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“Statement of Harriet Schiff, regarding…” Alice looks across the desk. Harriet just raises her eyebrows, as if to say, well, go on. “…Events which led to her current state of being. Statement taken direct from subject, May 25th, 2017. Statement made in ASL, interpreted and recorded by Head Archivist Alice Quinn. Statement begins.” Alice sets the tape recorder on the table and nods at Harriet. “Please start.”

Harriet draws in a long breath, sighs, and begins to sign, her too-long hands and too-thin fingers sweeping strangely through the shapes of her words.

Alice has never learned American Sign Language. She can’t understand it. She understands it anyway. “It’s sort of hard to explain,” she hears herself say, beginning the translation. She isn’t really in control anymore. Just a vessel for the statement. “Especially to someone still so close to their own humanity. I’m Harriet, and I’m not. I’ve existed for four years, and I’ve existed for millennia. My mother, your predecessor, is responsible for my birth. Both times. And I never had a mother, because I was born from lies.”

Harriet sits back in her chair and looks about as close to wistful as a monster can look.

“She didn’t mean for it to happen. At least, I don’t think she did. It wasn’t part of the plan. But we both did what we thought we had to. I guess that’s the best place to start.”

~

Alice shuffles into the breakroom like a member of the walking dead. And at this point, she would know.

Statements don’t always take this much out of her, but it’s been a little rough lately. She’s been burning through cases like a streak of blue fire, trying to learn as much as she can before it’s too late. There are whispers of movement in the Stranger, in the Dark. Sometimes she can’t tell how much of her is Alice and how much is the Archivist. God knows she can’t ask Everett for guidance, the shady bastard.

It’s all for the best, she thinks. Hopes.

Anyway, after a statement like that — like Harriet’s — like the Distortion’s — she needs a cup of fucking coffee.

The breakroom isn’t empty as she’d hoped. Julia is clutching her own cup of coffee, looking vaguely bored as Kady gently pries her fingers off the ceramic. Kady sets the cup down on the counter and turns Julia’s hand over and over in hers, looking at the blood crusted under the fingernails.

“What was it this time, Jules,” she asks. She sounds as tired as Alice feels. But aren’t they all?

“Thought I had a lead on the Lightless Flame,” says Julia. “Turns out I was wrong. Just your average, every day serial killer.” She picks up her coffee with her other hand and takes a long sip.

Kady presses her lips together. “Then what’s this?” She tugs at the hem of Julia’s shirt, where it’s sprayed with crimson.

“His blood.” Julia grins, pleased with herself.

Alice clears her throat. She really doesn’t care about whatever’s going on in their weird drama/murder/romance plotline of the week, but she needs caffeine.

Kady startles a little and lets go, stepping back to a more professional distance. Julia just keeps grinning, shameless on all counts.

The awkward silence that reigns for the next few minutes is broken only by Alice’s spoon clinking against her mug as she stirs in a generous helping of sugar. Fine. Let them be cagey. Alice has bigger shit to worry about, and anyway if they’ve chosen the breakroom to air their dirty laundry then any awkwardness is totally on them.

It’s still uncomfortable, though, how Kady stands there so stiffly, arms crossed, not making eye contact. How Julia just sips her coffee and hums to herself, unbothered. She waves cheerily as Alice heads for the door, and Alice gets the impression she can’t wait for Kady to scold her some more.

God, they’re weird.

“You can’t just go around killing people,” Kady says, low and stern, as Alice slips out into the hallway.

“Oh, please. He was a serial killer.”

“Yeah, and so are-!” There’s a pause. “You already killed Reynard,” Kady continues, quieter. “You got your revenge. I don’t see why you have to keep-”

“Yeah, I killed Reynard,” Julia cuts in. “And you know what? It felt good. Really good. But the Desolation still has plenty of followers just like him.”

“You’ll never get all of them, Jules.”

“Maybe not. But it’s so fun trying.”

Alice realizes she’s lingering and forces her feet to move forward.

So, fine. Maybe she cares a little.

She knows some pieces of their backstory, just what she’s fit together from the things they’ve mentioned. But she doesn’t have the whole picture. She’s never heard the name Reynard and she doesn’t know — she can’t know — but all at once, she Knows anyway, without consciously trying. It’s all just sitting there in her head.

