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Seen, Unseen, Unsung

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“Is it running?” Scuffling, the sound of something being knocked over. “Shit. All right, all right, it’s running.” A throat clears. “Recording, uh, number one, of Timothy Stoker’s investigation into Jonathan Sims, Head Archivist of the Magnus Institute. The date is—hold on, let me just—“ A pause; more scuffling. “The date is March 9, 2018. Fuck, it’s cold in here.”

 

A small snort. “I did say to bring a jacket, Timothy. You sound so serious—are you sure you’re not the Head Archivist?”

 

Tim glares at where he thinks the voice came from. It’s pitch black in the tunnels, and his torch had died immediately when he’d descended the stone stairs, so he’d had to settle for fumbling his way forward, one hand on the cool stone next to him. “Ha ha. You’re the comedian of the year.” But after a moment, the glare softens into a smile, and he continues to press forward, despite the cold settling in his bones. “Anyway, before I was so rudely interrupted, I was about to lay some groundwork for my investigation.” Another snort, which he steadfastly ignores. “I’m in the tunnels under the Magnus Institute. Do not ask me how I found them—if I told you, I’d have to kill you.” He chuckles to himself. “I spent a lot of time wandering around down here before I figured out how to get to the Archives—those are in the basement of the Institute, and they’re quite dusty. Thank god nobody was there when I popped in the first time.”

 

“Yeah, not one for planning, are you?”

 

“I plan, thank you very much. I have a plan right now.” He holds the tape recorder a bit closer to his mouth. He’d wanted to take his phone—would have been much easier and probably would have solved the torch issue—but he’d done a test recording on it, just to make sure it worked, and the audio had been all distorted, like he’d fried the circuits or something. He’d been relieved to find that it still worked, after all that, and even more relieved to find an old tape recorder tucked into a box in his closet.

 

“So again—my investigation into one Jonathan Sims. I’m sure you’re probably wondering why I’m wasting my time on some stuffy librarian when there’s a literal labyrinth down here.”

 

I’m certainly wondering.”

 

Tim ignores them. “Well, it’s a funny story. Or- or maybe not funny, I suppose, but you know. Funny like peculiar.” There’s a churning in his stomach, but he pushes it aside. “I, uh. I have these dreams? Every night, almost, since- well, for a while. I don’t know where the hell I am in them—some sort of theater, maybe? But it’s underground, and everything’s stone. And- and my brother’s there, and he—“

 

“Hey,” Sasha says, softly, placing a hand on Tim’s shoulder. “It’s okay. They’re just dreams. You saw Danny a few days ago.”

 

Tim forces himself to nod. They’ve stopped, at some point, and he’s leaning against the wall of the tunnel, which is now made of coarse brick. His heart is thrumming in his chest, and he forces his breathing to settle. “Yeah. Yeah, sorry.” He gives a smile in what he thinks is Sasha’s direction—it’s so dark, and his eyes have only adjusted enough to make out the faint outline of the walls. He starts walking again; they’re almost there. “It’s a right horrible nightmare, I guess is the point. And after- up on the stage, next to Danny, is Jonathan Sims. It took me forever to figure out who he was, once I’d had the same dream enough times to start to wonder where I’d seen this face before. Because dreams- your brain just takes faces you’ve seen before, even if only briefly, it can’t actually create new faces. And this must have been a damn memorable one, because I see it every single night, and unlike everything else in the dream, which is always the same, he’s- he’s different, lately. I mean, it’s a little hard to tell, what with the—“ He shudders, the image flashing through his mind unwanted. “The eyes, and stuff. But recently, he’s started to look more- more, I don’t know, sentient? Then one night a couple of weeks ago, he looked at me. The way he looked at me, the- the pain in his eyes—I couldn’t take it anymore. So I did some research.” He takes a breath, steadying himself. “And I found him.”

 

They’ve reached the trap door; there’s a thin ring of light leaking around it, which is the only way Tim can tell it’s there. Which also means there’s someone in the Archives. That’s fine, right? He’d planned for this. “He works in the Archives at the Magnus Institute—Head Archivist, actually, whatever that means. And we’re underneath them.”

 

“So dramatic,” Sasha says lightly. “Can we go now? I’m dying to see this place. What does the workplace of a man who spies on people in their dreams look like?”

 

Tim grins and shakes a finger at her. “Uh-uh, that’s speculation. This is a serious investigation—we need facts, hard proof. My brain might just be fixated on his face. His objectively horrifying face. I wonder if he has that many eyes in real life? Probably not, right?”

 

Sasha shrugs. “Only one way to find out.”

 

She pushes open the trap door.

 


 

Click.

 

“—was a close one, Jesus Christ.” Heavy breathing echoes loudly in the cramped closet Tim’s hidden in; he narrowly avoids knocking a file off a shelf with an errant elbow. “Sasha, are you good?”

 

“Never been better.” Her voice is even and unlabored; she even sounds a bit amused. “Remind me why we hid in here, again?”

 

“We can’t let him see us, remember?” Tim hisses, lowering his voice as he hears footsteps pass by the closet. His heart hammers in his chest. “That would defeat the entire purpose of an investigation.”

 

“Oh?” Sasha’s eyes sparkle with humor. “You’re telling me we can’t just ask a man why he’s in your dreams all the time? I suppose that could be taken rather the wrong way.”

 

“You’re a menace.” Tim leans his head back against the wall, his heartbeat slowing gradually. There’s a moment of silence, filled only by the sound of breathing and—

 

“Huh.” Tim holds up the tape recorder in his hand; it whirs gently, the wheels of the tape within spinning rhythmically. “Don’t remember turning that back on.” After a moment, he shrugs and says, “Might as well give an update, I suppose. I guess this is recording number two, now, of my investigation into Jonathan Sims, Head Archivist of the Magnus Institute. Same date as before. Not much new information, other than that he’s a workaholic, apparently, since it’s midnight on a Friday and he’s still here. Almost gave me a goddamn heart attack when I saw him hunched over his desk—honestly, did not look like a comfortable sleeping position.”

 

“Mm, and then you had to knock over that stack of papers on his desk.”

 

“Hey, that was an accident!” Tim protests. “I just wanted to take a look. To make sure it was really him, you know. It’s not my fault his desk is like a war zone of mugs and manila folders.” He’s quiet for a moment. “Do… do you think he saw us?”

 

Sasha shrugs. “We got out of there pretty fast. But he had this… glassy look in his eyes? Like he was still somewhere else when we woke him up.”

 

Tim nods, relieved. Then, with a small grin, he says into the recorder, “Fact #1 indicating that Jonathan Sims is spying on me in my dreams: he had a glassy look in his eyes. As described by one Sasha James.”

 

“Hey, I thought this was a ‘serious investigation.’” Sasha makes quotes with her fingers. “I’m just stating the facts.”

 

Tim shoots her a glare without any bite, then glances at the door. It’s been quiet for a few minutes. “Do… do you think he’s gone?”

 

Sasha follows Tim’s gaze. “Maybe.” She reaches for the door, but Tim’s quick to stop her.

 

“Oh no, not again. Last time you opened a door without checking, we ended up in an office with someone in it. I’m doing the opening this time.”

 

Sasha holds her hands up, stepping back. “Not my fault, but whatever you say.”

 

Tim slides over to the door and puts his ear to the wood. He doesn’t hear anything, but that doesn’t mean that there’s no one out there. Slowly, slowly, he opens the door a crack.

 

Nothing. Emboldened, he sticks his head out fully, scanning the hallway. It’s completely empty; the light coming from the office they’d ended up in after coming out of the tunnels is off, and the only thing illuminating the hallway is a string of emergency lights studded along the corridor. He pushes the door open fully. “There’s no one here,” he says, voice low. “Come on—his office is empty.”

 

“Tim—“ Sasha groans, but Tim’s already hurrying down the hall, ducking his head quickly in through the door to make sure the office is, in fact, empty, before stepping fully in. Once Sasha is inside, he shuts the door firmly and flicks on the small lamp sitting on the desk in lieu of the brighter overhead light.

 

“The office has been infiltrated,” he says dramatically into the tape recorder, and he hears Sasha stifle a laugh. “Phase two of the operation commences.”

 

“Phase two?” Laughter bleeds into Sasha’s voice.

 

Tim pulls open a few drawers on the desk with a flourish. “Rifling through his things, of course.”

 

“And what are we hoping to find, exactly?”

 

Tim settles himself into the large chair that is, somewhat unsettlingly, still warm, and kicks his feet up onto the desk, nearly knocking the lamp off in the process. “Not sure yet. I try not to come up with a theory before collecting evidence. Scientific method and all that.” He begins thumbing through the nearest drawer, his bottom lip pinched between his teeth in concentration. It’s mundane—pencils and paper, mostly. The next drawer is less so.

 

“Hey, Sash, what do you think this is?” He holds up the clear jar, filled with a dark dust.

 

Sasha, who’s been flipping through some of the files on the shelves, raises an eyebrow at him. “Uh, that’s super creepy. Are those ashes?”

 

Tim turns the jar, trying to get a better look. “Not sure. Why would someone have ashes in a jar in their work desk?”

 

Sasha’s eyes grow wide. “Ew, you don’t think…”

 

Tim drops the jar like it’s burned him; it rolls to the edge of the desk, barely avoiding dropping to the floor. “Okay, I’m sufficiently creeped out.”

 

Sasha eyes the jar with distaste. “I don’t know. Maybe they’re like… his mother’s, or something? That’s a normal thing, right?”

 

Tim shudders. “Absolutely not. This is definitely something a weird, eye-dream-monster would have though.” Into the recorder, he dictates, “Fact #2: Jonathan Sims keeps human remains in his desk. Not directly indicative of an ability to invade one’s dreams, but you never know.”

 

Sasha flips through another file. “Tim, these are weird. These are some proper horror stories. I’m pretty sure this one’s about someone who got skinned by a doll.” She shudders, sliding the file back onto the shelf quickly.

 

“Ah, don’t worry about it,” Tim says casually, though the word skinned rings in his head like a gong. “Everybody knows that the Magnus Institute is a joke. I bet whoever gave that statement was high off their arse.”

 

“Hm,” Sasha says. She doesn’t seem convinced; her eyes keep skittering over to the shelf of files, like she can’t look away. “Well, your story would sound pretty suspicious too. Haunted by a dream man with too many eyes?”

 

“Yeah, yeah.” Tim throws a file at her; it barely makes it halfway there. “Keep looking.”

 

They search for the better part of an hour, but other than more creepy statements and a slew of tape recorders, there’s nothing to find. Finally, Tim leans back in the chair, which is much less comfortable than it had been at the beginning, and throws his hands up in defeat. “That’s it—I quit! You were right, Sasha—there’s nothing here that’s useful.”

 

“Of course I’m right,” Sasha jokes, but he can see the softness in her eyes—the silent apology. “But, there has to be a reason, right? Even if we can’t find it here.”

 

Tim shivers, rubbing his hands together unconsciously. “Maybe. Or maybe I just saw him on the street once and my brain immediately decided to never let me forget.” He pauses, considering. “I mean, he is kinda hot, don’t you think?”

 

“Timothy Stoker!” A pen flies across the room and smacks him in the chest. Her words are accompanied by a puff of condensation.

 

“Alas, I am a simple man with simple desires. Also, I have eyes.”

 

“And according to you, he has hundreds of them.”

 

Tim feels the cold curl in his chest. “Yeah, I suppose but…” He trails off with a shiver. “Why is it so cold? Do they turn off the heat at night or something?”

 

Then, Tim hears them; footsteps, just outside the closed office door. He starts to swear, cuts himself off at the last moment, and scrambles off the chair. “Sasha!” he hisses, pointing at the trapdoor. She’s already halfway there, her eyes wide.

 

“Hurry, Tim,” she whispers, halfway through the opening. Tim reaches out, reaches for her hand.

 

The office door opens.

 

Quicker than he thought possible, Tim kicks the trapdoor shut, hiding Sasha underneath, and spins around as nonchalantly as he can. “Oh, hey!” he says, flashing a smile that’s more confident than he feels. “I was just—“

 

The shatter of ceramic hitting stone cuts through his half-baked excuse. The man standing in the doorway is staring at him with impossibly wide eyes, the mug that had been gripped in his hand lying in pieces on the ground, next to several tapes. In the dim light of the lamp, Tim sees his face drain of color, the pale white starkly contrasted against the burgundy curls that frame his face. Then, in a small, shaky voice, the man says, “Tim?”, and Tim’s smile slips from his face.

 

“Uh.” How eloquent, Stoker. “Do- do I know you? I mean I don’t come down here much,” he quickly adds, trying to come up with a cover story on the spot. “I- I work upstairs? In the uh- library?” God, he hopes this place has a library.

 

“You…” The man is still staring at him, horrified, like he’s seen a ghost. “You’re not…?” Then, horrified disbelief morphs into equal parts terror and disgust. “Stay- stay back!” He fumbles around on the shelf next to him, his hand eventually closing on a stapler that he holds in front of him like a talisman. “Stay back, or I’ll- just don’t come any closer!”

 

Tim holds up his hands, taking a small step backward; his foot creaks against the wood of the trapdoor. “Okay! Okay.” He glances down, almost instinctively; when he looks back up, the man is staring at Tim’s feet, and he sees a new, more powerful flash of terror pass over the man’s face.

 

“Don’t even think about- about trying to—“ The man sucks in a deep, rattling breath, like he’s trying not to cry. “I’m not letting you just- just walk around, wearing his- even though they said he- oh, god.” A tear slips down the man’s cheek, and it looks like thousands more wait just behind the dam. He scrubs it away with the back of his hand, angrily. “No, no- I’ve already- I’ve already cried for him. You, whatever you are, don’t get to- to just pretend you’re him.”

 

“Uh.” Tim doesn’t know what to say to that. God, maybe this place is full of lunatics. Lunatics armed with staplers. Not the most threatening thing, is it? “Listen, mate, not to be disrespectful, but I truly have no idea what you’re talking about.”

 

“Don’t lie!” The man takes a step closer, and Tim flinches back into the wall that’s now at his back. Great. Nowhere to run. “You’re not Tim. Tim is- he’s—“ The man struggles with the words, like they’re stuck in his throat. The stapler shakes, and Tim’s honestly surprised he hasn’t dropped it yet. “He’s dead.”

 

Tim can’t help it; he laughs. It’s just so absurd. He’s always been a nervous laugher, which is quite an unfortunate quality to have at the best of times, but now, it’s like the sound activates something within the man standing in front of him. His eyes harden, and before Tim can jerk away, the stapler hits him square in the forehead.

 

Ow!” Tim tries to stumble back, but only hits more hard stone. “What the fuck is wrong with you?”

 

The man stares at Tim, clutching his forehead, and then at the stapler, which now lies at Tim’s feet. He looks like he’s going to lunge for it; Tim quickly places a foot on the stapler and slides it away into the shadows. He’s not too keen on the idea of getting smacked again. Tim drops his hand, now stained with red, pain making way for hot anger. “God, you’re all freaks here, aren’t you? I don’t know what the hell all of those drugged-up people who stumble in here to give some half-assed scary story have been telling you, but clearly you’re all just as insane as them!” He waves his hands around, wiggling his fingers. “’Statement of Joe Spooky, regarding sinister happenings’—bullshit. I’m not dead, you fucking wanker, and I’m certainly not pretending to be myself, whatever the hell that means.”

 

“Martin?”

 

They both whip their heads around to stare at the still-open office door.

 

“Martin, what—?” A figure steps into view of the office, scrubbing sleep from their eyes, but their hand stills when they catch sight of Tim. “What.” Their voice is harder, and Tim’s anger fades to a dull roar as he recognizes them.

 

He might as well stop pretending that he’s here for any other reason than to spy on Jonathan Sims, then, since apparently neither of them are going to believe anything he has to say. “Awesome, just the person I wanted to see. Didn’t want to get hit with a stapler for nothing.”

 

“Jon!” The man—Martin, Tim surmises—flicks his eyes from Tim to Jon, then back to Tim again, like he’s afraid that if he takes his eyes off him for too long, Tim will lunge at him. “Can- can you—?”

 

Jonathan Sims steps fully into the office, and Tim’s heart drops a few beats as he realizes that his eyes are glazed over with a silver-green something, and Tim swears he can see a version of himself reflected in them. Instinctively, he shrinks back against the wall. This Jonathan is nothing like the one in his dreams. The sadness, the pain, the longing—it’s all gone, replaced with something cold and hard. “Why are you here?” Jonathan—Jon—asks, and the question vibrates down to Tim’s very soul, pulling at him until words spill over his tongue, unbidden and velvety.

 

“I saw you in my dreams. I have a recurring dream of my brother—“ Tim pulls back against the words, not wanting to say it, not wanting to think it, and they choke him, forcing him to continue. “—my brother being skinned, and you’re always there, with too many eyes, watching him. And that was horrifying enough, but then you started looking at me instead, like it was my pain you were drinking in instead of his, and I just had to know if you were real. You felt so real.”

 

Jon pulls back slightly, surprise coloring his face, and Tim feels the grip on his throat lessen; he draws in a ragged breath, feeling tears collect behind his eyelids. He shouldn’t have come here. Sasha was right; he would have been better not knowing.

 

“I—“ Jon sounds unsure, and his eyes flick to Martin. “He’s not lying.”

 

Martin’s still glaring at Tim. “They could have his memories. That’s- that’s what happens, right? When they steal someone’s—?” Martin gags around the words, like he can’t force himself to finish.

 

Another strangled laugh forces its way past Tim’s lips. “Why would I be lying? Do you think I’m that fucked up, to lie about seeing Danny die every night? God, I know it’s not real. I know it’s not, that Danny’s still alive, but it just feels so—“

 

What do you mean, Danny’s still alive?” Jon’s eyes are boring into his, and an overpowering sensation of being absolutely, terrifyingly known washes over him like an icy wave.

 

The words are pulled from him like teeth. “I mean that he’s still alive! God, what else do you want from me? Please, just let me go—I won’t bother you again, I swear, I just wanted to know why it all feels so wrong, somehow!”

 

He stops short, like he’s hit a verbal wall. Wait, what? When had that happened? But now that the words are out of his mouth, he realizes that they’re true; the feeling of wrongness settles over his shoulders like a heavy winter coat. Maybe it had always been there, and he’d just never noticed it.

 

Fingers ghost against his forehead, and he flinches away instinctively. Jon pulls his hand back, an apologetic look flitting across his face. “Sorry.” Then, turning slightly: “Martin, look at his forehead.”

 

Tim can’t help the hand that flies to his face; it comes away red, but there’s no sting of touching an open wound, no dull ache of a newly formed bruise. It makes his mind go a little fuzzy.

 

Tim.”

 

Tim looks up, and Jon’s staring at him again, and he tries not to meet Jon’s eyes but he can’t help it, like a moth drawn to a flame. “Just one more question.”

 

Tim wants to say no. He wants to run away and never come back, but it’s like he’s pinned there, under the weight of those eyes, and he can’t move.

 

What happened to you?

 

And Tim can’t help but tell him everything.

 


 

They’re sitting on some crappy couch in a room that Martin called ‘Document Storage’ but that looks more like a makeshift hostel. Or, rather, Tim is sitting on a crappy couch: everybody else is clustered around him, leaning against walls or sitting on equally as crappy cots. Martin is further back than the others, practically bleeding into the shadows; he looks uncomfortable, like he’s not used to the concept of other people, but every time Tim think’s he’s about to actually disappear into the fold of the dark, Martin glances at him and seems to solidify, somehow. It always gets a little bit warmer, then.

 

Tim hopes Sasha is safe. He wishes she were here, with every fiber of his being, but he knows he made the right decision shutting the door behind her. He gets the very distinct feeling that he’s stumbled into something far greater than himself—and far, far more dangerous than he could have ever expected—and if she’s not here, if they don’t know about her, then she’s safe. Maybe… maybe she’s getting help.

 

Does… does Tim need help?

 

After Tim had finished spilling his whole life story—waking up in the hospital with the past few years of his life just erased, trying and failing to piece everything back together, the dreams—he’d felt so hollow, like releasing the words into the space between them had somehow taken parts of him with them. And then he’d been pulled into a tentative hug, and he’d found himself surprised—and then surprised at being surprised—to hear Jon’s voice in his ear, stammering apologies, insisting that he’d just had to make sure, that he was sorry for leaving Tim behind, that they’d met things that could pretend to be other people before. That he’d never gotten the chance to make things better between them, and that it had eaten at him ever since the—

 

Tim’s stomach twists, and he sinks further back into the couch. Right. Since the explosion that had apparently killed him.

 

“So are we going to talk about why there’s a dead man sitting on our couch?”

 

The speaker, a woman wearing pajamas and a navy blue hijab, leans forward on the cot she’s sitting on, staring pointedly at Jon. “Because while we’ve established that he’s not actually just a taxidermied version of Tim, I don’t think we ever actually answered the more important question of how someone who died is here, alive.”

 

“His brother is alive too, apparently,” Jon says quietly.

 

“What?” Another woman sits up from where she’d been lying on a sleeping bag on the floor; her bright purple hair is matted on the side of her head, where she’d clearly been sleeping on it when they’d been awoken quite rudely by Jon barging into the room with Tim in tow. Briefly, Tim wonders why on Earth anyone would want to sleep where they work. Then, he discards the thought for the million other questions swirling around in his brain. “I’m sorry,” the woman continues, “his brother? Like, the certified dead, ‘killed-by-the-circus-from-hell’ brother?”

 

Tim winces, and Jon seems to notice, because he shoots the woman a firm glare, which she returns tenfold. “Look, I don’t have all the answers yet—“

 

“Oh?” the purple-haired woman interrupts. “You can Know exactly how many square feet are in London and what I ate for breakfast, but you can’t Know something that’s actually useful?”

 

The way she says the word know, like it has a weight to it—Tim’s certain that it’s connected to how Jon can appear in his dreams. He’s given up on his ‘randomly-selected-brain-face’ theory; clearly, whatever’s going on here, it’s not nearly so accidental.

 

Jon pinches his nose and closes his eyes. “Believe me, I am much more frustrated by that than you are. But I can’t control what I Know, and Tim can’t give us any more information than he already has.”

 

Don’t talk about me like I’m not here,” Tim grumbles, and all eyes in the room instantly land on him. He feels pinned, and something within him instinctively pushes back. “Look, I don’t know what’s happening here. I don’t know you people, even though you seem to think that I should. But…” He pauses, uncertain, the but churning his stomach into ribbons. The wrongness he hadn’t known he’d had creeps back over him, twisting into his skin until he itches all over. “But I guess I haven’t felt right since I- since the accident. I… I don’t think I noticed until now, but now I can’t forget it. And as much as I’d like to just go home and forget any of this ever happened…”

 

He takes a deep breath. “I don’t think finding the tunnels was an accident. And I don’t trust you, and I certainly don’t trust this place, but I trust myself. And I think a part of me wanted me here.”

 

There’s a pause, where the shadows seem to grow a bit heavier. Tim thinks he sees some of them stretch, moving in a way that’s almost human, and his heart rate quickens.

 

“Great,” the woman with the hijab says, leaning back. “Now that we’ve got all of that settled, we can decide what we’re going to do next.”

 

“Next?” Jon echoes.

 

“Yeah, next. A plan. Things are kind of going to hell around here, and now Tim’s back? That’s quite a coincidence.”

 

“Hey, whatever messed-up shit is happening around here is not my fault,” Tim interjects, holding his hands up in a gesture of innocence.

 

“No, no of course not,” Jon says quickly, and god, Tim wishes he would stop looking at him like that—like he’s going to fade into the shadows and die all over again. “I- I think for now, let’s just do what we would do if this were any other situation.” Jon drums quick fingers against his thigh; Tim notices, for the first time, that they’re mottled with thick burn scars. “Research. Of course, we have the distinct advantage of the statement giver being here, so we can do direct follow-up, but there’s only so much we can do since Tim doesn’t remember the- the, uh, incident.” He clears his throat, like he’s uncomfortable thinking about it, and then continues. “First order of business then.” He looks at Tim. “We should talk to Danny.”

 

Something in Tim bristles, protective. “I don’t think that’s a good idea.”

 

Jon blinks, clearly startled. “What? Why?”

 

Why? Because you’re all convinced that we should both be dead!” Tim stands suddenly, and Jon flinches. “Danny has been helping me, ever since I woke up. He helped me find a new job, since no one could figure out where I worked before the accident. When I told him about the nightmares—“ Tim shoots Jon a pointed look, and Jon turns away, his face flushing unhappily. “—he moved in with me for months, because I would call him every morning to make sure he hadn’t been skinned. I never told him about you, Jon. I didn’t tell him I was coming here. He doesn’t know about any of this, and I don’t want him to. Because—“

 

Tim feels the words catch in his throat, like the dialectical opposite to being compelled to reveal his secrets. It feels almost as terrible. Softer, he says, “Because if you’re right, and he died just like me and then came back, then that means that my dreams are real. And I can’t think of anything more horrible than that.”

 

Silence falls over the room, and it’s almost a comfort. Then, in a small voice, Jon says, “Okay.”

 

Relief washes over him. “Okay.” His shoulders relax, the tension bleeding out of them, but he doesn’t sit back down. “I’m going to leave now.”

 

“Wait!” It’s Martin, emerging from the shadows, and everybody jolts, like they’d forgotten he was there. “You’ll- you’ll come back, right?” He’s easily the tallest one there, though just a hair taller than Tim, but right now he looks so small, shrinking into himself slightly.

 

“Yeah.” Tim surprises himself when he means it. “I- I promise. Not for a few days, I think. I- I need time to process this. But I will.”

 

The cold recedes a bit, and Martin nods. Then, before Tim can react, he’s wrapped in another, icy-cold hug, and he instinctively stiffens, then immediately feels bad and tries to force himself to soften. “I missed you,” Martin says, his voice slightly muffled as his face presses into Tim’s shoulder. “I- I know you don’t remember me, and that’s okay, but I remember you. I remember you, and- and I missed you so much, Tim.”

 

Tim doesn’t know why his arms reach around Martin, to fist gently in his jumper, but he leaves them there and just breathes.

 

Chapter Text

Click.

 

“Recording number, uh, three? No, four. Or is it three?”

 

“It’s four. There was the one in the tunnels, then the accidental one in the storage closet, and then the one you found when you got home.”

 

Tim shudders. “Yeah, but I threw that one away.” He’d only been able to listen to the snippets of the time he’d spent on that shitty couch for a few minutes before nausea rushed over him, and he’d ground the tape beneath his foot until it was nothing but shards of plastic and thin, shiny ribbons. “Anyway, recording number four of Timothy Stoker’s investigation into- um, into Jonathan Sims, Head Archivist of the Magnus Institute. The date is March 17, 2018.” He takes a deep breath and tries to relax back onto his couch—not shitty, though worn after years of use. “There’s been, uh, a lot of developments.” A forced laugh escapes his lips. Developments. A simple word to describe a decidedly not simple situation. “And I thought I should get them down on tape, you know? Since- since I’ve decided to go back today. No one can say that Tim Stoker isn’t thorough.” And he’s still been having the dreams, but now they’re worse, because there’s that nagging fear when he jerks awake, heart racing in his chest and sweat glistening on his forehead, that at some point, it hadn’t just been a dream. He always calls Danny, then, and Danny always picks up, even when it’s three in the morning. At least Tim’s stopped crying now.

 

And then there’s Jon—because Tim’s convinced, now, that it’s actually him, somehow—who’s gone from watching the stage to staring at Tim, into him, and it’s like Tim can feel those refractive silver-green eyes on him all over again, tearing into his soul and pulling words out of him like they’re caught on some sort of metaphysical fishhook. And here he is, chasing the worm yet again, because despite everything within him screaming to never set foot in the Magnus Institute ever again, he can’t deny the wrongness within him anymore. It settles over him like a second skin, every day now, and he wants nothing more than to wriggle out from underneath its oppressive weight. Maybe… maybe they can help.

 

More likely, they’ll just make it worse. But Tim’s still going to go, because he’s both thorough and impulsive and slightly obsessed, and isn’t that just the trifecta from hell?

 

He realizes that he’s paused for too long when Sasha’s hand settles on his upper arm, her thumb rubbing soothing circles through the fabric of his shirt. “You don’t have to go back,” she says quietly. “I listened to enough of that third tape to know that you probably don’t want to get involved with whatever’s going on down in the Archives. It sounds… messy.”

 

Tim glances down at the tape recorder, his throat tight. “I think I’m already involved,” he says quietly. “I- I just can’t shake the feeling that I’m supposed to be there, you know?”

 

He knows Sasha doesn’t, but she nods anyway; her hand stays on his arm as he continues into the tape recorder, “So, Fact #3: Jonathan Sims is probably not human.” He’s had time to mull it over, and that seems the most likely conclusion. If by likely, you actually mean fucking insane. “Evidence: he can make you… say things that you don’t want to. Or that you haven’t even thought of yet. His eyes get… reflective, sometimes, like mirrors—if mirrors could glow. Oh, and the weird voyeuristic dreams. Can’t forget those, obviously.” A deep breath. “Fact #4: I’m a zombie, I guess.” He turns to Sasha, a twisted smile creeping across his face. “Guess I have to eat your brain now, Sash.”

 

She swats at him. “You wouldn’t. You love me too much.”

 

“Fact #5: I love Sasha James too much to eat her brain.” Genuine joy filters through him, pushing some of the darkness away, and the smile he gives Sasha is wide and bright. “I guess that leads then into the big question: if I’m supposed to be dead, then why aren’t I?” He pokes a finger into his stomach. Feels real enough. “God, this is so stupid. Why am I even entertaining this? I’m not dead, Danny’s not dead, and I’m too pretty to have ever been bl- uh, to have died, under unnatural circumstances.” Blown up feels too raw, like a hot poker shoved into his chest. He lifts his shirt, examining the skin beneath it. “See? No sign of a gruesome death here. Just those stupid gravel scars.” They dot his chest, little pale holes against warm brown skin where gravel had burrowed after the car accident that had put him in the hospital with years’ worth of amnesia. Or, he assumed it was a car accident. The doctors seemed confused when he’d asked about it, like they didn’t quite understand the question, just repeating that he’d been in ‘a nasty accident,’ and his entire body had felt like it was on fire which sufficiently distracted him from asking any more questions. Then, Danny had appeared and brought him home, and he’d just settled on car accident and went with it.

 

“Anyway.” He clears his throat, bringing his mind back to the present. “There’s like a million more questions, obviously, but I’ve never really been one to just sit around and wait for answers. So I guess I’m going back to the Magnus Institute.” He waggles his fingers in the air. “Lucky me.” He glances over at Sasha, whose eyebrows are knotted in barely disguised concern. “Are you coming with again? I… I think I might feel better if you were there. A familiar face and all.”

