Barely twenty-four hours after Jon and Basira have dragged themselves back bloodied and weary to the Institute, Elias returns.
Prison doesn’t appear to have hit him that badly. He’s all but preening, judiciously distributing little smiles and nods to the staff flocking to him, enough to seem generous with his attention but not so often as to come across like he’s giving them to everyone indiscriminately; making each and every one feel special. Shakes hands with a few of the senior staff. Poshly returns Rosie’s impertinent high-five. Chuckles derisively at the handful of comments about how oh, we know you designated him, but that Mister Lukas, really, we’re so glad to have you back, Mister Bouchard, what a dreadful misunderstanding, can’t even trust the justice system these days. Jon feels vaguely ill.
Despite Jon’s best efforts, Elias catches his gaze across the hall — Jon reflexively adjusts his sunglasses but he is sure that, despite the dark lenses, Elias knows that their eyes met. Elias stares directly at him and his lips stretch into a lazy smile. Feline; not quite Cheshire but got-the-cream for sure, playing-with-a-mouse possibly, and that’s definitely nausea tightening the pit of Jon’s stomach.
Elias tilts his head, pointedly, like a greeting, and Jon feels like a hen huffing and puffing but he turns away and retreats to his own lair.
A little pettily, he leaves the Closed sign on the door (notices that during his and Basira’s absence, someone has added bugger off! in a corner, next to the run while you can! Tim scribbled there a year ago). It’s barely mid-morning, but everyone’s in the hall for the big welcome party anyway. As always, the Archives are even hotter than upstairs for some godforsaken outdated-heating-system reason, but they are at least empty and silent. The rooms are not completely dark, there is just enough luminosity from the corridor to see by. Jon leaves the lights off and picks his way in the half-darkness to the corner they’ve repurposed into a tiny lounge area, to put a kettle on.
Basira unsurprisingly pops up just a few minutes later, right as it clicks off. She gives him a nod of acknowledgement and carefully sits down on the old beaten-up sofa Sasha (?) discovered under boxes of stationery almost two years ago, leaning on the armrest to avoid applying pressure to her back. After a moment, she mumbles in annoyance at nothing in particular: “God, I can’t even read.” Jon grunts in superficial sympathy and pours her a mug too.
There are a few minutes of silence and stillness as they wait for the tea to cool.
Right as Jon takes his first tentative gulp, Basira says into the semi-darkness: “I haven’t thanked you, right?”
Jon doesn’t look up from his mug. “I really don’t think you owe me that.”
“That’s not what I asked.”
Jon feels his lips quirk up, bitterly. “No, I don’t think you have.”
After a pause, Basira concludes: “Right,” and then nothing more. The minutes stretch on and she doesn’t say anything, and Jon says nothing, and they drink their tea in silence, like this is a full and complete interaction: Basira bringing it up and not saying it; Basira pointedly not saying it, but bringing it up.
What she offers instead, out of nowhere, a good five minutes later, is: “Sorry for shooting you.”
“No, I,” and Jon literally, physically, bites the tip of his tongue. “Well, it all worked out in the end. No apology required.”
“What were you about to say?”
For all that she insists on her not being police anymore, she really has gotten questioning these days.
He sighs. “You don’t need to apologise, because I don’t resent you for it, because it was pretty much in line with what I wanted you to do?”
Silence settles again.
“Right,” Basira repeats, and it’s only as she lowers her own dark shades back over her eyes that Jon realises she had been looking at him. “Well, lucky for both of us that I’m not that good a shot, huh?”
“You nailed me right through where I should have had a rib, while I was moving and you were being blinded by a literal equivalent to the sun, and you hit that thing square in the mouth.”
“‘Twas a big mouth.”
“I’ll take it, I guess,” she concedes primly. “Now shut up and drink.”
“I’ve been trying,” Jon grumbles.
He brings his mug to his lips as the trap door lifts and there’s a blinding flash; it takes him by surprise enough that he yelps, and so does Basira — twice. There’s a fumbling, “Oh crap, sorry!” and Daisy kills her heavy duty torch light.
“Sorry! Sorry, I forgot. Was looking for you guys.” A pause as she climbs out. “You okay?”
Jon stops rubbing at his eyelids to squint in Basira’s direction. She’s doing the same, having put down her own mug and sunglasses on the table beside the sofa. “Yeah, yeah. Just smashed my glasses into my face and spilt my tea.”
The silence is more awkward now, as they sulkily nurse their wounds. After a pause, Daisy tentatively offers: “Want another mug? Shirt?”
“No, it’s fine. I’m just going to nap, I think.”