Reynard Fox, avatar of the Desolation, devoted member of the cult of the Lightless Flame. Former pastor. Particular interest in destroying young women of potential. He hurt- he attacked- two years ago, he- no. No. He hurt her. He hurt her, and the rest isn’t Alice’s business. Deceased. By Julia’s hand. And she hasn’t been quite the same since.

The knowledge feels like a betrayal.

Alice shuts the door to her office and drinks her coffee.

~

I guess she thought I could take it, you know? The danger. She didn’t want to lose another assistant, not after Penny. And I’ve always been able to handle myself. Or maybe it’s because we were family. There’s something about connections like that that can work against the Powers. That was what we theorized, anyway. Blood or love or understanding. Not that she ever really understood me. But now I think that theory was an oversimplification, or maybe just wishful thinking. You would think being an avatar would give me insider knowledge, but instead it just makes me… hungry, you might say.

~

She catches Quentin hanging out in artifact storage again, gingerly leafing through a thick, yellowing old book. He seems appropriately reluctant to touch it directly, wearing latex gloves and turning the pages with the eraser end of a pencil. The fact remains that he shouldn’t be in here at all.

“I wish you wouldn’t do that,” sighs Alice.

Quentin startles, spinning around to face her like a kid caught with his hand in the cookie jar. If the cookies were poisoned, and the person doing the catching was just trying to keep him from getting himself killed. Again.

“Well, I kind of wish you wouldn’t give me a heart attack. So I guess we’re even?” He looks sheepish, but not nearly sheepish enough.

“Guess again,” snaps Alice, snatching up the book and reshelving it. It’s a Leitner, sure enough, the black leather embossed with a spiderweb pattern. “I don’t want you getting involved in all this, Quentin. You know that. But here you are, snooping around in the most dangerous fucking room you can find, playing with things that aren’t toys, and I don’t get it! Do you have some kind of death wish?”

Quentin rolls his eyes.

Alice crosses her arms. “Q.”

He deflates a little at the nickname, spoken with affection even through the stern tone. “I don’t,” he says. “I promise.”

“Well you could’ve fooled me.”

“Look, I know you don’t want me involved,” Quentin says, and Alice can already hear the but coming. “And, I mean, thank you for caring.”

Alice just glares.

Quentin sighs. “Oh, come on, Alice. You’re involved. That makes me involved by association.”

And — and alright, fine, he has a point. Alice should’ve known better, should’ve never gone near him, not after all these years. She’s seen what can happen to people who get too close to her. But she’d had nowhere else to go after what happened with the Lamprey.

“I’m sorry,” says Alice. “I know I dragged you into this; you were lucky to survive whatever happened to you before I showed up again, and maybe I shouldn’t have crashed on your couch when I was, you know…”

“On the run from the law?” suggests Quentin, the corners of his mouth turned up like he thinks this is fucking funny instead of horrifying and her fault. Which is halfway between a relief and an irritant.

“Yes,” Alice agrees through her teeth. “That. Maybe staying with you… confused things between us.”

Quentin’s eyebrows have some unflattering things to say about that. “I’m not confused, Alice,” he tells her slowly. “I care about you. We’re friends now, right?”

“Against my better judgement.” She doesn’t mean it as an insult, more as a warning. She’s pretty sure he understands, judging by the way he rolls his eyes.

“I know, I know, you’re a big scary monster, and if I hang around you too much the other big scary monsters will eat me.”

“Q.”

“Listen, this isn’t — I’m not only here because of you, okay? You know I’ve had my close calls with weird shit in the past. Finding out about the Archives and the Powers is just helping me make sense of it. I’m arming myself with knowledge, alright?”

“This knowledge is dangerous, Quentin.” She doesn’t know how to make him see that. He should see it already, really; she still doesn’t know exactly what happened to him in his past that made him so willing to believe her batshit stories about worms and shapeshifters and evil libraries, but she knows it left a hell of a psychological mark. He’s been nearly as reckless as she is in seeking out information on the Powers. Last month, Harriet showed up in the archives and deposited a disoriented Quentin in her office like a neighborhood stray bringing her a mangled dead thing as a present. I think this is yours, she’d signed. I thought you might want it back. That was how Alice found out he’s been digging into things he shouldn’t ever since their semi-awkward reunion. He’d grimaced uncomfortably, avoided explaining, nearly fallen over when he saw Julia (apparently they’d been childhood friends), and Alice hasn’t been able to keep him out of the Archives since.

And now he’s poking around artifact storage, of all fucking things. It’s like he has no self preservation. “Even if it’s dangerous,” he says, and he’s stupid, he’s so stupid, “Isn’t it better to have it?”

