There was a man, once.
Not the only man, obviously. There were many other men, even in the small subset of men that served the mists curling at the shore like fingers, pulling passers-by into the thick white foam like the tide pulled drowning swimmers. Men who were proud to linger in those mists and come out alive, grim-faced and with the odd satisfaction of having fed their master. They came out changed, cold, but anything was better than the stifling warmth of human flesh, even their own.
One such man wore a long black coat and sweaters that reached all the way up the thick cord of his neck, brushing bushy eggshell beard. Seafoam sweeping a strong jaw. Salt water sloshing in the basin of his chest. He preferred to smile instead of grimace, talk simply to hear himself talking, to watch the wince reverberate through the features of his company.
He was alive. He had been alive. He had met an archivist, once, who had pulled his life story out of him like siphoning the water from his body. When he was dry, the archivist requested the sediment that had settled in the water, the stubborn grains of feeling that still lingered in his great white ribcage.
When he refused, the man felt hands grip his skull and wrench it open wholesale, fingers invading the soft matter of his brain, following it to his eyes and lips and tongue. The center could not hold. Things dissolved.
There was a man, once. And then there was a long black coat, crumpled on the sandy shore, with a long necklace tucked within.
There is a man. He is not the same man, obviously, because this one is alive and the first one is not, and that is important.
This man, who calls himself Elias now, is given leave to enter the space where the mists come to collect, because he has favors that need calling upon, and he likes to keep things organized. That’s all. There is no sentimentality to it, as some might accuse him of -- he simply needs what remains of his last lover to add to the sediment rock of the rest, because that is what he does. Weathering is still an important phenomenon.
The bones of Barnabas Bennett are still in his office, if one knows where to look.
Still, there is an undercurrent of bitterness to the way he meanders down the shore, following the prints of salt-crusted boots. He remembers curling a lip as he stepped over them in a certain house in Chelsea, a pointed comment made about taking care of one’s things, and a coarse laugh rasping at one ear. One large arm tucked around his shoulders, the smell of mint and salt.
“You seem relatively taken care of,” Peter had said, and he had scoffed and pushed aside the arm, pouting until they’d chased one another to bed.
But that doesn’t matter now, thinks Elias, and chastises himself. The tracks are fresher than he’d expected, and he’s not sure if that’s because time moves differently in this place, or if the mists are cognizant of the effect it has on him. The perfect indentations of the soles imply that Peter was here only a few moments ago, and if he had simply been faster --
No. He does not entertain that thought. Peter is -- was, he thinks, with a scowl -- a fool. This is a fact, one he has known for a very long time, and it changes nothing about the fact that Peter chose to leave of his own volition. Peter was the one who thought of himself as indestructible, infallible, surrounded by his own patron. Peter was the one to aggravate his Archivist, and Peter was the one who --
kept his secret until the end, dying with a name rattling in his throat, refusing to give Jon any more quarter than he could wrench from Peter’s bones, what remained of his heart
-- didn’t follow his instructions.
There are three sets of footprints leading to the crumpled black coat, but only one that walks alongside the largest of them. Elias doesn’t mean to, at least not at first, but there is something that he finds distasteful about trampling over the prints and he is not going to leave his mark in the Lonely having walked behind a dead man’s trail.
The wool is thick and rough, with a fleece lining, for the coldest mornings and the latest nights. Long fingers trace the letters P and L on the collar -- tall, for tucking a jaw into, for shutting out voices -- and he palms the pocket on the breast. It is empty. He supposes he shouldn’t have been surprised, even if he himself tucks a perfumed handkerchief into his own every morning, and Peter had always made fun of him for that.
He looks left, looks right, looks at the single trail of steps leading away from the scene and knows they belong to Jon. He knows he is long gone now, as is Martin, but there could always be others wandering around the sands and Elias cannot be perceived as weak; he has always been under scrutiny, and even the casual observance of a stranger could make its way back to his master. Thankfully, there are none, or at least none that he can see himself, and he allows himself to bring the collar to his nose.
Mint and salt. He can almost taste the sweat on his tongue, the labor in it, strong broad muscles flexing under pale skin. A spray of freckles just a shade darker, coating them in droplets.
There is nothing left beyond the coat, no bones to collect nor skin to wear, except there is some light that parts the mists to shine on the necklace in the sand. There is a whistle on it -- the metal ice-cold and painful to the touch -- but there is a ring, too. The man turns it over and over in his hands, placing the coat in his lap, and thinks about what he knows.
The thick band is sized for Peter’s left hand, and, of course, it is solid gold. It and its twin were bought when Elias still occupied the body of James Wright, back when becoming official was more important than the meaning of things; he remembers a quiet ceremony and the look in Peter’s eyes when he put it on, like a present he’d received unexpectedly and somewhat unpleasantly. Elias keeps his in a box in a locked corner of his desk, and he has always assumed that Peter discarded his, because the necklace and its jangling pendants are a new thing. There is a flash of anger that Peter would keep this from him, and then pity. He does not linger on either feeling.
