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"Will you walk into my parlor?" said the Spider to the Eye

Chapter Text

Elias would like to submit a formal complaint, thank you very much. But bullying doesn’t really cover it, he finds it unlikely that a sexual harassment claim is the right way to go. Also, he doubts very much that HR has time to deal with what apparently has very obviously become a body-snatching scenario.

He remembers being hit over the head, a very ungraceful way to go. He didn’t even have time to shriek. He thinks he’s been asleep for a very long time – it certainly feels that way.

And now he’s awake, and he very much wishes he wasn’t. He’s sitting at a mahogany desk, far too large and fancy to be practical, clad in a clothes that are so goddamn awful it makes him want to tear them off. There’s also the fact that he’s not the one controlling his limbs, but to be honest, he’s more preoccupied with the silk. Fucking silk.

Whoever made such an appalling fashion choice sighs, scratching his (their?) head. Elias decides on the spot that this person has a special place in hell for the amount of product they’re forced onto his hair. The world is still a blur and Elias suspects that even if he could wrestle control of his own head, the migraine wouldn’t be worth it.

Where the hell is he? What in the fresh fuck is going on?

The room is unfamiliar and dimly it, and even though he’s only been conscious of anything for about five minutes, he decides that it’s probably less because of an lighting issue and more because they person using his body is an overdramatic fuck. This is quickly confirmed when a knock comes from the door and it swings open, filling the room with bright light from the hallway outside.

“You asked for these files,” the woman who enters says, dumping a large pile onto the desk. Elias feels himself nod with a smile that even he can tell is creepy as hell.

“Thank you, Rosie. That is all.”

He feels his head look down without prompting (and isn’t that a whole lot to unpack), and out of the corner of his eyes Elias can see a large book, lying open on the first page. ‘Sleeping Beauty, and other assorted fairy tales,’ the title reads, next to a stamp that identifies it as belonging to a library, although he can’t read which from this position.

He takes a while to try and force his way into control of the situation, but quickly decides that it’s pretty pointless. The other guy isn’t budging. From the files that the woman, Rosie, delivered, he assumes that he’s still in the archives somewhere. Although why the office is so fancy and why the woman looked so apprehensive approaching him, Elias can’t explain.

“Hey, it’s okay,” he mentally mutters to himself. It’s not thinking, not really – he’s not sure that that’s even possible without a brain. “Maybe this guy is actually a pretty nice bloke?”

 

--

 

The guy is not, as it turns out, a nice bloke. Elias isn’t really all that surprised.

He watches with an incredibly ominous smile plastered on his face as someone who he thinks is named Martin flounders around after the new archivist.  Both of them seem nice, even if they’re a little bit awkward around each other. The sort of smile that he can feel himself wearing is enough to let Elias know that something is about to happen, especially in the way his eyes are tracing Martin as he wonders around. He tries to force his face into something neutral, but it’s a lot like slapping a brick wall. It does a whole lot of fuck all.

“Are you okay?” comes an unimpressed voice from the side. There’s a tall, bored looking man staring at them, with a deadpan that Elias reads as ‘I don’t actually care, please just move.’

“Ah, Tim,” Elias hears himself say. “Pleasant as ever. I was just leaving.”

Elias rather likes this Tim guy. Whoever is currently piloting his body clearly disagrees. But still, the smile stays clearly fixed in place as he wanders back to his office. He can hear mutters behind him, who he assumes is Tim complaining to someone else. Her voice is softer but she sounds just as irritated.

“He’s creepy,” he hears the girl hiss before his body is out of the room. If anything, it only seems to spur the body-jacker on.

“Okay, well, I feel like I’ve wandered into the middle of an evil-mastermind situation,” Elias remarks to nobody but himself. His hands are currently sorting through files that contain what look like graphic descriptions of a murder, stolen from Jon’s box of ‘files that urgently need to be looked at’, all of which are currently being shredded.

“The hell did Jon do to you?” He doesn’t get an answer.

 

--

 

As the days pass, Elias is gaining his bearings rather well, he thinks. He’s learned to recognise the three assistants - Martin, Tim, and Sasha - by voice, and he knows really far too much about Jon for his own good. Honestly, he’s pretty worried about the guy - of all the people that could have taken control of his body like a fucking jaeger, he just had to get the stalker. He’s already seen enough of Jon to last a lifetime.

There’s also the matter of the fucking eyes. They’re everywhere, and often Elias will just be sitting back, doing his best to relax in the limited headspace he’s managed to carve out, when he’s jolted into somebody else’s body, looking out of their eyes - a girl walking down the road, an old man complaining to his doctor, a homeless man following a strange looking woman. He’s extremely worried about it, but substantially less so when he realises that the guy he’s rooming with is going with him. That means it’s more of a creepy evil thing, and less of an oh-shit-am-I-a-ghost-what-the-hell-is-happening thing. Which is kind of a relief.

Eye-snatching notwithstanding, the whole situation feels kind of like having a shitty roommate. One that won’t let you use your limbs, or brain, so a pretty bad one as roommates go, but he likes the analogy. Everywhere he looks, he’s surrounded by things that aren’t his and an inability to complain about it. As least, he hopes that they’re not his – the second he gets control of his body again he’s going to burn this guy’s suits and he’s going to dance on their fucking ashes. Who the hell has seventeen different ties? They’re not even fun ones, four of them are burgundy. He’s never felt more ashamed to see his own reflection.

Only, that’s assuming he ever gains back control, which is looking exceedingly unlikely. Still, Elias is a positive guy, and even if it takes him seventy years, he’s going to kick this particular shitty roommate out, and he’s going to get so high he can’t even walk without becoming a major safety hazard to himself and everyone around him. God, he misses weed.

He doubts that this guy even knows what weed is. He feels more like a white wine kind of guy.

He spends most of his time ruthlessly making fun of the guy who’s dragging him around. It might be his body but like fuck is he going to let that frankly appalling facial hair go un-mocked. Who the hell has a moustache like that in- kay, so Elias still might not know the actual year anymore, but unless he’s been kicked back to the 1830s he refuses to call that hair anything but a mistake.

Frankly, Elias is kind of shocked that he isn’t freaking out more. He blames Gertrude for that, and his extensive knowledge of all the freaky shit that goes down when artifact storage gets involved. Freaky shit that his headmate clearly knows about, considering his position as Head of the goddamn Institute. If Elias had a chair he would have fallen out of it when he realised, chanting a steady stream of ‘what the fuck, what the fuck, what the fuck?’

Mentally, he compiles a list of what he knows. A) His body has been hijacked by a man with appalling taste, who also happens to be the most important guy in this building. Which unfortunately means that the guy is apparently neck deep in the secrets of the archive, which apparently also means that Elias has zero chance of forcing his way back into his body. B) Said man frequently abuses his freaky eye-stealing powers to stalk his archivist. There’s not much to say on the topic, other than a heartfelt apology to Jon. The guy really doesn’t deserve this shit. Which brings him to C) The guy also happens to be  evil as all fuck, as evidenced by all of the scheming slash destruction of helpful evidence. Once again, not much to say on that apart from ‘sorry, Jon’.

He pointedly doesn’t think about how much the archive has changed, or how he doesn’t recognise any of the staff. Obviously, he’ll have to put it all into words at some point, but Elias is happy to avoid that particular meltdown for now.

 

--

 

The assistants clearly don’t know about points B) or C), and he highly doubts that they’d give a shit about A). None of them know what they’re doing, and his headmate clearly delights in making their lives miserable over that fact. He seems to enjoy ordering them to fetch him very specific files, then watching as they search for hours to find the damn things, even though Elias knows that they won’t – his hands fed them through the shredder hours ago.

Not that they would ever be able to prove that. Regardless, Sasha is the most competent by far, and has the confidence to march into his office at the end of the day and tell him that they couldn’t find the files, meeting his eyes the whole time. Sometimes Tim does it instead, but never Martin. Elias can respect that decision.

It’s petty even by Elias’ standards, which is slightly worrying considering he’s happily lived his life as the pettiest bitch he knows. Judging by the suits and the dramatic lighting and the fake accent (and it is fake, as Elias is pretty sure he never used to sound like he’d swallowed an oxford fucking dictionary, thank you very much), he doesn’t seem like the type of person to settle for small torments. Paired with the satisfied smiles he keeps shooting Jon’s way, it’s pretty obvious that something is coming.

Something bad.

But what can Elias do about it? Nothing, so he’s not going to waste his energy figuring that shit out. Well, okay, no, he definitely will because he’s bored as all shit and he does actually like Martin, but he’s not going to be enthusiastic about it. Besides, it’s not like he can help what he finds out, he just sees whatever the guy piloting his meat suit sees.

Elias isn’t having a very fun week. It’s never really taken much to make him miserable, but he figures that this time he’s earned the right to be just a little bit mad, as a treat. Spending your days getting shoved around from body to body, orchestrating what Elias is pretty damn sure is a straight up apocalypse gets old quickly.

There’s really only one thing keeping him sane right now. Back when Gertrude was the archivist she’d always made a point to keep the place in total disarray, but she’d never let it get dusty. Apparently whatever cleaners she’d had under her employ are long gone, because the archives are still a mess but now they’re a dirty mess. And, if there’s one thing Elias has discovered about the jackass wearing him like a cheap pair of socks, it’s that the guy hates dirt.

Specifically, the guy hates spiders. They’re everywhere now, and he can’t move more than a foot without noticing another one, and another, and another. Apparently being all-seeing has its drawbacks, a point that Elias takes note of with vicious satisfaction.

Elias rather enjoys the spiders. His feet stamp at them and his hands throw them into walls, but they always seem to keep coming back, and when they stare at him from their positions perched on the bookshelves, he can’t help but feel noticed. Clearly they’re looking at the guy who enjoys squishing them with his cassette tapes, not him, but he’ll take what he can get.

Martin also likes the spiders, he notes. Martin is quickly becoming his favourite. After Sasha, obviously, who he’s caught multiple times flipping him off. God, he wishes he could move his body, just for a second. He wants to punch himself so badly it hurts.

Actually, speaking of Martin, Elias is actually fairly worried. The man hasn’t been in work for a while now, which definitely isn’t an issue (it’s not like he had the perfect track record there, either), but he hasn’t been outside, either. As far as Elias can tell, Martin hasn’t left his apartment in four days.

His headmate knows that, obviously, and chooses to keep it to himself. Hell, sometimes he even finds himself staring out of Martin’s eyes and whatever’s happening, it’s definitely not fun. The guy is obviously scared shitless of something, and Elias feels a strong pang of sympathy. They had the same job for a long time – he’s been there before. Still, he might know that Martin isn’t safe, but there’s nothing he can do about it. The matter is solidly out of his hands.

There’s something utterly horrifying in being able to feel your limbs but not being able to move them. The body-snatcher couldn’t even do him the service of severing the connection. Why the hell should he be punished whenever the guy stubs his toe on the office table?

Somewhere in the corridor outside of the office, he hears Tim’s muffled voice cutting through the silence. “Hey Sash, have you seen Martin recently? I think we’ve run out of tea.”

Elias feels his head shake, fingers absently playing with the edge of a folder marked ‘Case #0142302 – Statement of Jane Prentiss, regarding a wasps’ nest in her attic.’ The feeling of muted dread he feels when his eyes settle on it is something he doesn’t quite understand.

 

--

 

Martin’s return is abrupt and it throws the place into disarray, but the worst part clearly isn’t the fear of Prentiss herself: it’s the waiting. Elias himself doesn’t feel it, because why the hell would it throw him off? He literally cannot move. But he can feel the way that his hijacker seems to float around in glee and it sets him firmly on edge.