No.” Which is exactly what she’s been trying to tell him this whole time.

Quentin presses his lips together. “Okay,” he says. And he leaves the room.

She doesn’t have to be unwillingly bound to an eldritch patron of secret knowledge to know he’ll be back tomorrow anyway.

~

By the time we got to Sannikov Land it was too late. Or almost, anyway. We set foot on that impossible island, in the Great Twisting, and everything had already gone upside-down and backwards. There’s nothing I can say to you that would describe what it was like. There are no words for it in any language. There’s no concept of it in the human mind. You can’t understand it unless you’re a part of it, like I am now.

Anyway, it was too late for the original plan, too late to prevent the Twisting from beginning. I was already — not Harriet, not the human Harriet used to be. But me. This being that I am, the one I was before I was ever Harriet. The Distortion. I was already too deep in the maze to be stopped. But Harriet — the human who was Zelda’s daughter — found my door.

~

“He knew it was over before she did,” Alice reads aloud, “though maybe that was only because she didn’t want to admit it. He knew it with the certainty of one who’d had too many brushes with death already, and could sense that this one was simply too close to escape. His strength was already failing by the time they found someone who might have helped: a monster of flesh and viscera who, had there been more time, could perhaps have coaxed the unnatural pestilence from his body. But it was too late, and the woman who had led him here, who had asked for his trust and then used it, who had drawn him into a world of horrors with a smile on her face, held his hand and cried quietly while he slipped away. He was too weak to give her his last words. It was just as well; he didn’t know even then whether they would have been words of anger or of forgiveness. Thus ended William Adiyodi.”

Penny flickers into form before her. It’s a good likeness of life; he’s not pallid or rotted or translucent and the image of him fits into the world seamlessly. His eyes reflect the light of the fluorescent bulbs; the ends of his scarf catch the breeze from the air conditioner. It’s almost as if he’s actually here. But his presence somehow holds no weight, and Alice knows from experience that if she tried to touch him her hand would pass right through.

“You rang?” he says dryly.

“Hey,” says Alice. She pauses for a moment, trying to think of something polite to say. Nice to see you? No. What’s up? Definitely not. How have you been? He’s a ghost inside a book; he’s been shitty. Death sort of takes the sparkle out of small talk. So she settles on the same thing she always does: getting right down to business. “I had some questions, if you don’t mind. About… you know. Zelda.”

“Yeah, I think I’ve heard of her,” Penny says, arms crossed.

“I know she’s not your favorite subject,” Alice says apologetically. She did get him killed. “I wouldn’t bring her up if it wasn’t important.”

“Yeah, I know,” says Penny, softening a little. “So ask.”

She does.

Penny has some information on the Unknowing. He’s not sure of the actual mechanics of the thing, but he doesn’t think Zelda was either, and anyway a certain measure of illogicality seems pretty inherent in the Stranger’s MO. Penny gives her the rundown of the quick and dirty plan to fuck up the ritual. It mainly consists of a lot of explosives and getting the hell out of dodge.

Julia, at least, will be thrilled.

(“She’s not like I remember her,” Quentin confided once. “I mean, it’s been years. But she was always, like, the sensible one in the room. The one you could depend on. And now it’s like she’s just full of something… else.”

“Yeah,” said Alice, thinking of Kady’s tired eyes and gentle hands, of the way she looks at Julia sometimes like she doesn’t know her, and sometimes like she’s the only thing she knows. “This life will do that to you.”)

“I’m sorry to summon you up and ask you to relive this stuff,” Alice says to Penny, when she has everything she needs from him. She always feels terrible treating him like a source instead of a person.

He shrugs. “Don’t worry about it. I mean, we’re bros, right?” He offers her a smile. She thinks, if he were corporeal, he might playfully punch her shoulder or something. She might not even flinch. “I’m just glad I can help.”

Alice smiles back, half feeling it and half just wanting him to feel it. “Yeah, we’re bros,” she agrees. “I wish we could like… have a drink? Watch… sports? I don’t know, is that what bros do?”

Penny laughs. “In my experience, bros mostly run either toward or away from monsters together,” he says. “So your guess is as good as mine.”

They chat for a while. Alice tells him about the book she’s been reading; he tells her about the time he was twelve and found an alligator in his garage, sitting right on his skateboard. Alice can’t give him his life back, but she can let him feel normal for an hour.