“Oh, okay,” and she completely naturally plops herself down next to Basira and helps her painstakingly shift around to lie, face down, with her head in her lap. Daisy’s hand hovers over Basira’s headscarf like she wants to run her fingers into her hair.
Jon quietly retreats to his office.
He hasn’t even finished his bloody mug when Melanie opens his door. There’s a pair of large sunglasses perched on her nose, for some unfathomable, ineffable reason. By way of greeting, she raises two fingers in the air and announces, “Two questions.”
“I’ve got one too,” Jon mumbles.
“Not sure I’ll allow it.” She wiggles her index finger. “Does my knife ban still apply to Elias?”
“Yes, Melanie,” Jon sighs. “I’m still not convinced that he was lying about it killing us all, and furthermore we agreed not to murder him.” Not to mention the entire part where she is still recovering from being infected by ghosts channelling her anger into violence.
“Speak for you guys. In that case,” she wiggles the second finger, “d’you think he’ll carry on with the Institute paying for my therapy? I expect I’ll need a lot more of it.”
Jon blinks a few times. For some reason it’s hard to think while his vision is impaired. Hopefully it’s not some strange Eye-related phenomenon. “I… have no idea. Ask Martin, I suppose?”
She snorts, rather rudely, though they’re long past the point where he’ll bother trying to scold her for it. Actually, he doesn’t remember a time their professional relationship was at that point. He has never worked with her without both of them knowing that there was nothing normal about this job. Hierarchy and propriety have always been abstract concepts in their interactions.
“Yeah,” she says. “Right. Sure, I’ll find Martin and ask him that.”
That, too, twists and tugs on something tight in Jon’s gut and makes his eyes sting. He lowers his eyelids to let them rest some more, and sighs. “I am starting to consider your point, though,” he admits distractedly.
“About the stabbing?”
“About the therapy.”
He can see, cannot see, guesses, just knows that she shrugs at that.
“Do I get my question?” he asks into the dark.
“You can say it.”
“Why are you wearing sunglasses?”
She cackles, that awful, hyena-like sound, deriding and unkind and gleeful; it’s such a better sound to hear than Elias’s chuckling by miles. “Team Archive solidarity?”
“So just mocking our misery? Is that how you respect our brave sacrifice?”
“Taking what little amusement we get,” she bites back, with no acidity to her tone. He can hear the smile in her voice, too. “Speaking of, though. If you and Basira are up for it, Daisy suggested we all get some ice cream to drown our sorrow in and have a Friday night nerd-out with some horrible movies downstairs. You in?”
That gets him to open his eyes, blinking again. “Ice cream?”
“Well, I can’t have booze.”
He needs to take a moment, consider his emotion about the idea, but no amount of thinking about it seems to change anything. “Sounds dreadful. I would like that.”
She cackles again and Jon really wishes he could make himself hate it and ask her to stop doing that. The sound itself, it’s so disgraceful.
So on the evening of Elias’s return, Jon finds himself standing in the frozen foods aisle of a late-night convenience store, sunglasses on and still squinting in the fluorescent lights, trying to decide what flavours, from ‘Cookie Dough Chip’ to ‘Strawberry Cheesecake’, he is least loathe to put inside his body.
Between his lack of familiarity with shopping for ice cream, his discomfort with the blinding brightness, and the constant generalised feeling of hopelessness and fear that’s always looming over him in the background like white noise, it takes him a moment to realise something is specifically wrong, right now. His vision seems distorted: the metal of the freezer is bent, and the buckets and packets of ice cream strangely warped. No, it isn’t his vision: his outstretched hand is fine.
No, it isn’t.
His hand feels hot; too hot. Too hot for a hand that’s been rifling through a freezer for a few minutes, too hot for the English summer, too hot for a burn, too hot to not be on fire right now. His hand feels like it’s on fire again, a brazier, his hand is nothing but a flame now, and much more than this, hotter than fire can be, too hot to be real, too hot to possibly bear again and he’s going to scream, he’s never going to stop screaming, except it is not his hand.
The arm is pale, slim, and the third degree burn scar is different, much newer and stretching up bared skin to the elbow. Its twin is outstretched next to it, identical. Jon slowly pulls his hand out of the freezer and the arms stay there, and he steps out of the person he isn’t, and looks.
She is leaning over the freezer, both arms elbows-deep in the frozen packets that are warping around her flesh, melting into multicoloured sludge. She is whimpering quietly, and crying, and the tears that roll down her cheeks evaporate in the cold air above the freezer.
She tried to catch something, or to hold it, something that could not be touched without scorching.
