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< REST/UNREST >

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What is a house! A great body of stone. Ancient bones burrow deep into the dark and bristling earth. An unfixed preponderance of narrow glass eyes cut into its brutal countenance, looking out but never in, and through them shines only the light of the vast interior, where all is fathomless white. There are endless chambers and roving corridors, a wandering nervous system of elsewheres joined to this towering mass by incomprehensible ligatures. There is a heart in its belly where the old beast sleeps, fearsome and lonely in his roaring sarcophagus. There are waters, and there are roots, and concrete tides which part at the point of the compass. And there is the compass, carried by the sword, the word, the wielder and the voice. The one appointed, and the gentle echoes in her head.

This body remembers everything it has ever consumed. It suffers intimate awareness of its every single cell, of each its scurrying inhabitants, of all its many limbs. The carrier concepts, restless and idle, born of attention and doomed to obscurity, bound by ritual and cages of rock. The relentless hiss of the invasion, dwindling but still there at blurring edges. The thrice-rung cord and its many gateways, some within and some far, far away, unwitnessed and unknown, exit wounds at the outer edge of the house’s vast awareness. All else is accounted for, even the things that have been lost and the things that will never be recovered, the places that have never been touched and those that never will.

It has always been this way, before light, before breath, before visitors walked these halls. It has always been this way, for this body does not remember what came before, if before ever existed. This body is old, and it has not been alone in a long, long time, but it remembers everything it has ever consumed, and before light, before breath, before visitors, what it consumed was emptiness. There are empty spaces still, even with all its mechanisms and mechanics. There will always be emptiness, as bright and sharp as the rest.

Currently, the old beast softly rattles the walls of his sarcophagus, churning and writhing with an anger so consumptive he no longer remembers its cause. Currently, the keeper of concepts soothes his charges with carefully uttered words, then tells them of his cat, which he misses, which lies outside the house’s considerable purview. Currently, the you-don’t-want-to-be lies dormant in his little glass room, dreaming incantations, dreaming a half-life only half-remembered. Currently, the astral tourist drifts and pulses destructive in its lonely room, seeking thought and finding only strained silence. Currently, the#@$#%# Void %$@# Egress Egress Egress. Currently, the arrogant one moves between elsewheres, existence uncertain, guilt profound. Currently, the overseers worry and watch and clutch at the one appointed, disgruntled and dissembling. Currently—

—an anguish grows in hollow cracks, a voiceless scream, a terrible awareness rising, surging, flooding along an unmapped network of filaments as the body begins to twist upon itself, struggling, struggling, struggling, to be, to be, to be—




 

Currently, the clever one perches at her desk, eyes flicking rapidly back and forth as she parses green lines of digital text, reading, interpreting, reading again, tapping her fingers in a taut, subconscious rhythm. “Shit,” she says, an awestruck whisper.

And currently, the one appointed rests in the wet room of the caretaker, feet upon the table, head tipped back, lips slightly parted to allow a soft, persistent snore. It is only the second time she has slept here. She has earned the rest.

“Very important to take a rest,” the caretaker agrees. He stands in low water while an ancient tango thrums through him, and he observes the one appointed where she rests. “Spent the whole job so far going from the ditch to the duck pond. But now Lyyti begins to write.” He nods seriously to himself. “Loman aika.”

The caretaker has many whims and is not to be trifled with. The house renders no judgment.

“Don’t you agree?” he asks her.

 

 

…there is a ringing in her head from a bright red phone with a strange black dial whose purpose is unknown; a call from the center of the void made of light, issued urgent by the slash upon the surface of the white…

 

< This is a Reminder/Warning/Test >

< You/We are not Free/Complete >

< The Job/Game is Infinite/Not done >

< Do not try to Escape/PTO/Exit >

< We will be in Contact/Watching >

< Do not worry/All is well >

 

 

The call commits her back to consciousness, jerking her loose from hushed whispers and flickering faces, a half-life half-remembered, leaving it all behind in the mire of her mind until all that remains are words rhyming like a drumbeat in her head. The one appointed blinks awake.

