Jon opens his eyes, and he is cold. There is a stone wall in front of him where previously there had been... (the thing that wasn't Sasha, the thing distorted with teeth and limbs that twisted and broke, that filled the tunnel with curling fingers of not-self, that shifted from shadow to shadow and bent along the planes of the walls to reach out and steal his breath and scream)... danger.
There hadn't been a wall there a moment ago, he is sure.
He reaches out to touch the dark stone, fingers grey in the barest presence of light (Is there light? Had there been light?) and there is a sound behind him like the sharp intake of breath.
It feels warm.
He is very cold.
There is an old man, standing in the tunnel. There is a book in his hands. There is a tremor to his body. He looks at Jon with wide eyes, and Jon looks back, the fear of the chase still pounding through him and turning the edges of his vision to haze. His throat tastes like static.
His voice comes out a whisper, but he can't muster the energy to speak any louder.
"I'm sorry," the man says after a moment.
"I... What for?"
The man raises his eyebrows, then shakes his head sadly. He does not respond.
Jon has questions. He has so many questions, pressing at his mind and tangling across his tongue so that exactly none of them manage to make their way into the open air. Who are you? What just happened? What did you do to that thing? Do you know what it was? How do you know me?
Why is it so cold?
He takes a step forward, and the strange man takes a step back. His fingers tighten around his book. Jon stops, and tries again to speak, but the man beats him to it.
"I... suppose it's past time we had a talk."
Jon wants to record this. Needs to. Feels it. His hands are empty. He had been holding a tape recorder, and a pipe, he thinks. He must have dropped them. He's certainly not going back for them. He's not staying in the tunnels a moment longer than he has to.
The stranger leads the way back to the institute, and the scenery of the tunnels blurs into background noise as Jon follows. When they emerge into the archives, Jon starts to feel more... grounded. Like he can focus on what's in front of him without drifting away. The archives are, at least, familiar... though not safe. Never safe. Never forget that. He doubts he can ever truly feel safe here again.
The man's hands shake as Jon takes his statement, and he is pale as death. Jurgen Leitner. The name has chased him throughout his life, but now he feels nothing save for a cold disdain, the years of burning resentment hollowed and dry to a sharp and tired thing that sits heavy in his throat.
There is a tape recorder waiting for him on the desk. It is warm under his fingers, and he can feel the slight vibrations of the spinning wheels travel up his arm and resonate through his whole being, a gentle hum that feels strange, that feels real, that feels right. (Has he always felt it so literally?) He clings to that sensation, as Leitner's words tear away the sanctity of sanity and the safety of ignorance, as he speaks of things Jon has started to suspect but never dared to consider, never could have imagined.
"You belong to it too... even more now, I suspect."
There is a pain in his shoulder, spreading gentle fingers of fire throughout him. He feels hollow. Lightheaded.
The recorder burns.
He leaves the Archives in a rush, thoughts racing around his mind in colours of fear and hate and pain, and maybe if he can get some fresh air, the familiar poison of smoke in his lungs, he can put aside the trembling of his hands and still the rush and fervor of these truths that refuse to settle.
He'd wanted answers. He needs them.
He doesn't like the one's he's gotten so far.
As he passes through the institute, Jon can feel the gazes of his co-workers follow him; a mix of lingering looks that burn neat lines through him, and passing glances that brush against him with a feather's touch. (How strangely warm they seem; the touch of others' eyes affecting him with such physicality.) He doesn't meet their eyes with his own, his gaze focused on his route out.
He passes through the open foyer, and pushes through the front door, and—
That's not right.
He stops. Takes a step back. The heavy oak-and-glass doors stand before him, tall and imposing and so very solid. The elegant gold lettering, inverted from the inside, and the almost-shining grey handles, angled across the pristine glass cutouts, are stark and almost sharp, as if to emphasise just how real and present they are.
Something sharp and heavy and empty curls in his gut, swelling into his throat, and his fingers tingle with static. He feels... not quite ill. Faint.
Jon closes his eyes, and walks forward. There is nothing that stops him, and his footsteps make no sound.
Jon opens his eyes, and does not breathe. He is outside. The wind blows, and cuts through him like so much gentle nothing, the warmth a poor substitute for the air that he had once drawn through lungs of flesh and blood.
He is cold.
And then he remembers.
And then he knows.
Far above, the half-living body of Elias Bouchard sits in his office, hands folded atop his desk. The eyes in his sockets are half closed, the mismatched irises vacant as he looks somewhere far away, while the eyes under his skin twitch with a barely contained energy, invisible and impalpable save for the weight of their gaze.
"Oh, Jon," he breathes. "Beholding must really be fond of you."
Jon is dead. And yet, he clings to the role of Archivist. Still lingers, far stronger than any echo he's seen before; a true thing of Beholding, a beautiful manifestation of fear, bound by his god to seek and to serve. It is, unfortunately, a setback in the general scheme of things; he is quite certain that a ritual will not be possible by something that is only the memory of an Archivist, even if Beholding clings to it still, even if it were possible to mark a ghost. Still. He has never seen something like this, and he is in no rush. He can give the novelty some time to settle and enjoy the experience in the meantime.