Penny starts flickering like a dying lightbulb by the time they get to this-week-on-TV. He can’t be outside of the book for long. “Hey, Alice,” he says, suddenly solemn, suddenly unbearably sad even through his natural bravado. “You know, right? What I’m gonna ask you to do one day?”

She does. He can’t be a ghost forever; she can see the toll it takes on him every time she summons him. He’s not meant to be trapped here. And maybe he wasn’t meant to die so young, either, but she can’t do anything about that.

She can burn his page, though. She can set him free.

“Yeah,” she says, quiet. “I know. Not today, though?”

Penny shakes his head and gives her one last smile. “Nah. Not today.”

Alice nods. They say goodbye.

She closes the book.

~

There are days when I wonder if she knew what would happen, when Harriet found that door. If that was accounted for in any of her contingencies. It must have been; she knew me all Harriet’s life and she knew the lengths I would go to in a crisis. I’m just not sure what lengths she would’ve gone to, even now.

Some things don’t really matter in the face of the apocalypse, I guess. Maybe love is one of them. I don’t know. It’s so hard to remember things like that. Human things.

It’ll be hard for you, too, someday.

~

On Thursday, Margo Hanson storms into the Archives. She doesn’t seem to be angry, or at least she’s no more so than usual; it’s just that Margo storms everywhere she goes. Alice knows this from the few times she’s met her, most recently when she came in to give her statement about the black-eyed beings she sometimes sees watching her in the corners of her vision.

She’s dragging someone by the hand, a tall man in elegant clothing who is clearly trying very hard to look bored. He’s handsome, even with the unhealthy pallor and the dark circles under his eyes.

“This is my friend Eliot,” says Margo. “He’s here to make a statement.”

“I didn’t know you had friends,” Alice says, startled out of her social filter. Margo basically told her she doesn’t, after all, since the whole fiasco with her ghost hunting show and how it fell apart. That still doesn’t mean Alice should’ve said it. “I mean, um.”

But Margo just laughs. “I don’t have friends,” she says. “I have a friend. And you’re looking at him.”

Alice’s eyes flick up to Eliot, who wiggles his fingers in sardonic greeting. “Charmed.” He has the look of someone with a statement to make, that’s for certain. It’s a lot like the look of someone who works in the Archives: a person subsisting largely on alcohol, caffeine, and a desire to forget. Giving Alice his story won’t help him forget, she knows. But maybe he’ll have something useful.

“Okay,” she says. “What was the nature of your encounter?”

“Oh, Blondie, it was a little more than an encounter,” he drawls. “Try an entire relationship. With a man who I’m pretty sure was possessed by weird electric blue spiders. Talk about your creepy-”

Whatever flippant remark Eliot was about to make is cut off by a crash. Alice turns to see Quentin, standing over a puddle of coffee-and-cup, staring wide-eyed at Eliot.

“Well, hello,” says Eliot. “Aren’t you a cute, clumsy thing.”

“El, can you not terrorize the archival assistants?” mutters Margo. “I have sort of a working relationship with these people.”

“Oh, no, I’m not- I don’t actually work here, I just…” Quentin shakes his head, apparently realizing that I just hang around here so I can snoop for occult knowledge without authorization isn’t the sort of thing you tell strangers. “Did you say electric blue spiders?”

Eliot tilts his head and looks him over shamelessly. “I did.”

“Okay.” Quentin nods. “Okay. Do you mind if I sit in on your statement?”

“I mind,” says Alice, preferring to cut off whatever new investigative tactic this is at the knees. Neither Quentin nor Eliot seem to hear her. She looks at Margo, who rolls her eyes and shrugs.

“I’ll tell you what,” says Eliot. “You can sit in on my statement if you let me buy you a cup of coffee afterwards. To replace the one you’re standing in.” He’s looking at Quentin with a sort of hungry curiosity, like he thinks maybe he’s finally found someone who will understand. And based on Q’s reaction to electric blue spiders, maybe he’s even right about that. It doesn’t help, Alice wants to tell him, wants to tell them both. Understanding won’t save you.

Instead, she takes Eliot’s statement. It’s a particularly nasty story about a man who wasn’t himself and maybe hadn’t been for as long as Eliot had loved him, and about the spiders that crawled into his mouth and nose and ears and eyes and made a pretty puppet of him, and how, in a final moment of lucidity, he sobbed and begged Eliot to kill him. Eliot looks shaken when it’s done, even with Margo sitting there holding his hand the whole time, and Quentin (she wasn’t able to make him leave by any method short of physical force) reaches out and touches his shoulder, gently. Eliot meets his eyes and nods, once, in gratitude. And then the two of them go out for coffee.