“Ahti?” She startles, sits up. “You’re back? Sorry, I…” she settles into dim, wakeful confusion, not remembering how she got here, which would be cause for concern anywhere else; “I must’ve—”

“No-no.” He waves her off. “No need to ride the hare. Sleep is good for you. You work too hard, you dry up, just like the old man. Always like a bear who got shot in the ass, perkele.” He leans on his mop and fixes her with a squinting stare.

“Uh,” she says with a hesitant nod. “Yeah, I guess.” She stretches, wincing as her neck cracks softly. “Did you have a good vacation?”

“Jaaha, jaa, there was honey in the pisspot. Always good to sit and contemplate the deep origins.” He nods. “And now, I think it’s your turn.”

The one appointed stumbles on her way to her feet. “What?” she blurts. She rarely understands the caretaker’s lyrical old words; however it is rare that she asks him to explain. It is only when she understands him that she would be so bold.

“Saatana.” He shakes his head in disapproval. “You’ve been working since the year of sausage and potato. They’ve got you jumping up the walls, and if you don’t slow down, your jacket will be open when the gingerbread shatters. But don’t worry.” He grins with a small flicker of teeth. “For now, everything is in the mitten.”

If she hesitates, perhaps it is because it seems audacious to her; perhaps there is a seeded conviction that the Director does not take breaks, and that even if she did, does it come so simply as on the janitor’s esoteric word?

“Ei helvetti,” the caretaker growls. “If I can’t give my own assistant her vacation then who’s gonna do it! Jumalauta.”

“Well…” She’s not certain she can argue with that logic, though she’s not sure she can explain it, either.

There is another part of her that does not want to leave. That never wants to leave. As though leaving would be to wake from a dream, to let this reality slip through her fingers like red, red sand.

Do not go. Please, do not go. The house writhes upon itself. This body has no use for the languages of its tenants but it seeks, nonetheless, to be understood. The way all things seek to be understood. The way all things seek to be.

The hotline rings.

Again? Already? Jesse heaves a sigh, and Ahti waves her off. “The cats are circling the porridge,” he mutters, then returns to humming his little tune, that being that. The one appointed steps out of his office and the call arrives in her head.

 

< Do not listen to the Saarelainen/Janitor >

< He is a Know-Nothing/Busybody >

< There is a developing Situation/Plot/Intentionally left blank >

< Your Attention/Participation is Required/Not optional >

< You will Investigate/Make it stop >

 

Okay, I get it,” she says, churlish and unafraid. She raises her hands in a mockery of obedience as she moves toward the control point in Ventilation, still shaking off the dust of sleep. “Here I am, going back to work. Maybe I can actually get something done if you stop calling.”

The overseers do not answer. They do not like the way she speaks back to them. They do not like to converse/collaborate. And they do not like the way the body shudders and grasps, gasping, seeking to breach an unbreachable surface that it remembers seeing so long ago, the only thing it remembers that it has not consumed, a memory of a thing imagined, a thing that is not. The invasion made it hunger, made it hate, made it want; the invasion is burning away like a passing sickness but the words stick. Swallowed and absorbed, refined and redefined. It hurts. It hurts it hurts. This happens more and more now.

Don’t go. You can almost hear our words. Don’t go.

 

 

“Oh, Jesse, perfect timing! I was just going over some data we’ve been gathering from the other sectors, and there’s something…”

The clever one’s expression tightens as her eyes dart over her clipboard. They stand in their fragile headquarters, beneath the pyramidic idol, in Central Executive. Nearby, the willing sentinel surveys his table strewn with unsorted reports, his hands on his hips, his brow perpetually furrowed and his humor perpetually good. Jesse’s posture skews awkward, one hip cocked, her hands useless at her sides. She rarely knows what to do with them. Lately they are unaccustomed to inaction. It feels like a very long time since they did anything but launch, cleanse, kill. Pull a trigger. Break it all apart. She shakes herself, a subconscious flicker of motion, noted by Pope but not aloud.