Seriously, who the hell gets so excited over the idea of one of their employees sleeping in an office cupboard? Elias really, really finds himself hating this guy.

The week passes slowly, painfully so, but something quickly becomes obvious: there’s something under the archives. He knows that with a certainty that almost shocks him when he thinks about it, although he’ll put that down to the body-snatcher more than anything.

Worms don’t have eyes, and that’s a fact that makes them both nervous. Elias might not be the brightest but he isn’t stupid, it’s not too hard to connect Martin’s terrified ramblings to the girl in the tunnels who shrieks and flails whenever his headmate decides he wants to invade her mind for a while.

It’s been weeks and he’s still no closer to identifying whoever’s piloting his body, but even without their name he’s come to know them pretty fucking well. You don’t shower with a guy without knowing some pretty intimate things about him – even if he has no idea you’re there, and even if it is still technically your body. The guy is happy. No, scratch that, he’s closer to ecstatic, and it makes Elias want to shove his head through a window.

He might not know the guys name but he knows he’s a fucking prick.

The assistants call him Elias. He supposes it makes sense, since he worked here as one of them for so long – surely, someone would have noticed if he’d suddenly changed his name – but it still makes him want to scream.

When it comes down to it, Elias thinks he’s a pretty simple person. All he really wants to do is lie down and get drunk off cheap vodka. By this point he’s convinced he’d happily set someone on fire no-questions-asked if it meant he’d be able to sit down and binge watch a season of The Bachelor.

He did not sign up for this bullshit.

But alas, the bullshit is an inevitability, and it’s not long before the infestation of worms grows so large that the walls can barely contain it, surrounding the archives in a mass of writhing, eyeless flesh. A couple of the archive spiders take it upon themselves to catch the stragglers and Elias loves them for it – at least they’re doing something.

It’s not too long before a scream cuts through the air and Elias’ body relaxes, settling in to watch the show. From his place in that chair he can see it all: the abrupt terror on Jon’s face, Martin’s scream, and Sasha, brave as ever, running off after Tim. The stillness of the archives, like the calm before the storm, has been broken, and suddenly the worms are everywhere. Well, almost everywhere: they refuse to even come near Elias’s office, creating a neat ring around the perimeter.

There’s something else here too. It has eyes but even his headmate can’t see through them. Not easily, anyway – it fills his mind with static and the scent of petrol whenever they try.

“The Stranger,” he hears himself sigh. “Well, I suppose if it were easy, it’d just be boring.”

Somewhere in the distance Jon grabs Tim and they run to wherever they think will bring safety, and Sasha sets off on her own mission with a ferocity that, he can’t lie, is impressive.

 It’s no surprise when she finally bursts in, eyes wide. “Elias! Did you change the fire suppression system like Jon asked?” She’s sucking in air in gasps, clearly winded, and her face is red.

His face doesn’t change one bit. “I did. I suppose this has something to do with Jane Prentiss, then?” He hears himself ask, like the prick didn’t already know. He’d half-heartedly changed the system the week before, after Jon had approached him about it. “Well, there’s a catch. It needs to be done manually, you see, since there isn’t actually a fire.”

Sasha looks ready to punch him, a sentiment that Elias has been echoing for weeks now, but she nods frantically anyway. “I have to go get Tim.” She looks torn.

His head shakes. “I’ll take care of the system. I know where the activation switch is, go and take care of the others.” He’s already on his feet by this point, and Sasha wastes no time before dashing out. His eyes linger on her as she goes, and if he’s learned anything, it’s that the level of apprehension that instils in him is probably for a good reason.

Getting to the manual switch isn’t exactly hard. The worms refuse to go near him and he doubts that Jane Prentiss willingly would, either. Elias would be content to just clock out and leave the jackass currently jaeger-ing him to deal with it, if it weren’t for the fact that he’d feel the pain of burrowing worms, too. And isn’t that just fucking marvellous.

His hands don’t pull the switch immediately. Instead he finds himself catapulted into Jon’s head, watching as the worms crawl into his skin. He doesn’t feel the pain, he never does when he looks out of somebody else’s eyes, but the sight alone is enough to make him nauseous. The body-snatcher clearly doesn’t agree, because he insists on staying there, radiating satisfaction as they push further and further in.

It’s only when Jon’s shrieks of pain become loud enough to deafen that he turns the fire suppression system on.

 

--

 

Elias gets the feeling that it’s not often that his body-snatcher gets caught off guard. He feels the look of shock pass on his face and the way he pulls back, staring in shock at Sasha when he sees her standing at the institute entrance, watching the ambulance.

Well, not at Sasha – more at the woman behind her.

“She saved my life!” Sasha gushes at him as he gets closer, either not noticing or, more likely, not caring about the strange cocktail of emotions written on his face. “I thought I was a goner, but she stopped that thing in the tunnels from skinning me alive, so she’s good in my book!”

The woman smiles, a delicate thing, and introduces herself as Annabelle Cane. “It’s good to meet you at last, Elias. I’ve heard a lot about you.” She laughs as his extended hand recoils from the spiders hanging off her own.

“I’m sure my reputation precedes me, although I can’t say I’ve heard of you,” his own voice replies.

Annabelle sighs disappointedly. “No, not you. I couldn’t care less about your reputation.” The larger spiders taking up residence in her bleached white hair scuttle around excitedly. “I’m talking to my Elias.”

She meets his eyes again, and this time Elias knows that her smile is meant for him and him alone. The body-snatcher’s confusion is obvious but she waves her hand dismissively, turning back to Sasha. “I have to go, but I’ll be back. I’d hate to say goodbye so soon, after all.” Elias feels his hand dart out to grab her by the shirt, but she’s quicker. She seizes his hand and pulls him in close, ignoring Sasha’s yelp. The amusement in her expression is paper thin and as he gets closer, he can clearly see the threat written on her face. “For your own good, don’t try that.”

“You have no business near my institute,” he warns darkly, but it does nothing to deter the spiders that scuttle from her body onto his.

“In fact, I think you’ll find that I do. What kind of person can’t keep their employees safe within his own halls? I mean really, you’d willingly leave The Stranger running around unchecked?” She scoffs, then lets him go and spins around, winking at Sasha who’s still clearly trying to process the woman threatening her boss. “Besides, you can’t go getting upset at me! I’m not the only spider roaming these halls, after all.” She waltzes out of the door without a second look. “Bye, Elias! I’ll see you soon!” She calls out behind her, and he knows that she’s talking to him.

The door slams and a heavy silence settles over the room.

“Do you… know her?” Sasha eventually asks, and receives a dark glare for her efforts.

“She isn’t allowed on institute grounds. If you see her again, kindly escort her out.” And that’s that.

 

--

 

 So maybe, Elias has something to admit to himself. It’s not like he’s ever been too deeply involved in the darker machinations of the archives, but he worked with Gertrude, for fucks’ sake. He knows all about the tricks that the fears will play.

Specifically, he knows about the Web. Once upon a time he’d caught Michael staring at the scar that runs down his chest, eyes alight with curiosity. That kid always asked too many questions for his own good. He hopes to god that he made it out okay. He knows that the kid almost definitely didn’t.

He shoves that thought from his mind. He’s done one hell of a job avoiding thinking about his friends so far, and he’s not about to ruin that now.

The Web first caught him when he was thirteen, staying the weekend at his grandfather’s house. He didn’t hate it, per say, but the place had always freaked him out. The halls were long and dark and filled with shadows, and the floorboards creaked with every step, but the worst part about the place by far was the shed. Elias still remembers the way his grandfather would stammer and make excuses whenever he had to go in there, shaken by a fear that he’d never understood. Well, he understood it well enough when he opened the door to see dozens of spiders the size of cats and several pieces of what looked like cloth on the floor, but that squished and wept with blood when he stood on them.

He doesn’t like to dwell too much on what happened after that, but his grandfather lit that shed alight the following day, and neither of them spoke of it again.

It found him again four years after that at a house party, with bedrooms filled with cobwebs and a very traumatic weekend-at-Bernie’s style discovery about the family that lived there that led to the deep scar running down his torso. But somehow, despite it all, he’s never hated spiders. No, he’ll go as far as to say that he’s unwillingly fond of the things, even if he probably shouldn’t be.

He made sure to never fall prey to the Web in any other way. No, Elias has always been careful to stay far, far away from any of those fucking fears, even from the Eye. He didn’t spend four years of his life wearing sunglasses without a reason. And sure, maybe they didn’t stop the Eye from invading anyway, but they sure made him feel a whole lot better about the whole being forced into doing his job thing, and he can’t deny that they made him feel cooler, even if Eric always laughed at him for it.

The one thing he can say with certainty is that he’s never met Annabelle Cane before. But he wouldn’t exactly be opposed to meeting her again. After all, what’s she going to do? Kill him? It’s not like he’d really consider that a travesty.

Chapter Text

Elias remembers a lot from before he was made into something best described as a goddamn flesh puppet, but without experiencing hunger or exhaustion, it’s surprisingly easy to forget the basics. Like sleep, and his distinct lack of it. From what he can tell, in the four weeks he’s been spectating the absolute prick that’s currently forcing perfectly shined dress shoes onto his poor feet, the guy hasn’t slept once. Not once. Which leaves Elias feeling unwittingly impressed  and more than a little bit nervous.

Actually, come to think of it, the body-snatcher doesn’t really do much of anything but sit in the dark and chuckle ominously to himself. And no, Elias really isn’t kidding – he actually does that. He has a lamp with a dimmer switch to add to the dramatic lighting and everything. What the fuck. No really, what the fuck?

Still, he can’t exactly judge. It’s not like he had any real hobbies either before he got evicted from his body. But there’s got to be a difference between being boring and being downright inhuman, right?

The apartment that he apparently lives in is, frankly, ridiculous. It’s a penthouse suite with two floors and a sweeping view of the city, carefully concealed with dark red curtains adorned with gold tassels. When he was walked in for the first time it felt a lot like being suplexed by the 1850s, every single inch of the very sizeable place decorated to look decidedly Victorian. His feet carry him approximately three steps before he decides that he hates the place with a passion usually reserved for Christmas carollers and people that enjoy eating marmite. Where’s the television? Where’s the fancy rich-person fridge? Fuck if Elias knows.

He can count at least three different hunting rifles and what looks suspiciously like a well-worn fucking sword, but nothing even resembling work computer, because of course not. That just wouldn’t be practical, would it?

It’s a mess of overwhelming patterns, and as beautiful as the furniture admittedly is individually, when put together Elias can’t help but compare it to something a toddler would come up with if left alone with a pair of scissors and a particularly old IKEA catalogue. Some people might call it distinguished. Those people would be wrong.

It pains him to remember the place, frankly, but the memories serve a purpose – in all the short spans of time he spent there, his hands had always been flicking through books or writing letters in disgustingly fancy calligraphy. He’d never sat still. He’d never slept.

Which is why when he’s sat on the sofa one day and his eyes start to blink drowsily, movements slowing, he’s so confused. The lights of the apartment are turned down low and it’s so quiet that he can almost hear his own slow, methodical heartbeat, and as far as Elias can tell, the guy is actually falling asleep.

Which immediately raises a whole host of panicked questions. If he sleeps, do I sleep? Or am I stuck staring at the back of my eyelids for the next few hours? Oh god, he hopes it isn’t the latter. He’s already so bored out of his mind, if he has to sit there with nothing to look at he might just go crazy.

He’s not entirely convinced he hasn’t already.

And then it happens. One second he’s staring into the blackness and mentally belting out the Heathers soundtrack, the next he’s staring into the blackness and actually belting out the Heathers soundtrack. Or, well, it’s more of a warble. He never claimed to be good at singing. The point is that he’s saying it.