 

He can tell that Sasha’s hesitant, and he almost feels bad for asking. Then, she gives his shoulder another squeeze before sitting back and flashing him a coy grin. “And leave you to deal with the menagerie of inhuman monsters all by yourself? What kind of friend would I be?”

 

Tim holds up a finger. “One inhuman monster. Probably inhuman, at that.”

 

“Oh, my mistake. Only one not-human. We can all rest easy now.”

 

“Oh, shut up.” Tim pushes at Sasha’s shoulder, but there’s no heat in it. “Let’s go, then.”

 

In Tim’s pocket as they step out of his front door, the tape clicks off.

 


 

Click.

 

“Recording number five of Timothy Stoker’s investigation into Jonathan Sims. Date is still March 17, 2018. And it is still cold in the tunnels, by the way, which Sasha insisted we use instead of, you know, the front door.”

 

“Oh, I’m sorry,” Sasha says, clutching an offended hand to her chest. “Do you happen to have current university credentials that I’m not aware of? Or an employee ID? Because otherwise, they’re not letting you in through the front door.”

 

“We could have said we were here to give a statement,” Tim protests. At least he thought to bring an extra torch this time, so he can see where they’re walking and can shoot Sasha a lopsided smile. With a dramatic voice, he says, “Statement of Timothy Stoker, regarding the creepy eye man who haunts his nightmares, who also happens to work in your Archives. Oh, and regarding my own death, I guess.”

 

The word death doesn’t twist his stomach as much this time, and he counts that as a win.

 

“Yeah, because that’s not suspicious. Anyway, we’re almost there, so stop whining. We can leave through the front door if you want.”

 

Tim grumbles something under his breath about sensible and pain in the ass, and Sasha links her arm through his as they walk, giving him a cheeky grin.

 

She’s right; in a few minutes, they’re standing under the wooden trapdoor that leads into the office—Jon’s office. A bolt of nerves suddenly shoots through Tim, and he takes a small step back. If Sasha notices, she doesn’t comment on it. “Do you think we should knock?” is all she says, looking up at the door.

 

With more confidence than he feels, Tim says, “Nah. It’s more fun to just barge right in, don’t you think?”

 

Sasha fights back a smile, apparently trying to appear sensible. “Tim, that would be rude—“

 

“Oops, here I go!” He tucks the torch under his arm and, taking a deep breath in an effort to stop his shaking hands, pushes the door open.

 

The rhythmic drone of Jon’s voice fills the office and doesn’t falter, even as Tim clambers in through the trapdoor, pulling Sasha in behind him. They’re still partially obscured by the shelves, to which Tim attributes the lack of reaction to their sudden appearance until he steps out within view of Jon and freezes.

 

Jon’s eyes are scanning a piece of yellowed paper in front of him as he reads it aloud, his voice… different, somehow, like he’s both himself and not. But Tim can’t stop looking at his eyes. Even in the full brightness of the office—more illuminated than it had been days ago—Jon’s eyes are luminous, that not-quite-human type of shine you see in a deer just before you slam on the brakes. Tim honestly doesn’t know if Jon can see them, standing right in front of him, and he’s too unsettled to try to get his attention in a more direct way.

 

In a hushed tone, Sasha says, “Uh, Tim? This is weird. Like, really weird. Should we… do something?”

 

Tim doesn’t respond. The way Jon looks right now… it’s reminiscent of the Jon in his dreams, the eyes that can cut through him to his core instead dissecting words on paper. Tim slowly raises the tape recorder to his mouth and says, in a whisper, “Fact #6: Jonathan Sims has a trancelike reaction to reading… statements?” He pauses, listening; Jon’s saying something about a tomb, books, a dead guy with eyes under his skin, and Tim shudders. “Yeah, more horrible statements. Lovely.”

 

“Tim, I think we should—“

 

“Good lord!”

 

Jon’s eyes—blissfully normal again—are locked on Tim, and the papers are sitting haphazardly on the desk, like they’d been dropped suddenly. Tim hazards a casual wave. “Hey again.”

 

Jon scrubs a hand over his face. “How- how long have you been there?”

 

Tim shrugs. “Eh, just a few minutes. Sorry to interrupt your weird ritual or whatever.”

 

“No, it’s- it’s not a—“ Jon draws in a tight breath. “I’m- I’m done. It’s fine.” His eyes flit over to Sasha, and he frowns. “You… didn’t come alone.”

 

“I mean, last time I was here, I got attacked by a stapler and had my trauma ripped from me by force, so.” If there’s a little too much bite in the words, well. Tim doesn’t feel all that bad about it.

 

Jon flinches like he’s been struck. “I- I’m sorry. I- I just had to make sure that it was really you.”

 

“Well, it’s me,” Tim says bitterly. “Look, I came back—which I probably shouldn’t have, by the way, so you’re welcome—so can I get some answers now? Preferably beyond the whole ‘dead man walking’ bullshit.”

 

“Y- yes, of course.” Jon gestures to the battered armchair in front of his desk. “Please, sit.”

 

Tim doesn’t sit, and Jon sighs, though a corner of his mouth twitches up. “Yes. Right. I- I suppose you have questions, then.”

 

Tim does. So, so many questions, swirling around in his head like a maelstrom, but the first one out of his mouth is, “Why do you all live down here?”

 

Jon looks as confused as Tim feels. “We… we don’t live here, technically, but it’s becoming less and less… practical for us to leave.” A dry laugh escapes his lips. “I don’t suppose you’d believe me if I said we were being stalked by the servants of malevolent entities of fear.”

 

Something stirs in Tim, and he pushes it down decisively. “Not inclined to, no. But if it can explain why you’re haunting my dreams, I’d honestly be open to pretty much anything at this point.”

 

“Oh.” Jon drums his fingers on his desk. “That’s… an easier question to answer, in some ways. Although…” He pauses, and the drumming intensifies. “When I take a live statement from someone,” he says eventually, “I become a part of their fear, in a way. My role is to watch, to- to observe the fear of others, and when I do so directly, as a sort of… side effect, their fear manifests in their dreams. And so do I.”

 

Jon looks deeply uncomfortable, the guilt radiating off him almost palpable, and it makes Tim feel a little sick. “Okay, so that’s a lot to unpack. I’m going to ignore how creepy that is and skip to the part where you being in my dream means that, somehow, you’ve taken a live statement from me?”

 

The drumming stops. “Oh.”

 

“Oh? What do you mean, oh?”

 

Jon mumbles something that Tim doesn’t quite catch. Then, soft enough that Tim can barely make it out: “We were friends, you know. I- I don’t know if that really came across last week, what with everything, but we were.”

 

“Okay?” Tim says slowly. That something stirs again, and Tim is a bit surprised to find that he believes him.

 

“We—“ Jon bites his lip, worrying it between his teeth. “We met here, at the Institute. In Research. You… you worked here, in the Archives—I specifically requested you when they made me Head Archivist, actually. I had my reasons, coming to work for the Institute, and so did you.”

 

Tim wants to ask what his reasons were, but he gets the feeling that he doesn’t want to know.

 

Jon continues, “We… we didn’t really part on good terms when you- ah, when you left.” Died, Tim’s mind supplies unhelpfully. “I hadn’t given you much reason to trust me anymore, I suppose, and with the Stranger’s influence in the Institute…” Jon scrubs a tired hand over his face. “We could barely be in the same room without arguing. Even when you gave your statement about your brother, we ended up having a row about why I hadn’t told you that we were investigating the circus sooner. ”

 

Tim can’t help himself. “My statement? About- about Danny?” Then, harder: “Great. Is this the part where you tell me, again, that he died years ago? Because I called him this morning, and yep—still alive.” Sasha’s hand settles on his shoulder, gentle yet firm enough to ground him, and he leans into it slightly.

 

“Yes, well.” Jon taps quick fingers on his desk. “I- I don’t really have a theory about that yet. But the dreams—they’re a result of that statement. I suppose it took your severance from the Institute for them to manifest, as you were too close to the Eye before.” The drumming intensifies. “I- I’d just assumed that I was being punished, somehow. When I woke up from the coma and discovered that one of the paths in my dreams now led to the Covent Garden Theatre and to- to you. A stupid assumption, I suppose, now that I know- and normally the paths close up when someone dies, but I suppose since yours wasn’t there before- though I wonder, if it’s a connection to the Eye that keeps the dreams at bay, or to the Institute, or to an entity itself- but no, that would require—“

 

“Jon,” Tim interrupts, his tone firm. The name is both familiar and foreign on his lips, which is… a strange experience, to say the least. “Just- just slow down, okay? Maybe when you, uh, knew me, before, I would have been able to follow all of this, but for me, it’s been a week since I found out that monsters are real.” And you’re one of them, he thinks. He doesn’t voice the thought, but from the way Jon looks at him, it’s clear he doesn’t have to. A small pang of guilt flashes through him. He’s always been a people person, trusting maybe a bit too much, giving people the benefit of the doubt. He’s just having a hard time separating the man with those eyes that cut and search and extract from the man sitting in front of him, staring at his hands like they hold the secrets of the universe and worrying his bottom lip between his teeth.

 

“Were you always like this?” The question slips from Tim before he can stop it, and he quickly says, “Ah, shit. You don’t have to answer that—“

 

“No, no, it’s- no.” Jon sighs. “No, I wasn’t. I didn’t start to become an avatar until I got this job. The entire Institute is connected to the Eye, but the Archives especially so. The Archivist, especially so.” Jon pauses. “I… I was still human, when we met.”

 

Tim doesn’t know how that makes him feel. Apprehensive? Relieved? Pained? He decides to focus on confusion. “The Eye?”

 

Jon blinks, and his confusion mirrors Tim’s for a moment before it’s wiped away. “Ah, right. I suppose I haven’t really explained that yet.” Then, he hesitates. “Are… are you sure you want to know? I- I don’t know for sure yet if you being… here, means that you’re connected to… them, at least not in the same capacity as me.”

 

“Oh, so people coming back from the dead is just routine for your lot, then?”

 

Jon’s mouth twitches in something that might be a hint of a smile but is more akin to a grimace. “No, I suppose not.” He pauses, considering. “Well, not- not in general, anyway. Avatars, like- like me, a lot of us have- uh, have died, at some point or another.”

 

A laugh escapes Tim. “Oh, so I’m just jumping on the bandwagon then? Good joke, mate.”

 

Jon doesn’t say anything, his face tight, and the humor bleeds out of Tim in seconds. “Wait. You’re being serious right now?”

 

Jon just looks at him.

 

“Damn.” Tim glances at Sasha; she’s leaning against the wall, staring at them with a mix of apprehension and disbelief. Tim’s sure she sees it mirrored back on his own face. “What, did you get blown up too?”

 

Jon’s expression is pained, and he just looks at him.

 

Tim finally sits in the armchair. “Fine. Fine, let’s assume—just for the hell of it—that everything you’re saying is true. If you died and came back, and it was because you’re connected to- to the Eye, or whatever, and I died and came back, would that make me connected to it too?”

 

Jon frowns. “No, not- not the Eye, at least.” He takes a breath. “But I think we can safely assume that you’re connected to something now.”

 

Tim’s absolutely going to regret this. Hell, he already does. But, still, he leans forward and says, “Okay. Just… start from the beginning.”

 


 

By the time Jon’s done spinning his horrible story of horrible fear gods and their horrible evil servants and just general… horror, Tim’s stomach has dropped through the soles of his feet to somewhere in the realm of the Earth’s mantle. At some point, Sasha had come to sit on the arm of the chair next to him, her hand clasped with his. Even if Jon’s just absolutely taking the piss out of him, it’s still a right terrifying story, particularly with the whole you-might-be-connected-to-an-eldritch-fear-god thing Jon’s pushing. The worst, part, though, is the feeling of rightness that floods Tim as Jon speaks, like he’s been missing a part of himself his whole life and he’s just now found it.

 

The absolute worst part is that Tim believes him.

 

Jon’s looking at him, and Tim honestly doesn’t know how long Jon’s been silent, just staring at Tim as he processes. Maybe in those years he can’t remember, the information had trickled in, spread out in a manner that was easily consumed, but to have to swallow it all at once has left a lump the size of China in the back of Tim’s throat.

 

Finally, finally, Tim manages to say, “So now what? I- I’m an avatar?” No assuming. No hypothetically. Something’s pushing at the back of Tim’s mind, whispering right and home and welcome. He wants to rip out his brainstem.

 

“That… seems to be the most likely scenario, yes.”

 

Fuck.” Tim thumps his head back against the chair.

 

“So you- you believe me, then?” Jon sounds relieved.

 

“I don’t want to.” Tim swallows, hard. “Believe me, I don’t. And I still don’t believe that bullshit about- about Danny. But the rest of it…” He sighs. “It feels like it fits. A cursed puzzle piece in a puzzle from hell.”

 

“Right.”

 

There’s silence for a few moments. Then, Sasha sighs and stands, pulling Tim halfway up with her. “It’s late,” she says. “We should be going.” That’s enough for today is what she’s really saying, and gratitude curls in Tim’s stomach. God, he doesn’t know what he’d do without her.

 

“Right, well…” Jon blinks, frowns. “I… I suppose…” His face folds into an odd expression. Very quietly, he says, “I’m sorry, what- what did you say your name was?”

 

“Oh, right, I- I suppose I didn’t say.” Sasha’s free hand twitches, like she’s considering extending it for a handshake, but it remains at her side. “I’m Sasha.”

 

Jon makes a sound somewhere between a squeak and a gasp, like he’s just been punched in the stomach. His expression morphs from odd to odder and finally settles on something that Tim might describe as surprise, if you amped it up about 100 levels. “Sasha?” he says in a voice barely more than a whisper. “Sasha James?

 

“Uh.” Sasha looks at Tim, her forehead creased in confusion, then back at Jon. “Yeah? Sorry, are- are you okay?”

 

Jon stands so quickly he knocks a mug off the side of his desk; it shatters on the floor, but he doesn’t seem to notice. “I- Christ, you’re—“ He scrubs a hand over his eyes, hard, and then resumes staring at Sasha with wide eyes. Quietly—almost reverently—he says, “I- I’m sorry. I’d… I’d forgotten what you looked like.”

 

“O… kay?” Sasha glances at Tim, a clear what-the-hell-is-going-on in her eyes. “Look, have- have we met or something?”

 

Jon’s staring at Sasha like if he looks away, she’ll cease to exist. But, for a moment, his eyes flick to Tim, questioning, like he’s weighing something in his mind. After a few seconds, the clear lines of tension in his shoulders relax slightly. “I… yes. Yes, we…” He glances at Tim again, just a twitch of his eyes, and Tim thinks he sees remorse.

 

Jon takes a deep breath. Then: “You… you died as well, Sasha.”

 


 

Click.

 

Breathe in.

 

Breathe out.

 

“Recording number six of Timothy Stoker’s investigation into Jonathan Sims.”

 

Breathe in.

 

“Date is March 17, 2018.”

 

Silence. The whir of a tape recorder.

 

“Fact #7: we are surrounded by entities that consume—no, that are—our fear. Fact #8: Jonathan Sims serves one of these entities.”

 

Breathe out.

 

“Fact #9: I serve one of these entities.”

 

Breathe in.

 

“Fact #10: Danny and Sasha are—“

 

No.

 

Breathe out.

 

“Fact #11: I’m done. I’m just… I’m done.”

 

Pause, for laughter.

 

“Investigation fucking ends.”

 

Click.

 

Chapter Text

August 10, 2017

 

Tim still aches. His bones no longer feel like they’re on fire, which is… a good sign, he thinks. At least the doctors seemed to think so, as they’d released him from the hospital with multiple pain med prescriptions and crutches. His bones aren’t broken, they said. Minor miracle, considering the severity of the accident, they said. The amnesia should wear off soon, they said.

 

Yeah, right. Tim’s watched enough shitty doctor shows to know that being a miracle isn’t always a good thing.

 

He drops the crutches unceremoniously at the foot of his bed and crawls under the covers, not even bothering to change into pajamas. The ache permeates his brain, and it’s a matter of seconds before he’s slipping into unconsciousness for the first time since he woke up to bright fluorescents and the smell of anesthetic.

 

And then his eyes open, and he’s standing in a theatre.

 

Confusion overcomes him for a moment before his brain helpfully supplies the word dream. Huh. Tim’s never lucid dreamt before. He takes a few experimental steps forward, down the aisle, and his hand brushes against stone. Another hand. A stone hand.

 

Tim flinches back. His eyes land on rows and rows of stone audience members, faces fixed in twisted expressions that are just shy of being within the realm of normal human emotion, and they’re all staring at—

 

Tim follows their gazes, and freezes.

 

The stage isn’t empty.

 

Terror quickly makes way for a mixture of confusion and relief. “Danny!” Tim calls, taking a few steps closer to the stage. “Danny, what are you…?”

 

Danny’s arms aren’t right. They’re crooked at odd angles, like an approximation of joints. His face is shadowed, but it seems a little too long. He’s wearing the same clothes he’d been wearing when he brought Tim home from the hospital, but they’re… dirtier, somehow. Wrinkled in ways clothes don’t wrinkle. Like they’re existing in space that isn’t space and time that isn’t time.

 

A spotlight flickers on, and Tim’s eyes move of their own accord. His heart jumps to his throat, beating in time with his breaths as they quicken.

 

He’s never really liked clowns, but this one is like an amalgamation of every single too-cheery circus clown and wide-mouthed horror movie monster combined. It’s not… it’s not looking at him.

 

The way it moves toward Danny is like the unfolding of an accordion. It’s like a puppet on a string, if the strings were held by a thousand different, jerking hands. It’s like a headache, building behind Tim’s eyes, and he can barely stand to look at it, but still he looks. He can’t look away. He can’t move. He can’t breathe.

 

Don’t touch him! he wants to scream, but he has no lungs.

 

The thing that might be a clown reaches his brother. The moment its eyes meet Tim’s is like a slide of slick tar down the back of his throat, if he still had a throat, and he gags. “Shall I?” it says, and it must have a throat, and it must have hands. Hands that reach. Hands that pluck. Hands that pull.

 

Danny’s skin slips off the shifting approximation of a human it had been clinging to, and Tim screams.

 

He’s still screaming when he comes to in the darkness of his bedroom, hands scrabbling at his duvet and forehead slicked with sweat. It echoes off his walls, unanswered, reverberating back and ringing in his ears long after his throat is too raw to continue.

 

The clock at his bedside blinks 3:08 AM, but he still calls. Danny picks up on the fourth ring.

 

“Tim?” he says, and his voice, and he’s alive, and Tim starts to cry.

 

Danny arrives at his house minutes later, and Tim doesn’t sleep again that night. Or the next.

 

But sleep comes eventually. And so does the dream.

 

Danny moves in.

 

It takes weeks for Tim to notice the third figure, hidden almost entirely in shadow, only faintly illuminated by the spotlight when it flickers on. Tim cries out to it, screams, begs it to help Danny. To stop this. To end this never-ending nightmare. But it never responds. Maybe it, too, does not have a throat. But it has eyes. Eyes that never blink. Eyes that watch. Eyes that drink in the terror, night after night, without shedding a tear.

 

Tim stops screaming, after a while. Maybe he, too, is only meant to watch.

 

March 21, 2018

 

Tim’s always taken comfort in the smell of old paper. He’d done his master’s thesis on 19th century British architecture, which required sifting through a fair amount of brittle, yellowing documents with gloved hands, breathing in dust and paper for hours on end. It’s one of his favorite parts of working in document preservation at Sir John Soane’s Museum—that and the fact that he can talk for hours about architecture with people who come in to use the museum’s Research Library. He’s just glad his near-encyclopedic knowledge of old British architecture is finally useful; not much need for knowledge of historical buildings in a publishing house.

 

Tim gathers a few documents he’d pulled from their glass cases in the public section of the museum for maintenance and steps out into the museum proper. It smells less like paper here, more human, and this is a smell Tim can also take comfort in. He breathes it in as he unlocks the glass case and gently slides the documents back into place. It’s nearing 17:00, so the museum is nearly empty, a few patrons taking a last, lingering look at the exhibits before clearing out for the day.

 

Tim’s tired, weary to the bone. He hasn’t been sleeping well lately. Part of it’s the dreams. Part of it’s the… everything else.

 

He’s not going back. Maybe Jon’s telling the truth. Maybe Tim believes him. Maybe everything’s gone to hell, because Tim just couldn’t let it go. But the maybes are locked in the back of Tim’s mind, in a box marked do not open, and the key has been lost in the ether of Tim’s subconscious. He has Sasha. He has Danny. He has a life, and in his waking hours, he can even call it normal. Mundane. No matter what else is spinning around him, if it’s just around, never touching, then he can pretend it doesn’t exist. If avoidance were an Olympic sport, he’d be a gold medalist. God knows he’d done it enough in his formative years.

 

So yes. Tim’s going to opt out of the fear gods eldritch horrors avatars spooky hellscape that the Archives seems to be firmly entrenched in. No thanks! he’s going to say. I’m good as-is. Free will and all that.

 

Tim locks the glass case. Or, at least, he tries to lock it. The key slips from his fingers before he can guide it into the keyhole, hitting the ancient hardwood with a dull clatter. Oh no, is all he has time to think before the dizziness hits.

 

Downside #2 of irreversible amnesia-causing brain damage: Tim occasionally passes out.

 

The doctors had eventually settled on the word narcolepsy and sent Tim on his way with another prescription that took Tim’s collection of pills from meager to substantial. Tim thinks that’s absolutely bollocks; for one, the pills did absolutely nothing other than make sleep that much more unattainable, which he supposes was a win, in a way. And for two, it feels nothing like falling asleep.

 

It feels like suffocation. It feels like drowning in black water, darker than dark, like light had never been a concept it was familiar with. It feels like cold, cutting through to Tim’s very bones, bringing him to absolute zero where the atoms that make up his very existence cease to move.

 

It feels like death.

 

When Tim comes to, his lungs screaming as he heaves in a ragged breath, there’s a hand gripping his shoulder. He can barely feel it, but the nails digging in through his shirt are intense enough that it registers in the murky darkness still clinging to his mind. A voice drifts in through his ears, gradually, asking him over and over if he’s okay, if he needs help, if there’s someone they should call.

 

“No, I- I’m fine,” Tim manages to say between gasping breaths. He feels that familiar discomfort wash over him, embarrassment curling deep in his stomach, and he stands probably more abruptly than he should. The hand retreats from his shoulder, and the person it’s attached to—a man around Tim’s age with black hair buzzed close to his head and wide, concerned eyes—takes a small step back.

 

“Are you sure? You, uh. You hit the ground kind of hard.”

 

Tim forces a grin. “Nah, I’m fine. Promise. I’m a pretty resilient guy.”

 

“Um. Okay, then.” The man gives Tim a small, awkward smile. “Great.”

 

“Great,” Tim echoes. He’s about to leave when he remembers the key, still sitting on the ground next to the display. He bends to pick it up, his head still spinning slightly with the motion, and he’s turning it in the lock when he hears a strangled yelp from behind him.

 

Tim turns quickly, his first thought being the displays, god if someone breaks something on my watch I’m going to get fired, but the displays are fine. There’s nothing that he can identify as immediately wrong, but by the terrified look on the black-haired man’s face as he stares at one of the other museumgoers—a slight, blonde-haired woman—there must be something.

 

“Uh,” Tim says, feeling a bit awkward at the sudden reversal of roles. “Are you- are you okay?”

 

No response. The man keeps staring, and it’s like he doesn’t even hear Tim. The man takes a few steps forward, and his hand reaches, so cautiously, so unsure. “N… Noelle?” It’s so soft, barely more than a whisper, but it cuts through Tim’s mind like a knife.

 

The blonde woman turns, and when her eyes land on the black-haired man, her face lights up. “Jacob! There you are.” She shakes her head with a smile and takes a few steps toward the man. “How on earth we managed to get separated in a room the size of a large closet, I’ll never understand. But I suppose there was that one time—“

 

Noelle?” Jacob repeats, and a hand reaches out, stalling just short of the woman’s shoulder. “What… what’s happening?” He looks around desperately, and for the brief moment that the man’s eyes lock with Tim’s, pleading and desperate and afraid, terror runs through Tim’s entire body, thick and hot and intoxicating, like mulled wine.

 

“Hey, hey,” Noelle says, placing a worried hand on Jacob’s shoulder; he flinches with his entire body, staring at her hand like he can’t quite believe it exists. “It’s fine. I’m back now. Really, I get lost so easily—I thought you were used to it by now.”

 

“Lost,” Jacob echoes, still staring at the hand. “Lost, no. No, you…” He takes a small step back, letting the hand on his shoulder slip away. “You died, Noelle.”

 

This time, the terror that floods Tim is icy cold, wrapping through his veins and pushing sharp icicles into his heart. It freezes him in place, stealing the breath from his lungs and leaving something behind that’s bitter and heavy on his tongue. Beneath it, another hot terror continues to pulse, and Tim wants to scratch under his skin and rip it out. It feels bad. It doesn’t… it doesn’t feel like it belongs in him.

 

Noelle’s forehead creases. “Are you okay, Jacob?” She places a worried hand on his forehead, and he flinches away again. “God, you’re burning up. We should get you to a hospital.”

 

“No.” Jacob shakes his head. Vaguely, Tim registers that the room has cleared, and it must be 17:00, and he should really ask them to leave, but he can’t move. “No,” Jacob says, stronger, angry. “No, this isn’t real. I’m- I’m hallucinating, or something. It’s those antidepressants, they’re- they’re messing with my head.” His eyes find Tim’s again, and they’re frantic, desperate. “Can you- no, of course you can’t see her. That would- that would be—“

 

Jacob takes a deep, rattling breath. Tim wants to tell him that he can see. That Jacob isn’t losing his mind. That she’s… that she’s not dead. But something in the very, very back of his mind won’t let him. It whispers that he’s not meant to intervene. That it’s better this way. That it feels better this way.

 

Tim’s mouth stays firmly shut, and he says nothing.

 

“That’s it,” Noelle says, reaching into her pocket and withdrawing a cell phone. “I’m calling 999. You’re clearly having a stroke or something, and we need to get you medical help immediately.

 

“No!” Jacob reaches for her hand, and his fingers close around her wrist. He stiffens, just staring. Then, slowly, his other hand comes up and rests gently against her cheek, and he draws in a slow breath. “You… you feel so real. You can’t be, but… but you’re here.

 

Noelle laughs, a bit hesitantly. “Darling, please. The hospital?”

 

Jacob doesn’t respond for a moment, his thumb rubbing small circles into her cheek. Finally, he whispers, “I’ve never been religious, you know. Of course you know.” He lets out a small laugh. “I didn’t want to have our wedding in a church, but you insisted, of course. We… we were going to baptize our kids, once we decided we were settled enough to have them. I was… I was so excited to settle down with you, Noelle. How- how could I have known…?”

 

The terror is beginning to ebb, the hot veins running below Tim’s skin losing their burning intensity, and he finds himself shivering. Not enough, something within him whispers. It’s not enough. Not yet.

 

Jacob’s hands have moved to Noelle’s shoulders, and he’s just looking at her. “Is… is it really you?” he says, his voice so close to breaking. All it would take is a push, in just the right spot, at just the right time.

 

A hand comes up to brush against Jacob’s cheek. “Of course it’s me. I would never leave you.”

 

Jacob’s face crumples, and he wraps his arms around Noelle and squeezes.

 

And something inside of Tim snaps. A tension released that he hadn’t even realized he’d been holding. For a brief, dizzying moment, he thinks it might be relief.

 

Then, there’s a strangled choking sound, and Noelle is stumbling back, her face draining of all color as she scrabbles at her throat, and Jacob is reaching for her, his eyes reflecting the terror scrawled across Noelle’s face and the terror that slams into Tim with the force of a train, and Tim knows. He knows as his brain empties of everything but hot, thrumming fear and his eyes refuse to look away. He knows as Noelle collapses, throat purple from where fingers had pushed, eyes vacant and staring, and as Jacob crumples as well, begging, screaming, saying not again, please not again, I can’t take it anymore. He knows as he blinks, finally, and there’re only two people in the room, and Jacob is sobbing over an empty hardwood floor, tears leaving dark stains on the wood.

 

This is his fault. And he couldn’t stop it. Maybe he hadn’t wanted to.

 

Tim can move again. He shouldn’t move. He shouldn’t leave Jacob broken and terrified on the floor. He shouldn’t run outside into the growing twilight, leaving his office in a state of disarray and not even bothering to clock out.

 

He does, though. And as fear continues to itch beneath his skin, both his and not, accompanied by a blossoming desperation, well, there’s really only place to go.

 

He just wishes it didn’t feel so much like coming home.

 


 

Click.

 

“—just don’t know what you want me to—“

 

“I want you to fix it!”

 

“I- that’s not how this works. What, you think that- that just because I told you—“

 

“Well this didn’t happen until after you started rambling on about fear gods and avatars and death!”

 

“Tim just- just sit, please.”

 

“I don’t want to sit.”

 

Tim paces back and forth in Jon’s office. All the terror has ebbed into a sort of nervous energy that thrums through his veins, and he honestly thinks that if he sat in that ratty armchair, he might spontaneously combust. He can’t get the image out of his head, of that woman just turning blue and—

 

“Look, Tim,” Jon says, and Tim doesn’t look at him. “Why don’t you just- just tell me what happened.”

 

Tim bites out, “I already told you what happened.”

 

“No, you came into my office and just started rambling about- about museums and dead people. Which I thought was rather the point of museums. I would also prefer that you used the front door rather than just appearing in my office without warning. I am not, contrary to what everyone seems to think, immune to fear of my own.”

 

Tim lets out an aborted laugh. “Fear. Yeah, that about sums up my life now, doesn’t it? Couldn’t be the eldritch gods of happiness, or- or of love or something, just had to be fear. God, this is just so—“

 

Tim.

 

Tim sucks in a breath. “Fine. Fine, I suppose I- I didn’t come here just to- to argue.” He runs a hand through his hair, pulling it halfway out of its low ponytail, and if he didn’t look like a nervous wreck before, then he certainly does now. “Right, so- so I work at Sir John Soane’s Museum, doing document preservation and restoration, and I was bringing some documents back to the museum proper when I—uh, I passed out.”

 

Jon’s eyebrows disappear into his hairline, and Tim clarifies, “I know that sounds bad, but it happens a lot.”

 

“That doesn’t make it sound any better.”