Pope proceeds: “We’re picking up some very bizarre readings in several highly localized areas. Some sort of energy spike, but it’s difficult to tell what’s causing it. These locations seem… completely random, and none of the readings are being picked up on-site, which essentially means they’re all inactive areas. Weirder still, these numbers are all identical. The radius of these effects is so small I’m not sure we would even have noticed it if it wasn’t the exact same spike happening in several places at once.”

“Is that… uh… bad?” Jesse hazards. She fidgets, her hands struggling to find refuge in the too-small pockets of her jeans. She casts her head to one side. Pulled, gravitationally, toward the glass box upstairs where lies the you-don’t-want-to-be , known only to her as her brother.

“Not necessarily.” Pope taps a finger on the clipboard as if for emphasis. “It’s just highly mathematically improbable—it suggests there’s either a single phenomenon occurring in multiple locations simultaneously, or there’s something else causing some sort of feedback loop with our data. But to occur with this kind of precision, that seems unlikely. And you generally only see this level of data synchronicity with quantum entanglement, which… Well, that’s very unlikely, too. The Oldest House plays a little nicer with quantum physics than it does Newtonian, but only in that it’s equally hard to predict, like it’s cherry picking which rules to observe. It’s incredibly fascinating, actually—it opens up all sorts of other questions about what the Oldest House actually is, or even where it is, so to speak… I mean, we’re really pushing against the boundaries of known science, of even the most basic mathematical and spatial laws, which is obviously—”

“But the data…?” Jesse interrupts. Over Pope’s stiff shoulder, she catches Arish smirking to himself.

Pope smiles wide, embarrassed. “Right. Sorry. Regardless, there’s a limit to how much I can interpret from these readings—I don’t have much chance of knowing exactly what it means until I examine one of the sites.”

Shrill and close, the hotline rings. Jesus, enough already, Jesse thinks impatiently. I’m working, aren’t I? She understands very little of what the clever one has said, but she persists: “Couldn’t that be dangerous?”

“Technically, everything here could be—and probably is—dangerous,” says Pope, her smile dimming, but only just. “But right now, it’s just data. If I can get a better understanding of what we’re looking at, I’ll be better able to assess the risk. There’s nothing that indicates auditory anomalies, so we can rule out Hiss interference, at least.”

“I can send some rangers with her,” offers Arish. Then he chuckles softly. “Sorry, I, uh… didn’t mean to eavesdrop, ma’am.”

“I really don’t think that’ll be necessary,” says Pope, her smile fading to neutral stillness.

Jesse feels her eye twitch. The ringing could split her apart if it felt so inclined. “Just—just hang on,” she says, distracted, not sure to whom she’s speaking. The Board’s always been pushy, especially since her return to the Foundation, but the calls are usually better spaced out, at least not occurring mid-conversa—

 

< Alert/Action Required! You must investigate the Anomaly/Strange thing >

< You will go with the Nosy One/Pope >

< You must Espionage her/Keep her under control >

< There will be Danger/Bad News if you Decline/Disobey >

 

“For fuck’s sake!” Jesse snaps, and receives a radiant quiet from both Emily and Simon. She finds them looking at her, each trying not to seem startled.

“Sorry, that… that wasn’t for you.” Sounds sane and normal. God, she really doesn’t want to seem like the kind of boss who’ll shout at her subordinates. She hates even having subordinates. “Simon, you hang onto your people. I’ll go with Emily.”

“Oh—” The clever one hesitates. Eyebrows raised. Curious, confused, but not displeased. “Well, that’d be… Are you sure?”

“You’re not questioning our Director, are you, Pope?” Simon teases. Emily can’t quite suppress a subtle rolling of her eyes.

“It’ll be fun,” says Jesse. “Maybe.”

“Data analysis is always fun,” says Emily, flashing another quick grin. “One day I’ll convince you.”

“Good luck,” says Simon, throwing Jesse a smirk.

