’t until Jon hoists himself through the trapdoor – Martin assisting in pulling him to his feet – that one of them speaks.

 

“Oh,” Georgie says, looking at Jon, “by the way…”

 

“Yes?” Jon says, apprehensive.

 

“Melanie asked me to tell you that she’s ready to talk, whenever you are.”

 

“O-oh.”

 

“I know it's not a great time –”

 

“No, I – I think I…” Jon nods. “I think I’m ready, too.”

 

“It doesn’t have to be tonight,” Georgie says hurriedly.

 

“I really am okay to –” 

 

Martin looks ready to object, but Georgie gets there first.

 

“Okay, correction: it won’t be tonight,” she interrupts, fixing him with a stern look now. “You’ve had hardly any rest since coming out of the Coffin. I think you should get some actual sleep tonight. If – if – you’re feeling up to it tomorrow, we can arrange something then.”

 

“Fine,” Jon sighs. He knows better than to argue with the combined tenacity of Georgie and Martin.

 

And he has to admit, he is rather tired.

 


 

A little over a half-hour later, Martin and Jon are back in Document Storage.

 

When he suggests Jon go to bed, Martin is prepared for a protracted argument. Jon acquiesces surprisingly quickly, though, his only condition being that Martin get some sleep as well. It takes slightly longer to convince Jon to take the cot. Martin pulls up a chair and sits at the bedside, refusing to budge as Jon makes his counterarguments. Eventually, though, Jon starts nodding off mid-protest. It’s only a matter of time before he begrudgingly gives in – but not before demanding that Martin take the better blanket. With an amused shake of his head, Martin agrees to the compromise.

 

Jon slips between the sheets, Martin leans back in his chair, and for a long moment the two of them watch each other in silence. Jon’s hand rests near the pillow, fingers crooked loosely, palm turned up like an invitation. Martin has the sudden urge to reach out and take it.

 

Another minute passes before Martin realizes that… well, that’s a thing he can do now, isn’t it? What’s stopping him?

 

Slowly, tentatively, he extends his hand and lets it hover above Jon’s, fingertips barely brushing. He applies the slightest pressure, giving Jon every opportunity to pull back. He doesn’t. Jon interlocks their fingers, curling them over in a firm grasp, and peers up at Martin through his lashes with mingled uncertainty and hope.

 

“Is this okay?” Martin asks quietly.

 

As an answer, Jon lets out a contented sigh, eyelids fluttering closed as a sleepy smile spreads across his face.

 

“'Course,” he mumbles, already drifting off. “Always is.” 

 

Martin will follow not long after, slumping precariously to the side, head lolling onto his shoulder, and hand still held fast in a warm, sure grip. It’s a posture that will undoubtedly leave him sore by the time he wakes up, but that discomfort will be overshadowed by the way he feels in these shared, quiet moments: seen, accepted, wanted, embraced.

 

Anchored, he thinks – and for the first time in months, no thoughts of Loneliness shadow him as he falls to sleep.

Chapter Text

Once Jon opened the door and the Fears rewrote reality, not only was sleep no longer a physiological necessity – it was no longer an option. Much like the Coffin, even a temporary escape via unconsciousness was contrary to a world defined by the ceaseless generation of terror. And just as it did any human in that place, perpetual wakefulness took its toll on Jon’s already ravaged mental health.

 

The fact that he was no longer plaguing the nightmares of his victims may have been a small consolation, if not for the fact that he was instead witnessing the waking nightmares of billions of new victims: the same scenes looping over and over, layered one on top of the other, an endless soundtrack screaming in the background of his mind. Venting a statement from time to time could only do so much to quell that storm. He’d really had no choice but to learn to compartmentalize on autopilot and dissociate on command.

 

So when, for the first time since before the world ended, Jon awakens to Martin at his side, his mind cannot immediately reconcile the sight. He might think he was dreaming, if not for the fact that he hasn’t had a pleasant dream of his own since he became the Archivist. And even before then – well, he’d always been more predisposed to nightmares.

 

Jon feels his heart stutter in his throat when he sets eyes on Martin. Their hands are still clasped together, and despite the sweatiness of their palms and the way Jon’s arm is cramping from the angle, he has no desire to let go. Instead, he lies still, breathing shallow and measured, fearful of any sound or movement that might shatter the almost uncanny peace of the moment.

 

He really shouldn’t be staring like this, though, should he? Martin has given him permission to stare many times before, but that was in a future where they had Seen each other at their most vulnerable. Being seen, truly seen – as terrifying as it was for the both of them – became a comfort, because of what they had been through together. Here in the past, Martin hasn’t shared that experience. He might not be as keen to put up with Jon’s incessant watching.

 

Those reservations still aren’t enough to stop him, though.

