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Ghost in the Pages

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The book Gerard pushed into her hands was far heavier than its size gave away, and far, far too warm.
'Please,' Sasha’s boss pleaded quietly, strands of his black-blonde hair tangled behind his ears and drooped over his face as he met her look, 'I just need you to read the last page- it might be something that can help.'
And Sasha, despite her years repeatedly learning the dangers of reading a strange book brought to The Magnus Institute, couldn’t outright deny the desperation in Gerard’s eyes.
'Help us how?' She asked, gingerly holding the book at length as she read the title, 'Gerard, is this a Leitner?'
'It is, but it won’t hurt you-I promise.' He said hurriedly, and dammit, this place hadn’t beaten Sasha down enough yet that she could still believe he wasn’t the type to feed his assistants to cursed books in the name of knowledge, “It- I found it in America. With some hunters. They were using it for information on the fears, so there must be someone in it that-'
'Someone? Gerard what is this book?'
He was silent for too long a moment, breathing hard and eyes blurring at their edges.
'It’s The Catalogue, Sash,' he said as a whisper into the room, 'It’s my Mum’s old book.'
Conversations, shared late at night or over drinks or when their world had become too much to hold all their secrets in anymore, rolled over Sasha in an instant, and she opened the book to it’s last page.
'Do you know who it is?' she asked as she squinted at the page, the skin, with dark ink pressed deep into it like it was carved, and tried not to shudder.
'Dunno, some poor sod that got out of his depth. Just took the book and ran, couldn’t look inside until-'
'Ok,' she said, taking a steadying breath as she focussed on the words rather than the shuddering pulse that ran through the page, 'Ok. Lets do this.'
She settled the book on one of the empty assistants' desks, glad to put its unnatural weight down for a moment, and began to read the words aloud, each one pulling on her tongue as feelings alien to her began to pour down her throat.
'He’d known for so long that it would be one of these entities that would take him. Clicking mandibles haunted him well into his teenage years, before he met Gertrude and those nightmares took on a new variety. Falling. Burning. Rotting. Buried in an impossible grave until dirt suffocated him.
And yet it was perhaps the most simple of all the deaths that the fears could inflict that he looked down on now- a hunters knife plunged deep into his chest- through flesh and muscle and blood and scratching the bone of his ribs- for getting in the way of the glorious chase.
Funny, he thought it would hurt more- not that the uncontrolled throb of the wound or the taste of blood from his lungs didn’t hurt, but he had expected a desperate fear to shake through him until every last moment stretched into eons as he inched closer to the end.
But he felt calm. A final word in too long a story for him.
And so Jonathan Sims ended.
'

The book stayed utterly still for a moment, the air around scented with iron and smoke, until between one blink and the next, the pale shadow of a man stood behind it.
The colour had been sapped from him like a photo left in the sunlight- spots of white that were almost translucent, and his eyes a cloud of grey that slowly raised to meet Sasha’s in a grimace. The outlines of his clothing could still be seen- a rumpled jumper and neatly pressed trousers, thin rimmed glasses perched on a wide nose and hair bundled behind him in a messy bun, wisps of it floating around his face like reeds in the wind.
“Well then,” he spoke, voice deep yet seemingly still made of the weightless smoke the rest of his being had become, “I suppose you're my new keeper now. Go on, what do you want to know.”
“I-” Sasha stuttered, the weight of the dead man's gaze far too heavy for eyes that weren’t really there, turning to Gerard for help only to find him staring at the spectre wide eyed, pale, and mouth open a gasp that hadn’t quite escaped.
Jon.” It finally released, and the single name was far too soft for all the emotions he put into it.
The dead man- Jon- turned to look at The Magnus Institute’s Head Archivist, and for a moment, a flicker of human and vibrant brown filled his eyes.
“Gerry?” He asked, voice suddenly more tangible than before.
“You’re in the book, you died-” Gerard stuttered, before his voice became thick, “Jesus, Jon, what did Gertrude do to you?”
To the notice of only Sasha, both had raised their hands to the other, Gerard’s tattooed skin almost as pale as Jon’s, yet still too solid to allow any illusion the man that the archivist stared so intently at was anything but dead.
“It wasn’t her fault, Ger, I just-”
“I know now, Jon.” Gerard snapped, “I know enough about Gertrude and the institute and everything you kept from me to know that’s bullshit.”
And the deadman smiled, a line cut through the air that threatened to flicker away at any moment.
“Would it help to hear I wanted to protect you?” he asked, “That I thought you were better off not knowing there were worse things then Leitner’s in the world?”
“No, it wouldn’t.”
The two fell into silence, helplessly examining the others face with mirrored looks of pain and fondness as Sasha tried not to breathe in the frigid air too deeply.
“You were one of Gertrude’s assistants weren’t you?” she finally asked, the ice prickling along her tongue as it moved, “before we took over the archives.”
