Michael was lost. It was rather embarrassing how frequently he still got lost in the archives even after years of working there. Usually, he stuck to the same rooms and hallways, had done so since the beginning because the building was big and seemed even bigger when inside. It was also old and, at least to Michael, labyrinthine. Nobody had ever really shown him around, and he had been too shy to ask. Not that it was a problem. He usually did have to stick to the same corners of the building for work, so he managed.
Except that sometimes he’d space out walking, mentally going through his list of tasks to still be completed, planning how to most effectively tackle them. And then he’d suddenly find himself in a part of the Institute - he was unsure if it was still the archives, everything really looked the same - he had never been before. Usually, he’d manage to stifle the rising panic quickly - Michael was used to getting lost - and would somehow find his way back after a while. Nobody ever noticed his absence, thankfully, so he never had to go through the embarrassment of explaining where he had been.
This time, however, he felt like he walked farther than he had before. His surroundings still looked roughly the same, but everything seemed dustier, abandoned. Michael had no clue how long he’d been walking when he stopped. He should turn around. He also really wondered what was behind these doors, that looked like duller versions of the ones he was used to from the archives. Was this still the archives? Michael approached one at random, trying to open it. It was locked. He felt as relieved as he was disappointed.
He turned back, trying to retrace his steps while occasionally trying one of the doors. It wasn’t something he usually did, too eager to find his way back. But he knew nobody was searching for him or waiting for him. Everybody had been gone already. And this place just seemed so different Michael felt curious about it. None of the doors budged and he started to try less and less as he walked. He didn’t know what turns he had taken earlier, so sometimes he’d have to turn back and try another hallway. He was starting to panic.
Michael never had his phone on him during work and he didn’t have a watch, either, so he had no idea how long he was taking. There were no windows. The hallway kept looking the same. He was disoriented. Trying to open doors was starting to be more of a distraction from the rising anxiety. He had stopped expecting them to open. Except when one did.
Michael nearly fell into the room in surprise. The inside of the room looked much less forgotten than the hallway outside it. It reminded Michael of some of the storage rooms he’d sometimes have to go into to get some things, boxes on shelves, a desk. The only thing that looked out of place was the sofa. Michael had never seen one of those anywhere in the building. And this one was occupied, too. Somebody was sitting on it, a book in hand. Michael froze when the book was lowered and eyes met his. Too many eyes on what looked like a human face. Michael couldn’t tell for sure, because he was too busy trying to process the eyes all blinking at him, slightly out of sync. There seemed to be no system to them, some parts of the face covered, others not, some clusters mostly monocolored, others featuring an eye of each colour, some small, some big, all looking at Michael.
He stumbled back, eyes unable to stop staring, wide as he tried to understand what he was looking at. He managed to drag his eyes away for a moment, planning to make it go away when he looked back, but instead his gaze fell on the hand holding the book and two pale-blue eyes on the back of it fixed their gaze on him, too.
Michael was clutching the door, unsure where to look at, what he was looking at but when he looked back at the face he saw lips part - the eyes on its - his? - cheeks moved with the muscle, and Michael stepped back and turned around and ran .
Michael was winded when he finally made it back to his office. He went straight into the break room to make tea, the familiarity of it helping his heartbeat calm down. Still, his hands shook. What had he seen? Had he seen anything? Michael’s head hurt the more he tried to think about it, the more he tried to make sense of it. He could feel the anxiety, the panic rising. He must have imagined what he had seen. He had been walking for a while, had been disoriented. Maybe dehydrated. His grasp tightened on the hot mug of tea.
He couldn’t be dealing with this again. He applied to this place because of how much he was sure none of this was real, because it wasn’t . His memories had been wrong, as they often were. And so was this one, no matter how vividly he remembered the figure on that couch. Why would there be a couch in a room like that in the first place? It had been stress. It must have been stress. Michael took the mug to his desk. His hands refused to stop shaking.
Weeks passed with Michael continuously telling himself that his imagination had played him once again. Michael was good at that. He wasn’t, however, very good at stopping to think about it.
It had looked so real . Much more than last time, where what he had watched hadn’t even felt real, much less looked like it could actually happen. This time it had been different and Michael didn’t like that. What did it mean? Was he slipping? Michael had been doing well. It had been years, so many years, since he’d watch that thing, no, since he hadn’t watched that thing take a friend that never existed. That was what happened.
But what about this? Michael didn’t have anyone to reassure him it had been a hallucination this time. He hadn’t told anyone. He had considered telling Miss Robinson, but Michael didn’t want to waste her time. Didn’t want her to think something was wrong with him, that he needed a break or help or give him one of those worried looks he had gotten from his parents until he had finally learned. No, Michael knew to avoid that by now.
He only had to keep reminding himself that he hadn’t actually seen anyone. He hadn’t. It had been more like something than anyone. Or had it? The shape had seemed human. Except, of course, it hadn’t been that either. Michael had just been tired. He was always tired.
Michael still couldn’t stop thinking about it. His memory of it was too clear, the blinking eyes too sharp. He used to go to the spot where he had not seen Ryan disappear, again and again, until he could look at it without the memories coming back, until he knew that it hadn’t happened. So when he found himself trying to find that door again, that was the general idea. Find it, open it, look at the empty room closely, remember it, make himself believe that this was exactly what he had looked at the first time.
He kept reminding himself of that, hoping it would drown out the tingling excitement at the possibility to find the same...person again. It had been person-shaped, at least. Or it hadn’t because it, of course, hadn’t been there. It took Michael a long time to find the door, but he was already off work, so he didn’t really care.
Michael tried a couple doors when it looked like he was getting close, unable to really remember any distinguishing details about the door that opened. After a while, one of the doors did open. This time Michael was more careful and did not nearly fall into the room. But when he looked up, he recognised it as the same room he had looked at the last time. It was empty.