 

Martin is still sat in his chair, but bent sideways at the waist to lean halfway on the cot. He’s snoring lightly, his head pillowed on his free arm, glasses askew. The angle is probably hell on his back.

 

Maybe I should wake him up, Jon thinks idly, one corner of his mouth turning up in a small, fond smile.

 

He doesn’t. Instead, his eyes remain rapt on Martin, soaking in every detail, as beloved and familiar as always: the length of his eyelashes, the shape of his lips, the spray of freckles across his nose, that particularly stubborn cowlick that always, always stands on end. Jon wants to reach out, sink his fingers into those curls, massage his scalp in that way Martin used to love – but that would be a step beyond staring, wouldn’t it? So he watches: unblinking, aching, adoring, and so overwhelmed that he's at risk of tearing up.

 

It’s painfully, embarrassingly maudlin of him, he knows, but can he really be faulted for that? Jon surpassed the lifespan of a normal human several times over, bereft and alone in a desolated realm of his own making. He spent much of that time out of his mind with grief, drowning in hopelessness and guilt, cycling between numb dissociation and raw destruction. When he wasn’t wandering aimlessly – near-catatonic, subsumed by the never-ending deluge of fear permeating that world – he was lashing out. Although he couldn’t die, he could still hurt, and so he did, with exacting focus: both himself and all the other monsters going through the motions in that doomed world.

 

Ending them neither decreased nor increased the net output of fear, but it was the closest Jon could come to some nebulous, fleeting sense of justice. He didn’t enjoy it – in fact, he hated the other Avatars sometimes, bitter that they could attain a release that seemed impossible for him. His first few acts of vengeance in those early days had felt good in the moment, but the high never lasted: just like taking a statement.

 

Eventually, once the fear began to grow scarcer, it felt more and more like granting mercy – often to monsters who never showed any themselves – rather than meting out justice. A few moments of pain was preferable to slow, torturous starvation. Breekon was the first to request such a favor. He was far from the last.

 

It made Jon feel monstrous in an all new way, offering escape to predators when he could do nothing to save their victims – at least not without turning them into Avatars themselves, creating more monsters to replace the old. But it also made him feel real – a tangible, active presence interacting with the world, as opposed to a ghost, unseen and unknowable. An undeniable consequence, rather than a detached observer.

 

Tears start to gather in the corners of his eyes. Jon tries to swallow them back, but his throat has grown thick with emotion. He never expected to escape that place; never expected to see a friendly face or hear a kind word ever again. And now that he has…

 

This isn’t for you, says an insidious little voice in the back of his head: some twisted chimera comprised of all those who have known him well enough to see him for what he is, to catalogue his failings, to pass judgment. There is no place for you in this world. You don’t belong here. You were made for something greater; eliminate that, and what remains –

 

A gentle knock-knock at the door startles him out of his thoughts.

 

“Jon?” Georgie pushes the door open and peers through the gap. “You awake?”

 

“Yeah.” It comes out as a fractured whisper. He sniffles and rubs his eyes, but Georgie has already noticed his distress.

 

“Bad dream?”

 

“No.” Jon clears his throat and props himself up on one elbow. “No, ah – quite the opposite, really.”

 

“Oh?” Georgie says, probing for an explanation.

 

Jon's gaze drifts to his hand, still joined with Martin’s. “None of this feels real, and…”

 

“And?”

 

“I, uh…” Jon closes his eyes, blinking back tears. “I don’t deserve it.”

 

“The world doesn’t work that way.”

 

“Maybe it should.” Jon lets out a wet, clipped laugh.

 

No one got what they deserved in the world he created, only what hurt them the most. Tempting as it was to find some meaning in it all, to retroactively draw correlations between past actions and current circumstances, Jon Knew from the very beginning that there was no cause-and-effect at play. Not really. Any misery being experienced in that new world was utterly unrelated to the lives people lived before the change. It was indiscriminate. Everyone was afraid and in agony, regardless of any subjective judgment on whether or not they deserved it.

 

And nothing Jon did changed those material conditions in the slightest. He could shift an individual’s role from subject to object and vice versa, reassign their place on the spectrum of the tortured versus the torturer, but at the end of the day, he was still just facilitating fear, regardless of what shape it took. Despite being one of the most powerful and fearful things roaming that scorched earth, his options were as limited as they’d always been. Every choice led to more or less the same end.

 

By every measure that could be said to actually matter, he was ultimately powerless.

 

Would it have been any more tolerable if the suffering was more proportionate? If at least some of the people trapped in the domains could be said to be receiving just punishment for any agony they themselves had inflicted before the end of the world? Maybe. But probably not. Securing vengeance never actually yielded any meaningful catharsis for Jon. Even Jonah Magnus' ultimate fate produced nothing but revulsion. The Archive may feed on such fear, but after all this