 

“Yeah, well. When you’ve already got enough brain damage to erase several years of your life, what’s a couple fainting episodes?” Tim forces a laugh. “Anyway, I come to and there’s… there’s this woman.” He swallows around the sudden lump in his throat and forces himself to continue. “She… she was dead, I think. At least, she… she was by the end. There was a man in the room, too, and he kept saying that she was dead, that- that she couldn’t be there, because she had died, and I- I couldn’t do anything.” He stares at Jon, looking for something, anything, but there’s nothing there. No comfort. No recognition. Just that intense curiosity. The need to know. “Why couldn’t I do anything?” he says, barely more than a whisper. “I- I knew he was afraid. He looked at me and asked if I could see her, and I just didn’t say anything. I just- I just watched. And then…” A breath. “The fear was quieter. For a moment. And then she died.”

 

Jon’s still staring at him intently. “And that’s it?”

 

Tim sighs. “Yeah. Yeah, that’s it.”

 

Quieter, Jon says, “How did it feel?”

 

“What, watching someone die? Pretty fucking awful, how do you think?”

 

Jon shakes his head. “No, the… the fear. You said it was quieter. You felt it. How did it feel?” His voice crackles slightly.

 

The words tumble out. “It felt good. Like I couldn’t survive without it. Like it belonged with me. No, that’s… that’s not quite right. Like I belonged to it. It itched, and I wanted it gone, but once it was gone, I needed it back. I know it wasn’t mine, that I had stolen it and consumed it, but I still wanted it.”

 

Jon stares at him, and Tim’s mouth snaps shut, his tongue tingling with the unfortunately familiar taste of words extracted. Jon says, “Christ, Tim, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to—“ at the same time that Tim says, “Fucking hell, Jon, you need to stop—“ and neither end up finishing their sentence. Pained guilt stretches Jon’s mouth into a grimace, and Tim feels hot anger surge up within him before it drains away just as suddenly.

 

“It’s…it’s fine,” Tim says through grit teeth. “I mean, all you did was ask. I was the one who watched someone die and enjoyed it.”

 

Jon pauses for a moment. Then, quietly, he says, “Did you? Or did you just not feel hungry anymore?”

 

“I… I don’t know.”

 

There’s another long pause before Jon speaks again. “Well, I suppose we do know one thing for certain now.” He taps his fingers on the desk. “The entity you’re tied to—it’s almost certainly the End. Death, inevitability—feeding off the fear of both. The exact manner in which you serve the End is still a bit unclear—likely something to do with those who are already dead. It would certainly explain Danny and Sasha.”

 

“No,” Tim says, voice hard. “No, that’s- I don’t know what the deal is with everything else, but that’s not what’s happening with them. You said I, what, feed off the fear of death? I’m afraid that Danny’s dying every single night when I close my eyes, and nothing. Sasha’s still freaked out by what you said the other day, and nothing. Besides, they- they’ve been with me for months, Danny since I woke up and Sasha almost as long. It’s not like… it’s not the same.”

 

“Maybe you’re right.” Jon pauses, considering. “You… you don’t remember anything at all from before? Not just from your time here, I mean. From… after.”

 

“After?” Tim echoes. Then: “Oh. Are- are you asking me if I remember being dead?”

 

“In a way. More like… what exists beyond death. A- an afterlife, of sorts.” Jon lets out a breath. “When I died, I- I made a choice. A choice to live. A choice to- to become. I- I don’t remember the details, exactly, but I know I did. You… it stands to reason that you must have made a similar choice.”

 

Tim wants to say that he didn’t, that he never would have chosen this. But he can’t remember. Who knows what he would have done. What who he was before would have done.

 

“I don’t know.” Tim stares at the floor, feeling very exposed suddenly. He always feels watched here; Jon had explained that it’s because the Institute is a center of power for Beholding, that it feeds off the fear of being watched, of being known. But it’s never felt like such a weight on Tim’s chest before. “I… I might have. But I don’t remember. God, it’s so damn frustrating. It sucked before, of course, losing entire years of my life, but at least then, I had some sense of normalcy. I had Danny, I had Sasha, and all I had to worry about was- was whether or not I would pass out while buying groceries or something. Now, things… well, things have gone tits up, haven’t they? There’s- there’s evil fear gods and all this death and avatars and- and ghosts, and I don’t want any of it!” Tim takes a shaking breath and tries to look at Jon; his eyes only make it as far as Jon’s desk, focusing on a small ceramic mug sitting atop a pile of papers. #1 Boss, it says, with the word monster scrawled in black ink above the word boss. Something twists deep within Tim; that’s who he is now, isn’t it? He’s a monster, too. No denying it anymore, he supposes. He… he couldn’t have wanted this. “I couldn’t have chosen this,” he says, quieter. “I don’t know what version of me you knew when I worked here, but I- I couldn’t have known about everything and still chosen to become this.”

 

Softly, Jon says, “We don’t always want the outcome of our choices, but that doesn’t negate the fact that we did choose. Lord knows I- I understand that better than anyone.”

 

“Then why?” Tim meets Jon’s eyes, and he knows Jon can see the desperation in them, the panic, the fear. “You- you can tell me. You have to know. That’s the whole thing with you, right? You know things. So just- just look, or ask, or whatever, and tell me why this is happening to me.”

 

The look Jon gives him is so full of pity Tim thinks he might choke on it. “I’m sorry, Tim. I- I can’t give you the answers you want. The most I can do is try to help.”

 

Tim can’t stand it; he looks away. The eyes still burn into the skin of his face. “Yeah. Yeah, sounds about right. I guess I’ll just- just wait until I have another episode or whatever, because it’s not like I get to have control of one fucking thing in my life anymore.” He’s just… tired.

 

“Tim, I promise. I- I’m going to help you.” There’s a small creak, and then footsteps. “I… I’m not going to push you away again.” A hand brushes against Tim’s shoulder, just a ghost of a touch, like it’s not sure whether or not to fully settle against the fabric of Tim’s shirt. “I- I trust you. And I hope that you can… that I can give you a reason to trust me again.”

 

Tim glances over at Jon; his hand is still hovering there, fingers curled slightly inward, his forehead creased with a fragile nervousness, but also with a sort of determination. And, well, Tim’s not a naturally angry person. He’s much more comfortable with smile lines etched around his eyes, without this heavy weight wrapping around his heart. If he can’t change anything else in his life, he can at least have a medium of control over this. So, he relaxes into a small smile—not as genuine as he would have liked, but, well. Baby steps—and settles his own hand on Jon’s upper arm. It’s… warmer than he expected. “Well, I suppose,” he says with a dramatic sigh. “After all, you are the—“ he cranes his neck to look at the mug—“’number-one monster boss.’ Does that imply that there’s more than one?”

 

Jon looks stunned for a moment before his lips twitch slightly in the barest hint of a smile. “Oh, you’d be surprised.”

 

On the desk, a whirring tape recorder, apparently satisfied, clicks off.

 


 

Tim comes home to the smell of pizza and Danny sitting on his couch. For a brief moment, the heaviness that had lived in his chest for hours lifts, and he feels a light, unfettered smile come to his lips.

 

Then, he sees the expression on Danny’s face—guarded, worry creasing his forehead and the corners of his eyes—and the smile slips from his lips.

 

“Great,” Tim says, letting the door swing shut behind him with a click. “Why do I feel like I just walked into the principal’s office?”

 

“Oh, Tim!” Sasha calls from the kitchen. “Hold on, the pizza’s almost done.”

 

They’re trying to bribe him with pizza. Tim begrudgingly admits that it’s working as he sits on the opposite side of the couch as Danny, trying to stuff all thoughts of fear and death into the back of his mind. He can’t help sneaking a look at Danny out of the corner of his eye, though, nervousness curling in the pit of his stomach. Dead… dead people don’t eat, right? God, this is stupid.

 

“Don’t look at me like that,” Tim grumbles as Danny’s eyes settle on him.

 

“Don’t do stupid shit,” Danny counters, and Tim flips him off. “Tim, I am serious. I’m supposed to be the reckless one and you’re supposed to be the responsible one. And now, Sasha’s telling me about you both breaking into the Magnus Institute—“

 

“Technically, the door was unlocked.”

 

“That is so not the point.”

 

“Ah, no!” Sasha groans, stepping into the living room with two pizzas balanced in her hands. “You were supposed to wait until we had the pizza!” She shoots Tim an apologetic look. “This- this isn’t supposed to be an intervention, Tim, I’m just worried.

 

“So you called Danny?

 

“She wouldn’t have had to call me if you had just told me what was going on,” Danny says, reaching for a piece of pepperoni pizza.

 

“I… would have. Eventually.”

 

“Uh huh,” Danny says around a mouthful of pizza. “Because you would never lie to me.”

 

Tim swats at him. “Don’t talk with your mouth full, it’s disgusting.”

 

“I think,” Sasha says, sitting in between them, “that what Danny’s trying to say is that we’re just a bit… concerned. And freaked out, honestly.”

 

Yeah, join the club. Tim reaches for a piece of pizza, mainly to keep himself occupied. Finally, after it becomes clear that they’re waiting for him to say something, he settles on, “It’s fine. I- I went there for answers, and I got a whole lot more than that, and now it’s done.” The lie burns his tongue, but he just… can’t. He can’t bring them into this even more than they already are. Not… not until he gets a better handle on what’s going on.

 

“Answers?” Danny drops his pizza slice back on the table; he must have grabbed a new one at some point, as it’s entirely uneaten. Quieter, he says, “Tim, is- is this about the dreams? Because if so, I can move in again.”

 

“No, it’s- well, okay, yes it’s about the dreams, but I don’t need you to move in again, mom.” Tim reaches out and rustles Danny’s hair with a cheeky grin.

 

Danny ducks out from under Tim’s hand. “Don’t change the subject,” he chides, but his eyes have that same glint of humor in them. “Just… promise you’ll be okay? Sasha told me about some of the things that they said to you, and I really don’t think you want to go down that particular rabbit hole. Plus, it sounds a little… you know.” Danny makes a circular motion with his finger by his ear.

 

Tim doesn’t say that he’s almost certain that he’s already up to his neck in the rabbit hole and sinking deeper every minute. Because it does sound a little… you know. And, well, there’s really no point in worrying them before he knows exactly what he’s dealing with. So, he grabs another piece of pizza and shrugs. “Promise. Wouldn’t want to lose my title as the ‘responsible one’, after all. God knows you can’t be trusted with it.”

 

“You are insufferable,” Danny says, reaching around Sasha to shove Tim’s shoulder, and though a smile dances around the corners of his lips, Danny’s forehead is still creased slightly, and Tim feels a pang of guilt. He really, really doesn’t want Danny to worry. Yeah, this is shit, but it’s his shit. And it should stay that way.

 

Jon’s voice echoes at the back of his mind, saying the word dead over and over again. And if he laughs even louder at Sasha’s jokes to cover it up, well. He can deal with it later.

 

Never say that Timothy Stoker can’t compartmentalize.

Chapter Text

Click.

 

“—The Lonely, who is predictably enough isolating him, and oh, yes, uh, Tim and Daisy are still—“

 

Click.

 

“—doesn’t want you there.”

 

“And you?”

 

“I… would rather have you where I can see—“

 

Click.

 

“—remember how my legs shook, and maybe I could move. Maybe I’m just a coward.”

 

Click.

 

“—eaten by worms because of you!”

 

“Well, what do you want, you want sympathy?”

 

“You know what, yeah! Little bit of basic—“

 

Click.

 

“—fine, though. Except for the holes. And the pain. And the blood and the nightmares. Could’ve been worse, though, eh? Another couple of minutes and—“

 

Click.

 

It’s fascinating, really. Hearing his own disembodied voice coming out of a dozen different plastic rectangles. Tim thinks, vaguely, that Jon should have just played these for him from the start. It’s certainly convincing enough.

 

Tim shouldn’t keep listening. But he really just can’t help himself. It’s not like he’s the one stacking tape recorders on top of an evil wooden coffin, after all. Even if they do seem to all be about him.

 

He’d come to the Institute to use the library. He’d thought, maybe, that he could do some research of his own—certainly, there had to be hundreds of books on death and ghosts in a place dedicated to studying the supernatural. The problem would be wading through the bullshit to get to what was real. To what… to what would help him understand. Help him control.

 

He’s so damn tired of feeling helpless.

 

He’d come in again through the tunnels, more out of habit than anything else, and had almost tripped over the coffin sitting at the foot of the stairs out of the Archives. The only one around had been the purple-haired Eastern Asian woman—Melanie, Jon had said—who, when he’d asked, had shrugged and said, “If Jon wants to remove a few ribs and jump into a supernatural coffin, that’s his own business.” That, of course, answered almost none of Tim’s questions and introduced several more, but she was already gone.

 

The person sitting behind the desk at the entrance to the library said that she’d thought he was dead. He said that he got that a lot.

 

Click.

 

“—know I’m the finest cat burglar in all of Bromley.”

 

Tim.

 

“Okay, so seriously, I don’t get why she—“

 

Click.

 

“—didn’t start stalking my coworkers.”

 

“Maybe try talking to him?”

 

“Sure, like he doesn’t already look at me like I’m—“

 

Click.

 

“—thing you need to have your life destroyed by this stuff is just bad luck. Talk to the wrong person, take the wrong train, open the wrong door, and that’s—“

 

Click.

 

“—how long?”

 

“Six months, give or take.”

 

“Six… Uh, the others. T- Tim, is he—“

 

Click.

 

Tim hadn’t known how to feel, at first, when he’d returned to the Archives the next day to find Martin stacking tape recorders on top of the coffin. On the one hand, Martin had practically begged Tim to come back and then had proceeded to quite effectively avoid him whenever he was in the building. And had thrown a stapler at him. Tim hasn’t forgotten that.

 

On the other hand, Martin had seemed genuine when he’d hugged him, and though he brought with him a sort of chill that made Tim shiver as he stood just inside the door to Jon’s office, watching Martin with detached curiosity, Martin also felt inherently… warm, somehow. Like he wasn’t supposed to be cold.

 

So Tim sat by the coffin and waited. For Martin to return with more tapes, or for Jon to come crawling out of… wherever he had gone. Whichever came first, he supposed. What better way to spend his weekend than on the stone floor of a dingy basement, listening to his own voice spool out from all directions, describing a hundred horrible pasts that are apparently his.

 

He tries to stop listening. Or maybe he doesn’t. The words thread through him either way, so he supposes it doesn’t really matter.

 

Click.

 

“—something in this place, and it’s messing up our heads. It watches us all the time. It stops me quitting. I’m pretty sure it would stop Elias firing Jon even if he decided to try actually running—“

 

Click.

 

“—recording this in case—“

 

“In case the trapdoor opens back into the Archives and Prentiss is there to kill us.”

 

“In as many words—“

 

Click.

 

“—want me to do?”

 

“Well, you brought me in as a distraction, right?”

 

“What?”

 

“Let me do it. Go in, maybe you can get some of them—“

 

“Tim, contrary to what you think, I did not bring you here to indulge—“

 

Click.

 

“—don’t know if you can hear me, but if you can… then I don’t forgive you. But thank you for this.”

 

Click.

 

Tim almost doesn’t notice when Martin returns. Maybe it’s the tapes, capturing his attention completely. Or maybe it’s the slight tendrils of fog that seem to recede from Martin as he just sort of… appears, a few dozen more tapes balanced precariously in his arms. Either way, Martin doesn’t seem to notice him either at first, judging by the small yelp he gives when Tim waves a hand and gives him a warm greeting.

 

Christ, Tim,” Martin says, bending down to pick up the tape recorders he’d dropped along with his yelp. His face is colored slightly pink when he straightens again, and there’s a bit of tension held in his shoulders that Tim doesn’t think is entirely attributed to shock. “I- I didn’t see you there.”

 

“Yeah, well.” Tim shrugs. “Haven’t seen you much either, so.”

 

Martin’s eyes are anywhere but on Tim. “…Yeah,” he says, moving toward the coffin and beginning to set the tape recorders on top of it. They seem to turn on all on their own, adding to the layers of voices overlapping and combining in discordant harmony. It should be distracting, but it isn’t; Tim can still hear all of them clearly, when he focuses, and the new voices that come crackling out of the tape recorder are familiar as they speak. Most are his.

 

“Why- why are you here?” Martin says, haltingly, like he doesn’t particularly want to ask but just can’t help himself. The chill rolling off him permeates Tim down to the bone.

 

Tim shrugs again. “Came in yesterday to check out some books from the library and tripped over the coffin. Not to judge your taste in interior decorating, but like, kinda creepy, you know? Creepier when I found out that it ate Jon, or whatever. And something about ribs? I don’t really think I want to know.” Tim shudders. “And when I came back today, well.” He gestures to the tapes. A wry laugh forces its way from his lips. “Guess this is proof enough, huh? That everything Jon’s saying is true.” He swallows hard. “Well, not everything. But most of it.”

 

Martin bites his lip, staring at the tapes on the worn wood between them. “I… I suppose it is.”

 

Tim hums. There’s a moment of quiet between them, the murmur of the tapes blending into white noise. Tim looks at Martin out of the corner of his eye; the fog is there again, licking at the edges of him, making them… fuzzier, somehow. Tim doesn’t have to know the specifics to come to the conclusion that there’s something supernatural about it all. Well. Beyond the normal amount, that is. Would the person on those tapes have known what it was? Would they have known what to do about it?

 

Tim thinks, briefly, about the wistfully sad look Jon had gotten when he’d said that they’d been friends, and after a moment’s consideration, he asks, “Martin, we- we were friends, right? I mean, it’s a bit hard to tell from the tapes, but it seems like we were.” He’s so angry, on the tapes. Not all the time, not even most of the time, but enough. For maybe the first time, he considers the fact that not being able to remember might be a good thing. Even knowing, now, what had happened—even hearing it, in his own voice—it still seems so distant. Like viewing himself through distorted glass. But looking at Martin, thinking about the way they’d talked on those tapes, he gets that same sort of… feeling. A warmth. A sort of fondness, like Martin is safe, somehow. And he wants to help. Even if he doesn’t really know how.

 

“Y- yeah,” Martin says, rubbing a hand around his wrist and looking steadfastly at the floor. He looks like he wants to say something more, but his mouth shuts, lips pursing tightly.

 

A small laugh bubbles up from within Tim, if only to dispel some of the nervous energy practically radiating from Martin. “Guess dying put a bit of a wedge between us, then. Hard to still be friends when one of you is dead, I suppose.”

 

“That’s not funny,” Martin snaps, but some of the cold recedes so Tim counts it as a win even when Martin glares at him and continues, “You- it wasn’t fair, the way you- how could you do that, Tim?”

 

“Uh. You’re going to have to be more specific.”

 

Martin’s mouth opens again, clearly ready to clarify in-depth, but it clamps shut again just as quickly. “Never mind,” he mutters, and the chill hits Tim again like a slide of ice on the back of his neck. “I- I have to go. I shouldn’t be here.”

 

“Oh ho ho, no you don’t,” Tim says, rising and wrapping a hand around Martin’s arm as he takes a few steps in the direction of the stairs. Martin flinches slightly, and Tim withdraws his hand quickly, though he takes a step forward so he’s closer to Martin, making it harder for Martin to avoid looking at him. “Look, I don’t know what’s going on here, but you’re not going to just walk away and avoid me again. Maybe I don’t remember knowing you, but that doesn’t mean I can’t worry about someone who clearly needs help—“

 

“Tim, you killed yourself!”

 

The words snap through Tim like the crack of a whip, and he jerks back slightly. Martin’s looking at him, now, his eyes wide and a bit desperate. “You- you went to that museum, and you knew you weren’t coming back, and you just didn’t care! And when it was all over, you were dead. Jon was dead. And I was still here.” Martin sucks in a small, shaky breath. “I was alone.”

 

Tim wants to reach for Martin again, but he can’t quite will his arm to move. He’s… he’s just numb. “Well,” he says, trying for humor and falling hopelessly short, “we’re back. Mostly, that is. You- you don’t have to be alone anymore.”

 

Martin looks slightly pained. “Yeah. Yeah, I- I do.” He takes a few steps back, and Tim knows he could reach for him, that he could follow him and keep him from leaving, but he doesn’t. “I am glad you’re back, Tim. But please, just- just don’t push this.”

 

“Yeah, like that’s going to—“

 

But Martin’s gone. And the tapes continue to spool.

 

And despite the twisting sensation in his stomach, Tim continues to listen.

 

August 20, 2017

 

It’s not the best day for a walk, but if Tim has to spend one more minute just sitting around on the couch, he’s going to lose his mind. So he slips on a light raincoat, shifts his weight back and forth experimentally while eyeing the crutches leaning against the door, and pushes his way out into the overcast afternoon, leaving the crutches sitting against the wall. The mist hits his face lightly, and he breathes in the cool damp with a grin. God, it feels good to be outside again.

 

He’s definitely not up for a long walk, given that his legs still feel a bit like warm jelly, but there’s a small strip of shops not far from his house that he thinks he can make it there and back from. It’s like a weight lifted from his chest as he draws further from his house; most of the time spent inside since the accident has been… not great.

 

Huh. That’s a word for it, I suppose.

 

Tim decides very pointedly not to think about it.

 

He’s just rounding the corner, the shops coming into view and the faint smell of baking bread hitting him, when vertigo washes over him, suddenly and without warning. He stops, stumbling slightly, and just barely manages to catch himself against the side of a building. He hardly has time to form a coherent thought before another wave of dizziness overcomes him, and then he’s sinking into a cold, cruel blackness that grips at his heart with snaking tendrils and refuses to let him go.

 

He’s not sure how long he’s been unconscious when a hand grips his shoulder, squeezing just past the point of comfort, and he’s brought back to reality with a snap. It takes another moment for the words to reach his ears, for his eyes to adjust to the brightness of a world with light.

 

“—just collapsed,” she’s saying, and she kneels down so she can meet his eyes. “Are you okay? Do I need to- to call someone?”

 

She’s beautiful, Tim thinks, even as he opens his mouth to say that he’s all right, that it’s probably just another bullshit symptom of whatever accident landed him in the hospital with enough brain damage to erase several years of his life. It’s probably—no, it’s definitely too personal to be telling a stranger about his recent medical history, but as his eyes map the curves of her face, the kindness in her eyes, the dark curls pulled up into twin buns on the sides of her head, he feels like she’s not, somehow. A stranger, that is. The way she looks at him, he can tell that she feels it too, and her mouth curls in a hesitant smile.

 

“I- I’m sorry,” she says, taking her hand off his shoulder. “Have we met before? I- I feel like I know you, somehow.”

 

“I get that a lot,” Tim says with a grin, a genuine happiness curling through him that he hasn’t felt since—well, since he can remember. “I guess I just have one of those faces.” He gives her a wink, and her eyes sparkle with silent laughter.

 

He introduces himself, and she does so in kind. He’s never known a Sasha James, but that doesn’t seem to matter to either of them as they walk together to the small café just a few minutes down the road and talk over coffee. The conversation flows so naturally, almost effortlessly. Tim’s always gotten along well with people right from the get go, able to keep a conversation going for hours with someone whose name he doesn’t even know, but this- this feels different, somehow. Like finally reconnecting with an old friend.

 

“No,” he says, eyes wide with disbelief. “You too?”

 

“Yup,” Sasha says, popping the ‘p’.

 

“How much?”

 

Sasha hums in thought. “About a year and a half? It’s the strangest thing—I remember living in Oxford, working at the university library, for years, and then—“ She spreads her fingers. “Poof. Suddenly, I’m here, in London.”

 

Poof. Sounds about right.

 

Their server comes with their coffee, and he sets both in front of Tim; Sasha asks for cream, and the server blinks at her, brow furrowed, like he’d just noticed she was there. Their sandwiches come later, and the pattern repeats. Tim jokes, “Looks like not everyone has such an instant connection with you,” to which Sasha kicks him under the table lightly and, with a dramatic sigh, says, “Alas, I cannot instantly command the attention of every man who comes across my path. But I assure you, Timothy Stoker, that I am unforgettable.” And with the way she smiles, Tim one hundred percent believes her.

 

They haggle over the check when it comes—“I just got out of the hospital with amnesia, of course I’m unemployed currently!” “That’s not very gentlemanly of you, but I suppose I can pick up the slack.”—and soon they’re walking back toward Tim’s house. It feels so natural, inviting her inside, and soon they’re settled on the couch with a movie playing softly in the background. Their hands fit together with ease, and in the span of a few hours, the darkness that’s been lingering in the corners of Tim’s living room, in the sheets of his bed, in the cracks between his cabinets—it vanishes, like the evaporation of inky black water.

 

The movie ends, and Sasha leaves. And Tim dreams. And it’s horrible. But in the morning, when the shadows of the night have given way to the soft morning glow filtering in through his windows, he glances at his couch, and the memory of warm brown skin and soft smiles chases away the lingering tendrils of fear.

 

For the first time since he woke up, he truly feels home.

 

March 26, 2018

 

Tim reads, because that’s all he can do.

 

He doesn’t know how long he sat by that coffin, listening to the same tapes over and over again until they rang in his ears long after he’d left. Long enough that it was dark by the time he finally made it back to his house, and he sank into sleep with a bone-deep weariness that he knew he wasn’t going to be able to shake for a long, long while. Maybe ever again.

 

Tim, you killed yourself.

 

Yeah. He’d listened to that tape the most. It was battered and slightly melted, clearly not meant to survive, but there it was. And there he was, pressing the rewind button over and over and over again, and the recording would cut off with a suddenness that sent his stomach twisting with a deep nausea. Why—?

 

No. He knew why. He’d listened to that tape too. But only once. He… he doesn’t think he could have handled hearing it a second time. His own voice, carefully controlled and fraught with so many unsaid emotions, unraveling the horrors that lived within his unconscious mind in stark detail.

 

It was real. It couldn’t be real. But it was.

 

Tim dreams, and Jon isn’t there. He doesn’t want to look, even after all this time. But he does. He looks, and he feels that familiar fear ripple through him, tinged with that newer, bitterer strain that whispers in his ear, not just a dream. A memory.

 

It can’t be real.

 

Tim smashes the tape. It changes nothing.

 

So Tim reads. He reads books on death, on ghosts, on psychics and exorcists, and nothing’s right. Nothing’s him. But he still reads, and he writes it all down, because he has to do something. He needs to know what’s happening so he can rule out what isn’t. What can’t be. Because until he knows for sure…

 

Tim adds another book to the pile and tries not to think about it.

 

He keeps getting looks from the library staff. He grabs another book from the shelf, arm brushing a staff member reshelving next to him, and they flinch back. He asks to borrow a pen when his snaps under the pressure, and the woman at the desk just stares at him. He takes a pen from the cup and tries not to clutch it so hard this time.

 

He’s on his way out, a few books tucked under his arm that he’d managed to check out after a few moments of stuttering from the clerk, when he hears his name. He turns warily, ready for yet another surprised remark about his status as a living, breathing person, and is entirely unsurprised when he doesn’t recognize the woman approaching him, her brown hair pulled back in a tight bun and her kitty heels clicking against the ivory tile. But, Tim’s nothing if not polite, so he offers her a friendly smile and a brief hello.

 

“Ah, right.” The woman gives him a smile that’s slightly warmer than his. “They said you wouldn’t remember.” She extends a hand. “I’m Rosie. It’s lovely to make your acquaintance. Again, that is.”

 

This has already been more pleasant than ninety-nine percent of Tim’s interactions with the Institute staff, so he feels no reservations about reciprocating the handshake. “Suppose you don’t need the speech, then,” Tim says.

 

“I suppose not,” Rosie says. Tim gets the distinct feeling that he might not be the first person she’s seen come back from the dead. Jon notwithstanding, of course. “I have something for you. Apologies for not being able to catch you sooner.”

 

Tim assures her that it’s no trouble with a smile and follows her back to her desk, where she produces a thin off-white envelope, unmarked but for a curling script spelling out his name on the front. When he asks who it’s from, she just shrugs. “It arrived at the Institute a few weeks ago. I figured it would be best to hang onto it until I knew what to do with it.”

 

Tim laughs shortly. “Didn’t think it was weird to get mail addressed to dead employees?”

 

“I find,” Rosie says, “that it’s best not to ask too many questions, in this job.”

 

And Tim really can’t argue with that. It’s questions that got him into this mess, after all. Probably twice. He takes the letter and turns it over in his hands; it’s light, nondescript, and Tim isn’t particularly itching to read it. He bids Rosie goodbye and heads out into the growing twilight. It’s a thirty-minute commute home, and he spends almost the entire time thinking about the letter. What it might say. Who it might be from. Whether or not to even open it at all.

 

It feels distinctly like a trap. He definitely shouldn’t open it.

 

He does anyway. He deposits the books on his side table and rips the envelope open messily with his thumb. It’s a single sheet of paper, written over with that same curling script and emblazoned with the crest of the Magnus Institute.

 

Tim,

 

I think it’s time we had a chat. We have much to discuss, and I feel that I can provide the answers you seek. Please consider accompanying Detective Hussain on her next visit.

 

Do say hello to Sasha for me.

 

Cordially,

 

Elias Bouchard

 

The paper is crumpled and clenched within Tim’s hand in preparation for making its home in the bin, but he pauses mid-throw, a bitter taste filling his mouth. His eyes stray to the books sitting on the table next to him, which will inevitably be full of more dead ends, more useless stories and wasted hours that won’t help him, that won’t be able to stop him from experiencing that same horror, over and over and over again. He’s listened to the tapes. He knows who Elias is. What he’s done. He might not have that visceral distrust that comes with truly remembering, but he’s not an idiot. He knows to stay away from sharp teeth and sharper tongues, no matter what they promise.

 

But.

 

Tim wedges the letter deep in one of his drawers, out of sight, but the words still dance at the edges of his mind, turning over and over again until he’s dizzy. It’s a bad idea. It might be the worst idea Tim’s ever even entertained. (Well, probably not. But it’s certainly up there.)

 

But he might not have any other options.

 

He files it solidly under deal with later and cracks open another book. Until might not turns into definitely doesn’t, he’ll keep reading. It’s all useless, yes. Exaggerated ghost stories and bullshit recounts of spiritual encounters.

 

But it’s better than nothing.

Chapter Text

December 24, 2017

 

They’ve shattered the baby Jesus.

 

Correction: Danny’s shattered the baby Jesus. He’d been the one who insisted they drag the nacimiento out from the dusty corner of Tim’s attic where it’s lived for years in the first place, and it’s been sitting in the corner of Tim’s living room since the 16th. Tim doesn’t even like to celebrate Christmas anymore. One too many bad experiences, he guesses. But Danny had insisted. “Out with the old, in with the new, right?” he’d said as he set up those ceramic figurines with their glassy stares and ill-painted faces. “Just you, me, and Sasha. It’ll be fun!”

 

It wasn’t even a good nacimiento. Tim’s pretty sure they’d found it tucked in the back of a charity shop for five pounds. Worse now, of course, now that Tim’s floor is covered with little cream-colored shards of the Lord. There’s an ill-advised joke in there somewhere, he’s sure of it.