Michael felt disappointed, before he quickly reminded himself that he should feel relieved. Of course it was empty. Just as it had been. He took the room in, telling himself that it looked precisely the same. There had been a book on the couch before. It had never been held by a hand, certainly not by one with eyes on it.
“Did you get lost again?”
Michael jumped, whipping around to find the source of the voice. He couldn’t tell if he wished to find something or not before his eyes fell on more eyes than should occupy a face. Again. It was the same being he had seen now over a month ago, that was for sure, his memory still too clear, still vivid. And it was up close, now, and Michael couldn’t decide where to look. He had never been too good with eye contact but it had never been because there were too many eyes to choose from before. As he stood there and gaped, most of the eyes seemed to start looking elsewhere, only the two dark brown ones that were roughly where Michael assumed eyes should be on a human face stayed focused on him. It did still look awfully human. It sounded human.
“You don’t look well, do you want to sit?” It took a step to the side, “Run?”
Michael’s head was spinning, it was talking to him and he sounded so very normal , human and the eye under his left eye seemed to be blinking at Michael curiously, and all the other eyes were still there no matter how much Michael tried to blink them away, tried to will the whole being away. It was still there, looking at him with a worried expression. Michael could read its face despite a lot of it being covered by eyes. He wasn’t reassured.
It sighed and took a step back, slowly. “I’ll get you some water, feel free to leave while I’m gone.” It vaguely waved into the room behind Michael, adding, “Or sit down.”
It was the other hand, the one Michael hadn’t seen the first time. There were no eyes at the back of it, but he caught a glimpse of one on the palm.
Michael watched as it turned around and walked down the hall. Some of the eyes along the arms seemed to be looking back. He didn’t dare to blink until it was out of his sight. Michael felt his knees shake, his body tremble and he was fairly sure that even if he’d try running, he wouldn’t get very far.
He took the few steps into the room and sat on the couch, trying to calm down. The room was empty again, now, but the view was no comfort. Michael couldn’t just ignore that he had been talked to by what was supposed to be an illusion born from stress. He was stressed, but not enough to warrant this . Unless he was actually starting to lose his mind. Michael didn’t know what option he preferred. Michael didn’t know much of anything in that moment.
He wasn’t as surprised as he wished he had been when the being appeared in the doorframe again. It, on the other hand, looked very surprised when it looked up and saw Michael sitting there.
“I thought you’d run…,” it said, walking up to Michael. Michael tensed as it approached and it stopped. “I’m not going to harm you. Here.”
Michael watched as it held out a glass, seemingly filled with water. His throat did feel dry. He carefully reached out for the glass and after looking at it for another moment, drowned it.
A long silence followed in which neither of them moved, but simply continued to look at the other. The longer they stayed like that, the more Michael’s shock calmed down into familiar anxiety, the kind he always felt when faced with somebody new. Even if that somebody new had a lot more eyes than Michael was used to.
“I...I’m Michael,” it felt silly to say that, but he also had to stop the silence somehow, and Michael had too much going through his mind to dare and not go for something safe. “Michael Shelley.”
The surprise on the being’s face was obvious and it seemed to struggle for a moment before answering, “Gerry.”
It acted so human. It calmed Michael’s racing thoughts a little. Not much, though. The eyes were still unnerving.
“You didn’t answer my question. Did you get lost again?”
Michael shook his head. “No, I...I wanted to see if I could find this room again, if...if I had...seen...right.”
Gerry watched him for a moment. “Are you disappointed by your findings?”
“I...don’t know.” He was worrying his lip, still trying to calm his mind. This couldn’t be happening. Was he actually seeing this? “I...I’m sorry if this is rude but...what...are you?”
Gerry laughed and it sounded perfectly normal. Michael quite liked the sound of it. He had a nice voice speaking and it sounded just as good laughing. There were still too many eyes on him.
“I don’t know."
“It’s complicated.” Gerry didn’t elaborate. There was another moment of silence.
“You seem...human,” Michael tried, hoping it wasn’t insulting. It grinned, and the eyes on his cheeks moved up slightly. It looked so wrong.
“Thanks, I try.” The grin faded a little, expression morphing into something more thoughtful. “No, but...I guess you could say I am, in a way.”
There was a moment of silence before Michael finally asked, “What do you call yourself?” Gerry raised an eyebrow in question, moving the eyes on the right side of his forehead with it. Michael tried to look away, focus on the dark brown ones that were where they should be. It was difficult. He couldn’t think.
“Oh.” Gerry had clearly not expected that. “I...don’t really care, I guess? He?”
“An...and the eyes?”
He shrugged. “Hard to explain.”
Michael decided to stop pressing the issue. Gerry seemed to not want to talk about it. But he didn’t want to stop talking. If he stopped talking this whole situation might just overwhelm him.
"Why are you here?" Michael figured that still was a somewhat safe question to ask
"I live here."
Michael stared. That wasn’t what he had expected. "I...in the archives?"
"D...does anyone know?"
"The archivist. Elias. You.” He paused, before meeting Michael’s eyes again, “It's becoming a lot, so I'd appreciate it if you'd keep this to yourself."
Michael nodded. He hadn’t planned to tell anyone. It had always been safer to keep things to himself. He was fairly sure nobody would believe him anyways.
"Thank you." The smile was genuine, but the restless eyes distracted from it. Sometimes they’d rest on Michael, but never for long. He wondered where they were looking. What they were seeing.
"Do you see with all of those eyes at the same time? Isn't that...a lot?"
"Ah, they don't quite work the same as my...well, normal eyes. Original eyes. Whatever you'd want to call them." Gerry considered for a moment. He wasn’t sure how much to say.