Alice leans back in her chair, wishing Q would just tell her what all this is about. Why this case is the one he was looking for. Who he knew, back before Alice turned up on his doorstep, who was a puppet for spiders. She could just Know it, if she wanted to, she’s pretty sure. But she wants him to tell her willingly.

So she’ll never ask.

“Why did you bring him here?” she asks Margo, instead.

Margo shrugs and shifts in her seat in front of Alice’s desk. “He needed to talk to someone, and it sure as hell couldn’t be a therapist, even if he was willing to see one. Which he wasn’t. I thought maybe telling you would help.”

“Did it help you?” Alice suspects she knows the answer to that already.

But Margo looks like she’s really considering the question. “I don’t know,” she says. “Yes and no, maybe? That’s a stupid fucking answer but it’s all I got.” She shrugs again.

“Do you still see them? The…”

“Fairies? Yes. And don’t ask me why they’re called that, ‘cause I don’t know. I just know that they are.”

“Right.” Alice is intimately familiar with the sensation of knowing something without knowing why you know it.

“They show up less often, now, but when they do… when they do, they’re closer than they used to be.” She sighs. “A week ago I woke up in the middle of the night and the Queen was reaching for me. She wanted…” Margo shivers. “Shit. It doesn’t matter. I’m not making a statement today.”

Alice pushes down all of her instincts, both human and inhuman, and doesn’t pry.

Quentin comes back a couple hours later with a to-go cup and a rosy flush in his cheeks and Alice wonders if she should ask him about the results of his investigation or his date. She settles on neither.

~

I don’t know who or what killed her, in the end. Maybe it’s for the best, though. A real, human death. It’s better than a lot of people get. And I think it’s what she would’ve wanted, second only to living forever.

~

Alice dreams of Charlie. She dreams of Emily Greenstreet, screaming, her face twisted in impossible spirals. Charlie is holding her, comforting her, trying to help — to untwist — to remake her —

Even in the haze of dreaming, Alice finds the wherewithal to wish she had never taken Emily’s statement.

Maybe she should tell Q that. Teach him not to go looking for answers that will only hurt him.

Thunk.

She startles awake at her desk to find Julia standing in front of it, looking cheerful. “Brought you something,” she says.

Alice looks down at the thing Julia dropped. It’s a lump of wax, large and tan, and shaped sort of… almost like… “Is that someone’s hand?”

“Finally caught up with the Lightless Flame,” says Julia. “Took that as a souvenir.”

“You took someone’s hand,” Alice says flatly.

Julia shrugs. “He’s made of wax; he can just make a new one. Probably. Anyway, I thought you might want to study it, see if you can figure anything out.”

“Right,” says Alice. She reaches for the hand tentatively, like it might burn to the touch. It doesn’t. She scoops it up and places it in her desk drawer for safekeeping. “Thanks.”

“You are so very welcome,” says Julia. “You know I’m always down to desolate the Desolation.”

“Speaking of Powers,” says Alice, “I’ve got some new information on the Unknowing.”

Julia looks attentive. She does love her job. She always has loved her job, it’s just that her job used to be more about research and less about hunting monsters.

“It involves a lot of C4,” says Alice.

“I already love it. I’ll go get Kady and Q.” And she saunters off to gather the team for a meeting.

Alice closes her eyes and lets out a long breath. She thinks of Charlie. She thinks of that awful wax hand, dropped on her desk like a morbid present. She thinks of Harriet dragging Quentin through one of her doors, pale and shaking, and planting him in Alice’s chair like much the same.

Huh, she thinks.

She wonders what kind of gifts she’ll bring to her friends, when she’s a monster.

~

It’s not so bad, really. At least, I don’t think Harriet would think so. I’m just happy to be me, to open doors, to make mazes. To serve my patron. It’s freeing, belonging to something. I’m not sure how a human would feel about it, but that doesn’t really matter. By the time you become yourself, you’re not human anymore.

~

Click.

“Statement of Alice Quinn, Head Archivist of the Magnus Archives. Regarding my brother Charlie, and the incident that led to my interest in and pursuit of the supernatural. Statement made and recorded June 1st, 2017. Statement begins.”