 

“Ah, damn,” Danny says, staring at the broken figurine with a mild frown. “Well, there goes that Christmas tradition.”

 

“Eh, it’s all right,” Sasha says, already with a broom in hand and deftly sweeping the shards into a dustpan. “Besides, we still have the horchata.”

 

“Cheers to that,” Tim says from his spot on the couch, taking a long sip of his drink to accentuate his point. It burns pleasantly on the way down, sweet cinnamon mixing with the heat of the rum. After a moment, the couch dips next to him, and deft fingers pluck the mug out of his hands.

 

Danny ignores Tim’s heated protests to get your own damn mug, Danny with a smirk. He doesn’t even drink it, just holds it out of reach of Tim’s grasping hands. With a noise of resignation, Tim stands and stalks to the kitchen to get another mug.

 

Sasha’s checking on the tamales, the steam coming from the pot as she lifts the lid fogging her glasses. “They’re never going to get done if you keep letting the steam out,” Tim says lightly, and Sasha replaces the lid quickly.

 

“Ah, you caught me red handed,” she says with an exaggerated pout. “I’m just excited!”

 

“Well, you know,” Tim says, leaning forward conspiratorially, “I do make the best tamales in all of Bromley.”

 

“Not much of an achievement, if you ask me,” Danny says as he slides neatly between them, hands reaching for the separate stockpot full of still-steaming white liquid.

 

“Oh, I see,” Tim says, leaning back against the counter with a smirk. “Well, I suppose Sasha and I can eat all these tamales, then, and you can just sit there and watch. What does that make—fifteen tamales each? Oh, however will we manage it?”

 

“Okay, rude.”

 

They all end up on Tim’s couch, which is a little crowded for three, but none of them seem to mind as they prop their feet up on his coffee table and bicker over what movie to watch. Eventually, Sasha wins out, and A Christmas Story begins flickering across Tim’s television. They’re not really watching, anyway; Danny’s telling Sasha about the time he slipped and broke his leg while cliff diving, and Tim’s interjecting with actually, you cried all the way to the hospital and you had to get your cast replaced twice because you kept doing dangerous things even though the doctors told you not to. In retaliation, Danny tells Sasha about the time Tim threw up all over Angela Getty on their first date at the movies after he was too embarrassed to cancel and thought his nausea was just nerves, which is the most ridiculous—hey, don’t elbow me! I told you it was a bad idea. Overall, it’s… nice. Tim thinks he might get used to enjoying Christmas again. Overwrite some of those old, shitty memories with new ones. That wouldn’t be so bad.

 

The credits roll across the screen, and Sasha produces two neatly-wrapped boxes from behind her back. How she’d managed to hide them for this long, Tim has no idea. “Okay, I know you said you don’t really do gifts until January,” she says, pushing a box into each of their hands, “but I just couldn’t wait that long!”

 

Tim turns the box over in his hands; it’s surprisingly light. The pattern of jolly Santas makes something warm stir within his stomach. He thinks about the boxes, tucked neatly under his bed, and he wants to go get them, even though he’d told himself he would wait, just a little longer, but Sasha’s grinning at them expectantly, so Tim makes a small comment about patience is a virtue, Sasha and rips the wrapping paper off.

 

Oh.

 

“Do you like it?” Sasha says, leaning toward him slightly with a small crease between her eyes that could be eagerness or worry. Probably both. “I saw it and I just… I thought of you.”

 

Tim turns the small Polaroid camera over in his hands. It’s that soft pastel yellow that Tim loves, and there must be film in it already, as when he snaps a quick candid photo of Sasha, a thin piece of photo paper slides neatly out of the bottom, black still but developing quickly to reveal a pair of startled brown eyes and soft, tightly-wound curls.

 

“Hey!” Sasha complains, reaching for the photo; Tim holds it out of reach with a grin. “I wasn’t ready! I don’t want that to be your first picture of me!”

 

“Oops, too late,” Tim says cheekily. “It’s going in the album for sure.” Then, more earnestly: “I love it, Sasha. Here, let’s- let’s take a real picture.”

 

He holds out the camera, and they cluster in close, and he presses the button with a click. The square film that slides out lives in Tim’s wallet from then on, wide smiles and arms thrown around shoulders following him wherever he goes.

 

Tim thinks that Christmas might not be so bad after all. Not when it’s here. Not when it’s with them.

 

March 27, 2018

 

Tim’s not in the Archives when Jon clambers out of the coffin with someone else in tow, because despite everything, he still has a job to do. He makes a detour to the Institute library to trade out one stack of books for another before descending into the Archives. Work had been blissfully uneventful; he’d spent almost the entire day among the shelves of old documents, chatting with the occasional doctoral student and absorbing the smell of old paper into his clothes. He’s almost managed to forget what happened there, just a few days prior.

 

Almost.

 

So it’s a bit of a shock when he reaches the bottom of the stairs and, quite literally, runs into Jon, who smells faintly of dirt and decay. Though in Tim’s defense, Jon is sitting on the ground squarely in the middle of the hallway, surrounded by tapes and very pointedly not looking at the wooden coffin still sitting ominously against the foot of the stairs.

 

“Well,” Tim says, giving Jon a quick once-over; there’s a smudge of dirt on the side of his neck, a bit more caked in his hair. That at least explains the smell. “Welcome back, I guess. You- you have a little—“

 

“I know,” Jon says softly; his voice is slightly hoarse, like someone’s been pressing on his windpipe and just now decided to let go. “It… it won’t come off.”

 

“… Right.” Tim pauses, then sighs and settles on the ground next to Jon, his lower back bumping up against the stairs. “Do you want to talk about it?”

 

Jon laughs shortly, and it’s such a broken thing that Tim’s stomach twists. “No,” Jon says. “No, I- I don’t.” He pauses, eyes flicking briefly to the coffin before finding their way to Tim. “But I can’t stop thinking about it. About the- the weight of it all. The crushing pressure of the forever Buried.” Another laugh, this one tinged with a bitter, mirthless quality. “And I was only there for three days. Daisy, she… she was there for months.

 

The name is unfamiliar to Tim, but he doesn’t ask. Instead, he places a hand on Jon’s knee, and the touch seems to ground him, a bit, and he sighs, a bit of tension bleeding out of his shoulders. They’re both quiet for a long moment; then, Jon says hesitantly, “Did… did you bring the tapes?”

 

The tinny voices are silent, though by the look on Jon’s face, they hadn’t been when he’d climbed out from… wherever he’d been. “No,” Tim says. “Martin did.”

 

Jon sucks in a long breath. “Ah.” A pause. “How… how was he?”

 

Tim thinks of the piercing cold, both a physical discomfort and present in the words that had been exchanged. “Not great.” He doesn’t elaborate; he thinks Jon understands what he means, probably better than he does, and by the look on Jon’s face, he’s right on the mark. “Are you going to do anything about it?”

 

Jon takes a tape recorder in his hands and runs his thumbs over the buttons, like he thinks he can get some sort of second-hand contact from it. “I… I want to. But Martin… I trust him. I have to believe that he knows what he’s doing.”

 

Tim thinks of the tapes, of a spiral of paranoia and suspicion that had apparently driven quite an effective wedge between them. He doesn’t think that trust is the way Jon’s wired. At an earlier time, with another him, he probably would have made a comment about a little late to the party, don’t you think, but right now, Tim sort of wishes that some of that suspicion still lingered. If only because trusting Martin to descend further into the supernatural embodiment of loneliness is perhaps the stupidest thing he’s ever heard.

 

“Yeah, well. I am. Going to do something about it, that is.”

 

“Tim, I really don’t think—“

 

“Yeah, you aren’t thinking,” Tim says firmly. “I listened to the tapes, Jon. He’s my friend. Or- or he was. Just because I don’t remember it doesn’t mean that I’m going to let him destroy himself doing—whatever the hell he’s doing.” There’s a pang of guilt, deep in his stomach, as he remembers yesterday’s conversation. “Especially because it’s partly my fault. You know, with the whole, uh.” He stops, the guilt in his stomach quickly transitioning to a sharp nausea. As if it wasn’t bad enough that he’d died in the first place.

 

“Oh.” Jon stares at the ground, at the tapes that litter it. Tim sees that same guilt mirrored in Jon’s eyes, in the hard line of his mouth. “You… Christ, Tim, it’s not your fault.”

 

Tim should probably return the sentiment in kind, but he thinks that, deep down, beneath the guilt and self-loathing, Jon knows already. Instead, he leans his head back until it bumps against the stairs behind him and sighs. “God, this is depressing. I’ve only been here a few weeks and the whole doom-and-gloom vibe this place has going on has already rubbed off on me.” He looks at Jon out of the corner of his eye; Jon’s staring at the ground again, eyes firmly cast away from the coffin, and Tim has no idea why he’s even sitting in front of the damn thing in the first place. God, has he… has he even moved since he got back?

 

Tim, at least, doesn’t want to sit here any longer. He stands, jostling a few tape recorders as he does so, and says, “Come on.”

 

“What?” Jon’s eyes flick from the ground to Tim’s face, his forehead creased slightly.

 

“Come on,” Tim repeats, extending a hand for Jon to grip; after a brief hesitation, Jon takes it, and Tim pulls him to his feet with surprising ease. “Do you have a place to live?”

 

“I… kind of. I have a flat, but I- I don’t go back there much anymore.”

 

“Well, we’re not staying here. Not with that thing around.” Tim gives Jon’s arm a gentle tug in the direction of the stairs. “If you don’t want to go back to your place, I… I have a couch.”

 

“Oh.” Jon remains rooted to the spot, but Tim keeps his hand clasped with Jon’s, because he really doesn’t put it past him not to pull away completely, or to jump into another coffin or something. “I… my place is fine.”

 

He still doesn’t move, though, and Tim sighs. “You know, in order to go to your place, you actually have to leave the Archives.”

 

Tim half-expects to receive a retort of yes, I know, thank you in return, but Jon just looks… tired. “Can I?” he asks, distantly, like he’s talking to somebody else, but there’s no one else. Just them. “Leave the Archives. Going home, it’s- it’s just temporary, isn’t it? If that’s even my home anymore. I’m tied to this place. Maybe I… maybe I am this place.”

 

“Jon, what—?”

 

“Daisy, she- she’s not a Hunter anymore. Being in the Buried for so long, it- it severed her connection. And she isn’t going back.” Jon’s fingers tighten around Tim’s hand imperceptibly. “She- she said that she feels more herself than she has in her whole life. That the Hunt was her, but that she- she doesn’t want it anymore. That it made her need it. And I- I can’t help but wonder how much of me is still me, and how much is just the Archivist.” Jon takes a slow, shaking breath. “If there’s still a line between the two at all. I know I’m not- I’m not human, and that I’ve hurt people.” He looks at Tim, his eyes that sort of glassy that comes from a weariness that settles down to the bone. “I know that I- I don’t want to stop. I don’t want to hurt people, but I- I need it. But if I couldn’t feel the eyes anymore, would I cease to need it? Or would I just… cease to be at all?”

 

“Christ,” Tim says, and he pulls Jon to him so he can wrap his arms around him, ignoring the little nagging thoughts of need and human that tickle the back of his mind. Jon makes a surprised sound but doesn’t move to pull away. “So, definitely my place then.”

 

“Tim, that’s not—“

 

“I’m not asking.” Tim releases him, but he keeps his hands on Jon’s arms. “Like I said, I listened to the tapes. And yeah, there was a lot of bullshit between us in the past. And I’m still not keen on you being in my dreams, and that compulsion thing you do. But Jesus, Jon, I’m not an asshole. So you’re going to come back to my place, and you’re going to eat something and sleep and shower, and then in the morning, we’re going to talk about this more, okay?”

 

Jon looks like he has about a thousand excuses on his lips, but after a moment, he just nods. “Great,” Tim says, wrapping a hand around Jon’s wrist and pulling him again toward the stairs. This time, Jon moves with him, and they climb out of the Archives and into the blissfully fresh air outside. Jon takes a deep breath, like he’s forgotten what the open sky tasted like, and his hand—which Tim had released once they’d exited the Archives—brushes gently against Tim’s, quite by accident, but not entirely unnoticed.

 

Tim hails a cab, and they go home.

 


 

Sasha’s not there when they step into Tim’s house, which he considers a small miracle. He knows the kind of look she would give him, both concerned and exasperated, and he just... can’t, right now.

 

“Do you want curry or Irish stew?” Tim asks, rifling through his fridge and pushing containers of leftovers to the side to get a clear view of what he has to work with.

 

“Tim, I really don’t—“

 

“Curry it is, then,” Tim says, pulling a plastic container out and sticking it in the microwave. Technically, he probably has time to actually cook, but Jon looks like if he doesn’t eat within the next few minutes, he’ll keel over. He puts a kettle on the stove and pulls a few bags of tea from the cabinet. He hopes Jon likes Earl Grey, because that’s pretty much all he has.

 

Jon’s been quiet for too long. When Tim glances over at where he’s sat on the couch, Jon is just staring at him, in a way that might be disconcerting if it weren’t fraught with a sadness that, if Tim didn’t know better, could almost be longing. Though, Tim supposes that it could also be the sort of longing that accompanies loss, and Jon’s experienced plenty of that. Including from Tim. After a few more moments, Tim decides that the staring actually is, in fact, disconcerting, and so he turns away and says, “Stop looking at me like that.”

 

Out of the corner of his eye, he can see Jon startle slightly, as if coming out of a trance. “Like- like what?” he says.

 

The microwave beeps, and Tim pulls out the steaming leftovers and transfers them to actual plates, because even though it’s not freshly made food, he can sure pretend that it is. “Like some sort of sad, kicked puppy.”

 

“I…” Jon bites his lip around the protest, and he worries the lip between his teeth, even as Tim presses a plate of curry into his hands. “I suppose I just… I’m afraid that I’m going to lose you again.” He looks a bit uncomfortable, like saying the words had been a struggle, but his jaw is set with determination.

 

“Well,” Tim says, taking a seat on the opposite side of the couch with his own plate, “I really don’t plan on dying again any time soon, so. I’ve got you covered on that front.” It’s getting more comfortable, he thinks. Joking about this sort of thing. He’s not sure if that’s a good sign. Probably not.

 

“That’s… that’s not what I meant.” Jon pokes at his curry, like he’s not quite sure what to do with it. “I meant… I meant this.” He gestures between the two of them, to the curry, to the house in general. “I made a lot of, um. Mistakes, in the past. I’m sure you heard them, on the tapes. And then there were all of the things… not on the tapes, as well. That you can’t remember. By the time it was all over, we… we’d fallen apart, in a way.”

 

“Seems to me that that’s a bit of an understatement,” Tim says, and it’s not meant to be cruel, but Jon still flinches like Tim had struck him.

 

“Yes, you… you’re right.” Jon sets his plate aside, untouched, and Jesus, it really is hard to convince him to take care of himself, isn’t it? “Christ, all we could do was argue, by the end. And I know I… that it was my fault. And I tried to- to be better, but it was too late. Maybe, eventually, we could have gotten there, but…”

 

“… but then I died,” Tim finishes.

 

“Yeah.” They’re both quiet for a moment. Then, Jon says, quietly, “This… this just feels like a second chance, of sorts. To make things right. So I… I want to. Make things right. Or at- at least try to.”

 

Tim thinks about the man on that warped tape, who had clutched a detonator like a lifeline and offered thanks instead of forgiveness, a last acknowledgement of a fractured connection before severing it completely in a flash of brilliant loss. It feels foreign, like looking in a mirror and seeing a face that might be yours but that you can’t for the life of you recognize. Tim doesn’t know the person on the tapes, but he’s not sure which one of them is the stranger. Perhaps he’s just a facsimile of himself, a version born of fire and erased of everything that made him him. Perhaps the real Tim did die, all those months ago, and he’s just a shadow of himself now, paying for his false life through the deaths of others.

 

Perhaps the version of him that Jon doesn’t want to lose doesn’t even exist anymore.

 

Tim takes a bite of his curry and lets the sharp sting of cayenne ground him in his living room, casting those thoughts back to the dark corners of his mind where they really should stay, locked away. It’s no use thinking about it, after all. It’s not like he can change anything now; he is who he is, and who he is is sitting in his living room, watching Jon ignore his own curry and fiddle nervously with the black ring on his right hand. And this version of himself, he can control.

 

So he says, “Well, you can start by eating the curry I put so much time and effort into microwaving,” and though the joke doesn’t elicit a smile, Jon does take a few cursory bites of his food, so Tim considers it progress.

 


 

It’s a bit strange, the superposition of the Jon lurking in the corners of Tim’s dreams with the one sitting on Tim’s couch, hair matted to one side and blearily rubbing sleep out of his eyes. Tim considers making a joke about it, then thinks better of it. It probably wouldn’t be well received by either of them. So he moves to the kitchen, pops a few pieces of bread into the toaster, and starts a pot of coffee.

 

He’s not sure when Sasha had gotten home, but she must have at some point because the door to her room is shut and her shoes are sitting by the door. She definitely saw Jon, then. God, he’s going to hear about this later. But he’s not going to let that ruin his morning.

 

“Oh, I don’t… I don’t really drink coffee,” Jon says when Tim offers him a cup, and the slight surprise in his voice tells Tim that this isn’t the first time he’s told Tim this. He supposes he’ll have to get used to that. If he decides to keep spending time with Jon and the others, that is. Though the if implies that he hasn’t already made his decision. Nice to acknowledge that he still has the option to walk away, though. Even if he doesn’t think he’s going to, for better or for worse. Probably for worse, if prior events are anything to go by. But he’s well in it now, isn’t he? Might as well go all the way.

 

“More for me,” Tim says with a shrug. He sits in one of the armchairs with his hands wrapped around a steaming mug. “Feeling better, then?”

 

“A… a bit.” Jon runs a hand through his hair, working out some of the tangles with his fingers.

 

He doesn’t offer anything else, so Tim says, “Anything else you want to say, or…?”

 

Jon’s fingers still. “No, I… I don’t really want to talk about it anymore. Not right now, at least. But… but thank you, anyway. For listening.”

 

Any time! Tim could say with a smile. But that wouldn’t be quite true, would it? Sometimes, listening can turn into hurting and it’s not something Tim wants to commit to blindly. So he just says, “Yeah,” and takes a sip of coffee. It’s delightfully bitter on his tongue. The silence stretches on for too long as he casts around for something else to say. He… he doesn’t really know, Jon, does he? Not like Jon knows him. For Tim, he’d just met Jon a few weeks ago. But it… it still feels like he’s known him longer than that, somehow. Like he can see the big picture of their relationship, but none of the little details.

 

But Tim’s always been a big picture kind of guy, so that’s fine. He really doesn’t have any other option than for it to be fine, does he? It’s not like now that he knows what happened during those blank years, all of the memories are suddenly going to come rushing back, like a heartwarming end to some sappy coming-of-age movie. No, Tim’s life is definitely not a coming-of-age movie. It could be a comedy, if only in the way that a series of repeat unfortunate events is comically tragic.

 

God, he’s doing it again. Tim firmly squashes those thoughts under his heel as he finally settles on, “So. Martin.”

 

Jon shoots Tim a look. “Tim, I said I don’t want to—“

 

“I know, I know,” Tim says, putting his hands up in a placating gesture. “And I won’t.” For now. “I just wanted to know what’s going on. As… comprehensive as the tapes were about yours truly, they sort of missed the mark on everything else. Like, who’s Peter Lukas? What happened to Elias? What’s Martin’s plan, or whatever?”

 

Jon’s forehead creases. “Right. Um, Peter Lukas, he’s an avatar of the Lonely. He’s currently in charge of the Institute. Elias… Elias left him in charge, after he was arrested.”

 

“Hold on. Elias is in jail?

 

“Yeah. Martin, he- he came up with a plan to obtain some, uh, evidence that would incriminate him, and it- it worked.”

 

“Huh.” Tim thinks of the letter, still stuffed in his sock drawer. How hard is it to deliver cryptic messages while locked up, he wonders. “So Martin’s plan now—is it to get rid of Peter as well? I don’t think trading one monster boss for another is really that much of an upgrade.”

 

Jon’s frown deepens. “I… I don’t know what his plan is yet. But Martin is… he knows what he’s doing.”

 

Tim studies Jon’s face—the deep creases of worry around his eyes, the way his lips have flattened into a tense line, the way Jon looks anywhere but Tim’s eyes—and comes to a relatively obvious conclusion. “Oh. Oh.

 

The frown slips off Jon’s face, replaced by confusion. “Tim, what—?”

 

“Say no more,” Tim says, taking a slow sip of his coffee to hide his smirk. “So when you say you trust him, what you actually mean is that—“

 

“No!” Jon scowls at the floor, his cheeks coloring slightly. “I- I mean, I do trust him. And…”

 

“And?”

 

Jon fiddles with his ring again. “I… I don’t know.” A pause. “I miss him? I- I feel like I had all these chances, before… before I died, and now that I’m finally willing to take them, I don’t have that option anymore. And yes, that… that hurts, but it hurts more if I don’t believe that Martin’s doing this for a reason. That he has a plan, and that I just have to trust him. And I- I do trust him. Even if it’s hard, I do.” Jon looks at Tim, then, and there’s a flash of pain and regret in his eyes that Tim doesn’t think has anything to do with Martin at all. “I should have trusted you, Tim. I know that now. And I- I’m trying to be better. For Martin, and for you.”

 

It’s always so serious with Jon, isn’t it? Tim wonders, briefly, if he’d ever gotten Jon to loosen up in the past, to shake off those stiff reservations he seems to cling so tightly to and just relax. He supposes he’ll never know. To say he trusts Jon now might be a bit of a stretch, but it definitely feels like a possibility, like he can see the end in sight and knows the steps to reach it.

 

The man in his dreams might be Jon, but Jon is not the man in his dreams. And it’s time he started making his own memories.

Chapter Text

The first time Tim sees Elias, he gets it. Like, obviously he’s heard the tapes, but seeing Elias’s perfectly styled hair and smug grin summons within Tim a visceral dislike that makes him vaguely nauseous. Elias is very punchable, Tim thinks. It might be one of his only redeeming qualities.

 

That, and the information Tim’s hoping he can give him.

 

God, he shouldn’t even be here. He should be sitting in the Institute’s library, combing through yet another stack of books and searching for the words that will make everything right. Or even through the stack of books still sitting in his house, as-yet untouched.

 

But it’s not just about him anymore, is it? He’s still scared—so scared of losing control, of creating even more loss, of losing what he has entirely. Of losing himself. And yeah, he thinks Elias might know what’s happening to him. Does Tim think he’ll actually tell him what’s going on? Not likely. But there’s something else happening here, and like Tim said, he’s a big picture kind of guy. And the picture isn’t adding up. Like the puzzle pieces that comprise it are slotted together wrong, or that there are pieces missing. Or that there are pieces from another puzzle entirely, making the expected image unexpected, yet entirely intentional. A work of art, in a way.

 

Peter Lukas is one of those puzzle pieces. He doesn’t fit neatly into the narrative that Jon had unraveled for Tim in those first few days, and he doesn’t fit into the Institute. It’s a corner piece stuck in the middle, and it itches to be removed.

 

Elias is another. Tim doesn’t know how. He doesn’t know why. He just knows that the colors are slightly wrong around him, like the piece has been slotted neatly into place and with full confidence but still isn’t quite correct. Difficult to notice without seeing the entire picture and, even then, still just a feeling of wrongness.

 

Elias won’t see Jon. Basira had been surprised when Tim had asked to accompany her to visit Elias, less so when he’d mentioned the letter. He hadn’t wanted to, really, but he had to convince her that Elias would, in fact, actually let Tim see him. But not Jon, apparently. And no one else seemed to question it. Then again, given the way that Basira stiffened slightly and cast a surreptitious glance about when Tim asked about Elias in the Archives, he wasn’t convinced that anyone else even knew about it.

 

“You sure?” she asked, giving him a look that clearly said that, even though this was basically the first time he’d ever talked to her, this was plainly out of character for him. “Seems to me like he’s trying to manipulate you into seeing him for some reason.”

 

Tim shrugged. “Yeah, probably. Seems like something he’d do. But yeah, I’m sure.” Not happy about it, but sure. “Either he’ll answer some questions, or he’ll be totally useless. Either way, no real loss.” Plus, Tim’s first time seeing Elias will be in shackles, and though it probably won’t be nearly as satisfying as it would have been before, Tim’s sure it will still be something. Hell, maybe he should bring his camera. Memorialize the moment forever. Hang it on his fucking wall.

 

Basira shrugged. “Yeah, well, I’m going in tomorrow to ask why the hell he sent me off on a three-week-long wild goose chase, so yeah. Feel free to come along. Though of the two options, totally useless is probably more likely. God, three weeks, searching for a way to get Daisy back, and then Jon just—“ She let out a frustrated groan. “I’m gonna kill him.”

 

“Elias or Jon?”

 

Basira sent him a look that clearly said that she’d considered both options at length. “I’ll meet you here at noon tomorrow. But I still don’t think it’s a good idea.”

 

As Tim sits next to Basira at the table in the prison’s visitation room, he thinks that she’s probably right. But Tim’s carried out plenty of bad ideas before, and he’s survived.

 

Well. Mostly.

 

“Nice to see you again, Detective,” Elias says with a stretched smile that sets Tim’s teeth on edge when Elias turns and directs it toward him. “And Tim. So glad that you could join us. I take it life outside the Institute is treating you well?”

 

Tim has no idea how to respond to that, beyond maybe a sharp none of your business, but Basira’s snapped not a detective, never was saves him the trouble.

 

“Oh, but everyone else seems to be getting a title these days,” Elias says, and the words are directed toward Basira, but his eyes—an intense green that seems to cut through Tim to his very soul—are focused on Tim. “Now, I really did want to speak to Tim, so if you don’t mind—“

 

“Oh, I mind.” Basira slams a folder on the table in front of her. It’s bulging with papers: plane tickets, scribbled notes, printed itineraries. “You want to tell me why you sent me bouncing all over the globe on bad intel, searching for a way to bring Daisy back, only to come back to Jon and Daisy climbing out of that damn coffin? Was there even a way to bring Daisy back that didn’t involve just jumping straight into the Buried?”

 

Elias begrudgingly looks at Basira. “Perhaps. Perhaps not. In regards to your… global explorations, however, I find that rescue missions go more smoothly when unimpeded by unnecessary obstacles.”

 

Basira blinks at Elias, and Tim can practically feel the frustration radiating off her. “You wanted him to go in there.”

 

“And you never would have allowed it, had you been present.”

 

“Why?”

 

“I believe I can answer the rest of your questions shortly, Detective.” Elias pushes the folder back toward Basira with an indifferent finger. “But it would be rude to keep Tim waiting any longer, don’t you think?”

 

“I mean, I’m not really jumping at the chance to talk to you,” Tim says, before Basira can snap back at Elias. Or jump across the table and strangle him. It’s really fifty-fifty.

 

“And yet, here you are.”

 

Tim can’t really argue with that, unfortunately. So, he grits his teeth and says, “Fine. Why don’t you start, then, since I’m really only here because you asked me to be.”

 

The slight upturn of Elias’s mouth doesn’t really put Tim at ease. “Fair point. First off, I believe congratulations are in order. It’s not often that one gets a second chance at life, after all, nor with such a… clean slate, so to speak.”

 

“Thanks,” Tim says dryly. “I’m touched.”

 

“And to reconnect with Sasha and your brother as well—”

 

“I thought you said you had answers,” Tim bites out around the lump in his throat. “Or was that another lie?”

 

“Certainly not.” Elias taps a finger on the table, slowly, like a heartbeat. “I can answer any questions you may have, though I cannot promise that you will like what I have to say.”

 

How comforting. But, it was Tim’s choice to come here, and it wasn’t just for congratulations. So, he goes for the obvious question. “What am I?”

 

“You’re going to have to be more specific. Identities—they can be tricky, you see.”

 

“What am I, supernaturally?

 

“Again, you’re going to have to be—”

 

Am I an avatar of the End?” Jesus, it’s like pulling teeth with this guy.

 

That same infuriating grin. “Yes. But you already knew that. What you want to know is what exactly that means.

 

“Yeah, that’d be great,” Tim says flatly.

 

“I’m afraid I can’t provide the finer details, but suffice it to say that you now have certain… abilities with regard to those who have already been claimed by the End.”

 

“You can just say ‘dead people,’ you know,” Basira says flatly.

 

Elias continues as if she hadn’t spoken. “Avatars exist to serve their patrons. To spread that fear and to cultivate it within others as it once was cultivated within yourself. While you may not remember the marks that death has left on you in the past, they remember you. And certain marks can run very deep, particularly when motived by fear.”

 

“Okay, great. Thanks for the philosophy lesson,” Tim says wryly. “But can we get back to the abilities part?”

 

“Just providing some context.” Elias’s smile cuts through Tim, making him shiver. “And a reminder not to take this lightly. Fear has a way of consuming all it touches, even those from whom it flows. Particularly for someone who can reach within the End and retrieve the souls to which it has already laid claim. Ultimately to the End’s favor, of course, but still a dangerous line to walk.”

 

It’s a natural conclusion, really. That Tim’s able to resurrect the dead somehow. But it still steals the breath from Tim’s lungs to hear it confirmed, though he tries not to let it show. He really, really does. But he can tell that Elias can tell, and Elias’s smile deepens slightly as he says, “As for how this retrieval works, however, or the nature of the circumstances surrounding it, I’m afraid I can’t tell you.”

 

“Can’t or won’t?” Tim says tightly.

 

“Is there much of a difference between the two?”

 

“Great.” Tim leans back in his chair with a scowl. “Don’t know why I even fucking bothered. I should have known this would be a monumental waste of my time.”

 

“Oh, come now, Tim. Surely you have other questions you’d like answered.” Elias drums a steady beat on the table, the handcuffs jangling slightly as he does so. “Regarding the gaps in your memory, perhaps?”

 

“Thanks, but no thanks. I’ve pretty much got that covered.” Not entirely true, but Tim doesn’t particularly think that any events Elias might remind him of would be things he’d want to remember.

 

With a wire-thin smile, Elias says, “Perhaps regarding Sasha and your brother?”

 

Tim’s vision goes a little hazy. “I don’t want to hear anything you have to say about that.”

 

“No?” Elias’s voice is light, unaffected, with a trace of humor that laces through Tim’s veins like ice. “I would have thought you’d be interested in the specifics of their situation, if only to avoid any… unnecessary risks.”

 

God, Tim wants to punch him. He’s struggling to think of reasons why he shouldn’t. “The only unnecessary risk I’ve taken lately is coming here.” He stands, too quickly, his hands gripping the empty air at his sides with white knuckles. The sudden change of altitude makes his head spin.