Michael still looked somewhat shaken. More than he probably should, if he was working in the archive. Gerry decided to keep it vague. "They don't see...well, they do but...not in that way." It didn’t seem to do much to stop Michael from looking distressed. Gerry was starting to feel sorry. “You don’t have to look at me, it’s fine.”
“You look uncomfortable. It’s okay if you want to look away.” He hesitated, “Well, or go altogether, I guess. But...if you want to continue talking, you don’t have to look.”
Michael’s eyes went to the door. It was probably the option he should go with. Or was it? Gerry hadn’t done anything to actually make him believe that. He just was difficult to look at, but otherwise there was nothing to make Michael want to flee.
It was definitely not enough to fight his urge to stay and find out more. Find out if this was actually happening. It all felt so real. He glanced back at Gerry and he was still there, still standing at more than an arm's length. He didn’t look threatening. He didn’t look completely relaxed either, but Michael didn’t feel like he was in danger. Maybe that was a stupid thing to think but he dreaded walking out and being stuck wondering whether this really happened, so instead he lowered his gaze and stayed put.
He heard Gerry move, but not closer. When Michael glanced up he was sitting in the chair at the desk, pulled closer to the couch but still giving Michael more than enough space. Michael looked away again.
“Do you work here?” Gerry asked, hoping to find some kind of conversation that would help Michael relax. Gerry didn’t get an opportunity to talk much, or to a whole lot of people. He didn’t want this to end so quickly.
Michael struggled for a minute, confused by the too-normal question in this situation. “I...yes, I’ve been working here for a couple years.”
Gerry made a surprised expression. He seemed too oblivious for years of work with Gertrude. “Do you like it?”
Michael was watching his hands fidget in his lap. “Y-yes?”
Gerry leaned his arms on the back of the chair. “You can be honest, I’m not telling anyone.”
“I am. I...I like working here.”
“Hm...okay.” Gerry sighed. Clearly, this wasn’t doing much to calm Michael down. “You can ask me questions, if that’ll help.”
“I’m afraid I wouldn’t know where to start,” Michael mumbled, brushing his hair behind his ear. That wasn’t quite true. There was one question that was much louder than all the others that were making his head spin.
He bit his lip, voice barely a whisper as he said, “I...are you...are you real?”
“You’re still doubting yourself?” Gerry was genuinely surprised. Definitely didn’t seem like Michael had been working here long. “I am real. You’re not hallucinating.”
Michael heard the steps approach before a hand came into his view. There were a couple of tiny eyes on his fingers, but the back looked very much like smooth, human skin. Until the green eye at the wrist broke the picture, blinking up at him. Michael recoiled. The hand disappeared again.
“Sorry, I thought touching might help.” It had been a while since he interacted with somebody new. Well, Gerry had never been awfully good at that in the first place. But he should have probably asked or given a warning. He took a step back, with another ‘sorry’.
Michael, to his surprise, looked up at him, cautious, but also curious. “O-oh...would...would that be okay?”
“Sure.” Gerry nodded and held out his hand again. This time Michael was prepared. He tried not to stare at the eyes too much as he gingerly touched the back of the hand with his finger.
“It’s...it feels human.” The surprise in his voice made Gerry chuckle.
“Good to know.” Gerry smiled and pulled the hand back as Michael let go. “I don’t have much reference.”
In fact, he was already trying hard not to linger on the fingers that had just brushed his hand too much. Gerry tried not to think too much about the fact that he’d been missing human touch for so long to get this worked up about it. It had been worth it. It had felt nice, it had felt so very human. Not too different from his own skin. It was...reassuring.
“You’re...alone down here?” Michael was looking at his hands in his lap again.
“Yeah.” Gerry went back to his chair. “Just me.”
They continued for a while, talking about this and that. Michael asked about the eyes a couple more times, but Gerry kept his answers vague. He did tell him that he hadn’t left the institute in years, which Michael found shocking, but also somewhat understandable.
Apparently Gerry didn’t need food, so that wasn’t a problem at least. But he did sleep, but didn’t need much of it to get by. Most of what Gerry said didn’t really make sense, but Michael had long stopped to try to approach this situation with logic. His head hurt, as if he could physically feel his mind trying to make space to accommodate all this information that directly countered what he believed to be real and even possible. It was tiring. He wondered how late it was.
Gerry watched as Michael seemed to struggle keeping his thoughts straight as the evening went on. At least now the source wasn’t how disconcerting Gerry looked, but rather the fact that Michael seemed to be exhausted. Gerry couldn’t blame him.
“You should probably leave.” Gerry sounded about as happy as he felt saying that.
Which meant not happy at all. He forgot how nice it could be to talk to somebody. Just talk about things, not work related or Fears related. Just some chatting. It made him feel so much more human after years of his only contact being with Gertrude. Gertrude wasn’t one for chatting, which was okay. But part of him missed it, apparently.
“I…” Michael still feared this would end up seeming less real when he left. But he couldn’t stay here forever. “I should.”
Gerry got up, running a hand through his hair. He didn’t want to sound as desperate as he felt, but he was also afraid of letting this opportunity slip by without at least trying to make talking to somebody else less of a rarity in his life. “You can….I mean, if you want to, you can come back. I’m...usually here.”
Michael had started to get up, but halted, eyebrows drawn together. “Actually...what do you do all the time?”
Gerry shrugged, but then remembered Michael wasn’t looking at him, so he made a noncommittal noise. He didn’t do much of anything. Usually, he mostly helped Gertrude. But he wasn’t sure whether she would appreciate him telling that to her assistant, so he didn’t.
“Okay.” Michael got up and took a moment to steady himself. Gerry accompanied him to the door.
“Can you find your way back?”
“I...think I’m getting the hang of it.” Michael said with a slightly lopsided smile as he looked at Gerry. There was always a flash of panic in his eyes the first moment he did, but it seemed to dull after a moment. Still, he definitely would rather not be looking, that was clear. “Uh...well, it was...nice to meet you.”