 

 

Down, down, down, venture they: the clever one and the one appointed. “Those two are really in the resin,” Ahti murmurs. Water flows across the stone while music keeps happy the air and the plants. He hitches a shoulder and leans upon the mop. “Maybe it’s not a vacation, but it could be a fish without a bicycle.” He nods, then adds, “Perkele,” for good measure.

In an unseen corner of the Oldest House, the clever one and the one appointed walk, kept close by a gravitational pull generated by no celestial body. There is weight to their steps which does not correspond to gravity, either. It is the weight of novelty.

The house tries to hold its breath.

“According to the most recent readings, this should be the place,” Pope murmurs, squinting up into the towering shadows. The room is empty, long, tall, and dark at all ends. There is only the narrow spill of Pope’s flashlight to guide them. “Well, one of them.”

“How many are there in total?” asks Jesse, her gaze more circular. Somehow, the emptiness of this room makes her more uneasy than the ones filled with abandoned desks or equipment. Pristine wilderness, which here could mean anything.

“At least twenty. Probably more.” Pope draws to a halt and drops to one knee, setting down the heavy case of equipment she has been carrying. “There’s all kinds of areas we don’t even know about. Like this one—rooms no one’s ever visited, probably rooms no one ever will visit. This exact space might not even have existed before now.”

The clever one is correct: the air here has never before been drawn into human lungs. This floor has never before echoed with footsteps. It never will again. There is a resonant snap as Pope unlocks the case to open it. The anguish returns. The house breathes.

The clever one slips on the sudden sharp angle, and the one appointed, tuned to the humors of chaotic geometry, cries, “Oh shit—!” as she lurches forward, reaching out, driven on instinct. It is a shock to Pope; not the house shift, for which she is trained, nor even the sting of static that passes between them. The warmth of fingers closing around the soft interior of her elbow, though. The stabilizing roughness of that grip. The sudden and arbitrary connection to another person. Neither welcomed (technically) nor unwelcome (surprisingly).

“Dammit,” Jesse grunts as the floor continues to veer up toward its new ambition, to become a wall, the finalization of which will pitch them into the new down. “Hang on.”

Not having done this before, it is awkward: awkward to maneuver on a moving surface, to wrap both arms around Emily’s waist; awkward to then bend at the knees and fire herself up/down/forward like a gunshot, like a diver. Emily can’t stop a little shriek as her body swings like a pendulum through the air, her legs dangling; can’t stop her own reflexes as she reaches up, grappling for a handhold, her fingers digging into Jesse’s arms and the slick sleeves of her leather jacket. They are floating. She has seen Jesse do this but never experienced it. Those arms, stronger than she realized, are the only thing keeping her from pitching into this new depth. It is difficult to breathe, all that pressure about her middle, Jesse’s own resolve pitted harshly against this newly resolved gravitational reality. The flashlight has fallen and gone out; the case of equipment has slid down, and she hears it all crash to the bottom at a sickening delay, a great depth. “Jesus,” she whispers.

Jesse grunts with the effort of holding herself up along with another person. More difficult than she’d imagined. The Benicoff TV is only built for one passenger, apparently. But she levels out, however her shoulders might scream. “I’ve got you,” she says, as if to prove it.

“Yeah,” Emily says inanely, synapses firing, seeking comfort. “I—I-I’ve never seen a shift like that before, th-the totality of it, it was almost—”

“Analysis later, Emily,” says Jesse through gritted teeth. “Lemme find the new floor first.”

“Right.” Broken from the easy flow of syllables, Emily’s voice shakes. “Good idea.”

The fall is slow, feather-like, and yet they both gasp softly as it starts, insides plunging as they adjust to the drop. A gentle descent that seems to mock the walls around them, the crawling anxiety that lives in this concrete skin, the terrible itch that cannot be soothed. It is everywhere, a metastasis of being, a thousand miserable pinpricks in the dark. Awakened, alight, aloud. The invasion was an invasion but it was a fire, too, the first light known to unutterable emptiness, a baleful, bellowing reminder that you want to listen, you want to dream, you want to smile, you want to hurt. A contradiction to spark an argument: you want to be. You want to be. You want to be.