 

And spin.

 

And it keeps spinning, and Elias might be saying something, but Tim can’t really hear him over the blood rushing through his ears. He can’t see past the blackness creeping in at the edges of his vision. Or at least, he can’t see right. He must not be seeing right, because for a moment, it looks…

 

It looks like Elias has no eyes.

 

Then, the world snaps back into focus, and Basira’s hand is on his wrist, her voice saying his name in a way that indicates she’s been saying it on repeat for a while. But Tim’s eyes are still locked on Elias, whose face is still schooled in a neutral expression but whose eyes—which are still there, definitely not just empty sockets from which a sticky red river of blood flows, staining the crisp white cloth of the shirt below it with a spreading crimson stain—are shining with a hint of fear.

 

By the way Basira’s looking at him, equal parts worry and confusion, it’s clear that whatever he’d seen, it had just been him. The table is clean, devoid of blood. Elias’s eyes are obviously still intact, and all fear—if it was even there at all—has been swiftly erased as he settles them on Basira and says, with practiced ease, “Perhaps it’s best that Tim heads home if he’s feeling ill.”

 

Tim is feeling ill, but in a way that grows and churns from the bottom of his stomach, leaving a sharp metallic taste on the back of his tongue. He pushes away Basira’s hand and her offer to call someone for him. He makes excuses, makes his exit. He feels the weight of Elias’s eyes follow him out of the room, but he refuses to look again.

 

Maybe if he doesn’t look, he can pretend like he didn’t feel that fear resonate through bone and muscle, settling happily in his chest with a thrum of icy-sharp terror. He wishes the sensation were unfamiliar. He also wishes he hadn’t liked it so much. But he doesn’t seem to be getting much of what he wants lately.

 

So, with the cold still nestled in his chest and pulsing quietly in time with his heartbeat, he begins to make his way to the Institute.

 


 

Tim really does intend to go straight to Jon. If anyone can sort out exactly what had just happened, it’s him. But then he sees Martin, disappearing around a corner with his nose buried in an open file folder, and Tim really has no choice other than to follow him, right? It’s just rare enough of an occurrence that he has to take advantage of the opportunity to finally talk to Martin again.

 

So, he turns away from the Archives and follows Martin instead. It’s really not hard; Martin doesn’t seem to be paying attention to his surroundings, and Tim’s certain that if anyone else were walking in the hallway, he would have run straight into them. But they’re alone, and soon, Martin disappears through a heavy wooden door at the end of the hallway.

 

Tim catches the door with his foot before it fully closes. “Long time no see, Martin.”

 

The file folder slips from Martin’s hands as he jumps at the sound of Tim’s voice. “Christ, Tim! Don’t do that.”

 

“Do what?” Tim asks innocently, stepping fully into the office and letting the door swing shut behind him. “Wow, it’s roomy in here. Is this where you work?”

 

Martin glances around with slightly-too-wide eyes, like he expects someone to materialize from the walls. Well, it wouldn’t be the weirdest thing Tim’s seen all day. “Yes, and—ah, don’t touch those!”

 

Tim lets the papers he’d been flipping through slip out of his fingers. Martin quickly bundles them together and slides them across the desk, out of reach, but Tim still sees the neat, curling script scrawled across them. “Look, Tim,” Martin says, and Tim knows that he’s about to offer up some excuse about work and busy and need to be alone or whatever, and oh no he doesn’t.

 

“So, how’s it going then?” Tim says, cutting Martin off mid-excuse. He leans against the wall next to a potted plant, the leaves tickling his arms. “What’s it like working for the newest horrible head of the Institute?”

 

“It’s- it’s fine.”

 

Fine. Yeah, right. Tim switches tactics. “Glad that Jon’s back, yeah? Though where he’s back from, exactly, is still a bit murky to be honest—I mean, it kinda just looks like a coffin, but apparently it leads underground? At least, that’s what Basira said—”

 

“Tim please.” Martin looks pained. “You- you need to leave.”

 

Ouch. “Look, Martin, I know you’re busy basically running this place, but I’m sure if you take a small break, it’ll be—”

 

“Just,” Martin says, voice tight. “Just go, please.”

 

Tim looks at Martin’s tense shoulders, at the way he shrinks back into himself, at the blatant reluctance in his eyes, and makes a decision. “No.”

 

“Tim—”

 

No,” Tim says, more forcefully. “Jon might be willing to let you dig yourself into this hole, but I’m sure as hell not.” He pushes off the wall and takes a few steps toward Martin, who, for his part, doesn’t move—just keeps staring resolutely over Tim’s shoulder. “Let me get this straight, just so I understand. We’re friends. You’re glad that I’m alive. And the fact that I—and Jon—are alive means that you now have two people who don’t want you to make this objectively very bad life decision.”

 

“You don’t understand,” Martin says tightly.

 

“Then enlighten me.” Tim takes another step, places a hand on Martin’s shoulder; he flinches slightly at the contact but doesn’t pull away. God, he’s so cold. “Because from where I stand, it seems like you need help. And I might not remember all the details or the- the feelings or whatever, but if we were friends once, then we are now. So let me help you.”

 

“I…” Martin glances at Tim’s hand, then at the file still lying on the floor, papers scattered in spots of white against black tile. For a brief, hopeful moment, Tim thinks he’s gotten through to him.

 

“I’m sorry.” Martin shakes off Tim’s hand, steps back. His eyes are looking over Tim’s shoulder again, never directly at him, but Tim can still see the barely-concealed hesitation in them, the faintest hint of pain. “There’s so much more going on here, and I- I need to do this. Before, it was just… it’s not just about me now. So please, just- just leave.”

 

Tim doesn’t want to. He really, really doesn’t want to. And he’s certainly not going to stop trying to convince Martin to stop locking himself away in this office—well-decorated as it may be—away from all human contact, because he’s certain that that plus working for an avatar of the Lonely is not a good combination. But Martin’s eyes finally lock with his, and there’s a quiet desperation in them that has Tim saying, “Okay. Okay.”

 

He backs toward the door, keeping his eyes on Martin, looking for any sign of remorse, of hesitation, of a subtle help me, please, but there’s nothing. Just that same pleading sorrow. So, he leaves with a quiet, “Don’t worry. I’ll come back.”

 

The door doesn’t swing shut fast enough to block out Martin’s soft, “I know.” But then it’s closed, and everything else is lost to the space between.

 

July 29, 2016

 

Archivist’s note: memory corrupted; may no longer play. Further assistance is required.

 

God, Tim itches. Not that he’ll mention it again. He’s already been poked and prodded enough, enough to know that there aren’t any more… any more worms. But he can still feel them, crawling over his skin, through his skin, burrowing deeper and deeper, writhing through fat and muscle and then shriveling and screaming as one when the CO2—

 

And then Tim had passed out, which was a small mercy. That doesn’t mean he doesn’t remember what came immediately before—though he’d give almost anything to forget.

 

He’s trying to resist the urge to peel back his bandages and scratch at his skin until it’s rubbed raw when there’s a large commotion just to his left, near the part of the Institute that’s still swarming with medical personnel and police officers. He looks over at Jon, but he’s fiddling with one of his tape recorders with an intense concentration that Tim’s honestly surprised he can muster up right now, what with the… the holes, and the blood, and the bandages. So, after a few seconds of waiting for Jon to notice the scene in front of them, Tim gives up and stands with a groan, deciding that he’d rather know what’s happening than be treated to another surprise. He’s honestly not sure if his heart could handle it.

 

“Jon.”

 

Jon startles slightly, almost dropping the recorder. He glances at Tim’s outstretched hand with a confused frown. “What?”

 

Tim gestures with his head toward the Institute. “Come on. You can’t tell me you’re not curious about what’s going on over there.”

 

Jon glances past him, as if just noticing the growing crowd. “I… suppose.” He takes Tim’s hand, and they both wince as Tim pulls Jon to his feet, placing a quite unpleasant amount of pressure on the bandaged holes in his hand. Holes in his hand. God, this really is Tim’s life now, huh? He needs a nap. Preferably for several days.

 

Despite the discomfort, Tim maintains a gentle grip on Jon’s hand as they move closer to the Institute, trying to see through the wall of black and white uniforms. For a long moment, there’s nothing. Then:

 

“Good lord, is that- is that Martin?

 

It takes a too-long amount of time for Tim to finally get close enough to Martin to wrap his arms tightly around him. It hurts, but it’s worth it when Martin practically melts into his grip, and Tim feels wet tears hitting the side of his neck where Martin buries his face against Tim’s shoulder. Martin’s babbling apologies, and something about worms and Gertrude Robinson, and Tim ignores the screaming pain in his arms and squeezes tighter, rubbing soothing circles in between Martin’s shoulder blades.

 

This isn’t the first time that Tim’s held Martin while he cried. That had been tucked away in document storage, a few days after Martin had stumbled into the Archives with a glass jar of wriggling grey worms and a decidedly not-ill-with-a-stomach-bug demeanor. Jon had informed Tim and Sasha that Martin would be staying in the Archives for the foreseeable future, and Tim had accompanied Martin after work on the short-but-necessary trip back to his flat to retrieve all the necessary items. They’d only spent a few minutes in his flat; Martin had jumped at every noise, flinching away from the long shadows cast on the walls from the setting sun and gripping Tim’s arm tightly the entire time. Tim had collected Martin’s things into a bag as quickly as possible and they’d left, and then Martin was living in the Archives. And that was that.

 

Then, Tim had stayed late finishing some follow-up on a case a few days later and had opened the door to document storage to find Martin hunched in on himself on the cot, breaths coming in labored bursts and eyes glistening with tears.

 

The door shut and the statement forgotten on the floor, Tim knelt down next to Martin. “Hey,” he said softly, and Martin’s breath hitched in his throat as he sat up too-fast, his eyes wide.

 

“Tim, I—” Martin scrubbed quickly at his eyes, then again when the tears wouldn’t stop. “I’m okay.”

 

“No, you’re not.” Tim rested a light, careful hand on Martin’s knee, giving Martin the chance to push him away if he wanted. Martin jumped slightly under the touch but didn’t pull away, so Tim moved to sit on the cot next to Martin, shifting the hand from his knee to rest on his shoulder. His thumb rubbed soothing circles as he said, “Breathe in and out. Five counts in, seven counts out.”

 

Martin shook under Tim’s hand, his heartbeat frantic enough to be felt where Tim’s pinky finger rested against the side of his neck. As Martin breathed in and out slowly, rhythmically, Tim said, “I’m sorry that you had to go through this, Martin. But you’re safe here. The Archives are safe, and I’m here with you. You’re not alone.”

 

Martin’s pulse was slowing slightly, and though his cheeks were still wet with tears, his breathing was beginning to level out. He leaned into Tim’s touch, and Tim moved his hand so it gripped Martin’s other arm, pulling Martin tightly to his side. “You’re safe,” he repeated, and he felt Martin nod.

 

“Yeah,” Martin said, his voice hoarse. “I- I’m safe.” A tentative pause. “Will… will you stay?”

 

Tim began rubbing circles with his thumb again. “Of course.”

 

Now, Tim sits outside the Institute with Martin, waiting for… something. For Jon to finish taking statements and finally relent to resting at home? For the fear still thrumming through them to settle into something more muted? It’s hard to tell, but neither of them seem inclined to move yet, even as the cleanup crew continues to move in and out of the Institute, a constant reminder of just what exactly they’re cleaning up.  He’s honestly not sure which of them needs comforting right now. Probably both. It’s been…

 

Well, it’s been a fucking day. And Tim gets the distinct feeling that it’s only going to get worse.

 

Should Tim have cried? It would be a natural response, he thinks, to having dozens of worms pulled out of you, leaving you pockmarked with holes that ooze and make you vomit onto the grass next to you, like that’ll somehow alleviate the squirming sensation overcoming your entire body. Hell, even Jon had cried when they’d moved to his face, if only from the pain, but still. Maybe Tim just isn’t built for that kind of sorrow.

 

Or maybe he’s just desensitized now. Maybe he’d used up all his tears a long time ago, surrounded by stone and staring at flickering shapes that once had worn a sickeningly familiar, smiling face.

 

Either way, he hadn’t cried. He’d held Martin, letting Martin’s tears stain his shirt—which was definitely going straight in the bin—until his breathing had slowed into something resembling calm. And then they’d spoken to Jon, who’d put up a good show as he took their statements but whose eyes reflected that same lingering fear that Tim felt thrumming throughout his entire body, just as Jon’s body mirrored Tim’s in white bandages against brown skin. And now they both sit, waiting.

 

Maybe they just can’t stand the thought of being alone.

 

“Come on,” Tim says, standing and glancing back down at Martin. “Let’s go home. If I have to wear these clothes for one more minute, I’m going to crawl out of my own skin.”

 

Martin stares at Tim for a moment before letting a hesitant smile unfold across his face. “Yeah. A hot shower sounds nice. And pizza. And a lot of wine.”

 

“Luckily, I am well stocked in that particular area. Is Moscato okay?”

 

“Honestly? I’d take anything right now.”

 

“Perfect.”

 

The Institute fades out of sight, and as Tim feels those last vestiges of fear loosen their grip, he feels like he can finally breathe again. His hand brushes against Martin’s, and he allows their fingers to slot together, his thumb beginning to smooth away the tension that radiates down through the back of Martin’s hand.

 

It’s not fine, and it probably won’t be fine for a long time, but they’re both still here, and that’s really all that Tim can ask for.

 

March 31, 2018

 

Tim’s sitting in the armchair in Jon’s office, his fingers drumming a quick rhythm on the soft fabric of the armrests. He’d been pacing, but at Jon’s I can’t think when you keep moving around, he’d taken a reluctant seat. That cold, sharp fear is back, but Tim thinks this one might be his own, if only for the way that it turns his stomach rather than electrifying every nerve in his body.

 

“So here’s what we know,” Jon says finally, breaking the silence that had lasted several minutes after Tim had finished recounting what had happened at the prison. Jon hadn’t been happy to learn that Basira’s been visiting Elias, nor that Tim had elected to go along with her, but that was a problem for another day. Now, there’s the matter of Elias quite possibly being dead. Or half-dead? Or Tim’s avatar thing is just malfunctioning, or he’s stressed, or—

 

God, there are like a thousand things that make more sense than Elias is a zombie.

 

Jon continues, “You are definitively an avatar of the End. You’re able to revive people who have already died, likely for the purpose of having them die again in front of someone they care about, thus… regurgitating that fear, in a way, and additionally absorbing the fear of the living party. When you do this, you get a… feeling of death, I suppose we could call it?”

 

“Never thought about it that way, but… yeah, it kinda feels like death.” Tim suppresses a shiver.

 

“And you got this feeling when you visited Elias?”

 

“Don’t forget the lack of eyes.”

 

“Great.” Jon pinches the bridge of his nose. “So obviously, that’s concerning, as Elias very clearly isn’t dead.

 

“Well, neither are Danny or Sasha, but you keep insisting that they’re dead, so.”

 

Jon shoots him a dry look. “Yes, but to my knowledge, Elias has never been dead. The same cannot be said for—”

 

“Okay, okay!” Tim runs a hand down his face, pinching his eyes tightly closed. “We’re not having this argument again.”

 

“Fine,” Jon says, though the tightness of his voice indicates that it is very much not fine. But he doesn’t press, and Tim’s thankful for that, at least. “I… I don’t really know what to do. I- I could try to Know what’s going on, but none of my… abilities have worked on Elias in the past. Although, I suppose it doesn’t hurt to…”

 

Jon’s eyes focus on some point over Tim’s shoulder, his forehead creased in concentration. Tim’s not exactly sure when warm hazel transitions to refractive silver-green, but after a few moments, Jon’s breathing grows labored, like he’s Atlas attempting to lift the entire weight of the sky. Tim barely has time to ask what the hell is happening before the green in Jon’s eyes slips away and he collapses onto his desk, knocking a pastel yellow mug adorned with stenciled bees onto the ground where it shatters into a hundred tiny ceramic shards.

 

“Jesus,” Tim says, standing and placing a firm hand on Jon’s shoulder—to shake him awake or just to comfort him, he’s not sure. He can feel Jon’s pulse fluttering against the side of his hand though, which is a good sign, he thinks.

 

Jon groans when Tim squeezes his shoulder, probably a bit too hard, but what the hell do you do when someone passes out in front of you from… what? Thinking too hard? It’s not like there’s a precedent in Tim’s life for properly reviving unconscious avatars of eldritch fear entities. “I… I’m all right,” Jon says after a few moments, his voice cracking slightly on the all right. “Just… just too much, all at once.”

 

“Too much?” Tim echoes, not removing his hand.

 

Jon winces slightly as he lifts his head; Tim honestly thinks that if he lets go, Jon’s going to crumple again like a puppet with its strings cut. “Yes, I… I suppose trying to intentionally Know things is a bit like- like trying to remove a teaspoon of the ocean and instead having the entire weight of it consume you in a tidal wave of- of knowledge.”

 

“Ouch.”

 

A wry smile finds its way to Jon’s lips. “Ouch, indeed. I- I’m going to need a moment.”

 

“Right, yeah.” Tim hesitates, then removes his hand. Jon does not, in fact, collapse again, but he does wobble slightly, bracing his hands on the desk with a wince. After a few moments, Tim says cautiously, “So did any of it stick, or…?”

 

Jon sighs. “Not really. There was… there was so much, and I felt all of it, but it’s… it’s hard to remember any one thing when you experience everything at once.”

 

“So we’re back to square one on the Elias problem?”

 

Jon looks pained. “I suppose so, yes.”

 

“Fantastic.” Tim moves to sit again, but he falls into the armchair a bit too hard when the motion sends his head spinning, a chilling vertigo that’s just a bit too familiar by this point. For a brief, almost bitterly humorous moment, Tim marvels at the absolutely impeccable timing of whatever the hell this is, if only in that it happens at the absolute worst times possible. Then, the dizziness turns his brain fuzzy, and he’s just glad that he’s already sitting when the cold takes him.

 

Is it possible to be conscious while being unconscious? Because Tim really can’t think of any other explanation for the darkness he finds himself floating in. No, more than darkness. That would imply the absence of light but the existence of a physical world still, of something to be touched and experienced and in which to exist. Wherever Tim is, it’s the absence of everything, and being here hurts.

 

This is the End, and it is infinite.

 

Tim brushes against something cold and sharp, floating in the nothingness that swirls around and inside and through him, and an instinct that’s not his own folds himself around and through it, injecting tendrils of frozen fear through what might be his chest, if he had a physical form in this place. It doesn’t fit, and he itches with it, and he flinches away, away from the dark, away from the cold, until a warmth tickles at the back of his neck and he grabs onto it with a frantic desperation, because something in the back of his mind whispers that if he doesn’t, he’ll be lost here forever, and this is not a place you escape from twice.

 

This is the End, and it is not for the living.

 

When Tim resurfaces in Jon’s office, taking gasping breaths with lungs that burn like he’s been drowning and squinting against the too much, too bright light that hits his eyes, he notices three things.

 

One: Jon’s hands are gripping his shoulders tightly, despite the way that he still looks about three seconds from keeling over himself, and his eyes are glazed over with a silver-green that cuts through the last vestiges of cold and dark that still cling to Tim’s soul. He’s repeating Tim’s name over and over, like a prayer, and with every repetition Tim comes back to himself a bit more.

 

Two: he’s approximately 87% sure that he just died. Again. And he’s even more sure that he’s never been aware of himself after he’s had a dizzy spell and passed out, at least not… not like this. Not this sort of limbo, existing in a place where things shouldn’t exist, heartbeats deafening in that terrible stillness. But he also knows what this means, what it must have meant every time he’d staggered against a wall with spots swimming behind his eyes or barely avoided crumpling in the middle of the street, hating the pitying eyes of those who stepped around him as he struggled to regain himself.

 

Three: they’re not alone in Jon’s office anymore.

Chapter Text

September 16, 2017

 

“What about this one, Sash?”

 

Tim holds up a rather gaudy button-down shirt covered in parrots, grinning from ear to ear. It’s on sale for three pounds, which is honestly probably too much for something that could easily blind someone if they looked at it for too long, but that’s not going to stop Tim from buying it.

 

“Ew, no.” Sasha wrinkles her nose from the other side of the clothing rack. Then, her expression slips into something a bit more mischievous, and she holds up another button down that’s quite possibly even more gaudy. It’s like staring into the sun. “You need this one.”

 

“Joke’s on you—I’m getting both. You know I’m not one to pick a side.”

 

Tim swipes the shirt from Sasha, who sticks her tongue out at him. “How you manage to get dates when you dress like that, I will never know.”

 

Excuse you, my fashion sense is impeccable!” Tim gestures to the yellow-and-pink flamingo button-down he’s currently wearing as way of example. “Anyway, you’re one to talk, miss three-different-shades-of-green-at-once.

 

“You’re incorrigible, Timothy Stoker.”

 

“Why, thank you.”

 

Tim ends up walking out of the charity shop with a collection of outrageously patterned button-downs, including one featuring a wide variety of hot sauce brands that he’d bought solely out of spite. Sasha has a few books slotted under one arm and a plush pig under the other, both of which Tim had ended up paying for after her card had been declined.

 

“Ugh, it’s so embarrassing,” Sasha groans as they make their way to the tube station. “I’m pretty sure the entire shop knew that I’m absolutely broke.”

 

“You mean the two old ladies shopping for cookware in the back and the group of fourteen-year-olds who were too busy looking through the adult book section?”

 

Sasha’s hands are too full to smack him, so she settles for a withering glare. “Seriously though, Tim, it was ten pounds.

 

“Yeah, so you don’t have to worry about paying me back, then. No, don’t give me that look—I have a job now, remember?”

 

The tube station is crowded enough that they jostle a few shoulders as they make their way into the tunnels. Sasha almost drops her books as she meets a particularly hard obstacle, who startles at the touch and glances at her, confused and slightly nervous, before moving away. After that, the station feels a lot less congested.

 

“Anyway,” Tim continues as they step onto the train car, “my place or yours?”

 

Sasha opens her mouth, then hesitates. Closes it. Squints a bit. It’s only then that Tim realizes that they’ve never talked about Sasha’s place. It’s only been about a month, after all, since they met, and they’ve defaulted to spending time at Tim’s house in some sort of unspoken agreement. He can’t believe he didn’t think to ask earlier.

 

After a long pause, Sasha says hesitantly, “I… I don’t think I have a place? I- I’m trying to remember, but it’s… it’s all a bit fuzzy. God, that sounds mental, doesn’t it?”

 

Tim really, really wishes they weren’t surrounded on all sides by strangers, because he desperately wants to pull Sasha into a tight hug. He settles for taking the stuffed pig from her and threading his fingers through her now-free hand, giving it a tight squeeze. “I’m sorry, I- I didn’t know.” A million different scenarios flash through his mind lightning-quick, and he actively suppresses all of them. It’s really none of his business why Sasha doesn’t have anywhere to live, but now that he knows, he can’t not say something. He can’t not offer—

 

“Do you want to live with me, then?”

 

Sasha looks at him, shocked. For a brief, terrifying moment, he thinks he might have overstepped—that they’re friends, but not that good of friends, or that the connection Tim feels thrumming through his veins whenever she’s around is completely one-sided. Then, her hand squeezes his gently, and she says, “Yeah, I… I think I’d like that.” Then, humorously: “As long as you promise never to make that godawful courgette pizza ever again.”

 

“Okay, how was I supposed to know that you can’t make a pizza crust out of courgette? Besides, you didn’t even eat any, so I don’t see how you can have an opinion on how it tasted.”

 

“Oh, believe me, the visual was more than enough.”

 

They’re almost to Tim’s house when Tim thinks to ask, “Oh, do you need to… to get your things? I, uh. I won’t ask, if you don’t want me to, but I want to help any way I can.”

 

That same look of confusion and something akin to the static that comes across a television screen without an active channel settles on Sasha’s face again. “I…” Sasha shakes her head, as if to clear out a lingering fog. “No, I- I must have things. I… I’ll get them later.”

 

Tim tries very hard to shake the whisper of unease that tickles at the back of his mind, and almost succeeds. “Are you sure? I’m really good at lifting boxes, you know.” He flexes, for demonstration, and almost drops the bags he’s holding.

 

Sasha stifles a laugh, and with that, the unease is gone, like it had never been there in the first place. “I’m sure. But no, it’s- it’s getting late. Let’s just order some Thai food and relax, yeah? I’ll worry about getting… getting my things tomorrow.”

 

It’s almost like a glitch, Tim thinks vaguely. A blink-and-you’ll-miss-it flicker in reality. A smudge on the glass, only visible when the light hits it at the right angle. Just the faintest flash of blonde and white and shadowy limbs and a face that isn’t hers as Sasha steps through his doorway, her books clutched tightly to her chest and her eyes alight with amusement as she teases Tim for the atrocious state of his kitchen, do you ever wash your dishes, Timothy Stoker?

 

It really must be getting late. It’s not like Tim’s been sleeping well, so he really can’t blame his foggy brain for creating false images. It’ll… it’ll be nice having someone else around, he thinks. Well, someone besides Danny. He will never, ever, not in a million years say this to Danny’s face, but while he really, really appreciates Danny staying with him until… until he gets better, it’s a bit…

 

Well, it’s putting a bit of a strain on Tim to live with the constant juxtaposition of the Danny in his dreams and the one sitting in his living room when he wakes in the morning. Though it’s certainly better than the alternative.

 

So then it’s the three of them in the house, and everything finally feels like it fits. Like he’s home. Sasha, at some point, gets her things, which begin to appear in corners and cabinets and cracks between the couch cushions when they’re lost there during midnight movie marathons. Danny and Sasha commiserate over being the pickiest eaters Tim’s ever met in his life—“You know, you actually have to eat the food to decide if you like it or not”—and Tim and Danny both come to the quick and unspoken decision that Sasha’s absolutely the coolest roommate ever after she completes a frankly miraculous redecoration of the house. Even when Danny moves out, eventually, it still doesn’t feel like a loss, because Sasha’s there, and how can Tim be lost when he has her?

 

The dreams persist, and Sasha gets them a cat, and the good balances the bad until Tim finally feels stable enough to go on.

 

March 31, 2018

 

There’s someone standing in the corner of Jon’s office. Jon doesn’t see them at first, his eyes still glossy and silver and locked with Tim’s in a way that definitely shouldn’t be comforting but is, a little bit, because they’re not an unfeeling darkness and right now Tim’s bar is set pretty low.

 

“Uh,” Tim says, at the same time as the someone—a boy with close-cropped dark hair, couldn’t be more than 18 or 19—says, “Where am I?” and Jon turns, his eyes leaving Tim and locking on the figure in the corner, his hands leaving Tim’s shoulders.

 

And Jon goes rigid.

 

“Woah, dude,” the boy says, taking a step back and bumping solidly into the wall behind him. “Those are some, like, freaky contacts. Or—huh. Never mind, I guess.”

 

Jon’s mouth opens. Closes. He looks back at Tim, his eyes wide and scared and back to hazel, and Tim really, really doesn’t like the warm thrum of fear that pulses through him when their eyes meet.

 

“Fuck,” Tim says, which is the understatement of the year.

 

“Can one of you, like, tell me where I am?”

 

Jon and Tim’s eyes snap in tandem back to the boy, who’s crossed the room and is now flipping through some of the files Jon has sitting on his desk. “Huh. Spooky.” The boy’s eyes find the clock on the wall, and he drops the file back on the desk like it’s burned him. “Shit, it’s already nine. My dad’s going to kill me for missing dinner again.” He looks back at them. “So. How do I get out of here, then?”

 

“I…” Jon looks lost. “I don’t—”

 

“Hang on.” The boy squints at him, like trying to bring a blurry picture back into focus. “You look, like, super familiar.”

 

“Look—”

 

“No, just give me a sec. It’ll come to me.”

 

Jon looks at Tim pleadingly. “Tim, put him back.”

 

“Have you forgotten that I do not know how any of this works?”

 

The boy laughs, a little cruelly. “You know, you actually kinda look like this kid I know. I’d ask if you were his dad or something, but I’m pretty sure his parents are dead.”

 

Figure it out,” Jon hisses, refusing to look at the boy. Tim’s going to ask who the hell this is, why Jon’s so rattled, when it just. Comes to him, with a vibration of the string that connects his soul to the boy’s.

 

“You…” Tim doesn’t really know what to say, beyond, “Yeah, I’ll- I’ll try. Jesus Christ, Jon.”

 

“You guys are weird,” the boy says, kicking a foot through the ceramic shards on the ground idly. He crunches one beneath his heel. “Fine. I can find my own way out.”

 

He takes a step toward the door, and the string goes taught.

 

“Uh,” the boy says, a quick flash of pain crossing his face. “What the hell is this?”

 

Tim.

 

“Yeah, yeah, just- just give me a sec!” It’s hard to think around the new veins of fear that lace through him, traveling along the string and entering his bloodstream like icy shards. He tries to feel it—the connection, to snap the threads that bind them, but it’s like trying to grab a stream of water as it flows from a tap. Everything just slips around his fingers, unhindered, completely malleable and resistant to any efforts of control. He looks at Jon, and he can tell that Jon can sense the useless frustration radiating off him, because it becomes reflected in Jon’s eyes and the deep, unhappy set of his mouth.

 

“Look, I- I didn’t do anything wrong, I promise!” The boy’s eyes are alight with a growing terror as he tries and fails to move his feet. Not yet, something within Tim whispers. Too soon; not enough. Never enough. He internally tells it to go fuck itself.

 

“I believe you,” Jon says softly, barely more than a whisper. “I want to help.” A pause; Tim can see something that might be guilt pass over Jon’s face, if it weren’t also laced with the fear that hangs sticky in the air, clinging to their skin like a fine mist. “What… what’s your name?”

 

Tim knows his name. He also knows that it’s wrong, for him to have a name. That he’s better without. Better to remain anonymous, a ghost you can’t quite put a name to, a lingering terror that you, too, might die to save someone else and your identity will still be lost to time and trauma.

 

Does he know that? Does he know that? Right now, it’s getting hard to breathe around the fear. Hard to tell where he ends, and the cold begins.

 

“I’m not telling you anything!” the boy says sharply, defensively, like a dog baring its teeth. “Just let me go!”

 

Not enough; never enough.

 

“Okay.” Jon moves as if to reach out, reconsiders, and instead takes a small step back. “Okay.” His eyes find Tim again, like he still expects Tim to be able to fix this, and isn’t that just a big fucking joke? He’s never had any control; his life is officially in the hands of a literally unknowable fear entity, and he was never in any car accident, and he can’t even break the thread that—

 

It snaps.