Gerry chuckled. “Nice to meet you, too. Goodnight.”
“Goodnight.” Michael gave him one last look before turning around and leaving the room.
He turned around instantly, expecting to see nothing but a door. Gerry was still there, waving at him with a small smile. Michael returned it, somewhat nervously, before starting to walk. He kept looking back as he did, always thinking that this time the illusion would fade. It never did. Until Michael couldn’t see the door at all, Gerry was still standing in the frame of the door, watching him with too many eyes.
Michael couldn’t stop thinking about that evening in the coming days. He kept considering asking Miss Robinson, if only to have somebody tell him that Gerry existed . But she had never been the most approachable and if it turned out to be Michael’s mind playing tricks - very elaborate ones, but he still couldn’t completely rule it out - he would just be wasting her time. And probably get in trouble. He didn’t need that.
So instead, he decided to go back only a week later. By this time he only got lost once before finding the right door. He did have to try a couple again, before the right one opened. He did, to his surprise, find Gerry behind it. Gerry looked equally surprised to see him.
“You...you came back.”
Michael barely heard him, too shocked by Gerry being there again, looking exactly the same. As far as he could tell, at least. It was still anxiety-inducing to try to look too closely. “I...you’re here .”
Gerry smiled. “Still trying to make sure?”
Michael nodded, averting his eyes shyly. It was too much. “I...yes. This...is a lot.”
Gerry frowned for a moment. He still was a little confused by how difficult of a time Michael was having. Like he didn’t really know the kinds of monsters that were out there. Gerry decided not to push it. Maybe he’d ask Gertrude about it.
“Want to come inside?”
Gerry went to get Michael some water again before they settled back to sitting on the couch and the chair like last time. They exchanged some niceties, but Michael clearly had something else on his mind.
“I was thinking of what you said last time,” he finally said when he felt comfortable enough to do so.
“That you...haven’t left here for so long. Do...do you really never go outside?”
Michael sounded genuinely worried. Gerry had to smile at that. He wasn’t used to people worrying about him. It was quite the odd feeling. Not in a bad way. Not at all.
“Oh, I do. Not for long and I usually stay by the building. And when I go outside it’s at night to not draw eyes.” He huffed out a laugh when he realised his choice of words. “Sorry.”
Michael frowned, still looking very concerned. “And you’ve lived like this...all your life?”
“No.” Gerry ran a hand through his hair, considering what to say. How much to say. “I used to live with my mother.”
“Your mother?” Michael looked at him in surprise, before quickly looking away again as soon as he saw all the eyes.
Talking to Gerry felt so normal it was always a shock when he looked at him. He bit his lips, feeling his cheeks heating up in shame. He was being so rude.
“Surprised? I told you I’m human,” Gerry sounded amused. The smile disappeared as he continued, “I used to look it a lot more. The eyes came...with time. I lived a good chunk of my life outside until I couldn’t hide them anymore and then I was brought here.”
Michael’s brows furrowed. “Is...is it a...disease?”
“You’re not going to spawn any eyes from talking to me.” He chuckled.
“That...wasn’t my concern, I just-” He sighed, blush high in his cheeks. He decided to change the topic. “Where’s your mother?”
Now Michael just felt even worse. “Oh, I...I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay.” Gerry smiled, hoping the reassurance would carry through in his voice.
The awkward silence stretched on for a moment before Gerry decided to ask him about his day. Michael seemed confused, fumbling with words for a moment before he answered.
Gerry couldn’t tell if he was simply not used to being asked such things, or if it was still the discomfort in knowing who - maybe what - he was talking to. But the conversation flowed again after initial awkwardness and Michael kept glancing at Gerry all the while, trying to reconcile what he saw with the pleasant voice that was asking about his week.
Gerry’s boots were on Gertrude’s desk as he watched her going through the notes he had brought from the last things she had him follow up on. He tried to imagine Michael doing the same, standing in this very office, maybe sitting in the same chair. It just didn’t fit, not with how skittish the very idea of Gerry actually existing made him. Not with how he seemed to doubt himself first and foremost without even considering that maybe whatever he was facing was the truth.
“Gertrude?” Gerry finally decided to ask.
She didn’t look up from the notes. “Yes?”
“Your assistant. Michael. He doesn’t know, does he? About anything that’s actually going on?” He watched her unchanging face, unreadable even as she looked up at him.
“You know him?” Her voice would’ve sounded like always if Gerry hadn’t been as used to the subtle shifts, the slightly sterner tone her voice would take on when something displeased her.
Gerry shrugged. “He got lost and found me.”
Gerry wasn’t going to mention that Michael had returned, that much he had decided on.
She was scrutinizing him now, but Gerry had practice in keeping his expression neutral from an early age.
“Did you tell him anything?”
“No.” He was glad he hadn’t, now. But still, he wondered what the purpose was for keeping Michael in the dark. “Is this something new you want to try out?”
“You could say that.” She went back to the notes. “I’d appreciate you keeping silent.”
Gerry shrugged. “Fine. I was just curious. He seemed awfully shaken for somebody working here.”
It was obvious that the conversation was over.
Michael kept coming back and every time Gerry was a little surprised about it. It wasn’t that Michael didn’t seem to enjoy himself, quite the contrary. But still, there was a certain discomfort to his demeanour when they hung out. It had gotten worse when he had told Gerry to take the couch, too, the closeness clearly making him uncomfortable.
Still, he insisted. He had been feeling bad for having Gerry sit on the chair instead and he wanted to get better at this. Better at enjoying their conversations, because Michael did really like the Friday nights spent talking to Gerry. The eyes shouldn’t be a problem, and they weren’t unless Michael suddenly became aware of them again, remembered that this was something he would’ve insisted his mind made up weeks ago. Michael wanted to get better at that, wanted to stop having such an issue with the fact that Gerry just had more eyes than was common. It shouldn’t be a problem.