The stormy eyes turned back to her reluctantly, the smile growing dour in response.
“Back in the archives again then? Well, I suppose it’s better than America.” He sneered, the venom of his words strong even as the still air of the archives threatened to blow it away. “And I take it you’re Gertrude’s replacement-the new Archivist?”
The word that before had filled her with anticipation and pride, already worn down by what she’d seen since coming down here, sounded even more forsaken in Jon’s sharp tongue, and Sasha found her jaw clenched under the weighted stare of accusing, empty eyes.
“Leave her alone Jon,” Gerard said quietly, taking hesitant steps closer, “I’m the new Archivist.”
And somehow, the room went even colder as Jon’s form flickered between them for too long a moment.
“No,” he whispered, volume of the voice matching his form, “Gerry, you can’t have-”
“I didn’t know what I was getting into-did I? You never told me.”
Because I never wanted you to set foot in The Magnus Institute!
Jon’s words ran like thunder through Sasha’s lungs-clawing deep like worms from out the walls, of sharp handed laughing men, or faceless things contorted in the tunnels-
“Fine.” He spoke again, softly this time that the fear all at once evaporated into the air, “You didn’t open the book from curiosity, Gerard-you hated Leitner too much to do anything but burn them, unless you needed something.” He looked up again to Gerard, eyes like shadows, “Go on ,Archivist, ask your questions.”
Sasha pulled her eyes away to look at her boss, looking so much smaller than his size, and only curling up more under Jon’s burning glare. His lips, for once, stayed still, forced silent by the memory of a dead man, and unable to ask his questions.
He never looked further than the fearsome Archivist he had been acting these past two years. And Sasha, having learned to see past the facade since they lost Martin the the thing in the table, knew when it was her turn to lead.
“The Unknowing is coming.” she said as strongly as she could, arms folded and ready for battle, “If you were her assistant, you would have been with Gertrude when she was disrupting all these other rituals- did she tell you anything that could help?”
Jon’s gaze turned to her, with a fixed piercing she’d grown used to from Elias, and more recently Gerard in his moments, and Sasha didn’t flinch.
“The Unknowing is coming?” He said, a flat chuckle following, “you definitely need help then. I can tell you what I learned from Gertrude, of course, but I would have a condition.”
“What is it?” She asked.
“If it’s all the same to you Miss…?”
“Sasha. Sasha James.”
“Miss James, I think that is something me and Gerry will be discussing, privately.”
He spoke fastidiously, so sure of himself as he once again moved his gaze away from her, and taking its weight with it.
“I’m not going to-”
Sasha,” Gerard said quietly, still not meeting her eyes through his curtain of hair, “Just five minutes with him. Please.”
And because it was Gerard- Gerard who’d been so honest with them with everything he knew when they came to the archives, who’d held Sasha’s hand after Michael’s warning, who had fought off a wave of silver worms with a half empty fire extinguisher so his assistants had a head start- Sasha bit her tongue and nodded.
“Five minutes.” She agreed, and left the room and its cold air behind.

*

It had been far, far longer than five minutes.
Sasha paced outside the stairs to the archives for each moment that had stretched past the time limit, shooting glares at any of the staff that dared to look in her direction for more than a moment, before going back to her march.
The festering resentment of their ignorance had mostly passed, since she, Tim and Melanie had had a ‘therapy’ session involving plenty of whiskey and even more tears, but the occasional flickers and lukewarm anger would rise when she had to interact with upstairs, especially when pity was involved.
She wasn’t sure if any of them deserved the pity anymore, not with all they’d been willing to do under the beholding. As time went on, it was harder to begrudge Gertrude even her worst sacrifices, especially as the Unknowing drew closer and their options became more desperate.
But some reminders put it back in perspective- Michael’s last statement, shared by Gerry after Helen had pulled him from Orsinov’s care, had shaken Sasha more than she thought she could be anymore. Knowing the catalyst that turned the awkward, young voice on the tapes to the distorted, manic, smiling figure in the doors was a necessity, weighed up with pragmatism they’d soon need, haunted Sasha more than any of the tales in the statements. And now, seeing another assistant’s literal ghost brought back unwillingly, a casualty that wasn’t even calculated, just a loss -
Jonathan Sims wasn’t even listed as an assistant in any of the institutes records- not tied to the institute like they all were, but still gone before he could take any out.
And Gerry knew him- knew him enough that the vulnerability that took years to peek out around his trusted assistants came out like a tidal wave at the faded flicker of Jon Sim’s face.
A reminder that the necessities had lives, connections, and people they left behind. A reminder Sasha did not need right now.
Finally, the creaking footsteps came through the door, and it hinges squeaked open to let Gerard through, bringing a gust of frigid air with him.
‘Gerard?’ She asked carefully, taking her time to examine each type of taught tension keeping Gerard upright right now, ‘What happened?’