There is no one else here, just Daisy throwing him a look over her sunglasses from the alcohol aisle. The metal of the freezer is a little deformed, but the food has been replaced, the woman has been gone for hours. Only hours — she was here just a few hours ago; she can’t be far. Perhaps the store clerk took her to a hospital, or sued her for the ruined food, or something, they may have her name.
“Jon, what’s up? Bamboozled by Häagen-Dazs?”
He rubs his tired eyes. “Do you think Basira likes ‘Peanut Butter Crunch’?”
“‘Dulce de Leche’,” Daisy states categorically.
Jon ends up grabbing a tub of each flavour at random, and follows her to the till.
He glances over his shoulder, just to check, as if there were anything else to expect, but the afterimage of the woman is still just standing, alone, in cold that can barely do anything to help the pain of wounds that will never stop burning. He is fairly sure he could follow her steps, find out what happened to her, her whole story.
Without looking away from their purchases, Daisy gives him a light shove in the shoulder and says, gruffly, “Come on, let’s get back before the ice cream melts.”
Jon closes his eyes, rubs at his eyelids again, and the woman’s gone.
They go home, and Melanie complains about the disrespect of Daisy bringing alcohol she cannot drink and Daisy doesn't care and Basira grabs the ‘Dulce de Leche’, and the ragtag remains of the archival staff minus one pile up on stacks of blankets and oddly fluffy pillows in the tunnels that officially shouldn’t exist underneath the Magnus Institute, to watch on Jon’s battered laptop —
“No one said anything about trashy horror.”
“I said ‘horrible’.”
“I assumed romcoms!”
“That would be horrifying,” Daisy notes, nonplussed.
“Stomach-turning,” Melanie agrees. “I’ve got other stuff too, though. You have to see the Ghostbusters reboot, Jon.”
Jon sighs and motions to Daisy for the alcohol; the light from the dimmed screen glints off her grin.
“One bottle,” Basira says.
They’re starting with Sharknado, so Jon is hoping they’ll manage to cajole her into indulgence.
Halfway through one of the instalments of the Twilight series (Jon wouldn’t be able to tell which one), Melanie elbows him in the flank, right above where the rib is missing. “See, we even got you vampires! This is fun, right?”
“I’m almost regretting not letting that Dark thing claw my eyes out,” Jon deadpans flatly.
Daisy elbows him on the other side. “Could arrange that.”
“Thank you, I think I’m good.”
“It’s really a botched job,” Basira pipes up from where her head is lying in Daisy’s lap. “Scars are definitely not your look. This is my final say.”
“Thank you, Basira.”
“Scars are hot in general,” Daisy proclaims calmly, giving Basira a spoonful of ice cream, “but I gotta agree: not flattering on you. I think. Not that I’m an expert.”
“Thank you, Daisy.”
“Okay, everyone shut up about Jon’s lack of hotness for a bit —” Melanie cuts in, (“Thank you, Melanie.”) “— Alice is coming in.”
“Is that the real reason why we’re watching Twilight?” Basira yawns.
“K. Stew is fine too these days,” Daisy argues. “Bit young in this one though.”
“Who?” Jon mutters on principle.
“Jon are you serious — Bella.”
“I’m sorry to confess, Melanie, I have not been following.”
“I can’t actually blame you.” Daisy shrugs and steals the new bottle from him. “The protagonist. Her,” and she points with her index finger while she takes a swig.
He squints. “She’s rather scowly?”
“Yes.” Daisy sits back in her nest of pillows with a little satisfied smile.
Jon powers through for a few minutes, but he can feel his own frown deepening. “I don’t get it,” he has to admit a few scenes later. “They both look rather, uh, dead?”
“Yeaaah, that part’s no good either,” Daisy readily concedes.
“No part of it is good. But at least Taylor Lautner made up for it when I was a wee little thing,” Melanie chimes in decisively.
“That’s your opinion and I will not discuss it.”
They cling bottles across Jon’s chest. Basira shuffles and cranes her neck just enough to squint at it. “That’s more than one bottle. Melanie, you can’t have booze.”
“I know, it’s tomato juice, let me suffer in peace.”
“I’m sure Daisy has finished one bottle already.”
“Shhh. Sleep. Rest. I’ll wake you up for Boondock Saints.”
“I cannot rest while Twilight crimes are being committed right in my presence.”
Daisy shoves another spoon of ice cream into her mouth. Basira swallows it painstakingly, then pipes up: “Wait, Melanie, you weren’t even that youn—”
“Oooh look it’s Carlisle. New appreciation for daddy vampire suddenly.”
“Yeah, how many times have you seen these anyw—”
“I can’t hear you over vampire dad!”