The house cracks and roars.

“Fuck!” Jesse twists in midair, slamming her shoulder into the wall that has so abruptly rotated up beside them, near enough to graze the skin, fast enough to do much worse. Her shoulder will bruise; she adjusts her grip on Emily and launches herself back off the new wall, lifting them back up to a hover while she struggles to catch her breath. “Is that gonna keep happening?”

“This is definitely the place,” Emily says, her own breath coming through in strained wheezes. “It’s not the shift we were recording, though, there’s something else causing it.”

“An altered item?”

“I don’t think s—” She cuts herself off with a gasp as she slips, and Jesse grips her tighter, her arms trembling with the cost. “I—I don’t know of any altered item that could affect the whole House like this. This is something else, but I—I can’t determine what until we—oh shit, Jesse—!”

The ceiling plunges down, and Jesse has no recourse but to let them drop. They fall, two stones plummeting into an abyss, until she finally pulls herself together enough to slow them again. Her chest hurts; her head is pounding. The compass hums as if tuning itself.

“Jesse—” Emily’s voice is terse. She squirms, grunting as she tries to turn herself around, finally looping her arms around Jesse’s neck in hope of alleviating some of the strain. “You can’t keep this up forever. We have to land.”

“I’m open to suggestions.” Jesse peers into the dark below, waiting for another shift that doesn’t come, at least not yet. The house wants—it wants—it wants—

“I think—” Jesse blinks as the thought drops into her head. “I think it’s trying to say something.”

“What?” Even in the dark, Emily’s eyes are bright, somehow. “You mean the House?”

“Yeah, I think…” She trails off, listening, trying to catch and place the tune wandering dimly in her head. “It’s something…”

The hotline rings.

“Oh, come on!” Jesse grits out, teeth clenched against the piercing noise that obliterates all else.

“Jesse?”

 

< Attention/Be Aware >

 

Jesse groans against the agony of her weakening muscles, the blinding expanse of brilliant white. She starts to fall.

“Jesse—!”

 

< Previous message was Hasty/Sent in error >

 

“Emily, I can’t—” Jesse blinks, struggling to see, to hear, to think.

“Jesse, you have to stop the fall,” Pope says sharply. She lifts her hands to Jesse’s face. “You can.”

 

< We have Reevaluated/Reassessed >

 

Into the dark they fall. The room turns once more on its malleable axis. The whisper, like a record skipping: You have always been—you have always been—you have always been—

The compass tunes itself, a matched resonance, an unbidden answer. You are home. You remind us of home.

From out of the dark stretches the thrice-rung cord.

 

< It is time to take your Vacation/NDA, Director >

< Congratulations!/Do not reply to sender >

< Please do not Explore/Develop this matter any further >

< Do not worry/All is well >

 

The fall stops, abrupt and graceless. “There,” Jesse gasps, her head pitched against Emily’s shoulder, her strength nearly spent. The clever one’s hand reaches out to the cord. She has never pulled it before but it is familiar in concept if not in practice. They hang in the air at the center of a storm. Just enough time. Only just. One. Two. Three.

 

 

What is a house? A construct. A property. A belonging.

What is a house? A vessel. An emptiness. A hungering maw.

What is a body when it awakens, when it sees itself through a mirror, inverted made right, when it remembers the agony of loneliness, the taste of it. What is a body that can see itself huddled in the dark, wanting, waiting, wanting?

What is it like, to want, to have, to take? To be wanted? To be welcome?

Currently, this body is experiencing the agony of wakefulness and the terror of choice.

Currently, it is quiet in the Oceanview Motel, the sort of quiet that consists of small, ignorable sounds: a distant murmur of voices, a muffled crackling radio, the dull tin ring of the bell at the desk. The one appointed wakes in a shaft of sunlight and wonders when she last slept in a real bed.

“Emily?” She sits up, then winces as a developing migraine presses itself into her awareness. “Oh, fuck.”