Distant eyes looked to hers for only a moment, before dropping once more to the page gently held in his hand- flattened out and fingers barely holding on so as not to crumple it.
‘ We made a deal.’ He said quietly, almost lost now they were in the populated areas of the institute, ‘he told me everything we need to know.’
Questions that had been building up since long before Prentiss’ visit bubbled to the surface, racing to be the first asked now that answers, real answers to them were available. Something solid they could use in the world they’d been thrown into.
Gerard’s shoulders were shaking underneath his coat, and Sasha pushed them down again.
‘Come on,’ she said, slowly placing her hand on the trembling shoulders, ‘let's go outside. You can tell me everything.’
‘About the fears, he said-’
‘Not right now, Gerard’, she said, gently guiding him along to the exit, having to reach up to keep her hand on him, ‘tell me about Jon.’

*
‘Jon saved my life, when we met.’
It had taken three cigarettes, a few minutes of silence, and the stiff breeze of London air in October, but eventually the glaze over Gerard’s eyes faded, and he began his statement.
‘ My mum had been haunting me for six years, by then. Figured I’d always be stuck with her, in that bookshop, trying to control these things that weren’t meant to be controlled. That neither of us really understood. Tried to run away plenty of times, left the book buried or in a safe, and she’d still find me like I was a stupid kid playing at runaway again. Got as far as Genoa once, you remember that statement, and she still came- got all bloodied up for the occasion, just like she’d been when she first put herself in the book, just to remind me what I couldn’t escape. At that point-
At that point I figured, I wouldn’t even get away from her if I did die, she’d probably have a way to make me join her in The Catalogue. But it wouldn’t hurt to try.’
He didn’t look at her as he went over the familiar confession of thoughts that had haunted him well into his tenure as Archivist, and Sasha didn’t try to catch his eyes, instead reaching across and taking one of his shaking hands.
‘Got everything ready-not a note, but I had all my things packed away so no one else had to, the rope laid out, I just had to lock the shop up for the last time- didn’t want any idiots wandering in and touching something they shouldn’t, you know?
I remember- I remember it was a grim day, even for London. Just nothing but grey outside the windows, and everyone had their faces tucked away against that dirty October air that I couldn’t even have a nice last view before I did myself in.’
It didn’t work-Gerard got through it and was sat here next to her now, Sasha reminded herself as her hand squeezed tighter and tighter around his, hanging on to there that Gerard was still here.
‘I dunno if I just wanted a few last moments, a sign, or some great big epiphany that I didn’t need to go through with it, but I kept pacing the shop floor. Around all those books that turned out to be duff leads an Mum left to gather dust for years and years. Ones about demons and the occult she’d used to “supplement” my lessons with her. I couldn’t find anything to feel-not even anger at that point, I was just so tired of having Mum’s voice in my head all the time. I wanted it to be quiet again.
So I went upstairs, figuring that was it. Counted the steps back to where I had it all ready, just about ready.
Heard the crash first, then the swearing. Took me longer than it should have to react, really, but I wasn’t sure if it wasn’t some last minute trick by my Mum to keep me here. Eventually it clicked that her voice had never sounded that deep, or that posh, so I took a look. Went to the room it came from, and underneath the window, still grumbling away, I find this skinny little guy in a sweater vest rubbing at his shoulder and wincing. He didn’t even look up when I first came in. Finally managed to find my tongue again that I asked him what the hell he was doing. He looks up at me, with the sharpest eyes I’ve ever seen, and frowns at me like he’s a disappointed teacher or something. “Ah,” he says, getting to his feet, “Ah, I was told there wouldn’t be anyone in residence anymore.”
“Well, there is.” I told him. I don’t know why I didn’t throw him out- I could have, easily. But we were both just waiting there, seeing if the other one would move.
“Yes, there is.” He says, and smiles at me, not genuinely, more awkward this time, “I, ah, I don’t suppose I can persuade you to not call the police?”
I shrugged, told him I’m not liked all that much by the police, and he’s free to leave. And he perked up, his smile a bit more real.
“You!” he said, “You’re Gerard Keay!”
You know, up to that point, I think I could count on my hands how many people have said my name to me. And none of them said it like that- that they were...awed by me.
It felt nice. And nothing else about him, why he was here, that he broke into my Mum’s flat, mattered. So I asked him who he was.
“I’m Jonathan Sims.” he said, “And I think I might be able to help with your...current predicament.”
We go downstairs. Talk, about this life, what we both grew up knowing. He tells me he hunts down Leitner’s and gets rid of them before they can hurt anyone. We share tea, like we’re normal people on a Sunday afternoon instead of ones who spend their time seeing all the monsters in the world. And we just kept talking, for hours, all the things I’d kept hidden in my head for years just kept coming out to be shared, and Jon was the same. Eventually he tells me he had a lead on a collection of Leitner’s here, and he wanted to help me destroy them. All of them.’