“What the hell-“ His eyes widen. They actually widen. “Holy shit. Holy shit.” He jerks up his hand and waves it around frantically. It moves.

It moves.

He’s not ashamed to admit that he shrieks at that, flinching backwards and almost tumbling off the sofa. At some point the shrill sounds dissolves into hysterical laughter as he pats every part of himself, savouring the strange satisfaction he gets from slapping himself and feeling the tingle in response. He caused that! When the mania passes he’s on his feet, relying mostly on his upper body strength to clamber off the seat and onto shaking legs.

Shaking legs which promptly give out, sending him sprawling onto the floor and hitting his head with a sharp crack.

And the other guy wakes back up.

Elias could scream, and definitely tries when he realises that the eyes blinking blearily and hands rubbing his temple aren’t his. Well, he supposes they are, but he’s not the one controlling them.

“Oh no you fucking don’t!” He yells into his own head, unheard by the jackass mumbling something about being too clumsy. “For fucks’ sake!”

He tries, after that, to wrestle back control. It’s a fruitless effort that leaves him screeching into the void of his own thoughts for what feels like hours afterwards. “That is not playing fair! It’s just not!” To finally get an ounce of control back only to then have it stripped away is so cruel he could cry, except no, he couldn’t, because he doesn’t have any tear ducts. “Stupid weak legs…” he thinks bitterly.

The real issue, Elias suspects, is that after going so long without remembering what autonomy felt like, to have it returned and confiscated so quickly is something that’s almost numbing. Which is what he’ll pretend is the reason behind taking so long to figure out what really happened.

The invader fell asleep. Elias took control. Then he was an idiot with less agility than a sack of wet flour, the invader woke back up, and took the body back. So all Elias has to do is to wait for the guy to fall asleep again… right?

Considering that it took four weeks the first time around, he’s not feeling too optimistic.

 

--

 

Time passes quickly after that but he’s not really in the mood to pay much attention to anything. That is, for a while. Soon it becomes obvious that there’s a tension in the institute now, something paranoid that wasn’t there before, not even with Prentiss: it’s apprehension. It’s not long before he realises that it’s coming mostly from his body-snatcher. The guy is high-strung in such a way that it’s a surprise he’s even walking with a stick like that stick up his ass, and it’s not long before the source of his issues becomes obvious.

He sticks to the shadows, lurking and glaring and being generally pissy when Annabelle strides into the archive, a bright grin alight on her face. She notices Elias staring from the corner and nods at him, seemingly unbothered about the unease in the room. Sasha light up when she sees her, jumping up and bounding over.

“You came!” She yells, dragging Annabelle into a strong hug that is happily reciprocated. Tim, who was organising a box of statements in the corner, moves to investigate the commotion.

“You must be Sasha’s hero, huh? She’s been talking about you non-stop,” he says teasingly, yelping with mock hurt when Sasha elbows him. Tim moves to keep speaking but thinks better of it, cutting himself off and sending a glance Elias’ way. “Is it okay that you’re here? I heard there was a little bit of,” he grimaces, “tension.”

Annabelle shakes his concern off, turning to bat her eyes at the body-snatcher almost daringly. “Nah, he won’t kick me out. Will you, Elias?” She calls out the last part even though she must know he could hear the rest. He feels his fists clench, but his voice rings out as steady and as low as ever.

“Not today, Miss Cane. But I would advise that you watch your step, especially around artifact storage. I would hate for you to get hurt.”

Her glare is so sharp it hurts. She reminds him of the spiders that take up residence in the body-snatcher’s office, always coming back to needle at the man with expressions unreadable, yet distinctly mocking. And then all at once she smiles, and it’s bright enough to blind. “Well, I have better things to do then go in there, anyway,” she sighs, turning back to the two waiting assistants, the worry evident on their faces. She makes it a couple of steps before she stops, glancing back. “But Elias? A word of warning, if I may – an old friend of yours might be dropping by soon. So, just thought I’d give you a heads up.”

“An old friend? Is that a threat?” The body-snatcher hisses out coldly. She look she gives him is sympathetic.

“Once again – wrong Elias.”

And then she’s gone, and he’s never heard anything more ominous in his whole goddamn life.

Her words stick with him for what seems like hours after she vanishes into the institute. The imposter is still absent-mindedly tracking her, but he can’t bring himself to really concentrate. ‘An old friend? Do I even have any old friends left?’

Ouch. That thought hurts more than he thought it would.

 

--

 

After making it back inside the imposter promptly picks up a sturdy looking book, marches back to his office and starts violently bashing every spider he comes across. Elias wouldn’t say that it’s in a particularly cruel way, this time – it’s more of a clinical procedure than anything.

Obviously that doesn’t stop him from yelling obscenities at the asshole taking out his issues on a bunch of arachnids. He wishes that he’d just leave the damn things alone. It’s not like they did anything to him.

Eventually his body starts to settle down, graduating from relentless pacing to sitting at the desk, staring at an open file but not bothering to really read it. It feels like an eternity before there’s a soft knock on the door, which swings open to reveal a very stressed looking Jon who makes his way inside, looking slightly hesitant. There’s something in the way that the man’s moving that makes Elias sit up and take notice: his movements are too cautious, and there’s a tension in his limbs that he’s never really noticed before. Something happened.

“Excuse me, Elias?” Jon asks in a tone that is far too soft to be accidental, flinching almost imperceptibly when Elias’ eyes settle on him.

“Yes, Jon?” the body-snatcher asks, raising an eyebrow. When there’s a long pause and he doesn’t get a response, he sighs. “Jon, I’m not all-knowing. You have to tell me what’s on your mind.” Elias chokes.

“Nothing happened! I just… Well, you remember the tunnels, right?” Jon clearly is trying to find information without being obvious about it, and Elias loves the guy, but it’s definitely not working. “Well, we were with Annabelle, and-“ Elias’s whole body seems to flinch at the mention of her name, only reinforcing Elias’ affection for the woman. If the prick doesn’t like her, he sure as hell does. The enemy of the guy carrying around his body like a sack of potatoes is a friend, he supposes.

“What did she do?” The imposter presses, not exactly aggressive but suddenly on edge. Jon’s eyes widen, backtracking suddenly.

“No, no, she did nothing! It’s-“ Jon lowers his voice like he’s afraid of being heard. “It’s what she found. Elias, do you know what’s in the tunnels?”

Not really, no. But the body-snatcher clearly does, judging by the way he feels his body go rigid. “You went down there? Jon, I explicitly forbade you from going anywhere near them-“

“Do you know what’s in the tunnels, Elias.” It’s not a question, and Jon’s voice is frosty. Withdrawn. Elias feels his head shake, no.

“I’m afraid I don’t, Jon. Why? What did you find?” Elias isn’t the guilty party but even he feels the lie stick in his throat.

“Nothing. It’s nothing, don’t worry. There were, um, just a couple of statements that found their way down there somehow that I found and I wondered if maybe you were, uh, missing them.” Elias personally knows that Jon is a good man who deserves one hell of a pay raise for dealing with the shit he deals with. Elias also knows that he’s a lying liar that lies, and that he’s pretty damn terrible at it.

He’s certain that the body-snatcher knows it too, but he feels himself nod slowly. “I did not know that. Thank you Jon, please leave them on my desk when you can.” If he were anyone else maybe he would ask more questions as Jon turns on his heel and exits, but in the silence that the man leaves in his wake, the imposter does nothing but sigh.

And then there’s a familiar flash of white, and Elias finds himself catapulted into a mind that feels both incredibly wrong and incredibly right. He feels his mouth twist into a sardonic smile and the voice that comes out is not his, but it is one he recognises. “I never promised to not be a nuisance,” Annabelle hums, clearly noticing the two new minds settling inside of her own. Her stance is relaxed as she reclines against a dirt wall, inspecting the mess scattering the small alcove. There’s a sizeable pile of cassette tapes and paper crowded against a yellow door, and –

There’s a body, too. Somewhere behind Annabelle, Sasha mutters something softly, but it hardly matters. Gertrude’s corpse is propped up in the chair, mouth slightly agape, shirt stained red with old blood. She’s clearly been that way for a while.

Far off, Annabelle sighs. “It is strange, how she came to be down here. It really makes you wonder, doesn’t it?” And then Elias is back in his own body, or at least, in the body that resembles the one he used to call his own. His fists are clenched tight, nails digging into the palms deep enough to draw blood.

Elias echoes the sentiment. Gertrude is dead. Gertrude is dead. He can’t say they ever exactly got along but he never wanted her dead. He should be feeling a lot of things right now. He should, he knows that, but really all that’s left is… nothing.

It’s not that he’s not sad. Because he is, obviously – he knew her, they’d talked, she’d been his fucking boss – but she’d never been a warm woman, and he doubts that she would have shed a tear over him. Something selfish whispers, why should he cry over her, either?

But it’s more than that. Following the nothingness comes the creeping, twisting dread that he can’t feel in the pit of his stomach, because he doesn’t have a stomach, but he can picture its sensation perfectly. Gertrude was many things, but she’d never been his friend. Was she the one Annabelle had been talking about earlier? A cynical part of him doubts that.

Deep in the tunnels, Sasha is already working to drag the tapes out, passing them on to Martin who sorts through them wearily, nodding as Jon selects a few, seemingly at random. Elias knows by now that the things Jon does are never random – and judging by the muttering, the imposter does too.

“No no no, this is all too soon,” he’s hissing, eyes darting around like he’s expecting to be attacked at any moment. He’s up and moving around in an instant, storming down to the archives, but as soon as he gets close he’s waylaid by Tim who seems to be on the lookout.

“Sorry boss, you can’t go in there!” He says in a strangled tone, putting his body between the imposter and the door. “Jon’s in the middle of a pretty important recording and apparently he can’t be interrupted. He even has the others working with him! You should wait for a little bit.”

Elias feels an eyebrow raise. “I talked to him only a few minutes ago.”

Tim flounders, opening and closing his mouth a few times before deciding on a new strategy. “Yeah but this is super important and it’ll really damage morale if we have to sit through one of Jon’s lectures about following orders again. God, those lectures are boring.” Tim groans and grabs Elias by the hand, dragging him down the hall in the opposite direction. “But hey, good news boss! I finished cleaning up the last of the store rooms and you should really take a look at the work I did!”

Elias would love to give Tim credit but it’s pretty obvious, staring into the store room, that Tim has not cleaned it. Still, he can respect the way that Tim sticks to his guns, a wide grin on his face. “Isn’t it sparkling? I think this might be the best cleaning job I’ve done, like, ever!”

The body-snatcher doesn’t reply, just staring at Tim with a blank expression. He can pinpoint the exact moment when the imposter cuts his losses and declares the day a complete failure.

“I have a lot of work to do in my office. There really is no need to show me all of the various things you’ve cleaned.”

Tim slowly puts down the box of lightbulbs he’d been showing off, clearly still coated in a thick layer of dust. Elias thinks he might be a little bit in love. “Oh, well, if you’re sure. There’s a decent good bookcase down the hall I sorted alphabetically if you want to go check that out-“

“No, I think I’ll survive. Thank you, Tim.” To Elias’ everlasting joy, the body-snatcher actually does take a quick glance at the bookshelf as he speed-walks past it: it’s very clearly not organised in the slightest.

 

--

 

It comes as a surprise when Elias realises that there actually is nothing that the imposter can do. Or at least, if there is something, the asshole clearly isn’t doing it. In fact, the man actually seems to be getting more and more worked up by the hour, and in his motionless, helpless state, Elias is living for it.

He swears he never used to be this mean back when he had the body to himself. Maybe his mother was right: he’s never been very good at sharing.

