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Unlooked-for

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Nicole winces as the door closes behind her. A pulsing ache is already settling in behind her eyes; she breathes slowly, trying to relax against instinct so the tension doesn’t make it worse. It’s going to be ten minutes or more before the headache starts to ebb, but she can manage until then.

(The Distortion will never be Nicole’s favourite way to travel, but spending fifteen minutes catching her breath is much more efficient than spending three hours in transit.

It doesn’t look like she’s going to have that time today, though.)

“Right. Fifteen seconds. Who are you, and what are you after?”

The question prickles. Not enough to compel an answer, but enough to suggest maybe answering might be a good idea. Just the faintest brush of Beholding.

That’s probably Basira Hussain, then.

Holding her hands out from her sides, Nicole turns around slowly.

All three of the women behind her are watching her intently, though only one has that extra weight to it. It’s a bit of a surprise, actually, Nicole would have expected more obvious marks for Jon’s Assistants. But even Basira’s claim only shows in her eyes, too bright for the cloudy morning, and unwavering in their gaze. It’s barely stronger than the other woman’s - Melanie King’s - mark of the Slaughter, a ghost of red on her fingers and hip.

Nicole already knows Daisy Tonner, Hunt-sharpness and all. Though the Daisy of this world seems softer, somehow. Still balanced on the edge, ready to move or strike in an instant, but… it doesn’t feel like she’s looking for an excuse.

Nicole has used three of her seconds. She takes a deep breath.

“I’m from the Institute,” she says.

Basira’s only reaction is a faint frown. Well, it’s not like that could have been much of a surprise. The only people who use the Doors are Jon’s and the Distortion, and Nicole could hardly pass for the latter.

Melanie, on the other hand, snorts. “Didn’t take him long to find replacements.” Her tone is a strange mix of scathing, disgusted, and almost sympathetic. “Did they tell you you were signing your soul away, or was that a fun hiring bonus?”

“I’m not an Archival Assistant. I work for-” Oh this feels like a bad idea. “Elias.”

Melanie goes for a knife.

Nicole scrambles backwards, both instinct and the very conscious decision to get away from the angry Slaughter-marked whose fingers are bleeding brighter red as she watches, not lunging yet but she probably won’t wait long - 

Her shoulder hits something soft.

An Eye revolves in place and blinks at Nicole. Another one pops up overhead, staring at the Assistants. A handful more hover calmly, observing the scene from all angles.

Melanie is still ready to lunge, but her glare has transferred to the Eye nearest her, hovering half a meter above her head. She looks like she’s debating how hard she can throw a knife.

(Right. Jon won’t let them kill her. Or - these are his Assistants, Nicole doesn’t know how far he’ll go to actually stop them… but he doesn’t want her dead.)

Basira barely spares an irritated twitch for the Eyes. She isn’t visibly armed, but something in the way her hand flexed when Nicole mentioned Elias says she has something.

Okay. How many seconds left?

“Sorry for you, then.”

What?

Basira glances sideways, briefly, at the third member of their party. Who looks… oddly relaxed, despite the mark of the Hunt in her movements. Even with the Eye hovering over her shoulder.

Daisy shrugs. “He’s a shit boss.”

That’s right. They rarely saw each other - different kinds of assignments, Nicole was sent to look into things, not to kill people - but Daisy of her old world had been working directly for Elias. Probably in this one too.

“Better than my last one,” Nicole says honestly.

“Yeah? How low was that bar?”

Nicole gives her a small shrug in reply. “Jon won’t let him send me after things that might kill me without warning me first.”

"Jon won’t?” Basira says sharply.

That pulls Melanie’s attention back too, which is… non-ideal. “And I guess he gave you a warning about us.

“I told her about your knives.”

Nicole has barely located the tape recorder before Melanie is on it. An instant later there’s a harsh crunch as it impacts the brick wall, falling to the ground in a pile of cracked plastic and unspooled tape.

Nicole takes two more quick steps back.