“The vampire dad looks all right, I suppose,” Jon ventures, and pretends to take offence as another loud and laughing argument explodes around him, the conclusion of which is, despite his protests, that they’ll watch a much gorier and trashier werewolf film next.
Basira must have dozed off at some point in the middle of Halloween (it’s June, for God’s sake!). At the end of Alien, Melanie collects a few pillows and blankets and wades through the corpses of empty bottles and ice cream tubs to go set up for sleep a few yards away; her back firmly to the wall, and not with them, but in-the-same-area-as-them. Small, or huge steps, depending on how you measure. She mumbles something about her sleep medication tasting horrible with tomato juice.
“Time for Jennifer’s Body,” Daisy declares with apparent deep satisfaction.
“Aren’t you tired?” Jon asks her, quietly (as though Basira hasn’t just slept through extended scenes of loud gore and screaming).
“Aren’t you?” Daisy immediately shoots back, without looking at him.
“Always. Not really. I wasn’t planning on sleeping.”
“Well, then I’m staying up too.”
“It’s fine, I’m used to it.”
“Mmm, the thing is,” and here she shifts, casually, in such a way that screams the carefully controlled nonchalance of it, resettles as though making herself more comfortable but Jon notices that this new position has freed her right arm, “I’m not going to leave you the only person awake in this room.”
Jon winces, glances aside at Melanie. “Usually I just go. She didn’t ask me to this time, though? I think that’s a good sign?”
Jon looks at Daisy, properly. She is still staring at the screen, faded colours playing on her face, and her eyebrows are just a little furrowed, the set of her jaw just a little tight.
Cautiously, he tells her: “I don’t know what this is about.”
Again with that calculated casual attitude and tone, she glances at him and says: “I hear you’ve been going around eating people.”
The long beat of blank silence that happens here is probably not doing wonders to Jon’s credit, but in his defence, the wording would have thrown off most people, especially in the context of a trashy horror movies night.
“Feeding from,” he corrects, a little offended. “Just… taking statements, I haven’t killed anyone.”
Daisy raises one eyebrow. Her left hand is cradling Basira’s head gently, absentmindedly scratching through her headscarf, but her right one is resting on the floor in a loose fist.
“Look,” he sighs, “it’s not what it sounds like.”
“Be very careful how you word this,” Daisy says airily.
Jon rolls his eyes. “I know, all right? It’s bad. I hurt people. I know, I didn’t do it without thinking about it.”
“So far, not improving your situation.”
“Yes,” Jon hurries, “I know, I did it because I needed the information —”
“Not really, from what I hear?”
“— … well, I could have.”
“And mostly, in order to be at full power on the Solstice, so I could stop what I thought to be the end of the world.”
“Mhmmm. So, the end justifies the means? Simple maths, makes it okay?” Her face is very still.
Jon sighs again. “No, it doesn’t. I don’t like it either, Daisy. But yes, I decided on the way that this, while… not ideal, was worth the price.”
“You’re not the one paying.”
He chortles, humourless. “No.”
There’s a beat, as he considers whether to opt for safety or sincerity.
“I needed to make sure Basira would get out alive, too,” he finally admits.
“Oh fuck off.”
“I was factoring in Basira as well. Against the peace of mind of people I don’t know for a few weeks.”
Daisy is silent for a little while again, still staring at the screen as a demonically possessed high schooler disembowels her date. Her fingers continue to rub back and forth against Basira’s head in perfect, hypnotic regularity.
“Remember,” she finally says, calmly, “how I wanted to kill you for doing that to me?”
Jon shifts a little, folding his legs up and gathering them in his arms, hugging them to his chest. “Yes.”
It’s a few minutes of teenage angst, sex and gore again before the penny drops and Daisy goes, “Hey.”
“It would have been…” Jon drags his hand through his hair, over his face, mumbles: “it would be a solution to a lot of current problems? One less monster, no more nightmares for anyone, and no more grand ritual of the Beholding for at least a while?”
“Yeah, and then what, you’d be leaving us to deal with the rest?”
“… I suppose.”
“Fucking thanks, mate.” She sighs and slumps into her pile of pillows, like a balloon deflating. Her right hand comes up rub at her own face. In her lap, Basira shifts a little, possibly in reaction to the screams coming from the laptop, though she doesn’t appear to wake. “And then they weren’t even trying to destroy the world. And you came back alive.”
“And I came back alive,” Jon acquiesces, tiredly. “Homicidal cultists, anti-sun, Dark beast, and I still came back alive. Even Basira — is more stubborn than I expected. Or less.”
Jon props his chin on his knees and waits in silence for her verdict, distractedly taking in the pictures of egregious violence cheerfully going on on the screen. After a few minutes, Daisy’s hand reaches out for him and gives him a hard noogie and appears to be done with this, at least for now, so Jon relaxes. The movie isn’t his cup of tea, but sort of enjoyable, and he can see why Daisy likes it.