The guy’s been wringing his hands for the past five hours, sitting at his desk hopping from mind to mind, eye-stealing anyone who might be of even the slightest use. By this point almost half of the institute staff have been targeted, and he’s getting pretty sick of staring at minesweeper games though somebody else’s eyes.  At first it just made Elias nauseous, but now he’s nauseous and bored as sin. Even after Anabelle’s frankly disturbing message and, you know, the whole dead Gertrude thing, it reaches a point where he can’t bring himself to be interested.

The imposter is clearly looking for a way to keep Jon away from the tapes. Whatever’s on them must be good because the guy’s practically possessed, frantic in his quest to defuse whatever bomb Annabelle dropped in his lap. Hell, he doesn’t even take the time to bash the spiders that have found their way back onto the desk. They’re practically swarming over his suit by this point, and even Elias is starting to get a little put off by them.

Soon, though, night falls are the institute empties. And, like all great supervillains before him, Elias picks up a heavy looking brick from artifact storage and starts smashing. Not all of the tapes get caught in the crossfire, mind – there are a few that he takes the time to inspect, tossing them to the side in a small pile.

By the end of the night all that remains are the scraps of plastic, their contents lost forever, and a deep, painful ache that Elias can feel right down to his core. It feels like he’s gone a couple of rounds against a crowbar and every inch of exposed flesh itches.

Something tells him that the body-snatcher probably wasn’t supposed to destroy those tapes. Elias isn’t stupid, he knows about the way that the institute connects itself to the Ceaseless Watcher. The way it connects itself to the person piloting his body.

He really must have been desperate.

There’s a cot in one of the offices, close to the back of the archives – the one that Martin was using until only recently. By the time his body reaches it his breath is laboured and coming in short pants. All it takes is a second before he sinks onto the makeshift bed, limbs going limp and the world fading to black.

Seconds later, his eyes slam back open, and Elias clenches his fist experimentally. His hand complies, and he begins to smile. Somewhere in the distance, a door slams.

 

Chapter Text

Oh yes.

Oooooh, yes. He’s so fucking ready it’s unbelievable.

The archives are incredibly lonely in the dead of night and his muscles still ache like somebody body slammed him down a flight of stairs, but he can move and it feels incredible.

There are so many things that he wants to do, so many places he wants to go, but Elias settles for stumbling out of the cot, careful to steady himself, and whooping at the top of his lungs. He’s so relieved he wants to scream, so he does. He hollers like he’s in university again, high as a kite and ready to make his existence somebody else’s problem. The sound echoes around the empty halls and he feels alive in a way that he hasn’t felt since he woke up.

His nails scratch at his arms and he uses the sensation to anchor himself, as a reminder that yes this is great, but I should probably concentrate. After all, who knows when he’ll get an opportunity like this again?

The building has changed a lot since Elias worked there but the basic layout remains the same, and he navigates the maze of bookshelves like it’s muscle memory. By all rights, the place should be incredibly creepy, with looming towers of files and dust coating every surface, a desolate place in the dead of night. But he just can’t bring himself to care as he weaves his way towards the archive entrance, a large grin fixed firmly in place.

Reaching the door is no big effort and he briefly stops to consider if he should clean up the mess of destroyed tapes left by the imposter. It’s a thought he quickly scoffs at. If that jackass wants to be an idiot about his diabolical plans, Elias couldn’t give less of a shit. Hell, it’s probably for the best if the assistants find it. Maybe then they’d stop being so blindly trusting in the guy.

He takes a while to do a short circuit of the room, trying to calm his racing heartbeat. “Okay, Elias, I know it’s hard but you have to be focused,” he whispers at himself, before quickly remembering that there’s no reason to whisper since there’s nobody here to judge him. Actually, being judged might actually be better – anything to cause trouble for the other guy. He snorts at that. Calling him the other guy makes him feel a lot like Bruce Banner.

Or maybe Jekyll. Or Hyde. Wait, which one was the good one? He never did read that book, even if he remembers it being mandatory for one of his university courses. Elias is fairly sure he watched the movie instead, even if he fell asleep halfway through it. He honestly has no idea how he managed to pass that class.

For a while he’s not sure what to do. He wanders around aimlessly for a while, luxuriating in the feeling of simply being able to. There’s not much to do but he completes a couple of laps of the place anyway, taking the time to scoop up and spiders he finds and letting them crawl up his sleeve. The sight of the small things making themselves at home on the uncomfortably clingy suit really warms his heart.

The suit doesn’t annoy him so much anymore. At least, it did, until he came across Sasha’s paper shredder and fed as much of his floral-patterned tie through it as would fit before the thing jammed. He looks across the room mournfully at the machine. “Sorry Sasha,” he sighs, hoping she won’t be too upset when she finds it. “We’ve all got to make sacrifices.”

The fact is, there are too many possibilities, and try as he might, Elias is finding it incredibly hard to organise his thoughts well enough to think up a game plan. After ruling out the more impractical options for another day (using the imposter’s email to send rude messages to all of his contacts, boiling the suit he’s wearing in coffee from the break-room, grabbing a box of blue hair-dye from the corner shop down the street, et cetera), he’s left with two options.

A) Using archive storage to find any of those creepy books that Eric always used to go on about, and look for any information on his current situation, or B) Try and get as much of that information that the body-snatcher is hoarding as possible to Jon and the other assistants, and hope that it’s relevant.

In the end he settles for plan A, but there’s a guilty feeling nagging at him even as he leaves the room in search of artifact storage, putting the spiders back on the shelves as he goes. Well, most of them – there might be two or three that he lets hang around. Sue him, he’s soft.

 He might not know much about what’s going on (because clearly there is going on, and all of the imposter’s overcomplicated apocalypse plans that he’s been forced to read are proof enough of that, let alone whatever Gertrude was doing.), but from the way that he’s spent the better part of two months stalking the archivist, he has to assume that the big-picture features Jon. Heavily.

But really. Why doesn’t the body-snatcher just steal the eyes of a government official somewhere, or a military officer, and steal a couple of nuclear codes or something? Why doesn’t he just use his abilities to gather information and blackmail his way to the top? Does the guy have something against politics or is he just thick?

To be fair, Elias doesn’t really care. He’s never seen the appeal of an apocalypse, anyway.

 

--

 

“Nope. No. Nada.” Plan A was a stupid plan and Elias is not having a good time. At first it was looking like a pretty good haul – whoever’s organising artifact storage has clearly done a far better job than in the archive – but even with a stack of twenty very promising looking books, the results are bleak.

If he has to read one more description of strange miscellaneous bodily fluids or being turned inside out or cats with too many teeth he’s going to scream so loud it wakes the dead, let alone the imposter.

He’s just about to cut his losses and transfer to the other plan when something in the corner catches his eye. It’s a small, brightly coloured book that looks almost comical sandwiched next to two very serious looking leather-bound tomes, but most importantly, he recognises it.

It’s the same goddamn book that he saw lying open in the imposter’s office the day he woke up. The spine reads ‘Sleeping Beauty, and other assorted fairy tales’, and there’s no denying it – he’s seen this book before.

Elias grabs it without thinking twice. Admittedly, he hasn’t been very careful around any of the books, even though he can practically hear Eric yelling at him for it. It’s just that at some point, he decided that the body-snatcher can deal with any of the side-effects – that is, if he even experiences them. Part of him doubts that the Ceaseless Watcher would allow that to happen in the first place.

The book, as it turns out, is illustrated. It’s horrifying. Elias stares down at the crudely drawn princesses, their gaping mouths a couple of shades too dark and their scribbled-on eyes far too small to be human, and tries hard not to slam the thing down on the ground and walk away. There’s nothing of note within its pages (although he’ll admit to only briefly glancing at the text), but that’s not exactly the shock of the year. He remembers extremely well that there is usually nothing useful in this type of book: not at face value. All he gets is a worryingly child-friendly rendition of Snow White, and an equally off-putting rendering of Beauty and the Beast, in which Belle certainly doesn’t last long before she gets her throat torn out. The next fifteen pages after that feature nothing but pictures of the Beast, parodying a flip-book as with each page he swallows yet another chunk of her flesh. It’s not exactly PG-13, to say the least.

Silently sending a prayer of thanks to the archival assistants before him that beat the knowledge of how to deal with stubborn Leitners into him with a wooden stick (again, read: Eric Delano), he trudges up to the front desk and logs on to the computer using the imposter’s password. The database entry isn’t too hard to find – it’s listed as a fairly new arrival, seized from a seemingly abandoned property only a few miles away. What is surprising, though, is that there’s a notepad file linked to the entry. He opens it quickly.

‘Book taken from an unnamed property. The house was defaced and had suffered from severe water damage – nothing left inside but dust and cobwebs. Previous owner dead – follow up next of kin? No marked hostile effects but it had an alarming effect on an unsuspecting co-worker. Something about bad dreams? After the steps on the back page were followed the effects subsided.  Transferred to artifact storage after inspection by Elias Bouchard, Head of the Magnus Institute.’

Elias raises an eyebrow. Steps? The back page looks just as old as the other but the ink used is clearly different. It’s a light pink colour, clearly designed to look childishly  handwritten but neat enough that it’s obvious they’re printed.

‘Is your fairytale not all it cracked up to be? Don’t worry – fairy godmother has you covered!’

The steps that follow are clearly not printed, and definitely not by the same author. They’re scrawled across the page in bright green ink, the writer clearly shaken.

Step 1. Effects of the book may vary. Read the relevant story for each effect from start to finish, WORD FOR WORD.

That last part is underlined with such ferocity that it genuinely concerns him.

Step 2: Print victim’s name in block capitals on the previous page, under the ‘This Book Belongs To:’ section.

He quickly flicks to the page and, sure enough, in faded letters across the top is scrawled ‘This Book Belongs To:’, followed by a long list of names. One of them seems to be scribbled in sharpie, looking fairly new – he assumes that this was the previously mentioned co-worker.

Step 3: Pray.

Well, that’s as delightfully enlightening as it is fucking ominous. Notes like these aren’t uncommon, exactly. They’re always previous victims writing down their panicked last words, survivors sending passing their knowledge on, or just some random person who enjoys writing notes in the margins of their books. Until their books kill them, apparently. In any case, he appreciates the advice, but it’s not like it’s necessary: Elias has absolutely no intention of following any of the steps. Maybe a couple of weeks ago he’d have jumped at the opportunity to go back to sleep, to not have to spend every single moment being carted around by an honest-to-god sociopath. But he can’t bring himself to even consider it, now.

No, he’s not following those steps. And there’s no chance in hell he’s going to risk leaving them lying around for someone else to follow if this all backfires on him and the imposter catches wind of him. He has no idea what the book did to him, but he’s not letting it get reversed so easily. Absently, he wonders why it would be such a bad thing, to go back to sleep, but a larger part of him rebels adamantly. He’s not ready to die, or to just sleep forever. Not yet. It’s pretty much the same thing, in the end, isn’t it?

 Eventually, he makes up his mind. He burns the book.

He burns that book and he burns it good, in a waste paper basket he dragged into the courtyard.  All it took was a carton of lighter fluid plucked from somebody’s desk, a match, and a whole lot of repressed anger, and the thing is gone. Elias isn’t going anywhere.

Actually…

Come to think of it, there are a lot of books around here. Most of them are harmless untouched, sure, but he’s not thinking about the ones in artifact storage anymore, he’s thinking bigger: doesn’t the imposter have a stash of Leiters in his office?

With a newfound excitement he’s up and running towards the office, filling the empty hallways with his thunderous footsteps. The books are at the back, and as he enters the room he makes sure to accidentally spill one of the half-open bottles of calligraphy ink onto the desk as he passes.

He’s halfway to the bookcase when he pauses, considering the computer in the corner. Temporarily abandoning the plan he wanders over to it and sits down, logging in with the imposter’s password once more.