With both on the couch they could also watch something on Gerry’s laptop when they ran out of conversation, neither of their lives exciting enough to really fill evenings and nights with conversation. Well, at least not the parts they were ready to share.
Gerry kept not talking about work or his years with Mary, and Michael didn’t talk a whole lot about himself in general, but rather about things he’d seen or heard throughout the week. It was comfortable ground for both of them, neither feeling pushed to go beyond what they wanted to share.
As time passed, Michael slowly got better with looking at Gerry, but it still got overwhelming if he tried too long. As much as he told himself to only focus on his original eyes, it was difficult to ignore the occasional blinking and shifting of the other eyes on his face, especially the ones right around his original eyes.
There were a couple above his left eyebrow that were particularly distracting because sometimes the light would catch in the metal of the piercings there and Michael's eyes would follow the light and then he would find himself stuck trying to decide on which eyes to focus on because they would be looking at him - some of them - and Michael felt rude not looking back but it was so many, some of them nearly at Gerry’s hairline, some of them small and easy to miss when the bigger ones were looking at him, too.
It was stressful. Looking at the cluster as a whole didn't work. He also seemed to always be drawn to the darker eyes and sometimes ended up missing it when the light grey one nearly touching Gerry’s brow would look at him. It was taxing and, eventually, he would look away again.
It still felt rude to avoid looking at Gerry while they talked and Michael couldn't stop picking at his hands, twisting them in his lap. The knowledge of his rudeness made him anxious. He wished he had something to distract from it. Well, Michael had , but he wasn’t sure if that wouldn’t be even more rude.
Eventually, he decided to ask. "Gerry? Would you mind if I...brought my knitting things next time?"
Gerry shrugged. He had gotten used to Michael’s fidgeting by now, but if he wanted to do something to make things easier on him, Gerry didn’t mind. "Sure. It actually sounds like a good idea, maybe I’ll try doodling a bit when you do…”
That seemed to pique Michael’s attention. "You draw?"
"Occasionally." It wasn’t like he had a whole lot of other things to do.
Michael had started bringing him some books after he had mentioned how bored he was of reading from the Institute library, so Gerry had been mostly doing that lately, his sketchbook forgotten until he felt like picking it up again.
Michael gave him a sheepish smile, eyes taking a moment before he managed to focus on Gerry’s original ones. "Can I see?"
Gerry smiled back. He always appreciated the effort Michael put into looking at him. "Sure."
He got up from the couch to get his things before sitting back down, leafing through his sketchbook. It had been a second and he couldn’t really remember what he had to show. He stopped when he came across something he considered worth showing, shifting on the couch to hold out the page so Michael could look at it.
"This one’s just a rough sketch, I'll probably never finish it…"
Michael took in the sketch, followed the lines and details. His face lit up with recognition. "Oh that’s by the bins, right? Behind the institute?"
Gerry grinned. "So it’s recognisable."
"It is!” Michael nodded excitedly. He had been there a couple times, sometimes preferring it to the front door when he just felt like he needed some air. The sketch looked remarkably similar to how Michael remembered it looking, except for one detail. “I've never seen so many cats there…”
"They like to seek shelter there when it rains. I often go and hang out with them for a bit, feed them, pet them…"
Michael’s eyes went wide at that and he looked at Gerry again with barely contained excitement. "That sounds wonderful! Can I come along one day?"
Gerry chuckled. "Gladly."
They didn’t have to wait very long for the rain. Gerry walked ahead, just because Michael was still not as sure of the way. Well, he did know the way back to his office by now, but Gerry said he knew a shorter route. By the time they reached the door, Michael had lost all sense of orientation to the point where he was first confused when Gerry opened it. Outside, however, looked as it was supposed to and Michael felt impressed by how they had managed to end up here by a completely different way than what he was used to.
And, much as there had been in Gerry’s sketch, there were quite a couple of cats perched on top of the bins, sitting and lying in the dry space where the bins were sheltered from the rain. A dark tabby looked up from its spot next to the door when it opened and got up, walking up to the two stepping through the door, sniffing them curiously.
Michael crouched, holding out his hand to the cat, who pressed its head into it after a bit of sniffing. Michael smiled.
“What a sweetheart.” He scratched her behind the ear.
Gerry smiled, starting to set up the food he had brought for the cats. “She’s been coming here for over a year, close to two.”
“So she knows you.” Michael smiled as the cat watched Gerry fill one of the bowls he brought.
She was purring and looked undecided about whether she wanted to stay and let Michael pet her or go and eat. He decided to make the decision easier by letting go of her and straightening up again. She was quick to walk up to Gerry, who pet her back before leaving her to eat in peace and filling the other bowls before a fight might start. Many of the cats had started to notice what was happening.
“Mhm. A lot of them do,” Gerry said, running a hand through the matted fur of a cat missing a bit of its ear. It nuzzled Gerry’s boot for a moment before turning to the food. “They don’t care about the eyes,” he added.
He didn’t necessarily sound sad, but the words still made Michael feel a pang of sadness. “I’m glad you at least had them to keep you some company on occasion.” He mumbled as Gerry came back to stand next to him. “It...it must get lonely.”
Michael had never had much of a social life himself, but the isolation Gerry seemed to have lived with for most of his life sounded overwhelming to him. Not for the first time Michael wondered how he even managed. How he seemed so...fine. Maybe not happy, but okay.
Gerry looked at him and winked. “It’s been better lately.”
Michael couldn’t help the blush at that. A timid smile spread on his lips. “Oh...I’m happy to hear that.”