Gerard’s hand tightened around Sasha’s, almost grinding her bones under the grip.
‘He burned my Mum’s page for me, didn’t even blink when he held his lighter up to it, like she wasn’t the worst kind of monster. And I- I didn’t know what to do next. I didn’t like having Mum’s orders follow me everywhere, directing everything I did. But I didn’t have a clue what to do without them pushing me where I was supposed to be.
But when Jon took the ashes, and a few other books with him, he left me his number, and I thought it might be a start.’
‘He never mentioned the Magnus Institute, or Gertrude?’
Gerard snorted, venomous but still thick with choked tears.
‘Not once. Figured he was a free lancer like I ended up being until Elias brought me here, but I guess that’s where most of his “leads” came from. Or maybe he just Knew, like we do.He certainly seemed to have an uncanny way of knowing who to talk to, or when we were getting too close to danger, ’he laughed again flatly, ‘come to think of it, maybe he even knew about the tumour. It was weird how insistent he suddenly was I go have a check up. He said it was just in case, I’d not had nearly enough check ups with her as a parent. I asked him to come with me, bad memories, you know. He just said he had business abroad, but he’d be back soon enough. I left him a message when they found something on the scan. When they had all the department meetings about treatments. Before the surgery. After recovering. I left messages for months before I got the message. I just thought he’d finally gotten sick of me. I guess I know better now.’
He looked away, down towards the empty service alley and hidden by the strands of falling black hair. Sasha’s joints ached from sitting so long, on the cold damp concrete, and a hundred little tidbits from Gerard’s story circled through her mind, settling into all the gaps and questions she’d had since their meeting.
But that string, always pulling and twisting since she’d come down to the archives, tightened around the one questions left unanswered, and made her push forward.
‘ Gerard,’ she asked, as gently as she could so that none of the static could even touch her words, ‘Were you and Jon-’
‘Together?’, he said sullenly, voice muffled into his sleeve where his head stayed tucked down, ‘No. Plenty of people around us thought so, assumed it from just a few glances. But we never made it to that point. We just needed more time.’
‘But you loved him.’
‘I still do.’ He said fiercely, ‘Jon made room in me to let everyone else in after, I’d do anything for him.’ He paused, ‘ I would, it just-’
He turned back to Sasha, strands of hair stuck to the tear tracks on pale skin, and pleaded to her with his eyes as he reached into his pocket and passed the sheet he had been holding since leaving the archive.
‘His page,’ he said, voice shaking, ‘he wants me to burn it.’
His fingers barely gripped the skin in his hand, not daring to make a crack or crease in a dead man's skin, and Sasha suddenly Knew that this was the first time Gerard has touched Jonathan Sims’ skin.
‘Gerard, are you-’
‘I can’t leave him Sash,’ he said desperately, eyes refusing to leave hers as he pressed on, ‘it’s hurting him, being like this. It’s not a second chance being in that book, it’s a curse.’
The sound of Chelsea echoed down to them, refusing the quiet the moment deserved.
‘But you’ll lose him again.’ She said softly.
‘No, I’ll get to save him. It’s the least I can do.’
Gerard Keay had saved plenty of people, Sasha knew. He’d tried to hide away the statements with his name in before anyone found them, already known to the forces living in the archives long before Elias enticed him through the door. Strangers, mostly, through chance, or coincidence, or that often-denied part of him that didn’t want others to go through what he had.
Would it be enough, Sasha wondered as she reached up to cover the hand that held Jon’s page, to save someone that really mattered to him this time?
‘I can do it,’ She offered, not pressing further than she needed, ‘If you need me to, I can burn it for you.’
Gerard smiled, small but lifting the weight that had taken residence in his body for months now, but gently lifting Sasha’s hand away.
‘Thank you,’ he said quietly, ‘but I want to be with him when he finally gets some peace.’
They sat a while longer out there, in the cold and stubbornly noisy Chelsea air until the sky finally darkened to night, and Gerard nodded to her.
‘I’m ready Sash,’ he said, pulling to his feet and offering her a hand up, ‘Thanks.’
When she looked out the window to the courtyard later, it was to see orange and red flickers waving out into the pitch of the night, barely drawing out the lines of Gerard’s boots, as they died down on the ground.
She didn’t move from her vigil, until eventually Tim came to join her, drawn by the light of the flame.
‘Boss is having a bonfire is he?’ he asked cheerily, oblivious to the grimace on Gerard’s face that the dark hid.
‘A memorial, I guess.’ Sasha replied, finally letting her watch end as she turned to face Tim. ‘I have a job for you, if you think you’re up for it.’
‘For you dearest? Of course.’
‘I need you to look into some old personnel files, specifically for a Jonathan Sims.’