 

The boy goes rigid, his eyes draining of anything that might be life or human and leaving behind a glassy look that reminds Tim unnervingly of a doll. He turns, slowly, smoothly, as if by an unseen hand, and moves in a practiced rhythm toward the door.

 

Tim knows where the dance ends. He knows that Jon knows it too. That doesn’t stop either of them from watching, by choice or by obligation, as the boy knocks twice on the door. There might be a gasp, the barest exhalation of muffled horror, as the door swings open and dark spindly legs claim the boy for their own, but it’s lost in the ringing of fear and pain that echoes in Tim’s ears as the string unravels itself from his soul and falls back into the nothing.

 

The door swings shut.

 

For a moment, there’s no sound but ragged breathing. Then:

 

Fuck. Jon, I—”

 

“Tim, please, not- not now.”

 

Jon leans against his desk, bracing a hand against the wood and almost knocking yet another mug to the ground as he overestimates his own stability and narrowly avoids collapsing against the desk. Tim thinks he should do something, but what do you do in a situation like this? Say you’re sorry? Say you understand? Say it won’t happen again? None of those are enough. None of them are even correct. Tim can’t control this; he doesn’t—can’t—understand how Jon’s feeling, even though he still remembers how his fear tasted, sickeningly sweet and disgustingly satisfying. He really, really wishes he were sorry. He is sorry, and he’s not. The dichotomy feels like it might rip him in two. He might even let it.

 

So Tim turns to leave. And a hand, crinkled with burn scars and so tentative in its movements, closes around his wrist.

 

“Please don’t… don’t leave.”

 

So Tim doesn’t. They stand there in the silence, Jon’s hand around Tim’s wrist and Tim’s hand finding its way to the small of Jon’s back as he pulls him in cautiously for a hug that’s not so much comforting as it is a silent apology, as much as Tim can muster without feeling sick to his stomach. He tries to find words to fill the empty space between them, to break the quiet that feels too much like the lifeless expanse of cold and black. He’s never want for a witty retort, or a soothing placation, or just something to fill the silence. But everything he tries to say sticks in his throat until he feels like he might choke. So he just stands there, and grips the back of Jon’s shirt tightly, and hopes that it’s enough.

 

July 12, 2017

 

Archivist’s note: memory corrupted; may no longer play. Further assistance is required.

 

The moment Tim sees Jon, standing between the shelves of files in document storage, he immediately reverses his direction of motion and makes to leave, because he does not need another confrontation so soon after the last one. But then Jon says his name with a quiet, desperate urgency, and Tim stops with a resigned groan, partly because he knows that Jon will follow him until they’re forced to have whatever conversation-of-the-week Jon thinks is necessary—that will fix things—and partly because still, even now, he can’t quite convince himself not to care, particularly when Jon says his name in that broken way that has become all too common lately.

 

“What,” Tim says flatly, resolutely keeping his back to Jon so he can’t see those sad eyes and downturned lips that he knows are waiting for him if he breaks and turns to face him.

 

“I just—” Jon breaks off, and Tim just knows that he’s worrying his bottom lip between his teeth, like he always used to do before breaching a sensitive subject. At least before, it had always been about statement follow-up, or something Elias had insisted that Jon address, or whether they were going to get pineapple on their pizza. “I’m sorry, Tim.”

 

A small, disbelieving laugh escapes him. “Yeah, I’m sure you are.” He moves again toward the door and is stopped this time by a hand on his wrist, firm but just loose enough that Tim could shake it off if he wanted.

 

He doesn’t.

 

“I didn’t mean I’m sorry for what I’ve done,” Jon says quietly. “I am, and I wish you would believe me, but I… I know it’s not that simple anymore.” There’s not enough time goes unsaid between them, and Tim hates how it makes his heart squeeze in his chest. “I meant that… I’m sorry about your brother.”

 

“Yeah, well I don’t need your apology about that either,” Tim says tightly, but he doesn’t move.

 

He’d meant to just have Martin give the tape to Jon and be done with it. It was bad enough to have to regurgitate his entire fucking life story to whatever malevolent force controlled those goddamn tapes; he wasn’t going to give Jon the satisfaction of hearing his tragic origin story firsthand, like handing him something to feel even more guilty about. But then Jon had returned from America, and he’d bumped into him wearing that godawful shirt with his hair still tangled from the flight and dark circles under his eyes, and Jon hadn’t asked, but he’d felt…

 

He doesn’t know how he’d felt, exactly. Relieved, that Jon was back? Angry, that he’d never thought to tell Tim about his dealings with the circus and the fucking end of the world right around the corner? Resigned, that this was who they were now and they would be lucky if they both lived long enough to reach neutrality, much less try to regrow the connection Jon had severed? That they both had severed, if he’s being honest with himself, but he’s gotten out of the habit of doing that lately. Much easier to lie. Much easier to hide the hurt behind sharp words and the single-minded goal that had driven him to the Institute’s doors so many years ago. At least that he could control.

 

Maybe that’s why he told Jon, in the end. Had given his statement, right then and there, standing in the hallway long after the sun had set above and watching with a sour taste in his mouth as the dark circles under Jon’s eyes gradually faded with a speed too quick to be quite human.  One last acknowledgement of what had been, of the trust that used to run strong like cable ties between them, before everything went to shit. Or maybe he just wanted Jon to see how much it hurt.

 

Maybe he just wanted control of one fucking thing in his life.

 

It didn’t help, in the end. He finished, and Jon said thank you for telling me, Tim like he’d just been given a fucking gift, and Tim felt a deep nausea settle over him that resolved itself into a tight I didn’t tell you so you would thank me, I told you so you would stop treating me like a fucking loose cannon and let me do what I need to do with the circus, and then bitter, escalating words were exchanged with what Tim really wishes wasn’t practiced ease. Jon stormed into his office, and Tim slammed the door to document storage on his way to the tunnels, and Tim’s body wanted to reject the anger that simmered under the surface, but he forced it back into place, letting it burn away shame and remorse and pain.

 

He’s always been uncomfortably comfortable with suffocating those particular emotions. He just wishes he could still do it with a smile.

 

Now, the dark circles are back under Jon’s eyes, and Tim thinks wryly that it’s both offensive and entirely unsurprising that the effect of his statement has already worn off. Maybe, in another life, he’d be concerned, would offer to make Jon tomato soup and sit down with a cheesy comedy that Jon would hate but would still laugh at and pull him tightly to his side and rub a gentle thumb under his eyes, trying to smudge the darkness away. He longs for it like a drowning man longs for air, and it hurts his chest just the same. But nothing’s simple anymore, and the Jon from that life is gone, lost to spiraling paranoia and the weight of a thousand eyes.

 

“Right,” Jon says, and his voice is so small. “I- I know. But it felt… it didn’t feel right not to offer an apology anyway.” He pauses, staring at the ground for a moment and then at a point just to the left of Tim’s face, like he can’t quite bring himself to meet Tim’s eyes. “I… I have a collection of- of statements, books. About the circus, and the Stranger in general. If you want to have a look, they’re yours. I… I never meant to hide this from you, Tim. If I’d known—”

 

“You’d have what, taken pity on me? Spoon-fed me information about the circus, let me have access to the statements? ‘Oh, poor Tim, he can’t possibly be trusted to—‘”

 

“Tim, I’m not taking pity on you. I am trying to help, to understand—”

 

 “Oh, sure, like you tried to understand when Gertrude was murdered, or when Elias told us we’re all trapped here, or when you found out that Sasha was—”

 

“I’m not saying that I haven’t made mistakes, but believe me when I say that I just want to help you work through this without—”

 

“Without what? Going off the rails? Becoming a disruption? Whatever your fucking plan is for killing this thing, it’s not going to be enough, and I need—

 

“We are working on it, Tim! There’s more at stake than your need for revenge, and I don’t want you chasing after this because you think it’s going to solve anything! I understand how you—”

 

“How? How could you possibly understand how I feel? My brother was skinned in front of me by a fucking supernatural clown, and I- I couldn’t do anything! I didn’t do anything! God, how could you possibly know what it feels like to watch something like that, to see someone get consumed by one of these goddamn monsters and not be able to move, to even breathe, to wonder, to wish that it could have been you, because at least they’d still be alive, and to have that guilt follow you wherever you go, to drive you to a job that steals all you have left in the world and traps you"

 

It’s the lack of a retort that cuts Tim off in the end, just a small, hitched breath that he might have missed if he didn’t see the way it rippled across Jon’s face in a series of minute flinches, each one more distressed than the last. It’s the kind of noise made by someone who’s choking, who has a hand pressed against their windpipe and all they can do is hope to be released before the darkness comes to claim them. It’s panicked, unwilling, and entirely too familiar to Tim.

 

“What,” Tim says tightly, “are you not telling me, Jon?”

 

For a moment, he thinks Jon’s not going to answer. That he’ll offer Tim some bullshit excuse, and Tim won’t push because he’s not like Jon, and they’ll both leave, and that will be that. Tim can almost pretend like that’s what he’d prefer.

 

Then, so softly Tim can barely make it out: “I… I was eight when I found the book.”

 

Jon speaks in nervous, stuttering sentences and shaking breaths, and Tim listens with a squeezing sensation in his stomach that he doesn’t care to identify, growing and twisting its way through black and white pages and long, spindly legs until Jon’s mouth finally snaps shut around the word gone, trapping the story back within him under lock and key. For a moment, there’s silence between them, heavy and raw in a way that burns Tim’s skin.

 

“So that’s it, then,” Tim says, when the silence becomes too much.

 

“Yeah.” It’s barely more than a whisper, but it cuts through Tim like a knife. And Tim just can’t help it.

 

When he pulls Jon in, he half-expects him to resist. It had taken a while, for them to become comfortable enough in the other’s presence to breach the space between them with soft touches and tight embraces, and they’re not exactly on the best of terms, but Jon still falls into him like it’s the easiest thing in the world. He wraps his arms around the small of Tim’s back, and his loose curls tickle Tim’s chin as he presses his face tightly into Tim’s shoulder. It feels nice, and Tim lets it.

 

He could apologize. He could offer sympathy, platitudes and reassurances. He could say, so now you know how I feel, why I need this. Instead, he just squeezes tighter, presses a soft kiss to the crown of Jon’s head against his better judgement, and tries to pretend like this doesn’t feel like an ending.

 

March 31, 2018

 

Sasha’s sitting in the living room when Tim returns to the house, Jon in tow, cradling a mug of something that once was hot but has since cooled in one hand and staring intently at a yellowing book held open by the other. The smile she gives them is slightly shy of genuine, but only in its hesitance.

 

“I just don’t really trust him, Tim,” she’d said last time, after Jon had left with the dirt thoroughly washed out of his hair and a soft, thank you, Tim. “I’m really not trying to be a- a mum friend or whatever—we both know I’m not nearly responsible enough for that—but he somehow keeps dragging you back to that place, and I just don’t think it’s healthy, is all.”

 

“Yeah, no, definitely not,” Tim agreed, and Sasha gave him a light shove on his shoulder.

 

“Tim, I’m being serious. For once. Jonathan Sims is bad news.

 

“He’s like five foot four and 130 pounds soaking wet, how bad news could he be? Ow, don’t hit me! Okay, okay, fine! I’m cool. Serious Tim is taking over.”

 

He mimed slipping on a mask, contorting his face into the best impression of severity he could manage, and felt it slip instantly as Sasha’s face broke under a series of giggles. “Oh no, we’ve lost Serious Sasha!”

 

“Honestly, we probably never even had her from the start.”

 

But, once the giggles died down, Sasha’s forehead creased again in what Tim recognized as genuine concern. “I just don’t want to see you hurt. You understand that, right? And I’m afraid that whatever this is… it’s going to hurt.”

 

Tim’s heart broke, just a little, and he couldn’t help but take Sasha’s hand in his own, stroking soft motions over her knuckles. “I understand. But I… I don’t think this is something I can run from. I think that might actually make it worse. Jon is… god, he’s complicated, but I know what I’m doing.” Tim paused. “… Probably know what I’m doing. I’m in the- the general ballpark of knowledge.”

 

“How reassuring.” But Sasha was smiling, and her skin was soft under Tim’s fingers, and it struck him again, as it so often did, how much he really did love her. “Fine, fine. I get it. And I’m here for you, always. But next time, shower before sleep? The couch is still dirty with spooky… dirt.

 

“Yeah, no, I don’t think that’s coming off.”

 

Now, Sasha sets her mug on the side table, folds her book neatly around the scrap of receipt keeping her page marked, and says, “I take it you’ll need the couch, then?”

 

Jon begins nervously, “Ah, I actually won’t be—"

 

“Yup, but not right now,” Tim cuts in, because they’ve already discussed this and he isn’t going to let Jon crawl back to his flat this late at night just because he’s nervous. “We’re going to make Shepherd’s Pie—do you want some?”

 

Sasha raises an eyebrow. “Tim, it’s almost eleven.”

 

“Don’t worry, the oven will still work—I’ve tested it.”

 

Sasha’s mouth twitches into a wider smile at the joke. “I’m okay, thanks. You two have fun. Please try not to set off the smoke alarm again, though.”

 

“No promises!”

 

“This is not exactly filling me with confidence about your cooking abilities,” Jon says dryly, and Tim is definitely going to tease Sasha later for the small, stifled giggle she lets slip at the mildly affronted look Jon has on his face.

 

“Look, you try to make blackened chicken without setting off the alarm,” Tim grumbles. “The smoke is part of the flavouring.”

 

“Yes, I’m sure.”

 

Tim rolls his eyes and walks into the kitchen, Jon following behind after a brief, uncertain pause. “She’s just jealous that I’m the better cook,” he says in a low voice as he begins pulling potatoes and tomato paste and ground beef onto the counter. “Though, that’s not really much of an achievement, given how little she actually cooks.

 

Jon has this frown on his face, equal parts confusion and concern and hesitance. “Does she? Cook, that is?” His words are even quieter than Tim’s, barely audible over the sound of Tim organizing supplies.

 

Tim begins peeling the potatoes. “I mean… yeah, probably? I’m usually not here during the day.”

 

“But does she… does she eat?

 

Tim almost slips and cuts himself with the knife. “Please,” he says, “do not tell me that you’re implying what I think you’re implying.”

 

By the guilty look on Jon’s face, he was doing more than implying. But, after a moment, he says, “… No, I’m sorry. Just- just curious. About the, ah. Selection, in the fridge.”

 

It’s a shitty lie, and they both know it. But Jon shuts his mouth, and Tim keeps peeling potatoes, and that’s that.

 

Except it keeps turning over in Tim’s mind until, finally, he lets out a long breath and says, quietly, “I don’t know, Jon. What do you want me to say? We’ve gone out before, to restaurants and such. Yeah, Sasha is a picky eater. That doesn’t mean she’s a ghost. It actually might make her more human. I mean, what person actually likes brussels sprouts?”

 

I like brussels sprouts.”

 

“Mm, case in point.”

 

Jon lets out a small huff of air that might be a laugh, and Tim breathes a small sigh of relief that the knee-jerk joke hadn’t, in fact, been completely tasteless. Like brussels sprouts. “I think my vegetable preferences are the least of my worries on that front.”

 

“Couldn’t agree with you more.”

 

It’s fifteen more minutes before the oven door is closed and the timer is set, and with nothing to do with his hands, Tim becomes acutely aware of just how fidgety he still is. It’s nothing close to Jon though, who’s taken to pacing about the kitchen, his hands constantly braiding and rebraiding his hair until Tim’s sure it’s going to be knotted for days.

 

They hadn’t talked much, in Jon’s office. Tim had wanted to—he really, really had, partly because he always talked when he was nervous and partly because it was going to eat at him if he couldn’t at least try to apologize for—

 

Well, for whatever he could. A reflex? An inadequacy? A choice, made before he can remember? Somehow, he thinks that Jon would understand the apology for what it is—a promise. And Timothy Stoker keeps his promises.

 

It had taken less effort this time to convince Jon to come back to Tim’s place, if only because Jon still seemed not-quite in control of himself—or conscious, even—as Tim guided him out of the Institute and into the back of a taxi. Honestly, Tim was going to go broke if this continued, but there was no way Jon was up to taking the tube right now. So, taxi it was. And by the time they’d gotten back to Tim’s place, Jon seemed a bit more himself, if only because Tim was sure the near-death experience they had as the taxi rounded a corner a bit too fast and nearly collided with a bus would have made anyone more alert.

 

So now would be the perfect time, Tim thinks, to just sit at the table and eat some actual honest-to-god food and talk about this. But by the time the crockery comes out of the oven, filling the kitchen with the lovely scent of rosemary and thyme, Jon’s sitting on the couch, and Sasha’s pointing at a page in her book with that glint in her eyes she only gets when tearing the author to shreds, and Jon’s smiling, just a bit, as he says something that earns him an indignant, “Hey, I like that ‘superfluous bit of foreshadowing’!” and god, Tim can’t just bring it up now, can he?

 

Later, then. He makes it a promise to himself, so he won’t let it fall to the wayside in lieu of easier things.

 

Easier things like eating too-hot potatoes, and the rush of sharp relief when Jon actually eats ninety percent of his plate. Easier things like getting into a heated debate about which author, exactly, began the science fiction genre, and getting swatted when Tim asserts that all science began as fiction at first, so really you could go back to the beginning of the written word. Easier things like Sasha saying to Jon, quietly, “So I don’t remember you, and you don’t remember me. Not really, that is. Sounds like a great way to begin again, don’t you think?”

 

Jon blinks at her, forehead furrowed in a quiet surprise. It’s quite late, and Tim’s absolutely going to regret this tomorrow when he’s falling asleep at his desk, but for now, Tim lets himself study Jon’s face and wonder, perhaps not for the first time, if he’d done this in another life. This, being the watching, and this, being the… the everything else.

 

It sure feels natural enough.

 

“I…” Jon clears his throat, looks at the ground. “I suppose I thought you’d be angry.”

 

“Angry about what? The ‘being in Tim’s dreams’ thing, or the ‘you’re a ghost’ thing? Or is there a third thing I’m meant to be cross with you about?”

 

Jon grimaces. “All of the above? There’s also the, um. Infringement on your living space.”

 

Sasha snorts. “Oh, like Tim’s never brought someone home before. Believe me, I’m used to it.”

 

Hey!” Tim says indignantly. “I have always been perfectly civil about that. Besides, you make it sound like it’s a- a daily occurrence or something.” He holds up three fingers. “Three times, Sasha. That’s it!”

 

“Including Jon, four, technically.”

 

Even in the low light of the living room, Tim can see Jon’s deep blush. Sasha must see it too, or the way that Jon shifts uncomfortably, because her tone softens into something more serious as she says, “No, you’re not an infringement, Jon. But yes, I was a bit angry at first. As I believe I’m entitled to be when someone who haunts your best friend’s nightmares shows up one day and accuses you of being dead.”

 

“I distinctly recall you showing up in my office unannounced—”

 

So not the point, Jon.” Sasha sighs, but it’s less a sigh of exasperation and more a sigh of resignation. “I was angry, yes. But the more I thought about it, and the more that Tim told me about… about your situation, and what you were saying about him… I suppose I just realized that being angry didn’t accomplish anything. I’m still wary of you, and of the Institute. I still don’t think that anything good can come from being involved with you and the rest of the Archives. But if we’re just going to be involved anyway, it’s in my best interest to make sure that I know what’s going on, and that includes you, Jon. And if we were friends once, well, I suppose I should trust my own judgement.”

 

It’s quiet for a moment. Then, with a ghost of a smile on his lips, Jon says, “I suppose so. I appreciate the effort, at least.”

 

Easier things like beginning to rebuild.

 

So, it’s not until the next morning that Tim finally gets the chance to set a cup of black tea in front of Jon and say, with much less preamble than he typically employs, “So. About yesterday.”

 

Jon hesitates midway through reaching for the mug, his fingers curling back in on themselves. “Oh,” he says quietly. “Right. Tim, I don’t really want to—”

 

“You don’t have to say anything,” Tim interjects, before Jon can shrink back into himself like he had the last time they’d tried to have this conversation, the day after Jon had crawled out of that coffin. “You just have to listen.”

 

After a long moment, Jon’s fingers relax slightly, and he takes the mug and cradles it between both hands. “I’m listening.”

 

“Great.” Tim sits across from Jon at the table and takes a long sip of his coffee. There are so many things he could say—that he should say—but eventually, he sets his mug down and says, “When I was thirteen years old, I broke Danny’s arm.”

 

Jon frowns. “Tim, I don’t—”

 

“Just. Just listen, okay?” Tim runs a thumb over the rim of his mug, letting the motion ground him. “It was an accident. We’d gone to the park, and I don’t know if I ever told you this, but Danny and I used to climb trees all the time as kids. The park had this one tree that just- just towered over the other ones. It had these huge knots, and spiraling branches that split off in all directions—god, it must have been over a hundred years old. And I could always climb higher than Danny, which he hated. So, we were climbing the tree, and he just- he pushed past me, kept climbing, even when I told him to stop. I grabbed his ankle, just to slow him down—just to keep him safe—but he- he slipped, and then I was holding him by his ankle and he was dangling over the edge, and the ground must have been at least ten feet down. And I- I couldn’t hold on. So, he fell.”

 

The memory of the crack Danny’s arm had made when he’d hit the ground echoes through Tim’s mind like a gunshot. “I suppose it was lucky that he only broke his arm. But my parents didn’t see it that way. No, they just kept asking why I’d done it. Why I’d grabbed him. Why I’d let go. Why we’d climbed the tree in the first place. And I couldn’t answer them, because I didn’t know. We climbed the tree because that’s just what we did. I’d let go because I wasn’t strong enough to hold on anymore. I’d grabbed him to help him.

 

“But that wasn’t quite true, was it? Danny’s like a- a goddamn spider monkey. He could have climbed all the way to the top if he wanted to. It took me years to realize that he’d never tried because I’d told him it was hard, and that had just been the moment he decided it didn’t matter. So, did I really grab him to save him? Or just because I couldn’t stand the thought of him having something I couldn’t? My parents certainly thought it was the latter, by the way they were yelling at me. So, of course, I yelled back, all through the car ride to A&E. And Danny was just- just sitting there, holding his arm and crying, and it wasn’t making it any better—the yelling, the questions, the whys. The only thing that could make it better was time. Nothing else mattered, in the end. My parents’ scoldings, my stammered apologies—it was all just noise.

 

Tim looks at Jon, then, and finds warm hazel staring back at him, curious and open. “Anything I could say about yesterday, it would just be noise. God knows if I could go back and know how to- to stop it, to control this, I would, but I can’t. Not yet. Maybe not ever. And I’m so—”

 

Tim scrubs a hand down his face, trying desperately to find the right words. Nothing comes. “God, I’m so fucking sorry, Jon. For what it’s worth.”

 

It’s quiet for a moment, but Tim can still feel those eyes on him. Then, quietly, Jon says, “You said you broke Danny’s arm.”

 

Tim removes his hand and gives Jon a bewildered look. “What?”

 

“Before, you said you broke Danny’s arm. But you didn’t, did you? You just let go; everything that came after was out of your control.” Jon stares at his mug, fiddling with the string of the tea bag absently. “I… I know what that feels like. To feel out of control, and guilty just the same.”

 

Tim thinks back, to Danny smiling at him and holding up his cast. Of course you can still sign it! I’m not mad anymore. And I want to keep climbing trees together. Softly, almost to himself, he says, “How… how do I fix this, Jon? How do I stop being something I hate?”

 

It’s quiet for a bit too long, and Tim gets the distinct impression that Jon’s wondering the same thing.

 

Then: “I don’t know, Tim.”

 

The coffee is bitter on his tongue. “Yeah. Sounds about right.”

 

They lapse into silence, filled only by the hum of a fan and the gentle rumble of the street outside. It’s a long moment before Jon speaks again, so soft Tim can barely hear it.

 

“What… what was his name?”

 

Tim doesn’t need to ask who Jon means. He also remembers that ache, that need to keep it hidden, to let the nameless remain so, to let anonymity persist. But in this, at least, he has a choice.

 

“Steve,” Tim says, and watches the tension bleed out of Jon’s shoulders. “His name was Steve.”

 

Jon lets out a small breath, barely audible. “I… thank you, Tim.”

 

At least now, Tim thinks, they both have something for which they cannot ask for forgiveness. Only for time.

 

And for now, the clock continues to tick.

Chapter Text

“So here’s what we know.”

 

Basira points at the whiteboard hanging on the wall in the assistants’ office, the word Elias written in big, blocky letters in the center.

 

(“Why is there a whiteboard in the Archives?” Tim asked.

 

“Apparently you used to use it to keep track of how often Jon asked you to commit a crime when you were researching statements,” Melanie said with a hint of humor in her voice.

 

“Commit a crime? This is an archive. Actually, never mind—that’s not even close to the weirdest thing I’ve learned about what happened while I worked here.”

 

“Oh, wait until I tell you about the holiday parties.”

 

“Let me guess: I spiked the egg nog.”

 

“And they said you didn’t remember anything.”)

 

“We know,” Basira continues, “that Tim is an avatar of the End, and that he can—what, bring people back from the dead?”

 

Tim shrugs. It’s an overly casual gesture for a less-than-casual topic, but it’s been a long few days, and he’s tired, and it’s become almost mind-numbingly easy to admit that he’s basically a glorified necromancer. “Temporarily, but yeah.”

 

“And you can also tell when people are dead?”

 

“Yup. Not that that’s a skill that comes up terribly often, given that until yesterday I assumed that most people are, in fact, alive.”

 

Basira lets out a long breath. “All right. And Elias?”

 

Tim shrugs again, a bit less casually. “All I can tell you is that he looked pretty dead. You know—pale skin, no eyes, a lot of- uh, blood.” The image flashes through Tim’s mind again, a face hollow and lifeless and tinged with fear, and he suppresses it back deep within his subconscious. Nausea rolls through him just the same.

 

Basira looks skeptical. “I don’t know. The whole time I was there, he just looked… normal. Infuriatingly smug, but normal.

 

“Look, if you don’t believe me—”

 

“I don’t know what to believe,” Basira says flatly. “We need to do more research.” She stares at Tim for a moment more, then turns to the whiteboard and writes in large, jagged letters: DEAD? Something within Tim wants to reach over and erase the question mark. Whether it’s a remnant of hatred, a desire to see a man who had watched so many suffer under his oppressive gaze suffer in kind, or an instinct darker and more innate than he cares to admit, he’s not sure.

 

“No,” Melanie says from where she’s leaning against the wall, an expression of barely suppressed rage across her face. “What we need to do is finish the job.”

 

Basira sighs; it’s the sigh of someone who has fought the same battle many times and knows its result, but knows that they will have to suffer its pain just the same. “This doesn’t change the fact that killing him will kill us all,” she says, “so no, we don’t need to ‘finish the job.’”

 

“If that’s true,” an unfamiliar voice says from the doorway, “then how are we still alive?”

 

The woman standing there is short and lean, with blonde hair pulled back into a tight ponytail and a long, jagged scar cutting across the side of her face from hairline to ear. Her eyes touch on Basira and Melanie in turn before landing on Tim and sticking there. They narrow, just for a second, before softening through what looks like a conscious effort to do so.

 

“Daisy,” Basira says, her face falling into an expression somewhere between concern and surprise. “I- I didn’t know you were awake.”

 

“Yeah,” Daisy says. “Woke up a few hours ago.”

 

“You should- you should have called me, I could have—”

 

“It’s all right,” Daisy says, with an expression that reminds Tim distinctly of the one he gets when he wakes in the middle of the night, heart still pounding in his chest and the image of shifting colors and slipping skin still fresh on his mind. It’s the one he wears as he keeps his hand from reaching for his phone, from giving in yet again to the desire to assure himself that reality is separate from nightmare, from causing worry to spring yet again to the forefront of the minds that care for him. It’s a look of profound guilt, but also of the knowledge that your guilt isn’t justified, and underneath it is the knowledge that those you care about want nothing more than to help you. And that, more than anything, is the true weight upon your shoulders.

 

This is the person Jon brought back from the coffin, Tim thinks a bit belatedly, before Jon steps around the corner and says, with just a touch of nerves to his voice, “She… she was with me, Basira. We were… talking.”

 

“Talking,” Basira echoes, in a voice completely devoid of emotion.

 

Daisy’s forehead furrows, but all she says is, “Filling me in. On the Elias situation. So, then. If Elias really is dead, shouldn’t we be as well?”

 

“I…” Basira stares at Daisy for another long moment, as if considering something she would very much rather not, before letting out a small breath. “Yeah.”

 

“So he was lying?” Melanie pushes off the wall, anger rising to the surface and coloring her scowl with something much sharper. “I should have killed him when I had the chance.”

 

“What we need,” Basira says, her voice growing firm again as she steps closer to Melanie, “is more information. Clearly, whatever’s going on with Elias doesn’t affect his- his connection to the Institute. So, most likely scenario is that he’s not dead, just—”

 

“Just what, dead-adjacent?” Melanie shakes her head in disbelief. “Not good enough.”

 

“Just involved in something.” Basira gives Melanie a pointed look. After a moment, and with a slow, deliberate breath of someone trying very, very hard to keep their emotions in check, Melanie leans back against the wall. “There’s a lot we don’t know about him. So, I say we do some digging. Look into the time before he was head of the Institute.” She turns to Jon. “Jon, can you- do you Know anything about this?”

 

Jon lets out a long, arduous breath. “No. I- I tried to Look, but it- it was too much, all at once, and I- I couldn’t get anything out of it. Just- just noise.

 

“Right,” Melanie mutters. “Because when has the Eye actually been useful.”

 

“Great,” Basira says, in a tone that implies quite the opposite. “I guess it’s good old-fashioned research, then. Does anybody know anything about Elias’s past—anywhere we can start?”

 

There’s a pause before Jon hesitantly says, “I… I did some research into him, back when I was- er, a few years ago. He joined the institute in 1991, working in Artifact Storage, and became the head in 1996. But before that, he… he really wasn’t anything like he is now.” Jon lets out a small, incredulous laugh. “He- he actually only has a Third in PPE from Christchurch College. And he used to smoke, too. Er. Cannabis.”

 

There’s a moment of total silence. Then, Melanie says, “Elias was a pothead?” and the dam breaks. The room fills with laughter in a way it hasn’t for so many years, ricocheting off the walls and nestling in the hearts of those who haven’t had cause to feel real joy in so, so long. There are actual tears in Tim’s eyes, because the idea of Elias—that haughty, austere man sitting behind bars with his three-piece suit still impeccably tailored and his hair slicked back almost obsessively with what has to be incredibly expensive mousse—getting high has him in absolute stitches.