Gerry returned the smile before bending down to pick up a black cat that had apparently had enough food, or had found his boots to look more delicious. Michael chuckled as it tried to bite him, wiggling in his grip a little until Gerry started scratching its head. It calmed down immediately, melting into his arms.
They stayed outside for a good while, playing with the cats and petting them until Michael felt the humid cold seep under his jacket. Gerry noticed him shivering.
“You’re getting cold.”
“A little,” Michael admitted, bashful.
“Let’s get back inside.” Gerry got up from where he was crouching, entertaining a small tuxedo cat. Michael got up, too, and dusted himself off.
Gerry looked at him. “We can get tea. Nobody’s in that part of the archives at this time of day.” He considered, before correcting himself, “Or night, really.”
Michael smiled and nodded.
They were on the couch little later, Michael slowly warming up again as he held the steaming mug of tea between his fingers. Gerry had gotten a mug for himself and was sipping it gently, watching Michael simply hold his, looking into the tea. He looked less cold now, but his hair was all frizzy, his curls somewhat dissolved into a unity. It looked a bit like a halo in the light.
“Your hair is looking...interesting.” He mumbled. He wondered how it might feel. It wasn’t the first time. Gerry grabbed his mug a little tighter.
Michael’s hand went to his hair, an embarrassed smile on his lips. “It does that when it rains.” He shrugged, putting his hair into a ponytail to combat its fluffiness a little bit. Gerry had never seen him actually use the yellow hair tie around his arm. His eyes widened a little. He had noticed Michael’s pretty face before, how couldn’t he. But this somehow made him realise that all over again. His profile was breathtaking.
“Or...is humid in any way.”
Gerry took a moment to remember what they were talking about. “I like it,” he blurted out and finally lost the fight against the blush spreading across his cheeks.
“I don’t.” Michael laughed, before returning the smile. “But thank you.”
They sat in comfortable silence, both drinking their teas. The noise of the rain was dampened, but still audible and Michael looked like he might fall asleep.
“It’s really late.” Gerry mumbled eventually.
Michael nodded. “Mhm...I should go soon.”
“I guess you should.”
Neither of them moved from their spot, feeling too cozy to actually follow up on what they were saying. That was until Michael’s stomach grumbled loudly, making his face flush a bright red.
“Ah, I’m...I’m sorry.” he scrambled up, flustered. “I...I guess I should really go.”
Gerry tried hard not to laugh and got up too, smiling. “No worries. Guess I’m not the best host.”
Michael looked like he was considering debating him on that, but dropped it. Instead, he pondered. “Maybe I should start bringing snacks.” He looked at Gerry curiously, too tired to take notice of how he didn’t flinch internally at the view for once. “Can you eat? I know you don’t need it, but can you? Since you drank the tea...”
“Sure. I can still taste.”
Michael beamed at him. “Oh, do you have any preferences?”
Gerry huffed out a laugh. “Michael, you’re bringing snacks for yourself. Bring what you like.”
He blushed again. “Ah...I-I guess you’re right.”
They walked to the door and Gerry gave him a last smile. “Have a good night.”
“Thank you. You, too.” Michael returned the smile before walking back. He didn’t turn around as he walked away anymore. He knew Gerry would be there next week.
Gerry was rather fascinated by watching Michael knit. His hands moved smoothly, quickly, very differently from his usual nervous fidgeting. His face, too, looked a lot more relaxed. It was a pleasant view and Gerry should probably stop watching him so intently.
He had started to draw and had forgotten about it when he had looked at Michael to say something. He kept thinking of how he had looked with his tea in his hands, long fingers wrapped around the mug, and hair all messy, relaxed. He had been beautiful. He still was.
Gerry reached for the crisps Michael had brought to distract himself from his thoughts. He had been thinking about this too much, the memory of Michael’s finger against his hand constantly coming back. Gerry needed to calm down.
Michael felt much more at ease now that he had something to occupy his hands with. It was easier to look at Gerry, too. Michael felt like he was starting to be able to take in the face as a whole without getting awfully distracted by the eyes. His eyes would still follow their movement and he'd find himself staring at them sometimes, but it was easier to look at Gerry’s face as a whole. And Michael was surprised he had never noticed how nice his face was.
He had a lovely smile, despite it still looking somewhat disconcerting when the eyes moved along with his face when he smiled, laughed. His laugh was still such a pleasant sound. Though most of all, Michael started getting quite distracted by looking at Gerry’s original eyes. They were warm and kind and Michael didn’t understand how he had ever had problems focusing on them. If anything, he found it difficult to look away now.
Michael brought popcorn the next time they decided to watch something. Maybe they had started to sit a little closer to each other. Maybe it was just so they could both reach the bowl of popcorn. Gerry hadn’t had it in some time and was enjoying the taste quite a bit.
Michael smiled at his satisfied expression. “I hope you like sweet popcorn.”
Gerry nodded. “I do. Thanks again for sharing.”
They relaxed into the couch as they watched the screen. Michael wasn’t looking when he reached for the popcorn after a moment and ended up knocking into Gerry’s hand, finger poking the eye at the back of it. That he felt and Michael tensed, eyes going wide.
He sat up quickly, hand hovering over the rapidly blinking eye. “Oh my god, I’m so sorry!”
Gerry blinked, confused. “What? What happened?”
“I...I accidentally poked your eye.” Michael gently ran a thumb around the eye, trying to sooth it as it rapidly blinked, clearly irritated.
Gerry was watching him, surprised at the sudden touch, his heart skipping a beat. “Ah, that. I don’t...it-it doesn’t really feel like that. I mean...like if you poked my actual eyes. It’s just...I guess as if you poked my skin.”
He sounded so flustered and it only made his face heat up, which only made him feel more flustered.
“I...what?” Michael looked up at his face, eyes still filled with worry.