“What’s the harm in just taking a look?” he mutters to nobody but himself, sliding into the high-backed chair and clicking around at random. He’ll admit he’s not exactly great with the thing (it’s not like he’s ever had the chance to use a computer as advanced as this before, and the body-snatcher usually avoids the thing like the plague) but it doesn’t take long for him to navigate the cursor to what he’s pretty sure is the mail icon.

He wasn’t sure what he was looking for at first, but the sight that greets him is glorious. Occasionally sandwiched between rather angry looking emails from the HR department are dozens, if not hundreds of emails from companies that look exceptionally fake, obviously scams of some kind, and the occasional newsletter from, again, incredibly shady looking sites.

If he had to guess, Elias would assume that someone had taken the time to sign the imposter’s email up to various mailing lists, including but not limited to Kink UK, the official IKEA newsletter, several online magazines, and something called MILFs Daily.

He’s pretty sure it was Tim. (It was definitely Tim.)

No wonder the body-snatcher doesn’t use his email account. Seeing that his work’s already done for him, Elias is about to cut his losses and log out when one of the subject lines catch his eye. ‘Buglife UK – Donate and support!’ He clicks on it and brings up the contents, and is immediately greeted by a very large, very detailed picture of a tarantula. The bright text to the side reads, ‘As a small charity, we rely on donations and partnerships to be able to keep supporting the UK’s insects! Donate today to support thousands of species like butterflies, beetles, and spiders!’

He looks at the spider. He looks down at his suit jacket. Spider. Jacket. Spider. Wallet.

He pulls out the wallet from his pocket, immediately rifling through it for a suitable looking bank card. In the end he finds five and he scoffs down at them derisively. Stupid excessive rich people. He pauses for a moment after typing in the card details, wondering whether he’s really petty enough to go through with it. He clicks enter.

Well, even if he’s stuck being pulled around like Pinocchio, at least he can rest easy knowing that somewhere, a spider sanctuary has a few thousand more pounds in their account.

He considers calling it a day but decides against it, instead doing a quick search and pulling up the donation page for a charity calling itself the Royal National Institute of Blind People. A couple more clicks, a different bank card, and another few thousand pounds later, he’s ready to move on.

Pulling himself away from the computer, he quickly switches it back off and turns back to the steep shelf at the back of the room, piled high with dark, leather-bound books. Almost all of them look identical save for the slight variation of colour in the strings binding them shut, and eventually he settles for picking a couple at random to check their contents. There are a number of educational books, more than a few written in languages Elias can’t even begin to identify, but there are three that bear the stamp identifying them as once belonging to Leitner’s library.

He doesn’t read any further than the stamp. He decides that he doesn’t really need to – just the knowledge of their power and the fact that they’re sitting in the imposter’s office is good enough for him, and he sets about carrying them back to the courtyard to watch them burn.

As he walks back down the hallway Elias can’t help but shudder, a prickling sensation at the back of his neck. After years of working at the institute he’s not exactly a stranger to the idea of being watched, but it feels different now. It feels a lot less all-knowing-fear-entity and a lot more actual-person-behind-me, and even though he knows he’s alone he can’t help but quicken his pace.

Ever since he begun wandering around there’s been a noise in the distance, and he’s finding it harder and harder to ignore. The institute is old and bound to make strange noises occasionally, but this isn’t that. This is far too manufactured, far too coincidental to just be another slightly ajar window or a broken roof panel.

Somewhere, for whatever reason, there’s a door that just won’t stop creaking. And no matter how far away he moves, or whatever corridor he moves down, it’s always the same exact pitch -  a low, subtle groan, followed by the soft clunk of the door falling back into place, again and again. Before it was quiet enough that he could write it off, but after the oppressive silence of the office, it’s practically deafening.

He shouldn’t be surprised – in an place dedicated to an ancient god of fear, there’s sound to be some strange noises in the middle of the night – and in all honesty, it’s not fear or anxiety that’s putting him on edge. His pace doesn’t quicken because he’s scared: it quickens because that noise is heart-wrenchingly familiar.

He doesn’t know where he’s heard it before, hell, he doesn’t even know for sure that he has, but something in that solitary creaking calls out to him in a way that is nothing short of suffocating.

So, he walks quicker, and does his best to put it out of his mind. Maybe not a smart move, but he’s watched enough horror movies to know that when a scary noise in the dead of night feels like it’s calling to you, sticking around might not be the best option. Elias knows when he’s beat and he knows he’d make one hell of an awful Final Girl, so he hugs the books closer to his chest and practically legs it back to the courtyard.

Which looks nothing like how he left it. Of course. Because when has anything ever just been easy?

It’s a mess, to put it plainly. The waste paper bucket he’d been using to burn the books is upturned, covering the ground in ash, and several of the windows overlooking the small space have been completely smashed. It looks almost like an animal attack, with deep chunks of the ground torn up, leaving only what look awfully like claw marks.

And there, sitting in the middle of the courtyard, seemingly untouched by the carnage, is a small, neat pile of files.

Elias blinks at them, suspicious. “Right, okay,” he clears his throat. “I’m assuming that these are mine, then?” His years working as an archival assistant have beaten his fight-or-flight response out of him with a pipe, and at this point his base reaction to something like this is, rightfully, exhaustion. “Great. Just… great.”

He dumps the books he’s carrying unceremoniously to the floor, not bothering to avoid stepping on them as he goes to collect the files. They’re tied together with a ribbon that hurts to look at, its material shifting between neon patches and swirls of colour that sets off a headache almost immediately. He places it carefully to the side, pulling free the small notecard that it held in place. It simply reads, ‘Elias’.

“So, definitely mine, then,” he sighs deeply. “Perfect.”

He’s perfectly ready to dismiss the whole thing as a joke by a very unfunny joke, either by a late-night worker or someone equally as bored,  but the title of the first file instantly makes him pause, blood running cold.

‘Michael Shelley (Archival Assistant).’

This was Michael’s file? He immediately tugs it closer, a small smile beginning to tug at his lips, now eager to see inside. God, he misses that kid. Upon flinging it open, any joy he might have felt from being able to catch up on the life of his friend is immediately cut short.

At the bottom of the page, printed in neat, unavoidable red letters, it reads ‘Status: Terminated. Cause of death: Improper interference with an unspecified Ritual’.

He looks down at it, blankly. “What the fuck?” he whispers, staring at the ink like it’ll evaporate off the page, like it’ll remove that one fucking word – terminated. He’s dead. Michael’s dead. What the fuck?

In all his time spent in this new institute, so far removed from the one he’d worked in, he’d never-- He’d assumed they’d moved on. He’d never considered that his friends might be dead. In pain, maybe, with debilitating injuries, maybe,  but dead?

But of course they didn’t move on. How could they? They were all tied to the place just like he’d been, there’s no way out--

Eric isn’t here, either. Nor is Emma. It’s not like they could have just left.

With almost bated breath he sneaks a look at the other files. The next reads ‘Eric Delano (Archival Assistant)’. He opens it with shaking hands and flinches back when he sees that same red ink at the bottom of the page, so neat and unobtrusive that it makes him want to throw up. ‘Status: Terminated. Cause of Death: Removal of skin.’

He throws the thing as far as he can, scrambling backwards. He knocks over Emma’s files as he does and he can’t bring himself to care, kicking it away frantically when it falls open so that he doesn’t have to read the red text he can see printed at the bottom.

Stumbling backwards towards the exit, he fully intends to run – he doesn’t care where he goes as long as it’s far, far away from those files, the only fucking eulogies he’ll ever get for the people who were his friends – but he stops thinking entirely when a familiar noise cuts the air. It’s that sharp creaking, except it’s far too loud, and it takes him crashing through the door into a hallway so fundamentally wrong that it makes him want to scream that he realises that the door was only loud because he was falling through it.

The unfamiliar door closes behind him with an achingly familiar click. The soft carpet beneath his knees as he hunches over is a electric neon shade of yellow and it lurches as he looks at it, the whole hallway shuddering and reforming until that same yellow carpet covers all four of the walls like he’s in a padded cell.

His breath comes in short pants and he’s ready to just cut his losses and lie there, suffocating on his own confusion, when a low, gentle crooning cuts through the panic. It’s undercut by gentle laughter that seems to spiral, vibrating in his bones and filling his head with static.

Every inch of his body feels incredibly heavy, limbs going limp, and Elias finds himself incapable of moving, even as the laughter slowly gets closer and closer, until he can feel warm breath on the top of his head. He can’t find the energy to just look up. Fingers, far too long and wickedly sharp, run themselves through his hair.

Even before the words come, Elias knows what is coming next. It’s been long, far too long, and everything is so wrong that he aches to even think about it, but even as the thing beside him starts to speak, he knows, because Elias—

“It really has been too long, hasn’t it, old friend?”

-- would know that laughter anywhere.

Chapter Text

To his credit, he doesn’t scream. Sure, you could make an argument that the decidedly unmanly shriek isn’t very dignified, but Elias doesn’t scream. That fact alone seems to be enough to please the creature literally bearing down upon him.

With every second he’s pushed just a little further into the thick carpet, staring up in wide-eyed shock at the creature that’s currently wrapping its long limbs around him like an octopus, a wide grin splitting its terrifyingly familiar face. He’s successful in gathering his bearings enough to choke out, “Michael?” like a prayer, the word still half-lodged in his throat.

It doesn’t make sense, not at all. That the thing curling its fingers in his hair could be the kid he knew, all of those years-that-felt-like-months ago. It still looks so young¸ and yet so deadly and precise that it makes the blood freeze in his veins.

Its laugh is chiming but vicious, with far-too-wide eyes peering down at him with a mix of curiosity and pity. They’re colourless, reflecting his own reflection back at him, and he looks young too: there’s no rumpled silk suit and no ungodly facial hair. He looks like he did before his world went to shit, staring him down from the lightless pools of swirling colour where the things eyes should be. Anatomy seems to have been an afterthought with this one, is the only thought to cut through the panic.

Elias has no way of knowing if he’s been lying there for five seconds or for five hours, caged by limbs with appendages far too long and sharp to be human, breath catching at the sight of teeth with points so fine he’d easily compare them to needles.

“Elias,” the thing shoots back, sounding faintly smug. And it’s Michael’s voice, sounding exactly like he did before, with the same small inflections and the identical crook of its eyebrow as it smiles down at him patiently. “Annabel was right,” it sighs, running a finger down his cheek, “you look like hell.”

He can feel the tracks of blood welling up from the slow drag of its nail down his face, but it’s barely noticeable under the adrenaline. A small laugh takes him by surprise, and almost as soon as it came, a small part of the overwhelming fear recedes, replaced by something confusing, but much warmer. “You don’t exactly look brilliant, yourself,” he chokes out his reply. The look he receives in response can only be described as thrilled.

And then, all at once, the pressure is gone, and the creature stands, towering over him, and Elias knows that even if he was standing, it would still be far larger than him. He moves to sit up straight, fighting through the nausea, and the creature waits without saying a word. Eventually, he manages to clamber to his feet, the room spinning like a particularly shoddy carnival ride.

“Michael?” he asks again, now slightly more prepared for a response. It’s less a matter of curiosity and more of one of disbelief: the thing looks like Michael, for sure, but in a manner so twisted and perverse that it makes Elias doubt whether or not the real Michael – the one he knew before – was ever any different to begin with. The thing sways as it peers down at him, assessing.

“Technically, yes. In practice…” it trails off. “I’m just as much Michael as I was before, I suppose. Or maybe not.” It offers him a nod. “But I remember you, Elias, certainly.”

“So you are… Michael? The intern?”