 

Too quickly, though, the snickers die down, and Tim finds himself left with that heavy feeling that comes from knowing that the levity has been temporary and the dark things that lie beneath have waited patiently for it to wane. He lets the hints of a smile remain on his lips anyway, because it feels a whole hell of a lot better than wallowing in fear and self-pity again.

 

“So,” Basira says, the first of them to regain herself, “we start there, then.”

 

Another chuckle escapes Tim. “With the pot?”

 

“With the college.” Basira writes the name of it on the whiteboard and underlines it in one deft stroke. “We go there, look around. See if we can figure out anything about his family, friends—anything. Maybe it’s nothing. Maybe it’s just another weird, spooky Eye thing that we don’t know about. But if there’s any chance at all that this is something we can use, to- to get rid of him for good, or to quit, then we have to know.” She looks at Jon again, her eyes intense and searching. “Is there anything else you can tell us?”

 

Jon gives her an apologetic look, laced with lines of guilt. “No, I- I don’t have anything else. Everything I know, it- it was hard to come by to begin with. The only person who worked at the Institute before he took over was Gertrude.”

 

“And he killed her,” Melanie says, disgust heavy and cloying in her voice. “He said it was because she wanted to burn down the Archives, but maybe that’s not it. Maybe, she knew something we don’t. Maybe, she knew something he didn’t want her to.”

 

Tim remembers that tape: Elias’s voice, calm and collected as he told them that he’d committed two murders and that if he died, they would die in kind. Elias’s voice, infuriatingly static as he stared down the barrel of a gun and threatened the person who held it with what Tim was sure was a thin, benign smile. Elias’s voice, flat and clinical and just a bit humored, as he told them that Sasha had died long ago and the thing that had worked alongside them in the Archives after the attack had been just another monster.

 

Sasha is a relatively common name, Tim had thought as he let the tape spin and spin and spin. It… it doesn’t mean anything.

 

It wasn’t a good lie then. And it’s getting thinner by the day. But Tim holds it tight and pulls it to him and tries to pretend like it covers the truth that lurks underneath, waiting for him to finally lose his grip.

 

“Tim?”

 

Tim blinks, and they’re all watching him, various expressions of expectation and concern on their faces. “I… I’m sorry, what was the question?”

 

Jon’s face is tight and pinched. “Tim, you don’t have to—”

 

“Can you bring back Gertrude Robinson?” Basira says, cutting over him in a curt, no-nonsense tone.

 

Something deeply uncomfortable settles in the pit of Tim’s stomach. “No,” he says, and it comes out a bit harsher than he intends, but he hardly notices over the tight knot that’s forming in his throat. “And I don’t appreciate that you’re asking me to. It’s not a pleasant experience, and even if I could control it, I… it’s not something I want to do willingly.”

 

Basira, for her part, softens her expression to something more apologetic. “Okay. Then we’ll stick with the original plan. Investigate Elias’s time at uni, look into his personal relationships. Normal research.” She pauses. “Well, as normal as you can get with this sort of thing.”

 

“Great.” Melanie pushes off the wall again and heads for the door. “Now that that’s cleared up, I’m going to lunch.” She pauses in the doorway, glancing back at Basira. “Are you coming?”

 

Basira hesitates, her eyes flitting over to where Daisy and Jon are stood next to one of the desks, which is covered in haphazard stacks of papers that make Tim cringe to look at. Spookiness aside, this is hands-down one of the worst archives he’s ever seen. He swears he even saw some of the statements stapled together.

 

Daisy stares back at Basira, her expression carefully neutral. “I’ll still be here when you get back,” she says. “Besides, Jon said he needs my help with a statement.”

 

“I- I didn’t—”

 

A well-placed elbow connects with Jon’s side.

 

“Ah. Yes, I. I did say that. Very, erm. Urgent help.”

 

Basira hesitates, only for a moment, before her expression tightens again. “Okay then.” Her eyes find Tim. “What about you?”

 

It might be nice, Tim thinks, as he stares at an office that had once been his but is entirely unfamiliar to him now, and at people he once had known who are still barely more than strangers. To begin to rebuild those connections, as apparently this is his life now and he’s going to be here whether he wants to or not. So, he finds it easy to say with a shrug, “Sure, why not. I’m always down for lunch.”

 

They pass the whiteboard as they leave, and Tim tries not to look at the DEAD? printed directly in the center, that question mark feeling less like a query and more like an accusation.

 

He tries not to think about what he is now at all. Just… just for a bit. For a bit, he just wants to be Tim.

 

Just Tim.

 

April 8, 2018

 

Tim goes to lunch again a week later, to that same Indian food place they’d visited with the tikka masala that tasted like actual heaven on a plate, but this time it’s Danny sitting across the table from him, poking at the aloo gobi in front of him with a sour expression on his face.

 

“Come on,” Tim says, “it’s not that bad.”

 

“Eh, just not hungry.” Danny abandons the fork on the side of his plate and leans back in his chair, a playful smirk washing away the grimace at what, to Tim, seems like a perfectly good plate of Chelsea’s best Indian food. “So. Sasha tells me you’ve been spending time with Jon.”

 

Nope, nope, nope. Tim is not having this argument again. “Danny, I told you, I know what I’m—”

 

“I mean, he’s a bit scrawny, and he’s got premature greying like nobody’s business, but I suppose I can see the appeal. If you’re into voyeurism, that is.” Danny wiggles his eyebrows like he’s all-too eager to reveal a secret that only he knows. Tim’s mind screeches to a halt, and changes direction.

 

He’s also not having this conversation.

 

“You are despicable,” Tim says, pointing a forkful of chicken at him accusingly. “God, you’re just as bad as Sasha. ‘Oh, Tim’s bringing Jon back to the apartment, it must be a sign of burgeoning romance!’ A couple of teenagers, the both of you.”

 

Casually, Danny says, “So, you’re not attracted to him, then?”

 

Tim takes a sullen bite of his chicken. “I… didn’t say that.”

 

Because, fuck, it had just sort of snuck up on him, hadn’t it? Tim doesn’t know how the hell he found room to be attracted to Jon between the fear and the death and the dreams and the discovery that, hey, he did know him in those years he can’t remember, and by the way, they’d sort of hated each other by the end.

 

But… but that doesn’t sit quite right with Tim, does it? The hate, it… it tastes bitter on his tongue, like a pill that he’s taken far too long to swallow. It’s not really his; it belonged to someone else, a memory no longer there, a loss no longer experienced. Because… because whatever happened to the Danny and the Sasha that that Tim knew, it’s been undone—or had never happened at all, or had been just as much of a disconnected memory as the voice on those tapes. The hurt doesn’t belong to him, and he… he doesn’t want it. He doesn’t want to be angry at Jon; he doesn’t want to be angry at anybody.

 

So yeah. Somewhere along the way, the thought Jonathan Sims is kinda hot had turned into Jonathan Sims is really hot, and also a bit of a disaster, and also kind in an awkward way had turned into oh, Christ, not again. Tim’s not going to apologize for having good fucking taste.

 

“Of course, this means that you’ve been going to the Institute again,” Danny says, breaking through Tim’s thoughts like a bullet through glass. “Which I’m pretty sure I remember you saying you wouldn’t do.

 

Tim groans, because of course it’s come back to this. “Danny, don’t start.”

 

Danny holds up his hands in a placating gesture. “I’m not accusing you of anything. Scout’s honor. I’m just… I’m just worried about you, Tim. Which, again, is in your job description as the older sibling.” He points at himself. “Me, reckless one.” Then at Tim. “You, responsible one.”

 

Sullenly, Tim says, “Would you believe me if I told you that I’m trying not to be involved? It just sort of… keeps drawing me back in.”

 

Danny wiggles his fingers. “Spooky.”

 

“Unfortunately, yeah.”

 

Danny’s expression turns more serious. “Tim, talk to me. What’s going on? And don’t say it’s fine, or that there’s nothing happening. You’ve been weird for weeks, and every time I ask Sasha about it, all she says is that I need to talk to you about it, but you keep changing the subject every time I try.”

 

Tim wants to protest that he doesn’t. But he knows, with more than a hint of guilt, that that’s not true. It… it just doesn’t feel fair, to bring Danny into the shitshow that his life has become. Particularly since…

 

Particularly given the dreams. And what Tim’s becoming more and more afraid they mean.

 

But Danny’s staring him down with that look he gets when he’s stood at the edge of a cliff, looking down at the water and calculating how far he’ll have to jump to miss the rocks at the bottom. And Tim knows that no matter what he does or what he says, Danny’s going to jump. The best thing he can do is try to soften the fall.

 

So, reluctantly, Tim says, “Okay. But, just- just let me get all the way through it before you start to- to ask questions, or to think that I’m just fucking with you, okay? Believe me when I say that this is sort of a rip-the-plaster-off kind of deal.”

 

Danny mimes locking his lips and throwing away the key, but his eyes are serious and patient. So, Tim sets his fork down and fiddles absently with the edge of his napkin and begins to speak.

 

He doesn’t tell Danny everything. He doesn’t tell him about the experience with Jon’s childhood bully, because that’s not something that’s within his rights to share. He doesn’t tell him about the ‘actually, I die again every time I bring someone back from the dead’ part of his- his resurrection powers, because that’s still something he’s trying to come to terms with and putting out in the open now, before he’s ready, seems a bit too raw and vulnerable for a public venue. He doesn’t want to tell him about what his dreams mean, or what was on that tape that’s now just a pile of plastic and ribbon, or what he’s afraid of more than anything else in the world. He really, really doesn’t.

 

But then he’s done laying bare the fact that, hey, there are evil gods that feed off our fear, and by the way, I serve one of those gods now, and oh yeah, it’s the death one, isn’t that fucked up? And he really should have expected Danny to finally break his vow of silence to ask, with eyebrows knitted in concern, “So, is this why you’ve been having those dreams? Because you’re- you’re a demigod of death or something?”

 

And Tim looks into Danny’s eyes, openly curious and fully accepting of what Tim dearly wishes weren’t the truth and so achingly concerned, and he- he can’t lie to Danny. He just can’t.

 

“Yes, but—” A pause; a deep breath. “But it’s not because of the- the avatar bit. Not really.”

 

Like ripping off a plaster.

 

Just- just do it, Timothy Stoker.

 

Danny’s looking at him, weathering the silence with a patience Tim knows he doesn’t have but that he’s focusing all of his strength into for Tim’s sake, and god, how could Tim ever have lost Danny? How… how could he have survived after that?

 

Just… just take a breath, and—

 

“It’s because you died,” he says, the words punched from him in one terrible, awful breath. “Because you died, and I went to work at the Institute, and I gave Jon a statement about it, and then I died, and now it’s in my dreams.”

 

And, oh, god, he feels sick. His stomach is a rolling mass of nausea and nerves and no, it can’t be true, it can’t be true, and he wants to will the words back inside him, because maybe if they’re hidden, then he won’t feel that awful breath of truth that they bring as they roll so smoothly off his tongue, tinged with burning fear that only partially feels like it belongs to him. Unbidden, he says, “But I- I don’t believe that, Danny,” and god, the lie burns his tongue like acid, but he forces it out, forces himself not to look at Danny, because otherwise he’ll crack and fall apart entirely. “It’s- it doesn’t make sense, because- because you’ve been here for months, and you have a life, and you’re not a fucking ghost!”

 

When… when had he started yelling?

 

Danny looks around them, at the eyes that have fixated on their table and the conversations that have dropped to a murmur as their participants pretend they’re not eavesdropping on Tim’s goddamn mental breakdown. He offers a sheepish smile to the restaurant, and then turns to Tim with a guarded expression and says, “Look, Tim, it- it’s okay. I’m sorry I asked. Do you… do you want to leave?”  

 

Tim can feel the eyes burning into his skin, and he realizes with a sickening sensation that he’s actually used to it, because every moment in the Archives is a prickle on the back of the neck and a secret known before you even put it into words. But somehow, it feels worse to know that this watching is not a result of some- some voyeuristic eldritch horror. Just people. Just curious, pitying, judgmental people.

 

He supposes, though, that that fear has to come from somewhere.

 

“Yeah,” Tim bites out, pushing his chair back too-fast and standing. “Yeah, let’s go.”

 

The tikka is barely touched. He doesn’t bother with a box.

 

They’re halfway back to Tim’s house when he finally feels himself enough to say, “Look, Danny, I… I’m sorry. I know firsthand how- how shitty it is to be told that, hey, you’re supposed to be dead, you know? And it’s not even—god, it’s not even true, right? It- it doesn’t make any sense!

 

Danny hums; when Tim looks over, he’s rubbing one of the aglets on his sweatshirt strings between his fingers, that nervous tick he does when he’s bothered by something but refuses to talk about it that he swears he doesn’t do, even though Tim has literally pointed it out every single time.

 

“You’re doing it again,” Tim says wryly. “What’s wrong?”

 

Danny drops the string like he’s been caught redhanded. “Nothing.”

 

God, this is all Tim’s fault. He looks forward, at the rows of buildings in front of him, as he says, “I- I really am sorry, Danny. Let’s- let’s just forget I ever mentioned anything about the dreams, okay? It’s all just- just a big joke anyway.” His life is a joke, more like. And not the funny kind.

 

“Tim, stop apologizing, okay? I’m the one who asked you to talk about this.” Danny’s worrying his bottom lip between his teeth now, which means there’s really something on his mind. Tim’s about to use that voice he always knows will get Danny to talk when Danny continues, a bit hesitantly, “I… I mean, is it though?”

 

“Is what it? What is it? Christ, you know what I mean.”

 

“Smooth,” Danny says with a teasing smile that falls as quickly as it came. He starts fiddling with the black cuff he wears on his left wrist. “I just… is it a joke? Yeah, it’s- it’s fucked up, definitely, but… I don’t know, you said you don’t believe that I died, but why not? Based on what you’ve told me, it- it makes a kind of sense. You can bring people back from the dead, so if I died, it stands to reason that you could bring me back as well.”

 

Of course. Leave it to Danny to take a right horrible situation and try to make it less horrible. But no. Just… just no. “It- it’s not the same, Danny, you… you don’t… god, you don’t know what it was like to watch that woman die right in front of me! It- it was fucked up, and it felt terrible, and that’s not you. You… you’re not temporary, not like that. Besides, it’s been months—wouldn’t you know by now if you were a ghost?”

 

Danny shrugs. “Did you?”

 

Tim opens his mouth. Closes it. God, he hates when Danny is right. “That’s different,” he says sullenly.

 

“Is it? According to you, you were resurrected by a death god, yeah? Well, if you can resurrect people, doesn’t that kind of make you a death god too? Which reminds me, we totally need to come up with a superhero name for you or something. How do you feel about ‘the Ghost Whisperer’?”

 

Tim pulls a dramatic grimace. “Ugh, no, that show was terrible. Besides, I don’t talk to the ghosts.”

 

“Well, this certified maybe-a-ghost with whom you’re currently having a conversation has to disagree.”

 

Tim groans. “Danny, doesn’t this bother you? At all? Christ, I just told you that monsters are real and that everyone’s saying you died in exactly the same way as in my nightmares, which—need I remind you—is quite horrific.” It flashes through Tim’s mind—that image of shifting colors and something that dances within the skin of the person currently walking alongside him and a smile red as blood and dripping a violent humor. It brings with it that familiar fear of death and violence and loss of control and things that wear faces that aren’t theirs and smile through lips that have been sewn tightly shut, but also that newer fear of the truth beneath the lies. It sends a shiver of ice through Tim’s veins, and he draws in a tight, shaking breath as he pushes the image far, far within his subconscious. He already has to deal with that enough in his sleep; he won’t let it take any of his waking hours.

 

But it must linger for just a moment more. It must, because when Tim glances at Danny, his silence having stretched on for a bit too long, he sees a flicker, just for a moment, of muscle laid bare and blood that refuses to flow from a heart that inexplicably still beats and eyes that beg from a face that no longer can contain that which lay beneath the skin it no longer has.

 

His foot catches on a loose paver, and he stumbles. Then, Danny’s hand is clasping his wrist, the skin that he still very much has warm against Tim’s as he pulls him upright and says with a smile, “For someone who makes rock climbing look easy, you really do have two left feet, huh?”

 

Danny is still Danny. Of course Danny is still Danny. Tim just really needs some time to relax, to just… get away from all of this.

 

“Bold words from someone who still hasn’t been able to beat my time on the climbing wall,” Tim says with a smile so forced it hurts. He thinks maybe Danny notices—that his eyebrows fold in slightly, a whisper of concern lingering still.

 

But, if he does, he doesn’t say anything. He just smiles back and elbows Tim in the side and says cheekily, “Bet you twenty pounds that I’ll be able to by next week.”

 

“Oh, I’ll take that bet.”

 

It’s only when Danny has left and Tim’s alone in his living room that he realizes that Danny never answered his question. Maybe he’d just forgotten, or had been distracted by Tim’s clumsiness. But Tim can’t help but feel that, somehow, Danny had never even heard him ask.

 

It’s probably nothing.

 

Tim wishes he believed that.

 

October 4, 2017

 

It’s well past five, but Tim’s still at the museum because he’d gotten sidetracked on that Doughtry proposal today, and then Melissa Newman had come in to reference some of their documents again and they’d gotten to talking about that new little coffee shop down the road and the fact that it serves actual coffee and not just espresso drinks—not that Tim doesn’t like espresso drinks, he’d said defensively when she’d sent him an accusing grin, he just also likes a good cup of black coffee now and again—and then of course he was going to help her with her research, and then—

 

Yeah, so Tim had gotten exactly none of the work done today that he’d needed to. So he’s still locked away in his office, having given his boss a weary smile a few hours ago and a sheepish “Just have to finish up a few more documents!” with a few more documents turning into god, this is going to take me all night as the minutes stretched long and arduous.

 

But now, finally, finally, he’s done. The documents are taken care of and restored to their proper locations in the library, and his office is locked, and the lights are all off but for the small emergency lights peppered at regular intervals in the hallway, and there’s someone stood just at the end of it, a dark, shadowed figure that—

 

Tim’s not really proud of the squeak of surprise he lets out when his brain catches up to his eyes and it registers that holy shit, there’s someone else in the museum. He schools his voice into something a bit more authoritative to compensate when he says, “Hey, we’re closed—you- you can’t be in here.”

 

They don’t respond. Tim can’t see their face in the weak illumination of the emergency lights, but he’s somehow certain that they’re smiling, wide and humorous in a way that sends a shiver down Tim’s spine. A sharp thrill of fear pulses through Tim before, just as quickly, he pushes it away, because they’re not supposed to be here, and Tim’s going to get fired if something gets ruined—or, worse, stolen—just because he hadn’t locked the doors while he was here.

 

But, now that he thinks of it, the… the doors were locked, right?

 

A bit more unsteadily, Tim repeats, “Excuse me, hello? We’re closed. You’re not supposed to be in here.”

 

The figure’s head tilts to the side, ever so slowly, like the joints of its neck are rusted nearly shut. “Are you?” they say in a lightly amused voice that could be familiar if Tim’s mind didn’t keep slipping away from it like water off wax.

 

“Well, this place does pay my rent,” Tim says, considering adding on a joking and I don’t make a habit of breaking and entering before he remembers that, actually, he doesn’t make pleasantries with people who actually make a habit of breaking and entering. “Look, I- I don’t want to, but if you don’t leave, I’m going to have to call the police.”

 

The figure laughs; it grates on Tim’s nerves like sandpaper. “Oh, there’s no need for that. I won’t be here long. I just wanted to see what all the fuss was about. Word travels fast, after all, and when I heard that you’d survived…

 

Tim doesn’t know how or when it happens, but one moment the figure is standing at the end of the hall, and the next they’re inches from him, a finger that’s quite too cold and hard to be a finger at all pressing under his chin and tipping his head up so he’s forced to meet a pair of deep black eyes that stare lifelessly into his. “Hm,” they say, sounding dissatisfied. “Too human to be a Stranger, too dead to be alive.”

 

Their hand falls away, and Tim scrambles backward, his back hitting the wall behind him so hard it almost knocks the wind out of him. All he can see is cold and black, and all he can feel is nauseating fear, seeping through skin and muscle and bone. He opens his mouth—maybe to say something, or maybe to scream—but nothing comes out. He’s just… he’s just frozen.

 

“Well, this has been disappointing,” the figure says with a dramatic sigh. “I had hoped that I would finally be able to wear one of the Eye’s precious little acolytes, particularly one already marked so deeply as a Stranger. And you have caused us rather a lot of trouble, haven’t you? Quite an… explosive temper, so I’ve heard.”

 

They pause, as if waiting for a response. Tim has none to give; his eyes are focused on the door behind the figure and his legs itch to run, but something within him knows that those cold, unyielding hands will be there to catch him, and that this time, they won’t be so keen to release him. He stares back and stows his fear deep within him and doesn’t speak.

 

“Or, perhaps not,” the figure muses. “It is strange how different people can become over time.” They laugh, just once. “Not that I would know, of course. But the things that can change a person are truly remarkable, so I’ve heard. An accident, perhaps. Or a change of allegiance. Perhaps even catching up with an old friend, or a lover, or a brother. How is Danny, by the way? I don’t suppose you’ve brought him here, have you? I would very much like to get reacquainted.”

 

Tim’s mouth is suddenly so very, very willing to speak. “Get out.”

 

Something akin to surprise flits across the figure’s face, if something without a face could portray an emotion so in contrast with its intrinsic nature. “Oh?”

 

Tim pushes away from the wall, one hand forced into a tight fist by his side to stop its shaking, the other finding its way to his jacket pocket, to what lies within it. “The museum is closed. So get. Out. Don’t make me repeat myself.”

 

That same smile, too-wide and with too many teeth. “Now that’s more like it. Aren’t we having fun now? Are we enjoying ourselves?”

 

Tightly, Tim says, “Oh, I’m certainly going to enjoy it when the cops arrive.” He holds up his phone, 999 dialed and visible on the screen. His thumb hovers over the green dial button. “One last chance.”

 

The figure chuckles, its amusement a cool slide of ice against the back of Tim’s neck. “You know what?” They tap a finger to the side of their jaw; the clack it makes reminds Tim distinctly of the dull sound of plastic on plastic. “I think I have enjoyed our time together. I’m sure we’ll see each other again very, very soon.”

 

It flashes him one last dizzying grin before it’s just… gone. There one moment, gone the next, vanishing in the time it takes for Tim’s eyes to blink—a reflex, he thinks as he stares at the empty space that he’s sure something had just occupied, that the figure had not thought to mimic.

 

He triple checks the door as he departs, hands still shaking slightly and mind still trying to decide whether truth or hallucination is the more preferable explanation for a figure that, when Tim thinks back on it, never deigned to breathe.

 

It’s still locked.

 

April 13, 2018

 

Tim technically doesn’t have a reason to go to the Institute after work on Friday. There’s no more news on the Elias front; Basira’s been splitting her time between researching his past and trying to figure out what to do about something she calls, with a bitter tone, “Another goddamn impending apocalypse.”

 

Tim’s already died to stop one of those. He doesn’t ask twice.

 

But, still, he’s here, opening one of the double glass doors to the Institute and flashing the receptionist a charming grin. “Hey, Amar. Lovely day out, don’t you think?’

 

Amar’s smile is less than enthusiastic, and they’re giving Tim that look still, and see this—this is why Tim wanted to keep coming in through the tunnels, but no, apparently he’d nearly given Jon a heart attack one too many times. Jon had hesitated, only a moment, before pressing a scuffed ID into Tim’s hands. The face that stared back was his, but also not.

 

“Jon I don’t—” he’d started to say, but Jon had interrupted with a quick, “It. It’s just, I- I had it lying around, and it’s easier than trying to, er. Get a new one.”

 

Tim stared at the words ‘Archival Assistant’ with an uncomfortable tightness in his chest. “You sure I can’t just come in through the tunnels? Apparently I used to do it a lot.”

 

Jon’s eyebrows knit together in a small frown. “I’m… I’m not going to stop you from doing anything, Tim. I- I suppose I just wanted you to have the option.” Then, with a hesitant smile: “Though I would prefer that you not just- just appear in my office. I feel I’m entitled to some privacy in my place of employment.”

 

Tim hummed. “Doesn’t seem like this is the kind of place where privacy is really possible. You know, what with the whole ‘It Knows You’ thing.”

 

Jon’s smile falters. “Yes, I- I suppose.”

 

Oh, Christ, Tim didn’t mean to—

 

And so he’s here now, flashing his ID at Amar and trying to pretend like it’s not a totally useless waste of time.

 

“Hi, Tim,” Amar says, their voice straddling the edge between genuine and forced politeness. “Are- are you here for the Library, or…?”

 

“Ah, no. I… well, I suppose I’m not really here for anything. Just- just heading down to the Archives.”

 

“Right,” Amar says, with that same sort of of course recognition Tim gets on those rare occasions when he talks to the rest of the Institute’s staff. You know, when they’re not flinching away from him like he’s the bloody fucking antichrist. “Well, you’re good to go.”

 

“Excellent. Be seeing you, then!” Tim says with a charming smile, that one that’s lately been saying, I’m a living, breathing person, thank you very much, so please stop staring at me.

 

Tim starts to move past Amar’s desk, but he pauses when Amar says, a bit hesitantly, “Uh, Tim?”

 

A small cluster of oh, not again nerves coil in his stomach. He tries not to sound deeply frustrated when he says, “Yeah?”

 

“Do you…?” Amar pauses. Worries their bottom lip between their teeth. “I- I’m sorry if this is insensitive, but, um. And- and maybe it’s not even true, so I probably shouldn’t—”

 

“Amar,” Tim says, in the manner of the eternally patient. “Just say it. I promise, I’ve probably heard worse over the past few weeks.”

 

“Right.” Amar taps their pencil on their desk in a nervous, rhythmic gesture. Then, in a rush: “They’re saying that you can bring people back from the dead. And I just- I just wanted to know if it was true. That’s all.”

 

Great. That… that’s just great. Now Tim’s not only their once-deceased coworker, he’s also a proper necromancer. Although the Magnus Institute is a place ‘dedicated to academic research into the esoteric and the paranormal,’ even he knows that’s just a bit too weird to be palatable. No point in denying it though, he supposes, so with a small sigh, he says, “Yup. All the rumors are true, I’m basically a Hispanic Jesus, blah blah blah.”

 

Amar looks startled, just for a moment, before slowly nodding. “Okay.”

 

Tim raises an eyebrow. “’Okay’?” he echoes. It’s… not quite the reaction he was expecting.

 

Amar sighs; it’s a weary, heavy sound. “I mean… this place is weird, so it’s not… it really shouldn’t surprise me anymore when things like this happen.” They pause, like they’re not sure whether they want to say what they’re thinking. “Besides, I… I think that might be nice.”

 

Sorry, what?

 

“Not,” Amar hastens to add, “the dying part, I mean. That- that sounds awful, and I- I’m really sorry, Tim. But, well. The bringing people back part…” They shrug, a bit helplessly. “It would be nice. To not have to lose the people you care about, you know?”

 

Tim wants to say that it’s not nice. That everything about it is cold and lonely and afraid, and that it leaves such a bitter taste in his mouth that he thinks he might be sick on it. That all the joy it might bring is tinged with that lingering doubt, that uncertainty whether the person in front of you is real or not, that fear that they’ll vanish once again and you’ll have lost them twice. Instead, he says softly, “Who did you lose?”

 

Amar stiffens, as if caught in a lie, before relaxing with what is clearly a not insignificant amount of effort. “It… it was a long time ago,” they say, like that’s somehow supposed to make their pain negligible. Then, quieter: “My… my son. He- he was only two years old, and- and it was just so sudden, and I—” They draw in a long, uneven breath. “I’d just like to see him again, you know? Even if… even if it’s only temporary.”

 

“I’m sorry,” Tim says, and it feels so hollow, because he knows that he could. He can’t control how, or when, or even if, but if he could, he could go to that infinite blackness and wait for the raw nothingness to be interrupted by that cold, sharp bite of another soul attaching itself to his. Maybe Amar even wants him to, deep down. Even if it makes them afraid. Even if it feeds off them.

 

Tim thinks of Danny and Sasha, and he knows that he would make that same decision. Maybe he already has. But that’s not something he’s quite ready to think about, even if it feels like it may burst free from him without his consent from the constant pressure and stress of keeping it locked within.

 

“It’s… well, it’s not fine, but I- I just don’t want you to think that I’m asking you to bring him back, you know?” Amar says, breaking Tim free from his thoughts. “Though, if you did, or- or if you could, I- I don’t think it would be the worst thing in the world, that’s all.”

 

Quietly, Tim says, “I can’t. And if I did, I don’t think… I don’t think you’d like it as much as you think you would.”

 

“Hm.” For just a moment, there’s a flash of disappointment across Amar’s face, but it’s gone just as quickly. With forced neutrality, they say, “Well, I suppose I’ve kept you long enough, then. Have a good day, Tim.”

 

Tim thinks he should probably say something else. Apologize again, maybe? Offer an explanation, beyond I won’t but just shy of I won’t actively feed something your fear? Maybe just a joke, a light turn of phrase to ease the tension that now fills the air and makes Tim’s skin itch?

 

“Yeah, you too,” he says, because he’s a coward. Then, he leaves.

 

Basira’s off ‘following a lead’, Melanie says with a shrug before returning to her computer, which is, at the moment, unapologetically being used to stream YouTube videos. Tim can hear the gentle cadence of Jon’s voice coming from his office, that kind of hypnotic tone he gets when he’s reading a statement.

 

Tim thinks, briefly, on the fact that he’s been around enough now to ‘know how Jon gets’ when he’s doing anything. It feels like ages since he first found the tunnels under the Institute, found where they led, found to whom they led—ages since he’d been accused and interrogated and pronounced dead. It should probably worry Tim more, how quickly he’s gotten used to the fear, but it doesn’t. It just makes him wonder how long it’ll be before it all falls apart.

 

He sits behind a desk that had once been his, and stares at the dusty picture frame on the corner containing a happy, smiling snapshot of a life that’s been lost to him, and tries not to think about the hollow pit in his stomach, growing and aching and hungering for that thrumming fear of a child twice lost.

Chapter Text

It’s been a week since Tim’s been back to the Institute. Partly because he’s been busy with the semblance of a life he still retains beyond spooky death avatar, and partly because he’d left the last time with a bad taste coating his tongue, like tea that’s sat too long on the counter and has turned lukewarm and oversteeped. He’d felt the eyes on him as he’d left—just normal, curious eyes—of people he once knew, of people who look at him and see a ghost, of people who probably think he’s a monster.

 

Is he? A… a monster, that is? Amar certainly hadn’t sounded angry when they’d spoken, or even frightened. They’d just sounded sad. And maybe a bit disappointed. But perhaps that’s just Tim projecting.