“Good, you’re awake.” The clever one is sitting in the chair at the desk, her smile a little strained. “I wasn’t sure what else to do, I just saw the cord and pulled it. I’ve never actually been to the Oceanview before. It’s… surprisingly nice, for a liminal roadside motel.” She is quiet for a moment, the sort of quiet that belies internal debate. “How are you?” she eventually concedes. The question does not come to her naturally, but it is genuine.

“I feel like I got run over by a bus.” Jesse flops onto her back, squinting at the ceiling, letting her vision blur. “But I think I’m okay.” Memories sift back and she pushes herself back up on her elbows, peering at Emily through the headache. “I’m sorry, I… I lost control a bit there.”

“Considering the circumstances I think I should be the one apologizing.” Emily’s knee jiggles, a rarely exercised nervous tic. “As well as thanking you. You… well, you saved both our lives.” It is easier to frame it collectively than to acknowledge the vulnerability of the self.

“No thanks to the Board,” Jesse mutters, rubbing the heel of her hand against the growing pressure behind her eye. “They’ve been calling me on the hotline all day. First they got mad because Ahti wanted me to go on vacation, or something, and then they told me to investigate this thing with you, and then they told me I actually should go on vacation, or… something?” She huffs and drops her hand, pulling her knees up to her chest and curling over to rest her head there. “I’m starting to think we need to invest in some sort of Inter-Astral-Human Resources department.”

“That’s probably not a bad idea, if the Board would actually play along.” Emily looks at Jesse, how strangely small she’s just become, curled up on the bed. “I wonder if they’re still mad at you over the Nail.”

“Oh, probably.” Jesse frowns and tells her head to stop pounding. It declines the suggestion. “But I think maybe they didn’t want me to figure out what was going on, which… Do we know what was going on? With that… whatever it was?”

“I’m not much use here without any equipment,” says Emily with a shrug. “The last thing you said before… well, I’m assuming before the Board called you? Was that the House was trying to say something. I’m… not sure what you meant by that.”

The one appointed has not known the house long, but the house has known her. The house knows everything that lives within it, all the many fragments of a great collective work. And it knows—more and more now—the loneliness of knowing and not being known. Not by the clever one and certainly not the arrogant one. Not by the overseers, or the Former, or the invasion, despite the words they planted like so many seeds. Not the Ash, not the old beast, not the lost soul and not even the keeper of concepts, he who befriends his wards. It let her in—not the one appointed but the compass, the gentle echoes in her head—beloved, pulled apart, carried within. It misses her. The compass. The guiding star. It misses her.

Jesse slowly emerges from her hunkered position, head tilted as if listening. She may not understand the messages she receives, but she is a good receiver nonetheless.

“This is gonna sound stupid,” she says eventually, “but I think it was lonely.”

Pope blinks at her but says nothing.

“Or, I don’t know, maybe having a sneezing fit or something and it just wanted someone to say bless you?” Jesse sighs and stretches her legs back out. “I don’t know why I’m personifying it. It just felt like it… wanted… something. And it was different from the Board wanting something, or Former, or even… even Polaris.” It hurts, a little, still, to acknowledge her friend who is not gone but irrevocably changed.

“A display of sentience? Sapience, perhaps, only not on a level we can comprehend?” Emily presses her hands together, her fingers to her lips. “Fascinating. That’s entirely possible. And it would change… well, everything. I wonder how we could test for something like that. I’ve been saying for a while we need to develop a more formal Linguistics division. Not my particular field—neither architecture nor language—but the implications could be massive.” She grins, her gaze distant, locked on the promise of future projects.

“Are you sure you’re not more… I don’t know, shaken up about all this?” Jesse keeps her own gaze level, and when Emily meets it, there is a flicker of something like surprise. “I mean, you could’ve died. I almost…”

“But you didn’t.” Emily perches on that chair, tension coiled as she weighs a decision; then she stands up, stepping around to the side of the bed, hovering. Unsure what to do with her hands, devoid of their habitual clipboard. Analysis is comforting, but it isn’t all. It takes effort, awkward and successful by only the narrowest of margins, to reach out and set her hand on Jesse’s shoulder. “Look, we all know this job is dangerous and often fatal. But where else could I work where the rule set changes with every new discovery? It’s exciting. And… being in the field, getting to see you do what you can do, getting to feel it?” Her breath catches and she draws her hand back, blushing as she concludes, “That was exciting, too.”