Gerry tried for a reassuring smile, but it was difficult to focus with Michael’s fingers on his hand. It had been a fleeting touch the first time, but now Michael’s fingers were simply resting on his hand and Gerry felt overwhelmed.
“Well, you-” He swallowed, trying to calm his heartbeat.” You don’t need to worry, I’m fine. It doesn’t...hurt that much.” He looked down at their hands. He didn’t want Michael to let go, but he was also starting to feel afraid Michael might be forcing himself to do this as an apology. “You...uh, you don’t have to do...that. If it feels...weird.”
Michael quickly pulled his hand away. “Oh, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have just touched you-”
Gerry fought the disappointment showing on his face. He did not manage to keep the blush from spreading, though. “No, it’s fine!” He hesitated before adding, “I...it feels really nice. But...don’t force yourself.”
Michael’s worry turned into an expression of surprise as he watched Gerry turn his face away, trying to cover the pink cheeks with his hair. “So...you wouldn’t mind me continuing?”
“Not at all...if you want,” he mumbled.
Michael tentatively took Gerry’s hand in his. The eye had stopped blinking violently, closing when Michael gently brushed his thumb over it. To him, it just felt like an eye, making the hair on the back of his neck stand up. He decided to trace the skin around it instead, trying to calm himself. It felt just as it had the first time. Human skin.
Gerry was watching him, surprised. He looked at Michael’s face, expecting some sort of revulsion, but Michael looked...fascinated. He relaxed at the sight, a small smile on his lips. They sat like that for a moment, Gerry fighting the urge to sit closer, lean against him. Until he simply decided to ask.
“Would it be okay to lean against you?”
Michael looked up from their hands for a moment. “Uh, sure, if you want.”
Gerry shuffled a little closer and let his head drop to the side, to rest against Michael’s shoulder. He considered closing his eyes, but instead opted for watching Michael’s thumb map out the back of his hand, touch light as a feather when it passed over one of the eyes. It felt nice. Gerry hoped he wouldn’t get tired of it too quickly.
Somehow, Michael found looking at Gerry a lot easier as they got more comfortable with casual touching. The eyes seemed less...wrong as Michael got used to their feel underneath his fingers. He was still confused about where to look sometimes, but the sliver of revulsion that had been there since the beginning seemed to weaken as he traced the eyes along Gerry’s hands, his arms.
Michael wanted to touch his face, but it had already been so awkward to ask about his arms, so he didn’t. He just traced the eyes there instead. They became familiar, just another part of Gerry. And there was nothing about Gerry that would prompt Michael to avoid him.
Gerry seemed more than happy about the turn of events. Not only did Michael no longer look as uncomfortable whenever he looked at him, but Michael also didn’t seem to mind just sitting closer, having Gerry’s head leaning against his shoulder as he knit. He’d caress his hand, moving up his arms after he asked, sometimes just hugging him close as they hung out.
It had been a lot the first time. Gerry didn’t remember the last time anyone had given him a hug. It was overwhelming. He was grateful Michael didn’t ask when a couple tears escaped his eyes. He simply let Gerry hide his face at his shoulder and get used to the arms holding him gently. It felt so...warm. He didn’t want Michael to let go ever again.
Gerry wanted to take his hand on some of those instances, when the hugging stopped being too overwhelming, wanted to trace his fingers along Michael’s slim fingers, maybe press them to his lips. He didn’t, of course, and the thought always made him blush. If Michael ever noticed, he never pointed it out. He just held him, and Gerry felt happy. At least he was fairly sure that that’s what he was feeling. It was all a little new.
Michael was tracing the eyes on the palm of Gerry’s left hand. He hadn’t asked more about them, but Michael still had so many questions. They didn’t make any sense. Of course they didn’t. But that didn’t stop Michael from wondering. He had the sudden urge to kiss the eye on the tip of Gerry’s thumb. He fought the blush and simply blurted out with the first thing to distract himself.
“You...you never did tell me what they do.”
“Hm?” Gerry’s eyes fluttered open again.
Michael’s blush only deepened under Gerry’s gaze. His eyes always looked so soft when Michael caressed his hands. “The...the eyes. You...said they do see but not like normal eyes but...you never elaborated.”
Gerry thought about it. He couldn’t explain how they Saw fear without saying too much. But he guessed he could sell what wasn’t technically directly connected to the eyes as such. “Well, I can...I guess you could say I can see into a person’s mind, if I want.” And sometimes unwarranted. But Gerry had a relatively good grasp on that by now.
Michael looked shocked, if not downright terrified. “You...can read minds? Have you ever read mine?!”
“No, no, don’t worry!” Gerry quickly straightened up. Michael seemed to relax a little and Gerry couldn’t quite keep himself from adding, eyebrows raised, “Though your reaction does make me curious, to be honest.”
That was the wrong thing to say. Michael tensed up again, but before Gerry could reassure him he wasn’t going to do so, his face took on a more thoughtful expression. Gerry wasn’t prepared for what Michael said next.
“Actually…” He hesitated, wringing his hands in his lap, “Could you read it right now?”
Gerry looked at him with wide eyes. “You want me to?
Michael’s face was turning an impressive shade of red, even for his standards. “Just...just this time.”
Despite the blush, he held Gerry’s gaze. He had made up his mind about it. Gerry hadn’t tried this in a long while, but it felt as natural as ever as he focused on Michael before him until he felt a foreign anxiety, a nervous question. Gerry’s blush probably matched Michael’s by the point he understood.
"Oh...you...are you sure?” He brushed his hair behind his ear, avoiding Michael’s eyes as he admitted, “I...it's been...a while."
"I don’t mind. I...I haven’t kissed anyone in a while, either," Michael whispered, tightening his grip on his hands, before looking back at Gerry. “Only if you want to, of course.”