Elias can no longer see through the ghost of what had once been Jon's eyes, but the camera lenses and curious gazes of passers-by serve to track his Archivist's movement through his Institute.
More importantly, there is someone else in the Archives. Someone giving a statement. Someone he can't see.
He brings his gun. How foolish of them, to leave the safety of the tunnels, when Jon does not yet know how to hide his Archives from Elias' sight.
The pale and frightened face of Jurgen Leitner is, indeed, something of a treat.
"Why the face, Jurgen?" He asks, a sly grin creeping across his lips as he inspects the gun. "You look as though you've seen a ghost."
Elias lets him beg, savoring the taste of his fear, then leaves a gift of two bullets to the head, and retreats to his office to watch events unfold. Jon's fear is something he has already become familiar with; truly it is a shame he will be unable to properly enjoy it again.
Still. This is going to be quite the show.
Jon does not breathe.
(Something thin and rough and pliant wraps over his shoulder, another down his arm, another around his neck, tight enough to bruise, to break, to silence his begging into wordless choked noises. Something pierces the back of his shoulder, pushing through his flesh, breaking through the skin on the other side slick with his own blood and viscera, his chest exploding in razor pain that claws its way through him and leaves him crying in silence.)
Jon is on his knees, hands over his heart and he can feel the blood pooling from the ragged hole in his chest, cold as the rest of him as it coats his fingers, spilling from his open lips, running from his eyes, weeping from the hairline fractures that start to split open across his skin, his soul making manifest the memory of his flesh.
(Another not-limb coils around his leg, up his other arm, piercing pains where the ends anchor themselves into his flesh, and then they tighten, and then they pull. Something snaps and he screams then, forcing the air out through the death grip the thing has on his throat, and he snaps and shatters and breaks and screams as his flesh and bone are torn apart.)
It hurts. It hurts, and he screams from his very soul, the sound no longer bound by the limited air in his lungs. The world blends back into those tunnels, grey and damp and oh so cold, the not-limbs of the thing snaking around his body, the stone closing around them (trapped, trapped in a stone box, cold and unmoving and in pieces across the floor, the sprawling limbs of the thing filling their tiny shared tomb, the screams of hate, of pain, of rage as it tears him further apart, stagnant blood pooling and bits of flesh and viscera scattered and flung against the walls) and he forces his eyes open, the dark greys blending with clouded sky and blocky buildings.
The wind blows through him, and his bloodied fingers brace against the pavement, and he can't quite feel it through the static in his limbs but he knows, he knows he is here and not, trapped deep under the earth but wandering still, and he slowly, slowly pulls the world into focus around him. The blood fades. He aches still, hollow and faint in a way he could never have imagined, the echoes of pain still strong, but he almost looks like a person again.
At some point, he is aware that the screaming has stopped.
He still doesn't breathe.
He still needs answers. There's so much, what little he's gleaned from the statements, tiny pieces of a bigger mystery, teasing at him, pulling him back to those archives again and again after everything, and now...
The office is still when he returns. There is a body lying in a bloody chair. Two clean holes weep red, streaming down the face, down the neck, down the arm where it drips gently on the wooden floor. The ragged exit wounds are just visible, the back of the skull torn away, white hair stained with gore. The recorder, still whirring gently, is the only remaining point of warmth in the room.
Had he a body, he might feel nauseous.
There will be no answers found here.
(There is no familiar jolt of feet against solid ground, though the motions are there; he almost trips when he thinks of that missing sensation, and isn't that ironic.)
Where, he doesn't know. The archives call gently to him as he leaves them behind, a gentle thread of pressure at his back, a quiet pull towards home.
Anywhere. Anywhere else.
(Somewhere safe. Somewhere solid, and warm. He is cold. He is drifting, and he is cold, and he feels his self stretch thin the further he wanders, the further he stretches that delicate tether.)
When he thinks to look around, the familiar street catches him off guard.
Had he really run this far?
(Deep down he really, really hopes so. He'd rather have run and forgotten; the idea that he hadn't, that he might have just... appeared here, it does not sit well.)
He takes the familiar steps in stride and, without letting himself pause to think, knocks on the door.
On the third knock, he freezes. He can see the door through his hand. The texture of cracked paint blends into the wispy hairs that lead up the back of his hand, his skin just a shade wrong with the dark backdrop.
A chill passes through him, and he slowly, slowly, uncurls his fingers and rests the tips against the surface of the door.
They disappear into the wood.
He flinches away, takes a step back. He's not—he can't do this. He can't. He turns to leave, tries to grip the railing, flinches again and pulls his hand close to his body before he can make contact (or fail to), then freezes as the door opens with a soft creak, and slowly looks back.
Georgie stands in the doorway, her purple dreads pulled back into a ponytail, her gaze warm and heavy and present as she looks up at him, through him.
Distantly he wonders if there is still blood on his face.
Her eyes go wide.
He takes a half step back, folding his arms close to himself, curling his shoulders, and he can feel himself fade, flicker, a new sense he has no other way to describe. He finds he can't meet Georgie's eyes.
He doesn't breathe. The words catch in his throat anyways, raspy, whisper quiet, the echo of something that shouldn't be.
"I think I'm dead."