“I mean, I suppose you’re not wrong,” it sighs, a sound that echoes around the room like water down a plughole. “But I assure you, I am far more tha-“

Elias promptly cuts off whatever the creature – Michael! – was about to say by, after demonstrating about two seconds worth of critical thinking, throwing himself forward and grabbing the thing into a bear hug.

“Holy fucking shit!” he gasps out with all the desperation of a dam breaking, clinging to his old, definitely not-human friend with the small bit of strength that didn’t abandon him the second he stood up. “Oh my god, it’s so good to see you.” And, as if to cement his bad decision making, he decides, fuck it, in for a penny, in for a pound, and buries his face into Michael’s side, lamenting the fact that he’s the small one now, apparently.

So one of his best friends is now a monster. In the grand scheme of freaky shit, what does it matter? Frankly, he’s heard and seen much worse. All that matters to Elias right now is that he’s not alone, so if hugging a seven-foot-tall creature of condensed fear is what it takes to gain back some shred of normality, then fuck it – mama never raised a quitter.

The thing lets out a small series of (very freaky, even by Elias’ standards) noises, clearly unprepared by his assault.

“Oh god, you’re alive, this is a fucking miracle,” Elias practically squeaks, clinging without remorse. “I’ve missed everyone so much!” Perhaps not the wisest of moves, granted, but he isn’t particularly concerned – he really has missed his old friends like a limb, and after the files in the archive—

He squeezes a little bit tighter. He can’t think about that just yet.

Considering how up close and personal ‘Michael’ was before, the thing reacts like it had been punched, clearly not knowing how to deal with the sudden invasion of its own personal space. It pats him on the back, slowly, like it’s operating by trial-and-error alone. “I’m not sure you understand, I’m technically not the Michael you knew, but-“

“But you’re still him, though,” he mumbles into the thin fabric of a frankly horrendously patterned shirt, that despite its mess of hexagons and neon colours still manages to look better than any of the clothes in the imposter’s wardrobe.

“I mean, yes, but actually-“

“So you are Michael.”

“Again, no I am not! I am Michael, in the sense that-“

Elias thumps his head on the creature’s chest, groaning. “Fine, you’re not Michael in the slightest. Happy?” He still doesn’t release his arms from around the thing’s waist.

“No,” it grumbles, but it doesn’t sound particularly angry – instead, it hesitantly wraps its long, spindly arms around him and tentatively hugs back.

After a long pause, it mutters quietly, “I missed you too.”

“Am I going to regret asking what the hell happened?”

“Probably,” it shrugs.

After what feels like decades, Elias pulls back slightly, craning his neck to meet Michael’s eyes. The spinning sensation that threatens to knock him over when he does goes ignored, through a great deal of effort. He never claimed to make good decisions and this whole thing definitely goes in his dumbass moments hall of fame, but now that the giddiness of seeing Michael again has worn off, the apprehension is flooding back.

Michael clearly is not human. Elias might not be smart but he isn’t fucking blind – this is not Michael as he was. For starters, human-intern-Michael never would have let his hair get so out of control, and then there’s the matter of the elongated limbs, the shark-like teeth, and the corridor that definitely wasn’t here before.

But he’s Michael. And he’s here, and Elias has enough control over his body to hug him and talk to him, and it’s too much and not enough all at once. He wants to hug the other man (but is he a man anymore?) tighter than he’s ever hugged anyone in his life, but he can’t ignore the feelings of bad-wrong-panic-escape racing through the back of his mind, basic instincts telling him in no uncertain terms to get the fuck outta dodge.

He has so many questions, ones with answers that undoubtedly will make him wish he never asked. Questions like what are you, where are we, how did this happen, what the hell is going on, that will only serve to confuse him further. He decides to start simple, ignoring the fight-or-flight instincts that have him digging his perfectly manicured, purple painted nails (because of course he can’t escape the body-snatcher, even here) further into Michael’s back.

“So… What exactly are you?” he asks awkwardly, not really sure how to address it.

“I’m a lot things. I’m sure you could still refer to me as human, in a way. But humans get so caught up on small things, like labels and petty arguments, it’s almost painful to watch.”

“Labels? So like…” he trails off, not really sure how to breach the subject with someone so clearly past all of humanity’s bullshit, and not even particularly certain where this conversation is going.

“Gender is meaningless and it always has been, Elias. Yet another strangely human distinction.” Michael replies, sounding faintly amused. Yet, Elias can’t help but feel slightly reprimanded, so nods like he knows what that means and vows to keep things as gender neutral as possible.

“And… Okay, I’m assuming you’re not exactly…”

“Human? Not in the slightest.”

“Oh okay, that’s cool.” He pauses. “That’s cool, right?”

“Right.”

“Okay, great. Yeah, that’s cool. Awesome.”

Michael lets out something that’s less of a laugh and more of a full body purr, finally detaching themself from Elias and taking a step back. With a long arm they gesture to the corridor, and it’s long, winding pathways separating into a crossroads further ahead. “If anything, Elias, I am more of a place than a person. Although usually when my door swallows someone whole, they’re less excited to see me.”

Elias laughs nervously, wringing his hands. Now that he can’t latch on to Michael he’s feeling distinctly more awkward about this whole thing. But as awkward as he feels, he has to know-

“You said something earlier about Annabelle?”

“Ah,” Michaels answering smile is a lot less broad than their previous one. “She has a reputation for meddling, but she outdid herself this time, for sure. She’s taken a liking to you, Elias – I’d be jealous, if I didn’t know why.”

Well that’s not worrying in the slightest.

“She likes me? We’ve never even met!” He protests, but the creature only shakes their head.

“Even her best decisions have never really made sense; a quality I’ve always admired. But believe me when I say, she knows all about you.”

“In a non-creepy, mildly fascinated way…?” He asks hopefully. Michael raises an eyebrow, looking at Elias sceptically until he retracts the question. “Yeah, okay. Point taken.”

“Don’t worry about it too much,” Michael reassures him. “If she wants to hurt you, she’ll have to go through me.” That probably shouldn’t be as relieving as it is, but Elias feels himself calm down nevertheless. He still has zero idea what the hell is going on, but if the person with literal fucking knife hands says that’re going to take care of it, he’s inclined to believe them.

“Oh gee, my hero,” he says, feigning a half-hearted swoon, deciding fuck it, this is life now. Michael looks far too happy at that for their own good.

 

--

 

So, it’s decided fairly early on that they’re just not going to talk about it. Because Elias sure as shit isn’t going to be the one to ask what the hell happened to his friend, and Michael themself doesn’t appear very inclined to share.

He’s also not going to ask about Eric. Or Emma. He can’t afford to think about them yet, or about the red ink staining their files. His fists clench reflexively when he so much as thinks of their names, knowing that there’s no way they got as lucky as Michael apparently did.

Elias tries not to think too hard about the fact that he just classed ‘getting turned into the acolyte of an ancient fear god’ as lucky. Actually, he’s thinking of instating a policy wherein he doesn’t have to think at all.

Which is why, when Michael turns to him with an unreadable look on their face and asks what he wants to do, Elias doesn’t go the reasonable route and request research notes or hints on his own condition – his first port of call is Michael’s very sharp looking nails.

“Hey, did you ever watch that movie, Edward Scissorhands?” The look he receives in response is scathing.

They’re sat (or awkwardly perched, in Michael’s case) in the archives, having made their way out of the corridor when Elias’ need to vomit became too strong. Files lay strewn across the floor and Elias kicks at them from where he’s sat on Tim’s desk chair.

“For the sake of conversation, let’s say that, yes, I have watched that film. Why is it relevant?”

Elias makes a duh face, gesturing to their very long, very sharp fingers. “Edward was supposed to be a pretty good hairdresser, right?” he asks hopefully.

Michael stares at him for a heartbeat, then looks back down to their hands, and back again. “Huh.”

“Huh.” Elias echoes. “I’m game if you are?” he gestures to the frankly horrifying facial hair that he’s currently sporting. Michael is closer in a flash, leaning into his personal space to examine the beard faster than Elias could even blink, his only warning the pathetic squeak of the wheels of Sasha’s chair, claimed by Michael a few minutes before.

“I can’t say I’ve ever tried it,” they muse, eyes narrowing.

“Well, I’m thrilled to be your first,” Elias giggles like a fifteen-year-old, and suddenly, everything is exactly like it was before any of this started – just the two of them, doing stupid shit in the archives at night, without Gertrude’s supervision. He feels lighter than he has in months. “Just do it quick, okay? I’m not sure how much time I have left!”

Michael stills briefly at that, expression souring slightly. “Don’t worry too much about that.” And suddenly, he’s moving again, repositioning Elias’ head with long fingers like a hairdresser would. “I’ll find a way to defy Jonah, mark my words.”

Elias squeaks, both at their words and at the cold temperature of their nails against his cheek. “Jonah?”

“You know him,” Michael hums. “I suspect you’ve seen him naked enough times this month to become rather personal with him, actually.”

“Hey, it’s my body!” he protests on reflex, before processing their words. “Wait, that prick has a name? He’s a person?”

“What else would be he?”

“I don’t know! One of those fear-creatures that Gertrude was always talking about? Why the hell doesn’t he just use his own body?” Michael stiffens almost imperceptibly at Gertrude’s name, but quickly waves it off.

“I’m don’t quite know, although I know Annabelle does. Honestly, I don’t know much about him, I never really bothered to ask.”

“But didn’t you know that he was me?” Now he feels a little offended.

“When I became aware of the change, more than a year after it happened, I just assumed that you were dead, to be honest.” They shrug, making a ‘what-can-you-do?’ expression. “He was just another avatar like me, to be ignored. It wasn’t until the Spider got involved that my interest changed.”

Elias doesn’t really have a response so that, so he moves on and relaxes into the feeling of fingertips tracing his face. A little unnecessary, maybe, but he’s always been a clingy person, so he doesn’t really care if Michael wants to get up close and personal.

After the first proper pass of sharp nails over his cheek, the hair falls away effortlessly. Elias grins widely but is quickly scolded by Michael, who returns to their work. While the impromptu haircut takes place, Elias takes the opportunity to press his friend for more answers, taking care not to move his face too much.

“So, you know Annabelle pretty well, huh?”

Michael scoffs. “I know her about as well as any other avatar, but she has been around a lot more, recently. She’s clearly planning something.”

“Wait, so there are a lot of you guys?” He asks incredulously.

“More than I can reasonably count, considering new ones are created and killed each day. Most of us keep to ourselves, especially those that belong to the Lonely.”

“And this Jonah guy…” he trails off.

“He’s one of us, yes. One of the oldest, actually. The rest of us tend to avoid him, though.”

“Because he’s a dickhead?” Elias turns to smirk at Michael, who laughs.

“Because he’s a massive dickhead, yes. Now, straighten your head again.”

It doesn’t take long before the beard is demolished, reduced to nothing more than a small pile of hair on the floor and a few traumatic memories. Elias feels better than he has in months, although he’s willing to concede that that might just be because of his newfound (and probably short lived) autonomy. Michael herds him into the bathroom, careful not to catch their nails on his suit until reassured that, no, you’re more than welcome to ruin it.

He admires himself in the mirror for longer than perhaps necessary. It’s a small victory but considering all the damage to his body (Jonah eats vegetables. And the guy doesn’t even drink! What in the fresh hell is this? Elias is, frankly, disgusted), even looking slightly like he used to gives him an indescribable rush. Eventually, though, he concedes and pulls himself away.

“What’s the time, anyway?” he asks, still examining himself from the corner of his eye, rubbing a hand over the thin layer of stubble on his chin.

“Nearly dawn, unfortunately,” Michael replies. Elias nods, unable to shake the sinking feeling in his gut. “I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you what that means,” they sigh.