These two things are all that are left of Peter Lukas.
Elias does not cry, of course. There is no need to cry, only to feel the burning behind his eyes, the familiar ache in his ribs as he plays back Peter’s final moments, his own heart beating like a war drum. This is not a new thing. This is not the first death he will allow himself to experience, nor will it be the last.
Until there is a shuffling from nearby, and a rough, familiar voice clears his throat.
There was a man, once, and there he is again, although the presence of the word “again” implies that he knows what the hell is going on.
He is tall and broad and dressed in thick clothing, which is good, because it is very cold in the place he has woken up. He thinks perhaps he’s fallen overboard, woken up on a strange, Arctic shore, and then he wonders why in the world he would think that at all.
The man’s mind is as blank and as pale as his hands, which he turns over and back to note anything remarkable about them, but there is none. Just soft, new skin, if a little worn down by age; it’s like stepping into leather that has been tempered for appearance rather than truly used. There are no mirrors in this place, not even in the water that laps at his ankles as he wanders the shore, and the only way he can tell that he’s even perceivable is in the flash of recognition that comes over the stranger’s face.
“Unhappy to see me, then?” His voice is a strange, rough thing, and it occurs to him that it’s the first thing he’s ever said. The man before him, in a sharp suit and with such piercing eyes, looks at him with a flat disdain.
“How novel,” says the stranger, his lips pursed, and the man sees that he’s holding a rather large bundle in his lap. It shifts over his shoulder as he rises, a flash of something in his hand before it moves to one of his pockets. “I’ve never heard of manifestations in the Lonely, but I suppose I wouldn’t put it past your patron to sway me one last time.”
There’s something brittle about his words, and the man tilts his head, his eyebrows knitting. “The Lonely? Is that what you call this place?”
There is a long, long moment where the stranger simply looks at him, his gaze probing and sharp, and the man feels a tingle of pain go down the back of his skull. It is nostalgic, somehow, but as far as he knows he’s never had a life beyond this sea, this shore.
“You’re serious,” says the stranger, finally, and the man notes that his mouth is quivering just the minutest amount. “Hah. Well. This is even more novel. You can go back to whoever created you and tell them that I’m not interested -- especially when you’re even more of a useless fool than you have been.” He pauses. “Had.” And then he turns away, walking smartly and rapidly down the shore.
“Now, hold on,” the man replies. He’s quick to follow, his steps falling in line beside the other’s, as though automatic. “You can’t just say something cryptic like that and then end the conversation. What do you mean, had ? Did something happen to me? Was I someone before this place?”
The stranger continues to walk, as though having never heard him, but there is a path he’s following. He seems to zig and zag around it, but the man notices that there is only so much variance he can affect before he returns to the original line of footsteps, big ones, that seem to fit his own boots the same way a peg fits a hole.
The stranger doesn’t look at him or speak to him as they finally reach a place where the mists seem to part, and, all at once, he finds himself stepping out into open air before clattering onto a shining wooden floor. It is disorienting enough to stun him for a few moments, blinking at the whorls of each panel as he groans and attempts to regain his bearings.
He hears the gun cock before he sees it, and looks up from tangled limbs to find the barrel pointed directly between his eyes, the stranger’s face kept carefully composed. He doesn’t know how he knows that, but there is something in the tensed jaw, the gentle thumbing of the hammer. It’s almost as if he’s stalling.
“I think that’s quite enough out of you,” says the stranger, and the man takes an even breath, watching the stranger’s eyes instead of the gun. “I don’t know what you are, or what you’re doing following me out of that place, but rest assured -- this is my domain, and you will leave it one way or another.”
The man’s gaze flicks around, trying to find something that will save him. There is a nameplate on the desk, a portrait on the wall behind them both. Bookcases upon bookcases. Elias Bouchard, Head of the Magnus Institute. There is something familiar about the name, but he can’t place it -- nor can he place the man in the portrait, who stares at him with that same furious determination, even sitting staid in his canvas.
“Elias,” says the man. It’s not so much a distraction technique as it is just feeling the shape of the name in his mouth, but he sees the resolve waver in the stranger’s eyes, that same flash of recognition passing over his features like cloud cover. He tries again: “Elias.”
It’s enough to get him sitting up, slowly, the gun following his every movement. The stranger -- Elias, he presumes -- is still hesitating, and there’s a tinge of desperation to his sneer, as if they would both be better off if the man played dead.
“I’m not here to hurt you, you know,” he mutters, his joints complaining as he rises from the ground. It’s probably less because of his age and more because of the blunt force trauma. “I just want to know what happened.”
“A likely story.”
“Why don’t we just talk? You can put down the gun and search me, if you like -- I’ve certainly got nothing to hide, because there’s nothing there.”
Elias does not put down the gun, but he does step back when the man steps toward him.
“Elias.” This is firm, more sure, clicking on the tongue. “You can trust me.”
Elias laughs, short and harsh. “Now I know you’re lying to me, you old bastard.”
The gun fires.