 

Because it sure does feel a bit useless, he thinks as he stops underneath the trapdoor that leads into Jon’s office. Being able to perform what should be a miracle but only having it hurt. Having so little control over something that has risen from within to consume him, drowning him beneath the black and the cold and the fear and hardly giving him time enough to breathe.

 

He’d told Amar that they wouldn’t like it if he brought back their son, and it was true. But it’s going to happen again, whether or not he wants it to, because this is who he is now. Maybe he’s inhuman, sure. But he doesn’t have to be a monster. He doesn’t want to be a monster.

 

He doesn’t want to hurt anyone else.

 

So when Jon had texted him—with perfectly proper punctuation that was so Jon it brought a smile to Tim’s lips—and said that they’d had some progress on the Elias situation and would he be available to come in?, Tim had sent back a yes, be right there! so quickly it seemed a bit overeager, even for him.

 

He’s not keen on returning to the Institute. But if he’s going to ever have any hope, any semblance of control over the newer, darker parts of himself, he’s going to have to anyway. And Jon…

 

Well, Jon’s not human. And maybe Tim thought he was a monster once, those weeks ago when his supernatural problems were confined to dreams and Jonathan Sims was just a name on a computer screen. Maybe the old Tim thought that as well—the one who had known Jon before and who had felt that acute sense of betrayal that to Tim seems like an anger directed at a film playing out in front of him, real and present but in no way connected to himself.

 

Maybe he was even right.

 

But Tim is really, really tired of trying to live up to a version of himself that he can’t even remember. And so, as he pushes his way through the trapdoor after a cursory knock to find Jon’s office empty, papers and mugs scattered atop the surface of his desk in piles that probably make complete sense to him but really just look like tottering disasters waiting to happen, he decides that he doesn’t care what the old Tim thought. How can he care about a past he doesn’t remember? How can he hold grudges about events that never happened to him, or grief about losses that he never had to endure, or anger to cover a hurt he no longer has any basis for? He knows, sure, that those lost years are clustered with horrors and betrayals, but he doesn’t have any of the feelings. And he’s always been the kind of person to rely more on the heart than the head.

 

So yeah. Jon’s not human. But he’s not a monster. This Tim gets to decide that, and no one else.

 

That doesn’t mean that Jon hasn’t done things. But Tim’s done things too. And as he exits Jon’s office and crosses the hall to the assistants’ office, he wonders how many of Jon’s actions were really choices and how many were just fear.

 

He wonders if choice is attainable at all or if he’s hanging his hope on an impossibility.

 

“Oh, good,” Melanie says as Tim steps into the assistants’ office, her hands midway through twisting her hair into a high bun. “Tim’s here.”

 

“In the flesh.” Tim takes quick strides to the empty desk that’s now significantly less dusty and hops atop it, letting his heels knock softly against the wood. “So, hit me. What’s the update about Elias?”

 

“Well,” Basira says, “unsurprisingly, he’s hard to pin down. Even with the information Jon provided, it’s been a hell of a time finding out if he even had a life before the Institute.”

 

“Maybe he spawned here,” Melanie supplies, picking idly at her fingernails.

 

“Mm. Elias, maybe. His sister? Probably not.”

 

Jon is the first to find his voice. “I’m sorry, what?

 

“Jesus, there’s another one?” Melanie says, nearly overlapping with Jon. Then: “Wait, wait. Is she… I don’t know, evil?

 

Basira shrugs. “Don’t know. I have a name and an address, that’s it. Jenny Coleman. She lives in Reading. I was going to go check it out tomorrow, but I figured you all ought to know beforehand. That’s all I’ve got.”

 

“Well,” Tim says, “usually I work weekends, but I’m sure I can take a bit of vacation time tomorrow. Are we thinking the morning, or…?”

 

The line of Basira’s mouth presses flat. “Just me.”

 

And maybe it’s that voice in the back of his head whispering that, finally, this is a way that he can be useful, can help instead of hurt, that has him frowning and saying, “Sorry, I- I thought the point of this was to find some way to prove that Elias is dead—or not dead, I suppose. I might not totally understand how this resurrection thing works, but it seems to me that I should be there, just in case.”

 

“No,” Basira says more firmly. “Like you said, you don’t know how it works. We don’t know anything about Jenny yet. She might be involved with all of this, and she might not, but either way, I don’t plan on taking any unnecessary risks. And that includes you.”

 

“Ouch,” Tim says flatly.

 

Basira sighs, and it’s a sound halfway born of exhaustion and exasperation. “There’s too much going on here right now that’s out of our control. Adding in another variable is stupid at best and incredibly dangerous at worst. When you can control… whatever it is you do, then we can talk. Otherwise, it’s just me. Got it?”

 

“Yeah, because there’s a ten-step program for learning how to control the spooky powers bestowed upon you by an eldritch god of fear,” Tim mutters. Then, a bit louder: “Fine, fine. Whatever. But I make no promises that when isn’t actually an if. I’m kind of flying blind here.”

 

“There’s gotta be a book somewhere in this place that talks about resurrection,” Melanie says. “There’s certainly a lot on ghosts themselves—though, to be fair, I was mostly researching war ghosts.”

 

“If there is, I haven’t found it yet.” Tim groans and tilts back to stare at the ceiling. “Ugh, you’d think it would be easier to figure out what to do! I mean, isn’t it in the End’s best interest if I know how to control this? Easier to do its dark bidding and all that?”

 

“There is no best interest,” Jon says, his voice quiet and weary in a way that tells Tim this is something he’s thought about before, at great length. “There’s no right or wrong way to- to spread fear. Only the fear itself. Perhaps control simply isn’t something that’s necessary.”

 

He’s talking to Tim, but somehow, Tim gets the feeling that Jon’s not talking to him at all. Like he’s on the other side of a two-way mirror, and he can see Jon, but Jon can only see himself, and he’s not quite happy with what he sees.

 

“Well, that’s bullshit,” Tim says, and when Jon blinks at him in surprise, Tim knows that he’s seeing him and only him. “I’m still me, and you’re still you, and I’m making the decision to take control. Even,” Tim adds, seeing the incredulous look on Jon’s face, “if it might not be possible. And I can’t make the decision for you, but I’d really like someone in the passenger seat of this we-died-and-now-we’re-spooky car with me.”

 

“Great,” Basira says. “Once you figure out the secret to the universe, be sure to let me know. Until then—”

 

“Yeah, yeah, I’m benched. I got it.”

 

Jon’s still looking at him; he’s got that kind of prickle-on-the-back-of-the-neck gaze that Tim’s sure comes with working for the embodiment of staring, and it makes Tim shift uncomfortably. Still, he stays seated atop the desk until Basira’s left with some comment about ‘taking care of something,’ Daisy trailing close behind, and Melanie’s popped off to the break room to fix a batch of tea. Then, it’s just him and Jon. He’s about to ask the nagging so, do you want to tackle the internal struggle of figuring out how to not traumatize people with me question that’s at the back of his mind when Jon surprises him by speaking first.

 

“I… I’m not really the best role model for this sort of thing, you know,” he says in a small voice, his fingers fiddling absently with the hem of his cardigan. “So if you’re looking for- for someone to help you with control, I… I don’t think I can be that person.”

 

“I know.”

 

Jon looks a bit surprised at that; Tim idly thinks that for an avatar of a god of knowledge, surprise is not an uncommon expression on his face. “Oh. I… I suppose I just thought you were going to ask, what with the…” He gestures vaguely.

 

“I was.” At Jon’s quick transformation from surprise to confusion, Tim elaborates, “But not for a- a role model, because no offense Jon, I really don’t think you fit that bill in any sense of the word. Just… I don’t know, you know a lot more about this stuff than I do, and I’m really tired of not knowing whether or not this’ll be the moment that it happens again, you know? So yeah, I want your help on this. But as a friend.

 

The emotions that flash across Jon’s face are too quick to catch, but Tim thinks he sees something akin to a truly happy smile, tinged with a hesitance that makes Tim wonder when the last time was that someone called Jon their friend. “I… yeah, all right. I- I can’t promise that I’ll be much help, though.”

 

“Honestly? There’s really nowhere to go but up from here.”

 

Jon huffs a laugh that has Tim’s stomach doing something funny. “Yes, I suppose so.”

 

Melanie returns from the breakroom, and Jon returns to his office, and that laugh keeps tickling at Tim’s heartstrings into the night.

 

???????

 

It’s dark. Or maybe it’s not. It doesn’t really matter either way, because Tim can feel the dark pushing through his chest and his hands and his eyes, making his breath come in ghosting gasps. His heart, were it to beat, would be pounding, he thinks absently as he walks through a world enshrouded in mist—though, perhaps it’s not mist at all, just the fog that’s filled his mind, canceling out the whites until all that’s left are shadows and doubts and fear.

 

He thinks he’s looking for something. Something cold. Something untrue.

 

Something borrowed, something blue, the part of him that’s still Tim supplies. And he thinks it a good joke: a face borrowed, skin left blue and translucent and slowly cooling as life made its leave, as it always did in the end. Perhaps life is the thing borrowed then, and blue is the sky that some think contains eternity.

 

Tim feels the dark and the cold and the sharp, and he knows that eternity can never come to those who can still run from it.

 

There’s a house in front of him. It’s pristinely white with a slate-grey door and perfect right angles and windows with little lattices over them like something from a children’s book. The flowers in the boxes under the windowsills sigh in the light breeze that caresses them, dipping and fluttering in splashes of gentle pinks and vibrant yellows. The path to the door is cobblestone, carefully laid by a man who had, not so many Tuesdays ago, placed an errant foot on the edge of the ladder he was stood upon as he cleared out the gutters. The crack of his neck as it hit the ground, compacting spine into skull and severing that bright red thread of life vs. death on impact, resonates so loudly within Tim now, though it had taken the woman who now sits in her kitchen taking careful sips of a glass of wine and staring blankly at a wall exactly one hour and seven minutes to discover him lying dead in the bushes.

 

There is not enough left of Tim to stop him from wondering, idly, if that’s how long he should let that thread dangle once again within the world of blue. One hour and seven minutes of borrowed time. One hour and seven minutes of fear to disbelief to joy to fear to agony. One hour and seven minutes with a man who was no longer a man and whose face was his but not.

 

He steps up to the door, his expressionless face reflected in the glass of the little circular window embedded in it, and knocks twice.

 

The grip on his arm is firm, but not chiding, as the not woman next to him whispers, “Not too slow. Not too fast. Too slow, and the fear grows stale. Too fast, and it’s barely more than a prickle on the tongue.”

 

Usually, she’s Sasha. Today, she’s a face smudged in the fog, a lingering reminder of a thing that had worn many skins and many lives. Her hand is cold on his arm, her fingers long and thin, and she’s not smiling. Tim is not quite Tim now either, but he finds a last shred of himself when he says, flatly, “Sasha would tell me not to.”

 

She hums. Footsteps echo behind the door, slow and uncertain. The woman had not been expecting company. “I am you, and you are not you, but I am also me. So, you’ll forgive me for being a bit… vague.

 

The doorknob begins to turn. And it occurs to Tim that he is so very, very hungry.

 

She is gone. And when the door opens, all the parts of Tim that are not dark and cold and alone are gone as well.

 

“Oh… hello,” the woman says. Her name is Abagail, and she does not recognize the man stood on her doorstep. He has crow’s feet at the corners of his eyes and the sort of mouth that looks like it might fall comfortably into a smile, but his face is devoid of joy. He stares at her, and she feels a knot of nerves settle in her stomach.

Gripping the doorknob a bit tighter, she says, “Can… can I help you?”

 

“Perhaps,” he says, in a voice flat and emotionless but still gentle somehow, like it’s used to jokes and easy banter. There’s something about him that keeps prickling at the back of her neck, but she just can’t put a finger on it. It’s like an itch behind her eyelid, a trapped eyelash, and she can’t quite blink it out.

 

“Are- are you lost, or…?” Abagail gestures vaguely behind her. “I can offer my phone, if- if you need one.”

 

“No, I’m quite all right.” The man offers her a smile that lacks any semblance of warmth. “I was meaning to speak to you, actually.”

 

The knot of nerves turns into a knife, stabbing through her with an intensity that almost leaves her breathless. “I- I’m sorry? I- I really don’t feel comfortable—”

 

“It’s about Phil.”

 

The knife turns, stealing her breath away completely. She tries to speak, to say that she doesn’t know him, that he needs to leave, but the words just won’t come. A small, tickling voice at the back of her mind says that maybe something’s happened. Something that’s not dreary black outfits and tearful speeches and freshly overturned dirt. Something white and bright and hopeful.

 

Then, she meets the man’s eyes, and it all crumbles away. Because there’s nothing in them. No white or bright or hopeful. No life. Nothing but dark and empty nothingness.

 

“He’s here to see you,” the man says, and steps aside.

 

And there he stands. Upright, flushed a happy, healthy pink, red and white checkered flannel pulled taught over what she affectionately called his whisky belly. His forehead is creased in confusion until his eyes find hers; then, he glows. “Ah, Abby!” he says, taking quick steps closer. Abagail tries to flinch away, but her muscles lock in a tight stasis as he wraps an arm around her and places a quick kiss on her cheek. It’s warm, and she gasps under its touch. “These garden projects really do get away from you, don’t they? I’m properly late for dinner, I know, but I think I have something that will make it up to you.”

 

From behind his back, he withdraws a cluster of baby blue flowers, bracketed on both sides by gentle ferns. She recognizes the same colors on the bushes out front, stubbornly alive despite the state of disrepair the garden has fallen into since—

 

“No, no,” she says, stumbling back a few steps as her body finally comes back within her control. “Get- get out, you- you aren’t real, I- I’m just losing it, like they all said I—”

 

She takes in a shaking breath, squeezing her eyes tightly shut. Maybe, if she doesn’t look. Maybe, if she pretends like the knocks had never come. Maybe, if she evens out her breathing, she’ll be alone again.

 

“Abby.” A gentle hand rests on her arm, and this time she does flinch, full-body and violent. The hand withdraws with a small exhalation. “I’m sorry. I should have asked first. I won’t touch you again, okay?”

 

It sounds like Phil, Abagail thinks as she squeezes her arms tightly to herself. It acts like Phil, and it says things Phil would say, and it knows her like Phil does, but it- it can’t be Phil.

 

It takes her a few minutes to make the decision to open her eyes. And when she does, he’s stood there still, flowers set carefully on a side table so as not to crush the blossoms and eyes gentle and patient. “Tell me what’s wrong, love?” he says in that quiet voice he would always use when everything became too much and she would retreat within herself for shelter.

 

She stays silent. It’s- it’s just too much. It’s too much, and it’s not real, and that thing can’t be Phil.

 

“I can go back to the garden for a bit if you—”

 

“No!” she cries, in a voice not quite her own. It rips free from her against her will, that visceral desire to not be alone, even if this is a façade, to just not be alone. “No, I- I just…”

 

She hesitates for a moment. But she’s always been honest with Phil. He was probably the only one. So, with fingernails digging into her forearms, she says, “I just don’t understand how you can be here.” Another pause; Phil waits patiently, like he always has, letting her take life at her own pace. “I… I saw…”

 

Her fingers tap a nervous rhythm, and in one breath, she says, “You’re meant to be dead, Phil. I- I’ve mourned and everything.”

 

“Come now, I’m not that late to dinner,” Phil jokes, but his eyes are soft and worried. “Can you tell me why you think I’m dead, love?”

 

“Because I found you,” she says, voice small, so small. “You were in the garden, and you were late to dinner, and I came outside to chide you, and you had… you had fallen. Because I watched as they carried you away, and as they dressed you in that deep blue suit you’ve always loved, and as they closed the lid on you and lowered you into the ground. Because I have been alone, and because I can’t have been imagining that- that aching loneliness. So, therefore, this must be… this must be all in my head.”

 

Phil nods, slowly, and she knows he doesn’t believe her. He doesn’t need to say it, and he’s not going to. He’ll give her kind words and reassurances and promises, and she’ll love him ever more for it, but she knows that he won’t believe her. He’s always been too practical for that. He used to center her, to pull her fantasies down to ground level and give them feet with which to stand, with which to run from success to success. Now, she’s floating untethered, getting more out of reach with every passing moment.

 

“You… you can touch me,” she says, hesitantly, because every time she blinks, he’s still here, and the warmth of his lips still linger on her cheek. Perhaps if he hugs her, if he pulls her in close and they dance throughout the house, feeling the rhythm of a music that lives only within their own heads, he’ll warm her through, and she’ll finally shed that sadness that has clutched her heart within bony fingers for weeks. Or perhaps his arms will pass right through her, and her mind will finally catch itself in a lie.

 

“Okay,” he says, and when his hand cups her cheek, she can’t help the sigh of contented relief that slips free. And then his arms are around her, warm and strong and safe, and they’re swaying slightly, and her head is tucked underneath his chin, and she can feel the contact prickling across her skin and warming her through to her bones. Her mind trips on it, catches onto the fantasy and pulls it close, allowing her to entertain the idea, just for a moment, that this is real.

 

“You’re really here,” she breathes, clutching the back of his shirt with white-knuckled hands as she desperately wills herself not to blink, lest she reopen her eyes and find this all a dream. “You’re- you’re so warm.

 

“Mm, like a furnace, I recall you saying,” Phil hums; the vibrations spread throughout her, rattling loose the last threads of doubt, and a broken, gasping laugh escapes her.

 

“You’re alive,” she says, like a prayer.

 

There’s movement out of the corner of her eye, and she realizes that the man is still stood there, leaning against the doorframe, dead eyes fixed on her with complete apathy. She doesn’t know how she comes to the conclusion that he’s the reason that Phil is back; she only knows the gratitude, the immense relief that mixes sharply with icy-cold terror as she meets his eyes.

 

“Is this real?” she asks, a bit breathlessly, because it somehow feels like the right thing to ask. Almost polite, in a way.

 

The man stares at and through her, with blank indifference, and says, “No.”

 

Darkness closes in with a snap, and the world inverts itself.

 

Phil is stumbling away, his eyes locked on an invisible threat behind her, pupils blown wide in terror. He doesn’t fall; he doesn’t even flinch. Still, his neck folds and bends as if from an impact, the side of his head crumpling in on itself and sending runny crimson down the side of his face. His mouth opens, as if to scream, but all that emerges is a slow trickle of blood. The way his body finally drops to the floor is akin to that of a fabric doll slipping from a shelf, limbs folding at odd angles and muscles succumbing to gravity.

 

Abagail screams, just once; it distinctly does not feel like it belongs to her. Then, just as she feared it would do, a blink sends Phil away, his broken body just a memory, her terror and grief and agony a very real, pulsing thing that has reopened old wounds and sent them gushing at an intensity far beyond their original capacity.

 

The man is gone. Perhaps he was never there at all.

 

Abagail sinks to her knees in her foyer, and places a shaking hand on the floor where something that felt so dearly like Phil had laid, and falls into the sobs that overtake her in a way that’s long since been second nature.

 

One hour and seven minutes later, Timothy Stoker picks himself up from the floor of his living room, thinks idly that it’s been a long while since he’s had a fainting spell so he was probably due for one, and goes to the kitchen to put the kettle on.

 

April 22, 2018

 

Jon finishes reading the statement, the sliver slipping from his eyes between one blink and the next, and Tim feels sick. His hands grip the armrests of the ratty chair in Jon’s office with white knuckles, and he stares at the wall behind Jon, refusing to meet his eyes even when Jon sets the statement down carefully and says, “I’m sorry it took me so long to read this to you. It- it came into the Archives while I was still, erm. In the hospital, and when I found it a few weeks ago… I couldn’t know for sure if it was you.”

 

Quietly, Tim says, “It is. I- I don’t remember it, but it feels…” Revolting. “Familiar.”

 

He doesn’t remember the woman or the cookie-cutter house or the way she’d looked at her husband as he folded her into his arms. But he remembers the fear the way that a tongue remembers a meal: that lingering taste, that desire for more, that memory of something that had satiated, for a time, a hunger that clawed free from within him. He’d fed on her, and he couldn’t even remember it. How… how many other times had he…?

 

He stands abruptly, the chair squeaking back on its rickety legs and tottering slightly before settling. “I- I can’t do this anymore. I can’t… I can’t be this anymore.”

 

Jon looks at him the way a passerby looks upon a funeral, and he has to turn away before those eyes take him apart from the inside out. He takes quick, stuttering steps toward the door, stopped from opening it only by a warm, ragged hand on his wrist.

 

“I know,” Jon says, and his voice is so, so small. “I understand. But that’s not something you get to choose anymore. What you can choose is what you do about it. You said you wanted to take control. Is that… is that still something you want?”

 

Tim stares at the door, and focuses on the warmth of Jon’s hand around his wrist, and pushes and pushes and pushes at the cold, sharp fear wrapping icy tendrils around his heart until it’s buried too deep to feel like anything at all. When he says, “Yeah. Yeah, it is,” it’s with a weariness that’s born of resignation, and of the unsettling familiarity of the weight of guilt.

 

“Okay,” Jon says, and lets go of his wrist. Tim has to keep himself from chasing the warmth, even as he settles himself back down heavily in the armchair and Jon sits back behind his desk. Tim has a mug on there now, a little floral-stenciled thing filled with long-cold English breakfast with too much sugar. Jon had pressed it into his hands with a muttered, “It’s not- it’s not the way Martin makes it, but I- I suppose it’ll be all right for now,” and the little crease he got in his forehead when he mentioned Martin nearly had Tim marching back to Martin’s office and demanding that, at the very least, he talk to Jon. But then the crease had deepened, and Jon had pulled out the statement, and then…

 

Well, and now they’re here. And Tim doesn’t think he can handle one more fucking skeleton in his closet.

 

“Let’s start from the beginning,” Jon says, clicking the pen that’s now in his hand once before setting it to paper. Because of course Jon’s going to take notes on how to not be a spooky harbinger of death like it’s a maths class. Why on earth it sparks a tiny bit of affection within Tim now is honestly beyond him, and also a really weird combination with the nauseating cocktail of guilt and self-hatred that’s still brewing within him. “Could you… describe what it feels like? When you see someone who’s dead, or… bring someone back?”

 

“Are you going to—what, psychoanalyse me?”

 

Tim.

 

Tim groans and leans back in the chair. “Fine. I’ve already gone through this, but fine. It’s bad. It’s cold and sharp and black and bad. I mean, just- just imagine what it feels like to die, and you’ve pretty much got it down.”

 

Jon looks at him dryly and with a sort of bone-deep weariness. Oh. Right. Tim says, maybe a bit stupidly, “Or- or I don’t know, you know, right? Because you, er.”

 

“Died?” Jon supplies flatly. When Tim just nods, he sighs and says, “I- I don’t really… remember it. I remember dreaming, and- and before and after, but not- not the actually dying bit.”

 

“Funny,” Tim says, even though it’s far from it. “That’s all I can seem to remember.”

 

Jon gives him that pitying look again. He hates it. “I’m sorry, Tim.”

 

“Don’t, just—” Tim takes a long, deep breath, trying to shake away that lingering discomfort of the statement still clinging to his skin. He doesn’t succeed. “I need your help, not your pity, Jon.”

 

Jon presses his lips together, like he does when he’s remembering something Tim can’t, and slowly nods. “Okay.” He scratches something onto the paper in front of him in short, neat strokes, and then just taps the pen against the desk. “What comes after the cold? How do you- you know that you’re not alone anymore?”

 

God, Tim doesn’t want to think about this. But he forces himself to go back to those memories, to attach himself to feelings and sensations he’d just as soon cast away. “I can… I can feel something,” he says, resisting the urge to claw at his own skin to rid himself of the terrible itching cold that lies just beneath the surface. “Like there’s something attaching itself to me. It- it digs into me, and I can feel it becoming a part of me, but also… separate? Like it’s attached to me by this, this thread, and I can feel the thread tugging at me but I can’t cut it, or even touch it. Until it just. Snaps. All by itself. And that’s… that’s when they die. Again.”

 

“You said you can’t touch it,” Jon says, the pen still tapping against the desk in a nervous rhythm. “Is that… did you try to, before? When, um. With Steve.”

 

Tim blows out a breath. “Yeah. And we both know how well that turned out.”

 

Jon just hums. He scratches a few more words on the paper before setting the pen down and picking up his mug, taking an absentminded sip. His nose wrinkles, and something crosses his face too quickly for Tim to recognize. But he has a pretty good guess. He has half a mind to deflect from the current topic—to ask about Martin, to push and push until Jon finally admits that he wants Martin here, that Martin needs help. He’s good at deflecting, at pushing things like this away. It would be easy.

 

Instead, he says, “So, then. Is there a way to stop this? Or to at least get a handle on it?”

 

“Honestly?” Jon sets the mug down, pinches the bridge of his nose. The something is gone, like it had never been there at all. “I don’t know, not for sure. I can- I can guess. Sometimes, I feel like- like even though I serve the Eye, and I can- can know things, all I’m ever doing is guessing. Just- just taking the limited information I’m given and trying to put together a picture that still doesn’t make any sense. Maybe there’s a way to control it? Maybe it’s just a- a reflex. But if you can feel one of these- these episodes coming on before it happens, then maybe you can stop it.”

 

“Stop it,” Tim echoes. “Great. And how exactly do you propose I do that? Just squeeze my eyes shut and say pretty please, don’t drag me to the death dimension?”

 

“It’s worth a try.”

 

Jesus, Jon.” Tim reaches for his own mug and takes a long sip to try to remove the acid taste that’s coating his tongue. It’s cold, and the sugar is too cloying. He drinks it all anyway, setting the mug back down heavily on the desk. “And when that doesn’t work, then what? I just- just let whatever wants to come back with me do it? Because I don’t think no thanks, don’t attach yourself to my soul is going to work in this scenario.”

 

“No; once you’re in the End, you don’t exist beyond yourself, and yourself is just another part of death,” Jon says automatically. He blinks away the small flash of silver, and there’s an unhappy set to his mouth when he says, “Ah. I suppose that answers the question of whether or not I can Know things about your… situation. Though it would be more helpful to Know something beyond vague existentialism?”

 

He phrases it like a question, almost a plea. But after a moment of silence, he sighs heavily and says, “I suppose not. Christ, if I- I can’t even control my Knowing enough to get actually useful information, I- I don’t know how I can be expected to help you with any of this.”

 

“Yeah, maybe.” Tim leans back, and his eyes land on a pile of papers at the corner of Jon’s desk. “What about the statements?” he says. “And the- the asking thing you do. That seems pretty intentional to me.”

 

“The- the compulsion is less intentional than I’d like it to be. As you, er. Have experienced. But I am trying. And the statements are… unavoidable.” Jon twists his ring around his finger absently as he continues, “We all have to feed our patrons. If we don’t, they- they feed on us. If you did find a way to control this, to- to stop bringing people back… it would begin to consume you instead. Or you would just get so hungry you wouldn’t care anymore. You would… lose yourself.”

 

“Like I did in the statement,” Tim says flatly, feeling the disgust rising within him again and forcibly crushing it beneath his heel.

 

“That… seems the most likely explanation.”

 

“Great,” Tim says. “What the fuck am I supposed to do then? This isn’t reading a piece of paper, Jon; this is killing people.”

 

“It- it’s not quite killing if they’re already dead—”

 

Don’t fucking do that. You know what I mean.”

 

Jon at least has the decency to look chastised. Still, he continues, “I’m sorry that there isn’t an easy fix for this, Tim. Believe me, I’ve looked for one myself. The best I can do is read the statements and try not to take any live ones, and even that is—”

 

He cuts off, swallows sharply. “Even that’s becoming harder.”

 

Tim thinks about his own live statement, erased from his memory but leaving behind scars that have turned his nights into an inescapable reenactment of his prior traumas. Causing trauma, consuming trauma, reliving trauma—it’s really not all that different, is it? Just the same shit in different fucked-up packaging. It’s his turn to look chastised as he says, “Okay. So what are my written statements, then? What’s my trauma-lite option?”

 

Jon pauses for a long moment in thought—or maybe in Thought. Either way, he doesn’t seem to find anything, because when he speaks again he sounds resigned. “I don’t know. Your situation is… quite a bit different than mine. There… might not be one at all. So many of the other avatars I’ve met, they- they either didn’t have one, or didn’t even care to look. Like I said, so much of this is just- just fumbling around in the dark, hoping to stumble across a solution, the correct way to serve these powers. We can try things, see if anything sticks, but… your best option might be to try to control what you can already do.”

 

Quietly, Tim says, “And if that isn’t possible? Then what?”

 

Jon’s smile is weary and doesn’t quite reach his eyes. “Then we just… deal with what comes after, I suppose.

 

“Control something that might be a reflex or deal with the shitty consequences.” Tim blows out a breath. “Is there a third option where I un-avatar myself and ride off into the sunset?”

 

The pained look on Jon’s face is answer enough. Tim sighs and says, “Right. I guess it’s the first option, then. My therapist did keep telling me to try meditation. Positive thoughts and all that. Don’t really think she meant it in the context of not resurrecting the dead, but, you know. I’ll take what I can get.”

 

“Mm.” Jon pauses, a conflicted look crossing his face. After a few moments where he’s clearly deciding whether or not he wants to say something—and just before Tim’s about to demand that he just spit it out—Jon says quietly, “Even if you could ‘un-avatar’ yourself. Would you?”

 

“What? Of course. After everything, what makes you think I want to be this?”

 

Jon hesitates again, and this time Tim does say, with a bit sharper tone than he means, “Just say what you want to say, Jon.”

 

Jon exhales heavily and says, “Even if it meant losing Danny and Sasha?”

 

And there it is. The thought that’s been tickling at the back of his mind for days, the one he’s been pushing away and away until he could pretend it had never existed at all. That somehow, what he is—what he can do—is the reason that Danny and Sasha are here. That they were dead, and now they’re not, and it’s not a coincidence that this fits neatly within the narrative of death that’s been spun out around him the past few weeks. That the dreams and the flickers of wrong-right and the horrible things that the tinny records of his own voice on those tapes had spooled out are real, and the only thing keeping Danny and Sasha here is his stark refusal to admit that he can feel the threads now. The ones that connect them, intangible yet real and so, so flimsy in his mind.

 

If he finally gives power to that voice at the back of his mind that says that they’re dead, and they have been the entire time, he’s afraid he won’t be able to keep that thread from snapping. And the thought makes him sick with terror.

 

He maybe says something like no, I won’t lose them, and Jon maybe says something like control will come with time, and he wishes he believed that either of those statements were true. But Jon’s right—it’s all just guesswork, taking one stumbling step forward at a time and hoping that you don’t step right off the edge of a cliff.

 

Tim so desperately wants to rip off the blindfold. But he can’t. So he grips Jon’s hand tight and walks along the cliff’s edge and tries desperately not to imagine what it would feel like to fall.