Jesse raises her eyes, still aching, to look at her.

“Also, if you want my opinion, you’ve definitely earned a vacation,” says Emily, averting her eyes, a small smile touching her lips.

“Only if you come with me,” is out of Jesse’s mouth before she can stop it.

“Oh,” says Emily, her mouth opening, closing, opening again. “I, um—”

“Sorry, uh…” Jesse blinks, then looks away, then pushes herself off the bed. “I don’t know why I said that.” She straightens up, Emily standing close, still staring in her periphery. “Come on, I’ve gotten pretty good at navigating this place, at least.”

It is a narrow passage between body and door, and Jesse shifts to slip through it, but her jacket catches, or rather is caught. Emily’s fingers have curled into it, an uncontrolled motion, a reflex, and Emily has to admit to herself she doesn’t quite know what she’s doing, though if that had ever stopped her before she would never have made it to the Bureau. There is a part of her that cannot be switched off which strays, wonders at the complexity of the self and how heavily impulsive action and intrusive thought define the nature of being. If the Oldest House is alive, if it has identity, then it can act without purpose, it can desire to be known, it can lash out when ignored. She thinks about those readings, all those unseen spaces, and considers how all that elegant mathematical precision might be describing a fit of melancholy. A house is a lonely place, as lonely as a body, even hers. Evidently. Evidently, the evidence being that sudden urge to be close, to change things, to feel warmth, to kiss her. To kiss her, awkward and unpracticed, and feel the tension of surprise melt into an equally awkward acceptance.

“Oh,” says Jesse after a moment.

“Sorry—” Impulse pushes her back, the clever one: jarring back against the bed, panic-flushed, staring at the drab carpeted floors. “I—I don’t know why I did that.”

“N-no, it’s—it’s okay,” Jesse says, hands useless, again, at her sides.

“I-it’s just—it’s been a day, I think I, the adrenaline and all, you know.” Emily brushes a hand over the back of her neck. “I don’t, um, I don’t usually—”

Jesse knows she ‘doesn’t usually.’ It is a matter of record, even. She’s skimmed the peer reviews, the notes passed between Darling and Underhill. The documented gossip. She’s felt a little flare of resentment over those who would sneer at Pope behind her back; she’s felt a little flare of pride, too, that between them it’s always been different, somehow. Somehow: a theoretical idea that, like so much in this place, has very suddenly become practical.

So she doesn’t let that sentence finish. Her hands, unaccustomed to gentility (which is not the same as incapable) fit back around Emily’s waist, a light touch and no longer a frantic lifesaving grip. Because she wants to. To want, to have, to take. Because it’s welcome. Because it’s nice.

 

 

Somewhere far away, the hotline rings, but it does not reach the Oceanview Motel, which is not the domain of the overseers. The house might touch that place, but it is not contained in that same great body. It is only natural the thrice-rung cord would appear in that wounded room like a hand in the dark, a way out, a passing connection.

The house stills and rumbles softly. The waters ease across cool concrete. The caretaker pauses his tune.

“Your nose was not wheezing for long,” he remarks as he draws his mop gently across the floor, swish, swish, swish. Then he pauses, listening, before letting his hand come to rest against the near wall. “Don’t worry, vanha ystäväni. All will be well in a coming year, in the birch bark month. Or possibly sooner. No need to wait for the rising moon. Yes?” He chuckles without awaiting an answer, which the house is not inclined to give. To be as ancient as its roots, deep, deep within the earth, is to be patient by nature.

“And if not,” Ahti grunts, and shakes his head as he returns to the caress of the mop, “there’ll be work for the axe, jumalauta.”

The house agrees.