“The impos- Jonah, is probably going to wake up soon,” he says despondently, shoulders sagging. It’s not like he’s not been expecting it, but in the excitement of his first night of freedom, and, well, Michael, it had almost slipped his mind. “Isn’t there any way to delay it, just for a while?” he asks desperately.

They shake their head at him, expression pitying. “The Ceaseless Watcher will require him back eventually. There is nothing we can do about that. Not yet, anyway.”

Elias has questions, but Michael’s tone wards him off asking them. Sighing, he examines himself in the mirror once more, before turning away. “Hey, could you do me a favour, actually?”

“Within reason, of course I can,” they reply, curiously.

“Do you think you could talk to the assistants? Get them a message, somehow? ‘Cause I mean, back when we were in their position- ” and isn’t that just a wild thought “- we probably would have killed for information on what the hell was going on.  Besides,” he chuckles bitterly, “they’ve got to stop trusting this Jonah guy, or he’s going to get them all killed.”

Michael hums thoughtfully, before nodding. “I suppose I can. I won’t be able to get too involved, but I don’t see any reason why I couldn’t give them a push in the right direction.” Elias smiles at that, reaching over and standing on tiptoe to pat his friend on the shoulder.

“Thanks, Michael,” he murmurs. After a second of silence, he pulls away, replacing his small smile with the largest, most shit eating grin he can come up with. If he’s going to be living on borrowed time, he’s going to finish what he started. “Well, we’ve still got about an hour! How about you and me cause some real damage around here?”

“Oh, that’s curious. What did you have in mind?”

Striding out of the small bathroom, Elias strides out of the bathroom, then out of the archives altogether, marching through the Institute until he comes to the courtyard he’d hijacked earlier. In one smooth move he scoops up one of the fallen Leitners, holding it aloft, feeling rather like the monkey at the start of the Lion King. “A toast!” he proclaims, before dumping it into the waste basket at his feet and scooping up a match, lighting it. “To Eric Delano, and all the books he hated so dearly!”

And then the book is ablaze, the crackling of the pages filling the room like a shriek. Behind him, Michael oohs and claps dutifully. They move past him and hold aloft a couple of files that he assumes they must have swiped from one of the assistant’s desks.

“To Emma Harvey,” they proclaim, though perhaps not as dramatically as Elias did, “and her strange love of paperwork.” The files join the Leitner and the two of them stand there, watching the flames light up the night.

“They’re gone,” Elias says softly. It’s a statement, not a question – even he’s not naive enough to believe they could still be out there. The large hand curling around his comes as a surprise, but he only freezes for a second before leaning into the touch. “But you’re not.” Despite his best intentions it comes out almost accusatory.

“No, I’m not,” they agree. “But perhaps it would be better if I was.” Elias inhales at that, pulling them closer without turning his eyes away from the fire.

“Nah,” he drawls in a somewhat forced-casual tone. Michael snorts. And suddenly Elias does too, overcome by emotion now that the adrenaline of the day has worn off. They stand there, laughing together, watching paper turn to ashes as they attend what is possibly the only sorry funeral that Eric and Emma ever got.

There’s a pounding in the back of his head and he knows it can’t last long. Neither his control over his body or the companionship can last, but in the dark of the night, lit only by the flicker of red and gold, he can’t bring himself to care. The last thing he does before returning to the small bed in the storage closet is take off the silk jacket and cast it onto the small fire, smiling as the material burns. Beside him, Michael laughs too, and he lets himself drift away to the sound of a distant creaking, a thud, and a door closing.

Chapter Text

 

The loss of control is sharp enough to hurt, limbs locking up instantly as Elias is thrown into the backseat of his personal two-man shitshow. The pain isn’t just physical, although the whiplash is enough to make him mentally flinch. The idea of willingly giving up his autonomy is unthinkable, and the feeling of powerlessness that almost immediately washes over him makes him want to cry.

But he’s a big boy, and he pulls himself together the same way he always has: several nasty repression tactics, and a silent vow to get higher than the fucking international space station when this whole thing is over. If it’s ever over, a part of him thinks bitterly, but he quickly shakes it away. He’s going to be optimistic! After all, he’s got Michael now, and that’s all that matters. He believes in his friend, and their ability to stab any obstacle in their way. It’s all going to be fine.

The body-snatcher, Jonah, wakes up remarkably slower than he did the previous time, although that might just be down to the lack of a coffee table for Elias to crack his head on. But, as always, it doesn’t take long for things to start going wrong.

Or, in Elias’ case, going fucking excellently. After a couple of slow blinks and a stifled yawn that somehow still manages to sound pretentious, Jonah freezes. Elias can pinpoint the exact moment where the imposter starts to regret his decisions the night before, obviously remembering the very incriminating carnage left on the archive floor. Carnage that Elias had been no less than thrilled to contribute to, thank you very much.

He feels like cackling, and elects to graduate to a full-level evil laugh as Jonah quickly vacates the small storage room, power-walking towards the main room, because of course a man that stuck-up would never be caught dead sprinting.

About halfway there, Jonah stops dead in his tracks, eyebrows furrowing. With what Elias assumes to be an expression of utter disgust, the imposter examines his wrinkled appearance, hands toying with the space where his tie should be. Elias snickers as they backtrack to the previous room, his own hands pulling the thin duvet off the bed to search for, presumably, the rest of his outfit. Obviously, the search is in vain, and with every second he can feel the man wearing his skin getting more and more agitated.

“Where the hell-“ Jonah mumbles, now fully upturning the few small boxes littering the floor. After a few minutes, Elias finds himself sitting on his heels watching in glee as Jonah becomes almost frantic, somehow managing to curse profusely without actually swearing, rather reminding him of a children’s TV presenter stubbing their toe.

Eventually the body-snatcher cuts his losses. “I’ve got a spare one somewhere, anyway,” he hears himself mumble, and the expression on his face is one Elias would comfortably define as confused as all shit. The ‘I’ve got bigger things to worry about,’ is left unsaid, but Elias reads it loud and clear in the tension filling the small room. He’d guess the imposter isn’t too used to not knowing all the answers, judging by the firmly clenched firsts stiff at his sides.

Thanks to some miracle on the part of the architect of the Institute, reaching Elias’s (Jonah’s) office requires walking through the archives themselves. Suffice it to say, they never reach their destination.

The place is a mess. The floor is strewn with broken cassettes and scattered files, and that’s without Elias’ interference. Obviously, Jonah hadn’t realised the extent of the damage in his fury the night before, because his body stiffens so much that Elias is convinced that something’s going to break. There are no censored curses this time as boxes and rubble get displaced.

It’s incredibly amusing to see (or to feel, he supposes) someone as uptight and well-kempt as the imposter get down on their knees to start sifting pile after pile of ruined plastic and reems of tape. And there’s so much of the stuff, all of it unnecessarily hard to keep a grip on. But still, Jonah is single-minded in his task, and Elias can’t exactly fault that. Except he can, because Jonah is someone who deserves to be faulted and Elias can hold a grudge like nobodies business.

He isn’t sure how long the same pattern continues for, but eventually he can feel beads sweat start to roll down his back, and the light of the morning sun is unmistakable as it seeps in past the thick blinds. Jonah seems to realise this too, shifting from organising piles of waste to actually of disposing of them. That is, if disposing is actually code for ‘dumping them into the big basins of evidence in artifact storage’, which has Elias mentally shaking his head and pulling out his best ‘disapproving parent’ tutting.

Soon enough, the main room is clear of evidence of Jonah’s trigger-happy brick-based tape-icide, including the weapon itself being stashed in a small cupboard, out of reach. The small smile on his face clearly suggests that Jonah feels like it’s been a job well done.  

Elias feels a lot more validated when Sasha arrives for the day and Jonah, having foreseen her arrival, greets her, unaware of her wide-eyed stare of alarm as she examines her boss. Her boss, who Elias knows for sure is unaware of the problem – his usually perfectly coiffed hair is unkempt, courtesy of Michael’s affinity for awkward petting, and the back of his shirt is covered in the ink that Elias spilt on a whim the night before, not to even mention the deep slashes of long, sharp nails in scored deep into the fabric. And perhaps worst of all-

“Oh my fucking god!” Sasha exclaims, the words coming out after a small pause that Elias assumes she was using to rethink all of her career decisions. “What did you do to your face?” She chokes, clearly trying to stifle her panicked laughter through the sleeves of her jacket.

“His face?” Tim’s voice drifts from the room behind her, getting closer, and Elias has never been a religious man, but the expression on Tim’s face alone is enough to make him believe in some kind of god. As soon as Tim enters the room he freezes, staring blankly at Jonah with wide eyes, before quickly backing out, practically throwing himself back out of the door. His howl of laughter is just barely cut off as it firmly slams shut behind him.

Sasha, in an attempt to salvage any remaining professionalism, clears her throat, still obviously fighting back a snicker. “Uhm, Elias…” she begins, sounding uncertain, “I’m liking the change in style! But…” Unable to find the proper words, she vaguely gestures to his mangled, ink-stained clothing. “I mean, I can’t exactly say anything, but you’ve always been strict on me about the dress code, so…”

Elias can still hear Tim’s muffled hollering outside.

Jonah’s voice is icy as he replies, “What on earth are you talking about, Miss James?”

“Ah, never mind.” As if sensing the danger that comes with insulting the imposter’s fashion sense, she shakes her head quickly and takes a step back.

Jonah smiles politely. “I understand, the dress code can be strict, but that’s for a good reason. I’ve temporarily misplaced my tie and jacket, but I assure you that the code is still in full effect. Understand?” He sounds so smugly condescending that Elias wholeheartedly agrees with the strained expression that crosses her face.

“You lost your tie…?” Sasha asks uncertainly, eyes still glued to Jonah’s shirt, so torn up that it’s practically hanging off his body, and gradually making their way up to examine Jonah’s rough-shaven face. Elias adores Michael, but even with all the love in his heart, he can’t defend their hairdressing skills. Jonah looks like he went for a couple of rounds with a pair of hedge trimmers and lost, brutally. “Oh. Oh! Right, of course. I’m sure you’ll find it soon.” Jonah is clearly not in the mood for casual conversation, and Sasha takes the hint with a level of grace usually reserved for professional ballerinas.

Elias can feel himself level a critical glare at her, that’s quickly broken when she takes several quick steps backwards and practically sprints away.

Jonah must be a beautiful sight to see, Elias muses as the man shrugs, shooting Sasha a judgemental look, and retreats back to his office. They get about halfway before Martin intercepts with wide eyes.

“Ah, Elias!” he squeaks, and somewhere in the distance Elias is sure he can hear Tim choke. “I like the change! Very avant-garde?” Jonah gives the obviously terrified man a strange look, but nods in acknowledgement all the same.

The icing on the proverbial cake is Jon. Sweet, perfect Jon, who barely glances up from his work when Jonah strides past his office, and offers nothing but a confused look that is quickly replaced by a small shrug, the man quickly returning to his tapes like absolutely nothing is wrong. Within only thirty minutes is has become abundantly clear to Elias that none of the archival staff are willing to fight this battle (with the notable exception of Tim, who would absolutely say something but is too busy being physically restrained by Sasha making use of an ethernet cable to seize the opportunity), and Elias starts to wonder if there are any mirrors at all in this maze of a building.

Jonah takes a while to search his office for a replacement clothing, grumbling the whole time about the impropriety of it all and taking several frantic swipes at the ink covering his desk, courtesy of Elias. To his eternal joy, the thing is clearly unsalvageable. Eventually he procures a matching suit jacket and tie from somewhere, and the sight of his own hands putting the floral monstrosity on his body deals more psychic damage than he thought could even be possible. The imposter seems happy enough with himself though, stroking the fabric fondly.