At the end, Daisy stretches, lazily, states, “Well, I do want to sleep a little, so for now I’ll settle for you getting out of here. Actually, you locked the Archives up there, right?”
“Gimme your key.”
“Daisy, I’m not going to go —”
“Give me your key, Jon.”
He gives her his key. She pats his hand like petting an obedient puppy before pocketing it.
“Wouldn’t want you to go terrorise some poor little student just doing their normal spooky research.”
He snorts. “Is there such a thing as regular supernatural research?” After a moment, he can’t help but add: “Elias has a spare.”
“I’ll get to you if you scream,” she promises casually. It’s genuinely reassuring, which in itself probably ought to be worrying. “Right. I’ll talk this out with Basira tomorrow and we’ll get you started. Think I’ll put a tracker system on your phone,” she adds, while rearranging pillows. “Probably lock you in your office when I need to sleep.”
Jon isn’t about to question what is a rather light sentence, but he’s still a little baffled. “May I ask what I’m starting?”
“Cutting you off. It’s been, what, a couple weeks since that guy on the boat?”
“Floyd Matharu. A little over.”
“It’s really not a big deal, Daisy. I can handle it on my own, thank you.”
“Mmm, nope.” She doesn’t even look up at him, continuing to set herself up for sleep (blanket up to her waist but no weight on her chest, lots of pillows but propped up rather than buried in them), and makes a shooing gesture. “No, it really is, believe me. Off with you for now.”
So off he goes.
There’s a yellow door further down in the tunnels, so Jon turns his back to that path and goes back up the ladder to the Archives instead.
It must be late into the morning already, but the large windowless rooms are just as dark as they left them, quiet and deserted. Jon navigates his way through the familiar shelves, steps over the boxes and piles of clothes (they’re due for a laundry trip sometime soon), towards the safe room. He still isn’t interested in sleeping, especially not after this conversation, but there isn’t much else to do; a few hours ago, he could perhaps have managed to decipher a statement with the right level of low lighting, but his eyes are much too tired now and his brain completely dumbed-out by the hours and hours of mindless violence and/or absurd teenage angst. So he drags out the old cot again, the one that was already there before any of them and which the girls didn’t bother bringing down into the tunnels because it squeaks so badly, and lies down on it, staring at the ceiling.
It feels… different. And not just in the sense that he never had a trashy movies night with Sasha, Tim and Martin.
(He’s too tired for those thoughts right now.)
More accurately, it feels almost like it used to, back when he would only sleep here because he had overfocused on work and stayed too late to feel like catching the tube home and the Institute felt safe, too, although for different reasons; out of ignorance, rather than knowledge of what’s outside. It feels right. The Archives are empty besides him, but the Institute isn’t. It has its beating heart again. Peter Lukas is gone, and Elias is back — his presence permeating the walls, pumping blood back into the corridor veins, the ripples of his return slowly spreading and waking the Institute from its own long sleep.
The Magnus Institute isn’t a cold and empty grave; it is a thrumming, living thing, with so many little hands and fingers, so many little brains and eyes, going about their day. On a Saturday morning there’s only a handful librarians and outside research students and that’s still so many, so much curiosity, except for Rosie bored at her desk playing Minesweeper, and Jon can feel it, now, something he hadn’t realised he used to be able to feel, and had lost, in the months since he woke up. A restless energy, the thrill of ken and discovery, and the desire to dig deeper, unearth all the gory details, find out the bloody secrets that were desperately concealed and soak up the dangerous knowledge that should have stayed forgotten.
It’s right. Jon’s brain hates it, and something primal in him can still feel that it’s terrifying, but his blood can feel that it is right.
He covers his eyes with his forearm; it doesn’t truly help, but the shield quality of the gesture is comforting.
It’s been a while since he slept in here. He lost the habit somewhat when Martin moved in for a few months — Christ, two years ago, already, only two years ago.
Did Martin feel this, too, as he lay here trying to convince himself that he couldn’t hear crawling in the walls or knocking on the door? Has he ever been aware of the Institute breathing around him? He’s been working here for so much longer; even at the time of the Prentiss siege, he had more years under his belt than Jon does now. Jon rakes his brain, cannot remember if Martin ever mentioned feeling watched, only caught and trapped.
He exhales loudly as he feels the exact moment something in the Institute — something specific — looks back, a particular pair of eyes turn to him.
“Go away,” he whispers.
But he knows he’s going to fall asleep, and he knows he’s going to dream.
He has the dark dream again.