Basira is still watching. “He also said honesty would be best,” Nicole tells her. Which… Nicole is having doubts about, but Basira at least is probably Beholding enough to pick up on half-truths. This might have been worse if she started out lying.

“Honesty is always best,” Jon comments, and there’s another tape recorder. “False or missing information leads to errors in judgement.”

“Like everything you’ve ever done, ” Melanie hisses.

“A lot of it, yes!”

“You haven’t answered the question,” Basira says coolly. She ignores the crunching from behind her, as Melanie grinds the recorder under the heel of her shoe. “What are you after?”

This probably won’t go over any better. “I have a message. A verbal message, from Elias.”

That breaks Basira’s controlled calm, expression finally twisting into a grimace of disgust. “And if we don’t give a shit what he has to say?”

“Then I go back, I suppose.” Nicole’s not looking forward to returning without even having tried, but it really doesn’t seem like the content of the message was the important part. Elias has other ways of delivering it, if he needs to.

“I can tell you, if you want,” Jon offers, proving her point.

“Fine,” Basira bites out. “You, not that. Get on with it.”

Finally. “I’m supposed to let you know that it’s great to be working at the Institute these days, and that you can come back, although your benefits might need to be renegotiated. I’m also supposed to ask if you have any… plans to kill Jon?”

(That last had seemed ridiculous, when she left. It’s less ridiculous now, as she tries to ignore Melanie succeeding in blinding one of the Eyes overhead.)

“And why the hell would we tell you? ” Melanie snaps, abandoning the rest of the Eyes for the moment.

That’s a really good question.

“We might be stuck with the evil Eye for now, but we’re not going to help it,” Basira says flatly. Then her expression softens, marginally. “If you’re not in the archives, maybe you can get out. You should try.”

“I’ll consider that,” is what comes out after a moment. “Thank you.”

Another Eye moves just close enough to get within range of Melanie’s knife, and she stabs it with a “Hah!” Basira is still watching, doesn’t seem satisfied with her answer - not an agreement, Basira must not know that the entire Institute is bound to the Eye, and even then Nicole doesn’t actually...

Daisy is watching her too. When she meets Nicole’s eyes, she makes a little flicking motion with her hand. Shoo, she mouths.

Basira’s eyes stay on her as she leaves.

There’s a tape recorder waiting when Nicole rounds the corner. “You should come home now,” Jon informs her. A door appears on the wall.

It hasn’t been quite long enough for the last headache to fade, but staying here seems like an extremely bad idea. “Thank you.”

-

The encounter leaves Nicole feeling unsettled, even after she reports back to Elias. (From his smirk, the whole thing went precisely as he intended it to - or at least close enough that he can pretend that’s the case.) She spends the rest of the day picking it over in the back of her head, trying to figure out why.

There are a thousand reasons to hate or fear the Eye, even for those marked by it. (Or especially.) And she might not know why Melanie hates Elias so fiercely, but from everything she does know about him, it’s probably an excellent reason. She shouldn’t have been surprised that they were hostile, to her, to the Institute, even to Jon.

It’s just...

Nicole knew the Beholding was evil. Had known that, the first time she followed Elias Bouchard to his office. That all she was really doing was choosing which fear she would feed, with death or service; that even if she tried to do minimal harm, it would only work for so long. That eventually she would be consumed, one way or another, and her "god" would drink in her fear with as much interest as anyone else's. She knew.

But this Beholding - Jon's Beholding -

(It was so bright.

The light undulated, strands and shards of it licking out like solar flares. It filled the room, sharp-edged and golden; shadows and sunspots forming the pupils of Eyes as they turned, watching the world. Watching her.

And in the middle of it all, a figure. Wreathed by light and Eyes, edges flickering, sun-flares lashing out only to be drawn back into the core, over and over again; and still he stood there, the centre of Beholding in the person of a small, scarred man. Smiling at her.

It was terrifying, and it was beautiful.)

- this is Beholding that cares.