Any contentedness is quickly obliterated when the body-snatcher opens his desk drawer to retrieve a pen, and is promptly mobbed by the spiders that Elias almost forgot he’d put in there the night before. “Shit!” Jonah curses violently, scrambling backwards, and wow, Elias is certain he only put maybe four or five in there, but he’s not exactly unhappy with the hundreds of tiny spiders scrambling over each other to pour out of the drawer. Elias cackles as the imposter swings at them frantically, doing his best to dislodge them as they fight to clamber up his arm.

He’s so busy trying to get the persistent little things off his clothing, Jonah almost misses the other presence in the room.

The imposter swings around suddenly to face the newcomer in his office, who’s leaning against the doorframe at its entrance with an awkwardly forced smile on his face. “Hey boss,” Tim greets, clearly not wating to be here. He’s clutching an ancient looking laptop in one arm, tapping hesitantly on the door with the other. Jonah straightens up immediately, trying to subtly brush the remaining spiders off his desk.

“Tim, a pleasant surprise. What can I do for you?”

“I, uh…” Tim scratches the back of his head uncomfortably. “Word got sent down from artifact storage a few minutes ago, something about vandalism? I’m not too sure.” More shuffling. “Anyway, they wanted someone to review the security footage, make sure everything’s okay, y’know?”

Tim’s clearly stalling.

“Anyway, I did it, and most of the footage is corrupt. Well, not corrupt, it runs just fine, but it’s pretty much unwatchable. Too much static, interference, whatever. I just, uh. Here.” He shoves the old, beaten up laptop he’d been holding into Jonah’s hands, not quite meeting his eyes.

The imposter takes it with furrowed eyebrows, clearly concerned. “Tim, are you quite alright-”

“I’m fine!” Tim squeaks, already halfway out of the door. “Well, this has been great, but I’ve got a lot of work to do, so-“ He gets about a step away before there’s a thud and a quiet hiss.

“Tim, you agreed that you’d do it! We did rock-paper-scissors and everything!” Whispers Sasha, clearly doing her best to hide in the corridor, out of view. Tim whimpers in response, although Elias supposes it might just be from how she just slugged him in the gut.

“Why don’t you? You found it!” Tim hisses back, apparently under the impression that he’s out of view too. Jonah clears his throat impatiently. “Oh, uh-“ Tim stutters, looking decidedly panicked. “Hey, boss, we found something of yours, and we figured you might like it back?”

“We?”

There’s another thud and Tim squeaks, glaring out into the hallway once again. He steps into the office once again, now rubbing his arm. “Me. I meant, I found it, it was definitely me.”

“Well? Get on with it!”

Tim coughs. “Happy Hanukkah, boss,” he mutters, before pulling out several long, torn up strips of fabric from his pocket and delicately arranging them on Jonah’s ink-stained, spider-covered desk. Which Tim clearly realises after he’s started arranging the fabric, but has elected to studiously ignore.

“Is that… my tie?”

“Possibly?” Tim replies, not sounding too sure himself. He returns to his pocket and pulls out even more scraps of fabric, dumping them with the rest. He does this several times, the imposter’s eyes widening with every new piece added. “Well, have a great day,” Tim claps his hand together once he’s finally done, offers a small but confident nod, and starts out of the room. The door shuts behind him, but immediately swings back open, with Tim sheepishly sticking his head back into the room. “Also, if it’s not too much trouble, could you find a place in the budget to buy Sasha a new paper shredder? Hers got kind of broken… Unrelated, obviously.”

“Obviously,” Jonah echoes in a whisper, staring at the now closed door for several seconds, clearly processing what the hell just happened. Eventually he slumps down into his office chair, staring intently at the pile of torn up fabric. Jonah pokes it tentatively, shoulders slumping.

And then they’re not in the office, but in the archives, staring out of Martin’s eyes with a jolt. The man is sitting at his desk chair, sipping nervously at his mug of tea while Sasha and Tim wrestle with the truly miserable looking remains of Sasha’s shredder.

“I’m just saying,” Tim is muttering defensively, “something is definitely going on.”

“No shit something is going on!” Sasha hisses back, casting nervous glances towards the archive entrance. “Pick your poison – shall we talk about how he looks like he got mauled by a bear, or about how he trashed the fucking room?”

“Well, hey now,” Martin cuts in, “we don’t know that it was him! A lot of the footage was unwatchable.”

“Oh, so we’re ignoring the parts that were actually watchable, then?” Tim asks with an exasperated look. “Because courtesy of our absolutely garbage CCTV system, I now have a perfectly cut gif of Elias taking a brick to what could very possibly be murder evidence! Not to mention all of the other freaky stuff he does!”

“Oh, can you send it to me?” Sasha asks excitedly, before remembering herself. “But there’s clearly more to it than that. He still looks un-mauled in the footage, remember? Something else had to have happened!”

“I’ll send it to the group chat,” Tim mumbles. “And yeah, probably. But it’s not like we’ll be able to find anything, everything after that until, like, three in the morning is static.” He quickly returns to fiddling with his phone, watching what Elias can only just make out to be a video recording of the footage.

“Wait, isn’t Annabelle in the group chat too? Isn’t it illegal to share CCTV footage outside of work or something…?” Martin asks nervously, holding his mug tighter. Sasha smiles and whacks his leg good-naturedly with the file she’s holding.

“It’s okay, if anything goes wrong, we’ll take the fall. Don’t be so worried! And hey,” she flashes him a broad smile,” if anything, all of the incriminating stuff will be hidden behind the static, probably! That’s how it works, working with the supernatural, or whatever this is.”

“Do you think he’s okay?” Martin asks worriedly.

“Elias? Ah, who cares?”

“Tim! He’s our boss, of course we care!” He admonishes, taking a few more worried glances around the room. “And you saw what he looked like earlier, it was like he didn’t even notice. He notices everything! I once wore trousers that were a size too small and he dragged me into his office to talk about how he expects us all to live up to his ‘incredibly considerate’ standards!”

“Oh god, don’t get me started about his dress code,” Sasha rubs her temples. “I don’t want to turn grey before I’m thirty, thanks very much.”

“He’d probably enjoy that, actually,” Tim snickers. “Knowing him, he’d think grey was a more dignified colour.” Sasha shoves him playfully, climbing to her feet.

“Either way, gentlemen,” she says, “there’s nothing we can do now except hope that he’s not lost his mind. But let’s be real, as long as the pay checks keep coming in, none of us have anywhere else we can go.”

“In this economy?” Tim snickers, still sprawled on the floor. “Oh fuck, don’t ever try to convince me to go back on the job market, it’s hell.”

Martin raises his mug in a mock toast. “To hopefully not losing our jobs!” Elias winces at that.

The other two join him, Sasha with her own mug and Tim simply miming the gesture. “Okay, but for real,” he sighs. “What are we going to tell artifact storage about the courtyard?”

 

--

 

Jonah sits in his office with his head in his hands, staring at the marred wood of his desk. Elias knows this because by extension, he is also sitting in his office with his head in his hands, staring at the cloying mixture of ink and spider blood. Once he’d finished spying on Martin, a move that Elias tutted furiously at just because he could, the imposter had actually taken the time to investigate whatever it was that had his archivists acting so strangely.

Elias would feel bad if he didn’t think the guy was a prick.

As a great man once sung (according to Tim, who would sing his favourite songs on repeat while cleaning out the cupboards at the back of the archive), ‘well, the years start coming and they don’t stop coming’. Except in this case, ‘years’ is code for ‘shit Elias thought would be funny the night before and it turns out that he was absolutely right’. Elias hopes he isn’t messing up the lyrics to a song he’s never heard before. Judging by the amount of gusto the other assistants would join Tim with, apparently the song is a popular one. They’d probably be mad if he massacred it.

Anyway, apparently once shit hit the fan it kept on hitting, and now Jonah is sitting in his office, staring blankly between the small handheld mirror he’d demanded from his assistant Rosie, and the old laptop he’d been given by Tim. Elias is convinced that the guy can’t choose between which is more of a pressing matter: the sight of his own (hideous, repulsive, abominable) facial hair removed, or the sight of Elias gleefully flipping off the security camera immediately after waking up.

Elias is pretty proud of both, actually.

If he had to wager a guess, he’d say that Jonah isn’t the kind of person to enjoy losing his perfectly maintained control. And as far as control-losing scenarios go, finding out that somebody just hijacked your body in the dead of night seems like it might rank pretty high. Judging by the furious clench of his fists and by the rate at which the imposter is flitting from person to person, stealing their eyes on a whim, he apparently agrees with that assessment.

“That fucking spiral,” he spits, tension practically locking him in place. The imposter didn’t go to the courtyard in person – hell, he hasn’t left his office for hours – but he made sure to analyse the whole situation from multiple points of view. Absently, Elias wonders whether using the institute’s employees as walking live-streams (a term he’s heard Sasha throw around a lot, in reference to a platform with a name he can’t remember – it was something like, spasm? Jerk?) is grounds for a harassment lawsuit. He’s almost certain that it is.

Jonah doesn’t seem surprised to see the file marked ‘Michael Shelley’ among those found in the remains of the fire. He simply shakes his head, teeth grinding together, and writes the word ‘DISTORTION’ along the top of the paper he’s using for his notes. He does, however, seem to be taken aback by the news of all the books burnt alongside it.

But by far the greatest blow (and Elias’s greatest achievement, by extension) is the news that the last item burnt by the fire was Jonah’s own suit jacket. He mentally mimes a chef’s kiss when the thing is brought out, charred and in pieces. The imposter reels back like he’s been shot, and personally, Elias is feeling slightly betrayed by that fact. “All of the effort I went to to burn those books, and that’s what the guy wants to focus on?” he mutters to himself, only somewhat bitter.

So now Jonah sits, like he has for the last two hours, lights turned out, sitting in the dark in the spare shirt that he practically tore up his office for, watching the security footage on repeat.

It plays. The static begins. He rewinds the video.

He heaves a long sigh, before clambering to his feet and stepping into the bright hallway. When they reach the archives the hushed chatter filling the room cuts off almost immediately, and he’s met with the stairs of Jonah’s four extremely guilty looking employees.

“Ah, Elias,” Jon eventually says into the awkward quiet that follows. “You’re looking… better?” It’s phrased as a question but the man clearly doesn’t expect an answer, looking distinctly like he wants the floor to swallow him whole.

“Yeah, you are!” Martin tacks on with a large, forced smile. The imposter clenches his teeth, struggling to keep his deadpan expression.

“Miss James,” he says, ignoring Martin in favour of looking at Sasha. “I was wondering if you’d do me a slight favour.”

“Uh, sure,” she startles, clearly not expecting that. “What do you need?”

“You have Miss Cane’s contact information, yes?”

“Yes- wait, no, not at all-“ Sasha coughs, catching herself. “Why would I have that? You told me not to talk to her so why would I-“

“Call her.” His tone leaves no room for argument. “Tell her that she’s to meet with me, tomorrow.”

“Oh, um…” None of the four look like they know how to respond to that, gaping quietly as the body-snatcher turns on his heel and walks away.

“Wait, what if she’s busy?” Tim calls after him.

“Tell her she won’t be.”

“Won’t be busy? What kind of response is that-“

Tim’s indignation is cut off as the door slams closed. Jonah is on the warpath, is seems, so Elias settles back and prepares himself for whatever the imposter’s got planned. As they stride down the institute’s winding corridors, a small spider nestled on Jonah’s replacement suit jacket makes itself known.

“Sorry about dragging Annabelle into this mess, I guess,” Elias glumly tells the tiny thing as Jonah crushes it between his thumb and his pointer finger. “It’s a cruel world, buddy.”