“No, I mean...it...crossed my mind before.” Michael looked very surprised and Gerry smiled, still a little embarrassed.
“Oh...well, then…” Michael mumbled, face flushed, as he leaned forward tentatively. Gerry moved to meet him, but maybe a little too enthusiastically, their lips crashing together unpleasantly. They pulled away, chuckling lightly.
Michael carefully cupped his face, feeling the slight revulsion as he felt the eyes close beneath his fingers. He still couldn’t quite shake that slight last sliver of panic he felt. But he didn’t linger on it, instead closing in again, pressing their lips together more carefully.
It was a little awkward at first, but they eventually figured it out and melted into the kiss. Gerry’s hands were itching to touch him, wrap his arms around Michael’s neck but he kept himself from doing so. Just because Michael felt comfortable touching him didn’t mean he’d be okay with Gerry touching him back.
Michael pulled away after a moment, looking at Gerry with an uncertain smile. “That was...okay?”
“I...yes.” He raised his hand to brush a stray curl out of Michael’s face, but stopped himself. “Do...do you mind?”
“Sure.” Gerry carefully brushed the hair away, fingers gently grazing Michael’s cheek. Michael leaned into the touch slightly. “I...I always thought you just didn’t want to touch me.”
“What? No, I just...I assumed it would probably feel...gross.”
“Gross?” Michael tilted his head curiously.
“With the eyes, I mean. It...it’s probably a different thing altogether from touching them with your fingers?” Gerry wasn’t as sure by the end of the sentence, voice falling into a murmur.
Michael frowned. “It isn’t, It...it’s okay.”
He gently pressed Gerry’s hand to his cheek with a satisfied smile. Gerry's eyes grew wide at that and he gently ran his thumb over Michael’s soft cheek. Michael could feel the slight bump of the eyeball on the pad of his thumb, but it didn’t bother him. He enjoyed the touch, drawing circles on the back of Gerry’s hand. Gerry smiled, feeling as relieved as he felt awed. He brought his other hand to Michael’s other cheek, cradling his face before leaning forward again for another kiss.
Gerry’s hand was gently running over his shoulder, down his arm and Michael sighed, melting further against Gerry’s side. He felt so much more lighter now that he had finally managed to ask about kissing. Well, he hadn’t, but they had figured it out, he guessed. And the result had been much nicer than anything he had imagined.
“I really just thought you’d rather be touched than touch…,” Michael mumbled, pressing his face into Gerry’s shoulder.
“I think I very much like both,” Gerry mumbled back, thumb tracing the freckles on Michael’s wrist, drawing a slight shiver from him.
“I’m glad we got that misunderstanding resolved, then.” Michael gently pressed his lips to the eye on Gerry’s jaw.
Gerry sighed appreciatively, still confused by how Michael just didn’t seem to care. “Doesn’t that feel gross?”
“Does kissing eyes feel gross to you?”
“I don’t-" Gerry furrowed his brows, "I never kissed one of them.”
“Oh...well, maybe that was a strange question.” Michael’s blush was somehow audible but Gerry didn't pay it much mind. His curiosity was piqued.
“Can I...kiss yours?”
Michael sat up again. “My eyes?"
Gerry nodded, expression sheepish despite the burning curiosity in his original eyes. Michael returned the nod, closing his eyes. He felt Gerry shift next to him, felt his fingers on his face as he leaned in. Michael’s heart skipped a beat and he had to focus on keeping his eyes closed when he felt Gerry's lips - they already felt familiar and yet so novel - gently brushing against his eyelids. The contact was brief and Michael was itching to pull him close again when he felt Gerry pull away. He opened his eyes, looking into Gerry’s.
“I guess it’s not too bad…” He brushed some stray curls behind Michael’s ear. "I think i still prefer your lips." His smile somehow managed to look sly and shy at the same time. Michael gently traced it with his fingers.
“I'm quite fine with that.” he mumbled before cupping Gerry’s cheek and pulling him forward into another kiss.
There wasn't much change to their meetings. Occasionally, their comfortable evenings chatting or just sitting in amiable silence would dissolve into kisses, hands following arms and backs, fingers running through hair, a silent conversation in gentle touches.
Michael didn't push about the eyes, stopped asking all together, but he didn‘t have to. Gerry could see the question in his eyes and he wanted to tell him so badly. But he also did not want to break Gertrude’s trust. He had worked hard to gain it.
Sometimes he tried to put it into their kisses, all the things he wanted to tell Michael but didn’t, and sometimes it felt like Michael understood. When he would hold Gerry just a little tighter, when he would return his kiss a bit more tenderly. Probably that was just how Michael was. One way or another Gerry took comfort in it. It helped with drowning the building guilt he was feeling about keeping so much from him.
The eyes seemed to have grown on Michael. It was hard to take, sometimes, when Michael was transfixed following them with his fingers, eyes curious. It looked adorable.
“You really like tracing those eyes, don’t you?” Gerry mumbled after a moment of silence.
Michael looked up at him, cheeks dusted red. “I mean...you do that with my freckles, too?”
Gerry chuckled. “They aren’t eyes.”
“Would you stop if they were?” Now Michael’s curious gaze was fixed on him and Gerry grinned.
Michael returned the grin and kissed his cheek, going back to running his fingers along Gerry’s arms. Gerry hummed and melted further into Michael’s arms, closing his eyes. He took one of Michael’s hands into his own, threading their fingers together.
Gerry dozed off like that after a while and Michael looked at his relaxed face, his slightly parted lips, the shadows his long lashes were throwing over his cheeks. His other eyes were still open, but there was no doubt that Gerry was sleeping. Michael had never seen him so much as tired, and the warmth he felt at the sight was nearly overwhelming. He buried his blushing face and enamoured smile in Gerry’s hair, hoping his quick heartbeat wouldn’t wake Gerry up.